The year was 1996. I had heard of this mystical thing called the Internet, but the only applications I knew were Telnet, Fetch, and AOL. I still have no idea what practical application Telnet had besides using it to “finger” other people on the network. Sometimes the more savvy of us (like yours truly) would have used it to put up a prehistoric “status update,” which was equivalent, in my young mind, to hacking into the Matrix just to find out that my friend Tom was currently listening to They Might Be Giants. Fetch, I grasped, was some way to access files, but I didn’t know what files I was supposed to be looking for or where to look for files that I wanted. And AOL, as my teacher at the time described it, was like riding a bus and stopping only in the designated areas, rather than driving yourself wherever you wanted to go. But I don’t think he ever told us how to actually drive ourselves. It was the first and last time I would joke with my friends that I was “computer illiterate, lulz.”
A year or so later, I got to know my way around Eudora, the mail application our school used, and Netscape, the way to drive yourself around the Internet. I remember finding my way into a “chat room,” which was actually just a linear, unthreaded Forum that you refreshed to trick yourself into thinking it was a “live chat” environment. Although this was long before MySpace and Match.com, we were distantly aware of the dangers of sharing personal information, so I heavily encrypted my username by using a DIFFERENT FEMALE NAME than my own. I taught my friend Allison how to log on, and we both “chatted” through our lunch periods, getting goatse’d for the first time in the middle of the high school computer lab, all while asking everyone “how do you make your words blue?!” (They were links.) Once a guy said something gross to us, and we each changed our handles to a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT name so he wouldn’t hack into our houses and reformat our mainframes.
I only knew two guys who “had websites,” Dave and Jay. While Dave’s website just said “Plan 9 From Cyberspaaaaace!!!” in flashing text, Jay wrote a prototypical movie blog on a fancy-shmancy geocities page. I was super impressed because it was emblazoned with a flashy gif proclaiming it one of the Top 100 Sites on the Web. Years later, when I learned to code, I realized that he had just hotlinked this image and my whole life was a lie.
When I say “learned to code,” I mean I taught myself html, which is about the same as telling someone to take an aspirin and then calling yourself a doctor. But I knew the basics, and a year or so into college, I built myself some really ugly webpages.
The first website I made friends on was Winamp.com, where I’d spend time in the forums “critiquing” others’ Winamp skins, submitting awful ones myself, all while my Real Life friends begged me to leave my dorm room and eat or see the sun. At around the same time, I discovered webcomics and devoured every one I could get my hands on. My favorite was (and still is!) Penny Arcade, and I remember emailing Tycho to tell him that I had mentioned his URL on the college radio station where I deejayed, and it’s a true test of his character that he actually replied back and acted like I had done something to effect the hundreds of thousands of hits he got even back in the early years.
Back then, the Penny Arcade crew were on something called a CamPortal, which has sadly gone the way of the dodo, but it was my FAVORITE part of the internet. A CamPortal was a page full of 6 or so images (usually of the webmaster) with a link to their website. I’m sure they were originally nonstatic webcam images, but people learned quickly that randomly updating webcams are not a flattering mistress, so instead, the webmasters took the most flattering angle of themselves, usually with a humorous photoshopped caption or logo of their respective website. The first CamPortal I learned of was Emma from Caoine.org, who had designed a version of Penny Arcade. Emma was on it, along with the PA boys, and a guy named Porkfry, who was a video game tester and friend of PA. I wanted on, but I couldn’t do it on my cheesy geocities knockoff. I needed street cred.
In 2002, my mom “bought me a website” for Christmas, by which I mean she gave me the 20 or so dollars to register a domain and buy webspace. I applied to Porkfry’s camportal, and he miraculously let me on. Most webmasters worth their snuff had a rigorous screening process and only accepted the highest caliber of design schemes and code mastery. But for some reason, Porkfry let me in. It was there I met Apok, TomBrazelton, Butah P, Valrik, and a ton of other people who remain my friends to this day. I loved CamPortals because they introduced me to not only amazing webdesigns but great people, and we made our own forums and formed our own community.
These people were a little older than I was, so it was also an amazing glimpse into the late 20s/early 30s. I watched them fall in love. Gabe even proposed to his girlfriend on a PA strip. Apok and Porkfry were a few years into marriage and about to start a family. It was my first experience seeing that you didn’t magically turn into Ward Cleaver when you said your vows. You could have tattoos and piercings and draw comics and design websites and listen to death metal and play video games while burping a baby and hosting a dinner party and mowing the lawn.
