The Divine Comedy

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...

Dante’s vision of God, as depicted by Gustave Dore

Have you ever wondered why Dante’s most famous work is called The Divine Comedy? Perhaps, in high school or college, you read selections from the opening section, “Inferno,” which depicts an imagined journey through hell. There was certainly bitter humor there, with sinners punished in macabre tortures that mirrored the sins they committed during life – the adulterers locked in eternal embrace, liars marching through knee-deep manure – but there wasn’t anything comedic about it. It was terrifying, as Dante intended.

Ancient critics classified drama into two basic categories: tragedy and comedy. The most basic distinction between the two was the ending. A tragedy, no matter how happy or humorous individual scenes may be, always ended badly — in death — for the protagonists. No matter how romantic the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet might be, no matter how close it seems Hamlet comes to discovering the truth about his father’s death, we know that, because these plays are tragedies, they will end in death. This foreknowledge colors the rest of the plot, giving the romance or close calls with success a bitter overtone.

A comedy, meanwhile, ends happily, usually with a joyful wedding and feast. The characters may face tribulation, even encounter brushes with death, but we know that it will all work out in the end. Not merely work out, either, but finish with a celebration. That — the joyous ending, the improvement in their lives, the discovery of true happiness — is the defining mark of a comedy. The humor of a traditional comedy, in fact, often comes from the audience’s foreknowledge that everything will be fine, making it difficult for us to take seriously any troubles faced by the heroes.

Dante’s Divine Comedy has exactly this kind of ending. “Inferno” is the section most commonly read in school, but that’s only the first of three sections of the Divine Comedy. After hell, Dante’s fictional self travels on to Purgatory in “Purgatorio,” where he meets people who are on their way to perfection, and then to Heaven, “Paradiso.” The Divine Comedy concludes with a mystical vision of Dante’s encounter with God. The final book of the Bible, Revelation, depicts this moment as both a wedding and a feast – the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. It is indeed a comedy, in the truest, deepest sense of the word.

While the Divine Comedy is a work of poetry – Dante’s imaginative depiction of what the afterlife is like – his vision of the cosmic story as fundamentally a comedy is rooted in the Bible’s own story. As we’ve already seen, Revelation shows us that God’s story ends with a wedding and a feast. No matter what troubles we encounter before the story ends, no matter how close we may come to tragedy, the story ends with a celebration.

And that knowledge should shape how we regard everything that happens between now and then.

Netflix is the New Superstation

Leave It to Beaver

TV: Teaching kids to vandalize sidewalks since 1957!

When I was a kid, some of my favorite shows went off the air before I was even born: Gilligan’s IslandThe Addams FamilyLeave It to BeaverThe Brady Bunch. Not only were there fewer channels on the television, but the channels that did exist had a much smaller back catalog of shows they could show. The two superstations on our local cable — WGN out of Chicago and TBS out of Atlanta — showed these old sitcoms on regular rotation.

Since there are now hundreds of channels, and a seemingly endless supply of new shows to choose from, I worried that my kids would be deprived of “vintage” programming as they developed their own tastes.

I shouldn’t have worried. Through Netflix, they’ve discovered plenty of classic shows — well, “classic” shows anyway. My 7- and 4-year-olds are currently obsessed with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but I have introduced them to The Addams FamilyLeave It to Beaver, and even newer programs like The Cosby Show.

And they don’t have to suffer through any Cubs games to get to the good stuff.

The Best Cover Letter Tips Ever

Letter from Lyman Spencer

Nothing says “Hire me now!” like super-curly handwriting. (Or, in this case, “please send me some rulers!”)

When you’re approaching a company for employment, your cover letter is your opportunity to make a great first impression. These tips will guarantee that you get the attention you deserve.

Provide concrete examples of your qualifications for the job. By “concrete,” I mean “specific,” unless the job involves actual concrete, in which case I mean “concrete.”

Be brief and to the point. Cover letters longer than one page are suitable only for direct mail solicitation positions. For those, cover letters should be no shorter than five pages, with multiple inserts, sent to the hiring manager several times a week in differently colored envelopes to test open rates.

Specify the position for which you are applying. “Whatever you’ve got” is not specific enough.

Mention where you learned about the position. This is especially important for companies with many openings. It would be awfully embarrassing to be interviewed for a position with slightly different requirements!

