Dial-Up Days by Kathryn Kulpa


Once there was a Blockbuster on every corner, and from every radio Kurt Cobain sang about teen spirit. But Kurt was not a teenager anymore, and neither was I. We were a generation waiting to be named, a weak signal of discontent arcing our way across analog airwaves into a digital wilderness.

In those days I couldn’t imagine life without America Online. How else would you get online? And where would you go, even if you got there? It would be like being lost in a strange city with no GPS, not even a map. You could stop strangers and ask them how to get where you wanted to go and hope they knew. You could look at the position of the sun to figure out which direction you were going. Unless it was night, in which case, you could just drive.

In those days I often found myself waiting for guidance. I was out of college, in a slump. I was trying to live without having an actual job. I did work-like things. I wrote resumes for people who were looking for actual jobs. I did late-night copyediting for a local paper. I wrote newsletters for a video rental store. I worked out of my “office,” my mom’s old sewing room. The movie Slacker hadn’t been released yet, but I could feel the word waiting for me in the disapproving glances of relatives. 

I tutored middle school students in a distance-learning program. I asked them to write about how they felt about the Gulf War, which inspired them not at all. They wanted to write about New Kids on the Block.

This made sense. The boy band would outlast the war.

The world was changing. Walls were falling. America was going online, and I was going there, too. Before AOL, I had used something called Dialog to find magazine articles at the library. Dialog charged by the minute, and usage was jealously guarded: you had to convince the librarian that you had a legitimate reason for wanting this information, such as a school project, and that you were not just satisfying an idle whim.

I got my first email through something called the Ocean State Free-Net. It was, as the name suggested, free. You used a dial-up modem plugged into a phone jack; you entered a phone number and waited for the crackle and whine of a successful connection. Words (and only words) then appeared on your computer screen: in my case, a 9-inch black-and-white Mac Classic.

I had no idea how this all worked. I accepted it as magic. I had no idea how most things worked. I blundered through the world, pretending to be an adult. In some vague way I was waiting for real life to start. In some vague way I was waiting to be discovered. I had lost touch with most of my high school friends. One friend was in grad school in upstate New York. We got together during school breaks, but I usually ended up in her basement playing Nintendo with her teenage brother.

What are you doing with your life? A girl as smart as you!, her mother chided me.

Sometimes I felt an MFA was in my future, fated to find me. Still I resisted. My writing was alive to me in the hours between midnight and three, in my childhood bedroom, words keeping me awake, feeling on the verge of some great discovery. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit in a beige-walled room around a fake-wooden table while people asked me if I thought I had “earned” my ending.

Yet there I was, writing eight hundred-word articles about the history of popcorn.

Once, I did apply to an MFA program—just one. It was a fellowship program that only accepted two people per year. I applied because a writer I admired had gone there, and, shortly after, had shot himself.

This seemed like a logical reason to choose a school. 

I sent in my application packet—by mail, of course. I waited months, and got a thin envelope in reply. I remember crouching behind an endcap at the mall bookstore where I worked that year and crying. My co-worker Erik asked what was wrong.

I’ll never be a writer, I said. I’ll never be anything. I’ll just work at this stupid mall bookstore until I’m dead.

Erik was eighteen. He tried to comfort me as best he could. He said they were opening a new Barnes & Noble in Warwick. He said they were hiring. 

The world kept changing. By the end of the nineties I would no longer have a desktop computer or a landline. AOL CDs would be drink coasters. Google would be a verb. I never did get that MFA, but I would be, finally, a published writer. I remember my first story acceptance, which came by phone. I remember proofs of the story being delivered by Federal Express.

Once I got hired to do some work for a magazine. I had to send them a signed form. I figured out a way to sign the form on my computer and “fax” it to them through the magic dial-up modem. All of us were astonished when it worked.

I received a confirmation page from one of the interns at the magazine. At the bottom of the page was a series of Xs and Os arranged in rows that widened and narrowed. Viewed from a distance, with your eyes squinted shut, the Xs and Os could be seen to form the shape of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek.

I emailed the magazine, complimenting them on their stationery. LIVE LONG AND PROSPER, I wrote.

LOL!, the intern wrote back.

As far as we knew, in those heady days of Hamster Dance, we had reached the final frontier. But it was only the dawn of the digital age.


The story behind the story:

Because I work in a library, I probably think more than the average person about what kind of media lasts and what doesn’t. Books can last hundreds of years if the paper isn’t acidic, but what happens when the object still exists, but the means to access it is gone? At my library, we found a stash of what looked like oversize videotapes, and after some research found that they weren’t VHS, weren’t even Beta, but some other video that predated Beta. From the labels, what was on them seemed to be important local history, and I’m sure the people who recorded it were happy knowing they were preserving this information using the latest cutting-edge technology, not realizing that within 20-30 years, the tapes would be unplayable. That got me thinking about the rapid technology shifts in my own lifetime, growing up as part of an “in-between” generation, not quite a digital native, and the awkwardness of being in between, those years when you can no longer get a pass as an adolescent but have no idea how to go about being an adult. Those were some of the things that inspired this story. And “The Way” by Fastball. And how much I still miss my tangerine-colored clamshell case Mac.

Kathryn Kulpa is a writer and editor with words in Five South, Flash Frog, Milk Candy Review, Monkeybicycle, and No Contact. Her work has been chosen for Best Microfiction and included in the Wigleaf longlist. Her flash chapbook, Girls on Film, was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest.

“Dial-Up Days” was first published in Carbon Culture Review.

Images courtesy of the author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: