They say that the only two things you can be sure of in life are death and taxes. But for most every kid, the one thing you can be sure of is going to school, which for me was a taxing and at times felt like a near-death experience. For twelve straight years (I skipped kindergarten) , whether I liked it or not, whether it was the right place for me to develop myself or not, I reported dutifully in the fall and served until the next summer. At this point I had spent the last eleven straight years dutifully reporting to my designated school facility each September and dreading it each and every time.
Dread and resignation. That each new school year would present me with a new cadre of intimidating adults – teachers and counselors – who would control my time, my attention, and my fate. I’d be thrown in with a new group of peers, some, many or all that I did not already have a relationship with. Being shy, even timid, I was generally okay with people I had developed a relationship with, that respected me, but that always took me a longer time than most to get there. For all those new peers I would be thrown in with who I did not know or who did not know or care about me, I feared they would somehow pierce my still thin skin and somehow manage to make my life miserable.
I was particularly uncomfortable with other boys, so many of them seeming to have a penchant for being fierce and competitive and creating a hierarchical pecking order with an “alpha” at the top. I had not been raised to function in that male pecking order world. My dad was a shy nerdy English professor, who I recall when he and my mom were still together, was either off at work, reading and writing down in his basement office, or joyfully playing or adventuring with me and my brother… never a commanding father figure. My mom was the more commanding figure, the head of our household, with drive, ambition, insight, passion for life, and a fierce love for her sons. That said, our family dynamic was very egalitarian, but it revolved around her as the facilitator, finding ways to create an enriched environment for the male members of our very nuclear family, and I at least had grown comfortable with that. Perhaps the fact that my dad had had an affair which led to their divorce six years ago was an indication that he had not.
I had learned to mitigate my discomfort with other males by engaging them solo and avoiding them when they were in packs, particularly with no females present to push them towards more considerate behavior. I was also learning to engage more with women as my friends and confidants, as I was learning to engage with my mom more as a fellow human being rather than an iconic parental figure.
My comfort and enjoyment of the company of my female peers along with my extreme timidness around anything in the romantic arena did lead to some awkward encounters. The final notable thread of the spring was a romantic skirmish with a JLO comrade. I would ride my bike over to her parents’ home and she and I would hang out and talk about theater or listen to music together. An attraction grew to the point that one late evening turned into her and I, alone together, starting to kiss each other (I had had all that practice in Oklahoma) on her living room couch. As it started to feel to me like moving toward more serious making out perhaps, I suddenly, as was my unfortunate penchant, got cold feet. Rather than slow down a little and share my anxiety with her and talk it through one way or another, I quickly made some excuse that I had to go home and bolted. Again, though we continued after that to be friends for a number of years, I never talked about that night with her and our relationship never went that direction again.
This was my frustrating ongoing personal pattern of mine. Always being afraid while always longing to push my envelope and even throw myself in the deep end. Too often fear would win out, though I would occasionally plunge into the depths of the metaphorical pool. Whatever the result in a given circumstance, it was always an internal tussle between fear and wanting to protect myself and longing for profound and compelling experience. To this day, whenever I hear the song “Midnight Confessions” by the Rascals which was big during my high school years I think of my romantic longings and occasional train wrecks…
In my midnight confessions
When I tell all the world that I love you
In my midnight confessions
When I say all the things that I want to
I love you
It is painful for me to share all these anecdotes, highlighting my fear, timidity, and resulting rudeness, and which then leads me to ponder the “what ifs” of all the fun romantic adventures I might have had. How much of this is just my own timidity and how much is the nature of the whole Mars/Venus mythology of patriarchal culture I can’t really say for sure. I mean… why can’t we all just be people who like each other, and sometimes love each other and want to be intimate with each other? Why do people have to make it such a big deal and build all these expectations around romantic intimacy?
To the extent that it may be a patriarchal thing, as a young (shy) heterosexual male in our culture, I think I unconsciously internalized the shaming of my peers (or convinced myself that I would be shamed) for possibly being “whipped” and not playing out my part of the Mars/Venus dance. And yet my own discomfort with the patriarchal paradigm probably pales to the experience of my gay and lesbian peers, who had no socially acceptable way in the 1970s, even in a progressive university town, to reveal intimacy with a same-sex person.
