Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Weight of History

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Daily Bread

The Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci, 1495–1498

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Lock Seven

When Elaine Jakes was in her thirties—those days were as vividly vibrant with the colors of the late 1960s/early 1970s as Elaine was vibrantly vivacious—she twice took a summer vacation with Sheila and me to Canada. Sheila, if peradventure you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you’ll recall was my mother’s closest friend in those days. They lived together and jointly raised me when I was but a lad, as difficult as such a proposition may then have been when a nontraditional family structure was viewed with great suspicion.  “There’s no man in the house,” some could be heard muttering.  “How will that boy turn out to be a man?”  I will, however, set their complaints about the lack of a male role model aside, as there were, in any case, a number of men who served as positive role models, prominent among whom was my grandfather, Harry Reed Jakes.

Permit me return to the aforementioned twofold Canadian excursions. As a school teacher, Elaine did not have a great deal of money, especially in those days when teachers were not just underpaid[1] but grossly underpaid.  Still, she could make her rent most months, if not always on time,[2] and even afford a small summer vacation—a few days in Canada—in an era when small summer vacations were still affordable.

And the primary destination for her in those days was not a grandiose hotel in Montreal but the far humbler “Lock 7 Motel” in the perhaps surprising destination of Thorold, Ontario. That now refurbished and finely updated structure is currently known as the Inn at Lock Seven (http://innatlock7.com/) from the back balconies of which one could see the large ships that had travelled down or would shortly travel down the St. Lawrence Seaway make their way between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie through the series of locks that connected those lakes.  It was then, and is now, not so much a thing of beauty to behold the ships as it was a thing of majesty, for cargo ships are, in their own way, majestic.  And one could wave to those ships’ sailors who, in those days at least, would most often wave back when they saw you.

Yet there was something more than mere majesty. There was a lesson in beholding those great ships stuck in those narrow locks. It was the lesson of patience and grace under fire.  More often than not we find ourselves stuck between things. We’re hoping for something, looking forward to it, as we wait for our figurative lock to fill up, as if whatever it is that we are seeking could alone bring us happiness.  Now sometimes, of course, there is a modicum of happiness attached to that new thing, that new phase of life, as it must have been happier for the sailors to be on the open sea (or at least open lake) than carefully maneuvering the slender confines of the lock system.  But even in the narrow maneuvering, there may well have been for them some fulfillment qua sailing, for it was chiefly in the locks, no doubt, that they had the chance to prove what good sailors they actually were.  They waited patiently between locks and gracefully discharged their duties of steering the ships carefully between those narrow ducts.  And to some extent, I imagine, they were the happier for it, for they were doing what they were called in this life to do.  And even here, I fancy, you could say I had male role models, for all the sailors I saw were men, if role models only at the great distance between the motel balcony and the ship’s prow.

And so it may well be for us: when we are in between things, when we are constricted and confined in ways that seem to take away some of our freedoms, maybe that is when we have the opportunity to prove ourselves as human beings. Maybe we were created for such days as those.  And, if we are good at navigating this human experience known as life, maybe, in the midst of our busy activity, we will take a moment to give a wave and a smile at the little kid who is watching us from life’s balcony.  That, at any rate, is what the sailors did for me as I watched in amazement the majesty of those ships and indeed the sailors’ own navigational majesty, all those many years ago in Thorold, Ontario, from the balcony of the Lock Seven Motel. 

[1] While I despise white-collar unions, I nonetheless deeply sympathize with the teachers in Oklahoma who are protesting unfair wages.  https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/06/us/oklahoma-teachers-walkout/index.html

[2] For an amusing story of Elaine being late with her rent, see the Curious Autobiography, pages 124-129.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: You’ve Made Your Bed

A friend of mine (a cousin, actually, who is also my friend) has been traveling in New England. One of the lodgings he stayed in recently was a lovely old Maine countryside B&B attached to a pub. It was lovely to look at at least, he said, as it did not serve him a lovely New England breakfast. Amidst its otherwise quaint furnishings, it featured a rather uncomfortable bed. He described resting on that piece of furniture as being like sleeping on the floor of a taxi cab, an analogy that, however unlikely it may seem, certainly embodies well the level of discomfiture.

