Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Brave, Brave, Brave

This title encompasses the very words typed into a woman’s text message box that I happened to see as I climbed into the shuttle that provided transport for sick people from a remote hotel to the huge, M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston. I didn’t mean to be reading her message, but I sat down behind her and, whether owing to her unfamiliarity with mobile devices or because she was far sighted and needed to hold the telephone a bit away from her face, she had stationed her mobile rather high in the air. And there were those words, “Brave, brave, brave,” typed into the outgoing box and, in a flash, sent. To whom she sent them and what the fuller context of that message was I do not know. But I don’t think she would, in that moment, have found to be comforting the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.”[1]

I think for that woman she would have settled for a hug rather than a kiss, for I can only imagine that either she or her spouse, with whom she boarded the van that morning, has cancer. I expect that they were on their way to see their doctor, as was I, to discuss how far the cancer had progressed or what the treatment options might be. These are not easy discussions for anyone, whether in the doctor’s office or afterward. Doctors too often lack the liberal education they once enjoyed, an education that can produce a demeanor that commands immediate respect and often evidences sharp intelligence; such an education might even mollify to some degree their presentation of the most difficult of diagnoses, cancer. Rather nowadays, doctors—even those who are atop their fields—often come across too much as medical technicians, well-schooled in their craft but not the most personable or sympathetic folk.

And, of course, the patient’s access to the internet has made things both better and worse. One can spend an inordinate amount of time search and re-searching (but not really researching) any aspect of a diagnosis, discovering various treatment options, herbal remedies, blood refurbishing machines, doctors in South Africa or some other exotic location doing experimental things that “won’t be offered in the States for another decade,” or so it is said. And of course, there are those known as healers, too. And every friend will offer you different advice.

But what you really need is what that dear woman wrote: the capacity to be brave in the face of certain danger, possibly death. For me, that sense of peace, that quality of grounding comes from one source, and one only. It doesn’t spring merely from the way I was raised—though Elaine Jakes did instill, I think, the kind of qualities in me as a lad that should have produced a modicum of bravery. She was, after all, a single mother living in the mod, artsy, even hippyesque, New Hope, Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, a town ahead of its time as it progressively anticipated the issues that now face our entire country, even the world. She was indeed brave, in that environment to raise a son on her own, to deal with the pressures of easy access to drugs, permissive sexual attitudes, and the concomitant malaise that such lotus-eating culture can engender. No, as brave as Elaine was and as rich a childhood as I was fortunate to experience, that is not the source of courage of which I speak.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of the kind of bravery that I am speaking of and perhaps that dear woman was alluding to in her text: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” Such bravery means that you know that you can die, that in fact you will die. It is just a question of when. And to have that courage means to love life enough to be courageous in the face of death. For Chesterton also wrote, “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” This idea forms an interesting couplet with the other. The bravery that I aspire to is, in a real sense, contradictory, as it can exist only because fear also exists. Yet, while having a deep sense of pathos (i.e. realizing that life can be lost), it mysteriously relies on a certain piece of ethereal knowledge: the presumed fact that the One that Chesterton spoke of so often and so articulately is not only the superabundant (the correct word here is propitiatory) Redeemer but the authentic Healer, as well. Whether St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is right or not about pain being the “kiss of Jesus,” I don’t know. But I do know that knowing that God has any situation all under control can produce courage. That courage will indeed make you “Brave, brave, brave.” I pray that, come what may, such will be the case for the woman in the shuttle, and for us all.

[1] Mother Teresa, No Greater Love (New World Library, Novato, CA, 1997) 137.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nursery Rhymes, Aesop and the Little Red Hen

The prophet Isaiah once wrote to the residents of Jerusalem:

For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.

And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed.… (29:10-12)

When I read these verses this morning, I could hardly help but to think about the America we are living in now. I do not seek to address the political reality. That could be the subject of another blog, perhaps several. Rather, I am alluding, by a strange sort of temporal and cultural metonymy, to quite another phenomenon: our society’s loss of cadence, rhyme, literature, even story.

Isaiah is speaking specifically about the last of these contiguous ideas, the loss of story. He compares his people to someone sleeping. That sleeping man, Isaiah had said a few lines earlier, dreams that he has had a fine meal only to wake up to realize that he is still hungry. So it is with our own generation in which the dreamt-up dinner of political correctness has replaced the hearty meal of morality. Situation ethics are in vogue, though the term is but seldom used nowadays. Perhaps that is the case because the effete situation ethics that was evolving at least by the 1960s is too flexible a term for the intolerant fashioners of political correctness who want the permanence of morality but get only the ephemeral corrective, judgmental terminology that changes with the times.[1]

But to return to Isaiah’s point about the generation he lived in not being able to see, consider this: his contemporary “seers,” he says, can’t see. The message they need to heed is laid out right before them like words in a book, but that book is sealed. Thus another translation reads, “their worship … is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (NIV). They have learned rules, but they can’t read. And if they can’t read, they don’t know stories, they don’t know nursery rhymes, they don’t know that stories matter and that nursery rhymes teach moral lessons.

What stories do we need to heed if we don’t want the empty dreamt-up fodder of our “ethical” spokespersons such as Amanda Taub, who actually denies that political correctness exists or at least qualifies it as merely the demand for heightened sensitivity and recognition of the hurtfulness of microaggressions.[2] Let’s consider a few such stories; and here’s a spoiler alert—they’re loaded with micro-aggressions.

Aesop writes of the ant and the grasshopper (Perry Index, 373). The ant, of course, gathers all summer so that when the winter comes he has a great store of grain. The ant, however, asks the grasshopper, legitimately enough, whether he had gathered his own grain in the summer for the long winter. The grasshopper’s reply is that he had not but he had been busy drinking, singing and dancing. The ant’s response is micro-aggressive (at a minimum), for he states that those who sing, dance and drink away the summer will wind up starving in the winter. Not exactly the answer that the grasshopper was looking for. And just think of how this might sound to a child!

The Little Red Hen is a modern adaptation of the same story, of course, with a delightful twist that involves the denial of fully baked goods, not a mere supply of grain, to the hen’s slothful friends. And what about the boy who cried wolf, another of Aesop’s fables? (Perry Index, 210).

Illustration by Francis Barlow (1687)

In some versions of that tale not only do the sheep wind up dead, but the boy does, too.[3] Talk about an aggressive moral lesson!

And, to the politically correct person, perhaps it only seems to go downhill from there:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

What possible lessons could be gleaned from such a nursery rhyme? Is there anything? Well, yes, actually there is: first, if you’re a single mother with a lot of children and (presumably) little income, you might just have to live in tight quarters and, being poor, there’s a good chance that you will not have adequate means to feed yourself or your children well. Second, you might find yourself being short tempered from time to time—or, from the child’s point of view, you might just get a whipping if you complain about dinner. Are these the best lessons a child can learn? Perhaps not, but they are lessons nonetheless.

It might behoove us, in this regard, to realize that not all stories are proscriptive (telling you what to do) but many, like biblical proverbs, are merely descriptive (about what might happen and sometimes does and that you thus just have to deal with it). Descriptive things can be funny or at least mildly amusing and, simultaneously (and this is very important) apotropaic. Certainly that is what is meant here—if you joke about it, hopefully it won’t happen to you: you can ward it off by addressing it, at least in a roundabout, playful way. Consider another, which some say describes the Great Plague of London in the mid-seventeenth century:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down.

Those who accept the plague as a possible explanation for this ditty’s origin and thus interpret the poem on that basis presume the ashes refer to death, along with the falling down motion of the children playing the game. On that interpretation, the children learn that death is omnipresent—but they do so in a game and, again, probably apotropaically. If we deny our children the opportunity to deal with stark reality, in this case death, because we want our children to feel safe, when death does come they will be ill equipped to deal with it. We can’t forget the value of the ancient dictum, “Live ever mindful of death” (Persius, Saturae 5.153), a lesson that a child can learn both from the boy who cried wolf (in some versions, at least) and, if only obliquely, from the simplest song in which the children have fun dropping to the ground.

