Yearly Archives: 2015

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Day after Anything

AfterChristmasGiftsThe day after anything is the day after something. It’s too late for me to write about the something. For that something is Christmas, and that was yesterday. Even before that, last week, someone wrote to me privately about the last three blogs, “I don’t get it,” he wrote, “Christmas Yard? Is there a message here?” Well, I might say charily, there is. Yet I can’t expect everyone to get it. With such a story about a fictional place I could only hope to create a small window into the interior of Christmas, as if, standing for a moment on a snow covered street, one should unexpectedly cast a glance through the fog of one’s own breath in the crisp winter air to see into, ever so briefly, the home of a family not personally known to the viewer but perhaps long admired, wondering from afar, “What goes on in that family? What does a family like that do? How to they construct their family time?” This would be especially true if one comes from a family where time is never or rarely construed, where there isn’t a plan or a modus operandi in place for carrying on as a family, but merely a modus vivendi of mutual tolerance. I shall return to these familiar phrases, modus operandi and vivendi, in a moment, with a gentle adjustment of them both.

First, let me offer an apologia (“afterward”) about the tripartite series about a town called Christmas Yard, if you happened to have read it, in case anyone else might have had the same reaction as the aforementioned reader. The point of that story is to direct the reader’s attention and affection toward what, quite incidentally and indirectly, a family might be (or at least become) and, by extension, what any institution consisting of people might best encompass, whether that institution be a church or a town or society at large. One might deduce that this is my goal by effecting a contrast of the two churches in the last installment of the story. More generally, one can see this goal fleshed out in the combination of Elaine’s deep sense of social justice and my own still-in-progress sense of grace, especially when that kind of grace, sometimes known as charity, in fact, also dovetails with social justice.

But today I am writing about the day after anything, for there are rarely ditties or songs, blogs or essays written about the day after things; only those written about the event itself or anticipation of it become well known. To wit, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (not the day after), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (not is heading back to the North Pole). Even non-Christmas songs like, “Until We Meet Again,” look forward, not back. It is safe to say that the day after anything, especially something that you’ve been looking forward to, could be a letdown. I have a friend who worked for years to get his PhD, and even the day he got it, as it turned out, was, to his mind, anticlimactic.

Another friend of mine’s daughter will be married in a few days. He recalls, not so many years ago, a moment in time when they shared at an event that likely no longer exists—for it is no doubt now deemed sexist or exclusive of fatherless families—called “Dads and Donuts.” dads with donutsHe told me that he recalls that day vividly, how much it meant to his daughter and more especially to him to go and have a little breakfast with his beloved child when she was, I think he told me, just in the fifth grade. He explained to me that he was so moved by that day that he thinks of it often as he prays for her, and that he will remember it fondly till the day he dies. And now she is to be married and start a family of her own.

For her, the day after she gets married will be the day after the biggest party nearly anyone has in their whole life. Afterwards, there will be, of course, a bit of letdown. But here’s where this term that I said I wanted to come back to is relevant—modus operandi—or really, modus gerendi would be better. There are a few Latin terms here that sound as if they come straight out of an old law book or at least an old grammar book. But lest they should become for you, owing to their erudite tone, somnolent or soporific, it will be useful, both for us on this day after Christmas and for my friend’s daughter on the day after her marriage, to reflect upon them for a moment, as we reheat a piece of pie piece of piefor breakfast or just relax and read the newspaper (or this blog).

For today is the day to put that old terminology into practice. Let’s start with the familiar modus vivendi, which may in fact be the way that any given family may have spent this past year. The implication of that Latin phrase, which, though it means “manner of living,” is most often simply a reflection of a live-and-let-live posture: “that’s fine, I’ll work around that, provided it doesn’t intrude too much upon my personal space.” Thus, modus vivendi really signifies a way of coping, or at best coexisting. While at times, of course, this has to be done, that is no way to conduct family.

Then there’s modus operandi. It’s a stronger term, probably too strong for how to manage one’s family, as it reflects a way of operating, the way one functions. “That’s his modus operandi,” someone might say, and certainly is the expression that detectives often shorten to “M.O.,” meaning the signature or trademark of someone, usually a criminal. And that’s not really a great way to conduct family, either.

That leaves us with the rather scarce modus agendi (or modus gerendi), both of which are so infrequently used that the former is automatically changed by the spell checker to agenda and the latter just underlined in red. But these archaic-sounding terms—and the latter is better—are what one really needs to know how to do to conduct family.  The former means “way of doing” the latter “way of conducting” or “managing,” and thus the latter is a bit better, because one doesn’t “do family,” one “conducts” or “manages” it.

Which brings us back to the notion of the day after, a day that might be one of reflection, especially if it’s the day after Christmas, when one is reflecting on how one didn’t do Christmas well—it was just about ripping into presents, putting up with your child’s ingratitude or worse sarcasm, and laughing too often inappropriately or at least uncomfortably at your own husband’s crude joking. What was so inappropriate that mere laughter made you uncomfortable? Nothing, really, but—yes, there was something: Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday, but perhaps “it sure didn’t seem that way.” Maybe for you Christmas day seemed to encompass everything bad about the season, playing itself out as materialistic, greedy and snarky; simply put, perhaps it felt empty. No, this was not my Christmas, but if yours should have been something like it . . . .

Here’s where the observation about the day after Christmas and my friend’s daughter’s immanent marriage finally dovetails. It is, on this day after the holiday, as will be on the day after her ceremony, not the time to think about what went disastrously wrong or just had to be tolerated. Now is the time to change the expression from modus vivendi, upon which most Christmas celebrations (and marriages) are based, to modus gerendi. It is time, not next year, next month or even tomorrow, but today, to start managing your family. That way, when Christmas comes next year, it will be special, not just an excuse to binge spend and ravenously tear off pretty paper. It will be a time of joy and wonder not because its story is unfamiliar, but the opposite, precisely because the story is familiar, for you’ve prepared for it spiritually all year long.

Perseus quote
Bartholomaeus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555)—Portrait of a Knight of the Order of Malta (detail), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemaeldegalerie, Vienna, Austria

For that to happen, a change in thinking must come, for the time to structure your days and measure carefully each moment begins the day after, which happens to be today. After all, that is the central aspect of that revolutionary but perhaps archaic-sounding idea that the Bible calls metanoia: a changing of one’s thinking. The little-read but profound Roman poet Perseus once wrote, vive memor leti; fugit hora (“Live mindful of death; time flies,” 5.153). Few have ever penned better advice. With each moment comes the opportunity to draw another breath, formulate a fresh thought, craft a better phrase. What better time than the day after to turn in a new direction, one very different than the present empty, unmanaged course?

It’s too late to wish anyone Merry Christmas this year, for it’s the day after. But it’s not too late, with a bit of Divine inspiration and guidance, to begin to manage one’s time, to conduct family, to produce a very, very happy new year, or in my friend’s daughter’s case, a new family. Blessings on that project, dear daughter, and on you, dear readers. May you find your modus gerendi, remember forever your own personal version of “Dads and Donuts” or “Moms and Muffins,” and, finally, Dominus vobiscum, which, more or less, is Latin for “Happy New (and Every) Year!”

after Christmas wish


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (part 3, A Christmastime Judgment)

Christmas yardIt was a dark evening, cold, overcast. In Christmas Yard Presbyterian Church, a single room, well in the back of the edifice, beyond the apse that lay behind the altar, glowed not with Christmas décor but with lights that would better befit a courtroom. There, the elders of the church sat in a semi-circle and pursed their lips as the head elder paced back and forth in front of Reverend Griffith who was seated on a chair in the middle of the semi-circle. What did he think he was doing? Had he gone to the home of a black man? What exactly was he doing there? They didn’t want people like that in their church. And to the house of a Jap?gavel

“Don’t you know that we’re at war with the Japs?”

“The Pínqióng family is not Japanese. They are Chinese.”

“It is no different,” Iawn Angharedig, the head elder said, “These are troubled times. I heard you went to see Germans, too. Whose side are you on?”

“I’m not on a side, Mr. Angharedig.”

“Not on a side? Reverend, we are at war. Everyone is on a side.”

“Then I am on God’s side.”

“Is that why you went to a brothel? And you took a little boy with you, a Jew?” he snarled. ”And you visited the mother, too, a Jewess? And you brought them Kosher food? Did you use church funds for that?” All was not well in Christmas Yard.

It was not a matter of weeks but merely days until Reverend Griffith was shown the door of that church. Years passed. Mr. Umaskini eventually had a hard time walking, though well into his old age he stayed rent-free in the house that Foramen Acus owned, frequently visited and supplied with food by the former reverend Hugh Griffith and by a young pastor fresh from seminary, who preached not in the Yard but at a church under the table. The Pínqióng family was not detained in the Japanese internment camps that President Roosevelt created during the Second World War because that family was, in fact, not Japanese. Mrs. Llymder never remarried; she died a widow, but like the Pínqióng family and the Armut family, she had begun going to church, and therefore at least had a proper funeral.

Yet though Reverend Griffith had done her funeral, the church under the table was not a parish whose reverend was named Griffith. It was not a church with a steeple or stained glass windows or a rectory. It met in a large building outside of Christmas Yard. That building in fact was freshly refurbished. It was a place, under the table, where unwed mothers had been going for years. Yet, though it still served that clientele, it was no longer dilapidated and the church met there on Sundays. It had been refurbished plentifully by Foramen Acus, at his personal expense. That church’s young pastor’s name was a funny one, for he had a Jewish surname, but nearly everyone just called him David.

“Guten morning, Reverend Goldstein,” said the last holdout on formality, Mr. Ganz Armut. Even Mrs. Armut called David by his first name, though the Armut grandchildren, all seven of them, called him “Reverend David.” “It vas a gut zermon, ‘dis day,” Mr. Armut added, which phrase he pronounced with a thick German accent, thick though he had lived in Christmas Yard for nearly three decades. “A gut vun for zhe holiday. I like vat you say about Hanukah in your zermon, zu, und Christians needing zu love everyone, Jew und gentile both. Also, Merry Christmas, Reverend!” (Though by “also” Mr. Armut meant, “anyhow”, as Germans do when they use the word and pronounce it “alzo”—not “additionally” as an English speaker uses it.)

The last one out of the room that was designated as the chapel was Hugh Griffith, erstwhile pastor, now parishioner, though he sometimes would give a sermon when David needed a week off. He was late coming out because he was hanging signs on the bulletin board about the Pínqióng caroling event to be held in Christmas Yard. The caroling gang would depart from the Pínqióng family home—no longer crowded with children, though during the holiday it was brimming with life, as their children had by now their own children. Thence would they proceed singing hither and thither, all around the Yard. Reverend Griffith, who had been unmarried until he was in his forties, had no children of his own, though he thought of David as his son, as Joseph must have the King of Kings. Legally, in any case, David was, by then, Hugh’s stepson, for Mrs. Goldstein had become, a few years before, Mrs. Griffith.

Foramen Acus bestrode the Griffiths as he left the church about the same time, and they all made the long walk back to Christmas Yard. “Merry Christmas!” he said, “I am looking forward to caroling with the Pínqióng family next week. Lord knows, some of the folks in the Yard need to heed the words of those good songs of Christmas.”

“Indeed, we are, too, “Mrs. Griffith said glancing at Hugh, whom people now thought of more as “Hugh” than as “Reverend Griffith.” She then added, “Thank you for all you do for this church, Acus.”

“It’s my pleasure; God has blessed me with plenty of money,” Foramen Acus responded, and then added, “As you know, the good book says, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. …’

Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter
Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter

Thus did they carry on for the twenty minute trek back to the Yard, until, en route, as if to practice for the Pínqióng caroling, they sang a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” putting a little extra emphasis on the final stanza.

*   *   *

Elaine’s story ended. I said to her, “Thank you, Mom. It was a good story, but do things like that happen in real life? Do folks really care about people like Reverend Griffith, and do stories really work out so that kids without dads, like me, in the end get dads like Reverend Griffith?”

“Well,” Elaine added, “David never had Reverend Griffith as a dad until he had grown up. And, remember, Reverend Griffith lost his job. And nobody cared for the Armut family because they were Germans, or the Pínqióngs because they perceived them to be Japanese.”

“No, I know, it must have been hard.” But then I added, “But it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it did, dear,” Elaine said, and she added, “And it will for us, too.”

If, dear reader, you wish to know how it worked out for Elaine, who in many ways was the Mrs. Goldstein of the story, you will need to read the Curious Autobiography. It’s not quite as sentimental (dare I even say sappy?) as Elaine’s story of the Christmas Yard, but you’ll recognize at least one of the characters, for the Reverend Hugh Griffith shows up there, too.

In the meantime, until you read that book or this blog again, Merry Christmas. May you hear the bells on Christmas day, and may they mean as much to you as they came to mean to the Pínqióng family, Foramen Acus, and the Armut family. “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (Part 2, The Spirit of Christmas)

Those of you who read last week’s blog may recall where we left off in our story. That story was about a small town called Christmas Yard located beneath a large pine tree that the townsfolk climb to decorate each year to celebrate Christmas, whether those people were religious or not. Those who were not, simply did so to acknowledge that this time of year is especially kind and gentle, a season admirable at least for its effects if not for its faith. The religious folk then, as they still do today, acknowledged its spiritual side, inviting others to join them in the celebration, whether merely in appreciation of the general goodness of the season or an expression of faith in the specific goodness of God.

And that was, the reader may recall, more or less, the basis on which Reverend Griffith was operating when he took his Monday morning walk around Christmas Yard, carrying packages to be delivered to folks who had never gone to his church but had palpable needs. He visited an old Welsh woman, Mrs. Llymder, who over her parents’ objections had converted to Catholicism when she married her husband and, even though he died some twenty years before at the age of 49, had remained Catholic after his death. Another whom Reverend Griffith visited, Mr. Umaskini, also lived alone, having worked mainly manual labor jobs—his last being in a glass factory—until his health had run out. He now lived in a house owned by his last boss, the owner of that same glass factory, located outside the Yard under the divan, where also Mr. Pínqióng (pronounced Pin-chiong) worked. That factory owner, a man with the interesting name of Acus Mitis Dives, was a mild-mannered man of wealth, whom everyone familiarly called Forman Acus, which title the workers regularly mispronounced as “Foramen Acus,” albeit, as the owner, he was much more than the plant’s foreman. He actually charged Mr. Umaskini no rent—only asking for upkeep on the property in return for his living there—and made sure that Mr. Pínqióng always received some kind of Christmas bonus, not only because Mr. Pínqióng was a hard worker but because he had a family. In fact, Foramen Acus made sure that all his workers got some kind of bonus at Christmas, something not all the proprietors of all the businesses in Christmas Yard did.

These, along with the impoverished Armut family of German immigrants, did the good Reverend Griffith visit that Monday, when he was followed by the all too curious lad David Goldstein, who was dying to know what was in the packages that Reverend Griffith had brought to those folks’ houses. But now it was Tuesday afternoon, and David was therefore expecting the familiar knock on the apartment door. There stood the right reverend, tall, with a dark overcoat from the top of which spilled out a ruffled woolen scarf that carried in its soft crevices ample evidence of the snow that was falling out side, as did the flat top of the reverend’s ascot cap. This week, the peripatetic pastor brought with him several packages under his left arm. Another, which he bore in his right hand, was about the size of a square foot, and it seemed likely to be intended for Mrs. Goldstein.  “Though the reverend visits us nearly every Tuesday,” young David was thinking to himself, “he hasn’t brought packages before. Now is my chance to find out what is in all those packages.”

Mrs. Goldstein entered the room from her tiny kitchen, immediately offering the prelate a bowl of soup with hard cheese and some tea.

“Tea would be lovely,” he said. Once she had made certain that tea is all he wanted, she set about the preparation swiftly, getting up to leave just as David was thanking the reverend for not having been cross with him for following him the day before.

“Can I open the package? Is it for us?” David queried.

“David, really,” Mrs. Goldstein said charily, ashamed that David inquired about the package so boldly.

“May, not can, lad. And yes, if your mother lets you, you may open it. But,” the reverend said with some slight hesitation in his voice, “don’t be thinking it’s something that you’ll have a great deal of interest in. It’s really more for your mom.”

David and the pastor nattered about this and that until the return of Mrs. Goldstein, who had to work full-time as a waitress in the local restaurant, the Golden Pump, because her husband a lustrum ago had quit the marriage, when David was a toddler. Her waitressing skills allowed her to display great dexterity by carrying with unusual ease the teapot and two cups on a tray. She spoke first, just as David was tearing the brown paper off of the package, “You needn’t have brought us anything, Reverend.”

“I know,” he said, “But I thought you might be able to use a small package, especially as it’s that time of the year when there are a few extra visitors, a few extra expenses.”

matzoInside the bundle were three boxes of matzo and, wedged between two of them, a crisp ten dollar bill.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “That is so very generous. Is it from, …” she paused, “your church?”

“It is from God,” he said. “God has given to us generously. We simply pass on what He has given.” And after a few more minutes of conversation, the reverend slurped down his last bit of tea before saying, “Well, I had better be off now. I’ve got a few more errands to run.”

