Whether you’re a devotee of the Cambridge Latin Course or you prefer Dr. Who, you’ve probably somewhere heard the story of Pompeii & Herculaneum versus Mount Vesuvius. Spoiler: the volcano always wins.

Herculaneum was a resort town, and the Villa of the Papyri was an ill-fated library there. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE and covered everything with about 100 feet of volcanic ash, the superheated gas, steam, and mud fossilized anything that contained some form of carbon. I’ve seen dogs and people preserved in carbon at the Pompeii site, and it definitely isn’t as entertaining as that first glimpse of Han Solo in the carbon deep-freeze. The cone of the (still active) volcano is picturesque when viewed from the ruins it created, but you never quite shake the feeling that you could become part of that history at any moment.

When Herculaneum was excavated in the 1750s via underground tunnels, a multi-terraced house was discovered, with almost 2,000 carbonized scrolls inside. It was called Villa dei Papiri, which, if my freshman Latin serves me well*, translates as house of paper. The collection contains a few novels and maybe a treatise or two on Stoicism, but the hundreds of scrolls consist mainly of Epicurean philosophy. Did I mention? Hundreds of scrolls. Thus, house of paper. Or, as we might call it today, a library.

It appeared that most of the scrolls had been packed in cases, either to be moved to safety out of the path of the volcano when it became clear the eruption would be a threat to the city, or because Philodemus, who had probably been dead for some 30 years by that time, had bequeathed his library to the villa’s owner, who was much less interested in Epicureanism than his friend might have hoped. It’s a question of whether the scrolls were being packed up for rescue, or whether no one bothered to unpack them in the first place. Some scholars optimistically speculate that the rest of the owner’s library may already have been moved, but Philodemus’s collection wasn’t transported in time. Whether anyone cared about this literary hoard or not, a dense, destructive mass of hot ash, lava, and gases flowed downslope and destroyed both Pompeii and Herculaneum, including an estimated 16,000 people.

By the miracle (a.k.a. the science) of carbonization, the papyrus scrolls, like all the other carbon-based biological units, were scorched but ultimately preserved. With the development of multi-spectral imaging** (more science), researchers can now distinguish between the pitch black ink and the pitch black paper, thus reading the charred scrolls via specialized images without destroying them.

images of Pompeii
images of Pompeii

As so often happens, when I start digging into one topic, I also dig in different directions, until suddenly I’m tunneling underneath the original topic like an archaeological spelunker under Herculaneum. And before I know it, I’ve landed someplace wholly unexpected: one of the wonderful side effects inherent in finding things out.

This time, I got interested in Philodemus the Epicurean. I was sure I’d read something about this philosophy before (probably in Latin class), but couldn’t recall the particulars. I remembered that someone had once described Epicureanism to me this way:

“The cosmos is an accident. God doesn’t love you. You will die. Sobriety leads to the Good Life.”

Which, I dunno. Sounds a little bleak to me. But technically, Epicurus is the father of Hedonism because he throws around the word “pleasure” a lot. The difference is that Epicurus’s definition of pleasure is more like tranquility, something akin to the Third Noble Truth***: pleasure as moderation and beatitude. Minus the gods, obv.

Because the whole point, as Epicurus saw it, is that humankind is degraded by mortal dread of the angry divinities that master its actions and punish it for its sins. Depose those fears, of god and death, and restore humanity’s inherent dignity. Easy, right?

He never said the gods didn’t exist, because he’d probably have gotten in some kind of trouble for that, but Epicurus maintained that the gods were completely indifferent to both the virtues and the crimes of everyone else. He suggested that the material universe sustained itself, not by divine fiat or favor, but in the relationship of elemental particles to one another. Furthermore, these elemental particles were governed by reliable rules, a.k.a., natural law. Sound familiar? (science.)

This, in its turn, relates to his philosophy of death as a nonthreatening fact of the natural progression of carbon-based life forms. The fear of death, the philosopher counsels, is pointless and leads only to unnecessary misery. In his worldview, death is the fading away of a person’s mind. And if death is just ceasing to be, it’s neither a positive experience, nor a negative one.

Here’s a thought experiment, posited by none other than the philosopher himself a couple thousand years ago. If you fear the idea of eternal non-existence, think back to the vast expanse of non-existence you suffered through before you were born. Can’t remember? No senses, no problem.

So get out there and enjoy this jumble of elemental particles while the getting’s good.

Want to read up on some of this stuff yourself? Here are a few of my source materials:

Herculaneum’s Library in 79 A.D.: The Villa of the Papyri Sandra Sider (1990)

The Herculaneum Library: Some Recent Developments R Janko (2002)

Philodemus in Italy: the Books from Herculaneum Marcello Gigante & Dirk Obbink (2002)

Philodemus by David Blank & Catherine Atherton (2013)

Epicurus: The Extant Remains translated by Cyril Bailey (1926)

*since I got a D in it, it probably doesn’t serve me that well

**several pictures are taken using different filters in different wavelengths 

 ***cessation of suffering

The Meal: Mind and Matter

From the first suckle to the last supper, what we eat is, at least if elementary school gym teachers can be believed, what we are.

