Monthly Archives: January 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Calexit and Fat Shaming

The title is misleading, for this blog is actually to be about the notion of “revenge body” alongside California’s not-really-newfound desire to secede from the United States. Yes, I think, these apparently disjoined concepts have something in common.

ca-beach-signIt is not because California is the ultimate home of the bikini body, though that is a metonymic association worth noting in passing. California, after all, is an epicure’s paradise, the quintessential epicurean paradise. The Epicurean gods surely live there—that ancient school of philosophy believed that they were physical beings made out of better atoms than the rest of us, we who have our “triangles on upside down” (as friend all too recently described me, meaning, I think, that I have less pectoral muscles at the top of my torso than bulge at the waistline). Yet, in California, whbeach-volleyballere the Epicurean gods must live, they drink wine coolers on sometimes nude beaches and, scantily clad, play volleyball until dusk. No, that is not the connection between getting a “revenge body” and the not-so-new movement toward Calexit.

Before we establish that proposed congruity, however, let us consider each of these propositions. A revenge body is not the direct result of “body shaming” but can be related to it. Body shaming is the vaunted superiority of one person over another—the bald, bullying proclamation that someone is fat, out of shape, in need of a makeover of some kind, or the like. The word “lazy” is sometimes used in coordination with “fat.” Such shaming is rarely intended for the benefit of the hearer; rather it is a way that the conveyor of the shame asserts his or her own sense of self-worth. In other words, it is meant to be harmful and nasty to the hearer and self-promoting on the part of the speaker. And it usually does destroy the one person’s self-esteem but does little, in the long run, for that of the perpetrator’s, for that person’s self-esteem is probably much worse off than they know.

A revenge body can grow out of suffering that kind of belligerence, in response to it. If it does, however, it is likely to be no better than for the person who seeks a revenge body after a romantic breakup. The “satisfaction” in both cases is but ephemeral, and in fact, not truly satisfying at all, for both are borne out of hatred. The person who gets in shape should do so simply to get in shape; perhaps one motivation might be to please one’s spouse or to present oneself in the best possible light for another reason (like dating), perhaps another simply to be healthy, perhaps yet another to honor God by taking good care of what is, after all, a gift, a very unique and quite personal one, for we did not choose our DNA or the body it produced.

By contrast, seeking to get in shape for revenge must be by default quite unsatisfactory, for one is unlikely ever to see the fruits of the revenge (such as the former girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s face, presumably surprised, perhaps aghast or even shocked); and even if one were to, there is a very good possibility that that person would just be happy for you. “Good to see you, Ralph; you’re looking quite well.” She would probably not be thinking to herself, “You’re looking quite beefcake.” In fact, she would probably just wish you well and move on. All that work for “revenge” producing nothing but good wishes. Wow.

So, let’s agree, for the moment, that a revenge body is a stupid idea, but getting and being in shape is a great idea. By the way, if you had any doubts about revenge being a really stupid idea, consider that a reality television star named Mama June is to be featured in a television show about revenge bodies. With all due respect, Mama June doesn’t seem to me likely to have a PhD in nutrition science (or anything for that matter), though I concede that she is a far better reality actor than I shall ever be.

Mama June Shannon

But what has that to do with the growing Calexit movement? Well, I think in some ways the people of California who are signing the petition for secession—polls show a whopping 30 percent of its residents now favor that state’s departure from the union—desire to present that state as kind of “revenge body” to the rest of America.[1] And this is oddly fitting, as perhaps as many as 30 percent of the people there have, we already established, bodies like Epicurean gods. The majority of states voted for a candidate that Californians would not have chosen. Now, instead of trusting the democratic process eventually to supply them with a president more in line with their values, such as the leader who governed our nation for the past eight years, they want to break away: they want to craft a revenge body—one so robust and healthy that the rest of the country would regret their succession as much as it would envy their success.

I say little beyond drawing the comparison of Mama June to California. California is a state of nearly 40 million people. Ten percent of those receive public assistance. Over a million are unemployed. But these are just numbers, and they’re not what makes California seem more like Mama June than other states. It is, rather, its “wall of debt.” Such debt (more than 400 billion) has begun to worry economists. I am not trying to engage in “debt shaming” here: rather, I simply want to suggest that those in California who desire succession may be seeking to do so, at some deep psychological level unknown even to themselves, to build a revenge body, a robust country that would be the envy of, if not the world, at least its former 49 brothers and sister states. The problem is, as I see it, for the foreseeable future, California is in a way, a kind of Mama June. She’s so far out of shape that it may take much more than a reality show to get her to revenge-body status; in the case of the actress, it will likely take some surgery, and for the state, well, I’m not sure. In the case of both, I suppose I wish them luck; and in the case of neither do I think that the show, if ever produced, is likely to last long or win an emmy. In any case, I shan’t be watching.



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Air

On hearing a marvelous pianist, my friend, Helge Antoni play Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite Opus no. 40” this week, I found myself stopping and thinking. I thought generally of music’s transformational qualities, its capacity to transport you from one state of mind to another, almost from one place to another. But when he played the fourth movement of that suite, “Air,” that is when I thought of something else: time.

Edvard Grieg

I say time not because I found myself thinking of the work’s title in Norwegian (Frå Holbergs tid) or even a language that I actually can speak like German (Aus Holbergs Zeit)—Little did I know until later that “time” (tid) was even in the original title. Nor was it the fact that the piece was written in 1884 to celebrate something that had occurred a bicentenary before, the commemoration of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth; that detail I found out at the concert, though I think I had read it somewhere previously. But I had forgotten that when I was thinking about time, even as I listened intently to Mr. Antoni playing the piece so movingly, so timelessly.

If you recall the movements of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, you perhaps already know that they are based on eighteenth-century dance forms that were themselves connected with Baroque music, the music and the style of dance that came from when Holberg himself was living. [1] The Holberg Suite, then, was written to do precisely what it did for me, to transport someone through time to a previous epoch.

But the epoch in which I found myself was not two hundred years before. It was just a few years ago when Elaine Jakes died. For it was not the style of a Norwegian dance form from the seventeenth century that created an image in my mind, but it was the transcendent quality of the suite’s fourth movement, “Air,” that seeped into my soul and took me back, specifically to my mother’s death. Not in sadness or despair, but in an idea, an image. And that image originally occurred to me when I first encountered Death. For when I first encountered Death I had, as all of us perhaps at some point in our lives, never known him. He had been a distant reality to me, something that happened to other people, like a terrible disease or a horrendous accident or natural disaster.

Hercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1869–71

I was twenty when my grandfather, Harry Jakes, died. And hitherto I hadn’t entered into the holy land by way of reading. The notion of someone who could defeat death, like Heracles come to bring Admetus’ dear Alcestis back from the grave, was not an image, even in Dionysian theatrical terms, that had jelled in my mind or occurred to my spirit. Rather, Death entered Harry’s hospital room with a strong upper hand as I and my cousin Eric had, moments before, looked upon him, wired with tubes and grasping at his last few moments of life. We stepped out, hungry and in need of something to eat, when we were called back from the hospital’s canteen to the room, too late. He was gone. His soul had flitted away, on air, not even the Air of the Holberg Suite, but just air. Death had won, for now. But Air is written to be played in andante.

Andante religioso, to be precise. And thus it was that Death’s victory was but short-lived, for in just a few months I found myself, for the first time, entering into that holy land of which I spoke, encountering a literary force much stronger than the Euripidean Heracles. But that force was something greater than even a literary force, or even one made popular at the time (and incredibly still so) by a movie and, later, series of films. Indeed I was not on Miltonian ground, I knew before I heard Air what andante religious really meant. And that is why when I attended my grandmother’s funeral and when I came down the stairs the morning of my mother’s death to find her cold body lying in her bed, I knew that her spirit had risen on the air, the air of Greig’s fourth movement of the Holberg Suite. That Air leads to the joyous opening of the fifth, Rigaudon, a piece that is written to be “alive with energy,” allegro con brio. How fitting, for Grieg’s Air doesn’t just dissolve. It wafts, it wafts somewhere.

And so had Harry, though I knew it not. And Blanche. And, thirty years or so after them, Elaine. Their spirits had not just passed away, but had climbed, not simply “up” to a sky deity but to the Master’s home, a home beyond the sky. They had all gone, by faith, allegro con brio. And before they left they had given me a gift—not a cheese plate or a serving tray or even a teapot with a most interesting brown, undulating pattern. No, they had given me the faith to envision, or perhaps the vision to believe that the air on which our souls shall one day climb, leads somewhere, until we shall, about the supreme throne, of Him t’ whose happy-making sight alone, forever sit, attired with stars, in triumph over Death, and Chance, and even Time. But not Air. For when that day comes, that is precisely what we shall breathe, con molto brio.

Helge Antoni
Helge Antoni

[1] Further, cf.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Unlikely Things

“People say believe half of what you see
Some and none of what you hear
But I can’t help but be confused;
If it’s true please tell me dear”

Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield

Helge Antoni, pianist
Helge Antoni, pianist

It is highly unlikely for anyone to meet a renowned concert pianist at a cocktail reception on the mystical and stunningly beautiful island of Capri. It is preposterous that you should become his friend. It is even more unbelievable to have had dinner with him and his lovely wife, Marissa, several times in Europe. Even more improbable yet for him to visit Texas. Even more unlikely for him to be performing publicly at 7:00 PM on 19 January in a concert that is free and open to the public in Baylor University’s Roxy Grove Hall. (Yes, I am encouraging you to come to that remarkable concert). I will certainly be there to see my close friend, Helge Antoni, selections of the works of Grieg and Chopin.helge piano recitalAs unlikely as that wonderful turn of events on Capri was, I would like to now turn to something even more unlikely that happened this week. It came to public attention, owing to a paper given with Jacobian eloquence at a recent evening session of the American Astronomical Society’s 229th meeting in Grapevine, Texas, that a new planet, called Planet Nine—undoubtedly to the chagrin of the Keep-Pluto-a-Planet society[1]—swam into a young astronomer’s ken—rather not his ken, per se, as the planet is only inferred from gravitation effects in the Kuiper belt.[2] It has since been reported in various news outlets, not merely floated along on a billow of rumors, whispered down the lane, or heard on any particular viticultural climber.[3]

planet-nineMore interesting is the fact that his planet actually did swim in, for James Vesper hypothesizes that this is a so-called “rogue” planet, one that was wandering across the universe and then just latched onto our solar system. It is strange that we can’t see it, for it is believed by its theorized gravitational pull to be ten times the size of our own planet. Ten times! That’s a lot of real estate.

And that’s really unexpected. It is stuff you can’t make up, and what’s strange about it is that there is something there, something quite large there with a strong gravitational pull, that you simply can’t see. You can only infer it. You can see a galaxy X Y and Z light years away, you can miss a planet ten times the size of the earth. You can miss what is so very close to your own world, miss it entirely, and only figure out that it is there because someone unlikely—in this case an undergraduate student from New Mexico State University—suggests to you that it is there. It was there all our life and we missed it. We knew Pluto was there, and we decided Pluto wasn’t really the ninth planet so we discarded it. But now we find that there might just be something much bigger than Pluto, thanks to the unlikely discovery of an unlikely scholar. A ninth planet just might be there, one much bigger, one much more influential than we had hitherto expected.

It was there all along and we missed it? Maybe we missed because we were looking for something too small. Can we learn anything from this? Well, it’s the season of the epiphany, so perhaps we can. Maybe we can learn, like the wise men of the east, when we follow a wandering star, that we should expect something amazing, something quite unexpected. If we do learn that, if we do infer as much from Vesper’s ninth planet—I hope they name it after him, “Vesper IX”—then maybe we should be getting our camels ready. Maybe we should prepare ourselves to look for something surprising—yes, actually go out there looking for it. We might not meet a famous musician on Capri and become his friend. But we might, just might, find something extraordinary in the day-to-day movement of our ordinary lives—lives that can become extraordinary when we learn to expect the unexpected.

[1] I am not kidding. Such a society exists:


[3] Where better than

Full of the unexpected

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Faces

Without words, faces can tell you a lot. This week I was struck by the faces of a few individuals. The recent photograph of the young man who entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and viciously shot innocent worshippers, is frankly frightening. Someone might say he is emotionally disturbed—that seems obvious enough—but what he himself is now saying in court is that he very much chose to undertake the actions that he did. He is unrepentant, unashamed of his actions. And his face tells if not quite the whole story, certainly a large part of it. When interviewed by the police, he was unrepentant, casually describing his horrific act and explaining the bizarre motive, borne out of racial hatred, for it.

The Charleston shooter, whose name is not worth mentioning. Mugshot taken by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, June 18, 2015

And that might have been enough sadness for one blog and a sufficiently egregious example of racism for an entire a decade, even if it is admittedly simply emblematic of a wider societal characteristic, but I saw what nearly everyone else saw this week, the sad story of four young people in Chicago, two male, two female, who held a mentally handicapped person hostage, posting images of the ordeal on social media even as they tortured him, also motivated by hatred sprung from racial prejudice. The faces seen in their mug shots told a similar story: defiance.