“Can I come along?” David asked before the Reverend could stand up and draw his overcoat, scarf and hat from the nearby fainting couch.

“May I?” Mrs. Goldstein said, offering the pastor his garments.

“Listen to your mother,” the reverend jokingly quipped to David, before appending, “Yes, of course, thank you, Mrs. G,” for he often shortened people’s names or gave them friendly nicknames. “Better I go alone this time, David,” the reverend added.

Before he could get out the door, Mrs. Goldstein thought it not inappropriate to qualify the occasion. “You know, Reverend, I won’t just start coming to your church because of your generosity.”

“Indeed,” he responded. “That would ruin it anyway. Generosity has to be from the heart. If ever you should decide to come to my church, don’t do it this time of year when I’m bringing you matzo.” He grinned, she in kind, and off he went on another Christmas errand.

“That is a good man,” Mrs. Goldstein said to David.

“I think so, too,” David responded to his mother.

“If all Christians were like him …” Mrs. Goldstein began, never finishing her sentence.

Meanwhile, though it was late afternoon in the small hamlet of the Yard and the old-fashioned looking lights high up on the enormous tree that loomed above the town began to glimmer, as the sun’s chariot had made its final turn toward the end of its daily course, curiosity came upon David, and he recused himself from the living room and the lingering words of his mother, stating quite mendaciously that he was going outside to play.

“To play what?” His mother wanted, as good mothers often do, greater specificity.

“I won’t be long. Can I?”

Permission was granted, with no correction of “can” to “may.” Anyhow, it was nearly time for Mrs. Goldstein’s shift at the Golden Pump. “You stay nearby the apartment. I’ve got to go to work.”

David took off in the direction that he had seen the reverend turn after he had descended the exterior staircase, essentially just a wrought iron fire escape, that adorned the side of the two story edifice, with its final step running parallel to the street in front; beneath their apartment was the Village Store, a tiny grocery and meat shop whose butcher, Mr. Lanius, was also the local special-occasion photographer, for weddings and such, as time permitted.

Darting past the Village Store, young David pursued the reverend, shadowing him, and doing so again chiefly out of prurient interest in his comings and goings. And this time the reverend would surprise David even more than he did on his last promenade, for this time he went to the very edge of Christmas Yard, descending a snow covered hill and crossing a small corner of the plane known as “the floor” and heading under the shade of a raised plateau, known as “the table,” quite near the divan where, you will recall, Mr. Pínqióng worked for a gentle manager in a glass factory. Under the table there was the most unexpected of houses, and David thought he could see as they both approached (though David still lurking in the shadows only) the reverend crying as he bent on one knee, apparently to pray, before approaching.

That house was humbler than the Goldstein’s apartment or the modest house of Armut family; it was large, but completely dilapidated, and oddly there were two young women sitting on the porch, one with a fat belly. They seemed to recognize the reverend, but an older woman came out to chat with the reverend; she received the largest of the three packages that the reverend left.

David thought he heard the older woman express her thanks, though at the great distance he was from the building, he could not be sure. Reverend Griffith spoke in an inaudible tone with the two younger women on the porch, offering them each a small package bound with string and brown paper, each smaller than the one he had brought to the Goldstein home earlier in the day. Then he left, with David at his heels, but at a safe distance, so as not to be noticed. As they neared the snow-covered embankment that they had descended earlier, the reverend suddenly turned about, inviting David, as he had the day before, to join him.

“How did you know I was here?” David said, as if making his clandestine activity of following the pastor into a game of espionage. “I didn’t see you turn and look?”

“Your tracks in the snow of this embankment gave you away. Now, why are you following me this time?”

“So that I can see where you are going.”

“May, not can, my lad,” the rector replied hastily, though conceding to his own richly grammatical mind that “can” could work in this instance.

“What did you give those women? Who are they?”

“David, it would take too long to explain.” The reverend did not want to explain to David, who was but nine years old, that he had gone to a home for unwed mothers. He simply said, “I can say this, I gave them the best gift I could give them. Words of hope, words of healing.”

“Don’t you mean you told them words of hope?”

“I did, but I gave them those words, too; I gave them an old book, too, with some special pages for them to read so they might know something of the Spirit of Christmas. For the Spirit of Christmas is one that welcomes, redeems and invites.”

The reverend had given them, of course, each a Bible, with John’s ninth chapter prominently marked for them, and one or two other passages, too, especially Matthew 1 and Luke 2, for the holiday.

“Did you invite them to your church?”

“Yes, I did indeed,” said the reverend with a smile.

“Will they come?”

“We’ll see.”

David and the reverend walked briskly back to the tiny apartment that was tucked unassumingly just above the Village Store, conspicuously avoiding the storefront of the Golden Pump. Fortunately for David, he returned in time to eat some of the gift of the matzo and a bit of kosher hard cheese for dinner before his mother came home from work that evening. To keep the mitzvah, he waited half an hour after he ate before lighting the two requisite candles of the menorah, but then, per his mother’s instructions, went straight to bed before she should come home. Once in bed, he pondered the events of his promenade, his first trip ever outside the Yard, the strange explanation of the pastor about the women, the contrast of “giving” words and speaking them, and the pastor’s use of the expression, “Spirit of Christmas.”menorah

But those thoughts passed after a few minutes, for the next day would be the twenty-seventh of Kislev, the third day of Hanukkah, the third day of lighting the menorah. His mother would no doubt have a Hanukkah treat for him, perhaps a book, like the women on the porch of the large house had gotten, for the third day of Hanukkah was often a book giving day. So he said a prayer and went to sleep.

Yet trouble would soon be brewing in Christmas Yard. To learn of this trouble, my hope, dear reader is that you will stay curious, curious enough to read next week’s installment of this seasonal blog, “The Christmas Yard.” In the meantime, Happy Hanukkah and advent season leading up to, what I sincerely hope will be for you and yours, a very merry Christmas.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (Part 1, The Gift)

Along time ago, my mother, Elaine Jakes, gave me a gift. It was Christmas time, the first Christmas in New Hope, Pennsylvania, whither she had migrated from Shermans Dale, a tiny hamlet near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital. Though she had gainful employment in Shermans Dale teaching fifth grade in Blain Elementary Schoolblain mascot, with all due respect to the “Mustangs” mascot, she had left that dale because, frankly, she didn’t like it.

And neither did I. I didn’t like being isolated from other children—we had moved from Oxford Circle in Philadelphia where there were plenty of other kids to play with on my block—and she didn’t like how the unrefined attitude of the rural townsfolk could manifest itself. It seemed a place, to my mother, devoid of the grace that she had grown up with and, at the very least, admired in Kingston, where her parents had a church home and a true home. To me, it was simply a place devoid of other children.

Oxford Circle
Oxford Circle

Yet soon she moved to and dwelt in New Hope, and there she and Sheila celebrated Christmas, even though by then we were Jewish. I think that the reason for this obviously non-Jewish celebration was not simply because my mother had been raised in a Christian (Welsh Presbyterian home) and had never quite given up on the notion of Christmas but also because an aged and quite lovely pensioner, Mr. Charles Miller (erstwhile briefly professional baseball player and composer of the musical score for Raggedy Ann and Andy), lived right next door to—or rather, just across the parking lot of—our downtown New Hope apartment at 14 West Bridge Street; and he was alone for Christmas.

New Hope at Christmas
New Hope at Christmas

Elaine and Sheila’s inner goodness could not brook such a situation: he simply had to have Christmas breakfast, and thus we should celebrate Christmas, at least for Mr. Miller. Of course, I did not argue, because that should mean that I would likely receive not simply Hanukkah gifts but also at least something for Christmas, as the situation dictated.

And so it was the festive occasion, with Mr. Miller enjoying a lavish Christmas breakfast of pancakes and bacon (sic) and me sneaking a piece or two of bacon myself and, better yet, receiving the undo reward of an extra holiday gift or two. But the greater gift was not the gift of the gifts but the gift of Elaine’s storytelling, for she took the opportunity to set up a Christmas tree—Mr. Miller simply could not come to a house adorned merely with Hebraic Hanukkah decorations. dreidelIt was not that I had to put my dreidel away or not don my yamaka. The shamash and the first candle (to the far right) of the menorah would burn brightly. menorahThough technically, since in 1967 the first day of Hannukah was not until the 26th, it should have been lit the next night, Elaine moved it up to Christmas day for Mr. Miller’s sake.

