Tag Archives: Elaine Jakes

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Brave, Brave, Brave

This title encompasses the very words typed into a woman’s text message box that I happened to see as I climbed into the shuttle that provided transport for sick people from a remote hotel to the huge, M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston. I didn’t mean to be reading her message, but I sat down behind her and, whether owing to her unfamiliarity with mobile devices or because she was far sighted and needed to hold the telephone a bit away from her face, she had stationed her mobile rather high in the air. And there were those words, “Brave, brave, brave,” typed into the outgoing box and, in a flash, sent. To whom she sent them and what the fuller context of that message was I do not know. But I don’t think she would, in that moment, have found to be comforting the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.”[1]

I think for that woman she would have settled for a hug rather than a kiss, for I can only imagine that either she or her spouse, with whom she boarded the van that morning, has cancer. I expect that they were on their way to see their doctor, as was I, to discuss how far the cancer had progressed or what the treatment options might be. These are not easy discussions for anyone, whether in the doctor’s office or afterward. Doctors too often lack the liberal education they once enjoyed, an education that can produce a demeanor that commands immediate respect and often evidences sharp intelligence; such an education might even mollify to some degree their presentation of the most difficult of diagnoses, cancer. Rather nowadays, doctors—even those who are atop their fields—often come across too much as medical technicians, well-schooled in their craft but not the most personable or sympathetic folk.

And, of course, the patient’s access to the internet has made things both better and worse. One can spend an inordinate amount of time search and re-searching (but not really researching) any aspect of a diagnosis, discovering various treatment options, herbal remedies, blood refurbishing machines, doctors in South Africa or some other exotic location doing experimental things that “won’t be offered in the States for another decade,” or so it is said. And of course, there are those known as healers, too. And every friend will offer you different advice.

But what you really need is what that dear woman wrote: the capacity to be brave in the face of certain danger, possibly death. For me, that sense of peace, that quality of grounding comes from one source, and one only. It doesn’t spring merely from the way I was raised—though Elaine Jakes did instill, I think, the kind of qualities in me as a lad that should have produced a modicum of bravery. She was, after all, a single mother living in the mod, artsy, even hippyesque, New Hope, Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, a town ahead of its time as it progressively anticipated the issues that now face our entire country, even the world. She was indeed brave, in that environment to raise a son on her own, to deal with the pressures of easy access to drugs, permissive sexual attitudes, and the concomitant malaise that such lotus-eating culture can engender. No, as brave as Elaine was and as rich a childhood as I was fortunate to experience, that is not the source of courage of which I speak.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of the kind of bravery that I am speaking of and perhaps that dear woman was alluding to in her text: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” Such bravery means that you know that you can die, that in fact you will die. It is just a question of when. And to have that courage means to love life enough to be courageous in the face of death. For Chesterton also wrote, “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” This idea forms an interesting couplet with the other. The bravery that I aspire to is, in a real sense, contradictory, as it can exist only because fear also exists. Yet, while having a deep sense of pathos (i.e. realizing that life can be lost), it mysteriously relies on a certain piece of ethereal knowledge: the presumed fact that the One that Chesterton spoke of so often and so articulately is not only the superabundant (the correct word here is propitiatory) Redeemer but the authentic Healer, as well. Whether St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is right or not about pain being the “kiss of Jesus,” I don’t know. But I do know that knowing that God has any situation all under control can produce courage. That courage will indeed make you “Brave, brave, brave.” I pray that, come what may, such will be the case for the woman in the shuttle, and for us all.

[1] Mother Teresa, No Greater Love (New World Library, Novato, CA, 1997) 137.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mother of All …

thinking-bikes-solidWell, Mother’s Day has come and gone. I had it in my mind last week, when I chose to write a blog entitled, “Dancing in Heaven.” In that blog the first dance for me was with Elaine Jakes, my mother, as admittedly I had been thinking about seeing her again—an idea perhaps quite foreign to some, i.e. that we shall ever see anyone again who has died or that, after our death we can “see” anything at all. But objections aside, I did think of seeing her again, as I said last week, and this occurred on my bicycle no less, and I did so leading up, fittingly, to Mother’s Day. But it also was leading up to the date of her passing from this life to the next, the anniversary of which will be this week. Because I thought also, on that bicycle ride, of something else.

Of course, that something else was Saddam Hussein. I thought of the strange imprint that Saddam Hussein has made upon American, possibly even global Anglo-speaking culture. For it was, as I recall, Saddam Hussein, who introduced the inceptive words of the phrase “the mother of all X, Y, or Z,” to popular diction.

In this image cleared by the US military, Saddam Hussein appears in a courtroom at Camp Victory, a former Saddam palace on the outskirts of Baghdad, Thursday, July 1, 2004. (AP Photo/Karen Ballard/Pool)I recall it was during the first Gulf War when Saddam Hussein called the immanent engagement with the American-led coalition forces, “The Mother of All Battles.” That was, I think the original “MOAB.” Before that, I don’t think “the mother of all anything” was common in English,[1] unless it was a literal reference to someone who in fact did mother everyone, e.g. the mother of all the children in the house, the “mother” of all the sick in the hospital, the “mother of” (or really “to”) all the animals in the shelter. Or perhaps, piously speaking, one might think of Mother Teresa,

Mother Theresa

who was the mother of all the poor of Calcutta. But we came to know the phrase, “The Mother of…,” meaning the “largest of” or “greatest of,” from a less than winsome individual, Saddam Hussein.

 

But normally when we say “the mother of all” we refer to the earth, who nurtures us with her bounty. Or, recently, we saw that the “Mother of All Bombs” was dropped in Afghanistan. Clearly that was a big and powerful bomb. moabBut strange it was, at least for me, to see it written as MOAB, as that reminds me of a tribe of Israel that is not infrequently talked about in the Old Testament. One recalls that they descended from Lot’s son, Moab, the child of an incestuous relationship Lot had, ironically as she would become also a mother, with his oldest daughter (Genesis 19:37). His descendants settled just to the east of the River Jordan. The book of Numbers tells us that the Moabites finally settled in a valley known as Arnon (21:26ff.). From the point of view of the people of Israel and Judah, this region was a barren land, characterized by desolate plains and not infrequently overrun by Amorites, though of course there were mountains there, too. Mount Nebo, located in modern-day Jordan, was the most prominent of these, for the book of Deuteronomy tells us that Moses died there (34:1-4); and Mt. Pisgah, too, the vantage point from which Moses had that important view of the Promised Land that he would never enter, is a ridge of that very Mt. Nebo.map-of-moab

But this is Moab, not the “Mother of All Battles” or “Bombs” for that matter. Moab and the Moabites have a link to motherhood, as Ruth, a young woman from an apparently pagan religious tradition—a far cry from the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—hailed from Moab; she was the daughter-in-law of the nominally bitter Naomi. Though Naomi was aggrieved about the death of her two sons, Ruth, who had been married to one of them, nonetheless followed her out of Moab with the famous words “For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God, my God” (Ruth 1:16). She is the same Ruth, a Moabitess, who is one of three women named by Matthew in his genealogy of Jesus at the opening of his gospel (1:5). So, perhaps Ruth, could be seen as “The Mother of All Grandmothers” (or at least “Forebears”). And that is an irony, of course, for grandmothers should be grander than mothers.

But lately there has been a greater irony, if you can imagine, for the “Mother of all babies” showed up in California weighing 13 and a half pounds. Now I am one of those folks who is oblivious to baby sizes. When someone tells me the dimensions of their child as if the child were a room being sized for a carpet or as if the child were a sailboat that is for sale, I never find myself trying to imagine the size of the baby. They might as well have said, “He’s a big boy,” or “rather small” (depending on the child’s size), or an “ample lass” or, mutatis mutandis, a “paltry one.” For this is more meaningful to me, when it comes to an infant, than inches or pounds. Yet that said, even I know that thirteen and a half pounds is simply huge. It would, according to Saddam Hussein’s rhetoric, have to qualify as the “Mother of All Babies”—there’s that MOAB again. And that is, of course, a great irony.

