Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Bulletin board systems, or .bbs for short, were social media before anyone coined the term, but without the graphics. ISCA.bbs was the Iowa Student Computing Association bulletin board system. Users from all over the world logged on. If too many people were logged on, you waited in the queue until somebody logged off and it was your turn. If you had access to a computer, a modem, and some time, you could be there. The vast majority of us were college students, though there were some high school kids and a few past adults past their 20s.
This was before the internet as we now know it existed. Netscape was brand new in 1994. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, wasn’t even a teenager. Outlook and Gmail didn’t exist. Basic e-mail was picking up steam on colleges campuses. If you received an e-mail from an address you didn’t recognize, you would probably open it and try to figure out who sent it. Sometimes it wasn’t hard. I received a few messages from GoD. I knew exactly who it was. It really was the Wild West.
Even without graphics, it was possible to spend vast amounts of time online on a .bbs. There were “forums” or “rooms” for all sorts of topics on ISCA.bbs, from the esoteric to the silly. You could have private conversations via eXpress messages, or “Xes” for short. You could argue about history and literature or get critiques of your writing.
You could commiserate or blow off steam. You could mess with people’s heads just for the sheer black-hearted fun of it. You could tell jokes or spread rumors. You could make friends or enemies. You could laugh or cry. You could flirt or fall in love. You could do almost anything on a bbs, and you did it with text.
When you created an account, you had to come up with a new name to use online. You could use your real name, but most of us came up with something new. On ISCA, there was CatsEye, Glass Falcon, Cyanide, Captain Chaos, Caramel Delight, and Vlad the Impala among thousands of others. We were from Iowa, Michigan, Maryland, Washington, Australia, the United Kingdom and just about everywhere else.
Jennifer and I set off for Iowa during rush hour on a Friday. It was a few days after Kurt Cobain died. Stuck in construction traffic outside Lansing, we heard about it on a random radio station as we channel surfed for better music. We didn’t care. Grunge wasn’t our thing. I remember we couldn’t find anything good on the airwaves. Instead must have popped in a CD or continued our four-years’ long conversation about absolutely everything.
Jennifer was my other half. We talked from the night we met at freshman orientation until a few years after graduation. We synced in all sorts of ways. We finished each other’s sentences. We looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking. Sometimes, we even got our classes mixed up. She was a little shorter than me, more outgoing and a lot smarter. We did everything together. I think we even signed up for ISCA at the same time. I really believed we would always be in each other’s’ lives.
I haven’t seen Jennifer in close to twenty years. We lost contact for a while but it doesn’t change the fact that she is the only friend I’ve loved like family. To this day, I would drop everything for her if she needed me.
So, around Chicago that night in April 1994, we lost the thread from I-94 to I-80. We were north of where we were supposed to be. We drove into the darkness of I-90 west of the suburbs, then south on I-39 and finally, to I-88 west. No lights, no exits, no cell phones. Just a road map and hours of darkness ahead of us. At the end of it was a friend from ISCA we’d never actually met, waiting to be picked up outside a bar in Cedar Falls. Was that as sketchy then as it sounds now?
Sometime after midnight, we stopped at the last gas station in Illinois to call information for the number of the bar where our friend was waiting. We called and the bartender paged Rob. He laughed at us and took it in stride, like it was no big deal that we were running late. The bar would be closed well before we arrived.
We’d never met Rob in person. He could have been an ax murderer for all we knew. What I did know was this: he’d had a rough few years. He smoked. He drank. (I didn’t do much of either.) He was intelligent with a subversive streak and a loner– totally my type in those respects. He was also a few years younger than me. I found him sometimes unsettling and a little dangerous, but instinctively I knew he had a good heart.
The previous semester, Rob taught me to flirt - in brilliant green and amber text. It was an education he perhaps didn’t know he was providing. We were very different in some ways and similar in others. He wasn’t the only guy I flirted with on ISCA, but he meant the most. We connected on an emotional level.
There was no eye contact or stammering to worry about on a .bbs…in theory. Even though we sat typing at computer monitors hundreds of miles apart, I often blushed and averted my eyes from the screen. (I was a master at avoiding eye contact in person.) A rose composed of an ampersand and punctuation marks could make my day. We communicated on ISCA, through e-mails that the other person didn’t always receive, talked on the phone, and exchanged blurry pictures through the mail.
I think we met in a forum called Babble. The name says it all. In Babble, users talked about everything and anything. We talked about life. We joked. We healed. We flirted. We held virtual happy hours and crashed on virtual couches in dark corners. We were lighthearted. We were serious.
I remember when one user burst in to Babble and said his parents were getting divorced. He didn’t know what to do. We were there for him, reaching out and listening across the miles, across dial-up connections from everywhere.
The first exchanges Rob and I had were about a mutual admiration of vampires. Before the end of September 1993, we were talking a lot in private eXpress messages and exchanging e-mails.
Because I wrote about that year in excruciating detail as it unfolded, I have a record of what was typed when things moved to more than flirtatious, banter between unseen strangers. It went like this:
Rob: “So what do you look like?”
Me (coyly): “What do you want me to look like?”
That stopped me in my tracks. He wasn’t flirting. He really wanted to know. Be still my bruised heart!
The fall of 1993 I was reeling from breaking up with my first serious boyfriend. Scott and I had known each other since the second week of our freshman year. Near the end of that year, we stopped ignoring what was obvious to everyone but us. We were wildly attracted to each other. We were a couple for the next two years. Between my junior and senior year, we broke up, painfully but without malice. For other reasons, he transferred to a school close to home.
I did not know college without Scott. His absence was palpable. I was so used to him by my side that I could feel he wasn’t there. Anything would remind me of him. That we never stopped talking even though we’d broken up couldn’t have helped. I was fragile. I was tough. I was a mess.
I tried to run from all that by writing a lot, by spending too many hours on ISCA, and by flirting more than I ever had before, mostly online. I was still shy, but I could be daring behind a keyboard. It was a real rush!
My fling with Rob was over by the middle of October, but we remained friends. We still talked online and on the phone. By the spring of 1994, there was still interest in meeting IRL –in real life – so I jumped at the opportunity to go on a road trip to Iowa.
By the time Jennifer and I got to Cedar Falls, it was 3:30 in the morning. The bar had been closed for an hour and a half. As we rode up, we saw Rob sitting on the curb reading, his long legs stretched before him.
He walked up to the car like he knew exactly who it was. (For all he knew, we were the ax murders.) I stayed in the driver’s seat. Jennifer got out of the car and greeted him with a hug. I did not because, well, it was apparently time to put my guard up even if I was truly happy to finally meet.
From there, we drove to a Happy Chef diner. We were all hungry. I later recorded it as “a pale imitation of Denny’s.” What I didn’t record was what we talked about or how much my guard was up. I now have no idea what the conversation was.
Rob was pale, tall and thin. He stood about a foot taller than me. Online, he had a knack for saying things I didn’t know how to respond to, because it was off-color or because I had absolutely no frame of reference. His brown hair was dyed black and shaved underneath. What wasn’t shaved fell to his shoulders. Like every other guy I ever really cared about, he wore glasses. He had kind eyes and a nice smile.
Sometime in the next few hours, he snuck in between my defenses, ever so briefly. I remember a hug that was a little handsy if polite. No lines were crossed. He knew his way around a girl. He didn’t need directions, just signals I wasn’t giving.
I was 22. I was growing my hair long again. It was dyed dark reddish brown against my fair complexion. I wore lightweight tortoiseshell glasses and a motorcycle jacket that always made me feel tougher than I actually was.
I was a bit intense, I guess, and apprehensive about my future. Graduation was just weeks away. Grad school was in my future, but the details were unknown.
Even in the long skirts and loose t-shirts I often wore, I was a somewhat of a tease. Coy was my middle ground. I may have come out of my shell that year, but I had no idea how to proceed.
I had a delicate confidence. I felt a certain power of feeling attractive even though I was self-conscious. I knew how to take things only so far with any sort of romantic or physical attraction. I was afraid of how I would react, so I either ran when things got too close or I became standoffish for what I thought was my own protection. I held myself back from emotional danger even if it meant withholding friendship and affection, even if I wanted the very same thing in return.
There are a few pictures of that weekend. In one, Rob’s arm is around Jennifer. They lean into each other in one while another friend from ISCA looks on. There are smiles all around. In another, a group of us are at a party. Rob has his arm around me; I am not completely comfortable but not hating it either. I let my guard slip. Is this visible in the grainy picture?
Most of the weekend, he tried to get closer. Most of the weekend, I inched just barely out of reach. Someone should have told him, “Just kiss her or don’t. Stop acting like you can’t find her lips. Someone should have told me, “Stop playing keep away and just kiss him already.” He was a gentleman and I was curious but afraid.
All there ever was was a peck on the cheek at the end of the party and a peck on the cheek when we dropped him off at the bus station the next morning. His ride home fell through. We could not afford the time to drive him back to Cedar Falls, so I bought him a bus ticket.
I lived in my head so much that year. I journaled obsessively. There are five composition books of every tiny painful detail of being twentysomething, passionate, confused, heartbroken, hopeful, and exhilarated with life. Rob is mentioned often. I would not have encountered him without ISCA.bbs. I’ve never had another friend quite like him.
On ISCA, we were Akasha, Didi, and GoZeR.
Didi: “Thank you” doesn’t say enough for our endless conversation all through college. Thank you for being my best friend even though I didn’t like Doctor Who then. Thank you for dealing with my sad manic self our senior year. (Okay, and every other year, but especially that year.) You are a saint. I miss you.
GoZeR: Thank you for bringing me out of my shell. Thank you for listening and making me laugh. Thank you for everything on ISCA I remember and probably some stuff I don’t. Thank you for tracking me down every so often in the years since. Thank you for giving a damn.
Thank you for being there, for being who you were that moment in our lives. You helped me find my way. I love you both.
Author’s note: “Friendship, Flirting, and Digital Angst (1994)” was inspired by the perfect storm of finding an old friend from college one week and the very next week, learning an old friend from high school had died. Each was present in my daily life in some way only about a year. The friends we may be close to for only a short time can have a lasting impact on our lives.
Reach out to your old friends. I don't care if you haven't seen them in decades. Find them; it is so much easier than it used to be. Find them and let them know they made a difference in your life.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Friday, August 12, 2011
Monday, April 4, 2011
and why we don’t),about our morals...
Actually, we just drove by and threw the eggs, so I doubt
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
I haven't written much lately. What you see below is a small tribute to my Aunt Dawn. She passed away last month, and I still tear up thinking about the fact that she's not on this earth anymore. I miss her, but wherever she is, I know she's having a grand old time, smiling that smile as wide as the day is long. It's probably summer, she probably has a lot of people over, and there's plenty to eat and drink.
When I think of Aunt Dawn, I think of her sprawling vegetable garden, full of prickly cucumbers and red tomatoes and who knows what else that would be canned or frozen for later use. I think of the velvety petunias out front of her trailer. I think of friends and family teasing her about what all you might find in the big chest freezer in the garage – frozen corn, beans, beef, venison, maybe 4 kinds of ice cream – and whatever it was you were actually looking for.
I think of her two mailboxes out by the road – the short one for regular mail and the really tall one for air mail. I’m not sure how long they’ve been gone, but I think I was well into double digits before I got the joke.
I think of the two cats Tom and Pandy that she fed at different points in time. I don’t know about Tom, but I think Pandy started out as a housecat that eventually had free access to all of Six Lakes. Eventually, Dawn just let both of them do their own thing. They led their own feline lives, but they could always stop by for a bit to eat and a little affection.
That was how Dawn was – she let you do your own thing but you could always drop by. She would always listen and always offer you a cold Diet Coke or something stronger. I could be myself around Dawn. I could always speak my mind to Aunt Dawn, whether I was 10 or 17 or 38. We may not have always seen eye-to-eye, but we could always shoot the breeze and be ourselves.
One of the first summers at the old farm outside of town, the question was, “What are you doing?” The answer was, “Waiting for the bus.” I don’t remember who came up with that answer – it sounds like something Grandma Neva or Dawn or my Mom could have come up with. It’s a phrase that still makes me smile. We live our lives while we we’re waiting for the bus – planting gardens, traveling, working, just getting by, laughing, crying, having family fests in the summer, making memories. And I’m glad I got to spend some of my time waiting for the bus with my Aunt Dawn.
Sunday, January 2, 2011
The words come and go into short lines, just emotions laid bare, like it always was, like it always has been, maybe like it always will be. Just short lines, poems, free verse. She feels she can only write as herself. That means poems that are intense and sometimes over-wrought. It means essays in a conversational tone and occasional musings. It does not mean short stories, because who is she to think she can get in someone else’s skin and feel with their senses and soul? She doesn’t even remember the last time she dared.
How, she wondered, do you get inside their skin? Do you slip in the ear when they are overcome by music? Do you float in on a thought take up residence in the brain? Are you so bold as to dive in through the mouth when they take a deep breath and expand from the lungs until you fill them everywhere, body and soul? Or do you creep in slowly over time until you inhabit their very being? Perhaps, she thought, she had it all backwards. Maybe she doesn’t inhabit them. Maybe they inhabit her, seeping in any way they can. Maybe they’re already inside, just waiting until the time is right.
She wondered if it is permissible to write about someone so very like yourself but isn’t you. Does it matter if those who know you best can see right through that character to you? Do you make yourself paper-thin by explaining the motivations of that fictional person? Does it matter if they think it’s you, even if it isn’t? Does it matter if it is you?
“Well,” she thought, “You can think yourself in circles and talk yourself out of trying, or you can just get to it.” She warmed up her imagination, fired up the computer, and began to type.
“Brian had really just stepped inside the church to get away from the hot, crowded streets of Florence in August. He only wanted to rest his feet for a little while and cool off. He found a pew and let the quiet coolness wash over him.
“At the end of the day, she’s the one who began it, ” she sang to herself. Different context than the Les Miserables song. At the end of the day was not the time to start writing, she thought. She was no night owl. Yet, here she was, wringing out a few lines. If not now, then when?
The answer is “Whenever you can,” she told herself. There was a time when she wrote whenever she could, whenever a line or two occurred to her. She wrote on napkins, in the margins of notebooks for other things, in moments between classes…In moments between classes – that was how long it had been since she had written regularly. That person, that girl was twenty years past. There had been short periods of time since when she wrote for a few weeks or months, but life or her practical side always eventually shoved creativity back in a dark corner where it would cower until it was nearly forgotten because it didn’t know how to fight for itself.
She looked back at the page and considered Brian. Who was he? What was he doing in Florence, Italy? She decided she would abandon him on the page. She had done that to other characters over the years and felt bad about it. But Brian? She felt nothing for him. He had just wandered into one of her memories. He could just as easily wander back out in to the ether and she could keep that moment in Florence to herself.