Thus, far from hiding it, we would put on display the polytonal multi-culturalism of our curious household, while at the same time celebrating Christmas for Mr. Miller, though perhaps more than simply for him, for Elaine ever adored Christmas: in reality, the celebration of Christmas would be for us all. And one important aspect of that celebration occurred the night before, when we hurriedly set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas yard, something of great fun and greater consequence for a young lad, for it involved storytelling. And that is a gift that lasts.

The story of the Christmas yard, which begins in this blog and will have three more installments this month began with hastily placing a number of small houses inherited from her grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Evans, made of thick paper and covered with glitter paint on a small platform beneath the Christmas tree. Now I think many a family may have a similar tradition. Elaine did not simply create a small yard, a replica of a town where “Santa” comes, but she created a town that needed social justice, a town that needed grace. She did not articulate it in those terms; that I will do. Rather, she created the town and its environment and thus deserves credit here for seeing that these would be the very issues that dogged our society then and continue to dog it now. So, what began with Elaine, who even on her long journey toward personal grace was acutely aware of her own and the world’s need for it, continues here. And now, the story of the Christmas yard.

Under a large tree lay a small town, small enough, but also big enough. It was small enough for anyone to know nearly everyone else. The fresh pine scent of the large tree that loomed over the town—a tree decorated once a year by the townsfolk to celebrate Christmas, though not all of them went to church or even believed in God—pervaded the town, particularly after its denizens had climbed the tree to adorn it with bands of colored paper meant simply to make the tree look more festive. Small boxes meant to represent presents, all neatly wrapped, dangled from its branches, which were themselves bedecked with garlands and tinsel—the old fashioned kind made of actual tin alloyed with lead—that gleamed in the bright moon’s light.

There was no particular year for the setting of this Christmas or this town, though one could tell by examining closely the style of the small replicas of automobiles that the year that the artificial yard beneath the Christmas tree was meant to represent must have been something like 1940, or perhaps 1945 or, in any case, thereabouts. It was a time a long time ago now, not quite a century, but certainly a long time. It was a town that never existed, but really did exist, or at least exemplified what existed, and showed the potential for what humankind might strive toward or, perhaps better stated, be receptive to.

Christmas yardBut I leave that aside for now to get back to the Christmas yard and what made it unique, beyond the obvious fact that it was the subject of Elaine’s story, Elaine’s unending gift of storytelling. And so, to get back to it, I shall merely repeat the gist of her story. It began with not simply the lay of the yard into two sections—the poor section and the rich—or even the dichotomization of the Jews and the Christians (which from the Jewish perspective were gentiles) or other races. It began rather with a pastor, appropriately named Reverend Griffith, out for a walk.

Now though the Reverend Griffith of her story bore the same name as the Reverend Griffith in whose church she had grown up, Elaine made it quite clear to me that this Reverend Griffith was not the historical pastor, who in Columbus, Ohio, in 1920 delivered the keynote address at the Presbyterian General Assembly encouraging all Presbyterians “to live out Jesus before the world.” No, the character in the story, she said, was “based on” that Reverend Griffith, but was not him. Of course I had deduced that already, as the Reverend Griffith before me was a leaden figurine about 2 inches tall. Yet that is what she said, as she opened her story.

Christmas was in the air, just a few days away, when Reverend Griffith was, as he was every Monday evening, out for a walk, when a lad of about nine years, whom Elaine called David—“It’s the name I wanted to name you,” Elaine quipped, “but your father wouldn’t let me”—recognized him from a distance and ran up to him.

“Can I help you carry those packages, Reverend?” he asked politely.

“May, not can, David… and no, no need; I’m just about my errands.”

“Can I come with you, then?”

“May, not can, David… and no, you should stay near your home, my friend, as I’m going about the entire Yard.” The town was called Christmas Yard, and the residents often shortened it to the “Yard,” sometimes with an adjective inserted between the article and the truncated name proper.

“But Christmas Yard is a small town, and I’ve been everywhere in it. I know it all so well.”

As David was an only child without a father, the reverend thought it better not to take him along. “I’m off now, and you stay here. Is your mother home? You should stay home.” And having given the lad this final directive, off went the right rector with his packages bundled with string and brown paper tucked under his left and right arms. Indeed, the nine-year-old David was perceptive to notice that the promenading pastor could have used some assistance.

Yet, Elaine was careful to note, David was a curious lad. He just had to know where the reverend was going, so he surreptitiously followed the pastor. How I loved it when my mother used adverbs to which none of my other friends had regular access. Thus did she surreptitiously cause my vocabulary to wax.

David noticed that the reverend took his many packages not to the public crèche—for they were legal in those days—where there was a collection bin for presents for the poor. Rather, reverend Griffith carried them a long way, to the extent that anything in the Yard was a long way off. He crossed over the railroad tracks, passing over a small completely-wooden bridge beneath which was a glistening ice covered pond (represented by a small mirror) hemmed by a snow made crisp with frost, and approached what was perhaps the smallest house in the Yard, though it was not uncomely. There dwelt the Pínqióng (pronounced “Pin-chiong”) family, Elaine said. Mr. Pínqióng worked in a factory outside the yard, under the nearby divan, and Mrs. Pínqióng made cookies and biscuits for the Yard’s only restaurant, the Golden Pump. Though they were very poor and barely made enough to buy the ingredients to make the cookies to sell, you might nevertheless smell Mrs. Pínqióng’s baking throughout our own home sometimes, Elaine said, during the Christmas season. That was the first house where the reverend stopped.

Mr. Umaskini’s house

After a few minutes the good pastor came out with a few less packages and proceeded to cross over by two streets to Mr. Umaskini’s house. Now Mr. Umaskini lived alone. Though his name sounded Italian to me, I could see from the figurine who represented Mr. Umaskini that he was a person of color, so I asked if that was in fact the case. Apparently, I could tell from Elaine’s response, David had asked the reverend the same question when he had emerged from Mr. Umaskini’s modest home, shaking hands with him on the porch, and indeed, Mr. Umaskini was, as David thought, of African descent, and, like the Pínqióngs, poor. Reverend Griffith then proceeded to the house of another poor person, this time a Welsh woman named Mrs. Llymder, and then to the very small house, nearly a hut, of the Armut family, German immigrants.

The Armut family house
The Armut family house

“Why did you go to the houses of those people?” David asked after the Reverend espied him following and signaled for him to come along for the remainder of his mission.

Detecting something perhaps a bit more than mere surprise in David’s voice, Reverend Griffith responded, “Because they’re people.”

“Do they go to your church?”

Rev. Griffith's church
Rev. Griffith’s church

“No they don’t. Not yet.”

“Why did you visit them then?” David wondered aloud.

“To bring them packages.”

“What was in the packages?”

“It’s not so much what is in a package as it is what it means,” the reverend responded cryptically.

“What did it mean?” the curious lad kept probing.

“You mean, what does it mean?”

“Why do pastors always have to sound like philosophers?” the precocious lad queried.

Their conversation went on a few more minutes in this vein, with David never learning what was in the packages or quite ascertaining precisely why the peripatetic pastor had gone to the houses of folks who were not his own parishioners in the first place. He deduced that it had something to do with Christmas, with the true meaning of Christmas.

And this is where the story of the Christmas Yard begins, with a unique expression of love by a Welsh Presbyterian pastor for those different than himself, those who did not belong to his flock. But it will not end here. It will continue, as did (and does) Elaine’s story. I hope to find you curious about what comes next, next week. For now, goodbye, in the truest sense of that word, and though it is still a few weeks away, Merry Christmas to you, in the most expansive sense of that expression.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thoughts on “Thank You” and Related Natterings

I have a friend named Grace. We have been friends for years, and I always liked her ever since meeting her in, I think, perhaps the 4th or 5th grade. Though her own travels took her as far as Australia—long story—for the past several years Grace has had the rare privilege of living in the town in which we both grew up, New Hope, Pennsylvania. I, meanwhile, have lived in a variety of places, from Burlington, Vermont to Pennsylvania, to Rome, to New Jersey, and finally now Texas.texasflagstate

In Texas, oddly enough, I made another friend named Grazia, which is, of course, merely Italian for Grace. I always liked my Italian friend Grazia and her husband, Max, though I’ve not seen them for several years now since they moved to Houston. Both of their names sound like the Italian for thank you, grazie. Indeed, the Italian word for thank you is simply the plural of Grazia’s name, and therefore means “graces.”

“How funny,” I thought to myself the other day when I was out jogging. When you thank someone in Italian you’re sending them graces. And then I thought of Latin, of course, and it is the same. Welsh, gras, is an obvious cognate, though bendith conveys the idea, too, with an element of blessing. And what about Greek? Eucharisto. “Blessing be to you!” Well, it is the same. In fact, right in the middle of the word is a variation on that same idea again—charis—a blessing that is a gift given freely. And then, as if a Lutheran with his catechism in front of him, I thought, “What does this mean?” It means, of course, you want to bless the person who did you a good turn. You want to bless them freely.

But it means much more than that, much, much more, just as “good-bye” means more. The latter expression means, you may know, “God be with ye.” The PC crowd, who are now seeking to expunge any reference to “Woodrow Wilson” from Princeton, will no doubt go after “good-bye” next; surely good-bye is at least a micro-aggression against proper atheists and possibly even agnostics. Likewise, the word “grace” means much more than merely “grace.” It means blessing in the highest; it means a blessing with no strings attached.

Someone very dear to me this week said, “Words are just words.” Could he really know what he was saying? Does he not realize that words are more often than not much more beautiful, much more powerful than actions. It would be like saying, “art is just art,” or “the sculpture is just stone.” Think about the idea that the David of Michelangelo should be described as “just stone.” No, my friend, never tell a philologist that words are just words, for he will tell you that they actually always mean something. They mean a great deal. Wrought well, they can be the equivalent of Michelangelo’s David. They can bring healing; they can render peace; undergirt by proper actions, they can change the world.

Thank-You-word-cloud-1024x7911But back to “thank you.” In Welsh, it is less comely (Diolch) pronounced with more phlegm than the Flemish Dank or the Dutch dankjuwel or the more widely known German Danke. Eucharisto. Grazie. Gratias ago. I render you graces, a blessing with no strings attached. I give you a free gift, a bunch of them. That is how thankful I am: there are no strings attached to my sentiment toward you. I recognize that your gift came to me with a similar spirit of free gift-giving. Thank you for that. That’s what “thank you” really means. And at the center of it is grace.

Then, as I was jogging, I thought about forgiveness, which is an exercise of that grace, certainly the most difficult exercise of it. Is that something like the “amazing grace” about which one might sing on any given Sunday? It is, rather, a response to it. I thought about it in part because I have a dear friend—actually a couple of friends—who need very much to exercise that grace now toward one another and toward others as well. Sadly, they don’t realize that the rendering of forgiveness would free themselves much more than the person whom they might forgive. No, they seem to think of the exercise of grace as some kind of transaction. At least one of them—perhaps both—feels that someone “owes them” something and he is demanding his due recompense; that he is a fool not to claim that recompense. That his whole life has been one of being taken advantage of, and he’s had enough. What he can’t see, of course, is that the forgiveness he needs to render will actually liberate himself more than the person whom he needs to forgive. (“Forgive us our sins as we …” What does this mean? I leave that aside.)

To find grace, I’ve tried to tell him, one must turn around. This is especially true when one is looking in a mirror and blaming every uncomely feature of oneself on someone else. “My nose—I hate it!—I got that from my mother’s side of the family. My ears—too small!—alas, alack, they’re from my father’s side!” Standing right in front of the mirror means quite often obscuring the other folks in the room, or if you do see them, they’re way behind you and in fact you’re viewing them in reverse. In truth, one rarely realizes that even when looking at oneself in a mirror one only sees oneself backwards. I simply mean this: a right- handed person in a mirror appears to be left-handed. Your hair will be parted quite on the opposite side than you really part it. The words on your t-shirt come out all backwards and funny looking. You can’t trust mirrors, and psychologists tell us that it is unhealthy, or at least a little strange, to spend too much time gazing in a mirror, where one can see oneself, certainly, but the vision that we see is skewed and inaccurate, blocking out those behind us or, even when not, seeing them in a skewed and inaccurate way, as well.

But it’s hard to turn away from the mirror and render grace to those behind you, especially when you can empathize better with the person in that mirror than you can with anyone else. Yes, that may be true, but the person you see in the mirror may not be who you think he is. First of all, as we already said, at the very least, he is backwards from the reality. And so is anyone else you see in the background. Your vision, which seems so accurate to you, is, necessarily, inaccurate, certainly when it comes to yourself. Secondly, the person you see in the looking glass may be not the real thing in a number of other ways. Folks with anorexia, for example, sadly do not see that they are morbidly underweight. Instead, they think they see, studies have shown, a person who is overweight; those who are morbidly obese quite often see something quite the opposite, or fail to recognize the danger that they behold.

But let me get back to grace. If you have a friend named Grace, as I do, be thankful. By virtue of her very name, she will, of course, remind you to be so. She will, too, remind you to be generous, as one needs to render grace freely. Her name will also—and this is most important—remind you to be more than giving; her name reminds you to be forgiving, not simply of those who have wronged you somehow—in ways that may appear in your mirror as MACRO-aggressions but in reality, when you turn away from the mirror, are, at the most, micro-aggressions—but also of yourself, and of everyone. What better time of year than the Christmas season to turn away from the mirror, which can so easily deceive, and to face reality, become thankful, giving, and most of all forgiving?

Well, I leave this all aside to allow this week’s blog to remain short and sweet, and to close with a tasty treat, the classic Welsh cookie—also known as Welsh cakes—that our family has eaten at Christmastime every year without interruption since Lucy Hughes Jones arrived from Wales in 1869. The recipe is that of Blanche Jakes, though she herself got from Elizabeth Ann Evans, her mother, who got it from her mother, Lucy Hughes Jones. Though Welsh cookies do not go so well with hot chocolate or coffee—I’ve tried them, and I don’t recommend—they are delightful with tea, truly amazing. You will give thanks for them if you try them with tea. So I recommend baking them, sharing them with friends. Even Elaine’s father, Harry Jakes, who hated raisins, loved them, though he dutifully removed the raisins, an act that always drove his wife Blanche to distraction.

Next week’s blog will be the first in a series of stories about Christmas. I hope you like them. Though they are technically fictional, like the Curious Autobiography, they are all essentially true; they hark back to a true time, one long past, when terrorism didn’t exist, or if it did, it was unknown to the community described in the stories. Then, even though grief and sorrow were all too familiar, thankfulness was simply an aspect of life, as was grace. And forgiveness was well known, as well. In that community, as you will see if you care to read these stories in their weekly installments—and here’s the spoiler alert—grace, in the end, would prevail. Please enjoy those tales, the Stories of a Christmas Yard, as you sit by your fireplace next to your Christmas tree, with your feet up on the divan,

divine divan
a divine divan

and a cup of good Paned Gymreig tea served with a Welsh cookie or two. In the meantime, I hope you have had a Happy Thanksgiving, which itself is a felicitous rendering of grace. Diolch i chi, darllenydd annwyl, grazie, eucharisto, gratias, Vielen Dank—simply put, thanks for reading and, for now, good-bye!

welsh cookies recipe

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thanksgiving Day as Memory Day (and a Tender Turkey Recipe)

Thanksgiving Day in America is a time of great joy for some, joy sometimes laced with sorrowful memories. Yet one aspect that I particularly enjoy about Thanksgiving is the opportunity to recall, to reflect not simply on the many blessings of the year but also upon old friendships, family members who have passed away, and even those who are alive and well but who live at a great distance. Seeing Emil and Janet (née Jakes) a few weeks ago in Nanticoke was a blessing; reuniting with an old friend, like my Austrian friend Peter, who is coming to visit this Thanksgiving will be a sweeter treat than the pumpkin pie.

Indeed, seeing a friend after many years is a uniquely wonderful thing. A few days ago I was in Europe, finishing a trip to Paris and Rome. (God bless Paris, in this hour, and all of humanity in a difficult and especially tense moment.) On that occasion just over a week ago now, I went for the first time, at the invitation of a friend, to the university known as La Sapienza, Rome’s most renowned university.

La Sapienta bas relief
La Sapienza bas relief

The name of the university (in Italy held in as high regard as Oxford or Princeton is among Anglophones) means, when translated, “The Wisdom,” and though it enjoys perhaps the most interesting name of all the major institutions of higher learning in the world, it suffers from the starkest architecture and least comely examples of bas relief.[1]

The reason for this is that most of the buildings of La Sapienza were designed by Marcello Piacentini (a name that means “little pleasing” and whose buildings please but litte), one of the principal architects of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, under whom apparently ugly was then the new beautiful, just as abject was the new free. Yet this blog is not to be about politics or architecture or intended to slander the no doubt well-intentioned educational wing of the fascist regime, or even to be rife with paradoxical statements or oxy-(or any other types of)-morons.

One of the principal buildings of La Sapienza.[2]
Rather, it is about my trip to “The Wisdom,” where I heard the lecture of a certain Professor Conte, whom some regard as the most famous philologist in the world. Now it might sound a little bit funny to say the most famous philologist, for I just promised not to indulge in oxymorons. After all, you might be wondering, can any philologist really be famous? But Professor Conte is famous, at least in certain circles, and the sizable lecture hall (or aula) in which he presented his lecture at La Sapienza was so packed with students and professors that many had to stand or sit on the floor. There the esteemed, recently retired professor from Pisa delivered his lecture on literary “thefts,” or borrowings, as he was seated at a desk atop a raised dais at the front of the aula.

Fuld Hall, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Fuld Hall, The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

The last time I had seen the great professor was about a quarter century ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Princeton University when he was lecturing there as a visiting fellow, as I recall, in Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study. All of this was just before he became the top literature professor at la Scuola Normale in Pisa, which, when translated, is perhaps the second most interestingly named institution of higher learning in Italy, i.e., the “Normal School.”

All those many years before, that same professor and I had enjoyed a dinner together, after which we had stayed up smoking cigars, something I pretended that was not abnormal for me, although of course he knew it was. As he and I smoked—he enjoying the cigars, I merely trying not to choke—we chatted about literature and art, culture and rhetoric, and yes, even the idea of literary “thefts”—that is the way that one author might draw on the work of another—a fresh consideration of which was, all these years later, the subject of his lecture at La Sapienza. Such thefts, he said, are not plagiarism, but imitations that are adapted, reinvigorated, and deployed afresh; they are made new, made one’s own.

Seeing him again was something like returning to a favorite grove, one nearby your childhood haunts, if you should be lucky enough to have had a grove or a memorable childhood; I am fortunate to say that I did (cf. Curious Autobiography, ch. 9). book ad

Yet to return to the metaphor, seeing such a friend is a situation comparable to when one might rediscover one’s favorite tree, the one under which you once sat reading and thinking, and reading some more. That is what it was like for me to have sat before him again as he spoke. I found the shade of that tree, its daunting height, the inspiring reach of its branches sweetly invigorating, joyous, refreshing my memory of years gone by.

We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation. He remembered me (“of course,” he said sincerely) after so many years. It was as if, save the cigars, we were discussing literature again, even his favorite poem, and mine; for we share a single poem, a single author. Moments like this are rare, but they are important, and I spend this blog writing about this one for a very good reason: I would submit to you that they are among the finest moments that we can share. Life is tragically short, and we have but few such opportunities. If Milton is more than poetically correct about his late espoused saint come to him like Alcestis from the grave, rescued from death by Herculean effort, though pale and faint, we may just see our friends again. It will not merely be in The Wisdom’s aula, but in the Hall of true wisdom.

But to say as much is itself a Miltonic theft, of sorts, which is why I do it here, both as a tribute to the professor and as a harbinger of a glorious hope. And, in as much as I am about the business of thievery, let me allude to a painting that deftly suggests such a scene, one by Raphael.

Raphael's School of Athens
Raphael’s School of Athens

Though none in the aula of La Sapienza could have known as much that afternoon as we sat there listening intently to the professor, we were but a few hours away from the Paris bombings. How miserable that the arts and humanities can be so quickly destabilized by terror. How incredibly sad such a grotesque act can render the world asunder. Though the terrorists have sadly claimed the lives of a few, they have nonetheless failed to steal our culture, for they know nothing of the thefts about which we speak here. They shall never lay claim to the liberty of our souls that produces art, literature, and what the French call joie de vivre.

Yet we have much to be thankful for, even in the midst of such tragedy. And that brings me back to the notion of Thanksgiving, much more than “turkey day.” Rather, it seems to me that we might better nickname it “Memory Day,” a day to recall both the material blessings, such as shelter and food—a sample of which might be to your taste, see below—and those who came before, whether a distant quasi-historical memory of some pilgrims and their supposed encounter with Native Americans or someone in our families for whom we are particularly thankful. On Memory Day we might just recall all those who went before us: they made our country, the United States, what it is—a wonderful cultural mélange with a distinctly American moral compass and unparalleled work ethic—and they also made the world a better place.

Certainly, my grandparents did that: they sacrificed not simply for their family, but for the poor. Harry took part in, I recall distinctly, a number of mission trips to Haiti, long before community service became chic. Closer to home, he and Blanche, my grandmother, would often clandestinely provide food and clothing for the poorer families nearby—whether in Larksville, Shavertown, Kingstown, or Nanicoke—dropping the homemade care packages off on their porches. foodforpoorSo, my dear reader, I will, for my part, think on these things as a relish the hope of seeing  old friends again, both those who are founts of learning and thosefamily members, whose time in this world may have passed but whose legacy abides. Both are sources of humane and cultured inspiration. Their inspiration stands; it flies in the face of the cowardly acts of terror of our times. From both that professor and progenitors, I will commit humane “thefts,” as I hope to imitate both by borrowing directly from them in my thoughts and my life. And in that sense, I hope you will join me and be a thief. Sometimes, indeed, it takes a thief.It takes a thief




Roast turkey



[2] In the inscription above the main portal the Latin phrase Studium Vrbis presumably suggests a center point for the study in the city rather than the discipline of Urban Studies or the like. When translated, it literally means “Study of the City” or “The City’s Study.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Prayer for Paris

… Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy:
when I fall, I shall arise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light unto me.
—Micah 7:8

This week’s blog was to be about gratefulness and thanksgiving for seeing an old friend in Rome and making a new one in Paris. But that will have to wait. Now Paris has come under attack, and those of us who care, which I hope are most of us, are caught in a swirl of thoughts and emotions about a city that most have never visited.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that somehow we know Paris, even if we have never had an occasion to be there. Those of us old enough to have grown up after World War II recall pictures, mostly black and white (e.g., in Look magazine), when we were kids, as Paris, like London and other cities that sought to recover from the Second World War, was being rebuilt and restructured. We think of the liberation of Paris in late August of 1944, when the Germans surrendered the city and retreated. liberation of Paris

American in ParisIf we should happen to be a bit younger, we might know Paris through film. Perhaps we’ve watched Singing in the Rain or been to a production of “An American in Paris” (or seen the movie) and can easily recognize Gershwin’s familiar tune. Paris is, and for most of us always has been, a place that represents something much more important than most big cities. It symbolizes and brings together style, frivolity, the power of art, history, romance, and beauty—in essence, all of Europe’s splendor and charm—in a single place. It is the place that by its very nature betokens a free society, where art and literature can flourish, where stamp collectors can wander through vendor booths along the banks of the Seine, where the name of a gothic cathedral can serve as a declaration not only for the most important female figure in Christendom, but also for the city, serving as a maternal figure for its country and perhaps the world: Notre Dame, Our Lady.Notre Dame

I took the picture you see here just a week ago when I was in Paris. I was there to meet a friend of a friend who was to help me with a large project I was working on in French. Maria and I struck up an immediate friendship, one that I hope and imagine will last for some years to come. And that is why I wrote to her immediately when I saw the news about Paris yesterday. My heart went out to her and to all Parisians for their immediate dire circumstance. I am glad to say that Maria was unharmed and is safely out of Paris now. But the fact remains, she could have been killed, and I, perhaps the most recent of her friends, would have been heartbroken; if I, how much more her parents and longer-term friends, teachers, colleagues?

And our heart goes out to all those whom we have not known, too, and it must. For the lives affected there are real lives. Real families are devastated. Even as I write this, in Paris some mother is lying on her bed sobbing (or a father on his knees crying out to God) because her only child was killed in a theater or a restaurant, simply because he or she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if we have a child, we can feel with that person, we can sympathize and we pray that our heartfelt sympathy will pneumatically comfort that mother or father across the miles, by some miracle of the wind blowing wherever it pleases. May it please that Wind to bring comfort now to those in need.

Someone might say the decadence of the West has brought this upon itself. And they would be wrong. I am not here saying that the West does not have its fair share of decadence. But no one in that restaurant was especially decadent. They were just people eating dinner. The problem with any argument that blames the victims is that it is patently facile. I can recall in the early 1980s certain Christians, some of them friends of mine, saying that the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment upon those who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons. But little hemophiliac children who needed blood transfusions were also dying of AIDS. The only way such an argument could work is to say that God is inaccurate in doling out his punishment; He cares less about collateral damage than might a general in the armed forces. But generals do care very much about collateral damage, and if a human being cares, how much more the Divine.

Rather than blame the West for its excess, I propose that we look for a moment at the human heart and ask ourselves a more relevant question: why do we hate anyone? By “we” I don’t mean we in the general detached sense of “mankind” but in the particular sense of you and me. I mean, in fact, why do I hate anyone. So I will start with me, and I will put the blame on the Paris attacks where it really belongs, on me as a human being, not necessarily me alone.

