It’s been close to a month and a half since I’ve had a chance to return to telling this story, and believe it or not, there have been a couple of people who have asked, “Hey, when are you getting back to that?” Of course, then there was maniacal laughter on the other end of the phone, followed by something that sounded like maybe one person being subdued by several, so you have to consider the source. Anyway, the last installment dealt with my religious formation from the end of my seventh grade year to the end of high school, approximately 1989-94. We’re effectively dealing with the years of my adolescence — messy years in any kid’s life, to be sure, and I’d rather this not turn into an after-the-fact tween confessional, but there are maybe some details worth talking about.
If I had to come up with a particular narrative arc to describe those five years of my life, I suppose I might call it a quest for community. I had a number of interests, and I tried to find ways of using them to make friends. Taking after my dad, I took up the guitar, first learning from him and then from a teacher, a great guy named Dave Head. I became a reasonable rhythm player, and I could learn the mechanics of other peoples’ solos pretty quickly, and so I tried to see what I could do about getting into a band. Can’t say it worked terribly well; bottom line is that I was neither cool enough as a person nor flashy enough as a player to be terribly attractive to anybody who actually knew what they were doing (plus I couldn’t exactly afford the highest end equipment). Eventually my teacher and I realized that being a rock guitar player just didn’t fit my personality — and part of it seemed to be that I actually had a teacher and wasn’t self-taught — and he put a piece of Bach in front of me and said, “Learn this. See what it does for you.” That marked my first step into the world of classical music, and my life was not to be the same. Anyway, I became acquaintances with some other band-minded musicians my age, and I got the impression that they respected my efforts and enthusiasm even if I wasn’t really up to snuff as a performer (or perhaps I have just wistfully constructed the memory of that impression), but it just wasn’t meant to be.
In January of 1990, winter trimester of my 8th grade year, my mom brought home a computer. It was an old IBM XT — two 5.25″ floppy drives, no hard drive, 128k RAM, monochrome monitor with no graphics card, and an internal 1200 baud modem, all running on PC-DOS 3.0 (as I recall — might have been 2.0). It also came with a printer — a Commodore 6400 daisywheel model that was larger and heavier than the PC and had something like a 6 characters-per-second output. The whole setup was a dinosaur even for 1990, but it had cost all of $100, and I’ll tell you what, I squeezed every last drop of value out of that $100. My first computer was an Atari 800XL that was a Christmas present in 1983, but I had never been able to quite figure out how to get the use out of that machine I wanted. The IBM, with all of its capabilities current to, well, at least 1985, I was able to still use in 1990 for word processing (even if it did take 20 minutes to print out a lab report), uh… word processing, and… well, word processing…
…but then I realized it had a modem.
In seventh grade, much like many other adolescents of my generation, I had read, and been captivated by, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. As a kid in “gifted programs” (whatever that meant) who seemed to have a hard time not being a target for others, obviously there was a lot of relatable material. Particularly fascinating, however, was the way that Valentine and Peter took over the world via some kind of anonymous electronic presence.
So when it was pointed out to me that the modem allowed me to use my computer to call up things called “bulletin board systems” — well, that just sounded like the coolest thing I had ever heard of. An issue of Puget Sound Computer User provided some phone numbers, and soon I was “Synthman” (just sounded cool) on Miranda S. Station, as well as “Demosthenes” (and that was the sound of everybody who’s ever read Ender’s Game rolling their eyes simultaneously) on The Centuriate Assembly and other boards. Here it was, a social (arguably) context where it didn’t matter what I looked like, whether I was awkward — it was entirely a matter of how I was able to express myself. And, while I had a bit of a learning curve about the etiquette and protocol of BBS interaction, I found I was able to express myself reasonably well.
