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Nineteen Facts and One Lie about Denmark

  1. This past electoral year featured a remarkable first: the first candidate for Prime Minister ever to pose on his campaign poster wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, a holster and a six-shooter.
  2. The Danish media color codes political parties opposite to the now-conventional American coding. In Denmark, red represents the leftist parties, while blue represents the conservatives.
  3. Danish political parties are identified with a letter of the alphabet.
  4. The right wing Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) is represented by O.
  5. The socialist party, Enhedslisten, is represented by Ø.
  6. Ø, a nonphthongal close-mid front rounded vowel, may be the most difficult letter for non-Scandinavian speakers to wrap their lips around.
  7. When I try to pronounce an ø, I sound like a Frenchman expressing disgust while mimicking an English accent.
  8. A Dane once described a Swede speaking Swedish as singing. He described a Dane speaking Danish as a Swede getting gut-punched.
  9. Written Danish is verbose. For instance, Christopher Paolini’s Eldest, which clocks in at 704 pages in English, in Danish run 935 pages in Danish and is split into two volumes.
  10. Correctly pronouncing the dessert rødgrød med fløde, a red berry compote atop a groat custard, marks one as an official Dane.
  11. The unofficial Danish national dish is smørrebrød, an open-faced sandwich on dense rye bread.
  12. Most smørrebrød shops in Denmark open at 7 in the morning and close just after lunch at 2.
  13. In Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, one can have smørrebrød in several restaurants, including Kähler I Tivoli and Grøften.
  14. Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest amusement park in the world, served as an inspiration for Disneyland.
  15. Adult admission to Tivoli Gardens is 99 DKK ($14.50); to Disneyland, it’s $99.
  16. Tivoli Gardens isn’t the oldest amusement part in Denmark. That honor goes to Dryehavsbakken in Klampenborg, just north of Copenhagen.
  17. In 1669, King Frederick III closed Dryehavsbakken and turned it into his private hunting ground.
  18. The Danish film The Hunt was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
  19. The Hunt lost to the Italian The Great Beauty.
  20. That Oscar snub put the 1956 cultural agreement between Denmark and Italy in jeopardy.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, says Roger Ebert, is “one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema.”  Its centerpiece, the massacre on the Odessa Steps, “has been quoted so many times in other films that it’s likely many viewers will have seen the parody before they see the original.” I’ve been thinking about landmarks lately:  something seen so often that it almost becomes invisible.  For instance, sound film has been de rigueur for almost 100 years now, but what was it was like for audiences who saw The Jazz Singer for the first time?  According to Scott Eyman, after  Jolson’s songs, the crowd applauded wildly, and when he and Eugenie Besserer exchanged their dialogue, “the audience became hysterical.”  They hooted after Jolson uttered his famous line:  “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.”

Back in Colorado, Matthew used to chide me whenever I admitted to getting lost:  “All you have to do is look around.  The mountains are always to the west.”  And I’d look, and sure enough, there were moutains, their bottom halves swathed in the infamous Denver ‘brown cloud.’  So, on those rare occasions — no more than twice a week — when I got lost, I located the mountains.  The jagged peaks, the zipper separating the country.  I’d never done much mountaineering, but other people I knew racked up Fourteeners like mosquito bites.  I found found the mountains and thought:  Now, where was I going again?

The radio has been full of stories about 9/11, about the Twin Towers as a landmark.  Not as historical or architectural landmark, but a geographical one.  Anywhere on the island, people said, you knew where south was.  For me, I’d never been to the Twin Towers.  I’d never ridden all the way to the Windows on the World, and I never got the chance to see the city spread below me.  From there, I think, I could have memorized the whole of Manhattan.

So yesterday, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, after a late dinner in the West Village, I stepped into the humid night, when rain had not yet fallen, but everyone had an umbrella, just in case, and for a moment, I couldn’t remember which way I had come. I hadn’t come to attend any of the memorials; instead, the whole city had become a remembrance:  ribbons tied to chain-link fences, candles and stuffed animals, notes written to complete strangers.  And if that wasn’t enough:  in Penn Station, soldiers with automatic weapons slung low on their shoulders, German Shepherds sniffing around.  Chalkboard signs outside of bars advertised NYPD and FDNY — ASK INSIDE FOR SPECIALS, and, at John’s Pizzeria, a group of men in crisp dress uniforms queued for their slices.

I looked around and saw a bright light in the sky, cutting the low, grey clouds over the skyline into radiant slices.  That must be south, I imagined.  That must be the Tribute in Light.  A new landmark, 88 searchlights aimed into the sky, a landmark of what was no longer there.  And with that, I re-oriented myself.


Excerpt from Plato’s Symposium, the Speech of Phaedrus (trans. Nehamas & Woodruff), annotated:

Orpheus[1], the gods sent unsatisfied from Hades, after showing him only an image[2] of the woman he came for.  They did not give him the woman herself[3], because they thought he was soft[4] (he was, after all, a kithara-player[5]) and did not dare to die[6] like Alcestis[7] for Love’s sake, but contrived to enter living into Hades.[8] So they punished him for that, [9] and made him die at the hands of women[10].

[1] We root for Orpheus, not because of his pursuit of true love, but because he was not a hero.  He’s neither a Heracles nor a Theseus, blustering in and thundering out; he’s a young artist, uncertain of what awaits him in Hell.

[2] Immortal Eurydice!  In image-form, she remains eternally young, eternally beautiful, as pure and crisp as on the day she and Orpheus were to be wed.  On clear nights, Orpheus shines a light through her and projects her image onto the foresail of a ship docked in the mouth of the Hellespont, and her face grows large enough to rival Artemis herself.

[3] Skin riddled with serpent bites, veins filled with venom:  the woman herself.  This is an act of mercy.

[4] Orpheus guided Jason and his Argonauts past Anthemoessa by drowning out the sirens’ song with his own; he made the Furies, wreathed with snakes, weep; he sang Cerberus to sleep, one head at a time, until each mouth snapped of its own accord, dreaming of closing its own muzzle around warm flesh.

[5] Orpheus fears silence the way a scribe fears a blank page, the way a historian fears forgetting.

[6] Eurydice was not heroic; she would not be sent to the Elysian Fields.  Neither was she a wretched sinner, bound for Tartarus.  If Orpheus were to die, the best the two of them could hope for, in death, was the Asphodel Meadows, miming their quotidian existence — a continuation, but neither a life nor an afterlife.

[7] After Eurydice’s death, Orpheus, at least, had the good sense to turn his back on women.

[8] Such a thin line separates the Overworld from the Underworld:  a bite.  A song.  An angry mother, a piece of wood.  A poisoned robe, a rainfall of arrows.  A single, golden apple.

[9] Orpheus’ sin is not that lacked nerve, but that he had seen what lies beyond the physical world.  When people ask what he had seen in the Underworld, he replies with the simple truth:  When I looked behind me, there was nothing.

[10] The body is such a burden; the sparagmos is a blessing.  Bobbing in the Aegean Sea, he watches the Muses carry his lyre into the stars.  Goodbye, he sings, but with his vocal cords torn, he makes no sound, and like that, singing wordlessly, he drifts, all the way to Lesbos.