Author Archives: James McRay Johnson III

Glory Days

I was born in 1970. That was an odd time to be born, I think, what with the Culture Wars and the Vietnam War and earth-tones and Ranch-style houses all being such a big deal.

All the bits and pieces of culture that we reflexively associate with that time were not then cartoonish and laughable: the hair, the clothes, the shape of automobiles, the look of so many modernist buildings, they were a part of the fabric of our daily lives.

But here’s a very nice article from Hendrik Hertzberg on being a young Newsweek reporter in San Francisco in the late-60’s, a period that bled seamlessly but traumatically into the time of my childhood. I especially liked this bit:

Newsweek finally got around to doing a cover story on hippies some nine months later, for the issue of October 30, 1967….My surmise was that some of the sons and daughters of some of the editors of my former magazine had turned on, tuned in, and made it their mission to drop out. In any case, the headline on the cover was ‘TROUBLE IN HIPPIELAND.'”

It’s shocking how naive the major movers of that scene really were. Well, Bill Graham wasn’t naive. But a lot of the folks who played in bands or who danced in front of the stage at the Fillmore that year were very naive, back in 1966, when the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were still local celebrities unknown outside the Bay Area, and it was still a rather exclusive club of people gyrating deep into Friday night, all of them convinced that there was something IMPORTANT happening, and not just right in front of them, but IN them, as the LSD sizzled across their synapses and the pulsing light shows reflected off the walls.

Life had gotten complicated in America by then. I remember it well. I was just a child, but it seemed to me that each individual’s naivete and confusion about who they were and where they were going was all bound up in everybody being naive and confused about who we were and where we were going, as if the whole country was experiencing a collective adolescence. Now, whenever I see mention of Ronald Reagan in an article, I always think to myself: whatever else he might have been, whether real or pretend, for the people who voted for him he was an honest effort to un-complicate their lives, to feel sure of something again.

I wonder what happened to all those dancers.

Like School Online: No Class

When I made the decision to go back to school and study computer science, a very dear old friend asked me to let him know what I thought of online classes.

This old friend of mine (we’ll call him ‘D’) is something of a legend in my very small circle. He got his start in IT right out of college as a teletype boy for the local paper, and subsequently spent most of his adult life in the newspaper business, herding various publishing-centric computer systems through their daily paces. ‘D’ was one of the earliest civilians to be “online”: he participated in lengthy discussions on the early pre-Internet networks like ARPANET and Usenet back in the 80’s, at a time when there were only some tens of thousands of people in the world with access to those networks.

I’ve never talked with ‘D’ at any length about his early online experiences. I do get the impression that some of the more difficult or annoying things which we now routinely associate with online discussions were already present in those earliest iterations of the Web, for instance the tendency for people to feel overly-emboldened by the inherent disembodiment of the online social experience, along with the concomitant likelihood that any small disagreement might escalate into an aggressive argument. Then there’s the fact that the military and intelligence communities had their fingers in the online pie from the start, which is interesting in light of the recent Snowden Affair: we are shocked, SHOCKED by the idea that our intelligence agencies might be observing our online activity, without ever giving much thought to the fact that the Internet exists precisely because the military and intelligence communities were highly instrumental in helping to invent it.

But I digress.

So, my old friend ‘D’ has been a computer geek since before anybody ever heard of such a thing, and he still keeps his ear to the ground vis-a-vis all things computerized, even though he’s retired and living in the woods near our ancestral stomping grounds in the foothills of North Carolina. And, seeing as I have been taking several of my classes online as I pursue my degree in computer programming, he was interested to hear my take on the growing trend in online college courses.

To which I reply: compared to what? This whole college thing is very new to me, and I am reluctant to expound upon things about which I am so naive. I’ve had some online classes, I’ve had some classroom classes. There’s good and bad with both.

But I will say a few things:

1. It’s a lot easier to get to know people in person, in the flesh, in the same physical space. We are physical animals, and most of our social cues and signals are not linguistic at all. Using only the internet for all relevant, school-related communication, as I have done for entire semesters, is like trying to force a waterfall through a straw: spills are bound to happen.

2. Schools still seem to be figuring out just how much actual work these online courses require from instructors. My online instructors have generally seemed overworked and harried, whether due to juggling other classes or other jobs entirely. Of course, “overworked and harried” describes most adults I know, not just the teachers…

3. Online classes are generally considered a real test of one’s self-motivation and self-discipline. After all, it’s just you, your laptop, your textbooks and the instructors’ hasty notes and emails. But then, if you’re doing it right, any rigorous study regimen is going to be a whole lot of you, alone in a room, working like someone who is terribly afraid of idle time.

4. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I’ll be driving to and from Gwinnett Tech this semester, one hour each way, three days a week, on top of a full-time managerial job in Athens and a very young son who I adore and want to enjoy while he’s still such a tiny, funny little man. All those hours I’ll spend driving this fall could be spent studying, or sleeping, or playing with my son. Online classes make this sort of adulthood-intrinsic scheduling a bit easier.

There’s one question that many college kids are not accustomed to asking themselves, much less answering honestly: why are you in school at all, and what do you aim to gain by being there? How one answers that question will certainly offer strong indicators as to how one might handle online learning.

If your primary intent as a student is to learn, then you’re going to have to study. A lot. And that involves thousands of hours of careful reading and reams of homework. The majority of my learning takes place in solitude, with my laptop and a stack of books in front of me.

But the other reason for attending school is to make connections, with instructors and with fellow students. That’s how you find jobs. It’s all about connections. It’s all about the impression you make as a person. Or that’s what I’ve always heard.

Ultimately, it’s a lot easier to make honest connections and good impressions in person than online.

I expect that future college students will become accustomed to a combination of both.

How Did Everything Get So Flat? – Part 1

Some of my favorite memories are of hearing a popular song for the first time.

Take Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, for instance. It was the summer of 1984. I was 14, living in a small town in South Carolina. I was doing yard work for a neighbor down the street. It was a beautiful summer day. I was wearing a Walkman clipped to my belt, tuned to a pop station out of Columbia, the little black foam headphones over my ears.  As I walked towards the street carrying a cardboard box full of clippings to dump on the curb, the song started: out of nowhere, all by itself, an electric guitar started pealing off that ripping torrent of notes; followed soon thereafter by that drum machine pattern with the weird, pulsing kick drum; then a strange, filtered, moaning vocal sound; and finally those minimalist syncopated keyboards.

Right around the point where Prince started singing, I sat down, involuntarily, right in the middle of the yard, with the sun shining on the green grass and on the leaves of the trees and on top of my head. I just plopped down on the ground with my box of clippings in my lap, and I listened to that song. I think my mouth was hanging open a little bit.

For anyone who knows anything about the history of computers in music, the Linn LM-1 looms large. It was the first drum machine to use digital samples of real drums. It had individual analog outs for each sound, and each sound was individually tunable and mixable. It also had a built-in digital sequencer, which included Roger Linn’s now-legendary “swing” function. And you could swap out the memory chips, for a price, giving the machine a whole new set of sounds. All of this was quite revolutionary, and very expensive: $4,995.00, or around $14,000.00 in today’s dollars. Only 500-700 were made, and they were quickly snapped up by leading names in the recording industry, artists and musicians and studio engineers with the money to spare on such cutting-edge gear.

Linn LM-1

Prince used his LM-1 a lot back in those days, but “When Doves Cry” was singular. The sheer weirdness of the song is due in great part to the way he used the drum machine, sending the drum sounds (from their individual outputs, remember) through various guitar effects pedals on their way to the tape machine. The effect was one of pulsing, undulating cycles, round and round, with no release from the tension of the groove.

Again, at the time that the first digital audio gear came to market, only wealthy people could afford it. And the wealthy people interested in such products tended to be musicians who had already enjoyed a measure of success, ones who were prone to adventurousness in their artistic pursuits: people like Prince, or Peter Gabriel.

Here, let me show you adventurous:

The Flower

That’s Peter Gabriel during his time in the prog-rock band Genesis. He started wearing outlandish costumes because his singing couldn’t be heard above the band during their early gigs. He soon realized that the costumes helped to further the narrative preoccupations he was trying to address in his lyrics.

Hey, it was the ’70s.

