Monday, February 26, 2007

Of Genius

I’m sitting on the stairs of the crowded balcony of the Peter Jay Sharpe Theatre at the Julliard School of Music watching the pre-college orchestra perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85. Philo Lee, a young Yo Yo Ma, has just flashed a quick smile at an inappropriate spontaneous burst of applause midway through the movement. He wipes his lift hand on his tuxedo pants adjusts his cello and prepares to fly through the Adagio, his hands flitting across the strings with the fluid grace of a Confucian sage quoting the Analects with ink and brush on rice paper. Philo is as good as any cellist I have ever seen perform. The program says he volunteers at his church as the conductor of the church orchestra. He is 16.

Edward Said tells us that even those we proclaim to be geniuses actually only function as such based on how they can reconfigure the ideas and works of those that came before them. Genius is expanding the boundaries of what is possible based on what was previously permitted. It is manipulating the rules of our semiotic configuration in such a way as to distill fresh images out of the dumb purblind face of the given. So Philo is perhaps less a genius and more a prodigy. His genius has been his ability to internalize the landscape of music in such a short amount of time. His gift seems impossible, and to some degree it probably is, because I will never play cello like that (or even at all).

The music is good. It is nice to see 14-year-old Chinese girls unconsciously swaying to the music as they cradle their violins. It’s fun to hear them shriek like a flock of seagulls (?) (like only American teenage girls can) when the composer, Tudor Dominick Maican, of the first piece of the evening – La, ou la mer rencantre le ciel, comes out to take a bow. Tudor has been composing for 13 years now. He’s 18. I hope that being named “Amazing Child of the Year 2001” by NBC doesn’t fatten his head and stop him from hearing the music he can make. Because the music is good.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


"one may have thousands of friends, but only one love-mate. for if i say ‘two’ i have started to count and there is no end to it. there is only one real number: One. and love, apparently, is the best exponent of this singularity." –Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve been trying to think of odd people or experiences I’ve encountered over the last week or so and I haven’t come up with much other than the odd homeless man here and the father of modern linguistics there. I’ve been thinking that in my effort to detail the quotidian landscape of my life I may be ignoring the elephant in the room: Jennifer.

Jennifer turned 27 this week, Friday actually. I’m happy that she has been with us this long already. It seems that my life began with her; perhaps, because life without her is less imaginable then a Telurian’s camping tent on a mountain in the moon (which is you stop and think about it is exceedingly strange, so white and bright just hanging there glowing in the dark – but life in the universe is weird). Jennifer is not weird though, really, she is hard to figure out sometimes but not weird. She is the most sensible person I know. And she’s cute too, most of the time, and beautiful sometimes too.

I took her to watch a documentary about female blue jean factory workers in China at MOMA but the film was sold out so we went to the midrange Thai/Sushi place on 51st Street and ate sushi and green curry until it was gone and the wine-sopping men next to us upped their antics and their volume and Jennifer was happy because of the sushi and the books and Monteverdi tickets and other found items I had given her and because she knew she could sleep for a very long time the next day. “Besides being with you,” she said, “Sleeping-in is the best birthday present ever.”

Here are some of the things I like about Jennifer: I like that she can spell hard words out loud on demand, that she can memorize long numbers – like my library card number, that she likes good friends and has a good family, that she made a recipe grid, that she eats good food, that she cries when she watches documentaries about Haiti, that she “makes up” sentences in Chinese, that she likes to help small children whose parents are busy or gone and elderly women whose children are busy or gone, that she remembers to make special small people feel special on their birthdays, that she likes to tell me everything and listen to me too, that she cries when humans who commit murders are hanged, she gets mad when women she knows are mistreated, I like Jennifer because she is always so grateful when I wash the dishes, or cook or clean the bathroom, I like that sometimes she asks questions like “how do they make vinegar?” or “how do they get gas to gas stations?” or “do you realize that all of these people actually picked out the coats they’re wearing – that they thought ‘this coat looks the best’?” I like that watching a man chew something with his eyes closed across the subway platform just gets funnier and funnier, I like that she lets a backrub fix just about anything.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Our Position

“Merle Burkholder's response went beyond a challenge. [It] provoked me to look at my lifestyle for ways I need to change.”

“Jonathon Sauder gave an hour long response (sic) as well. Sauder spoke on a lot of different topics. Milo Zehr and John D Martin both were quoted as saying they could not keep up with all the things that he was trying to say.” –Seth

Conservative Mennonites are to a large extent non-literate. Not that they can’t read, but their faith and practice is not text-based as much as it is based on the spoken word (bear with me as I try to fit my world into Walter Ong's short little book Orality and Literacy). Our standards are not defined as much with writing as with words of time-honored wisdom from mom and dad, ministers and other members of our circle of the “we”; this, and our own reaction to the living Word. Our faith is not shaped to a large extent by a “self-guided tour of the graveyard of western philosophy . . . and the greenhouse of third quest historical Jesus studies,” rather it’s based on what we hear, see, feel, and otherwise sense. This is a limiting but, in the long view or at least the present one, an extremely good thing in a world over-populated with over-stimulation and under-engaged fat-headed people.

Maybe this is why Merle’s anecdote-laced, descriptive, experience-based 35 minutes went over better than Jonathan Sauder’s rapid-fire, satire-laced, text-based analysis of the 400 year old historical discourse of Anabaptist non-resistance/preacmaking. Merle quoted largely from his own experiences and the patterns of communication and action he has observed in his time; Jonathan cited libraries, museums, and archives whose collective (yet dead) knowledge he has fit together into a complex puzzle of human History in the web of footnotes in his mind (brought to life by speech!). Interestingly, though both presentations ended up at very similar positions: that war and violence can never be justified now that Jesus has died, that nationalist politics are a waste of time if not anti-Christ, and that we are to act locally to bring about shalom globally – the crowd was enamored by one and baffled by the other. One spoke into their lives and the other was too abstract, too deep, too broad, too fancy – Sauder was singing songs with fast notes. I love fast notes; Jonathan Sauder's presentation was the most compelling case for following Jesus I have ever heard!

I thought the combination of orality and literacy I heard and saw at Faith Builders was intriguing if not sensational. It seems to me that if we can mix both traditions, orality and literacy – telling the living epic of peacemaking Mennonites following Jesus with a radical reading of the often power-distorted history and theology of Mennonites in the world – we have a very good chance of pulling off what all of us really want: to truly follow Jesus. I said earlier that our lack of literacy is limiting, because
reading the literature is essential to the exploration and retention of intellectual and theological history: the deeply abstract matters of faith and philosophy can not be retained exactly by sounds that vanish before they are understood and cease to make the same sense outside of the time-space in which they are enacted. Placing texts from different times and spaces side-by-side allows us to systematically map out the ways in which the vagaries of power-fear and sloth among other things have caused us to drift from our First Things. By aligning our presents with our pasts we can imagine ourselves in our futures.

As Merle told us, far too often we define ourselves by what we don’t do rather then what we do; or, we define ourselves in opposition to Others outside the circle of the “we.” It’s time I think “we” step out of our comfortable churches, out of the narcissism of small differences, and into the real world where all of us are human, consciously aware, subjects made in the image of God. This is the sort of religious faith I can get excited about: a dynamic, living, yet wise and profoundly sure, world-transforming faith.

NOTE: Merle is not his real name. Neither is Ezra.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Stunt Riders

Late night D trains from Coney Island are good for tricks of various types: