Tuesday, February 8, 2011

1990 Onward...

1990 is really the threshold of a huge transition for me personally, and for us as a couple, and from here on out, I return to a bullet-less narrative.  Such things are useful to make notes and point out important events in a sequence of formative years, but at this stage in the story, I am (for all intents and purposes, in body if not at heart) an adult.  I know it's a lot to cram twenty years of highlights into one post, but look at it this way - it's one post, and then I'll be done with this brain dump.

I spend the rest of 1990 writing, making music and leading a pirate themed household of over thirty people in the SCA.  When 1991 arrives, it is a new decade, and things are continuing to change.  I become the desktop publishing coordinator at the brand new Kinko's in Mountain View, and Samantha contracts at Hewlett-Packard doing database management.  Mark gets me into The Cult, Mother Lovebone, Public Enemy and Soundgarden.  In the midst of this harder stuff, I become smitten with the jangly West Coast songwriting of a young band from Santa Barbara.

We begin to look at buying a home.  Even with help from the family, it is readily apparent that we could afford little more than a double-wide in the South Bay.  We begin to do some serious soul searching.  And Tears Fell has been getting some traction, more college airplay and national fans, thanks to Prodigy.  A music 'zine in Austin, Texas starts supporting the band with glowing reviews.  We could stick it out, slave away at the indie music business in the SF Bay Area, or we could move somewhere else, somewhere more affordable, where we could actually raise a family.  My mom and stepdad have moved to Ferndale, Washington.  We have friends in Bellevue, Washington.  We remember falling in love with the Evergreen State on our way to Vancouver in 1986.  We do our research, we make lots of calls, I check with Kinko's corporate to see if I can transfer to a store in the Seattle area, and they find me a spot as the DTP coordinator at the Bellevue store.


We notice the club music and alternative shoegaze music of  the 1980s takes on a distinctly angry vibe, in the form of two Seattle bands who both release landmark albums in September 1991.  This doesn't stop us from Seeing Transvision Vamp and the Candy Skins live (with a shirtless Cy Curnin performing an acoustic set).  On a boat.  We go to the first Lollapalooza festival.  We also get to see Concrete Blonde on their Bloodletting tour with Andy Prieboy supporting.  My inner goth is very happy.  Happy goth.  It is the last stop before the Seattle music scene seeps into everything.  We realize we will be walking into the lion's den of a powerful cultural movement, and we're okay with that.

In October, we host the Fourth Annual Black Pelican Dead Man's Party & Hallowe'en Ball.  The theme is pre-20th century authors and poets, and it's a good old fashioned murder mystery, complete with bad poetry and ghost story competitions.  It will be the last Black Pelican to be held in California.

In mid-November, Samantha and I pack our world and our cats, Ace and Gryphon, into our 1980 Isuzu P'up and a U-Haul trailer and leave the state we've called home for 20+ years.  It's a two-day drive, especially when the poor little truck keeps overheating on the hills and we have to keep stopping to let it cool.

Our friends Garth and Shura let us stay at their home in Bellevue for a couple weeks while we look for a place to live.  We find a two-bedroom apartment in Renton, and I drop by the Bellevue Kinko's to let the manager know I've arrived safely.  I'm informed that, despite having just relocated from a thousand miles away and having a start date from corporate, the manager has given my job to someone else.  I head back to the corporate office in Seattle to complain, and am told that I can take a lower-rung job at the downtown Seattle store.  I bite the bullet, working swing shifts for a week until I just can't conceal my anger at being dicked over by a company I served for 5 years through college and beyond.  Fuck Kinko's.

I do temp work, and Sam lands a job with the state at the Seattle Vocational Institute.  Good salary and benefits.  She tells me to write for a year.  I do exactly that.

At the end of that time, I have three novels, a screenplay and three short stories (two of which I sell immediately to horror magazine Midnight Zoo) and one I will sell later (to Northwest Gamers Network).  We see Sarah McLachlan and The Sundays in concert.  We're impressed enough with Peace Love & Guitars opening for Sarah that we go see them headline at the Crocodile Cafe, and meet a couple West Seattleites our age over a spilled beer.  While embracing the grunge culture of my adopted city, I still nurture my old tastes by way of Bel Canto and Tori Amos.  I delve into Native American spiritualism, and attend my first sweat lodge.  There, I meet a woman on a similar spiritual trajectory, and she becomes a friend to Samantha and me.  At the end of 1992, the three of us move into a big 1915 craftsman home above a retail spot on California Avenue in West Seattle.  Our rent is $650 a month, with our housemate carrying a third of that.  I have long hair and a beard.  The hair will come and go (mostly go), but the face fuzz will pretty much move in permanently.

After months of rejection form letters, I get a nibble.  Time Warner's sci-fi imprint is casting the net for new authors, and my cyberpunk "street opera" is kind of exactly what they're looking for.  I send in the manuscript.  The woman at Warner disappears.  I'm informed that she is no longer working for the imprint, that she has gone somewhere else, taking several manuscripts with her.  I have no way of tracking her down.  My inner conspiracy theorist will spend the next few years browsing the sci-fi bookshelves for anything resembling my novel.

We're watching the Batman animated series and the television spin-off of the Highlander film.

In 1993, I meet Ron Dugdale through a bulletin board posting at the local comic shop, advertising an RPG group.  He, his wife Glenda and I become partners in The Gamut, a game/hobby/collectible store at the West Seattle Junction*.  I walk two blocks to work every day.  We frequent the local dial-up bulletin board systems, creating new friends and networks.  It's quite the bohemian existence.  Eddie Vedder frequents our store, dropping $500 at a time on Star Wars models and other geek stuff to kill time with while on tour.  We host the first Magic: The Gathering tournament in the Seattle area.  I get into Warhammer 40K.  We have a core group of gamers who test out our various house games and systems.  One of these entails adapting the Cyberpunk system to a fantasy setting.  I use the setting of my earlier fantasy fiction.  Ron adapts the name of the system from Cyberpunk's "Friday Night Firefight" to "Friday Night Arrowflight".  The system would change over the next 8 or so years, but the name Arrowflight would stick.  I get super into Red Dwarf, and wonder what an RPG set in that universe would look like.  Bah, I think.  Someone's probably already made one.

In August, Samantha and I decide to go off active birth control.  We don't actively try to get pregnant, just don't try not to.  It works.  By September, we're expecting.  Shortly thereafter, Samantha is fired from SVI.  We consider a wrongful termination suit due to the timing of the pregnancy, but chicken out of the confrontation.  Sam finds a job with a friend who manages the used bookstore (and who also works the Ticketmaster booth at Easy Street Records and drops a lot of her disposable income on Magic cards at my shop).  I get involved with TCI Cablevision's access program, working on a few episodes of Political Playhouse and enticing the producer to take on my sci-fi/comedy pilot, Flotsam.  In November 1993, our friend at Ticketmaster grabs us front row seats to Dead Can Dance for our wedding anniversary.  I'm awestruck, and will never become un-struck.

Our housemate begins dating the weapon master for the Highlander TV show (he lives and works up in Vancouver).  In early 1994, she moves out, and our bookstore friend moves in.  We're devoted X-Files and Brisco County Jr. fans.  We see Sarah McLachlan play in Bellingham at the WWU student center on the Fumbling Towards Ecstasy tour.  In May, our son Tyler is born.  I'm also informed by Ron that The Gamut can't afford to pay my salary as the manager, but that my investment in the company is still good.  I start job hunting while Sam continues to work at the bookstore, often taking young Tyler with her.  I temp.  A lot.  During the summer, we shoot Flotsam. I also see  Cocteau Twins live.

In September, I get a gig in the art department of a custom T-shirt printer.  In October, Garth takes me to lunch and tells me about a videogame startup that is opening soon and that might need artists.  I call for an interview and end up being the first non-management hire.  In November, I start as the concept artist for Boss Game Studios

At Boss, I meet another artist, Hans Piwenitzky.  He's a fellow gamer and sci-fi geek, only six months younger than me, and we become good friends.  Programmer Peter Giokaris comes aboard soon after.  Peter is a Toronto native and electronic music composer in his own right.  He gets me into Recoil, H and Die Warsau.

It is the beginning of the 3D boom in videogames.  The Sega Saturn, 3DO, and the Sony Playstation  are new platforms.  Boss being the sister company of Boss Film Studios, we are treated to visits from founder Richard Edlund, who regales us with stories of the "photochemical days" of film. He welcomes the digital era of effects, personified by Boss Films' latest project, Species.  We are taken to premieres.  We are flown to LA for the first Electronic Entertainment Expo.  We are given a VIP tour of Boss Film Studios, which contain artifacts from Ghostbusters and Alien3 and 2010.  We are greeted by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man's head (the real honest-to-gawd thing from Ghostbusters) on the lobby floor, and are invited to "go ahead - kick it around!" by the pipe-smoking man who shot THE FUCKING TITLE CRAWL in Star Wars.

