The Music of the Spheres

Day 94: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s cloudy outside in Milan.  I don’t really feel like writing.  I think I’ll just curate other people’s words today.

Quotation 1

Allow me to start you off with a piquant taste of French existentialism, as it were.  The vintage year on this one falls somewhere in the 17th century.  Of course we all know the French have been existential for at least that long:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

-Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Quite memorable, isn’t it.  I know this line about the emptiness of the universe has become kind of trite and overused, but I think there’s a good reason for that.

It was inspiring enough for 20th century composer George Crumb to cite it in the preface to his piece Makrokosmos.

Quotation 2

But the naturalistic pessimism of the 20th century is really too much for me sometimes.

In the Middle Ages people used to think that the planets made music as they revolved around the Earth.  The proportions between their respective orbits created a perfect, mystical harmony called Musica Universalis or “Music of the Spheres.”

The ‘silence’ which frightened Pascal was, according to the [Medieval] Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow.  You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Item 3

Well no… it really doesn’t.  Here’s what the proportions between the revolution frequencies of the eight planets really sounds like:

That’s the sound of a 20th century universe, the sound of humans and all living things gradually perishing into chaos.

Quotation 4

But that’s what imagination is for, right?

Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out—like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors.  But if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in.

-C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Maybe the godawful dissonance of the planets and all the apparent chaos of the universe is just a part of a larger harmony too great for us to perceive.

Quotation 5

That’s what early medieval philosophers proposed in response to the dualistic heresy known as Manichaeism.

Faced with the misgiving that in the world there may be established a dialectic of uncertain outcome between good and evil, the Scholastic tradition seeks to confirm the positivity of all creation, even in the apparent zones of darkness.

-Umberto Eco, Scritti sul pensiero medievale

Maybe that sounds like a naive proposal in modern times… maybe naivety is a good thing.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Rye bread

Day 87: Monday

Morning, Tim!

My apologies for being a bum correspondent last week! A better week ahead.

There were times when I would get stressed growing up. My mom was very kind about it, reminding me that I only had one day to get through that day. In fact, I couldn’t do anything about those past, nor solve for those ahead. If I put my head down and pushed through doing the right thing today, I’d be set.

Coming from my mom, I used to think this was fantastic advice for those times. I used it throughout college to push through weeks where school and work teamed up to overload my schedule. What would otherwise be overwhelming wasn’t so bad if I focused on today alone.

I have come to learn that it’s a pretty good idea to simply focus on today each day, not just in times of stress or pressure. While certainly good to learn from the past, and countless wisdom literature discusses the need to plan accordingly for the future, it seems today has its own challenges. In times of stress, it may simply be getting through the work. In times of relaxation, perhaps choosing to spend the time in a meaningful way for the benefit of others, not just self. There are opportunities to run astray — to eat the cake; to watch all of the episodes of that season, not just one; to slip into complacency when others could drastically use your help. Each day we have a lot to do, and most days we don’t get it all right.

Give us this day our daily bread

There is a recognition of asking for help, an element of taking it day by day, and a reminder that sustenance in bread is perhaps more realistic than sustenance through cake.

Until tomorrow,
Zak

Anti-Mustachioed

Day 85: Friday

Morning, Tim!

The Pope is visiting you tomorrow — how exciting!

I’ve been pondering your chances of becoming Pope. What with your ability to speak languages and translate — somehow, miraculously, English included! — perhaps you have a shot. Now, you may remember that there were betting sites on who would become pope, with demonstrable odds. But that was back when there was a Pope opening…so we’ll have to factor that in. Here’s what I’ve found.

First, there’s a simple 14 step guide, so it seems pretty easy. There’s even a step about going back and talking to your high school guidance counselor!

But that seems perhaps too straight forward. Ultimately, what I’ve found in reading, is that you must be 1) Catholic and 2) Male.

So you’re fairly close, I suppose.

But that’s only on technicality. There’s also the piece around for the most part having to be a Cardinal (because that’s who decides…). So what are those requirements?

Well, you have to be a priest, then a bishop…so you’ll need education (Which you’re rocking now!…wait…I guess composition doesn’t count..). And some years of experience.

