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Posts Tagged 'Western Washington University'

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).

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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.

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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