Numbers Don't Lie
I like hits. Hits tell me how popular I am, and a lot about where I stand in the world. Something's wrong, though, because I look at the counter on my Web page one day and it says "3,300." Next day it says "28,400." I'm all tingly until the next day when the counter says, "1."
"Jeff's Life" gets about 50 hits a day, mostly on Mondays and Tuesdays when I post an essay. Anyone who's reading this has ticked the counter up by another digit, and thank you. I have a lot of plans as the hits increase, plans that have graduated from daydreams and which I hope to promote to schemes.
I should have better things to think about as my baby son Alex's first full month at home winds down. I should be thinking about how he's learned to give me five. The expression he wears as he tries to figure out how to splash in the tub and not get his own face wet. How the red has faded to pink where the feeding tube goes into his belly. How he's up to 20 pounds -- better than 15 times his birth weight of 21 ounces.
Yet among my nagging daydreams is that newspapers may still pluck the essays off this site and pay me big money - the low three digits, from what I remember about newspaper big money - and word about Alex's battle and my irrepressible sensitivity spread through paper and ink.
I should admit two things: 1) the scenario above hasn't happened; and 2) I work at a monthly accounting magazine. I'm don't know why newspapers haven't discovered me, like Louis B. Meyer finding the next bombshell in a drugstore. I do know that after 16 months on the job, I still don't know much about accounting. My company has been kind; there's a special place in heaven for my boss, though I hope he stays here for a long time.
But the work is dull. Not the subject matter, which isn't so much accounting rules and retentiveness as it is business practice and encouraging success stories, if other people making money encourages you. Dull rather is my approach to it. I cut corners. The door of my white-walled office closed, I moan and surf the Web, and make a strategic journey out of stepping to the mailroom for scotch tape. The afternoons melt by. Trained at a daily, I can cram a month's work into a week and a half. Trained at a daily, I pop up my AOL mailbox too many times a day, each time thinking that I'll be clicking open a magic answer.
The answer hasn't been there. Twice since March of 1998 publications - one a small daily paper, the other a growing parents' web site - held out what could be my next life. "We definitely want to use your essays," one said. That was in January. I sent those guys four notes since and have heard nothing. As I said on my home page last month, early this summer I invited book agents to log on to "Jeff's Life" and tell me if it would make a book. Some did, and replied that they wished me luck but could not take on such a book. They said the Alex stories are not upbeat enough, or lack a conclusion. I don't know how to explain to someone who'd need it explained to them that I hope the tale of Alex has no conclusion for about another 90 years.
I like writing these essays. They feel more real to me than most of the work I've done. In youth I had my flings with mimicry, cute names for characters, puns, fake news stories, deep thoughts cheaply stated. (Recently one reader of this site said she didn't care for the "Year-End Report for 1998" because the style "put a layer between (me) and the reader" that wasn't there in my other essays. I think that was an awfully smart comment, and I try to remember it whenever I write. Not to mention I blush that somebody pays me such attention.
My mimicry is exhausted. My "career" - it didn't used to have quotation marks -- has proven that the only subject I can hope to cover without spelling the names wrong is my own life.
Since the spring of 1998 I have posted one essay a week. For them I am paid nothing but attention from strangers - which is fun - and the chance now to look back:
"My wife Jill and I are expecting a baby, and so far I feel fine. My back aches when I bend over to pick up my socks, but I think the pain is caused by my chair at work. My temperature is constant, although sometimes I wake up chilly in the morning if Jill has all the blankets. I'm retaining little of anything, including water..." (Spring, 1998.)
"Someone has stuck a piece of white tape across the front of my son's isolette and written "Hi! I'm Alexander!" No other baby has a piece of tape. He opens his mouth wide, but no sound comes out because the clear tube is between his vocal cords. My kid is a palmtop, painstakingly crafted with miniature versions of my feet and knuckles the size of these letters, my finger monstrous in his hand..." (Summer, 1998)
"The lullaby plays on the Walkman: 'Stars shin - ing, number number one, number two, number three good Lord, bye 'n' bye...' The Pulse-Ox monitoring the oxygen in his blood goes off all the time. Saturation levels of 99, then 35, then 85, then 60. The company sends out a technician in a leather jacket and coconut cologne, who straps the sensor on his own finger and announces that the machine is accurate..." (Winter, 1998).
How about that "water" line? That's the kind of writing that gets 50 hits a day. On the strength of such sentences I have built the following plan/daydream, which I hope to turn into a scheme by mid-September:
--post two essays a week, probably Saturdays and Wednesdays, and I hope make people visit this site twice a week instead of once;
--set up mutual links with other preemie sites. To do this, I need a "click-through button." I don't know how to make one. But if I get one I can look like a big-hearted guy and continue to drive up hits.
I know hits tell me nothing real, that some late-night maniac in the Midwest can set me walking on air using just his mouse, a middle finger and an hour of clicking. "I've got 6,000 hits!" I told a friend last winter. "Most of them are me," he replied.
Nothing real. After this past year, that's fine with me. (Summer, 1999)
Down in Front
I'm writing this during a business conference. The conference is about finding good people to work in accounting firms. Nobody younger than 25 wants to work in an accounting firm, because it can mean long hours and has a reputation for being dull.
Hogwash, the speakers are telling me, but still kids with unwrinkled business degrees pick and choose employers. They sass on interviews and don't return calls. They won't work on Saturdays. This galls the CPAs because most of them are about 50 years old - they started their professional careers when I was in junior high - and have labored through countless Saturdays, usually in April. Now these Boomers would like to put a hat over their bald spots and devote thought to the links or the charter boat.
They'd have a lot more time to do that if this new generation wasn't such a savvy, greedy, scary pain in the ass. "They're selfish," said one accountant. "They're the most selfish generation this country has seen in quite a while."
The speakers machine gun the audience with tones soft and hard, a joke to set the stage for an affirmation. These accountants talk about strategizing business models while I wonder, Why don't they have more coffee here? I'm here because it's my job and my insurance policy, and I toss my eyes in the back of the room. Selfish generation? I've always found that the Boomers pick the bones pretty clean themselves. Mostly for their kids, who are already teens.
My son is a baby. Alex spent 13 months in the hospital, and he's home with us now on a feeding tube and around-the-clock oxygen. I bring this up - I often do -- at the conference buffet, to a human resources director from Orlando. "Wow. Thirteen months," she says. She doesn't know what else to say, and the topic moves on.
I wouldn't need coffee if only I could speak at one of these things. About something I know about. I've never been a speaker, but I did give a speech five years ago when a group of Vietnam veterans presented me a plaque and some prime rib and expected a few words in return. Even then I knew you start with a joke and end with a tear. "I'm honored to receive this from people who served their country in such a tough place," I said, "and working for my newspaper I certainly know what it's like to go somewhere you don't want to go and do something you don't want to do-" (This is called getting the laugh.) "I just want to say thank you, and here's to the day when there are no more veterans at all!"
I miss being in front. All I need is something I know about. Like a premature baby. As accountants strategize on and the screen of the overhead shimmies in the breeze of the air conditioning...
The bright light hits the stage where I sit, twinkling off the water glasses, making my tie glow. Glowing, as the accountant's voice from the front of the room fades to the back of my head. I think she's asking who do we think she is, that she should stand in front talking about finding people for accounting firms.
Who is Jeff, and why is he speaking to us today? That is what the lady at the podium asks her audience of preemie parents. She stands to my right. I am seated. Glowing from the tie out. "We all know him from his essays," she says, "his wife Jill and his son Alex. We're honored to have him with us today."
Why have I come to speak? What brought me here, as if in a canoe to a calm lake after hard rapids? I was brought here by months of doctors and nurses, who came in shifts to deposit care and comments on my life forever. Nothing special qualifies me, I tell the audience, nothing that is special in this room, anyway. (This is known as connecting with your audience.) Like you I was whittling from the day when I, curious as a green soldier, leaned over my wife's open stomach and heard the slap. By the time we took him home with an armload of prescriptions, I was a nub.
