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

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

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

Multitasking

Day 59: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

Cell phones are dangerous.  The other day, I was checking my email on my phone while heading back to my apartment, and I walked right into a parallel universe.  That’s the problem.  You feel like you can do it.  You can multitask.  I mean, this morning I was able to sing a song while taking a shower at the same time.  Why should this be any different?

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Twisting an Arm

Day 53: Wednesday

Good morning Zak,

There once was a little frog named Josephine.  She had a pet human named Robby.  Every morning, she let little Robby out to play and do his business.  Robby’s favorite toy was a sack of paper.  He took this with him when he went out, wearing his red and blue hat with the yellow helicopter propeller on top.  Josephine spent most of the day playing twister.  In the evening, Robby came back in and Josephine fed him.  He was always naughty at meal time because he didn’t keep his food in his can.  It would end up in Josephine’s room.  She ate it so it wouldn’t go to waste.

One day Robby came home, and his face was bright red.

“You’ll never guess what happened today, Josephine!”

Josephine couldn’t guess.

“Freddy payed me five dollars, and I kissed Gracie on the lips!  It was so funny!”

Josephine couldn’t believe it.

“I told Freddy it was gross, and he couldn’t make me do it.  But then he gave me five dollars, and I thought it was funny, so I did it anyway because I thought it was funny.”

Josephine looked at him.

robby-and-josaphine

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Paradox

Day 47: Tuesday

Good morning Zak,

So a while back I posted this word-cloud representing the frequencies of individual words in the love poetry of Cino da Pistoia.

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My point in posting this was to illustrate Pistoia’s great obsession with death.  Morte is one of the most common words in his poems.  But Pistoia is by no means alone in this.  Many love poets have a similar morbid fixation.  The tendency can be traced all the way back to the beginning of love itself.

Love began around 1100 A.D.  Before that, it wasn’t really a thing.  Seriously.  I mean there was such a thing as friendship or erotic passion or fondness or charity… But “romantic love”?  The notion of some kind of noble or ennobling passion for which one should make great sacrifices—that more or less began in Languedoc around the turn of the second millennium.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
-Love Story

Could someone please tell me what on earth that line is supposed to mean?

Anyway, for as long as love has existed, the sentiment has almost always been accompanied by a sort of psychotic preoccupation with death.  Even the troubadours—the first true “love poets” in the modern sense—were like this: if Freud were somehow able to transcend the threshold of time and sit one of these guys down for a free word-association test, no doubt the pairing between the words amors and mortz would be as natural as it is automatic.

“And Rudel knew that she who embraced him was the countess.  And immediately he regained his sense of hearing and smelling, and he praised God that He had sustained his life until he had seen her.  And then he died in her arms.”

The association remains deeply engrained in our subconscious even today:

“To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.”

-Mary Oliver, from “In Blackwater Woods”

So that’s weird, isn’t it?

Anyway, Zak, you raise a good question:

“If we love others in part because there is potential to become beautiful and they are not yet there, how and when do we engage them in change?”

So basically, if we take poets seriously when they say that love is supposed to be some kind of transformative experience, how does that transformation actually work in practice?

The internet is full of opinions.  I don’t offer you an answer here because I don’t have one.  All I can say is that the collective wisdom of Western poets throughout history tells us that love is a kind of death.  Some people like to call it a petite mort.  However petite or not this poetical death really is, the concept creates something of a paradox: poetical death is also the (pro)creative impetus of new human life.

It’s not at all strange that romantic love suddenly became the central topic driving most Western literature after the middle ages.  Really, the sentiment embodies everything our society ever wanted out of a story.  Writing a good story is about having a vision and being willing to suffer for it.  Pursuing life, even at the cost of death.  That’s what the heroes in every epic have done since the dawn of man.  It’s also likely what we humans will continue to do for as long as this crazy little adventure of ours keeps us turning the pages.

Well, we’ll also continue to do other things… we’ll probably also keep pooping.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

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

Decisions

Day 29: Thursday

Good morning Zak,

When I was in high school, I had a philosophy teacher who asked the class one time to 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?

Zak, I know Thursday is a work day for you.  Maybe this letter comes to you over your lunch break.  In fact, I’m willing to bet a strong majority of our readers join us here on Thily Fin from cramped little office spaces.  Zak, I know you love your job, but many people don’t.  My question to those who don’t like being at work is this: why don’t you just leave?

Another one of those moments when I picture my future employer coming across this blog of ours…

I enjoy going to classes at the music conservatory here in Milan Italy.  Most of my composition classes here begin with the Maestro asking me a question: hai lavorato, “have you worked?”  This is a very routine way that we begin.  I answer him with a si and then hand him whatever I’ve written that week.  But our conservatory is the kind of place where other answers would probably be equally acceptable.  I get the feeling that I could come in one day: “have you worked?” “No, I didn’t work this week.  I just sat in the park and listened to the sounds of the people walking by.”

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.  Most of life is about finding beauty in the mundanity of a fairly regular routine.  Of course, the option to change that routine is always available.

My Maestro tells me he once had a student who would visit other eras.  She’d come in: “have you worked?” “No, I couldn’t work this week, I was in the Middle Ages.”  The student was supposed to write three minuets, but week by week she would show up with nothing.  Finally my Maestro told her, “spend this week in the eighteenth century, and you’ll write me three perfect minuets.”  And according to the Maestro that’s exactly what happened.

Some decisions are made for us.  The other night I decided to go to a performance of the Mozart Coronation Mass at the little parish down the street.  This was another one of those times when bad music was better than good music.  I’ve never heard the Coronation Mass quite like that before, but I doubt if I’ve ever felt quite that much spirit in a room either.  Everyone was beaming afterword, including this one lady:

“do you go to our church?”

“who me?”

“do you like to sing?”

“um…”

“will you sing in our choir?”

“I…”

“you don’t have time?  Oh you must come sing with us.  Here I’ll show you where we have rehearsals.”  She brought me around the back of the Church, and told me to come there the next day at 9 in the evening.

She was just beaming.  If that old lady were a piece of music, she’d be written in F sharp major—a sharp for each ridiculous impulse that pops into her head.  “And now this is where you find out I really have a screw loose.  Every time I pass this statue of our Lord and savior I give him a nice little greeting.  ‘Good evening Lord.’” She shook hands with the statue.  “It’s just that he has his hands spread out like that, and I don’t know…

“This way you make some connections.  Life in the city is, can be very cold sometimes, and…” She looked at my jacket zipper.  “You’re freezing!  Button up.  Life in the city is very cold, all the people walk around with their noses in the air.  This way you can make some nice friends.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim