Life of Jane

Say What?

How to talk your 87-year-old uncle through opening a text message, in 44 simple steps


By Jane Borden

Only when I embarked on this endeavor — over the phone and without visual aids — did I realize how many aspects of smartphone design I take for granted. 

“Tap the icon that’s green and has a little speech bubble on it, like in the comics,” I said, convinced I was nailing it.

“What do you mean, icon?” he replied.

“Like a button,” I said. “Do you see a bunch of buttons all over the screen?“

“There’s one button,” he said. 

“Hmm. What color is it?“ I asked. 

“Black. Hold on. I pushed it, and a red bar appeared at the bottom of the screen.”

“I see,” I responded. “You haven’t opened the phone yet.”

This was the summer of 2015, after my daughter was born. I live on the other side of the country and wanted to send photos quickly and easily to my aunt and uncle, Jane and Lucius Pullen. He had an iPhone — for the same reason my father does, i.e. his wife told him he needed one — so I began texting him pictures. 

He called to say that a tiny image of a baby had appeared on the screen, but when he tried to open it on the phone, it disappeared. 

“It’s in your text messages,” I said. 

“All right,” he said. “What are those?”

I realized we’d need to start from scratch. But I figured it wouldn’t take long. After all, he’s a brilliant and accomplished man. Just a few years after graduating with honors from law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was on the law review, Lucius became assistant attorney general for the state of North Carolina. In the 1950s, he wrote safety provisions for the motor vehicles department, including the law that made wearing seatbelts mandatory in our state. So I knew he could learn to text, and also that he would never do so while driving.

Anyway, he already had an email account! He wasn’t a total Luddite. Then again, when my aunt once requested to read an article of mine that only appeared online, and I sent the link to his email account, she called to explain that there must have been a mistake: “You wrote, ‘Here it is,’ but I don’t see it. There’s just a long, string of letters and numbers.” 

“Are they blue?” I asked. 


That was Jane, though. Lucius definitely knew what a link was. In fact, he is familiar with a variety of long and seemingly random collections of numbers, letters and codes — he wrote tax laws for Governor Luther Hodges and for Terry Sanford. But no man is master of all.

Once the phone was on and open, I asked again. “Do you see a green icon with a speech bubble on it?”  


“Great! Touch it.” 

“OK,” he said. “The page got darker.” 

“Darker? It should be white. And you should see my telephone number in black characters.” 

Long story short, he had tapped with enough force to swipe the entire screen to the right, bringing up the phone’s search function. Since neither of us could see what the other was doing, it took us several minutes to figure it out.

“When you tap the icon, don’t move your finger,” I said next. 

“All right.”

After a moment of silence, I asked, “Did it work? Do you see my telephone number?”

“I’m still on the main screen,” he said. “The icons are dancing around.”

After momentarily assuming he’d lost his mind — or that I had — I put it together. “Ah, I see, that’s what happens when you leave your finger on the icon for too long. Push the home button to make it stop.” 

“What’s the home button?” he asked.

Right. Of course. I’m speaking a new language. “The button you used to turn it on when we started.” 

And then the screen went black again because he pushed the power button at the top of the phone, which turned it off. That one was my fault — there are two ways to turn on an iPhone. We were like Abbott and Costello, but both playing Costello. 

Lucius remained in good spirits throughout. According to Arch T. Allen, who worked with Lucius during the ’70s, when Lucius was a partner at Allen, Steed & Pullen (along with Arch’s father), “He was an excellent lawyer, no question about that. But he was also really fun to work with. Gregarious. Good sense of humor.” Frankly, if I were an expert on insurance regulatory matters and insurance rate making, I would also find a sense of humor helpful. 

After the power-button setback, we defined some terms, including “home button.” I explained that it lives at the bottom of the screen and is different from the icons in that it actually compresses when pushed. We started using the home button to fix every mistake. The next time he swiped instead of tapped, or made the icons dance: push the home button. It became a safe space for us. 

No surprise, he was a quick study. Later, he said “Uh oh.” 

“What?” I asked nervously.

“Well, never mind,“ he replied.

“What happened?“

“I don’t know, but I pushed the home button and it’s gone,“ he explained.

Progress! He is a man able to exercise judgment on the fly. When my aunt Jane arrived an hour and a day late for a secretarial position at Allen, Steed & Pullen, he made the astute decision to date her instead of hire her. 

I believed we would eventually win. Lucius is a winner — or at least he was when he represented the North Carolina Firemen’s Association in a case that went all the way to the state supreme court. He could learn to open a text message. It had been 22 minutes so far.

“All right,” I said. “You want to touch the green-speech-bubble icon lightly and only once.“ 

“Ho!” he shouted in triumph. “Look at that. There’s your phone number.”

“Great! Now tap that.”

I held my breath until he exclaimed, “Look at that! I see a picture of a beautiful baby girl.” 

“Hooray!” I said. “Now, touch the picture and it will get bigger.” 

Then, to my aunt, he said, “Jane, com’ere! Have I got something for you.” He had been providing for her handsomely throughout their marriage. Hell, he provided for half of Beaufort County when he helped bring the phosphate mine to Aurora in the late ’80s, while he was general counsel for, and a vice president of, Texasgulf Inc. 

I listened to them ooh and ahh, feeling my own sense of triumph. Then he said, “But isn’t there a way to see them bigger?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“We could barely see her,” he said. 

They had raved over thumbnails. I again explained how to enlarge the photo. 

“All right,” he said. But then he added, “I’ve pushed the home button.”

We decided to try again another time. Even the sun grows tired of day. 

He had better things to do and he knew I did too. Lucius is also an expert at clearing people’s plates, as witnessed by his last career move into arbitration and mediation, during which he was so successful at settling cases before trial, 70 percent of them never burdened the courts. 

Mediator and litigator, yes — but I think of Lucius as a delegator. When I gained the strength to call back and again talk him through opening the photos, he said that wouldn’t be necessary because he had taken the phone to Walgreens, handed it to a woman, and asked her to find the photos and print them. It was a different kind of winning. To wit, Lucius has now made it to 90. That iPhone didn’t make it another six months.  OH

Jane Borden grew up in Greensboro and lives in Los Angeles, but you can find her on provided you’re not a Luddite.

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