Month: September 2011

The Eightfold Path of Academia

     Yesterday I was thrown into a conversation about my heritage. It’s an interesting conversation, because I spend so much time in classes (both my own and those I assist) discussing the identity of others, and yet I have barely thought about my own or how I identify. I don’t identify with any specific heritage – perhaps because I grew up “a mutt” notwithstanding the strong links to various cultures. I grew up in a town with a large Buddhist community – one of the largest (probably the largest per capita) in the nation. Consequently, I was exposed to the teachings from an early age despite half my family calling the local practitioners “freaky” – they assumed that these people were leftovers from the 70’s age of cults and communal living. There were certainly leftover hippies. People always fear what they don’t understand.

One of my favorite hometown experiences happened when I was very young, though I don’t remember my age. It must have been past the age of ten because I was already performing in the local community band. After a Sunday evening concert one summer, I was sitting on the common eating an ice cream cone, and I met my first Buddhist nun. She had finished a walking meditation and was walking around the center of town softening clay beads in her hand to make a mala. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I know that’s what cemented my relationship to the dharma.  I walked away with the mala she had created and kept it until Hurricane Katrina destroyed it in 2005 (ironically, after I returned to New Orleans I found it in the mud where it had settled inside a singing bowl as the water levels dropped).

My relationship with Buddhism has always been love-hate. The teachings are there, but I haven’t always followed them, even when they bubble up from the subconscious to play the angel on my shoulder. I’ve had wavering months of devout practice, and months lost in the land of capitalist-driven hedonism where my inner child considered the world to be its sandbox. All I can do is smile because of course the entire premise behind Buddhist teachings is an espousal of ‘the Middle Way”, commonly known as moderation. I’m a horrible example of this. Now, in the land of academics, the corners of my mouth turn into a smile once more because once again the teachings, this moderation, should be paramount to my existence… and once again it’s not. An example? I work exceedingly hard 6 days a week to the point where I feel like I’ll collapse and on the 7th day, I’ll sleep late and do nothing but watch ridiculous TV and play with my dogs. Wouldn’t my life be better served if for those 6 days, I practiced moderation, so that by the 7th, I won’t feel the need to laze around? Sure it would. Knowing and doing are two different things. If my life becomes an example for anything, it’s that.

The noble 8-fold path should be recodified for academics, and applied to our interactions with research, colleagues, and students: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  I think I’ll post the list on my office wall. Meanwhile… identity – I’m still working on that.

 

 

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Why New Orleans Matters

Cover of "Why New Orleans Matters"

Cover of Why New Orleans Matters

I have just discovered that I can put my plastic camelback bottle in the microwave to make tea without an explosion. Now that I have, I’m sitting on the office couch with a blankie reading Tom Piazza’s “Why New Orleans Matters“. Obviously it’s Friday morning. If you must know, I am reading it for a combination of work and pleasure. I’ve read through it several times, and anyone who has knows that it’s chock full of amazing quotes that help explain to folks, well, why New Orleans matters. If I remember correctly, there are a few that would slip ever-so-nicely into the cracks of my thesis – hence the work aspect… and it’s a nice relaxing way to spend Friday morning in the office, right? Now my tea is getting cold…

Here are a few good quotes from the current pages I’m flipping through:

“New Orleans is the most religious place I have ever been, even though much of the population is profoundly profane, pagan, and steeped in the seven deadly sins and some others not even listed.

“Mac Rebennack, better known as Dr. John, once told me that when a brass band plays at a small club back up in one of the neighborhoods, it’s as if the audience – dancing, singing to the refrains, laughing – is part of the band. They are two parts of the same thing. The dancers interpret, or it might be better to say literally embody, the sounds of the band, answering the instruments. Since everyone is listening to different parts of the music – she to the trumpet melody, he to the bass drum, she to the trombone – the audience is a working model in three dimensions of the music, a synesthesic transformation of materials. And of course the band is also watching the dances, and getting ideas from the dancers’ gestures. The relationship between band and audience is in that sense like the relationship between two lovers making love, where cause and effect becomes very hard to see, even impossible to call by its right name…”

Of jazz funerals… “In the real old times they would continue this way (in a dirge) all the way to the graveyard before the next stage  of the funeral ritual took place, but even New Orleans isn’t totally immune to the Worldwide Attention Deficit, and today this part of the procession will last for a block or two at most before the band stops playing the dirge…and the snare drum beats out a familiar sharp tattoo, the band launches into a jubilant, life-affirming stomp, and the entire crowd explodes into dance.” 

“It amounts to a kind of cultural synesthesia in which music is food, and food is a kind of choreography, and dance is a way of dramatizing the fact that you are still alive for another year, another funeral, another Mardi Gras.”

 

short update

  • This weekend I’m heading to an Intertribal Powwow. This will be the second time I’m attending this event – you can read about my last experience here.  I’ll be attending with a friend who identifies as Native American, and I’ll be armed with the Nikon – so I’m expecting a richer experience, and will walk away with “thicker” visual ethnography…I hope. We’re bringing several students from our World Music Cultures course, so I’ll be there with my teacher hat on as well as my ethnographer hat.
  • Next weekend I’m heading back to NOLA. I’ve got so much to do, but this trip will prove fruitful as I’ll be setting up several interviews and narrowing my focus to specific musicians and locations. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a bounce show, too. It seems as though every weekend I’m not in NOLA, a huge bounce show happens… figures!  For now, I’m reading, reading, reading…
  • I’ve got a great home office setup right now – I “pimped” out my office with corkboard cubes and a giant whiteboard to post my weekly objectives. Simple things make me happy. I’m starting to get into my thesis groove. As long as I keep moving forward, I’ll feel good about things.

“Sidewalk Saints” by Jim Flynn

(sorry for the post bombardment today, y’all!)

This weekend I finally picked up a copy of Sidewalk Saints, a newly published book by Jim Flynn that paints the life portraits of street performers in New Orleans.  Otis had a few copies. The author, a Manhattan native, spent a year documenting the performers’ lives, eventually taking to the streets himself on guitar.

The book itself comes with a companion website (click on the link above) which allows you to make your own New Orleans street performer compilation and view high resolution versions of the photos in the book. If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware that I’m in the throes of a similar project which concentrates on different aspects, and takes quite a different angle. Jim’s book gives us exactly what the cover states – life portraits of the performers… not only musicians, but magicians, balloon artists, human statues, card readers, puppeteers, and more.

I’m looking forward to reading the text, and writing questions/comments in the margins. We’re working with several of the same “fixture” musicians (at first glance of his text, many of the performers Jim covered have since “moved on” – so many of them are migrant, so this is expected). Anyway – more to come soon…stay tuned. 

fall fieldwork weekend in nola

I’m just returning from a productive weekend of fieldwork in New Orleans. I have several of these short weekends planned in the next few months – an unfortunate necessity that would be much better served if I could just spend a week straight on the streets. Shocker here – I can’t.  The ten years I did spend walking them is certainly an advantage, and I’m now realizing how much access and information I have that’s allowing me to complete this project – I’m grateful.

Saturday was highly productive. My partner and I systematically roamed throughout the quarter for several hours so I could make recordings, take photos, and note locations on my map.  I won’t write too much here (you’ll have to read the thesis to find out more), but suffice it to say that I’m surprised at how stationary these musicians are. The busking locations never deviate. It’s as if there are fifteen designated spots for these musicians to plant their feet and they come back to these spots, day after day (often switching between them) – of course, a lot of it is based on foot traffic.

Sunday was less productive, but I learned a lesson. It’s an odd thing to return to the city you call home and think of it as a research project. I never noticed before that during a Saints [football] game, the streets are empty – probably because I was always on a bar stool during the games. A game started at noon yesterday, so by eleven the streets were clearing out. For street musicians this means less foot traffic, less money, and less overall exposure. There’s no reason for them to be out there. As I was seeking them out, they were packing up to find a bar stool in front of a TV. The musicians that were out and about (such as Doreen’s band) were plastered in Saints regalia. My lesson? For future fieldwork trips, I need to consider game times (or at least talk about the game time phenomenon in my work).

In place of hanging with the musicians, I went down to the Louisiana Music Factory and Beckham’s bookshop on Decatur and spent a stupid amount of money on books and albums related to my work. I was slightly disappointed at the response from LA Music Factory when I asked “Do y’all carry any Bounce titles?” (The answer was no)…

Below are some photos from the weekend. I spent the majority of my time with two specific groups of musicians, as is evident in the photos:

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