Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Day -03 "In the trenches" (Round II edition)

T-minus 3 and counting. Report day was last Monday; semester starts this coming Monday and, with the sod's law inevitability with which such things tend to happen, I have to report for jury duty on Wednesday. Three days after the start of the semester, goddammit. Am hoping that my visible and blatant DFH* bias will be so obvious that the DA will swiftly disqualify me. Or that it'll be a drug case, in which I will hope for questions regarding incarceration versus treatment that will permit wildly unsatisfactory answers.

That failing, I'll have to serve--and have already put in place colleagues to step in for the balance of the week. Thank god for the degree to which we conduct both graduate and undergraduate business, outside class, via Web 2.0--at least the classes don't have to grind completely to a halt.

Today, in the run-up to first classes, brings the following: auditions for the Celtic Ensemble, musicology division staff meeting, 2nd full faculty meeting of the week, old-time/Appalachian music session (please understand that, given a "work" schedule like that, I never complain about having to do my "job").

"Auditions" for the Celtic Ensemble are really more of a getting-acquainted than a success/failure dynamic. I can't imagine declining somebody for the Ensemble unless they manifested an outrageously arrogant manner in the audition--and even then, I'd probably accept the person, just for the opportunity to get him/her in the band situation and thrash the arrogance out. There's almost nothing more constructively humbling than to be placed in an unusual musical/procedural situation: the most skilled, prodigious, spoiled-too-early prima donna will fold, in the most salutary way, when confronted with the reality that there are musics and musical procedures about which s/he knows nothing. I guess I'm an African musician at heart: I think playing ensemble music is a great way of teaching somebody how to be a functional and socially-integrated adult.

After that, it's musicology division staff meeting, our first of the academic year. Chance to get all four tenure-track faculty, plus our instructors and PT lecturers (who are mostl;y our own PhD students) in a room and begin to interact in a quasi-formal fashion. Sets the tone for the year, gives people a sense of roles and general divisional philosophy and manner. There are various management styles, some more and some less direct(orial), but Dharmonia will be the first to say that I'm more of a proponent of the "tangible leadership" school--a fact for which she busts my chops on a regular basis.

Trying as I am to nuance and diversify leadership approach (and to curb my mouthy tongue), I still like to run the department in a fashion that's consistent with the situations where I felt most comfortable as a subordinate. I wouldn't say it's quite Alaskan-dog-team leadership, but I will cop to its being way more concrete than, say, "let's all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya'," or even--much more common in university settings--a directorial approach of "Oh, I don't know what to do--I'll just be in my office/studio, you all decide things amongst yourselves" (in my view, a recipe for disaster). Actually, my leadership approach comes, once again like so many other things I've learned in life, from great models: principally, at crucial formative moments, the great David Baker, and my old brother-in-arms Quantzalcoatl. From Dave--chair of the Jazz program at Indiana, and my greatest improvisation and composition teacher--I learned the merit of modeling the professional behavior you seek. Don't tell people how you want them to play, teach, interact--show them.

This plays out, in my own department, in how we conduct ourselves with one another, but even more importantly, how we conduct ourselves in front of students. From little things to big things: in the classroom, always refer to the graduate teaching assistants as "Ms. Mac Tire," "Mr. Afro-Cuba," "Ms. Taiyo," etc, so that the youngsters see modeled the tone of address they themselves are expected to employ. The result is that the youngsters likewise employ those same respectful terms of address, without ever having to be told to do so. Or, as the great Thelonious Monk said (and as I quoted him in the title of my dissertation), "I can show it to you better than I can explain it to you." I believe that's true, and good leadership. Dave Baker taught me that.

Quantzalcoatl, a Baroque flute-player, taught me about focus and directed intensity, and how that could play out in a relaxed-but-clear mode of leadership. We whopped the snot out of each other on the dojo mats--when we weren't being detailed by our sifu to take down some student who wouldn't learn to pull his punches--and Q taught me how to bring that same one-pointed combat intensity to the practice room: one of my favorite Quantzalcoatl moments ever was the time we went to Lexington KY, to test for advanced belts (in our syncretic kung fu style, all belt/sash testing had to be conducted by the Grandmaster). There were probably 150 people in the room, from the Tubby Bearded Guys who taught schools full of little kids, to the scary-looking bruised-and-tattooed guys, many of them ex-bikers, who used the formal discipline of the martial arts to channel aggression that might otherwise (or had formerly) gone in much less constructive directions. None of them was scarier-looking than our own sifu, an ex-Bandido, with all the coded tattoos that told his own History of Violence, who weighed around 145 pounds, lived in an abandoned bus in the woods, and was the best martial arts teacher I've ever met: little kids loved him and women students trusted him implicitly.

The Grandmaster had a tendency to conduct the belt-testing very quickly: with 150 people in the dojo on any given weekend, he pretty much had to. He'd walk quickly through the crowd at the fringes of the mat, slapping pairs of shoulders, and saying "" You were expected to find a corner of the mat, face off against your opponent, and, at the word "fight!", free-spar until told to stop. Mostly it was quick: 30 or 40 seconds, in hand-to-hand combat, usually reveals who does and does not have their shit together.

