Posted in Christmas Eve, Holidays

Christmas Sweet and Bitter

One of my favorite memories is my whole family together on Christmas Eve, trimming the tree together. My mother was born in Norway, and the tradition (at least in those days) was to put the tree up on Christmas Eve, so somehow she convinced Dad to go along with it). To help set the mood, Dad would get the reel-to-reel tape player set up with what I suppose was the one and only Christmas music reel we had. I don’t know how he made it, if he taped it off the radio or some LPs that we owned. This was the 1960s, after all. I remember the house we were living in then, a large old farmhouse in Massachusetts where we lived when Dad was involved in working on the Apollo space missions, and the same living room where we all gathered to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. What a house that was. I still miss it.

Once the tree was placed in the stand, centered and straight and watered, Dad would string the lights, those enormous old C9 bulbs. Then my sisters and I would begin hanging the ornaments as high as we could reach. Dad did the top of the tree. I remember him singing “O Tannenbaum” in decent baritone as he reached to place ornaments on the branches. Once all the ornaments were in place, the tinsel went on. I love tinsel. I think it gives the tree a more magical, fairy-tale appearance than big bushy garlands. I don’t think anyone uses it anymore, though. I don’t dare now with my cats.

Both of my parents have been gone for a long time (Dad in 1983, Mom in 2006), so holidays have long been a bittersweet time for me. When I had my own children I tried to keep that festive family spirit alive. We were living on the opposite side of the country with no other family close by so it was all on me. In the last few years I’ve become estranged from the last of my sisters (I have four) who are all on the opposite coast anyway. It’s one reason I’ve chosen to stay on the west coast.

So, I listen to the old music and the classical Christmas music that my dad loved so much, and think of my mom whenever I hear her favorite, “Silver Bells.” The music helps me connect to happier times in a way that nothing else does. Maybe I spend too much time looking backwards. It’s a kind of homesickness, I think. As they say, you can never go home again.

That’s me on my mother’s lap, with Dad and 3 of my sisters (the youngest not born yet). The fireplace behind us had a door in the bottom that you could sweep the ashes into, down a chute to a clean-out in the basement. I assume it was to keep the ashes from getting all over the living room when the servants cleaned it out back in ye olden days. The house was built around 1850.

Posted in science fiction, writing

Star Trek and Nostalgia

I’ve been working my way through the original series of Star Trek, which I have always adored. My family watched it together when I was a child. It was our Friday night ritual. We’d have cheese pizza (being good Catholics, so no meat on Fridays in the late 1960s) and watch first a series called “The Name of the Game” and then “Star Trek,” if memory serves. The early “Mission: Impossible” figured in somewhere, but I can’t recall if that was the same night or a different night. At any rate, I was brought up on Star Trek, and science fiction  has always been in my blood. This past Christmas I received the boxed set of the full original series, and have been pacing myself, working through those three delicious seasons. Of course over the years, when it was in re-runs, I’d catch it whenever possible, so I’ve seen all the episodes many times. That doesn’t dull their appeal for me.

And now, in the internet age, I can watch the show and simultaneously look up the actors’ biographies on to learn about them.

Mostly I look at their dates of birth. My parents were roughly the same age as many of the actors on the show. I note the ones who were born around the same time as my parents to see if they’re still alive, and if so, how old they are now. I count off the years, and feel a strange sense of injustice at the ones who outlived my parents, who maybe were born within a year or so of when my parents were. I feel so cheated to have lost my father far too soon (aged 62) and even my mother at the age of 83. But when I see actors who died much younger I mourn for them, for their lives cut short. There is no fairness in life, I know. There’s no one to be angry at for their deaths, no one and nothing to rage at. Dad’s been gone more than thirty years, Mom eleven this May. I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t wish they were here. Dad would have loved seeing the advances in science and technology, and to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and Mom mostly for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Technology baffled her at times. She had a vague understanding of the internet, but  never really used it. She was amazed by it and in awe of me using it.

In the Star Trek:ToS,  S3:Ep23, “All Our Yesterdays,” Kirk, McCoy and Spock visit a planet called Sarpeidon whose sun is about to go nova and destroy it. All the people have fled into some past era on their world. McCoy and Spock accidentally pass through to the planet’s ice age, where they meet a woman named Zarabeth (played by Mariette Hartley). Spock begins to revert to a more primitive state and falls for Zarabeth. When he and McCoy find their way back to their own time again, he observes, “Yes it did happen. That was 5000 years ago, and she is dead now. Dead and buried, long ago.”

And so she is, from where he stands, even if he was with her only moments ago by his reckoning.  (Mariette Hartley is still with us, happily.) His memories of her will always be a part of him, and the fact of her existence will live on in him, just as my parents live on in my memories, and in my heart.

Posted in writing

The Wayback Machine

Good friends

Some of us are old enough to remember THIS WABAC machine

(although, seriously, can no one spell Edgar Allan Poe’s name correctly?)

