Saturday, October 31, 2009

Day 42 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Samhain edition

I live in a pretty fuckin' conservative place, and I've blogged about it before: the lunatics who will picket the yoga studio because even studying a body-work tradition associated with Hinduism is "an endorsement of demon-worship." Or some self-satisfied scumbag fundamentalist will decide that the sculpture of the "Windy Man", crafted to represent the perpetual fuckin' wind that defines this place, is another iteration of "demon worship" and so the only "Christian" thing to do is deface it beyond repair--no doubt the fucker bragged about it to his church congregation--and the City Fathers are such gutless punks that they throw up their hands and decide they can't do the sculpture. And let's don't even get started about the mindless fucking prejudice and stupidity they regularly manifest--and preach, G-d save their cancerous souls--toward my brothers and sisters of the shahadah.

But one thing that adversity indubitably teaches you is to hang tough when you're in the minority. And a second thing it teaches you is to find, bond with, and protect your friends, even if--especially if--you need to pursue and maintain your community underground. One of the missions of my life, especially in this stupidly conservative and just-plain-ill-informed community, is to use the (relative) clout and (comparatively impregnable) job security of a tenured post and a supportive boss to enhance the safety and security--in fact, the celebration--with which some of these communities and their own ritual traditions can come out from hiding. I'm not a practitioner of some of these belief-systems or lifestyles, but I will fight to the death to create a safer environment for their adherents--and especially my students--to practice same. I don't jam it into the fundamentalists' faces, but, as I say, I have the (comparative) security, and maybe some skills & tools, that let me be a (comparatively) explicit friend of same. Plus: the generations of my loud-mouthed wrong-sided Presbyterian ancestors are deep enough that I'm prone to taking the opposite side, if only out of contrarian orneriness.

Many, many years ago, when Dharmonia and I were living in Bloomington and I had started teaching as half-time adjunct (on a world music topic, which NASM required but which IU couldn't be bothered to treat as anything other than a resentful obligation), I was producing a radio program for the local NPR station (still get calls and random emails from folks who want to know if the show is on-air, or maybe archived somewhere). Its mandate was very wide (e.g., "One World"; e.g., "all" world music) and I had a huge amount of leeway in terms of format, content, theme, audio profile, etc. So, among many other one-off or atypical topics, I did a series of programs on pagan music. At the time, c1994-95, I didn't have nearly the same grasp of the pre-Christian roots of a lot of the music that I was playing and about which I knew a lot, or would have done much more on pre-Christian Irish, Scandinavian, Native American, etc musics.

But what I did have access to was people who were proponents of the "modern pagan" movement. I wouldn't pretend to have any particular such knowledge about that movement, or where it came from, or the demographics of its adherents, but the picture I got from those shows in '94-95 was pretty interesting. There were the computer programmers with the 5-pointed pentagram on the floor of the garage, who would insist that before they could talk to me, I'd need to sit cross-legged and silent in the center of the star for at least 20 minutes. Which I did: I was already a practicing Buddhist, and didn't see much need to be scared by observing my own mind or by whatever energies the programmer was dreaming up.

There was the small group of dancers, singers, djembe- and recorder-players who had recorded the occasional wobbly-voiced cassette of "neo-pagan" music--which, because like me they didn't much know better about, was the best they could do to try to recover the power and impact that they intuited music had had in the Old Religion.

There were the usual students and office workers and folks of various walks of life whose "neo-pagan" activities overlapped with their Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game or Society for Creative Anachronism medieval-reenactment activities, and which equally seemed to attract them because it represented some kind of more satisfying alternative to the lives they were living.

But what that round of interviews and tape-editing and script-writing and program-voicing really brought home to me was the very real loss that the genocide which had been practiced against the Old Religion in the European 16th & 17th centuries: the quite conscious and quite brutal attempt to stamp out any of the old magical practices that had hung on in the wake of Christianization. And it was intentional, and strategic, and it was, as ever, about power--the power of the early modern Church establishment to consolidate and enrich its own hegemony. That some poor old women, mentally-challenged persons, or foreigners should be interrogated, brutalized, tortured, and murdered was "collateral damage" and a negligible price to pay for the very real value of scaring the crap out of anyone else who might be considering a resistant belief system: really, the same practices, in pursuit of the same motives, in which the monsters and war criminals of the Bush/Cheney regime engaged.

And what it brought home to me, as a musician, historian, and teacher, was the magnitude of the cultural loss. Over and above and beyond--but never forgetting--the human suffering and death the witch trials brought, the loss of human knowledge, the practical psychology, expertise, and nature wisdom that the old religion had carried. That's what the research for the radio shows really brought home to me: the scope of the loss, as well as the suffering, that the witch trials had wrought.

And then there was the Elf-Lore family. Founded in 1991, they were (I think--it's hard to get information about the early days) an outgrowth of the late '60s back-to-the-land hippie/agrarian movement, which worked in some places (Lothlorien outside Bloomington, the Farm in Tennessee, various others) and didn't in others (the collective psychosis of Mel Lyman's Family in Boston comes to mind) . It worked pretty well in Bloomington, and a lot of that early success was due to the charisma, energy, and right intentions of Terry Whitefeather, one of the founders. When I met him, Terry was probably in his late 40s, and kind of fit the profile of a hippie patriarch: long graying hair, beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a very fast and facile riffing style of speaking. Leary was the same, and Ginsberg not far off.

But not all of those hippie patriarchs were either opportunists, charlatans, or incipient suicide cult-leaders. Terry had some perspective on what he was doing and on the energies that he was potentially playing with, and he was a pretty careful and conscious steward. The first time I met him, he had just finished what was actually a pretty impressive night-time fire ceremony involving two broadswords and a lot of hollering. When we were introduced, he stuck out his hand, and said "I'm Terry--I've heard about you." I told him I was impressed with his swordsmanship (I was a student of Northern Shaolin kung-fu, including weapons forms, at the time), and he grinned, and said "Well, you know, I'm just tryin' to get some energy going."

Which, as a teacher, performer, and more than a bit of a charlatan myself, I recognized and appreciated. We talked for a long time, and he was acute, articulate, well-informed, un-full of himself, and, most importantly to me, grounded in a sense of history of the traditions he was working with. It was a pleasure to talk to him, and one thing he said, near our parting, stuck with me--not only into the production of the radio program, but in the years since. Terry said, "You know, I deal all the time with people who want to call themselves 'pagans', and yet they've never planted a garden. How the hell are you going to 'worship Nature' if you don't even know the annual cycles?"

Which, since, has remained something of a litmus test for me with anybody who claims to be a follower of the "Old Ways." It continued to resonate with me as, over the years, I learned more about my chosen musics, and the cultural contexts and history out of which they came. Until I've come to the understanding that, like literacy itself, the contemporary specious belief that Nature can be "controlled" or "subjugated" is a blip on the historical horizon.

Humans have been talking, singing, miming, and worshiping Nature for 40,000 years: that over the past 300 years we've succumbed to the idea that we can "control" her may be enough to doom us (because we're so lazy, mindless, greedy and stupid that we're infinitely faster and more efficient at destroying the Earth than protecting her), but even if we end ourselves, that period of Nature-illiteracy will have been a blip on the historical time-line.

And maybe we won't.

At any rate, meeting Terry Whitefeather, and hearing him riff on things that I also had intuited about the motives--but also some of the limitations--of the "neo-pagan" ethos, opened me up. I was, am, and will continue to be a Buddhist, through many cycles of rebirth, because of the profound sanity I have found in its practices and the profound inspiration of its practitioners (nobody every really learns a true religion except by direct, person-to-person example), but certain individuals certainly helped me find the wisdom in the Old Religion as well.

I was reminded of it again when, one of those first students in the world music class, right in that same era, turned out to be a member of the Elf-Lore family--and asked me to be a participant in his wedding. It was way early in my career as a classroom teacher, and such a request hadn't come my way as often as it later would, but I was touched and gratified that this kid thought enough of my impact on his life to ask me to be part of this wedding (I had played enough tasteless, ill-advised, or dysfunctional weddings by that point to be pretty cynical and pessimistic about "young love"). But I hadn't realized that this was going to be a full-bore pagan wedding--not that I knew, at that time, what such involved.

In the event, it was quite touching: held in a relatively secluded corner of a large wooded public park, it involved passing over water and through fire, an oath upon (and witnessed by) a tree, an exchange of rings, and one of vows in three languages. Though a pessimist about young love and something of a skeptic about "recovered" religion, I was (as I later commented to Dharmonia, who was also present) quite moved by the realization that, for these young people, "neo-paganism" simply represented the best, most apposite, most emotionally-real expression of a very profound, entirely-too-uncommon desire: that is, the desire, and the commitment, to live a sacred life.

A life in which worship is not compartmentalized apart from the "prosaic" world; where the ethics of the spirit do not differ from the ethics of the body; where a set of religious principles propounded are also practiced; where ideals of compassion, awareness, gratitude, and connection find their expression in the relationship of the person to all persons and to all beings, including Gaia. I had not previously grasped that about modern neo-paganism--but those people and the experiences they gave me helped me to understand.

So, to my Brothers and Sisters who have fought to maintain and recover a sense of the sacred in the green world that surrounds us, that gave birth to us and to which we will all return as part of the--we hope--endless cycle of death and rebirth--that is if we can manage to arrest the careening course of greed, violence, and destruction--and on this Night of all nights, when the Horned God rides and the boundary between this world and the Other is especially thin, I'll say,

Thank you: "an it harm no one, do as thou wilt."

Blessed Be.

Friday, October 30, 2009


For my money, Andy Irvine's Mozaik is an even greater band than Donal Lunny's Moving Hearts, but the Hearts were one of the best live bands Dharmonia and I ever saw, at the old Jonathan Swift's basement club in Harvard Square around 1982, and it's nice to see the old graying (or balding) lions like Donal, piper/low whistler Davey Spillane, and secret weapon Eoghan O'Neill (fretless bass guitar) as just as much bad-asses as they ever were:

Moving Hearts - Live In Dublin - The Lark on MUZU.
The Lark in the Morning


Alberto "Senator, I do not recall" Gonzalez just strutted past me in the Music School like some pint-sized sub-Napoleon little banty rooster--almost as bad as his boss. It was everything I could do not to pick him up by the throat and tell him to get the fuck out of my building.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day 41 (Round IV) "In the trenches": landscapes of history edition

A couple of weeks ago, watching the remarkable work of New Zealand's WETA studios in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (pretty talented bunch of Kiwi's, even in the first film), I was reminded of the fact that as a kid, one of the professions--along with archaeologist, marine biologist, and soldier--that I thought I might really like was that of museum diorama builder. I loved building models, especially of landscapes, and was pretty damned good at it: for a 7th grade American history project, I built a to-scale topographical diorama of the Gettysburg battlefield, and used it ("flashpoint" gunpowder squibs and all) to describe the course of the day's battle. Watching the incredible worlds the WETA boys built (Isengard, the Dark Tower, Minas Tirith, Helm's Deep), I am reminded of that early yen to be able to spend a life building worlds of imagination.

But I reckon I won't complain.

Because I reckon a life spent building landscapes of the imagination is, actually, pretty near exactly what I've had.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Day 40 (Round IV) "In the trenches": strong women edition

I've been blessed to be surrounded with some strong positive people in my life--and some right bastards too, and some who've been both. But most of those strong people, even the bastards, gave me a vision of some ways to be, and so for that I owe them all a debt.

I have enough suspician about manipulative, dysfunctional, and co-dependent family situations--having grown up in one--that I've got a very short fuse for certain kinds of destructive behavior. Dharmonia can vouch for the absolute towering rage certain types of parents will evoke in me: it takes huge reserves of (my limited) self-control to refrain from telling certain moms (especially) 'n' dads just what assholes they've been to their children. And I have a sort of stumped/mystified reaction to the experience of those raised in loving, healthy families--that feeling of "jeeze, I wonder what it must be like to grow up un-fucked-up about music, self-image, success, money, trust, sex, or any others of the whole sad legacy to which I'm heir", because I have absolutely clue what that must feel like (it's no coincidence that 3 of the 4 siblings in my generation went far away from the possibility of having kids). But I have to believe that growing up thus un-fucked-up is both possible and real.

Anyway, there've been a lot of fucked-up experiences in my own life, but there've also been a lot of remarkable, brave, creative, strong, compassionate people too. And I am distinctly grateful for that.

Most particularly, there've been a lot of strong, positive women in my life. Although some of my most significant role models have been male (that's kind of the definition of "role model", isn't it?), and although I suspect that most acquaintances and students would think of me as occupying a spot far on the masculine end of the spectrum (I've not got much of a "soft side"), strong women have been some of the most important influences and most valued collaborators in my life. Guitar teachers, musical collaborators, co-writers, academic colleagues, mentors, you know it: my karma seems to require strong women.

That's continued to play out in my life here. Pretty much from the day I started, I've been surrounded by women who enriched my life: students, colleagues, and, especially, assistants. I've never had the luxury of "selecting" graduate assistants--have always had to take the luck of the draw or whomever we could recruit for our small-but-growing graduate program--but for whatever karmic reasons, the assistants I've gotten have been, pretty much without exception, smart, talented, imaginative, responsive, tough, remarkable women. Maybe that's partly because we try, within our division, to balance the male/female energy in the various partnerships of teachers & assistants. Maybe it's because, somewhere up the food chain, some suit thought maybe they could keep Coyote happy if they gave him smart women.

But for whatever reason, I've been blessed: the ones who've worked for me have just been these strong women, who are now out in the world raising children, holding down professorships, assuming directorships, running arts organizations, creating endless positive energy. As I've said before, there's absolutely nothing more charismatic and attractive than guts and brains.

I've blogged before, intermittently, regarding my own limited sense of how tough it can be to be such a woman in a society as fucked-up as ours, but tonight I'm just grateful that these remarkable women have been and continue to be part of my life, and my learning.

So, Caroline, Setareh, Michelle, Shannon, Lauren, Meredith, Abi, Tif, Elissa:

this one's for you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Done been overtook by the day in every way. Hoping for more time and blog-energy tomorrow.

To make up for it: here's Al Green taking us to church on the late, great, never-to-be-matched live-TV show Night Music:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 38 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Sallie Ann edition

Interesting weekend. Got on the return flight from London conference (which same's schedule and selective internet access explains the blog-silence): 9 long hours from London-Heathrow to Houston, but I'll still take that over sprinting through airports to make multiple too-tight connections, made it into Lubbock around 9pm on the Wednesday night. Graded mid-term essay exams 'til around 12:30am, crashed.

Got up Thursday AM: made a committee meeting w/ the Boss 9am-11am; taught 12:30-2pm; by 3:30 was on the road with a student for an Irish music teaching weekend SE of here.

Interesting situations. I've taught at various festivals and summer camps over the years, and been a student at others, but this one is anomalous in a couple of ways--most notably because of the site, and because of the general stance and sociological profile of the organizers and attendees.

Facility incredibly effective: a huge rural retreat center owned, of all things, by the Salvation Army, situated in the rolling hills south of Dallas TX. Barns, corrals, golf-links, multiple chapels, decent dorms, a small music conservatory, a dining commons (with decent food, thank the universe) by an artificial lake. Effective organization, smart scheduling, good promotion and presentation of the music. Top-notch faculty (leaving aside your humble narrator), nice and outgoing folks, attentive students, meticulous yet relaxed staff.

And yet there are a couple of details that feel a little "off"--or at least unfamiliar.

The first is that, because this is a camp owned by (and rented from) the Sallie Anns, there is absolutely no alcohol allowed anywhere on the grounds: this including music session rooms, dining hall--even the dorms and private rooms!

Now, I'm not much of a proponent of the "Irish music and/or musicians automatically require booze in order to function" premise, but the total absence in this case did make me reflect on it. In one way it was nice: generally speaking, at such camps, you're so busy teaching, and then playing tunes, and then going to concerts or playing your own, and then playing tunes, and then playing more tunes, and then sleeping maybe a couple of hours before getting up and doing it all again, that your body is already pretty much pummeled (especially if, like me and I suspect a number of the other teachers who'd come direct from Ireland, your body clock is totally jetlagged); adding the booze to it can ease the pain and fire the crack, but it doesn't do anything good for your metabolism (psyche another question). In this case, it's actually kind of a relief not to have any alcohol in the system: you can concentrate on getting enough H20, and trying to limit the intake the amount of carbs, grease, and salt that are typically present in cafeteria food, and on getting in the walking (and schlepping of instruments) that a campus this size requires. And god knows I've been at some camps where the overgrown nostalgic "here's how much of a party animal I was way back in college" beer consumption--mostly, to be fair, on the part of adult male students overexcited at being off the leash for a couple of weeks--was way out of hand, and actually counterproductive to the learning process that the camp is supposed to be about.

