"Let's be going:"
A Parent Reads GeekCereal

by Peter Donaldson

2,921 words words
posted:  november 4,  1997


October 24, the first day of the recent "Transformations of the Book" Conference at MIT was the last day -- or possibly the last day -- of GeekCereal. It is a kind of collective web diary my son has coordinated for the past year and a half as part of his duties as Gardener in Chief of Cyborganic Gardens, a web-based on and offline community, whose various web activities were supplemented by real life dinners every Thursday (TNDs) at Cyborganic's South of Market headquarters. My wife Alice told me that it might be the end, and that I should try to read his final post, but I didn't get to it until Sunday. As the bright yellow "cereal box" splash screen came up (more flakes! more nuts!), and Caleb's cartoon likeness and one-line teaser appeared, two days after they should have been supplanted by Rebecca and Jeremy's posts, it was clear Alice had been right -- "Sayonara Cyborganic" was the headline.

Caleb was born in 1968, the annus mirabilis of the new age, when I had been suspended from graduate school and from my not very lucrative stipend as a preceptor in English at Columbia, while my Lawyer's Guild counsel traded memos with my thesis advisor (who was also the head of the faculty senate discipline committee) over the niceties of whether it was possible to be guilty of trespassing in one's own office in Hamilton Hall. As the years passed and fervor gave way to prudence (we had more than our chains to lose), Alice and I retained, as is not unusual in academic Cambridge, a connection with those times, though ever more faintly. All of our children went through the alternative programs in the Cambridge schools, descendants of the parent run nursery schools and playgroups we had joined as early members.

So it was with a sense of pride, as if Caleb were carrying on the family business of hapless non-Marxist revolt, when he was drawn into the orbit of the nascent Web culture, running chat lines, reading proof for Wired and HotWired, managing a devoted staff of friends and disciples at CNET Online, apparently in the belief that, somehow, technology and community could converge. Having worked at MIT since Caleb's first birthday, I was less sanguine -- but in the past few years I too had been influenced by unexpected optimism, and was drawn to explore electronic tools for teaching literature. Unlike Caleb, who had mastered enough Pascal or whatever it was to have all the records of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School at his disposal from his Freshman year on, I had no aptitude for computers (the Datateknik cover story on my project noted, in Swedish, that even the laserdiscs refused to obey my nervous commands, and attributed the project, reverently but incorrectly, to the genius of Nicholas Negroponte ), but I had wonderful collaborators, and a strong will, and persisted. Like Caleb, I thought we were using technology to make things better. I began, in tentative ways, even to imagine we were using it to change the world. Our mutual interests and hopes became a strong bond. When I could, I even got some free consulting and moral support from Caleb and his group, who had become highly paid web designers, flown in, at times, to rescue complex projects from their incompetent intiators. I couldn't afford the full treatment, but apprecated the good advice they gave in passing.

 
 
Two years ago, their communitarian instincts led to the forming of a web community that would also be a company, that would be realistic and professional as well as alternative-cultural, kind, and smart. That was Cyborganic, and its birth was heralded by a wonderfully goofy and fairly accurate story in Rolling Stone, with a double page upside down picture of the house on Ramona Street, with cable strung from every landing, and a geek at every window ("that's Trish! That's Sonic!-- is that Caleb up there? -- why didn't he stay on the second floor where we could see him better?"). Though all the geeks came off well, Caleb seemed to be the hero of the piece, at least to us, with a header proclaiming -- "if Caleb has any fears of jumping, he isn't showing it." Our stacks of copies of the issue, with Lenny Kravitz on the cover of each one, have hardly faded. (Visitors pick them up to read the latest Rock and Roll high fashion news and then put them back in the pile quietly when they realize they're two years out of date.)

The Cereal itself (http://sharon.net/gc/) was a joy to look at, to read, and to navigate. The seven "geeks" were each responsible for a main post on their day, and "side orders," comments from the others, were optional but frequent; a flawless interactive calendar kept track of all entries, allowing you to follow one character through the weeks, or to follow a thread or a story. GeekCereal launched when Caleb and his friends had an entire six months of writing in the archive -- this was an unfolding story of their lives in and around multimedia gulch that had a history at its inception.

The Cereal provided us, as parents, with glimpses of Caleb's life we hadn't had before and a fuller picture of things we already did know -- his leadership, his love of cooking for large groups of friends, his hard work and kindness were much in evidence; his "side orders" were often compassionate and understanding, and even when the tone was angry, he seemed to point the way to productive modes of expressing anger in this oddly private, oddly public medium that others could imitate -- and they did. His acknowledgment of our role in his life, and his affirmation of his bond with his brother and sister were moving beyond words, and perhaps could not have been communicated to us in such depth through any other medium, reading what he had written primarily to share with friends and with unknown visitors to the site.

