On Grad School, Collegium Cantorum, and Costa Rica

This is what I’ve been up to from the 20th up till now. Enjoy.

1. Some of you have been asking about grad school, and my participation in choir (Collegium Cantorum) has been a large part of my time there.

My graduate school, which I’m very proud of, is the University of Dallas. Most of the students there are incredibly pious, and the curriculum is a throwback one – the undergrads have a core curriculum where everyone has to read the Illiad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Republic, Ethics, the Bible Confessions, Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, the Federalist. This extends even to the grad school: I took the undergrad core classes over at the grad level and related the work I did there to the additional courses I had about politics.

So anyway, the point of telling you all this is that UD has a slight problem: How exactly does an intellectually rigorous school with a strong pious element find something to represent it? The core is too hard for sports teams to flourish beyond the intramural level. The religious element seems like it is non-descript, but in a world where people need The Golden Compass to tell them what the magisterium is, a Catholic school like this one is rather unique.

2. Into that void, I think, steps in Collegium. It’s a choir that sings the polyphonic Mass settings the Church used to use, as well as Gregorian chant. There’s nothing dumb about Collegium, and it is intensely religious. As far as I’m concerned, it is the ambassador for UD, although my graduate school – Braniff – is doing an excellent job of representing the school too.

I will criticize Collegium a lot in what follows. But make no mistake: I think what it does is unique, a great good, I’m proud to be a member, I think everyone there is a gem in their own way, and I wish y’all could support my school and Collegium in some way. And some of the members I’m most critical of privately have done lots of wonderful things for me, and I wish them the best, I really do.

I also want to be clear that everyone in Costa Rica was very friendly and kind, the environment was clean and beautiful, and that I really admire the people I met there. Any criticisms or thoughts about “things might not be perfect there” that are below should be taken with a grain of salt.

3. Collegium decided they’d have an alumni trip to Costa Rica this year – one of our own was getting married there, and the idea was to fly down and sing the wedding. So I flew from Jersey to Dallas, stayed there with a friend before the trip. I arrived on the last day of exams for people in courses, caught up with a number of grad school friends doing their coursework and some profs. Had a blast while in Dallas with the friend- watched “Live Free or Die Hard” and cheered on the villains and laughed when Bruce Willis shot himself to kill the bad guy. Caught up on anime somewhat. Played Wii. Ate very well. Those were the days from the 20th-26th. I also started rereading Romeo and Juliet and read a paper on that, and wrote a few of the blog entries on here (i.e. the slippery slope thing).

4. I was actually dreading the trip to Costa Rica. The more pious elements of Collegium and I get along enough, but I never have a group, strictly speaking, that I hang with. The last person I spent significant time with in Collegium was an atheist and we went back and forth on whether UD works or not. He’s left choir and I miss him.

The flight to Costa Rica sucks for most everyone. The flight in the airport is delayed, the flight on the flight is delayed, we had been practicing some on the 27th and nearly all the 28th and were exhausted as a choir before all the delays. Everyone else in choir is settling into their factions and getting comfy in their own way while being stressed.

When I’m on the plane, I see this girl that I think has a really cute manner about her and is really feminine despite having a countercultural edge. I notice she writes in French. So I start speaking to her in French. She tells me she’s at the Sorbonne, studies German, loves poetry (and for some strange reason, the TV show “Friends”). Her smile is infectious. We exchange contact info and she’s really tired and she sleeps on the plane. I write and give her a note for her to open while backpacking in Costa Rica or later that contains some poems in English I thought she might like to have on-hand.

Collegium watches all of this unfold. I think I got a compliment directly/indirectly from two people exactly – they’re the people I complimented 2 entries ago, and one other was helpful while I was talking to her. The group is 35 and there are about 10 members in my area of the plane. One gentleman from choir asks me later what I was doing talking to someone who was clearly a lesbian. I am so hoping this girl keeps up and we get married just because of that statement.

5. In Costa Rica, we didn’t know the language except for a few of our members, who have to translate for the choir and chant directors (and when we’re ordering food, 31 other people) all the time. The food was consistently excellent, and everyone we meet was pretty friendly. Emphasis on “we meet.” Lots of businesses were closed, and we were told most Costa Ricans were at the shore for the New Year’s holiday. Furthermore, I’ve mentioned that “TLC” graffiti, which was accompanied by something that said “no gringo businesses” (h/t Damien), was everywhere. I wonder if the bad service we got our last night in Costa Rica was a product of resentment.

There is almost no way to calm a 3rd world to the 1st world resentment, when I think about it. The issue isn’t me as an individual in the 3rd world, but rather my kids. When libertarians argue that “these penny wage jobs are all people have,” and ignore the despots and their cronies who excel at keeping people in poverty through what could be our well-meaning capitalism, they miss the bigger picture. If you told me my children should have inferior opportunities to other children in the world because of circumstance, I’d tear you limb from limb regardless of whether you were telling the truth or not.

On the way to the hotel, there weren’t any glaring examples of poverty – I didn’t see any beggars and not much trash, actually, my whole time in Costa Rica. But still, on that first ride, I got the feeling “these people have nothing.” There were some nice buildings in the darkness we drove through (I think we got into Costa Rica around midnight, I had been up since 5 that morning to get packed and sing), but also narrow, disorganized roads, and the usual buildings with the corrugated iron roofs whose practicality I don’t understand. We get to the hotel and it is a bright gleaming white fortress with a 10 foot high wall – at least – and a garden that’s larger than several towns I’ve been in.

6. Our first Mass we sung was at the San Jose Cathedral on the 29th. It was acoustically dead, and the church kept the doors open for the air, so the noise from the street was a factor. I know for my section we missed an obscene amount of notes and lost track of the choir director at times. Not our greatest moment, esp. since most of us had to yell, I think, for the sound to go anywhere.

The church was packed. They loved us. We sang after the Mass by request. The groom of the wedding was there to sing with us. He sounded good despite the awful singing conditions.

The next day the Wedding Mass went a lot better – we actually sang at a church which was acoustically sound. The reception could have been the swankiest thing I’ve ever been at. Open bar meant that I had around 5-7 rum and cokes. Food, given the number of people one had to prepare for, was incredibly tasty: nothing bland about the fish, the salad, the rice – just lots of fresh flavors. The room had the loveliest wood paneling, carpeting and tables: just a rich opulence, nothing terribly showy, but it opened into a lounge and a garden which overlooks a river bank and sits on a slight hill. We stood for a while just to watch the stars when sick of dancing. Thanks to Christine I think I learned a basic Mamba step and box step, but I’m nowhere near consistent in employing those.

I’m telling you this because there’s a point: I’m pretty sure very few Costa Ricans live like this. Collegium even in doing their best is an outsider, a guest, and while I’m loving everything, I feel exploitative. The only time I feel like a good is being done is while singing Mass, and that leads to the best moment of this story.

7. New Year’s Eve we went to a local banquet hall which was packed but nowhere near as swanky. It felt like a “Church fundraiser,” and as I’ve mentioned above, getting served was a bit of a problem. We got in between 8-9, I don’t think I was served until 11.

But Collegium started dancing and made the most of it – without the aid of language, they were dancing with everyone there. The best moment of the night I missed out on – Christine and Bill went and swing danced while I was outside recovering from my headache. The band, which had been playing merengue and salsa and a million other things played one swing song, “In the Mood,” right before we left. Everybody around them started looking at them and cheering them on – Christine teaches dance, Bill dances weekly at school – and they were ceded the middle of the dance floor.

And that’s not even the best moment of the story. Mass the next morning before we departed was at a small church that had decent attendance. The singing went best, as it always does right before we’re about to leave the place. You know the singing is at its best when all feels silent except for what the choir is singing – nevermind the noises from churches open to the air, the noises from the outside. What really matters is that the cute little kids in the congregation are rapt, what matters is you could hear a pin drop if it weren’t for choir.

That was when the priest, after it was all done, said their country was our country, their home is our home. Those of you who are familiar with my political rhetoric probably understand how great a compliment I took that to be.

8. In the end, I don’t know if anything was accomplished. All I know is that I see more possibilities than before, as well as problems. What I experienced of Costa Rica was very limited, but it seemed to confirm a few things I’ve been toying with – that we Americans are best when we share with those who have a higher common interest. There’s no way we would have gotten the compliment we got if everyone weren’t Catholic and devout, and would that the signatories of CAFTA share more than money and economic opportunity with each other. If it weren’t for UD and Swing Club, the floor would have never been torn up, and my friends wouldn’t have made the impression they made.

There’s more I haven’t told you – about how I spent most of my time going through poetry and Nietzsche with a friend, talking about Aristophanes and Aeschylus, Star Trek and relating to fellow nerds. I haven’t even explained to you how Collegium cliques work. I’m just happy, and awaiting an e-mail from the Sorbonne.


  1. Hey, so you’re back? Good to hear you had a productive holiday- regardless of how much of the trip was productive. It’s hard sometimes to see the benefit in difficult situations (you know) but you have.

    On an only semi-related note, I’ve been thinking alot lately about situations I’ve been in that were eye opening and/or less than pleasant or beneficial, like a weekend I spent in middle school at a friend’s house with a woodburning stove instead of central heat (among other things) and how very different things are for people- even in the US, but everywhere. How totally different perspectives can be and how say my point of view really is not gonna be the only logical answer to some people. There must be something that should be done with that knowledge.

    Well, I guess like I told you a while back, I’ve kinda been thinking that way for the better part of a year now, it’s been an enlightening time. :/

    So, good to hear you had some fun and you’re safe!! How’d the dissertation er, review go?

  2. I enjoyed reading about your trip. Sounds like a wonderful experience. I can relate to your feeling exploitative. I love traveling to Mexico. When I travel with my sister, we stay at the swankier places, because she can afford it and prefers it. You can’t help but notice that the people that work in these places are better off than the majority of the locals. I don’t think that the resentment we tourists experience as a group is as prominent on a one-on-one level. I met an older gentleman [a fisherman] while walking on the beach one day who, even though we didn’t speak the same language, was quite happy to teach me how to fish with his nets, and the spanish names of the local marine life we pulled in. He even went as far as to right them in the sand for me. I don’t think he was looking for money, because it was obvious I wasn’t carrying any. We genuinely enjoyed each others company.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that liked American tourists, third world or not. In Africa, I was asked more than once if most Americans were demanding of their rights. They were sincere in their asking, and it took me a while to figure out why they were asking this. I can only assume that there are a lot of really obnoxious American tourists.

    The media probably doesn’t help either. In Australia, they watch a lot of the same TV shows we watch [reality shows, talk shows, etc.]. Even an educated person who’s never been here can’t help but wonder after a while if we’re all like that. My stepmother, who’s Australian, feels that there are a lot of Australians that are influenced in this way.

    Anyway, just some thoughts from one gringo [maybe it’s gringa for me?] to another ;]. I don’t know how I missed this post. I think I was on a plane to Milwaulkee that day.

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