Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Christian Approach to Politics

"Thus the first service to politics rendered by the Christian faith is that it liberates man from the irrationality of political myths, which are the real threat of our time.Taking a stand for sobriety, which does what is possible and does not cry with an ardent heart for the impossible, is of course always difficult; the voice of reason is not as loud as the cry of unreason. The cry of the grandiose project has the cachet of morality; restricting one's self to what is possible, in contrast, seems to be the renunciation of moral passion, mere faint-hearted pragmatism. But as a matter of fact, political morality consists in precisely of resisting the seductive force of the big words for which humanity and its chances are being gambled away. The moral thing is not adventurous moralism, which tries to mind God's business, but rather honesty which accepts man's limits and does man's work with them. Not the uncompromising stance, but compromise is the true morality in political matters."
- from the book, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), pp144-145.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


From, The Religious Sense (pp. 118-119), by Luigi Giussani

What we have just said explains why all of humanity's authentic religious traditions have referred to mystery, that is to say, spoken about God in negative terms: in-finite, im-mense, im-measurable, in-effable, that which cannot be spoken, unknown, that unknown god to which the Athenians had consecrated an altar. And even if certain words do seem positive -- for example, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent -- they are in fact, negative from the standpoint of experience because they do not correspond to anything in our experience. They are positive only in a formal way and to understand them we must negate our own way of being powerful, or of knowing. Likewise, we use certain phrases: God is goodness, God is justice, God is beauty. They are starting points which, if multiplied, enrich the presentiment we have of this ultimate Object. But they cannot be definitions of this Object, because God is goodness, but he is not goodness in the way that we know goodness; God is love, but not love as we know it; God is person, but not as we are persons. However, these are not meaningless, purely nominalistic terms. Rather, they are expressions that intensify the way we relate to, draw closer to the Mystery. They are the openings to the Mystery.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thomas Merton the Fallen

With all of my implied hagiography, I am aware of the fallen Merton.  As a young man in pre-World War II London, Merton fathered a child. He did not assume responsibility for the mother or child, and that leaves me stone cold. After the war, and after he had become a priest, from the monastery, Merton sought to inquire about them. He discovered that mother and child had been killed in the blitz.

I know of conservative Catholics who make the accusation that Merton was going to convert to Buddhism.  One friend of mine even asserted that that is what prompted his trip to Bangkok (where he died from an accidental electrocution.) That is nonsense.  He simply had a very intense intellectual and experiential interest in the Eastern religions. Merton was no fool. He knew who he was. 

I just discovered an interesting book titled, Thomas Merton’s Art of Denial: The Evolution of a Radical Humanist, by David D. Cooper, which I must read next. The book is supposedly about the conflict that Merton experienced between being an anonymous monk with vows of silence and stability, and that of being a world famous, best selling writer and intellectual. Some accuse him of not being sufficiently obedient to his role and vows as a monk. That is nonsense.  We all struggle in life and monks are no different. As per reviews, in his middle years Merton struggles with the fact that his experience of monastic life is not the way he imagined it when he was young. He ultimately resolves this conflict by turning his formidable intellect and writing talent towards writing against war—all wars, but especially the Vietnam War, and against the Atomic arms race.

When Merton was an older man and world famous, while being hospitalized for an illness, he became friends with one of the nurses. Afterwards, they maintained a relationship. I do not hold that against him, but most people consider it to have been a violation of his monastic vows. No one knows if it was a sexual relationship or not and some people have said that it would not have been.  It doesn’t matter now, as God forgives, but the relationship is what is preventing his cause for sainthood from moving forward.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thankful for Grace this Thanksgiving

I am thankful to God for all of the good in my life, and it has been overwhelmingly good. I had read Thomas Merton's, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), when I was in my early twenties. It did not move me or make much of an impact on me at the time. I was taken in more by how well it was written than by the content.  In my twenties, I had not had enough experience of life--no experience at all really, for me to be able to appreciate it.  The single thing that I remember from the book was Thomas' fear of being drafted to fight in the impending world war, his desperate relief upon entering the monastery to become a Trappist monk, while reading the sign above the monastery entrance which read, "Peace to All Who Enter Here." Nothing else in the story registered with me at the time, but now, re-reading the book 30+ years later, I can appreciate every word.

