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Laptop Valentine

Sometimes I think my laptop computer is my true home. Whole worlds are compressed into its flat little motherboard. It is my reference library and my research library. It's a typewriter, a file cabinet, a personal assistant, a bookkeeper and an accountant. It's the center of many friendships; it agreeably plays Bach when I'm writing e-mails to students and the Beatles when I'm instant-messaging my son in the next room. It's a movie theater and a whole mall of stores; I have bought books, clothes and appliances, pillows and shoes from the pictures on its small, smeared monitor. I get the news by clicking onto newspapers or magazines, and scrolling through publications for the articles that interest me. It's my traveling companion that always knows where the best restaurants are and tells the best jokes. No wonder that when a computer crashes, it feels like the death of an intimate friend.

This funneling of many parts of life into a machine the size of a magazine has taken place with what seems like lightning speed. Only yesterday, it seems, I typed on a typewriter, did research at the library, shopped in stores and called my friends on the telephone. I looked up information in the encyclopedia and words in the dictionary, and I never knew what had happened in the world until the newspaper arrived. If I was curious about someone, instead of Googling them, I spent hours poring over dictionaries of biography and Who's Who, often with no results. If I wanted to make a change in a manuscript, I retyped the whole page.

Remember the years when people argued for and against computers? I didn't want one. I was fond of saying that I had spent decades cultivating the connection between my brain, my fingers, the typewriter keys and the page. It was like playing the piano, I said. Working on the computer would be like learning to play the violin.

My first computer was a disaster. A Mac 512K the size of a sports car, it came with its own table and a manual almost as thick as the keyboard. Both my beloved brothers had the same machine, and they convinced me it was time for the three of us to step into the modern world.

No way. For weeks I tried to perform the simplest word-processing tasks, printing on the unwieldy rolls of tractor paper with tiny holes on each side that got stuck at the edges of the printer. The unhappy Mac face -- an idiotic frown -- kept popping up on my screen. I yelled at it. I couldn't capitalize or paginate. The page kept being erased. When I called my brother Ben, he said he'd had the same problem and solved it, but he couldn't remember how he'd solved it.

Learning how to work a computer, trying and failing, searching and searching for solutions, becoming acquainted with a machine, is unlike learning other things. I didn't know that. I became convinced that the Mac 512K was a succubus, draining my creative energy into its mysterious flashing screen. I pushed it over into a corner and covered it with a sheet. With ecstatic relief, I went back to my electric typewriter. But I could still feel the computer's malevolent presence radiating from the other side of the room. Finally, I gave it away. Computers were not for me.

A year later, I tried again, this time with a Toshiba laptop that weighed close to 20 pounds and had a screen as big as a dollar bill. I took lessons. I hired a tutor. I spent hours on the telephone with technical support and knocked on the door of a helpful neighbor at least once a day. I began to learn a different way of learning. It got to be fun. I switched to a Hewlett Packard desktop and then to the IBM Thinkpads I have had for the past six years. I discovered the Internet in the days when almost anyone -- including Bill Gates -- answered their e-mails promptly. Slowly I learned, although I will never have the computer facility that both my children seem to have been born with.

When I was a child, I used to have an imaginary friend named Lion. This friend was always there for me, always willing to listen and rarely preoccupied with needs of his own. Lion was on my side. He never said mean things about me behind my back, and he was always ready to come with me wherever I wanted to go. I grew away from Lion when real friends blessedly crowded my life, but sometimes staring into the deep blue of my computer monitor, I think I see his friendly, obliging smile.

-- Susan Cheever is a columnist at Newsday.

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