Friday, January 29, 2010

Snow day blogging

Quick hit:

I've blogged before about Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's rose-colored-glasses romanticization of his own adolescence (adorably tongue-tied, hence cute adolescent rock-critic-wannabe stows away with early '70s American "guitar band" and eventually lands both an interview, and a cover story, for Rolling Stone), and about the greatness of Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of the more Morrison-than-Jim-Morrison Lester Bangs (and the sadness of Lester's life) and of the heart-shattering beauty of Lester's writing, and it's true that Hoffman is, as so often, the best part of the movie by several orders of magnitude.

But here's another little nugget, the other best part of the film:

when Patrick Fugit's "William Miller" (Crowe's fantasy of himself) finally lands the long-delayed interview with Billy Crudup's lead-guitar-hero Russell Hammond, and they sit down with the Wollensack cassette recorder, and "William" shoves the mic into "Russell"'s face, and says

William Miller: So Russell... what do you love about music?
Russell Hammond: To begin with?
That about says it for me, too.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Pat and the Orchestrion

He's a very, very weird dude--even for a jazz guy--and to call the music he makes with the "Orchestrion" (essentially a giant one-man-band) "jazz" is a misnomer: you gotta have other live musicians for it to be jazz, in my opinion.

But if the final arbiter of good music is not the ideas about it, but simply whether it sounds good (Ellington said that, "if it sounds good, it is good"), then this is good music.

I also kinda dig the fact that he references the previous American-lunatic player-piano people--most notably Conlon Nancarrow. Somehow it's suitable that a jazz guitarist from Missouri would be falling into this bag.

And it's nice to hear the shout-out for the "World's Greatest Guitar Guy", Mark Herbert. He worked on my guitars, too...and he really is the world's greatest.

Weather event

Lashing wind and driving rain on the South Plains.

You live here long enough, even if you're a DamnYankee, you start to understand how ranchers felt about weather. And you celebrate when there's water.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Two heroes

If only just maybe I could live up to these men:

Gary Snyder, in his "For All," surely one of the most fiercely joyful and inspiring nature poems, an ode to the North America that indigenous peoples called "Turtle Island," ever written:

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

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

I pledge allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.
John Steinbeck, in the opening of Cannery Row, when he describes "Mack and the Boys" who will be the Greek chorus for his comic fable about his own past, and paean to his departed friend Ed Ricketts:
What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves, rascals, bums. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The positive energy of discomfort

Am starting a new practice in the new year. Not necessarily as part of a "resolution"--pragmatically, because such resolutions, for me, never outlast the year, and philosophically, because every day should be the "new resolution" day: why wait until the day after December 31, as who knows what tomorrow will bring?

But more because I'm just so sick of a lifestyle that almost always builds and almost never relieves stress. There are a few things that help: cooking for other people, hanging with the guest artists and old friends we can occasionally shanghai into visiting, exercise when I'm being smart and taking care of myself, drinking too much booze when I'm not. But, mostly, I'm building up endless arrays of stress and only sporadically finding appropriate ways of dissipating it.

So I get to the Student Rec Center, where the faculty membership rates are fantastically cheap and where there are literally dozens if not hundreds of ellipticals, weight machines, and free weights. And I put up with the clinical environment and the blasting, dumb-ass frat-rock or mind-numbing talk shows on the sound system.

But it gets just too toxic for me between January and March of the school year, because that of course is when all the little Tylers and Buffy's are cutting classes so they can power-jam in the gym and try to develop enough of a beach bod that they can show off during Spring Break. Most of them are thinking about showing off and getting laid, and between January and February that's all they think about--certainly not classes or other responsibilities.

My experience of physical training is different: I hated the ethos of team sports and, despite being recruited relentlessly in junior high and high school for football (the doctor who delivered me had apparently said "there's my fullback!"), I avoided high school football coaches like the fucking plague. Not a bad decision, in hindsight: there is no way I could have put up with their small-minded hectoring.

No, what little physical training I got regularly as an adolescent and adult (my family were bookworms, not jocks--only my wired-for-sound elder brother was interested in physical activity, and at 6'3" and 145 pounds, there weren't many sports that wanted him) were more solitary--or more serious. I could never get excited about team sports, even when I admired the physical capacities of people who could make them work at a high level.

On the other hand, I was always interested in the combat arts. Team sports, particularly those that were riddled, by the high school coaches, with militaristic imagery and fakery (football the worst culprit, there), just seemed like a macho sublimation. This was brought home to me in the 4 years or so when I studied closely and hard with a man who was a wonderful, focused, patient, gentle teacher--but a very frightening man: a tattooed ex-biker, who'd barely escaped the Bandidos with his life (four nights on top of his house with an M-16, that kind of thing)., who'd broken his back twice and kept himself ambulatory through 3 hours or more a day of chi kung (internal medicine), suffered--in my non-clinician's opinion--from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder--and lived in an old schoolbus in the woods because he couldn't quite deal with people. He never, ever lost his temper with a student, women & kids studied with him fearlessly, and he would do absolutely anything for his students. He just couldn't quite deal with the world. But I loved him and admired him.

When we moved here, and the local pesticides and herbicides pretty much destroyed my thyroid, it became apparent that I was going to have to do something to counter the effect of the atmosphere, and of 16 hours a day at a computer. So I lifted, or slogged on the elliptical, or both, and tried to keep at bay my distaste for the environments, both physical and adolescent, in which college people usually get to engage in such activities. I've got on-campus colleagues who consciously employ the off-campus YMCA or something similar, just exactly for that purpose, but I'm not quite ready for the "soft-impact" aerobics in the pool with the old folks. Probably my absolute favorite physical activity, the one that made me feel most centered, that balanced the internal-health and external-combat aspects of physical training most perfectly for me, is the incredible wealth of the Daoist traditions of Bagua Zhang, the Eight-Sided Star, the endless, circling, flowing Northern Chinese form. But there's no one here who teaches it, and I don't have the skills or insight to study on my own.

So when Dharmonia came to me, just before the new year, and mentioned that the yoga studio, where she--and a sizable portion of our students--either study or teach, was starting an "absolute beginner's" round of classes, I overcame my busted-out knees ass-kicking former martial artist's "disdain" for the practice and thought "fuck it: I'm getting to where I can barely bend over to put on my socks, and I do NOT want to be a crippled-up old man riding a motorized scooter through the goddamned grocery store" and let her sign me up.

Interesting experience. I've blogged before about the difficulty that adult learners have with starting in a musical practice in which they have to be rank beginners, about the difficulty they have with that, with being patient, with accepting a learning method other than the one at which they are accomplished--and about my convictions that this is a good lesson. I've even blogged before about my own experience of what Suzuki-Roshi called "beginner's mind", the challenging--but full-of-possibilities--place in which you know that you don't know anything. And I'm not unfamiliar with the psychological dynamics of the situation myself: I've learned new skills at which I was a rank beginner, repeatedly, and hope always to continue doing this, because it's such a good lesson for me, as a teacher, to be reminded of what it feels like to be a beginner.

So I'm a lot less likely than formerly to be tossed away with the self-consciousness, self-loathing, timidity, and desire to flee that comes from sitting down in a yoga class with a group of 11 others who are younger, fitter, thinner, and (visibly, anyway) comparatively unfrightened. When I realize belatedly that, unintentionally and undesirably, I've chosen a space for the mat, not at the back of the room as I'd intended, but in the front, directly opposite the teacher's seat. When I can't sit cross-legged on the floor for more than 10 minutes without pain in those busted-up knees.

I've actually learned just to observe those reactions: I'm not going to be able to squelch them, but--I've learned--I also don't have to act on them. I just have to sit with the (physical and psychological) discomfort. At one point the teacher says "you should all be able to find a Simple Seat [e.g., rest posture on the floor] in which you're comfortable," and in fact there is no "Simple Seat" that's particularly comfortable for me--the knees are too bad, the hips too tight. And she looks at me, and says "are you finding something comfortable?" and, putting aside all the self-consciousness that the monkey-mind wants me to impose upon the situation, I think for a moment and then say, "well, I can be patient" and leave it at that.

And the teacher smiles, and says, "that's a good answer," and the class goes on. And I still can't sit in a comfortable "Simple Seat", but I've done other hard and physically painful things like this before and they haven't done me any permanent damage, and I know that pain is as temporary as anything else.

And the class goes on, and there's pretty constant discomfort (physical and psychological), but my comfort or discomfort is neither central to the class, nor to my own experience. And at the end of the class, leaving the room, I turn in the doorway and bow to the room, because that's how I was taught to exit the dojo and because, although this is a Hindi not a Sino-Japanese tradition, it feels appropriate to recognize the sacredness of the space.

So I leave the yoga center, and head home, feeling resigned to feeling pretty old, and out-of-shape. But also that I recognize this situation: that I'm old enough that far fewer situations feel unfamiliar and, with a little bit of self-awareness and patience, I can wait-out the initial discomfort of this one too.

It's only afterwards, when Dharmonia comes back from her own (far more advanced) class, that she says "boy, do those yoginis like YOU! The teacher said 'he's great! He sits there, right in front; he does what he's told; he answers right away! He's great!'"

And of course, it's all an accident: the accident of sitting in the front row, the accident of the decades-old practice with my forest-hermit teacher, the accident of--again and again--meeting the right people and the right situations just, and when, I needed to. And, once more, I thank my teachers, and my past, and all beings in the Ten Directions.

For the discomfort, and the resultant possibilities, of this present moment.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A class act

Tonight I'll be lifting a glass of sippin' whiskey on behalf of one old man who never gave up and never lost his sense of the fun of the game.

Thanks, Favre.

Cold weather teams, baby. Old men.

Thursday, January 21, 2010 the woods?

Some days you eat the bear. And some days the bear eats you.

Some days you feel like you're making progress, slowly slowly incrementally moving your own corner of the universe just the slightest couple of degrees in the right direction, as Gary Snyder would say.

And some days you feel like you're fucking treading water, just barely keeping ahead of the meltdowns, forest fires, SOS's, and just plain silly-ass behavior from people who oughta know better.

Oh, and by the way? Massachusetts fucking knew better in 1972. "I'm from Massachusetts, don't blame me", remember that?

But, as one of Dharmonia's Buddhist teachers put it, results are not the goal. The effort, the right action, the right intention, that is the goal.

"You have to show up for the impossible."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Well, shit

We lost Spenser. And Kate.

I had my beefs with Parker: he was particularly prone to the fiction author's tendency to mythologize him- (usually "him") or herself in his prose--Spenser the detective is a kind of mid-life-crisis fantasy of machismo--and his particular neuroses and prejudices come off both the prose, and his personality, in waves. He had a childish resentment toward college professors and feminists and he thought that anybody who even spoke to his wife (the archetype of the equally mythologized Spenser love interest Susan Silverman) was hitting on her.

But I'll give the man two things: he had an absolutely hellacious work ethic--seventy books?!?--and he was capable of learning things: when his sons were hitting adolescence, he wrote-into the saga an adolescent orphan who Spenser could begin to deal with in a paternal way, and then when they both came out as gay, he wrote-into the saga a weight-lifting ex-cop, "queer as a three-dollar bill," who becomes another loyal Spenser sidekick.

In fact, that's kind of what Parker did: he worked-out/wrote-out all the ways he wanted his life to go. It's probably not too much of a reach to say that he wrote his way into the life he sought. He didn't really suffer very much in his life, and there's no doubt that Spenser was Parker's own wish-fulfillment, and he sure wrote a lot of books, later on, that were transparently screenplays which he dashed-off in order to generate the bucks from Hollywood advances. But by god he worked.

I'm sorry he's gone.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Quick hit: watershed texts

Long day (looks like there are going to be a lot more of those this semester), so I'll punt with a quick hit.

The Sarge was telling me recently that she'd come into a few bucks--thank the Universe for student loans!--and was looking for a few reading recommendations. Well, all you gotta do with a musicologist is ask one question--it's like offering John Belushi one free drink--and you'll as much as or far more than you asked for.

Here's a selection of what I offered:

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shinryu Suzuki-Roshi
Suzuki-Roshi was the man, probably more than any other, who caused Zen to take root in 1960s America. Not to take away from any of the other great Buddhas who held the lotus to the rock--but, if "by their fruits do we know them," then Suzuki-Roshi's lineage of students is a staggering confirmation of the lasting value of his teaching.

Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg
I'm not a huge fan of everything Goldberg has written, and the last three books feel like she's kind of running on fumes (or recycling things she's said earlier, and more eloquently), but this one--a parallel biography of her life, as it led to her becoming a writer, and a Buddhist--and the earlier Writing Down the Bones are both astonishing testaments to her own commitment, and to the great Buddha-hood of her teacher, Dainin Katagiri. And more evidence of the power of the lineage: Katagiri was Suzuki's assistant. And Highway contains possibly the most beautiful, heartfelt tribute to a teacher--a subject close to my heart--I've ever read.

Ax Handles, Gary Snyder
Gary Snyder is probably the most important influence on my life and poetry I can think of. He's not a perfect writer or perfect person, but as poet, activist, Buddhist, and teacher, he sets a model I hope someday to live up to. This collection was written after he returned from Japan, homesteaded in the Sierras, started a family, and began to think in ten-thousand-year cycles.

Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
Poor, poor Jack. He had a vision of what freedom could be, he had the huge blessing (and the admiration) of friends like Ginsberg and Snyder, he had an outsized talent and an absolutely staggering dedication to his craft, but, as Goldberg says, he didn't have a daily practice in which to ground his insights. And he died. This book is his tribute to what he saw, in Ginsberg ("Alvah Goldbook") and Snyder ("Japhy Ryder"--Kerouac was absolutely awful at fictionalizing names for his roman-a-clef characters), and what he wished/hoped he could find in himself. It's tragic that he never did--but in this book, he captures, more beautifully, and with an unwittingly elegiac tone, what we found in them as well.

Cold Mountain, Han Shan (Snyder or Watson translation)
The poets of the Tang dynasty are simply unmatched. There is simply nothing to compare. Han Shan, and his friend Shih Teh, are two jokers who live on "Cold Mountain," and spend most of their time telling stories, playing practical jokes, mocking the pomposity of pretty much the rest of the world. No other poetry has ever touched me like this.

The Seven-Story Mountain, Thomas Merton
I think that it is probably realistic to say that, by any quasi-objective metric (and leaving aside the politicking of the current pope, a Prada-wearing former Hitler Youth who was formerly the Vatican's hatchet man), Thomas Merton was a saint. Poet, prosodist, peace activist, cheese-maker, priest, painter; killed in a freak "accident" in Asia in 1968. He was a saint in the tradition of Francis of Assisi and a great Buddha. And maybe the almost-last chance for the Catholic church to recover what the Desert Fathers first found.

Start Where You Are
, Pema Chodron
Senior student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the hugely-difficult and hugely-important "crazy wisdom" master of the Tibetan Nyingma and Kagyu lineages; founder of Naropa Institute--where my Dharma-brother Dr Masbrow is currently hitting "reset". Chodron is a hugely influential, imaginative, compassionate, and insightful teacher and writer, and exemplar of the "wisdom of no escape." Abbess of a Trungpa monastery in Nova Scotia, the clarity of her voice, the calm of her insight, the sanity of her teaching, are one of the last resources we've got in this terminal world of Samsara.

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
One of the first and surely one of the most influential Buddhist books I ever encountered. Matthiessen, an author, naturalist, deep-sea diver, and film-maker (he wrote the screenplay for Blue Water, White Death), nursed his wife until her death from cancer, and then left for Nepal, where he trekked mountains, said mantras, and never found the snow leopard. And he closes by quoting a dialog:

"'Have you seen the snow leopard?' 'No--isn't that wonderful?'"

And so, of course, it is.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Up on the resumption tip

Resuming regular blogging, as we enter the first full week of the Spring 2010 semester. I anticipate that I'll drop-in occasional posts of the "In the Trenches" variety, but after 160+ entries, and a full two years/four semesters rotation, that topic feels to be reasonably well-covered. I expect I'll be using the Trenches series more for my own reference--akin to pulling out a last-year's handwritten journal, leafing through the the posts for inspiration or self-correction.

Would be nice to pick up again on the "100 Greats" series: we had the Reverend Colonel & consort with us this weekend, and he was kind enough to express that he missed 'em. I'd like to tidily complete that project: means I need another thirty.

Spring semester usually means a little less traveling, but a dizzying succession of events: Winter concert by the Celtic Ensemble of the "Hard" program on Jan 31; mid-February means the state Music Educators Association meetings in San Antonio; between Feb 15 and Mar 15 the general undergrad population is witless and stupid with testosterone/estrogen poisoning in anticipation of Spring Break, but before that we're hosting these Desperate Gentlemen (god bless my boss's generosity); April brings the sprint toward end-of-semester and is interrupted, right at the Ides of April/Tax Day, with the VMC festival weekend (Friday dance concert & Mr Darcy, Saturday afternoon picnic/festival, Sunday evening Celtic Ensemble "Big" program).

And then the semester's over, and I spend a week at U Limerick hearing recitals, and then Dharmonia shows up with the Ireland seminar kids for two weeks, and then I think I'm going up to Derry for a conference, and then it's Zoukfest, and then Mystic, and then Amsterdam, and on and on and on.

I have a great life, a privileged life, a life I fought for decades to attain and which I work 70 hours a week to create for my students.

But sometimes I get tired. Here's a poem that came out of the unexpected (not unwelcome, just unexpected) extra days in Cork:

River Lee

A sub-zero medieval city,
Leadening cloud,
Cold air damp on the skin;
Grit on the facades of the lowering Edwardian mansions,
And a magnificent sunset of turquoise and bronze;

And, silhouetted against the sky,
Gazing East,
Shrugging insolent shoulders,

The grey-hooded, hunchbacked,
Arrogantly indifferent Irish crows.
--coyote, Corcaigh, mid-winter 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

Back on the horse

...or right on the pig's back.

After 10 days of crazy travel changes, we're back in Day 02 of the new semester. Will resume "In the Trenches," I think, but for the sake of breathing space, and as an appreciative former busker, I'll post this (h/t to Paul W for pointing me to it):

The streets (and the Metro) belong to the people. This video reminds us.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Outside the rotation: up on outta here

One more once, subjecting myself to the stupidity and exploitation of the American airline monopolies: very quick trip to the homeland (depart tomorrow, return Sunday) to serve as External Examiner for the "viva" (Ireland/UK version of the term "defense") for an excellent dissertation on accent and geography in Irish traditional music. Seems a long way and a long time to travel (18 hours out, 3 hours in viva, 18 hours back), but they're paying the freight, so I'll go along and do my best for this young'un. Blogging will be light and from the road, but I'll try to catch a few snaps of Cork.

