Palouse by vwl
Competition - November 1986
Two Years After Micah's First Lesson
“I’d like to enter Micah into a violin competition in Seattle,” Rudy announced one day at the start of Micah’s third year of lessons. “He needs performance experience, which is a bit hard to get in Colfax, as you might imagine.”
Betty agreed and was overjoyed to give her permission. “Just tell me where and when, and I’ll get him there.”
The drive two months later was the first of many for the 11-year-old Micah and his mother. In the months and years to follow, Rudy would occasionally take Micah and his mother to a contest or concert, but Rudy’s driving ability left Betty, and eventually Micah, wondering if they would make it to their destination and back alive. So the driving was usually left to Betty.
On this first trip to Seattle, Micah stared in awe as Betty’s van crossed Lake Washington on a bridge that floated, went through a long tunnel, and turned north onto I-5 toward the University of Washington, where the contest was being held. From I-5 Micah could see across Lake Union and Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains, which shone with fresh November snow on the higher peaks. Betty turned off the freeway, drove a few blocks and parked in the university garage. They walked from there to the music building, where the contest was being held.
There were 12 other children competing – teens and pre-teens, all with hovering parents who seemed to know each other from myriad prior competitions. Those contestants who had already signed in at the registration table had large numbers pinned to their chests along with the names of their hometowns. In the background was a cacophony of tuning and warming up. Betty signed Micah in and handed him his number: 8. The other parents and their offspring eyed Betty and Micah with curiosity and wariness, as if they were intruders arriving unexpectedly through the forest to their prehistoric native village.
Who was this new kid? And where was Endicott? One Asian girl came over and asked him about Endicott, and shortly thereafter the whole room knew that he came from a small town in Eastern Washington. Surely, no hick town could produce a violinist to threaten their competition, especially an 11-year old. There was a lessening of tension in the room; the fear of the unknown had been circumscribed. It was unlikely that this young boy could be any competition to these big-city children, the best young violinists in the state, musicians who’d been studying with well-respected teachers and who had competed against each other for years. Besides, he was probably there mainly because he was half-Navajo – a fact that they quickly uncovered.
Precisely at 10 a.m., the young contestants were invited to take seats. The head of the university music department – a small, lean, gray-bearded man with salt-and-pepper hair – greeted them and wished them all good luck. The contest would start with Number 1 and continue to the end, the numbers having been distributed randomly in advance. Each contestant had been instructed to prepare a piece or movement of about 20 minutes long.
Micah listened politely to the seven contestants who preceded him, thinking that they all sounded better than he ever could. After two hours, his turn arrived. He stood in front of the audience of family, friends and other contestants. He announced what he (with the advice of Mr. Schmidt) had chosen to play.
Micah was terrified as he walked to the center of the stage in his first-ever competition, the large Number 8 pinned to his chest as if he were an auction item. Rudy had instructed him to take some deep breaths and to exhale slowly through his mouth; he had almost forgotten that advice but remembered it at the last minute. “I’m Micah Kingman from Endicott, Washington, and I’m going to play a violin transposition of the third movement of Bach’s 1st Cello Suite.” The judges looked at each other, wondering whether such a young violinist could play such a challenging piece.
Micah tucked the violin under his chin and raised his bow. The first few measures sounded rocky to him, but he quickly became absorbed in his playing. The small space around him and his violin became his world; in his mind, it became a sanctuary like the one that lay a half mile from his house where he would go to play his violin. For his 20 minutes, Micah lived in that different world; the audience that sat in front of him might not even have existed.
The applause was enthusiastic when he played his last note. He bowed awkwardly – it was his first-time performance, after all – then he smiled broadly, his dark eyes bright with excitement. At the end of the contest, the judges left the performance room to tally their scores and make their decisions. It seemed to Micah that it took them forever.
As he and Betty sat waiting and talking, they did not realize that the other contestants and parents were eying them now with a mixture of jealousy and admiration, the parents realizing that yet another obstacle to their children’s rightful, first-place contest finishes had arrived on the scene.
The judges filed into the room and took three chairs up onto the stage before sitting down. The head of the department stood. “It was difficult to choose the second- and third-place finishes.” He cleared his throat, reached for the yellow ribbon and certificate. “In third place, Ms. Phyllis Yu,” he announced. She came up and accepted her plaque. “In second place, Mr. Hugh Boldt. Congratulations, Hugh,” he said as the boy came up to accept his red ribbon and certificate. A flash of a scowl crossed the boy’s face as he looked at Micah.