On Facebook last year, some Catholic friends had an exchange about The Seven Story Mountain, and I realized that I had missed something good--the book had gone right through my brain, while leaving only the faintest of impressions. So, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a copy of the Fiftieth Anniversary edition.

I couldn't read it straight through. The beginning chapters were dull. And so, I just stashed the book in a drawer. I have a habit of needing to read something before I go to sleep.  And so lately, after laying down in bed, I've been opening the book at random and reading sections, and in that mode, have found it illuminating and evocative. Again, I can't help but admire the expressive clarity of his writing. It is as formal as it is clear, without being stilted or phony. And his use of imagery is as good as the best poets. But the difference this time around is that I can see how Grace was constantly prompting him and propelling him forward.

I should stop here and state that I have read probably about a dozen books by Merton--some straight theology (dry); material on the monastic and contemplative life (a bit abstract); all of his essays on social justice (utterly fantastic); his published journals (for the true Merton junkies); of few of his poems, but especially, the fantastic, "Original Child Bomb," (for the pacifist and anti-nuclear activist in you); as well as many critical and biographical things about him; including the outstanding biography, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. I read all of this in my twenties.

If anyone had a calling to become a monk, it was Merton, and becoming a monk freed Merton to be able to look at things with an incredible spiritual objectivity. One of the things that keeps readers going back to read more and more of Merton are his incredibly penetrating insights into the nature of things. He can look at an ordinary situation in the world, describe it for the reader, but then turn it inside-out, to show us the actual spiritual truth, which most of us have been unable to see.

Merton filled me with romantic notions of the monastery and of the spiritual life, but it also sharpened my understanding of social justice and gave me a desire to be a writer just like Thomas Merton (which I obviously failed at). Merton helped me to not look down on people as much or as often as I did, and he helped me to be less morally judgmental of others than I would have been. In the town in which I had grown up, there was a monastery of Augustinian Recollects. Strictly speaking, they were friars not try monks, but I was fascinated by them none-the-less as well. Needless to say, the reality was that I did not have a calling to monasticism or the priesthood.

Merton was a contemporary of Jack Kerouac, and I see him as the monastic version of Kerouac. They were both pillars, even founding fathers, of some of the social movements of the 1960's.  But the comparison goes much further.  Merton and the beats were both writers. Both had French roots. Both liked jazz. Both were interested in and wrote about Buddhism. Merton and Kerouac (as well as Ginsburg) were students at Columbia University. Kerouac and Ginsburg had attended Colombia shortly after Merton.  Much of Merton's conversion took place while he was an undergraduate at Colombia. With Kerouac and Ginsburg, Colombia  was the embryonic environment within which the Beats were formed. Merton had studied Shakespeare under the legendary professor Mark van Doren. Merton says that he was the most influential and memorable professor that he had at Colombia. The straight-laced, uber-Catholic thinker, MarkVan Doren was also a major influence on Kerouac and Ginsburg.

I have a friend who opines that Merton was overly self-absorbed.  Perhaps that is a risk of becoming a monk. That may be true of some of his writing, but I did not find that to be the case all the time, especially not of his essays on social justice. I am disappointed in Merton in that I did not find the level of introspection that I would have liked, for example, of the sort that one finds in Saint Augustine. We have to accept the fact that Merton was a man from a certain age and background.

For sure, some would say that this journal entry is extremely self-absorbed!  And I confess that the issue of being self-absorbed is a sensitive one for me, because I sense that often I have been overly self-absorbed.  If you perceive me so, I prefer to think that it has been the result of trying to find myself and to save myself. I think that there are complex ironies and paradoxes in the process, which are too much of a tangent to go into here.

