Liminal Spaces

The Glory of Beginnings and Endings

I've spent years in and around academia, which is an interesting position to be in. And it's made me sensitive to one sort of conspiracy theory, the one that sounds like

A person discovered [random world-changing good thing] but scientists agreed to cover it up.

And as much fun as conspiracy theories are, this one makes it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy it. The problem is in the following two words:

scientists agreed.

No they didn't. This posits that all of academia set aside a core aspect of their very nature to cover up some specific fact. The heart and soul of research is arguing. Convincing the entire “scientific community” to hide something beggars the imagination.

This isn't to say that research doesn't get buried for unethical reasons. It does! All the time! But not because all of “science” agreed to cover it up. If you're going to create a conspiracy about academic malfeasance, go with a more likely scenario. Here are some for your perusal:

Likely ways to Bury Research

Doctor F discovered a great new thing, but:

  • The Chair/Dean/Provost/President of the University cancelled the project.
  • Their funding was pulled and given to a project with military application.
  • The results were entangled in a battle over Intellectual Property/Patent rights
  • Someone on the peer review committee had a grudge against them and stonewalled the results from ever being published.
  • Their research methodology was called into question and the project was discredited.
  • A rival researcher found a previous paper that had a similar basis to Doctor F's work, thus tainting the research with the stain of plagiarism.
  • A rival researcher found a previous paper that seems to disprove the basis of Doctor F's work, thus discrediting all the new work.
  • Doctor F sold their research to a private entity/government/military group, who had them sign a non-disclosure agreement, but then lost interest in the project.

Try one of these and your “hidden research” conspiracy theory will not only hold (slightly) more water, but will be more entertaining to boot.

I have a confession:

  • King Arthur
  • Julius Caesar
  • Merlin
  • George Washington
  • Achilles

All reside in roughly the same place in my brain. I know that two of those people are “definitely” real people, two of them are “definitely” fake, and one is maybe somewhere in the middle, but, eh. They're all just stories at this point.

I'm not crazy; if someone asked me “was Merlin a real person?” I'll say no. But honestly I think our modern perceptions of Caesar and even Washington bear very little resemblance to who those people actually were. And I think the “made up” people on this were probably also based on a real person originally, but at this point we've lost that connection so we say that they are nothing but a story.

And maybe this is the real confession, but I don't care. I don't care how “accurate” my view of Washington is. There are things I can learn from the stories we have about him. Someday I might want to read up on Caesar or Washington, but it's equally likely I'll want to read up on Achilles. And I believe I could learn something useful from studying any of those three people (even if one of them might never have been a person). But what is more interesting to me is how they are seen in the modern day, and the import that is attached to each of them as a touchstone for day to day life right now.

I've often joked, in my lighter moments, that just trying to spell that word causes the condition it describes.

Anxiety is a natural reaction to the world around us right now. A sense that we need to be on alert that the threats are unknown but looming, and we can stave them off, perhaps, if we are but watching.

But what Anxiety really does to you is tie up your senses, congest your mind with nothing but itself. it's a prison itself, not freedom from one.

You read that title correctly.

I hate sleep. Seriously, it sucks.

Why are we built such that we have to spend a third of our lives doing nothing? And not even the fun kind of doing nothing, like playing games or reading or meditating. Just literally shutting our huge brains down so biological janitors can wander through our synapses, cleaning out the gunk that accumulates because our brains are hastily slapped together and can't run properly without daily maintenance. Maybe another few million years of evolution will take care of that for us.


Somehow it all came at once. It's like, all the motion, all the activity and agitation and desire to move and be free that people have felt during COVID, it all came bursting out just around Memorial Day, 2021.

Of course I'm only speaking to my own world, my own surroundings. I am in no position to speak about anyone else's. But from where I stand, this is that season, the season of endings and departures.

My best friend of many many years is moving to the extreme other side of the country and that hurts. The odd thing of this world is that his moving away might mean we spend more time together, as we will most likely be awake early in the day an spend time online. But this does mean we won't see each other in person as I had hoped, when “All of this” ended. If it is ending.

