Monthly Archives: February 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Difficult Road

I have a good and richly devout friend who says no one but God can really change anyone. All change, he insists, must come from on high. Well, at some deep, theological level, he may just be right. But in the world in which I live, I’ve seen a lot of things help one at least to see the need for change, and therefore, I think, it may be useful to look carefully at my friend’s formula. Maybe there are a lot of different ways that God changes people. Could he do so through other people, especially those involved in one’s life in certain key ways?

ancient-pathLong ago (in 1372, to be precise) Boccaccio wrote to Petrarch, suggesting that he had been put on the right path by none other than Petrarch himself. That path, Boccaccio states, is the “ancient path” that Petrarch had traced out with so much vigor and talent that “he could not be stopped by any obstacle or even by the difficult road.” Petrarch was, in fact, Boccaccio’s teacher. And what Boccaccio had learned from Petrarch was presumably the same thing that students of another teacher of rhetoric, a millennium earlier, had tried to teach his students: the path of virtue, a path opened by rhetoric and persuasion. That ancient teacher was named Cicero, the Roman statesman/philosopher par excellence. But more on him another time.

For now, I would prefer to return to my friend’s central premise, namely that God alone can transform someone. Again, that may be true in a theological sense, but in a practical sense, I think I agree with Boccaccio: education can, and in particular a great teacher—and that teacher need not be a Petrarch or a Cicero—has a peculiar role in that transformational work. Thus, what is known as a liberal arts education can produce some startling and quite valuable results. LucyJonesTeapot


Indeed, I would say that the most valuable thing I own is not my great-great-grandmother Lucy Hughes Jones’ tea pot or her not-quite-Welsh (really Bavarian) cheese plate or even the old black trunk that transported them both, but my liberal education. At Dickinson I read Milton for the first time, and he taught me to understand what faith was long before I had faith to speak of. Plato led me to think about the best things—he called them forms—and he did so in his original Greek. Shakespeare taught me how to laugh, to care, to love and even to speak and write more dexterously. And Richard Wright made me at least a bit more aware of what it is like to be scared, make mistakes, and to understand such fear and error by looking through a poignantly pathetic character’s eyes.

And these were just the literature classes. I took an anthropology class, too, that educated me as to how poor so many folks in this world are. Subsequently, I would myself go to China and, later, Ethiopia and understand in person what I had read about and studied years before. And history, what can I say about that? I learned to love history from a great professor named Leon Fitts. He could bring Rome alive like no other. For another history class, I wrote a paper about my family’s history. 9781480814738_COVER.inddWas that the prototype of The Curious Autobiography? I’m not sure, but I think it may have had something ultimately to do with the scribbling down of that collection of tales. And Latin. Where do I start? Where do I end? If in the manner of the forty-third verse of Virgil’s second Georgic, I had a hundred tongues and a hundred mouths, could I ever truly explain?

What changed me the most? While I agree with my devout friend that encountering and wrestling with God is the most transformative moment one can have, one of the most important ways change has come to me is through the echoing ideas that found a permanent seat in my mind during my college years. In any case, I know the answer to a question a bit different from the one that opens this paragraph. That question is simply what the most valuable thing I own might be. I can say without hesitation that that most prized thing is my liberal arts education—not the degree itself but the degree to which it changed the way I think—for by it I learned to embark on Boccaccio’s (or was it Petrarch’s?) ancient path and to appreciate life’s journey along the difficult road.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Unlikely Friendships

Bust of Aristotle

I remember my childhood friends well, and, when I do, I get nostalgic, as I suspect many of us do. I do so because when I was a child I never thought by category. I still try very hard not to, but as one grows up, the inclination to tidy up our thoughts naturally occurs, whether or not we’ve ever read Aristotle, I suppose.

Yet I doubt that very many of us take the time or have the inclination to categorize our friendships. Rather, we just do so without thinking about it. Yet were we to stay childlike in this regard and not think in categories, we may be the better off for it. There is, however, at least one good reason to categorize our friendships. That reason is, I think, to remind ourselves to try very hard not to do so. But I get ahead of myself in telling you the “moral,” as it were, to this story, before we hear the story itself.

That story begins even before Elaine settled down in New Hope. She had moved around Pennsylvania so often when I was a small child—from Kingston (Wilkes-Barre) to two areas of Philadelphia (center city and Oxford Circle) to Shermans Dale (near Harrisburg) and finally to New Hope—that by the time I reached the second grade, I had not been anywhere long enough to forge a friendship, except one, even before we began our convoluted trek. That friendship was with David Goldstein, whose family name still adorns Rutter Avenue’ Goldstein’s Delicatessengoldstein-deli-logo, though to my knowledge his family no longer owns the business. In any case, at age four, I was David’s friend, though it was long ago, before the endless vitriol of our progressive modern era, before such stark political divisions, before ancient dead white males were despised and their ideas discarded. Before micro-aggressions, before frivolous lawsuits were common, I remember well David Goldstein, my friend, and myself simply riding our bicycles together in the small parking lots on either side of 414 Rutter. We were simply friends. We did not categorize our friendship. We were just glad to have been allowed to play outside together.

