Category Archives: Epinions (reclaimed)

The death of Epinions

Word has come of the final demise of Epinions.com, one of my early writing sandboxes. I can’t say that I’m sad, but like an old apartment where one lived for a time, one may look back at it and say: there is a piece of my life’s days.

To explain why it matters, I must tell what it was and why it became popular. Epinions was born as what we might call the people’s product review platform. Anyone could create an account and write reviews of books, diaper pails, cars, wines, cell phones, travel destinations, games, what have you. And therein lay its greatest flaw: you could only review what was in the Epinions database, which meant a significant delay between purchase and waiting for the item to be added. By the time it were added, it might be discontinued, though people tried hard to keep the database as current as possible. That wasn’t a factor at Amazon, where if you could buy it, you already had an account and could review it. It’s not hard to see why Epinions reviews failed to become a go-to product research resource, in spite of significant talent and effort.

Epinions also meant exposing one’s work to public critique, because anyone could comment on and rate a review. Enough negative reviews, and your review wouldn’t show up as readily. If people didn’t like something about your review, they’d say so–although one learned to be careful taking on the site’s evident intellectual heavyweights. It developed its own culture: product detail fanatics, wiseacres who wrote reviews not meant to be taken too seriously (hi, there; my name is jkkelley), lazy two-line reviewers, moms trying to out-mom all other moms, honest hard workers, prats, and idiots.

Oh, and one got paid. At first, quite a lot, enough that unscrupulous people created click circles to scam the site out of wads of venture capital. As I arrived, pay became a trickle. I probably made $500 for over a hundred reviews spread over the course of ten years, heavily concentrated in the first three. I’d guess that I made less than $1/hour. When I started to get paid real money to write, I became less interested in donating my creativity to a site that avowedly shopped my writing to other sites with no extra compensation for me. While that wasn’t the only reason I stopped writing, I’d be false if I presented it in idealistic terms. When I learned that my work was worth more than Epinions would ever pay me, the incentive was gone–unless I had an ax to grind, as I sometimes did.

I came to know a good number of great people at Epinions. A couple are now acclaimed authors. I met perhaps a dozen or more in person. I stay in touch with quite a few. It had a few freaks, most easily avoided. Some I became close to in real-world terms that I knew would long survive the site. Some I have seen through major life changes, been drunk with, mourned. Some I’m pretty sure would take me in if I were homeless, and a few would more likely give me the coup de grace.

Epinions was a good place to learn how to write, thanks to the open-ended platform and potential for critique. Not all of it was constructive, but even the mean-spirited and bitchy critiques taught me things. I wouldn’t call it a finishing school for writing, but it was a useful boot camp. If people were heckling one’s reviews, well, there might have been a reason for that. One learned to organize one’s work (or not). One learned to be sure of one’s facts (or not). One learned how to handle critique with grace (or not). For many, Epinions was the first place where they turned to face the blast furnace of public reaction to writing.

My own specialty at Epinions was the art of the parody review. It was designed so that it could not deserve bad ratings, because it still contained helpful consumer information. It was experiential without taking the concept seriously. I reviewed Hustler as a women’s magazine. I reviewed a sippy cup for utility in drinking alcohol while operating power tools or behind the wheel. I reviewed Grand Theft Auto III as a homeschooling tool. I reviewed a CD called The Power of Pussy by Bongwater. I reviewed a game called Team Barbie Detective, playing it with my own inclinations and seeing how it went. Amused yet annoyed by a freakout review by a religious fanatic of a children’s animated DVD, which alleged that it was demonic, I bought the same DVD and evaluated it as a practical guide to demon summoning. (Hey, kids need to know this stuff.) Epinions had some review topics that just pleaded for mockery, such as ‘How To Use Action Figures And Sets.’

At times, I got serious. I reviewed Everclear, telling the story of the time it came near to ending my life in its second decade. When I decided to hammer a stake through the heart of the University of Phoenix, I was all malice and business. It wasn’t all comedy.

The defining moment, I suppose, was the breast pump review. They told me it was the funniest, craziest thing I’d ever done at Epinions. I’m not sure I’d agree, but I enjoyed the reception it got, especially from quite a few women who had actually deployed a breast pump in anger at some point. There’s a story behind it. Mark Arnold, of St. Louis, was one of the funnier writers at the site. Those of us who felt there was room for mirth commingled with the consumer helpfulness were something of a fraternity at Epinions, and Mark was in good standing. He was also dying, rather swiftly, of kidney cancer. We could do precious little for him, but we could bring our A-games to make him laugh while he was suffering, and thus convey to him our affection. I am reliably informed that we made a real difference for Mark, and I’m proud of my own small donation to the cause.

And that it may be preserved for those who enjoyed it, and survive the fall of Epinions’ flaming timbers, I present it here in modestly edited form. We remember you, Mark. You were a good guy and a funny writer.
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Venturing among the forlorn, giving a whole new meaning to “self-expression”

Evenflo Breast Pump Kit Press and Pump Battery/Electric, reviewed by jkkelley on 2001-09-05

Pros: can be returned to Wal-Mart, sex toy potential

Cons: didn’t make me lactate, painful, noisy, sold at Wal-Mart

Summary: not recommended for milking your breast, though you might get someone aroused with it

After posting my fiftieth review at Epinions, I hit upon an idea for #100 that I nursed, so to speak, for four months. At Epinions we hear a lot about stay-at-home moms this, the Mommy Brigade that, and so on. It’s mostly silliness, but there’s an element of truth in it.  My own mom was a stay-at-home mom, and she worked hard.

So, in regard for moms everywhere, I want to write for Kids & Family. Who says you have to have kids to write in this area, anyway? Bah. A fresh perspective is needed: one from someone who has no children, has not even been to Chuck E Cheese’s, and therefore has no biases. For, as we all know, it is true that just once in a great while, the occasional Kids & Family junkie gets just a little militant.

Did you realize that men too can lactate? It’s not a simple matter; our normal acquaintance, at least in the case of straight men, involves a radically different approach to the breast. Milking our own is usually not on the agenda. But we can; just ask any doctor. And we should. Who says that only women can nurse babies? I call upon males of all persuasions to break these chains of oppression and show that we, too, can be nurturing and life-giving.

With that, I resolved to milk myself, if I could, and in so doing, review a breast pump. I figured that a new viewpoint would add a lot of consumer value, result in Informed Buying Decisions, and help me gain valuable Kids & Family-related insight so that I could better relate to the plight of nursing women.

Now, granted, unless I attempted to do the dairy routine in the shopping mall food court–and since I wasn’t going to have to clean up any baby barf–I admit that I knew in advance I wasn’t getting the Total Lactatory Experience. That part I couldn’t help. But I tried valiantly anyway, good reader, and if you’d like to hear the story, read on.

It was a typical Tri-Cities August afternoon (about 95° F) one fine Tuesday when I did something which normally for me would be anathema. Something so bizarre I had to really psych myself up to get through it. I would venture to a circle of Hell to walk unto the tormented and the damned, with faith in nonconformity as my fortress.

I went to Wal-Mart.

First priority:  avoid being ‘greeted’.  I chose my entry timing with care.  Evading the underemployed senior in blue, I moved with a purpose toward the pharmaceutical section. I was in the Wal-world, as they say, but not of it. I stepped over dropped pork rinds (that is not a joke). I disdained a cart. I dodged corpulent, aimless cartpushers lacking in depth perception. I met the vacant stares of staff and patrons alike without flinching; just as in a burn ward, it is important to people not to deny their humanity even when in a state of degradation.  Exile from humanity is far worse torture.

How unfortunate for me, then, that I couldn’t find the damned breast pump section with both hands and an annotated map. I wandered around for a good twenty minutes (the place was about the size of a big league ballpark) before at last bungling across the breast pumps. Naturally, some Queen Bee had her cart parked right in front of them. Naturally, it took several minutes for it to occur to Her Majesty that I might want one, and that I might greatly appreciate it if she would kindly back her rig up. This is normal in the Tri-Cities. They mean no harm; it just doesn’t occur to anyone that they could ever possibly be obstructing anyone, so they just stand there doing nothing, letting the mental solenoids work.

My main decision was whether to get the manual or the electric one. Since I knew I would be returning it anyway (no other reason to set foot in Walton Memorial Arena), I splurged on the electric one.  Perhaps I could milk myself while reading, or preparing possum stew, or playing solitaire Pictionary.

The waiting is the hardest part, and never more so than when being in line to check out takes you out of the Brownian motion of shopping and forces you to register what you see.  Two of the three customers ahead of me had some problem or issue (probably a twenty-cent discount that they failed to receive).  It took about fifteen minutes before I finally got to plunk down the card. During that time, the Mother of the Year behind me threatened to cut her son’s finger off if he touched a pack of gum. (I shot the boy a look of solidarity. If I’d had a sow like that for a mom, I would have wanted a few looks of solidarity.)

The checker, a thirtyfiveish woman with a sad expression and a fading shiner that spoke volumes, couldn’t determine whether the credit card slip she printed was for a credit or debit card.  This is normally a fairly elementary question, I believe, but the elementary is complicated at Wal-Mart. After seeing the black eye, I gave her incompetence a pass.  My façade fading, I just signed the slip and bugged out of there.

To my great joy, I also evaded being ‘greeted’ on the way out. Exultation of the kind I felt when I was leaving Hell High School for college. Ha, you gravy-suckers. You got to borrow my money for a week, but you didn’t get my soul. You didn’t even provoke in me any reaction but pity. I get to leave, and you will remain here, slaving away for the world’s worst employer outside of a few shoe factories in Shenzhen. I had a sense of triumph and achievement as I headed for the White Lightning, my truck, which I’d deliberately parked in the lot’s farthest corner. At the 27th and US 395 Wal-Mart in Kennewick, Washington, that effectively meant parking it in Idaho.

After my appointment that afternoon (I wonder how the nice elderly lady having trouble getting her Verizon dial-up going would have reacted if she knew; I felt slutty), I headed for the barn, pump safely stowed atop my briefcase full of computer and business paraphernalia.

I showed my beautiful bride my purchase.

“NO! You aren’t really going to milk yourself, are you?”
“Why, certainly, dear. Why should women get all the glory?”
“You are such a freak.”
“By the way, dear, I need you to help me.”
(groaning) “Oh, god. With what?”
“The before and after pictures, obviously!”

She looked at me in shocked disdain. She is so culturally conservative sometimes.

That evening I tried to assemble it. Deb’s efforts to help made the task more challenging; I had to shoo her off, on the grounds that I couldn’t evaluate the assembly directions fairly if she did it for me.

Instructions: lousy. In English, Spanish and French, interspersed together, but in a way that’s difficult to follow. The drawings are not to scale, so the parts they’re showing as being big are actually small and vice versa. I’m reasonably mechanically inclined, but I found them badly formatted and confusing–the fact that I understand Spanish and French notwithstanding. I can only imagine how much fun this might be during postpartum depression.  Hell, even during partum depression.

In the back, also in three languages, are some questions and answers about breastfeeding. Engorgement (full hooter syndrome, basically), storage, refrigeration, scheduling, milking oneself and massage techniques are all covered. None of them helped me personally, though some of them look promising as foreplay.

Assembly: poorly thought out. For example: to get the bottle in place like the manual says, you have to shove with all your might, bending the plastic. I was sincerely scared that I would break it, which would give me postpartum depression (because then I couldn’t take it back to Wallyworld). I tried every direction and method. If you follow the instructions, you will ultimately damage the pumper. My recommendation is to lightly grease these parts with Vaseline or something so you don’t have to honk on it so hard.

What it looks like: imagine a white one-demitasse coffee maker, if such a thing exists. Then imagine a milk bottle about the size of a champagne split, topped by a clear plastic trumpet bell coming out at an angle. You position the little valve on top of the bottle on the drip part of the coffee maker, at an angle, then cram and force the bottle vertical.

