Josna Rege

383. It’s a Process

In Media, reflections, Stories on June 11, 2016 at 2:39 pm


I’ve always prided myself on being an eminently sane person, but there are two things guaranteed to unhinge me: bureaucratic paperwork and problems with technology, especially anything to do with computers. There’s a snapshot in my mind of me, three months after Nikhil’s birth, tearing my hair out as I filled out nightmarish, too-numerous-to-count forms in order to get reimbursement for all the hospital bills of the past year. Or melting down on April the 15th every year, as I scramble to complete, photocopy, and mail the tax return–or in some cases the deferral form–in time, sometimes having to drive to the closest district post office that stays open extra-late on Tax Day.

Because I find it so hard to undertake such tasks, my mind will come up with any number of devious ways to avoid tackling them. Of course, the longer the delay and the larger the backlog the more daunting it all becomes, until I wonder why the pressures of modern life don’t drive more people over the edge. But somehow, something a friend said to me yesterday, something I’ve heard said many times in the past, clicked in a way it never had before.

This past month I’ve been dealing rather badly with another challenge: the probably-unrecoverable loss of my computer’s hard drive. It happened in the penultimate week of the semester, with deadlines of all kind looming, and as I heard the news I had to struggle to hold back tears. “My whole life is on that computer,” I told the officious young  Apple store operative. “No, Ma’am, your data is on it, not your life,” he replied, in infuriatingly patronizing tones. I pasted a grim smile on my face and told him that I stood corrected, thank you, but mentally gave him one tight slap. For me, there was very little difference between my data and my life, since that hard drive contained all my documents and photos dating back to graduate school.

300px-MacIntosh_Plus_img_1317The saga of the corrupted hard drive had dragged on for more than a month, and my friend Peter had kindly agreed to help me get my laptop up and running again. Peter is, among many other things, a computer wiz who attends the monthly  MIT Swapfest, a flea market where techie-types exchange electronic parts and equipment, and regularly returns with mind-blowing bargains, such as laptops for $50, iPads for $10, and for $5, boxes full of assorted cables. Of course, he knows what those cables are and what to do with them, and has exactly what the languishing laptops need to restore them to working condition; for many people, me in particular, they would just add to my legion of obsolete electronics, dating all the way back to the 30 year-old Mac Plus from grad-school days (that my brother-in-law Dan, also a computer wiz, taught me how to use in the midst of a raucous Hallowe’en party‑a testament to Apple’s intuitive design).

Peter’s prime directive is to save money making his old computers new again and, while he’s at it, having a grand old time. Bargain-hunting at the MIT flea market is his equivalent of my thrift-store shopping, something to look forward to and delight in. For me, however, the quest to recover my files and get my laptop up and running again is excruciating every step of the way; I just want my computer back–yesterday; but unfortunately, it was not meant to be. You’d think that ordering a new battery and hard drive would be a relatively simple process, involving just a couple of clicks. But first I had to choose among a host of possible hard drives online; hard-disk or solid-state, 250 or 500 Gigabytes, new or reconditioned. Some had to be picked up in person at the nearest store, others would be shipped to me—if they were currently in stock, that is. They also had to be compatible with the particular model of my laptop, down to the month of manufacture. And even after these decisions, there was a staggering array of brands to be researched and selected from, each with different warranty periods and customer reviews.


Finally I decided on one particular hard drive, waited the requisite few days for it, and carried it over to Peter, who had my poor laptop prepped for open-heart surgery on Anna’s kitchen table, looking terribly vulnerable with its cover off and a row of tiny screwdrivers arranged neatly beside it. But a few hours later I received a call from the surgeon; hurrying back, I found that he had unpacked the hard drive only to find that it was dented, its label was cracked and perforated, and altogether,  it was clearly not new. Back in the box it had to go, return paperwork had to be filed online, return labels printed, and the package dropped off at a UPS pick-up site. Peter decided it would be best to order a hard drive that could be picked up and inspected in person, but the size we needed was not in stock, and the only one available was twice the capacity and twice the price. Nevertheless, he drove to the store, paid the price, and we were back in business; or would be, once the battery arrived.

new-macbook-pro-15-4inch-i7-4gb-500gb-2-4ghz-2011-for-sale-4fe17a0018bb2b83cbf4Meanwhile, my girlfriend Sartaz was urging me to have done with it and just purchase  a new computer, which would come with a three-year repair-and-replacement  plan, an already-installed operating system, and numerous other perks and applications. Why limp along for weeks with all these hassles and more bound to follow, when I could be back in business in an hour (not counting, of course,  the recovery of the data on my damaged hard drive)? I flip-flopped between the two options. On the one hand, I believed in repairing things rather than continually buying new ones. On the other hand, I needed to get back to work, and did not have the skills, the temperament, or the time to keep reordering, returning, and replacing parts.

Over the past couple of weeks, ever since I asked him to help me and he had graciously agreed, Peter and I‑-both quick-tempered, both opinionated‑-have had several heated exchanges. The root of the conflict has always been that I am impatient to get my computer working again, and just wanted him to tell me what to order, install it, and be done with it; while Peter wants to be sure that I have reviewed the pros and cons of all the possible ways forward, understood the difference between them, and made a fully informed choice. Although we have both been trying hard to see and respect each other’s point of view, we have clashed nonetheless. But yesterday, something shifted.