But today, I tell them, I am an honored nub. Honored to be here, honored to speak before you while you drink your coffee and pour your drinking water into twinkling glasses. With this audience, with these people who have been through what I've been through, I find redemption in every face, every pair of lips my words abruptly silence and every pair of eyes I capture. Redemption for all the conversations with parents who don't know how to pronounce "NICU." My miked voice smacks the removable walls and drives from all minds thoughts of this evening’s buffet in the Central Ballroom.
I have no clue what I'd say. But there would be something controversial, maybe mean. I'm not saying a thing we haven't all thought! I’d affirm.
He speaks truth, they’d mutter.
What can we expect from doctors? What are doctors? They have problems, lives. Some have spouses, and kids they probably never see. Maybe we expect too much from them... (And to the dashing conclusion). What we must find is doctors who have had premature kids!
The place goes up like an Amway rally. I sling the mike, frowning like Donahue to keep from blushing, and relative calm returns. Still these tough parents wiggle in wonder that here, here, here is a man who knows, whose words live for us. From this lake of eyes and noses no one walks out, not even to the bathroom or for the cookies. In their attention I feel strong, and find affirmation that what has happened to me and family was real and hard, and now I am its master. (Fall, 1999)
After What I've Been Through
When I started writing these essays two years ago, I worked with a smart woman who would look them over in draft form and ask, "What are you trying to say here?" I would mumble something and she'd reply, "Then say it." ("I tell you that too," Jill reminds me. Yes, sometimes even in the context of editing my writing.)
Who am I writing for? For others? For history? Alex? Myself? Myself who discovers a new book about preemies and feels himself tighten, in envy and anger, that someone else should tell a story that is so obviously mine?
Every parent on earth should read - and more important, promise to buy - Alex's story. Twice in two years, big Web sites have offered money for a weekly column. In each case I wrote back within the day, saying I'd be happy to submit something and what's the next step? The next step was apparently a dwindling series of e-mails, then silence but for the hum of the hard drive and the slamming of my AOL mailbox. A few sites take these essays, and were up front about being unable to offer cash. These people are responsive and polite. They know who they are and I thank them.
Some people seem to think there are too many subjects for these pieces to be filed under: essay, humor, history, journalism, self-aggrandizement. Who, I wonder 18 months into this site, will do the filing? Not a librarian, not yet, though many readers have suggested a book and, more important, promised they would buy it. I told this to a literary agent this morning in an e-mail, then outlining Alex's situation and describing this site and the audience it has attracted.
The agent e-mailed back in 10 minutes: "sorry-I don't answer e-mails anymore, just smail queries." This agent should watch me job hunt these days. A plain text resume, no cover letter, e-mailed. Why should I waste 33 cents? After what I've been through? You can't blame the agent - though I do - because there's much more being written than read these days, and the Internet has contributed mountains to that problem. About marketing my little hill among those mountains, Jill says I should send one s-mail mail, I should play the game the way this agent wants. I say no. They can come to me, after what I've been through.
I have tried to market these essays. First I tried sending a three-part mailer (old-fashioned paper) to about 400 newspapers. Nothing. Lately I've been sending out electronic press releases whenever anything happens to these essays. Nothing. Yet. Publishers and agents have told me they wouldn't know how to market a book of Alex essays, and that memoirs of unknowns sell poorly. When I relay that latter comment to people, they wince. In sympathy, I guess. Other publishers feel Alex needs to reach some "plateau."
Well, he ate bacon this morning. He can now shove the living room table around. He smiles when he looks in the mirror and licks his reflection. These feel like plateaus.