My testing always went pretty quick--I wasn't the most naturally skilled fighter in my belt class, and I damned sure wasn't the most experienced, but I had/have a really good ability to take somebody else out of their comfort zone. It just always seemed like the most obvious strategic choice in the world: if the guy likes to circle clockwise, go at him counter-clockwise. If he likes to close, hold back and hit with the greater arm-length (I'm six-five). If he likes to stay back--go at that motherfucker. I just learned that, if you take people out of their zone, you can win just by being smarter than they are (one reason I admire Henry Knox, and Bill Belichek, so much).

And we had been trained, over and over again, in applications. Our sifu never taught a technique, or a form, without unpacking it and showing multiple combat applications. If the technique was "slap the punch to the opponent's outside, move your body closer in than arm's length, strike with the forearm or elbow", our sifu would break it down, have us practice it from all angles, against left- and right-handed punches or leads, inside-out, and against multiple attackers. So when we got into a testing situation, we had a very high facility with however many techniques we knew, even if we didn't know very many. So I didn't usually have too many problems. Plus, I liked sparring: I was fascinated by the real-time split-second physical and psychological chess game of getting inside an opponent's head.

And, our culture is hopelessly fucked-up about violence. We are simultaneously bombarded with violent images, and those images are sexualized. Violence is made to seem ubiquitous, but also sort of erotic. But also without consequences. After some little kid has seen six thousand television murders, without the actual blood and piss and defecant, the horror and lasting consequences of actual violence, of course he won't understand the actual impact of pulling a trigger. In this culture, violence as depicted emblemizes and sublimates a million other social impulses: competition, sexuality, security, anger, aggression. One reason I really admire the David Lynch/Viggo Mortensen History of Violence--because it does show the lasting, horrific impact.

That's also why I like the martial arts: because they teach you what violence actually is; about how much (and how) it hurts, about how to recognize that it's coming and cope when it arrives, how to employ it precisely and constructively and only when it's essential, and--most importantly--how to employ it without anger. Violence in its actuality is not a metaphor for anything else: like birth, death, sex, hunger, violence is not--ought not to be--a sublimation for anything.

Buddhism doesn't teach that violence should never be employed (Gary Snyder had a great construct: he said that, at times, "gentle violence" might be called for). I threw a violent street person down the steps and out the door of a stationary subway car when I was nineteen, because he was about to hurt somebody smaller and more vulnerable than I. And there have been a few other like incidents: when you're six-five, and trained in martial arts, sometimes "Right Action" demands violence. Sometimes, a Buddhist takes on the inevitable bad karma of violence, in order to prevent worse violence.

But violence also teaches clarity as well--when a fist or a foot is coming at you, you damned better focus or you're gonna get hit. And you can take that combat-focus and apply it to other things.

In the event, Quantzalcoatl was paired-up with some guy who was substantially shorter than he (he's as big as me) and I think the guy freaked-out a little. At any rate, when Master Sin called "fight!", this guy ran at Q, tackled him around the waist, and they both went rolling around the floor. The sifu broke them up, and they got up and faced-off again, Master Sin called "fight!", and the guy tackled Q again. Mind you, in open combat, this guy would have got his head handed to him, but in the specifically restricted situation of sparring, I think the dude was just trying to tangle Q up long enough to escape with his life.

Anyway, after the second round of rolling-around-on-the-floor, Quantzalcoatl got up, reached into his sash, and put in his mouthpiece. He's a flute-player, after all--a smack in the chops, especially by some panicked dweeb who was flailing around, could keep him out of the practice room for weeks--but I think Master Sin, and the spectators (most of whom were laughing hysterically, except for the opponent's friends, who were ashen), and certainly the dude himself, saw the mouthpiece as signal that things were about to Get Very Serious Very Suddenly.

So the Grandmaster laughed, slapped them both on the shoulder, and said "You pass. Next!"

I played in the original incarnation of Quantzalcoatl's great Baroque rock 'n' roll band and I learned a huge amount about band-leadership from him: how to manifest a certain attitude, a certain vibe, level of virtuosity, attention...hell, even a certain stance and breathing posture, or even, when the situation truly called for, a certain lovely violence, that was so clear and so centered, so focused, that everybody else could kind of slipstream in along behind it.

Some might argue, but my feeling is that most people in collaborative situations are actually relieved when the leadership is clear, focused, and centered. Everybody can relax, everybody can communicate, everybody can feel confident. Because they know I've got their back.

Quantzalcoatl taught me that.

*Dirty Fucking Hippie
Now playing: Doug Goodhart and Mason Brown - 01 Sandy Boys
via FoxyTunes


Dharmonia said...

When we all get up off the mat, then can we please hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

Just kidding. Great post.

I watched you two big guys sparring together out in the Arboretum in Bloomington once - man! To a little scaredy-pants like me, it was like one of those Asian movies with Godzilla and King Kong going at each other. I was glad I knew that you love each other!

CJS said...

Yeah. But the really scary one was seeing sifu Dan--all 145 pounds of him--body-slam both of us!