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Posts Tagged 'eric rachner'

Addenda to Kapitel Vier: The post-high school, struggling through junior year of college, and giving up to enter the workforce blues

Exactly what would happen to me following high school graduation was a point of no small controversy. My parents wanted me in Alaska with them as soon as possible and to stay up there as long as possible. The stated reason was so I could work as long as possible; there were at least two other reasons, however, that are probably best summed up by saying that me going to college “in state” (that is, in Washington), while it had seemed like a great idea up until summer of 1993, now didn’t seem like such a hot deal from a familial perspective. At best I’d now be a three hour flight away instead of an hour and a half’s drive (not that I had a car anyway), and while I still had incentives to go back to the Seattle area on the weekends, they weren’t part of it. My parents were going to have to deal with an empty nest in a place that had never actually been our nest, and they would have to do so with me relatively inaccessible. This is, I am certain, difficult under the best of circumstances, and the family difficulties we had been struggling with for the past several years meant that these were not the best of circumstances.

The bottom line was that, for that last summer before college, I really didn’t want to go to Alaska and they really didn’t want me to stay in Seattle. I had no desire to go someplace that I had no real memory of to be around two people who were likely to re-negotiate the manner of their life together after a year apart in a way that was going to be extremely unpleasant for any additional parties. If the point was for me to work, I could do that in Seattle without paying for a plane ticket; from where I sat, that made a heck of a lot more sense than forcing me to be a continuing participant in their drama. I had people I wanted to be around, but that was also part of the issue for my parents; they weren’t people they wanted me to be around. There’s not much more I can say about that without getting into specifics that aren’t appropriate for me to get into, so I’ll leave this by noting that I had a conversation with one parent where I expressed all of my concerns quite openly; this parent replied, well, yes, that’s all probably true. It isn’t going to be fun, and you’re probably going to have to deal with us fighting a lot. But that’s the way it goes, we’re a family, messed up though we may be, this is the way we want it for you right now, and we’re still in charge.

This was a growing source of tension as high school graduation neared; ultimately, however, there were two things that threw a wrench into the plan for me to be in Alaska for the entire summer — one was early orientation for Western Washington University, and the other was the aforementioned opportunity to work as an extra on the movie Mad Love. Again, don’t bother looking for me; everything I was in was cut. I could have worked more, but the three days I did work meant a two week delay in my departure for Alaska, and my parents weren’t willing to delay it any more. Still, as it worked out, I had to be back a month later anyway for early orientation and registration. The schedule became a month up, three weeks back, and a month up.

Yes, the time in Anchorage was rough, for all of the reasons I expected it to be. However, I will be the first person to say that there are parts of it I’m glad for; I had the chance to reconnect with some family members I hadn’t seen in years, and I was able to continue some of my vocal momentum with a voice teacher named Bettyrae Easley, who did the very practical thing of getting me ready to audition for Western’s music major, something in the post-graduation whirlwind that there just hadn’t been time to discuss with Dennis once my voice had finally opened up. Among other things, Bettyrae taught me my first French mélodie, Fauré’s “Lydia”, which served as my introduction to an entirely new song paradigm (to say nothing of the beginning of a, shall we say, complex relationship with French diction).

I did wind up working a bit in Anchorage; not overly much due to the time constraints, but there were a couple of odd jobs here and there that I did for friends of my dad. Among other things, I helped a future protest candidate for the United States Senate and right-wing filmmaker move out of a landmark Lloyd Wright home, and I also spent a couple of weeks assembling and finishing ulus.

One of the things that was difficult for me conceptually about preparing to go to college was that nobody seemed to actually have a clear idea in their head why I was going, or how to relate it to anything I was interested in doing, or how to relate any of those things to how I might actually earn a living on the other end. I was supposed to have been a smart kid, but none of the various things I was good at really lent themselves to careers, per se, at least as my parents or the people in their circles understood them. I was a voracious reader, I retained information, I read about all kinds of things as a kid from astronomy to cryptography to computer science to paleontology to mythology and everything in between, but what did that mean in terms of what I could do to feed myself? Coming into high school, math and science bored me silly, I hated sports, I was more interested in what computers could be used for than what they did under the hood, I enjoyed creative writing, I seemed to have some aptitudes for drawing and painting up to a point, and I enjoyed music but puberty had freaked me out with my voice change and I convinced myself I couldn’t sing anymore. There really wasn’t anything obvious in there in terms of “normal” career paths; not business, not medicine, none of that. Neither of my parents finished college and academia wasn’t anything I had ever heard of as a career.

Once I got into high school and discovered that I seemed to have an aptitude for theatre and music, that was a relief in some respects and it gave me some idea of a path. The thing was, nobody took it seriously. I remember my senior year of high school telling people, I’m going to major in music and theatre. Typically, that would generate a condescending smile and a sentence that sounded something like, “Oh, well, it really doesn’t matter what you start with, because you’ll probably change ten times before you’re done.” That, frankly, pissed me off; it was clear that I was being patronized and not listened to. At the same time, I had to acknowledge that having it in my head that I would finish a major wasn’t the same thing as knowing exactly how to get to the “pay your bills” part of the deal.

My parents didn’t know what to tell me. They didn’t really understand my interests, and they didn’t have any advice regarding college except get good grades and finish as soon as possible. Neither was there was ever any clear idea of what the trajectory of life post-high school was going to be for us, even before they moved back to Alaska. Was there an expectation that I was going to live with them until I got married? Was there an expectation about when it would be “okay” for me to think about getting married? None of this was discussed. At least when they were still going to be in Seattle, some small level of continuity could be assumed, but the mechanics and specifics still weren’t really talked about. After the move, all bets were off.

Thus it was that I found myself in Bellingham in September of 1994, living in a dorm room in Ridgeway Sigma with one Will Bass, and most of my worldly possessions were under my then-girlfriend’s house (many of which never to be seen again, alas, as will be explained in a future installment). I auditioned for the voice major, got in, then walked over to the other side of the Performing Arts Center and declared myself a theatre major. My very first class on the first day of my freshman year was Music Theory I, taught by Prof. Jeffrey Gilliam (to this day perhaps the single most naturally musical person I have ever met, to say nothing of the very best music theory instructor I have ever had). It was off to the races.

There were a number of highlights to that year: I was in my very first opera, singing Marco, one of i parenti in Gianni Schicchi (with the previously-mentioned future Metropolitan Opera baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson in the title role). I also got to sing the high baritone drunken abbot solo in Carmina Burana (“Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis… WAAAAAAAAAAAAFNA!”). My friend Gavin Shearer sat me down at some point in the fall to show me this awesome thing that was happening in computers called “the World Wide Web” that used this amazing program called Mosaic to do what Prodigy and AOL had utterly failed to do up to that point. Two portentous occurrences: a master class with a voice teacher named Roy Samuelsen from Indiana University, a school I had never heard of before but that apparently had quite a reputation for opera, and dating very briefly this lovely brunette named Megan McKamey, who was absolutely wonderful in every way, but everything going on around me made it difficult to feel capable of committing at the level I felt she deserved.

The trouble was, my parents and I didn’t even get through the first quarter without some massive meltdowns. The situation was complex; Seattle was still home for me, and I would go back on the weekends, because I felt very much alone at Western. My parents didn’t want Seattle to continue to feel like home for me, since from their perspective I needed to start thinking of Anchorage as home, but from where I sat they had moved, not me; I was just following the plan we had always had, and… yeah. The whole situation had nowhere to go but down. At some point it was suggested that maybe the whole idea of me going to college at Western was no longer tenable, and that marked the point where the irreconcilable differences in how we saw what was happening meant that there was basically no reasonable conversation to be had about anything. There was a brief period of rapprochement over spring break; my paternal grandmother passed away, and my dad and I spent the week together while he cleaned out her condo. Still, once summer came and I made it clear I wasn’t going back to Alaska, whatever brief peace had been achieved was broken. “In ten years you’re going to remember this moment as the day you pissed your life away,” I recall being told on the phone. What drove me absolutely batty about all of this was how inevitable it had all seemed from the time my dad had announced that he was going back to Anchorage, and everything was happening exactly as I had feared it would. Nobody had listened to me, and somehow I was being blamed for it. The stress made me a charmer to deal with, I’m sure; certainly it impacted a number of relationships I valued, but there just wasn’t anything I could do. I wasn’t equipped to deal with any of it, and I had no particular support system to fall back onto.