In Life is Meals, James and Kay Salter give us a book of days, beginning on January first with the declaration that, “The meal is the emblem of civilization.” The book is full of menus and recipes, arcane facts about the repast of interesting people, rumination on the glories of specific foods, and grand philosophizing about the place of food in culture. Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin go the other direction, exploring the more quotidian side of supping in What We Eat When We Eat Alone. “When we eat alone we often break all the rules surrounding not only what to eat but when to eat and even where.”

No surprise to me. In the absence of a communal supper with my husband tonight, I’m eating bran flakes with extra raisins for dinner, while watching Benedict Cumberbatch in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder is Easy”. I might have the last few ounces of that bottle of Pinot Gris that’s in the fridge once the flakes are consumed. I occasionally eat like Bridget Jones when I eat alone.

Full disclosure, I haven’t actually read either Life is Meals or What We Eat When We Eat Alone in their respective entireties. They’re in my pantry with the cookbooks, and I dip into them to look at the watercolors, or to sympathize with Balzac’s excessive love of coffee (30 cups a day is too much, even for me), but their titles, especially juxtaposed, often give me ideas. I remember the food of a few meals with great clarity, but most of what I eat is a comforting habit. It is less the food itself, and more context.

When I go to Four Barrel Coffee for breakfast, I always order an espresso, sipped in a few swallows before my cappuccino is ready to linger over with a blackberry-pistachio croissant. The enjoyment of this meal is made up of several things that have nothing to do with the actual food:

  • the comforting hiss and whoosh of the espresso machinery
  • many of the baristas know me by sight
  • rustic crockery in hand
  • good morning records on the turntable
  • low lights & sylvan tables
  • the book I read while sipping
  • the pleasures of quiet & solitude before a day of work with the public

This is my ritual once or twice a week. A meal is more about our mindset while eating than it is about the food on the table. Or is it?

A long, long time ago (why not begin it like a fairy tale), my husband and I ate a late-night dinner at Citronelle in Washington D.C. Suffice it to say, the food was art. The sommelier, his tastevin on a ribbon around his neck and a complete command of what was in his cellar, assisted us with wine pairings. Such service was a shock to me, and the cavelike interior was so cozy that I contemplated never leaving, but all of that? Wasn’t even the half of it.

What I remember in uncannily graphic detail is the food. I had surf & turf to start, which turned out to be a mosaic of paper-thin slices of cold filet mignon, scallop, tuna, cucumber, and radish. My main course was a meltingly rare duck breast with perfect-perfect, crispy skin, and I ordered the chocolate three ways for dessert, because if this were a mythological tale, an ungovernable love of chocolate would be my fatal flaw.

Between the presentation and the taste, this meal opened up a new frame of reference for me. I’d had good meals before this one, even great meals, but when my husband and I talk about the best meals we’ve eaten together, this is always the meal I bring up first. And it’s always the one I can nearly taste when I think of it. The food was about delight, and its entire intention was to draw us into the food as something that drew us back out of ourselves, which is what most good art does.

A Great Meal is very much about the food on your plate.

Or is it?

…we could go on like this forever.  Let’s all just make a pact to eat food that brings us joy, whether alone or with people who bring us joy, whenever possible.

time for a Marclay Cookie Plate from Blue Bottle SFMOMA
time for a Marclay Cookie Plate from Blue Bottle SFMOMA


Portland, OR

The first post of a new blog is bloated with the implication of Great Import. I’ve sat here considering what to write about for several fraught minutes (43, to be exact) and all I can really think of is that it’s so weird, my husband isn’t coming home from work tonight. He’s going to Portland instead.

Portland is one of those places: people who haven’t been there tend to roll their eyes at you when you wax poetic about its many charms. I’ve heard it called the Milwaukee of the West*, which suits me just fine. I enjoyed living in Milwaukee. Even the frequent blizzards carried a certain glamour, at least until you had to dig your car out of a snowbank with a broom** because you didn’t have the foresight to own a shovel. In my estimation, Milwaukee and Portland have the following things in common:

  • proper devotion to beer
  • interestingamazing, engaged people doing whatever strikes their fancy, on a scale from weird to wonderful
  • predilection for art of all kinds
  • natural water features
  • bacon in virtually everything

You can’t get coffee in Milwaukee like the sublime coffee you get in Portland, which is why Portland wins. Also, there’s a preponderance of restaurants specializing in Southern cooking in PDX. I’ve never had fried green tomatoes as good as my grandma’s anywhere except at Pine State Biscuits. Sealing the deal, Ground Kontrol has so many more games than the Landmark. Plus? Waterfalls.

Bon Voyage to my husband. Bon Matinée to my weblog.

put a little bird on it
put a little bird on it

*come to think of it, maybe it’s just us Milwaukeeans who call it that…

**actual events more amusing in retrospect than they seemed at the time