Swapping an IBM For a COW

By

I'd just come in the house from a walk when I saw the UPS man sprint by the window. How he could run like that with such a burden I couldn't fathom. His arms barely reached to the far sides of the huge and obviously heavy box, and he was bent almost double. But he was moving; he had plenty more deliveries to make. I met him at the back porch, where he carefully but swiftly lowered his delivery to the floor.

"Didn't know you were home," he puffed. "Knocked...."

"I just came in. What ... where is it from?" But he was gone. I pulled out my pocketknife, cut the tape, and pulled back the cardboard flaps. Arranged there in a formidable nest of foam peanuts were a large gray CPU, a square display screen, an oblong mouse, a keyboard, assorted manuals, and many tightly coiled wires and cords. A personal computer, complete, and as unadorned as a newborn. The return address was a Washington, D.C., packaging service.

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But I knew: It was Alison and Kevin. And I guessed how: They'd upgraded their computer and were sending their retired equipment to me. Retired, but reliable and far more modern than my own.

I met Alison and entered the computer age almost simultaneously when I accepted a trial editing contract with a small federal agency in 1986. Congress would be my employer, Alison my immediate boss. We liked each other from the start. And once she'd stopped feeling weird about being younger than I, we struck up a fine working relationship. On my first trip to D.C., she sat me down at a free desk for a crash course in word processing.

Though 10 years later I still write my own words longhand before typing them onto a disk, I took quickly to electronic editing. With a quiet hum the computer accommodates my revisions without scribbles, scissors, staples, or tape. It's good clean fun.

Editing for Alison, I've worked primarily at my own computer from my Indiana home. Several times a year I've also flown to Washington for workshops and other contract obligations. Each time, Alison and I have found more reasons to like each other personally, as well as professionally.

She enjoyed hearing about life on the farm - editing is a sideline to dairying. I loved hearing an insider's account of life on "The Hill," Alison's bailiwick. I would return to Indiana refreshed and ready to milk again, and always with a new chapter or report to edit - fresh words to process.

After six years of such service, my first PC was clearly becoming outmoded - but a replacement was beyond my budget.

"How is she?" Alison would ask, as a prelude to a new assignment.

"Limping along," I'd admit. My old computer still clattered into service, but sometimes, inexplicably, files were lost. And it couldn't accommodate new and more powerful software. I'd manage to get the work done, at times almost in spite of my antiquated aid.

In 1991, Alison's car was stolen. She and Kevin, the Washington police detective assigned to the case, were married the following year. They visited the farm that summer, one day helping me corral nine heifers. The animals had wandered through a gate that some hikers had failed to shut behind them. One of the heifers was Richie, a Jersey mix who'd been born on Alison and Kevin's wedding day.

BY the time the big box arrived, Richie had calved to become a sturdy little milk cow. I recalled, as Richie filled her bucket one day, how Alison had once explained "debt for nature" swaps. In such a swap, a developing country conserves a portion of its natural resources as a form of loan repayment. Here before me was a resource I could afford to share. Of course, shipping a cow to suburban Virginia was out of the question. I continue to keep, feed, and milk Richie, but she is now Alison and Kevin's cow in title.

Today, Alison's office decor includes a collage of photos and certificates documenting Richie's sire, dam, growth, and progeny. And when there's editing to do, I click on my new PC with a clear conscience. I've swapped my debt for the very symbol of nature.

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