Monthly Archives: April 2018

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The World’s Best Naked Exercise Program

Black-figured ‘Tyrrhenian’ amphora showing athletes and a combat scene, 540 BC

I was originally going to write this blog with the most boring of all possible titles: “On Exercise.” I was going to do so merely as a literary exercise, of course, which would cause such a literary exercise to be a true exercise. This would be so because any time you want to make a topic sound boring, you simply have to put an “on” in front of it. So, instead of writing a blog entitled “How to Make Cookies,” call the blog “On Cookies” and no one will read it.  But if you put “how to…” in front in it, a lot of people will read it.  Add the words “world’s best” to the title, right before cookies, of course, and you’ll have an enormous readership: “How to Make the World’s Best Cookies.”  Yes, that would do it.

But if you want to create a writing exercise, you don’t do that. Rather, you choose to add “on” to the word (like Theophrastus’ famous treatise “On Sweats”) and see if, even though you’ve deliberately entitled the work with the most boring title possible, you still can procure readership.  But how can you do that?

Honestly I don’t think you can. So better to add something like “world’s best.” But even that might not do it, for exercise is seen by many a person as a kind of boring enterprise; that must be true or more people would do it voluntarily.  But if you add the word “naked,” you will definitely garner many more readers.  That is true of nearly any title.  You could write “How to Bake the World’s Best Cookies Naked” and then you would have a title that would definitely turn heads.  Naked is, after all, one of those words that you don’t just read right past.  So, let’s consider exercising naked, if only for the sake of this literary exercise.


The Greeks exercised naked, as did the Romans. Yes, you could go to a Roman bath house, for example, and expect to see your fellow townsmen on the central mall (called a palaestra) working up a sweat completely naked.  But that was not alarming to you, as you were used to seeing them in the stall-less bathrooms dropping the weight of their bowels right next to you.

Roman public bathroom

Yes, you might even sit next to someone of the opposite sex and chat with him or her about business while you were doing your own business, and quite publically at that. So I think it is safe to say that “naked” can be in a blog about exercise and be far from controversial but still, perhaps garner your attention.

Yet that is not what you might have had in mind if you had begun to read a blog entitled “On Exercise.” Instead, admittedly I have succumbed to the temptation to give it a catchier title, and thus I hope not to disappoint, for I do want to speak about the true importance of exercise.  Indeed, it is vital to exercise and I think to do so somewhat vigorously, if your body will allow you to.  Doctors say so, and so do many well-written and well-researched websites.  But I will speak here chiefly from personal experience, not scientifically or with a view to convincing you to subscribe to some new diet and exercise program. Rather, let me just say that I have had basically three phases in my life, and I have done much better physically and emotionally in two of them than I did in the one that was devoid of exercise.

In that lazy phase, in the years I was in graduate school and just out of it, I did not find time to exercise regularly, doing so intermittently at best. And thus I found myself in those years less healthy, often more irritable (some of which admittedly could have been caused by being in graduate school), and generally just less happy than when I took it upon myself to exercise vigorously and regularly.  In my youth I had been quite athletic, and after the aforementioned hiatus I became athletic again.  When I reintroduced regular exercise into my life, my health improved. My heart rate decreased markedly.  My blood pressure dropped.  By the grace of God (and thanks to exercise), I don’t have to take any medications even though I am in my 50s.

And, on the topic of exercise, you might wonder what exactly that “World’s Best Exercise Program” is. Let me say first that one size does not fit all, and really all I propose to do here is tell you what I do, not what is the “world’s best” program is which, truth be told, I do not do naked (of course):

I take a good morning walk (about a mile) with my wife and our over-sized dog. Then, I bike to my office (about 6 miles) where I mainly write. At some point during the day, I either swing a Kettlebell (about once a week for about 30 minutes, following along with a kind of kitsch work out video) or I go for pretty swift jog (about three times a week); I also lift weights (about three times a week). And I swim continually for an hour and 15 minutes about once a week. Once in a while I combine these for say a short swim and a short run, but mostly I do them on separate days.  Except for the Kettlebell (shorter) or swimming (longer), I do them for about fifty minutes or so each day. And then I bike six miles home.

You certainly don’t have to do what I do; I’m just letting you know what I do, and, more importantly, recommending exercise in general.

No, you don’t have to exercise naked to make exercise interesting. It would be difficult and illegal to bike naked; that much is certain. I suppose you could exercise naked, if you wanted to, in the privacy of your own home. But honestly, that might be weird and I just put naked in this blog to get you to read it, for after all, “On Exercise” would have been a pretty boring title, one that most certainly needed a little dressing up.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Weight of History

When I was a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, I had a course entitled “Approaches to History.” In it, we considered various ways of writing and reconstructing history. It reflected the first beginnings of what is now commonly referred to as revisionist history, which means history interpreted through the lens of a particular sociological or political agenda. It sounds innocent enough, and at some level it is innocent. On the positive side, such an understanding of history means that we can’t just take for granted what we have inherited in a history book that purports to be unbiased. To enlarge on that, it means that there is no “unbiased” history. Everyone, wittingly or not, has a point of view that is influenced by his or her surroundings, his or her values or lack thereof, and when one interprets or reconstructs or writes history it will be, inevitably, interpreted or written through the aforementioned lens.

Take Christianity, for example. The Christian scriptures were written, presumably, by Christians who no doubt would have had a bias as to how to interpret the history of Christmas and Easter. The minor miracles surrounding Christmas are less spectacular than that of Easter, so I leave those aside. But Easter: now there’s a dilemma. If the Christians are the ones in charge of relating the history of the empty tomb, couldn’t they be revising their interpretation of the events to suit their own political agenda? In the gospels (and non-canonical concomitant Christian literature), the early Christians all claimed that the tomb was empty. A modern historian, operating from the assumption that miracles don’t “really” happen, could revise that account: “Well, the Christians were obviously biased and were unable to see clearly what happened, so they pretended he was raised from the dead. Or maybe they even hid the body and lied about the resurrection.” And thus this historian has revised the history to what is “more likely” or at least more logical. But the lens of that historian has its own bias: it is based on the notion of miracles not happening.

But what if those miracles did happen? If one were to entertain that possibility for even a moment, one would have to go back and reconsider, yet again, the big miracle of Easter and, yes, even the minor miracles surrounding Christmas. And one would have to look at one’s own life and recognize those times when something happened that seemed miraculous. And so forth. That process may just lead that person upwards out of despair and directly to the wider, redemptive implication of Easter, the foot of the cross. But that is the material of another blog.

Let me close with another aspect of history: not just how we can interpret it, but how heavy it is, for that is the title of this blog. For example, the weight of the Second World War and the atrocities that led up to that war is indeed ponderous. Hopefully consideration of those events has changed the way we think about evil and has strengthened our resolve to confront it courageously when we see it again. The same can be said of the American Civil War and the circumstances that caused that conflict—can we do better now, can we move forward together as a country, regardless of race, creed, or color? Can we consider and recognize the weight of history without carrying on our back the unnecessary burden of history?

I don’t know if we can, but I know where such healing must start: it starts not in the legislative chamber or in the courtroom or in a protest march, but in the heart. It starts with each one of us letting go of the ponderousness of his or her own history. We can’t forget the past, but we can let the burden of it go. I have a friend who is still carrying the burden of his childhood with him. No, he can’t just forget his childhood, and in fact he should not, for we all need to learn from our parents’ mistakes so that we don’t inflict those same mistakes upon our own children. But we don’t need to carry the weight of those mistakes, whether our own errors or those of our parents, around with us any longer. How can we let go of such a burden? The answer lies in our consideration of Christmas and Easter above, summarized by St. Paul at Romans 7:24. If miracles happen, we can let go; if they don’t, maybe we can’t. I believe we can.



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Daily Bread

The Last Supper by Leonardo di Vinci, 1495–1498

I recently visited an old friend of mine in Frenchtown, New Jersey, not far away from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he and I both grew up. He has some life challenges and he is receiving Disability Compensation. That means he has as good a life as he can have under the circumstances, for when one is “on Disability” there are likely to be some obvious challenges. He faces them every day, and I am proud of the way he handles them and I am proud to be his friend.

Stained glass window of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Deseronto, Ontario

And I am glad to share some memories with him and to have them of him. I was visiting him, as it turned out, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We talked a bit about the significance of those holidays, what they meant. I told him that I believe that Maundy Thursday is derived from the word Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene, who some interpret to have been the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet for burial at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13). While I don’t know if she is that woman—to my mind it would be strange for Matthew not to have mentioned that—I do think that tradition held it was her and the association with the anointing of his feet for burial and with the last supper on that Thursday eventually crystalized, and thus the Thursday was called Maundy, a corruption over time of an adjective (or the genitive case) of Magdalene.

But I wax pedantic. Of course, the sermon that we heard that evening was the other possible interpretation: that Maundy is a corruption of the Latin “mandatum,” so called because that evening Jesus gave his disciples the “mandate” to love one another. That is, I admit, also possible.

But I wax pedantic again, for the real point of this blog is my friend, by visiting whom I was blessed. I went there, back home to New Hope to bless him. I went to go to church with him, to take him out to dinner a couple of evenings and to encourage him in his life and faith. But I didn’t expect that he would bless me.

His blessing wasn’t just one thing, it was many. It was his smile, the faith we share, the hope we have. The vision of each other, I imagine, well and entirely healed in Heaven someday, me from my sinful self, him from his disability. So I went to bless, thinking I would bless him. But he blessed me.

And the one moment where that blessing really hit home was when we were just leaving his church in Frenchtown, for he worships there in a fine old Presbyterian church. He hasn’t much money, so he really couldn’t offer me a “gift” per se. But he did something better than that: he took from the small table that holds worship materials a complimentary copy of Our Daily Bread for March, April and May of 2018 and he offered it to me.

That evening after we had dinner and I had dropped him off at his apartment, back in my hotel room in New Hope I happened to open to the 11th of April, which even though it was not the date corresponding to the reading, I read because it is my granddaughter’s birthday. The short devotional for that date is entitled, “How Long?” And I thought of how long I had known my friend, how long he had struggled with his disability, how long I have taken my own health and life for granted. And I thought of that vision of Heaven that I mentioned just above, with all the souls there well, able, and free from the sin that drags each one of us down in this life. And I thought, “How long?” And here I quote from the close of that short devotion, written by Bill Crowder: “In our seemingly endless moments of struggle, His unfailing love will carry us.”

I think that that will be enough for this life, for we certainly are here for but a short time. And in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you wind up being more blessed by someone whom you try to bless than you actually ever bless them. For that is often the way that blessing works.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Lock Seven

When Elaine Jakes was in her thirties—those days were as vividly vibrant with the colors of the late 1960s/early 1970s as Elaine was vibrantly vivacious—she twice took a summer vacation with Sheila and me to Canada. Sheila, if peradventure you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you’ll recall was my mother’s closest friend in those days. They lived together and jointly raised me when I was but a lad, as difficult as such a proposition may then have been when a nontraditional family structure was viewed with great suspicion.  “There’s no man in the house,” some could be heard muttering.  “How will that boy turn out to be a man?”  I will, however, set their complaints about the lack of a male role model aside, as there were, in any case, a number of men who served as positive role models, prominent among whom was my grandfather, Harry Reed Jakes.

Permit me return to the aforementioned twofold Canadian excursions. As a school teacher, Elaine did not have a great deal of money, especially in those days when teachers were not just underpaid[1] but grossly underpaid.  Still, she could make her rent most months, if not always on time,[2] and even afford a small summer vacation—a few days in Canada—in an era when small summer vacations were still affordable.

And the primary destination for her in those days was not a grandiose hotel in Montreal but the far humbler “Lock 7 Motel” in the perhaps surprising destination of Thorold, Ontario. That now refurbished and finely updated structure is currently known as the Inn at Lock Seven ( from the back balconies of which one could see the large ships that had travelled down or would shortly travel down the St. Lawrence Seaway make their way between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie through the series of locks that connected those lakes.  It was then, and is now, not so much a thing of beauty to behold the ships as it was a thing of majesty, for cargo ships are, in their own way, majestic.  And one could wave to those ships’ sailors who, in those days at least, would most often wave back when they saw you.

Yet there was something more than mere majesty. There was a lesson in beholding those great ships stuck in those narrow locks. It was the lesson of patience and grace under fire.  More often than not we find ourselves stuck between things. We’re hoping for something, looking forward to it, as we wait for our figurative lock to fill up, as if whatever it is that we are seeking could alone bring us happiness.  Now sometimes, of course, there is a modicum of happiness attached to that new thing, that new phase of life, as it must have been happier for the sailors to be on the open sea (or at least open lake) than carefully maneuvering the slender confines of the lock system.  But even in the narrow maneuvering, there may well have been for them some fulfillment qua sailing, for it was chiefly in the locks, no doubt, that they had the chance to prove what good sailors they actually were.  They waited patiently between locks and gracefully discharged their duties of steering the ships carefully between those narrow ducts.  And to some extent, I imagine, they were the happier for it, for they were doing what they were called in this life to do.  And even here, I fancy, you could say I had male role models, for all the sailors I saw were men, if role models only at the great distance between the motel balcony and the ship’s prow.

And so it may well be for us: when we are in between things, when we are constricted and confined in ways that seem to take away some of our freedoms, maybe that is when we have the opportunity to prove ourselves as human beings. Maybe we were created for such days as those.  And, if we are good at navigating this human experience known as life, maybe, in the midst of our busy activity, we will take a moment to give a wave and a smile at the little kid who is watching us from life’s balcony.  That, at any rate, is what the sailors did for me as I watched in amazement the majesty of those ships and indeed the sailors’ own navigational majesty, all those many years ago in Thorold, Ontario, from the balcony of the Lock Seven Motel. 

[1] While I despise white-collar unions, I nonetheless deeply sympathize with the teachers in Oklahoma who are protesting unfair wages.

[2] For an amusing story of Elaine being late with her rent, see the Curious Autobiography, pages 124-129.