Attachments: it also comes with a little blue bag, so that you can cart it around in public without horny guys forming a pack behind you waiting for you to uncover an inch of breast flesh.  There are also some nursing pads (probably to mop up in case you’re doing the Old Faithful thing), a little ‘silicone nipple adapter’ (a euphemistic term for ‘miniature mammary adapter’), and a rubber hose called the ‘flushing tube’ (for if you get truly infuriated with the thing and find yourself about to flush it down the can). In some ways it was sort of like a little Kirby vacuum cleaner.

Getting going: one problem most women don’t have to face is chest hair. Like Esau, I am ‘an hairy man,’ so I shaved off a circle of chest hair centered on my nipple. The trumpet bell thing, which we should just call the sucker, is about the diameter of a baseball; I shaved an area about like a saucer. Having not shaven anything in four years, I actually had to go digging for a shaving razor. Finally found one in an old travel kit. It was that or steal from the wife.

Firing that sucker up: the instructions said to stimulate my “let-down reflex” by relaxing, thinking about my baby, and massaging my breasts. Since I don’t have a baby, or much in the way of breasts, I substituted thinking about experiences I’ve had in the past that sucked, such as Micron’s warranty service, talking to Dell Computer on the phone, and dining at Casa Chapala. Day by day I recorded my experiences:

Day 1: had some difficulty getting a firm seal (some of these aquatic mammals really need to take up Tae Bo), and when I did, yeouch! I immediately turned down the suction.  It felt like I was nursing a remora. No middle ground; either there wasn’t enough suction and it fell off, or there was enough to hurt like all hell. Five minutes of this left my whole nipple area swollen, and if I’d kept it on full, I’m sure I’d have blown a blood vessel.

Day 2: the problem with this thing is that the suction level doesn’t stay put, meaning it keeps sliding up until it could suck-start a Harley. Nipple very swollen and tender. This isn’t for wimps, let me tell you. Feels like a baby, all right:  a baby badger.

Day 3: hurts even worse, though I’m getting the hang of keeping my thumb in the right place so it can’t do the Electrolux thing to me. Feels like a needle in my nipple. It is absolutely impossible to do anything else during this–can’t chat online, can’t write, can’t even read a magazine.

Day 4: I’m building up my endurance a little here, though the thing is still painful. I’m beginning to despair that I’ll actually get any milk this week. (It was at this point that I actually, for the first time, asked myself what in the world I would do with it if I did in fact begin to do the dairy thing. Sell it on eBay, I think.)

Day 5: left the suction up higher this time and sucked it up, so to speak, when it came to the pain. I paid the price–I think a blood vessel is about to go. Tomorrow I’m going to have to shave again. In the mirror, with my shirt off, I look pretty odd.  I would have a lot of explaining to do at the beach.

Day 6: weird effect; my areola (the skin around the nipple) is getting all wrinkly, like women’s do when their nipples get erect. We may be getting somewhere here, even though with the pump attached it still feels like my nipple is in a pair of vise-grips. This has real potential as a S&M sex toy. It would give a manageable amount of mildly erotic pain.

Day 7: oh, great, I’ve finally developed a tolerance for the ‘high’ setting now that the experiment is over. It hurt acutely at first (and my nipple is always tender) but after about five minutes it didn’t bother me. The hell with it; I’m taking this back. I’m also saying the hell with the before and after pictures, on the grounds that I have to admit that it didn’t do me any visible damage.

Results: very poor. This device failed to express even a drop of colostrum from my nipple. I therefore cannot recommend this pump; I must join the ranks of the many dissatisfied customers. I see now why it has the unflattering nickname: “The Nipple Ripper.”

I don’t know of any women I’d wish it on. Couple guys, maybe.

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Recent re-read: George Orwell’s 1984

He loved Big Brother.

Those are the final four words of 1984. When I first absorbed them, they hit me rather hard. It’s been thirty years, but it may as well have been yesterday.

I first read it in a very superficial manner in high school. It didn’t really hit me until the actual year 1984. In fact, on the first date referenced specifically by the main character (April 4, 1984), I may well have been reading it. It was a text for my modern European history survey in college, so a superficial reading would not do–especially for a course in my major.

This time, I was engrossed in Winston Smith’s long, lonely, forlorn struggle against a world of contradictory statements designed to systematically break down the faintest trace of humanity and individuality. Winston, a faceless bureaucrat, declares war against a society whose raison d’être is to possess his mind. The system intrudes constantly; it functions the same whether Winston consents, just passively lies there, or fights back. He twists viciously, flings off the grunting weight of indifferent, impersonal oppression, and decides that he has not really lived until he began to fight.

I’ve been there. In fact, that describes my upbringing.

Winston discovers allies, but hope as one might to the contrary, he confronts a system that handles rebels with an inexorable spirit-grinding mechanism. It is not enough that he die. It is not enough that he submit under duress. It is not enough that he confess to various low crimes. Nothing will suffice but utter submission of the essential self.

Been there too. That describes how the world feels to me in adulthood.

The pressure of conformity insinuates from every direction… not just against me, but against all. My fourth rereading of 1984 left me with the belief that its message grows more relevant every day. I wonder how it can be that our school systems do not ban it, as it is a threat to the conformity that society employs schools to inculcate.

  • “You have no privacy. Get over it.”
  • “It’s just a business decision; don’t take it personally.”
  • “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”
  • “Wear a Tommy Humdinger shirt. Be individual. Be unique.”
  • “Surely you don’t believe those fairy tales about a god and a cross.”
  • “Don’t be rude to telemarketers; they are just doing their jobs.”

“My self-confidence has soared since I got my breast implants.”
“If you want to get hired, you’ll wear a real suit.”
“You don’t understand; this drug replaces a chemical your brain doesn’t produce.”
“A computer on every desktop, running Microsoft software.”
“The nail that sticks up is hammered down.”
“Only ‘liberals’ truly understand the human condition.”

  • “It’s too wordy. If you can’t get the message across in ten words, forget it.”
  • “What do you mean, she’s black (/white/Jewish/Thai)? How could you do this to me?”
  • “Just ignore the bully. Names can never hurt you. Never throw the first punch.”
  • “I still need to lose ten more pounds.”
  • “You don’t want to have children? You’re sick!”
  • “Oh, sure, you’re bisexual. We all were too, before we really confronted our sexuality.”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“It’s dirty down there.”
“If you don’t like this country, why don’t you just leave?”
“If you value your Temple Recommend, you’ll do as Elder Sanctimoni and I tell you.”
“You know what the neighbors would say.”
“Nice girls don’t use those words.”

