Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Is Shakespeare Dead?

So did Mark Twain entitle his famous essay that is a sharp, satirical look at Shakespearean authorship. In it he calls attention to the fact that most of the things we “know” about Shakespeare’s life are based on conjecture, the kind of conjecture that is itself, as so often happens with historical authors, back-formed from various details in his corpus. Hilariously, at the opening of the second chapter, Twain writes, “When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him,” and he goes on to show how Satan’s reputation is built largely on conjecture, not clear facts. That, of course, is what he compares our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life to.

Twain’s satirical piece is meant to show us that the historical “Shakespeare,” himself largely a theory anyway, is not likely to be the true author of the Shakespearean corpus. He is, rather, likely to be a construct based on bits and pieces of that corpus. What we envision to be his physical body is reconstituted from the body of his work, causing his actual corpse to roll over in the grave. All amusing, all satiric, all well worth a few minutes of your time to read.[1]

I wish that the peevish students of the University of Pennsylvania, where I myself studied literature at one point, had read Twain before they demanded the removal of the picture of Shakespeare from the foyer of the building of the English Department. The painting was replaced with a picture of Audre Lorde, the well-known Lesbian feminist poet who passed away in 1992.

But returning to Shakespeare, I want to stress that while the physical human being, the man who was called Shakespeare is, like Audre Lorde, quite dead—whether he actually wrote any of the Shakespearean corpus or not—the one we call Shakespeare is in fact a tome, a ponderous tome, filled with marvelous plays that come alive for the reader and even more alive for the viewer and hearer of them, the person who goes to the theater to view the spectacle. I can remember my great professor, Philip Ambrose at the University of Vermont, stressing this very point with me in a Greek tragedy class. We were reading the Trojan Women, and he did not want us ever to lose sight of the fact that that play was a sight, a spectacle, visceral, real, meant to be performed, not just read. That is Euripides, and that is Shakespeare. Note the present tense. Euripides, like Shakespeare, is alive today. We can perform them both, we can pick them up. They have become their text and when we read them, when we perform them, we bring them back to life.

But we must, of course, read them, we must, of course, have access to them, and most importantly be encouraged to read them, perhaps in our teen years, especially at college or university. I don’t think most folks will just pick up a volume of Euripides in translation on their own and read him. I don’t think most folks would even think about learning ancient Greek to do so. Indeed, even the headiest college student is not inclined to take a language on his or her own, not inclined to study an ancient language without some reason to do so. Maybe the college will require at least some courses in literature. But the trend is going the other direction, of course, as colleges and universities are increasingly adopting a more practical approach, in some cases becoming more trade-schools.[2] I took a language in college because it was required. I took Latin because I had heard the professor was one of the best that Dickinson had. I only added Greek because that same professor, Philip Lockhart, encouraged me to do so. Years later, at Vermont, reading Greek with yet another Philip, this time with the saintly name of Ambrose, I was so glad I had added Greek those four years prior.

My point is this: if you send your child off to college, I hope you encourage her to go there to get an education, not a job. Of course, you want your child to be employed and to find a vocation that will make him happy, if indeed it is even possible “to find” a vocation. Rather, it is only possible to harken unto it, for the very word “vocation” implies that the job “calls” you, rather than you “find” it. Add to this that true happiness cannot be found in one’s job. It can only be found in one’s heart. You could have a rather unhappy job and still be happy. You could have the perfect job, and be quite unhappy. I know many college professors who fall into this latter category.

No, I’m not advocating that everyone study Greek. But I am suggesting that everyone who has the chance to read Shakespeare do so. He’s alive, even if he is no longer regularly required reading. The same goes for Homer, whether read more quickly in translation or more painstakingly in the original. And Euripides, yes, him too, and Virgil, and Dante, and Milton. Read them precisely because they are alive, and they will tell you something that will last you not one day but a lifetime. And if you’re listening carefully, they may, by the time you’re done reading, have whispered to you the very words that will provide you with happiness, the happiness that can’t come from “job satisfaction” or “finding the right vocation,” but can only come from within, from the heart.

Well, then, is Shakespeare dead? Only if we let him die.

[1][1] Easily found at

[2] Alas, the university that I spoke about in last week’s blog did, in the end, decide to produce a rather slender core, cutting out, with a single vote, Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “The sword over my head”

I found myself confused by his reference to the “sword over his head.” There I was, at a gathering of some of the brightest stars of any university, enjoying a glass of red under the shade of a pavilion just a few miles from a major university’s campus, discussing, of all things, their core curriculum changes. I found it surprising that I, a mere novelist, should be invited. “Perhaps I have been summoned to this elegant wine-and-cheese gathering,” I ruminated, “because they know I care about liberal education. Or perhaps because I blog regularly?” I wasn’t sure.

It did not matter to me, as I knew that I should relish my conversations with them all—historians (for there was more than one there), a physicist, an art historian and, best of all, literature professors, for again there was more than one professor of literature. They were there to consider how the changes to their new core proposal would be implemented.

I was skeptical, of course, about trimming too much out of their core, and some of them at least seemed to value my opinion. I cautioned them about removing history courses—as our country’s recent leaders, for example, seem to have forgotten to heed the lessons of history—and non-English language study as we live in a world where understanding other cultures through the way they think (i.e. their languages) is becoming more and more important. (Perhaps you will recall from previous blogs that I have a close friend who is a philologist and I often accompany him to conferences on literature, art or even linguistics.) I suppose that association alone has biased me a bit, since many of those conferences are in Europe. Fortunately, as do I, my friend can speak Italian, French, and German, so he gets around there pretty well. But to return to the wine-and-cheese affair, one conversation jumped out at me, and one phrase in it alone, to my mind, made the case all by itself for a robust liberal education.

That conversation was with a particular professor, whose department I don’t recall, and the phrase, or rather its particularly strange, in this case, application was “the sword over my head.” He said, specifically, “Well, when it comes to education these days, I really have the sword over my head.” The context did not in and of itself clarify the reference. He was speaking about how difficult it is to deal with students, and how parents complain. And he seemed to mean he was getting sick of dealing with virtually every aspect of the non-research bits of his job, i.e. teaching and all that involves, from disgruntled students to parents whose angry telephone calls he regularly receives to the occasional late homework or make-up test. It would all be easier, he seemed to say, if there were just less onerous requirements, a trimmer core that would give students more choice about what they were taking. The sword, he said, was over his head. And he seemed to say this last bit rather fiercely.

You just can’t escape when you are joined at the hip with a Samarai warrior.

I wandered off to another part of the pavilion, sipping on my Merlot. “What did this man mean?” I thought to myself. He seemed a reasonable chap, friendly and smiling, but then he closed his soliloquy on how a trimmer core would benefit most professors and students with that strange turn of phrase. Did he mean he had the sword poised over his head aggressively, like a Samurai warrior or Luke Skywalker fighting with Darth Vader?Or perhaps he meant he was holding it high, like Vuchetich and Nikitin’s grand statue of the Russian motherland perched above Volgograd, the city formally known as Stalingrad.

Well, I thought, he couldn’t possibly mean he was like Luke Skywalker. That was simply too aggressive for dealing with a parent, however disgruntled he or she might be. No, that simply wouldn’t work. But the image of the Russian motherland, perhaps that’s all he meant. Perhaps he just meant that he held aloft, via his PhD or his publication record or his status within his department, a symbol of power, a symbol that he was in control and that the parent or student or even disgruntled colleague or telemarketer who happened to call his work extension (for that, too, had come up in another conversation) would have to recognize that he, like the Russian troops who had boldly fought for Stalingrad, would not give up. He held the sword above his head, he was indeed on par with the Родина-мать!

“The Motherland Calls,” (Родина-мать зовёт!) unveiled in 1967 by artist/engineer duo Yevgeny Vuchetich and Nikolai Nikitin.


But surely, I thought, as I helped myself to a second (plastic) glass of Merlot, this is not what he meant. And then it donned on me, perhaps because I was thinking of my philological friend and his conferences, that this professor of whatever it was, must have meant, for all his bravado, the sword of Damocles. Yet he had forgotten or perhaps had never known the name of Damocles. Had he read Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, I wondered, in whose fifth book the story is featured?[1] Surely that’s what he meant. He knew of the story, but he didn’t know the story. He knew there was some story about a sword being over somebody’s head, but he didn’t know whose, he didn’t know how it happened, or even from what culture this marvelous story comes. “Did he even know who Cicero was or when he lived?” I mused.

Or did I in fact muse? Rather, I think, I was brooding. And that’s when one more thing donned on me. He was living proof of why preserving a robust liberal education is paramount. Yes, he had a PhD; yes, he was a college professor; but had he been liberally educated? He was his own counter-example. No, of course, a liberal education won’t enable everyone to cite every story correctly or catch all and any reference to each and every allusion. But it enables us to ask questions, formulate them better and more pointedly. It won’t remove the sword of Damocles from above any of our heads, but it might just teach us how to speak better, write better and to comport ourselves better. It might just prepare us to converse better, whether over wine-and-cheese or in a courtroom or at business meeting in France. It might just prepare us for life, to handle its pressure, how to deal gently and deftly with our fellow human beings. It won’t solve any of life’s problems, but it equips us to deal with them better. How I hope those folks decide to keep the most vital of their core requirements in place, lest they unwittingly take a seat beneath Damocles’ sword.

The Sword of Damocles, Richard Westall (1812)


[1] Cicero, TD 5.61: Certainly this very tyrant [Dionysius of Syracuse] made clear his opinion about how fortunate he had been. When one of his sycophantic followers, a certain Damocles, in conversation touched upon Dionysius’ prosperity, the majesty of his rule, the plentitude of his possessions, and his palace’s splendor, suggesting that there never had had been anyone more fortunate, Dionysius replied, “Well, Damocles, inasmuch as this life titillates you, do you wish to taste and experience my life and fortune? After Damocles indicated that he so desired, Dionysius ordered that the man be placed on a golden couch bedecked with a very beautiful woven tapestry, embellished with impressive works. … Yet Dionysius also ordered that amidst such luxury a gleaming sword, fastened by a horse’s hair from the ceiling, be lowered so that it dangled over that “lucky” man’s neck… Ultimately Damocles begged that tyrant to be allowed to depart as he no longer wished to be so fortunate. (My translation.)

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Life in the Old Country

I’m afraid the title of this blog is a bit misleading. It sounds like I really know something about the old country, Wales—that I know specifically what it was like for the Jones clan, the Evans clan, the Hughes clan or the Eynon clan. I don’t. In fact, I can only imagine what it must have been like in mid-nineteenth century Wales. I can get a rough idea, though, from a piece by Chris Evans (a distant relative?), who in 2012 wrote a for the BBC on mid-nineteenth century Wales. Evans describes the most difficult of living conditions, living conditions that, even if they were not quite as harsh in Llwynhendy, a hamlet contiguous with Llanelli, as they were in Merthyr Tydfil, were undoubtedly hellish nonetheless.

