|THE HIGH-PITCHED ELECTRONIC SQUEAL was coming from upstairs. I had just come home from a job -- shooting grafitti art in alleyways and under bridges -- and I could hear the sound, a squeal of hardware alarm as far as I could tell, as soon as I opened the door. I hurried upstairs and followed the sound to my laptop, which I'd used to get my e-mail just that morning, leaving it on "suspend" before I left the house.
I flipped open the screen, which was blank, and shut the
machine off. Re-booting, I was told to insert my Windows 95 floppy re-boot
disk, a sure sign of trouble. After a few lines of the BIOS routine had
scrolled across the screen, I was told that there was a "bad command".
I typed in "c:" to access the hard drive, and was told that the drive was
"Oh, yuck," said the service guy over the phone on Monday,
after I'd waited for a day and a half, terrified not only that I'd have
to find the money for a new machine, but that everything on the hard drive
-- articles I was working on, my website files, research material, my unfinished novel -- were now little more than digital sand drawings, blown away by a sudden storm.
"I'll get my supervisor on the phone," the service guy
says, suddenly sombre.
I explain my problem step by step to the supervisor; the
squeal, the re-boot disk, the bad command, the inaccessible drive.
"Oh, wow. Yuck." This isn't sounding good. "You'd better
bring it in."
I can live without e-mail, for at least a week or two,
I think to myself when the initial panic is over. I can even do without
the word processor, and haul one of my old typewriters -- an bright-red
Smith-Corona portable -- out from the closet downstairs to write a couple
of movie reviews for K.'s paper. It seems so earnest, hammering at the
keys with force to get them to leave a faint impression on the paper, deliberating
over each sentence before I type, to avoid having to backspace and type
over the errors with added force, to get the white-out ribbon to cover
up the typos.
What frightens me, most of all, is losing the novel. I'll
have to get a new machine -- there's no way I'm going to start the book
over again on my typewriter, even though a century's worth of novels were
written, are still being written as far as I know, on manual typewriters.
I've become spoiled by the ease of working on a computer, and I never thought
that would happen before I was forced to buy one. The arts council to which
I've sent copies of the latest version, hoping for a grant that would let
me work on it through the winter, is sympathetic when I use words like
"total meltdown", "hard drive crash" and "no back-up, stupidly". They promise
to find a copy of the manuscript and copy it for me. It arrives in the
mail the day I go to pick up my machine.
In the end, the service guys puzzle over my broken machine,
and do a quick bit of tinkering with the BIOS, which finds my hard drive
again, whole and undamaged. There's talk about the "CMOS battery", and
I leave it in their hands, a little wiser to the generally mysterious workings
of the most important piece of technology I own. They can't explain what
happened when I come back two days later, which is no comfort to me, but
they warn me to back up my work, don't charge me a thing, and send me off
after we chat about the new laptop they hope to sell me. My confidence
in the old machine is shaken, but I'm sitting here at my desk -- cleaned
and re-arranged while I find myself in technological pre-history -- lightly
tapping these words.
I WAS WRONG ABOUT the U.S. elections in my last entry,
written from a glib, lazy perspective that, as far as I can see, is all
too common. I suppose it's easy enough to damn both Bush and Gore for what
they are -- the respectively dumb or dull sons of political families, uninspiring
WASP drones pursuing an overhyped ideal of "public service" while preserving
an economic and social status quo -- and overlook the fundamental ways
that their terms of service, should they actually do what they promise
in this election, will affect their country.
Bush seems intent on beginning the privatization of Social
Security, while Gore has a vague intention to slowly reform the system.
Both men are intent on educational reform, but Bush, sticking to the free-market
gospel, is backing a voucher system that will encourage private schools
and competition. Gore wants to expand Medicaid and Medicare, while Bush
-- once again sticking to the neo-con economic gospel -- promises to create
a multi-tiered system, even more in the hands of private insurers.
Bush's proposed tax cuts are over twice as large as Gore's
--- $1.3 trillion (these kinds of numbers make me dizzy when I ponder them)
as opposed to $500 billion, and though neither of them will probably deliver
on them, the bottom line is that Gore believes in government's ability
to maintain some kind of social safety net, while Bush holds that government
has no place in the daily lives and needs of its citizens -- a curious
stance for a politician, if you think about it. Any way you look at it,
these are important issues, and to pretend that the choice of candidates
is of little importance seems irresponsible.
The world Bush proposes to build is one where everything
is judged on its profitability, including schools and hospitals, and the
kind of people who give us stock market bubbles and Savings and Loan bail-outs
will have a freer hand in handling the money we'll need to deal with illness
and make pleasant the last years of our lives. (I'm using the inclusive
term "we", even though I'm a Canadian, because the same choices are being
made up here, albeit with a lot less publicity.)
Granted, both men will do little to alter the way that
the military-industrial complex (such a quaint, dated term nowadays, ringing
with venerable paranoia even though it still refers to something very real),
the drug companies and health insurers, finance and business interests
and lobby groups like the NRA control the political agenda of the country.
It's obvious that, short of a social cataclysm like revolution or war,
these are the players that determine policy in the "world's greatest democracy"
no matter who hold power. Still, schools and health care and retirement
are basic details in the life of the average citizen, and it's more than
just a conservative propaganda drive that would make us believe that government
should have as little control over these details.
There's something basic in the foundation of American
public culture that makes taxes an imposing evil only mitigated by the
extent to which they can be minimized. The average citizen, called upon
to die in war and spend in peacetime, is held to be able to measure their
patriotism in direct relation to their suspicion of and hostility to the
government they elect. The delegates you see on the floor at the major
political conventions, decked with buttons and bunting, cheering with manic
gusto and gazing worshipfully up at their nominees and the figureheads
of their parties, as well as the celebrities that grace the occasion with
something like noblesse oblige, are popularly regarded as something like
religious fanatics -- respected for their moral fervor, but hardly trusted
to maintain the amicable tone of a dinner party or barbeque, and thus shunned.
It's a mindset that fosters a benign hostility to anyone
who campaigns for public office, and amused disbelief in anything they
say in public. It also might account for the tragic voter turn-out in American
While I generally agree with Gore Vidal's grim assessment
of political life in the United States of America, I think his pessimism
can find a home almost anywhere -- Canada isn't the happiest political
entity in the world, either, though our political traumas are unlikely
to affect world stock markets or shift the balance of power all over the
globe. I suppose it might still shock some people to hear that America
is far from a perfect, working democracy -- there are thousands of college
students each year for whom this revelation triggers a frantic bout of
political activity that eventually subsides into the usual resentful disillusionment
-- but it isn't a profound statement, inasmuch as it doesn't take a theologist
to tell us that nothing made by man or merchant is perfect.
The imperfect American system of electoral politics, compromised
by campaign money, rendered into a bombastic dumbshow by the numbing length
of the electoral season and witlessly semi-articulate coverage by the media,
not to mention the rhetorical overdrive of the candidates and their handlers,
is nonetheless the best and only time a well-behaved citizen has to make
their preferences known. It's all very nice to complain about the "sham
democracy of a so-called two aparty system", but it doesn't do much about
your children's schools, the health coverage you couldn't afford without
assistance, the quality of the last years of your life as a citizen.