Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Self-Detoxification

In these days of relentless torrents of self-help blogs and the endless bombardment of intended-to-be-helpful-but-laboriously-over-linked Twitter posts, who wants to read another blog on self-detoxing? But, this is not a cleanse, not something you eat that makes your bowels do weird things and “cleans out” your system. That’s too gross and well beyond my purview.  No, today’s blog is not about that.

It is a well-known fact that every psychologist or psychotherapist, priest or rabbi, guru and even your local yoga instructor will tell you that to be psychologically healthy you need to forgive yourself. There’s a wellness website (and a pile of other websites like it) dedicated to that very theme.[1]  It might be harder to do if you’ve murdered someone or stolen from an elderly person than if you simply snapped at your parents or snubbed a friend or forgotten your anniversary.  But in each case, a person cannot really heal until he or she forgives himself.

Yet in a piece that I read this week[2] entitled, “The One Thing You Should Never Say to a Toxic Person,” the message was made clear in just a few paragraphs that one should never say, “I’m sorry,” to a toxic person.  Now I spent some time (maybe too much time) thinking about this. What if, I thought to myself, you do something like the things mentioned above—aside from murder, of course, for the person would, indeed, by then be dead—to that “toxic” person.  Shouldn’t you apologize?  NO! is what that article screams: under no circumstances are you to do so, because to do so means you’re “giving in to the situation.” 

And then, amidst these ruminations, I thought some more.  Who are these “toxic” persons?  And then I thought, what if I am a “toxic” person. And then I thought—clearly, I was thinking a bit too much—who isn’t a toxic person?  I mean who doesn’t do stupid things, say stupid things, behave irrationally or behave in unfriendly wise from time to time?  And then I thought of the basic problem I was having with the article—it was lumping people into categories. There’s a presumption of “us”—that’s you and me; we’re in the “good,” non-toxic category, versus “them” (the bad, toxic people that seem to intrude upon our presumably otherwise charmed lives).  That’s a good-guys and bad-guys mentality.  But are we really non-toxic, like Crayola Crayons?

When a good young man comes to Jesus in the bible and calls him “Good Teacher,” Jesus doesn’t object to the teacher bit, but he challenges the young man about the “good” part.  I won’t belabor this point; let me just say that the gist of that passage (Mark 10) is simply this: everybody is a toxic person. St. Paul says the same thing in a different way (Romans 3:23).

So, then I thought, if we are all toxic folks, and if we have to forgive ourselves, among others, to have any sort of peace in our lives, don’t we have to apologize to ourselves (and others) for our (hopefully not-too-pervasive but probably worse-than-we-realize) bad behavior?  But if we’re not allowed to apologize to toxic people then we can’t apologize to anyone, including ourselves.  And if we don’t apologize to ourselves, can we forgive ourselves?

Okay, I admit it: clearly, I have overthought this thing.  But transcending my labyrinthine ruminations and their concomitant natterings I would leave us all and myself with this challenge: let’s not look at others as toxic, but look at ourselves instead and say, you know, how can I get my own toxicity out of my life?  I think one way is to say I’m sorry whenever it’s warranted. And to say please. And to say thank you.  Elaine Jakes taught me these basics a long time ago, and, you know, I have a feeling that she was right.



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: You Just Can’t Make This Stuff Up

A fecund imagination can cook up a lot of things.  Elaine Jakes had a fecund imagination. That is, I suppose, the reason why, when she told me about her veterinarian who wore a turban and used a magic wand I was, understandably perhaps, skeptical.  Needless to say that story was true and made it into the Curious Autobiography (pages 191-94), even though I was worried at the time that no one would believe it when they read it; but, like the rest of that book, it is based on fact—I was there to witness it—because you just can’t make that stuff up.

Another story that is alluded to but not fleshed out in the Curious Autobiography is the account of the very cat that we took to that veterinarian, Piazza della Minerva, or just Piazza, for short.  (She was named after that square.) If you read what comes next, you might be disinclined to believe what this cat would do. Let me begin by saying I don’t know why the cat did these things. It was a calico, and calicos are sometimes a little weird (even for a cat). 

Cats are, I probably don’t need to tell you, not the same as dogs. Highly funded animal studies at top research show time and again that cats are not as intelligent as dogs.  But these must be wrong.  No cat I have ever had (except for Coco, who was really an unintelligent cat) has been as dumb as any dog I have ever owned.

Piazza della Minerva[1]

Now dogs are smart in a particular way.  They can learn to do certain things; they are trainable.  They can sniff like nobody’s business, and the can help law enforcement in remarkable ways. I’m not trying to put down dogs here. But cats, they are smarter because the pretend to be unteachable. They pretend a lot of things. Dogs rarely pretend, and when they do its really kind of cute, because you can tell that they are lying.  They are, in that way, very childlike.

But cats—they are good at disguising things.  Give a dog a pill and he will either eat it because it is wrapped in cheese or a slice of turkey breast, or he will spit it out right in front of you and, if he looks up at you, he will look guilty about it. Give a cat a pill, and she will carry it to some other part of the house or apartment and spit it out. She might even try to bury it under the edge of the rug, if she really doesn’t like the pill. 

And while dogs can be bad, cats can be downright diabolical.  Let us return to Piazza, for example. Somehow, and I shall never know how, Piazza used to climb up on ledges that run atop an interior door.  She would literally perch on the top of the doorframe and wait for a human being to walk beneath. And when that person did so she would leap onto the person’s shoulders.  It seemed to be some kind of game.  Most of the time she would miss and then grab onto the person’s chest with her front claws and slide down the person until about the waistline. This was disconcerting to me and my wife, who lived with the cat.  It was even more disconcerting to our guests. 

If you want, you you can buy a silhouette of a cat on your doorjam from[2]

The problem was, of course, that when the cat would grab onto us, its claws would create great furrows in our skin, usually our chests.  This was less of a problem for me, as I normally wore a button-down shirt to work, with a tie and jacket to hide my scars.  But my wife, as many women do, wore a blouse. Blouses are normally open and airy, and it is quite possible to see furrows in one’s skin when one wears a blouse. 

And of course, one has to explain furrows.  “What happened to your chest?” was the normal line of questioning that she encountered at work from a colleague, her boss, or even a customer—she worked at J.C. Penny at the time in the complaints department. (Needless to say, the folks who frequent the complaints department are a bit more direct than those who merely go shopping.)   Some people would mutter that she was “obviously self-mutilating” or “clearly having marital problems.” Still others, with the fecund imaginations with which this piece opened, made up stories about her moonlighting as a welder or as the operator of a milling machine. (This last group obviously had too much time on their hands.)

            A vertical milling machine.

Now we tried to train the cat away from this behavior, of course.  I would hold the cat aloft near the ledge and tell her, “No, bad cat. No jumping.” But it never worked. And no one ever believed us unless they came over for dinner, even though we would warn them. But then the dinner party would wear on, and we would all have a glass of wine or two and then they (and, incredibly but invariably, we ourselves) would simply forget to look up before passing through one of the door jams in the apartment. That’s precisely when Piazza would pounce. And the visitors were, needless to say, distressed, even if the cat did land successfully upon their shoulders and not cause a furrow.  Some would even cry out audibly.

Why do I tell you this story? Simply to demonstrate that if you have a cat you really don’t need a fecund imagination.  Perhaps next time I shall tell about Simone, the cat that only spoke French. There is really much more to the story than that. But that, another time, for you just can’t make this stuff up.

Simone, the French speaking cat… for another blog.

[1] Photo by Lalupa – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Fairy Therapy and Other Silly Things

If you don’t have children you may but rarely encounter truly silly things like fairies. Why?  Because unless you go to a bar and hang out with nice inebriated people—and there are all kinds of drunken behaviors, so you can’t guarantee that when you’re spending time at a bar with intoxicated folks that they will be nice—you will not usually find people being silly. Unless, of course, they are children.