But I’ve recently read, too, in that same Washington Post article cited above (n. 1), that many folks find it thoroughly sexist (even “grotesque”) to call anything the “mother of all,” as it could be offensive, especially because the expression, as we have already established, often refers to size. And no one would like to suggest that anyone’s mother is overweight (though it has been known to happen in postpartum circumstances). But better not to talk about it, of course.

So I shall close by moving in a politically correct direction, if only incidentally: I shall cease and desist, at least in this blog, from speaking about the mother of anything, except to say that I am deeply grateful for all the mothers in my life, my own, and those who, like Sheila Rosenthal or my own grandmother, Blanche Evans Jakes, played the role of mother when I was but a lad; or my wife, whose kindness has principally fostered the growth of a sizeable family—but not the mother of all families, lest I thereby suggest maximal size. To all the mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day belatedly, and may you have babies rather smaller than 13.5 lbs., and each find a kind person like Ruth to make your life richer.

[1] Further on this see a recent article by Travis M. Andrews in the Morning Mix section of The Washington Post, entitled, “Phrase, ‘Mother of All Bombs’ Decried as ‘Sexist,’ ‘Grotesque’,” 14 April 2017 (www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/04/14/mother-of-all-bombs-jargon-decried-as-sexist-grotesque-it-exists-because-of-saddam-hussein/).

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Air

On hearing a marvelous pianist, my friend, Helge Antoni play Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite Opus no. 40” this week, I found myself stopping and thinking. I thought generally of music’s transformational qualities, its capacity to transport you from one state of mind to another, almost from one place to another. But when he played the fourth movement of that suite, “Air,” that is when I thought of something else: time.

edvard-grieg
Edvard Grieg

I say time not because I found myself thinking of the work’s title in Norwegian (Frå Holbergs tid) or even a language that I actually can speak like German (Aus Holbergs Zeit)—Little did I know until later that “time” (tid) was even in the original title. Nor was it the fact that the piece was written in 1884 to celebrate something that had occurred a bicentenary before, the commemoration of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth; that detail I found out at the concert, though I think I had read it somewhere previously. But I had forgotten that when I was thinking about time, even as I listened intently to Mr. Antoni playing the piece so movingly, so timelessly.

If you recall the movements of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, you perhaps already know that they are based on eighteenth-century dance forms that were themselves connected with Baroque music, the music and the style of dance that came from when Holberg himself was living. [1] The Holberg Suite, then, was written to do precisely what it did for me, to transport someone through time to a previous epoch.

But the epoch in which I found myself was not two hundred years before. It was just a few years ago when Elaine Jakes died. For it was not the style of a Norwegian dance form from the seventeenth century that created an image in my mind, but it was the transcendent quality of the suite’s fourth movement, “Air,” that seeped into my soul and took me back, specifically to my mother’s death. Not in sadness or despair, but in an idea, an image. And that image originally occurred to me when I first encountered Death. For when I first encountered Death I had, as all of us perhaps at some point in our lives, never known him. He had been a distant reality to me, something that happened to other people, like a terrible disease or a horrendous accident or natural disaster.

hercules-alcestis
Hercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1869–71

I was twenty when my grandfather, Harry Jakes, died. And hitherto I hadn’t entered into the holy land by way of reading. The notion of someone who could defeat death, like Heracles come to bring Admetus’ dear Alcestis back from the grave, was not an image, even in Dionysian theatrical terms, that had jelled in my mind or occurred to my spirit. Rather, Death entered Harry’s hospital room with a strong upper hand as I and my cousin Eric had, moments before, looked upon him, wired with tubes and grasping at his last few moments of life. We stepped out, hungry and in need of something to eat, when we were called back from the hospital’s canteen to the room, too late. He was gone. His soul had flitted away, on air, not even the Air of the Holberg Suite, but just air. Death had won, for now. But Air is written to be played in andante.

