Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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):

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