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Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’

The mother of a friend of mine once said that he had raised himself to be a knight. She didn’t take any credit for the fact – she simply observed it, which it made it the best compliment of a child by a parent that I have ever heard. I knew instantly what she meant, because I had done much the same with Robin Hood, or at least Roger Lancelyn Greene’s version of him.

To this day, I happily devour any retelling of the stories. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood, Parke Godwin’s Sherwood and Robin and the King, the Child Ballads, the Robin of Sherwood series that made him a mystical figure associated with Herne the Hunter, Robin and Marian featuring Sean Connery as the aging hero, the recent BBC series, the Errol Flynn version with Claude Raines as the Sheriff – all are part of my mental baggage, with what for me is an unusual lack of concern for quality. I’ll even watch Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, an admission that shows just how indiscriminate my obsession really is.

You see, for better or worse, a good part of my ethical standards was consciously modeled on Robin Hood, to say nothing of my politics as well. Only King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came anywhere close to be as influential, and Robin Hood – despite being the Earl of Huntington – had the same ethics without the sense of class and privilege. He wasn’t even much of a sexist, loving a woman who shared his dangers, rather than languishing at home like Queen Guinevre.

So what did I learn as a child from Robin Hood? Far more than the manly virtue of courage. I learned that I was supposed to be polite to everyone. That I was supposed to be a good sport, even if I had just been thwacked on the head by Little John or dumped into the stream by Friar Tuck. That I was to value honesty and abhor hypocrisy. That I was supposed to help people, even at inconvenience to myself. That I was supposed to face danger cheerfully – and this, and a hundred other things besides.

However, none of this would have impressed me by itself. I could learn the same values from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys – never mind that I later learned that Baden-Powell was a traitor to his own standards, having starved the local Africans to keep his British troops alive during the siege of Mafeking during the Boer Wars.

What really impressed me was that, unlike the propaganda of the Scouts, or even the followers of King Arthur, Robin Hood decided for himself. Rather than acquiesce to things that were legal but immoral, he became an outlaw, and he enforced his own sense of right and wrong while he was in Sherwood no matter how anyone else condemned him. Greene never used the phrase, but his Robin Hood lived by a higher morality, deciding for himself where right and wrong lay.

Of course, the anarchy of Sherwood cannot last, and Robin Hood ends by being pardoned by King Richard. But even as a boy I understood that end as more symbolic than anything else: King Richard is the source of the law, and his approval amounts to a public acknowledgment that Robin Hood’s code of behavior was correct, no matter how eccentric it happened to be. The idea that he was substantially changed by his reintegration into society is quashed by his last moments, when he forgives the Prioress for poisoning her and tells his followers not to avenge themselves upon her.

Part of me wants to laugh at this set of ethics, but I can never manage to be quite so flippant. Robin Hood’s example helped me through the worst stage of my life, when only a handful of people believed in me.

At other times, his example is difficult. For example, while I believe in acknowledging when an opponent has done something ethical, I often suspect that belief only serves as a handicap. Certainly few of my enemies have ever reciprocated in kind.

However, at his best, Greene’s Robin Hood embodies a generosity of spirit that I can’t help but admire. I have often fallen short of imitating this generosity, but the idea that I should try to is lodged too firmly into me to ever root out. No matter how cynical or disillusioned I might become, the lessons I learned from reading Greene’s book into oblivion are likely to remain with me for the rest of my life, even if spend my last few years senile.

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Most of my friends claim to have had a harrowing time at high school. They complain about being picked on by teachers, bullied by older students, hopeless at sports, and stressed by a combination of part-time jobs and homework. They paint such a Dickensian scene of horror that I feel ashamed to admit that my main complaints about high school was that it went on too long and taught me lazy habits.

The truth is, I never had any serious problems at school. I may have been good at academics (in fact, I won one of the two major scholarships the year I graduated), but I was also a minor sports star, scoring regularly in rugby, and winning races and setting records on the track and in cross-country races. If I became increasingly solitary as high school dragged on, it was because of my growing realization that I had little in common with those around me. Nobody was going to bother me, because until I stopped growing at fourteen, I was big for my age, and afterward I carried myself like a big man, and looked fit enough to cause anyone who went after me some grief.

