Musica universalis and me

Pete, my best friend from college, used to teasingly call me “the man with a thousand hobbies.” Perhaps “a thousand” overstates it a bit, but I will admit to having a variety of interests. Most of these interests would likely be curious to the uninitiated.

For a long time I worried that people might color me a dilettante — one who cultivates an area of interest, without real commitment or knowledge. Since most of my pursuits are undertaken either with the like-minded or in solitude, I’m increasingly okay that the general public might not get the appeal.

A short enumeration of my current passions explains it best. While living in New York, I started studying a martial art called iaido. The mechanical goal of iaido is to perfect the drawing of and cutting with a samurai sword.

You could probably teach a monkey to yank a sword out of a saya (scabbard) and hack something with it. This isn’t that. This is a beautifully distilled dance of death, each tiny motion controlled, precise and elegant.

This precision is best exemplified by instruction I once received from a very high ranking Japanese sensei. He said nothing. He walked past as I was performing a kata. He raised his hand. I stopped — frozen. He took the long wooden stick he’d been using “pedagogically” and pushed my left foot inward about two centimeters. He then looked at my face, which must have clearly read “oh, I understand now.”

I find this same kind of pleasing detail in music. I played music all through school. For the past couple of years I have been studying ukulele. Yes, ukulele. I am happy to report that there’s something of a ukulele renaissance going on all over the world. Just Google the name, Jake Shimabukuro, and you’ll see that this instrument is no longer the exclusive purview of Tiny Tim and Hawaiian tourists.

Music of any kind requires precision. Even if that precision leads to seeming chaos, somewhere in there a structure exists. It has rules. It has logic. It has order.

The most beautifully defiant spin on these rules can be found in modern jazz.

Combining the two things, jazz and the ukulele (which is a very old idea), often leads to some unpredictable and interesting places — sometimes cacophonic places, but interesting, nonetheless. Kathleen and the dogs might beg to differ.

What both these passions share is a quest for understanding structure. This same fascination has led down other rabbit trails as well… origami, knot tying, furniture building… at their essence all driven by pattern and process.

This is probably the reason I became a scientist. Science is almost a formal license to study structure. Not surprisingly, the kind of criminology I practice is strongly informed by computer models and statistics.

This is the point, however, where the train gets off the rails. The models that interest me most are those generated by physicists and theoretical mathematicians. They’re also the kind of models most criminologists don’t use.

Perhaps they should. When we frame things in terms of natural geometries, harmonics and physical processes, the great order of being presents itself to us. It’s also the place where the aesthetic of iaido, music and social theory come together. More importantly, these consistencies are the places where I see the hand of God at work.

That to me is the most pleasing paradox: purely secular pursuits become transcendent when viewed in the broader universal context. This also brings us back to that ugly and judgmental term: dilettante — the superficial dabbler. That’s the modern implication of the term. I prefer to think of its Italian (and therefore Latin) origins. The root word is delectare — to please.

Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at