Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “Life without Art” or “The Good Stuff”

The motto of the University of Pennsylvania is a simple but profound quote from the Roman poet Horace: leges sine moribus, vanae. It means, “laws without character (i.e. character formed by moral values) are empty.”  It is not simply because it is in Latin, though, that it is far superior to, say, Pepperdine’s which is, I think, meant to inspire potential donors: “Freely ye received, freely give.”

But Adelphi University has, perhaps, a motto even better than either of these: vita sine litteris mors est. The quote comes from Seneca’s Moral Epistles, and it is a strong statement about the power of the arts, for it means, “life without literature is death.”  And we should never take reading or literature for granted.

Try to imagine life without art.  You might, if you’re as bad at drawing as I am, at first think, “Good!  I hated Mrs. Tenbau’s art class in the fifth grade. She made us make lumps of plaster of Paris, paint it bright orange, and then she just harped on and on about “texture.”  Ye gads, even to me as a fifth grader, she appeared to be quite daft.

Kiss of Judas, detail from Scrovegni Chapel

 

Detail from Cappella Palatina

Fine, but what about no art. No prints in the bathroom, no paintings on the wall, no printed engravings of former presidents on our paper currency. No grandchildren’s drawing on grandparents’ refrigerators.  No visits to museums, ever.  No sculpture. No Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, no Palatine Chapel in Palermo, no Sistine Chapel in Rome. It’s kind of ridiculous to think about it, of course, but if you do, even for a moment, it is quite terrifying.

 

Which is why one should go to college to study art, and literature, and languages; the goal is not to get a job but to get an education. A diploma indicates that you have been graduated and thus educated, not that you have a job. And, by the way, not having a job is not terrifying, or if it is, such terror is almost always merely short-lived. In this country, one will most likely get another one. But life without literature, well, as Adelphi University’s college seal reminds us, it’s flat out death. And life without art—more death. And life without the capacity to communicate through language—more death. Goethe once said, “He who doesn’t know a foreign language doesn’t know his own.” True that, and with it more death, and gloom and doom.

On a more upbeat note, well, there is art, and there is literature, and languages other than English do exists, and you can even learn old languages like Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. And that’s a good thing, because Seneca bundles a powerful sentiment into just a few Latin words, and so does Horace. And that’s good stuff.

Here’s to the good stuff.

 

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dreams

For reasons I do not know, I am often asked about dreams. I have no idea why anyone would think that I would have an opinion, let alone knowledge regarding dreams. Unlike my mother and (rather more rarely) my grandmother, I do not read tea leaves, nor do I speculate about the stock market, nor do I play the lottery or even prognosticate successfully about politics—until three days before the 2016 election I thought Hillary Clinton would win, and, prior to that, I did not think President Obama would be re-elected (though I did think he would be elected the first time). In other words, I am far from an oracle. Yet time and again people ask me what dreams mean, and I have begun to wonder what it is about me that makes people think I would have any peculiar insight on that topic.

Yet, despite my lack of specific knowledge about dreams, perhaps I can address the subject in general terms. While I can’t comment on dream interpretation per se, I can say that dreams are important. When I say this, I don’t mean having dreams at night is important, though it might be for all I know. But having a dream—the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did, for example—that is very important.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Why? It casts a personal or, in the case of Dr. King, a collective vision. It is both inspirational and aspirational. Following in the wake of Dr. King, we can dream of an America in which “people will not be judged by the color of their skin,” as he once said, “but by the content of their character.” Dr. King, I believe, was speaking about the merit that their character affords them, that each person would have the chance to receive fairly what he or she earned and not be held back for reasons of racial prejudice. And I think that most of us, or at least I hope that most of us, would agree with that.

But there are other kinds of dreams that cast less lofty visions. For example, you might dream of going to the Bahamas or Hawaii or on an Alaskan cruise. You might dream of your kids going to college or even getting some sort of graduate degree, being well educated and well cultured. Perhaps you hope, too, that they might have a better job than you do, have a happier life. You might dream that they would have less financial challenges than you have had to undergo, have less hardships, have more free time. And it’s okay, as far as I can tell, to dream about such things.

But be careful. For so many of those hardships, challenges, and difficult times were the very things that shaped you, hopefully, for the better. They did if you let them. For life, in that way, is like God. Either you’ll spend your whole life fighting with God (or at least the idea of God) or you’ll slowly (or perhaps suddenly) give in to both, realizing that if He’s just a crutch, like everybody says, then you, too, are in need of that Crutch. For fighting with God ends the day you realize that you’re broken. Only blind pride can keep you back from realizing that.

And life’s not dissimilar. When you stop fighting with the challenges of life—maybe that’s what St. Paul finally understood about life that is given to God instead of given to mere religion when he heard a Voice admonishing him not to “kick against the goads”—and embrace them and even be grateful for them, that’s the first step toward your own dream, not so much of visiting Hawaii as of living life well, even embarking on a greater dream like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For his dream calls on all those who have ears to hear to put aside their prejudice, itself engendered by blind pride, and walk with him toward a better America and a better world.

But there’s one more thing I would add to my interpretation of dreams. You must remember old dreams to have new ones. You must remember Dr. King’s dream if you are to have your own. You must remember your parents’ and grandparents’ aspirations, hopes, and, yes, dreams for you if you are to have them for yourself or your own children and grandchildren. I think that is summarized in the Bible pretty well when the Prophet Joel says, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). May you do the same, and may it be a dream that is both personal and collective, inspirational and aspirational.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residuals Welshman: You Kiddin’ Me?

In Philadelphia and the area around that great city, where I grew up, if you want to express that you are flummoxed, you simply pose the question, “You kiddin(g) me?” The Philly accent is an essential ingredient for the question to reach the full bloom of efficacy.

This is the very question one might be compelled to ask when reading about Barcelona soccer legend Ronaldino, who is reportedly marrying two women at once in Brazil, where, though polygamy is illegal, it would seem that in 2012 a three-way civil union was approved, and thus, if the marriage was not a religious act but merely a secular act, it may actually be legal. You kiddin’ me?

I mention the possibility of Ronaldino’s three-way marriage in part because just two weeks ago I wrote about the changing face of marriage and then, within a few days of having written that, Ronaldino proposed (apparently twice). Did he get down on two knees to do so?

You kiddin’ me, right? But wait, there’s more. When asked about what floor he wanted to get off on, a man on an elevator made a “joke” by stating “Ladies’ lingerie.” I will admit that that is not a funny joke, but it is not funny I submit, not because it is politically incorrect—I know lots of politically incorrect jokes that are funny, and in fact maybe even most of the jokes I know are at least a little bit politically incorrect—but rather it’s not funny because elevators don’t stop at floors with titles like “Ladies Lingerie”. They stop at numbered floors or, in the most interesting cases, “mezzanines” or “lounges.” So he could have said, “I’d like to stop at the Sky Deck Lounge—it’s Lady’s Night!” and although I am not sure that such a statement would have improved the joke at all, at least it would have made some sense for an elevator stop. But, no, Mr. Richard Ned Lebow, who had no doubt been better known for having a truncated middle name than for being politically incorrect, obviously didn’t think about how elevators don’t stop in shopping districts (though perhaps escalators do) and thus he should adjust his impromptu joke. He just said it.

And the proper response from one Simona Sharoni, who happened to be along for the ride in that elevator coach, should have been, “You kiddin’ me?” and she should have thought to herself that she was more offended by the incoherence of the joke than the remote possibility that the mention of women’s lingerie in an elevator could offend anyone. But she did not, and she filed a complaint with the International Studies Association, for both were attending the annual conference of that organization.

But instead of Ms. Sharoni, who is a professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, simply formulating the correct Philly response, she—obviously not from Philadelphia—decided that the best course of action was to “Report It!” which is now a slogan on many college campuses. Perhaps she has simply bought into that mentality, and let me say, that it is absolutely the right thing to report some things, like professors who proposition (or worse) their students, students who stalk other students (or anybody, for that matter), and illegal activities in general. I’m not against reporting things. But, you kiddin’ me? Reporting a bad joke? What, you kiddin’ me?

But that is not the piece de resistance of this blog. Rather, it is a turn of events that occurred in Kunming City, China, where a family got a “dog” from the side of the road and brought it home to rescue and adopt it. The dog turned out to be a bear, and not just any bear, but a very rare, endangered species of bear (wild Asian Black Bear).

Dog or Bear?

“It gets bigger in time,” the adoptive father said. They tried to give the bear to a zoo, but the zoo keeper apparently required a birth certificate. Eventually they worked it out and now they won’t receive the full “punishment” for rescuing the bear. You kiddin’ me? I say that on two counts: The dog turns out to be a bear?! They get punished for rescuing the bear? You kiddin’ me? What could be weirder than that? A three way marriage? Ladies lingerie in an elevator?

You kiddin’ me?

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Say Something Funny

A few years ago a friend of mine asked me, “If you were required to do or say something funny on short notice, what would you do?”  He was being inducted into a club that required a clear sense of humor. As part of their ritual for joining that club, they had ordered him to “be funny now!”  I’m not sure what the club was called, but I think it was a very exclusive club, like the Turtle Club.

I’ve thought about that question over the years several times, and the reason I have is simply because sometimes one might actually need to do or say something funny on short notice. This happens regularly if you are married. I am not suggesting here that one should use humor to cover up or dismiss real problems. Those need to be addressed in an honest and sober way. But sometimes, I have found, your spouse simply needs to laugh, and you do, too, and laughing together can be a real balm for the soul and for a couple’s relationship, particularly for people who have been married a long time.

I say this because I think that laughter is just about the only thing that a couple can share throughout married life. Passion will come and go, and I suppose, when one is quite old the sexual kind pretty much just goes—though not according to AARP, so maybe this is just a rumor. The fruit of that passion, that is children and their rearing, well that can be quite a life-long project, but even so children will eventually leave the nest.  If they don’t you can, I suppose in an act of desperation, actually sue them to leave.

But humor, well, it is the product, I believe, of a healthy relationship. And even though it is something that one can find overused, as a way to deflect from a sober conversation, it is nonetheless vital. It’s more than just spice—it’s an actual ingredient in the recipe of life, though like spice, it’s a tasty ingredient.

So, when my friend asked me what I would do to be funny on short notice, I just answered him by barking like a dog, though not to a tune. And he burst out laughing, for he had done that very thing the evening before when he was joining the Turtle Club (or whatever club that was).  And sometimes, just barking like a dog is funny, though in this clip, the man’s wife seems less than amused.

I close with the top ten ways to be funny that are guaranteed* to make your spouse laugh:

  1. Wear your underwear on your head to breakfast and pretend that nothing is going on.
  2. Tell your spouse that your neighbor is a spy and act like you really mean it and you’re going to call the FBI; ask him or her to Google the phone number for the FBI while you watch the neighbor out the window.
  3. Pretend you like something you’ve never liked before, like golf or crochet or boiled, slimy okra.
  4. Temporarily rename your dog and insist that that has always been the dog’s name.
  5.  Insist that Christmas is “just around the corner” even if it’s springtime.
  6.  Pretend to have developed a new allergy to something common that almost no one is allergic to (e.g. tea)—this only works if you’re not already a highly allergic person.
  7.  Act like you’ve completely forgotten about old T.V. shows like Columbo or Hawaii Five-O and the you basically don’t remember the 1970s. This only works if you actually could possibly remember the 1970s.
  8. Insist that Bill Clinton is still the president of the United States and that, in any case, he never had any affair(s).
  9. Act like you want to go skydiving “right now” and say you’re calling in sick to work to do so; of course, insistently invite your spouse to come with you.
  10. Bark like a dog.

*Guaranteed in a figurative sense; not actually guaranteed.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Fact vs. Opinion: How not to Get Your Burger

“One problem is,” my friend who is a college professor recently said, “there seems to have been a breakdown in the distinction that high schools used to teach between fact and opinion. Students don’t know the difference when they get to college.”

I recall that this same friend used to complain about how poor students’ grammar was when they came to college to be taught by him. He used to say that he was disheartened when he would grade their first term paper in his class. “They don’t know the principal parts of English verbs,” he would remark. “One—a very bright one who has gone to medical school—even thought that the participle of take is ‘tooken’!”  And he would then lament that they know not how to place a thesis statement, how to develop the argument and present the evidence in the body of the paper, or how to summarize the evidence coherently and offer a conclusion that demonstrated the thesis statement.  These were, in the old days when we sat in a local bar and enjoyed a beer or two, what he used to complain about. 

But he has been complaining much less frequently about grammar for quite a while now, or even the way that their paper writing skills are deficient.  “Are they writing better?” I queried. That’s when he offered me the opening quote of this blog.

I’m not sure, though, that he’s right this time.  He knows a lot—he’s a college professor, after all—and I am but a humble writer, albeit with a decent command of English principal parts.  Yet I think what he’s calling the failure of the high schools to distinguish between fact and opinion might only be part of a wider societal problem.  So, perhaps he’s half right.

How so? For better or worse, the lines that once helped define societal norms have been blurred or erased.  Upon seeing Artemsia’s cunning action, Xerxes once hyperbolically lamented that his men had become women and his women, men. Now, of course, that would not be hyperbole. It would be politically incorrect, for sure, and beyond that, quite possibly literally true.  Nor is the expanded version of marriage what it once was; some have married trees,[1] others animals,[2] and others not others (even if they are seeing someone else).[3]  Moreover, if certain social pundits are correct, it will be expanded yet again.[4]

Caveat lector: societal “norms” are admittedly not always right. Jim Crow laws were once enacted in roughly thirty-five states, which would comprise the greater portion of the country and in that sense were a “norm” for much of the United States. But they were wrong.  Norms are simply conditioned responses; sometimes good ones, sometimes, not so good.  To take a current example, whether one should be allowed to marry more than one person can be seen as a legitimate question.[5]

But we are getting a bit far afield. Such a question can’t possibly be settled in a blog.  But a hint can be given: that question’s answer lies and will always lie exclusively in the realm of what Plato called the forms, some religious people, Heaven. Maybe an earthly example of that was on display this morning (American time) with the beautiful and deeply touching royal wedding of Harry and Meghan.  It reflected the “form” of marriage (which Christians call the union of Christ and His bride, the Church). Harry and Meghan took their vows before God, and it sounded like they meant it.  If they did, they were acknowledging that even for royals, ultimately the sense of right and wrong—in this case reflected their vows—does not come merely from society or from the individual, even a royal individual, but from God.

In closing, let’s get to the naked truth: if truth is left to the individual, if a Burger King closes, you might just strip naked to make your point about being upset that you didn’t get a burger because there is no “wrong” to prohibit you from doing so. Or, perhaps more poignantly, giving one’s thesis defense in one’s underwear is okay, too, if it makes the point (about not allowing to be told by anyone what you can or can’t wear). Since there is neither wrong nor right, why not make your point (about your burger or required attire) in such a dramatic fashion?[6]  It is, after all, just a family restaurant or a thesis defense.  If, conversely, it is “wrong” to behave thus, then doing so falls roughly under the category of what my friend called valuing opinion (feeling that one has the “right” to go naked) more than fact (a professor actually being in charge of the class and prohibiting indecency of any kind at the thesis defense)–if, in any case, my friend is even half right when it comes to fact vs. opinion.  But whether you agree with him or not, here’s another naked truth: if you decide to make your point in such dramatic fashion in the real business world (other than the business of a stripper, of course), you are not very likely to keep your job, and, though your buns will be exposed, you won’t get your burger, either.

[1] http://people.com/human-interest/woman-marries-ficus-tree/

[2] http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/woman-marries-dog-totally-b-h-article-1.1717772; https://www.facebook.com/heartofahorse/photos/a.346008596647.197164.318696121647/10152743973736648/?type=3&theater

[3] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/woman-who-married-herself-commits-11426757

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/is-polygamy-next.html

[5] http://www.jameswatkins.com/articles-2/heavy/a-case-for-polygamy/

[6] https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/student-presents-thesis-underwear-professor-193200885.html

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The (In)curable Romantic

One might expect a blog with this title to appear around Valentine’s Day. The next major holiday, in any case, is Mother’s Day, and that’s not usually a “romantic” day—except for Oedipus, I suppose, poor fellow. Yet Mother’s Day could be romantic for the husband of the mother, that is to say the man married to the Mother of the House, for there is something quite admirable and even, I think, a bit romantic about being married to someone who has dedicated her life to being a mother.

Delaroche, Young Mother

I imagine my own wife that way—she is and will always be beautiful to me in no small part because of her unswerving dedication to our children and the family that she essentially supervises. And I would marry her all over again, if I could. And, you know, I think that’s at least a little romantic.

The word romantic nowadays would sometimes seem to have taken on a meaning quite different than what I have proposed here. In the news I recently stumbled upon an article about an actress named Anna Faris. I only mention her particular point of view because I think it is emblematic of a wider trend, not because I dislike Anna Faris—I actually have no idea who she is as I don’t watch television—but I did read that she is, perhaps ironically so, the star of a show called “Mom,” which seems apropos as we are leading up to Mother’s Day quite soon (May 13).

Anna Faris’ use of the word romantic struck me because it seemed to me off the mark, and at any rate certainly contrasts sharply with what I wrote above. In an interview of her by Erin Donnelly[1] from a March 28th publication, Ms. Faris is quoted as having said that she is seeking to “figure out what the purpose” is of marriage is.

“Is it safety for your children? Is it convention? Is it so other people respect your relationship more? For me, I’m just not quite sure where it fits.”

But she did not end her comments there, and this is the bit that truly jumped out at me:

“I am a romantic,” she added. “I believe in a partnership, I believe in companionship. I just don’t know if I believe in a ceremony of a wedding. You’d think that having successfully married parents would increase your odds. But how we’ve justified it is trying to make something work when we weren’t sort of picking up the clues. For me, it was sort of checking it off the list.”

It is most certainly not the case that I am offended by Ms. Faris’ remarks, which for all their lack of cohesion, nonetheless make it abundantly clear that she is highly ambivalent about the institution of marriage. Rather, I just found the bit about how she is “romantic” to be rather incongruous. Isn’t romance something meant to last? Isn’t the whole idea of a romantic movie about finding a special someone with whom you can build a lasting relationship—one that will last “forever”—someone you can ride off into the sunset with, have children with, struggle through hunger, cold, and disease with, and still love at the other end of the journey. But maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe the meaning of the word romantic was transformed along the way into temporary or ephemeral or exciting but not enduring. Or maybe it just needs a qualifying adjective like “curable” in front of it. If there is an incurable romantic, surely there could be a curable one.

Yet I’ll bet even in this modern, frenetically paced, and often all-too-dispensable age in which we live, the word still has its traditional meaning. I think that for the person who is “a romantic” the notion of finding that special person still abides. That amatory affliction would, to my mind, be the incurable type, and that is how even Mother’s Day can be romantic.

Happy Mother’s Day to my wife and to all mothers. May you suffer the affliction of love, as Ovid might put it. I hope it turns out to be an incurable case.

[1] https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/anna-faris-criticized-saying-doubts-purpose-marriage-102401869.html

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Three and a Half Cocktail Party Topics

Historically in North America there have been three and a half or so primary topics typical of convivial conversation; we have all heard them or participated in them at a dinner or cocktail party, if we indulge in that sort of thing—cocktails, that is. I say “in North America,” because in Europe there are more than four; one can add art, music and, of course, they have the same other half topic, i.e. animals, that we have. We occasionally talk about art or other cultural things—just last night it happened—but less often enough that I won’t include them in this blog.

The first topic, of course, is politics. This is a terribly difficult topic these days, however, as people seem to be so polarized in their opinions. I recently met someone who had actually gone so far as to move to California because “there were a lot of Trump people” in the portion of the country (Indiana) in which he was then living. I realize that some areas tend to be more or less “red” and others “blue,” but such a decisive move (changing jobs, houses, leaving family members behind, etc.) seems to me a rather hyper-extensive way to solve the problem of occasional eavesdropping on cocktail party banter or simply waving from time to time at a neighbor with whom you might disagree politically.

The second topic of conversation is, of course, sex. Even though this one never goes out of style, I must admit that I am feeling rather behind on this topic. I only just found out that Sex AND the City is not entitled Sex IN the City—I had not heard of the T.V. show until the other day, when I was traveling and I turned on the television and saw the show just coming on, so I actually saw the title for the first time. Add to that, I also found out that it is now in syndication, for the channel I had flipped to was something like MeTV, a rerun channel—and, even more interesting, that one of the actors in that show, which I also just found out is not a movie but a T.V. show, is, in fact, running for governor of New York. Sex and politics in one fell swoop!

Sadly, I just don’t know much about that topic (the T.V. show, that is), which puts me at a distinct disadvantage in conversations at dinner parties. To wit, I found out at a recent cocktail party that SJP, which I had assumed to be a type of STD, actually pertains strictly to this television show—I knew not what at the time, but I tried to contribute to the discussion anyway. Now I don’t mean that people discuss sexual details at cocktail parties—that would be too coarse—and even when they do, they tend to refer to them tastefully as “SJP” or the like; but they do seem to have almost an prurient interest in who in Hollywood is cheating on whom or sundry details of a series like Sex AND the City. Yet on those occasions when I’m feeling devilish, I actually try to contribute an opinion about something that I perceive might just pertain to the topic even though I have never seen the show. I admit that I rather like such conversations, as they present an intellectual challenge to me about how to bluff my way through one by saying something seemingly appropriate but, in point of fact, entirely spurious.

The third item of conversation is, of course, religion. This has, in recent years, become much less divisive a topic than it once was. It seems to me that in the 1980s the order of cocktail party appropriateness was sex first—everyone thought it was cool to talk about it for some reason—then politics and lastly religion. But now it seems that people are much more interested in religious topics and politics is the odd man out. And I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because fewer people, I think at any rate, go to church these days. Thus they are curious, not so much about church but about “spiritual things,” to use the phrase I most often hear. Spiritual things seem to overlap with supernatural things (like ghosts, I suppose) and, of course, who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

The half topic, well, that’s animals. It’s the safest one of all, even when you speak about unsafe animals. One friend found a rattlesnake in his yard; another a coral snake in a tree; a third, saw something about a giant alligator recently visiting a park in Florida. Thus, animals are the safe half-topic that you don’t really have to say much about, but allow you a way out of either discussing something about which you know little, such as SJP, or retreating quickly from an uncomfortable political discussion.

So, when you go to your next cocktail party, I advise you to speak about spiritual things—it will surely be a big hit, as such topics are off the endangered topics list. If you run out of things to talk about in that regard, which I doubt you will very quickly at any rate, then of course, resort to animals next. Alligators never go out of style. Sex I would put at a distant third, although of course it is still as spicy a topic as it ever was; probably, don’t bring up the SJP thing, though, unless you know what it is. But, whatever you do, I would avoid politics—though if you can’t avoid the topic, as these days it is all too tied to sex—just talk about Melania Trump’s lovely hat, for who doesn’t find that hat lovely? Otherwise, you might just cause your neighbor to move to California or Indiana or somewhere else. In the meantime, I propose a toast to animals and religion. Two out of three and a half ain’t bad.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The World’s Best Naked Exercise Program

Black-figured ‘Tyrrhenian’ amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, 540 BC

I was originally going to write this blog with the most boring of all possible titles: “On Exercise.” I was going to do so merely as a literary exercise, of course, which would cause such a literary exercise to be a true exercise. This would be so because any time you want to make a topic sound boring, you simply have to put an “on” in front of it. So, instead of writing a blog entitled “How to Make Cookies,” call the blog “On Cookies” and no one will read it.  But if you put “how to…” in front in it, a lot of people will read it.  Add the words “world’s best” to the title, right before cookies, of course, and you’ll have an enormous readership: “How to Make the World’s Best Cookies.”  Yes, that would do it.

But if you want to create a writing exercise, you don’t do that. Rather, you choose to add “on” to the word (like Theophrastus’ famous treatise “On Sweats”) and see if, even though you’ve deliberately entitled the work with the most boring title possible, you still can procure readership.  But how can you do that?

Honestly I don’t think you can. So better to add something like “world’s best.” But even that might not do it, for exercise is seen by many a person as a kind of boring enterprise; that must be true or more people would do it voluntarily.  But if you add the word “naked,” you will definitely garner many more readers.  That is true of nearly any title.  You could write “How to Bake the World’s Best Cookies Naked” and then you would have a title that would definitely turn heads.  Naked is, after all, one of those words that you don’t just read right past.  So, let’s consider exercising naked, if only for the sake of this literary exercise.

palaestra

The Greeks exercised naked, as did the Romans. Yes, you could go to a Roman bath house, for example, and expect to see your fellow townsmen on the central mall (called a palaestra) working up a sweat completely naked.  But that was not alarming to you, as you were used to seeing them in the stall-less bathrooms dropping the weight of their bowels right next to you.

Roman public bathroom

Yes, you might even sit next to someone of the opposite sex and chat with him or her about business while you were doing your own business, and quite publically at that. So I think it is safe to say that “naked” can be in a blog about exercise and be far from controversial but still, perhaps garner your attention.

