Past the Past

I visited a graveyard today. Unlike a conventional graveyard, this one exists not as a piece of land, subdivided into plots and a mausoleum or two. No, this graveyard exists only in the virtual world of the Internet. It's not even really a graveyard, in any classical sense. It's simply a virtual world that no one really bothers with inhabiting any more, cast off as the world moved on. It's easier to keep it running than to shut it down, since common decency requires you to notify people of such a shutdown.

This graveyard was a formative part of my youth, a place that helped make me the person that I am today. It was found through one of the 'little things,' a euphemism I use for events in one's life that take it down wholly different paths than those it would have followed otherwise, those things that take you off of the knife-edge and plummet you down a side you never expected.

But this story, this reminisce, begins in a time further back than that.

I was eleven or twelve, and I had just received a new computer, a 486dx33 with a 2400 baud modem included. The computer was nice--I could run a graphical environment for the first time, Windows 3.1--but the modem ended up changing my life perhaps more than any piece of technology other than the computer itself. The modem opened me up to a world that I never knew existed, and while I've shed it now for the snappier response of Cox Digital Cable, I still have an external 56K modem. It is part of a legacy that I hope never dies, at least not in the hearts of people of the world.

I was eleven or twelve, and I had just received a new computer. I decided to try out the modem. I don't remember what program I used that first time--perhaps Telix, copied from a friend at school, but it's irrelevant--and I connected to my first BBS. What was it? I think it was My Hiding Box, a local BBS primiarily used for files, run by one Lajuana Bloodmensteil. [How I remember that name when I can't remember much of anything of my youth is partly testament to how formative this time as, and partly because, well, I thought her name was really cool.] I had a friend who had a modem before I did, and I hung out at his house a whole lot. He even showed me MUDs back then, dialed into the local university's machine using a compromised account.

I was eleven or twelve, and I had just received a new computer. The modem that came with it opened up a whole new world. One of the first places that I visited was entitled Silveril's Demesnes. It ran a particular BBS program entitled Major BBS. Unlike most BBSes, which had one line, Major BBSes were made for multi-user interaction, with multiple lines and games that could be played by more than one person at the same time. I still remember the 'MUDs' that it had with a sense of trepidation, because they were really, really hard.

The games were not what was important, however. It was the people. I met folks there that I still remember. I fell in love with a girl, and although she dumped me on my birthday, ending that relationship, it was my first real romance. We had been friends for a long time before that.

Soon, me and a friend were running a BBS on our own, on a second line at his house. I got a second line, since my parents got tired of me taking over the phone every night at eight. I ran a few BBSes myself, one named CyberWarez and one named The Circle. The Circle actually became one of the most popular messageboards in the city, which made me feel good. I met people there, exchanged ideas, and had a good time. I actually met a number of the people that I talked to on the BBSes--one of the advantages of the fact that no one wanted to pay long distance fees was the fact that you were generally in a fairly small radius, and user gatherings were quite possible.

Indeed, one of my good friends today contacted me a couple of years ago via eMail, with the subject header the name of the BBS that we ran at my friend's house, The Dark Hideaway. Unfortunately, he is the only person that I'm still in touch with from that period in my life.

Some digression here is necessary to explain just how different the dynamic of BBSes were from the current MUD/talker/IRC world of the Internet. Since only one person could be on at a time, there were message boards where people would have extended conversations. The best BBSes had a number of different message boards, catering to different topics, and the really good regulars would read just about all of them. The BBS software kept track of the messages that you've already read, but you could always go back and read the old ones. The religious debates were always hot and furious, but there was often intelligent discourse on other topics, ranging from poetry to politics to love. Of course, this intelligent discourse was often from the point of view of people in their early teens. Not Shakespeare or Kirkegaard, perhaps, but to us it was important.

At some point I started to log onto America OnLine, or AOL. This was before it was connected to the Internet, and way before the flat rates that they currently have. I was only on it for two months--the free month, plus one more that cost so much my parents cancelled the service. But during those two months I got a taste for real live chat, more than the four people that Silveril's allowed, that I would never get out of my system.

There were two channels that I hung out in. The OMNI channel, centered around the magazine of the same name, was a great place to be if you wanted to talk science fiction. And there was a Wiccan/Pagan channel. There, I met one of the authors of a book I very much admired, Silver RavenWolf, and she actually told me that I seemed to have more wisdom than most elders. Patronizing a brash kid? Perhaps so. But it was uplifting.

I had been messing around with Usenet and the like on a local ISP, but it wasn't until 1996 or thereabouts that I really, really started to get into a world which became an integral part of me for many years to follow.

Bored one day, I started browsing the newsgroups. I read one or two messages on alt.religion.wicca or alt.magick or something. I don't remember what. But there was an advertisement for a brand new 'talker' called Silver Circle. I figured out how to use telnet and connected to it.

The Silver Circle was a Wiccan/Pagan oriented talker, and the starting room made that evident, with an ASCII ankh and descriptions of incense and statues and an altar. I felt at home.

That same description stands there today, six years later. The graveyard has not aged.

I met someone there. Her nickname was Morgana, and it turned out that she was even younger than me, only fourteen years old, and she was one of the two people who ran the Silver Circle. That amazed me--someone that young running a piece of software like that? Of course, she was an administrator, not a coder, but still. My first impressions of her were that she wasn't terribly nice.

I fell in love with her, of course. She reciprocated, and soon we were staying up every night, that summer before my freshman year of high school, and we'd watch the Discovery Channel together. She was in Kansas, I was in Louisiana, but the Discovery Channel played at the same time in both places. We would talk back and forth about the show, about life, about love. Whatever. Late at night, they repeated all of the shows. They did it in three- or four-hour blocks, and we would actually watch both sets of shows, making snide comments the second time around since we knew what was coming around.

I think that was probably the happiest time in my life. I choke up as I write that, but something in me knows that it's true.

Almost simultaneous to my discovery of the Silver Circle, I started to frequent a MUD entitled Vortex. There were a lot of interesting people there, and I befriended a number of them. By the time that I was able to become a 'Wizard' on Vortex, I had already become part of the staff of the Silver Circle. I noticed the politics there, and tried to stay out of them, but didn't always succeed. Phoenix had a set of quests that you had to complete to become a Wizard, so I simply refused to do the last one.

Eventually, however, they convinced me to do it. I became a Wizard. It was a fun time; I made many friends, had a lot of fun. Then Vortex died and became Phoenix, and while most of the people were the same, it just didn't have the same feeling, and I started to come by less and less. I would do it in spurts--come back heavy for a few months, disappear for months at a time. I had my character 'zapped'--deleted--a number of times, and got a good friend in trouble once for having him do it for me. I'd always come back and beg for reinstatement, and I usually got it. One last time, however, I didn't.

By this time, my time on the Silver Circle had been waning. Many of the original people had left. I ran a few chats on various religious and magical topics, but that stopped. Fell in love again. Fell out of love again. Drifted away.

Phoenix is still alive and well, although I don't recognize most of the people who are there. There are still some who know me, though, from one of my sporadic always-on-periods, and logging back on today brought me together with a few of them. One of them teleported me to the Hill of Contemplation, which used to be my 'home' as a Wizard. My 'wizquiz' was held there, given by a good friend. That grilling was one of the most tense moments in my life. In the virtual world, that room was left unchanged.

None of this is the point, though. It is not the things that I remember that brought me to ramble here, that brings tears to my eyes even as I type this. It's the things I've forgotten, the things only half-remembered, the people that I'll never see again, people who touched my life for a brief moment or for an extended period but then disappeared into the mists.

I have a letter at my house from a Jarlytha. I don't remember her. Was she from the Silver Circle, or Phoenix? I can't recall.

I remember, back on Vortex, hanging out with a woman. I just recalled her nickname on there--Ngish. I was in love with her too, at least some sort of puppy love. She disappeared once, and I got some information from some people, and searched for her on some Star Wars MUD. I never found her again.

I could make lists of people who I never see any more. On the Silver Circle, there was ragaZZo, goldenseal, Katana, ShadowDancer, and many more whose names do not sit on the tip of my tongue. A look on Phoenix tells me that Bale, one of my best friends there, has not logged on for two and a half years.

Vast portions of my virtual life, entire people and conversations and life threads, are gone from my memory. They helped make me the person I am, but they are not there for me to recall. I feel like an old man, trying to remember his family but not quite succeeding, vague shadows flitting in my mind, always escaping my grasp.

I remember periods where I would get depressed every single night on the Silver Circle, and my friends would cheer me up. This wasn't a once a week thing, or even twice a week. This was every night, seven days a week, for many months. These people kept me sane, kept me from doing something horrible to myself. Why did they do it? Because we were friends. The fact that it was words on a computer screen instead of a person holding you became irrelevent. We all lived for each other, loved each other, helped each other, got mad, made up.

People say that the Internet has no memory, has no permanence, that people just don't care as much on the 'net as they do in real life. These people have obviously never experienced what I have. We lived together, as a separate whole. Those days may have passed, but I doubt that most people involved in them have simply forgotten. Moved on, perhaps, but we were all changed.

It doesn't end. I met a very important person in my life because they eMailed me about a video game review I wrote. I still keep in touch with some people from both the Silver Circle and Phoenix, but for every person I can still contact there are ten or twenty that I cannot. There are even more that I've simply forgotten. I wish that I had an eidetic memory some time, so that I could honour the memory of my friends. Instead, I write this.

It's hard to go to those places now. The memories they inevitably bring back, of long-ago conversations and good times and bad times and the eventual disintegration of whatever connections I had to the places, depress me. I'm writing this partly because I'd like to have at least some record of this time, and partly because it is cathartic. It is both awful and aweful to think of the lives I touched, for good or bad, and how I have no idea how it all turned out. I was the group shrink at the Silver Circle for a long time, part of which caused my frequent sabbaticals, but I always came back. Until I stopped coming back.

Everyone, everyone that was involved in that, those who I have forgotten, those who I have lost--I apologize. I apologize deeply. I should have tried harder, should have done more, should have realized that at some point the tenuous present would become the Past, and that if I didn't watch myself I would be past the Past before I could get any decent hold on it. If you're reading this and remember any of this, please get in contact with me. I regret many things in my life, but the loss of friends, of memory, of parts of my life--however virtual they may have been--is something I regret more than almost anything else.

We all move on, but the graveyard still stands, a mute testament to a greater time. The people it touched, the lives it changed, those are the true testament. And while I was only a small part of the whole, it shocks me to silence sometimes.

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Last Updated: 2002.09.09.0946