But back to the book.  Merton's father, Owen, an artist, died when Merton was 18.  Afterwards, while in Rome, Merton had a powerful religious experience while viewing a Byzantine mosaic of Christ at the church of St. Cosmas and Damian. These events were the beginning of an intense, life-long inner churning and search for meaning, truth and beauty. The most intense and most fruitful time period of his journey was the time starting from when he was a student at Colombia, up until he entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.  What is different in my reading of the book this time around is that I am able to perceive these events in Merton's life as actions of Grace.  And it is amazing that Merton was open to them. One of my favorite expressions lately is, "Grace works through nature" (from Thomas Aquinas). It explains a lot, if not just about everything. And in Merton's life at this time, one can see Grace, constantly acting through nature, impacting on Merton through numerous people and events. I will cite a tiny sample.

During his undergraduate years at Colombia, Merton encountered and befriended quite a number of fellow students who were deeply engaged with life and pursuing a spiritual journey. Many were attracted to Catholicism. While an undergraduate, Merton decided to become a Catholic and received instruction from a few priests in Manhattan. How different college life was back then!  But this was also a time when Catholicism was on a steep ascendancy in America (unlike today).

The previously mentioned Mark van Doren was well read in contemporary scholastic philosophy. Merton says that van Doren's scholastic perspectives prepared him for the study of scholastic thought at the monastery.  (Van Doren has been cited by numerous intellectuals and writers who attended Colombia, as a formative influence. I should mention that Merton's good friend, the poet Robert Lax was in the same Shakespeare class with Merton. Merton speaks very highly of the Jewish Lax, as intellectually brilliant, of vast, complex emotional depths and very, very spiritual.  (Incidentally, Kerouac called Lax one of the great original voices of our times.) But Lax was only one of a group of friends that Merton made at Colombia that he remained friends with for the rest of his life. Another friend was Robert Giroux who also studied under van Doren and who went on to become one of the most influential editors and publishers of the twentieth century, having edited some of the most influential writers of the time, including 7 Nobel Prize lauretes. Another important friend was Ed Rice who also went on to a hugely successful career as a writer, editor and publisher.  Ed Rice was the sponsor for Merton and Lax when they became Catholics. Another member of the group of friends was the abstract painter Ad Rheinhardt. After Merton joined the monastery, his old friends used to drive down from New York in a group to Kentucky to visit him.

Of his friends from his time at Colombia, Merton says:
So now is the time to tell a thing that I could not realize then, but which has become very clear to me: that God brought me and half a dozen others at Colombia, and made us friends, in such a way that our friendship would work powerfully, to rescue us from the confusion and the misery in which we had come to find ourselves, partly through our own fault, and partly through a complex set of circumstances which might be grouped together under the heading of the "modern world", "modern society." But the qualification, "modern" is unnecessary and perhaps unfair. The traditional Gospel term, "the world," will do well enough. 
Merton talks in detail about numerous authors and works of philosophy and literature that he became engaged with and contributed to his conversion. He was heavily influenced by the contemporary scholastic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Merton talks about Aldous Huxley, especially a book called, End and Means.  Although Huxley was not a Catholic, but Merton describes the book as a tour-de-force of a Catholic worldview and having been an impressive influence on himself.  He also became very engaged with the poetry of the Jesuit priest, Gerald Manly Hopkins. After purchasing a newly published small book of poems from William Blake, Merton decided to write his master's thesis at Colombia on a scholastic perspective of Blake's poetry.

Besides Van Doren, Merton was greatly influenced by another professor, Dan Walsh, who taught scholastic philosophy. Walsh became a mentor and good friend of Merton's.

After Colombia, Merton taught for a summer and half of the next semester at St. Bonaventure, run by the Franciscan's,  in upstate N.Y.  While there, Merton became acquainted with the Franciscan charism first-hand. As much as Merton had not been raised as a Catholic, he had not been exposed to Catholic life like that, and he seems at times to act like a detached observer. Among other things, he also engaged in a private study of philosophy with one of the priests who was a philosophy professor. While Merton respected the Franciscans, he saw that becoming a Franciscan would not satisfy himself. It would seem that Merton's encounters and experience of the Franciscans (who strictly speaking are friars and not monks), had the effect of helping to point him towards pure monasticism.

During his time in New York, Merton had become aware of the work of the Catholic Worker movement. The founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were both alive and very active in New York during this period.

While at St. Bonaventure's, Merton recounts a riveting lecture from Baroness de Hueck, a Catholic activist and refugee from Bolshevism, about the need for the church to do much, much more for the poor.  It cannot help but remind a reader today of the issues of Liberation Theology. Merton and the Baroness became friends, and Thomas made plans to join her ministry in Harlem.

Merton's recounting of his Grace filled encounters and experiences during his Colombia years are expansive and detailed as they are interesting. The mature Merton is known, and sometimes criticized for his interest in Eastern religions, and we can see his intense interest in Eastern religions even during his Colombia years. Note his exposure to, and the acute attention that he paid to social justice, while being driven to monasticism. The depth of his engagement with literature is most impressive.

The affect of re-reading The Seven Story Mountain has been to cause me to look back and realize all of the similar kinds of actions of Grace that I have received in my own past life. All of it was, "Grace working through nature," and it was there in abundance. There were my parents; the Dominican sisters who taught in our grammar school; Fr. Joyce, one of our parish priests; the Salesians who taught at my high school; of the NY Archdiocese School of Spirituality; of the pilgrimage that I made to Israel in the 80's; and of all of the varied and wild and crazy books and magazines that I have read in my life; of Thomas Merton himself; of St. Augustine; of Fr. Oldfield of Tagaste Monastery and the Augustinian Recollects; and now of the Communion and Liberation Movement.  I should not have to mention the Bible. And I would be very remiss if I did not mention all of my Protestant, especially Evangelical friends, who I love dearly, including those I know mostly or only through the Internet. Even my atheist friends, who I also love, have helped me greatly on my journey to God.  They have challenged me and have caused me to further think through who and what I am and what my relationship to the ultimate reality is.  All of this has helped shape who I am.  It is all Grace, and I am thankful to God for all of it. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Confessions of a Geography Geek

I came from an over-protected childhood that anyone from a strict Irish-Catholic family of my age or older would recognize. As a wee child, whenever our parents took us to visit our grandparents, I often perused my grandfather's copies of National Geographic magazine. The people in the pictures looked radically different than my friends,  family, or myself.  They dressed more colorfully, sometimes with piercings and feathers, sometimes with wild face or body paint. In a few pictures, the people were practically naked. They lived in far away places, had houses that looked very different from ours and had different rituals for worshiping God. The magazine sometimes came with a folded-up map inside. I was very young at the time, and whenever my grandfather saw me taking a map out, he would take it away from me saying that he was afraid I would ruin it. The magazine was a great curiosity to me, and I recall my grandfather acknowledging and esteeming my interest. It was his affirmation that was the origin of my fascination with other cultures.

In grammar school, geography became my favorite subject--besides being fascinated by other lands, ethnic groups, cultures, religions, as well as the statistics that went along with them. I was also fascinated by maps--of states, countries, and continents. I especially liked those maps in our textbooks that used icons to indicate the locations of things like natural resources or different ethnic groups.

My grandfather, and occasionally my parents, also subscribed to Maryknoll Magazine, published by the Maryknoll missionaries, a Catholic religious order.  If you donated money to Maryknoll, you got a subscription. Each issue had stories about the people that the missionaries were trying to help--the poorest of the poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. That little magazine was my first education in global poverty and international development.

Today, in my spare time, I am a volunteer with Nomi Network, an organization that is doing development work overseas, also with the poorest of the poor--human trafficking victims--and it has given me license to continue to indulge my fascination with geography.

My grandfather would approve.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

My Father-in-law

In 1931, my father-in-law was 12 years old and lived in a village in Shandong Province, China, near the city of Yantai.  Because of a constant lack of food, he left home and walked 440 miles to Beijing, in a bad pair of shoes, in search of work. We assume that he hitched  rides on horse drawn wagons whenever possible. Along the way, he begged for food at people’s houses.

According to Google Maps, to walk from Yantai to Beijing would take 6 days, but that would mean walking 73 miles a day.  I don’t know if it is possible to walk at that rate for an entire week. Perhaps he stopped to work for food along the way.

In Beijing, he found work as an apprentice in a restaurant. He was not paid.  For food, he had to eat the leftover food from customers. After the restaurant closed at night, they pushed the restaurant tables together and slept on top of the tables. It was only after apprentices learned skills that they began to be paid and then only very little.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Eerie Fancies

I’ve been watching the DVDs of, Upstairs, Downstairs, specifically the episodes set between 1905 and 1908.  I have become completely drawn in by the show, even falling in love with the character named Elizabeth. The daughter of Tory politician Richard Bellamy MP and Lady Marjorie Bellamy, Elizabeth has just returned from Germany where she read philosophy. Beautiful and intelligent, she is now an ardent socialist.

To celebrate Elizabeth’s return, her parents threw a ball, which Elizabeth found annoying and frivolous. She asks her mother how she could throw a ball with so many homeless and hungry people in London. Later, Elizabeth helps organize a group of upper class women to assist in a soup kitchen.  She gets shoes for shoeless children, doesn’t pay for them, and gets arrested.

Otherwise, Elizabeth hangs out and parties with a nonconformist (bohemian) crowd which causes her parents as well as the servants to become greatly upset and embarrassed (It’s hilarious). And after Elizabeth becomes enchanted with a nonconformist poet who also happens to be an irresponsible and narcissistic but handsome fool, she declares that she is against religion and marriage.

Unlike Elizabeth’s mother, who is full of Victorian airs, the free and outspoken Elizabeth is always down to earth and always herself. She treats the family servants like true friends and equals, and humorously, she sees right through the phony veneer of the conventional upper class boys.  The point is that between the philosophy and the help for the poor, I fell in love with her.

Naturally, I felt curious about the actress who played Elizabeth, Nicola Pagett, and so I googled her.  The very first item that I found was a newspaper article (dated 1997) titled, “Madly in love: how Nicola Pagett's infatuation tipped over into obsession.” It said in part:
Yesterday it emerged that the Prime Minister's press secretary had been the object of Nicola Pagett's erotomanic obsession. 
"I fell in love with The Stranger's face. I looked at a man's face and into his eyes on a screen and I believed him. `If it doesn't begin it can never end.' That's what I wrote to him.
So Nicola Pagett, the former Upstairs Downstairs actress, bravely chronicles in her autobiography the beginning of her descent into obsessive manic depression as she falls in love and becomes obsessed with a man she sees on TV whom she nicknames "The Stranger". 
Yesterday it was claimed that The Stranger was in fact the Prime Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell. 
Next, I clicked on an interview (dated 2001).  The more I read of the interview, the more disappointed and shocked I became as I came to see the reality of the actress. The real life woman, Nicola Pagett, was as naive and simple-minded as the lowly servant girls in the Upstairs, Downstairs episodes.


Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Recollection on the Tenth Anniversary of 9-11

My commute to work at the time was to take the train to Newark and then change to the Path train to the World Trade Center.  From there, I walked to the far end of Wall Street, to the last building before the FDR Highway and the East River.  On the morning of 9-11, I had exited the the World Trade Center about a half hour before the first jet hit.  

In the office, I found out about the attack from a panicky phone call from my wife who was watching the news at home.  We did not have a T.V. in our office; so initially, we did not have any idea of the magnitude of what had happened.  But someone had a radio and everyone was calling or being called by wives or friends. From my window, I saw millions of pieces of paper falling from the sky, as if from a ticker tape parade.  And from another window, I could see the smoke churning from the tops of the towers. After the buildings collapsed, concrete dust started falling from the sky, as if from a snow storm.

