Monthly Archives: October 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Vote in 2016

guide-to-2016-electionWith regard to voting in America in November of 2016, I have not yet made up my mind as to whether I should vote based on more or less syllables. About that same quandary, by the way, I would wager that the voters of the United States have not done so either. Yet if one does decide to vote based on syllables—which may prove to be the most sensible way to determine one’s vote in an election like this—one might think, “the less syllables, the better,” or, conversely, one might prefer a more robust number.

Ba•rak O•ba•ma

Take our current president, Barak Obama, for example. His name, even without his two-syllable middle name, has a solid five syllables. In 2012 clearly America was favoring richer, fuller names. Mitt Romney lagged behind the president by a solid two syllables, as did John McCain, four years before.

George•Bush      Al•Gore

But it was not always this way.  In 2000, when Americans cast their Floridian chads in an election between George Bush and Al Gore—can you imagine a more concise name than either of those?—Americans witnessed the closest election in years.  In those not too distant days, short names—one syllable names—were quite obviously in vogue, even “hashtag trending” for politicians. (Perhaps those chads were in fact the prototypes of modern-day hashtags.)

Bill Clin•ton

Yet if one goes back just a generation or two before them, one can see that Bill Clinton had three, and inasmuch as George Bush had but two, he did not win reelection, even though he had an H. and a W. linking his George with his Bush.

President Reagan speaking at a rally for Senator Durenberger By Michael Evans, February 8, 1982 Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library, National Archives and Records Administration
Ron•ald Rea•gan

Ronald Reagan had four syllables, and with his Wilson he had six, and before that James Carter bumped his up to four, undoubtedly in an attempt to gain the popular vote, by using a name from his childhood—Jimmy. Should have stuck with James. Bill Clinton didn’t decide to stake political fortune on Billy, did he?


Jim•my Car•ter
Rich•ard Ni•xon

Before President Carter, of course, Gerald Ford had three and Richard Nixon, even when known as “Dick” also had, at a minimum, that same number, though his Richard sounded far more dignified. But no doubt tricky Dick Nixon, as he was sometimes dubbed, enjoyed the unique capacity to shorten or lengthen his Dick, as the occasion might demand. Further, I ween, his nickname set a bad precedent for the likes of Bill Clinton, whose “William Jefferson,” once fully unfurled, towered over his Bill and was generally more appealing than Richard Nixon’s flaccid “Dick.”

Lyn•don Baines John•son
John Fitz•ger•ald Ken•ne•dy

I won’t mention, either, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose name was far more august than his accent or his wife’s quite strange (I always thought) avian name. And before Johnson, of course, the right honorable John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a mouthful, despite the monosyllabic first name and endearing nickname, Jack. Dwight D. Eisenhower was loaded with syllables, even without his middle initial or full name (D. for David), and Harry Truman—well, his name was well balanced.  He was a good human being, I think, though he faced the horrific decision of

Dwight D. Ei•sen•how•er

dropping a nuclear bomb.  And I could go on, to polysyllabic presidents like the two Roosevelts, whether you pronounce their first syllable “Rose” or “Ruse” or “Ruze.” And what about Ted Cruze, whose non-endorsement made big news, and may cause his views, for the party platform, to lose and Texas reds turn to blues? Mais quel ennui (“What a snooze”). His name was simply too short, anyway.

Har•ry Tru•man

And where does that leave us? Well, let’s consider the candidates by syllable, not by their policies, which they’re likely to change after the election anyway as a good many do. But they’re not likely to change their names, not likely to add a syllable, albeit in recent days Bruce did become Kaitlyn; but Donald and Hillary are not likely to do so.  So what does our country want these days, more or less syllables? The veeps are all even, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence. Nothing all that exciting about those names (or those individuals, for that matter), both one syllable each. But the top of the ticket—that’s where the action is.  Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton. Hillary has five total syllables to work with, Donald only three. Are we in an election cycle where the longer names are in vogue again? Ronald Reagan was elected with four, but Trump has but three, though he’s been quite imitative of President Reagan’s campaign. His coming up one short in his name parallels his adoption of President Reagan’s campaign slogan for which Mr. Trump has appropriately enough eliminated one syllable, “Let’s” from “Make America Great Again.”  (Yes, “Let’s Make America Great Again” was Ronald Reagan’s slogan in his campaign against President Carter.)trumpreaganslogan

