Save, Saving, Saved - By Shane Borrowman

April 06, 2014

Posted By: Shaunescy

In 1994, I was a graduate student at Eastern Washington University, writing my thesis on Norman Maclean. My computer was the first of my adult life—a replacement for my Brother typewriter, which was itself a replacement for my Commodore 64—a Macintosh Quadra 650.

It came with a monitor and printer, cost something like $3500, and had a massive hard drive:  350 megabytes. “You’ll never need more memory than that,” I distinctly remember the skinny, redheaded salesman saying to me. I could hear the stress he put on “never.”

He was wrong about the memory needs I would have, of course, but he got one thing right:

“Make sure you save all the time. It won’t crash a lot, but it will crash.” Nothing was stressed in that pair of sentences, though.

I’m sure I nodded in agreement, and I’m sure all I was really thinking about was getting home and playing Sid Meier’s Pirates. I know I didn’t listen. Not down deep where it would have mattered.

That Mac did crash, only hours after I got it home. I was…predictably enough…sailing my pirate ship across a weakly pixelated Caribbean Sea when it happened. I called the salesman to ask for help, and he told me to push the reset button. The reset button on the front of the machine. The button marked “Reset” in pretty good sized letters. He mentioned that the manual also contained this information, and I ignored the sarcasm.

Months later, the Mac crashed again, and I lost more than some ill-gotten gold. Somehow, I’d managed to write an entire chapter of my thesis—something about Maclean’s ideas on lyric poetry and tragedy in King Lear as they applied to his own famous novella—without ever saving the text. It must have taken me hours to write those twenty pages or so, consulting my notes and my marked up copy of A River Runs through It and Other Stories, typing ideas in busts of key clicks, moving back and forth as the analysis developed. It would have been a long, long project.

Writing like that always was. Half a day, I bet.

And I never pushed the “Save” button once. Not one time.

The Quadra 650 crashed, taking with it a chunk of scholarship I tried to rewrite at one point but abandoned. Memory tells me…twenty years later…that that original writing was awesome.

Maybe. Probably not.

Foolish or tragic, I learned a horribly painful lesson about saving things. When it came time to work on my dissertation, five years later, that lesson metastasized into a full-blown disorder. For months at a time, I was terrified of losing anything, from a full chapter down to a fragment of a sentence.

Saving all writing became a compulsion. I emailed chapters to myself. I saved the entire work (a couple hundred terrible pages) on 3.5” disks—it took two—and bound them together with rubber bands. Then I stowed disks everywhere, in case my computer crashed or was stolen. I put disks in my briefcase. I put them in my desk at work. I put them in a baggie in the freezer (although, in my defense, I was advised to do that by a senior colleague, someone who kept a typed copy of his dissertation in his own freezer fifty years earlier). A few days ago, I found two disks, carefully labeled, in the glove box of our car. Fourteen years after I put them there to keep that written work safe.

I still save everything, and I still suffer the occasional loss. I had to do a factory reset on my laptop last summer and lost all of the records for an internship program I was developing. It happened while I was on vacation, but, thankfully, the total loss of that work didn’t occur to me until I returned home weeks later.

But the compulsion to save everything leads to some odd essay fragments, like this one I found, maybe nine layers deep, in a 1TB drive smaller than a pack of cigarettes (about a million megabytes larger than that sad old Quadra 650):

March 28, 2005

I'm holding my son; he's eight days old, and he just tricked me. He ate 10 CCs, hinted that he might eat more, and then refused. This is, I suspect, a baby's joke.

It frustrates me, worries me, and scares me. These reactions happen all at once rather than sequentially.

I'm frustrated that he won't eat for me when he'll eat for my wife. I'm worried that, if I can't feed him in the NICU, then he'll quickly starve when he comes home.

My fright is related to this last worry. I'm afraid he won't eat for me, afraid he won't eat at all, afraid he won't gain weight, afraid he won't be healthy.

I can't decide who'll come to my house first, given the starving state of my son (as I imagine it): Child Protective Services or the Police Department.

Either way, it’ll make a great prime time news docudrama. Stone Phillips will narrate.

I have the vaguest recollection of this—the anxiety attached to something as simple as feeding my son (and my daughter, since they’re twins, and neither ever really ate any better than the other). But I fed the kids night after night, trying to take on as much of the feeding schedule as I could, since my teaching schedule was a lot more flexible than my wife’s workday.

