Monthly Archives: September 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Something about September

autumn-leavesThere is something about September. Let me explain. September is not only a special month because it is the month in which Harry Jakes, the father of Elaine Jakes and a major character in the Curious Autobiography, was born.9781480814738_COVER.indd He was among the great ones of the family. His first and middle names, Harry Reed, were transmitted intact to a great grandson who went on to become a pastor, something no doubt that would have delighted Harry, as it did Elaine. And incidentally, the elder Harry, her father, welcomed her into this life, while the younger Harry was the last person to tell her that she was loved as she went to sleep for the last time.

But the fact that the elder Harry was born in September or even that the youngest of his great-granddaughters happens to have also been born in this month is certainly not the only reason the month is special. It is special because it is not simply a name on the calendar: it represents a tonal shift. It is the pivot from summer to fall, the introduction of the season that represents, in the human life cycle, maturity and wisdom. One has finally passed from the heat of the summer to a more sober, more beautiful time, one full of color in most parts of the northern hemisphere, the gentle hues of leaves fallen from tree limbs. About this very season I can remember singing a song as a child in school, in the age when children sang in schools—I imagine they don’t now as many lyrics could be deemed to contain trigger warnings or simply be too offensive to some children or at least coercing a child to do what he doesn’t want to; sometimes there might even be a controversial parking fee involved. There might, on a special occasion, even be “exploitation of a captive audience.” So, it is anodyne, I imagine, simply not to have the children sing lest controversy erupt.

Yet in the case of the song in question—“Try to Remember the Kind of September”—I think the reason it has been banned is it is age discriminatory and gender exclusive, as it assumes the singer is a “young and callow fellow.” It was written by Tom Jones, a Welshman, and thus, however one might feel about its potential to offend, belongs in this blog. And that song, though it may set off a trigger for the most sensitive among us, particularly the callow, I think actually captures the mood of September very well. It has a wistful feel to it, and September is, in many ways, a wistful month. It is also ghost season.

ghostly-treeAnd it must be ghost season, for the ghosts must get busy in September if there is to be a respectable Halloween. Now if you don’t believe in ghosts, well, that’s fine. But apparently you’re wrong. I can say this because I was at a dinner party last Saturday at the home of a famous artist—a ceramist, is the technical term, the less technical term, a potter—and he spoke of a time when, before he was famous and had spun out a fantastic career as an artist, he had, as nearly all real artists do, worked as a security guard in a library in Chicago. Now I myself, though I am no artist (unless being a writer qualifies), had enjoyed a season as a security guard guarding condominiums, which, I suppose, is near the height of irony, if not quite atop it: the artist guards books that the aspiring writer later will write, while the writer guards condos, for whose dining room table the aspiring artist might (and this is why it is only near not atop irony’s apex) possibly create a bowl or platter. It’s the “possibly” that kills the ascent of Mt. Irony. Alas. (By the way, not to brag, but in my entire two years as a security guard of those condominiums, I never lost a single one.)

But to return to ghosts. That selfsame artist was, qua security guard in the 1980s, stationed in the Chicago Public library every evening, where he took up his post on the first floor, assuming, rightly I think, that no self-respecting book thief would be willing to bring a ladder to downtown Chicago to ascend to the second or third floor of that old building to steal a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The October Country or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. So he stayed, as I was saying, on the first floor. That is, until he heard the thumping from the floor above and promptly called the police. He did this thrice, and the police thought he was crazy.

That thumping may have been caused by the books landing on the floor. But who threw them there? And were they actually thrown, or had they been on the floor the day before? Of course, the police could not explain, and neither could the artist—let’s call him Paul. But this happened night after night until Paul decided to speak to the spirit. Gingerly would he ascend the steps, not quite coming all the way onto the second floor or third floor but staying just at the top of the stairwell, in case he had to make a hasty retreat. But he made his peace with that ghost—and he swears to this day it was a ghost—to the point where the spirit stopped tossing books on the floor. Now the sceptics will say there was no thumping coming through the floor. But how else can a spirit make such noise without tossing books? (Ghosts have no personal weight as they are spirits.) I can aver that Paul told the truth. Ghosts can toss books and that ghost is no doubt doing so to this very day.

But the other story that evening, one told by yet another dinner guest—we will call him George to protect his identity—had even stronger evidence. The story begins when George moved to central Texas. He did not then believe, and had never hitherto believed, in ghosts. But, as a merely passing avocation in the early 2000s George, just to get out of the house and have some fun, paradoxically joined in with some para-professional paranormal investigators. Each night they went on the prowl, each night found nothing until finally they visited a house that was reportedly haunted. Ever the sceptic, George carefully set up the video camera. That not-quite-September evening (it was April) was tepid and still—especially so, George averred, sans vent. After a spell, he and his partners went to the local convenience store to buy some coffee, as they knew it might well be a long evening. While they were gone there was an unbelievable event—mirabile dictu—one that gives me chills to think of even as I write this.  It was none other than the astonishing closing of a door in that haunted house, caught on film no less. With George’s permission, his personal film of that event is attached. I can tell you that I have absolutely no reason not to believe that George was telling the truth or that this video is not authentic. If you watch the video, you can decide for yourself; I can tell you that I have already decided to take George at his word.

Thus, September is amazing not simply for being a great birthday month, a turn of seasons, the fact that it represents a tonal shift on our life cycles, or even that the colors of fall finally arrive. Rather, it is special because it is when the ghosts come out, that Halloween might truly be scary. Beware of ghosts? No, but do be aware of them, especially in September!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cats

Cats are not like dogs, nor are they like people. Yet if you had to choose, and if you’re honest, you would say that cats are more like people than dogs. I don’t mean that they are like people because they have three names (at least respectable cats do) or because they often find their sole and singular name, the one that they don’t actually go by, to be the one that they love—not even the best of names, like “Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat, … Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum” to quote Eliot. And Eliot is right about that. T.S. Eliot, I mean, who knows that the true name of the cat is not effable. It is what the cat dwells on when he sits there thinking, pondering, primping and pruning himself.

eliot-book-coverNow this refers of course to “domesticated” cats, who love to be called this because they defy that status daily. But what about undomesticated cats? They have no name, they live in the open, sans house, sans cat bed, sans scratching post, sans litterbox. They are feral, wild to the core, wilder than any wild dog. How so? No wild dog looks innocent. Wild dogs are wolf-like, rabid with a small (if not a capital) R. But feral cats, particularly feral kittens, look so innocent. But they are not. They scratch, claw and bite. Why? They have no name to contemplate, no post to scratch, no master to enslave, no cat-lover to force to obsess over their every need.

“Elaine’s memoir is full to the brim of wit, humor, and magnificent storytelling.” —Authors Talk About It
“The need for fat storage first became apparent, though subtly, with the gradual disappearance of the cat’s tail. The tail, I should say, never fully disappeared; there was, even at the end of my beloved cat’s life, at least a little bit of that tail protruding from the massive lump of fat that constituted the cat’s rump.” —The Curious Autobiography, p. 197

9781480814738_COVER.inddElaine Jakes, the less-than-famous but worthy-of-being-read autobiographer, did that very thing—obsessed a bit—with her cat, Baby 81. She named that creature after an interstate, which is one reason why you should read the book, or at least the story of Baby 81 on pages 194ff. Yes, it is a true story; I knew the cat, I saw Elaine feed it Gerber baby food. But I leave that aside to speak about feral cats and the lesson learned about them not by Elaine but by a young woman, a cat lover of the same magnitude as Elaine, whom she has gotten to know and will continue to get to know through the Curious Autobiography. Indeed, they would have loved each other, had they met in this life; but they shall in the next, in some part of heaven quite near Cat Heaven. Like Elaine, she was petting a cat, this time a feral cat, or rather a cute innocent looking kitten, but one sans name. And that cat, that lovely, innocent looking cat, And that fact that lacked a proper name, an ineffable effable name, bit her. That’s the reason, no doubt, that it bit that young woman, ever so slightly, ever so lightly, just enough to puncture the skin, setting off a chain reaction—a visit to the emergency room, the need for rabies shots—yes, rabies—and, yes, shots (plural). Five of them to be precise, five painful, doleful, grief-causing and ultimately laughter-engendering shots. And that is how this blog will end, with a lesson to all you cat lovers: don’t pet the feral cats Instead, give them a name—actually three names, however challenging that may be–and if you can, get them some shots; better they than you! For, to quote Eliot again:

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History, Breakfast and Bill Glass

we-the-peopleMy grandfather taught me to love history. Though he never went to college, Harry Jakes was an educated man. His education was garnered through the books he read, books about history, chiefly American history. He knew most of the presidents by heart. More importantly, he knew what they did and how ideally the country should function, its bicameral representative democracy, its three balanced branches of government, the fair and equitable distribution of power—a nonpareil essentially lost nowadays as we have a largely dysfunctional congress, increasing executive overreach, and politicized Supreme Court appointments. Yet Harry knew how the country had struggled to preserve its constitutional integrity, and when, and why.

And thus, beyond mere civics, that self-same grandfather taught me to love history. Yet for all his knowledge of history, Harry either did not have the capacity or desire to explain it fully—he rarely talked about “history” per se and indeed was generally reticent about what he was reading, though occasionally he would mention an important historical person, offering a slapdash and condensed biography. And that is precisely what I plan to do now. Yet I will not speak about American history or even my favorite, Roman history, but I will offer one of those random biographies as Harry used to do, in this case about Bill Glass. And there is a reason I will do so.

billglass

William Sheppeard Glass, who goes by Bill, a former football player and not a “historical figure” per se, is someone whose story informed my grandfather’s outlook on life. Born in 1935, Bill Glass grew up in Texas, went to Baylor University, and then played defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, retiring from the pros in 1968.[1] In college Mr. Glass was a consensus all-American. As a pro, he proved worthy of the pro-bowl, and later authored or coauthored two books, an inspirational memoir entitled Get in the Game and another didactic work entitled Stand Tall and Straight, the latter of which is meant to foster character formation in young men. After his career ended, he attended Southwestern Seminary and would go on to learn about ministry from no less a preacher than Billy Graham. In 1969 Mr. Glass founded Bill Glass Ministries, whose primary thrust is to help emotionally and spiritually those who are in prison, though the ministry also touches those outside prison walls.[2]

Now what does this have to do with Harry’s penchant for history? For what reason do I quixotically offer this biography of a defensive lineman? No president, no congressman, he. It is because incumbent upon Harry’s general reticence about history was an equal reticence about interfering in the way Elaine Jakes was bringing me up. Elaine, you may know from reading the Curious Autobiography, was more or less a lightly practicing Jew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. 9781480814738_COVER.inddAnd thus, I suspect, Harry felt it might be a breach of etiquette to encourage too strenuously his grandson to go to church, even though Elaine took me to synagogue but rarely, for she herself did not go regularly. Yet, Harry reasoned, if he gave me a record made by a football player speaking about his life—that football player was Bill Glass—then maybe I would listen. Maybe I would connect some dots that he thought, not without reason, I was not already connecting in my life. He was, and rightly so, deeply worried about my moral formation outside of church or, in my case, synagogue. And thus, Harry also thought, I suspect, that perhaps Bill Glass could make a lasting impression on me. Maybe I would even read Stand Tall and Straight, which I suspect he would have bought me for Christmas/Hanukkah if I had liked the recording of Glass speaking on the album that he had insisted I listen to.

Yet, though I was enamored of sports and especially loved football, by 1970 or so, when this was all happening, I had no interest in retired players—they were “old,” they were no longer playing, so I didn’t pay close attention to Mr. Glass’ impassioned appeal to turn to God, to give one’s life to Christ—though I don’t recall the specifics, I do recall the gist of the record. Had I listened, no doubt Harry would have been right to infer that I would have turned my life around—or rather God would have—and been on a better path, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. But that did not happen, not then.bill-glass-on-stadium

Now I forgot about all this for a long time. I forgot about it until a year or two ago when I was biking near the now demolished Floyd Casey Stadium in Beverly Hills, Texas, where the Baylor Bears used to play. On the side of that stadium was a larger than life-size portrait of none other than Bill Glass. I stopped my bike and looked at the poster and I said to myself, “I recall that guy. But how do I know him?” And then, as I resumed my bike journey it came back to me—history, my own history, and that of Harry Jakes as well. The awkward moment when he asked me to listen to the recording of Bill Glass.

And I would have forgotten about that, too, perhaps, but history doesn’t go away and often has a way of coming full circle. Later this week there is a fundraising breakfast for a ministry to the poor in Texas known as Mission Waco/Mission World. That breakfast was to feature Bill Glass himself as the chief speaker—until a week ago, when it was reported that Mr. Glass, now aged 81, has fallen ill and won’t be able to keep his speaking engagement. Needless to say, as a ticketholder to that breakfast, I am disappointed; more importantly, I sincerely wish him a swift recovery. I had hoped to tell him in person what a difference, albeit not at the time but over the course of time in my own personal history, that record album had made.

And thus I write this, on the one hand, for him: to let him know how his own history, many years ago, touched me, for though the message did not take root then, it would later. Within a few years of that moment, his words would come back to me. This time they came afresh in written form in St. Peter’s first epistle, spoken through the mouth of another person with Glass-like compassion—she would later become my wife—in Rome, Italy, a long way from Harry’s home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a long way from Floyd Casey Stadium in Texas or the stadiums of Detroit or Cleveland. And I write this, on the other hand, for all of us, to remind us that history, whether our own, our country’s or simply that of a single individual, can have bearing on the present—redemptive bearing—and that, though we may not see figures of the past with our eyes, if we can recognize them in our minds and our spirits, their words and their lives truly will not lose meaning. Though I may never get to meet him, Bill Glass’ words resound and will continue to resound in my mind. I heard them but once, warbling on a wind-up Victrola nearly a half century ago.

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[1] http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/G/GlasBi00.htm.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Glass.