One post discussed his giving up smoking (we never knew he smoked), his love of reggae and hip hop came into better focus, and, as East coast mostly folks we learned about the Western rite -- fetish parties, bondage a go-go (Caleb disapproved, but seemed to know a lot about it); Reggae on the River; Burning Man ("good God, don't go!" we wished, while his posts teased readers with claims that he would sit this year's event out, only to provide them with a last minute on-site post from the desert.) We gathered, from GeekCereal and the pictures posted on Bianca's Smut Shack (how did we wind up there?) that Burning Man was some kind of desert youth festival in which people burnt very large effigies and dressed bizarrely or went naked amid the pyrotechnics. Steev's post was an exuberant celebration of human anatomical diversity, newly seen and appreciated.


Unlike Woodstock, the geeks, before and after the event, were openly anxious about their role, their dress or undress, the propriety of their demeanor -- "I don't know if I'm ready for Burning Man" was the theme. Alice and I, years before, never started for Woodstock, as the baby needed feeding and the news of hundred mile traffic jams was discouraging -- but we didn't know anyone who would admit to anxiety about how they might look or appear there.

Through the Web, we were also able to follow Caleb's secret but gradually revealed mission to India, where he participated, as an early "scout" (see Numbers 14:24, the passage we had in mind when we named him, and see also his account of that naming in his FAQ) in the wiring of the Dalai Lama's compound at Macleod Ganj. The India post was the only one with a photograph -- a beautiful view of the Himalayas, where one of the Western visitors got lost after dark; the local lamas said prayers, were unruffled and comforting, and the young man returned safely.

We came to rely on the Friday serving, and noticed that the comic book image of Caleb, , that accompanied every post (strange at first, too quirky to be our son) came to seem more and more like him. At times it seemed to BE Caleb, more present than the pictures on the mantel.

We were moved by his stories of his love for his partner Tricia, a wonderfully gifted, quiet and reflective person. She had been a classmate and friend at Yale, but Caleb had not dared to try to date her during their college years. When she migrated to the Bay Area, like Caleb she worked in "new age" publishing -- first at Wired as an associate art director, then at Yoga Journal. At Cyborganic she was the designer (with Sonic, Queen of the Universe) of GeekCereal, and then went on to work for Third Age. She had moved from the East to be with Caleb, and there is a media-in-transition lesson somewhere in the story of their reunion.

Tricia visited friends in Berkeley for a few days several years ago, and renewed her acquaintance with Caleb by chance. Then she left. The story goes -- it has several versions, oral, written and webbed -- that Caleb then wrote her a twenty page handwritten letter and sent it by surface mail (no email for this communication). There was no response for weeks, and then she showed up in her tiny red car (not the canonical Alfa Romeo roadster, but close enough so that I think of her driving over the Bay Bridge to Berkeley like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). She had quit her job, loaded up her belongings, and driven out. They've been together since. Most romantic stories I've heard lately have involved the Internet as matchmaker; perhaps the use of the mail and the internal combustion machine will seem as archaically romantic in a year or two as Daphnis and Chloe does now.

When Caleb was at Yale, he and a friend were selected to deliver the Class Speech at graduation, which at Yale is a stand-up comedy retrospective you have to audition for. We were entranced, but found the next day, when the event was covered in the Yale campus paper, that we had missed nearly every double entendre ("play" to us suggested either the Boston Celtics or theories of the "ludic" in the Middle Ages). The paper even took note of the massed parents in their clueless delight, missing every vulgarity. Well - it was better than Marian Wright Edelman's speech on the same occasion, which seemed to me insufferably self congratulatory and insulting, contrasting her own social commitments with the irresponsibilty of the privileged young, about which she knew little and assumed much. I'm still impatient, though guiltily so, when the Children's Defense Fund calls for a donation.

 
 
The Web version of Caleb's life and that of his friends offered many similar interpretive challenges -- we often missed the point of elegantly lewd posts, Alice missing a bit more than I, usually.

