Tag Archives: New Hope Pa

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Remembering

Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, perhaps for most, it is some sort of recognition of the birth of the baby Jesus. Some may think of Him as a sweet child born to a poor couple when they were engaged in a long journey, who found shelter in in a stable and used an animal trough as the infant’s first crib. They would, of course, at some level be right. Others might think of that baby as the King of Kings come to earth to begin the mission of redemption. Those who believe this have embarked on their own journey, the journey of faith. For others—thought they are not others per se, since they can indeed be a part of either of these groups—Christmas is a time to remember. It encompasses the recollection of bygone Christmases, special rituals or practices that our parents or grandparents, were we lucky enough to have them, carried out.

Perhaps they built a Christmas yard and, as my mother Elaine would do, make up a story to suit the way she constructed the yard that year. Perhaps Christmas for them involved inviting someone over for Christmas, an older couple or a single old man, like Mr. Charles Miller, who lived across the parking lot from us in New Hope (see pp. 108-114 in the Curious Autobiography; Billboard Magazine, Oct. 29, 1938, p. 12). He loved coming to our small apartment for Christmas breakfast, loved having the fellowship and conversations with us. He had been famous for composing Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, which had been a Broadway score. He was, when we knew him as our neighbor, a pensioner, a widower, I imagined at the time, probably in his early seventies, though he seemed older than that, as he suffered from some degeneration of the spine and was slightly hunched over. Mr. Miller seemed old, even smelled old to me, though I was but a lad at the time. As far as I could tell, he was more or less a recluse, or at least reclusive. He rarely had a visitor, rarely went out. But Christmas morning was something he truly looked forward to, and for at least four or five Christmases in the late sixties and early seventies, Mr. Miller was a fixture at our Christmas breakfast. He loved to recall his days as a musician, composer, and, oddly enough, as a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Browns baseball team of 1912. I don’t think Mr. Miller spoke to too many folks so, when he made his annual Christmas morning visit, it was for him truly a joyous day.

For me even as a child, that family tradition, even if somewhat short-lived, as we would move away in a few years and I never saw Mr. Miller again, gave Christmas day real meaning, a real sense of caring for another person. I remember the value of those days, the human value, itself analogous in its mercy to the mercy that the innkeeper must have shown for that young couple with a baby some 2000 years ago, and the mercy that the baby showed and shows to all humanity.

So, if you celebrate Christmas, I think you would do well, in whatever way you celebrate it, to remember. For that is a human thing, whose intrinsic value is highlighted by the transcendent mercy that showed itself in humility in a manger of old, far away, yet nearer, perhaps, than we might think.  Merry Christmas!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Daily Bread

The Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci, 1495–1498

I recently visited an old friend of mine in Frenchtown, New Jersey, not far away from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he and I both grew up. He has some life challenges and he is receiving Disability Compensation. That means he has as good a life as he can have under the circumstances, for when one is “on Disability” there are likely to be some obvious challenges. He faces them every day, and I am proud of the way he handles them and I am proud to be his friend.

Stained glass window of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Deseronto, Ontario

And I am glad to share some memories with him and to have them of him. I was visiting him, as it turned out, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We talked a bit about the significance of those holidays, what they meant. I told him that I believe that Maundy Thursday is derived from the word Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene, who some interpret to have been the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet for burial at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13). While I don’t know if she is that woman—to my mind it would be strange for Matthew not to have mentioned that—I do think that tradition held it was her and the association with the anointing of his feet for burial and with the last supper on that Thursday eventually crystalized, and thus the Thursday was called Maundy, a corruption over time of an adjective (or the genitive case) of Magdalene.

But I wax pedantic. Of course, the sermon that we heard that evening was the other possible interpretation: that Maundy is a corruption of the Latin “mandatum,” so called because that evening Jesus gave his disciples the “mandate” to love one another. That is, I admit, also possible.

But I wax pedantic again, for the real point of this blog is my friend, by visiting whom I was blessed. I went there, back home to New Hope to bless him. I went to go to church with him, to take him out to dinner a couple of evenings and to encourage him in his life and faith. But I didn’t expect that he would bless me.

His blessing wasn’t just one thing, it was many. It was his smile, the faith we share, the hope we have. The vision of each other, I imagine, well and entirely healed in Heaven someday, me from my sinful self, him from his disability. So I went to bless, thinking I would bless him. But he blessed me.

And the one moment where that blessing really hit home was when we were just leaving his church in Frenchtown, for he worships there in a fine old Presbyterian church. He hasn’t much money, so he really couldn’t offer me a “gift” per se. But he did something better than that: he took from the small table that holds worship materials a complimentary copy of Our Daily Bread for March, April and May of 2018 and he offered it to me.

