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laptop

My computer 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 cord.

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 kiosk.

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.

The 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 here myself.

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 work.

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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