Thursday, March 3, started off as a routine day but it quickly spun downhill as my Dell laptop crashed and burned, bringing activities in my corner of to a standstill.

The first sign of trouble came as the Inspiron XPS began showing uncharacteristic signs of hesitation. Purchased just a few months before from the Dell Outlet, from whence come all our office computers, the XPS is to laptops what a Porsche 911 is to lesser sports cars -- a blazing fast speed demon.

Hoping to clear up whatever was amiss, I rebooted and was promptly blitzed with arcane error messages warning of problems at hitherto unknown sectors, culminating in a sickening descent into what is known throughout geekdom as the Blue Screen of Death.

My machine, barely three months old, was toast. I tried to ignore the odd alignment of the stars: Just the day before, I had tallied the number of computer complaints in our database, correlating them with market ranking, finding that while Dell had about 18 percent of the worldwide market, it accounted for 58 percent of the complaints we'd received in the previous 12 months.

Being There

I met my first computer terminal back in 1974 or so, when technicians at The Associated Press bureau in Denver wheeled in a thing the size of a refrigerator and announced -- skeptically -- that these ungainly devices would soon replace not only our "telegraphers" (as they were quaintly called) but also our trusted typewriters.

In the intervening 30 years, I have been through just about every kind of computer catastrophe imaginable, probably two per year, on average. The initial human response to a computer crisis is universal -- panic. This nearly always leads to trouble.

I have learned the hard way that like hopeless freeway congestion, computer meltdowns are inevitable and should be dealt with calmly. Panic solves nothing and hasty action nearly always makes the situation worse. I thus went into my Zen mode, telling my associates I would be out of action the rest of the day and mentally dismissing any tasks that a few minutes earlier had been regarded as essential.

I ran through all the routine disaster drills -- trying to boot in Safe Mode and running a couple of simple tests. My initial diagnosis: hard drive failure. The XPS came with a 100-gb hard drive, much more than I need and, in fact, bigger than I wanted. A drive that large is highly compressed and more prone to failure but, other than the drive, the machine was set up the way I wanted it. (Buying from the Dell Outlet is like buying a used car: you don't get to pick the options).

I pondered the hundreds of complaints I had read about Dell's tech support. I considered getting into another line of work.

In any hard-drive failure, there is the potential of data loss. In my case, this would include the March 7 edition of Consumer News & Alerts, the weekly newsletter that may not look like much but involves quite a bit of writing and proofreading and a pretty substantial dose of link-building and checking. Then there was the strategic plan I had just about finished for a consulting client (no, the consulting's not a conflict of interest and it helps pay the rent and bandwidth bills). It, like the newsletter, was due Monday.

Just about everything else on my machine was backed up, either on our Web servers or on an external hard drive that exists to make daily backups easy. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean I do them daily, now does it?

The Call

Able to put it off no longer, I copied my Service Tag and Service Code numbers from the bottom of the XPS, swallowed, took a deep breath and called Dell Tech Support. Navigating the voice-mail maze wasn't all that bad and in less than five minutes I was on the phone with Zach, #0172679.

Like all the Dell techs I have encountered, Zach spoke fluent Texan and exuded the same confidence as old-style airline captains explaining the "little problem" involving the landing gear or engine flame-out. We went down the same road I'd already traveled and reached the same destination -- trashed hard drive.

By this time, it was after 5 p.m. for me -- Eastern time. Sorry, Zach said, but that meant my replacement hard drive probably wouldn't reach me til Monday (even though it was still only 4-something in Texas). I had by now fired up another machine that had most of the programs and data I needed and resigned myself to several days of being in-between computers.

That evening, not quite ready to abandon hope, I recruited a neighbor who is an IT consultant to see if we couldn't salvage my data -- specifically, the newsletter and the strategic plan. Anyone who writes for a living will do anything to avoid having to re-lasso words that have previously been corralled. We're only born with so many words in us, you know, and I am already pushing the envelope.

