Monthly Archives: May 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Remember to Smile

tomb-of-unknown-soldierWith all the sad stuff going on in the world today, maybe there is no time for fun anymore. We saw the gruesome images on TV of the brutal terrorist attack in Manchester, read of the tragic mudslides in Sri Lanka, and we shall be loath to forget the slaughter of the Coptic Christians in Egypt at the hands of the ISIS. And, to top it off, it is Memorial Day weekend, a somber but beautiful holiday that celebrates the sacrifice of every soldier for our country, now and in the past.

In truth, it has been a horrific week, a horrific season, a horrific year, not just for American soldiers and citizens but for the world. And someone may ask, where is God in all this? Where is joy? Where are families, smiles, hugs, and fraternal warmth? Friends are divided against friends politically—even in universities, once places of reflection, now hotbeds of controversy, as traditional core requirements are eliminated or vastly reduced and truth itself is called into question with Nietzschean fervor. Perspective is the watchword of the day, followed by an intense understanding of individual rights, heightened sensitivity to microaggressions, a “report it” mentality when it comes to potentially offensive language, a demand for safe spaces and, most amazing of all, a strident unwillingness on the part of students (e.g. Evergreen State students) even to listen to, let alone consider, countervailing points of view; there, the protests began, hilariously, in a part of the Evergreen campus known as Red Square. Did these students fail to see the irony in that?

beersBut is it hilarious? No. Yet we are humans, and we do, I think, find a way to find fun and frivolity in the midst of frustration. Beer often helps. I don’t mean merely the medicinal effect of beer, for obviously there is some aspect of beer’s intoxicating side effect that can alleviate the woes, to some extent, though in fact, as alcohol is technically a depressant, it brings you down lower than you might have been had you never touched the stuff. So, no, I’m not talking about the alcoholic properties of beer. Rather I’m speaking about its social dimension and even its spiritual heritage.

The latter property is, of course, peculiarly strong among the Welsh. Now I realize that there have been many Italian monks in Norcia and Swiss monks in St. Gallen and Belgian monks of the Abbeye Cistercienne of Rochefort that have been engaged in spiritual brewing. Their attention to Benedictine rules for brewing is reflected, perhaps, for teetotalers and jelly lovers, in the way that the Trappist monks of the St. Joseph Monestary in Spencer Abbey make the most delicious jams. But that is not beer. And the Welsh love their beer as they love their rugby. De gustibus non disputandum.

dragon-ale-canBut King Henry VIII, who is perhaps best known for his predilection for polyamory or more precisely iterative digamy, in particular, in 1536 dissolved the Welsh monasteries and shut down the monastic brewing tradition in fact throughout the United Kingdom. Still, the Welsh were not dead in terms of beer. Of course, in time, Felinfoel, a hamlet on the edge of Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, saw the rise of a new brewery, if a secular one, and with it the birth of Double Dragon Ale, in cans no less. Now that’s Welsh beer at its finest. After all, Llonion in Pembrokeshire, the county smack next to Carmarthenshire is well known to be the source of fine barley, while Maes Gwenith, which comes from Gwent county [east of Carmarthenshire—Monmouthshire on the map], is famous for its wheat used in the brewing process. s-wales-mapAccording to the not-always-reliable-but-handy Wikipedia, Gwentian wheat’s excellence is even mentioned in Llyfr Coch Hergest (Jesus College, Oxford, MS 111), a manuscript written shortly after 1382, one of the most important medieval books written in Welsh.

But, tasty as Double Dragon Ale may sound to some you, none of this is the fun or frivolity with which I opened this blog and meant to assuage, to some small extent, the recent ills of humanity. Rather we shall leave that to the Germans. For it is German ingenuity that I found funny, funny in the midst of sadness and woes. It’s funny because that ingenuity has produced a communal project that will result in widespread enjoyment, for at the very time Americans are laying a pipeline for oil through controversial lands, the Germans are laying a pipeline for beer beneath solidly German soil. Now I know this sounds incredible, but it has been reported as one hundred percent true—not fake news, and perhaps not even news at all, but funny nonetheless. pipelineThe target date for the completion of this important public work is August 2017, and it will allow for an underground river of beer across the county known as Schleswig-Holstein to be delivered to the town of Wacken, which each year holds a grand celebration known as Wackenfest. This pipeline will allow for the steady flow of over 400,000 liters (sic) of beer, a spectacular feat meant to address, I suppose, the Schleswig-Holsteinians l’amour de boire la bière, or as the Germans themselves say, die große Lust Bier zu trinken.

So, I leave you with this thought, one stemming from the strict rules of St. Benedict to the unfortunate closing of the monasteries by the sexually wayward King Henry to the resurgence in Felinfoel of not one but two dragons, to a new feat of German engineering: may you find time to smile on this Memorial Day weekend, a day to remember to do so, even as it is a day to remember our country’s heroes. A toast to those who have served and continue to serve, a toast with a Double Dragon Ale or some suitable substitute!

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mother of All …

thinking-bikes-solidWell, Mother’s Day has come and gone. I had it in my mind last week, when I chose to write a blog entitled, “Dancing in Heaven.” In that blog the first dance for me was with Elaine Jakes, my mother, as admittedly I had been thinking about seeing her again—an idea perhaps quite foreign to some, i.e. that we shall ever see anyone again who has died or that, after our death we can “see” anything at all. But objections aside, I did think of seeing her again, as I said last week, and this occurred on my bicycle no less, and I did so leading up, fittingly, to Mother’s Day. But it also was leading up to the date of her passing from this life to the next, the anniversary of which will be this week. Because I thought also, on that bicycle ride, of something else.

Of course, that something else was Saddam Hussein. I thought of the strange imprint that Saddam Hussein has made upon American, possibly even global Anglo-speaking culture. For it was, as I recall, Saddam Hussein, who introduced the inceptive words of the phrase “the mother of all X, Y, or Z,” to popular diction.

In this image cleared by the US military, Saddam Hussein appears in a courtroom at Camp Victory, a former Saddam palace on the outskirts of Baghdad, Thursday, July 1, 2004. (AP Photo/Karen Ballard/Pool)I recall it was during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein called the immanent engagement with the American-led coalition forces, “The Mother of All Battles.” That was, I think the original “MOAB.” Before that, I don’t think “the mother of all anything” was common in English,[1] unless it was a literal reference to someone who in fact did mother everyone, e.g. the mother of all the children in the house, the “mother” of all the sick in the hospital, the “mother of” (or really “to”) all the animals in the shelter. Or perhaps, piously speaking, one might think of Mother Teresa,

Mother Theresa

who was the mother of all the poor of Calcutta. But we came to know the phrase, “The Mother of…,” meaning the “largest of” or “greatest of,” from a less than winsome individual, Saddam Hussein.

 

But normally when we say “the mother of all” we refer to the earth, who nurtures us with her bounty. Or, recently, we saw that the “Mother of All Bombs” was dropped in Afghanistan. Clearly that was a big and powerful bomb. moabBut strange it was, at least for me, to see it written as MOAB, as that reminds me of a tribe of Israel that is not infrequently talked about in the Old Testament. One recalls that they descended from Lot’s son, Moab, the child of an incestuous relationship Lot had, ironically as she would become also a mother, with his oldest daughter (Genesis 19:37). His descendants settled just to the east of the River Jordan. The book of Numbers tells us that the Moabites finally settled in a valley known as Arnon (21:26ff.). From the point of view of the people of Israel and Judah, this region was a barren land, characterized by desolate plains and not infrequently overrun by Amorites, though of course there were mountains there, too. Mount Nebo, located in modern-day Jordan, was the most prominent of these, for the book of Deuteronomy tells us that Moses died there (34:1-4); and Mt. Pisgah, too, the vantage point from which Moses had that important view of the Promised Land that he would never enter, is a ridge of that very Mt. Nebo.map-of-moab

But this is Moab, not the “Mother of All Battles” or “Bombs” for that matter. Moab and the Moabites have a link to motherhood, as Ruth, a young woman from an apparently pagan religious tradition—a far cry from the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—hailed from Moab; she was the daughter-in-law of the nominally bitter Naomi. Though Naomi was aggrieved about the death of her two sons, Ruth, who had been married to one of them, nonetheless followed her out of Moab with the famous words “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). She is the same Ruth, a Moabitess, who is one of three women named by Matthew in his genealogy of Jesus at the opening of his gospel (1:5). So, perhaps Ruth, could be seen as “The Mother of All Grandmothers” (or at least “Forebears”). And that is an irony, of course, for grandmothers should be grander than mothers.

