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January 2018

The first weeks of rehearsal sail by in a mix of whole-cast and individual work. As a cast, we sing through the show a couple of times with that cast recording before starting to work with a piano. Wednesdays right now are set aside for those of us with solos to work one-on-one with Dr. T and George.

We now have a pianist. Dr. T filled in for the first couple of rehearsals, but he’s the first to admit that particular instrument is not his forte. Her first night, Lee just introduces herself and sits with Dr. T at the piano while those of the cast that are there sing through most of the big group numbers. I’m still getting used to the idea that not everyone is at every rehearsal; two different people are or will be out for 3-4 weeks each during the next couple of months, and two “brothers” are part of the high school basketball team, so they’re juggling rehearsals with practice.

The cast is still in flux, too: The person originally given the part of “Gad” (one of the brothers) has had to back out, and we still don’t have a Mrs. Potiphar.  By the end of the month, Christie, George’s wife, has agreed to take over “Gad”. George’s first choice for Mrs. Potiphar is apparently unavailable, but at least two people already in the cast have offered to do the part. Personally, I care a little bit more about this last piece of news: During her one scene, Mrs. Potiphar attempts to seduce Joseph. I’m already nervous about it, and would like to know who I’m working with sooner rather than later.

By the end of the month, I set a rule for myself: No more listening to the cast recording I own. While some songs only differ in key and/or tempo, others have been changed dramatically, with verses deleted or added or rearranged. I know we won’t have any big dance breaks, and I need to stop listening for music cues that may or may not be there.

February 2018

George and I start talking after rehearsal one night about costumes. “Have you thought about the prison scene?” he asks.
“What about it?”
“Well, do you want to go the Donny Osmond route?”
I offer a half-smile, but my heart starts beating faster. When Donny Osmond played Joseph, he ended up shirtless in the prison scene. “I mean, I will if you want me to,” which isn’t really a lie, “but how would that work?” I’m stalling, but also curious to hear his answer. (For those of you unfamiliar with the show: Joseph gets sold into slavery. Mrs. Potiphar, the wife of his owner, tries to seduce him. Potiphar finds out, blames Joseph, and has him thrown in jail.) George has already said the Potiphar sequence wouldn’t be as… sexy as is sometimes portrayed, so I doubt there’ll be a reason for my shirt to be removed. On a more personal level, while I have no problem going shirtless, I am a little worried about the fact that my top surgery scars can still be identified. As I haven’t come out to anyone in town yet, it could lead to some potentially awkward questions.
I would almost swear that George blushes at my question; at least, his face gets a little redder. “I don’t know yet. But think about it.”
In my head, I see this conversation as a weird dance, each of us trying to follow the other’s lead. I make a quick decision to leave things up to George, resolving to talk to him if and when there’s a concern. “Like I said, I’ll do what you ask me to.”

While I’m slowly getting used to this version of the show, there are some things that I wish could still be included. Among these is the duet between the Narrator and Joseph during the reprise of “Any Dream Will Do”; I’ve always loved the vocal harmonies in that section. I happen to mention it to Elena, our Narrator, at one point, and she agrees with me. She also already knows the harmonies. We try it out one night with the piano, and Dr. T and George agree that we can add it in.

The next few rehearsals bring several changes. On the bright side, we now have a stage manager, Bea. (We haven’t started blocking yet, but it’s nice to know that job is covered.) George also announces that he’s cast our Mrs. Potiphar: Kira, who currently plays one of the brothers, will take the role. She joins a growing list of people playing more than one part: “Jacob” also plays “Potiphar”, “Zebulon” and “Isaachar” also play the “Butler” and “Baker”, and so on. Sadly, we also lose a member of the team: Lee, our pianist, has to step down for personal reasons. George immediately starts looking for a replacement, but also presents another possibility: There is a company that makes and licenses digital recordings of the music for the show. The best part? Said recordings can be edited. Keys can be changed, tempos can be sped up or slowed down, and whole sections can be cut or repeated if necessary. The only catch is the price tag. If we opt to go this route, our budget for other things, like costumes and props, will be considerably less. After much discussion among the group, we agree that, if the money can be found, we’d like to go with the digital music.

One week later, an anonymous donor sends a check to cover the entire expense of the music.

Over a month in, and we are FINALLY starting blocking (who stands on stage, how they move, entrances and exits). The small stage at George’s church makes this a bit of a challenge (fortunately, the stages we’ll perform on will be larger). For now, we do the best we can, even if some of us can only be “onstage” when standing off to the sides.

From the start of blocking, it’s clear that George’s directing style differs quite a bit from what I’m used to. There’s a lot more discussion between him and the people he works with, and even people not involved in a particular scene are free to chip in suggestions. Sometimes, this works very well. Other times, we end up in “discussions” where people are talking over one another and no real decisions get made. However, it’s also clear that George spent this past month thinking about what he wants to see on stage, so we at least have some sort of guideline during this process.

Rehearsals now work a little differently. We start off with numbers that involve as many people as possible (often everyone, or darn close). Songs with fewer people happen later on, so that those not involved can leave for the night. While we won’t have much in the way of sets and props, we still have to rehearse as if we have said items on hand. I do better when I have something physical to use, especially when it comes to costumes, so I bring in a coat to use for the scenes that require it. Said coat is the source of much amusement, as it’s the duster for my Captain Reynolds costume. But it works!

March 2018

The next phone call with my parents brings a surprise: They want to come see the show! They’re not the only ones, either: Kelly mentioned back in January that she, Lucas, and Andy were going to see what they could do about coming in from Nunap to catch a performance, and friends in Anchorage and Kenai have also expressed an interest in getting tickets. When tickets finally go on sale early in the month, I let people know. Immediately, I get quite a few orders.

