1988. The Winter Olympics took place in Calgary. Surfer Rosa by the Pixies was released – and except for a few oddballs like me who listened to the University of Calgary’s radio station, CJSW, no one pays much attention. I am about to graduate from high school. I am a man-boy without a plan. My grades are less then spectacular, as would be expected by a “student” who spends much of his at-school-time drinking wine and watching Oprah Winfrey with a gaggle of girls at a home a block away from the building where the classes take place, and much of his in-class time stoned. Other than my school-newspaper column about music (“Music Reviews From The Depths Of Hell” – yes that was the actual name of my column), read by nearly no one, I don’t have much going on.
After graduation, my mum secured me a summer job in the mail-room of the oil company she worked at and started delicately trying to get some kind of indication from me as to what, exactly, I planned to do with the rest of my life. I don’t think I was particularly forthcoming. She must have started doing research because she somehow discovered that there was a theatre arts program at Mount Royal College (now called Mount Royal University) and asked me if I thought I might be interested in that. I think my response was something along the lines of “Yeah I guess I could get into that”. My mum then somehow got the necessary forms and filled out pretty much everything except where I had insert my signature, and told me when and where I had to be for the audition, and that I would need a monologue.
Highschool was not a happy experience for me. I remember thinking of highschool as a prison sentence – something painful that I would have to endure, but that I would one day leave behind to be free and start my “real life’. Looking back, I think this is one rare moment where my teenage perception was exactly right. I did not fit in. I did not enjoy highschool. When people said to enjoy highschool because they would be the “best days of my life” the result was that internally that I might as well end it all now. So I was not all that enthusiastic about the prospect of more formal education. Nonetheless, I figured studying theatre would be easy and went about learning a monologue. It did not occur to me that a 200+ pound 18-year old with chest-length hair and an offensive punk rock T-shirt might not be the right casting for Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman, and so I went in and did my best Dustin-Hoffman-as-Willy-Loman-imitation. It likely does not say much for the theatre program at Mount Royal that I was accepted, but I was.
I was very cynical and closed-off to people upon arrival for the start of my theatre arts education at Mount Royal, but soon found I was in a safe place with other arty sensitive souls like myself. Obviously there was considerable drama, it being a drama program and filled primarily with people straight out of high school, but I finally was in a situation where I actually, for the most part, enjoyed school. Creativity was encouraged, not, as was the case in high school, stomped out at every opportunity. I discovered that I loved learning. I discovered that people were not all bad. There were people who just accepted my weirdness and in fact even were drawn to it as something fun and positive. I met some people there with whom I am still friends today. Although none of us (to my knowledge) ever “hit the big time”, many of those people are still involved with the arts in some form or another – running small theatre companies, acting, screenwriting, and so on.
After a year of hearing New York City being constantly referenced at school I made the insane decision that I would move there, which I later did – ah, but that’s another story.
One of the friends from my time at Mount Royal, who, like me, has endured her share of trials, tribulations, disappointments and emotional scars, was then a bright-eyed potential ingenue. She had a dreamy blonde muscle-clad boyfriend and a quick wit. When I finally was accepted to theatre school in New York, she took the trouble to write me a card wishing me well, and to write out the lyrics to “Closer To Fine” by the Indigo Girls, saying it reminded her of me. I went and bought the CD and the album followed me to NYC where I would listen to it mostly on lazy hungover afternoons, which were frequent. I still listen to the album once in a while, and the lyrics to all the songs resonate with me, but none more than Closer To Fine itself.
My ingenue friend still has the quick wit, but as with many straight girls, men have proven a disappointing lot over the adult years of her life. Through the magic of Facebook I have kept in touch with her over the years, and by way of HTML, we have seen each other through addiction, break-ups, soul-destroying jobs and more. Once in a while, when we are in the same city, we will meet for a conversation full of repartee, although slightly less sharp and edgy than when we were 20-somethings. Life’s failures and humiliations over time have a way of rubbing off some of the sharper edges and I suppose compassion and gentleness are often the positive side effects of pain.
In the year I spent in the theatre program in Calgary, I started what would be a decades-long process of opening up. Of starting to accept myself and to allowing myself to be vulnerable. The process is still underway now. The people I met at Mount Royal were the beginning of that process, which, I imagine, will continue until I croak. And I will always hold a warm spot for them in my heart as a result. Oh, and for the record, Highschool, for me, anyway, was not even close to the happiest time of my life – those were still many years, and many hard lessons, away. But they came, and I think I might be in some of them right now.