My direct supervisor is leaving, and in his wake I'm being drawn into new opportunities. In the five years we've worked together he and I have never connected on any recognizably human level, but this means a sea change in our organization, one that has been changing a lot for a group that is traditionally quite stable. One of our developers quit rather suddenly, and another announced that they're leaving for a different job. We had to let one person go and we're hiring new people into new roles to replace these people we're losing.

Oh, and one member of our team died a few months ago. Not of COVID, oddly enough. Somehow that has been buried and forgotten, as if we can only hold so many earth-shattering changes and older ones must be cleared away to make room for the new ones. But I don't feel, in my heart of hearts, that I've actually recovered from that yet. How could we have done so?

So here's what I'm telling myself:

It's okay to hurt in times like this. I don't know what the future will bring. I don't know how to think about the future at all. My world is opening up again, more change is possible again, more freedom is possible, and we can hopefully all stop going individually crazy because we will be spending more time in heterogeneous groups. We'll get out of our bubbles and echo chambers and actually interact with one another. But we are still in pain, still suffering from the losses we've all suffered, are still suffering, both pandemic related and those that are simply pandemic-adjacent.

It's okay to hurt. Even those of us who follow a faith that teaches an Atonement and Resurrection still cry at funerals. That pain is not evil. Nor is it wrong to hurt when a good situation, like a good work team, comes to an end.

That's the way of it, I suppose. Change happens how and when it will, and we adjust. And adjust. and adjust again. It's okay.

Good friendships last. Even though hard times, especially through hard times. The hard and scary part of the liminal spaces is that we can't see the next thing; we don't know what good is coming. We only see the good that we're losing.

But deep down we know that most changes are for the better, or hold within them the key that will unlock our ability to do or be better. It takes patience to know that I guess.

For now my heart hurts. But it won't hurt forever.

Insomnia is free time with a heavy price. Insomnia is when the part of my brain that understands how the world works decides it no longer cares how the world works. When insomnia hits I'm awake, alert, theory. In reality I drop things, have trouble following a story in TV shows I watch or books I read, and can't make decisions. Things I write in the gray hours are almost always worthless.

But in those hours when the house is quiet, I'm free. Nobody has any demands of me. I can watch what I want, read what I want, eat, even go for a walk around the neighborhood without much real risk of seeing any neighbors. The next day, when I try to work, I'll pay for it. I'll be tired, my head full of static far louder than normal. At some point the ability to sleep will return and those broken systems will reassert themselves, but wrong. Sleeping during the day means I'm likely to be up all night again, so I have to try to stay awake and sleep at the right time. The price is too high.


I have had times where insomnia was exactly what I needed. I have treasured memories of discovering a new favorite author in those hollow hours. I discovered the works of Lewis Thomas when I was in that pellucid state of mind, my thoughts flowing like clear water, and The Lives of A Cell flowed into my mind, mingled with and changed my thoughts, showed me the unexpected beauty of science.

I discovered the perl programming language late at night, when I was young and excited about making computers do what I want. The inherent linguistics of perl fit me at that moment, and I was able to connect with the concept of programming in a way that I never had with C++ or Java. Perl has its own eccentricities, but in that moment, when all the other voices were silent, it spoke to me.

Usually, of course, insomnia is just blank, hazy, gray memories of re-watching a comfort sitcom or MST3K, trying to drift off, trying to buy back some of the next day. But I can't hate insomnia as much as I should, knowing that there are times where the dark muse visits and my world is forever enhanced.

Many years ago I was working for Barnes and Noble in Boise, Idaho. This was a weird time; Big bookstores were big business. Somehow in the mid-1990s it turned out that a somewhat sleepy town like Boise had enough of a book-buying thirst to support not only a massive new B&N, but also two bookstores in the mall, three Hastings stores, and a brand-new Borders location, right next door to B&N.

And during this time I was a shirt-and-tie wearing B&N employee. We tried to be the classy bookstore, no polo shirts for us!

One day my managers asked me to do a very innocent bit of corporate espionage. I was to head over to Borders, because they were having jazz legend Gene Harris in store for a signing. I was to quietly walk around and get a sense of how many people were there, how well the event was going, and so forth.

