I’m Old, Part LIV: Finding Your Thing

I’ve always found a deep joy in software engineering. In looking at the roots of it, I find myself thinking about playing the original Adventure game. My dad had brought home a TI Silent 700 terminal and we were able log in to a Bell Labs account that gave us access to games. Adventure was so engaging – getting hooked by trying to figure out how to get past the traps and puzzles: a hollow voice says, “plugh”. The essence of coding was like spell casting. We put pieces together and now we had a new magic word: plugh or xyyzzy which unwrapped new possibilities.

The problem is that software work fulfills a particular set of intellectual needs, but it isn’t comprehensive. People need more breadth of experience to fill the empty spaces. Working on Acrobat was ruinous in that the hours spent left precious little time for other things.

I tried a number of things. One of my co-workers was tired of endless tech talk so she started a salon of a sort where a group of us met weekly at the British Bankers Club in Menlo Park and tried but ultimately failed to avoid talking about work. I tried looking into the art scene in the area, but it didn’t work for me. On the east coast, I had worked as a volunteer on a local rescue squad so I looked to see if there was something similar in Silicon Valley – nope: all the ambulance crews were paid professionals. The answer ultimately was in my closet gathering dust: my trumpet.

I had played since I was 10 through college, but had all but given up the instrument for lack of time. I took it out and spent a few weeks doing lip drills and scale exercises to get my lip back. In looking around, I found that there was a local blues bar that did an open mic, so I started going and sitting in. Blues is not my wheelhouse. I was classically trained and especially love Baroque which is about as far from blues as you can get, but I was playing again and it felt like I had a missing limb reattached.

After the open mic, the bar usually had a band come in for the evening. Most of them were guitar heavy, but every now and then there were some groups that had small horn sections.  One night Chris Cain and his band were playing and he had a good horn player – Modesto Briseno – who was playing pretty well. Between phrases, I saw him turn his back and go through some motions that were all too familiar: sticky valves and he wasn’t going for valve oil. Uh oh. I pulled a bottle out of my case and snuck it up to the stage and set it down at his feet. He had a look of utter relief and quickly remedied the problem. Between sets he returned the bottle and thanked me.

I played a couple weddings and through word of mouth I found a really good brass shop in South San Francisco where I could take my horns for service. I brought in my old piccolo trumpet to get some major work done on it. I bought the instrument from a pawn shop when I was in high school and at this point the bell needed straightening and the finish had some pitting, so I had them fix it up and strip the lacquer plate it silver. While they looked over the horn, I saw a couple Eb/D trumpets that were an unfamiliar design. What I was used to in this type of horn was either a horn that played well in Eb and you swap 1st and 3rd slides and the D side is out of tune, or vice versa, or both sides are bad. These horns had Ed and D tuning slides as well as separate bells that could be swapped in. Both sides played in tune! I tried both horns, one by Schilke and one by Yamaha. The Schilke horn was good – clearly a professional instrument, but it felt wrong in my hands – just not comfortable. The Yamaha felt fantastic and in playing it, the horn fell in love with me. Crap. Time to save up. This pattern ended up happening two other times.

I ended up joining a big band in the area and that worked really well for me. We played weekly in an old warehouse and I was really able to build my lip back up. I was able to play through a whole rehearsal and still be ready for more. More to the point, one of the big deficits in my life was getting filled. Since that time, I’ve made sure that making music is a part of my life. It has helped me feel more balanced and relaxed even on the nights when my mind is stuck on other things.

This has been my own particular journey, but if you are in engineering like me I encourage you to look at things that are outside of your specific vein of geekery and find other activities that balance out the time spent being a code jockey. Taking time away from being a code monkey will help you as a person as well as improve your skill as an engineer by forcing you to take your blinders off for a while.

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