The New Fossils

In my role as technical writer, I was drafting some instructions for a new application when it struck me that the Save icon on so many applications is still a line drawing of a floppy disk. And that there are a lot of people using computers today (like my nieces and nephew, for example) who have never actually used a floppy disk, but who know this image means “Save.” Which means it took about 20 years from being invented to becoming ubiquitous, to reaching the point where it only lingers as a symbol whose origins are already half lost in the mists of time.

I think a lot about the things that have gone extinct in my lifetime. I don’t mean big things like the Western Black Rhinoceros or the country called Czechoslovakia. Plenty of other people think about things like that. I mean little things, like the Thistle-colored Crayola crayons I used to love (now “retired”), and the idea that the plot of a story could hang on a missed phone call. Extinctions of idea and artifact are part of the flow of civilizations. It just happens so much more rapidly since the last quarter of the 20th Century.

So I’ve decided to start writing things down as they occur to me. And I hope you’ll join me. Think about the things we’ve already lost, and things that are surviving only through conscious preservation (either sincerely, or as some kind of ironic retro style statement).

Here are a few to start with. I’m posting this as a blog today, but as the list grows, I’ll make a page for it somewhere else on this site:

Speaking of missed phone calls, as I was doing earlier, when was the last time you used a telephone to have a real conversation? It’s all texting now, which is another reason land lines are dying out. And when they finally do, how dated will all those films and books seem when they mention “the phone rang” or “give me a ring?”

Which reminds me: When was the last time you got a personal letter? I mean on paper, though with everyone communicating almost exclusively on social media, emails of any length are just as endangered.  There’s a poignantly hilarious moment in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress where a character moons over the only written relic she has of her ex-boyfriend, a mis-spelled “be back soon” note he left on his way to a beer run. Along the same lines, photo postcards from vacation spots are probably living on borrowed time. As are paper greeting cards, which are turning to increasingly desperate measures to stay alive (Hallmark has opted for sound chips and pop-cultural tie-ins, while Papyrus favors glitter and other embellishments that self-consciously reference hand made). After that, you won’t be surprised that I’ve got greeting card shops and the post office/mail carriers on my list of endangered businesses and occupations.

Once upon a time, as those over 45 and Mad Men viewers know, even small offices had highly trained professional secretarial staff.   Chicken vs. Egg conundrum: Did the decline of correspondence and telephone communications cause the end of this profession? Or, in a world where nearly everyone holds an MBA and has to be their own secretary because few companies can afford all those MBAs and still have have money to hire support staff, did the lack of these professionals help to cause the decline in communications?

Okay, here’s an obvious one.  A coworker’s son found a NYC subway token in the loose change jar and wanted to know what kind of foreign currency it was.  It just occurred to me that the punch-style can opener falls into the same category of “huh?!” for his generation.

Another thing I took for granted that this boy will never know: every town once supported an entire range of specialized repair shops. It’s ironic that now that we’re all “green” and determined to recycle, no one can make a living doing this anymore. People who can still fix a television or a blender seems to only be doing it in the basement, as a hobby.  The man who re-heels those of my shoes that can still be re-heeled (so many shoes are now made to be worn out and tossed) is pushing 90 and when he dies, his shop dies with him.

Question: do you “turn the page” of an ebook? Oh, the interface can make it look that way, and probably will continue to do so until everyone’s made the transition away from paper. But what are you actually “turning?” And can we refer to “liner notes” when music is no longer purveyed via anything than can be lined? This is probably the appropriate place to note the passing of the disk jockey (not just the disk), that professional class of taste arbiters and educators who made listening to music an  interactive experience. And don’t forget dedicated “record stores,” which primarily continue to exist (even electronically) only as departments in stores that retail electronics or books. The brief lifespan of the video store (almost equivalent to that of the floppy disk) also bears mention.

All the talk of books makes me think about typesetting, a profession reaching back to Gutenberg. I had a lovely conversation with a third generation typesetter, a man who’d started his own apprenticeship at age 16 and spent his life working at his venerable calling. Until one day it simply didn’t exist any more. Now, at age 61, he was driving cabs to the airport, because his newspaper’s print shop had closed.  When I was in school (and I’m thinking of a college life-sketching class, not just kindergarten fingerpainting), we used newsprint for art projects. You can still buy large blocks in the art supply stores, but as newspapers disappear, will newsprint? And all that keeps it in production is the needs of art students, will we still call it “newsprint”?


Like an Egyptian

So I was standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, crying over a red clay pot.

It was a lovely pot, though not as lovely as the one without the dent.  Both were pale red Nile clay in that beautiful vase shape, wide round shoulders tapering symmetrically to a flat bottom.

In the exhibition, called “The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” there were quite a few vessels of a variety of shapes and purpose. Some, like these two pots, were thickly decorated with drawings in a pigment the color of brick dust, while others had designs scratched into the clay or picked out in charcoal or white.  The designs were varied.  Stylized humans: stick men with spears; and women with heart-shaped torsos and bell-shaped skirts, their arms raised heavenward like Evita Peron on her balcony.  Boats were represented by a shape like a centipede, a curved line bristling with oars. There were hippos and fishes and crocodiles, some kind of antelope, long-legged birds and a recognizable dog. And ears and ears of wheat.

