I open the door, exit the bar, and walk outside onto the sidewalk in a surprisingly straight line. It’s a nice, warm night. I hear muffled music coming from the inside, and the buzzing of the blinking neon that’s trying very hard to spell “Lefty’s.” I take a deep whiff and immediately regret it, being reminded of a large trash bin nearby.
And then, it hits me: I’m a loser. I’m balding, fat, and on the more cruel side of forty. I came to this town searching for love, but I haven’t yet found anything but toilet paper stuck to my shoe. I exchanged all my possessions for the ill-fitting white polyester suit, and I am wasting my days away drinking cheap whiskey at a run-down bar.
I sigh. I hail a taxi cab to get to the casino. Then, I forget how to say “thank you.”
I am sitting in my dad’s shipyard office in my home town in Poland, in front of a battered PC he uses for his daily work. It’s long after school for me, and long past closing time for my dad. He checked out a while ago, sleeping on a chair nearby. But I refuse to, since on his work computer I found a videogame of a kind I don’t have on my home machine, and a kind I’ve never seen before.
The game is called Leisure Suit Larry in The Land of the Lounge Lizards. It’s a pirated copy that went through the Curtain on its last Iron breath, so it comes with neither a box nor a manual. The computer, built for text editing and spreadsheets, and barely younger than me, struggles to handle the game. Better computers would play the soundtrack as if it came from an orchestra – this one sounds like a fourth grader on a recorder. Better computers would show the world in vivid colors; this small monitor does away with shades of amber. Not that there’s much to show, as the visuals aren’t impressive even for the late 1980s. Since he’s represented by only a few surprisingly large pixels, Larry doesn’t look overweight, or balding, or middle-aged. He just looks like a guy. Or, to put it another way, he looks like me.
Any of these reasons would make it hard to understand what the game is truly about, but the biggest one is this: I just turned eleven, and I barely know any English.
There’s a funny multiple-choice quiz at the beginning of the game, trying to prevent anyone below 18 from playing it. I don’t understand that it’s funny, or what is it trying to say. But as a student, I get the notion of a multiple choice quiz, and I conquer it methodically, writing down every opaque question and whether a randomly-chosen answer worked or didn’t. Soon enough, I blindly amass enough ammunition to go past the test reliably every time.
Thirty years later, I know that this was a game for my father, not for me. In 1989 I didn’t, and I am not sure whether my dad knew either, his faculties with English not much better than mine. Leisure Suit Larry was a sleazy, raunchy sex comedy, one in the then-popular genre of graphical text adventures.
I didn’t get that my protagonist was a loser, or what was the objective of the game. I remembered the game saying WHAT A PERVERT, me looking it up in a Polish-English dictionary, finding the proper word, and still having no clue what it said. (My dad being asleep saved him from a possibly very awkward conversation.) At this point, I still had to confirm words like THANK YOU and PLEASE.
And yet, I loved every second of it. The game was showing me crudely drawn locations. The sidewalk in front of Lefty’s, the inside of a convenience store, or the restroom that provided ample opportunities for humour – and ample opportunities for that humour to fly right past me. But most of the interaction happened by using words. Words were cheap to handle in an early computer like this and so, like titles in a silent movie, the game interrupted the visuals with boxes filled with text: things Larry said, responses from other characters, and verbal descriptions of details that the graphics themselves couldn’t carry.
The best part: I could type back and tell Larry things to do by explaining them in writing. I would write OPEN DOOR to enter the bar. HAIL TAXI to go somewhere else. BUY CONDOM to purchase… I wasn’t sure exactly what. My dad was still asleep.
Perhaps this wasn’t lost on him, but it was on me: I was writing in English for the first time in my life.
It might be embarrassing today to admit that I learned my first bits of English from the three volumes of the adventures of Larry, a game series that even back then wasn’t particularly respectable. But this was the only such game I knew, school in 1989 was still exclusively into Russian, and the web was almost a decade away.
The decrepit computer from my dad’s office eventually found its way to my room. I used the keyboard not just to play more Larrys and other similar Sierra games, but to write my first Polish essays, starting what would become the writing strand of my career. And my English would get better, too, with milestones that I was now aware of: the first movie I watched without subtitles, the first pop song I could sing and understand, and the first book I read in English (1984!).