That summer I worked at Computer City, sold the first copy of Windows 95 at midnight of 24 August 1995 (there used to be a photo online of me ringing it up, not sure where it might be found these days), and took voice lessons from Dennis Kruse. We were working on preparing me for opera auditions at Western in the fall — the opera was Marriage of Figaro, not exactly a huge tenor show, but Basilio would be worth it for a kid like me. “O wie ängstlich” from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio was the audition piece we worked up, and Dennis put me as the last singer on his summer studio recital, even over some of his students who were ostensibly his stars and who had made it clear much of the time I had worked with Dennis that they thought I was a waste of his time.

Sophomore year wasn’t exactly an amazing improvement over freshman year. A high school friend and his mother — J. P. had been the Danny Zuko in Grease! and Tony in West Side Story, and was also a student of Dennis Kruse — were killed in a car crash in the fall, which led to a reunion nobody particularly wanted. Fallout from that, plus still trying to figure out how to resolve the family situation, meant that I was even more of a wreck that year than I had been my freshman year. I agreed to spend the holidays and the following summer in Alaska, hoping that it would ease off some of the tension, but if anything, it ratcheted it up.

Marriage of Figaro was fun, but it was a bizarre reconstruction/translation that basically turned it into musical theatre — the recitatives were replaced with spoken dialogue from the Beaumarchais play. There were a number of practical reasons to do this, I suppose; hiring a harpsichordist and having the time to coach the recits properly being two of the major concerns, as I understand it. They had piddled away the fall quarter with a lot of political nonsense over sets and casting professionals for Figaro and the Count in one of the casts, and didn’t even post the cast list until sometime towards the end of the quarter, even though auditions had been in September and the performances were set for March. It was a strange experience all around.

I wound up in Alaska three weeks before the end of the quarter. I was supposed to work for my mother’s company over the summer, and they had revised their policies sometime in the spring so that everybody for the summer needed to be in place by 1 May. “So, you’ll just have to come up here early,” I was told. Um, the school year isn’t over? Not even close? “The opportunity cost of you finishing the quarter isn’t worth it. Anybody with half a brain should be able to see that.” Did I mention that I was a first generation college graduate?

I negotiated what I could with my professors (which in some cases, meant taking Fs). I can’t say I exactly made myself popular with anybody during this time, and not for no reason. I was a basketcase through and through, and nothing I was trying to do seemed to work out in a straightforward fashion. Going to college right out of high school had turned into a disaster; I was unprepared for it, my parents were unprepared for it, additional circumstances meant that there was additional burden for all of us to bear, and my friends were unprepared for how unpleasant of a person the whole experience was making me.

Summer of 1996 I cannot describe in much detail without going into things that I’d rather not discuss publicly. Suffice it to say that I got a front row seat for much of why my parents were freaked out over me being 2,500 miles away; a lot of the unpleasantness that had been plaguing our family life since the mid-1980s had come home to roost with their move, we were all now having to confront it head on, and none of us were doing a particularly good job. I returned to Bellingham in September unsure of what kind of a relationship would be possible with my parents after certain events, conversations, and revelations. I focused on what I could, namely, trying to rebuild my relationships at Western.

In short, however, that ship had sailed, and now I had to sleep in the bed of frustrations I had made the previous two years. Whatever had been the cause of all my erratic behavior, certain relationships were damaged beyond repair, and I continued to make unhealthy decisions with respect to other relationships. I couldn’t find a way to focus on being at school, partially because the muddied reasons I had for being there continued to get muddier, partially because all of my personal issues made it impossible to ever feel sufficiently centered and stable. I also made some poor choices vocally — Dennis had gone to a lot of trouble to figure out how to work much of the tension I usually carried with me out of my voice, a wonderful teacher named Virginia Hunter had done a very nice job teaching me to sing with the instrument Dennis had shown me I’d had, but that year, for reasons that seemed great at the time, I switched to a teacher who went out of their way to work all of that tension back in. Within three months my top was completely gone and my voice had regained a strangled quality that I thought had been left behind after graduating high school.

There was one more factor in this equation. In fall of ’96, I became aware of some behavior on a faculty member’s part that I believed (and believe) to be unethical, and at the very least political maneuvering at the expense of students. I attempted to seek advice on how to deal with these things in a way which I thought to be private which instead publicly blew up in my face. Later, I understood that whatever my concerns were, the way I sought to deal with it was totally unprofessional on my part and embarrassing to the faculty member in question. This culminated in a letter from the chair of the department telling me that all three of us — he, the faculty member, and I — would likely be happier if I went someplace else. So, midway through winter quarter, so many threads having come unraveled, I decided that college had become a gigantic, expensive exercise in beating my head against a brick wall, and it was time to acknowledge that it just wasn’t the right thing for me to be doing at that moment. I subsequently dropped out in disgrace, with the straw that broke the camel’s back being something which really was entirely my own fault. Today I would deal with a similar situation very differently because I would understand better what was happening; the bottom line is that when someone’s on a tenure track, you either play along or get out of the way, particularly under circumstances where resources are scarce and only so many people can get what they want. Anyway, after flailing about for a few months and still making really bad decisions (almost reflexively, at this point), I started selling classified advertising for the Bellingham Herald and trying to figure out how I might be able to move back to the Seattle area.

1994-1997 was a difficult, unpleasant time. It is difficult to even know where to begin explaining that the poor, confused, unhappy person who arrived at WWU in the fall of 1994 was not me at my best, not by a long shot. I started college not having any idea which way was up and having nobody, really, to whom I could turn. I was trying to do everything right which I possibly could, but there was just very little good that anybody could do for me, and trying to do everything right when one doesn’t even know what all one needs to do means one is bound to get quite a bit wrong. There continue to be ramifications to this day — people who don’t talk to me because some of my choices, people who, even if they’re still friends with me, can get easily upset when discussing some of what happened, and other consequences. A few years later, I did my best to apologize to everybody I hurt in those years, with somewhat mixed results. Whenever I think about that period, it is with a lot of pain and regret, but also a lot of confusion. In broad strokes, under the circumstances, I have a hard time imagining what I could have done differently that would have been any better beyond, quite simply, dropping out earlier. The kind of wrench my parents’ move threw into the works was comprehensive, I had no idea how to deal with it, my parents had no ideal how to deal with it, and they had no ideal how to help me deal with it. In retrospect, maybe it would have been better for me to find a way to work full-time while doing an Associate’s degree at a community college and continuing to study with Dennis. The trouble with that, however, was that I didn’t really have a place to live available to me full-time. Moving to Anchorage would have cut me off from much of what I was trying to do post-high school, and would likely have only hastened the inevitable. Maybe I could have just taken a year off out of high school to figure things out — I was starting college at 17, after all, thanks to my skipped grade — but that wasn’t really presented as an option. The expectation had always been that I would go to a four year college right out of high school; it was exactly what I would do while I was there and what would happen after that were all quite vague.

I should note that there are a number of people from this time for whom I remain grateful: an incomplete list includes Brian Ward, Holly Zehnder, Mike Cook (memory eternal), Peter and Arwyn Smalley (née Moilanen), Suzann Miller (née Welch), Jon Haupt, JOHHHHHHHHHHHHN Davies, David Harsh, Jon Lutyens, Matthew Murray, Kai Morrison, Dennis Kruse, Tom and Jordin Baugh (née Peters), Matt Carter, Sue Fletcher, Sarah O’Brien (née Wright), Liz Holmes, Eric Rachner, and, of course, Flesh of My Flesh herself, Megan Barrett (née McKamey).

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Addenda to Part the Third: Never before has so much been said about so little

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 StoryFastest Gun in the WestSeven 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.

Addenda ad Secundam Partem: In which the CIA and Howard the Duck make an appearance

Basically the years we’re talking about right now are third through seventh grade — two thirds of my elementary school years and my first year of junior high. It’s hard to make those years interesting on their own terms, but I’ll see what I can do.

