Mark's life story

slightly updated February 1999

I was born an original sinner...

Well, according to my upbringing, I was, and so was everyone else. I was born on Hallowe'ene'en of 1956. It was also my mother's 26th birthday. Not quite the amazing coincidence it might seem - she knew it was going to have to be a Cesarean birth (back in those days, if you had already had one, they didn't let you try a vaginal birth ever again. Medical opinion has changed since then), and, sentimental fool that she was, and the timing being at least approximately right, she chose to have me on her own birthday. I think it was sweet of her.

It didn't take very long before people figured out that I was destined to be different. By the age of 3, I was reading avidly - and not just Dick and Jane books; I remember reading the Reader's Digest and Time magazine. My parents used to show me off and amaze their friends and relatives. I don't remember ever being formally taught to read; I think I just picked it up over the shoulders of my brothers. (The fact that I can read upside-down just about as easily as rightside-up is further evidence of this.)

I have two brothers, 2 and 3 years older. You might think that this was a setup for a lot of domestic strife. But for the most part it wasn't like that; for young boys, we were remarkably quiet and well-behaved. Which is not to say that our mother didn't have her hands full anyway...

I was a kindergarten dropout!

If I ever write a real biography, I already have a title for it. It will appear on the cover, of course, in large luridly-colored letters. But it's the truth; I really did drop out of kindergarten. If what Robert Fulghum (author of Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten) says is true, I'm in trouble. Interesting fact; Marian also dropped out of kindergarten! (In fact, she didn't survive nearly as long as I did. But I think that mostly means that I had much more persistent parents.) Perhaps that's why we consider each other soul mates...

The fact is, I was bored silly. Remember, I was already reading for real at three, and knew some arithmetic by the time I got to kindergarten. So drills on the alphabet and the numbers held no appeal at all. Organized play sessions just didn't do it for me either; why should I have had to accept somebody else's idea of how to play? And I had an old-lady teacher who had come out of retirement to teach kindergarten again, and I just couldn't relate to her at all. I survived it for about a miserable month before my mom finally consented to take me out.

I'm also a parochial school survivor...

After that, the next step was St. Mary's School in Old Forge, PA. Of course, I was academically bored again, but at least it was a learning environment, so it wasn't as bad as kindergarten had been, so I managed to stick with it. (The fact that there would have been no parental sympathy whatsoever for trying to leave didn't hurt, either; besides, school, unlike kindergarten, was mandatory.)

After I aced first grade, the nuns decided to have me skip second grade. This put me just one and two years behind my brothers, instead of two and three. It meant that I was less bored with the lessons than I would have been; I had to catch up with a couple of things from second grade that I missed, but it was no big deal. On the other hand, it meant having to fit in with a new bunch of classmates, and I hadn't been all that good at fitting in with the original group; being set up as the class whiz-kid didn't make matters any easier. So I was never all that popular for the rest of grade school. And it meant that school athletics were more hopeless than ever, now that I was a year younger than my classmates (and almost two years younger than some of them, what with having a late birthday). Not that I was ever the way to bet, anyway.

Getting along with the nuns (and the one lay teacher I had in fourth grade) was up and down. We had one teacher each year, who taught all the subjects except music. (Another nun would come around for that, and taught music to all the grades.) Some of them I liked a lot; I remember a special fondness for Sister Dismas in fifth grade. (The suspicious might say I had a schoolboy crush, but I didn't think of it that way. Of course, living in a Catholic town in northeast Pennsylvania, and going to Catholic school, meant that I lead a pretty sheltered life; I really didn't have much idea what sex was back then.

On the other hand, my relationship with some of the other nuns was less smooth. I have never been one to take to authority naturally; I always want to know why I'm supposed to do or not do something. That doesn't fit naturally with the parochial school way of doing things, where you're expected to obey orders without question. (Their approach to religious education is in keeping with that philosophy; you learn everything by rote, and asking questions was not encouraged.)