In the meantime, Richard & Linda Thompson's transcendent re-imagining of Rumi:

Bird in God's Garden

As I said to the Sarge:

I think there is something very powerful there in Rumi and other Mevlevi Sufi poets, and maybe in mystical Islamic poetry as a whole: the awareness that life itself is an admixture of sorrow, which the Sufis attribute to "separation from the Beloved", and of heartbreaking joy, at the possibility/prospect of re-connection with that Beloved. There's a wonderful image somewhere in the Mathnawi, where Rumi says that the soul is like the nay flute, its music the voice of the reed from which it's made crying out for reconnection with the place in which it was grown.

I think the ability to express a clear-eyed awareness of the reality of both sorrow and joy, and of the spiritual effort that can transform the former into the latter, is where art begins.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Outside the rotation: no rules

Jools Holland: "The only rule in music is that there are no rules."

Stunning music from Ronnie of Bokete's Shebeen.

You know what I love about this, over and above the jaw-dropping individuality of the technique? The hellacious mbaqanga groove that Ronnie lays down, and the fact that the South African (and Botswanan) word shebeen, signifying a little bar or drinking establishment where music like this was played, is based in the Irish word sibin, meaning "little pot", or "still", or "drinking establishment."

Both colonial populations, both taking the colonizers' instruments and creating their own kind of indigenous beauty.

The Local will never be defeated.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Outside the rotation: LOTR and The Wire

Why storytelling is still at the heart of human culture:

I don't agree with a lot of what Kevin C. Murphy writes, over at Ghost in the Machine, but when I agree with him I really agree with him. And I'm right there with him when he names the two greatest pieces of cinematic storytelling of the previous decade (I have to admit, I really like "The Oughts" as a way to describe it; as in "zero +", but also as in, "here are all the ways we ought to have coped with war criminals, war profiteers, lying Republican sociopaths, global warming, etc.): Lord of the Rings and The Wire, against which everything else just simply pales in comparison.

Of LOTR, he captures my own emotional reaction:

"At its heart, the trilogy isn't so much about wizards and warriors as it is about friendship, the nature of evil, and persevering in dark times."
Which, of course, have been the core themes of all great stories going all the way back to Gilgamesh. Tolkien knew that, and so did Peter Jackson.

As Kevin says, "Step aside, George Lucas." This is real storytelling.

Of The Wire, he captures part of what I've also expressed before:
"Just as Dickens brought industrial corruption and the plight of Victorian London's social underclass to life at the close of the 19th century, The Wire is the piece of journalistic fiction generations one or two hundred years hence will look to to understand the urban landscape of the Oughts. And more likely than not, then as it is now, the game will still be the game."
I'd put it against Dickens, any day. Hell, I'd put it against Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, Woody's "Tom Joad", Andy Irvine's "Forgotten Hero," and the Mahabhrata. And in my personal pantheon, that's as high up the tree as you can get.

Really, go read it all.

"A man got to have a code." Omar Little

And remember that the great stories are those that speak the truth.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Outside the rotation: pome

On the occasion of the 52nd year:

The Western Slope

An autumnal, sunset feeling:
Tipping past the cusp of 50 years.

Life across the mid-point;
Crossing the equator's line;

Time accelerating,

The end approaching,

But a golden, westering light.

--coyote, 2 Jan 2009

Friday, January 01, 2010

Outside the rotation: Day 1 of the new decade

No resolutions on the New Year--because, for me, every day is the obligation to remake my life.

But, surrounded by resolutions from others, admirable and ambitious alike, I'd be less than human if it didn't cause me to reflect.


Every day, make something for someone (a meal, a blog post, a lesson plan, a tune, an arrangement, a friendship);

Every day, teach something to someone (on an instrument, in a rehearsal, in a classroom; about writing, about thinking, about life);

Every day, focus upon the persons in front of me;

Every day, create positive energy;

Every day, fall short. And then stand up and try again;

Every day, do something to take care of my health: old age, encroaching;

Every day, spend a few minutes facing up to death, approaching.

May all beings be saved.