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Poems for the People   -  Poems by the People

There have been a few requests lately (okay, one request actually) for more information about the genesis of Passions in Poetry. What kind of person is willing to devote several hours a day to a web site that doesn't support itself and doesn't try to sell you anything? Where did the idea come from for an intensely interactive site about poetry?

Why did I start Passions in Poetry?

A Little History (I promise, just a little)

Ron Carnell, 2005, visiting Holland, Michigan

My name is Ron Carnell.

Although born and raised in Michigan, I've spent most of the past 20+ years living and working in Southern California, the result of being stationed there when I was still at the only-have-to-shave-every-other-day stage. When I was discharged from the Marines (think about that very common verb for a minute and it'll tell you a lot about the service), I returned to Michigan long enough to use my VA Benefits to pick up my first degree, an A.A. in Commercial Art, which I later transformed into a Business B.S. (when I discovered "starving artist" was a cliché for a very good reason).

Somewhere between Art and Business, I made a rather abrupt decision to return to California. If I remember correctly, that decision occurred in the month of February, and if you have to ask what prompted it, you either have never been to Southern California or you like snow a lot more than I do!

A Twelve-Year Mistake

For a short time, I owned and operated a commercial photography studio in Battle Creek (Tender Touch Studios, on Capital Ave), but most of my work experience in Michigan was spent in food service. That's a very polite way of saying I worked sixty and seventy hour weeks as a "working" manager (i.e., flipping burgers) at a Battle Creek chain of Koffee Shops (and, yes, the spelling is a clue to which one). With such prestigious experience behind me, it was only natural to continue in the food service industry when I moved to California. And I did. For about twelve years, eventually working my way up to Director of Operations for a nine-unit chain in San Diego. That ended, though, in 1980.

During most of the Seventies, I had sporadically been writing and selling magazine articles on a wide variety of topics (like, whatever drew my interest that month). Most of them were published in trade publications (like "Training") or regional magazines ("Michigan Motor News"), but I was also lucky enough to place some of my work nationally (Parent's Magazine). It was hard work (especially the research), didn't pay nearly enough, but it was also an awful lot of fun. Writing, in some small way, replaced the creative outlet I had lost when I abandoned Commercial Art.

The Computer that Changed My Life

My writing indirectly led me into an intense involvement with computers. In January of 1980, I had just typed the same manuscript for about the fifteenth time and abruptly decided this typewriter stuff was for the birds! So I bought a computer to replace the old, manual Royal typewriter that had seen me through college and a few dozen magazine articles.

That was before the IBM PC made it's debut (late 1981), legitimizing a new industry, but there were still a number of companies trying to blaze a trail in very untested waters. Let's see, there was Apple, of course, Texas Instruments, Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack - yea, there was actually quite a few. (Interesting history note: while every one of those computers ran their own proprietary operating system, every one of them also included a version of Microsoft BASIC. If you didn't know it, that's where the richest man in the world really got his start!)

My First Syntax Error

Now this is going to sound really stupid, and I guess it's an indication of how much I knew about computers back then. I didn't realize that a Commodore 64, my final choice, wasn't going to let me write my articles. I bought it, brought it home, hooked it up to a black & white TV set, and then sat there staring at a READY> prompt for about fifteen minutes. Out of desperation (and ignorance), I started typing in my article, but after a line or two the little critter popped up and told me I had a Syntax Error. And I thought my article was written in perfectly acceptable English!

What I was missing, of course, was software. Specifically, a word processor. Unfortunately, I soon discovered there simply wasn't a whole lot of software out there yet. And what little was available was expensive, buggy as hell, and wouldn't do half of what I wanted (gee, that sounds a lot like the software we're still buying twenty years later). Being slightly stupid, more than slightly ignorant, and very, very masochistic - I decided to write my own.

The Birth of a Nerd

To make a long story short (yea, I know it's already too late for that), I got hooked.

I taught myself BASIC, then machine language when I discovered interpreted BASIC was too slow, and every article I published after that was about computers. And there were a lot of them, two of which were eventually anthologized in book format, because I was spending every waking moment outside work learning about an incredible new world.

Computers, I think, represented the creative outlet I had long missed in my "business" life, while still being based on a very logical, very methodical paradigm.

At that time, twenty years ago, there was no simple way to describe my obsession. At that time, twenty years ago, the only analogy I could find was falling in love - that too brief week or month or year when eating and sleeping and the other mundane tasks of life fall a far second behind our heart's burning desire. Today, twenty years later, society has seen that phenomenon often enough to give it a name. I became a computer nerd.

(P.S.: I still think the love affair analogy is more apt. And like any true love, the bond has dimmed only slightly over the years. Even though I'm now semi-retired, with many other interests, I still spend several hours a day programming. I have to. It's an addiction.)

Computer Science Student

In the fall of 1981, about 18 months after buying my first C64, I quit my job and went back to school. I was 31 years old, giving up a $35,000-a-year "safe" career (which was a lot more money then that it is now), and everyone I knew thought I was absolutely crazy (including my soon-to-be ex-wife). I guess maybe I was.

I graduated a year later (broke, divorced, but excited), and immediately found a job with a small software house in Costa Mesa. They sold software for big rental yards, written on minicomputers (what most people think of as mainframes) running the Pick operating system, later to become Pick running on Unix, and they agreed to pay me $18,000 a year. I was finally a real, honest-to-goodness, getting-paid-to-do-what-I loved programmer.

(P.S.: My ecstasy lasted about thirty minutes. Then I discovered that most of what I had learned in school, and everything I had taught myself before that, was completely useless in this new environment. Sigh...)

The Accidental Entrepreneur

That first job lasted three years, long enough to make me a grizzled veteran in a new industry, and then I spent another two working for a large insurance agency. When one of the principals in that agency left to found a new company, he asked me to write his software for him. Suddenly, I had a "client" as well as an employer.

Being greedy (and having starved during that year I went back to school), I kept my day job, but my first client soon referred a second, and a third came out of left field, and I soon had to make a choice. I was perfectly content being an "employee," and getting paid to do what I loved. But just because love is blind doesn't mean it has to be stupid, too. Opening my own company meant I could still do what I loved, but get paid more to do it. That was in 1988, and I've never looked back.

During those early years, most of my clients were involved with the insurance industry in one way or another, and all of them were running software written for large, multi-user computers. From day one, my company never spent a dime on advertising, and it was natural for word-of-mouth referrals to operate in what was a fairly small circle.

I hired a number of contract programmers, became a dealer for two minicomputer manufacturers so I could provide the hardware my software needed, and eventually branched out into other, non-insurance realms. My company wrote software for the home mortgage industry, real estate, a few small retail businesses, eventually returned to the rental industry where I had started, and even put together a fairly successful project management system for a very large defense contractor.

In the very early Nineties, a few of my clients heard about this new-fangled idea called PC networks, and I soon found myself involved in Novell 3.12, and a couple of DOS based database systems called Revelation and Paradox. By the time Windows 3.0 came out, about half of my clients were running networks instead of minicomputers and, of course, they wanted this new kid on the block, Windows, to work with their Novell networks. It didn't, not very well, not in those early days (that later changed, especially with the introduction of Novell 4.0), so I convinced seventeen of my eighteen DOS clients to switch from Novell to Windows NT. Oh, my, that was an exciting year.

Access, Windows NT, and the Internet

NT introduced me to SQL Server, which got my company involved with MS Access 2.0, and soon I was converting almost all of my software to this wonderful new relational data base.

In 1996, one of my insurance clients happened upon this weird new idea called the Internet and absolutely insisted I do something about it for him. A little investigation at his behest uncovered a new world, where graphics (remember that A.A. degree?) and writing and programming all combined into a remarkable new entity. Did somebody come up with this just for me? By the end of 1997 I had designed and was maintaining eight web sites, with another half dozen just waiting for a thirty-hour work day.

I was not bored. Exhausted, yes, bored, no way.

Michigan Beckons

Then, 1997 rolled in and brought two related changes into my life.

My dad, long retired and living the good life with my mother in Michigan, was diagnosed with cancer. Two days after I received that news, a programmer who had been with me almost since day one informed me he had inherited a couple of bucks and would like to buy into the company. We talked, we made deals, and Mark eventually ended up buy all of the company. On July 5, 1997, I pulled into Colon, Michigan in a 500-foot moving truck (well, it certainly felt that big), pulling my little red sports car behind.

