Exactly what would happen to me following high school graduation was a point of no small controversy. My parents wanted me in Alaska with them as soon as possible and to stay up there as long as possible. The stated reason was so I could work as long as possible; there were at least two other reasons, however, that are probably best summed up by saying that me going to college “in state” (that is, in Washington), while it had seemed like a great idea up until summer of 1993, now didn’t seem like such a hot deal from a familial perspective. At best I’d now be a three hour flight away instead of an hour and a half’s drive (not that I had a car anyway), and while I still had incentives to go back to the Seattle area on the weekends, they weren’t part of it. My parents were going to have to deal with an empty nest in a place that had never actually been our nest, and they would have to do so with me relatively inaccessible. This is, I am certain, difficult under the best of circumstances, and the family difficulties we had been struggling with for the past several years meant that these were not the best of circumstances.
The bottom line was that, for that last summer before college, I really didn’t want to go to Alaska and they really didn’t want me to stay in Seattle. I had no desire to go someplace that I had no real memory of to be around two people who were likely to re-negotiate the manner of their life together after a year apart in a way that was going to be extremely unpleasant for any additional parties. If the point was for me to work, I could do that in Seattle without paying for a plane ticket; from where I sat, that made a heck of a lot more sense than forcing me to be a continuing participant in their drama. I had people I wanted to be around, but that was also part of the issue for my parents; they weren’t people they wanted me to be around. There’s not much more I can say about that without getting into specifics that aren’t appropriate for me to get into, so I’ll leave this by noting that I had a conversation with one parent where I expressed all of my concerns quite openly; this parent replied, well, yes, that’s all probably true. It isn’t going to be fun, and you’re probably going to have to deal with us fighting a lot. But that’s the way it goes, we’re a family, messed up though we may be, this is the way we want it for you right now, and we’re still in charge.
This was a growing source of tension as high school graduation neared; ultimately, however, there were two things that threw a wrench into the plan for me to be in Alaska for the entire summer — one was early orientation for Western Washington University, and the other was the aforementioned opportunity to work as an extra on the movie Mad Love. Again, don’t bother looking for me; everything I was in was cut. I could have worked more, but the three days I did work meant a two week delay in my departure for Alaska, and my parents weren’t willing to delay it any more. Still, as it worked out, I had to be back a month later anyway for early orientation and registration. The schedule became a month up, three weeks back, and a month up.
Yes, the time in Anchorage was rough, for all of the reasons I expected it to be. However, I will be the first person to say that there are parts of it I’m glad for; I had the chance to reconnect with some family members I hadn’t seen in years, and I was able to continue some of my vocal momentum with a voice teacher named Bettyrae Easley, who did the very practical thing of getting me ready to audition for Western’s music major, something in the post-graduation whirlwind that there just hadn’t been time to discuss with Dennis once my voice had finally opened up. Among other things, Bettyrae taught me my first French mélodie, Fauré’s “Lydia”, which served as my introduction to an entirely new song paradigm (to say nothing of the beginning of a, shall we say, complex relationship with French diction).
I did wind up working a bit in Anchorage; not overly much due to the time constraints, but there were a couple of odd jobs here and there that I did for friends of my dad. Among other things, I helped a future protest candidate for the United States Senate and right-wing filmmaker move out of a landmark Lloyd Wright home, and I also spent a couple of weeks assembling and finishing ulus.
One of the things that was difficult for me conceptually about preparing to go to college was that nobody seemed to actually have a clear idea in their head why I was going, or how to relate it to anything I was interested in doing, or how to relate any of those things to how I might actually earn a living on the other end. I was supposed to have been a smart kid, but none of the various things I was good at really lent themselves to careers, per se, at least as my parents or the people in their circles understood them. I was a voracious reader, I retained information, I read about all kinds of things as a kid from astronomy to cryptography to computer science to paleontology to mythology and everything in between, but what did that mean in terms of what I could do to feed myself? Coming into high school, math and science bored me silly, I hated sports, I was more interested in what computers could be used for than what they did under the hood, I enjoyed creative writing, I seemed to have some aptitudes for drawing and painting up to a point, and I enjoyed music but puberty had freaked me out with my voice change and I convinced myself I couldn’t sing anymore. There really wasn’t anything obvious in there in terms of “normal” career paths; not business, not medicine, none of that. Neither of my parents finished college and academia wasn’t anything I had ever heard of as a career.
Once I got into high school and discovered that I seemed to have an aptitude for theatre and music, that was a relief in some respects and it gave me some idea of a path. The thing was, nobody took it seriously. I remember my senior year of high school telling people, I’m going to major in music and theatre. Typically, that would generate a condescending smile and a sentence that sounded something like, “Oh, well, it really doesn’t matter what you start with, because you’ll probably change ten times before you’re done.” That, frankly, pissed me off; it was clear that I was being patronized and not listened to. At the same time, I had to acknowledge that having it in my head that I would finish a major wasn’t the same thing as knowing exactly how to get to the “pay your bills” part of the deal.
My parents didn’t know what to tell me. They didn’t really understand my interests, and they didn’t have any advice regarding college except get good grades and finish as soon as possible. Neither was there was ever any clear idea of what the trajectory of life post-high school was going to be for us, even before they moved back to Alaska. Was there an expectation that I was going to live with them until I got married? Was there an expectation about when it would be “okay” for me to think about getting married? None of this was discussed. At least when they were still going to be in Seattle, some small level of continuity could be assumed, but the mechanics and specifics still weren’t really talked about. After the move, all bets were off.
Thus it was that I found myself in Bellingham in September of 1994, living in a dorm room in Ridgeway Sigma with one Will Bass, and most of my worldly possessions were under my then-girlfriend’s house (many of which never to be seen again, alas, as will be explained in a future installment). I auditioned for the voice major, got in, then walked over to the other side of the Performing Arts Center and declared myself a theatre major. My very first class on the first day of my freshman year was Music Theory I, taught by Prof. Jeffrey Gilliam (to this day perhaps the single most naturally musical person I have ever met, to say nothing of the very best music theory instructor I have ever had). It was off to the races.
There were a number of highlights to that year: I was in my very first opera, singing Marco, one of i parenti in Gianni Schicchi (with the previously-mentioned future Metropolitan Opera baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson in the title role). I also got to sing the high baritone drunken abbot solo in Carmina Burana (“Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis… WAAAAAAAAAAAAFNA!”). My friend Gavin Shearer sat me down at some point in the fall to show me this awesome thing that was happening in computers called “the World Wide Web” that used this amazing program called Mosaic to do what Prodigy and AOL had utterly failed to do up to that point. Two portentous occurrences: a master class with a voice teacher named Roy Samuelsen from Indiana University, a school I had never heard of before but that apparently had quite a reputation for opera, and dating very briefly this lovely brunette named Megan McKamey, who was absolutely wonderful in every way, but everything going on around me made it difficult to feel capable of committing at the level I felt she deserved.
The trouble was, my parents and I didn’t even get through the first quarter without some massive meltdowns. The situation was complex; Seattle was still home for me, and I would go back on the weekends, because I felt very much alone at Western. My parents didn’t want Seattle to continue to feel like home for me, since from their perspective I needed to start thinking of Anchorage as home, but from where I sat they had moved, not me; I was just following the plan we had always had, and… yeah. The whole situation had nowhere to go but down. At some point it was suggested that maybe the whole idea of me going to college at Western was no longer tenable, and that marked the point where the irreconcilable differences in how we saw what was happening meant that there was basically no reasonable conversation to be had about anything. There was a brief period of rapprochement over spring break; my paternal grandmother passed away, and my dad and I spent the week together while he cleaned out her condo. Still, once summer came and I made it clear I wasn’t going back to Alaska, whatever brief peace had been achieved was broken. “In ten years you’re going to remember this moment as the day you pissed your life away,” I recall being told on the phone. What drove me absolutely batty about all of this was how inevitable it had all seemed from the time my dad had announced that he was going back to Anchorage, and everything was happening exactly as I had feared it would. Nobody had listened to me, and somehow I was being blamed for it. The stress made me a charmer to deal with, I’m sure; certainly it impacted a number of relationships I valued, but there just wasn’t anything I could do. I wasn’t equipped to deal with any of it, and I had no particular support system to fall back onto.
