Thinking about Jadzia, C.G., and our ephemeral digital lives

Synchronet creator Rob Swindell recently shared some sad news: longtime BBSer C.G. Learn died earlier this month.

I didn’t know C.G. very well, but we interacted occasionally over the years on Dovenet, a message network for Synchronet BBSes. But I’ll never forget one kind gesture that C.G. extended to me after my daughter died in 2020, at a moment when I was trying to capture any fragments of memory, any evidence of her short time on earth.

An ANSI screen I created for Jadzia’s birthday in 2013. (Yes, it’s a GIF-to-ANSI conversion. I didn’t have the skill to do portraits back then)

When Jadzia was around 7 or 8 years old, I set up a private BBS just for our family. My hope was that it would be a safe space where she could get her first taste of online life: sending email, posting public messages, playing games.

It did prove to be exactly that: a safe, fun place. Jadzia used the BBS on and off for about five years, interacting with me and very occasionally with her sisters and grandparents. But mostly it was just me and her. Our place.

A message from Jadzia to me with some ideas for the nascent Jewel Mountain game.

Of course, BBS games really need other players to be much fun. And so I added a gateway to the Valhalla TradeWars Game Server. This was a public server, established by C.G. Learn, used by many BBSers. Jadzia really loved playing in the games hosted there.

Over time, she used the BBS less and less. In middle school, she had a Chromebook from school, and later we gave her a phone. With those tools in hand, plus access to Facebook, Twitter, and the rest, who needed a BBS?

I eventually opened the BBS, Guardian of Forever, to the public, but I kept our family area private and only accessible to us.

Logon ANSI for Guardian of Forever BBS.

Then came Jadzia’s unexpected death in June 2020. She was nearly 15, and looking forward to her sophomore year of high school, while also living with worries about the pandemic unfolding around us. Jadzia was born with Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder which affected her heart, and she died peacefully in her sleep.

In the weeks and months after Jadzia died, I realized that the BBS was a frozen-in-amber time capsule of a part of Jadia’s life. I re-read the collaborative stories that we tried to write on the Stories forum. I revisited the emails she sent me with different ideas for the Jewel Mountain game that she wanted to me to make for the BBS. I re-watched some of the ANSI art she drew on the networked Synchronet graffiti wall.

Later I started thinking about TradeWars. Jadzia loved the game and spent a lot of time playing, far more time than I ever could. TradeWars, like so many BBS games, has several built-in mechanisms for leaving public messages. Might Jadzia have posted a message somewhere within one of the games she played on?

For various reasons, C.G. had taken his TradeWars server down a few years ago. So I reached out to ask him if he might put it back online so I could go hunting for lost bits of Jadzia. He very kindly obliged.

I poked around the various games on his server. I didn’t find what I hoped — probably the games had been reset long before — but I will never forget C.G.’s willingness to help in my time of sadness.

Our BBS also had a local TradeWars game, though. And when I checked there, lo and behold — I found something. On the “bathroom wall” of the Lost Trader’s Tavern, a young Jadzia had posted the following funny (and helpful!) advice to other players:

Thou Shalt Not Talk To Ye Trader In Ye Back. He Is Expensive And His Answers Are Dumb. Beware, Traders. Beware Of Ye Trader In Ye Back!!!

A message left by Jadzia within our local BBS’s TradeWars game.

Our digital world, like our own lives, is ephemeral.

Photos, text messages, and documents can disappear in an instant, destroyed by hardware failure. Malicious hackers. Corporate collapse. Family members who toss out our old equipment.

I know I can’t capture everything about Jadzia. She’s gone from this life. But I’m glad for the bits that I did save, and for the moments of joy they give me.

And I’m thankful for the kindness of folks like C.G. May he rest in peace.

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