Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Things You Hear at Conferences

It will be a great disappointment to you, I’m sure, to know that I finally went to a conference without my friend, the philologist, whom I often accompany to philological congresses. I enjoy going with him to those meetings in no small part because every time I do something exciting happens. I would write about that now, but frankly you would probably not believe me if I did write about it, as the events that follow him around are, frankly unbelievable. There has been gun fire, mad pursuits in swiftly driven automobiles, occasional fisticuffs, vel sim. And, add to that, an acute awareness of what vel sim. actually means.  One can guess based on etymology; and one does guess, of course, for rarely would one hazard looking up such an abbreviation in a dictionary, as 1) there’s a decent chance it won’t show up there; and 2) even if it did, there’s a better than decent chance it will be exactly what you thought it was: “or similar” or “or the like.”  But having him around obviates the need for a dictionary or even guesswork, and obviates, too, the need to look up the word “obviates.”

But that is off the topic of my particular congress, one that I went to quite on my own, one for writers; thus, to return to that topic. I am writing to respond obliquely to one of the papers that address the YA (young adult) audience.  I’m not even sure now why I wandered into that session, but I did; and when I got there I got an earful about Generation “Z”.  That’s the latest generation, the one that was born in the year 1995 or later. And what I learned was that they are a generation that expects service, particularly individualized service, and a generation that has a deep sense of solidarity.  The speaker saw this as a strength; could it not be argued that it is as indicative of a herd mentality? Populist movement? Probably the latter is, admittedly, going too far.

The speaker disapproved of, for example, the University of Chicago, where there has been, on the part of the administration, a deliberate move to coddle students no longer. His point had some validity: if students of Gen Z are expecting certain things—individualized treatment (what used to be called, disdainfully, “special treatment”), then it is a rather stark slap in the face not to give them what they are used to.  And he might be right.

Conversely, might it not, someone could ask, be good for them?  But this is not why I am writing about this topic. Rather, it is the fact that I think that what I’m concerned most about is the idea that, as they are used to being affirmed, we need to act around them and, more germane to me as an author, write YA Afiction that affirms them in whatever position they might wish to adopt.  In short, we should encourage them to believe something, even if it is something we don’t agree with.  Just “believe.”  And act on that belief. That’s enough.

But it is, I’m afraid, not enough.  If we write just to affirm having an opinion about something qua telos in and of itself, we are no different than the fifth-century sophists who said that what really counted was the ability to argue any side of an issue. Put simply, they affirmed style over substance.  The issue itself meant nothing compared to the capacity to argue for it.

The great anti-sophist, Socrates, however, held quite the opposite point of view.  He argued that what you say is more important than how you say it.  He chose questioning via dialogue (the “Socratic method”) because he felt that driving an argument like a lawyer was, in the end, less convincing. You might gain a temporary victory—convince your listener for a season—but in the end, the issue that you “convinced” him does not become his own.  It only does so when he or she dialogues about it and understands it from the inside out and, in the end, makes it his own.

Okay, where does that leave us with the things you hear at conferences, spAecifically about Gen Z? The same place as with the Millennials, Gen X and the Boomers, and, I suppose the Silent Generation and anyone else who will listen.  Let’s dialogue about something real.  Let’s challenge, not coddle, and love on but not simply cheer on each other of any generation.  And, as different as the generations might be, let’s remember this. We’re all in this together.

Tan y tro nesaf…  (“until next time…” [in Welsh])…

 

 

 

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Kool-Aid and Other Beverages

I don’t know about you but sometimes, when I engage someone in conversation, it seems that he or she has really drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid of this world. I say this meaning that the person would seem to have bought into whatever the most current trend is, or rather trends are, as there are always more than one trend trending at once, many of them closely bound, by certain sets of presuppositions, to others. To take but one example, marriage has become so flexible that it seems that it no longer has any real meaning. Some people say it’s archaic and unnecessary, others that it can be between a man and an animal, others that it can be monogamous in the most thoroughgoing sense: a person can even marry himself (in which case I fancy even no-fault divorce is impossible).

To get to such a point in one’s thinking one must have imbibed a deep draught of this world’s Kool-Aid, specifically that flavor that assumes meaning is entirely assigned, not inherent. I have a friend who has decided simply to go through the process of having a baby with his long-term girlfriend now and worry later about whether or not to marry. The unstated reasoning is, I think, that we live in a modern world nowadays where standards have been relaxed and the order in which we do things is not really that important. To view things otherwise is old fashioned and outmoded, and probably even sexist or racist or culturalappropriationist, or imperialist or some kind of -ist. (Little do people know that the suffix -ist means “believing in”; thus a feminist believes in women, a racist believes in race [qua superior distinction], a papist believes in the Pope, a spiritualist in spiritual things, and a sexist—well, you figure that one out).

The reason I am pondering thus is in part because I have just returned from visiting another friend, one very dear to me and whom I have known for quite a long time. He recently hosted a conference on old fashioned things: education and philosophy during the Reformation. I attended a bit of that conference and witnessed something distinctly different from the world that my other friend walks in. The first friend is modern, accepting some form of the relativism of this world, and quite easily, I think, adapting that relativism to his lifestyle. That isn’t all that lofty of an accomplishment, as there are few things less flexible than relativism. Kool-Aid is sweet, it tastes good, yet it has no nutritional value, and with the wrong hidden elixir, can produce dire, to say the least, results. I say nothing at this point of wild Georgetown Prep parties and the allegedly spiked drinks allegedly offered to alleged party-going young women: I would allege that you can judge for yourself.

Blood, by contrast, tastes pretty awful. My other friend, the one who held the learned and quite wonderful conference, does not drink of this world’s Kool-Aid. Rather, he drinks blood in the form of wine. That drink is not at all of this world, but of the one to come. He calls it the Cup of Salvation, and with it he eats the Bread of Heaven. There is no moral relativism for him, just justification won on a nasty instrument of death with the most unlikeliest of victories, one in which the Victor dies. He thinks of that every time he takes that wine chalice that carries the blood to his lips. The effects of that cup do not erode values, but rather engender, refine and reinforce them.

From my unique perch as a writer, and therefore an incessant, if sometimes reluctant observer of the world around me, it is very interesting, poignant, touching, and even dolorous to watch the effects of the distinctly different draughts of my two friends upon each of them, one ennobling, even sacred; the other, well, normal by worldly standards, and thus vulgar or profane, in the truest sense of those adjectives. I hope that the Kool-Aid and its contents don’t leave too lasting an effect on the latter. I know that my other friend’s sanguine and salutary drink will leave a lasting effect, permanent in fact. And I hope to share that cup with him many years from now, on the far side of the Jordan.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Foundations

The Curious Autobiography is very much a document concerned with foundations; the most precious kind of foundation is known as a family. One can have educational foundations, too, but really those tend to be moorings, not foundations. A great teacher comes but sadly, she goes, too. Until my senior year, I had Mrs. Zinieda Sprowles but for a moment in high school—less than a semester in tenth grade, for she fell and badly broke her arm and had to miss the rest of that term; Mrs. Crane replaced her. I learned much about literature and life from Mrs. Sprowles. I recall learning very little literature from Mrs. Crane, but rather, as memory serves, she busied herself with teaching Situation Ethics.

Situation Ethics, qua discipline, which I do not believe it actually is or ever should have been, basically justified immoral behavior if the situation calls for a bend or flex in one’s “rigid” upbringing. If your parents told you not to get drunk, for example, in the right situation it might be okay to do so; if your parents told you not to go to wild parties with girls from Holton-Arms School or boys from Georgetown Preparatory School, you can go anyway, and adjust your ethics to the situation at hand, from drinking too much to flirting to making sexual advances or even something worse, whether wanted or unwanted. It all depends on the situation, the ephemeral moment and what it calls for.

Now don’t get me wrong. Dear, sweet Mrs. Crane was a good lady, a nice person who cared about her students. She just happened to have drunk of the same bad fount from which other teachers of that same era (the late 70s/early 80s) had drunk—yes, there’s an awkward pun here somewhere. I think it is safe to say—or is it?—that we are reaping the sorry fruits of Situation Ethics now. Fruits may be the wrong word; dandelions might be more to the point. Dandelions look like flowers, but they are in fact weeds. Likewise, Situation Ethics.

Odysseus’ men in Lotus Island

But to return to foundations. As I said, educational experiences are moorings, not foundations. Family is a foundation. Friends, like education, are beacons or moorings. They might helpfully or unhelpfully guide you, whether offering a bad moment of lotus-eating or providing you genuine respite along the way, but then you’ll have to move on to the next city or town, and all too often fall out of touch, at least a bit, with your friends. But family is bedrock; and the values you garner from the family are hard to shake. You can go to therapy and learn that your parents were horrible beasts trying to mould you, to groom you into being just like them; you can read books about how to break away from the religious intolerance and bigotry of your upbringing. The Curious Autobiography, again, quite addresses that, and shows that for Elaine, it was, in the end an impossible task for her to become “unWelsh,” to lose her Welshness. And barring intentional neglect or death, you don’t fall out of touch with your husband or wife, your mother or father, your sister or brother. They are yours for life; they are, in fact, yours forever.

And that is what this blog is really about: a forever perspective. I have a friend whose mother is ill now, as was Elaine in the years leading up to her passing. These are difficult times for her and her mom, poignant for the memories they evoke and the memories, in caregiving, that they are providing. Sadly, one can’t go back in time and fix all the wrongs that one committed or, more certainly, those committed against oneself; (that mentality is admittedly very much in the air these days, a kind of balancing of the scales that too often goes beyond mere justice). But one can go forward in the darkest hour of one’s mother’s or father’s life, even the days of passing, with grace, forgiveness, and love.

a family reunion

So what is the foundation I am pointing towards today? It is an eternal, not an ephemeral outlook, the love of a family, the commitment to see that person, whether husband or wife, mother or father, through to the end, regardless of the pain, present or past, embracing every moment, thankful for every memory, even the hard ones, and rejoicing that though it is the end, it is not the end.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Speaking Redemption

Plato (c. 427-c. 347 BC)

It is just too easy to become jaded these days. The last two blogs have perhaps revealed a bit of my personal frustration about living in an age where it seems that ideas (admittedly only ideas)—sometimes known as “values,” such as truth, goodness, justice, which Plato called the “forms”—are no longer valued by folks so much. Rather, personal goals seem to come first, no matter what they might be. In other words, what is deemed valuable is any individual’s personal agenda, and facile applause follows achieving that, with little thought given to the value of that enterprise or its value to the common good. The idea of community is lost, it seems, or at least placed far behind the notion of the individual’s personal growth, even if that growth is in a direction that just may in fact be harmful to those around that individual, or at the very least, in conflict with what had hitherto been regarded as transcendent values.

Assuming I am even partly right about what I have suggested above, then one might have every right to ask the following tough question: “How can I, in the face of changing values or, better put, the devaluation of traditional values, do or even say anything of value?” And I spent some time thinking about this very thing this week, and it came to me that there really is only one thing that one can do to make a difference in an Orwellian world such as I have described.

That difference can be traced, I’m sorry to say, to a source. I say sorry because the notion of any source aside from the individual is, these days, rather unpopular. The individual, it is believed, has the capacity and, more importantly the right, to determine for him or herself what is right, or should I say to determine what is right for him or herself. These palindromatic notions seem, as I hint at in the opening paragraph, to be essentially the same thing. But for those of us who might want to suggest a different, less popular and, yes I’m afraid traditional, perspective, we will look to find the source that I speak of.

That source is a mountain. Not one of the seven hills of Rome, not Athens Mars’ Hill, not Dharamsala in the Tibetan Himalayas, not even Mt. Zion in Israel. No, it is a much smaller “mountain,” really only a hill, one you probably have never heard of, known as Har HaOsher. It lies between Capernaum and Gennesaret, where once, it is said, were spoken by an itinerant rabbi something called the Beatitudes. These teachings can be summed up with any one of a number of quite positive words like grace, compassion, even love. Among those summary words, to me one, however, stands out: redemption. They are redemptive teachings, blessings on those who seek to practice even a fraction of them. That rabbi broke that blessing into bite-sized pieces. They’re not hard to do, they don’t lie “beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, ‘Who will cross the sea, get it and proclaim it to us so that we may follow it?’” No, “the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

If there is a solution to a world whose values are in dissolution, then, it seems to me, that the way through the chaos may just be to speak redemption, to show compassion and kindness to everyone we encounter. That rabbi did that very thing when the world he inherited was in at least as much disarray as ours is today. He chose to bless, to redeem. Perhaps we can, too, if we put our mind to it. After all, if we look for it, that redemptive word may just be very nigh unto us, already in our mouths and our hearts. And if it is, perhaps we should just speak it, for redemptive speech might be the first step toward a better world, precisely as it was quite a long time ago on a hill in Galilee.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Nut Cracker, Sweet

anatomy of a shoulder

Okay, it took this topic to make me type again, for I’ve had a tough surgery on my arm and, frankly, it hurts to type.  It hurts to do the dishes.  It hurts to pick up dirty laundry off the floor and it really hurts to fold the clean laundry. But who’s complaining? (I suppose I am.)  In any case, this blog, guided by my pain, will be brief.

But that’s not why I am writing this piece. It’s because in the few weeks I’ve been waylaid by pain, I’ve noticed that something impossible has happened: the news has gotten even weirder than when I stopped writing. I say nothing of the Kardashians—that’s just par for the course—nor say I anything about the president of the United States or Nike advertising or anonymous op eds to the New York Times.  I say nothing.

But I do say something about a certain man, S. Navin Kumar,  who set a new world’s record by cracking walnuts (217 in one minute).  It’s an odd record, walnut cracking.  Now, at first blush, this may not seem odd.  After all, someone has to crack the nuts, and maybe in a factory somewhere there was a competition between crackers and then, one marvelous and legendary day, someone won that contest—like sheepshearers in Australia.  Walnuts come primarily from Germany, then Turkey, China, Japan and Spain.  I checked it out.  So, let’s figure on Germany. There someone bet someone else a beer, no doubt, that he (probably he) could outstrip his counterpart Nussknacker (the German word for nutcracker is in fact Nussknacker).  “Ich kan Nüsse besser als du knacken,” he probably said, “und schneller!”   And that’s how it all started.

All things seem to start nobly, and only afterwards degenerate.  Take professional basketball for example. They once called real fouls, no matter who fouled whom. They also called traveling.  No longer. Big stars get free passes on fouls and traveling. Actually, almost everyone gets free passes on the latter nowadays.

But nutcracking—that’s the big surprise. What started as an innocent contest between two beer drinking Germans (sorry for the stereotype) has degenerated into head-slamming grandstanding and, ironically, this just when the NFL is cracking down on shots to the head and even uncalled for body blows.  Perhaps as a reaction to that, suddenly the world record for cracking walnuts with one’s head has been set—set in stone, I might add—S. Navin Kumar.  I suppose I, with the rest of the world, should simply congratulate him. But honestly, I think he must be nuts.

Okay, my arm is sore, which will allow you to forgive me for that rather weak closing line.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Satire, Cats, Ghosts, and a Hiatus

Roughly 2000 years ago the poet Juvenal wrote, “It is difficult not to write satire.” He wasn’t the pioneer of the genre, for it existed a relatively long time before he wrote that oft-quoted dictum. But a truer line, I think, was never written that could be applied to the age in which we live.

To wit:

  1. Someone named Kardashian called her own family “gross” and “disgusting.” Juvenal, Juvenal, Juvenal.
  2. In Washington state seven feline deaths have been linked to a serial killing cat (sic). For the present, he remains only a suspect, however. Juvenal, Juvenal, Juvenal.
  3. In Koln an ancient Roman library was discovered. Boy, that one caught my eye! Only problem: no books were found it in.  Not Juvenal, not Persius, not Horace, and, sadly, not Lucilius. Bummer.
  4. Returning to number 2, above, twenty-one cats were caught in offenses lesser than felinocide, and were compelled to confess. Juvenal, Juvenal, Juvenal, again.
  5. A father exhumed his infant son, only to discover a plastic doll. This is something well beyond Juvenal. I am not sure what to say about this one.
  6. A woman in Australia is seeing a ghost; not “saw” a ghost, but “is seeing” (if you know what I mean) a ghost. Juvenal, Juvenal, Juvenal.
  7. I say nothing about American politicians. Nothing, except, of course, Juvenal, Juvenal, Juvenal (to which one could aptly add, juvenile).

Indeed, it is difficult not to write satire. On a less satiric note, I shan’t be writing a blog again for at least a month. I’m having some surgery that will affect my ability to type. Follow me on Facebook, and don’t hesitate to write, though don’t be surprised if I can’t write back!

Cheers, and warm wishes,

H.R. Jakes

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The “New” Morality

Morality has always been a problem, for each generation that has inherited it has, of course, had problems with what it inherited. Why does one have to say, “Pardon?” or “Pardon me, ma’am?” instead of just “What?” when one cannot quite hear what an older person has said?

It could quickly be objected that such a slender matter is one of decorum not morality. That may be so, but I would argue that these are not unrelated ideas. One gets one sense of decorousness (derived from the Latin decus, meaning “honor” or “dignity”) from one’s upbringing, and that is the same place whence one acquires one’s sense of morality. The word morality is, in fact, derived from the plural of the Latin word, mos, meaning “habit”; the Romans referred to a person’s character as mores, one’s “habits.” The character of a person was, therefore, reflected by the collection of his habits. Such morality for the Romans was never entirely free-standing: it was often called the mos maiorum, “the way of the ancestors.” As such, it was implicitly linked to the notion of “looking back” (the Latin respicere), from which we get the English word “respect,” which means treating those who have come before respectfully, not simply because they have given birth to you, but because they have given you your sense of decorum, have helped to shape your habits, and have handed down to you a precious moral code; and that is why you should respect them. I could end this piece right here by simply saying, “Go and think about that.”

But I want to add one more thing, of an anecdotal nature. A friend of mine was being upbraided by his own twenty-something year old child recently. The child had, wittingly or unwittingly, subscribed to the “new” morality. That morality is not inherited but is entirely derived from the individual, or the collection of a mass of individuals’ thoughts. This mass is largely sustained by social media. It is often referred to as political correctness, but that is only one limb of this monster. The new morality is founded upon the principle that the individual is the autonomous central arbiter of all questions. This can only be true, of course, if morality is shifting, nebulous, entirely a matter of grey areas. The individual determines what is right or wrong for him or her. Add to this, that the individual’s generation has its own set of values that is the collective sum of that generation’s thought, again, largely perpetuated by social media. There is no shame in this new morality, but there is “shaming,” which is what used to be called “humiliating” or “excoriating.”

For this new morality, the word character is hardly ever used and its adjectival form, “moral,” is used even less. Why? Because to do so would be to admit that there is a true standard beyond the individual’s determination of what is “right for me.” The new morality is, of course, not morality at all; It is not handed down from the ancestors; it more than touts—indeed it requires—the primacy of the individual over society; it is necessarily irreligious, though it can be “spiritual” (the preferred word). It does not acknowledge societal constraints. It often plays the victim and cannot accept being challenged. Why? The answer should be obvious: it is shallow. But, as it has no shame, it takes no umbrage at such a moniker.

So my friend’s adult child could upbraid him because my friend phrased something in such a way that the child didn’t approve of. The child told my friend that his opinion of a certain moral issue was wrong, and by implication not in keeping with the standards of the current age. And that’s where we are, in the midst of a “new” morality, shallow and devoid of shame, clear direction and, saddest of all, character. It is indecorous, disrespectful, unwittingly nihilistic and, for the most part unwittingly, embraces death. It leads to despair and chaos. Who will deliver us from the body of this death? I seem to recall the last verse of the seventh chapter of a very old epistle, written to Romans, that suggests an answer.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Dedicated Teacher

I have written before, quite a few blogs ago I think, about what a difference in someone’s life a teacher can make. I spoke of the great educators Lou Pengi, Zinieda Sprowles, my teachers in New Hope, Pennsylvania, or, at the college level, Philip Lockhart, Leon Fitts and Robert Sider of Dickinson College. I might, too, have spoken of my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, or even my kind and gentle elementary school choir teacher, Mr. Schaeffer.

Yet, fond as I shall ever be of them, I don’t want to speak about my own teachers here; rather, I want to speak about a conversation that I had with my friend, the philologist, whose conferences, if you read this blog regularly, you already know I sometimes crash as a fifth-wheel pseudo-philologist, as a poetaster is to a poet. That self-same philologist is in fact also a teacher (actually a professor) but as he is my contemporary and friend, I have, of course, never taken a class with him. That said, he and I often consult about his courses, for he is, I would say, a dedicated teacher. He is also a dedicated educator. He spends a lot of time educating his students, whether in or out of the classroom. Yet he is also a teacher, and as such he and I, as I was saying, converse about the material for the class, the author he might be reading and, especially this time of year, about the content of his syllabus.

