Monday, December 28, 2009

Outside the rotation: Bears vs Vikings

22 seconds left in regulation, 4th and goal, and Favre grins as he takes the snap.

Cold weather teams, baby. Old men.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Outside the rotations: Back Home Agin

Dharmonia's home town:

Four old guys in the corner booth of the Dunkin Donuts, speaking Portuguese. They've been doing it for 60 years, even while the building itself began as a lunch joint, collapsed, moved across the street, changed franchises, turned into a riot of formica and orange plastic, got louder, added a drive-through, and so forth. They've always been there, in that same corner.

They'll probably be there another 60 years.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Outside the rotation: "Daughters"

One more once, headin' on up outta this joint for points East, North, and blizzardy.

A few weeks ago, in response to a very touching and heartfelt shout-out in a blog post by Shaniqua, I wrote this in response:

I wanted to write to you privately and thank you for your sweet note on the blog. I know that you have had a lot of sorrow and loss in your young life and I regret that.

But if the events of Dharmonia's and my own life had been different, I would have been proud to have a daughter who was as smart, brave, loving, and strong as you.

Much love,

Dr Coyote
The circumstances of my life, and of my life with Dharmonia, have precluded offspring: it's probably no surprise, given my own childhood experience, that my siblings have generally likewise avoided having kids. In our married life together, it's a combination of factors, none definitive in either "yea" or "nay" scenarios: poverty, psychology, 12 years of graduate school (and the poverty and psychological damage, not to mention the sheer exhaustion, which same conferred).

At any rate, ain't no kiddos in our crib. At this season, that's historically been, for me, mostly a source of petty frustration: as I've blogged before, it's goddamned tiring to be in my 4th decade of "going home to the parents' house for Christmas". If there'd been kids, at least some of those decades would have seen parents traveling, and us staying put, at this season: nothing will get a homebody grandparent out and on the road like the prospect of seeing, or not seeing, the grandchild. That was never an option for us.

Now, though, as the parents have aged, and deceased, and become child-like, I've come to terms with that, and I accept that we make the schlep because life is short, regret is long, and we don't know when we might see them again.

This year, because of a whole concatenation of factors, we opted to stay here in the Big Flat particularly late: Celtic Christmas was late, flights were exorbitantly costly, and, as I've said to several people, "when your only surviving older relative has Alzheimer's, it doesn't really matter whether you get there Christmas, or the day after." So we found ourselves in our own home, possibly for the first time or second time in our married lives, on Christmas Eve.

But we weren't alone: as a result of another concatenation of factors, several young'uns (Taiyo, T-Dawn, and the Dance Captain) found themselves at solitary loose ends also in Big Flat Place, and so for the first time we were able to offer some hospitality--some sense of home--to some younger others. It was a little tiring, as we had just spent 5 days hip-deep in the Desperate Gentlemen who were here for the Celtic Christmas, and then immediately rolled-over into hosting the Xmas orphans.

However, it was also pretty nice, because for the first time, maybe ever, I had something of the experience I surmise parents of grown children have: when the grown-up kiddos come back, and, as Dharmonia said, "you can hand 'em the keys to the house and say, 'feel free to use the books and the laundry, feed the cat, and don't burn the place down' and feel reasonably confident that'll all happen." This morning we're headed on up out of this joint to see my last, aged, infirm, childlike parent, and leaving Taiyo behind to feed His Highness and keep the home fires lit.

But, looking around that room last night where they all sat watching the 24-hour Marathon of "Christmas Story", after Dharmonia's lasagna and a little red wine, at those three young women curled up on the couch under the comforters, and thinking of Shaniqua's sweet and loving note, I thought of Greg Brown's (early) great song off of The Iowa Waltz, and, though childless, it was kinda nice to feel like they coulda been mine, too:
...And in the morning they magic the house,
The one that can walk, walks in warm and still dreamin' to give
me a hug or ask why it's so cold or why is there school,
"Why's it so cold?" or "Why is there school?"
And the one who can't walk or talk yet just lies in bed and laughs,
She just lies in bed and laughs.

I'm a man who's rich in daughters,
And if by some wild chance I get rich in money,
Like say another two thou a year or even one thou a year,
I'm gonna look in to havin' some more daughters.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Meet ye at the Rendezvous!

I've blogged before about the rendezvous that is the real reason why most musicians are willing to schlep the road--so that they can see one another again, and maybe pass along a little of the baraka to their students--and about the ingredients that fuel the rendezvous.

In this refrigerator shot: Kathy Morsell's hummus, local pita and tortillas, greens, homemade refritos, organic eggs, home-made yogurt. Black porter, IPA, quinine water, brown ale, a case of pinot noir on the back porch cooling, bottles of Black Bush and Laphroaig; looks like we're well-stocked to make our brothers welcome.

Welcome to the rendezvous.

Below the jump: Mr Man at his leisure.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thank you Eric Idle

Outside the rotation: Seeking communities

I have spent all of my adult life, since the age of around 14 when I first encountered the folk musicians who congregated around the old Me & Thee Coffeehouse--a holdover from the early '70s than which few venues except Passim/Club 47 were older, in seeking and learning and eventually building community. Most typically, music has been the glue that we used for this purpose--as I've blogged in the past, before I ever seriously entertained the idea that I could make a living as a musician, I wanted to be part of the social communities I saw the musicians manifesting. I think I knew, even at that young age, when I would volunteer to wash tea-cups and pastry-plates in the church kitchen as they came back from the music room, where Rory Block or Paul Geremia or the Gloucester Hornpipe & Clog Society was holding forth, that the quality of life, companionship and mutual respect I saw in the roots musicians was not only more enjoyable but just flat healthier, in the long term, than the values, priorities, and behaviors I saw being manifested in my upper-middle-class high school.

I found it in the Music Houses, about which I blogged in my very first couple of posts, and I found it again in the remarkable cast of characters who gathered at the old Guitar Workshop. Had I known--had I been healthier and better-equipped by my childhood/family experience--I might have seen it right in front of my face, in the musicians I almost met at CBGB and in the South Bronx, and almost met during my first work experience in the West Texas blues bars.

But by the time I got back to Boston, at the age of 20, I was primed to try to find something like what I'd experienced amongst the folkies five and six years before in the coffeeshops, and which I'd seen amongst the remarkable scholars and pedagogues at the New School. So when my brother-in-music Larry and I walked in the door of the Guitar Workshop of Boston around Midwinter 1979, I was ready to discover what I found there: the cast of characters who gave me a vision of artistic imagination and improvisational creativity.

The ending of that situation was hard, and it taught both Dharmonia and myself a lot about what you can and cannot depend upon in the small-business world. And it was hard times, for a couple of years. But that ending also sent me back to school, at U Mass Boston at the other end of the Red Line, and eventually it sent us both on to graduate school, where we became part of a third, or maybe fourth, fantastic community of creative musicians.

And that one ended too, because--as is inevitable in an academic community--people moved on, or graduated, or took other jobs, and such like. One of life's hugely crucial and unavoidable (but still sometimes, for some people, unlearnable) lessons is that positive situations end just as inevitably as do negative ones. The worst thing thing you can do with a magical situation is to try to clutch onto it, to freeze it, because you don't want it to end. And the best thing you can do with such a situation is to recognize its uniqueness, to engage with its magic as it is occurring. Only by learning to recognize the magic in situations, as they are occurring, do we begin to understand what makes them happen: to recognize the factors--chronological, biological, sociological, climatological, intellectual--that can combine to make a magical situation occur.

It happened again, late, in Bloomington, in the last couple of years before we departed; though, after 12 years, we (or I, anyway) had squeezed out of the situation most of what there was to learn before it too ended. My karma has been more directed toward new places, awkward places, places whose potential was nascent or non-existent--never already fully realized. We had begun to have an awareness of the ways in which situations are always inchoate--always coming into being and passing away.

That awareness in turn helps us use begin to use skillful means--a Buddhist premise which believes that positive, intelligent action toward the good is always possible--to shift pieces, or factors, or premises, in such a fashion that the odds of healthy, loving, connected community occurring are enhanced, and that access to such a community by the widest possible range of individuals is likewise enhanced, and that the chance of those persons carrying away this vision of a way to be is likewise enhanced.

By the time we moved here, to the Big Flat Place, we had begun to recognize, and to know, and to be able to work with, the factors that make human community happen. And so, when we set to work to create it, it happened a lot quicker, and a lot more openly, and with a lot healthier intention.

And the time passed so fast. 10 years in Lubbock feels like nothing so long as the 12 years in Bloomington. And that's not just because we are relatively happy here, and treated remarkably well, and no longer in that absolute cesspool of dysfunction which a place like Bloomington can be (and was).

It's also a result of just flat better understanding what's important in life, what creates human value and quality of life, of the things that have shaped us in the past and that we can use to shape our present and the present of the community around us.

And it means that sometimes, less often than we would pray but far more often than never, and in some of the ways that it was offered to us over and over and over again down through the decades, we can in turn offer community to those who need it.

"And when you get it right, you pass it on."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Outside the rotation: sex/love/impermanence edition

Outside the rotation: semester ended for me, officially, at 11:15 this morning, when I posted the last of my grades.

For me, there's a bit of a dichotomy between semesters: Fall, when I'm teaching 2 (or sometimes 3) seminars, is very heavy on the preparation: write the syllabus, assemble the reading list, read (or re-read) all the reading list, create the Discussion Questions which accompany every single reading, prepare the lectures, deliver the lectures and elicit the seminar responses, ride herd on the online discussions at the website, respond to the multiple stages of development in the research project, proctor and write responses to the research presentations, and so on.

But, as is common for me in the seminars-only semesters, that's mostly "front-loading": that is, it's mostly prep that I need to do in advance. By the time the semester begins, and then by the opening of each seminar meeting, I mostly have done the work I need to do, and what remains is to deliver the material. In other words: to foster the process.

In the Spring, it's a quite-different situation: the courses are mostly written, much of the assessment happens online or via scan-tron tests (with 100 in the room for the undergrads, it's the only way), and the only major hands-on grading that has to happen is the paper, about which I've blogged before. We've ramped down the end-loading--that is, the glut of grading effort like a tsunami at the end of the semester--by incrementing the paper into stages, but there is/are usually two long days of reading paper rubrics. But that's it: I know the course like the back of my hand, I don't need to use notes--even though I'll edit, update, and alter every set of Powerpoint slides before a given lecture--and then that course's duties are done.

The annual Ireland seminar, though an overload to our traditional 2+2 course schedule, is also relatively labor-light, because the course self-selects: I can pretty much figure that anybody who's passed the entrance interview and agreed to take on the very heavy reading load is there because s/he wants to be--especially after receiving the Badass Warning Letter that I always send a week in advance of the semester, to help weed out the ambivalent ones. Just a mid-term and final essay exam, and a project which can be either research or creative. The load in that course, as with many seminars, varies widely according to the profile and motivation of a given set of participants. One or two years, when the group was divergent in terms of personalities, expectations, or engagement, it's been like lifting weights. But most years, because the kids who sign up both (a) have self-selected and (b) have been interviewed, it's engaging, engrossing, and rewarding. And sometimes pretty emotional--but not too much mindless busy-work.

Spring 2010 brings one new prep, however, in the third course: an Ives-Ellington-Zappa "American Mavericks" topic I've wanted to teach for at least 10 years. I've taught a semester-long Ives, and one on Ellington, and there's a chapter on FZ in my dissertation, but I've never stuck 'em together all in one semester. If it's to be anything more than a 78-rpm sprint through a huge hunk of chronological repertoire, I have to find legitimate, challenging, imaginative, engaging links between these three--deeper than the mundane and self-evident "boy, didn't they piss off the critical establishment?!?" trope. Am looking forward to blogging that course starting in January.

Winding down here. But before I sign-off for the night, "Imma just say one thing" here, about a syndrome I see entirely too goddamned often in my work:

If you live, and work at a university, in the part of the world that I do, and you deal a lot with young people, and especially monotheistic-religion young people, and especially monotheistic-religion young people who've been raised to believe that the only appropriate category of sexual relations is that which occurs "within the bounds of holy matrimony", then you spend a fair bit of time dealing with people who believe that sex equals love and love equals permanence.

