Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alas, poor Yorick.

My Dell 600m died this week. It was nearly a decade old, which made it about four hundred thirty-two in laptop years. Something you might see being appraised on Antiques Roadshow. The 600m was my first laptop, purchased after months of research into what it was I needed in a computer dedicated to writing, and represented a watershed in my professional career. Or at least in the way I wrote.

Prior to that I had written my stories longhand in thick spiral-bound notebooks – the kind with the wire binding at the top, like a steno book. I'd typed my handwritten words in the predawn hours on our family's one desktop at a computer desk in the corner of the kitchen. All of my research materials – which in those days were exclusively Star Trek – fit in a couple of milk crates that resided in the hall closet when not in use.

My laptop changed all that. Okay, not much at first. Beyond moving my typing space from the kitchen computer desk to the dining room table the Dell didn't impact the way I wrote until I broke myself of the habit of writing my first drafts by hand. What the purchase of that computer did for me as a writer, what it symbolized, was far more fundamental than altering my mode of composition. That computer was paid for entirely with writing income and – at a time when I was working two part-time jobs in addition to teaching just to make ends meet – my wife approved the significant expenditure of our limited funds as an investment in my future.

One of the first things I did was use a label maker to print an admonition that I taped below the bottom edge of the monitor: "Write. Do not post about writing. Do not chat about writing. Do not read about writing. Write." I figured if my family was going to take my writing seriously, I'd better be sure I was always doing something to earn that respect.

That 600m accompanied me everywhere and I did my best to train myself to use it as I had the spiral-bound notebooks. Ten free minutes became writing time no matter where I was. The laptop was on the job with me, traveled on vacation with me, and accompanied me to the Oregon Coast Professional Writers' Workshops. I wrote both my novels, a contest-winning short story, and my Star Trek ebook "Honor" on that silver notebook. (In those days Dell's "serious" notebooks were sheathed in grey plastic that did a not very convincing job of impersonating brushed aluminum.) Somewhere along the way my favorite writing spot shifted from the dining room to the Port City Java near the shipyard to the public library when my doctor recommended I cut back on the caffeine.

I hadn't used the 600 in a long time. In fact I'd last turned it on almost exactly a year ago to search its hard drive for a half-remembered original story I'd never completed (and didn't find). I have another laptop, a hand-me-down from our daughter's college days, and up until last July I'd worked for a company that issued me a corporate laptop to do with as I would, so there was no need. (I now work for a company that gives me a desktop in my own office. A windowless, thinly disguised former storage closet of an office, but not a cubicle, thank you very much.) Can't really say what made me pull the machine out of retirement, except maybe finding it in one of my boxes of books while looking for something else.

At any rate, I fired the thing up and spent half an hour looking through old idea files and exercises from writing workshops (finding nothing new since I'd backed the whole thing up to flash drive long ago). I found the familiar feel of the worn keyboard – and I do mean worn; you have to remember what some of the faceless keys are – comforting and decided to resurrect beast, make it my writing tool of choice again. One problem with that plan was how painfully slow the aged machine seemed to be. Like 1980s Apple Macintosh slow. What had been fast by Y2K standards can't keep up with today's software. So I dropped in a utilities disk, intending to do what I could to optimize performance before replacing the Word 1997 with something a bit more current and making any other updates I might think of. The program was ten minutes into analyzing my system when everything suddenly went black. Not blue screen of doom; black. Nothing abruptly happened, and nothing steadfastly continued to happen no matter what I tried. Eventually I gave up trying to trick the machine into working by turning it on and off and left it with my computer go-to guy Nathan for an assessment. It took him thirty-seven seconds to determine the hard drive was dead. Mechanical failure. Old age. In his words the only thing it can run is paperweight 1-point-0.

Is it odd I feel a sense of personal loss at the demise of what is after all simply a worn out bit of electronic gear? I don't think so. My ancient laptop is a symbol – a mile marker, if you will – denoting the point in my writing career where my craft became self-supporting. I was a little happier with the symbolism when the machine worked, but for the time being the machine sits – screen open like it's ready to get on with it – atop the bookcase in the home office I share with Valerie. A reminder of points I've traveled through. A reminder the journey's not over.


Tom Doolan said...

I think it's awesome to keep the old boy as a momento.

Charles Gramlich said...

Our laptop, which is only from 2005, died on our trip. It's got some of my pics of dinosaur footprints on it though so I'm gonna take it to some specialist to see if he can save anything.

Liane Spicer said...

Love that post title.

I tend not to keep dead electronic paraphernalia around but can understand your attachment to Yorick.

Part of the appeal of my current laptop is... its brushed aluminum casing.