Now when you think about it, Reagan was matching with his four syllables the same number in Jimmy Carter’s name, but Jimmy is no less the real first name of Mr. Carter than Bill is Bill Clinton’s. On that logic, Hillary Clinton should win, as she has five to match Barak Obama’s five. Perhaps that solves the riddle and befits the title of this blog? Yet isn’t she just a bit too much like President Obama in her political views, whereas President Reagan was quite different that President Carter? I’m not sure, because I’m really only interested in syllables, but still, that bit is curious—I mean the bit about their dichotomous approaches to governing.

Yet Mr. Trump has one thing up his sleeve that he can use to approximate Hillary’s widening lead in syllables. It is not his middle name, which is disappointingly short: John.  No, Donald Trump’s advantage is the definite article. That definite article has been used to great advantage by England’s royal family, for example. One does not walk into a pub there and boldly proclaim “God save Queen!” That sounds like a prayer too late for the late Freddie Mercury.  Rather, one says, “God Save the Queen!”  One speaks not about “Prince of Wales,” as if he were “Game of Thrones.”  Rather, one rightly and dignifiedly calls him “The Prince of Wales.”  (God only knows if he will live long enough to be The King of England.)  And I could go on, but I won’t. You get the idea.

So, as you go into this election cycle, my advice is to count the syllables and choose wisely. As attractive an idea as it may be that there be a woman in the White House, do you really want another five-syllable president? Perhaps it’s too many syllables, too much like the current number of syllables. On the other hand, if you’re a syllabically motivated voter but prefer the Republican ticket, you can always add a “The” to Donald, and make him The Donald John Trump, and there’s your five. That should do it. Or, if you’d like it shorter, try Donald Trump sans The and sans John; maybe even Don Trump? Sounds a bit too much like Don Juan. And I doubt, too, that you can or should say “Hill Clinton”—or can you? If, in the end, Mr. Trump gives you greater syllabic dexterity, that should not necessarily suggest he has greater experience, nor greater political wisdom—after all, Secretary Clinton has dexterously survived a political scandal that might have landed a lesser man in jail—but The Donald, if I may, does have syllabic flexibility on his side and, though he looks rather non-athletic to me, apparently knows his way around a locker room.

Now, in spite of the title of this blog, please don’t let my syllabic counting, expansive or foreshortening as it may be, influence you in the least. As for me, I haven’t yet decided how seriously to take the syllabic differences between these candidates. Perhaps if I just repeat their names over and over again, it will eventually occur to me which of the two is better, or rather which is worse. In any case, many a happy syllable to you in this quite unusual election year.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Rhythm

Nuzzo's drumset

“I had no idea you were a drummer,” she said. “You seem to me to be too… .” And then she broke off.

“Boring?” I said.

“No,” she replied, “Well …” she hesitated again, “Yes, a little. I don’t mean that in an unkind way. Just, too, well, conservative, grown up.”

“Well, I just play in my church.”

“What kind of church do you have?”

“Lutheran,” I responded.

“Lutheran?” She was dumbstruck. “They have drums in a Lutheran church?”

“Well, they’re not evil,” I said jokingly. “They are just drums.”

So the conversation went until finally she was convinced either that I was not as grown up (was that code for boring?) as I seemed or, at least, that Lutherans had more rhythm than she had ever imagined, if indeed she had happened to think of Lutherans having rhythm, which is, of course, unlikely, as Lutherans are known for a lot things—the catechism, the liturgy, the creeds, the occasional beer and, unquestionably, the piece de resistance, the mother of all rebellions, the big “ninety-five,” that is to say, the Reformation.

ocean-wavesBut all of this got me to thinking about rhythm, more than simply the rhythm of a drum. For the steady rhythm of my drumming, I thought to myself, in some way reflects the rhythm or even rhythms that I try to create for my life.

