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

Overwhelmed – thanks a lot, healthcare…

Day 68: Friday

Morning, Tim!

So I obviously missed my Wednesday post. Not that I didn’t write it — it was scribbled through tired eyes while on a plane home. Unfortunately, without internet, I was unable to actually post it.

If you’d like to torture yourself, it seems the zoom on this image allows you to read the handwriting. For less torture, please see below for what, upon reflection, is exhausted stream of consciousness.

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Morning, Tim!

Obviously this is quite late. I’m on a flight back to Chicago right now, and all of my electronics are out of battery. That might seem weird since you are seeing this online — it was first written in very poor handwriting while experiencing turbulence, though.

I just spent 3 days at a healthcare IT conference. Quite the spectacle, some 40 thousand people convene to discuss how technology both new and old play a role in advancing care delivery. There were companies that helped patients schedule appointments, nurses communicate with one another, physicians dictate their notes. Still others provided security around the information, connected devices to the cloud to share data and enable care delivery in the patient’s home.

I love technology. It allows me to communicate with you seamlessly and empowers smarter, faster decisions to be made all the time. in healthcare, this translates to better patient care and opportunities to save lives. Getting to work in healthcare tech is even better than tech generally — not only is there ample room for healthcare to catch up to other industries, the passion healthcare entrepreneurs bring to helping others is truly inspiring. So I love technology.

I also hate technology.

Phones and tablets abound, alerts all over the place. An amazing amount of opportunity — yet as with everything that comes to mind, the greatest of strengths can also be the greatest of weaknesses. The ability to connect anyone at any time allows a a father to video chat and say goodnight to his kids — so too does it enable a man to get caught up in work, unable to de-tether while home as that same child yearns for attention, guidance, and love. Technology enables the spread of information, empowering scientists to collaborate on wonderful breakthroughs — so too does it enable groups to congregate and self-reinforce radical beliefs that bring harm to others. Technology can help focus, it can be the largest distraction. It can educate or inundate, facilitate encouragement or discrimination. But it doesn’t do any of this itself. It is a tool, used by people, often exacerbating the existing intuitions — booth virtues and vices.

I hope to have kids someday. I’m not sure what to do with technology. TO disallow is to deny the world these kids will be born into, disadvantage them in a world where these skills will be table-stakes. Yet, there seems a certain sadness that comes with this, a weariness weighing on a heavy heart and off-put mind. What about play and creativity, about bodily movement? We are physical beings — is using only our minds a hindrance to what our development might otherwise be? How can they use these tools for good — to help others — and not be addicted and lose themselves?

How do I do that?

Until tomorrow,
Zak

Until Monday,

Zak

Calm Before the Storm

Day 38: Wednesday

Morning, Tim!

It’s nice to lose track of time. It’s an experience I believe many people share – being on vacation from our typical routine allows us to meld days together, experiencing rather than living by the clock. It’s Wednesday, though – I know because it’s day 38. I like that I learned what day it was by writing it up there.

I’m writing this at the kitchen table, quietly stroking keys as to not wake the masses. I’m visiting family, and the house is (over)filled, with a towering sibling toppled, legs sprawled across couch armrests, while knuckles graze the floor; nephews and nieces snuggled together upstairs on makeshift mattress palaces, dreaming of castles, knights, and cloud princesses. I don’t know their dreams, but I have hopes and dreams about them.

It’s been a reflective visit. Chaos. The scattered, slow-breathing mounds abounding paint the image of yesterday, with exhausted children next to their exhausted relatives who finally seem to have outrun them. Loud. Interspersed between the turn of machines whirring away to clean clothes, cool food, and warm those under covers, it’s the rustling of the few relatives who want a brief moment before the storm. Relative. Considered in relation to something else: it is silent; also, a near complete collection of relatives all together under one roof – rare.  Rare. Laughter and joy, thorough sadness, all at the simplest of interactions (or lack thereof) – I would like to be a child’s understudy for a while. They have a lot to teach.

Morning, everyone.

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Until tomorrow,

Zak

All’s Fair

Day 35: Friday

Good morning Zak,

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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

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