Thinking in terms of friendship categories can remind us of friendships like that one, before we thought in categories at all (which are ultimately Aristotelian) and are, in a sense, themselves indication of a deep flaw in our nature, what some call humankind’s wretched fallen estate. That ancient but not antiquated philosopher long ago divided friendships up into categories. One, Aristotle said, was a friendship of pleasure, in the case of which the friends simply take delight in one another. This can, of course, be seen in young couples or friends who share like interests in which they both delight. Another, of a lesser hue, would be friendships of utility, in the course of which each party (or at least one, certainly) sees some benefit to be gained by becoming the friend of the other. The finest category of friendship that Aristotle posits is one based on goodness.

Now in our era, of course, one would have to begin any consideration of this last category by proving (if one could do so, which I doubt, to the satisfaction of the disingenuously quizzical interlocutor) that there is such a thing as goodness. But leaving that aside for the moment, let us indulge, if not me, at least Aristotle, by admitting that there is such a thing as goodness. If so, these kinds of friendships are forged based on shared virtues. Such friendship lasts as long as both parties maintain their virtue and pursue the good. These friendships, Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics,[1] are the best, finest, purest, even rarified. They are, at any rate, certainly rare.

Let us be aware of these categories and let us also beware of them. While the unlikely friendship that we may develop with Aristotle by reading him afresh can help to clarify our thoughts, the friendships we formed in childhood, particularly in our very early years are, perhaps, at a farther remove from the taint of the fall. Yet even if this is not true (and certainly not provable), we didn’t, as small children, think in the categorical terms that may both help us but also have the potential to drag us down. Perhaps, in the end, Aristotle’s useful terms might best serve as apotropaic symbols—maybe there is a danger in our thinking in terms of utility, pleasure, or even shared virtue.

Vincent van Gogh’s The Good Samaritan, Kröller-Müller museum

I want to posit as a different kind of model for friendship the most startling idea that I’ve ever encountered. It’s the moral of another story, not quite the one I alluded to at the outset. There once was a man, a social outcast religiously, who happened to be going between Jerusalem and Jericho and came upon another man, naked and bleeding, nearly dead, according to the tale. That religious outcast, known as a Samaritan, bandaged up the nearly dead man’s wounds, brought him to shelter and paid his bills. You likely know the rest of the story. That man’s action supersedes in every way the friendship based on goodness or virtue, for it is another kind of virtue yet. It is unqualified love for one’s neighbor that produces an unlikely friendship, one that quietly gives and seeks nothing in return. In closing, I propose a toast to dead white males—those dead and those nearly dead—whom only the gift of an unlikely friendship can revive.




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On the Age-old Esoteric Question of Ellipsis vs. Aposiopesis

Johann Strauss II

High-brow dinner parties can be wonderful events. I was at one lately and, of course, it boasted a rich variety of conversations. One such exchange verged, typically so, toward Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” overture. “Did you know that a fledermaus is a bat?” The wrong answer is “Of course, I speak German.” The right answer is “Yes, I think I heard that somewhere. Even though I speak some German, ‘bat’ is obviously a word not in my normal lexicon, though now that I think about it, I once saw a bat in Berlin.” Something to that effect. The city of Berlin offers a springboard to orchestrate a retreat from Strauss, should one so desire, or at least to allow you to move the conversation in a direction that will allow you not to seem arrogant but to seem as dillettantish as the next man, which is a welcome idea at most such dinner parties. (As an aside, n.b. that “Die Fledermaus” is sometimes translated in English rather freely as “The Bat’s Revenge,” which reminds me of a friend of mine who is a college professor of literature. He calls on his students when they are not paying attention even for a millisecond. But that’s off the topic—a tangent to bring a smile to my teaching friend’s face and those of his students, should they happen to read this.)

But this blog isn’t to be about “Die Fledermaus” per se or even about Johann Baptist Strauss II, who is more famous, of course, for “The Blue Danube” and less famous, at least stateside, for “Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka.” Indeed, he is not know as the “Polka King,” but as the “Waltz King,” and his waltzes greatly enriched nineteenth-century Viennese culture.

Indeed, to listen to this waltz, whose full formal name in the German tongue is “An der schönen blauen Donau,” transports one back to a gentler and, at the same time, more sophisticated milieu. That age easily outstrips culturally the aforementioned dinner party, to which we should, however, now return.

baked-raclette“Yes, Strauss, one of my favorite composers,” someone else added. Then there was some commentary on the baked raclette cheese dish, bestrodden, as it was, by two rows of dainty water crackers, which arrangement was incongruously grouped with a strong Irish chesse on the same serving board. After the curdish ellipse/cheddar chatter, the conversation returned to Stauss momentarily when someone stated knowledgeably that Johann Strauss II was unrelated to Richard Strauss, who was a younger contemporary, not Austrian, but German, harking from Munich, a city quite near the Austrian border but at some remove from Vienna. This Strauss, of course, composed many an opera, as well as symphonic poems, among the most famous of which is “Also sprach Zarathustra.”

Richard Strauss

And then the conversation took a very strange, and for a moment less than highbrown turn, for somehow we jumped from Zarathustra to President Trump’s twitter account, particularly to a recent proclamation that he issued via that medium: “I will be speaking at 9:00 A.M. today to Police Chiefs and Sheriffs and will be discussing the horrible, dangerous and wrong decision…. [8 Feb 7:04 AM].”

Gott sei Dank, the conversations did not, you will be glad to learn, explore the content of the president’s brief missive but only the form, for the person who brought it up claimed that the words offered an ellipsis.


“An ellipsis,” I chimed in, hoping to ensure that the conversation would not devolve to fustian political squabbling, “technically requires two parts. This statement, incoherent as it seems, is technically an aposiopesis—you know,” I said, “like in the famous speech of Neptune to the raging winds of Aeolus in the first Aeneid.”

“I don’t understand,” said another interlocutor. “I thought an ellipsis was … ,” and she broke off.

“No,” I said, “that’s an aposiopesis.”

“What is?” she queried.

“What you just did. Your words about what an ellipsis might be just tailed off. That’s aposiopesis. An ellipsis is, well,” I said, “like Strauss interrupted by baked raclette and Irish cheddar.”

“I never thought of it that way,” she said.

Then we had a good laugh about cheese and twitter, Strauss II and the German Strauss, and we indulged again in the baked raclette, which by then had grown cold. And that is way, I think I enjoy high-brow dinner parties, for where else could you find “The Blue Danube,” an assortment of cheese, and rhetorical devices, all working together with a view to ….



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Books and Travel

To order click on the image above.

Well, there’s nothing like curling up with a good book. An old dictum, and perhaps there’s none truer. My friend is writing a new book now, one that will be out this summer. Actually, he’s cowriting the book with a colleague from Italy, whom I also know, a certain professor from the university of Tor Vergata in Rome along with another American colleague. What seems to me to be weird about the book he’s writing is that, though it is a scholarly book, it is one that I think—for I am helping him proofread it—will be accessible to the general public. So it’s a good book in a different way than, say, the Curious Autobiography is said to be by its Amazon reviewers. Of course, my friend’s book, which can already be ordered is still in production, so it hasn’t any Amazon reviews of its own (or other reviews) just yet, though perhaps some “prodigiously famous” scholarly polysyllabricator will write a virtually unintelligible blub for the back cover. But I want to say that that book, which I am reading this weekend, seems to me to be really a good book, an interesting one that anyone could enjoy at home or abroad, for the only thing better than curling up with a good book is reading one in transit.

To order click on the image above.

I very much like doing that—reading while roaming—not only because it lightens the burden of travel and luggage transfer but also because the movement of one’s eye over the page often whets that same eye’s appetite for scanning a new vista, studying every store window, admiring architecture, or considering the quaintness of each town on the journey. I’ve got a trip planned for a group of friends this summer, a group of friends who have never visited Bologna or eaten at the Osteria Broccaindosso, number 7 on Broccaindosso Street. There, you may recall from a previous blog, one finds the world’s best lasagna (thankfully my Aunt Lee Ann is not alive to read this, for she boasted the best lasagna, made in the Bolognese style), a truly scrumptious antipasto, which I devoured when I was there, of course, befobologna-foodre the lasagna came to my plate, not to mention the procession of smidgens of insalata al balsamico, egged-up zucchini treats, superb slices of ricotta and mozzarella, all served alongside high-quality local wine, Sangiovese. Dare I mention the dessert, the incredible mound of tiramisù? All that awaits my traveling friends’ lip-smacking palates, but that is not what is really amazing about Bologna: it’s the seven churches, Asinelli and Garisenda towers of the city center, the endless porticoes, and the chance to walk over the grounds of the oldest university in the western world.

venice-canalAnd that’s just the beginning of what will be a wonderful adventure. Next comes Venice (need I quip at all?), then, after a bus ride through the Alpine foothills, we’ll go on to Salzburg (the home of Mozart and the Opernfestspiele where, if we can get the tickets ordered soon, we shall see Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito); salzburg-cityscapethen on to Augsburg, Germany with a stop on the German side of Lake Constance, which in Teutonic is known as Bodensee, for dinner. St. Gallen beckons next, where we shall visit a superb monastery and library, and where, I hope, we shall all be inspired to curl up with that proverbial good book, for that town is tranquil beyond belief and the library pure inspiration. A stop at Zurich’s Altstadt follows before the trip winds up in Geneva, where there is so much to do and see that the mind boggles.altstadt

I’m hoping to read a good book on that trip, or maybe to write while in transit, for I much enjoy that, too. Perhaps I will begin writing the next installment in the Curious Autobiography series—something I’ve put off too long. So, while I am not certain about what specifically that trip will hold for me, I am sure that it will offer a sense of wonder to our entire group of wayfaring friends, who all will experience the overwhelming joy of grasping new cultures, shaking new hands and making new friends. And it will offer, too, inspiration, for one learns through travel what one cannot learn from staying home, even when curled up with a good book.