Eventually, thirteen years after Larry and nineteen years from today, writing and English intersected again in the first creative essay I wrote in that language. In it, and I kid you not, I write about an old computer terminal, and its “magnificent keyboard of the classic design – with Return instead of Enter, arrows in one row and lots of function and otherwise interestingly named keys which purpose I could only suspect.”
Little did I know. Looking at that photo now, I could tell you about all these keys.
I seem to be consistent in my love for orange as an accent colour
Haven’t written here in a while, and for a while there was nothing to write about. As I imagine everyone these days, I feel tired, lonely, stressed out. America occasionally lights itself on fire. My job became more demanding. The lockdown is getting to me. I took two months off the project altogether to move to a new apartment – not a small task for someone surrounded by thousands of books.
Keyboard-related books in the previous apartment and in the current one
The editor’s been working on the book since June – this is the deepest editing pass – but he’s tired, too, and we both moved our deadlines many times.
However! He’s done now, and after months of despair and disinterest, I found some momentum come Thanksgiving, and I’m holding onto it. I’m over 90% done with the rewrites, and my goal is to finish this month. There will be one or two more editing passes, but they should be much, much simpler.
This editing pass? It’s surprisingly laborious – and surprisingly emotional.
The laborious part is easy to explain. Every chapter came back with dozens if not hundreds editing suggestions that I have to comb through carefully, and figure out what to do with. I can press F2 to accept the change, F3 to reject and keep my earlier writing – or do neither and write something new instead.
But quite a few chapters arrived from the editor with a more harrowing commentary. This reads like a Wikipedia article. This feels like a listicle. I gave up editing at this point because this needs rethinking. This is in worse shape than I remembered.
Those notes feel much tougher. It’s not just that they indicate more work: reassembling, rewriting, cutting. It’s not just that the amount of feedback is surprising. (After all, some people read those chapters already, and didn’t complain. After all, people liked my Medium posts without any editing help. After all, I embarked on this only after believing I could handle it.)
How personal it all feels is the biggest surprise. Sometimes, I read my editor’s word choices and I nod vigorously. The other times I want to shout “Do you even get this book?” while I slam F3 so hard I’m worried about my expensive switch underneath.
“Let’s cut this section,” he says in a comment, and I remove it with pleasure. Next chapter. “Let’s cut this section,” he says, and in my head the first response that arrives is “How about I cut you.”
There initially seems to be no rhyme or reason to my reactions. But it’s through this process I learn what of my writing means most to me, and what are my biggest insecurities. There were chapters where I had more Literary Aspirations, and them coming back crossed out hurts. I am prone to exaggeration and I abuse italics. I find out that I put “a bit” on every fourth page, and that reminds me how I’ve struggled with confidence my entire life. My father was a vulgar person – he liked Larry for a reason – and it’s unpleasant to see a few of my sentences return with notes reminding me that apples don’t fall far from trees.
And some of this harkens back to one of the biggest worries: that I haven’t mastered this strange, alien language well enough to write a book. The tenses and subjunctives can be tricky. I am learning that I’ve been using the word “mentioned” wrong all these years. Polish doesn’t have articles, and despite decades of learning, I am still getting a lot of them wrong.
I sometimes say I recommend learning a second language because doing so unlocks something magical: understanding that your language is just a language, a construct with its wonders, messes, and flaws. After a second language, it’s easier to imagine a third, fourth, and fifth one. I still am so proud that I know two languages well enough that I can attempt translating a short story by my favourite writer.
I know all of this. And yet, sometimes I so miss writing in Polish, from before I knew any other languages and before I understood Polish is an in-betweener. Then, I could express myself without all of these extra layers and without ever reaching for a dictionary. Now, once in a while, my editor flagging something trivial reminds me of something much deeper, still unresolved, and something that I worry I will never fully figure out: I am not from here. In that moment, it’s not a great feeling.
On top of that, writing the book feels like one of the Zeno’s paradoxes: for every step forward, the finish line seems to move half a step as well. You need to do more research here. You need to rethink attribution in general. You’re going to have to hire a proofreader for this.
It’s all good, of course. It’s better for him to catch those things than for the readers to do so. The negotiations – with him, with myself, with F2 and F3 – are making me a better writer. It’s great to have someone else on your side, cheering for you. And I’d generally recommend having a person who candidly calls you out on your bullshit, as part of any creative process.
