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10.15.2013

10.10.2013

What it looks like inside a CHRYSALIS


When Lilacs Last

One spring my mother and I collected
long twigs and put them in an empty tin can
to make a tree on which to hang Easter eggs—
real ones, which had been emptied of life
and dyed bright chemical colors (yellow, orange
and lime-green).

We put water in the can to weigh it down,
and after a few weeks buds pushed out
on the branches: soon leaves unfurled.
It was a paschal mystery, Aaron's staff in the ark
of the covenant that was our front porch.

Lilacs bloomed.

After a while the tin rusted,
the water turned blood-red, the green leaves
withered and we solemnly placed the dead
branches by the edge of the road.

I am telling you this story because
it is autumn as I write this and I cannot
tell if your eyes (into which I only
occasionally look) are old or new.
I think they are in that narrow place;
the moment just before everything
changes, and the very fact that we exist
at all seems a miracle beyond reckoning,
far lovelier than a lilac gently resting
against an empty green eggshell.

Please don't imagine yourself anywhere
that isn't fragile or barely real, don't
ever think for a moment that you are too
young or too old to be alive. I am not sure
if this life is impossibly beautiful because
it happened or impossibly tragic for the same reason,
but I do know it is impossible, and I don't think
I should have to choose.

9.28.2013

Updates on CHRYSALIS

I typically don't do this, but since my latest musical project is SO DAMN COOL I've decided you should all know about it. Also, I have no idea what I'm doing and I need help/suggestions.

For those of you who haven't seen my Kickstarter campaign to raise a whopping $300 to pay for materials, check it out. I made a creeptastic video which you should watch just to entertain yourself even if you don't want to donate. But actually, I kind of need the money to pay for the project, so also donate please. Kickstarter is all-or-nothing, so I either get $0 or $300. Also, if you donate you get special prizes (read: creepy prizes).


Seriously, if these weirdos can raise $12,000 and they don't even know how to pronounce the word "Chrysalis," surely my friends can support my relatively inexpensive dreams. Guys?

Okay, but my point here is not to complain about money! I really want to give you some updates about the piece because I am srsly SO EXCITE. For those of you who haven't read about the project, here's an abstract of the concept in a nutshell:
Chrysalis explores the boundaries of mediated transmission. Music, like other forms of art, is mediated by the medium itself and its environment, in this case by time, space, and memory. Gauze shrouds surrounding the singers evoke moth cocoons and are lit from the inside. Alternation between aleatoric and fully determined music highlights the uncertainty of live performance. The piece moves from ambiguous vowel sounds in the first movement to a description of a real-life out-of-body experience by soprano, Justine Aronson. The third movement is a veiled re-interpretation of Thomas Campion's early 17th century lute song, Author of Light.
I have been wanting to do more with "installation" style projects, and this is my first stab at combining more visual components into a piece. I'm ridiculously fortunate to have the amazing Justine Aronson flying in from Brooklyn to premiere this with Patrick Bonczyk, an incredible countertenor and intellectual extraordinaire (he basically comes up with all the concepts for my pieces these days).

I've been obsessed with moths since I was a small child. At summer camp I cried for hours when some mean boys pulled the wings off a majestic Polyphemus. I wrote several moth-inspired pieces in high school, but none that really dug more deeply into the mystical metaphor of transformation bound up in the narratology of moths. So this is where we are.

This week I purchased dimmer switches and blue light bulbs which will be controlled by the singers inside their cocoons. I think I decided that I want each singer in a separate "chrysalis" to further separate them from each other. If the audience should feel mediated, shouldn't the singers too? I also ordered tiny LED lights from China that hopefully will arrive in time for the performance. These will be worn by the singers during the second movement of the piece.
Composing for the cocoon.
Of course there's music too! The piece is essentially done, and I'm really happy with some of the musical things happening in it. The first movement has no lyrics, and is almost entirely aleatoric for the singers. It's meant to evoke a kind of pupal musical state—amorphous, undefined musical shapes. The music snakes around through different tonal centers through a special kind of suspended transformation that I started using this summer when working on Helios, (a choral setting of an ancient Greek magical spell) for the Oregon Bach Festival. Basically the transformations happen by voicing a major or minor chord in second inversion, and then moving the fifth and root of the chord (the lower two notes) around by half-step, which usually creates another triad or some kind of quartal/quintal sonority. It's a really neat sound, and destroys any sense of key center.