Let me give you an example. Recently I was in Romania and I tried to use my credit card in a restaurant. Apparently in that country, which is otherwise quite lovely with people who are warm and friendly and prefer the color maroon to any other color (seriously, they do), if you don’t tell the waiter before you eat that you wish to use your credit card to pay, then you simply can’t do so. I do not know why this is the case. I only know that in the case of one of the restaurants in which I ate, this was most certainly the case. In any case, this produced a grumpy exchange, and left me dithering about to pay and so forth. But this is not a silly thing—it is the opposite of a silly thing. It was a tense moment.   

But had he believed in fairies, maybe he would have been less grumpy. Maybe he would have believed that a fairy spirited away with my cash, and I simply had to use my credit card. Or had he been drunk, he might have been more jovial about the whole things—jovial, that is, if he was a silly drunk. But, as I said, there are also mean drunks. So he might have become belligerent, too, if he were drunk. So alcohol, it would seem, does not guarantee silliness, if you’re hoping to find it. Yet a belief in fairies may just do that.

Take children, for example. Children normally are silly. They like to make faces, dance on their toes at random times, show you with great pride pictures that are to them accurate but to any adult obviously distorted; they seriously believe in fairies, would never deny Santa Claus’ importance, even when such unswerving belief is called out as marginal by the president of the United States. And they love animals, all animals. They love to be tickled. They are brutally honest, but literally mean no offense by their honesty. You can tell them, “Say you’re sorry,” and they will respond, “My sorry,” innocently misunderstanding your grammar. They call the grass vegetables and smile for the camera without having to be coached. Best of all, they often cannot stop giggling. And they love the idea of fairies.

Why? Because children are essentially always drunk. Their minds live in a constant state of pleasant inebriation. They find things funny that other people take for granted or haven’t thought about for years or, even when they see the silliness in them, don’t find funny. And children, like the aforementioned nicer kind of drunken people, will find the same thing funny time and again. You can amuse a child, like you can a drunken person, by doing something silly repeatedly. You don’t even have to find the thing you’re doing all that funny; but they will. And when they do, you’ll laugh, because you find it funny that they find it funny. In short, they don’t need to be told to lighten up, because they are, more or less all of the time (or at least most of the time), lightened up. 

I don’t think adults can replicate quite what children do, their semi-permanent joie de vivre, their belief in fairies or their ubiquitous cuteness. But we can lighten up. I think I will try to do at least that much in 2019, and maybe I will believe in fairies again, too. I know that sounds like a silly thing, but if it works as well as I suspect, I think I will call it Fairy Therapy. 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Tears

Virgil (70–19 BC)

In a famous verse from Virgil’s grand epic poem he has the poem’s protagonist say to his close friend, “There are tears of things, and things of death touch the mind” (1.462). Perhaps it is the most famous line in the Aeneid, though there are a lot of quotable lines from that poem.That anguish, Virgil is saying in this most quotable line comes from “things of death.” The word in Latin is mortalia, which is often rendered “mortal things.” But that word “mortal” too often simply is misunderstood as meaning “human, not divine.” But the word mortalia does not mean that: it means things pertaining to death, as in the word mortuary, mortician or the all-too-aptly-named Voldemort. This is what touches our mind: death. The ancient poet Horace, too, admonishes his reader to live mindful of how short life is (Serm. 2.6.97). The reader who takes Horace seriously will ever carry at heart the tears of which Virgil speaks.

If you’ve encountered death close at hand lately, you will know that that is easier said than done. It’s a mere platitude to be able to say, “Well, you know, keep in mind we’re all mortal.” There’s that word again: mortal. The person who has experienced grief firsthand knows that such bromides don’t get you very far in the real world when you really confront the death of a loved one. And the person who has confronted that pain knows that mortal doesn’t just mean human: it means closely connected with death. It means aware of the pain and sting of death; and that person feels that they must now and forever be sad because of that pain.

But somewhere else hope is inscribed on a page, hope that complements the rich realism of Virgil and counters the glib advice of Horace or at least of the many sympathy cards that try but fail to comfort adequately. The poet of the forty-second Psalm writes,

My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”                                 Ps. 42:3 (NIV)

This is a brutally honest description—tears as our food—followed by an equally brutally honest question, both recorded right next to each other smack in the center of the Bible: “Where is your God?” How dare people of faith mention God at a time like this, when it feels so hopeless? And yet, the psalmist knows instinctively that the only real solace not just for death but for life is that our paltry lives have meaning, real meaning. In such a circumstance the vanity of pleasure or glory have no power: they avail for naught in the face of death. Rather, only God, the One who counts up our wanderings and gathers every one of our tears into a bottle, even recording them in a book (Psalm 56:8; John 11:35), can give real comfort. He can comfort because only He can give real meaning to all our suffering, our pain, our lives and the lives of those whom we have lost.

There really are tears of things, and mortal things really do touch our minds. We can cry—it’s okay to do so; we don’t always have to “be strong.” We can be weak, too. Perhaps it is really in our weakness where we shall find more strength than we could ever have imagined. May your tears be few in this new year. But if you have them, may they have meaning, that of rich memory, real comfort and, most importantly, true significance.




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Be It Resolved


Every year your pastor or priest, if you have one, or your Rabbi, or your Imam will take a few minutes, to quip on, allude to, or at least make mention of New Year’s Resolutions.  They will probably tell you the latest statistic, that the average sincere resolution maker quits within two weeks of making that resolution.

Saint Francis of Assisi

I will not pretend here to be able to suggest precisely why we, as a species, so quickly lose our resolve, so quickly walk away from a personal commitment. I can say generally why, though: we are not perfect.  (Okay, maybe that’s pretty obvious.) And we are weak. We don’t like hearing that or admitting that, but we are. We can be tempted beyond what we think we can endure by our own strength. We can be misled by our own desire—desire for a cookie, a new car or even a new job, or even a child.

A long time ago a couple named Sarai and Abram were so misled. They wanted a child—one promised to them, mind you—so badly that they were willing to go rogue to get one. Sarai induced Abram to sleep with their servant Hagar to achieve their desired goal. The result was a never-ending rivalry that sprung up between two brothers—half brothers, at least—a rivalry for the affection of the Father that goes on, one might even argue, to this day. The point is this: our desires can make us do some pretty stupid things, things that harm others and treat others like commodities. Hagar was merely a vessel, one could say, for that couple’s desire for a child and, perhaps, the recipient of Abram’s private lust. So strong are our desires for that cookie, that car, or that relationship, or that goal, even the “good” goal of having a child. So strong.

At the end of one conference that my philologist friend goes to year in and year out there is a committee that makes resolutions about the place the conference has been held. That committee begins each statement playfully with the affirming, “Be it resolved….”  Maybe instead of personal resolutions, like resisting cookies or cars or paramours we should, this year, start a few sentences with “Be it resolved.…”  I offer a few examples:

  • Be it resolved to treat people kindly, the way I would like to be treated.
  • Be it resolved that I should deepen relationships.
  • Be it resolved that I be a better listener.
  • Be it resolved that I should be compassionate to those in need, whatever that need might be.
  • Be it resolved that I give more money to the poor than ever before.
  • Be it resolved that I have a better sense of humor and not look for offense in the words of others.
  • Be it resolved that I not do everything by my own strength, but I recognize my weakness, and trust God to fill in the gaps.
  • Be it resolved that I be all I was created to be, humbly, gently, and bravely.

May 2019 make you a bit more resolved. Happy New Year!


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Remembering

Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, perhaps for most, it is some sort of recognition of the birth of the baby Jesus. Some may think of Him as a sweet child born to a poor couple when they were engaged in a long journey, who found shelter in in a stable and used an animal trough as the infant’s first crib. They would, of course, at some level be right. Others might think of that baby as the King of Kings come to earth to begin the mission of redemption. Those who believe this have embarked on their own journey, the journey of faith. For others—thought they are not others per se, since they can indeed be a part of either of these groups—Christmas is a time to remember. It encompasses the recollection of bygone Christmases, special rituals or practices that our parents or grandparents, were we lucky enough to have them, carried out.

Perhaps they built a Christmas yard and, as my mother Elaine would do, make up a story to suit the way she constructed the yard that year. Perhaps Christmas for them involved inviting someone over for Christmas, an older couple or a single old man, like Mr. Charles Miller, who lived across the parking lot from us in New Hope (see pp. 108-114 in the Curious Autobiography; Billboard Magazine, Oct. 29, 1938, p. 12). He loved coming to our small apartment for Christmas breakfast, loved having the fellowship and conversations with us. He had been famous for composing Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, which had been a Broadway score. He was, when we knew him as our neighbor, a pensioner, a widower, I imagined at the time, probably in his early seventies, though he seemed older than that, as he suffered from some degeneration of the spine and was slightly hunched over. Mr. Miller seemed old, even smelled old to me, though I was but a lad at the time. As far as I could tell, he was more or less a recluse, or at least reclusive. He rarely had a visitor, rarely went out. But Christmas morning was something he truly looked forward to, and for at least four or five Christmases in the late sixties and early seventies, Mr. Miller was a fixture at our Christmas breakfast. He loved to recall his days as a musician, composer, and, oddly enough, as a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Browns baseball team of 1912. I don’t think Mr. Miller spoke to too many folks so, when he made his annual Christmas morning visit, it was for him truly a joyous day.

For me even as a child, that family tradition, even if somewhat short-lived, as we would move away in a few years and I never saw Mr. Miller again, gave Christmas day real meaning, a real sense of caring for another person. I remember the value of those days, the human value, itself analogous in its mercy to the mercy that the innkeeper must have shown for that young couple with a baby some 2000 years ago, and the mercy that the baby showed and shows to all humanity.

So, if you celebrate Christmas, I think you would do well, in whatever way you celebrate it, to remember. For that is a human thing, whose intrinsic value is highlighted by the transcendent mercy that showed itself in humility in a manger of old, far away, yet nearer, perhaps, than we might think.  Merry Christmas!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Visiting Ukraine

Recently I found myself tagging along again with my friend the philologist as he visited Ukraine. The Catholic University there is an amazing place—the top academic institution in the country—with a vibrant teaching faculty, a vivacious coterie of students, and a caring administration. Behind it a strong driving force has been a Harvard PhD named Jeffrey who has helped to shape and guide the university to ever higher ground, including, for its improved location, some fresh ground—literally—next to Lviv’s central park.

The beauty of the town, the joy of the students, the vim and vigor of Jeffrey himself easily outstripped my own jet-lagged energy, and in a way contrasted with it. But a deeper contrast was in the acute awareness I and, I think, everyone had of the soldiers on the other side of Ukraine fighting and dying against the pro-Russian factions (and even Russians) just as we were enjoying a lovely “dark prune” tort with raspberry tea. The blood red tea made me think of the blood being spilt by the noble Ukrainian soldiers at that very moment, the prune cake of the mire in which their bodies might just then be lying.

And as we visited church upon church, I though in brief prayers about those soldiers and about a dear friend’s mother who was even as I was praying for her dying. I thought about the inevitability of death, and that death is all around us. “Lo, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And we do walk through that valley and beneath that shadow quite often in this life, all too often. Death is ubiquitous, too close at every moment.

Alcestis Triumphs over Death; Roman Sarcophagus from Ostia; Approx. 161-170 A.D.; Rome, Museo Chiaramonti

The ancients knew this. Euripides devoted an entire drama to it entitled Alcestis, the story about a husband, Admetus, losing his wife to death only because she chose to undergo death’s penalty that her husband might live. And then it struck me: Death is seeking us to pay something, to give something back. Does he require that in return for life? I don’t think so, or at least not precisely. If that were the case we would not be so outraged by death, would not weep so bitterly; rather, Death is asking us to pay for our sins. You can see it in the sarcastic and pitiless way he looks at us. He comes with no care for “timing,” no sense of decency. Rather, he comes to punish us—not the person dying, but the people left behind—abandoned, orphaned by Death. He has come to punish us for our sins.

