Category Archives: Blog Post

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Taxi in Italy

Oddly, I was in Italy again this week. I say oddly because, as chance would have it, I tagged along, once again, with my friend who attends those philological congresses. As a novelist and blogger, I am there just to listen and learn. I won’t bore you with the pedantic-sounding details of this particular congress, rich as it was in variant readings and passages in manuscripts that have been interpreted, reinterpreted, and often misinterpreted from antiquity to the present. “Does this Latin word end in –es or that word in –is or the same word in –os?” These are, quite literally, the kinds of things that are debated at such congresses, and add to this that there is much consternation over the new interpretation.

To make an example of what I just wrote: imagine that sentence was fragmentary and all that was left in a manuscript was something that vaguely looked like, “… over the new interpretation.” Now imagine that it was (of course) handwritten, and imagine, too, that I have, as I do, very illegible handwriting and, two thousand years from now, or even less, say a year from now, two people stumbled upon this fragmentary, seemingly hastily scribbled, sentence. One interpreter of it might say, well, “I think that it says, ‘aver the new interpretation.’ That sounds like something H.R. Jakes would write” (assuming it was even agreed upon that I had written it). Then that person might add, “He likes archaic-sounding language, and his use of ‘aver’ on this occasion fits the bill.”

Someone else might say, “No, no, this is obviously but a fragment of a much longer sentence. He probably wrote something like ‘there is much debate over the new interpretation.’”

Yet the first person might retort, “But he is a decisive writer, and I think he wrote, ‘I aver the new interpretation.’ That means he agrees with this interpretation.” And so the debate would rage, perhaps you are thinking “Yes, and quite pedantically,” yet someone else, a philologist perhaps, might find such deliberation stirring.

Yes, it was this very type of congress that I attended, and then I needed, of course, a ride to the airport, for flying out of southern Italy, particularly its mountainous regions, is not easy. The airports are near the sea, and thus if one is at all inland, as we were, one must get a ride to the coast—in my case, to the lovely zone (and airport) known as Lamzia Terme.

I had enjoyed dinner the night before with my friend and his primary contact at the university, a lovely and wise professoressa who enjoys the fortunate circumstance of studying poetry and rhetoric for a living. My friend had known of her for some time, as he had many years before reviewed one of her books and then connected with her at a conference, in France I think; I’m not sure, as he attends many of these international congresses. And so it went over dinner and drinks—a lovely conversation about the environment, philosophy, literature and, finally, even the quite serious topic of immigration and human displacement that is so sadly not just affecting the world in general but, especially, disquieting the lives of those displaced, disheartened, and often quite desperate individuals who have lost all—more often than not fleeing at the peril of their very lives. Each of us agreed as to the severity of the situation, the sadness of the lives of those involved, and the need for a fair and equitable solution.

The conversation turned from these serious, quite human but comparatively mundane topics to those of the spiritual realm. How strange, I thought, for among intellectuals the concept of a spiritual realm, let alone God, is but rarely discussed. If it is, it remains just that, a concept and an “it.” But this was an interesting conversation because the name Jesus Christ was mentioned more than in passing and not merely, as it usually is, as an expletive. Rather, the passage from the Bible that was discussed was that of Mary and Martha, and Jesus’ elicitation of Martha to be calm and listen, “To ‘be still and know that I am God,’” my philologist friend said, obviously quoting a Psalm.[1] The conversation then shifted to grace, a concept stressed, I think I might have pointed out, 500 years ago by Martin Luther, who reaffirmed the words of St. Paul, “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and not of yourselves: it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.”[2] And thus went the conversation until I, undoubtedly clumsily and characteristically off-cue, brought up the comparatively entirely mundane subject of getting to the airport the next morning.

“Oh, don’t worry, there is a taxi,” said the professoressa. “It is all arranged. You can both ride together.” (Indeed, we were on the same flight at least as far as Rome.)

“Do we pay cash to the driver—I think I’m running low on Euros?” inquireth I, in an equally tactless manner.

“No, no, no …” she said. “It is all paid for already. Just get in and enjoy the ride.”

“Coincidentally,” my friend said, “That is precisely how grace works. No need to pay the bill—that’s already been paid at Calvary. One needs simply to,” and then he paused, as I could tell he was going to quote something, and I thought he was going to say, “be still and know that I am God,” for that would have made perfect sense at this climactic moment. But instead he said, “… glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

Of course I recognized the quote, as it is from the shorter Presbyterian catechism, a beautifully concise piece of sublime theology. We all had a good laugh, thinking of how a taxi ride could be a metaphor for grace. And, by the way, I did enjoy the ride to the airport, for Calabria is stunningly beautiful, and I am enjoying that other, more sublime ride, as not only in Italy, but perhaps here somehow more poignantly than anywhere else, la vita e’ bella. Enjoy the ride; it’s paid for.

