All posts by HRJakes

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Bards of Swansea

Greetings, my friends, from Wales. Just a poem this time:

The Bards of Swansea

In Swansea, there are no swans, just gulls

To tell its story, whose plaintive cries dominate all.

They don’t just own the skies, or just claim the chimneys that poke up

from the tops of tops of rows of rows of homes,

One stacked upon the other, hillside upon hillside,

Whose windowed-eyed faces look downward to the sea,

And see the gulls, twisting now hither, now thither,

Crying, speaking, cackling, claiming their ownership

Of this place, by their voices; their place, not that of Dylan Thomas,

Who once lived here in the uplands, in one of those homes that

Spread like a dealer’s deck, trickle out in rows, one upon the other,

Who every morning hear the mourning cries of the gulls

That say, we own this place! We are its sad bards!

There is no other! Hear our cackling-voiced cries, our plaintive lays!

There are no swans in Swansea, just gulls.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Sheep in Wales in Summertime

As I mentioned last week, I am in Wales now, awaiting the chance to have lunch with Ollie the poet, whom I met at a pub known as The Verve.   In that pub there where jokes told a plenty, some about Welshmen and sheep, for shepherding is something that some Welshmen—enough for it to be commonplace—do for a living.  Now precisely what the Welshmen in the bar said about the sheep, I don’t know, for the lilt, as I said last time, is strong here in Swansea.  In Cardiff, where I was yesterday for the day, there’s a noticeable accent, but even in a pub you can understand the person with whom you’re speaking.  Not so in Swansea. 

Welsh Countryside near Dunvant

Then, coincidentally, ABC News ran a story this week about 25 sheep (25 sheep led through Parisian parks) that were wandering through France.  They followed the Siene through downtown Paris. While there, by looking for foliage to eat, they sought to make a public statement, as best as sheep can, about the need to integrate animals into urban life.  I am not really sure what to say about this.  I am just sharing it with you because it fits in the Welsh banter of the Verve. 

And I thought I was done with sheep until yesterday, in Cardiff, I went to a fine bar called the Queen’s Vaults, where they served a Sunday roast—quite an experience.  And I had lamb, but I didn’t think much about my friends in the Verve as I downed that delicious meal.

And then, again, I thought I’m done with the sheep, finally.  Until I came upon the most interesting sheep-story of them all: a sheep that cheated to win a contest using performance enhancing drugs.  Now think about this for a moment: the words performance and sheep probably have never before been used in the same sentence, not even in the case of the famous Australian sheep shearing contests.  There, of course, the performance is done by the shearers; and they are remarkably adroit.  But that doesn’t count because it’s the shearers who are performing, not the sheep. But in the case of this award-winning sheep—the performance being enhanced is that of the sheep in question. 

The title of the article by David Aaro is stunning: “Award-winning lamb under investigation for performance-enhancing drugs.”  It certainly jumps off the page, or at least off the screen at you.  Images of Lance Armstrong come to mind, but Lance Armstrong as a sheep on a bicycle, which is certainly an odd image.  

Photo by Peretz Partensky (Flickr)

And some of the comments beneath the article say more than I can.

In that comment section, “Shahooster” writes:

“Officials grew suspicious when the lamb surpassed Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record with more than two months remaining of regular play.”

Meanwhile, perhaps even more sardonically, TWYer, writes:

“Pulling the wool over our eyes!”

And Yarxing cleverly writes:

“They found out it actually was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

And, of course, this could not pass without at least one pun, this from DickSoupCan:

“This is so ba-aaa-aaa-ad.”

I leave it at that.  Is there a lesson here, in any of the sheep stories? I, for my part, am pretty sure there is not.. 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mumbles

I haven’t written much lately owing to my peripatetic status. That is like a chef saying he or she hasn’t cooked much lately because he has been taking long walks. But even chefs, I imagine, need to take long walks, sometimes. In my case, I have simply been traveling, and after many peregrinations hither and yon that prevented me from sitting down to write, I found myself jogging along the shoreline of a Welsh seaside town known as the Mumbles. 

Dylan Thomas was born near here, in a tiny hamlet just southwest of Swansea, known as the Uplands. So of course, I have been rereading Dylan Thomas, the brilliance of whose “craft, or sullen art” I had perhaps never fully appreciated, like the dull lover of the poem of that title, whose concern is only for what is right in front of him. Now I understand Dylan Thomas better. Yet his best poem was and will always be for me, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Fortunately, not long before he died, the poet was professionally recorded reading that poem, a recording now available for all to hear. That is the way Elaine went when she went into the night, not gentle but strong and courageous, and she, on angels’ wings that I still think I heard flapping as she left.

And so last night, in somber mood, I went to a local pub with the surprisingly upbeat name “The Verve,” thinking of my very-very-Welsh mother, eight years dead now, and that struggle that she had and we all have in facing death. And so it came as quite a surprise to find myself amidst three new friends, Wally, Ollie, and Trevor, and even more surprising that one of them is a local poet. I met Wally, a scrap metal engineer, first, when I was, in the English fashion, ordering my food at the bar, he an ale. He said he would like to have been vacationing in Spain but he had stayed back to take care of Foxy, his aged and loving dog. I took a seat with him and his friends, randomly arranged, on the terrace, spread out around but not at two wooden all-weather tables; the men were themselves rather weathered looking, men who challenged life as much as it challenged them, hard-working men. All were more or less middle-aged, one a veteran, one or two just freshly retired. They told tales of fighting off young punks (two of them had canes to do so), of good or bad jobs they had once had, of their children, now mostly living far from Swansea.