And that is the theme of today’s blog, not the floor of a taxi cab—which in my day was always stickier than it was hard, though with Uber that has all thankfully changed—but rather one’s bed. For one knows the dictum well enough to be able to finish it from the partial quotation in the title above: “Well, you’ve made your bed, and now you’ll have to sleep in it!” The meaning is, of course, not quite that of “karma,” which, I explained in a blog of a few weeks ago, is a Weltanschauung to which I am glad that I personally don’t share, as were it true, I imagine that I would myself constantly be on the receiving end of retribution of some kind. Rather, the maxim to which this title alludes is a doctrine of just consequences. It means, “Well, you’ve made a bad decision, and now you’ll just have to live with the result(s) of that decision.”

Now that’s as good as far as it goes, I suppose, as there’s some truth to it. If you get a tattoo on your hind quarters that says, “Mary and Bob,” inside of a heart with an arrow through it, but you wind up breaking up with Mary or you want to change your name to Robert (or Roberta, which nowadays has become increasingly more common), either you will wind up always keeping your pants on or you will have to have the tattoo removed, though even then it may still be somewhat visible to the naked eye. And that would be, in any case, a pain in the … .

But I leave the tattoo aside to get back to the expression about the bed, which, I think, the example of the tattoo amply demonstrates, can be true. I say “can be true” and not “is true,” because it is Good Friday today, and on the third day, Easter. And what do these two holidays (in the true etymological sense of that word) mean? They mean, “You’ve made your bed, now come sleep in this much more comfortable one where you can find real rest.” That’s a very strange variant on the dictum, isn’t it?

What do I mean by such a variation? I mean that these two holidays are a bit different than either of them is billed as (Good Friday is not “billed” at all, and Easter is billed as chocolate and bunnies and eggs, an incongruous enough combination, confusing even to children). They are in fact kind of opposites of each other. On Good Friday one man dies for all. On Easter Day, that same man rises. We love the optimism of the second part of the formula. We might even be tempted to say that’s what the formula is all about—optimism, symbolized in a story that isn’t physically or historically true but is psychologically true. But even if you were to accept such a superficial and facile explanation of Easter, which I do not, that still leaves Good Friday dangling.

Good Friday is all about the aforementioned bed. Unlike the tattoo that is hard to eradicate and usually but imperfectly and painfully removed, the bed in which you are supposed to sleep for your past mistake(s) can be removed—indeed was, a long time ago. It was removed in or about 33 A.D. when one man died for all, for he died as a ransom. He eradicated utterly and completely the blotches that were far more than merely blotches—they were deeply clinging cancerous tumors in our souls. He didn’t just shrink them by divine radiation or by setting an example of how to live in a better way. Rather, he took them all into his own body, and they killed him, as cancerous tumors are known to do. And when he died with them, they died with him.

So back to the bed that you’ve made. No, you don’t have to sleep in it. You might choose to, even though you know it’s quite uncomfortable and you won’t rest well in it—in fact you’ll quite possibly wake up more tired than when you went to bed in the first place. But you don’t have to sleep in it. With a dash of wisdom and a little courage, you can muster the strength to choose to sleep in quite a more comfortable bed in which you will find true rest, for it has been bought for you and given to you for free. For that is what grace and Good Friday, and Easter, too, are all about. Good Friday has paid for your new, comfortable bed. Easter gives you the courage to choose to sleep in it.

Happy Easter! Or, as the Greeks say, ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amusing Encounters

I almost entitled this blog “Amusing and Unamusing Encounters,” but then I thought to myself, “What encounter do I ever have that is actually unamusing?”

Even encounters with boorish folks, say the high-brow types, who want to demythologize (their term, not mine) everything, are actually quite amusing. I was at a cocktail party recently chatting with just such a person, who was schooling me on how there is nothing miraculous in this material universe, nor can there ever be, as the universe is naturally material. I did not point out to him the circularity of his argument, nor did I question whether his use of the word “naturally” was meant to be a pun. It didn’t seem likely that it was, as he did not seem capable of puns. His words were rather dour, cold and in any case far too sober, even though he was paradoxically well-along on his second martini. Still, this “fact” was at the forefront of his if not small, at least pretty well closed mind.

