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Posts Tagged 'my wild and wacky family'

Husbands, fathers, and All My Sons

Over the summer I saw a local production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. I’d never seen it before, but I was familiar enough with the premise, and familiar enough with Arthur Miller’s overall dramatic sensibility and style to know I wasn’t exactly in for a Whedonesque light-hearted romp. I had a small role and was also in the chorus for Indiana University’s first production of William Bolcom’s setting of A View From the Bridge back in 2005 (I say “first” because IU just revived it, which I have to say surprises me a bit), and Death of a Salesman is near and dear to my heart in a lot of ways. My junior year of high school, a neighboring high school’s theatre department did a wonderful production of it with now-working actor Chad Afanador as Willy Loman. (Chad, I’ll mention, shared my very first theatrical endeavor, Wellington Elementary’s 1984/5 production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which he was Linus and I was Charlie Brown; he also was with me on my first trip to Indiana, when I tagged along with his high school to the International Thespian Society’s 1993 Festival at Ball State University.) Chad was so good that I dragged my parents to it the second weekend; at intermission, I got a taste of certain disconnects to come because they insisted we leave. “He’s too believable for it to be the least bit enjoyable,” they said.

Anyway, All My Sons was, predictably, thought-provoking (perhaps, for some, a euphemism for “depressing”); its commentary on the failure of the American Dream is well-trodden ground, but I wonder how much its setting obscures what the play has to say for contemporary audiences who might not be clear whether to take it as a period piece or as a present-day work. It’s a key plot point, for example, that a conversation needed to happen in person because “you can’t prove a phone call”, which sounds bizarre to me, and I’m part of a generation that still remembers things like land lines and operators — I can’t imagine how it must clang against the ears for somebody who grew up with cell phones being the norm. That wasn’t a problem for this production, however, because I was the youngest person in the audience by probably twenty years; it was mostly a blue-hair crowd, and it was a small one at that. It was really too bad; war profiteering is hardly an irrelevant issue in our time, and it seems like the kind of thing a contemporary audience should eat up. Maybe not in southern Indiana.

More intriguing and immediate to me, however, was the issue of fatherhood. Joe Keller is a man, in wanting to be a good father, makes choices that turn him into a bad father — and when his choices threaten to spill over onto his son, he has only one way to atone so that his son’s honor is preserved. This is also an issue for Willy Loman, and in a more abstract way, for Eddie Carbone as well. Joe’s tragic flaw, it seems, is that he’s a great businessman, but he’s a great businessman who can’t see that the businessman’s instinct of self-preservation has much greater consequences when lives are on the line. A businessman who makes business decisions that inconvenience his competitors and/or his customers is ruthless, maybe, but when he makes those decisions and they cost lives, then he’s a murderer — and when it’s wartime and those decisions cost his country lives, he’s a traitor and a murderer. In a way, Joe — again, like Willy Loman — does only what he knows how to do; he can’t figure out how to adapt to the different circumstances of wartime. In not being able to adapt, he is also not able to the father he clearly wants and tries to be.

We have a lot of images of fathers in our world that are problematic, literally and figuratively. From Darth Vader to clergy abuse scandals, father figures are almost de facto untrustworthy, unlovable, unreliable, to be viewed with suspicion and fear. For myself, it is anxiety looking both forward and back; looking forward, I am perhaps within a year of being a father myself, and this is not a matter of small concern for me. Looking back — well, what perhaps would be least inappropriate for me to say is that the number of times we had to move while I was growing up, combined with financial difficulties, my parents moving away when I was 17 (quite literally the day after I graduated high school), their divorce being fresh when Megan and I were married — leading to another series of relocations on both of their parts — and my educational and career choices have all contributed to familial relationships that are complicated. I’ve seen for myself Joe Keller’s attitude of “dollars and cents, nickels and dimes,” the belief that as long as a businessman is making the decisions he thinks are best for his business, then he should be seen as above reproach regardless of any other factors, and I’ve seen that perspective ensure that there’s nothing left for, or for that matter of, the family of the person who thinks that way.

Is it realistic to think that a father can pass on a legacy worth having to his family in this age? I don’t mean a material inheritance necessarily, but what about a way of life? A set of values? An identity? A memory? Or do things just change too fast nowadays for who a father is to mean anything to the next generation? Even taking up the idea of a material inheritance for the moment — I have one friend whose parents, still married, live in the house they bought in the early 1970s, and I have a neighbor who inherited the house he grew up in when his mother passed away, but these seem like outliers to me. I also just happened to read Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles” recently, and Henry Baskerville’s conviction that “[h]ouse, land, and dollars must go together” strikes me as a perspective that just doesn’t work in the present day. Even factoring out tax laws, that just doesn’t seem to be how the world works at this point.

Is being a good father in 1947 (when All My Sons premiered) the same thing as being a good father in 2011? What about being a good husband? I’ve been married almost eleven years, long enough that I’ve seen friends’ marriages break up, including a few that I never, ever thought would, and a couple that are truly tragic with respect to the human frailty involved. We’ve survived, but I can’t pretend to have any particular expert knowledge about how it works, and I’m still figuring out how I can come anywhere close to being either the husband I want to be or that my wife wishes I could be, but thankfully Flesh of My Flesh has buckets of grace to spare.

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Can’t quite place you…

Rod Dreher returned to the blogging world last month; having left the Dallas Morning News (and Dallas) for the Templeton Foundation and Philadelphia last year, he is now at The American Conservative and is in the process of moving back to the homestead in Louisiana. This is utterly unsurprising for anybody who read the old Crunchy Con blog (which, alas, appears to be completely gone); he had commenters telling him three or four years ago that such a return was probably not only inevitable for him, the sooner he did it, the happier he’d be.

He posted this today, which reminds me a lot of some things he said a couple of years ago. That post no longer exists, but this was my response to it at the time, which excerpts a chunk of his words and meditates on them in the context of my own life experience. I love the sentiment, but my own circumstance remains that there’s nothing for me to return to in geographic, familial, or conceptual terms, so I don’t quite know what it should really mean for me in a practical way. Even if we define “the place to return to” as “where your parents are” (as mine have often insisted), the parent I’m closest to geographically I don’t presently have a relationship with and the parent I have a relationship with is a 10 hour flight away, so… yeah.

Along similar lines, this has been making the rounds, and I must say I’m curious about the book. Since Alaska isn’t even on this map, I was apparently born nowhere, but I grew up on the Left Coast and have lived for the last eight years in Greater Appalachia. My grandparents were originally from the Left Coast and Far West, and their grandparents were from either Denmark or New Netherland.

Culturally, at least in these terms, I’m not sure I’m really anything in particular. I never totally felt at home culturally in Seattle, nor do I feel totally at home in Indiana. From a cultural standpoint, I think I was raised pretty standard-issue single-child family suburban whitebread. To the extent that there was money, it was first (and last)-generation, and I’m a first-generation college graduate. I’ve heard my parents call themselves working-class, but they were/are very much on the professional end of working-class. Non-commissioned officer, in a manner of speaking. (On the other hand, my mom’s parents were very much working class; my dad’s parents were merchant-class.) My dad, Alaska-born after his dad fled the lower 48, had made a ton of money selling office furniture to the oil companies in Anchorage during the ’70s, only to have us lose everything by the time I turned 10 when the price of oil tanked. That makes me the offspring of ex-nouveau riche, I suppose.

Ironically, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a family mansion in Minnesota that my great-great-grandfather built (in Barrett, Minnesota, natch) that within two generations everybody had abandoned and forgotten about. Had those generations of the family gotten along, I might have wound up being culturally from Yankeedom. As it is, I’m chillin’ in Greater Appalachia wondering where in the world the jobs (assuming there are any) will take us once the PhDs are done.

Feeling Minnesota: In which the author discusses being the descendant of a footnote to history

Sometime around 1990, I got to meet my dad’s aunt Frances. He hadn’t seen her in about thirty years; we met her in Edmonds, Washington at the condominium of my grandmother Irene (affectionately known as “Mimi”). I remember the evening very clearly; she talked a lot about writing her memoirs, and about my great-great-grandfather, Theodore H. Barrett, who had commanded a battalion of African American soldiers for the North in the Civil War. (Not having seen it yet, we briefly wondered if perhaps the movie Glory had been about him.) It turned out that a small town in Minnesota had grown up around the ranch Theodore had built after his military service, and was named for the general. Shortly thereafter, Frances passed away, but I never forgot that evening.

Seven years ago, on my way from Seattle to Bloomington, Indiana to re-start my junior year at the IU School of Music (it wasn’t yet called “Jacobs”), I made it a point to pass through Barrett. It’s about two hours or so west of the Twin Cities, and somewhat off the beaten path, but as I had never had a reason to go to Minnesota before and wasn’t sure when I would have another, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to connect somehow with my family’s past.

There wasn’t exactly a ton to see, particularly since it was past business hours and getting dark, but I was able to get a picture taken of me in front of the post office. I had always been curious to know if I had any relatives still in the area; the phone book didn’t show any Barretts still nearby. I would have stayed there for the night, or at least stopped and had dinner there, had there been any places open that offered that kind of service, but alas, nothing seemed to be operating.

Over the years, I tried digging into the other branches of the Barrett family to see if there was anybody out there to try to connect with; General Theodore had three children, two sons and a daughter, but I only knew about children that my dad’s grandfather, Theodore Sedgwick Barrett, had had. A copy of an obituary for the other son, Richardson Damon Barrett, indicated that he had stayed in Minnesota and had had a son, Roger, but there were no other details mentioned. The daughter, Georgia Barrett, was a mystery — no details about her seemed available at all. I discovered through a Google search that General Theodore was actually something of an infamous figure for Civil War historians, having led the North (and lost) in the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last battle of the Civil War — fought some five weeks after Appomattox. I briefly mentioned this to a friend who is a Civil War buff, and he smiled and said, “I know exactly who your great-great-grandfather is. Pleased to know a descendant of General Barrett!”

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that Barrett, Minnesota had a website. It didn’t mention anything about the history of the town, but links concerning the Old Settlers’ Reunion and the Historical Photo Project piqued my curiosity. I sent the city office a note identifying myself as a descendant of the general’s, asking if they were going to have any exhibits about Theodore or his life, and if they had any information about other descendants.

I got a very nice reply from Marita Rhude in the city office, and she put me in touch with Patricia Benson of the Grant County Historical Society. She sent me a scan of a handwritten document provided by none other than my dad’s Aunt Frances that detailed everything about Theodore’s descendants, as well as several photos — of him, his estate, and some of the tribe. One thing that was immediately clear is that the reason why I wasn’t finding out much about Barretts in other branches of the family is because, well, there wasn’t really much to know. Richardson Damon’s son Roger had a daughter, Deborah; Theodore’s daughter, Georgia, had no children. Theodore Sedgwick’s three children were my grandfather Jack, my dad’s aunt Frances, and then another son, Theodore Sylvester. Frances married and had two sons and a daughter; Theodore had no children. The sons of Jack’s sons, that is, myself and my uncle George’s sons, represent the last generation of Barretts descended from Theodore. There is no “greater Barrett family” outside of those of us descended from Jack.

One of the pictures Ms. Benson sent me that was remarkable is from 1959 — it’s my dad’s grandfather, Theodore Sedgwick, his son Theodore Sylvester, and Richardson Damon’s son Roger. What strikes me about it is that Roger and Theodore Sylvester both unquestionably look like Barrett men to me. Roger looks a lot like the pictures I’ve seen of my grandfather Jack, and certainly bears a strong resemblance to my dad and my uncle George. My dad’s senior picture is posted here so that this might be obvious. Theodore Sylvester also has that going on, and curiously enough he also looks a lot like my aunt Pip, the youngest of my dad’s sisters.

Dick Barrett as a high school senior

I’m in the processing of circulating all of these photos to my family — my dad says that he only met his grandfather Theodore once, when he was around 13 years old. He was already blind, and he thought that Dad was my uncle George. Georgianna, Theodore’s wife and my dad’s grandmother, had died when she was still quite young, and none of the kids ever met her. Beyond that, it seems he never knew or heard about any of these people. It sort of makes me wonder how intentional that may have been — did Jack head up to Alaska to get away from his family? Hard to say, and I’m not sure there’s anybody left alive who can help fill in the gaps.

I’d really like to thank Marita Rhude in the Barrett city office and Patricia Benson of the Grant County Historical Society for their generosity and their time, and I’d also like to encourage anybody with a mind to do so to help out with the Historical Photo Project. If you stumble across this blog post and discover that you know anything more about these people or this place, I’d love to hear about it; drop me a line at rrbarret (AT) indiana.edu.

Reflecting on shame and identity

Rod Dreher has what is, at least for me, a very thought-provoking essay over at Crunchy Con. Actually, “thought-provoking” is a euphemism. I’ll be blunt — it hits what is, for me, a permanently raw and open nerve. The next 3200+ words will reflect this. Turn back now if you don’t want me to take you there.

Mr. Dreher begins with a discussion about shame, obesity, and race, and how he has personally experienced them function and interrelate as someone who considers the American South home. He takes it someplace else, however, and the key part for here at the conclusion:

A fellow Southern exile once said to me that it’s so easy to love where we’re from when we don’t live there, because we can edit out the stuff that’s hard to live with. That’s very true. And yet, I confess it’s hard for me to feel quite at home anywhere else. When I go back to visit, there’s something about the place and its people I dearly love, and treasure as part of myself. […] [However,] I chose to separate myself from it (and anybody who thinks Dallas is the South is sadly mistaken; it’s the southernmost Western city)… [F]or me, [what motivates my writing is] a sense of cultural rootlessness, and a craving for a sense of belonging to a place. Too much has happened to me over the years to form the kind of man that I am to make me feel at home in my actual homeland. And yet, when I’m away from Louisiana, I think about it a lot, and long for it. True story: I used to walk around Brooklyn romanticizing Louisiana, then go back to Louisiana and after a few days, start pining for my old borough home in Yankee Babylon.

[…] For me, displacement and a resulting craving for authenticity. But the fact that I chose displacement and exile adds a shake of shame about disloyalty into the cocktail too. […] Me, I don’t have anybody to show anything to (this was the greatest gift living and working in New York City gave me). When I sit down to write, almost always I think not about showing myself, but about finding myself.

I’m somewhat circumspect about elements of my personal life in this forum. This is not out of any sense of needing to protect anything, exactly; leastways, it’s not about protecting myself. Anybody who happens upon this blog knows my real name, my wife’s name, and more or less where to find me; this may or may not be wise, but there we are. There are certain things I have not discussed here, like politics, because I don’t want to detract from my main objective — namely, some record of my path as an Orthodox Christian on the way to something vaguely resembling an academic career. It’s also, by far, primarily for my own use, rather than being intended as any kind of a public news service. So, since I find myself heavily burdened talking about politics — feeling in the main that I ultimately can’t pick a side because I’m not at all sure anybody is on my side — I just don’t go there for my own sanity.

Other things I haven’t discussed simply out of respect for the fact that the blog is public, and I have to be mindful of what that can mean. I was stuck in a horrible, horrible, horrible employment situation until April 2008 that I could not (and can’t) discuss here, because if certain parties were to run across my blog, it would only make things quite a bit worse. Even once I was out of that situation, I had to be careful about how I discussed the unexpected ways my grad school opportunities were developing, because out of respect for my new employers, about whom I cared very much, I needed to time how I told them what was happening in a particular fashion.

All that out of the way, Dreher’s essay hits home for me in a number of ways, not the least being shame over the struggle with weight I’ve had as long as I can remember, but even more in how he discusses his sense of displacement. Unlike him, I have no particular pride in any particular place as home — but I’ll talk about that in a bit.

There’s not much to say about my weight that’s, um, earth-shaking — as I’ve said before, my ancestors were swinging battleaxes in northern Europe; I grew up swinging a backpack full of books, there was never anything about sports that was terribly attractive to me growing up, and I have spent much of my adult life behind a desk of some sort. My parents both had weight struggles they didn’t want me to have, which unfortunately meant that my weight as a child was monitored with the unapologetic and militantly nasty use of shame as a motivating tactic. (This is still hashed over yet today from time to time, and the parent who primarily engaged in this practice continues to defend their techniques, saying that they did these things because they wanted me to be healthy, and the only alternative they saw was to simply not care. That what they did didn’t actually work is only evidence to them that they didn’t do it enough for it to truly be the behavioral deterrent it was intended to be.) A growth spurt in junior high made me tall and reasonably thin (not skinny, I guarantee you — my frame does lend itself to skinniness to begin with) for the first time in my life, and I mostly stayed that way strictly by virtue of having a teenager’s metabolism. I put on a lot of weight my sophomore year of college as a result of various stresses (which I will discuss), lost it the next summer from even more stress, gained it all back (and how) once the school year started up again, and then got back down to my freshman year weight (more or less) about ten years ago. It stayed off roughly until my wedding, at which point it crept back on. When I moved to Indiana, a fencing class and a soccer class my first semester here took care of a good chunk of it, but then required courses edged further such intentions off of my schedule, and it came back on. For the last fourteen months, I have diligently made use of a treadmill, which between August and June took about ten pounds off very slowly; walking around Athens for two months got rid of another fifteen, and while much of it came back once I returned to the States, the addition of hand weights and other exercises to my routine has gotten me down to within five pounds of where I bottomed out in Athens. I am down two belt holes from where I was in August of 2008 one way or the other, and while the weight loss is slow, there is some very clear weight redistribution happening, as well as a development of muscle tone that didn’t used to be there. It’s a problem that anybody who has known me for any length of time knows I know about; the irony is that I am not sedentary by any means — I walk everywhere I can, in addition to the intentional exercise I get — but I also still eat the teenager’s portions of an adult diet, so I have to be very intentional about being active. This is more difficult when I’m not happy about large chunks of my life, and that’s been the case for most of the last six years. In the last year that has changed in some big ways, and my hope is that the physical aspect will also change concurrently. So that’s that.

The displacement issue is more complex. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, which is where both of my parents had been born and raised and where the vast majority of their respective families were; when I was four, due to some disagreements over business matters within the family, we moved to Wenatchee, Washington where my dad tried to reinvent himself as a small businessman. Wenatchee wasn’t an active enough town for him, however, so we moved to the Seattle area when I was seven, he bought another small business that he was going to try to grow, and we built a big house with the intent of it being the family homestead. Four years later, a combination of factors, including economic collapse in Alaska and further business disagreements within the family, led to us basically losing everything. Over the next five years, we bounced from rental house to rental house, my mom went back to work, and my dad poured more and more of his soul that he wasn’t going to get back into a business that really couldn’t exist anymore (namely, office supplies) given the initial appearances of big box competitors in the late ’80s/early ’90s.

In 1993, Dad moved back to Alaska, having been offered a job by an old friend. As he likes to say, he was lured back to Anchorage with one word: “Saturday.” It was my senior year of high school, so the plan was for Mom and I to stay in Washington until I graduated, after which she’d move up there with him and I would start my freshman year of college at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

My senior year was a real struggle; not having a father at home, that year of all years, was a nightmare, and it wasn’t easy for any one of the three of us. It wasn’t easy for the two of them getting along with each other, and it wasn’t easy for me getting along with either of them. It was made worse by the fact that I started dating for the first time that year, and I also developed a close relationship with a couple of male teachers as sort of surrogate father figures, all developments my parents had trouble regarding with anything but suspicion and resentment.

The day before I graduated high school (Inglemoor High School, class of ’94), my dad flew into town. The day after I graduated high school, he and my mom flew back to Alaska, leaving me behind to supervise the load-in of their moving truck. I spent the summer going back and forth between Anchorage and Seattle, decidedly not feeling at home in a place of which I had no particular memory, and not being allowed to feel at home in the place that had been home for the previous ten years.

Freshman year at Western was a disaster. I had been to the campus all of once before; we lacked the resources, in terms of time or money, to really launch any kind of a school visitation effort, and the main reasons we picked it were because it wasn’t University of Washington, but it was in-state, close enough to home, and yet far enough away. With my parents’ move, however, none of these really meant anything anymore. I was at a school with no good reason to be there. I had no family left in the place that I had considered home for two-thirds of my life, and had no place to go back to that I could really call home. The place where my family now was, despite being my birthplace, was unfamiliar, and being now at the beginning of adulthood I had no compelling reason otherwise to be where they were. In short, I felt like they had left me. Unfortunately, when it became clear this arrangement wasn’t making any of us happy, the rhetoric that I heard more often than not was that of me having left them.

I no longer belonged where I had grown up, so I was being told, and where I was being told I belonged by virtue of my parents having moved there just as I was starting college was not anyplace that felt like home, and since the end result was that I felt like I had no home, I never really felt comfortable at Western. My two and a half years there were a miserable attempt at trying to eke out an undergraduate existence with no familial or financial support; lacking any particular guidance, I made very poor decisions during that time regarding money, my heart, and school (among other things). I spent the summer after my sophomore year in Anchorage trying to figure out how to put my relationships with my family back together, and found that at that particular point, there simply wasn’t anything to reassemble. My parents couldn’t deal with each other at that stage of the game, let alone me, and that summer was the lowest I had ever been up to that point. I lost weight simply by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t eating or sleeping for about a month; eventually a psychiatrist put me on both Soma and Serzone, and things evened out enough to be able to survive the rest of the summer. (I took myself off of both as soon as I returned to Bellingham.) After one quarter back, however, it was clear that college was something I just wasn’t in any position to be able to pursue properly, and I dropped out after having thoroughly ticked off virtually everybody in the Department of Music with my inability to cope and what had become a tendency to lash out.

I now had no particular reason to stay in Bellingham, I wasn’t going to move to Alaska, and that left me with no real place to go except back to Seattle. I started job hunting, selling classified ads in Bellingham for the time being to at least have some way to live, and after a year finally had the opportunity to take a contract position (which was fulltime within a year) with a Major Software Company.

Life settled into enough of an equilibrium over the next year, and my parents appeared to have put enough of their own lives back together, that there seemed to be some kind of peaceful relationship that could exist with me in Seattle and them in Anchorage. They still nudged and wheedled me to consider moving to Alaska, but the fact remained that beyond the two of them, there just wasn’t any reason for me to be there. I sometimes thought that maybe once they’d retired, they would move back to Seattle; I dreamed that, having made my initial couple million working in the software industry (with subsequent millions to be made as the Great American Hope of lyric tenors, of course), I could buy back the house they built that was supposed to be the Barrett family home and give it to them.

Except that, about the same time that Megan and I started dating, in the early spring of 1999 (she and I having met freshman year at Western, so I guess it wasn’t a total disaster), my parents announced that they were getting a divorce. This was not the first time they had made this announcement, but this time it was final. The one time my wife ever saw us all together, apart from our wedding day (when they studiously avoided each other as much as possible — the family photo has them at opposite ends of the line), was a few days before the divorce was finalized, and they were yelling at each other over a snowblower.

By 2001, we were married, and shortly thereafter my dad left Alaska to spend a couple of years in West Virginia. By 2003, we moved to Indiana so that I could finish my undergraduate degree; part of the idea was that we’d be five hours away from Dad, which would have been the first time in a decade that I had lived within driving distance of a parent. Shortly before I left for Bloomington, however, he headed off to Phoenix, Arizona to be near the older of his two daughters (from his first marriage) and her children. Living near family was simply not to be.

Six years later, we’re still here. We’ve lived in our little rental house for a tick over four years; at 32 (less than a month away from 33), it is the longest I have ever had the same address. Ever.

My dad is still in Phoenix; my mom is in Wasilla, Alaska. Megan’s family is in the Seattle area. There is no one place we can ever live and be reasonably close to everybody.

Jaroslav Pelikan once quoted Robert Frost in saying that “home” is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you, but “home” has come to mean, at least for me, where my wife and I are able to share a life. It has no meaning relative to roots or family, at least not for me; for it to take on that meaning would mean choosing between my parents individually, or choosing between her family and mine. Everybody has an argument for why we should do one thing or the other, but there’s nothing we can do without having to make a painful choice. In some ways, it seems best to live near nobody, thus treating everybody equally.

Like Mr. Dreher, I crave roots and something authentic, but unlike him, I feel at home precisely nowhere. I have never walked around Bloomington pining for Anchorage (or Seattle, for that matter), nor vice versa. My parents both live in houses in which I never lived, in zip codes I never visited until after I was an adult. The place where I grew up has exactly nothing to offer me now. I have lived for years with a lot of shame and pain because I belong nowhere, but not because of a sense of disloyalty — unlike Mr. Dreher, I didn’t choose this displacement. Ironically, my displacement is precisely because I didn’t choose it. Rather, my parents moved away just at the very moment I needed them to stay put. (I will emphasize that I say this descriptively, not to assign blame; they did what they had to do. This has not made it any easier over the years from an experiential standpoint, however.) No, my shame is that I have no roots, no sense of home, to pass on to my own children once I have them. I have nothing to give them but the culture of a stray, a transplant. A stray who married up and who gets to eat pretty well for a stray, but a stray nonetheless.

Like Mr. Dreher, much of the work I have chosen is implicitly a means of trying to “find myself”; unlike Mr. Dreher, I’ve been trying to “show them myself” for years — to show “them” that I’ve risen above the rootlessness, the struggles with finding a path, the forced independence, the displacement, the lack of any visible connection to anything except a woman who loves me with all her heart, the confusion about how to simply be that burdens me from lack of guidance. I’m still trying to “show them,” which I guess means I haven’t actually accomplished rising above any of those things yet.

I don’t know if this pain ever goes away. I managed to get saddled with it at 17, and I keep waiting to feel normal again, keep thinking that understanding of the last several years is right around the corner. I at least feel less stuck than I have in years, like I’m working towards something now, something productive, so maybe it really is right around the corner. I don’t know.

“Tell them it’s okay to talk about the cancer

My uncle George was thought a few weeks ago to have bladder cancer.

Turns out they were wrong.

He has prostate and lung cancer instead. Aggressive cases, too.

I’m hopefully going to get to see him in a couple of weeks. His brother’s son may be the only connection he makes with his brother this side of the parousia.

All of that is to say, if you could sneak in a prayer for George Barrett right after you say one for Joe McKamey, that’d be great. Maybe one for Richard Barrett, elder and younger alike (we’re not senior and junior) while you’re at it.

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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