Use LinkedIn and other websites to research the hiring manager and personalize your greeting. For example, “What up, Joe! How’s that hawt wife of yours?” would be suitable only if you can verify that his wife is indeed “hawt.”

If you have been referred by someone known to the hiring manager, mention his or her name. Be careful, though, because you don’t want to seen as a name-dropper.

Here’s an example of name-dropping:

Last night, at LeBron’s house, Kim Kardashian said I would be perfect for this job. Philip Roth and that little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild agreed.

Here’s an example of using references well:

Dear Dad, Mom said you need to give me a job.

Don’t go into details about why you’re looking for work or how long you have been looking. That’s what your blog is for.

If you include URLs to online portfolios or resumes, make sure you have created a custom, personalized URL. Instead of a random string of letters and numbers, use something like “”

Cast yourself in the best possible light. Use words like “awesome,” “rocking,” and “superstar” multiple times in your letter.

Consider hand delivering your cover letter. Almost no one does that, mainly because it’s creepy. If you go this route, consider taping your cover letter to a rocking box of homemade chocolate chip cookies. Consider sending me a box, too, as thanks for this awesome advice. Then you’ll be a superstar.

Use a professional-looking font. Comic Sans is not professional, unless you’re applying to every freaking business in my town. What is up with these people?

A little dab of perfume never hurts.

Ten Things I’ve Learned from Downton Abbey [SPOILERS]

Fair warning: there are spoilers below. If you haven’t watched all three seasons of Downton Abbey yet, seriously, what’s your problem? 

1. It’s OK to fall in love with your cousin if she/he has a lot of land and/or money.

2. WWI and the Spanish Flu were pretty awful, though mainly for minor characters. On the other, they were pretty handy for resolving tricky plot situations.

3. Most everyone back then had fairly open attitude about you-know-what. (I’d say what, but we’re not supposed to talk about it.)

4. I need someone to help me get dressed in the morning. Scratch that — I need someone to help my kids get dressed in the morning.

5. Dowagers are awesome and hilarious. So awesome, my wife blurted out during one episode, “I want to be a dowager!” (When I pointed out that I would have to be dead, it dampened her enthusiasm only slightly.)

6. Being a former prostitute and being a former professional entertainer carry similar levels of shame.

7. If brought off correctly, letting yourself be shot in the hand and kidnapping your boss’s dog can open doors for you. (If any publishers are reading this, please contact me about The Thomas Barrow Guide to Career Change.)

8. Next time you need to win a game of tug-of-war, see if you can recruit a 50-something shopkeeper. (Related: When you need to fill out a cricket team, young boys will magically appear as needed.)

9. If you love your husband or wife, don’t ever have a baby. Ever.

10. Maybe it is a good idea to have a chaffeur.

A Letter to My Daughter

Dear Daughter,

If you’re reading this, you’re finally old enough to know the truth. Or you’ve figured out how to disable parental controls, which means I can’t keep anything from you anyway.

First, please know that I love you. What you’re about to read will raise many questions, and you may begin to doubt all that you know about me. Never doubt that I love you, despite the terrible secret I’ve been keeping from you. Despite all that I’ve done without your knowledge for all these years.

You’re old enough to suspect that something is not quite right. I’ve been afraid that you will figure it out on your own one day. Frankly, it’s a bit surprising that you haven’t reached this conclusion on your own. The evidence has been right in front of you for years.

OK, here goes.

I’ve been eating your candy.

This comes as a great shock, I know, and you’re tempted to reject the idea. Just ask yourself a few questions.

  • Doesn’t it seem like your Halloween, Valentine’s, and Easter candy doesn’t last as long as it should? It’s a huge bag. Shouldn’t it last more than a day or two?
  • Why do you always seem to have so few Starburst, Butterfinger, and Skittles? Heck, have you even tasted a Butterfinger? I’m pretty sure I eat all of them first.
  • Don’t you wonder why your little brother acts so confused when you accuse him of taking your candy? Usually, he’s all “No, no, it wasn’t me!”, not “Why would I do that? Won’t the firemen be mad?”

I am so, so sorry to have betrayed your trust in this way. I hope you’ll forgive me. Also, I hope that you’ll tell me where you’ve hidden your candy.

Your loving father

P.S. Please don’t tell your brother that we aren’t giving his candy to firemen as thanks for their bravery.