Blocking continues. I have the easiest time with numbers where I interact with other characters. My solos, on the other hand, prove to be a bit of a sticking point. George has me come in early a few times so that we can work on those songs without an audience, something that I appreciate. We use a similar approach for the Potiphar sequence, although that one often gets left until the end of a rehearsal. Elena is the mastermind behind this number, so she and Kira have already worked on it a few times without me or the others involved. The first time we all get together is a bit chaotic, but we figure it out pretty quickly. Thank goodness Joseph is supposed to be uncomfortable during this scene; I don’t have to act very much!

We finally get to rehearse in one of our performance spaces! Stage A, another church, is only a few blocks north of George’s church, but I still drive there tonight because it’s been snowing all day. Compared to our normal rehearsal space, the place is big. The stage has to be at least two-and-a-half times the size of the one at George’s church, and has two levels. A baby grand piano takes up most of the top level. George says we won’t be moving it; I suggest throwing a brown sheet over it and calling it a sand dune. Most of our rehearsal tonight focuses on vocal work, although we do take a little time to try out a couple of things on the larger stage.

Spring break at last. A whole week of no teaching. While I have a to-do list of errands and appointments, for the most part I’m able to rest my voice during the days. I do pick up tickets for all of the various people who want to see the show. Some, like those for D and her family, I drop off in person. Others, like those for the Nunap folks and my dad, I simply keep on my dining room table. In rehearsals, we finally get to use Stage B (yet another church), our other performance space. As soon as I walk in to the space, I mentally dub it “the Barn”. Acoustically, that’s exactly what it is: Concrete floors and prefab walls create a large, open space that swallows the sound and redirects it elsewhere in the building. The stage is a raised plywood platform across the south end of the room; not as big as Stage A, but still larger than our rehearsal space. In exploring the rest of the building, I make a somewhat distressing discovery: In the men’s bathroom, the partition for the stall stops about a foot shy of the wall. Immediately, I plan to only use that facility when absolutely necessary, and never when someone else is in there.

George brings a large box to rehearsal: Props and costume parts have arrived! The former immediately get added in to the appropriate points of the show, but the latter will wait until dress rehearsals begin. While a large portion of our costumes came from the high school, George did order everyone a pair of Thai fisherman pants to use as a “base” for our looks. Some, like me, will never take the things off; others use them only when playing certain characters. After talking over my options with George, I go ahead and order two shirts for my own costume; since the one I want isn’t guaranteed to be here in time for the show, the second will be a backup. But the most important costume doesn’t come in the mail: On the 22nd, our amazing costumer delivers the titular coat. Everyone is anxious to see it, and we are not disappointed: The floor-length garment has been created by piecing together strips of fabric in a variety of patterns and colors, and the hems have been edged in a glittery black and gold star design. I put it on, and I am Joseph.

Our first performance is only a couple of weeks away. Rehearsals move into our performance spaces, particularly the Barn, so we can get comfortable with where and how we can move during the show. Several things have to be re-done to fit both the new layouts and our lights (we don’t have them yet, but mark their eventual locations with tape). We also “woodshed” several segments, doing and re-doing until things click into place. Elena and I start using the microphones we’ll have for the show, and much discussion ensues about who else might need a mic, and if so, what type (headset, lapel, or handheld). In the end, the decision is made that, while Elena and I will be mic’ed at both locations, the other soloists will also have mics at the Barn. The “brothers” will pass a lapel mic around as necessary, and Pharaoh will use a handheld as part of his character. Sets, such as they are, get added in, and the majority of us start wearing our costume shoes or sandals so we can get comfortable performing in them. The last few rehearsals turn into semi-dress rehearsals, so that we can take stock of what we have and what we still need, and start working on transitions for those that need to change costumes. The first night, I feel anxious about dressing in front of the others, and actually take my costume shirt into the bathroom to change before rehearsal starts. By the time we end for the night, I’m too tired to care, and join everyone else in the “greenroom” (one of the Barn’s meeting rooms) to change into our street clothes.

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November 2017

For the first time since I moved to Alaska, I have no concrete plans for Thanksgiving. At one point, I thought about flying back to the village, but traveling in and out at this point of the year can be challenging. Anyway, most of the people I’d want to see typically head to Anchorage or someplace else on the road system for the holiday. I do have friends in Anchorage, but for one reason or another we aren’t able to get together for the actual holiday, although I do manage to make plans with D to hang out the Saturday after. The thought of spending the holiday alone threatens to pull me back in to the depressive funk I’ve only recently begun to escape.

Rescue comes in the form of an invitation from Christie, the school librarian, to join her family for Thanksgiving dinner. I gratefully accept, and Thursday afternoon finds me walking the couple of blocks to their house. The gathering includes not only me and Christie’s family (her, her husband, and two youngest daughters), but also a former teacher, back to visit for the holiday, and a couple of other families. I know all but one of the kids from school, and I’ve met George, Christie’s husband, before, but the rest of the faces are unfamiliar. But everyone is friendly, the food is good, and the conversation pleasant, with much talk of various family holiday traditions. At one point, one of the other guests asks George for more information about the show, and my ears prick up. I’ve heard rumors that a local production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” would be happening, but didn’t realize George was involved. I listen as he gives a brief outline of where they are in the process and what he envisions for the show. “When are auditions?” I ask.

“The first week of December.”

December 2017

The days leading up to my audition bring more nerves and anxiety than I remember from previous auditions. Then again, this is the first time I’ve done anything like this since I Transitioned. The last time I auditioned for anything, I’d just begun publicly identifying as a man, and hadn’t started any sort of medical procedures yet.

