A Self-Portrait in Three T-Shirts

I’ve done my laundry today.

In packing to come to France, I had to pack only what I needed. It was confirmed that there was a laundry room in the building, so that meant I could carry less, and worry less about having to truck laundry around a new city.

Then it came down to the question: what do I pack?

Far beyond the simple question of the ideal blank forms of things I’m going to need (so many each of shirts, underwear, socks, pants), the question really revolves around a much deeper point: who am I going to appear to be?

Perhaps it is inevitable that I feel some nostalgia now, with less than a week left in this town that has been my home for three and a half months. It’s not all been good — often quite stressful and frustrating, actually — but I’m trying to take what gems I can from it all, see what of myself I have learned or how I might have changed, see what of the world I have learned or experienced.

And yet, it was while going down to get my laundry out of the dryer that I had this more interesting thought: what does my laundry say about me?

It actually started with the stray thought, “What if someone is in the laundry room, and they think that the clothes in that dryer are theirs? Could I prove to them, without looking in, that they were mine?”

This began the philosophical monologue, by me, in French, about the question. There wasn’t anyone in the laundry room, so no such encounter actually happened. (At this point, it might be more modern to simply say that I was talking to myself, but I’m going to stick to the hopeful and slightly more intellectual “philosophical monologue”.)

The monologue was in French, because I’ve been trying very hard to force myself to think and speak in French. I’m still barely above basic fluency, but I can hold a decent conversation. Unfortunately, most people don’t want to hold decent conversations, but rather only have the brisk business of the day to conduct as quickly as possible. I’m sure I appear to be completely unaware of the language when someone says to me, “Avezvousrappelerleguardien?” or “Bonnedègustationmonsieur!” or “Vousvoulezdespimentrougeoudespoivronsrouge?”

Anyway, the practice of speaking in French is the only way to get better, and with the absence of anyone else around to talk to, I’m quite happy to talk to myself. If it really bothers you, just think of it as responding to a language lesson tape that is running in my head. (If that makes it any better.)

But in this case, there was a ready topic, and an interesting one: how would I identify the clothes — or more accurately, how would they identify me?

(One caveat: in what follows, my French is rough. I know it, but I’m allowing my mistakes to be seen, a more true view than if I had carted off the statements to Google translate or something.. I have looked a few words up, particularly “fictional”, which I discovered was “fictif” and not “fictionelle“, although I’m sure I’ve heard the latter..)

“Il y a trois chemises dedans,” I began, “qui sont absolument moi.” (“There are 3 shirts inside that are absolutely me.”)

“Premierement, il y a une chemise avec les mots ‘code poet’.” First, there is a shirt with the words “code poet”. I’ve always liked this shirt, as it is a very clear, concise statement of one of my beliefs and joys: a computer program, when well-designed and well-implemented, is like a kind of poetry in elegance. This can be very hard to describe, and its not just in the structure or in the actual code itself. Good software developers recognize it instantly, and strive for it. It’s about consistency, about simplicity, about clarity of expression. It’s about symmetry and structure of the ideas and purposes implemented in the code, and the reflection and illustration and even expansion that good code — poetic code — has on the ideas it expresses.

It’s hard to do, and even harder to maintain. Most software suffers from a strange, industrial, time pressure inherited from the processes in so many other fields. Writing code is seen as an industrial act to many people who don’t write code, and is not recognized for the artistic and creative side that it really needs, to be done well. Basic programming is industrial; good programming is art.

“Le deuxième chemise porte le nom et logo de la compagnie fictif, ‘Blue Sun’.” The second shirt carries the name and logo of the fictional company, ‘Blue Sun’. For those who don’t get the reference, this was one of the megacorps floating around the meta-plot and background to Joss Whedon’s wonderful Firefly TV series and subsequent Serenity movie.

This is my statement of geekdom. To the millions of fans of the series around the world, this is instantly recognizeable. To the rest, there is at least a recognition that it has something to do with odd and imaginary worlds, because our sun is definitely not blue. I wear this shirt proudly. I am a geek — although the label is a little too broad for my tastes these days.

Like most things, the Internet has created a multiplexity of niches. Just as easier worldwide distribution of fiction and music created the modern complex map of controversial, confusing, and overlapping genres, so too has the easier worldwide distribution of culture — most currently and rapidly assisted by the Internet, but previously by magazines and television — has led to a blossoming of types of geekdom. To call oneself or be called a “geek” is about as helpful and descriptive as to say “you have brown hair” or “you have a pierced ear”.

It still means something, and there is something of the generalized term of geek that still carries some truth, but it’s not that descriptive any more. I was a geek back when the term didn’t have as much variation, but it still did have some. A great illustration of this is the show “Freaks & Geeks”, a show dear to my soul, if not my experience. In that show, there are band geeks, Dungeons & Dragons geeks, music geeks, stoners, liberals, outsiders.. Many different species of geek.

What kinds of geek would I be? The list would be too long to really write down. Although, to my constant frustration, the long list is also what keeps me from being much of a geek at all, the division of my time over the number of interests results in a fraction that very nearly approaches zero, and continues to grow smaller with each new discovery.

I identify myself with geeks, and I love them. I will likely sit in rapt attention listening to someone go on and on about the minutiae of their fascinations than to someone who casually and unenthusiastically comments about their tennis swing or a “pretty” car they know almost nothing about.

“La dernière chemise a l’embème d’une université fictif dans une ville fictif: L’université de Miskatonic.” The last shirt has the emblem of a fictional university from a fictional town: Miskatonic University. It is perhaps quite telling that I have never bought a shirt, jersey, cap or anything else that bears the logo of a real university. (I was gifted a leftover vest from UNB for helping out with the programming club, so I do own something with the logo.)

I have been with my university for several years. One might very rightly say too many years. Yet, I don’t really feel any identity with it. It doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t dwell in my thoughts.

I’ve never much thought it made any sense to buy the t-shirt, mug or cap from a university you haven’t attended, at least part-time. And yet, I’ve seen many Harvard shirts on people who I’m pretty sure never studied there, and many probably haven’t even visited.

But I have visited Miskatonic University. I’ve been up and down its halls in the fiction of HP Lovecraft and the stories and movies and games based on his work. It is a place of big challenges to the established reality of thought, an archive and archeological exhibit of the strange ideas and bizarre possibilities — both realizeable and purely fictional — of our universe. It is filled with foreboding books, curious and often insane minds, arcane and fundamentally abnormal research.

I identify with that place far more than any university I’ve ever had a chance to be at.

So, there it is: a reflection from an imagined and unlikely defense of the ownership of my laundry.

I wonder what will happen when I do my dishes?

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