I ended the school year having had some great new developmental successes and one big failure, which always seemed to loom larger in my psyche with my tentative self-esteem.
Getting back to the start of this thought thread, as I dreaded having to report to school each September, I was duly jubilant each June when my time, at least for this school year, had been fully served. Though this had been a very different school year for me, I still felt profoundly liberated when it was done, while the one area that was on my growing edge, my participation in my youth theater group, Junior Light Opera, continued, and did so even at a quickening pace.
While we had still been in rehearsals for Lord of the Flies, JLO’s adult prime-mover Michael, in consultation with his musical director Sue and some of the key older youth in the company, had decided on an ambitious production schedule for the summer, including six children’s shows plus a big musical, Oklahoma, slotted for late July, with my schoolmate Maggie, who I had “slept with” platonically back in April at Michael’s mother’s house. The six children’s shows were all short one-acts that would be paired together to be performed at two-week intervals, late June, early July and late July.
Several weeks before Lord of the Flies went before the audience with all its swearing and blood, tryouts were held for Oklahoma, and again due to our theater company’s shortage of older male youth, I was encouraged to try out for a lead part, Will Parker, a role that would not only require me to deliver lines, but actually sing and dance in front of a way bigger audience than I had experienced before. As a shy person, singing in front of other human beings, particularly by yourself with all eyes on you, can be a recipe for shear anticipated terror. But cajoled to try out by my bed buddy Maggie, and also encouraged by multiple reading comrades Kate and Priscilla, I got up on stage at the tryouts and read for the part. And then that fateful moment, being handed the sheet music for Will’s song “Everything’s up to Date in Kansas City”. Michael at the piano inexpertly pounding out the chords and Maggie repeatedly encouraging me to sing louder to see if I could carry a tune and with enough volume to be heard on stage. I think I was so outside my comfort zone that I have blocked out most of the memories of that tryout, but it was only me and my male comrade Max trying out for the part and all the leads in the show were double cast, so we both got the part! Hearing that I had gotten the part was even more terrifying than the tryout, knowing that in a couple months I was going to have to sing and dance in front of a big theater full of people, two skills that I would not have claimed to possess a week earlier!
In rehearsal side by side with Oklahoma, the children’s shows were seen as lower stakes opportunities for less experienced company members to cut their teeth on bigger roles as actors or part of the production staff. Wannabe lighting designers, set designers and directors got their chance to try on that new hat. Alice, Sue, and I all got our first chance to direct a show. Mine, Snow White and Rose Red, was in the last set. So having broken the ice in Lord of the Flies as a male company member willing and able to act, I was recruited and agreed to play roles in three of the first four one-act shows. All six to be staged at my high school’s (now familiar and even friendly to me) Little Theater.
In the children’s shows I got parts as three versions of patriarchs that seemed to inhabit most of these old reworked folk tales. I was cast in both of the first set of shows. In Ah-See and the Six-Colored Heaven, a staging adapted from (I believe) a Chinese folk tale, I played the stern and imposing emperor. In The Rose and the Ring, I played the bumbling and sheepish king. In my third show, in the middle set, I had a juicier part as more of a villain, the angry and misanthropic merchant Mustapha, in a middle-eastern folk tale, The Olive Jar. My roles presaged my year of acting ahead, where I would become adept at and typecast playing mostly villains, fathers and fools.
Being on stage in front of an audience was truly my developmental edge at this point. I was a seemingly oxymoronic mix, a shy thin-skinned person who was nevertheless drawn to being in the spotlight and being provocative, unconventional and exceptional. I was learning a way, when the situation called for it, to adopt a more outwardly focused persona, that could be effective in a larger group of people than the one-on-one interactions that I was more naturally comfortable with.
Each stage appearance I had had to this point as an actor broadened my capabilities. First the multiple reading for the forensics competition back in April as the possessed boy Miles in the final scene of The Innocents with my JLO mates Priscilla and Kate. My job as a reader was to keep ratcheting up my agitation and vocal intensity until I am provoked by Kate’s governess to finally explode verbally and fall silent, dead… you can’t beat a good death scene in showbiz! In terms of my performance, I was a one-trick pony, but it was a good trick! Then my role as Maurice in Lord of the Flies, playing a teen not that unlike myself as part of an ensemble cast where my character was often on stage but did not have to carry any scenes, just add my lines to the ensemble.
Now in the summer, particularly in my role of Mustapha The Olive Jar, trying for the first time to command the stage and my scenes as the somewhat one-dimensional villain of the piece. I got a chance to work with some very good fellow actors in that show, including Lane, a talented comic actor, who would become a good friend for many years after. We all had fun together on stage and tried to play off each other to make the show fun for our young audience as well. That was the new wrinkle for me, trying to be somewhat comedic, or at least playing the straight-man for some lightheartedness from others in the cast. The show only worked if I was big, broad, menacing and overbearing, so the other cast members could play off that.
While rehearsing and performing in these three children’s shows (plus my daily Oklahoma rehearsals) I was busy casting and directing one myself, Snow White and Rose Red. Though I had willingly accepted my directing assignment, as my peers did theirs, I felt a bit out of my league at this point running the show. I toughed it out, going through all the motions I had seen my comrades do wearing the director’s hat in the other shows I had been involved in. First being there at the tryout and, with Michael doing most of the heavy lifting, picking my cast. Then setting up a rehearsal schedule. At the first rehearsals “blocking” the scenes, which involves telling each actor when to enter the stage, from where to deliver each line, which way to face, when to move, exit the stage, etc. Later rehearsals working with your actors on the delivery of their lines and giving them suggestions on the portrayal of their characters. In retrospect, I guess the first step toward developing a skill is realizing how much there is to it and how little you may know to start with!
But the main JLO event for the summer, and the biggest new stretch for me as a performer, was the big musical Oklahoma. With about 45 of us in the cast and as many in the crew and production staff (with lots of overlap), pretty much everybody involved in the company that was available that summer participated somehow in the show. Michael wore the producer hat and Maggie really rose to the occasion as the director, turning the whole rehearsal process into a kind of JLO community celebration.
We did many of our rehearsals outside, in the various external alcoves or patios around the outside of my high school. We often finished our daily rehearsals with an hour or so of optional square dancing or other folk dancing, which most of the show’s cast and production staff members participated in. Since there is a big square dance scene in the play, it was certainly good practice for that, plus it built a sort of enhanced connection between all of us that added significantly to the energy of the show. From participating in this double-cast show as both a lead (in my cast) and a chorus member (in the other cast), I learned that musicals are all about the ensemble energy and enthusiasm of the performers, and succeed or fail based on that foundation.
It was also interesting the role that social dancing plays in teaching males and females, how to interact with and even touch each other in a respectful but familiar way. I kept remembering my mom saying that when she was an older youth that dancing with a guy was the closest they could come to having sex or even making out. This was important to me, given my timidity, and the fact that my character, Will Parker, had several scenes where he flirts with and passionately kisses his girl, Ado Annie, and another where he is ambushed and kissed by another, Gertie, who also has a thing for him. So me the shy nerd playing the rake, was way outside my comfort zone, but all this just for fun folk dancing and the coupling it involved really helped me with that.
I had been introduced back in May to the young woman who would play Ado Annie in my cast (most major parts in the show were double cast) while I was still in rehearsal for Lord of the Flies. I recall I was wearing my very brief nearly naked loincloth costume when Maggie came in with Molly and introduced us. Kind of the reverse of the stereotypical male fantasy! Fortunately, Molly and I had an instant rapport and attraction for each other, which certainly would make all our scenes together much easier and more fun for the audience. It was interesting for me to watch the two more experienced young actors that played the other main couple in the show, Curly and Laurey, for though their characters were total sweeties they disliked each other personally. It was intriguing for me as a rookie, watching how two good experienced actors could pretend to like each other when they were on stage and then turn it off as soon as they exited.
Still the first time in rehearsal that Molly and I had to kiss was really stressful for me. I had only lip locked once with another person in my entire life! And this was not an intimate encounter with just us two. It was a rehearsal outdoors with maybe twenty or thirty other people standing around watching. Imagine Maggie the director saying matter of factly after Molly and my first awkward attempt at a kiss, “Okay, let’s try it again and I want to see more passion.” Twenty or thirty of our peers watching intently to see if there subsequently was. Despite our shaky start it worked out because Molly and I liked each other, had good chemistry together, and fundamentally enjoyed kissing each other. My shyness even worked for my character I think, a version of Will Parker more naively sweet than rakishly worldly.
It was also new territory when the young woman who played Gertie did her scene where she catches my character by surprise with a passionate smooch. My schoolmate Clare, who played Gertie in my cast, would usually go to the max and plant a big wet tongue kiss on me, beyond the more sedate mouth action when Molly and I kissed. I never got comfortable with her assault on my mouth, but my visible discomfort worked in the scene, given my shier Will Parker, and made the audience laugh.
I also struggled with the dancing I had to do, not so much the square or couples dancing as when I was performing my two songs and had to execute choreographed moves in sync with the chorus members behind me. The show’s choreographer (one of my grade-mates at Pioneer High) would demonstrate a particular step for all of us to do, and I would invariably be the last one to master it. I don’t know what it is with me and learning dance steps, I continue to this day to have problems learning any but the simplest steps. Don’t know if it has to do with being strongly left-handed and left-footed, while most people naturally lead with their right, or what!
But singing, even belting out the songs, I eventually found no trouble doing. I don’t have a great singing voice, but I can follow a tune fine and even have pitch memory (so I can sing the right note before I hear the orchestra play it). I have what I’ve heard called a “musical comedy voice”, more character than crooner. In our inside rehearsals, Michael would sit at the very back of the theater and yell in his sing-songy voice, “I can’t hear you!”, until we learned to project well enough so he could. To this day, particularly when I’m excited or passionate about something I tend to go into my “stage voice” and up my volume and over project my words. And I must say that enhanced voice is often useful when I’m leading a meeting with a big room full of people, where I act like I’m playing a part on stage and try to command the attention of the room.
For all the three months of rehearsals and all the work of the crew and production staff we only did two performances of the show, a Saturday performance by my cast and Sunday for the other, performed at the big auditorium at Ann Arbor’s other high school across town. Those of us who were leads Saturday night played chorus parts in Sunday’s show. In some ways, being in the singing and dancing chorus of a musical is an experience like no other. It is really the energy of the chorus that propels most musicals and makes these sorts of shows, particularly with a youth cast, fun to watch.
For me personally, I was somehow able to channel my shyness and anxiety around it into a kind of maniacal energy on stage to asuage my devastating fear of doing poorly in front of all those people. I just had to be good or I would die, so I somehow willed myself to do so. As I went on to do more performance in musicals I learned to relax a bit and enjoy it more, but it was always for me that same do or die dynamic. I recall when my mom came and saw me sing and dance my Will Parker Saturday night she was pretty stunned!
The last paragraph of Michael’s “Production Note” for the Oklahoma program was notable, signed by his usual “-m.h.”…
Oklahoma is not a “great” show by today’s standards. The plot is weak (what plot?); most of the music sounds quite similar (although “Lonely Room” is a harbinger of good things to come); the lyrics are mostly simplistic; and the dancing, which was the great rallying point for critics in 1943, is fairly boring… But Oklahoma is the granddaddy of today’s musicals, and it is often good to take a look where we sprang from.
My other area of “deep dive” interest that summer, besides theater, continued to be various sorts of board gaming, particularly around sports or war. It was the rare fellow game nerd I had found up to then who would play the Avalon Hill wargames with me, I often resorted to setting them up and playing them solitaire. But that summer, as my brother Peter turned thirteen, he and I found that our shared love for the real game of baseball, both played (pickup and Little League) and watched (as Detroit Tiger fans) translated into the same for board game baseball. Many of my remaining waking hours, not spent in rehearsals for one of the four shows I was involved in that summer, were spent holed up somewhere in our house playing BLM (Big League Manager) baseball with Peter.
BLM put out a line of sports games – baseball, football, basketball and hockey – but there game system lent itself best to playing baseball, which even in the real world of Major League Baseball is a statistical game. Like many a well designed game (e.g. Chess), the mechanics are reasonably simple and straightforward but the permutations for play are myriad. I had actually also played Stratomatic’s baseball and football board games, which had a system that, particularly for football, actually brought more of the real world strategies and nuances of the game and the unique capabilities of the actual individual players into the mix. But it was BLM Baseball that was Peter’s and my game of choice to play for well over a hundred hours together that summer.
The game is played with a set of cards representing all the Major League Baseball players from the previous season. Each player’s card includes numbers that reflect their batting and running ability based on their season statistics. So a player who hit say .250 (they got a hit on average every fourth at bat) would have a “BA” (batting average) number on their card of 25. In a similar way, their propensity to get walks, strikeout, steal or otherwise run the bases. The “power” of a particular player to get extra-base hits – doubles, triples and home runs – was also represented statistically by number ranges.
For the team in the field, each individual player’s propensity to make errors plus the ability of outfielders and the catcher to throw out runners on the basepaths were reflected on the cards as well. Finally each pitcher’s ability was represented as either a negative (good) or positive (bad) alteration of the batter’s batting average, a separate negative (good control) or positive (bad control/wild) alteration to the particular batter’s innate likelihood to get a walk, plus a number representing how long they could pitch in a given game before their ability started to degrade.
A spinner marked from one to one-hundred gave you a random number that you would apply to a big chart to determine what happened in each at bat and with any attempt to steal a base or advance an extra base when another player got a hit. We would then keep the box score of the game with all our own statistics of how the players were doing. A real nine-inning baseball game generally takes two to four hours to play, but an entire game of BLM Baseball could generally be played in under an hour.
So my brother and I played the entire previous season of the Detroit Tigers, a total of 162 games, with him playing the Tigers and me all the other team in the American League the Tigers were playing against at that point in their schedule. Once we were comfortable with all the systems, we even invented our own teams with our own players. All told we probably spent a couple hundred hours playing the game that summer.
A big part of the developmental significance of these simulation games for me was that they represented elegant ways of modeling real world systems, team sport games or military campaigns, by organizing and presenting information in an elegant and easy to use way. Having played a myriad of different games with their different systems and presentations, I became acquainted with effective ways of organizing and presenting information myself. It was a store of knowledge and experience that has been of great use to me particularly in my adult paid work as a systems or business analyst.
Finally, was my evolving relationship with my mom, as she connected with me more and more as a comrade and less as an iconic parental figure. As I have said before, we were always a very egalitarian family, even when my mom and dad were together before their divorce. But since their separation, she had gone through periods of depression and continuing anger toward him, which I was witness to, late at night, me in my bed hearing her talking to him on the phone in her bedroom through the shared wall between us. As I was getting older, for better or for worse she was beginning to depend on me more and more as a convenient buddy to vent to and just be with rather than being alone.
I remember that she had a rocking chair at the foot of her bed next a little black and white TV on her dresser, which was the only TV in the house. When Peter and/or I wanted to watch something on TV we would generally sit on her bed. But most of the time I spent in her room I would sit in the rocking chair and mostly listen to her share her life’s narrative, including all its trials, tribulations, hopes and dreams. Our sessions would often revolve around her paying the bills, which she would lay out all over her bed, make a list on a legal pad, and then mark them off as she wrote check and put in its payment envelope, envelope given a big lick, sealed, stamp licked, affixed and onto the pile to mail. This was a monthly exercise that was always stressful for her because given our limited funds living on child-support from my dad, generally she had to triage what had to be paid and what maybe could be put off for another month. She always had that dread that there would not be enough money to pay even the critical bills, and having me there in the rocking chair with her, letting her vent while she paid what she could, made this stressful exercise easier.
At first, it was difficult for me to see her in such a compromised state, but I learned to just sit in the rocking chair and bear witness, while not having the expectation that I could do much beyond that to help her solve her problems. She shared with me her residual anger with my dad. He had promised her that once he got his PhD and his teaching position that she would be able to continue her education and find a good career position for herself, but now, in her state of anxiety and single-parenthood, this was very difficult. She shared her understanding of some of the sexual details of his affair with their mutual acquaintance, and her continuing anger at his conduct, much to my discomfort. She told me about her growing concern about the Vietnam War and my own vulnerability to being drafted when I turned 18 a few years down the road. I saw the passion of a mother protecting her young and the pragmatic activist cursing all those liberal male professor friends and acquaintances who were not lifting a finger to stop the war. She worried about my brother Peter and his weight problem, and how it was affecting his social life and self-esteem and could affect his physical health as well. She shared her continuing rage at her own mother, for never loving her and the huge hole that that lack of love put in her self-esteem.
