There I was, 21 years old, receiving academic awards and expected to accept scholarships for graduate school after graduating from the Ohio State University in a few months. I had done well during my time as a Buckeye and I should have been ecstatic, right? Well, grateful I was.
After all, it was nice to get recognition for having worked so hard, but, the future suddenly filled me with dread. I had been an over-achiever for so long, I really needed a break from being one; but how could I dare do something other than what everyone, including myself, had come to identify me with?
You see, when you take on a way of being, say over-achieving, or self-sufficiency, being lazy, etc., it is usually to cover up something you don’t want the world to see or know about you. I had become an over-achiever at a very early age and my transformation can be traced back to one exact moment: My 3rd grade spelling bee.
Picture it: An unassuming, brick-façaded elementary school in the Midwest in the early 70s. Twenty rambunctious kids, most aged 8 (except for you, you skipped 1st grade and are at least one year, if not a year and a half younger than the rest), all with names, unlike yours, that are commonly understood and pronounced in that time in America, and that end in “y”, like “Cindy”, “Danny”, “Kenny”, “Billy”, pull their chairs to the front of the class in two half-moon rows.
The teacher steps in front of the rows and points to the kid whose turn it is to spell out a word she gives. If the kid gets it wrong, the class giggles and the kid has to drag his chair back to his desk. The next kid then gets a try at the word that wasn’t spelled right. If she gets it right, she stays up at the front of the class. If she doesn’t, she has to join the other non-good spellers at the back of the room.
This goes on, it seems, in slow-motion, you watching and listening intently as words like “dictionary”, “because”, “constitution”, are flung about. At first, you find this fun. You love the big words; they are your friends. You’ve been reading the Encyclopedia Britannica since you are five; words are what you live for. When you eat your morning cereal you devour not just the sugary balls of processed wheat and corn, but also the words on the box, including the ingredients list. You can’t help it. Letters placed in such a way as to form a word sing a siren song just for you.
But now it is down to you and one other boy you never noticed before. The jitters inside of you are so strong you swear the room is shaking. It’s the boy’s turn. The teacher, again in slo-mo, mouths the word, that one word that (you right now will not realize) will then define how you see yourself for decades to come; wait for it, wait for it, her lips are opening ever so slowly, the silence in the classroom is deafening, your heartbeat almost too loud to hear the deafening silence, and the word booms into your ears: “Bib”.
You panic. Bib?
You see your competition feels the same way you do. Like he wishes he hadn’t done so well up to now. The tension in the room heightens. You suddenly feel a huge sense of guilt that your turn comes after this kid as you know he knows you don’t know how to spell the word and he knows you know he doesn’t know how to either.
The poor kid excruciatingly slowly squeaks out his best guess: “B, i, b,” a pause, “b?”
The world stops turning. All is silence. You and your fellow contestant stiffen. You are rooting for him. You so want him to guess correctly to avoid your having to attempt to do so.
“Wrong,” says the teacher, “sorry.”
You swallow hard, watch the miserable kid flush with shame and disappointment as he drags his chair back to his desk. You are alone at the front of the room, 19 kids and 1 teacher staring at you with anticipation.
The teacher looks at you and says, “Ok, this is it! Please spell ‘bib’.”
You still don’t know how to spell the word, but you know that, if “b, i, b, b” is wrong, then the next logical deduction would be to take away a “b” rather than add one, right?
You can hardly look the teacher in the eye, as you feel you are cheating when you say: “B, i, b.”
“Correct,” says the teacher, “You won!”
The class explodes with applause and the teacher beams at you as if you are the most intelligent, wonderful, amazing brain that ever walked the planet. You get a certificate that confirms this, and are made much of at home by your parents for being so smart, so fantastic. All the while you are thinking “I am a liar. A fake. They think I’m smart, but I only won because that kid gave me the answer by default. So what do I do now?”
And what do you do? You start working so hard at school to hide what becomes a “truth” for you: that you are dumb and undeserving of academic recognition, but no one must be the wiser for it. An over-achiever is born, my friends.
