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

Writing Rightly

Day 82: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

As a writer, or at least as someone who poses as a writer, I like thinking a lot about words.  Especially about unusual uses for words.

There are a lot of ways to use the word “right.”  People can be right-handed, right-winged, or just generally right about things…  In Italian, the word we use for “left” is sinistra, which comes from the Latin sinister, also meaning “left.” 

Today’s unusual usage for a spoon: determining a child’s dominant writing hand.

Incidentally, our English word “sinister” has the same etymology.  The ancients used to believe left-handed people were daemon-possessed.  That’s why right has traditionally carried auspicious connotations and left  inauspicious ones.  There’s a symbolism behind it all.

But discriminating against left-handed people is clearly not right.  I was born ambidextrous, so I know this first hand.  I used to drive my parents crazy by picking up my spoon with the opposite hand for every bite of cereal.  But I can’t discriminate against half of myself.  That would be not only logically incorrect, but also wrong.

In your last entry:

“At work, we have this commitment to ‘being curious over right.'”

But there are some things we simply can’t know first hand.  Like, Zak, as much as I’d like to know what it’s like to be you, there seems to be some kind of insurmountable barrier that separates us from each other.  I’m not talking about the Atlantic ocean.  Although that is one obstacle between us at the moment, it’s nothing compared to the ever untraversable threshold that separates one human consciousness from the next.

We all have different ways of handling that barrier.  Some people don’t deal with it at all, which is probably the saddest way.  Other people read and write things:

“I felt I had escaped for a moment from the prison of my own head and caught a brief glimpse inside someone else’s.”

And still others just try asking people lots of questions:

“Too often someone will state their point of view, perhaps more confidently than what they could […] back up if [we] continuously asked [them] ‘why.’”

Now that’s one very charming strategy.  I’m given to understand that philosophers call this “the Socratic method.”

Zak, when I first met you, before you married my sister, I’m pretty sure you were under the impression that the Socratic method was not only for philosophy but also for socializing.  Actually I’m pretty sure that exact thought must have been going through your head during that season of life.

“I like your green tee-shirt.”

“Thanks.”

“Is green your favorite color?”

“Um… actually, it is.”

“And why’s that?”

Zak, in other letters I’ve often bemoaned the lack of sound advice to be found in classical literature for picking up girls.  It turns out I’ve just been reading the wrong books all this time.  The Greek philosophers certainly didn’t let you down.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I feel like there are some cases where we’re better off doing right than being right.  (I’m sure that sentence must be on a bumper-sticker somewhere.)  Empathy is one of those cases.

If someone asked me why I believe the people around me are conscious, I’d have a hard time justifying it.  I guess I could appeal to older philosophical systems… Descartes certainly comes to mind… but in the end it wouldn’t be a matter of precise science.

We come into this world confident in a few things…  Maybe the burden of proof lies on the side that opposes our intuition.  I honestly don’t know.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

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!

1024px-cockroach_may_2007-1

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!

edmund_husserl_1910s

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

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

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

Space is Big

Day 65: Friday

Good morning Zak,

So the other day I went to a percussion ensemble concert.  In between each piece they had what you call a “science slam.”  Have you ever heard of this?  Don’t worry, it’s not what it sounds like.

A “science slam” is actually just a spicer name for something you may already be familiar with: a science lecture.  They turned out the lights, and a guy got up and talked about how big space is.  At the end he even threw in a bit of New Age-y philosophy.  I think that’s the part where we were supposed to be slammed.  You know, so that it would make sense.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the universe.  I mean it’s a pretty cool place and everything.  It’s just, once you’ve seen enough of these things, they start to get to you.  It seems like they always tell you basically the same facts.  We zoom through space at however many million light-years per second, and then we look at impressive giant balls of gas.  Now, on Earth, I’m used to people being embarrassed about their giant balls of gas—somehow in space it’s considered majestic.

But you never see anything new at one of these presentation.  Space pretty much looks all exactly the same.  There are stars, clouds of dust, debris… Why isn’t there anything unique or interesting in space?  Like why isn’t there a bouncy castle?  Or a secret space library?  Or literally anything that looks at all different from anything else?  I mean for all their grandiose claims, these presentations actually make the universe feel pretty monotonous… and small.

I made my own space presentation several years ago.  Enjoy…

No, I don’t apologize.

Until tomorrow,

Tim