Fifteen years …

[Originally written in 2010. I’ve been sitting on this post for over five years. I’m not sure why.]

This is a long post. I’m pre-empting your tl;dr comments by making this note here. I may migrate it to my website under “articles” later.

I had a lightbulb moment earlier today, reminding me that I’ve been “on the Internet” for fifteen years, as of May 2010. This commentary is very subjective, so don’t expect a technical article or timeline. What I want to talk about is how the Internet has changed my life, in every way possible. And how a part of my life long forgotten, never went away at all.

In 1994, my father died. He suffered a massive heart attack, and complications from septic shock and diabetes, along with a very stressful work life, meant that he would not survive. I still clearly remember two things: the specialist telling my mother and I at 6 in the morning that even if they had brought him back, a portion of his heart had died, and he had experienced a shortage of oxygen. The other thing was my mother’s cry at losing her husband.

This is context for how the Internet was introduced into our house. Because of this major loss in our family, and the expected leadership (or “support”) I felt necessary to provide (despite being told by absolutely everyone that I did not have to), the relationship between my mother and I changed dramatically.

The other thing that changed dramatically was my understanding of computers and technology. Sure, I’d been playing around since the early 1980s with the CreatiVision console system, BASIC, and I’d done Computer Science at school [as an aside, the guy whose Pascal code I used to copy now works for Google in Taiwan. Thanks, Kevin!]

But it was my father’s sudden and shocking death, coinciding with the end of my school career, that pushed my interest in computers further. I started learning about Windows 3.11, practised some more with DOS 6.22 (that’s all we had at the time), and had a hand in programming. I preferred GW-BASIC and Q-BASIC over TurboPascal (to this day, I regret that to some extent).

It also helped me take my mind off things. There is no way to describe or explain how my father’s death affected me, but I know I was still struggling with it many years thereafter.

In May 1995, my mother suggested (or I suggested — I don’t recall whose idea it was) that we attend the Computer Faire. It was a low-key event by international standards, and I don’t know why I felt more compelled that year to go, but we went. And saw “The Internet” and “Windows 95 Preview”. Two things stayed with me from that day: Internet Africa, and watching the Windows 95 guy demonstrate right-click on a mouse. I knew I needed to get online, and I wanted Windows 95.

We signed up with Internet Africa, but in my name. I suggested “randolph@iafrica.com”, but my mother said, “Why not your initials?”. Showing both our naivety, I agreed, and became “rbsp@iafrica.com”.

We got home with the 14.4k modem, and stiffy disks (1.44MB 3.5″ floppy disks, for you international readers) containing Trumpet Winsock, and Internet Africa’s browser software, which if I recall correctly, was Mosaic, the precursor to Netscape.

I don’t have to tell you veterans how exciting this was. The dial-up sound itself brings back so many memories (good and bad). I knew the Internet was going to be massive, and that I had to be part of it somehow.

Through the next few months, I discovered pornography, news websites, and IRC. Internet Relay Chat changed my life all by itself. And this is why.

A long time ago, in another life, my family was sitting around the dining room table, in an uncomfortable silence. My father would sit at the head, with my sister opposite him. I would sit to his right, my brother would sit to my right, and my mother would be across from us, to my father’s left. He would insist that we eat at the dining room table for meals (itself not a bad thing — I’d been raised that way), but then he would ask how our days had been and what we had done.

I cannot speak for the rest of the family, but those times were painful for me. Eventually, if he would ask “What did you do today?”, I would say “Nothing”. I am certain this scenario plays out in every family home to this day. He would rant and then move on to the next one. On one particular evening, he got fed up, and asked me “What is your problem?”. I did not know what he meant, so I said “I don’t know”. I’m not sure if this is the same evening when my mother got fed up and began throwing stuff around told him to stop picking on us, but I think it was. He grabbed her to calm her down, and I remember standing up and repeating, “Don’t touch her!” It was tense.

All of that digression is to bring me to the “problem” that both my father and I knew I had, but did not have a name. I have Autism Spectrum Disorder, and I have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome by an independent study in which I participated. So, that was my “problem”.

I had (and still have) great difficulty in communicating emotions. I am really good at prepared speeches and prepared debates (and I obtained many awards and high marks in school for my funny and thoughtful discourses). But in off-the-cuff conversation, I battle. If there is any sort of distraction, it is especially difficult: colours, lights, smells, people doing things I can see in the corner of my eyes, chatter in the background, anything. I’ve become much better at doing it now (with the use of programmed responses, practised jokes, changing tone of voice, keeping eye-contact), but as a teenager, I did not know that was the issue. Neither, of course, did my parents. I was able to cover it by achieving (mostly) good marks in primary school, but high school changed the goal posts again.

Match that up with a stressful situation of a father whose temper was vacillating between happy, angry and indifferent, throw in a couple of beers, and it was going to end badly. Throw in a good dose of several incidents where he and I had come to blows, it was unpleasant to say the least.

The Internet is the reason I knew I had Asperger’s Syndrome (now, better, simply Autism Spectrum Disorder). The Internet is the reason I met a doctor, who became a really close friend, who discussed with me the possibility that I was autistic, after going to dinner with him and friends. The Internet is the reason I met that doctor, through another friend. The Internet is the reason I met that friend. And it comes back to Internet Relay Chat.

In 1995 I began chatting on the ZAnet network. I have to say that, back then, the conversation was boring, even for an eighteen-year-old. So I discovered EFFnet, and it went downhill from there. I became friends with an Englishman called Dave, who started a channel called “#!!hello!!”, named by him to show up at the top of the list of channels when you logged in. Our first conversation, if I am not mistaken, was to do with the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Over the months, and because many of the people online were from the U.S., I began to speak to them late into the night. I was getting into bed at around 1 or 2 in the morning, with my mother moaning at me several times about the clacking keyboard right next to her bedroom, where the study was. I was able to become friends with a lot of decent people, whom I never would have had the guts to meet in real life. The Internet not only saved my social life, it created it.

In 1996, I went to Rhodes University. My mother and I agreed to keep in contact via email, and I discovered very quickly that while the partying and the radio station were lots of fun, Journalism and Psychology were boring as hell. Despite enjoying my time in Drama and Philosophy, the university realised this, and told me to shape up or ship out after the first semester. I went back home for the winter holiday, and returned in July. I lasted another month before I broke down. I told my mother I needed to come home.

Before all of that, I met some people at Rhodes. Because I was signed up for the humanities, I met some very interesting people. I am still friends with a number of these people today. Because I had an interest in computers, and I was a known person on IRC, I met up with some people I had chatted to on ZAnet the previous year, and those people were in the Computer Science department. So I had a nice mix of the CS geeks and the Arts weirdos. It suited me perfectly.

However, something strange happened. This has a lot to do with how my brain is wired (now that I know this after the fact, it makes it easier to understand). I met my first real life out gay person. He was not attractive in the conventional sense (he looked like how we imagine Jesus would look, complete with long hair and beard), but he was certainly an interesting person. We’re still friends today.

Then I met another real life out gay person. Because of the way my brain was operating, I had never been interested in sex in the same way other boys my age had been. I was completely asexual. There were moments at boarding school where my eyes were opened to new and interesting experiences, but I never took to it like a “horny teenager” the my other school friends did. I also did not ever think about my own sexuality. I was 19 before I realised I might like men, and it was at Rhodes University that this realisation took place.

The guy I called Jesus, and whose real name is Dylan, helped me. He and another guy called David (I think they were dating each other at some stage) helped me with my realisation. All they had to do was listen. No one had ever listened to me before. After I came out, first to myself and then to my friends, other people took it badly. Apparently I had “lied” to them by not admitting it right away. One of those guys who took it badly, is very happily involved with another man now. Irony is delicious.

Dylan heard that I liked IRC, so he decided to introduce me to a channel on ZAnet (EFFnet was in the wrong timezone for students who could only get into the labs until 10pm) called #gaysa. The first thing someone asked me was “asl?”, which means “Age / Sex / Location”. Dylan translated for me. Then the same person asked me if I was a top or bottom. Dylan did not have to translate that for me, but it took me a few seconds to work it out, and I remember being shocked and him laughing.

Coincidentally, my time at Rhodes was almost two years after my father died, and that thing they call “post traumatic stress disorder” happened to me in a big way. So to bring the story back, I told my mother (a few months after coming out the closet to her over email) that Rhodes was fun, but I needed a break.

Of course, as Fate would have it, less than a week after I arrived back home, my paternal grandmother died. She was in her 80s, and had lived a very full life. I asked my brother to be a pallbearer, because I had carried my father’s coffin and I could not do it again. Then, eight days after she died, my maternal grandmother died. This was more of a shock, because although she had been suffering through Alzheimer’s, it was sudden.

When I was very young, for a few months, I had lived with my maternal grandparents during the day while my parents worked. It got to the point where I thought of my maternal grandmother as my mother. I loved that woman more than anyone else in the world, and the killer disease she suffered from in her final years was a great emotional and mental drain on the family.

So I took it badly. Really badly. It was like a part of my brain shut down. Again, in hindsight, I can identify this as an autistic trait, that being the inability to process emotions and understand how other people are feeling. It was my first major meltdown. I had experienced rage events before, slamming doors and so on, but this was something new. My left hand started flapping, and I made sounds that were almost inhuman as I was wracked with grief.

So, over the next five or six months, I did nothing. It was everything I thought it would be. A friend of mine from school, who was like a brother to me (we shall call him Simon), did not care either way about my sexuality (was I bi? gay? straight? I still did not quite know at the time).

He never mentioned the deaths in my family. When I had periods of severe depression, and was put on uppers in the morning, and downers at night, Simon came to visit me often. We would go out, he would drive, and we would talk about everything and anything. It was a good time. We drank a lot (I was showing off my skills I had learnt at Rhodes), we spoke a lot of nonsense (how we would take over the world), and I did nothing.

My mother and I would watch daytime television, I became an expert in Days Of Our Lives and The Bold And The Beautiful, and every week was Clive Bruce’s show Rewind, featuring terrible music videos, which we would mock. In the afternoons, I’d go with her to fetch my brother and sister from school, and we would be a family.

In 1997 I went to computer college, finally realising that my area of expertise should be my career path as well. Journalism was not for me, despite the extended family pushing me in that direction. It was also time to do something with my life. I had been out of school for two years, and had nothing to show for it except two incomplete art degrees.

[End of Part 1 — I’ll try not to wait another five years for Part 2].