Discovered: A late-’90s ode to the Northwestern computer lab

A find during Googling recently — Lindsay sent a photo of Evanston restaurant Hecky’s, a place we never went while we actually attended Northwestern — is Martha Larson’s “Computer Lab Swing” (lyrics and mp3), which turns out to be an amazing capture of an odd time and place: NU’s late-’90s digital world.

The servers named after neighborhood restaurants (Hecky’s is the only survivor), the Telnet text-only email client, the “Ph” service that operated like a digital phone directory but then became a semi-social network before social networks existed…. all of these things were real and our children will never believe us.

It’s a high-class joint where the big names rendezvous
You’ve got Hecky, Casbah, Merle and Sweet Lulu
The lights are white and the screens glow a funky green,
And, baby, pine is the secret word, if you know what I mean
Keep on swingin’ there’s no stoppin’, the Cyberworld is always hoppin’
Computer Lab…Computer Lab

I sing bee-billi-oten-boten-bobo-skideeten-be-bop
As I take that mouse for a spin across my desktop
The guy sittin’ next to me is a real Johnny Style,
So I’ll Ph that cat, and get his profile
All those masterminds a-thinkin’ but there ain’t no food or drinkin’
Computer Lab…Computer Lab

Our current interns will never believe us.

The rest of Larson’s songs from that time aren’t online, but I bet they’d be interesting to Northwestern people as well.  A 1999 graduate of the NU mechanical-engineering program, say her liner notes, “Martha performed the title track to her album, Lonesome Techie Woman, at the 1999 McCormick School of Engineering commencement ceremony.”

Not inventing the selfie

I thought briefly, maybe, just once, I had invented the selfie. I was thinking of a time about 13 or so years ago, whenever we first had a digital camera at the beach, which is to say a lifetime ago. The people with me in the photos at the time couldn’t have been more confused. “You don’t want me to take a picture of you?”

Some of the photos make the time look at least 20 years ago. This child is clearly in high school, right? But, no, I wasn’t. Just skinny and clean-shaven. As a colleague from then said when seeing me recently, “You filled out!” Yes. But, no, I didn’t invent the selfie.

Northwestern kids in 1975 did, or didn’t (probably didn’t), using a trigger on a cord, spurring a yearbook feature that ran for decades. Even if they didn’t invent the selfie, their results were wonderful and true to the selfie spirit that lives today. Said a yearbook editor from 1980 to the alumni magazine: “It’s disarming, because you think, ‘Oh, it’s just a snapshot.’ But in fact, the photographer is working very, very hard to make it just what he wants it to be.”

This gallery of those shots makes my day. Personal favorites: the guy jumping out the window, the man with the Muppet lapel, the gang of greasers, and the girl in the laundry machine.

Let us meet Mama de Lama

I read every page of every issue of my college alumni magazine.

This habit comes in part from a bit of obsessive tendency in the collection-oriented part of my brain, I’m sure. The close-in contexts of life, the general discouragement of society, the spiritual-over-physical aspects of faith, and whatever good arguments my mom used to get me to trash a growing magazine collection I kept as a child — the world hasn’t yet seen eBay bidding wars for early issues of Sports Illustrated for Kids, thankfully — have diffused for me how such a tendency might play out with physical things. I worry at times that whatever synapse this is could romp one day in the throes of dementia.

But I take hope in the fact this desire appears in elements of my clean-up work as well, both at home and work. Clean-up, I need to emphasize/disclose, implying a tidying, reduction of known objects or finishing of work begun, not cleaning as in dusting, scrubbing and vacuuming. Cleaning, I wish! (And my wife wishes, and my parents before her.) Kay Ryan’s “The Will to Divest” is one of my favorite poems because it feels kindred. She writes of personal reduction, “Action creates / a taste / for itself.”

I think I read every page of every issue of the alumni magazine also, though, because here is a collection of zooms-down on a zoom-up, zoom-down universe, encompassing both the billion-dollar macro and the intensely personal, in which I’ve had an unique experience and subsequent life but only known a fraction of others’ similar times. At its best moments, the alumni magazine zooms you down in a way that reminds you simultaneously of how big and small its world is.

Like, in the most recent issue, a brief obituary for Sonia de Lama.

When Mrs. de Lama immigrated to Chicago from Cuba in 1955, she did not speak English. She took night classes and earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees while raising two small children.

After receiving her doctorate in romance languages from Northwestern, Mrs. de Lama began a 32-year career as a popular Spanish professor at the City Colleges of Chicago. She served as president of the Chicago chapter of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese and was recognized as university-level Teacher of the Year by the organization in 1990.

She also taught Spanish lessons for reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where her son, George ’79, was managing editor. The reporters affectionately called her “Mama de Lama.”

The Tribune has a good, longer obituary for Mama de Lama.

The Sun-Times, despite an ad-covered page design (most sad, the template can’t render a proper byline), surprises with a better one. Former Trib editor Ann Marie Lipinski tells her once-competitor about de Lama, “She had an expressive, silky voice and listening to her speak — whether conjugating Spanish verbs or sharing stories of life in Cuba — was its own joy.”

A whole new ring-losing scenario I’d never considered before

The new issue of the Medill alumni magazine collects memories of the school’s Washington program, in celebration of the program’s 50th anniversary. Of the anecdotes, the best comes from a man named David Dees, MSJ ’81:

The Medill program was located in an old office building, on the
ninth floor (I think). By late spring, the weather was warm and our
office had no air-conditioning so we kept the windows open. I was
the only married student in my group. My wife, Sherri Sandow
Dees, was back in Evanston working on her master’s in music
performance. I got to joking that the only reason I was married
was that I couldn’t remove my wedding ring. To prove my point,
I shook my hand to one side, once, twice, then whoosh, the ring
flew from my sweaty finger, over my neighbor’s desk, against a sill,
and out the window before plummeting to the busy sidewalk.
Bursting onto the sidewalk, I counted up the floors and across
the windows to locate the window. Then I scanned back down the
drab brick wall to the sidewalk. No ring. I ran into the street. I ran
across the street and back again. I looked under parked cars and
moving cars. I looked under pedestrians. Then I looked up the
sidewalk to see a metal grate covering a subterranean labyrinth. I
was sure that my ring had bounced, rolled or been kicked into the

By this time, an elevator load of my classmates had joined the
search. Soon, one of them, a woman whose name I have long
since forgotten, approached me. “Is this it?” she asked calmly,
holding up the ring. I was too astonished to say, “What do you
mean ‘Is this it?’ How many gold bands do you expect to find on
the sidewalk this afternoon?” I don’t think I said anything, but
instead grabbed her and kissed her right on the mouth.

The impact left the ring less than round, and I gradually gained
too much weight to wear it anymore. But fortunately, nearly 35
years later, I still have the same ring–and the same wife.

Pretty good compulsion

From this fall’s Northwestern alumni magazine:

John H. Worthington ’48 MS of Foxborough, Mass., is still going strong at age 93. He writes letters of the editor and to his three daughters. “Typing on my old manual typewriter is still a compulsion,” he writes.

There’s also a good piece on storytelling helping coma patients.

Meanwhile in this fall’s Medill alumni magazine, the back cover has a great picture (credit unknown) of young Michael Wilbon and Christine Brennan:

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