No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

bb, Generosity, and the Marking of an Important Anniversary

The Blurry Specter of bb

Back in the late 80's I got an account with Prodigy and soon fell into my first problematic online encounter. No net sex. Come on. I was barely born. But I did message back and forth for a few months with a man that lived in the Pacific NW, and a teenage guy that lived in California. Both turned out to be cases in which the man/boy had interests in relationship interactions (of whatever sort), and I was naively just hoping for a pen pal. I've been naive about these things for a long time.

In the early 90's I moved to Seattle, started taking classes at the UW, and joined the University's online bulletin board, brilliantly titled bb. Part of it's cult mystique was that it had been created as a computer science class project by two former students and then loaded onto the U's network for prof's to use as a homework helper program. It was entirely unix based, and being written in such sexy, libertarian code as that, it quickly morphed from a classroom site to an online social community complete with text-spots (aka "rooms") to post about everything from flirting with random people in the grocery store check-out line, to drinking extravagances, to movie reviews, to favorite local restaurants, to flaming other bb users. We really had some impressive flame wars. All kinds of relationship interactions (of whatever sort) happened on bb too, truth be told. It was wonderful, and sometimes hilarious.

As anyone online for that long knows, eventually, unix based bulletin boards waned and browser based chat rooms, or shared online journals, and now blogs, took over. The U dropped their service of the uw bb, and some of its loyal participants followed it over to various other hosting sites. Now, twentyish years later some of us are still communicating with each other via the original unix based bb design. We've got rooms where people talk about being pregnant, and what their kids are up to, where they're traveling, and what movies they've seen. People rarely mention flirting in grocery stores anymore, and the only time much talk of drinking comes up is when the Old Wooly gets released every December. We haven't had a good flame war in several years. I think I actually ignited the last one myself back in 2005. That's five whole years of peace, man.

A lot of us actually are still in contact with each other. I've got a wealth of friends in Seattle from these years, and I try to get back there every few to spend time with them. The bb community turned into tons of in-person friendships, and in fact some of my closest friends reach back to that unix space as origin. It's been interesting too to stay in contact with the same group of core people for all these years. We've gone on to do a range of things. As examples, camel races cars, raisa's a lawyer with a sweet little family, shamus wrote boxing reviews professionally for a time, deathmama creates hilarious online photo books re-enacting the Lord of the Rings storyline with playschool figures, ogre got a doctorate in American Studies and recently moved to Tasmania, bryer and rocketman are both published and award winning writers, swag took up painting, jahara runs a well-renowned physician training program. Those original UW kids that designed bb as a class project? They now run a successful software company located in Seattle. There's a huge range of activities the lot of us have taken up.

There are of course many many more of us. I even recently met a bb'er, baze, in person for the first time. We'd been friends since the early-mid 90's following each others' lives of getting married, starting a career, and moving to various towns, via email, but just had never been in the same place at the same time to meet in person. Randomly, it turned out baze and I were both in Anchorage over December break so we scheduled a morning for breakfast at a restaurant downtown. The funny thing is we recognized each other immediately. When we originally met online he was still taking classes at the UW. Now he's married, owns a home, and has gone on to fly jets for a living.

Even after all these years, bb still offers a genuine community--both online, and in person--through which many of us have shared some of our most important, or difficult life events, and developed friends that have been there for us as we went through them. We've suffered personal losses, outlived cancer, faced divorce, let go of our favorite cats, given birth to kids, changed careers, and just been frickin' cool and interesting all together online.

Back in 2005, I was finishing up my undergraduate coursework, and living on my own with my then-5 year old daughter. I'd managed to get through my undergrad as a single parent, without working, by continually applying for grants, and scholarships, and actually succeeded at eeking through (quite poor) on that money alone until the very last semester. In my final semester I was visiting graduate schools I'd just finished applying to, attending a couple of conferences, writing my undergraduate honor's thesis, and trying to complete my courses, while also editing a literary journal, heading up a reading series, and raising my daughter. I was busy. A few weeks into the term I got a message from financial aid that somehow, an error had been made in my financial aid allotment and that Spring term the limit on what I could receive would be radically lower than it had been every term previous. I'd already been getting by with just barely enough to live on, and then, without expecting it, I was going to have to somehow live on less. In the midst of this discovery I was completely wrecked. I got on bb and posted my little heart out in the "doom and gloom" (bad news) room saying I didn't know what I'd do, but lord help me I'd figure something out. A week later a package arrived in the mail. It was anonymous but the postage stamp read Seattle. When I opened it out popped my favorite lipstick, homemade cookies, freshly picked lavender buds, a handmade stuffed animal, a devil duck bath toy--a whole slew of things familiar to bb conversations, in other words--and an anonymously posted cashier's check for close to $2000. I couldn't believe it. Honestly, thinking about it now still makes me tear up, and my heart swell. It was one of the most surprising, life saving, and heart warming things that's ever happened to me. It turned out people on bb got together and behind the scenes pooled the money they could to help me when I needed it.

A few days later I received a letter in the mail from a rogue bb'er that went on record as one of the contributors. He had written the letter for a reason. He said that he was writing because he wanted to ask me to commit to something, that he also said he believed I'd likely do even without his asking. But he wanted to just make sure it was clear. In his letter he said that he was glad to know I'd gotten the money because it would help, and that he wanted to ask me in exchange to help whoever I could in the future in return. In other words, in staying anonymous, the various people that helped were ensuring I could never, in fact, repay them directly; and this one person's letter was telling me that I should think of that as my invitation to pay the favor forward, as it were. That is, to return the favor by sharing it with others as I could.

I've never forgotten that. I do my best to stay in contact with my bb friends. I post on bb too as I can as a way to keep it going, and stay in contact, though it's online base of people is much much smaller now. I visit Seattle when I can. And I always feel bad for what an ass I can be online with any of them too, knowing every single one of them deserves better. They're all such good and dear people. I also try to focus on helping others as I'm able, or sending little notes of care. I know I have to make sure my little family (the ten-year old, our bird, and I) are secure in our needs, but that part of us being secure is also our being generous with others as possible, and our staying connected to our loved ones. Our friends are part of our family. My goal is to raise the ten-year old with the generous spirit of seeing the potential for community and sharing as my bb friends have consistently demonstrated to me. And I try too to literally pay the gift forward by sharing my financial resources when possible with friends too.

I'm writing this blog post now to thank all of them again, even as I can't do it directly by name. We're approaching the 5 year anniversary of their generous gift, and so I have to mention it. My hope is that I live up, at least a little, to the thoughtfulness of that present. Dear friends, thank you.


  1. *sniff* so sweet and heartwarming

  2. I didn't realize bb was still going somewhere! That makes my day, it really does, learning that. It's still alive somewhere! It's still out there! People still have nicks! And intersting*announcemes! Oh, my sweet bb. I love you, I love you, I loved you.


  3. I dunno. Sounds like a bunch of miscreants and ne'er-do-wells. ;)

  4. That is incredibly amazing story Elaine! I truly enjoyed reading about your fond memories and continued friendships! Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Elaine, that's wonderful. I was kali back then, btw --

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  7. This is kinda wonderful. Thanks for the reminiscence. -- Number6

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