…Thought Control? No Thanks….

When I was freshman in college, I worked as a DJ for the campus radio station. The experience was invaluable. The real perk , however, even though I worked every weekend, was that, while all of my freshmen friends got the dining hall as their work study, I got to spin tunes (yes, I know how dated that sounds, but seriously…there were turntables and vinyl in that radio station).

One afternoon, the CD machine broke (that was new technology at the time), and we had to figure out a way to keep the dead air at bay. So, one of my co-workers put on a Pink Floyd album and we were covered for some time.

Pink Floyd is a classic piece of our musical heritage, we can’t deny that. I’m going to come out and say, though, that, despite their technical skill, I’ve never been a huge fan of their music. I think it’s more because their sound just doesn’t click with me, but…I digress.  I still respect them artists. The song that’s always been most prominent in my noggin when I think of Pink Floyd is Another Brick in the Wall, and one line in particular:

“We don’t need no education…”

The writer in me cringes and weeps in the corner.

I listened to a great discussion on NPR last week…and, of course, I can’t find the audio anywhere now…about artistic license for musical artists. Basically, when do we let artists get by with such atrocious grammar, and when do we not? Of course, Pink Floyd is saying something with their poor grammar…like a good poet, their meta-message is augmented by their sentence structure. And rock n’ roll, lest we forget, is an art form with its roots in rebellion against the status quo. The posture, the hair, the distorted sound and guitars in overdrive…these are all pushing back on something. Back when music had poetry in its lyrics, the language worked to convey that message, carrying with it hints for which the listener had to work to find the meaning. In short, when the grammar was bad, it was generally bad for a reason.

Now, in the interest of being objective, I’m about to sound un-objective, as you might have guessed when I said “back when music had poetry.” You can imagine, then, that I don’t hold any particular love for a great deal of modern music. The teacher being interviewed in that NPR article talks about role modeling proper grammar in music for students in the impressionable time period between high school and middle school. She was concerned about artists such as Justin Bieber and Shakira using poor grammar and hearing her students repeat it, because music is such a powerful memory aid.

Yet, so much of the music to which I listened as a child had incorrect grammar, and I turned out just fine.

Rebellion in popular music certainly hasn’t changed…there’s a lot of machine to rage against out there, and a lot of rage with which to do so. That sort of expression is one of the most important things that rock music gives us, I think. Where does artistic license begin, though, in regards to grammar in the lyrics?

I propose an answer, and that answer is at the end of ignorance. When an artist (any artist…this is apropos for the poet as well as the musician) knows a rule and then breaks it for intentional effect, that is artistic license. Beethoven wrote much of his music by breaking the rules that contemporaries such as Mozart valued so highly, and we are without a doubt richer for it.

I can’t help but think, though…and if this sounds judgmental, I’d encourage you to look at statistics…that most poor grammar in the modern music industry is the result of being uneducated.  That is, the grammar errors aren’t made for effect, they’re made out of ignorance. These kids are just looking for something that rhymes.

When artists break societal norms out of ignorance instead of with intentional purpose, then they’re not making art…they’re making excuses. I can look back on Pink Floyd’s anthem and recognize what they’re saying, and their grammar choices lead me to that. Many modern artists don’t use their grammar choices to say anything, but rather boost their popularity by using trendy expressions. The poetry, my friends, appears to be dying.

And certainly it is preceded in death by lyrics than meant anything of substance, anyway. That, though, is a topic for another day.

Playful Recollections

G.I. Joe action figures

When I was young, I played with action figures. I had both a Transformers and a G.I. Joe collection that were quite impressive. And they weren’t the only ones: my geekier friends will remember the likes of M.A.S.K., and the Super Powers collection.

There was this room in our home that experienced multiple reincarnations during the course of my childhood. It was a den, it was a guest bedroom, it was other things here and there. At one point, it became the secret mountain headquarters for the G.I. Joe team. I filled most of the room with just the good guys. There was difficulty finding somewhere else in the house to put the bad guys.

It was a modest collection.

As I grew, I made a close friend with one of the neighbors. He was older than I was a by a few grade levels, and he won me over to the world of role playing games and other things that older kids do. One day, I was playing with some of my old toys having some of my usual imaginative adventures play out. Later, my older friend was visiting and commented on the toys still laying about. He was trying not to judge, but this just wasn’t the sort of thing that older kids did.

Last week I enjoyed the final of this year’s Reith lectures, which was about finding self-fulfillment through art. And while you might guess that, as powerful as I know art to be and as much as I love talking about it, I rolled my eyes at that title, there was an important point in the lecture about how we forget to play as children play, because that is what creativity and art are at their simplest impulse: play.

Life has a way of pushing us out of the playful mindset. All of that adult responsibility sort of stuff…working hard, staying late, dressing up for work every day. I’ve experienced my lot of that, especially over the last year (although I at least don’t have to dress up any more). Even when you have the opportunity to work in a creative profession, daily life is fraught with a specific set of resulting concerns that carry an overwhelmingly burdening load at times. It’s no wonder that our creativity suffers a blow from the constraints with which we deal.

And that’s to say nothing of the other aspects of a stressful but full life…say, having a two-year-old, for example.

Looking back on that evening years ago when my friend saw those toys laying around, my feelings of embarrassment regarding being found out were seriously misplaced. I should have been proud to have toys about, in the same way that I’m proud to wear comic book t-shirts now. It has nothing to do with being part of a subculture or being a geek. It has everything to do with remembering to play.

Because that’s such a very, very important part of life.

Photo Attribution: Lunchbox Photography under Creative Commons

Crunched by the Numbers

I don’t understand business.

Really, I don’t. Besides the fact that I experience serious nausea brought about by ethics whenever I see business working from the inside, I also don’t get it when it’s me doing the business. How in the world does one calculate what one’s time is worth? Isn’t it more important to get the job done well than quickly and cheaply? Isn’t it more important to get the job done than to bill every hour?

Part of this is because I’ve spent most of my professional life working in or with the non-profit sector, so working with people whose goal is to sell things strictly for profit…well, I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand it any better when it’s my own professional services that are being invoiced.  Even when they’re being invoiced by me. A colleague once said that he had lost out on a significant amount of money in his life because he wouldn’t confront clients when they didn’t pay what was agreed. I’m not sure I wouldn’t confront if someone contractually owed me for my time, but I think I understand where he’s coming from.

All that to say, I hear people talk a lot about this concept of “return on investment.” It’s self-explanatory enough, and I understand it when we’re discussing things like products. If I buy a pair of jeans, I expect a certain lifespan out of them in order to justify the price. I use Macs (partly) because they go forever, and I get my money’s worth out of the device. I believe in “you get what you pay for.”


I don’t for a second believe that you can apply that concept to education. Years ago, I was at work talking with some colleagues about future educational plans. I mentioned that I wanted to do an MFA in writing, which was my academic goal at the time. This was as I was finishing my graduate degree in religion. The response I received was, “You don’t like going to school for things that will make you money, do you?”

This immediately brought to mind my parents’ questions (raised on multiple occasions) about what exactly that degree that I just sacrificed years for as gotten for me.

You see, I think that the education and life experience are reward enough. I think that studying the humanities and the arts have a “pay off” for us that are at least equal to the “pay off” from a narrower, more scientific or technical field of study, just in a different way. I don’t think that studying the humanities should be an endeavor motivated by earning income. I don’t think that pursuing any academic pursuit should be approached with that in mind.

Which is why this study, “8 College Degrees with the Worst Return on Investment,” which I spotted as it made its way around LinkedIn last week, really leaves me unsettled. In fact, it just leaves me disgusted. I know that someone needed to generate some copy for the site on this particular day, but if this represents our mindset about education, then the so-called “free market” really has poisoned our perspective on everything.

Let me lay aside the fact that the number one worst degree on their list, communications, was what I graduated with from undergrad. Let’s consider their other bad degrees: Fine arts, theology (both of which have been other disciplines that I’ve studied…fair enough). How about education?  Or nutrition? Do we really want fewer professionals becoming teachers because they don’t make enough after college? Perhaps people who would be wonderful educators to our children? Do we want fewer nutritionists in favor of more medications? Fewer sociologists to study the potential dangers of our actions? Really?

I know that there are a lot of complicated pieces to this puzzle. I understand that faculty must be paid well for instructing at these colleges, but tuition prices are still out of control. Salaries for the most important professions barely stay afloat while salaries for professions like finance soar with no end in sight. And, being the pragmatic, quantifying Americans that we are, we begin thinking about which fields of study will make us the most money.

I’m not opposed to studying a technical field in order to make a living (I just finished doing exactly that). I’m motivated by Karen’s story of a friend that she knew in college. She told me that when he had finished high school, he apprenticed and became a master carpenter. Then he attended a liberal arts school for his undergrad degree, paying his way with the income that he earned from carpentry. I really respect that.

Yet, if we limit our educational pursuits to the things that make us the most money, then some of the most important aspects of the human condition…the arts, spirituality, the psychology of the human mind (all listed in this article)…receive less focus. The less focus they receive, the less we understand ourselves. The less we understand ourselves, the more we are doing things just to do them, just to earn more money, just to have more things…all of which leave us ultimately empty.

That’s a not a life that I want for our cultural future. That’s not the educational mentality that I want our daughter to inherit. Articles like this do nothing helpful for students planning their college careers. They are only there to earn ad revenue for the sites that waste pixels by putting them up.

And, incidentally, most of my friends were humanities majors. We continue to make our livings just fine.

Virtual Theatre

Concert lights, attributed to iurte under Creative Commons

Sometimes I feel as though I’m glued to a computer screen way too much.

Now that I’ve changed careers for my day job, I spend most of my day in front of a computer writing code or designing page layouts. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. But I lament (as does my back after several stationary hours) the loss of the chances to be more physically active that I used to have. I’m still involved in theatre, and this is a huge outlet for me to be physically active…something that I desperately need, now. Between those two things and trying to keep some kind…any kind…of writing rhythm, I stay incredibly busy.

And I continue to be amazed at how much everything is alike in so many ways.

I listened to an interview with a web designer several months ago. She, too, had worked in theatre before beginning a career in the web, so there was immediate common ground for me there. She likened scenic design to web design, and I’m inclined to agree with her. There’s a creative component and technical component to each. The scene designer begins with sketches for what the setting of the fictional world should look like. Then, logistical issues are considered. Models are built. Working construction drawings are made, and then the lumber and drills and saws come into play as the sketches begin to take shape. Everything I know about power tools I learned in a college scene shop. In my experience in the theatre, there is almost always a technical director who oversees the construction of what the designer envisioned. He or she works off the drawings the designer provides and handles the technical details of the building.

The web designer also begins with drawings, but of a digital variety. Wireframes and prototypes are built in software like Photoshop and result in a visual model of what the website will look like. A developer then takes those prototypes and begins writing the code that will build them for your browser.

I began my theatre experiences on the technical side. I spent a lot of time doing the technical work of implementing others’ designs. I did my share of designing, as well, but me and a sketchbook were awkward companions, at best. I do the same thing for the web. I do some design work, but generally only page layouts, not real graphics work. I spend a lot of my time coding what others have designed.

Another similarity is that the web has its own sort of rehearsal process. As I write this, I’m getting ready to move a big project to a testing server for a dry run of how it will work. This is only for a select few people…the world won’t see the site until we’re settled that everything works the way that we want. It’s the Internet’s version of a dress rehearsal. A tiny audience will preview what the real event will look like before the curtain goes up on opening night.

There are a lot of other similarities, as well, too many for one post, I think. Isn’t it so fascinating, though, how different disciplines are so much alike the more one gets to know them?

Photo Attribution: iurte under Creative Commons

A Theology of Potential

I’ve never been a great lover of tradition. That’s not really breaking news to anyone who’s visited this space for very long. This fact, though, makes me a bit of a contradiction at times. One of the ways in which I push back on tradition is the way in which I feel compelled to practice my faith. This has actually caused a bit of tension at times, because Karen gravitates toward more traditional, liturgical settings, which tend to leave me dead in the proverbial water. We’re still sort of working on reconciling that.

What makes this contradictory for me is that I view a great deal of life, including my faith practices, through the lens of theatre. Theatre was the first art form in which I found a natural fit. My experiences designing, directing, and acting in different shows molded the perspective that I have on a great deal of life. I can’t separate my philosophical or theological views from that lens. Theatre is, in true Burkian fashion, the way in which I understand every other discipline that I’ve practiced.

How is that contradictory? The very liturgical practice that I find so numbing is actually quite theatrical. It is the kinesthetic acting out of different aspects of my faith during a worship service. The presentational aspects (humorously referred to as “smells and bells” by some), the orally interpretive performance of the script, the choreographed actions, all are quite theatrical at their core. So, why am I not drawn to them?

What’s interesting is that I am quite drawn to theatrical presentations in a worship setting. I spent years directing, acting, writing, and even teaching acting methods in the context of a faith community. That time taught me so much about myself and about my faith. That particular faith community presented very theatrically during a worship service, but in a different way. Sets were constructed. Lighting was designed. When the performance began, the house lights went down and the stage lights up. Every component of the morning was carefully rehearsed. I can honestly say that I had never felt so at home in a worship service prior to experiencing that.

Karen is quick to point out that the architecture in a more traditional setting…that is, a more liturgical setting…is just as theatrical, just as full of meaning. I don’t contradict that at all…it is all exploding with meaning when you learn what to look for. What bothers her about the type of setting I’ve just described as being so comfortable to me, though, is the absence of light. She thrives in the brightness of the artistry of stained glass windows, permitting the natural light from outside to bathe the congregants during the course of the worship service. The darkness of the more theatrical setting that I found so welcoming bothered her a great deal, and she pointed out that the symbolic nature of the congregants entering darkness was sort of opposed to the faith they were there to express and explore. She makes a valid point. For me, though, it was a performance venue that was, quite simply, what I knew. The darkness for the audience didn’t bother me at all.

Several weeks ago, though, I had an interesting experience. I attended a worship service at the invitation of some family members. The building was quite traditional. The windows in the sanctuary were tall and ornate, yet had been curtained off to make the sanctuary darker and assist in setting the stage for a more theatrical presentation of music and media. I was bothered by this, and actually found it to be quite a downer. This made no sense to me. A dark setting had never bothered me before. Why should it do so now?

The only conclusion to which I can arrive is that I was bothered by the absence of potential light. There was light that should have naturally been pouring through those windows, but that had been stifled. This held the same theological and symbolic trouble for me that having the audience in darkness as the house lights went down held for Karen. I’ve never been bothered by a sanctuary designed like a performance venue because I know what to expect.  There is no potential light except for what has been designed as part of the performance. The potential and the actual experience are the same. The potential of the curtained windows, though, had been cut off and never realized. I felt as though something important had been taken away, even if it took me days to determine what that had been.

Funny that I now understand experientially exactly what Karen has expressed for years since we’ve been married…even if it took a completely different experience for me to get there.