Category Archives: Blog Post

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: When One Notices Grammar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon voyage.  Gute Reisen! Happy travels! 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Get Grandchildren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s how to get grandchildren.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Hiatus

My Dear Reader,

Roughly 2000 years ago, the poet Juvenal wrote, “It is difficult not to write satire.”  He wasn’t the pioneer of that genre, for it existed a relatively long time before he wrote that oft-quoted dictum.  But a truer line, I think, was never written that could be applied to the age in which that poet lived or in which we ourselves live.

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

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

Thanks for your patience,

H. R. Jakes

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Bards of Swansea

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

The Bards of Swansea

In Swansea, there are no swans, just gulls

To tell its story, whose plaintive cries dominate all.

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

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

One stacked upon the other, hillside upon hillside,

Whose windowed-eyed faces look downward to the sea,

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

Crying, speaking, cackling, claiming their ownership

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

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

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

Who every morning hear the mourning cries of the gulls

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

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

There are no swans in Swansea, just gulls.

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

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

Welsh Countryside near Dunvant

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

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

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

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

Photo by Peretz Partensky (Flickr)

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

In that comment section, “Shahooster” writes:

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

Meanwhile, perhaps even more sardonically, TWYer, writes:

“Pulling the wool over our eyes!”

And Yarxing cleverly writes:

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

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

“This is so ba-aaa-aaa-ad.”

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mumbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wall with message in Swansea

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

The Mumbles, Wales

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

Mykonos

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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Goose, the Gander and Sex Toys

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” or so goes the proverb in English.  It’s origin derives from the work of John Lyly, who in his Euphues and His England, written in 1579, wrote “as deepe drinketh the Goose as the Gander.”  

Now you might not know that Euphues is a Greek name, consisting of eu- “well, good” and phuo “make to bloom, create life.” From the latter of these we get the notorious English f-word that in origin, innocently simply meant “make to bloom.” Needless to say it has taken on a much more derogatory force, but one that befits the second half of this blog. And you also might not know that it is from Lyly’s very character and his better-known work, Euphues: An Anatomy of Wit, that we get the English word euphuism, a highly rhetorical style of English prose in which I myself have been known to indulge. All of this was popular of course, when John Lyly was at his apex, i.e. in the Elizabethan age.  

Which is why you’ve probably never heard of John Lyly or his character Euphues or even the more common (comparatively speaking) rhetorical style of euphuism. Because there was that other writer of the Elizabethan age who eclipsed Lyly’s apex to such an extent that Lyly never became a household word, though he might have been, had Shakespeare been born at some other time in history. But, alas, they were contemporaries, and unlike the Beatles and the Stones, who carved out parallel legacies, Lyly is never brought up in the same breath as Shakespeare. It’s more like Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan. People know Barkley now as primarily a sports analyst. But, in his day, he was a John Lyly to Michael Jordan’s Shakespeare.

Yet what about the sex toys bit? Well, actually that’s the point of this blog. In a recent article with the replete, even officious title, “Startup that makes sex toys for women sues New York transit system for banning its ads” (sic), the author, Sara Ashley O’Brien addresses the topic of certain advertisements submitted by a women’s sexual-health company known as “Dame Products.” This company was seeking that its allegedly tasteful ads be showcased in New York’s Transit System’s advertising venue. Their focus is on sex toys designed specifically for women. Their slogan was to be, like Sara O’Brien’s title mentioned above, clear as clear could be: “Toys, for sex.” But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) declined the advertisement on the basis of it being sexually oriented. Indeed, the title alone certainly suggests as much.

The female sex toy company, however, is now suing the MTA, calling the rejection a violation of freedom of speech. They note that the MTA has allowed a men’s health company to sell erectile dysfunction medication that uses a cactus as its symbol. I will say nothing here how that metaphor might, from a woman’s point of view, seem a bit too sharp and, without doubt, uncomfortable.

In its defense, the MTA has noted that on the FAQ page they state clearly that ads for sex toys for either gender are not allowed, whereas medication is. So, in Lylyesque fashion, Dame Products is making the good for the goose, good for the gander argument, but I imagine they will lose, as you really can’t argue with a FAQ page.

I just want to leave you with this thought: how in the world does a question about sex toys make its way onto a FAQ page? Seriously, how is that a frequently asked question? Yet it must be frequently asked to make the FAQ page. Who wouldda thunk it?

Long live the memory, however faint it might be, of Shakespeare’s second fiddle, at least in so far as he is preserved in his goose and gander gender equality statement. Oh, and I almost forgot, do mind the cactuses.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Bad H.R.

In the old days, H.R. was short for Human Resources, though now extra letters have been added or the title changed completely to things like the Office of Employee Happiness or Office of Employee Satisfaction, or even Office of Employee Engagement (though, to me, that sounds like an overly optimistic employee dating service). Yes, these days all of that is possible, undoubtedly meant to soften the blow of the (to some, I suppose) harsher sounding Human Resources, though not necessarily more clarifying. For I think Human Resources was, for all its vagueness, clear enough, or at least we had grown used to its vagueness and had come to understand that what was once called the much clearer Personnel Administration was then simply called “H.R.” Now it’s Employee Happiness. Definitely cheerier.

But none of this is the H.R. I’m speaking about. Rather, I’m speaking about me at age seven. My mother, who, if you read this page even occasionally, you know was named Elaine and you also know that she was the only Anglo-Chinese-Jew with a cross-dressing monkey in America (or perhaps anywhere in the world) in the 1960s. (Now, if you’re reading this posting for the first time, I realize that may sound alarming, even more alarming than mere political incorrectness, even more alarming than Personnel Administration must sound to someone hoping to hear Office of Employee Happiness, and for that I apologize in advance, alongside which I also say, however, that I can’t change history; it is what it was.)

No, the H.R. I’m speaking of is a rather small and most certainly immature, even spoiled version of H.R. Jakes, a character who comes off rather well in most instances in The Curious Autobiography, but in fact was no different than any other sinful kid. Oui, c’est moi. And today, I would like to give you one example of his/my sinfulness, that you might learn from it. It is the lesson of ungratefulness, and it has to do with the aforementioned monkey, and came at the very end of Elaine’s Chinese period and near the middle of her being Jewish.

For we had visited my sister, Betsy, in her new home. She was then living at the Philadelphia Zoo, an excellent zoo by any standard, and not a bad place, if one must leave one’s sister somewhere, to have deposited her. When we left Betsy in the capable hands of the primatologists at that zoo, I was six years old, she was a girl, clad in a delightful red floral ruffled dress with lace trim, carrying a small monkey-sized (i.e. child-sized) parasol, also red, also trimmed with lace. When we went back to visit her, I was seven, she was a boy (Jo Jo), and she was no longer wearing a dress or any clothing, a circumstance that to me, at first blush, was a bit alarming though slowly I came to realize that monkeys did not normally wear clothing. On our way back from that visit we went through Doylestown, Pennsylvania, en route to New Hope. It wasn’t the most direct route, but Elaine wanted to pick up some groceries at the rather larger-than-the-Acme-in-Lambertville grocery store in Doylestown on the way home. And I liked it because Foster’s was there.

Foster’s was, you see, by far the best toy store in all of Bucks County. In the mid-1960s one could see, lined up in the window, toy soldiers of durable plastic, carefully painted and of very high quality. These were not cheaply made toy soldiers. They were, as I sad, of the highest quality, and equally of the highest cost, so expensive that even on her payday I wouldn’t be able to talk Elaine into buying me one, though I might be able to get her to remember which one or two I really liked so that she would, for my birthday or Hanukkah/Christmas (we inexplicably celebrated both religious holidays), possibly purchase one for me.

That day coincidentally Mr. Foster had placed in the middle of his store in the prime display area a full, wonderfully beautiful toy zoo, all also of high quality plastic, all also very expensive. It featured, I recall, a crocodile and hippopotamus exhibit, giraffe pen, elephant house, aviary rife with tiny exotic birds, and of course a simian exhibit, complete with a small monkey house, every piece carefully molded and painted. It was, for all intents and purposes, almost an exact replica of any real zoo. It even had a Zoo sign. It could, as finely wrought as it was, potentially compliment any dilettantish train table, such as the one my Uncle Ed had set up in his basement. I loved going to Ed and Lee Ann’s house to watch the train go around that track, though his was not so large that one could have placed in it very much of this rather extensive zoo.

Of course, at age seven, I wanted this zoo, really wanted it, as children tend to really want things. Perhaps this was the case simply because the massive “toy” was, in fact, virtually an objet d’art. Or perhaps it is because we had just visited my sister (now brother) for the first time since leaving him behind at the Philadelphia Zoo, and the toy simian enclosure was, in fact, perhaps the finest piece in the collection of tiny animal exhibits.

But Elaine, being a humble schoolteacher sans husband could not afford such an expensive toy for her child now or even at Hanukkah/Christmas time. Yet she loved the no doubt by then bratty-because-he-was-practically-begging-for-the-toy-zoo H.R. Jakes, and she even went back into the store to speak privately with Mr. Foster about a layaway plan, while H.R. gazed in the window at the soldiers. But to no avail. At her salary, she would have to have had an item of that on lay away at least a couple of years.

