Historical Novel, Circa 1994

Day’s Verse:
When you’re kind to others, you help yourself; when you’re cruel to others, you hurt yourself.
Proverbs 11:17

Back in college I took a history class called US History through the Novel. In it, we read such cheerful novels as McTeague, House of Mirth, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, and (if I recall correctly) Frankenstein; we read with an eye towards what the books told us about the culture and history of the time, rather than for literary analysis. This way of approaching history by looking at what novelists capture in their verbal snapshots of a time continues to interest me.

Recently I started reading Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland. You can read the first chapter or so at the Wired archive, where it was originally published as a short story. The interesting thing about this book is that it, like McTeague or House of Mirth, captures a historical moment. Written in 1994, this epistolary story follows a group of Microsoft programmers as they try to start up their own company in Silicon Valley. Because technology permeates the book completely, it has become historical in well under a generation. Technology has advanced so far since this book was written in 1994 that it’s hard to wrap my head around it.

Remember 1994? (Read the link. It’s Dave Barry’s year in review for 1994*. So worth it. I’d totally forgotten Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding/the Norway Winter Olympics, OJ Simpson, and the Shumacher-Levy asteroid, but it’s all coming back to me.) That’s 17 years ago, although when I hear the date I don’t think of it as that long ago. It was before the prevalent Internet, before the .com bubble, before most people even had computers. The “information superhighway” was going to be really cool. “Multimedia” was the bandwagon to jump on. Use of the terms “nerd” and “geek” began expanding dramatically. The average age of tech people hardly ever exceeded 32 years. It was before even this phenomenon.

So I’m enjoying the in-depth reminder of what the tech world used to be. Despite its historicality (?), Microserfs covers some pretty thought-provoking territory. For example, at one point he says:

“I wonder if I’ve missed the boat on CD-ROM interactive — if I’m too old. The big companies are zeroing in on the 10-year-olds**. I think you only ever truly feel comfortable with the level of digitization that was normal for you from the age of five to fifteen. I mean sure, I can make new games workable, but it won’t be a kick the way Tetris was. Or will it?” (143)

Thought-provoking for me. Am I already 10 years past my technology-assimilation prime?

Check back in 17 more years. The future is never what we expect.

Edited @ 6:35 pm, 01Mar2011, to add a few more thought-provoking quotes. Microserfs, far from being about technology, is really a philosophy book thinly disguised as a nerd book. Part of its appeal as a historical novel is its predictive nature, too. The characters are future-focused and constantly speculate about the future — which is happening now. They never got close to iPhones. Quotes:

1. Theory that one of the characters suggests and I find interesting: We store memories in our bodies, not just our brains. The character says it’s actual memories; I’d say we seem to store something in our physical bodies. Why else do we need a massage after a long, stressful day?

2. “I’m coming to the conclusion about the human subconscious… that, no matter how you look at it, machines really are our subconscious. I mean, people from outer space didn’t come down to earth and make machines for us… we made them ourselves. So machines can only be products of our being, and as such, windows into our souls… by monitoring the machines we build, and the sorts of things we put into them, we have this amazingly direct litmus as to how we are evolving.” (228)

3. “Identity. I go by the Tootsie theory: that if you concoct a convincing on-line meta-personality on the Net, then that personality really IS you. With so few things around nowadays to loan a person identity, the palette of identities you create for yourself in the vacuum of the Net — your menu of alternative ‘you’s’ — actually IS you. Or an isotope of you. Or a photocopy of you.” (327) About this: I heard a fascinating segment on KUOW about Second Life addicts, and another segment a while ago about peoples’ behavior online (this may’ve been it and I just internalized it inaccurately, or it could be that amalgamated with this spot). What I took away was that people often tend to let out the worst of themselves online, or tend to be more unrestrained. In-person interactions you have the expectations and responses of actual people to gauge your behavior, and you tend to behave according to some kind of group norm. Online, those restrictions tend to be stripped away, even in places like Facebook where the real you is connected to other people you know in real life. The Second Life people took this to an extreme: They had affairs with other people in Second Life, or played characters who were the opposite gender and child-aged.

4. “‘…what does all this stuff tell us about ourselves as humans? What have we gained by externalizing our essence through these consumable electronic units of luxury, comfort, and freedom?'” (356)

* They should make a Dave Barry history book that’s a compilation of his year-in-review articles.
** That was ME!

Numbers I’ve Never Seen Before

Day’s Verse:
Live wisely and wisdom will permeate your life;
mock life and life will mock you.

Proverbs 9:12

…at least not when I’m standing on a bathroom scale. Here’s me on the scale in regular clothes before the backpack:
112 lbs

Here’s what Ian described as “heavy reading,” my backpacking backpack crammed full of 85 Traffic Skills 101 student manuals to deliver to the Bicycle Alliance:
Heavy reading

And here’s me on the scale wearing the backpack:

Gosh, I’ve never been anywhere near 150 lbs before! Ian was right, this is heavy reading! A little quick math indicated I was carrying just under 40% of my weight in that backpack. I mentally patted myself on the back at my clever solution for how to get 40 lbs of books to BAW without driving downtown. A backpacking backpack, I reasoned, is designed to carry heavy loads. Granted, this wasn’t food, water, clothes, tents, sleeping bags, etc., but what does the bag care?

Then I realized that carrying 40 lbs on my back really wasn’t a big deal at all. Parents carry their children in backpacks all the time, and don’t think of it as some extraordinary feat. But since I don’t have kids, I’ll just count it a success having eventually gotten the Traffic Skills 101 manuals to the Bike Alliance on a snowy day sans car or even bike. ‘Course, I spent 3.5 hours traveling for 2 hours at the Bike Alliance, thanks to the snow and buses with chains on that could, as a result, travel up to only 30 mph.

My gosh, the first class is THIS MONDAY. …It’s gonna be OK. It is. It is.

What I Wanted to Say

Day’s Verse:
Good friend, take to heart what I’m telling you; collect my counsels and guard them with your life.
Tune your ears to the world of Wisdom;
set your heart on a life of Understanding.

Proverbs 2:1

Dear Dan Druckhammer, PT, OMT, etc.,

This is what I wanted to tell you today at my physical therapy appointment, but I didn’t have the words. Now I have them. Here’s what I wanted to say.

I feel disappointed with the overall outcome of PT, but it’s not anything about the PT itself, the job you did, your skill or diligence. It’s not like I was hit by a car and have to re-learn how to walk again, and once I can do that, your job is clearly done.

I’m in this nebulous space where I’m young, fit, healthy — but not perfect. I sit down to watch a movie and can’t sit on the couch for the whole two hours; I lay down in bed on my back to read and there it is. I can’t curl up in our fluffy chair without feeling this pull, this ache that just won’t go away but isn’t enough to bother with, really. Occasionally I lift my bike onto the stand or shake out a blanket or vacuum and again, zing, there it is. I stand up from working at my computer and there it is again. I get off my bike after a long ride and laying down on the floor is agony. I can’t comfortably lay on my stomach propped on my elbows at any angle.

My back feels 20 years older than the rest of me, maybe… In July, Eric Moen told me, “Your back isn’t as young as it used to be,” and I haven’t forgotten that. What’s it going to be like in 10, 15, 20 years if even now I’m having to feeling it?

Most of the time, though, I feel physically great. I’m not injured. I can do whatever I need to; my scoliosis is not holding me back. And if my back feels stiff and in places achy, like it wants me to stretch some way I just can’t bend — like if I found the right stretch, or if I could massage it right, it’d finally feel relaxed and comfortable — if that’s the case, is it worth spending time, money, and effort to fix something that’s not so much broken as bent? Am I in pursuit of an impossibility?

Because I’m starting to understand from our conversation today that there is no magic bullet, no touch or exercise or stretch to fix this. Nothing will make my back straight. There is only accommodation, adaptation, and “pretty good.” I’m at “pretty good” right now. The reality is that I will always be bent, never able to put my back flat against the wall, never have a symmetrical figure, never have flat shoulders or even-length legs. So I get to do all the right things, the stretches and exercises you gave me, indefinitely, for “pretty good.” And that, although disappointing, is life.

Now I get to choose what to do going forward, how to move on. I choose health, strength, and life — even imperfect as those may be.

Talking Like It’s 1844

Day’s Verse:
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:34

One thing I haven’t mentioned about reading The Count of Monte Cristo: The language. After reading it, I kept finding my language use tending toward the archaic and elaborate. This happened mewhen I read Tale of Two Cities, too, but to a lesser extent due to that book’s length. I spent a couple days with Tale of Two Cities; I spent a couple weeks with The Count of Monte Cristo. Language use I keep finding myself tending towards:

  • Lots of semicolons used in bizarre ways. Here’s a fabricated example of what semicolon use as you might see it. “‘I have so long desired to make your acquaintance;’ she said, inclining her head toward him; her lustrous eyes veiled and downcast, unable to meet his penetrating gaze.”
  • Very long, elaborate sentence construction. Real example from page 193 of the book: “Had a thunderbolt fallen at the feet of Dantès, or hell opened its yawning gulf before him, he could not have been more completely transfixed with horror than at the sound of words so wholly unexpected, revealing as they did the fiendish perfidy which had consigned him to wear out his days in the dark cell of a prison, that was to him as a living grave.” Or take this example, from page 848: “I am fond of these jars, upon which, perhaps, misshapen, frightful monsters have fixed their cold, dull eyes, and in which myriads of small fish have slept, seeking a refuge from the pursuit of their enemies.”
  • Use of vocabulary words and phrases. The previous quote included a couple in a row: fiendish perfidy. Then there’s “calumny,” or derivatives like “caluminator,” which appeared a number of times, and innumerable uses of words like “sojourn,” “peristyle,” “extricate,” not to mention impressive phrases such as “invisible, impalpable agent of celestial rewards and punishments,” “stimulated by an invincible curiosity,” and so on.

In short (too late!), my perusal of The Count of Monte Cristo has imbued me with the unquenchable desire for prose both convoluted and lengthy, unknown and unrivaled by writers for the previous century but much-beloved by those of earlier, long-passed eras.

…which is why I’m now reading a book written in 2008, This is Not a Game, in the hopes that I’ll quickly recover my propensity for 21st Century language.

PS – Today’s looking gorgeous for a bike ride: Clear skies and dry ground, which means I can ride Lucy. On the schedule: 55 miles, 4800 feet of climbing. I’ll probably end up doing a few more miles than that but since last week kicked my butt, I’m not planning on pushing the hills.

Things 1, 2, 3, and 4

Day’s Verse:
You don’t want to squander your wonderful life,
to waste your precious life among the hardhearted.
Why should you allow strangers to take advantage of you?
Why be exploited by those who care nothing for you?

Proverbs 5:9-10ish

Thing 1
Sun breaks yesterday.
Winter Garden

Thing 2
I tried making the cheesy bread Ben mentioned on his blog last week.
Crusty Cheesy Bread
I decided to keep the loaf sealed, rather than cutting it in quarters or half as the recipe said. You can see the result. Overall as bread it turned out well; the crispy crust, fairly light innards (although I still prefer the no-knead bread for interior lightness). As far as the cheese goes, it ended up with just a thick slab of cheese right down the middle. The recipe calls for you to flatten the dough into a rectangle, sprinkle the cheese, and then seal it up again. If I did this again, I’d probably roll the bread out a bit thinner and then do multiple rolls to get a swirl of cheese in the middle, like you do with cinnamon rolls. We enjoyed this bread with homemade tomato soup that I’ve had frozen since summer. I can hardly wait for tomato season again.

Thing 3
The first Bike Alliance teacher training is in 10 days. This morning just before I woke up, I dreamed I was back at WPI and I had overloaded my class schedule. I was overwhelmed with the number of papers I had to write. I felt panicky and unable to handle everything. Finally I gave up and started trying to decide which classes to drop so I could keep up with everything. Subconscious message, you suppose? I can tell you right now that every time I think about the first training in Mattawa — and, indeed, the next trainings in Lynden, Sedro-Wooley, and Auburn — my mouth goes dry, my stomach clenches, and a little voice inside my head starts screaming in terror. The voice keeps saying “I’m not ready I’m not ready I’m not ready” and then follows up with “and I won’t be ready, I’m going to fail, the trainings will be a total failure and the teachers will leave not having gotten anything out of it and I’ll look incompetent and…” –and it goes on. Whenever this happens, I take a big breath, tell myself, “Calm down, it’ll be OK,” and then bury my head in the sand.

Thing 4
The sand has, lately, been The Count of Monte Cristo, which weighs in at 1,400 or so pages and is thick enough that I had to prop it on something to read it comfortably. My prior knowledge of the story came entirely from the 2002 movie of that name. Let the record show that the movie is to the book what sugar is to a cake. The movie took the first 100 pages of the book and discarded the remaining 1,300 pages.

In the book, Edmond Dantès thinks of himself as an instrument of Divine retribution against the people who wrongfully imprisoned him; it’s not just a personal vendetta, but a God-given mandate. There’s no romantic Hollywood ending where he kills the bad guy and gets Mercédès back. Instead, the Count maneuvers the four people who betrayed him into horrible deaths (or madness, in the case of one) after taking away everything they loved. Mercédès and her son (not, incidentally, secretly Edmond’s son as the movie had it) end up destitute and miserable.
After doing an unnecessarily elaborate good deed, the 40-year-old Count sails off into the sunset with a teenage slave-girl.

Most of the time the Count is a character in the story, but the reader spends more time following the lives of people the Count is ruining than the Count himself. By the end the reader feels ambivalent: Whey the slave-girl says “Oh you’re so good, you’re an angel!” I have to admit I thought, “That’s not the term I’d apply!” The plot is dense, complicated, follows the history of at least two totally incidental characters in detail unknown to today’s novelists, and leaves the reader breathing a huge sigh at the end.