The day of the audition, I go back and forth on what to wear. Part of me would be fine just wearing my normal, everyday clothes. But there’s another part of me, the part that desperately hopes to land the lead, that says some sort of costume couldn’t hurt. So I keep my jeans, but swap my button-down for a linen shirt I bought in Greece some years ago, and grab a pair of sandals to change in to.

Choosing a song for the audition brings it own set of worries. I haven’t sung in public since my voice changed, and while friends and family assure me it still sounds good, I don’t know how it sounds to people who don’t know me as well. While I know it’s unlikely, I’d love to land a lead or featured role in the production, but I’ve only ever heard those parts sung by tenors. Testosterone made my voice drop, and my singing voice these days fits more in the baritone/bass range. I can reach the lower end of the tenor range, but is it enough?

I deliberately arrive at auditions at the scheduled start time. While I don’t think it’ll be overly crowded, I just want to do this. The longer I wait, the worse my nerves get, so I’m relieved to see only a couple of other people there. George greets all of us and shows us the forms we need to fill out. Soon, it’s my turn. I take my forms and head in. George greets me again, and I say hi to Dr. T. He’s the music teacher at school, and apparently will be working on the show, too. George gives me the go-ahead, I take a deep breath, and sing through “Close Every Door”, one of Joseph’s big solos. I answer a few questions for them, thank them for the opportunity, they thank me for coming in, and I’m done. Now the waiting begins.

I walk into callbacks a week later, secure in the knowledge that I am Joseph. George called a few days ago to offer me the role; he only requested that I not say anything until the official announcement later this week. He also asked that, if possible, I swing by callbacks anyway, both to meet people and to be measured for my costume (the coat!).

January 2018

I picked up my libretto and score a week ago. Tonight, I’m walking up the street to our first rehearsal. I’m a little nervous, for a variety of reasons. I feel that I need to prove myself to the rest of the cast; most of them have worked together on previous productions. We’re meeting in a church, where George happens to be the pastor. The relationship between organized religion and the LGBT community can be… interesting. Sure, I “pass”, but theatre doesn’t always leave personal barriers intact. I stuff that particular fear into the back of my mind; no sense getting ahead of myself. Besides, my old friend social anxiety is clamoring for attention, and I can’t let it be left out, now can I? Thank goodness I already know roughly how tonight will go, otherwise I would be even more of a nervous wreck. I arrive at the church door at the same time as several others. I recognize a couple from callbacks, and one from Community Band. More people trickle in over the next fifteen minutes or so, including the rest of George’s family. Finally, everyone is there. George motions for everyone to take a seat as he outlines the schedule for the coming week and month. After introductions, tonight and tomorrow will be “sing-throughs”, with the entire cast (everyone who can be here, anyway) singing along to a cast recoding from one of the professional productions of the show. Wednesday, Dr. T and George will do some individual work with those of us who have solos. The next few weeks will follow a similar schedule. “Any questions?” George checks. When no one speaks up, we move on to introductions. It’s quite the group: Kids and adults, a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Most of my “brothers” are being played by women, and more than one person will be playing dual roles. As Dr. T finally presses “play”, I take a deep breath. Time to get started.

 

CJ L_____ is thrilled—

No, I’ve never liked how that word looked in programs.

CJ L_____ first saw “Joseph” at the age of eight, and always knew he could play the lead.

Too pretentious.

When he’s not wrangling animals masquerading as students—

Too snarky.

After three years of living in the middle of nowhere, CJ L_______ is excited to once again live in civilization!

Nope.

CJ L_______ is excited to be part of this production of “Joseph”!

That has potential…

CJ L_______ is excited to be part of this production of “Joseph”! Previous experience includes behind-the-scenes work on high school productions of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Pippin”, and roles in high school productions of “Anything Goes”,  “Seussical”, and “The Dining Room”. He also worked on several college productions—

Too detailed.

CJ L_______ is excited to be part of this production of “Joseph”! While he’s had a life-long obsession with the theatre, most of his previous experience occurred in—

Needs some tweaking.

A life-long theatre lover, CJ L_______ is excited to be part of this production of “Joseph”! Previous experience includes various on- and off-stage roles in a number of high school and college productions.

Progress.

A life-long theatre lover, CJ L_______ is excited to be part of this production of “Joseph”! Previous experience includes various on- and off-stage roles in a number of high school and college productions. Thanks to George for this opportunity, the rest of the cast and crew for making this so much fun, and, most especially, to family and friends near and far for their love and support.

That’s it!

During my workout today, I got mad at myself. I used to do three cycles of this particular routine in the village all the time, yet right now I can barely make it through two. I may or may not have sworn out loud at myself before stopping to think about it. When I lived in Nunap, I made it to the “gym” (a converted classroom in the old school building) on an almost daily basis. The routine I’m having difficulties with was one that I performed 2-3 times a week, alternating with others. Especially last year, my body and my brain were used to this schedule. And that just hasn’t been the same since last May.

I wrote a few months ago about my latest battle with depression. One of my longtime coping methods for depression and dysphoria has been routine exercise. Well, during this latest bout, I did my best, but I certainly didn’t have a schedule like I did in the village. When I did work out, I didn’t use my old routines, either; I took advantage of the nice weather to run outside, or used a workout app on my phone to mix things up a bit. Even then, though, the depression affected my energy levels, making “working out” more work than it used to be.

So when I got mad at myself today, I made myself sit and think. Okay, maybe I can’t do as much as I’m used to right now. But I am making progress. Since the semester break, I’ve made it a point to work out daily, using both old and new routines. And that’s not the only sign that I’m slowly but surely bouncing back from the depression. I’m getting a handle on things at school, even getting a little ahead of the game when it comes to planning. I’m talking more with my coworkers. Outside of work, not only has my exercise regimen resumed, but I’ve also started writing fanfiction again; I began a new story in October and currently have typed about 23,000 words, with no end in sight. I joined the Community Band, and regularly attended rehearsals all fall. And in December, I auditioned for a local production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. To my delight, I landed the role of Joseph, so now I have those rehearsals to attend. (I assure you, there will be another post about this in the near future.) Compared to where I was only a couple of months ago, I’m doing pretty damn well right now. I just need to keep reminding myself: One step at a time.

Content warning: Depression, anxiety

 

This weekend, I made an appointment for a haircut. You’re probably thinking, What’s the big deal? Allow me to explain.

From a young age, I have been wary around strangers. The adjective “shy” readily applied to me for a long time. As I moved through school, my growing dysphoria affected my interactions with others. In my teens, I avoided large social gatherings like the plague. I’d go to the end-of-season banquets for marching band and musical, but dances, parties, and such? No way. I hate loud noises, didn’t like any of the music that was popular, couldn’t dance, and didn’t want to deal with the stress of what to wear and how to act and how people might be reading my gender at any given point. I started to break out of this shell in college, thanks to friends who understood and supported me and knew when to call me on my bullshit.

However, to this day, I don’t like talking to new people unless absolutely necessary. I have to psych myself up for these encounters, remind myself of the fact that anyone who looks at me now sees me for who I am. This is easy at some times, difficult at others. It’s especially difficult when I’m dealing with depression.

My life lately has brought a lot of change. A new job in a new city in a new part of the state necessitating an actual cross-country road trip means I’ve encountered more new people in the past couple of months than probably in the last couple of years. At least, it’s felt that way. I’ve got a classroom full of completely new faces, new-to-me curricula to learn, a new way of grading, new expectations to follow. My new co-workers and I are still figuring one another out and learning how to work together. And unlike the village, we don’t live with or next door to one another, which limits how much I see them. Like I said, a lot of change.

When I accepted this job, I expected to deal with the blues. I remember when I moved to Nunap: New places and faces means learning who and where is safe, and that’s stressful. And while I don’t get homesick to the degree I did as a youngster, I still will find myself longing for the familiar. So yes, I expected a little dip in my otherwise normally optimistic personality. I didn’t expect to spend over a month in the worst depressive funk I’ve suffered since college.

Bear with me: Twenty-five years ago, I acquired a third grandmother. Granny R lives down the street from my parents. When I was four or five, Mom started giving Granny the occasional ride to work (Granny has never driven since I’ve known her and would usually take the bus). Occasional rides soon turned into more frequent rides turned into visits turned into dinners at our house. By the time I was six, Granny was as much a part of the family as my Dad’s parents. Over the years, she came to concerts, plays, and musicals. She ooh’d and aah’d over report cards and other achievements. It became standard procedure to stop in and visit with her when walking the dog. When I came out, she hugged me tight. She has always been one of my biggest supporters.

Granny’s health hasn’t been so great the last few years. Nothing unexpected, especially considering her age. I think I started noticing things more once I moved to Alaska; since I saw her less frequently, the changes were more noticeable. This past summer, I suddenly realized how frail she looked. Visits would be a little shorter, and I often had to let myself in to her house when visiting. Pauses broke up her speech as she caught her breath. But she still eagerly asked for any details I could give about my upcoming move and new job, and would tease with the same twinkle in her eye as always.

About three weeks after I arrived in Seward, I got a call from Mom: Granny had fallen and broken her collarbone. This seems to have been the proverbial straw, as from then on most of the updates I’ve gotten are not what one would consider “good”. I spent the next few weeks feeling torn between being here, doing my job, and being there, wanting to spend more time with Granny. I used to call her on the phone weekly, but soon after her fall I stopped. More often than not, the phone would be picked up by the caretaker, and I’d be told Granny was not available. Such conversations didn’t do my mental state any good.

Combined with the stress of all the new, I spiraled down. I couldn’t get to sleep at night, but getting up in the morning was a chore. I knew I had things I had to do, but I couldn’t find the energy to do more than read. Numerous mornings, I’d debate calling off from work, because I just didn’t see how I could find the energy to deal with the kids. I had a TON of things that needed doing at school, but couldn’t stand to be in the building longer than absolutely necessary. Where I could usually see and recall the good moments of a day, all I could hold on to were the bad. And when I get depressed, I isolate myself, not wanting to bother other people. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my new coworkers, because I don’t know them that well and didn’t have the energy to get to know them. I didn’t reach out to anyone in Nunap or in the Lower 48, because I didn’t want to bother them or add to their worry. I knew I was making bad choices, that I would feel better if I just talked to someone, but I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to change the behavior. Realizing I was not in a good state, I reached out to a local therapist to see if I could get added to her patient list. She has no openings until January. I made the appointment, but then promptly reached out to Dr. A, the therapist I worked with last spring, to see if she could work me in to her schedule on a temporary basis. Thankfully, she said yes.

The day of my first appointment marked a new low for me: I overslept. By two hours. I barely made it to work on time. (On the bright side, I didn’t have time to give in to the by-then-normal morning depression.) I spent the day glancing at the clock, mentally counting down the time until I’d be talking to Dr. A. Finally, four o’ clock rolled around, and we got started. For the next two hours, I spoke while she listened, she spoke while I listened. She talked me through some possible steps to make it through the week until our next appointment. And while I was nowhere near my old self, by the end of the session for the first time in weeks I felt I could see a little bit of light through the gloom.

The very next day, I learned that Granny has decided she’s ready to die. She’d apparently begun refusing her medications over the weekend, and ate and drank only sporadically. After numerous phone calls home over the ensuing four days, including one with Granny herself, I began to make peace with the news. This is clearly what she wants, and I support her just as she’s always supported me.

