Common Place Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Death

No, it’s not Halloween, when a blog on death would make more sense.  Rather, it’s Advent season. Not the time to think about death. For the religious, and maybe even some secular folks, perhaps it’s a time to think about birth. Not new birth, but just birth—the birth of a child in Bethlehem. But death, no, not that. Unless it’s the anniversary of someone’s death, someone very special to you—your brother, your best friend, maybe your dad or your mom. Then you think about death this time of year, and even more so on Christmas Day, for if you celebrate Christmas even in the most pedestrian, secular way, you still are likely to have certain associations of that missing person with the holiday, certain memories emblazoned into your mind.  And recalling them can hurt a lot, not because you necessarily have a bad or negative association with the holiday and the person, but actually for the opposite reason, because you have a sweet memory. And they are no longer here to share anything with you, not a memory, not a meal, not even a smile.

How can there be any merry making now on Christmas, in the shadow of such a cutting loss, such pain to the soul?  The answer can only be found in the deeper meaning of the holiday.  In the book the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan comments at one point about the White Witch not understanding the “Deeper Magic.”  That Deeper Magic is what I am referring to here, and it begins with the birth of a child in Bethlehem.  It’s a strange story, but not because stories about miraculous births are strange by nature, and relatively common in mythology, but because of what the implications of this particularly strange story are. Those implications are redemption and life. 

A professor of mine at college once said to me when he was standing in a stairwell—you see, it’s very simple, pal: either there is a God or there is not.  Christmas’ deeper magic suggests there is, and more than that it even suggests that that God cares a great deal, to put it mildly.  And that he detests death as much as we do, and that He and He alone can redeem something as vile as death and, for us in this dark world and wide, for now at least give us hope. That’s the beginning of the tale of the Deeper Magic, a tale that opens in a manger in a stable in a tiny town called Bethlehem. If you’re that friend of mine, perhaps far away, for whom I have written this blog on this dark day, please know that the Deeper Magic gives me hope—and it should give you hope, too. And may it begin for you now, this very advent season. 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: My Greek Barber, Jimmy

It is a strange thing to be in Greece and there to get your hair cut.  I might have simply stopped with Greece. Of course, it is strange even simply to be in Greece.  My dear childhood friend, John, recently texted me, “You sure do a lot of interesting travel.” Which explains the opening statement: it is a strange thing to be in Greece.  Not that it’s a bad thing, just a strange thing; I mean it is a bit strange for most Americans, or should I say Texans, among whom I, a Philly boy, dwell, and whom I now consider my tribe.

But let me get back to the strangeness of not Greece but, from my point of view, the haircut. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. The barber, “Jimmy,” (probably Yakoumis, in transliterated Greek) was fine, even more than fine. He paid a great deal of attention to every stroke of his comb, every snip of his scissors and did not doubt me when I told him (the truth) that I am allergic to most perfumed products.  He even went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that my hair was combed in the direction that it naturally falls.  The elder Jimmy of Jimmy’s Barber Shop should be proud.  I liked (the younger) Jimmy very much.  While we chatted a bit, he told me that he planned to get a sense of America by visiting his cousin in San Francisco.  I told him that San Francisco is a great town, with exquisite cuisine and marvelous views, but it might not be the city most typical of American culture.  We left it at that.

Unlike being at the dentist where the conversation is necessarily one-sided—I hate it when a dentist asks more than an “yes-or-no” question, and indeed rhetorical “n’est-ce pas?” questions are the best in the dentist’s office—a conversation with the barber can, of course, involve more give-and-take.  So, when it came to politics, which word I am here using in a rather loose sense, give-and-take was certainly in order.  Of course, with a president as active on Twitter as the current one, one expects some kind of political dimension to a conversation about the United States to come up. But what shocked me, in a good way, was Jimmy’s patriotism.  Greek patriotism, and that from a rather young man: Jimmy is probably all of 28 years old, give or take a year.

“Do you love your country?” he asked me.  I was a bit shocked by the question. Now before you can ask, “How can one be ‘a bit’ shocked?” let me explain.  The stove of my Airbnb had a short that produced a mild shock if your hands should be wet when you used it. That’s “a bit” shocking. So were my thoughts about Jimmy’s question.

