Autobiography of My Youth

I was born in 1955, a regressive time, but in the very progressive university town of Ann Arbor Michigan to parents who were very unorthodox in their own lives and very progressive and even egalitarian in their parenting style. This is my telling, in 26 chapters, of my childhood and youth, up to September of 1973, when at age 18 I headed off to backpack through Europe.

Jane & Eric in Ann Arbor in early 1950s

PART 1: SO I WAS TOLD – My parents’ sagas that led them to meet each other and to journey far from home to Ann Arbor Michigan to pursue their university education, to marry, and to start a family. I was born on April 2, 1955 in the maternity ward of the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor Michigan. My mother, Jane Roberts Zale, was 32 years old, older than many first time mothers in those days. My father, Eric Michael Zale, was six years older than Jane. Theirs, I would later learn, would be a very unorthodox style of parenting, much more egalitarian than conventional practice, giving me a greater amount of freedom than most kids were blessed with. But given particularly my mom’s childhood story (I know little about my dad’s) that gift of an independent childhood had been passed through the generations.

Me and Molly at my 5th birthday party

PART 2: PLAY, PLAY SCHOOL & OTHER EXPLORATIONS – The key events I can remember from my youngest years – including extensive imagination play, the girl next door who was my best friend, singing at bedtime with my dad – before I went off to elementary school. A time when, despite fundamental issues with their own relationship, my parents came together and were like minded in their approach to raising me, combining the most progressive parenting wisdom of the day with their own natural inclination to let their offspring chart their own course. It completed a very positive first five years of my life before new complications and stresses came into play.

Bach Elementary School

PART 3: IN SCHOOL & OUT – At age five mandatory public school became an uncomfortable part of my life,  and I reported for duty, a kid who was used to living his life without ever-present adults monitoring and even trying to direct my actions. But it was the richness of my life outside of school that helped me compartmentalize schooling as best I could.

Lilac bushes in Almendinger Park

PART 4: BOYS, BUSHES, BASEBALL & BEYOND – After some intimate experiences with a group of other boys in the bushes and a traumatic experience at school becomes psychological shrapnel that becomes part of who I am and challenges my precocious exploration of my world and how I interacted with my peers. So I try to accommodate by learning to be more of a “trained seal” at school while I continue to explore in my own world in our basement and with my male peers in the park and on my bicycle.

PART 5: BURNS PARK & DIVORCE – My mom has a panic attack because her life is not turning out as she had imagined. That is a catalyst for many things to change, and we move across town to a more upscale neighborhood where a lot of the academic community my mom longs to be a part of live.  And things improve, until my mom finds out my dad has had an affair and she initiates a divorce.

Longnook beach and dunes

PART 6: CHILDHOOD’S END – The summer of 1966. I’m finally finished with elementary school and our now smaller nuclear family is recovering from my mom and dad’s divorce. It is a very developmental summer culminating in spending two weeks renting a cottage by Longnook beach on Cape Cod, and I make the transition from childhood to youth, for better and for worse, a more active part of my little family, and about to plunge, unknowing, into the maelstrom of junior high school.

Jr high yearbook picture

PART 7 – PUBERTY PRESSURE COOKER – After two long wonderfully carefree and developmental weeks living in a cottage a mile from the beach in Cape Cod, my mom, brother and I returned home all in a better place from the psychological trauma of the divorce. But as it always did, a new school year was starting, which never felt good to me. And in this case doubly so, because I was about to transition from the relatively manageable single elementary classroom interacting all day with 30 other kids my age to junior high school.  I am thrown into a big institutional school with 7 classes a day and some 1000 other kids, most of whom are older than me and I don’t know.  It becomes a very negative environment for me that takes its toll every day on my self-esteem and my developmental arch.

The Supremes

PART 8: SUMMER OF LOVE & RESPITE – 1967 was the “Summer of Love” for the hippies. But for me, it was all about trying to recover my self esteem and love for myself after my first very traumatic year of junior high school.  My summer vacation was as always my oasis, my own time, to try and recover my sense of self and again try to move forward developmentally, aided now by the music of my “Greek Chorus” playing on the various radios and my brothers record player.  Particularly the AM music station CKLW brought the compelling words and music of Motown into my life, with its words of wisdom.

PART 9: GUIDES ON THE SIDE – The fall of 1967 and the first semester of eighth grade finally connects me with a couple interesting teachers, but still within the otherwise very uncomfortable school environment. But outside of school I move forward developmentally with my first job, a paper route, along with exploring the cultural analysis provided by some of the best of the comic minds of the time listened to on my brother’s record player.

PART 10: NOT QUITE A GIRLFRIEND – The beginning of 1968 was my 2nd semester of 8th grade and some new promising dimensions were added to my life, including a girl I actually danced with, my dad’s new world in Ohio, a new male best friend, and a brief stage debut. I also suffered a significant injury that had a silver lining of sorts. My mom was also suffering, her through another phase of extreme anger and depression in the wake of her divorce from my dad.

PART 11: BASEBALL & BOOKENDS – During the summer of 1968 my relationship with a real best friend blossoms, like none I had had since my childhood relationship with the girl across the street. My life that summer, shared just about every day with that new best friend, was all about our paper routes and baseball, with Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends” album as the soundtrack and now taking their place as key voices of my Greek Chorus.

Outside the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention

PART 12: COPING MECHANISMS – I watch my fellow young people protest the Vietnam war and challenge the adult order outside the 1968 Democratic Convention before starting one last year at my junior high school.  The past two years there had in many ways been the two most difficult of my life. My best friend and my brother and the fantasies we hatched together helped get me get through a situation at school that seemed to be getting worse for me, that I was trying to cope with by fining excuses not to go to school.

My mom in 1968

PART 13: STUMBLING TO THE FINISH LINE – My mom finally takes action to try to resolve my avoidance of school by long periods of illness, negotiating with my school counselors to get me back into that institution. A “Big League Manager Baseball” game and the songs of key members of my “Greek chorus”, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and Motown song writers help me get through the last difficult stint at junior high school, battered, beaten and damaged, but at least still alive and ready to put the place behind me.

Tappan Jr High School

PART 14: GOOD RIDDANCE TO JUNIOR HIGH – My high school saga starts with a kid (me) having had an awful three years of junior high school which had devastated my self-esteem and made me nearly school phobic, I approached my first year of high school, like every year of school with resignation, but also a hope that it could somehow be better, way better than what I had just been through!

Aerial shot of Pioneer High School

PART 15: FIRST YEAR – After a shaky start in what felt like a huge impersonal high school with over 2000 students, intimidated by some acting out kids in my homeroom, through a young and sympathetic teacher I gain entry into the world of the theater and the possibility that I have real talents I can explore and a smaller world within this huge bureaucratic institution where I can find perhaps a more human-level community.

My 1970 passport photo

PART 16: SUMMER SWAP TO ENGLAND – On a very tight budget, my ever clever and determined mom figures out how to swap houses and cars with a couple in England for ten weeks in the summer of 1970, between my first and second years of high school, in order to give her sons that developmental experience of living in a foreign country that she had never had as a kid. We travel to and live in a house in the little village of Horspath just outside Oxford, being more residents than tourists. It turns out to be a very developmental experience for me, stepping up to play more of a key role as a family decision maker, which among other things is the beginning of a significant transition in my relationship with my mom.

PART 17: THE PLAY’S THE THING – In the fall semester of my junior year, I have my first real girlfriend, until I cheat on her with her best friend for my first kiss. I am enticed by and drawn into theater by seeing the musical Hair in Toronto including naked people singing on stage, and getting involved in a unique youth theater group, that gave me the community and developmental experiences I was craving to start to come out of the shell I had built around myself in my four preceding traumatic years of school.

PART 18: BEHIND THE LIGHTS – After being lured by the stage in the fall, I took my initial “deep dive” into the technical side of theater, finding my place as a lighting designer and beginning to become an integral member of a a dynamic community of young thespians, also a spring break trip to the Soviet Union.

Me on right in Lord of the Flies

PART 19: IN FRONT OF THE LIGHTS – My “deep dive” into the JLO theater group moved on stage in front of the lights as I put myself in front of an audience. I got the chance to adapt a book to the stage myself, and I found a way to inhabit characters beyond myself which boosted my self esteem and gave me a path forward to overcome my timidity plus insight into playing my own off-stage self more big and broadly.

My Ado Annie & me in Oklahoma

PART 20: SONG & DANCE – Upping the developmental ante on my theater experience, and since there are so few young men in our theater company, I am recruited to sing and dance (two things I had never really done before in front of others) as a lead in a JLO musical comedy production of Oklahoma.  It turns out to be a successful adventure on stage for our theater company and for me, but not so successful in the romantic endeavors department. Still it the highlight of as good a summer as I could have hoped for.

Musical Oliver! on set I designed

PART 21: STARTING SENIOR YEAR – I start to rethink my whole approach to my high school and my classes and focus instead on the theater work that inspires me and is really on my developmental path forward. So I jettison those classes that do not fit into thespian developmental path, including making a calculated shift away from math and science and towards the arts as my focus. In my theater group I continue to explore my capabilities as an actor and a designer.

Me & some of my JLO comrades

PART 22: ON MY OWN TERMS – By the second semester of my senior year of high school I finally have the cadence of my life sorted out, reducing my classes to the absolute minimum effort needed to graduate and focusing most of my time elsewhere. That focus is now on several things, including broadening my experience in the theater, exploring political and feminist radicalism, plus delving into a new community of friends around the hobby of historical simulation games.

PART 23: SCHOOL’S OUT! – Graduating from high school, my final liberation from mandatory schooling, only to have plans, mostly stage managed by my mom, to go off to school again in the fall. Wrestling with not being ready to think about my future, I continue my deep dive into theater as my theater group takes on an ambitious four musical summer repertory, and I also explore deeper into the world of war gaming, and complicated historical military simulation board games.

PART 24: INTOXICATIONS, ALTERED STATES, SONG AND DANCE, RHYTHM & BLUES IN THE DEEP END – My spend my first semester in college at Western Michigan University, 90 miles west of Ann Arbor in Kalamazoo, ostensibly to study theater. I do have a good experience with a chorus dance partner in a big musical production, but again bail on a budding romance. Perhaps more profoundly, my initial explorations with marijuana and the altered state of consciousness it introduces me to, in some cases for better and in some for worse.

PART 25: BEST FRIENDS – Home for the holidays, I grow relationships with with my favorite aunt and three pairs of best friends, including solidifying my participation in a plan my friends Lane and Angie have to join with them in their plan to backpack through Europe next fall. Then back to school at Western for some interesting classes, a deeper exploration of marijuana and the deliciously dark music and rock theater of Alice Cooper.

PART 26: SUMMER 1973 NIGHT & DAY – After my first year of college I’m back to running my own life & engaging in or preparing for new projects & other experiences to push the envelope of my development! That includes what seems like the final production of this incarnation of my youth theater group, and my first full time job, as a janitor/chambermaid at a local motel, as I save money for big fall plans that don’t involve going back to school!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *