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.

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