So my dear mother and her best friend, Sheila, partnered up to make a replica in balsa wood of the zoo they had seen at Foster’s, all from memory. Now if you’ve ever worked with balsa wood you know it’s soft and cuts easily but is also rather fragile. And though she tried very hard to replicate that zoo of finely cast plastic, all she could do was to make another zoo, not really very much like it, poorly glued together of roughly cut pieces of balsa that, in all honesty, did not look much like the original zoo or all that great at all. But it was handmade, and from the heart. And that was much more important to Elaine and Sheila than it being perfect or expensive or even durable. It was the thought and the valiant attempt that counted. To her and Sheila, that is.

But to H.R. that was not the case. He wasn’t expecting the zoo for Hanukkah/Christmas—he knew she could probably not afford it—but he was also not expecting a homemade knockoff model, either. Now he should have done the right thing, he should simply have said, “Wow! Thanks, this is really cool! It must have taken you guys hours…” (for no doubt it did) “…to make this!” But instead he was, I recall, coldly honest, “Gosh, is this a zoo? It doesn’t really look like a zoo to me.” In his defense, seven-year-old children do have a tendency to be honest. On the other hand, he might have taken a moment to think about all the countless hours and love that went into rendering the gift. But he didn’t.

Why am I “confessing” this to you so many years after the fact? Not for cathartic reasons—I don’t tend to do that, as you probably know if you read this blog even semi regularly. Nor is it to evoke pity for a spuriously Sino-Hebraic child with, effectively, two mothers and a cross dressing monkey sister who was left at a zoo—the sister, that is. No, actually, even at the time, it was fine with me to be different than all the other kids at school. Rather, it is that you might learn from that bad H.R. (and I might continually learn, too) not to be ungrateful when someone does something for you, even if it seems to you a rather small or imperfect thing. It may not seem like much to you, but it is the best they can do.

I am thankful to this day for the memory of that homemade zoo, one that I myself could have enjoyed if I had used even a touch of imagination and a dab of appreciation; yet I failed to do so. But I perhaps garnered from that experience something more valuable and durable than poorly glued together balsa wood or perfectly molded plastic: I learned how to give and to receive, how to love past imperfections and how to be a better human being. And I now humbly offer that lesson, at the expense of my seven-year old self, to you.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: So Easy …

You know, it’s easier to destroy something than it is to build it. One can spend hours working on a sand castle at the beach, and one good wave, one careless jogger, or one tyrannical child, who just has to knock your turrets over, can set you back hours. Fortunately, it’s just a sand castle, so you can take it with a grain of salt. Or a grain of sand.

But what about things that are not just fun, kind of artsy but not deeply meaningful things. I mean it only took the 9/11 terrorists minutes to destroy the World Trade Center, something it took a long time to build. And it took them just seconds to rip families apart and put America in a defensive posture when it comes to national security. That one act of destruction took away a lot of freedoms—ease of going through airports, the feeling of relative safety in traveling, what you can carry on or can’t carry on a plane. To say that things really changed after 9/11 would be an understatement, without doubt.

So it is with anything good, I suppose. It takes so much work to build it and so much care goes into it; and, yet, it can be derailed, hindered and even destroyed in so short a time. But it is not easy to change things. Take the Our Father, for example. Many want to change it to “Our Parent,” others to our Mother. Some want to change “Amen” to “Awomyn” (sic). Yet Pope Francis, of late, has actually made a change. He has stated that the English phrase in the Our Father, rendered “Lead us not into temptation,” is now to be changed to “Do not let us fall into temptation.” His argument is that it is a mistranslation of the original. And he can say this convincingly for two reasons: 1. He is the Pope, and 2. Very few Christians, Protestant or Catholic, know ancient Greek, so they will take his word for it.

Let me say first that the Pope is not “diabolical.” He is not seeking to destroy, when he makes this change, he is, undoubtedly seeking to shift the blame for sin to the individual who falls into temptation so that person can’t shake a finger at God and say, “You allowed this to happen to me! You caused this to happen to me!” And good for the Pope; he’s right on that score; human beings need very little help to be tempted. But just because he is right about that doesn’t justify changing the translation.

Why? Well, for starters, the Greek simply doesn’t permit it. The Greek says what it says: μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς (me eisenengkes hemas). That does not mean “do not let us fall.” It means, rather, “do not lead us.” Hence the KJV (which is usually the most faithful English translation): “Lead us not.” It is the second person singular aorist active subjunctive form (here used in precatory mode) of the Greek verb εἰσφέρω (eisphero).

Why then, if the Pope knows ancient Greek (and one presumes he does), would he change this? It is for a theological reason bigger than the one that I outlined above. It has to do with one’s view of God, whether He is active in our lives or not. In the 1970s, it would seem, Pope Francis (then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was opposed to the theology that says “God’s in his Heaven and all that is wrong in the world depends on us to fix”—this kind of theology has translated rather neatly into liberation theology. The fundamental point here is not Marxism vs. Capitalism, for both systems can thrive very well with the distant view of God.

Yet, by the end of the 1970s, something has changed for Father Bergoglio. He seems to have come to a different position on God intervening in human affairs, a view that is reflected today in his change of the verse to, “Don’t let us fall into temptation,” which assumes that God is distant, rooting us on but not intervening in our lives. It is a wonderful view of God, one could argue, because it exculpates God completely from the question of human suffering. God doesn’t allow human suffering. That’s something we cause, in the case of a war or terrorism, or nature causes (in the case of an earthquake), or maybe bad genetics has caused, in the case of an abnormality at birth. God is rooting us on, but He cannot (according to something by which even God Himself is bound, something like Star Trek’s “prime directive”) interfere. And that can explain, probably does explain, the Pope’s changing the English translation of the verse.

The only problem is—beyond the Greek, which I hopefully have already explained—that this Star Trek God is not the God of Scripture. Not even close. God has no directives, prime or otherwise. He makes the rules and He breaks them whenever it suits Him. Exempli gratia: Lazarus. God had decreed that the penalty for sin is death. It was and is an eternal decree upon human kind for sin. Yet Jesus, qua his status as the Son of God (status that is, if you read the New Testament, tantamount to God himself), resuscitates Lazarus from the dead. He does the same thing to the son of a widow whom he has presumably just met when, rather randomly from our human point of view, he enters the tiny hamlet of Nain. He heals the blind, helps an old woman who is a hunchback, heals the crippled, cares for the poor. He even cares for the rich, who at first might be unfeeling and disconnected from the suffering all around them. And he does miracles in the midst of all these people. And he does miracles today. When we see them, some of us acknowledge them, some of us attribute them to coincidence or luck. And some acknowledge them as miracles when they happen but, eventually, consign them to our memory’s bin of lucky breaks or coincidences.

Cobh St. Colman’s Cathedral, Ireland
Detail Raising of the Son of the Widow of Nain
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert (CC BY-SA 4.0)

And how we react to divine intervention in the human sphere is important for the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. For, if we, as apparently Pope Francis does, believe that God intends good for everyone but doesn’t actually do good beyond the natural “common grace” of amatory love, love of family, sunshine and rain, then he simply can’t lead us into temptation (or, really, deliver us from evil, by the way). He is the Star Trek God. He simply can’t intervene, ever. Thus, it depends on us to take matters into our own hands, to be responsible for our own actions, and, ultimately, even for our own deliverances in this world. That is the groundwork, by the way, of liberation theology, where “liberation” means “self-liberation”: we need to free ourselves from our oppressors. It depends on us.

Oddly enough, most people, wittingly or unwittingly, probably subscribe to this way of thinking. Why wouldn’t one, after all? Things certainly seem to be that way—that’s reality, isn’t it? Isn’t believing that there is a God who intervenes in our lives just pie in the sky?

Rather, it’s pie on earth. And it’s not pie. It’s the God of Wonders, the God who makes the rules—all the rules—and “breaks” them whenever He feels like it, intervening, changing, shaping, leading. Sometimes leading us into places that are dangerous to us, whether physically or spiritually, or both. Fiery furnaces. Lions’ dens. Islands with dangerous snakes. If you’re unsure about any of this, just read the book of Daniel, where God tampers with the animal world, or the book of Acts. Or First and Second Samuel, where you can learn to face the giants in your life the right way. Or any of the four gospels where you can learn something I don’t know how to describe in one word; maybe just life, for short. Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, read the book of Hosea, where a woman of questionable character becomes a signally redemptive metaphor for the Church.

It’s easy to destroy, and so hard to build. But the God of Wonders is subject to neither, as his compassion for the lost shows again and again. Whether we have fallen into temptation (entirely possible) or He has heard our prayer and not led us there, know this: God redeems where we have so easily destroyed, he rebuilds where we have accidentally (or not) knocked something over, and he forgives when we cry out to Him for forgiveness. For he does stuff; and for that I, for one, am deeply thankful.