Tag Archives: Curious Autobiography

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Difficult Road

I have a good and richly devout friend who says no one but God can really change anyone. All change, he insists, must come from on high. Well, at some deep, theological level, he may just be right. But in the world in which I live, I’ve seen a lot of things help one at least to see the need for change, and therefore, I think, it may be useful to look carefully at my friend’s formula. Maybe there are a lot of different ways that God changes people. Could he do so through other people, especially those involved in one’s life in certain key ways?

ancient-pathLong ago (in 1372, to be precise) Boccaccio wrote to Petrarch, suggesting that he had been put on the right path by none other than Petrarch himself. That path, Boccaccio states, is the “ancient path” that Petrarch had traced out with so much vigor and talent that “he could not be stopped by any obstacle or even by the difficult road.” Petrarch was, in fact, Boccaccio’s teacher. And what Boccaccio had learned from Petrarch was presumably the same thing that students of another teacher of rhetoric, a millennium earlier, had tried to teach his students: the path of virtue, a path opened by rhetoric and persuasion. That ancient teacher was named Cicero, the Roman statesman/philosopher par excellence. But more on him another time.

For now, I would prefer to return to my friend’s central premise, namely that God alone can transform someone. Again, that may be true in a theological sense, but in a practical sense, I think I agree with Boccaccio: education can, and in particular a great teacher—and that teacher need not be a Petrarch or a Cicero—has a peculiar role in that transformational work. Thus, what is known as a liberal arts education can produce some startling and quite valuable results. LucyJonesTeapot

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Indeed, I would say that the most valuable thing I own is not my great-great-grandmother Lucy Hughes Jones’ tea pot or her not-quite-Welsh (really Bavarian) cheese plate or even the old black trunk that transported them both, but my liberal education. At Dickinson I read Milton for the first time, and he taught me to understand what faith was long before I had faith to speak of. Plato led me to think about the best things—he called them forms—and he did so in his original Greek. Shakespeare taught me how to laugh, to care, to love and even to speak and write more dexterously. And Richard Wright made me at least a bit more aware of what it is like to be scared, make mistakes, and to understand such fear and error by looking through a poignantly pathetic character’s eyes.

And these were just the literature classes. I took an anthropology class, too, that educated me as to how poor so many folks in this world are. Subsequently, I would myself go to China and, later, Ethiopia and understand in person what I had read about and studied years before. And history, what can I say about that? I learned to love history from a great professor named Leon Fitts. He could bring Rome alive like no other. For another history class, I wrote a paper about my family’s history. 9781480814738_COVER.inddWas that the prototype of The Curious Autobiography? I’m not sure, but I think it may have had something ultimately to do with the scribbling down of that collection of tales. And Latin. Where do I start? Where do I end? If in the manner of the forty-third verse of Virgil’s second Georgic, I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths, could I ever truly explain?

What changed me the most? While I agree with my devout friend that encountering and wrestling with God is the most transformative moment one can have, one of the most important ways change has come to me is through the echoing ideas that found a permanent seat in my mind during my college years. In any case, I know the answer to a question a bit different from the one that opens this paragraph. That question is simply what the most valuable thing I own might be. I can say without hesitation that that most prized thing is my liberal arts education—not the degree itself but the degree to which it changed the way I think—for by it I learned to embark on Boccaccio’s (or was it Petrarch’s?) ancient path and to appreciate life’s journey along the difficult road.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Books and Travel

hunt-stok-book
To order click on the image above.

Well, there’s nothing like curling up with a good book. An old dictum, and perhaps there’s none truer. My friend is writing a new book now, one that will be out this summer. Actually, he’s cowriting the book with a colleague from Italy, whom I also know, a certain professor from the university of Tor Vergata in Rome along with another American colleague. What seems to me to be weird about the book he’s writing is that, though it is a scholarly book, it is one that I think—for I am helping him proofread it—will be accessible to the general public. So it’s a good book in a different way than, say, the Curious Autobiography is said to be by its Amazon reviewers. Of course, my friend’s book, which can already be ordered is still in production, so it hasn’t any Amazon reviews of its own (or other reviews) just yet, though perhaps some “prodigiously famous” scholarly polysyllabricator will write a virtually unintelligible blub for the back cover. But I want to say that that book, which I am reading this weekend, seems to me to be really a good book, an interesting one that anyone could enjoy at home or abroad, for the only thing better than curling up with a good book is reading one in transit.

9781480814738_COVER.indd
To order click on the image above.

I very much like doing that—reading while roaming—not only because it lightens the burden of travel and luggage transfer but also because the movement of one’s eye over the page often whets that same eye’s appetite for scanning a new vista, studying every store window, admiring architecture, or considering the quaintness of each town on the journey. I’ve got a trip planned for a group of friends this summer, a group of friends who have never visited Bologna or eaten at the Osteria Broccaindosso, number 7 on Broccaindosso Street. There, you may recall from a previous blog, one finds the world’s best lasagna (thankfully my Aunt Lee Ann is not alive to read this, for she boasted the best lasagna, made in the Bolognese style), a truly scrumptious antipasto, which I devoured when I was there, of course, befobologna-foodre the lasagna came to my plate, not to mention the procession of smidgens of insalata al balsamico, egged-up zucchini treats, superb slices of ricotta and mozzarella, all served alongside high-quality local wine, Sangiovese. Dare I mention the dessert, the incredible mound of tiramisù? All that awaits my traveling friends’ lip-smacking palates, but that is not what is really amazing about Bologna: it’s the seven churches, Asinelli and Garisenda towers of the city center, the endless porticoes, and the chance to walk over the grounds of the oldest university in the western world.

venice-canalAnd that’s just the beginning of what will be a wonderful adventure. Next comes Venice (need I quip at all?), then, after a bus ride through the Alpine foothills, we’ll go on to Salzburg (the home of Mozart and the Opernfestspiele where, if we can get the tickets ordered soon, we shall see Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito); salzburg-cityscapethen on to Augsburg, Germany with a stop on the German side of Lake Constance, which in Teutonic is known as Bodensee, for dinner. St. Gallen beckons next, where we shall visit a superb monastery and library, and where, I hope, we shall all be inspired to curl up with that proverbial good book, for that town is tranquil beyond belief and the library pure inspiration. A stop at Zurich’s Altstadt follows before the trip winds up in Geneva, where there is so much to do and see that the mind boggles.altstadt

I’m hoping to read a good book on that trip, or maybe to write while in transit, for I much enjoy that, too. Perhaps I will begin writing the next installment in the Curious Autobiography series—something I’ve put off too long. So, while I am not certain about what specifically that trip will hold for me, I am sure that it will offer a sense of wonder to our entire group of wayfaring friends, who all will experience the overwhelming joy of grasping new cultures, shaking new hands and making new friends. And it will offer, too, inspiration, for one learns through travel what one cannot learn from staying home, even when curled up with a good book.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Chance Encounters and the Pane of Glass

dickinson-college-old-east-building“You see,” I recall him saying as we stood on the dank stairwell of Dickinson College’s Old East Building located at the northeast end of the campus mall, “It is very simple, pal. Either there is one or there is not.” The one he was referring to is, of course, God. Dr. Philip Lockhart had the uniquely Presbyterian knack—to wit, the Westminster Shorter Catechism—of taking the difficult and reducing it to something highly condensed and yet entirely comprehensible.

In response to my query based on the conversation that Dr. Lockhart and I had on that old stairway, Roz replied, “Yes, of course, yes, yes, of course I do.” Roz, along with her husband and nephew, just happened to sit next to me in an airport restaurant in Toronto, where I spent a large portion of the day waiting for my sempiternally delayed plane. Indeed her response was enthusiastic: “I am a Jew. Of course I believe in God.”

9781480814738_COVER.inddI had only asked that basic theological question because I was offering her a slice of the story of Elaine Jakes, a story quite improbable—well, you know if you’ve read the book. For the fact that Elaine had been, mostly at different times, a Jew, Chinese, and African American reveals how each individual vignette elicits the annoying question as to whether the sum of the details of her story could just be coincidence. Frankly, it is just easier to explain if the person you’re telling it to begins with at least a hint of faith—in Roz’ case a good bit more than a hint.

Thus could I relay more confidently one of those improbable stories from the book, and thus did she smile, even chuckle, with amusement and delight. “But how did it happen that you became a writer?” she asked. “How could you decide to become a writer and study Greek and Latin, no less, in college? These are not highly marketable subjects.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

“That same professor,” I said,” Phil Lockhart, directed me to listen to the voices of the past, to hear what the ancients could tell me not only about history and art and battles but about honor, and justice, and bravery. ‘The words of Plato, Cicero, and Virgil,’ old Dr. Lockhart so sagely said, ‘resound eternally. Learn Latin and Greek so that you can press your ear to the pane of glass and hear them for yourself.’ And he was right, of course. Dr. Lockhart was, like my mother, always right.”

Plato
Plato

Roz, a lawyer by trade raising a son of her own, was astounded, “So a teacher, a single teacher made such a big impact on you?”

“Yes,” I said, “and so did and still do the voices he referred to that I was able to hear through the glass pane. I can still hear Dr. Lockhart’s voice as if it were yesterday. And I learned enough Greek and Latin in college to begin to hear those other, older voices pretty well.”

“But how did you happen to take Latin or Greek in the first place?”

“Well, this is the part that requires some measure of the faith we spoke of earlier, for it, too, involves an improbable string of coincidences. I wound up in Latin simply because on one solitary evening no less than three people—an Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brother whose name escapes me, a future college president named Chris Reber, and his roommate, Russ Fry, if I am recalling his name correctly after so many years, all told me to take Latin instead of waiting a semester for a spot in French to open up. ‘The prof is great,’ they all said independently of one another; ‘You simply have to take Latin!’ or something to that effect.”

And that prof was, of course, none other than Phil Lockhart. “He and the voices behind the pane of glass,” I continued, “all left quite an impression on me, ever directing me to higher moral ground, better thoughts, nobler action. Plato taught me something like faith, Cicero, honor, and Virgil, compassion, I think. Perhaps, Virgil taught me a bit more than just compassion; perhaps they all taught me more than those solitary ideals. And Dr. Lockhart …,” I paused, “taught me not only how to read them and understand their words but also how to write and speak and think.”

“I wish my son would have such a teacher and experience of college.”

“I hope,” I said, “that he does, too. I hope that he gets a chance to hear the voices behind the pane.”

elegant-cabbagetown
Elegant Cabbagetown B&B, Toronto

“I wish I could have that kind of education myself,” she added. “Where can I learn something of this? Do you have a podcast?”

I think it was Roz who asked about the podcast—or was it the woman sitting next to me on the plane? In any case, it was now twice in one day that someone had asked me this question, for at breakfast Marci, a kind woman from Pennsylvania staying at our lovely bed and breakfast in Toronto (Elegant Cabbagetown), had asked the same question.

“Alas, no, but I think that The Curious Autobiography tells a lot of the story and can direct you toward some of the ideas and ideals I spoke of earlier.”

“I will buy it and read it!” Roz said enthusiastically.

Oddly enough, Marci had said the same thing at breakfast. Marci and Roz, if you are reading this now, I hope you can hear Elaine’s voice behind the glass. Her ideas and even her perception of life are built upon the great thoughts of the past. She is there, right now, just beyond the windowpane, sharing a pot of tea with Dr. Lockhart. Unless I am mistaken, it just may be that Cicero or Plato is sitting there with them.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amazing Things about Birds

birdsI thought this morning about birds, as I heard them chirping outside of my window. I have always preferred spring to fall because of the chirping of birds, I think. And so boldly did they emit their shrill song this morning that they made me think of spring, even think it was spring as I heard the birds speaking to me from their nests in the backyard’s treetops.

The notion that birds speak to me personally is something not unusual, at least not unusual to me, for when I was a small lad, my mother, Elaine possessed a myna bird t9781480814738_COVER.inddhat could talk. Curiously, Elaine named that bird Cookie after a cat that my grandfather had owned when she was a child, and it could be argued that it was Cookie (the bird) who taught me to speak. She (Cookie, that is) had a particularly saucy vocabulary which she acquired from I am not entirely sure what source and some of the words she said even got me into trouble at school from time to time—that story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography (117f.)—but I won’t mention that bird here, for I am opening my discussion about the amazing quality of birds rather vis-à-vis the Platonic form of bird than my personal experience of bluejayone individually pedagogic feathered animal. And with regard to that Platonic form, it was neither Axel Munthe, nor my Uncle Ed, nor John Keats, nor even Elaine Jakes—a bird aficionado in her own right—who taught me to love birds, particularly birds of the wild. Rather, it was the birds themselves. Their soulful warbling, their strident cries, their playful banter, even their occasional inter-avian argumentativeness or the unique cock of their head that sometimes seems to connote an otherworldly understanding—all these taught me to admire them, even to love them. And so did my sempiternal amazement at their migratory patterns and practices.

To wit, though I have no particular level of expertise when it comes to penguins and therefore rarely participate in water-cooler conversations about them, I was nonetheless surprised to read the story of a Magellanic penguin by the name of Dindim that a caring scientist, Pereira de Souza once saved from an oil spill. The poor animal was certain to die and could not extricate himself—(Dindim has been confirmed to be male)—from the mire until Mr. de Souza fished him out, bathing and feeding the tiny animal until he was sufficiently well to be set free in the wild. Already this story is an amazing one, for the notion of a rescued penguin in Brazil might, at first blush, seem unlikely. It did to me, as I had no idea that any penguin at all would have been anywhere near Brazil. More unlikely, however, is the fact that there is an important tag to this touching story. Dindim returns each year to the home of Mr. de Souza; he does so faithfully, as if he recognizes and owes a debt of loyalty to the one who saved him.

Stranger yet is the fact that the rescue took place over four years ago but nonetheless the penguin has returned each year in late June, staying right through the fall until February. It is possible that the penguin travels to the well-known penguin love-nest Patagonia for breeding and then returns to Brazil. That is not known; it is also possible that he just goes somewhere else to chill out (a fitting expression for a penguin) and then, after a season, returns. But the important thing is not where he goes or how far he travels; that, I suppose, is Dindim’s own business and will eventually be the business of those who study and track him. Rather, the remarkable thing is, of course, that he returns to the one who saved him, the one who rescued him.

Now I am not going to map too tightly onto the habits of the average churchgoer the penguin’s practice, though perhaps it is a good example for us all. And in a teleological sense, perhaps it will prove to be as true for any one of us as it is for the Magellan penguin in question. But I leave that aside to think of the signal quality of that penguin: Dindim’s most striking feature is his loyalty to Mr. de Souza, how he spends his time when he is with his savior. Indeed, the degree of affection that he shows when they are together is remarkable. The penguin treats that human being as if he were his best friend, and thus understands what perhaps few people understand: faithfulness and loyalty, qualities whether innate or cultivated that are too often lacking nowadays.

So this week I have decided to draw for myself a lesson or two from the birds; I’d like to sing every morning—at least in my heart if not the shower—about the joy and blessing of waking up to a new day. And I would like to see clearly in the bird with the obfuscating name of Dindim a shining example of the qualities of loyalty, faithfulness and even steadfastness that we might learn from that particular bird. (I do not mention Cookie here, the myna bird that taught me English). But were Cookie alive today, I am quite certain that she would say, “Learn from the bird, learn from the bird!” And she would be right.

magellanic-penguin
Magellanic penguins

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Something about September

autumn-leavesThere is something about September. Let me explain. September is not only a special month because it is the month in which Harry Jakes, the father of Elaine Jakes and a major character in the Curious Autobiography, was born.9781480814738_COVER.indd He was among the great ones of the family. His first and middle names, Harry Reed, were transmitted intact to a great grandson who went on to become a pastor, something no doubt that would have delighted Harry, as it did Elaine. And incidentally, the elder Harry, her father, welcomed her into this life, while the younger Harry was the last person to tell her that she was loved as she went to sleep for the last time.

But the fact that the elder Harry was born in September or even that the youngest of his great-granddaughters happens to have also been born in this month is certainly not the only reason the month is special. It is special because it is not simply a name on the calendar: it represents a tonal shift. It is the pivot from summer to fall, the introduction of the season that represents, in the human life cycle, maturity and wisdom. One has finally passed from the heat of the summer to a more sober, more beautiful time, one full of color in most parts of the northern hemisphere, the gentle hues of leaves fallen from tree limbs. About this very season I can remember singing a song as a child in school, in the age when children sang in schools—I imagine they don’t now as many lyrics could be deemed to contain trigger warnings or simply be too offensive to some children or at least coercing a child to do what he doesn’t want to; sometimes there might even be a controversial parking fee involved. There might, on a special occasion, even be “exploitation of a captive audience.” So, it is anodyne, I imagine, simply not to have the children sing lest controversy erupt.

Yet in the case of the song in question—“Try to Remember the Kind of September”—I think the reason it has been banned is it is age discriminatory and gender exclusive, as it assumes the singer is a “young and callow fellow.” It was written by Tom Jones, a Welshman, and thus, however one might feel about its potential to offend, belongs in this blog. And that song, though it may set off a trigger for the most sensitive among us, particularly the callow, I think actually captures the mood of September very well. It has a wistful feel to it, and September is, in many ways, a wistful month. It is also ghost season.

ghostly-treeAnd it must be ghost season, for the ghosts must get busy in September if there is to be a respectable Halloween. Now if you don’t believe in ghosts, well, that’s fine. But apparently you’re wrong. I can say this because I was at a dinner party last Saturday at the home of a famous artist—a ceramist, is the technical term, the less technical term, a potter—and he spoke of a time when, before he was famous and had spun out a fantastic career as an artist, he had, as nearly all real artists do, worked as a security guard in a library in Chicago. Now I myself, though I am no artist (unless being a writer qualifies), had enjoyed a season as a security guard guarding condominiums, which, I suppose, is near the height of irony, if not quite atop it: the artist guards books that the aspiring writer later will write, while the writer guards condos, for whose dining room table the aspiring artist might (and this is why it is only near not atop irony’s apex) possibly create a bowl or platter. It’s the “possibly” that kills the ascent of Mt. Irony. Alas. (By the way, not to brag, but in my entire two years as a security guard of those condominiums, I never lost a single one.)

But to return to ghosts. That selfsame artist was, qua security guard in the 1980s, stationed in the Chicago Public library every evening, where he took up his post on the first floor, assuming, rightly I think, that no self-respecting book thief would be willing to bring a ladder to downtown Chicago to ascend to the second or third floor of that old building to steal a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The October Country or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. So he stayed, as I was saying, on the first floor. That is, until he heard the thumping from the floor above and promptly called the police. He did this thrice, and the police thought he was crazy.

That thumping may have been caused by the books landing on the floor. But who threw them there? And were they actually thrown, or had they been on the floor the day before? Of course, the police could not explain, and neither could the artist—let’s call him Paul. But this happened night after night until Paul decided to speak to the spirit. Gingerly would he ascend the steps, not quite coming all the way onto the second floor or third floor but staying just at the top of the stairwell, in case he had to make a hasty retreat. But he made his peace with that ghost—and he swears to this day it was a ghost—to the point where the spirit stopped tossing books on the floor. Now the sceptics will say there was no thumping coming through the floor. But how else can a spirit make such noise without tossing books? (Ghosts have no personal weight as they are spirits.) I can aver that Paul told the truth. Ghosts can toss books and that ghost is no doubt doing so to this very day.

But the other story that evening, one told by yet another dinner guest—we will call him George to protect his identity—had even stronger evidence. The story begins when George moved to central Texas. He did not then believe, and had never hitherto believed, in ghosts. But, as a merely passing avocation in the early 2000s George, just to get out of the house and have some fun, paradoxically joined in with some para-professional paranormal investigators. Each night they went on the prowl, each night found nothing until finally they visited a house that was reportedly haunted. Ever the sceptic, George carefully set up the video camera. That not-quite-September evening (it was April) was tepid and still—especially so, George averred, sans vent. After a spell, he and his partners went to the local convenience store to buy some coffee, as they knew it might well be a long evening. While they were gone there was an unbelievable event—mirabile dictu—one that gives me chills to think of even as I write this.  It was none other than the astonishing closing of a door in that haunted house, caught on film no less. With George’s permission, his personal film of that event is attached. I can tell you that I have absolutely no reason not to believe that George was telling the truth or that this video is not authentic. If you watch the video, you can decide for yourself; I can tell you that I have already decided to take George at his word.

Thus, September is amazing not simply for being a great birthday month, a turn of seasons, the fact that it represents a tonal shift on our life cycles, or even that the colors of fall finally arrive. Rather, it is special because it is when the ghosts come out, that Halloween might truly be scary. Beware of ghosts? No, but do be aware of them, especially in September!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cats

Cats are not like dogs, nor are they like people. Yet if you had to choose, and if you’re honest, you would say that cats are more like people than dogs. I don’t mean that they are like people because they have three names (at least respectable cats do) or because they often find their sole and singular name, the one that they don’t actually go by, to be the one that they love—not even the best of names, like “Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat, … Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum” to quote Eliot. And Eliot is right about that. T.S. Eliot, I mean, who knows that the true name of the cat is not effable. It is what the cat dwells on when he sits there thinking, pondering, primping and pruning himself.

eliot-book-coverNow this refers of course to “domesticated” cats, who love to be called this because they defy that status daily. But what about undomesticated cats? They have no name, they live in the open, sans house, sans cat bed, sans scratching post, sans litterbox. They are feral, wild to the core, wilder than any wild dog. How so? No wild dog looks innocent. Wild dogs are wolf-like, rabid with a small (if not a capital) R. But feral cats, particularly feral kittens, look so innocent. But they are not. They scratch, claw and bite. Why? They have no name to contemplate, no post to scratch, no master to enslave, no cat-lover to force to obsess over their every need.

“Elaine’s memoir is full to the brim of wit, humor, and magnificent storytelling.” —Authors Talk About It
“The need for fat storage first became apparent, though subtly, with the gradual disappearance of the cat’s tail. The tail, I should say, never fully disappeared; there was, even at the end of my beloved cat’s life, at least a little bit of that tail protruding from the massive lump of fat that constituted the cat’s rump.” —The Curious Autobiography, p. 197

9781480814738_COVER.inddElaine Jakes, the less-than-famous but worthy-of-being-read autobiographer, did that very thing—obsessed a bit—with her cat, Baby 81. She named that creature after an interstate, which is one reason why you should read the book, or at least the story of Baby 81 on pages 194ff. Yes, it is a true story; I knew the cat, I saw Elaine feed it Gerber baby food. But I leave that aside to speak about feral cats and the lesson learned about them not by Elaine but by a young woman, a cat lover of the same magnitude as Elaine, whom she has gotten to know and will continue to get to know through the Curious Autobiography. Indeed, they would have loved each other, had they met in this life; but they shall in the next, in some part of heaven quite near Cat Heaven. Like Elaine, she was petting a cat, this time a feral cat, or rather a cute innocent looking kitten, but one sans name. And that cat, that lovely, innocent looking cat, And that fact that lacked a proper name, an ineffable effable name, bit her. That’s the reason, no doubt, that it bit that young woman, ever so slightly, ever so lightly, just enough to puncture the skin, setting off a chain reaction—a visit to the emergency room, the need for rabies shots—yes, rabies—and, yes, shots (plural). Five of them to be precise, five painful, doleful, grief-causing and ultimately laughter-engendering shots. And that is how this blog will end, with a lesson to all you cat lovers: don’t pet the feral cats Instead, give them a name—actually three names, however challenging that may be–and if you can, get them some shots; better they than you! For, to quote Eliot again:

“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History, Breakfast and Bill Glass

we-the-peopleMy grandfather taught me to love history. Though he never went to college, Harry Jakes was an educated man. His education was garnered through the books he read, books about history, chiefly American history. He knew most of the presidents by heart. More importantly, he knew what they did and how ideally the country should function, its bicameral representative democracy, its three balanced branches of government, the fair and equitable distribution of power—a nonpareil essentially lost nowadays as we have a largely dysfunctional congress, increasing executive overreach, and politicized Supreme Court appointments. Yet Harry knew how the country had struggled to preserve its constitutional integrity, and when, and why.

And thus, beyond mere civics, that self-same grandfather taught me to love history. Yet for all his knowledge of history, Harry either did not have the capacity or desire to explain it fully—he rarely talked about “history” per se and indeed was generally reticent about what he was reading, though occasionally he would mention an important historical person, offering a slapdash and condensed biography. And that is precisely what I plan to do now. Yet I will not speak about American history or even my favorite, Roman history, but I will offer one of those random biographies as Harry used to do, in this case about Bill Glass. And there is a reason I will do so.

billglass

William Sheppeard Glass, who goes by Bill, a former football player and not a “historical figure” per se, is someone whose story informed my grandfather’s outlook on life. Born in 1935, Bill Glass grew up in Texas, went to Baylor University, and then played defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, retiring from the pros in 1968.[1] In college Mr. Glass was a consensus all-American. As a pro, he proved worthy of the pro-bowl, and later authored or coauthored two books, an inspirational memoir entitled Get in the Game and another didactic work entitled Stand Tall and Straight, the latter of which is meant to foster character formation in young men. After his career ended, he attended Southwestern Seminary and would go on to learn about ministry from no less a preacher than Billy Graham. In 1969 Mr. Glass founded Bill Glass Ministries, whose primary thrust is to help emotionally and spiritually those who are in prison, though the ministry also touches those outside prison walls.[2]

Now what does this have to do with Harry’s penchant for history? For what reason do I quixotically offer this biography of a defensive lineman? No president, no congressman, he. It is because incumbent upon Harry’s general reticence about history was an equal reticence about interfering in the way Elaine Jakes was bringing me up. Elaine, you may know from reading the Curious Autobiography, was more or less a lightly practicing Jew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. 9781480814738_COVER.inddAnd thus, I suspect, Harry felt it might be a breach of etiquette to encourage too strenuously his grandson to go to church, even though Elaine took me to synagogue but rarely, for she herself did not go regularly. Yet, Harry reasoned, if he gave me a record made by a football player speaking about his life—that football player was Bill Glass—then maybe I would listen. Maybe I would connect some dots that he thought, not without reason, I was not already connecting in my life. He was, and rightly so, deeply worried about my moral formation outside of church or, in my case, synagogue. And thus, Harry also thought, I suspect, that perhaps Bill Glass could make a lasting impression on me. Maybe I would even read Stand Tall and Straight, which I suspect he would have bought me for Christmas/Hanukkah if I had liked the recording of Glass speaking on the album that he had insisted I listen to.

Yet, though I was enamored of sports and especially loved football, by 1970 or so, when this was all happening, I had no interest in retired players—they were “old,” they were no longer playing, so I didn’t pay close attention to Mr. Glass’ impassioned appeal to turn to God, to give one’s life to Christ—though I don’t recall the specifics, I do recall the gist of the record. Had I listened, no doubt Harry would have been right to infer that I would have turned my life around—or rather God would have—and been on a better path, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. But that did not happen, not then.bill-glass-on-stadium

Now I forgot about all this for a long time. I forgot about it until a year or two ago when I was biking near the now demolished Floyd Casey Stadium in Beverly Hills, Texas, where the Baylor Bears used to play. On the side of that stadium was a larger than life-size portrait of none other than Bill Glass. I stopped my bike and looked at the poster and I said to myself, “I recall that guy. But how do I know him?” And then, as I resumed my bike journey it came back to me—history, my own history, and that of Harry Jakes as well. The awkward moment when he asked me to listen to the recording of Bill Glass.

And I would have forgotten about that, too, perhaps, but history doesn’t go away and often has a way of coming full circle. Later this week there is a fundraising breakfast for a ministry to the poor in Texas known as Mission Waco/Mission World. That breakfast was to feature Bill Glass himself as the chief speaker—until a week ago, when it was reported that Mr. Glass, now aged 81, has fallen ill and won’t be able to keep his speaking engagement. Needless to say, as a ticketholder to that breakfast, I am disappointed; more importantly, I sincerely wish him a swift recovery. I had hoped to tell him in person what a difference, albeit not at the time but over the course of time in my own personal history, that record album had made.

And thus I write this, on the one hand, for him: to let him know how his own history, many years ago, touched me, for though the message did not take root then, it would later. Within a few years of that moment, his words would come back to me. This time they came afresh in written form in St. Peter’s first epistle, spoken through the mouth of another person with Glass-like compassion—she would later become my wife—in Rome, Italy, a long way from Harry’s home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a long way from Floyd Casey Stadium in Texas or the stadiums of Detroit or Cleveland. And I write this, on the other hand, for all of us, to remind us that history, whether our own, our country’s or simply that of a single individual, can have bearing on the present—redemptive bearing—and that, though we may not see figures of the past with our eyes, if we can recognize them in our minds and our spirits, their words and their lives truly will not lose meaning. Though I may never get to meet him, Bill Glass’ words resound and will continue to resound in my mind. I heard them but once, warbling on a wind-up Victrola nearly a half century ago.

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[1] http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/G/GlasBi00.htm.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Glass.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Kingston upon Hull and Est! Est!! Est!!!

You would think that, being in Italy, I might want to write yet again about Italian food. You might think that the time has come to stop skating around culinary delights here and just come right out and describe a sumptuous feast. I could, perhaps, talk about my time at the lovely Le Naiadi Hotel, Teresa and her lovely daughters at the front desk, or its superb restaurant located on Lake Bolsena; and I could describe the gentle and warm Giustino and his tireless restaurant staff, the superb pastas they prepare and serve, the tasty secondi, accompanied each night by the superlative local vintage Est! Est!! Est!!! That white wine, Montefiascone, is truly remarkable. Somewhat full-bodied (for an Italian white) local production, it preserves just a hint of sweetness amidst a dry background.

Fugger tomb
Tomb of Bishop Fugger

The story goes that a twelfth-century German bishop by the name of Johann Fugger, a wine aficionado, en route to Rome in A.D. 1110 for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, had instructed his attendant, Martin by name,[1] to go ahead of him to identify the finest wines for the cleric to enjoy. The servant would, according to the legend, write on the door of an establishment with good vintage the Latin word for “it is (good wine).” When the servant found Montefiascone he knew he had found an excellent vintage, and rightly (according to my taste, as well) wrote “est” thrice.[2] Of course, the idea that exclamation points were added to emphasize the wine’s goodness is an anachronism, as exclamation points had barely begun to evolve beyond the Latin evocation “io” (a cry of joy recorded in ancient Latin texts that eventually would be transformed into an exclamation point by shifting the ‘I’ above the ‘o’—but was not found widely in manuscripts as such until after the twelfth century). So taken with, even sidetracked by their fine discovery of the wine, were they that Father Fugger and minion Martin never made it to the coronation.

Lake Bolsena
Lago di Bolsena, Italy

But I should get back to the reason I am not going to write about the delicate taste of Montefiascone or the truly fantastic food here in Italy or even the loveliness of Lake Bolsena, a place that it is my first time to visit. That reason is, of course, Brexit, England’s rebellion and unexpected break with the European Union. No, I am not going to get into the politics of that exit—I have my own opinion, and it is as farraginous as it is tiered. Nay, rather I would speak about the courage behind the vote rather than the vote itself.

A recent poll of the denizens of the city of Kingston upon Hull (aka Hull), a town located on the east coast of central England that serves as the gateway for European trade,[3] showed that they, among all Brits, were especially in favor of the UK’s break with the Europeans. The reasons for it are multifarious, but not to put too fine a point on it, I think the people of Kingston upon Hull are at bottom hoping to keep England British. That may indeed be too fine a point; it may be too monolithic an explanation. But it may also be right. The open border policy that the UK has had now for many years and its cred busoncomitant trade agreements have essentially promulgated the dissolution of the British way of life. When’s the last time you heard a “Cheerio!” or a “Pip pip!” or even a “Chin up, then!”? When I am in England I very much miss hearing these things, expressions that once characterized British parlance. At least the occasional “Cheers!” survives.

Now someone might say that such an argument is merely reductionist and that I and all the folks of Hull need to face the fact that the world is changing. Now while that person would surely be right about the world changing, the people of Hull have bravely decided that it can simply change a little more slowly. They cast a vote meant to put the breaks on the rapidity of global change; they voted, nearly three to one for an attempt to preserve the remnant of English culture. And whether you think it’s realistic or not, whether you agree with the risk of doing or not, well that’s another matter, and not the point of this blog. Rather, the point of this blog is that at least one important aspect of Hull’s vote and the vote of the rest of the UK was an attempt to preserve cultural identity.

9781480814738_COVER.inddAnd that is one of the major themes of the Curious Autobiography: that the peculiar ways, the timeless values, the enduring faith that we inherited from our forebears (in my case Welsh forebears) are worthy of being preserved, that they do in fact have meaning, and that hastily and heedlessly tossing them out—particularly for the hope of mere financial gain, even if that is only part of the motivation—is, well, for lack of a better word, heedless. Heedless, yes, and dreadful, too. And yet though it has resisted losing its Britishness, Kingston upon Hull remains, according to The Guardian, ungentrified.[4]

But I say, “Bully for Hull!” and “Bully for Hull’s bravery!” As for whether it will prove to be wise or not[5] and what indeed Brexit will mean for the world, time will tell. But the courage it takes for a single town located at the cross of the Humber and Hull to resist democratically a world telling you that its cultural identity is no longer relevant and that money and the global economy is the only thing worth pursuing, well that is a courage worth commending.[6] Until next time then, I offer you a warm “pip pip” and in the face of the terror that has ruined lives of innocent folks in Istanbul in the last few days, a sincere “chin up!” And to my friends in Hull, I shall close with a “cheers,” one set to the clink of a class of, if you can find it, Montefiascone’s best, Est! Est!! Est!!!Est.est.est wineVino di Montefiascone, Est! Est!! Est!!!


[1] “Curious Legend Surrounds Naming Italian Wine,” NYT (1980), rpt. Bangor Daily News, Apr. 15, 1980 [https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=CHg-AAAAIBAJ&sjid=tVkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=2888,6318448&dq=est+est+est+di+montefiascone+wine&hl=en].

[2] Tom Stevenson, The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia (2005) 286. Wine encyclopedia

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/oct/30/hull-the-city-that-gentrification-forgot

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/oct/30/hull-the-city-that-gentrification-forgot

[5] Some are certain that it is national suicide: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/is-brexit-national-suicide/ and likely to lead to a recession: http://money.cnn.com/2016/06/28/news/economy/uk-economy-brexit-taxes-spending-austerity/index.html. Yet others see benefits: http://time.com/4381865/brexit-trump-global-economy/

[6] I realize that there will be some who will make the opposite argument, namely that it is greed in fact that drove the Brexit vote. I simply answer them in this way: even a less-than-well-informed voter knows that dissolving trade agreements is not likely to promulgate further trade. Nay, the real motivation behind this vote was cultural, not monetary. You’re welcome to disagree, of course. Though I have never been to Hull and I can’t speak from firsthand knowledge of that town, I have a strong hunch that I am right about this. I would love to hear from my British readers on this matter. See also https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/the-sunny-side-of-brexit-staycations-set-to-rise-133358961.html

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Friends

Somewhere in central Texas there is, at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s streets, a place. Its name is My Brother’s Keeper, but those who stay there just call it BK, for short. There’s nothing fancy about the name or the place, or St. Mary’s or St. John’s, for that matter. Though I did not know it as I drove my old Ford in that direction, I had come there that evening to make friends.

BK’s furnishings are Spartan. There are not-very-comfortable looking bunk beds in rooms holding eight or perhaps ten people for a night’s stay. A narrow hallway with chipping paint. A small workroom; a recreational room, smaller yet; in back, a patio with a view of the sunset, for I have come just a few minutes before sunset. In the lobby, I sign in and chat with the staff, Brittany and Dane. But I am not here to hear Brittany’s or Dane’s stories but to tell one, so I thought at the time. At check-in I make a couple of jokes; they laugh. Then, of course, I quip awkwardly about being of Welsh descent. (I don’t know why I do that, since no one in Texas understands Welsh references: I invariably get a strange look.)

Dane writes you in; Brittany, as if performing a magic ritual, gently passes her weapon-detecting wand around your body. She smiles. Her love for all human beings is palpable; it shows in her eyes that twinkle, or rather glow with compassion and gentleness. Neither she nor Dane are dressed like the formal wardens of a proper institution; rather, they are dressed like college students. Perhaps they are just that; I never found out.

Several of the evening’s residents at BK and I go outside on the patio. Just moments before the sun begins its final downward course, I offer a brief spiritual reflection, one that will mention St. John but not St. Mary, even though here the streets cross. I have come to speak, in part, about why a friend of mine has told me that he no longer has faith. What is it that has made him lose his faith? It is the news, bad news about the economy, terrorism, the world going to hell in a hand basket—so he said at any rate. Just when faith could help him, he had walked away from it. He had lost his faith in people he told me. I had agreed with him that faith in people will disappoint; but there is another faith, it is at the place where Mary and John look up at a dying King, a King dying to make us princes and princesses. That story of love is what I wanted to tell because I was thinking perhaps they might well have, indeed are likely to have, faced challenges that could cause them to question their faith. I wanted to encourage them to keep going, keep walking in faith’s path even when what they see, what we all see, looks terribly gloomy and hopeless.

ST JOHN ST

This is the story that I was trying stumblingly to share with only about fifteen of the many who had come to BK that evening. We’re out back, on that patio, where I speak about love, love from above, that allows us to keep faith. I warn against putting too much confidence in people. But I am speaking uncomfortably because I am doing so for an audience of people with no place to go, people of very little means. Some had come there, that evening, carrying their meager belongings in plastic grocery bags, while other brought a dilapidated suitcase from a thrift store, another a limping, tattered quasi-rolling board with one wheel broken—these are the lucky ones, for they have something to bring at all. I am uncomfortable not because they don’t have the American dream. Rather, I am uncomfortable because I do have it, and so much of it. Now someone might say, “That’s just white suburban guilt. Forget about that.” But even if that is the case, I cannot simply forget about it. I cannot because I am at the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s and I am confronted not just with the idea of “the poor” but with people, real people, with names and faces. And stories.

Old Leather Suitcase

David[1] surprised me, for he had a library book, a thick one. “It’s the latest installment in the Divergent series. It’s a dystopia,” he said. Nineteen years old, he was perhaps the youngest in the shelter. He had been a student at a local college. His grandmother, who was raising him had gotten old, he said, too old to help him.

“Your parents?”

“Gone,” he said, “Not in my life. Never really were. My grandma raised us.”

“Us?”

“Yes there are three of us.”

“How did you wind up here?”

“Lost my job, couldn’t pay my rent. I was a student.”

“At college?”

“Yes, just taking my basics at a small two-year. I am hoping to be able to go on for a degree.”

Next to him sat Angelica, formerly a U.S. Coast Guard servicewoman, now looking for a job. She, too, was well read, and disclosed to me her hope of having a library in her own home one day.

“I just love books,” she said. I told her she might like the Curious Autobiography. I asked her a bit more about her story. After her discharge had followed her sister out west, she said—and by west she no doubt meant here, Texas—but her sister had problems, lost her job, was divorced, had to move back east (I think she said Florida) for a job. “Haven’t seen my sister for a long time now. I’ve got nobody here. I lost my job, lost my apartment. I’m trying to get a job. I’ve got an interview tomorrow.”

“I’ll say a prayer,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said and then she paused. After a moment, she told me about her time with the Coast Guard doing drug interdiction. “Drugs are ruining our country,” she said. I agreed.

After hearing more about the harrowing, quite heroic operations she had undertaken on the Coast Guard interceptors and about how a boom winch was mistaken by some drug runners for a Gatling gun, I could hardly stop myself from commenting, “You have an interesting story.

“I haven’t,” she added in closing, “had many friends to tell my story to.” And then, of course, I thought of Cicero, who not only extols friendship—for that is an obvious truism—but explains why it is vital for life. Part of that is the exchange of ideas, the sharing of virtues, and the telling of one’s stories to receptive ears. And that is just what Angelica and I, and David and I, and one or two others, too, were doing. And that is why I had come, for my message was encumbered by my lack of familiarity with that group, my own, tragically genuine, unfamiliarity with poverty. It had been a long time since I had been on the streets of Philadelphia going through garbage cans with Elaine Jakes—too many years.[2] I’d forgotten what it means to be poor. Indeed, I had never really known, for even then, we had a place to sleep that was our own.

Cicero quote1
A rather free, but not inaccurate paraphrase of De Amicitia 86.

That is why I am especially glad to have made my way to the intersection of St. Mary’s and St. John’s. I went thinking that I was doing so to tell a story, one based on love and kindness, on Psalm 14 and John 15 and to share reasons to keep faith even in the midst of life’s challenges and what can be the hardest of times. But I found out that in fact the real reason I was there was to listen to stories, those of David, of Angelica, and one or two others. These are my friends, and their story continues. I pray, too, that faith and friendship will be a part of those stories, and my own, until the final chapter of our books, until the last page is turned.

Cicero quote2
An accurate if truncated translation of De Amicitia 80.

[1] The names of people and even the streets have been changed to allow each individual to maintain their anonymity and, on the off chance that I misremember any of the details, to allow them to keep their personal and unique stories for themselves. Here I reveal merely what I can recall from my visit last week, a glimpse of much more complex and rich lives. BK is a real place that truly helps/empowers the disenfranchised of central Texas to get back on their feet. If you wish to donate, please click on this link or simply purchase a Curious Autobiography t-shirt. All proceeds to go MWMW, of which BK is one ministry.

[2] The Curious Autobiography, pp. 181–82.book buy icon

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reminiscing about New Hope & Adding Letters to a Name

A few years ago I subscribed to the Philadelphia Inquirers online version of the paper. I did it not only to read Faye Flam’s column “Planet of the Apes,” my weekly spiritual challenge workout, but also for sentimental reasons and that New Hope is in the greater Philadelphia area. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography will be able to infer why one might feel nostalgic for New Hope. The setting of most of that book is New Hope, Pennsylvania, a place near Philadelphia and nearer and dearer yet to my heart. If you have been there, you may have at least a general impression of why that might be the case. If you have not been there and you happen to have the opportunity to go, I recommend it. It is a town of paradoxes. On the one hand, it is a very modern place, avant-garde is not a strong enough adjective to describe it. Most of the folks who live there are progressive, inclusive, sometimes open-minded to a fault; that fault, of course, is that sometimes an open-minded person becomes quite close-minded if the person with whom he or she is conversing is not as receptive to new ideas.

historic flag.New HopeOn the other hand, it is a very old place, a place not simply steeped in tradition but equally as much in the history that undergirds that tradition. New Hope is itself a stone’s throw away from Washington’s Crossing State Park, a place the records and preserves the memory of a vital moment in our country’s history. The Fourth of July and that holiday’s incumbent fireworks are serious things in New Hope—the entire Delaware River that separates that hamlet from Lambertville lights up with them, and they’re set off, to this day, I believe, from the bank parking lot. fireworks in New HopeNever mind that the bank is now a Starbucks. It serves the same purpose as the bank, for it’s a place to bump into friends. Those would now likely be folks who used to live there and are back in town, like you, for nostalgic reasons, as the locals have all changed from the old days—well most of them. I think I saw James Martin, our famous woodworker, downtown walking his dog the last time I was there. But perhaps I did not. Perhaps that was just a vision of the old days, when I would see him nearly every day, completely unaware of the depth of his learning under the Japanese master Nakashima, or even the heights to which he had taken that learning.

Cutalossa Mill, Solebury
Cutalossa Mill, Solebury

Indeed, many of the old locals who still abide have migrated to Solebury, which has its own particular quaintness. Some have always lived there, but come downtown less frequently than they used to. “It’s the crowds,” Brad Livzey told me when I last saw him and asked him how often he went into town. “There are just too many people. I get down to Fran’s Pub every once in a while, but honestly, it’s just too crowded—too much traffic.”

And he’s right, all that quaintness makes for a lot of traffic. But to come back to my discussion of that series in the Inquirer to which I alluded earlier. I read it along time ago now, but it is more or less the same as all the others she has written since; in fact, I think she now longer writes it, but rather only a variation on it for another venue, eschewing, even barring God from any aspect of our existence. That article was by Faye Flam, who I imagine still writes a column on how science has solved humanity’s problems and religion and spiritual things are stuff and nonsense. But Faye is really refreshingly honest about it. I actually love that column, because in it she touches upon the question of what is a choice, when it comes to faith, and what is not. And yes, as she says there, “People of faith wonder how we nonbelievers get through the day. Sometimes I’m not so sure myself.” I think she’s exactly right. I think I respect my friends who are atheists sometimes more than those who are believers, because I don’t know how they get through the day, indeed.

That said, I thought I’d close this week’s blog with a poem, one written for none other than Faye herself. Now I am not the first to have responded to Faye’s positions, as some have done so with reasoned and passionate prose, but I may just be the first in verse. It’s a playful ditty, meant not just for her, of course, but for us all, calling us all, if we can hear the call—Faye suggest we can’t, though I suspect at some deep spiritual level (concerning the idea of free will) she is wrong—to rethink our positions. But that’s the progressive child of New Hope in me, calling on all of us to rethink our assumptions. We could be wrong, and we must admit that. Indeed, the person of faith, the normal, boring churchgoing Presbyterian or Lutheran or Catholic knows that; they fight some battle for some minor doctrinal point, about which they could have it round about and upside down. But they also know one more thing: God can’t be wrong and won’t be restrained by our faith or lack thereof. And that is, to the believer, a great comfort. That is faith.

A Letter (or Two) for Faye

Ah, Faye, it will not go away,

No matter what you say, it’s here to stay—

Faith, I mean. And like your name, Faye,

You’re almost there, but need just two letters to complete

What comes in a gentle whisper. And wouldn’t it be neat,

If you knew which two, and could do that feat,

Could make your name and all your ideas whole?

Aye, from your tongue rich and raucous laughter would then roll;

And yet, without those two, what you write is just another way to extol

Empty science, which like empty faith, is void

Of all meaning, and just gets you annoyed

and makes you feel like Sigmund Freud.

On a overcast day, when everything’s symbolic

And the best arguments are simply vitriolic

So you (and I) drink like an alcoholic.

But that’s off topic, Faye, you know,

And I just want to tell you so

About those letters—were they ‘e’ and ‘o’?

No, no, one was an ‘H’, an ‘H’ for the ‘Here I am,’

That Abram heard from the Lamb that made the ram—

The very letter that completed AbraHam.

That’s the same voice, small and still

That spoke to Moses on the holy hill

That does not compete with science but by its will

Completes it, Faye, you see. Or do you see?

The other letter’s like what St. Peter calls a tree,

But means a cross, that is, a “T”.

For on that cross, dear Faye, a bridge was built

Over the river of sin, and past the mire pits of guilt

That makes those insipid disagreements over evolution wilt

By comparison. For to compare God and science, Faye,

You know, it’s silly, really—not to take away from what you say,

Or how strongly your readers feel when they repay

Your invitation to relate their strong opinions, some “for God”

Some “against.” And don’t you find it strangely odd,

That whether we shake our head or nod,

At the end of the day, Faye, He is, like science, here to stay,

And just like science, has much to say to our tomorrow and today?

But with this difference: his is the small still voice that can add, merely with two letters, true life to Faye.