In March 1995, we buy a little 1922 craftsman home in West Seattle, just a block from Westwood Village, a somewhat dilapidated shopping center.  I'm at Boss throughout 1995, working on several projects that never finish and one that will be published three years after we began and long after I leave.  I go from Boss to their competitor, Zipper Interactive, in 1996.  We start a remodel project on the house that will last into 1999, but it doubles the square footage of our home.  In 1997, I become the lead designer on the first phase of Allegiance, a space shooter MMO, which, while all but abandoned by Microsoft, would find a hard-core following that lasts to the present day.  While working on Allegiance, Ray Harryhausen comes through my area on a tour.  It somehow falls to me to explain to the man who inspired me to get into film and animation in the first place how 3D animation works.  He's very self-effacing, downplaying his massive contributions to popular fucking culture, while every member of my team is bowing in homage.  Some Navy brass are also given a tour of the IMP facility, and in return, I'm invited to go out on the USS Ohio, a Trident missile sub, in Hood Canal.  Halfway through our little jaunt, we receive word that a Russian envoy wants to do a spot-check on the sub, as per treaty.  The civilians are offloaded to a boat and taken back to Bangor sub base.

At home, we're watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena and the short run of Roar with a young Heath Ledger in the starring role.

About this same time, some friends and I found the Mythos LARP society, a fantasy tweak on the strictly historically-based SCA.  That morphs into a strictly historically-based LARP group called ReNaction ("ReN" for "Renaissance", "Naction" for "enaction").  A couple years are killed between both groups, and we have fun making boffers and hitting one another with them.  Our Wiffle bat/garbage can lit sport comes full circle.
In September 1997, our daughter Kayleigh is born.  In October, when my contract is over at Microsoft, I take a job as the Entertainment Group Lead at Visual Dynamics, trying to turn industrial design concepts and tugboat simulation software into a marketable game property.  I feel it's a setup for failure, but I follow through for a year.  When my job at VDyn dries up, I freelance for some time, doing contract art and design for various game and software developers.  It's a crazy time in the videogame industry, and there's a lot of upheaval in the Puget Sound area.

Blade sets the stage for the Marvel revival to come.

In 1999, my brother Gavin and I record a Star Wars geek parody of Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" on my Tascam 4-track, "Livin' La Vida Yoda".  Gavin writes the lyrics, I settle on the band name Bitter Tastting Omelette (after a line from a National Geographic documentary on giant spiders of the Amazon).  We post it on a GeoCities website and it becomes one of those Things Which Grow Bigger Than Its Creator.  It's immediately attributed to Weird Al Yankovic, which he denies on his website.

I get a gig with the West Coast Bethesda Softworks studio in Olympia, which is purchased by ZeniMax Media.  I commute 100 miles a day (round trip) for six months, job hunting the whole time.  Although I really like the art director at Bethesda, the environment and corporate politics there are among the worst I've experienced.  I keep my head down and build tracks for the never-to-be-published Skip Barber Racing.  It's a low point for me in the industry, and a low point in my marriage.  I feel like a meal ticket.  Between the day job and the publishing company, I have little to no time off, and what I do get I try to spend with my family.  Samantha is doing theater.  A lot of theater.  So once I get home from my evening commute, she passes the kids to me and heads to rehearsal.  We are little more than roommates for much of the year.

Things look up when I contact HyperBole Studios in Seattle, who is about to be purchased by Tremor Entertainment in LA.  They are ramping up three teams, and in February 2000, I am hired as the art director for the company.  My corner office looks out over Belltown and the Space Needle.  I manage really talented people and we have an incredible amount of creative input.  I hire Steve Hartley, who will become a close friend and collaborator.  It's a great work environment and I am happy for almost a year.  But Tremor pulls out of the purchase agreement, and suddenly we're not only cutting two of the three planned teams, we're trying to keep the one team we do have together.  We start producing animated webtoons for entertainment content right at the end of the dot-com bubble, selling a couple series to Atom Film in an attempt to stop the cash hemorrhage.  The bubble bursts, and my team is the last one out as HyperBole shuts its Seattle doors, its two principals retreating to LA to lick their wounds.

X-Men continues Marvel's streak of pretty decent film adaptations of their comic properties.

I begin composing electronic music under the name Starbug, taken from the name of the small scout ship in Red Dwarf.  I set up shop on MP3.com, making friends with other artists, like Sipping Soma,Trespassers William, Red Delicious, Solaris (the electronica artist, not the Hungarian prog rock band), Deep Mosey, Pamela Zero and Dogfish.  The latter is a fellow West Seattlite.

By this time, Deep7 has been in operation for over a year.  Originally founded by Samantha, Ron Dugdale and myself in April of 1999, the intent is to create tabletop RPG material for download in electronic format.  At this point, there is no fulfillment model, and we have to chart our own course.  Some of the market is highly resistant to paying money for downloaded content, but there is enough enthusiasm for our products that we start to gain a foothold.  We work hard, releasing title after title in our 1PG game line (simple beer & pretzels RPGs) as well as prepping our premium fantasy game, Arrowflight, for release.  We start to think about a license we could get that would allow us to really grow.  I suggest Red Dwarf, and finally there is agreement.  No British game company has released a licensed RPG of the property, so we decide to make inquiries with Grant Naylor Productions, and lo and behold - nobody has ever contacted them about making a Red Dwarf RPG.  We get the license and produce the game we as fans always wanted to play.  It remains a proud milestone in my publishing career.  Ron leaves Deep7 in January of 2002 over creative issues.  He remains a close friend.

Samantha and I seek marriage counseling.  It works.  We achieve equilibrium in our marriage.  Life is good.
While Deep7 is establishing itself, I keep working a day job, doing art and design for TrainingTek, an aerospace education startup that implodes within six months, owing employees thousands of dollars.  I join the Hoyle group at Sierra, working on Casino Empire before Vivendi Universal cut a swath of job carnage in early 2002.  Although I dodge a bullet in the first round of layoffs, I am cut in the second round, along with folks who had been with Sierra for ten years.  I swear to myself that I will never work for someone else (at least not in a direct at-will employee capacity) again.  I continue to freelance, but most of my focus is on Deep7 products.  Arrowflight arrives just in time to compete with a shit-ton of fantasy titles, many of them OGL.  Nevertheless it gets positive reviews, and becomes an alternative to the d20 mania sweeping the industry.

Spider-Man continues Marvel's winning streak.  They appear to have perfected their formula. On the DC side, we're watching Justice League and loving it.

Throughout 2002, Samantha has a continuation of her kidney issues after having done the Atkins diet for over two years.  Repeated infections, chronic pain, surgery.  She gets a kidney scan, which shows something unusual.  The doctor who delivered our children and who has been our family physician for almost a decade sends her in for a full torso CT scan in August.  She gets the phone call days later and I watch her face sink as THAT WORD etches itself into her brain.


Not some easily treated variety, but a rare form only seen in older males.  Adenocarcinoma, unknown primary, has set up shot on her liver with a main tumor the size of a baseball.  Twenty-two smaller tumors spread across the liver and both lungs.  Not knowing what lay ahead, we charge forward bravely, refusing to surrender to some premature biological death sentence.

Joss Whedon's Firefly graces our television set in September of 2002.  It's a great distraction from what's happening with Samantha.  In October, my father is diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma.

We release the Red Dwarf RPG in January of 2003, to pre-sales of over half the print run.  In February we release the Red Dwarf A.I. Screen.  Our company is paying our mortgage, and the game is getting great reviews.  That summer, we take the family to GenCon in Indianapolis.  Sam is between chemo treatments, but the cumulative effects are visible.

The theatrical release of Daredevil is disappointing, although some of the visuals are Millerific.  Discovering the Director's Cut on DVD in 2005 will redeem the film for me.

We struggle through the next year, releasing more game titles and working on a third Red Dwarf supplement, the Series Sourcebook, which will have every episode from the existing eight seasons broken down into playable bits for the game.

2004 and 2005 are a blur.  Although the Red Dwarf RPG has been successful, we're being crushed under medical debt, and we're not able to put as much time into the company and its products as before.  In May 2004, my dad sends the family to Greece and Italy as a "make a wish" kind of thing for Samantha.  She's sick the whole trip, but we get to see some amazing sights in mainland Greece and then recuperate for three days in Venice.  It's the last family vacation we'll take with Sam.

Samantha's health takes a nose dive in February, and she dies at home on April 12th.  I go into a deep state of shock for the next two years.  We hold her memorial party on May 1st.  My father tells me he's going in for surgery to remove the two cancer tumors that have popped up on his brain.  He makes it through the first surgery and actually comes to dinner for Tyler's birthday on May 17th.  He goes in for the second, but develops an infection which requires a third emergency surgery.  I spend two weeks visiting him in the UW hospital ICU.  He seems to be rebounding, but has a pulmonary embolism and dies on May 30th.

It's the second barrel from the Shotgun of Fate.  Life will never be the same.

In July, I start the Rhymes With Drowning blog, and pretty much everything since then has been discussed.  Sewer flood, hose burns down, blah blah blah.  In retrospect, the book chapter would be called Overcoming Horrible Odds Despite Repeated Blows to the [Metaphorical] Groin.

It's a long, strange road.  But it makes sense why I like my geekery gritty.  I can't relate to unicorns farting rainbows.  If doesn't have to do with the pain, sweat and bloody mess that is human existence, I'll pass.  But if it's got a tribal beat and carries a banner of epic mythology, human ambition and Overcoming Horrible Odds Despite Repeated Blows to the [Metaphorical] Groin, I'm totally there.

*A Garlic Jim's pizzeria lives there now.

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