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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?).

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Wealth and Hurricanes

He “loves like a hurricane,” says John Mark MacMillan in a contemporary Christian song, referring to God. These days, with images of Harvey and Irma fresh in our minds, such a simile is indeed frightening. Such love does not immediately give the hearer peace of mind. It bends him, twists her; it is violent, uncontrolled; it is superabundant, dangerous.

A recent article described women valuing wealth more than men primarily for a surprising reason. While men would prefer to have money to splurge on material things, luxuries, sports cars, etc., women would prefer to have it for “security.” Most women would forego shopping, plastic surgery, and even a fancy vacation (though of course those who love travel would consider the last of these) to obtain this savings. The gist of the article is this: women are more sensible than men and would like simply to streamline their life, making it less hectic, more livable. “On average,” Julia Carpenter, the article’s author, writes, “the women surveyed said they’d consider around $2.4 million the number required to be considered ’wealthy.’ That’s nearly 30 times the net worth of U.S. households.”

The last bit of this jumped off the page at me, that figure of thirty times the net worth (net worth is not just liquid assets but everything combined, after debts are subtracted). The use of a calculator quickly reveals that such a figure means the net worth of the average household is $80,000. That is not one individual—that’s a family’s net worth. I verified this by a quick Google search.[1] While I could not find a definitive number for global net worth, it is apparent that that figure would be significantly lower than the average American household’s eighty grand. Quite significantly.

Not that I am against peace of mind—nearly everyone recognizes that having some savings is a good idea, as one should, if it is possible, be sensible. But amassing most of the money in the world—the top 1% has between 33 and 42% of it; the exact numbers are disputed[2]—how is that a good idea? Does everyone have to be Bill Gates? And anyway, how can one feel the hurricane’s force when bunkered in an entirely safe wine cellar on a private island?[3]

Which brings us back to John Mark MacMillan’s song. I suppose women are more sensible than men in wanting enough wealth not to have to worry constantly about how to make the bills. But the number that the article says they advanced—2.4 million—such a figure goes well beyond worrying about paying the electric bill.

Thus I close with this thought. When the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, their God offered them manna every day, gratis, poured down on the gentle winds of heaven, a provision, a blessing given to the people of God in time of need. But there was a condition: one could not gather more than one needed, except that he or she might not have to work on the Sabbath day. What a strange thing, when one thinks about it. God giving provision mercifully, every day; to turn the formula around, we, if we believe in him, receiving all that we need from his hand, every day. Does that preclude our working hard? No, of course not, for the notion of the manna is not a literal lesson—one eats heavenly provided food only—but rather a symbolic one, just as the hurricane is a symbol for the powerful love of God, a frightening one, these days.

I end this blog with this thought—the wind can come and blow away wealth, not just houses. That means that real peace of mind isn’t available to us, whether we are men or women or an entire household, by over-amassing wealth but instead, perhaps, only by feeling the wind, being aware both of its power and the provision that the winds of heaven can confer upon us, like manna. And if we have extra manna, maybe we should share it with those in need, like those now in the path of Irma or the wake of Harvey.

May those who have suffered from those hurricanes find that peace now, may they sense God’s grace in the midst of trouble and be provided earthly provision by those who care. May they, and all of us, find the peace of mind that doesn’t come with wealth, but comes from knowing that He who made the wind and the stars is with us in the darkest hours.

[1] https://www.fool.com/retirement/2017/07/03/how-does-your-net-worth-compare-to-that-of-the-ave.aspx

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/03/brookings-1-percent/473478/

[3] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/08/richard-branson-survived-hurricane-irma-on-necker-island.html

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History

Each one of us has a personal history, and amidst that history is a story. I can recall very well in the nineties, when I thought the politically correct movement was at its highwater mark—never could I have anticipated the inundation of our current day, so high up on the mountain that its waters have created a generation of snowflakes—that some wanted to make a false etymology of history and create a category called herstory; i.e., the important contributions women have made to the world. The spirit of that venture was, of course, quite well justified: how often women are ignored, how often their talents and accomplishments are overlooked because of piggish, sexist attitudes that are, all too often, endemic to any given culture. And as much as has been accomplished, in part driven by a strong politically correct agenda, there is yet more to do. A woman is too often underpaid for the same work as a man—need I even mention (quite liberal but apparently not liberated) Hollywood as the locus classicus for this imbalance?

Yet the larger history—the one that is both ugly and beautiful, noble and ignoble, joyous in victory and often sad in defeat—that history, the one related not to “his” and “hers” but to the Greek word historia, meaning “witnessed events,” things that were seen (derived from the word eidon, the aorist of the Greek verb horao, meaning “see”), is another matter. It isn’t biographical, as “his” or “hers” might be. It is rather a wider narrative, involving men and women, social trends, economic trends, technology, even animals—need I mention the Zion Mule Corps at Gallipoli (Curious Autobiography, p. 256)? It can be looked upon askance, it can be extolled, it can be argued over and, most importantly, it can be learned from. But it can’t be unwritten.

Which brings us to Frank Rizzo. Elaine Jakes was no fan of Frank Rizzo. Though she lived in New Hope when he was the hardball mayor of Philadelphia, she and a number of other folks in that distant Philadelphian suburb felt that he was, by extension, their own mayor, as Philly was the nearest big city to Bucks County. Frank Rizzo is dead now, long dead, and though his body lies decaying in the grave, his aura, it would seem, has not passed away. There is a statue in Philadelphia to that former mayor, and a large mural on the wall of an apartment building. Yet it has become the fashion to deface such monuments, particularly if they are images of folks with whom you might disagree. Even if the vast majority of those protesting the mayor’s statue never knew him as mayor, or never knew him at all. I understand, of course, that Delbert Africa, was beaten badly when Mr. Rizzo as mayor ordered the eviction of the Move members from their squalid abode. But I rather would love to know if, when they are protesting, the vast majority of the protesters actually know about Delbert Africa, and even if they do, what removing Mr. Rizzo’s statue will accomplish. With the removal of Mr. Rizzo’s statue, to some extent we also remove the memory of Mr. Africa, and we remove dialogue about Mr. Rizzo’s legacy that is likely to have been both good and bad. We do not change history; rather, we suppress dialogue about it. If that’s not quite removing history, it is certainly whitewashing it.

Take God, for example. Perhaps one can see, after Hurricane Harvey, why someone might blame God for these disasters—certainly, if he is the God associated with the Bible, he could have prevented Harvey from ever happening. And it’s easy to blame God and religion for nearly all the atrocities that humans inflict upon each other. Don’t competing religions, after all, produce conflicts? Wasn’t Christianity responsible for the Crusades? Aren’t many of the terrorists of today, in places like Ireland at least, Christians? Isn’t at least some of the bombing that goes on nowadays done by radical Muslims, for example? Thus, one solution that some have advanced is simply to remove any hit of God or religion from monuments, schools, mottoes. Surely removing God from a motto, as Harvard did for its own in 2011, is more likely to produce a fundamental shift in society than simply pulling down a statue of Frank Rizzo or Robert E. Lee, for that matter.

Pulling down a statue of Robert E. Lee

Not that Frank Rizzo and Robert E. Lee are really all that comparable, other than the fact that both of their statues have come under fire—one actually already toppled, the other likely soon to be. I base this lack of comparability not on Elaine Jakes’ dislike of Mayor Rizzo, but on her admiration for General Lee, even though she obviously disagreed with him on the issue of slavery. Though she herself was quite unpolitical and, if anything, rather left-leaning and quite hopeful when Mr. Obama was first elected president. Elaine believed fervently that one could disagree with someone but still respect them or at least respectfully discuss their legacy. She saw the good of and, to some extent, contributed quietly to what was called the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s. She greatly admired Martin Luther King Jr. She loved the Kennedys and the democrats of the 1960s, save President Johnson. She even threatened to move to Canada when Mr. Nixon was elected president in 1968. (I was young and didn’t understand that she was only joking; when I went to school and told my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, that we were moving to Canada she had a going away party for me in mid-November of 1968. Poor Mrs. Hendrickson never understood why I never left.)

But Elaine never thought for a moment that you shouldn’t even listen to the other side. Had she had such an attitude, she herself would never have changed her opinion on the abortion issue (cf. Curious Autobiography, p. 100) or any other. She never thought that a statue of someone you might have disagreed with should be pulled down. She hated racism, despised and resisted what she would have called “male chauvinist pigs” (and Mr. Rizzo likely qualifies under both of these categories) and would speak up for the oppressed at any and every turn. But she did not and would never have advocated rewriting—or worse—suppressing history. There are lessons embedded in our history, lessons we can only learn if we acknowledge the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the insipid and intelligent in history. These things, the Greeks would remind us, are not myths but they were witnessed. We have written testimony about those who witnessed them. They are not matters of opinion, like “God must not exist because there was a flood or an earthquake.”

No, history is something that was witnessed and, for better or worse, is something to be remembered. Monuments can be despised, but do they need to be removed? Not if we are to remember our history, for history is a shared experience with good and bad, a positive and negative legacy for all, not just for some. If we lose our shared history, we shall never, I ween, have a shared future. May that future be our shared story, as well.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dragon in the Sky

Well, I’ve been traveling … which explains the dearth of blogs for the last couple of weeks. It has been a ridiculously busy time. I would love to tell you that I have been busy because I am a spy for the United States government, but that information is classified, of course. So I won’t. Rather, I will tell a story that I heard during my travels, one that was recounted to me over dinner, to be specific. The dinner was at a delightful restaurant in Geneva, La Brasserie des Halles de I’île, an attractive place with a superior view of the inception of the western half of the Rhône, the lovely river that feeds and is fed by Lake Léman (known as Lake Geneva to much of the Anglo-speaking world).

Ah, how delicious was the dinner there, opening with a few glasses of prosecco and exquisite hors d’oeuvres including bits of Neufchâtel with tasty biscuits and various salami-like products typical of the region, then a remarkable salad—which is more or less difficult, I think, for a salad to be—followed by the piece de resistance, the plat (a succinct yet decorous word for main course). For me, le plat consisted of a succulent steak and scalloped potatoes made with gruyère cheese. I’m not a person inclined to take photographs of food or I would have included one for you here. Rather, let me simply say that it was delicious, as was the view of the gushing, even rapacious Rhône, greedily rolling along and grabbing at both sides of the tiny islet that the two principal portions of Geneva bestraddle.

Rhone river at dusk in Geneva

And that’s when he told me the story of his name, which in Korean means “Dragon in the Sky.” The Korean word for dragon is Yong, and the phrase Dragon in the Sky, when transliterated, is something like Yong-ui Haneul-e. That is his name in Korean. But, of course, being a writer, I had to know more. How did he get this name? (Paradoxically, with a name like Homer, I became a writer. I say paradoxically, because like Jesus and Socrates, Homer was a quite extravagant storyteller not a writer per se.)

Fortunately Yong was willing to tell me a bit of his story. He received the name because his mother had had a dream when she was pregnant with him about a dragon riding on the clouds. This was perceived by her as a significant story, one that might well have bearing upon his life. And thus she named her son for the principal character in that dream. And how did that affect him? I queried. Indeed, it seemed to him that the name had had some influence on his life.

Yong had become a Hapkido master (one of the more prevalent martial arts in Korea), learning the art from an early age because he was in a difficult environment as a child. As he mastered the art, he used it entirely for self-defense, only when several young men tried to threaten him. Like a karate master one might see in a movie, Yong managed to take on several youths at once and teach them a serious lesson about picking on smaller lads like him a school.

But his real challenge came when he had recently married. He and his new bride, on their honeymoon I believe, happened upon a cow pasture. Now I didn’t think to ask why, precisely, he was in a cow pasture with his new bride (his second marriage, as his first wife had passed away). I simply thought, “That seems odd,” but left it at that.

Indeed, it was odder than merely odd. For whatever reason they happened to be there, Yong and his new bride, Brenda, mistakenly thought that they were in a cow pasture. They imagined that the “cows” they saw in the distance were steer—neutered, gentle steer—grazing as they ambled along. But within a few minutes of their cutting through the field, Brenda and Yong noticed that at least one of the “cows” was neither a cow nor a steer, but a bull. Yong continued to call it an angry cow through the rest of the conversation; I corrected him at least twice, explaining that a cow with testicles is not an angry cow—it is a bull. And an angry bull is a very, very dangerous proposition. This much I recall very well from Elaine Jakes’ farming years (the second bit of chapter 9 in The Curious Autobiography).

And then the worst thing that could happen happened: the bull came romping toward them across the pasture, even as they were still a long way away from the other side of the field. Yong told Brenda to continue on and that he would distract the “angry cow.”

As she hurried toward the gate, Yong turned to face the bull. He assumed the proper Hapkido pose (if there is a Hapkido pose proper for addressing a raging bull). Perched on one foot, with one leg slightly extended forward and hands in strike position, he awaited the animal, which was now pawing the ground before him, preparing to charge. And that’s when it must have happened. The bull must have seen Yong not as Yong but as a dragon, indeed a dragon in the sky. He must have, for as he charged, just 10 feet or so away from Yong, who was ready to deliver a powerful roundhouse kick to the bull’s head just below the left horn, the bull stopped. He stopped on a dime, planting his front hoofs firmly in the dirt of the pasture, casting up a small cloud of dust, and shockingly, amazingly, and quickly coming to a dead stop. The bull just looked at Yong and then began to look slightly over his head, higher and higher until it seemed that he was looking at the clouds above. Was it an angel that he saw, preventing Yong from meeting his Maker right then and there? Or was it a Dragon in the Sky?

I don’t know, but I leave it for you to ponder. If it seems incredible to you, consider this: What are the chances of hearing that story in a restaurant know as La Brasserie des Halles de I’ile when eating a delicious dinner on the banks of the Rhône in Geneva, Switzerland? I think they are relatively small. Small, yes, but perhaps no smaller than a bull coming full stop because it thought it saw a dragon in the sky.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Who Made Manna?

Raphael’s “The Mass at Bolsena” (1512–1514)

I was recently in Orvieto, in whose Duomo is the corporal[1] upon which the miracle of Bolsena is said to have taken place. That miracle is the blood that dripped, it is said, from the host when a priest, who personally doubted the notion of transubstantiation, experienced a miraculous event when he broke the host. Orvieto thus became the seat of the festival of Corpus Christi, a feast day that it shares and always shall with the scenic lakeside town of Bolsena.

“I am Catholic and even I don’t believe that,” a friend of mine said over dinner. I thought little of his remark at the time, but a few days later I wondered why he does not believe it, for my personal reasons for not believing it have nothing to do with the fact that it is a purported miracle. My basis for unbelief in the event has to do with my Protestant understanding of Christian doctrine based on the final words of Christ on the cross, not because a miracle can’t or didn’t happen in Bolsena.

In fact, were I God, I could hardly imagine a more scenic place for a miracle than Bolsena. But that has nothing to do with the notion of a miracle. Rather, miracles, whether orally (or artistically) transmitted, like that of the host of Bolsena, or recorded in Holy Writ, like that of the miracle of manna come down from heaven to feed the hungry Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness, simply require a bit of faith, but with that bit of faith added, do tend to make sense in a world that is otherwise too often senseless without them.

Now one could say that I am probably overthinking this, and I probably am, especially inasmuch as one certainly could call, pace Raphael, the miracle of Bolsena merely a minor one. It is, after all, only a miracle that is said to verify a point of Catholic doctrine, not one that healed the sick or raised the dead. But however that may be, it got me to (over-)thinking, and I found myself pondering miracles in general. Thus I wondered whether, were there to be someone who did believe in a minor miracle of any kind, what might that same person do with the major miracles? I have in mind those such as the miracle of the manna recorded in the book of Exodus. That miracle itself prefigures, if not the miracle of Bolsena per se, at least the central feature of it, the Bread of Heaven, which all Christians, whether trans-, con-, or a- substantiators, agree is in some sense the body of Christ. (Those who believe in the real presence, in down and under the bread, I personally think, are closer to the truth; those who do not are not. But that is, to my mind, adiaphoristic in the greater scope of things and certainly will be resolved on the other side of the Jordan, where “real presence” will be played out at a new level).

And thus to return to the manna specifically. The symbolism of manna itself, bread from heaven, struck me, as I pondered it, working backward from Bolsena to the exilic wilderness of the Israelites. It seemed to me to be particularly central to Christian thought, for at the center of the Lord’s Prayer lies a petition specifically for a more mundane kind of manna: “Give us this day our daily bread.” That centrality, that powerful, real sustaining presence of God through bread and wine in our life, to give our bodies true blood and corporal form are not unrelated. The miracle can be fancy, like manna from heaven, or humble, like daily bread, but it is a miracle nonetheless, sustained evidence of a God who is capable of miraculous events, even as that of Bolsena, which I paradoxically don’t believe in, as I said at the outset. But the reason for my skepticism is not because the event itself is said to be miraculous but rather because of Christ’s final words, “It is finished.” And with that, I will parrot those words, for this blog is, likewise now finished, with a hope for you and me and a world that needs them but deserves them not, the continuance of miracles among us.

[1] About that they even made a movie, “The 33.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Until I Had a Balcony

Never until I had a balcony in Viterbo did I understand why there is an eye on a dollar bill. Now I know this connection is preposterous. I know that the reason there is an eye on a dollar bill is, conspiracy theorists attest, because the Masonic League or the Knights Templar held the image of the all-knowing eye of God to be among their most prominent symbols. I’m not so sure. However that may be, certainly the symbol intrigued Benson Lossing who crafted the seal on the dollar in the years leading up to 1856 when it was first published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.[1] But that’s not what I mean. Rather I mean this: when you have a balcony in an inexpensive but lovely hotel in Viterbo, like the Hotel Tuscia, you see things you would never otherwise see, as if you were the eye of God.

Or, in fact, maybe you just hear them. For as I am writing this I am obviously looking at a computer screen, but I am taking in sounds, sounds coming from the nearest piazza, Piazza San Faustino, where a far from flawless cantor, if perhaps he is not so bad—he is, after all, a young man—is singing popular (I assume) Italian songs. I know enough Italian to know that most of them are about love (predictably). And I felt like, for a moment, Superman hovering over the earth and taking it all in, listening to a lone singer of love amidst a world in need of such singers, a world in need of love songs; for it is a world, indeed, in need of love.

Piazza San Faustino

I say this because, just after getting off the train from Rome, where I passed a lovely and culturally rich day touring the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and meeting a few powerful folks, a senator and a congressman—please don’t ask me how this happened; but if you want to know how things like this happen to me, read the final chapter of the Curious Autobiography, the bit on Vegas, for that should do it—I passed by the bus stop near Porta Fiorentina where a number of Africans were waiting for the bus. “Why were they waiting?” a friend of mine asked later. I tried to explain that they were likely “indentured,” a polite word for humans, in sinister wise, being trafficked. The sadness of these folks’ plight choked the culture, the richness, and the hope out of me in less than ten seconds. I wanted to stand at the bus stop with them. I wanted to play soccer in the park with them the next day. I wanted to participate in their sufferings as a little Christ, for the larger, more perfect version has more than participated in all of ours.

But that’s theology, and I don’t want to move in that direction. Rather I want to return to the singer in the piazza at the top of the block; for after a short break his song began to fill the square again. Ah, love again, and again, and again, for that is his solitary theme. Yet I couldn’t help think of the men gathering by Porta Fiorentina to ride the bus day upon day. How can I, or anyone, let them know that that same theme, if to a slightly different strain, is God’s very song, too? I don’t know. But I do know that, though I know not how, I want to participate in their sufferings that I might fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.[2] Can there really be anything lacking in that? I doubt as much—but perhaps just the message, the message of the singer, not always in tune, but beautiful, as I listen to it now from a balcony of a hotel in Tuscia, fittingly named, Hotel Tuscia. In closing, let me send you some blessings from Italy, from Tuscia, a place that is not quite Tuscany, not quite Rome, but rich in lovers’ songs and offering hope, I hope, to those without any, all under the Tuscan sun, under the all seeing eye of the One who truly sees and suffers with all humankind, and all this, just under my balcony.

[1] Cf. http://greatseal.com/ for a description and history of the seal.

[2] Col. 1:24.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Miners of Shaft 17

French, Welsh, Cornish, English … Here’s a little of each from The Curious Autobiography:

The evidence that James was as good a lunchtime cook as he claimed was noticeable in the miners themselves, for within two years’ time, not a single miner at Shaft 17 packed his lunch, all preferring to buy it from James Jakes’s vending cart. . . .

Further evidence that James was a good cook could be found not only in the fact that the miners stopped bringing their lunches—which engendered not a little friction between those husbands and their wives, particularly among the younger couples—but also in the miners themselves, whose appearance was surprisingly different than the other miners fed at the mouths of the other mine shafts, who brought with them their typical lunch of a pasty (pronounced with a short –ă-, as in “has” not “paste”), the origin of which lunch item is of course not really Welsh but Cornish. The Cornish called these pasties “hoggan.” When the Welsh miners (or, more specifically, when their wives) got hold of that particular food, however, to make it their own, they seemed to have employed the now widely disseminated word “pasta,” which by that time, even in Italy, had begun to serve as an all-purpose word for various different kinds of food. Suddenly, the Cornish “hoggan” was the Welsh “pasty,” with no credit whatsoever given to the Cornish at the time; the pages of history were corrected only later in cookbooks published by honorable Welsh chefs, who felt guilty about the theft of one of the most common lunches prepared by the hands of honest, hardworking Welsh wives. But it was most certainly not pasties that James Jakes made as his specialty, for while a pasty will put meat on the miner’s bones, it won’t thicken him up the way James’s cooking clearly did. James’s specialty was ragoût de veau, a delicious veal stew, the recipe for which had been handed down to him by his father, Charles, who did some of the cooking—especially on special occasions—in the Jacques household, over the not-occasional objections (but to the epicurean delight) of Charles’s wife, Ruth (née Priestman), James’s mother. She was a woman of great faith but of ordinary culinary skill; her specialty was “Missouri” (also known as “Missouri Casserole”), a dish that became my personal specialty dinner, as I had about as much a knack for cooking as my great-grandmother Ruth—edible, quite; delectable, not quite, but rugged, rustic, and good. Missouri consists of ground beef (at bottom), precisely cut slices of peeled potatoes, equally precisely cut onions, and diced tomatoes. James Jakes, however, inherited his father’s unique culinary knack. Accordingly, James expanded his repertoire to include noix de veau Brillat-Savarin, which involved much more than warming some flavorful veal joints. Rather, add to that ample foie gras (which, beyond its use in Strasbourg pie, can be an excellent flavor enhancer for a number of dishes), bacon strips, morel mushrooms, and other various vegetables (chief among them carrots), all in savory béchamel sauce, with a few shallots added at the last minute, to taste—one should always be careful with onion products; perhaps, he added them a bit earlier than the last minute. Of course, the vital ingredient that he added—the key ingredient of any true French chef—was butter. All this on three substantial saucepans cooking on three portable Soyer (which he pronounced in the French fashion, “soy-yeah”) stoves, all at once, with sizable chunks of real French bread—surprisingly, the Welsh miners loved the French bread, for the supply of which my grandfather found a young baker who had a small bakery in Kingston at 334 Pierce Street—put on the side of each plateful served. And these were only two of his numerous French feasts. Among others, one could also find poularde Talleyrand Escoffier (a French dish paradoxically coming from London, a new dish at the time of my grandfather’s culinary apex). On top of all this, even during the dark years of prohibition he discreetly provided for his best customers a small glass of red wine, gratis—small because they had to go back to work, of course. The miners’ wives had no way to compete with these hot dishes, the French bread, or the occasional glass of vin rouge. Although Grandfather James Jakes’s business admittedly never made a great deal of profit—for the overhead for such a miner’s lunch was, one can imagine, high—he did feed the miners well, so well, as I was saying above, that the miners of Shaft 17 had a different appearance from the other miners. That difference could be measured in terms of their size, for they were slowly but surely becoming more and more corpulent. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the miners of Shaft 17 gained, on average, a solid three inches around their waist per year, stuffed as they were with my grandfather’s scrumptious French cuisine. This led to upheaval because Shaft 17 was the only functioning mine shaft in the history of the Wyoming Valley that had to be recut to accommodate its workers. Furthermore, a greater number of the miners of that shaft had to see their church rectors for marriage counseling than any other shaft. Such was the depth to which my grandfather’s cooking led the miners to descend. Fortunately, I learned from that side of the family not the way of cooking à la française but only the Missouri recipe of James’s good wife, Ann, who was also not Welsh.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Taking Chances

