Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"The Office" (Workstation series) 61 (AMS01 edition)

Typing from Quebec City. Official conference opening tomorrow--but yesterday/today was one long travel day, broken up with occasional fitful naps (never got more than 4 hours sleep in the last 48).

Tuesday AM: teach class, write blog posts, meet with students.

Tuesday afternoon: Mac Tire gives us a ride to airport. Two laptops, two pullmans, 1 bouzouki--which can't be let out of my control control because the damned thing is built like a Stradivarius and would never survive the airport baggage gorillas, 1 hot-rodded Regal Style-0 resonator guitar--basically a drop-shipped Korean instrument, but pimped out with bone nut and bridge, hand-spun aluminum cone, new tuning machines, and a fantastic pickup. Sounds huge, and sweet. Need both for the "cabaret" that Dharmonia and I are anchoring, she as featured vocalist, me in the rhythm section; bouzouki for Irish trad jigs, reels, & songs, National for our own Delta blues set and then the B.B./Albert finale: "Born Under a Bad Sign" and "Sweet Sixteen." This ain't your daddy's AMS meeting: the musicologists will get up and play a program that spans Dowland to the Dixie Chicks, George Strait to George Gershwin. Hell, it ain't even A. Peter Brown's AMS meeting anymore.

National is packed in an uncrushable hard-foam case, and is so resilient that, providing the gorillas don't whiplash the neck joint, it pretty much can't be harmed. My old friend Blind Arvella Gray from Chicago, who--after being hit in the face with a load of birdshot and losing both his vision and three fingers on his right hand--jumped freights to Chicago and made his living as a street-singer for fifty years, used to say "I like me them National steel git-tars, 'cause when I'm crossing the street an' I get hit by a bus, it don't hurt the git-tar." So the Steve Smith bouzouki gets carried on but the National gets checked through, with crossed fingers.

Four flights:

  • Lubbock--Dallas (puddle-jumper Embraer 170 whose overheads are too small, but one we know, and the flight attendant is fine with putting the 'zouk in the closet)
  • Dallas--Chicago, arrive 9pm (Super M-80: overheads are plenty big, though the plane is full and the latest seat-space-shrinkage leaves no room for knees if you're 6'5")
Shuttle to Chicago airport hotel, where at least there's a decent restaurant with healthy food (Dharmonia and I have overnighted en route in Chicago before, and wound up spending 30 bucks on a cab just to get to a mediocre seafood place) but which is hosting about 6 different conventions, and has no bar, so all the conventioneers all get drunk 'n' loud in the restaurant instead. About 4 hours sleep in a room that costs nearly $50 an hour as a result.

3:15AM wakeup call to get the 4:00am shuttle to clear Security (for some rubber-band-powered regional airline called "Shuttle America") for 6:00am departure to Montreal. Passports, check 2 pullmans and 1 National again.
  • Small regional jet (Embraer 170 again), about 90 minutes to Montreal. Fog-out (not even dozing, much less sleeping) on the flight, trying to stay awake because sleeping just wakes us up groggy. Arrive Montreal, walk a very long way through an enormous, spit-cleaned, but (at 7:30am) totally deserted airport. Clear passport control (where the Mounties are able to pull up the evidence that 11 years ago and 2500 miles away, we did a concert for pay in Vancouver), clear customs, collect all checked luggage, recheck all checked luggage (pullmans and National), wait in tiny regional-departures lounge for a 35-minute flight that most Quebecois would drive instead--so the plane will be deserted.
Chicago-Montreal, and now, Montreal-Quebec, are where we start encountering the "faces vaguely remembered from previous AMS conferences" syndrome. Dharmonia is OK with names and I am excellent with faces, but putting names to faces is a real problem. And so you feel guilty when you remember having a drink in past years with someone, or, hell, going to graduate school with someone, but you can't remember their names.
  • Final leg Montreal-Quebec: tiny little prop-jet 26-seater. Overheads are way too tiny for the bouzouki, so you tell the tri-lingual (English, French, Spanish) flight attendant in your bad monosyllabic French that the instrument is "very, very fragile" and watch anxiously as he carefully walks it out and--for a change--sets it down right side up on the cart awaiting loading-in to baggage compartment. Some change from the US, where the desire by airlines to force musicians to buy additional seats for instruments leads the baggage gorillas to intentionally mistreat instruments.
Arrive QC airport, where we catch a cab for the run into the city (only $CAN30, fixed rate) and get a running commentary on all the multifarious advantages of living in a small, old, pedestrian-based, essentially European city from our New Jersey-transplanted cab driver, who sums it up by saying "good-looking women, cheap hash, good beer." Check into the conference hotel (where ordinarily we'd already be seeing many familiar faces, but this time we're a day early, and so the place is pretty much deserted, and despite the fact that it's awfully early for check-in--around noon--they have a room) and we schlep up to the 13th floor in the elevators, and done the hallway to a last corner room (hey, that's nice, will likely make it quieter), and unlock the door and roll in, and see this:

That's the old city, and a chunk of the old walls, and the Vieux Village beyond, and the river and the mountains beyond that. Will take more photos walking around tomorrow, and provide more of a key for the architectural history, but suffice it to say that the city feels more like Boston's Beacon Hill, or Amsterdam of the canals, or Regensburg. It's a city that was laid out for pedestrian and horse-drawn traffic, and there are still 18th-century houses (shops below, apartments above) on cobbled streets, 2 blocks walk from the 5-star hotels, and a few doors down from the patisseries and charcuteries and Breton crepe places and Mets Vietnamese et Tunisienne et Leban and all the other colonial cuisines that came with the French from the "Third World" to the New World, and yes, there are an awful lot of good-looking women (remarkable how the American propensity for morbid obesity declines when everyone walks everywhere up and down hill, and walks to and from the greengrocer or the the coffee-roaster or the tabac shop twice a day) and there is a definite aroma of good bud in the air and there definitely are good wine shops.

