Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Blog begins but the story is already underway

The Blog begins but the story is already underway.

This is the first post to my new blog "Returning to Japan".  Although this is the first post the process is already well underway.  I'll start off with some background for those of you who haven't been following the whole story.  It is interesting to me to see how all of the threads of a life tie together.  The patterns are not always obvious.  I've been thinking of writing this stuff down for some years now so finally here's my chance.

History or a trip back up river

"Begin at the beginning and when you come to the end stop."

Thano Johnson
I don't suppose that there is ever really a beginning but my interest in Japan  seems to have started when I was in High School studying pottery.  I studied ceramics with Hugh Aanonsen at Lincoln High in San Francisco.  My interest in ceramics took be to the Brundage Collection then at the De Young Museum and now in a museum of it's own at the Civic Center.  The Brundage Collection introduced me to the great works of Japanese, Chinese and Korean ceramics.  Mr. A. also introduced me to Thanos Johnson of the College of Marin.  I have just discovered that Thano Johnson passed away in 2004.  His obituaries mention him as an expert in Korean pottery but it was as a Japanese potter that I knew him.  He was a student of Shoji Hamada of Mashiko Japan.  Thano Johnson introduced us to Japanese tools and techniques.  In particular the Japanese hand wheel (shown in the picture) and Raku firing.  Raku is a dramatic technique where you pull red hot pieces out of the kiln and plunge them into sawdust or straw for a radical reduction glaze.  Thano Johnson used to have raku parties out on the beach at Point Reyes with wood fired single pot kilns, great fun!  In 1970 there must not have been any smoke alarms at Lincoln High because we would surely have set them off with our raku firings.  We didn't use wood fired kilns but the smoke from dousing red hot pottery in sawdust filled the basement studio.  Often to the point of forcing a temporary evacuation to breathe.

I never became a potter but through an interesting chain of circumstance pottery gave me an interest in fire which led me into welding.  That too was pretty much a dead end but there are still some threads of connection.  In 1971 I graduated from High School and went off to spend the summer in Colorado.  My brother Mark was working on a construction project so I followed him out there.  Mark left Colorado to go to Mallorca with Maharishi to become a teacher of Transcendental Meditation and I got his job as a laborer on a construction project 10,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. I could only do the job for a month before getting fired for weakness.  The altitude and my lack of athleticism didn't cut me out for a high mountain construction worker.  Nonetheless I made enough money in that month to spend the rest of the summer in Colorado and buy a decent Yamaha guitar on my return.  While in Colorado that summer I twice walked from Snomass at Aspen over the mountains to Marble where Thano Johnson's studio was located.  Those walks were peak experiences in more than one way.

Norrie Colorado

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So the trip to Colorado got me a guitar but no case to carry it in so I went to Bay High an alternative school in Berkeley to make a case.  That was my introduction to woodworking.  The case was never finished but I had started acquiring some useful skills.  Woodworking at Bay High led me to auto mechanics again at Bay High. This was in the days when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman were advocating being a non-student and that's what I was.  Bay High became the Bay High Collective and kicked out the school.  I stayed there for about a year and then fled the crazyness of Berkeley for an expidition to New Hampshire, upstate New York and finally back to San Francisco working as an auto mechanic.    This is also about the time I started doing TM.  My brother had returned from his teacher training and instructed my mother in the TM technique.  Soon after that I saw a significant change in her, she became a much more tolerable person.  I figured if it worked for her it might work for me so I started too and have never stopped.

After about two years of working on cars I realized that I really wanted to go to College.  As a mechanic I could see that there were lots of design problems with the cars that I was working on.  I would see characteristic failures in specific cars.  For example all small frame ford products including Mustangs and Fairlanes, had problems with their upper ball joints.  Also VW engines all had the risk of sucking a valve in cylinder #3 because the oil cooler blocked air flow to that cylinder leading to excess head and early failure of the exhaust valve.  It was obvious to me that I could never change these things as a mechanic so I decided to become a mechanical engineer and for that I needed the University.  Thanks to TM I was now getting along much better with my Mother and she supported me to go to College first at City College of SF and then at UC Berkeley.  (Thanks Mom, Jai Guru Dev!)

Well I didn't become a potter and I didn't become a welder and I didn't become a cabinet maker and I didn't become an auto mechanic although I did turn a wrench for a living for a couple years.  And I didn't become a Mechanical Engineer either.  The program in Mechanical Engineering at CCSF required me to take a year of mechanical drawing before I could take any University level engineering courses.  At that time I was also introduced to computers and took my first programming class.  It seemed to me then that Mechanical Engineering at CCSF was preparing me for work as a draftsman at a time when drafting was converting to CAD but the skills I was learning did not seem to have a future.  Computing, on the other hand, was a fast track to a huge opportunity.  Computing was important in all sorts of areas including mechanical engineering but lots more as well.  I switched my major and computing has been my profession ever since.  Until now but more about that later.
USS Shasta

So bring it back to Japan.  While I was a student at UC I got a job working on steamship engine room automation equipment through a friend from Bay High.  That job went from working on a US navy ship 
 to servicing American President Lines container ships in Oakland to working on those APL ships as they went through drydock first in San Francisco at Triple A Machine in Hunters Point and at the Bethlehem Steel yard in SF and then at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries shipyard in Kobe Japan.  That was my first visit to Japan, in 1979 I spent a month in Kobe.  While on that trip I visited a friend of my mother's who was working as an English teacher in Tokyo.  That brief visit gave me a vision of the possibilities.  In retrospect I guess that was when I was really hooked.

A few years later I returned to Japan to attend my friend Masayoshi Kojima's wedding in Himeji.  Again a few years later while working for Masscomp in Washington D.C. I had the chance to go to Japan to work with a customer on a workstation project in Tokyo for three months.  By then I was well and truly hooked.  When I returned from Japan that time in 1988 my company, Masscomp, was merged with Concurrent Computer Corp.  There are a couple of images that this merger brings to mind.  The nicer image is of two ships that collide.  When ships collide one always goes up and the other down.  It was clear to us from Masscomp that it was our ship that went down.  (The other image is of sodomy without lubrication but 'nuff said.)  So faced with an unpleasant working situation I decided that I could take another job across the street in DC, return to California or go to Japan.  Being single and seeking a challenge I decided to go to Japan. So I wrote to the President of Masscomp Japan Mr. Kumpei Fukuda, to ask if he had a job for me.  When he got the letter he called on the phone to ask when I could get there and that was it I was off.  Three months later I was on a plane for Tokyo.

Just a brief aside.  While driving back from Washington D.C. to California on my way to Japan I passed through Carbondale Colorado and visited with the old friend who had first introduced me to the wonders of computing.  In a world where people are often called visionary for very little reason Jerry Barenholtz was a true visionary.  It was Jerry who was telling me back in 1976, a time when most computers didn't have a modem and the entire connectivity of the Arpanet could be listed in an RFC, that computer communications was going to revolutionize society.  Bill Gates hadn't even written his BASIC interpreter yet.