01 June 2009

Life on Mercury

An ex-colleague of mine used to announce, each time things went wrong at the office, that Mercury was in retrograde. This was her confident, near-constant explanation for those pile-ups of misfortune that sometimes made the Book of Job out of the job: when trains were missed and flights were cancelled, phone calls unreturned, bosses implacable, deadlines moved up, chores multiplied, equipment unresponsive, and all at once. Mercury rules travel, communication, and commerce, you see, and when the planet is in retrograde, it necessarily stands to reason that those realms will be troubled. Though I don’t ordinarily give much thought to astrology, I found the explanation comforting. We weren’t imagining the improbable synchronicity, and neither were we to blame for it. Even our implacable bosses could be excused. In time, we began to say, “Oh, Mercury must be in retrograde,” whenever any single thing went wrong. The phrase became our personal gallows humor, a little joke to boost our morale.

I began to say it again recently, when the hard drive on my laptop ceased to function, smack in the middle of my most arduous laboring over the book proposal for the biography of Madeline Kahn. I said it more often, as I reached New York, ostensibly to meet with editors but really to sit by a phone that didn’t ring. And as other woes beset me — no need to enumerate them now — I learned that Mercury was, no joke, in retrograde. The wayward phase began on May 7, the day my laptop made its first of four trips (so far) to California for repair, and also the day my agent began sending out the proposal; the phase ended May 31, just in time for an Air France plane to take off from Brazil.

I am reminded by this experience that computers are Evil, and the proof lies in Terry Gilliam’s film, Time Bandits. The following exchange between Evil (portrayed by David Warner) and one of his henchmen is revealing:
Evil: When I have the map, I will be free, and the world will be different, because I have understanding.

Robert: Uh, understanding of what, Master?

Evil: Digital watches. And soon I shall have understanding of video cassette recorders and car telephones. And when I have understanding of them, I shall have understanding of computers. And when I have understanding of computers, I shall be the Supreme Being!

Allow me to say right now that there is no chance whatever of my becoming the Supreme Being.

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