The bulk of the support comes from readers like you. Readers continue to voice their pleasure at Alex's progress, and about once a week I get a message from a new reader who burned a Sunday afternoon reading about my past two years. The longtime readers continue to follow Alex - his trilling, walking, eating -- but I get the feeling that Alex, and certainly his dad, just aren't as interesting as they were when the baby lived in the hospital and the dad and mom were debased by nurses and doctors. Yes, those were some days.
The doctors say Alex is now doing "remarkably" well. (Jill says this is because they didn't expect him to do anything at all.) At this moment, he's working out the loudest method of bashing his Fisher Price Baby Gym on the hardwood floor. As Alex progresses, readers' interest in him will change, I expect, the same way you might watch the ambulance arrive but not stick around to see them sweep up the glass. Sooner or later you have to believe that everything is going to be more or less all right, and move on.
Expect no plateaus here -- unless you count bacon -- but there is one story. I will continue to write it. I hope people continue to read the story of Alex and his parents because of hope, because they don't know how it's going to come out, and because they have learned about him and enjoy his company.
There are better ways to spend your Sunday afternoon, but don't look for me to suggest them. (May, 2000)
Click for Cash
Last night on the phone, my brother (who lives in Maine and is tied with my boss for The Smartest Person I Know, with Jill taking the silver and Alex the bronze), said, "I'm not sure how anybody makes money on the Internet."
I replied that since I put affiliate programs on my site some 10 months ago, I've made $85. Assuming the latest check from Amazon clears. Top that.
I can see a perfect job for myself someday using the Net. I would stay at home with my kids and let e-mail and hyperlinks do for me what faxes, carbon paper and subway tokens did 12 years ago. Back then, I was freelancing for scads of New York neighborhood tabloids that paid $20 - and more! - to anyone who'd sit through community board meetings or get the skinny on the new florist's shop, and then stay conscious long enough to turn in seven inches of copy.
With that work, I had freedom. Bag over my shoulder and shirt untucked, I'd bop into offices from Brooklyn to Midtown, deposit the appropriate envelope on the editor's desk, pick up a check if it was finally ready, pass the time of day, and vanish. Ghostly, like the wind, unchainable. I had no insurance, no benefits, and, as it turned out, no future. The recession of '92 and corporate buyouts of the papers gutted the market. Most of the papers are shuttered now. I think some of the publishers are in jail, which I'm sorry I wasn't around to see.
In 1993 I "went legit" on a daily, then a weekly, before in 1998 a return to New York meant looking for a real job with a real big insurance policy. Before I secured that real job, though, I remember saying how I hoped at my next gig I could learn something about the Internet.
I did. I learned that you didn't have to bop office to office on hot or frigid days, didn't have to blacken your fingers with carbon paper, didn't have to sit there on an old chair while somebody went over your work with a wide, wide red pen. Nor did you have to bother signing your name to a lot of checks.
"Most of the jobs you find on the computer are computer jobs," my brother said. "And I still don't see how anybody makes money on the Internet." (My boss says this a lot, too.)
Pyramid plans and other schemes that once found their way through the mail and over fax lines have, naturally, migrated to the Net in the same way colds will follow Mankind into space. My brother has investigated some schemes -- he claims Hotjobs.com is littered with them -- that will let him in on a can't-miss deal for just a few hundred dollars. This morning in my own e-mail came a claim that "companies like AT&T, JCPenney and Best Western hire home-based workers ... There are 1000s of legitimate-" Ah ha! "-home jobs for entry-level professionals throughout the US ... Most folks are passing up opportunities of a lifetime because they equate home-based work with flimsy assembly work or some letter-stuffing scheme."
These offers swim against the skepticism of people like my brother, who knows what to make of such offers. But that he'd mention them at all proves to me that he sees something, somewhere, possible with the Net.
For a limited time, the Net is still free, a kind of land grab with modems. Look at those people who got to San Francisco first in 1849! One of them was a jeans maker named Levi. Or Strauss. I'm tired and I can't remember.
