When Disaster Strikes; What happens when your digital world collapses? A survivor's tale of anguish and triumph; Oh no!

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Some people have children. Some people have a computer and children. I just have a computer, but it might as well be my child.

I worry about it constantly. My hopes and dreams are locked inside it. And it's expensive.

My baby doesn't have a crib. Until a few weeks ago, it sat on a cheap, collapsible particle-board desk. I bought the desk four years ago from the girl who lived in my apartment before me, who probably bought it from the girl before her, who probably bought it at a thrift store in Guam.

I never should have put my baby in such peril. I was an unfit parent. And that, I suppose, is why I was sentenced to cyber-limbo for two dreadful weeks.

It began late one night when the desk cracked in two. I should have seen it coming -- a fault line had been eating through the wood chips and Elmer's glue for a year. But I was in denial (more guilt).

As I pushed the power button that evening, the tectonic plates shifted for the last time -- The Big One. I snatched the system box microseconds before the final split sent the monitor sliding down the sloping remnants of the desktop. With another lunge, I grabbed the screen -- and believed I'd saved it, too, from certain death.

I was wrong. When I'd collected myself and all the pieces, I tested the system. No little green light.

My baby! My novel! My career!

Without my Gateway -- or a decent desk to put it on -- my future looked as fractured as the dismal pile of particle board at my feet.

I will die poor, fat and alone without writing even one low-rated sitcom about alien twentysomethings living and loving in New York.

This, of course, is what goes through your mind when you don't know how to fix a computer. Or have the slightest clue about what makes it tick. I'm not a tech grrl. I turn it on, it works. This, however, bytes.

I needed a plan of action, and this was it: collapse on the couch (which is also falling apart), smoke 12 cigarettes and wallow in self-loathing for an hour. Then defy all things Friedan and Faludi and call a man.

What men do I know? Which of this gang of liars, drunks, losers and dashers of dreams might actually perform some useful function?

I called Art Rat, a shallow, social-climbing, amoral ex-boyfriend with a toolbox. I got his answering machine.

Degrading Message No. 1: Hi. I'm going crazy. It's Tamara. I know we haven't talked in awhile. But my desk ... it broke. And my computer ... it's on the ground, and I can't turn it on, and I'm freaking out, and you have tools ... (click).

Degrading Message No. 2: Your answering machine cut me off. How symbolic. Well, call me when you get home. I need help. Sorry for being psychotic, but I ... (click).

Degrading Message No. 3: Your answering machine is as attentive as you are, you jerk. Anyway, my God, I'm hyperventilating. My life is OVER ... (click).

The pretentious maggot never called back.

Now what?

I gagged at the prospect of calling Gateway's tech support, where I knew I'd wind up with an automated zombie who would lead me through 37 pointless menu options and then tell me to consult Gateway's Web site, which of course, I can't access or I wouldn't be calling in the first place.

But I called anyway -- and found myself in a parallel universe.

After two minutes, I was connected with a real human. A real, nice nonzombie human. A human who would send a new monitor right away.

I was in shock. Since when was tech support actually supportive? When was the last time I'd solved a problem so painlessly? Who was this mystery man, who in a matter of minutes, as opposed to the two hours and four whiskeys that Art Rat usually required, made me feel like a natural woman?

I said something I thought I'd never say to an anonymous tech-support operator.

"I love you."

So much for the monitor -- I still needed something to put it on. Subconsciously, I must have felt that I hadn't been punished enough, so I trekked to Ikea, the Scandinavian warehouse that serves up migraines along with its stylish sofas and bookcases.

Ikea is not a store -- it's a country, with its own language and customs. The natives, or Ikeans, reluctantly sell furniture to the tourists. Often found cowering behind Kvadrat kitchen cabinets, they're identifiable by the Ikea logo on their shirts and fondness for two phrases -- "Would you like a catalog?" and "Vinninga bjorkholmen(UMLAUT OVER FIRST O) lagerblad?" (which roughly translates to "Would you like a catalog?")

Unable to find a tour guide, I began exploring on my own. I found sassy oblong steel desks on wheels. Saucy crescent-shaped desks with shelves. Spicy aerodynamic desks with companion chairs. All with names like Kaffatorp, Bjornbo(UMLAUT OVER FIRST O) and Grimsbygd.

Like Scandinavian pop singers, they looked good, but there wasn't much there. I envisioned my child crashing through every one of them.

Finally, I spotted a native hiding under a Kvie rug.

"Bjorkvalla(UMLAUT OVER FIRST O) kusk?" she asked.

"English, please," I responded.

The language barrier resolved, she said there was only one desk I could trust. His name was Anton. Unlike his companions, he looked more like a desk than an alien spacecraft, and his name didn't have an umlaut. In short, Anton wasn't sexy. But he was reliable -- and they could deliver him the next day.

"What time will he arrive?"

"We can't give you a time."

"What if I'm at work, where I tend to go during the day?"

"We can't give you a time."

"Can you give me an estimate?"

"Between 9 and 5."

"What if I'm not home?"

"We can't give you a time."

So they delivered him on Saturday. At 9 a.m. I was soooo not ready for guests.

Anton looked nothing like he did at Ikea. In the store, he was a proud, erect monument to Nordic ingenuity. In my apartment, he was a flat cardboard box that weighed more than I do. And that's heavy.

Someday I will be rich enough not to have to assemble my own furniture. But on this day, I figured I had a 30-minute job on my hands, 45 minutes max.

Five hours later, Anton was still in pieces, and I was ready for a bowl of Valium.

Did you know Ikea's directions are written in Scandinavian hieroglyphics? Perhaps I could decipher them with a little more time, concentration and a few calls to the University of Stockholm's archaeology department. But in the meantime, Anton's parts covered the entire living room floor. Make that the living room, dining room and bedroom floor. In a one-room apartment, it's all the same floor. I couldn't even walk to the bathroom.

So I called a man. A man I hadn't seen naked -- a man paid to assemble furniture.

Yes, he could send someone out Thursday. No, he couldn't tell me what time.

Not acceptable -- I'd have to go to the bathroom before Thursday. So I chewed him out, hung up and pressed on.

Another three hours and I had Anton's frame assembled. But his drawers had me stumped. Nothing in that pamphlet of prehistoric ABBA lyrics that passed for an instruction manual remotely resembled the primordial ooze of screws, nails and tools I had before me.

Did I have the wrong directions? Did I need glasses? Was I, as many others had long suspected, the most incompetent person on earth?

Forget the drawers. Anton's fallen predecessor didn't have any, either. I stuck them under the desk. They made a nice footrest.

Done. I had asserted my independence. Proved my mettle as a parent. Made faculty at the University of Stockholm.

I lovingly set my computer, which I at that moment christened Nasbjorn, on Anton's sturdy back.

We might as well be a family.

When I pushed the power switch, the baby came back to life with a comforting, crackling hiss.

To celebrate, I redecorated the PC with new Pikachu Windows wallpaper.

I know what the kids like.

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