Category Archives: fun

Three Lines, One Universe

La Garisenda, Bologna

“Dante, perche Virgilio se ne vada/ non pianger anco, non piangere ancora/ ché pianger ti conven per altra spada” 
‘Dante, because Virgil has departed,/ do not weep, do not weep yet– / there is another sword to make you weep.’

Canto 30, Purgatorio, Dante’s Divina Commedia. We’re in terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Eden. I’m particularly fond of lines 55-57. Virgil, Dante’s pagan guide up to this point, has just left and Dante is bereft at his departure. But Beatrice, the poet’s celestial love, won’t let Dante mourn for long. So — despite her indirect appearance in Inferno 2 — she utters her first words in the poem. They mark Dante’s first and only naming. Academic commentators eagerly dissect the tercet’s consequence. Should Dante’s name take precedence? Should Beatrice’s appearance? Should Virgil’s absence? Or should we abandon scholarly analysis and respond to them all? Together they articulate the mix of love, hope and loss that growth engenders.

You’ve experienced the emotion Beatrice describes. I call them Virgil moments, or ‘altra spada’ moments. Virgil moments portend change. They are the instances that reshape perception as we shift from one state to another. When Beatrice says Dante’s name; when she repeats ‘piangere’, to cry, three times; when she evokes the ‘altra spada’: she articulates ineffable feelings.

I’ve learnt that most feelings surpass language. Commentators will tell you that the triadic repetition of ‘pianger’ in lines 56-57 accents and admonishes Dante’s three invocations of Virgil’s name in lines 49-51.[1] They cite Virgil’s Georgics as the origin of the first formation, when Orpheus’s severed head calls out to Eurydice, his wife. Yet the parallel isn’t perfect. Dante’s appeal to Virgil approaches an anaphora that uplifts heathen Virgil to the heavens, while each instance of Beatrice’s ‘pianger’ evokes a unique meaning. We mustn’t weep but we may need to cry soon when we’ll shed newly painful tears. Beatrice reminds us that moments may alter our intents and emotions.

Airports and frequent departures trigger Virgil moments for me. My lingering gaze over the terminal invites others to share my sorrow. We don’t want to leave, but an unrelenting urge propels us toward the future we believe in — that we must believe in. We climb, releasing loved ones as new ideas and experiences guide us. I retract my gaze and scan my passport. These transitions, these Virgil moments, bridle us for the rivers of pain — of loneliness, of sorrow, of disappointment —so that we may benefit from rivers of joy — of success, of money, of fortune.

Beatrice calls the bad we encounter the ‘altra spada’. I prefer to treat Beatrice’s altra spada as a metaphysical symbol, but it has precise referent. Commentators agree that this ‘other sword’ is the Lethe River.[2] Drinking from its waters to earn passage into heaven, Dante instantaneously relives all sin. It’s painful; more painful than Virgil’s departure. The pilgrim then discovers sublime joy with a sip from the Eunoe River, which erases his memories of hurt and restores his faith. Dante took the former from the Bible but invented the latter, suggesting that divine words fail to describe human suffering. Thus, Dante urges us to interpret the ‘other sword’ beyond the boundaries of religion and of the character’s journey. Dante-pilgrim isn’t privileged to encounter this ‘other sword’; we all encounter it.

For me it’s the soap. After using up a bar in my last destination — or tossing it just as the logo has smoothed away — I forget about it until I arrive. Undressed and unpacking my toothbrush, I realise my soap is gone. I crave the scrubbed clean feeling I once enjoyed every night. Travel dirt lays atop my skin like an emotional scar, scoffing at my journey. ‘You thought you could reach the upper echelons?’ It hisses. ‘You’re the same person you were. You don’t understand.’ I throw water on my face. I swear to buy soap tomorrow. I do. Washing away days of travel, I rejoice in my novel routine. A bar of soap can be replaced. Still, my new one becomes a lifeline. Until, that is, it’s time move again.

Dante-poet articulates the struggle to integrate oneself into a new situation. Dante-poet articulates the burden of leaving and the catharsis of progression. In their specificity, these three lines rise above Dante-pilgrim’s journey and transcend Dante-poet’s fourteenth century Italy. In these three lines, the Commedia becomes universal. These three lines are The Divine Comedy.

[1] This quote isn’t important enough to break up your reading, but should your copy of Purgatory be buried under a pile of magazines: ‘Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi / di sé, Virgilio dolicissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia saluti die’mi’ — ‘But Virgil has departed, leaving us bereft:/ Virgil, sweetest of fathers, / Virgil, to whom I gave myself for my salvation.’

[2] I shouldn’t play favourites with commentators, but I’m partial to Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi’s succinct description: “per qualcosa che ti infliggerà ben più dolorosa ferita” — for something that will inflict a much more painful cut. (Chiavacci Leondari 30.57)

Unreliable Narration

Reading al fresco

Mark’s head drooped on the desk while his teacher discussed the unreliable narrator. Mark had hardly slept the night before. His blinds were broken. They wouldn’t close. He was in his favourite (embarrassing) Superman pyjamas when he realised. He pulled the blinds, yanked them, shoved them. Nothing. He summoned Dan, his roommate. Dan pulled them, yanked them, shoved them. Nothing. The night before, Dan had thrown a party and Mark assumed that one of the guests used the blinds as a xylophone after too many vodka sodas. Mark glared at the purplish-yellow light illuminating his room.

Mr. Bryn dreaded the final week of lessons. Students didn’t listen. They acted as if topics introduced near exams were irrelevant. This outraged Mr. Bryn. A module irrigated your knowledge! And knowledge is a terrarium. The soil should be firm, solid — he hoped that previous professors provided students with a sturdy foundation, but sturdy wasn’t enough. You needed to add trees so ideas could breathe. Then you incorporated plants, animals and insects because even though they disgusted you, a thriving environment required noxious bits. When students arrived at his course, Advanced Literary Structures, they should be climbing the trees. Counting tree rings and uncovering rare flora and fauna — that wasn’t for undergraduates. Though, in his experience, students wanted to leap from the jungle floor to high exotica. In doing so, they toppled from their perch among the trees and ran the risk of getting covered in thorny, ant-like ideas.

Mr. Bryn structured his courses to enhance, week by week, the fertility of the mind’s terrarium. Narration was his favourite. It was his City of Z, his poison dart frog, his bright Rafflesia Flower. He devoted his career to cataloguing the intricacies of narration with the care and precision of a tropical biologist exploring the Amazon.

Mark craved the structure narration provided. He imagined clear essays that told a story, exam papers that unfurled logical points and job applications that squeezed into an ecological niche. The two months until graduation were the only metric guiding his life. Each day was a lesson in university’s most dreaded unit: Advanced Living with Parents. His history degree? It was knowledge without form. That’s what he was reminded by his grandfather and grandmother and aunt and cousin who landed a job straight out of university and bought an Audi within a year. Mark couldn’t convince them with stories of hanging out at the library with Asian engineers, drinking amorphous green drinks at Lizard Lounge and arguing with Dan about Foucault. So he spent his evenings sowing experience into his CV and pruning job applications.

Job applications were the silt you had to sieve for riches that someone else had probably (surely) already found. Mark had applied to and been rejected from internships at every magazine he read. He submitted applications to London museums to sit at a desk and distribute free maps, but they wanted people experienced in handling promotional materials. Not a degree. Three times a day his mother emailed him information about accountancy graduate schemes with late vacancies. He wouldn’t be working at Deloitte — ha! They would have lost his application to avoid wasting time sending him a cut-and-paste rejection letter — but he could spend a year training with Bayden Loading Inc., a logistics company in Nottingham. Mark grudgingly nudged his computer keys inventing answers to inane questions. Where do you see yourself in five years? If you had to choose an animal to describe your management style, which would you choose and why? Lectures were the only respite from the stultifying lead up to graduation.

Gazing at his students, scribbling notes in their too-shiny notebooks, Mr. Bryn no longer believed that he had once sat on that side of the lecture hall. Or rather, he remembered the late nights fuelled by bright clouds of revision and essays that gripped him in a mania of yellow-hued excitement. In class, exhilaration pelted his pen across the page, producing legible notes at a speed now unreachable. Even writing, these students seemed calm, sedate, tranquil. Mr. Bryn contemplated why as students filed in for office hours, but directed his gaze to the potted plant on his windowsill to prevent his face from contorting into a mask of frustrated disappointment. Students didn’t need his perspective.

