While I was in Cassadaga Microsoft, with the respect for the biological end user that is a hallmark of its brand, informed me that no, I was not going to use my baby laptop, because Microsoft was going to install an upgrade. Right then. I left it plugged in and went downstairs to Arthur’s Bar in the hotel, and listened to the two singer-musicians of Dueling Pianos. My evening, therefore, was actually more fun than if I’d written a blog post right then.
The upgrade, to all intents and purposes, went fine, although it did not fix the problem I had with photos. The laptop got powered down and put away and I didn’t use it again while I was in the camp.
My room at the St Francis Inn was on the third floor. The third floor was not original to the building which was built during the first Spanish period. Sometime much later, in the 1800s, an owner added the third floor. The stairs were a workout, especially my first night there when I was hauling my luggage up them.
The name of my room was Lily’s room. It was beautiful and comfortable, with a view overlooking the courtyard (where I spent nearly every other evening I was there) and a view of St George Street and the house across the street which was part of the St. Francis Inn. There was a quilt the color of unbleached muslin with green embroidery on the bed. About ten thirty, Florida time, I pulled out the laptop, powered it up and checked email. All was quiet on the home front. I closed the laptop, leaving it on and plugged in, and put it on the built-in shelf that was next to the bed. My email program was open to the In Box page.
The room was comfortable but in one area it was not conveniently set up. There was no actual bedside table or space. My glasses and phone were on a little circular table by the window, not easily reachable from the bed, and the built-in shelf was more than an arm’s length from the bed. This configuration had a lot to do with the shape of the space and the desire to add a full bath to the space itself. I’m just saying. I wrote in my travel journal for a bit, turned out the light, and after a while I went to sleep.
At 11:50 pm I woke up because a computer voice was talking to me. I floundered up toward wakefulness. At first I thought it was my phone, but by the time I was fully awake I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t an alert or an alarm. It was a spam e-mail, being read to me by a computer voice.
I crawled across the bed and swung my feet over the side, banging my toe into the wall. That hurt. It didn’t change my state of consciousness. I didn’t “wake up” when I hit my toe, and now it was even more obvious that the voice was coming from the laptop and was reading me an email begging for money, courtesy of the Democratic Campaign Committee. That was the most annoying part of the whole story.
I grabbed the laptop and opened it up. Sure enough, it opened right up to a DCC email, and each word was being highlighted as the annoying voice droned on. I clicked on it to shut it down. I clapped the computer shut and tossed it back on the shelf. I went back to bed and lay awake, looking at the ceiling, waiting the bloody thing out in case it decided to start up again, but it didn’t and finally I fell asleep.
In the morning my toe still hurt. I looked on the PC to see if I’d dreamed the whole incident (except the toe seemed evidence against that theory) and there was the offending email. I also noticed, then, a new choice on my menu bar; “Read Aloud Speech.”
I noted down this weird incident in my journal, powered down the laptop and set out to do Fun and Educational Things. As the days went by I forgot about the near-midnight read-aloud session.
My last night there I thought I’d leave a nice review on TripAdvisor. I wanted to check a few things, so I went to the inn’s website. At home, I’d been to the inn’s website at least three times. This time when I opened it on the little laptop, the page that came up was not the home page. The page I got said, “Inn’s Ghosts.” The very first example was the ghost of a young woman named… Lily. I was staying in Lily’s room.
When I went on the spirit photography tour in Cassadaga, Dawn, our guide, gave a long talk about the nature of spirits as the Church of Spiritualism sees it. “Energy is never destroyed; it is transformed,” she said. They believe the current personality, as well as our electrical energy, continues after our biological body dies. Energy, Dawn said, – who was pretty darned energetic herself, pacing around the room, shifting from side to side as she talked – is drawn to energy, so spirits are drawn to other electrical energy. They like cell phones and flashlights, radios, televisions and electric lights. This is why lights often flicker in haunted places, or radios will come on with no one near them, or will change stations apparently on their own.
Or, maybe, a laptop computer will start reading an email out loud for no reason.
When I saw the page I rolled my eyes, but even then I didn’t connect it with that first night event. I think I said, out loud, “Thank you for the nice room, Lily,” just to be polite. It wasn’t until the next morning, heading home, when I was rereading parts of my travel journal while my plane sat on the tarmac at O’Hare, that I saw my notes about the email. And I said under my breath, “Damn it, Lily!”
Here are three theories that would explain the middle-of-the-night Read Aloud session.
— Theory One: I was dreaming and/or sleepwalking and I opened the laptop and played the email myself. I think I have had one sleepwalking incident in my life. One time while friends were visiting, I woke up in the middle of the night because the phone was ringing. I walked down the hall to answer it. I thought I was awake. I picked up the ringing phone to hear a dial tone. Then I woke up and realized I hadn’t really been awake before that. I woke up Spouse coming back to bed, and he said he hadn’t heard the phone. Our friends, sleeping in the room right next to the phone, didn’t hear it either.I think I was awake in St Augustine, though, and the reason was the stubbing the toe incident. Nothing changed in my awareness after I stubbed my toe except that it hurt.
— Theory Two: Lily is a ghost and she likes to play with computers. To accept this, you have to accept the possibility of ghosts. The inn’s page about “Lily” is disappointingly vague. In fact, as the story reads now, it should be the unnamed nephew, who killed himself for love, who haunts the room, not Lily. Nothing is said about how Lily died. In fact, she was sent away and it’s unlikely she died in the house. In ghost literature, Lily is a traditional “woman in white.”
But she –or someone– did turn off the TV that one time. Theory Two works better if the ghost who visits that room is someone other than Lily.
— Theory Three: Microsoft is a jerk. Something in the upgrade triggered a spontaneous activation of the Read Aloud Speech option. That might be it. When I got home I powered up the PC, plugged it in and left it on for a day and a night, and no one read me any more emails. The event has never been replicated.
I’d love to end with something snarky. I’d love to be hyper-rational and explain how this was a glitch of modern technology rendered strange by glamorous surroundings – or go the other way and argue passionately about how it was Lily. If I’ m going to be an open-minded skeptic, isn’t it reasonable to question the idea that a PC would behave weirdly only one time, in a specific way, and then never replicate the weird behavior again? I don’t know, though. I’m still mulling it over. What do you think?