Laptop Case (2006)

I have used the same laptop case for over sixteen years. My second summer with it, I had decided I either needed to write a novel or stop saying I wanted to write a novel. So every day I carried the laptop, snug in its case, to the Santa Clara library. The library had recently moved to a new building in central park. It was two stories tall. The desks on the second floor had electrical outlets.

The first week, I had written half a page. It began like this: “Ethel would not have it said of her that she kept an untidy home.” (I had recently read Mrs Dalloway for a freshman English class.) And then there were some more words, and then it stopped because I really had nothing to say.

I found myself thinking about splines, a mathematical way of defining a curve from a set of points. I had invented a name for a video game based on this idea: “Baby Block in the Land of the B-Splines.” It would be a world of neon geometry. So each day I would force myself to stare at a mostly-blank page for exactly 30 minutes. Then I would close Word and open XCode instead.

Objects were represented as circles, each moving through the world frame-by-frame. In one frame, a circle would approach a spline; in the next, it would push through it. The game engine was supposed to detect this and push the circle back outside the spline, creating the illusion of solidity. I wrote an inefficient algorithm based on binary search and a geometry theorem I have since forgotten. Usually the circle would bounce, but sometimes it would get stuck in a valley and jitter back-and-forth. Maybe I could have designed the levels to avoid this anomaly, but why? I would always know it was a hack.

There was a single sheet of paper in the sleeve of the case, an exam I had taken with a friend at a Scientology center in Los Gatos. It said I had personal problems that could be solved by purchasing a copy of Dianetics. I kept that paper for years, thinking someday I would paint it with watercolors.

Later, I would take the case with me to Berkeley, San Diego, London, Philadelphia, Boston, and Santa Monica. Essays about the philosophy of mind, theory of meaning, Kant. Proofs about Turing machines, coding in Python. Each laptop faster and smaller than the last, the case measuring how much had changed.