Liminal Spaces

The Glory of Beginnings and Endings

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

I just learned this word, even though I've know of the family it describes my whole life. So have you, probably.

Pill bugs, roly-polies, potato bugs, sow bugs, wood lice, they're all names for the same thing.

My wildlife biologist wife told me years ago that potato bugs (I'm from Idaho, so of course they're potato bugs) aren't bugs at all. They're crustaceans, like crabs or lobsters.

For some reason that made me unreasonably happy. I enjoy imagining these little crustaceans that somehow got confused and wandered up on land, befuddled but determined. Since then they have made the best of it. finding wet places to hang out, like the underside of rocks or in strawberry beds (the only problem I've ever had with them is that they eat my strawberries). Wondering vaguely where the ocean went all those millennia ago, wondering if it's ever coming back.

Around a month ago my daughter had her tonsils taken out. We did this because they were huge and were blocking her Eustachian tubes, which in turn can cause a lot of ear infections, like it did for me. So it was definitely a good thing to do™. But it didn't feel that way before the surgery.

Back then I could tell you the odds of anything bad happening during a tonsillectomy. Statistically my daughter had a higher chance of dying on the drive to the hospital than she did dying of complications.

And it was during that time, while we were cuddling her close and taking pictures of her just in case that I realized something.

The next wave is always the most frightening. I'm pretty good at dealing with things in the present, we all are. We handle things, or we break entirely, but either way we're in the moment and we deal with the moment.

But future calamities, those are where the fear lives. And there's so little we can do about it. We can change current behaviors—in this case I could have cancelled the tonsillectomy and just let my daughter deal with ear infections and hearing loss like I did—but we can't change the future.

So how do we cope?

I've only found one way, and it seems foolish, but it works.

The only way to cope with the future is to think about it as little as possible.

I learned this about a year ago, in my MBA program. I was taking an accounting class that was killing me, and every time I looked at the syllabus it would kill me even more. I was trying to hold the entire class in my head and that doesn't work.

Instead I learned to look at the next assignment, the next quiz, the next test, and stop there. Once I'm into an assignment the wildly swirling cloud of possibilities condenses down to actual tasks that I have to accomplish and I can do that.

I'm late to the party on this realization, of course. Many philosophical and religious traditions address the concept of being in the present.

Taoism teaches us We Wu Wei, the art of not-doing.

Buddhism seeks for Nirvana. a state of no motion.

Even Christianity teaches:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (KJV Matthew 6:34)

So instead of being terrified of the next wave, I'm seeking to put it out of my mind. I'm keeping an eye on the horizon so I have an idea of what's coming, but I'm trying not to obsess over the future. The joy of living in this liminal space is that I have this moment before the wave hits, and I can be satisfied in that.

As usual, Randall Munroe says it best, even if he's arguing both sides of the issue here.

I once read that Akira Kurosawa would stress and fret over portraying the death of a character because he hated how it cheapened human life.

(One of the problems with being me is that I pick things up but rarely remember where I pick them up, so I'm terrible at sources. After thinking about this for twenty minutes, I'm pretty sure I got that factoid from an article written by Douglas Adams, talking about his two “ethical cops” in the first Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book. Of course, I don't remember where I found that article by Douglas Adams...)

Regardless of the connection to Kurosawa, I understand the sentiment. One of the things that distress me about the whole concept of horror or action movies is how blasé the characters are to the termination of a human being.

I Can't Even Handle Action Movies

Another reference for which I don't have a source: I saw a few seconds of some action movie on a demo computer at a university campus store, years ago. The protagonist and love interest were driving, chasing some bad guys. The bad guys shot the love interest dead and also shot the protagonist's car, forcing it to veer into the water. The protagonist got himself free, saw that his love interest was dead, and kissed her gently before swimming off to chase the bad guys.

And I couldn't deal with that scene. I still can't. If he had actually loved this woman that would have been the end of the movie. He would have pulled her out of the water, spent days or months or years trying to cope with the stages of grief, trying to make sense of a world where you kill someone because they disagree with you.

I'm sure the context was such that if he didn't continue to be a hero the world would have ended or some such thing, but I don't buy it. You just turned a woman— a person that we are supposed to believe had the full wealth of human qualities, the full gamut of uniquely human emotions and irreplaceable human value—into a reason for a character to be angry at people he was already trying to kill.

So Imagine how I Feel About Slasher Flicks!

So when you take that one step farther, into horror movies, where death is less of a sentence and more of an exclamation point, I'm even less okay with it.

I understand the “roller coaster” argument: everyone involved knows this isn't “really” real, that it's all just actors and makeup. But that undermines the very basis of fiction. The understood contract between the creators and consumers of fictive works is rooted in willing suspension of disbelief.

Of course I am aware that the actor on stage playing Hamlet will be back again for the matinee tomorrow. But Hamlet is dead. The reason drama works at all is because I can make myself believe he is dead, even if only for a few minutes while Fortinbras closes out the play.

So to suggest that we can at once accept that these characters are being senselessly butchered and also laugh because we know that it's all just red paint and latex is to disregard that contract. I can no longer suspend my disbelief, I can no longer make myself accept what the creators are attempting to portray.

Instead, the horror I feel is not from what is on screen, but from trying to comprehend the minds of hundreds of talented people getting together and spending millions of dollars to essentially feed sentient people into a meat grinder. The nausea I experience arises from trying to understand the mental state of someone who experiences joy when viewing that.

Come on man, it's just for fun!

Sure. I can accept that people who disagree with me aren't wrong for disagreeing with me. I understand that people enjoy things I don't.

But...how is that fun? Why is it enjoyable to watch people suffer? What makes it exciting to see others experience life-ending torture? Even if you don't care about willing suspension of disbelief, even if you can “handle it”, I have never been able to comprehend the mindset that would make you want to handle it.

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