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Foreign Desk
The Ballad of Curly_Sue
by Diana J. Wynne

In between traveling, I dream of the next trip. I discovered the Lonely Planet (LP) Thorn Tree while looking for information about Tibet. I'd been online for years but didn't really get involved in web communities until I quit my high-tech job with its 100 e-mails a day. I had the LP Tibet book, hot off the presses in May 2000, but the thorn tree was a breath of fresh air. People recommended travel agencies in Llasa, posted what they had paid for tours, where to stay in Chengdu while awaiting your visa. I was hooked.
     So it was natural that I came home and posted on the Thorn Tree's USA board, helping out people traveling around California or even jumping over to North Asia where I had recently been. It's like helping lost tourists on the corners in North Beach, building up my traveler karma.
     The Thorn Tree started out as a physical bulletin board-the kind with pushpins where travelers would leave notes for each other. "Daypack for sale, barely used." "Driving to Byron Bay? Take me!" or more often "Towel stolen, reward offered, no questions asked."
     Today's TT is a threaded discussion list. You can post a question or read through what others travelers ask, responding to whatever you feel knowledgeable about. I traveled through China with my useless guidebook and consulted the TT whenever an internet café appeared.
     Back home in San Francisco, a woman named Juliette announced a gathering for the SF Nomads. 25 people showed up at the Thai temple breakfast in Berkeley and compared notes on past and upcoming destinations. We met again for dinner, but the whole thing fell apart when Juliette was laid off and headed to India, where she met an Australian and fell in love. Last I heard she was living in Adelaide.
     I used the board periodically, planning trips to New Zealand, then London. Up late at night or far away in a town where I didn't know anyone, I checked e-mail, looked at the news back home, and logged onto the TT. No matter what time it was, there was always someone there.
     Then terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. I learned about it from my clock radio: by 7:30 when I woke up in California, both towers had already collapsed. I turned on the TV and went to the computer. The TT was the obvious place to look. What were people saying around the world? Would the well-traveled have a different perspective from American media?
     First, I found a blow-by-blow thread started by Frodo Baggins at 8:52 EDT "The world trade centre has just been bombed," followed quickly by "another plane has flown into the other building." TTers had posted up-to-the-minute accounts looking out their windows and flipping cable channels about the Pentagon, Palestinian groups taking credit for the attacks, and the towers collapsing.
     Just as quickly, an arsenal of vitriol began to flow. "You fucking Americans," one anonymous poster wrote, "you deserved it." And not far behind on Yahoo, "Kill all the Arabs" Somehow, I stayed online. Within a day, LP created a special board, Terrorist Attacks on America.
     Eventually the USA board went back to the occasional travel post: "Is it safe to visit Miami?" "Can I carry my knitting needles on the plane?" Meanwhile the terrorism board became my daily political baptism by fire. Far from visible danger, I was still trying to sort out how I felt. What had happened? Did we deserve it? When would we declare war?
     The terrorism board featured more than its share of provocateurs. The board required logging in with a username, so personalities began to take shape. A surprising number listed their real names, ages, even photos and IM addresses in their profiles. There was Deadbeat Dave, a student named Yazmeen, Saffer from South Africa, Marty, an American woman living in Tehran, Mr. Tonti, Gondahbah, and any number of pro-Palestinian conspiracy theorists.
     Amidst the rants, there was also a lot of information. And if there was anything I craved in this new post-apocalyptic world, it was facts. People posted links to articles from the BBC and the Guardian, from English language papers in Moscow and Jerusalem. I learned Canadians were insulted Bush hadn't publicly thanked them for sheltering 30,000 stranded travelers when the FAA shut down American airspace. I worried about what happened as I slept, so late at night I often scoured the web for breaking stories.
