Monthly Archives: June 2018

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Irrational Fears

Snakes and tarantulas and scorpions. These animals are pretty common in Texas where I live. On separate occasions, we have found all three inside our house. But we are still alive. Snakes don’t normally kill you. Sometimes they curl up on your front porch. Sometimes, as happened to us recently with a rattlesnake, they sun themselves on a back porch, but they rarely try to kill you. The rattler went flying across the yard when we used a shovel to throw him off the porch. The rat snake that was on the front porch mentioned above—well that was a big one, and animal control apparently had to come to remove that hideous hisser.

But, even if there is the possibility of danger, one can fear snakes, or scorpions, or even tarantulas quite irrationally. Or anything, for that matter. When I was a lad, I was afraid of tunnels. I was sure, when Elaine would drive through the tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s North Eastern Extension, we would become trapped and die. But we did not.

And thus, I would suggest, if we are going to indulge our fears, let us do so exclusively with rational fears. Those would be, for example, when your airplane loses its hydraulic system and starts swerving, and when you land there are fire trucks all over the tarmac. Okay, that one’s real. (And, yes, that actually happened to me.) Or when you find out you have cancer, or … ( you can fill in the blanks from here). And terrorism, too, I think is not an entirely irrational fear, but it is in fact unlikely to happen to you. Indeed, terrorism does strike fear into the hearts of even pretty rational people. So what can we do?

FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I think that quote perhaps sounds a bit cleverer than it in fact is. I think what he probably meant by it is that we must trust our institutions. It’s simply too easy to become cynical and indulge ourselves in conspiracy theories about our institutions. Rather, let’s believe that, even if our institutions, such as the press, sometimes go overboard—they can swing like pendulums between the far left (I won’t mention any particular cable news network or nationally broadcasting companies) or the far right (I won’t mention any PETA inspired names)—but they are trying (or at least some of the honorable journalists who work for any of those networks are trying) to keep America free by working hard to be the credible (at least sometimes) entities of the collective free press. We have to believe, too, in the democratic values that express themselves in wacky ways, like governors who hold extreme positions on the west coast or senators who hold the opposite extreme positions in the southwest. But the institutions, those are there for a reason and, if St. Paul is right—and he was writing under much greater duress than anyone in America ever has—they are at the very least overseen from Above (Romans 13:4).

Is this the case in every country? Certainly not. But it is the case here, so don’t lose heart, especially if you’ve been doubting your institutions, and indulging in fears larger than a tarantula but smaller, presumably, than the snake on the man’s front porch in Morgan’s Point, Texas. It was seven feet long. Okay, I agree; maybe that man’s fear was rational after all.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Safety First?

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Disney has four key values, as laid out in the Disney Institute’s book entitled Be Our Guest. These inform their approach to how they manage their theme parks and their entire operation, and these “values” are, as listed in order of priority– Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency.

Now I can imagine why, if you’re a theme park with all kinds of potentially hazardous rides and with all kinds of shows that might involve fireworks or the like, safety would be first. So my point here is not to put down Disney’s order of priorities. But those priorities should, I think, likely be confined to the amusement park, for transferring them to, say, a family or a church or a college or even most businesses might not only be dangerous, but could even be worse than dangerous—it could be detrimental.  And, anyhow, can “show” really be a value?

Just think about it. Imagine calling a family sit-down after dinner and listing those priorities to your children. “Safety first, kids.” That sounds good, but maybe it sounds better than in fact it is. Do you mean by it, for example, no contact sports, which by the way are nearly all sports?  “Second, courtesy.”  That one is, admittedly, hard to argue against. But what about “show”?  “Always, kids, remember to put on a good show.”  No, I’m afraid that would just be promoting hypocrisy. “And don’t forget to be efficient!”  Well, yes, this is good, but is it really the fourth highest good? Wouldn’t sincerity, wisdom, diplomacy, kindness, gentleness, or even self-confidence outstrip mere efficiency?

In the case of church, safety first cannot possibly work. No preacher worth his salt can consistently preach safe sermons. Indeed, a good sermon must sometimes imperil the listener’s soul.  What about courtesy in a church? Yes, I think that’s important, but normally the churchgoer would call this hospitality or gentleness or even humility. And “show.” I’m sorry to say that the churches that prioritize show are often the fullest but, paradoxically, simultaneously often the emptiest. And efficiency? No, I’m afraid not. The best sermons often run over time. The coffee hour after church should be anything but efficient—it should be a time of fellowship that seems to lack any sense of time altogether. No, no efficiency here.

Finally college. Should colleges be and/or offer “safe spaces”?  While of course one hopes when one sends a child off to college that that child, no longer quite a child, will be safe, colleges, like churches, can only do their jobs correctly if they challenge the student, and that may mean by taking a sense of “safety” when it comes to their academic accomplishments, at least.  “Courtesy?” No, not so much. Some of the best professors I ever had were quite rude.  “Show.” God forbid. Taking college classes are not about being entertained but about being challenged and thus educated. And finally, efficiency?  Yes, certainly it could be good for the students to be efficient. But professors can only be real professors if they chase the occasional rabbit and actually make “inefficient” use of class time. Professors are not mere conveyers of content. Books do that. The best professors I had, as I recall them, often went off on tangents that sometimes taught us more than the lesson itself.

So, I would not put safety first. I’m not sure it should be last, but if it were always first, the best we could hope for is tea and crumpets instead of sports and information instead of material that challenges us to the core of our being, all conveyed to us in the most efficient and courteous manner possible. Yawn; sounds boring. No, safety, I’m sorry to say, just can’t be first.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: “Life without Art” or “The Good Stuff”

The motto of the University of Pennsylvania is a simple but profound quote from the Roman poet Horace: leges sine moribus, vanae. It means, “laws without character (i.e. character formed by moral values) are empty.”  It is not simply because it is in Latin, though, that it is far superior to, say, Pepperdine’s which is, I think, meant to inspire potential donors: “Freely ye received, freely give.”

But Adelphi University has, perhaps, a motto even better than either of these: vita sine litteris mors est. The quote comes from Seneca’s Moral Epistles, and it is a strong statement about the power of the arts, for it means, “life without literature is death.”  And we should never take reading or literature for granted.

Try to imagine life without art.  You might, if you’re as bad at drawing as I am, at first think, “Good!  I hated Mrs. Tenbau’s art class in the fifth grade. She made us make lumps of plaster of Paris, paint it bright orange, and then she just harped on and on about “texture.”  Ye gads, even to me as a fifth grader, she appeared to be quite daft.

Kiss of Judas, detail from Scrovegni Chapel


Detail from Cappella Palatina

Fine, but what about no art. No prints in the bathroom, no paintings on the wall, no printed engravings of former presidents on our paper currency. No grandchildren’s drawing on grandparents’ refrigerators.  No visits to museums, ever.  No sculpture. No Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, no Palatine Chapel in Palermo, no Sistine Chapel in Rome. It’s kind of ridiculous to think about it, of course, but if you do, even for a moment, it is quite terrifying.


Which is why one should go to college to study art, and literature, and languages; the goal is not to get a job but to get an education. A diploma indicates that you have been graduated and thus educated, not that you have a job. And, by the way, not having a job is not terrifying, or if it is, such terror is almost always merely short-lived. In this country, one will most likely get another one. But life without literature, well, as Adelphi University’s college seal reminds us, it’s flat out death. And life without art—more death. And life without the capacity to communicate through language—more death. Goethe once said, “He who doesn’t know a foreign language doesn’t know his own.” True that, and with it more death, and gloom and doom.

On a more upbeat note, well, there is art, and there is literature, and languages other than English do exists, and you can even learn old languages like Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. And that’s a good thing, because Seneca bundles a powerful sentiment into just a few Latin words, and so does Horace. And that’s good stuff.

Here’s to the good stuff.




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Dreams

For reasons I do not know, I am often asked about dreams. I have no idea why anyone would think that I would have an opinion, let alone knowledge regarding dreams. Unlike my mother and (rather more rarely) my grandmother, I do not read tea leaves, nor do I speculate about the stock market, nor do I play the lottery or even prognosticate successfully about politics—until three days before the 2016 election I thought Hillary Clinton would win, and, prior to that, I did not think President Obama would be re-elected (though I did think he would be elected the first time). In other words, I am far from an oracle. Yet time and again people ask me what dreams mean, and I have begun to wonder what it is about me that makes people think I would have any peculiar insight on that topic.

Yet, despite my lack of specific knowledge about dreams, perhaps I can address the subject in general terms. While I can’t comment on dream interpretation per se, I can say that dreams are important. When I say this, I don’t mean having dreams at night is important, though it might be for all I know. But having a dream—the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did, for example—that is very important.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Why? It casts a personal or, in the case of Dr. King, a collective vision. It is both inspirational and aspirational. Following in the wake of Dr. King, we can dream of an America in which “people will not be judged by the color of their skin,” as he once said, “but by the content of their character.” Dr. King, I believe, was speaking about the merit that their character affords them, that each person would have the chance to receive fairly what he or she earned and not be held back for reasons of racial prejudice. And I think that most of us, or at least I hope that most of us, would agree with that.

But there are other kinds of dreams that cast less lofty visions. For example, you might dream of going to the Bahamas or Hawaii or on an Alaskan cruise. You might dream of your kids going to college or even getting some sort of graduate degree, being well educated and well cultured. Perhaps you hope, too, that they might have a better job than you do, have a happier life. You might dream that they would have less financial challenges than you have had to undergo, have less hardships, have more free time. And it’s okay, as far as I can tell, to dream about such things.