Finally, let me suggest that we should not be surprised that our stories are strange, for life can be strange, too. And we should celebrate that strangeness, perhaps, with stories that can wake us up from the slumber that Isaiah describes and can inform our ethical choices. Such discernment can last us a lifetime—but only if we heed the moral of the story.

[1] An interesting ethical dilemma is the inability to teach ethics: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/ethics-professor-almost-impossible-to-teach-class-anymore-because-students

[2] One might also find interesting this article on how a reaction to political correctness helped to elect Donald Trump: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-the-right-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump.

[3] This occurs in John Hookam Frere’s Fable 3 (http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/fable-3-boy-and-wolf).

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Home

When I saw Daniel outside the shelter, he said to me, “Hey, it’s you again. You coming tonight, well, I think that it’s a God thing, because I was just talking about how even though I’m homeless, I still have a home. We all do, even though we’re all homeless here. We have a home in Heaven, and we have MBK, the shelter, which is a building but in it we can find a home, at least for now, by loving each other.”

I was astounded—this young man had spectacularly paid attention to, even internalized, what I had said the previous week. His summary of what I had said was spot on: that home is not a house, not a building any more than church is a building. A church comprises sainted sinners, sinful saints—hypocritical people who struggle not to become hypocrites. That’s a church, and I heard a very nice podcast about it this week, for which I’ll share a link here. A home is where there is family, and family can mean a literal family or the family of those who have the opportunity to love each other with selfless love. Home isn’t just where the heart is; home is where the heart is free to love. To love the other person, whether that person deserves it or not. Even to pray for the person next to you.

Now I imagine someone reading this might be thinking, “That’s all very noble and ideal, but in the real world it doesn’t work that way.” And he might even add, “My home isn’t ‘out of this world.’ It’s here, it’s real; it’s not some kind of fictionalized, idealized place. This world is all we have to work with, so don’t through your religious mumbo jumbo my way.”

To which, given the opportunity, I might respond, “Who said anything about the real world? I’m talking about MBK, a shelter for the homeless in central Texas. What could be less ‘real-world’ than that?”

Now I’ll be honest: I might have easily turned that sentence around and asked, “What could be more real-world than that?” And by the way I do, of course, have my own ideas of an ideal home in this life, for I grew up in an idyllic, if not idealize place, not far from where Washington once crossed the Delaware to defeat the British in Trenton. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a real home, the real home, something far greater but no more imaginary than Washington’s Crossing.

And as I went back to the MBK shelter this week, I spoke again to those folks, gently, even gingerly. For I don’t know their lives. I don’t know how they wound up being homeless. I can guess that for some of them it may have been drugs, alcohol, pornography or mental illness or, perhaps, having had to spend time in jail for some wrong they committed or at least were convicted of. Maybe, in the case of many of them, it was just plain old bad luck, a bad break at work, a bad break with or within their biological families.

But I don’t go to MBK to be anyone’s judge. I go there to share some glimpse of what life might be like for them as they learn, as I still am myself learning, to walk by faith through this dark world and wide, and find in themselves that one talent, which is death to hide, that they might serve therewith their Maker, who will not chide them. Nor shall I, for I have learned from Patience that they also serve who only stand and wait. Last night, for yet another evening, I was privileged to stand and wait with them, my homeless brothers and sisters at My Brother’s Keeper. Cain could never have foreseen what the impact of that phrase, which he uttered about his brother Abel, would turn out to be when it would, one day, adorn the front of a humble edifice in central Texas. But, after a few visits to MBK, I think I am beginning to understand.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Argument from Silence

If you were lucky enough to have had a good teacher of humanities in high school or college, perhaps you learned that making an argument from silence is a bad thing. The Latin term is, of course, rather august: argumentum ex silentio. Such an argument is certainly less persuasive than an argument based on solid evidence. The absence of holes for the poles of a wigwam does not prove that there were no Indians.

But I want to talk a bit about another kind of argument from silence, one that is in fact based on silence. That is the argument for God. But I start with the argument against God: human suffering. Now I acknowledge that animal suffering is horrible, too. An abused dog, an uncared for cat, or a horse suffering from malnutrition are all horrendous to look upon. But among these, none presents evidence sufficiently contradictory for the idea of God. Rather, human suffering does, whether caused by natural disaster, war, or human malfeasance. “If there is a God,” it is often said, “why does He permit little children to starve to death in Africa, hundreds to die in a mudslide, terrorists to blow up little girls as they are leaving from an Ariana Grande concert?” These are the best arguments against God—not evolution, not the fact that the earth is but a speck in the universe, not even the very good anti-God argument based on the hypocrites who attend churches. Those are interesting, even entertaining to debate. But the really good argument against God is, without doubt, human suffering.

But what is the argument for God? The argument for God is nothing quite as convincing, for it is ultimately an argument from silence. Not the silence of a wigwam’s missing pole hole. Rather it is the argument from silence and invisibility, from not hearing a word but somehow knowing, at least strongly believing, that He is there, and sensing that that silent argument changes everything. For it gives you hope. Hope, I think, is the strongest argument from silence for God.

Now what do I mean by this? Let us begin with the notion that hope is as invisible as it is intangible. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it with your fingers. But you crave it perhaps more than an alcoholic his next drink. You can’t go on without it, or at least you feel certain that you can’t. You get up in the morning and on your drive to work you can think only of the cruel oppression of the world, knowing that your job, perhaps, is in the hands of some of those very oppressors.

That boss seems simply to want to make your job so difficult you can’t do it, let alone flourish in performing it. Rather, it is like one continuous fraternity hazing ritual, where every time you think you’ve accomplished something, done a task or prepared a report correctly, you are yet again chided, criticized, knocked down, made to feel small, made to feel worthless. Your work is never up to the standards which appear to you to shift at the will or whim of your boss. You’ve learned to live with that, but it is not a good situation and you know it. But it’s too late to change. You’re middle aged and you’re at the bottom rung of middle management.

This is where the argument from silence comes in, or rather bursts in. On that selfsame drive to work you think and think and think and wonder how you can get out of this situation, how you can extricate yourself, but you can’t come up with a way, not a natural way. And then you think of your faithful cousin, or your co-worker (the only one who actually cares about you), or your smiling and helpful neighbor, all of whom are cheerful, hopeful, encouraging people. “Why are they so?” you ruminate. And then it dons on you, in the silence of your car as you close your eyes for thirty seconds at a traffic light until the car behind you honks. They all believe in something greater than themselves, in a god, in God. The all have hope from on high. They all are convinced that the supernatural can and does happen. They get especially excited and exude their hopefulness on occasions such as Christmas or Easter, to the celebration of which holidays your smiling, helpful neighbor invariably invites you but you hitherto have invariably declined. Yet now, in a silent moment at this traffic light, hope breaks through, perhaps for the first time in a long time, since you were a kid, since you last bowed your head and said a prayer.

That’s just the beginning, not the end. And that’s the point of today’s blog, a beginning, a beginning in silence, based on silence. If you want to see where hope leads, keep reading each week. We’ll get there on another occasion. Another silent occasion.

 

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.

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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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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Good, the Great and the “HBR”

hbr-logoProminent on the Harvard Business Review’s website, one finds an article by James R. Bailey entitled, “The Difference between Good Leaders and Great Ones.” Now one should not quibble at the uncomfortable plural of the word “one” on display for all to see in the title; I confess that I myself have, on rare occasions, used that false plural, though never in such a conspicuous position, of course. Still, the article is worth perusing, if for no other reason than to contrast it with what great leadership actually is. Large stretches of that article sound about right in no small part because the entire article is partially true. If one were to think evenhandedly, one might conclude something along these lines: “a partial truth is better than no truth and certainly better than a lie. It’s better than evil. It’s an improvement on bad. At least it’s something that is practically complete, almost right, virtually true.”

But one would be wrong, for something can’t be “virtually true.” Truth is necessarily complete in and of itself. Partially right is wrong; practically complete is incomplete; virtually true is false. So I begin by suggesting that what the famed scholar James R. Bailey, the Hochberg Professor of Leadership Development at George Washington University’s School of Business, and coauthor of Handbook of Managerial and Organizational Wisdom, has written is, in fact, a mean sort of lie.veritas

That expression “a partial truth is a mean sort of lie” (meaning, of course, an intentional partial truth) is penned in the back of the Bible that once belonged to my grandmother, Blanche Evans Jakes. After her death, I happened upon that old book, and I have never forgotten her personal notes scrawled within it. Yet if that saying sounds a bit pointed, even piquant, nevertheless that very piquancy is why, I suppose, I have never let it slip from my memory. And one must understand that in the phrase, “a mean sort of lie,” the word “mean” does not convey the sense of “belligerent” but rather “cheap,” “inferior.” In other words, partial truth fails even to measure up to being a clever lie. It’s a second-rate lie, one that is base, vulgar and vile.

Now you might be thinking that I’m being petulant. But I am not. Yet if not, why would I want to vilify the work of one James R. Bailey, work presumably so profound that it bedecks the HBR website? Well, vilify is a strong word, and I’m not out to do that. But I suppose the reason I am calling attention to his work is because his article contains a number of facile suppositions that, unexamined, might tame the docile reader into submission, causing the reader to believe that, just because that professor has an elevated position, he must be right. Dr. Bailey writes:

“It’s tempting to think leadership … follows a continuum, one anchored by bad and great, with good somewhere in between. … I dispute … the stubborn resolve that great and good are points along the same stream. That just isn’t so. Great leadership and good leadership have distinctly different characteristics and paths. … great is a force. True, great also means “excellent,” but that is not its primary meaning. As for “good,” we usually reference morality, virtue, and ethics — “a good person” or “a good decision.” Good can refer to the quality of something — contrasted against the commonly understood opposite, bad — but in this context good refers to the direction in which behavior is compelled.
        Great leadership is powerful, dominating, often overwhelming. It can sweep people along through sheer animation. Great leadership excites, energizes, and stimulates. It’s a rousing call, shocking complacency and inertia into action. It’s one of the most potent pulls in human history, and as such accounts for much of humanity’s progress, as well as its suffering. While it ignites collective action and stirs passion, its direction depends largely on those that wield its power. Great has no inherent moral compass, and thus its unpredictable potency can just as easily be put toward pugilistic and peaceful purposes.”

hitlerAccording to Professor Bailey’s argument, someone like Adolf Hitler could be classified as a great leader. But, do we really want to say that? Can you imagine yourself standing there at a cocktail party with a glass in your hand and say to group of your friends, “Well, you know, Adolf Hitler really was a great leader.” And then when everyone looks aghast, perhaps you could add, “Well, I got that off the Harvard Business School’s website.”

Then if you’re remarkably fortunate, an equally hoodwinked interlocutor might say, “Well, yes, I saw that article! Indeed, according to—was it someone named Bailey’s?—definition, I think you have a point.” But in truth, it is very unlikely that any of the ones (sic) at that party will be aware of Professor Bailey’s droll redefinition of the almost trite expression “great leadership,” his prominent place on the Harvard Business Review’s website notwithstanding.