  • “So, John…your mother tells me you haven’t taken communion for two years.”
  • “Ever have those days when you just don’t feel ‘fresh and feminine’?”
  • “Drive the sporty new Acura Spatula LX!”
  • “All my friends listen to Rage Against the Machine, so I will too.”
  • “If you don’t stand up during the national anthem, you’re a Commie.”
  • “Everyone has a car. You have to have a car.”

“How could anyone possibly survive without cable TV?”
“So just throw the junk mail away if you don’t like it.”
“Everyone else is cooperating with us.”
“You, young lady, look like some kind of whore.”
“I watched the Super Bowl just for the commercials.”
“The two-party system may be flawed but it’s still the best ever designed.”

This sort of conformist rhetoric pummels us daily, and it is what comes to my mind when I read the propaganda presented by the authorities of Winston’s IngSoc overlords. I do not believe that a page of the book goes by without a statement that will come as a body blow to anyone who believes in freedom of writing, speech and thought. It does not matter what form those freedoms take for you. Orwell depicts a world in which they are gone.

When Winston loves Big Brother, the light of liberty and determination in him fades to darkness. In the contradictory spirit of 1984, this is portrayed as a moment of dawning light and joy. Ironic. I have read that some women, to their magnified mortification, find that they become aroused and even orgasm during rape, and that this renders it still more traumatic; like having not merely one’s body taken but one’s soul. Maybe that’s what happens to Winston in the end–though in his case, the ecstasy is the closing act, his last thought and feeling. He does not get to grieve.

Contradictions are the mechanism by which the Ingsoc (English Socialism) of Winston’s Airstrip One (formerly England) of Oceania (formerly the English-speaking countries plus Central and South America) breaks down the independence of the psyche. Freedom is Slavery. War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. When constantly bombarded with contradictory statements, in time they may pound one’s unique grip on perceived objective reality down into a numb receptiveness, the mind a blank canvas on which the propagandist can paint today’s version of history–or edit yesterday’s version when its message becomes inconvenient.

It is as though the mind were a collection of odd-shaped stones and Ingsoc the rock crusher; when it is done, the gravel all looks the same. You can use it in cement, or pave a road, or crush it further to make sand, or do as you otherwise wish.

What makes 1984 an important work of literature is the fact that a single page of it can supply the thinking reader with enough questions to last a week. I offer a sampling from page 66 of my copy, said page chosen by confidently closing my eyes and opening the book:

“Rutherford had once been a famous caricaturist, whose brutal cartoons had helped to inflame popular opinion before and during the Revolution. Even now, at long intervals, his cartoons were appearing in the Times. They were simply an imitation of his earlier manner, and curiously lifeless and unconvincing.” (What does this say about the basic value of creativity? Of art? What do we lose when a Bill Watterson quits writing Calvin & Hobbes because he’s simply not willing to conform?)

“And then a voice from the telescreen was singing: ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree; I sold you and you sold me. There lie they, and here lie we; Under the spreading chestnut tree.’ The three men never stirred. But when Winston glanced again at Rutherford’s ruinous face, he saw that his eyes were full of tears.” (How many times has each of us looked into the face of living human ruin? Have we fled from it? Can we confront it? Am I a living ruin?)

“A little later all three were rearrested. It appeared that they had engaged in fresh conspiracies from the very moment of their release. At their second trial they confessed to all their old crimes over again, with a whole string of new ones.” (Why is there so much pressure to make public confession? Do we believe in any sort of rehabilitation? If so, is our ‘rehabilitation’ simply a means of promoting conformity? For whose benefit is it… that of the rehabilitated individual, or so that we may congratulate ourselves on our humanity?)

1984 is not about the repression of individuality, but its systematic destruction. All that makes us unique individuals: love, family ties, our own perceptions of history, an enterprising spirit, egotism, modesty, courage, trust, greed, lust. At one point Winston observes that, contrary to his historic perception, the proletarian masses are still human, and the Party members largely no longer are.

The designation of the Party’s main enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein, as stereotypically Jewish would be easy enough to interpret only at a shallow level. Orwell wrote in 1949, and it is tempting to consider his writing merely a polemic against totalitarianism, as best understood by the world in 1949–either recently-shattered Nazism or triumphant Stalinism, neither of which meant world Jewry any goodwill. That’s only part of what I take away.

Orwell’s message is timeless: any authority that rules by strength of power is shaken by the notion of someone it cannot bribe, intimidate, ingratiate or hoodwink. Short of just stomping with the jackboot, those are authority’s primary tools. Anyone whose values will not be compromised disturbs those who just went along, and those who pressured them to do so.

So it isn’t enough for IngSoc to obliterate Winston, the man. They must steal his newly-discovered soul, and those of all who oppose them. Winston’s thoughtcrime is the disease, to be attacked with antibodies until driven out. What’s left of him can then go ahead and die.

The final line of 1984 affected the path of my life. I would, over the course of life, face many pressures to conform. I learned, with effort, to put on the necessary fronts that may get one by. I did not take that so far as to validate what I despised, and concede that it was really okay. No matter how many people do a stupid thing, or a wrong thing, it will still be stupid or wrong. It reached a point where I learned to begin with distrusting the wisdom or value of an act or attitude in proportion to the number of people doing, touting and flaunting it. This was alienating, but the more things I learned that many people believed were in fact ridiculous, the better that felt. It came to a point where I had to remind myself that now and then, the masses get it right. I still keep reminding myself that mindless nonconformity isn’t much better than mindless conformity, and can easily be worse. Difference for the sake of principle, yes. For its own sake, nah.