My parents were not entirely thrilled; when the topic of BBS in-person meetups arose, it became a real conceptual problem for them and a bit of a catch-22 for me. These were largely high school and college people; I was in the 8th grade. “What could possibly be a good reason that somebody in high school or college would want to spend time with somebody your age?” was the barrier for them. The thing that was crazy-making for me was that they already knew full well that I had always tended to get along better with people older than me, but the entire idea of establishing any kind of basis for interaction independent of concrete external factors was completely foreign to them. It also meant that I was hearing concerns expressed about establishing online friendships for purposes of kidnapping and sexual abuse years before instances of these became national news. Anyway, eventually my parents relented, and it just became something that I was regularly involved with. I didn’t do any extracurricular activities in junior high, so BBS-land rather became my social circle. What in-person friends I did have in junior high seemed to follow me into the electronic realm; among this group is one Eric Rachner, a computer security expert and famous Seattle urban golfer. I remember going to his house and him showing me their Prodigy subscription; shortly after he came over to my house and saw what I was doing on various boards, he had written his own BBS hosting software.
My interactions on BBSes had a great deal of decisive influence on my musical tastes. My guitar playing took me down a path that included Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and lots of classic and progressive rock like Led Zeppelin and Rush (which also led to a brief dalliance with Ayn Rand in eighth and ninth grade); the BBS folks turned me on to Cocteau Twins, Lush, Gary Numan, the Smiths, et al. — everything a socially awkward young man needed in the early 1990s. Cocteau Twins in particular was my first foray into singing where there was an assumption that you weren’t necessarily going to understand the words, which was an important leap for me to take.
My taste in music also brought to my attention the Seattle bands that would eventually hit the big time — Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone (Pearl Jam’s predecessor), all right around the first wave of major label debuts hit from these acts (i.e., the first batch to be entirely ignored). I also recall the death of Andrew Wood (Mother Love Bone’s lead singer) being announced on one of the BBSes I frequented by somebody who was a friend of his. I can remember doing a presentation for my ninth grade Social Studies class sometime in the spring of 1991 about Seattle music starting to get national attention; Queensryche’s “Empire” and “Silent Lucidity” were getting some play on MTV, as was Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box”, but it was to be another six months or so before the hype would really hit with Nirvana’s Nevermind, so for the most part I remember a lot of vacant expressions on the part of my classmates during the talk.
My favorite Seattle band from the period was called Hammerbox. Right before I started my sophomore year of high school, I wandered into their Bumbershoot show, Labor Day weekend 1991, knowing nothing about them except that they were supposedly good, and I didn’t really want to go with my parents to see Tony Bennett. They were amazing. Carrie Akre was a great rock singer and had a stunning stage presence; I’m pretty sure that just about every guy who ever saw one of their concerts developed some kind of crush on her, and I was no exception. The songs were balls of energy that bounced through the Mercer Arena (a trope in their press clippings was that their sound was “whirling”), and all I knew coming out of there was that I had to find their CD, I had to see them again live, and I had to find some way to make Carrie fall in love with me. Well, I accomplished two out of the three; I was lucky enough to get to see Hammerbox a total of three times over the next couple of years, and I found their album. Carrie I would eventually meet and get to be at least friendly acquaintances with for a brief period in my early 20s, but, you know, by that point we had both moved on, you know what I mean?
Hammerbox, by the way, was a great cautionary example of what could happen to a Seattle band. I still maintain that the self-titled C/Z Records debut is one of the best releases of any local artist from that period; “When 3 is 2” should have been picked up as a radio-friendly hit for the same reasons that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, and Carrie should have been somebody that the label realized could have been a gold mine. They signed with A&M Records, Soundgarden’s label, released Numb, their major-label debut, in 1993 (complete with a redo of “When 3 is 2”, clearly recognizing its potential as a breakout hit), and… well, and nothing. No MTV play, no airplay, nothing. Part of the trouble is that Numb sounded like somebody had tried to make a Nirvana record with Carrie behind the microphone, and even “When 3 is 2” came across as overproduced in all the wrong ways, as though the producer and engineer had completely misunderstood what made the song work both onstage and on the first album. Everything that was distinctive about the band’s stage presence and live sound had been sort of run through a grunge filter, and as a result there was nothing to distinguish the album. It’s sad, because the songs that are on the album were great live; on the CD, something just didn’t work the same way. By 1994 the band had broken up, and Carrie went on to form another band called Goodness… where just about exactly the same series of events happened, beat by beat, right down to the major label debut that should have been a smash but went nowhere because clearly the A&R guys had a completely misinformed picture of what they were selling. Girl just could not catch the break that she should have. Hammerbox had a very brief reunion about 8 years ago or so, but it doesn’t seem to have been meant to be.
In 1991, I started my sophomore year at Inglemoor High School. For the most part, all of my junior high friends were heading off to Woodinville High School, so I was faced with starting afresh, for better or for worse. As it worked out, this problem largely solved itself. For some reason that was never made clear, the schedules we had received in August were tossed out and completely reformulated right before the beginning of the year, which left me with some unexpected blanks in my day. In a move that turned out to be pivotal, I decided to take a bunch of English electives, which meant that in the fall I took both Speech and Drama, and in the winter I took Journalism. The combination of Speech and Drama did much to bring me out of my shell; I found that I could speak in front of people without really caring what they thought, and I also found that I had some ability to be onstage.
I auditioned for the fall play, a 1920s period piece from the 1950s called The Dark at the Top of the Stairs by William Inge (perhaps best known for the Warren Beatty film Splendor in the Grass). Much to my surprise, I got the part of Sammy Goldenbaum, a key supporting role, and what do you know? Suddenly I had a social circle, suddenly I had something to do after school, and suddenly I had something that I seemed to be good at. Dr. Chumley in Harvey followed in the spring, as well as the “Best New Actor” award from the drama club. Journalism, as it happened, was also something I turned out to be good at, so for my junior year, Advanced Drama and the school paper were both rather foregone conclusions.
Junior year was very busy indeed; PSATs, newspaper, and lots of shows. Clement in The Wisdom of Eve, Norm in Present Tense, Stuart in The Enigma, and then in another pivotal happenstance, Doody in Grease!. Short version there is that I knew a musical was coming. I hadn’t sung since elementary school, but I figured I had two options: try to sing and maybe get a role, or not try to sing and definitely not get a role. As it worked out, I was the only guy, besides the kid who was the foregone conclusion for Danny, who was able to hit Doody’s high notes in “Those Magic Changes” without looking like he was in pain, and I could play the guitar. As for the high notes, all I can say is, I didn’t know they were supposed to be high. It was a positive enough experience all around that I decided to do choir the next year, which became another pivot point, and I won the drama club’s Best Supporting Actor award that year.
Still another pivot point was my decision to tag along with Woodinville High School on their trip to the International Thespian Society’s high school festival at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, June 1993. We didn’t really have the money for me to go, but I was bound and determined to make it work. I participated as fully as I could in the fundraising, and particularly since I was the only one doing that fundraising at my own high school, I was able to do pretty well. It all worked out; I went, had a ball (as it were), and even came back with my first girlfriend.
Here I should note that just because I was in theatre and had a social circle, it didn’t automatically solve all of my awkwardness. Our theatre crowd at Inglemoor wasn’t made up of The Beautiful People in the first place, and we all had our eccentricities, to say the least. Even in that context, I was a late bloomer, and kind of tended to be The Nice Guy Who Was Everybody’s Friend rather than anybody who girls might look upon with interest beyond that. I certainly had my share of girls I was interested in, but it was plain that it just wasn’t reciprocated. There was a lot of fumbling on my part my junior year with respect to The Girlfriend Issue, and it was all very frustrating.
A practical point is that I didn’t drive; I had taken driver’s ed the summer after my sophomore year, but Dad was very strict about the parameters of me practicing; short version is that unless he was the one in the passenger seat with nobody else in the car, I was not to be allowed to practice — he did not want me driving with my mother under any circumstances, for reasons I’m still not certain I understand. Anyway, because — as I’ve suggested — he and my mom were enduring their own circles of hell around this time, that meant he did not generally have the energy or presence of mind to allow me to drive, and the few times that he did, he argued with virtually everything I had been taught in class. His fear turned to anger so rapidly in those rare occasions that it was not an uncommon outcome for us to be pulled over with him screaming at me while I was sobbing. I almost failed the class itself because he refused to let me practice outside of class; his argument was, “We’ve paid for them to teach you to drive. If I’ve signed a check to relegate that responsibility to them, why is it still my responsibility to let you practice on my time?” The behind-the-wheel instructor (a kind gentleman, even if he was somewhat bewildered at my situation, named Vance Spangler) eventually realized what was happening, took pity on me, and started spending extra time with me outside of class so that I could pass the behind-the-wheel portion. For several months after the class was over, Dad and I had a ritual; I would go with him somewhere, ask if I could drive, and he would say, “No, not today.” If I asked something along the lines of, “If not now, when?” he would get mad and say, “When I think it is the right time. You driving is not at the top of my list of priorities right now, so drop it. I’ll let you know when you can practice.” There came a point when finally he said, “I want you to forget everything you learned. If we’ve satisfied a formality with you taking the class, fine, but I will be the one to teach you how to drive.” I thought that was a sign that we would be practicing more often, but it wasn’t, and before long he moved back to Alaska anyway (I’ll get to that). As I have said, this was a very difficult period in our lives at home, so this all has to be understood in that context, but it was what it was, and the practical effect was that I was The Kid Who Always Needed A Ride. Not exactly something to endear one to members of the opposite sex.
My not driving, incidentally, led to one of my more infamous goof-ups with the newspaper. Through Say Anything… and Singles, I had become somewhat enamored of Cameron Crowe, and was inspired to try to get an interview with Hammerbox for the school paper. I wrote letters to both The Rocket, the local rock weekly, and C/Z Records, trying to see what I could come up with. Turned out the person I connected with at The Rocket was the girlfriend of Harris Thurmond, the band’s guitarist, and she sent me a Hammerbox press kit as well as put me in touch with Harris. Harris and I talked on the phone several times, he was more than amenable to the idea, we set a date and a time, I found a photographer who could also drive, and we were set.
Except that I, the non-driver, had no idea how to get where we were going. I had assumed the driver/photographer would, since she spent a lot of time in Seattle. She assumed I would know how to get there. I had an address, and that was it — in 1993, long before the days of GPS or Google Maps or high schoolers having cell phones or things like this.
After about an hour and a half of driving around downtown Seattle, it became clear we weren’t going to find the place. When I got home, I tried calling Harris, I explained to his answering machine what happened as apologetically as I could, begged for a rescheduled time, and… yeah. Never heard from him again. “Getting Hammerboxed” shortly became a new expression amongst the rest of the newspaper crew.
Anyway, I was talking about my somewhat late development on the girls front. Somehow in the run-up to the Muncie trip (as Anna Russell might say, “D’you remember Muncie?”), I befriended a nice Woodinville High School girl who was on the tech end named Michelle. There was a level of mutual attraction, the week in Indiana turned out to be a good context for that to be investigated, and there it was. It wasn’t to last very long, but she has remained a good friend throughout the last twenty years regardless, so I guess it couldn’t have gone too horribly badly.
So, I was starting up my senior year as Drama Club president, editor of the school paper (getting Hammerboxed and all), and I had a girlfriend finally. I was getting ready to start what seemed like would be a triumphant last year of high school…
…and I got knocked down a few pegs, and I found myself going in a totally different direction by the end of the year than I thought I was going at the beginning.
That summer, Dad got an offer from a friend of his in Alaska to come work for his family’s bank in Anchorage. I have said that 1986-1993 represented years of hell for our family. This represented, more or less, the end of part of that hell for Dad. His attempt at being a small businessman in the suburbs of Seattle had gone nowhere fast since the rise of big box office supply outlets, to say nothing of Costco, and he was spending 70+ hours a week just trying to not sink too quickly. He had contemplated other options over the years (including the one he eventually took in 2003, Arizona), but could never quite bring himself to pull the trigger on what it would take to make the move. He had let go all of his employees, he was doing absolutely everything himself (except filing, that was my job), and there was no real way for it to get any better. As he said later, his friend lured him back to Alaska with one word: “Saturday.” He couldn’t get out of there fast enough; he closed up the shop as quickly as he responsibly could, and in September of 1993 he left for Alaska, marking the last time he was a regular, everyday part of my life. My mom and I stayed in Seattle so that I could finish high school; it was brutally difficult for both of us, but the options were between bad and worse. Staying was hard, but leaving would be harder.
