The boy who defied odds after a 1999 shooting that left his mother dead and left him with cerebral palsy and brain damage is now a happy, adjusted adult who loves to smile and …
“Chance favors the connected mind.” ― Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
The Internet has been part of my life since the summer of 1999. For good or ill, I depend on the Net for many things – the ability to work from home, find information without having to go to a public library or use an outdated “old school” encyclopedia, and keep in touch with friends and relatives who live in various parts of the globe. I do most of my banking online, and since my cerebral palsy makes it difficult for me to get around independently, Amazon and eBay are my virtual shopping malls, too.
In those early days when 56 Kbps dial-up connections were the norm, I had mixed feelings about the World Wide Web. For years I had heard horror stories about hackers who could gain access of unwary surfers’ computers and steal their personal data and even money with only a few keystrokes. I also dreaded computer viruses; when some of my friends tried to convince me to sign up with America Online (AOL) in 1993, I declined. I was afraid that my custom-built PC would be infected by the Michelangelo Virus or something like it.
As the years went by, however, I realized that my resistance to the Internet was doing me more harm than good. Many of my friends and communications consulting clients were connected to the Web and used instant messaging and email on a regular basis. Many stores, banks, and other enterprises were also beginning to do business online via websites as well. Some people were even dating online, either by joining such online dating sites as Match.com or hanging out in chat rooms in Yahoo or AOL.
My transition to being a “connected mind” was gradual. It began in the late summer of 1997 when one of my neighbors sold me a custom-built Pentium PC with an external modem. I was still unconvinced about the wonders of the World Wide Web, but my neighbor handed me a CD-ROM of the Juno email service.
Juno is now a subsidiary of United Online, which also owns Classmates.com and StayFriends. But back in 1997 it was one of the first companies to offer free email service through its proprietary software. At one point in the late ‘90s, you could find Juno’s distinctive green CD-ROM packages – emblazoned with its “Because Email Was Meant to Be Free” slogan – almost anywhere.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“This will let you send notes to any of your friends with email accounts,” he explained. “C’mon, try it out. It’s free!”
I reluctantly accepted the Juno disk and installed the software into my new PC, not really sure if I’d ever use it. Eventually, I sent my first email in October of 1997. It was a letter to the editors at Time magazine in response to an article about a recent tiff between Gloria Estefan and members of Miami’s Cuban-American community. I didn’t expect it to be published, but in the November 10 issue, it was.
It is ironic that the Cuban-exile community–particularly the fervent anti-Castro organizations–behaves very much like the oppressor it so reviles. It’s sad to live in a community where constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech, are selectively respected. And this is the exile community that helps keep Castro’s regime afloat by sending $800 million a year in money and goods to relatives on the island. ALEX DIAZ-GRANADOS Miami
Although my letter had been edited for space and clarity, it was the first time that my name appeared in a major publication. I have since seen several of my letters to the Miami Herald in the Op-Ed page of that Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, but that letter to Time magazine was my first step onto the larger world of online writing.
For almost two years I limited my exposure to cyberspace to using Juno’s free email, but by the summer of 1999, that wasn’t enough. I was tired of going to Florida International University’s University Park campus to use their Internet-connected computers to chat on Yahoo Messenger.
I also hated using my friends’ PCs to browse the Web or try to make friends – especially with women – online. Thus I signed up with Juno’s new free Web portal/browser. This was a metered service which allowed users to access the Internet gratis – as long as they only used the service for 10 hours a month and didn’t mind advertising banners that dominated the screen.
Of course, I eventually became tired of the 10-hour limit and the banners and signed up for Juno’s premium service. It was reasonably priced – I think it cost $19.99 a month for unlimited time vs. AOL’s $24.99 – and even though it was slow and tied up our phone line, I was happy with it.