While preparing to install the newly purchased hard drive, Peter discovered yet another problem with my battle-scarred old laptop: its built-in CD drive was malfunctioning. It was at this point that he softened his hard-line stance against buying a new one and began to look up the costs of replacement rather than repair (which, of course, involved still more choices). And yet, ironically, it was also at this point that I let go of my exasperation and finally began to see the task from Peter’s point of view. I realized that for him, the whole thing was enjoyable, every step of the way. It was a quest in the old sense of the word, a journey whose end was not so important in itself, but valuable by virtue of what one could learn along the way. It was, in short, a process.

At various points over the past few months when I was at my most frustrated, on the verge of giving way to despair and raging against the world and any hapless person who happened to be trying to help me out, Peter said soothingly, “this is a process,” but I dismissed his words before they even registered. Process meant nothing to me; I wanted the product: a working computer, and I wanted it now. I had no patience for Peter’s tedious explanations of the inner workings of the components of all the different models, neither did I have any desire to be dragged through the decision-making process. That was what he was supposed to be doing for me, wasn’t it? But yesterday, when he said “this is a process” for the umpteenth time, the effect was not irritation, but sudden, clarifying insight. Living is a process, and every decision we make takes us on a path, which itself will present us with a series of choices. Walking the path joyfully, engaging fully with all the choices encountered along the way, is not just “a learning experience,” it is life itself. I can look upon each encounter as an obstacle, something that delays my arrival at the destination, or I can see it as an opportunity to learn something valuable. These infuriating road-blocks could be Kafkaesque ordeals designed to drive me insane, or they could be the gifts given to the questing hero by strangers along the way, gifts that turn out to be crucially important in enabling him or her to succeed.

passportNow, I wouldn’t want to overstate my little epiphany. I still want my computer, and still want it now. But later the same day, I used the insight to take the first steps in another journey I had been putting off for two years: the bureaucratic nightmare of renewing my British passport. With the U.K. about to vote on whether or not to leave the European Union, I hoped that submitting my application before June 23rd might secure me an EU passport for another 10 years. It involved registering and filling out a form online, making and mailing a complete color copy of my U.S. passport and passport photos tailored to insanely precise British specifications, and calling the passport office in the U.K. with questions not answered in any of the online FAQs.

Armed with my new mantra, I began; and, true to the formula of all heroic quests, the road did not run smooth. I had to save the online form half-done, because I needed  questions answered, and that couldn’t be done until Monday morning. At the copy shop, the color copier malfunctioned and, after nearly a hour’s wait, they returned the job unfinished, suggesting that I go elsewhere for the remaining pages. But miraculously, I did not blow up or melt down. I simply told myself that it was a process and that I had begun it. I will complete it on Monday, inshallah, and then another long-dreaded, long-delayed, job will be done. Or not; it’s a process.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Oh- I feel your pain. I really do. And- am heartened by the epiphany moment. Yes- that is the thing to do. Rise above it. Learn from it!
    Sadly, when faced with my own Kafka-esque nightmares, I rarely feel able to do this!

  2. Thank you! I don’t think I’ve really managed to rise above it, either, or I wouldn’t have rehearsed the whole sad story all in such tedious detail. But yes, thanks to Peter, I think I have learned something this time. That’s not to say, though, that I won’t forget it next time round and get into a tizzy all over again!

  3. Marvelous story!!

  4. Painstakingly well written Josna. You have applied the same exactness to your writing as Peter has to installing a known-about hard drive. I also very much liked the reference to ‘one tight slap.’ Who has never wanted to administer one of these! And, yes, life is an ongoing ‘process’ of enacting decisions over hours, weeks, months – years – amid the minutiae of setbacks which accompany these.

    • Yes (to the desire to deliver one tight slap)! Thankfully, giving voice to the desire usually defuses it. And yes to what you say about life, except that through art–and reflection–we take something that would be super-dreary, a mere test of endurance, if looked on in that way, and instead make it an adventure. Rather like Undercover Mole! x J

  5. Your post began like those chants repeated at demos: “What do we want? Functioning laptop! When do we want it? Now!” Resolution of the frustration was a consolation devoutly to be wished. But the gradual acceptance of the mantra “it’ll happen when it happens” was also a very familiar stage in that process you so engagingly describe, despite the undoubted pain you must have felt.

    Now I must dig out that memory stick to back up all those photos I’ve saved over the past four or five years before the inevitable happens to me too!

    • Please do make that back-up! My old back/up drive got too full and I hadn’t yet set up the new one. I still haven’t got my laptop functioning again, but the battery has now arrived and I hope it’ll just be a matter of days. Thank you for empathising!

  6. Jo
    As always a pleasure to read your writings even though it involves such real pain.Yes if we could all learn the lesson of the ‘process’ our journeys would less frustrating. A good thing to remember.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Michael. It’s a lesson I seem to have to learn again and again, every time! x J

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