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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: So Easy …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Expected and Unexpected Things

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

Olalieberry pie with vanilla ice cream.

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

No surprise here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Trigger Warning

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

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

Photo by Doug Kerr

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

Bust of Socrates, Louvre, Paris

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amen

Harry and Blanche Jakes

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

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

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

“Mittens,” Vonnie Ort replied.  

“And yours, Gregory?”

“Fluffy,” said Greg Pauwels.

“And yours, H.R.?”

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

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

Drawing of Axel Munthe by Salvatore Federico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Becoming Texan

I have three friends who are wannabe Texans. First, there is my “brother” in Bologna, an art historian of a high order of intelligence. He has all the characteristics of a genius—he is creative and he is enthusiastic about what he loves: art, the Palio, hot chili peppers (he grows his own jalapeños and Carolina reapers), his friends, and, of course, Texas; indeed, he is a genius. The other two, also geniuses, are new to loving Texas: one, Argentinian, because she loves Texans, Texan food and Texas’ oldest university; the other, French, for the same reasons, plus boots.

Now the last of these friends is hilarious in no small part because, unlike most people who love boots, she (and I) just fantasize about them the way that perhaps a teenager (and she has two teenage daughters, so I should be careful here) fantasizes about being a pop star; actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that her daughters fantasize instead about writing a book like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I believe they are now reading in English. But this friend of mine and I both go to boot stores to look, smell, feel and touch, the way I once went to William H. Allen, Bookseller at 2031 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. I would feel the books, touch them, smell them, and fantasize about buying them; and, in the end, I would buy one or two, and invariably Mr. Allen, just as he was thanking me (in spoken Latin) for my business, would give me one or two paperbacks for free. He was a marvelous man, and I treasure my memory of him and keep his books among the many in my personal library in Texas.

A bust similar to this one from the Naples Museum sat steadfastly in the window of William H. Allen’s Bookstore on Walnut Street.

Though I am a native of Pennsylvania who spent most of his childhood in the Philadelphia area, I have now lived in Texas for some twenty-five years; yet, I still do not have a pair of boots.  Yet recently, while my Argentinian friend was dealing with a number of kind Texans, as she was then on a computer shopping spree, my French friend and I, went boot shopping–that is to fantasize about buying boots. We even consulted with a buff and husky salesperson about the general efficacy of wearing boots in inclement weather, for example, what a particular Texan t-shirt’s dictum meant (apparently it comprised an erotic reference neither of us understood), and whether the on-sale boots were of high enough quality to purchase—which he assured us was definitely the case. This is quite a contrast to my friend from Bologna, who when he was visiting Texas, bought two pairs of boots—one for himself, and another for his charming daughter.

Recently, when I was standing there at a funeral for a dear friend who, thanks be to God, passed away at a good old age, and I noticed that all the real Texans were wearing not only their suits, as I was, but also boots, I immediately became alarmed. I realized that, after all these years, I was still a spurious Texan. Jody, one of the pallbearers, pointed out to me that if I were to cross over from dress shoes to boots, I could do it incrementally.  He suggested just switching one of his boots for my shoe—not at the funeral, of course, put presumably later that day at Starbucks or let’s say after work, at a bar for a beer.  That way I could try it.  But what would people think at the bar?  I mean, surely the bar patrons would notice that we were wearing each other’s shoe.  (Some might be bikers and be upset by such an odd development—pace all motorcyclists here).  I know he was joking about putting my best foot forward, but surely going back to the boot store would be a better solution.

Then his brother, Cody—for Texans often have rhyming names—suggested that if I were to go back to the boot store, I should definitely not get a lizard-skin boot.  That would be a sure sign, aside from my Philadelphia accent, which is already problematical, that I am not a Texan. I had no idea that real Texans prefer what he called “rawhide” boots.  So, that is a good piece of information, I thought to myself, for my French friend and I, under the tutelage of the buff and husky salesperson, had noticed that the lizard skin boots were in any case significantly more expensive. 

And then another in our group of pallbearers—and again, I was the sole bootless pallbearer—whom some call “Waco” (a nickname), but whose real name is Glyn (pronounced “Glen”) suggested that I get a ten-gallon hat to go with it. I know he was only kidding. Jody then quipped—I think it was Jody—said maybe start with a nine-gallon version; Cody said, no, “He’s ready for a nine-point-five-gallon hat.”  Of course, I recognized these comments as kind of ritualistic rite du passage, that has moved the transformation of me from a lad from Philadelphia into a man from Texas. 

And then, just when everything had settled down and I had temporarily scratched my itch, to some small extent, to become a real Texan, my French friend wrote me, sending me electronically a picture of a real Texan boot store she found in Paris.  And she told me how enamored of the Texan accent she is, too. (I’ve never known anyone enamored of the Philly accent.) And then, coincidentally, my other friend, from Argentina, wrote to tell me what a wonderful impression she had of Texas and of Texans, and how well her Texan computer is working.  I didn’t want to ruin it for her by telling her that that computer, though purchased in Waco, Texas, which is coincidentally my other friend’s persistent nickname, was not made in Texas. But why ruin it for her? She loves Texans, had a great time in Texas, and anyway, though she bought a Hewlett-Packard, it might as well have been a Dell, right? Dell is at least based in Texas, even if the Dell I am now writing this on was made in China (I checked).  And this friend, even though an Argentinian—and as you know Argentina is famous for its steaks—said that Texan steak is delicious, too.  And that’s a real compliment. I suspect, by the way, that this intellectual friend also likes cowboy boots.  But of the four non-Texans mentioned in this blog, only my brother from Bologna has had the courage to buy them so far.

That said, I think that now I have good start on becoming Texan. I love Texan steak. I have horse and mule riding experience, as I was a muleskinner for circa ten years.  I will probably buy rawhide boots in the next twelve to eighteen months. And, though I may not buy a ten-gallon hat, I am debating about getting a belt with a breastplate sized buckle.  I am not sure about that, as perhaps I have too much belly fat.  But maybe they’re slimming?  After all, even arguably overweight professional wrestlers look pretty good in their championship belts, don’t they?

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Earth Day 2019

As today is Earth Day, I thought I would give a shout out to Mother Earth, to which we owe so much.  Our food comes from the earth, our bodies are but dust and to dust we shall return. We are, of necessity, earthy creatures and we need to recognize that just as earth’s resources are limited, so our time on this planet is finite. Such a perspective is a good kind of earthiness.  We have to know that we are going to die, and we have to know that how we use our time between now and the grave is important.  And one way of using that time is, of course, to take care of this planet with which we have undeservedly been entrusted.

I have a friend who speaks about his own earthiness in a slightly different way.  He sees the fulfillment of his own earthly desires as defining his earthiness.  And I get it: if you’re hungry, why not eat well?  But the kind of earthiness he speaks about seems to me to have a downside, too, for he uses it as a kind of excuse to say, “Well, I can’t believe in God—I’m too earthy.” So, on this Earth Day, I thought I would explain why being earthy does not preclude faith in God.  It might even encourage it!

How can I say that; isn’t earthiness condemned in the Bible, after all?  Well, no, not really.  Worldliness—e.g., being someone so shallow that you actually want to emulate the Kardashians—is condemned, but contrary to popular belief, earthiness is not.  I will draw on a worldly quote from Joaquin Phoenix to explain.

That actor, who is to play the new Joker in the forthcoming Batman movie, was cast, too, for yet another film involving Jesus; it seems to me there’s been a lot of them lately!  I am not going to say anything about typecasting because of the fact that the name Phoenix implies rising again.  Nor shall I say that Mr. Phoenix looks too old for the part—I saw a trailer of the film.  But I will say that a scene from John’s gospel, which Joaquin Phoenix refused to do (make mud with his saliva and put it on the eyes of a blind man to make him see), is one of Jesus’ many earthy moments. “Who the [expletive] would do that?” the actor is reported to have said. Too bad, for Joaquin Phoenix misses the point: Jesus was earthy, he was born in a stable (hard to get much earthier than that) and lain in a manger; that’s a trough from which animals eat.  He lived among the poorest of the poor, touching them, healing them, loving them. He died on a cross and was put in a grave in a garden. 


And even when he rose from the dead, he appeared to people—first women, then his disciples.  He didn’t go all “Super God” on everyone and ride up to the heavens in a chariot or ship or a fancy horse. Instead he came back to his people, his people on Earth.  On Planet Earth.  On Mother Earth.  And they touched him, and ate with him, and they loved him, and he them.  Hard to get much earthier than Jesus, very hard. He was so earthy that the aforementioned famous actor wouldn’t recreate one of Jesus’ miracles.  That’s earthy.

So, to my earthy friend I say this: you can’t cheat a cheater, you can’t outfox a fox, and you can’t outearth Jesus.  He came down to us, because we couldn’t go up to him. So, if we’re sort of earthy and acutely aware of our earthy needs, it’s okay, because he became earthy among us, he became earthy alongside us, he became earthy right here with us. And he did so for us.  And in his death, he took away once for all time the penalty not just for our earthiness, which is a relatively minor problem in the grand scheme of things, but for our neglect of the poor, our unkindness toward our family members, our failures to our friends and even to ourselves.  Our addictions, our thoughtlessness, those embarrassing moments when we said precisely the wrong thing, forgot to do something for someone when we had promised to do it, our failed relationships, our failures in general. The stuff we hate about ourselves that we wouldn’t admit to anyone except our psychiatrist—and maybe even then we wouldn’t admit it.  You see, Jesus is as earthy as we are, if not more so. 

So I say to my earthy friend—and I don’t deny that he is earthy—Jesus may have been too earthy for Joaquin Phoenix, but he’s not not earthy enough for you.  Or you, my dear reader, or me.

Happy Earth Day!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Paradise

We all have a lot of ideas about paradise.  For some it’s a trip to Las Vegas, where for them paradise may just be, homophonically, a pair of dice.

For others, it’s a beachy place with a sea breeze (instead of a powerful air conditioner) or wildflowers near a lake or being surrounded by loved ones or love itself, or music with love, or well, the list could go on.

Texas Bluebonnets and wildflowers along Lake Whitney, Texas

And then I got to thinking about love, and Paradise along with it and, well, given the season of the year, I was thinking, too, of the proverbial thief on the cross. Jesus says to one of them, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  In that very familiar verse, Jesus speaks not only the promise of Paradise but he speaks love, a very present love.  When one stops to think about it, one realizes that, for that suffering, dying man Love is right there, before him. 

Now we might think of Paradise as something like a beautiful beach or even the enjoyment of two luscious drinks at a far-away bar (or even a familiar one); yet Paradise for that thief on the cross and for the One who speaks him into that Paradise probably turned out, that first Good Friday so very long ago, to be a place rife with other unfortunate people, people whom you wouldn’t expect to find in any earthly paradise. After all, the people Jesus came to care for were, for the most part, impoverished, needy, psychologically screwed up.

Given that it’s Maundy Thursday, I will take the fitting example of Mary.  Not Mary, the Mary to whom many a cathedral is dedicated—and we here lament, yet again the extensive damage to the greatest cathedral to Jesus’ mother, Mary, Nôtre Dame de Paris—but the Mary whose life was screwed up so badly, the one whom Dan Brown novels have him married to: Mary Magdalene, for it is possible that it is her name that gives rise to the holy day known as Maundy Thursday.  Mary is believed to be the woman who perfumed Jesus’ feet with her hair preparing him, Jesus says prophetically, for burial. She is also believed to have been a prostitute or at least a woman who was rather free with herself sexually. Yet Jesus did not reject her as unclean and unworthy; rather, he reached out to her, brought him close to himself, forgave her for all her sins, not just her sexual ones, and loved her.  And she loved him for that, and for much more. And we can, too.

But back to Paradise. If there are in fact needy, unfortunate people there, chances are there’s service to be rendered them. Maybe some who show up in such a paradisiacal place should assume that they will have something to do when they arrive—serving the needy, caring for the poor, bandaging the wounds of those who are hurt in some way, whether physically or spiritually. And their own wounds, psychological, spiritual and physical, can be healed there, too. If that is the case, maybe heavenly Paradise, the place that Jesus is speaking about on the cross, isn’t so much a resort but really a place where we will have the privilege of serving. And maybe that’s what the psalmist means when he writes, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Psalm 84:10 NIV). I think Mary Magdalene understood that, for she had begun already serving before she ever entered Paradise.

The most comfortable paradises that we shall find on earth are wonderful, and can be a great opportunity to recover from the stress and strain of our daily lives. Good stuff. But the Paradise of Heaven, will be better by far, though possibly less comfortable; it will be far more filled with love, but undoubtedly less sexy; it will poorer, and yet I think it will be far richer and even, I think, more beautiful. For in it there will be the ebb and flow of real Love.

And, then again, there just might be delicious drinks there, as well. Who knows? In any case, I have a feeling that the Paradise that is on Jordan’s far bank is going to be both a bit different than anything we can imagine and even better that anyone on this side of Jordan could begin to describe.  However it may turn out to be, there can be little doubt but that it will be filled with mercy, for that is what Jesus speaks to the thief on the cross, and it is that very thing—mercy—which this season, more than any other, proclaims.

A Blessed Maundy (i.e. Magdalene) Thursday to you and, soon, a Happy Easter! May you both enjoy some temporary paradises on this earth and, more importantly, may you, like Mary, find true love, enduring mercy and the true paradoxical Paradise, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nôtre Dame

Last week, strangely enough, I wrote about how it is possible to go to a cathedral as beautiful as Nôtre Dame in Paris to drink in all the religious feel of the place but to miss God, to allow the frame to obscure the painting, as it were. Having written that just a few days ago, I couldn’t have imagined that within a week such a beautiful “frame” as Nôtre Dame would be destroyed by fire, a devastating fire that, while it could have been worse, wreaked havoc upon the finest and most famous example of Gothic architecture in France. 

It would merely be to repeat what everyone else has said already to say that this is more than simply France’s or Paris’ loss, it is the world’s loss.  Likewise, expressing my own or American solidarity with Parisians and all France in this time of sorrow is merely to repeat what others have said more eloquently. And even to say that the cathedral was much more than merely a religious building, is not enough. That structure was, and its remnant remains, the principal symbol of French culture, the center of Paris, the richness of a combination of religious inspiration, two hundred years of devoted labor in its building, loving care of the edifice, and sustained cultural preservation. What took so long to build, and what stood proudly for so many years ended so quickly at the beginning of the holiest of weeks on the Christian calendar.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, spoke about the care of New York Catholics for all Parisians, saying that they can “count on our love, prayers, support and solidarity.” He went on to make the connection between the destruction of the cathedral and the death of Christ: “This Holy Week teaches us that, like Jesus, death brings life. Today’s dying, we trust, will bring rising.”  It is striking that this occurred just now, just before Christians celebrate the death of Christ.

Peniarth 482D manuscript. The Crucifixion. Christ dead on the Cross, with the Virgin Mary, John and the Three Maries mourning. circa 1503 -4. (Peniarth 482D is a manuscript written by one scribe, on parchment, probably in London, either in the late 15th century, or at the beginning of the 16th. As in the case of Peniarth MS 481D (The Battles of Alexander the Great), it is one of the most elaborately decorated medieval manuscripts in the Library, and a rare survival in its original binding. Its importance also lies in its connection to the Royal households of Henry VII and Henry VIII. )

Yes, celebrate is theologically the right word here. You see, Christians celebrate Jesus’ death because they know not simply that we can bring Him back, keeping His memory alive—I am glad to say that Nôtre Dame will be rebuilt, as millions of Euros have already been pledged for that purpose—but He was resurrected.  Christians celebrate his death for what it did for them: dying, He took the penalty for their sins away forever.  And then, to everyone’s astonishment, He rose from the dead, which was and remains the proof that He did by dying precisely what He had said that he would do.  And that’s why Christians celebrate his death, not just his resurrection.

Thus, while there are some similarities and, given the season, striking parallels between the burning of the finest French cathedral and the death of Jesus, as Father Dolan correctly points out, there is at least one fundamental difference: while we already know that Nôtre Dame will be rebuilt, the expectation of which in no way diminishes out grief over the tragic loss that has just occurred, the first-century disciples had no such anticipation about Jesus, even though he had repeatedly told them it would happen.  And, I guess, that’s why, in this time of great grief for Nôtre Dame, we can still find solace: not just in the hope of rebuilding, but in the hope of all of us sinful human beings being forgiven freely by quite another death, that of an innocent man a long time ago. And we can add to that the hope of our own resurrection based on that of that same man, the Son of Man, the son of Mary, the son of nôtre dame.

Vive la France, revivra Nôtre Dame. Le Christ était mort mais vit. Joyeuses Pâques!