My LEGO Rant

Whenever my wife and I are fortunate enough to walk through the air conditioned aisles of a Target (most recently on road trips between Santa Barbara and Sacramento in an attempt to lull our five-month-old to sleep) there comes a moment when Jess, without even looking at me and in her off-handed way, asks that I spare her the ritual of "my LEGO rant". Since I've subjected my family and many of my friends to this particular topic to no avail, I've now decided to unleash it upon the Internet, that rollicking sea of discursive opinion.

(The embryo of this rant already appeared in a previous post entitled "The Merest Set of Blocks" where I hold LEGOs up as an example of "life creating" play. The current post takes its departure from this idea, problematizing current trends in LEGOs and drawing out some criticisms and observations.)

Here it goes: LEGOs are a type of toy that allows the literal construction of Tolkienesque co-created worlds. Yet as I roam Target (Jess is probably meanwhile looking at patterned workout pants), I become concerned by what I see as a development in LEGOs that would seem to fundamentally limit the toy's creative power. I'm talking about the overwhelming presence of specifically marked, franchise characters and worlds. In other words, why all the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel comics?

I see these sets as a problem when I compare them with more basic, unmarked sets from the 90s: City, Space, Medieval, Pirates, etc. These older genres seem to offer the perfect balance of marked specificity and unmarked generality. They have enough connection to a widely-known and accepted, constructed world to give basic parameters for play, basic rules and norms. But at the same time the genres are loose enough to allow for the widest possible variation and manipulation.

Take for example the following, common City character: Body design (black with pockets and silver badge), face (smile with black shades), helmet (white with clear visor), and vehicle (white motorcycle with radio antennas and "police" on the side). All these things mark this figure as a police officer on a motorcycle. Certain generic rules come into play as soon as this concept is accepted: the "good guy" role, power relations to "bad guys" and "innocent City dwellers", the narrative of the "high speed pursuit", etc. But these rules can easily be bent, challenged, or otherwise problematized. Is he the hero? The sidekick? A husband? A father? A son? Happy with his job? Overworked and mentally unstable? Does he have a dark and obscure past? Does he have a criminal brother who pits family against justice? Is he a cop by day and freelance web designer by night? There's nothing to stop you from pretending that the cop is really a criminal in disguise. Or he's in a Halloween costume. Or he's a displaced cyborg from the future. Or a displaced knight from the past. It can be almost whatever you want! You could even insert him into another context; with a little imagination and the addition and subtraction of a few choice pieces he could be a Scout Trooper on a Speeder Bike. (I may or may not have done exactly that as a child...)

Specificity meets possibility. LEGOs and genre at their best!

Not so, I argue, with the franchise sets. Everything here is heavily marked. The "Indiana Jones" figurine isn't just any "good guy". He's Harrison Ford. He's a specific persona built upon a solid and controlled tradition of movies and books and video games. He has his own soundtrack. He has specific catch phrases, personality traits, and accouterments. He comes preloaded with certain relationships towards women, snakes, Nazis, his father, America, collegiate teaching, epistemology, mysticism, the use of force, etc. 

Similarly, whoever "Malekith the Accursed" is (I say as I walk through the LEGO aisle in Target perusing the available sets), he obviously has unique characteristics, a specific story and a point of view that puts him into relationship with other characters within his world. If one is unfamiliar with these things, there is a risk of using him "incorrectly". (A lesson I learned with certain "Ninjago" figurines while playing with my nephews.)

I'm not arguing that specificity is in and of itself negative. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others have all created rich worlds that have had a lasting effect on our culture in important ways. I'm also not saying that the mixture of genres (eg. "Indiana Jones" having tea with "Darth Vader" in a "castle" with "Iron Man" playing saxophone in the background) is impossible or undesirable or bad. The LEGO Movie in particular uses genre mixture in a particularly powerful, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque way, that reveals the need for reassessment of meta-narratives both in fantasy and reality. I am saying that the specificity of this overly-marked characterization limits the possibility inherent in LEGOs as toys. Their worlds are pre-constructed and much less open to manipulation. And this manipulation is what truly makes LEGOs great.

Co-creation vs. participation. Light generic marking vs. meta-narratives. Open vs. limited.

