User, n. The word computer professionals use when they mean “idiot.”
— Dave Barry
The initial symptoms of a massive failure, such as a heart attack or stroke — a sore arm, a bit of vertigo — often appear benign. Catastrophe seems to happen so fast, but in retrospect, the discernible signs we’d initially ignored glare their condemnation. So it was when the response time of my keystrokes slowed to a crawl on my MacBook; I thought nothing of it. A reboot does for most computer issues what Tylenol does for headaches. I hit the power button and waited. A moment later, instead of the usual clear-sky blue of my laptop booting up, my display remained an inclement gray. No biggie, I thought, staring in wait for it to assume the appropriate hue.
It was taking an awfully long time. My brows furrowed at the uninspiring color. Just as I was about to give restarting another go, a symbol appeared — the image of a folder with a question mark in the center of the screen; it was blinking at me. As I watched the question mark blink in and out, without any indication of progress, a negligible bud of mild concern burgeoned into a bright red blossom of dread. Despite my trepidation, I was convinced the solution to the issue was merely a sequence of depressed keys away. Computer crashes, like car accidents or cancer, were not supposed to happen to me. There had to be some less terminal explanation.
Once apprised of my predicament, David sat beside me at his mother’s kitchen table, opened his laptop, and searched online tech forums for a solution. “Huh,” he made the mistake of saying.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
David knows me well enough to remain reticent rather than utter worrisome words like “It appears as though your laptop has shit the bed.” But with me staring him down and demanding elucidation on the word “huh,” he really had no choice but to break it to me. Faced with the news that my hard drive had crashed, added to the realization that I was 3000 miles away from my backup and had less than two days to submit polished versions of two articles I’d been working on, I did the only reasonable thing I could think of — I fell apart.
I was only vaguely aware of David making a phone call to determine if the local computer repair store (one of only two on the island where his parents live) was open. He ushered me toward his father’s circa ’80s Buick. As we sped to the computer hospital, I cradled the ailing one on my lap. Still under the impression that nothing really bad was happening — as if my freaking out was an automatic but unfounded response that David would later tell me had been for nothing before we laughed it off like all my other freak-outs — I plastered a nervous smile on my face and entered the store.
We stood at the counter for an eternity, despite the heads of teenaged employees that, like prairie dogs, were intermittently popping up from the triage room behind the register. Finally, a man in a Stephen Hawking–like wheelchair (with neck support and everything) rolled toward us. The man appeared fit; his hair was white, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses.
“It seems as though my hard drive has crashed,” I said.
“Not surprising, those SATA drives are crap,” the man muttered. “You have a backup?”
“Well, yes, but not with me, it’s at home. I didn’t thin—”
“Right. You didn’t,” he snapped. Then, speaking the phrase islanders use to convey their disdain for the tourists they loathe but who they rely on to provide a year’s worth of sustenance in three months, Dr. Strangelove sneered at me and said, “Summer people, some ‘r’ not.”
David’s gasp was barely audible. Blowing off the man’s insult, I said, “Is there anything you can do?”
“Well, you should have had a backup,” he said. “I’m not sure I can recover anything; chances are slim, maybe 20 percent.”
I bit my lip and wiped away a tear and made sure to keep smiling. “Well, anything you can do, if you can try, that would be—”
“Do you know your right from your left?”
“What? I don’t…”
The permanently seated man sighed loudly in exasperation. “Your right. From your left. Do you know the difference?” When I stared at him in confusion, the man sighed again and said, “Look. This is where you’re supposed to open the laptop, from this indented area in the middle. You’re opening it wrong, from the left side; I can tell, because it’s off alignment about a millimeter toward the right.”
“Not true,” I said with the conviction of the obsessive-compulsive.
“She’s right,” David chimed in. “She’s really weird about symmetry; she’d only open it from the middle. But it could have been me,” he added, offering to take the bullet.
“Anyway,” said the guy I was beginning to hate. “We’ll keep it overnight and freeze the hard drive and then see if we can recover anything. But I’m only going to do it once, and we might have only 20 minutes to retrieve information, if there’s any to retrieve.”
“It’s like leaving my child or something,” I joked.
“Well, if you don’t want to leave it, you can go right in here,” said the man, pointing to a jar, the side of which was engraved with the words, “Ashes of Problem Customers.”
I held back my tears until we got into the car, and then I broke down, hyperventilating all the way back to my in- laws’ place. When we got there, I marched straight upstairs to our room and collapsed on the bed. David, who’d never witnessed a panic attack quite this bad (apparently I was rocking back and forth and repeatedly tapping my collarbone) deliberated over whether or not to take me to the hospital. When the sound of David’s concern finally forged a hole through the blanket of stress that had been suffocating me, I sat up, suddenly sober. “Um, sorry about that,” I said.
“Stress is not your best friend, but it certainly is a frequent companion,” David said, smiling and stroking my hair.
“Stress is my frenemy.” I smiled back, proof that I hadn’t completely lost it, and said, “Let’s go downstairs and help out with dinner.”
Over the next three days, I heard one horror story after another from islanders about the jerk at the computer store. A man I met at a party said the consensus on the island was that the guy in the wheelchair, who was in the midst of a lawsuit over the car accident that put him there, didn’t need to be in the thing at all (one high-profile doctor, upon seeing the guy’s MRIs, said all he needed was physical therapy). An employee of the gallery that represents David said he’d made the mistake of stepping past the counter to look for help, only to be greeted by the seated man screaming expletives at him for crossing the invisible line. Our friend Jen brought her computer there and didn’t get it back for 30 days, at which point it was worse off than it was before (hers had never been broken, she just wanted a “professional” to perform a backup and ended up with her data being lost).
By the fourth day, I wanted my baby back, fixed or not. I called the store and told the kid who answered that I needed to collect my laptop that day because I was leaving the island. He said that wasn’t possible, that their server was in the middle of retrieving data, and they never unplug at that time.
“Look, I don’t care if it’s broken,” I snapped. “I’m leaving today, and I’m taking my laptop with me.”
“We have your number in San Diego,” said the kid.
I was apoplectic. “You won’t be using that number because I am taking my computer. Today.”
“No. We will not unplug it while it’s recovering data, and that’s that,” he said.
I practically threw the phone at David, snapping, “Can you talk to these assholes for me?”
By the time David put the receiver to his ear, the guy in the wheelchair had replaced the kid at the other end of the line. David argued with the man for five minutes and then hung up the phone. “We pick it up at three. But he said he doesn’t work for free,” David said. I slapped myself in the head. I had been so distraught when I dropped off my machine, it hadn’t occurred to me to square the price in advance.
At 3 p.m., we entered the store for the last time. I paid a ransom of $142.68 and retrieved my broken laptop in exactly the same condition (except for the addition of a few new scratches on the case). No information had been recovered. As I still had a week left on my computer’s warranty when I got back to San Diego, I brought my baby to the Apple Store, and a new hard drive was installed at no cost. When I got home, my trusty backup drive (that will accompany me on all trips from now on) restored everything to its rightful place, including my sanity.