With every story, every confession, every rant, every vent, I would see her more and more as a real person like myself. As I’ve said before, I tended to see all adults as having always been adults and never really a kid like me. But in her stories, particularly those about her childhood, I saw that she was in fact not profoundly different than I was, just aged more. My iconic, bigger than life, (always with a better argument than mine against her) mother, was a grown up kid still struggling with her self-esteem, still trying to unravel and rationalize her relationship with her parents, still trying to figure out a path forward for her own development.
In retrospect, some would say that she probably laid more on my shoulders then she should have. But even though it was stressful for me to hear all this stuff about her, about my dad, about my own behavior, I was glad to be treated as a full-blown person, rather than protected from reality as some semi-functional “child”.
My brother and I were learning to take care of ourselves, including making many of our own meals, particularly breakfast and lunch. Mom would go to the A&P grocery store and buy the spectrum of state-of-the-art prepared foods of the early 1970s. It was far from the cornucopia of prepackaged “world meals” you can find in today’s Trader Joe’s or other supermarkets. For breakfast, cold cereal, mainly my mom’s favorite, Kellogg’s Concentrate, which were tiny flakes that turned into mush when combined with milk. For dinner, there was of course the iconic “TV Dinners”, plus the canned offerings like chili con carne, and all those marginally Italian canned fabrications from Chef Boyardee. For lunch, Wonder Bread (I wonder if it’s really bread), the iconic “white bread” platform for peanut butter, bologna, ham or salami and a slice of packaged Kraft “American Cheese Food”. And finally my favorites I recall, chicken pies and frozen plastic air-sealed bags containing a single portion of a particular meat and sauce combo. The ones we bought were mostly marketed by Banquet, and I recall we came to refer to them as “Banquet Bags”. Even a kid who had not yet learned to cook food from scratch could pull the frozen bag out of the cardboard container (with the very appetizing picture on one side and the lengthy list of food and chemicals it contained on the other) and plop it into a small saucepan of boiling water for five minutes or so.
Now that I could drive, sometimes my mom would send me to the store to pick up a few things, particularly her two main vices, cigarettes and Tab. I would generally go to the neighborhood grocery store, the Food and Drug, where they knew her and I, with a signed note from her saying it was okay to sell me the cigarettes.
And now that I could drive, my mom had me do half the driving when I accompanied her on a trip back east to visit her dad (my grandfather) who was in a nursing home just outside Binghamton New York, where she had lived as a teen and young adult and left to come to Ann Arbor in the late 1940s. I had previously just done a lot of driving around town and only once or twice ventured out onto the local freeways. (I recall my first time braving the freeway, even going 55 seemed incredibly and uncomfortably fast!) Now I was called upon and accepted the challenge of taking my shifts driving for hours on the freeway. My first stint was on that long straight flat run on Route 401 across Ontario Canada between Windsor and Niagara Falls, with its seemingly endless stretch of farms on either side of the road. My second was more interesting, on the mostly two-lane highway from Jamestown to Binghamton across the southern tier of upstate New York, winding through the river valleys and the small towns along the way.
Being with her dad in the nursing home, a series of strokes over the last several years robbing him of the ability to talk, was particularly difficult for her. I could see his recognition of her in his moistening eyes how much she still loved him as she held his quivering hand and tried to fill him in as best she could on her life now plus her remembrances as a kid. For me it was also difficult, my first experience being with someone in such a diminished capacity.
Just as our previous summer had been so developmental for me, spending it living in England and helping my mom plot our various trips exploring that country, this summer had been even more so. I had survived singing and dancing on stage, and in doing so found a new way to be the center of attention, at least playing some other human being, if not myself yet. As I learned to be there for my mom in her struggles, I was learning to be kind to myself, forgive myself for my fear and resulting missteps, and allow myself to move forward with my development, taking care as needed, but not being intimidated to avoid developmental challenges. But between all my stage work that summer, mostly feeding myself, and being there for my mom, I was getting very used to managing most every aspect of my daily life, a growing imperative for me that I would now take with me to my last mandatory year of high school.
Click here to read the next instalment.