Recently the question of educational motivation came up: how can he motivate his less-than-excited students to grasp not only the content of his course but, more particularly, their entire education? He explained it this way: he is more concerned about the student understanding why in fact he or she has come to college at all than the details of Ciceronian rhetoric—though he is concerned with that, especially these days when students seem to come to university so ill-prepared rhetorically and historically.

Thus it was that we sat on his porch, enjoying a glass of wine and conversing about whether it would be a good idea to mention something in the syllabus—an aspirational statement beyond the normal “Goal of the Course” but filed under that heading on the syllabus—or whether it is better to let that emerge on its own during the course. He has, in the past, always chosen the latter option. He doesn’t believe in what he calls “over-leading” the student (which he insists is akin to “leading the witness” in a court of law). He wants the students’ love of learning to emerge organically, naturally. But this time I tried to convince him: “Put in something aspirational, just to get them thinking of your unstated goal right off the bat.”

We debated a long time. I suggested he insert something like, “The goal of this course is to master Ciceronian style and understand better the context of the speech (for he is reading a Ciceronian speech with the class in Latin) and also to better understand what a real education means, for enlarges upon the importance of the education of Caelius [the person focused on in Cicero’s speech] as a vital component of his defense.” Of course, he immediately corrected the split infinitive which I had put in only to distract him, for I knew he would fixate on the grammar rather than what I was proposing.

As things are, however, I am not sure what he will do. I hope he puts in some kind of aspirational statement, for it would be a terrible thing, I think, to go to college just to get a job and not an education. Isn’t education, after all, what one goes off to the university to get? I think that it is an employment agency, after all, that one actually goes to when seeking a job: “the goal of this agency is to get you a job.” Yes, that fits. “The goal of this course is to prevent you from being a driveling know-nothing.” Yes, that’s what he needs to add. I think I’ve got it now.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Food

The one thing that everyone is interested in these days is food. I have been traveling, and I had dinner in Rome with two friends who even took pictures of their food before they dug in—two admittedly quite beautiful bowls of pasta. Before I was in Rome, I had been quite a bit further  north, in the Czech Republic for the first time.

When I came back from my travels, I was recently, as I am invariably, asked, “So, you went to Prague—how was the food?” Indeed, in both Prague and Rome the food was quite nice. Like the Italians, the Czechs pride themselves on food and, to an even greater extent, on beer. The food was quite good there—Germanic in terms of flavor, but more delicate—and the beer was quite good, too, though the lovely Czechs who took me out to dinner were disappointed on my behalf. I think they were muttering something about it not being the right temperature, but I am not sure whether they meant too cold or too warm. I imagine the latter, as the beer wasn’t very cold.

I was, of course, in Prague to meet up with my friend, the philologist, who was there to study a rare manuscript housed in the National Library. Inasmuch as I had been in Europe over a week before he arrived and had thus adjusted to European time, when I met up with him there he, having just arrived, was quite jet-lagged, and thus had a hard time working in the library for many long hours, even though he had traveled quite far to study that particular manuscript. But what has that to do with food?

It has this in common: odd as it may sound, he has a genuine hunger for manuscripts, perhaps more avid even than the friends whom I met in Rome have for food. His hunger stems in part from his strange penchant for finding not-yet-considered things scribbled between the lines or on the edges of the pages. These are known as glosses or marginalia, respectively. What I envy is not so much his job—it sounds, after all, a bit tedious, doesn’t it?—but it is the passion, the hunger that he has for his work, work that to the rest of us might seem quite boring.

But some people don’t like cooking, either, and I would argue those folks are missing out on quite a lot of fun in the kitchen, which brings us back to food. For cooking can indeed be very rewarding and, of course, produce a palpably enjoyable result. But whether you’re cooking or studying or writing or driving cattle, I think the key thing is the hunger, the inspired desire for the task at hand, not just the eventual collection of the paycheck but the excitement, even the passion that goes into producing it, that really counts.

Now you might say, what if I have a job that doesn’t whet my appetite constantly? Well, I think the best thing to do is to discover something about it that you really do enjoy. You might have to spend some time thinking about how to find that passion, but probably it can be found. No job is perfect—even my friend will admit as much about his manuscripts—but finding the passion in your work might mean finding passion in your life or your marriage or your family as whole. And that is a spiritual exercise as much as it is anything else.

kulajda
houskový knedlík

Well then, what about food? As I said, the food in Prague was quite nice. I had some tasty soup (kulajda) for lunch and a tastier dumpling dinner (houskový knedlík). All this talk of food is making me hungry now, so I shall sign off with a simple Chinese proverb that may remind us to seek contentment in even a less than passion-laden situation: “Coarse rice for food, water to drink, and the bended arm for a pillow: happiness may be enjoyed even in these.”[1]

[1] Dictum of Confucius, as quoted in James F. Clarke, Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology (New York, 1888): 48.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Why Old People Like Strange Things

I think I have figured out why old people like strange things. In part, of course, I am discovering this because I am getting older. But I think the chief reason that I have discovered this is because I have been rereading the Acts of the Apostles, a book of the Bible that few people read at all these days.

The chief reason for that is, I believe, because few people read any of the Bible at all. They are content to recognize it as “the good book” (when in fact for Protestants, at least, it is comprised of sixty-six separate books), instructions and guidance from on high, from “the Man upstairs,” or the like. That metaphorical description of God is, of course, less than dignified, even unbecoming. And at any rate fits with a no reading of but “general respect for Holy Writ.”

But old people, perhaps because they are themselves getting closer to the “top floor” (if I may indulge the societal predilection for undignified religious metaphors), would seem to be more inclined to read the Bible. Now most do it through something called a devotional book, which means some author has preselected bits and pieces of the Scriptures and then explained them. But some old people (and some young people, too, of course) prefer to read the Bible the way country musicians normally purport to drink whiskey—straight up.  And if they do that, then they eventually read, often for the first time, the book of Acts.

Which brings by back to why old people like strange things. For the book of Acts is not normally one’s favorite book of the Bible. It is action-packed, geographically challenging—one really needs a map to read it—and religiously complex (e.g. Acts 21:21 ff.). But old people really like this book anyway. Why? I think I figured it out. It is because the Church described in that book is so very unlike any church they have ever attended. The Church of the book of Acts is active, vibrant, exciting, spiritual, robust, bold, faithful. The church that the old people are members of tends to be just the opposite of these things. In fact, they have sat in their pews and from time to time wondered why people still come to church, when the liturgy is all that there is, and Holy Communion, of course, the latter of which in and of itself, they rationalize, justifies the fairly limited attendance. But then they get gloomy and wonder, when they see a young couple or, worse yet, a young family, whether that family’s child, when it grows up, will actually come to this church or attend any church. And then they think of their own children and wonder if they ever go to church any more, for they don’t ask their kids too much about that, as they are all grown up and it’s true: they have to make their own decisions. At least they come with them to church on the holidays. “Sally’s kids won’t even do that much,” they mutter to themselves before they head off to the after-church cake and coffee.

But when they read Acts, those old people really get excited. Their imaginations run wild, in fact, for they imagine a time when the Church was vibrant, was engaged in society, had meaning and was connected to something bigger, Someone much bigger. Not the “big guy in the sky” or the “man upstairs,” but to God himself.  And they ponder whether it could ever be so again. And that’s why they like the book of Acts. And so do I, and I know that it can be so and actually is in some churches.

Now that does not explain why old people like bad coffee—for they do, it’s a well-documented fact—or why they get unduly excited about a slice of apple pie, of which I am still not a fan, which means I must not be that old yet. Or why they love babies inordinately and feel encouraged when they see one—I am not there yet either, for I still think the world is in a tough spot and I do not become instantly optimistic by seeing or even holding a baby. Or why elderly men have such a penchant for t-shirts. I don’t think I know a single elderly gentleman who doesn’t wear a t-shirt or, for that matter, carry a handkerchief.

But they all love the book of Acts. And you don’t have to be old to read it. But if you’re not a Bible reader, I would advise you to read it only after you have first read a gospel (like Luke), for otherwise you might not understand what all the old folks are so excited about. But they are excited, and they are, strangely enough, inspired by nothing less than the very book of Acts.