Saturday, April 25, 2009

Adventures In Academia, Part One

There's a lot of ground to cover with the conference alone, so let's just see how much I can pound out before I realize it's no longer late and instead early.

Part One: Summon The Augur

I don't hate plane rides, but we had an exceptionally rough landing into Houston from Indianapolis. From Houston to New Orleans was about a 45 minute flight, long enough for a beverage. Even though I don't travel much, I've been to a good number of airports:
+ Louisville
+ Orlando
+ St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia - just so you all know, according to Firefox, Petersburg does not pass the spell-check. But Firefox itself does.)
+ Myrtle Beach
+ Indianapolis (both the old one and the new one)
+ Minneapolis/St. Paul
+ Los Angeles International
+ Pittsburgh
+ Buffalo, NY
+ Houston
+ New Orleans
+ Chicago
I can say - though it's been since I was in single digits that I flew in/out of Florida and went to the Myrtle Beach airport - that the New Orleans airport is probably one of the most surprisingly dumpiest ones I've seen. It looks like they last remodeled it...well, never, actually. Looks more like a hospital. I was a bit disappointed.

But I was not at all disappointed - AT ALL - with New Orleans itself. It was such a beautiful city. From the Interstate into the city I could see some of those typical New Orleans cemeteries with the above-ground vaults and elaborate graves. When - not if - I go back, visiting one of those graveyards will be of high priority. The hotel was great, too. The lobby had a very deliberate retro look to it, and the restaurant's fireplace made the entire lower level have the lovely scent of burning wood. (I'm serious - I love that smell. It reminds me of my grandparents' house.)

Dad was really good company, too. We both sort of balked at how exaggerated Bourbon Street was. As we walked on foot, rounding the corner from Canal to Bourbon, a panhandler - who was the worst liar in the world - hit us up for change. Since I never have cash in my wallet, all I had were coins. So I gave him a fistful, and then he asked me for more! Whatever...there must have been a cheap liquor mart nearby.

Speaking of cheap booze, say what you will about Mad Dog 20/20, one can enjoy 12 oz. of fruity, wine-based deliciousness for a mere $1.79 up here in Bloomington. (I'm writing this during Little 500 weekend.)

But Bourbon Street, which seemingly everyone in my age group recommended to me, was nuts. Shelley lives right across the street from two of IU's many fraternities, so to see a place practically niche-marketed towards these gorillas and their overpaid daddies wasn't the most comforting sight in the world. Since my nerves were a little rattled from the flight, at the bar where we had dinner (at midnight, because we're awesome like that) I ordered a Woodchuck Cider. Dad ordered the same, which I thought was neat. He liked it. I have Graham to thank for that.

Another thing strongly recommended to me was the Po' Boy sandwich. I have a natural aversion to nearly all fried foods - donuts being a rare exception to this rule - so eating a fried crawfish Po' Boy, I will admit I was not crazy about it. The bread was toasted, but it was also too thick. I don't know, I was a bit underwhelmed. But it was food - the last thing I'd eaten was a shitty airline snack pack.

The lady at the front desk told us that the hotel's wireless only worked in the lobby, so at around 2 AM on a sheer whim I asked Dad if he wanted to accompany me downstairs while I checked email. I had left Bloomington around 2:30 PM, and the emails from UMass and BGSU were from 3:15 and 3:30, respectively. The one day I'm away from computers for more than an hour - closer to thirteen - and I literally have back-to-back emails from graduate programs. It put a really good feeling over the entire rest of the weekend. I was thrilled. I still am, thinking about it over two and a half weeks later.

Part Two: D-Day, Or, How I Overcame Caffeine Poisoning And Learned To Love Public Speaking

My first order of business Thursday morning was to locate Tom Kitts. I saw he was participating in some sort of business meeting for the Popular Music panel, so I woke up early, got my name badge and all my official stuff and waited outside the room - funny enough, the same room where we would be presenting later. The meeting ended, and there he was. Just an inch or two shorter than me, skinny, maybe around my dad's age (early/mid 50's). It's so strange to meet someone you've only seen a picture of. Is that what it was like in a world before Facebook and the Internet, where you would meet someone with only a solitary picture as a reference?

Regardless, he introduced me to Nick Baxter-Moore from Brock University up in Canada, who was also on our panel. They were both really friendly. I had just emailed Tom a few days earlier about me worrying about grad school, and he encouraged me to talk to Nick about it. Thankfully, I had a nice update of "I literally found out just last night that I got into U. Mass Boston." They both congratulated me, Tom praised my Kinks essays to Nick. Now, I may have heard this wrong, but I could swear I heard him say, "He's got a blog, too. Really great. I'll send you the link." He may have been talking about someone else, but if not that's cool, too. If you guys do read it, don't be afraid to say hello.

Someone please tell me how to get a hit counter installed on this site - I wouldn't mind knowing how many people are actually that interested in me. Because as I always say I consider myself a fairly boring person.

I told Shelley that if this wasn't some auditory hallucination, or if Tom was talking about someone else, I should have been a little weirded out by this. Yet I wasn't. The night before I'd overheard two people chatting in the lobby, and one of them said "How do you already know so much about me?" And the other person responded, "Oh, I googled you!" Such is the nature of the 21st Century. And it's with that in mind that I realized with a few obvious exceptions (parents, grandparents, a few other self-righteous individuals) I'm really not ashamed of my content here. Yes, a lot of it is written in the heat or excitement of the moment, but I personally like that sort of honesty.

Besides meeting him - finally - and seeing what he looked like/sounded like in person, I was curious as to what I needed to wear. I had brought a suit, button-up, and a tie. When I told him this, he laughed and said what I had on was fine (Zappa t-shirt, jeans, and my black Chucks.) An academic conference this may have been, but this was a panel on rock and roll music.

Anyway, Tom had to go, but Nick and I waited together for an elevator. He asked me how long I'd been into The Kinks. Then I realized it has been just under 9 years. The fall of 2000 was a good time for me. That and spring of 2002 were the best times of my life until college. Maybe some rainy afternoon I'll wax nostalgic about those "good old days." I quipped to Nick that realizing how long it had been made me feel old. As a man with mainly salt in his salt-and-pepper colored hair, he joked back that I didn't really know what old was.

I was too nervous to really eat. Believe me, I tried. I didn't want to keep Dad bored by sitting around and reading and re-reading my essay*, so we went for a walk around the French Quarter, knowing now to avoid Bourbon Street. Which brings me to what I consider the most beautiful intersection in the world: Chartres and Saint Louis streets. Don't ask why, you know as well as I do that explaining beauty is like trying to say why you like your favorite band - it just is what it is. We ate at an open-air restaurant (that was something really cool about New Orleans, that all these places can open up the French doors and just have the outdoors waft in. I had some sort of grilled chicken, vowing fried food would not be a good choice.

Since I am a man who learns from his past mistakes, I opted for coffee. I figured it would calm my tense nerves, keep me relaxed, and help me maintain a slow, clear diction during my speech. [Lying.]

No. Not at all. I felt like 1966 Bob Dylan, the amphetamine-addled one who rocked back and forth nervously while talking at 90 miles an hour about nothing at all.

So we assembled in the conference room. I had decided to put on my green button-up and roll up the sleeves, while still rocking the jeans and the Chucks. One guy asked, "So who here is speaking on The Kinks?" I raised my hand, using all possible willpower to keep it from shaking. Turns out that was the big draw for him to attend our panel. Great, I thought. (More on him later.)

I was the first to go. Holy fucking shit. There I was, strung out on coffee (and lots of it), with a strong urge to urinate, vomit, and do that thing fried foods tend to make most people do, possibly all at the same time. I believe they call that a number 6.** I stood up, placed my essay* on the table, firmly placed my hands on the table, thinking to myself that I could not move a muscle, and went for it.

My words came out like I hadn't had 20 ounces of black coffee, like I didn't have the overwhelming urge to take a piss, and like I wasn't completely nervous speaking in front of 20 people. (So I did mock trial and speech team in high school, but that was four years ago - a lot of the time in front of people I knew.) It went great.

Nick's presentation was on the concert experience - fascinating material, and his research methods were good, too. Tom, the English professor with a Brooklyn accent, talked about the punk group Anti-Flag. It was really cool to hear him read the lyrics, "You've gotta die, gotta die, gotta die / For your government / Die for your country / That's shit." It's like when Glenn says the sort of four letter words that pepper this site liberally in a classroom setting. It's just really cool.

We were fielded questions by the audience. One of the first was on what the status was of a Kinks reunion. Tom and I both answered that question. I responded that I couldn't be too nuts about the thoughts of a reunion, since Ray seems just fine touring on his own, while the fact that they've had, as I said, "seventeen bassists and five thousand keyboardists," the issue of who would be on the album or live tour would mean some of the guys wouldn't be invited. Tom explained that Pete Quaife, the original bassist, is in no condition to tour, as he is on dialysis. (Funny enough, shortly after the conference, Pete made a statement that he has no interest whatsoever in a Kinks reunion and with all respect would like to have his privacy from the public.) And I didn't know this, but Dave still hasn't fully recovered from his stroke in 2004. I found that a little sad. Ray is very keen on getting the group back together, but at the same time, as Tom said, he has a knack for saying this around the time of another album or tour of his own. McCartney did that a lot, too, in the interim period between John and George's deaths.

And then came the hobnobbing, which I quickly realized was the other half of why these conferences exist.***

One of Tom's former students named Eric Abbey,^ now a professor up near Detroit, talked to me about The Kinks, which oddly enough quickly turned to Zappa, since I'm 95% sure I'll be studying Frank's music for my MA thesis. His drummer in his band used to play with former Zappa guitarist Ike Willis' FZ tribute band, the Ugly Radio Rebellion. The guy who asked who was talking on The Kinks was a guy from Pennsylvania named Maxim Furek. Turns out he used to be a music journalist. Tom told me a few days later that a filmmaker/musician/professor/author named Greg Herriges enjoyed my presentation, as well. I guess I was a hit.

