Big Fish, Small Fish

[Author's Note: Another college essay from December (New Year's Eve, no less). This one I wrote in a halfhearted and shameless stab at a scholarship to the College of Wooster, gleefully and (I believe) successfully tearing a somewhat trite prompt to thoroughly disoriented shreds. I think you'll be able to discern what the prompt was. The upshot of it all is, these four paragraphs were apparently worth $18,000 a year (or $18,000 a paragraph), and I'll be starting orientation at Wooster in less than a month. Sometimes, things turn out well.]

High school guidance counselors are proud to stand as little anchors of stability in the midst of whatever tumult might cause a student to seek them out, and no tumult is more formidable in its gravity and uncertainty than the college application process. In this, as in all things, counselors lean heavily on simple, unshakable absolutes—truisms such as “There is a college for everyone,” which is true enough, and dichotomies like “There are two kinds of colleges: small fish/big pond colleges and big fish/small pond colleges… which are you?” The latter is, by far, the more contentious point. First, I am not a college at all. I’m Dorothy Gale, from Kansas. Second, there are surely no fewer flavors of colleges than there are colleges, seeing as no two exist in parallel universes. And third, quite apart from the matter of postsecondary education, this apparently innocent question raises several questions of its own—questions that are troubling, muscular, and must be wrestled with—questions like: Can I not find a pond that directly corresponds to my size?

When I think of big ponds and the fish that would choose to swim in them, I think immediately of Jack Sparrow, wily and witty protagonist of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The fact that Jack is drawn to the biggest pond of all, the sea, even above all other pirate vices (rum, wenches, and brawling) radiates a sense of sublime self-worth. Jack’s braggadocio is ultimately a reflection of the thrills he seeks in life, a wild ambition that has far outgrown the smaller ponds of the world. The question, however, then becomes: Is Jack really a small fish in a big pond? Is he not a big fish? His conduct is perfectly outrageous; he is selfish, dishonest, vain, infamous, and lawless. When a Commodore of the English Royal Navy puts to Jack that he is “the worst pirate I have ever heard of,” Jack replies, “But you have heard of me,” speaking cheeky volumes about his size as a fish. The truth is that only a fish of considerable stature would willingly cast itself into a large pond, perhaps as a wild challenge the ordinary limitations that govern less ambitious fish.

Similarly, when I consider small ponds and big fish, I invariably think of Phish, the Vermont-based jam band (1983-2004, R.I.P.) of considerable renown. Their success, to the reasonable extent they enjoyed it, resulted from playing to a modest but rabid fan base that gradually, through word of mouth, spawned more fans. Phish got to be big fish by remaining faithful to the silly, eclectic band they wanted to be and to the small pond they occupied. Never once did they, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “open a window and make love to the world.” In another sense, however, Phish were really just four small fish: generally shy, easygoing, and unassuming. None of them aspired to the status they eventually attained, and they became far more uncomfortable with themselves as that status began to swell, hastening their eventual breakup. Fish that are truly and deeply small will only ever thrive in small ponds; let them wash out to sea and they lose their way.

Whether I’m a big fish or a small fish hardly seems to matter. Can I possibly avoid a catastrophically mismatched pond? Do they tailor ponds to be big enough to allow my dreams to breathe yet small enough to shelter my insecurities? Was this really about college all along? Ultimately, we are humans, not fish. We are courted by both risk and comfort, but only the latter preserves our mobility, forestalls a final, possibly fatal, decision. There’s no better place than the smallest pond in the world to contemplate a vast, cruel, unfathomable ocean.


In Defense of the Grateful Dead

[Author's Note: I wrote this brief essay back in December for my application to Colby College. The Rachel Carson quote is the single link to the prompt, which is why I didn't quite dare to rectify her opposing verb tenses. I thought this might serve as a good first post, as I intend to write a great deal about the Grateful Dead and other music/art with somewhat selective appeal—for all that, this is an exposition, an appreciation, and a defense.]

There’s this very common joke: What did the Deadhead say when the drugs ran out? Punch line: This music sucks! I’ve always found this joke rather tiresome, and not only as a slur on music I love; like most jokes that operate on wild stereotyping, it clearly doesn’t reflect much knowledge of its subject. Plenty of Grateful Dead (1965-95, R.I.P.) concertgoers avoided the drug scene altogether—most fans were there for the music. And no one who gives the music a ready ear can call it anything but what it is—vibrant, bold, and heartfelt. In fact, the first adjective I associate with the Grateful Dead is beautiful.

Certainly, their songs have an obvious beauty, built as they were on warm harmonies, memorable progressions, rich instrumentation, and considerable sentiment. The Grateful Dead weren’t out to shatter traditional songwriting forms. Many compositions even have an antiquated feel, like they might have stepped out of a sepia photograph. From the shimmering ebullience of “Eyes of the World” to the exhausted pathos of “Brokedown Palace,” beauty abounds.

But there is another type of beauty—a wilder, more elusive species—that was the heart and soul a Grateful Dead concert. When Rachel Carson observed that “one way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I have never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” she might easily have been referring to the Grateful Dead. The magic of the concert experience was not chemicals—it was a shared understanding between performers and audience that they were opening their eyes to beauty, to something in a passing moment that could be grasped only once before it was gone. The loose structure of concerts allowed the band to explore the deepest crevices of each song, as well as the space between songs, and at every show this attention to the moment blossomed in something beautiful and unique. Take one night’s (9/21/72) segue between “Dark Star” and “Morning Dew”—after twenty minutes chasing tricky, undulating jazz, the band suddenly find themselves in a crystalline, sparkling bluegrass jam. The spontaneity of it is like sunrise. In thirty years, the band played 2,317 concerts, and no two are alike. The moment is there, and then it’s gone.

Fortunately, the Grateful Dead came along at just the right crossroads of technology—they were playing to an audience, not to a studio engineer, but since recording equipment was nearly always on hand, many of their concerts were preserved for future listeners. A quick comparison between the rough-hewn spark of these tapes and the relative sterility of their studio work further affirms the essentiality of live performance. The Grateful Dead were built on that oldest relationship between artist and audience—sharing one space at the same time—in a century where the two grew ever farther apart.