And so, more than a dozen years of over-achieving later, I was feeling extremely burnt out on the inside. On the outside, I kept my smile, enthusiasm, and obligations up. But all the pressure of living up to the praise and expectations of my professors and parents was becoming a bit too much for me. I’d sit at honors receptions surrounded by true geniuses, students who were making scientific discoveries as undergraduates, students who were composing complex, operatic scores, students who were carving out their future political careers. I secretly felt I didn’t belong there, that I was simply good at working hard and putting a lot of energy and enthusiasm into my endeavors.
To add to my already filled plate, a new activity had begun to require a lot of my time and energy: Music.
Now, I am a Pontian, Cretan Greek. Music is the plasma that hosts my blood cells and oxygenates my very being at the cellular level. Well, music, and food. But, as for music, I could sing traditional Greek folk songs (some of them from the 40s) before I could speak full sentences. I had a musical ear and a musical family that sang in the car, after dinner parties, at all major holidays…songs were ever-present.
So, when my brother showed up at my apartment at the beginning of fall semester my senior year and asked me to sing with him in a band, it took two seconds to accept.
At first, it was a lark. “How cool, singing with my bro and our best friend from Singapore!” Within a few months, we
added a bass player and a drummer, and began to have a loyal following when we played at local bars. By February, we were headlining at large college venues, attracting crowds of hundreds. We were interviewed on local television, featured in the newspaper, asked to sing at festivals, opening for second-tier headliners.
Soon, a choice would have to be made. Would I go on to grad school away from Ohio and leave the band? Or would I leave my grad school plans behind and seek success with the band? Impossibly difficult to choose!
I can still vividly remember the torturous process of weighing both options, not wanting to crush the future I had been building a foundation for, yet not wanting to step into that future just yet. Even worse, I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, knowing that someone, inevitably, would be incredibly disappointed.
Thankfully, I had two loyal, caring brothers to bolster me and urge me to go with my gut, which told me that I just could not continue to over-achieve at an even higher level without hurting my well-being. I deferred grad school for a year and stuck with the band.
Over the next year our band continued to move onward and upward. We headlined for big-ticket bands and attracted our own huge crowds. We played CBGBs in New York before being picked up by an L.A.-based manager and taken to California. In Los Angeles we played regular gigs at The Whiskey a Go-Go and the Viper Room and continued to put out demos in hopes of getting a record deal.
But even musicians have to pay rent, car insurance, utilities, and they definitely need to eat. So, once in L.A., the search was on for day-time money-making jobs. I had already gotten a part-time job as a word processor, where I was loving learning the ins and outs of Word Perfect and getting to use this newfangled contraption I had never had much access to before—a computer! (Yes, I graduated college without ever owning one. Why? Because personal computers didn’t yet have affordable price tags or user-friendly operating systems!) But, my life path was starting to, again, not feel right for me.
Before our shows, the several hours of sound checks in bars and venues that immersed my senses in old vomit, rancid beer, cigarette smoke, and a faint smell of despair were becoming unbearable. To get through them, I’d daydream of being a big-name band, with our own tour bus, behind which I would somehow pull a horse trailer. If only I could have a horse on tour with me, I thought, then all this waiting around and sound-checking might be worthwhile. I persevered in the band mostly because I loved my band mates, believed in our talents, felt fulfilled when performing, and I had that irrational hope of a horse being on tour with me in the near future.
Funny enough, the latter entered my life soon after, sans tour bus.
We were driving down the Ventura Freeway to get to our Westwood studio for practice, borrowed Nissan truck loaded down with amps, mikes, drum sets, and hope, and I happened to look left out the passenger window. My eyes widened in shock! Horses! Lots of horses! I frantically asked where we were (no Google Maps to inform us back then), but nobody knew and so I focused on the highway like a hawk until I saw the next exit sign: Burbank.
I now knew where I had to go next time I had the afternoon off and a car I could mooch to get there. Oh, goodness me! Thirteen years of repressing my passion were over and it was back with a vengeance! I felt a jolt of excitement run though me, reminding me that horses still had that magical pull on my heart and soul. The faraway dream of being around horses now seemed a distinct possible reality I could create, and all because I had given myself permission to abandon over-achieving to live out a different dream, a musical one. “If I can live out one dream," I thought, "why not another?”
But first, how the heck could I get to Burbank? And, second, what on earth would I do when I got there?
(to be continued…)