The Dear Old Computer

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Yesterday my computer crashed. I hate that sentence and all the possibilities that it implies. I was sending photographs on e-mail to a magazine I occasionally work for and, whether it was this actual act or just coincidence makes no matter, the fact is that the computer threw up a dark screen and refused to work after that. Like a human being, it just quit. Over. Nada. Give it up. Go away and leave me alone. I had so much more I had to do before the day was done! I tried but failed to figure out how any of it could be taken care of without my computer. Not only that but my brain suddenly seemed empty, as if an emergency lobotomy had been performed: all those files, representing so many parts of my life were suddenly gone and I had no idea if they could ever be retrieved. In what other drawer, closet, cellar, cupboard or barn do I keep so much of what is precious to me? It’s unfathomable, as if my house and all I owned had burned to the ground.

I remember, back in the 1980s, when computers first arrived on our horizon here at Yankee. Each of us was given a box that contained a computer and, we were told, when we were ready, we could take the computer out of the box and try it out. I was stubborn. I liked my typewriter, an IBM Selectric that seemed to be able to do most anything I wanted to do in order to write a story. I liked everything about it, the touch of the keys, the sounds it made, including the ring at the end of each line, the gentle hum and slight vibration. It was a dear friend that had been through many struggles with me.

As is the case with anything foreign and new, I didn’t actually know what a computer could do for me, such as eliminate the time consuming process I used to go through when doing rewrites of my stories: I would reorganize the paragraphs, cut them out with scissors and then tape the whole thing back together. From that I could retype the story in its new form. When working on really long stories, I did that several times before I was ready to submit the story to my editor. Some stories I probably retyped ten times. And when I was done, someone else would typeset it for the magazine.

All this rearranging of paragraphs and such can be done instantly now but at the time, it all seemed normal and as it should be and so, in my ignorance, I cried: I don’t need a computer! claiming that writers can write on paper tablets if necessary. I didn’t want all the complications I feared would come along with the computer, the ability to make charts and graphics, none of this was anything I needed. I only needed a typewriter! I spent a lot of energy bemoaning all of this ? E.B. White wrote in a small shed down by the water, a rough plank for a desk. Howard Frank Mosher has never learned to type and writes (still) on a yellow legal pad. I could think of many writers who have stuck to their lead pencil guns.

After sufficient time had passed, I was not-so-gently persuaded to open the box and turn on the machine. I guess you could say, though I didn’t think so at the time, my life changed at that moment, just as all of ours did as the world of computers gradually spread across the land. And that was in the new dawn of computers, before e-mail, before video games, before MySpace, before personal websites and Google. We were all such innocents.

And so, when my computer stopped in its tracks yesterday, I went back to that thought, that all I really need is a typewriter, which is, of course, complete bunk. I now use the computer for many other applications, including e-mail and photography, and, without the computer I was suddenly bereft and slightly hysterical. For one thing, I panicked that I had lost all my files, all my photos, which I have let build up inside that mysterious place called memory in my computer. It’s all sitting invisibly inside this slender notebook, stories that I wrote years ago, stories that I wrote yesterday. I don’t know if I will ever even look at them again but, like any pack rat, I want to know that I have them, that they are there for me, should I ever want to use them.

I have a barn filled with files, stories I wrote before the computer entered my life so quietly back in the 1980s. I can’t let go of these, either, and, occasionally I am rewarded when someone requests something from these files. Aha! It has been worth it, all this squirreling away! But, in all, it seems these personal archives take up a lot of space, all of which could now fit into this slender pad in front of me, yes, it’s back. The computer crashed, a young man rescued it and performed the magic that I have yet to understand, and I am happily back to work. But in that brief period, less than 24 hours, I saw my whole world unravel, insane methods of triage came to mind. Like losing something dear, you realize, in that instant, how precious these machines are, how damnably necessary.

  • Hi Edie, I am once again reminded that most people (including myself) don’t back up our valuable info. I received my wake up call a few weeks ago when I all of a sudden couldn’t see my commercial photography drive (weddings and portraits) and my art work drive… I was stunned that they both went out on me… In reality it was the motherboard and not the drives and I have them backed up as of a few months ago. But many changes happen over the space of a month.
    If your readers take away one thing is that depending on how important their info is they need to make copies all the time to always have the most recent version on a healthy hard drive.
    Jeff Folger

  • Barbara

    Dear Edie,
    After reading Yankee magazine for many years, it was a pleasure to discover that you have a blog where I can read more of your wonderful essays. When I was a teenager I looked forward to a magazine that my mother purchased monthly…there I could read the column by Faith Baldwin. A couple times I worked up the courage to write to her and each time I was rewarded with a note sent back to me from her. From that day forward the seed of an idea was planted in my mind…I wanted to write the back page essay for a magazine. I have not yet acheived that goal, but I do so enjoy reading your “back page essay,” even though it is in the heart of the magazine now. How I wish I could have attended your writing workshop!
    Barbara F.

  • Doris

    Hi Edie, I just had to laugh a little when I read this story. Isn’t it crazy the way we have all gotten used to (after all the denial) the damn machine? But like you, I still don’t know where all of this stuff goes-is it limbo, is it cyber-purgatory? And then, just like that, it all comes back somehow, someway-such a mystery. Are you familiar with “Why I am not going to buy a computer” by Wendell Berry? An interesting read-all of his writing is profound. Take care. Doris Matthews


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