Tag Archives: New York Times

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Love and Romance

Roman HolidayI was going to complain about the fact that these days we have crazy politics, or about how people don’t listen any more but just multitask while they talk to you as they’re doing their Facebook or email or something. Yet all that changed when, earlier this week, I read an interesting article on marriage by philosopher/author Alain de Botton in the New York Times. I was suspecting that there might be a political agenda lurking beneath the innocent sounding title. In fact, I was expecting something not exactly uplifting, e.g., Matthew Johnson’s article in the Washington Post about the toll that having children takes on a marriage (“having children may make you miserable, but you’ll be miserable together”) or Sarah Wright’s piece in the newspaper which suggests that marriage is greatly overrated and will in any case end by 2042. (I’m not sure, but I think that date is coincidentally one and the same as that on which the current reinterpretation of the Mayan calendar suggests that the world is supposed to end. )

Another article, by Eleanor Stanford, of a few months earlier in that same New York newspaper, is much more practical. Stanford suggests 13 questions you should ask before you get married. Some of them are pretty legit: “How do you feel about children?” “How do you see us ten years from now?” Yet other questions raised there seem to me to make the entire love and romance bit sound rather as if merely the establishment of pre-nuptial parameters: “Is watching pornography O.K.?” “Do we like each other’s parents?” I seriously think if you are not going to marry someone just because you don’t like his or her parents then you are probably not in love with that person. And if your potential spouse is a porn user, then I should caution you to consider that he of she is highly likely to see people merely as objects. You’ll be lucky, in the case of a porn addict, if you even rank high enough to be one such valued object; more likely, you will play the role of mommy or daddy, nagging him or her to give up his vice and behave like a proper adult. (If you are in this situation now and not yet married, I would urge you to ask yourself: “Why am I even dating this person?”)

Yet to return to de Botton’s far more sensible and sensitive commentary. The article, indeed, shows no political bias, at least as far as I could tell, no anti-marriage theme or even a hey-face it-we-live-in-postmodern-times agenda. Rather, that author insightfully explains that being married is about behaving properly—and that the traits that are best to find in a prospective spouse are that of gentleness, civility, kindnesTrevi fountains and the like. Any person you marry will let you down at some point (in fact at many points) and you will let them down, likely, at least at an equal rate—in my case, I confess, at the greater rate. I heartily recommend the article, for it is a good, if brief description of how love evolves and grows. That article stimulated in me further thought on the topic. And so I have been thinking this week about love and romance. I met my wife nearly forty years ago now and I thought in closing that I might, with her permission, share a vignette about our first meeting, which occurred in Rome.

I was drunk at the time, sitting in a hallway. She was just arriving, rucksack on her back, long evenly matched thick braids of beautiful brown hair. She was wearing a white blouse and blue jeans. Along with her friend Nancy, she bounded down the hallway to check into the dormitory that was leased from a convent of nuns dedicated to Saint Mary; the chapel is still there, as is the contiguous building that provides the seat of that study abroad program. I felt that I had seen the most beautiful person in the world. I loved her from the moment I saw her. Of course, the feeling was not mutual. It was apparent to her that I was intoxicated, and as such I was prating away, intermittently, perhaps even babbling. She looked at me with great disdain, a look I recognize even better now than then because over the years I have seen it quite often. That aside, I spent the next several months—for the program of study was a full semester term—getting to know her better and hoping to show her that I was worthy of her love. (It took a while, as I had made a rather bad first impression.)

Peter Sellers
Peter Sellers

Yet then something wonderful happened. I tricked her into going to the opera (Luigi Cherubini’s La Punition); “I just happen to have an extra ticket,” I said. Then we went out for a date “as friends” to eat Italian pepper steaks. Weeks later we tried to meet up in Athens, but could not. Then goodbye on 10 January 1980. Then a reunion in New York on 24 July (sadly, the same day the great comic genius Peter Sellers died). Then some prayers, some more getting to know each other again, and eventually she said yes. No, her dad was never fond of me; in fact, I think that he did not like me at all. And it took Elaine Jakes a long time to warm up to her, as she had always liked better the girl with whom I had been naked in the back seat of a car—a story found on pages 161–164 of The Curious Autobiography. So as for the 13 questions, no we did not ask any of them, and for good reason. We were in love.9781480814738_COVER.indd

Robert Browning
Robert Browning

Love isn’t a contract or a matter of aligning interests or even of checking in on each other’s flaws or checking out each other’s parents. It is, rather, a matter of growing old together aright, as Robert Browning once wrote at the opening of his poem Rabbi Ben Ezra, “Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be. …” For such growing old together to happen, one has to recognize that marriage is truly a matter of love, and love is a matter of choice—the choice to forgive, to smile, to sow seeds of joy, and to keep faith. And for that love to grow and deepen, one must carefully and thoughtfully permit it to change from mere passion to enduring compassion, from the flame of attraction to the glow of the family hearth.

hearth scene



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Opossum Logic & Safe Spaces


The phrase “o possum” in Latin means “Oh, can I!” possumYet this has nothing to do with the animal opossum, whose name among the scientific community is the far less catchy and harder to say didelphimorphia. The common name opossum is actually derived from a Native American dialect (Algonquian) meaning “white dog.”

Opossums, as you probably know, are marsupial omnivores. They walk with flat feet and are oddly resistant to snake bites. Even rattlesnakes cannot rattle them—they simply answer with an “Oh, I can resist you!” Even cottonmouths, said by some to be the most deadly of North American snakes, cannot kill them. Their chorus is always the same, “Oh, I can take it!”cottonmouth

I am thinking of these fine marsupials because I saw a family of them pass through my yard this week. They are cute as can be. I have heard that some types are actually domesticated, though I have never met anyone with a pet opossum. And, by the way, they do not sleep hanging by their tails. That is just a rumor presumably started by those who fear bats. But, they do “play possum.” While their first reaction to danger is to hiss like a cat, when deeply frightened, they can actually fall asleep for up to four hours and their body instinctively takes over, pretending that it is that of a dead animal. Their instincts make them secrete a terrible smelling liquid from their anal glands, and their lips curl back like those of a lifeless animal, leaving their teeth bared and showing some foaming saliva. Yet do not worry, for opossums are also quite resistant to rabies and rarely contract the disease.

Now why, you might wonder, am I taking so much time to delineate the particular features of an animal whose name has as much to do with the Latin “Oh I can!” as the Titanic’s has to do with Santa Claus, men’s formal dress and sunbathing. I am doing so because, of course, I find these animals fascinating. Their innate and unconscious capacity to play dead is intriguing to me: If only more nations would exercise such restraint when provoked by an aggressor. And the fact that they do not sleep by hanging from their tails—well that’s interesting, too, simply because of the misinformation that I received in fourth grade. Where did my teacher, Mrs. Hendrickson, get that inaccurate description of these creatures? How did it go viral back in the days when nothing could do so because there was no Internet? Further, opossums are migratory. They don’t tend to stay in one place, unless they happen to have a good supply of food and water there. It stands to reason, but who knew?

gravity movie imageBut the title of this blog mentions the notion of safe spaces, as well. Though these have been in the news quite a bit lately, few of my readers are likely to be deeply concerned with the concept or practice, so removed as it may seem from our everyday life. On the light side, there are some obvious problems with the term, right off the bat: one need only rent the movie Gravity to ascertain immediately that space is certainly not a safe place. Yet, of course, this is not what is meant by this term. Its deeper meaning has been a topic very much in the news and is no laughing matter.

Recently the Washington Post reported that students at Emory felt unsafe because someone had written pro-Trump slogans in chalk on some of the pavements of the university.[1] trump sloganThese were merely slogans that, as far as I could tell from the photograph, said, “TRUMP, TRUMP, TRUMP” or ” TRUMP 2016.” Also recently, students at Oberlin demanded increased and more diverse—though someone might cogently argue less so—safe-space havens on campus.[2] Last fall a number of students at Yale surrounded and berated a faculty master, whose very title has been deemed racist,[3] to tell him what a poor job he was doing because he had suggested in an email that they not be too put out by the possibility that some Halloween costumes can be deemed offensive, should they happen to see one.

batman costume with captionIndeed, Halloween costumes are often offensive, and are meant to be so. This possibility, of course, offended some at Yale. But more offensive to them, apparently, was the suggestion that someone should ignore or write off as “in poor taste” Halloween costumes that were, in fact, in poor taste. The idea that merely ignoring, rolling one’s eyes at, or even snarkily retorting in passing to those wearing such costumes might in and of itself be an adequate way to deal with such offense set off a firestorm. To suggest as much was, it seemed, a violation of the notion of the safe space, the “home,” as one student called it, that Yale is expected by those students (or at least one student) to create for its constituents. Students are, it seemed to be argued, entitled to feel safe and secure at college. The very notion that something or someone could challenge that was not deemed tolerable to a number of the students.

According to the New York Times, the faculty master/lecturer has since left Yale,[4] an outcome no doubt seen as a great victory for those students. Yet, I wonder, had any of them ever considered the opossum? The opossum resists the bites even of venomous snakes. The opossum hisses when mildly threatened, but when greatly threatened simply plays dead and is left alone. opossum hissingThe opossum moves on, if necessary, the opossum is not known for being an attack animal. No one has ever heard of a “ferocious opossum.”[5] An opossum would not cost a young lecturer and his wife a job at Yale. An opossum would not demand a safe space; he would simply persist; he would hiss if necessary; under duress, he would simply play dead. And, whether hanging from his tail or not, he would be able to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, because he did all that he needed to do to keep himself safe, and he had done so decorously by animal standards, instead of acting out on feelings of entitlement and a false sense of temporary power. Opossums rarely have such feelings, I imagine. That’s why we like them.

I truly feel sorry for those young folks who feel so empowered now, especially after gaining their victory over their faculty —if the term still exists at Yale—master. There’s just a chance that when they leave the safe confines of the safe spaces of their safe university they won’t feel so empowered or so enabled, or even so safe. Will they be able, like the opossum to say, “Oh, can I!” when they try to tackle their first big assignment on their first job? And even if they do say something like that, will they in fact be so able as to get the job done without accusing their boss or co-workers of upsetting their safe space, puncturing the fragile casing of their feelings? However it may go for them, I hope for their sake, they eventually realize that they were not so smart as they thought. That ruining someone’s career over a Halloween costume is, well, not opossum-like, but asinine. Perhaps it’s something worse. Perhaps it’s downright bestial.opossum with babies

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/03/24/someone-wrote-trump-2016-on-emorys-campus-in-chalk-some-students-said-they-no-longer-feel-safe/

[2] http://twitchy.com/2016/01/22/amazing-oberlin-president-says-no-to-students-list-of-demands-including-black-only-safe-spaces/

[3] http://dailycaller.com/2015/08/17/yale-professor-seeks-to-abolish-the-word-master/

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/08/us/yale-lecturer-resigns-after-email-on-halloween-costumes.html?_r=0

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ffqi99qZyXA