When we got to the Seattle area, I managed to be placed in a magnet program called TAG, “Talented And Gifted”. (How on the nose can you be?) That took me up through sixth grade, and I discuss that experience somewhat here, so I won’t go over that particular ground again.

At the start of the school year, Wellington Elementary (where the TAG program was housed that first year I was in it) announced a musical — none other than You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Needless to say, I auditioned. I said earlier that I had thoroughly internalized the character, and this must have been evident in the audition process, because I was cast in the title role. It was my first theatrical endeavor of any sort (at least going by chronology of auditions; the first performed was an in-class presentation of “Witling and the Stone Princesses”, an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale “The Queen Bee”) and certainly my first musical, although one could argue that I had been playing the part for some time by that point. The rehearsal process was fairly lengthy, as I recall, and I think nobody was quite sure how I’d actually do once it became work, but it was the time of my life up to that point. The irony is that I’d identified the character because I was awkward and felt like an outsider most of the time, but I loved the other kids who were in it with me, and tried to stay friends with them. That might have worked better had the magnet programs not all moved to their own school the following year, and I lost touch with everybody pretty quickly (plus I was on the younger side of the cast anyway). Google searches turn up some of those folks — here’s Katie Margeson, my Lucy; and her sister, Anne, was Patty (none of this revisionist “Sally” nonsense in our production!). Chad Afanador, our Linus, actually has an IMDB page, and the Snoopy, Scott Grimm, is now a linguist of some note. (I am blanking on the name of our Schroeder. I’m sorry, man.) Anyway, I’d love to put up some pictures or video of this, but I think my mother has all of the photos. Dad videotaped the dress rehearsal, but the tape has been missing since 1994, when it was loaned to my then-girlfriend’s mother who was considering putting it on with her elementary school class, and I was never able to get it back (and in fact it was later claimed that she never remembered having it in the first place). If you ever find a VHS cassette labeled “Original C.B. Play” with a piece of masking tape on the front, do drop me a line. The thing about the videotape is that at some point during one of the verses of “The Kite Song”, I realized I was being filmed and choked on the words for a line or two, so it was never perfect anyway (but the actual performances were spot on!), but that’s maybe in keeping with the spirit of the character.

In absence of any of those pictures or video, here’s something that I’m pretty sure not every kid on my block had. Short version is that it wasn’t too far of a leap from Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Young Detective’s Handbook to spies, and I started reading everything I could on real-world espionage. A briefcase replaced my backpack to accompany the deerstalker and trenchcoat. When I was nine, I decided that I would be a perfect recruit as an intelligence agent — I was too young for anybody to ever suspect as a spy. With the courage of my convictions on the matter, I did what any normal kid would have done and wrote a letter to the CIA telling them they should bring me aboard.

I got a letter back, dated 5 March 1986, from one G. L. Lamborn, Public Affairs (who, if I’m not mistaken, is the author of this forthcoming book). “Dear Mr. Barrett: Thank you for writing the Central Intelligence Agency. You seem to be a bright, responsible, and ambitious young person. I am afraid, however, that you cannot be an intelligence officer until you are eighteen. We hope you will apply with us when you are older. A college education is useful for many of our positions — so study hard! We need people with your enthusiasm. I have enclosed two publications which will tell you more about the Central Intelligence Agency. Do not forget us.”

Well, obviously it didn’t turn into a career. It’s an interesting souvenir to have, at least, and I’m sure it made for an entertaining story for Mr. Lamborn.

Comic books became a big deal for me in around 1984. I still remember my parents freaking out the day when I decided that I was now collecting them — taking the advice of one collector’s manual to buy a bunch of new comics and see what I liked, I spent around $25 on a stack of new releases about as tall as my belly button (remember that these were the days of a 65-cent cover price). My Batman obsession has been reasonably well-discussed here, but I also quickly fell in love with the back issues of Howard the Duck. Yes, you read that correctly. The thing is, as written in the mid-’70s, Howard the Duck was an experiment on Marvel Comics’ part, a social satire, and it was hysterical. (I mean, c’mon. It took place in Cleveland, for heaven’s sake.) Imagine my bewilderment when I saw it realized on the big screen as kids’ horror-action-comedy. I still don’t quite know what George Lucas was thinking, but the movie’s duck simply wasn’t the same Howard who ran for President for the All Night Party in 1976 and fought Doctor Bong. Not even close. Batman in 1989 was a much happier time at the movies all around, to say the least.

