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requiem for a computer
by sarah ficke (@DameMystery)

It is official: this month, Marvin and I are celebrating our five-year anniversary.

It has been a tough five years, full of sleepless nights, long journeys, coffee, fights, apologies, and moments of triumph. In five years, he has never failed me

Marvin is my computer.

Marvin the Martian, to be exact, christened by a sticker I placed on his case in the second year of our relationship. In technical terms, he is a Toshiba laptop, complete with swappable disk/CD drives and a sticker boasting of its Pentium 0 processor. He runs Windows 95 – none of that fancy MS Word and Office garbage – and in the course of five years he has developed a personality as eccentric and unique as a composite of plastic and metal can.

Much to everyone's surprise, the Dinosaur, as they call him, still functions rather well. I can listen to MP3s, Instant Message people, check my e-mail, and write these columns (last year he acquired a copy of MS Word) ... but only one thing at a time. Trying to check my e-mail while IMing someone is roughly as fast as tossing a message in a bottle and letting it float to Ohio. It's not uncommon for me to fold my laundry or do the dishes while I wait for an internet page to load.

At this point, most people would be ripping their hair out. My friends have been known to curse and occasionally throw things while trying to check their email, and I've spent more time yelling unprintable words full of asterisks and dollar signs at the computer than anyone thinks I know. Let's face it: It's difficult to be calm when you've got a paper due in 10 minutes and your computer freezes. More than once I've been tempted to hit him, but then I remember that violence doesn't get me anywhere (except for when I was dealing with my old Apple, which needed a smack now and then to keep the screen from wobbling.)

But sometimes, as I watch a webpage slowly taking shape, instead of fidgeting impatiently, I think about what I'm watching. And it is amazing.

When my grandfather was a kid, World War I was just starting. People were still driving their cars up hills backwards because the engine pulled the car up better that way. Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, color television, the invention of the computer ... these were all things of the future. Sometimes he tells us grandkids stories about the earliest computers. About how they were so big that they took up entire rooms; so big that "a bug in the program" literally meant that a fly or mosquito had gotten into the works somehow. This was first-class technology at the time, and in my grandfather's creaky voice I can still hear the excitement.

Skip ahead to my earliest computer experiences. Does anyone else remember 'Logo'? It was a nifty program that allowed you to instruct a little turtle to draw pictures on the screen. Pretty cool stuff. How we got from that and the earliest edition of Oregon Trail to the internet and Carmageddon is almost miraculous, especially to someone like me, who has little or no idea of how computers actually work. And the advantages of technology are incredible. Thanks to the internet, small businesses can reach a wider market, people can talk cheaply to friends all over the world, and my uncle can record his songs and run an internet radio station. It's damn cool, and we all ought to realize that.

Don't get me wrong, it is the nature of progress that new things become taken for granted. One day the toaster ignites a kitchen revolution one slice at a time, and the next day we swear at it for overcooking a bagel. Considering the importance of the internet in today's society and economy, it is not unreasonable to expect that computers be internet-ready and moderately fast.

And this is why, after five years, I am putting Marvin to rest. Someday soon I will clear out all of my files, finding pictures and writing long-buried on the hard drive. Someday soon I will take off the stickers and move them to my newer, sleeker laptop. Someday soon I will shut him down, never to turn him on again. Progress is progress, and it's about time for me to get a computer that won't give me the Frozen Green Line of Death whenever I try to shut it down. But before I move on to newer, better things, I wanted to take one last minute, perhaps while I'm waiting for the web browser to open so I can send in this column, to reflect on what I've got; to remember my Apple IIGS and the mosquito-plagued computing machine of my grandfather's youth. One more minute to appreciate Marvin, who, in his own cranky and neurotic way, never let me take computers for granted.



Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.

more about sarah ficke


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eloise young
6.28.02 @ 10:52a

I seem to recall that reversing-the-car-up-the-hill thing in a Steinbeck book that I heard on NPR about ten years ago. Anyone know which book that is? I wouldn't mind reading it now.

travis broughton
6.28.02 @ 11:19a

Google on "steinbeck car reverse hill" yields this excerpt from Cannery Row first.

tracey kelley
7.19.02 @ 1:11a

My grandmother didn't have a phone until her senior year of high school - now she has 3 different home numbers and 2 cell phones.