Mr. Bryn was also careful not to share his views with other faculty. That didn’t stop the other professors, however, and thus the recorded talking points at departmental meetings were all pseudonyms for gossip. After a perfunctory discussion of course structures and funding (of which there was none), Janice began on opinions. She was a medievalist, in love with Chaucer but occasionally flirting with Boccaccio and Italian authors. Janice taught upper-level courses and found 93% of her pupils lacking. Mostly she hated their grammar. Once the word ‘grammar’ was uttered, the meeting was cancelled by default as they chorused the never-ending atrocities that punctuated student papers: the missing semicolon, the non-existent em dash, the pervasive run on sentences and the blatantly misused prepositions. When Janice paused for breath, Robert began. He lamented students’ apathy and reminded everyone that their professors would have punished sloppy syntax with a third. Mr. Bryn nodded and sighed but never joined in. The shadows of his opinions illuminated such emotion that he was apprehensive of the consequences of their release.

On the rare occasions that Mark’s friends discussed their professors, Mark presented the most fully formed opinions. He had his favourites and he’d thought too much about them. His girlfriend and mother insisted this was effeminate. That didn’t matter to Mark. After devoting himself to an issue, he developed intellectual bonds of steel with the professor who assigned him said topic. Gripping a book, taking notes, reading the criticism; these tasks ushered Mark into the mental universe his teachers had stepped into years earlier. To Mark, such shared action meant a shared emotion.

Indeed, this was Mark’s core belief. He was quick to act but not to share. Writing an essay was an exercise in waiting for inspiration to strike. As soon as his understanding blossomed like a tree in the rainforest after a monsoon, he instinctively knew his thesis and could write until his essay was done and fully edited. Others found this illogical, unbelievable. His parents groaned over his single-mindedness. His friends complained when Mark’s attention seemed permanently devoted elsewhere. Even Mark’s professors regarded his work habits as irrational. They wanted to equip him with a schedule when he loathed the waiting. He wanted only action.

Mr. Bryn is behind his desk discussing the unreliable narrator. He has cited several famous examples — examples students should already know or currently be writing down. Mark is at his desk, half-asleep. His pen moves across his the page in his pukka pad that he will later rip out and catalogue into a subject-specific binder. The handwriting resembles gibberish Arabic rather than good, geometric print. Mark hears the words ‘unreliable narrator’ and he writes them down, planning to search for examples later. Reciting these examples, Mr. Bryn feels like he’s betraying a friend for the dubious benefit of apathetic students. They are the friends upon which he has built his life. Mark surveys the room, wondering how he’ll manage to build a life from the sleep-deformed lessons that went into his history degree.

Waiting and Reading (on fact and fiction)

Near EU Parliament in Brussels


Last Tuesday, I began thinking about the boundary between fact and fiction. The real versus the imagined. Where does one begin and the other end? I’m figuring it out.

My fascination began while I was updating our office’s stationery inventory. People frequently steal pens and double-stick tape, so I audit our supplies twice a month. This sounds simple — count the Bic comfort grip pens on each desk — but my co-workers are too messy to make this a straightforward task. Sometimes, in the middle of counting, you realize you forgot to divide up the blue and the black pens. Or you remember that Olivia stashes her pens in her desk and she’s gone to lunch and — since peeking into her desk would violate her privacy — you wait for her to return from lunch, but she takes forever because she went to the sandwich shop that prepares each sandwich to order (slowly) then decided to — why not! — eat in the park. When she returns, hours have disappeared and you’re sitting at the computer poking yourself in the head with a black Bic comfort grip wondering when you’ll be able to finish your count.

I had been waiting for Olivia to return for twenty minutes when I started contemplating fact and fiction. The rest of the office was at lunch, so I listened to a podcast while updating the quantities of double stick tape and off-brand post-its. The podcast was called ‘How close are fact and fiction?’ The host interviewed several authors and a journalist (to feign fairness). One of the interviewees suggested that journalists worshipped structure and that separated reportage from literature. In literature, meaning flows from the author’s mind onto page.

I was convinced and wanted to test it out. But as I opened my book Olivia came back. Returning to the spreadsheet, I counted the minutes until I’d get to read, which would be later than normal because I was meeting a friend for dinner at a cheesy Vietnamese restaurant. My friend visited Vietnam the previous summer and insisted that after a week in Hanoi he was fluent in pho and bánh xèo — a crispy, rice flour crepe that ought to be Vietnam’s culinary legacy. I ordered a curry chicken over rice that tasted like coconut milk-fortified chicken soup. My friend chose bánh xèo but it wasn’t “crispy like they are when you get it from a street vendor in Hanoi. There they cook them, serve them and eat them all in under ten minutes, actually, it’s more like five. They use, like, a different oil or something. This shitty American oil — canola or peanut or whatever restaurants buy in bulk — it doesn’t get frickin’ hot enough!” He scraped his plate clean.

When I got home at nine, I brewed a cup of chamomile tea and settled down to read The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. A mystery. I picked it up at the bookstore last week before a dentist appointment. My dentist thinks she’s a teeth virtuoso and I always wait for at least half an hour. That day I waited longer than usual and was halfway through the book when the receptionist called me back from the snowed-in lodge where a host of comical characters bickered.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn was fun but I didn’t lose myself to it easily. I enjoyed the characters’ names — Luarvik L. Luarvik, ha! — but the pace overwhelmed me. Aliens and creatures and impossible escapes bombarded me. It left me exhausted — exhausted with plot. This wasn’t fact or fiction; it was make-believe.

But I’ve always enjoyed make-believe, so I felt foolish not appreciating The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn. Plot does not reflect reality. Yesterday I counted the office’s supply of Bic comfort grip pens and today I emailed the Chicago office about our off site meeting. Guess who has to book the conference space and accommodation? Me. I’m favouring the Ramada Inn in Batesville, Arkansas. When I called the hotel on Tuesday, they promised a special discount on a lunch buffet if I agreed to include tuna sandwiches. I told them it should be okay, but I need to review the options with my colleagues first.

Liz, the head of the Chicago office, did her own research and prefers the Hampton Inn in Tallahasse. That is an awful idea. None of us live near Tallahasse and none of us have reason to visit Florida, unless it’s to see our grandparents (as if). When I mentioned to Liz that the Hampton Inn adjusts their rates for golfers from Des Moines, she sent me a single emoticon: the face with three lines. It resembled my picture of Luarvik L. Luarvik. “Maybe we can counter their offer with the Batesville Ramada Inn’s tuna sandwiches,” she said. We’ll probably meet at a Super 8 Motel off the New Jersey Turnpike.

Since my life is tuna sandwiches and off-site meetings, I can’t pinpoint either fiction or fact in a genre-bending detective novel from a pair of Soviet authors. That’s why I started reading Mr. Palomar today. I picked up a copy at second-hand bookstore a few months back because it was cheap and a friend (not the Vietnamese food fanatic, a different one) once mentioned that she’d read anything Calvino wrote. Calvino is post-modern; Mr. Palomar isn’t unrealistically linear. The book describes an everyman named Mr. Palomar. Rather than chapters there are meditations. I read the first section, Mr. Palomar’s Vacation, this morning. Mr. Palomar doesn’t gallivant through a snow-secluded lodge filled with aliens. He goes to the beach and looks at the waves and thinks. I’m convinced Calvino put himself into Mr. Palomar, but Calvino probably invented a fair bit. Maybe Calvino loves the beach, but hates watching waves. Or maybe he’d enjoy the waves if it didn’t require a trip to the beach. It doesn’t matter. Mr. Palomar relates a fact — that people go to the beach and they watch waves and think — through his fiction. This isn’t artifice; it’s storytelling — it’s relatable.

Sometimes at work I sneak into the stock room to read magazines. I only do it on slow days and never when my boss is in the office. Fortunately, slow days are common and my boss’s appearances aren’t. My favourite magazine is The New Yorker but I’ll flip through anything — even The Economist. Last week — after the inventory and before the Ramada Inn — I read a New Yorker article called ‘Two Weeks of Status Updates from your Vague Friend on Facebook’. My favourite updates was for Wednesday: ‘It happened again’. Olivia probably jumped hearing my laughs, scattering her pens all over her top drawer. The article seemed real.

