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Clickin' Away In Cancun

Yahoo Internet Life, August, 1998

From his home in a Mexican paradise,
our writer posts his personal angle on America,
Thomas Pynchon, sex, and e-commerce.


LIKE THE LIBERAL OFFICER in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's story "No One Writes to the Colonel," I faced year after year of empty Latin American mailboxes. Then the Internet put me back in the limelight.If my name is at all familiar, it's because you saw my byline in Playboy and other big magazines in the '60s and '70s. If it rings no bells, it's because I moved to Mexico in 1981 with my beautiful bride, Anita Brown, our 7-week-old son, Eli, and my daughter, Faera, 10, to write The Real Mexico, a book that proposed to erase all myths and get right into the heart of the Mexican way of life.

Well, we do thorough research here at Siegel & Children Third World Slave Labor Writing Industries SA de CV. Seventeen years later, we are another child richer (Jesse, born in Cancun in 1984). The Real Mexico is still in progress, but our Cancun User's Guide is a thriving book and online document with its own domain name, cafecancun.com. Despite this, from a communications standpoint, our progress went into reverse for quite a while. Cancun was started by the Mexican government in dense, remote, roadless jungle on the Caribbean coast when only 3 people lived on the island and 117 on the mainland. Today, Cancun's permanent population is approximately 400,000. It gets more than 2 million visitors a year and accounts for 25 percent of all Mexico's tourism income. 

The Mexican government invited us to come here in 1983 to work on promotion. The resort was still under construction. Few private homes had telephones. After years of living with a telephone jack surgically implanted in my brain, I welcomed the silence. We didn't even own a television when we lived in the United States, but we did read newspapers and magazines and occasionally go to a movie. While living in remote beach locations, we pretty much forgot all that. We'd get The Miami Herald or USA Today and other publications sporadically, but we didn't know what "Where's the beef?" meant until we realized it had something to do with a hamburger franchise. 

You took what you could get when it came to housing. We lived for eight months in a house near the beach in outlying Puerto Morelos that had no stove, electricity, or running water—just a faucet at the curb. We bathed in buckets and cooked our meals on a campfire. There were no private telephones in Puerto Morelos, just a TelMex office with a marine telephone. Meanwhile, I was going up to Cancun and working with newly arriving high-end computerized typesetting systems. Although I'm known as a writer, my profession is graphic design. All the restaurants and hotels needed menus and logos. I defy anyone to paint a tomato better than I do now.

One day Thomas Nagin, of Crystal Springs, Arkansas, a friend and client, came to our palm-thatched house and handed me a Panasonic Sr. Partner PC. I rented a room with electricity in an inexpensive motel, and I was on my way back into civilization. With a borrowed laser printer and a program for children called First Publisher, I put out an eight-page English supplement for a local daily. We soon found an apartment in a spiffy condominium complex. The kids pointed at an unfamiliar white cylinder in the kitchen and asked, "What is that, Mommy?" Paper towels. "Well, but what are they for?" 

Over the years, I got better and better equipment, but no phone. The Internet began arriving in Cancun in 1994, although some geniuses managed to get it by satellite earlier. I know of seven ISPs here, and there are probably more, as well as half a dozen Internet café operations where you can walk in and browse the Net or send and receive e-mail. I've been told that we have about 3,000 online users. 

I signed up with one of the first ISPs in late 1996. Since I still had no phone, I had to go into downtown Cancun to log in. This got old pretty fast, and I soon gave in and got a telephone line.

The first thing I did when I got online was to search for my own name. Much to my dismay, it turned out that as far as the Internet is concerned, I am a subset of the Thomas Pynchon industry. Literary giant Thomas Pynchon is the most famous invisible writer since J.D. Salinger. Pynchon and I had adjoining rooms at Cornell in 1954, and we were friends for a number of years afterward. He hasn't posed for a picture since Cornell, and he's never been interviewed. In 1977, Playboy published "Who Is Thomas Pynchon...and Why Is He Taking Off with My Wife?" my affectionate but revealing memoir about his intense '60s affair with my then wife, Chrissie Jolly. 

The article had been placed online by Pynchon fans who debate his works in a discussion list, Pynchon-L@Waste.Org. I contacted Pynchon-L archivist Andrew Dinn about my copyright and wound up in extensive correspondence with Pynchon-L. Fortuitously, Chrissie (by that time the wife of an oil man, Robert Wexler) showed up to visit Faera and agreed to answer online questions, expecting learned inquiries about the great novelist's art and philosophy from these erudite scholars. Instead, they wanted to know if he liked junk food, among other inane details. They got a little annoyed when Chrissie angrily demanded to know if they were a "bunch of academic powder butts." 911! Call the fire department! Into the bunkers, everyone!

After two months or so, I had about 300,000 words of correspondence, some of it hilariously funny. These Pynheads can make jokes about Beowulf in Old Goidelic while discussing postmodernist heteronomy. I edited it down to 60,000 words, and it was published in August 1997 by Intangible Assets Manufacturing as Lineland: Mortality and Mercy on the Internet's Pynchon-L@Waste.Org Discussion List by Jules Siegel, Christine Wexler, et al. Chrissie drew a sketch of Pynchon as she thought he might look now, which was reprinted from coast to coast. I was interviewed by The Times (London) New York correspondent James Bone and HotWired's Janelle Brown, and other print and online media. Although I made many friends on Pynchon-L, I was finally hammered off the list by a couple of hostile correspondents who insisted that I was some sort of fraud. It was just as well, as my mail volume was becoming absurd. 

My first ISP connection was so anorexic that I moved to a brand-new service. It was hungry for content and gave me free space for a Cancun User's Guide Web site, which it promoted on its home page. I began pumping the Guide through all my media connections. When Lineland came out, the Cancun User's Guide tagged along on all the publisher's site promotions. I started getting mail from Jupiter and Alpha Centauri. I was pulling half the hits for the entire ISP. 

Overwhelmed by all this action, the guy running my novice ISP decided I was making a fortune and demanded a cut. Unfortunately, since I hadn't solved the problems of Internet credit card billing, I had sold only six books. The ISP guy refused to believe me and abruptly pulled the plug. The Cancun User's Guide, by now linked to every important travel site, went down. 

The site is up again now, on a new ISP, and, let me tell you, so am I. My connection, however, is worse than ever. We live on an island in the lagoon formed by the main island of Cancun. My phone line is below sea level and was heavily damaged by unusually heavy rains. Think El Niño, boys and girls. Phone lines do not like humidity. The salt air eats metal greedily. A 10-minute connection is glory on a sunny day. For the past 48 hours we've been lost in a dense, warm fog. Most organisms without gills are in suspended animation. 

It is slow, Internet viewers.

I have made arrangements to install a special above-ground private line. I will buy a satellite PC receiver. Will cellular phone Internet hookups function here? I'm hooked. 

Yeah. 

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. What's that noise? Castanets? Maracas? No, it's just us plugged-in usuarios, clickin' away in Cancun.

Jules Siegel's work has appeared in such publications as Playboy, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and New American Review.

 

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