And a hot- and cold-buffet vegetarian restaurant three blocks from the hotel, cheap as hell, with free wireless, as the Quebecois schoolkids in their Harry Potter outfits are led from restaurant to restaurant by their teachers, who obviously have Hallowe'en afternoon off for just this kind of trick-or-treating;

And you walk back up the hill that leads from "Lower Town" back to "Up Town" where the hotel is (reminded again of Beacon Hill's cobblestone side-streets and brownstones);

And you think, "Jesus, why do Americans live the way they do?" And of course the answer is that Americans live the way we do because our government, and the multinational corporations that lash our government officials like prating donkeys, and the media corporations that strap on the kneepads when Dana Perino even looks at them funny, and our own fucked-up past history of rugged-individualist rhetoric versus lard-assed coach-potato reality, let us live this way.

In the wake of WWII, when Burma, Hong Kong, and India were already going, and Nigeria and the other African colonies were clearly on the way out, the British (in contrast to the French, whose selfishness, greed, and unjustifiably national hubris led them to hang on, and to the Indochina war) accepted that their days as an Empire were over. And they rationed, and they rebuilt, and they downsized, and they changed their focus from owning to understanding. And the result was an explosion of youthful creativity, of public education, of popular and high-arts innovation, of literature drama and film, of popular music.

To invert and paraphrase a line from Ridley Scott's Gladiator, yet another in his string of cowardly imperial apologiae, but which boasts a beautifully-intense performance by Russell Crowe and a leonine last bow from Oliver Reed,
"Empires should know when they've ended."
The Brits knew it--they knew the Americans (and maybe the Russians) were going to take over in the post-War period.

Too few Americans know it--too few recognize that the Chinese--and maybe, briefly, the oil-producing nations--are going to take over in the post-"American Century." If we were smart, or less lazy, or fearful, or ethnocentric, or ignorant, or morbidly obese, we'd maybe bow out of Imperial dominance gracefully. But I fear we won't.

Sitting in the Montreal departure lounge for QC, we ran into old friend Paul F, who we knew at Indiana and is now a singer and choral conductor in the Bay Area. We are introduced to his traveling companion, NG, who we've not met but seems to be a perfectly personable and smart-as-a-whip young musicologist. Only after she excuses herself for a moment do we realize, with Paul's prompting, that NG is the person whose US visa crisis has been identified on the front page of our professional organization: she is the person who, returning from a research trip in France, was denied re-entry to the USA to resume her teaching post in California with no explanation, and has been teaching via videolink from Wales for the past year, while the US State Department (under direction of that failed Soviet scholar, failed pianist, and failed Secretary of State Condi Rice) has completely refused any explanation, much less any advice, for the situation. NG's lawyer is convinced that the entire situation is a case of simple mistaken identity, which the State Department and Homeland Security are too embarrassed to admit--and so they have put NG's professional and personal life on hold for over a year.

This is criminal, though it is only the tip of the genocidal iceberg that these fascists have imposed upon the globe for the past 7 years. But when the person is standing in front of you--chipper, friendly, obviously smart as hell, with the man she gets to see once or twice every six months because she can't return to her home in North America--you realize both the mindless and soulless indifference of the Bush-era government and, in addition to the horror of physical and emotional suffering they've inflicted worldwide, the catastrophic (and no doubt intentional) limitation of access to the rest of the world's experience which Homeland Security and the US mass-media have imposed on us. They want us to be ignorant, they want us not to see the blown-up children in Baghdad and the child soldiers in Darfu and the anti-US marches in Paris and Belgrade and Dublin and Toronto, they want to silence not just the critical voices but any other voices than their own. And they'll bomb and torture and rendition and censor and exile and bribe and lie and intimidate and extort in order to do it.

So what do you say when NG, a person whose brains, collegiality, and obvious ability to make a lasting contribution to the quality of intellectual life in this country have been blocked by the firewall of the Bush administration's Goebbelsian "Big Lie," is standing in front of you? After swallowing down the sense of shame you feel at being governed by such criminals, you hold out your hand, and say,

"You have a lot of friends. And I swear to you that we will keep fighting for justice."

And then you hope like hell you'll live up to it.
[Oh, and as for why I thinly-anonymize NG? Because she's caught quite enough shit from "my" Gubmint, thanks--and while I'll go up against them any time on my own, I don't have the right to expose her to any more crap from some Bob Jones University-Barbie with "the Google" and a Bush-administration patronage appointment and too much time on her hands.]

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