Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sports, music, and blogging

I apparently blog about sports a lot.

Recently I was for some reason paging through the seventy-odd posts I've written in about a year and a third, and indeed, sports comes up in a lot of them.

Not surprisingly, baseball is the most discussed of the sports I end up going on about, but football has taken its share of comment, particularly on the subject of safety and concussions.

Always concerned to be a little self-critical, I had to ask myself why I do that.  After all, a lot of people who read this blog don't know diddly about baseball or at least do not follow it closely enough to get some of what I'm talking about.  When I start talking about football and concussions and asking questions there, I frankly risk somehow getting branded un-American and possibly being forcibly deported, to judge by the way some people talk about the subject (though not directly to me, at least not yet).

One obvious answer is that I do enjoy sports, albeit selectively so.  I've admitted ad nauseam that I love baseball.  My relationship with football is almost none, anymore, between the safety issues and the sheer stupidity of how college football is run any more.  I haven't followed the NBA since Dominique Wilkins left the Hawks, and while I do follow the college game, it's mostly as a filler once baseball season is over.  Hockey?  Never have figured it out.  I'm learning soccer to some degree, but I don't follow the European leagues with enough maniacal passion to comment on them, and I know nobody reading this would have any clue what I was talking about if I wrote about, say, the experience of Sporting Kansas City's first game at Livestrong Sporting Park (which I did attend, for what it's worth; if I were going to do so I might start by observing that it was, by far, the most demographically diverse crowd I've ever seen at a sporting event of any sort).  But those sports that I do follow, I follow with a decent amount of passion and intellectual attention.

But other reasons I tend to gravitate to sports for discussion are (1) that, whether the games themselves, the behavior of players or fans or owners or managers or whatever one cares to single out, sports are one venue of public life that draw in many passionate followers, and (2) in that process much of human nature is laid bare, for the best and for the worst, and in my fool's errand I cannot help but observe and learn from this -- indeed, I would be remiss if I did not.

There are times that the stories that come out of observing the sporting world are incredibly encouraging.  From my time at Kansas, the experience of former Jayhawk basketball player Thomas Robinson immediately comes to mind; after the rapid-fire deaths of two grandparents and his mother, the young man found that his team became his family, and found that a teammate's mother stepped into the void made and took him in as her own son.  Even when her own sons left for the NBA, Angel Morris stayed in Lawrence to be there for T-Rob.  It was a story one couldn't help being affected by, and when it was capped on the court with an insanely improbable run to the national championship game, the story took on the trappings of legend.  These things can happen.  Sports can become a place of bonding, it's true.

On the other hand, one could practically illustrate the Seven Deadly Sins by reference to the behavior of athletes, fans, owners, and others involved in sport.  (Gluttony might seem the hardest, but a few athletes have been known to eat themselves right out of their careers, and have you seen what kind of gluttony goes on in the stands?)  For all that can be mined from the players, though, I find the mentality and behavior of fans to be the most ripe for examination (complicated, of course, by the fact that I am one).  Sadly, much of what captures the attention of the broader world is fan behavior that ranges from shake-your-head depressing to downright horrifying.  Every now and then, the positive side of fanhood can make itself known, but usually what draws attention is the negative behaviors of fans.

These can be pretty egregious.  Rioting after a championship loss (or, even more bizarrely, a championship win) is probably the most obvious case of fan behavior scraping the bottom of the barrel, but it is hardly the only answer.  To go by the cliches, Philadelphia fans (of whatever sport) are forever going to be tagged as the fans who boo Santa Claus; Yankees fans are a bunch of arrogant, entitled jerks; Red Sox fans were incredible whiners, until the team won a couple of World Series and they turned into Yankees fans; going to an Oakland Raiders game is likened to wandering into a gang war by some to whom I've talked.  Verbal abusiveness sometimes seems endemic in the stands for most any sport.  These are all easy targets.