Which is why Euripides, as if enjoying a vision of a spiritual sea change to come, portrays Heracles defeating Death, beating him mercilessly as he deserves. In that play, Heracles brings Alcestis back to life for Admetus. And I think I know another “mythology” that teaches this same thing, boldly proclaiming redemption and resurrection as a historical event. In light of which I think that the next line of the old Psalm then makes sense: “I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Now I get it: the Psalmist is saying “Go to Hell, Death, or at least go back to Hell, for I am in a good state: ‘my cup runneth over’.” Is that the reasons those religious students at Catholic University in Lviv seemed so vibrant and alive, so optimistic even with Death knocking at another, not-so-far-away Ukrainian door? I’m not sure, but I am sure they at least know the twenty-third Psalm and, when the time comes in their life that Death draws nigh, they’ll remember what it means.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thanksgiving and Other Arbitrariness

It is that time of the year to be thankful. At Christmas it is time to be merry. At Easter, a time to … well, that depends on your perspective. After all, these are arbitrary dates. Easter moves around every year, so its arbitrariness is self-evident. Actually, so does Thanksgiving.  But Christmas, well, that one’s nailed down at least.

But the fact that we attach a certain set of feelings to each one of these holidays, if we even celebrate them at all, well, that’s either nostalgia (e.g., my mother was, after all, always quite cheery at Christmas, or thankful on Thanksgiving, etc.) or it is merely the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Black Friday is the day I always, like a lemming rushing to the sea, go out shopping for no real reason than force of habit.

But let me get back to the arbitrariness of the dates and the concomitant emotions adhering to those dates, or rather holidays. If the dates are more or less fluid and not really fixed on the calendar—indeed, most historians would not attribute the historical date for the birth of Jesus to December 25—I would here like to introduce an alternative way of thinking, and maybe even an alternative way of living. First, with all due respect to nostalgia—and I think it should sans doubte be accorded some respect—what if we really did decide to keep Christmas cheer all year round and try to be merry every day? And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, try to be thankful every day? And what about Easter? Well, that’s not so easy to define, but one adjective that comes to mind is hopeful—so hopeful it is. And what if we should try to be so every day? That would actually require us to master our emotions and marshal them, each and every day, to address the circumstances of that day. And, I admit, that would be hard. It would require of us generous forgiveness, lavish kindness, faithful optimism.  

But just imagine, for a moment, the possible outcome? We could be fun to be around (merry), gracious and generous (thankful) and optimistic (hopeful), the last of these at least within realistic parameters. That might just make us pleasant, affirming, even likeable. Now there’s an idea for Thanksgiving this year. I, for one, am going to give it a try.

Happy Thanksgiving, today and everyday…


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Exploding Wedding Dresses

Fiber optic Christmas trees have not quite become all the rage, but there is a kind of rich quality to their kitsch-ness that, if only by assonance with Christmas, seems to work.  “At any rate,” your save-the-planet neighbor will officiously muse, “At least they didn’t have to kill a tree for the holiday.”  Also, the advantage of buying a fiber optic tree, especially one that changes colors, is that you can truly astound your spouse.  I remember doing this a few years back. My wife was out of town for a conference in November.  When she returned, I had the tree all set up and decorated—not just any tree, but a brand new tacky fiber optic tree that I bought at Walmart. Her jaw dropped, and if only for that moment of something like surprise and horror combined, it was worth saving the life, as it were, of a living pine.  And virtually all of our friends and neighbors were both shocked, even mystified when during that festive season they came to our house, the house of a writer, to find the kind of tree that they felt did not befit such an “intellectual” household. The shock factor was definitely worth it.

But what could be more amazing than a fiber optic Christmas tree?  I suppose a fiber optic wedding dress could be.  Yes, they’re all the rage—or maybe they’re not, but at least as much “all the rage” as fiber optic Christmas trees are. Still, they have the advantage of 1) offending no one in these times when practically anything can offend anyone. A fiber optic wedding dress can’t really offend anyone, even if it doesn’t sit well with their taste. Certainly “offend” would be overstating merely transgressing anyone’s taste.  Even grandma will have to say, “Well, dear, that’s very twinkly,” or something to that effect.  And advantage number 2) the groom will have no trouble identifying the bride as she comes down the aisle. “Yep, that’s her,” he will think.  Thirdly, the pastor can modify his question from “Who gives this woman?” to “Who gives this radiant woman?” or the like.  And she will literally be radiant, or at least her raiment will. Fourthly, after the ceremony everyone will say, “She just glowed, didn’t she?” And they will never have to lie about that, as they will certainly mean it.

