Happy birthday, BASIC!

Today is apparently the 60th birthday of the BASIC programming language. It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since I last wrote anything in basic, but it’s not unreasonable to say it’s part of why I am where I am today.

When I was in elementary school, my uncle gave us a laptop that he had used. I’d used computers in school — primarily the Apple II — but this was the first time we’d had a computer in the house. Weighing in at 12 pounds, the Epson Equity LT was better suited for the coffee table than the lap, but it was a computer, damn it! In a time when we didn’t have much money, we could still afford the occasional $5 game on a 3.5″ floppy from Target. (I still play Sub Battle Simulator sometimes!)

But what really set me down my winding path to the present was when my uncle taught me how to write programs in GW-BASIC. We started out with a few simple programs. One took your age and converted it to the year of the planets in the solar system. Another did the same but with your weight. I learned a little bit about loops and conditionals, too.

Eventually, I started playing around in QBasic, learning to edit existing programs and write new ones. I remember writing a hearing test program that increased generated sounds of increasing pitch through the PC speaker. After using Azile at my friend’s house, I wrote my own chat program. I learned how to make it play musical notes from some manuals my uncle had left us.

I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I learned through trial and error. That skill has carried me through my entire career. At 41, I have a mostly-successful career that’s paid me well primarily due to networking, privilege, and luck. But I also owe something to the skills I learned writing really shitty BASIC code as a tween and teen.

Happy birthday, Kurt

Booth Tarkington. Theodore Dreiser. John Green (a transplant). Ben Cotton. Indiana has a tradition of great authors. But none of them can compare to Kurt Vonnegut, Junior, who would have turned 100 years old today.

My dad first introduced me to Vonnegut’s work when I was in sixth grade or so. He lent me his copy of God Bless You, Mister Rosewater when I went on a road trip with some extended family. I’d never read anything like it. It mixed talk of pubic hair with phrases like “offensive effluvium.”

The first story we read in the Junior Great Books after-school program in seventh grade was the short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I loved that story. The rest of the year was a disappointment.

But soon I was reading other Vonnegut books. Breakfast of Champions inspired several projects for the intro to drama class I took my sophomore year. The first assignment was to make a poster for a play — real or imagined. I decided to make a poster for “Cornflakes”, a play where a man went crazy and began eating nothing but corn flakes. For a later assignment, I had to design a set. I kept using “Cornflakes” and designed the slide room from the play: the room where the main character slid down a slide into a giant bowl of corn flakes. My drama class was at the end of the day, so I had eaten many of the corn flakes by the time class rolled around. I still got a decent grade. Later on, I began writing the short story when I had down time in classes. It is mercifully lost to time, but as far as I know, it remains the only short story based on a set based on a poster.

Breakfast of Champions has been my favorite since I first read it, and not just because Dwayne Hoover has some absolutely bonkers lines. It wrestles with questions of existence in a way that’s both profound and absurd. In the 25 years that I’ve read and re-read it, something else catches me every time.

Mother Night is the same way. When I was younger, it was a tragic tale of a hero who lost everything in order to anonymously serve his country. Now, it’s a cautionary tale. Whenever I’m tempted to pretend to be a terrible person on the Internet for some lulz, I stop and think “we are what we pretend to be.” Howard W. Campbell was absolutely a good guy to a younger me. Older me isn’t so sure.

Of course, I’ve ready many other Vonnegut books, and books about Vonnegut. I even got to help with a time capsule and a literary landmark designation at the Vonnegut Museum earlier this year. I don’t have time to go into all that I know, or think, or wish I knew about Kurt Vonnegut. But it’s clear that his work has had a profound effect on me. I often catch myself trying to be witty in a way that is, at best, a poor imitation of Vonnegut’s style.

When my sisters and I were coming up with the eulogy I was to read at Dad’s funeral, we knew it had to include a Vonnegut reference. I’m glad that a love of these books (even though I think much more highly of Slapstick than Dad did) was a bond that my father and I could share. And when my kids are a little bit older, I hope that I can share that with them. I hope Kurt would have liked that.

Cursed house: Jennifer broke the house

This is the fourth (and hopefully final) post in a series of personal stories about how my parents’ house has some really bad luck.

I want to bring the curse house series to an end with a short and amusing story. It was Thanksgiving a decade or so ago. We were at my parents’ house and had just finished eating. When the phone rang, my sister got up to answer it. The caller was asking for my other sister, so Jennifer brought the phone into the dining room. (Kids, this is when people had landlines and cordless phones.)