What lies beneath this kind of maniacal behavior?  In so many lives sports are being asked to fill a void that no athletic contest should ever be asked to fill, that much is obvious.  While it's easy to pick on the pro sports, one is easily provoked to wonder if it's college football that comes closest to sheer idolatry among the fan bases involved.  And no, I don't think idolatry is too strong a word, with the recent scandal at Penn State providing the most obvious example and the most damaging real-world consequences.  (An aside: please don't try to talk to me about how his superiors should have exercised more control.  I've spent a decent chunk of my adult life at two sports-crazed universities, enough to know that a coach in that position has no practical superiors.  The fact that Paterno held on to his job through some truly bad seasons -- far worse than those that finally got Bobby Bowden eased out at Florida State -- only demonstrates his ultimate untouchability, until the Sandusky scandal came along.)  From such horrifying events one can work one's way down the ladder to the kind of delusional fan who decides to take personal revenge on his team's rival by poisoning the trees on their campus, idolatry metastasized into sickness.

So in my humble defense I contend that sports has far too much to teach us about the human condition for me to ignore.  But I was struck by another fact in surveying the blog.  For a musician, I haven't written a lot about music.  A few commentaries on hymns or the upcoming new hymnal, and one piece on a bit of Schubert Lieder, but not what one might think given my past.

On some level I guess there's some subconscious separation going on; I don't want to fall back too much on that past life, while I'm trying to move on in this new life.  Another factor is that, while I have some definite things to say on the subject of music and the church, I'm holding on to those thoughts while my education progresses--keeping my powder dry for now, so to speak.

I suspect, though, I'm also affected by a bit of creeping Mendelssohnism.  In a letter to a cousin the composer Felix Mendelssohn offered a bit of comment on how he understood and related to music, in an age in which talking and writing about music was what might today be called a "growth industry."  The cousin had asked about some of Mendelssohn's "songs without words," short piano pieces in the style and structure of song but for piano alone; specifically, that cousin had asked, in effect, what certain of the songs "meant."

Mendelssohn's answer has always haunted me, since I first read it. He rejected his cousin's attempt to assign specific meanings to the Songs Without Words (their "meaning" to him was nothing separate from the musical sounds or notes themselves); the key idea is that the music that affected Mendelssohn most was "not too indefinite for words, but too definite."  I do find that true to a great degree.  Much can be said about the notes, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and such, and theorists do this at great length.  Volumes can be said about how people use music, and musicologists and ethnomusicologists, among others, do this at great length, and I have no doubt that at some point I will do so.  But about music, the particular moment of music, there is blessed little that can be said if you're doing it right.

Of course, with my current course load and with chemo and radiation treatments starting tomorrow, there's little assurance I'll be blogging about much of anything through the fall.  I shall be very busy, and my mind shall be about a million different places.  I don't plan to give it up any more than I plan to give up any classes or indeed anything about this whole fool's errand.  And at some point the things that strike me on the way may shift in a different direction.  'Til then, sports may continue to come up more often than one might expect, as long as people continue to behave bizarrely where they are concerned, and music less than one might expect, as long as it remains too definite for words.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On being a human tetherball

A bland day.  Literally, as I am on a clear-liquid diet before a couple of medical tests tomorrow, and figuratively, as being confined to home for the, ah, preparation for those tests cuts me off from the world and from my still-unsettled routine of classes and other activities.  One can only read so much heavy Old Testament scholarship at a time, much to my consternation.
One of the disconcerting things about this health situation is, as any number of people who've been through it will tell you, the waiting.  I'm still miffed about missing that trip to Kansas, but now it's as much about wanting to get on with whatever course of treatment is going to be necessary.  Getting to that point, though, has involved a bit of pinballing.
One goes through a number of different doctors in this process, apparently.  In my case, my primary care physician found anemia in the results from blood work and referred me to a gastrointestinal specialist for that colonoscopy, which revealed the cancer.  That resulted in referral to an oncologist and a surgeon, which also necessitated a radiation oncologist, as well as a different gastrointestinal specialist (one with more experience with cancer) to perform tomorrow's endoscopic ultrasound.  (Also tomorrow is the consultation with that radiation oncologist and a CT-PET scan ordered by the primary oncologist.  I may sleep the rest of the weekend.)
That's a lot of doctors, and the interesting part is that it is awfully difficult to coordinate all of this.  Trying to get three appointments scheduled tomorrow was a rather stressful business, what with the apparent need to register separately for all three, despite all three being in the same specialized facility within the same hospital.  While I try to be a level-headed sort, I don't think I'm the person to be all cool and collected while trying to reconcile an unreconcilable schedule of medical events.  I had to get a little hysterical to get things done, which I don't enjoy so much.
Getting tetherballed around like this pushes me towards being skeptical, to be mild, about people and their reactions in time of need.  Any tendency in that direction, however, is quickly countered by how many people have stepped in to help and support us since this diagnosis.  I've heard from many churches across the scattered trail of our lives pledging our prayers and support.  I've had nothing but support and pledges of cooperation from my professors, and multiple classmates getting class notes for me on those days (like this one) when I have to miss class.  One wonders about the difference between people in relationships and people in systems.  Systems don't humanize.
In the meantime, today is a day for, ahem, staying home.  Tomorrow will be bizarre.  Once these tests are done, hopefully the surgeon and oncologist can get things together enough to decide and put together a course of treatment.  As physically difficult as that is likely to be, it will be mentally some measure of relief.  At least I'll be doing something, instead of waiting.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sluggish days

A rainy Sunday afternoon brings a weekend to a close.  I wish it could be described as a profitable one, or exciting, or even mildly interesting, but no, not really.

It was a dry time.  One of those times where you pull out your projects, be they written or whatever, and stare at them fruitlessly, occasionally blithering out something that you quickly delete in embarrassment.  Reading proved equally fruitless; it devolved quickly into staring blankly at a page with no recollection of having read the page before it.  Some paperwork I need to accomplish might as well have been in Sanskrit, for all the sense it made to me.

A bookshelf did get built, or put together to be more precise.  It now holds the two commentary sets I own, plus a heap of last year's textbook and a few other items.  Nothing particularly thrilling about it.  And I have listened to a great deal of radio-broadcast baseball online, which is not bad.

All in all, the time might be best summarized with the world "blah."

This is of course my time between classes.  And of course, a little more than a week ago I was diagnosed with rectal cancer.  Still, I don't want to think that I wasted my break, and it's far too early to start blaming down time on an illness I don't even really know that much about yet.  I finally have some further tests and consultations scheduled, after waiting several days.  A CT scan comes up on Tuesday; I get run through a doughnut hole and the doctor takes a peek at what's inside.  Consulting with oncologist and surgeon so far seems impossible to schedule without interfering with classes.  Grr.

I'm sure part of the funk was that until that colonoscopy and the accompanying news I had been looking forward to a brief return to Lawrence.  I was able to do my consultation with the presbytery CPM via Skype, all to the good.  I know I'll need to return to Kansas this spring to be considered for candidate status, probably in April when the PNK meets in Manhattan.  It will have to be a shorter trip, since I'll technically be in class at that point, but so far Skyping candidate consultations is beyond the pale, as it probably should be.  But I was looking forward to that trip.  Partly the change of scenery, partly the fact that I really enjoy Lawrence and would truly have liked to catch up with some of the folks back there.  All in all, a fairly severe bummer to miss out on it.

But the advent of a new term actually holds some hope of engagement.  Going forward I know that the more engaged I am intellectually, the better for me all around.  And if that engagement needs to be forced upon me for the time being, so be it.

I remember enough of my time in academia to know that dry spells happen, even in good days.  It's not permanent and in a few weeks I might well look back to the relative laziness of the last few days wistfully, longing for such leisure time.  But I look forward to finding some way to get the circuits re-engaged.  There are a couple of hymns half-complete, as if in suspended animiation; a goodly pile of books awaiting my engagement (note: this is a perpetual condition); a lot of things to see in this area, which fairly crawls with sites from almost every part of U.S. history; and more that isn't coming to mind at the moment.

So, in short, I need my wake-up.  I have no doubt it is about to come.  And I may be reminding myself, as I start wading through Old Testament, Preaching and Worship, Introduction to Pastoral Care, and Teaching Ministry of the Church, that I should be careful what I wish for, as the saying goes.