It’s Never Just Cereal

Day 78: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So my three flatmates and I are a bit like a dysfunctional family.  Yesterday one of them got back from her boyfriend’s house and found that a brand new cereal box she had bought before leaving for the weekend was empty.  I’m pretty sure the cockroaches ate it, but that’s not what she thinks…  There’s a thief among us!

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I think he’s kind of cute. what, with the little antennas. they were the previous tenants, who overstayed.

It’s impossible to be angry while eating a freshly baked pizza.  That’s the real problem in this apartment.  Everyone’s too skinny, and they won’t sit down to have a nice piece of my homemade pizza on Fridays.

Zak, you’re the philosopher between the two of us.  Maybe you could explain Edmund Husserl to me.  What’s that guy’s deal?  We talk about him a lot at the conservatory here in Milano, but Italians have a funny way of reading German philosophy…

Another flatmate wants compensation for all the cleaning she has to do.  That sounds like a nice deal for me too.  We should look into that.

Yeah, I ended up with all girls—grow up, people!

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Zak in twenty years

I mean phenomenology is great for natural science—despite whatever Husserl thought it was for.  I realize there’s something tidy about not making too many assumptions about the external world, or even about other people.  But aren’t some assumptions worth making?  I’d rather have Freud presumptuously tell me I’m sick and twisted than B. F. Skinner quietly intimating that he knows nothing about me.  It’s better to live with a vocal cereal-rights activist than with someone passive-aggressive who just quietly throws away all the toilet-paper.  Amusing as that is. 

So while I’m sparing you the gory details, we’re obviously having difficulty empathizing with each other.

But I insist on this: that human contact is the end purpose of language.  That’s why I’m writing to you, and that’s why I enjoy reading so much.  When I first read Dante it had a big impact on me.  I felt I had escaped for a moment from the prison of my own head and caught a brief glimpse inside someone else’s.  That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do in life, and I felt that this was an experience I shared with other readers.  Illusion or not, that’s how I felt.

Today’s unusual usage for spoons: clashing them loudly into a dishwasher at two in the morning to express how poorly washed you find them to be.

When Freud sat down his patients to explain how sexuality was the latent force behind all their thoughts and dreams, well, I’m sure they didn’t terribly appreciate that at first.  But at least he was assuming for better or worse that there was something to it all.  Something being expressed.

reading-297450That’s what it means to read a text—to assume there’s something to it all.  Some existing object encrypted within language.  If we don’t make that assumption, we’re not really reading, we’re just looking at little black shapes on pieces of paper.  If you’re merely a scientist, maybe that’s all you see.  But no one’s merely a scientist.  For me, a complete human, there’s conscious meaning behind those little shapes.

I’m not saying the meaning has to be sex… it could be contact in general… or fruit loops.

I guess what I’m saying is there must be something to this whole cereal craze.  I should make good assumptions.  I should try to take a peek inside my flatmate’s head and come to empathize with her deep feelings about cereal.  Let’s be honest.  We all know it’s never just about cereal.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Selfie-Awareness

Day 77: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

I was having a conversation about music with a friend one day, when he just randomly volunteered something:

“Tim, you seem like you live a really peaceful life… like you’re really self-aware, or something.”

This surprised me.  I wasn’t aware of myself coming across that way.

I guess that’s in right now.  Everyone’s trying to be ‘self-aware.’  I’m not really sure exactly what that means.  Seems like it has something to do with tweeting inspirational quotes and taking selfies.  I suppose that helps.  You know, it’s hard to be unaware of yourself when there are, like, tons of pictures of you all over the internet.

By the way, I’m really good at taking selfies…

…on second thought, no, I can’t show you that.

But self-awareness is definitely a big-city thing.  It’s the kind of thing people think about with podcasts blaring in their ears on their way to swig down a quick mocha-grande… or whatever.  Clearly the problem with our society as we sit alone in little cars honking angrily at each other for hours on end is that we aren’t aware of ourselves.  We just assume that the strange smell in the car is coming from the engine or from something outside.  No one would have guessed there was a person sitting in the driver’s seat.

Well one way to achieve self-awareness is to hold a four-hour session at work to talk about yourselves.

In your last entry:

“It’s a long time to spend not doing work…while at work. Yet, the insistence on and discipline in taking time to be introspective, to reflect on how we work well with others is admirable.”

Now I love hearing people talk about themselves.  Really.  But as far as introspection goes, I’ve found that in my experience it begins to have diminishing returns after a certain point.  I say this as someone who spends probably most of his life alone thinking about things.

There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with self-reflection, but there certainly are limits to how effective it can be.  People need something more.  Something that Oprah or Dr. Phill can’t give them—nice as those folks are.  I mean self-help is great, but let’s be honest.  There’s no amount of money we can spend, no amount of therapy we can do, to solve the human condition.  I want a quick fix as much as the next guy, but I’ve never heard of a tweeter feed that causes the lame to walk or the blind to see.

Anyway, Zak, you’re a great sport.  I’m sure you were able to see the good in all that.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Your grandma is so…

Day 76: Wednesday

Morning, Tim!

I’m feeling under the weather today, so I’ll keep it brief.

Yesterday, my work hosted a 4-hour company-wide session discussing personalities. It’s a long time to spend not doing work…while at work. Yet, the insistence on and discipline in taking time to be introspective, to reflect on how we work well with others is admirable. I found there to be many useful things, such as how to think about forming groups in the context of the personality traits others bring, or how to frame asking for feedback/help to someone highly self-image conscious (within the team) as it reflecting on them as well.

Though for all of the (I’m sure very expensive) insights we found yesterday, it was the below gem I needed to hear this morning. From yesterday:

But an old grandma is fantastically disinterested. She doesn’t care about anything but the music right in front of her, and that music is simply a gift—no strings attached. I wish I could appreciate my peers the way an old grandma would.

So the moral of the story is be like an old grandma every now and then.

Grandmas appreciate like none other, in my experience. They relish wholeheartedly. Like a child’s innocence, a grandma’s overwhelming joy is such a beautiful thing to enjoy, to appreciate without the nuance or strings or blemishes.

Thanks for that image, Tim. I needed it.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

P.S. No one has joy like a grandma listening to John Philip Sousa.

Circles and Lines

Day 75: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

This is the signature of composer Giacinto Scelsi:

Pretty jokes, right?  The circle and the line represent the Eastern and Western perspectives of time…

Remember the movie Groundhog Day?  Bill Murray somehow gets caught in an endless circle where he’s reliving the same boring day over and over again.  But literally.  He wakes up every morning in the same stupid little town where he was supposed to spend only one day—groundhog day—to film an on-site news special.

That movie is pretty popular.  Probably because a lot of us can relate.  Time is moving in an endless circle, with no final destination.  The story of my life.  Right?

Well, take away the pessimism and that outlook is basically the Eastern perspective of time.  Life moves in cycles.  The cycle of seasons, of days, of birth, death, and rebirth…

Then there’s the Western view.  Remember Machiavelli’s The Prince?  Machiavelli basically thinks that a ruler should be as cruel or dishonest as necessary to instill civil order.  As the saying goes, the end justifies the means.  So if there’s an end, then time moves linearly, right?

Some people say that Christian thought proposes a strictly linear view of time.  We waited for the Messiah, he came, and now we’re waiting for the end.  The same people who point out these things also tend to complain about how boring our vision of Heaven is.  Just eternally praising God?  In an endless circle of eternity?

The East and the West aren’t as different as we sometimes make them out to be.  We just don’t think about things the way the early Christians did.  There’s a reason Dante’s nine circles of Heaven are the least appealing part of the Divine Comedy for the modern reader.

In your last entry:

“I’d propose that by ‘willing’ we often mean lacking desires that are against what’s ultimately best for us, and, when they do appear, being able to deny them anyway.”

I became a composer because I had a poetic vision.  I think everyone has that on some level.  I mean the ability to look at something and see potential in it.  That’s what an artist does.  But you know, things are complicated.  While in the process of realizing it, it’s easy to lose sight of that vision—that end, if time is linear.  

“We always say ‘Gertrude Stein’ – she said, ‘In the beginning was the word. Then they put two words together, then they made a sentence, then they made a paragraph and they forgot the word.’”

-Morton Feldman

But every time I hear something beautiful and see what it does to people, it makes up for the sacrifices I’ve had to make along the way.  I’m like an old gramma who never studied music.  They’re really the ones who appreciate this stuff the most.  The rest of us tend to get too caught up in everything to remember the reasons we’re making music in the first place.

But an old grandma is fantastically disinterested.  She doesn’t care about anything but the music right in front of her, and that music is simply a gift—no strings attached.  I wish I could appreciate my peers the way an old grandma would.

So the moral of the story is be like an old grandma every now and then.  But I don’t mean to stereotype.  My apologies to all the mean and anxious grandmas out there.  I hope I didn’t offend you.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Control Freak Who

Day 74: Monday

Morning, Tim!