That evening after we had dinner and I had dropped him off at his apartment, back in my hotel room in New Hope I happened to open to the 11th of April, which even though it was not the date corresponding to the reading, I read because it is my granddaughter’s birthday. The short devotional for that date is entitled, “How Long?” And I thought of how long I had known my friend, how long he had struggled with his disability, how long I have taken my own health and life for granted. And I thought of that vision of Heaven that I mentioned just above, with all the souls there well, able, and free from the sin that drags each one of us down in this life. And I thought, “How long?” And here I quote from the close of that short devotion, written by Bill Crowder: “In our seemingly endless moments of struggle, His unfailing love will carry us.”

I think that that will be enough for this life, for we certainly are here for but a short time. And in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you wind up being more blessed by someone whom you try to bless than you actually ever bless them. For that is often the way that blessing works.

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: “Just Sayin'”

just sayin

“Just sayin’” is not just a Philly expression, but it might as well be. I’d love to know where it actually started, because it sounds to me as Philadelphian as an expression can possibly be. Just sayin’.

But what does it mean? Once all the Philly-ease and Philly accent is stripped away—that is to say, when one translates it from the vernacular to the highbrow, mutatis mutandis it might be rendered, “If you will permit me to broach the subject” or perhaps more directly, “Might I take the liberty of mentioning…?” And a person who would use such language might feign not enjoying talking about what they are talking about, however prurient his or her interest in the subject might be.

Along the same lines but more negatively, another person might use the expression haughtily. Such a rendering might be “If one really must descend to such considerations” or the like. Now this person might in fact share the same immodest interest as the person in the previous example, but he or she would not want you to know it; hence the apparent disdain. The topic is portrayed, of course, as well below that person’s normal level of discourse. Yet by pretending to be compelled to speak about it in this way, the person has an immediate out. That person enjoys complete deniability for, with the modal verb of compulsion, he has cleverly redirected the blame for the topic of discussion to a fictional conversational interloper or, worse, to you yourself.

But we have not exhausted the full range of the seemingly innocuous but actually quite potent expression “Just sayin’.” For there is also a rather crusty, even crude and inappropriate aspect to that declaration. Beneath the surface lurks a certain incongruity. In such a case, its user is essentially stating “I shouldn’t mention this, but I will anyway” (along with an implied, “I don’t care what you think about that”). This occurrence, what I am calling the “crude” usage, may actually be seen as an improvement over the first two because, on the surface at least, it seems more honest. It seems fresh, even brash; it seems to be ignoring the rules of proper etiquette, and maybe even smacks of a kind of “truth and nothing but the truth” of the courtroom or barber’s chair.

barber's chairIndeed, this third category—the one involving the barber’s chair—seems to me the most interesting and is why I decided with this blog to broach the subject of the sometimes quite condensed but too often indelicate expression “just sayin’.” Don’t get me wrong: I like honesty and, like most people, I find forthrightness refreshing. But the bit about the barber’s chair, a place where sometimes truly complex problems are swiftly whittled down, whether to splinters or usable planks, that is the part that I would like to consider briefly here.

I begin with a disclaimer. I love barbers, I really do, and I love conversing with them. I shan’t ever forget Jerry, my favorite barber—though he is no longer a barber, so I’ve heard, and no longer attends my church—who gave me a haircut just before my eldest son’s wedding. Though I tried to pay him, he wanted it to be a gift to me for the wedding. I’ve never forgotten his kindness, and the touching simplicity of that gift. Nor shall I ever fail to remember the barber of my childhood in the “Four Seasons Mall” in New Hope, Pennsylvania. There I would go by myself as a child, for I had no father to take me, and I would sit in the waiting chair next to all the magazines and newspaper, glutting my eyes on The Sporting News, memorizing baseball players’ statistics and reading the articles that speculated how the Phillies might wind up their season. Then up into the chair I would hop, for it was a very large (or so it seemed to me at the time) chair. I had to do all the conversing with my barber myself, as I hadn’t a father to take me or to engage Mike—for as I recall his name was Mike—about sports, or the weather or politics. But that was years ago and a world away from where I now am, Italy.


Nevertheless, I was reminded of such erstwhile conversations when I arrived in Bologna, almost two two months ago now, to stay for a few days with my dear friend Piergiacomo and talk about hot peppers and Renaissance art (separately, of course) in his temporary “Man Cave,” for his lovely wife, Annamaria, and daughter, Margarita, were out of town. There the first thing I did, even before getting over jetlag, was seek out a barber to get a haircut, for I hadn’t had time to get one before I left. Somehow I found myself in the dingiest barber shop I’d been in for years, with music distortedly flooding the small square room through an iPhone speaker echoing off the high-walled ceiling. The lyrics seemed to me to be in Arabic—not exactly Rossini or Mozart—and the music surprised me by being in the rather modern sounding rap-style. Various magazines, well-thumbed and colorful, all in Arabic, adorned the small table next to the uncomfortable waiting seats.

straight razorI did not have to wait long. Kalam stood at the ready, inviting me with a less-than-welcoming glance to sit in the barber chair. A single light bulb on a wire string dangled above my head like the sword of Damocles. He held in his hands the implements of his trade, a straight razor and electric clippers. In very broken Italian with a thick Pakistani accent he told me he had come from Islamabad just a few months before. He didn’t like Italy much, he said, but you eat well here.

