About a year and a half ago, some commentary on the complex relationship some younger people growing up today have with organized religion prompted me to start telling my own story with respect to organized religion (while wanting to keep it from becoming the “conversion story” that has rather become its own genre in American Orthodox Christianity). It was by necessity divided into pieces, and I got here before life as a new father, husband to a new mother, and as a PhD student racing to candidacy status meant that I just didn’t have time to write long blog posts.
I’m trying to get some momentum back, because I’d like to finish that particular project. The pattern I was following was this — post about religious developments followed by post giving some life context for those religious developments. So, I guess what that means is that life context for summer 1997 through summer 2003 is up next.
Summer 1997 saw me as somebody who had dropped out of college in disgrace and who was scraping out an existence in Bellingham selling classified ads for the local newspaper. The major developments (that I’ll talk about here, anyway) during those few months were that I bought my first car (a teal 1992 Volkswagen Golf GL), I got a relatively substantial settlement from a car accident I had been in the summer before, I resumed voice lessons with Dennis Kruse, my high school voice teacher, and I got my first non-ecclesial professional singing gig with The Tudor Choir. The first of these developments enabled the latter two, since they required me to drive to Seattle (an hour and a half each way), and this got me pondering how I might be able to move back south, since there was really no great reason anymore for me to stay in Bellingham.
An old friend of mine was working for one of the major software companies in the Seattle area, and he suggested that I might be able to get a agency temp position as a software tester. He helped me prepare for the interview process, and when his team had some spots they were looking to fill, he was able to recommend me. I successfully got through the interview, and in February 1998 I moved back to Seattle and started my five-year excursion into the tech industry. It really was only ever going to be a stop on the way to someplace else for me, but it was definitely a nice stopover for a while.
The next year basically consisted of me trying to clean up the mess my four years in Bloomington had left in my life; I lost some weight I needed to lose, I fixed some financial issues, I got my voice back, I developed a relationship with a priest and a parish that was important to me, I bought my first Mac (an iMac Rev B), I fulfilled part of a teenage fantasy by getting to be friends, at least for a while, with Hammerbox’s Carrie Akre, and Megan McKamey re-entered my life.
Sometime during the summer of 1998 I was cleaning out a box I had found in my closet, and I came across an old address book. (“Old” meaning it I had bought it in 1994, four years previous. Four years ago I had just gotten back from Greece and was about to start graduate school. There’s nothing from 2009 that I consider “old”. Oh, perspective.) I found, among other things, the last home address I had for Megan, and for one reason or another, it hit me hard. I had started thinking of her in the back of my head as “the one that got away”, or more accurately, “the one I had foolishly let go”, and other circumstances in my life had emphasized for me how foolish I had been in letting her go. Anyway, I wrote a letter that amounted to, “Hey, haven’t seen you in about a year, and I suppose you’ve graduated by now and are back home figuring out what to do next. I’m back in the Seattle area too; let’s hang out sometime.” Time passed, and I got no response.
Then, in October (I think), a letter showed up in my mailbox from, of all places, Shanghai, China. I opened it up, and it was a letter from none other than Megan, where she was spending six months teaching English at a girls’ school. She seemed more or less happy to hear from me, or at least happy to get mail from home (declining to give me an e-mail address because, as she said, she’d rather get paper letters), and with that encouragement, I started writing her a handwritten, six-page letter a week. It would be wrong for me to suggest that she replied with the same kind of frequency; I think I got three more letters from her between October 1998 and when she returned in February 1999.
Anyway, by 28 February 1999, I been waiting to hear from her all month, since she had never said precisely when she was coming back to the States, and that afternoon I looked up her parents’ home phone number in the phone book (remember that people used to look up such things in such publications?), left a message on the answering machine, and basically paced around the apartment for awhile. Sometime in the early evening she called me back; we chatted briefly, she said we needed to hang out in person sometime soon, and I asked, well, what are you doing right now?
“Uh, I’m in Sumner.” (A little over half an hour away from where I was.)
“So what? I’ll be there in a bit.”
I drove down to Sumner immediately (I was excited), saw her for the first time in probably two years, met her family for the first time (well, not entirely true — I had met her brother Teague a couple of times in 1995), and the two of us went out for dinner and then to a movie (Shakespeare in Love, as I recall). It was very much like a date, and we made plans to hang out in my end of town the next weekend.
