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The Leadership People/ Halloween and the Great Uninterested

I went in to work today for what was ostensibly going to be a conflict resolution workshop. I was kind of excited about this; there had been a conflict resolution and peace studies course at my high school which I wanted to take because at the time I was starved for leftist perspectives on international affairs, but I never managed to make it.

The workshop I attended today did not live up to my hopes. I guess I’d hoped for a program which would incorporate Said and Chomsky and the like into a curriculum for my afterschool kids, a tall order to begin with. But the workshop fell short of even a street-smart approach to getting teenagers to stop insulting each other. In fact, it was almost exactly identical to workshops I have attended for Hampshire orientation leader training, another conference where we were asked to “vision” Hampshire as we wanted it, sex-ed classes I helped lead in Holyoke, and the training for the government program I am currently in. It’s not unlike a meeting at the IMC, for that matter. There was a facilitator with a flip chart. We did get-to-know-you games, trust and communication exercises. At the end, we filled out evaluation forms.

I knew this “leadership” culture was pervasive– the Chronicle of Higher Ed noticed it a few years ago, pointing out how divorced it is from traditional academic thought, among other things– but I was surprised to find it in a relatively hippie stronghold like conflict resolution. There is an industry out there which is training people to run workshops like this. A folder full of xeroxed truisms and a few hours spent “brainstorming” and falling into each others’ arms to demonstrate trust is its prescription for everything from strained labor relations to troubled youth. It didn’t even bother me as we wrote yet another set of ground rules or unconstructive words or whatever it was on little notecards today. I have been through this routine so many times that the very familiarity of the featureless fix is almost comforting to me now.

But I will resist. It is useful to talk about communication problems, and set ground rules, and get to know our co-workers. But this– this– it’s just weird. Why do we have to have a stranger come into our midst in order to talk about our unspoken goals or hatreds of our community? How is it the Leadership People can peddle the same fix to a college alumni board or a corporate human resources office or a high-school model UN? And does everything have to be so sterile? I swear, even the bland pasty bagels that get served at leaderhsip workshops must be from a central Leadership Training Bakery somewhere. Don’t eat the Leadership Bagels. They’re people!

Maybe I’m just overreacting… I’ve had a few too many experiences lately with flip-charts. But seriously: I don’t see the use in a culture of workshops which is only marginally sensitive to the specifics of a given situation and tends to be brought in to patch a problem rather than arising out of conflicts to solve them.

(While I’m at it: I also don’t see the use in holding Hampshire College alumni events in the same sterile conference rooms one might rent to hold a leadership seminar. Hampshire alumns are spooked enough already by the effects the college has had on their egos and careers; we don’t need our alienation compounded by reunions like the New York one held this week, with food that evoked the dining commons. It was almost painful to watch how much distance my fellow alumns were trying to keep between themseves and the an elderly ersatz crooner the college hired to pound on a synth in the corner. The Alumni office thinks that an atmosphere like this is going to entice us to pass on the scant cash we make as artists and social workers? Where did the funk bands go?)

* * * * *

Enough enough. New York has made me happy in the past week. New York has actually made me completely overstimulated, but that passes for happy when you’re manic-depressive.

I went to the Greenwich Village Halloween parade expecting that I would watch, since I couldn’t muster anyone else to join me. My prediction was that the parade would be the closest thing anywhere to Hampshire’s Halloween party, with its fireworks and queens and music and drugs, glitter and glowing things and people in costumes you have to guess at for a little because their meaning is complicated. I was right and I was wrong. I spent the first hour trotting through the audience looking for friends I’d promised I’d meet. Something wasn’t right about the scene in the crowd. There was no music, for starters. Most people had only gone so far as to buy flashing plastic devil horns from a vendor. Nobody was really in costume.The police were hemming the crowd in, telling them not to cross streets. The barricades evoked the same visceral fear of entrapment in me that’s been popping up ever since I got arrested. This led me to decide I’d get into the parade, even though I was feeling awkward and conspicuous (I was wearing my Star Trek uniform, which everyone needed to identify out loud, as if they were playing a huge game of car bingo. “Beam me up,” the police catcalled. “Star Wars!” shrieked some tourist behind me.)

The moment I was past the first wave of giant puppets I started feeling more at home. The Bread and Puppet van was there, its hippies lined up with their papier-mache skeletons. I passed the Squirrel Nut Zippers warming up on a float down a side street. Jimbo Mathus, the front man, was wearing a hat with a shed snake-skin for a band, shaking a skull-encrusted stick. Someone nearby was riding a behemoth beige larva crazed with blue neon tubes. Fleets of identical aliens and gold-masked unknowns slid by.

I headed for the source of the loudest noise. It turned out to be two samba bands sandwiching a beleaguered Korean drum ensemble down the road from a techno float. The sound was incredible. I had never been close enough to a samba ensemble to feel like my rib cage was being pummeled, so I stayed. Ahead of me I could see my friend Randy. He was dressed as a minuteman, waving a sign atop the Road Rocket, a polka-dotted bus that his company, Rumpus, takes on promotional tours. They handed out toys to the kids in the crowd, flanked by a giant camel and a number of people in period dress.

I ended up marching with Reverend Billy’s black-masked Ravenettes, the folks working to save Edgar Allan Poe’s house. We were probably the saddest little bloc in the parade, despite our capes and masquerade beaks. We didn’t have enough people to stretch across the street. We were also the only ones working. (well, I suppose the annoying people in Tyvek suits from MTV’s Pop-Up Video and the Rumpus crew were really working too; we were just being serious, and not encouraging people to enjoy consuming an entertainment product while doing it.) We didn’t have chants. The Rev was not up to preaching that night, though he admitted, as we went along, that the possibility for free press was too good to pass up. “Save Poe House, children!” Billy yelped, somewhat incongruously as he was in his street clothes. Some NYU fans on the sidelines, seeing our NYU Sucks posters, booed.

The bystanders made a wall of the unmitigated black winter coats which are regulation in New York City. I was amazed by how many onloookers there were. Not that it surprised me that the city was able to disgorge so many people. What didn’t make sense to me was that they suffered the barricades at all. Weren’t they New Yorkers? They stood there with no costumes, in even more gridlock than usual. I had imagined that the streets would be washed over in a sea of gyrating, sparkling citizens, who would change the bodegas and phone booths with their sheer presence as they went. I thought it would be a mobile Hampshire Halloween. Why would anyone want to watch this parade? This was a time to reclaim the streets from the tourists! This wasn’t like the Rose Parade, where the non-resident marchers are determined months in advance and are interspersed with expensive horses and huge floral arrangements. Anyone could head down to the wellspring of the Halloween parade and join in. The joy was in the moving!

‘spose that will have to wait for the Unpermitted Parade on Decemer 3rd.

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