Tag Archives: Ovid

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Mumbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wall with message in Swansea

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

The Mumbles, Wales

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


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

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Blog I Was Going to Write

A few years ago a friend of mine was going to write an article on the literary character Dido. He began to do so, only a few days later to receive in the mail an off-print autographed by a then acquaintance of his with virtually the same title containing virtually the same analysis of that famous heroine. I say famous because, though Dido enjoys her greatest claim to fame in Virgil’s Aeneid which not everybody has read, she also finds her way into other works of literature, other genres and works of art. purcell-dido-and-aeneasPurcell’s Dido and Aeneas gives Dido a voice you don’t just read but you can hear or see. dido-aeneas-in-concertWhile Purcell’s opera is well known, few likely know of Ovid’s famous letter (Epistula Heroidum VII) written “by Dido,” that is to say in Dido’s voice. It capitalizes, of course, on Virgil’s version, allowing Dido to explain her dilemma from her particular point of view.

That dilemma, in case you might have forgotten, is that she was madly in love with Aeneas and considered their relationship, which certainly did have a physical side, to be permanent. She interpreted the noises in the background that she heard when she and Aeneas were making love in a cave to be a blessing on their relationship—a blessing that made it enduring, that made it “marriage.” Aeneas, meanwhile, was so busily engaged in the act of lovemaking that he (presumably) didn’t hear or experience what Dido did. He perhaps saw their relationship as steamy, even meaningful, but not permanent and certainly not marriage. And thus they broke up when Aeneas went on to “law school” (i.e., to found the place that would become Rome). Dido meanwhile—what did she do? Well, you likely recall this point. She would elaborately construct a heap of wood and put on it everything Aeneas owned. She mounted the heap with Aeneas’ sword in hand plunged the sword through her bosom just as the heap was set afire. She died by her own hand and was burned, together with every memory of Aeneas, on a tragic pyre.

And that was the article—or something like that, something about Dido and how she dealt with her grief philosophically and spiritually—that my friend was about to write. But he never wrote it because he received in the mail a beautifully autographed off-print, an off-print that invited further discussion with its author and blossomed into an enduring friendship. He told me all this just yesterday when I read a very thoughtful piece written by a professor at Columbia University that had more or less the content of the blog I was thinking about writing. It was to be a blog about the disenfranchised. It was to be a blog that spoke to the depth of sadness of the human experience—the feeling of being left behind by society, the feeling that everyone else gets ahead except for you.

Maybe you were born into a home without a father. Maybe the poor mother who tried to raise you as best as she could had very little money, especially when you were a child. Maybe you were picked on at school. Maybe your mom smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and the person with whom she lived did, too, and maybe you kept getting pneumonia in part, though you never knew it, because you were around so much second-hand smoke. And the list could go on—the point is, maybe you just feel flat out sorry for yourself and you think, if only I hadn’t been born to such a disadvantaged situation, I could have done so much better. And then throw in the extras—the big negatives: maybe you are a woman, maybe you are a minority. You know there’s a glass ceiling for you. You can only ever achieve so much, and that’s it. And you might even feel that the world owes you an apology.

Not just the world—no, that’s too general. The person who owes you the apology is the person who has all those advantages that you know you did not have. That person is not a minority. That person is not a woman. That person did not grow up in poverty. That person has no pulmonary issues—never did. That person has had every advantage and never had the system rigged against him.

And all this makes perfect sense to you. That bastard owes you an apology. And he even owes you some of the money he has made and will make in the future. So you vote for politicians who promise you that they will tax him and give you better goods and services—that’s something the government owes all people. The problem is, of course, from that bastard’s point of view, he hasn’t been doing anything to hurt you at all. Maybe he even stood up to a bully once on behalf of someone he perceived to be weaker, maybe he gave his lunch to the kid without money, or loaned money to a poor kid at school and purposely never asked to be repaid. Maybe he went to the birthday party of the kid they always picked on at school. Maybe he walked you, yes you, home one day when you were cursing like a sailor over something a teacher had said or done. And maybe he didn’t judge you but just listened. Does he need to apologize for the fact that he happened to be born into what is clearly a more privileged situation?
sticks-and-stone-cartoonAnd maybe even that privileged white kid has his own struggles, I mean bigger than just pimples or not getting the car he was expecting from his parents, or being turned down for the prom date he was really hoping for. Maybe his dad has just been diagnosed with something really bad like melanoma. Maybe the severity of his dad’s illness is owed in part to the family doctor who, at the dad’s last routine physical, didn’t see a change in a one of the dad’s moles. Maybe this privileged kid has his own problems—different than yours, yes, but just as real. And maybe there’s even blame that could be doled out, blame much more particularized than yours. Maybe he could really blame the doctor in the same way that Dido had a legitimate beef with Aeneas. It’s one thing for Dido to hate all men because one behaved badly. But it’s much more visceral when she hates one in particular—hates him so much that she would commit suicide over his leaving.

Good heavens, we’re getting rather far afield. Or are we? What I am trying to say is this. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t feel pain, real pain. Some do have a lot less of it—but I would argue that they may in that lessening also have lost something of the full dimensionality of life, even have a smaller soul than those who have suffered in some way. Even if I can’t prove that, I can say this: expecting someone to apologize for something they didn’t precisely do is, if not ridiculous, at least unproductive. And that is the blog that I was thinking to write. But Professor McWhorter wrote it for me. So I now feel like my friend whose article on Dido was never written—at least not by him. So I leave you with this thought, one I owe to Dr. McWhorter. At some point we, as human beings, have to look forward.

The kid in the broken, poor and very smoky home has to decide not to smoke, to stay married even at those difficult moments when divorce seems preferable, and to work hard and to take advantage of whatever she can. She may never go to an ivy-league school—at least not as an undergraduate—but she might just find her way to a college, and she might prosper there if she is smart enough and willing to work hard enough. It might be, because it is economical, a community college at first. Then it might be, with some scholarship aid and some loans, a state university to finish. Then, if she is smart enough, on to graduate school, whether law school, medical school or maybe even graduate school in music or art or literature. The last three of these can be fully funded for exceptional students like her. Will she make it? I don’t know. The odds are admittedly against her. Yet in America, however imperfect its system is—and it is imperfect—at least she has a fighting chance.

Dido made it; she lives on.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cats, Dogs and People

dog and catA year or so ago researchers at the University of California at San Diego announced the results of an important study, the culmination of months of research, that established that dogs get jealous. “How odd,” I then thought to myself, “those behavioral scientists must never have owned their own dogs.”

Ben and Hilda
An example of a dog and owner with similar personalities.

I say this because anyone who has ever owned a dog already knew the results of that inquiry, and certainly does not need a scientific study to prove it: dogs do indeed get jealous. Another study by Professor Coren of the University of British Columbia has suggested that people tend to choose dogs based on their own personality. In a piece of popular writing directed toward a general audience, Professor Coren touches on his own research and, even more valuably, summarizes an important Hungarian/Austrian report that suggests that dogs often seem to share personality traits with their owners. At this point, if you own a dog, you are likely to pause, and say, is that how I seem to the world? Further, at this point, I’m sorry to tell the answer just may be yes. (And, if you really want to know, ask your spouse or your closest confidant.)

I needn’t say it, but cats are different than dogs. Well, they are sometimes. Let’s start with a superbly interesting exception, Tara, Jeremy’s pet cat. The reporter in this interview interestingly and amusingly asks Erica, Jeremy’s mother, whether or not Tara has a “lion complex.” Yet “Tara the Lionhearted” cat, saving Jeremy the child from “Hannibal ‘Baby Nibbler’ Lecter” dog, is perhaps the exception to the rule.

The cats that I have known and have had—I here tip my hat to our dearly departed Italian cats Piazza and Lorenzo, and the French Simone—interesting personalities. Cats seem to lose interest in playing with you or in many cases even being petted, and certainly want to act as they wish, quite individually, and in any case not as you may want them to. They are funny in that way, and they seem to tolerate their owners or their owners’ family members, as if the family were intruding on their territory. And while both dogs and cats expect to be fed at some point, the cat is often the most clear and articulate when it comes to asking for his or her food. The dog will often wait, hoping for a table snack for an appetizer. Thus, the dog often seems to be humanlike, wants really to be a part of the family, while the cat regards the family as a necessary social construct, as you might consider the idea of attending your neighbor’s child’s Bar Mitzvah or first communion, finding the warm buckle of your airplane seatbelt only after your seatmate has been sitting on it for five minutes, or in extreme cases, the local sewage treatment plant. Add to this, of course, the matter of the euphemistically entitled kitty litter that the cat completely takes for granted that you will dutifully change, holding your breath, week in and week out.

I will not speak here about the personality differences between dog owners and cat owners. The same Dr. Coren has done so eloquently, again summarizing scholarly studies that would likely be dry reading without his popular-market intervention. I will, however speak about the third aspect of this blog, people. For whether we are pet owners or not, whether we prefer dogs, cats, or horses, or whether we simply long for the Platonic form of an animal and not the animal itself, we are so markedly different from them—even rather intelligent animals—that it is worth a moment or two to point out how it is that we are different, that though biologists may call us animals—and we are mammalian—we are not really animals. For better or worse, we are ourselves quite dissimilar. We control our wills in ways that animals simply do not.

wooly monkeyNow at this point anyone who has read the Curious Autobiography and knows the story of Betsy, my sister, who was a monkey, specifically a cross-dressing monkey, may say, “Your own book disproves this: Betsy clearly exercised her will, taking a bath, watching a soap opera, swinging on a ceiling fan. Well, yes, it certainly seemed at the time that my sister, as my childhood self referred to her (and as I sometimes still do), Betsy, had a will of her own. She was the “strong-willed” monkey, so strong-willed that Elaine Jakes, who by the way loved both cats and dogs, decided to deposit her at the Philadelphia Zoo. Yes, it was traumatic to wave good-bye to my sister in the parking lot of the Philadelphia Zoo, but I got over that when I learned what a good time she was having with the other monkeys. If you want to know of her escapades, you will have to read pages 91–98 in The Curious Autobiography.

But to return to people. We are different from animals in frightening ways. This week, we again, sadly and terribly, learned how. In Oregon, a young man who owned some fire arms singled out followers of a particular religious group on a college campus and executed them. He exercised his will in a way that appalled and shocked us all, startling even his own father. This past summer, we read over and over of people being executed in Iraq or Nigeria or elsewhere again, quite often those whose religious views were not acceptable to their slayers. All of these crimes against human beings cause the horrific destruction of the ancient relics of Palmyra in Syria to pale in comparison. The former evil acts seek to take away the human present, the latter the record of humanity in ages bygone ages. All are crimes specifically against human beings, whether living, dead, or yet to come. So, while we are capable of better, we often find ourselves doing the worst.

In a playful but telling moment in his text, the ancient poet Ovid writes, “I see better things, and I approve; I follow after worse things” (Metamorphoses 7.20f). Speaking of his outlook on life well after his famous trip toward Damascus, St. Paul puts it this way, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do; but what I hate to do, I do … although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:15, 21; 24). He offers a solution, a solution that has gotten people killed from Oregon to Adamawa to Damascus itself, just after he cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But the answer to this question is something that we must all discover on our own.

Narcissus looks at his reflection. Fresco from the House of Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii

Where does this leave us? Are animals better off because they have no religion? Well, they do have a religion of sorts. Your dog worships you. I’m sure that one of these days there will be an arguably unnecessary canine study to confirm as much. Cats, well, they don’t. I think they’re a bit narcissistic and there’s a chance that, like Narcissus they actually worship themselves, relegating their owner’s voice to that of a mere echo in a thicket. And like Echo’s affection for the object of her desire, for some of us, our love of cats may even cause us to worship them. But I leave that aside.

No, I don’t believe that we are better off without God. But we would do well not to fashion God in the form of a pit bull or a cat or, worse yet, ourselves. Rather, it would be best to start not with self-pity for our estate in a fallen world or with self-love, as if we were superior to those who wreak havoc in the world around us. My hope for myself is to participate in, even embrace, this world’s suffering, and so to learn to live sacrificially not just for my cat or my dog, but for people. This idea is not original with me. My views ultimately derive from a book by Dietrich Bonhoffer that I read when I was quite a young man; the central tenets of that book never left me. Thus, I commend to your thought and my own the example of others who have put into practice Bonhoeffer’s counsel, whose suffering and sacrifice have changed this sad world for the better. Though they are no longer with us, their actions and ideas, and perhaps our own, will continue to do so, making the world better for cats, dogs, and people.

The Pietá of Michaelangelo

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Ghost of Sulmona

Madison I
Madison K. BEA booth

“Well, this is quite a booth,” I said when strolling the floor of the vast Book Expo of America Exhibit 2015 in May. “The colors are vivid and jump right out at you—pink and black. And the artwork is well done, so deftly thematized to your book.” All this I said when I first met Madison Kaplan, the namesake and, qua character, heroine of the book series that her talented mother, Nina, writes and illustrates. “She does all her own artwork,” Madison volunteered proudly. It was refreshing and frankly a bit surprising to see a young woman of twenty-three so proud of a parent.

I soon met Nina herself, the warm and friendly author of the popular Young Adult fictional work entitled Madison K. As Nina described it to me, the series tries to speak in a new and fresh way to girls becoming young women, encouraging them to think twice before making just any moral choice, before believing just any trendy way of thinking. I confess that I have not read much of this series whose target audience is obviously a demographic quite a bit different from myself. Kaplan complements her book series with a rich and various website (BLC; www.beautylandcouture.com) that speaks to young women about their appearance, focusing on something I am fairly unfamiliar with, makeup; but I shall return to that below. For the moment, suffice it to say that after my admittedly cursory perusal of one of the books in the series, I am honestly impressed. This series is doing something different than most YA fiction, and I am inclined to start my blog by warmly acknowledging that uniqueness; after all, Elaine Jakes taught me to embrace things that are perhaps a bit different and to be a bit wary of those ideas that are not.

Adriatic Coast
Adriatic Coast

Yet as the title of this blog implies, this is a ghost story that ostensibly is about a haunting of Sulmona, an Italian town, a small one, located on the edge of the Majella National Park near the Adriatic shore, forming a triangle with two nearby coastal cities, Pescara and Lanciana. It is far enough from them and from Rome that there is no chance that the ghost of Sulmona could wander in either direction. It stays confined to the arboreal park and only occasionally wanders into Sulmona’s center, always at night. And when it does, it makes a beeline for the main square where there is displayed prominently a fine statue of the town’s most famous poet, the long-dead Ovidius Naso, whose very shade, it is said, is this ghost.

Piazza in Sulmona Italy
Piazza in Sulmona with Bronze Statue of Ovid. Photo by Boblyp.

That ghost is as playful as Ovid was a poet. Ovid, you may know, was so playful, so bawdy, that he was banished by the emperor Augustus; to give a historical context, this is the very emperor who was reigning when Christ was born. So, Ovid and Christ were contemporaries, Christ the younger, as Ovid was born in 43 BC. Yet why Ovid’s shade, if it is Ovid’s, haunts Sulmona is a mystery. There is a rumor that it has to do with women.

Now it is not what you might be thinking; yes, if you recall your history, Ovid was known as a bit of a dandy not only because of his poetry but also owing to the unsubstantiated claim that he was spending far too much time of a romantic nature with Julia, the emperor’s daughter. While it may not be (and need not be true) that Ovid was carrying on with Julia, it is certainly true he had the gumption to write at least to two tomes of poetry explicitly for women and that he wrote much more than that about women. The facts are these: the third book of his Art of Love (Ars Amatoria) was addressed to women, to help them create rendezvous with men; his Love’s Remedies (Remedia Amoris) was for both women and men, so it does not count. He also wrote the Heroides, letters in the first person penned by famous heroines to their often less famous lovers—and Ovid donned the female voice to accomplish this; I say nothing, in passing, about my role in the composition of The Curious Autobiography.

Yet clearly Ovid’s boldest venture, his “I’m-treading-on-territory-that-should-perhaps-better-fall-to-the-too-little-known-Roman-poetess-Sulpicia” work that could have been perceived as sexist, was the less than catchily entitled Medicamina Faciei Feminae (On Makeup). This work never was among those great books, those Harvard classics that most people talk about when quipping dilettantishly about antiquity. This lesser known work is a book about makeup, much like Nina Kaplan’s lovely website.

The difference, however, between that website which appeals to young women who are just now learning to apply makeup correctly and to make good choices about that (and about life) and Ovid’s work is simply this: Nina Kaplan is a woman and thus can speak from experience. She knows her makeup and she knows what it feels like to be a young woman figuring out womanhood and this particular aspect of it—though admittedly makeup is not for everyone, of course. Elaine Jakes, for one, rarely wore it. Ovid’s transgression into the world of makeup was, from a netherworldly perspective, a much greater offense than the poet’s possible dating of Augustus’ daughter, or his recherché and erotic elegies, the content of which ostensibly bothered the emperor. So, while Augustus exiled Ovid to Tomis in his lifetime, it is said that in his after-lifetime, the shades of Roman women, like those who hounded Orpheus to death, called down an irrational curse on Ovid’s soul, a curse that compelled his shade to have no rest and ever to wander the (admittedly lovely) Majella forest, whence he cannot return to Rome but at least finds himself on Italian soil.

Parrozzo Cake
Parrozzo Cake

When he does come into town, pieces of Parrozzo (a soft cake characterized by a rich chocolate coating and almonds) left out for the ghost at the foot of Ovid’s statue in the town’s square by caring contemporary Italian women always is taken up, it seems, by the ghost, but never quite eaten. Rather, it finds itself strewn out in a line going back into the woods like a Sondheimian trail of breadcrumbs, as, of course, a ghost can’t really eat or drink, as it is made of spiritual matter.

I did not tell Nina Kaplan this story, as I did not want to frighten her or anyone at the Madison K. booth. In any case, I felt it did not befit so busy or august an event as the BEA. But I did warn her that Madison K. just might show up in a blog about a ghost. Is there a moral to this story in a blog that purports to affirm that life is worth living and books are worth reading? Well, of course there is, for the continuum, if an imperfect one, between Ovid, Madison K., and “BLC” remains unbroken, in a sense, and the warning to a man with too little knowledge of makeup, such as myself, not to interfere stands, lest he wind up in the doghouse or, in the case of Ovid’s ghost, experience something worse. And, more importantly than all of this, of course, is the notion that the past is ever with us, a repository of stories, within the context of which we are writing our own, which form a strand in yet a grander narrative, the Author of which will, perhaps, eventually be the topic of another blog.