Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 114 (home-again-home-again edition)

Rainy cold day in central Connecticut, the kind that you know made the 17th-century Dutch and English Wesleyites who settled here on either side of the Connecticut River feel right at home. I’m from points north of here, but this terrain of hardwoods and granite bluffs and little brooks is very very familiar—particularly at this season of the year, when the scarlet maples and golden elms tear at my heart.

Up on out of here in a little while; right now, courtesy of tripadvisor.com, it’s breakfast at O'Rourke's Diner in Middletown. In the image: about 400 calories more, on one plate, than I need to eat in a whole day. But how often are you going to find a righteous Irish fry, cooked by an Irishman, in West-by-God-Texas? Going to need to spend the day either herding cows up- and down-hill, or eating watercress—no middle way.

O’Rourke’s is on the wrong end of town, right next to the dilapidated storefront Apostolic Baptist Church ("all denominations, all faiths welcome”), next to the spillway that runs down to the river from the town’s old mill. The menu has FIVE PAGES of breakfasts; it’s the kind of place where the locals have been going for the past 40 years, in whatever location Brian put the place. A perpetual winner of area diner competitions, it’s in the classic old-school railroad car design, but thankfully free of the faux-50s kitsch of the "Route 66 Remembered" places I know from the Southwest.

Counter is anchored by the old guys who've been coming to whichever was the current location their whole lives, and in each of which places have figured out which corner eave just outside the door provides most protection from the weather when they step outside to suck down the Kool or Marlboro that "those bastards down the state house" have now made illegal inside.

Old-school diner waitresses, who know everybody's order, wear sneakers for comfort and black clothes to avoid showing spills, aren't afraid of anybody (and treat the neighborhood street people who come in with great, if brusque, kindness and compassion, and make sure they get some toast 'n' jelly and a cup of coffee before they leave), and whose accents, based in whatever part of the new immigrant world they come from (Palestine, Poland, Eritrea, or Laos) are overlaid with an endearing patina of central Connecticut honk.

The food isn't haute-cuisine, but if you grew up in this part of the world, then it, like the topography and the weather, is damned familiar. Cooks, either younger or older, who I recognize, who you know have been getting up at 4am for so long they don't even have to hear the alarm anymore. I can say as an old kitchen-rat myself that when you've been cooking a certain menu long enough, you don't even really have to think anymore: the order comes in (in this place, old-school as well: on a slip of mimeograph paper over a high aluminum pass-through), you read it, and then your brain pretty much shuts off: the eggs and toast or omelet and bacon or hash and home-fries or biscuits and gravy get made without much intervention of the thought process.

Not unlike my experience yesterday, presenting at the conference. When you've been doing this for awhile--when you've internalized the process and dynamics and basic physiological template of the 20-minute conference paper—you've learned reasonably well how to provide a certain basic value-for-dollar: you know how to create something that will be entertaining, engaging, with peaks and values in an effective flow, creating a nice change-up from the more droning pedantry which too many of us seniors or the nervous hyperactivity the juniors are prone to. It's in the same basic neighborhood as the razzle-dazzle that a competent classroom lecturer provides: necessary in order to keep a room of 100 wiggly 18-year-olds sufficiently engaged.

What that doesn’t always tell you is whether/how much the content of your presentation has value. When you’ve been working a given topic, say in this case the minstrelsy project, as long as I have, and have presented one-or-another version of the material so many times to so many diverse audiences, you can’t always judge the significance of that material. Any scholar who’s worked a topic long enough will know enough about that topic that his/her ability to assess its interest to anybody else will be substantially eroded. I can’t tell whether this stuff is of interest to anybody else—hell, I can’t even tell whether it’s relevant to any other scholarship.

In a case like this, you basically say, “well, I’m going to go on the basis of the template and tempo that has worked best for me with other topics in other circumstances” and hope that your earlier instincts about the material (going back, now, nearly 10 years for this project) were accurate. At the very least, one’s own sense of what I called in the Q&A period “messianic dedication” to the topic can translate as persuasive and engrossing, even for people not knowledgeable about the topic.