Kalam then asked me where I was from. I said Texas. He hadn’t heard of it. I said it’s a part of America, the south part of it. Ah America, he said, wielding his straight razor in a fashion that made me just a little uncomfortable. He went on to tell me of his hatred for Americans, but since I came from South America, he said, “That’s okay.” (What I had actually said was that Texas is in the southern part of America; he took that to be South America.) “I don’t hate South America,” he continued, “Just the USA. That is the great Satan.” As an accidental representative of what was to him a Hellish empire, I decided not to say much more, noting well the discomfiting combination of his palpable animosity toward America and the blade in his hand. Needless to say, I did not fuss over how ridiculously short he cut my hair, as bald fear in me produced in the end, a nearly bald appearance. Just sayin’.

Now will merely that expression “just sayin’ ” actually justify a story that might be deemed as Islamophobic? Indeed, it is thoroughly and quite literally Islamophobic, or at least Islamobadophobic. I was honestly scared as I sat in his chair, alone in such an off-the-beaten-track and quite shabby barbershop, while an insufferable coiffeur, in the course of reducing my head to little more than a lunar landing spot, wielded his blade, scratching away this and that bit of hair while he spoke between scratches of the evil decadence of the West and the great Satan, assuming all the while that a “South American” like me would agree with him.

But I leave that all aside to say that however baldly honest we may want to be whether about our political or our religious views, perhaps we would do well to recall that every once in a while it is good to leave them aside, every once in a while just to keep them to ourselves, especially when our most welcome allies accidentally, thanks to a minor misunderstanding, come from South America or, quite beyond that, in an election cycle when the candidates themselves are all too baldly dishonest in their honesty and vice versa. You never know when you might find yourself in the chair of an uncivilized version of the barber of Seville—no Figaro, him. Anyway, I’m just sayin.’



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.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Thoughts on “Thank You” and Related Natterings

I have a friend named Grace. We have been friends for years, and I always liked her ever since meeting her in, I think, perhaps the 4th or 5th grade. Though her own travels took her as far as Australia—long story—for the past several years Grace has had the rare privilege of living in the town in which we both grew up, New Hope, Pennsylvania. I, meanwhile, have lived in a variety of places, from Burlington, Vermont to Pennsylvania, to Rome, to New Jersey, and finally now Texas.texasflagstate

In Texas, oddly enough, I made another friend named Grazia, which is, of course, merely Italian for Grace. I always liked my Italian friend Grazia and her husband, Max, though I’ve not seen them for several years now since they moved to Houston. Both of their names sound like the Italian for thank you, grazie. Indeed, the Italian word for thank you is simply the plural of Grazia’s name, and therefore means “graces.”

“How funny,” I thought to myself the other day when I was out jogging. When you thank someone in Italian you’re sending them graces. And then I thought of Latin, of course, and it is the same. Welsh, gras, is an obvious cognate, though bendith conveys the idea, too, with an element of blessing. And what about Greek? Eucharisto. “Blessing be to you!” Well, it is the same. In fact, right in the middle of the word is a variation on that same idea again—charis—a blessing that is a gift given freely. And then, as if a Lutheran with his catechism in front of him, I thought, “What does this mean?” It means, of course, you want to bless the person who did you a good turn. You want to bless them freely.

But it means much more than that, much, much more, just as “good-bye” means more. The latter expression means, you may know, “God be with ye.” The PC crowd, who are now seeking to expunge any reference to “Woodrow Wilson” from Princeton, will no doubt go after “good-bye” next; surely good-bye is at least a micro-aggression against proper atheists and possibly even agnostics. Likewise, the word “grace” means much more than merely “grace.” It means blessing in the highest; it means a blessing with no strings attached.

Someone very dear to me this week said, “Words are just words.” Could he really know what he was saying? Does he not realize that words are more often than not much more beautiful, much more powerful than actions. It would be like saying, “art is just art,” or “the sculpture is just stone.” Think about the idea that the David of Michelangelo should be described as “just stone.” No, my friend, never tell a philologist that words are just words, for he will tell you that they actually always mean something. They mean a great deal. Wrought well, they can be the equivalent of Michelangelo’s David. They can bring healing; they can render peace; undergirt by proper actions, they can change the world.

Thank-You-word-cloud-1024x7911But back to “thank you.” In Welsh, it is less comely (Diolch) pronounced with more phlegm than the Flemish Dank or the Dutch dankjuwel or the more widely known German Danke. Eucharisto. Grazie. Gratias ago. I render you graces, a blessing with no strings attached. I give you a free gift, a bunch of them. That is how thankful I am: there are no strings attached to my sentiment toward you. I recognize that your gift came to me with a similar spirit of free gift-giving. Thank you for that. That’s what “thank you” really means. And at the center of it is grace.

Then, as I was jogging, I thought about forgiveness, which is an exercise of that grace, certainly the most difficult exercise of it. Is that something like the “amazing grace” about which one might sing on any given Sunday? It is, rather, a response to it. I thought about it in part because I have a dear friend—actually a couple of friends—who need very much to exercise that grace now toward one another and toward others as well. Sadly, they don’t realize that the rendering of forgiveness would free themselves much more than the person whom they might forgive. No, they seem to think of the exercise of grace as some kind of transaction. At least one of them—perhaps both—feels that someone “owes them” something and he is demanding his due recompense; that he is a fool not to claim that recompense. That his whole life has been one of being taken advantage of, and he’s had enough. What he can’t see, of course, is that the forgiveness he needs to render will actually liberate himself more than the person whom he needs to forgive. (“Forgive us our sins as we …” What does this mean? I leave that aside.)

To find grace, I’ve tried to tell him, one must turn around. This is especially true when one is looking in a mirror and blaming every uncomely feature of oneself on someone else. “My nose—I hate it!—I got that from my mother’s side of the family. My ears—too small!—alas, alack, they’re from my father’s side!” Standing right in front of the mirror means quite often obscuring the other folks in the room, or if you do see them, they’re way behind you and in fact you’re viewing them in reverse. In truth, one rarely realizes that even when looking at oneself in a mirror one only sees oneself backwards. I simply mean this: a right- handed person in a mirror appears to be left-handed. Your hair will be parted quite on the opposite side than you really part it. The words on your t-shirt come out all backwards and funny looking. You can’t trust mirrors, and psychologists tell us that it is unhealthy, or at least a little strange, to spend too much time gazing in a mirror, where one can see oneself, certainly, but the vision that we see is skewed and inaccurate, blocking out those behind us or, even when not, seeing them in a skewed and inaccurate way, as well.

But it’s hard to turn away from the mirror and render grace to those behind you, especially when you can empathize better with the person in that mirror than you can with anyone else. Yes, that may be true, but the person you see in the mirror may not be who you think he is. First of all, as we already said, at the very least, he is backwards from the reality. And so is anyone else you see in the background. Your vision, which seems so accurate to you, is, necessarily, inaccurate, certainly when it comes to yourself. Secondly, the person you see in the looking glass may be not the real thing in a number of other ways. Folks with anorexia, for example, sadly do not see that they are morbidly underweight. Instead, they think they see, studies have shown, a person who is overweight; those who are morbidly obese quite often see something quite the opposite, or fail to recognize the danger that they behold.

But let me get back to grace. If you have a friend named Grace, as I do, be thankful. By virtue of her very name, she will, of course, remind you to be so. She will, too, remind you to be generous, as one needs to render grace freely. Her name will also—and this is most important—remind you to be more than giving; her name reminds you to be forgiving, not simply of those who have wronged you somehow—in ways that may appear in your mirror as MACRO-aggressions but in reality, when you turn away from the mirror, are, at the most, micro-aggressions—but also of yourself, and of everyone. What better time of year than the Christmas season to turn away from the mirror, which can so easily deceive, and to face reality, become thankful, giving, and most of all forgiving?

Well, I leave this all aside to allow this week’s blog to remain short and sweet, and to close with a tasty treat, the classic Welsh cookie—also known as Welsh cakes—that our family has eaten at Christmastime every year without interruption since Lucy Hughes Jones arrived from Wales in 1869. The recipe is that of Blanche Jakes, though she herself got from Elizabeth Ann Evans, her mother, who got it from her mother, Lucy Hughes Jones. Though Welsh cookies do not go so well with hot chocolate or coffee—I’ve tried them, and I don’t recommend—they are delightful with tea, truly amazing. You will give thanks for them if you try them with tea. So I recommend baking them, sharing them with friends. Even Elaine’s father, Harry Jakes, who hated raisins, loved them, though he dutifully removed the raisins, an act that always drove his wife Blanche to distraction.

Next week’s blog will be the first in a series of stories about Christmas. I hope you like them. Though they are technically fictional, like the Curious Autobiography, they are all essentially true; they hark back to a true time, one long past, when terrorism didn’t exist, or if it did, it was unknown to the community described in the stories. Then, even though grief and sorrow were all too familiar, thankfulness was simply an aspect of life, as was grace. And forgiveness was well known, as well. In that community, as you will see if you care to read these stories in their weekly installments—and here’s the spoiler alert—grace, in the end, would prevail. Please enjoy those tales, the Stories of a Christmas Yard, as you sit by your fireplace next to your Christmas tree, with your feet up on the divan,

divine divan
a divine divan

and a cup of good Paned Gymreig tea served with a Welsh cookie or two. In the meantime, I hope you have had a Happy Thanksgiving, which itself is a felicitous rendering of grace. Diolch i chi, darllenydd annwyl, grazie, eucharisto, gratias, Vielen Dank—simply put, thanks for reading and, for now, good-bye!

welsh cookies recipe

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Human Trafficking vs. Human Homing Ping

Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.

That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.

Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.

That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.

But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.

Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.

Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”

“Me neither,” she responded. “I had …”

“Kids that age should be playing or going to school,” I interrupted, barely able to restrain myself. “It is wrong for a little kid to have to work forty plus hours per week in a factory.”

“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”

boy with trash“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”

He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.

“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”

“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”

“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”

Muckraker photo
Cover of 1901 magazine which published articles by muckrakers.

“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”

He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”

I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.

“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”child in sweatshop“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.

Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.

As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.

My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.

Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?

And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.

Fight club passNo, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.

Human Being Recipe child working hands


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Canon and the Cheesecake

The Doryphorus of Polyclitus
The Doryphorus of Polyclitus

In order to ponder the theoretical work on art entitled Canon by the fifth-century personality Polyclitus, Elaine Jakes, having recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decided to have a meeting of a few minds. Three of Elaine’s friends, members of the fringe of the New Hope intellegentsia were to be invited to consider Polyclitus’ sense of proportionality, evidenced in his work of the high-classical period of ancient art. They would ruminate on his famous Doryphorus, reflecting on its canonical attributes, as his Canon is itself lost. At this event—a tea party, for Elaine loved tea parties—a certain kind of cheesecake was served, consisting of a combination of recipes. One of these Elaine had learned, even as a child, at her mother’s apron strings; the other she had deduced from being invited to try the cheesecake served at an upscale restaurant in Philadelphia at which she in fact never dined, when she had lived there in 1964, five years prior to the tea party in question.

That restaurant, now shuttered, was called Bookbinder’s, founded in the late nineteenth century by a Dutch immigrant by the name of Samuel Bookbinder. Bookbinder was a man of irony. Though he was a Jew, his restaurant specialized in lobster and clams, neither of which should ever be on any truly Kosher menu. Perhaps it is for this reason that Elaine, who was, when she lived in Philadelphia, practicing a kind of quasi-Kosher Judaism (i.e. un-Kosher inasmuch as she was not herself born Jewish but now somewhat practiced Judaism, yet Kosher in so far as she at least tried not to eat pork) delighted in the idea of Bookbinder’s, if not the restaurant itself.

Sinatra on VF cover copyEven though Frank Sinatra was a regular at Bookbinder’s with a private booth there, and thus Elaine, like anyone else, would have loved to see that singer trying unsuccessfully to eat a well-buttered lobster, Elaine’s sole interest in the restaurant had to do with its cheesecake. Although she never actually entered the restaurant proper, had she been able to, she likely would have enjoyed sitting in Sinatra’s very seat, were the singer not present. Yet, too, if she had entered and had seen it, she would certainly not have approved of Bookbinder’s huge and very, very un-Kosher lobster tank, said by some to have been the largest in the world. That tank was, at any given time, the central display of the lobby of Bookbinder’s, a watery final home to more than two hundred of those doomed crustaceans.Lobsters

None of this did Elaine know, or if she did, it neither piqued her interest nor kindled her usual animal-friendly ire. Rather, as we have already noted, she was concerned with the restaurant’s remarkably tasty cheesecake, principally because the Welsh cheese cakes, to which she was accustomed and of which she had time and again as a child assisted in the making, is, like so many things Welsh, spurious, and this troubled her not a little when she was herself but little.

Nutritional mendacity among the Welsh is not unusual. It is common knowledge that they purloined from the Cornish their principal lunchtime dish, the pasty (rhyming with “nasty,” not “tasty”) sticking to one’s ribs in a manner quite different from its near homograph (cf. Curious Autobiography, 171). Further examples abound: Welsh plum pudding, my personal favorite, consists of neither plums nor pudding—but that recipe I will save for Christmas time. Add to this that even the legendary and most-beloved Welsh cakes (also known as Welsh cookies) are in fact neither cakes nor cookies; rather, they are something like petite, rotund, raisin-laced tortillas; but more on those near Christmas time, as well. Finally, there is the notorious Welsh cheese cakes, which, though truly Welsh is also neither of the latter, once duly separated, two words, for it is neither cheese nor cake. And while Elaine had, through the course of her life, let the misnomer Welsh cookies slide, and she was oddly never vexed by Welsh plum pudding, she found herself troubled beyond words by the Welsh cheese cakes that her mother joyed to make during the cold upstate Pennsylvania winters. Such  cheese cakes (for they came individually like cookies and more than one would be served at a time), quite unlike the singular New York style (or even Bookbinder’s style) cheesecake, were always, in the Jakes household, served with tea.

Yet as an adult, Elaine rarely made true Welsh cheese cakes, especially because she had befriended a woman named Scottie in south Philadelphia’s Italian Market in the fall of 1964 when they both happened to be shopping there, Elaine for prosciutto, which she had not yet realized was not Kosher, and Scottie for ricotta to mix with cream cheese for her secret cheesecake recipe. As it turned out, Scottie was, at that time, the sole cheesecake baker for Bookbinder’s. With Scottie’s help, Elaine soon found herself on a personal quest to put the cheese back into Welsh cheese cake.

Scottie was immediately appealing to Elaine on a number of levels: first, she was from Scotland, whose denizens more than any of the others of the British Isles are the most like the Welsh. They are, as it were, the more logical cousins of the Welsh, something like the Milanese are to Neapolitans. Further, Scottie was a nickname for Siubhan, a perfectly good Scottish name (meaning “a woman of praise”) but not one that even in the cosmopolitan 1960s was intelligible to most Americans. Thus, Siubhan, after transplanting herself to the United States to escape her failed marriage, went by Scottie, and Elaine knew her only as that. Despite their friendship, Elaine had mentally misplaced her last name, remembering only that it started with a Mc- or Mac-. But she knew that cheesecake—that is Bookbinder’s cheesecake—because she was often at Scottie McSomething’s flat to assist Scottie, simply sampling a sliver of the savory sweet before the real cheesecakes were delivered to Bookbinders. Scottie undertook this delivery day in and day out at 3:00 p.m. and Elaine would, even with her five-year-old child (c’est moi) in tow, often help Scottie deliver the cakes.

That day, then, the one we set out to talk about, which involved Polyclitus’ Canon, was the day, some five years later, after Elaine had moved to New Hope, PA, that she first served in public “Welsh” cheese cake made with actual cheese. To make the cakes, she combined Scottie’s secret recipe, as best as she could recall it, with her mother’s spuriously Welsh cheese cake recipe. The result was perhaps not as good with tea as truly spuriously Welsh cheese cakes, whose dry and flakey texture works rather well with the hot wet substance. Nevertheless, all the guests attested to the fact that the new Welsh cheesecakes—for she served them as individual treats, rather than cut from a wheel, as was Bookbinder’s—were in and of themselves truly delicious.

And this is how Elaine’s spurious Welsh corrective treat came into being. It preserved an element of the original Welsh because Elaine added her fruit on the inside, which is laid out below one of the attached recipes. The first of them is the Welsh cheese cakes of Elaine’s mother, Blanche Evans Jakes. The second is Elaine’s adaptation of the Bookbinder recipe that she garnered from Scottie.

Elaine’s new concoction was not only praised, but itself provoked, as she had hoped, a thoroughgoing discussion of the concept of the canon between the three guests of her tea party. These were Toni Pacino, voluptuous and then still married to famous jeweler and careful craftsman Fred Pacino, the “artist in residence,” as he sometimes called himself, of New Hope’s Pacino Fine Handcrafted Jewelry. The second was Ned “Super Jew” Tannenbaum, an admittedly odd name for a Jew (particularly someone who styled himself in nearly every conversation as a “Super Jew,” often saying self-deprecatingly, “But I’m just a Super Jew, so what do I know?”). Yet one never knew why this tall, even wispy, floppy-haired, erstwhile, retired-quite-early professor of literature (apparently all literature, as no one could determine what his particular specialty was), who had taught at no-one-knew-which-or-where-or-when university called himself “Super Jew.” Finally, the third invitee was, of course, Leni Fontaine, local artist and spiritual adviser, to whom an entire chapter of the Curious Autobiography is dedicated.

Following the guidelines that Elaine had laid out, they each took turns discussing the ideas of the canon of Greek classical proportionality as they gazed upon the postcard of the Doryphorus that Elaine had bought in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s bookstore,. Two rounds of postcard gazing and tea bibbing produced an increasingly rich discussion of art and soon, for Ned, literature, but it finally returned, appropriately, to the cheesecake. “You know, Elaine,” Leni said, “This cheesecake enjoys the kind of proportionality and flavorful dimension one sees in Polyclitus’ work. Like the Doryphorus, it is balanced, even nuanced, and, like the contraposto pose, shifts its flavor back and forth within your mouth.”

“And it has body, and makes my mouth water … for a hunk of man,” piped in Toni, though her thoughts seemed to be far more fixated on the well-cut body of the handsome Doryphorus (and men in general) than on the tea cakes.

“No, the cheesecake is like literature,” Ned said. “It’s rich and complex, and will not soon be forgotten.”

tea setThough the conversation thence descended to ephemeral discourse and trivialities, the day was great for Elaine: she had, through a mere tea party, provoked the kind of intellectual discussion she had hoped, and she had not only aligned her own baking with Polyclitus’ canon, but had restored to Wales the cheese that its cheesecake had hitherto, if not merited, perhaps always desired. If, in the end, the only thing spurious about Elaine’s Welsh cheesecake is that, in fact, it is no longer truly Welsh, at least it can still claim ultimately to be Scottish.

Welsh cheese cakes

Elaine's cheesecake

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Meat and Greet

It is probably unnecessary to state as much, but it is nonetheless true: when one first moves to a new region of the country, it is possible to feel awkward and out of place. This is particularly true if you grew up on one of the coasts of the United States and you happen to move toward the middle of the country, or vice versa. We were then, several years ago now, living in New Jersey only forty-five minutes from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I had grown up, and, as we neared our departure date, one of my more opinionated friends said going to Texas would be like falling off the edge of the earth into a pit of fire, still another, a place where people pretended to be your friends but weren’t really, and another, even more negative (and vociferous) about the move than the others, stated plainly that Texas is a place where they kill animals and eat the meat; he was vegan. I could say little as I had as yet not spent any time in Texas, but I imagined that the first friend was overdramatizing the matter, the second, naively unaware that duplicity is ubiquitous, the third, equally naively unaware that meat eating is also ubiquitous. These were the circumstances of my departure.

It was quite a few years ago now, but I recall vividly my first few days in Texas. Though of course I found what I knew already, that the people, like all people, were not perfect, I quickly discovered that they were in fact far friendlier than advertised. I had not known but soon learned that they shared with Pennsylvanians the characteristic of loving football to obsession. I also swiftly found out, since we moved to Texas in early August, that Texas, even without fire pits, is truly hot in the summer. And many Texan folks enjoy something called barbeque; since moving here, I’ve eaten it at numerous backyard parties, weddings, and funerals. I should not have been surprised, I suppose, that nearly all Texan churches enjoy sponsoring get-togethers that involve barbeque, and that Lutherans, in particular, like to drink beer at such events.

And so it went: our arrival, a new church, a barbeque get-together in the heat of our first Labor Day in Texas. It was very hot indeed, and everywhere I went I saw that there was something else “hot” to remind me, in all capitals: HOT Rodeo, HOT Jr. Football League, even HOT plumbers (which sounded to me more like bachelorette-party entertainment than men handy with pipes). It was only later that I came to find out that HOT stood for “Heart of Texas,” and was not what I thought, i.e. “hot” in all caps, as if to remind the reader that it is screamingly hot in Texas.

As a strange welcoming ritual, I suppose, I was invited right off the bat to get involved with the church in a particular manner: I was to join the picnic committee early on the day of the barbeque, Labor Day, to prepare the brisket. Now, if you have read the Curious Autobiography, you may already have already inferred that I had no idea what brisket was. Yet here I was, in the heart of Texas—though I knew it not from the HOT signs, which I assumed referred to the temperature—warmly invited to slice a cut of meat, one that I had never eaten. I knew this would scandalize the third of my friends listed above, and I think I may have mentioned it in a letter to him later, undoubtedly to his chagrin.

Mmm, brisket“Don’t forget to bring your knife,” the picnic committee leader by the name of Jody said, having introduced me to his brother Cody just after church that Sunday before the slicing. I must have looked puzzled, because he quickly added, “You do have a knife?”

Taken a back, I paused as I gazed upon these strong men—both builders, as it turned out—both clad in jeans and what I fancied Texan-style shirts (Jody’s of a light blue color with trim around the pockets, Cody’s similar, but of a burnt orange hue). Each, though lacking a stereotypical ten-gallon hat, sported a significant but not oversized belt buckle that gleamed and befit—not in terms of shine but in terms of effect—their clearly oft-worn yet nonetheless well-kempt cowboy boots. In this case, with me they were building a relationship and nascent friendship, not a house.

Photo by Bayush Smith
Photo by Bayush Smith

“I’ve got an extra,” Cody, his brother quickly added. “He can borrow my old one.”

“No, he should have his own,” Jody responded, with the shamanistic authority of a guardian of a rite of passage.

“Perhaps I can buy one,” I said, trying to cut this Gordian’s knot. “There’s a grocery story within walking distance of the house we’re renting.”

“If it’s the one I’m thinking of, they won’t have it,” Cody quipped.

“Surely they’ll have a knife,” I added naively, thinking of grocery stores in New Jersey. “They normally have a section with cutlery.”

They both looked at me in a slightly puzzled manner. “Cutlery?” Cody chuckled inquisitively. “No, this knife is not ‘cutlery.’ It’s an electric knife.”

“What is an electric knife?” I said, looking even more puzzled than they had earlier. They both broke out in laughter, and I soon joined in.

Having obtained an electric knife at another location, I rose early on that still somewhat warm Labor Day, the day of the picnic itself, to go to the church to slice brisket. Upon my arrival, I was astounded to learn that Mr. Jander had been up all night cooking the brisket, which he had buried in a fire pit. These were all new terms to me. What was a fire pit?—I recalled having been warned of these back in Jersey, but I dared not ask at a church gathering about that hellish sounding word. I could only imagine that it was a subterranean cavern in which brisket is roasted to perfection.firepit

“All night?” I thought to myself.

Jody must have read my mind. “Well, probably since two or three o’clock.”

Thus did I ruminate, “I have never heard of such dedication to a meal.” But I did not yet understand what a meal means in Texas. It is like building a house: it has to be done right and many will come to help. It is also a peculiarly Lutheran ritual, and thus it was an honor that I had been invited to join the other men—for they were all men—in the slicing of the meat. (I later learned that the reason for it being an all-male event was to give the women a day off from any and all duties—a thoughtful touch, particularly on Labor Day, I opined.)

I fully admit that I was far from dexterous with an electric knife and had to be instructed several times. Mr. Jander was pretty easy going about the whole thing, even though it was he who had been up the entire night. O.E., for he was called by his initials only (something I can relate to), was a bit more stringent about the cutting technique. Fred was perhaps the best of the slicers, always trimming with a smile. Soon Cody and Jody had taken me under their wings, and I was found myself slicing brisket like, well, if not a pro, at least not like a young man from Philly.

“Good cut,” Mike, another of the picnic men said encouragingly. I was a bit envious of his method, and was curious how an accountant could be so able with an electric knife. To my query about his technique, he simply said, “Not too fast, just a little at a time.” At that point in my life, that was a piece of profound wisdom, more profound than he could have imagined. Of course, Mike was also responsible for counting the briskets to ensure we would have enough for the entire church.

Yet, in the end, this blog will have nothing to do with brisket, for I have not mentioned (and I do not intend to) how succulent that feast was, or that brisket, unlike most other cuts of red meat, goes especially well with beer, or that Lutherans sometimes serve well-cooked zucchini (lightly sautéed in beer) as a side. Nor will this blog have much to do with building, Jody and Cody’s profession, unless that building should be a metaphor for giving extra effort, putting in the extra time to do things right or, even better, should represent relationship building and acceptance. For my friends on that day taught me much more than the art of slicing brisket. They taught me the art of friendship, of welcoming a stranger, of embracing someone a bit different than oneself. This is a lesson I’ve learned, and perhaps we can all learn, over and over. The picnic committee helped me to see it in action, for they lived out what is known as the golden rule, with which if you’re not familiar, I would refer you to just one verse of a book perhaps less than popular these days. That verse is the thirty-first of the twelfth chapter of the oldest of the gospels, Mark, and reads, “And the second is like [it], namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”  The first…, well, perhaps that is the stuff of another blog.beer brisket,sliced

Someone recently asked me why I write these blogs. My answer to that question is the same as the picnic committee’s to slicing. You, dear reader, and I are merely busy about the brisket, chatting and getting a meal ready for others. If you’re a vegetarian, there are some zucchinis that need to be sliced   over on the counter. Jody and Cody will show you where to find them. Just be sure to bring your knife.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Let’s Do Launch

On July 16, 1969, I recall quite clearly Elaine Jakes pitching on the floor in front of her television set with a small group of friends—including Sheila, Sallie Bailey and Emily Ward at least for a few minutes of that early morning event—for the Apollo moon launch. This “breakfast-bun watch party” occurred in Elaine and Sheila’s small flat, as Delores Davis was wont to call it, at 14 W. Bridge Street in New Hope, Pa, just behind Villa Vito‘s wonderful Italian restaurant, famous then and now for its abundante “Mangia Platter.” VillaVitoBut no one was thinking about that delicious dinner special at that moment, not simply because it was early in the morning—8:32 to be precise, when the launch happened—as the launch itself, along with Elaine’s delicious grilled cinnamon buns, was all that anyone was thinking about.

book signing2By 4:00 p.m. on May 25 of 2015, however, all I could think about was the very Mangia Platter that had not been anyone’s mind on that morning of 1969. Why? Because I had been in front of wonderful Farley’s Bookshop on the corner of Ferry and South Main, where Jen Farley had helped me set up my table for what was to be a launch of a less fiery sort, in this case merely a book launch, specifically that of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes. It was not merely old friends who had known Elaine who bought copies of the book but a new cohort of folks taken by the title or the book cover: to name a few, a charming Swedish expat and now resident of New Hope, an itinerant biker and his wife, a lovely young woman who looked forward to reading it on the long drive back to Arkansas. (Don’t worry, she was not to be the one driving).

book signing conversationOne of the more telling moments came when someone who did not buy a book said curtly, “Who was Elaine Jakes anyway? Why should I care about her?” Such an excellent question! I answered it in just a sentence or two: “She was an ordinary person who discovered along the journey that life really is astonishingly extraordinary. She was who you, with a little luck, might just become.” And that my reader, is simply why I write this blog—that you might share in the extraordinariness of one human being’s life and thus find the same for your own—and want to share with you something of the joy of the book launch, complete with pictures and warm hugs from new friends and old—(thanks picture takers and makers, Keith and Jeanette, Marion and Betsy and salesperson extraordinaire, Kathy!). It was, all in all, a great day, if not quite as spectacular as the Apollo XI mission’s lift off, nonetheless exciting on its own terms and, unlike the moon mission, this launch was followed by a wonderful dinner at Villa Vito’s—thanks Ursula!—involving a mounding Mangia Platter with homemade white tiramisu. A day that I hope that you, my dear reader, may enjoy sharing in, if of necessity only through this blog. Thanks for your readerly support, and if you can get to New Hope any time soon, be sure to buy a book at Farley’s and then go over to Villa Vito’s on W. Bridge St. and treat yourself to a superb Mangia Platter!

book signingbook signing with K&Jbook signing with Betsybook signing with K&J2