Tuesday, December 30, 2008

"It's not my area"

The above is the kind of thing a smart academic says when someone asks him/her to hold forth on something on which the expertise is lacking. It's what Ferenc Szasz, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico who specializes in American and Scottish culture, should have said about hip-hop, instead of the following:

Examples of flyting, a kind of verbal dueling in which opponents would trade rhyming (and often obscene) insults with each other, date at least as far back as the 16th century; Mr. Szasz said Scottish slaveowners brought the practice to America, where it later evolved into hip-hop.
Now, I'm the last person to underestimate the glorious gumbo of colliding cultures that gave rise to American popular entertainments, but to root hip-hop in flyting, ignoring any apparent awareness of Jamaican toasting, dub poetry, and studio production, and their impact in the South Bronx, is to betray just how much you're "out of your area."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Travelin' day

Traveling the usual rainy, slick New England roads to visit relatives. If you're on the road, stay safe. If you're home, stay warm. And may it be so for all beings.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The point of it all

There is a key for everything, and the key to Paradise is to love the poor.
Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), as reported by Ibn Umar

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Outside-the-rotation movies blogging: The Big Sleep

I was never that big a fan of true noir or of Raymond Chandler: noir always struck me as Hollywood's inverted moralizing about a stratum of life that, in the '30s and '40s, it knew fuck-all about, and Chandler was, for sure, a Baroque stylist imitating--and, to be honest, perfecting--a formula pioneered by earlier writers. Chandler, the imitator, was the one who made a fortune out of the genre that Dashiell Hammett, an authentically tough man who really did know the worlds he depicted, had pioneered.

And, let's face it and though it pains me to say it, Bogart wasn't a great actor. For his time, he was an unusually real actor--when you put him up against the '30s leading men--though most of his great "performances" consisted of tics and twitches and hitchings-of-the-belt that were really remarkably formulaic. He was shorter and balder than they showed him in the films and his fight scenes were almost comically stilted (never more than in this outing).

But the thing that made Bogie stand out against the other "tough guys" of the era--and made the Ronald Reagans and John Waynes of the era look like the posturing pansies that they were--was, I think, the man's pure integrity. He played a number of different types of roles in his glory years--many more types than people tend to remember--but the iconic performances were of the bruised, battered men, mostly good but with a strong admixture of bad, who, when the chips were down, fought their conscience and never quit: Sam Spade of Maltese Falcon, Harry Morgan of To Have and Have Not, Frank McCloud of Key Largo (which contains the scenes, on board small boats, that probably show Bogart at his happiest in any film), and, of course, Rick in Casablanca.

That's what differentiated Bogie from Reagan or Wayne or, for that matter, so many other Hollywood players in the conservatizing Hollywood of the late '40s and early '50s. Elia Kazan, Walt Disney, that punk-ass bitch Reagan, Adolphe Menjou, and dozens of other Hollywood types who played or pretended to be "tough guys" when it didn't matter--when they were posturing in front of the cameras--strapped on the knee pads and gave Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Richard Nixon, and the rest of the fascist witch-hunters on the House Un-American Affairs Committee every bit of falsified information they could find or make up.

Bogie didn't. John Huston didn't. Betty Bacall didn't. Pete Seeger didn't. They acted like Americans--like the Americans who stood up against Thomas Gage, Lord North, and George III in 1775--and told McCarthy, Nixon, and the rest of those opportunistic cowards to fuck off.

That's why I'll forgive him the bad "acting" and the stylized tics, in a way that I'd never forgive Reagan or Wayne or the rest of them--because the toughness of the characters Bogart played came from inside him.

Bogie was real.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Outside-the-rotation travel blogging

Xmas eve travel. For somebody like me, who doesn't really care about this particular holiday but is acutely conscious of how large it bulks for older relatives, traveling at Christmas is a fairly ambivalent experience. Dharmonia and I have been "going home for Christmas," separately or together, for twenty-nine years, usually in conditions of considerable meteorological, navigational, or economic hardship. When you're 25, that feels fairly reasonable and fairly inevitable--and when you're 18, you can't wait to go home so that Mom can cook, launder, and coddle for you.

But by the time you're 35, it's not so much a vacation as an ordeal. When you have kids, I imagine the pressure must be pretty much insurmountable--you pretty much have to take the young'uns home for the grandparents' sake, though I sure don't even the exhausted and harried young parents I see, at this time of year, hoicked little ones through holiday-trafficked airports.

By the time you're 45, it's become obvious that "going home for Christmas" was never something (after adolescence, anyway) that you did for yourself--it was always something you were doing for the older folks. Either they didn't like to travel, or didn't feel up to it, or were too infirm, some of which are reasonable excuses. But when, in your late 20s or 30s, the older folks say "well, as soon as you have kids, we'll travel to you," and you realize that wouldd have been the truth--for a few years--specifically because they would have been willing to undergo the hardship, to see the grandkids, that they would refuse "merely" to see you. And when you don't have kids, that excuse is even thinner.

And then you get to be pushing 50, and it's really truly not possible for the old folks to travel--hell, in some cases, they can handle about 2 hours of your company before they are physically or mentally exhausted--and you realize that a whole new set of reasons mandating that you undergo the holiday schlep has come into play. When the elders get to a certain age and level of infirmity, you realize that you damned better make that bi-annual trip home because, not only is it impossible for the oldsters to travel, you don't know what the next year will bring. And you realize that, should you stand on your rights after 30 years of the schlep, and say "no, goddammit, this year, for the first fucking time in my life, I am staying home at the holidays," then that is the year when Something Bad will happen. And then you will really really regret staying home.

So you suck it up and say "OK, I guess this was never under my control, and was never about a 'fair exchange' or 'taking turns'"; they were never going to come visit you--even if they'd guilt-trip you for declining to come visit them. And you realize that the universe doesn't care what's fair; rather, it is asking you to put forth some effort in order to make an older person's life a little happier, even if only for 2 hours, at a season when you've never in your adult life ever been able to stay in your own home. The universe doesn't care--because it is dealing with larger issues than what is convenient for you. And it's asking you to remember that life is short and regret can be long. And that you do some awkward, frustrating, stressful, and unrewarding things because they make some other, older people happy.

And, at this season, which may be one of "comfort and joy" but can also damned sure include some loss and sorrow, it's a very small sacrifice to make.

May all beings be peaceful.

Below the jump: Mr Man's infallible instinct for the warm sunny spot:

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Doesn't feel like anywhere else...

...when the balding, barrel-shaped, overly- (if you're from New England, unnervingly) talkative guy at the Recycling Center, after telling you at length about the Christmas gifts he hopes to get, says,

"Well, I'm just an old hippie from Lubbock. I'm the only person I know who was a devotee of John Deere and Timothy Leary."

Sure doesn't feel like anywhere else!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Outside-the-rotation blogging: Top-26 films (youtube sampler)

What can I say? The meme is going around.

Not necessarily the greatest, or even necessarily the ones I most enjoy upon occasion. But, rather, these are the desert-island discs: the ones I can imagine watching over and over again in isolation from other films, and babbling their dialog to myself in the absence of other conversation. In other words, they’re the ones that tell the most classic stories with what I believe to be the most beautiful and effective writing—the ones that would speak (and have spoken) to me over the decades. Also, and for the same reason, heavily skewed toward English-language films—much as I would like to claim the aesthete-cred of prioritizing foreign films, that’s not mostly where I hang out.

40-year-old Virgin
Maybe the most effective updating of the screwball comedy I’ve seen. Great character acting out of the Apatow stable, Carell is both comic and courageous, and it has the utterly enchanting grown-up appeal of Catherine Keener.

Apocalypse Now
It’s not really about Vietnam as it was (for something closer to that, I’d maybe plump for Full Metal Jacket—at least in the Michael Herrian madness of that experience) but it’s a past-brilliant portrayal of what Vietnam meant in American consciousness—of just how crazy we went in those years. And it’s the best version of Conrad I’ve ever seen on screen. The African Queen is a lovely film story but Katherine Hepburn hasn’t worn well for me. American Splendor is a virtually perfect film, but that’s more due to the acting than the writing. The Apostle is magnificent but it’s mostly not about the dialogue, but about the feral intensity of Duvall’s title character. American Beauty is a bit exploitative (of suburbia and its discontents) but it has one of the greatest closing lines ever written in the movies. Amelie is right up there but it’s less about the dialog and more about Audrey Tatou’s luminous presence.

Big Lebowski
Has all the strengths of the Coen Bros.’ genius: fantastic, word-by-word quotable dialog, great characters written for great character actors out of the Coen stable (Goodman, Buscemi) plus fortunate fellow-travelers (Moore, Gazzara, Flea, Elliott), and some of the realest how-people-talk comedy I’ve ever seen. Butch Cassidy is magnificent but it too hasn’t worn all that well outside its own era.

Citizen Kane
The man was 25 years old at time of filming, OK? That’s pure-D genius, right there. And it’s a fantastic (and deserved) takedown of Randolph Hearst, the man who created the modern rationale for American imperialism. Cool Hand Luke is beautiful and accurate but it’s just too damned sad for repeated viewings. Same with Crumb, which is beautiful, sad, but also transcendent: the purity and clarity of his commitment to making art under all circumstances, no matter how neurotic.

Duck Soup
For my money, still the greatest of the Marx Bros. films, not least because they harnessed their patented, past-brilliant vaudeville-and-Yiddish-theatre slapstick to a political satire. Pretty much every scene is iconic. Dr. Strangelove is brilliant but it’s not quite the right story for a desert island, is it? Dead Man Walking is magnificent and courageous but too harrowing to watch on a daily (or even annual) basis.

Enter the Dragon
The baddest of the ‘70s martial artists in the greatest of his films. Looking back 35 years later, he’s still the baddest; and Bolo Yeung, the great Shaolin practitioner, is still the most persuasive heavy. The initial tournament scene, where he hits the Anglo heavy “O’Hara” faster than the eye can follow, made Dharmonia a martial-arts fan.

In some ways the archetypal Coen film (and the one that, preceding the friendlier O Brother, Lebowski, and Intolerable Cruelty, should have warned those shocked by the darkness of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading): imagining a genre film (noir, basically) set in an atypical but very strongly characteristic geo-cultural locale. They did the same thing with O Brother and Lebowski, to equally brilliant effect).

Godfather Part II
Less of Pacino, more of De Niro, and—crucially—Coppolla’s beyond-brilliant of pre-WWI Little Italy. Reached past the text of the book to tell Don Corleone’s back-story more brilliantly than Puzo ever did. Only competitive candidate would have been Groundhog Day, one of the sneakiest and most effective “skillful means” applications of Buddhist teachings Hollywood ever let slip by. The other might be Gone Baby Gone, one of the only Hollywood films that ever got either my home town or the working-class right. If I was stuck for a documentary, Genghis Blues would undeniably win best in category.

Harder They Come
A stone masterpiece. No money, less professional talent, but still the best movie ever made about Jamaica, about reggae, or about pop-music stardom and its cost.

It Happened One Night
I steadfastly refuse to include any Harrison Ford or Steven Spielberg film, here or elsewhere. I like the insurrectionary quality of Capra’s ‘30s films, and Claudette Colbert was adorable.

Jeremiah Johnson
By no means a perfect film, but infused with Redford’s earliest (and deepest) love for the wild places of the Far West—and, once again, proof that the very best stories are found in history, not fiction.

Like Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, this a deeply religious, deeply spiritual film that uses the medium to tell an honest story about experience, suffering, acceptance, and compassion. Much as I love and admire the Coens, Scorsese is the greatest American director of the past 60 years.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
I loved the books, while recognizing their manifest flaws (though I would resist inscribing Tolkien as any more of a racist than anyone else of his age, era, class, and intellectual training), but have come to believe that Jackson and his writing team made an even better story. TT is my favorite (darkest) of the films, as it’s my favorite of the books, because—to me—Tolkien’s roots in the Eddas and Sagas are clearest here. And God, would I like to see the Jackson Beowulf! The Last Waltz was right up there in this category, as was Lightning in a Bottle—the two greatest concert films ever made. Little Big Man’s a contender as well.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The best Python film, and the best ever made about how we moderns see the Middle Ages (best English-language portrayal as it was is The Name of the Rose—which I definitely do not want to watch alone on a desert island). Man Who Would Be King and the first half of Million Dollar Baby would be the only serious contenders in this Letter category. Maltese Falcon is up there but ultimately its genre conventions sink it for me—though Sidney Greenstreet’s masterful speech describing the history the “Black Bird” is one of the most wonderful portrayals of the voluptuous pleasures of history in cinema.

Gotta give it up for Altman, and this is the Letter category that was available—though I think Gosford Park is an even greater (and angrier) film, and both McCabe and MASH make (and deserve) anybody’s top-100 list.

O Brother Where Art Thou?
As the good Dr Masbrow put it, how can any critic not like the most perfect movie ever made?

Paper Moon
Not a perfect film, again—and both Peter Bogdanovich’s and Ryan O’Neal’s relationship with pre-pubescent Tatum’s was obviously beyond creepy—but it is a wonderful evocation of the grey-and-white world of the Dorothea Lange ‘30s. And the book is even greater.

I’m rigorously not listing Pulp Fiction here, because despite the brilliance of Samuel L Jackson’s Jules, Quentin Tarantino, to quote Kevin Murphy again, has no soul.

Quiet American
Brendan Fraser is underrated as an actor, Michael Caine is reliably solid in anything (like Morgan Freeman) but perfectly cast in this, and Graham Greene was, with Michael Herr, the most acute writer about Vietnam ever.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
This would be “Letter R” even if I hadn’t seen a production (my first Stoppard) at the Young Vic in 1975. The other candidate in this alphabetical location was Run Lola Run, and, as much as I love Franke Potente (unquestionably the best part of the Bourne franchise, itself a pretty darned good value), there’s not enough dialog in Lola to recite to oneself in all the desert-island hours when the solar-powered plasma TV wasn’t playing.

Seven Samurai
The other most perfect movie ever made. Took in the archetype of the American Western and coughed it back out infinitely deepened, rooted, and enriched. Kurosawa is, with Scorsese, the other greatest director of the past 60 years.
[cheating here—couldn’t resist listing 2 under Letter S]

Tremendously effective and courageous realization of the real message behind C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, a beautiful and naked parable of the arithmetic of the universe’s relentless and transformative balance of joy and sorrow. One of Hollywood’s truest and most honest articulations ever of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth. Also, the best I have ever seen Hopkins, by several orders of magnitude. Leaves the related characters in Remains of the Day and other Merchant/Ivory epics in the dust.

To Have and Have Not
Another run at the Casablanca trope which is, for all the iconic status of that film, even more effective. Howard Hawks stable is well-represented—Sidney Greenstreet, Walter Brennan, et al—and the mocked-up Caribbean locations are nearly as effective Morocco; Hoagy Carmichael (and the great Oscar Aleman) certainly take up the slack left by Dooley Wilson’s absence, but overwhelmingly, it’s the mind-bendingly greater chemistry of Bogart and Bacall—20 years old at the time, and already (and still, 64 years later) the smartest, sexiest female lead the studio system ever coughed out. No wonder Bogie fell in love with her.

Not too many in this Letter category—and it’s the only Western on the list. If I was cooler, I’d probably list something like Ugetsu, but since I’m not, I’ll leave the samurai/continuum to Letters Y and Z. For me, the watershed when Eastwood became a great director; presence of long-time Eastwood cohorts amongst the character actors, and the bleak, bleak darkness of the narrative arc, as well as the reliably-brilliant Morgan Freeman, confirm that. Usual Suspects is a pretty close contender, though—and its dialog is even better.

V for Vendetta
Mostly as a place-holder for the Letter V, but I also love at least the premise, if not the realization, of this film—particularly the “people shouldn’t fear their governments…governments should fear their people” line.