The second movement has lyrics by Justine Aronson herself. Earlier this year she described an experience she had during acupuncture where she saw three dots in her mind's eye which she understood to be herself and the universe (seriously, is everyone this cool? I have the best friends). I had her describe the experience in some detail and used the dialogue as lyrics for the second movement, titled "I was three dots that were the universe." In the second movement, the roles are reversed—the piano is almost entirely aleatoric, and the singers are singing predetermined music. This "liminal" stage transitions into the entirely notated third movement, which is based on the Campion lute song, Author of Light. This was the most fun to write, weaving fragments of Campion's mysterious music into the harmonic framework I had set up in the first two movements. Most of the piece is based on whole-step diads and first-inversion chords with an added 4th in an inner voice. The lute song has an amazing section where the voice ascends up a chromatic scale (kind of crazy for the 17th century), which worked perfectly for the harmonic transformations from the first movement, bringing everything together at the close of the piece!
I am legitimately excited about this, and really looking forward to what I'll learn from having to work with materials (and not just musical abstractions) in a concert piece. I also love how working on a project like this makes me see the world in new and exciting ways. For example, a breathless moment of immortal understanding I had with a caterpillar last week, and this amazing sculpture at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, MI. The jury is still out on how exactly to construct the chrysalides (who knew that was the plural of chrysalis?). I am hedging between trying to make them look haphazard and organic like real cocoons, which would probably require some wire or something, or having them be more idealized cubical-type structures which serve to evoke a sense of separation but not necessarily be analogous to anything in the natural world. I would love thoughts on what would be most effective... and like, if anyone knows how to build things. I guess I have to buy lumber and fabric for these things like next weekend. And, like a staple gun?

EDIT: Apparently no one can find the two places in this blog that link to the Kickstarter page (namely, clicking on the video, and the word "Kistarter campaign" highlighted in red text). So, here is a direct link:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/57535000/chrysalis-0



9.16.2013

Autumn Poem for 2013

There are still quiet places, mostly dark
cool places, such as the blue light
that floods hillsides before dawn—
there is no reason in particular
this should remind me of the last
days of summer with whipping, hawkish air
that tears (or) old scarves, burnishes
leaves (or) cheeks with the scent of rain
falling on chrysanthemums, cavernous husks
of yellow light (slender stalks
of pure grain) flooding hillsides at dusk,

And in the stone corner of my basement, where
on a damp patch of carpet a cricket sings
a lament over the shut eyes of her lover
and I can see the tiny violins that are
her brittle legs, which rend her black shawl—
this music is a quiet place, in the dwelling
of dead insects whose skeletons understand
what it means to fall, there is no reason
in particular that stones, flooding
the hillsides after life should be quiet,
nor gourds be ghoulish only in October,

Yet there are still quiet places—
one of them is autumn.

8.29.2013

Get With the Times

As the academic year once again gets underway, I think it's time to settle an old pet peeve of mine. If you will ever teach an academic course that involves writing, I invite you to consider what I have to say when making policies.

We've all heard the jokes about Comic Sans and its evil stepsister, Papyrus. We've all laughed because we're snobby enough to know that typefaces evoke moods—they have character (no pun intended) just like the content that they express. We know secrets of nuance that vapid secretaries could never understand. We want our typefaces to look and feel as beautiful as the ideas we're expressing with them. But lurking in the margins of our academic sensibilities is a sinister malady. An evil so commonplace that we have grown to love it and nurture it. A malignancy hidden in plain sight.

Times New Roman is not a good font. It's one of the worst fonts you can use. And I'm going to tell you why.

Right now, you're probably saying "BUT WAIT MY TEACHER SAID TO ALWAYS——" and that's fine. You shouldn't have been thinking in all caps, but otherwise you're right: most teachers claim to prefer TNR. I've tried my best not to oblige them. I hope some of those teachers are reading this right now.

Translation:
"i can haz human sacrifice?"

Let's start with some brief history of type to help contextualize what happened about 20 years ago and why TNR has become the "old" standby of academia. If we go way way back to the ancient world, we find pre-paper societies that used orthographies that play to the strengths of available materials. The wedge-like pictograms of cuneiform script occurred because people were writing in soft clay tablets. Later, in the Roman world, majuscules with straight, square forms were developed to be easier to carve into solid granite. In the middle ages, the popularity of parchment paper and ink allowed more flowing scripts to appear, which were mixed with pre-existing Roman stone writing to produce the many varied letterforms of modern Roman type. For 500 years, the printing press reigned supreme as the preferred method of mass produced text documents. Professional printers took great pride their art, and they knew that in order for their books to be legible and beautiful, they would have to draw on the millennia of development of hand-drawn scripts over the course of civilization. Gutenberg used the elegant calligraphic styles of his native Germany. In France, Claude Garamond designed exquisite typefaces of Roman design that are still in use today.
Ironically, she chose Impact.
The modern age of industry attempted to remove some of the vestiges of the quill and the chisel by creating "sans-serif" faces like Helvetica, but those are harder to read for long paragraphs because many of the letters look too similar to each other. For this reason, we won't discuss sans-serif fonts in the context of academic writing. Sorry, hipster Ariel. 

In the 20th century, technology developed to allow people to essentially "print" documents at home. The problem with the typewriter was that the mechanisms required that all the letters be of equal width. This is what today we call a "monospaced" typeface. Everyone knows that a lower-case "i" shouldn't take up the same amount of room as an upper-case "M," but in a monospaced universe, they do. This makes reading difficult and it distorts letterforms. It also wastes paper by making text take up a huge amount of space. Any freshman knows that if you change your font to 12pt Courier, it can go from two pages to three without writing any more words!


To prevent students from taking advantage of the wonders of post-industrial typography, many professors now require that papers be written in the most readily available proportional serif font, Times New Roman. Why is TNR so ubiquitous? Well, it's due in large part to Microsoft corporation, which, as you may have guessed, is not run by typographers. The great thing about the computer age is that the need for movable type has essentially vanished. Sophisticated software and advanced laser printing now allow anyone to create beautifully engraved pages of text at home without melting down any lead or rolling out ink onto giant sheets of lambskin. The sad part is that we're still using fonts that were packaged with computer systems before software engineers had worked out all the kinks or converted better typefaces to digital fonts.
The one on the far left is William Starling Burgess,
designer of Times New Roman.

Now don't get me wrong, TNR was a bad font even before it was digitized. It is itself a product of the industrial age—it was designed ostensibly from scratch in the 1930s by an advertising designer, who probably plagiarized the work from a yacht designer who made some sketches about 30 years before. Not a good start. The letterforms suffer from numerous internal inconsistencies and an overall unaesthetic design. The New York Times, for which it was created, no longer uses it. And neither should you. When the personal computer had its debut in the late 1980s, sophisticated font-handling on computers hadn't been developed. Most machines came pre-installed with only a few of the most common fonts, among them TNR. Over the years, technology caught up, but the standard didn't change. Nowadays most theses and dissertations are required to be in TNR even though better fonts are available on most machines. Thankfully, book and journal publishers have largely abandoned it for better typography, but it persists as the omnipresent standard for homemade documents among academics.