Yesterday I read an article in The Economist about Denmark’s swing to the political right. I’m not a politico or Danish-phile but I read the article mesmerized. The narrator wooed me. First, there was the melodious opening: ‘Northern Europe’s voters have been swinging to the right as the continent stumbles out of recession’. Once upon a time, I stumbled upon a Europe in flux. Two-thirds through the article, the narrator calmed me with hard-truth: ‘policy towards the EU is the biggest hurdle of all’. This certainty gave me confidence to face my co-worker who was busily g-chatting with the receptionist about his ‘epic trip to Rome’. And there was plenty of intrigue to keep me interested, ‘she is rumoured to have declined an offer to become president of the European Council.’ I would have read on to discover why Helle Thorning-Schmidt (the she mentioned) allegedly declined, but the article ended before my curiosity could be sated. What I read was truth, but it enchanted like fiction.

Today, I’m planning to go out for lunch. Since I finished the office supply inventory yesterday and I’m not ready to respond to the seventh emails I’ve received in three days from the Batesville Ramada Inn, I’m ready for a break. Maybe I’ll get a sandwich, or a summer roll from the cart across the street. It’s okay if there’s a wait; I’ve got time. I’ll take my book with me and sit in the park and read. Or maybe I’ll watch people pass by.

A Slurpable Newsletter

City Java smoothies

Happy Tuesday Slurp employees! Here’s your daily smoothie spill:

-Today our corporate chefs introduce spring’s new smoothie: MintyPower! A blend of mint green tea, pea protein powder and frozen banana, this dreamy drink will reinvigorate and refresh you. Special introductory price: $8.40 for 12 oz (add-ins charged as normal).

-We are missing a box of 18 oz domed plastic lids. They should have arrived in yesterday’s Carefree delivery. Find them. We need them for this weekend’s Quarters for Orphans Walkathon.

-Regarding greetings: do not say hey, hiya or hello. Say ‘Hi’. ‘Hi’ balances friendly and professional. You say ‘hi’ to your friends. ‘Hi’ welcomes our guests into our home. Say. Hi.

-Please, for the love of acai powder, always ask: ‘would like an extra large straw with that?’ We’ve had a spate of customer complaints about standard sized straws falling into extra large smoothies. No one wants green smoothie on summer whites.

-Employees must wear clean t-shirts. Spills, stains, and slits will not be tolerated. No customer wants to see a cashier smudged with brown maca powder. If you require another piece of uniform, ask facilities manager Anniko Uula for the employee catalogue. Ditto name badges.

-For the love of the smoothie deities (or deity, we’re proudly poly-denominational!), don’t stuff odorous cheeses, meats, sandwich spreads, shoes, socks, drinks or perfumes in your employee lockers. You’ll explain the aroma to the cleaning crew.

-Our monthly Slurp-rientation for new employees will take place next Friday 6/13 from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. Please inform your shift manager if you are scheduled to work during this time. Attendance is mandatory for all new hires. Your imaginary Aunt Sally falling “ill” is not an excuse. If she’s truly ill, you can send her an invigorating lemon-ginger-turmeric smoothie.

-And, as always, today’s forecast: cloudy and humid in the morning with a 15% chance of rain until 12 pm (the beginning of the lunch rush!!). Sunny in the afternoon, with intermittent cloud coverage and climbing humidity toward the evening (estimated to be approximately 80% by 5:50 pm). Low of 63, high of 74.

And that’s it for your daily Slurp!! Have a Slurpable day!!
Mindy Harman
Employee Liason for Slurp Industries (a better way to smoothie!)


Image: Flickr via Ken Hawkins

Happy Burger Time

Crispy Bacon and Cheese, Snack Fries - Grill'd QV AUD10.90, AUD3.60


Come over, it’s hamburger night! That’s what they say. Every day! An outside table is a splendid choice on this breezy spring evening. The rain stopped about forty minutes ago, I’d say. Pair your patty with french-fries and smother the crispy sticks in curry ketchup, chipotle mayo and sriracha mustard (shh, it’s a secret recipe). Would you believe we offer vegan and gluten free options for your wellness-warrior friends? Salads? Flip over the menu, they’re there — no, a bit further down — next to our French fry selection. Here’s the wine and beer list. After all, you did put in those late nights at the office this week readying up your company’s new financial planning app. Your girlfriend told me about it while she was waiting for the table. I’m looking forward to downloading it.

The wait won’t be long, about thirty minutes or so. It depends on how long our other guests spend chatting and eating. We don’t rush people. Your kids are hungry, aren’t we all! We will give you the same consideration when you’re seated, of course. We sympathise. Dad ran himself hoarse meeting with new clients and mom fought the hoards at the supermarket. Oh. No? Sorry. Mom can’t speak after the office and Dad’s back aches from the groceries. There is no Dad? The table on the left! They’re leaving now. I will just be a moment, have a complimentary glass of ice-cold tap water while you wait. Brooklyn’s finest!

The music? Let me ask the manager if we can lower it. I think that os Magic’s ‘Rude!’ playing. Well, no, I guess I never did think the line ‘marry her anyway’ was explicitly misogynist. Ah, the kids at table three. I do realise how grating those high-pitched shrieks become. Would you believe I stepped on a French fry the boy in the Beatles’ yellow submarine t-shirt threw on the floor? I’ll tend to the situation. Would you like some extra condiments while you wait? Curry ketchup? Chipotle mayo? Sriracha mustard? All three! It’ll only be a minute. Happy burger time!

Our take out counter is straight in the back. Yes, back there. A menu? Yes, the menu is back there as well. If you could use the rear door, that would be greatly appreciated. As you can see we’re utterly packed up here. No, unfortunately we aren’t currently offering the bison burger. The market prices might kill your appetite. And who would want that? I’m afraid the elk burger isn’t available for take out. Ooh, the ostrich, um, we discontinued that last month because we discovered some unsavoury facts about local ostrich farms. May I recommend the turkey burger or, my personal favourite, the black bean veggie burger? It’s gluten-free, high-protein and goes great with smoky chipotle mayo.

Ma’am? Hi, I’m sorry to bother you. I see that you’re reading; however, we ask that you please refrain from occupying a table until your entire party has arrived. He may have left the subway a few moments ago, but we have other customers patiently waiting. And they’re here. Right now. Really ma’am, there’s no reason to call him. Please, save your phone minutes for something more important.

Voila! Here’s your salad, sir. You asked for the cherry tomatoes on the side? Ah, yes, it’s here on the order. How did the kitchen mess that up?! My apologies. Between you and me, sometimes our chefs aren’t as considerate of an individual’s preferences as they ought to be. Dining out should be relaxing! You don’t want cherry tomatoes marring an otherwise refreshing dinner. Your new salad will be out in a moment. I would wash the leaves myself if that wasn’t a violation of New York City health code. By the way sir, those glasses? I’ve been looking for a thick frame like that myself.

A high chair? We have plenty. I’ll bring one over for you. Phhhh. Quick, I need a high chair for table eight. Wait, we ran out of high chairs? But we must have at least ten for Friday night! Ugh, I’ll need to email the manager tomorrow to let him know we could use a few more. I just don’t want to go tell the family in matching Birkenstocks that we don’t have any left. No, no, it’s okay. I’ll do it, I just don’t want to. Yeah, look at table eight. Their shoes do match. Scary, right?

Hi, ma’am, sir. I’m sorry but it seems all our high chairs are currently being used. Yes, I can see the little one is squirming. But, working here, I’ve learnt that a mother’s lap is often exactly where kids most want to sit. Or the father’s! What about if I sent over some chipotle mayo, eh? Compliments of the chef! Well, no, it isn’t vegan. How about some extra French fries? Or, um, pickles? I guess I could offer some sparkling water. Two bottles of sparkling water? Your server will bring them in just a moment.

We’re open until 10:30 most nights, sir. Sometimes we stay open later if patrons wish to hang around and have another drink, get another round of French fries. People can’t get enough chipotle mayo. It’s addictive! Do I eat it? I generally prefer Italian condiments: balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and the like. No, I don’t usually eat a burger during break. It would be too much, I wouldn’t want to work after that. I usually bring my lunch — a sandwich or salad. Sometimes I get a bagel from the shop around the corner. Yes, ma’am, the wait is still around thirty minutes. People relish sharing a meal after a hectic day! I don’t know what they talk about either, but the important thing is that we provide the place. Happy burger time.

Image via Flickr