I guess you should save these sorts of entries for birthdays that end in a zero, but in previous years I’ve let this day blow right past me, and if 2009 taught us anything, it’s that you never know when your number might be up. One minute you’re a painfully thin plastic-surgery addict who needs hospital-grade anesthesia just to grab 40 winks, the next you’re in long-term storage in your golden casket while your insane family fights over the DVD rights to your funeral service. You know? Never pass up a chance to party. And so…..
[Toots madly on party horn.] Happy Blogversary Day! Today we are nine.
I remember it as though it were yesterday: J.C. set me up with Adobe GoLive 5.0, and designed a simple template. I huffed and puffed and scanned and uploaded and sized and resized and cursed and scratched my head and sent out a bunch of e-mails inviting people to my “personal website.” There was a picture of 4-year-old Kate, one of Alan, one of Pilcher House (home of my college newspaper), a few more this and a dozen more that. My links page, what the kids today call a blogroll, was a big wad of narrative prose, explaining why I liked all my links. (That was what the internet was all about then — having the attention span to read 200 words at a stretch.) I believe I may have included the coffee pot at Cambridge University, but maybe not; that was very early-WWW, and I’d had broadband for two years by then.
I connected to the server, uploaded the whole thing, sat back and allowed myself to be proud of my personal website for about 15 minutes. And then it dawned on me: What am I going to do tomorrow?
Because that, as always, is the conundrum. You can have a corner of the internet to yourself, and you can invite all your friends to see it, but unless you’re a somebody, and even if you’re a somebody, it has to change once in a while, and if you’re a nobody like me, it better be changing a lot. And so I got up the next day, took down the first day’s main-page copy, and wrote something new. What to write about, now that I’d introduced myself? The events of the previous 24 hours, that’s what, and that’s how we got started.
At the time, I was a newspaper columnist writing four times a week in the paper. Justlikethat, I became a personal website operator writing five times a week for the internet. (I hadn’t yet heard of a weblog.)
Sometimes people ask me what I told my bosses. I told them I was setting up a website, and was that OK? As I recall, the only tentative objection was from the editor in chief, who wondered if I might end up in competition with them by “selling something.” Yes, ha ha ha ha. I think everyone in the office checked in the first day. I got 100 hits. And then everyone forgot about it, and NN.C became the naughty cousin of Nance-in-the-newspaper. I’m still amazed at what I got away with, just because people didn’t read it.
For instance, I told the story of the army men at Fort Wayne Newspapers: One day early in the decade, and sorry, but I’m not digging up old CD-ROMs to find out which one, an employee noted a solitary green army man, the toy kind you buy by the bag, placed high on a stairwell windowsill. It was aiming its gun at the staircase. Looking around, the employee found another. A search revealed they were all through the building, maybe a whole bag full, in unobtrusive places, atop vending machines and dusty shelves, apparently mobilizing for attack.
And that’s how Human Resources treated it, as an OMG OFFICE SHOOTING EARLY WARNING, and there were hushed conversations in offices and the strangest memo I’ve ever seen, that spoke of the army men without actually saying what they were, so that you’d read it and be somewhat alarmed but not informed, and, well, it was one of those days worthy of “Office Space.” I wrote all about in here, even quoted from the memo. It got linked by a couple other bloggers, ha ha, and no one said a word about it in my office because nobody read it.
NN.C was my shadow column. In the paper, one Nance, on the internet, dog Nance, because on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Nobody knows you’re a nobody in Fort Wayne, Indiana, either, and that was the other revelation of the internet for me. (The first was that everybody can talk to everybody; I sent an e-mail to Warren Zevon and he wrote back, a stunning development.) The second was that for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to be limited by my newspaper’s lousy circulation. I’m bad; I’m nationwide.
You think this is nothing, but you don’t know that one reason I took the job in Fort Wayne was, I thought it might lead to bigger things. Knight-Ridder was then a respected newspaper chain, and I foolishly believed they treated their smaller papers as farm teams for the bigs in Philadelphia, Miami, Detroit, San Jose. They did, but not the way I thought they did, and anyway, by then I was part of a couple and had a mortgage and life was getting complicated. I despaired of ever getting out of the place, and in 2002 Bob Greene finally got his junk caught in his fly. I banged out a few hundred words, uploaded, went to bed and got up the next morning to look at e-mail. The first one was from a writer at the freakin’ New Yorker: “Great rant,” it began. Holy shit.
Over the next few days I gave an interview to Newsweek and one to a magazine in Japan, answered dozens of e-mails, got linked all over. I thought maybe I should give my bosses a heads-up that I was likely to be quoted in a national magazine. Oh, you wrote something about Bob Greene? Are you still doing that website thing? They still weren’t reading it.
Well. I don’t want to go on too long here. But I do want to note the day, because it was a turning point. I got my Knight-Wallace fellowship because of the blog. I got my first freelance contacts because of the blog. I met a dozen or more people that I correspond with today and visit when I can because of the blog. I haven’t enjoyed every day of this, not by a long shot. I’ve considered shutting it down for a few weeks or months, just to clear my head and maybe let something else fill in the time I spend here, but then I stop and consider that every good thing that’s happened in my career since January 14, 2001 was because of the blog. (A couple of the bad things, too, but not many.)
Someone once wrote me and said, “I read somewhere that there are people who like to write and people who need to write, and you must be one of the second kind.” I never thought of it that way, but I guess it’s true. This is, and remains, my daily download, my quasi-diary, my shadow life, my batting practice. In Pete Dexter’s final newspaper column, long after he’d become a successful novelist and screenwriter, he wrote that a Hollywood producer of large repute asked him why he still bothered to write a column for peanuts. “I don’t know,” he replied. “I just need it.” The rest of the column was his announcement that he no longer needed it, but I’m not there yet.
Happy Blogversary Day. Time to get to work.