Take a look at the following comparison. All the examples are 12pt.
Notice in some of the examples the elegant combination of the three letters "ffi" in the word "coffin." This is called a ligature. It's a way to avoid ugly collisions when letters are spaced tightly against each other. Default Times New Roman on your word processor employs no ligatures, so letters sometimes clash, creating an unorganized appearance on the page. The designers of the Macintosh, who historically gush about typography, tried to help by including a variant of the font, simply called "Times" that fixes some of these problems. As you can see, they included an "fi" ligature, but not "ffi," so the other "f" in "coffin" is left looking forlorn and emaciated.

Notice also how TNR's generally poor letter-spacing takes up more room than most other Roman fonts. Only Palatino and Georgia are wider (they both also appeared in the computer age and have little or no historical precedent). Palatino achieves more consistency than TNR by making all the letters slightly wider and by using more regular stroke widths. The problem of ligatures is also avoided in Palatino by creating letterforms that naturally avoid collision. By far the most economical, legible, and aesthetically pleasing of the Roman fonts are those designed by Adobe Labs after centuries-old designs taken from original movable type. Garamond, my personal favorite, is over 400 years old. Note how the advanced kerning in Garamond Premiere Pro nestles the lower-case "e" in "Burgess" into the nook of the lower-case "g" that precedes it.

There is a lot more to hate about TNR—it's a "transitional" serif font, meaning that it's a deformed runt-hybrid of "oldstyle" serifs (graceful, delicate fonts that mimic the smooth globules of ink on a real printed page) and "modern" serifs (high contrast letters that fully embrace the sharp-edges of precision machinery). I won't list all the reasons I loathe it here, but take a look for yourself. Type a sentence in MSWord at 48pt in Times, Garamond, and a few others. Print it out and look carefully. Ask yourself which one you really prefer.

The current sophistication of computer typography is a tremendous achievement. I know most people don't want to spend $299 for Garamond Premiere Pro, and I'm not asking anyone to do that. But if you're a professional academic who writes articles, you should think about it. It's more legible, has significantly better historical precedent, and can actually be beautiful. It was designed by a man who devoted his life to typography, not some hack advertising agent or software engineer trying to meet a deadline. If you're a student, try using Palatino or default Garamond that come preinstalled on Windows and Mac. Don't use Times New Roman. It was created by a plagiarist after all. It's bad karma.

EDIT: Some of you have asked for recommendations for other alternatives. In my quest to find free useful fonts, I came across an open source historical Garamond project, which is causing me to poop myself right now. CHECK IT OUT!!!  http://www.georgduffner.at/ebgaramond/

Also, pretty much anything from The League of Movable Type is a solid choice, and all are free to download. http://www.theleagueofmoveabletype.com/

7.02.2013

Falling in Love in Under Ten Minutes

0:00

The warmth of your arm
on my arm (not quite touching
but the air between almost
in the gap between us and you
shake my hand and your name)
is everything I remember suddenly.

0:01

O Maria, familiar lady, what
if any shroud can make me invisible?

0:02

The stalwart concord
of the lines on your brow,
the rough fringe of your fingers
when they grasp sonorous threads.

0:03

Tonight I listened to Josquin,
his Marian shroud made me visible.

0:04

A fly that walks on flatness
then suddenly flies not falling but is
taken up into and out of across the
medium between our bodies
and how can it be? that between us
such a thing can move from two to three
dimensions: it is polyphony

0:05

and can my body existing outside itself
in the air beneath my breath ever reach you?
If the gap is shrouded is there serenity
in that I suddenly must only
remember your face?

0:06

Daniel was the king of lions
and his coat in under ten minutes
covered all the mouths of my heart.

0:07

Subito Catholicam, you faltering
faithful unnamable familiarity, you
startling old-friend strangeness, are
you Mary and even if so, why do I KNow
your AGeless GhoSt?

0:08

In my knowledge your eyes
must be sacristies filled
with more holy water than could
ever wean my heart's lion.

0:09

And now I remembering know
that it will be enough to hide
under a shroud for five days
and peering through worn wholes
of grace tirelessly imagine
your face in any light.