I told my brother that, because of the Net, that which we've learned for enjoyment can be put before the eyes of anyone, without messing with a publisher. My brother has a lifetime of knowledge about the bodies of water and patches of woods in Maine. A lot of people would like to visit those bodies and patches, some to look at the wildlife, some to eat it. Few outdoors sites he's visited have much to say about Maine.
Alex essays in mind, I told my brother about the joy of imparting the knowledge of what you love. It's the opportunity of a lifetime. And a lot of people around the country would like to know more about Maine.
"Yes, but we don't want them up here," my brother said. "And I still don't see who'd pay you for that."
Yeah, well, I guess I don't, either. Then I had to hang up, because today was another day of work. (August, 2000)
Day of News
Today the column ran in the newspaper.
The newspaper was Newsday, the subject this Web site. Here was a fantasy come true, a story finally not written by me but about me and my family. Endlessly I've whispered to myself the smart, charming, funny, unforgettable things I'd say in an interview, whispered them to myself until people on the sidewalk stared.
The columnist interviewed almost a month ago. I've conducted many interviews, but this was my first time on the answering end, and afterwards I had butterflies. Did I sound clear? Strident? Like a crank? Why did I talk so much? I remember ranting about mental institutions and detox wards at one point. What in hell was that about? I remember hearing no keystrokes in the background as she acknowledged the steps of my story with "Uh-huh"s and "Okay"s, nudging me back on track. I slowing down my words to assure her that I wasn't looking to change the world. "I think Alex's story is compelling," I said. "It was compelling to me, at least."
How could anyone write that up and make me sound like a crank to millions and millions and millions of readers?
Should run by the end of August, the columnist said. I did not ask to see the column before it came out. I hate people who ask that. If you're that much of a coward, don't give interviews. But mental institutions?
Last night, I re-read the early Alex essays, to re-assure myself that I had written the truth as I saw it two years ago, and also to be sure my affiliate ads were ready for the onslaught of hits. "You'll have to buy the paper on the way to work," Jill said.
I could wait. I did notice who was reading Newsday on the subway. As my 7 train slid under the East River, I thought how hospital directors might at that moment be bringing phones to their lips to rouse the lawyers. Let 'em. I had to watch my kid get a spinal tap; I could wait.
Finally, I bought a paper in Penn Station and read the whole 10 inches before crossing Seventh Avenue to my office. For the first time, my name was in a New York City newspaper without a "By" in front of it. And there was Jill's name, and Alex's. Line by line our story rolled out, offering me the new tingle of reading about myself and having no idea what the next paragraph would say.
"The baby had stopped growing, and the doctors were talking about ... 'intrauterine growth retardation.' By week 29 things were so desperate the doctors advised Jill that they had to deliver her baby. She reached her husband, Jeff Stimpson, in their Queens apartment ... Alexander Lee Stimpson was born hours later, on June 14, 1998, two and a half months early. He weighed exactly 1 pound, 5 ounces."
The columnist did a clear job of boiling down the saga, from the first weeks' maelstrom to how this site took root, to how doctors and nurses sometimes didn't seem to care what preemie parents felt, to how readers gathered. She wrapped it up with how Alex is "doing lots of things 2-year-olds do ... And within a few months Alex will face another milestone: He'll become a big brother ...".
She called this site all the right things: a story, a diary, an outlet. She called Alex's four days home at Christmas 1998 "tantalizing." Great word! She used lengthy quotes from the essays, thick as butter and just as savory on Seventh Avenue this gray morning. The tone was even, the details arranged so no one person or institution had much need of retribution.
Retribution was here for me instead, the man written about and whose story flapped in the wind at every newsstand. By the time I reached my office, the column, for me anyway, passed from Beacon of the Future to Something I Read. I called Jill and told her, "It's good."
"What's good?" she asked. I heard Alex in the background. Loud. "Oh yeah," she said. "I'll go out and buy one!"
