Ode To A Laptop

I think my brother would be the first to point out that I am too rooted in my life. Which seems a funny thing to say given that I’ve lived in three different countries, have bicycled across eight, and have never lived in the same place for more than three years since I left for university. But it’s true.

The most obvious way to spot this about me is my appearance. Every winter I still wear the same leather long coat my dad gave me about ten years ago – even thought the pockets have fallen out… I really should fix those. The rest of the year I wear a photographer’s vest that’s about five years old, and is getting rather faded. Rest assured I change the rest of my wardrobe regularly, though it is probably a smaller wardrobe than most, but I only have two pairs of shoes (one everyday, one good) and keep them till they fall apart. I have never had a beard or mustache and refuse to grow either. I’ve only ever had two pairs of glasses in my life, and that was because my old pair broke from old age (much to the relief of my brother… and probably my wife).

The one item I have had longer than anything else is my necklace. While the leather strap itself has been replaced several times, the pendant itself is the same – a viking rune attached to a gold Papua New Guinea mask. The mask was given to me by my dad over a decade ago, but the viking rune is even older. Before we all left high school Wyatt gave us each a metal pendant inscribe with the viking rune Fehu, which Wyatt told us meant “wealth, wandering, and destruction” but Wikipedia says means “wealth and cattle.” I guess those cattle might wander and destroy things, though. It also happens to be the rune that is often used to represent Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.

Six of us were given that pendant that day, if I recall correctly, but of them I’m the only one who still has it. And fought to keep it, as well. A few years back it wore right through the ring that connects it to the gold mask and broke off. To fix it I had to take a butane lighter and melt the metal into shape. Not doing a great job at that (the edge was anything but perfectly round) I decided to “rough up” the edges so it looked consistent. But it’s the same pendent, and I’ve
had it for over fifteen years.

What I’m trying to get across is that I don’t replace things just because something better has come along. This is partly a practical reason, to save money, but it’s also I believe, a resistance to change. Wanting to keep things the way they are. And why bloody well not? We live in a society that changes far too much – not for any practical reason, but because it makes other people money. Our consumer based society encourages us to get the latest and greatest of everything. It constantly promotes its products as new and improved, but just how goddamned new and improved can things get?

By now our toothpastes should be straightening my teeth and giving them armor plating as well as whitening them, and detergents should be making our clothes so fresh and new that security guards are asking us for receipts. You’d think the toothpastes and detergents of twenty years ago actually made things worse. People who can’t afford it use their credit cards to buy a 42 inch plasma screen TV to replace the 40 inch screen they bought last year because they read in a magazine that it has a two percent better refresh rate and the sound is slightly better.

And the market not only encourages it, it orchestrates it as well. One of my coworkers back when I worked at Berlitz taught some employees at Sony, researchers who freely confessed that they rigorously tested their plastics, not to make it last longer, but to make sure it broke down within five years so people would buy a new model.

It’s against this that my resistance to change largely comes from, but it may well be that the time has come to change the one piece of technology that can be said to define me most – my laptop. As a writer, this is where I do most of my work. Part of me wishes I was like Harlan Ellison, pounding out his pages on a manual typewriter, feeling the energy with each keypunch. Part of me wishes I could write my first drafts on paper, with elegant scrawl, paragraphs lined out,
doodles on the side… something that could find its way into a museum someday.

I’ve tried both, in fact. I used to have a manual typewriter when I was in high school and I wrote much of the first draft of my first novel NYC/S on paper before transferring it onto the school library’s computer. But the sad fact is I’m a terrible speller (though I’ve recently noticed that I’m much better than I was five years ago) and far from a perfect typer. When I had a manual typewriter it would not only be full of spelling errors, but typos as well. I spent more time correcting than creating. And as for handwriting? Well, I have terrible handwriting. When I print it looks like an eight year old, and when I write it’s often illegible. Worse than that, I’m slow. I can’t even come close to keeping up with my thoughts when writing, and my wrist quickly gets cramped when I try. Typing on a word processor, however, is perfectly suited for me, so a laptop will always be my pen and paper.

Funny thing is I’ve always wanted a portable computer. Once when I was still in public school I saw a guy who had a Commodore 64 inside his briefcase with a tiny monitor built into it. It was the coolest thing I had ever ever seen, and I would have gladly mugged him for it had Chris Hanson not been busy stuffing me into a locker (no, that never happen, but it’s a funny image). Ever since then I’ve always been more interested in portable computers than powerful desktops (well, except when it came to games, of course).

I got my first laptop in high school. I scrimped and saved 300 bucks for a used 386 monochrome laptop that weighted a ton, but it was MINE. Within a fortnight my brother had stepped on it and cracked the screen.

At this point I can imagine Wyatt defending himself, so I’ll just wait a while for him to go on and on about how it was really my fault, how he didn’t see it, how there was probably a pillow on top of it…

Done yet? Okay, moving on.

I remember hearing the CRACK once it had been trodden on. I remember turning on the computer and thinking “Wait, it still works! It’s just bleeding a little along the crack, it might be okay” then realizing in horror how wrong I was as fluid slowly leaked from under the crack and spread. Like watching someone who had just been shot, and for a split second thinking it might not be so bad, until the blood starts to spread across their white shirt. I called a repair shop to find out how much it would cost to fix, only to be told, not unlike a doctor addressing the family of a terminally ill patient, that there was nothing they could do. It would cost less to get a replacement than to repair it. Only I couldn’t afford a replacement. Not for a long long time.

I can’t remember if I had a laptop before moving to BC or not after that, but Gillian lent me her old one when I was in Vancouver.

But the problem with laptops was that they never really lived up to their portable potential. Rather than making them smaller, companies focused on making them bigger. Bigger screens, bigger hard drive, bigger speakers, whatever. As they became capable of playing DVDs they were increasingly geared towards becoming portable home entertainment centers. This trend continues today, but was only starting back then. I wanted something small. Something just big enough to type on and access my email with.

Enter the Psion Series 5. A remarkable handheld computer that hasn’t been matched in potential even today. This tiny thing was the size of a carrying case for aviator glasses (I should know, since that was the kind of glasses I wore back then… all the time). The keyboard was tiny, but JUST big enough for me to type on. It was a monochrome screen as well, but only used 2AA batteries that would run it for 20 hours. Fantastic! I even had a snazzy shoulder holster for it. God I loved that thing. It had an external modem, and thanks to a list of IBM phone numbers my dad gave me, I was able to use it right across Canada during my cross country bike trip. It was on this tiny thing that I wrote my first published work, a series of four travel articles I wrote for the Globe and Mail.

Unfortunately, the Psion 5 has a fatal flaw to it, the ribbon that connects the keyboard to the screen wears out over time and when it breaks – as it did – it once again becomes easier to replace than repair. I had replaced it once, but when that one eventually broke for the same reasons, and Psion was no longer  producing them, I figured it was time to move on.

I was in Tokyo at this time and, well, there simply isn’t a better place in the world to get your hands on the latest and greatest. This is where I got the laptop I’m currently using now. Unlike the Psion, which used a bare-bones operating system that was okay but nothing special, this tiny laptop uses a full version of Windows XP, has a thirty gig hard drive, built in WiFi connection, the works. It was a remarkable machine when I first got it, and it’s still pretty good now. I wrote The Professional Tourist on this, as well as many other articles and short stories, and did many of my Fuzzy Knight strips on it as well. It’s been a good, reliable machine.

Unfortunately, its time is drawing to a close. Between Gillian and myself, it’s been dropped a half dozen times from heights it really shouldn’t be dropped from. Remarkably it survived it all, but at a price. One corner is shattered so I can actually see inside the computer, and the junction where the power cord connects to the laptop is bent out of shape. Day by day it gets more and more twitchy. The screen fuzzes up and freezes, the power cord has trouble connecting unless it’s in just the right position. Already it’s crashed on me twice as I wrote this story. Other times it will go days without any
problem at all.

On the one hand I think this little guy has a lot of character, like the Millennium Falcon. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. On the other hand, having your hyperdrive malfunction at a critical moment might be cool in a movie, but when you’ve been writing for the last ten minutes straight just to have it freeze up on you before you have a chance to save, it can get a little bit frustrating. It’s getting to a point where I’m afraid to even
start writing on it, and that’s not good.

So I’m looking a possible replacement now. Asus has a computer called the Eee PC which is both good and comparatively cheap. Their 701 model is about the same performance wise as mine but with a slightly bigger keyboard and a built in webcam, costing only about 170 pounds. The 901 however, is better in every respect but costs 300 pounds. I’ll probably end up getting one or the other once this one gives up the ghost, or frustrates me one too many times.

What? What kind of computer do I have now? Oh, it’s a Sony Vaio U-101. Yes, the same company my coworker was teaching at. How long have I had it? Oh, about five years…