Martha and Mary
In Luke’s Gospel, Ch. 10, verses 38-42, we find a very short story with a big moral. Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Jerusalem. In a certain village they stop at the house of a woman called Martha. In four verses we don’t learn much about her. We are told, however, that she has a sister, Mary. Now given the other Mary’s in the New Testament, we shouldn’t be surprised at how the story develops. Martha seems the one in charge of things, while Mary acts like the stereotypical younger sister. She sits at Jesus’s feet and listens to what he has to say. Martha, busy acting as hosting, gets upset at having to do all the work, while that sister of hers is hearing all the interesting things she’s missing. Martha then does the only sensible thing and takes her complaint to their honored guest. “No fair!” says she. “Send my sister into the kitchen to help me with my work. “Martha,” he replies. “You just don’t get it! Your sister is smart enough to take advantage of this opportunity of a lifetime, while you bustle around and miss everything. Mary’s got it right.” By implication, of course, he’s telling Martha, who’s doing the job of everyday hosting, that she’s got it wrong. This is yet another example of Jesus being counter-cultural by implying that this was not the time for the two sisters to do the conventional thing but to discern how a unique occasion should be met. One sister gets it; the other doesn’t...
My first inklings—actually itchings—of foot problems came in my boarding-school competitive-swimming days some 70 years ago. The culprit back then, appropriately enough, was athlete’s foot. The Peddie School infirmary was more than a match for my issue, and from then till now I wear slippers or zoris when I go swimming and walk with raised toes when the situation requires me to go barefoot. Happily, athlete’s foot has not revisited me since. But the foot, as I have learned in recent years, is liable to a host of other maladies...
My Day with Maya Angelou
It happened sometime in 1986. I don’t remember the exact date. She was 58, I was 47 at the time. The occasion was the inauguration of Northeastern Illinois University’s new president, Dr. Gordon Lamb, who, I soon learned, would come in like a lion. Rumor had it that the Regents of the State University System had selected him to clean up the flakiness associated with our institution, known in Illinois as “an innovative public urban university,” and as dean of the Center for Program Development, I was the person nominally in charge of all that flaky innovation. Dr. Lamb in fact motivated me to look for and eventually leave for a higher-ranking job in another state university, this time in Minnesota. But that’s a story for another day. This is a much happier story and occasion...
I was bummed when our favorite Italian restaurant in Boulder, Via Perla, named after its location on Boulder’s west Pearl Street, closed, a victim, apparently, of Covid. Well, now the space is occupied by a new Mexican restaurant with the happy name of Felix, not to honor the iconic comic-book cat of yore, but doubtless for the uplift in spirits the owners believe you’ll experience after eating their cuisine. I can’t speak from experience, mainly because I’m not a big fan of la comida Mexicana. Of course, I may be all wrong. Maybe the establishment’s founder is someone named Felix. After all, I have a Colombian godson with that name. But this blog has absolutely nothing to do with food, Mexican, Italian, or otherwise. Rather, it concerns the Catholic theological doctrine—hence the Latin—known as the Felix Culpa, or Happy Fall. Even non-Catholics may be familiar with the pre-Vatican II liturgical phrase Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, “my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault” said during individual or congregational confession as one beats one’s breast. Culpa can thus mean “fall,” “fault,” or “sin.”...
That’s one of my favorite Jewish sayings! Given our people’s two-thousand-year existence in diaspora, one can understand our desire to find a safe port and a good home. The Holocaust didn’t help, nor did two millennia of antisemitic words and practices in other people’s countries. As Ken Burns’s recent video documentary on America and the Holocaust made clear, mid-twentieth-century antisemitism in this country kept hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from coming to America and, mostly likely, helped consign them to Hitler’s gas chambers. Modern Israel gives us back our ancestral homeland, but it may be too little too late...
What Do You Put First?
The late André Malraux, writer, diplomat, and sometime French Minister of Culture, once said something like, “All novelists are basically boring: They keep writing the same novel over and over in an attempt to get it right.” That idea can pertain to non-fiction writers, or anyway me, as well. Those of you who regularly read my blogs may remember a recent one titled “How Big Is Your We?” There I argued that the bigger, more inclusive your self is, the more likely you are to include a wider diversity of others as part of your We, your family. St. Francis of Assisi is a poster child for someone with a super-large We. For him even non-humans like Sister Moon and Brother Fox were part of his. In this regard, indigenous Americans who practice the Pipe Ceremony will say “All My Relations” when they pass the pipe to the next person in the circle. Meant here is much more than the nuclear or even extended family. Of course, tribal wars of old indicate that this formula may have been as much an ideal as a universal reality, similar to when we Americans refer to our country as the Land of the Free. . . . Some of us are freer than others, even 160 years after the Civil War.
Holy Ghost, Batman!