But lately there has been a greater irony, if you can imagine, for the “Mother of all babies” showed up in California weighing 13 and a half pounds. Now I am one of those folks who is oblivious to baby sizes. When someone tells me the dimensions of their child as if the child were a room being sized for a carpet or as if the child were a sailboat that is for sale, I never find myself trying to imagine the size of the baby. They might as well have said, “He’s a big boy,” or “rather small” (depending on the child’s size), or an “ample lass” or, mutatis mutandis, a “paltry one.” For this is more meaningful to me, when it comes to an infant, than inches or pounds. Yet that said, even I know that thirteen and a half pounds is simply huge. It would, according to Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric, have to qualify as the “Mother of All Babies”—there’s that MOAB again. And that is, of course, a great irony.

But I’ve recently read, too, in that same Washington Post article cited above (n. 1), that many folks find it thoroughly sexist (even “grotesque”) to call anything the “mother of all,” as it could be offensive, especially because the expression, as we have already established, often refers to size. And no one would like to suggest that anyone’s mother is overweight (though it has been known to happen in postpartum circumstances). But better not to talk about it, of course.

So I shall close by moving in a politically correct direction, if only incidentally: I shall cease and desist, at least in this blog, from speaking about the mother of anything, except to say that I am deeply grateful for all the mothers in my life, my own, and those who, like Sheila Rosenthal or my own grandmother, Blanche Evans Jakes, played the role of mother when I was but a lad; or my wife, whose kindness has principally fostered the growth of a sizeable family—but not the mother of all families, lest I thereby suggest maximal size. To all the mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day belatedly, and may you have babies rather smaller than 13.5 lbs., and each find a kind person like Ruth to make your life richer.

[1] Further on this see a recent article by Travis M. Andrews in the Morning Mix section of The Washington Post, entitled, “Phrase, ‘Mother of All Bombs’ Decried as ‘Sexist,’ ‘Grotesque’,” 14 April 2017 (www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/04/14/mother-of-all-bombs-jargon-decried-as-sexist-grotesque-it-exists-because-of-saddam-hussein/).

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dancing in Heaven

welsh-countrysideThis week nearly all week I’ve thought about dancing in heaven. Not whether it happens—I’m quite certain it does—but what it must be like. That there is music there is beyond dispute. Performed at the funeral of the Princess of Wales in 1997 a beautiful Welsh Hymn Orig Jehovah, written by William Williams (“the Wesley of Wales”) near the beginning of the 18th century, reveals as much:princess-diana

When I tread the verge of Jordan
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side;
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.

Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heaven’ly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!

Such hymns of praises, heavenly longings, expressed in here in song, attest to those better heavenly choirs, the anthems on high that one can only imagine. Even this less than perfect trgreen-valleyanslation made in 1771 chiefly by Peter Williams (no direct relation), suggests as much. The Welsh version lives on in the best film ever made, namely the Oscar-winner of 1941, “How Green Was My Valley,” directed by John Ford. It is sung there (and virtually always) to the tune of John Hughes’ 1905 Cwm Rhondda, a rich Welsh tune once lisped not infrequently in the coal mines, mines now of yore.[1]

But that is not dancing; that is singing. What about dancing? Somehow this week, a week drawing nigh to the sixth anniversary of the death of Elaine Jakes, who passed away on 23 May 2011, I thought all week of seeing her again in heaven. Now when I was a little lad, my mother, when she was quite happy, might do a Welsh jig in the kitchen. She would take my hands and lightly glide around the kitchen floor, just for a moment, while singing a song of the now twentieth-century “classic” composer Irving Berlin or the like. As a child, of course, I would dance along, joyously when9781480814738_COVER.indd I was quite young, and less willingly as I became slightly older. Of course, eventually this activity ceased, at least by the time I was ten or so, as my Welsh mother had become more American by then, less Welsh, was beginning to become less Jewish, and had long since ceased to be Chinese. (To understand the previous sentence, you will have to read The Curious Autobiography.) In any case, I was becoming too large and life was becoming, concomitantly, too difficult.

elaine-on-boat
Elaine when she was young

But of course, one does not forget these things from one’s childhood easily, and they even become quite dear over time, like cherished old black and white photographs that are now yellowing around the edges. And I found myself rummaging mentally through my “box” of such photos this week, even as I was riding my bicycle to work.

As I pushed those pedals round and round I found myself thinking of heaven and what it is like, indeed will be like, when in just a very few years I am there, forgotten here, and to some degree forgetful of this world. And that’s when dancing occurred to me. Music, yes, but dancing, too. For what could be finer than dancing a jig of joy before God, with no inhibitions, like a mother and her child in the tiny kitchen of a diminutive apartment in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1967? I can think of no better way to conceive of an expression of sincere joy at a reunion of family members—with Elaine or Harmap-of-walesry or Blanche or those of the deeper past, the families of Evans, of Jones, of Eynon—or even with Christ himself. Can you?

