The Observer's office computer took a powder this morning, displaying only a black screen and an ominous, geek jargon message when we sat down at our desk. We've had that rig for six years that we can recall, at least, and so when it went to computer heaven, it took down most of our professional life with it: audio recorded on interviews all over the state, quotes from people dead or far enough out of the public eye they don't matter any more, pictures taken in far-flung corners of Arkansas with a succession of cell phones, from our earliest potatocam to our current Buck Rogers-grade device that shoots pics like the Hubble Space Telescope and which could probably make cold brew coffee if we could find the app for that. The death of our old friend also took down The Observer we'd been working on the previous day, which is why you're reading this one, dear friend, a last-minute stand-in. We hope we can do you proud on short notice.
The Observer is old enough to remember the days before personal computers, kids — or at least before the days when our clinging-to-middle-class-by-the-fingernails family could afford one, which would have been about 1993. Come with us to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when photos were kept in dusty albums in the closet or in Grandma's old cedar chest, ready to be grabbed and stuffed into a tow sack for quick skedaddling if the house caught on fire, the Huns came over the hill and descended on the farmstead, or the shit otherwise hit the fan. That's the way it was with all kinds of things back then: If you wrote something, it was on paper. Deleting it meant wadding it up and tossing it bitterly into the fire, burning your fingers and cussing if you wished to make a last- minute data recovery. Otherwise — as long as you kept the rats from getting at it or the kids from making a paper boat for the bathtub out of it — it would be around for your grandkids' grandkids to handle with white gloves, marveling over how boring the folks of yesteryear were.
Not so these days. One ghost in the machine, one computerized gremlin, one critical system hard-drive error, one mistake, and the whole of your past can go up in a puff of ones and zeros, only to ever be recovered — if at all — in part, so it never makes sense again. These are the days of our lives, we suppose, and the price we all pay for living here in the future. The Observer, for example, is mighty glad we're not wrasslin' with a 20-pound typewriter right now, squinting at a curl of white bond paper, leaning in with the tiny brush full of Wite-Out to carefully paint and obliterate solely the word "White" in the name of Wite-Out, which we just misspelled. It's kinda nice here in the future, even if it can sometimes be a pain in the ass. When we started writing as a lad, too broke to afford a computer, we were on a boat-anchor Underwood. We can tell you from experience that The Good Old Days weren't all that good.
If our resident computer wizard can't roll the computer generated bones, sacrifice a virtual dove to Steve Wozniak and come up with some kind of electronic ju-ju to retrieve our lost life, The Observer knows we're going to have to sadly shuffle through the deepest of electric hells: the hell of trying to remember, forever, exactly what was on that damn computer that we might need in the future. Years from now, we'll go looking for a family photo we loved or a poem we wrote while we were supposed to be working, or an Observer we tinkered with but eventually abandoned but which might deserve a second look, and realize that it went down in May 2016 with the good ship U.S.S. Dell. That's a genuinely crummy place to be, and makes us pine for the days when the desk of every writer was stuffed to bursting with paper and pamphlets and photos and everything else. We're never going to miss that Underwood, though. Any amount of meandering through Dante's Digital Inferno is worth it if it means we never have to touch another typewriter ribbon again between now and the day they lay us in the clay.
Visual art, through Nov. 4, "Nature & Nurture", works by Carol Corning and Ed Pennebaker,…