Waking Ned Devine
My favorite film about Ireland, about which Kevin Murphy wrote the most powerful, beautiful and heart-felt chapter in his great A Year at the Movies (the day after 9/11). Matchless writing, capturing both the beauty and the banality of life in the West of Ireland, and, as Murphy says, one of the most eloquent paeans to friendship ever written. Right up there is The Wild Bunch, the greatest Western ever made—and the one whose crazy-laughter ending is the truest realization of Kurosawa’s translation of the Western; only other Western even within hollering distance is The Long Riders.

Malcolm X
Cheating a little bit here, in order to account for the Letter X—but this is Spike Lee’s greatest film (Bamboozled would run a close second except for Spike’s typical self-righteous copout of an ending) and some of Denzel’s greatest acting. And of course, the beautifully-written story of the one of the most extraordinary Americans ever.

Not Kurosawa’s greatest (for that, see Letter S, above), but certainly Mifune’s. A classic fable, partaking of the greatest of the post-WWII Italian realists, while at the same time occupying the starkness and archetypal symbolism of Noh drama. This, along with Samurai, made the modern American Western film genre possible.

There are a lot of other samurai/ronin/martial-arts flicks I might select for Saturday morning fun, but this one is the greatest, and subtlest, and boasts easily the most affecting and engaging hero of them all.

That's the list. With those, I might could survive the desert island.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Outside-the-rotation movies blogging: Charlie Wilson's War

There is something fundamentally dishonest about Charlie Wilson's War, Aaron Sorkin's entry into the big-screen All the President's Men or Wag the Dog political tragicomedy sweepstakes. Coincidentally, my old friend The General (who knows a whole hell of a lot more about film than I ever will) had just mentioned it to me over the weekend, after this event, and then it was broadcast on cable last night--so I finally gritted my teeth and watched it. It's beautifully filmed, with great camera work and (some) wonderful casting, acting, and writing, but it's riddled with those glossy, yet essentially cowardly and blinkered choices which also eventually put me off The West Wing.

The true story behind CWW is sufficiently wild to explain its attraction for Sorkin: a drankin' and wimmenizin' Congressman from a safe Houston district runs headlong into the cynical global politics of the US response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: e.g., give the Islamic resistance (mujahadeen) only minimal support so that the Soviets are enticed to hang on in that mountainous kingdom which has always been death to imperial hopes--Greek, Persian, British, Russian, American. The intent was to in turn bleed the Soviet infrastructure dry--a lesson the mujahadeen promptly learned, applied, and, after the Soviet retreat, turned against the American infidels who had first armed and then abandoned the resistance.

Wilson was so struck by the magnitude of the Soviet-inflicted human suffering he saw in the Pakistani refugee camps that he woke up out of the cocaine-and-Jack-Daniels haze and put his considerable powers of persuasion to work on changing US arms policy. Drawing on the same lunatic Forest Oaks and Sugar Land far-right Christian fundamentalist millionaires and DOD appointees who three decades before had conspired at the assassination of John Kennedy, Wilson successfully doubled and redoubled the budget and scope of covert arms-dealing by the US to the mujahadeen, and along the way indulging himself with the worst, most-ridiculous, "all hat and no cowboy" Texan dress-up (up to and including riding with the freedom fighters), playing at "the Great Game" the way that George W. Bush played at being a fighter pilot.

And then, within a few weeks after the Soviets' much-trumpeted withdrawal, watched Congress likewise withdraw all support--effectively ceding Afghanistan, much of Pakistan, and entirely too much of Arab consciousness to the radical elements who had used the Soviet war to build for holy war--and who promptly turned that jihad on the west. The story was beautifully told by Molly Ivins, who knew and was amused by Charlie Wilson while never losing sight of his essential disconnect regarding the long-term consequences of his actions, in a series of columns for the Dallas Observer...and, who, in those 1500-word columns, articulated a hell of a lot more insightful, prescient, and mature perspective on Charlie and his War.

The film is not nearly as realistic. It's got all the "guilty pleasures" of West Wing, including fantastic, intelligent, sharp-as-a-tack comic dialogue (the scene that introduces Philip Seymour Hall's brilliant portrayal of "Gust Avrakotos," the upstate NY-born foul-mouthed CIA analyst who serves as Wilson's marvelously contemptuous Afghan advisor, is as good as anything WW ever did), and (some of) the aforementioned casting--principally, that of Hall--is wonderful.

But the damned thing suffers from every flaw of West Wing, only now writ large, in what I have come to think of as Sorkin's essentially, fatally, and cowardly "liberal apologetics."

There's a great scene in my hero Ross Thomas's Chinaman's Chance, an otherwise very simple and cursory political thriller, in which the young Socialists who are helping a political operative, on the run, comment that self-described "liberals" cannot be trusted, because they are the "kind of people who work for Dow Chemical during the day and then sneak off to stuff envelopes for Common Cause at night. The kind of people who would be herded into the corporate concentration camps wearing buttons that read 'We meant well'." In West Wing, and here in Charlie Wilson's War, Sorkin tries to have it both ways: he wants us to know that he knows just how corrupt, venal, greedy, stupid, and criminal most politicians and corporate types are, and to invite us (and profit from our desire) to revel in his fantasy world, where the anomalous Great Men (never women) stand up to such types and call them, in marvelously articulate and scalpel-precise invective, on their bullshit (Jeb Bartlett eviscerating Christian fundamentalist hate-radio broadcasters with his greater-than-theirs knowledge of scripture, and his closing line "Now get your fat asses out of my White House," Josh Lyman telling the President "Let's take a walk" up to the Hill to face-down a defiant Republican congress). And by writing those latter, incredibly gratifying, but ultimately fantasy scenes, provide us the illusion that just watching the program, or quoting it to one another, is the same thing as actually making a difference.

And it is not. Liberal apologetics are designed, by cynical intent or simple "well-meaning" wish fulfillment, to make people occupying relatively privileged and protected positions feel that the improved conditions they sincerely believe they desire for those less privileged can be obtained through little effort, small sacrifices, and--especially--no risks. Through "meaning well." To appeal to those people who, like Sorkin, come from a socio-economic background where the actual exploitative rubber of policies disenfranchising the poor and the marginalized never really hits the road. He wants to show us a fantasy of a better world, and make us think that by watching and laughing and cheering, we're making a difference, without having to experience any of the pain, suffering, or, at the very fucking least, sacrifice (No, Junior, "be brave and go shopping" in the wake of 9/11 was not "sacrifice") that might actually change those circumstances.

And this is false. And it was never more false than in those WW episodes in which Sorkin framed the Bartlett Administration's decision-makers with dilemmas about which they would elegantly, articulately agonize--and then fold. The Death Row-inmate over whose impending execution Martin Sheen (a great presence, but an absolutely outrageous rug-chewer) spent 40 minutes deliberating--with the help of another generation's Hollywood substitute for a conscience, Karl Malden as a Catholic priest--and then folded, allowing the execution to go forward. The Chinese communist pianist who wants to defect, over whom Bartlett agonizes, before folding. The list goes on and on.

And the problem is that Sorkin writes the stuff as cheap, no-cost, "skip the hard stuff" therapy: by making us identify with the elegantly articulate, rumpled-yet-appealing members of the Bartlett administration, and then putting them through the "moral dilemmas" (which really aren't dilemmas at all--just challenges to liberal privilege, comfort, and conviction of moral rightness) of the audience, and then showing those avatars folding when the going really gets tough, he makes it OK for us to fold as well. There's a kind of legerdemain that occurs when an artist portrays the world we desperately wish existed--though we know it doesn't--and then shows impossibly appealing people also folding when the tough gets going. It lets us off the hook. Sorkin lets the West Wing audience off the hook, lets them avoid that others are suffering while they themselves are enjoying outrageous privilege, and he does it over and over and over again.

He does it again in Charlie Wilson's War. It starts with the casting of Hanks: a terribly personable, generous actor, who's had moments of greatness (bits of Saving Private Ryan, bits of Road to Perdition, Philadelphia, much of the otherwise-manipulative and sexist A League of Their Own; I exempt the execrable You've Got Mail, Forrest Gump, Sleepless in Seattle, Castaway, etc) but who ultimately is never going to be able to play a character with much darkness or moral ambiguity. They call him the Jimmy Stewart of his generation--but that is not necessarily a good thing, in any period of greater moral ambiguity than the Hollywood '30s (that would be every other period). Especially not when he's playing Charlie Wilson, who himself admitted that he, and the people he worked with in first arming and then abandoning the mujahadeen, were as responsible as anybody in the West for 9/11 (which I would argue: I think there's enough guilt to go around, and lots left over for the incompetents--Rice, Cheney, and Rumsfeld among them--who ignored over eleven warnings about precisely the form the attacks would take). Hanks is just too damned likable to pull off either Charlie Wilson's force of character (as confirmed by Ivins), which armed the mooj, or the bleak darkness of his realization about how stupid they had been in doing so the way they did. The damned movie ends with a bullshit triumphalist montage, of helicopters exploding, mujahadeen celebrating, the Soviets departing, and a fucking awards ceremony for Charlie Wilson.

The problem continues with the casting of Julia Roberts (America's "sweetheart"?!?) as Joanne Herring, the lunatic heiress who funded the covert Afghan war as an act of resistance against the "godless Communists," which motivation has almost always led to absolutely, criminally stupid and ill-informed American foreign-policy choices. Letting Joanne Herring cobble together the funding for the covert Afghan war was like letting Oliver North run illegal arms & drug sales in the basement of the Reagan White House--in both cases, because people who were supposed to be supervising (covert and overt) foreign policy were too stupid, lazy, ideological, and ill-informed to do their fucking jobs. And thousands--tens of thousands--died because of that stupidity. And Sorkin glosses it. And Julia Roberts--who all reports would suggest is actually a very sweet and nice person--isn't the actress to carry off the inherently dishonest characterization--any more than she was equipped to carry off the fictional "Kitty Kieman"--or the accent--in Michael Collins.

Of course, there's also the fact that Sorkin appears to be congenitally incapable of writing a mature, effective, confident, and competent female character. Even when he explicitly set out to do so, in, say, Allison Janney's press secretary "C.J. Craig" or Stockard Channing's First Lady "Abbey Bartlett," he wound up alternately treating such characters as figures of mockery (C.J. falling into her pool and "talking like a chipmunk" after a root-canal, or Abbey Bartlett oscillating wildly and unpredictably from Earth Mother to Joan Crawford Ice Queen). Here, his main sexist potshots are reserved for the sweatered, big-chested office staff Wilson was renowned for.

And, finally, Sorkin suffers from the same fucking problem as almost every other high-powered, highly-skilled Hollywood writer, producer, or director who tries to depict either working-class, Third World, or wartime experience. Because almost none of them have actually undergone it, and probably because of the bubble of wealth and privilege in which they pass their lives, almost none of them have any idea about what any of those three realms of experience is actually like.

You don't learn what minimum wage is like, what combat is like, in film school, or in reels of past Hollywood classics. Spielberg in Schindler's List and Private Ryan, Sorkin in this and West Wing, Michael Mann in Mohicans and Miami Vice, fucking Ridley Scott in Black Hawk Down, even Hanks himself in Band of Brothers, and on and on and on--they don't actually know what it's like to work hard physical labor, go hungry, or risk your life So they romanticize, idealize, sexualize these things--even when they're subjecting us to virtuosic, excruciatingly accurate detail, which they think "keeps it real," they still don't get what it is. They just can't resist making it look "cool," making the good guys better, making the bad guys worse cartoons, or, most significantly, giving the middle-class audience the feel-good ending that real life lacks. And (in the case of Spielberg and his protege Hanks) their only real cultural or historical experience is filtered by the movies--so the writing of secondary characters, working-class characters, "ethnic" characters, in films like Ryan or Brothers or Charlie Wilson's, is embarassingly naive and simplistic.

And by doing this, and hiding under the guise of "keeping it real" and putting Good Liberal Sentiments in the mouths of people who "meant well" but folded the moment they either got what they wanted, or the going got a little too tough--or "too real"--and inscribing such story arcs in the Hollywood narratives that are the only version of the story that most Americans will ever even be aware exists, they sell out reality.

And people die.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Modest hiatus

As should be evident, am on a modest hiatus--recovering from semester, Celtic Xmas, wracked back, etc. A few new topics, including a hit job on the Sorkin/Nichols Charlie Wilson's War, are percolating.

More soon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Quick hit to mark the day

Celtic Xmas dress gone by. Think we're ready. Will know better tomorrow.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


All of you fascists bound to lose...

Choices have consequences

[bootlegged from a comment over at Terminal Degree, in response to a post about that percentage of students who, well past the eleventh hour, will try to redeem an entire semester of inadequate performance]

Yep, that's painful. But, as you say so clearly, 5 sobbed-for points can't redeem an entire semester (or 4-year program!) and its patterns of neglect and irresponsibility.

The mantra that I've taken to giving my adjuncts and junior colleagues, eminently quotable in such tear-stained situations, is

"Choices have consequences."

Which can then be expanded to "unfortunately for yourself, you have made a whole series of choices that were not in your best interest. And now, you are going to have to live with the consequences. That is difficult, but that is the reality of both college and 'real life.'"

Sometimes helps my people separate-out, for themselves and for the students, what is and is not the teacher's responsibility. You're not responsible for their (repeated) bad choices.

Fuzzy people

As Dharmonia put it: absurd levels of cuteness.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Day 46+2 (Round II) "In the trenches" (palpable relief edition)

Palpable sense of (mostly) relief growing all up in this joint: last day of finals, many kids are done, and a whole raft of them have split their exams and come direct to the Barnes & Noble to sell back their books. This is something I never understood, maybe just because my undergraduate / graduate experiences were (in terms of topics, anyway) remarkably positive: I wound up having to take almost no classes in topics I didn't care about or want to retain expertise regarding. Returning textbooks always felt a little bit like selling an instrument: in both cases, something I had been to a lot of effort and (usually) cost to acquire was never going to be as easy to acquire a second time, and selling it off was never going to net me the same cash, not to mention effort, I had expended in acquiring it in the first place. So why would I sell them back? Sure, they're costly (my rant about the rapacity of publishers who keep their lists afloat by inflating the costs of required textbooks is for another day), and I certainly was fortunate in the topics I was "required" to take--which I would have already been studying on my own, in most cases. Selling back textbooks was nearly as painful, for me, as selling off an instrument--which was in turn nearly as painful (and as pointless, for me), for me, as removing a tattoo. I've done the first the most and the last the least, but it's never pleasant.

I can understand that for large bodies of undergrads, though, the textbooks for their required Arts & Humanities core requirements are just weighty and frustrating reminders of informational experiences they were "forced" to sit through--and that selling-back the textbook provides an at least ephemeral sense of vindication and release.

Release is palpable, though, as I say: most of them have turned in as much as they're going to turn in for assignments, the last round of exams (4:30-7pm today) is coming up, and they're are most of them undergoing that virtually-instantaneous transition from stressed-to-the-max cramming for final obligations to utter-abandon escape from campus, town, stress, and adult responsibilities...and a headlong flight back to Mom's couch, kitchen, fridge, washing machine, and general womb-like coddling.

I'm not a huge fan of this undergraduate "boom-and-bust" mentality; or, more accurately, this attitude of "blow off shit for weeks at a time, don't go to class if you can get away with it, prioritize parties/sex as THE principal reason for attending college at all, cram/cheat in large pods all night long in advance of the major exams, cram/chat/study-group in large pods for multiple nights in advance of the final exam, write any projects in large pods in the last 4 hours before they are due, show up late to the final, whine about how 'unfair' it is that you're not getting the full exam period, run away from the exam room after, run to the bookstore to sell-back all your books, run to your apartment, cram a giant laundry bag for Mom to wash, stop at the campus bookstore to buy 6,000-7,000 empty calories of caffeine, sugar, nitrates, and Red Dye #3 to get you through a (highly dangerous to others) marathon drive home, crash on the couch, turn off your brain until 12 hours before your first class, drive like a bat-out-of-hell to get there." Lather, rinse, repeat.

