Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — Sidebar: Cyberpunk

As a quick sidebar for the uninitiated, cyberpunk started out in the 1980s as a very specific kind of science-fiction. The easiest way to get your head around it is to think about the movie Blade Runner. That’s the cyberpunk aesthetic: high-tech low life, impossibly tall buildings with terribly poor people struggling to scrape together an existence from what the rich have cast off, hacking what they can and risking everything to forge a newer tomorrow, or even just to survive. It’s anti-corporate crime fiction fueled with paranoia and desperation.

Cyberpunk spoke to hackers for a number of reasons that I’ll come back to in a little bit, not the least of which was that the protagonist in the seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, was in fact a young hacker of networked computers, straddling the boundary between being a kid and growing into adulthood. He’s presented with a great many ethical challenges before the story’s end. It gets ugly and bloody but it stays very clever, and while there are terrific tragedies, things basically turn out okay in the end. Okay-ish.

The author of Neuromancer, William Gibson, went to see Blade Runner while working on his book, and he grieved that someone had discovered the exact aesthetic he’d been targeting before he was able to get his book out, though thankfully he pushed on through and shared it with the world. I strongly identified as “cyberpunk” in high school, when you’re supposed to identify with some group or other, though I had no one else to really bond with as a fellow cyberpunk. Even a lot of the hackers I knew at the time weren’t reading science-fiction, which may sound odd today since you’d practically get laughed out of many Bay Area social circles if you’d never heard of Neuromancer. Even if you’ve never heard of cyberpunk, my spell-checker isn’t trying to correct the word so I’ll say that today it’s reasonably well known. Still, it didn’t seem to me as though cyberpunk had a chance of going mainstream until Rolling Stone Magazine did a piece on it — it was practically a movement in some circles, by that point — in early 1987. I remember feeling very validated at the time.

Nearly a year later, a company out of the California Bay Area made the first cyberpunk role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2020, and my local game stores could not keep it in stock. The second cyberpunk game was called Shadowrun, which evolved the concept beyond its roots by combining the sort of “high-tech low life” style with the basic trappings of fantasy fiction: magic and elves and dragons and the like. Not two weeks ago from the time of this writing, a bunch of the people who worked on the original Shadowrun made a version of the game that runs on PCs and the iPad; check it out.

You might have unwittingly been exposed to cyberpunk through its degenerate clone, steampunk, which is essentially Victorian cyberpunk. In one of those involuted, “couldn’t make it up” kind of congruencies, William Gibson, who wrote Neuromancer and coined the word “cyberspace,” and Bruce Sterling, who wrote The Hacker Crackdown, co-wrote a novel called The Difference Engine, speculating about what the world might have been like in the late Nineteenth Century had Charles Babbage actually gotten the money he needed to prototype the ideas he had — actual, true-history ideas — to build what we would have recognized as the first computer, back in the 1830s. That’s the book that started steampunk, which is hugely popular today.

Now back to the story.

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Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 3

Like Erik Bloodaxe, when the Secret Service came for the Mentor, he and his wife had prepared for what they expected might happen. What happened, though, was not what anyone expected.

It was the 1st of March. Six weeks earlier, the phone network across America’s eastern seaboard had crashed. Somebody had taken it down, clearly — these things don’t crash themselves — and so, clearly, someone in authority had to go out and find somebody. Two days after the crash, a hacker named Terminus was picked up by the Secret Service and accused of having done it. He denied it, as would everyone else ever accused of a connection to what could only have been a criminal act. Like three of the four hackers who’d been arrested the previous summer, Terminus was connected to the Legion of Doom.

Well, thought the Mentor, time to close up shop. He had a good job at a great game company — the game he’d been developing was about to be published, after many delays. He had a great wife and a solid life and hacking was fun but it wasn’t worth risking all of that. Nine months earlier, after the Atlanta arrests, he had held a Texas barbecue in his backyard, and nearly every piece of paper with a number written on it was turned into ash. After they arrested Terminus, he had sadly set his computer — freakishly over-powered at the time, sporting a massive 210 Megabyte hard drive — to overwriting every sector of storage with garbage data, repeatedly, foiling even unreasonable efforts to recover anything that might have been on the drive.

And the worst part: there wasn’t even anything illegal on the drive. Unlike many hackers, the Legion of Doom had tremendous scruples about what they would and wouldn’t do. They didn’t believe in crashing systems for the hell of it. They didn’t believe in destroying other people’s data. They loved information, and they loved exploring hidden spaces to find new information. It wasn’t easy to gain membership in the Legion of Doom. You had to prove that you were going to show restraint with the knowledge you were being given, and then you had to keep playing nice or you’d get kicked out. A noted hacker had in fact been kicked out for doing stupid shit. So they lived by their ethics. Mentor and Bloodaxe were running a bulletin-board system to further spread good knowledge and strong ethical behavior, and it was gutting to have to take it all down.

A little over a month after taking down his board, the Phoenix Project, on the morning of March the 1st, the doorbell rang around 6 AM. On the other side of the door, Mentor and his wife found not only Secret Service agents, but a large party of authorities: city, county, state, and even campus police, ensuring that if Mentor was in any way bust-able for anything, however small, there would be someone there with the jurisdiction to do the busting.
They made a thorough search, they packed up his computer and anything they thought might contain the proof of what they so strongly believed to be his excessive malfeasance, and they took Mentor and his wife separately aside for some long conversations. They seemed frustrated. Whether or not they were in communication with the team who was interrogating Erik Bloodaxe, who must themselves have been growing frustrated at how little they were able to turn up, they could not have been happy at uncovering no obvious evidence of computer infiltration or phone phreaking activity — very much unlike the joyous busts of other members of the Legion of Doom.

Then they heard about the game Mentor was going to publish, and that changed everything.

One of the difficulties that the Secret Service had in talking with the Mentor was that he was and still is fiercely intelligent. So when they started pestering him about the overlap between his job as a cover for any hacking activity, but it turned out they didn’t know what his job actually was — their background dossier on him was years out of date, for whatever reason — he had easy answers: he may have had a programming job a long time ago, but for years he had been working at a game company just a few blocks down the low, sloping road. You could stand on his front porch and lean a little bit to one side and see the Steve Jackson Games offices not too far away, right before the street turned sharply to the left.

Just like the fictional feds in Verner Vinge’s True Names, the U.S. Secret Service agents in question had presumed that most adult hackers were using their super-villain knowledge to enrich themselves by working in a field where those skills could most powerfully be applied. And in fact, a good number of the adults who had been busted were contract unix programmers for AT&T or something similar, and this reinforced the Secret Service’s prejudice. It didn’t make sense to them that a world-class hacker would not leverage what he had learned to get ahead in the real world.

So they kept talking to Mentor, and that’s when they found out about cyberpunk.

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Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 2.5

All things considered, Erik Bloodaxe got off easy. A short while after the authorities had packed up everything that could be used against him — and they could not have been happy about finding absolutely nothing there, after tearing his place apart — my buddy Sam got a phone call from a mutual friend, who lived across the parking lot from Sam’s place.

Please assume that I’m filtering unhelpful profanity when reporting these college-era conversations. I hope my friends can forgive me if this dialog sounds less like something they’d say, lacking some of its color.

“Hey, you’re unlikely believe this thing I need to relate to you,” said the mutual friend. “I just got a call from Bloodaxe.” They only knew him by his real name, of course. Since it adds nothing to reveal his true name, I’ll keep calling him Mr. Bloodaxe. “He wanted me to look out my window,” continued the mutual friend, “and see if there were any cop cars or anything unexpected going on around your apartment.”

“Is there?” asked Sam, probably with something more than idle concern. I imagine him scanning his room for clothes.

“No, I told him everything was cool as far as I could see, but — he just got busted! The cops came in, all kinds of cops! Took everything with a number on it, and….” And he related as much of the story as Mr. Bloodaxe had told him. “He didn’t want to call you directly. He’s really worried about his stuff.”

