is off, closed, on the coffeetable in my room. There are five cables
sticking out from it. Clockwise: phone jack into the modem on the back left,
audio cable hooking in the external CD-burner (the machine's lone working media
drive), headphone jack, USB cable from the CD-burner, and the power
In order to turn the computer on, I remove that last cord from its
plug. I pray as I push the power button. The only way to turn this computer on
is to have the battery fully charged, but the power cord must be unplugged when
the switch is pressed. Often the machine still stubbornly refuses to turn on,
and powering up in these cases is often just a matter of waiting it out. It was
doing better over the Summer, as long as it was at home in Minsk. Maybe cold has something to do with it, but in the Winter when I
first got here and now again in the Winter as I'm leaving, I find that the best
strategy is to simply never turn the computer off. I can't close it
either, because then it goes into standby, and the machine does especially badly
with standby... As in, it doesn't come back. At all. So I drape a bandana over the
open laptop to keep the dust off.
It's a Gateway Solo Pentium 266, loaned
to me by my dad. But the troubles aren't Gateway's fault or my father's; it's
just an old computer that's been through a lot, and some of the newer problems
are my fault.
When I want to use or make CD's, I power up the transformer
into which is plugged the CD-burner. The transformer is a thing a friend of mine
had made for me, a heavy little box that some friends of his welded
together. The CD-ROM drive that came with the computer
-- interchangeable with its 3.5-inch floppy drive -- stopped working one March
night in the midst of a Swedish folk song's rolled R. It had developed a new
habit of opening for absolutely no reason. Maybe the mechanism that kept it
closed died, like a stretched-out spring.... I still don't know if the problem
is mechanical, electrical, or both.
When I arrived in Odessa the first
time in early July, I found that the computer would not turn on at all. The
problem lasted for several days, and was taking on a slightly different form
than I was used to, so I had a new problem. I felt especially adrift since
Odessa was a place that forced me to write much more fast and furious than
longhand allows. My friends there knew a guy named Andre who supposedly could
fix anything in a computer, whether mechanical, electronic, or code-related. So
I handed my computer over to him, and he returned to me not only a machine that
turned on, but a CD-ROM drive that somehow worked again. I gave him eight bucks;
it was all I had at that time, and for Andre it was a huge payment. Enough to
buy three or four of the hottest new programs or games at a neighbourhood
The CD-ROM drive stopped working after a while, and I soon
experienced problems turning the machine on again, but I never had the same
problem that rendered the thing completely useless for those first few days in
Odessa. I'm still indebted to Andre.
When the CD-ROM drive started
opening constantly, even when I wasn't using it for anything at all, I
permanently switched it for the 3.5-inch floppy that I never used. But that was
about the time that I started to have more computer work to do here in Minsk,
and suddenly I was using floppies a lot, carrying them between anywhere from two
to six computers.
Well, I guess the floppy drive got tired from that,
because on another Odessa visit in November, that stopped working too. That was
the day before I left. There was no time to call Andre.
I never got
around to getting any of this fixed in Minsk. I responded, rather, in the
typical Belarusian manner: I put up with it, treasured what I did have, and
found workarounds for what I didn't. Instead of a floppy drive, I zip and email
files to and from my web account from various computers, and just patiently
endure slow up- and downloads and frequently broken connections.
CD-burner was a very un-Belarusian workaround, in that it did require a
purchase. But it was something I wanted anyway. I ordered it online and a friend
of mine brought it from the USA in her suitcase. When I finally got the
jerryrigged transformer to work without filling my flat with the stink of
burning glue, I was back in business... almost. Installing the software for the
CD-burner was an adventure, since I couldn't use the CD-burner itself to install
anything. For what seemed like ages, I very gently held the old CD-ROM
drive closed with the install disks spinning away inside. I didn't make an
sudden movements, and, as always, I prayed for it to work.
Now, I need
another workaround. Tonight I busted the modem. The Gateway 2000 Telepath Combo
Card has a port for a LAN cable and a normal phone jack port that pops out.
Tonight I tripped over the phone cord and ripped the phone jack port out. That
part is most assuredly killed, and the LAN connection (useless to me here
anyway) looks a little off-kilter too. But I have a friend who actually has an
intact 14.4 (!) modem card that he's not using, so I'm borrowing that for the
4.5 days I have left in Minsk.
The laptop is really just enormously
skilled at cultural adaptation, I think. It's right in step with the environment
here. In Minsk, pretty much nothing works efficiently. If it works at all, it
works poorly, because it's worn-down and nobody has money to get a new one. This
goes for buses (exhaust is generally black in colour and goes right into the
bus), heating (the radiators in my flat are vaguely warm during winter), water
systems, (absolutely no hot water in summer and very sporadic in winter), phone
lines, and so on.
This doesn't just apply to mechanical objects:
deadlines are flexible, social life isn't woven out of arrangements so much as
out of random occurrences and meetings. You certainly don't spend much money
when you do social things. There isn't any money. But people live flexibly and
adapt to every new wrench that is thrown into the works... in the kind of way
that makes you know they must have seen the wrench a-flying toward them. Things
often come together in spite of everything. Often they don't, but it's not the
end of the world.
I've learned a bit of resourcefulness and flexibility
I don't think I'll return the machine to my father as I had
originally planned. He has a new one. I'll probably buy the beat-up laptop from
him; the cost to fix everything that's broken is more than the computer is worth
anymore. My other car is a Porsche, my other computer is a desktop, a Dell
Pentium III 667 that's a year and a half old. It's already showing some signs of
strain, and it's much more of a stranger to me now than this borrowed box of
adventure. But at least it consistently turns on, and all its drives
I'll use this old friend of mine when I travel, or I'll get it
fixed up to the degree that I can afford, and give it to someone in the former
Soviet Union. Someone who can handle it, like Andre. This machine's life is
certainly far from over. I'm sure there are several more workarounds that need
to be discovered before we say goodbye to this one for good.
- 4 January 2002
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