When I wasn’t working on the board or playing Photon — or school; I always forgot about school — I did a lot of dancing.
Dance was just as much an escape as typing at strangers through a computer, or running around in a foggy dimness shooting science-fiction strangers for imaginary points. The thing they all had in common was that they were highly interactive, but required no talking. Perfect. Dancing was the best of the three for that because it wasn’t that it strictly required no talking. More like it was an entirely different kind of communication, subtle and raw.
In my kindergarten, they offered basic ballet classes to anyone who wanted them. I knew enough at the time, of course, to understand that what they meant when they said “anybody” was “any girl”. One boy signed up, but they made him wear a leotard and tights and little pink shoes, and it looked like the most horrible thing I could ever imagine. This is coming from me, who as a kid never one time ever worked to create or defend any illusion of being macho.
I arrived at dancing honestly, at least. I had a much older cousin who had first encouraged me to audition for plays and musicals — and, later, for print ads, television shows, and national commercial campaigns. After she got a job at my high school teaching drama and dance, she convinced me that it was possible for boys to be boys and still be dancers, even good ones. I had spent years worth of long afternoons watching my younger sister attend tap and ballet classes in her early years, as was common for girls in Fort Worth and Dallas at the time, though I’d never one time seen a boy at any of those classes. Again, this was Texas in the last decade of the Cold War, when for one dark moment there was a best-selling book called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. Even as a kid who didn’t like quiche, this whole movement sounded asinine to me.
(It has been pointed out to me that this was meant to be a satirical book. Yes, I saw a lot of men chuckling along as they read over how silly it was, but the truth is that it was funny because it was in fact true.)
But I liked acting, even if by the time I was fifteen no one was willing to risk my speech impediment by casting me any longer, and dance seemed like the closest thing to it: jazz and tap and ballet and Texas waltz and whatever else our teacher could get us to do. Two years into it, our small group of dancers weren’t half bad. At our height, we opened for Roy Orbison in Fort Worth. So we were at least okay. I was definitely still a boy. Three other guys had joined me, to my terrific relief.
Back in the digital world, buying a hard drive let me play with the RAM drive in new and interesting ways. Sure, I still ran the core of the board off of it, keeping everything on there that had to be super-fast, but I was interested in what else I could do with something that was crazy quick.
My favorite TV show at the time, even though it was also often crap, and even though I only ever saw maybe six of the small number of episodes they made in the first place, was Max Headroom. I thought it was fiendishly brilliant, the best that science-fiction had to offer in those dark days. Based on what I saw there, I insisted that soon, two people could have a phone conversation completely wirelessly and across great distances. They would even be able to send live video to one another. One person could look up directions on a computer — there’d be detailed maps of everywhere, on computers! — with which they could then direct another person. You could even have video, on a computer! It didn’t seem that far away, and this is all super commonplace today, though I was called crazy for talking about it at length back then.
“Crazy” wasn’t really the right word for me, that one time. “Nerdy” was probably the right word. A geek is someone who is super into something, whether it’s Star Wars or sports, and nerds are geeks who don’t know when to stop talking about the thing that they’re into.
After having downloading a bunch of Max Headroom images from a couple of systems that had been sharing them — what we today would find to be the most laughable of crudely down-sampled images — I wondered what would happen if I loaded up my RAM card with those images, and then wrote a program to cycle through them as quickly as possible. The results genuinely freaked me out: it didn’t look like a video game or like computer animation, it looked like actual video. I dropped a couple of images that were too great a jump from the others, but it was astonishing to see something on my screen moving with that fluidity. Adding some simple key controls would toggle the direction of the animated display, making it interactive in a perfectly stuttering Max Headroom style. Most people I showed it to freaked out, too. One of my parents’ friends hauled his video camera into our house to tape it.
The most interesting thing was watching how people reacted who’d had zero experience with computers up to that point. They took it as granted that, well, the computer is doing that so it must be possible. They’d never stopped to think that the Max Headroom character that they saw on TV was not computer-generated — computers were nowhere close to being able to produce those kinds of images, as near-impossible as that might be to imagine today. The Max Headroom character was originally made by sitting an actor in a chair for hours worth of make-up, and then painstakingly producing frame after frame of hand-painted cells. I was doing this live, on a computer, and that was cool — it was more than cool: it was magic.
I was beginning to dream much larger dreams for my system. I’d begun partnering with several other decent pirates and hackers, and began to wonder what might happen if I did something like what that chat board had done, to allow several users to interact all at once, but instead of many phone lines and one Apple, prices had been dropping on Apple II-type machines so I figured I could get as many as four computers and dedicated phone lines, since I’d discovered a way to chain them together through the hard drive that Frank had kindly sold to me. Expand the game to let users interact with each other in my crude, text-based fantasy world, and I bet that enough people would be willing to pay $10 a month that I could stay stocked in Coke and Tostitos until I could figure out what I should actually do for real with my life. I bought a second hard drive, to begin the chaining. (Thirteen years later, Sony’s fantastically popular Everquest launched at this same price point.)
Through all of this, though — driving to Dallas to play Photon, hammering away on my system code, dancing — I failed to pay attention in high school, even though I was startled in the final days of my Senior year to be called out as one of seven students who were awarded a certificate for having never once in four years ever missed a single day of school. I walked up to the podium in front of the entire school in a state of shock. How did that happen? I was furthest from a good student, which was made the most clear to me when I nearly failed a crucial class, which would’ve kept me from graduating.
The class was Religion — I was at a Catholic school — and I’d simply stopped turning in the homework or the reading assignments months before. I’d read the textbook countless times, since I had to do something with all those otherwise wasted hours in that classroom, so it’s not like I hadn’t absorbed everything they’d wanted us to take from it. I simply hated the class.
Still, I’d gotten an unsettling sense that things weren’t going to end up sitting well in the class, and in an impromptu chat with the instructor I used my reading-upside-down skills to see that, yes, I was going to get a D in the class, which would have kept me from graduating with my class. Two other students seemed to be in the same boat. I told my teacher that I’d developed a sense that I wasn’t doing well, and asked if there was anything I could do to make it up to her, anything at all. She seemed to enjoy having me on the sharp end of the stick, instead of blowing her off as I had apparently and immaturely spent a year doing, and she quickly set about burdening me with a series of assignments that might have taken a normal student half a day. I hunkered down with the textbook and some paper, answering all the essay questions on the pages she’d noted, and was out of there in less than 90 minutes.
We ran into each other in the hallway later that afternoon. She smiled like someone in shock. “Aren’t you working on something?” she asked.
“I was,” I confessed. “It’s all done.”
Her smile grew. “Okay,” she said, implying that it had better all be done, and done well.
“It wasn’t hard,” I added. “I knew the material.” I simply didn’t care. Though I saw one of the other troubled students in the hall and told her what to do.
Less than a week later, the new hard drive died. Then the older drive died, and the money it would have taken to get a larger system started was further and further out of reach. I knew that an interactive system where people could play fantasy games with one another would be a hit. But I didn’t have the cash to get it started, and going off to college seemed much more important. I spent a long time staring off into space, wondering what I was going to do next. Something had to give. I turned the board off and I never looked back, though I’d struggle for some time with what to do with my life.
My dad was especially concerned about me going to college for computer science. One time, he left a magazine article chart clipping which showed average salaries for computer programmers as being only marginally above that of school teachers. My mom was a school teacher, and she knew how hard it was to live that way. This was in an age where if you had a computer on your desk, you were nobody. If you could not get an underling to use a computer for you, it was because you were the lowest-level person in your chain of command. But I refused any interest in business proper, and I wasn’t going to get a degree in English or History or something like that, as my parents didn’t have enough money and I didn’t have enough scholarships to wait that long before getting a real job. Even if all I could do was teach crude forms of ballet and tap and jazz to the next generation of pre-teen girls in a Dallas suburb, my father reasoned, at least it wouldn’t be a computer job and I could make decent money somewhere down the line. And what the heck, maybe I’d even be an okay dancer.
The only solution was to double-major. I made myself happy by signing up for a normal computer science curriculum, but I gave my parents hope for my future for formally registering with the university’s College of Fine Arts and all the classes that required.
And that’s how a young hacker kid went to college to major in modern dance.
What no one knew was that I had a plan — and what I didn’t know was how awful a plan it really was, or how far and for how long my failure and confusion would set me back.
Here’s what happened.