What we learn hiding out

IguazuFalls02A few days ago I heard a story about a woman who threw a 70th-birthday party for herself at the Iguazu Falls in Argentina and invited a few dozen of her closest friends. I heard the story from one of the guests.

Years ago (it may have been as far back as when I was in high school) someone (it may have been Charles Schultz of “Peanuts” fame, but I don’t remember for sure) drew a series of cartoons called “Young Moderns,” or something like that, about high school kids and their dilemmas. I remember one of the cartoons in which a kid is hanging his coat in the front hallway of his home. He is speaking to his father (see how long ago this was–coat, front hallway of home, conversation with father) and says, “Only three of us showed up for choir rehearsal but it didn’t discourage us. We just felt really loyal.”

Many times in my life I have paraphrased that line to explain how I felt (or perceived a given situation) when I have had expectations that did not materialize.

The line came to my mind when I heard about the 70th-birthday party. Transmogrified to, “I don’t have any friend who could throw a party for herself at the Iguazu Falls, and I couldn’t afford to attend if she did, but that doesn’t discourage me. I simply have to get a better job and earn more money.”

I try to be philosophical and mature about such things and remind myself that I’ve made my choices over my lifetime. That I decided to be a  church musician and English composition teacher. That I have usually chosen to take the easy way out in most situations. That I’m responsible for my own cautiousness and lack of temerity. That I accepted a worldview that did not allow for the pursuit of money or fame or power.

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2012 I was one of only 3.07% of Americans who had earned a PhD. Let me hasten to say I realize that by most people’s definition that is not taking the easy way out of anything. It does not demonstrate cautiousness and a lack of temerity. Not exactly, at any rate.

Some doctoral students (I can name quite a few that I have known personally) hide out in graduate schools because they are terrified of doing anything as temerarious as searching for a job in the real world. And even more graduate students are preparing themselves to do nothing other than teach the next generation how to hide out in graduate school (my cynical, perhaps sour-grapes view of “research institutions”).

When I graduated from college, I chose to slide into seminary and pursue a degree in “religion and the arts” instead of applying to USC for a master’s degree in organ even though a member of the USC organ faculty wanted me to study with him. Also at that time a choir-director friend (for whom I had been organist) had what seemed to me the hair-brained idea that he would ask his bishop to sponsor me for study at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome even though I was not a Catholic. I mention Earle’s pie-in-the-sky nonsense only to demonstrate I had some possibilities for choices other than the meek ones I have consistently made.

Pontifical singing for me?

Pontifical singing for me?

I don’t know how studying Gregorian chant in Rome would have led to attending a friend’s birthday party at the Iguazu Falls (or throwing one for myself), but I can imagine all manner of different trajectories for my life it might have brought about. Me a Roman Catholic priest? Right.

When I finally did decide to work on a doctorate, I passed (with reservations) the qualifying recital exam at the University of Iowa to work on a DMA in organ performance. However, when the faculty informed me that I had passed, the chairman said (and this is close to a direct quote), “You and I know that you can earn the DMA, but we also know life is too short to put us all through that agony.” I knew exactly what he meant. And I chickened out. I let him in one sentence (and by bribing me with a full graduate fellowship) talk me out of doing what I had set out to do and earn a PhD in organ literature instead. But even that was not the easy way out for me. Believe me. I’m no scholar.

This little writing is not what it may seem. I’m not whining. I’m not admitting failure. I’m not washing my dirty laundry in public. It’s none of that stuff. I said at the outset I try to be philosophical about all of this and accept the fact that I’ve made my choices all along, and that I am where I am because of those choices.

Well, yes. But the fact is, I still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up. I may have ten days or ten years to figure that out (my father lived to be 97, for what that’s worth). Dean Moore at SMU thinks he has ended my career. Dean Moore don’t know squat. I’ll meet him at Easter Island next summer.

The sort of thing I’ve learned hiding out. Aria Sebaldina, by Johann Pachelbel. Esoteric, beautiful, or both?

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