Tag Archives: Philadelphia Inquirer

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: Cartoonish World

For Philadelphians, sometimes it seems like sports is the day’s top story. Sports are to many Philadelphians what politics or the arts, to some degree, are to New Yorkers. For this reason, perhaps, one of the more common features of the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News, and for that matter any newspaper, are caricatures, cartoon distortions of well-known figures.

Leonardo di Vinci, An Old Woman The Ugly Duchess 1490
Leonardo di Vinci,
An Old Woman The Ugly Duchess 1490

The idea is not new. The Romans would regularly depict political figures in cartoonish ways and even Leonardo Da Vinci playfully rendered such distorted pictures. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, some of the cartoons are aimed at coaches—Chip Kelly was a favorite, and I am certain that the primary cartoonist of the Inquirer is lamenting the coaching change for that city’s football team (Eagles), even as the San Franciscans rejoice.

But why do we enjoy these satirical portraits? Because cartoons can take the edge off a situation as easily as they can, with clever social wit, put an edge on one. For example, a political cartoon, such as James Gillray’s portrait of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up a plum pudding meant to represent the world highlights playfully the pressing issues of the early nineteenth century. Pitt uses both a knife and a trident-shaped fork to suggest England’s maritime prowess, while the feather-chapeaued Napoleon cuts off a substantial portion of the globe representing Western Europe. Napolean and world cartoonThis picture, in a way, simply stated the obvious—taking the edge off a moment of great concern globally. It is one of Gillay’s best-known pieces, and widely recognized as one of the best and most thoughtful caricatures ever made. Those of the coach in the Philadelphia Inquirer, not so much, at least not outside of Philadelphia proper.Chip kelley cartoon

But the point of this blog is not to review the history of caricatures or even to offer a few examples of them. Rather, it is simply this: I want to suggest that we now live in a world of distortions. Caricatures, once just funny pictures, now seem have jumped off the page into the real world. American politicians (and Americans in general) seem to me distorted, oversized, cartoonish. Either they are so cautious about what they say that they won’t dare use a word that could be in the least deemed offensive, or they will avail themselves of any word at all, even those that might have made George Carlin blush, if that were possible. They are either at the furthest limit of one side of the politically correct spectrum, or just the opposite, so far in the other direction that they could care less whom they might offend. The old-fashioned notion of decorum is gone, it is dead (or at least it seems so now) and it is no longer even talked about.

I imagine that even sophisticated college students may not know the word any more, unless they happen to take Latin. Yet infrequently nowadays do college students take the time to learn Latin, for it requires an inordinate amount of time. It forces you to slow down and think; it forces you to be thoughtful. And, well, I suppose with no Latin, there is no knowledge of what decus, decoris (n.) means; and then, no English derivative, decorum, or its deeper meaning. And without decorum you’re left with either extreme political correctness on the one side, or a complete dearth of it on the other.

Is it just me, or does that not seem to ring true to you, too? Now I’m not suggesting that there should be a “middle ground,” for there is no true middle ground between one kind of ridiculous mind game and another. But mightn’t there be something like moderation? There is a difference between these two ideas. Middle ground, at least the way that some folks construe it, is quite often seen as mere fence sitting, an attempt to hedge one’s bets or, worse yet, apathy. But moderation is something like decorum. I won’t have that extra piece of pie because it would be immoderate, indecorous. I won’t have that extra drink because by indulging in immoderate behavior I might say something unseemly. In other words, the notion of decorum, which must be undergirded with a healthy sense of shame, has been driven out precisely because people seem to feel no shame. Yet I leave aside the question as to whether we feel no shame because we are indecorous or whether we are indecorous because we feel no shame. Simply put, we do, and we are.

An example of what I mean can be seen in two different types of eating disorders. The anorexic will consume very little, so little that that person can but barely survive, and, in some very sad cases, die. They have put food out of their life as they are starving themselves. These I would liken to those who are extremely politically correct. They have a disorder: they believe that they have a right to put words or ideas out of their lives. They demand “safe spaces” because they are so easily offended. They must control their environment, and like the anorexic, they have very inadequate and distorted mental picture of themselves.

The indecorously opinionated person, who deliberately seeks to be crass and rude, is to my mind, something like the morbidly obese person. Such folks will respond aggressively to those who offend them. They will just keep heaping it on, like a person too heavy who takes an extra helping or two even when they know, deep down inside, that they should not. Yet even these comparisons are not fair, for neither the anorexic nor the morbidly obese person can be held accountable for their decisions, as they suffer from a mental disorder that had driven them to one of two extremes.

Pixee Fox
Pixee Fox

Rather the people of today’s cartoonish world, who are merely reflected in our politicians, are actually more like Pixee Fox, who has undergone surgeries to become cartoonishly slender or Homer Simpson (“literally” a cartoon character), who apparently in one of this most popular episodes of that television show purposely gains weight to achieve disability status.

Such, it seems to me, are we these days, and perhaps we should not be surprised if our politicians merely reflect us. Either we heap it on indecorously or, worse yet, we are offended on behalf of just about anyone in the world, especially those on behalf of whom it is politically expedient to be offended. Both are distortions of the real thing. That real thing, practically invisible these days, is the decorous, balanced, sensible and honorable person, who is simply polite and kind because it is the right thing to do, not because they want to curry favor or seem holier-than-thou (or more-PC-than-thou). They do not natter negatively on Twitter or prate provocatively on Pinterest. They do not seek merely to be confrontational or endlessly try to find something to be offended about in the name of social change. They do not conveniently revise history, judge those who have served our country courageously, or officiously attend upon the words of others hoping to find a way to pronounce condemnation and to vaunt their own moral superiority.

Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero

We find examples of decorous individuals described in great detail in Cicero’s On Friendship, in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (book 8), or Seneca’s Moral Epistles (9). But who reads these folks anymore?

So few do precisely because we live in a cartoonish world. We even prefer movies rendered from comic books: stories set to the silver screen that have real actors behaving cartoonishly. We have self-distorted; we have become too thin with political correctness or too fat with crassness.Joker in batman

Decorum. That’s what we need now more than ever. And that is what we have always needed. What ever happened to the idea of two people from two different political parties actually respecting each other? Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, how I hope you cannot see from heaven what a cartoonish mess we’ve made of all this. As things are now, perhaps we should “beg for … a discreet patience / Of death, or of worse life.”[1]Ronald-Reagan-Thomas-ONeill

And now it is time for me to go back to the book I’m writing, and you to your morning coffee or walking your dog. If you’re reading your paper, do grin a bit at the caricatures of the coaches of sports teams, whether in the Inquirer or the Daily News. But be wary of the cover of the NY Daily News, that simply takes too much liberty in the name of freedom of the press, for you needn’t look too closely at such distortions, if you live in the same cartoonish world that I do. Distortion, cartoons, caricatures are not just in the papers anymore. They’re walking about everywhere. And they are everywhere because it seems that no one takes decorum seriously. For my part, I am setting out on this new year not worrying about micro-aggressions, or what the politically correct flavor of the day might be; conversely, I shan’t seek to be crass, crude or wanton simply to provoke. Rather I am taking the boring path, one that seeks moderation, decency, and old-fashioned decorum. “Yet never knows what course that light doth run; / So let me study that mine actions be / Worthy…”[2] I don’t have to go to Rome or Greece or England to walk where Cicero, Aristotle, or even John Donne once trod. I can do it in my own neighborhood, my own home, with my own family and friends. That is the way of the old Latin word decus, decoris, which means “dignity.” Care to join me?

[1] John Donne, A Litany, X. The Martyrs

[2] John Donne, A Litany, VI. The Angels

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