Still, for all his dourness, the encounter wasn’t unamusing. Had I had the chance to get a word in edgewise I might have asked him if he believed in binary opposition or at least whether there is the possibility of a thing having an opposite. If he agreed, I might have asked him what the contrasting opposite of necessary is, and he might have answered “unnecessary,” or, inasmuch as I already said he was rather high-brow, “superfluous.”

Then I might have asked, “And what does Nietzsche contrast with a mere, unenlightened human being?”

“Der Übermensch” he would no doubt have been his reply, and for the benefit of the by-now-gathering unlearned corona of listeners he would likely have added, “The Nietzschean ‘Superman.’”

And what about “natural? What is its opposite?” I then would have added.

“Now if you’re going to try to get me to say ‘supernatural’, well I won’t take that bait,” he cleverly would have retorted. Yet even in his recusal of saying the word, he would have said it. Not exactly a “touché moment” for me, but still, in his unintentional paralepsis it he would have at least brought it up.

And, I think, that is by and large what happens to each one of us when we try to deny any possibility of coincidences being miracles, any impression of some kind of divine intervention in our lives. We will always retreat to what is material (and therefore secure) and, in most cases, not happening directly to us. We think of, or even go so far as to make, a verbal reference to “all the people starving in … [and here just fill in a country, region or continent where human brutality or inattentiveness is responsible for suppression, leading to the starvation of much of the population].” We don’t bother to ask ourselves, “What actually causes that devastation?” for that would, in most cases, involve assignation of blame to human beings and maybe even point back to our own apathy in the face of human injustice. And we rarely, if ever, go beyond that to say, “And, while I’m on that topic, what can I do about it?” For the second question would undoubtedly involve our checkbook.

Yet even such cocktail conversation about the natural, material world in which we live, were one to happen upon us (and one did, at least in part, recently for me), can be amusing. It is amusing because it can remind us that there is such a thing as the supernatural—what we might summarily call “magic,’ even if we mean it not in the para-normal sense but rather theologically—and that if there is a supernatural corresponding to the natural then all things are possible. Yes, all things—but that’s not my idea, I stole if from a higher source.

But let’s leave that aside for two other amusing conversations. First, I spoke about television quality with a television salesman at Best Buy. His concern for me to buy a high-quality television was palpable. I tried to tell him that “I am not a television person.” Of course, that must have been amusing to him, since I was buying a television. But I insisted, “I don’t watch TV.” My wife and I just put discs in a player occasionally to watch a film. Still, he was telling me about how much better the quality of the more expensive televisions were, and I could tell it was not simply to make a sale but because he was clearly concerned for how much more I could enjoy television watching—I think he did not believe me about only watching films on discs—were I to purchase the high-quality TV set (though it is not a “set” anymore, it is more like a movie theater screen).

“The smallest I will allow you to buy is a forty-inch screen,” he said, “You won’t be happy with anything smaller.” I stress he was not just trying to make a sale: he actually cared about me, I could tell. All in all, rather an amusing exchange. I left with at 43” television set—or rather “in-house movie screen.”

Finally, one last amusing encounter: I read recently that a woman was arrested for assaulting her husband because he forgot her anniversary. When I mentioned that to my wife we had an amusing conversation of a different kind. My wife was entirely sympathetic to the woman. I found that amusing. Needless to say, I will be especially attentive not to forget our anniversary next year. Perhaps we shall celebrate by watching a movie on our super-sized TV at home.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Borders

“‘The world has enough borders. I don’t want [them] any more,’ Malamine said.” I quote here from a recent article that appeared on the CNN website.[1] The sentiment is clear enough; the idea is that borders are essentially bad and in any case unnecessary. People should be allowed to move around at will, no one should be prevented from any movement at any time. The old American expression about freedom of speech, “I can say whatever I want; it’s a free country”—should be applicable to the world thus: “I can go wherever I want; it’s a free world.” Indeed, thus it has been argued in an important 2015 publication.[2]

The only problem with this modification of the dictum is that it is not a free world. Maybe it should be, but it is not. Just recently, according to the reliable news source, Reuters, “a Turkish prosecutor asked for NBA’s New York Knicks star Enes Kanter to be jailed for … insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan….”[3] Now if it were a free world, Mr. Kanter would be allowed to criticize whom he wanted, as many other NBA stars, even the NBA’s current brightest shining star, have done with regard to the American president.[4] He might have even have been allowed to say, “Tayyip, dude, that’s a funny first name.” But it is not a free world and, as a rule of thumb, one should never tease a dictator about his first name.

So I think we have established, thanks to Mr. Erdogan’s interesting first name, that it is most certainly not a free world, and that’s why, as unpopular as it might sound, we need borders. And are borders, anyhow, actually bad? If they were, why would anyone name a bookstore after them?  But seriously, let’s think about this for a moment. Without borders there would be no patriotism. Now is patriotism bad? A debate website (dubiously, perhaps) debates it,[5] and well-known Irish-Californian Christian preacher Philip De Courcy points up the dangers of unqualified nationalism using the example of the prophet Jonah in his very fine sermon series “Jonah: Man on the Run.”[6]

Yet even if, for the sake of argument, we were to grant that patriotism is somehow objectionable, that does not make borders “bad.” In the case of marriage, for example, most people would say, borders are good, as most marriages are not open marriages. Most marriages, therefore, have implicit, even explicit borders. And for all their openness and presumed easy-goingness, 92% of open marriages would seem to end up in divorce.[7] Now someone might argue that marriage is an outdated idea anyway. And that is fine, but caveat uxor: why even be married if you’re going to have an “open marriage”?

Well, I’ve rambled along far enough, probably transgressing a few borders, without which there would be no “South of the Border” restaurant, as there would be nothing to be “south of”.  Which brings me to my closing thought: the notion of transgression. The very idea of “trespassing” or “transgressing” or even robbing someone’s house or taking their property is owed, in some way, to the notion that there are borders or limits that should not be transgressed. And with that, I have reached my own limit, a border I shall not transgress by rambling on further, for perhaps the most rarified form of human happiness, anyhow, is found at home, with family—yes, within one’s own borders.

[1] http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2017/12/world/catalonia-referendum-newcomers/

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/10/get-rid-borders-completely/409501/

[3] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-basketball/turkey-wants-nba-star-jailed-for-insulting-president-erdogan-idUSKBN1EE1PS

[4] http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/lebron-wears-black-shoe-white-shoe-equality-51851077

[5] http://www.debate.org/opinions/is-patriotism-a-good-thing

[6] https://www.ktt.org/broadcasts/jonah-man-run

[7] http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/personal/03/23/o.open.marriages.work/

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reading for Friends (or, “How to Get Smarter”)

The wickedly exciting combination of being overbold and enjoying even limited philological training will allow you to do something quite special: read for friends. Now I don’t mean the kind of “fun reading” that one does on the living room couch or at the beach. That kind of reading of, say, a good novel is almost a holy act—it is purifying for the soul, for it provides the soul with something more than just fun; it gives it pause, a different kind of pause, too, than simply being still and reflecting. Yes, that kind of reading is as good for you as the alarmingly named Grape Nuts (probably) are. Grape Nuts taste healthy, at the very least, even though their name remains one of the most unsolvable mysteries of modern food science, as they are made of neither grapes nor nuts in the same way that the drink known as an “egg cream” includes neither eggs nor cream.

egg cream

But I wander too far afield. Rather I prefer to speak about reading for friends or rather for one friend at a time, for that is all one can do. One reads one’s friend’s book or article as it comes off the pen, and one gives feedback. I can recall doing this for a friend of mine who taught at Rutgers years ago—he wrote a book on the Martini and, indeed, I have never met anyone who knew more about that particular drink than the famous Lowell Edmunds. And I have been doing it today for another friend who is writing on the topic of reading and writing in antiquity. Exhilarating—and, no, I’m not being facetious!

And if one reads for one’s friends, one learns a lot. One learns about topics ranging from Renaissance Latin to Columella’s poem entitled, in English, “On the Rustic Thing.” One of Columella’s more famous quotes is, of course, “Thus far the tillage of the land.” And one can learn about Hellenistic poetry, Medieval art, the history of troop movements at the Battle of the Bulge, statue busts—you name it. You can learn a lot by reading your friends drafts.

And one or two of you are right now thinking, “Great! But how can I ever get the chance to do so? I know so few scholars personally. Well, the answer to that good question is pretty simple: go to your local college’s espresso bar, if you are lucky enough to have one—by “one” here I mean a college or university, of course—and intentionally eavesdrop (scholars rarely notice eavesdroppers), and then introduce yourself. After you get to know the scholar, whose résumé you might well have checked out online in advance for this very purpose, you can say, “So, what are you working on these days,” even though you know already the answer is “The Three Bar Sigma and Re-dating of Important Greek Inscriptions” or “Secondary Characters in Beowulf” or “The Use of the Subjunctive in Cervantes.”

Yes, you more or less stalked him or her so you could say, “Wow, that’s right up my alley—I have just been refreshing my Don Quixote, my study of Greek epigraphy,” or the like.

And then he or she will say, “Smashing! Perhaps you would like to read an article I am preparing on ML 84” (where ML is short for Meiggs and Lewis, i.e. a standard epigraphical collection; the eighty fourth entry lays out various payments from the treasury of Athena and is dated to 410/09 B.C.).

And when you read this person’s article you will definitely get smarter. And that is a good thing, even if it is not the same as the “holy time” you might have enjoyed reading a novel at the beach. And, yes, I do recommend both; but the summer is still a long way off, so perhaps you should head to that local college’s espresso bar now and learn about the three bar sigma, which is not at all, as it sounds, a fraternity drinking game but rather just a fancy Greek “S”.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Problem with Great Danes

One has a number of problems when one has a Great Dane. I know; I have one.

The obvious one is the constant question, “Are these dogs really Danish?” But that is the least of your problems, even when someone gets more specific and asks, “Why are they called ‘Danes’”?

It’s a good question. Like crêpes, which are essentially just thin, eggy pancakes, it all started with the French. As tension rose between Germany and France in the eighteenth century, the French wisely decided to change the name of the dog from (in archaic and modern English) “German Dogge” or “German Mastiff” to Grand Danois.[1] The idea was, of course, something like, “Well, Holland is near Germany, but Dutch Dogge sounds like Deutsche Dogge, so that won’t work; how about Belgium? No, too far away from Germany. What about Swedish Dogge? No, too far north. What about Denmark? Oui, parfait!”

And so it happened that the Great Dane became Danish. But that is not their problem. Their problem is their size and the lies it causes us to tell. First, people come to you house and they say, “My goodness! Your dog is large!”

Of course you had noticed this. Now all you can do is to reply, “Yes, but he’s nice” or “He’s a gentle giant.” Or you can lie and say, “When I got him from the pound, he was so small and cute. Who knew he would grow so abundantly?” I’ve tried that one, but I was technically lying, because I knew he would grow. His feet were huge.

Another lie you can tell only works sometimes. You can tell the person, “Yes, he’s large, but he’s a teacup Dane.” That usually slows down even the savviest interlocutor.

“A teacup Dane?” he or she will invariably reply.” Really, I had no idea they bred such animals.”

But then that person will take a second look at your dog and add, “It’s awfully large for a teacup Dane.”

To which, on the one hand, you might be forced to respond, if you’re honest, “Well, he’s on the small side for a Dane—and I was only kidding about the ‘teacup’ bit.”

On the other hand, you might be less than honest and simply say, “Well, they weren’t very successful in breeding them small.”

To which, your visitor will respond, “I’ll say they were not. He’s huge.”

The third problem and occasionally worse problem with Danes, of course, is their tail.   It is at precisely the wrong level. Your dog can easily hit your visiting nephew in the eye or face—of course by accident and merely out of exuberance.

The tail also can strike hard objects and bleed; and when it is bleeding it can fling drops of blood everywhere and/or smear blood all over your brand new and expensive wallpaper. Yes, they do that.

Worse yet, the tail can strike your male visitors in the private area and double them over in pain. Yes, that has happened, and in fact happens pretty frequently. It is embarrassing and, if it happens to happen to your boss, it can cost you your annual raise.

Profanity!” the visiting pastor will say who has come over to visit your ailing parent or has shown up for your child’s baptism or confirmation. “Surprising profanity!” Yes, even more than once, because the tail can swing to the same spot twice in rapid succession, even dropping your pastor to one knee in pain. You can yell at the dog all you want but, one must recall, he has the excuse of being Danish and speaking no English, and in any case he did not do it on purpose. It was an accident, just as your red-spot-bespeckled and bestreaked wallpaper was an accident, as your nephew now blind in one eye was an accident. No good yelling at the dog; he speaks no English.

