Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Life of Change

As you know, individuals and corporations and entire nations often resist beneficial change and growth.  As for me, if I see an individual growing from learning concrete skills, such as typing or riding a bull (named Fu Manchu) I find it inspires me. When someone is going through their bucket list, however slowly, it can be contagious.

Besides the example of concrete skills, it’s been wonderful to know people learning to be liberated in various emotional areas.

Metaphorically, to explain such people, and me too, it’s useful to look at a single example of a change-road society has not taken: consider the example of the standard typewriter keyboard being set for QWERTY, as read left to right across the top row of buttons.

The common explanation, for the setup of the keyboard that many of us learned to use in school, is that the letters were set around so illogically in order to slow the typist down, so the flying keys wouldn’t jam together. I can remember reaching forward to manually untangle the keys. But as mechanics got better, and then balls and daisy wheels replaced flying keys, and are in turn replaced by software, do we still need to be slowed down? A better way would be to arrange the keys so the “home row” where your fingers rest, has the letters used most often, such as the vowels.

It’s been done. A man named Dvorak invented the Dvorak keyboard, a board that every Macintosh computer can easily be switched to. I switch mine back and forth whenever I pass my laptop over to client to use, or to a Mac technician. Am I typing any faster using Dvorak? No. Not yet. But if ever I get arthritis I will be very glad I switched. A professional fantasy novelist, with swift fingers, got arthritis very badly, her livelihood was at risk, so she had to risk switching, and it all turned out all right. She got her speed back up.

The way I learned Dvorak—since you can’t take it at night school—was to practice a series of lessons I found on the webs, from a man who obviously likes the sci-fi series Babylon-5. But whatever motivated me to get over the speed bump of inertia in order to change? And why did I persist with “my” typing drills until I had mastered them? The answer is back at community college.

It was at night school that I learned to touch-type. The “recreational” non-credit course was full, so I had to take the “real” one, in a class with folks learning to be administrative assistants. This meant more pressure on me, but what else could I do? I didn’t want to wait for another semester. Happily, I had my own manual (not electric) typewriter at home, so I practiced hard… I got an A—and I raised my grade point average!

Many years later, my willingness and persistence for Dvorak was largely because I had faith I could learn, because I had once learned in night school. And I remembered how liberating and free it felt—such happy lightness—to be able to touch-type with all my fingers rather than being a two finger typist, or having to hunt and peck. As they say, “Nothing succeeds like success.” Now I have the joy of using futuristic Dvorak.

As a boy I read sf writer Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” (Revolt in 2100) where a young man under a totalitarian theocracy learns to question his cradle-to-grave ideology. After breaking free of government propaganda, he later learns to be liberated regarding a minority group called pariahs (probably Jews) and still later he learns to have a healthy (for him) degree of sexual liberation. It’s as if he got into a habit of life change: After getting liberated in one area he felt a willingness to persist in working through other areas too. As singer K.D. Lang says, “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.”

People in small towns have a reputation of being less liberated. I wonder: Perhaps with no individual pariahs in town to care about, and work through their issues about, they never get a taste of that first happy lightness of being liberated, and so they never move on to other areas. …Or maybe some folks retard their growth in order to blend in with their peer group… I’ve noticed that people with a proven track record of change seem to have multiple areas of broadmindedness, and are open to new information. People such as my writer friends: No wonder they make a good peer group!

Sean Crawford
December 2014

Footnote: Maybe it’s a slow December, but you wouldn’t believe how few hits my last piece received. I am curious to see what happens this week.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Webizens and a Sense of Wonder

Faux Digression


I just can’t “get into” all the excitement about this futuristic "social interneting," not when my fellow “webizens” have let me down. I can't believe in them anymore.

Recently I saw the movie Alice In Wonderland. Then I found so many negative comment threads by so many mistaken people. Some of them, perhaps kids with low reading-comprehension skills, (on imdb) didn't comprehend the words on the screen: "Nineteen Years Later." Did they they blink? Did they fail to notice that Alice was a grownup? Why insist on the book version's "series of incidents" when the movie "sequel" offers plot and character development?

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised when the democratic amateur web consensus is wrong. After all, the mass of movie critics on Google got it wrong too: Many said the movie lacked the “heart” of the books. Heart? Were they copying each other? Forget the mob. It was left to an individual, a friend, to validate for me how the show had continuous humor and empowerment. I bought the soundtrack just for Alice’s “hero theme.”

The film was so good I found it hard to leave “Underland” when the credits rolled: Not nearly as bad as when leaving the peaceful nonviolent world of the original Star Trek, no shuddering sighs, but still… So it was “perfect!” when the Alice credits started with the “screeching” of Avril Lavigne’s song. The webizens, alas, “didn’t get it.” All they did, on the thread of comments I found, was complain about the screeching.

After Lavigne, during the ending credits, is a choir and orchestra, composed by Danny Elfman. While I valued an individual’s dense web page from “filmtracks” explaining Elfman’s music and lyrics for Alice, I discounted a thread where webizens denigrated a “mere composer” for daring to craft words. I hope other threads do value Elfman; as for myself, I found the lyrics to be like a poem, like an iceberg tip, representing the fearful time of initial adulthood. Adolescence is more painful, early adulthood is more fearful.

Of course, individual threads, like individual people, may be mistaken. What if I was to surf comprehensively? I did so for the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. This was when I hadn’t got to the ending yet myself; Christina and I were still catching up on DVD. I telephoned her.

“Hello Christina.”
“’Bad news. I’ve been surfing all over about the ending of BSG.”
“Remember the ending of The X-Files?
“Oh no!”
“Well it’s not that bad, but everybody’s angry. I thought I better warn you.”

Weeks later, when I got to the ending myself, I had to call her up again. I told her I really liked the final episodes, and so I must discount all those webizens. How frustrating. Again I valued an individual: I found a lengthy web posting by Chicago Tribune TV critic Maureen Ryan. (And I printed it off for Chris.)


In middle age, I’m not surprised to find myself still liking that “crazy, disrespectable” fantasy and science fiction such as the movie Alice In Wonderland. My childhood was many years before Star Wars and country music were ever cool, still, I took it for granted I would never “grow up,” not for f & sf. Last year my brother Rob remarked he had really respected my “courage” for how back in elementary school I got the other kids to play “space” not sports.

Faux Digression

It was in elementary school, long before distrusting the web, that I learned to be skeptical of society and progress. I will explain. My school, built right after the war, had yellow wooden inclined desktops. There was a hole at the right for your inkwell, and a slot carved across the top to hold your pen with its messy nib. But during the war they had introduced ballpoint pens for bomber crews, so that’s what we used. Our teachers still used pen and ink, so did Mum.

We used the hole for our paste bottle. Occasionally a child would find a big feather quill on the school grounds and say, “Hey, I could use this quill for writing!”

Then “progress” came slinking in. First the yellow tops started being replaced by futuristic composite green tops. Cool! But then came newer green ones: First the holes started disappearing. …OK, I guess… Then the pencil slot went. Why? The green smooth ones looked so space age, but of course the desks were still slanted. Why have a writing desk with no way to set down your pen without it rolling off? It was a most curious riddle.

There was a riddle posed in the 1865 book that was… never answered. Generations have been frustrated, wondering at the solution. You hear it asked a few times in the movie:

Hatter: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Here's my answer: Easy—Because they both have quills!

(You’re welcome.)


I can relate to Alice. Flouting society, we postwar kids were the first ones to be able to step out onto to the dance floor and just start dancing: No need to “learn how” first… “Do your own thing!” we proclaimed joyously.

And then there’s Alice, at age 19, refusing to be stifled by corsets yet having to dance a quadrille. It would be impossible for her to just dance a futterwacken- What would “they” say?

Ah, but don’t say “impossible” to Alice. The girl who favored the Hatter would also enjoy the old man in Edward Lear’s limerick:

There was an old man of Whitehaven
Who danced a quadrille with a raven
They said, “How absurd!
To dance with this bird!”
So they smashed that old man of Whitehaven

Yes, that’s just what “they” would do. Some folks are as dumb as—well, as dumb as webizens.

I wish her well. As Elfman ends his song:

“Please tell us so we’ll understand
Alice…Alice…Oh, Alice”

Sean Crawford
Still in Wonderland,
December 2014.8.27


~As for the lyrics, I think people of Alice's age tell each other their woes because at one level they miss not being able to tell their parents, and so there is comfort in the lyrics saying "us."

~Back when color TV sets were so new the department store salesmen couldn't set the colors right, back during the first season broadcast of Star Trek, Kirk asked Spock something like, "Didn't you ever dip a girl's pigtail in the inkwell?"

~ Speaking of the space age, this post was composed entirely by touch-type, no peeking, on a dvorak -not your mother's qwerty- keyboard: Today I finished my final "dvorak ABCD" lesson, by Babylon-5 fan Dan Wood, off the 'net. Hurray!