Tag Archives: Epinions

An eyewitness account of the rise of the Internet, for millennials

Why does everyone my age, the people who raised the millennial generation, now look to criticize the kids for being exactly as they were raised to be?

I hate it. My generation needs to take some responsibility for its choices, just one of which was the transformation of our society to a fearful, bubble-wrapped, constant-parental-supervision, hyper-PC world. Dodge ball is banned and yet school shootings skyrocket? Schools like jails? Crazy assloads of homework? Teaching to tests? At what point do we stand up and fess up to the kids: “We inherited a pretty good world, then got fearful and greedy, and screwed it up for you. We are sorry. We will stop giving you so much shit.”

Maybe, if we stop giving them shit now, they’ll pick out better nursing homes for us when the time comes. That, you realize, is the endgame. The vengeance of the elder is the calm understanding that the youth will one day experience arthritis, that one day Immodium will be more their recreational drug than ketamine. The vengeance of the youth is to make the elderly pray that their arthritic days end sooner. This cycle poisons us all. The kids need us: they need our support, our love, our examples, our wisdom, and our friendship. They need for us to share. And we need them: we need their liveliness, their change, their new outlooks, their ability to program the remote without wanting to throw it, their help with the physical tasks at which we are now semi-competent, and their friendship. We need for them to share. I can think of no more toxic way to spend my final years than in a gated community filled only with other old goats, who really buy into this ‘honored citizen’ and ‘senior citizen’ stuff, who leave miserly tips for harried waitresses they berate, and who do their best to hide from all youth, watching old Hallmark and INSP TV shows all day that reassure them how The World Ought To Be.

That world is gone. Be as nostalgic as you wish, but live in the now.

In the now, I just watched a video wherein teenagers attempted to use a typical twenty-year-old Windows 95 computer. I found their impressions fascinating. They did not intuitively grasp its basic functions, though some were very interested in the history. It occurred to me that many young folks, never having known a world without the Internet, do not apprehend how recent a phenomenon is this hyper-reliance on easy-to-use Internet. My generation’s harmful reflex is to ridicule them for this, which shows me that my contemporaries have lived this long without learning much. The proper response is not to make fun of the kids, and we ought to have developed enough wisdom to grasp this. If you’d like them to learn–if you would like some empathy and understanding from them–take time to teach them. Then let them teach you how their experience differs.

Speaking of which:

This comes from my own point of view as I lived it, now aged fifty-two, born in 1963, high school class of 1981, Bachelor of Arts 1986. When I was young, I reflected at how ancient I would be in the fabled year 2000: 37, practically a museum piece. I didn’t own my first computer until 1987, and it was a forgotten machine called the Atari ST. Of course, to use any form of Internet, one needs some form of computer, so it is essential to discuss the rise of the personal computer.

1980 (36 years ago): after striking a deal with Microsoft to bundle DOS (which in turn M$ buys off a fellow in the U-District who turns out to be like the guy who traded a winning lottery ticket for a caramel macchiato latte) with the product, IBM markets the IBM PC. At first, it costs about as much as a year’s public university dorm housing, or about 10% of an annual survival wage (at that time, one could almost eke by on minimum wage). The PC immediately wins, spawning a host of imitators (“clones”). Not much of anyone is on the Internet, which does exist in its ur-form, but is not for mere mortals.

1981 (35 years ago): That fall, I entered college at a major university which was as technologically current as any such institution. Very few students had personal computers, and none of them connected to the university’s systems, which were monsters that required entire rooms. PCs (to include all personal computers, including Apples and many long-deceased brands) cost several thousand dollars each, in an era where the minimum wage was around $3/hour. The university had computers for registration and other recordkeeping, as did large businesses. For computer science classes, there were ‘computer labs’ so people could practice fun stuff like Fortran programming. (Ask your engineer uncle about Fortran.)

1986: more students had PCs, but the Internet was still in its Arpanet ur-form, which had been around since 1969. This was a distributed network meant to operate by passing information through many possible paths to get from one point to another, rather than having to use This Dedicated Wire (which might be cut by an earthquake or the incineration of St. Louis, etc.). It wasn’t for us. I spent five years in college, as a history major, and wrote an inch-thick stack of papers. I typed and retyped every single one on an electric typewriter, typically three times: first draft, refinement and edits, final version.