With the WTC gone and not certain about public transportation, I assumed that I was going to have to spend the night in the office.  So I walked around the corner to a drug store on Water Street, hoping to buy a bar of soap, a toothbrush, etc.  I felt the concrete dust in my lungs as I breathed.  People were rushing down Wall Street as fast as they could, away from the towers.  Here and there, people were shouting, shaking, or otherwise looking traumatized.  The hair and clothes of some were completely covered in concrete dust. Most were simply hurrying as fast as they could, to the subways, the ferries, to the Brooklyn Bridge, or to an avenue away from the dust cloud.    

Back in the office, an announcement was made that by order of the New York City Police Department, we were to evacuate the building and to walk uptown along Water Street.  I feared getting trapped in a crush of people in either the subway or the street.  My thoughts were that I had to avoid all risks and to look out for my own safety, for the sake of my wife and children, who depend on me. The building is next to Pier 11, and so I headed for the ferry. There were no lines, no crush of people, and I was able to get on a ferry immediately.  It left as soon as it was full, which was very quickly.  It brought us to Atlantic Highlands, on the New Jersey side, which is not far from where I live.  The wife of one of my colleagues that was also on the ferry met us there, and they gave me a lift home.

I remember every detail from that day and the weeks afterwards—the phone calls to make sure that others are were O.K., the phone call that afternoon to the pregnant wife of a friend who didn’t make it, of a lucky friend worked on one of the upper floors but had taken the day off to go fishing, of the numerous photos posted all over NY and NJ of the names and photos of the missing—and knowing that they were all dead, of lower Manhattan being sealed off to the public, of the fire burning for months afterwards, and of the funerals and memorial services.

I knew several people who died in the towers and several who escaped, as did my wife. I have two cousins who are NYC policemen who worked the site for months afterwards, on body recovery, and I know another policeman who worked morgue duty, sorting out body parts. I have heard all of their stories.  Ultimately, there is nothing that I, you, or anyone else can say.  It is beyond human words.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Life Lessons

My uncle John (Walsh) was a career New York City Fireman, the chief of a firehouse.  Once, when I was about 10 years old, he told me that in his youth, he liked to box. He told me that he was pretty good, or at least he thought he was pretty good.  In his crowd, and in the gym where he used to train, he was the best—he beat all-comers easily.  One day, someone suggested that he fight so-and-so, an experienced Golden Gloves boxer, and my uncle said, “Sure,” without hesitation.  Well, my uncle got beat very badly, and that caused him to put his boxing career in a different perspective.  After telling me this, my uncle then explained to me that no matter how good you are, or think you are, there is always someone better than you. That is something I have never forgotten.  But over the years, I have come to understand that the lesson is not so much about skill, or about any sport or school work, but about dealing with one’s pride and ego.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Desire for Forgiveness is Fundamental to the Structure of the Human Person

I caught part of a re-run of a show on cable T.V. called Beliefs, moderated by Dan Harris of ABC News.Harris was interviewing a woman religious scholar, and the topic of the segment was forgiveness. The question arose of the role that forgiveness plays in various religions. The woman cited a Catholic priest who said that the desire to be forgiven is primordial, that it precedes religion.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Story of Philosophy

After my follow-up visit to the eye surgeon this morning, I went to Barnes and Nobel, just to get out of the house. After browsing haphazardly, I settled on the philosophy section.  I noticed, The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant, and thumbed through it a bit.  I brought my found treasure to the coffee bar area, treated myself to the extravagance of a vanilla chai, at four dollars plus, and sat down with my Will Durant.  I thought I’d take a gander at the chapters on Francis Bacon or Spinoza, but then my eyes fell on a subsection in the chapter, “American Philosophers,” subtitled, Reason in Religion. The section was about the philosopher George Santayana, of whom I had heard of but knew nothing about.

Santayana was a poet first, and wrote philosophy with the beauty and emotional sensitivity of a lyric poet. Born in Spain, Santayana came to America as a child and in terms of culture and personality remained very Spanish. He was never completely at home in America, certainly not in New York City. He found the relative quiet in Boston and New England to be a little more suited to his liking but not completely so.  