We cannot see the face of the disabled teenager, who fortunately escaped when the torturers went down a flight of stairs allegedly to kick in the door of a neighbor who complained about the noise that they were making as they brutalized the young man. It is hard to fathom this, hard to make any sense of the degrading of humanity caused by such hatred. Again, it is defiance. Add to that shamelessness. The complete obviation of right and wrong. Going beyond good and evil in a most Nietzschean sense, with emphasis on going beyond evil. Diabolical in the truest sense of that word. Not simply übermenschlich (but still, if in a diluted sense, menschlich). Rather, lacking any sense of humanity. Inhumane. Inhuman.

The names of these folks from Chicago do not merit mentioning. Their faces speak volumes (photo of screenshot).

Both of these terrible events are simply emblematic of the worst that we can find in our ranks. The fact that their faces reflect not simply soulless people but people whose soul is dedicated to evil might leave us with a sense of hopelessness. President Obama assessed the state of affairs nowadays, brush stroking the situation in Chicago itself:

“’In part because we see visuals of racial tensions, violence, and so forth; because of smart phones and the Internet. … What we have seen as surfacing, I think, are a lot of problems that have been there a long time. ‘Whether it’s tensions between police and communities, hate crimes of the despicable sort that has just now recently surfaced on Facebook, … I take these things very seriously. The good news is that the next generation that’s coming behind us … have smarter, better, more thoughtful attitudes about race. I think the overall trajectory of race relations in this country is actually very positive. It doesn’t mean that all racial problems have gone away. It means that we have the capacity to get better.’”[1]

Mr. Obama sounds to me a bit detached, as he seems to view the particular example that he cites, the very one we are considering here, at only a great distance. His assessment of the event in Chicago comes across a bit glib, a bit Pollyanna, with a kind of rosy-cheeked optimism that might be a bit more difficult to muster should one have one’s boots firmly planted on the ground, should one have been able to stand next to the police officer who discovered the young man just after he escaped. And if he should look hard into the faces of the perpetrators, if he and we all could have seen the face of the victim as he was being tortured, perhaps our own view of the situation would be more engaged, as well.

But even if Mr. Obama’s evaluation of the state of race relations in our country does not quite inspire you with an abundance of hope, it is surely more hopeful than the stark faces of the alleged perpetrators of the Charleston shooter. In any case, sometimes you don’t need to see a face to envision hope. A picture sums up the opposite attitude, not man’s inhumanity but one person’s humane care for a fellow human being.

A soldier carrying a fallen comrade. Sometimes it is the face you cannot see that tells the story. Photo credit: amnondafni

The photograph above shows no face—it needs none. You can’t tell if the person being rescued is black or white or any other color; you can’t discern the race, religion, even gender of the rescuer. But you can discern that hero’s personal philosophy: it is to go back for the lost and fallen, to rescue, deliver, bring hope in the face of hopelessness; it is, simply put, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Perhaps that’s all you need to know.

Sometimes seeing the face of the hero is helpful, too. Sargent Jerrod Fields is a world-class sprinter, despite losing a limb in the service of his country. His face is that of a hero both in battle and in competition.

Sgt. Fields’ face tells the story: he was a hero and role model serving America abroad and remains one at home. Photo by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs

Joseph Tomasella, a specialist from the New Jersey Air National Guard, serves at the Coast Guard Air Station, here pictured as he participates in an exercise. His face tells the story: he is unafraid, he is a hero.

Joseph Tomasella, of the New Jersey Air National Guard 177th Fighter Wing. Photo of the United States Air National Guard taken by Sgt. Matt Hecht.

And the list could go on. One such firefighter, Mike Hughes of Wenatchee, Washington, recently returned to see the graduation of a young woman whom he rescued when she was but an infant.

tomasella-with-infant“It’s a miracle that I did come out of that,” the young woman who was saved as an infant said. “I feel like I owe him so much. It’s just amazing that I have got to meet the guy who saved my life. I just can’t thank him enough. There are way too many words to describe how much I could thank him.”[2]

When, in the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence speaks to the patriarch Joseph, of George Bailey, “He has a good face. I like that face!” maybe he has a point. One might debate about whether there are angels like Clarence moving amongst us unseen. But one would be silly to debate whether there are heroes doing so, albeit for the most part they are as unseen as angels.[3] Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one and don’t yet know it. Look in the mirror: your face may tell the whole story.

[1] Quotes of President Obama taken from


[3] Take Smoky, for example, who is said to have been the first known therapy dog: