What do the Upanishads, the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and Carl Sagan have in common?

They were all sources of readings at the Tufts Baccalaureate Service, which took place the day before its commencement.

A baccalaureate service is explicitly religious, so the inclusion of Sagan is interesting — especially since Tufts doesn’t appear to have a Humanist Chaplaincy (as Harvard does).  I have no insight into the process for deciding what quotes to include, the order of the quotes, who gets to read them, etc. The sequence was chronological, so Sagan came last.  So we begin with the Upanishads asking for us to be led from fear of death to the knowledge of immortality, later we have the New Testament telling us to lay up treasures in Heaven, and finally we have this bracing piece of wisdom for the graduates:

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence.  Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability is to look Death in the eye and be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Good for Tufts!

Scenes from a commencement

Sunday was the157th commencement of Tufts University.  And kid number one was part of it!

The Tufts mascot is Jumbo the elephant, because P. T. Barnum was an early benefactor.  Here’s a statue of Jumbo:

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And here’s how we painted our garage doors to celebrate the commencement:

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Tom Brady attended the B.U. commencement, but hey, we got B. J. Novak from “The Office”!  His brother was graduating.

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Here is our graduate with some of his fraternity brothers, gazing off into the unimaginable future:

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Here is the basement of the fraternity house, a scene of unimaginable decadence and squalor:

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I’d include a photo of their bathroom, but I might face sanctions from WordPress.

Here is James with his Arabic professor.  I don’t recall professors like this in my day.

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Congratulations to James, and Jumbo, and B. J. Novak’s brother, and everyone!

Quidditch on the Quad

We had beautiful weather for Parents’ Weekend at Tufts.  As is often the case with these things, the best times were those you didn’t expect — in this case, we got to watch an intramural quidditch game on the quad behind the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.  It was my first quidditch game ever.

Here’s the autumnal scene:

Here’s some great quidditch action:

And here’s my kid.  First time I’ve seen him with a broom between his legs, I think.  Also, the first time he played quidditch.

And here is the winning squad:

This was supposed to be the team from my kid’s fraternity.  As you can tell, there were a few ringers.  And they were great!

The game was pretty serious — there was a referee plus two goal judges — but not that serious — James learned the rules during the practice before the game.

It was interesting watching a game where you have no idea what the rules are.  Quidditch felt like a combination of rugby and dodgeball.  I could tell that one of the four balls was special — that was the one you threw through the rings, but I couldn’t tell what was going on with the other three balls.  This is what my lovely wife must feel like when she actually pays attention to a game–like, say, the Superbowl–and she keeps asking me: “Wait a second — what just happened?  Why are you yelling at the TV?”

Today I went back to Tufts and listened to a lecture by the philosopher Ray Jackendoff on the cognitive structure of baseball that I found pretty interesting after watching the game.  (You can watch an earlier version of the lecture from his home page.)  A game, he says, has a physical sphere — in this case, people running around with brooms between their legs, throwing balls at people and occasionally tackling them.  That was mostly what I perceived as I watched the quidditch match.

Beyond that is the abstract sphere that encompasses the rules of the game.  The rules tell the players (and the referee and the spectators) what you can and cannot do with the balls and the brooms, and what you can and cannot do to your opponents.  Beyond the rules in the abstract sphere is strategy.  In baseball, for example, what constitutes a walk is a rule; an intentional walk represents strategy.  I could make out a few of the rules of quidditch from one viewing, but I couldn’t come close to detecting any strategy.  (James told me that I wasn’t going to discover any strategy from looking at him; he was mainly just running around.)

Long ago Mike Nichols and Elaine May did some hilarious animated commercials for Narragansett Beer.  One of the best of them–which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be on YouTube–has Elaine May’s character trying to be a baseball announcer.  If we use Jackendoff’s structure, the joke is that she only knows enough to announce the physical sphere: “The man with the ball throws the ball.  And now the man with the bat hits the ball.  And now he starts to run!  And the man with the glove catches the ball and throws it to another man with a glove!”  (Somewhere in the ad the Narragansett jingle showed up.)

The fun of being a sports fan is to know enough about the sport to think about it at the strategic level–like three of us at the gym later talking about whether a football team should go for a two-point conversion late in the game.  We’re all experts!

I doubt that I’ll ever become an expert at quidditch.  Guess I’m just a Muggle.