By 1986 (30 years ago), a fair number of (the limited number of) computer users dialed into BBSes (bulletin board systems) in order to argue with strangers over common interests. It was like logging onto a web forum, but one had to dial in with a modem and phone line. Modems–little e-telephones which bore some resemblance to a DSL modem or cable modem in shape, size, and function–sounded bizarre when making the connection, like a bunch of springs boinging against a background of phone static. Maybe like a didgeridu played while tipsy. Of course, BBSes were never used as porn repositories or to share pirated software. That’s why we do not get the expression ‘l33t’ from ‘elite,’ which was not the term for a pirate BBS, because of course we would never indulge in warez (which was not the slang term for cracked pirated software). If the BBS was long distance, one paid through the nose in long distance charges.

1988 (28 years ago): PC ownership has moved well past IBM, which is showing an astonishing refusal to face facts. The Mac is the desktop publishing weapon of choice, but big companies still use ‘minicomputers’ (which could easily take up a whole room) or mainframes, a.k.a. Big Iron. IBM is cannibalizing its Big Iron business, trying to dictate to the PC industry, and the PC industry is listening to IBM about as much as you listen to your drunk uncle’s political and career guidance.

In 1988, I began a job selling computers, a foot soldier in the trenches of the IBM-Microsoft wars. M$ won, but it hadn’t yet decided to try and control the Internet. People who used modems to dial BBSes are now buying faster ones and signing up for Internet accounts; they still have to dial up. An always-on Internet connection, like your modern DSL or cable modem or fiber, is as affordable to average people as a yacht. Wireless is unknown. Windows is available, but it: runs on top of DOS, is buggy and cranky, and mostly sucks. This gives us a foretaste of what we can expect from M$ once IBM is crushed.

What did we even do with computers before we could dial up to the Internet and search? We wrote. We created art. We programmed applications, shareware, and so on. We compiled the code we wrote. We balanced checkbooks. We kept business books. We played games, oh god, how we played games. We used spreadsheets to automate calculations, letting do the heavy arithmetical lifting. We created databases to store large amounts of information, user interfaces to enable the research of the database, and report formats to present the research results. We drafted plans for building and bridges. We could look at the library’s card catalog, a voluminous wall of pigeonhole drawers we used to find books, and realize it would one day go away. So would the microfiche. There truly is much one can do with a computer that is not connected to a broadband network, and we did all of it.

1992 (24 years ago): The web will soon exist, and one will be able to browse it, but only with a text-based web browser. The dawn of the graphical user interface (which is how we elders describe the interactive front end of your Windows 10 or Mac OS whatever) is nearly at hand, ready to pave the way for unlimited porn. Windows is beginning to suck less. By this time, the PC has begun displacing both minis and big iron. Most people still get online with a modem, dialing in over a landline. Cell phones are uncommon and pretty spendy, and the idea of doing the Internet over your cellphone would have seemed like technological magic had anyone mentioned it. Laptops were big but not uncommon. Color inkjets were coming along.

1996 (20 years ago): a lot of PC office networks now ran on a thing called “Novell.” All you really need to know about Novell is that it was incomprehensible to normal people. By this time America Online–which had become one of the main ways people connected online (others were quaintnesses called CompuServe, Genie, etc.)–had unleashed its computer-illiterate, text-speaking “r u m or f?” and “ur a looser” hordes upon the Internet. That may have marked a transition point: until then, the Internet was sort of like a club that had unspoken rules and traditions, to which not everyone was willing to do the work to belong. It was rapidly becoming a free-for-all devoid of all standards (in other words, it was assuming a far more American character). For a while there, people like me got to enjoy a certain snobbish self-satisfaction, though I’m not sure how much good it did, since the AOL outlook took over. It was like one’s favorite pizzeria one day became a Chuck-E-Cheese’s–in mid-meal.

By 1996, the graphic web browser was king. The battle was between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. The release of Windows 95, which you laughed at when you saw the video of the teens, marked a major turning point in making mainstream computing more stable and easier to work with. As you might expect from M$, it was doing everything it could to require the world to use IE, and the world refused. All that warfare against IBM, and it had learned not a single lesson about customers. There is no corporation that will not turn into a moron factory given enough time and success.

2000 (16 years ago): by now, broadband (DSL, cable, other ‘always on’ connections) was going mainstream, and phone modems were starting to look pretty dated. By 2000, most non-Luddites had some form of Internet connectivity; all companies worthy of the name had web presences. Also, at the false millennium (1/1/2000), there was a major scare because most of the remaining big iron software didn’t support eight-digit dating, and they had thrown away the source code. Much doom-and-gloom, much foretelling of apocalypse, and in the end, not much impact. But by this time, one didn’t need to watch the TV news to know about it. By this time, quite a few people learned about it on the Internet. I would say that around 2000 was the time when the Internet became like the telephone was to my parents, and the cell phone is to my nieces and nephews: “can’t function without it.”

Also around 2000, M$ followed up the very successful Windows 98 with Windows Me. Everyone hated it. Everyone. It was the Jerry Sandusky of operating systems. At that point, we began to realize that every other M$ operating system was going to be crappy, and the savvy among us planned accordingly. We’re still doing it.

By 2000, the Internet was an integral part of collegiate life. Our next transition would be Wi-Fi everywhere, and the decline of the PC in favor of the so-called smartphone, but you were around for those. I’ll let you figure out how to teach your grandkids about it, someday after I’m long gone. And if you do it better than I did, I’ll doff my spiritual hat to you, and wherever we go, when you catch up to me, we’ll have a single-malt.

Was it strange for me, having this enormous transition happen just a decade too late to help me through college? It was, but mine is not the first generation such things have happened to. It just is. We adapt as best we can, some better than others. (My mother is 75 and simply refuses to get on the Internet, and in her case I suspect that’s a pretty good thing.) Around 2000, too, Internet-based shopping and reviewing had gone very mainstream. That’s how I got into writing, through writing book reviews at Amazon, then product reviews at a now-moribund site called Epinions. I still keep in touch with a lot of people from Eps.

So. If you are twenty-five, by the time you were old enough to think about shopping, you never knew a world without the Internet; it was just something that had always been there, like oxygen or Abe Vigoda. (Like the telephone was for me.) And yet it wasn’t always there, and we did live productive and happy lives without it. I swear.

But one can never really go back, and for as badly as my generation has hosed down the world you live in, most of it knows that much at least. Even so, when next you take a look at one of those comical videos where teens look at Windows 95 and can’t even imagine how it was ever useful, at least you will know how it played out.

One last thing: lest the fogeys sell you a bill of goods, just as you look at a Windows 95-based computer and laugh at its abacus-level technology, your parents were doing the laughing in 1990. Only then, they were laughing at the people still using their pre-DOS CP/M machines, such as the Kaypro portable with its tiny green screen and floppy disks, the size of a briefcase. Or their old Compaq Portable, size of a hardshell suitcase, better known as the “Compaq Draggable.” They chortled at the elders still using cranky electric typewriters with worn-out ribbons, and at those who bought computers but still insisted on daisywheel printers (essentially, computer-driven typewriters) over the obviously superior dot-matrix printers. (That old, greasy printer at your mechanic’s shop with the word ‘Okidata’ on it? That’s a dot-matrix printer, with its rough images and its eardrum-tearing whine.)

As for our times, we can work together. If you’ll keep helping me figure out how to connect all these stupid new cords I don’t understand, I’ll be happy to reciprocate by helping you see how your parents’ world really was, and feeding you useful bits of data about their times to help you dominate them in debates.


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.

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.

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.]

The Epinions days

Ho ho ho…it’s time for your early Christmas present. The article is just the wrapping paper.

My writing start came at a product review site called epinions.com. The concept was for actual consumers to provide consumer-helpfully written product reviews. Books, games, movies, lawn mowers, breast pumps, computers, cell phones–if you could buy it, you could probably get it added to the Eps database. When Eps first began, people could make real money there. By the time I got there, the gravy train was stuck at a siding. I believe the site began in 1999; I showed up in 2001 and was fairly active through 2003, tapering off thereafter. I’ve made about $433 from it over the years.

At first, I took the site seriously and attempted to write relatively serious reviews. It didn’t take long for me to realize that some of the most creative and witty minds I’d ever seen were also at Eps, and they were mostly not taking it seriously. In my halting way, I began to follow their various leads. I got some writing feedback, some positive and some negative. In hindsight, my work was mountainously egotistical, pretentious, sometimes facile, and often relied on cheap gimmicks rather than intellect, but I think it improved. I certainly got to see a lot of examples showing how to do it better.

Over time, the would-be comics of Epinions and their sympathizers coalesced into a rolling circus called the Fez Crew. Sordid-1, one of the funnier folks you’ll ever read, was the group’s founder and soul. My all-time favorite Epinions piece still remains his travel review of Arizona. He wrote a three-part review of his mercifully brief stint in the Maricopa County Jail. He did not recommend Arizona as a destination. For a couple of years there, we had a lot of fun. We did protests, writeoffs, even tribute pieces to members we learned were terminally ill. Some of us were one step from being ticketed or community blocked by the admins, and we were always afoul of the Eps cops. This group was heavily populated by stay-at-home moms (a fundamentally honorable profession practiced by more than one Fez Crew-woman) who took diaper pails, sippy cups, kiddy movies and such deadly seriously. They had private groups away from the site, which they reckoned were secret, where they kept hit lists of consumerly-unhelpful people and ganged up to try and rate their reviews negatively. We parodied them a lot, such as the time I reviewed Grand Theft Auto III as a homeschooling tool. But in the end–and only partly due to the Eps cops’ gang-rating–Eps ceased to be fun for most of us, and we went on to other things.

For a lot of Eps alumni (either Fez or simply friendly forces, admired for genuine writing talent), that meant careers writing for real money. Cornelia Read was one. David Abrams was another. Many of us eventually found one another on Facebook, though after we had all reconnected with the people we liked, we didn’t have that much to say to each other, so the Fez Crew on FB became moribund as a semi-informal grouping. Few of us still write at Eps, though most of us still write. Brett Nicholson will one day get a screenplay published. It wouldn’t be fair to call Markham Shaw Pyle an Eps alum–I understand that he was published before Eps began–but he wrote some of the more thoughtful reviews and commentary there. It turned out to be a pretty good literary practice field and weight room.

Something got me thinking of those days, this evening, contributed by frequent commentator OrionSlaveGirl. It seems that the spirit of Fez lives, as you can see in the Amazon reviews of this banana slicer. What you see here, good reader, is exactly the fun-loving Fez spirit we once had at Epinions. Enjoy. And happy holidays to you all, in whatever form and shape, and thank you for your many visits here this year.

Editing a book on child-raising…me, of all people

My current project is to edit a book on child-raising. This is funny.

Some of you may not know this, but I’m not real good with children. I never wanted to produce any; the day my ex-fiancée told me very seriously that she was pregnant, shortly thereafter revealing that it was a joke, ha ha, something broke inside me and I never trusted her again. I have recently learned that I can enjoy being around good children for about three or four hours. I can endure them for three or four more, after which I need a couple days in a bar. If they are relatives it’s easier, but only to a point. If they are not exceptionally well-behaved, it’s excruciating. In short, perfect kids about whom I authentically care are difficult enough for me. The other billion are rather harder.

I did not ask to be this way, and it’s not something I’m glad for or proud of. It’s very inconvenient to be missing the gene that says kids are inherently cute and funny no matter whether they are attempting to start fires, defecating in their pants, doing something that they have discovered will frustrate adults, or making a crayon drawing of your pet. My life would be much easier if I liked being around them all, and I have tried to like it. It’s like trying to like a food you must force down. It is like telling yourself that discomfort is joy, edginess is relaxation, cardboard is food. I wish them great educations, lots of adventures, good friends, drug avoidance, full safety and very happy lives, with which I’m increasingly willing to intersect as they age toward maturity. If I had to work at a school, I would rather be the night janitor than a teacher. Night janitors perform a key job to help education happen, and by then the kids would be gone, rather than in my classroom torturing me, knowing that I couldn’t actually discipline them and they could get away with making my job hell. People know when they hit a vulnerable spot, and kids learn it early, long before most of them learn that gratuitous cruelty is not a character strength.

