Personal, Stories Told

Embracing my inner geek

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.

I have never been cool.

Jim_1985

High school

When I was a teenager, I didn’t enjoy how being uncool marginalized me. So I tried to improve my coolness quotient. I wore hipper clothes. I joined clubs at school. I tried not to talk about things that really interested me, like writing computer programs. But it was all like stepping into an ill-fitting suit – uncomfortable for me and obvious to everybody else.

So I gave up and just started following my unusual interests. I came to accept that I would hang out around the fringes in the high-school social pecking order. Sure enough, that’s what happened.

The only thing that kept me from having no social life was that my best friend, who was as much a geek as I was, had a viable social niche – acting. So sometimes I got to hang out with his drama club friends.

College

College

And then I went off to engineering school, where I was surrounded by geeks. Many of them had elevated their geekiness several levels beyond anything I could ever summon. On the relative scale, I seemed average! In a place where everyone was a geek, being myself was easy.

I started to branch out, finding new interests. I got involved with the campus radio station. I grew my hair and started listening to heavy metal music. I studied theoretical mathematics. I went on late-night drives in the country with a friend, exploring old roads.

I had a ball being myself.

I came to realize that in high school I felt like there was something wrong with being who I was. I was glad to have left that feeling behind in college.

I did temporarily doubt myself, pretty heavily at times, as I pushed through my most difficult days. But I always rebounded.

Jim_2005

20th H.S. reunion

Most of us leave high-school social nonsense behind as we age, of course. But I also think that most of us feel a flood of those old anxieties before each reunion. I sure do, at any rate. But because I’m comfortable in my own skin, I always have fun talking to everybody – most of whom I recognize but do not really know because I kept to myself so much back then.

A bunch of us went out for drinks after my 20th reunion five years ago. Because some things never change, I was there with my old best friend and several of the old drama club crew. We were all talking and laughing when suddenly the fellow who had been the leading man in all the plays exclaimed, “Jim! You used to be such a dweeb! But now you’re so cool!”

It felt good to hear it. But he’s wrong; I’m still not cool. I’m just okay with that now, and it shows.

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Personal

Rolling with the transitions

My older son graduated high school on Saturday. It’s a day for which I long have planned, but which, nevertheless, comes with some sadness. I was glad to celebrate this passage with him, though he said he felt much as I did when I graduated high school: “Dad, I’m a good student; was there ever any doubt this day would come?”

But I’ll admit it, the day tore open some hard feelings for me — regrets that thanks to the divorce and living apart, I didn’t get to spend every day with him as he grew up. And I see even less of him now as he has taken a job and prepares to go to Purdue in the fall. I really miss him.

When we’ve managed to get together lately, we’ve had some really good talks. He loves video games as much as I love old cameras and film photography. He deeply understands game design and has a remarkable feel for story arc and how it is best used in games. He also has good insight into the business of video games, which is enough like the business of software (what I do for a living) that we can talk meaningfully about the ins and outs of what makes both a video game and other software products successful, and why sometimes a seemingly sure thing fails.

Doing homework, as usual

In college, doing homework, as usual

But I also got to say some things to him about heading into this next phase of his life. I remember going off to college at 17 and feeling not just that I was expected to keep moving forward, away from my parents and into my adulthood, but that the door had closed behind me. I’m sure my parents didn’t mean for me to feel that way, and would have been supportive had I reached out. But I felt alienated from all I had known just the same.

And then I had some typical difficulties of adjusting to college. Because I chose a tough school, I was buried in homework and worked harder than I ever have since. I struggled with some of my classes and briefly wound up on academic probation. I kept getting sick, as the same bugs got passed around the dorm over and over again. I became deeply depressed, and I felt like I had to bear it all alone.

I was unusually fortunate then to know my calling: making software. I pursued it, I pushed through the difficulties, and for the last 26 years have spent my working days doing it. But my son is more typical. He has a general direction in mind, but the picture of his future is cloudy.

But even if he knew exactly where he was headed, I don’t want him to feel as alone as I did. I told him that no matter what, I’m on his team. If things get tough, he should call; I’ll listen to him dump and vent. If he needs to come home to decompress for the weekend, I’ll go get him. If he wants to change majors, he should just do it. If he decides Purdue isn’t for him, then for heaven’s sake don’t stay. Come home and we’ll figure out a next step.

01-001 proc sm

An apple on my former desk in my former office

It’s ironic, then, that I’m not making software at the moment. I was laid off from my job last Monday. My boss came to my office, ashen-faced, first thing to break the bad news.

I joined the company when it was small to build a testing team from scratch. (Programmers write the code, and testers make sure it works.) They make a very useful product, one that has a real chance at changing an entire industry for the better. But the company has always struggled to sell enough of it.

And so I wasn’t terribly surprised when my boss said that the company needed to cut expenses to match revenue, and that it meant my job and the jobs of several of my colleagues.

Truth? I was flooded with relief. I had been unhappy for some time. There were things I had hoped to do there that I thought would deeply benefit the company but in which I couldn’t generate any real interest. It was frustrating and disappointing to see my ideas repeatedly rebuffed. And I just didn’t mesh with my peers in management. The company culture loves bold alpha males, and so the middle-management team tends to be lone wolves who operate independently. While I’m all about moving initiatives forward powerfully, I’m more of a quiet collaborator. I kept feeling steamrolled and countermanded by my high-independence, high-action, high-emotion peers. It was exhausting.

I’m not wealthy — the modest payout the company gave me will run out sometime this summer, and then I’ll have to start paying the bills with the money I plan to send to Purdue. I have plenty of anxiety over that. But fortunately, I’m well connected in my industry in my town, and I’m working my network hard. Right now, it’s very hard to fill open positions in software development here, as pretty much everyone who wants to work in the field has a job. The last time I hired someone, resumes trickled in and it took four months to find a good candidate. So I’m optimistic that I’ll be back to work before the money runs out. Wish me luck.

But there is a bright side: when my son visits this summer, at least I’ll have time to spend with him.

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Me, Van, July, 1982

Here I am, a month away from turning 15, leaning on Dads’s big old Chevy van (read its story here) which is parked in my parents’ driveway. Oh man, does this photo stir up a lot inside me. First, I’m about the same age here as my youngest son, about whom I wrote on Wednesday. Second, it was at about this age that I was learning to write code and found out that you could do that for a living, which set the path that I’m still on. Third, I had my first driving lessons in this van with its unpleasant, super-stiff manual steering. Fourth, my parents are about to leave this house after having lived in it for 38 years. They’re moving to Indianapolis to be near their children and grandchildren, and to be near Dad’s oncologist at the VA hospital here.

And fifth, this was taken with one of my vintage cameras. I’d been collecting since I was nine, but only started using my old cameras at about this age. This was taken with an Argus A-Four, a manual-everything 35mm camera from the mid-1950s. I was shooting Kodacolor II. I had little idea what I was doing with f stops and shutter speeds, and only about half the shots on the roll turned out. For this shot, I set exposure and focus and handed the camera to my brother to take the photo. I don’t have a print of this image anymore, so it was great to see it come back to life via my scanner. And it brings me joy to see that even 32 years ago, I was motivated to find out how well an old camera worked, and to learn something about photography.

See some black-and-white photos I took with this camera here.

Collecting Cameras, Old Cars, Photography, Stories Told

Captured: Me, Van, July, 1982

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Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Beyond Our Control

It was a TV show about TV, and there wasn’t a thing about the medium it didn’t lampoon and skewer. It was a sketch comedy before sketch comedies were cool – running an incredible 19 seasons starting in 1967, it beat Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live to the air. It won awards; it got national press; it launched careers. But unless you lived in or near South Bend, Indiana, you never saw Beyond Our Control.

That’s because it aired only on South Bend’s WNDU-TV, where it was written, directed, filmed, produced, and acted by a company of high-school students. It was a partnership with Junior Achievement which taught high-schoolers about business. This JA company taught a select group of teens about the business of television.

It seems incredible to me that the show ever existed. It couldn’t possibly make it to the air today. Yet it was appointment television for my family and many others across northern Indiana and southern Michigan. It had its good years and its off years – and some of its off years were waaaaaaay off. But we watched every show because you just never knew when it would be brilliant. And when I became a teenager and some of my friends and classmates appeared in it, you never knew when you’d see one of them on the screen.

Each show went pretty much like this: someone unseen surfed the channels (complete with 1970s-style channel-change noises), sometimes stopping to watch one of the stations. That’s when the Beyond Our Control troupe came in to parody local newscheesy commercialsTV station holiday greeting promosnetwork morning news showsprime-time dramatic showsAmerican BandstandSunday afternoon family moviesthe late moviegame showsquasi-intellectual talk showsB movies at the drive-in, and even nature shows. Click any of those links to see an actual Beyond Our Control sketch. Or just watch this video, which gives you the program’s flavor in a nutshell.

I watched in wonder and sometimes awe every week, especially when the show really worked and I spent the entire half hour laughing. Especially as I grew up and people I knew began to work on the show, I wondered how these kids became so smart and savvy and, of course, funny. It certainly was nothing inherent to South Bend that produced this creativity. I knew some of these kids and they were just like anybody else I knew; to pass them by in the hallway at school, they seemed as average as you and me.

The kids had some help; WNDU provided some of their staff as advisers. And probably more importantly, within a few years the show’s format and premise were well developed and provided a solid framework for these teens’ creativity. But truly, creativity and talent lie all around us, and perhaps all it takes to realize it is an opportunity like Beyond Our Control.

Many alumni built careers in films and television on their Beyond Our Control experience. Some of them hit it big, including:

  • Daniel Waters, writer, whose credits include the films Heathers and Batman Returns
  • David Simkins, writer and producer, whose TV credits include Charmed and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
  • Dean Norris, actor, whom you probably know best as Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad
  • Larry Karaszewski, writer, producer, and director, who wrote Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt
  • Traci Paige Johnson, co-creator and producer of the children’s show Blue’s Clues, and the voice of Blue to boot

It’s funny how time has faded my memories of the sketches themselves, yet I remember the close. I always watched to the end, especially in the later years when I hoped to see a friend’s name scroll by in the credits. It was set to Harry Nilsson’s Remember and used almost all of the song, as plenty of people worked on the show and the credits listed them all. The close showed bits and pieces artfully arranged from faded color prints of old sitcoms and dramas, with the old NBC Peacock unfolding its feathers somewhere in there for good measure. It created a wistful feeling for days that weren’t that far in the past, at least not then.

After the last name scrolled by, the Beyond Our Control logo scrolled in and stopped. Beneath it were the words, “A very nice TV show.”

It was.

For more about Beyond Our Control, see their Web site or their YouTube channel.

Vintage TV is an occasional series.
Want to see more? Click here for a list of posts.

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Stories Told

Embracing my inner geek

I have never been cool.

High school

When I was a teenager, I didn’t enjoy how being uncool marginalized me. So I tried to improve my coolness quotient. I wore hipper clothes. I joined clubs at school. I tried not to talk about things that really interested me, like writing computer programs. But it was all like stepping into an ill-fitting suit – uncomfortable for me and obvious to everybody else.

So I gave up and just started following my unusual interests. I came to accept that I would hang out around the fringes in the high-school social pecking order. Sure enough, that’s what happened.

The only thing that kept me from having no social life was that my best friend, who was as much a geek as I was, had a viable social niche – acting. So sometimes I got to hang out with his drama club friends.

College

And then I went off to engineering school, where I was surrounded by geeks. Many of them had elevated their geekiness several levels beyond anything I could ever summon. On the relative scale, I seemed average! In a place where everyone was a geek, being myself was easy.

I started to branch out, finding new interests. I got involved with the campus radio station. I grew my hair and started listening to heavy metal music. I studied theoretical mathematics. I went on late-night drives in the country with a friend, exploring old roads.

I had a ball being myself.

I came to realize that in high school I felt like there was something wrong with being who I was. I was glad to have left that feeling behind in college.

I did temporarily doubt myself, pretty heavily at times, as I pushed through my most difficult days. But I always rebounded.

20th H.S. reunion

Most of us leave high-school social nonsense behind as we age, of course. But I also think that most of us feel a flood of those old anxieties before each reunion. I sure do, at any rate. But because I’m comfortable in my own skin, I always have fun talking to everybody – most of whom I recognize but do not really know because I kept to myself so much back then.

A bunch of us went out for drinks after my 20th reunion five years ago. Because some things never change, I was there with my old best friend and several of the old drama club crew. We were all talking and laughing when suddenly the fellow who had been the leading man in all the plays exclaimed, “Jim! You used to be such a dweeb! But now you’re so cool!”

It felt good to hear it. But he’s wrong; I’m still not cool. I’m just okay with that now, and it shows.

One time I felt especially uncool was when I was humiliated live on the air.

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