Andante religioso, to be precise. And thus it was that Death’s victory was but short-lived, for in just a few months I found myself, for the first time, entering into that holy land of which I spoke, encountering a literary force much stronger than the Euripidean Heracles. But that force was something greater than even a literary force, or even one made popular at the time (and incredibly still so) by a movie and, later, series of films. Indeed I was not on Miltonian ground, I knew before I heard Air what andante religious really meant. And that is why when I attended my grandmother’s funeral and when I came down the stairs the morning of my mother’s death to find her cold body lying in her bed, I knew that her spirit had risen on the air, the air of Greig’s fourth movement of the Holberg Suite. That Air leads to the joyous opening of the fifth, Rigaudon, a piece that is written to be “alive with energy,” allegro con brio. How fitting, for Grieg’s Air doesn’t just dissolve. It wafts, it wafts somewhere.

And so had Harry, though I knew it not. And Blanche. And, thirty years or so after them, Elaine. Their spirits had not just passed away, but had climbed, not simply “up” to a sky deity but to the Master’s home, a home beyond the sky. They had all gone, by faith, allegro con brio. And before they left they had given me a gift—not a cheese plate or a serving tray or even a teapot with a most interesting brown, undulating pattern. No, they had given me the faith to envision, or perhaps the vision to believe that the air on which our souls shall one day climb, leads somewhere, until we shall, about the supreme throne, of Him t’ whose happy-making sight alone, forever sit, attired with stars, in triumph over Death, and Chance, and even Time. But not Air. For when that day comes, that is precisely what we shall breathe, con molto brio.

Helge Antoni
Helge Antoni

[1] Further, cf. http://www.favorite-classical-composers.com/holberg-suite.html.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On the Passing of 2016

jan-1No, it is not normal to talk about the passing of a year as if you were speaking about the death of a terminally ill friend who had been suffering for a very long time. Yet for some folks the end of 2016 could not come soon enough. Love ones were lost. The weather was weird. The EU began to fray with the UK’s exodus. The Austrian election was on a razor’s edge. The Italians seem to have changed course. And the American election—well, that was flat out brutal. The desire to see 2016 come to an end was even the case for a friend of mine, a pastor, who is himself publically quite doggedly apolitical. Too much sadness generally in the world this year for him and for many of us. (Though he votes dutifully, he views political solutions as largely temporary, whereas he is in the business, as it were, of eternal solutions. Point taken.)

Other friends of mine, on the left, of course, felt that 2016 was the year to end all years politically, if not apocalyptic at least revelatory of serious fissures in the democratic bedrock of the past eight years. What looked like a sure thing for them turned out to evaporate quickly in a 48-hour period just before the election. Maybe even fewer hours than that. Other of my friends, those on the right, not only want 2016 to end but the first twenty days of 2017 to go as quickly as possible. They are alarmed by the Obama administration’s calculated abstention on the recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement of the West Bank. They are also alarmed at President Obama antagonizing the Russian government in retaliation to hacking. It all seems to me a rather tough nut to crack, whether you grip the nutcracker with your left or right hand.

Harry Jakes
Harry Jakes

But I want to return to the idea of the year passing away. While it can be useful and occasionally inspiring to mark time by big occasions, like the change of the year on 1 January, or by your birthday, or even by a secular holiday like Presidents’ Day or Labor Day or, most noble of them all, Memorial Day, it can also be tough and painful to mark the year by the day on which someone died. I know that it is virtually impossible not to do so. My grandfather, Harry Jakes, died on Father’s Day in 1979. His daughter, Elaine, to whom this entire website is dedicated, died on May 23, 2011. Yet I have chosen not to mark the day of their passing with gloom or anxiety or regret. Rather, I prefer to reflect fondly, as I had when they were alive, on their birthdays.

