Life Without a Laptop
Published on February 4, 2013 by guest author: Dan Schneider

"Because I can!" might be as good an answer I could give to the question "Why write on an iPad?" But my real answer would be because my seven-year-old poured juice on my laptop last weekend and fried the logic board.

I could say that the last few days without a computer have been a blissful return to a simpler life with fewer distractions, but that is not true. I miss it. I miss knowing that I can get back to the work I started a week or three years ago. I miss seeing my kids' faces in the photos fading up on the screen saver. It makes me realize just how much of my life depends on my computer working well.

OK, that's a bit of an overstatement. My life as a stay-at-home dad doesn't depend on the computer all that much per se, but there’s something about not having my computer which makes me feel cut adrift.

Perhaps the predictions of how people will outsource their memories and thought processes to computers and smart phones are really coming true and I am starting to see the symptoms with the removal of my digital memory. I could recreate some of what’s on my computer, but there’s work dating back from college, which, although probably not useful in any real way, I want to keep around. From time to time I find myself going back to it just to see how I wrote a poem or story then or how I thought about the courses I studied.

If all those things were gone it would be that much harder to remember that time in my life, that much more difficult to picture my kids and friends and family as we were years ago. If all this information truly has been "outsourced" to another brain, as it were, have I created more room for other thoughts, or simply carved out a space in my brain that is now blank in the absence of the machine that supplies the mental pictures?

Beyond the existential crisis, the first couple of days for me without my laptop were very grumpy days. I tried not to take it out on my son, who after all, had not meant to zap my computer. I felt responsible too since I had been the one to leave it on the dining room table in the first place. I worried that once I got the laptop fixed I wouldn’t be able to recover my data and years of papers, lesson plans, poems, essays, resumes, music, and various other electronic kitsch would be gone forever as I had not backed up my files.

On the plus side I started to get more things done. I cleaned the entire house the other day and my wife Jenny came home and said it was the first time she'd seen me take it upon myself to do the cleaning without her having to bug me to do it. For the record it wasn't the first time, but she has a point that cleaning is not the first thing I turn to in my day.

The first thing I turn to is usually the New York Times on my laptop. Sometimes it's e-mail, but let's face it, that's mostly Amazon or Groupon trying to give a me a deal on something I didn't know I wanted. Lately I've been looking for a job and trying to do some more non-fiction writing, so not having my computer was a big setback in both of those departments.

The iPad Mini I got for Christmas can search the web, of course, but the small, slow picture of a keyboard limits how much I can realistically get done. I'd like to say I've replaced reading online with more print reading. But sadly, the novel I started a couple weekends ago still sits on my nightstand just a couple chapters in.

Losing things, of course, can make you realize how much you really cared about them, but sometimes getting even a piece of them back can be even more powerful. I hadn't realized how cut off I'd feel from the work of writing until my computer became a large flat brick that blinked for a second, then turned black, even after I’d tried to dry the circuits. But it was my birthday the other day, and Jenny got me a wireless keyboard, so I succumbed to Apple, downloaded the Pages app and began testing it out. It felt like turning on a tap of water after waiting for the pipes to be fixed. My fingers could flick once again over the keys the way they were used to, and I could think again.

Writing on the iPad has its plusses. Since I can only keep one program open at a time, I feel less inclined to distract myself with e-mail, the news, or Twitter. Opening any of these would require me to actually reach for the screen, press the home key, and open a new program, small physical movements that just seem too costly to make for the momentary joy of distracting myself.

But Pages for the iPad is pretty basic as word processors go. And the lack of a mouse means I have to use arrow keys or touch the screen to move my curser around to fix a typo. I find myself reaching to the right every time I want to shift my place in the text. Perhaps this is just the feeling of the minimalist euphoria Steve Jobs promised us when he created the ipad, but I’m not sure yet that I want to ditch the laptop yet.

When I do get the laptop back - sometime next week, the computer repair guy promised - I'm sure I will return to the distractions of multitasking. I will let the housework get itself done, plop the baby on my lap with a toy, the laptop keyboard and screen just out of her arms' reach, and pick up where I left off with poems, notes, my limping twitter feed, resumes and cover letters.

But I'll also get back all those old memories encoded in pixels and character strings circling the hard drive. And I promise I will do the grown-up thing and make a backup the first thing after I get it back. Because whatever it means for the original brain, with the digital brain, you can.

Dan Schneider lives and writes outside of the Rochester, N.Y. area.

Previous Posts By This Author: How I Decided to Stop Worrying and Love the Drive-Through

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