For he has forgotten that good and great, though not technically on a continuum, are contiguous ideas in English. “Great” is related, of course, to the German gross, meaning large, derived from the Indo-European root *ghreu- which seems to have meant “grind” (though according to the OED that etymology is far from certain).[1] One thinks of great as referring to size when, for example, one thinks of an appellation such as the Great Lakes or World War I as the “Great War,” or the description of St. Mary from the second chapter of Luke, “… Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea … 5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the word has primarily meant “excellent.” Now Bailey is right to note that good and great are not the same idea. Good’s comparative is better; great’s is greater. Yet both adjectives currently imply something decent, something right, something noble, not something simply powerful. In fact, I cannot think of a sentence in which great could be substituted for “shocking complacency and inertia into action,” to use Bailemoral-compassy’s words cited above. No I think Dr. Bailey is simply wrong. Hitler was not great, nor can any leader be who, to use Bailey’s words again, has “no… moral compass.”

But leadership can be a neutral term, and maybe that’s what Dr. Bailey really meant to say. Leadership can be good or bad. A good leader will be driven by decency, will be compelled to action by a sense of the divine imprimatur, whether he or she knows it or not. That gracious mark on the good leader’s life will evidence itself in a profound moral sense, a desire for justice not for self-aggrandizement. When one finds a good leader, it is rare. When one finds a great leader, one who has such characteristics to an even greater degree than the good leader, that is rarer still.

Harriet Tubman
Harriet Tubman

And while it is obvious that no great leader will be perfect or have an unblemished record of leadership, one can quite often sense a great leader when one hears that person speak or reads what he or she has written. One might disagree with that leader’s political vantage point, but one should, nonetheless, sense that greatness from his or her palpable courage, thoughtful command of words and principled execution of deeds. One might here think of presidents such as Lincoln or Kennedy, or famous figures such as St. Teresa of Calcutta or Harriet Tubman. And there are many others, from Queen Victoria to John Paul II, from Pericles of Athens to Mahatma Ghandi. (Notably not on the list are Pol Pot, Josef Stalin, or Adolf Hitler).

So it would seem that leadership can be either good, great, or bad, and greatness, pace Dr. Bailey, cannot be bad or good. One portion of Plutarch’s description of Cicero, of which I here in closing render but a brief snippet, sums up well the portrait of a truly great leader:

“For [Cicero] especially revealed to the Romans how much pleasure rhetoric adds to the good, and that justice is unassailable if it is rightly spoken, and further that it is incumbent upon one engaging in the business of civic leadership ever to choose the good instead of merely the agreeable, and by his words to remove the bothersome from that which is advantageous.” ( Life of Cicero, 13.1)

[1] Further see the handy online source: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=great.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Poetic Art

When commenting on a phrase in the 683rd line of the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the famous (but perhaps not well known to everyone) Virgilian commentator Servius once wrote “the poetic art is not to say all things.” While I can’t speak for everyone, it seems to me that this is pretty good advice for living in general. The phrase might be stated, “the art of living is not to say all things.”

How, when we can communicate so easily today by telephone, email, texting, Instagram, Snapchat, IChat, or Twitter or the like, can I possibly say that the art of living is not to say everything? I think my thinking is borne out of a very old-fashioned idea that gestures can speak louder than words. I don’t mean by this hand gestures, though hand gestures, as the Italians have proven, are really a marvelous way of enhancing or even replacing words with non-verbal cues. For example, the gesture offered below means “I am hungry.”ho-fame

This one means, you’re the source of my problem—and may you be warded off:

berlusconi_corna

And this one means, I find what he is saying (or what someone is proposing) not to my taste (indigestible):

hand-gesture

And here are a few more, courtesy of http://sploid.gizmodo.com/:

handgesturesBut delightful as all of these hand signals are, they are, of course, not what I mean exactly by “gestures.” Rather, what I am getting at is that the art of living well must allow for, even require, some purposeful lack of clarity, some “coded” behavior, certain suggestive non-verbal cues that make the words that you do actually say have greater meaning. And such gesture s could be something as simple as opening a door for someone, refilling a wine glass before someone can ask, offering an appropriate hug. Such a gesture could even be as subtle as a (literal) pat on the back, a bonding wink, a warm and accepting smile.

And that is all I want to say today, because truly the poetic art is not to say everything or (in the case of this blog) even to say too much.

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