Grow Your Own Nerd

In 1987, my brother and I were in 7th grade, my dad was a High School math teacher making about $25,000 a year, and my mom was a part-time nurse working the night shift. We didn’t eat at restaurants, we didn’t sleep in hotels on vacation; they saved every spare penny and invested it for retirement and college. In 1987, we didn’t own a TV, didn’t have a radio or a tape player, and we were still 13 years away from getting a cordless phone. And yet, somehow, someone convinced them that they needed a computer in their home, that it would be important for us kids to grown up with one in the house. So, for Christmas that year, my parents bought us an Apple IIgs. By the time they finished buying the computer, the monitor, the upgrades, the printer and software, they had laid out almost $5,000, 20% of my dad’s annual salary, on something they would never use or understand.

When I look back on it now, I don’t think they’ve every done anything in their lives that was more out of character.

We spent Christmas that year with my dad’s parents in Phoenix, so they didn’t bring the computer with them. Instead, they wrapped up a programming book on how to write code in BASIC, and gave that to us. My brother and I were so excited to get the book that we didn’t realize a computer was coming with it. We spent the rest of that week with a pad of scratch paper, writing out programs longhand that we would enter into the new computer once we got home.

For my 7th grade science fair project that year, I wrote a program that plotted the results from the Apple IIgs’ random number generator, to test how truly random the numbers were. In 8th grade, I wrote my first software game on that computer. It was called “Ski Crash”, and it featured a stick figure who stayed in the middle of the screen while trees moved up the screen past him; you had to use the keys to move the figure across the screen and avoid the trees. It was over 1000 lines of code, and included an original soundtrack. I wrote a program that turned the QWERTY keyboard into a note-input keyboard, so that you could play melodies on it.

I became comfortable with computers, learned what they could do, started to understand the logic behind the moving symbols and cryptic number sequences. When I hit college, I entered Phil Shackleton’s course in Music Technology. It was like stumbling into a village in the middle of the Arctic, and discovering that everyone speaks the secret language you and your brother made up as children. I understood what was going on. I spoke the language of that class. I understood how to use the computer as a tool, and to make it do what you wanted it to do. I thrived.

I have a recurring experience in my life; I keep arriving at places and finding myself unexpectedly prepared. I’ll admit, this has left me with a nasty habit of procrastination, but it has also helped me make peace with my penchant for obsession over things that have no immediate value. When I started to make my way in the music industry, at every turn, it was my familiarity with technology that helped me succeed. Not my familiarity with any specific piece of technology (I was constantly running into new pieces of software and hardware, and the bizarre quirks that inhabited them), but familiarity with technology. With the language, and the logic, and the way it rewards a peculiar kind of curiosity.

I don’t know why my parents decided to do something so uncharacteristic as buying that computer for my brother and I. We talked about it over Thanksgiving this year, and they still seem a little surprised at themselves for having done something so impulsive. It was an absurd amount of money for them to spend, and it couldn’t have been easy for them to make that sacrifice. That moment, when they stood in the store listening to a salesman spin his pitch, when they looked at each other and said, “Let’s do it,” shifted the tracks of my life, and led me to where I am today.

So, in lieu of a more mundane answer, I think I’ll attribute it to two things. First, the prompting of a providential and forward-thinking God, the chess-master, setting pieces in motion before we’re even aware that a game is afoot. And second, parents who didn’t allow the limits of their understanding to bind the wings of their children, and for whom the suggestion that something might be important for their children’s future was enough.

27 thoughts on “Grow Your Own Nerd

  1. Alex

    Wow… this just blew the dust off in my own not-so-distant childhood memories. I can’t help but think back on how my folks got an overly-expensive Hewlett-Packard 386 machine of the early 90′s for me… sure did set off those chain of events and here I am today.

    Hrm… just earned nerd status.

  2. Daniel Semsen

    I was the first yearbook editor at Mother Lode Christian School (shhhhhhh…I hear you snickering) to design the entire yearbook using this machine and an exciting program called “Adobe Pagemaker”. We put in black squares where the pictures would end up, and actually entered the captions ourselves IN the program! Amazing! Then we sent the 3.5″ disks to the company…about one per double-page spread…HA

    The IIgs was the best machine we had in 1997 at MLCS

  3. Bobby

    I still remember creating a fake virus for our brand new commodore64… it suddenly painted the screen red and screamed in all caps YOU ARE INFECTED!

    Dad did NOT appreciate my subtle brand of humor.

  4. JC

    I don’t think “sacrifice” has the same meaning anymore for us as parents. I think many of our parents (and mine were quite a bit older than yours Michael, but roughly same economic position) actually made significant financial sacrifices for us…whether for an Apple…or for a $100 pair of hockey skates in 1968. The money thing was a big deal, made more so because my dad was a kid when the depression hit and really knew what it was like to be literally saving pennies. I was always aware of the financial challenge buying even relatively minor things was to my mom and dad, never mind Michael’s example of 20% of annual income…that is just staggering! I try to get my kids to understand that money doesn’t grow on trees, but frankly, they can tell it isn’t a major sacrifice for me to buy them a new computer or American Doll. What they do seem to appreciate, however, is the time we give them. I think that is today’s “sacrifice” for us as parents…our time with our children. And I have to tell you, when I look around and listen to many of the stories you all tell, I think you are all doing a pretty darn good job on that front. Michael, thanks for sharing and remembering your parents in such an insightful and important way.

  5. June

    Michael,
    What a great story (er, reality!) to tell…especially at Christmastime. Thanks!

    My parents traded their couch for a used but nice, Canon SLR camera for me so I could take a college photography class. I’ll never forget coming home from work and finding them waiting at the door for me, giddy with their news…and their empty living room.

  6. Stick

    Yep. Similar story here. First it was upgrading the piano from a Kimball to a new Kawai, and then buying me a Roland RD-1000 in 1988. That keyboard is sitting next to me in use in my studio today. I think it was something like $2300 with the road case and everything back then. Not a bad investment… I’ve played that thing nearly everyday of my life for almost 20 years! Then it was a Mac SE in college for about the same amount. I think it had a 20 meg hard drive. Ooooh, powerful! That one is not still in use.

    It’s incredible the affect such things have on us… I wonder what that “thing” will be for my kids. I’m voting for the little golf clubs the boys have now…

  7. Jeremy

    Wow, Mike, I think i finally figured out exactly why we get along so well…

    I have a very similar story with the addition that my story kept getting repeated.

    For some reason my parents realized that I HAD to have a computer. The first one that I got to play with was an Apple ][. Yep, no “e”, no “c” on that back of that bad boy. My dad did the books for his friends company an got to bring home the computer on the weekends. When my parents saw this 8 year old kid playing on it they figured I should have something for my own. That something was a Commodor Vic20.

    When my mom saw me spend hours typing in code to get some dumb 40×40 pixel animation of a dragon only to have to turn the computer off thereby loosing all of my work she went out and bought me a tape drive. When I outgrew that computer my dad bought the first IBM clone. From there they bought me every iteration until it got to the point that I was building my own. I just bought my 4th mac in as many months so I guess the circle is complete.

    It’s amazing that my parents had the forethought to give me such an amazing tool and experience at such an early age. That and my dad bringing me to see star wars when I was 3 completely shaped my life. When I was introduced to CG about 12 years ago all the pieced snapped into place and I could see what would give me fufilment for the forseable future.

    Like you Mike it was my total lack of fear and love of technology that enabled me to find fufilment in my work life. Someday if I ever have kids I hope that I’ll have the brains to realize that my 4 year old really really really needs that new fangled nano-nueral-holographic matter compiler even though I have no idea what it does.

  8. corey

    [quote comment="140150"]… that new fangled nano-nueral-holographic matter compiler even though I have no idea what it does.[/quote]

    uh… you don’t know?!?

  9. michael lee Post author

    Sophia built one yesterday, out of some spare power converters, an old Linux laptop, and soggy cheerios. It was so cute, watching her solder the D-coupling link to the beta-wave reference grid, when everyone knows it should be soldered to the gamma-wave reference grid.

    I swear, she is so dumb sometimes.

  10. Gretchen

    Actually, I really appreciated this story as Mike read it to me last night.

    So, Sophia has been pretending to play the violin lately, with two drumsticks, or two long bath whistle sticks, anything she can put under her chin and bow across. The Celtic Women Christmas concert was on PBS the other night, and she was dancing around pretending to be the (incredible!) Irish violinist in the group. Hmm…a quarter sized violin maybe?

  11. harmonic miner

    Holy Cow, Mike… you just described my life with this line:

    “I have a recurring experience in my life; I keep arriving at places and finding myself unexpectedly prepared.”

    When I was learning to program in Fortran on an IBM 360, my freshman year in college (we used punch cards to input the programs, and the computer punched cards to give us output, which we fed through a card reader to get a line by line print of the computer’s results… the computer really DID fill up the room, and it was about as powerful as the remote control for my stereo system. It looked a lot like the computer on Star Trek… and was about the same vintage),

    [and THANKS, MOM, for taking a job you didn't like to help get me through.... I'll always remember what you did]

    and taking physics and math (and learning about waveforms, using oscilloscopes, setting up resonance experiments in powder filled tubes so you could SEE the wave nodes, etc.),

    and writing marching band arrangements to help pay tuition bills (the band director gave me a book by Paul Yoder that explained how to do it… to this day, I don’t see how he knew I could learn it that way),

    and later (1977), taking classes at USC in how to use a Moog Model 15 analog (table filling) synthesizer (it had THREE OSCILLATORS, so you could play one note at a time with a nice fat sound, or you could tune them into a chord…. either way, you recorded the output onto an 8-track Otari 1 inch reel to reel deck… no, not THAT kind of 8 track, dummy),

    well, I simply had no idea that the whole music technology revolution was coming, that I would be perfectly positioned to understand and apply it, or that I would spend my life learning how to write music in styles that hadn’t been invented when I was young, etc.

    I thought I was doing all that stuff just for fun.

    And when I was tutoring students in music theory and math, I simply had no idea that I was actually learning how to teach, just a little, anyway.

    It turned out that sampling didn’t change much (conceptually) over time. Neither did the nature of waveforms. Synthesizers STILL have envelopes, LFOs and filters. Computers are still binary, and there is still a difference between RAM, ROM and storage. There are still three notes in an F major chord, and chords voiced low and close are still ugly.

    To this day, I try to convince students not to specialize too soon, to let it ripen a little, major in two things if you can afford to spend the time at it, keep the doors open till you see what might blow through…. I’m REALLY convinced that God puts interests in us for a reason.

    So I’m frightened now: for about the last fifteen years, I’ve been reading all manner of theology, history, science, philosophy, political science, you name it. I’ve learned some other skills I’m not mentioning just now. I’ve finally gotten the general education that my original college degree allowed me to pretend I had.

    So I figure that God has something REALLY uncomfortable in mind for me, or else I’ve just been studying in how to be a crackpot troll. Since I regularly attend faculty meetings, that last has come in handy.

  12. harmonic miner

    A one eyed guy with no depth perception shooting a BOW? A guy who nearly flunked percussion techniques because he couldn’t manage a FLAM using nunchucks? In either case, you would already have attended my funeral… if you were able to stop laughing long enough.

    The hacking part might not be amiss… but I’m much too nice for that, and most hacking isn’t computer expertise, it’s just an inside job…. so no challenge there.

    Besides, explosives are illegal in California. And with that one eye, I can barely manage to light a birthday candle, let alone a fuse.

    sigh…. nothing so exotic, gentlemen. In fact, rather old fashioned.

    And why do you assume it is some means of violence? Why couldn’t it be composting, or knitting, or yoga?

  13. harmonic miner

    Yep… your basic untreated strabismus. Not caught until I had an eye exam in 2nd grade. Could have been treated if caught sooner. As is, my brain simply ignored the very poor input from the much weaker eye (like 20/1000 or so) in favor of the eye that worked normally. I wouldn’t dare try to cross a street or something with that eye, though I can sort of walk around a room and not walk into walls, if I’ve been there before.

    So to me the world is a big flat place. I accept that people see three dimensionally, but I have no concept whatsoever of how that might feel or look.

    You should see me try to thread a needle….

    My theory is that those parts of my brain that would have been busy processing the input of the weak eye are dedicated instead to making up arguments in contravention of the plain truth…. but that’s sheer speculation, of course. After all, I am a composer, not an attorney or viola player.

  14. corey

    sorry, HM, my Christmas gift to myself this year was to create an imaginary A-Team from the members of Addison Rd.

    …if you need help, and if you can find them, you need…

  15. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="140183"]So to me the world is a big flat place. I accept that people see three dimensionally, but I have no concept whatsoever of how that might feel or look.[/quote]

    must … resist … urge … to make snarky comment about political perspectives …. must resist.

  16. harmonic miner

    [quote comment="140189"]sorry, HM, my Christmas gift to myself this year was to create an imaginary A-Team from the members of Addison Rd.

    …if you need help, and if you can find them, you need…[/quote]

    Oh, I’m definitely your guy. I pity the fool….

  17. harmonic miner

    [quote comment="140190"]
    must … resist … urge … to make snarky comment about political perspectives …. must resist.[/quote]

    Don’t confuse thinking in three dimensions with think in multiple variables….

    Having said that, I basically think in one dimension…. up, or down.

  18. Claire

    Great post and title, Mike. This really brought back some fun memories for me as well.

    I remember my father deciding (again uncharacteristically…he’s Ukrainian, and Ukrainians are famously cheap and political) to buy a Commodore when I was about 10 or 11. This was big deal in our house, because money was never spent lightly. I think these “new fangled” computers were the biggest Rubix Cube to my father that could have existed…he loved them! He absolutely loved trying to figure out how to make the darn thing work.

    It was more of a mystery to myself and my mother. I do however, remember one night when I went into his office at around 9 (pretty late for our house rules) and seeing my father entranced in the sensual glow of the computer and darkness of the office. I remember thinking that computers must have some sort of religious power at that point; I had never seen my father so fascinated by anything before and this man is an organic chemist with brains to spare…if ever there was a nerd, he was it! He eventually traded up for an equally enormous IMB PC. Mom jokingly referred to it as “the MainFrame.” But I think she was a little scared of it too. Funny enough, when the computer entered that office, she seemed to make a permanent exit, though she is more friendly with computers these days.

    But I suppose my father has the last laugh as he grew his own nerd too. I’m now a music history professor in college as well as a professional musician…how much nerdier can you get? I still blame the Commodore.

  19. James

    About the time the iMac came out, I was using an Apple II… Just a teeeeeny bit behind the times? :/

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