I sat with them chiefly just to listen: as a writer, I am always considering traits of individuals that I meet, features that will help me to form a character, and shape my own character. And, I can say without doubt they gave me a bit of both: the thick, almost mumbling southern-Welsh accent that rolled out every word like the breaking tide of Swansea Bay gave me plenty of rich writing material, while their gentle dictums offered food for thought, as I sat among them eating my sausage and mash with mushy peas.

I won’t go into the details the pleasantries of my conversation with Trevor, who bought me two beers beyond my own, or the funny exchange I had with Wally about whether we had met before—he was pretty sure he had seen me on a train and that I might have helped him protect a young woman who was being hassled by two thugs; alas, I said, I wish that had been me. Ollie was another matter, and some aspects of my conversation with Ollie will be, if he allows it, addressed in a subsequent blog. For he is a poet. As Ollie spoke to me, he divulged that every time he tried to write prose it came out in verse. Now, being someone who knows something of the life of the poet Ovid, this sounded very familiar to me.

Ollie recited three or four poems for Trevor and me, one of which I would like to post in my next blog. If I recall correctly, it is entitled “God’s in You and Me.” I don’t yet have a written copy, but I can say from my one hearing of it that, if I can, I would certainly like to share it. Ollie’s poems are as wonderful as his Welsh lilt is thick. His style is rhythmic rhyme, playful and serious at once, richly sentimental and at the same time profound. He has a lyrical look about him—steel blue eyes, a gentle smile that reminded me of one of my professors. He wasn’t an educated man, though you could tell in five minutes that he was smart.

Wall with message in Swansea

Trevor, meanwhile, spoke of the challenges of life as a recent retiree, while Wally shared some tidbits about music and a friend of his who is a documentary filmmaker. I couldn’t quite make out though, given how thick the accent of each of them was, many of the details in any of their soliloquies. The experience itself was, for me, rather like being in France. My French is good enough to make out most of the words and follow the conversation, but I have certain vocabulary gaps, which allow me to garner only most of any given conversation.

The Mumbles, Wales

Luckily, though, I have enough French to know what mamalles means: it means “breasts,” which brings us back to Mumbles. Mumbles, you see, has two rock formations that extend beyond the natural promontory hook that forms a natural bay for Swansea’s coast. Geographers who dabble in place-name etymology believe that the name Mumbles (which I was disappointed to learn was not derived from the mumbling sea, like Homer’s onomatopoeic polyphloisboio thalasses) believe that the breast-shaped double rock formation gave this place its named, whether derived via the French mamalles being corrupted into Mumbles or, as others believe, the Latin mammas (accusative case). If this sounds unbelievable, one would do well to recall that even a less exciting city like Manchester is apparently derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root, in this case a Celtic word for a breast-shaped hill (mamucium). And the wonderfully beautiful Greek island Mykonos, one might recall, is also famous for it’s “Breasts of Venus,” two shapely hills that are, like those in Mumbles harbor, stacked side by side.


So, I close with that thought. Sometimes the poetry we need to hear shows up, quite unexpectedly in a pub. And sometimes, the art we need to see is given to us naturally through common, but perhaps quite uncommon, grace, such as that of the Mumbles.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Good, the Gander and Sex Toys

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” or so goes the proverb in English.  It’s origin derives from the work of John Lyly, who in his Euphues and His England, written in 1579, wrote “as deepe drinketh the Goose as the Gander.”  

Now you might not know that Euphues is a Greek name, consisting of eu- “well, good” and phuo “make to bloom, create life.” From the latter of these we get the notorious English f-word that in origin, innocently simply meant “make to bloom.” Needless to say it has taken on a much more derogatory force, but one that befits the second half of this blog. And you also might not know that it is from Lyly’s very character and his better-known work, Euphues: An Anatomy of Wit, that we get the English word euphuism, a highly rhetorical style of English prose in which I myself have been known to indulge. All of this was popular of course, when John Lyly was at his apex, i.e. in the Elizabethan age.  

Which is why you’ve probably never heard of John Lyly or his character Euphues or even the more common (comparatively speaking) rhetorical style of euphuism. Because there was that other writer of the Elizabethan age who eclipsed Lyly’s apex to such an extent that Lyly never became a household word, though he might have been, had Shakespeare been born at some other time in history. But, alas, they were contemporaries, and unlike the Beatles and the Stones, who carved out parallel legacies, Lyly is never brought up in the same breath as Shakespeare. It’s more like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. People know Barkley now as primarily a sports analyst. But, in his day, he was a John Lyly to Michael Jordan’s Shakespeare.

Yet what about the sex toys bit? Well, actually that’s the point of this blog. In a recent article with the replete, even officious title, “Startup that makes sex toys for women sues New York transit system for banning its ads” (sic), the author, Sara Ashley O’Brien addresses the topic of certain advertisements submitted by a women’s sexual-health company known as “Dame Products.” This company was seeking that its allegedly tasteful ads be showcased in New York’s Transit System’s advertising venue. Their focus is on sex toys designed specifically for women. Their slogan was to be, like Sara O’Brien’s title mentioned above, clear as clear could be: “Toys, for sex.” But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) declined the advertisement on the basis of it being sexually oriented. Indeed, the title alone certainly suggests as much.

The female sex toy company, however, is now suing the MTA, calling the rejection a violation of freedom of speech. They note that the MTA has allowed a men’s health company to sell erectile dysfunction medication that uses a cactus as its symbol. I will say nothing here how that metaphor might, from a woman’s point of view, seem a bit too sharp and, without doubt, uncomfortable.

In its defense, the MTA has noted that on the FAQ page they state clearly that ads for sex toys for either gender are not allowed, whereas medication is. So, in Lylyesque fashion, Dame Products is making the good for the goose, good for the gander argument, but I imagine they will lose, as you really can’t argue with a FAQ page.

I just want to leave you with this thought: how in the world does a question about sex toys make its way onto a FAQ page? Seriously, how is that a frequently asked question? Yet it must be frequently asked to make the FAQ page. Who wouldda thunk it?

Long live the memory, however faint it might be, of Shakespeare’s second fiddle, at least in so far as he is preserved in his goose and gander gender equality statement. Oh, and I almost forgot, do mind the cactuses.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Bad H.R.

In the old days, H.R. was short for Human Resources, though now extra letters have been added or the title changed completely to things like the Office of Employee Happiness or Office of Employee Satisfaction, or even Office of Employee Engagement (though, to me, that sounds like an overly optimistic employee dating service). Yes, these days all of that is possible, undoubtedly meant to soften the blow of the (to some, I suppose) harsher sounding Human Resources, though not necessarily more clarifying. For I think Human Resources was, for all its vagueness, clear enough, or at least we had grown used to its vagueness and had come to understand that what was once called the much clearer Personnel Administration was then simply called “H.R.” Now it’s Employee Happiness. Definitely cheerier.

But none of this is the H.R. I’m speaking about. Rather, I’m speaking about me at age seven. My mother, who, if you read this page even occasionally, you know was named Elaine and you also know that she was the only Anglo-Chinese-Jew with a cross-dressing monkey in America (or perhaps anywhere in the world) in the 1960s. (Now, if you’re reading this posting for the first time, I realize that may sound alarming, even more alarming than mere political incorrectness, even more alarming than Personnel Administration must sound to someone hoping to hear Office of Employee Happiness, and for that I apologize in advance, alongside which I also say, however, that I can’t change history; it is what it was.)

No, the H.R. I’m speaking of is a rather small and most certainly immature, even spoiled version of H.R. Jakes, a character who comes off rather well in most instances in The Curious Autobiography, but in fact was no different than any other sinful kid. Oui, c’est moi. And today, I would like to give you one example of his/my sinfulness, that you might learn from it. It is the lesson of ungratefulness, and it has to do with the aforementioned monkey, and came at the very end of Elaine’s Chinese period and near the middle of her being Jewish.

For we had visited my sister, Betsy, in her new home. She was then living at the Philadelphia Zoo, an excellent zoo by any standard, and not a bad place, if one must leave one’s sister somewhere, to have deposited her. When we left Betsy in the capable hands of the primatologists at that zoo, I was six years old, she was a girl, clad in a delightful red floral ruffled dress with lace trim, carrying a small monkey-sized (i.e. child-sized) parasol, also red, also trimmed with lace. When we went back to visit her, I was seven, she was a boy (Jo Jo), and she was no longer wearing a dress or any clothing, a circumstance that to me, at first blush, was a bit alarming though slowly I came to realize that monkeys did not normally wear clothing. On our way back from that visit we went through Doylestown, Pennsylvania, en route to New Hope. It wasn’t the most direct route, but Elaine wanted to pick up some groceries at the rather larger-than-the-Acme-in-Lambertville grocery store in Doylestown on the way home. And I liked it because Foster’s was there.

Foster’s was, you see, by far the best toy store in all of Bucks County. In the mid-1960s one could see, lined up in the window, toy soldiers of durable plastic, carefully painted and of very high quality. These were not cheaply made toy soldiers. They were, as I sad, of the highest quality, and equally of the highest cost, so expensive that even on her payday I wouldn’t be able to talk Elaine into buying me one, though I might be able to get her to remember which one or two I really liked so that she would, for my birthday or Hanukkah/Christmas (we inexplicably celebrated both religious holidays), possibly purchase one for me.

That day coincidentally Mr. Foster had placed in the middle of his store in the prime display area a full, wonderfully beautiful toy zoo, all also of high quality plastic, all also very expensive. It featured, I recall, a crocodile and hippopotamus exhibit, giraffe pen, elephant house, aviary rife with tiny exotic birds, and of course a simian exhibit, complete with a small monkey house, every piece carefully molded and painted. It was, for all intents and purposes, almost an exact replica of any real zoo. It even had a Zoo sign. It could, as finely wrought as it was, potentially compliment any dilettantish train table, such as the one my Uncle Ed had set up in his basement. I loved going to Ed and Lee Ann’s house to watch the train go around that track, though his was not so large that one could have placed in it very much of this rather extensive zoo.

Of course, at age seven, I wanted this zoo, really wanted it, as children tend to really want things. Perhaps this was the case simply because the massive “toy” was, in fact, virtually an objet d’art. Or perhaps it is because we had just visited my sister (now brother) for the first time since leaving him behind at the Philadelphia Zoo, and the toy simian enclosure was, in fact, perhaps the finest piece in the collection of tiny animal exhibits.

But Elaine, being a humble schoolteacher sans husband could not afford such an expensive toy for her child now or even at Hanukkah/Christmas time. Yet she loved the no doubt by then bratty-because-he-was-practically-begging-for-the-toy-zoo H.R. Jakes, and she even went back into the store to speak privately with Mr. Foster about a layaway plan, while H.R. gazed in the window at the soldiers. But to no avail. At her salary, she would have to have had an item of that on lay away at least a couple of years.

So my dear mother and her best friend, Sheila, partnered up to make a replica in balsa wood of the zoo they had seen at Foster’s, all from memory. Now if you’ve ever worked with balsa wood you know it’s soft and cuts easily but is also rather fragile. And though she tried very hard to replicate that zoo of finely cast plastic, all she could do was to make another zoo, not really very much like it, poorly glued together of roughly cut pieces of balsa that, in all honesty, did not look much like the original zoo or all that great at all. But it was handmade, and from the heart. And that was much more important to Elaine and Sheila than it being perfect or expensive or even durable. It was the thought and the valiant attempt that counted. To her and Sheila, that is.

But to H.R. that was not the case. He wasn’t expecting the zoo for Hanukkah/Christmas—he knew she could probably not afford it—but he was also not expecting a homemade knockoff model, either. Now he should have done the right thing, he should simply have said, “Wow! Thanks, this is really cool! It must have taken you guys hours…” (for no doubt it did) “…to make this!” But instead he was, I recall, coldly honest, “Gosh, is this a zoo? It doesn’t really look like a zoo to me.” In his defense, seven-year-old children do have a tendency to be honest. On the other hand, he might have taken a moment to think about all the countless hours and love that went into rendering the gift. But he didn’t.

Why am I “confessing” this to you so many years after the fact? Not for cathartic reasons—I don’t tend to do that, as you probably know if you read this blog even semi regularly. Nor is it to evoke pity for a spuriously Sino-Hebraic child with, effectively, two mothers and a cross dressing monkey sister who was left at a zoo—the sister, that is. No, actually, even at the time, it was fine with me to be different than all the other kids at school. Rather, it is that you might learn from that bad H.R. (and I might continually learn, too) not to be ungrateful when someone does something for you, even if it seems to you a rather small or imperfect thing. It may not seem like much to you, but it is the best they can do.

I am thankful to this day for the memory of that homemade zoo, one that I myself could have enjoyed if I had used even a touch of imagination and a dab of appreciation; yet I failed to do so. But I perhaps garnered from that experience something more valuable and durable than poorly glued together balsa wood or perfectly molded plastic: I learned how to give and to receive, how to love past imperfections and how to be a better human being. And I now humbly offer that lesson, at the expense of my seven-year old self, to you.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: So Easy …

You know, it’s easier to destroy something than it is to build it. One can spend hours working on a sand castle at the beach, and one good wave, one careless jogger, or one tyrannical child, who just has to knock your turrets over, can set you back hours. Fortunately, it’s just a sand castle, so you can take it with a grain of salt. Or a grain of sand.

But what about things that are not just fun, kind of artsy but not deeply meaningful things. I mean it only took the 9/11 terrorists minutes to destroy the World Trade Center, something it took a long time to build. And it took them just seconds to rip families apart and put America in a defensive posture when it comes to national security. That one act of destruction took away a lot of freedoms—ease of going through airports, the feeling of relative safety in traveling, what you can carry on or can’t carry on a plane. To say that things really changed after 9/11 would be an understatement, without doubt.

So it is with anything good, I suppose. It takes so much work to build it and so much care goes into it; and, yet, it can be derailed, hindered and even destroyed in so short a time. But it is not easy to change things. Take the Our Father, for example. Many want to change it to “Our Parent,” others to our Mother. Some want to change “Amen” to “Awomyn” (sic). Yet Pope Francis, of late, has actually made a change. He has stated that the English phrase in the Our Father, rendered “Lead us not into temptation,” is now to be changed to “Do not let us fall into temptation.” His argument is that it is a mistranslation of the original. And he can say this convincingly for two reasons: 1. He is the Pope, and 2. Very few Christians, Protestant or Catholic, know ancient Greek, so they will take his word for it.

Let me say first that the Pope is not “diabolical.” He is not seeking to destroy, when he makes this change, he is, undoubtedly seeking to shift the blame for sin to the individual who falls into temptation so that person can’t shake a finger at God and say, “You allowed this to happen to me! You caused this to happen to me!” And good for the Pope; he’s right on that score; human beings need very little help to be tempted. But just because he is right about that doesn’t justify changing the translation.

Why? Well, for starters, the Greek simply doesn’t permit it. The Greek says what it says: μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς (me eisenengkes hemas). That does not mean “do not let us fall.” It means, rather, “do not lead us.” Hence the KJV (which is usually the most faithful English translation): “Lead us not.” It is the second person singular aorist active subjunctive form (here used in precatory mode) of the Greek verb εἰσφέρω (eisphero).

Why then, if the Pope knows ancient Greek (and one presumes he does), would he change this? It is for a theological reason bigger than the one that I outlined above. It has to do with one’s view of God, whether He is active in our lives or not. In the 1970s, it would seem, Pope Francis (then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was opposed to the theology that says “God’s in his Heaven and all that is wrong in the world depends on us to fix”—this kind of theology has translated rather neatly into liberation theology. The fundamental point here is not Marxism vs. Capitalism, for both systems can thrive very well with the distant view of God.

Yet, by the end of the 1970s, something has changed for Father Bergoglio. He seems to have come to a different position on God intervening in human affairs, a view that is reflected today in his change of the verse to, “Don’t let us fall into temptation,” which assumes that God is distant, rooting us on but not intervening in our lives. It is a wonderful view of God, one could argue, because it exculpates God completely from the question of human suffering. God doesn’t allow human suffering. That’s something we cause, in the case of a war or terrorism, or nature causes (in the case of an earthquake), or maybe bad genetics has caused, in the case of an abnormality at birth. God is rooting us on, but He cannot (according to something by which even God Himself is bound, something like Star Trek’s “prime directive”) interfere. And that can explain, probably does explain, the Pope’s changing the English translation of the verse.

The only problem is—beyond the Greek, which I hopefully have already explained—that this Star Trek God is not the God of Scripture. Not even close. God has no directives, prime or otherwise. He makes the rules and He breaks them whenever it suits Him. Exempli gratia: Lazarus. God had decreed that the penalty for sin is death. It was and is an eternal decree upon human kind for sin. Yet Jesus, qua his status as the Son of God (status that is, if you read the New Testament, tantamount to God himself), resuscitates Lazarus from the dead. He does the same thing to the son of a widow whom he has presumably just met when, rather randomly from our human point of view, he enters the tiny hamlet of Nain. He heals the blind, helps an old woman who is a hunchback, heals the crippled, cares for the poor. He even cares for the rich, who at first might be unfeeling and disconnected from the suffering all around them. And he does miracles in the midst of all these people. And he does miracles today. When we see them, some of us acknowledge them, some of us attribute them to coincidence or luck. And some acknowledge them as miracles when they happen but, eventually, consign them to our memory’s bin of lucky breaks or coincidences.

Cobh St. Colman’s Cathedral, Ireland
Detail Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert (CC BY-SA 4.0)

And how we react to divine intervention in the human sphere is important for the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. For, if we, as apparently Pope Francis does, believe that God intends good for everyone but doesn’t actually do good beyond the natural “common grace” of amatory love, love of family, sunshine and rain, then he simply can’t lead us into temptation (or, really, deliver us from evil, by the way). He is the Star Trek God. He simply can’t intervene, ever. Thus, it depends on us to take matters into our own hands, to be responsible for our own actions, and, ultimately, even for our own deliverances in this world. That is the groundwork, by the way, of liberation theology, where “liberation” means “self-liberation”: we need to free ourselves from our oppressors. It depends on us.

Oddly enough, most people, wittingly or unwittingly, probably subscribe to this way of thinking. Why wouldn’t one, after all? Things certainly seem to be that way—that’s reality, isn’t it? Isn’t believing that there is a God who intervenes in our lives just pie in the sky?

Rather, it’s pie on earth. And it’s not pie. It’s the God of Wonders, the God who makes the rules—all the rules—and “breaks” them whenever He feels like it, intervening, changing, shaping, leading. Sometimes leading us into places that are dangerous to us, whether physically or spiritually, or both. Fiery furnaces. Lions’ dens. Islands with dangerous snakes. If you’re unsure about any of this, just read the book of Daniel, where God tampers with the animal world, or the book of Acts. Or First and Second Samuel, where you can learn to face the giants in your life the right way. Or any of the four gospels where you can learn something I don’t know how to describe in one word; maybe just life, for short. Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, read the book of Hosea, where a woman of questionable character becomes a signally redemptive metaphor for the Church.

It’s easy to destroy, and so hard to build. But the God of Wonders is subject to neither, as his compassion for the lost shows again and again. Whether we have fallen into temptation (entirely possible) or He has heard our prayer and not led us there, know this: God redeems where we have so easily destroyed, he rebuilds where we have accidentally (or not) knocked something over, and he forgives when we cry out to Him for forgiveness. For he does stuff; and for that I, for one, am deeply thankful.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Expected and Unexpected Things

Barring divine intervention, there are basically two ingredients that create the great circle of life: expected and unexpected things. This is not the same as saying there are basically two flavors of ice cream, Vanilla and Chocolate. That may have a vanilla-bean-sized grain of truth to it, but it is not consistently true. For example, a vanilla base (or at least an ordinary, white, bland one) is used to make Peach or Strawberry ice cream.

Olalieberry pie with vanilla ice cream.

And, it is true, that many flavors feature a chocolate theme (Chocolate Almond Crunch, for example, or Mint Chocolate Chip). But there are those inexplicable flavors, whether ordinary or exotic, that are neither Chocolate nor Vanilla. On the ordinary side, Coffee or Butter Pecan; on the exotic, Polish Plumb Brandy or Swedish Olalieberry (pronounced oh-la-le-berry but looks like a blackberry; its pie avatar goes very well with vanilla, not chocolate ice cream). Admittedly, Olalieberry ice cream is probably vanilla based, but Polish Plumb Brandy is obviously based on a liqueur, so it would seem to defy the chocolate/vanilla schism.

No surprise here.

But unexpected and expected things are not normally ambiguous like chocolate v. vanilla. Rather, they are pretty much the whole deal, the entirety of life in a nutshell. Don’t believe me? Consider this: if you go hiking in a forest, you expect to see trees. So that’s in the expected category. So is, nowadays at least I think, a professional athlete who has had multiple affairs. Seriously, how is that surprising? Equally unsurprising is the fact that people smoke marijuana at a rock concert. Recently, the singer Roger Daltrey—let no one at this point ask, “Who is that?” for it is a self-answering question—reacted vociferously using rather volgäre Wörterja wohl—aus vier Buchstaben! (as the Germans are wont to say) to some of his front-row fans who were using the substance. Why would you be surprised to see or smell people smoking pot at a rock concert? Who would have thought that is surprising? (Another self-answering question.)

Conversely, recently a Ferrari was stolen in Germany by a mildly overweight middle-aged man with thinning hair. He took it out for a test drive and simply did not return it. According to news accounts, the car dealers in question, being savvy Germans, were suspicious of him from the get-go and did not let him simply drive off with the car without one of their employees going along for the ride. Why they were so circumspect is not clear, for in the video-cam photo still he looks rather an unlikely car thief (though perhaps that is because I would have imagined a svelte individual dressed in sunglasses and a black-tie outfit, wearing Pink-Panther-style gloves.) But, having pulled the car over, this clever man pretended at some point he had had enough of driving the vehicle and asked the Ferrari employee to change places with him so that he, the thief that is, might get a feel for riding, too, on the passenger side. When the employee got out of the car to come around to the driver’s side, off sped the thief with the car. And they still have not found this man, even though his photograph is now sprawled on the internet in a viral fashion.

Equally unexpected and in many ways more paradoxical is that the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles to be precise, is now opening a bed and breakfast in Scotland. It is rumored that he is doing so because he imagines that he shall never be king, and that the next best thing is to have an elaborate bed and breakfast. And I understand that, in a way. Indeed, I myself will never be a king, so I can see thinking, “Well, if I can’t be a king, in that case I’ll start a bed and breakfast.” Point taken. But in Scotland? Isn’t doing so, for the Prince of Wales, tantamount to high treason? And even if it is not, it is certainly unexpected and wrong (i.e. incongruous, not necessarily morally wrong) on a number of different counts.

But most surprising of all—even shocking—is, of course, a tennis racquet that kills flies electronically. I call it “the tennis racquet of death.” Such a device is unexpected on a number of levels. For one thing, it has brought out a side of my wife that I had never seen before. Yesterday she went berserk on a moth. The flies are normally too quick for her—she is suffering from CFS, and that has slowed her down significantly—but moths, being slow-moving and much more likely to eat her sweaters, are what you might call “soft targets” for her. And she got one yesterday caught right in the racquet and she electrocuted it. What was strange and unexpected, to me at least, is that she would not let go of the trigger button but kept roasting the dead little beast. She seemed to enjoy it, and that scared me, because, though moths are notorious for eating sweaters, they seem to me to be something like butterflies, sort of the sad butterflies that never got to become beautiful, so I’ve always had a tender spot in my heart for them. But for my wife, that is apparently not the case. I will here admit that I truly enjoy killing flies with the tennis racquet. I now actually have a touch of tennis elbow from it, for I killed eight such creatures in one evening, enjoying it almost as much as playing real tennis. These are the two categories of life: expected and unexpected things.

The Tennis Racquet of Death Perched atop an excellent reproduction of Callicrates’ “Nike Sandal-binder,” ca. 425, BC; original in Temple of Athena on Athenian Acropolis. (The modern art symbolism here is clearly “Victory over Flies and Moths”)

All that, as I said in the opening words of this blog, is barring divine intervention. Yet this week one of my friends who was gravely ill was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with acute liver failure. Friends of him, like me, and even my own friends who had never met this friend of mine, took time to pray. In the meantime, the outlook was, to say the least, dire. Yet, yesterday evening I learned that the doctors, through more tests, discovered that the problem turned out to be with his gallbladder: miraculously, he suddenly no longer had liver failure but, thankfully, gallstones. Everyone was utterly shocked and overjoyed at the same time. And, after saying a prayer of sincere thanksgiving, I scratched my head and wondered to myself (and I’m not saying this to make light of it, for I am truly thankful for his recovery), “Is this wonderful development more like the electric tennis racquet or marijuana at a rock concert?” I decided it just may be both: on the one hand, it is utterly startling when something like this happens, it’s a miracle, and miracles are startling. On the other hand, I pondered, should we really be surprised when the God of wonders and miracles does a wondrous miracle?

In any case, I am deeply grateful that my friend not only survived when he was not expected to but also that he can have a fresh and healthy reset on his life. And I here thank all my friends for praying on short notice, and I challenge us all both to be surprised and, I hope, unsurprised at the same time.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trigger Warning

“This is triggering,” a young woman has recently been captured crying out on video. I’ll say. This past week on the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill that selfsame young woman was so triggered by an image at a pro-life display that she allegedly hauled off and punched one of the young men staffing the exhibit. I must say “allegedly,” as there is a misdemeanor assault charge to that effect, and until she is proven guilty of it in America one always is careful to say “allegedly,” even when, as in this case, there is video of the event. Still, “allegedly” is the right word within the confines of the American judicial system.

What jumped off the page—or rather jumped out of the video—at me was the fact that she said, even as she was about to hit the fellow she had the presence of mind to exclaim, “this is triggering!” It seemed odd to me that bit, for I had always assumed that the way something triggering had to work would be more subliminal, i.e. something you really couldn’t identify until later, perhaps even through counseling or the like, as having been the triggering factor. But she did indeed identified it even as she, again, allegedly, launched a barrage of punches on the guy who was standing there near the display.

Photo by Doug Kerr

Wow, that’s pretty triggering! And it didn’t take long for me to ponder this and consider that if a mere image on a-frame sign could trigger someone up like that, how much more powerfully words might do so. After all, Socrates didn’t walk around carrying image-rich red-figure or black-figure vases, though both were readily available in the Athens of his day, trying to trigger people up, but he walked around merely equipped with probing words and ideas. Words and ideas meant to keep freedom safe both through instruction, for that was in part what he was about, and by a sense of devotion both to individuals and community at large. His chats were trigger-rich, at least of Plato’s accounts of them are even halfway correct representations of the original events. I imagine Plato wrote the Socratic dialogues more to catch the spirit of that great unpublished philosopher than to try to conjure from memory the exact words, or even to capture Socrates’ own recollection of them that could have been recounted to Plato privately, over a glass of wine or two.

Bust of Socrates, Louvre, Paris

What’s my point? My point is really a question. Is triggering all that bad, especially on a college campus? I mean, when I went to college my professors challenged me to think, to ask questions that made me uncomfortable, to consider issues from angles and vantage points that had hitherto been foreign to my way of thinking. In fact, my best professors were more trigger happy than Billy the Kid, maybe even than Al Capone. One professor, Mary Schweitzer De Grys, who taught an anthropology course I took on South American cultures (quite a large topic), forced me to ask hard questions about class structure and urban development, and in so doing provoked a level of compassion in me for South America’s urban poor (and, synecdochically, with all impoverished people) that I had not hitherto known. Dr. De Grys was, I suppose, what would now be called a triggerer. And, as this is teacher appreciation week, it is appropriate that I, all these years later, thank her for it.

My friend, the philologist whom I mention from time to time, may or may not have been a spy for the United States government, and if he were, then at one point perhaps he was more than a mere triggerer—perhaps he was a triggerman. I’m not entirely sure about that, but nowadays he seems to have all the marks of at least a triggerer, insofar as he is an educator and seems to take his role as one quite seriously. On that note, I shall close these natterings, with the hope that that same friend doesn’t get punched in the face for challenging his students. Yet, now that I think about it, if he should, chances are that he will have deserved it anyway.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amen

Harry and Blanche Jakes

It is a strange thing when you find out that a name actually fits the person or thing that it has been attributed to. For example, Harry means not “Duke of Sussex” but “Lord of the House,” and in the case of my grandfather, Harry Jakes, the latter title was indeed a very good fit. The name of his wife, my grandmother, was “Blanche.” I’m not sure how “white” was a good fit for her, albeit she was quite fair skinned; so, I suppose it could work. The name of her mother, my great-grandmother was Elizabeth, meaning “God is an oath,” itself meaning, of course, that God keeps his promises, which He certainly did in Elizabeth’s life and legacy. To which I can here give a heartfelt Amen, if belated, as Lizzie Ann passed away quite a long time ago; yet, her legacy lives on (e.g. in her great-great-great-grandchild, named Zoey, a name suited for its living on in) through the lasting remnants of the love she bestowed so freely.

But that’s people. What about animals? Well, my mother had a cat named Biggest that was curiously small; she named it as a kitten, and thus, when that name didn’t work out, there was a lesson to be learned: don’t name kittens based on their potential size.  

Her cat named Dammit got me into trouble at school. “What is your cat’s name, Yvonne?” Mrs. Hendrickson asked my class when I was but a small child.  

“Mittens,” Vonnie Ort replied.  

“And yours, Gregory?”

“Fluffy,” said Greg Pauwels.

“And yours, H.R.?”

“Such an awkward name,” I thought, even as a child. But then I didn’t hesitate any longer but quickly responded, and quite loudly at that, “Dammit!” Of course, in response to such apparent profanity (though it wasn’t profanity proper, as I was merely citing my mother’s cat’s actual name), I would wind up quite quickly in the principal’s office, and I deserved it, I suppose, as I relished being different than the other children.

But what about objects? For unknown reasons, my son named the car I bought him when he was graduated from high school, “Marty.” As it turned out I had a good friend named Marty, but that was mere coincidence. In any case, I inherited Marty the car because I am a writer and writers don’t make a lot of money, so they inherit their children’s hand-me-downs, rather than the other way round as happens in normal middle-class families. And I drove Marty (the car) until he died. Elaine named her last car Matilda. I named one of our dogs Hilda Pennington-Mellor Munthe, after Axel Munthe’s second but by far best wife. I think I would have been in love with Hilda had I lived in her age and come into her orbit, for she cared about the poor and was graceful at all times, it seems to me at least. Maybe she also loved animals like Axel Munthe, which is one reason I love him, as well.

Drawing of Axel Munthe by Salvatore Federico.

But that doesn’t solve the question about naming objects.  To shed some interesting light on it, however, I offer an item that has been in the news of late. This past week, in fact, two teenage friends, Tyler Smith and Heather Brown, students at Christ’s Church Academy, went swimming at Vilano Beach near St. Augustine, Florida. A riptide or the like pulled them quite a way off shore; according to the account in the news, some two and a half miles. They desperately tried to swim back to shore, but to no avail. Just when they were running out of energy, they prayed to God (where else?) for help.

Meanwhile, a crew of men on a boating adventure had set out some time before from Delray Beach, New Jersey under the guide of Captain Eric Wagner. (For those of you unfamiliar with American geography, that is quite a long distance from Vilano Beach.) Interestingly, Wagner said they had decided to go out to sea despite seeing threatening waves caused by possibly inclement weather conditions.  And, as it happened, Wagner and his men heard the young couple’s by now fading cries for help. It a matter of minutes, Wagner and his men pulled the flagging couple to the safety of what must have seemed an ark of refuge, even if Wagner and his men were not, to my knowledge, transporting any animals. When the young couple learned the name of that vessel, they burst into tears. Why? That craft’s name turned out to be, strangely enough, Amen. Yes, that is its name, and boats are not often christened Amen any more often than pet baboons are Billy.

It’s a strange thing when you find out a name fits. In the case of that vessel, the name is far more fitting than my having named one of our dogs Hilda Pennington-Mellor Munthe or, in the case of my mother, a cat Biggest or her monkey Betsy; yes, Elaine had a monkey and she named it Betsy, thinking it would make a good sister for me. You can read about it on pages 85-98 of the Curious Autobiography. And, by the way, Axel Munthe also enjoyed simian company, if enjoyed is the right word. In fact, he had a baboon named Billy, which lived with him in his apartment in Rome, an abode formerly inhabited by John Keats.  