In March of last year, while I was at a conference in Atlanta, Alice called to say that Caleb had called and would call me with an important message; I guessed what it was about, as Caleb had been hinting at spending a considerable portion of his boom or bust savings on a diamond (a diamond! -- no hippy crafted silver and flawed opal for the webhead generation). I was exhausted after a long day, trying to sort out Hal Varian's unsettling futuristic vision of academic assessment using web citations and making notes on Peter Lyman's humane and wise account of his trip to China and the preciousness of the freedom of speech on the internet. I left the television on loudly so I wouldn't fall asleep and miss the call -- when it came, images of a village that had fallen prey to a deadly outbreak of ebola flickered on the screen; I had a bad connection. Caleb's message was brief -- he'd proposed to Tricia, she'd accepted and I could read about it at length in his post tomorrow. He too was tired, and couldn't really talk -- but he wanted me to hear this news by phone.

So the phone had become the way to show respect for parents -- but the canonical version was the web page, and it was indeed rewarding to read; reflective, funny, loving, wastefully extavagant and wonderful; it was a treasure for us, and we copied text and snapped screenshots (command, shift, 3) to save it. We understood the double and the triple entendres. It was better than a phone call.

Now GeekCereal was ending -- a prey to the vicissitudes that might befall any idealistic community structured as a corporation. The touch of gold rush fever had been there, we might now guess, from the beginning (we have seen it in academia too, but there's no eldorado in educational multimedia either, at least not for those who sought it most ardently); the geeks who wrote for the Cereal had actually been contractors and employees (though some had wanted to be partners) -- and they had not been paid. There was no revenue with which to pay them, and the venture capital and its supplements had dried up; relationships suffered; one geek was already in small claims court with a case against the founder. Caleb sounded the knell, and he did it with elegance and care.

Although posts had been infrequent in the last few weeks, and the "side order" responses had almost disappeared, all four of the remaining Geeks responded. Rocky was perplexed, and almost disbelieving -- ""so this means you are backing out of the project? that's all it seems it could be, i guess... unless one person can decide it's over for everyone." Steev was rueful but accepting and grateful for having participated. He was the geek who seemed to us to have changed most over the months, from a nervous beginner, a technical guy whose only convergence with these high style webheads seemed to be his purple hair (at least the obligatory "Steev" caricature has purple hair) to an effective and interesting writer. His posts combined wide eyed and naive appreciation for the wonders of the web world (especially at Burning Man) with an engaging down to earth and direct style.


The mysterious Jeremy (does he still wear a long skirt, and why? where will he go after Apple?) was brief -- he can be found at satori.net. Each of the geeks now referred us to their home pages, and some promised to keep writing and told us where we could find what they wrote. I read Allison's side order last -- and followed the link to her home page at floozy.com. It brought tears to my eyes, as the screen displayed the conclusion of the Phaedrus. As the day cools and the dialogue ends (though these precious moments preserved on papyrus rolls and transcribed in the medium of print now reach us in cyberspace), friends depart. Socrates offers a prayer, to Pan and all the gods:

Grant that I may become beautiful within, and that whatever outward things I have may be in harmony with the spirit inside me. May I understand that it is only the wise who are rich, and may I have only as much money as a temperate person needs. --Is there anything else we can ask for Phaedrus? For me that prayer is enough.

Phaedrus asks him to offer the prayer on his behalf as well, "since friends have all things in common." Socrates replies, concluding the dialogue, with words that appear on Allison's page in large blue character, underlined.

 


Let's be going.

*********************

 

And that was how the serial ended, an ending worthy of Plato's great precursors, Calvin and Hobbes (I mean the final Sunday panel, that shows an expanse of white, of newly fallen snow; and either the child or the tiger remarks, as the strip ends forever, "Let's go."). In my reading, on that day, it didn't even occur to me that these words were also a link. As Alice and I re-traversed the end of Cyborganic the next day, I noticed that Allison's post let us know that she hadn't changed her page in months. In fact, as we now discovered, "let's be going" led to a series of marvellous quotations, from Huang Po, Sufi mystics, American transcendentalists, Montaigne -- and, of course, to much else. "Let's be going" is Allison's signature link.

And so at the end of the cereal we began to learn more, belatedly, about Allison, and her particular sensibility, to revisit old and revered texts we had in common and to follow her lead into new paths. We couldn't know where following these connections might lead. Given the personal and legal tangles these folks had got themselves into, even how long these posts might remain on the internet as Cyborganic went under, we didn't know -- but the transformation of what had been an imprtant part of our lives had been marked. The cereal ended for us with deeper understanding of the medium, and its special way of articulating endings and beginnings, with gratitude for a form of connection that could not have existed in any other form, and with the sense that we understood, a little better, the restlessness of grown children at the end of family visits.

Let's be going.

 
   
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