No, I am not a fan of this. Not only because I think it's infantile, self-indulgent, engenders a mercantile and dishonest attitude about the experience. But even more (most of all) because it cheapens what college can be for candidates with the right aptitudes, goals, and determination. College can be a time to vastly widen your horizons: of possibilities, bodies of knowledge and skill, ranges of experience and personal values, career options--and then to learn of the existence of horizons beyond those horizons. Kids who spend their time careening from disregard to panic to adrenaline-fueled-testing to sloth, and then lather/rinse/repeat, are in no way equipped to experience any of this expansion: when you're perpetually in panic mode, you can't think straight, much less far. If I could cancel the existence of Final Exams, and have grades assigned entirely on the basis of attendance, weekly assignments, and participation, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Of course I can't--but I move as close to that as I can. In the case of a class of 100 freshmen--who are only marginally more adult than 12-year-olds--repetition, consistent order, regular assessment, rigorous deadlines, incremental presentation of material, etc, all make each kid remarkably labor-intensive.

At the end of this fall semester, I will have seen probably 15 assignments--and given each an at-least cursory grade--for each of those 100 kids. By the end of the semester, coupling those regular assessments with attendance records and my own empirical/subjective impression of engagement and participation in the classroom, I have a pretty damned accurate sense of each kid's engagement, level of prior preparation, and investment in the process. So the extensive, extensive quantitative evaluation--all those numerical values--exists primarily so that I can check my impressions (they're hardly subjective, because in fact they're based upon the sum total of all the data about each kid, which I'm carrying in my head). Those impressions are not numerical or arithemetical, but after 8 years of teaching here--and 15 years teaching elsewhere--I use the numerical valuations of the spreadsheets primarily to confirm, or occasionally to contradict, my "subjective" impressions. Mostly they are remarkably consistent with one another--and when they're not, I'm very glad to have to numbers to correct my own bias. And, of course, the presence of the numbers gives me the "evidence" I need to defend a grading decision in the unlikely event of somebody's would-be-litigator Daddy decided he doesn't like the kid's grade that Daddy "paid for."

Hasn't happened yet, though.

[updated to add] 8pm, and the last of the finals are done. Data entry is complete, and grades for all are actually figured. I won't upload the grades for the 100 freshmen just yet, though: as a colleague puts it, "let 'em get home to Mom, sleep late, eat home-cooking, do their laundry, and then calm the fuck down--before they see the grade. That way, they're a lot less likely to object purely on the basis of panic." Good advice.

Below the jump: nasty-ass Blue Norther front blowing through; mercury's dropping.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Outside-the-rotation ink blogging

More off-the-rotation blogging: further to a query from a student asking about my tattoos.

I don't think of my ink as a means of self-definition; it's more a sense of marking key events, identifications, or aspects in my life. Although I did not plan this, since my first tattoo in 1975, the ink I've added has fit remarkably consistent criteria:

(a) locations on my body are balanced:

left inner forearm; right shoulder, left shoulder; right bicep, left bicep.

The next piece I add will be on my right inner forearm. When I balance the ink on my body in this way, I am conscious of a sense of better bodily and psychological balance; Ayurvedic philosophy would suggest that I've more effectively balanced the chakras.

(b) topics are balanced:

right shoulder is Sufi calligraphy of a hoopoe, a mystical bird, while left shoulder is Tlingit Indian iconography of the raven that stole the sun: e.g., a bird on each shoulder; biceps are Celtic knotwork of hounds: e.g., canines on each bicep; left inner forearm is a unicorn, while right inner forearm will be a Chinese dragon playing with a pearl: e.g., a mythical flying creature on each forearm.

(c) all are totem animals for me, and symbolic of my own past history:

Tlingit raven is part of my own Native American background, while hoopoe represents my study of Turkish Sufi language, music, and theology;

Celtic dogs are another part of my ethnicity and central to my musical personality;

unicorn is a character out of North European myth (another part of my ethnicity);

Chinese dragon symbolic of my study of Asian culture and, specifically, martial arts.

After the dragon, I will add a deceased friend's image of a grizzly bear (another of my Native American totem animals) on my left calf, and one of a river otter (with which Celtic/mythical animals I worked in my youth) on my right.

I see the ink on my body as a *reminder* to myself of where and who I have been. This is why I'm OK with adding an image at a particular watershed in my life, even if at a later date that particular topic might not carry the same symbolism for me (like the unicorn, for example). The point is to remind myself that, at one point in my life, those particular images *were* deeply symbolic to me. It's like a personal history, on my body.

Interesting question.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Fuzzy people overdose

Prepare to write off the next few hours:

Wired magazine's top-10 animal videos.

Outside-the-rotation movies blogging: Buck and the Preacher

Because, for a change, I actually have time to blog about something other than school or research:

[jogged by seeing a late-night cable broadcast of a film half-remembered, almost 40 years on]

I remember seeing Sidney Poitier's great anti-Western Buck and the Preacher, around 1971 when it came out. I was just a little kid, had barely seen Poitier's other films, and wasn't a huge fan of Westerns. And I don't think I'd ever heard of any of the other actors--at least not by name--with whom Poitier cast this tale of a black Civil War veteran ("Buck") who takes on the job of shepherding a group of "40 acres and a mule" former sharecroppers to new land in New Mexico, fighting their way past a bunch of ex-Reb cracker thugs who want to keep them off the land so they can be kept on as poor labor back in Mississippi and Arkansas.

And I don't know that I'd ever heard or seen Harry Belafonte in any other film or recording, but his gap-toothed, grinning, hat tipping, sashaying "Preacher" was easily the most charismatic character in the film. Over and over, in burlesque sermons in whorehouses and pre-gunfight throw-down confrontations, his liminal shuck-and-jive, I now realize, reaches back to ancient, ancient African-American--and African--trickster characters. I don't know where he got this character--whether he studied up for it, or got great direction from Poitier, or whether he just reached deep down into old memories, but it's fucking brilliant.

The film itself is dark and angry, and focuses on the (once again) age-old story of white folks trying to keep black folks poor and beholden, even after the War to Free the Slaves. It’s also a very clear allegory for the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam 1960s, and conveys a very apt sense of paranoia about the extent to which the white power-structure was determined to use any means, from bent laws to crooked economics to violent confrontation, to make sure that people of color were unable to get their share of the pie.

It suffers from a syndrome particular to late ‘60s/early ‘70s Westerns (I’m thinking of things like Jeremiah Johnson, Little Big Man, and The Wild Bunch, for a start, but also earlier films like The Magnificent Seven, lesser works like The Professionals, and some of the Eastwood flicks of the period, to say nothing of the various “war”-films, Kelly’s Heros, M.A.S.H., Catch-22, which were similarly thinly-veiled comments on the late ‘60s), in which the allegory is laid on with a trowel. White cavalry are usually psychotic killers, white commanders delusional aristocrats, white women porcelain-fragile nymphomanics who Secretly Crave Dark Meat, white soldiers drunks or thugs, white merchants thieves and cowards—while black or Native American are downtrodden, articulate, courageous, family-oriented, cursorily eloquent, and so forth. Julie Robinson’s “Sinsie”, who serves as interpreter between Buck (an ex-Civil War cavalry sergeant) and the Apaches whose land through which they must travel, is almost impossibly regal, articulate, and remote—and looks more Italian than Native, at that. But the political/economic compromise she brokers between the black refugees and the Apache who will have to live with the consequences of any “aiding and abetting” is carefully nuanced and closely argued—and evokes very obvious analogies with the worldwide-alliance between minorities being preached by Black Nationalists in the USA and Marxist activists in the Third World—and which even had reached the streets of Europe during the Paris Uprising of ’68.

The “Messkins” in earlier things like The Wild Bunch were evidently still a permissible stereotype, though Eli Wallach’s magnificent bandit chieftain “Calvera” in The Seven managed to both embody, and transcend, the stereotype, especially in the masterful death scene (“You came back - for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?”), and the wonderful Maria Gomez as “Chiquita” in The Professionals likewise transcends the stereotype through sheer animal vitality.

But by the early ‘70s, most of liberal Hollywood had decided that the way to protest Vietnam was by searching existing genres for fairly-blatant-and-superficial allegories (that is, barely at all): earlier-war films and westerns being principle among them. It wasn’t ‘til after the ’75 bugout from Saigon that Hollywood had the guts to make films directly about Vietnam, with Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, with the underseen masterpiece Who’ll Stop the Rain, still being the greatest examples. And none of these films were really written from a minority-member’s perspective (for that, we’d have to wait for Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssssssss Song and the other blaxploitation epics).

In contrast, Buck is remarkable. It sports a solitary, spare soundtrack by John Hammond Jr, full of slide guitar, harmonica, jew’s harp, and the whooping and hollering Piedmont blues vocals he’d learned from Sonny Terry—not period-accurate, but wonderfully grainy and evocative, and whose lonely, monophonic sound parallels the grey starkness of the Southwestern landscapes in which they shot (the film obviously had almost no budget, and like other independent productions found imaginative ways to make the leanness of the budget part of the story’s look). The cast of bad-guys, led by Cameron Mitchell’s looming, Cajun-accented Johnny Reb veteran "Deshay," are effective heavies, while black character actors who make up the balance of the suffering, slogging-along wagon-train members, though they get very little screen time, sport some wonderful faces and looks, especially Clarence Muse's "Cudjo", in a nod to another ancient African name and archetype. Ruby Dee’s "Ruth" is rather under-utilized as Buck's helpmeet, but, given her prior experience and gravitas with black-originated films by Ossie Davis and others, she provides an effective sense of quiet-spoken ferocity—when Buck, the Preacher, and she rob a bank to get enough money to keep the wagon-train going, there’s no question that she’ll blow the head off anybody getting in their way.

Even the names of characters are apposite: “Buck”, the oldest stereotypical slave-era given name for a Big Black Man who embodied racist fears (and appetites), toting twin cut-down double-barreled shotguns to boot (the only more obvious play-to-white-fears was the twin-magnums-toting John “Shaft”), and “the Preacher”, the one character in Jim Crow-era black culture who typically could have been said to embody dignity and respect—which is precisely why (and how) Belafonte undercuts that Tom stereotype with his grinning, cackling, gap-toothed exploding-Bible-toting Holy Roller.

If Buck was the Elijah Muhammed Black Muslim figure in the film, then Belafonte’s Preacher was the Crazy Nigger—grinning and shuffling and sabotaging the White man every chance he got—whose archetype Richard Pryor was working out in nightclub shows in precisely the same period. Or, to put it another way, Buck was the Interlocutor, Amos, Frederick Douglass, Porgy, while the Preacher was Mr Tambo, Andy, Alfalfa, Sportin’ Life—all the way down to the present day, and the dynamic between Chuck D’s righteous scary wrath and Flavor Flav’s akimbo trickster.

I didn’t really know any of this at the time: though raised up in a leftist/activist household, where Dr King was idolized, school busing was celebrated, and Richard Nixon was hated with a bloody visceral passion, I still didn’t know it. How many white suburban kids, in 1971, were being taught anything about the depths of black rage, except in the absurdly-attenuated and –foreshortened venue of the television? This was almost 30 years before the Internet: even for a kid who read a lot, there was simply no way of knowing, in the suburbs, what was going on in the South Bronx or the Lower East Side (that would come, for me, just a couple of years later) or the South Side (a couple of years after that) or the 13th Ward (again, a couple more years) or the barrios of Laredo and Los Angeles.

But even at the age of 11, watching Belafonte’s Preacher sashay his way into a whorehouse card game, playing up the shucking-and-jiving “crazy nigger” stereotype and dissolving the white cracker slave-hunters with his comic sermon (an ancient strategy out of the minstrel shows), distracting them until the moment when Buck, framed from below, kicks in the door, shotguns at the ready, and growls “I’m Buck”—before these two black men, in slow motion, blow away an entire roomful of haters—I knew that this film was saying something about America in that “foul year of Our Lord 1971”, as Hunter Thompson put it, and about the rage of the world’s dark minorities, that an entire generation of white Americans had better goddamned listen to.

Thirty-seven years later, on the eve of the inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, in the faint, fading hope that he will be able to begin to repair the damage to our infrastructure, our society—hell, our very moral soul—wrought by the last 24 years of ownership-class rich white corporate fucks, I have to ask,

Were you listening, America?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Lazy day-off photo-blogging

New moon, Jupiter, Mars.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Day 46+1 (Round II) "In the trenches" (esprit edition)

Building esprit de corps—that sense of subsuming part of your individual choice in service of a goal, community, or ethos bigger than yourself—is one of the most fascinating things I do. I have been profoundly and positively impacted by many great teachers, but in this particular case, I am thinking of those who were great leaders, which is a more-than-slightly different skill.

Leadership gets a bad rap in a lot of sectors of American society (and rightfully so—I’d rather have the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert in charge than the clowns, thieves, sociopaths, and genuine morons of the Bush “leadership”) but I think that is mostly due to Americans’ unfamiliarity with it. About the only Americans who reliably and consistently experience the sense of unity, commitment, and inspiration that leadership can inculcate are (a) those who play for truly great (in all senses of the word) sports coaches—and that world is so riddled with bullshit “heroism” and “sacrifice” tropes that true "greatness" is almost impossible; (b) those who work for truly great socio-political organizers (there’s a reason that almost all of the people who worked for Howard Dean are still in activist politics—and that it was Dean’s people and strategies that obliterated Obama’s opponents); and (c), belatedly, just maybe, just possibly, those of us who actually wake up on the morning of January 21 and realize that the great sucking sound of moral and intellectual vacuity in the White House has been replaced by someone who actually is a leader—rather than Der Leader.

And the other place I personally have experienced that sense of being part of something bigger than yourself is, quite frankly, in good bands. I’ve been in good, bad, and mediocre performing ensembles; I’ve been leader and sideman; I’ve been music director and stabbed-in-the-back deposed leader; I’ve experienced esprit as generated by people I admired and I’ve built it myself—hell, I’ve even tried to impose it when it was impossible (because of the resistance, selfishness, or, let’s face it, treachery of other members).

But I also played in big bands under David Baker and medieval chamber groups for Tom Binkley; Baroque continuo groups for Kim Pineda and blues bands with Larry Baeder, and I know that playing music you love, with band-mates you trust, for a leader you admire and for whom you want to deliver, can make you play at the top of your game—hell, far beyond the top of your game. And that that experience is like nothing else—it’s better than any pharmaceutical anybody ever prescribed or purloined.

The sub-text of so much of what I do, in the classroom and in the rehearsal hall, is about just that: about creating the human, logistical, and cognitive situations in which the transcendent experience of making music, together, that is bigger than the sum total of yourselves, is most completely and fulfillingly possible. And, having set up and facilitating those environments, stepping back out of the way. The very most satisfying, empowering, lasting positive impact of the experience of esprit is that you learn, not only how valuable it is, but even more importantly, how to create it yourself. To do that, the conditions—leader, colleagues, repertoire, venues, timing—all have to be right—and the leader has to know when to step back.

When I shuffle off this mortal coil—an event which I am acutely conscious to be approaching faster and faster as I close in (momentarily) on fifty—I don’t give a damn about a memorial or a headstone. If an article I write, a CD I record, a piece of music I compose, or a statement I make can help somebod(ies) after my death, that’s great—but you can take my name off ‘em and it won’t matter a rat’s ass, will it?

What I do care about—acutely, and almost to the extent of heartbreak—is the chance to help young people expand their sense of the possible: to create logistical, perceptual, expressive, experiential opportunities that they might otherwise be denied, as I was denied (again, and again, and fucking again). One of the most powerful positive outgrowths of surviving childhood trauma is the absolute adamant bedrock commitment “this misery fucking stops with me” (just as one of the most horrific potential results of the same trauma is the psychological avoidance or projection that lets it recur). There is almost nothing that can put me into a towering rage quicker than to see, hear, witness, or even suspect that someone, anyone, is harming a young person’s sense of infinite possibility. And there is almost (almost) nothing I wouldn’t do to prevent some teacher from harming some kid. And the wondrous privilege of a job that allows me to help kids is almost (almost) the most important defining factor in my life.

