Revisiting an Old Piece
Plus a Postscript
Sometimes I like to revisit statistics and links. I like to do this months after something is in the world. Like walking through Times Square after New Years Eve and kicking the confetti. And then I think about what could have gone better. So I was going back and looking at how people reacted to a piece I wrote about death and old computers:
I can see a lot of places where editing would have benefited that piece—it slides around. It’s squishy. But it also has a gentle quality, and it’s filled with secrets and animated GIFs and setups that pay off a few thousand words later. I worked on it pretty steadily over a series of nights. I should have been working on other things. But in the end it does what it’s supposed to do, which is: It tells a story that no human being has ever told before. This sounds dramatic but it’s not actually that hard to do. It’s actually your job, as a writer, to go: Has anyone ever told this story before? No? Good.
If I ever decide to edit it, maybe to place it somewhere else, there are parts I’ll tighten, and I’d layer in more of a sense of place. It needs geography. The reader should understand Tom’s house was not far from my own home, and that a network built up porch-to-porch, with churches along the way. That would make it a less abstract piece.
It was published as part of my paid work at The Message (I’m obligated to produce 500 words every two weeks, but that one was 11 times longer than I’m obligated to produce) and got decent traffic (~240,000 readers). It sort of traveled on its own steam, from network to network, without a huge pickup from Facebook, much as in the ways of blog posts of yore. I noticed that many people who commented on it, on social networks or on their own Tumblrs (who has a website anymore?), would segment out their praise for their own audiences.
For example, some people would read that piece and write “might be of interest to Amiga fans” or “if you grew up with technology read this.” Other people are death people; they wrote things like, “this isn’t really about technology but about loss.” People zoomed in on specific details of technologies that interested them, or emotional details that felt relevant. Many readers spent their time deciding whether the essay is about feelings or whether it’s about technology.
That leads to two thoughts:
First thought: I’m horrible at perceiving any difference between technology and “other” parts of life. This has been a source of difficulty in my life when I work for places, like magazines, that see the Internet as something “separate.” So it’s so weird to me that readers felt they had to choose one or the other. “Technology” and “emotion” are broad, meaningless categories and in no actual opposition—but man do people put a lot of store in them.
Second thought: If people are reading what I’m writing and dividing it into “tech” on one hand or “emotion” on another, then I must be doing the same thing in other categories of my life. There is some range of human experience that I am not perceiving because I can’t imagine that anything could—well, what? What meaningless threshold am I upholding as sacred? I wonder what nonsense categories I’m utterly committed to. And how do you even begin to perceive that part of yourself?
Now the postscript. Not long after I published that essay about retro-computing I learned that a memorial service would be held.
I went down to West Chester. I stayed with my friends Jim and Stacy and we drove around town and talked. The mid-1980s were a different time than the 2010s; crumbling brick has been replaced by vegan bakeries and things have changed enough that places I perceive as new already have the patina of age upon them—sun-bleached awnings, floor-tile worn down by customers.
A big Instagram filter was put over my memories. And since I was there for a wake this was very comforting. Tom was at rest. And so was a part of my childhood that wasn’t happy or fulfilling, that was anxious, angry, and scary, if I’m honest.
Then we went into the memorial service, which was at the Elks’ Club. His long-time partner Sandy was there, and she remembered me after I introduced myself — I hadn’t seen her in 20 years—and said, Oh my, he was so proud of you. It’s so good to see you. I’m so glad you came. He was so proud of you. So those are the words that will echo. Which is why you always go to the memorial service. You fill in the loss.
At the reception there were photos of Tom projected from an old slide carousel. There were Amish people in attendance, because he always had lots of Amish friends, and former students, and a big thing of popcorn. A video of the Dalai Lama played in the corner and people ate cold cuts. No one gave any speeches. We just milled, chaotic, bouncing into one another. This was an accurate representation of his life. I was overcome by shyness. All the smalltalk was gone right out me. But I was there, too.
They gave away his books—take a book in Tom’s memory, said a sign. So I lingered at the books, paging through stacks, and then I opened one and out fell a note in Tom’s handwriting. The note was at least 20 years old. It was nothing remarkable, no secret message. It was a to-do list: A list of people to call and a list of software to pirate. He’d written down the names of programs, Deluxe Paint III among them—as well as the name of a disk-cracking program, to ease piracy. There was a note to call my grandfather Bill, and that he’d need some milk and eggs. And the name Paul was written there, too. Could refer to me, or not.
But what a gift. Tom was religious; I’m not. But I’m not above a mystical intake of breath before my knowledge of statistics settles back in. I showed Sandy the to-do list and she said, Keep it! It’s for you! I signed the condolence book at length and used the word love, love, love, love.
And that was it. My friends Jim and Stacy and I trundled around and reminisced. We drove back to their home. We went out to dinner. Their home is warm and full of love and they are well. I went home on the train the next morning.
I’d already said my goodbyes. I’ve already lost that little hand-written list, somewhere in my office. I went looking for it to take a picture with my phone to include here at the end of this postscript. I’m sure it will appear again. Then again perhaps it’s gone, which is okay, because it wasn’t what matters.