How do I know? They left. By “they,” of course, I mean the Jones’ and the Evans’. The Jones’ didn’t bring much with them—just the contents of a black trunk marked with the name of Lucy Jones on the lid. But they most certainly did leave, and to cross an ocean, surely never to return, takes more than courage.

Courage is only the first step. It is not borne out of a desire to see the world or a quest for new opportunity. Rather, it requires a desire to get away from something, a strong desire. And what would the Jones’ and Evans’ have been fleeing? Well, if the article cited above is correct, it was the oppressive industrialization of Wales, from coal to ironworks, and the concomitant lack of opportunity for even the brightest to break out of the virtual caste system that they had been born into. If your father was a miner, you would almost certainly be one, too. If your father worked in the iron industry, chances are, were you a young man, you would, too.

And if that were not push enough, add to it a notable lack of educational opportunities. Now I’m not talking just about a robust liberal education, the kind I wrote about last week—the kind that allows the student to learn English literature, mathematics, science, art, and offers two years (at the very least) of language study. Rather, I’m actually speaking about education on a much smaller scale—what we would refer to as a basic high school education, or even a technical education that permits the person who receives it to move up the social ladder one or two rungs, not ascend it all at once. But to say that such educational opportunities were scarce in the mining towns of Wales would be a gross understatement. They simply did not exist. Yet how did David Evans, whose musical influence upon the family was profound—my daughter owns and still plays his violin—learn to play the violin, you might ask, and how did he get his hands on such an instrument in the first place?

The answer to that is shrouded in a bit of mystery, but suffice it to say that David would seem to have been born in America; whether his mother or father had been able to play the violin in Wales, we shall never know. But we can imagine. While we can imagine that he was likely not to have been the first person in the family to have musical ability—any Welsh miner could sing good Welsh hymns at Sunday service or even as he walked to work on a weekday morning—it is likely that David Evans was the first person in the family to play the violin, or even to be able to afford one. He would, himself, go on to write lovely Welsh hymns, one or two of which he co-wrote with a certain Reverend Hugh Griffith, whose name figures prominently in the Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes.

After such struggles, the descendants of David Evans, through the Jakes line, have had the great privilege of studying music at a major university in Texas with an excellent school of music and liberal arts. Sadly, even as I write this, however, that very university’s college of liberal studies is considering severely reducing its core requirements—the pitiable indulgence of the constant Sirens’ call for “practical” education. Hopefully, as there is more at stake merely than joi de vivre and simply beauty—there is, too, at stake truth, not the Keatsian parallel of truth and beauty but the truth that lies deep in a man’s soul, the profound truth that a woman like Lucy Hughes Jones was willing to travel across the sea to obtain—that truth is at stake, as it is, and must always be, the central goal of true liberal education. It needs to be preserved for a new set of dreamers, a new generation of immigrants longing to discover through music, art, science, mathematics, literature and language study the eternal Truth that has formed us and continues to shape us, and ultimately that binds each and every one of us together in complex, yet profoundly simple, humanity.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Illiberal Education, Shakespeare, and Campus Rape

It is fun to go on a college campus, even that of a college you never attended. It reminds you how privileged you are. You are walking across a mall that famous scholars have walked across and, more than just famous scholars, so have some of society’s great leaders. The campus that I was on this week for a breakfast with some old friends who are heavily engaged in the academic enterprise once held the soles of the shoes of visiting lecturers such as LBJ, Margaret Thatcher, Desmond Tutu, and Ronald Reagan. So it is that a college or a university campus has a way of making you feel small, small in a good way—small, as in part of something greater than yourself—young and fresh, and eager to learn, whatever your age might be.

Yet today you find two dangerous, and perhaps not unrelated, trends developing on college campuses. These were among the otherwise quite pleasant topics of conversation that I had during my breakfast with old friends when I found myself visiting a local college this past week. The friends and I had been in a Think Tank, or if not quite that, a talent cluster whereby which we had spent a few weeks thinking together about how best to lead—years ago, considering leadership in a variety of settings. And now we had all grown in different directions but, on the invitation of one of us, we were once again sitting and talking delightfully in a campus dining establishment enjoying a delicious breakfast and a rich, multi-various and even for a few moments, disturbing conversation.

I say disturbing because we happened to light upon a ghastly topic, which is one of the two trends that I mentioned above, campus rape. We agreed that it is much more widely reported now than it had been even fifteen years ago when we had been in our select group together. And that, of course, was good. We agreed, too, that in the current climate the alleged aggressor was more or less guilty until proven innocent—not a good thing but perhaps apotropaic or at least admonitory. We spoke about the relative lack of a moral code among college students today, with relative being the operative word, as the notion behind the phrase “it’s all relative” (and old phrase now) had, over the last twenty years not just gained ground but flat out triumphed. Then we all laughed, as we knew that now we, too, sounded “old,” as we once thought, when we were in our twenties or thirties, people in their fifties had sounded to us.

But sadly we only brush-stroked a part of the solution to the current amoral climate. Let me define “amoral” here before I try to address the solution. By amoral I mean not simply that rapes happen on a college campus, but that many young men and women, whether of religious upbringing or not, nowadays are swift to engage in premarital sex. I’m not saying that premarital sex didn’t happen when I was in college—indeed, it did, as my generation found itself in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution. But I am saying that the trend toward premarital sex as the norm that began then has by now supplanted, by and large, even the attempt at chastity. Less people come to college with a moral foundation that was forged in their homes; or, if they do, their parents would seem conveniently to have left out the idea that sex is a special thing to be enjoyed by a married couple, not by just any two people who find each other attractive.

Why? Sociologists and many journalists would say that this is the case, at least in part, because the parents themselves had sex before they were married, whether with each other or multiple other partners.[1] Now parents would seem to feel it is hypocritical to tell their children that they should be married first. Besides, many may reason, that kind of legalistic thought is old-fashioned, not part of today’s mainstream thought, whether that be simply the popular morality one hears espoused at a Starbucks on a Saturday morning or one might hear in a mainstream church. And we want to be in the mainstream, we want to keep in step with our environment, to do what the world around us is doing. Right?

Let me now return to the setting of the delightful breakfast, delightful in every way except, of course, the sad moment when we considered campus rape. It seems to me that the current way of dealing with the vast problem of campus rape is to create a thoroughgoing legalistic culture, with “Report It!” reminders everywhere adorning a college campus—on T-shirts, on posters, on the university webpage—all prompts to the young person that she (or occasionally he) needs to let the authorities know if something dreadful has occurred. Certainly that is important, as the gathering of proof must be done almost immediately after a violent act such as sexual assault.

But to get at the underlying causes—to prevent rape from happening in the first place—that seems to me to be something that should ideally first come from a home environment that teaches young folks that their bodies are not commodities to be “had” by another or “used” by themselves, even if the use is intended to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. That is still “use,” maybe even abuse. Secondarily—and this, too, runs counter to mainstream thought—perhaps another arena in which discussions about one’s body and one’s sexuality might come into play could be a college classroom, via literature. If a student has the opportunity to read Virgil’s fourth Aeneid and have a robust discussion about it, maybe, just maybe, he or she can see the unintended consequences of a relationship founded on sex (what Dido saw as marriage, Aeneas saw as a fling). If those same students might read C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, or read about tragic love in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the humorous circumstances of courtship in Love’s Labor Lost, then real conversations might be held on a college campus—conversations between friends, flowing from classroom to dormitory—about love, whereby love might be distinguished from lust and so on. I know in my college that very thing happened. I can remember Plato spurring conversations about ideas, Aristotle about virtue, Augustine about life’s journey and God’s call.

“Take away those great books,” I said as I directed the discussion to the second topic that I referred to above, “and you take away the opportunities for rich and meaningful conversations. You’ve changed “liberal” education to “illiberal” education. As learning becomes more and more career-oriented, we should expect our young folks to see their education as merely a means to an end, and their bodies, too, as merely something to be used with a view to a goal—even a good goal, such as a loving relationship. That good goal of the loving, perhaps even monogamous relationship,” I waxed on, “parallels the good goal of eventual gainful employment. But the means by which each is achieved—that makes all the difference.”

I was done. As you may have guessed, I had managed to throw a wet blanket over an otherwise delightful social event. I succeeded in wiggling my way out of the momentary yet deafening silence that followed my disputation by making a quip about my penchant for biking just about everywhere and my friends thinking it is because I’ve had a DUI. They laughed about that heartily. But I meant what I had said. The solution to our social ills must rely exclusively on the moral formation that may or may not occur in the home. Years ago that environment may have been the incubator of virtue; it is no longer. Rather, it may be that the last bastion of moral formation lies in books, books with great ideas and great ideals, perhaps out-of-fashion but never out-of-date. These ideals, shared via literature with many of the great men and women who came before, might just make us feel small in a good way, a part of something greater than ourselves, and eager to keep on learning, whatever our age may be.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cake

When I was in college, the word “cake” was used to describe an easy course or an easy test. It was “cake,” meaning of course, “a piece of cake.” That’s why, when a close college-professor friend used the word “cake” (oddly over coffee) to describe how the liberal arts core of his university was being gutted, I was surprised. (Now his university is a large, private university in Texas, which for the sake of my friend’s anonymity I won’t mention by name, as he indicated he had some qualms about anyone knowing just who was criticizing the power move by a committee hand-picked by the dean himself.) That said, that word, cake, really jumped out at me as I sat there sipping from my favorite mug, the one with Axel Munthe on it.

“What do you mean?” I queried.

“Well, it seems that students and parents alike,” he said, “don’t find the traditional core valuable enough to want to be bothered to stick with it.” Now I knew, of course, from my own liberal education at Dickinson College years ago what this meant. The core requirements are the traditional courses—some mathematics, at least one (usually two) science class(es) with time in the laboratory, a history course, a philosophy course, at least a couple of English classes, four semesters or the equivalent of a non-English language—at the best colleges and universities about half of the classes a student will take are core classes.

“What do the parents and students have to do with the core?” I asked, though I anticipated the very answer he gave.

“Well, it seems that many colleges are moving to a consumer model—if the customer demands a different product, we have to adapt. And that’s what I mean by there is confusion on the dean’s part about the cake.”


“Indeed,” he continued. “In caving into the consumer model which is driven by rankings generated by a magazine [sic!], the dean has clearly confused the icing and the cake. He is treading the core of what we are doing as if it were just icing on some pre-professional/job training cake, not the cake itself, upon which the job training and pre-professional job fairs are added like sweet floral decorations on an otherwise finely baked cake. Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil, and Homer are seen as mere icing, and job security as the cake. It’s upside down, man, it’s all wrong. And it seems quite clear that the dean wants it served that way, and he won’t listen to anyone telling him how inverted (and perverse) such a baking process is.”

