In the 1990s through the turn of the century, it was common for adults of parenting age to harbor a certain rigid fear of the internet, visualizing it as some weird and untenable land containing two types of citizens: teenage boys longing to escape into a virtual world, and serial killers/pedophiles camped out at their keyboard eagerly waiting for children to log into MySpace. These people probably apply free clip art to their office presentations even to this day.
I was fortunate to be raised by parents who had no fear of technology but rather harbored a practical understanding of the role connected computing was likely to play in the future and as such encouraged me to become highly engaged therewith, so as to be employable and socially relevant in the future. From the time it became technically possible for our family to have ‘email accounts’ my father made one for me.
I was given cursory instructions for how to use the internet , then essentially left to my own devices for reasonable periods of time provided I behaved and fulfilled my obligations. It meant nothing to me if I were not permitted to go to a school dance, but being ‘grounded from the internet’ was a disaster. I was explicitly directed not to reveal personal details such as our home address and telephone number to other internet users, but besides that I was an adolescent who had been raised with a healthy and responsible fear of strangers and required little further direction for my safety.
The idea that ‘the internet’ was a faceless commune charged with self-expression through text was exciting to me; I actively did not want to really ‘be myself’ and was excited by the idea that I could be represented by an alias, behave ‘mysteriously,’ correspond with COLLEGE STUDENTS and hopefully be mistaken for a computer hacker or fictional vampire because of the vagaries with which I wrote on newsgroups.
I had an account for email and for Usenet where my name was ‘Delilah.’ Largely I found it a ‘pain in the ass’ to like browse through all the newsgroups looking for things in which I was interested, and if memory serves, the number of newsgroups I could ‘bookmark’ for immediate access was limited to three anyway, so my navigation of the various rec-dot-this and alt-dot-that was limited to three groups: One related to the Japanese animated television show ‘Sailor Moon,’ the English dub of which I woke up at 5:30 in the morning to watch on the staticky local TV station channel 56; one related to popular grunge music, and one related to poetry. I was a very ‘cool tween’ in the 1990s [no].
Through these newsgroups I made a few ‘friends’ with whom I corresponded via email on a fairly regular basis. Examples include an older teenage girl who also liked the show ‘Sailor Moon,’ and a college student at the University of Alberta who, like me, enjoyed over-analyzing Pearl Jam lyrics [“is Eddie saying ‘ritual’ or ‘little one’ and then does that change the context of ‘crooked arm’”], who had his OWN RADIO SHOW and about whom I knew basically nothing but on whom I fancied myself developing a very serious crush.
Even at a young age I understood that ‘people on the internet’ held their own kind of social currency and I developed an interest in corresponding with the people whose posts on the newsgroups I thought were the ‘best’ or the ‘most interesting.’ That was why I was so excited when a Kurt Cobain tribute poem I published on rec.arts.poetry I think on April 5, the anniversary of his death, resulted in an email from another user of rec.arts.poetry, if I am correctly remembering. I can recall an embarrassing number of words from the Kurt Cobain tribute poem and feel too mortified to re-render them so just suffice to say the poem was not good. I rhymed ‘Cobain’ with ‘pain’ [embarrassing].
I also remember the name of the 30 year-old man who emailed me in praise of my poem and began a ‘cute’ correspondence with me during which we largely shared poetry with one another, but I will ‘redact’ it from this article to protect his privacy. I don’t really remember the substance of the communication except for maybe I wrote about being frustrated with school. I focused on sounding mature and intelligent in the emails.
The person usually replied to my emails in a timely fashion, which was exciting to me because replies from the University of Alberta student often took weeks to arrive if they arrived at all. I would run home from the school bus stop and quickly go to the computer and dial up to the internet. Even if I had to pee I would sit in the air conditioned room listening to the discordant howling and hissing of the modem tick-stepping me into a state of being connected to limitless others. I would hold my breath over the 1-5 minute process of downloading my email, watching a black and white wheel spin, whereby I usually had 1-3 emails coming, as a window would tell me while showing me a ‘progress bar’ to indicate how long the emails were taking to download. Sometimes I felt I would go out of my mind with excitement and eager impatience, come-on-c’mon-c’mon-my-email.
I would have an email from ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy’on a daily basis. I honestly don’t remember the substance of our conversations but feel like they were intellectually reverent and romantically inclined, while feeling fairly certain they were non-sexual. I recalled feeling like 30 was exceedingly old, like at that age [14 years] ’30’ was indistinguishable from ‘Dad’s age’ [probably ~45 at that time] and ‘steeling myself’ for the possibility that the rec.arts.poetry guy with whom I was having a romantic correspondence might have gray hair. Like possibly even completely gray.