The result of all this was that I was left to do more or less as I pleased. Teachers trusted me, and my running especially gave me respect, and most people left me alone. The only exceptions were the boys who responded sarcastically to everyone, and I had no trouble answering them in kind.

The only trouble was, I was ready to leave about Grade 10. I realized that to do any of the things I wanted to do, I would need to graduate, but all I could really do was endure and try to appreciate the fact that these would be last years free of serious responsibilities. So I kept to my routine of study and training for running, mooned about over one girl after another, and waited for it all to be over. I was bored, and I knew it.

In fact, my boredom was responsible for one of the few times a teacher kept me after class. Warming up for typing class, I had written “B—–O—–R—–E—–D!!!!!” repeatedly across my page, and, the next class, the teacher decided to admonish me. “You’re bored before the class even starts,” she said, in an accusing tone, as though I had been caught stealing the principal’s day book. After enduring a rambling lecture about how I had the wrong attitude, I muttered something about it being a joke and slunk away as soon as I could.

By Grade 12, I would take any excuse possible for getting away from school early. I would use my free period to go for a run, especially if it fell just before lunch or the last period of the day. I didn’t bother to attend graduation – officially because the girl with whom I was currently infatuated had moved back to her small town and I wasn’t interested in anyone else, but truthfully because I didn’t care.

For the last six weeks of the year, I even had permission to skip most of my classes to study for the government scholarships. The suggestion was taken by the councilors as an important step in my maturity, although they insisted that I keep attending French class, where my struggle with boredom was causing my grades to slip. I was disappointed that I couldn’t get out of classes altogether, but decided to be satisfied with what I could get. By the day of the graduation ceremony, I was already mentally far removed, and thinking of my planned trip to visit my far-away infatuation (which, needless to say, ended badly)

So, no, I can’t say I suffered much in high school, inflicting boredom not usually being regarded as cruel. But, years later, I realized that, in another respect, high school had failed me badly.

In those days, no students skipped grades. It was thought better to keep students with their peer groups. And if that meant that I mooched around a year of Community Recreation as the class loner because I had nothing in common with the rest of the class, that was supposed to somehow help me socialize into a normal North American man – something I was already resolved not to become.

Nor were there any enrichment classes to speak of. The closest equivalent was the Humanities program I took for two years, which was delightfully free-form, but meant that I had to fill many of the gaps in my education – Macbeth, for instance– for myself.

But the point was, there was nothing to challenge me, a fact that I always thought said more about the curriculum than about any brilliance in me. For two years, I drifted along bored, not trying nearly as hard as I could have. In the end, I developed a lack of self-discipline in everything except running, and had to scramble during my first semester at university to learn some proper study habits. Far from preparing me for anything, what high school really did was encourage me to take everything far too easy..

Still, after all these years, in all honesty, I can’t blame anyone else for my own shortcomings, not even a conveniently vague system or spirit of the times. So when someone else starts bemoaning the terrors of their high school years, I listen attentively and make suitable noises at suitable intervals until an opportunity to change the subject arises. My fear is that someone will learn that I lack the requisite background of torment, and consequently don’t qualify as any sort of geek at all.

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“We’re all a little older, the air’s a little colder,
Feels like forty lifetimes since we walked upon the moon.”

-OysterBand, “I Know It’s Mine”

If you aren’t old enough to remember the first moon landing, you probably have trouble understanding how much it meant – or much it can sometimes still means to those of us who were.

In 1969, life in the industrialized countries had brought more prosperity to more people than at any time in history. At the same time, there were crippling, disfiguring inequalities and wrongs like the Vietnam War to correct. Some people – the so-called “silent majority” – were in denial about the problems, while the rest of us alternated between an optimism that often spilled over into the naïve and a growing cynical conviction that nothing was going to change. It was a moody time, as exciting as it was scary for those us who were still children and starting to wonder what the world would be like when we were adults.