After reclaiming his hidden-closet stuff, Erik Bloodaxe only ended up being out some junk that didn’t mean anything to him anyway. He was never charged with a crime, and to my knowledge he wasn’t bothered any further by the authorities.

He was the most legit hacker any of us knew. So it was all the more unexpected that he was the luckiest of all the people who had authorities leveling pistols at them that day.

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Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown — 2

Don’t get me wrong, though. Just because we call it the Hacker Crackdown, it doesn’t mean that a bunch of hackers didn’t get arrested before that, in the 1980s. They certainly did. It came up in the news with some seriousness maybe twice a year, and many more stories circulated about various kids and grown-ups getting picked up. I certainly lived in fear of being caught, and most hackers were like me in that they refused to engage in what we called “carding,” what the police called credit-card fraud. Only reasonably paranoid hackers were both able to maintain a long-term interest in hacking while surviving long enough to get good enough to avoid being targeted by the cops.

A lot of hackers were anti-social, but they weren’t doing anything strictly illegal, which they thought would keep the feds from targeting them. But apparently this general attitude — okay, combined with some genuinely serious and flagrant law-breaking from people like Fry Guy — so infuriated and frightened some federal authorities that they stopped caring whether or not they had evidence of illegal activity. Instead, if you were a hacker, or were in any way related to hackers, or you hosted a board where a hacker had an account, there was a small window of time in the first two months of 1990 when you were probably going to have an unpleasant conversation.

The story of how the authorities arrived at this attitude — sadly a very modern one, in retrospect — is almost as interesting a story as what they did with their attitude. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the full story, and likely never will, given that the federal authorities in question were harshly, publicly, and fairly humiliated, and probably aren’t in a mood, even twenty-three years later, to reflect on what truly motivated their idiocy.

That said, here’s how it looked to me at the time.

Everyone knows about the Secret Service as the guys in black suits with wireless earpieces who act as personal security for the president and other important people related to our government. Most people don’t know that for more than a hundred years of their history — until ten years ago, in fact — they were actually agents of the U.S. Treasury. The Secret Service was founded by the federal government just after the Civil War, to combat counterfeiters. With the Confederate government and its economy both collapsed, people holding Confederate money lost everything. So the South saw a quick spike in U.S. currency counterfeiting by destitute Southerners. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Secret Service into existence a few hours before his assassination.

Through the Twentieth Century, many of the Secret Service’s original responsibilities were divided up between the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Today, they still have the core of their original mandate, attacking fraud of various kinds — especially forgery, wire fraud, and credit-card fraud.

This is how, when a Secret Service agent got the great idea that someone had to do something about these hacker people, he had the jurisdiction to push his ideas. It’s been speculated that everyone went along with him both because knocking over America’s phone network isn’t something to take lying down and because the Secret Service was desperate for more relevancy and in general a higher profile in the modern age. What we call the Hacker Crackdown, they called Operation Sundevil. It was going to be awesome.

At the same time, I’d made a couple of friends in Austin, both of them through disconnected social circles, who happened to comprise some the heaviest hitters among the Legion of Doom who hadn’t been arrested in the previous summer’s sweep in Atlanta. They were clever and dedicated and curious, and they were not robbing anyone or logging into a McDonalds mainframe to give their friends pay-raises (as Fry Guy had done; he got his name because, well, he was 16 and he worked at a McDonalds). The Austin guys weren’t committing wire fraud, but they were flaunting their knowledge and flouting authority’s concerns about exploring any system they could find. Increasingly, computers were networked together, so having some authority in one system could lead to real influence over other systems. With more and more computers coming online all the time, it looked to be a never-ending exploration.

I’m not even sure they knew that I knew them both. They called themselves The Mentor, and Erik Bloodaxe. They ran a bulletin-board system called The Phoenix Project. It was a security forum where everyone from the youngest little want-to-be hacker kid to the most experienced corporate security officer could meet to share thoughts and perspectives. It had a solid archive of security notes. It was not going out of its way to offend anyone, though it was unashamedly affiliated with the Legion of Doom, so it got into the Secret Service’s cross-hairs that way.

At the time, I was living north of Austin, in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas, still grudgingly learning to be a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, though my girlfriend was in Austin. I tried to come down every two or three weeks to see her. She lived in the dorms, which did not allow sleepovers with boyfriends, so when I came to town we’d stay at my buddy Sam’s place.

One weekend at the end of February I was down in Austin, and the strangest thing happened: Erik Bloodaxe, who Sam had known as far back as when they were both twelve or thirteen years old, showed up at Sam’s apartment. I had gone out, but here’s what I was told. He looked shaken, for reasons he wouldn’t talk about. He had a couple of milk crates worth of computer disks and papers and what-not, and here’s what he told Sam: Put these in your closet, in the back of your closet, and cover them with something; I was not here, you haven’t seen me; I may call you in a couple of days to check in on this stuff, but do not trust that cops are not listening in — don’t say anything about these crates, but find some way to let me know whether or not you still have them without actually mentioning that they exist. Okay? And everyone said, “Wow, he finally snapped.”

Less than a week after that, Erik Bloodaxe woke up looking down the barrel of a police revolver.

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Going to California

The Hacker Crackdown

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Hackers, at their best, press against our boundaries, bending the present for a glimpse of possible futures. Most cultures owe a lot to their hackers, but relentless exploration comes with a blind spot: when you’re steadfastly focused on pressing against boundaries, it’s easy to forget that some boundaries will push back.

In the mid-1980s, as the analog telephone switches were going digital, many people at the phone company breathed a sigh of relief. The transition would close the door to whistle-type phone hacking once and for all. However, these same people seem to have genuinely thought they were securing their network by installing a computer at every major call-switching juncture — a networked, programmable computer. Clearly they had no idea what hackers got up to in their spare time.

And hackers have spare time, let me tell you. When they weren’t lowering themselves into a Southwestern Bell dumpster looking for discarded documentation, or war-dialing through large ranges of phone numbers in hopes of finding new computers to reach out and touch, hackers were talking at length about how best to play with what they had already learned about the new and fantastically broad network of computers which had popped up in a short couple of years. Hacking this new network also provided something that had not been so easy to get before: a pretty perfect mechanism for fraud.

But before we get there, here’s something to consider. If you were to take the hackers of the late 1980s and early 1990s and lay out in modern terms what they were doing, exploring the network would probably be modern authority’s least concern. There was far more explosive information being shared — for example, literally about explosives. In Bruce Sterling’s expert dissection of these times in The Hacker Crackdown, he wrote that “spreading knowledge about demolitions to teenagers is a highly and deliberately antisocial act.” This is true. But it was also one of the many deliberately antisocial acts in which hackers regularly engaged, because it was exciting, and antisocial. While it was assumed that basically no one actually tried building the explosives described in the “philes” that were most commonly distributed, I was starkly reminded of what could be done when a group of kids who called themselves The Legion of Doom descended on the Fort Worth Texas high school where my mother worked.

The “Lejun uv Dume,” as they called themselves, had no connection to another Legion of Doom, a group of hackers, who you’ll be hearing about in a moment. In the mid-1980s, a handful of honor students — along with, news reports were excited to note, a cheerleader — decided it was their role to rid the school of the drug dealers and other unsavories. So they did what any righteous, vigilante-minded late-Twentieth Century Texas kids might do and they built some pipe bombs and tried to burn down someone’s house.

The authorities jumped on those kids with both knees. What surprised me, in the mid-1980s, was how the story was early enough in our obsession over computer crime that the media never once tried to associate these upper-class honor students with the hacker community. Less than five years later, the hacker community likely would have taken the hit as the most probable source of bomb-building knowledge. Given the explosion of personal computers and modems in middle-class households, the computer underground might have been where those kids got their information in the first place.*

If I were to spend an evening on Google searching for explosives recipes, like what the underground boards used to offer up without a second thought, I’m not sure if it would be weeks or days before I got an unpleasant visit from one or more people in a suit. I’m not going to test it, though I think it’s fair to say that in America today, that form of terrorism is where people’s fears rest.

By the end of the 1980s, the authorities had much larger hacker-related concerns than the distribution of pipe-bomb recipes, if you can imagine that. They weren’t afraid hackers were going to change a bunch of people’s grades, or steal anyone’s credit cards. They were afraid the hackers were going to take down civilization — even worse, they might only do it as a joke.

The most bad-ass hackers of the era, predating the high-schoolers mentioned above, also called themselves the Legion of Doom. (Again, they pre-dated the Texas high-school vigilantes.) Everyone, even the authorities, presumed that if anyone could take down the phone system, it would be them. But could and would and did are three very different things.

What the hackers who called themselves the Legion of Doom could do and did do cuts across a wide range of wince-inducing offenses, from basic pranking to what could be called theft, a lot of which even at the time was less about reality and more part of the brag, the game of one-upmanship that hackers play with one another. To my knowledge, none of them ever did anything to U.S. federal authorities.

What U.S. federal authorities could do and did do to the hackers who called themselves the Legion of Doom is a sad matter of public record. Bruce Sterling’s book is an extended blow-by-blow of this whole mess, and I’ve no interest in simply repeating it. Still, I saw a lot in that time, and I knew about some of the events which took place as part of the Hacker Crackdown that I haven’t seen written down anywhere. Before I work my way on to why the detectives hired me in California, you should probably hear some of this.

The first elite hacker kid to get taken down was a 16-year-old boy, Fry Guy, who got busted like an idiot for credit-card fraud. He offered to help the authorities bring down the Legion of Doom, who he blamed for having turned him into what he had become.** He urged the feds to take him seriously, claiming that the LoD planned to disable the phone system during a major holiday, sometime in the next six months, because they could, because it would be funny.

Almost exactly six months after Fry Guy’s prediction, in January of 1990, on Martin Luther King Day, the U.S. East Coast’s phone system crashed hard and it stayed down for a long time. The phone company was at a total loss to explain how this could have happened, but some people remembered what Fry Guy had said, and they were shaken. Freaking out over a threat that they’d been worried about for years, a small group of authorities refocused their attention on the Legion of Doom and they began the sweep that people would call the Hacker Crackdown. Things went badly, quickly, for pretty much everybody: the hackers, the authorities, and a bunch of innocent people.

It went especially badly for the innocents. Here’s what happened.

 

* After I first published this, an old friend, Nathan Schattman, reminded me that he had known one of the kids involved, and that he was as old-school analog as they come, swinging an officially published copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook — which, as of this writing, remains a #1 best-seller for Amazon.

** Fry Guy blamed his credit-card fraud skills on the Atlanta members of the Legion of Doom, though that wasn’t strictly correct. Mentor reminded me recently that the Atlanta guys were not into credit-card fraud, which Bruce Sterling also backs up. The LoD taught Fry Guy how to be a phone phreak, not how to be a thief. Fry Guy, 16 years old at the time of his arrest, was likely trying to push the blame off onto the other hackers.

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Going to California

Dancing — 4

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Something inside me opened up. I stepped out of myself, to a place where I could see what I’d become just as clearly as I’d been judging others.

I didn’t do schoolwork because I had no discipline. I’d never one time worked at being a good student. I’d never forced myself to do things I didn’t want to do. I only wanted to play. The times in my life when I’d done hard work — unreasonably difficult labor, which I had done — had only been in service of having fun.

All the drama with the hackers was nothing more than me throwing gasoline on my own fire because it was a fun distraction from what I was meant to be doing. I’d been happy for the disruptions. I’d graduated high school not because I was clever and my teacher was stupid, but because she’d been generous and gracious. It had been years since anyone had openly mocked me for my stutter, but I still held the words of the past against the world of the present. I hadn’t pushed hard for my dance-plus-computer ideas — engaging other people to help me experiment — because I wanted to do it all myself, even though I didn’t know how, because I wanted all the credit, all the applause.

I manufactured my fears so that I wouldn’t have to risk failure — or, more often, so that I wouldn’t have to do any work at all. My paranoia was a protective edifice of lies around the truth, and the truth was that I was lazy.

I was a like a small, sleepy goat, a kid, nearly alone in a barren field picked clean of anything to eat. The pile of crap that he had amassed behind him was fantastical, but his muscles were too weak to push any of it aside. He had no choice but to go elsewhere, and the only route open to him was up a dangerous rock face. It was intimidating, even though so many must have gone that way before him. It would have been easier had he started up the mountain with the other kids, when there’d have been safety in numbers to help one another along. Still, better late than never.

Oh, but God, the mountain was terrifying.

“Derek?” asked Lizard.

I looked up.

“You went quiet for a minute,” she said. “You okay?”

“You said I’d be okay, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I will be,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because I trust you.”

“It didn’t sound like it.”

“I do,” I said, then I corrected myself. “I should have,” I said. “I can.”

She nodded.

I felt shattered. The worst possible thing I could’ve feared had come to pass. At least, I figured, that’s one thing I’ll never have to be afraid of again.

Lizard looked away. “When you ‘knocked’ on my dorm room door that time,” she said, “it scared me, because it reminded me of my ex-boyfriend, back home. One night he wanted me, he wanted my attention so badly, he pounded on my bedroom window so hard that he shattered the glass.” She hugged herself. “Blood everywhere. It was awful. And the look in his eye—” She looked up. “—it was the look you get, sometimes.

“He was crazy. But you, you’re not him. I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re okay. You just have ideas.” She shrugged, and smiled. “You just need to work them out.”

“Thanks, Liz,” I said. “Thank you.”

The music played for hours. The next day, I was home.

It took me several weeks, though, to realize that I no longer stuttered.

In the two years that followed, I started working and I kept working. I did what teachers needed me to do, and I got all my basic classes out of the way. When I returned to the university, my grades were never a question. I spent all my time working. It felt good. It was a kind of dancing, and I never really stopped. I got a design degree, and nearly got a minor in Astronomy.

I did also have to learn how to work well, of course. That came later. Thankfully, it happened a long time before I shot past a hand-painted sign in a desert, leaned against a tree, saying, “CALIFORNIA”.

But first, before everything after, came the Hacker Crackdown.

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Going to California

Dancing — 3

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Let me be clear, though: I was not well liked among the other dancers. My morning class had maybe 25 other students, only two of whom were guys. There was no clear camaraderie between us three males — one was a business major who wanted to continue feeding his dance talents, and the other was a flamenco dancer who was one of the most singularly bad-ass male dancers I’ve ever been within three feet of; both were gay, and as par for the course neither knew exactly want to make of me.

One cluster of four or five girls seemed willing to let me sit with them in those minutes before class began, but they were not friends. They called me Ducky, after the guy in “Pretty in Pink” who definitely does not get the girl. I’d discovered long before that arguing with girls about what they’d decided to call you was not a route to success. Also, I didn’t see a lot of room for argument.

Two of the girls were living the dream: they had their own apartment off campus. When they finally had some of the other girls, and the flamenco dancer, over for an evening, it came out how they were managing to afford it: they were running a phone-sex line.

Here’s how it worked. For some number of hours at specific times of the day, their phone line could have calls forwarded to it, customer calls. When the phone rang, the girls would take turns disappearing into a bedroom with a three-ring binder, like a pornographic “Choose Your Own Adventure” — he says this, you say that; he continues in this way, you talk about this other thing.

Some of the girls who’d gone that evening were telling some other girls, and I’d overheard. And the girls whose apartment it was — squeaky clean daddy’s girls — had seen that I’d heard. And after that, I didn’t exactly have a lot of conversational openings offered to me.

I was only so concerned. Dancers are only so interesting. They live off Diet Coke and Marlboro Lights, and they’re the least likely to be intellectually stimulating. But holy crap, can they move. Okay, there’s every reason to like dancers. I’m sure I was compensating for how they didn’t like me.

The instructors, I’d hoped, would be more interesting. I was wrong. The professor for our first semester, of course, sent me to a counselor. She always had helpful advice for the girls — for example, as we practiced slowly going down into a wide-stance squat, she’d tell us to “Breathe through your vagina,” spurring quick sideways glances between all the guys.

No one ever told me I was a bad dancer. They just let me know I was a weirdo. But I kept working at proving that I was serious. I danced four or five hours a day, four or five days a week. Then I went out three or four nights a week to an all-ages club in the Sixth Street area, where I’d get in another couple of hours of unstructured groove-getting-on.

What frustrated me the most about my year as a dancer in college was just how isolating it was, for such a very physical endeavor. I was used to dancing with people in an interactive way — picking girls up, swinging them around, holding hands, or even simply slinking around one another with no intention of ever touching. What we did in our freshman college classes was dance in isolation, inwardly focused without interaction. I’m sure it was designed into the curriculum, but it only increased my sense of isolation.

I thought I made some serious improvement my first semester, but throughout the second semester I only got worse. Rather, some other people seemed to be getting better, but every week I only felt more tired, less like I was making progress. I’d hit a plateau, and was sliding slowly down its far side.

We got a new professor that second semester, which had initially given me some hope: as a guy, I thought somehow that he’d be more interested in my ideas than the previous semester’s lady.

He listened for a few moments — “I already have the computer and the memory and a bunch of code, now I’m living like a monk and trying save a couple hundred dollars for electronics” — his bushy eyebrows pinching more and more tightly together, until they met in the middle and he dismissed my ideas with a scoff and a pffft and a wave of a hand. Over the next few weeks it became clear that he was a talented dancer and a relentless self-promoter, but in the realm of ideas he seemed full of crap. His choreography felt arbitrary and meaningless, disconnected from anything real. When he’d talk about his ideas behind them, they made no sense. Yet people worshiped him. It drove home for me that people who are full of crap are usually great at persuading people who don’t know better but who want to be persuaded.

At the end of the semester, he and I met to discuss my future. There would be a committee, he told me, made up of one person from each school in the university’s College of Fine Arts: Drama, Music, Studio Art, and Dance. He would be the dance department’s representative, and he agreed to protect me from suspension on the one condition that I agreed to leave the dance department. I’d already decided that quitting the dance department was my only way forward, so I was happy to tell him I planned to leave. I reminded him that I’d only been trying to combine computers and dance into— But he didn’t need much reminding. He remembered, and he chuckled to himself at the absurdity of the notion.

A few weeks later, I received my written notice of suspension from the university. Not four years later, in the very early 1990s, that same professor got a $250,000 grant to produce a computers-meet-dancers production along the same lines I’d been talking about. He bungled it terribly, wasting the whole wad of cash on a single, unfinished 3-D rendering, a fly-through of a human spinal column in the abstract, projected above some dancers who were doing, well, God only really knows what on stage. His idea had been to place dancers at several locations in several cities, with networked computers, and as each dancer moved they would trigger different animations at other sites, so the dancers would be interacting with one another by way of exploring a virtual space together. He wanted the virtual space designed after the inside of a body — rumor had it that they’d used his body as the model.

I went to see the failed performance with my girlfriend-at-the-time. Luckily, I’d shed enough of the misery of my youth that I did not laugh openly at the absurdity of what little he’d accomplished with a quarter of a million dollars. As the virtual camera jittered up along a blocky, boring rendering of a spinal column, though, I did call it documentary evidence that he had not just figuratively but now virtually crawled up his own ass.

If I’d seen him fail at implementing an elaboration on my idea when I was 18 years old, I’d have gone running to dig up my tap shoes in order to properly express my feelings of cold delight. As it was, at 22, I felt only relief that I hadn’t wasted the past four years building some terrible piece of crap that never would have gone anywhere, that might not have made any kind of sense outside of my own head.

Okay, I confess: it was work not to be mad about it.

Still, I was satisfied with the final outcome. As it was, I’d instead spent four years building myself: learning how to be a student. For someone to whom school had never required any real effort, it was the hardest thing I’d ever done.
The process started that night with Lizard. Finally, I saw where I’d gone the most wrong.

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