In terms of music, piano lessons continued through the fifth grade, I think. There came a point where I was feeling overstressed; I was doing Columbia Boys Choir, piano lessons, and then my dad had enrolled me in karate lessons two days a week. I think I had one day at home after school a week, and it was getting a bit much. Plus, my voice was breaking, and I didn’t know how to manage that. This was in the middle of our domestic meltdown, so everybody was happy to have me doing less for multiple reasons. I didn’t necessarily give up the activities, just the formal involvement; I played Sir Joseph Porter in a sixth grade production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, and I started learning the guitar.

This meant I also picked up the pace in terms of reading. I read a lot of different kinds of mythology and folktales; Greek mythology, Welsh mythology (inspired somewhat by a book called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones), Nordic mythology, and even French-Canadian folktales (in the form of a little collection called The Golden Phoenix). I read a lot of role-playing games, but I could never quite figure out how to play them myself. Genre fiction became a real love for me in sixth grade, starting with Piers Anthony, with whom I even had a correspondence going for a couple of years (well, with his assistant, anyway, even if he signed the letters). This really picked up momentum in my junior high years, so its flourishing is somewhat beyond the present scope.

“Hey, Richard!” I’m hearing a couple of people say. “That’s awesome that the CIA started a file on you when you were nine, but did you do any, you know, normal kid things?” Eh, I don’t know. I wasn’t a terribly athletic kid, and I didn’t really understand sports or why I was automatically supposed to care about them. I hated fishing — the first time I went, I was having a great time with my dad and my great-uncle until they took the fish I caught and bashed it over the head with a rock. I burst into tears — I was not expecting that in the least. I went to summer camp a few times, the YMCA’s Camp Colman and Camp Orkila. I played with fire once by burning some thread in the sink to see if they’d burn the same way fuses were depicted as doing in cartoons and movies. My parents freaked out when they found me, thought I was trying to burn the house down (the house that they were trying to sell), and I had bruises on my rear end from a plastic spoon for a week. I guess that’s reasonably normal.

I didn’t have a ton of friends in elementary school and was the object of a good amount of merciless bullying, much of it by girls, which meant that other boys generally wanted nothing to do with me. From third to fifth grade, my best friend in the world was Jeff Fletcher, a kid who was one year older than I was and who was simply a kindred spirit in many ways. He was always at my house, and we were inseparable. Then he went to junior high a year before I did (naturally enough), and our paths diverged a bit, coming back together when I got to junior high. There was also Brian Ward, whom I met in sixth grade and whose family also went to Overlake. In seventh grade, there was a bit of peer group that I found, consisting of Matthew Arndt, Brian, Eric Rachner, Eric Stangeland (another friend of mine with an IMDB page), Robert Stevens, and Russ Needham (who, with Brian, is pictured with me on 23 June 1989 at Luxury Alderwood Cinemas for Batman).

And that’s that for now.

Update, 6 February 2012, 3:06pm — I should mention that Jeff Fletcher and I were all-too briefly accompanied in our early years by one Chris Holtorf. He wasn’t around anywhere near as long as we should have liked, since his family moved to California when I was in fourth grade, I believe, but for the short time we were together, were a terrible trio, to say the least.

Chris and I recently (like, in the last few hours) re-established contact via Facebook for the first time in, I believe, twenty-six years, and he wanted me to also pass on that the three of us had a plan to construct a working replica of the Millennium Falcon in my backyard. It’s true. We were generally too busy sliding in sleeping bags down my staircase into Ember, my beloved Bernese Mountain Dog (an activity we generally referred to as “SLEEPING BAG DOGGIE!!!!!!!!!”), to actually get the damn thing built. Oh well.


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