A Leet

According to WordPress and other services, the number 1337 is important. It is not important for obvious reasons, like, say, reasons that are important, but for more obscure, talismanic ones.

Almost from the start, the online world has been something of a secret handshake society, but a democratic one, in which one and one’s friends can come up with a new secret handshake, and a capitalistic one, in which some secret handshakes become more popular, trendy. Elite. Or, “1337.”

Going back thirty years, users of programming language and speakers of everyday speech started to find places where the two collided. Going back thirty years, teenagers were passing messages to kids in the next aisle by typing on their calculators. Remember doing that? Certain numbers look like letters upside-down, so when one types 0.7734 that is also saying, “hello.” Here is a list of 250 such calculator-words: 250 Words You Can Spell with a Calculator.

I have had only one problem with this from thirty years ago to today: 0.7734 has never looked like “hello” to me. I just do not see it. I was the friend across the aisle from you in school who, when you showed me a secret calculator message, inadvertently said out loud, loud enough to attract the teacher’s attention, “What?”

I also do not see hidden anythings in “magic eye” posters, other than pretty fractals and colors, so I am just a generally all-around evil human being and no fun at all.

In the early days of the internet, in the era of bulletin boards and relay chat, the era in which someone typing on a keyboard in a movie was the height of real drama, those sorts of calculated calculator misspellings became a short-hand way of demonstrating one had inside knowledge about a topic at hand. Some of these terms have entered the culture at large, like newbie or pwned, and many have not.

For all of my life, I have felt like an outsider gazing in at a world of secret handshakes. Further, I am at my most uncomfortable when I try to look like I think I belong with you. Thus, when the kids in school in the ’80s who were “into computers” made it look like a secret society, I lost interest in programming. (Your loss, gaming community!) When the secret handshake society’s special vocabulary filters into the larger society and becomes a trendy lingo for a month or two or a couple of decades, it makes the world look like how I feel when I am trying to bluff my way into fitting in.

(Amusingly, I am composing this rant in a WYSIWYG in which I write my own simple HTML code and do not use a visual editor, a habit dating back to my newspaper work and a blog I started writing [now long lost] in 1997.)

1337-1xWhen one achieves 1337 of anything on a website, it is worth noting because 1337 is a lot of anything. In the case of The Gad About Town, it reached 1337 likes on November 26, when someone liked the column, “Gratitude Week.” In old-school hacker lingo, being an elite member of the community was designated by referring to them as elite, or a leet, or 1337. Again it’s the upside-down calculators that I have never looked at without saying, “What?”

Thank you to my readers and especially those who make the effort to express that they like some of the things I do. You have liked me more than 1337 times so far in ten months, which definitely makes me feel like a member of an elite.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 28 asks, “Today, publish a post based on unused material from a previous piece—a paragraph you nixed, a link you didn’t include, a photo you decided not to use. Let your leftovers shine!”

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Inequality for No One

“The Mexicans here, they’re better than the ones in California. They’re polite here. I like our Mexicans: they work hard and don’t make me think about them.”

This was small talk, office talk. It always surprises me how quickly people get comfortable enough with me that they gush out their own prejudices, as if they think/assume I have similar sympathies. I had no idea what to say in reply to something that was no longer small talk, so I mumbled that I was suddenly hungry and was going to the lunch room, immediately. “Our Mexicans” was the only phrase in my head. It kept clanging around in there.

The conversation took place in our shared office cubicle in a factory in Iowa; four of us occupied the space and one joined me in the walk to the cafeteria.

“‘Our Mexicans?'” I repeated. “That’s a concept?” He said he was surprised, too. I suggested that maybe when we returned to the cubicle, I would ask her opinion about Iowa vs. California Jews or other groups of people. I did not.

(In the years since, I have heard “our black people” spoken. By an African-American man. Regional prejudice trumped the more traditional kind, and it got the expected laugh from the white people in the room.)

