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.