What this sometimes leads to, in turn, is a kind of “instinctive auto-pilot” in a presentation. If you’ve done it enough times, and you do it regularly (say, in the large-enrollment undergrad classroom), and you have really good command of your material, be it lecture or conference presentation or musical repertoire, then, like the short-order cooks at the diner, you don’t really have to think too much during the presentation itself. In fact—and I learned this first in memorizing and learning to present large amounts of oral-tradition material: long narrative songs or storytelling pieces—the best performances sometimes emerge from a space of “suspended” attention, where you’re not really making conscious or sequential choices—you’re just “hearing” the next thing in the material, while also clued-in on the body- and facial-language that every audience supplies or withholds, and juggling the pre-composed material with stream-of-subconscious interpolations of improvised material.

It’s a hard thing to describe—easier, just as with the jump-shot that I so often use as a metaphor for this state, to learn to recognize and then replicate. You shoot 10,000 jump-shots, paying attention to how they feel in your body as and after the ball leaves your hand, and then along about the ten-thousandth-and-first, you hit nothing but net, and your body remembers what it felt like at the moment the ball left your hand, and you knew, before the ball ever dropped, that it was a swish (there’s a great replication of this in Bull Durham, when Tim Robbins’s psycho-but-freakishly-talented pitcher “Nook” Lalouche is told “Don’t think, just throw” and proceeds to hurl a picture-perfect and unhittable strike, at which he says to himself “God, that was beautiful! What the hell did I just do?!?”).

That’s sort of what the right kind of presentation, or lecture, or improvised performance, feels like. When it’s working right—for me, anyway—I’ll “wake up” at the end of the performance and say “Jesus, is it over? Did it work?” Happened to me recently during a performance when finally, after 8 years, my medieval band played my home university. Went into an improvisation on the Turkish lavta built for me by the great Samir Azar, and woke up about four minutes later with almost no recollection of what I’d played—just that I had to take us into Dharmonia’s vocal. I thought it had been good—but really had no certainty of that. After the concert, I said to my band-mates, “Guys, listen, sorry about that…I just kind of went away for a while.” And they were kind enough to rave about it. I still don’t know whether I would have liked what I played—but, the lesson here is that I’m not an accurate arbiter; more accurate (and more significant) is how it worked for the audience.

So with my presentation yesterday. I certainly have command of the material, and certainly retain the messianic conviction that it’s important stuff in my discipline, and certainly have another 100 minutes or so worth of material I could talk about—which is why I love Q&A periods, because it permits me to sneak in so much additional material I’ve had to cut for reasons of time in the presentation. But I really truly didn’t have any idea whether those things would transfer to the audience as relevant, useful, or even interesting.

In the event—and absent any hubris, which I’m convinced I’m un-entitled to—it was a more-or-less impressive moment: I was presenting third and last on a panel of very bright people, with topics very well suited to my own, for a good solid house of people who know and are engaged with the topics as well. I like going last (when #’s 1 and 2 are responsible about time limits), because then I don’t have to be shy about staying on top of time restraints—however much time is left in the session for Q&A, we’re not stealing it from anybody following.

And for whatever reason, the stuff all worked: the multimedia, the topic, the flow, the presentation language, suiting the presentation style to both the topic and the audience and making sure those three factors were calibrated to one another. One marker of an effective presentation is the presence or absence of questions in the aftermath, the call-and-response inherent in most good and satisfying performances. For whatever reason, this topic just caught fire, and there were questions after questions, and lines of people wanting to talk more, and requests for business cards, and that peculiar sensation (familiar no doubt to the point of ennui for celebrities, no doubt, but pretty unfamiliar to the rest of us plebians) that people are looking at you as somebody they aspire to be like, not so much in terms of persona, but very-most-definitely in terms of scholarly insight.

Now, I studied with people in my field who were and are Giants on the earth, and I know my relative insignificance compared to theirs. So there’s not much danger of a swelled head: I put myself up against the Dick Baumans and Peter Burkholders and Tom Binkleys and Tom Mathiesens and George Buelows and James Kellys and Gearoid O hAllmhurains and Suzy Fulkersons and Thomas Thompsons of the world, and my humility is well-entrenched. And I’ll usually bring their names into any conversation with somebody hero-worshiping me. Because I want to say “it’s not me—it’s not my skills or my history or my effort or my ‘brilliance’—it’s the greatness of my teachers flowing through me.”

I still believe that. But I’m grateful, occasionally, as I age and evolve, to become a more effective, more transparent, more invisible, persuasive conduit for their teachings.

Below the jump: this was the day:

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