The speaker waited a moment for the auditorium to quiet down. Then he smiled and spoke. “I have never judged a contest with this clear a winner. There was no doubt about the first-place finisher. We were amazed at the playing and even more amazed that our winner has only been playing the violin for just over two years. The winner of this year’s Young Northwest Violinist competition is…Micah Kingman from Endicott, Washington.”
Betty gave Micah a hug, which would have been an embarrassment had not the other parents also hugged their prize winners when they had won. The applause was warm when Micah walked to the front to accept the large plaque, ribbon and certificate. He turned, and to Betty’s surprise, held the plaque above his head like a Wimbledon Center Court winner. Then, seeming to realize what he’d done all at once, he lowered it, blushed, and bowed once again to the audience. A few cameras flashed. For that moment at least, Micah was forced to realize he was a star.
Afterward, at the reception for the contestants and their parents and sponsors, he heard congratulations showered from what seemed like a hundred people.
“I’m proud of you, Micah,” Betty said as they later were driving through Snoqualmie Pass on their way east. “Not only did you win, but you were a real gentleman with the other contestants. Mr. Schmidt will also be proud of you.”
Micah was dazed by all the events of the weekend – the tension of waiting to play, the first few awkward moments of his solo, and the warmth of victory. He was emotionally exhausted, and he curled up in his seat and fell asleep. Betty looked admiringly at her son, who was, she felt, on the verge of similar feats in the months and years to come.
They arrived at the farm late that night. Had Betty known that Micah would win, with the obligations to stay for the full reception, she would have brought luggage for an overnight stay and splurged on a motel room so they wouldn’t arrive home so late. Next time, she told herself. Micah dashed off quickly to his bedroom with his trophy and violin case in hand. He put the violin away, the trophy on the floor by his bed, slipped off his clothes, put on his pajamas, said ‘good night’ to Greg, who was sound asleep and oblivious, and crawled under the covers.
By the time Micah woke the next morning, Betty had been into Endicott to buy the morning Spokane paper. On the front page of the local section was a small article about an 11-year-old boy from Endicott who had won a violin contest in Seattle. Betty bought two copies – one for the scrapbook that she was going to start, and one for the family.
Over the next two years, the scrapbook would get thicker and thicker as Micah’s accomplishments mounted. There were first prizes in several regional competitions and features about this half-Native-American wonder boy living on a farm in Eastern Washington.
At school, word of Micah’s success spread first among the teachers, then among his fellow students. Finally it became known in the community through Micah’s fellow students’ parents. Micah’s success was not just at the local towns, like Colfax, Pullman, Sprague and Ritzville but also in Seattle, Portland and Spokane. The town of Endicott understood and appreciated that Micah was a rare phenomenon for a farming town in the middle of the Palouse. Fame provided insulation against harassment of someone who was racially “different.”
* * * * *
He was the last contestant in line in the University of Oregon Student Union cafeteria several months later. It was Micah’s second competition, and this was the lunch break. He had already performed, but the competition was not over. The other contestants were sitting at a table near the outside windows and engaged in animated conservation. He looked across the room and saw one table full with ten contestants and another with the remaining few. He headed for the table with open seats.
“Micah!” Hugh Boldt’s voice boomed across the room, his arms waving Micah towards the full table. He turned toward a girl sitting beside him. “Sandra, give Micah your seat. Everybody else, slide around. I want Micah to sit by me.” That created an awkward moment as Micah approached the table and Sandra picked up her tray, almost stumbling as she rose, and started for the other table, passing by Micah on the way.
“I don’t want to take your place,” Micah said, apologetically, halting Sandra for a moment.
Sandra stopped in front of him. “It’s okay. It’s part of the business.”
“I don’t understand. I don’t know what’s happening here. What business?”
“There’s a hierarchy here, like an orchestra. Hugh’s at the top – the director, the first violin. I’ve been demoted. I understand.”
“I’m sorry. This is not right. I’ll sit elsewhere.”
“No, you’re nice. But you’ve been made Hugh’s heir-apparent. Hugh will be too old for these competitions next year and he’s choosing you to replace him. Take advantage of it.” Sandra turned away.
Hugh patted the seat next to him, indicating that was where Micah was to sit. If he hadn’t already known from his exchange with Sandra, it was clear that Hugh was king of the table, his booming voice dominating the conversation, his bulk and size contributing to his presence. He stood 6’ 2” tall, weighed 230 pounds with blond, Nordic features; he looked more like a linebacker than a violinist, but until Micah’s triumph in Seattle, he had not lost a young person’s competition anytime during the past several years.
“Everybody, meet Micah, if you haven’t done so already.” Hugh waved his hand as if he was conducting the table. “He’s the second-best violinist in the region. He’ll be in my shoes next year if he follows my lead.” Hugh said the latter with a smile on his face. The others at the table gave Micah a wave. “That’s a compliment, by the way, Micah,” Hugh continued when he saw Micah’s shy blush. He didn’t understand that Micah was more interested in playing than in being singled out as an up-and-comer.
“Tell me about this town you’re from…” Hugh said in making conversation.
“It’s Endicott. Washington. In the Palouse.”
“What’s there to do in, uh, Endicott?”
“Not much. Farming, school, basketball. We stink at football.” Micah looked around the table at his fellow contestants, feeling out of place. He knew he had won in Seattle, but maybe it was a one-time achievement and these others were as good as he was. He knew also that Hugh had won 13 contests in a row before losing in Seattle, but despite the anointing by Hugh, he didn’t know if he was worthy of the position of heir apparent to Hugh, as he was being named.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Micah looked at each of his competitors in turn, his face eager to make a connection on an informal level. “Are you Seahawks fans, or Blazer fans? Do you like basketball?” he asked.
“Not really,” Hugh answered. “I don’t have time. I need to work and practice so that I can get into Juilliard.”
“Juilliard? What’s that?”
Hugh rolled his eyes. “It’s only the best music school in the world.”
“Oh.” The others at the table exchanged glances, trying to suppress their amazement at Micah’s ignorance.
“How old are you? What grade are you in?” Micah asked.
“I’m 17, and I’m a junior.”
“Aren’t you rushing things a bit? It’s two years before you graduate from high school.”
“Juilliard’s very selective, and winning these competitions is really important. My dad and mom say you have to start early and build up a resume. They’re over there sitting with your mom.”
Micah glanced across the room to see his mother in animated conversation at a table of parents.
“I haven’t thought anything about what’s going to happen after high school. Violin is important, but it’s not everything,” Micah said. He felt, though, that for many of the contestants at the table, it was everything. As he glanced across the room, he saw Sandra alone at another table. Was she one for whom violin was everything? How crushing to her was exclusion from the table? As it turned out, this was the last contest Sandra was at; Micah felt her loss and felt it was partly his fault.
* * * * *
Rain washed against the windshield as Betty drove north from Eugene, her son napping with the second-place trophy in his lap. She barely noticed the constant flap-flap-flap of the windshield wipers and the low rain-fog that kept visibility under a hundred yards, almost blinding her when she went by a semi truck and trailer. She was happy that she had brought the van, which sat higher on the road and made driving in the rain a bit easier than if she had chosen their smaller car.
She was proud of Micah, who had chosen his competition piece only three weeks earlier; he had barely lost to the top violinist in the region, who had won every competition for several years. She was happy, too, that she and Micah had been invited to stay with Hugh’s parents in Portland, so she didn’t have to find a place to stay for the night. It was too long a drive to Endicott. Moreover, the invitation signaled an acceptance into the premium level of violin competition in the Northwest.
But really she was most pleased particularly with her acceptance by Hugh’s parents, who recognized her as the mother of the heir to their son’s dominance in the region. She wanted to learn as much as possible about how to guide Micah’s career, and she felt the Boldts could provide valuable advice. She was thrilled that her initial recognition of Micah’s talent at his first piano lesson with her was now being validated. She wanted him to achieve the greatness that she was sure was within his reach.
Following the instructions propped on the van’s console, she turned onto I-405, which skirted Portland’s downtown to the west, took the Everett St. exit and followed the detailed instructions to follow curvy streets that led up into the West Hills. The Boldts’ house overlooked downtown Portland. She would visit this house on other occasions, and on a clear day she would be impressed with the magnificent view of Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams.
The Tudor-style house had been built in the 1920s. From the street side it looked to be a single-story, slate-roofed structure, but the steepness of the hill hid the other two stories below the entrance level. The antique lamps on the walkway and on the porch made the entryway inviting. A heavy, carved-oak front door was framed by stained glass panels.
Betty rang the doorbell. Alison Boldt answered with a warm smile, ushering Micah and his mother into a tiled foyer.
“This house is beautiful,” Betty said, looking around.
“Thank you. I’ll give you a tour in a while, but first let’s get you situated. Micah, if you don’t mind, I’ll put you in the spare bed in Hugh’s room, and Betty, you can have the guest room. Do you want to freshen up before I offer you something to drink or eat?”
“Please,” Betty said.
The house was a showcase of 1920s craftsmanship: dark-wood beams and trim, leaded-glass windows, sturdy brick construction, gleaming hardwood floors. At the same time, the kitchen had modern appliances designed for the 20th century cook. The bathrooms had been remodeled with modern fixtures while maintaining the 1920s feel of the home.
Floors in the living spaces were covered with fine oriental carpets. Leather chairs sat side by side with expensively upholstered furniture. Fine-wood tables supported lamps or sat in front of the couches.
Betty was impressed, certainly by the house, but she was more impressed by the Boldts’ support of their son. She was not envious of the opulence of the house, because she understood that she was not as wealthy at the Boldts, but she was envious of the support that they gave their son – something that she never got from her parents and something she vowed that Micah would never lack.
Hugh arrived just then to escort Micah to his room, one floor below, with its large, wide windows open to the east. He showed Micah a twin bed, a closet to hang his clothes, and the bathroom across the hall. A pile of thick, fluffy towels sat on the bathroom counter.
“Let’s go get a snack,” Hugh offered.
“Sounds good. I’m hungry.”
The boys climbed the stairs to the main floor and into the kitchen, skirting the living room where the Boldts and Betty were talking.
“Ice cream? Sandwich? Something else? The ice cream is Ben and Jerry’s. Chocolate Fudge Brownie?”
“I don’t know who Ben and Jerry are, but Chocolate Fudge Brownie sure sounds good.”
“Ah, you have much to learn, my friend.” Hugh served up two large bowls of ice cream that the two boys polished off quickly. Then they said their good nights to the adults before retreating to Hugh’s bedroom.
“I’ve decided I’m going to be your mentor, as you’ve probably guessed,” Hugh announced as they sat on their beds. “You need to be like me if you are going to be the best youth violinist in the Northwest. I won today, and I want to tell you why I won and why you came in second.”
Micah was a little at sea at what the offer meant, by its suddenness and, if truth be told, by the self-confidence that bordered on arrogance that Hugh displayed. In fact, he felt somewhat uncomfortable at Hugh’s offer. However, he wanted to be accepted by the group of violinists that populated the Northwest contests, so he was curious about what Hugh meant. He hoped it didn’t mean that he had to be aggressive like Hugh. He felt uncomfortable being so in-your-face, so assertive.
Micah kind of wished he could just go to bed, but he wanted to be polite. Maybe he should just go back to Endicott and continue his lessons and practice the piece for the next contest.
Before they sat down, Hugh had removed his shirt. “It’s warm in here, why don’t you take off your shirt, too.”
Micah found this suggestion odd. “I’m okay,” Micah was beginning to feel uncomfortable in the room but not by its warmth. “I saw that you got your own hotel room in Eugene. That’s neat. You’re lucky. I have to stay in the same room with my mother, although we do have two double beds.”
“My folks have always been good that way. Ever since I was about your age, I’ve gotten a separate room. I like the privacy, and I can take care of myself without hiding in the bathroom or waiting till I’m alone, if you know what I mean.”
Micah nodded his head as if to answer yes.
“Well, how do you, er, take care of yourself?”
Micah appeared bewildered at Hugh’s question.
Hugh put his hand on Micah’s shoulder. “You know, down there.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Oh, I forgot you’re only eleven. Still, you’re close to puberty.”
Micah’s face turned red. As a farm boy, he knew more about the birds and the bees and the cows and bulls than he did about humans.
“You’re cute when you’re embarrassed. Talented and cute. I like that.”
To Micah, this discussion was weird, but he decided to ignore what he didn’t understand. He wouldn’t put together what was really happening until several years later.
I’ve got my work cut out for me, Hugh thought. “You are too nice to be top dog next year unless you follow my advice, so here’s my set of lessons:
“Your first lesson: You need to realize that these contests are all a game.
“Your second lesson: You need to dominate the other contestants that you have met. They have talent, sure, but not very much. Nothing like what you or I have. However, some have egos that far exceed their talent, and they would like nothing better than to put you in your place. Better to be ahead of them and put them in their place.
“Your third lesson: Prepare only three or four pieces of music for these contests; that way, everything you play will be well practiced and therefore outstanding. Today, I used a piece that I’ve been performing for years. But you have to keep track of the judges so that they don’t keep hearing the same piece from you.
“Your fourth lesson: Some of the judges are gay, so subtly flirt with them.”
“What does gay mean?”
“You really are young, Micah, aren’t you? Gay means homosexual. Queer. Liking men instead of women.”
“I like men. What’s wrong with liking men?”
“You really don’t understand, do you?”
“Gay means that men like men in the way that other men like women: to have sex with, maybe even to love, as if they were boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife.”
“Oh. I guess I see. So I’m supposed to flirt with them? I don’t want them to be my boyfriend.”
“Flirting comes natural to me, but I see we have a problem since you’re only eleven. So, here’s what you do to flirt. When you get to a romantic section of your piece, look the gay judges deeply in the eye as if you want to kiss them. You’ll see them go all soft inside.”
“I’m not sure which judges I should look at that way,” Micah said.
“I can solve that problem. I’ll give you a list, but you can’t show it to anyone else.
“Your fifth lesson: Practical experience.
“So now I’m going to repeat the lessons.”
“I remember them all,” Micah said, and then he recited them back.
“For the next few months, watch me and how I do things.”
“Why are you telling me all this, Hugh? If I do these things, I’d probably beat you,” Micah said with a grin.
“You’re still too inexperienced,” Hugh said. “Besides, I only have three more contests until I turn 18 and am no longer eligible. So, if you manage to beat me, I can deal with that, but I really want my legacy to continue – and I’m anointing you, Micah.”
Micah sensed that Hugh really wouldn’t be okay with losing, remembering his reaction to the University of Washington contest – the scowl, the glare, the arrogance as if his territory had been invaded by an unworthy barbarian from the wilds of Eastern Washington. So he couldn’t understand why Hugh was being so friendly; he would have to think more about that. Of course, the fact that Micah had only performed his current contest piece a few times – he liked to learn and play new pieces – had allowed Hugh to win.
“By the way, you can stay with me in Portland at the Invitationals,” Hugh said.
“I haven’t been invited to them.”
“You will be.”
“I’ll have to ask my mom if it’s okay to stay here.” Micah didn’t show his hesitancy at the invitation, hoping that his mother would rescue him.
* * * * *
“Watch Hugh and see how he does things,” Betty said as they were driving east through the Columbia Gorge toward home the next morning. “Hugh is going to Julliard after next year, and he’s going to be a professional violinist. His parents are proud of how he has worked to win all these competitions. They’ve helped him scope out the competition and the judges, and now he really knows how to compete. You need to do the same.”
“He gave me some lessons on how to succeed. I’m not sure I understand them all.” Micah was not about to tell his mother part of the advice that he was given; he didn’t know exactly what it all meant, but he knew it was not something to share with her.
“The Boldts are really nice. It feels so good to be friends with people who are devoted to music, who talk music. It’s something that doesn’t exist in Endicott, so it’s really great to be with you as part of these competitions.” There was a different light in Betty’s eyes – something that Micah had never seen in her before.
# # # # #
Stanley immediately saw the change in Betty from her trip to Eugene and stay with the Boldts. The natural buoyancy that she exhibited around the house was enhanced by a determination to see her son become a good, perhaps great, professional violinist. Stanley was not concerned about Betty’s ability to manage Micah’s career and maintain a household at the same time, but he was concerned that their other children would be given short shrift.
“I can do it,” Betty declared when Stanley broached the subject, “if you will spend a little extra time with the others. Micah’s future is worth it. He is going to do great things.”
Stanley knew his wife well enough to know that following “great things” she should have added “with my guidance.” She had always been strong-willed, and now she had found a new calling for her life. Stanley also knew that the burden of family, church, farm and Micah’s career at times would put stress on the Kingman family, but she was so happy that he resolved to help her as much as possible, and the future family stresses, if any, would be managed when they occurred.
* * * * *
Micah saw the joy in his mother’s eyes as she took charge of his young career. He didn’t realize that for the next few years how virtually every aspect of his life would be directed by her, including carving-out of time with the Kingman family. At eleven, he didn’t know anything different than following his mother’s calendar: practice, lessons, competitions, travel, school. His world for a while would be directed from outside himself – and Micah would not realize the cost to the development of his self for many years. He was beginning the life of the child prodigy – the child actor, the child musician, the child model – where everything was delivered to him and demanded of him based on his talent. However, Micah was able to reserve within himself an ability to be able to adapt to circumstances as they came forward – a result of his foster-child life.
The Boldts had given Betty pointers on how they had made their son successful, but Hugh was soon too old for Northwest competitions and was off to Julliard. Betty absorbed the advice that they were willing to give.
Micah decided he didn’t really like Hugh very much, but he would keep that opinion to himself for the sake of his mother. Therefore, he took Hugh’s advice and lessons with a grain of salt. Maybe the contests were all a game, but it was a game that Micah enjoyed. Once he got over his initial nervousness, he liked competition, believing it drove him to perform better despite his natural nervousness before any performance. The competitions were more serious than a game. Hugh’s advice to prepare only three or four pieces for competition didn’t seem to fit Micah’s need to learn all aspects of the pieces he would play. Micah loved to mine composers’ intentions, trying to find out what the composer was expressing from the deepest part of the heart. At eleven, he didn’t really understand Hugh’s advice to try to appeal to gay judges, so after a while he threw away the list that Hugh had produced. So much for Lesson 4.
* * * * *
Years later, Micah would remember the next two years as a whirlwind of lessons, practice, performance and competitions and, finally, school. As time progressed and his mother’s calendar for him became more and more full, the pressures on him grew heavier. Micah, however, knew no other life.
What he did not realize until a few years later – in a late-afternoon discussion with David Stirling – was how alone he was in that life. Sure, his mother was always there, but getting to know other people well was virtually impossible. The loneliness was forced by the absence of free time; paradoxically, he was lonely in a crowd of admirers who were barely able to break through the superficiality of adoration, if at all.
Strangely, he felt more normal in the Endicott school halls; he played trumpet in the school band and enjoyed the accepting camaraderie of his fellow students. But he had so little time to spend with them, to make firm friendships. His lunch hour was spent in the music room in violin practice or in the library studying lessons that he didn’t have time for later. His closest friend was his brother Greg, but balancing even brotherly friendship was virtually impossible with Micah’s schedule as full as it was. About the only time the two of them had alone together were those few minutes each night before falling asleep.
Betty was wrapped up in the success of her son. She wanted him to be able to leave Endicott and the farm for a career in music, something she was unable to do. She didn’t want to close the same door that had prevented her from pursuing the life of a professional pianist.
Wrapped up in her own objectives for Micah, she was unable to see the destructive forces playing upon his life. She saw only the heights, only the adulation for him, only the trophies that began to line the music-room walls.
The exhilaration of Micah’s success allowed her to ignore the weariness she felt from the long road trips, the motel and hotel rooms and the constant catching-up that she had to do in the Kingman household.
But there were rewards. She knew that the respect that her son earned would serve him well in later life. In addition, what she got from the parents of the other young musicians bolstered her own ego. They saw her as an outstanding mentor for her son and a helpful resource for the other competitors.
whirlwind world would not last. Micah would slowly squeeze out time for
introspection, for himself, in the midst of this impossible schedule and a
growing realization of the disconnect between him and the people he cared for –
starting with his family and schoolmates. Ultimately, what was to take Micah to
David Stirling was a longing to connect, a craving to say, “Here is the deepest
part of me, the part that people don’t see, craving to be set free. See it.”
But there would be years of struggle before he was able to find the person who
would truly see into him.
 The story of Jake Cantwell and Robbie Ellis is at Nifty/Relationships and at gayauthors.org as Jake’s Hand and Jake’s Side.