I was proud of myself for ignoring the traditional boundaries of age. I was proud of my lack of superficiality, since I was also conscious that since this person was ‘old’ they might also be fat or even distinctly unhandsome, things difficult for my adolescent mind to permit. I was determined to be noble because I was ‘falling in love’ or at the very least had a ‘real’ crush. I still hoped for more messages from the University of Alberta college student because he seemed way cooler and was closer to my age and was probably better looking because he had the same name as a Pearl Jam song and a college RADIO SHOW, but I was going to ‘do the right thing.’
I printed out the emails from the rec.arts.poetry guy and showed them to my friends at school. They seemed mostly disinterested, slightly ‘weirded’ but were patient/tolerant, like it was one of many weird things I did and they were accustomed to me being weird.
Then one day the rec.arts.poetry guy and I ‘got in a fight’ about something, I remember him becoming angry or scolding me for something I absolutely cannot recall, and him indicating that he felt I was ‘being immature’ and I wrote back something to the effect of ‘of course I’m being immature, I’m only fucking 14’, a fact I figured he must be aware of but was nobly overlooking the same way I was nobly overlooking his age and likely status as a gray-haired fat person.
I remember more of his email response to the revelation of my age than I do of the entire rest of the correspondence. He wrote ‘whoa’ or maybe ‘whoa, whoa,’ the way one does to slow a horse or something that has gone too quickly. He said he ‘had no idea’ regarding my age, said he had been under the impression I was ‘at least in college.’
He distinctly wrote ‘I meant no disrespect’ or ‘I never meant to disrespect you,’ I’m not sure which, which was perplexing to me to an extreme degree since I did not understand how corresponding sweetly with compliments and affection could be ‘disrespectful.’ He wrote ‘me and my middle-aged ass.’
I was more upset and confused by the unsolicited ‘apology’ for our entire correspondence than I was by whatever ‘fight’ he had been in that had made me mad enough to reveal my status as a 14 year-old. To my mind there was nothing incorrect about talking to a 14 year-old; in fact I was even somewhat affronted that he would hold my age against me, since I had not held his against him, and I think I wrote back something to the effect of ‘that’s okay, now you know, it’s okay,’ assuming that now that we both understood that some kind of life experience gap had caused whatever argument we had been having, we could go back to writing nice emails.
He never replied. I let some small amount of time pass and wrote another email, probably confrontationally demanding to know why me being 14 would elicit a total cessation in the ‘relationship’ on which I had come to depend, and then after again receiving no reply I probably wrote another email expressing distress at being ‘abandoned’ and apologizing for the initial argument/explicating that I never intended to be misleading regarding my age, probably explaining that I was ‘ahead’ and thus still a suitable girlfriend or that maybe we could talk when I was older and I would ‘wait’, maybe.
I wrote various things that I felt at the time should have dismissed or resolved the conflict. But although I was expecting that eventually I would hear from ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy’ again, I never did. I don’t recall feeling like ‘crushed’ or anything, just vaguely confused/resentful and probably a little embarrassed, as if I had been caught playing dress-up in my mother’s closet [I never ‘played dress-up in my mother’s closet’ but I might feel like that if I were ‘caught’ at it].
I rarely saw him on ‘rec.arts.poetry’ thereafter either, although I think on one occasion like a year following our incident I searched his name on the newsgroup and found one extremely bad poem he had posted on the newsgroup [even at age 14 I knew it was an ‘extremely bad poem.’]
It was somewhat romantic in a playful fashion, indicating ways he would like to express affection to someone, and contained the word ‘whiskers’ [in a tickling context] and the phrase ‘hop all over your back.’ After spending time mulling and finally ruling out the possibility that it might at all be about me, ‘Delilah,’ I figured he actually must have a new, grown-up girlfriend who did not mind a fat old bearded man ‘hopping all over her back.’ I felt relieved/resentful. I thought about his ‘middle-aged ass’ with distinct discomfort.
Recently I googled the proper first + last name of ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy.’ I found an author by his somewhat uncommon but not impossible name who has published some kind of ‘spiritual’ book in heavy, almost manic opposition to abortion with an emphasis on ‘taking responsibility for the sexual act.’ He has a wife and several children. It might not be the same person. The biography picture of the author with the same name as ‘the rec.arts.poetry guy’ looked a little older than he would be. He has entirely gray hair, is overweight and has a beard. A gray beard. ‘Whiskers.’
I googled the first + last name of the University of Alberta student also. It turns out someone very likely to be him became a magazine writer like me and now lives in New York like me. One of the articles he wrote recently was even related to video games, like the articles I write. Feel weird about contacting him. ‘Hi, I had a crush on you on Usenet when I was 14.’