Although the 60s were going on elsewhere, they didn't really touch my part of Pennsylvania much. If it hadn't been for television and magazines, it would have been quite easy to imagine that we were still living in the 50s. There were no riots on local college campuses, nobody wore psychedelic clothing, and I never ran into anybody who used drugs.

Let's Do The Time Warp Again

Then came 1969, and everything changed.

Big changes happened at my father's company. For a few years, he had been managing two plants; one in Old Forge, where we lived, and another in Macon, Georgia. He spent a lot of time flying between those cities for about three years, and so we didn't see as much of him as we had earlier. But in 1969, they decided to close both of those plants, and consolidate all their operations in one location: Islip, Long Island. So we loaded up the truck and we moved to Setauket. (Long Island, that is. Swimming on the Sound. Jews.)

Suddenly, life was very different. Of course, 1969 was an exciting year to begin with; the summer that we moved was when the first men landed on the Moon. And we had moved into the New York area during the year when the reviled Mets suddenly became good. (People used to say "When a man walks on the moon, that's when the Mets will win the World Series." They thought they were saying that it would never happen. They never imagined that it was prophecy.)

But besides that, we had suddenly culturally fast-forwarded at least ten years. The Three Village area (Setauket, East Setauket, and Stony Brook) was right on the development terminator at that time. During the 50s through the 70s, the border where housing developments ended and farms began gradually crept eastward on the Island. When we moved there, the area we moved into had just been developed. The population of the area had grown by a factor of 10 in a three-year period, forcing the creation of a lot of new schools. (Before that, the Three Village district didn't even have a high school; they had sent their relatively few high school students to the neighboring Port Jefferson school.) So the schools I attended (Robert Cushman Murphy J.H.S for one year, and then Ward Melville H.S. for three) had just been built, and most of the teachers were fresh out of college. And, of course, people just out of college in 1969 were likely to be hippies.

So there I was, sheltered Catholic boy, suddenly in a very different environment. I didn't adapt instantly. The fact that I had never been popular in grade school, and as a result didn't have well-developed social skills, didn't improve matters. Still, I managed to find places where I could get along. In ninth grade, I took to the electronics shop like a duck, studied Morse code, and got my first ham radio license.

The summer before ninth grade, we had lived in a rented house in Port Jefferson, while we waited for our house in East Setauket to be finished. That summer, I got interested in chess. Our next-door neighbor was a Mr. Gaylor, who was an avid player. He lent Dan and I a bunch of old copies of Chess Life and Chess Review (they were separate magazines back then), and we devoured them, and played a lot of chess with each other. This interest endured into high school, where I founded a chess club. Me and Dan were the one-two punch on the team (playing first and second boards; there wasn't much to choose between us in skill, but I played first board because I had started the club). The first year, we had a wonderful advisor; a chemistry professor named Mr. Keith, whose enthusiasm for the game was matched only by his utter ineptitude at it. (Actually, he wasn't totally unskilled; he was just the stereotypical absent-minded professor at the chess board, and would forget to move his pieces out of danger.) That first year, we had gotten into the high-school chess league late, and as a consequence we had to play all our matches away. We would (six kids and Mr. Keith) all pile into his old Chevy and drive off to places that were, to me at the time, mysterious (after all, I had lived on the Island less than a year at that point, and didn't know the geography all that well). Of course, we had to sit two-deep; I used to pull rank and have the one female member of the team, Diana Pitts, sit on my lap. (Mind you, I never did anything improper, but she was a pleasant lapful.)

Alas, Mr. Keith was laid off by the school the next year in a budget cutback. His replacement was Mr. Hayward, who looked no older than the team members. This lead to some confusion when teams would come to visit; they would look around the room, desperately trying to identify the faculty advisor. (When we visited, it was easier, because he was the one driving the car.) We had yet another advisor the third year, but I have forgotten who it was.

Another geeky extracurricular activity was the math team. I had a good blend of speed and imagination; by the end of my senior year, I was one of the top members of the team. I was especially proud of the meet where I got all the questions right. That was something of a challenge to arrange in the first place. The way the matches worked is that you had only a couple of students in for each question. The rule on our team is that if you got one right, you got to stay in for the next one; if you didn't, another team member took your place. So, for starters, I had to be well-enough thought of to be in for the first question.

But the thing that occupied the most of my time was the computer room. It all started on the last day of school before Christmas vacation in tenth grade. The school had an open house in the computer room. It was love at first sight.

I couldn't arrange free time in my schedule to actually take the one computer programming class the school offered until twelfth grade. (There were also the business courses on keypunching, operating, and so forth, but no academically-minded student took those; they were considered vocational training.) But the school tolerated students who wanted to hang around the room and learn, under one condition; they also had to help out the business students. So that's what I did. I spent thoroughly excessive amounts of time in that classroom for the next two and a half years, and even managed to wangle summer computer time at the nearby State University of New York at Stony Brook (conveniently, a mile walk from our house) so I wouldn't go into computron withdrawal during that two-month stretch each year. By the time I actually reached senior year, there wasn't any point to actually taking the computer class; I was already well beyond it.

Aside from that, I was certainly better tolerated than I had been in grade school. The fact that I was no longer a very large fish in a very small pond was nice; there were other smart people around, too. Many of my classes, especially English, history, and social studies, featured lively philosophical discussions, and the science and math classes were intellectually challenging. On the other hand, I was still pretty socially inept, and not a notable success in relationships with girls.

My eleventh-grade English teacher, Mr. Hannas, got me to write a journal; a task that I took to with excessive zeal and style. I used a newly-discovered four-color Bic pen, and used the different colors for different types of content. I actually created most of the content by dictating it into a tape recorder while I listened to Allison Steele, the Nightbird, on WNEW-FM radio late at night, and then transcribed it the next day. I found that the creative juices flowed much better when I didn't have a pen in my hand, in part because I find writing with a pen physically painful. I still don't write anything to speak of with one; these days, I do my writing directly on my laptop computer, preferably someplace other than at a desk. I suppose, in a sense, that this web site that I am now maintaining owes a debt to that journal many years ago.

I perhaps also owe another debt to Mr. Hannas - my love of going barefoot. He was the first barefoot role model in my life. (Of course, I had always gone around the house barefoot as a kid - even more than my other family members - but I'm talking about doing it in public.) I have vowed to myself that if I ever get married, I will be barefoot during the ceremony. (The rest of the costume is negotiable.)

MIT happens

For someone like me, college (or at least an attempt at it) inevitably follows high school. By my senior year of high school, I had decided that I wanted to study computer science, so I looked for schools with good programs in the field. My family eliminated the West Coast candidates from the list (they didn't want to send me that far away), but that still left a number of good schools to look at. But MIT was the one that caught my heart when I visited it. It was the first place I had ever been where I didn't feel weird for being interested in technology. (I didn't discover the dark side of that until later; that you were considered weird if you had any interests besides technology - aside from women, who were considered an acceptable hobby.)

So off I went, at the tender age of 16. (My 17th birthday came after I had been there two months.) I was not an academic success. My biggest problem is that I tend to be lazy. My second biggest problem is that I would spend all my time and energy on the classes that interested me (particularly computer classes) and ignore everything else. After the fall term, I left MIT for a semester, then tried again the next year, this time as a member of the Experimental Studies Group. The second attempt was no more of an academic success than the first one.

Still, I learned a lot at MIT - it just didn't happen in the classrooms. I did manage to learn a lot about computers, in the classes I took, and by spending a lot of time on the excellent computer systems that MIT had. I also developed a lot socially, because of my experiences with Spencer and friends, and because of ESG.

