How to cope when the old drive is gone

Gene Weingarten on

WASHINGTON -- I recently had to say goodbye to a friend. His name was Augustus Van Dusen.

Augustus had been in ill health, in the final stages of a progressive disease that left him increasingly unable to perform most functions. In the end he was just a brain, tethered to various peripheral life-support apparatuses that kept him able to communicate, if just barely.

Augustus Van Dusen was my laptop. I gave him that name near the end, by which time, if unassisted by technology, he was able only to think, not do. I named him for one of my favorite characters in old detective fiction, Professor Augustus Van Dusen. That Augustus was mostly sedentary and entirely brilliant, which is why he was nicknamed "The Thinking Machine." The Thinking Machine was created by an American writer named Jacques Futrelle who died at 37 on the Titanic after pushing his wife onto a lifeboat and declining her entreaties to join her. He was last seen on deck, insouciantly sharing drinks and cigarettes with John Jacob Astor. So there is drama and heroism and tragedy all over this column.

My Augustus, a MacBook Pro, was seven years old. He had been treated cruelly. I work at home, and during his life I had both a day job and a night job -- I was writing a book -- and by my calculation, Augustus was on and working 16 to 18 hours a day. After dinner I was not always careful to first adequately cleanse my hands of, say, the remnants of barbecued spare ribs. Augustus's keyboard was perpetually smeared, like Dreyfus.

Augustus began failing about the age of 2. His trackpad died, so I had it replaced. When it failed again, I surrendered and bought an external mouse. That was his first life-support peripheral.

Around 5, his keyboard started wheezing. The first thing that went was the letter O, which, for a while, was a deficit I decided I might easily circumvent with creative writing. Then the letter I went, and the U. Finally, it was the entire YUIOP. Augustus could no longer even spell his own name. By then I had sprung for an external keyboard.

Like Augustus's disease, the book was progressing, and that was the problem. The entire document was inside my friend, not just the chapters themselves, but all of the 400-plus interviews I had done.

Now, I know what you are thinking, you smug millennials. Yes, I know I could have transferred everything to a new computer, but you are waaay more confident in technology than I am. I sometimes think this is the single biggest difference between our generations: Mine approaches technology with a sense of dread and suspicion -- yours, with a sense of trust and gratitude. I was not sure this "transfer" would work, and in fact assumed that it would not and that it might, instead, wipe Augustus's brain clean. Also, there was an element of superstition at work. I admit that.


In a way, Augustus was like me: old and out of it, but stubbornly soldiering on. I respected him.

Eventually, though, even his USB ports began to go. To keep the keyboard and mouse working I had to keep unplugging and re-plugging them. And finally, he sagged into paraplegia. His screen could no longer stay upright. Without propping, it collapsed on its back.

The first paragraph of this column said Augustus was gone, and that is true, but only because you are reading this three weeks after I wrote it. The fact is, I typed this column on Augustus. It has taken about half an hour longer than it should have because of plugging and unplugging and sagging and whatnot. This is going to be our last column together. By the day you read this, he will be Gone.

But not forgotten. Augustus holds my book, and a special place in my heart and home. He'll spend his afterlife atop a large bookcase, next to a framed feather from Matthew, my parrot who died in 1979. Matthew was a good boy, too.


Gene Weingarten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at

(c) 2019, The Washington Post Writers Group


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