Thursday, February 11, 2010

In the land of Minor Mishaps


Recently I entered the land of the Minor Mishap. Those experiencing Minor Mishaps belong for a short time to a very unexclusive club.

A Minor Mishap doesn’t involve serious illness or death, and is not annoying enough to be soul destroying, but it usually requires that SOMETHING BE DONE. It demands to be given priority.

When you’re in the throes of a Minor Mishap you’re in a slightly different space from everyone else, floating a few inches above them. When you are speaking to anyone about the problem your voice carries urgency, purpose and a touch of desperation. You are driven by an overwhelming need to restore the world to exactly what it was once was. You no longer want a partner or more money or world peace. You just want what you had before – your version of normalcy, which, since it has been snatched from you, has suddenly become incredibly precious and sacred.

Minor Mishaps often involve parting with money that one would rather spend on fun and frivolity. Action is important, sometimes just for the sake of keeping the momentum going, even if it achieves next to nothing.

Minor Mishaps that can’t be fixed right away gradually stop being mishaps and become absorbed into normal life – in this case, the experience of ‘normal life’ changes to incorporate the Minor Mishap. I rent a crumbling semi-detached flat, so house-based Minor Mishaps in the form of needed repairs are incredibly frequent. If it’s not an electricity power point needing replacing it’s the hot water system in the roof calling it a day or the guttering on the garage detaching from the bricks and hanging down in a very undignified way.

But basically after I’ve reported the needed repair someone else has to sort it out. This doesn’t always happen straight away and if it drags on the Minor Mishap loses that urgent quality, and I stop noticing it.

A computer-based Minor Mishap is arguably worse than many others because sometimes, although you know something must be done, you don’t know exactly what. You’re like a detective hunting out the clues. You can call on experts but there’s no guarantee they will know either.

The Mishap strikes

One day last week at about 7 am, I turned on my right arm, I mean my computer. The green light went on but, apart from that, nothing happened. It was no longer a computer but a worthless box of tin. Or so it seemed.

I had reason to be devastated. A similar incident had occurred when I first moved into the place I’m in now, five and a half years ago. Back then, when I first set my computer up and switched it on, a flame briefly leered from the top back section where the fan is, and my computer died in a puff of smoke. I still have the disk drive, but such was the damage that it wasn’t apparent whether or not the files were retrievable – a specialised company charging a megafortune would have billed me for even investigating the drive to see if they could retrieve the files, and I wasn’t going to risk it. So when this second computer malfunction happened, I assumed at first that computer Armageddon had occurred for a second time.

Because I knew the nearest library had plenty of computers for public use and I had a file to send to a client (luckily saved onto a USB key), I planned to go there tout suite. But the library didn’t open till 10. In the meantime, I went to mum and dad’s, where my technologically challenged father, currently using a hard drive so ancient it is a priceless antique, has had a slightly newer hard drive sitting in his ‘study’ (storeroom) for a year waiting to be connected. My brother-in-law got it free from his work when they were upgrading. None of us had a clue what state it was in.

(As a bonus, I saw my recently born nephew Billy, as my sister from the country was staying with my parents. Last time I saw Billy he was too new to make eye contact: this time the bald-headed angel looked straight at me with friendly curiosity before his face crumpled as if he was about to burst into wails.)

I lugged Dad’s heavy hard drive to my place and set it up, hoping I could use it to send my work file. The screen came to life in a blaze of incomprehensible text. In my Windows-primed brain, I had simply assumed that I would see the familiar aqua screen with the reassuring software logos on it, good old Explorer and Word. Nothing of the sort. It was speaking to me in computer language I didn’t understand. At least I now knew that the problem with my own computer had nothing to do with the monitor, seemingly nothing to do with the external electricals, and was almost certainly in the hard drive.

In pouring rain, feeling alone and sorry for myself, I managed to get to the library and send the work file with a great deal of fuss and panic; so scrambled was my brain I had to make two trips because I’d left the email address at home.

Luckily my dad knew a computer man in a cheap part of town who’d sold him a monitor and also did repairs. It turned out to be one of those reassuring small shopfronts with disembowelled computers and equipment strewn all over table tops and the floor, a bit like body parts in an operating theatre. The very nice man, Mark, told me it was a simple electrical part in the hard drive that had died and he could fix it in ten minutes for only $75 – he actually showed me my computer firing up using his own electrical equipment: my files were safe! Normalcy, sweet normalcy, beckoned.

But then. When I took the hard drive home after Mark had fixed it, it did exactly the same thing as before. I rang Mark back, carefully presenting the scenario as an incomprehensible problem and not his fault. He told me to bring it back and he would test it again.

He tested the drive twice while I watched, using his own monitor, and it fired up beautifully. He was genuinely bamboozled. The plot had thickened.

Luckily, waiting to be served in the shop was a tall, solidly built man wearing an old blue singlet and shorts, with greying hair skirting his shoulders and the intense but calm gaze of the computer literate – the sort of man that you just know loves both computer games and a beer. He could hardly ignore the desperation in my voice as I spoke to Mark and to the concerned woman who I think was Mark’s wife. I can’t remember who said it first, but either he or Mark said something like ‘Have you got surge protection?’ The penny dropped. I did have surge protection – a power board that would presumably cut out in a storm surge. For some reason, it must have decided the power from my computer was a threat, and shut off the electricity to it while allowing power to the other components.

‘Just get a normal power board’, the blue-singleted man said. ‘You don’t even need surge protection unless you live out of town or in the hills.’

I thanked them all profusely and took my now rather scratched hard drive home again. This time I didn’t actually believe it would fire up – and it did. I’m now typing on it, but I’ve noted something else about a Minor Mishap – when normalcy returns, it takes a while to actually feel normal. My whole world had swayed and threatened to collapse. Without my computer, I now realise, I don’t feel quite whole – and I’m still recovering from the shock. Sad but true.

(I’m fine about spending the $75 – the part Mark replaced was five years old and usually dies after two, and he kindly removed all the dust from the insides as well – and there was a lot.)

Throughout my semi-ordeal my friend Simon was a calm voice on the other end of the phone – I rang him at least four times. He kept directing me to find out what the problem was rather than assuming I had entered the computer stone age. I think he has missed his vocation – with his sane, logical approach he should definitely go into counselling (he can practise on me any time!).

The other thing I learned from this experience, as I contemplated the possible need to get a new computer, is that I am a hopeless Windows junkie. No matter how alluringly the Apple shop beckons, with its blue-T-shirted, smiling dudes coolly offering me their insanely customer-focused tuition and support options, their impeccable and reasonably priced back-up software, and no matter how the pearly surfaces of the iMacs gleam as they power silently and wirelessly through their beautifully constructed programs, I cannot change, not yet anyway. I am yours, Windows. Another unavoidable if regrettable truth.

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