6.28.2013

Holy Smokes

Sometimes when we think something is really remarkable, we call it holy. We respond to the shock of an astonishing event with ironic phrases like "holy cow," "holy mackerel," "holy shit," and so on. I think "holy smokes" must be an exception to the irony of the phraseology, because smokes can indeed be holy, and often are, as in the sacred smoke of ritual incense. Flying ought to be one of the holiest of remarkable moments. Think of it! Just the thought of looking down on the clouds is enough to take your breath away. My God! Look at all those holy smokes!

My flight was delayed. I think a delayed flight is one of the ultimate exercises in stillness. The thwarted expectation of speed. Instead of hurtling to your destination, being greeted by the strangely static terminal (what a term) all full of motion and frenzy but not itself really going anywhere. It's anathema to travel. The station. The place that stays put. Two hours delayed. I call the director of the symposium I'm attending this week to tell him I'll be late. He seems relatively unfazed. Two hours pass... delayed again. I'll have to spend the night at my next layover. Holy shit, this is going to really still.

We board, finally, and I'm sitting in front of a middle aged man. He's anything but still. He seems excited—talking to his children who barely respond. His topics of public rumination include the usual concerns of a 40-something American man: junk food, drill bits, plumbing, cancer. He seems preoccupied by the fact that airplanes don't have headlights. He mentions this a few times. No response from his children. "I'll be going to sleep now. Nudge me if I snore." He immediately feigns snoring. No laughs. It's almost 11:00PM now. The topic is  twizzlers.

The plane is brand new, with sparkling plastic inlays and soft gradient lighting. The roof of the cabin is arched with whalebone-like structural supports, and is illuminated by soft lighting emanating from bulbs nestled in the molding. It looks like a planetarium at twilight. The boy next to me is quiet as he peruses a magazine. He is trying sudoku without a pencil. He stares for a while. No luck. He'll try the crossword soon, also without luck. As we leave the ground, the lights of cities look like volcanic magma seeping out of fissured earth. The branching patterns of roads and houses appear as rivers, glowing, red-orange.

The ventilation systems are pumping cool air, laden with moisture. It looks like soft fog rolling across the cabin roof, completing the crepuscular simulation. As we ascend, I listen to the sounds of voices around me, an awkward counterpoint of inflection and affectation. I imagine the plane opening up like a flower, breaking apart in a brilliant corolla of splintered metal and plastic. I imagine the strange patterns all our bodies will make in the air, like bits of scattered pollen. I imagine we'd be able to swim around and find one another. They say when you free-fall, it feels like you're weightless. The moments before skydivers activate their parachutes are moments of total stillness, even though they are moving at incredible speed. I imagine the artificial smoke and light of the cabin giving way to the real solar light and earthly smoke of heaven. I imagine the polyphony of our bodies as we fall, suspended midair, almost convinced that we're motionless... the way the lines of the most florid organum interlock and sound like a continuous, homogenous whole.

The man behind me is asleep now.
"Son, help me with this tray table... I can't reach it..."
"Dad, it's right in front of you."
"I can't reach it..."
"Dad..."
"Don't do that! My arm will get caught!"
"Dad, I'm not doing anything."
"Ow!! Ouch! My arm!!"
"DAD!"
"Arphempluknfiffle."
When we land in San Francisco, I will probably sleep. I think I will probably dream about tomorrow, the work of singing and writing, of dressing and eating and meeting. But maybe I'll be especially still tonight because I'm at an airport. Maybe I'll dream of holy smokes.

6.23.2013

The Importance of Being Earnest

"Remember those Attic stelae, how amazed you were at the caution
of human gestures; at the way love and parting were
so lightly laid on their shoulders, as if made of other stuff" 
(Rilke, from the Duino Elegies)
I have been meaning to write this for a while. Today it became necessary. The supermoon demanded it! And so also my heart has demanded it (and I'm not entirely convinced that they're not one and the same).

