Friday, November 12, 2010

Always the Peace Corps

Autumn is finally creeping into coastal North Carolina.  Above is the current view from our front porch.  I think the mix of hardwoods and evergreens that grow naturally here and which we were able to keep on the property is beautiful--the hardwoods provide a year-long show as their leaves emerge and mature through a season, while the evergreens, almost all young-ish loblolly pines, so straight and tall, give a permanent splash of green through the worst of winter, and whisper soothingly as a breeze passes through their needles.  It's a constant "sh-h-h-h," a gentle reminder to keep quiet.  I know this is could be a generic description of any forested landscape; the miracle is that we own this little patch of one, or at least have it on extended loan.   We know that if just the right wind storm blew through here, we could lose a sizable chunk of the wood standing out there, so like all other good things in life, it's best to savor and appreciate this beauty while it's there.

I have an interesting afternoon in store today.  The Peace Corps, as part of the observance of its 50th anniversary, is interviewing retired employees for their impressions of the agency and how it has changed (or in many ways remained the same) over the years.  I got wind of this project and presented myself and my unique history with the Peace Corps to their Public Affairs office, and the resulting video interview will take place today, here in my home.  

I became a volunteer in 1969, when the Peace Corps had been in existence a mere 8 years.  Though I never planned to, I ended up with a more-or-less permanent association with the agency (in the 1970s it was off-and-on) until I retired as staff in 2003.  My professional work made me an integral part of almost every facet of volunteers' lives with the Peace Corps, from recruitment, through placement and preparation for overseas training, to the management of the programs in the countries where they served.  And being gay, I witnessed and was instrumental in changes touching the experience of all minorities who seek to participate in the Peace Corps.  In 1970, I nearly left service early because of an emotional crisis brought on by the fact that, for fear of being booted out, I felt I couldn't tell anyone I was gay.  Now, because of initiatives that I and many colleagues helped put in place, diversity of all kinds within the Peace Corps community is sought and celebrated, and specialized training is given to staff in the particular needs and perceptions of various groups.  Gay couples are now being placed together in overseas jobs!  This is a milestone I never thought I would see (and still wonder at how it will work). 

I will be 65 years old tomorrow.  In 1969, little did that silly, gangly child of 24 dream that his words about this adventure, which turned out to last so long, would be thought worthy of capturing and keeping --in high-def, yet!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 5

I really didn't mean for this narrative to meander on for so long, but there is now an unexpected wrinkle which throws an entirely new light for me on this music business.

I have a very dear friend from college days who happens to be one of the most sought-after vocal coaches in show business, a behind-the-scenes power who counts some of the biggest names in all of music, from opera to pop to country, among his grateful clients.  Feeling like one of those morons who go on about all their symptoms with their doctor friends but importune anyway, I worked up the courage to ask him for some pointers on how to treat an aging voice that has not been used for music in many years.  I was embarrassed to ask this busy man for free advice, and expected something perfunctory as a nod to our friendship, and nothing more.  Instead I got a whole session with him, over the phone.  And that's where the "but...." comes in.  I am now in a musical identity crisis.

In that coaching session I discovered that the musical part of my character has changed; that much of what feels "right" for me to perform nowadays really doesn't fit at all with the crooning, "pretty" sound by which I have, from my earliest memory, defined myself as a singer.  (And that includes much of my own stuff,)  An unexpected realization was that all that mellow tone can actually get in the way of a lyric and impede honest expression. If I really do want to perform honestly for people in any venue from my living room on up, I have a whole new singing technique to learn and internalize, a whole new identity to take on.

I know this "dilemma" sounds like nothing so much exaggerated self-importance in someone who has yet to take any step forward at all beyond recognizing an old dream.  But it's a core part of how I identify myself to myself.  The question I'm grappling with now is whether or not it might be best just to let fond memories be--at this age I'm quite satisfied with who I've been in the past and who I am now; I really have nothing to prove.  Is all the angst of learning a new trick or two worth the chance to stand up on the stage of the Onely Place?  Do I even care?  The fact that I'm asking the question makes be think perhaps I don't......

If you've read this far, thank you for indulging me.  I'm working this out as the words emerge.  "Music," the issue, is now a work in progress.  If there's anything new to report in the future, I will.

In the meantime, we'll go to the December show at the barn and enjoy it.  And we'll become friends with those guys, whether I sing on their stage or not.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 4

So I told you all the preceding to tell you this:  I've lately been inspired to pick up the guitar and take a few baby steps towards using my voice again for something besides conversation.  The inspiration came from a visit we made a month or so ago to a local performance venue that was unknown to us, The Onley Place.  Of course, there's a story there:

We had always wondered why, down here in the brass buckle of the Bible belt, our elderly cross-the-creek neighbors were so welcoming to us frankly as a gay couple.  They welcomed us warmly from the very beginning and made no bones about the fact that they "got it" regarding Steve's and my relationship, and that they were fine with it.  It turns out that for a good 20 years they were members of a large group of square dancers that met just for the fun of it on Saturday nights. Their caller and his male partner, both raised just a few miles from here, ran that enterprise.  Everyone loved these men and the good times they created with their dance parties.  As time went on, though, the dancing started going into decline.  Dancers aged and fell victim to aches and pains that made movement no longer enjoyable, to the point where now, they get together to socialize but they no longer dance.

One of these two guys, the caller, inherited the family farm, deep in the country a bit to the north of where we live.  For the past several years the two of them have been restoring the buildings on it, and part of the restoration was the conversion of the barn into a performance space, called the Onley Place after the family that worked that land for so long.  Our neighbors took us with them to the most recent show to see if we would like it and also expressly to introduce us to the two entrepreneurs, knowing we had not met any other gay people here and very much wanted to. 

We had a wonderful time.  Every three months, these two men put on a sort of dinner-theater/Prairie Home Companion-style entertainment in which they feature local performers who represent a diverse collection of musical styles, everything from cabaret (a duo who have been regulars on the Raleigh scene for 17 years--who knew???) to jazz, to American standards, to country.  The catered food is plain and pretty much what you get here:  fried chicken, pork barbecue, hush puppies, coleslaw, potato salad--but very good for what it is.  For all of $20 per person, you and a couple hundred other happy people from miles around get to enjoy a nice meal and a good, old-fashioned variety show, complete with corny skits and musical entertainment that is all good, at least, and sometimes really top-notch.  (They featured a local 17-year-old saxophonist when we were there who is on his way to college and then, there's no doubt, to a stellar career in music.)

It was that experience that set my imagination going.  It's exactly the kind of venue and audience that I would be very comfortable working in and for, and I realized that if I was ever going to get back up on a stage, this was the ideal situation.  I decided to start working towards and audition.

My guitar work is, as expected, terribly rusty, having been unpracticed for at least 10 years.  I have no callus on my fingers, so merely pressing the strings to make a musical sound is painful.  The picks and strums I practiced so hard on for years are part of my muscle memory and are still there, but sloppy.  The voice is still there and surprisingly undamaged by lack of use.  I need a lot of work, but could with time get myself back to my previous level.


Next time:   A surprising discovery--the final installment.

Friday, November 5, 2010



Sorry, no picture this time--I mentioned this gravy in a previous post this week and somebody asked for it, so I promised I'd share it today.  Since I won't be making it until Thanksgiving, so have no picture of it (and gravy pretty much looks like gravy--not much to take a picture of, anyway), I going commando with this one.

A note on stock:  I let my turkey stock simmer very slowly almost all day, while preparing the bird and roasting it, just adding a bit of boiling water occasionally as it cooks down.  I use all the giblets and chunks of carrot, celery and onion, one each, straining them out when it's time to use the stock.  The vegetables lend a subtle vegetal sweetness to the finished product, and the Marsala, though sweet itself, adds more of a nutty depth of flavor.  You know something is there but would never guess it was a sweet wine.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 cups fresh mushrooms--white, brown, or shiitake--thinly sliced
2 teaspoons brandy
1/2 cup Marsala
4 cups turkey stock (see comments above about stock)
2 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 cup cream (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
fresh lemon juice

Heat butter and oil in a large heavy saucepan.  Add mushrooms and brown lightly over medium high heat, about 8 minutes.

Add brandy to the pan if using, raise heat, and cook until brandy is reduced to a syrupy glaze.

Make a paste of the cornstarch and 1/4 cup of the stock.  Deglaze turkey roasting pan with another cup of the stock and separate fat.  Add cornstarch paste and the deglazed turkey drippings to pan with Marsala and remaining stock, stir and simmer until sauce has reached a light, creamy consistency, 10-15 minutes.  This also where, if you want, you can chop up the giblets, shred the meat from the neck, and stir them in. (The liver will have added great body to the stock but will be inedible after boiling all day.)

Just before serving add cream if using and simmer a few minutes longer.  Adjust salt and pepper and add lemon juice to taste (starting with a teaspoon) to brighten flavor.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 3

The Peace Corps became spiritual home for me and remained so until I retired from it in 2003.  It wasn't a complete joy ride at the beginning--I left Boston in 1973 to become  a recruiter, working out of an office on the Chapel Hill campus at the University of North Carolina.  That wasn't a permanent position, however--had to be at headquarters in Washington, D.C., to land one of them.  I moved to DC and discovered I couldn't even attract flies at the Peace Corps, much less a job:  I didn't qualify for anything.  Normally that makes no difference for returned volunteers, as long as they apply for a job within one year of completing their overseas service.  During that window, they are given preferential treatment for staff positions--"non-competitive eligibility"--meaning as long as you have some relevant experience and you're not hanging from chandeliers you can probably get a job.  My problem was that I had waited longer than a year, so I was treated like any civilian walking in off the street.  I got temporary positions and was well-accepted by colleagues and bosses, but couldn't land anything permanent because I didn't have a year of qualifying experience under my belt.  One thing led to another.  Deals were made and broken.  I spent most of the 1970s either doing temp jobs at the Peace Corps or working for the DC office of the AAA--and making music.

I continued to compose, sang at parties and had the occasional club gig.  I really got pretty good--I'm still quite proud of my output from that period.  But the essential pull of my life was still towards stability, and then a new wrinkle appeared--I actually wanted to settle down with somebody.  I was nesting!  This latter development was an utter surprise.  I had never imagined myself "married" in any way; I truly enjoyed single life.

Nineteen-seventy-nine was a signal year in my life.  I was 33 years old.  I was still a green-stained map marker at the AAA, but I had also landed a regular singing gig at the Potter's House, one of the most respected coffee houses in DC.  Then by sheer chance I ran into an old Peace Corps colleague, someone I knew from one of my temp incarnations at the agency a few years before.  He worked in the Peace Corps travel office and told me they had an opening and that I should apply for it.  (Lo and behold, all those years working at the AAA made a difference after all, giving me the year--and then some!--of relevant experience I needed to qualify for something!)  I knew and liked everyone in that office, and they liked me--I was virtually assured I'd be hired; the application was a mere formality.

Then in July, 1979, I met Steve.  Here at last was someone I could take home to Mom.  Steve and I were perfect complements in virtually every way.  He could do things I couldn't and vice versa.  He was a loner by nature and so was I, though I was and am still a bit more "social" than he--another complementing attribute.  I moved from the
DC rooming house I'd been living in to the little Virginia garden apartment complex where Steve was--we didn't move in together right away, but we were near each other.  I literally forgot about the coveted Potter's House gig--I stood them up one too many Friday nights and they fired me.  It was a relief.  My starving artist days were over.  I started the Peace Corps job at about the same time Steve and I rented a house together in 1980, and in 1981 we bought the house in Arlington, where we stayed until we left for this new North Carolina adventure in 2009.

I stayed with music performance for several more years.  I still sang at parties, and I joined the Paul Hill Chorale, a prestigious choral group in DC which did several engagements a year at the Kennedy Center.  Composing, however, which requires a great amount of solitude, came to an end.  I didn't miss it because I no longer needed the singing as a crutch to make myself special.  I was now living many of the things I had imagined in my songs, and the real thing was better. 

Music performance receded in importance, as well--I quit the Chorale after 10 seasons.  We still had my piano, taking up a huge space in the living room, and from time to time I'd plunk on it, but eventually I stopped that, too. (It was a big deal to give that old baby grand away, but I found a family whose young daughter was just starting lessons, and I knew the piano would get more loving use in a week than I'd given it in years.)  Though music no longer plays the big role in my life it once did, I still identify completely with performers when I see them at the top of their game, and occasionally I fantasize about being back on the stage, performing.  But other things became important and I have no regrets. 

Next time:  I said all that to say this.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 2

I was 27 years old when I got home from the Peace Corps.  If I had any doubts about what I would do next, the stultifying, nothing-ever-changed atmosphere of hearth and home convinced me:  singing was a way back into my own life as much as anything else, an escape from the conventional everyday-ness of living in suburbia and looking for a career in some office.  (I admit I was in for a pleasant surprise from my parents when I sat down with them to tell them of my plans.  They were entirely supportive of the singing idea--perhaps out of relief that I had settled on something as I marched toward the big 3-0; perhaps because they identified somewhat with the performer in me and wished they'd had a chance to do something like it themselves.)

A friend from my time in Ghana had settled with another friend of hers in Boston and had already told me I'd be welcome to join them.  Boston, with its abundance of university students, and all those coffee houses with all those open mikes, was the ideal venue for a budding singer.  So off I went, seeking my fortune.  But I wasn't all starry-eyed, oh no...I knew it would be a good month or so--maybe even 6 weeks--before that music-fueled fortune started accumulating, and that some sort of job would be necessary to tide me over during the interim.  A solution arose out of necessity:  I had to get some maps of the city, so I went to the downtown office of the auto club--the AAA.  The people who worked there were mostly young and cool looking, and I figured the work couldn't be too bad, talking to the public all day and interacting with copasetic co-workers, so on the spur of the moment I asked if they were hiring.  They were, and they took me on, practically on the spot.  Thus began my first life lesson, Reality 101.

It turned out that what I saw in the walk-in part of the AAA office was the mere tip of an enormous iceberg.  Walk-ins were served in the lobby of a building in which the AAA occupied another floor, and the folks working in the lobby rotated in and out of it, probably as a tacit admission on the AAA's part that being able to see outside every now and then is a necessity for the maintenance of sanity.  Most of the employees were working in what can only be called a public-service sweatshop.  Upstairs, there were row upon row of tables in a windowless room where people did nothing but put green lines on maps, fulfilling orders for Trip-Tiks that AAA members had called in.  There was a bank of 6 phone cubicles, staffed by other employees who answered phones all day, taking orders for routings or giving advice about tourist sites.  (We kept a list of the crazy requests we got:  a driving route to Bermuda--we told the member the bridge hadn't been finished yet; a "drive along the coast" from Boston to Los Angeles; a route that could get you from Boston to California in 3 days, hitting the Grand Canyon along the way; a tour of the "Fingering Lakes of New York....").

No matter where you worked in this tourism factory, there was a strict and universal dress code.  Even if the public never laid eyes on you, men had to wear a tie, and, in 1972, pant-suits for women were forbidden. 

The scariest part of the AAA experience was the lifers there--the middle-aged people who had never done anything in their lives but work at the AAA, and who were dead serious about the organization and the concerns of its members.  It was quite an eye-opener after having spent two years on a life-changing adventure. I looked at these pale people whose imaginations carried them no further than the next order of Carlsbad Cavern brochures, and whose eyes were weakened from gazing at too much small print, and felt dread.  Could I ever be one of them???  There's nothing like a scary alternative future to spur your ambition in another direction.

But I was in for another shock.  I discovered I was emotionally exhausted after playing the good, buttoned-down AAA employee by day and didn't really feel like pounding the open-mike pavement at night.  I did hit one or two, and I succeeded at least in being invited back, but in the process of "succeeding," I quickly saw that singing wasn't something you did for a mere 40 minutes once a week or so.  Singing--show business--is a way of life.  It requires faith, utter determination, overpowering ambition and the willingness to see yourself as a commodity in a competitive market place.  

And you need to be young.  The people I met singing were kids who did nothing but sing.  They hung around with peers who had the same burning need for recognition.  They compared notes on which venues were best, and they sang for and to each other.  They were either fresh out of college or had never even attended, having committed to this life as teenagers.  They were willing to live on the edge of poverty in their late adolescence on the chance that they would strike gold before they were 30.  But I was already on the warm side of 30 and facing the fact that I was tired of being poor.  I wanted nothing so much as a stable roof over my head and the predictability of an ordered life.

So there I was.  The one "career" idea that had fed my imagination for years had come a cropper.  I was stuck in a soul-deadening job that didn't even afford me the ability to drive to the places I was describing every day, digesting the discovery that I may be a singer but I lacked an important corollary attribute to make a living at it:  complete, all-consuming ambition.  I was clear about what I didn't want--the AAA was a great teacher.  But what did I want?  Whatever it was, it wouldn't be conventional.  (Order I needed.  Convention was still anathema, as it remains.)  Returned Peace Corps Volunteers often jokingly ask, "is there life after the Peace Corps?"  In my case, it turned out there was.  And it was back at the Peace Corps.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Music, music, music

I've mentioned here many times that I "used to" sing.  Music is to my life as is my skin or my hair--I was born with it, and it's just there, whether or not I'm actually listening to music or not.  (There is always a melody in my head.)  When I was in the womb, my mother's voice singing "I'll be loving you, always," and "Five-foot-two, eyes of blue" was accompanied by her heartbeat.  My sister, nine years older, was deep into the classics in her piano studies by the time I was born.  Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, even the Czerny exercises...all of these, plus the popular music of the day, were my aural mother's milk.

We were not an especially cultured family, nor was formal education a factor.  Neither of my parents finished high school.  It's simply that as ubiquitous as music was in the 1940s and 50s on the radio, just as is today, it was also more personal.  People made more of their own music then than we do now.  Pianos were not unexpected pieces of furniture in living rooms.  People played banjos and guitars, and house parties often ended with everybody singing songs, or indeed were held for the sole purpose of getting together to sing.  Parties at our house always ended with everybody standing around the piano, highballs in hand, singing--harmonizing--while my sister played. 

I was a kid who never gave much thought to what I would do in life.  The only overriding ambition I ever had was to get into the Peace Corps.  I did, and then it was done. At the advanced age of 27 I hadn't a real clue what was coming next, but the idea of singing for a living was always somewhere in the back of my mind. 

I had a the kind of voice that in the 1940s would have consorted well with one of the big bands--I could have been a crooner.  But my consciousness as a performer was awakened during the 60s folk era, so that was what I did.  When Joan Baez hit the scene, the die was cast.  I was completely bowled over, blown away, thunderstruck, by her entire presence. Her singing voice was indescribably beautiful, her guitar arrangements were simple but interesting (and always musical to the core), and her understated performance style allowed her songs to shine in all their ancient beauty, and the characters in them to come to life.  Her first record came out when I was a senior in high school, and I made it my business to get all her subsequent releases as soon as I possibly could after they hit the stores. I shut myself in my room with those records and my guitar until I learned all of her picks and strums.  By the time I got into the Peace Corps, I was the guy with the guitar.  I led singalongs and sang some solos, mostly Baez material.  Finally, towards the end of my time overseas, I began writing my own songs in preparation for what I had decided would be the next step, a singing career.  (Cat Stevens helped me in that decision. I had begun to see that the Baez guitar style didn't really fit with the kind of songs that were coming out of me.  Stevens's unique rhythmic strumming was the key that allowed me to compose.)

More next time.

Monday, November 1, 2010

One thing leads to the next....

I've wanted to do a big Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd for a very long time.  For the past 30-odd years, though, I lived in the area grew up in (and where the rest of my family was), so I never got the chance. My sister had the big house, she had all the kids and grandkids--even our parents, when they were still living, ended up near her.  Perforce, holiday family get-togethers gravitated to her place.

In many families where all the kids are grown and on their own, mothers and dads, who by now are grandparents, are the glue that still holds family holidays together. That's how it was for us.  Things have changed, though, in the decade since our parents passed on.  My sister hasn't cooked Thanksgiving dinner in a few years, lately going to her daughter's house near her instead.  One other daughter lives two-thirds of the way across the country; another lives nearby but does her own thing, and the fourth lives with my sister but does not cook.

So this year I'm getting what I wished for--my sister decided to get away from the DC area and come down here for Thanksgiving.  (It will be her first visit to this new house.) We decided to invite a few more friends; finally, I'm getting my crowd to cook for.

I woke up this morning fiddling mentally with the menu.  Soon enough my mind landed on the Marsala gravy I love to make with the turkey drippings.  I remembered the recipe was in a pile of about a hundred others that I've collected over a relatively short time--maybe the past year and a half (if I have any hoarding tendencies at all, it is in the area of recipes, I fear)-- that have been lying about in messy piles.  I couldn't put them away because the three-inch loose-leaf notebook I mount my recipes in is already filled to bursting.  I needed a new one but had never gotten around to getting one.  The Marsala gravy problem put the dynamite where it was needed to get me moving.

So instead of writing this morning, we decided to go to the office supply store to get a new notebook.  And more three-hole plastic sleeves to protect the recipes.  And some tabs for them.  Oh, and we need groceries.  And batteries from Wal-mart.

Two hours later we were back home.  Had to eat lunch.  Had to start catching up on the TV shows we DVR'd last week but never had a chance to watch because we had company all week who did not share our taste in TV shows.  ("Who's Jon Stewart?  What rally?")

Finished watching some of the shows, then finally got around to separating the recipes into piles by type (beef, pork, breads, salads...).   All that's left to do now is to slip the recipes into their plastic sleeves, put the sleeves in the new notebook, and write the tabs.  There'll be room in this new notebook for another hundred or so recipes, at least, so I'm good for another year!

And that's why I'm late today.