So to this year’s Celtic Ensemble. One of the reasons I have been so avid to try to document the band (via blog posts, recruitment, outreach concerts, the weekly video podcast, and, potentially, the documentary we are shooting) is because I am so massively rewarded and inspired by what I think the Ensemble can represent to a young musician.

Not because of me, or because of anything superlative or magical about what I do. I just believe that these kinds of musics—musics made by ordinary people for the benefit of themselves, their families, and their neighbors, for hundreds of years in some cases—taught in these kinds of ways—by ear, by demonstration/imitation, by a method tinged with apprenticeship, and the sense that the music has ethical, moral, and spiritual as well as aesthetic things to teach us—can provide profoundly positive, constructive experiences. If you give to these musics, as a student and musician, in these ways, they will pay you (and the universe) back in absolutely transcendent golden coin, one-hundred-thousand-fold. That’s what I believe.

There was a moment like that the other evening, at the end of a dance rehearsal by our 4-girl Border morris side accompanied with the dance orchestra. The kiddos were all wiped: this rehearsal was occurring on the literal last night of classes, just when they all needed to go home and start studying—some of them not having slept in two days—to prepare for final exams. They were troupers, though, and concentrated as best they could, and at one point in the final hour, I turned to the orchestra and said “look, guys, I know you’re beyond exhausted. I am holding us here for the full final hour, instead of letting you go early, because this way we can avoid having to do an additional rehearsal. Hang in there for me, will you?”, because, in every good band I’ve ever been in, the leader communicated why decisions were being taken, as frequently as was logistically feasible. Communicating why is not the same thing as “inviting dissenting opinion”—a distinction too few leaders seem to understand. You can explain "why" while still clearly retaining command. And it does provide a sense of ownership to all participants; if you’re there, at least you know why you’re there, and that it’s in service of something bigger than yourself.

We had finally run the entire piece, all sections, with the full orchestra playing (and swaying back-and-forth in unison to hold the rhythmic feel together, and lock them in with the rhythm of the dancers). The serendipity was working for us that night: at the very same time that we had been working "The Belligerent Blue Jay" in the carpeted downstairs hallway (we are so pressed for space in that building that dancers and percussionists and brass quintets rehearse in the hallways and lobbies after hours), at that very same time, in the upstairs classroom, the music service sorority--a really good bunch of girls, with a service charter and a great attitude, who staff all the recitals as ushers and a helluva lot of general would-be-done-by-paid-staff work if only we had enough money--were holding their "Formal Rush."

Now, I don't know (or pretend to care) hardly anything about the whole Greek ethos (even though I've been inducted into two different honorary societies) because my attitudes about that community were shaped by playing in the grotty basement parties that the late 1980s IU fraternities held during the annual "blow off classes and break the law" party week of the Little 500 bicycle race (only the most benign tip of the iceberg of which showed up in the vastly overrated Breaking Away). So I don't know, or care, much about the fraternity/sorority thing except to disapprove on basic professorial principle.

But the music sorority kids are good girls, in a really traditional "big 'ol hair and sheath dresses" kind of way (Texas kids, in contrast to where I came from, *love* to get dressed up just like they *love* to dance); for the formal Rush (some kind of elaborate ritual during which the freshperson girls are inducted into candidacy in the sorority, and they all gather, dressed and made-up to the nines, in one of the upstairs rooms for the first round of ceremonies).

And at the end, they came out of the classroom, and down the stairs, and there were my guys: the dance orchestra, all 10-12 of them, swaying in time to the crooked minor Carpathian tune that accompanies the dance (or, as the great Tony Barrand put it, "makes the dance audible"), and out on the carpeted floor, my four Belligerent Blue Jays, leaping and capering through the old, old elemental steps of the Border morris, whooping at the off-beat and clashing their sticks on the down-beat. As I told the Blue Jays later, it was so great, to see the sorority inductees come down the stairs in their heels and hair and sheathes and false eyelashes, and watch as they encountered our girls for the first time. And as they capered through the last few steps of the dance, gasping for breath and flinging their sweaty hair out of their eyes, the sorority babes broke into spontaneous applause. I was so proud of them, so glad that the Good Texas Girls with the big 'ol hair could comprehend another vision of strong women, and respond so generously.

And then afterwards, when my four had gone back to the little cubbyhole office where one of them works, they were talking about their plans for the next day--to shop for materials and then spend the afternoon making the wild ragged costumes that are the visual centerpiece of the Border morris (oh, by the way, after one of them had worked all night long in the Library during their extended Finals Week cramming hours). So I stopped by, to thank them again for all the extra effort they'd put forth to learn this very complicated--and virtually completely unfamiliar--dance idiom from a few low-rez youtube videos and some prose descriptions, and also to show them where their bits occur in the Christmas program.

When I opened up the file on the laptop, I had to caution them, saying "look, girls, I listed you each as members of the Ensemble, but then I also listed you separately as the Border morris side, and...I listed you under pseudonyms" (don't ask me why--I just had done so; it seemed to suit the morris's goal of losing the individuality in favor of the collective and the elemental), and they saw the way I had listed them, under the collective title "The Belligerent Blue Jays" (after their signature dance), as

Carissa Robin, Becca Flicker, Jillian Sparrow, Katrina Goldfinch
and one of them whispered "awesome,"

and after that I could practically see the lightbulb turn on, as they laughed aloud, and then started chattering to each other (ignoring me), saying "yeah!...we, we, we could have our own individual colors, on our hats!...or feathers from the different birds! or,..or, symbols that we know represent which birds we are!" and they got more and more excited, talking and laughing and making plans together for through the night and into the next day.

That's what esprit de corps does: it makes you feel you are both less than your Self, and more than yourself—not an isolated anomized lonely individual, but part of something bigger, more meaningful, more profound, and far, far, older.

Part of a totem, and a Tribe. Your Tribe. The one you created, or were born into, or were re-born into. Or created for yourself.

Or maybe, just maybe, if the universe is kind to you and you work at the craft of the teacher, it's the Tribe you are permitted to create for your students.

I just closed up the laptop and slipped away,

while, behind me, I could feel the energy, like rockets shooting starbursts, high into the night sky.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Dead Day" lazy-blogging

The best part of having wireless at home?

I can watch the basketball game while I work.

The worst part of having wireless at home?

I can work while I should just watch the basketball game.

(and so, of course, I do. Constantly.)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Day 46 (Round II) "In the trenches" (one-more-once edition)

Day last of the Fall 2009 semester.

The great Bill "Count" Basie, who led one of the most fantastic territory bands ever for over 50 years, and did it all without ever visibly breaking a sweat or losing his beaming style (he and Ellington were the original avatars of the great insight that one effective way for black musicians to combat Jim Crow was simply to outclass the people who practiced it), had a catch-phrase that he'd use at the end of one of the band's patented tutti finishes: the band would cut out, and Bill would sketch, in the Zen-sparse piano style of which he was the master, a syncopated descending-ascending triad 1 - 3 - 4 - #4 - 5-6-7-1, and then the band would come back in, smacking out a nice hairy dom7 #9 chord or something similar.

It was a remarkable display of the balance between over- and under-playing, of density and sparsity, of harmonic simplicity and piquant dissonance. And then he'd lean into the microphone, yachting cap (late in his career) firmly in place, and say "Le's do that one more once" and they'd play it again.

It's a little bit like that at the "end" of the semester. If you've been through the annual academic calendar enough times, and have paid attention to the emotional, physical, and psychological cycles that it tends to elicit, then you can avoid being quite so blind-sided when certain annually events recur.

For example: I get sick near the end of semesters. Not during (or, if I do, I don't hardly notice it), but, as I said yesterday, nearly-but-not-quite at the end: it's as if my immune system checks out a week in advance of when the brain can actually shut off.

For another example: the 3-4 days immediately after grades are turned in tend to be days when I can't do much of anything except sleep and read: it's as if all the mental down-time I put off during the semester hits me, willy-nilly, right when the brain realizes it's OK to be distracted, self-indulgent, or sluggish.