I also got seriously involved in role-playing gaming for a while while I was hanging around MIT. (I eventually gave it up, in part because I was getting too involved; I got worried when I started to look forward to killing things, even if it was only fantasy violence.) My connections with the gaming community led to two other, more enduring interests: science fiction conventions and the SCA. I also discovered folk dancing while I was at MIT. (I have a lot more to say about all of these things in the leisure section.

Computers Are A Way of Life

What with being out of school and all, I had to attempt to make a living somehow. It took a little while to actually convince anybody in the computer field to hire me, so in the meantime I made ends meet by working in MIT dining halls, for Ivan's News, and other odd things. But I knew where my destiny lay, and eventually I did manage to make it happen.

On the other hand, my employment history is an awkward one. Most of my jobs have been working with computers that no longer exist, in languages that nobody uses any more, for companies that no longer exist. A brief history (you can read more about the recent positions in my resume):

1979: Computer Devices, Inc. A maker of portable thermal-printing terminals. Programmed in 6800 assembler, working on code for a floppy disk drive peripheral. (We never did quite get the thing to work properly.) (Went belly-up about ten years ago.)

1980: L-Systems, Inc. A small consulting company that had a contract for security software for nuclear power plants. Programmed in PDP-11 assembler on RSTS. (Mr Lamb retired shortly after this project fell through.)

1981: Saddlebrook Corporation. A developer of financial information software. Never actually did much there, because the project they hired me for (in PDP-11 on RSTS) was cancelled a month after I got there. (Collapsed a couple of years later.)

1984-1986: Lisp Machine, Inc. A producer of workstations for the AI research community. Programmed the proprietary workstations in Lisp and microcode. (Gone by 1988.)

1987-1989: Unitech, a microcomputer dealer. I got out of programming for a while, and instead worked assembling and supporting PCs, and writing documentation for peripherals. (Unitech has been gone since 1992, but a successor company, PCs for Everyone, with some of the same people, is still around.)

1989-1995: Frye Computer Systems, Inc. Frye was in two business; network consulting, and development of network software utilities. I did both. (Bought by Seagate Software in 1995; no longer exists as an independent company.)

1996-1997: Zoom Telephonics. A manufacturer of modems. I was webmaster there; I wrote HTML, converted brochures to HTML, and did some scripts. I also administered some Unix systems that acted as routers and mail servers. (They're still around. For now.)

1998: Harrison & Troxell, Inc. An internet development and consulting company. Mostly I'm writing scripts in Perl, but I do some other stuff too.

What happened to 1982 and 1983, you may ask? Well, I had hit a dry spell for finding jobs (what with a recession and all). I kept busy by hanging out at the MIT AI Lab, learning all about how to work with and program Lisp Machines. I also left Boston for a bit over a half-year and lived with my family in Moscow PA.

I find my second true love

When I got involved in the SCA, I met Marian. We were just casual acquaintances for a while, and neither made much impression on the other. (Well, actually, I made a negative impression on her. But it got better.) But, somehow, things clicked between us at a postrevel in 1979, and we've been together as a couple for most of the time since then. (We went through a couple of periods of not seeing each other as a couple, supposedly for my own good, but they didn't take.)

Marian owns a house in Dorchester called The Buttery, which has been a group household for twenty years. I have been hanging out there just about since the beginning (and especially after I got involved with Marian), but we resisted living together for a long time. But finally, at the beginning of 1995, I moved in.

October, 1996 was a month of milestones for me; it included both my 40th birthday and the 20th anniversary of my first SCA event (Sweetest Day Tourney at Fenmere). Naturally, I had to have a party to celebrate those things! I made mass quantities of lasagna ("Nature's Most Perfect Food"). Not as many people showed as I had thought might come, but it was still a good party. This year (1998), I became The Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything (42, in other words), so I had another big party. And on New Year's Day, 1999, Marian and I had a surprise wedding!

Well, that about brings me up to the present. I talk a lot more about the things I do now in the leisure section, so if you still haven't had enough, you should head over there.