When I read the final line of 1984, and grasped its import, something broke inside my own brain. I saw my future in terms of choices, either to go along and say it’s all okay, or to stick to my guns and have a harder life. It meant that a lot of people would make fun of me, ridiculing my choices as irrational–especially when I failed to let law, government and corporations force me to rationalize their actions as acceptable.  There was nothing noble in my decision to hate Big Brother; it was the simple survival choice. It was a choice of humanity. It might shorten my life, but at least  for a time I would be truly alive. My soul might be damaged, but it would be mine. I would look about me and see mostly persons whose souls had been sold–not because they cooperated with oppression, but because they had been unable to combine cooperating with hating, so they redefined oppression as not-oppression, then proceeded to make fun of those of us who hadn’t sold out. Our refusal remained an irritant, a reminder of sordid collaboration, and it must be demeaned by the collaborators at every turn.

The Vichy régime of France during World War II, representative of a France that chose to abandon its liberty and principles rather than fight and defend its beautiful capital to that capital’s destruction, treated its own French countrypeople more cruelly than the Nazi occupiers in many ways. I scorn and despise AT&T, for example–but not half as much as I scorn and despise the mentality that can look at the way they do business, and rationalize blessing that way while cursing the consumer who speaks out against it. The collaborator, who chose the evil side, is more to be despised than the evil side itself, which lacked ability to be good in the first place.

Here’s to Emmanuel Goldstein.

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This review was originally published in different form on Epinions, a site now deceased. I have reclaimed my work.

Book review: The David Kopay Story

(This review was originally submitted to Epinions. I am reclaiming my work in edited and updated form.)

So Michael Sam, a linebacker from Missouri with legitimate hopes of being taken in the NFL draft, has come out as gay. He did so knowing that this might impact his opportunity to play at the sport’s highest level. Evidently he had already come out to his college teammates, who respected his confidence and continued to treat him as a teammate.

This takes guts. You know how, when a windshield cracks, it can be repaired provided the crack doesn’t reach the edge? This may be the blow that cracks the glass barrier of discrimination to its edge. While those of us who advocate an end to homophobic discrimination are cheering on Michael Sam, I’d like to remind the world of the man who first struck at the barrier. I have more in common with him than some might realize.

David Kopay was a tough college running back who made it to the professional football ranks through sheer determination and obstinacy, staying there for a decade as a backup and special teams hand. A craggily handsome fellow who ‘came out’ in the mid-1970s while writing The David Kopay Story with Perry Deane Young. And a University of Washington Husky.

David and I, therefore, have walked the same collegiate paths. I’m proud of my alma mater; while no university is perfect, UW (we usually say ‘U-Dub,’ often without the definite article) combines a square mile of carefully landscaped lakeside campus with some of the finest educational tools that exist. As far as I know, it is still the very finest nursing school in the land, and maybe the world. For those with the self-discipline to till them, UW can offer impressively fertile grounds for learning in a rich variety of studies.

We also have good sports teams. But when I think of famous fellow Dawgs who inspire me, the first one that comes to mind is not Football Hall of Famer Hugh McIlhenny. Nor is it legendary quarterback Warren Moon. It is not statesman Warren Magnuson, flying ace and Medal of Honor winner ‘Pappy’ Boyington, activist and decorated veteran Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, former Speaker of the House Tom Foley, newsman Chet Huntley, actors Richard Karn, Dawn Wells, Joel McHale or Patrick Duffy, or civil rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi–though I’d be honored to meet any of them.

No, when I think of fellow alumni whose hands I would like to shake, David Kopay is the first-stringer.

We must remember that this book was first published in 1977. Jimmy Carter was President. The nation was mired in a post-Vietnam funk. The economy was a hot mess. We had begun to make meaningful the civil rights gains of the 1960s. The Cold War was a reality. We were expecting the next war in Europe, possibly soon, and our military was the next thing to a broken force.

The ex-hippies were just starting to be promoted to lower management, but going home and listening to the Beatles and the Stones on vinyl at home, and clinging to their VW microbuses as tokens of a bygone time when ‘all you needed was love.’ We had partied the hearty party of post-WWII prosperity, we were about done throwing up the morning after, and we were mopping up the puke with a throbbing headache and drinking cranberry juice. And telling everyone to turn that damn music down.

The popular perception of male homosexuality in the 1970s was that it was a personal choice, like becoming a Jehovah’s Witness or a disk jockey. Many also saw it as a dangerous perversion, felonious in many states. Family and friends tended to treat it as a major disgrace. Society treated male homosexuality as a rare, contagious, emasculating disease.

In this timeframe, at the finish of a ten-year NFL career, David Kopay let it be public knowledge that he was homosexual. No one else had done this, especially not someone who had spent nearly a generation in men’s locker rooms where he might–omigawd–see other men naked. It sounds stupid now, but remember the times, and you’ll be able to imagine the reaction.

With Young’s able assistance, Kopay tells us the story of his path to ultimately living as an out gay man. The conflicting desires. The intoxicated sexual incidents with friends and fraternity brothers. How hard he tried to be heterosexual, and the ways in which that hurt women who truly cared for him. The cracks and comments from teammates who had no idea how correct they were, and the way Kopay enjoyed hitting them extra hard in practice. The format alternates between Kopay’s narrative and Young’s commenary, and flows well, with no sense of reading a tennis match. (Not that it’s really germane, but the two were never lovers. Of course, if you co-author a book with someone, you might as well be.)

Kopay’s book impacted popular perceptions of athletes similarly to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. For many years, the public had practiced voluntary ignorance concerning professional athletes’ humanity. Bouton, another of my great heroes (although it should not be glossed over that Ball Four contains some crude homophobic references that I suspect Bouton regrets today), had made athletes look more human. By coming out, Kopay humanized them in yet another. If part of the population is gay, part of the athlete population will be gay. Kopay’s work destroyed that comfy ability to pretend that wasn’t so.

I find Kopay’s description of his upbringing to ring with truth, which is why I’d recommend it for anyone who wishes to better understand the experience of being gay. Of course he found his early desires and thoughts confusing; he was raised in a very religious home, and there was no manual available in any case to explain that some people happened to prefer same-sex partners. His only clue was that he knew, deep down, that he was more interested in males than females, try as he might to live otherwise. The candor of this self-discovery story, and his coming to terms with it, makes Kopay’s book relevant nearly two generations after its first publication.