And maybe that is the way we should reflect on the entirety of the year 2016. It was a very tough year politically—both parties in America seem to have found ways to stoop to new lows—and the campaign rhetoric wasn’t just hot, it was foul. But it is over now, and the future lies before each one of us, a future we can either worry our way walking backwards into or we can boldly turn forward to embrace and find a way to bring good to whatever situation we might find ourselves in. And though we saw the passing of some beloved celebrities, particularly Princess Leah (Carrie Fisher), tragically and suddenly followed by her mother, the equally iconic Debbie Reynolds, at least Betty White is doing well, and there was no need for the Go Fund Me Keep Betty White alive page, the proceeds of which now can be given to charity. A little weird, but hey, at least Betty White is still going strong.[1]

And my pastor friend—well, maybe he has a point. Maybe we should be more concerned about eternal things than those that are merely ephemeral. If we were to do so, we might be a bit more optimistic, for everlasting things have the backing not just of eternity but the Maker of eternity, the Granter of the gift of time to us all, and the Giver of humanness and humaneness to beings who often comport themselves in ways less than human.

On that note, I wish you and all my readers a very happy new year, the best of success and some joy with the turning of the calendar year, whether your joy derives from wistful thinking about past leadership or hopeful thinking about new, or from Betty White’s good health, or from the aforementioned gift of time, that is to say simply from there being a new year at all, and the relegation of 2016 to the past, for that is where it will soon be. Happy New Year! Wishing you (and Betty White, too) all the best!

Betty White
Betty White

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/nation-now/2016/12/28/man-launches-gofundme-protect-betty-white-2016/95904556/

 

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: Coming Home

coffee mug-assassinsYou get up every morning, you go to work, you try to be as nice as you can to your co-workers, one of whom is that grumpy one—not the curmudgeon who is curmudgeonly simply to be funny, to preserve the appearance of a crusty persona, who has a coffee mug with an ominous warning such as those given below (my personal favorite is “Good morning, I see the assassins have failed” or, really, the one with the little bird)—but rather, one who is genuinely a grouch. The one you have verbally to dance around, you have to be careful what you say and, in fact, even when you say what you’re sure is the right thing, he—usually he—or she will find fault, will turn something positive you said or did into something negative by what seems to you deliberate misinterpretation. Indeed, probably most of us, have someone with whom we work around whom we have to be especially careful what we say, whether that person happens to be especially politically correct, seemingly alwaycoffee mug-aholes waiting to pounce with (at the very least) a disapproving look because something slightly un-PC drifted from the barrier of your teeth, or because they are the boss and they want everyone to know that they are the boss. They want everyone in the office or on the floor to know that you are below them, that they outrank you. Add to this a steady state in which you can’t have a good idea; add to that, if you do, they might just appropriate it for themselves.

Now if you’re not able to relate to that previous paragraph at this moment—for example, if you have a job for which you don’t dread going to work or even dread going into that certain person’s cubicle or workspace—then count yourself exceptionally lucky. And count yourself luckier yet if you can’t recall ever having that experience, if you’ve always had the kind of charmed existence whereby which you’ve gleefully gone to work without the slightest angst over organizational squabbling, never thinking “Gosh, did I say the right thing?” when you left someone’s office.

coffee mug-jugdingBut I doubt many have that charmed of an existence. And for those of us who do not, then once the day is done, once we have done our job and followed our calling to the best of our ability that day in our comportment, words, and deeds, then the whistle blows, whether literal or figural, and it is time to go home. And there is nothing quite like coming home at the end of a long day, if indeed you have a home to go to, if you have someone there for whom you care and who cares about you. And somehow just knowing you have a home, a place where you’re appreciated just for being you—with all your faults, foibles, and fears—gives you strength to carry on, and renews your inner being so that you can get up the next day, take a deep breath and head off to work again with a fresh attitude, a broadening smile, and a hope for a better day, even with your crusty old boss or difficult co-worker.coffee mug-nope

Based on conversations I’ve had with friends whom I know not just in America but in many places in this dark world and wide, it seems to me that the world these days is caught up in the first paragraph. I mean that both literally—most of the folks I talk to have that person at work before whom they find themselves having to be especially accommodating and speak especially carefully—and metaphorically, for the world seems to be in a deleterious state. Maybe it has been heading that way for a long time now—I don’t know. But however that may be, it most certainly is in a negative funk. And here’s an idea why this may be the case: the world has lost a sense of home. Or perhaps it is rather merely that notion of home has eroded; when I say eroded, I do not mean that it has just changed, but I mean that it has declined, deteriorated. It has become a stuffy place, its air has become stale, its aura less than welcoming.