And that is the problem with Great Danes. Their tails and the tales the cause you to tell. And now you know to be wary of both.

[1] Frederick Becker, The Great Dane – Embodying a Full Exposition of the History, Breeding Principles, Education, and Present State of the Breed (2005).

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The “New” S-Word

So I am at a dinner party and one of the guests talks about raising her children. Of course, at this point, three of the single people drift away but a couple stays, as do I, of course. I always find myself interested in what is important to people when they raise children: how to say ‘no.’ sometimes, while other times, ‘yes.’ Tricky business, as I see it, childrearing today.

In any case the conversation was about the “bad words” that should not be used in family situations. Colleen, the mother says something rather startling (in a wonderful way). In her family, the “S-word” is “Shut up!” That’s the word the children are not to say to one another or to their parents, teachers, or grandparents, etc. “How wonderful!“ I blurted out before anyone else could respond. The others who had not drifted off concurred, whether voluntarily or under the duress of my leading the jury, as it were, we shall never know.

After a pause, mother Colleen added, “Well, it seems like nobody allows anyone to talk anymore; no one wants to hear anyone else’s point of view.

To which I blurted out again, “Exactly!” And then I realize I had done it twice now—not allowing the others in the circle to respond before me. Perhaps it is because I was drinking wine, I don’t know, but I think it was, anyhow, only my first glass, so I doubt as much. I think, rather, I was simply too exuberant regarding this particular topic.

Thus I shat up again, allowing the others to respond, which of course they did. “Yes,” the other woman standing there said, “I find it positively distressing when I hear someone say ‘Shut up!’”

“It happens all the time,” said the man who appeared to be her husband. “Terrible.”

This time I waited before I said anything, trying to get my banter-timing a bit better than I had stared out. “You know,” I said, “I read that Don Lemon, a CNN commentator, on his show had actually quashed one or two of his interlocutors who were speaking to him about a topic with which Mr. Lemon rather did not agree. ‘Shut up’ he said, just before putting down any possible word of opposition.”

What he actually said was “…Not the time to talk about guns or whatever? yes it is! Shut up, I don’t want to hear it.” ] Now, ironically, I am probably on the side of Don Lemon on this issue, or at least very sympathetic to what he had to say but I was focusing on the “Shut up!” bit of his remark.[1]

“Yes,” a third person in the conversation added, “I saw that and also saw that a commentator named Laura Ingarham said that LeBron James should keep his political views to himself and ‘Shut up and Dribble.’”[2]

 

A number agreed. And they didn’t like it, especially because one or two were basketball fans.

In the end, as I look back on it, I think that’s why Colleen’s advice, nay rather, rule for her children seemed so timely to me. Because people on the left and the right are just telling those who oppose them to “shut up.” But can that really help. I think when one shuts down dialogue, it only really promotes a nasty kind of overreaction, even rebellion.

Ingrid Bergman once said, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t shut up!”[3] I imagine that is why she was such a great actress. But truth, beauty, and especially freedom always seem to manage to work their way up to the surface. You can’t keep them buried for too long. LeBron’s voice was louder than ever after Mr. Ingharahm’s attempt to repress him. And however right Mr. Lemon may be on the issue of the day, it seems to me that he would be better off letting the opposition speak and oppose it on principled and well-reasoned grounds, than merely shouting it down.

So here’s to Colleen’s good choice, when it comes to her banning the “s-word.” Maybe her children will be at the vanguard of a more civil society. And if you don’t agree with me, well you can just—no not shut up. Rather, just write me an email and tell me that you disagree. Way cooler.

Pax et bonum, et licet loqui.

[1] On “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.” www.cnn.com/

[2] www.foxnews.com/

[3] quotecatalogue.com

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Primary and Secondary Motives

I imagine you’re thinking that this blog has a strange title. It sounds rather serious. “It would be nice to have a funny blog once in a while,” someone said to me in the hallway the other day. “Why don’t you tell a story about Poobar Meyers, your high school teammate, or the time you went into the woman’s restroom, then called the Ladies’ Room, when you were a lecturer visiting Rutgers University?”