By modern standards, his family’s reaction to his coming out would be considered very disappointing. For the 1970s, their reaction was commonplace and mainstream. Kopay lets us see the pain that caused him, the ‘we cannot truly accept you as you are’ hurt that continues to bleed long after. His African American teammates who knew or suspected he was gay were also the most understanding. While the book is explicit, it’s not pornographic. it is more about football than sex, and again, Kopay is straightforward. He was not a big star. He hung on in the pros by sheer force of will. He just wanted to play the game.

That explains another part of the kinship I feel with David Kopay. Armed with moderate athletic talent, he lowered his helmet and charged, pounding his way to a respectable ten-year professional football career. Unlike Kopay, I lacked athletic talent, yet I battled my way to two high school varsity baseball letters, a varsity football letter, and the slightly fear-tinged regard earned by someone lacking a commonsensical regard for his own safety. The only thing that got me any respect was the reckless use of the hardshell helmet against joints, soft parts, and so on. (I once hit a kid hard enough to break one of the steel bolts holding my face mask in place.)

After college, I took up amateur hockey and played it for six years, leaving memories of myself with many; I also played ten years of amateur baseball, making solid contributions to competitive teams (and, I daresay, leaving a few physical calling cards along the basepaths). I refused to accept lack of talent as a disqualifier. I wanted to win, and to do well, and I wanted it bad enough to give all of what little ability I did have. I’ve learned that it’s about 80% what you do with what you have and about 20% what you have to work with. The same ratio held true in college academics, as I learned by underachieving my way through my first two years of school, while others of comparable natural talent made me look rather dumb by comparison.

Kopay set forth to be a collegiate and professional athlete, not an activist. His career was not spectacular, but certainly successful (he was particularly tough on special teams). After that career ended, a challenge far greater than the Rose Bowl came his way. Kopay faced and met that challenge. His account doesn’t dwell on the courage that took; nor should it, because it speaks for itself. Sure, he was afraid; I also would have been. He felt the fear, and did it anyway.

I wish I’d had David Kopay on any or all of my teams. Skills, talents, sexual preference; all secondary considerations. Give me someone who’s honest; give me a comrade; give me someone who wants to win with all his or her heart; give me guts under fire; give me someone who never quits; give me someone who’ll angrily tell me I’m full of it; give me someone who will lead me if I falter, follow me if I lead, and avenge me if I fall.

Let me draft a team loaded with that mentality, and we will make a way.

In the first round of that draft, my team selects David Kopay.

Michael Sam’s step is of similar magnitude. I am glad that today, unlike Kopay’s day, he may look behind him and see not merely a few confidential well-wishers, but a great multitude in which straight allies outnumber those who are gay. This is one of those rare crowds where I feel comfortable. Good luck, Michael.

The Everclear experiment

It was, let’s see…about November 1983. I was a Resident Advisor in the wildest dorm on campus, and I had just turned twenty (thus, drinking was illegal for me). I had dealt with some shocks in my early adult life, starting with college. In Spring 1981 I was seventeen, in my senior year at a high school of 48 in a town of 750. In Fall 1981 I was still seventeen, attending a university of 35,000 in a city of two million. At nineteen, I was riding very loose herd on forty-seven freshmen, two sophomores, a junior and an old acid-head fifth-year senior who had once been brilliant, and during his rare sobriety bouts, still was. It was another ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ time.

I also was not known for abstention, so when some of my staffmates went down to Vegas for a weekend, I asked them to pick me up some Everclear. (You could not get it in Washington except on some Indian reservations, last I knew, sort of like M-80s and silver salutes.) This is 190 proof grain alcohol, 95%. I’d tried it a time or two back when I was rooming with Markdove. In case you like trivia, it took half a ton of this to fully fuel a Russian MiG-25, in addition to the avgas. Everclear tastes so viciously fiery that I have to belt it down in a gulp. Otherwise my nose pours, my eyes water and my mouth feels like I drank acetone. The guys brought me back three quarts of it.

I’ll never forget a single detail of that Saturday evening. About 10 PM, I sat down to have a drink. Now, one of my favourite basic drinks has always been a simple vodka and soda. Everclear is just double-plus-strength vodka. I had these Coke glasses from Farrell’s, 24 oz., and one can fill them with ice, pour in however much booze, then fill the rest with club soda. So I made my drink in the prescribed fashion; about an inch and a half of the Everclear over ice, topped with soda. Cool, crisp, refreshing, barely taste the alcohol. I sat down to read a good book. Nice drink. Took me about forty-five minutes to finish it.

Around 11 PM, I remember reflecting on how overhyped Everclear was. I barely felt anything, just that very light buzz I always get from drinking anything at all, and the reason I am not a fan of midday imbibing. I was just debating making myself another drink.

Here there is a discontinuity; there is no time blank, no gap, no fall, no dreams, no stupor. For all I can know, I was teleported.

I was face down on the floor, the book splayed out next to me. The chair was tipped over. The lights were on. The lighting seemed odd somehow, not as dark as it ought to be. I looked at my clock.

Seven in the morning.

Had I immediately mixed and drank most of a second round, I suspect I’d either be dead or permanently impaired. There would have been no literary career, no hockey games, no beautiful wife, no trips abroad. The body can metabolize only so much alcohol. Too much and you die. My door was locked from the inside, and no one would have had a reason to bug me on a Sunday morning, nor expected me to emerge for any reason short of a fire alarm. I had a single room with my own bathroom. Had my ‘dents heard barfnoise from outside the room, the conversation might have gone:

“That sounds like our RA being really sick in there.”

“So, what you’re saying is that it’s Sunday morning? Lieutenant Obvious, I herewith promote you to Captain.”

I would have been dead about forty hours before anyone missed me. We had a mandatory staff meeting on Monday nights. Unexplained AWOLism from the staff meeting would have created genuine alarm. They’d have master-keyed in, and they would never have forgotten the sight unto their dotages, half a century thence. What a delightful parting legacy: “He left people who cared about him with the indelible memory of his eyes rolled back.”

I’ve nearly been killed a number of times, and this one that still creeps me out to remember, because it snuck up on me and hit me on the head with a mallet. All the rest I got to see coming, and faced as best one can. None were as avoidable, nor were any for as stupid a reason.

Are you young? Thinking of drinking some Everclear, tough guy? Think it’s macho? Macha? Not scared of any drink, or of anything some old guy tells you?

I can’t stop you, and I wouldn’t if I could. It’s your life. You own it. That is, until the day you fail to treat this stuff with respect, at which time you may surrender it.

How do you want to be remembered?

If you take it easy with this stuff, you’ll have a lot longer to mull over that decision.

Take your time.

[A version of this story was originally published at Epinions. I have reclaimed, edited and adapted it for this format. They don’t get to have it anymore.]

College days, roommates, and what I learned

In the fall of 1981, I left a miserable lumber town to attend college in Seattle, which was not yet the capital of grunge and coffee. I was only seventeen (due to long ago getting promoted out of kindergarten in mid-year) and came from a very repressive family environment. For example, in our house, to question my father’s interpretation of the Bible was equated with doing Satan’s work. Free at last to seek out pre-marital sex and alcohol, I worked harder at either than my studies. I was also overwhelmed academically due to the rudimentary education of a small-town school with low standards, and was particularly deficient in critical thinking because neither my home nor my school offered much intellectual challenge to dumb ideas. College tends to fix that.

Lesson: if your new roommate is from a repressed environment, look out. They will probably go completely hog wild.

My first roommate was Math, a brilliant mathematician from a conservative suburb (West Seattle) with a clutch of intelligent, pleasant high school friends. He was the only roommate I’d never met before I moved in with him, and the best one I ever had. He was in honors math–at UW, an intimidating program–and after putting up with me for two quarters, moved out to a single room in a quiet dorm. He promptly tried to kill himself. I may have been a flaming pain in the butt, but it turns out that my antics helped him deal with the pressure.

Lesson: don’t be too quick to judge a roommate. He or she may seem swinish, and may even be a swine, but may also fill a need that you don’t realize. Get to know the person.

For my second year I stayed on the same floor, rooming with Markdove, a senior from Tukwila (a suburb of Seattle). We had planned this because we were both a) hardcore political conservatives (this was a long time ago, folks) and serious drunkards. I used to pour Everclear in Markdove’s beer when he went to the can. One time he puked.

Lesson: if you keep Everclear around your dorm room, it will ultimately be misused somehow.

While in that living arrangement, I came to realize that I needed to control my drinking before it got full control of me. As luck would have it, the night after I chose to hit the wagon for a month, our cluster living area decided to pitch a massive wingding. I stuck to my guns. In so doing, I gained the psychological upper hand over alcohol. I still drank, but never as heavily or as out of control.

Lesson: in the college dorm environment, you are in a sea of behaviors, attitudes and parties. There will come a time at which you will have to choose to steer rather than drift. Know that the day will come. A lot is riding on it.

Markdove and I had an arrangement: lights and noise were allowed at all hours. We would use blindfolds and earplugs as necessary, and often did.

Lesson: at some point the issue of room usage, noise, study and sleep will confront all roommates. If you want consideration, you have to give consideration. Gentle hints tend to work better than open confrontation, especially with Young College Students who are Now Big Adults and who Can Now Totally Manage Their Own Lives Quite Nicely, Thank You.

I soon moved to a different dorm. My roommate was Kenpeck, and it was a good thing that I spent most of my nights (ok, all of them) in my girlfriend’s room because Kenpeck and I politely hated each other. He was a community college transfer from Aberdeen (a depressed coastal fishing and former lumber town), and was actually there for the purposes of studying and learning. My rowdiness somewhat cramped his style. In retrospect, we both judged each other quickly and unfairly, but he was the adult in the room.

Lesson: rooming with someone is a total-immersion living experience. If you don’t like each other, move. However, if you never bother to get to know each other, your roomie relations will disappoint.

I spent the next two years as an RA (Resident Advisor) in McMahon Hall, the most freshmany dorm in the UW system, and the place where I’d begun with Math as my roommate. For me, it was a little like the old show Welcome Back, Kotter. In those days, it wasn’t rare for Residential Life to hire RAs from among the rowdiest souses in the dorm system, on the grounds that it was harder to put stuff over on us. I wasn’t a very good RA, especially in my second year, and I was fortunate not to be fired by supervisors who showed me unearned compassion. But I did witness and umpire a lot of roommate conflicts.

Lesson: most of the conflicts I saw were involved one person being totally inconsiderate or anal. If you run to either extreme, you are going to have roommate conflicts. If you can compromise, you will tend not to.

Lesson: roommate relationships tend to become exaggerated. “I love her.” “I hate his guts.” “She’s such a snot.” “He and I have become best friends.” It’s better to shoot for an even keel no matter how good or bad it seems at first, try not to peak or valley, expect strengths and weaknesses. They’re there.

Lesson: most high school friends who signed up as roommates ended up no longer friends. You’re often better off with someone you’ve never met.

Lesson: being a roommate is good training for someday living with a partner, so it is a good time to learn to do small acts of consideration. Pay for your share of the pizza, or don’t eat any; try and pick up a little; bring a Coke back from the cafeteria.

After two tours of duty in VietMcNam, I retired (read: I was rejected for a third year of RAing employment for generally being an immature idiot; they had spent my entire second year kicking themselves for rehiring me) to the UW dorms’ equivalent of a country gentleman’s life: Hansee Hall.

Hansee was the quiet dorm, and you had to have a lot of quarters of priority to get in. It was all single rooms, very tiny, and very quiet and mature. Not that you couldn’t get drunk in Hansee; I proved often enough that one could. If you got raucous drunk, though, the math wonks would narc on you yesterday and you’d be exiled to the Lower Planes of McMahon or Haggett (another fairly wild place), right now. I had a weird adjoining room arrangement; there were only three like it in Hansee. Two rooms shared one bath. You had to go through my roommate’s room to get to the throne room. You had to go through mine to get out. Thus, it wasn’t really private, but you didn’t have to tramp around in eight or fifty other people’s foot fungi in a communal shower.