I came back with this:

My mangers were somewhat amused and a little surprised that I had bought a CD from the enemy. I reasonably pointed out that it defused any suspicion the people at Borders may have had about a teenager in a tie nosing around their signing.

I haven't been to Boise in well over a decade, I haven't worked for B&N for well over two decades, but I still have the CD, and I still listen to it every now and again. It's good music, and a nice reminder of a joyful time in my life.

It's not far from here. I know where it is, but I can't enter it.

It's quite small, you see; only one person and maybe a dog can fit in there. But it's comfortably appointed with some blankets, and it's warm. The walls are decorated with simple art, stick figures in various forms interspersed with abstracts.

The drawings are simple—crude even—but not unattractive, and some are strangely compelling. The artist left behind their tools, their art supplies, and even what appears to be some form of dart.

the cave is formed by a recliner, bookshelf, and end table not quite filling a space, the sole denizen is my youngest child. I simply do not fit in that space, and if I move the furniture I destroy the cave and the magic.

I am content to know the cave is there, and to remember, years and years ago, when I inhabited a similarly magic grove under a hedge in my backyard.

A photo taken late at night.

The ultimate liminal space. Christmas is and always has been a huge day for me, the crown of the year. I love the season, the closeness with family and friends, the feeling of giving.

And now it's over, and I'm old enough to be fine with that. Now we look into the new year, but...we're not there. Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, after that is 2020. But this is just a leftover day. It has nothing to do with this year, which really ended on Christmas Day. It has nothing to do with next year, which really starts on January 2, when I go back to work.

Dar Williams has a song called The Blessings that contains this haunting phrase:

And we sat down and we waited for that strange and empty light

Today is the day of that strange and empty light.

There is peace in it.

Let's be perfectly clear about this: I have no good reason to want or to own a typewriter. I have a computer. Several, in fact. I have an AlphaSmart Neo2. I have nice pens, if I need to write on paper directly.

but I found this old school beauty at a thrift shop for $7 USD. It was a bit dirty, and clearly hadn't been used in years, but when I plugged it in it powered up and seemed to be in working order. It was impossible to be sure, since it didn't have a ribbon. But for $7 I was willing to chance it.

I brought it home, started cleaning it, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that ribbons for the SD700 are surprisingly easy to find and affordable. So while waiting for the ribbon to show up I kept cleaning and researching. The actual manual for this typewriter is hard to find, but I did find some clues from manuals for similar models.

Some type specimens and meta-typing.

The ribbon arrived and the typewriter works wonderfully. this one came with four “printwheels”, aka fonts. They're all great. Script-type fonts always make me laugh, but this one isn't bad. I really dig the sans-serif “Tempo” font, in all it's late-80's quasi-computer glory.

All four included print wheels.

And this machine really is a quasi-computer. It has a 50,000 word spell-check dictionary built in, and also stores the last line you typed, so that you can go back and correct it, using the secondary correction ribbon. Corrections can be done letter-by-letter or word-by-word.

The funny thing, of course, is that as “advanced” as this machine is, the free-est text editing program on your phone has more features. Better spell check, infinitely more font and style choices... this typewriter is loud, slow, clunky, heavy, and completely outclassed.

So why do I love it?

Maybe because it's slow. There is a certain value to be had in moving more deliberately, in actually typing correctly because fixing my mistakes is a loud, slow process. Maybe just because it reminds me of a simpler time that I only vaguely glimpsed.

I remember, when I was probably about four years old, going into my dad's “study” in our little town house in Texas. He had an electric typewriter, and sometimes I would sit in the corner and watch him type. The machine was a kind of magic, back then. It hummed quietly whenever it was on, rapping out in short, staccato bursts whenever Dad wrote something. The room would fill with the smell of late-70's electronics, probably ozone? And also the metallic-but-not-unpleasant smell of typewriter, a mix of machine oil and ink ribbons.

Watching the letters appear on the paper, perfectly formed and instantly, was magic.

Still is.

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.