[1] Psalm 46:10.

[2] Ephesians 2:8f.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Instant Theology

Some years ago now it was John Lennon, as I recall, when he was by then a former Beatle, that recorded a song entitled, “Instant Karma.” The point of that song, I think, is that there is a kind of very swift cosmic balance of right and wrong that immediately threatens the perpetrator of evil and somehow, as a result, we all shine on. (That bit is less clear to me, though it is a nice thought). In response to which, were I to overthink it as I am wont to do, I might wish to write something like, “If only instant karma really were so, these days especially.” Yet, of course, I would not mean it. I would not like living in a world in which I immediately received due recompense for any bad thing I might have done. I think I would not last long in that universe.

I greatly prefer the grace-filled universe that I do in fact inhabit but, I admit, I could never have wished for sooner than I came to understand it. But, while that point of theology, redemption, took some time to gel in my mind—and it is indeed still gelling—another point of theology was not able to enjoy such a durative state of development, as it was attached to someone’s buttocks.

Sara Holbrook Community Center

I was reminded of the event in question only this past week when, as you might recall from last week’s blog, I visited the Sara M. Holbrook Community Center in Burlington. I mentioned in that blog that a church that my wife and I attended in the early 1980s provided food for the homeless folks who nightly lodged in that building during the long, cold Vermont winters. I believe that I may have failed to mention, however, that our church also met in that same building, leasing it every Sunday morning from the center, some hours after the homeless folks had left, though they would have been welcome to stay, of course. I don’t think many of them did.

Ray Commeret was our pastor, no doubt a man of Huguenotical descent—certainly he was so, theologically speaking. Yet I had no such luxury, having been raised Jewish. Accordingly, my newfound Christian theology was still in a state of development (and remains so, inasmuch as theological growth is requisite of theological humility). Oddly enough, Reverend Ray was not present in church that day. In fact, he was away for family reasons—something to do with his son, as I recall. We therefore had a visiting preacher, someone (equally lyrically) called Pastor Pete, if I remember correctly, a very kind man, rich in grace, robust in faith and appetite, which he demonstrated after service by scarfing several cookies and at least three not-very-good-for-you-but-churches-tend-to-serve-them-anyway doughnuts. Fortunately, Pete in no wise seemed put off by the fact that we met in a community center and not an actual church building. (Little did I know it then, but all the really great churches of which I would eventually be a part would lack for their own buildings, while the less robust churches I would attend would all have them).

Now this visitor, who as I said was very friendly, was in charge of the whole service and in fact would offer a rather long sermon. First he read aloud the scriptures, then led the prayer, and then preached, all leading up to the distribution of communion at the end of service before the final hymn. All that is good as far as it goes. And it did indeed go far—his sermon, that is, which, with all due respect to the preaching art, just droned on and on. At one point he wanted to make a point, as preachers often do, and to accomplish this he belabored the point—belabored, belabored, and belabored.

And as he preached on the key points he wanted to make—the title enjoyed a jingle such as “The Fall and the Call,” treating the doctrine of the Fall and the consequent call to follow Christ (Matthew 4:19)—the tail of his dress jacket caught the small plastic tray that held the communion bread. Now I don’t know if I have yet made it sufficiently clear, but Pastor Pete was a large man, more than triflingly overweight, with an excessively pert, even rotund buttocks that bulged quite generously and, someone might say, handsomely. The tail of his (then popular) aquamarine-blue dress jacket cascaded off that protrusion like a waterfall of finely spun material, though it functioned not as water but rather as a fisherman’s hook.

That hook caught the small plastic tray that held the communion bread.
As Pete preached, pacing hither and thither directly in front of the rather ordinary folding table that served as the Sara M. Holbrook Center’s high altar, his tails took with them the bread tray, dragging in now left, now right, back and forth, his corpulent body now obscuring, now revealing the body of Christ, each time Pete turned at each end of the table. The basket seemed to approach, turn by turn, ever nearer the table’s edge. That day, my wife and I happened to be seated quite uncharacteristically in the front row of folding chairs and thus I was nearest to the wayfaring communion bread.

All those who could see the table—nearly everyone in the room, I think—kept gazing on this spectacle, heads turning as if watching a tennis match, thoroughly astounded at the hocus pocus, as it were, of the body of Christ moving back and forth magically along the table’s edge. A relatively new convert to the faith, I had no idea whether the elements of communion were allowed to touch the floor: “Is the communion bread like the American flag so that it should never touch the ground? It must even be more precious than that.” So did I debate in my mind. Quickly prioritizing thus, I was ready to dive, if it were necessary, to save the corpus Christi, the very offering that had, in 33 A.D., coincidentally saved me.

Fortunately, Christ’s body needed no saving as eventually, by the grace of God, the coattail released its prey, like the whale opening its maw to release Jonah. I and a number of parishioners were, of course, greatly relieved at the sight—with me, I imagine, at least by proximity, being chief among them, even as Paul chief among sinners. And that was, I think, a moment of instant theology, as I had to reckon up the true value of the bread, that is the body of Christ—I would think on the wine another time. Concomitantly, I suppose, I also was able to reflect on the truism that sometimes what might appear to be happening magically right behind you can be at least as interesting as, if not more, whatever you might happen to be saying. Hoc est corpus indeed. Shine on.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Lasagna and Human Beings

By the time I studied at the University of Vermont, Sara Holbrook, who had been a professor of psychology there, had passed away years before, but her legacy remained. In 1937 she had founded the Burlington Community Center, intended to help Irish, Italian, and French-Canadian immigrants meet their own and their family’s needs and, ultimately, to obtain citizenship. Yet by the early 1980s the center, by then renamed in honor of its founder, among other things served as the city’s first emergency shelter and, in the evenings, that meant homeless folks did not have to sleep on the bitterly cold streets of Burlington in the wintertime at peril of their own life. They could, at least for the night, sleep on cots in the Sara Holbrook Center, and before bed receive a decent supper, courtesy of that shelter which was then working in coordination with various charitable organizations, chief among them at the time, churches.

That’s how my wife and I became involved with the poor, not just in Burlington but da per tutto, as they say in Italy. Yet our first exposure to folks who live on the streets was in the Sara Holbrook Center. We learned a few things there, most important among which is that homeless folks are people, real people. They’re not bums, not riffraff, not losers, though they are certainly folks down on their luck for some reason or other. But they are, first and foremost, people.

90 N. Winooski

This was evident in the eyes of one man, a gentle soul, who week by week expectantly awaited my wife’s lasagna. She made two trays of that tasty nourishment for the shelter in the tiny oven of our apartment on North Winooski Avenue—I think it had room enough for two trays—and I would deliver them on my bicycle’s back rack through the snow, in some cases, to the Sara Holbrook Center, which, located on Front Street, was not far from 90 North Winooski Avenue, but it wasn’t close either. It was far enough away that I could gain in a short time on the bike as I rode along Burlington’s frigid North Street that took its breeze straight off Lake Champlain, an appreciation of how cold it would have been later that evening for lasagna-loving Sam, or any of those folks from the Sara Holbrook Center to have to live on the streets all night long. They wouldn’t have had the advantage of keeping their body warm by peddling the bike or the heat (along with an appetizing pre-prandial odor) from the lasagna somehow creeping up the back tail of my long overcoat that I would put over the back rack of the bike so as to keep the lasagna warm en route. No, without the Sara Holbrook Center, I reckon, some of those folks would have died, frozen to death on the cold and unforgiving streets of Burlington Vermont, the state’s biggest, and really only, city—pace Montpelier.

View of Lake Champlain

Of all of the folks I shook hands with when I delivered the lasagna, which was distinctly the most popular dish among the many donations that arrived each evening, I recall Sam the best. I think his name was Sam, I hope it was, for he did not want to be forgotten. I could see that in his eyes as easily as I could sense it from his words. He wanted someone to know that he was alive. He wanted to matter to the world, even to his community, but he seemed not to know how to do that save to be the first to compliment me—for as usual, even though I was clear that I had not made the lasagna but my wife had, I got all the credit for simply showing up with what my wife had actually made—and then Sam would be the last to bid me farewell as I headed out the door to remount my bike and head home where I would find my loving new bride having prepared me my own supper. (She never got credit for that or for so many things she did then or anytime in her life, and it has never bothered her.)

“Don’t forget me,” Sam would say, either verbally or, more poignantly, with his eyes.

“No, I won’t,” I would respond, adding somewhat awkwardly, “For God has not forgotten you.” Yet secretly I wondered about that. How could this man have found his way to this point in his life?

Then I remembered that he was a human being, and that Christ himself taught very clearly that is not one’s proper business to judge one’s fellow human being, but rather to care for that person.[1] I learned then what I now know but must be reminded of every day, that folks different from me, however different they may be, however strange the twists and turns of their life might appear to have been, are in fact my brothers and my sisters. We are all in this human endeavor together. And the key to understanding that, or perhaps just the beginning of it, might just be, to quote another wise teacher (in this case not Jesus but Garfield), lasagna.