Yet that is not what you might have had in mind if you had begun to read a blog entitled “On Exercise.” Instead, admittedly I have succumbed to the temptation to give it a catchier title, and thus I hope not to disappoint, for I do want to speak about the true importance of exercise.  Indeed, it is vital to exercise and I think to do so somewhat vigorously, if your body will allow you to.  Doctors say so, and so do many well-written and well-researched websites.  But I will speak here chiefly from personal experience, not scientifically or with a view to convincing you to subscribe to some new diet and exercise program. Rather, let me just say that I have had basically three phases in my life, and I have done much better physically and emotionally in two of them than I did in the one that was devoid of exercise.

In that lazy phase, in the years I was in graduate school and just out of it, I did not find time to exercise regularly, doing so intermittently at best. And thus I found myself in those years less healthy, often more irritable (some of which admittedly could have been caused by being in graduate school), and generally just less happy than when I took it upon myself to exercise vigorously and regularly.  In my youth I had been quite athletic, and after the aforementioned hiatus I became athletic again.  When I reintroduced regular exercise into my life, my health improved. My heart rate decreased markedly.  My blood pressure dropped.  By the grace of God (and thanks to exercise), I don’t have to take any medications even though I am in my 50s.

And, on the topic of exercise, you might wonder what exactly that “World’s Best Exercise Program” is. Let me say first that one size does not fit all, and really all I propose to do here is tell you what I do, not what is the “world’s best” program is which, truth be told, I do not do naked (of course):

I take a good morning walk (about a mile) with my wife and our over-sized dog. Then, I bike to my office (about 6 miles) where I mainly write. At some point during the day, I either swing a Kettlebell (about once a week for about 30 minutes, following along with a kind of kitsch work out video) or I go for pretty swift jog (about three times a week); I also lift weights (about three times a week). And I swim continually for an hour and 15 minutes about once a week. Once in a while I combine these for say a short swim and a short run, but mostly I do them on separate days.  Except for the Kettlebell (shorter) or swimming (longer), I do them for about fifty minutes or so each day. And then I bike six miles home.

You certainly don’t have to do what I do; I’m just letting you know what I do, and, more importantly, recommending exercise in general.

No, you don’t have to exercise naked to make exercise interesting. It would be difficult and illegal to bike naked; that much is certain. I suppose you could exercise naked, if you wanted to, in the privacy of your own home. But honestly, that might be weird and I just put naked in this blog to get you to read it, for after all, “On Exercise” would have been a pretty boring title, one that most certainly needed a little dressing up.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Weight of History

When I was a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, I had a course entitled “Approaches to History.” In it, we considered various ways of writing and reconstructing history. It reflected the first beginnings of what is now commonly referred to as revisionist history, which means history interpreted through the lens of a particular sociological or political agenda. It sounds innocent enough, and at some level it is innocent. On the positive side, such an understanding of history means that we can’t just take for granted what we have inherited in a history book that purports to be unbiased. To enlarge on that, it means that there is no “unbiased” history. Everyone, wittingly or not, has a point of view that is influenced by his or her surroundings, his or her values or lack thereof, and when one interprets or reconstructs or writes history it will be, inevitably, interpreted or written through the aforementioned lens.

Take Christianity, for example. The Christian scriptures were written, presumably, by Christians who no doubt would have had a bias as to how to interpret the history of Christmas and Easter. The minor miracles surrounding Christmas are less spectacular than that of Easter, so I leave those aside. But Easter: now there’s a dilemma. If the Christians are the ones in charge of relating the history of the empty tomb, couldn’t they be revising their interpretation of the events to suit their own political agenda? In the gospels (and non-canonical concomitant Christian literature), the early Christians all claimed that the tomb was empty. A modern historian, operating from the assumption that miracles don’t “really” happen, could revise that account: “Well, the Christians were obviously biased and were unable to see clearly what happened, so they pretended he was raised from the dead. Or maybe they even hid the body and lied about the resurrection.” And thus this historian has revised the history to what is “more likely” or at least more logical. But the lens of that historian has its own bias: it is based on the notion of miracles not happening.

But what if those miracles did happen? If one were to entertain that possibility for even a moment, one would have to go back and reconsider, yet again, the big miracle of Easter and, yes, even the minor miracles surrounding Christmas. And one would have to look at one’s own life and recognize those times when something happened that seemed miraculous. And so forth. That process may just lead that person upwards out of despair and directly to the wider, redemptive implication of Easter, the foot of the cross. But that is the material of another blog.

Let me close with another aspect of history: not just how we can interpret it, but how heavy it is, for that is the title of this blog. For example, the weight of the Second World War and the atrocities that led up to that war is indeed ponderous. Hopefully consideration of those events has changed the way we think about evil and has strengthened our resolve to confront it courageously when we see it again. The same can be said of the American Civil War and the circumstances that caused that conflict—can we do better now, can we move forward together as a country, regardless of race, creed, or color? Can we consider and recognize the weight of history without carrying on our back the unnecessary burden of history?

I don’t know if we can, but I know where such healing must start: it starts not in the legislative chamber or in the courtroom or in a protest march, but in the heart. It starts with each one of us letting go of the ponderousness of his or her own history. We can’t forget the past, but we can let the burden of it go. I have a friend who is still carrying the burden of his childhood with him. No, he can’t just forget his childhood, and in fact he should not, for we all need to learn from our parents’ mistakes so that we don’t inflict those same mistakes upon our own children. But we don’t need to carry the weight of those mistakes, whether our own errors or those of our parents, around with us any longer. How can we let go of such a burden? The answer lies in our consideration of Christmas and Easter above, summarized by St. Paul at Romans 7:24. If miracles happen, we can let go; if they don’t, maybe we can’t. I believe we can.

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Daily Bread

The Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci, 1495–1498

I recently visited an old friend of mine in Frenchtown, New Jersey, not far away from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he and I both grew up. He has some life challenges and he is receiving Disability Compensation. That means he has as good a life as he can have under the circumstances, for when one is “on Disability” there are likely to be some obvious challenges. He faces them every day, and I am proud of the way he handles them and I am proud to be his friend.

Stained glass window of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Deseronto, Ontario

And I am glad to share some memories with him and to have them of him. I was visiting him, as it turned out, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We talked a bit about the significance of those holidays, what they meant. I told him that I believe that Maundy Thursday is derived from the word Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene, who some interpret to have been the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet for burial at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13). While I don’t know if she is that woman—to my mind it would be strange for Matthew not to have mentioned that—I do think that tradition held it was her and the association with the anointing of his feet for burial and with the last supper on that Thursday eventually crystalized, and thus the Thursday was called Maundy, a corruption over time of an adjective (or the genitive case) of Magdalene.

But I wax pedantic. Of course, the sermon that we heard that evening was the other possible interpretation: that Maundy is a corruption of the Latin “mandatum,” so called because that evening Jesus gave his disciples the “mandate” to love one another. That is, I admit, also possible.

But I wax pedantic again, for the real point of this blog is my friend, by visiting whom I was blessed. I went there, back home to New Hope to bless him. I went to go to church with him, to take him out to dinner a couple of evenings and to encourage him in his life and faith. But I didn’t expect that he would bless me.

His blessing wasn’t just one thing, it was many. It was his smile, the faith we share, the hope we have. The vision of each other, I imagine, well and entirely healed in Heaven someday, me from my sinful self, him from his disability. So I went to bless, thinking I would bless him. But he blessed me.

And the one moment where that blessing really hit home was when we were just leaving his church in Frenchtown, for he worships there in a fine old Presbyterian church. He hasn’t much money, so he really couldn’t offer me a “gift” per se. But he did something better than that: he took from the small table that holds worship materials a complimentary copy of Our Daily Bread for March, April and May of 2018 and he offered it to me.

That evening after we had dinner and I had dropped him off at his apartment, back in my hotel room in New Hope I happened to open to the 11th of April, which even though it was not the date corresponding to the reading, I read because it is my granddaughter’s birthday. The short devotional for that date is entitled, “How Long?” And I thought of how long I had known my friend, how long he had struggled with his disability, how long I have taken my own health and life for granted. And I thought of that vision of Heaven that I mentioned just above, with all the souls there well, able, and free from the sin that drags each one of us down in this life. And I thought, “How long?” And here I quote from the close of that short devotion, written by Bill Crowder: “In our seemingly endless moments of struggle, His unfailing love will carry us.”

I think that that will be enough for this life, for we certainly are here for but a short time. And in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you wind up being more blessed by someone whom you try to bless than you actually ever bless them. For that is often the way that blessing works.