My first experience meeting online friends in real life happened when Apok invited Porkfry and me to a raucous weekend in Baltimore, and I hopped in the car and drove there. And despite the MySpace and Match.com abductions and such, there was little-to-no identity theft and harvesting of my organs in between the Halloween hay rides, board games, and taco night.
We have grown apart over the years, in that we don’t spend all our free time arguing in forums together, but whenever we find the time to catch up, it’s as if no time had passed.
Last October, Porkfry informed me that he and the family were headed to Disneyland, and he wanted to meet up with me and Tyler. I was excited to meet his wife, mostly to prove to her that I myself was not an organ harvester who had narrowly missed my chance when I’d met her husband years earlier, and that I was no threat, woman-to-woman, when I texted his personal cellphone randomly asking a question about an Xbox game. I was also looking forward to meeting his two kids, who were shockingly old, since I remember them being born, and now they could walk and carry on conversations.
Also, Tyler and I don’t need much of a reason to spend a day at Disneyland.
So, early on a Sunday morning, we met up with Porkfry, his wife Stephanie, their daughter Ivy, their son Ben, and their friend awesomely named Caitlyn Stark inside the main gates. Believe it or not, I’m actually not as much of an aggressive loudmouth in real life as I’m TOLD I seem, and I actually get quiet when I meet new people. That ended pretty quickly when Stephanie crinkled her nose at a piece of fuzz on my glasses, and ripped them off my face to fix the situation. I was amongst friends, and soon was feeling comfortable enough to tuck a tag into the back of her shirt. Oh, and crack jokes. We didn’t just spend the day grooming each other.
Some of Porkfry’s friends from PAX met up with us, and one of them was in a Disney wheelchair due to a recent surgery, which — PRO TIP — is the way to go, because you get to go to the front of the lines. We had great fun with the kids, even though they both hid behind their parents every time I tried to talk to them. Also, I got to go to the Tiki Room for the first time ever, because I never knew it existed tucked in that corner.
We had planned on making it an early evening, mostly because it was a few days before NaNoWriMo started, and I wanted to finish outlining, but Ivy chose right then to ask us in an adorable voice if we would join them for dinner at the Cajun restaurant in Downtown Disney.
Then the talking children floodgates opened! Well, okay, Ben mostly played with his applesauce, but Ivy talked and talked. She was exactly the type of child you want to have — full of wonder, curiosity, and she was so polite. If a screaming child in the supermarket is birth control, Ivy was an advertisement for why people have children. Liberal with the “I love you, daddy”s and abundant with hugs for mommy. When Porkfry and his wife were talking over dessert, Tyler and I seized our chance to talk to her one-on-two, frantically searching for a common ground with a 5-year-old.
“What’s your favorite movie?” I asked. She looked at me with lips pursed, flipping through choices in her mental rolodex. I considered revising it to Disney movie or TV show, but she finally settled on an answer and said matter-of-factly: “Crawling.”
Maybe I was more out of touch with the kids than I thought. “Crawling?” I repeated.
“Yes. And sometimes skipping.”
It took me a second before I finally realized. She thought I’d asked: What’s your favorite…moving?
“What’s your favorite moving?” she asked us.
Later, we were headed out of the restaurant, about to go home, and Porkfry lifted Ivy and Ben into their double-wide stroller. I wanted a picture of the group of us, but there wasn’t much room in the restaurant, so we had to move outside where the hostess could fit us all in.
I was walking beside the stroller, and Ivy shot her hand out, finding mine.
“I want to hold hands for the picture!”
My heart melted. Ben, not missing a beat, and mimicking her every move, just like my brother Ryan had when the two of us were younger, also shot his hand out to Tyler on the other side. “Yeah, I want to hold hands, too,” he said.
Tyler made this face at me, and the whole situation was just overwhelming. I have a few friends with babies, but they’re still too young to have developed a personality much past giggling, at least that I’m privy to. But here were kids with opinions and thoughts having the time of their lives in the happiest place on earth, kids whose birth I remembered, whose parents, just a few years before, were the first friends I ever made on the Internet.
It was kind of a neat, circle-of-life, holding-up-Simba kinda thing.