The next Saturday, I drove down to Sumner, picked Megan up (she did not yet have a car), and brought her back up to the Eastside. She showed me China pictures for awhile, we decided to go see Analyze This!, and then we went out to dinner. As we pulled into the parking lot of Redmond Town Center to go to Cucina! Cucina!, I decided it would probably be a good idea for me to have some clarity in my own head as to what we were doing. “Just so I know,” I asked, “is this a date?”
It took Megan about a minute to stop fumbling over her words sufficiently to answer me. The answer was “no”. The reason why the answer was “no” was, she explained, because she had started dating an old friend from high school shortly after she had gotten back from China.
Shortly after her “no”, it seemed that Cucina! Cucina! had an hourlong wait.
No worries, I told her; there was another place I could take her just up the road that was maybe a bit better, and I took her to the Salish Lodge in North Bend. Why not? It wasn’t exactly like I was just going to sullenly drive her home and never talk to her again; that’s not how I do things. May as well have an evening out as friends in as high a style as I could manage to improvise. We had crab cakes as an appetizer and expensive cocktails. It was fun, and I started making that my M.O. when we saw each other.
At the risk of this becoming a blow-by-blow of the following eight weekends, I’ll just sum up a number of events by saying that, by the end of April, she and the high school friend had decided that they were better off as friends, I had been invited to spend Easter with her family, I’d also been invited to come to her little brother’s confirmation, her stepdad had made the offhand comment to her that “I like Richard — he’s trying harder”, and we spent a very nice Saturday in Seattle, taking her to my old friend Bryn Martin (memory eternal) to have her hair done, going to The Owl ‘N Thistle for dinner, then taking advantage of the Pioneer Square joint cover (something that seems to no longer exist in that form, exactly, alas) to go dancing.
As we were walking back to the car, around 1:30 in the morning or so, we were holding hands, and Megan said, “We need to talk about where we’re at, don’t we? Because I think it’s changed.” She was quite right.
Around the same time, two other things happened — I was hired as a permanent employee at the company I was temping for, and my parents also announced, once and for all, that they were getting a divorce, once and for all. They had made similar announcements before only to reconcile, but this time was the real deal, ironically right as the relationship that would become my marriage was starting up.
The divorce was made more awkward by the fact that my dad had a heart attack in June of 1999, and my mom was the only person who could really help him in rehab. Whatever good that possibly may have been done was completely unraveled by the hard feelings and sharp words exchanged in the mediation proceedings. I took Megan up to Alaska at Christmas to introduce her to everybody (we were already looking at rings by that point), and the first of exactly two times she ever saw them in the same room together, the second being our wedding, was when my dad came by my mom’s house to claim a snowblower. We’ll just say that’s not a pleasant memory.
I also started to get busy as a singer starting in the fall of 1999. I put together a recital over the summer that was intended to be the junior recital I never actually got to do at Western, and that emboldened me to start auditioning for things. In the Seattle area, there’s a fair amount for a young tenor to do if he’s willing to work for nothing (or next to), and I started getting some of those gigs. Gilbert and Sullivan kind of became a niche of mine, falling in with a group called Bellevue Opera and doing three shows for them as the tenor lead – The Mikado, H. M. S. Pinafore, and The Gondoliers. I also got to do Tony in West Side Story, I did a very ill-advised Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (a job that I got without being heard first, and in retrospect, I think everybody, including me, would have liked there to have been an audition, because I learned the hard way with that show that my voice doesn’t do Rossini), I had a bizarre experience as a backup singer for a Sarah Brightman concert, I got a very small handful of oratorio gigs (those were pretty hard to come by, truthfully, if you weren’t already one of the 2-3 singers in each voice type that most conductors in the area used), some opera previews, some operetta with Seattle musical institution Hans Wolf, eventually I got a regular slot with the Seattle Opera chorus, a demo recording of an opera about the 2000 presidential election titled Al and George, I did little church gigs here and there while also singing regularly in the St. Margaret’s choir, I still did things with the Tudor Choir, and I also did four summers with the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. It was a heady, busy time, and it was a group of experiences that seemed to point to something bigger. There were a lot of teachers and coaches who helped get me through all of this; besides Dennis Kruse, I had two teachers who were invaluable, Roberta Manion and Erich Parce, and then Glenda Williams, Beth Kirchhoff, and Dean Williamson gave me a lot of extremely helpful advice as coaches.
The best advice that I got, however, was from Ellen McLain (yes, that Ellen McLain), who ran the Seattle Opera Guild previews. I auditioned for her and she flatly said, “Absolutely not. Could you sing these previews? Yes, and you’d be fine. But you have not yet even come close to finishing your training as a singer, you need to go back to school and finish at least your Bachelors, there isn’t a halfway decent school of music in the country that wouldn’t give you a full ride with what you’ve got to offer, and I am not going to hire you and contribute to any perception you may have of yourself as anything close to a finished product.” Well, it was certainly good advice (and in some ways, I feel like she was honest with me in a way that some others weren’t), and I started thinking about what my next move was going to be. I had always figured that I would spend 5 years working before contemplating my next move, which meant that 2003 was what I was looking at as when I would move on to the next chapter.
On 24 February 2001, Megan and I got married. It was one of the very best days of my life, and is a story unto itself that I’ll tell another time. We honeymooned in Victoria, B. C., which was an absolutely lovely trip; we stayed a week at Abigail’s Hotel, which I’d recommend wholeheartedly, and I hope to get to go back someday.
Meeting the wonderful Joey Evans when he sang Captain Vere in Seattle Opera’s production of Billy Budd, I decided to pay a visit to University of Houston to see if it might be a viable option as a place to finish the B. Mus. The school was lovely, and Joey would have been a great help to me I’m sure, but the thing was, I arrived in Houston on Monday, 10 September 2001. I’m sure you can imagine that was not a great week to be trying to get an impression of a school, and I just didn’t love Houston enough otherwise to want to go there. Big, flat, and hot are not exactly my thing.
Fall of 2002, I started applying for Young Artist Programs. At the advice of Dean Williamson, I applied for Houston Grand Opera, Seattle Opera, and a third I can’t recall. The third didn’t even give me an audition (probably why I don’t remember which one it was); I made the huge mistake of thinking that Houston’s audition, being held in San Francisco, could be done as a day trip (SINGERS! DO NOT PUT YOURSELF IN POSITIONS WHERE YOU HAVE TO SING RIGHT AFTER GETTING OFF A PLANE! BAD IDEA!), so it was an audition that sucked to say the least, and then Seattle was looking for tenors who could sing Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, and “Un’aura amorosa” was just never an aria I sang if I didn’t have to, so that audition also sucked.
The truth is, I just wasn’t ever all that good. I could be heard past the front row, I sang on pitch, but I wasn’t very musical, and I had neither fabulous high notes nor amazing flexibility nor incredible expressive ability nor anything else going for me. I was tall, I wasn’t the size of a house (then), I could learn repertoire fairly quickly, I seemed reasonably comfortable onstage, and I could be funny when I needed to be. At 25, I was pretty good for a 22 year old, and that was sort of the extent of it. I wasn’t a freak of nature, I wasn’t a Wunderkind, I wasn’t a “natural voice” (whatever that means), I was just somebody who had to work hard at it for it to be any good, and who enjoyed working hard at it, but “has to work hard at it” is very much not necessarily the same thing as “born performer”; “making it look easy” is the qualifier there, and I was never really able to do that.
Still, I won an Encouragement Award at the district Met auditions that fall, and I took that as, well, encouragement. I needed to move on to something else (I was getting to a point where I needed to commit to either my day job or to whatever I was going to do with singing). I found out that a singer friend of mine whom I had thought had been a shoo-in for Seattle’s Young Artist Program had also not gotten in and was instead going to go to Indiana University; well, I thought, if he can do it, then I can do it. I quickly made arrangements to visit IU during the first audition weekend, and I took a lesson with a teacher who was willing to back my (late) application and get me a special audition slot. I flew back to Indiana in the middle of March to do the audition, I got in, and after some favorable negotiating over scholarships (Ellen McLain wasn’t entirely accurate in her assessment, I’ll say, but close enough), I told my managers at the software company that I would be leaving at the end of July (and we’ll just say that what had been an optimistic appraisal in 1999 of what my new-hire stock option package might be worth by 2003 was optimistic indeed, to be maximally kind — thank God nobody ever tried to convince me to borrow money against it; more on that professional experience as a whole here). My Washington state chapter was coming to a close after twenty-three years.
Okay. More to come.