And it's a mistake. It leads to a hell of a lot of pointless fallout that results from would-be moral arbiters trying to make other, usually younger, people believe factors about the human condition that are just flat bloody false.

One of my great teachers, who was both a great Bodhisattva and also a brilliant therapist, used to say "I believe that relationships should last as long as both parties are learning something from the relationship." Which is not in itself contrary to the bullshit hearts & flowers rhetoric that's been sold to young people essentially since Eleanor of Aquitaine

But then she would add, "and when people stop learning from a relationship, then it should end." Which was manifestly not in line with the bullshit cult of courtly love, a debased version of which has been used to try to guard the state's investment in the "sanctity of marriage" for at least a thousand years.

Because what it means is that relationships--like every other being, state, and created or uncreated phenomenon in the Universe--likewise end. Sometimes because somebody dies--and the pastors and preachers and moral arbiters call that "true love."

But sometimes because some thing just dies--or even just stops growing. No being, state, or created or uncreated phenomenon--least of all a bullshit fiction like "One True Love"--will last forever. We are all ultimately--in the sense of the ultimate end of existence--alone. We enter alone, and we'll exit alone, into whatever form the Outer Darkness takes.

What matters is what we do, with a situation or a relationship or an opportunity or a joy or a heartbreak, right here.

Right now.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ayn Rand was an adolescent fantasist

...and Digby nails her (and John Stossel):

Any person over the age of 21 who discovers Ayn Rand and takes her seriously is automatically disqualified from ever being taken seriously again.


Jesus: how could I ever have missed hearing about the great religious tradition of Zappadan?!? Praise be that I have finally seen the light!

Y'all really need to check this out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Who would Jesus blow away?

First day of finals: no time except for quick hits. Here's a classic from yesterday:

On a 10-year-old Ford Escort with a malfunctioning alarm system:

bumper sticker A: "Better Living Through Sig Sauer"
bumper sticker B: "Lubbock Christian University"
I rest my case.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Day 66 & 67 (Round IV) "In the trenches": done edition

Color it done.

Last day of the semester; before finals--for the kids, there's still a lot of work to do, most of which they'll accomplish on entirely too little sleep and entirely too much caffeine, sugar, and chemical additives, but for faculty who are competent and on top of their game, things are winding down. For those colleagues who have the writing-intensive courses this semester, there's a stack of papers to grade, of course--but even that task has been incremented by requiring the kiddos to complete the paper in six stages over the full course of the semester. And by the time the "final draft" rolls around, most of the pointless or irrelevant or space-wasting bullshit (actual Facebook Wall quote: "Dude! Just set your font size to 12.5 and your line-spacing to 2.2 and they'll never know!") is past, and the kiddos are supplying their own rubrics, within the body of the paper, and the grading is relatively straightforward, consistent, and manageable.

I realized the other day that this is the first time, in 10 years, that I've had a semester without the obligation of teaching a roomful of undergraduates. Up until Fall 2009, I've always had, as part of my load, at least one course per semester of the undergraduate large-enrollment history survey. This is the first time that my two courses were all upperclassmen and/or grad-student seminars.

It's an interesting dynamic: yes, teaching the cattle-call undergrad sections is a massive time-sync, it's hard work, there's a ton of busy-work (specially at the end of the semester), there's all sorts of ridiculous "my, isn't it enjoyable raising other people's overgrown infants?!?" plagiarism and other infringement of academic ethics, but there's an undeniable and enjoyable energy from engaging with the sheer uncontrollable lolloping-puppy vibe of a roomful of undergrads. Dharmonia had me in the past couple of days to give a potted 2-day "History of Jazz on Records" lecture--and, by implication, to scare the shit out of the freshmen with the "holy shit! you mean he's going to teach the fourth semester when we're sophomores?!? Jesus, I better get serious!" reaction.

Even after a single semester, I'd already forgotten how much I like that arena-like situation of a lecture hall full of 100 kids. I love the energy that emerges when they're sufficiently rested, but also sufficiently full of testosterone and estrogen, and curiosity, and more than a little fear, and, really and finally, just raw friggin' untapped possibility. I love that vibe and I love to work with that energy.

This has been a hard-ass semester for everybody. And I see the exhaustion, more, and especially, in the grad students. Undergrads walk into class exhausted because they actually think they can get by on no sleep, or a hangover, or Red Bull and nervous energy. Grad students know better, and they walk in exhausted for better reasons: because they're holding down full-time jobs, or raising kids at the same time, or trying to carry 15 or 18 graduate credits (which pretty much trumps out to twice as much work as the typical undergraduate load). There's been a lot of suffering this semester, and a lot of exhaustion, and I think they're ready for it to be done. I sure am, on their behalf.

Just hoping everybody comes through and makes it to shore.

Color it done.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Day 65 (Round IV) "In the trenches": end-game edition

Entering the end-game all up in this joint. Today was the opening of the last (short, 1/2) week of the semester. We've got a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday left; then one day off; then final exams commence.

That means that today was the second-last meeting for the classes on the MWF rotation, and tomorrow is the absolute-last on the TR rotation. I've been away so jeezly much this semester that I'm feeling dreadfully behind in both of my seminars, both of which are on that latter rotation.

The funny thing is that we're not actually behind--well, maybe 1 day. Because both classes are upper-level seminars (and hence much more capable of maintaining their focus and productivity, even in my absence), and because it is so much more possible now than formerly to deliver and maintain material and discussions online, even while at a distance, we haven't lost nearly as much content as I subjectively feel we have.

I think what, for me, feels short-changed, is the actual face-to-face time in the seminar room. Both classes I've been teaching--"20th Century Music" and "Topics in Ethnomusicology"--are courses in which the person-to-person contact is important. Both have small enrollments; both depend upon a great deal of individual student reading, listening, and thinking; both really demand the back-and-forth of the seminar situation. We can replicate the reading/listening/thinking online via threaded discussions; we can get them to do the critical thinking on their own; but at some point we have to be there face-to-face, in real time. And there's no way to replicate that, completely satisfactorily, at a distance. So, though we've got through the material, I'm feeling the lack of the in-person time.

I'm also conscious, continually, of the ongoing observable stress I've been blogging about all semester. It continues (mostly) to blow by over my head and Dharmonia's--though it sometimes feels like we're crouching in a foxhole while the shrapnel blows by just above us--but I continue to hear, formally and informally, via official communication and the jungle telegraph, and sometimes by the most elliptical and indirect methods, of all the ways that various parties in our little community are freaking out and falling short.

I have to be careful not to dwell extensively on this. Various folks read this blog, and I neither want to over- or under-represent the situation: I want them to know that they're not alone, but I don't, under any circumstances, want to exaggerate: that helps no one.

I've got some folks coming out of the pit, and some folks who are still digging, and my buddy Coop moving his head and responding, and an old lady fading away less fearfully and more happily than she might have, and a job and a life-partner and colleagues and students I love, and infinite additional blessings from the universe, but goddamn there are people suffering, near and far. When people on the street in Lubbock ask me for money, I fucking give it to them. When students break down in my office, I listen. When yet one more of my beloved students tells me s/he needs to take the final exam early because s/he is facing deployment to a war zone, I control my towering, homicidal rage at the sociopathic little fuck down in Dallas and his crew of war criminals and murderers and help them get the course requirements done. And, in all circumstances, as Coop put it, I seek to "control my demeanor" and count the universe's blessings. And help people.

On a happier note, we finished up the run of the Madrigal Dinners for which the Celtic Ensemble supplies service music. I like to do these lobby gigs, though they would seem to be low-profile ("pleasant background noise" is the way I describe it), of nowhere near as much significance or central focus as the stuff that happens inside the hall. But they're a really valuable tool, for both pedagogical and preparative reasons. The kids get to play 4 gigs in a row, 4 nights playing the same short list of repertoire, in much more typical real-world conditions, to make and fix errors on the fly, and that's good for professionalism.