For me, these conflicted feelings extended to the space program. I had done a school project a few years before about space exploration, and I knew it was nothing like the great adventure that science fiction had been promising us for the past thirty years. It was, after all, popularly called The Space Race, and I knew it was an extension of the nationalism of the Cold War, a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in which each was determined to prove its ideology the best. I knew, too, that Wernher von Braun was an ex-Nazi, and that NASA was too full of the American militarism that was responsible for Vietnam. As for the astronauts, in public they were bland good soldiers that no amount of PR could ever make into heroes.

All the same, I couldn’t help following the gradual testing of the Apollo systems in the eighteen months before the actual landing. No matter how tarnished, my science fiction dreams were starting to come true. When the crew of Apollo 8, in orbit around the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, began reciting Genesis, I had much the same reaction as I’d had at Disneyland – it was at once corny and deeply moving. The gesture captured my imagination despite my recent conclusion that I was an agnostic.

By the time of the actual moon landing, my excitement – and everyone else’s – was almost unbearable. Everywhere I went, people were carrying transistor radios, not listening to music, but to live coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, or at least to discussion of it. People were making lists of firsts that would be accomplished on the mission as though they were achievements unlocked in a video game: First man to land on the moon, first man to orbit the moon alone, and dozens of others, some of them remarkably silly, including first man to leave the moon. Talk shows went on about the possibility that the LEM (which everybody knew was short for “Lunar Excursion Module”) might find itself landing sinking into layers of dust, or what Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong might do if they needed suit repairs while walking on the moon, or what Michael Collins felt like, being more isolated than any other human had ever been. Nobody could get enough of the coverage.

Then the actual landing came, and none of the shortcomings of NASA or the woodenness of the astronauts, or Armstrong’s pedestrian first words from the moon could destroy the excitement. Not only were humans taking the fist step out into space, but everyone knew that anyone with a television set or radio was listening in, in a small way a part of the achievement. Suddenly, for all the social problems of the time, being a human being, and a citizen of an industrialized country didn’t seem something to be ashamed of at all. Despite all the efforts of the United States government to convince the world that the moonlanding was an American achievement, we knew it was a human achievement that highlighted the best that was in us.

For the next few days, the celebration continued. Newspapers got out the large typefaces to produce souvenir editions with front pages consisting of a single headline and a few pictures. Airlines offered souvenir vouchers, reserving seats on their first flights to the moon (I kept mine for years).

Somehow – I’m not sure how — by the time of the next moon mission, the excitement had died out, the usual social issues and divisions returned if they had ever really gone away. Yet despite the hype and jingoism surround the event, the days of the moonlanding still lingers in my memory as a significant event.

Like the ending of the World Wars, it was a defining moment that combined the fulfillment of anticipation with genuine achievement and the hope for a better future. Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it was one of the first major events to receive massive television coverage – but, unlike the Kennedy assassination, it left people in awe rather than horrified disbelief. It was like nothing that has happened since, not even the Falkland War or the two Gulf Wars, and probably can never happen again, given our modern cynicism and knowledge of the media.

How much of it was hype, I couldn’t say. But somehow, the point is academic. For a moment, the moonlanding made those who watched it believe – and that it why so many can’t forget it. Despite its shortcomings, I only wish that we could have a moment like that again.

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“And the pageantry, the panoply, the sanctified decay —
But I knew the hour was coming that would sweep it all away.
Now time has me in a corner, and I’m moth-eared from the fray,
But Her Majesty is reigning still today.”

-Leon Rosselson, “On Her Silver Jubilee

Science fiction fans joke that they are disappointed that the future has yet to produce flying cars. But my disappointment lies elsewhere. It lies in the fact that the society I expected to see when I was middle-aged is almost as distant as when I was coming of age – a fact that the recent Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II reinforces all too sharply.

The mood of the late 1970s was so different from today’s that I can barely remember it. Probably, anyone born after that time can’t conceive of it at all. But for a naïve, idealistic teenager like me, it seemed a time of infinite possibilities and constant progress.

Consider: Prosperity in North America was at an all-time high. So was income and social mobility. In recent memory, activism had helped to end the Vietnam War and to force Richard Nixon’s resignation. Based on the previous decade, it seemed self-evident that ethnic minorities were about to win their rights, and so were women and gays and lesbians. Probably, Canada would be a republic, without a monarch to remind us of a now non-functional past. Sure, problems like pollution and poverty remained, but once we focused on them a bit more, they would be solved.