“Yes,” I said. “And I especially love Texas.”

“You know, if someone here says they love their country, their called a fascist,” he replied.

“How odd,” I said, trying not to move, lest he should nip a piece of my ear by accident with his clipper.

“No, seriously,” he added. “No one here loves Greece like you say you love America, or at least Texas.” 

“You do, I think.”

“Yes, I do,” Jimmy said.

“You guys taught us everything,” I said, wittingly leaving the Romans out of it for a moment, albeit we owe the Romans a great debt, too.

He finished his clippings, and I gave him a sizeable tip. The haircut was nice. I mean, I don’t look any younger, but at least I don’t look any older.  But what was great about it was Jimmy himself.  We admired each other’s cultures, and we correctly, I think, traced them both back to the Greek idea of eleutheria, “freedom.”  For the Athenians, the inhabitants of the city where I am as I write this, eleutheria was everything.  It was what made them different from the other Greek city states.  So was parrhesia, or freedom of speech.  Again, freedom was the central idea.

I suppose the point of this blog is that.  A young Greek barber knows it.  An aging Texan philologist from Philadelphia does, too. I pray our countries—Jimmy’s and mine—never forget it, for once it’s lost, it’s damn hard to recover.  That’s where the Texan comes out: “damn.” Someone from Philly might have preferred a stronger expletive starting with the same fricative sound as Philadelphia. 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Essence of Forgiveness

So, a good friend of mine asked me to write about the essence of forgiveness.   It’s interesting that he asked me for its essence.  Had he just asked me to write something on forgiveness, that would have been pretty easy.  I might have said that it is simply a necessity, that people cannot function in society well if they don’t forgive.  And I could have cited an abundance of examples.  People who hold grudges—i.e. they don’t forgive—have to carry those grudges around with them.  Hold enough of them—hold enough of anything, and it will weigh you down. 

Or maybe grudges are the opposite of heavy things.  Maybe they are more like helium balloons.  One or two, even three or four tied around your wrist are annoyances but won’t substantially change your interactions.  I mean, people will notice, of course, that you have balloon strings tied to your wrists and helium balloons annoyingly bobbing over your head, just as they notice that you hold grudges, but they won’t think much about it. Well, yes, they might think you’re a little weird, as an adult, to be bringing helium balloons with you every where you go, as if you were a little kid. But, given how weird the world is nowadays, they probably won’t say much about it. They’ll just think what they think when they see you got a henna tattoo or died your hair pink and green—they’ll think, “whatever,” and the generous ones will add “floats your boat.”

But as you keep adding to your collection of those balloons—well, that will make getting in and out of an elevator really challenging.  And you can forget going through a revolving door at the entrance to a fancy hotel.  You’ll have too many balloons for that.  And people will notice because you are always talking about your grudges—er, balloons—because they are, frankly, noticeable.  So, in the end, you’ll be what the ancient Greeks called an idiotes, someone so independent of everyone else, so much an “individual” that they become an idiot.  And if you continue adding balloons, eventually you’ll be swept up in a wind and even though, at first, you’ll enjoy looking down on everyone—something you’ve probably been doing anyhow for quite a while already—you’ll eventually be transported somewhere you really don’t want to go. The only way back down to earth will be to let go of your balloons, one at a time.  But the true idiot won’t do that.  He’d rather cling to them and float around above other human beings than let even one of them go, even if that were the only way back.

But that is not the essence of forgiveness. That is simply what happens to you if you hold grudges and refuse to forgive.  The essence of forgiveness is—and I have one friend who will most certainly not want to read this—is the same as the essence of love: it is sacrifice.  It’s not quite the same kind of sacrifice that love demands, but it’s similar.  Love demands putting the other person first, caring for that person’s needs first, taking second place, even third, fourth or fifth, as appropriate.  The kind of sacrifice that forgiveness demands is even greater.  It demands that you surrender.  And you must surrender something that is the greatest sacrifice of all those that you could possibly make: your pride. That includes your sense of soaring above the other person, buoyed up on your fistful of balloons, so you can look down on them and say, “See, I was right, and you were wrong!”  Yep, you have to sacrifice your burning desire to “win the argument,” the rush of satisfaction you think you will have (but you won’t) once you’ve “won” the argument. Yes, that’s pride.

