OP-EDS

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May 15, 2009

Bagpipe dreams

In a world of uncertainty, there will always be bagpipes to mark the big events.

Life is nasty, brutish, and short—or maybe not, but that was the part of my photocopied Sosc reading last year that the professor triple-underlined. He was a disciple of some strange kind of geometry, and each class he felt compelled to spend the time scribbling stray nouns on the chalkboard, frantically encasing them in shapes, and then drawing jagged lines, arrows, squiggles, and dots between, around, and through them. At the end of each class, it looked as though Pablo Picasso had risen from the dead to orally direct an interpretive sketching of Hegel’s complete works to a blind man who had only a vague grasp of Spanish. So a triple underline really meant something.

I knew each time that somewhere, deep in that social-scientist jungle of theories and syllogisms and words like “effervescence,” lay alternately the meaning of life and the right answer to the midterm essay prompt. That box connects to that circle via this triangle, which at some point was crossed off by the arrow to the parallelogram, which itself was engulfed in what was definitely a hieroglyph-filled trapezoid: Q.E.D! Or was that the square over there? And what did the double squiggle through the oval mean? And…was that word written upside-down? Strewn across the chalkboard was a 15-dimensional diagram of what it all means—really, truly means—and I didn’t have a clue how to make sense of it.

But “nasty, brutish, and short”—that was something I could understand. The Chicago winter makes two of those things thoroughly comprehensible; the other at least makes sense in terms of what the time between all our semester-school friends finishing finals last Friday and the end of our own finals four weeks from now is not. It’s the kind of judgment of humanity that leaves you scrambling for lifetime benchmarks to cut things into discernible pieces, to determine once and for all what marked the really important along the way: the hospital visits, the bouquets, the non-refundable deposits. The bagpipes.

I’ve got to confess something now: Someday, there will be bagpipes at my funeral. It’s not because I particularly like them or because it’s the only apparent Highland heritage that has trickled down to me other than freckles and a last name with two capitals. A lot of my family has at some point been a part of a pipe band, and every couple of years we drive to the Scottish Highland Games to listen to bagpipes and watch grown men hurl logs across fields. It’s a rinse-and-repeat thing—I’m not sure I love bagpipes, but they’re always there, forever resurfacing amongst a sea of kilts and haggis to mark the passing of a summer or bachelorhood. They’ve become a sort of bookend.

And it’s not just for me. spring convocation is coming up, and, as always, the University will serenade the graduates with a bagpipe march. It’s a nod to the fact that less than four years ago, the same group of students was shuffling along behind a similar pipe band on the first day of O-Week. It’s a tradition, but in truth, it’s only a gesture to a gesture: It is a tradition because the University made it a tradition, and the mirror image of the second march only reflects the ceremony-minded forethought of administrators.

But it’s good, I think, to know some things for certain. Life might be nasty, brutish, and short, but I know two things about my funeral: I will be dead, and there will be bagpipes. And the University makes sure we all know something about our college educations: They will begin and end with bagpipes. The chalkboard diagram of life is a confusing one, but one thing at least is guaranteed—the word “bagpipes” is triple-underlined.

Claire McNear is a second-year in the College majoring in political science. She is a Viewpoints Editor.