we think we can replace everything. friends, pets, kidneys, countries, even computers.
no, seriously. lost someone? broken something? house taken by a typhoon? mysterious ailment got your nine (or is it ten) year old imac? never mind. you can replace it.
we even have a replacements.com. yeah, we’re not hanging around aching for things gone, shattered, destroyed by time… we’re going to replace it. like that.
but what if you feel a sense of emptiness that refuses to budge even though, seemingly, you can get back what you lost? or at least something a lot like the thing gone. for example, your computer. actually, my computer. on which i should be keying in these words right now. but i am not. because yesterday, when the screen looked a little stuck with several pages open and i switched it off, then turned it on again, it just wouldn’t start.
when i pressed the button at the back as i have done almost every day for the past seven or more years, apart from the days when i’ve left the computer on for weeks, and it hasn’t protested, going quietly to sleep (yeah, it slept, wonder if it dreamt too) till i woke it up again, aaah… well, when i pressed the button, the familiar sound came. i got ready to write. the screen lit up, the apple logo appeared, the bar below it began to move. we were almost there.
i was in the middle of planning a book for a client, which needs a lot of writing, editing, formatting, and arranging images. things my computer can manage without much effort, benignly looking on while i type, click, drag, put things together, all engrossed and feeling a little powerful.
we were almost there. then, it stopped.
the bar went still.
i thought, oh, some problem, and turned off the computer once more. and tried to start it again.
this time, the bar went all the way almost to the end, then stood there dithering. it did dither, i am not making this up. i could see it going back and forth in minuscule movements. it looked undecided. i thought maybe the computer was a bit tired since i’d left it on for a couple of weeks, swore not to be so unthinking next time, and waited.
anyway, at least a dozen attempts later, i went to the net seeking a remedy. the net is always full of options and ideas. do this, said one site. i did. it almost worked. then it didn’t. do that, said another site… i did. i tried several ways of starting my computer. pressing this set of buttons, then that.
in between, as frustration showed up, then began to get all comfortable watching the fun… i tried to talk to my computer.
i have sat before it for hours, for years. i’ve hit the keys on its keyboard and watched my words take shape on its wide nonjudgmental screen, my thoughts get out there, my stories, poems, mutterings, grumbles… it knows my touch, it knows my mind, it would hear my words.
i have a feeling it did. but no, it would not start.
feeling desperation rise in my chest, a numbness creep up to the centre of my forehead, i did the only thing people in my situation can do. i called apple support. man at the other end with an accent. big, rounded words. was it african? was it from some part of new york? i said my piece. he understood every word despite my strangely paced monologue… trying to sound together and calm, while feeling agitated and rushed. he sounded reassuring. i allowed myself to hope.
after several attempts, doing pretty much what the net had asked me to do, he finally said, okay, he’d email me a set of instructions and i should try and use an external hard drive with the operating system to reboot my computer.
he tried not to sound defeated, but i could hear an echo of the growing sense of loss in me in his voice.
did i mention, somewhere right at the beginning of our hour long chat, he’d said, “you-ah compute-aah, i can-a see frrrom the serriaal naamber is verry…” he had paused.
i’d completed his sentence, “…old!”
a relieved, “yesssa!” had come from him.
as though he didn’t want to say the dreaded word.
what is it about old that we fear so much?
and old is so relative. a human at nine is a child whose parents are getting all set to tell the world about her or his wondrous abilities (you know her reading ability is quite advanced, she’s finishing harry potter now, then she’ll read bertrand russel). a dog at nine is sixty three. and to the great basin bristlecone pine in the white mountains in california, which is five thousand and sixty two years old, nine must be a very distant memory and a really tiny ring in the trunk.
we marvel at the age of a tree, but a computer that’s nine? oh, such an affront, what impertinence, this is really overstaying one’s welcome. in fact, a nine year old computer should not be here at all. it ought to be in the recycling dump, or wherever computers go to once they’re no more (how happily the apple repair shop here in singapore told me, no, they had no way of repairing the computer… no parts, you see.) what was i doing with this prehistoric thing? a little embarrassment too in the voice when you speak of its age, a suggestion in it that maybe you couldn’t afford a new one. oh horror, could it be that?
i could tell from the tone of the apple support man’s voice that he was actually writing a dirge and emailing it. technology can help you in such fascinating ways. he also said, if after i read his mail, and got the external drive with the gobbledegook abracadabra, i could always call them back and they’d help me through the process… so i’d have mourners at the wake, i thought.
the email came. it was code for, don’t bother, go buy new compute-aah.
by now, i was feeling the full weight of loss. i had started to get a bit floaty and disoriented. my husband walked in. i wailed about my plight.
what? he said, sounding really perturbed. then, without a pause, he fired a rapid round of questions punctuated with admonitions. where is all your data? have you backed up everything? everything? you really should… as long as the data is there… you know you really…
i said i had all the data backed up, and in many places. oh, he said, then what’s the problem… get a new computer.
i looked at my faithful desktop, it looked back at me. a blank sort of stare. did it know how awful it all felt?
you have all the data at least, my husband said.
it’s not about the data, i muttered under my breath.
this scenario then got templated and repeated. friends who heard said pretty much the same thing.
i pulled out my daughter’s old laptop (used for only three years) that had been bequeathed to me and tried to get some work going. it felt alien and fussy. a good solid desktop, is what my fingers and eyes sought. this one too had been a hand me down from my daughter. she’d had it for a year or so, then the school had insisted on a laptop.
i removed my computer from its place and sent it to the guest room. i’d decide what to do with it later, i thought.
this morning, as i sat in my corner, trying to work on the laptop, i heard my husband coming into the ante room where i work. the place looks empty, he said.
yes, i thought, it does. and it’s not just the place that’s empty.
he saw my downcast expression and said cheerily, it’ll be okay, buy the computer this weekend.
the computer is dead, long live the new computer. oh, such unseemly rush. my head felt totally muddled. i typed away furiously.
i know in a few days, it’ll all be fine. i’ll get used to the new computer. the man whose house blew away in the typhoon will adapt to his new home. replacements.com will thrive. what’ll remain irreplaceable though is that ache when something goes, never to return.