Now I admit here that his analogy, sweet as it might be, is far from perfect. But it got me thinking. The fact is, when I look back on my own education at Dickinson the courses that shaped me the most were not simply those in my major—okay, as an Ancient Greek major, Homer’s Odyssey had, needless to say, a major impact on me and informed at least the spirit of the Curious Autobiography. But I shall never forget Milton—indeed, to this day I hold many sonnets of Milton in my mind, memorized and there to help me when I need them like Scripture—or Shakespeare or even my physics class or one of even greater impact, an anthropology class that considered South American urban poor. I studied art history, history, archery (for yes, physical education was also required) and drama, too. The core, not my individual major, was the center of my education. My major was, as my dear friend said, the icing on the cake. My education was the cake.

But it was far from “cake.” It was hard. Yet in those days my mother, Elaine, whose story I will here shamelessly put in a plug for you to buy and read, would never have thought to call and complain because I didn’t do so well in my Calculus class—it’s true, I did not. Yet not doing well in that class was actually good for me. The teacher was not a good one, yet I learned great deal from him about how not to teach, and it was amply worth the D+ that I got in that class. I am truly grateful for my broad, liberal education—an education that has stayed with me my entire life and made me into a writer, a blogger, a father, a husband, and even an amateur athlete (to the extent that I am one). Yes, archery and racquetball and a few other physical education classes shaped me (pun intended), as well.

So, where does that leave my friend—I’m afraid it leaves him about to bake a cake upside down, or rather to turn into a confectioner not the baker he signed up to be. He will be in charge of icing only. His Homer class (for he teaches Homer pretty regularly) will be under-enrolled—indeed it will probably cease to exist in a few years. And who will read Shakespeare or Milton, since the class that they were required in will also be out of the core? And many students will know no mathematics now, as it, too, has been removed. I suspect that donors may be less excited about giving to the university, as well. (I have given quite a bit to that university in the past, but now I think my money shall go to my alma mater, Dickinson, where a liberal arts education, I am glad to say, remains intact.) I hope for my friend he can prevail upon the dean to save those classic (if not classical) authors; but he doubts he can. Still, let me close this blog with a “Viva Shakespeare!” if only just for old-times’ sake (or should I say old-times’ cake?).

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Wealth and Hurricanes

He “loves like a hurricane,” says John Mark MacMillan in a contemporary Christian song, referring to God. These days, with images of Harvey and Irma fresh in our minds, such a simile is indeed frightening. Such love does not immediately give the hearer peace of mind. It bends him, twists her; it is violent, uncontrolled; it is superabundant, dangerous.

A recent article described women valuing wealth more than men primarily for a surprising reason. While men would prefer to have money to splurge on material things, luxuries, sports cars, etc., women would prefer to have it for “security.” Most women would forego shopping, plastic surgery, and even a fancy vacation (though of course those who love travel would consider the last of these) to obtain this savings. The gist of the article is this: women are more sensible than men and would like simply to streamline their life, making it less hectic, more livable. “On average,” Julia Carpenter, the article’s author, writes, “the women surveyed said they’d consider around $2.4 million the number required to be considered ’wealthy.’ That’s nearly 30 times the net worth of U.S. households.”

The last bit of this jumped off the page at me, that figure of thirty times the net worth (net worth is not just liquid assets but everything combined, after debts are subtracted). The use of a calculator quickly reveals that such a figure means the net worth of the average household is $80,000. That is not one individual—that’s a family’s net worth. I verified this by a quick Google search.[1] While I could not find a definitive number for global net worth, it is apparent that that figure would be significantly lower than the average American household’s eighty grand. Quite significantly.

Not that I am against peace of mind—nearly everyone recognizes that having some savings is a good idea, as one should, if it is possible, be sensible. But amassing most of the money in the world—the top 1% has between 33 and 42% of it; the exact numbers are disputed[2]—how is that a good idea? Does everyone have to be Bill Gates? And anyway, how can one feel the hurricane’s force when bunkered in an entirely safe wine cellar on a private island?[3]

Which brings us back to John Mark MacMillan’s song. I suppose women are more sensible than men in wanting enough wealth not to have to worry constantly about how to make the bills. But the number that the article says they advanced—2.4 million—such a figure goes well beyond worrying about paying the electric bill.

Thus I close with this thought. When the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, their God offered them manna every day, gratis, poured down on the gentle winds of heaven, a provision, a blessing given to the people of God in time of need. But there was a condition: one could not gather more than one needed, except that he or she might not have to work on the Sabbath day. What a strange thing, when one thinks about it. God giving provision mercifully, every day; to turn the formula around, we, if we believe in him, receiving all that we need from his hand, every day. Does that preclude our working hard? No, of course not, for the notion of the manna is not a literal lesson—one eats heavenly provided food only—but rather a symbolic one, just as the hurricane is a symbol for the powerful love of God, a frightening one, these days.

I end this blog with this thought—the wind can come and blow away wealth, not just houses. That means that real peace of mind isn’t available to us, whether we are men or women or an entire household, by over-amassing wealth but instead, perhaps, only by feeling the wind, being aware both of its power and the provision that the winds of heaven can confer upon us, like manna. And if we have extra manna, maybe we should share it with those in need, like those now in the path of Irma or the wake of Harvey.

May those who have suffered from those hurricanes find that peace now, may they sense God’s grace in the midst of trouble and be provided earthly provision by those who care. May they, and all of us, find the peace of mind that doesn’t come with wealth, but comes from knowing that He who made the wind and the stars is with us in the darkest hours.





Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History

Each one of us has a personal history, and amidst that history is a story. I can recall very well in the nineties, when I thought the politically correct movement was at its highwater mark—never could I have anticipated the inundation of our current day, so high up on the mountain that its waters have created a generation of snowflakes—that some wanted to make a false etymology of history and create a category called herstory; i.e., the important contributions women have made to the world. The spirit of that venture was, of course, quite well justified: how often women are ignored, how often their talents and accomplishments are overlooked because of piggish, sexist attitudes that are, all too often, endemic to any given culture. And as much as has been accomplished, in part driven by a strong politically correct agenda, there is yet more to do. A woman is too often underpaid for the same work as a man—need I even mention (quite liberal but apparently not liberated) Hollywood as the locus classicus for this imbalance?

Yet the larger history—the one that is both ugly and beautiful, noble and ignoble, joyous in victory and often sad in defeat—that history, the one related not to “his” and “hers” but to the Greek word historia, meaning “witnessed events,” things that were seen (derived from the word eidon, the aorist of the Greek verb horao, meaning “see”), is another matter. It isn’t biographical, as “his” or “hers” might be. It is rather a wider narrative, involving men and women, social trends, economic trends, technology, even animals—need I mention the Zion Mule Corps at Gallipoli (Curious Autobiography, p. 256)? It can be looked upon askance, it can be extolled, it can be argued over and, most importantly, it can be learned from. But it can’t be unwritten.

Which brings us to Frank Rizzo. Elaine Jakes was no fan of Frank Rizzo. Though she lived in New Hope when he was the hardball mayor of Philadelphia, she and a number of other folks in that distant Philadelphian suburb felt that he was, by extension, their own mayor, as Philly was the nearest big city to Bucks County. Frank Rizzo is dead now, long dead, and though his body lies decaying in the grave, his aura, it would seem, has not passed away. There is a statue in Philadelphia to that former mayor, and a large mural on the wall of an apartment building. Yet it has become the fashion to deface such monuments, particularly if they are images of folks with whom you might disagree. Even if the vast majority of those protesting the mayor’s statue never knew him as mayor, or never knew him at all. I understand, of course, that Delbert Africa, was beaten badly when Mr. Rizzo as mayor ordered the eviction of the Move members from their squalid abode. But I rather would love to know if, when they are protesting, the vast majority of the protesters actually know about Delbert Africa, and even if they do, what removing Mr. Rizzo’s statue will accomplish. With the removal of Mr. Rizzo’s statue, to some extent we also remove the memory of Mr. Africa, and we remove dialogue about Mr. Rizzo’s legacy that is likely to have been both good and bad. We do not change history; rather, we suppress dialogue about it. If that’s not quite removing history, it is certainly whitewashing it.

Take God, for example. Perhaps one can see, after Hurricane Harvey, why someone might blame God for these disasters—certainly, if he is the God associated with the Bible, he could have prevented Harvey from ever happening. And it’s easy to blame God and religion for nearly all the atrocities that humans inflict upon each other. Don’t competing religions, after all, produce conflicts? Wasn’t Christianity responsible for the Crusades? Aren’t many of the terrorists of today, in places like Ireland at least, Christians? Isn’t at least some of the bombing that goes on nowadays done by radical Muslims, for example? Thus, one solution that some have advanced is simply to remove any hit of God or religion from monuments, schools, mottoes. Surely removing God from a motto, as Harvard did for its own in 2011, is more likely to produce a fundamental shift in society than simply pulling down a statue of Frank Rizzo or Robert E. Lee, for that matter.

Pulling down a statue of Robert E. Lee

Not that Frank Rizzo and Robert E. Lee are really all that comparable, other than the fact that both of their statues have come under fire—one actually already toppled, the other likely soon to be. I base this lack of comparability not on Elaine Jakes’ dislike of Mayor Rizzo, but on her admiration for General Lee, even though she obviously disagreed with him on the issue of slavery. Though she herself was quite unpolitical and, if anything, rather left-leaning and quite hopeful when Mr. Obama was first elected president. Elaine believed fervently that one could disagree with someone but still respect them or at least respectfully discuss their legacy. She saw the good of and, to some extent, contributed quietly to what was called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s. She greatly admired Martin Luther King Jr. She loved the Kennedys and the democrats of the 1960s, save President Johnson. She even threatened to move to Canada when Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968. (I was young and didn’t understand that she was only joking; when I went to school and told my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, that we were moving to Canada she had a going away party for me in mid-November of 1968. Poor Mrs. Hendrickson never understood why I never left.)

But Elaine never thought for a moment that you shouldn’t even listen to the other side. Had she had such an attitude, she herself would never have changed her opinion on the abortion issue (cf. Curious Autobiography, p. 100) or any other. She never thought that a statue of someone you might have disagreed with should be pulled down. She hated racism, despised and resisted what she would have called “male chauvinist pigs” (and Mr. Rizzo likely qualifies under both of these categories) and would speak up for the oppressed at any and every turn. But she did not and would never have advocated rewriting—or worse—suppressing history. There are lessons embedded in our history, lessons we can only learn if we acknowledge the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the insipid and intelligent in history. These things, the Greeks would remind us, are not myths but they were witnessed. We have written testimony about those who witnessed them. They are not matters of opinion, like “God must not exist because there was a flood or an earthquake.”

No, history is something that was witnessed and, for better or worse, is something to be remembered. Monuments can be despised, but do they need to be removed? Not if we are to remember our history, for history is a shared experience with good and bad, a positive and negative legacy for all, not just for some. If we lose our shared history, we shall never, I ween, have a shared future. May that future be our shared story, as well.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dragon in the Sky

Well, I’ve been traveling … which explains the dearth of blogs for the last couple of weeks. It has been a ridiculously busy time. I would love to tell you that I have been busy because I am a spy for the United States government, but that information is classified, of course. So I won’t. Rather, I will tell a story that I heard during my travels, one that was recounted to me over dinner, to be specific. The dinner was at a delightful restaurant in Geneva, La Brasserie des Halles de I’île, an attractive place with a superior view of the inception of the western half of the Rhône, the lovely river that feeds and is fed by Lake Léman (known as Lake Geneva to much of the Anglo-speaking world).

Ah, how delicious was the dinner there, opening with a few glasses of prosecco and exquisite hors d’oeuvres including bits of Neufchâtel with tasty biscuits and various salami-like products typical of the region, then a remarkable salad—which is more or less difficult, I think, for a salad to be—followed by the piece de resistance, the plat (a succinct yet decorous word for main course). For me, le plat consisted of a succulent steak and scalloped potatoes made with gruyère cheese. I’m not a person inclined to take photographs of food or I would have included one for you here. Rather, let me simply say that it was delicious, as was the view of the gushing, even rapacious Rhône, greedily rolling along and grabbing at both sides of the tiny islet that the two principal portions of Geneva bestraddle.

Rhone river at dusk in Geneva

And that’s when he told me the story of his name, which in Korean means “Dragon in the Sky.” The Korean word for dragon is Yong, and the phrase Dragon in the Sky, when transliterated, is something like Yong-ui Haneul-e. That is his name in Korean. But, of course, being a writer, I had to know more. How did he get this name? (Paradoxically, with a name like Homer, I became a writer. I say paradoxically, because like Jesus and Socrates, Homer was a quite extravagant storyteller not a writer per se.)

Fortunately Yong was willing to tell me a bit of his story. He received the name because his mother had had a dream when she was pregnant with him about a dragon riding on the clouds. This was perceived by her as a significant story, one that might well have bearing upon his life. And thus she named her son for the principal character in that dream. And how did that affect him? I queried. Indeed, it seemed to him that the name had had some influence on his life.

Yong had become a Hapkido master (one of the more prevalent martial arts in Korea), learning the art from an early age because he was in a difficult environment as a child. As he mastered the art, he used it entirely for self-defense, only when several young men tried to threaten him. Like a karate master one might see in a movie, Yong managed to take on several youths at once and teach them a serious lesson about picking on smaller lads like him a school.

But his real challenge came when he had recently married. He and his new bride, on their honeymoon I believe, happened upon a cow pasture. Now I didn’t think to ask why, precisely, he was in a cow pasture with his new bride (his second marriage, as his first wife had passed away). I simply thought, “That seems odd,” but left it at that.

Indeed, it was odder than merely odd. For whatever reason they happened to be there, Yong and his new bride, Brenda, mistakenly thought that they were in a cow pasture. They imagined that the “cows” they saw in the distance were steer—neutered, gentle steer—grazing as they ambled along. But within a few minutes of their cutting through the field, Brenda and Yong noticed that at least one of the “cows” was neither a cow nor a steer, but a bull. Yong continued to call it an angry cow through the rest of the conversation; I corrected him at least twice, explaining that a cow with testicles is not an angry cow—it is a bull. And an angry bull is a very, very dangerous proposition. This much I recall very well from Elaine Jakes’ farming years (the second bit of chapter 9 in The Curious Autobiography).

And then the worst thing that could happen happened: the bull came romping toward them across the pasture, even as they were still a long way away from the other side of the field. Yong told Brenda to continue on and that he would distract the “angry cow.”

As she hurried toward the gate, Yong turned to face the bull. He assumed the proper Hapkido pose (if there is a Hapkido pose proper for addressing a raging bull). Perched on one foot, with one leg slightly extended forward and hands in strike position, he awaited the animal, which was now pawing the ground before him, preparing to charge. And that’s when it must have happened. The bull must have seen Yong not as Yong but as a dragon, indeed a dragon in the sky. He must have, for as he charged, just 10 feet or so away from Yong, who was ready to deliver a powerful roundhouse kick to the bull’s head just below the left horn, the bull stopped. He stopped on a dime, planting his front hoofs firmly in the dirt of the pasture, casting up a small cloud of dust, and shockingly, amazingly, and quickly coming to a dead stop. The bull just looked at Yong and then began to look slightly over his head, higher and higher until it seemed that he was looking at the clouds above. Was it an angel that he saw, preventing Yong from meeting his Maker right then and there? Or was it a Dragon in the Sky?

I don’t know, but I leave it for you to ponder. If it seems incredible to you, consider this: What are the chances of hearing that story in a restaurant know as La Brasserie des Halles de I’ile when eating a delicious dinner on the banks of the Rhône in Geneva, Switzerland? I think they are relatively small. Small, yes, but perhaps no smaller than a bull coming full stop because it thought it saw a dragon in the sky.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Who Made Manna?

Raphael’s “The Mass at Bolsena” (1512–1514)

I was recently in Orvieto, in whose Duomo is the corporal[1] upon which the miracle of Bolsena is said to have taken place. That miracle is the blood that dripped, it is said, from the host when a priest, who personally doubted the notion of transubstantiation, experienced a miraculous event when he broke the host. Orvieto thus became the seat of the festival of Corpus Christi, a feast day that it shares and always shall with the scenic lakeside town of Bolsena.

“I am Catholic and even I don’t believe that,” a friend of mine said over dinner. I thought little of his remark at the time, but a few days later I wondered why he does not believe it, for my personal reasons for not believing it have nothing to do with the fact that it is a purported miracle. My basis for unbelief in the event has to do with my Protestant understanding of Christian doctrine based on the final words of Christ on the cross, not because a miracle can’t or didn’t happen in Bolsena.

In fact, were I God, I could hardly imagine a more scenic place for a miracle than Bolsena. But that has nothing to do with the notion of a miracle. Rather, miracles, whether orally (or artistically) transmitted, like that of the host of Bolsena, or recorded in Holy Writ, like that of the miracle of manna come down from heaven to feed the hungry Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness, simply require a bit of faith, but with that bit of faith added, do tend to make sense in a world that is otherwise too often senseless without them.

Now one could say that I am probably overthinking this, and I probably am, especially inasmuch as one certainly could call, pace Raphael, the miracle of Bolsena merely a minor one. It is, after all, only a miracle that is said to verify a point of Catholic doctrine, not one that healed the sick or raised the dead. But however that may be, it got me to (over-)thinking, and I found myself pondering miracles in general. Thus I wondered whether, were there to be someone who did believe in a minor miracle of any kind, what might that same person do with the major miracles? I have in mind those such as the miracle of the manna recorded in the book of Exodus. That miracle itself prefigures, if not the miracle of Bolsena per se, at least the central feature of it, the Bread of Heaven, which all Christians, whether trans-, con-, or a- substantiators, agree is in some sense the body of Christ. (Those who believe in the real presence, in down and under the bread, I personally think, are closer to the truth; those who do not are not. But that is, to my mind, adiaphoristic in the greater scope of things and certainly will be resolved on the other side of the Jordan, where “real presence” will be played out at a new level).

And thus to return to the manna specifically. The symbolism of manna itself, bread from heaven, struck me, as I pondered it, working backward from Bolsena to the exilic wilderness of the Israelites. It seemed to me to be particularly central to Christian thought, for at the center of the Lord’s Prayer lies a petition specifically for a more mundane kind of manna: “Give us this day our daily bread.” That centrality, that powerful, real sustaining presence of God through bread and wine in our life, to give our bodies true blood and corporal form are not unrelated. The miracle can be fancy, like manna from heaven, or humble, like daily bread, but it is a miracle nonetheless, sustained evidence of a God who is capable of miraculous events, even as that of Bolsena, which I paradoxically don’t believe in, as I said at the outset. But the reason for my skepticism is not because the event itself is said to be miraculous but rather because of Christ’s final words, “It is finished.” And with that, I will parrot those words, for this blog is, likewise now finished, with a hope for you and me and a world that needs them but deserves them not, the continuance of miracles among us.

[1] About that they even made a movie, “The 33.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Until I Had a Balcony

Never until I had a balcony in Viterbo did I understand why there is an eye on a dollar bill. Now I know this connection is preposterous. I know that the reason there is an eye on a dollar bill is, conspiracy theorists attest, because the Masonic League or the Knights Templar held the image of the all-knowing eye of God to be among their most prominent symbols. I’m not so sure. However that may be, certainly the symbol intrigued Benson Lossing who crafted the seal on the dollar in the years leading up to 1856 when it was first published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.[1] But that’s not what I mean. Rather I mean this: when you have a balcony in an inexpensive but lovely hotel in Viterbo, like the Hotel Tuscia, you see things you would never otherwise see, as if you were the eye of God.

Or, in fact, maybe you just hear them. For as I am writing this I am obviously looking at a computer screen, but I am taking in sounds, sounds coming from the nearest piazza, Piazza San Faustino, where a far from flawless cantor, if perhaps he is not so bad—he is, after all, a young man—is singing popular (I assume) Italian songs. I know enough Italian to know that most of them are about love (predictably). And I felt like, for a moment, Superman hovering over the earth and taking it all in, listening to a lone singer of love amidst a world in need of such singers, a world in need of love songs; for it is a world, indeed, in need of love.

Piazza San Faustino

I say this because, just after getting off the train from Rome, where I passed a lovely and culturally rich day touring the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and meeting a few powerful folks, a senator and a congressman—please don’t ask me how this happened; but if you want to know how things like this happen to me, read the final chapter of the Curious Autobiography, the bit on Vegas, for that should do it—I passed by the bus stop near Porta Fiorentina where a number of Africans were waiting for the bus. “Why were they waiting?” a friend of mine asked later. I tried to explain that they were likely “indentured,” a polite word for humans, in sinister wise, being trafficked. The sadness of these folks’ plight choked the culture, the richness, and the hope out of me in less than ten seconds. I wanted to stand at the bus stop with them. I wanted to play soccer in the park with them the next day. I wanted to participate in their sufferings as a little Christ, for the larger, more perfect version has more than participated in all of ours.

But that’s theology, and I don’t want to move in that direction. Rather I want to return to the singer in the piazza at the top of the block; for after a short break his song began to fill the square again. Ah, love again, and again, and again, for that is his solitary theme. Yet I couldn’t help think of the men gathering by Porta Fiorentina to ride the bus day upon day. How can I, or anyone, let them know that that same theme, if to a slightly different strain, is God’s very song, too? I don’t know. But I do know that, though I know not how, I want to participate in their sufferings that I might fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.[2] Can there really be anything lacking in that? I doubt as much—but perhaps just the message, the message of the singer, not always in tune, but beautiful, as I listen to it now from a balcony of a hotel in Tuscia, fittingly named, Hotel Tuscia. In closing, let me send you some blessings from Italy, from Tuscia, a place that is not quite Tuscany, not quite Rome, but rich in lovers’ songs and offering hope, I hope, to those without any, all under the Tuscan sun, under the all seeing eye of the One who truly sees and suffers with all humankind, and all this, just under my balcony.

[1] Cf. for a description and history of the seal.

[2] Col. 1:24.