In Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the captain of a ship is punished for killing an albatross by having to wear the rotting corpse of the sea bird around his neck.
The modern equivalent is sitting in my closet. I call it the Lemonade Laptop. And I can't figure out how to get rid of it.
Five years ago, I inherited an almost brand new laptop from my friend. I used it as my main computer, merrily typing on it from my home office until one day I spilled lemonade all over it. The lemonade and all its sticky sugar disabled the keyboard and made the entire machine quite unhappy. It emitted loud, angry beeps every time I tried to boot it up. However, I held onto it, not quite willing to give up on all of my files. After some time, I discovered that the sugar must have dried and knocked loose. After six months, it would work, sporadically, on the odd blue moon Tuesday, as long as I plugged in an external keyboard. I recovered my files and stored them on my new computer. Now, years later, it works without incident every time I turn it on, although the processor speed is slow as molasses. (Perhaps I should rename it the Lazarus Laptop.)
Lo these many years later, I can't quite bear to part with the old laptop. Because of my errant lemonade ways, I am doomed to carry it from apartment to apartment as I travel through life.
I come from perhaps that last generation of people who view electronics as somewhat mystical, definitely expensive, and never trash. All those circuits and wires and drives must be fixable, for those who know how or can afford the service. Electronics are important. Papers, old clothes -- these can be discarded. But never anything that ever cost more than $1,000. From my generation, that's comparable to throwing out a car, after all, my first car cost considerably less than that. I didn't grow up with a computer in every room.
Because the Lemonade Laptop works, I can't, because of some moral imperative, throw it away. But because it only works with an external keyboard, I can't even give it away to a friend, much less try to trade it in to a secondhand computer shop.
And just forget about donations. In 1995, the Salvation Army near my house had a computer section. Old junkers with 5 ¼ drives were mixed in with the occasional just-obsoleted computer. But by 1999, the computer section was gone. The Salvation Army wants your TV, but not your almost-functional computer, probably because of people like me, who donated quirky machines that only work if under certain circumstances. My father tried in vain to unload the 486 that now lives with the dust bunnies under his bed. My friend Holly uses her circa 1987 Macintosh as a doorstop, although we've turned up articles on how to turn it into a fishtank. None of us can quite stand the idea of the landfill for the formerly precious and pricey items.
Once every year or so, I take the Lemonade Laptop out of the closet, fire it up, and think this time I'll go ahead and throw it out. My mistake is that I turn it on. After a few moments of sorting through e-mails from friends years ago, nostalgic smiles of days past but not obsolete, I end up powering it down. I replace it in its case and put it back into the closet, next to the boxes of old mail, highschool yearbooks and a childhood stuffed animal.
Unlike the captain's albatross, the electronic husk of my laptop will last indefinitely, neither decaying or disappearing, a marker to the passage of time and future editions of operating systems and software. Perhaps the Lemonade Laptop is not so much an albatross so much as a time capsule, capturing a year of my life and a slice of society. In any case, it's safe in my closet again. Anyone need a computer?