Ultimately I like this post’s description best:

So that’s the career path: be born into the right half of the population, become one of a billion catholics, then one of 400,000 priests, then one of 5,000 bishops, then one of 200 cardinals, wait for the current pope to die or retire, and convince 2/3rds of your fellow cardinals to select you as the one, the only pope.

But let’s be honest, Tim. This is a boring analysis because it’s already been done. Let’s think of other factors that may limit you…

  1. Handlebar mustache. To date, scrolling through the 266 Popes, I found that none had a handlebar mustache. Being the first mustachioed Pope would be impressive, but also may be a limiting factor if they weigh that and discriminate against your kind.

Well…perhaps that’s it. I’ve sat and thought of other factors. For example, age; but, while you’d be young, you’re apparently older than the youngest ever pope. I also considered height and weight, ownership of birds, an ability to ride a unicycle, sense of humor, etc., but surprisingly there aren’t readily available datasets on those…that seems like a good blog idea. If we start to run out of topics here we can go start that one.

In fact, Pope facts generally aren’t readily available, I think an oversight the internet has made! So rather than an unusual use of a spoon, I’ll offer the fact that made me chuckle the most:

There are about 5.9 Popes per square mile in Vatican City

…pretty crazy.

Until Monday,

Zak

p.s. Do you think the pope gave up something really important to him for Lent? Perhaps his new year’s resolutions…

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

Costing a leg

Day 54: Thursday

Morning, Tim!

Silly Josephine…

Tim as you well know I work in healthcare. Thinking about healthcare as a business feels kind of grimy at times — you are making money off of those who desperately need help, many times in order to live. That said, having worked with a lot of Catholic hospital systems, the usual saying goes “No margin no mission”. In order to operate, in order to help all of those people, they need to have the financial backing to do so. They certainly have a lot of write-offs each year, essentially donating care back to communities; but it’s no news that in the U.S., healthcare is expensive, and many people are paying all they can afford in medical bills.

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to think about making money off of others’ misfortune. In one hand, I’m helping them extend life; in the other, the cost of that extension is often a poor quality of life, constantly fretting about bills and work.

I recently came across some articles about financially backing legal cases. I asked a friend of mine with a law degree to explain in a bit more detail, but the gist is that there are many wrongs done to people – e.g. abuse, discrimination, etc. – done by a corporation that has quite a bit of money. If the individual were to sue, there are legal ways for the corporation to spend those dollars quickly prolonging and “drowning” the individual, making it effectively impossible to sue in many cases. There are some lawyers who will work on a contingency basis, not getting paid until the individual does — but they typically have caps far smaller than would be necessary to take on a corporation.

The linked article discusses financially backing some of these cases. Now I certainly don’t have enough money to bankroll anyone’s legal case, but the idea still intrigues me. If real harm was done, shouldn’t there be some recompense paid? The same problem we saw above begins to arise, though – in order to operate like this, the financial backer would need some form of compensation, thus taking a portion of what would go to the individual. There’s this feeling of doing good while simultaneously lessening the good done.

I’m not sure there’s any way around it within healthcare. Hopefully make it cheaper to deliver care, I suppose. It’s just unfortunate that there’s a cost to doing good.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

The Modern Man

Day 51: Monday

Good morning Zak,

“I went to the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”

-Steven Wright

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One of the so-called Elgin Marbles, British Museum

Do you ever wonder what’s with that?  Like, what on earth happened to about half the limbs on these statues?  Well, most of the damage can be accounted for by factors you would expect, like weather, other natural forces, accidents…  But not all of it.  Some of the changes to these statutes are the result of a very intentional human process: bowdlerization.

Dr. Thomas Bowdler was a physician and social activist of the 18th and 19th centuries.  He’s best remembered for his 1807 publication, The Family Shakespeare.  This was like the P.G. version of Shakespeare.  All the offensive material had been removed, making it appropriate for children.

Since then, Bowdler’s name has been turned into a verb: to bowdlerize, meaning “to expurgate, or censure inappropriate material.”  For example, the medieval church bowdlerized some classical statues by covering up or removing the private parts.

One day people will speak also of timothizing and zakifying things… I’m not sure what it’ll mean.

Anyway, here’s a question: what is the significance of bowdlerism from a purely artistic point of view?  Is The Family Shakespeare just as good as the original?  Or does it maybe lose something, inhibiting the full breadth of Shakespeare’s original poetic vision?

Shakespeare’s plays are of course heavily influenced by the plays of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Those guys were a little more liberal than the Christian society of Bowdler’s 19th century England… especially when it came to things like sex, violence, nudity…  But sometimes we tend to think of the cultural difference too dualistically—as if the ancient Pagans were some kind of wild hippies compared to the restrained Christian society that followed.

The truth is, even the ancient Greeks had their forms of censorship.  Physical violence and other obscene acts were considered an abomination to Dionysus, the god of theater, and were not permitted to take place on stage.  On the other hand, Christians are not always so restrained.  Occasionally in Christian literature, poets will attempt to glue the missing genitals back on to our concept of man:

“Pleasant and fitting both their use will be
When time and mode and measure do agree,
Else withering from the root all lives would fail
And that old Chaos o’er the wreck prevail.
Conquerors of Death! they fill each empty place
In Nature and immortalize the race.”

-Bernardus Silverstris, De Mundi Universitateº

Other poets too have since tried to piece together our broken form:

ONE’S-SELF I SING

One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far, The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Until tomorrow,

Tim

º Ed. Barach and Worbel, Bibliotheca Philosophorum Mediae Aetatis, II.xiv.155

Blessed, with Responsibility

Day 30: Friday

Morning, Tim!

Depending on how you count it, we’ve been at it for a month! I figured I’d count it this way so that I could note it before you did (though you could have made a claim regarding “But February only has…” A missed opportunity…).

[…] Close our eyes and imagine somewhere we would like to be if we could be anywhere in the world.  When we opened our eyes he asked if the place anyone had imagined was room 312 YC high school.  I was the only one who raised their hand.  Maybe I was over thinking things, but if I really wanted to be somewhere else, wouldn’t I just get up and leave?

Decisions are a challenging thing. To be fair to your 14 year old classmates, I wonder if they really did have the power to go where they’d like. Perhaps some thought “man, I’d love to be at tacobell!” (depending on the hour of your class, perhaps Starbucks…). But others probably imagined the word Italy (it’s probably hard to imaging if you haven’t gone) or somewhere foreign – and where was a 14 year old to get the means to travel to Italy? Even getting up and leaving wouldn’t get them there. And so of course they sat in class, for that’s what they were told to do, many with the hope that life would be a long conditional. “If I do this [e.g. sit in school like I’m told], I’ll get to do that [e.g. go on vacation where I’d like, or perhaps even live there depending on my willingness to dream…]”

Or you could be an odd boy, realizing this train of thought, and….suggested that this was the place you wanted to be. I was that boy too…

Leaving your work would be an administrative decision that you make about the infrastructure of your life.  We don’t make those kind of decisions on a daily basis.

You don’t state it explicitly, but your discussion of decisions, infrastructure life decisions in particular, seems to lean toward an inability in at least some cases to truly make these changes. There are people who can make them (e.g. Jim Koch founded Sam Adams brewery after being fed up with consulting – but it was precisely because he was a management consultant that he was in a position to quit). In cases such as these, he describes them as scary but not dangerous; not dangerous because the other option was dangerous – looking back at 65 and wondering why he spent his whole life doing management consulting when that’s not what he wanted to do. I can appreciate this line of thought – I have been blessed with opportunities; while I work hard, I also know I’m lucky to be in the position I am.

In other cases, though, it is dangerous to make those infrastructure changes. For a single mom with three kids, there isn’t much room for adventure in the job market, nor to simply “get up and leave” because the consequences mount so high – hungry kids, an unpaid mortgage, utility bills mounting. Or, much worse, someone in a war-torn country who can’t leave because they literally can’t. They have nowhere to take refuge, no country to take them in.

Obviously you know all of this; I’m merely reflecting on decisions, infrastructure choices in particular. Reflecting on the choices I deliberate over…

I feel blessed to be able to even have the options I have in my choices. I also wonder what responsibility comes along with those options…

Until Monday,

Zak

p.s. I hope you chose to join the choir. Also if you do, I’ll anticipate a good picture of you doing some handshaking…