I love the old King James version of the term for Holy Spirit. I especially like it when a Brit with a plumy accent, generally a priest, intones the phrase Holy Ghost. It has a certain High Church je ne sais quoi. Of course, the Elizabethan term went the way of all fleshly language once ghost took on a more sinister and less neutral meaning. In today’s America, for example, the older word might conjure up a vision of Casper the Friendly Ghost with wings and a halo: not evil exactly but certainly not what Christian churches have in mind for the Third Person of the Trinity. Moreover, ghosts have become a staple in horror movies, where they are generally not cute and squishy like Casper. There’s even a classical antecedent: think of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s play. So nowadays in Episcopal congregations like the historic St. John’s parish in Boulder, Colorado, i.e., my church, the Book of Common Prayer is full of the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, in whose Name(s) we congregants are multiply blessed during the Eucharistic service...
“It Is What It Is!”
My wife gets upset when I use this term, generally as my response to a bad situation (like when she got Covid from me and couldn’t go on a long-planned retreat with two colleagues). As a hard-working, high-achieving New Englander, she defaults at trying harder and doing whatever it takes to make any difficulty better. Often, she succeeds. In this situation where she didn’t, what she needed from me was some empathy, not stoic philosophy. And she may also be right that I give up in such circumstances too soon, at least some of the time. But as a long-time member of the Al-Anon 12-Step recovery program as well as a writer of books (and blogs) on wisdom, I tend to think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I’m sure I write about wisdom in part because I am on a life-long quest to cultivate ever more of it in myself so that I can know the difference...
Toward Global Citizenship
Plato quotes Socrates as saying, “I am a citizen of Athens but also of the world.” That statement occurred 2500 years ago. Now, all these centuries later, we are in the midst of a hyper-nationalist revival. One need but think of Hungary and Turkey, not to mention Russia, China, and the MAGA-fied USA. Even liberal Sweden in its last national election made a smart turn to the right. Consider also that the old-fashioned liberal arts, with their goal of humanizing and universalizing students, have lost major ground in the past few decades to skills training and professional education. Learning about and from Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Caravaggio may be fun and in some sense enriching, but true enrichment of the green, folding kind comes from I.T., Finance, and Marketing majors. Everyone now knows that, with most acting accordingly...
The Marvels of Elision
One of the phenomena—even privileges—of aging is remembering things from our distant past. With me it often comes in the form of a song or even a commercial jingle from long ago, generally for a product that no longer exists like Ipana Toothpaste with its “Ipana Smile.” A recent example: I’ll hear in my head a refrain that doubtless goes back to World War II when we were living in a red-brick house, 48 Essex Road, in the Old Village of Great Neck, Long Island, New York. I was maybe five. The radio situation is something like this. An excited baritone voice begins, “From WGN in Chicago, it’s Don McNeill and his Breakfast Club!” Then Don himself comes on with the daily strains of his theme song: “Good morning, Breakfast Clubbers, it’s time to greet you….” I don’t remember the rest, but the melody is etched in my memory. So, I join in with the Don in my head, and we intone the first line together, he from the shadows of my distant past and me from right here, right now, so to speak. The cliché is we’ll remember, say, the lines of a poem we memorized 70 years ago but then will go upstairs to get something and on arrival totally forget what it was we’d wanted. Ah, sweet mysteries of aging!
Preparing for the Good Life—Part 1
Cultures tend to determine what living a good life consists of. In France it’s having impeccable taste in food and drink and being suave, in England it’s about respecting one’s class boundaries and being articulate in the mother tongue, in Germany it’s being ordentich [orderly and law-abiding] and a good burgher, and in the U.S., it’s becoming rich and, if possible, famous. Yet the concept of the good life goes back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese, where none of the above characteristics applied. In the case of the former, Aristotle proposed moderation in all things while Plato’s Socrates argued for knowledge of and a life in harmony with one’s true self. And in the latter, Lao Tsu called for living in accordance with the Way (Tao), with Confucius insisting on a life in conformity with one’s station in society.
Time for a Third Party?
Or even a fourth? How exceptional we are with our two-party system! Not that I advocate creating a dozen or more splinter parties as we see in some other countries. But having only two parties can cause extreme splits with little room, at least nowadays, for practical compromises that serve the people. I remember learning that a two-valued orientation leads to simplistic black-and-white decisions. Something is either good or bad, right or wrong. There’s no room for nuance. But perfection is not a human characteristic. So, shades of gray are almost always called for...
It’s Time for Nice Aliens!
Nothing intrigued me more—or scared me more—in my childhood than the thought of aliens. “Thought” is the operative word, since I never really saw any except in the movies. But those ones were inevitably mean and powerful, a frightful combination for a little kid. I especially remember two movies. One was among the earliest of the short-lived 3-D films, The War of the World (1953), based on H.G. Well’s novel. I remember the early scene where the spacecraft has landed. The National Guard, well weaponed, is out in force to confront it. A Catholic priest, crucifix in hand, approaches the vehicle. It fires its ray gun and wipes out both priest and soldiers. The other, whose name I’ve forgotten, stars a boy of perhaps 10 who wakes up one summer night to see, through his wide-open window, scary aliens in his backyard. The rest of the film, the contents of which I no longer recall, goes from one frightening episode to the another. Fortunately, near the end, the original sighting turns out to be a nightmare from which the boy finally awakes. It’s still dark out, however, and as he glances out through his open window, guess what! Those same scary aliens are there, this time in reality. I must have slept for a month or more after that with my light on and the door open...
Gunning for Trouble
Usually, I start these blogs with words and end with a related meme. The words, so to speak, are the main dish and the meme the dessert. I use memes as related illustrations, as a kind of coda. But this time is different. The meme is the theme and says it all. Here we have a surveillance camera in the unmistakable form of a pistol. Arms and a country I sing. My song is a minor-key dirge. What the legion was to Rome, guns are to America: not the right to life, but the right to take life. Guns are not the American dream but the American nightmare. They are ubiquitous, and they are used, too often fatally...
Rocks from the Rockies
Lovely items, natural and of human construction
More stones, a tree, and a dog made of leaves
Skyscapes—A Photo Blog
A Tale of Lost Things
Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but loss makes us sad. Several years ago, I bought a hand-knitted multi-colored wool scarf from a nonprofit association I’m a member of. The creator of the scarf had donated it to the organization which then auctioned it off in a fundraiser. Having seen the scarf online and having immediately liked it, I sent in what turned out to be the winning bid. A week later my lovely new acquisition arrived in the mail, just in time for the cooling weather. I wore it proudly for two seasons. Then one day it wasn’t hanging in its usual spot. I looked everywhere. I called the gym. I called the church office. I checked both cars and every possible nook and cranny in the house. Nothing. It was simply gone...
What I Like about America
I write this blog on July 4th, 2022, the 246th anniversary of our nation’s Independence Day. As an intellectual with a doctorate from a major university, I find myself criticizing lots of things, not least my country. Back in the 1960s as a recent college graduate and, after 1966, a Ph.D., I was saying not “Right or wrong, my country!” but “My country, if right support it, if wrong correct it!” The latter has been my position ever since. I suspect the same is true of many of my fellow educated Americans. As a group we tend to be allergic to the hyper-nationalism that blinds us to our shortcomings as a nation and makes improvement difficult. Indeed, we are all called by our Constitution to help create “a more perfect Union.” Nothing human is perfect a-priori. Continuous improvement through collective effort is the order of this day and beyond...
Growing up I heard a good deal about Macy’s. My mother, born in 1903 in southern New Jersey, was the eldest daughter and one of eleven children of a Jewish immigrant farmer family from Belarus. She had done fairly well for herself, having attended Ohio State University until sometime in her junior year and had then gone to New York City to start a career. To this end, she soon found herself in what she called Macy’s Basement Training Program, and by the time she met and married my father in 1929, she was an assistant buyer for what she referred to in her best Scarsdale accent that mimicked her sister-in-law Jeannette’s, Ladies’ Foundation Gahments...
First Stop—New York City, June 1-2
Next Stop—New Haven, CT, for My 60th Yale Class Reunion, June 2-5
How Big Is Your WE?
Okay. Nota bene: The “WE” in question has just one “e.” This is an important distinction, because in this case, size really does matter. The rest of this wee essay will explain why...
It was supposed to happen two years ago. Covid happened instead. So, it actually took place this year, the first weekend of June 2022. We’re talking here about my 60th Yale Reunion. The last one I had attended, with my late wife, Simone, was the 25th. Lots had changed at Yale in the intervening 42 years. For one thing, this reunion, which I went to with my second wife, Cedar, was farther away. We traveled this time from Boulder, Colorado, rather than St. Paul, Minnesota. But that of course has nothing to do with changes at dear, old Yale...
A Tale of Two Buildings
There are two buildings on the Yale University campus that were no more than 50 yards from the dorm complex (Jonathan Edwards College) where my wife and I stayed for my 60th College Reunion. Both of them played important roles in my life. Now I’d like to tell you about what happened in them in chronological order...
Which Flags Do You Fly?
Today is Tuesday, June 7, 2022. Cedar, my wife, and I are visiting her brother and sister-in-law near Boston. As part of my daily wellness routine, I’ve just come back from an hour-plus walk, the last 40 minutes of which I did on my own and could thus walk faster than with family and friends. I did however stop here and there to take photos of New England houses I liked. After all, I’m on a road that runs alongside Lake Boon in Stow, Mass, founded in 1635, just a short drive from Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Midway in my mini-hike I begin to notice American flags of all sizes and configurations, from little ones adorning doors and fences to large ones above garages or atop flagpoles. It’s a veritable festival of red-white-and-blue patriotism. Yet Memorial Day is now behind us, and the Fourth of July is still a month away...
What’s in a Name? A Lot!
The ancient Romans had a word for it—three, actually: Nomen est omen. Literally, “the name is ominous,” that is, full of deep meaning. The Hebrew word for name, SHEM (שם), also means “nature.” So, when the Third of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures forbids one’s taking the Lord’s Name in vain, the meaning is much larger and more significant than simply using a synonym for the Deity in a profanity. Rather, it’s more like living so as to disrespect the Creator, others, and ourselves. On a more temporal note, when we have just met someone and they remember and use our name while we have forgotten theirs, we have a feeling of embarrassment, even shame. It’s as though they value us more than we value them. Oy!