Helping Friends and Strangers at the Succulent Disco
Let's all emulate the ancient Roman poet Virgil!
I think my favorite line from Virgil’s Aeneid appealed to me originally because of the misinterpreted image of a succulent disco:
Non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco.
Robert Fitzgerald translates that as “Through pain I've learned to comfort suffering men.”
As we have been celebrating the famously agrarian poet Virgil this past weekend (his birthday is October 15), I’ve been thinking about the ethos of care that underscores this line of poetry. Many of us who are not Classics scholars remember Virgil as being the helper and guide who meets and supports Dante in the first canto of Dante’s Inferno.
Speaking of needed support, our weekend started with my wife Kate supporting a family in Romania (a country that the Romans first “visited” during Virgil’s lifetime) who needed her particular knowledge and experience. Kate is the Director of Communications and Family Support for the Smith-Lemli-Opitz (SLO) Foundation, so parents turn to her when they need SLO questions answered. Often they reach out to her upon first learning of the rare syndrome and about the varied challenges that will likely await their families.
One particular mom wrote to Kate with heartfelt and heartbreaking questions about her daughter: “What could I do for my girl being still at a young age? To help her in time?” These are the questions all parents of newborns with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome ask. Later in the conversation she channeled all such parents when she said, “I want her not be very affected. I want to help her as much as I can.”
I got to attend TASTE Saturday night, a celebration of local food and drink that raised funds for the Student Farm, a place set aside at UC Davis “where students can learn, practice, and model an ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable agriculture and food system.” At TASTE I encountered university colleagues, friends from the community, and friends that I first got to know at the live Pub Quiz that I used to host in town.
I visited tables offering samples from some favorite food groups (vegan salads, rich chocolate bars, and Davis Food Co-op cheeses), as well as some popular liquids, including wine, beer, cider, almond milk (?), and tea. Pushing the tea and tea culture was my multidecade friend Katharine Burnett, also the chair of the Art History Program at UC Davis. I had previously interviewed Katharine at the Summer Institute on Teaching and Technology that I host, as well as on my radio show (now also a podcast) to discuss her Global Tea Initiative. Tea is a multi-billion dollar industry, I remember us discussing. She hopes that UC Davis can do for tea in California what our Viticulture and Enology Department has done to support the wine industry.
Seeing that Katharine and her cozy tea friends had just started to pack up their two tables’ worth of porcelain displays, tea samples, and Madeleine cookies as the TASTE event had ended, I offered to help them move their stuff to their vehicle(s). Perhaps daunted by the many jugs of undrunk water that had been set aside to make tea that evening, Katharine took me up on my offer, and I got to catch up with an old friend while we walked back and forth to her car with all her bins and boxes.
After each of the passenger seats and the entire trunk of her undersized car was filled, Katharine repeated my name in thanks, almost the way that Dante does when thanking Virgil in Canto 30 of Purgatorio, just before Beatrice takes over as Dante’s guide.
Speaking of Italian culture, after TASTE on that Saturday night I told an Italian-born French friend of mine that I was ready to Zoom with her to discuss her application for a faculty position, due at midnight that evening. I work with second-language writers every week in my writing classes, but rarely do I get to wrestle with sophisticated literary analysis concepts that have been translated from my second language, French, into my native language.
Pouring over a shared Google doc that would be soon reviewed by a hiring committee at one of California’s most prestigious universities, my Francophone literature expert and I discussed the wording of key phrases and the relative merits of different theoretical approaches to multilingual literary study. At the end, we both agreed that the word “exotic” should be spelled the French way: “exotique.” I felt bad “correcting” that term on her final draft.
Like Virgil, and like Kate, I was reminded on Saturday of the many rewards of “comforting suffering men,” or, in this case, women who were suffering through some task or another. Kate and I probably benefitted the most from our good deeds, from our lessening of others’ burdens. As the Dalai Lama says, “The more we take the welfare of others to heart and work for their benefit, the more benefit we derive for ourselves. This is a fact that we can see.”
I hope you get to support a friend or stranger this week!
I also I hope you get to see this week’s Pub Quiz. Subscribers got to enjoy questions on topics raised above, and on the following: chickens, baby names, bears, soccer, layoffs, wizards, canines, inventors, capital cities that you may never have heard of, art history, men who wear black, elegies, fast cars, zombies, mournful tunes, busses, chromosomes, Jupiter and other planets, flowers, lush generosities, psychologists, energy bills, small-time villains, hoaxes, jazz standards, games of chess, hotels, sequels, fictional high schools, headphones, social media trails, witches, current events, mottos and slogans, and Shakespeare.
I send significant thanks to all the supporters on Patreon who make all this happen, especially the Outside Agitators, the Original Vincibles, and Quizimodo. I’m always grateful to players who pledge for their entire team. Please subscribe so you can share the fun of the Pub Quiz with your friends and neighbors!
P.S. October 20th means I get to host another poetry reading at the Natsoulas Gallery, this time featuring UC Davis English Department professor Margaret Ronda. See you then at 7!
P.P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s Pub Quiz:
Films Directed by David Lynch. Four David Lynch films have place names in their titles. Name one of them.
Sports. How many baseball teams are there in Major League Baseball?
Science: Italian Physicists. What Chevy was named after an electrical unit that was named after an Italian physicist?