But it's still a little weird. Going without the booze is OK--though I'll admit that, around 6pm after teaching ALL day, or around midnight for a nightcap, it feels like a little bit of a deprivation--but more because of the kind of overarching "we (anonymous all-powerful Sallie Ann "we") are going to dictate a very wide range of conduct while you're here on our grounds" stance it manifests. It feels a little invasive--and DAMNED sure alien to the world of cantankerous individualism that I associate with Irish trad musicians.

A second weird factor, and one definitely related to the first, is that, for the first time, I think I've encountered what's become in the past 10 years or so a sizable portion of the market for avocational Irish music: the home-schoolers, opt-outers, social or religious conservatives who think they're finding in Irish music a haven from a messy, modern, secular, foul-mouthed, booze-drinking, changing world.

Don't get me wrong: they're very nice folks, very appreciative of the teaching, obviously very dedicated to their kids (18 hours a day teaching, feeding, clothing, caring and earning for them: you'd have to be dedicated), and very committed to the idea of a "traditional" music they can share across generations without amplifiers, even after (or if) the Lights Go Out.

I 'magine a few of them are Left-Behinders, or maybe incipient survivalists, or "from my cold dead hands" automatic-weapons freaks who still plan to vote for Palin as Prez in 2012--but my guess is that, rather, they're folks who are concerned about the world in which their kids are going to grow up, who think new technology, the sheer pace of input, is a corrupting influence more than an opportunity, and who think they've found in Irish music a haven of a simpler, purer, cleaner, more moral, safer time. And an all-ages music retreat at a Salvation Army center a good 3 miles from the nearest outside habitation--or booze--must seem like a return to that idealized, safer, earlier age.

Which I don't think was ever there. Yes, I believe the Irish village culture that was the cradle of the music manifested some values that we could damned sure use in the modern world--modesty, restraint, memory, participation, a decent work ethic. I believe that learning, loving, and sharing the music can give us back a hell of a lot that we damned sure have lost.

But I also believe that there was never a Golden Age--there was never a time before the Fall. And, for damned sure, both the contemporary world of the music, and, I believe, the journey of the music through the history of the Irish at home and in the Diaspora, is anything but clean, simple, peaceful, pure, or moral. Irish music--traditional music of all kinds--is and always was about helping people, especially poor people who were materially poor but culturally very rich, get through all of life's hard challenges: birth, marriage, hunger, cold, loss, fear, anger, departure, injustice, war, and the whole messy megillah. For Chrissake, that's why there are so goddamned sad songs! It's about the mourning and the fierce joy that comes from living close to all the hard aspects of life, and a music that helps you cope with all of it.

I don't wanna idealize the music. I don't want to see it as a chance to escape for the weekend to a bubble of a halycon Past before the Fall. I don't need the fictions that I hear being expressed around the music--the actual history is quite sufficiently remarkable. And admirable. And I'm in it for all of it--not just the safer more idealized more sequestered or romanticized bits that seem to live here this weekend.

In fact, between the quiet, manicured grounds, the soberly-dressed moms 'n' dads 'n' home-schooled kids, and the ubiquitous electric golf-carts careening across the grounds to transport instructors schlepping instruments or the large incidence of large people (lot of these folks seem to like their carbs), it's actually a bit reminiscent of the bandbox little village in west Wales where they filmed the McGoohan version of the Prisoner.

But I'm home now. The sequestered, quasi-monastic aspect of the retreat was sort-of refreshing and sort-of peaceful, but I live out here, in the messy, smelly, complicated, contentious, challenging world of Samsara. And prefer to.

To celebrate which, I believe I will go drink a little whiskey.

Mountains are mountains, mountains are not mountains, mountains are mountains.

I never climbed Cotopaxi, and I never will.

But he has, and because of his guts, strength, and friendship, I've seen the summit through his eyes.

And we're standing there right now Coop, you and me, and we're dancing.

And we will again, goddammit.

If you care about this blog and what this blog cares about, then send up some positive energy for my brother in music Steve.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day 34 (Round IV) "In the trenches": "Waal, the Stranger jist rode inta town" edition

Spent the last week on a UK campus as the guest of an old IU friend's department and lecture series. My buddy T has been after me for the past couple of years to come and give a talk as part of their colloquia on the minstrelsy project, but until this year we've never been able to work out the finances--not the fee (fee?!? ha!), because nobody in academia really has the money to be paying extra for scholars not on the payroll to come in and give extra presentations, but rather the adjacent/ancillary "Music & Migration" conference whose CFP ("call for papers") T was able to tweeze sufficiently to include both historical as well as ethnographic studies on the topic. That got a paper accepted, which in turn let me go to my own boss and Dean and request "international research presentation" travel support, which in turn made it possible for me to get here, and, by crashing with T and his family, spend the week at a cost T's colloquium could afford.

It's been a nice visit: lot of quality time with the family (knew both T and spouse at IU) including hot & cold running kids (ages 2, 4, 6), wander in the New Forest.

Actually pretty nice to spend time in the New Forest--not a terribly dramatic landscape (heath, bog, scattered trees), but with animals (pigs, horses, sheep, etc) running free. Because this is the largest remaining patch of "common land"--unowned by any private holder, but held "in common" by those who work and graze the land--the last vestige of the way that land was, before Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and the Acts of Enclosure that ensued when the rich realized they could lay claim to anything not newly-documented as owned (kind of what Certain Irish Musicians have done with anonymous tunes). I've done a lot of work on concepts of the Commons--the pre-Industrial, pre-copyright, barter-era social compact that says "as long as everyone in a community understands the vernacular rules by which the resources get used, we don't HAVE to nail down every last bit of who 'owns' what". It's ironic that the reason the New Forest has remained a "commons" area is that it was (originally) a private hunting domain established by William I (it's in Domesday Book), and it was a pleasure and a unique and precious experience to spend time in a landscape that has NEVER been "owned".

Also had a nice visit with Taiyo--first her, here, for a day of the Music & Migration conference. Felt a little embarrassed that she'd traveled and was spending money to hear a variant of a paper that she's heard at least twice before, but it was nice to introduce a friend from one Dr Coyote era (Lubbock) to a friend from another (Bloomington). And it was nice to see her coming along as a professional scholar able to hold her own in foreign climes.

Then to Oxford, which I commented upon briefly last night. Though it's a beautiful place, and the sense of history comes up between the cobbles and out of the walls of the buildings, probably the most enjoyable parts of that visit were the chances to meet her own friends and supervisors. I can do without the spotty little Children of Privilege with their posh accents and carbon-copy blazers and scarves and Potter-/Auden-esque spectacles and their general air of tentative privilege: "privilege" because they've always been told by Mum and Dad and their rich relatives and the family's corporate relations that they are Among the Elect, and "tentative" because, even in Oxford, they can bump shoulders with people of every different ethnicity, economic experience, and set of political convictions--including Very Large Americans with earned PhDs and contempt for the English Upper Classes coming off him like waves.

But it was a pleasure to meet the guys she works for. I won't go on at length about them--they're prime material for her OWN blog--but it was felicitous, after the toxic Privilege of the Oxford streets (not unlike what I feel in the streets of Taos, Boulder, or Cambridge MA), to be reminded that the English university system is still capable of turning out diametrically opposite personality types who are both, nevertheless, bright as hell and very approachable: one buttoned-down and understated, the other expansive and hyperbolic, but both of them obviously delighted to be dealing with people who are quick enough, and flexible enough, to alleviate the sheer intellectual boredom that comes from being way smarter than everybody else in the room (not an experience I know, but cf Dr Coyote's Elder Brother here). Nice guys, and it was delightful to see them both pleased with and proud of Taiyo's contributions to their operations.

After that, a late ride back through the darkling countryside of Oxfordshire and Hampshire, and being reminded that, had we in the US ever been able to escape the oligarchies of the Big Oil that demanded a the suicidal construction of superhighways and a dinosaur of an auto industry (thanks, Prescott Bush, damn you), we might have had a light-rail system that was a fifth as effective as the UK's. And, if we hadn't allowed ourselves to be so utterly cowed by the fucking Puritans, it might even be possible, en route on such a quick, clean, quiet train, to enjoy a split of a decent red wine and read about Samuel Beckett.

Now sitting in the cafe of the university (pretty good lattes, actually, as long as, in ordering, you say "one leh-tay and one bah-nah-nah, please", or they won't understand your Yankee accent), tap-tapping on the presentation (give me surplus time before a public lecture, and I will wind up rewriting) and waiting to be met by a posse of T's Master's and PhD students, who are tasked with taking me to lunch.

I sort-of remember such jobs, from my own 12 years as a graduate student. While I wouldn't wish my own graduate-student self on ANY visiting professor (large, ragged, skeptical, accustomed to the worst possible self-indulgent pomposity from professors), I actually enmjoy and value meeting other peoples' grads, and I go way out of my way to be as positive, engaged, and encouraging as I know how to be.

Because being in graduate school is fucking HARD. I have the impression from T, and from some other observations, that it's nowhere near as hard here as it is across the water--here, there are few classes, only the occasional seminar, you pick your own supervisor from the available faculty, you meet with your tutor once a week to discuss whatever has been your recent reading or writing. Master's in 1 year and a PhD in 2. I 'magine this does a very good job of preparing UK grad students (call 'em "post-grad" here) for work in the UK university system doing the same thing for more recent students, the contrast between the criteria of this system, and those of the US (massive coursework, allegations of comprehensivity, batteries of entrance and exit exams, extended dissertation approval and vetting process, many more years in the pipeline) helps me understand why it's so difficult and uncommon for UK PhD's to wind up teaching in American institutions: if the American school isn't of sufficient stature to provide "pure research" or at the most "senior single seminar" status, the UK people are going to have trouble displaying the range of expertise--or at least competence--to provide the service that a Stateside school needs.

Coming up on colloquium Zero Hero in about 4:00 minutes now. Here we go...

...Aftermath: went well. Nice selection of the faculty there, but much more importantly (sorry, T), good representation of the Master's and PhD students. As a mutual friend said, in the pub after the lecture, "It's really around the students that T lights up," to which my response was "that's exactly how it should be." Good kids, good questions, good energy, with all of which I'll be really happy to keep in touch.

On the London/Heathrow coach in less than 9 hours. Indian food on the horizon right now. 30 hours from now I should be Back Home.

You hang tough, goddammit

You went up Cotopaxi like it was a fuckin' walk in the park, and danced a jig on the summit.

I refuse to believe there's a bacterium on this fuckin' planet that can take you. You hang tough, you hear me?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Oxford (the real old one)

First visit today, in tandem with Taiyo. Beautiful place, and the history, literature, and learning of the place comes up through the cobblestones.

But I have a little bit of the same reaction, walking past Christchurch Cathedral and Balliol College, that I had the first time I visited the Vatican: yeah, they're wonderful places, stuffed to bursting with erudition and artistic beauty and a sense of tradition--and neither one of them would have existed if they hadn't been funded by feudalism, colonialism, and empire.

I walk the streets of both places, and I can't help but be conscious of the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people whose work made them both possible, but who never enjoyed their benefits.

Still an old Chartist/Wobbly/anarchist at heart, I reckon.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Day 34 (Round IV) "In the trenches": "6/8" edition

You want a rewarding challenge--a task that is both, simultaneously, rewarding and challenging? Sitting in a hopelessly ill-chosen conference room, as echoey as a bathysphere and with about as much acoustical quality, straining your ears and left-brain/right-brain cortex integration to catch every nuance as Dama, Justin Vali, the great Regis Givazo, and their bandmates conduct a master-class in Malagasay rhythms, lightly interpreted by the young German ethnomusicologist who they've obviously adopted as their musical baby sister but otherwise in their heavily-accented French which you can barely understand, but which you follow without even breathing, because the sophistication and precision with which they speak about their own music makes the patronizing German sociolinguist who told the young ethno person that what she "really should do is 'explain' 'it' to 'us'" seem just as pompous and condescending as it actually is.

The reward? Hearing that conversation, and getting to shake the hand of Regis Givazo, maybe the most brilliant button accordion player, in any idiom, I've ever heard.

Good day.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"It comes in pints?!?"

"...I'm getting one!"

Day 33 (Round IV) "In the trenches": jiggity-jig edition

Puddle-jumper flight from Lubbock to Houston, long, long (9-hour) overnight Houston to London Heathrow. Heading on up outta this joint for a conference, at which I'll present yet more stuff from the minstrelsy project, and then follow up Tuesday with a colloquium/guest-lecture shot for an old friend's department.

Right now, sitting in the London-Heathrow coach station, and skyping onto the free wireless, and diggin' it all the way. The wrinkle is that I keep getting kicked off and having to reconnect to a different (free) wireless network, because--get this--I'm getting that wireless signal from the buses waiting to depart, and every few minutes a given bus--and wireless router--will pull out of the station and I'll have to reconnect. Yes, folks: in England--a nation with a really very good bus service, and top-notch rail service--even the buses have free wireless.

I don't have much use for their imperial history, and their heritage of class & privilege makes me want to vomit--but their concept of broadband access as a citizenship right makes us seem like a bunch of fucking Neanderthals.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist

On the tube right now, and I'm tripping enough on Pseudophed that it's about the level of cognition I can handle.

It's actually a pretty sweet little movie. I can take or leave Michael Cera: I think, to really enjoy the mono-character he plays in pretty much everything, you have to have either been, or had a crush upon, a pseudo-nerd like that character in high school. But there's some good comic writing in the screenplay, and some good comic small turns (Ari Gayner's drunken party girl is particularly good--no surprise, as she's from Baahstin and the role probably isn't too far from folks she knows), and I've thought Kat Dennings was a smart little, atypical actress ever since she play the great Catherine Keener's daughter in 40-Year-Old Virgin.

And I really like the idea of a movie in which a bunch of people, including the male and female ingenue, spend a movie running around New York trying to find a legendary underground band's unannounced show, and that those two ingenues bond because they recognize that a shared sense of which music you like can damned sure save not only a relationship, but even your life.

Sure saved mine.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Well, the blue light was my baby...

Just sang an unaccompanied "Love in Vain" in the San Antonio hotel ballroom where Robert Johnson recorded in Nov 1936, and damned near burst into tears.

We goddamned well ought to treat our geniuses better: Buddy Bolden, Charlie Christian, Bird, Dolphy, Mingus, Janis, Jimi, Duane, Clifford, on and on and on.

And we never will.

Thank you, Robert.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"Dark aberration"

The Nobel has frequently not been awarded as a result of completed accomplishments, but rather "to encourage innovators to stay the course". Marshall nails it--and here is the part that the far right-wing "who for 8 years ruled this country like a medieval fiefdom really should be paying attention to:

This is an odd award. You'd expect it to come later in Obama's presidency and tied to some particular event or accomplishment. But the unmistakable message of the award is one of the consequences of a period in which the most powerful country in the world,...became the focus of destabilization and in real if limited ways lawlessness. A harsh judgment, yes. But a dark period. And Obama has begun, if fitfully and very imperfectly to many of his supporters, to steer the ship of state in a different direction. If that seems like a meager accomplishment to many of the usual Washington types it's a profound reflection of their own enablement of the Bush era and how compromised they are by it, how much they perpetuated the belief that it was 'normal history' rather than dark aberration.
Right on. They were all culpable.

Eyes on the Prize

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: they gave the Nobel to war criminals and terrorists (Kissinger and Arafat), heroes and saints (Mandela and HH the Dalai Lama), villains and fools...but they also just gave it to my president. And it's the rest of the fucking world telling American right-wing birthers, 10-per-centers, Teabaggers, Blue Dogs, and hate-radio-mavens that the entire rest of the world knows they're wrong.

I'm glad he won.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

This ain't bidness...

The 1991 New Jack City is not a very good movie, by any metric: sort of low-rent wimping-out-on-itself blaxploitation only with the gloss of pretending to have a "Message", but there is one great line in it, delivered by the right actor: Ice-T--an authentic badass--to Wesley Snipes, just after beating the living shit out of him:

Well, listen, you dirty little draft-dodging faux-cowboy dry-alcoholic entitled sociopathic little preppie shithead, your fucking imperial-fantasy-wet-dream war is still taking my students to serve overseas on a mission that is Fucked Up Beyond All Recovery:

"This ain't business anymore. This is personal."