Then there were the carvings.  A large spotted-basalt frog, ready to jump.  Palettes carved with hunting and battle scenes in delicate bas relief.  The ivory figure about the size of my thumb, so old and dry that it looked like splintered wood, was a mother with her child hanging on her back, her cloak covering his body. Her face had been worn away, but his little nose was still clearly poking over her shoulder. I thought he was looking back at me.

Someone made these things. You don’t always think about this when looking at artifacts in a museum. Things that survive the ages are often so perfect that you forget about the hands that made them.  But I thought about it now.

People made these.  With what tools? According to the case, some of these pieces were circa 3800-3400 BC. Knives of soft metal and hard stone? Reed brushes, or animal hair tied to twigs? Imagine. It must have taken hours and hours of laboring, and in stolen daylight time because you can’t do this kind of work by firelight.

Someone did this fine carving and that meticulous painting.  Why? Sure they needed the pots, but did they need them painted with stories? Not really.  But someone—a god by way of a priest, a noble looking to show rank, a lover trying to express a sense of precious elevation—someone thought beauty was important enough to cause someone else to not only want to create this art but to have or find the time to do it and to learn to do it.  They saw a value in art, at a time when providing food and shelter took most waking hours.

I looked at the pot with the dent.  A dent as if the heel of someone’s hand had slipped before the pot had been put to harden in the fire.  On the other side of the glass case, the heel of my own hand angled in sympathy and I could touch that first hand, nearly 6000 years away from mine.  How do you not cry?

…Of Everything

A little over a week ago, the paperbound edition of my novel The Breast of Everything launched online, quickly followed by the first digital edition (on Kindle).  To make this happen, I’ve been wearing more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins and every time I take one off there’s another one lurking underneath.  I’ve been graphics designer, webmaster, researcher, publisher, publicist and personal assistant, while continuing to cover my usual roles in the office and with my family.  If someone offered me a choice between a spot in the New York Times Book Review and a vacation right now, I’d actually have to stop and think!

Part of the challenge over the last few months has been making my way through a thicket of technology (it would have been accurate here to say “hacking” my way, but that word no longer conjures up images of swinging a machete through a rain forest—at least not when talking about technology).  I’ve taken on learning, or adding to my skills in, WordPress, Photoshop, InDesign, Scrivener, and the CreateSpace and Kindle KDP interfaces.  Plus setting up some new things in Facebook and Goodreads.

As a boomer with a liberal arts degree, I was awed by the scope of the available tools and astonished that I could use them.  This may all be a yawn to your average high school Junior but this kind of technology wasn’t around when I was growing up.  During college, I worked an entire summer to afford a portable electric typewriter.  It wasn’t only the tasteful caramel color of the case that compelled me; in those days, the pop-in self-correcting and colored-ink ribbons were breathtakingly state of the art.  Five years later, I had the opportunity to learn my first word processor.  It was one of those “dedicated” word processors (before word processing software had been developed for personal computers) that required the floorspace of an L-shaped desk and stored a few dozen pages of text on a mylar disk the size of a vinyl LP record; the dot-matrix printer required another wall and a sound-muffling Lexan hood.  Temp word processing was a great survival job for a struggling actor, so I learned seven or eight of these machines, the size shrinking rapidly over time.  DOS-driven personal computers were next, once they supported word processing software good enough for my own writing purposes.  I taught myself well enough to train others.  I learned my first simple database program because I needed to organize my consulting work and my submissions to playwriting competitions.  These self-taught skills eventually go me hired by my first software company, where I picked up bits of assorted knowledge while working with developers as a user-assistance specialist.

Now I make my living as a technical writer, specializing in what I like to think of as “helpful Help.” Not what you’d expect for someone with a double major in Theatre and History.  Sometimes I joke that I’m something of an end-user idiot savant when it comes to software technology, but the truth is that the essential thing I learned in college was how to learn.

I was lucky that way.  The push towards specialization began just a few years after I graduated.  Instead of going to college to broaden their knowledge and experience of the world, students today go seeking job skills and every other one of them seems to go on to get an MBA in something. With so many complex disciplines to master, professional development training is extremely valuable and it’s great that there’s so much more of this available in schools and in the workforce.  But no specialized work skills can replace analytic thinking, critical thinking and the ability to perform research.

Job skills learned today will be outmoded in less than a decade.  Entire occupations go extinct every year (ask anyone who works for a newspaper).  There’s no way of knowing what the future will bring, but most of us will, whether voluntarily or needfully, change occupations many times over the course of our working lives.  And it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of us will never have an IPO or live in McMansion or live out one of those dream retirements that feature in financial planning ads.

But with a liberal arts education behind me, I’ve been able to adapt to new disciplines, changing times and evolving tools.  I’ve traveled through Tuscany using public transportation, learned to knit entrelac and managed to connect my blog feed from my website to Goodreads. All that, and I get to have the fun of yelling “how can you not know that!” a lot when “Jeopardy” is on TV.