I had a longish, sc. longer than short but shorter than long, talk with a friend this week about taking chances. He was on the verge of taking a chance—doing something entirely out of the ordinary for him here in Italy—meeting up with a relatively famous person and having an extended conversation with the person, a well-known doctor, about the practice of medicine in Italy. He wanted to do so because he will be practicing medicine very soon in the U.S. So it was a chance for him to compare notes, as it were, with this doctor, a neurologist, about neurology back home in America and neurology here in Italy. But he was, naturally enough, a bit concerned. For one, he didn’t speak Italian. Second, he wasn’t yet familiar with the Italian train system, particularly the not-always-easy-to-use local trains that too often run “in ritardo.”

But he took the chance anyway. Not that he needed my encouragement, for we talked about this only as we were both, coincidentally, already walking to the train station at 4:30 a.m. Little did he know that he would meet up with a doctor who, though quite famous, couldn’t have been any kinder and that that same doctor would have called upon his niece, a college student majoring in English, to serve as an interpreter. On the train, as I dozed in and out of conscientiousness, I thought about how often I have taken similar chances, and how often they have worked out. I will here relay one anecdote as a kind of synecdochic exemplum.

Well over a quarter of a century now, I decided to study archaeology in Rome. I was in college, green, excited about liberal studies—for I had chosen them over the practical arts—and pretty certain that I was pretty good at these liberal studies. I could read ancient Greek, at any rate, which to me was the litmus test of anyone’s dedication to the liberal arts. (I have since then broadened my view, though Greek remains, as Winston Churchill once said, “a treat,” and Latin, “an honour.”)

There I was in Italy with only high-school French, some ancient Greek and Latin but no Italian, no iPhone (of course), no way of getting around the town save an incredibly-difficult-to-read bus map; and no knowledge of the Italian bus system. But, as I said, I took a chance, and within 12 hours of arriving, I had found my way to the center of study where I would be based for the fall semester and—and this is the amazing part—I had met the woman whom I would some day marry, though then I knew it not. All because I took chances.

You won’t be surprised to read that getting to know her required more chance taking. She had no romantic interest in me and, in fact, thought of me as rather uncouth. Some days I think I even seemed to her a ne’re-do-well scallywag in comparison to the other students; (she has since confirmed that this was her initial assessment of me). Such an impression may have arisen because of the overly casual way I dressed or my cavalier (at least when it came to grades) attitude; or maybe it was just because I tended to sit in the position furthest from the professor in class—always against the back wall; never was I the smiling student on the front row. Of all this, I am not sure. In any case, I recognized that the chances of us ever dating were not good, and to change that I had to take even more chances.

After slightly improving my attire—tasteful shoes and a new shirt can do a lot for a 20 year old—evening by evening I walked her home, as her residence was off campus. We chatted about topics from God to the stars in the sky to poetry, art and even joy of family life. Did these things win her over? Well, not any one by itself, I’m sure, but after many a walk home I think they collectively had some effect. Within two years, we did, after all, get married and wound up having that family we (at least I, at the time) had dreamt about so many years before. All because of a willingness to take chances.