     Someone would write "well, how do you know OBL was behind it?" and 22 people would post back within the hour with "evidence." Sometimes I was persuaded by what I read, other times I just felt beaten up and obliged to defend my country's honor and political system. I went to bed every night, worried about Pakistan, afraid of what lines the Justice Department was crossing in the name of national security. I bored all my friends talking about politics, and then I stopped talking and just posted on the TT. I spent two hours a day online until October 12, when the board was shut down for good after a system crash. I missed the terrorism board for a while and then went back to planning my trip to Australia and encouraging foreign tourists that they should still come walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Around that time I learned about Chowhound.com, a discussion board for people obsessed with finding the best BBQ pork bun, the freshest sushi, the coolest restaurant for a romantic anniversary dinner. I transferred many of my TT tendencies to Chowhound, including my handle. The chowhounds actually lived in my area and got together for meals. This was refreshing. As anyone who's ever tried online dating can confirm, many discussion board people really prefer online relationships. But the chowhounds were flesh and blood eaters.
     I felt like I was making progress, using technology to connect with real people. That is until the day someone attacked a hotel I'd recommended near Chez Panisse. I felt so insulted, I didn't post for an entire month. I would still sneak on the board now and then, to see what Limster was up to and if Patrick had found the perfect taco al pastor. This was how I learned that someone else was now posting with my handle. I resisted reading what he'd posted. I didn't want to get sucked back in. Still I hoped it wasn't too mean. If someone's going to steal your online identity, you don't want them sullying your good name.
      One day back on the TT, I noticed an announcement for a San Francisco "pissup." Wishing I were traveling, I thought this might be an opportunity to meet a few backpackers. Or, barring that, put faces to some of the names I knew from the board: Stosh and NutraxforNerves and PedroSF. So I was confused when the follow up announced the gathering would take place at Momo's, a yuppie bar near the ballpark. Another local protested Momo's was expensive. Everyone I know in San Francisco has been out of work for at least a year, and most of the people asking for advice want to know which hostel is cheapest.
     Dreamer, the original poster (or OP), insisted it was too hard to please everyone. I stood up for the broke and underemployed, wondering how backpackers would be able to afford this. The OP replied they weren't expecting any backpackers. Now I was really disappointed. What did I need to go out for a $20 burger and coke if I wasn't going to meet any travelers? Then Trentt, one of the organizers, sent me a private message (PM) and asked if I'd come to drinks that night at a bar of my choosing.
     He also said there was an emotional current to the gathering that I wouldn't have any reason to know about. He and Dreamer and several other posters were getting together to remember a woman they'd met on the TT, who had recently died of leukemia.
     I began to feel like the poster on Chowhound who'd told me I didn't know where Shattuck Avenue was. Was I ruining their gathering by criticizing the location? But when I told this story to a friend from chowhound, she said "Momo's! Who would go to Momo's?"
     So, ever eager to fill my life with tales from the road, I met them for drinks at the Latin American Club, a hip but not too gentrified bar in the Mission. When I'm traveling, I meet people casually and easily. They don't know anything about you or you them. You can reinvent yourself every day if you like. I've traveled with 18-year-old Kiwis and a grandmother from Barcelona. I found myself a little disappointed that the TTers looked so normal. They all seemed to know each other, whether from the board or real life, I wasn't sure.
     "Which board do you hang out on?" They asked for my handle. When I said the USA board and Talk Politics, they seemed to lose interest. (Everyone, it seems, is afraid of the Talk Politics junkies.) One woman knew my handle and said we gave similar advice. "You live in Oakland," I said, glad to recognize somebody. "So, are you planning any trips?"
     "We aren't traveling," they explained. "That's why we're online all the time."
     I had never heard of Your Choice, the LP board they posted on. People who post on the travel boards are just passing through. After they go home, you never hear from them again, just like the people you meet in hostels in Chiang Mai. Like Talk Politics, Your Choice has a core group of dedicated posters and includes a year-old thread about Trentt's purple underwear that has 30,000 responses. Threads are deleted if they are inactive for two weeks, so it's sort of a game to keep them alive by continuously adding to them.
     I was also surprised to learn that many of them had multiple handles. Famous posters inspire "spin-offs"--Son of Trentt, Kitty of Trentt. On the politics board and YC, it was common to adopt a misspelling of someone's handle (like L0lly_L0lly for Lolly_Lolly) and then post nonsense to discredit them.
     I felt kind of awed. They had not only created this communal space online, where you could discuss anything from underwear to what you had for lunch, but they actually met each other. Technology making the world smaller? I'd observed a similar phenomenon among the anti-globalization protesters and right-wing reactionaries on Talk Politics. Now and then they talk about casting the regular posters in a movie in which GeoDaddy is played by Tom Hanks and Princess Kate by Julia Roberts. My handle never comes up.
     "Did you ever hear of a poster named Curly_Sue?" Dreamer, the OP whose restaurant choice I'd roundly criticized, asked. I didn't think so. This was the girl who had died. They were going to a barbecue at her parents' house the following day.
That weekend, I looked up the Your Choice board and found the posts about "Curly_Sue." Your Choice was listed as being in the TT "tree house," and I did feel like I'd stumbled into someone else's club.
     "Posted March 27, 2002 by Curly_Sue. bad news - (321 replies)
     "I don't know how I feel about announcing this but since most of you have been so supportive I want you to know and individual PMs are out of the question.
     "I found out that the leukemia is not in remission any longer. I am in the hospital again for another month. Afterward I am probably going to have a bone marrow transplant.
     "I am trying to keep my spirits up but my chances aren't as good as I would like them to be for making it through all this."
     The thread began with various posters wishing her well, promising to pray for her, and mailing cards to the hospital. Then as the days passed and the silence from Curly_Sue widened, posters began asking each other for information:
     "Dreamer? she hasn't posted for a week."
     Dreamer called Curly_Sue's mother.
     "She's in the ICU. She's having seizures. Her hotmail account is full so don't send any more messages."
     Three weeks later, she was dead, two years after she'd first registered her handle.
      TTers posted tributes in her honor.
     [Wed 17 Apr, 13:27]
     "I feel fortunate to have met Sara a couple years ago when she coordinated a SF Pissup. I feel lucky to have been able to see her two weeks ago at UCSF. Even virtually bedridden, Sara was upbeat and positive. Even when the shit hit the fan with her ailments she always posted optimistic posts and responses in threads.
     "I remember fondly her heyday when she was working fulltime in the City and providing the in's and out's of the dating scene there. ;-P."
     [Mon 22 Apr, 16:16]
     "I first started talking to Sara in the summer of 2000. I wasn't happy in my job and spent most of the day on YC . Sara was there too, filling in her eight hours.
     "I was talking to Treacle on IM a couple of months ago, and she fondly referred to us being like a family at that time, and we were. I miss those days. I know it's easy to dismiss it because it's an online thing, but these people are very real to me, and I still consider them to be good friends after all this time.
     "[Sara] said, 'I'm going to go now and find out I have cancer'. She came back a few hours later, and sent me a quick note saying that the nurse took one look at her and was sending her to the hospital to be tested for leukemia. She just wanted me to know so I wouldn't worry if she didn't email for a few days. "
     "I still have the hat she knit me while she was in the hospital. I never thought for a moment that she would die; if only because she truly believed that she would beat this disease. Last I heard from her, she was looking into freezing embryos in case she decided to have children in the future. "
     [Wed 17 Apr, 15:28]
     "I wish more than anything I could turn back the clock and tell her once again how wonderful she was and how important she was to me and to so many people. I wish I could have finally met her in person and hugged her and had some fun visiting together. She was one of the first people I talked to here and she always knew what to say to get me laughing and in a better mood."
     [Thu 18 Apr, 17:40] RE 220. Curly_sue's "Yum (Redvine)" thread.
     "While Sara (Curly_sue) was going thru such a rough time at the hospital, a group of us were determined to keep this thread going, just in case she'd make an occasional appearance. We'd banter on about what we had for breakfast, or what celebs we spotted at the supermarket, dumb stuff like that. At least once a week, sometimes more, we'd just click in and drop a few inane posts. When I look back on it now, what we were really doing was a determined joint effort to not let, under any circumstances, that thread fall off the branch. I didn't know what we were exactly doing back then, but I do now. "
     [Wed 17 Apr, 21:39]
     "I don't remember the time we first 'met.' I lurked around here for a while. I remember one evening not too long after our first meeting in November when I was harassing you for something. I think it had something to do with you slacking off at work or something. And then I got a PM from Felix. Didn't I know? You had leukemia.
     "Later you handed me a brochure for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk. I wasn't sure about doing the walk, so I filed it away. Eventually I picked it up again and walked in your honor.
     "I talked you into going to NY to meet lots of other TTYCrs. It wasn't really hard - you were itching to do a bit of traveling and wanted to meet some of our other online friends. Trentt volunteered his frequent flier miles. We were both surprised, but decided that Trentt probably didn't want anything in return, so you took him up on his offer.
     "I ran the LA Marathon in your honor. I raised over $4000, a portion of it coming from our TTYC friends in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Israel, and several states. I often thought of you during my runs. When it got hard and I wanted to cry, I thought of you. I discovered that I couldn't cry and run at the same time, so I had better keep running."
     Trentt posted the card Sara'd sent to thank him after the trip to NY:
     "New York is an amazing city. It was also so much fun meeting all of you. All my friends here think I am crazy but everyone I meet from the Thorn Tree turns out to be a relatively normal person."
Dreamer attended a memorial service in Livermore. Meanwhile, Trentt wrote that in Boston,
     "We shared curly_sue stories and observed a moment of silence at 18:00 EDT on Sunday, April 28. Voy brought a huge tub of redvines with her, which Clipper will take back to London for memorial distribution amongst the Euro-crew."
     Even Sara's parents posted a response.
     "We are grateful for the overwhelming support from the online community. Your book of PMs opened many minds to part of Sara's world and heightened our understanding of her impact on you. At the memorial service, Dreamer was eloquent in explaining your relationship to Sara and the friendships you shared with her. We appreciated Wilster, Squish and Bearnaked's attendance at the service. Live life to the fullest. No one knows what lies just ahead. Penny & Walter"
The week after the pissup, one of the women I met there posted on Women Travelers that she climbed Mt. Whitney, 14,400 feet and the tallest mountain in the lower 48, in a day. Everyone congratulated her and sent hugs. We've been taught to suspect people who post things like that, but Boudicca seemed as real as any of the people that night. I was impressed. Of course online I could say I'd climbed Everest, and no one would know the difference.
     We've heard about psychos and liars online, especiallly from anyone who's tried online dating. There was even a fake girl who died of leukemia, Kaycee Nicole, and after people around the world stopped crying, they got angry at her "mother" who had created the farce in the first place, keeping a blog for three years. The hoax was unraveled by the same online community that had cared about (and perhaps indirectly created) Kaycee in the first place.
     I search for the archived diaries of Kaycee which inspired so many readers, but they've all been deleted. It's as if she never existed. The photos were of another girl, a basketball champion from Oklahoma. The links to the blogs are dead. When I click them I arrive at:
     "CollegeClub.com's HomePage Builder will no longer be operable or accessible after June 30; our partnership with Homestead.com has come to an end. You may contact Homestead at collegeclub@homestead.com to maintain your homepage for a monthly fee. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and we hope you've enjoyed the HomePage Builder over the last four years."
      When will this happen to the TT, I wonder. It seems inevitable. Curly_Sue's red vines thread was deleted after its expiration date. All those posts about Mullah Omar and directions to the Rodin museum, gone into the ether. If I stop telling tourists to spend more than a day at the Grand Canyon, would anyone even notice?
     I check the board about the history of the TT (did you know there could even be such a thing?), and discover that Zuko, the TT manager, is leaving Lonely Planet for the open road.
     I nose around Your Choice, in search of a reason these particular people are drawn to each other, a common thread that will account for the genuine connection Dreamer and Jib and Trentt wrote so poignantly about. Instead I find page-long feuds, endless self-indulgence, and of course, Trentt's purple underwear. I still don't get any of their jokes.
     Why do people spend hours a day online for this? Why do I? Two of the chowhounds I know confess Chowhound.com is their home page. At some point, it's no longer about food or travel.
     Then one day, a 10-year-old with the handle of Little Jaguar thanks me for sending him to a sushi bar in Palo Alto, and for a moment, it all seems worth it.
     Somehow Curly_Sue transcended all of this. Of course I never knew her. She died months before I even heard of her. All I know is that even when she was fighting for her life, she was brave enough to keep reaching out across the miles to strangers, from her laptop in the hospital.
     A week after I met them for drinks, Dreamer posted that it would have been Sara's 25th birthday. There was a note from the moderator that the thread would be preserved and her handle retired, like a star ball player. Everyone posted birthday wishes. And among the birthday wishers, one new poster wondered, "who is Curly_Sue?"


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