Teletubbian Existentialism

Day 104: Monday

Good morning Zak,

I understand you’re moving into a house. That’s a major decision—like the time I decided to start brushing my hair before shaving instead of the other way around. We’re all making big changes.

Does your new house have space for the famous library you’re going to build us?

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You’ll get why this picture is here in a minute…

Speaking of books, in an old Italian book from the seventies I remember seeing the phrase fare quattro chiacchiere show up. It means “to make four small talks.” These kinds of expressions are common in Italian. In Italy, you never make just one of anything. You can also “make two steps,” to take a walk, or “make two tosses,” to play catch. These days it’s always two, not four. No one has time anymore to make four whole small talks.

I’ve also started watching a television program called the Teletubbies. For those unfamiliar, the Teletubbies is a high quality show produced in a serialized format for the purposes of both entertainment and learning. Aesthetically, I find it to have a lot in common with the music of Claude Debussy. Nothing ever happens, but somehow you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. For example, there will be a moment of great suspense as one waits for Tinky-Winky’s reaction to Po, who is just getting ready to pull an orange lever that makes a loud sound. Hardly occurrences, these kinds of thespian situations are typical of the series, giving it its defining charm.

The character Po is, in my view, a mischievous little devil. She’s small and innocent on the outside, but like most of us, she’s actually very troubled within. In fact, I would argue that Po’s socio-psychological issues and paradoxical comportment constitute one of the central premises of the series—which is ultimately a study in character and identity rather than development and plot.

I’m teaching my Latin students about the locus amoenus, “pleasant place,” in the Aeneid I.157 ff. That’s the part of the poem where Virgil literally wastes fifteen lines on an idyllic description of the Carthaginian coast. Nothing happens. It’s completely unnecessary, as if Virgil wanted to throw a big wrench in the face of classical aesthetic principles. Oddly I feel one almost gains more insight into the meaning of the text from those fifteen lines alone than from the whole rest of the poem…

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…told you it would make sense.

Hiking in the alps, I met an elderly man who lives on the mountain in a former monastery. He invited me into his idyllic home, introduced me to his family, and made something like eight small talks that really weren’t that small. He said he used to work as a train conductor in the city, but he’d helped voluntarily to move debris with a horse and wagon, back when they were digging a tunnel through the mountain. Though completely unnecessary, the anecdote provided some insight into what kind of person this Mountain Man actually is.

Zak, sometimes I’m afraid the purpose of most of life and poetry is only to defer the Existential Question. The present is only the necessary consequent of the past and the antecedent of the future. It’s nothing in itself. Aristotle says that each event in a play ought to follow by causal necessity from the thing before it and ought to necessitate everything that comes after it. There’s no room for waxing lyrical about pleasant landscapes.

But the Teletubbies are an affirmation of life. They believe in running around the ever-sunny Elysium of Teletubbyland without any particular goal. Teletubbyland is a symbol deeply embedded in the human consciousness. It’s that place, flowing with milk and honey, where one day human nature, no longer a slave to necessity, will reveal itself for what it actually is. It’ll be like Mountain Man—acting simply out of his nature and not out of compulsion.

I’m not sure how much truth there really is to radical Teletubbianism. Is it really necessary to do away with antecedent and consequent all together in order to arrive at the innate nature or purpose of a thing? We’ll see how long I can stay interested… In the meantime, I expect to see an idyllic and pointless library when I get back to the States.

’Till next time,

Tim

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A Peruvian Table

Day 86: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s become clear to me that my flatmate is in a pyramid scheme.  I heard her talking about it the other day.  This is something where the majority of income comes from recruiting other people to join.  Not a legitimate business… These things kind of creep me out sometimes.

So here’s one for you: do I have a moral obligation to reason with her about pyramid schemes?

Here’s another one for you: how do you pronounce Xlktsptetizd?

Now that one will keep you up at night.  Every now and then my composition Maestro asks me how to pronounce an American last-name.  I’ve tried to explain that ‘American’ last-names are of all different nationalities; unlike Italian last-names, they have no consistent pronunciation.

“How do you say this?” (points to a string of random letters. mostly consonants.)
“It depends where the name comes from.”

My first-name is enough to give the Italians a run for their money.  Timothy.  Not Team-o-tea.  I just recently started teaching English at an elementary school nearby.  The kids are hilarious.  The moment I step into the classroom they start up like a proper dawn chorus if each bird chanted Team-o-tea instead of its usual morning song.  I guess that’s one ‘English’ word they like.

The short i sound in Timothy doesn’t really exist in Italian.  This means it’s easy for them to confuse words like ship and sheep.  Also hit and heat, fit and feet, slip and sleep… as native speakers we don’t often think about how similar those words sound.  Actually, they almost become poetic when you string a bunch together:

I sit the sheep
in the ship on a seat.
It drifts away,
my mind slips off to sleep—
my feet fit snuggly
in their slippers…

Not all poetry makes sense.

Last week I went to a concert of songs based on Shakespeare poetry. Shakespeare makes me so nostalgic.  Sometimes too nostalgic.  Actually anything I studied a lot when I was younger can have that effect.  Do you ever get the feeling your life is written in blank verse?

Anyway.  Maybe I’ll empathize better with my flatmate now that I get where she’s coming from.  Pyramid schemes are build on dominance.  The dominance of people who join early over those who join later.  Living in a Nietzschean universe like that, I can almost see why you might stick two thick master locks on your cereal cupboard.

Sometimes you gotta have a sense of humor about things.  I told my Maestro I’m starting to teach English to little children.  He nearly rolled on the floor laughing:

“What, they’ll ask you, how do you say tavola.  ‘It depends where the table comes from.  If it’s a Peruvian table, you say tahh-b-lay.’”

So yeah…

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Class Decaffeinated

Day 84: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

So I went to class today only to find that it wasn’t happening.  Our instructor was in Rome, and he forgot to tell us.  A friend of mine was there—another foreigner.  He wasn’t happy about it.  I tried to explain to him that this kind of thing is normal in Italy.

Italians are fantastically impractical.  The other day I was running a bit late for a meeting.  I was trying to buy a train ticket, but the machine wasn’t working.  This was problematic because the Italians had installed a modern art gallery in the metro-station instead of a ticket office.  No joke.  The broken machine was my only hope…

Zak, this crazy country is too much sometimes.  I recently saw a policeman writing up parking tickets.  I’m not sure how he decides which of the cars lying every which way on the sidewalk to skip.

I don’t know how they get anything done in this place.

A different class actually did happen today.  A piece of music we were looking at had a paragraph written in English on the first page.  The Maestro asked me to translate.  I did.  Everyone was surprised by how well I knew English.

So anyway, my friend and I went to get a café together when we found out class was canceled.  My friend is still relatively new to Italian.

“I’m having a café lungo.  What do you want?”

“Uh, café decafenato.”

“What is this word, decafenato?  Café with all the café taken out?”

Somehow that conversation was much funnier in broken Italian.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Trip to India

Day 62: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

You may be immediately suspicious of my title — and rightfully so, as I didn’t actually take a trip to India. That said, it’s a little less dubious than when I tried to pass off a visit to Cologne

I did, however, visit Devon street, which was much closer to experiencing India than I ever had before. I went with a friend who took us to what he called a cabbie restaurant – nothing fancy, just very authentic. We had food from Hyderabad, what he described as the southernmost northern tasting – and in being so, took some spicy queues from the south. My friend ordered in what I believe was Hindi. We ate mutton biryani, chicken 65, and paratha. We ate with our hands as my friend told me about chicken 65 being a leaked recipe from the ever popular 65th item from the Buhari hotel restaurant.

It was an interesting experience. Unique. Growing up in a very rural, very small town in midwest America I didn’t encounter different cultures. I don’t say ‘often’ there because that wouldn’t be true – we simply didn’t encounter them at all. In college I wasn’t really faced with them either. It’s interesting to see how gigantic the world is, and wonder how anyone could act as though they’ve figured it out.

It’s eye opening – starting to see how much you don’t know. And ever more realize there is so much you don’t know that you don’t know.

It seems important to interact with things different than what we know. The unknown can be terrifying – the downside risk seems overwhelming at times, so fearing embarrassment for a cultural misstep, a violent act for reasons we can’t really explain, or perhaps even a bad case of diarrhea, we sometimes find ourselves closed off to new experiences and unknowns.

I’ve hated the city for quite some time. Growing up in my farm town I had space, I had nature with beauty abounding. I could see stars, breath fresh air, get a moment without smelling the sewers, hearing the whizzing of machines or the honking of car horns. Yet getting a taste of India helped me appreciate what the city has to offer.

Diversity isn’t a pillar, Tim. It’s no end in its own. But it’s remarkable how it helps provide perspective.

The world is too big for us to ever stop learning. We at times act like we learn what we like – growing up experiencing some positively and decide ‘yes’ and others negatively, deciding ‘no’. But the world is far too big – something completely unknown might be good. While we fear the downside of it being bad, we also must realize that all the good was once unknown to us as well, was once foreign. We have to continue to learn, continue to grow and develop, continue to take share ideas and life together…

…and food. Because that was good stuff.

Until tomorrow,

Zak

Oh! Almost forgot. Though I regrettably didn’t take pictures of my food (because that’s a thing now-a-days), I also had Thums Up, what my friend described as ‘Indian Coke’. Owned by the Coca Cola company, it was less carbonated and less sweet, and the sweetness almost had more of a molasses quality to it. It was pretty good!IMG_1110.JPG

It’s All a Jumble…

Day 57: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

“When man wanted to make a machine that would walk he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg.”

-Guillaume Apollinaire

Descending melody is a universal in world music.  Every culture that we know of has some examples of melodies that generally start high in pitch and end low.  Ethnomusicologists think this is simply due to the nature of our physiology: whenever someone breathes out to sing a melody, they start with a lot of breath and end with very little.  This makes it natural to descend in pitch toward the end of a melodic line.