I mined the column's hyperlink from the paper's site, and in my head composed press releases, my lips moving as strangers watched. My e-mail remained quiet, though one woman wrote, "I ached this morning when I read of your early days with Alex, but this afternoon, I checked into your present situation and am happy to surmise that things are greatly improved." Through this day of notoriety, my site got about 60 hits. Less than average. In the afternoon, it started to rain; I watched newsstands pull tarps over their papers. In my office, the lights kept shining, the fan kept whirring, and my boss wanted help on awards our magazine is giving out to people who somehow may never read a single edition of Newsday. (August, 2000)
You Make The Call
Weeks ago it seems, I was e-mailed by a journaling magazine that wanted me to write a 1,500-word article on JeffsLife. They wanted to know: How did this site start? How has it developed? Why do I keep it going? What did I get out of it personally? I wanted to know: how much are you paying? Fifty cents a word. Wow. That's gold for opinions. They sent a contract that I signed, faxed back to them, and finally read as I began silently spending the (eventual) $750.
Time, however, has melted away with little word from them. "I was just wondering," I say into the phone, "if the article was still a go, or no?" "Still a go" sounds appropriately hardened and unconcerned, yet professional.
"Yes, well, to tell you the truth," the editor responds, "we've decided to pass on it for right now." Feeling like someone who's saved one shoebox from a house fire, I hear myself ask if it's okay to submit the story somewhere else.
"Oh sure," the editor says, "and please feel free to send us something else!"
Actually, the editor said no such thing because this conversation has never taken place. And it never will. I will not call. Never ever.
I. Will. Not. Call.
I've been through this before. Almost a year before this site went up, for instance, I mailed essays to newspapers around the country and said here I was, a syndicated columnist! I was floored when somebody answered: a small daily in central Ohio that had a sudden hole on its op-ed page because Mike Royko had suffered a brain aneurysm. Boy, I thought, my time maybe had come. And on top of that Jill and I were about to have our first baby!
Yes, well, time went on and I heard little from central Ohio. So I called. "This is Jeff Stimpson," I said to the editor. "Oh," he replied, as I heard the air go out of his day, "yes."
Alex was born soon after, and about my work I got what my mother used to call "tighter'n the bark on a tree." I put my stuff on the Net and decided to let the world find me. Shortly after that, a big parenting site did come, and an editor sent an e-mail about paying to post some of these essays. I e-mailed back and said fine. She e-mailed back and said good. The following week, I called her. She said they were still interested and just give them time to sort things out. I gave them time, dropping an occasional e-mail between daydreams of how this kind of big-parenting-site leverage could help me get better care for family, which at the time was thrashing in the depths of a NICU.
I sent about an e-mail a month to these people, just wondering how things were going, just looking to cyberchat. I sent four, I guess, that went unanswered. As the corners of my daydreams began to yellow I realized that perhaps contemporary editors say no to writers--even writers they contact first--the same way they say no to homeless who beg on the sidewalk: They ignore them and hope they'll disappear. Not to mention that I had also violated the ancient rule of freelance writing, in that you don't send out one manuscript then stare at your mailbox.
Tighter than ever bark-wise, I wrote essays, filled my site, and left notes on the bulletin boards of other, accommodating parent sites. (I did start e-mailing press releases about the site, and put up a page of book publishers' e-mail addresses so enthusiastic readers--you know who you are--can pester others on my behalf. So far, though, zip from both avenues.) Readers came, and two or three sites offered to post my essays regularly, though they couldn't pay.
"Oh, you're not paid for that?" noted a reporter for Newsday who interviewed me about JeffsLife last summer. "No," I answered. "But they've all been up front about that. Besides, what's my alternative? At least it's exposure of something I'd be doing anyway."
That Newsday reporter e-mailed me last July. Her story started what looks like a chain of progress for this site. Soon after came the journaling mag's e-mail. Soon after that, I linked up with the woman who made that recent for Learning Channel documentary about hospitalized babies.
Maybe things are happening. I'd best continue with this strategy until I can pay somebody to make the first move for me. Then I will be a success. (November 2000)
Go to Chapter II.
Back to JeffsLife home.