At first I was in with Raybird, a sourdough Alaskan and general screwoff. (By this time I was actually deigning to study and get decent grades, though obviously I still found time to act immaturely.) He was unmotivated and could dish it out but not take it. He soon quit school. I tried to encourage him not to fold the tent, but if anything I probably made it worse. If I’d had Raybird as my first roommate, though, it probably would have had an adverse effect.

Lesson: the first thing people have to learn at college is that it’s up to them. Also, you need enough distance to insulate yourself from soaking up your roommate’s moods (or letting yours soak them).

Then I had Frédéric, a Frenchman in the MBA program. We had a few cultural differences here and there, but for the short time we roomed together, we got along fine. He taught me a lot, especially bad words in French for which his girlfriend (also French) punished him roughly.

Lesson: if your roommate is from a different country, you have some adjustments ahead, but you also have a great opportunity. Not only can you learn to be an idiot in another language, but you can learn a lot about other cultures–including how to respect differences. If you were ever thinking of traveling abroad, having a foreign roommate is a good learning/warmup experience.

Finally I had Harcourt, my final college roommate. This gives me the opportunity to tell the story of the funniest thing I ever did in college.

Harcourt was a big guy from Spokane. He bore a powerful likeness to the Abominable Snowman in that old Bugs Bunny cartoon, remember that? Who would “hug him and pet him and squeeze him?” He was blond, about 6’5″ and 270, and hated football. He was a French major.

Harcourt’s pals were Connie and Pam. Connie, a petite blonde, liked to be called ‘Commie’ and was into left-wing politics. Pam was African American, not petite, and was comparatively sedate and easygoing; I had been her RA the previous year. Pam and Commie had attended Holy Names Academy and were definitely in Young Catholic Women’s School Alumnae Busting The Chains mode. I was fond of both.

After about a week or so, I couldn’t say the same of Harcourt. He was difficult to deal with, and offended by everything–and by now, I’d done some growing up and tended to be a considerate fellow. He was also a lazy slob whose natural habitat was bed and who rarely attended morning classes at all.

Harcourt most certainly didn’t drink, though it might have done him some good. Despite his size, he wasn’t the athletic type, so I never worried about him decking me in a rage. Knowing what I know now, I suspect that he was gay and closeted/questioning/conflicted, but one couldn’t have a discussion about such things with Harcourt, not even in a supportive way. Normal conversation offended him enough. An actual personal question was beyond the pale, however tactful and well-meant.

Anyhow, it was 3 AM on a Saturday night. From this simple statement, a knowing reader could ascertain precisely the situation in L112 Hansee. Harcourt had been snoring away for about four hours in his room, bothering no one. I was dinking around with a massive board wargame and well into my cups, having depleted a quart of rum just enough to be crocked but not sloppy. All was right with the world. In that state, I do not tend toward confrontationalism, which probably explains why I’ve never had a bar fight. On the contrary: I become more accepting and adventuresome.

Therefore, when the telephone rang, far from being grumpy, I was delighted. Ah! Just what I need to make my happiness complete: the milk of human companionship! Someone wants to talk with me! I cheerfully answered the telephone: “Hello?”

Three things were immediately apparent:
a) it was Pam.
b) Pam, too, had taken a drink.
c) Pam sounded lonely.

To spell it out, Pam seemed to be in an advanced state of erotic need. She was very specific about the regions of her body requiring stimulation, the type of contact she anticipated and desired in those regions, and the sentiments she expected to experience as a result. It was also clear that Pam had an adventuresome soul in ways I hadn’t ever anticipated, touching on such topics as rope use, feathers, and mild flagellation. Pam’s language was anything but clinical.

Being somewhat of a pervert, I listened to Pam’s porno for a couple of minutes. It was entertaining, and I was in my most accepting of moods. However, the male physiology is such that alcohol can cause a tragic effect: even if the libido is active, the flesh may be monastic, if you know what I mean. As sorry as I felt for Pam, and as willing as I might be to expend the considerable effort needed to improve her condition, I knew I couldn’t help her.

Now, while I make no claim to be a gentleman, I don’t believe in being callous without good reason. If I couldn’t satisfy Pam, clearly the decent act was to offer her a referral. For once in my life, as she stopped for air, I thought quickly on my feet. I positively beamed into the phone. “Well, in that case, the person you need to speak with is right here. Please hold for a moment.”

I opened Harcourt’s door. This was before the days of cordless phones. He was snoring quietly in a large puddle on the bed. I shook him. “Harcourt!”

“Hwrmwhvn.” When sleepy, Harcourt lost enough vowels that he could be speaking Serbo-Croatian.

Shook him harder. “Hey, Harcourt. Telephone.”

“Whaa.”

Spoke up a bit. “Get up, Harcourt. Someone’s on the phone.”

“Wthhllzcallngathream?” Harcourt shambled to the phone in his undies. I sat down and took a drink to enjoy the spectacle. “Hllo,” he said, eyes still half shut. I took a belt of rum and smirked the drunkard’s idiotic smirk.

Harcourt’s eyes went from sleep to awake to about this big in fifteen seconds. Remember, Harcourt had a cow about everything. Finally he bellowed into the phone, recovering his vowels: “I have never been so offended in my entire life!!”

It pains me to report that Harcourt then ended the conversation without taking the time to lay the phone down gently, nor to offer the lady a courteous parting salutation. Lamentable.

He fixed me with a gaze of the purest loathing. Were Harcourt a violent man, that would have sent him over the edge. As it was, though I was smaller, I was far and away the more physical. I replied by toasting him, upraised cup, foolish smile.

He stalked back to bed. Didn’t speak to me for two weeks.

Harcourt simply had no sense of humor.

Lesson: in a roommate situation, never walk around as though you had a steel rod rammed far up your rear. It’ll just get you mocked.

Postscript: many years later, I caught back up with Pam through the original publication of this story. She enjoyed it, and filled me in on her half of the tale. As she related to me, she and her friends had been drinking wine coolers and decided to have some fun with the guys.

[This article was originally published by me at Epinions. They can’t have it anymore. Not theirs. I have adapted it for format, context and writing skills improvements, and assert intellectual property rights.]