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On hearing the music

Posted in Music, Stories by Alex L. on July 21, 2010

A few weeks ago, after a long hiatus, I decided to play the guitar. I own a Yamaha classical, and it had been waiting many months in my family room on a cherry-wood holder. Any musical instrument one plays is refreshing to return to again, but the classical guitar is perhaps the most pleasant.

The piano, which also resides in the family room, likes to hide its vital parts and will greet you with a rasp and squeak as you slide open its wooden key cover. The alto saxophone, sharing a corner by the window of the same room with a tall leafy houseplant, must be assembled into a whole with grease to make the parts fit and water to soften up the wooden sliver of the reed. The latest member of the Family Room Ensemble is an Arabic drum, and while it is a cheerful companion, its boisterous rhythms sound almost sad without a party of dancers to accompany them.

The classical guitar, though, sits always upright on its stand, its face looking at you, ready to be played. When you pick up the guitar, you touch its gentlest part, the lacquered backside of the neck, opposite the strings, which feels like a polished marble statue, but warmer. A sweet scent wafts from the same opening in the instrument that projects its sound, like a perfume of the forest. The sound of its strings is soft and unassuming.

And yet despite its welcoming appearance, the classical guitar is a difficult instrument to play well. I had abandoned it out of frustration late last year, when after months of daily practice (not to mention the years of private lessons I took before college) I was still producing the same dull and mechanical sound from the instrument. Music is more than about getting the notes right, I told myself, it’s more than the sum of its parts.

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“The Marketplace of Ideas” by Louis Menand

Posted in Academia, American, Culture, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on June 8, 2010

Parents, friends, university professors, family members, esteemed colleagues, and new acquaintances: we are gathered here today to answer a very important question. Why did a young man who has been passionate about the study of history his whole life, who has majored in history in college, excelled in its study, and wanted nothing more than to teach and learn about the past for the rest of his life, decide not to go to graduate school?

Let me leave that question hanging in the air of the (empty) auditorium, shrug off the narcissism (it was me speaking about myself, in case anyone had hoped otherwise), and step down from the podium.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand tries to answer the question of how American universities (more specifically, the liberal arts departments of those schools) have become the weird places that they are. For those who pursued a liberal arts education at a large university and don’t agree that they are strange beasts, I present the following observation of Prof. Menand’s:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. (157)

Why? Menand, in his insightful book, answers the How? by tracing the history of the modern American university from its roots in the late-nineteenth century orientation toward research, through its gargantuan growth during the Cold War with the help of government funding, through the turbulent decades of the late-twentieth century and their epistemological crises (what are we doing this for? why are we here? and what right do we have?), to the current university that we see today.

But . . . Why? Why must a student devote nine years of his life to learn to think and talk in narrow ways, and then spend the rest of his life educating the public whose instincts (for better or worse, but usually for the better) cringe at the sound and sight of this narrowness? (more…)

Turtle on the road

Posted in Just for Fun, Stories by Alex L. on May 28, 2010

On my way home from work yesterday, I ran into a turtle. Well, I didn’t hit him, I just passed him standing on the side of the road. I wouldn’t have noticed the turtle, would have thought he was perhaps a chunk of busted tire, had he not craned his head high, watchfully, scanning the cars roaring by him. Ah, that’s a turtle!

I was driving in the corporate park where I work. If I was on the highway, I would have let him take his chances – too inconvenient for me. But I knew this place, turning around would be easy, and there was parking nearby. I U-turned and drove back to help, thinking, though, that this was pretty childish of me. I don’t even pull over to help people with flat tires.

Picking up a turtle is harder that one would imagine. They run fast and on their claws, shell half an inch above the ground, like a reptilian hovercraft. He panicked when he saw me and made a dash for it. (more…)