It was over the holidays, and I had brought my laptop home to a family Christmas in Ohio.
Why wouldn’t I take it? It holds within it my professional, personal, and creative life -- everything I've written, revised or work shopped in the past 10 years; every photograph I've taken in the digital age, and some scanned from before that; resumes, outlines for classes to teach, outlines and sketches for unwritten stories, diary and journal entries for at least the past 13 years, receipts, budgets. My laptop is everything.
So when the evening before I was to leave, I looked up onscreen to see the spinning ball of death, I stopped cold. No. No! My heart pounded, my face hot, hands sweating, trying in vain to find a cursor. This isn’t happening. Please! Not now!
Just like there is never a good time for your toilet to clog, or your electricity to go out, or for you to develop a bladder infection, there is never a good time for your computer to crash. It disrupts everything. And, until it’s fixed, ain’t nothin’ the same. Your life is on hold.
It was my last night with my parents before heading back to L.A. and they were eager for us all to go out for the evening.
“I can’t go out to dinner!” I yelled over my shoulder. “I have to deal with this!” I was genuinely freaking out.
“Can you just wait until we get back?” my mom asked.
I looked at the spinning wheel. Doh! I still hate it when my mother is right!
I left it spinning and off we went for chicken and noodles at Bob Evans. It was my last night, and I knew I should focus on things like So, Dad, when are you getting your knee replaced? And, Mom, what would you think of doing Christmas in Frankenmuth, Michigan next year?
But I couldn’t be present at all -- my head was spinning as fast as that damn swirling virtual wheel. What if my hard drive died? What if I had lost everything? When was the last time I backed it up? Oh, God, where was my back up drive??
I rushed back in after dinner, hoping against hope, but no -– there it was, that stupid little beach ball, spinning in infinity. I would just have to press and hold the on/off button and shut it down manually.
Only, it wouldn’t shut down. Wouldn’t do a damn thing! After some hand wringing, swearing and useless staring at the screen, I went to bed. Maybe it would magically be better in the morning.
Sure enough, in the morning, the spinning wheel stopped and a cursor appeared.
A cursor! Yes! This was progress! But you know what? That cursor wouldn’t do a damn thing. I couldn’t click on anything. My laptop -- my external brain, treasure trove, and hope chest -- was in a coma. And there was nothing I could do but sit there and watch it vegetate.
A good friend of mine has been a grief counselor for over 20 years.
“You can lose your purse or your Aunt Matilda, it’s the same process, no matter the scale," she says. Such would explain my emotional meltdown upon facing the possible loss of my laptop:
Denial: This cannot be happening. I’m sure my laptop is just…thinking or something. It probably just needs a rest. I’m going to go to Bob Evans and eat chicken noodles and when I get back everything will be fine.
Anger: WTF? I haven’t done anything wrong! I don’t have time for this bullshit!
Bargaining: OK, please, just wake up. I promise, once you are awake, I’ll delete anything I don’t need. I’ll update all your software. I’ll delete all those iMovies that slow everything down. Just wake up in time for me to finish this one project. I’ll start cleaning my screen, I’ll stop eating Wheat Thins over my keyboard, please, just wake up!
Depression: All of my work is gone. The screenplay that was going to get into Sundance Lab? My great American half-written novel? Umpteen revisions of countless essays? I’ll never get anything back. All of Sheekie’s puppy pictures? That video of him discovering his first birthday present, the twice-his-size bone? I should have backed up everything more frequently. Why do these things always happen to me? Why do I bother doing anything? Everything sucks. I hate my life.
Acceptance: My laptop is either frozen or dead, and until I get home, there is nothing I can do about it. For all intents and purposes, I have no laptop. There is nothing I can do right now except move on.
After I entered the acceptance phase, practically making love to my iPhone, I emailed colleagues to tell them my work would be delayed.
For the next 24 hours, I would embrace having no laptop. The freedom! I didn’t feel like I HAD to be working on anything. It’s like I had permission to procrastinate. My laptop freezing was like getting a snow day. I would relax and enjoy it, and trusted that when I got home, I would take it to the Apple Store and all would be well.
On the plane, I read a real book (hardcover!) instead of watching movies I’d downloaded. I wrote longhand in a notebook instead of tapping away at journal entries. I even started a new story by hand.
The next morning, I was feeling pretty darn good about myself. See? I handled that gracefully! Then, I called the Apple Store and was told I would need an appointment, and then next available wasn’t for another three days.
Revert to anger stage. Whoa to anyone who came near. “How are you?” the grocery cashier asked. “My laptop is frozen! How do you think I am?"
“Uh-huh,” they would nod. “Paper or plastic?”
I explained it to my friends who clearly didn’t appreciate my desperation. “Oh, that sucks. What are you doing later?”
Didn’t they get it? My life was on hold. My work, my dreams, my memories…ME!
I checked on it hourly, hoping against hope something would have changed. Nope. It was always the same. Unresponsive.
My laptop was definitely in a coma. It was all in there, somewhere. Would it wake up -– and when it did, would it be normal? Would I? Would it remember? Or would I lose the world I had created and embedded? If so much of me were in that laptop, how much of me would I lose?
Sick of worrying, I forced myself onto my yoga mat. After some sun salutations, I was reminded of a meditation we did at my yoga teacher’s training program (yes, they let neurotics like me in). It came to me as I stretched out into corpse pose.
I revisited it to go something like this:
See in your mind’s eye everything you associate with you, with being you. See your driver’s license -- your photograph, your hair and eyes, weight, height -- see your race and gender, see your paycheck, bank cards, and where you go to work, your clothes, your possessions -- your home, your car, bike (and now I added) your laptop. See every file on your hard drive. Your documents, diaries, emails, records, writing, photos, movies. Everything.
Now set those things aside. What remains?
Something remains. The YOU that is you without all of those things. Who remains?
Acceptance. Though it would be an incredible pain in the ass to replace or recover all the things in my laptop, ultimately, I realized everything in it is a sign, representation, reference, an illusion. Photos that reference relationships. Stories that represent talent and time put in. Work that signals progress. It would have been painful and difficult to lose those things. But, I had to stop and ask myself, who would I be without my laptop? What would I do?
I’d start over.
We are not our work, or emails, even the thousands of thoughts written down. I am not my photographs, or my music, or my documents; I am not the thousands of pages and stories I’ve written over the past 10 years. Could I ever write those pages again? No, not as they were. But, like losing a job or a relationship, there is nothing to do but trust there is a reason for the loss, and that is to let something new and better into our lives.
Sometimes we need to lose things to appreciate them. Or at least, be scared to death we may have lost them. Maybe, for whatever reason, the universe was trying to show me how easy it is to wipe the slate clean. Or have it wiped clean for you.
In the end, my hard drive was restored, and I was both relieved and thrilled. When I look back on those five days of chaos, I am reminded to meditate on the simple truth that I am not my work, thoughts, or other “stuff.”
Oh -– and you can bet, as I promised during the “bargaining” phase, I then backed up my shit quicker than you can say Geek Squad. How’s that for inner peace?