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From Issue #58 December 18, 2014

Life in a Fishbowl

A brush with journalism as an early teen, changed his course.

By Chris Higgins Twitter icon 

The author’s current fancy guppies

I got my first online job when I was 12. I wrote my first national magazine cover story when I was 13. By the time I was 14, I had quit my fancy magnet school.

But let’s rewind a little.

I grew up in southwest Florida, in a sleepy town called Venice. It was a 10-minute drive to the beach, and my family lived in a gated retirement community in my grandmother’s spare condo. My brother and I were the youngest people in the place by about three decades, with the next-youngest being our parents, who were relative whippersnappers themselves. Half the retirees scowled at me when I rode my bike to the bus stop. The other half offered me cookies and invited me on fishing trips.

School was a big problem. I chose to go to a magnet school way north of Venice, up in Sarasota, and by seventh grade the journey to and from the place was killing me. I woke at 5:00 every morning to be at the bus stop by 6:15. (The bus stopped for me on a six-lane highway, near a little shack called Yummies Donuts.) I got home at 4:30 or later. I spent four hours every day on a yellow school bus, in Florida, without air-conditioning.

I had two special places: the Venice Public Library and Waldenbooks. At the library, I borrowed books and records every weekend. At Waldenbooks, I spent my allowance on magazines, my favorite being Aquarium Fish Magazine, a periodical devoted to the husbandry of tropical fish.

As a young broke nerd in Florida, tropical fish were the perfect pets. If I wanted some freshwater fish, I could scoop them from one of the five manmade lakes within a mile of the condo. Alligators hung out around these lakes, but they were usually small enough to ignore. Salt-water fish were harder to get, but with a snorkel, a net, and some patience, you could get pipefish, dwarf seahorses, and hermit crabs out of Lemon Bay.

I convinced my parents to buy me a small aquarium — a basic 10-gallon tank — and I set it up in my bedroom when I was 8 or so. Sometimes I’d hatch tree frog eggs (readily available in drainage ditches during the monsoon season) and raise them on fish food and the occasional handful of wild-caught bugs. I released the grown-up frogs into the jungle behind the condo. On hot summer evenings they’d return, clinging to the outside of our condo’s windows, slurping up mosquitoes attracted by the light, their little golden chests thumping with excitement.

The cover story, but that fish is not a guppy. The author never got to the bottom of that one.

Fish fried

After one fateful Waldenbooks trip, a classified ad in the back of Aquarium Fish Magazine intrigued me. A guy in Virginia was selling “fancy guppies” through the mail. I could get guppies at the local fish store — or wild guppies from a lake — but they were not the fanciest fish around. This guy from the magazine was a breeder who had perfected a strain of fancy guppies through careful selection across dozens, maybe hundreds, of generations.1 I wanted some, but I couldn’t afford them.

I wrote the guy some letters. He was cool. He encouraged me to breed my own guppies and join the International Fancy Guppy Association (IFGA). I was soon a corresponding member of the IFGA, receiving a photocopied newsletter every month. That newsletter, plus every fish book in the public library system, taught me everything there was to know about guppies. I augmented my book-learning by raising local guppies, though they were nothing compared to what the pros had.

We had an off-brand PC, and Dad set up a CompuServe account. Along with a 1200 bps modem, this account was supposed to let our family connect to the online world for, I guess, homework and stuff. In reality, we could barely afford to use the service, since it cost a few bucks an hour. Then an IFGA newsletter mentioned FISHNET, a service I could access through CompuServe by typing “GO FISHNET.” It was the largest group of aquarium nerds in the world.2 That’s when stuff got weird.

I first logged on to FISHNET during a weekend of aquarium-related trivia contests, complete with real-world prizes. This was an annual event, and I lucked into it at some point in 1990, before I started seventh grade. I went into chat rooms and answered aquarium trivia questions, earning “fishy bucks” that allowed me to bid on filters, air pumps, fish food, and fish books that weren’t in the library yet. By the end of the weekend I had won a few hundred bucks’ worth of prizes, and racked up well over $100 in CompuServe bills.

It was exhilarating, talking to my fellow nerds about fish, typing in chat rooms and message boards, and realizing I wasn’t alone in my weirdo hobby. I didn’t mention to anybody that I was 11 years old. Nobody asked.

When the CompuServe bill came, we had a family meeting.

Fishnet profits

So I got a job working for FISHNET.

It wasn’t a proper job — there was no pay — but it gave me free access to FISHNET, eliminating all future CompuServe bills, as long as I used only the FISHNET portion of CompuServe. FISHNET became my entire online world. I got free access to a staff-only area of the site, received special powers in the chat rooms and message boards, and was just another member of the staff. As far as most of them knew, I was some guy in Florida who kept guppies. The fact that I was a kid just didn’t come up.3

My first job was to transcribe marked pages in the fish magazines, newsletters, and books that showed up every month. This was tricky in two regards: I wasn’t a touch typist, and the return postage was almost more than I could afford. After a few months, during which I became a crack keyboarder, I asked for a different job. They made me a chat room and message board moderator.

I policed the community areas of the site, making sure questions were answered and discussions were civil. I spent every possible moment online, sending these exotic missives called “emails” and talking to dozens of faceless adults in “chat rooms,” at a time when this was thoroughly cutting edge.

The most fun I had was moderating “Friday night live,” an evening chat session that occasionally touched on fish, but was mostly just small talk. People would log on and say they had just come back from their bowling leagues or after-work drinks. It was thrilling talking to adults who treated me as just one of the gang. Or even better, the leader of the gang — because I worked there!

Meanwhile, the summer was ending. Right as school started, I managed to come down with pneumonia.4 I missed a lot of school, and spent all my time on FISHNET. This was bliss — during the day, nobody was on the phone and I was home alone, so I could just spend the entire day hanging out with my fish nerd friends from around the world, reading every obscure aquarium article I could find, and it was all free.

When I got better, I headed back to school, and the crushing lameness of my real life hit me. The reality was, I could spend four hours on the bus reading a book, with some school in between, or I could spend all day at home on FISHNET. I did everything I could to get sick again, including faking it a few times and sharing a lollipop with a kid at school who claimed to have the flu.

A few months into seventh grade, after a string of medical absences, I got surprising news: I had missed too much school to go back for the year. The county assigned me a free tutor, handed me a speakerphone, and set up a call every Friday so I could talk to this tutor. They mailed me manila envelopes full of homework assignments. Monday was schoolwork day; Tuesday through Friday were FISHNET days. On the weekends, the family went to the library and Waldenbooks. It was paradise.

The AFM article

One day, an email arrived from Ed Bauman, editor of Aquarium Fish Magazine. He had seen me handing out advice about fancy guppies on the FISHNET message boards, and wondered if I would write a story for his magazine. I just about fell out of my chair.

By that point, I had told all the FISHNET staffers about my age; all of them were cool about it — they did the electronic equivalent of shrugging, though we did not then have an emoticon to indicate it. But Ed thought I was just another adult staffer. I wrote back to him, accepted the assignment, and wrote the article.5

I don’t remember much about that writing process. You’d think I would, since I went on to become a magazine writer. Really, all I recall was Ed asking me to include a few “sidebars,” and I told him that would be fine, and then I had to look up “sidebar” in the dictionary.6 I wrote a sidebar about the International Fancy Guppy Association, and one on how to make the finest fancy guppy “paste food,” adapted from a recipe by one of the best breeders in the world.7

A check arrived in the mail for $150, and I was elated. The most surreal moment was when the family went to Waldenbooks and I bought a copy of AFM featuring my cover story. I went up to the cashier like always, except I (then age 13) was the author. I was a little pissed that the cashier didn’t ask me about the magazine, because I was very ready to explain how I had written the cover. But I’d get my chance soon enough.

My mom told her coworkers about all this, and somehow the tale of a 13-year-old writing a fish-magazine cover story made it to an Associated Press writer. She asked to interview me for an article about my recent writing success. It seemed like a good idea.

I remember the reporter didn’t seem very familiar with computers, so I spent a lot of time in my bedroom trying to explain what FISHNET was, what CompuServe was, how modems worked, that sort of thing. I showed her my fish, my cat, my comic books, and my computer. By then, the old PC had moved into my room, as a much faster machine had taken its place for the family. I was nervous during her visit.