And that one story, I think, can stand in for many others. I won’t tell how eventually I asked her out for dinner, or how I once brought her a rose, even though we were just friends, as we stood next to Bramante’s Tempietto on the Gianicolo, or how those “friends” finally kissed, right there by that selfsame Tempietto, just a few days before the program ended. She would stay on in Rome for another seven months until, after what seemed to me an eternity, even though I wrote her a letter every day, I would see her again. No, those things I leave aside in the name of good taste. But, although I won’t mention them, I will say this: none of them would have happened unless I, and she too, had been willing to take some chances.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Piazza in Rome

While I am now travelling in Italy—currently visiting Siena—I decided to share an excerpt from The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, an excerpt that is oddly connected to a piazza in Rome.

She was a new veterinarian for me, and I liked her, for she reminded me of the vet who had tended my animals when I was a card-carrying member of the New Hope intelligentsia. I and several other people in the New Hope area had changed from our regular veterinarians to this particular new vet, Dr. Bianca Waddabunga, even though most of us feared this was not her real name. She was the only veterinarian to whom I had ever gone who physically looked like a fashion model. In the office, however, she sported a turban fastened with a great emerald stone, which clashed oddly with her large ruby earrings. These earrings were especially visible owing to the distinct size—I should actually say length—of Dr. Waddabunga’s earlobes, which the weight of the rubies seemed to have increased by stretching them downward. She had in her nose a striking gold ring protruding, as nose rings do, from both nostrils at once. Her facial features were not especially noticeable, except for the pronounced line between her cheeks and her mouth and the fact that she had one of those sets of lips that, adorned with lipstick put on somewhat sloppily, bore a permanent, and rather odd, smile. Her body, however, as I mentioned, was that of a fashion model, and it appeared that she wore absolutely nothing—certainly, she did not wear a bra—under her doctor’s coat.

Dr. Waddabunga claimed to have been trained in holistic healing, which was then the latest thing in veterinary medicine. There was some kind of diploma hanging on her wall to that effect from a training center in Switzerland. Though I was unsure what it said (since it was in German), it certainly looked official enough, with its shiny gold seal and all the German words leading up to Dr. Waddabunga’s name. Perhaps this was her real name, after all.

When she examined an animal, she rarely touched it with her hands; she would use her wand, which she always kept in her left hand, to stroke the animal’s back as her right hand circled over the animal’s head, while she closed her eyes and sighed deeply as if connecting spiritually with the animal. I insisted that my son, who was then studying literature at the University of Pennsylvania (where he went for his doctorate after his MA at Vermont), bring his cat, Piazza, who seemed to be psychologically tormented in some way, to Dr. Waddabunga (a name that my son believed to be a pseudonym despite the Swiss “diploma”) for healing, but he said he would do so only if I paid. From the first, he was skeptical about the holistic approach, especially when I told him that she used a wand. Still, as usual, he complied.

On that occasion, Dr. Waddabunga put the wand down and used both hands, waving them over the animal in the same circular motion that she usually did with one hand. She looked at the ceiling—almost as a possessed, it seemed—and shrieked. “What is it?” she exclaimed. “Tell me kitty, baby kitten, sweet baby, what is bothering you? Does it hurt? Tell me, sweet baby, tell me.”

She then paused, incongruously coming out of her trance as rapidly as she had gone into it, to ask the cat’s name.

“Piazza,” my son said with an incredulous look on his face.

“What?” she asked equally incredulously. “That’s an unusual name.”

At this point I knew what he was thinking—namely, “You’re a fine one to talk.” Thankfully, instead he said, “It means ‘square’ in Italian.”

“Square?” she asked. “Why would you name your cat Square?”

Using self-control, he did not respond, “Why would you wave your hands over my cat? What is that magic wand for? Why do you have a nose ring? Why are you wearing a turban, and long flowing robes?” Instead, he simply said, “She is named after a particular square, the Piazza della Minerva.”

Yet Dr. Waddabunga, who spoke no Italian, still did not understand that the type of square about which my son was speaking was not a geometric shape but a gathering place within a city, a gathering place where the culture of the city could thrive. How much greater a country America would be, if we had piazzas.

Sadly, a good thirty-five dollars later, the cat’s discomfort was not alleviated by the magic treatment of Dr. Waddabunga, but it had been quite a show and had brought joy into my life at a time when I needed joy.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Rod Dreher, in Norcia

The chances of being in Norcia, Italy are relatively low. The chances of running into fellow blogger Rod Dreher in Norcia are lower yet. Norcia is a small town that probably you wouldn’t even recognize the name of unless you were to recall its name being associated with Amatrice, which last year suffered two devastating earthquakes. I did not make it to Amatrice on this trip—indeed, I’ve never been, though as an adult I have eaten pasta Amatricana with great delight a number of times. And when I eat it now, I think of how hard things have been for the people of Amatrice, and I think of one person in particular, not from Amatrice but from nearby Norcia, who suffered through those quakes. His name is Carlo.