My father, bless his soul, died on August 13, 1997, and I resolved to devote all my time and efforts to helping my mother cope with a new, frightening situation. They had been together nearly fifty years and, like so many marriages of that era, Mom had been fully dependent on Dad for so very, very many things (beyond those which even today's marriages must attend - like love and comfort).

I felt Mom needed me (she probably didn't), and I was determined to help. During most of the twenty-plus years I was a card-carrying workaholic, I had made relatively few trips back home (and don't even talk about getting Mom on a plane to come to California!), and like many modern families we had spent far too little time together.

In retrospect, I guess I approached our "new" relationship the same way I always did programming (or anything else, for that matter). I found a rental not only in the same small town, but on the same street, and we spent a lot of time together. She probably got very tired of seeing my face, but I thought it was wonderful. Oh yea, I also put on about forty pounds during the winter of 1997. Mom was a damn fine cook.

Something New Surfaces

I discovered, however, that you can't stop being a workaholic overnight. I started teaching a computer course at a local community college in September of 1997, just one day a week, just enough to get me out of Mom's hair for a while and keep my hands on the pulse of my wonderful computer industry.

My specialty way back when I was in food service was training, with many of my earliest articles on that subject, and I had done a lot of software training in my own company - and I was still scared to death the first time I had to stand up in front of twenty strangers. But, over the course of the semester, I discovered what a lot of other people have, that teaching can provide an immensely rewarding feeling.

My one class expanded to two when the Winter semester rolled around, one in C programming and one on Networks, and then I became involved with a private company in Kalamazoo that wanted me to do full-day seminars on a subject near and dear to my heart - Microsoft Access.

Too much Access success

The success of the Access classes led to a few 3- and 5-day seminars on the more technical aspects of Windows NT, and I also started doing an occasional class on MS Project, which became popular and less than just occasional. When another instructor fell ill, I would substitute for Excel, Word, or Win95 classes. Then came five different classes geared towards the Internet, which were so exciting I couldn't hardly turn them down, and suddenly I found myself, quite by accident, teaching almost every day of every week.

Bad News . . . Again . . .

In April of 1998, that hectic, though rewarding, schedule came to a screeching end. Mom had been increasingly sick since Thanksgiving, and they finally discovered why. Cancer.

I finished out my semester at the college, but refused to renew my contract for the summer or fall, and cut back to a maximum of one or two days a week in Kalamazoo, often taking off for weeks at a time so Mom and I could travel to her Bluegrass festivals in the motor home. She so loved Bluegrass, or rather the people that were a part of that music circuit. The doctors fought the cancer with weekly chemotherapy, but everyone knew the best we could hope for was to buy more time. Not nearly enough time.

As the summer disappeared, so too did Mom's strength, and the Bluegrass trips where she could spend time with life-long friends soon ended as well. I stopped teaching entirely for two months. The only time I touched a keyboard was to help track the increasing array of medications they were prescribing, so many pills and elixirs that often contended with each other I needed a spreadsheet just to time them throughout the day.

On August 24, 1998, one year and seventeen days after Dad left us, Mom joined him. Over the course of forty years, the family had often joked that nothing could ever keep those two apart for long, and Mom proved us right. Her death was peaceful, ending months of suffering, and we all know it was as inevitable as birth and as much a part of life as living. And still it hurts, as everyone who has gone through it must know.

Loose Ends

It took me another month to return to teaching, and I'm determined this time to maintain a schedule of just a few days a week. As much as I enjoy it, I've come to realize there are more important things in life than computers and software. I'm travelling to a Bluegrass Festival soon, one of the last ones of 1998, to visit some of Mom's life-long friends who, over the course of this past summer, became my new-found friends. It will probably be the last festival for me, but somehow it seems appropriate.

I'm doing some writing again, returning to my roots so to speak, and I've even accepted a small contracting job in Access simply because it sounded interesting. I'm obviously spending a lot of time on the Internet, and many of the forums and people I've met here have prompted me to start expressing my life through poetry again. My plans are very nebulous right now, and I'm fortunate enough to be in a position where I can live with that. 'Course, I'm still not real good at just sitting around.

And now you know more about me, in many ways, than most of my close friends or family. I haven't written a single word about this web site, or even attempted to explain it's purpose.

Or have I?