Monthly Archives: May 2016

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Pocahontas, Turtles, and Justice

Pocahontas statue
Statue of Pocahontas

It has been an interesting week in America. So I thought I would write a blog that reflected my perception of the past few days. I begin with Pocahontas, who has been in the news because one candidate has decided to call another politician—Elizabeth Warren, not a candidate per se, but perhaps surreptitiously campaigning for a vice presidential nod—by that noble name. Now I am not advocating the insouciant use of the names of historical figures to describe just anyone at any time; but I did find it rather droll that the leading republican candidate underscored Ms. Warren’s apparently tenuous claim to Native American ancestry by using a historical reference that is politically incorrect yet somehow amusing. What to my mind makes that so? I am not sure, and I am still pondering my love–hate relationship with both of the leading candidates for president in the upcoming American election. Or maybe I just have a love–hate relationship with the democratic society we live in, and it has been distilled into my views of both the leading candidates. I don’t know. But I like Pocahontas, at least what I know of her, which is in part legend (or is it history, since it largely comes from John Smith’s own account), of her having intervened with her own tribe when that captain was taken prisoner by the Tsenacommacah in 1607. At about the tender age of 11, she allegedly offered her own head for Smith’s when her father, the chief of the tribe, was about to execute him.[1]

Now I rehearse this tale because the Pocahontas remark would work much better were Elizabeth Warren to understand and empathize with the views of her political opponents, as Pocahontas empathized with John Smith; or if Elizabeth Warren did something really heroic (like offer her head for Donald Trump’s). But maybe in attacking the republican nominee on twitter (how divinely Hicthcockian) she could be viewed as taking the blame for the attacks of the Clinton camp—yet they seem to do their own attacking well enough. But enough politics, enough history, and on to something else: turtles.

Assembly of Turtles

I turn to turtles next because I like them, even though they have been blamed recently for spreading salmonella. It is the title of the article that reported this contagion that grabbed me: “Salmonella Outbreaks are Being Caused by Turtles.” I suppose, given that it is in the passive voice, I should have been more alarmed by that, as many expository writing professors and tips-for-writing websites these days, have blacklisted the passive voice. Now the title of the article sounds delightfully diabolical, doesn’t it? I can just imagine the Synod of Turtles gathering somewhere to discuss their sinister plans for the coming year—ways to get back at inattentive human beings for outrages such as turtle soup or “shell games,” which they misperceive as always referring to turtle shells, or the like. “Let’s spread salmonella,” one of the more aggressive turtles says! The stenographic turtle asks for clarification, “How is salmonella spelled?”

“Will you stop with that accursed passive voice?” the turtle leader retorts (not realizing that “accursed” is itself a passive participle). “We must retaliate for that new flavor of ice cream made out of the bodies and shells of our brothers and sisters around the world. Let us smite them with germ warfare!” (Elaine Jake’s favorite flavor [or really confection] of ice cream was turtle crunch. I will ever hold the memory of taking her to Katie’s Custard in Beverley Hills, Texas, for a turtle sundae as dear and cherished.)

Justice statue
Statue Representing Justice

Finally, and much more seriously, I come to justice. I close with this because I wanted to suggest that while it is perhaps not the most important value in life—charity, mercy and forgiveness have to rank up there with it—it is close. In fact, the three just mentioned can only make sense if there is such a thing as justice. Now sometimes, we forget about these three when we seek justice. Sometimes we are so fixated on obtaining justice that nothing but justice, even retribution—“making someone pay,” clouds our perception and obfuscates mercy. That may have happened this week when a major university president was relieved of his post because of the evil behavior of some students on his campus. These students did the unspeakable, they committed rape. Nothing good came or could ever come of their actions, nothing good was intended by it. They felt empowered because they were athletes. Should their coach have known about their attitudes toward women? Yes, I suppose in a sense he should have, and he should have shown them a better way. Or he should never have allowed them on his team in the first place. But the college president is not down in the trenches the way a coach is. I only ask whether mercy could have been shown. There is perhaps no obvious answer to those of us who only saw this story from afar. But there is the perception, specifically one of overcorrection, for it is hard to see how a college president can be held responsible for the actions of all of his

Mercy statue
Statue Representing Mercy

students. Could he have done more to prevent it? Well, the people around him probably could have; but unless he micromanaged, he could not have prevented it. And in any case, assuming that there is an easy fix for sins as egregious as rape is, to my mind, naïve.


But I should perhaps stick with sweet themes such as turtle ice cream or politically incorrect themes such as Pocahontas, to whom I return now, in closing. The point I think that Mr. Trump was trying to make is that, as another vice presidential candidate (Lloyd Bensten) once said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Change the words Jack Kennedy to Pocahontas and you get the gist, though it would date Mr. Trump a few years.

PC 94 not dated, ca. 1942 Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942. Photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.
Ensign John F. Kennedy, USN, in South Carolina, circa 1942.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day, my readers. Please remember those who, like John F. Kennedy, served our country nobly in the military, risking all, suffering harm, and in many cases fearlessly forfeiting their lives so we could enjoy this noble day.

Memorial day graves

[1] Some six years later the Indian princess was herself captured by Captain Samuel Argall and used as a bargaining chip to secure prisoners and weapons that her father had taken in raids on the English. During her incarceration she encountered some who brought her to an understanding of Christianity and she eventually converted and the next year she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, though she would die by the age of twenty-two. The precise cause of her early demise is not known.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Empowerment

IMG_0964This week I came across three items that spoke about empowerment and I would like to share my thoughts about them in this short blog:

First, I saw an article that purports to suggest that Calvin Klein advertisements neither empower women nor do not. But the author, Peggy Drexler, soon goes on to show her real thoughts on the matter, that sexually suggestive advertising can help women feel better about their bodies. She writes,

calvin klein grapefruit“And even if she were holding a grapefruit that resembles a vagina—what of it? Why is that so shocking, so deplorable? A vagina, after all, isn’t dirty. It’s not crass. It’s a body part, one that all women have. Instead, the protesters of these images seem to be suggesting that there is shame in acknowledging this body part—not even a real vagina, mind you, but a fruity likeness of one. This, of course, only serves to perpetuate the notion many women already feel: that their bodies are something to feel embarrassed about.”[1]

So, in spite of her disclaimer, it seems that Ms. Drexler does, in the end, seem to be suggesting, the crass advertising does empower women, and the tone here is that the raunchier the advertisement, the better women will feel about their bodies.

But perhaps this sounds rather serious, even dire. On a lighter note, I turn to the second item. In my inbox mysteriously there appeared an advertisement from Apple computer telling me that I should “empower” my children, if they happen to be graduating from high school or college, by buying them a sleek new Apple computer. The implication is, of course, if you don’t buy one for your child, you’re in fact holding them back from reaching their full potential. “Jump-start their future and give your grad the full notebook experience in the fastest, lightest MacBook yet.”

Now I am not going to complain about the false agreement of the plural possessive adjective “their” and the fact that you only have one graduate mentioned in the sentence, for that would be peevish. But I will say that a phrase like “full notebook experience” is to my mind off-putting. How can one have a “notebook experience”? I mean really, is that what one has when one uses a laptop computer, an “experience”? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against computers or Apple per se, but maybe I am just missing something. Yet I doubt it, as I am sitting here writing this blog on my (admittedly ordinary non-Apple) laptop and I am not having an experience at all, let alone “the full notebook eturtlexperience” (my italics). But I leave my petulance aside to consider the third item of empowerment. I wish I could say it was an article about turtles being to blame for salmonella and that all we need do is teach and thus empower the turtles with education about proper hygiene to make the problem go away. But it is a topic much more important and serious, even dangerous.

Economist.SexThe third appeal for empowerment comes from a piece that has had remarkable staying power (since August of 2014) in a number of Internet news sources. It is an article from The Economist on the sex trade entitled, “Prostitution: A Personal Choice.” To anyone at all aware of the diabolical, even demonic power of the sex trade business and human trafficking, the articles mere title jumps straight off the page as wrong-headed. Yet the article’s lead author even in the first paragraph seeks to reveal that to “many” prostitutes sex is just a job:

NIMBYs make common cause with puritans, who think that women selling sex are sinners, and do-gooders, who think they are victims. The reality is more nuanced. Some prostitutes do indeed suffer from trafficking, exploitation or violence; their abusers ought to end up in jail for their crimes. But for many, both male and female, sex work is just that: work.”

Now I hate to be peevish twice in one article, but I am about to do so. First of all, would love to know how many that “many” really is. But more importantly, secondly I would question the premise. Can sex ever in fact just be “work”? Just because some people might mistake from a distance skunk for a cat, it can be made clear amply quickly that a skunk is not a cat.skunk and cat

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that a prostitute is a skunk. I am suggesting that prostitution is. It is something that stinks, and it stinks because despite what The Economist’s cover may suggest, it is anything but empowering. It is degrading. For the woman involved, it tells her that she is merely an object. For the man involved, it tells him that he is a buyer of an object. For the rare reversal of the situation (male prostitution or homosexual prostitution) the same formula may be applied with gender changes as appropriate. In every case, the seller is objectified and the buyer who has the money and therefore the power, is the objectifier. No pragmatic argument can change that, nor can any prevail against it. One need not be a NIMBY (which means, by the way, “Not in my backyard”; I had to look it up), a puritan or a do-gooder to understand this, though a modicum of education and common sense might help. But apparently The Economist’s team of writers have neither of those, but rather come equipped only with a social agenda and mega-dose of pragmatism gone wild.

It is not only The Economist who seems to condone sexual exploitation. The CNN webpage has a 2013 article on female students who seek out sugar daddies so they can pay their college expenses.[2] It is, to say the least, sympathetic to them. The notion of moral backbone, of hard work and, dare I say it, even of having to pay back college loans, is so easily sacrificed on the altar of Asherah.

calvin klein logoMs. Drexler buttons up her Calvin Klein article by stating, “Although it’s tempting to stare only at the poor, exploited, hyper-sexualized models in these images … don’t disregard the campaign’s words. The language, one might argue, is very clearly designed to put the power in the model’s, and the wearer’s, hands. “I [kick it] in my Calvins, ” “I [react] in my Calvins. ” “I [Bieber] in my Calvins. ” “They alone decide what to do in their Calvins.”

I can only respond in this way. It is not tempting for me to stare at those poor, exploited women. Rather, it is forced upon me and all of us, and our children, and grandchildren by amoral bastards who put the almighty dollar over everything else. To Ms. Drexler and any of us who might be inclined to think, “C’mon, this is just advertising; lighten up!” I simply say this. Think. Think about the implications of what you see, what you read, what you say and what you do. If you do not think about those implications, you will be bound, yes bound and enslaved, by the values of a world that attributes value not to people (whether those exploited in the picture or those put upon who wind up beholding it), but rather only to something really quite valueless, money, commercializing people, debasing sexuality, and corrupting the hope of future generations in the process.

And now I am finished with my peevishness. I shall turn to something like turtles next week, turtles and dreams and good memories.



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Stuff You Don’t Want to Do …


Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, and while it might have been fitting to have this blog appear before Mother’s Day, I am writing it a few days after that special event because, of course, I was thinking of my mother, Elaine Jakes, on Mother’s Day quite a bit and I thought about the many wacky and wonderful times we had together, events and situations that could never have come to pass without her personality, her numerous eccentricities converging to produce various situations frankly unbelievable, but events that indeed did happen. Many of these are presented in some detail in the Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, available on Amazon with the click of a button Θ. book buy iconThe book has enjoyed some excellent reviews, such as that of the Midwest Book Review which calls it “a riveting and entertaining read from beginning to end.”  I thus recommend it to you, especially around this time of year when we find ourselves thinking of our mothers, whether they are alive or not. Elaine passed away on May 23, 2011, nearly five years ago now.

And thus I have entitled this blog “Stuff You Don’t Want to Do …,” and I don’t add the rest of the title because, if you had a good mother, you likely know the rest, “… But You Do Anyway.” You do it because your mother told you to. Now she may have insisted; or she may have cajoled; or she may have used a healthy dose of guilt. She may have used a combination of any two or all three of these. But you wound up doing it, even though you flat out did not want to. And later, as she so confidently predicted at the time she was doling out her instructions, you were glad you did.

I offer two brief personal examples. First, Elaine taught me not to quit. I had a job I did not particularly like; I was working for Gerenser’s Exotic Ice Cream Shop, and though I liked some aspects of the job—I could dip with the best of them, and dip away I did—there was one overseer (whose name escapes me) who particularly irritated me. He seemed not to care about the customers, and in any case he was smug. Even when I was a child, smugness never worked well with me. I did not like other children who were smug; I did not like teachers or coaches who were smug—though I am fortunate to say that I had very few of these—and I particularly did not like supervisors in the workplace who were smug. And I still don’t. That aside, this particular person’s snobbery and conceit rubbed me so much the wrong way that I wanted to quit. But Elaine talked me out of it; she told me that these things, too, will pass, and that I should by this job learn patience that I might store up for future use when I have bigger problems someday. And she added, of course, that someday I would know that she was right. And, naturally enough, I do.

That someday has come many times over the course of my life. One particular time came some years later in graduate school when I was thinking about walking away from a fellowship and tuition remission package merely because I felt that I had been incorrectly marked on one of my qualifying exams. But there was my mother, again, saying, “Don’t be an IDIOT!” idiot posterI knew she would say as much before I told her, so I was not surprised to hear the actual words when I heard her actual voice. And I did, an earful, and I took it to heart. She was, after all, my mother. I had to listen to her. And, she would be proved, after all, to be right, time and time again.

I don’t want to belabor this point. Rather, I just want to give mothers their due, even if it comes the week after Mother’s Day. I hope any of you mothers who read this did indeed had a Happy Mother’s Day. More importantly, I hope you know that you are always right and feel validated, to some small degree by this blog, which attests as much. Yet I know that, if you are anything like Elaine Jakes, you did not need to read this to know it, for you knew it already. For the rest of us, let this blog serve as a small reminder that our mothers are usually entirely right; that we should listen to them; and that we should not quit doing so, nor, barring unusual circumstances, should we likely ever quit at all. Yes, we should very often do what we don’t want to do; and we should know before we talk to her what she will say. Thanks, Mom, for that lesson and so much more.

Mothers sign
“The Guilt.” Photo taken by Alex Stewart

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Glimpses of Heaven

Every once in a while I get the feeling I’ve been somewhere before. I am certain that you do, too, for this phenomenon is called déjà-vu, something that nearly everyone I’ve ever met has experienced at one time or other. It is the distinct feeling that you have done this exact thing, met this exact person, or smelled—and this is the strangest one—this exact smell before. In the case of the last of these, it may not be déjà-vu at all; it may be an actual memory, one unlocked by a mere scent.

In any case, what is known as déjà-vu is like, but not precisely the same thing as, what I am calling here a glimpse of heaven. Now, different cultures have (or have had) various different ideas about heaven. In Norse mythological sources, such as Eiríksmál, a tenth-century poem describing the death of Eric Bloodaxe or the Prose Edda a thirteenth-century work attributed to Snorri Sturluson, Valhalla is described as the hall of the dead, the place where those fallen in battle go after death. Buddhists hold to the notion that souls either transmigrate (a spiritual process known as metempsychosis) or, once perfected, achieve Nirvana, a state in which nothing is left but the mind itself. And, of course, both Nirvana and Valhalla have found their places in the English language to suggest the notion of a state of spiritual bliss, peace, or rest. But I do not want to address different conceptualizations about the afterlife here.

Rather I want to speak about those moments, those rare moments, when we might get a glimpse of heaven that is something like déjà-vu. It is not like déjà-vu in the sense that we feel that we have been there before. Not at all. In my experience, such a momentary glimpse of heaven always seems extremely foreign to me. No, for me it comes when I realize how very far I am from it. It normally follows a moment of self-examination or a moment of consideration of the divine.

“Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” Such a verse, in this case from the fortieth chapter of the prophet Isaiah (v. 12) causes me to think. It makes me think of the vast difference between myself and God. Ten verses later Isaiah adds, “ It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: that bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.”

And so it goes, as the Old Testament is very clear—often frighteningly so—and quite consistent in describing the ways that people are very different from God. Yet that difference, which is far from p.c. by being frightening, is not only so; it is also quite enlightening. And that occasional burst of enlightenment is what I am speaking about when I refer to a glimpse of heaven.

But let me put it in more human terms. Imagine you are away on a business trip. While you are out of town, your colleagues are gathered around the water cooler or are off at the local coffee shop or lunch bucket and your name comes up in conversation, a possibility that may be particularly true, of course, if you hold any kind of position of authority at your work place. The truth comes out about you: you have a tendency to do X, Y, or Z irritatingly; your choice of ties or shoes or whatever you might prefer is (perhaps quite rightly) called into question. Your organizational skills are panned; your capacity for fomenting good channels of communication is criticized roundly.watercoolerWorst of all, what it would most pain you to hear, your work ethic is called into question. And even though you’re not there, you know somehow this is going on; and, what is worse, you know that if they are having such a conversation, they are probably at least partially, if not mostly, right. They have seen and diagnosed the “real you” more or less correctly; and of course they have, they know you well. They know that the real you is a failure, just as you yourself know it.

Now I am not speaking to a reader who may at this point be thinking, “I am no failure. I am successful at everything I put my hand to.” If that is you, you should perhaps not bother to keep reading (even though you just ended a sentence in a preposition, so at least your grammar could be called into question). Rather, I am speaking to someone who, like me, knows that he or she is in fact the very person described in graphic detail by his friends at lunch.successNow for me a glimpse of heaven can come only after I have realized that the luncheon discussion is true. Okay, perhaps not 100%; maybe you do work harder than they see, because you get up in the middle of the night to do 50 of the 100 or more or so emails you get in a day, and they don’t see that or know that you get that many emails, that you put out so many minor fires. But, if you’re honest, they’ve got at least some of the rest right. In fact, you’re not the person you want to present yourself as, as you want to seem on top of everything precisely when you feel that everything is on top of you.

And that’s when I have a feeling, a very strong feeling verging on a strange kind of knowledge of things I likely have no business knowing anything about, that the one who “hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,” even though he sees us for who we really are, loves us anyway. Admittedly, I base my opinion about this not on a hope for achieving Nirvana or a glorious entrance into Valhalla, but on precisely the opposite. I base it on the tender and broken look of a mother’s eyes. When Jesus was entering a town called Nain, he saw a widow in a funeral procession:

Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And he came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother. (Luke 7:12-15)

This widow might well have been feeling that God was punishing her for some reason or other, for in addition to her husband, she had now recently lost her only son. She probably artificially assigned fault to herself, felt guilt for being a poor mother and an inadequate wife, and probably blamed herself, at some gut level, for the death of them both. And while the lunch conversation about her would likely have been no different than that about the rest of us—as a human being she, too, no doubt had her faults—she was in no wise, of course, directly responsible for the death of either of them. And now she was alone, broken, processing forth with deep wailing, that of a mother for the loss of a child, going about the business of burying her only son’s corpse.

And just then, just then when all seemed lost and truly all was, as far as she was concerned, lost, she got a glimpse of heaven, a glimpse breaking through the dark clouds as a shaft of powerful light to touch the earth. Even though she knew who she was and even though she likely blamed herself and might even, dare I say it, have been angry at God for the death of her son, Jesus interrupted the procession.

We can at best fancifully imagine the response of the widow. Or can we? Perhaps if we have had a glimpse of heaven, a moment when we know for just a moment how rightly judged we are by our colleagues and by God but loved at least by the latter, and unconditionally so—perhaps we know the emotions, the love, visceral compassion that woman must have felt.

These, at any rate, are my thoughts on getting a glimpse of heaven. In this life heaven is perhaps more often later than now, but when it is now it comes in a kind of strange preview, one that I, at least, can handle only every once in a while.

salerno ivory
Raising of the son of the widow of Nain Salerno, Museo diocesano (1100 AD)