So I was starting to get the feeling that I was the only one who just grabs the limbs and moves them where I want them. I've never had trouble with gimbal lock, and it takes long enough to get these CG puppets into good poses as it is, but since everyone apparently thinks it's a good idea to rotate 1 axis at a time I was going to beat my head against for another try.
But aha! I come across a Cameron Fielding post and bing he says I can ignore it, yay. Just rotate in local mode (which I have been doing unknowingly anyway) and run Euler filter if there's a problem. Just do what you want and let Maya play math by itself. Thank you! I just want to animate, I can learn all that technical stuff, but I only learn as much as I need to get back to what I care about, the animation.
The elegant solution is the correct one. (a lesson I have to keep relearning) in other words: do what feels right for you.
(another example of that is that I finally got that "block a ton of poses" workflow to work for me, I had dutifully tried to apply it before (Animation Mentor is a big fan of it) but it just dragged, but finally watching some Jason Ryan webinar's it clicked and now it's easy and flows and is fun and not tedious)
You'll be more productive doing what feels right to you, then doing what is supposed to be the 'right' way. And if your being more productive you'll get yourself further along the path until maybe you can see the 'right way' from an angle that it makes sense to you. Do whatever helps you get the most keyframe miles under your belt fastest.