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Posts Tagged 'piers anthony'

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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Secunda Pars, the Overlake years

Here’s how we got here, and here’s some corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

The whole point of moving to Wenatchee in the first place was that my parents wanted to get out of Anchorage, and my dad wanted to try to set himself up as a successful small business owner in a small town. After four years in Wenatchee, he still liked the small business owner idea but was done with the small town part, and in 1984 we passed westward over the mountains and wound up in Seattle. Well, Woodinville, which back then was barely no longer rural. Dad bought a small business furniture concern called Redmond Office Supply and we built a house maybe five minutes from Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, the house that I still remember my mother describing, on the day we moved in, as the house in which she and my dad would grow old.

Church was a question mark now that we were in something vaguely resembling a major metropolitan area. The truth is, I don’t think my mother ever had any particular love for the Augsburg Confession, and thought of it perhaps as mostly a default. My grandmother Helen (departed this life last September with her beloved husband Donald ten days previous, αἰωνία αὐτῶν ἡ μνήμη) had passed on some level of Danish-American consciousness to Mom, but nothing overwhelming, and nothing that I don’t think she got out of her system by living in Copenhagen for a year after high school. Since Dad certainly wasn’t going to church with us, there wasn’t any particular family cohesion to be maintained, so now that we lived someplace with more options, my mother wanted to explore them. I remember her taking me church-shopping several Sundays in a row; I don’t remember where, but I don’t recall that we ever went to the same place twice.

Somewhere along the way, we wound up at Overlake Christian Church, and I got saved for the first time. These were unrelated events.

This may be ancient history for some readers, but 30 years ago, kids actually would go trick or treating in a door to door fashion in neighborhoods rather than going to the mall. 1984-5 was the height of my Charlie Brown identification (which had a very interesting denouement I’ll go into later), so my recollection is that my costume in 1984 was the sheet-over-the-head ghost. Anyway, among the takings was a little card giving a phone number that you could call if you really loved Jesus and wanted to be saved. I really loved Jesus, so I asked Mom if I could call, she was thrilled to say yes, and a nice man on the other end of the line prayed with me that Jesus would come into my heart, and that was that.

Meanwhile, church shopping was going nowhere for us. At some point, my mom discovered KCIS, “The Christian Information Station”, on which Pastor Bob Moorehead’s sermons were broadcast. These connected with her well enough that one Sunday, we found ourselves in the middle of the humongous melee that was Overlake.

At the time, I believe, Overlake was the largest independent congregation in Washington state, with some ungodly huge number like 3,000 people. (Yes, I know, that seems like a small, quaint country church in present-day Evangelical terms.) They did something like three or four services a weekend, so their auditorium had around 1,000 people in it at any given moment in the course of a weekend. My recollection is that there was a huge cross on the wall with the text, “Go forth and make ye disciple of all nations…” You came in, and half an hour of lively singing to words projected on the walls was followed by some announcements, special music while an offering was taken, a 45 minute sermon, maybe communion, and then another twenty minutes to half an hour of congregational singing, usually wrapping up with an altar call. It was completely different from what I had experienced in our little Lutheran congregation back in Wenatchee, and it seemed to be exactly what my mother was looking for.

I remember asking my mom, “Does this mean we’re not Lutheran anymore?” “No, honey, we’re just Christians now,” she said.

One of the interesting things about Overlake — and to this day I don’t have a great sense about how common this is or is not for Protestant groups — was that a baptized Protestant Christian couldn’t just start going there and bam, they were a member. First you had to have a believer’s baptism — infant baptism didn’t count — then you had to go through the six-week “Basic Beliefs” class (so, yes, you had to undergo an action that, by virtue of its appellation — believer’s baptism — strongly implied belief in something, and then you had to take a class to find out what you had just professed to believe), and then you were welcomed as a member. My mother, who seemed to embrace what Overlake was all about fairly quickly, responded to an altar call one Sunday, took the class, and was welcomed as a member. I did not; I didn’t really understand why all of this was necessary — wasn’t I already baptized, and didn’t we make a big deal out of it? But there we were.

Even as a little kid, I can’t say I ever felt like a totally natural fit at Overlake. It seemed weird to me that you never sat next to the same people twice, I didn’t understand how it seemed that everybody knew the songs we were singing except me, particularly when all they projected were the words and no music? (This was also right towards the beginning of my boy alto period.) Why was all the music so incredibly different from what we had had at Grace Lutheran? Why was the music… well… stupid? Why was the sermon so long? Why couldn’t I leave to go to the bathroom? (Seriously. I got blocked at the doors by the ushers.) Who actually got to talk to Pastor Bob? Why did everything seem so centered around him? Why, if being saved was something that happened to us once, was a big point always made of saying the prayer to let Jesus into our hearts as personal savior at the end of every service?

Still, it was where we were going. Sometimes I went to the adult service with Mom, sometimes I went to the kids’ service. At the kids’ service, sometimes they showed things like the Christian anime Superbook (which went well with my love of Star Blazers), and a movie called “Music Box” that I’ve talked about before. I also remember them talking to us about evolution and AIDS, and sometimes in the adult service hearing them talk about abortion and how there were no Christians in Russia (keeping in mind that this was the mid-1980s).

Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, as I mentioned, had some interesting bits on various supernatural phenomena (including an article on demon possession that absolutely freaked me out). Among other things, there was a riveting, lengthy piece on the Shroud of Turin. I remember showing it to my mom, who said, “Well, most Christians don’t think it’s real.” In support of her answer, she gave me the book Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith by Josh McDowell, which had roughly a 30-page section debunking the Shroud. (Curiously, I discovered about ten years ago that newer editions of the book no longer have this section. I’ve not encountered any comment or explanation as to why; it just seems to have been quietly dropped. Perhaps McDowell changed his mind. If anybody knows anything about that, I’d love to hear more.)

