Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 44 (Round II) "In the trenches" (near-total-burnout edition)

In about 12 hours Dharmonia and I head out for points north, west, and steep: Thanksgiving in the high hills. Burned-out from own (and contact) stress but looking forward to seeing old friends and breathing thin air. Mostly be lazy photo-blogging from the road, through Saturday.

If you're traveling, stay safe. If you're stationary, stay warm.

And may it so be for all beings.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 43 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Pattern Language edition)

Re-reading Tony Barrand’s magnificent treatise on the Morris, Six Fools and a Dancer, which I first read via an Inter-Library-loaned copy a couple of years back when we made the decision to try to include dance as part of an English program in the Celtic Ensemble. We dug around for all the info we could find, both dead-trees type and online/digital, and I quickly discovered that there’s a bit of a disconnect in the available literature: the stuff that’s printed (in either format) is mostly either very general/observational from the outside, or else it is technical description (dance choreographies, etc) intended as mnemonic or for expert insiders—not really suitable for a group trying to get started, in the middle of isolation from any relevant community. I’ve played morris tunes off-and-on, mostly under the influence of the beyond-great Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick, for at least 25 years, and I’ve watched and even played for the dancing—but trying to get a dance corps (Morris “side”) started from scratch confirmed for me just how much I couldn’t do that. So we brought in area experts (Thank you Carl Dreher! Thank you Joseph Pimentel! Thank you Heather Gilmer!) to get us started on the various dance aspects of the musics we were playing. In the meantime, I read Tony’s book.

Now, I’ve known Tony Barrand’s music since I first saw him and singing partner John Roberts in the North Shore coffeehouses in the early 1970s, and since their appearance on the great National Geographic’s Songs of the Sea that I wore out in LP version from my home town library. But I knew him as a singer, not as a dancer or scholar—and didn’t realize just what an incredible resource he represented in those latter roles (hell, I was sufficiently impressed with him just because of his songs). Many years ago Dharmonia and I would have seen the Black Jokers side on the banks of the Charles at dawn on May morning, and I remember the Bloomington Quarry Men from our time in Indiana.

But, as with so many music and performance idioms I’ve eventually come to love, play, and teach, I only really understood Morris years after I first witnessed it—and, in fact, only when I came to have to teach, or at least facilitate, its learning. There’s something about the task of having to explain a body of knowledge to someone else that locks-in the final stage of learning it yourself: you have to decide upon or discover the underlying structural organization of the information (in a music history context, I will often articulate this to grad students as consisting of answering the question “what story do I want to tell?”), how to chunk it out in a fashion that is appreciable but that avoids distorting the overall organic relationships, how to sequence those chunks in a fashion that keeps all students (both adept and swift, versus less-skilled or slower) moving forward in concerted fashion and ideally with good morale and shared group esprit, and how to weave those chunks—once learned—back into an organic whole. It will not be the same organic whole as the originals upon which you are modeled your rendition, but using the above method provides at least improved odds that your version, because arrived-at with the tradition’s own methods, will replicate the dynamics, processes, and—ideally—the impact of the original.

Re-reading Six Fools, in addition to being reminded of just how much I love participatory and traditional art forms—art forms that say “make it yourself, don’t ‘buy’ it!”—I am also struck by the remarkable consistency, and occasional synchronicity, between many of my major scholarly and intellectual models. I first met Tony as a young teenager, around 1975, when he was right then (I now discover from the book) engaged in learning Morris for the first time, as an English ex-pat teaching at a small liberal arts college in Vermont. The “Introduction” to Six Fools cites Henry Glassie’s magisterial Passing the Time in Ballymenone, an ethnography and cultural history of an Ulster community, as an influence on Tony’s work. I first worked with Henry around 1990, at Indiana, when I was in the process of transforming myself from an MM/Jazz recipient to a PhD/Musicology candidate. I pulled out Henry’s All Silver and No Brass when, around 2002, we decided to try to include his Fermanagh mummer’s play in our Celtic Christmas fundraiser, and I used Ballymenone again, from 2005, in teaching my annual “Music, Folklore and Tradition” Irish seminar. In 2006, I ILL Six Fools as we’re trying to get the Morris side rolling—and now in 2008 I write to Tony, conversing (over email) with him for the first time in literally 30 years, to buy a copy of Six Fools (seems only fair, considering how essential it is to what we’re doing)—and he runs across the “100 Greats” blog post about the Songs of the Sea LP I heard before I ever met him in ’75.

Partly this is simply a reflection of the remarkable small (OK, borderline-incestuous) circles that North American traditional musicians move in—and of my own advancing years and expanding range of acquaintance—but it’s also got to do with the fact that the basic sanity of traditional ways of thinking and being in the world, one’s community, and the seasons recur across these situations is quite noticeable in a variety of art forms—and because that sanity, even to someone encountering it for the first time, is obvious. You may not grow up dancing the morris or playing Irish tunes or planting a garden or building houses by hand, but even if you have not, the right teacher at the right time can reveal to you the essential, underlying, logic and sanity of those old art forms, and in such circumstances that logic and sanity is evident, in comparison to the banality, greed, irrelevance, and passivity of so much of what passes for “leisure activity” in post-Industrial America. So it actually doesn’t surprise me that the music that struck me as essentially sane and logical in 1975 should have similarly struck me in 1990 and 2002 and 2006, and down to the present.

Barrand makes reference in Six Fools both to Glassie’s Ballymenone book—which can’t really be summarized, because, as my old comrade The General said, “I think if Ulster ceased to exist entirely, you could still reconstruct Fermanagh from that book”—and the architecture Christopher Alexander’s concept of the “pattern language”: a “structured method of describing good design practices within a field of expertise”. What in other fields would be called a “gestalt”, or perhaps a “semiotic”, or (in historical studies) a “zeitgeist,” or (in fine arts criticism”) an “aesthetic” is here called a “pattern language: a set of design principles—in a house, a ritual, a performance, or any other art from occurring in specific times, places, and locations—which, because they are functional and efficient, reflect a very practical kind of beautiful, grounded sanity.

Watching a good carpenter swing a hammer, a good baker knead the dough, a good musician play an instrument, one is struck—even if without special expertise—by the efficiency, flow, and bodily focus that such “good practices” manifest. Alexander and Glassie both use “pattern language” as a way of getting at what makes good vernacular architecture—that is, housing design that has evolved to accurately and intelligently take into account both local materials and local conditions—and at what such architecture reveals about a community’s aesthetics. In the Ballymenone book, it’s the gradual replacement of thatched roofs (local materials, labor-intensive but hard-cash-cost-free) with tin roofs (more permanent, requiring less upkeep, but also requiring no special local thatching skills, yet demanding the earning of cash, off the land, to pay for them).

In contemporary North American society, many of us live lives which are so completely dependent upon complex financial infrastructures to deliver goods, services, building supplies, food, water, heat, light, and other essentials that it’s virtually impossible for us to reconnect with our own, local “pattern languages.” When community living is entirely portable (by car, by moving van, by “virtual communities” on the Internet) and comparatively passive, our sense of connection with the cycle of weather, the seasons, and the natural world in our locality erodes, and with it our sense of place and of pattern language.

But even if those senses are eroded, or dormant, we were local and active participants in our landscapes for many more generations than our more recent modern experience (or lack of experience) would argue. So, even in the absence of the same kinds of necessity—we no longer have to know how to grow our own food, doctor our own ills, or generate our own fuel or shelter—the instinctive recognition of the sanity of such patterns is still deep in our cultural DNA. And so, when we encounter those patterns, their sanity and simultaneous antiquity and contemporaneity are evident. Watching somebody competent knit, cut turf, swing a hammer or an axe, sail a boat or paddle a canoe, provides—if you pay attention—a deep, deep sense of centeredness: the sense of “yes, that’s a good way to know how to be, to integrate mind and body, need and aesthetics, work and play.”

I’ve blogged before bemoaning the geographic and cultural isolation that seems to be a constant in my own artistic arc. In such environments, it’s a subtle—and slow!—art to re-introduce a community of individuals to the kinds of collective, participatory, expressive arts that I’m suggesting the old patter languages like dance, song, music, and storytelling evolved to crystallize. It’s a slow process, and there are no ready-made audiences, and there is no ready-made familiarity with whatever the hell is the traditional art form you’re trying to share as relevant. I get jealous sometimes (OK, many times) of old friends and comrades-in-music who live in places where the receptivity to the new—or the old—and unfamiliar is higher than it is where I live.

But, that would seem to be my karma: as the great Zen pioneer Sokei-An said, “you have to have the patience of someone holding a lotus to a rock, waiting for it to take root.” It certainly tests your resolve—but it also purifies your intentions, and your attachments. In a place like this, you don’t get attached to the “permanence” of some new tradition you’re trying to establish, or re-establish.

So you conclude that you damn better make it worth the doing,

just for the sake of the doing.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fuzzy people 45 (?)

No comment seems necessary:

You Are an American Bulldog

You are a very imposing, powerful creature... but deep down, you're generally good natured.

You are incredibly energetic, and you like to blow off steam with sports and horsing around.

You are naturally courageous. You would run into a burning building to save someone you loved.

You intimidate people without trying to. Some people assume the worst of you when they first meet you.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Day 42 (Round II) "In the trenches" (winding-down edition)

Starting to feel like things are winding up, round here. Friday of the last full week in the semester; last listening quiz for the freshman class; tomorrow brings another in the Uni's so-far-unbeaten football team's run of victories, with vast numbers of kids splitting campus to drive up to Norman OK and cheer them on.

In the contemporary-USA educational world, a large percentage of students select the college they do based on all criteria and appurtenances other than academics. Most undergraduate students don't think of college as a job, much less as an investment--at least in part because (a) their parents have not raised them to take responsibility, financial or otherwise, for themselves, and (b) because the gulf of experience on this campus between the (relatively large) percentage who've never had a Real Job, versus the (much smaller) percentage who had and have to work their asses off just to stay in school. Rather, most undergraduates think of college as more a "time-served" obligation, as in "I hafta stay here in this boring-ass town and listen to these boring-ass professors (when I'm not cutting class) and read these boring-ass books (except when I can get together with 15 of my fraternity brothers and short-term-memory-cram the stolen exam answers), for four years, while Mom 'n' Dad pay for it, and then, after four years, you have to give me a degree." There is little or no awareness that it's not presence but excellence that, in the post-high-school world, is going to determine reward. Most of the undergrads don't get this, and in fact become terribly resentful, and self-righteous--to the point of claiming they're going to "take legal action," if they don't get a grade, or the grade they want. "But I was there every day!" or "But I only missed 3 quizzes!" or (my favorite) "But can't I do extra-credit to make up for it?!?" are whines we hear, at this time of the year, on a daily basis. But these whines are ultimately the fault, not of the poor infantile overgrown-adolescents we hear them from, but from the parents who actually treated Junior as if merely showing up was equivalent to achieving excellence.

This unjustified sense of entitlement extends beyond the classroom and its outside obligations (or resentment thereof) to all other aspects of the college experience. They've seen or heard the bullshit fantasy world that's promulgated by dumb teen-targeted "college" films, or the dumber-than-dumb MTV University or MTV Spring Break, or the moral obscenity and childish randiness of Girls Gone Wild, and they presume that all college campuses not only are, but are supposed to be, consistent with that fantasy. And if the reality of the campus they wind up attending doesn't match up to the fantasy, they manifest a resentful sense of disappointed entitlement to that too.

I still remember when Indiana fired their "legendary" basketball coach's ass around 1999--an event that was long overdue and the provocation for which had been preceded by years of verbal and physical abuse, ethical malfeasance, and a general manner of unaccountable bullying. They were, as I say, long overdue for kicking his ass out the door, but had put this off again and again--mostly because the University's upper administration didn't have the nads to take the inevitable political heat that would ensue. So they delayed, and waffled, and prevaricated--in short, they enabled a continuation of that same behavior--and so in the end the break was of course more contentious and politically explosive than it need have been

It was explosive not only with the boosters (who care only about the prestige and bragging rights that a winning college football or basketball team provides them with their network of Old Rich folks), or with the alumni (who care only about somehow maintaining the unrealistic nostalgic fantasy of what they think their decades-departed college career was like), or with the current students (who basically never give a shit about ethics or conduct on their own parts, or that of the faculty or staff--except when it goes against the students' own wants), but also--at least as potently--with the incoming students: the freshmen and sophomores. Who, on the night the firing was announced, gathered on the lawn of the university president's on-campus home, a beautiful old Georgian-style mansion, and hung him in effigy. There were four thousand kids out there that night, screaming bloody murder and childish abuse, simply because the prez had finally found the belated nads to fire a dysfunctional, violent, unethical man who would, had he not been a winning coach, have lost his gig years before.

But it wasn't because of any high policy or ethical or adminstrative considerations that these kids were screaming for the president's blood. It had nothing to do even with their "pride" in the university's (mostly shake-and-baked) "traditions". It had fuck-all to do with those things, and everything to do with these spoiled children's sense that they were entitled to a college experience that included a legendary coach. I actually heard kids that night, with the sublime, self-righteous, lack of self-awareness of the young, screeching "It's not fair! It's not fair, 'cause I came here because he was here, and now he's not gonna be here, and he's why I came here! It's not fair!" (There is no end to such kids' hyper-sensitivity to "unfair" treatment, even if they are oblivious to, and refuse to be bound by, any concept of parallel responsibility in their conduct toward others.)

And even that isn't the fault of those "rioting" kids (I would have loved to grab the noisiest of those little bastards and haul his candy ass into one of the real riot situations I've experienced--that would definitely put paid to their claim, like Clarence Thomas's infamous "lynching" comment).

No, it was the fault of a parenting culture that likewise believes "if I give your college my kid's tuition money, you are obligated to ram an education into his/her head, even if no part of my parenting ever even considered how to inculcate into him/her any sense of personal responsibility." No parent loses credibility with me quicker than by saying "I paid for this education and I expect my kid to get it!" because typically those are the same noisy, mistakenly-entitled jackasses who modeled similar "gimme what's mine that somebody else paid for!" behavior for their own offspring. When the balance of my classes are made up of kids who've worked summer and after-school jobs since they were children, or whose parents are working 2 and 3 jobs to pay for tuition, or who had to transfer from their S and E Texas schools because hurricanes took their cities away, or who are the first generation in their families to ever even see the inside of a college classroom, some noisy little bastard who thinks it's "unfair" that s/he has to come to class on the Friday before a Saturday football game is gonna get very short shrift.

