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The raving thoughts of a misanthropic academic

April 23, 2011

Bike Riding in Tucson?

Bike Sign TucsonI've lived in Tucson nearly four years, and throughout my time here, I have ridiculed the city's efforts to promote commuter bike riding.

As the proud driver of a gas-guzzling Chevy Colorado, I have found the bike lanes in Tucson simply annoying. There is nothing more irritating than making a right turn, and having to wait for every petty kraal of bike-riders in the bike lane to pass before me.

What's astonishing, I suppose, is that there is even a bike lane at all. Alas, Tucson routinely ranks among the top ten bike friendly cities in these states united, and actually does have quite a nice infrastructure developed for cyclists. Even the University of Arizona (home for at least another year), has made significant investments in creating a'bike friendly' campus, and in promoting alternate forms of transportation.

Unsurprisingly, the much-touted green aspect of bike riding isn't terribly appealing to me. But I do like the idea of staying in shape once our Lenten crusade against carbs ends. And all of the above, coupled with the rising costs of gasoline make investing in a bike an increasingly attractive idea.

And I have to admit, this bicycle is especially tempting...

The main question, for now, is whether I can actually give up my scorn for cyclists long enough to visit a bike shop and pick up some new wheels.

Highly unlikely, but stranger things have happened.

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April 22, 2011

Song of the Week: My Song Is Love Unknown

Easter BloomsIt's Good Friday here in Tucson. Outside my office window, the blue palo verde trees are alive with buds of yellow, their annual bloom timed almost in celebration of Easter weekend.

It's always a bit difficult for me to write about Easter. Putting into words an expression of the Divine has been mankind's great struggle for centuries, across a multitude of disparate fields ranging from art to law.

But as a recovering choir member, my favorite reflections on God have always been through music. I've only recently discovered the Pax Plena Song of the Week, but it has made a significant impact on the way I think about Jesus, and his death on this Good Friday, in particular.

My Song is Love Unknown is not a new hymn. Written in 1664 by Samuel Crossman, an influential Anglican minister and eventual Dean of Bristol Cathedral, the original music was set to a tune called "Wesley" from a much earlier era. But the most famous iteration of the hymn's music was composed by John Ireland in 1918 - a tune aptly titled, "Love Unknown."

Crossman's words, in essence, are a collection of ruminations on Jesus's death. As with most hymns, and much of aesthetics generally, the beauty of the lyrics is their simplicity.

Seven stanzas strong, the song begins with a meditation exploring one's personal insignificance vis-à-vis Jesus's timeless act of sacrifice. In the opening strains, Crossman wonders, O who am I, that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die? Although simply stated, Crossman's question is really the mystery of the Gospels. Indeed, this 'love unknown' is exactly what humanity still hasn't quite figured out, some two thousand years removed from the event.

Other stanzas of the song include refelctions about the trial of Jesus (stanza 3), and the freeing of Barabas instead of Jesus (stanza 6). But the most interesting aspect of the hymn is the theme of friendship that runs throughout the lyrics.

Toward the begining of the piece (stanza 2), Crossman acknowledges Jesus's Divine origins, but rather than leaving the Son of God in abstraction, Crossman simply calls him "my friend." But O, my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend. In concluding the piece (stanza 7), Crossman again returns to the theme of friendship. After proclaiming the risen Christ, Crossman is not content to leave Jesus to the Heavens, but describes Jesus as simply a "friend" in whose company he longs to spend his days. This is my friend in whose sweet praise, I all my days could gladly spend.

The compelling thing about Crossman's emphasis of friendship is that when two people are friends they bring no obligation into the relationship. Typically, a person considers another to be a friend because they want to, not because they have to.

When this dynamic is applied to a relationship with Jesus, and by extension God, the result is a beautiful expression of 'love unknown.' I suppose, in this way, Crossman actually gives definition to the abstract. The 'love unknown' in Crossman's hymn becomes something that is quite familiar: the Love Unknown is the relationship of friendship itself - one between man and He who came to die for all mankind. And assuming one has free agency, one loves Christ because one wants to, not because one has to.

In all, the song is a perfect song of the week for this Good Friday, and Easter weekend. In keeping with Crossman's theme, my Friends, please enjoy a beautiful performance of the hymn below by the Choir of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London.

My Song Is Love Unknown
By Samuel Crossman (1664)
Arr. by John Ireland (1918)

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?

 

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend.

 

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

 

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.

 

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He to suffering goes,
That He His foes from thence might free.

 

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.

 

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.


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The Inverse Relationship Between Parenting and Health

Screaming ChildI got married in the late summer of 2009 under the brilliant skies of an Indiana August. Despite being still relatively, newly married, one of the first questions that always seems to come up when my wife and I meet someone new (or not so new) is:

    A) Whether we have children;

    B) Whether we plan to have children in the near future.

My answers, are usually: A) No. and B) NO!

Thanks to the University of Minnesota, I now have a stronger argument for avoiding kids: they are harmful to the health of the mother.

In brief, according to the U of M's study:

New research...shows that mothers consume more calories and get less physical activity than women with no kids.

...

Mothers [also] had a higher body-mass index and didn’t eat as healthily as childless women, chugging more sugary drinks and eating more total calories and saturated fat.

[Link]

The simple take away is that parenting may be hazardous to your health.

Don't believe the study? Ask your Mother and Father when they receive your tuition bill.

Note: Read the full story here.

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April 1, 2011

Song of the Week: Swanee River

The Pax Plena Song of the Week will doubtless be a familiar one in the great American songbook. Written by composer Stephen C. Coster in 1851, (Old Folks at Home) or Swanee River has long been a staple of American music.

Though the melody itself has been criticized for its supposedly racist undertones, the lyrics actually tell the story of world traveller long displaced from his home. Such a tale would be fairly innocuous, but for the African-American vernacular incorporated into the lyrics, and the use of the word "darkie," presumably in reference to other Blacks in the chorus. As an example of Foster's use of the African-American vernacular, in the original score, Foster used the words "ribber," "ebber," and "mudder," to refer to the words river, ever, and mother respectively. While the move is decidedly politically incorrect, there really isn't anything inherently racist, or even offensive about the song. In fact, even the use of the word 'darkie' can arguably be interpreted as an paean to inclusiveness - particularly when Foster could have used much more loaded "N-word." As the platitude goes, context is crucial.

Controversy aside, what makes the song interesting is the soaring story the lyrics tell through Foster's music. The song follows the plight of a wanderer who has travelled far away from home, only to realize that the grass isn't necessarily greener elsewhere. As the music swells, the bard yearns for home, and the old folks, and brighter days past.

In truth, I suppose I hear some of my own thoughts when I listen to the piece. In many ways, having been removed from Cotton County, Oklahoma nearly ten years come September, I too feel a bit as if I have been 'up and down the whole creation' sadly roaming, longing for home all the while. What Foster manages to do is capture these sentiments in pithy language, setting them against one of the most emotional scores in music history.

And really that's what makes a musical selection great: the best renditions take our unspoken thoughts and put them to a melody that captures our feelings at a particular moment in time. Listening to the song, one can nigh feel tears welling up from the deep within as the singer longs for sunny days spent with siblings, and with a mother that departed this life long ago. Though the lyrics are the vehicle for delivery, the emotional punch is packed through foster's arrangement.

With that, please enjoy, the Pax Plena Song of the Week, Swanee River. Lyrics and music appear below, and a series of performances of the piece follow.

8 Old Folks at Home

Bing Crosby is always the gold standard for any musical performance. Naturally, his rendition of Swanee River from the Kraft Music Hall Shows of the 1930s and 40s is stellar.

Aside from Crosby, the first notable performance of the song is actually an improvisational piece called the "Swanee River Boogie" performed by Albert Ammons. Ammons's fingers tickle the ivories in a way that only a jazz musician can.

A second performance of the song is performed by Luca Sestak, a German teenager, and a certifiable, piano prodigy. Sestak's performance is enough to make yours truly wish I were good at something - viz., anything.

One final, notable performance of Swanee River comes from the Alvin and the Chipmunks Show from the 1980s and 1990s. The trio perform a riff on the old minstrel performances of the 1850s, with Dave Seville playing the straight-laced interlocutor, and the Chipmunks playing a tripartite amalgam of Tambo and Bones.

This isn't to say the clip is politically correct - in fact, it's almost difficult to fathom any cartoon today producing similar programming - but the jokes are wonderfully terrible.

For example:

Dave: Good evening, Gentlemen. How are you feeling this evening?

Alvin: How am I feeling, Mr. Interlocutor?

Dave: That's right, Alvin, how are you feeling?

Alvin: With my fingers, Mr. Interlocutor.

Chipmunks: Yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck.

 

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Organic, free-range thought courtesy of your average, coffee-addicted, American Indian, academic. Program Manager @IGPatUA.


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