I was talking with a good friend yesterday about the difficulty of the singularity of minds. The idea that you can never really "know" someone because you can never see through their eyes or know their thoughts. This is not a radical concept, we've all thought about it, and a lot of cultural and social behavior is predicated on the addressing this conundrum. Humans, for whatever reason, have a deep desire to communicate their thoughts and ideas to others. We highly value the ability to communicate: the novelist, the artist, the politician, the poet, the musician—all are valued. Their job is to tell us something from inside themselves that we can't see or hear or know for ourself. We see a Platonic cave-shadow of it in their creations and their words. And that comforts us, somehow making us feel less alone... because we have those same thoughts and feelings. We love things because we identify with them.

Recently I have been frustrated with the seeming reticence to share these feelings suddenly and earnestly, and I was struck with a profoundly disturbing thought—maybe even more disturbing than the original solipsistic realization: what is the point of withholding true admissions of experience?

This might sound needlessly philosophical... let me try to put it into more colloquial terms. How many times have you looked at a tree in a certain light and just wanted to cry? How many times have you heard a song and actually cried but told no one? How many times have you wanted to tell someone how much you wanted/liked/loved them but held back because social convention taught you that you shouldn't (and later cried)? Tears are wordless admissions of overwhelming experience. And we systematically hide them.

Two pet peeves come to mind. The first is when people say that they don't "get" poetry or modern art because they don't understand it or it's "over their head." This is a profound fallacy because poetry and art are evocative. They are not, at their core, meant to be dissected in some kind of academic or learned way (if a piece is designed with this in mind, I argue that the artist is doing it wrong, but that's another topic for another day/year/lifetime). The point of E.E. Cummings is to simply wash over you and soak every inch of your soul until you explode/faint/die. The point of Rothko is not to make you understand ratios or colors. Rothko himself said,
"[My interest is] only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions... The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. ...[I]f you [...] are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point."
This is not to say that a depth of context cannot or does not enhance the experiential phenomenon of communicative arts. Knowing Bach's religious ideals can certainly enhance the theological appeal of his cantatas, but I am not fully convinced that it enhances their aesthetic value. The point of a poem or a painting or a tree is not to educate you—education, after all, is nothing more than amassing knowledge (i.e. contrived names and descriptions) that make you feel more comfortable about how or why a thing exists. Education doesn't abate the astonishment of existence itself. Instead, the point is to simply be changed by the thing. To interact with it. To be destroyed and remade made by it in an instant. People tend to understand this better with music and less with poems and least of all with people.

Here's the actual thing, and it brings me to my second big pet peeve: why is it that saying "I love you" is such a huge deal? Why do people freak out if someone says it and it's "too soon"? How can it ever be too soon to love? What exactly are you waiting for? Heck, I fell in love with the moon last night. And there's a good chance that I might at any given time be in love with four people that I've never met. And yet, I hardly ever admit it. I keep it to myself and I fault others when they won't say it. On the few occasions when I do decide to share my explosive feelings (a certain episode comes to mind involving birds which may or may not still be happening) I am often greeted with "calm down," or "don't be so bombastic."
Birds are the doom of golden twilight.
Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable.

How can I not!? Birds are LIVING CREATURES THAT FLY INTO THE SKY AND ARE BEAUTIFUL AND OH ALSO THEY SING. WHAT. EVEN.

And how can I not fall in love with you? Have you ever stopped to think about what you are? The need to communicate this is simultaneously overwhelming and stifling... Rilke says,

"Lovers, if they only understood, might speak wondrously
in the night air. For everything, it seems,
seeks to conceal us. Look: the trees exist; the houses
we dwell in stand there stalwartly. Only we
pass it all by, like a rush of air."

And why? Why?? I'm serious, what are we protecting? Our hearts? Protecting them from what? I honestly earnestly can't think of a single thing, not even to sarcastically supplant here. Don't tell me we're guarding it from rejection or pain or sorrow. We will feel that regardless of admission. We're human.

I had a conversation with one of my best friends about a year ago. In it we bemoaned how everyone thinks we're stoic and unfeeling when in fact we are daily overwhelmed by everything small and strange. "If you or I acted the way we felt every day, everyone would think we were insane. We'd be crying on street-corners. We have to hide our feelings because no one would understand us if we didn't." I think, now, that that choice was deeply misguided. Leading my friends to think that I am unsympathetic to emotion because of my deep-seated rational nature only invalidates the many feelings we share. Worse still, it further isolates us from one another. It is denial, and it can't be good for our hearts. I cannot do it anymore.

In her luminous novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, 
"I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm."
Perhaps we are doing great harm by denying ourselves the freedom to honestly disclose when we love or when our ineffable experience leaves us fainthearted and wordless. One last thought from Rilke:
"slowly one becomes unaccustomed to earthly things,
in the gentle way one leaves a mother's breast. But we, who need
such great mysteries, for whom so often blessed progress
springs from grief—: could we exist without them?"
No, I don't believe we could. And why would we want to? Let's not become unaccustomed to earthly things. Let's be continually astonished by their always mystery and never admonish one another when we admit it.

4.09.2013

Six Reasons I Loathe College Sports

Some of you will hate me for this. I know that. But I gotta say it.

It has come to my attention recently that a lot of people really, really love college sports. Just kidding, I always knew that. What I mean is that it has come to my attention recently that I really hate college sports. And maybe that I have some good reasons for feeling that way. Here, in descending order of significance are my six top reasons for unceasing loathing:

Do I need to say more?
6. As a form of entertainment, sports lack substance. 
This has more to do with why I dislike sports in general as a spectator, but it also applies to college in special ways. I believe that the media we consume should do something to the mind as well as the emotions. Works of entertainment-based art that appeal only to primitive instinct and offer no intellectual stimulation tend to be decidedly lacking. But wait, what about sitcoms? Or pop music, you say? The best pop artists always have an agenda that is shrouded in metaphor (Madonna, Beyoncé, etc.). The best sitcoms probe the depths of the human condition while also being funny (Frasier, Friends, etc.). Sports don't do that. They appeal only to our primitive, barbaric emotional responses. And when we watch sports, we behave like animals.

Just sharing some research.
Nothing to see here.
5. The arbitrary nature of the games encourages baseless fanaticism. 
Because there is no underlying purpose or aim for sports other than to generate a controlled competitive environment, loyalties ultimately become based on nothing more than proximity. Why do you root for Ohio State? Because you went to school there. Or because you live nearby. That's not a reason to love something... that's like religious fanatics who think their religion is great because their parents did. And we think that's foolish, immature, and shameful, right? Some say that sports events build camaraderie or a sense of community. But I see the opposite of that. They pit schools against one another by creating an artificially heightened sense of loyalty.

4. It takes too damn long.
The average football or basketball game lasts around three hours. Let's think of other things that take around three hours:
  • Two Mahler Symphonies
  • The Fellowship of the Ring
  • 6 to 8 Mozart Symphonies
  • An opera
  • Cooking Thanksgiving dinner
  • Driving about 200 miles
Typically we reserve lengthy activities for things which have high payoff intellectually or physically. Things that we deem too long for their own good, like Wagner, are often ridiculed. Why do we put up with inordinately long sporting events when the payoff is less rewarding than 30 minutes of Ancient Aliens?

No glass ceiling here! At USC the ladies major in
sophisticated fields of research and discourse.
3. It's abhorrently, shamelessly, and hopelessly sexist.
I don't think I need to reiterate that popular sports are male dominated. In academia we've worked hard to all but eradicate sexist hiring and admissions in (almost) every field of study. Why are the "flagship" teams that give the university national exposure dominated by men? And why are there NO roles for women in the whole pageant? Oh wait, I guess the ladies can be cheerleaders. Imagine if there were a drama on primetime in which every week there were only male characters and they spent the entire show making references to their masculine strength and occasionally beating each other up. And the female roles were only minor characters, always dressed in miniskirts and only ever said endearing things about the male characters. Oh yeah, there were shows like that. In 1961. Would you take a program like that seriously today? Also, it's three hours long.

