the diary thing 
wh - whistleTHE 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 "unavailable".

"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 elections.

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.

"I've been reading the American press for more than half a century. I have never read a story favorable to another society. The Swedes have better education, healthcare, day care assistance for working mothers. But they're all alcoholics and they kill themselves. They're wretched, because they have bad lives, and we have good lives."
- Gore Vidal in Salon

A computer close call, more politics, words, and the kitten -- come on, you all want to know about the kitten, don't you?

I WAS TOLD BY a book-review editor the other day that, while a piece I'd just handed him a week or so previous, while "really well-written", it might have to be changed a bit. Specifically, he had a problem with the word "contumely", inasmuch as neither he nor anyone at the office had heard of it before. I just chuckled, looked down and said, "Okay then, replace it with 'invective'."

The next day, I was reading a history of London I'd just picked up, and found the word sitting, happily signifying much verbal ill will, on a page. I love this word, one of those handful of words that we keep in a velvet-lined vocabulary our whole lives, a word that we pull out and use whenever we need to express something desperately important in explaining our way of dealing with life. 

Contumely, "insulting language or treatment", is a concept that I cherish, having long since given up on the necessity of maintaining an amicable relationship with the culture I inhabit and everyone with which it's shared. The richness of a language that gives contumely, as well as invective, opprobrium, insult, contempt, disdain, scorn, sneers, gibes, ridicule and mocking, is a language that has some hope of expressing some shade of real, honest feeling. 

THE KITTEN IS GROWING at a frightening rate, almost two pounds a month, and it's been a long time since she fit in the palm of my hand. At five months, she's just two pounds shy of Nato's weight at her largest, and something about her less-than-girlish manner and galumphing run leads me to believe she won't be nearly as elegant as her predecessor.

She sleeps on K.'s suitcases, on the top of her wardrobe, looking down on us at night. She plays in the bathtub when I get out of the shower, batting at the trickle of water draining out of the tap and emerging with the fur on her belly and legs matted and wet. The other night, we went to bed and found her sitting with her nose against the screen door leading out to the deck. Reaching for my flashlight, I shined it through the screen and saw, on the other side, looking Tado straight in the eyes, a raccoon. The raccoon hissed and drew back into the darkness, but the kitten just looked back over her shoulder with a puzzled look. The silly little thing isn't afraid of anything.

I imagine she goes about her day, running and leaping around the apartment, re-exploring corners of the place she'd crawled into the day before, squeezing her way between books and pots and glasses on shelves in an attempt to map every route through the place. When it seems like every amusement's been exhausted, she leaps on Keebler, trying to straddle him for a ride across the apartment, or just biting his ass to get him to box her around. 

I've come to imagine that a song runs continuously through her little head, an inanely happy song with an irresistably upbeat rhythm. Something like Lesley Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows":

   "My life is sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows
   That's how this refrain goes
   So come on and join in, everybody"

Now, get on all fours and start making your way around your home, at top speed, with this song playing at full volume on the stereo. Run across the carpet, then stop and lick your hind leg. Jump up again and leap onto the couch, then onto the bookshelf. Try not to knock off the vase -- oops! -- and jump down again. Make for the kitchen and onto the kitchen chair, then the table, then a leap across onto the counter and into the sink. Back onto the counter -- don't forget to clean yourself, the belly this time, then the tail -- and back onto the floor. Run for the bedroom and come to a full stop by throwing yourself agains the screen door. 

Climb up the screen and hang on with your claws, then remember that there was a bag of garbage back in the kitchen that looked promising. Jump down from the screen door and run back to the kitchen, bracing against the garbage bag which -- oops -- spills over onto the floor. What's that? Oh, that looks promising, so you drag the wadded piece of paper towel out of the mess of onion peelings, mushy fruit and papery garlic skins onto the carpet. Uh-oh, here comes the big hairy cat, the one with the constantly changing coat. He's upset with me again, and down comes the big pink paw to scoop me up and toss me onto the couch. The couch! that reminds me, I left a toy underneath this thing yesterday...

The big cat looks pissed off. I can't let that happen. I'll just jump onto the rocking chair near his desk and stretch out. Let's see, now I'll put my head and my front paws through the spokes of the chair, and look at him, my eyes wide, my head splayed sideways with my little paws underneath my chin. There we go, he's smiling and making that "awww" sound. Everything is okay again. Oh, there's the phone cord, I forgot what happens when I pull on this...

writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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