I put an enormous crib in my home office and fed them every two or three hours, watching movies while flat on my back on the floor. Heat up that many bottles, sometimes tired to the point of incoherence, and Stone-Phillips-based fears went away quickly.

Worrying is still second nature to me—first-nature, maybe—but that particular mix of frustration, worry, and fear is largely foreign, like an emotion that someone else experienced and then told me about. At the same time I found that fragment about feeding anxiety, though, I found this more developed piece, something that had already gone through several drafts (all saved carefully in the same folder):

June 22, 2006

While we’ve waited for the appointment with the specialist, I’ve watched Samantha’s world get smaller. She spent her first Christmas climbing on the presents and pushing the biggest of them around the room. In January she was taking on her first words, starting with a loud shout of “Da-Da.” When her brother began to walk in February, she followed him with her eyes but not her feet. He mastered “Da-Da” and moved on to “Thank you,” “Hi,” and “Touchdown,” while her tiny voice got bigger so she could hear it. John began moving further and further away, even walking from the car to the daycare door on his own each morning, while she stayed at my side, always keeping me in sight if not within touching distance.

The doctor told us that his grandchildren, all five of them, just left after a long summer visit, but I was skeptical. He looked old enough to have five grandkids and had the pleasant smile of a slightly goofy grandfather who sends the kids checks on every birthday and Christmas, but his declaration sounded too much like the kind of thing a car salesman would say to become my friend, all questions and exclamations masquerading as facts: “What? You’re from Montana? I spend every summer fishing in Montana!”

Still, he’s managing to contain Samantha’s fifteen-month-old squirm with his left arm while simultaneously peering into her right ear. He’s not even sitting down. This display of grandparenting skill puts me at ease, a calm he shatters by telling me what I already know.

“If she took a hearing test today,” he says as he returns the light-pen sort of thing to his breast pocket and begins tickling Sam behind the knees, “she’d fail it for sure in the left ear, probably in both.” Still holding her, he begins explaining the situation, pointing to various diagrams on the poster tacked to the inside of his office door.

I nod a lot but can’t listen well. I want to hold my daughter but think it would be rude to take her away from this man she just met and clearly likes. My wife had tubes in her ears as a child, ten times, in fact, so I know most of the details already. Know them as well as I want to. As the doctor talks about fluid buildup and adenoids and clear liquid the color and consistency of honey, I think about Sam, now smiling and grabbing at his shaved, trustable face.

She was going deaf. I knew this before today’s talk of fluids and ruptures and scarring that may not lead to permanent loss.

The doctor and my wife talk about her tubes and advances in the technology of tubes over the last thirty years. He shows us the tubes he’ll install in Sam’s ears, two bits of plastic smaller than salad pasta. Looking at them on his palm, I think that I could swallow them and not even realize it. Thinking this, I swallow reflexively around the dry lump in my throat.

He asks if we have questions, and I don’t. My wife’s in charge of asking the things that must be asked. Instead of questions, I’m haunted by an image of my daughter that I haven’t seen yet, an image of Samantha tiny and unconscious and spread out alone on a white hospital sheet.

I see this almost-image every night, when I check on her and on John just before I go to sleep.

In her crib, though, the sheets are pink, and there are stuffed animals all around. There, twisted like a comma, Samantha’s not alone.

While I’d largely pushed this memory behind the mental curtain, the emotions here, which aren’t talked about directly in any depth at all, happened. And I remember all of it. I can feel the memory in my chest, even, as I type these words and my heartbeat revs up with anxiety over surgery that was successful (both times it had to be done), surgery that addressed the problem and left Sam, now nine years old, with perfect hearing.

I also can’t help but notice that I admit, in writing, that I frequently use nodding as a way to indicate attentive listening while something else entirely is going on. I’ve said so twice, just in this post.

Obsessively saving my Word files—and every digital picture, ripped song, etc.—leaves me with a 1TB hard drive that’s so messily organized it’s hard to believe that the file structure was deliberate. How many folders, I sometimes wonder, can one man possibly name “miscellaneous”?

But those Word documents—badly named and illogically organized—are worth having. I’ve written before in Gum in Your Hair about the value of DVDs and images of the kids…wondering when enough is too much. These drafts and fragments of nonfiction give me something else, something that presents the facts of the experience in those years better than anything else can.

Of course, I only find such material when I’m digging through one “misc” folder after another, trying to find something I may have written a dozen years ago—if memory serves—about Norman Maclean. Or maybe Sid Meier’s Pirates.


With Love, Dad

Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western.  He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films.  He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.

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