Liminal Spaces

The Glory of Beginnings and Endings

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, aware...in 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.

Usually.

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.

I really enjoyed Paradise and her friend chatting about everything and nothing. I have a friend with whom I have been in almost constant IM contact since circa 2005, and every once in a while I save off little chunks of conversations, little things that we said that particularly amuse me or feel like it's really “us” talking. I treasure these chat logs and it's always a treat when I go back through my files and find them again.

Thank you, Paradise, for sharing yours! Maybe someday I'll strip the names out of one of mine and post it as well.

In 2014 a six year old girl died of brain cancer. Her name was Rebecca Meyer.

I'm telling you this because your browser knows Rebecca's name and her favorite color.

As you can guess from the title, Rebecca's favorite color was purple.

Shortly after Rebecca's death the CSS working group agreed to create a new named color, rebeccapurple in Rebecca's honor. Since 2014 every major browser creator has quietly included this color specification. It sits, silently, impacting nobody and changing nothing, until some web designer is idly scrolling through the list of named colors and sees one that has an actual name in it. (There are two. The other is Alice Blue, named for Theodore Rooseveldt's daughter Alice. in Alice's case, the color name far predates the web.)

Naturally there was some push back when this change was made. People argued that, while of course the death of a child is a tragedy, we don't have room in our standards to memorialize every person who has passed tragically from this Earth. So why should we make an exception for Rebecca, just because her father is close to the Working Group?

I don't know the Working Group's answer. But here's my answer:

Just because we can't do this for everyone doesn't mean we shouldn't do it for anyone. It's important to remember that all of this, all technology, all of society, is made up of individuals living individual lives with problems and triumphs and tragedies, all intermingled. It's okay, once in a while, to do something that isn't efficient, just because it's human. Sometimes we can let a little grace in, we can let a color remind us that technologies and standards are created by people with lives outside of the code they write. Sometimes we can let the spirit of a little girl live in our standards, to stand in for all of us, for all we've lost.

I have no desire to watch the upcoming season of Stranger Things.

Which is odd, because I absolutely loved the first two seasons, for all the common reasons. The actors are all excellent, the writing is taut and expressive, the plot is both very human and very deeply immersed in a dark and unknowable otherness.

But it seems that my ability and desire to enjoy that thematic universe exactly matched the duration of the first two seasons. I watched the season 2 finale and in that moment realized I never needed to go back there. The thought of re-watching the first two seasons feels dull and tedious; the thought of watching the third season makes me slightly nauseated.

As I was mildly pondering why I'm having this reaction I remembered advice given by my favorite teacher in high school. It was my junior year, I was taking advanced English, and she casually mentioned that just because you start a book doesn't mean you have to finish it.

The startled stares around the room made her pause and she smiled after a moment.

“How many of you have put down a book without finishing it?”

Concerned glances were passed around the room. Can...can you do that? Finally someone said, “But...but what if it gets better?”

Nods. Yes. That was it. Maybe the book got better! You can't put down books!

Our teacher sat on her desk, departing from her lesson plan.

“Two questions: First is it worth it? If a book is bad for three quarters before it gets 'better' does the last fourth justify the first three fourths? Second: Is it likely? If a book is bad for three fourths what are the odds the author suddenly changes and starts writing well?”

Back to concerned looks. She laughed just a little. “Okay, extra credit assignment. I will give twenty points to anyone who turns in a report about a book they didn't finish. A book that you started, disliked, and deliberately put down and walked away from.”

I don't know how many of those reports she got back. (Mine was about Snow Falling on Cedars.) But since then I've thanked her memory over and over again for the superhuman power to put down a chunk of content—be it a book, a movie, or an ongoing television series— and be okay with that.

I keep thinking about how much the world has changed just in the 21st century. On the surface it kind of all looks the same. We had digital music in 2005, just like we do now. We had cell phones, we had iPods and laptops and wi-fi and all the same basic technology.

But it's a little stunning how much better it all is now. Some examples:

  • In 2005 I started reading Questionable Content. When he would mention a band in the strip (which happened a lot in the earlier days) I would have to make a note of it to myself, then try and get the library to get a copy so I could go listen to it, or I'd have to buy a copy. Now I just open Spotify and listen to it.
  • In 2005 I wanted to set up a little personal server at home so help me learn how to do web programming without paying for real hosting. But I either had to run the server on my wife's computer (my laptop spent too much time going back and forth to school with me to be a good server) or I had to basically build a new computer. Now I can just buy a $10 Raspberry Pi Zero and I have all the power I need to run websites, even containerized websites in Docker.

And a lot of other little things. Things like “synchronizing files”. We've gone from using flash drives full of data to Dropbox to having cloud sync for everything, running in the background, barely noticeable.

Oh, and also this year we finally had a private moonshot happen. It doesn't feel like things are changing but boy are they.

We're not one-dimensional beings. Neither are our feelings. A day isn't always pure good or pure crap. It can be both. You can be an optimist that is angry, as long as the anger passes. You can be hopeful and still have heartache, as long as you can feel the hope for the day the heartache passes.

It's part of life; bad days will come. Terrible things will happen. But we needn't let those terrible things warp and twist us. We can keep our chins up even when we're being beaten down.

I'm writing this not to lecture you, the reader. I'm trying to help me, the frustrated, powerless, angry idiot.

I am an optimist by choice. But choosing to look for the good in the world doesn't erase the bad. There will be days when I cry. There will be hard times and exhausted times and utterly fed up times. If I can keep a positive outlook even in those times, if I can look at an utterly messed up situation and still find a way to say “I choose optimism” , and mean it, then I'm growing.

#optimism #stress #anger #frustration

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