I had even more anxiety when they brought me to school for one afternoon, to shoot a photo of me in the computer lab. I wore a tie-dyed T-shirt, and I remember thinking how weird it was that they’d take a picture of me at school, in front of a really nice computer that had a color monitor. At home, I had a clunker with an amber-on-black screen. Why not just take my picture in my real environment, where I actually spent my days? After saying hello to a few friends at school, I went back home and logged on to FISHNET. A few weeks later, the shit hit the fan.

The AP article

The article had an angle that I hadn’t expected: The idea was that I had intentionally lied about my age to become a magazine writer. (If only that were all it took.) In the Gainesville Sun the subhead read: “Teen kept age a secret from editor of national fish publication.” In the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal a short blurb was titled “Something’s fishy about author’s age.”

I hadn’t even seen the Venice paper (headline: “Guppy whiz, 13, writes story for national magazine”) when I got an email about it from a FISHNET friend named Masa, who lived in Hawaii. He said he’d read the article while eating his breakfast. I got similar emails from friends across the country. Everybody online was cool with it. The kids at my school were not; they latched onto the lede, which referred to me as “guppy guru Chris Higgins.”

Throughout eighth grade and into ninth, the kids at school called me Guppy Guru, or G.G. for short. It was a kind of constant background taunting that poked fun at both my dorky hobby and my newfound notoriety. Although I went to a school full of smart kids, there was something uncool about being in the newspaper, and they didn’t let me forget it.

Looking back on it, I can see how weird it must have been for me to disappear for a year and then come back with this mysterious online job and nascent writing career. At the time, I just wanted to be left alone — ideally, home alone. I wanted my old life back, that golden year alone in my house, with my computer and modem. Nobody called me names online.

A few months into ninth grade, I quit the magnet school and transferred to Venice High School, which had the virtue of being only a 20-minute bus ride from home and a five-minute walk from the public library. I was tired of being a big fish in a school of sharks; at Venice High I was just another guppy. I started hanging out in my new school’s journalism classroom, and in my Junior year I became editor of the school paper. I didn’t talk about FISHNET, and I wrote articles about school stuff. I never heard “G.G.” in my new school, and I was glad.

The plaque

In April 1992, the month I turned 14, I got a bulky package in the mail. It was a plaque from the International Fancy Guppy Association. There was a note with it, now lost, that thanked me for mentioning them in print, and said that their membership had doubled since the article appeared. I guess that sidebar mattered.

The plaque features a sketch of a fancy guppy superimposed over a globe, and the inscription: “For your dedication to and promotion of the fancy guppy hobby.” I can’t tell you now which closet my diplomas have been stuffed into. But that the IFGA plaque hangs to the left of my desk, right above a small aquarium containing four fancy guppies.

Photos by the author.

  1. Guppies reach breeding age at around three months of age, and they reproduce like aquatic rabbits. 

  2. Although the number seems small now, the FISHNET community boasted 9,200 users by 1993, with a staff of 25. I remember being told in those days that FISHNET was considered a very large group on CompuServe, but I can’t find data to back that up. 

  3. I did tell the head sysop at FISHNET about my age when I asked for the position via email. Her name was Deb, and she didn’t care. I met her much later at an aquarium conference, and it was weird talking to her in person, because she was 20 years older than me. Online, there was no such awkwardness. 

  4. I was often sick when I was a kid. During one particularly nasty head cold, my right ear drum burst. I got a few days off from school for that, and it seemed like a fair trade. 

  5. Reading the article today, it definitely sounds like something written by a 12-year-old trying to ape the voice of an expert. The writing makes me cringe. In my “author bio” bit, I even said I’d kept aquaria for “more than seven years,” which was technically true (I got my first tank when I was 5, and kept salamanders with my Dad’s help). 

  6. Sidebars are generally printed in a box on the side of an article, hence the name. They’re additional material for a nonfiction article. 

  7. The recipe involved ground liver, vitamin drops, and a blender. I had never made it, because blending liver is beyond gross, though I had bought similar stuff through the mail and kept it in the freezer. 

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