She stepped into the dining room and CRACK! I felt the floor drop out from under me. It’s hard to say exactly how much, but it was enough to notice and be very worried that I was about to fall into the cellar.

What happened was that the metal pole under the floor joist had finally rusted away after many years and several cellar floods. Jennifer stepped in just the right place at the right time to break it. Fortunately, the house held together well enough that Dad and I could grab a 4-by-4 and use it to support the floor.

But all of these years later, we still tease Jennifer about how she broke the house.

Cursed house: the other fires

This is the third post in a series of personal stories about how my parents’ house has some really bad luck.

In the first post of this series, I wrote about the fire that nearly destroyed our house before we ever moved in. But that wasn’t the only fire.

The backyard fire

Our first winter after finally being able to live in our new house was eventful. My mom was pregnant with my youngest sister. And the back yard caught on fire. The fire happened shortly before my sister was born, in fact. Since we were served by a volunteer fire department, the response time was not quick. My parents, including a very pregnant Mom, were carrying buckets of water to contain the fire until the Georgetown Township Volunteer Fire Department arrived.

My memory on this is murky, but I think the tanker truck came from Greenville Twp. I don’t remember if the Lafayette Twp. fire department came for this one or not. My parents’ house is right in the corner of Georgetown Twp., so it’s pretty common for multiple departments to respond to a call in their area.

I don’t remember much else about this fire. I know it happened, but I don’t recall how it started or how much it spread. I know it didn’t damage the house, which was surely a great relief for my parents.

The bathroom fire

Fast forward about a decade and a half. I was home from Purdue for the summer. One day I was sitting in the bathroom, doing one what does. The light and the exhaust fan shut off suddenly. Since it wasn’t just the light, I know that it wasn’t an issue of a bad bulb. I hollered for someone to go check the breaker and they flipped it.

It didn’t take long for the light to shut off again. I figured it was time to finish my business so I got out of there as fast as hygiene would allow. We flipped the breaker on again and didn’t think much of it. I was in the dining room talking to whatever family members happened to be in there, when I heard a clattering noise in the bathroom.

I went in to see what caused it and saw the light cover on the floor. How odd. Then I saw it was on fire. Ah, that would explain it. I looked up and saw that the entire fixture was on fire.

As fortune would have it, I had a big fire extinguisher in the trunk of my car, so I ran out and got it. I used it to put out the fire. Then I ran to the shed to get my dad’s ladder so we could check the attic. I couldn’t see any fire.

Meanwhile, someone had called 911 and the fire department was on the way. Since it was around the Fourth of July, the Georgetown VFD was stationed near where some fireworks were going to be set off clear on the other side of the township. So Lafayette also responded.

The fire was out well before either department arrived, but since they have those fancy infrared cameras, it seemed like a good idea to have them make sure nothing was smoldering in the attic. Thankfully it wasn’t.

My parents tended to leave the bathroom exhaust fan on 24/7. It never bothered me until that day. Maybe it’s because I would have had melted, fiery plastic drop on my lap had I been a few minutes later to the bathroom, but I am now firmly in the “the exhaust fan only runs for showers” camp. It doesn’t feel like a traumatic event, but it has clearly changed my behavior.

Well that’s awkward

The bathroom fire is personally notable for another reason: I had a friend who was a volunteer for one of the responding departments. She had decided to leave them and volunteer for the other department. But she hadn’t told the old department yet, so they found out when she showed up on the new department’s truck. I felt bad for her, but it was also pretty amusing.

Cursed house: the smell of wet insulation

This is the second post in a series of personal stories about how my parents’ house has some really bad luck.

You know how scent is associated with memories? The smell of warm cookies reminds you of visiting your grandparents. A warm, salty breeze takes you back to that family vacation when you were a kid. But are you able to see something and then recall the smell? I can!

The summer after my freshman year of high school, my parents decided it was time to have some work done on the house. The first step was replacing the roof. Their house being old (like “parts of the original log cabin still exist” old), the roof was…rough. It had a rafter construction, so the roofers had to take the entire roof apart.

Before they could put the nice, new trusses in place, they had to make the top plate level. This took some Doing™ apparently, and they made slow progress. When Friday rolled around, it rained. The roofers had put tarps flat across the top of the house, but some water soaked through and damaged the drywall ceiling in a few places. No big deal—that’s easy to fix.

So then Monday rolls around. Both of my parents are at work, so I’m home with my sisters on a warm June day in the Ohio Valley. If you don’t know about warm June days in the Ohio Valley, they sometimes have pretty bad storms. Come the afternoon, several tornado warnings have been issued. Being the eldest child (and also a weather weenie), I keep my eye on the TV coverage. My memory is a little fuzzy on this point, but I seem to recall having to get my sisters to shelter at least once.

But the important part here is that it rained. And rained. And rained some more. Officially, Standiford Field recorded 0.86″ of rain that day. At my parents’ house a dozen miles to the northwest, it rained slightly more than that.

The tarps were still on the not-roof, but they were still flat. This meant that water could not run off and fall to the ground, but instead puddled. Slowly, water began seeping through the tarps. And into the house. Not just in one or two places like it had on Friday, but all over.

The living room. The dining room. My parents’ room. My sisters’ room. The bathroom. Water was coming in everywhere. (My bedroom and the kitchen were an addition and had a separate roof, which spared them). For the next few hours, we became a bucket brigade.

Everything we could find, we put to use catching the water falling from the ceiling. Trash cans. Buckets. Our sleds. The water became a steady stream in some places, filling up the small trash cans almost as soon as we could empty them. Meanwhile, severe thunderstorms still threatened.

Eventually the rain stopped and my parents came home from work. It was clear that staying in the house that night was not an option. Everything was wet and the ceiling was falling in the living room. We stayed in a hotel that night, and for the rest of the week. Then we spent three weeks in the basement of some friends. After six months in a rental house, we were able to return to our home.

All of the interior walls and ceilings had to be replaced. The floor (including the floor joists) in two rooms were also replaced. We threw out many of our possessions: books, toys, furniture, clothing. So much had been soaked through. High temperatures were in the 90s the rest of the week, making it oppressively humid in the house.

The smell of wet insulation and drywall is something else. It sticks with you. For years, if I saw a picture of damage, I could smell the insulation as if I were standing there in the middle of the aggressively moist house.

We fired the roofers. Our insurance company sued their insurance company. Life went on. But we never did the addition that we had planned.

Cursed house: The Monkees

This is the first post in a series of personal stories about how my parents’ house has some really bad luck.

I’ve been a fan of The Monkees for nearly as long as I can remember. Davy Jones signed the liner notes for my copy of their greatest hits CD. I not only have watched “Head”, but I own it, and I like it. As a kid, I recall frequently asking my mom if a song on the radio was by The Monkees. Almost every time it turned out to be the Beatles, but that’s neither here nor there.

My lifelong fandom is undoubtedly due to the hours I spent watching the TV show in a hotel room when I was three years old. You see, my family lived in a hotel while we rebuilt our house.

It wasn’t a planned rebuild, mind you. The project was thrust upon us when the house caught fire.

I’m not entirely clear on the details, but somehow the fire happened when the house was in limbo. My parents were stuck with it, but the previous owner got the insurance payment? I don’t know; I was three. At any rate, it turns out that the previous owner had similar circumstances befall them at least one other time. Not suspicious at allllll.

But if the house is cursed, my parents were lucky in one regard: they had the carpets cleaned that night. The dampness slowed the fire long enough for the volunteer fire department to arrive. This kept the house from being a total loss.

It also gave me one hell of a headache. I ran through the house, being a three year old, and immediately fell when my wet shoes hit the vinyl floor in the kitchen. I still remember sitting on the back porch crying. My grandpa was there with us and he let me come spend the night to help me feel better.

I have a vague recollection of my parents showing up at his house later that night or the next morning. I assume they talked about the fire. I don’t remember if I had any reaction to the news or not. Ah, to be young again!

But this post is about The Monkees. So there we are, living in a hotel. My parents, my infant sister, and me. There’s not a lot for a kid to do in a hotel, especially when dad is at work (or working on making the house livable again) and mom is caring for a baby. So I spent what was probably a good deal of time watching TV.

This was around the time that The Monkees were having a resurgence in popularity, and so the show was on TV. I don’t remember specifics, but I know I liked the show. While the jokes went faaarrr over my head, the silliness is evident even to a three year old.

The Monkees got me through what was probably an incredibly stressful winter for my parents. I’ve been a fan ever since.