When my wife wants to mess with me, she talks about starting a daycare in our house. She thinks it’s funny. Yuk yuk, what a card. Everyone slap your knees.

As for me, I think it’s pretty funny that I am now editing a book on parenting.

The authors made a good choice in the sense that I’m completely unequipped to debate their parenting concepts. Life has taught me that ‘bad mommy’ is this enormous bugaboo for mothers. They’ll come to blows with the one who even implies Bad Mommy. They’ll yowl that they are Good Mommies, even if their junior Satans are out-of-control unbearable (not just to me, but to normal people). They’ll follow obsessive, fearful childcare regimes in order to avoid even a hint of Bad Mommy. Not that they don’t also do much out of pure maternal love, of course; surely so. I’m not saying that Bad Mommy drives all their decisions. I am saying that in many cases, I smell fear as an additional motivator.

Bad Mommy is even a pack behavior. I used to write for a product review site called Epinions. At Epinions, there was a clique I called the Mommy Platoon. The Mommy Platoon could give you 1000 words on a diaper pail without giggling. Sippy cups were serious business. They kept offsite message boards dedicated to gang-rating reviews they deemed to take parenting insufficiently seriously. They said appalling things to people in comments. Singly, they were cravens, but with the company of a cult of mutual reassurance, they found a form of gangster courage. One of their most devastating bullying weapons was Bad Mommy, used without remorse to bring other women to tears, simply for seeing parenting differently. A number of us, with goodwill and empathy, wrote reviews that made light of parenting and its issues and products, honestly hoping to bring the readership (including the Mommy Platoon) a few good laughs. Laugh about parenting? That was as popular with the Mommy Platoon as bomb jokes are with airport security. I think a majority of the mothers at the site despised the Mommy Platoon.  In the end, a key factor driving many of us away from Epinions was this Mommy Platoon, which evidently never learned the lesson mentioned above about gratuitous cruelty. One lesson I took away from that experience was just how dramatically Bad Mommy will influence a mother’s actions and outlook. I feel for them. I’d hate to have that hanging over me.

Bad Mommy is probably a positive thing in at least one sense. Motherhood is exhausting and endless, and it doesn’t have very many breaks. Perhaps when parenting needs doing in spite of how she feels, at times, Bad Mommy is the lash that drives her onward to do what is needed in spite of her being her own person with her own pains, emotions, desires, and so on. I’m glad I don’t know for sure. I wouldn’t want her job. I could in no way do it, and I marvel that she can.

So I’m editing a parenting book. Here’s the thing: my complete ignorance of the subject is an asset to the authors. I can play my position, which is to fix anything that is flawed about the way they have presented their ideas (as opposed to the ideas themselves). Their parenting advice sounds pretty smart to me, and I think it’ll be a great book; my job is to do my all to help that be so. They must find it a blessed relief that I have zero temptation to debate parenting with them, in much the same way as I have zero temptation to debate Sanskrit translation with lifelong Sanskrit scholars or fly-fishing techniques with a lifelong fisherman. They tell me their previous editor (who sounds very Mommy Platoon to me) fired them and said she would pray for them. I’m impressed that this did not dissuade them. When they sent me the sample chapter to see how I’d handle it, they deliberately picked the most controversial one, just to see how I’d react. When I learned that they had done this, they impressed me more.

I like the project. The authors have a very good sense of humor. I can’t imagine them in the Epinions Mommy Platoon. Along the way, I’ll teach them some stuff. You can divide aspiring writers into two categories: those who want to improve, and those who want to be Frosted Flakes with the reader/reviewer/editor as Tony the Tiger. These ladies are serious about it, which means they have a very real chance to get somewhere with the written word.

Here’s to all moms. They have a hard job.