Maybe a funny story can help us with both the serious title and serious idea of not imputing motives to people. In fact, I think the second of the two stories mentioned above may just fit the bill nicely. It happened when I was at the beginning of my writing career—I was writing under a different name than my family name, H.R. Jakes, in those days, but I leave that aside, as I won’t bore you with the details and you wouldn’t want to read what I was writing in those days anyway, so early in my career was it.

It was an overcast day, so I was wearing a raincoat, what in the New Jersey area was then called and may still be called a trench coat—like Colombo or Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau—and the university kindly allowed me to use their gym. Accordingly, I had shorts on under the trench coat. En route to the gym, I wanted to stop off in the library to check a reference for my talk later on that day, so in I went, locating the book I needed (in the NDs, I think, an art book). Yet when I entered the library I knew, too, that I needed to visit the men’s room.

“It’s down this way, at the end of the stacks,” said a kind librarian, by no means circumambulating when it came to such practical instructions that provided me relief as I became increasingly desperate to find latrinal liberation. And thus it was that a fool rushed in where an angel would have feared to tread, for I bounded down the hall of stacks passing P and PA, with their suggestive Library of Congress numbers only urging my desire as might the sound of babbling brook. Indeed a man slurping from the water fountain performed that very task.

Before me lay two doors, one ivory-colored, the other horn-colored. From the horn-colored door, on the right, a woman emerged from the clearly marked Ladies’ Room, so I chose the ivory door on the left. Scooching in quickly, I walked into what seemed to be a lounge of some kind, taking a hard right toward the bathroom stalls. Alas, I could find no urinals, but I remembered that the campus I was visiting, Douglass College in New Brunswick, had been a few years earlier an all-women’s school. Indeed, it technically was still so, though now, as a part of Rutgers University main campus, it was merely one of several colleges that made up an essentially co-educational university. All students, male and female, take classes on all campuses. And that is why, I quickly reasoned, there were no urinals.

I went into a stall, kicked up the seat with one foot and took care of my mild emergency, standing and, as I was in a cheery enough mood, whistling a familiar song, “Jimmy Crack Corn …,”,arguably a song of indifference or social justice. (Interpretations of the song abound; I think I was just whistling out of sheer joy at having found a toilet.)[1]

And that’s when it happened: there was a very nervous rumbling of toilet paper coming from the next stall. “Oh,” I thought, “I probably disrupted the fellow’s newspaper reading.” I half thought to apologize, but I decided that it would be too strange for me to say anything. Instead, I re-girded my athletic attire and went out to wash my hands, only to notice to my left what I assumed to be a condom dispenser. “Well,” I figured, “I suppose that’s par for the course these days on a college campus” (it was the 1990s). But upon closer inspection, as I toweled off my wet hands, I saw that it was a feminine napkin dispenser.

“Well that’s weird,” I thought. “You’d think by now they would have removed these from the men’s rooms.” And that is when, of course, it donned on me: this was no vain dream, but the gates of ivory and horn both led to the same place: I had been all along in the woman’s room. The nervous toilet papering person was a woman. My attire—seemingly nothing but socks and sneakers covered by a trench coat—must have seemed quite strange to her as she peered out through the small slit between bathroom stall doors.

So I decided to leave forthwith (of course!). But as I left from the ivory-colored door in came another woman, who looked at me dumbfounded. “Inspecting,” I said as authoritatively as I could, hoping she would not notice my legs bare save socks and shoes.

“Oh,” was all she said, and she then left.

Now my motives were pure—as pure as flowing water. But it must have appeared, of course, rather bad. Woman number one likely thought I was a pervert; woman number two knew I was a liar. Not good!

But the motives, primary and/or secondary? That’s where not judging comes in. Woman number one knew that at least one of my motives was to use the bathroom. But she might have thought that my primary, or at least secondary, motive was to be perverse, to use the woman’s room for whatever reason, probably an opprobrious one. The other woman, if she saw my unclad calves protruding from the bottom of my trench coat, probably figured on about the same thing. I never found out what woman number one looked like, so I don’t know if she came to my lecture that afternoon. Woman number two, I am glad to report, did not.

[1] Cf. John Kroes (2012): http://www.cracked.com/article_20032_5-terrifying-origin-stories-behind-popular-childrens-songs.html.