The Perils of Cupid
At first, the main focus of my online life was to see what all the fuss was about when it came to online dating. I have always been shy and self-conscious because I have CP. I’m smart, warm-hearted, and funny, but I tend to be socially awkward at parties and other gatherings where women are present. I don’t like the involuntary movements and muscle spasms that are associated with my disability because they make me feel unattractive and different. As a result, dating has often been a difficult endeavor for me.
Now, you might be wondering, why online dating? Isn’t that risky?
For good or ill, we live in a society and culture which worships beauty, youth, and vigor but tends to overlook the human aspects of physical or developmental disabilities. Disabled individuals – with rare exceptions such as Dr. Stephen Hawking or actor/comedian/LGBT activist Geri Jewell – are rarely in the public eye, Very few movies or television shows are made about people with physical limitations, and even then they are mostly dreary melodramas along the lines of “Me Before You.”
It’s difficult enough for non-disabled folks to live up to society’s standards of beauty/sex appeal. Not too many of us have the photogenic looks of Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron, so on that basis alone it’s often hard for single non-disabled people to find dates. Dating can be – and often is – fun and exciting. But it is also scary and stressful because no one likes rejection – especially when it comes to love and intimacy.
Thus, if finding a good romantic partner is difficult for able-bodied men and women, it’s even more so for those of us who have physical and emotional disabilities. I still remember how shy and tongue tied I would get around attractive girls in my high school or college classes. There were many times when I wanted to ask one of them out on a date (or at least tell them they were pretty), but kept my thoughts to myself because I was afraid of rejection.
For most of my adult life I was often torn between my need for love/intimacy and my feelings of self-doubt and lack of confidence. At parties, if an attractive woman caught my eye, I’d blush and slink off into a dark corner so she couldn’t make eye contact with me. As a result, I was a “dateless wonder” till I was in my mid-30s.
I found myself in a self-perpetuating cycle of failure when it came to dating. I wanted to have a loving and intimate relationship, but I was avoiding the crucial first step: communication.
That, of course, is where technology – especially the Internet – came into the picture. Prompted by some of my computer-savvy friends, I started hanging out in Yahoo chat rooms and began to talk with women by using my keyboard and my writing talents. I was no longer stymied by my inability to drive (a big obstacle to dating in Miami, where if you don’t have a car you’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle) or my insecurities.
There was, of course, the all-important question about full disclosure of my cerebral palsy. I didn’t want to be defined solely because I have CP. I am a multifaceted human being, after all, and a birth injury-related condition is just one aspect of my totality.
Although I was afraid that my disability would automatically put me in the “friend zone” with the ladies, I had more luck with online dating than I thought possible.
I think part of the reason for my success is that I am more at ease behind a keyboard than I am in person or even the telephone – at least till I know someone better. I suppose this is true of most people who interact online, but I’m more confident and communicative when I’m at my computer than I am in person. It’s almost as if I were Clark Kent when I’m offline, and Superman when I’m connected.
Once I discovered chat rooms and instant messaging, my shyness went out the window. I met several new friends online, and I eventually dated a few of them in person over the years. Some of the resulting relationships were happy and loving. Others, sadly, didn’t go so well, mainly because of the long distances involved.
From Juno to AOL
Another relationship that went terribly sour was the one with my Internet service provider, Juno. I was a satisfied subscriber to its premium online service for almost two years – until the company got greedy and started to charge “high volume users” nearly $30 a month. Apparently, Juno couldn’t afford to keep offering 10 free hours of Internet access a month to millions of users. To offset the company’s high operating costs, Juno raised subscription prices by $11.
At the same time, the then-dominant AOL lowered its basic subscription to $21.99 a month for unlimited Internet access and email. This was $2 more than what I was paying at the time, but it was cheaper than what I’d be paying Juno if I stayed with that Internet service provider. I’m not good at math, but I do know a good deal when I see one. So I switched ISPs in January of 2001.