So that’s the essence of forgiveness, as far as I can see, from the human point of view: sacrificing your pride.  From the divine point of view, it is quite another kind of sacrifice. But I leave that aside, for blood-red Good Friday is still many a Friday away from these chill-grey October days. 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: When One Notices Grammar

Your life can really be wrecked by having good grammar.  How? There are only three ways, not ten, like last week’s blog. So, this blog will be shorter.

  1. The Grammar Grammatical Annoyer.  That’s right. You’ve known them. These are the people who will correct you when you’re engaging in Umgangschprache.  Not that they know what Umgangschprache is.  Of course not, because they’ve spent all their time refining their English grammar, not learning German. They are like people who brush their teeth so often that they have receding gums.  Or people who comb their hair so much that it’s perfectly kempt but their hair is naturally (too) thin owing to the repetitions of combing. Or, worse. Those people who have perfectly groomed dogs that look just like them. And, by the way, the people are perfectly groomed, too. And they walk their dogs in the park and the dog’s leash and collar and sometimes even little doggy-jacket are color-coordinated with that of their perfectly groomed master.  You get the idea.  These people are like fetish people. Toe fetish people, who crave sucking on your toes.  Not that there is no room in the world for such people—I just don’t want them sucking my toes, that’s all.  Fortunately, politically correct people (who are by now horrified, if they are still reading) have supplanted a lot of the Annoyers, because they are actually more annoying than the Annoyers.  And you can thank God for the PC folks, if you’re a grammar Annoyer, to do which (i.e. thanking God) is probably not PC.
  • The Grammar Observers.  Okay, say you’re lucky enough not to be an Annoyer. There is also the category of Grammar Observer. These are what you might call grammar voyeurs. They are like people with voracious sexual appetites who have decided to take holy orders, and now have to suppress their desires.  On the surface of this, it sounds innocent enough. But these are really people who notice bad grammar and simply stuff the urge to correct it deep, deep down in their souls. They are deeply troubled individuals. It’s not that they want to suck your toes, exactly, but they would love at least to see what your foot looks like without a shoe, or even better, without a sock. Not that they would suck it or even touch it; but they would want to, really, really want to. Okay, that’s weird, but that’s these people. They are deeply suppressed, and most of them wind up in therapy at some point.
  • The Grammar Whizzes.  This one is less likely to wreck your life per se than the first two, but it can. These people are better than your computer at grammar. More to the point: they are better than their own computers. They actually hate grammar/spell check—they turn it off because it is too often wrong. (And, just so you know, the grammar/spell check feature is only wrong once per 100,000 words, on average.) But that is simply “too often” for the Whizzes. When they find an “error” in the grammar/spell check, they actually write a letter to Microsoft. If there are any “errors” in the response—and I put quote marks around the word because they are not necessarily errors per se—they circle them and sent the letter back to the writer of the letter. That’s their favorite thing in the world to do. These folks are weird.  Forget the toes. Forget the socks. Forget the analogy. These Whizzes have some kind of power grab fetish, and they use grammar to get their jollies.

So how can noticing other people’s grammar ruin your life?  If you’re in category one to three, you need some help. You need therapeutically to write a grammatically incorrect sentence.  You need to listen to country music and try to like it—for there are many infelicitous moments, grammatically speaking, in country music. Probably purposefully so, by the way, but infelicitous, nonetheless.

So, what’s the deal? Speak bad, lighten up, relax. The computer will fix you’re grammare. Works for me.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Top Ten Difficult Moments When Traveling

What is the worst thing that can happen to you when you are traveling?  As I am traveling a lot these days, I decided to make a Lettermanesque list of the top ten bad things that can happen to you when you’re traveling. You can decide for yourself if I am right.

10.  You packed too much.  Yes, that’s right, even for the seasoned traveler, there is at tendency to overpack.  I am in Romania as I write this, and when my wife saw how little I was taking she said, “No way. That’s not enough.” But, for the first time in my married life, she was wrong.  I did pack enough, barely. Okay, so she was pretty close to right.

9. You can discover that you used someone else’s toothbrush by accident. Now some of you are thinking this should be number one. But it is not. Why? This rarely happens, but I have had it happen.  And it is gross, but not as bad as number 8.

8. You lose your passport, and you didn’t bother to make a xerox or photograph of it. Hassle city in either case.  Sorry!

7. Some son-of-a-bugger cuts in line while you’re patiently waiting to get into a museum, or board a plane, or even just check out of the grocery store.  Yep, that’s a pisser. There’s no point in complaining. They will pretend to know no English.

6. Your luggage gets lost. Really lost. Like it’s five to eight days lost, and you’re now in another city, and it’s still lost. Good news/bad news. You just bought a new wardrobe—that’s the good news.  Bad news: you skipped the $12 trip insurance that covered lost luggage.  Crud.

5. Your glasses break. Yep, that happened to me on this trip. So you go to get new ones. But, because you’re in Wales, they don’t allow you to get them without a “valid” (=within one year) prescription.  But your exam was a year and 2 weeks ago.  “Sorry, not ‘valid’.”  Ugh!  So you call your ophthalmologist and convince him to change the date. He does so, but it will now cost you a really expensive gift that you will have to bring all the way from Wales for him. Still, things could be worse.  Try number 4.

4. Strike.  Yes, strike. The Europeans (especially the Italians?) seem to love to have strikes. And somehow they time them for when you need to travel. So the busses and trains both shut down.  Seriously? You kiddin’ me?

3. Your kid falls off a skateboard and knocks out her front teeth. Yep, that happened to me when I was in Africa. With my wife. My poor eldest daughter had to handle everything. There’s a special place in Heaven for her. There definitely is.

2. You wind up in a TB ward because you broke a few ribs falling when you got out of the shower.  In Ukraine.  You just can’t make this stuff up.  So, when you get home you have to be tested for TB.  Yikes!

1. You simply have no toilet paper at a very, very inopportune moment. You’re already in a men’s or women’s room that is hygienically unacceptable—no toilet seat; yep, none. And you really need to be in that bathroom because you were apparently not used to the water or the food or something… well you can do the math. And only after you’ve taken care of your emergency—for it was an emergency—do you realize that the dispenser has nothing to dispense. So you use your teeth or a nail clipper or a match or something to rend your underwear into pieces to use as “substitute toilet paper” and then you go commando the rest of the day.  You can see why this one is at the top of the list.  I am glad to say that it has only happened to me once.

Thanks for reading. Sorry to close with the grossest one, but it is number 1 for a reason. And you can see why I did not put any pictures in the blog. No need. The images dance off the page.

Bon voyage.  Gute Reisen! Happy travels! 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Get Grandchildren

These days, I meet more and more people who are desperate for grandchildren.  Yesterday, here in Rome, I sat at a coffee bar and spoke with a woman about my age, who was so looking forward to her first grandchild.  But she couldn’t conceive of a way to get this grandchild, even though her son, who I think she said was 29 years old, had been married five years, and her daughter of 27 years had been living with her boyfriend (in his wealthy parents’ home) for five years.  She wondered what she could do to promote one of them getting pregnant. 

Now of course, my first thought was, “Why, when I am sitting at a coffee bar in Rome, innocently drinking a cappuccino, do people always ask me weird questions like, ‘How do I get my kids to have unprotected sex?’” I think it’s some kind of strange ambiance that I must have that screams, “Go ahead, ask me a deeply personal question—I don’t care how weird it is.”

So she did, and I wish I had thought then of what I thought of subsequently. Instead of giving her a straight answer, I just commiserated, saying, “You know, people are having fewer and fewer kids these days. They’re so expensive!” Or something stupid like that.  But what should I have said?  That’s what I will tell you now.

“Plan A”: use reverse psychology. Pretend you hate the idea of grandchildren.  Say things like the world is “overcrowded” and “needs fewer people anyway.” If you’re like most parents, you’ll always be “wrong” so, de facto, you will be wrong about this. This alone should do the trick.  Your child will immediately find his or her significant other, copulate without protection and, if you’re lucky, conceive.

