Jul/Aug 2018  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Peculiar Life

Commentary by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

A copy of W. S. Merwin's translation of Dante's Purgatory arrived in the mail early last week. A couple of days later, A.M. Juster's edition of Maximianus followed. These have left me just a little celebratory. Both should be fascinating reads.

Not far behind them a scorching heatwave has arrived. The black curtains have been drawn against fierce radiant heat through the windows. Having been a submariner in an earlier life, I learned to do without natural sunlight for considerable periods. Every now and then it is salutary to withdraw from the world and to peer out at it through the periscope of the computer screen. At least until the perishable food runs low and I must emerge in order to do marketing.

All of this may have arrived at just the right time. I've been nursing the computer for some weeks now and the time quickly approaches that I will be forced undertake a series of repairs. Being a freelance writer—a virtual vanaprastha—I am paid with territorial disdain and bloodless insectoid algorithms that send all but the distant scent of profits into the electronic pockets of "my partners"—the owners of the computer platforms upon which I develop content.

On that kind of paycheck I cannot afford another machine. This one must be returned to snuff. Having been a computer systems engineer, in yet another past life, and a freelance computer repairman—a virtual vanaprastha—on and off since then, repairs may prove to be possible on the perennial budget of zero for equipment repairs. The only replacement part that will be necessary is available in one of the many "parts machines" that have been sitting in one or another corner for years waiting for just such a need.

Ten years ago, when I custom ordered this computer, I made some gratifying guesses as to the very special requirements that lay ahead. When this machine is in proper working order it is still powerful tool—a Swiss army knife of a computer that greatly boosts the quality of many of the key aspects of my life. After all of these years.

Until "the incident" it was still doing the job it was originally designed to do. After the incident it has still been doing it nearly as well but that cannot last forever.

As with most things, the computer was designed by the manufacturer to be a derelict by now. It's first breakdowns were designed to begin occurring once the heat-printed register receipt faded away to a blank. The lack of a tech manual and the nondescript error messages were supposed to discombobulate and discourage the amateur. The microscopically close arrangement of its components, and angles designed to be navigable only by specialized tools, were supposed to bring full-grown do-it-yourselfers to their knees. I was supposed to have felt relief to be out from under the depressing burden of a designedly obsolete computer at whatever price. The post-capitalist model was long ago supposed to have added yet another notch to its virtual tally stick.

No small feat, then, that ten years later it remains the single most important source of my life quality after my apartment itself. At least of that part of quality that depends upon contact with the rest of the world: Eclectica columns, blog posts, planning strategies for book sales, etc.

There have been times before when I have been disconnected from the wider world. After powerful storms that knocked the power out. I actually look forward to fate choosing to throw me back, now and again, to the time when I had no telephone or computer.

There are times when I regret having returned to civilization. I live in the midst of a large library, carefully selected over years, most of which now collects dust on the shelves while the world demands my attention. Even in the midst of studying the mud-dauber wasp population, and greeting the opossum as she climbed down, each night, from her attic apartment, and watching the raccoons as they picked palmetto bugs off the bushes with thumb and forefinger like individual kernels of gourmet popcorn, before the computer and telephone I spent many hours slowly, attentively reading the finest written words the world had to offer. Throw in the long bicycle rides and I lived in one of the richest worlds I could imagine.

When I received the recent volumes in the mail, I was pleased to think that the worst that could happen is that I might find myself having to read my Dante and Maximianus in peace, with the old leisure. But it didn't take long to realize that nothing in life remains unchanged. Not only do I no longer have an opossum for a neighbor, no herons wading through the field out back after a heavy rain, no geckos clinging to the bathroom wall of a ramshackle cottage no one much notices except I, but I do have a much larger library. Only part of my Dante shelf is a shelf anymore. Or rather, part is a virtual shelf in a virtual library better appointed than I could have dreamt possible in that better world. All of the volumes that will help me experience Maximianus more fully reside also on a virtual shelf. So it goes with every author and genre. And, fearful above all of losing them, or the word-processing files I have filled with hard won information, the first thing I have done is to copy those resources onto an external hard drive. There is no going back, it seems. Or not if I can help it.

When the power goes out there is no need to doubt that it will be restored in short order. So far, a week or ten days at worst. It's a welcome break to return briefly to those richer days. But when there are no assurances, there can only be, instead, the old confidence that comes from having adapted so many times to so much. Should it slowly become clear that this has proven to be my last column, you may rest assured that I am hard at work on whatever will be the next stage of a peculiar life. It's been interesting.


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