Now that I’m at the end, I can’t avoid the things I’ve been avoiding: Bonney Lake bike audit report edits and figuring out the nitty-gritty details of the teaching I’m committed to. Last night Ian reminded me, “You’re doing this because you want experience teaching bike classes so you can go out on your own.” Right. That’s right, that’s why I’m doing this. …I sure hope it’s worth it.

Food, Eyes, and Guests

Day’s Verse:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart…”

Jeremiah 1:5

I calculated my BMI today. Put in 5’3″ and 105 lbs, got out a BMI of 18.6. Given how very approximate those numbers are, this tells me what I already knew — namely, I need to gain some weight to be really healthy. Especially if I want to push myself athletically, build muscle, and perform well on my bike, I need to start building a healthier relationship with food. I like to bake, and I enjoy eating… sometimes. Other times it’s so much more complicated, in ways I don’t need to get into here.

The long and short of it is that I’m implementing a plan to eat something every two hours, no matter what. Some of those “meals” will be snacks and others larger meals, but either way, I’m going to be more deliberate about food. No more “eating when I’m hungry” — that pushes food into the background and gives me an excuse to skip meals. In combination with the very modest bike coaching I’m getting from Dan and my own strength training regimen, I look forward to a year that’s healthier and fitter than years past.

And I’m finally taking action to update my glasses prescription. I’ve had this prescription somewhere over 2 years, and bus numbers have started taking on that familiar blurry look that says “Time to get your eyes checked!” I’d really like to do laser eye surgery and dispense with glasses altogether (contact lenses still freak me out, the whole poking-into-the-eye thing), but my eyes have kept getting steadily worse. One of my great secret fears is going blind. I’d lose the huge joy of bicycling, and I don’t know that I could handle that. Fortunately, that’s extremely unlikely, on par with the fear of being in a parking garage when there’s an earthquake.

On to my last random thing: We’re having a house guest tonight! This plan just came together Tuesday evening, sending me into a frenzy of panicked preparations. The mattress on our spare bed is a $20 Craigslist special, not something I could remedy quickly, but I at least didn’t want to have Ian’s fuzzy Tigger sheets on the bed. We didn’t have anything alternative sheets, though. And the bathroom needed details like towels, shampoo, soap, a soap dish… Suffice it to say, I bonded yesterday with the home/bathroom section of Target. Now I’m as ready as I’m going to be. This visit is from a BAW board member in Spokane, and she and I are working together on the bike curriculum. I’m going to have a very busy 36 hours after she arrives.

For now, I have three hours to eat (again!), go grocery shopping, clean my bikes, and read The Count of Monte Cristo, my latest book. It’s 1400 pages; I’m on page 400-ish, and finding it at least as compelling as John Grisham or Tom Clancy, and far better written.

Kids Everywhere!

Day’s Verse:
Come home, hope-filled prisoners!
This very day I’m declaring a double bonus—
everything you lost returned twice-over!

Zechariah 9:12-ish

…except here, by the way. Don’t get any ideas. No, I say “kids everywhere,” because I was just scanning Facebook’s list of “people you may know and want to be faux-friends with.” What struck me: how many of the people, say, from high school I saw with kids in their pictures. Not just infants, either. Toddlers. Some of my peers have a couple of children. They’re apparently off having these really normal lives getting jobs, marrying, starting a family. Which is lovely. But I still don’t think of myself as old enough to have kids — especially plural — even though theoretically Ian and I could have a 6- or 7-year-old pretty easily at this point.

We got married young. That’s part of it, I think. When we got married, the prospect of kids was so far away it wasn’t even a blip on our horizon. We planned to spend up to 5 years in Massachusetts, far from family, and children didn’t fit into that equation at all. We attended churches with few people our own age, and kind of lost track of our peers for a while (at least I did). Then, in 2009, we moved back and joined a church with lots of people our age. And in the next year, it seemed like all of them had a baby. Like everywhere I look — children. Our friends are no longer couples with no responsibilities; they all have kids and can’t hang out without thinking about where to leave the offspring.

Now I feel like our families keep watching us expectantly (and patiently exhibiting the self-control required to not say this aloud), thinking, “They’re back in Washington. Ian has a good job. Katie’s at home doing… something. What’re they waiting for?” Of course, I’m not getting younger… as the guy who did my bike fit back in July said: “Katie, you’re 26. Your back isn’t what it used to be*.” Gee, if my back isn’t what it used to be, guess I’d better hurry up and have kids before the rest of me falls apart, too.

Really all I had to say was that it’s strange seeing my peers having families. That is all.

* This is patently true. Even after 4 weeks of PT 2x/week, and continuing to do the stretches & exercises from those sessions, my back continues to be sore most of the time.