What is it about me that makes me hate my neighbor? I have spent the last 35 or so years trying very hard not to hate. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography knows why. If you’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, you know what happens to Augustine in the eighth book. If you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you can find in the tenth chapter an account of something similar. With all due respect to Daniel Burke, I believe—rather I know—that there can come a point in some people’s lives where they (decide to?) turn in another direction. Or perhaps they are turned, but I leave that subject aside; I can only say that, after chapter 10, I now want to try not to hate any longer.

Yet I admit that I have not been entirely successful. It is difficult to look in the face of evil on September 11, 2001 or November 13, 2015 or October 26, 2015 (if that is the correct date), or countless other dates these days, when innocents die in any number. We live in a cruel world, becoming crueler by the second. Fewer and fewer folks are going to church, though world religions in general are not shrinking. In the east and now in much of the west, religion is thriving, but it is not Christianity. To quote a recent article, “Muslims … in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”[1] While that article attributes the principal reason for Islam’s expected growth to “simple demographics” (i.e., Muslims will have significantly more children than other folks), it seems to me that there may be another reason, one derived from doctrine, that might speak to the growth of that religion: that, in Islam, works count toward salvation. But, though that can explain a lot and even give us, perhaps, some insight into the motivations of the suicide bombers in Paris, I leave that aside.

And I do so because we need to look into our own hearts, not those of others, to come to grips with what has happened in Paris. If we are capable of hating—even retributively—we must realize that others are, as well. We must understand that the blame for what happened in Paris falls on us all. It certainly falls on me. I have indulged in hatred, for whatever reason, many times since chapter 10. I am therefore as much a part of the problem as anyone else, including the terrorist himself.

Yet just because we are all to blame, does not imply that the response to injustice should be tepid. On this earth, people have been establishing justice through due process in the West since well before 458 BC, when AeschylusOresteia dramatizes the beauty of civic justice; in the East, 356 BC, under Duke Xiao of Qin. France’s president, François Hollande, has stated that the response will be severe . President Obama has said that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the French.

I close with this thought, one for myself, but perhaps for us all. I shall not hate the terrorists. Yet that does not imply a lack of resolve. I shall not indulge in execration. Rather, I shall pity them in my thoughts and lavish mercy on them in my prayers. Will that make a difference? Will it make God any “happier” with me? To the former, I hope yes; to the latter, I can only say that I think Milton is right when he says, “God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts.”[2] As for me, I hope to hold mercy in my heart even as I pray for stark justice in this world. That is my hope, my recipe for this week: Seek justice, love mercy.[3]  Bon courage, mes amis à Paris. Be safe, Maria …

Love Paris? click here

Recipe for 13 November 2015: Hope for Paris, and us allwelsh spoon


Ingredients (serves one [at a time]):

One part mercy, one part justice, and a cup water from the well alluded to below. Mix with a Welsh love spoon thoroughly, and live. Failure to blend ingredients will produce less than desirable results. Failure to care about your neighbor at all will produce death; probably has already. As with another recipe, bake at 365 days a year; eat while still warm, and walk humbly.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

—Micah 6:7-8



[2] “On His Blindness.”

[3] Micah 6:8.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Mars and French Food

north windAnyone who has ever been outside in a severe and bitingly cold wind knows what wind can do to your face, if you have not wrapped yourself with a scarf. It can dry out your face, crack your lips, and shiver every timber of your being. It can, in short, almost take your face away, if you don’t protect it.

Even on Mars, apparently, there have been such winds, no doubt colder and more severe than even the bitterest of such winds on this planet. Solar winds (gusts supercharged by particles from the sun) have recently been determined—thanks to the interestingly acronymed “MAVEN” observatory spacecraft—to have taken away Mars’ atmosphere.[1] These same wind-driven particles would sweep ruinously over our own planet, too—and do touch down here, but only at the poles, creating our spectacular northern lights

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

—if it were not for our robust atmosphere, an atmosphere held in place simply because of our planet’s fiercely abiding magnetic field. In other words, when Mars lost its sense of north and south, its compass as it were, Mars surrendered its atmosphere to the winds. This did not happen all at once, scientists believe; it happened slowly over time until finally the winds dominated the atmosphere that had once protected and have entirely reshaped the landscape.


Even the dust that covers its surface is foreign to Mars. What appears to us to be, and has long been called the red planet, was once not red at all. It was once a fecund place, or at least had the possibility to be so. It might have looked a bit like earth. It might have been able to sustain life, even if not that of Matt Damon, MattDamon Martianat least some kind of life. Yet when Mars lost its atmosphere, it lost its capacity to do so. Oceans, rivers, everything that could have produced agriculture, and culture, were gone.

My great-grandfather died before I was born, as most do. (His story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography [pp. 169–73], where he is correctly portrayed as a chef for Welsh miners.) He brought his cultural identity—French, in his case—as a contribution to his existing family culture, of which at that time was predominantly Welsh. I was thinking about him (and Mars) recently because, even as I write this, I am in France attending a colloquium. (The colloquium is on philology, not the most poultry area of study these days. If you wish to know more about this “p” word, I commend the fine book along with the series based on it: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Portuguese verbs)

Aside from the obvious, such as being in France, sipping coffee in a delightful cafe or the occasional glass of Bordeaux, and superb French dining (from one dish of which I affix a recipe below, one that I understand from family lore my great-grandfather prepared, though what you will see below is not his recipe precisely, but my own recollection of what I ate just a few days ago), one interesting facet of such a conference is the opportunity for rich dinner-time or happy-hour conversations. Such conversations usually are held in numerous “scholarly” languages: German, English, Italian and, of course, French. (It was lamented by at least one Italian philologist that the Spaniards are so sorely underrepresented.) Nonetheless, in case you’re wondering, Mars was not discussed, so I will not yet tell you why I opened with that semi-scientific ramble. Instead, as is often the case with my European friends and acquaintances, topics that come up rather naturally are food (a tasteful subject, of course), life’s difficulties (particularly fiscal problems and taxes), politics, and sex (though chiefly only insofar as sex relates to political issues such as population growth or how impractical having children is, which of course it is for philologists). The first two of these—that is the incongruous coupling of food with worries about the economy—normally dominate the discussion, though I prefer the last of these topics, because I, in fact, like children. Yet at this philological “colloque” (to use the French appropriately), a rich discussion arose about cultural identity. So again, as I said above, I thought of my French great-grandfather, James Jacques, who bore in his person the family name that would later be spelled Jakes and would itself incongruously represent a culturally Welsh family.

To my new European friends, the problem was clear: the bitter chill of a wind of a new cultural identity has begun sweeping across the continent. This chilling wind was not, in the eyes of the person who was speaking to me with a low voice—low not out of shame or embarassment but out of, it seemed to me, grief or desperation—welcome. When I say “in the eyes of” this well-educated, middle-aged Italian professoressa (as such female educators are there known), I speak not of her opinion, but of the clear sense of sadness that I could see in those eyes.

“Italy’s borders are porous,” she said, “there is sea everywhere . . . Tanti musselmani vengono. So many Muslims keep coming in. Have you been to Genova?” She asked me. I nodded. “The culture there—the Italian culture is overrun. It is the same in France. Have you been to Marseilles lately?” she added. “We in Italy are losing our cultural identity. We are losing our food, our country, our heritage.”

Impolitically I added, “Some of that you sadly gave up when churches became mere museum pieces and when you gave your lire up for the Euro.”Lire billEuro

“It’s terrible,” another added despondently, “the loss of the lire, I mean.”

As the conversation ran its course, it became clearer and clearer to me that the professoressa (or any of the Italians present) was not “islamophobic.” She was not a hater of anything new or different. They all had high regard for religion and the shared moral code—what C.S. Lewis calls the “Tao,”[2]—that religions can offer. She was merely stating, as gently as she could, the difference from the old days and the way cultural acceptance is nowadays mandated in a politically correct world. She was affirming but lamenting the obvious: now, instead of the immigrant trying, but ultimately failing, to hold on perfectly to his heritage, he expects society (and society tells him to expect) to accommodate his every wish. He expects full inclusiveness, so that if an author were to be foolish enough to write “he” instead of “he or she” or “he/she” or, now I have also read, “zhe” (for which many a German is secretly rejoicing), or viley to use “they” as if it were the singular pronoun, they would no doubt be pilloried, mocked, or at least corrected.

Yet as I am not politically correct (though I do try to be polite), I not only did not rebuke her, but agreed that the immigrant needs to adapt to the culture, not the other way round. “But we are losing our culture, and I am not sure what can be done about it,” she said raising her voice the way one might at the end of a sentence with a question.