Gabriel was one of the lucky few who got their hands on a Fairlight CMI before any of the rest of us had even heard of sampling. He had already enjoyed a successful career with Genesis before going solo, and he had made some money, so he spent some of it on this:

The Fairlight CMI enjoyed a brief but beautiful (and influential) time in the musical sun. It was a full music workstation: it sampled, it synthesized, it sequenced, it even allowed you to alter the shape of waveforms by drawing on the screen with a “lightpen”. And it had a sound, a breathy, wispy quality that was, ironically, a side-effect of the programming the creators had done to deal with the limited processing power of the computer components available at the time. It cost $35,000.00 at the time (or $90,000.00, adjusted for inflation). That’s a lot of money. You can buy three cars for that kind of money.

So, again, only wealthy artists could afford one. But listen to what they did with it: Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey”, Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (hello, Trevor Horn). Something new and very exciting was happening in pop music.

Check out Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock putting Herbie’s new Fairlight through its paces, circa 1984:

What you’re witnessing in the video is two of the most talented musicians in the world getting really excited about something technologically extraordinary, but something that only wealthy people like themselves had access to. Just a few years later, that basic technology would become much less expensive and rather commonplace, available at any local music shop.

Today, you have only to open your laptop in order to have access to computer programs (and processing power) that make the LM-1 and the Fairlight seem quaint by comparison. The barriers to entry have fallen. And yet most people agree that pop music is not what is once was.

More on that in a bit.

Music as Experience, Music as a Means to an End

Here’s an interesting article on Madonna’s early career, and on the people who helped her make her first album and then present herself to the world for the first time:

Madonna’s Debut Album at Thirty: An Oral History | Music News | Rolling Stone.

I love getting a glimpse behind the curtain of the music business. I like getting a little taste of what it was like to be in the room while cultural/artistic/musical history was being made.

On that note, I heartily recommend the Classic Albums series of documentaries. You can get them on Amazon for cheap. They chronicle the making of some of the finest musical works of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s amazing to hear iconic musical moments explained. It’s inspiring, it’s educative, and it’s titillating, all at the same time. And it helps to demystify things that were carefully crafted to be mystifying. I like that. It’s okay to enjoy the spectacle, I think, but it’s important to understand just how much work goes into making something so difficult seem so easy.

Madonna, by all accounts, worked really, really hard to make difficult things seem easy.

Back in the day, the barriers to entry were high. Just getting a song recorded was a challenge: the technology required to do even a decent job of it would fill a small room and cost a small fortune, never mind paying someone who knew how to use that technology.

And in order to get into that recording studio, in order to spend time there with people who knew what they were doing, you had to impress someone at a record company: they opened the doors, they provided the money, the connections and the access. And in order to impress the record company you had to have something they could sell, something they were willing to take a chance on, something that made them want to call every musician, producer, songwriter, stylist and photographer in their Rolodex.

According to everyone who was there at the time, Madonna had “Star Power”, and in spades. Nobody thought she was a great singer. She was only a pretty good dancer. She wasn’t quite gorgeous. But when she walked into a room, everyone turned and stared. She had presence. She was sexy. She was smart as a whip. And she maximized everything she had in the service of her ambitions. Nobody who met her doubted her.

What was she after? She charted a number of fine pop songs, but it’s difficult to make the case that her music demands careful attention, or even much respect, the obvious exception being some of her work with Nile Rodgers on the album Like a Virgin. Rather, music seems to have been a means to an end for her, a vehicle to carry her to fame and fortune. Fair enough. She earned it.

They say it’s impossible that we should ever again see the rise of a celebrity as huge as Madonna was in her heyday. That seems a safe bet: pop songs aren’t as clever or as catchy or as musical as they used to be; the record companies are shadows of their former selves, with only traces of the money and power and influence they used to wield; and our pop stars are smaller now, too, with less talent and less charisma.

But my point is this: Madonna’s primary talent was not musical, though she made (with a lot of help) some very good pop music. Madonna’s singular gift was for self-presentation.  And she exacted a profound influence on our culture, at a time when our culture was ripe for that sort of influence.

More on that in a bit.

