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Coaxing the Computer Into a Quick Fix

May 26, 1999|CHRIS ERSKINE

I'm leaning behind the computer in the semi-pretzel position, the most popular position for repairing computers, twisting my back and burning my elbows on the bedroom carpet. Muttering like a madman.

"Who're you talking to, Dad?" the boy asks.

"The computer," I say.

Of all the home appliances, it's the computer I talk to the most, encouraging the hard drive, joking with the software. Sometimes I whisper. Sometimes I shout. Like at the ballpark.

"Come on, baby," I whisper. "Print."

"Print, baby," whispers the boy.

Buried deep in the male psyche is the unwavering belief that--given the right tools and a sufficient amount of time--we can fix anything. Cars, computers, bicycles. All it takes is time and tools. The grace of God. Maybe a butter knife.

"Bring me a butter knife," I tell the boy as we stare at the broken computer.

"A butter knife?" the boy asks.

"A butter knife," I say.

It would be foolish to attempt a job like this without the right tools. Fortunately, I have a drawer full of butter knives. They're just right for turning the rubbery little screws on the back of the computer. Little screws, soft as cheese.

"Here's a butter knife," the boy says.

"Thanks," I say.

And I dive back behind the computer, pretzeling my body into different shapes, listening to the vertebrae clicking in my back and hoping the computer will boot up. I listen closely. Nothing. Except for the tinkling of vertebrae, there's nothing.

It occurs to me that if adults keep diving behind computers like this, it may change the course of human evolution, bending us forward like our early ancestors. Soon, we'll be walking on all fours again, loping along like bears, searching for SCSI ports.

"What're you doing, Dad?" another kid asks.

"Devolving," I say.

I'm no longer certain how many kids we have. At last count, there were something like 73 in the kitchen alone, all gathered by the sink, eating peanut butter out of the same jar.

They eat, they laugh, they play with their lips, they trip over the cordless phone. Serious stuff. Then they eat some more.

Every five minutes, a few of them will stop by the computer desk, looking at my legs sticking out from underneath, offering me help or pulling a blanket over my legs, like you do for a corpse. To keep my spirits up, they tell me a joke or two.

"Wanna hear a joke?" they ask.

"No," I say.

"What did the blond say when she passed the YMCA?" one of them asks.

"I don't know," I say.

"Look! They misspelled Macy's!"

And I scold them about prejudice against blond people, which drives them quickly back to their peanut butter and gives me a few moments to hook up the Zip drive.

A few moments, never more.

"Need any help?" someone asks.

I look up to see who's talking. She looks like one of those tech support people you see at the office. Eight years old. Dressed like a hobo. Drinking coffee.

"Wanna swing dance?" the little girl asks.

"Sure," I say.

So we swing dance for a while, then I go back to fixing the computer. I turn it off. I turn it on. I fiddle with the cables. I turn it off. I turn it on.

"Need help, Dad?" the little girl says.

"That's OK," I say.

I tell her that computers today require a new kind of persistence. A sense that you can figure it out yourself. Without help. Without the manual. A new kind of persistence that can solve any problem.

"You're all sweaty, Dad," the little girl says.

"Thanks," I say.

"Why are you sweaty?"

"I'm being persistent," I tell her.

Last week, I fixed the lawn mower. It had a spark plug and a carburetor. Took me 10 minutes. Afterward, I had a beer.

The computer, on the other hand, will take me months. I'll take it to the shop, repair the extension conflicts, download the right printer drivers, replace a bad cord. Still, it will take me months to make it right.

Even then, the computer will have its little quirks, nagging problems that won't go away. Like something that's jinxed. Possibly possessed. The Amityville computer.

"Come on, baby, print," I'll whisper.

And I'll crawl behind the computer with the flashlight, sorting through the cables, grabbing blindly for the butter knife. But the butter knife won't be there. Just piles and piles of cables, tangled like pasta.

"Bring me a butter knife!" I'll yell.

In the kitchen, they'll pause between bites of peanut butter, wondering about the strange cry they just heard from the bedroom, the kind of cry they've only heard in horror movies.

"What'd he say?" some kid will ask.

"He wants another butter knife," someone will answer. "Better take him two."

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

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