2. It distracts from the real values of academia.
What are  you thinking of right now? The Quidditch team?
The blatant sexism is enough reason to shun the institution of sports in academia. But if you happen to be an old bigoted WASP, there are still reasons to abhor the spectacle. It advertises the university as something other than a vehicle for academic pursuit. A justification I often hear is that the immense popularity of college sports helps give the university greater exposure. But isn't that a little like false advertising? If I run an ad on craigslist that says "Philip Rice: Bargain Prostitute" I'll get a lot of exposure (hopefully only the metaphorical kind). But if I'm actually selling musical compositions, that kind of advertising doesn't really make sense. It's actually a lie. And the whole "building prestige" or "raising money" arguments don't work when you consider the Ivy League... virtually sportsless but still household names (and rolling in endowments to boot), known and rewarded for what they actually do: offer a good education. Guess what never happened while I lived in Princeton, NJ? Game day.

"I got a Bachelors of Basketball. Double-
majored in chauvinism and barbaria"  
1. It celebrates the triumph of the body over the triumph of the mind.
Maybe this reason is a little idealistic. But I think that as members of academia, as people who have chosen a college education, we have chosen to venerate the mind as a more powerful medium of expression and meaning than the body. The pen is mightier than the sword. Isn't that what we're supposed to believe at college? That's not exactly the vibe I'm getting from the sports teams. I'm getting a lot of sword. And it's not exactly fair to the players either. They often find themselves trapped in an institution that offered them gobs of money to promote the university, but that at the end of the day doesn't actually value what they do. Turns out being on the team is extra-curricular. It doesn't actually help your grades... it usually hurts them. Having a high-visibility sports team at college makes about as much sense as having writing or debate as a main televised event in the Olympics.

And here's some food for thought: the library at MSU closes early on game days. If that doesn't make you squirm a little, then you probably quit reading after #5. 

I know that sports are fun to watch. I get it. I know that it brings people together (as long as they're rooting for the same team, otherwise it makes them violent and confrontational). And I don't think that sports as a part of human culture is actually a bad idea. Our bodies are powerful expressers just like our minds, and can be seen as a crowning human achievement. Pro sports are one thing—they're not pretending to be something they're not. They are a form of commercial entertainment where values are internally consistent and the ends supposedly justify the means. College sports are something else. It doesn't make any sense to insert them into an institution that has worked so hard to promote equality and education.

2.13.2013

True Love is a Redundancy


In English there is only one word for love. Some say this is an injustice. I love you, man! or I love pizza, or I love you each mean different things. But I think they mean the same thing. Maybe we only have one word for love because being in love with everything is really so much better than being in love with anything. Think about it: is the feeling you get when you sink your teeth into that crispy-gooey pizza slice really all that different than the goosebumps you get when you think about your high school crush? Is the overwhelming melancholy of gazing at the sun drifting downward toward the horizon really so far away from the sadness that can fill your heart when you realize that a love you've spent so much time growing has numbered days?

This Valentine's day, let's remember that maybe it's OK to be in love with that guy you see at the bus stop only on Monday, or that barista who always smiles back. And maybe you can fall madly in love with a font or a color or a sky, and that's just as true. Come to think of it, isn't anything we see or hope or know with our whole heart really just as true as love?

This poem by E.E. Cummings sums up my feelings well (as many poems by E.E. Cummings do):

this man's heart 
is true to his
earth;so
anyone's world
does 
-n't interest him(by the 
look
feel taste smell
& sound
of a silence who can 
guess 
ex-
actly
what life
will do)loves 
nothing 
as much as
how(first
the arri
-v- 
in 
-g)a snowflake twi-
sts
,on
its way to now 
-here