coffee mug-sshhHow so? Let’s start with what makes a home: that’s a family. Though a family is of course not specifically a physical space, it is nonetheless a place where you can breathe, catch your breath, take a deep breath for fresh air again. I spoke yesterday to a friend who has a twelve-year-old daughter. He loves his daughter and spent last Saturday with her. “Wonderful,” I said. Gingerly I queried about the rest of his family, but carefully suspecting that because he spent the day with his daughter that he was divorced—for otherwise he would have said “we” (meaning he and his wife) had spent the day with the child. As I suspected, he is divorced. He has a girlfriend; they’ve been dating about four years. She lives in Rome, he in Viterbo. They see each other once or twice a month, usually on a weekend.

Now I thought about his situation—and someone might say, “Who are you to judge?” and that person might well be right, but thinking about someone’s situation is not necessarily “judging” anyone—and as I thought about it, this occurred to me: inasmuch as his daughter lives with his wife (in Vetralla, a town or two away), he has no one to come home to. He goes to work, interacts with his co-workers, probably puts up with the one that no one gets along with, and then doesn’t have anyone to go home to. Maybe he has a dog or a cat, but not a person to talk to. And while someone might object and say not everyone feels the need for someone to talk to, I would suggest that the indivegetablesvidual’s perception of need and the actuality of need may be different. Not everyone thinks they need to eat green vegetables. One can do fine with merely bread, meat and potatoes for quite a long time; but green vegetables are indisputably good for you and virtually everyone except children knows one should eat them, if they are available.

I’d like to close with another aspect of coming home that is missing from my friend’s life and from many lives: church. Church is a kind of spiritual home, a place that, for all its faults (just as a family has many faults) provides something like a larger home for a family or individual. Indeed, for single folks, divorced folks and for others who for whatever reason are alone, church can take over the role of refuge that family provides. You can go to church and come to know others there who can help you through the rough times. They, too, likely have bosses or co-workers who are difficult. They, too, know what it means to be lonely. They, too, know what it means to struggle with faith, to feel abandoned by God even th

Stockton church
Elaine Jakes’ church, Stockton Presbyterian in Stockton, NJ, whose services offer inspiration

ough we most certainly are not. And they can pray for you, with you, and over you. They can help you breathe. They become your family. Elaine Jakes rediscovered this reality late in her life at Stockton Presbyterian Church.

I leave you, my reader, with this final thought, not that work can be a drag and you should find some kind of relief, but rather that we all find challenges in the work to which we have been called, and we should seek inspiration to face those challenges. The root of the Latin word for “breathe” is in the middle of inspiration. Fresh air, a refreshing breeze can be found in family and faith. Go home, and breathe.

9781480814738_COVER.indd

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Italian Toothpaste

Italian toothpasteIt is not only Italian toothpaste that teaches you that variety is the spice of life. A brief story will illustrate this point. I met my father only when I was in my mid-forties. I had managed to live out the majority of my life as the son of Elaine Jakes, a person so vivacious, so sui generis, so unique that there is a book written about her even though she was a mere schoolteacher. I say “mere” because most schoolteachers—or at least schoolteachers from Neshaminy District’s Cherry Street (later Oliver Heckman) School—don’t have books written about them. And it was this schoolteacher, whose piebald life tapestry, whose robust embrace of diverse cultures, whose predilection for atypical choices, first taught me that variety is the spice of life.

Then I met my father, and I soon learned that interestingly enough he had a boat named The Spice of Life. By the time he died—he and Elaine, who had not seen each other since they were 25 years old, died but two days apart in May of 2011—The Spice (for that is the foreshortened name by which the eldest of my younger brothers, Scott, calls the boat) was my father’s most precious earthly possession. Now I say possession quite pointedly, for I exclude his beautiful family, his charming wife, Nan, and the four brothers whom I never really knew (though I’ve now met a few times) along with his extended family.