If I were to indulge myself in speculation about this, I might even take the explanation a step further.  It seems like downward motion is a pretty universal part not only of our physiology, but of all of nature in general.  I mean, here on earth, things pretty much always move downward if nothing stops them.  Water, tree branches, trees themselves…  I guess in that way descending melody is a lot like Cage’s 4’33’’; it’s the sound of nature when people don’t interfere that much.

The so-called “lament meter” in ancient Hebrew poetry is probably an example of this.  Although we don’t have direct evidence of the original melodies, the lopsidedness of the poetic meter itself seems to evoke a diminishing energy toward the end of the verse.  The first part of the verse (the first “colon”) is generally longer then the second.

I feel like there’s something inherently lament-ful about this kind of verse structure.  Isn’t it kind of sad how everything on earth eventually falls back to the ground and dies?  Everything except for some small amount of helium, which, I understand, escapes the atmosphere because it’s so light.

But the really strange thing is how relatively rare this melodic typology is within Western concert music.  Our melodies tend to climax about two-thirds of the way in.  In a sense, you could maybe say our musical tradition is about contrasting the entropy the natural world with the creative energy of human life.

“Right, well, I mean… this piece behind me, I call it ‘The Afous II.’  And, I mean, it’s really about how confusing, you know, society is.  Because, you know, it’s all a jumble, isn’t it.”

-Adam Savage

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A river or a waterfall might tend to flow downward, but human discourse generally moves the opposite way: I say something, you say something, and eventually we reach some kind of logical consequence… an agreement or a main point or something like that.  Contrary to the entropy of the natural universe, human conversations, or “language games,” tend to snowball, accumulating more energy as logical discourse progresses.

Here’s a a very famous lament, which climaxes, no less, toward the end of each strophe.

God, who created all that comes and goes
and shaped this faraway love,
give me strength, since I already have the intention,
so that I see this love far away
in reality and in a fitting place
so that rooms and gardens
shall seem to me to be new palaces.

-Jaufre Rudel, source

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Five Humans

Day 41: Monday

Good morning Zak,

Zak, there’s something I wrote in one of these posts one time that I think was particularly insightful:

“My fishes have rights.”

I do in fact believe this.  If my dentist stopped by one day and asked for one of my fishes to help feed his family, I think I would turn him down.  That’s because my fishes have rights.  I’m quite fond of my fishes.  They are entitled to live a peaceful life in my aquarium; I shouldn’t have to mourn their loss just because my dentist didn’t have dinner planed for his family one night.

That being said, white wine does go nicely with salmon.  It’s my understanding that wine experts in the US award gold metals to wines almost at random.  Most people who aren’t trained in wine tasting tend to prefer cheep wine to expensive wine.  There is only a very small subset of the population that enjoys more expensive wine.

But why am I telling you this?

There’s also only a small group of people in the world who enjoy modernist concert music.  They like composers like Webern, Schoenberg, Boulez, Xenakis… I’m willing to bet those dudes are all complete strangers to most of our readers.  There’s also a pretty good chance that most of our readers wouldn’t care for modernist music if they did hear it.

It would make a lot of people happier if we reallocated the resources we’re spending on “fine wine” and modernist “art music” toward making popular wine and music cheeper and more abundant.  If people acted rationally, we would outlaw fancy wine and pretentious music in order to please the masses.  Taylor Swift could perform an extra concert with free wine for everyone.

Business runs on efficiency, but people don’t.  We could increase total overall human happiness by sacrificing just one of my pet fishes to feed my dentist’s family of five.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Airport Romance

Day 37: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

Sorry this letter comes to you later than usual.  I’m still jet-lagged from my flight over.

Zak, I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but my recent flight has reinforced for me how much airports are different in different countries.  As a case in point, when I was going through security in Italy, there was a girl in her twenties playing with her hair, leaning casually against the conveyor belt:

“dove vai di bella questo pomeriggio?”

“USA”

“he he he, ‘USA’. che bello!  USA, cio è USA dove?”

“Chicago.  Ha ha… I guess that is pretty funny.”

It’s very strange.  The security officials in the US are completely different.  Despite using fancy technology to look at you in the nude, they don’t seem as interested.  Maybe that’s not as paradoxical as I think:

“Sir, you are required by national United States law to accurately disclose your destination to me.”

“Dis year, to keep me from tears…

Am I allowed to find this amusing?  I mean, Italians find my accent amusing all the time…

In Italy, one of the things employees often look for in a job candidate is presenza.  They will declare this in the advertisement:

Wanted: airline security person. Experience with international law enforcement, competence with standard policing weaponry, and presenza.  Please be sure to wear a nice outfit to the interview.  You know, try to show a little skin.  Giggly coquetry preferred.

Sorry everyone.  I’m just telling you the way things are.

I know in recent months many of us in the US are bemoaning a massive step backward for gender equality

Until tomorrow,

Tim