There is an immediacy to typing onto paper, as opposed to the ephemeral nature of electronic communication. What we want is to see our words IN PRINT, bound in a book. Electronic communications seem somehow less real than a printed page of paper. Ever since writing was invented we’ve been fixing it in one form or another: cuneiform and glyphs onto stone and clay tablets, later papyrus came along, vellum, paper. All tangible, visceral forms of communication. Sure, most of us use computers and text and email and blog (yours truly is clearly no exception), but emails and texts and electronic publishing have the staying power of a puff of wind. They’re gone in a flash, like a conversation. It’s the same reason we create videos, take photographs.

There’s a scene in the new television show “Revolution” that speaks to this. The premise of the show is that all electricity in the world is somehow neutralized, even batteries are useless. Cars stop dead, planes won’t fly and fall out of the sky when it happens. And yet one of the characters continues to hold onto her iPhone because it contains the only photographs she has of her children, who she hopes are still alive in another country that she can no longer get to. She knows those photos are in there, and she’s not getting rid of the iPhone even though it won’t turn on and she can’t see the photos. How many of us have hundreds, even thousands, of photos stored on SD cards, or hard drives? How often do you ever look at them? I bet like most people you don’t, you’ve probably forgotten what you have. Sure, it’s cheaper than wasting rolls and rolls of film and the expense of developing, but what good are they if you never even see them, or the computer dies and takes all your photos to the grave with it?

As much as I love my computer and scanner and digital camera, I still like things that are not dependent on electricity to function. Hence I still buy printed books and don’t have an ereader. Now, that said, I’m not giving up my electric oven and going back to cooking over a wood fire (it’s not like you can save what you’ve cooked for posterity), but some things need to be saved in physical form.

I found this video at Ace Typewriter’s Web site:

I can’t embed it here because sites can’t use Flash. Astounding that already young people don’t even recognize these machines when they see them.

Here’s another short one that features a collector who has Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter:

It’s nice to know I’m not the only kook still in love with mechanical devices.

So here is my own prize, my own Wayback Machine:

better front viewkeys

It’s an Optima Super, made in West Germany (or “Western Germany” as they apparently called it back in the old days). Isn’t she pretty? When she arrived (and some of you know the saga) she wasn’t working, the carriage didn’t move, so off she went to the typewriter spa for a long soak and some TLC. In October. Just brought her home today, all spiffed up and freshly oiled and a new ribbon installed. The repair guy almost gave up on her. After getting things working, she froze up again 4 times. His estimate was that she had been sitting in storage for fifty years, no wonder she was feeling her age. Apparently the gang at the shop where I had it serviced all took turns typing on her, they seemed very impressed not only with the way she works, but she wowed them with her appearance as well. She is a beauty. The color’s a little funky (the light in my house is terrible, especially this time of year), she’s really a lovely beige with brown keys.

And the sound. There’s just nothing quite like the clacking of the keys. Did you know keyboards for computers are purposely designed to make the clicking noise? They could be totally silent, but apparently people prefer to hear that sound. It’s like confirmation that the key struck the paper and left an impression.  Done. Complete.

I also have this:

Adler J5

But this one hasn’t been to the spa yet, and there’s no ribbon in it. I swiped the picture from the original Ebay listing. This is an Adler J5, another German machine. The body is plastic but the keys seem to be incredibly smooth. I must get it in for a cleaning and a fresh ribbon so I can play with it.

I just love that these things are mechanical, not dependent on electricity or being tethered to power cords, no blue screen of death. Sure things can go wrong, but I just love the simplicity of them, the same way I love the beauty and simplicity of the bicycle over the automobile. Maybe I was a tinker or builder in another life.

Posted in writing

Long Live the Humble Ranch House

Every once in awhile I get to feeling nostalgic for my childhood. Maybe it happens more as we age and spend more time contemplating our mortality, I don’t know. It’s funny the things that will trigger memories and that feeling of wanting to go ‘home’. Things change so quickly now, it’s hard to feel any sense of belonging or roots or community.

Since I’ve started my new job and have been taking the bus, I get a daily trip down memory lane as the bus passes through a well-kept older neighborhood of modest homes. The houses all have immaculate yards, so I suspect they are under some sort of homeowner’s association. But it’s the houses themselves that I love. They’re all small, one-story affairs, but what they have that most modern construction lacks is real charm. I expect most date back to the 1960s, or 1950s judging by the architecture. Can’t you just see Darrin Stevens driving up to this house in Bewitched?

Of course, their house looked like this:

Ok, it’s two-story, but still quite modest by today’s standards. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the show and that time period, here’s a great site with tons of pics from the sets of the house. Oh, the memories! Quick, somebody rewind time.

I didn’t even grow up in a ranch-style house. The house I grew up in in Massachusetts was a three-story (four, if you count the full basement) farmhouse that dated to the 1850s. Sadly I don’t seem to have any photos of it. (I tried to find a picture online, but the Google streetview shows it completely obscured by trees and other foliage now. What a mess).

But anyway, there’s one house in particular that I love more and more every time I go past it. It’s a dark green/brown color, with shutters as interior window coverings, but the thing I really love about it is all the flowers planted around it outside are white. There are roses, hydrangeas, and I don’t know what all else, but all white. It looks a little like the photo below, although the one in the picture is more ornate than the house on my bus route.