But it's also good preparation: By playing as many different tunes (with dances) from the current repertoire as possible, on these gigs, we're actually running them through four more rehearsals of that repertoire in advance of the Celtic Christmas. By the end of the 4-night run, they'll have played those tunes a bunch more times, which means in turn that those tunes don't need much rehearsal outside of the Madrigal gigs. We've done this every year since we started playing the Madrigal Dinners and it's a really useful jump-start for that Christmas repertoire.

Added bonus this year has been the added necessity of having some "filler" music, at the end of the lobby set, for the last few minutes when the larger crowds are still trailing into the hall. We're playing a bunch of Appalachian old-time long-bow fiddle music with Celtic Christmas guests, these guys, and so for the filler we've been playing these tunes. On this final evening, I had a further inspiration: I said to the band as a whole "everybody think of one of the old-time tunes you can start." So, once they were playing a given tune, I could say (while they were playing--this is great exercise in concentration, to be playing a tune and also have to listen for instructions) "who's got the next tune?!?", look for the eye-contact, cue the end of the current tune, point to the volunteer for the new one, and let them handle the segue.

This is a whole other level of improvisational magnitude, one even more unfamiliar to the majority of these kids--classical musicians as they are--and a whole other level of practical-gig expertise. If they can be playing one tune, and thinking of the next one, and can count on one of their number to manage the segue and get them into that next tune, then my role as "conductor" has been rendered, at least for the duration of that set of tunes, is largely superfluous.

That's the goal. That's when they become fully autonomous musicians.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Day 64 (Round IV) "In the trenches": constructive & peaceful edition

Another long crazy-busy day: recitals attend, book-work to do, another iteration of the Madrigal Dinners. Kids played good.

Lubbotians still don't really know what to do with live music in their midst: with the exception of the occasional old guy in a tam o'shanter and a kilt who's willing to tag-on to the end of the line of girls dancing the kopanitsa, the rest of them mostly smile, lean back, and look a little nervous about whether visible enjoyment, or active applause, might be an uncool thing to do. They're mostly good people, out here, but they're also pretty damned unsophisticated, about almost everything--especially unfamiliar music. When they're lucky, they're un-self-conscious, and open to new experiences. When they're not so lucky, they're self-conscious about all that they don't know, and nervous for fear of making the wrong move or reacting in the wrong way.

So they refrain from reacting at all, for fear of reacting the wrong way. Which is a shame, because with the kids in the green knotwork T-shirts are dancing right through their midst, they could be having a heck of a lot more fun.

Interesting dynamic, though: as the kids themselves get more comfortable with the situation (more comfortable than they were on opening night), they themselves start having more fun, and the audience can see that, and they begin to think that the range of acceptable reactions might be wider than they've been permitting themselves, and they begin to have more fun too. Hence the old guy in the tam.

Otherwise: as I mentioned, it's a mothering tough time in the semester: kids freaking out, kids spacing out, kids breaking down, people getting sick, uppermost administration realizing their full Olympian imbecility, and so it's tough to, as buddy Coop put it on a hard-lines tour of China , "control your demeanor": refrain from acting out the frustration, anger, resentment, fear you're feeling to people who can't do anything about it. Takes a hell of a lot of effort--and usually requires some pretty reliable and careful stress-release mechanisms elsewhere--but at least it avoids escalating the hassle in pointless ways.

Further to that: a set of precepts I suggested to a good friend who's working hard at digging out of a hole. Tryin' to help--and provide a set of tools for structuring the recovery:

So here's your plan:

"1. I am obligated to work constructively and peacefully toward completion of my degree requirements. Therefore I must spend some time each day working on coursework.

"2. I am obligated to work constructively and peacefully toward my own health. This means I must spend some time each day exercising, eating healthfully, and working on emotional health issues

"3. I am obligated to work constructively and peacefully on my professional obligations. This means I must spend some time each day on assistantship, teaching, and/or other professional work.

"4. I am obligated to work constructively and peacefully on my own artistic development and self-expression. This means I must spend some time each day on art, music, writing, or other creative activity.

"5. I am obligated to work constructively and peacefully on my own emotional community and support network. This means I must spend some time each day enjoying my living space, communicating with friends, thinking about or communicating with family, and so on. In addition, I must spend some time each day thinking about ways I can actively be a good friend and support-network-member for people who are important to me, and taking action on those thoughts.