Part Three: A Typical Thursday Night In New Orleans. You Know How It Goes...

I couldn't help but notice that during the post-panel hobnobbing, Dad disappeared. It was strange, since I really wanted him to be there and meet these people, too. Anyway, I asked both Nick and Tom what they thought, especially since they knew this was my first conference. They said it was great; when I asked Tom if I seemed nervous, he asked me, "You were nervous?" I guess I do still have some acting skills in me. We all shook hands and parted ways. Tom invited us to meet up with him, Eric, their ladies, and other people to go bowling. I gave him a definite maybe since I didn't know how our evening would turn out.

Dad was down at the end of the hall when I left the conference room. He said it sounded good and that each speaker was interesting. I told him that the first order of business, since the overwhelming urge to vomit had long since subsided, was for me to eat. So I changed back into my Zappa shirt up in the room, but then I remembered there was someone speaking on the "Paul Is Dead" hoax. The other presenter on the panel talked about the plays of Tom Stoppard, specifically the fan-fiction like nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Rock 'N' Roll, which funny enough features as plot elements The Plastic People Of The Universe, Syd Barrett, The Rolling Stones, and a character designed to be Václav Havel; the play itself takes place between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989 in Czechoslovakia. So how about that? I talk on The Kinks, then go listen to a talk on The Beatles, and at the same panel another guy talks about a play centered on a country I have studied quite thoroughly.

How's that for conceptual continuity?

Just across the street from where we had lunch at Chartres and Saint Louis, we ate at what I learned afterward was a site of great historical significance - the Napoleon House. I had a savory Greek panini. Dad's red beans and rice looked delicious - I'd have a plate of my own the next night. The restaurant specialized in Italian desserts. I had cassata (spumoni ice cream with jam and cake inside) and Dad had bread pudding, with a strong - but damn good - rum sauce. We also noticed the coffee had an extra something in it. Dad told me it was chicory. Best coffee I've ever had in my life.

The Napoleon House was my favorite place to eat. Not that the rest of my story is downhill from here, far from it in fact. I'm recommending it to each of you if you're ever in New Orleans. Chartres and Saint Louis Streets, can't miss it. They also had a full bar menu. We wandered through the French Quarter to Frenchman Street, which is far enough away from the touristy areas that it was actually quiet.

That is, until we heard a drummer off in the distance. You hear the drums first, and as you get closer, the bass and then the guitars and lastly the vocals are audible. Dad and I paid five bucks a piece to see two bands. And they were great! I didn't get the name of the first band, but they were followed by a group called Pumpkin. They were fantastic - sort of a cross of punk and Devo. Really good music, with some great accompanying movies projected on a screen behind them to boot!

It made for some great father-son bonding time. Dad went to bed, but I ventured to the lobby, where I saw Tom and Eric et al. outside the building. They'd just gotten back, so I walked outside to say hello and tell them how our night went. Eric, his girlfriend (maybe wife or fiance? I can't remember...) and I talked after Tom and his girlfriend called it a night. I really, really wanted a cigarette, and lo and behold I smelled someone enjoying a clove nearby. Two people were, so I asked if I could bum. They obliged, and I got to enjoy my favorite type of smoke while making acquaintance with yet another Eric^.

On this note, I bid you farewell for now. It's now 6:35 and birdies are chirping - my cue to go to bed. Speaking of conceptual continuity, its originator will be discussed in the next part, along with extracts of a fascinating conversation I had with a gay Buddhist from San Francisco, and more.


*My essay can be found here in .pdf format.

** The breakdown is as follows:
1. Urination
2. Defecation
3. Vomiting
4. 1 & 2 together
5. 2 & 3 together
6. 1, 2, & 3
7. Nosebleeds
8. Popping a pimple
9. Menstruation
10. Ejaculation
11. Drooling
12. Sweating

Feel free to contribute to this list as desired.

*** The other half is self-promotion, generating/maintaining visibility in academia.

^ As you all know, between my brother, father, brother's father-in-law, two former bandmates, the President of Young Democratic Socialists, a church camp counselor, a friend from the Zappa class, and two of my brother's friends, I can easily say I have no shortage of guys named Eric in my life.


m@ said...

Gotta love New Orleans. Only been there twice and am going again next summer, but it, like a lot of the historic southern towns, just has some mystical appeal that can't be defined. And I did the same thing you did--tried to avoid Bourbon (the district and the drink) and just meandered through the French Quarter. Wow.
It was so nice to read about your positive experience at the conference. Your writing has such a nice, flowy tone to it when you are describing a positive experience.
And let me say, if you loved the historical value of New Orleans, then you're going to love Boston. Get past the typical and Boston has some fine cultural spots.
Have a blessed day, Alex.

Forrest said...

You can get a stat tracker for blogger here: