Friday Five: Everything starts somewhere

Merideth asked us to name

Five things that are such an integral part of your life, you can’t believe someone else introduced them to you.

It’s a tough question, but I think I’ll have to say…

1. When I was a kid, the only use I had for computer chips was entertainment. We had an Atari. Boom. Die, alien badguy. Die, evil missile. Boom. But once I got to junior high school, we had to study these machines. It was a room full of Radio Shack TRS-80s that got me going, not my (here, pseudonymous) friend Maurice Fishman’s Commodore 64. The C-64 I was never allowed to touch, but the TRS-80s were something everyone had to sit down and face, one-on-one. There was a whole lab full of them, and every day for a whole semester we had computer class. Computers, it became very clear to me, were simple, systematic, and easily manipulable. While it took most of the other kids 40 minutes to write a simple program in BASIC, I was finished in 10 minutes, and then spent the rest of the time fiddling. I learned how to make images on the screen, even if it was only a dancing little dot. I learned how to make the dot leave a tracer behind it (by eliminating the delete function call). I figured out how to make a screen fill up randomly with dots, and even though our PCs were all black-and-white (well, monochrome green, anyway) I knew how to make the random dots into a forever scintillating haze of multicolored spots flaring across the screen (because the textbook said random colors could be designated in such-and-such a way). The other kids in class were shocked, but Mr. Tomyn just smiled. He understood that these programs of mine were only four or five lines long… but what was more important, he recognized another technogeek in me; once he assigned work to the other kids, sometimes he’d show me other things in BASIC code that I could use making games or pictures. But most of the time, the most important thing he let me do was fiddle on my own, building on the very simple BASIC programming codes he’d taught us. While I don’t really do any programming any more (beyond editing some basic HTML code), I do use computers every single day.

2. When I first arrived in Korea, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know what any of the signs meant, and to be honest I still have the vocabulary of a very very young child. But, I can read Hangeul pretty quickly, and sound things out almost perfectly every time I try. I can remember the first syllable in a word and pick out the word on a sign (as in yesterday, when I took another foreigner who speaks no Korean at all to the bank and asked for a new account for him. I forgot how to say account, but I knew tha the word “tong” for “container” was in the word. So when I saw “tong jang” I guessed that was right. I think that’s correct. The lady understood, anyway. I also managed unaided to ask her for a bank card that could be used overseas as well as in Korea.

I didn’t get this ability to read Korean phonetically simply by living here. I was taught. No matter what else I may have to say about the man, it was my first roommate in Korea, John Rupprecht, who taught me how to read Hangeul script. He sat for an our or two with me, first explaining the different characters and then drilling me on syllables, and then words. I’m sure I would have learned some other way if he’d not shown me, but the fact is, I read and write in Hangeul almost everyday and yet it was taught to me, and not so very long ago, in fact.

3. Improvising is something I pride myself on doing. It’s my main musical mode, and now that I play in a rock band, my solos are shorter and mainly focused on paraphrase, so I’m not that good at extended improvisation anymore (just because I am out of practice). I know full well that whatever ability I have is the result of hard work, but the hard work was not mine alone. My second music teacher, Rick Harris, worked for hours with me on making me learn my scales and arpeggios, and having me run scales and arpeggios on random chord change charts. He loaned me my first real jazz album (an anthology of Miles Davis tracks titled Tallest Trees), and he also kicked my ass when I slacked off. I think it was a good year before I could do anything resembling musical improvisation that wasn’t plain full-on embarrassing. But now I use the saxophone very spontaneously, to express all kinds of musical ideas which sometimes are more complex than I am able to even think of consciously.

4. Writing. I’ve come to it very passionately, but not alone. Should I credit Mrs. Bremner with demanding that her students in the 6th grade must write poems? Or should I think the writers’ club of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, who met weekly and encouraged me weekly when I brought in bizarre fantasy stories and poems obliquely suggesting that my love for Janelle Britz, the girl with somewhat hairy arms across the aisle in class, was true love? Or should I thank my father, who brought me to those meetings and read the first works I shared with them, because I was too shy? Or my mother, who read some of my poems and, in her way, encouraged me? Should I thank the editors of my high school newspaper who published my poems in every issue, or Mr. Osiowy who took one and, without telling the class whose it was, had them analyze it for meaning, before telling them to ask me? (And funnily enough, I told them something anticipating the idea of the Death of the Author: I said, “You need to figure out the meaning for yourself. Like any other poem.”) I don’t think it makes sense to pick out any one person… better, I should simply credit a whole host of people for aiding my journey in writing, introducing me to this or that idea, writer, or technique… so that now writing is a fundamental part of how I relate to the world and to other people.

5. In 7th grade, Mrs. Holinaty, out weird and flaky Home Economics teacher, asked us why a man should learn to cook. The answers were, in retrospect, pretty sad. Mine was, “In case he doesn’t get married right away?” This, despite the fact that in my family, my father did at least a fair share of the cooking when he wasn’t on the road. Mrs. Holinaty scoffed, and suggested a wife might appreciate a man who could cook… or a woman might not marry a man who couldn’t do his share of the cooking. She taught us some pretty awful dishes, but she also gave us a sense that, no matter how awful the things we made were, we could get better, and that armed with better recipes, everything we made would be better. And when we baked cookies, and made too many, and brought them back to class, we learned just how much attention a boy who did something in the kitchen could get (momentarily, anyway) from a girl. The way to a woman’s heart may also have a path through her stomach, we decided. And still, when I want to impress a woman, I cook for her. Though this isn’t the only thing that gets me into the kitchen. I cook for myself almost daily, and I enjoy cooking for my friends too. It doesn’t feel to me like it was something I once learned how to do, but in fact it is.

Other F5ers: Adam, Melissa, Merideth, Will, Dave, Chris, Colleen, and Craig. And welcome Nanette!

3 thoughts on “Friday Five: Everything starts somewhere

  1. I know exactly where you are coming from with improv. My improv style evolved from doing non-stop finger exercizes once I started on the piano – and became the most comfortable thing for me to do on the keyboard.

    I love improv, and the escape it provides. One of the few times everything else disappears and you are free to explore the unknown.

  2. … without trepidation or real risk. It’s a wonderful way to experiment with sound and ideas, and I find it far more communicative than any other form of music.

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