Don't you ever forget. I'm not done with you yet.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Day 26 (Round IV) "In the trenches": lachrymae edition

I deal with tears surprisingly frequently in my job. Not as often as priests or doctors, of course, and not even close to as often as hospice workers and EMTs--may their cycles of rebirth be shortened!--but still with surprising frequency. The stereotype would be of the "tear-stained email" (Dharmonia's phrase) or face-to-face visit when someone comes to tell me that their grandmother has died for the fifth or sixth time, but in point of fact, I deal with real (not crocodile) tears with surprising frequency.

Thankfully, they're not all tears of frustration or anger--though that is the source of the kids' upset an unconscionably large percentage of the time--because they can sometimes result from relief, stress, or true sorrow. When they hit this age of 18-24, it's when some of them for the first time encounter death at close range: a grandparent, a friend, and it brings home to them the terrible brevity of life, in a way that their teenaged Bubble of Presumed Invincibility usually shields them from.

During the 12 years I was in group therapy, I learned a lot about how the stages of powerful emotion work--not only by observing my fellows in the group, because their emotion was often so powerful it was hard to refrain from getting sucked-in by it, and because, hell, we were all in the therapy group precisely because we needed work on how to handle emotions.

But more from watching how my great therapist/Dharma sister/teacher handled the emotions of others. The therapist's charge is to maintain perspective (not "objectivity", which is a bullshit chimera that some therapists hide beyond in order to avoid commitment), but the Buddhist teacher's charge is to not only maintain perspective but also to manifest compassion. Which is a delicate line to walk, and every circumstance is different. But I also learned that one of the best ways to walk that line most constructively is to be present in the moment. And part of that "being present" is to sit with someone else's pain, and refrain from either trying to escape it, or to "fix it"--both of which are attempts to avoid it.

My therapist did neither. She was present. She stayed present. She engaged with the in-the-moment needs of the person and the situation. I watched when she would speak and when she would be silent, when she would nod or remain impassive, when she would tender the Kleenex or when her own eyes would fill with tears.

I also learned to watch her breathe with my fellows: when someone was overwhelmed with emotion, or even more in those moments when the emotion was still bottled-up inside--when she/he--and our therapist--were pounding up against the internal barriers that had walled-in all that pain for all those sad silent years. At those moments, sometimes, I would see her watching the person's body as well as face, watching the shoulders, hands, and spine. I would watch her keep still when that emotion was still bottled inside. I watched her lean forward and nod when the stumbling words began to come. I learned to know when the logjam would break, and the tears of old sorrow and old pain were about to flow, because her own eyes would fill with tears. And I learned not to try to stem those tears, but to sit silently and be present when they came--because the release of those tears parallels the release of the old painful emotions. And when the tears were over, I would watch her watch the person's breathing--and as the old emotions washed away, she would match her breathing with theirs.

I don't deal with that kind of old painful emotion quite so much: not because my students have experienced any less heartache than anyone else--though it's simple arithmetic that if you're 19, you've had less time to experience the suffering of somebody twice or three times as old--but because the nature of my job is different. It's not my job to help them "work through" their old pain.

But it is part of my job to recognize the reality of the pain they may be experiencing. I'm their teacher, and so I am charged to use all appropriate means and information to help them learn. Sometimes that includes learning to cope with sorrow, old pain, or injustice unchecked.

Thankfully, it's also part of my job to help them learn how to handle the power of the positive emotions that their job sometimes brings, because sometimes they are tears of appreciation and gratitude. When the intensity of the emotions that musicians deal with, day in and day out, making and breaking them down--and have done for 40,000 years--when that intensity comes out, when a young person recognizes the power of the traditions of performance and ritual she or he is entered, there maybe should be some tears.

I love my job. I love my students. And I'm grateful for the work that I, and we, do.

Brings tears for me, too. Still.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Day 25 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Celtic Accelerator cookies edition

Way back in the 1970s, the old Guitar Player magazine ran a regular monthly column with an LA studio guitarist named Tommy Tedesco, who claimed to have played on more than 10,000 sessions and to have the real "low-down" on being a working studio musician--this was back in the day before computers or samplers, when you actually hired musicians with command of their instruments to come in and invent something unique, and perfectly played, for your record. I suspect I probably wouldn't have liked a lot of what he played--he certainly didn't--but it was kind of refreshing, and inspiring, in a "wouldn't it be great if only...?" kind way, to hear somebody talk about making a living playing music. I didn't have too much contact with people who were doing that, and as a teen I mostly saw people who were scuffling to play "their own" music.

At the time, Tommy's column was one of the only sources you could find about the studio musician's life "in the trenches" (to coin a phrase)--there was no way of knowing then that Tommy was talking about an art form that was shortly to essentially disappear.

He had a "rule for living" giving criteria for taking a studio job which I think is still one of the best articulations of the basic rule of thumb for a working artist I've ever heard. He said, "you should never going to take a job unless you're going to (a) learn something, (b) make money, or (c) have fun. And preferably at least two of those three."

I've adapted that as one of the "rules for living" in the Celtic Ensemble (along with "Don't suck" and "Keep your head up, keep your eyes open, don't forget to breath" and "look out for each other, onstage and off"), as "always find out if they're gonna feed you."

I've also discovered that, working with musicians, and especially young musicians, it's never a bad idea to try to add some kind of free food into the mix. I can't pay my guys, but I try damned hard to make sure that they get other kinds of perks--ideally from the clients, and if not from them, then from me.

Especially when your rehearsals happen at 7pm or 9pm, and they're coming into rehearsal after a full day of classes, rehearsals, and practicing. No matter how willing their spirits--and they usually are very willing--by 9 or 10 or 11 at night, they are just physically dragged-out (or "drug-out", as they say up here) and it's damned hard for them to overcome that exhaustion in order to concentrate and focus the way I need them to.

So, after the occasional iteration last year, this year I've just given in, and, on every rehearsal night, planned to cook (usually bake) something, and tote it into rehearsal, along with a big thermos of "proper Irish tea" with milk and sugar. A lot of these kids have only ever had tea as iced tea, and so the tea itself is a revelation for them. The baked goods are usually cookies, or soda bread, or muffins, or something that is portable, incrementable, and which I can load up with extra sugar. The Irish have understood for generations that you can get by without too much meat, in a cold climate, if you consume lots of dairy (in Ireland, cows are far more valuable as sources of milk/etc than of beef) which keeps pretty well in a cold climate. So they eat a lot of baked goods (flour, eggs, salt, baking soda, all keep without refrigeration) and use them as delivery methods for dairy calories: especially butter, cream, and milk.

So I'll bring in some kind of cookies, usually with an extra dose of sugar spiked into the recipe, and the big jug of tea, and know that, after about an hour, when they're drooping with exhaustion and morale is sinking accordingly and they need a break anyway, then taking that break and pumping a dose of butter, sugar, and caffeine into them will lift not only their spirits but also their metabolisms and ability to concentrate.

It's gotten to be so much of a tradition with the band that I now joke with them that "I can never stop doing this now, can I? Because you'll just never do the work without the caffeine and sugar, will you?" And they laugh, and I laugh, but there's also a kernel of something important and valuable here.

For millenia, before union scale or modern copyright, musicians' contributions to their community have been recognized in a huge variety of ways: barter, produce, exchanged work, etc--but at least one of them, one of the millenial modes, has been that the musicians get fed. Whether it's a dram of whiskey and a ham-and-butter sandwich in the West of Ireland; or a foil-wrapped tray of ribs in an after-hours blues joint; or "chicken clump with B-flat sauce" at a WASP wedding; or a huge platter of hummus, tabbouleh, dolma, and et cetera at an Iranian graduation party; or lamb and rice and baccala at a Portuguese fishermen's wedding (all of which I've received), getting fed by the hosts has been a way for the clients or patrons to acknowledge the fundamental, important-as-air-and-food-and-water contribution of the musicians to such celebrations.

And beyond that--I'm their teacher. Subject to the restrictions and boundaries that any mentoring situations requires--the recognition that sometimes you have to refrain from telling them or showing them how to do something, in order that they can learn better--it's appropriate that I should feed them: I'm supposed to take care of their needs, musical, intellectual, and physical. And by doing so, I can show them some ways that they can think of taking care of themselves, of each other, and of their own students, when I'm long under the earth.

So, in keeping with this "if you get fed at the gig, it's like you've been paid more money" rule for living, I've been pumping out multiple batches of oatmeal cookies, so we can share them not only with each other, but also with the concert audience this weekend. With a concert hall that is a former church, and audiences who've come over the years to expect something different, if not also extra, out of our gigs beyond the run-of-the-mill classical concert, it seems appropriate. And it seems right, that, in addition to bringing into reality music that many of them have never heard before, and in as-always-and-ever unique performances which will begin, end, and never be heard again in just that form, we should also be feeding them.

It just feels right.

Dr Coyote's Celtic Accelerator Oatmeal cookies

In just about any baking situation, you need about four ingredients in a recipe: a grain for bulk and calories, shortening and spices for texture and flavor, eggs to bind the grain, some active agent--either yeast or baking soda--to make it rise. In most North European situations, the soda is more practical, because it doesn't have to be refrigerated and it can't die-off.

1 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 egg
1 tsp vanilla

Soften the butter and cream all ingredients together in a food processor; you'll wind up with a soft, cake-frosting-like consistency.

Meanwhile, mix/sift:

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
3 cups quick oats

To this, add the two secret ingredients:

1 tsp nutmeg (replaces cinnamon with some subtler and more aromatic)
2-3 tbsp brewed coffee

Mix dry and wet ingredients thoroughly

Roll dough between your palms (wet your hands with cold water) into walnut sized balls and place on greased baking sheets.

Cook in a 375-degree oven for 10-12 minutes. Remove baking sheets from oven, but allow cookies to cool 6-8 minutes before removing cookies and further cooling. Makes about 24.

Remove and refrigerate. These keep very well, and it's never a bad idea to have a couple of dozen in the freezer for emergencies.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Day 24 (Round IV) "In the trenches": crystalline blue edition

Crystalline blue evening up here on the South Plains: one of those nights we'll get in the fall when, as the daytime heat holds but the overnight lows begin to differ, the daylight gets shorter but the
twilight longer. When that long, slow twilight brings cooling temperatures, the cloudless sky is a crystalline blue, shading to cobalt overhead and azure in the darkening west.

On nights like this, the West Texans have discovered that it can be pleasant, in the cool stillness of the evening, to sit outside, drink some beer or good coffee, and listen to some low-impact music. They've been doing it in places like Austin for decades--both my deario Molly Ivins, rest her soul, and her mentor Willie Morris, in his memoir of LBJ and Austin in the Fifties, have written great scenes set in the Austin beer "gartens"--but it ain't so bad up here neither.

So, sitting outside the local indie coffeeshop in the cool of the evening, waiting for Coop and The General to arrive from the early-evening country jam in the auto-finishing shop, before we slam out our own personalized take on the Irish tradition, seems like a not-too-bad place to be: in a week, or in a lifetime.

Not too bad at all.