THE HARRIED STUDENT BUYS A COMPUTER

February 12, 2003

Only by grace am I writing this now, for sadly, my new computer died this morning. Again.

I bought it last week. Every harried distance ed student needs a computer. We rely on them to get our papers out on time, to contact our tutors:we depend on them. The one I’d been using was taken away by its rightful owner, so I needed one of my own. And I chose with care. I picked a sleek, black, state of the art powerhouse. I chose the fastest, the most capable, the one with the biggest RAM of all. It could crunch data like a Cray. Sexy and lean, it seemed intellectual but sophisticated, just right for the pedestal in the corner of my study.

I knew it had power like a teenage Anakin Skywalker, but I named it Bill, nonetheless. It was unstoppable, but with XP password protection I knew I could command it, that it would always be there for me and only me, all its parts perpetually at attention, awaiting my command, on or off at the touch of a button, always ready to take me at the speed of light to wherever I wanted to be, willing to wait with me, guide me, perform for me. It could even correct my grammar in a way I never found irritating. What more could a woman want? I was in love with Bill.

Alas my joy was fleeting. Things got ugly fast. I actually had cause to be suspicious from the beginning, but was blinded by the newness, the potential, the intrigue, and tried not to see what was before me. Bill’s stubborn arrogance was evident in the first boot. He refused to start when I commanded. I pressed his button, yet nothing happened. I pressed. I waited. I wiggled cords. I pressed. I waited. I waited. I waited. I sat down. I got up. I swore. I pressed. I waited. I cried and got the Styrofoam and packing boxes out of the garage. And then I heard it, a gentle beep of greeting, as Bill, on his own time, started up.

Sure Bill seemed to be working out after that, but the signs never disappeared. I remained blind to them, but they were there all along, whenever I asked for something tricky. Multitasking, RAM-intensive, stuff, you know, things that dig to the very soul and require real trust. At first Bill would just give up, beep mournfully and turn himself off when I really needed him. He got to the point where he would hibernate whenever things got difficult, but that didn’t improve. In fact, I’d say things got worse because it wasn’t long before he started choking, turning blue in the screen. If I was smothering him, I really didn’t notice, I surely didn’t mean to. But now, in retrospect, I think that when he took my work, sequestered it in read-only files I had no permission to change, and converted these to 0 kilobyte temporary files, he was only reaching out, desperately, in his own proud way telling me to keep my distance. Was there more to it? I cannot say. Perhaps he sensed my fear and dislike of his root directory; perhaps he sensed my poorly disguised MicroSoftophobia. Whatever it was went deep. On account of it, Bill died multiple deaths. Mind you, he was resurrected many times like a half-functioning zombie, going in and out with buzzing and urgent beeping, sometimes drama, always much aplomb, and finally, a purple screen.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I could not watch the object of my affection so afflicted and not reach out. I tried in so many ways. Bill got a thorough virus check, for instance. And I reformatted his hard drive, although psychotherapy was not the answer and things were back to bad in no time. Through it all, I never let the pain go on needlessly. I pulled the plug whenever Bill slipped into endless cycles of starting and restarting. I even attempted guided-emergency surgery. The technician on the phone talked me through a load of stuff, the most challenging of which was simultaneously pressing two release buttons to get Bill to open up. I re-seated all his cards because the diagnostics suggested maybe Bill had a dose of bad RAM. But all my efforts at rehabilitation and then resuscitation failed.

When Bill died seemingly for the last time this morning and not even my most valiant efforts brought him back to life, the technician uttered that it was hopeless. Bill’s motherboard was fried, his video card bent, his RAM unserviceable. The tech gave me a number to call to set up an appointment for someone to come to my house and clean up the carnage, replace Bill with a more peaceful, cooperative model, something more suited to my needs, something that I could command and that would not try to command me. I agreed to the exchange, but shame overtook me as I hung up the phone. What was I made of? Could I not grow to accept Bill’s capricious character, remain bemused by his spunk and stubbornness, his cheek and unreliability? Was it right to cast off his power and capability so discourteously, like so much plastic and wire? Had I really tried in this relationship?

Mourning my loss, questioning my integrity, I put the case back together, closed it, and pushed the box back into place on its pedestal. Confused, saddened, frustrated, I crumpled the note with the service number on it. Then I thought of my deadlines, the papers I had due, and knew at once that although I loved him as much as I hated him, I had to do what I had to do. I reached for the crumpled paper. Then I heard it: a single, contented beep. And I saw on the screen a familiar XP logo….no video card error, no memory error, no urgent beeping, just happy (smug?) Bill coming to life on his own time.

Audrey is a distance ed maven and part-time writer living in the United Kingdom. She is finishing her last year of an honours Master of Health Science degree, in preparation for a distance ed PhD in how to get a distance ed PhD. A mother of four, she sporadically sleeps, is in love with fractal math, and has found peace where neuroscience and Java programming meet.

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