To all that, all I have to say is a hearty Amen. You never know when your prayer will be answered and you’ll be scooped up by someone when you’re feeling lost at sea, someone you never thought you’d meet, someone who set out into a storm, metaphorical or otherwise, in spite of the danger. Yes, in a way he couldn’t have anticipated, by the grace of God, Captain Wagner, who did just that, was a hero. And Heather and Tyler know that their prayer was truly answered, for which no doubt they will always be thankful. May we all be courageous enough to put out into deep water to rescue another. And, should the situation arise, may just such a wayfaring hero happen upon you, courageous enough to pull you out of life’s sometimes overwhelming tides just when you need it. To which, I hope you’ll join me in pronouncing yet another Amen.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Of Wales, Dragons and Whales

If you’re Welsh, even residually so, then you undoubtedly know that the dragon on the Welsh flag is the red dragon of Cadwaladr, King of Gwenedd.  Sadly, Cadwaladr died of the plague in 682. But his fame did not die with him, as he and his dragon were often aspects of stories that would point to the rightful claim of the throne of England and Wales based on a prophecy by the Welsh Myrddin (i.e. the wizard Merlin), whose association with King Arthur and the Lady Guinevere is his greater claim to fame. But he is also (perhaps a bit less) famous for his prophecy of the Red Dragon’s victory over the White Dragon. The rulers who could demonstrate that their descent came from Cadwaladr (as the Red dragon was his dragon, and therefore Welsh, like Myrddin, i.e. Merlin) could use the red dragon as their emblem, which would give them the rightful claim to the throne of England and Wales.

Lady Guinevere and Merlin from the 1917 illustrated edition of Sir Thomas Mallory’s The Romance of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (

When in 1485 Henry Tudor, e.g., arrived in Wales, he took up the red dragon emblem as clear proof that he had fulfilled Myrddin’s prophecy recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth; Henry’s victory at Bosworth Field allowed him to demonstrate his rightful claim to the throne, and he took the dragon as his personal emblem. His rather sexually robust and better-known son, Henry VIII, also thus claimed his descend from Cadwaladr, and therefore could establish his as the officially sanctioned birth right to the throne. And the Welsh dragon even wound up on Henry VIII’s coat of arms and remains there to this day, though Henry has long since expired, centuries before he might have been, in his older age, an apt poster child for a royal Viagra commercial.

Coat of Arms of Henry VIII (Image courtesy of Sodacani.

But every Welshman worth his salt already knows all that.  And now you know that if Merlin seems a bit gorffwyll (i.e. batty) to you, it might just be because he is actually Myrddin, and therefore actually Welsh.  But I leave that aside.  Rather, let me turn to a few salient details about the Welsh flag proper.

That flag also includes the Tudor colors white and green, and it was used by Henry VII at the aforementioned Battle of Bosworth (1485), and later carried in procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. According to Wikipedia, several cities also feature the red dragon on their own banners and flags, not the least of which is, of course, Cardiff (the capital city of Wales), and the Argentine city of Puerto Madryn, a city founded by roving Welsh émigrés who were voyaging (for unknown reasons) on the clipper ship “Mimosa.” When they put to shore they decided to stay, naming the natural port that they had happened upon “Porth Madryn,” to honor the home of Sir Love Jones-Parry (who was not the first Welshman with an annoying hyphenated name, but was probably among the first). Love Jones-Parry’s homestead (back in Wales, of course) was called “Madryn,” which probably meant something like “Doggy Estate” as madr is the Welsh word for dog. 

Suffice it to say that the Red Dragon of Wales is not simply a local, “gorffwyll” Welsh symbol, but that red beast definitely gets around and is one of the few such symbols to have traversed the sea on a clipper named Mimosa—named, so far as my research bears out, only coincidentally with the same title as the delightful drink “mimosa,” which is also known to be served in Argentina and other parts of the Spanish speaking world. Though perhaps, if the Welsh helmsman of the Mimosa clipper was drinking too many mimosas as he steered that ship, it is understandable how he wound up not in Swansea but in what would later be called Porth Madryn, named for the aforementioned nominally hyphenated person’s estate.

But what has this to do with whales? Well, obviously, whales, like clipper ships, are capable of traversing the seas. And lately, allegedly at least, they have been enlisted not in her majesty’s secret service but by the KGB (or whatever Russian spy agency has succeeded the KGB). No, I couldn’t make this up. Such a turn of international affairs is so outrageous that one of the most faithful readers of my blog actually requested that I write about it. Now, not being a spy (or at least not being sufficiently declassified so that I can speak about my association with the CIA), I can’t put the focus of the blog on this, but I can brushstroke the whale in question, for clearly, once a story like this has made its way into international news, it’s very likely to have some credible facts underlying it. It appears that the Russians have trained (sic) and even harnessed (literally) at least one whale in the service of the Russian government and for the purpose of spying.[ How can this work?

It’s simple, really. You would never suspect a whale, any more than you would a dragon. You would never have supposed that Merlin was behind, if far behind, the story of the Welsh national flag, would you? And, similarly, you would never think that a whale wearing a brassier-like harness would be a spy for the Russian government. So that’s how it works.  It’s always the least suspected thing, the improbable thing that is likely to prove true. 

I leave that for you to ponder. Does it apply to life situations as well? Of course, from minor miracles to major ones. Anyone who prays for anything important, large or small, will come to realize that. In the meantime, you may safely put aside your concerns about dragons—but do be wary of speaking with whales with recording devices in their bras. They may be working for the Russians.