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Posts Tagged 'my brilliant wife'

Addenda to Chapter Five: Easing back into the unintentional epic

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 MikadoH. 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.

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In which St. John Chrysostom shows up on another digital bumper sticker

This has been one of the more stressful semesters of my college career. Not quite the most stressful, but there has definitely been plenty of pressure.

I started off with my Latin exam. Then I was going to have a relatively nice and easy semester preparing for my quals, for which I sit on 29 March. Flesh of My Flesh had a cushy-ish research assistantship that could be done from home, so there was supposed to be very little going on to distract from what we needed to do to get through the term.

Er, well, no.

Megan got a last-minute teaching assignment right after I took my Latin exam; one of her faculty members had a personal concern that took him out of the classroom on literally a couple of hours’ notice, and she got handed his class — a 400-level content course in German. It meets an hour before the class I’m assisting with on Monday and Wednesday, and then at the same time as one of my lecture sections on Friday. This means every day is a juggling act with Theodore Harvey Barrett The Second The Bouncing Baby Boy, and has effectively meant that for either of us to get anything done, we either have to have a babysitter or the other person has to get nothing done. In a way, this really has turned out to be an ideal semester to give up having four services a week to chant (although I am chanting at Holy Apostles now, which has been really nice on several levels), but it’s still been, shall we say, less than restful.

I’m also in full-blown “Hi, I’m a professional late antique Roman historian” mode, which means that when I see quotes that purport to be from somebody I study but with no citation, I instinctively start asking questions, as I’ve done before.

So, yesterday, I see a few people start to post this on Facebook:

“A young husband should say to his bride: ‘I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us.’” — St. John Chrysostom

That’s a lovely sentiment, it truly is, and it is one that I would never want to slap down, exactly. If Chrysostom said it, that’s fantastic. Still, something about it felt “off”, and without the citation, it seemed like it would be worth seeing if I could track it down. Part of it was that I’m sure my previous effort likely struck some as an ideological project; I tried to make it clear that it wasn’t an ideological project at all, but rather an accuracy project. If that “quote” about how the rich “will joyfully share their wealth” isn’t legitimate (and so far nobody has come up with anything substantial to indicate that it is), then it doesn’t help anybody’s side to continue to circulate it under Chrysostom’s name. (No, I’m not going to tell you which side I agree with on that — i.e., whether or not I wish it were authentic. My politics are my own business, and current politics are actually among the things in the world in which I am least interested.) So, anyway, if that wasn’t ideological, then I should be willing to do that kind of work even when it’s a greeting-card sentiment that surely everybody should unambiguously approve of, right? Exactly.

Off to Google I went. I couldn’t come up with anything searching on that text except for, well, the quote presented as the quote. A TLG search on Greek keywords like νύμφη (bride) and ὄνειρος (dream) came up with nothing that looked anything like it. I also didn’t find anything in Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life that resembled the passage in question. None of this necessarily meant anything except that I hadn’t found the right keywords, of course.

Finally, somebody pointed me to this page, which presented the text this way:

The words of one of the greatest-ever preachers, St John Chyrsostom, might deepen the question. He said that a young husband should say to his bride: “I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us” (Homilies on Ephesians, 20,8).

There are a couple of useful bits of information there. There is the citation, of course. There’s also the incipit of the quote as it appears on Facebook, “…a young husband should say to his bride”, except it’s not actually in the quoted text. It’s the introduction to the quote, not part of the quote itself. By the time it gets to Facebook, however, it’s part of the quote. Someday, I’m sure, textual criticism of the Internet will be its own scholarly field. Things like this will be among the phenomena to study, I’m sure.

The citation allowed me to look up the Greek text on TLG. I have to say, at best, the quote is a rather, uh, free paraphrase of the Greek, and it’s also somewhat out of context. Here it is with some context (translation mine):

“For if Paul did not refrain from saying, ‘Do not deceive each other,’ and he was speaking the words of a bridesmaid, or rather not of a bridesmaid but a spiritual soul, by much more we will not refrain from saying [the same thing]. What, then, is it necessary to say to her? With great grace indeed [it is necessary] to be saying to her: ‘I took you, child, as a sharer of life, and I led you in to the most serious and necessary things as one sharing them with me, [namely] in the begetting of children and the leadership [or protection — the word is προστασία, the same word we call the Mother of God in the usual Sunday kontakion — “Protection of Christians that cannot be put to shame…” etc.] of the household. How, then, will I encourage you?’ Rather, before this, speak of the matters of love [ἀγάπη]. For there is nothing that thus avails to persuade the ones hearing to welcome the things said [to persuade one to listen to what you’re saying] than to learn that it is spoken with much love [ἀγάπη]. How then do you show love [ἀγάπη]? If you say, ‘Being able to take many women, both more well-provided-for and of clear lineage, I didn’t choose [them], but I was longing for you, and your conduct, your propriety, your graciousness, your prudence.’ Then immediately from these things prepare a way of words concerning philosophy, and in a roundabout way [lit. ‘with a way around’] denounce wealth. For, on the one hand, if you simply prolong your speech against wealth, you will be burdensome; but on the other hand, if the subject is taken up, you will finish quickly. For you will seem to do this thing in the manner of explanation, not as somebody strict and graceless and of small account. But when you take up this subject in a way related to her [lit. ‘from her things’], it will even be enjoyable.

You, then, will say (for again it is necessary to take up the speech)…”

Here I must pause to note that everything up to this point is what the Facebook quote glosses as “A young husband should say to his bride…”, and we’ve still got some other stuff to go:

“…’it was possible and easily done to marry a rich woman [or, “it was was possible to marry a rich and well-provided for woman”], but I did not suffer it. Why, do you suppose? Not simply, or haphazardly, but I was educated well, that wealth is no possession but a contemptible thing, belonging to thieves and prostitutes and grave-robbers. On which account giving up these things, I came upon the virtue of your soul, which I value above all gold. For an intelligent and free young woman cultivating the fear of God is worthy of the entire known world [οἰκουμένη, which strikes me as also being something of a pun on the idea of the household]. On account of these things…”

…and now we finally get to what the quoted passage says:

“I embraced you for my own, and I am giving you affection [φιλῶ], and I am setting you over my own soul [προτίθημι is the same word used to denote a liturgical offering to God, so Chrysostom may be suggesting something of the sacramental nature of marriage here]. For the present life is nothing, and I pray and I request and I do everything so that we are counted worthy to stand this present life, and to be able to be with each other there in the age to come with much freedom from fear.”

And that’s the end of the quotation. As I said, what’s on Facebook is a rather free paraphrase that shades it more towards notions of romantic love that, while not necessarily wrong, aren’t really what Chrysostom is talking about. The next little bit also seems quite relevant:

“For on the one hand this time [χρόνος, earthly time] is short and perishable; on the other hand, if we, being pleasing to God, are counted worthy to change this life for that one, we will be always both with Christ and with each other with the fullness of pleasure. I set your love [ἀγάπη] before everything, and nothing is thus difficult or burdensome to me as when I quarrel with you. Even if it should be necessary that I lose everything, that I become poorer than Irus [a beggar in The Odyssey], that I endure extreme dangers, that I suffer anything whatsoever, to me everything is tolerable and bearable, as long as matters for you are well-ordered for me. And children will then be desirable for me, as long as you are favorably disposed towards me. But it will be necessary that you do these things too.'”

The whole homily is very much worth reading, but again, it’s pretty clear to me that what Chrysostom is saying is very different than what the short paraphrase suggests. The old Schaff Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation can be found here; if you read Greek, you can find it in TLG (PG 62.146-147).

So, yeah. Don’t trust greeting-card-style quotes that are attributed to Chrysostom, I guess. He was a pretty grumpy saint for such quotes to be reliably authentic.

Back to exams…

Addenda to Kapitel Vier: The post-high school, struggling through junior year of college, and giving up to enter the workforce blues

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).

“…they don’t know what it means…”

I’m way behind in blogging, I realize. I have a lot to say about the Florovsky Symposium as well as my trip to Holy Cross, plus there some other cool things going on I need to talk about, etc. but it’s probably going to have to wait until after my visit to Emmaus.

11 years ago today, Megan and I got married. I must say it was the best stroke of good fortune I’ve ever had; I married the most awesome person I know. Brains, looks, character, portability — she’s got it all. (Maybe not so lucky for her, but I guess that’s how it goes when the man marries up.) The full run-down of the day must wait for another time, but the four things everybody seems to remember are 1) me being a wet drippy faucet as Megan came down the aisle, 2) my father-in-law’s Vito Corleone impression during his toast (the sole reason I wish we had we had had a videographer, at least for the reception), 3) the magic show put on by our dear friend Bill Darkow (aka “The Amazing William”) as a distraction while our caterer* was being good-cop/bad-cop-ed by the dads for being unapologetically two hours late, and 4) the priest saying during his homily, “They’re getting married, and they don’t know what it means.”

Well, eleven years later with, at long last, our first child on the way, I think we still don’t know what it means, really. Neither of us are really the same people who stood in St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church on 24 February 2001 and said “I do”. And you know what? Thank God, on both counts. That means that we’re not prone to the problem of familiarity breeding contempt. God forbid we ever think of ourselves as “done”, or else we most certainly will be in short order.

Love you most, Cadt!

(* Lyle Finley d/b/a Ritz Catering, and perhaps these days as Lyle’s Catering Company; in any event, based on our experience, I not only cannot recommend him, I must actively evangelize against doing business with him, but I’ll tell the whole story another time.)

Many years!

I hope that the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul finds all (both) of my readers well. In particular, I would like to wish a happy nameday to my friend Paul Bauer, my priest Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist, and most of all, to my wife Megan (“Petrina”) — my “little rock” indeed!

O foremost in the ranks of Apostles, and teachers of the world, Peter and Paul, intercede with the Master of all to grant safety to the world, and to our souls the Great Mercy. (Apolytikion, Ss. Peter and Paul, 4th authentic mode)

Many years!

Προς το ερχόμενο καλοκαίρι (Towards the coming summer)

Save for a paper I have a year to write, my semester is over.

I’m registered at the Athens Centre to begin 15 June.

A month from yesterday, I leave my job.

I took my Greek final yesterday.

On 10 June, I leave.

Ack.

I’m starting to get that feeling in the pit of my stomach, that clenching in my guts that is asking the question, “Okay, big shot. Are you sure you want to do this? ‘Cause, well, it’s money where your mouth is time.”

I’ve got to figure out how to not lose whatever Greek-speaking ability I have over the next month. I’ve also got to figure out how to not get short-timer’s syndrome too badly at work.

We’re doing things right now like getting eye exams and dental appointments while I still have insurance. My own dentist appointment, this coming Tuesday, will be a nightmare, I am certain.

Before I forget, I mentioned earlier that my fabulous, brilliant, wonderful, lovely wife Megan had her own chicken which she could count, and I think that’s all public knowledge now, so I’ll take the opportunity to brag about her: she is a College of Arts and Sciences Forrest E. & Frances H. Ellis Summer Fellow, meaning that she’s being given money this summer to do what she was going to be doing anyway, which is read for her exams — only now there’s the idea that she’ll produce a publishable paper from that reading (which hopefully could be expanded into her dissertation proposal). This is a great thing, and I am very proud of her. For once, possibly even for the first time ever, we both actually have things to do this summer that further both of our interests, God be praised.

I had a good talk with my soon-to-be-Ph.D.-advisor last week, following an in-class presentation. My final paper for his class is going to take a bit to finish because of recent events rather making things a bit complicated, but I was able to present a conference-length version. In broad strokes — since I suspect I will be better off not presenting details of original research for the first time in a wild and woolly medium like this — I am looking at the question of how rhetoric in liturgy helps to build and support community and identity, and how liturgy functions as a communal memory of particular events and people, friend and foe alike. In other words, seeing how liturgy can tell us about more than just when somebody at a certain time swung a censer or elevated the Host — how liturgy itself can be seen as a source which acknowledges, engages and converses with (Iwillnotuse”dialogue”asaverbIwillnotuse”dialogue”asaverbIwillnotuse”dialogue”asaverb) other sources. One of the big things my teacher said was that scholars who focus on liturgy tend to not participate in the broader conversation, and that a liturgical specialist who specifically wants to contribute to the bigger picture has the opportunity to make a significant contribution. It seems to me that what will be important for me is to make sure I’m participating in the specialist conversations as much as I can nonetheless, so that I’m kept honest and not just snowing people who don’t know much about my interests. In that sense, it’s good that Notre Dame is just up the road.

But for the moment, there’s that clench in my gut.

This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever done.

Save for, perhaps, coming to Indiana University in the first place, six years ago.

I think I need some Pepto-Bismol.

Getting a late start

What does it mean that I “got a late start?”

I ‘m told that I was bright as a child, but nothing I did well lent itself to any particular discipline. I read a lot about everything, I liked music, I liked to draw. I dabbled in computers a little bit. In general, I read everything I could get my hands on, which often led into other interests, but mostly just led to more reading.

This presented something of a vocational dilemma. Both of my parents, while intelligent, are very practical and they didn’t quite see how any of what I did was going to ever make me any money unless I got on a game show. They nonetheless more or less stayed out of my way, while encouraging me to go after sports, since athletes were always the ones you heard about getting big scholarships when college rolled around.

Well, instead of going into sports, when high school came, I got into theatre and the school paper. Again, not-totally-unjustified visions of financial ruin danced through my parents’ heads.

I applied to one college, Western Washington University, and got in. It was a not-particularly-well-funded state liberal arts university, but I had enough of a scholarship that, with in-state tuition, it would be workable, in theory. I applied figuring I’d go for a theatre degree; by the time the first day of classes rolled around, I had been convinced I wanted to be an opera singer, and declared myself a music major.

Midway through my junior year, I dropped out. I won’t go into the whole torturous story here; suffice it to say that various pressures—familial, financial, vocational, educational, and so on—combined to make it clear that this was not the right time for me to be beating my head against a brick wall and taking on massive debt for the privilege.

I continued to study voice privately, however, and I took a job in the software industry (far easier to do in those days for somebody with no formal experience and no degree than it would be today, I assure you) which guaranteed I wouldn’t have to wait tables. Life went on for few years; I became a good enough young tenor to do some interesting gigs around the Seattle area, I got married, and so on. For awhile I took a class a quarter at a local community college, figuring I’d eventually go back to school full-time, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what the circumstances would be. I thought I’d perhaps enter an opera company’s young artist program before going back to school.

At age 26, it became clear that in order to get to the next step of an operatic career, I needed to go back to school, and I needed to go someplace where I would the kind of performing opportunities I wouldn’t have elsewhere—someplace like Indiana University. Well, as my wife and I discussed, instead of someplace like Indiana University, how about Indiana University? So, we packed up, left our safe little life in the Pacific Northwest and headed off for an adventure in the Midwest (well aware that to many, that expression is internally contradictory). I was sitting in undergraduate theory classes again before I was 27, and I graduated shortly after turning 29, it having taken me eleven years to finish a four year degree.

Again, without going into clinical detail, I’ll simply say that my experience finishing my Vocal Performance degree made it clear to me that opera was the very last field in the world in which I wanted a career, whatever I had thought over the previous eleven years notwithstanding. The problem was simple: I wasn’t good enough to have the kind of career that would allow me to have the kind of life I wanted, and I wasn’t ever going to be good enough, despite my teachers’ best efforts—the truth was, I didn’t want it badly enough. I had too many other interests which I found stimulating to be able to focus every effort on becoming a better operatic performer. I still compulsively read everything that crossed my path, and I really was perfectly happy doing that in a way I never was performing. As it worked out, the successes I had as an undergraduate were more as a scholar and a publisher than a performer.

The other factor at play was that my wife had started grad school in her own field at IU, and we had several years left before that would be done.

So what to do? Given my other interests, I had discussions with faculty members in the School of Music about musicology and choral conducting, but the bottom line was the same—love to have you, they told me, but we don’t have any funding at the Masters level, and if you come in as a Masters-level student, it’ll harm your chances of getting funding as a PhD student. Not being willing to go into an indefinite amount of debt for an indefinite amount of time, that canned those ideas. Seminary was considered, strongly so, but ultimately dismissed, for a variety of reasons.

Medieval history came up as an option; a faculty member from whom I was taking a class told me she thought I’d be a good fit, that surely funding could be worked out, and encouraged me to apply. However, as my application worked its way up the ranks, a dealbreaker emerged: I had no documentable background in the field, whatever my recommendations might say about me, and I had no experience in the languages which were vital to a medievalist—Greek and Latin, at least. I had had a year apiece of college-level French, German, and Italian, but that meant nothing to anybody. As a result, that door was closed. The practical piece of advice I was given was, plain and simple, if this was what I wanted to do, I needed to get these languages under my belt and more importantly, on my transcript.

The following fall I started life as a part-time, non-matriculated student venturing into Attic Greek for the first time, shortly before turning 30. At 31, I’m now in my second year of Greek, I’ve had a year of Latin and will start my second next semester, and I’m also in my first year of Syriac. I’ve also taken some seminars, gotten some good papers out of the deal, as well as some good relationships with faculty members, and where I am presently headed is the Masters degree in Religious Studies here at IU. My application is complete—with any luck, I will hear something concrete in January or February.

All of this is to say, it would appear that all the reading I did as a child did in fact point to a way I could support myself. As a first-generation college graduate, however, there was really no way for my parents to know that or have any idea how to cultivate it. I have to say, I feel sometimes that at 31 I’m where I should have been at 21. Certainly it would have been nice if I could have started Latin and/or Greek fifteen years ago, but the truth of the matter is that I have no idea how I would have done that in the schools available to me in the suburbs of Seattle. I’ve really had to stumble along and find my own way, and it’s taken me down some paths on which I stayed perhaps longer than I should have, but at least nothing has been wasted, I don’t think. I’m getting a late start, no question about it, but hopefully, better late than never.

With any luck, I may actually be able to get my first job before I’m 40, God willing.


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