I’m trying to remember how old I actually was when I read McDowell’s book for the first time. Maybe eight? Nine? Anyway, much of the Shroud of Turin stuff seemed a little over my head, but a lot of the evolution/creationism material was gripping for an eight year old, particularly since we were doing a unit on Jericho at school that could serve as a bridge between the “historical” past and the “creationist” past. I was inspired to try to calculate the age of the earth counting what seemed to be the Biblical chronology backward from the historical dates we were talking about in class. I can’t remember what I came up with — a 10,000 year old earth, maybe a 15,000 year old earth. My dad pointed out that even that was far older than what most creationists seemed to want to talk about.

McDowell aside, there was a nagging question that I had that nobody could seem to quite answer for me. I was becoming aware through certain cinematic tropes and articles in — again — Strange Stories, Amazing Facts that what seemed to be the Christianity of history and the Christianity I experienced at Overlake Christian Church were two different things. Why was this? I mean, I got what seems to have been the standard fundamentalist lines about Catholicism and Mormonism being in the same category as “non-Christian cults”, and I also was starting to become aware that Christian bookstores usually had a shelf devoted to the subject of Why Catholics Were Wrong, but I didn’t understand who the Pope was supposed to be (beyond my dad saying once, “He’s an old Polish man who believes that he has a direct link to God”), and I didn’t understand the disconnect at all between past and present. The way some people talked, it sounded like we were to understand that there were no Christians between the time of the apostles and Martin Luther. Could that actually be? The way other people tried to explain it, however, it sounded like their way around it was to say that if there were Christians during those centuries when the Roman Catholic Church was all there was and they were leading everybody astray, they were saved by the grace of God and that was incidental to their being Catholic. Well, whatever the case, I had to admit to myself, even at the tender age of nine or ten, that as far as Overlake was concerned, that I didn’t understand all the hand waving and I hated the music. Regardless, since Overlake was where the real Christians were going in the Seattle area, that’s where we were going.

An anecdote that, while random-seeming, demonstrates even a small way that I felt this disconnect — in sixth and seventh grade, I was big into Piers Anthony. I’ll go into how big in a different post. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that there is a key moment in On A Pale Horse that involves the singing of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”, and depends on its near-universal familiarity. I had never heard of it before, I could not place it, all I knew is that for all the book implied its fame, it was never sung at Overlake. It was easily another eight or nine years before I heard it, and of course by now it has achieved “old chestnut” status, but it’s an example of the gulf between the Christian culture that Overlake promoted and “recognizable” Christian culture.

Another thread in all of this was that starting in 1986, our lives were falling apart. The really short version is that Dad’s livelihood was not coming from being a small businessman in a Seattle suburb; that was a hobby. Rather, to the extent that we were at all affluent, it was a result of Dad’s interest in a commercial building in Anchorage, and this is around the time that the price of oil collapsed, tanking Alaska’s economy. Some of this I talk about here. The house my parents built for $250,000 in 1984 was sold in 1988 for something absurd like $150,000 after more than a year on the market — and one of the tragedies there is that, had they been able to hold onto it for another few months, they would have been able to catch the rebound of the Seattle housing market which just went up and up and up and up for the next twenty years. As you can see for yourself if you check out the Zillow link I provided, the house sold again for $425k in 1994 and peaked in value in 2007 at around a million. It’s now sitting somewhere around $625k, I think. And we, the family that built it as our dream home, had to take a $100k loss. Before my parents got divorced and when I still thought I might walk away from the software industry with something worth having, I had a dream that someday I might be able to buy back that house for them — just show up on the doorstep with a blank check, ask whomever lived there, “Hey, I think I can convince you to sell,” and give them whatever they wanted. Ah well. Anyway, we lost our shirts, to say the least, and to call it a strain on our family doesn’t even begin to describe the hell that the three of us were collectively in from 1986-1993.

And when I say strain, I’m not necessarily talking in terms of subsistence. The money was what it was — the real tragedy was the irreparable damage done to relationships, some of it immediately, some of it long-term. I’m not going to go into the details of that here, although I’ve alluded to some of the permanent consequences of it here and there throughout the life of this blog. The point is, my mom was starting to discover that the emotional high she got from Overlake’s services simply did not prepare her for what the reality of the rest of her week actually was.

In the spring of 1989, I got baptized again. As I said, each service at Overlake ended with an altar call, and one Sunday, for reasons still unknown to me, I felt compelled to respond. My mom, as noted earlier, had gone through the membership process, but I never had. This was, theoretically, the first step. A nice man took me back to an office, we talked a little bit, I explained that I had been baptized when I was little, and he asked if I wanted to be baptized again. I said yes. He said the same prayer with me then that the other nice man had said with me over the phone at Halloween in 1984, so once again I was saved, and I agreed to be baptized the next Sunday.

Dad didn’t understand. “Wasn’t he already baptized?” he grumbled, but he came anyway. (Ironically, he, the grouchy atheist, has attended three out of my four reception ceremonies, thus holding the record of any of my friends or family members for such things.) I showed up early the next Sunday, I was led through the back to a changing room where I was given a white robe. During the service I was led to the baptistery — a pool built into the stage — and somebody, not Pastor Bob but a different member of the ministry team, baptized me by threefold immersion in the name of the Father… <dunk> …and of the Son… <dunk> …and of the Holy Spirit <dunk>. <applause>

That was that; when I got back to where my mom was sitting, Dad had already left to go sit in the car for the rest of the service (somehow getting past the reverse bouncers at the doors).

So, supposedly, after getting baptized, I should have gone on to take the Basic Beliefs class, and then I would have been a member of Overlake. Shortly after my second baptism, however, we stopped going to Overlake altogether.

More to come.


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