Before my Odyssey performance in Urbana, Illinois, on October 17, 2018, a beautiful sunny crisp fall Wednesday, the first and only time I was on the main University of Illinois campus was the weekend of April 16, 1994, and it was raining a cold, heavy spring rain.
How do I know that with such specificity?
Maybe I should back up.
My senior year of high school I applied to three schools: UW-Madison, Brown, and U of I, and pretty early on in the application process I decided on Madison.
Over the years, I've played my Odyssey at something like 90 different colleges and universities, schools of every size, reputation, and in every corner of the country and even with all this experience on all these campuses, I've never once second-guessed my decision to go to Madison.
Whether by luck, intuition, or a mixture of both, I picked the perfect school for me, a place which gave me an educational experience I didn't know I wanted in the Classics and a social experience I completely knew I wanted.
But of the three schools to which I applied (I withdrew my Brown application before I found out if I got in because I had settled on Madison), U of I was actually a more natural choice in many ways.
It was cheaper (half the cost of Madison), my parents both went there, and something like 10% of my high school's senior classes (60 to 70 people) wound up there every year. Plus, at the time I started college I think it was regarded as a "better" school than Madison (for whatever that's worth).
So why did I pick Madison over Urbana?
Well, I did have a family connection in Madison (my uncle has been a professor there for many years) for one. I had friends already there so I could (and did) visit when I was a senior in high school.
And my one visit to Urbana in April of 1994, with my dad for an Honors College tour and event aimed at high school juniors, was marred by the aforementioned terrible rain and by finding out on the way back to Chicago that two high school friends of mine had committed suicide.
So every time I thought about U of I, I thought about driving back in the pouring rain and getting news of my friends' deaths.
I can't say that this was the reason I didn't go to University of Illinois but looking back I also can't help but wonder if it had a bigger impact than I was aware of.
As I sat with the Classics chair and another professor and chatted over coffee before my show, I wondered at how the course of my life had hinged on my choice of college and how my choice of college had been impacted by things as arbitrary as the weather and some bad news.
And as we walked through the campus (which is lovely and very familiar in a midwestern Big 10 way) I let the sun and clean fall air wash over my rain-filled memories. We reached the performance space, a beautiful lecture room with high ceilings and good late day natural light filtering through slim windows that looked down on me from 20 feet above where I set up and tuned my guitar.
The audience filled in and the turn out was very good. After an introduction from the Classics chair I was on to my own introduction and then into my performance. I could hear my voice bouncing around room in such a way that I imagined it filled up the whole space and the space became an extension of my body, part of my singing apparatus no different than my lungs or larynx, with the audience sitting inside the echoing chamber surrounded by sound.
The last chord decayed to silence.
Healthy applause, an enthusiastic discussion, and I was back outside in the fading evening light saying goodbye to my host and getting on the road back home.
A spectacular sunset watched me make my way north to Chicago, a far cry from that rainy drive almost 25 years prior.
As I hit some city traffic, I thought about U of I and for the first time in decades my immediate association wasn't tragedy: it was the beautiful fall sun, the great Classics conversation over coffee, the light in the performance space, the last moment before my final chord disappeared into the air, not quite silence but also without sound, the insightful questions from the bright students and the energy around our discussion...
These October 2018 memories don't erase my April 1994 memories, which will always be a significant part of my life and my high school and hometown community. But the good times should carry just as much weight as the bad and I feel lucky that my Odyssey has allowed me to visit a place I associated with sorrow and leave it a place I will now also associate with music, epic poetry, conversation, life, and laughter.