Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Post 2056 - 1984 In Review

Welcome to 1984, my lovelies.

I turned 20 in 1984. 

In the Winter of 1984, I became a letter hack.  I had my first letter of comment published in the Comics Buyer's Guide, just in time for my birthday.  I would write many more letters to CBG over the next 6 or 7 years and see a goodly percentage of them see print.  It was a thrill, reading my own words in a newspaper and even seeing people reply to them.

Of course, I was a student and my focus had to be on my studies.  I did not find it easy, but how many things in life that are worth having, are easy to obtain?  Not many.

I finished my second year of university.  I had continued to work some shifts at the university library and was happy one day when my boss, George Halliwell, informed me that he had been pleased with my performance so far and that I should consider applying for a full-time summer job with the department.  I did, and got the job.  No more Burger King!

I remember George gave me a couple pieces of advice, which I have never forgotten.  He said, "Let me be blunt.  We do not want you to start phoning it in.  We expect you to come in to work every day and put in a day's work."  No problem, George.

The other piece of advice, or maybe it was just a heads up, was that he told me that the job was boring, and that the days would be long.  I can tell you that while I enjoyed some tasks more than others, overall, the job was fun.  I look back fondly on the 2 summers I worked there.

My job was to work in the serials department.  The journals.  The magazines.  Newsletters.  Whatever.  They all had to be placed in alphabetical order.  As new things came in, they had to be put out, either in the section where new journals were on display.

Some of the titles were funny.  Not funny ha ha.  Funny weird.  Or, "funny strange" as a reader characterized Bevboy's Blog to me this morning.  People just know that "JAMA" is the Journal of the American Medical Association.  Does it go under the abbreviation?  Under "J", for "Journal"?  Or under "A", as in "The American Medical Association Journal"?  There were all these anomalies that I had to learn to keep track of.  It wasn't always easy, not for me, and not for our patrons.

There were some entries in the catalogs that were disquieting.  On the shelves I saw one day a newsletter for a far right-wing group from somewhere in... Alberta, I think.  Their symbol was one highly reminiscent of the swastika.  Why the university chose to subscribe to this newsletter, I do not know.  I know that universities are supposed to, if not embrace, then certainly to tolerate for the purposes of discussion, alternative opinions, even ones that a lot of folks would find offensive.  But I was still surprised that it was there.

Another journal of interest was one that emanated from the RCMP.  There was a section in that journal that listed the names of folks who had been seconded to CSIS, the Canadian equivalent to the CIA.  There had been a story on the news about that very thing not long before, and there it was, the names of people who were now working for CSIS.  If I had been a spy, then I could have made out very well.

I also became acquainted with things like The Economist and various history magazines, and even newspapers.  The serials department had a reading room off in the corner, named after some university benefactor from long before I was around.  The reading room was where we kept the newspapers.  Part of my job would be to go in there a couple of times a day to tidy up.  The people who read the papers were largely pigs.  They would go over to the shelf, grab a paper, and sit down and read it.  And leave it there.  The sections were often helter skelter.  I had to arrange all those papers and put them back on the shelves so that a fresh set of readers could mess them up again.

I did this so often, so regularly, that to this very day, when I see a newspaper whose sections are out of order, I re-arrange the sections so that they are where they should be.  And I make sure that the pages are not mis-aligned with the other pages in a section.  I sometimes do it here at work in our lunch room.  Now you know... the rest of the story. 

By and large, I liked the job there very much.   The only part that I didn't like that much was that I didn't always get along with the female student I worked with.  We eventually became friends, but she was a Fine Arts student and I was anything but.  We just rubbed each other the wrong way, without meaning to.  We were both much younger then and lacked the skills necessary to find a way to work together.

Anyway, one day George and Paulette summoned us into the office and excused themselves, leaving the two of us alone to talk things out.  She told me all the things about me that she didn't like, much as women have done with me my whole life.   I didn't say too much although there were plenty of things about her that I found objectionable.  It was easier to let her vent than it was to counter an argument and prolong the nastiness between us.  It seemed to work.  After that day she was better and spoke to me a little bit.  Our paths would continue to cross, and in 1987, they did again, in the most unusual way.

My lunch hours were usually spent in the Student Union Building, where I would sit off by myself and eat my lunch and read whatever book I was going through at that time.  It was a quiet time for me and I cherished it.  I knew it couldn't last forever.  I was right, as you will see next time.

I had applied for a job in the security section of the university in '83.  I got a PFO letter in return.  You know what PFO stands for, right?  Anyway, there was going to be a summer dance and shindig at the SUB that summer, and they found my application and asked me if I would be interested in helping out.  I agreed.  Money was money.

The SUB was on 3 levels, with the party on the upper two levels.  My job that evening, my entire responsbility, was to prevent people from taking their alcoholic beverages from one level upstairs to the other.  Why was this done?  Nova Scotia's strange liquor licensing laws.  In NS, you cannot take a beverage from one level of an establishment to another.  There is a real hang up about carrying glasses up or down a flight of stairs.  A few years later, a place called JJ Rossy's started up in Halifax.  They had more than one level where drinks were served.   I knew the owners slightly.  The hoops that they had to jump through in order for patrons to be able to carry their beverages from one level of the place to another were something to behold.  It was astonishingly difficult.  When I heard about this, I thought back to my night at the Acadia SUB when I had to politely ask people not to take their drinks upstairs.  (One guy said, "You know, it's a hot night, and you look thirsty.  Have my drink!"  I was tempted.)

The summer wore on.  I dated someone from the library, a woman named Wanda.  It did not last long. 

September came, and I began my 3rd year of my studies.  I was friends with a guy whose initials are AC.  I will not identify him further for reasons that will soon become apparent.  We were in the habit of collaborating on assignments.  

One assignment we were given was to write a computer program to do... whatever it was.  We developed the algorithm together and were pleased with ourselves.  It looked efficient and struck us both as an innovative way of tackling this particular problem.  I went off to type in the program.  It worked almost from the get-go.  Very little debugging was required.

AC then took the code I had typed in and typed it in for himself.  The only real changes were in re-wording the comments.  I'd written, "change the node type".  He'd type, "change the type of node".  That sort of thing.

The university has always taken a dim view toward cheating and firmly promotes academic integrity.  It is spelled out in great detail in the calendars and on their website.  Rightly so.  Our assignments were flagged for this reason.  The professor called out our names at the beginning of the class and made it clear that he was always on the look for cheaters. 

Great.  Just great.

The professor wanted to see us together to explain why we had done what we had done.  I was game to go right away, but AC dragged his feet.  He had become very tired of university, very sick of the rigamarole.  He cut classes constantly.  One class, if he went to it at all, it was very infrequently.  On one occasion, at the very last minute, he complained of a headache and said he didn't want to go that day.  He was backed up by a mutual "friend".  

It was several weeks before he agreed to meet with the professor and me.  When we got there, the prof took the assignments out of his desk and said that it was ok to collaborate on work, but that the parties should stop the collaboration when it came time to do the actual coding.  It is in that process that one's programming style comes through.  The algorithms can be the same, or very similar, but people code the way they code.  Lesson learned. 

AC continued to cut classes and consequently failed many of them.  He ended up getting a D+ in the course we took together.  Any mark below a C- is not counted toward your degree.  AC flunked out at the end of the academic year.   His fault.

The reality of earning a university degree is that you have your core courses, and other requirements such as taking a language course.  There are other courses, called electives.  They can be pert near anything you want it to be as long as it fits in your schedule of other classes.  My main elective that year was in the Interdisciplinary Studies division.  These were courses that would not easily fit anywhere else.  They were sui generis, if you like Latin.

The course I took that year was in Musicology.  Don't ask me why it wasn't part of the Music Department.  It was taught by two people: Professor Blackmer and Professor... crap, I forget his last name.  But in the 1970's, he was the professor who was nearly fired by the university and mounted a media campaign to get his job back, successfully.  I don't know why the university would have been all over him, because I thought he was marvellous.

We would sit in a classroom while the two men played music from all over the world, every possible genre, and discuss its context and origin.  Blackmer would buy records remaindered in department stores, cast aside as worthless in used record stores, buying the most obscure stuff, just to get it home and glean some interest from it, before sharing his findings with us.    I loved that course.  Just loved it.

I wrote a paper that year about the history of Urban Blues, which eventually evolved into Jazz.  Rural Blues is more like the Blues music of today.   I wrote another paper about the Beatles, but not about their music that much.  In conducting my research for the paper, I became so interested in the reasons why they broke up that I threw away the original idea for the paper and wrote about that instead.   I still feel it is an undermined area of the band's history.  I'm only aware of one book that is specifically about this story, and that was the primary source for my paper.

Blackmer and the other guy were considerate and helpful and encouraging.  They were gentle but specific with their criticism.  It was all about trying to find ways to get us to improve and not tearing down our self esteem.  I liked them both very much.   No.  Wait a minute.  I respected them both very much.

It was my custom to throw out most of my notes after the academic year was over.  But I never got rid of the notes from that course.  They are somewhere here, in the house, along with the home-made cassette tapes of music he would prepare for us to listen to.  No iPod using any shuffle algorithm could possibly come up with a more eclectic mix of music than what exists on those tapes.

That IDST course was one of my favourite courses of my university years.  I lost track of the time I would walk out of it with a smile on my face.  What these 2 professors are doing now, I have no idea.  I hope they google themselves and find this blog post.  And I will think of the name of the other professor five minutes after I post this.

I wrote exams and made it through.  Phew.

I had a chance to work at the library during the holidays that year, and agreed to do so.  Except for the actual statutory holidays and weekends, I was at the library every day.  I enjoyed being on the campus when there weren't so damn many people around.  It was much quieter and much less hectic.

1984 was over.  I had found it a busy and hectic and trying one.  I said goodbye to my teens and was on the road to being a full adult.  I was even old enough to drink.

1985 was down the street on the left, waiting patiently for me to pick her up and take her out for 12 months.  It would be a year of great embarrassment and humiliation, finishing my 3rd year of university and an unexpected and welcome career opportunity. Read all about it tomorrow!

See you then.


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