Formative years, formative “places,” formative people

Over there on the right, in the “Family/Friends/Alter Egos” portion of the blogroll, you’ll see a couple names you may recognize.

The most likely such candidate would be Diana Gabaldon, creator of the hugely successful series of quote-unquote “romance” novels beginning with Outlander (original title, and title as published in the UK, Cross-stitch).

You may or may not know of Floyd Kemske, also an author — creator of a series of what he called “corporate nightmares”: fantastic (literally so) extrapolations of what the worst of business might wreak on society.

(For instance, Lifetime Employment, the first book in the series, concerns a company which — as the title suggests — guarantees lifetime employment to all its employees, managers, and so on. So then, with no real turnover or attrition, how do employees move up the career ladder? By killing their higher-ups.)

It’s been many years since I’ve talked to either Diana or Floyd — indeed, I’ve never spoken to Floyd, although I’ve known him for 17-18 years now. Occasionally, a brief flurry of email reassures me that they’re still out there. Diana, there’s little doubt of, in truth; the woman is everywhere. Floyd, well, I dunno; we last exchanged email a little over a year ago. If you follow the link to his Web site, you will find much that’s interesting, but nothing (as far as I can tell) more recent than a few years old.

My point in bringing these folks up — what I really have “in common” with them, aside from the loose association that we are all or have been writers — is where we met: on the “old” CompuServe Literary Forum.

I first signed on to CompuServe (CIS, we called it, for CompuServe Information Service (or maybe System)) in 1989. At the time, I worked for AT&T as a manager/programmer/database developer, so I’d seen and used email a little. (AT&T developed the Unix operating system, on variants of which the Internet remains highly dependent.) And I knew of electronic bulletin board systems, or BBSes; these tended to be fairly well-focused aggregations of people who had one interest in common, often a technical interest. There were certainly BBSes which dealt with computers, personal on up to mainframe. There were BBSes shared by airplane pilots, by baseball fans. And so on. In contemporary terms, they most resembled Usenet newsgroups, except that there was no one “entry point” to more than one. Each had its own dial-in phone number and so tended to be limited geographically as well as by subject.

But CIS electrified me. It was all there: you got an email account; you got a single point of entry to fora on hundreds of subjects; you got the ability to share files and other types of content through a rudimentary sort of upload/download feature called “libraries.”

Especially, it electrified me because of the presence of the Literary Forum, or LitForum (or just LitFo or LF, if you were feeling especially anxious). I couldn’t believe I’d stumbled into this enormous virtual dormitory, for lack of a better analogy, where everybody was a committed reader and many, committed writers to boot. And they’d all been at it for years. How the hell could I have missed it?

Neither Diana nor Floyd — nor I myself — had completed a novel yet, although we would all come to share bits and pieces of our work online. Diana was unbelievable, cranking out these brief and disconnected jewel-like scenes (they’d become Outlander, once she’d pasted, stapled, and rubber-banded them all together) and posting them on LitForum for the world to read and comment on.

Floyd was more reticent about sharing his work. He had a laconic “voice” on-line, always soft-spoken and almost painfully polite — and also funny as hell, in a drier-than-dry way.

Eventually I and (I’m pretty sure) Floyd drifted away from CIS. I took up with that new tart on the corner, AOL, although I never ever got into it as I had CIS. Diana is still active there, though — indeed, she’s now got her own entire section/message board within LitForum. (And yes, LitForum itself is still there, although CIS was bought out by AOL and then finally moved to the Web. It’s still managed by the same people, too — the indefatigable Alex Krislov and Janet McConnaughey.)

Every now and then, as I said, a brief burst of email confirms that one or the other of them is still connected to me.

We move on. We take bits and pieces of each person and each experience with us — in fact, I met The Missus in LitForum — but for the most part, we move on.

But we never really forget the places and times where we met the right people. And we sure never forget the right people themselves.

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