The speaker who had stunned me was a woman who had moved with her family from California to Iowa—on purpose—to escape from California’s California-ness (read: liberal politics and “awful regulations” on cars and guns) and prevent her young daughters from growing up in the Golden State. No jobs had turned up in Nebraska, which was her and her husband’s first choice, so Iowa it was. Both states are 97%-98% white in population.

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Every woman I know, including the one from California, has reported that she has experienced sexual harassment. Every woman walks through a different day than any man does: she is gauged and judged for her appearance. Young and old, woman are called tarts or teases, or a phrase like “she must have been a looker when she was younger” is used. I dated a woman who had been raped, except she was puzzled when I called it that; in her description she said the guy had “come on strong” and that she should have said “no” more forcefully. “Did you say ‘No’?” I asked. She had, and he had penetrated her. That is rape.

Several women friends have described unpleasant encounters in which anonymous men have exposed themselves; one woman found a man rubbing his open-zippered self against her on a crowded subway, another was given a private show while she was seated on a crowded bus.

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It is not a nature vs. nurture matter that many people seem to think in this progression of loyalties: Self > family > tribe/extended family > neighborhood > region > population type (color or creed) > interest group > nation. I am conscious that I have not included income, but maybe “interest group” covers that. Humans are tribal, but this is not something we are born with; it is taught. We teach each other to find and use power over others, or to act like we have it.

My family inculcated in my sister and me a sense that we all were pretty lucky, blessed even, to be middle-class and white in America of the 1960s and ’70s. And that luck, simple luck, is not something to brag about or wield like a privilege.

Oh, but I am a member of a minority, you see, many of them. I am the product of a “mixed” marriage, Jewish and Baptist. I am disabled, living with a rare neuromuscular disease. Perhaps some breaks can be given to me. Give me some breaks, universe! This thinking is attractive, insidiously so. I deserve something, something more than I have. Say it with me.

I am a part of the uncomplaining majority, which makes me a minority. Reward me now.

It is indeed insidious, and in my lifetime it has become sickeningly popular. Call it the appeal of the self-declared minority, or the privilege of being underprivileged. The majority, the lucky blessed majority, has appropriated the language, and what it thinks is the mindset, of being underprivileged or even a victim. The powerful majority population decided that enough has been asked of it over time and has started to regard each activist minority population demanding mere equality as another squeaky wheel that gets oil. If finding a way to be the squeaky wheel means getting more privileges and benefits, well, how could they be against being the squeaky wheel? It can be one more way to more power.

Justice and fairness are not equal, but they are just and fair. We should do all we can—I should do all I can—to increase those two things.

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Today is Blog Action Day. It is estimated that there are more than 250 million blogs published around the world and spread among many hosting companies, many of which are publicly traded. That is a lot of voices, and if they could be united for one day about something other than the universal appeal of cats, they could direct attention in some productive areas. Public attention is not as productive as action and changing minds, but it is better than no action at all.

Blog Action Day is an annual event that was started in 2007. A topic of activist concern is selected and announced in advance. This year’s topic is “inequality.”


The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 16 asks, “Did you know today is Blog Action Day? Join bloggers from around the world and write a post about what inequality means to you. Have you ever encountered it in your daily life?

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Sick Transit, Gloria, on a Monday

One could define Hell as the experience of the sensation of wanting to be any place other than where one is at that moment. In the proper wrong circumstances, your bed could be rendered almost as uncomfortable as an MRI tube.

If I convince myself that the seat next to mine presents a better view of the movie screen and I can not slide into it because you are there, ask me in a couple hours what the film was about or who was in it.

Walk through any strip mall shopping plaza on a Sunday afternoon: not only is the place bereft of customers, not one single employee wants to be there, even for the money. Or a Walmart after midnight. Every employee is elsewhere, Walter Mitty’ing their way through life, perturbed to be where they are. Perturbed to be. That is a variety of Hell.