"6. I am obligated to work constructively and peacefully on my own spiritual health. This means I must spend some time each day in prayer, meditation, visualization, or other spiritual practice.

"7. I am obligated to work constructively and peacefully at building the future I want for myself. This means that, in addition to items 1-6 above, I must spend some time each day developing my skill set and my portfolio, visualizing the kind of job I want when I depart, searching the Chronicle or other job source to familiarize myself with current job profiles, revisiting and polishing written pieces that I might send out to specific academic targets, and so on."

A life spent engaging in some healthy combination of the above 7 activities would be a good life, and a full-time job. Print 'em out and stick 'em on the damned wall!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Day 63 (Round IV) "In the trenches": countdown edition

We're into the last week of the semester. Yesterday was the final Thursday of classes, today the final Friday, and so on. Pretty reasonably complete burnout on all sides: students, staff, colleagues, executive--we're all about done.

It's been a particularly hard semester--not so much on Dharmonia and myself, who have largely escaped the worst of the shit--but on an awful lot of friends and students: illness, family loss, financial breakdowns, just general massive uncontrollable change (change is always uncontrollable, but it can come in lesser or greater degrees of comprehensivity--this semester it's been pretty much total). It reminds us of the very first faculty meeting of the semester, way back at the end of August before classes even began, when the Boss said, "I think this is gonna be a tough one, folks. I think we're going to see an awful lot of stress, of various sorts, and we're going to have be especially aware and flexible about dealing with it." I think he saw, even back then, that the nation's general economic flaemout, which up through 2008 had mostly passed-over the Southwest, was going to hit us hard in '09, and also that H1N1 was going to be absolutely brutal in its far-reaching impact. Public health in this country, and especially this part of the country, is literally, criminally inadequate, and the Boss could see, I think, even back then, that both economic flameout and H1N1 were going to catch us in the end. And by God if they didn't.

And we've seen the results: kids crying, kids leaving, kids paralyzed by depression or fear or less, kids freaked-out by parents' financial or personal turmoil, colleagues (fortunately not many in our division--my Boss takes care of his people) losing their gigs, colleagues getting sick, and so on and on and on. We're massively luckier than some campuses and even than some divisions on this campus, because we've all--Boss, staff, faculty, grads, undergrads--worked hard, for years, to develop an institutional culture that was mutually respectful, constructive, and collegial. You develop that kind of culture when times are good so that people learn how rewarding it is, and so that in turn they cowboy-up in order to maintain the culture when times are bad.

So far we're doing OK, but it's damned difficult, all around us--and it's damned difficult to see friends, students, and colleagues elsewhere, and close-by, struggling deep in the shit. We do what we can.

Hence the countdown: I think pretty much everybody in our operation is just waiting for this nasty-hard semester to be over. We fight that every step of the way, because we don't want anybody to be feeling that others, or they themselves, are just marking time--that erodes productivity, efficiency, excellence, and standards. But at times you have to be prepared to relax those metrics for productivity, efficiency, etc in order to try to help people cope with shitty situations. That's kind of where we're at now--see yesterday's post.

And the occasional levity: here, Bhangraman takes on the wicked Morris dancers, to rescue ordinary people from "...a future of performing ridiculous outmoded folkdance routines"

Which of course is right where we live.

Trying to hang in there. Y'all do too.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Day 62 (Round IV) "In the trenches": telegraphic command edition

Still no time, but hanging in there as we can.

Arrived at the first iteration (of four) of the annual Madrigal Dinners for which the Celtic Ensemble and the Collegium have historically provided pleasant unobtrusive noise in the lobby before hand. We have learned over the years that our involvement is nearly as useful for public outreach, and about one-tenth as time-consuming and demeaning, if we provide such noise before hand, and then clear out. Otherwise, if you get roped into being part of the whole gaudy dinner-theatre production, which makes the W Texan patrons very happy but which is very complicated and demands a lot, you're likely to have to commit about six times as much time, and subject yourself to about twelve times as much frustration. So we just play and split.

This year, it's four dances from the Celtic Ensemble and a collection of short little instrumentals from the Collegium. Pretty quiet music, and on this opening evening, with the entire ballroom, dancers, singers, jesters, jugglers, open bar, and catering bought-out by the Dean of the Business College for his faculty and staff, and all of them elbowing their way toward the bar and ignoring us, it was actually very useful for our kiddos to play their tunes 2 or 3 or 4 times in a row, having to concentrate past the noise and distraction. They can get all their screwups out of their systems and have the very valuable experience of making errors and then fixing the errors on the fly. And that's good practice for the real world--and not just in music.

Of course, it was complicated this opening evening by the fact that the local Symphony's music director had summarily switched the start time of the orchestra's evening rehearsal (which all of my guys who also play for him could have made) to 1/2 hour earlier--which meant that those three guys had to rush to get to our Madrigal Dinner gig, and then rush off 10 minutes before we were done. I'd be a lot (or at least a bit) more tolerant of this particular kind of behavior if I hadn't had to deal with it before: going hat-in-hand to himself two months in advance of a rehearsal to try to persuade him to release these same three kids so that they could play one of our concerts. And here's this summary change of rehearsal to start 30 minutes earlier, preemptorily, at mid-afternoon of the gig we're supposed to start to 6:00.

So, my three guys who were caught in this impossible bind arrived at our gig massively stressed-out, and knowing that they'd have to leave 10 minutes early, in the midst of the gig. And afraid that they'd be in trouble with somebody.

In a circumstance like that, when it is so totally not the fault of the players, and so transparently the fault of high-handed egocentricity, the wrong thing to do is to lose your temper. The right thing to do is to model for the kids the coping mechanisms you want them to have and to share with each other.

So, after we'd got the first tune out of the way, and we were on break while the Collegium played, I pulled the Celtic kids aside and said, "guys, you ever heard the term from the armed services, FUBAR? You know what that means? It's an acronym: for a situation that is mmmhh'd Up Beyond All Recognition."

They all laughed, and then I said, "but that's not what we do in our band. In our band, we keep our heads up, we suck it up, we hang tough, and we look out for each other." Being kids, and good, earnest kids, they all nod vigorously and perk up. And then I say, "besides, we have a hell of a lot more fun. And there are cookies."

And then they laugh, and play their last piece grinning, and then the three run off to the other rehearsal feeling OK, and positive about their musical experiences.

You want to know the fundamental definition of leadership? The clear-eyed, objective, no-rose-colored-glasses conviction that no system is so perfected that it cannot be improved and that no situation is so FUBAR that nothing constructive can be done.

If you don't believe that, then you can't command.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

...a very bad feeling about this...

They don't call it the "Graveyard of Empires" for nothing. What makes us think we can reverse 2000 years of failed imperial policies?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Day 61 (Round IV) "In the trenches": notes-from-the-road edition

OK, we are now mired into the last full week of classes. Almost no time to blog--balancing end-of-semester grading and prep with prep for the Spring 2010 semester which is suddenly looming very near and large in the headlights--so here's a last-month archival note from the road: a good argument for avoiding domestic flights and selecting international flights carefully:

OK, I'm sold. I've ranted in the past about the toxic abuse and premptory conduct of the airline monopolies, and the degree to which we might need a trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt (and ain't gonna get one). But I'm sitting on this here refitted Continental Airlines Boeing 777, en route to a conference and colloquium at which I'm an invited guest and for which the uni is paying the freight, watching all three of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy (on demand, one of over 300 films available individually to each seat), with the hotshot Altec-Lansing noise-cancelling earbuds I got for a song via the bargains announcements plugged into the free supplied adaptor (why do airlines still make headphone jacks that split the stereo signal into a two-pronged, completely eccentric input plug?), in the last-row aisle seat that Continental's website let me select last night (and thus preserve my bad knees), with the laptop open on the tray-table in front of me, and the power-supply PLUGGED INTO THE SUPPLIED 110-VOLT OUTLET (Holy shit! is that a nice retrofit!) and hence no worries about running out of power, and able to thus work, and watch the idiot-box with half an eye, just as if I were at home in the Papa Bear chair.

If only Dharmonia were here, it would be perfect.