But, if she divorces and has a divorce party and decides to light her dress afire,  then she will have to be especially careful, for fiber optic dresses burn, I would wager, much more quickly than traditional chiffon or lace gowns do.  Which is a fifth reason to opt for fiber optic dresses: divorce rates could well go down, as no doubt fiber optic dresses will bear the warning label: “IN CASE OF DIVORCE, DO NO INCINERATE OR EXPLODE.” And some will even add the further admonition: “RECOMMENDED: DO NOT DIVORCE.”

So that’s the moral of this enlightening story: save a tree at Christmas and surprise your spouse (if you have one already) and, at the very least, shock your extended family and neighbors by buying a fiber optic tree. If unmarried, using that as a spring board, when you do get married, buy a fiber optic wedding dress; finally, avoid an exploding dress simply by not divorcing.  Lesson learned.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: What a Dog’s Bark Means

Ferdinand de Saussure

Words are powerful things. There are lots of theories as to why: a brilliant Swiss linguistic theorist named Ferdinand de Saussure suggested that they are significance bearers, and he distinguished between the signifier and thing signified. In as much as he sees the connection between the two as arbitrary, he never really explains the shape of words, like say why the word “bark” is used to describe the way a dog barks (where “woof” is obviously the onomatopoeic equivalent). But he did correctly talk about their capacity to carry a “sign” that points to the thing they are signifying.

The only way a word can lose significance then, is to strip it of its meaning by endlessly adding meanings to it. When I was a much younger person, at the very inception of my career as a writer, I remember distinctly being at a conference at Rutgers University in New Jersey where I heard one of the speakers explain this phenomenon: he pointed to a chair in the room and said that it could be called a stool instead of a chair because it could be used as a stool. A chair, he said, could also be a ladder, if you’re changing a light bulb, or a night table, if you keep your water glass on it at night. A chair, he said, is not just a chair and, he added, it can be quite something other than a chair. The word chair, he said, therefore has no meaning. Words, he declared, simply have no meaning per se. They are arbitrary; they are so flexible that they have lost their elasticity.

But he wasn’t finished. He went further: nothing, he said, has any meaning. And, he added, as a result, there are no laws or rules that pertain to any individual. All rules, he boldly added, are, like words, artificial constructs devoid of meaning. Life, he concluded, has no meaning. Such a point of view may sound like a grand reductio ad absurdum, and in fact it is. I should, too, note carefully here that this speaker was not kidding around: he actually meant every word he said. To his credit, he had followed the path whither it in fact leads, into the great abyss of nihilism.

I wonder, though, if words did have real meaning, where the path would lead. Put another way, one can see that “bark” can mean both the skin of the tree and what my dog does when a burglar jiggles the lock on my door, or “love” can signify the passionate act that a young couple makes as easily as it can connote the compassionate act of hugging a disabled elderly woman whom you’ve only just met in a nursing home. Yet even though the words “love” and “bark” have remarkable range, that doesn’t mean they are devoid of meaning. The man burgling my house, unless he is hearing impaired, decides to rob another house; (I have a Great Dane with a very deep and ferocious-sounding bark). The young couple doesn’t need to be told what love is, nor does the person in the nursing home receiving the hug. They know. They know because words do in fact have meaning. They bear significance because the thing they signify has meaning. The life of the disabled person has meaning. The passionate love of the young couple has meaning. And any burglar can tell you that a Great Dane’s bark most certainly has meaning.

So, I’m sorry to have to report to the famous lecturer of many years ago, that he was simply wrong. A chair can be used as a nightstand or a ladder, but it is still a chair. Words have meaning because, in fact, life does, too. And that, in case you were wondering, is the real meaning of a barking dog.