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Much of the information presented here about the hymn Cwm Rhondda is derived from R. Christiansen, “The Story Behind the Hymn,” The Telegraph 2007 (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3668065/The-story-behind-the-hymn.html)

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: ’Tis Hard Not to Write Satire

juvenalcrownedFamously, the poet Juvenal wrote in his very first Satire that it was, for him, flat out difficult not to write satire. He qualified that statement by saying, “For who is so tolerant of an unjust city, who is so tough as nails, that he can hold himself back? Especially when you see Matho the lawyer driving (the ancient equivalent of) a brand new sports car!” In other words, the world in which Juvenal found himself during the late first/ early second century AD was so corrupt, so self-indulgent, so narcissistic that all Juvenal could find left for him to say—or at least for him to put to verse—was humorous, satirical commentary on that very society and its excesses.

What a different world we find ourselves in today! Or am I now being satirical? I think I most obviously am. Anyone who wants to defend the world as it is today as a serious place whose leaders are sober and staid, whose denizens are more concerned with the welfare of their fellow human beings and the environment, whose children have a bright future, whose seas are clean and air is clear, whose ozone layer is filtering out UV rays and whose technology will solve all other problems is either a card-carrying member of the Optimist Club or at such a remove from the real world (and likely sufficiently wealthy to be so removed) that he bobs along day by day without consulting a newspaper or even overhearing casual conversation at the local barber shop.barbershop-conversation

Not that the world’s going to Hell in a handbasket. No, its problems are far too large for a handbasket. For the sake of nothing really, since there’s no argument here, I’m going to divide the sources of the problems up into three principal categories, each to be meticulously avoided of course; admittedly, I do so simply because I like the idea of there being three of them. And I will try to do it in the vein and in honor of the ancient poet Juvenal. He would very much like to find me speaking broadly and unfairly in fell-swoop categories. Besides, this will come in very handy the next time you’re at the barbershop, especially if there’s a long wait or your barber likes to cut your hair slowly.

First, there are the Prudes. These folks like to point out the errors in society and sometimes even offer source criticism for the problems—“It all started when …”—but never propose any real solutions. Their recommended remedies are facile at best, normally unrealistic and ill-conceived. These folks are more often than not associated with churches or synagogues, but rarely talk about God except to complain that “Nobody believes in God any more, and that’s the problem,” or something condemning like that.

Second are the Gloomers. They are a bit like the first category, but they are less condemning and simply more depressed. They like simply to say, “The world is going to Hell in a handbasket,” and not add a lot more. They rarely see the good in any counterproposal or corrective measure that anyone could offer. They are sure that the world won’t last long. That the current generation is evil, narcissistic, bad. That all current cultural trends are corrupt. That everything causes cancer. And, like the Prudes, they like to find sources for the problem, e.g. it all started with vaccines, or the invasion of the continent by white conquistadors (itself a bit of an oxymoron), or even with venereal diseases (formerly known as STDs but now reclassified as STIs).

Anyhow, sometimes the rules are a little unclear.
Sometimes the rules are a little unclear.

Such reclassification befits the folks of the third category. They are the Correctors. They honestly believe we can fix this. They are commendable, I suppose, for being basically optimistic in the face of a complex and seemingly overwhelming societal meltdown. Ah, but their solutions… Their solutions are rooted in making rules to change things, particularly rules about behavior. They are, of course, anti-bullying (do you know anyone who is “pro-bullying”?); but the way they want to “do away with” bullying is by outlawing it, not realizing that just making a rule about bullying won’t solve the problem. They also want stringent regulations for, well, everything else, too. The more rules, the better, and the rules need to be set by them and other sane people (for they regard those who don’t agree with them as “insane” or simply not in step with the new ethical reality). Oh, and one other interesting thing about the Correctors: they pretend certain problems don’t exist. They seem reasonable enough at first—until you actually talk to them—but they prove to be nuttier than either the Gloomers or the Prudes.

How can I live in such a world, a world of Prudes and Gloomers and Correctors, and not write satire? Thanks to Juvenal, I can’t. And now that we’re both thinking like Juvenal, in this world so self-indulgent, so narcissistic, and so full of excesses, perhaps you can’t either. It truly is difficult not to write satire, even on such a beautiful Saturday morning in May.

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