I really appreciated your capturing of The Importance of Being Named Ernesto – hilarious.

I wanted to start today with a knock-knock joke.

Knock-knock

Who’s there

Control freak, now you say control freak who

It’s tough to not be in control. I tend to think I can do it better than others. Oh, you’re looking something up on your phone? I should too — just in case. Or research that purchase. Or find it in the cabinet myself (…after you already said we didn’t have any left…). I’ll make the decision on when a work product is good enough, when and if we should meet to get further input. If people would just let me do it, it’ll turn out better!

But come on, that’s not even close to true. First, I don’t have the time to be that great at everything. Second, even if I did, I’ve proven myself time and again to be terrible with control, as evidenced by my waistline, grades, or lack of recognition by Todd, the front desk guy at my gym. I make mistakes times and again, and yet grasp for control all the more.

“Autonomy and control are cardinal virtues of the west” – David Brenner

There are gobs of self-help books. We also have a pretty good idea of the things we should be doing — be it exercise, education, sleep, putting down our phones more often, caring about others more (and not just in an academic or theoretical way…). So why aren’t we able to do these things, simply by ‘willing’ them?

I’d propose that by ‘willing’ we often mean lacking desires that are often against what’s ultimately best for us, and, when they do appear, be able to deny them anyway. In the case of cake, wow is that stuff good. But I probably shouldn’t eat 3 pieces. In fact, it would be best (…at least easiest…) if I didn’t have a desire for 3 pieces, but rather just one. Moreover, if I did desire 3 pieces, it would be great to say no. That would be control, an exercise of will.

Within that example, we need two things. The first we already noted was a sense of control, the ability to act on the ultimate desire. The second, then, is the actual desire we want to act in accordance with. I think that’s a confusing piece — because if we have ever changing second-order desires (the things we want to desire), then we don’t have time to build the habits necessary to actualize those.

Changing our second-order desires is ultimately like building habits. They take time and commitment, and only truly change if built over a period of time.

As a Christian, this is actually a beautiful thing. It means that we get to set our second-order desires once — in alignment with Christ — and then spend the long hours, full of falling short, in relationship with God ever-marching on. It’s by ceding our control that we actually might change into what we’d like to become.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Why won’t anyone eat my pizza?

Day 73: Friday

Good morning Zak,

I saw this the other day, and I thought of you… you know, since your real name is Ernest:

"The Importance of being Named Ernesto"

“The Importance of being Named Ernesto”

Just judging by the title… they don’t get, it do they?

Sad how much gets lost in translation.

Have you ever been lost in translation?  It’s hard to find your way back out.  It’s dark in there.  If you’re not careful you’ll trip over surreptitious syntaxes and run into cultural barriers.

But here’s my real problem: why won’t anyone eat my pizza?  Mamma mia!  About once a weak I make a big beautiful pizza from scratch.  But my roommates don’t like me enough to accept the offer.  So I have to put it in the refrigerator, which is a real peccato, as we say.  It’s best right out of the oven.

I don’t get it.  Is it something I said?  Do I smell funny?

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So that’s my sad story.

I think I’ll make one today.  If anyone reading this would like to come eat it with me, leave a comment.  If you’re not far from Milano, maybe we can arrange something.

Maybe I should try craigslist.

Anyway.  Cooking takes a long time.  But I think I want to make a habit of doing it.  You can save time by getting ready-made food, but it costs more and it’s not as good.  I don’t ever want to end up in a vicious circle where I’m paying more for worse food to save time so that I can work more to afford the bad food.  You know, that’s silly.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Undefeated

Day 72: Thursday

Morning, Tim!

I woke up this morning bleary eyed with no tail at all. Normally you want to wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed…but I suppose, given the option, not having a tail may not be so bad this morning…

I feel compressed on time, a bit beaten down. As I hit my alarm clock this morning, I recognized it mustn’t be tired at all. In fact, it’s the most consistent thing I interact with, time ever moving onward. Time is undefeated.

 

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…Except for daylight savings…

 

I then got to thinking about other things that go undefeated.

Playing tennis in high school, I would occasionally go to the courts with no one to play against. There was a wall with a painted line at the height of the net you could hit against, practicing control and consistency. That wall was also undefeated.

 

 

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…unless I hit it really high…

The last case of undefeated I could think of was my uncle playing horseshoes. Man can that guy play horseshoes…

 

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…no caveat. The man is that good…

Until tomorrow,

Zak