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.


splendid/angi said...

Thank you Ralph for sharing your story. We only know each other online, we met through kat's blog. It has been a sincere joy to have you in my life, i realized the other day how much i must speak of my online friends to my family, because when i mentioned the first part of this story, my 11 yr old said "oh ralph, he is the guy who cooks stuff you like mom." It is always a joy to find new friends and through coffee, kat has helped us all.

Ralph said...

"Who cooks stuff you like." HAHA!! Thanks for that story Angie, and thanks for liking this stuff. I don't seem to be able to make a simple statement, like "I'm thinking about singing again." The response would rightly be "So what?" I have to give the background in order to show why it's important enough to mention, and so I end up with these long things. Blogs are so handy!

Anonymous said...

I don't recall the Potter House, need address or directions please. This is a charming post with details I can imagine being from the DC area and having knowledge of the Peace Corps. It's a fun story especially how you and Steve met. But two Dinasaurs? Live in the same house 30 years. I'm choking. Some lonely Real Estate agent lost a bundle on you guys. hahaha. Not me, I sell in Florida. Good one today, thanks!

Ralph said...

Potter's House is up on Columbia Road at 16th Street, Z&M, on the outskirts of Adam-Morgan. You probably wouldn't have known about it unless you followed the coffee house/folkie scene. As to the Arlington house: we recreated that place inside and out during the years we were there. By the time we left it, it was practically a new creation, unrecognizable from what it was when we bought it. Believe me, we made an agent a bundle. (If we'd sold a couple of years earlier, we'd have gotten at least 100K more, but that's another story.)

nan said...

I am enjoying your writing and this series, Ralph. Now I wait for what the context will bring . . .