Yearly Archives: 2016

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

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

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

Harry Jakes
Harry Jakes

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

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

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

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

Betty White
Betty White




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Merry Christmas!

creche-sceneIt’s a funny expression, Merry Christmas, one that, when you think about it, might seem to ring a bit archaic. During Renaissance times the word merry might even have suggested that alcoholic drinks could have been in play, though the actual etymology of the word “merry” stems from the same root that give us the Latin brevis, “short”; from brevis we also derive the English “brief”. But in the hymn “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” the word merry seems merely to mean what it is, “merry,” “happy,” “joyous,” full of mirth. And so it happens when someone wishes you a Merry Christmas it is unlikely that that person wants you go out and “get a little merry” (i.e. liquored up) on Christmas, nor does that person express a wish for the brevity of your celebration, but simply a wish for you to have a joyous Christmas.

tiny-timAnd thus Merry Christmas has been, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an expression of holiday warmth at least since the middle of the sixteenth century.[1] And now, of course, though it is politically incorrect to say “Merry Christmas,” we still say it from time to time, especially when we imagine the person who will potentially receive it is unlikely to be put off by it. Yet though we may try like the dickens not to offend, it is possible that we shall, simply by attending a school Christmas play—as they are sometimes cancelled for being too offensive to folks whose sensibilities are easily riled. But I will say nothing here of a recent example of the cancellation of just such a play, as it is not clear whether or not Tiny Tim’s final line actually had anything to do with the cancellation; school officials allege that it was only a matter of time management.[2]

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach, Leipzig, Germany

However it may have been in the case of that play and that school, suffice it to say that there is something flat and lifeless about Christmas without religious significance. A recent piece by Dennis Prager in the National Review bears this out well.[3] His point that, while a secular person can listen to and enjoy Bach just as well as a person of faith, nonetheless there would be no Bach if Bach hadn’t had a fervent faith. Take God out of the mix, and you are left with a landscape devoid of color, a whitewashed, bland and boring vista. A desert without yellow sand or even wind.

I think it might be like making Welsh cookies without raisins. My cousin-in-law (if that is an actual term?), Maria, a noble woman of Italian descent, makes the Welsh cookies of the family according to the family recipe. She sends us a box every December. They are always delicious, made according to the recipe of my grandmother, Blanche. My mother’s recipe was a bit different than her mother’s—with slightly more butter, slightly more sugar. I like both, but probably prefer my grandmother’s truth be told. Yet neither took the raisins out. Take away the raisins and you have an ordinary biscuit. With the raisins, something special.

And I will end it on that note. The jingle goes, “Jesus, the reason for the season.” I will change reason to raisin. It makes all the difference, as the raisin is the Welsh cookies raison d’etre, Christ the Christians’ and Christmas’ raison de vivre.

welsh cookies recipe
(The recipe of my mother, Elaine Jakes)

Merry Christmas!

[1] Further, cf.




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The World’s Ugliest Christmas Tree

ugly-christmas-treeThis week I read an article about the world’s ugliest Christmas tree. The title titillated, or if not quite titillated, at least intrigued. Before I could read the article, obvious questions arose. Where might that tree be? Who is to say what “ugly” really means? How can a tree be ugly? And then I read the article, only to find out that the tree is in Rome.[1] And I thought, “Of course.”

Now I say this not to make fun at Italians, but rather to complement them, for it is in part from my more than simply occasional travel to Italy that I have come to realize, first of all, that taste is obviously variable and, secondly and more importantly, that one needs to be flexible. One should be so because life is too short to get all worked up over the small stuff, even when the small stuff is something quite large, an apparently unattractive oversized Christmas tree smack in the middle of Piazza Venezia, which is itself smack in the middle of Rome.

But from this particular Christmas tree I was reminded of something else, something that I think has broader application than that taste is variable and that one lives best if one is flexible. I was reminded, yet again, that each thing in our life and each person really represents something or someone else. A Christmas tree obviously does not represent itself—that is the mistake that some of the folks who saw the tree and complained made—but rather that it represents something more important.

strasbourg-cathedralAccording to liturgical expert Frank Senn the notion of a tree used symbolically at Christmastime developed “in Germany in the sixteenth century.” Although no specific city or town has been identified as the first to have a Christmas tree, records for the [protestant] Cathedral of Strasbourg indicate that a Christmas tree was set up in that church in 1539. . . .”[2] So Protestants are likely ultimately responsible for the origin of the tree, an origin whose symbolism Pope John Paul II understood and expounded upon, viewing the tree as symbolic of the tree of life in the Garden of Eden. That tree, Christians believe, was restored through Christ’s sacrifice. Interestingly that that selfsame pope was the first to introduce the tree to the Christmas décor of St. Peter’s basilica.