The Indispensable Internet
By mid-2001, I had discovered the convenience of online shopping on Amazon. My mom had earned a $25 gift certificate from AT&T when she signed up for the company’s credit card. She didn’t use computers or the Internet, so she said I could redeem the gift certificate. I logged on to Amazon, opened an account, and bought a book. This was my first of many online purchases; 15 years later, I rarely step into a mall unless I’m out with friends or relatives.
Before I became an Amazon customer, I often risked life and limb to get to the Miami International Mall, which is 2.8 miles away from my house. It’s the closest major mall and the route is relatively straightforward. However, the route I normally take – west on NW 7th Street for two miles and then north for nearly a mile – involves walking across the on and off ramps for the Dolphin Expressway (State Road 836).
If my cerebral palsy was more severe and affected my walking more than it does now, I doubt that I would walk to the mall. Miami drivers are among the rudest and reckless in the U.S., and even non-disabled pedestrians can get seriously injured or be killed in South Florida traffic.
So even though I’ve walked those 2.8 miles on many occasions, I prefer to do the bulk of my shopping at Amazon. I may have to wait two days for an item to arrive, but at least I don’t have to feel as though I’m going to be at the mercy of a careless or inconsiderate Miami driver.
Coincidentally, it was at Amazon where I began my present career as an online writer. Purely on a lark, I wrote a short review of the Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace DVD. I didn’t do it for any financial incentive; Amazon has never paid for customer reviews of the products it sells. Rather, I wrote the review to get over my Labrador retriever’s recent passing. I also started writing reviews because I needed to write and get my name out there even if it didn’t pay. It sounds absurd, considering that sometimes I submitted three or four reviews a day.
As it turned out, however, my reviews did get noticed, and a friend suggested that I try writing for a review site called Epinions. You didn’t have to apply or be interviewed to write there. All you needed to do was register, create a username, and write reviews about products or services that were listed in its vast catalog. The best part was that, unlike Amazon, Epinions paid real money – via “income share” and end-of-year bonuses – to its members.
When I joined Epinions in 2003, it was still a respected source of consumer-produced reviews. Originally an independent entity, by the time I registered with Epinions it was a subsidiary of Shopping.com, a shopping comparison site. In 2005, eBay purchased Shopping.com (and with it, Epinions) for $620 million. In February 2014, eBay shut down Epinions’ review-writing community.
During my 10-year stint at Epinions, I wrote over a thousand reviews in many categories, including Books, Movies, Music, and Kids & Family. I earned slightly less than $4,000 as a reviewer because I wrote in media-based categories that were popular with readers but weren’t as financially rewarding as Electronics or Cars. (I wrote some reviews in Electronics which paid well, but most of my reviews were entertainment-related.)
Eventually, I expanded my horizons as an online writer. In 2005 I became a contributor to Associated Content (AC), a Denver-based online publisher. AC, which was later bought by Yahoo and rebranded as Yahoo Voices, accepted different types of articles, including news stories, opinions columns, and reviews. I didn’t write as much content on that site as I did for Epinions, but it was a reliable source of extra cash till Yahoo closed it in the summer of 2014.
Over the last few years I have written for other online venues, including the recently-shuttered Examiner and the late and unlamented Bubblews. Of the two, I liked Examiner the best; I was the Miami writer in such beats as Books, Blu-ray & DVD, and Star Wars. I wrote for the site for almost three years until its corporate owner, AXS, shifted its focus to coverage of live concerts and other local performing events.
As a disabled person in 21st Century America, I have become dependent on the Internet in many aspects of my life. It’s my main source of income; in 2012, I wrote and self-published my first book, Save Me the Aisle Seat, through Amazon-owned CreateSpace. I couldn’t have accomplished that task if I had not had access to the Web.
I also keep in touch with my loved ones through Facebook, Twitter, and email. And more often than not, I get my news and entertainment from sites such as Time.com, CNN.com, and CinemaBlend.com. In the 17 years since I first logged on to Juno, the Internet has gone from being a technological curiosity to an indispensable and essential connection to the outside world.