[1] Matthew 7:1.

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Struck While Jogging? No, But After

Sirens, police cars, stopped traffic—that’s what I saw and heard as I jogged along the Potomac for part of my run along the mall in Washington, D.C. For a moment or two I was struck by it all, and I thought that something of crisis-like proportions must have occurred; yet soon I reminded myself that in a big city, sirens are a pretty common occurrence and do not necessarily portend a major disaster.

Until my run that morning I had never seen the Lincoln Memorial, though like all Americans I know what it symbolizes. It was completed in the early 1920s and houses the famous statue of Lincoln, whose design by Daniel Chester French was executed by the Piccirilli brothers, American-born sons of the well-known Italian sculptor Giuseppe Piccirilli, who emigrated from his native land in the nineteenth-century. The building itself, which evokes the greatest of Greek temples, the Parthenon, is the work of the architect Henry Bacon. But these are all details gathered easily enough from the official website.[1]

As I jogged up that monument’s steps, I somehow had a feeling that I had been there before, though in fact I never had. Yet I could feel the pulse of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I had not realized until I was writing this was actually delivered when I was but a small child. I have no personal memory of that speech, but the very sound of Reverend King’s words are nonetheless vivid in my mind and I savor his powerful, grand and inspiring tone, and relish the cultural memory.

The Jefferson Memorial was more beautiful, I thought, delicate and less imposing that the powerful and more substantial Lincoln Memorial. What these structures and the Washington Monument across the Potomac’s tidal basin from the Jefferson Memorial all mean, however, is much more important these days than perhaps ever before. They would seem to symbolize the best about our country, the potential for our country to be united, to set better goals and to seek to achieve better ends. The harsh words, the virulent and palpable hatred of our politicians these days, the political squabbling that has virtually immobilized our country, as well as our government’s out-of-control spending—all of that clashes badly with what these monuments mean, what they preserve.

That this is the case became clearer to me after my jog when I returned to my hotel. I was on my way to a conference on the challenges of secularism to religion.[2] Representatives of the three major monotheistic religions were sitting on a podium and discussing intelligently the issues that each of their faith traditions face in an increasingly secularized society. Now there were a lot of things that struck me that day, from early morning police sirens to the monuments that I saw on my six-mile jog, culminating with that interfaith dialogue, and I could wax poetic or at least prosaic on any number of them. But let me choose just one, the last of these.

Here sat three leaders from three different faiths—a rabbi, a sheikh, and a prominent Roman Catholic[3]—on a stage before an audience that I imagine was as amazed as I was to listen to these tremendously wise men, one of whom was in town also to receive the Irving Kristol Award.[4] There was no wrangling, no arguing, no vitriol, but rather profound respect for one another and each other’s religious traditions. And this was taking place in Washington D.C., the city of spleen. These men understood the significance of the monuments on the mall. The contrast between the bickering and back-biting of current leaders in of our country who, though they represent different parties, presumably hold a heart the commonweal and these men, whose religious differences are presumably greater than any political divide, could not have been sharper.

And that’s what struck me after I spent a day running around the monuments, struck me harder than anything I saw that day: respect, admiration and cooperation. Can you imagine? Now that would be striking.

 

[1] https://www.nps.gov/linc/learn/historyculture/memorial-features.htm.

[2] https://www.baylor.edu/washington/index.php?id=944857

s[3] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (President of Zaytuna College), and Professor Robert George (Princeton).

[4] The highest award given for by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

New Hope, Pennsylvania is known for, among other things, ghosts. There is the ghost that is said to haunt the Inn at Phillips Mill, a ghost that rocks in a rocking chair and, it is said, occasionally steals delicious treats from the pantry of the famous restaurant of the Phillips Mill Inn, which is among the very best restaurants in Bucks County.

Now there are undoubtedly some who do not know Bucks County, Pennsylvania. That county is one of the three famous original tracts of land that William Penn created in 1682. He named it after his native Buckinghamshire, and he himself dwelt in that county’s small hamlet known as Falls. A school district not far from Oxford Valley (known as Pennsbury) is named after William Penn’s own nearby villa of the same name. Some of the towns of the county bear names also drawn from the English countryside, prominent among them (and proximate to New Hope), Solebury.

But all that is off the topic, for we are concerned with ghosts. The ghost of the Inn at Phillips Mill is one thing—it is a sweet-eating ghost, and likes to rock in a rocker. So everyone’s assumption is that it (he? she?) is overweight and probably badly out of shape. No one has actually ever seen its silhouette, but the facts speak for themselves. The missing desserts, sometimes amply missing, are a clear sign, and the self-propelling rocker, too, seems to have more wear and tear beneath its rocker rails than should be caused by a lightweight ghost. Thus, that rocker’s ghost is most assuredly weight challenged. I say this not to “fat shame” him or her; I merely state the obvious.

The ghost of the Logan Inn, by contrast, I personally believe to be spurious. I say this with all due respect to the former owner, whose mother’s soul this ghost is said to embody (if embody is quite the right word, which I doubt). That ghost, whose name is said to be Emily, may or may not be a psychological projection of the former owner. What is the evidence? First, ghosts rarely have names unless they are quite famous ghosts. Second, there is no proof of this ghost’s existence, other than a few creepy apparitions in a mirror of room #6 at that famous inn. Those could have been reflections of light or mere figments of the viewer’s imagination. I have no idea, but I only know what I’ve heard on the street. The entire affair sounded to me too far-fetched to be true. Yet even as I write this, I fervently hope not to be offending that ghost, should it exist, as an offended ghost is an unsafe ghost. Indeed, now that I think about it, why am I calling Emily into question? Perhaps it is my own psychological issues that make me question a perfectly good ghost story. Yet, admittedly, in Emily’s case, the evidence is lacking.

But the story of Aaron Burr in his underwear is, I believe, better documented. First, no one denies that Aaron Burr, then vice president, was on the run after his duel with Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton, who had purposely missed Burr, died the day after the duel. Burr, for his part, did not, of course, miss Hamilton and was charged with the murder; nonetheless, he was eventually acquitted of the charge and was able to serve out his term. Afterwards Burr tried to make Louisiana into a separate country, but failed to do so and eventually fled to Europe before being acquitted again and returning to New York. So why his ghost would be in New Hope is unclear, and why it is consistently said “to be seen in its underwear” is, perhaps, at least on the surface also unclear.

Unclear to those who don’t know the full story, that is. That story runs as follows: When Burr was on the lam in New Hope en route south, he stayed in a small inn (now known as the Aaron Burr House).He had, perhaps out of fear during the duel or simply for other unknown reasons, soiled his pants. On the days that he stayed clandestinely in New Hope, just after the duel, which took place on 11 July 1804, he sent his pants and first pair of undergarments (for he had two) out to be cleaned. But then there came a loud knock on the door of his room in the tiny inn, which is located at 80 West Bridge Street in New Hope. And there he was, sitting in his armchair in the room, smoking his pipe, reflecting on the difficult events of the previous day. He was, naturally enough, forlorn, a broken man, for he had by then learned that Hamilton had purposely missed him. He fervently wished that he could go back in time, undo the stupid duel (for he was already thinking of the entire affair as stupid), and could just go back to Washington D.C. to serve out his term as vice president.

But time had marched on, and his valet had marched off with his pants. And now someone (he never found out who—a reporter perhaps?) was knocking at the door. And he was dying of shame and, of course, embarrassment for not having brought with him an extra pair of pants—so hasty had been his flight. And so, he climbed out the window and in so doing actually fell to the ground—an entire floor below! His heart actually stopped from the shock of the fall but, within a few seconds, started to beat on its own again. (That is the only cogent explanation as to why his ghost haunts New Hope and not New York, where he died years later a second time, for ghosts of people who die twice can choose whichever of the two locations they would prefer to haunt).

And, of course, because he died the first time in his underwear, that is all the ghost is allowed to (or, I am told wants to) wear. And many people have seen this ghost, not in the Aaron Burr House but only in the nearby street, West Bridge Street, late at night. I cannot verify beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is the case, in no small part because I now live in Texas, but that the last time I was there that was the scuttlebutt on the streets of New Hope, and I for one am inclined to believe it. Indeed, why shouldn’t I? I’ve walked by that house many time as a lad, and I always, every single time, got a chill down my spine, even in the hot summers that often occur in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. So, if you see a ghost in his underwear in New Hope, you’ll now know whose ghost it is—none other than that of Aaron Burr.

Happy Halloween! Beware of or, perhaps better,
be on the lookout for, ghosts!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Is Shakespeare Dead?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1][1] Easily found at pagebypagebooks.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Sword of Damocles, Richard Westall (1812)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/why-i-wont-teach-abstinence-to-my-son-dncp/

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cake

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

“What do you mean?” I queried.

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

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

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

“Cake?”

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

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

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

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