Monthly Archives: March 2018

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: You’ve Made Your Bed

A friend of mine (a cousin, actually, who is also my friend) has been traveling in New England. One of the lodgings he stayed in recently was a lovely old Maine countryside B&B attached to a pub. It was lovely to look at at least, he said, as it did not serve him a lovely New England breakfast. Amidst its otherwise quaint furnishings, it featured a rather uncomfortable bed. He described resting on that piece of furniture as being like sleeping on the floor of a taxi cab, an analogy that, however unlikely it may seem, certainly embodies well the level of discomfiture.

And that is the theme of today’s blog, not the floor of a taxi cab—which in my day was always stickier than it was hard, though with Uber that has all thankfully changed—but rather one’s bed. For one knows the dictum well enough to be able to finish it from the partial quotation in the title above: “Well, you’ve made your bed, and now you’ll have to sleep in it!” The meaning is, of course, not quite that of “karma,” which, I explained in a blog of a few weeks ago, is a Weltanschauung to which I am glad that I personally don’t share, as were it true, I imagine that I would myself constantly be on the receiving end of retribution of some kind. Rather, the maxim to which this title alludes is a doctrine of just consequences. It means, “Well, you’ve made a bad decision, and now you’ll just have to live with the result(s) of that decision.”

Now that’s as good as far as it goes, I suppose, as there’s some truth to it. If you get a tattoo on your hind quarters that says, “Mary and Bob,” inside of a heart with an arrow through it, but you wind up breaking up with Mary or you want to change your name to Robert (or Roberta, which nowadays has become increasingly more common), either you will wind up always keeping your pants on or you will have to have the tattoo removed, though even then it may still be somewhat visible to the naked eye. And that would be, in any case, a pain in the … .

But I leave the tattoo aside to get back to the expression about the bed, which, I think, the example of the tattoo amply demonstrates, can be true. I say “can be true” and not “is true,” because it is Good Friday today, and on the third day, Easter. And what do these two holidays (in the true etymological sense of that word) mean? They mean, “You’ve made your bed, now come sleep in this much more comfortable one where you can find real rest.” That’s a very strange variant on the dictum, isn’t it?

What do I mean by such a variation? I mean that these two holidays are a bit different than either of them is billed as (Good Friday is not “billed” at all, and Easter is billed as chocolate and bunnies and eggs, an incongruous enough combination, confusing even to children). They are in fact kind of opposites of each other. On Good Friday one man dies for all. On Easter Day, that same man rises. We love the optimism of the second part of the formula. We might even be tempted to say that’s what the formula is all about—optimism, symbolized in a story that isn’t physically or historically true but is psychologically true. But even if you were to accept such a superficial and facile explanation of Easter, which I do not, that still leaves Good Friday dangling.

Good Friday is all about the aforementioned bed. Unlike the tattoo that is hard to eradicate and usually but imperfectly and painfully removed, the bed in which you are supposed to sleep for your past mistake(s) can be removed—indeed was, a long time ago. It was removed in or about 33 A.D. when one man died for all, for he died as a ransom. He eradicated utterly and completely the blotches that were far more than merely blotches—they were deeply clinging cancerous tumors in our souls. He didn’t just shrink them by divine radiation or by setting an example of how to live in a better way. Rather, he took them all into his own body, and they killed him, as cancerous tumors are known to do. And when he died with them, they died with him.

So back to the bed that you’ve made. No, you don’t have to sleep in it. You might choose to, even though you know it’s quite uncomfortable and you won’t rest well in it—in fact you’ll quite possibly wake up more tired than when you went to bed in the first place. But you don’t have to sleep in it. With a dash of wisdom and a little courage, you can muster the strength to choose to sleep in quite a more comfortable bed in which you will find true rest, for it has been bought for you and given to you for free. For that is what grace and Good Friday, and Easter, too, are all about. Good Friday has paid for your new, comfortable bed. Easter gives you the courage to choose to sleep in it.

Happy Easter! Or, as the Greeks say, ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amusing Encounters

I almost entitled this blog “Amusing and Unamusing Encounters,” but then I thought to myself, “What encounter do I ever have that is actually unamusing?”

Even encounters with boorish folks, say the high-brow types, who want to demythologize (their term, not mine) everything, are actually quite amusing. I was at a cocktail party recently chatting with just such a person, who was schooling me on how there is nothing miraculous in this material universe, nor can there ever be, as the universe is naturally material. I did not point out to him the circularity of his argument, nor did I question whether his use of the word “naturally” was meant to be a pun. It didn’t seem likely that it was, as he did not seem capable of puns. His words were rather dour, cold and in any case far too sober, even though he was paradoxically well-along on his second martini. Still, this “fact” was at the forefront of his if not small, at least pretty well closed mind.

Still, for all his dourness, the encounter wasn’t unamusing. Had I had the chance to get a word in edgewise I might have asked him if he believed in binary opposition or at least whether there is the possibility of a thing having an opposite. If he agreed, I might have asked him what the contrasting opposite of necessary is, and he might have answered “unnecessary,” or, inasmuch as I already said he was rather high-brow, “superfluous.”

Then I might have asked, “And what does Nietzsche contrast with a mere, unenlightened human being?”

“Der Übermensch” he would no doubt have been his reply, and for the benefit of the by-now-gathering unlearned corona of listeners he would likely have added, “The Nietzschean ‘Superman.’”

And what about “natural? What is its opposite?” I then would have added.

“Now if you’re going to try to get me to say ‘supernatural’, well I won’t take that bait,” he cleverly would have retorted. Yet even in his recusal of saying the word, he would have said it. Not exactly a “touché moment” for me, but still, in his unintentional paralepsis it he would have at least brought it up.

And, I think, that is by and large what happens to each one of us when we try to deny any possibility of coincidences being miracles, any impression of some kind of divine intervention in our lives. We will always retreat to what is material (and therefore secure) and, in most cases, not happening directly to us. We think of, or even go so far as to make, a verbal reference to “all the people starving in … [and here just fill in a country, region or continent where human brutality or inattentiveness is responsible for suppression, leading to the starvation of much of the population].” We don’t bother to ask ourselves, “What actually causes that devastation?” for that would, in most cases, involve assignation of blame to human beings and maybe even point back to our own apathy in the face of human injustice. And we rarely, if ever, go beyond that to say, “And, while I’m on that topic, what can I do about it?” For the second question would undoubtedly involve our checkbook.

Yet even such cocktail conversation about the natural, material world in which we live, were one to happen upon us (and one did, at least in part, recently for me), can be amusing. It is amusing because it can remind us that there is such a thing as the supernatural—what we might summarily call “magic,’ even if we mean it not in the para-normal sense but rather theologically—and that if there is a supernatural corresponding to the natural then all things are possible. Yes, all things—but that’s not my idea, I stole if from a higher source.

But let’s leave that aside for two other amusing conversations. First, I spoke about television quality with a television salesman at Best Buy. His concern for me to buy a high-quality television was palpable. I tried to tell him that “I am not a television person.” Of course, that must have been amusing to him, since I was buying a television. But I insisted, “I don’t watch TV.” My wife and I just put discs in a player occasionally to watch a film. Still, he was telling me about how much better the quality of the more expensive televisions were, and I could tell it was not simply to make a sale but because he was clearly concerned for how much more I could enjoy television watching—I think he did not believe me about only watching films on discs—were I to purchase the high-quality TV set (though it is not a “set” anymore, it is more like a movie theater screen).

“The smallest I will allow you to buy is a forty-inch screen,” he said, “You won’t be happy with anything smaller.” I stress he was not just trying to make a sale: he actually cared about me, I could tell. All in all, rather an amusing exchange. I left with at 43” television set—or rather “in-house movie screen.”

Finally, one last amusing encounter: I read recently that a woman was arrested for assaulting her husband because he forgot her anniversary. When I mentioned that to my wife we had an amusing conversation of a different kind. My wife was entirely sympathetic to the woman. I found that amusing. Needless to say, I will be especially attentive not to forget our anniversary next year. Perhaps we shall celebrate by watching a movie on our super-sized TV at home.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Borders

“‘The world has enough borders. I don’t want [them] any more,’ Malamine said.” I quote here from a recent article that appeared on the CNN website.[1] The sentiment is clear enough; the idea is that borders are essentially bad and in any case unnecessary. People should be allowed to move around at will, no one should be prevented from any movement at any time. The old American expression about freedom of speech, “I can say whatever I want; it’s a free country”—should be applicable to the world thus: “I can go wherever I want; it’s a free world.” Indeed, thus it has been argued in an important 2015 publication.[2]

The only problem with this modification of the dictum is that it is not a free world. Maybe it should be, but it is not. Just recently, according to the reliable news source, Reuters, “a Turkish prosecutor asked for NBA’s New York Knicks star Enes Kanter to be jailed for … insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan….”[3] Now if it were a free world, Mr. Kanter would be allowed to criticize whom he wanted, as many other NBA stars, even the NBA’s current brightest shining star, have done with regard to the American president.[4] He might have even have been allowed to say, “Tayyip, dude, that’s a funny first name.” But it is not a free world and, as a rule of thumb, one should never tease a dictator about his first name.

So I think we have established, thanks to Mr. Erdogan’s interesting first name, that it is most certainly not a free world, and that’s why, as unpopular as it might sound, we need borders. And are borders, anyhow, actually bad? If they were, why would anyone name a bookstore after them?  But seriously, let’s think about this for a moment. Without borders there would be no patriotism. Now is patriotism bad? A debate website (dubiously, perhaps) debates it,[5] and well-known Irish-Californian Christian preacher Philip De Courcy points up the dangers of unqualified nationalism using the example of the prophet Jonah in his very fine sermon series “Jonah: Man on the Run.”[6]

Yet even if, for the sake of argument, we were to grant that patriotism is somehow objectionable, that does not make borders “bad.” In the case of marriage, for example, most people would say, borders are good, as most marriages are not open marriages. Most marriages, therefore, have implicit, even explicit borders. And for all their openness and presumed easy-goingness, 92% of open marriages would seem to end up in divorce.[7] Now someone might argue that marriage is an outdated idea anyway. And that is fine, but caveat uxor: why even be married if you’re going to have an “open marriage”?

Well, I’ve rambled along far enough, probably transgressing a few borders, without which there would be no “South of the Border” restaurant, as there would be nothing to be “south of”.  Which brings me to my closing thought: the notion of transgression. The very idea of “trespassing” or “transgressing” or even robbing someone’s house or taking their property is owed, in some way, to the notion that there are borders or limits that should not be transgressed. And with that, I have reached my own limit, a border I shall not transgress by rambling on further, for perhaps the most rarified form of human happiness, anyhow, is found at home, with family—yes, within one’s own borders.









Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reading for Friends (or, “How to Get Smarter”)

The wickedly exciting combination of being overbold and enjoying even limited philological training will allow you to do something quite special: read for friends. Now I don’t mean the kind of “fun reading” that one does on the living room couch or at the beach. That kind of reading of, say, a good novel is almost a holy act—it is purifying for the soul, for it provides the soul with something more than just fun; it gives it pause, a different kind of pause, too, than simply being still and reflecting. Yes, that kind of reading is as good for you as the alarmingly named Grape Nuts (probably) are. Grape Nuts taste healthy, at the very least, even though their name remains one of the most unsolvable mysteries of modern food science, as they are made of neither grapes nor nuts in the same way that the drink known as an “egg cream” includes neither eggs nor cream.

egg cream

But I wander too far afield. Rather I prefer to speak about reading for friends or rather for one friend at a time, for that is all one can do. One reads one’s friend’s book or article as it comes off the pen, and one gives feedback. I can recall doing this for a friend of mine who taught at Rutgers years ago—he wrote a book on the Martini and, indeed, I have never met anyone who knew more about that particular drink than the famous Lowell Edmunds. And I have been doing it today for another friend who is writing on the topic of reading and writing in antiquity. Exhilarating—and, no, I’m not being facetious!

And if one reads for one’s friends, one learns a lot. One learns about topics ranging from Renaissance Latin to Columella’s poem entitled, in English, “On the Rustic Thing.” One of Columella’s more famous quotes is, of course, “Thus far the tillage of the land.” And one can learn about Hellenistic poetry, Medieval art, the history of troop movements at the Battle of the Bulge, statue busts—you name it. You can learn a lot by reading your friends drafts.

And one or two of you are right now thinking, “Great! But how can I ever get the chance to do so? I know so few scholars personally. Well, the answer to that good question is pretty simple: go to your local college’s espresso bar, if you are lucky enough to have one—by “one” here I mean a college or university, of course—and intentionally eavesdrop (scholars rarely notice eavesdroppers), and then introduce yourself. After you get to know the scholar, whose résumé you might well have checked out online in advance for this very purpose, you can say, “So, what are you working on these days,” even though you know already the answer is “The Three Bar Sigma and Re-dating of Important Greek Inscriptions” or “Secondary Characters in Beowulf” or “The Use of the Subjunctive in Cervantes.”

Yes, you more or less stalked him or her so you could say, “Wow, that’s right up my alley—I have just been refreshing my Don Quixote, my study of Greek epigraphy,” or the like.

And then he or she will say, “Smashing! Perhaps you would like to read an article I am preparing on ML 84” (where ML is short for Meiggs and Lewis, i.e. a standard epigraphical collection; the eighty fourth entry lays out various payments from the treasury of Athena and is dated to 410/09 B.C.).

And when you read this person’s article you will definitely get smarter. And that is a good thing, even if it is not the same as the “holy time” you might have enjoyed reading a novel at the beach. And, yes, I do recommend both; but the summer is still a long way off, so perhaps you should head to that local college’s espresso bar now and learn about the three bar sigma, which is not at all, as it sounds, a fraternity drinking game but rather just a fancy Greek “S”.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Problem with Great Danes

One has a number of problems when one has a Great Dane. I know; I have one.

The obvious one is the constant question, “Are these dogs really Danish?” But that is the least of your problems, even when someone gets more specific and asks, “Why are they called ‘Danes’”?

It’s a good question. Like crêpes, which are essentially just thin, eggy pancakes, it all started with the French. As tension rose between Germany and France in the eighteenth century, the French wisely decided to change the name of the dog from (in archaic and modern English) “German Dogge” or “German Mastiff” to Grand Danois.[1] The idea was, of course, something like, “Well, Holland is near Germany, but Dutch Dogge sounds like Deutsche Dogge, so that won’t work; how about Belgium? No, too far away from Germany. What about Swedish Dogge? No, too far north. What about Denmark? Oui, parfait!”

And so it happened that the Great Dane became Danish. But that is not their problem. Their problem is their size and the lies it causes us to tell. First, people come to you house and they say, “My goodness! Your dog is large!”

Of course you had noticed this. Now all you can do is to reply, “Yes, but he’s nice” or “He’s a gentle giant.” Or you can lie and say, “When I got him from the pound, he was so small and cute. Who knew he would grow so abundantly?” I’ve tried that one, but I was technically lying, because I knew he would grow. His feet were huge.

Another lie you can tell only works sometimes. You can tell the person, “Yes, he’s large, but he’s a teacup Dane.” That usually slows down even the savviest interlocutor.

“A teacup Dane?” he or she will invariably reply.” Really, I had no idea they bred such animals.”

But then that person will take a second look at your dog and add, “It’s awfully large for a teacup Dane.”

To which, on the one hand, you might be forced to respond, if you’re honest, “Well, he’s on the small side for a Dane—and I was only kidding about the ‘teacup’ bit.”

On the other hand, you might be less than honest and simply say, “Well, they weren’t very successful in breeding them small.”

To which, your visitor will respond, “I’ll say they were not. He’s huge.”

The third problem and occasionally worse problem with Danes, of course, is their tail.   It is at precisely the wrong level. Your dog can easily hit your visiting nephew in the eye or face—of course by accident and merely out of exuberance.

The tail also can strike hard objects and bleed; and when it is bleeding it can fling drops of blood everywhere and/or smear blood all over your brand new and expensive wallpaper. Yes, they do that.

Worse yet, the tail can strike your male visitors in the private area and double them over in pain. Yes, that has happened, and in fact happens pretty frequently. It is embarrassing and, if it happens to happen to your boss, it can cost you your annual raise.

Profanity!” the visiting pastor will say who has come over to visit your ailing parent or has shown up for your child’s baptism or confirmation. “Surprising profanity!” Yes, even more than once, because the tail can swing to the same spot twice in rapid succession, even dropping your pastor to one knee in pain. You can yell at the dog all you want but, one must recall, he has the excuse of being Danish and speaking no English, and in any case he did not do it on purpose. It was an accident, just as your red-spot-bespeckled and bestreaked wallpaper was an accident, as your nephew now blind in one eye was an accident. No good yelling at the dog; he speaks no English.

And that is the problem with Great Danes. Their tails and the tales the cause you to tell. And now you know to be wary of both.

[1] Frederick Becker, The Great Dane – Embodying a Full Exposition of the History, Breeding Principles, Education, and Present State of the Breed (2005).