But the third lesson is not that Christmas trees are good for Protestants and Catholics alike, but rather that the tree symbolizes something greater than itself and that nearly everything else does, as well. Let me explain. It has not been uncommon for me to talk to someone about church and have them say that they prefer to go out on a walk on Sunday morning because they (correctly in my view) are better able to infer that there is a God from the beauty of nature round about them than from a dusky, dank old church pew. The idea that a tree or butterfly represents its creator actually is an idea that St. Paul himself once touted when he wrote that people have no excuse not to infer that there is a God, “for the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Not that I am advocating missing out on the dusky, dank pews, for they have their own luster, as Rev. Dr. Senn, the expert in liturgy cited in the previous paragraph, would no doubt agree. But more on that some other time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And each person, like each tree or each butterfly, is not quite his or her own, either. We might think we are—particularly when we are a teenager and we feel that we have no further need of our parents or when we hit a mid-life crisis and think we have no further need of our employer or our spouse or our whole family, sometimes, and in extreme cases, our entire life, for some folks change jobs, get divorced and even fall out of touch with their children at the onset of middle age,[3] possibly because they have, for the first time, become aware of their own mortality. But even in those bad moments of the mid-life crisis or the cocky teenage years we represent not just ourselves, but our parents, our community, and if we are lucky enough to have had a religious background, our church, synagogue, temple or mosque. And we all, whether we know it or not and whether we know Him or not, represent God. For he made us just as he made the tree or the butterfly, which represents him.

Lizzie Velasquez, the most beautiful woman in the world

That small inference from a Christmas tree in Rome, is actually a very important piece of information. For an “ugly” tree can, merely by what it represents, instantly be transformed from what the world calls ugly to beautiful. Lizzie Velasquez, who has also been in the news recently, is not regarded as “the ugliest woman in the world,” as some cruel folks have dubbed her, but as the most beautiful, for she represents God in a way much more visibly than those who have no idea that they incidentally represent God, as well. Lizzie knows she does, and she speaks about that fact not infrequently.[4] When she wakes up in the morning she sees in the mirror a child of God, just as one should see, in that lofty tree in Piazza Venezia, not a tree less than comely but the tree of life, the Garden of Eden restored. Either the stable in Bethlehem was a place of squalor or place of hope. Either Golgotha was a place of tragedy or a place of triumph. If the latter for both of those sentences, then Lizzie Velasquez is a beautiful person, perhaps the most beautiful, and that giant, lumpy Italian tree is, well, in Italian, non solo bello, ma bellissimo.


[2] Frank Senn, Introduction to Christian Liturgy (Minneapolis: 2012) 118.

[3]On jobs, see On the divorce rate, see

[4] See also,


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Three C’s plus one for the Holidays

christmas-decorations First, let me say that rambling on about words that start with “C” is unlikely to be quite as ridiculous as suggesting that one should vote based on the latest trends in syllables, whether more or less of them. Yet that’s precisely what I suggested a week before the presidential vote. And apparently the notion of a more syllabically flexible presidential name prevailed, because someone named Donald John Trump was elected, whose name has but a grand total of a slender four syllables, even with the middle name; yet when one adds a “The” to the front his name—and many have called him “the Donald”—one then gets the expanded version of five syllables. And that, my friend, is greater syllabic flexibility than Hillary Clinton could offer, even with her maiden name inserted.

Then, a few days after the presidential vote, someone offered me a safety pin so that I could indicated to anyone who saw me that I was “safe to talk to” about the election results. I think the idea was to comfort those who were afraid because the Donald had been elected. Of course I declined the offer of the safety pin, for I learned in college that my best interlocutors were my professors who were more like Socrates than unlike him. And then, just as she offered me the safety pin, the question of “What would Socrates do?” (WWSD) occurred to me, and I decided that it would be better to play the Socratic gadfly whenever possible. As such, I would, I thought to myself, challenge that interlocutor to courage, not safety. But then I’m not keen on safe spaces, as I think they can be dangerously deceptive. The world is not a safe space; heaven is. To try artificially to make a heaven of earth—ask John Calvin sometime how that worked out in Geneva—would certainly involve misleading someone, likely to their detriment. And thus I declined the safety pin. I told the person I was not “safe” and that I did not want to be viewed as such. Another person, with whom I was walking at the time, laughed audibly, and the disillusioned safety-pin-donor went on her way.


But that is off the topic, as the first word is not challenge but “courage.” For courage is what we need in this dark world and wide. Courage to press on, courage ever to seek the best, not just for ourselves but for our communities as well. Courage well applied, involves transference of that courage also to those around us. And that may involve challenging someone to courage. And that is why I declined the safety pin.

The second C-word is “Christmas,” of course. I was reminded of Christmas today when I heard some carolers in a hospital in Houston singing quite beautifully Christmas carols. Of course, properly, the C-word should be an A-word, “advent.” But as advent leads to Christmas, I think it is safe to use the more definitive, if syllabically identical, term.

The third C-word ismd-anderson “cancer.” By cancer I do not mean the astrological sign “Cancer,” nor do I mean the Latin word cancer, which actually signifies a “crab” or “crawfish,” even though a crawfish is much more like a lobster than a crab. Rather, by cancer I mean just that, cancer, the destructive and debilitating disease. And I mean it because I was in Houston this week in a large hospital complex known as M.D. Anderson. There I saw some noble souls battling cancer with courage, and doing so just now in this Christmas season. None seemed to me to be feeling sorry for himself, none seemed overly concerned with the fact that that her hair had fallen out. One and all, so it seemed, presented the face of courage, of confidence, yet another C-word—the “plus one” of our title. And that confidence and courage were not the regular kind that many of us have. Rather this was a case of courage and confidence in the face of the imminent danger of cancer.

houston-hospital-complexThose folks’ confidence may have derived from them being in the midst of such a vast medical complex, imposing in its size, rife with competent research doctors, kind nurses, and a wonderfully caring staff. Or, perhaps, it came from the fact that they saw so many like themselves walking around—still walking, still living, still fighting cancer. Or it may have been generated by or at least fostered by the Christmas carols they heard being performed in the lobby, carols of hope and renewal, of God caring about mankind so much that he became a baby in a stable. Or was it something that was infused in them from a spouse, a friend, or maybe even God himself? In any case, courage and confidence went together there and seemed to me to take some of the fear out of the word cancer.nativity-sceneAnd I wish you all but one, of course, of these C-words, this advent season. If you happen to have the one I certainly don’t wish upon you, then I firmly hope that the other three will be there to help you stand against it.” If you’re fortunate enough never to have the Latin crab or crawfish eating your body away, then I pray that you’ll know those other three for whatever challenge, whether health related or not, you might encounter. And I know that these good C-words—courage, confidence and Christmas—exist (to which we could add others like care, comfort and compassion), for I saw them in the faces and heard them in the voices of some quite ill, but in many ways very healthy, people in Houston in a hospital called M.D. Anderson.








beautiful-sky“Different from what?” someone might legitimately ask about a title of this sort. “You need a ‘than’ or a ‘from’ if you’re going to say different.” You can’t just say different unless you’re talking philosophy, as if you were the famous twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Derrida and you’re talking about la différance—the idea that words can only have meaning in terms of what they are not, in terms of the way they bump into and off other words to create meaning, or really the pursuit of meaning, meaning that is itself continually put off, endlessly differed. And that is la différence (note the change in spelling from la différance). So, if we look closely enough, we can see that even Derrida would admit—not only admit but welcome—a “than” or a “from.”

Yet unlike Derrida or just anyone who might object to this title, I would like to speak about something very different, so different that it defies being compared to anything too directly, however implicit a comparison is when the word different or difference is used. And what is that difference? Well, it happened to me on a street corner this morning, that of North 15th St. and Colcord Avenue. And there I stood at those crossroads, for I was trying to assist someone to find a place to park. Then a lull. Then an elderly woman was trying to cross the street and spoke to me. “What a beautiful day!” she said.

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

“Anjubilee-marketd it’s a great day for the neighborhood. That Jubilee Food Market is going to make all the difference in this neighborhood,” she said. “I remember when there were just drug dealers here, and prostitutes. But Jimmy came in with his mission and cleaned it up, it all up. And now a grocery,” she said. “It is going to be so nice to be able to walk here to buy groceries.”

“And at a reasonable price,” I added, for I knew a bit about the grocery store that community leader and mission director Jimmy Dorrell had put so much effort into establishing, in particular how one of the goals was to provide the neighborhood with an opportunity to buy nutritious foods at a good price. I felt as if I were awkwardly offering an advertisement for the new market. Perhaps I was. And that was enough for the woman, and she began to go on her way.

“You’re a nice man,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t even know your name, but I know that you’re blessed.”

“What is your name?” I said, genuinely interested, hoping to garner at least that much before she departed.


“Bertha, may you be blessed, too.”

And then she paused, and drifted back toward me for more conversation. “What about yours?” she said, “What is your name?” The sun beamed down on her, on us both, warming us on that beautiful, if brisk, December morning.

I told her, before adding, “Do you live locally? Will you be able to walk to the store?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “It will be such a blessing. God is good,” she added, “so good! He has provided this store, provided so mercifully for me. When my husband died two years ago, I thought it was all over for me. But he is good! He loves me, and has shed his mercy upon me.”

“And has,” I added. “He surely does love you.”

To which she added, “Amen,” and then more. “He loves you, too.”

To which I added, “Amen.”

“And his mercy never ends,” she said.

“Amen,” I responded again.

amenAnd this kind of liturgical exchange went back and forth several times in a cadence that was something between preaching and conversation, something between one human talking to another, and two people at once talking to God. It was, to be sure, a kind of sidewalk liturgy. Here and there, too, there popped up, in the midst of it, another or two quotations from the psalms, or various citations of the words of Christ from Mathew, Mark, Luke or John.

“Now that was,” I thought to myself five minutes later, as Bertha walked away, “something quite different.” It was not exactly praying, not exactly a conversation, not exactly singing; it was remarkably different. It was two people from vastly different backgrounds who might otherwise never have had occasion to speak, talking to each other (and to God) about the blessing and provision of God that they had differently—but not so differently—experienced in their own lives. Both of us had suffered losses, both knew pain, but, as Bertha pointed out just before she left, “We know Him; we know Him.”

And this was the close of the liturgy, a fitting one, I thought, a bold claim, one that defies logic. Perhaps it could even frighten someone, or, after having read what is above, even cause someone to say, “Those folks who blew up the twin towers were very religious, and look where it got them. Look what a terrible toll religious fervor wreaked that day upon humanity. My advice is to take your sidewalk liturgy and. . . .” Well, you can fill in the rest.

To that honest objection, I can only say this: on that street corner I was not experiencing any religious fervor, nor was I laying claim to any perception or misperception of divine revelation. Rather, I was only sharing a moment, a unique wrinkle in time in which an apparent gap was mystically bridged between an elderly African American woman who had grown up and lived much of her life in less than generous circumstances and a white dude (me), who, though he hailed from a background of less than prosperous Welsh coalminers, had himself never known poverty. Yet bathed in the warming sunlight of a December morning, we indulged in a sidewalk liturgy, the shared experience of a generous and prodigal God. That brief encounter, that unlikely experience washed away all external differences and blessed us both there on the corner of 15th and Colcord.

“King David wrote,” Bertha added, “His mercy endureth forever. Mercy never ends, love never ends.”

“Amen,” I said as I thought to myself, “And that makes all the difference.”


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: On Reading Boring Stuff

I have a friend who likes to read manuals. I mean by this the instruction manual that might come with your television, your hair dryer, or even you dog shampoo. Though I feel that this is a very strange habit, lest he should be reading this and be even marginally insulted—and lest you, dear reader, should share this same penchant (for perhapswashing-machine-manual there are more who have this predilection than I am aware)—let me say that I am not here to condemn the enterprise, however strange I may find it to be.

I confess that I myself am of the opposite camp. I am one of those people who, when on the rare occasion that they might buy something that includes a manual, reads it not one whit. I rush to judgment about how this piece obviously goes here, that piece there. The result: I must often take the item apart after I’ve constructed it because I put it together all wrong. And thus, I am always later forced to concede (normally to my wife), that reading the manual first would have been a good idea, however boring it might have seemed at the time.

Indeed, there is great value in reading “boring stuff.” Some might call I Chronicles boring. In case you’ve not read it lately, the opening chapters consist of lengthy genealogies, names of human beings who lived and loved and laughed long ago. They had families, saw their children take their first steps, celebrated birthdays, enjoyed religious festivals, ravenously devoured a good meal, opened the door for the elderly, and taught their children life lessons. They danced, read aloud to their families (probably every evening), sang songs, and prayed fervently. They had lives. We have but their names, names in a list. And those jewish-festivalnames are the only ones we have, for their were many, many more than those, both alluded to in I Chronicles or mentioned as being part of a larger group—not by name, but merely as one in a thousand. And they have the same kind of lives that I just expounded upon above.

But what has this to do with reading boring stuff, you might ask? Well, I will put it simply: it’s one thing to read any document piecemeal, whether the best parts of the Bible or The Brothers Karamazov or the Oedipus Rex or even a modern novel, of which we all know it’s not cool to read the ending first. Dante only makes sense if you know Paradiso comes after Purgatorio, and Purgatorio after Inferno. The amendments to the Constitution only make sense if we have some idea of what the Constitution says. The boring stuff in life—the job we are not too fond of because it is “no fun,” the season of our marriage that is difficult, the décor of our living area that really, really needs to be replaced sometime soon—provide a necessary function in our lives, for these things give us, albeit obliquely and paradoxically, hope, something to look forward to. We hoabandoned-couchpe, even have faith that the rough patch will pass and our relationship will get better; we appreciate time with our family more in part perhaps because our job environment is less than felicitous; we look forward to the day when we can haul that couch out the front door an put a “FREE” sign on it—and then, fifteen minutes later we, incredulous, see someone pull up with their truck and haul it away.

While reading I Chronicles is not precisely analogous to that, it is perhaps just a little bit so, and that’s why I like to read it. In fact, I like to read the whole Bible straight on through in the KJV; I am not sure precisely why I like that version, save that I enjoy, even in the vast tracts of prosaic narrative, its prosody. I realize that my saying that I read through it directly may sound strange. Yet I actually like knowing what the whole document has to say, and there is no better way to discern that than to read through it directly. And, yes, that takes a while.

So, when you hit a boring patch, you keep reading. And you try to imagine what that boring patch really means. It means people lived then, they really did live, and they had the same fears for the future—actually, likely a much higher order of fear—than we do now. They saw a change in leadership often coming only after spilled blood, not a democratic election. They worried because someone named David had been anointed as the new king of Israel. King Saul had fallen on Mount Gilboa. They had no idea if their government would stand, what the future held.

So, I encourage those who like to read boring stuff, to keep right on doing so. Generally speaking, at least when it comes to manuals, I am not of that ilk. Nevertheless, I encourage those of us who do not like to read boring stuff to consider indulging, at least for a season, in something like I Chronicles, for in its apparently boring narrative, we can find things that will encourage and inspire us to laugh, love and live courageously in an uncertain age. Boring stuff doesn’t just belong in a case or sitting on a library shelf. It belongs to our hearts and in our minds. Here’s to “boring.”kjv-bible-ms

↓ NOT Boring Stuff ↓



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The French Underground

Monument to the French Resistance, Chartres

In the 1940s the term “French Underground” was akin to the French Resistance, which operated underground mostly in a figurative sense—je ne dis rien du égout ou catacombes parisennes. The Resistance sought to help the allies drive the Germans out of Paris, out of France altogether. The French had become strangers in their own land, working against an evil government that had wrongfully appropriated their own country, wrongfully appropriated their principal city, and in many cases, their goods, their livelihoods. There were reports of women raped, houses looted, automobiles confiscated. What had been theirs before was theirs no longer. So the ablest and bravest among them went underground to work against the foe.

When I was in Paris this time—I just got back from Europe two days ago, only to discover Donald Trump surprisingly having been elected to become the forty-fifth president of the United States—I experienced a different kind of French underground, though the more I thought about it, the less different it seemed. I had been invited by a dear friend named Maria to join her in visiting a church that she was familiar with but that she had hitherto herself never visited. The reason for that was, oddly enough, because she is a member of a home church group, metaphorically speaking its own kind of underground movement.

The church we attended was no more an edifice than Maria’s home church. Rather, it met in the basement of an office building, which, I am assuming, they either rent or are granted access to because someone in the group works for the company that owns the building. In any case, entering the church was strangely and wonderfully covert. A woman met us in the street. “Are you Maria?” she asked.

Oui,” I answered for both of us, but the woman looked at me in a puzzled fashion, at which point, of course, I directed my gaze and my index finger toward the real Maria.

Satisfied, as if we had given some coded response to a coded answer, she led us inside, through a courtyard, down some stairs where we were met by another Christian, who led us down yet another flight of stairs under the courtyard to thtea-and-cookiee rather ordinary subterranean room that served as a makeshift triplex of narthex, nave and apse, though it itself was but a relatively small square room. A table held a few items associated with Christianity—a party string with the name J-E-S-U-S in gold-colored letters hanging from it, a cross, and some brochures, I think, along with cookies and a coffee pot for the after-service fellowship, which really was more like an after party and went on quite a long time. There I was delighted to meet a charming, young Russian woman studying hotel management in Paris. I would love to tell you more about her but I can’t, as she is member of the Resistance.

Before that, of course, the service itself was held. It began with a prayer, a few minutes for a friend of Maria to share about God’s recent provision of a job and His general sovereign kindness in her life, and lots of singing; several contemporary hymns in both French and English; more of the former, of course. Then, after several such lively hymns, another prayer and a sermon—a good but rather long one—on Martha and Mary. This theme was familiar to me and perhaps to a few others, though probably not as familiar to all, as the congregation there was very young and they had surely not heard as many sermons as I have. At the end, another prayer and that was it. No, I was not expecting any liturgy—quel dommage—but yes, I was expecting another hymn to end the event. But there was none. De gustibus non

Yet now I return to how this French underground church, quite literally underground, is akin to the French Underground of the occupation of France during the Second World War. Hitler’s idea had been to appropriate the beauty of France—indeed he looted many city’s artistic treasures and had them brought to Berlin or held in other secret locations in Germany. He wanted to take what was great about France from the French, make it his own, and force the French, the rightful owners of their own country, their own democratic government, their own staples of wine and cheese, and their own rich artistic cultural heritage, to serve the German government, to serve the German people, and ultimately to serve Adolf himself.

And that is precisely what has happened to Christianity in France. Secularism has taken from it some form of morality, has taken from it ideas whose origins, in purest form, are the property of the church—such as the concepts of true and unadulterated justice, honor, freedom—and degraded them. Then, secular society there (and, by the way, in my own country and many other lands as well) twists the moral code to fit its own purposes. It starts by appropriating the church’s language, the language of love. It redefines love so that it primarily means sex. It reconfigures the term “family” so that it means virtually anything at all, it corrupts fairness, it restricts parental responsibility, and it redefines even (and perhaps especially) the word recreation, which now comes to serve as a way of obviating someone of responsibility (to wit recreational sex, recreational drug usage) cocaineinstead of it meaning what it is supposed to mean: re-creation, refreshing behavior. (The image that occurs to me when I hear the phrase “friends with benefits,” for example, is far from refreshing.) And that is but the tip of a very, very deep iceberg, when it comes to the pillaging of the church by secular society.

And that is why the opportunity to worship with the new French Underground was so exciting, even if the lack of liturgy (and likely deficiency of appreciation of church history that is incumbent upon such a dearth) and the absence of traditional hymnody are not to my taste. Still, the entire event was pure excitement for me, for I felt as if, at least just for one day, I was participating in that movement against the secular regime and its ultimate power structure, for which, unlike John Milton and Mick Jagger, I have little sympathy.

And all this happened just a few days before Mr. Trump was elected. In regard to him, let me share in closing a small warning that I was asked to bring back from France. The French have jestingly told me that, if he misbehaves as president of the United States, they plan to change the spelling of the word tromperie, which ironically means “deception,” to trumperie. Or maybe, though it is difficult for them to pronounce the ‘h’ sound, they will call Airforce One “Hairforce One.” Yet the church I visited is not wofrench-resistance-radio-largerried about the guile or rabid, grasping secularism of humankind, for in the midst of this new conflict with the society around them, they have a means of communication with their own true Leader, as if by a wireless telegraph machine that allows the new French Resistance to communicate with the allies or at least their principal Ally.  That communication begins  two flights underground but can be heard in the Highest of Realms, whence that Leader replies in His own coded messages. It was indeed a delight to join the French Resistance for one day and to hear those wireless messages going back and forth. Vive la Resistance, et vive le Roi vrai!hair-force-one



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Shirt

theshirtIt is always a strange and wonderful privilege to go to a philological congress. That word, congress, may sound to some perhaps a bit old-fashioned. Nowadays, in the States at least, such a meeting is called just that, a meeting, usually preceded by the word annual and followed by specifics such as “of the A. E. Houseman Society” or “of the Shakespeare Society” or “of the Milton Society” or “of  the T.S. Eliot Society” or the like.

In my case, I was tagging along with a friend of mine who was speaking at just such a literary meeting in France on epic poetry, the poetry of sagas. Now, as I was saying above, while these gatherings are called “meetings” in America and sometimes even in the U.K., in France they are called congresses or colloques. This time it was the latter, though the two terms are often interchangeably used. And there were some famous folks at this colloque, which is in part why I tagged along. I won’t mention their names which are, in any case, to an Anglophone audience nearly as unreadable as they are unpronounceable.

Front entrance to the Sorbonne, Paris

But suffice it to say that there was a famous professor from the Sorbonne there, a famous Italian professoressa and an exceptional teacher at a collegium in northern France who has more publications on Theocritus than Theocritus had poems.  And I, though but a writer, was allowed to crash this party, as it were, simply because one of my friends was speaking. His speech, given in French, of course, seemed to me to have gone well. Fortunately I have enough French to have followed it, and I told him that it went well, which of course pleased him.

But none of this is any real part of this story per se. Rather it is merely explanatory, providing the setting for it. The saga of the shirt began at the colloque’s opening dinner, when one of the participants accidentally spilled wine on my friend, who was at the time wearing a long-sleeved white shirt. That rich, red liquid went cascading across the tabletop and soaked rather quickly into the waiting weave of the soft cotton fabric that was my friend’s shirt. Sure enough, his shirt absorbed the drink like an alcohol-starved alcoholic or a fresh diaper, and like a diaper, was quickly stained, as were my friend’s pants. His tan pants were his immediate priority, and he managed to get the major part of that wine stain out in the bathroom by dousing them with water right away, as if they were on fibordeaux-winere. But the shirt, alas, as the wine in question was red (specifically a Bordeaux as we were in the Bordeaux region of France) was a goner, a casualty on the especially delicious epicurean battlefield of southern France.

When he got back to his hotel, so he told me, he originally had thought to place the shirt in the small, round trash can in his room. Indeed he had done so. But, even though he is slightly less Welsh than I am—though he may be precisely as Welsh as I am for all I know—he immediately felt guilty. The reason for his guilt, so he told me at breakfast, was because he had come to the congress from Paris where he had seen hundreds of middle eastern refugees living in the streets, many of them dwelling in small pup tents, each tent quite often inhabited by an entire family. Those tents had been provided for the refugees, mostly from Syria, by the Parisian police and rescue society. Indeed the city of Paris is in crisis mode. Ironically, while radical Islamic terrorists seek to destroy the city—four cells associated with various mosques were broken up while I was there last week—the Parisians are nonetheless reaching out to those needy refugees, many of them of course Muslim, giving them shelter and, for now at least, some measure of hope, how ever small a measure that might friend, though it took him all night, as I was saying at the outset of this blog, eventually came to view the wine-blood of the shirt differently than an object merely to be tossed away into an undersized garbage can. He regarded the wine as the blood of Christ spilled on his shirt.

“How is this so?” I queried of him as we boarded the train quite early this very morning, he going to Paris-Bercy, I getting off at another stop to catch a plane from Paris’ CDG airport.

“I washed the shirt out and, save a slight red stain on one of the sleeves and near the stomach, is almost dry, entirely clean and, if a bit wrinkled, nonetheless quite wearable. It was nearly a new shirt, you know.”

“No, I don’t know, or rather I didn’t know nor would I have known. How could I, as I was not with you at the dinner?” To which, no response. Of course not, I thought, he’s a philologist proper, he finds no need to waste words, even if (or especially because) he supposedly loves them. So, of course, I followed up. “How does the wine spilled on your shirt have anything, even remotely, to do with Christ?”

“It has everything to do with Him,” he responded.

Now, if you had the luxury of a college education, at this point you may be recalling that annoying professor, you know, the one who usually answered obliquely, a Socrates to your Euthyphro. I think that is why I like this friend of mine, because he does that very thing to me. So, of course, I followed up again, eventually worming out of him the notion that the act of spilling of the wine reminded him of the sacrifice of Christ, blood spilled redemptively, even propitiously for the whole world. And that reminded him of the love of Christ. And that he (strangely, to my mind) connected with the shirt, for he had seen refugees sleeping in tents on the streets of Paris—one such encampment on the Rue d’Hôpital, not far from Paris-Bercy. paris-refugees2His idea was, rather than having simply tossed the shirt in the trash (as he nearly did), to walk from Bercy station to the encampment and to give the shirt to one of those in need, then to walk to Denfert-Rochereau to catch the bus to Orly, whence he is flying later today—indeed will have flown, by the time you read this.

“That is a lot of walking,” I said. He indicated that recognized as much, but the blood spilled on the shirt reminded him to do that. “Couldn’t you just give money online?” I queried.

“Too sterile,” he responded in his not infrequently (indeed usually) unusual manner. His look seemed to be kind and understanding, yet at the same time he seemed to me clearly to be issuing a spiritual challenge. Soon he expanded on the theme unprovoked. “Too sterile, even unworthy of the blood, for Christ always got his hands dirty. That’s how we can know his modus operandi. That’s how we recognize the fingerprints of love.”

I alighted, as I said, before my friend so that I might catch a train to the Charles DeGaul, where, upon my arrival I found myself wandering in my thoughts about the spilled wine, the shirt, the striking metaphor of fingerprints of love—striking, yes, but nonetheless a bit incongruous for a shirt. “Can a shirt even bear fingerprints?” I wondered. “Maybe it bears my friend’s DNA, but not his fingerprints, except of course on the buttons.” I tried to give my mind and spirit a rest as I now physically wandered about the airport, passing a fancy men’s clothier with a bright white well-pressed shirt in the window, one sporting sharp-looking silver cufflinks.

“My thoughts are beginning to sound rather pedantic,” I mused. “I have been hanging out with my philological friend too much.” Still, I wondered about the shirt, the other one, the one with Christ’s blood upon it, its saga. Did it make it to a refugee? Did it bear my friend’s DNA? Christ’s fingerprints? What refugee would ever even figure that out? And then I thought of the ten lepers. Though only one figured it out, all ten were healed. “I hope that shirt, like a message in a bottle, made it to it where it was supposed to go,” I muttered, half thinking, half praying. I suppose I will only find out at the next literary congress in France, when I hope to see my philological friend again, or perhaps, if I get back to Paris first, I may see a poor refugee wearing a white shirt with a sleeve slightly stained by the wine of the cup of salvation.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Vote in 2016

guide-to-2016-electionWith regard to voting in America in November of 2016, I have not yet made up my mind as to whether I should vote based on more or less syllables. About that same quandary, by the way, I would wager that the voters of the United States have not done so either. Yet if one does decide to vote based on syllables—which may prove to be the most sensible way to determine one’s vote in an election like this—one might think, “the less syllables, the better,” or, conversely, one might prefer a more robust number.

Ba•rak O•ba•ma

Take our current president, Barak Obama, for example. His name, even without his two-syllable middle name, has a solid five syllables. In 2012 clearly America was favoring richer, fuller names. Mitt Romney lagged behind the president by a solid two syllables, as did John McCain, four years before.

George•Bush      Al•Gore

But it was not always this way.  In 2000, when Americans cast their Floridian chads in an election between George Bush and Al Gore—can you imagine a more concise name than either of those?—Americans witnessed the closest election in years.  In those not too distant days, short names—one syllable names—were quite obviously in vogue, even “hashtag trending” for politicians. (Perhaps those chads were in fact the prototypes of modern-day hashtags.)

Bill Clin•ton

Yet if one goes back just a generation or two before them, one can see that Bill Clinton had three, and inasmuch as George Bush had but two, he did not win reelection, even though he had an H. and a W. linking his George with his Bush.

President Reagan speaking at a rally for Senator Durenberger By Michael Evans, February 8, 1982 Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library, National Archives and Records Administration
Ron•ald Rea•gan

Ronald Reagan had four syllables, and with his Wilson he had six, and before that James Carter bumped his up to four, undoubtedly in an attempt to gain the popular vote, by using a name from his childhood—Jimmy. Should have stuck with James. Bill Clinton didn’t decide to stake political fortune on Billy, did he?


Jim•my Car•ter
Rich•ard Ni•xon

Before President Carter, of course, Gerald Ford had three and Richard Nixon, even when known as “Dick” also had, at a minimum, that same number, though his Richard sounded far more dignified. But no doubt tricky Dick Nixon, as he was sometimes dubbed, enjoyed the unique capacity to shorten or lengthen his Dick, as the occasion might demand. Further, I ween, his nickname set a bad precedent for the likes of Bill Clinton, whose “William Jefferson,” once fully unfurled, towered over his Bill and was generally more appealing than Richard Nixon’s flaccid “Dick.”

Lyn•don Baines John•son
John Fitz•ger•ald Ken•ne•dy

I won’t mention, either, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose name was far more august than his accent or his wife’s quite strange (I always thought) avian name. And before Johnson, of course, the right honorable John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a mouthful, despite the monosyllabic first name and endearing nickname, Jack. Dwight D. Eisenhower was loaded with syllables, even without his middle initial or full name (D. for David), and Harry Truman—well, his name was well balanced.  He was a good human being, I think, though he faced the horrific decision of

Dwight D. Ei•sen•how•er

dropping a nuclear bomb.  And I could go on, to polysyllabic presidents like the two Roosevelts, whether you pronounce their first syllable “Rose” or “Ruse” or “Ruze.” And what about Ted Cruze, whose non-endorsement made big news, and may cause his views, for the party platform, to lose and Texas reds turn to blues? Mais quel ennui (“What a snooze”). His name was simply too short, anyway.

Har•ry Tru•man

And where does that leave us? Well, let’s consider the candidates by syllable, not by their policies, which they’re likely to change after the election anyway as a good many do. But they’re not likely to change their names, not likely to add a syllable, albeit in recent days Bruce did become Kaitlyn; but Donald and Hillary are not likely to do so.  So what does our country want these days, more or less syllables? The veeps are all even, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence. Nothing all that exciting about those names (or those individuals, for that matter), both one syllable each. But the top of the ticket—that’s where the action is.  Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton. Hillary has five total syllables to work with, Donald only three. Are we in an election cycle where the longer names are in vogue again? Ronald Reagan was elected with four, but Trump has but three, though he’s been quite imitative of President Reagan’s campaign. His coming up one short in his name parallels his adoption of President Reagan’s campaign slogan for which Mr. Trump has appropriately enough eliminated one syllable, “Let’s” from “Make America Great Again.”  (Yes, “Let’s Make America Great Again” was Ronald Reagan’s slogan in his campaign against President Carter.)trumpreaganslogan

Now when you think about it, Reagan was matching with his four syllables the same number in Jimmy Carter’s name, but Jimmy is no less the real first name of Mr. Carter than Bill is Bill Clinton’s. On that logic, Hillary Clinton should win, as she has five to match Barak Obama’s five. Perhaps that solves the riddle and befits the title of this blog? Yet isn’t she just a bit too much like President Obama in her political views, whereas President Reagan was quite different that President Carter? I’m not sure, because I’m really only interested in syllables, but still, that bit is curious—I mean the bit about their dichotomous approaches to governing.

Yet Mr. Trump has one thing up his sleeve that he can use to approximate Hillary’s widening lead in syllables. It is not his middle name, which is disappointingly short: John.  No, Donald Trump’s advantage is the definite article. That definite article has been used to great advantage by England’s royal family, for example. One does not walk into a pub there and boldly proclaim “God save Queen!” That sounds like a prayer too late for the late Freddie Mercury.  Rather, one says, “God Save the Queen!”  One speaks not about “Prince of Wales,” as if he were “Game of Thrones.”  Rather, one rightly and dignifiedly calls him “The Prince of Wales.”  (God only knows if he will live long enough to be The King of England.)  And I could go on, but I won’t. You get the idea.

So, as you go into this election cycle, my advice is to count the syllables and choose wisely. As attractive an idea as it may be that there be a woman in the White House, do you really want another five-syllable president? Perhaps it’s too many syllables, too much like the current number of syllables. On the other hand, if you’re a syllabically motivated voter but prefer the Republican ticket, you can always add a “The” to Donald, and make him The Donald John Trump, and there’s your five. That should do it. Or, if you’d like it shorter, try Donald Trump sans The and sans John; maybe even Don Trump? Sounds a bit too much like Don Juan. And I doubt, too, that you can or should say “Hill Clinton”—or can you? If, in the end, Mr. Trump gives you greater syllabic dexterity, that should not necessarily suggest he has greater experience, nor greater political wisdom—after all, Secretary Clinton has dexterously survived a political scandal that might have landed a lesser man in jail—but The Donald, if I may, does have syllabic flexibility on his side and, though he looks rather non-athletic to me, apparently knows his way around a locker room.

Now, in spite of the title of this blog, please don’t let my syllabic counting, expansive or foreshortening as it may be, influence you in the least. As for me, I haven’t yet decided how seriously to take the syllabic differences between these candidates. Perhaps if I just repeat their names over and over again, it will eventually occur to me which of the two is better, or rather which is worse. In any case, many a happy syllable to you in this quite unusual election year.