She mentions this often.

Watching her type is about as exciting as watching her truss a chicken, but she has a good time at it, forwarding junk mail (God love her -she doesn't know I just delete it. I ask her, "Gram," I say, "Would you put that in an envelope, stamp it and mail it? No? Then don't send it via email." ) and even pops on this site from time to time.

She thinks the Internet is "a wonder."

We have "Asta", our 5-year old computer. It still putts along (However, I do most of my stuff on "Zippy", the 18 month old) but I know exactly what you mean about the webpage loading. Sheeeeesh.


mike julianelle
7.19.02 @ 8:40a

I didn't know so many people named their computers.

tracey kelley
7.19.02 @ 9:05a

Well, since we have 2 computers that we're constantly bouncing between, it just makes it easier to reference them.

Besides, we can't have a dog, and we always said if we had a dog, we'd name it Asta. Jokingly, we used that as our home email address - dogasta.

Welcome to the minds of the Kelleys. :)

mike julianelle
7.19.02 @ 9:30a

I used to refer to my computer as Joshua, from WarGames. I think that lasted about 5 minutes.

joe procopio
7.19.02 @ 9:38a

Yeah, once you have more than one, especially if they're networked, you need to name them.

Here's how much of a nerd I am. The intrepid media global network is called santapoco, the server is called amigo. My main box is called elguapo and my wife's machine is called jefe. I also have another box called nederlander.

Okay. Destroy me.

mike julianelle
7.19.02 @ 9:43a

Who sings it:

"Watch that girl destroy me!"

russ carr
7.19.02 @ 10:27a

That'd be Possum Dixon, Mike.

mike julianelle
7.19.02 @ 10:29a

Very nice, Russ. Good song too.

matt morin
7.19.02 @ 11:55a

I always thought that was a female thing - to name computers and cars. I don't know a single guy who has a name for his car, but every woman I know has a name for theirs.

adam kraemer
7.19.02 @ 12:21p

I have a friend who named his testicles Itchy and Scratchy, but that's not exactly the same thing.

Joe - I'm loving the "Three Amigos" references.

sarah ficke
7.19.02 @ 12:50p

Funny, I always thought it was a guy thing to name cars.

roger striffler
7.19.02 @ 1:38p

I never named computers until, as Joe points out, they were networked and I had to. At the office we did geek things like named the computers after Seinfeld characters, Simpsons characters, norse gods, and planets.

At home I'm boring. With the exception of my laptop which is named "gypsy" (because it's portable and has a wireless connection), the rest have exciting names like "server" and "dell 8100".

erik myers
7.22.02 @ 9:47a

Yeah.. actually I've named both my cars and my computers... but for the same reason all-around. When you have more than one to contend with you have to tell them apart.. we've covered computers, but when it comes to cars, well, I'd rather say, "I'm taking Sophie out tonight." than "I'm taking my Pontiac Bonneville out tonight." because one of them makes me sound like I have a life.

adam kraemer
7.22.02 @ 11:11a

I worked in an office once where all the computers were named after Smurfs.

jael mchenry
7.22.02 @ 11:24a

The computer lab where I worked in college was all Muppets. misspiggy, kermit, drteeth, rizzo, you name it.

And people had to give the lab assistants the name of their computer to claim their printouts, so you'd have a lot of annoyed students mumbling "I'm Fozzie" or "I'm Sweetie."

sarah ficke
7.22.02 @ 1:55p

I worked in an office once where all the computers were named after Smurfs.

Which one was yours? Clumsy?

adam kraemer
7.22.02 @ 2:33p

I think that's "Sweetums," Jael.

And my Smurf was Harmony, I think.

erik myers
7.22.02 @ 3:26p

Heh. Hefty was taken?

adam kraemer
7.22.02 @ 5:00p

I can't tell if that's supposed to be an insult.

jael mchenry
7.22.02 @ 5:36p

Not Brainy, then, either.

sarah ficke
7.22.02 @ 5:43p

I'd be proud to work on a computer named "Sweetums". He was infinitely cooler than Miss Piggy.

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