My editor also knows what he’s doing. The negative feedback is candid and to the point, but there’s also a lot of positive reinforcement, and some of his rewrites are so good it’s almost unfair people will give me credit for them.
And there are parts of the process worth treasuring. Some darlings, turns out, are really fun to kill. Fleshing out a style guide (here’s a copy if you’re interested!) unique to this book is enjoyable. Sometimes I fly through a rewrite the same way I felt writing in Polish. But there’s a difference. That was just a crush. Only this year, in between the 800th press of F2 and the 1200th press of F3, I realize that I love writing.
So. 90% on the writing front. And on the appearance side? I nominated a friend to be my “visual editor,” and we both carefully went through how the book looks.
It all feels very similar, if not as emotional. Some of his suggestions are met with an excited “you’re right,” some with “you’re right” that’s filled with resignation, and some with me doubling down on a visual idea that’ll make this book unique even if it’s bad. There’s a style guide for that part, too.
I’ll write more about that closer to release, but here are some mundane before and afters:
Eight of the hundreds of small visual changes, before (above) and after (below)
I didn’t expect this book to take years to finish. It’s a realization that’s hard to swallow. What helps is counting time in… mechanical keyboards.
I’m on my third one today. Despite my protestations, the book is making a keyboard snob out of me. I started writing without a mechanical keyboard. Then I borrowed one. Then I bought my first, simple one. And the current model is a refined version of that – with switches I picked myself, key caps in a profile I learned to love, and even a somewhat expensive artisanal key in a corner.
A highly stylized set of photos of my current keyboard
But recently, I had this idea: what if I found another copy of the same keyboard that I played Larry on, almost three decades later, and finish my book edits on it? It’d be such a nice symbolic gesture – to go back to Keyboard One that witnessed the beginning of it all.
It initially seemed impossible. The entire computer was tossed in the early 1990s, I have no photos of it, and my father’s long gone. The only thing I remembered was that the keyboard on which I typed my first THANK YOU was one of many generic Taiwanese clones of the Model F.
This old family photo is the only quasi appearance of the Larry computer and the keyboard
But then one day I stumbled upon a photo of a board named Focus FK-727, and jumped up. I recognized it almost immediately. The small rectangles above to write down the meaning of function keys (F2 = accept, F3 = reject) were a dead giveaway, a detail I didn’t even know I remembered.
And yet, victory was premature. It wasn’t only that the keyboard felt pretty rare. The challenge was that I learned there were at least four keyboards made that looked alike. Sure, there were small differences between them: one had a slightly changed layout, a few sported stepped keys, one had a gray back plate, some had a switch in a different position, some treated their typography with more respect. But interrogating my memory thirty years later led me nowhere. I think the backplate was black, I think the switch was in the middle, and I think the Scroll Lock text was centered because I think any other option would drive me wild. But I can never be sure.
Focus FK-727, Focus FK-747, Tai-Hao TH-5150, and SKB-5150C
The final blow: in my obsessive files where I wrote down the changing configuration of my PCs – the same files listing the details of motherboards, the sizes of hard drives, even the configuration of memory chips – the keyboard is nowhere to be found. To me, then, it was just a keyboard.
Oh, the irony – and even more insecurity – of a wanna-be historian not even able to document his own life.
At least Larry is still there. You could open your browser and play it right here, right now, within seconds (press Ctrl+Alt+X to skip the quiz!). But I choose not to. I prefer my own mythology of Larry – not a horny loser, rather a stranger in the strange land just like myself – and I prefer my fleeting, imprecise memories of that time in my father’s shipyard office. (At some point I made my only piece of interactive art that drove some of that home.)
2020 made a bit of a pessimist out of me. (Here’s that “a bit“ again.) There are many reasons to be hopeful about this new year, and I wish you all the best in it. And yet, once in a while, I can’t help to worry that in just a few years, I will be Larry’s age, perhaps feeling just as lost and as much of a loser as he did.
But, hey. At least by then I will have written and published a book in a language I once didn’t know at all.
PS I’m thinking of sharing the writing stats and differences between four manuscripts next time. Anything you’re curious about? Please let me know.
This was newsletter №23 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents