Life After High School: Chapter 7 College Bound

UW quad

Welcome to Chapter 7 of my blog-to-book project: Life After High School: Secrets To A Successful Life By Those Who Have Had Twenty Years To Think About It (or) What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. This chapter is called College Bound. If you missed the last post, click here, otherwise, you can start at the beginning here.


Summer After Graduation

The summer after senior year I was reminiscing through some of my favorite childhood memorabilia and I came upon Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, along with many of his other music videos starting all the way back with the hits of his Off The Wall album (arguably the most important and groundbreaking album produced in the music industry at the time, and made Thriller possible).

Now before you gasp in disgust at me and cover the eyes of innocent children…

Motown 25Remember that Michael Jackson wasn’t always perceived in a negative way in the media. For Generation Xers, he was THE MAN. Come on, admit it. When you were six years old like me (or perhaps in your early teens) and watched him do the moonwalk for the first time to his new hit Billie Jean on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever on March 25, 1983, you freaked out in amazement.

…So quit judging me and just do a little moonwalk.

Michael Jackson on Motown 25At the risk of sounding like a sissy, or completely off my rocker, I am going to admit that I had some sort of spiritual experience the summer after graduation, watching the total dedication and poetry of Michael Jackson performing even the corniest of songs, like Rock With You while he glittered in a strange spaceman jumpsuit in front of green disco lights. I was simultaneously laughing at, and yet mesmerized by his performance, and something deep in me leaped at inspiration.

Michael Jackson Rock With YouEver since I was five years old, I have been dancing constantly, especially at weddings, and my parents even took me to a dance class to get me formal training. However, walking into a class as the only boy and seeing a bunch of girls in pink tutus, I immediately turned around and didn’t come back until my late teens. However, this time, a seed was planted in my mind that later took root.

Backpacking Europe

Jesse in the colosseum 1996

Also in the summer after high school in 1996, I backpacked with my friend Gary Hunter through Europe. On our way there we saw the blondest most beautiful blue-eyed people (men and women) in Iceland. We got a Eurail Pass and stayed at youth hostels. We saw London, Paris, Normandy, the west coast and central and southern France (Nice is nice), Rome, Florence (best discotheques anywhere with very beautiful Italians), Venice, Switzerland, Salzburg, Austria, Berlin, Germany, and then he went home, and I flew to the Caribbean to meet up with my parents.

Caribbean

Jesse and mom dancing 1996

A dance with mom on Caribbean cruise in 1996

In the Caribbean, I met a blond from Florida who I became infatuated with and wrote her hand-written letters for months, which later turned to emails as we adopted that new technology. We were real pen-pals, and I thought I might have a future with her. Later, I went back to Florida to pursue her and perhaps start personal training as a job. She said it would not work since my dream was to go to New York City, and she could not leave her home and career that had taken her a lifetime to build. I left for Seattle, crushed. Two months later she was married to a guy in Texas and moved there (or at least it felt instantaneous). We are still friends.

University Of Washington

UW quadMy high school chum Scott McKinstry and I both went to the University of Washington (see the previous chapter where we barely made it). I later found out that the colleges rank high schools to make decisions concerning grade point average relevance, and previous graduates of AHS had done so well that they considered us better gambles than applicants from other high schools. We probably could have just fogged glass and gotten in.

The first quarter and a half I was in McMahon hall, with Michael Kvistad as my roommate. Michael and I had grown up together in Edmonds, Washington. He was a chaotic-good friend of the Eddy Haskel variety, and he was one of the friends I had left at Meadowdale when my family relocated to Anacortes. Michael was taking a lot of history and humanities and preparing for what ended up being a law degree. His is now one of my attorneys and is as rascally impish and crafty as ever, but with more polish and a tie. I have a general distrust of attorneys, but Michael is a good one and the role fits him nicely.

I took as many courses as I could. I was taking full loads every quarter, and sometimes more than full loads. I loved history, English (well story-writing anyway), Geology, and Physics. One of my favorite classes ever, for some weird reason, was Atmospheric Sciences, probably because I think clouds are cool and I love saying the word Cumulonimbus.

Dance? Really?

uw dance classSomewhere in the great exploration of subjects, I took an introduction to dance class. I cannot tell you I have ever, ever taken anything more fun. I immediately fell in love with my dance teacher along with every other human of the male persuasion in the class. She was very tall, and extremely beautiful, and from the exotic island of Curacao. She was like a super model with super powers. Amazingly graceful, powerful, intelligent, and a professional dancer who had traveled the world. Now how could a guy pick a better college class than that?

jesse dance group at uwHowever, it wasn’t the teacher alone that attracted me to the class. There was something about the music, energy, art, and that amazing amalgamation of rhythm and sweat that reaches into a very primal place of exotic urge along with a part of the brain that wants to paint, sculpt, play guitar, beat a drum, and write poetry. I was totally hooked, and I started listening to Michael Jackson as I ran back to the dorm each evening, across Red Square, The Quad, gracefully dodging all the busy bees as they pursued their engineering, business, and other practical and ridiculously boring degrees that would lead them into boring lives. I was destined to be a dancer! (Cue music… Gotta’ Dance!)

jesse in ballroom competition

Bronze in Seattle Ballroom Dance Competition

When I got back to the dorm I exclaimed to Michael that I was going to be a dance major! He looked at me like I was crazy and then celebrated with me. We hung a disco ball in our room with spotlights and Christmas lights and made the place into a European-inspired discotheque, like the one I remembered from Florence, Italy. We had dance parties in our tiny five-by-ten floor space and tantalized the other inhabitants. Everyone thought we were either gay or simply the most eccentric twenty-somethings they ever saw, which was hilarious for us so we played it up and made obscene sounds to keep them guessing.

Hard Work

I continued to take more classes than I needed but ended up taking six hours a day of dance on top of the other general studies requirements. I started my day with an hour at the gym pumping iron. I then had ballet, followed by modern, followed by lunch, followed by jazz or hip-hop. After school, I took a bus to Greenlake to take tap dance from Anthony Peters, who has been doing it now for forty-two years. Then at night I was either taking ballroom dance, spinning on the salsa floor or for a few years, I took adult gymnastics at Cascade Elite Gymnastics from seven to ten.

street scene at UW with Jesse and Katie

On top of all this, my freshmen year I had braces and a big red beard, so people thought I was some kind of Viking warrior-nerd-sissy, but I was extremely happy being an artist and extremely motivated to create. In my senior year, I took as much choreography as I could, creating all manner of dances, from musical theater originals to abstract performance art pieces, collaborating with a music major that loved Pink Floyd, and another free spirit of a dancer woman of remarkable energy. We created some wild stuff.

In the summer, I was part of a collaboration between the drama and dance programs, doing outdoor Shakespeare, including traditional text analysis, combined with modern dance movement. The work was intense and extremely satisfying.

I was literally doing all the stuff that you need to do as a kid to get into dance as a profession, but I was an adult. I kept that schedule up from 1996 to 2001. Even after I graduated, I was able to take dance for another year by auditing the classes, which I did on and off when I was in Seattle. It was absolutely insane. I would literally die if I tried that at my age now for even one day.

Needless to say, I was in the best shape of my life. I could turn, I could tumble, I could do the splits, and I could throw women (and lighter men) around like they were rag dolls. When I was still in Anacortes, someone said that I had talent, but that it was too late for me to dance. I think those words were just what I needed to hear since I was determined to prove her wrong. I did. So there! The hard work would pay off, by the way, as you will find out soon.

Platonic Love

My college years were amazing and perplexing. I went to summer quarter every single year to pack as much in as I could. My dance classes were typically consisting of thirty scantily clad beautiful women and one guy… Me.

It probably seemed to other straight college men that I was living in some Las Vegas Follies show. There were other guys, but most of them were gay, so if I had actually been inclined to pursue love, my odds were good. For some reason, I never did. I just enjoyed and appreciated their beauty primarily from an aesthetic and artistic view (yeah, really). Besides, when you work with someone and you are driven and trying to accomplish something, it can change any potential relationship. They all became like the sisters I never had and I developed instead a great deal of platonic love for them.

I developed a strong opinion at that time that I carry with me today. Of all the performing arts I have been involved with over my lifetime, I have a very special place in my heart for dancers. I am aware I may create enemies with these statements, and I am prepared for the tomatoes and heads of lettuce that will shortly be thrown at me.

Why Dancers Are Amazing

dinks_blues_I believe that dancers (especially the women), singularly above all other artists, are among the highest of class and quality. I believe they work harder than anyone else. They show up earlier and stay later. They obviously sweat more, and it is often accompanied by blood and tears. They often have to learn music at a level nearly as deep as any musician, and often even have better rhythm. They need to act as well as any actor to emote the proper effect and perform the drama inherent in any display of emotion.

In fact, many dancers I have met are superior actors, as they need to often share the craft without the use of words, which requires talents and skills far greater than mine and greater than mere facial expression. They have to act and perform and emote with every single part of their body, from the hairs on their heads to the nails on their toes. The great dancers are like painters, mastering every stroke of the brush and every spray of paint on canvas. They are like sculptors, who carve an amazing figure not of stone, but of sinewy muscle and bone, which takes far more time (often twenty or more years) and more daily care.

uw dance with mark dendy

One of my college dance show companies with Choreographer Mark Dendy (I’m in the back with the redhead on my shoulders)

Their muse comes from very deep inside, from a primal level of purity and strength, and can also combine the lusts of the heart and the constructs of the mind. The dancers I knew, who had dedicated themselves to the art beyond childhood into their adult years, were some of the kindest, most generous, and most truly loving and passionate people I have ever met, all the while maintaining their feet on the ground with level-headed practicality.

Most the dancers in school were double-majors, as much because of aptitude as out of pragmatism. After all, simply by making the choice to pursue dance, you were taking a road less traveled fraught with challenge. Dancers needed to be very smart, and very tough. They are athletes and artists and business people all simultaneously.

They need to master their health since they make their living with their bodies, and they often learn more about nutrition, fitness, and physical therapy than a med student does, and on a level that is critical to their survival.2016-07-14_cdcsmall

Dancers need to feed their mind and their artistic soul, all while finding a way to make ends meet and market themselves. Some of the dancers I knew were also very shrewd business people, marketers, choreographers, directors, and leaders, who often had jobs or created their own work in competitive fields where discipline was pivotal. In a word, dancers are disciplined.

Societies view of dancers is just the opposite. They are the lowest paid in the theater, they are the first art program to get cut when a budget is tight, they are thought to be only a passing fancy or a footnote of entertainment.

Dancers are perceived as silly air-head women who are still living in a little girls world obsessed about becoming a princess. Dance in our culture is very much misunderstood and the history is all but forgotten. To be a man in dance is even more bizarre, but also very special. For some reason, in those years, I decided to embrace this very different and special world, and after several years of toil, they eventually accepted me.

For the first three years of college, before devoting all of my time into the program and thereby limiting my exposure to some of the students I interacted with early on, I constantly had to field the questions about my major. “What are you majoring in?” they would ask. “Dance,” I would reply. To which the response was always “Why on earth would you do that, and what are you going to do with a dance major?” always accompanied by an incredulous tone. My answer was always the same: “Dance.”

Three Jobs, No Loans

UW suzzallo reading roomI worked three jobs so I didn’t have to get a student loan. I worked at Suzzallo and Odegaard Libraries, worked as a janitor of the building I lived in, and worked the front desk of a gym on 45th and Roosevelt, called University Fitness (where I later met my wife). 

university fitnessThe job in the libraries was ridiculous. My main job was walking down the isles with my finger along the spines of the books. After learning the Library of Congress number and the Dewey Decimal System, I was in charge of finding books that were put back out-of-order and then fix them. It is the reason I have to wear thick glasses today. You not only go cross-eyed, but you end up needing therapy.

I spent every moment I could making my coworker Kate crack up until we were falling down laughing. It was all the funnier because we were in a library and trying to stay quiet. It was like a Cheech and Chong movie, but without the smoke. Just constant gut-busting trying-to-be-quiet laughter. To this day, I think she was my biggest fan, and it made the time pass.

I took a full load, plus summer quarter every year and loved my experience. I could have gotten three majors, and I was pretty close to a physics major, but I figured I had spent enough time in college. This was yet another perplexing decision I made in my twenties. I mean, why bother finishing something that might actually make me relevant in the job market? Meh… Physics-Shmyzics.

College Breaks On Shaw

Every spring or winter break I went back to visit my parents, who by that time were living on Shaw Island, caretaking for some family friends. My dad always had a construction project, and It was good for me to get away, spend time with him, climb ladders, and pound nails. I only wish I had done more of it, growing my beard even longer to match my dad’s. We would talk about life and politics and about dreams for our family and the future.

building deck with dad

My parents were truly amazing and generous with me. I think I may have been the luckiest boy in the world. These holiday visits would always seem to be too short.


Stay tuned for more great interviews, like this one with Ruth Backlund, funny stories, and even real research!

Are you from Generation X? I want to hear what you think! Please comment below and participate in the conversation about What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. What do you wish someone told you when you were eighteen?

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