My typical response is one I learned from observing smart and tough high-school band directors (and it works with the rare music student who tries this shit with me, because those music students almost all had smart and tough high-school band directors):

"You wanna walk? Be my guest--there are four other people in line behind you who want the seat more than you do."

That's how we start growing them up.

On the other (more positive) note: guest-shot by a few members of the Celtic Ensemble in an adjunct's music appreciation (e.g., learning to think and talk about music for non-majors) class. Now, in the third academic year of the CE's existence, it is hugely satisfying to have trained-up a crop of youngsters who, regardless of their prior experience (or lack thereof), can think and react and play like traditional musicians: e.g., pay attention, listen to what's happening, know in advance the sonic result of what you're about to do, play what you hear, etc. They're bright kids and have been touchingly willing to suspend disbelief and learn new procedures, instruments, repertoires, ways of hearing, ensemble concepts, and it's really starting to bear fruit in this third year. Now, I can put out the call for volunteers to participate in this in-class demonstration, and neither have to stress about particular numbers nor worry too much about specific repertoire: they all have enough confidence, competence, and sensitivity to play when they know stuff, hang in with stuff they only sort of know, and lay out without prejudice. It's sort of the equivalent of the dictum my martial arts teacher gave me years ago:

"Keep your head up, keep your eyes open, don't forget to breathe."

Below the jump: foliage finally turning on the South Plains:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Quick hit: Fuzzy people 44

Younger Brother and his spouse are participants in the NEADS program, which foster-raises puppies being trained for assistive purposes; he sends along a snap of their newest, Nelly:

As YB says, "I dunno went wrong; we asked for a cute one!"

Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Day 41 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Minimalist edition)

Hump day in the penultimate full week. Next week is 2 days (MT) before mandatory Thanksgiving break; week after is 3 days (MTW) before end of classes; then the aptly-named-round-here "Dead Day" (1 day break); then Finals. Which, if the damned football team keeps winning, may well be interrupted with a Bowl game on the Saturday, when both of my classes are supposed to have their exams.

Obviously same would be rescheduled. And, I can't complain: when ESPN's "College Game Day" (get the airbrushed big-dumb-lummox former jocks who now host the NCAA-oriented talk show into town for 2 1/2 days, broadcasting live from "Tent City", and running constant blurbs about the town and the university) hits your town twice in a season, that's literally 100's of thousands of bucks of free advertising. Which in turn helps with recruiting. Which in turns help generate more money from boosters who don't understand what "music" is unless there's a marching band visible.

But it does make it harder for the kiddos to concentrate. Sitting in my office this lunch-time, I overheard the (excellent, imaginative, approachable, expert) marching-band conductor say to the assembled multitudes "these discussions are ongoing but I can't tell you about any of them." Which the kids understand, but which does basically fuck-all to facilitate their concentration--they're just as scattered and just as much at the end of their emotional tethers as ever. As I commented yesterday, at this late date in a long semester, we have to balance concentration and compassion--and occasionally forego some of the former in favor of the latter.

So far so good. Today was "minimalism" day in the freshman class: Riley, Reich, Glass et al. 10 years ago when I started teaching this material, the classical/conservatory kids were deeply averse to this music, because it was "boring," or "simplistic," or--in short--didn't sound enough like Shostakovich or Brahms. In other words, they were coming from a late-Romantic/early Modern "if it's good it has to be complicated, and if it's simple it can't be good" mindset. Oddly enough, that mindset, or at least its vocalization, is now largely absent any more: the classical kids have heard enough trance music, or house music, or ambient music, or something similar--or even something influenced by these various composers--that the "good=complicated simple=bad" circuit just simply seems to have been unhooked.

Which is a big farking relief. I am not sorry to bid farewell to that late-Romantic/early Modern bullshit mindset, and to no longer have to teach "past" it. So now I can lay Terry Riley's magisterial In C from 1964 on them, and they're totally into it--they don't care that it doesn't sound like Shostakovich or Brahms.

In Riley's instructions, any number or combination of instruments all start together on melodic fragment #1, and all players and sections have to play #1 through #53 in sequence; that much is fixed.

What's not fixed is the number of repeats for each fragment. So Player A gets to decide how many times to repeat #1, before moving to #2 and following; while Player B may decide on a completely different number of repeats for a given fragment. So pretty quickly, the parts move away from one another (in Reich's terminology, they "move out of phase" with one another) and as a result every performance is unique and driven by a wonderfully organic, healthy, and open interplay between composer's intent, performers' choice, and even audience response: e.g., if the players feel the performance is beginning to drag, or to lose the audience, they can opt to move more swiftly on to more engaging or contrasting material--not have to saw away grimly until the symphony is done.

In C is also a great teaching piece because it so clearly exemplifies the fundamental insights of Minimalism, which were "revolutionary" or "controversial" only in light of the German academic serialism that had preceded it in the conservatories: the idea that musicians might have some insight to offer in a given performance, that a given performance might possibly respond to or even thrive based upon responses to audiences, that audiences could actually be encouraged to invest in and enjoy. These were all relatively outrageous coming out of the Second Viennese School/Milton Babbitt/"Who cares if you listen?" era, but they found an immediate positive response.

So to these kids in my classroom. They're actually young enough that they're unaware of the good/bad complicated/simple" hierarchy. So they just dig the music. And at this point in the semester, when we only have 4 more class meetings left before exams, music they can still grok and enjoy is at a premium.

In C is also a great teaching piece because there are actually good and bad performances (I think it was Reich who said "I knew when I discovered I could make mistakes in the method that I was on to something"). So you play them the audio version on the Norton Anthology CDs (short, a little slow, not much dynamic contrast, kind of anemic), and then you play them a youtube video, which has the advantage of adding the visual dynamics and thus more completely engaging them--but which is still kind of anemic and less than riveting.

And then you say, "yeah, I think those performances are kind of weeny--but what a cool idea for a piece, right?", and they reluctantly nod. But the percussionists, usually the most hung-over and least-engaged of anybody in the room, sitting way back in the top tier as far away from me as they can get, are sitting up and taking notice, because they get that a piece like this is going to (a) play to their strengths (time, ensemble, groove, etc) and (b) provide far more room for them to have a say in how the thing sounds.

And then you say, "yeah, I think you guys could do it better. So bring your instruments on Friday, and we'll show those Youtube types how we really do in Texas" and then they get really excited, and you say "OK, we're done for today," and they look at their cell phones to check the time (none of them wear watches anymore) and realize that you're letting them out 10 minutes early, and it absolutely freaking makes their day. And they bolt for the door, and they are actually...excited...about coming to the last Friday in the semester.

That's a good day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Day 40 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Crankin'-out edition)

There's a tune played by James Kelly on his Ring Sessions CD called "Cranking Out," a great blazing D major reel, which sort of epitomizes the impact of this final full week of the semester. We come back for 3 days of class meetings MTW of the week after Thanksgiving, but to all intents and purposes Nov 17-21 this year is the last full week of classes: some percentage of the undergrads won't come back at all between Thanksgiving and finals week, and the ones who do return in body will be mentally completely absent--these kids are done with the semester. The grad students will be in here punching, most of them staying in town over the Thanksgiving break and trying to catch up with final projects and study for exams (it always saddens me to come in to the music building over the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays, and see it deserted except for the overseas students; thank God for compassionate faculty colleagues who almost always make sure that their foreign students have places to go and people to be with at those times). The undergrad music kids still have an absolute ton of responsibilities, but most of them are performances--recitals, juries, hearings, SOM or sports events, Carol of Lights, symphony/Nutcracker gigs, etc--rather than academic deadlines, so it's damned difficult to get them to concentrate on their schoolwork. Unlike the general population, the SOM kids are still all here mentally, but they're so fried, so overworked, and so physically exhausted that flogging them to be productive is the wrong strategy. Have to find more effective and compassionate means to keep them engaged and working, even past the psycho-emotional exhaustion.

The situation is somewhat the same for studio and conducting faculty colleagues: sure, they don't have to read 100+ undergraduate papers in multi-stage increments, but they do have to be present for and grade hearings for every single student in the SOM. Students studying voice or an instrument receive credit hours for that study, which means that, in turn, they have to be assessed and graded. In the interest of accuracy, objectivity, and (always very important for a bureaucracy) legal cover, the students' semester grades are assessed not by individual studio teachers, but rather by the entire faculty of the respective instrumental divisions: winds, brass, strings, voice, percussion, etc.

That means that, if you have 50-75 brass majors in the program (which we easily do), every one of those students must be heard at a "jury" and every member of the brass faculty has to sit through every jury. They may not have to read 100 papers at the end of the semester, but they are obligated, over the course of about a 4-day period (because of course it would be unfair to put some students' juries very early, as that allows them far less time to prepare), to hear 50-75 100-minute juries--and pay attention, and listen not only for technique, but also expression, but also improvement, but also focus. It's a damned hard job and it hits them right at the end of the semester.

On the academic side--or at least within our little Musicology division--it's a lot lighter at the end game. We bust our asses for the whole semester, reading all the six incremental stages of those 100+ undergrad research projects, not only to keep the youngsters on track (and so that they don't, in time-honored undergrad fashion, try to write their entire 10-page research paper the night before it is due), but also because it lightens the load at the end. We do still have to read 'em all--usually, one or two long days sitting around a conference table, professor-of-record and teaching assistants reading to a rubric, so that each final paper gets read by not one but three different assessors--but the overall quality and accuracy of execution is typically much better.

And that's the other reason for the six-stage incremental-over-the-whole-semester research project, because nothing is so time-consuming as a project that doesn't conform to stipulations. It's a hell of a lot quicker to grade a project that does include all the requisite elements, just as it's a hell of a lot easier and more efficient to teach a student who understands and meets the requirements the first time around. Remediation is about 200% more time-consuming than is education--so we want to do as little remediation as we can, and to chunk out what part is necessary to individual students' own homework chores outside of precious classroom time. The multi-stage format helps this.

Just as a system that works is less effort-intensive--and thus far less stressful--than one that either doesn't work or hasn't even yet been conceived. I'm a big fan of clear structures and consistent schedules--of tasks, duties, deadlines, and other activities--because my observation and experience suggests that such structures and schedules save time and stress. If I'm going to produce a weekly radio program, I'm going to try to do it the same day and time, in the same location, and using the same procedures (down to the keyboard shortcuts that save me having to use the digital workstation's mouse)--because that frees up more concentration for new thinking and new projects. If I'm going to cook a meal I've made before, I'm going to try to do it in the same sequence using the same ingredients and techniques--and, ideally, by combining those from memory, rather than from reading a recipe, because it frees up concentration and enhances attention. In fact, I think I learned some of this from working in restaurant kitchens: to quote the great (if snarky and egocentric) Anthony Bourdain from his travel channel program No Reservations, "you don't 'think' the cooking, you just do the cooking."

At this stage of the semester, with the systems we've set up and the lines of command and communication we've established, we are--pretty much--just "doing" the cooking: I don't (much, anymore) have to play the traffic cop. The meal--the final projects, performances, juries, hearings, etc--will come out of the oven, hopefully done to a turn, will be consumed, hopefully entirely, and then we'll wash the dishes and start again. In his wonderful Passing the Time in Ballymenone, talking about the physical design and material objects of rural kitchens in Ulster, Henry Glassie describes watching a farmer "finish his tea and, in one gesture, wipe the cup, place it back on the dresser, and, in the same motion, turn to the door and stride out to the fields again." That's the sense of grace, of unchanging (and un-ending) organic motion, of the long-cycled patterned dance, that we slowly, slowly are building into our systems and--hopefully--the lives of our students.

In similar light, we're coming up on a bunch of big and small performance obligations for the Celtic Ensemble. I've blogged before about how we try to structure the ensemble's year, to reflect not only smart pedagogy--because, after all, most of these young people have not played vernacular musics or used vernacular techniques of learning before--but also a sense of organic relationship to the seasons, climate, landscape, and local community. I'm a big proponent of true grassroots organizing for arts initiatives. It's not that I'm opposed to getting big chunks of fiscal or other support from top-down organizations like non-profits or governments, but that, in my observation and experience, those funds are (a) not typically targeted toward the kind of arts that I care about doing or (b) come with absurd, ridiculous, ill-informed, political strings-attached. There's a reason that I categorically refuse to partner with the dumbass, incestuous, you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours good old boy in-group jerks who predominate in this city's government, and it's not just because I disapprove of their performance as "civil servants." But rather because I have repeatedly watched them fuck up simple processes, inject their own political or greedy motives, and betray the public arts trust that they're supposed to be serving.

One of the great, great privileges in my life is that I don't have to put up with this bullshit. Sure, my boss prefers that I avoid saying, to their faces, what I think of these dumbass good old boys, but post-tenure I have the great luxury of "politely declining" to work directly with them. If they want to cough up cash in advance for me to bring one of my ensembles to their dumbass "events", fine; if they want to call me to appear on a panel or speak to a reporter about the local arts scene, fine. But I won't (and have the luxury of not having to) rely upon them, or give them anything for free. Because all they know about is taking, and that's not why I do what I do.

Another great privilege in my life is that, as of right now anyway, I can run the ensembles and play the musics I do for other than financial reasons. I was a working musician for years and starved, which in turn mandated that I had to take any gig, not matter for whom, and no matter whether it was music that I either wanted or, in some cases, knew how to play. I'm very fortunate that I don't have to do that anymore and, especially as a teacher, can instead think about other criteria for accepting or declining a gig: "will it be enjoyable?"; "will it teach me or others something?"; "will it build for the future?"; "will it give the players or audience--or both--a positive experience, even if players or audience don't realize that until afterward?"

It sounds high-flown, and it is: I believe music, and the performative/communicative arts as a whole, are profoundly (and unrecognized) major positive forces in the world.

It sounds messianic, and it's not: I was a fan of such musical motivations long before I ever became a player.

It's a product of decades of empirical observation and experience, which suggest to me that building an arts organization from the ground up--more slowly, person-by-person, finding satisfaction in very modest incremental games, has at least two benefits not available via top-down management models:

(1) your client base may be smaller, but they are far more likely to be dedicated, committed, and in it for the long haul. Once those individuals have personally experienced what it's like to be involved in a person-to-person expressive art--dance, song, music, theatricals, etc--they are far more likely to come back for more, and indeed to become a stakeholder and an investor of time and effort in extending the community to more people;

(2) it is entirely non-dependent upon outside funders or gatekeepers. Brendan Canty, of the great D.C. hardcore band Fugazi, put it very well when he said "there is nothing as powerful as the word 'No.' 'No' to a club-owner who wants to bar the under-21's so he can sell more beer. 'No' to a club-owner who wants to increase the modest and easily-changed door price of 5 bucks. 'No' to a record deal where we have to give up creative control." Brendan, and the whole DIY/punk-rock movement, figured out years ago that saying 'No'--being willing to walk away from easy money or infrastructure--was actually empowering, because it meant that you learned to rely upon only those individuals or infrastructures you could trust to be invested for the long haul.

So to this year's Celtic Ensemble. The Celtic Christmas has been running for 7 years, my little local Irish band for 8, the Ensemble itself for three. Over those years, with a careful eye toward the annual cycles of the community and the season, an awareness of how much all humans respond to person-to-person expressive arts (even if they don't yet know they do), a resolute rejection of the asshole good-old-boys (of all ages, genders, and classes) who promise to "make things easier for you guys" if we only just give up control, and an acceptance of the fact that every single fucking gig is about outreach and audience education, we have built a modest grassroots movement whose total membership may be very small, but whose client base is very big; whose budget is small (or non-existent) but whose visibility in the community is remarkably high. We have the power that comes from saying 'No," or, more accurately and constructively, "Yes--but on our terms."

If that means we have to initiate stuff: so be it. If it means we have to do the work ourselves and book the gigs ourselves and hustle the promotion ourselves and teach the music and dancing to ourselves and sell the audience ourselves and create a sense of community and satisfaction and reward ourselves: so be it.

To paraphrase Robert Parker's great character "Hawk" in the otherwise forgettable-as-potato chips Spenser detective novels,

"We know we can trust us."

I'm proud of my guys.
Now playing: Solas - The Yellow Tinker / Cranking Out / Master Crowley's #2
via FoxyTunes

Monday, November 17, 2008

Blue norther

Too wiped to post anything credible; in lieu of anything substantive, here's a series of shots of the storm front instead.

Winter comin'.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Day 39 (Round II) "In the trenches" (Dancin' 'til Friday comes around edition)

Workstation for the Celtic Ensemble's video-podcast series on Youtube, "The Wheel of the Year." About the only way I ever learn software is by setting some specific task I want to learn how to accomplish, learning how to accomplish that particular task in that software (forget about all the other options), and only adding to my skillz if/as I need to accomplish a different sort of task in the same package. I know 1 or 2 tasks in about 15 different kinds of software: Photoshop, Frontpage, Excel, Ulead (video), CoolEdit, etc, etc, etc. It's a little like Conan Doyle's Holmes, who "knew what was sufficient for him to accomplish his work, and no more." And, in the modern pedagogical environment, there are so many different tools that go into the box of skills that being a teacher implies that, if I tried to sit down and read through and/or work through all the manuals or "jumpstart" classes for all the software I use, I would literally never get any actual tasks accomplished. I opt for more limited, more focused learning that's more directly task-oriented for my job.

End of the 12th week of classes here. The kids are beyond-fried: as a result of both calendric peculiarities (starting the fall semester very early), the relative lateness of Thanksgiving break this year, the lack of any mid-semester break of any substance, the necessity of the marching-band kids to spend pretty much every waking hour of every weekend supplying music for football games, and, finally, this year, a football team that just keeps winning, they've had almost total stress and almost no rest for literally months. The result in turn is that they are sleep-deprived, getting sick, and melting down right and left all around us. It's so serious that our boss took time in a faculty meeting to say "here's just how much you should be paying attention to warning bells you may be receiving about students' mental or physical well-being."

Now, I know from stress: between my childhood, and my graduate school experience, I figure that literally more than half of my years have been spent in environments that were physically, mentally, or emotionally debilitating (or all three). I have certainly learned to take the indicators--the "warning bells"--very goddamned seriously: we had suicides or attempts thereat literally once or more a year at Indiana. When I see a kid who's either manic or affectless, sleeping not at all or 16 hours a day, unable to concentrate, prone to tears to inappropriate anger, I know what that can mean (I was borderline-depressed or suicidal for a number of years), and I don't ignore it.

Of course, there are other issues--these young people are supposed to be growing up, and we're not supposed to do it for them. Part of what they are supposed to be learning is to handle both the professional and personal balance; to keep track of their own mental, physical, and emotional health; and to make smart and mature choices about those balances. And, if their professors do it for them, it's invasive and inappropriate--even if they like and prefer that their professors do so. You have to know, as a professor, when and how to intervene--and how or how not to: a fine line to walk.

On the other hand, what you can do, pretty much any time and in any circumstance, is to provide opportunities for the student him/herself to either cite--or at least to vent--regarding the problems they're having. There's an old Zen aphorism that says "only offer advice after three requests for it"--which is in itself good advice. But that adage is talking about what you should or shouldn't do as interlocutor--it doesn't say what you should or shouldn't do as listener. What a hell of a lot of these young people need is not advice, but opportunity: not advice as in "here's what you should do," but opportunity as in "here's what you are allowed to think, consider, imagine, hope, dream." Sometimes the best things I can do for a student who's stressed, melting down, or simply at a crossroads is to provide an environment in which it is safe, and encouraged, that s/he imagine new possibilities. That is what being a teacher is about--the opening of new horizons.

And, if you've been teaching a long time, and have watched literally hundreds of students, over several decades, go through the cycle of excitement/initiative/reality/overload/crash/repeat, you can help them cope--if only by providing opportunities for them to vent, verbally or otherwise.

An even higher, more sophisticated, and (I think potentially) more valuable contribution which decades of experience make possible is knowing when they need to vent, even if they don't know themselves. I've blogged before about our "Friday Shout-Out," wherein we recognize that any Friday in the semester, early or late, is likely for the undergrads to be a high-stress, low-attention day. So, on Fridays, rather than flogging them to concentrate despite the stress/attention deficit, I do the class announcements, and then say "OK, can I have a shout-out for Friday?" and they scream like banshees at the tops of their lungs. After the Shout-Out, the stress-release is substantial enough that they're better able to concentrate.

But by the end of the 12th week of the semester, with an unbeaten football team, another out-of-town game looming tomorrow, a bunch of them gone for various music conventions, and the balance of them exhausted and stressed-to-the-max, it's going to take more than a Shout-Out to make 'em cope. They may not know it, but they're so tense, so burnt-out, that even the motivated ones--to say nothing of the mouth-breathing criminals--can barely exert themselves to concentrate.

The wrong thing to do here would be to believe that simply flogging them harder to do the same things (process lecture, listening, engage in discussion) is going to get effective results. They'll just tune out that much more--they're so tired that they just don't care.

So we change it up: today's lecture was on kinesics, and began with this slide:

Now, you put a slide like that up on a Friday for a room full of freshmen who are over-tired (and over-excited) and you can feel the energy go out of the room. But sometimes, you actually do that on purpose: you front-load the one single abstract/textual concept you want them to internalize over the course of the entire lecture, accepting that the energy will go out of the room like a pierced balloon, and assuming that you will have to build all the way back up, over the 50:00 minutes, to the peak of energy at which you want to send them out at the end of class.

So then we have 5:00 minutes discussion about "body-knowledge," and all the kinds of information that musicians internalize based upon non-verbal, gestural, and/or physical models. Today, I said "OK, give me an example of some kind of non-verbal cue in music", and somebody said "conducting," so I said, "OK, how many of you are interested in conducting?" (12 or so hands out of 100 go up), and I said "OK, you 12 all stand up, right where you are." And they stand up, and you say, "OK, as a conductor, how would you show the orchestra how to emphasize the dominant chord before the final cadence, and then, how would you show the audience when they can applaud?" And they all give a kind of half-assed, weenie "hold and then resolve and then cut-off," and you say "nah, nah, nah--come on now: I played under Bernstein [which is the truth, by the way] and that guy knew how to milk the drama...come on, now!" And then the hambones--who you've already identified because it's precisely those same personalities who want to be conductors--get more into it, and give you the "Bugs Bunny as Toscanini" shtick, and the rest of them laugh, and you can feel the energy come back.

Then you show them a video, and say "what does this dancing tell you as a musician about how to play the music?":

And then you show them the next, and say "what does this one tell you?"

And then, "how about this one?"

And at each stage, you elicit responses to the question, "what does this kinesic information tell you as a musician? What can you learn from this?", and they're so familiar and comfortable with garnering data from video information that now they're sitting up and taking notice, and making notes, and nudging and talking to each other. And then you play this one:

And each time, you get them to engage: not just with you (that teacher-student teacher-student teacher-student one-to-one exchange, in a class of 100, gets really old), but with the videos, and with each other, and you can step back and let their energy come flowing back.

And then you tell them, "OK, here's one more example: your TA is going to play a Breton an-dro for you on the tin whistle," and she steps up and plays great (and of course they're gobsmacked, because they're only accustomed to seeing her handing around attendance sheets and running the technology), and they all applaud.

And then you describe the fest-noz (night festivals) in Brittany where these are danced, "fueled by raw oysters and hard cider," and they all laugh.

And then you hit the jackpot, because some kid says, unprompted, "Can you show us how you dance it?", and, thanking your lucky stars for synchronicity, you say "No, I can't."

And they all groan, and deflate.

And you say, "But you can show us how," and they all go "whoooaaaaaaaa.....!"

And then you call them all down on the floor--all 100+ of them--and set them up in four concentric circles, and show them the Breton hand-to-hand (or pinkie-to-pinkie) clasp, and put the tin-whistling TA in the center, and show them the "left-right-left RIGHT left-right-left RIGHT" stepping (dead simple, which is one of the things that makes this a great dance to teach to novices), and before they really know it, you've got all 100 of them dancing in the great concentric wheels, like gears in a piece of cosmic clockwork, that have fueled traditional culture in Brittany for 300 years--and, if you're willing to expand your definition of "traditional culture" to pan-Europe, or pan-Africa, or pan-Asia, for three thousand years--and even though they don't really know just how much they needed it, their heads are up, and their eyes are open, and their whole bodies are involved, and they're breathing to the bottom of their lungs, and laughing, and you can feel the stress, like a black river of tar, flowing out of the room and down the stairs as the air gets a little richer and the vibe gets a lot better.

And then you say, "OK, there is NO homework assignment over the weekend," and they cheer like banshees, and go out of the room laughing and yelling to each other and bouncing on their toes. And a little happier and healthier and stronger than when they walked in.

That's why I'm a teacher. That's why we have been doing precisely that--that very thing: understanding and providing what young people need and what can help them cope, even if they don't know it themselves--for a very long time.
A very long time.

Below the jump: full moon madness on the November South Plains:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fuzzy people 43: Doggie zen

Why animals are superior to humans.
Thanks to the Rev for the "fuzzy people" appellation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to be the Lead Dog

Working on a full-length "Office" post (now uploaded; see below), but in the meantime here's the nub of my teaching/classroom disciplinary approach:

It's all in the "scary looks."

Day 38 (Round II) "In the trenches" (missionary edition)

An admired colleague and former student writes from California:

It seems that you and I share quite a few of the same political/social ideologies. That being said, how can you stand a toxic, stagnant environment like Lubbock?
My reply:
Work for change. Recognize that being a teacher is the most radical thing I'm competently trained to do. Take breaks away from here when I can.

(And, I'm not a minority member. Life here is a hell of a lot less stressful for a straight, white, male, tenured, college professor.

Plus, I bitch a lot.)
The great Simone de Beauvoir, one of the towering figures of 20th century philosophy and politics, and the life-partner of the equally-great Jean-Paul Sartre, whose articulation of existentialism took a machete to the tangled, jargon-ridden, self-referential undergrowth of 19th century German philosophy--and thus cleared the way for both the 1960s Zen revolution and the Uprisings of 1968 (and don't you wish you could have overheard their breakfast conversations!), once said, paraphrasing Lucifer:
I don't want to go to heaven. I'd rather be a missionary in Hell.
While I would never compare myself to either Lucifer or Simone de Beauvoir (even I don't have that much hubris), or Lubbock to Hell, there is the nub of an answer to my friend's question in de Beauvoir's mot. For whatever combination of reasons (nature, nurture, karma, and, I suspect, more than a little bit of a messiah complex) my life has led me to places where compatible artistic, political, and community resources are more nascent than realized, more protean than complete. I've lived in real progressive arts/politics centers and their obverse: Boston, Bloomington, Cambridge, Chicago, New Orleans, lower Manhattan, versus W Texas--twice, now. In almost all cases of the former, I have been either only marginally aware/involved, or not at all, in their respective music and arts scenes: I lived in Boston and Chicago, and almost completely missed both cities' fantastic Irish music scenes; I lived in lower Manhattan and New Orleans, and was too young, too untutored--and/or too emotionally disaffected--to take advantage of their incredible jazz & blues scenes. It was only when I lived in Bloomington--and after years of therapy--that I began to be able to look around me, recognize the beauty and expressive opportunities of whatever was the local arts community, and find ways to integrate myself within it. And in the cases of both Cambridge (6 years) and Bloomington (12 years), where Dharmonia and I lived the longest, by the time we departed I was screaming nuts at the restrictions or assumptions of the local scene and desperate to get out.

I suspect this had to do with both flaws and attributes of character. Although I like to think that I play reasonably well with others--and although I know that I thrive in situations where authority & criteria for excellence are clearly defined, especially when I'm not the one in charge--I really hate situations in which achievements, validity, or "cred" are measured by abstract, subjective, or "insies versus outsies" cliquerie. Dharmonia and I alienated a whole lot of pompous old folkies in the Boston/Cambridge late '70s scene because we had the "temerity" to get booked at the venerable Passim without having "paid the dues" that the aforementioned pomposities thought we should have (folkies are like academics: their turf wars are all the more ferocious because "the stakes are so small").

Certain parties on the Bloomington Irish scene disapproved of me because I had the "temerity" to recognize that there was an entire echelon of learning players who wanted to participate in the pub sessions, but either wouldn't, because they didn't want to gum-up the works, or would--and then do exactly that.

Such gatekeeping drives me nuts, even though there is enough of a similar impulse within me that I have to watch for it like a hawk, because it is ultimately about denying someone else something in order to try to feel better about yourself. That's a perhaps-understandable human foible but it sucks, because it makes individuals' worlds, experiences, opportunities, and sense of themselves smaller, rather than larger; constrained, rather than inclusive.

Here's how Olbermann put it.

Further to my California friend's comment, which was actually precipitated by CA's despicable passage of Prop 8: though at times I absolutely go crazy with the social and political conservatism, resolute small-mindedness (under the guise of "Real Amurkin" values as propounded by Caribou Barbie), and general unfamiliarity with the Big World, which all obtain in this place, I am actually happier here. Because, if nothing else, 50 years has taught me that the Universe has other plans for me than being a medium-sized fish in a Big Pond, and clawing my way up the ladder of achievement (and less-valid yardsticks) to become a Major Eminence. Looking back over the last 33 years--since I left home at 17 to go off to school on my own in Alphabet City--the Universe, operating according to its own inscrutable logic, has ensured that I would survive and thrive far better in places far more isolated, limited, nascent, backward, but which were pregnant with possibilities.

I teach because it's the most radical positive transformation I'm capable of, given my very modest aptitudes and abilities. I teach here because the Universe put me here, rather than someplace less "toxic and stagnant," and because, after 50 years, I've learned to do what the Universe tells me. As my great hero Gary Snyder put it, "these are the actions that can tilt the world just a few degrees on its axis."

That's why I do what I do. Here.

Below the jump: November sunset on the South Plains (view from the booze store):

Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 115 (changed-utterly edition)

In 1916, in the wake of the tragic collision of poetic rhetoric and tactical naivete that was the Easter Rising, WB Yeats, horrified at both his own culpability in promoting a "blood sacrifice" to try to free Ireland and his jealous disdain for the Rising's leaders, and at the insanely, catastrophically ill-reasoned response by the British government, who imprisoned and then executed its leaders, created a poem that attempted to grapple with all these conflicting emotions: both his own and those of the nation. For my money, it is a far greater poem than those Yeats works which either preceded it or are taught more commonly in Irish lit classes--maybe because it's more about history's heart-breaking paradoxes than about poetry's measured strophes--and is his finest hour until the very late Crazy Jane poems. The greatest line, which rises to the feel of a caione, is the tolling, weeping refraint:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
It's a line that both reaches back to the most ancient verbal poetry of Ireland, that rises to the level of the Triads (it seems it took the Rising and its fascist aftermath to break Yeats out of his self-engrossed and twee "Celtic Twilight"-isms), and it presages the mechanized horror of the Twentieth Century.

I believe that future generations may look back to the events of the past week and believe that they were as important, as psychologically and historically transformative, as was the Rising. Indeed, so many, many things are "changed, changed utterly"--but the miracle is that we seem to be awaking from a nightmare eight years when everything we thought we believed about our fellow Americans, about our values, about what our nation stood for, about what a leader actually is, was inverted, in a psychotic reversal of our history and our better selves. We were "led" (more accurately, ruled) by war criminals, oligarchs, sociopaths, thugs, liars, propagandists, and they tried to make us believe that was "strength", "security", "justice", and all the rest. It's like emerging from a nightmarish, drugged, feverish dream--and many still resist that awakening,--to a recognition that the world is more complicated, more nuanced, more uncertain, but also infinitely more rift with possibilities.

Human beings have the capacity for the greatest good and most utter evil. We need leaders who speak to, inspire, and require our better selves.

That's what the Founding Fathers, and the thousands of martyrs who gave their lives, on the front lines, the picket lines, the walls and towers and jails and lynching trees, expected. We owe it to them, and to the future generations yet unborn, to rise to our capacity for the greatest good.

For Real. Or, as Gary Snyder put it:
For All

Ah to be alive
on a mid-September morn
fording a stream
barefoot, pants rolled up,
holding boots, pack on,
sunshine, ice in the shallows,
northern rockies.

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
cold nose dripping
singing inside
creek music, heart music,
smell of sun on gravel.

I pledge allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.
Or as Little Steven put it

"I am a Patriot":

Below the jump:

An orphan jumps off the wall at Gruhn Guitars and into Dharmonia's arms:

Below that, Coyotebanjo and Dharmonia take their portraits with Mr Guitar:

Friday, November 07, 2008

Why? Because.


Because I'm a teacher.

Because I'm a historian.

Because I'm an artist.

Because I'm a community activist, Governor.

Because I'm a poet.

Because I'm a Buddhist.

Because I put my faith in compassion, not anger;

In love, not fear;

In hope, not death;

In peace, not war.;

In tolerance, not condemnation;

In inclusion, not division;

In wisdom, not ignorance;

In acceptance, not hatred;

In COMPETENCE, not ideology, Junior;

In participation, not passivity;

In progress, not regression;

In effort, not privilege;

In acceptance, not rejection;

In the mathematical reality of a diverse nation, not “teh Math” of Karl Rove.

"Because, little Princess, Allah cherishes Infinite Diversity."

Because of my students.

Because of my nephews.

Because of my brothers and sisters across the universe.

Because of 400 years.

Because of Emmett Till.

Because of our poor, neglected, crying-out planet.

Because of death and suffering that doesn't have to be.

Because I don't have many years left on this earth.

Because others will have to follow after us and the shit we created.

Because others came before us: Joe Hill. Gene Debs. Big Bill Haywood. Emma Goldman. The Rebel Girl. Malcolm. Mother Jones. Blind Willie Johnson. Shinryu Suzuki-Roshi. Gerrard Winstanley. Nelson Mandela. Stephen Biko. Frederick Douglass. Anne Hutchinson. Henry Johnson. Black Elk. Woody Guthrie. Johnny Appleseed.



That's why.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

"...and I get on my knees, and I pray...."

They're playing "Won't Get Fooled Again" over the sound-system in the university coffeeshop.

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-)

"...I tip my hat to the new Constitution
Make a bow to the new Revolution
Pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday
And I get on my knees, and I pray


A nation once again

Corey Booker (NJ), who defeated Sharpe James, is on MSNBC right now talking about celebrating the diversity and the wonderful multi-ethnic "deliciousness" of our nation. That is the vision of the nation I believe the Founding Fathers intended. That is the nation that I and the people I love live in.

Here's an anthem for my people and their role in the magnificent, unique, crazy-quilt diversity of OUR America:


When boyhood's fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men;
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland. long a province, be
A Nation once again!

Cho: A nation once again,
A nation once again,
And Ireland, long a province, be
A Nation once again!

And from that time, through wildest woe,
That hope has shown a far light,
Nor could love's brightest summer glow
Outshine that solemn starlight;
It seemed to watch above my head
In forum, field and fame,
Its angel voice sang round my bed,
A Nation once again.

It whisper'd too, that freedom's ark,
And service high and holy,
Would be profaned by feeling dark
And passions vain or lowly;
For, Freedom comes from God's right hand,
And needs a godly train;
And righteous men must make our land
A nation once again!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Black President

It's DONE.

Heat of the moment/lazy-meme blogging

Too wired & fried with the "day that's in it" to post thoughtful stuff, so I'll cop this meme from over at Dean Dad's:

The “Favorites” Meme

1.Political show - Colbert Report. I like Olbermann's ferocity and sense of disdain, but I would not even think of trying to derive any serious political insight from any television source--that's not the purpose of the medium's existence. When they have on CNN in the radio station's studio during the bi-annual pledge drive, I'm driven to such fury that I forget to pitch.

2. Picnic food – Probably, whatever I cooked myself: I make a badass hummus, veggie chili, cornbread, etc.

3. Mixed drink – gin & tonic: whatever craft-distilled gin (am currently a fan of Amsterdam) hasn't yet been picked up by greasy little yuppies as their pretence-of-the-moment. The small craft distillations being made in TX are actually excellent.

4. U.S. President – Tossup. Jefferson for his intellect and philosophical acumen, Lincoln for his courage (physical and moral), FDR for his focus, Carter for his retirement.

5. Kind of student to teach -- Dedicated.

6. Hobby you do or wish you still did – Northern Shaolin Five Animals style. I miss combat.

7. Sports commentator – Oy. My elder brother's the only competent one I've ever heard/read.

8. Sport to watch on TV – NBA I'm paying attention, NFL if I'm half paying attention. I still love to watch competent martial artists

9. Animal to have as a pet – Any that will have me. Grew up with dogs, but cats make better sense given my travel schedule. In a pinch, would love to live in a world in which no animals had to die as a result of human intervention. Failing that, work like a navvy for PETA, World Wildlife Trust, no-kill shelters.

10. Halloween costume you have worn – as a child: Patrick McGoohan as the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. As an adolescent: Alex-the-Droog from Clockwork Orange. Only one as an adult: "V" from Vendetta ("People shouldn't fear their governments...").

11. Kind of dessert – Uhhhh...not much of a dessert fan. Does hot whiskey (1 dram whiskey, lemon, sugar, in a tumbler with hot water) count?

12. Comic strip – Calvin and Hobbes.

13. Style or make of footwear – Don't like shoes. My ancestors wouldn't even wear pants.

14. Ice cream flavor - See #11.

15. College or university president – Well, how about "Regime change begins at home"?

16. Internet news source – Usual suspects for a DFH liberal college professor: dailykos.com, talkingpointsmemo.com, openleft.com (Stoller and Bower are my heroes).

17. Vacation spot – always, and ever, Eire. "My heart's tonight in Ireland/In the sweet County Clare."

18. Wine – Chilean, Ozzie, or Spanish reds. Also really partial to a nice white you can get in Vienna called Grune Weltliner.

19. Way to waste time instead of working – Reading on the damned Internet.

20. Student excuse for late work -- Don't have any favorites...only least favorites.

21. Reality show – Fuggedabout it. Politics and live sports are the best reality shows ever invented.

22. Jewelry on a man – Piercings and ink--that's me.

23. Pizza topping – Like a nice Tuscan pie: heavy on the garlic, artichoke, onion, maybe Kalamata, goat cheese; light or absent tomato sauce.

24. Children's movie – School of Rock.

25. Celebrity you wish would retire -- Sarah Fucking Palin!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Day 37 (Round II) "In the trenches" (countdown edition)

Counting down on a couple of timetables, 'round here. In about 36 hours Dharmonia and I head on up out of this joint for points East for another annual gathering of one of our particular tribes. Usually a pleasant hang, and a great reminder of the scholarly identity and activities that drew a lot of us to the field in the first place. Only problem is that I'm awful damned tired from all the very recent travel; though at least on this particular trip I'm mostly a tourist, not having to present. And, I expect that 40 hours from now in Nashville, there's gonna be a whole hell of a lot of musicologists running around wearing very big grins and exchanging "Yes we can" high-fives.

It's a fine line to walk, as an academic. The Bill O'Reilly/ David Horowitz stereotype of academics, which only really plays credibly with people who don't know any, is that we're isolated, spoiled, Ivory-Tower aesthetes with no practical knowledge of the way the world works. Leaving out the Limbaughs and O'Reilly's and Horowitz's of the world (who are so rich, so privileged, and so coddled that their criticism of us as "isolated" would be laughable if it were not so hateful), it is true that there are a lot of spoiled and self-indulgent people in academia.

But there are spoiled and self-indulgent people everywhere, in every profession. One of the many things that has frosted my bacon about the Disasta from Alaska is the cynical absurdity of her claim that she, and "her people," are more "real" than the people in "less-real" parts of America. As Jon Stewart said, "where the fuck exactly did Al Qaeda fly airplanes into buildings?" It was at the heart of the "fake" America she loves to denigrate--which is particularly crass coming from an ex-beauty queen and newscaster who knows exactly fuck-all about how working-class people actually live. For Limbaugh or O'Reilly or Horowitz or Palin to claim that academics are "elitists" prone to "filters" is to play onto the crudest and least-informed stereotypes about us.

Happily, I firmly believe that we are moving into an era in the national discourse when we may be able to shift the priorities we seek in our leaders: no longer will it matter so damned much whether we want to "have a beer" with the Preznit, or whether he "works with his hands" clearing brush on his photo-op ranch (where he never actually worked a day in his damned life). What'll matter is that we have someone with the smarts, the toughness, the intelligence, the fierce purpose, and the fucking practicality to deal with the way the world is, rather than the way that ill-informed people either hope or fear it is.

Positions of hope and positions of fear are equally bad places from which to make decisions. My own spiritual tradition believes that, in order to engender "right action," you have to begin by seeing the world as it is--and that means recognizing both its beauty and its horror, its joy and sorrow, as perfect just the way they are, because that is the way they are. We work for change while seeking to avoid clutching results. We recognize that all things are constantly in the moment of arising and passing away, and we refrain from clutching onto any of them. As the young Dalai Lama said to the 1960s Allen Ginsberg, "If you see something horrible, don't cling on to it. If you see something wonderful, don't cling on to it."

We work for positive change and the cessation of suffering, not because we think those things will ever be, can ever be eradicated. But because such work is a good thing to do, in and of itself at the moment of doing it. Moments, days, months, and lives arise and pass away, and any joy or sorrow we feel--as we should, because we are human--will not alter those realities by one iota.

So, to those who would claim that we professors are guilty of "liberal bias," I'll say this:

(1) you're insulting my ethics and my students' intelligence when you make that accusation;

(2) you aren't actually dealing with the reality; viz this article from that notorious "liberally-biased" paper in NYC:

"Three sets of researchers recently concluded that professors have virtually no impact on the political views and ideology of their students."
As I replied to my old friend the General, when he sent this to me:
We don't?!? You mean all these years I've been secretly preaching godless secular humanist baby-killing troop-betraying foreign-demon-worshipping tree-hugging terrorist-sympathizing commie/socialist/spreadin' the wealth class war and it didn't work?!? You mean I wound up just teaching them history and music and pedagogy and social engagement and reciprocity and community values?!?

I'm proud of my students, proud of my job, proud of my professional organization (who, if you look at last year's post around this time, successfully fought the US INS to a standstill on behalf of our sister NG), and of the work that we do. And I firmly believe that in about 36 hours we as a nation are going to take a step toward sanity, balance, clarity, reality, and compassion that we as a nation have been crying-out for.

So, here's my prediction:

Along with the big grins and the high-fives, I expect to walk around Nashville for the next five days thinking, "Yes, we DID." And being damned proud of it.

Because, for us as a nation, it is about damned time.

Below the jump: another countdown: the trees know the season is changing.