People walk past the Apple Store at Grand Central Terminal in New York. (Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty…)
It happened, as crises do, without warning. I was doing something essential, like trolling online for better and deeply discounted kitchen knives, when suddenly the image on my laptop went from hi-res to out-of-register. Most of the color fell away and a grim message appeared: My computer was having a problem, as though I hadn't noticed; I should wait a minute and try to turn it on again.
An hour later I was on the street in front of the Apple store, laptop-less. The fellow at the Genius Bar could tell that the video card wasn't working but couldn't fix it. At the ripe old age of 6, this was a "vintage" computer that required a trip to the central repair facility, where they keep antique parts.
I shuffled home, powerless except for an equally outré cellphone, feeling quite the antique myself. Those of us who had a life before we had a personal computer tend to compensate in one of two ways. Some people fall head over heels for every new device or app, which we have to have, in part to keep up, in part to prove that we're au courant behind those invisible bifocals. My cohort, on the other hand, adopts a more grudging relationship to electronics, which are only there, after all, to do our bidding.
Or at least that's what we say to cover our blinding insecurity about depending on machines that know more than we ever will.
Five to seven days without a laptop, said the genius apologetically.
Come on: I've spent decades without a laptop. I'll show Generation Tech a thing or two about self-sufficiency.
First I had to figure out some logistics. I had dumped several student papers onto a little flash drive, so I headed for the nearest copy store to print them out; I would edit them on hard copy. I valiantly kept tabs of my email on my cellphone, even though I wrote shorter replies because I can't stand to type with my thumbs. I opened a link or two on the phone, and how cool was that? I could visit the Web, in all its minuscule 2-point-type glory, without making my glabellar furrow much deeper than it already is.
By Day 2 I was far less chipper and certain that I would never be one of those modern viewers who watches "Les Miserables" on a cellphone screen, which seems to get smaller the more you use it. The impulse-buy solution was to purchase a tablet immediately, but I don't even buy shoes without a day's reflection. Or maybe I could rent a laptop somewhere, if it didn't require surfing the Web on said cellphone screen to find out if such an option even exists.
The low-rent option was to borrow a friend's kid's discarded laptop, whose security rivaled that of Ft. Knox; even though I could see my Wi-Fi account icon orbiting at the center of the network cluster, I couldn't get it to work. Everything anyone has ever said about IBM and Apple speaking different dialects is more than true; it knew what I wanted, I knew what I wanted, and still, nothing. I succumbed to magical thinking and kept clicking on "connect" over and over, certain that the fourth or 10th or 12th time would be the charm, and then I gave up and read the newspaper.
I mean I really read the newspaper, in a way I haven't in years. I paged through it, section by section, stopping to read whatever appealed to me, abandoning the Pavlovian rhythms the computer dictates. If there was an email waiting for me, let it wait, at least a little bit. The laptop imperative was silenced for the moment, and the cellphone just doesn't command the same respect.
I slowed down, not having realized that I, like everyone else, am pretty revved up most of the time, despite my protestations of sanity where electronics are concerned. Technology's an equal-opportunity seductress: It's one of the few elements of society that doesn't care how old I am.
But don't think that this is going to be one of those take-your-life-back, smell-the roses-stories, because by Day 3, I really missed being able to check breaking headlines and the extended weather forecast on a bigger screen, I missed media news, I missed whatever else I was missing, which I couldn't possibly know because I had no way to check.
Yes, that's a frantic edge creeping into my voice even now, and the rest of the weekend wasn't much better. Let's just say that I successfully completed more than my usual ration of crosswords and KenKen and made a pie crust I didn't need.
I began to wonder what I'd do if the laptop were beyond fixing; I fantasized about a great big 27-inch monitor, about a desktop and a laptop and a tablet. I rented an hour on a computer at my local FedEx branch, just to check in with the outside world, though I told myself I was doing important research.
And then, just as the waiting work burden started to get a little scary, the email appeared in my inbox. I could pick up my healed computer. I sprinted back to the store, took the stairs to the third floor at an impressive clip — and hesitated for a moment, to compose myself before I reclaimed the machine. One has to maintain the proper power dynamic. I don't want it to get a swelled head.
Karen Stabiner is the author, with chef Michael Romano, of the cookbook "Family Table," and teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.