But what if your kid is not subject to reverse psychology? That is to say, they’re the one in twenty-five who actually respect their parents, though of course they can’t ever tell you that; that is Regulation Number 41 of the “Offspring Code.”  So that won’t work with them. In that case, discard the reverse psychology ploy and go to “Plan B”: find out what kind of contraceptive they are using and deliberately sabotage it.  I recommend doing this alone—don’t tell your spouse, if you have one, and don’t tell your in-laws.

The exception to that last piece of advice, though, would be that you know your in-laws have also been complaining about the same thing and there’s a chance that they’re creepy enough to go along with you in this plan.  This would be more likely to work if your child, like that of the woman at the bar, happens to live with the in-laws. Then, it is a simple matter. When the young couple is out of the house, show up for “tea” and, with the in-laws, break and enter into your child’s and his or her other significant other’s love next and poke holes in their condoms. This is easily done with a simple pin.  “Ninety-nine percent effective” is dramatically reduced to “ten percent effective” with a mere pin prick.

Third, let’s say they don’t use condoms or you are afraid to break and enter. Plan “C” is to use guilt.  Now the effectiveness of guilt depends on two things: 1) how far you’re willing to go with it and 2) how subject your child is to it. But, you’ll be glad to know, it’s really more number 1 than number 2.  Now the easy-to-say but far-less-effective type of guilt goes like this, “You know, Sarah’s daughter, Emily, has two babies already, and they’re soooo cute!” 

That will not work. Your daughter has probably secretly despised Emily anyway since childhood.  You made them play together just because you enjoyed spending time with Sarah, and Emily was a little brat.  Somehow you never noticed. Your daughter is more likely to turn this into your own guilt trip than hers.

No, the kind of guilt we’re talking about here involves, like a good Greek tragedy, the evocation of pathos.  “I am old now, and I may not live much longer. But I don’t need ever to see grandchildren to be fulfilled. Anyway, I would probably be a bad influence on them.” This will only work, by the way, if you will not be a bad influence. Those of you who are bad influences will need to modify the rollout somewhat. Yet this should do the trick, if you present it correctly. 

But some children are resistant, even to “Plan C.”  Which brings us to “Plan D.” It is the creepiest of all and makes tampering with the birth control seem like child’s play. “Plan D” is a modification of “Plan C,” and involves two things: part 1, lying and getting away with it, and part 2, a miracle.

Part 1 is the harder of the two: you have to create a disease that you don’t really have that is or could be terminal. Then you reapply a modified version of “Plan C”: “I know, given my diagnosis, that I may not live to see grandchildren, but I am content with that.  I just want what is best for you guys. The exact timing of when you start your family is way more important than whether some old,” [and here you fill in “lady” or “man” as appropriate], “lives to see it.”  And you have to sound like you mean it, for it to work.

Then the easy part, part 2: the “miracle.”  A few years later, you simply say that you went to the doctor and there’s no trace of that incurable disease. Everyone is happy, everyone wins!  They probably even throw a party for you.  And you just sit there grinning through the whole affair, for it worked: you got grandchildren. And because you were so ill, they even named the first baby after you. Congratulations!

And that’s how to get grandchildren.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Hiatus

My Dear Reader,

Roughly 2000 years ago, the poet Juvenal wrote, “It is difficult not to write satire.”  He wasn’t the pioneer of that 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 that poet lived or in which we ourselves live.

But I won’t be writing satire or anything for a little while. Why? Not because it is difficult or not difficult or difficult not to write satire but because I am writing something else and shall be while I am traveling. If it is published, you shall be the first to know. 

Greetings from Lviv, Barcelona, Rome and… we shall see.

Thanks for your patience,

H. R. Jakes

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Bards of Swansea

Greetings, my friends, from Wales. Just a poem this time:

The Bards of Swansea

In Swansea, there are no swans, just gulls

To tell its story, whose plaintive cries dominate all.

They don’t just own the skies, or just claim the chimneys that poke up

from the tops of tops of rows of rows of homes,

One stacked upon the other, hillside upon hillside,

Whose windowed-eyed faces look downward to the sea,

And see the gulls, twisting now hither, now thither,

Crying, speaking, cackling, claiming their ownership

Of this place, by their voices; their place, not that of Dylan Thomas,

Who once lived here in the uplands, in one of those homes that

Spread like a dealer’s deck, trickle out in rows, one upon the other,

Who every morning hear the mourning cries of the gulls

That say, we own this place! We are its sad bards!

There is no other! Hear our cackling-voiced cries, our plaintive lays!

There are no swans in Swansea, just gulls.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Sheep in Wales in Summertime

As I mentioned last week, I am in Wales now, awaiting the chance to have lunch with Ollie the poet, whom I met at a pub known as The Verve.   In that pub there where jokes told a plenty, some about Welshmen and sheep, for shepherding is something that some Welshmen—enough for it to be commonplace—do for a living.  Now precisely what the Welshmen in the bar said about the sheep, I don’t know, for the lilt, as I said last time, is strong here in Swansea.  In Cardiff, where I was yesterday for the day, there’s a noticeable accent, but even in a pub you can understand the person with whom you’re speaking.  Not so in Swansea. 

Welsh Countryside near Dunvant

Then, coincidentally, ABC News ran a story this week about 25 sheep (25 sheep led through Parisian parks) that were wandering through France.  They followed the Siene through downtown Paris. While there, by looking for foliage to eat, they sought to make a public statement, as best as sheep can, about the need to integrate animals into urban life.  I am not really sure what to say about this.  I am just sharing it with you because it fits in the Welsh banter of the Verve. 

And I thought I was done with sheep until yesterday, in Cardiff, I went to a fine bar called the Queen’s Vaults, where they served a Sunday roast—quite an experience.  And I had lamb, but I didn’t think much about my friends in the Verve as I downed that delicious meal.

And then, again, I thought I’m done with the sheep, finally.  Until I came upon the most interesting sheep-story of them all: a sheep that cheated to win a contest using performance enhancing drugs.  Now think about this for a moment: the words performance and sheep probably have never before been used in the same sentence, not even in the case of the famous Australian sheep shearing contests.  There, of course, the performance is done by the shearers; and they are remarkably adroit.  But that doesn’t count because it’s the shearers who are performing, not the sheep. But in the case of this award-winning sheep—the performance being enhanced is that of the sheep in question. 

The title of the article by David Aaro is stunning: “Award-winning lamb under investigation for performance-enhancing drugs.”  It certainly jumps off the page, or at least off the screen at you.  Images of Lance Armstrong come to mind, but Lance Armstrong as a sheep on a bicycle, which is certainly an odd image.  

Photo by Peretz Partensky (Flickr)

And some of the comments beneath the article say more than I can.

In that comment section, “Shahooster” writes:

“Officials grew suspicious when the lamb surpassed Barry Bonds’ single-season home run record with more than two months remaining of regular play.”

Meanwhile, perhaps even more sardonically, TWYer, writes:

“Pulling the wool over our eyes!”

And Yarxing cleverly writes:

“They found out it actually was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

And, of course, this could not pass without at least one pun, this from DickSoupCan:

“This is so ba-aaa-aaa-ad.”

I leave it at that.  Is there a lesson here, in any of the sheep stories? I, for my part, am pretty sure there is not.. 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mumbles

I haven’t written much lately owing to my peripatetic status. That is like a chef saying he or she hasn’t cooked much lately because he has been taking long walks. But even chefs, I imagine, need to take long walks, sometimes. In my case, I have simply been traveling, and after many peregrinations hither and yon that prevented me from sitting down to write, I found myself jogging along the shoreline of a Welsh seaside town known as the Mumbles. 

Dylan Thomas was born near here, in a tiny hamlet just southwest of Swansea, known as the Uplands. So of course, I have been rereading Dylan Thomas, the brilliance of whose “craft, or sullen art” I had perhaps never fully appreciated, like the dull lover of the poem of that title, whose concern is only for what is right in front of him. Now I understand Dylan Thomas better. Yet his best poem was and will always be for me, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” Fortunately, not long before he died, the poet was professionally recorded reading that poem, a recording now available for all to hear. That is the way Elaine went when she went into the night, not gentle but strong and courageous, and she, on angels’ wings that I still think I heard flapping as she left.

And so last night, in somber mood, I went to a local pub with the surprisingly upbeat name “The Verve,” thinking of my very-very-Welsh mother, eight years dead now, and that struggle that she had and we all have in facing death. And so it came as quite a surprise to find myself amidst three new friends, Wally, Ollie, and Trevor, and even more surprising that one of them is a local poet. I met Wally, a scrap metal engineer, first, when I was, in the English fashion, ordering my food at the bar, he an ale. He said he would like to have been vacationing in Spain but he had stayed back to take care of Foxy, his aged and loving dog. I took a seat with him and his friends, randomly arranged, on the terrace, spread out around but not at two wooden all-weather tables; the men were themselves rather weathered looking, men who challenged life as much as it challenged them, hard-working men. All were more or less middle-aged, one a veteran, one or two just freshly retired. They told tales of fighting off young punks (two of them had canes to do so), of good or bad jobs they had once had, of their children, now mostly living far from Swansea.

I sat with them chiefly just to listen: as a writer, I am always considering traits of individuals that I meet, features that will help me to form a character, and shape my own character. And, I can say without doubt they gave me a bit of both: the thick, almost mumbling southern-Welsh accent that rolled out every word like the breaking tide of Swansea Bay gave me plenty of rich writing material, while their gentle dictums offered food for thought, as I sat among them eating my sausage and mash with mushy peas.

I won’t go into the details the pleasantries of my conversation with Trevor, who bought me two beers beyond my own, or the funny exchange I had with Wally about whether we had met before—he was pretty sure he had seen me on a train and that I might have helped him protect a young woman who was being hassled by two thugs; alas, I said, I wish that had been me. Ollie was another matter, and some aspects of my conversation with Ollie will be, if he allows it, addressed in a subsequent blog. For he is a poet. As Ollie spoke to me, he divulged that every time he tried to write prose it came out in verse. Now, being someone who knows something of the life of the poet Ovid, this sounded very familiar to me.

Ollie recited three or four poems for Trevor and me, one of which I would like to post in my next blog. If I recall correctly, it is entitled “God’s in You and Me.” I don’t yet have a written copy, but I can say from my one hearing of it that, if I can, I would certainly like to share it. Ollie’s poems are as wonderful as his Welsh lilt is thick. His style is rhythmic rhyme, playful and serious at once, richly sentimental and at the same time profound. He has a lyrical look about him—steel blue eyes, a gentle smile that reminded me of one of my professors. He wasn’t an educated man, though you could tell in five minutes that he was smart.

Wall with message in Swansea

Trevor, meanwhile, spoke of the challenges of life as a recent retiree, while Wally shared some tidbits about music and a friend of his who is a documentary filmmaker. I couldn’t quite make out though, given how thick the accent of each of them was, many of the details in any of their soliloquies. The experience itself was, for me, rather like being in France. My French is good enough to make out most of the words and follow the conversation, but I have certain vocabulary gaps, which allow me to garner only most of any given conversation.

The Mumbles, Wales

Luckily, though, I have enough French to know what mamalles means: it means “breasts,” which brings us back to Mumbles. Mumbles, you see, has two rock formations that extend beyond the natural promontory hook that forms a natural bay for Swansea’s coast. Geographers who dabble in place-name etymology believe that the name Mumbles (which I was disappointed to learn was not derived from the mumbling sea, like Homer’s onomatopoeic polyphloisboio thalasses) believe that the breast-shaped double rock formation gave this place its named, whether derived via the French mamalles being corrupted into Mumbles or, as others believe, the Latin mammas (accusative case). If this sounds unbelievable, one would do well to recall that even a less exciting city like Manchester is apparently derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root, in this case a Celtic word for a breast-shaped hill (mamucium). And the wonderfully beautiful Greek island Mykonos, one might recall, is also famous for it’s “Breasts of Venus,” two shapely hills that are, like those in Mumbles harbor, stacked side by side.


So, I close with that thought. Sometimes the poetry we need to hear shows up, quite unexpectedly in a pub. And sometimes, the art we need to see is given to us naturally through common, but perhaps quite uncommon, grace, such as that of the Mumbles.