My wife and I begin our day by reading through the “Bible in a year,” though we don’t do enough per diem reading quite to make it in one year. It usually takes two. We read the old-fashioned sounding King James—it’s just more aesthetically pleasing, to be honest—rather than some more recent rendering. Sometimes, when we’re in the New Testament bit, we will read from the Greek, but not consistently, as we’re often under time constraints. Then eat breakfast. Then walk the dog; then pray. Then feed the dog. Then take a bike ride. Then read; then write. Then go for a jog. Then write some more.

It’s a pretty consistent pattern, a pretty consistent lifestyle. Someone might say it’s boring, or perhaps just grown up. But it’s a rhythm. And in that rhythm, patterns of good habits evolve.

How? You begin your day by listening closely to the words of holy writ that, for all its violent wars, struggles of faith and even “wrath of God” business, contains rich moral lessons that (should) inform your life and (can) inform the very day in which you’re living. And when you go to the next step and actually pray for somebody, even (especially) an enemy—thpraying-handsat wearisome co-worker, irascible interviewer or truculent bank teller—you conceive of them in a different way than when you just think about them, or try not to think about them.

And exercise—need I say anything about that these days? I think everybody knows about that. Now, someone might say, “you’re a writer, so you have all day long to exercise.” That would be true insofar as flexibility of scheduling it goes, but I don’t have all day long. Rather, I have to build it into my schedule like anyone else. I confess, perhaps too freely, that it’s easy for me to use the excuse of “I’m in the writing zone now so I don’t’ have time to exercise today,” when in fact I have to make time to do it, zone or no zone.

Which brings us back to rhythm. We each get a drum to bang on when we get an adult life. Good drummers try very hard to find the right tempo for the right song, and they try to keep the tempo consistent so that the other musicians can concentrate on their roles as music makers. It seems to me that life is like that, too. We must find the right tempo for each song we play, and, like a good drummer, we should try to keep it as consistent as possible. We don’t want to play too loudly or too softly. We don’t want the wrong beat for the wrong song. And, of course, we don’t want to concentrate so much on the tempo or the volume that we don’t have fun making music with those around

Most of all, we have to recognize that we can either just bang on the drum we’re given or we can, indeed, make music, participate in this beautiful thing called life by keeping the beat, our own beat. We can be the different drummer with a good beat for others to walk to. To do that, we need to create the right rhythms in our life. It might mean that we have to get up a bit earlier in the day than we like. It might mean that we have to get into some good habits of exercise. It might mean eating thoughtfully, maybe even taking vitamins, or the like. It might mean—dare I say it in these times of self-indulgence and self-fulfillment and self-development and never-ending selfies on cellphones?—self-denial. But good drummers know that to be good drummers takes practice. And practice is, for the most part, kind of boring.

Ah, that word again. Perhaps that’s what my acquaintance really meant when she found it surprising that I was a drummer; she did, after all, come dangerously close to admitting as much. Boring. But sometimes boring can surprise you. To wit, I am a drummer in a Lutheran church where one can find a mini concert every week, hopefully consistently exclusively nullum praemium quaerentes, sed solam gloriam et voluntatem Dei,…. (“seeking no prize but only the glory and desire of God,” to quote from Luther’s own De Servo Arbitrio ad Erasmum). And perhaps quoting Latin in a blog is boring, too. No, I admit it—it is. Still, even if you don’t really like contemporary Christian music, I doubt you’d say that it is boring, though you might say de gustibus non disputandum—oh no, Latin again! However that may be, here’s hoping you find your life’s true rhythm. And if you do that well, I highly doubt that, when you find it, it will be boring.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Chance Encounters and the Pane of Glass

dickinson-college-old-east-building“You see,” I recall him saying as we stood on the dank stairwell of Dickinson College’s Old East Building located at the northeast end of the campus mall, “It is very simple, pal. Either there is one or there is not.” The one he was referring to is, of course, God. Dr. Philip Lockhart had the uniquely Presbyterian knack—to wit, the Westminster Shorter Catechism—of taking the difficult and reducing it to something highly condensed and yet entirely comprehensible.

In response to my query based on the conversation that Dr. Lockhart and I had on that old stairway, Roz replied, “Yes, of course, yes, yes, of course I do.” Roz, along with her husband and nephew, just happened to sit next to me in an airport restaurant in Toronto, where I spent a large portion of the day waiting for my sempiternally delayed plane. Indeed her response was enthusiastic: “I am a Jew. Of course I believe in God.”

9781480814738_COVER.inddI had only asked that basic theological question because I was offering her a slice of the story of Elaine Jakes, a story quite improbable—well, you know if you’ve read the book. For the fact that Elaine had been, mostly at different times, a Jew, Chinese, and African American reveals how each individual vignette elicits the annoying question as to whether the sum of the details of her story could just be coincidence. Frankly, it is just easier to explain if the person you’re telling it to begins with at least a hint of faith—in Roz’ case a good bit more than a hint.

Thus could I relay more confidently one of those improbable stories from the book, and thus did she smile, even chuckle, with amusement and delight. “But how did it happen that you became a writer?” she asked. “How could you decide to become a writer and study Greek and Latin, no less, in college? These are not highly marketable subjects.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

“That same professor,” I said,” Phil Lockhart, directed me to listen to the voices of the past, to hear what the ancients could tell me not only about history and art and battles but about honor, and justice, and bravery. ‘The words of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil,’ old Dr. Lockhart so sagely said, ‘resound eternally. Learn Latin and Greek so that you can press your ear to the pane of glass and hear them for yourself.’ And he was right, of course. Dr. Lockhart was, like my mother, always right.”


Roz, a lawyer by trade raising a son of her own, was astounded, “So a teacher, a single teacher made such a big impact on you?”

“Yes,” I said, “and so did and still do the voices he referred to that I was able to hear through the glass pane. I can still hear Dr. Lockhart’s voice as if it were yesterday. And I learned enough Greek and Latin in college to begin to hear those other, older voices pretty well.”

“But how did you happen to take Latin or Greek in the first place?”

“Well, this is the part that requires some measure of the faith we spoke of earlier, for it, too, involves an improbable string of coincidences. I wound up in Latin simply because on one solitary evening no less than three people—an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brother whose name escapes me, a future college president named Chris Reber, and his roommate, Russ Fry, if I am recalling his name correctly after so many years, all told me to take Latin instead of waiting a semester for a spot in French to open up. ‘The prof is great,’ they all said independently of one another; ‘You simply have to take Latin!’ or something to that effect.”

And that prof was, of course, none other than Phil Lockhart. “He and the voices behind the pane of glass,” I continued, “all left quite an impression on me, ever directing me to higher moral ground, better thoughts, nobler action. Plato taught me something like faith, Cicero, honor, and Virgil, compassion, I think. Perhaps, Virgil taught me a bit more than just compassion; perhaps they all taught me more than those solitary ideals. And Dr. Lockhart …,” I paused, “taught me not only how to read them and understand their words but also how to write and speak and think.”

“I wish my son would have such a teacher and experience of college.”

“I hope,” I said, “that he does, too. I hope that he gets a chance to hear the voices behind the pane.”

Elegant Cabbagetown B&B, Toronto

“I wish I could have that kind of education myself,” she added. “Where can I learn something of this? Do you have a podcast?”

I think it was Roz who asked about the podcast—or was it the woman sitting next to me on the plane? In any case, it was now twice in one day that someone had asked me this question, for at breakfast Marci, a kind woman from Pennsylvania staying at our lovely bed and breakfast in Toronto (Elegant Cabbagetown), had asked the same question.

“Alas, no, but I think that The Curious Autobiography tells a lot of the story and can direct you toward some of the ideas and ideals I spoke of earlier.”

“I will buy it and read it!” Roz said enthusiastically.

Oddly enough, Marci had said the same thing at breakfast. Marci and Roz, if you are reading this now, I hope you can hear Elaine’s voice behind the glass. Her ideas and even her perception of life are built upon the great thoughts of the past. She is there, right now, just beyond the windowpane, sharing a pot of tea with Dr. Lockhart. Unless I am mistaken, it just may be that Cicero or Plato is sitting there with them.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amazing Things about Birds

birdsI thought this morning about birds, as I heard them chirping outside of my window. I have always preferred spring to fall because of the chirping of birds, I think. And so boldly did they emit their shrill song this morning that they made me think of spring, even think it was spring as I heard the birds speaking to me from their nests in the backyard’s treetops.