As Basie recognized, you can never really say that a performance (or a semester) is over--in the academic world, just when you've passed in "all" of your grades is when you discover that you've missed one; or that some little criminal who you thought had dropped the course weeks before (and should have) has instead stayed registered, hoping that you'd somehow "forget" his/her absences and just "by accident" assign a passing grade; or that some other little criminal wants to claim that s/he did an online assignment and that the computer "lost" it (this is essentially impossible, but the excuse is attempted so commonly that we now have language in our syllabus boilerplate that states "computer issues are the student's responsibility; their correction in a timely fashion is likewise the student's responsibility). So it's never really "over"--you just realize that, at a certain date, a given semester is done.

And that's the moment when I am again able to recover a longer perspective on a given year's crop of students. In the day-to-day combat of "In the trenches" (to quote this series' title), with fires breaking out all over my desk, never enough time to think leisurely about decisions, operating largely (because so pressed for time) on learned instincts ("solve this problem this way, solve that problem that way, never be rushed into a decision, never agree to something in the hallway, admit error but then move on"), it's easy to lose sight of just how much I love and believe in this job. Of just how much I love and believe in the potential of these students: to create beauty in the world, to become teachers and performers and advocates for such beauty, to lead lives that in turn enhance the sense of wide-open possibilities in future generations' lives, and so on.

But at the end of the semester, I am reminded of all those things.

So to today's class: last lecture in "Introduction to Research and Style Analysis," which they all persist in calling "SHMRG class", after the LaRue style parameters and listening strategies which form the guts of the day-to-day in-class work. We do lots of other stuff: research skills, contextual analysis, iconography, "Isms" of all kinds, and so forth--but the kiddos all call it "SHMRG class." As I've said before, I'm OK with this perception on their part: listening skills are the one area in which we find the most parity, the least disparity, in their prior preparation. In every other area: critical writing/reading/thinking, library skills, research & bibliography skills, music terminology skills, everything else, the disparity of preparation inculcated by their varied secondary-school experience is obvious, and problematic. So we chunk out those other, disparate skills into outside-of-class assignments, which the expert students can do swiftly "for an easy A", while the less-skilled ones do the individual skull- and development-work to catch them up to the group--and reserve the shared class time for the listening skills that they all, regardless of prior experience, agree they need to enhance. Hence, "SHMRG class."

But it's also a class in how to be a college student, and succeed, and in the cluster of life-, learning-, and social-skills that such success requires. So when we get to the end of the semester, in the last meeting, I drag a chair out into the middle of the lecture hall's floor (the area I usually pace back and forth throughout, constantly moving, just as if it were an amphitheatre, so that at any given time, some kid knows s/he may look up and think "oh, shit, he's coming over here IN MY DIRECTION!!!", which does wonderful things to generate adrenaline-driven attention), and sit down--at which they fall silent (one of them says "I've never seen you sit down in this class," to which I reply "I know--I'm moving the goal posts") and I begin the last class of their first semester as college students by saying,

"I'm proud of you guys."

This brings them up short because, while I believe that I regularly convey mutual respect and affection for them (we kid a lot and they laugh at the jokes), I also believe that it's sort of wasted effort to cheer-lead with youngsters of this age. Contra the youth-ministers and football coaches and choir directors and whatever other authority figures they've had in secondary school, I don't want to rah-rah them into working.

Partly this is a matter of personal style--I don't like being a cheerleader--but more profoundly it's because I truly believe, as a result of my relatively extensive observation and experience, that for students of this age cheerleading is no longer appropriate: if they can't get motivated to get out of the rack and get to class on time, consistently, in their freshman year of college, then they're never going to achieve any future success in a high-effort low-yield profession like music (as the trumpet doctoral student who leads the mandatory 7am high-brass warmup class 5 mornings a week observed, "well, it tends to separate the cattle pretty quick")--in which case I mostly want them to figure that out and change majors as quickly as possible, before we have to exert all the extra effort that such waverers typically demand.

So I don't cheerlead much (I hate that "aw, c'mon, guys...this is fun! C'mon, c'mon now, let's all pull together"--it's like training a damned puppy not to pee on the kitchen floor), but instead try to model the behavior, conduct, and manner that (a) I think they're going to need to expect and (b) that I want them to begin to replicate. I tend to aim, then, much more for a "we are all professionals here and we are going to conduct ourselves as much like professionals as we can: listening, studying, discussing, or horsing around, we still need to excel" vibe.

It thus takes them aback, at the end of the semester, when I move the goalposts and say, explicitly, "I am proud of you." In fact, I would argue that it means more to them, when I finally say it, than if I'd been cheerleading right through the semester--because I think it makes them feel they have earned that praise.

And then we hand out a one-page repertoire list of all the pieces for which they've filled-out SHMRG worksheets over the semester, and say "here are the 53 pieces that you guys own. You worked hard on these, you listened critically and made notes, and now you have these 53 pieces in your hip pocket. Hold onto this list, and to the SHMRG envelopes, because a lot of these pieces will recur in your college career, and now you have a jump on them." Mostly they're visibly pleased to get the rep list, and visibly struck (in precisely the way that I want them to be) by the concrete evidence of the commendable amount of work that they've done. You can see their faces light up, see them sit up a little straighter--you can see their confidence and sense of accomplishment growing.

So we finish up the two-part "history of jazz in recorded sound" lecture that I often will haul out at the end of the semester (because they're burnt out and I don't really want to tax them with any more stuff that is really unfamiliar or challenging, and because it's the most concrete form of legitimization I can provide the jazz players in the room), and then I give the closing speech.

I've got some version of this same speech that I use at the end of every class experience, whether it be an academic semester, one of the summer workshops at which I teach, or the end of the 2-week field-trip intensive that Dharmonia and I lead to Ireland every spring. The goal of the speech is to put into words some of the emotions that I--and, I infer, they--may be feeling, but to do it in a way that is appropriate, constructive, and "teachable." The content is not perhaps so important (and, at any rate, in each of these situations it's unique, and private, between the people in the room), as is the tone, and, most crucially, the fundamental message: I want them to feel empowered, confident, grown-up, focused, proud, protected, respected.

About 18 months ago, in the wake of the Virginia Tech murders--yet another public trauma that I've had to try to help students process during my tenure as a teacher: Challenger disaster, Gulf War I and II ("look, George 41 and George 43, just go die, OK? You fucking rich men who sent poor kids to die for your corporate owners' profits?!? Don't kill any more of my kids--just fuckin' go die, all right?!?"), and, most pre-eminently, 9/11--I decided that the shock and fear my students were feeling after Seung-Hui Cho's rampage had to be grappled with, in the classroom (we had 48 hours of frantic parents phoning and emailing demanding to know what security systems we had in place to prevent a similar occurence here). So I stood up, at the end of class (can't make a speech like this at the beginning--they'd never concentrate for the balance of the meeting), and said

"In light of the tragic events at Virginia Tech, I want you to know that you are safe, as long as you are in this room. Nothing bad can happen to you, while I am here.

I won't permit it."

There are things you can't say, even if you're feeling them, to the youngsters in your classroom, whose efforts you've worked so hard to elicit and focus, whose heartbreak you've witnessed and whose childish bad behavior you've had to remediate, whose pride in themselves makes you feel proud (and, more importantly, like your time on this planet matters): what you're really feeling at that moment--at least, not as directly as you might in private conversation. You can't, because--aside from the likely disaster some suit in the University's general counsel's office might perceive this to be--saying such things explicitly can cheapen them. You have to show them what you feel for them, and what you feel they might be capable of achieving, and the depth of your commitment to helping them reach those heights.

You can't say it. It doesn't translate. You have to show them.

But if you've done as much psycho-therapeutic work as I have, for so many years, with great Buddhas, and have been the privileged-beyond-all-measure recipient of great gifts, from teachers who were giants on the earth, and have taught enough years and have thought about why you've taught for those years, and about the goals of those teachings, you can know in your heart the true nature of your commitment to those students:

Which is that you love them. All of them.

And by thought and deed, if not by word, you want them to know that.

The semester is done. The wheel turns. And then we begin again.

One more once.

Below the jump: mid-winter dawn on the South Plains.