But to return to variety being the spice of life. The boat by that name is a beautiful vessel, nearly all mahogany, if I am not mistaken, though of course I could be, as I saw it but once. That vision of it came at the Clayton boat show in Clayton, New York, on the St. Lawrence Seaway. thousand islandsIt was a privilege for me to tag along with my father and brother Scott, to see what my brother’s life must have been like in a boating family. A far cry from the spice of life that my mother had shown by her randomness, but a beautiful alternative—a fine family, and a wonderful weekend for me and, I think, for my brother, father and Nan, as well.

Sadly, I haven’t a picture of my father’s boat, but I have found a picture of another similar boat that at least captures the spirit of the kind of vessel about which I am speaking. Sadly, this one features a beautiful boat marred by bad Latin, as the boat’s name should read mahagony boatSenex Turpis, “Bitter Old Man” (but more on that and erroneous tattoos another time). This is not the type of plastic hulled boat that a real boatman might disdainfully call “Tupperware.” Rather, it is a carefully crafted vessel, a boat meant to last for years, to run about on the seaway belonging to Saint Lawrence, allowing its pilot to visit Canada on occasion or to go to the inlet where my father’s ashes and those of his brother, Hollis, are scattered.

But I return to Italian toothpaste, which is where we started. If one should have boring parents, which I clearly did not—The Curious Autobiography records 9781480814738_COVER.inddhow Elaine bought a monkey, which she bedizened with a dress and called my sister, even though it turned out to be a boy and thus actually my brother—one can learn from something as interesting as Italian toothpaste that variety really is the spice of life. The picture I think tells the story pretty well, though Marvis makes many more flavorsscotch toothpaste beyond these, including Jasmine. And I’ve learned, too, of Scotch Whiskey flavored toothpaste, but I’ve never seen nor tried it (nor been tempted to try it).

In the end, I suppose one’s mother, one’s father and indeed one’s toothpaste teach the same lesson: variety is the spice of life. And if one wants some of that spice, one should then seek actively after such variety in this life, seek to embrace those who are diverse. Seek not sameness but difference. Were we to do that, I think we would be living like the wise carpenter from Galilee, who taught that the “different” (a Samaritan) could do far better than the “religious” in a story about a man who was mugged, beaten and left for dead; or a woman at a well, who had never found a source quite like that wandering and solitary Rabbi. It would not be the issue of a certain color of skin particularly mattering, but a person’s soul and view of the world that mattered. But I’m talking about Italian toothpaste, I’m talking about the spice of life, whether a boat, or monkey or a way to clean your teeth. (By the way, I’m suspicious of that six proof toothpaste; I suggest you stay away from the whiskey, especially before your morning commute.)

riggs,scott,hr
H.R. Jakes (center) with his brother (Scott) and their dad.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Pocahontas, Turtles, and Justice

Pocahontas statue
Statue of Pocahontas

It has been an interesting week in America. So I thought I would write a blog that reflected my perception of the past few days. I begin with Pocahontas, who has been in the news because one candidate has decided to call another politician—Elizabeth Warren, not a candidate per se, but perhaps surreptitiously campaigning for a vice presidential nod—by that noble name. Now I am not advocating the insouciant use of the names of historical figures to describe just anyone at any time; but I did find it rather droll that the leading republican candidate underscored Ms. Warren’s apparently tenuous claim to Native American ancestry by using a historical reference that is politically incorrect yet somehow amusing. What to my mind makes that so? I am not sure, and I am still pondering my love–hate relationship with both of the leading candidates for president in the upcoming American election. Or maybe I just have a love–hate relationship with the democratic society we live in, and it has been distilled into my views of both the leading candidates. I don’t know. But I like Pocahontas, at least what I know of her, which is in part legend (or is it history, since it largely comes from John Smith’s own account), of her having intervened with her own tribe when that captain was taken prisoner by the Tsenacommacah in 1607. At about the tender age of 11, she allegedly offered her own head for Smith’s when her father, the chief of the tribe, was about to execute him.[1]

Now I rehearse this tale because the Pocahontas remark would work much better were Elizabeth Warren to understand and empathize with the views of her political opponents, as Pocahontas empathized with John Smith; or if Elizabeth Warren did something really heroic (like offer her head for Donald Trump’s). But maybe in attacking the republican nominee on twitter (how divinely Hicthcockian) she could be viewed as taking the blame for the attacks of the Clinton camp—yet they seem to do their own attacking well enough. But enough politics, enough history, and on to something else: turtles.

turtles
Assembly of Turtles

I turn to turtles next because I like them, even though they have been blamed recently for spreading salmonella. It is the title of the article that reported this contagion that grabbed me: “Salmonella Outbreaks are Being Caused by Turtles.” I suppose, given that it is in the passive voice, I should have been more alarmed by that, as many expository writing professors and tips-for-writing websites these days, have blacklisted the passive voice. Now the title of the article sounds delightfully diabolical, doesn’t it? I can just imagine the Synod of Turtles gathering somewhere to discuss their sinister plans for the coming year—ways to get back at inattentive human beings for outrages such as turtle soup or “shell games,” which they misperceive as always referring to turtle shells, or the like. “Let’s spread salmonella,” one of the more aggressive turtles says! The stenographic turtle asks for clarification, “How is salmonella spelled?”

“Will you stop with that accursed passive voice?” the turtle leader retorts (not realizing that “accursed” is itself a passive participle). “We must retaliate for that new flavor of ice cream made out of the bodies and shells of our brothers and sisters around the world. Let us smite them with germ warfare!” (Elaine Jake’s favorite flavor [or really confection] of ice cream was turtle crunch. I will ever hold the memory of taking her to Katie’s Custard in Beverley Hills, Texas, for a turtle sundae as dear and cherished.)

Justice statue
Statue Representing Justice

Finally, and much more seriously, I come to justice. I close with this because I wanted to suggest that while it is perhaps not the most important value in life—charity, mercy and forgiveness have to rank up there with it—it is close. In fact, the three just mentioned can only make sense if there is such a thing as justice. Now sometimes, we forget about these three when we seek justice. Sometimes we are so fixated on obtaining justice that nothing but justice, even retribution—“making someone pay,” clouds our perception and obfuscates mercy. That may have happened this week when a major university president was relieved of his post because of the evil behavior of some students on his campus. These students did the unspeakable, they committed rape. Nothing good came or could ever come of their actions, nothing good was intended by it. They felt empowered because they were athletes. Should their coach have known about their attitudes toward women? Yes, I suppose in a sense he should have, and he should have shown them a better way. Or he should never have allowed them on his team in the first place. But the college president is not down in the trenches the way a coach is. I only ask whether mercy could have been shown. There is perhaps no obvious answer to those of us who only saw this story from afar. But there is the perception, specifically one of overcorrection, for it is hard to see how a college president can be held responsible for the actions of all of his

Mercy statue
Statue Representing Mercy

students. Could he have done more to prevent it? Well, the people around him probably could have; but unless he micromanaged, he could not have prevented it. And in any case, assuming that there is an easy fix for sins as egregious as rape is, to my mind, naïve.

 

But I should perhaps stick with sweet themes such as turtle ice cream or politically incorrect themes such as Pocahontas, to whom I return now, in closing. The point I think that Mr. Trump was trying to make is that, as another vice presidential candidate (Lloyd Bensten) once said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Change the words Jack Kennedy to Pocahontas and you get the gist, though it would date Mr. Trump a few years.

PC 94 not dated, ca. 1942 Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942. Photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.
Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day, my readers. Please remember those who, like John F. Kennedy, served our country nobly in the military, risking all, suffering harm, and in many cases fearlessly forfeiting their lives so we could enjoy this noble day.

Memorial day graves

[1] https://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/pocahontas-her-life-and-legend.htm. Some six years later the Indian princess was herself captured by Captain Samuel Argall and used as a bargaining chip to secure prisoners and weapons that her father had taken in raids on the English. During her incarceration she encountered some who brought her to an understanding of Christianity and she eventually converted and the next year she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, though she would die by the age of twenty-two. The precise cause of her early demise is not known.