The notion that birds speak to me personally is something not unusual, at least not unusual to me, for when I was a small lad, my mother, Elaine possessed a myna bird t9781480814738_COVER.inddhat could talk. Curiously, Elaine named that bird Cookie after a cat that my grandfather had owned when she was a child, and it could be argued that it was Cookie (the bird) who taught me to speak. She (Cookie, that is) had a particularly saucy vocabulary which she acquired from I am not entirely sure what source and some of the words she said even got me into trouble at school from time to time—that story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography (117f.)—but I won’t mention that bird here, for I am opening my discussion about the amazing quality of birds rather vis-à-vis the Platonic form of bird than my personal experience of bluejayone individually pedagogic feathered animal. And with regard to that Platonic form, it was neither Axel Munthe, nor my Uncle Ed, nor John Keats, nor even Elaine Jakes—a bird aficionado in her own right—who taught me to love birds, particularly birds of the wild. Rather, it was the birds themselves. Their soulful warbling, their strident cries, their playful banter, even their occasional inter-avian argumentativeness or the unique cock of their head that sometimes seems to connote an otherworldly understanding—all these taught me to admire them, even to love them. And so did my sempiternal amazement at their migratory patterns and practices.

To wit, though I have no particular level of expertise when it comes to penguins and therefore rarely participate in water-cooler conversations about them, I was nonetheless surprised to read the story of a Magellanic penguin by the name of Dindim that a caring scientist, Pereira de Souza once saved from an oil spill. The poor animal was certain to die and could not extricate himself—(Dindim has been confirmed to be male)—from the mire until Mr. de Souza fished him out, bathing and feeding the tiny animal until he was sufficiently well to be set free in the wild. Already this story is an amazing one, for the notion of a rescued penguin in Brazil might, at first blush, seem unlikely. It did to me, as I had no idea that any penguin at all would have been anywhere near Brazil. More unlikely, however, is the fact that there is an important tag to this touching story. Dindim returns each year to the home of Mr. de Souza; he does so faithfully, as if he recognizes and owes a debt of loyalty to the one who saved him.

Stranger yet is the fact that the rescue took place over four years ago but nonetheless the penguin has returned each year in late June, staying right through the fall until February. It is possible that the penguin travels to the well-known penguin love-nest Patagonia for breeding and then returns to Brazil. That is not known; it is also possible that he just goes somewhere else to chill out (a fitting expression for a penguin) and then, after a season, returns. But the important thing is not where he goes or how far he travels; that, I suppose, is Dindim’s own business and will eventually be the business of those who study and track him. Rather, the remarkable thing is, of course, that he returns to the one who saved him, the one who rescued him.

Now I am not going to map too tightly onto the habits of the average churchgoer the penguin’s practice, though perhaps it is a good example for us all. And in a teleological sense, perhaps it will prove to be as true for any one of us as it is for the Magellan penguin in question. But I leave that aside to think of the signal quality of that penguin: Dindim’s most striking feature is his loyalty to Mr. de Souza, how he spends his time when he is with his savior. Indeed, the degree of affection that he shows when they are together is remarkable. The penguin treats that human being as if he were his best friend, and thus understands what perhaps few people understand: faithfulness and loyalty, qualities whether innate or cultivated that are too often lacking nowadays.

So this week I have decided to draw for myself a lesson or two from the birds; I’d like to sing every morning—at least in my heart if not the shower—about the joy and blessing of waking up to a new day. And I would like to see clearly in the bird with the obfuscating name of Dindim a shining example of the qualities of loyalty, faithfulness and even steadfastness that we might learn from that particular bird. (I do not mention Cookie here, the myna bird that taught me English). But were Cookie alive today, I am quite certain that she would say, “Learn from the bird, learn from the bird!” And she would be right.

Magellanic penguins

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Big O

october-leavesLast week I wrote about September as being a special month, a transitional month, and I think October, which is now upon us, deserves some kind of mention, too, as it is the crisper of the two, the witchier of the two, and truth be told the gloomier of the two. It’s a not-quite-summer-not-quite-winter month, more so than November is, which drifts into winter with every golden leaf that drops from the tree in front of the house. No, October isn’t winter. It’s fall, but fall with its leaves, leaves mostly still clinging to the nurturing limbs, the wispy wings of the very tree on which they first were given birth an age ago, in April, when October seems a long way off, as old age does from childhood. But it is not quite October yet.