That summer I worked at Computer City, sold the first copy of Windows 95 at midnight of 24 August 1995 (there used to be a photo online of me ringing it up, not sure where it might be found these days), and took voice lessons from Dennis Kruse. We were working on preparing me for opera auditions at Western in the fall — the opera was Marriage of Figaro, not exactly a huge tenor show, but Basilio would be worth it for a kid like me. “O wie ängstlich” from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio was the audition piece we worked up, and Dennis put me as the last singer on his summer studio recital, even over some of his students who were ostensibly his stars and who had made it clear much of the time I had worked with Dennis that they thought I was a waste of his time.
Sophomore year wasn’t exactly an amazing improvement over freshman year. A high school friend and his mother — J. P. had been the Danny Zuko in Grease! and Tony in West Side Story, and was also a student of Dennis Kruse — were killed in a car crash in the fall, which led to a reunion nobody particularly wanted. Fallout from that, plus still trying to figure out how to resolve the family situation, meant that I was even more of a wreck that year than I had been my freshman year. I agreed to spend the holidays and the following summer in Alaska, hoping that it would ease off some of the tension, but if anything, it ratcheted it up.
Marriage of Figaro was fun, but it was a bizarre reconstruction/translation that basically turned it into musical theatre — the recitatives were replaced with spoken dialogue from the Beaumarchais play. There were a number of practical reasons to do this, I suppose; hiring a harpsichordist and having the time to coach the recits properly being two of the major concerns, as I understand it. They had piddled away the fall quarter with a lot of political nonsense over sets and casting professionals for Figaro and the Count in one of the casts, and didn’t even post the cast list until sometime towards the end of the quarter, even though auditions had been in September and the performances were set for March. It was a strange experience all around.
I wound up in Alaska three weeks before the end of the quarter. I was supposed to work for my mother’s company over the summer, and they had revised their policies sometime in the spring so that everybody for the summer needed to be in place by 1 May. “So, you’ll just have to come up here early,” I was told. Um, the school year isn’t over? Not even close? “The opportunity cost of you finishing the quarter isn’t worth it. Anybody with half a brain should be able to see that.” Did I mention that I was a first generation college graduate?
I negotiated what I could with my professors (which in some cases, meant taking Fs). I can’t say I exactly made myself popular with anybody during this time, and not for no reason. I was a basketcase through and through, and nothing I was trying to do seemed to work out in a straightforward fashion. Going to college right out of high school had turned into a disaster; I was unprepared for it, my parents were unprepared for it, additional circumstances meant that there was additional burden for all of us to bear, and my friends were unprepared for how unpleasant of a person the whole experience was making me.
Summer of 1996 I cannot describe in much detail without going into things that I’d rather not discuss publicly. Suffice it to say that I got a front row seat for much of why my parents were freaked out over me being 2,500 miles away; a lot of the unpleasantness that had been plaguing our family life since the mid-1980s had come home to roost with their move, we were all now having to confront it head on, and none of us were doing a particularly good job. I returned to Bellingham in September unsure of what kind of a relationship would be possible with my parents after certain events, conversations, and revelations. I focused on what I could, namely, trying to rebuild my relationships at Western.
In short, however, that ship had sailed, and now I had to sleep in the bed of frustrations I had made the previous two years. Whatever had been the cause of all my erratic behavior, certain relationships were damaged beyond repair, and I continued to make unhealthy decisions with respect to other relationships. I couldn’t find a way to focus on being at school, partially because the muddied reasons I had for being there continued to get muddier, partially because all of my personal issues made it impossible to ever feel sufficiently centered and stable. I also made some poor choices vocally — Dennis had gone to a lot of trouble to figure out how to work much of the tension I usually carried with me out of my voice, a wonderful teacher named Virginia Hunter had done a very nice job teaching me to sing with the instrument Dennis had shown me I’d had, but that year, for reasons that seemed great at the time, I switched to a teacher who went out of their way to work all of that tension back in. Within three months my top was completely gone and my voice had regained a strangled quality that I thought had been left behind after graduating high school.