I miss when neighborhoods were made up of these kinds of houses. I really REALLY hate the McMansions that populate today’s suburbs. I think they’re cold, unfriendly, uninviting, and I wouldn’t want to spend much time in one, even as a visitor. I’ve known people who own these houses, and I am always distinctly uncomfortable when I visit. These are not welcoming places, there is no warmth. I like to remember the banged up, muddy screen doors that usually lead into the kitchens of houses where my friends lived. You never felt like an outsider or intruder going into their homes.

Seriously, does this say, “Welcome” in any language? I think I’ll redecorate my house in retro 60s colors. I guess I had a happy childhood.

Posted in random thoughts, writing

The Beginning of the End of Cursive

And so it begins. Indiana schools are no longer going to be teaching cursive writing. You remember cursive, right? The curly, flowy letters that all connect as you write. With a pen. By hand. On paper. No? Maybe it’s already dead.


Why do I care when I scarcely write anything by hand anymore myself? I’m not sure. I guess it’s my inner Luddite stirring. I realize it’s more than a little schizophrenic to be tweeting and blogging my lament about the death of handwriting, but hey, it works for me. As much as I love my gadgets and toys and playing online (and believe me, I do) part of me still sees value in the quieter, slower times of yesteryear. I try not to look back with the rose-colored glasses, I try to keep in mind all the ways modern life is superior to the level of daily life of one-hundred, two-hundred, and a thousand years ago (small things, like hygiene, and medicine, and women’s rights, education, not to mention not having to wear underwear that deforms you and destroys internal organs) but still. Is there anything more treasured or personal than a hand-written note?

But apart from all the romanticism, one effect of not learning cursive is someday no one will be able to read old documents. This will make historical and genealogical research more difficult by an untold factor. Handwritten forms, census records, birth and death certificates, church records and the like will be nearly incomprehensible to all but a few specialist scholars. Handwriting will be the new hieroglyphics before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. However, having said that, some of them already are. Penmanship oddly does not seem to have been a consideration for people whose job it was to fill in these forms in the days of yore. If you’ve done any research into your own family and seen some of these documents, you now what I mean.

I wonder what other unforeseen fallout from this will be. Eventually company logos now written in script or cursive will have to be changed because no one will be able to read them. Someday people will look back on pens and pencils the way we look at quill pens and inkwells, with fond nostalgia. They’ll wonder how we ever got anything done like that. Ink blots and smears from those old ballpoint pens that globbed up if you didn’t use them all the time and the pocket protectors that only the nerdiest used, pencils that always needed sharpening or the mechanical ones with the little leads that always break will be as outdated as sealing wax and leather scrolls are to us. Handwritten communications will be relegated to only the most extraordinary occasions, and the exclusive province of artists and calligraphers. Unsurprisingly, I do a little calligraphy and have a nice collection of inks and dip pens and nibs. I find it relaxing, kind of Zen practicing letter forms. It’s my one and only foray into the art world, and if you’ve seen my little sketches on my blog here, I think you’ll agree it’s for the best.

Posted in books, computers, Office Life, random thoughts, science fiction, writing

Last Typewriter Factory in the World Closes

UPDATE 7/21/2011 (Hemingway’s birthday, btw): It appears the demise of the typewriter has been greatly exaggerated. See this NPR article for clarification. Seems the plant in Mumbai was producing manual typewriters, but electrics are still to be had from other manufacturers.


Aw you guys, I’m sad! I guess it’s just nostalgia, but it’s the end of an era. Just a few short paragraphs in The Atlantic (although they picked up the story from The Daily Mail) to announce the demise of our clackety friends.

With only about 200 machines left — and most of those in Arabic languages — Godrej and Boyce shut down its plant in Mumbai, India, today.

Well, go click through the little gallery, or head for the nearest antiques mall to pick up one of these old beasts for posterity. I had no idea. Paper books, typewriters… what’s next? I might as well face it, we are living in the future. Just this morning I found out we have a MFP (Multi-Function Printer, i.e., scanner/copier/printer/fax) that has VOICE COMMAND enabled. Prepare yourselves.

Posted in books, Publishing, writing

A Look Back in Publishing


Joni Evans, formerly of the publishing world, has written a terrific little piece in the New York Times Jobs section of the good ol’ days in publishing.

Remember typewriters? Rolodexes? Carbon paper? Wite-Out®? Take a trip down memory lane to the early 1980s, before the advent of the PC, iPhones, and e-mail. Says Evans of her early life:

I started out at William Morrow as a “manuscript girl” — a promising title in the ’70s — reading everything that came into the office and distributing it to the correct editor, copy editor, proofreader, art director or sales manager. I was buried in paper: onion skin carbon paper, three-ply message pads, and manuscripts bound by three-ring binders or stuffed into oatmeal boxes.

I remember reading when Carolyn Chute submitted her manuscript The Beans of Egypt, Maine, back in the early 80s, she submitted it in an empty diaper box because she’d never heard of manuscript boxes. Do manuscript boxes still exist? Or have they gone the way of the IBM Selectric? I learned to type on one of those beasts.

Hey look what I found! A picture from an old class trip! I wonder what those guys are up to today?