Of Santayana’s relationship with his lost faith of Catholicism, I found his rejections, skepticisms, and contradictions to be detached and honest.  Durant says that the atheist Santayana loved Catholicism the way a man still longs for a woman that deceived him.  Of Catholicism he said, “I do believe her though I know she lies.” Santayana loved the beauty of Catholicism, and he loved it above the truth of other religions. Though a non-believer, he scolds the Protestants for discarding the pretty medieval legends and for neglecting the Virgin Mary. Santayana believed that there was no God and that Mary was his mother. He later moved to Oxford, England, where he wrote of his estranged religion:

                                            Exile that I am,
Exile not only from the wind-swept moor,
Where Guadaranna lifts his purple crest,
But from the spirit’s realm, celestial, sure,
Goal of all hope, and vision of the best.

There are volumes and details more than this of course, from and about Santayana, including many excellent and cutting criticisms of Christianity.  Of his life’s journey, we do not know if George Santayana ever found his destiny, but George Santayana’s life and writings are certainly the story of a soul.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Humans and Hamsters

Genetically, each human being is more than 99% the same as any other human being.  That is not true for all species. Two hamsters from the same mother, for example, though they may look alike to us, are more different genetically from each other than any two humans. A person from Ireland, for example, and a person from Japan are more alike than any two hamsters, even two hamsters from the same mother. The reason that a person from Japan and a person Ireland appear so different to us is due to perception--we are overly conscious of small differences.  There are 10 billion different combinations of human genes. There are 7 billion people in the world (and 24 billion people who have ever lived). Genetically, the chance of an actual doppelganger occurring is a realistic possibility. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like humans get along much better than hamsters.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Swing Dancing

We've all seen those old movies showing couples dancing to the likes of Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman. Years ago, in the office--this would have been in the late 1990's, we had a guy and a girl, both in their twenties, who went swing dancing, and it struck me as rather peculiar and alarming. Swing Dancing was something that my father's generation did.  My father had grown up in the working class neighborhoods of New York City in the 1930's and 40's.  My father was firstly an athlete and an exceptional one, but he was also a great dancer. He once stressed to me that the best dancer was always the most popular guy in the neighborhood.  However, the mentality of the generation from the 60's, which I inherited, was to reject almost everything from the older generation. We know how people danced to Rock and Roll. To me, the thought of people from my generation or later doing swing dancing was absurd. Objectively speaking of course, I realize that I was being ridiculously. Though I am getting used to the idea of young people swing dancing; nevertheless, I have a difficult time imagining myself doing it.  But if you swing dance, God bless you, and keep dancing.

My Accent

Accents intrigue me. When I speak to people on the phone from other parts of the country, they can tell that I am from the New York City area.  But even within New York City itself, people from different ethnic groups, different generations, and different neighborhoods have different accents.  Many of the Irish from Queens have a distinct sound as do many of the Italians with roots in Little Italy.  I wouldn't even attempt to categorize the accents of Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians within New York City.

Yesterday, after my older son heard me talking to my father and mother, he told me that I talk to different people with different accents. He said he noticed this especially when I spoke to my father and one of my brothers. He then imitated how I sounded.  I recognized the voice immediately.  I assume that my father's accent, speaking style, and expressions are representative of the speech of working class Irish and Germans from the Bronx and Queens. When I speak to my father, I do not consciously imitate his speaking style, but I realize that it is something that I do in order to be able to better connect with him. I recall also that whenever my father spoke with his brother, his speaking style changed significantly, to what I assume is authentic from their family background.

My son also told me that I speak with a very hard "r" sound.  He told me that among English speakers worldwide, the hard "r" is only found among the Northern Irish and Americans. He said that the Australians, Scottish, British, etc. do not have a hard "r." Of my immigrant forbears, I do know that one of them was from County Donegal in Northern Ireland. I suspect that I may use a particularly hard "r" when I am trying to either speak clearly, stress something, or give a command. But until my son told me all this, I had ever heard of a hard "r" let alone knew that I spoke with one.