At this point I want to be clear: this fine person was not saying that Italy and Europe should not have a heart for the poor and disenfranchised. Rather, she was saying that in her view solar-charged winds are blowing, winds capable of wiping out a culture. And she is right. “When I was in Paris,” one of the other interlocutors said, “I heard the subway announcements in French and Arabic.”

And then I thought again about Mars, and my great-grandfather. Mars was overrun by winds that destroyed its atmosphere. That happened because it lost its magnetic field. It lost its sense of north and south.

“Europe has lost its moral compass,” another added. “I remember when my grandparents would eat their dinner—even in a restaurant like this one, they would cross themselves and say a blessing—every time! Now, well, nothing, just ‘Buon appetito!’”

And then I thought, yet again, of Mars. It lost its atmosphere because it lost, as it were, its compass. That compass, for Europe had long been not some new, insufficient and intolerant form of impolitical political correctness. It has been, rather, for lack of a better word, the Church. “Now no one crosses himself,” she added, a few seconds later, despondently.

So I close this blog not with an answer, not the answer Elaine Jakes at the close of her autobiography espouses I once gave to a dour presbyter in Wales (Curious Autobiography, p. 253) but with a question. Has America lost its moral compass? Are we more concerned about accommodating others, so worried about ensuring the privileges of a few that we actually harm and debunk the rights of all? My French great-grandfather cooked in the French manner, but what he offered was a contribution to a preexisting society; he did not make demands of it. Even the predominant ethnic group learned the language of Pennsylvania, English. I have learned to speak Texan (as best I can). I would not expect Texans to adopt my predominently Phillyesque accent. Or cook me cheessteak at a barbecue. But I ask again, are we so worried about the privileges of a few that we could actually harm the rights of everyone? If we bow to the demands of a politically correct world, could we soon wind up in the position that Europe now finds itself?

You ponder that one. I will return to my delightful French food. I recommend the potato dish, below. I just had it in Claremont-Ferrond, a city so nice they named it twice.

Tartiflette[1] CNN news (11/5/2015).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, passim.

Commonplace Thoughts of Residual Welshman: Halloween, Soul Cakes, and Parody

— Why, how know you that I am in love?

— Marry, by these special marks: first, you have
learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms,
like a malecontent; to relish a love-song, like a
robin-redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had
the pestilence; to sigh, like a school-boy that had
lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch like one that fears robbing; to
speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.
Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, ii.1

This is, quite literally, a Halloween blog since this evening is Halloween. It is in the recipe series, which as a regular feature will end just after Thanksgiving, though the blog may include a few Christmas holiday recipes, too, and possibly, given the polyethnic background of its author, a Hanukkah recipe, as well.

But today’s recipe shall, after all, befit Halloween, as this is an old holiday, alluded to even in the quote from Shakespeare cited above. Like Christmas Eve, which is not the evening of Christmas day but the evening before Christmas day, thus All Hallows Eve, of which Halloween is merely a contraction, is not the night of All Hallows’ (=Saints’) Day, but the night before. And, because this (no doubt syncretized) Christian holiday is the one that looks back primarily upon the dead, it is associated with every possible view of dead folks, including the popular ideas about zombies, ghosts, fairies, and phantasms. As to the autheticity of real fairies or real ghosts, well, you can see some other blogs, such as those about fairies and hobs, the ghost of New Hope, or eve the hungry and quixotic ghost of Sulmona. Those accounts aply befit today’s occasion.

Halloween, as I was saying looks back: Christmas, like Pentecost, looks to the very present idea of God incarnate. Easter obviously looks forward to resurrection. But I leave this cursory present-past-future schematization of the Christian calendar aside. Instead I turn to what Halloween has become: a parody. This is not a bad thing, as parodies are often funny, which is why children in particular enjoy Halloween so much. And they like the treats.

The idea of trick or treating derives most likely from the European fifteenth-century (and later) custom of “souling,” which involved the baking and sharing of soul cakes (the original “soul food”). The cakes were an expression of thanks for prayers for the dead, which, presumably corrupted by the natural selfish inclinations of humankind (in this case, the English and the Irish), swiftly degenerated into a demand for a cake in exchange for the souls of the dead (or at least a prayer for them).[1] The costumes were representations, therefore, of the dead—they were thus originally all ghosts, and the infamous seasonal jack-o-lantern pumpkin face was meant to represent the face of a ghost.[2]

Perhaps the oddest "political" t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.
Perhaps the oddest “political” t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.

While nowadays a jack-o-lantern can be carved as a frightening work of art to represent a popular figure and even wind up on t-shirts, pumpkins were originally but crudely carved, and thus a bit frightening.

The idea of the candlelight in the pumpkin was to offer illuminations for the dead whereby to guide them on their journey after death.[3] Are such lights today meant to offer a guide for the living? The prospect may be as frightening to some—and I don’t mean because jack-o-lanterns are apparently responsible for global warming—as the idea of the jack-o-lantern must have been in medieval times.

A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?
A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?

Which brings us back to the essential idea, as I was saying at the outset, that Halloween is a parody, and that’s why kids love it so. Thus was I thinking; and then there occurred to me one possible reason why adults nowadays seem to be liking it more and more, too. Perhaps it is because we ever seek more parody in our lives. And then I wondered why we crave parody, why the snarkier the better seems to be the trend now in American humor, American politics, and America in general.

Janet sporting a Curious Autobiography T-shirt
A great present for the holidays. All proceeds go to charity.


Before you start thinking my view is simply archaic, consider this. If you are old enough to recall the 1980s, you must surely realize—one can easily see it from watching re-runs on the cable re-run channel—that pervasive snarkiness is something really new. And the reason I think that is so, is because American life has become a parody of itself. We are living in a parody of what was once the norm. Our new normal (which is swiftly becoming the new “norml”) is an America that our grandparents (at least my grandparents) would not have recognized, were they alive today. They would be appalled at the level of sensuality/sexual innuendo/bad words on television. They wouldn’t understand the new world order of politically correct speech. They would be confused as to why a football coach could be fired for saying a prayer. They wouldn’t understand why a baker had to bake a cake or face the possibility of paying $150,000 in fines. In other words, they would see today a parody of America rather than the America that had liberated Europe and defeated the Axis powers in the Second World War, the war they lived and worried and prayed through, and had subsequently stood for democracy against the USSR, sometimes virtually alone,[4] in a world that often refused to welcome the democratic form of government, imperfect yes, yet inasmuch as it represents all constituents, optimal. A world where Halloween was primarily a children’s holiday, a world in which archaic hymns of the ancient creeds of the church were still taken seriously.

Charlie Brown Great PumpkinIf the last paragraph sounds too Chestertonian, keep in mind that Halloween is the holiday that looks back, and that’s what the preceding paragraph does. But now, let’s close by looking for a recipe. It’s a simple one that gives us a taste of bygone Halloweens, for it is simply the Halloween cakes (soul cakes?) of Elaine Jakes. Some are ghosts, some jack-o-lanterns. She never used a cookie cutter for them, so they were always sort of clumpy and lumpy (as depicted below). She used food coloring for the toppings, but our recipe avoids that because nowadays so many folks have allergic reactions to them (and anyhow they’re not good for you). So, if you like baking cookies, enjoy. And enjoy the parody that Halloween affords, even if it is a reminder to you of the parody of our own modern days. Maybe, like children, we will eventually outgrow, to some extent, the parody of our modern times. Yet, even if we don’t, perhaps, if only indirectly and imprecisely, we can find personal spiritual solace in this dark world and wide, discovering our own burning candles to guide our souls on the way, no matter whose face winds up on the great American pumpkin. Now that’s a parody that’s worth recalling this Halloween, the Great Pumpkin. Thank you for your legacy, Charles Schultz.

Elaine's Halloween Cookies

[1] Margo DeMello, Faces Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Human Face (Santa Barbara, 2012), 167.

[2] N. Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford, 2002), 37f.

[3] J. Santino (ed.), Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life (Knoxville, 1994), 95f.

[4] Coates, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Politics (Oxford, 2012), 289.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Human Trafficking vs. Human Homing Ping

Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.

That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.

Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.

That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.

But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.

Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.

Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”

“Me neither,” she responded. “I had …”

“Kids that age should be playing or going to school,” I interrupted, barely able to restrain myself. “It is wrong for a little kid to have to work forty plus hours per week in a factory.”

“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”

boy with trash“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”

He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.

“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”

“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”

“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”

Muckraker photo
Cover of 1901 magazine which published articles by muckrakers.

“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”

He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”

I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.

“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”child in sweatshop“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.

Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.

As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.

My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.

Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?

And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.

Fight club passNo, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.

Human Being Recipe child working hands