The Death Rattle and Other Things that Scare Us

posted October 15, 2004

Yesterday, in the wee hours of Thursday morning, my hard drive crashed. The Death Rattle had begun Sunday night, when Tom and I came home to a horrific noise that sounded not unlike a supernova in its last millennia, I would imagine. We stared at the screen. It was frozen on an AOL news report on George W. Bush, and the little cursor was spinning around in a misleading rainbow circle, which signifies trouble to Mac OS X users. I restarted the computer and nothing happened except the noise got louder.

“Oh my God,” I said, the way people in the twenty first century do when confronted with this problem. “I haven’t backed up The Big Idea in days! Everything I love is on this computer! My life is on this computer! Everything I’ve ever written! My unpublished writings! All my emails, all your emails to me! The beginnings of our courtship! The iPhotos I’ve been taking of Amelia and Emmett and Reese; the photos of us kissing! The photos of the Adirondacks! My mixes!” I gasped. “My Ultimate Bob Dylan mix! I’ll never be able to recreate it! Not to mention all my own new songs, which I will be able to recreate, but still. What a pain.”

Tom rubbed my shoulders empathetically, and I spent a sleepless night thinking about what a fool I was and how now I’d need to buy a new computer and how it could be worse, and people in hurricanes had lost a lot more–it could have been my Martin guitar!– and people in Iraq had lost even more than the people in hurricanes and I was a rich spoiled brat for even being sad about my lost works of ART!

OF ART! I am an artist and these works are like my children! I will never recover from this loss! Once, I wrote a funny story; I was in tenth grade and it was a spoof on the Odyssey, and my English teacher, Barbara Shapiro read it out loud and said I was a genius. I lost it two months later and forgot everything about it expect one line from a song Odysseus wrote at the end, to the Goddess Athena:

O, great goddess with gray eyes like the owl

Penelope has drenched me, please hand me a towel.

That’s the worst thing I’ve ever lost. It’s twenty-two years, and I’m still not done grieving that loss. How will I recover from the loss of everything on my hard drive? I won’t.

Be quiet! No one cares about your stupid works of art! PEOPLE ARE STARVING ALL OVER THE WORLD! GET A REAL JOB!!!!!

That’s about how it went in my head. Then I got up Monday and turned the computer on and lo! Familiar desktop, familiar everything. The Big Idea restored. All was well. I promptly emailed a copy of it to myself and to Paradise Copies to print out to give to my editor and went on my merry way. Did I back anything up? Why should I? No more death rattle!

Until Thursday morning. Tom shook me awake. “Sweetie, your computer’s making that sound again.”

I stumbled into my office and turned off the computer and slept soundly, knowing that Death Rattle does not mean actual death.

I was wrong. This time when I tried to boot it up, it flashed an icon of an empty folder and a Picasso like face, moronic in its mockery of me, the lazy non-backer-upper who didn’t listen to Patty, Jeff, Sheila, Tom, Katryna, my parents, my high school history teacher and my psychic. I got out my glow in the dark plastic angel and wound it up. Nothing. I took the poor thing to some Mac people in town whom I trust and they kept it all day, performing feats of derring do to no avail.

“It’s kaput,” said Manuel the Mac Guy. “You can send the hard drive to California to this company that might be able to retrieve some of your data, but they’ll charge you $800 whether or not they get anything back for you.”

Fortunately, I had only lost two days of writing: Tuesday and Wednesday. Unfortunately, these were two primo days for The Big Idea: I’d written the scene when Rhodie hits bottom in Alaska after being chased by a red truck a la Deliverance. I’d written the scene where Rita quotes Shakespeare and shakes her head in disapproval over the increasing religiosity of her three children. I’d written the second to last chapter of the novel. And I’d written little tidbits throughout the 427 page ms. that were funny and irretrievable to my memory except that I remember they were funny. I spent yesterday and today mining my memory and rewriting, and I’m sure some of what I recovered the old fashioned way was better and some was worse and mostly it’s all fine, and it’s true, this is much better than someone dying or getting sick or people getting divorced or your child being called names by the other kids in school.