October, however, is most decidedly not the “Big O” to which the title of this piece alludes. Nor is Oscar Robertson, the erstwhile basketball player. Nor do I mean to allude to female orgasm or orange juice—for that would be the “Big O.J.,” nor Orange Julius (too similar to O.J.), nor to the burgeoning metropolises of Orland or Omaha, the “Aha! City,” which features a most retro hangout in Askarben Village. Nor is it a reference to the now all too popular OMG, or to the Greek letter omega, which technically is the “Big O,” as o indeed means “o” and mega means “big.” Nor am I talking about the current president of the United States or a certain city in Norway whose larger O cascades swiftly to a smaller (Oslo). Nor a large beer served at a pleasant enough local bar called George’s, georges-logonor Oxford Circle in Philadelphia or Oxford University, a world away from Oxford Circle. Nor opium, opossums, oats, oafs, even children’s owies; nor oarswomen, outdoorsmen, outré items, outtakes, omelets, Oliver Twist, or oregano. That last of these, however, is pretty close.

satan-clubAs you have probably guessed by now, I am referring to Oregon. And why? Because it has recently been in the news that Sacramento Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, is, to my knowledge, the first in the country to offer children the opportunity to participate in Club Satan. No, this is not a disco bar in New York or Amsterdam. Rather, it is a club for young children to go to celebrate the dearth of the Deity, the absence of God. But that’s not the interesting part. Rather, the striking bit is that the club inventors have chosen Satan to represent rational thought and thus have devilishly replaced God with reason and, I suppose the adult club masters believe, that children are the better off for it. They even have a cartooned picture of a friendly version of Satan wearing a mortarboard to make Satan look smarter than he really is and the after-school Satan Club more inviting, I imagine.

Now I want to think about this for a moment. First there’s the mascot business. Surely, if certain Halloween costumes can be “triggers” and produce outrage on college campuses such as Yale then the children in this group might just be offended when they find Johnny down the street dressed in his devil costume at the Halloween party. “Are you making fun of my non-deity?” he might rightfully lamentingly query.

More to the point: what about when the time comes for that child, as a young adult, to apply to colleges and universities. Should he or she actually put on his resume that he was a Satan Club member? Imagine, part of the resume might read: “Glee Club (2016–19), Varsity Basketball team (2018–20), Junior Satan Club (2016–17), Senior Satan Club (2017–20).” Now I know many universities these days are of a liberal mindset and they are therefore likely to prefer a student who is involved with an organization that prides itself on rational thought and denial of the supernatural. But still, might not the notion that the student in question is in a “Satan Club” not come across as a touch disturbing? It certainly is an attention grabber and possible a conversation starter, if the person in question gets an interview. But is it a conversation that you really want to have? (Perhaps Duke University or Dickinson College would be most apt to interview these candidates, as their mascots are apropos.)

And of course there are the WWSD rubber wristbands that would undoubtedly be released if for no other reason than mere competition with the WWJD bands of Christian organizations. wwjdbandAnd, these rightly raise the question “What would Satan do?” Since moral boundaries for Satan are, at least they are described in the Bible, fluid (to say the least) and the notion of outright deception would seem to be well within the Satanic wheelhouse, then we should imagine that those undoubtedly quite popular WWSD wristbands would be meant to encourage their wearers to nurture more than merely a tepid willingness to cross their already fluid moral boundaries, to deceive in order to gain the upper hand, and to lie as necessary and a volontà. In other words, to do what many of us, really all of us, do all too naturally anyway. And yet the brutally honest condoning of it—well, perhaps that just doesn’t sit well for me. Besides, there are the aforementioned likely objections that will turn up when Johnny shows up on Halloween as the Devil.

And that is the Big O, then, Oregon, where a Lewissian/Clarkian trail is being blazed across the as yet undiscovered territory of the Satan Club for youth. And what do the members of that club say when they do something mischievous, for “the Devil made me do it” won’t quite work anymore? Oh, to Hell with this topic. It is time to close these trifling thoughts on the Big O with a small farewell.