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

Peanut Butter

Day 80: Friday

Good morning Zak,

So I’ve been thinking a lot about peanut butter recently.  Especially about its texture.  There’s something very interesting and unique about that silky quality it has.  It can take just about any shape, but it always has the same generally smooth and even consistency.

We don’t have peanut butter here in Italy.

Zak, one thing I’ve noticed through my experience as a composer and a poetaster is that writing takes a bit of frivolity.  Writers are usually the sorts of people who take pointless things very seriously.  Things like pyjamas.

That’s one aspect I admired about my composition teacher in undergrad.  You could present the most pointless and ridiculous ideas to him, and he would always dive right into them with you head first.  There wouldn’t be even a moment of hesitation to ask how worthwhile something really was.

In the end, I think pointlessness usually does turn out to be worthwhile, but an artist needs to be willing to invest in something while it’s still just pointless.  There was once a 34 year-old man who started spending all his energy thinking about four little notes.  He was clearly just wasting his life, and if he had any sense he would have dedicated himself to something more useful.  But then we wouldn’t have Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

In your last entry:

“I’ve been a bum of a correspondent recently. […] I have allowed myself to become overwhelmed.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to think that lyricism was kind of pointless at its core.  Lyrical poetry could express its meaning just as clearly without so many rhymes.  Lyrical melodies could be taken out of a composition without really disturbing its functional structure.

But none of that is actually true.  Lyricism is a fundamental part of communication.  If even our everyday language were fully devoid of lyricism, it would quickly become unintelligible.  That starts to happen whenever we write complex sentences with lots of prepositional phrases and parentheticals.  Try reading this sentence:

“At a time in the history of Western thought of serious skepticism toward teleological thinking in general, I admit that a theory of semiotics based on the purpose of language may seem like a naive proposal.”

Don’t hurt yourself.  I had to revise this because each of the prepositional phrases seemed isolated from the overall flow.  When you read it aloud, it sounds like the individual bricks are falling apart and the overall building is crumbling.

A certain amount of lyrical peanut butter is needed as mortar to hold together the meaning of language, even when it’s prose.  Rhythm and euphony are not just fun games for people with nothing better to do.  They are an essential function of human expression.

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!

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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

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

Spacing Out

Day 71: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

It’s beautiful outside this afternoon in Milan.  The sky is pure blue.  It’s really stunning.

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See this mess?  This means I’m in the middle of a very good piece.  Whenever that happens, other things become harder.  Like cleaning.

You asked me some kind of philosophical question the other day.  Something about moral responsibility, I think.  Normally I’d be all up in it, but philosophizing is a bit like cleaning and today I have a truant disposition.  I’d rather just sit and stare at the miraculously blue sky.

Seriously, how is it so freaking blue?  It’s ridiculous.  There’s just nothing there.  It’s like one of those contemporary monochromatic paintings.

blue

I’ve been listening to a lot of Morton Feldman recently.  His music has that kind of sensibility—monochromatic, I mean.  It’s just exquisitely singular.

Usually when I look at the sky I’m used to seeing it with all kinds of nasty clouds blotted all over it.  But the thing that’s so appealing about this particular sky is the way it contrasts with all that.  Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the clouds when they’re there, but at the moment they would be a nuisance.  It would be a shame to splotch up something that’s just so perfectly blue.

There goes an airplane.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s not like it’s Wednesday Afternoon’s fault that I find her so appealing.  It’s just ’cause I’ve seen a lot of other days—perfectly fine ones mind you—and Wednesday Afternoon stands out.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t feel this way if I’d never seen the likes of Saturday at Eleven.

If Morton Feldman composed a perfectly blue sky, would he be at fault for how heinously gorgeous it is?

But I said I wasn’t going to philosophize today.  I should really clean this room up, but I’m probably not going to.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Life Abundantly

Day 69: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So I don’t know if you would count blogging as social media, but aside from this blog I pretty much have no presence online.  I don’t do social media.  This is a part of the hipster wannabe in me.  If everyone’s online, I’m not. If everyone likes milk chocolate, I prefer dark chocolate.  Everyone gets their Masters at home, I travel to Italy, etc.

The only downside to abstaining from social media is that it means I miss out on a lot of information.  In Milan there are sometimes weird hipster concerts with zero publicity, but you can hear about them if you’re in the right social media circle.

In your last entry:

“How can [we] use these tools for good — to help others — and not be addicted and lose [ourselves]?”

But there definitely are upsides to being out of the loop.  For one thing, not having direct access to information means that I have to rely on personal human contact to find out about stuff.  Sometimes people realize this and make a point of reaching out to me personally.  Maybe that means I’m a burden on society.  I don’t know.  Frankly I don’t care.  Human contact is worth the extra effort.

I know connection is supposedly the whole point of social media.  But maybe there’s a difference between mere connection and actual contact.  Like, I don’t think everything humans do has to be useful.  Human contact isn’t necessarily about having access to information or gaining a certain number of likes.  It can also be an end itself.

Luigi Dallapiccola used to wear a full suit and tie whenever he sat down to compose music.  He was completely alone; there was no one around to “like” his suit, but he did it anyway.  It was a ritual he needed to do for himself as an artist, not for any practical reason.

As a brief aside, anyone acquainted with the daunting eloquence of Dallapiccola’s music can totally picture him doing something like that.  I’d be more surprised to find out he didn’t wear a suit.

Anyway, I know people do a lot of really cool stuff online too.  I’m not informed enough about social media to really have an opinion on it.  But, Zak, I do have opinions about blogging.  I think we should use these tools to cherish the uselessness of being human.  Life isn’t about getting ahead.  It’s about living.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim