This Computer is Finished: The Physical Requirements of Writing History

This computer is finished. Its silver casing shows the years of scratches, bumps, and smudges. It bears the scars of balancing one too many books, of leaving the computer too casually on an ottoman, of eating and working feverishly for a deadline.

On the console, paint is worn away and dirt permanently applied. Unexplained keystrokes are not unknown. Above the hard drive, the metal is warped away from the rubber lining, so that one more spill could spell calamity. Where the power cord connects, the metal is so misshapen that the charger must be threaded into place, as it fits only one way. Even then it glows an angry, unforgiving red-orange—it’s not described in any manual, but so far it has not meant a total cessation of function. And of course these problems aren’t covered by the warranty, which has expired now anyway.

But, then again, this computer is finished. Despite aged software and questionable printer drivers, despite an overloaded hard drive that no longer communicates directly with its backup, my computer has completed its mission. Purchased in May 2005, on the cusp of my dissertation research, it organized archival trips, stored thousands of digital photographs, held hundreds of document transcriptions, and facilitated dozens of drafts. Never lost, never stolen, never broke down, it has survived. The goal has been reached—the dissertation is completed, printed, filed—and so the computer is done. Its gleaming replacement, upon which the dissertation will become a book and the next projects will be born, sits quietly in the box, waiting.

Serious writing demands its own environment, its requirements exacting but replicable. For me, that means sunlight and a vista with distance, however drab; the promise of regular, extended periods of silence; the space to pace; a chair supportive enough but not too hard on the muscles; the screen raised to the proper height; easy access to books on the shelves and files in the cabinet; and a tap for water within reach—but not so close as to bring the clatter of the kitchen pipes. At the center sits the computer, the keyboard angled correctly, the mouse movements registering on the screen. To work best, it should all stay arranged, so that scant writing time can be devoted to writing, not setup or packing up, not searching for files or wondering when that banging will stop. For the system to work best, it should go unnoticed for days at a time. And so it did.

And so, after these three years, when the laptop has finished its tasks and stands ready for replacement, I do notice.

These are the last words to be typed before the awkward process of file transfer commences. Under the inglorious name “Things I Need,” the folder of older items will migrate into unfamiliar territory. And a new computer, with a new name, will start a new relationship with me and my academic work, with the case unscratched, the keys undirtied, and the quirks as yet undiscovered.

I have been grandiose in my name choices. There was Nehemiah, who kept the visions of the prophet Ezra recorded; then Blue, reflecting a mood and the color of the curving iMac plastic, but also the possibilities of a jazz sensibility; then Be My Yoko, a play on an early project name (“One Night Only,” or ONO, for short), and reflecting the wish of The Barenaked Ladies’s chorus: You can be my Yoko Ono / You can follow me wherever I go—an excellent goal for valuable possessions, and especially a work laptop.

The new computer has a university bar code and the standard-issue name “Macintosh HD.” Changing it will renew my compact with another machine. It will maintain order and process queries while I get back to the process of writing history without thought to such physical requirements.  For that, once again, I will be thankful.

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One Response to This Computer is Finished: The Physical Requirements of Writing History

  1. Jana says:

    My spouse and I started naming our computers according to the military alphabet, but that devolved after we came to “golf,” because who would want a computer with that moniker(um, not us)? So far we’ve had: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Gaia, Hezekiah, Icarus, Junebug (my trusty beloved laptop), LoveMac, MacMini (not very original, that one), and NekoNeko.

    I purchased JuneBug during my first months of grad school. The keyboard letters are starting to wear away and there is a permanent imprint of my lower hands on the area below the keyboard. It’ll be awhile before I’m ready to move on, despite her many eccentricities and incompatibilities.