The day I learned about Granny, I started talking to my coworkers. Not about everything, but I did say that my grandmother wasn’t doing well. I also talked to my students, explaining why I might seem a little disconnected from what was going on in the room or why my temper might flare unexpectedly. Got to love kids: Over the course of the day, most of them told me that they were sorry and offered hugs.

For the past two weeks, I’ve woken up every morning wondering if there will be a text or voicemail saying Granny is gone. (So far, she’s still with us.) I’ve checked in more frequently with the family. Thanks to Dr. A, I’ve been able to set small, achievable goals that have helped pull me back out of the pit. In the last few days, I’ve finally begun to feel like I have energy again, energy that I can use to interact with new people. And so I could finally walk through the door and make a haircut appointment.

 

Located in southwestern Alaska, the village of Nunap is home to around 500 people, predominantly members of the Yup’ik tribe. The village can’t be accessed by road; plane, boat, snowmobile, and “river taxi” (driving in a car or truck on the frozen river) are the only ways in or out. For three years, I lived there and taught at the one and only school.

From Anchorage, you can drive onto the Seward Highway. Follow the road for the next 120-odd miles, and you arrive in Seward, the town. The year-round population of the town sits around 2500, although during tourist season that number goes up quite a bit. The airport serves more as a hub for sight-seeing flights in small planes or helicopters. Earlier this summer, I accepted a job from the local school district to work at the local elementary school. Two weeks ago, I finally started work.

Last year, the Nunap school housed just under 230 students, ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. The hallways of the school make a squared-off U shape. One of the long halls is the “elementary side”, while the other is the “high school side” (everything from 6th grade on up). The short hallway has the main office, the teachers’ work room, and the office of the school tech guy. The gym/cafeteria/auditorium fills the center of the U, and the kindergarten classroom is actually in the old school building, a short walk away. On the elementary side, more often than not there is only one class per grade. Teachers on the high school side sometimes have to share rooms, and every available space is used for storage.

The elementary school in Seward is one of three school buildings. Currently, I believe it houses slightly less than 300 students from pre-kindergarten through 5th grade. My classroom is the only 4th-grade-only space, but Mrs. Rose down the hall has a mixed group of 3rd and 4th grade. The building is basically a straight line: The north wing houses pre-k through 2nd grade, while the south wing has 3rd through 5th. The central area has the main office, music room, gym/auditorium, library, nurse’s office, teachers’ lounge and work room, and the special education “suite”. In addition to classrooms, the south wing also has a “science lab” (a classroom dedicated solely to science instruction for all of us teachers to share), and a classroom for the gifted program.

Class sizes in Nunap could vary quite a bit from year to year. My first year, I had 19 3rd graders. The second year, 22 kids crowded into my room. Last year, I started off with 11 students, but by the end of the year only 9 kids called me their teacher. The first two years, I had an aide in my room for at least part of the day. Otherwise, I was with my kids the whole day: I taught not only the academic subjects but also P.E. and music, handled art at least half the time, supervised recess, passed out bandages and ice packs, and often made phone calls when students fell ill. My friend and colleague Andy was the elementary Special Education and resource room teacher, so she’d take those that had IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and provide me with strategies and tools to reach those students who needed a leg up (a label that, quite frankly, applied to the majority of my kiddos).

As of this coming Monday, I’ll have 28 students on my roster. (Fortunately, my classroom here is double the size of the one I had in Nunap.) I’m still responsible for the academic subjects and art, but I now have colleagues who are certified in PE and music and library who work with my students. There’s an actual school nurse, so I only need to worry about handing out bandages. Recess duty rotates among the staff, and we have enough people that I’ll only have to do it for six or seven weeks out of the entire school year. And there’s an entire team of Special Education teachers and interventionists who will work with my students that need additional help.

The support staff at Nunap school were all village natives. The teaching staff were almost entirely non-native and non-local, coming from all over the Lower 48. Age-wise, most of the teachers were twenty-somethings taking their first “real” teaching job out of college. They may or may not have significant others. Those who weren’t were often older, with grown children back in whatever state they originally called home. Outside of school, some teachers hunted and fished with the locals, or went to feasts or other get-togethers at locals’ houses. Most of the teachers would get together in some group or other, whether for movie or game nights, dinners, or Sunday pancakes at Lucas and Andy’s place. 

As near as I can tell, I’m now the baby of the elementary staff. Many of my colleagues are married or have significant others. Most of them also have children, some of whom are students at the school. At this point, I haven’t really socialized with my coworkers outside of school.

In the villages of Nunap’s school district, the district provided and maintained teacher housing. I spent the last two years living in an apartment in the kindergarten building; in fact, my living space had at one point been two classrooms. No roads within the village meant daily trips to the post office after school ended to check the PO box. The post office staff consists of two women: Chrissy, who works weekdays, and Ayap, who covers Saturdays.

I realized the other day that it’s been over five years since my daily commute involved a car. Prior to moving to the tundra, I lived right on a main bus route that dropped me practically at the door of my job, and I often walked home in the afternoons. In the village, I looked forward to the daily walk to school, even when I had to bundle up against extreme temperatures. I could walk to school now, but it would take considerably longer: My apartment is situated almost on the waterfront, almost two-and-a-half miles from the school. I’ll try it at some point, but when I have a lot of things to carry I’m grateful to only have a five minute drive to worry about.

Even though Seward has many roads, the post office still doesn’t deliver mail to houses. So I once again have a post office box. It’s still on the way home at the end of the day, except now I have to worry about parking the car while I run inside. I’ve seen at least five different people behind the counter in the month since I moved in, but have yet to learn any of their names.

At the Nunap PO, if you received a package too large for your box, you got a yellow slip, which many of the staff jokingly referred to as a “golden ticket”. The slips were covered in clear packing tape so they lasted longer. Take the slip to the front counter and pass it to Chrissy, and she’d return shortly with your boxes. Frequently, you’d reach the counter at the same time she brought your stuff out of the back, because she heard your voice as you came in.

The “golden tickets” are apparently a USPS procedure. Unlike in the village, the ones at the Seward PO remain un-taped and bear numerous hand-written and later crossed-out box numbers. I have yet to arrive when there wasn’t a line; frequently, one clerk will collect slips from however many people in line currently have them and disappear into the back while another clerk handles transactions for other customers.

In addition to the post office, I might also swing by the store after school to check what was currently in stock. While I would occasionally get lucky, more often than not I ordered the majority of my groceries online and had them shipped in.

There an actual grocery store in Seward, complete with multiple aisles, different departments, and a pharmacy. It’s also on the route between home and school, so I’m trying to work any shopping into my commute. After three years of making do with either frozen produce or what I could get shipped in, I feel spoiled by the variety of choices I see every time I step through the doors.

As far as I knew, I was the only L, G, B, or T person in Nunap, although I had suspicions about a couple of the high school students. I did come out as trans to several of my fellow teachers, but didn’t tell any of the locals until after I left this past summer. In such a small community, everyone seemed to know everything about everyone else, and I feared for my job and my safety if someone found out and decided I wasn’t fit to work with their children.

I have yet to find out if there’s an LGBT community in Seward, although I’m only a couple of hours away from the ones in Anchorage or Kenai. Since I “pass”, none of my new coworkers know I’m trans. I don’t plan on telling anyone yet, and certainly not until I have a better handle on people’s attitudes and beliefs. In the meantime, I have to watch what I say and how I say it, particularly stories about my past. Thankfully, I have a support network in the form of friends and family, accessible through phone, texts, Facebook, and even (gasp!) driving up to Anchorage.

Some things have changed, some things have stayed the same. Time to dive into another school year!

After a day of rest, it’s time to hit the road again. Next stop: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where I’ll pick up Dad. We spoke at length yesterday about where and how we’ll meet up. Best case scenario: I pull up to the curb at baggage claim and he hops in. Worst case: I park in the airport’s cell phone lot until I hear from him.

The traffic I encountered on the highway two days ago doesn’t exist anymore. About an hour and a half after setting out, I reach the last stretch of highway before the exit for SeaTac. My phone rings; it’s Dad. “I’m at door 2,” he says.
“I’ll be there in shortly, ” I promise before hanging up. Within ten minutes, I’ve pulled up to the curb as he makes his way towards the Tank. He hops in, and off we go.

We stop a little ways north of the city to get lunch and fuel. Dad also checks the oil level of the car, and we discover that there is none. So when we stop for gas Dad also buys oil and shows me how to add it to the car.

During lunch, we discuss how much driving we’d like/need to accomplish today. One thing is clear: We can easily make it across the Canadian border and into British Columbia before stopping for the night. Getting to the border involves driving along back roads through several small communities. The border station itself sits in the middle of one such town. Two different buildings mark the border: The grey station of the US Border Guard, and the larger red building that houses their Canadian counterparts. I pull into the line at the Canadian border and watch as the cars ahead of us take their turns at the little windows. Things move at a decent pace, and it’s not long before I pull up to the window, greet the gentleman sitting there, and hand over Dad’s and my passports.

The last time I crossed the border in a car was at least a decade ago, and I wasn’t the driver of the vehicle. Fortunately, any fears I have are pretty quickly put to rest as I answer the guard’s questions. Within five minutes, he hands back our passports and wishes us a pleasant journey.

At first glance, the town on the other side of the border doesn’t appear all that different from the one we just left. Dad provides directions to the nearest highway, and as I pull into the flow of traffic I catch sight of a speed limit sign: “Maximum 90 km/h”. Okay, so things are a little different. As we drive, I notice other little differences, such as the way road signs are mounted on sign posts (instead of fastening them directly to the posts, the posts bend at a right angle near the top and the signs hang from the crosspiece). Within the first hour, I’ve gotten used to reading signs in metric and checking my speed using the interior numbers on the speedometer.

When I planned this trip, I seriously debated making a stop in Vancouver, because most of my favorite sci-fi TV shows are/were filmed there. Ultimately, I decided against it due to time and the trailer. However, I do get a kick out of seeing signs for it and places like Kelowna as we drive. (On the show “Stargate SG-1”, Kelowna was the name of a country on another planet. Yes, the show’s creative team mined the local maps for names.)

We decide to stop for the night in the town of Kamloops. Before heading to the hotel, we pull in to a gas station to fill up, and I discover another difference. As I expected, gas here is measured in litres. Prices are marked in cents per litre, but I don’t understand the logic, because all of the prices I see are things like “105.9 cents per litre”. In other words, $1.059 Canadian per litre. Why they don’t just write that is beyond me.

Dad and I are both tired, but before we turn in for the night we pull out the maps and TripTik. Thus far, the drive has been in relatively familiar territory. Now, we enter a world of unknowns. We spend the next half-hour or so plotting how far we think we can get each day and, most importantly, looking for fuel stops along the way. Neither one of us wants to be stranded in the mountains with no gas. Thank goodness for the internet: I use Google Maps to find likely gas stations along our predicted routes, while Dad checks the AAA maps for similar information. We decide that the best thing to do is to start looking for fuel when the gas gauge hits the halfway mark. We also agree that, while it will make for a long day, our next best stop is the town of Smithers.

All told, the drive from Kamloops to Smithers is rather uneventful. Lots of up and down on the mountain roads, but the roads themselves aren’t in too bad a shape. We see several signs warning of the dangers of fire at this time of year, and at one point Dad and I have a short debate about whether the haze we see is smoke or clouds. We’ve already had to adjust our route because the road we would otherwise have used is closed due to fires; neither one of us is eager to experience one first hand. A little while later, Dad notices a definite smoke cloud on the horizon; as we get closer, we discover that a large tractor trailer apparently caught fire. By the time we pass, local emergency response teams have doused the flames in the cab. That’s the most exciting part of the day.

The “maximum” speed on most of the roads is 100 km/h, or about 60 mph. After discussion and observing the locals, Dad and I decides it’s safe to go up to 65 mph.

By the time we reach Smithers, we’ve been on the road for almost 12 hours. Dad goes down to the hotel restaurant to get dinner, but I merely shower, pull on my pjs, and fall into bed.

Before leaving Smithers in the morning, Dad and I look again at the maps and TripTik. Our practice of looking for gas when the tank is half-full worked yesterday, so we’ll stick with that plan for today, as well. (We also bought a 5-gallon gas can and filled it at one of our stops yesterday, just in case.) Dad’s a little concerned by the notation in the TripTik of “rough roads” along our route today. As I point out, it’s not like we have many alternatives available. We do agree to take turns driving, as it’s going to be a long day.

The “rough road” warnings prove to be less than accurate. Instead, we spend more time dealing with lower speeds, narrower roads, and more up-and-down as we pass through the mountains. Dad and I keep chuckling over the signs along the road that warn of livestock and/or wildlife for the next so many kilometers. “How do the animals know where to be?” Dad jokes. However, just after passing into the Yukon I have to hit the brakes for a bear crossing the road. Later, I notice a bush awfully close to the highway. When it moves, I realize it’s a porcupine. And not long before we quit for the night a coyote almost runs right in front of us. By the time we pull into Whitehorse that night, we’ve been on the road for 16 hours. For the first time on the trip, we get caught out by not having a reservation for a hotel. Fortunately, one of the desk clerks calls another nearby hotel and finds a room for us.

Morning brings rain, grey skies, and cool temperatures. For the first time this trip, I pull on socks and sneakers instead of my sandals. It’s going to be another long day on the road: Our goal is Anchorage, some 700 miles away.

If yesterday’s roads didn’t live up to the “rough road” advisory, today’s route more than makes up for it. Apparently we chose peak construction season to drive through here. It feels like we see a sign warning of either loose gravel or uneven surfaces every five minutes. We also pass through a couple of areas where road crews are actively working. Mid-morning, we come to yet another construction zone. This time, a “DETOUR” sign points off to the right-hand side of the road. At first glance, following the detour will send you over a cliff. Dad slowly creeps forward until the detour is revealed: A temporary gravel road that runs parallel to the actual road, which currently doesn’t exist. The sign doesn’t warn about the crater masquerading as a pothole at the bottom of this runaround; we discover that for ourselves. Fortunately, Dad gets us back on to the main road with no real difficulties.

The construction areas continue throughout the mountains, including two sections where we have to wait for pace cars to guide us through active work zones. Those aren’t the only “fun” parts of the days drive. After all, mountains mean narrow, twisty roads that change elevation on a routine basis. Since the trip started, I’ve learned that the Tank currently handles more like a tractor trailer than a car, so I know to pay attention to signs like those that announce steep grades. Dad also knows this, so when we pass a sign warning of an 8% grade for the next 2 km, he quickly disengages the cruise control and rests his hands on the shifter paddles. (I’ve always thought this an interesting design: Rather than using the gearshift to make adjustments, the Tank has two paddles just behind the steering wheel that let you up- or downshift while keeping both hands on the wheel.) The hood of the car dips, and dips, and dips…. I can hear and feel the engine growl as Dad downshifts, but gravity and inertia keep us moving at a higher speed than I think he finds comfortable. Meanwhile, the road continues to twist and turn and HOLY CRAP THERE’S A HAIRPIN TURN. One of those where you end up facing back the way you came. Dad almost stands on the brake as he eases the car through the turn. Thankfully, that’s the only turn of its kind on this stretch of road, and the grade ends and the road flattens out not long thereafter. “Did I mention how glad I am you’re here to take a turn at driving?” I ask.

A little while later, we make another fuel stop. When we pull out, I’m once again behind the wheel. As we get closer to the border, Dad and I both wonder if there will be any difference in road conditions between countries.

This border crossing worries me more than the last. Since Inauguration Day, I know things have gotten worse for those trying to get into the US, whether they’re a citizen or not. (Just two days ago, I read an American’s account of re-entering the country after spending the last year abroad.) Also since Inauguration Day, I’ve been more nervous about my dealings with people like the TSA. The number of stories about transgender individuals being harassed by people in uniform seems to have only gone up in the last six months. Yes, I “pass” and all of my documents say “M”, but after spending a dozen or so years affirming my gender to various officials during travel old habits and thought patterns still kick in. Thankfully, I worry for nothing. The border guard asks a few more questions than his Canadian counterpart did three days ago, but in the end waves us through.

There’s not much difference in road conditions between countries, something Dad and I suspect has to do with the similar geography of the two areas. After all, a remote mountain road can likely only be built and maintained so many ways. I get to take a turn at guiding the car and trailer through several more “detours” like the one Dad navigated (thankfully without the pothole). After four days of driving in Canada, it seems odd to once more see signs marked in miles, and it takes my brain a couple of tries to remember to look at the outer ring of numbers on the speedometer.

We stop for a late lunch in Tok, the first/last large town in Alaska on the highway. It’s not the most scientific method, but as soon as I see a sign for “Fast Eddy’s” restaurant, I ask Dad if we should give it a try. Dad agrees without hesitation. We both know any relation is highly unlikely, but there’s a character named Fast Eddie in one of our favorite sci-fi book series. Regardless, we get a decent meal and leave feeling ready to tackle the rest of the day’s drive.

From Tok to Glennallen, the roads aren’t nearly as exciting as this morning. I almost feel like I’m driving back in South Dakota again, although the moose we pass quickly dispels that notion. I also have to slow down at one point when a fox dashes across the road in front of us. After Glennallen, we enter the Matanuska Valley and it’s back to narrow, twisting mountain roads. Dad and I agree that these mountains look different than those we drove through earlier in the day, but neither one of us can quite put a finger on why. Certainly the clouds and sporadic rain add an air of mystery to our surroundings, as there’s no telling how high some of these peaks stand. I get to drive another hairpin turn in the rain, although Dad and I agree the one he got us through earlier in the day was more exciting. At one point, we pass a stalled pickup pulling a “fifth-wheel” motor home. The truck is about halfway up one section of road, pointed uphill. We’re going the opposite direction, but are both relieved to see another truck pull over to help.

Eventually, we come down out of the mountains and see something we haven’t seen in days: A real highway! Multiple lanes in either direction, on and off ramps, speeds above 55 mph, streetlights, the works. After the roads we’ve driven up to this point, it almost feels like the car could steer itself from here to the hotel.

The closer we get to Anchorage, the more names I recognize on signs. It’s a little comforting, but not nearly as much fun as the names we’ve seen over the last couple of days. Many of the creeks and rivers we passed by or over were labeled. Dad and I were particularly fond of Dry Creek numbers 1 and 2, and Snag Creek. I also got a kick out of Wickersham Road (because my brain immediately begins to supply Seussical lyrics).

After our experience in Whitehorse the previous night, we made sure to book a room ahead of time for tonight. Parking the trailer in the hotel lot is a little more interesting than it has been, but in the end I manage. We’ve covered over 700 miles today, and I am more than ready for bed.

Since the trip from Anchorage to my new home will only take a couple of hours, we don’t have to rush out the door this morning. After consulting with Dad about how his back is feeling (he hurt it right before he flew out to meet me, and sitting for long stretches of time hasn’t exactly been ideal), I contact my friend Michael to see if he’s available for the remaining part of the drive and to help unload the trailer at the end. Thankfully, he says yes. Before we leave to pick him up, Dad and I take check over the Tank and the trailer. I move things around inside the car so Michael has a place to sit. Dad plans to empty our “just in case” gas can into the car, so he unlocks the trailer to retrieve it. He bursts in to laughter and calls for me to come take a look. I do, and also have to laugh: Apparently, the seal around the doors wasn’t quite as tight as we thought, because there’s a layer of grey and brown dust over things at the very back of the trailer. Fortunately, nothing has been damaged; we’ll just have to wipe a few things down when we pull them out later.

Twenty minutes later, we’re pulling in to the parking lot of a local store. Michael hops in the car, and we’re off.

I’ve ridden in the car down this highway before, but only as a passenger. A year or so ago, Michael, D, and I went camping in Homer, which is on the opposite side of the peninsula from my new home. No matter where you’re going, you start out on the same road. However, we pass by the turnoff that would have taken us to Homer. Once again, I’m in new territory.

I’m glad Michael was able to come with us. Not only is it nice to visit with him, but he also has helpful advice about driving this road, like the areas where you really have to obey the speed limit. Of course, with the loaded trailer I’m lucky to get up to the speed limit in some places, but it’s still good advice. After the excitement of yesterday’s drive, the roads here are almost tame: No loose gravel, only a couple of (currently non-active) construction zones, and no hairpin turns.

Dad’s been using his cell phone as a camera almost constantly since we left Anchorage. Bright sunlight fills the sky, occasionally blocked by puffy white clouds. The number of buildings along the road increases as we approach the town. We still see signs that make us laugh, too. My favorite is a sign for a campground, immediately followed by a turnoff with a huge sign stating, “NOT THE CAMPGROUND”. (The campground’s turnoff is the one after that.) The highway runs directly in to my new town, and actually turns in to a street that goes right past my apartment. Miraculously, there’s street parking right in front of the building, and the space is big enough to accommodate the Tank and the trailer. Over the next few hours, Dad, Michael, and I: discover that my new home is less than a block from the beach, get lunch at a great little cafe with an incredible ocean view, explore the waterfront, get the keys for my apartment, and finally unpack the trailer.

I promised Michael we’d get him back to Anchorage this evening, so not long after the trailer is empty the three of us hop back in the car. Before we leave, I text my other friend D. When I left Nunap in the spring, I had to mail out everything I wanted to take with me. D graciously agreed to let me use one of the empty rooms at her place as storage, so I only had to mail things to Anchorage instead of all the way back to Pennsylvania. Since we’re headed back up anyway, I want to see about picking things up tonight. She replies once we’re on the road. Dad reads the message for me: “See you soon!”

Driving with an empty trailer is an interesting experience, especially over some of the bumpier portions of the route.

After dropping Michael off, Dad and I head over to D’s. Both D and her significant other, Boo, help with loading the trailer. I’m sorry that we can’t stay longer to visit, but it’s already after 8 and Dad and I plan to spend the night in my apartment, which means another 2 hour drive. So I say my thanks, promise to come visit soon, exchange hugs, and hop back in the car.

When we finally pull up next to the apartment, I heave a sigh of relief. This trip has been an amazing experience. And it’s finally done.