The Garden, Summer 2013: Finis

I don’t know anybody who has had good luck with their tomatoes this year. We’ve had too much rain and too little sun. I’ve purchased some good (but expensive) heirloom tomatoes at the Athens Farmer’s Market, but even those skilled and friendly farmers have had a tough time this year. All the rain encourages various “wilts” and other nasty diseases.

And it turns out that rabbits like tomato seedlings, though not as much as they seem to like sunflower seedlings.

It’s all been very disappointing.

But I’m going to set out some cruciferous vegetables in the raised beds this fall, some broccoli and cabbage and maybe a few Brussels sprouts stalks because Jonah will get a kick out of how weird they look. I’ll have to read up on winter gardening, having never done that sort of thing before. And I do wonder if all this daily rain is going to continue into the cold season.

I’ve never seen so much rain in the summertime. But I guess we were told this is how it would be…


I run.

No, not away from anything. And certainly not in place.

I run because it makes me feel good. Really good.

Somebody I know once said that running is like washing your brain.

Endorphins are a really nice high. Your body releases them into your bloodstream to reward you for doing something to make yourself healthier. It’s a good deal, and one I advise you to take. There are no sure bets when it comes to physical health. But there are ways to gain clear, clean advantages.

It’s a game of numbers, of percentages. In Vegas, you count cards and remain expressionless. In life, you eat right, exercise, try to get enough sleep, and attempt to maintain a positive attitude.

All of which, of course, is easier said than done.

But I heartily embrace my daily opportunity to increase my odds of living better and longer and happier. It only takes 2 or 3 miles a day, maybe 30-40 minutes at a slow jog. I do it every morning, whatever the time of year.

And not just for the way it makes me feel: I do it for the people I love. I don’t want to get sick in ways I can prevent. I don’t want to grow old the hard way if, instead, I can do it with some semblance of vigor and style and grace. I don’t want to make my family worry and cry about things over which I have some control. I don’t want to die before I have to. I can’t buy myself any guarantees, but I can powerfully increase my odds. Who the hell wouldn’t want to do that?

Then there’s the fact that I don’t want to set a shoddy example for my son. I don’t want to teach him bad habits. I don’t want him thinking that it’s normal to lay on the couch watching TV while there are so many things to see and do. He loves to go outside. He loves to run around and explore and laugh and fall down and get back up and run around some more.

So do I.


Jonah says: “Come on outside. There’s lots of nice sticks to play with. It’s real nice.”

Memorial Day in Farmington

Several things are growing around here.

We had a wonderful Memorial Day together, playing in Jonah’s little kiddie pool, tending the garden and taking long walks. We didn’t hang a flag or say anything solemn about those who served our country, but we did spend our first day together as a family without sickness and study and stress and work since Jonah was born, just laughing and playing and feeling lucky to be alive. Heck, we even cooked up some hamburgers for lunch.

I figure there’s a lot of American soldiers who would have smiled to see us smile so much…


baby sunflower


Happy Memorial Day


the sky above the Farmington community center


Laura Lee


September, 2012

After eleven years teaching art at Clarke Middle School, my wife is currently finishing her first year at Cedar Shoals High School. She has the summer off to spend with Jonah, and to try to catch up with all the things that get set aside when you’re a working mom. Like sleep, for instance.

Last August was quite a transition, with Jonah going to day care for the first time, me attending classes for the first time after two semesters of online studying, and Laura Lee working at a new school teaching older kids. There were some tough days there for a bit.

By early fall we were in a groove, of sorts. I was driving Jonah to daycare every morning, then going to class, then heading to a cafe to study for a few hours, then rushing across town to see my boy for a few minutes, then driving back across town to work the evening shift at the restaurant. Once a week I’d keep Jonah at home for a half day, just to hang out, just to be around part of my family for a few extra hours.

I learned a lot last fall, hanging out with Jonah and rushing around town. The most important thing I learned is that I had gone back to school just in time. I felt with a crushing certainty that I didn’t want to spend too many more years working evenings while my wife and child were at home without me. So I was pretty emotional a good bit of the time, overwhelmed with all the newness, and with sleep deprivation slowly catching up to me.

But no matter how sad or lonely or frazzled or exhausted or uncertain I got, I knew that Jonah was in good hands while his momma was around. Every day after work she’d pick him up and text me a picture of them hanging out in the car for a few minutes before driving home:IMG_0144

Or out for a walk down our country road a bit later:


She kept me going with those photos, and with her love.

A lot of words have been strung together by people trying to talk about love. But I have never seen or heard anything that speaks of love more powerfully than the look in my son’s eyes when he’s happy and in the company of someone he loves. And he sure does love his momma.

She’s been everything to me since the day I met her. She’s an amazing woman, and she’s got more class and smarts and drive and fortitude than most people I ever met. And she’s beautiful, which is nice.

But it’s the light in her eyes that makes me feel like the luckiest man I ever knew. I don’t owe her everything: there’s been a couple of other people who are incredibly important to me, who helped me off my knees back when I was too young and too naive to realize that I was even on my knees. But Laura Lee latched onto me pretty damn tight, right from the start, and she’s never let me go, no matter how bad things got, no matter how lost I sometimes felt, no matter how confused we sometimes were about where we were going. She’s the light of my life in a world where there’s entirely too much darkness.

And now, here’s this little dude, walking his funny walk and smiling his sweet smile, with all the love in the world just spilling out of him like it’s no big deal. It’s me and her all mixed up together in him, shining like the sun.


I have worked in the restaurant business for much of my adult life. I’ve done pretty well professionally, both as an owner and as a manager, and I am proud of the part I’ve played in the community and in people’s lives. But it’s a hard business, and a stressful one, with endless crises and never-ending staff turnover. A few years back, I began to realize that I didn’t want to pursue another ownership stake in a restaurant, that I was burning out. I was tired of working tirelessly to help make everybody’s family time fun, relaxing and delicious while my family was at home alone, without me. So I decided to go to tech school.

I was enrolled at Athens Tech for the entirety of 2012, getting all of my general education courses and a few introductory core courses out of the way. My original intent was to pursue an associate’s degree in computer networking. But the computer science department at Athens Tech is not robust: they no longer offer computer programming, and the only networking they teach is Microsoft. Last fall, at the urging of friends in the IT industry, I began to consider transferring to Gwinnett Tech so as to study either Cisco or Unix networking. At the same time, I found myself really enjoying my Intro to Programming Design class, a prerequisite for both networking and programming degrees. So I stood at a crossroads: if I was going to transfer to Gwinnett Tech anyway, I could choose to study any of several flavors of network engineering, or programming, or even information security. After a thorough review of class schedules and prerequisite requirements and potential salaries, I chose programming. I’m glad I did.

It’s not easy, mind you, though I’m not sure how hard it really is. I have no perspective on these things. I sorta stumbled into this stuff after years away from school. But I really enjoy it. It’s like scratching an itch I never quite knew I had. I especially enjoy the actual programming. And I’ve done well, so far. This spring I completed C++ I, Java I and SQL, all with A’s. This summer I’m taking Web Development I (basically HTML, XHTML & HTML5) and Systems Analysis & Design. Then in the fall I’ll take C++ II, Java II and Financial Accounting I.

Summer semester is shorter than spring and fall, and I’ve been warned that it will be intense, but it can’t be much more intense than this recent spring semester or I’m going to end up in the hospital. A full-time job, a full class-load and a baby boy can wear you down. It’s the lack of sleep that does it, really. You keep pushing forward even as you start to come unraveled.

But I’m excited. This summer should be fun. I love what I’m learning, I’m on the Dean’s List, and I get to play outside with my wife and son whenever I’m not studying or working. Life is good.

I’m a lucky man.


trees in our backyard

The Garden, Phase 2 (cont.)


expanded garden

Wednesday I devoted to finishing the garden and working on some technical stuff before summer semester starts. Once school is back in session I’ll have little time for anything but work, sleep and study. Though our garden is not big, it is important to us. And we’ll continue to expand it over the next few seasons.

I planted oregano, thyme, chives and flat leaf parsley next to the basil, along with a bunch of heirloom Sunspot Sunflowers that grow to about 1.5 feet, the perfect size for Jonah and not so tall that they block out the sun on the tomatoes. Then I repaired and extended the irrigation system.