And Now, For Something Completely Different

(Patrick here. Going to take a little bit of a tangent today–bear with me. I meant to sit down with don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, but real life and a neat idea got in the way. Isn’t that always the way of things? Anyway, to the rest of Palette Swaps: If you write about this game before I do, I will cut you.)

As a writer, and as a human being, the best computer I have ever owned was my 12″ PowerBook G4.

I had owned many Macs before then, and would own a few after, before switching to the Windows world upon finding work at a certain PC magazine. (Not PC Magazine. I get that a lot.) My love for my PBG4 wasn’t about trumpeting the virtues of Mac OS X, which was just beginning to make a splash, and it certainly wasn’t about looking cool at Starbucks while trying to write a screenplay, because I didn’t drink coffee when I bought it, which was in the beginning of the Spring semester of my freshman year in college. And it wasn’t really even about whatever it was supposed to be good at (or good enough to merit paying $1400, which was blood money for a starving student).

The backstory: I used to be a die-hard Mac user. Dad bought a Mac Plus when I was a few years old, we moved up into a colorful Performa 475 around third grade, a Power Computing PowerBase 180 clone in sixth grade, and the first Power Mac G4 in the beginning of high school. Somewhere along the way, it had become an integral part of my identity, until high school, where I discovered girls didn’t care and I’d rather play video games, and stuck to the Mac thing because I had begun to carve a niche out for myself as a Mac games writer, which is indirectly what brings me here.

I remember bringing the box into my dorm room, opening it and unwrapping it and throwing the packaging and manuals and backup CDs aside, pulling it out of the box, and running around the dorm just kind of showing it off. Got a few obligatory “that’s cool, dude” head nods, then set it down on my desk.

On top of a sheet of 8.5″ x 11″ notebook paper.

It covered it perfectly. In retrospect, that’s kind of appropriate for a writer.

The Laptop became my constant companion. I brought it almost everywhere from then on in a beat-up black Jansport backpack with a zipper that barely worked and a broken strap that was duct-taped back together. All I had to do was open it up and it would be immediately ready to record my innermost thoughts, which were mostly about how awesome Samurai Champloo was, how shitty the games I was reviewing were (despite the fact that The Laptop was a shitty gaming machine, and no, not just because it was a Mac, har har), how I wished I was better at Street Fighter, how I wanted girls to like me. When I met a girl that liked me at a party and she took me home and we dated for the following three years, she told me that she noticed me in class because she liked my laptop. (The Laptop was there when she told me that, playing Norah Jones in iTunes.) In worse moods, she’d say that she knew getting into this whole relationship that The Laptop and I were a package deal.

Freshman year ended, and I returned with The Laptop to the SF Bay Area, working part-time under the table at the UC Berkeley Bearcade (RIP and god bless) for $10/hour, often double-dipping by reviewing games on The Laptop while I was manning the cash register. (The cash register at the Bearcade existed only so I could make change for people who didn’t have the old $5 bills for the token machine, since it didn’t recognize the big-face $5 bills, and so I could monitor people who were playing pool. No one ever played pool while I was on shift that summer.) The Laptop was so cool that Bihn, the Bearcade manager (and my good friend) bought his own The Laptop, in its own (black corduroy) Jansport backpack, and we dared not exist in the same space for too long for fear that we’d look Too Cool together.

I remember that summer mostly for being (voluntarily) broke and hungry. Home was my mailing address for the $25/review paychecks I was receiving, but my heart was on my friend Allen’s dirty carpet floor he shared with five other UCB students; his roommate never noticed whether I was there or not because he was too busy working a side job writing Windows drivers for stuff, his other housemates were busy with school, the chick in the front of the house had agreed to sublet half her room to someone on Craigslist who turned out to be a guy that had her screaming ohgodohgodohgod — pause — YOU BAD BOY! within about 24 hours of moving in. So I bounced around there, living off of peanut butter sandwiches and whey protein and black beans and leftover Steve’s Korean BBQ, writing and playing games and writing and going to a hole-in-the-wall family-friendly MMA gym.

At the time, I didn’t know that this was the liberated life of the freelancer: I had The Laptop, and that was all I needed. All I knew was that my fingers glided across the keys and the words came out. And if I woke up in the morning and I didn’t want to write, all I had to do was open The Laptop up and click the big friendly TextEdit icon and before I knew it the flight to Washington DC to visit the girl who liked me enough to call me her boyfriend was over, and I was there, and I didn’t really know what I was doing there, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t write about it while I was there. (I think I called it a review of 007: Nightfire, though I’m sure a lot of it was edited.)

A few years later, I was leaving the room that belonged to the girl who liked me (the same girl) and my Jansport backpack zipper popped and The Laptop plunged corner-first into the concrete, leaving a swollen bulge and a few lines on the display from what must have been an internal shakeup with the GPU. Death. The Laptop and I tried to make it work afterwards, but the green lines that plunged down the left-hand side reminded me that it was my fault. I was negligent, after all–no proper laptop bag. Not even a protective sleeve or envelope. So I tried to buy a replacement Laptop.

This was not easy. The Laptop had gotten me halfway through junior year of college, and once finals were over I managed to make it home and sell The Laptop for parts. Since I was going abroad the next semester, I had a four-month-long Winter Break. I spent most of it bored on eBay, toting a USB flash drive with a few SNES ROMs and my writing works-in-progress around while I tried to find an adequate replacement for The Laptop. One day, I found one selling for an unusually low price. Allen made me pull the trigger, and I got a new Laptop in the mail, only to discover that it had been Someone Else’s Laptop, until he got up to go to the bathroom at a Starbucks somewhere in middle America while working on either one of his loosely-fantasy-Japaneseish-bad-art or his rocket engineering program and some dick grabbed it and sold it, listing the wrong specs and failing to mention that the previous owner’s data was still on there. One of the edges was oddly serrated, as if someone had dragged just that edge along concrete while tied to the back of a truck for a mile or two. Not a good look. (I emailed the original owner anonymously, gave the eBay guy’s mailing address and name, wished him well, and formatted his hard drive. He had already replaced it by the time I bought it.)

I didn’t want his laptop, I wanted my Laptop, but I didn’t have a choice. So I kept it until it fell apart and Bihn used it as a source of replacement parts for his PBG4 and I ordered a 13″ MacBook. Which arrived, and I opened it, and felt…nothing, except the mild satisfaction at owning a new computer that actually worked. It didn’t feel right. The keys were different, it was too big, too plastic, too fast, too cool, too let’s get some shit done motherfucker. And I found myself at a cafe in LA’s Silver Lake trying to write a screenplay or an essay or a blog or a review or a set of stupid fucking gaming trivia questions, and the magic wasn’t there. Oh, it happened, eventually. I wrote all kinds of words on that MacBook. Words that got me money and friends and even a job or three. I wrote a love letter to the girl I liked (no longer the same girl) every day for half a year on that MacBook. It was not The Laptop.

(And here concludes the Palette Swaps Netbook Buying Guide.)

-pm

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