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.”


“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,



Intoxicating Perfume

Day 15: Friday

Good morning Zak,

I am writing you this letter over a fresh cup of loose-leaf Earl Grey tea…

Picture of this post being written over a fresh cup of Earl Grey

This is so meta…

Long time readers of Thily Fin will understand the psychological significance that Earl Grey has for me.  In this context, I’m using the phrase “long time” in roughly the same sense that a 14 year-old boy might use it when he’s in a committed relationship.

Zak, in your last entry you raised a deeply philosophical question about the sense of a particular phrase in context:

Does the Latin abbreviation cf. really mean “Hashtag?”

I once had a Latin teacher who said that “crap” was a suitable translation for res, so Zak, let me just answer your question with a question: does the fact that the ancient Romans never considered likening the concept of “random stuff” to fecal matter or that they didn’t use hashtags to share and compare pictures of kittens all over the world preclude the possibility of us using modern slang to translate Latin phrases?  Isn’t it possible that Cicero’s classic masterpiece De Re Publica, “On the Public res or “On the Republic,” is actually best interpreted as a philosophical commentary “on the public excrement?”

Sometimes as I write, I imagine my future employer coming across this blog…

As you can see, this cf. joke, like most things, gets a lot better when you dissect it.  When I was a 14 year-old boy in biology class, I had to dissect a rat.  Rats are also one of those things that get better when you dissect them.  When you’re given a rat in biology class, it doesn’t seem anything like the concept of “rat” that you thought you knew in real life.  It’s all frozen and yellow… really it’s closer to the concept of “burrito” than anything. But dissecting a rat is one of the most beautiful and meaningful experiences you will have early in life.  You will suddenly become very interested in biology, and later in life it will enrich your understanding of the concept of “rat race.”

Our brains have odd ways of associating concepts, words … and smells.  This can help us be creative when writing.  When I smell bergamot, as I do in my tea right now, my brain associates it with Medieval Italian love poetry…


Ferdinand de Saussure

There was once a French dude named Ferdinand de Saussure, who believed that the association between a word and a particular concept was always fundamentally arbitrary.  He would have argued that there is actually nothing absolute about they way we define words.  What I’m trying to say is, if it’s any consolation to people in biology class, there once lived a random French person with a fantastic mustache who at least in principle wouldn’t have necessarily objected to you giving “rat” the same definition that is presently reserved for “burrito.”

And then there’s Lucretius’ classic poem De Rerum Natura, “On the Nature of res” or…

Anyway, as you start to take your rat apart, you will begin to notice a thick miasma of death that is now filling the space where you were once used to finding breathable air.  That ambrosial aroma is a concept called “formaldehyde,” one example of how rats get better when you dissect them.  The smell of this intoxicating perfume is permanently carved into my brain, right next to memories of my 9th-grade lab partner and rat intestines.

And that’s one great way to begin a committed relationship.

Until Monday,