It’s Towel Day, and I’m turning 42.
If you are at all familiar with Douglas Adams, then you’ll understand why this is a big deal to a geek like me.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Douglas Adams wrote the five book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‘trilogy’ in the late 70s, early 80s, based on the radio show of the same name. A television series and movie also were made. In it, the Earth ends up being a massive computer built to answer the question, the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The answer? 42. Towel Day was created in 2001, shortly after Adams passed away, as a way to pay tribute to the man and his great wit.
I still remember my first introduction to Adams. According to IMDB, the television version was broadcast in the UK in 1981. I have no idea when my local PBS station ran it, but I know by this point I was already heavily into Doctor Who, which means it was after 1983. My local PBS station must’ve thought ‘British, science fiction, they’re the same thing!’ and ran the first episode after an episode of Doctor Who.
I remember being floored by not only the humor (which of course is what makes Adams so unique), but how it skewed science fiction tropes in the purpose of said humor. I remember being blown away (pun intended) by the simple idea that the Earth blows up in the first episode. Before then, for me, the whole point of a sci fi show where the Earth was in peril was to show how our plucky hero (with his most likely scantily clad female sidekick) would save the day. I was hooked. (Years later, when Red Dwarf would also show its first episode after an episode of Doctor Who and have said first episode be titled “The End”, I became hooked for a lot of the same reasons.) When I heard there was a book series – and a radio show – I consumed them like they were going out of style.
Turning 42 – especially on Towel Day – has had me thinking about my life. Growing up as a geek (and as an introverted geek to boot) in the 1980s meant I didn’t have a lot of friends, and of those friends, not many of them were into the same stuff – or if we were, we didn’t talk about it a lot. It wasn’t really until high school, when I joined the St. Louis CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency), that I started realizing that fandom was a thing you could join, and that you could talk about your obsessions with others without the fear of being made fun of. Even then, I didn’t participate much, not really knowing about cons except for on a very vague level and not even being aware that there were such things as fanzines. I really didn’t become what I would term a fangirl until the 2000s when I fell headlong into the world of Quantum Leap fan fiction.
As I wrote in the “Why I Hesitate to Call Myself a Fangirl” essay I wrote for my thesis, being a geek is a tough road. It’s only really been in the last decade or so that it’s been ‘okay’ to acknowledge you were obsessed with a television show or movie (or actor). The invention (and widespread use) of the internet definitely is partially responsible for this, but even now it’s still fraught with peril if you are a fan that identifies as a woman or if you are a fan of color. (The internet hasn’t made that any easier, and in fact may have made it worse.)
Being a long time lover of the concept of time travel, I’ve been wondering lately if I would’ve grown up differently had I had ready access to the internet, with social media and e-mail my outlets to connect to other fans rather than having that sense of being alone. Would I have better social skills than the hard-earned ones I have now? Would I have gotten more job offers at places I wanted? Would I have had more (successful) relationships (romantic as well as friendship)? Would I, basically, be a better me?
But as discussed at the end of the BBC Radio 4 documentary “DId Douglas Get it Right?”, would this essentially create a paradox? After all, part of the reason I am who I am is because I grew up (mostly) alone and feeling like no one ‘got’ me. Would I still have the same sense of wonder at admittedly silly things like Sean Pertwee replying to a tweet (he called me Miss!), getting a shirt that is an inside joke for a musical television show (I believe in Tad Cooper!), or being fascinated at the idea of being turned into a GIF (see the image)?
In my humble opinion, what makes me such a good writer is that I’ve been able to maintain that sense of fascination in the world. While yes, I have always been a cynic, I still have always maintained a sense of wonder about the world we live in – and that, I believe, comes from that sense of isolation I had growing up and still have somewhat to this day.
Adams was an atheist, and many believe that Hitchhiker’s Guide is his commentary on the lack of purpose in the universe. However, it’s also his way of saying ‘screw that’ to said lack of purpose, and that you should have as much fun as you can and do as much as you can because of that.
“A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value….
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might have accidentally ‘lost’. What the strag will think is that any man that can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”
My life so far has been an adventure, both bad and good. I’ve had two fires, struggled with suicide (both thoughts of my own as well as dealing with a friend’s), had stalkers and death threats, and have lost too many too soon. But I’ve also been to London, got to go to the premiere of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (and other movies), and have a 23-year relationship with a person who – to this day – I feel is the one person who ‘gets me’ through and through, loves me anyway, and is my best friend beyond my husband.
I don’t know what lies in store for me the rest of my life: the last three years have taught me that it’s foolish to even try to predict. But with all that behind me, I can definitely say I know where my towel is.
Happy Towel Day, fellow nerds. May you find the answer, but only if you know what the question is.