There was one more factor in this equation. In fall of ’96, I became aware of some behavior on a faculty member’s part that I believed (and believe) to be unethical, and at the very least political maneuvering at the expense of students. I attempted to seek advice on how to deal with these things in a way which I thought to be private which instead publicly blew up in my face. Later, I understood that whatever my concerns were, the way I sought to deal with it was totally unprofessional on my part and embarrassing to the faculty member in question. This culminated in a letter from the chair of the department telling me that all three of us — he, the faculty member, and I — would likely be happier if I went someplace else. So, midway through winter quarter, so many threads having come unraveled, I decided that college had become a gigantic, expensive exercise in beating my head against a brick wall, and it was time to acknowledge that it just wasn’t the right thing for me to be doing at that moment. I subsequently dropped out in disgrace, with the straw that broke the camel’s back being something which really was entirely my own fault. Today I would deal with a similar situation very differently because I would understand better what was happening; the bottom line is that when someone’s on a tenure track, you either play along or get out of the way, particularly under circumstances where resources are scarce and only so many people can get what they want. Anyway, after flailing about for a few months and still making really bad decisions (almost reflexively, at this point), I started selling classified advertising for the Bellingham Herald and trying to figure out how I might be able to move back to the Seattle area.
1994-1997 was a difficult, unpleasant time. It is difficult to even know where to begin explaining that the poor, confused, unhappy person who arrived at WWU in the fall of 1994 was not me at my best, not by a long shot. I started college not having any idea which way was up and having nobody, really, to whom I could turn. I was trying to do everything right which I possibly could, but there was just very little good that anybody could do for me, and trying to do everything right when one doesn’t even know what all one needs to do means one is bound to get quite a bit wrong. There continue to be ramifications to this day — people who don’t talk to me because some of my choices, people who, even if they’re still friends with me, can get easily upset when discussing some of what happened, and other consequences. A few years later, I did my best to apologize to everybody I hurt in those years, with somewhat mixed results. Whenever I think about that period, it is with a lot of pain and regret, but also a lot of confusion. In broad strokes, under the circumstances, I have a hard time imagining what I could have done differently that would have been any better beyond, quite simply, dropping out earlier. The kind of wrench my parents’ move threw into the works was comprehensive, I had no idea how to deal with it, my parents had no ideal how to deal with it, and they had no ideal how to help me deal with it. In retrospect, maybe it would have been better for me to find a way to work full-time while doing an Associate’s degree at a community college and continuing to study with Dennis. The trouble with that, however, was that I didn’t really have a place to live available to me full-time. Moving to Anchorage would have cut me off from much of what I was trying to do post-high school, and would likely have only hastened the inevitable. Maybe I could have just taken a year off out of high school to figure things out — I was starting college at 17, after all, thanks to my skipped grade — but that wasn’t really presented as an option. The expectation had always been that I would go to a four year college right out of high school; it was exactly what I would do while I was there and what would happen after that were all quite vague.
I should note that there are a number of people from this time for whom I remain grateful: an incomplete list includes Brian Ward, Holly Zehnder, Mike Cook (memory eternal), Peter and Arwyn Smalley (née Moilanen), Suzann Miller (née Welch), Jon Haupt, JOHHHHHHHHHHHHN Davies, David Harsh, Jon Lutyens, Matthew Murray, Kai Morrison, Dennis Kruse, Tom and Jordin Baugh (née Peters), Matt Carter, Sue Fletcher, Sarah O’Brien (née Wright), Liz Holmes, Eric Rachner, and, of course, Flesh of My Flesh herself, Megan Barrett (née McKamey).