In the fall, there was good news and bad news on the theatrical front. We were doing another musical, West Side Story, and I had my sights set on Riff. I knew there was no way I was going to be cast as Tony (that already seemed to be intended for the guy who had played Danny Zuko), since I wasn’t a good enough singer, but if I approached Riff as an acting challenge, then that could work. I was also enamored with Russ Tamblyn at the time — I had gotten into him thanks to Twin Peaks, and had become really impressed with his multitalented work in West Side Story, Fastest Gun in the West, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and so on. Well, I got the part, but I also got totally shut out of the fall play — a student teacher was directing that one, and she decided she wanted to go with a cast that didn’t consist of the “regulars”. Well, fair enough, but it was the first time I hadn’t been cast in something in two years, and it stung a bit, to say the least (particularly when, late in the game, I was asked to be on standby for one of the roles when that particular cast member got a bit flaky).
I started Concert Choir at the same time, and it became very obvious to me very quickly, between that daily experience and West Side Story auditions, that I was well behind where I needed to be vocally. So, I started taking voice lessons from the guy all of the great singers in choir and in the musical were with, Dennis Kruse. No, we couldn’t really afford it, it meant giving up guitar lessons, but the choir director not only was able to get Music Boosters to pick up part of it, she herself paid for a chunk out of her own pocket. We made it work.
It was in this context that I was quite unwise with my heart for the first time. I won’t go into this story too terribly much (it’s boring, it’s exactly the kind of “tween confessional” nonsense I don’t want this to turn into, and I don’t really want to tell those kinds of stories about somebody who has a totally different life now), but I’ll just say that the main problem was that I fell in love with a voice and not a person, my surrounding circumstances were such that they constituted an emotional vacuum, and as a result the person to whom that voice was attached wound up getting the full force of my attempt to fill that vacuum, which was far more than she should have been expected to handle. It was a mistake that wound up being far more painful before, during, and after its making than really should have been the case for a high school relationship, but there we are. Under different circumstances, I would have been better equipped to keep what was going on in perspective, but that wasn’t what I had to work with at the time. Έτσι είναι ζωή (Greek for “C’est la vie”, which is French for “Life sucks, get a helmet”).
(Somewhere in here I finally got my driver’s license. Didn’t do me a heck of a lot of good without a car, and that was still a few years away.)
The upshot of that, though, was that opera first came onto my radar. This girl was being primed big time for the opera world, and my thought was, “Well, if she can do it, I can do it.” I sometimes gloss this by saying that I got into opera to impress a girl, which is not entirely untrue by any means. Thing is, I wasn’t really an obvious candidate vocally for that kind of thing — I had, effectively, an actor’s singing voice. I could carry a tune well enough to get through musical theatre, but I didn’t have the clear, clarion instrument that theoretically one should have if they want to be on the operatic stage. I wasn’t a “natural voice” by any stretch of the imagination. Still, I kept at it, and little by little I got better. Opera, I thought, would be the perfect melding of the things I was trying to be good at, acting and singing — so what if I didn’t know anything about it and had never been to one? I could act, and I was learning to sing. If I could get better and keep getting better, then it would be workable. Everything else was just detail. Somewhere in here I got admitted to Western Washington University; it was the only school I had applied to (being broke sort of made the whole exercise of applying for colleges moot), it was where we had talked about me going since sophomore year, and while the looming Alaska move meant that its advantages of location and being in-state were called into question if not eliminated entirely, I figured hey, what the heck, I’ll do a double major of theatre and music. No problem, right?
Being newspaper editor, by the way, was a disaster. Short version is that I was doing too much. Concert choir, jazz choir, theatre, voice lessons, school paper — I just wasn’t able to be the guy who could stay and put the paper to bed no matter what. The teacher who was the advisor later told me that he had had that concern from the beginning, but he figured if anybody could successfully keep all the balls in the air, it would have been me. “All you proved is that nobody can do all of that, which isn’t your fault,” he said, but he asked for my resignation anyway, and I was smart enough to know that retreat, at that point, was the wiser part of valor.
West Side Story went well, but some of us got stupid and decided to ruin closing night by replacing the fake profanity in the script (“…when you’re a Jet, if the spit hits the fan…”) with the real words. It was my idea, the impetus came from me, and I’ll totally own that; it was a dumb, dumb, dumb stunt, even moreso since the superintendent of the school district was in the audience that night. A two-day suspension and six hours of Saturday school later, and it was evident to me that things like that really weren’t as cool as they seemed when you were thinking them up.
Even so, I got cast as Charlie Baker, the lead role of Larry Shue’s The Foreigner, the very last play of my senior year. It almost didn’t happen (after the West Side Story incident, the principal wanted to make not casting me a condition of allowing the play to go forward, since she had concerns about its subject matter to begin with), but it did nonetheless. All I will say about it is that it, in my own estimation, it was the best performance I ever gave anywhere in anything, and I won the drama club’s Best Actor award that spring. Unfortunately, the audio levels of the videotape were set too low, so there is no way to get anything useful out of it and you’ll simply have to take my word for it.
I also had a curious experience that year going to an open call for the role of Robin in what was then being called Batman 3. If you ever see the name “Mali Finn” in the credits for a movie as the casting director, well, I met her, I still have her card, and I even got a callback (which was the same night as the winter formal, but there you go). They wanted an unknown, they wanted somebody who could be believably street smart, and presumably they wanted somebody who was going to be shorter than Michael Keaton (who was still attached to the part of Bruce Wayne at that point). Well, I was unknown, at least (I’m a good 3 inches taller than Keaton), and of course it didn’t get any further than that, but it’s one of the cool things that I can say happened to me in high school. Obviously, since they ultimately went with Chris O’Donnell (over, it was rumored, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale), I’m inclined to believe that they were never seriously looking for an unknown to begin with, but who knows.
I had other interesting run-ins with show business; our drama teacher also worked for one of the big casting agencies in Seattle, and she would try to find opportunities for her students where she could. I read for a couple of commercials, and also read for a part in a movie we weren’t told the name of, but a couple of years later I was sitting in the audience for Mr. Holland’s Opus and realized I was watching the very scene I had read in the casting office. None of these came to anything; the one thing that actually happened was getting to work for three days as an extra on the movie Mad Love with Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore, and Matt Lillard. (Don’t bother looking for me; everything I was in got cut. Still, you can see a bunch of my friends very prominently in several scenes.)
My dad flew back from Alaska the day before my high school graduation. We did some packing up of the house. The next day, I graduated high school. The day after that, my parents flew to Alaska together, and I spent the night in the house by myself. The day after that, movers came, packed everything, and put it on a truck to Anchorage. I also had a voice lesson that day; out, at long last, came a voice that was clear, strong, had even vibrato, and extended up to a high E flat. Dennis got up and gave me a hug, saying, “I think you left your kid voice at the graduation ceremony.”
That gets me through high school graduation, so I’ll stop there. As I said before — after that, things got complicated.
I should add that I would have never survived the high school experience without some excellent teachers who made it a point to take an interest in me and care what became of me — some in big ways, some in small ways, but all in important ways. Dennis Kruse, Laurie Levine, Judy Filibeck, Sean Burrus, Tim Curtis, Bob Engle, Hjalmer Anderson, Dave Head, Bob Stewart, James Wilson, Vance Spangler, and Sheri Rosenzweig are all the main teachers I think of; thank God for all of them.