What I really miss are the photos. Also the emails. Also the sense that all is well in the world. My friend Sheila wrote me that this had happened to her and that she was comforted by the thought that losing things helps us to recognize how little we actually need to be okay, and that sometimes those of us who spend our lives in front of the computer might do well to look up every now and then and recognize there is more to the world than what we have created in our own little worlds.

And I HAVE created a world in my computer. I have my comforting, changing screen saver of photos of family, loved ones, scenes from all over the country that make my heart sing and remind me where I’ve been. I listen to a constant stream of music from my iTunes. I keep in touch with friends, colleagues, writing students, my editors and agents, family through email. And even this, this blog, what is this if not an online, virtual way of performing? Even though it’s been suggested that an acoustic guitar might be superior to a computer, I actually maintain that the advent of computers and emails and this virtual community you are a part of –simply because you’re reading this– has increased compassion, awareness and creativity in our world, not decreased it.

One more thing: as I was driving around western MA today, admiring the leaves, feeling the same sadness watching them fall as I feel about my lost darlings on the hard drive, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Good planets are hard to find.” And I got to thinking about environmentalists, and environmentalism. It seems obvious to me that humans can create toxic substances that could literally poison the planet. That is, at least, a possibility. One of the most common (conservative) arguments from those opposed to “the environmentalists” is derision: “You all are a bunch of Chicken Littles, running around saying, ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling.’ You overreact. You are fearful. Calm down.”

These same people tend to be the ones who are into Homeland Security, who think the world will be safer from terrorism if we maintain a position of Red Alert in respect to anyone who might seem like a terrorist, namely (these days) people who look like they might come from the Middle East. And to these people, I say, “You are a bunch of Chicken Littles. You are overreacting. Calm down.”

So most of us have fear, but why is it that we have fear of different things? What makes one kid grow up to fear destruction of the planet at the hands of polluters and another grows up to fear destruction of the planet at the hands of terrorists? Why is it that when Katryna is afraid she procrastinates and wants to curl up and go to sleep, but when I am afraid I want to race around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to do as much as I can to control my situation, throwing money I don’t have at computer technicians and thinking that going out for dinner to a really fancy expensive meal will solve all my problems?

I don’t know. But I do know that I am going to take my digital camera out tomorrow and take pictures of me and Tom and Katryna and Amelia and Dave in the glorious fall foliage before it becomes, as our friend Bill says, “Stick Season.” I am going to make a new Ultimate Bob Dylan mix. I am going to finish a draft of The Big Idea. I am going to back everything up to CDs. And I’m going to try to trust that all these things we lose are replaced in some form or another; that we are meant to grieve our losses-even elections, even baseball games- so we can be compassionate towards others who have lost.

The Comments

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  1. Oh no! Well, I remember a lot of what you wrote on Tuesday, at least what you shared. The part that “stuck” most with me was the part where the mom discovered the son in his room on his knees. Don’t forget about that part! I’m sure, though, that whatever you’ve recovered is equally brilliant.

  2. Losing things (and people) sucks.

    In my imagination, nothing is ever lost in the Mind of God, who comprehends the totality of all time and all space and all that’s ever been and all that ever will be. From this POV, no good thing or person is ever irretrievably lost. They’ve just “gone missing,” from our more time-bound, limited POV.

    But we are less infallible, less all-retaining, and more susceptible to losing things and to losing people than that.

    As I see it, the way past this impasse where God retains everything and we retain nothing is to “cozy up” to God. Maybe we won’t lose it all after all. Hey God — “Be Nice to Me.” 🙂


  3. I’m sorry for your loss.

    Don’t be comparative when thinking about what you lost. Your feelings over it are valid, no matter what else is happening in the world. Don’t feel guilty!

    Given that you’re a creative person, and need to protect your electronic creations from this point forward – perhaps Manuel can suggest backup routines that will be easy to follow? DAT drives on eBay are pretty cheap, too…

    As for computer-created worlds – they’re important. My life changed because a guy on the Words-L mailing list encouraged me to go to some music thing called Falcon Ridge. I’m sure everyone here could tell a similar story.

    Leaves: they’re great this year so far. We’re so lucky here. I drove up to Trader Joe’s the other day and the drive along Amherst Street in Granby was just stunning. It made me glad to be alive.


  4. I know exactly what you mean. Last year I got the scary blaster virus and took my computer to the nice people at school, who turned out not to be so nice because they had to erase every last file to get rid of the virus. I panicked, and almost had a heart attack right before they told me that they could save a few files on a cd at the low cost of 20 bucks. Lucky girl, I know, and yet I still haven’t backed up those files a year later… when will I learn?


  5. Although I’m not a writer, I have written a few things in the past, all stored on my trusty (so far) hard drive. I know how much I’d hate to lose them.

    I highly recommend getting a USB drive to serve as a backup device: you just plug it in, and you can copy files to it like it was a regular hard drive. If, G-d forbid, you experience another crash, you’ll have everything on your USB drive, and you can even plug it into another computer and work on stuff from there. I have one, and it’s one of the best investments I’ve ever made.

    BTW, I have to confess that I’ve always hated the line from “This Town is Wrong” where the narrator sells her computer “for a used acoustic guitar”. For all the reasons you mention, and many more, I think that if one had to choose between a computer and a guitar, the computer wins hands down. So thanks for acknowledging that man (and woman) does not live by guitars alone. 🙂

  6. Dear Nerissa,
    I also like to remedy fear of anything with dinner out at a fancy restaurant. Something about the combined comforts of food and consumerism. Other comforts in times of fear: new socks, underwear, yoga clothes.
    My recent fear of “working too much and not writing or performing enough” brought me so far as to buy a gym membership with a 300 dollar downpayment (a Zen gym with a yoga teacher who wears hoop earings in class)in order to assuage my fear and now instead of writing or performing in my free time, I go to the gym. Yes, fear will make you crave and do strange things.

  7. Nerissa, I lost everything on my Mac last month: My iBook’s display went, the depot replaced my motherboard and–for kicks and giggles, apparently–wiped my hard drive. I lost years of work product, email, personal writing, song lyrics I’ll never remember again–everything.

    I didn’t back up, either. And I know better. I’m the guy who bugs everyone else about backing up.

    It took me a while, but I finally found a philosophical perspective I could live with, similar to Shiela’s.

    So, anyway, I can empathize. Good luck to you!

  8. My friend John sent me this poem by Elizabeth Bishop as a salve for my loss:

    One Art

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    –Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

  9. Oy, my sympathies. I’ve suffered hard drive crashes too (what computer user hasn’t?) and I know what a crushing blow it is.

    I’m going to back up my computer tonight. I haven’t in waaaaay too long.

  10. Manuel the Mac Guy was actually erring on the low end of things. When one of the people I supported had a HD die the price I was quoted was closer to $1200. I suggested she think about it because I didn’t think the HD had suffered that massive of a hardware failure. She wanted to retrieve several years worth of business email so she got approval to do so and… they told her they couldn’t do a thing with the drive.


    Your work on your novel is going to need constant updating. Emailing a copy to yourself is one option, but you’ll need to check on the size of your Inbox to see how many times you can do that before you start running out of space. An external USB or FireWire drive is a VERY good idea — they’re relatively cheap, small (the size of an iPod) and can hold a tremendous amount of data.

    To be on the safe side, you might also want to consider a mini USB “thumb drive”. These things will fit on a keychain and can hold anywhere from 64 MB to 2 GIG, depending on how much you’re willing to spend.

    Sadly, it usually takes a catastrophic HD failure to get most people to start backing up their data ona regular basis. But think about it this way — after a long day’s worth of writing, wouldn’t it be nice to know you’re novel is safely backed up and you won’t ever lose work like that again?


    Separate and final thought: I love reading books of collected letters. There’s something very human, intimate and telling about what people tell friends in letters. Back in the ’80s I used to handwrite letters to my friends on a steady basis — it was good training for doing more “serious” writing, I told myself.

    Now, most “written” communication is typed and all done electronically. As HDs die and formats become incompatable, I fear that historians years from now will not have the same insight into a person’s life because the majority of interpersonal communication will be, in one way or another, lost forever.

    p.s. Care to share the titles in The Ultimate Dylan Mix? 🙂

  11. The evils of computers. It can be a love/hate relationship, can’t it? When I was living in CA, my computer was my haven…I could email friends and family, listen to my music, look at pictures on my fabulous screensaver (isn’t that the greatest feature?!), and feel like I had a world where I belonged and fit. I would have been crushed to lose it all. I have confidence, however, that you will recover, in some way, shape or form, all of your brilliance for The Big Idea!

    As I was listening to various Nields-y wonder on the train from DC to NYC and back this weekend, I heard the amazing 100 Names…and given your reflections on God and spirit last week, the words spoke to me differently. Listening to that song has always made me think of those people who know me best, better than myself in some cases! The people I can call at 4 am, the people I can go to when I’ve screwed up…but this time, it made me think of my understanding of who God is…and it fit perfectly. So, listening to you and Katryna really can be like going to church!

    Good luck with your writing, and back-up, back-up, back-up (this is the pot calling the kettle black here, but maybe it will rub off on me!)

  12. Ah yes the click of death on the zip drive is much the same. The suffering that it can cause is beyond belief.
    In the same way though it can be a clean start and a chance to regain control of the runaway train that is data storage today. Good luck and may you find the information you really need is all in the hard drive between your ears

  13. That rattle’s a scary noise. Shortly after I moved here to New York this summer I had the same experience. (I’d blame the movers but that was me, and it couldn’t be my fault.) Luckily the main things I had on a CD (like a copy of my thesis), but I lost a bunch of digital pictures. It was very sad, but one thing that I liked about the whole thing was that it gave me a fresh clean slate to start over with. It worked well since it coincided with my moving, since I was beginning a new life.

  14. I hate doing second drafts of my writing. The first draft always seems fresher and more creative. (I’m told that Bob Dylan seldom does more than one or two takes in the recording studio.)

    So…the day I lost three chapters of a textbook (because I clicked “save” instead of “save as…”), I was forced to rewrite from scratch. I was angry, frustrated, and in a panic, but you know what? It was better.

    The moral of the story, the moral of this song, is simply that one should always view loss as a great opportunity.

    For what it’s worth

    Jeff from Charlotte

  15. And you’re like a 90s Jesus
    And you revel in your psychosis
    And you sample concepts like heur d’erves
    And you eat their questions for dessert
    Is it just me or is it hot in here?

    And you’re like a 90s Kennedy
    But you’re really a million years old, you can’t fool me
    And they’ll throw opinions like rocks in riots
    And we’ll stumble around like hypocrites
    Is it just me or is it dark in here?

    Oh well you may never be or have a husband
    You may never have or hold a child


    Da dee di di di

    And you’re like a 90s Noah
    And we laughed at you as you packed all of your things
    And we wonder why you’re frustrated
    And we wonder why you’re so angry
    Is it just me or are you fed up?

    God bless you in your travels,
    In your conquests and queries

    I probably shouldn’t admit this, but this song is from Alanis’ Unplugged CD. I can hardly imagine that she herself wrote them as most subtlety is lost on her, but the lyrics are cherishable.

  16. Our Tivo died last evening!! We were all set to sit and vege out and watch the mindless entertainment of Frustrated Housewives and Saturday Night Live and all we received was a light red screen from our beloved tivo. All is lost! The last episode of Sex and the City is now gone! Whaaaaahhhhh! We must purchase a new one soon as our store is on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy this January – Bill & Kevin NYC, watching closely for the next NYC Nields show! 🙂

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