Obviously any rant is fraught with loopholes and problems. Perhaps I betray my ignorance of the Marvel multiverse, or my dissatisfaction with Peter Jackson's adaptation of LOTR. Perhaps I see limitations where others see potentialities. Perhaps I betray my jealousy of today's purple bricks, the pre-made "Darth Vader" helmets (I had to use the visored knight helmet for that character), the cannons that actually shoot. ("Today's youth don't know how good they have it!" says the old man.) But, also, perhaps I've touched upon something that speaks directly to the fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

What do you think?


Baby Songs

Today my daughter, Penelope, turns four months old. Many life-changing things have happened since that day — for instance I am currently writing this post with my left hand alone, a skill I've become somewhat proficient at, as my right hand is preoccupied with calming an infant whose sleep regression threatens to startle her awake.

Milestones like this allow the opportunity to consider the passage of time. Time with an infant is complicated, demanded, constrained, but also expanded, inverted, and even negated. (Parents will understand what I mean.) As music is a temporal art form that moves through time, it's interesting to note what being a new father has done to my perception of and dealings with music. I'll keep my musings limited to music directed at Penny, to infant music, specifically the what and the why.

What: We sing to Nelly. (Yes, she has at least three names and a variety of nicknames.) What we sing most is a variety of nonsense songs with simple, metrically regular melodies taken from just about anywhere (SpongeBob, Protestant hymns, Spice Girls, Mexican folk songs) or improvised. The words, when they make sense at all, are topical and specific to the moment ("Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! Who's got a wet diaper? It is you! etc."). I also find delight in singing songs from a variety of sources that I have come across and enjoy for a variety of historical, linguistic, or musical reasons. True to my form, they are mostly not in English:

  • Italian arias like A. Scarlatti's "Già il sole dal Gange"
  • Eighteenth-century German Lieder such as Zelter's setting of Klopstock's "Das Rosenband"
  • Knipper's "Polyushke Polye"
  • Selections from Schumann's Liederalbum für die Jugend ("Frühlingsgruß" and "Schlaraffenland")
  • The medieval chant "Ave Maria"
  • French marching songs like "Au jardin du mon père"
  • Selections from Gay's The Beggar's Opera ("Oh, what pain it is to part")
  • And several Gàidhlig songs such as "'Illean bithibh sunndach," "Fear a' bhàta," and "Tha mi sgith".
Why: What is our purpose for singing to our four-month-old? Cognitive development? Language acquisition? Enculturation and socialization? There are a lot of literatures and opinions out there about what music for infants should be about, what is appropriate and what is not. As a music scholar I find it all rather daunting, and as a parent I find it downright overwhelming. So I've come to my own personal conclusion that the reason I sing to my infant daughter is simply because I enjoy it. It's fun! Singing marks the passage of time with an immediacy and vivacity that we usually don't notice in the daily humdrum of life.  Singing is about making time intentional and noting its preciousness. It pauses "ordinary time" and enters into "special time."

It's also communicative. This may seem counterintuitive; I do realize that Penny understands neither the nonsense songs, nor the foreign language songs, nor the English ones for that matter. She can't speak. But because she can't speak, it's all music at this point: melody and rhythm and consonants and vowels. And what I believe comes across through music's sheer musicality is simply a parent's affection for their child. Without words to get in the way, I believe that Nelly can somehow, on some level, be aware of my fatherly affection for her. This is why instead of singing songs that have at some point been categorized as "children's songs," I sing songs that I enjoy, like Gàidhlig folk songs or Soviet era pseudo-folk songs. I enjoy these pieces, they fill my heart with joy, and by singing those sorts of songs to my infant I practice sharing a deep part of my soul with her. In pouring forth my voice, I expose her to my vulnerability and enthusiasm and desire to connect at simple yet deep levels.

I'll end by saying that Penelope has recently begun to "vocalize;" she sings back to us. Sometimes her songs communicate specific desires or needs, but other times she seems to be singing for the sheer fun of it. At these moments she sounds like a tiny, shrieking Nazgûl, but I'm guessing something more joyful is in her heart.


One Moment to Breathe

Today a year ago my wife and I discovered that we were pregnant. Forty-some weeks after that Jess birthed our sweet, little wonder, Penelope, a healthy, feisty, strong infant with bright, blue eyes. In the three and a half months since we brought Penny home, Jess and I have been privy to a constant spectacle of discovery: smiles, car rides, lip-quivering cries of fear versus ear-splitting cries for attention. Jess and I are both more exhausted than we have ever been and we are grateful to those who have helped us and stood with us through this challenging, life-transforming time.

