Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Open Letter to My Computer, With Certain Comments Directed Toward Floyd Landis

Dear Computer,

I'm not sure you will be able to read this, as you seem to be dead, forcing me to walk to the library this morning and locate some paltry stand-in, some off-key understudy, to fill in.

I don't think I ever typed into you a favorite bit from Full Metal Jacket:

This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. Before God I swear this creed: my rifle and myself are defenders of my country, we are the masters of my enemy, we are the saviors of my life. So be it, until there is no enemy, but peace. Amen.

In order to make myself write, I sometimes thought much the same about you, computer. Together, we were adding to knowledge, defending the republic against ignorance, saving my life by applying it to a small yet useful purpose, a bailiwick.

I've wanted to be a historian since I was around six. This was mostly my father's doing: he hung timelimes on the walls of the kitchen. The Dark Ages started with the TV set and stretched to about where we kept the Legos. From the Legos to the cookbooks was the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment bridged the gap from cookbooks to fireplace. Years later I learned that Jesuits created imaginary buildings with rooms storing bits of information -- this spacial arrangement facillitated memory of thousands of details. When the Jesuits arrived in China, the Chinese were most impressed by their astronomy and their pneumonics.

I don't know if my father knew about the Jesuits, but all my life I've known that the 30 years war was 1618-1648 because of it's relation to the fireplace. My mother taught me argument (see other letter); my father was the details man.

At any rate, the Ph.D was the culmination of all this, and it was predictably Oedipal. If you are going to slay your father, best to have a good computer. I'm sorry I whacked you so hard, and particular sorry about the cat hair. And perhaps it's the, well, the maleness of all that that makes me think of guns and Kubrick movies. Time to switch metaphors.

We live by the stories we tell about ourselves. That's how I read the texts that TenaciousK posted today. It suits me to regard the writing of history as an epic exercise, and me part of it. It's a productive fiction -- my very geekiness takes on a heroic hue, my errors are tragic flaws, my paragraphs catharsis. I'd be better off if I chose a more modest metaphor (looking into a well). Then I wouldn't get motivated by things like the Floyd Landis ride in the Tour de France.

The urge of the historian is to participate in making people immortal, to keep the past close by, to give it life in the present. It's a completely ridiculous job, as silly as comparing a thesis to a bike race. What I do will end up on some busted computer, you or something like you, and a time will come (for the vast majority of the world it's long since here) when nobody cares about nineteenth-century China.

Still, it's fun to occupy the spaces that have been filled with stories, to go to the Forbidden City, the Red Fort, Walt Whitman's house. History is also a way we give poetry to objects (like you). At the end of the day, it makes me happy.

Anyway, as I say goodbye to you, computer, I'd also like to bury this sense of epic, which pumped up my ego but made it so hard for me to write anything. I'd like to stop caring about how long things last, and be content that they are still around, allowing me to measure myself against them, to find a kind of footing, to get oriented against whatever household object and whatever past comes to hand.

Thanks for your help.



cc: Floyd Landis
encl(2): Full Metal Jacket DVD, Collected Poems of Seamus Heaney