Our resident barrister having left for the day, we invaded her office and swiped her new (from the outlet, that is) Dell Optiplex slim desktop machine, yanked the cover off and ripped the ribbon cable from the CD drive. Using a handy adapter the IT consultant fished out of his kit bag, we took the damaged hard drive from my laptop and convinced the Optiplex to regard it as its new D:/ drive.

Like all those 1950s TV shows that went out into space, data on a hard drive is still there, even after the drive self-destructs. You just can't get to it because the drive won't boot up. But by using the damaged drive as a secondary drive, booting up the Optiplex with its own C:/ drive, we were able to get a look at my Documents and Webs folders.

Sure enough, everything was there. We copied it all to a new folder on the Optiplex and, when that was finished, jammed the lid back on and put the machine back in the lawyer's office. She was blissfully unaware that her desktop would be, in effect, eating for two for a day or two.

The next day, as I prepared to head for the office I was irate to see a box resting on the flank of my Alfa Romeo. Despite my constant hectoring, my family insists on treating my priceless heirloom as a table. Irritation waned, however, as I realized this was my replacement hard drive -- dropped off by AirBorne Express barely 16 hours after I hung up my call to Zach.

A New Beginning

Installing the replacement hard drive was a snap, consisting of removing one screw, unplugging the connector and inserting the new drive. Then, of course, there is the all-day project of reloading all the programs and trying to remember all the passwords for all those Web sites.

Several hours into it, a glitch developed. My dual-band wireless card was not working, meaning I was chained to my desk -- unable to lug the laptop to Starbucks, roam around the office or retreat to the family room to sit by the fireplace. I reloaded the drivers and ran the diagnostics. Verdict: bad memory on the wireless card.

I frankly didn't buy this and suspected that Microsoft was up to its old tricks -- loading its drivers on top of the manufacturer's. Zach had sent me an e-mail confirming the hard-drive shipment and his e-mail invited me to call or e-mail him if I had any further problems.

I did so Sunday afternoon and, by mid-morning Monday, had a reply from Zach directing me to the spot on the Dell site where I could find an updated driver. Five minutes later, I had again slipped the surly bonds of my desk and was free to roam anywhere I was able to lug the 12-pound XPS and its brick-like power supply.

Verdict: Any hard drive crash you can walk away from is a good one. Zach was knowledgeable, patient and responsive, my IT consultant neighbor had just the right IDE connector and other than a little time and trouble, I was none the worse for wear.

Don't Try This At Home

However -- and it is a big however -- most consumers would not have had such a good outcome. They would most probably have lost all the data on their hard drive and, in many cases, been frustrated and annoyed at having to take screwdriver in hand and spend time on the phone.

Despite a lackluster college experience that left me branded an English major, I am quite comfortable being up to my elbows inside a computer. Those who aren't -- which is most normal people -- should avoid frustration and needless data loss by doing a few of of the following:

Separate task from technology. Sure, you paid $3,000 for the machine and yes, you need to finish that report -- you know, the one you told your client you mailed her yesterday. But like a blown hose on your BMW, the price you paid and the urgency of your daily chores has nothing to do with the snafus that complicated machines encounter. And make no mistake -- your computer is very complicated. It is more powerful that the entire computing capacity of the United States government just a few decades ago; you can't expect it to work perfectly 24/7 and 365.

Back up your stuff. There is no substitute for making back-ups. Whether you use an external hard drive, a tape drive or another machine on your network, make copies of all your important stuff. And keep track of passwords and activation codes for essential Web sites and programs.

Buy the on-site warranty. Don't want to get your hands dirty? Spend a little upfront and Dell will send someone to your home or office to solve your problem.

Buy your computer from a local geek-owned computer store. Sure, you'll probably pay more for the machine but you'll be able to take it back to the store when problems arise -- and, count on it, problems will arise.

Adopt a geek. The world is full of people who understand computers and like fiddling with them. Get to know one of these people. Call them when you have problems and reward them very handsomely when they bail you out. A few hundred dollars is not too much to pay a friend who pulls you back from the brink.

Finally, learn to chill. Yes, a computer problem is bad but it's far from the worst thing that can happen to you or someone near and dear. The right degree of detachment will go a long way towards helping you solve the present problem without creating new ones.