Sic transit gloria mundi, there goes the beauty of the world, in four-hour half-shifts working at a job one does not hate exactly—because hate is a strong enough emotion to inspire actions towards real change—but dislikes, detests, disdains. I detested myself when I disdained my jobs.

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One could also define Hell as the Albany, New York, Greyhound bus station. No one appears happy to be in a bus station, neither the transiting passengers nor the employees. An extended stay in a bus station is the experience of boredom minus information.

Airports present a vast panoply of human experiences, from the fear of permanent change to the excitement of temporary reunions. I have experienced emotions that I have not encountered elsewhere in my life in airports. I realized that I had fallen in love with someone 60 seconds too late in an airport once upon a time. (More correctly, I think that I thought I ought to have gotten a phone number.) I almost missed my next flight in indecisively wandering around O’Hare while debating whether I should run “just like in a movie” to what I thought was the terminal my desired companion had told me her flight was leaving from. If you did not know, O’Hare is too large an airport to be indecisive in.

A wait in a train station is boredom plus information, as the trains are usually on time and people willingly, even happily, strike up conversations. Grand Central Station or Penn Station in New York, South Station in Boston—look at this photo:


Boston’s South Station: Filled with sunlight and advertising and well-stocked newsstands. Look at that happy place. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

In memory, this is truly what South Station looks like: full of light. In truth, I remember once sitting beside the late journalist David Halberstam as he waited next to the Martin’s News Shop (see above) for the Acela train to whisk him off to New York City and the two of us watched a man throw up on himself on a bench not eight feet away. I was rendered mute by both seeing someone I idolized and that sight. The great writer was spared an embarrassing “I’m a big fan” speech from me, but maybe I missed making the scene into a conversation-opener. (Mr. Halberstam has since passed away, something that was perhaps hastened by the incident.)

In America, there are only a couple reasons one is in a bus station for an extended period—overnight, say—and two are the side effects of unhappy circumstances, like not knowing anyone in town. A typical long distance bus journey includes a couple changeovers and long breaks between legs in the trip. A traveler has to stay somewhere and if one is the only person one knows in Cleveland, Ohio, (for example) one might spend eight hours walking around the neighborhood, which looks a lot like this photo that I did not take one overnight stay in Cleveland in June 2000:

But the Albany Greyhound Station? No one wants to be there. No traveler or bus driver wants to spend more than 27 seconds there (I have never seen a driver enter the facility; they remain beside the bus even after passengers have collected all bags and boxes, as if afraid the vehicle will be stolen), and no one in a position to change things in that great city wants it to be there, either. For almost 30 years it has sat atop both Greyhound’s list of buildings that need to be replaced or rebuilt and Albany’s. Each wants to see what the other will do before acting. The building’s continued existence is the picture of a stand-off, as no one will invest time, money, or care in the place if it is always about to be razed and rebuilt by the other entity. Greyhound wants to see what Albany will do, and vice-versa. (Here is a recent article.)

Photo by Michael P. Farrell/Times Union. From www.timesunion.com/local/article/Churchill-Albany-s-Greyhound-station-is-a-5320974

Any photo will make the Albany bus station appear benign. Do not be fooled. (Photo by Michael P. Farrell/Times Union. From http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Churchill-Albany-s-Greyhound-station-is-a-5320974.php)

Yet there it stands, dingy and apart. It is a reminder that life ends, but bus stations are not supposed to be memento mori.

(Photo by Michael P. Farrell/Times Union. From http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Churchill-Albany-s-Greyhound-station-is-a-5320974.php)

Hell’s waiting room, the Albany bus station. (Photo by Michael P. Farrell/Times Union. From http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Churchill-Albany-s-Greyhound-station-is-a-5320974.php)


The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 6 asks, “Train stations, airport terminals, subway stops: soulless spaces full of distracted, stressed zombies, or magical sets for fleeting, interlocking human stories?”