In other words, we were still in the era in which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. could write a book called The End of History and not be ridiculed. The problems that had haunted humanity for centuries were about to be solved, and all that would remain was the question of what to do afterwards – colonize the stars, most likely, or maybe begin a cultural Renaissance.

Ever since, each year has added to the progressive disillusion. Instead of the end of history, we got the Counter-Reformation of the reactionaries, who proved to be better organized and more tenacious than the rest of us could imagine. Year by year, living standards declined. We got Ronald Reagan in the United States, and a denial of the lessons that Vietnam should have taught. In Canada, we got Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, who between them swept away any idea that politics could be about anything except pragmatism and the cold-blooded survival of career politicians. The promising beginnings for cause after cause turned out to be end points that were fiercely and – all too often — unsuccessfully defended.

Oh, not everything was reason for gloom. In Canada, abortion rights remained in legal limbo, permitting access in theory despite constant efforts to chip away at them in practice. Same sex marriage became legal. The Internet and cameras in mobile devices made organizing and calling authorities to account easy. But against the losses and the constant wallowing in the same old arguments, these gains mattered for little. If the losses didn’t outweight the gains, we believed that they did. We stopped believing that social progress was possible, although many of us kept on fighting or wistfully believing.

Against this background, the Diamond Jubilee is only a tawdry reminder of what hasn’t happened in recent decades. The occasion is not only a celebration of mediocrity, but also a celebration of how things have failed to change. For me, the fact that Leon Rosselson’s song remains as applicable today as when it was written in 1977 only adds to the irony. Seeing the media’s continuing attention to the non-story of someone whom Rosselson describes as “so commonplace a woman in her fuddy-duddy hat” makes me want to mourn, not celebrate. Do we really have nothing more to show for the last thirty-five years?

To all appearances, we don’t.

Science fiction readers have been known to cry, “Give us our flying cars!” But as I tried to avoid the coverage of the Diamond Jublilee the other week, what I wanted to do was to plead for a reason to believe in social progress – and then to go and find a quiet corner in which to mourn the unlikelihood of any answer.

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I spent several years of my university career hitchhiking to and from university For the first two years, I’d bus to work, then hitch from the campus to downtown Vancouver, or even home to the North Shore. Later, when I moved closer to campus, I’d regularly hitch while waiting for the bus at the foot of the hill, hoping someone would stop and save me a few minutes.

To many today, this hitchhiking must seem appallingly dangerous. At the time, though, it made me only slightly uneasy. I was an ultra-fit young male, so I was in minimal danger. Besides, I rationalized, I further minimized any danger by hitching only to and from campus – as though, just because someone was associated with the university, they wouldn’t be predators. Sometimes, too, I got such a good ride that I saved my bus fare.

People being what they are, I’m sure that hitchhikers, especially young women, must have been harassed and abused. But, if so, the university took care not to publicize these incidents. For many years, the university actually encouraged hitchhiking, setting by three hitching posts where people could wait for a ride. I was a grad student before the hitching posts were dismantled, and many people protested their removal, even though times had changed, and the campus women’s groups were complaining by then about such an irresponsible policy.

All that I can say is that I never had the slightest problem. The first few times I hitched, I was nervous, but in those days I was telling myself that I needed to be more adventuresome, so I overrode my apprehensions, and soon learned to take them for granted. For better or worse, hitching seemed an adventure. It allowed me to meet people I would never otherwise have met. Often, for a semester at a time, I had regular rides, although I rarely knew the names of my benefactors, for all the far-ranging conversations that we had.

Of the hundreds of rides I cadged, several stand out. One was from a battered pickup truck containing two long-haired musicians and their dog. They did a hilarious fire and brimstone preaching routine to a banjo accompaniment, and insisted on performing for me on the spot, the driver wedging his banjo between his stomach and the wheel, and taking his hands off the wheel to strum. They made me feel hopelessly straight, but I was proud that I could enjoy their company.

Another time, a ride let me out at Main and Hastings. Even then, the intersection was the heart of Vancouver’s skid row, although those were prosperous times and the area was much safer then than it is now. But to a sheltered kid like me, the intersection felt like dangerous territory. I walked eight or ten blocks until I got to the business section, and only relaxed when I boarded the bus for home.

Yet another time, in my second year, I got a ride to North Vancouver, a couple of miles from home, which was an easy jog to home. At the time, I was uncomfortably aware that I came from an affluent municipality – never mind that my family was no more than middle class – and went to great lengths to hide the fact.

Consequently, I lied to the driver about where I lived. When he went on to ask if I were interested in car-pooling, I lied again, saying I was about to move. After he dropped me off, I went half a mile out of my way to pretend that I was heading towards the area where I said I lived, and kept looking over my shoulder all the way home in case for some reason the driver might be following me. My nervousness was due to my discomfort at having lied so lightly, and was directly responsible for me resolving to eradicate or at least minimize my lying – not so much for moral reasons, so much as because of the complications that a lie could cause. Even then, I could see how ridiculous and unfounded my behavior was.

All these episodes were years ago, and I haven’t hitchhiked since. Probably I wouldn’t now, unless I was with at least one other person. But, although in retrospect, I think that I was lucky (perhaps my naivety protected me), I can’t help feeling nostalgic for a time when hitchhiking seemed a natural thing to do, and trusting yourself to strangers didn’t seem rash.

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Every Christmas, after the turkey and stuffing and yams and mashed potatoes and trifle, the other members of my surviving family settle down for a nap. While they are snoring, I go for a walk or a run. By then, the restlessness that comes when I don’t exercise is stealing over me. Besides, I don’t get to my native West Vancouver very often, so the exercise is a chance to see what has changed in the neighborhood where I grew up.

Superficially, very little has changed over the years. True, the distances seem shorter than I remember, and the streets seem slightly shabbier, no doubt thanks to the small size of contemporary budgets for infrastructure. But the traffic is as light as ever and the trees as many, and overall, the reality syncs with my memory of a quiet suburb of moderate privilege.

The main difference is in the houses. Real estate prices being what they are, the middle class bungalows that I remember from my teen years are being steadily replaced by monster houses built as high and as close to the edges of the lots as the bylaws allow. Also, places that once seemed not worth building on are now subdivisions – never mind that they are so close to creeks that the basements are rumored to have their own pumping system. No doubt owners call these changes maximizing their investment, but to me these monster houses always seem a decline in aesthetics, especially when they pop up in unlikely places.

Every year since I moved away from my parents’ house, I half-hope that I’ll see someone I knew at school. The possibility isn’t completely unlikely; a surprising number of classmates never left the municipality, and others, like me, have family ties that might take them back on Christmas Day.

But I never have seen anyone I know, not once in all these years, although I peer hopefully at everyone I see walking or jogging, and often pass by the track at my old high school, where some of the people with whom I used to run might be expected.
Instead, as I pass by familiar scenes, I remember.

That house used to belong to a fellow athlete who, the last I heard, had been living where he grew up to take care of his mother. She’s supposed to be dead now, but I wonder if he is still living there. I heard Eighties rock from the sidewalk and wonder if he is spending Christmas alone, but somehow I don’t have the courage or the inclination to knock.

I look up at the house where a girl I once knew grew up. We never dated – we just exchanged sympathies on the miserable states of our separate (mostly theoretical) love lives – but I wouldn’t mind seeing her again. Too bad her family moved away years ago.
I pass the house where four of us used to gather for blackjack and board games when I was in grade eleven. I wonder if my former friend still has family there, but I see a basketball hoop and a hockey net, signs of teenagers, and judge it unlikely.

Cutting through a park, I glance on the bridge on the house where a boy I thought obnoxious once lived. Then I remember that at the reunion three years ago the boy had grown into an equally obnoxious man, and increase my pace, as if thinking about him might make him reappear.
Now heading home, I consider passing by the house where a girl lived who was once the object of my unrequited crush. But I tell myself that would be indulgent, to say nothing of several blocks out of my way, so I continue on my planned path.

Nearing my old elementary school, I look up at the house where yet another crush lived. After the last reunion, we emailed each other a few times, but we haven’t had any contact in months, and aren’t likely to in the future.

A few houses further on, another crush used to live. At the reunion, she had seemed prematurely aged and bitter, and somehow I hadn’t had the heart to talk to her. I wonder what her story is, and part of me is glad to realize that I’ll probably never know.

By now, the sunset is near, and what little heat remains is being leeched with the light from the air. I ask myself what I am doing, growing melancholy over people who probably haven’t thought of me in years. I am no better, I tell myself, than the ex-friend who phoned us on Christmas Eve, full of news of other ex-friends in whom I have only a passing interest.

If anything, I am worse, because I have no reason to suddenly feel lonesome. I hurry through the school grounds and back to my parents’ house, my exercise in sustained nostalgia over for another year, and no more successful than it has been in the past.

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The other day, I read that Kodak would no longer be producing analog film. The newspaper did its best to make the new an end of an era story, with people lamenting the end of a tradition. But I admit that the laments left me cold. Technological nostalgia simply is not part of my personality.

It’s not as though I haven’t live through changes in technology. But many, such as the size and fuel of cars, are minor in the sense that they don’t affect the pace of daily life. Whether you ride in a sub-compact or a luxury car, the immediate experience is much the same. I feel the same way about black and white as opposed to color television, despite my fondness for film noir.

Other changes in technology seem improvements to me. A push-button phone is quicker and easier to use than a rotary one, although I remember being fascinated by the dials when I was in kindergarten.

As for typewriters, I understand that some older writers are used to them and want to stay with what they know. But give me a word processor and computer keyboard any day. I remember having to fiddle with whiteout and carbon paper, and having to retype a page because it had too many errors, and I have no wish to deal with these nuisances ever again. Nor am I fond of being restricted to red and black ink and (assuming you were lucky enough to have an IBM Selectric) a very limited set of typefaces – none of which had the collection of accents and umlauts needed to deal with every western European language, let alone anything else. While I took some time to get used to writing on a computer, now I wouldn’t go back to a typewriter at any cost.

The same goes for the old photographic processes that are now being lamented. I put in time at my high school’s darkroom and had a makeshift one at home for a few years, and I admit that there is an esoteric feel to developing films or producing a print with an enlarger (perhaps working in darkness or infra-red light has something to do with that feeling). And for years, it made sense that professionals should stick to the old techniques when digital cameras lacked the features they needed. But those days are at least five years past. Digital cameras and graphics editors get the same results while being cheaper, quicker, less fussy, and more efficient. So why would I want to stick with the old techniques?

Maybe my interest in results is part of why I don’t get nostalgic about technology. I tend to focus on similarities more than differences, an attitude that makes me see word processors and typewriters as means to a similar end. If I can get the same results with less effort from one means, that’s the one I’m going to use.

With this attitude, I’m neither a technophobe nor a technophile. I neither feel threatened by technology nor get excited by new technology, although I do keep informed about areas that interest me. When upgrading makes sense, I upgrade. With this attitude, I’m unlikely to feel any strong attachment to technology one way or the other. It’s a tool to me, and nothing else.

Still another reason I’m not nostalgic about technology is my memory. I have only good recall, but my recognition borders on the photographic. By that I mean that, although I can’t always generate detailed memories unaided, putting the right artifact or place in front of me is like starting a movie on the DVD player – it’s that vivid. So, when older technology is discussed, I’m not under any illusions about it, pro or con. And accuracy of my sort, I suspect, is incompatible with nostalgia. It’s hard for the reworkings of the mind to occur when you can access direct memories.

But the main reason for my lack of reaction seems to be my suspicion that most nostalgia for technology is really a nostalgia for when you are young. Just as most people’s attitudes or sense of prices tends to get stuck somewhere between the ages of 25 and 35, so most people’s sense of how technology should look and function gets stuck at a similar age. So, when people become nostalgic for an obsolete technology, what they are really doing is lamenting the fact that they are no longer young.

That seems just another form of distortion to me, and one that I am determined to avoid. Trying to perceive accurately isn’t always easy or pleasant, but I am determined to attempt it.

Sometimes, an older technology will have advantages that a newer one doesn’t – for example, so far, paper books are still more convenient and portable than ebooks (although that might change). But, for the most part, technological change simply happens, and I am content to observe and stoically accept.

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