But be careful. For so many of those hardships, challenges, and difficult times were the very things that shaped you, hopefully, for the better. They did if you let them. For life, in that way, is like God. Either you’ll spend your whole life fighting with God (or at least the idea of God) or you’ll slowly (or perhaps suddenly) give in to both, realizing that if He’s just a crutch, like everybody says, then you, too, are in need of that Crutch. For fighting with God ends the day you realize that you’re broken. Only blind pride can keep you back from realizing that.

And life’s not dissimilar. When you stop fighting with the challenges of life—maybe that’s what St. Paul finally understood about life that is given to God instead of given to mere religion when he heard a Voice admonishing him not to “kick against the goads”—and embrace them and even be grateful for them, that’s the first step toward your own dream, not so much of visiting Hawaii as of living life well, even embarking on a greater dream like that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For his dream calls on all those who have ears to hear to put aside their prejudice, itself engendered by blind pride, and walk with him toward a better America and a better world.

But there’s one more thing I would add to my interpretation of dreams. You must remember old dreams to have new ones. You must remember Dr. King’s dream if you are to have your own. You must remember your parents’ and grandparents’ aspirations, hopes, and, yes, dreams for you if you are to have them for yourself or your own children and grandchildren. I think that is summarized in the Bible pretty well when the Prophet Joel says, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28). May you do the same, and may it be a dream that is both personal and collective, inspirational and aspirational.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residuals Welshman: You Kiddin’ Me?

In Philadelphia and the area around that great city, where I grew up, if you want to express that you are flummoxed, you simply pose the question, “You kiddin(g) me?” The Philly accent is an essential ingredient for the question to reach the full bloom of efficacy.

This is the very question one might be compelled to ask when reading about Barcelona soccer legend Ronaldino, who is reportedly marrying two women at once in Brazil, where, though polygamy is illegal, it would seem that in 2012 a three-way civil union was approved, and thus, if the marriage was not a religious act but merely a secular act, it may actually be legal. You kiddin’ me?

I mention the possibility of Ronaldino’s three-way marriage in part because just two weeks ago I wrote about the changing face of marriage and then, within a few days of having written that, Ronaldino proposed (apparently twice). Did he get down on two knees to do so?

You kiddin’ me, right? But wait, there’s more. When asked about what floor he wanted to get off on, a man on an elevator made a “joke” by stating “Ladies’ lingerie.” I will admit that that is not a funny joke, but it is not funny I submit, not because it is politically incorrect—I know lots of politically incorrect jokes that are funny, and in fact maybe even most of the jokes I know are at least a little bit politically incorrect—but rather it’s not funny because elevators don’t stop at floors with titles like “Ladies Lingerie”. They stop at numbered floors or, in the most interesting cases, “mezzanines” or “lounges.” So he could have said, “I’d like to stop at the Sky Deck Lounge—it’s Lady’s Night!” and although I am not sure that such a statement would have improved the joke at all, at least it would have made some sense for an elevator stop. But, no, Mr. Richard Ned Lebow, who had no doubt been better known for having a truncated middle name than for being politically incorrect, obviously didn’t think about how elevators don’t stop in shopping districts (though perhaps escalators do) and thus he should adjust his impromptu joke. He just said it.

And the proper response from one Simona Sharoni, who happened to be along for the ride in that elevator coach, should have been, “You kiddin’ me?” and she should have thought to herself that she was more offended by the incoherence of the joke than the remote possibility that the mention of women’s lingerie in an elevator could offend anyone. But she did not, and she filed a complaint with the International Studies Association, for both were attending the annual conference of that organization.

But instead of Ms. Sharoni, who is a professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, simply formulating the correct Philly response, she—obviously not from Philadelphia—decided that the best course of action was to “Report It!” which is now a slogan on many college campuses. Perhaps she has simply bought into that mentality, and let me say, that it is absolutely the right thing to report some things, like professors who proposition (or worse) their students, students who stalk other students (or anybody, for that matter), and illegal activities in general. I’m not against reporting things. But, you kiddin’ me? Reporting a bad joke? What, you kiddin’ me?

But that is not the piece de resistance of this blog. Rather, it is a turn of events that occurred in Kunming City, China, where a family got a “dog” from the side of the road and brought it home to rescue and adopt it. The dog turned out to be a bear, and not just any bear, but a very rare, endangered species of bear (wild Asian Black Bear).

Dog or Bear?

“It gets bigger in time,” the adoptive father said. They tried to give the bear to a zoo, but the zoo keeper apparently required a birth certificate. Eventually they worked it out and now they won’t receive the full “punishment” for rescuing the bear. You kiddin’ me? I say that on two counts: The dog turns out to be a bear?! They get punished for rescuing the bear? You kiddin’ me? What could be weirder than that? A three way marriage? Ladies lingerie in an elevator?

You kiddin’ me?