I am hoping to have some time this summer to write more often. Penny's arrival came at the very end of a year-long battle with COMPS, and actually overlapped with me creating and presenting a "Music Appreciation" course for a summer session at UCSB. There hasn't been much time. :)

Next time I will be continuing my coverage of my adventures in parenting by talking about music for infants. What is its purpose? What type of music is preferable?

See you then.


This Woman!

Today Jessica Roy turns thirty! That's right—this woman!

For all those of us who have known Jess, there is so much to celebrate! I count myself wildly blessed to have made her acquaintance just over ten years ago and for a decade's worth of beautiful adventures, challenging ordeals, and unexpected surprises.

I have found that much of what we try to learn in life, those important words or concepts or ideas, actually cannot be fully or even adequately understood aside from real experience. The word "friend" accrues new meaning when one experiences fierce, sensitive, and compassionate companionship. The word "laughter" is immediately contextualized by a plethora of remembered giggles, guffaws, snorts, and happily tear-stained faces. "Forgiveness" is no longer an idealized moralism, but a hard choice, a deep, heavenly breath. "Beauty" blooms in variegated hues. "Resilience" has a face and serious attitude. "Motherhood" shines in the dark night. "Conversation" seeks connection on candle-lit nights and cross-country car rides. "Love" is the curve of a smile and encircling arms. "Honesty" gracefully knocks down walls.

All these words I have experienced, I actually have lived, because of Jessica. And she continues to teach. She gives of herself richly, passionately. I can't wait to see what the next decade has in store for her and for her family which she blesses so much.

Happy Birthday, Jessica!


Buccaneer Academia

The reader of these pages should not look for detailed documentation of every word. In treating of the general problems of culture one is constantly obliged to undertake predatory incursions into provinces not sufficiently explored by the raider himself. To fill in all the gaps in my knowledge beforehand was out of the question for me. I had to write now, or not at all. And I wanted to write.
These are the concluding words of the Forward to the 1950 English translation of Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938). They jump out at me not only due to their style of writing but to their sentiment. Regardless of any purported translation deficiencies, this combination of colorful imagery, conversational style, and personal voice, all of which continue into the body of book, turn a complex sociological argument into (dare I say it?) playful literature. This is the sort of writing that makes Arthur Loesser's Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History (1954) so delightful. His description of the state of Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia has an undeniable snarkiness to it.
The violence had ceased now, but generations of small, mean living were ahead. Germany was broken: irrevocably split down the middle religiously, and politically shattered into three hundred fragments. Some of these were sizable realms such as the Kingdom of Saxony or the Kingdom of Bavaria, but most were pintsized principalities—"duodecimo states" they were contemptuously called later. Some had curious names that came unscrewed in the middle, such as Schwarzburg-Sonderhausen, Oettingen-Wallerstein, or Schaumburg-Lippe. Each was headed by an absolute sovereign princelet, who owed a theoretical and ceremonial allegiance to a Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, but who in practice did pretty much as he pleased with his domain. Each strutted about, affectionately coddling his ornamental army, his hunting apparatus, and his little orchestra.
Pieter Brugel the Elder "Children's Games" (1560)
Going back to Huizinga's example, I also appreciate the way in which he embraces incompletion or openendedness, and highlights the tension between intellectual objectivity and the pragmatism of putting pen to paper. True, it is possible that such sentences may simply be attempts to cover up sloppy or lazy scholarship. Or it could be a simultaneous application of scholarly bravery and humility. Based on the importance of Huizinga's work for later scholars in this area, I would hazard a guess that we are here dealing with the later. The sociologist Norbert Elias also falls into this category for me, with such seminal works as The Civilizing Process (1939) painting in broad and intelligent strokes while avoiding extreme or totalizing statements or conclusions.
  • What writers and styles of writing do you admire? Why?
  • What writers and styles of writing do you dislike? Because it's too pedantic? Too familiar?
  • As I look forward to a life of academic study, I hope that I can find the proper balance between research and writing. How do you negotiate this tension? Goals? Assessments?
  • When do you consider yourself ready and what gets you to that state? Mentors? Peers? Liquid courage?
Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations. Hoboken: Wiley, 2000.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950.
Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women and Pianos. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954.
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