 

What am I doing here so close to Amatrice in Norcia, you might well wonder? Well, as it happened, I ran into my friend, that one who is a philologist, who travels in Europe quite often to study very old books written by people who lived a long time ago, most of them Greeks or Italians, most of them males, all of them now dead. Despite the specificity (and concomitant ennui) of his studies, as I often do, I decided to tag along with him for a few days. And, as I alluded to just above, we chose to meet in Norcia because he was already in Italy in his Renaissance-like pursuit of manuscripts.

Norcia is the home of a monastery where one might expect to find manuscripts. But paradoxically there are none there. Rather, one finds there a beautiful chapel, one that the monastic community has just built—it is still under construction, actually—out of fine local timbers, wood that hopefully will flex and bend when the next earthquake might come. It should do better, in any case, than the brick and mortar church did when the earthquake rocked and destroyed too much of the hitherto quaint, hitherto removed, and even untouched, Norcia. When you walk down that town’s streets, though you will see great beauty you will also feel pain, pain that you feel for Alessandro the local merchant, whose shop survived but whose town largely did not, or for Orieta, who skillfully mans the desk, along with Marco, at the Hotel Seneca, where my friend was staying with his friend, Tom Hibbs and his son, Daniel, of Baylor University. But I am speaking about pain, real pain. Yet in the midst of that very pain there are some signs of resurgence, even of joy. Life coming back like grass springing between cracks of a sidewalk.

Life and resurgence, like that of Carlo, whose thankfulness and cheerfulness was palpable as he drove us up to the monastery. He and his wife and two children miraculously survived their entire house falling in on them, as they managed to huddle beneath their kitchen table when the stronger of the two quakes struck Norcia. It was frightening, he told me, like bombs going off in wartime. He was grateful to God, he said, to have survived. He hurt his shoulder, he said, trying to protect his babies. And the rescue team had to dig them out, which they had just in time, just before, he thought, they were about to suffocate. “Un miracolo,” he said, “veramente un miracolo!”

But back to Rod Dreher, whose son, Lucas, it was a pleasure to meet, as well. This was the first time for me to meet Luca, but it was actually the second time I had met Rod Dreher, for Rod had given a keynote speech a few weeks ago at a fundraiser for the Benedictine monastic community of Norcia, to help them replace their former, now destroyed, monastery with a new facility, one in which they might slightly expand or at least update some of their brewing equipment.

Birra Nursia is perhaps the finest craft beer I’ve ever had. Not too hoppy, yeasty, not too grainy, it finds the perfect balance between all the shoals of poor coloring and Syrtes of harsh taste, for craft beers often are, as you may know, either too sweet or too biting. But the monks of Norcia, especially Brother Augustinus, know how to brew. Yet Birra Nursia is not the reason I wanted to participate in the expensive fundraising dinner when it was held last month in Texas. Nor was my desire to hear what was in fact a wonderfully thoughtful, even provocative speech by Rod Dreher. Rather, it was to help the brothers there recreate their Christian community, in and through which they seek to honor God and do good in their community. The beer is just a bonus.

And Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, is based on the way that that community functions. Of course, it owes its harmony, its rhythms to the fine medieval work entitled The Rule of St. Benedict. But Dreher’s argument goes deeper than just following a recipe for living, just as Brother Augustinus’ brewing goes deeper than following a recipe for beer. Dreher’s main point is that we all have choices about how to live in this dark world and wide, and the option he advocates for Christians is that of the Benedictine community, tangibly mapped on to the lives of those of us who do not happen to be monks, who do not happen to be single or celibate. But mapped on, in spirit (or rather in Spirit), nonetheless. The choice to separate ourselves from the ways of the world, to raise our families apart from rampant secularism, he argues, belongs to every Christian.

And thus happening to meet up with Rod Dreher in Norcia, something not unlike running into Paul McCartney strolling down the streets of Liverpool, was more than just a bonus. It was special to be there with him at the epicenter of his thoughts about the Benedictine order, about St. Benedict himself. And, there, even there, I gave him a copy of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, which I happened to have in my shoulder bag. What a crazy confluence of Welsh heritage, a Benedictine monastery, a world-famous blogger, earth-rambling (for globetrotting won’t do here) philologist, and an academic dean with his son in tow—all of these in one remote place at one unlikely moment. Which begs the question: coincidence or providence? But I leave that aside, as that could be the subject of another blog.

For the time being, I urge you to keep the community of Norcia monastic or otherwise, in your prayers, as the recovery will be a long time. The grass springs between cracks of the sidewalk, but it will be a long time until we see a plant grow. Yet the One whom those monks and the entire Christian community in Norcia honors is mighty to save and will make everything blossom in season. As a (prayer?) bench in the Hotel had inscribed above its wooden canopy, Ora et labora, “Pray and work.” Not bad advice, for that’s how miracles happen. Certainly Carlo and his whole family know that.