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

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

Art and Purpose

Day 63: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

Remember the movie The Devil Wears Prada?  That designer brand, Prada—they’re based here in Milano.  You would think there would be swarms of little devils marching all over this town to get their shopping done.

It’s interesting.  I’ve never really thought about this: what sort of outfits does this Prada-wearing devil really like to wear?  I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff during settimana della modo, the annual city-wide fashion week.  Does he like jean jackets with one arm torn off?  Maybe something frilly with all kinds of colorful feathers?settimana-della-moda-donna-milano-2012

To a fashion-industry outsider, it’s hard to know what to make of these things.  They are “fashion-statements,” but what exactly is being stated?

Usually when we “state” something, we use language to do it.  Regular old language, like English or Italian or what have you.  So there’s obviously something metaphorical about the concept of a “fashion-statement.”  It forms a comparison between fashion and language.

Actually a lot of art forms make analogies to language.  In music, there’s the concept of phrase—a coherent musical thought with a beginning and ending.  Italian musicians take it a step further; the word frase also means “sentence.”  Even painters think of their work as language.  We’re all poet wannabes.  Meanwhile poets themselves talk about poetic images and the musical lyricism of verses.

If all the arts are like language on some level, then they all have similar purposes and similar obstacles to accomplishing those purposes.  So what is the purpose of language?

Well, writers might have some pretty good insight when it comes to a question like that.  Kurt Brindley recently asked a bunch of them why they write.  The answers were pretty interesting.  You should definitely go check it out.

dsc_8770But purpose is a funny thing.  A lot of philosophers these days are skeptical that there really is such a thing as purpose.  Like, back in the day, Aristotle used to explain natural phenomena teleologically, in terms of their purpose.  But today, some people say there really is no purpose behind nature.  A rock falls to the Earth because that’s the way physics works, not because the rock intends or longs to return to its proper place.

But language isn’t a part of natural science.  I think it’s less controversial to argue that a human phenomenon like language has a purpose.  Humans made shoes, and shoes were made for walking.  They’ve even written a song about it…

So here’s my answer to the question: human contact is the end purpose of language.

img_1178Here’s what I mean.  The end purpose of a pen is writing.  If you use a pen to write something that makes your friend cry, that doesn’t mean that crying is the function of the pen.  The pen still functions as a tool of writing.  Crying is only an ulterior effect.

The same is true of language.  Zak, if you write an email to a coworker that results in some restructuring of your company, that doesn’t mean business is the purpose of language.  Language itself still functions merely to bring you in contact with that coworker.  The rest is only incidental to that function.

Some people say that language played a role in evolution.  A species that can use language to cooperate is more fit to survive.  But the survival value of linguistic clarity is only an accidental byproduct of its main function.

Anyway, sorry for just vomiting random thoughts all over the place today.  I guess the point I’m trying to make is that human contact is the end purpose of art.  We can evaluate art—even weird art like flamingo jackets—in terms of its potential to fulfill that function.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Image sources:milanandoblog.blogspot.it & www.justfashionmagazine.com

Banal

I wish I could say it were some choice Brunello.
Something or other di Montalcino
in these rolling hills of Tuscany.
But a poet’s golden token
only goes so far,
and what’s it worth
for bowtie noodles?

I didn’t have the nose to sip it sitting in my rotten sock drawer bitter as my broken esophagus.

A finer kind of whine
might sigh more sweetly
in refined pedantic meter.
A better brand than sea-sick indigestion—
but what is in a name?
The wine-dark Atlantic
divides my fart in twain.

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

All’s Fair

Day 35: Friday

Good morning Zak,

giuseppe_verdi_by_giovanni_boldini

Giuseppe Verdi, 1813-1901

So there was once this gran maestro in Milan named Giuseppe Verdi—maybe you’ve heard of him.  Verdi spent most of his time writing operas and growing magnificent facial hair.  If you’ve ever been to a Verdi opera, you have a deep appreciation for the meaning of the phrase “it ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings…”  Verdi’s operas tend to last on the order of 3 to 4 hours.

But don’t worry if you sleep through part of that.  Before the fat lady sings, Verdi will write into the music one elusive little something that miraculously summarizes the entire work.  He calls this magical something the tinta.  A tinta can sometimes be as short as two notes, but in those mere two notes, Verdi embodies the underlying spirit that unifies hours upon hours of music.

The first time I came here to Milan, I had to go through a bit of cultural sensitivity training.  Just as you would expect, cultural sensitivity training consists primarily in listing off a detailed catalog of facts: Italians tend to be less punctual than Americans. Italians tend to talk with their hands more than Americans. Italians tend to

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I should’ve just asked them to print the receipt on foil

Zak, this letter comes to you from an airport.  I am about to spend twelve hours in a giant metal tube shooting through the air above the Atlantic ocean at unfathomable speeds.  All this so that I can be home for Christmas.

Reading the Odyssey has taught me not to expect too much whenever I come home from a long trip.  I’ll really just be glad if I don’t find my house invaded by a ruthless band of hostile men I have to slaughter single-handedly.  That would be super awkward.

Italians tend to speak at a louder volume than Americans.

I wish I could bring you back something that would summarize what Milano means to me.  Some kind of tinta that could explain everything.  I guess a lot of travelers probably feel this way.  That’s why there are so many souvenir shops.  I love useless junk as much as the next guy, but somehow I’m not sure if I feel that a “kiss me I’m Italian” tee-shirt really summarizes the spirit of this place.  There’s just something in the air here that I wish I could share with you.  Cigarette smoke, smog, and then something else…

Yesterday I had a conversation with an Iranian composer who is setting a poem written in Persian to music.  He translated the poem into Italian for me.  It’s this brilliant little double entendre: at first it seems like a tragic piece about unrequited love, but only at the very end you realize that the whole thing has just been about a school boy trying to copy answers on an exam.

Italians tend to like pasta more than Americans.  Don’t let any of these things freak you out.

Shame the poet’s work is only available in Persian.  Then again, translating poetry is extremely difficult and impractical.  Communication is hard enough when it’s confined to one culture.  People often have trouble interpreting each other’s business emails.  That fact should put things into perspective whenever an artist tries to share the human experience on a deeper level.  Being human, after all, is about more than just information in a business email.  It’s about cheating on exams in school.

See you soon,

Tim

day 2 of battle.png

Day 3 of Battle: I neutralize your vinegar with electrons, and I huff and I puff, and I blow your base down.

Preaching to the Choir

Day 32: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I did end up joining the choir. I’ve attended two rehearsals and sung at one mass.  The choir members are hilarious.  They’re all adults, some of them quite elderly, but they act like little children.  At one of the rehearsals someone mentioned that the priest had complained of chatting going on in the choir pews during the homily.  This meant that yesterday, instead of just chatting during mass, they also told each other to be quiet in between conversations.

Hope flies across the city of Milan:

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An astronomical projectile, a traditional symbol of holiday magic and apocalyptic peril

Anyway, today’s post is not a letter but a poem.

Until tomorrow,

Tim