Things I Came Away with

I came away with all four volumes of Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, which is considerable to come away with from anything for free. It was thanks to my brother, who exploited the fact that at Ebenezer RC, where he is the minister, a spare set was on hand. I am eternally in his debt.

I came away with another mountain experience. We went up to see the sequoias. Those massive and fibrous trees like to grow up high to begin with. Up there the pines have elaborate an bright green growths of lichen to windward. It was cool, it was fragrant with cedars and pines, the trees were preponderant, the mountains waited, all was well. It is giant country up there, and the only regret is coming away from it at all.

From the plane I watched the sun-touched tips of the mountains, then the mesas far below. I saw the wrinkled land, and the curving ridges. Colorado had a lot of high country under snow. I saw the straight lines of L.A., the close-set houses, the massive freeways and the sea. I do not understand why people close their windows on a plane. Had a guy try to close mine, stared at him, responded that I did mind when he asked and got an apology from him. I peer out of the plane constantly. I want to see.

I came away with the curious fact that the ARBCA RBs are all literal 6 day creationists. I also, come to think of it, came away with the same fact about the RCUS. I personally do not get what it matters. It is not something people get worked up about in the OPC. I can believe God made the world in six seconds, six minutes, six days, or something else if it proves a good and necessary interpretation. I don’t know why exactly it matters to people. I shall have to inquire and find out.

I interpret those portions of Genesis literally because it obviously is setting up a pattern for the week, and a natural law basis for the one-in-seven day of rest. Something I came away with was a distinction I was not formerly aware of: the distinction between natural and positive law. So the command to observe one day in seven can be derived from natural law: always universally applicable. But the day on which it is actually done is a matter of positive law. This distinction, apparently, was really useful to particular Baptists when debating Presbyterians about Scripture’s commands regarding baptism. Something to investigate.

I was in a house in La Mirada that made me think of the long paperback days of youth. In that distant epoch I read fantasy and science fiction, a good portion of which was written by Californians. Maybe it was the fact that the house was filled with old things, many of them books. There was a record player and a boom box, a 13 inch TV and almost nothing defiling the place that was recent. I think it was also the eucalyptus, the cypress, the slant of the sunlight, the mountains in the blue distance, the endless skies. California is a lot like Mexico City at that point, somehow. Has a rainy season, has predictable weather, is mild and mildly tropical, and you can get tacos on every corner.

I came away with a sense again of the remoteness and otherness of California. It is big, it is wide, it has huge natural features, it is sprawled, it has endless cities and endless orchards and endless deserts and unending mountains, it is western and it is magical. Of course, every place has its charms, as long as you don’t look for the charms of other places there. I was still glad to come away and get back to Philadelphia in the woods, of limited horizons and tangled roads, of my Ford Focus and not some egregious SUV, of long lawns and narrow streets instead of wide streets and short lawns.


Travel Food

Philadelphia airport at 4:30AM last Thursday had twenty people in line waiting for McDonald’s to open. There were places open without lines. And yet there are airports in which there is no McDonald’s. I was in SFO, a pretty upscale airport from the look of it. All kinds of effete, organic, exotic and unappealing places and only one recognizable fast food place: Burger King. Who had the line? Which place had poles and ropes to manage the line? Not the fad-food places. Nor was there a Starbucks in the whole stuck-up place.

You know what I noticed about California? It is no wonder they seem to be the place from which all this organic, crazy, diet-food comes from. They have more hamburger joints than any other place on the planet. All the hamburger fast-food chains are there, and they have as many little and local as well. It is a fast-food paradise. They do hamburgers like we do pizza and cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. No wonder they start getting concerned about their diet.

They also have good Mexican food out there. I had tacos in rural California, breakfast burritos almost every day, and good and highly authentic street tacos at the SCRBPC. I think tacos are balanced. Tacos are the healthiest most robust, nourishing food you can get. The ones I had with cabbage down below the sequoias were the best; and balanced. Good sauce out there too, and they know how to heat up the tortillas.

On Consideration

I watched a video of a conference in Colombia that took place a few weeks back. I had been joking with a friend about it, knew several of the lay people who attended, and heard from one who is a deacon a good report. He said his favorite was one on the history of the translation of Scripture that is most common in Spanish. He said he was able to understand better what was being said thanks to these Church History talks I get up to with another pastor down there.

Then I heard about it from the guy whom I instructed for a while in Greek. He was not so sanguine about this session and had some questions. It turns out that the Trinitarian Bible Societies, which have headquarters in England, are Reformed, and so they are eager to participate in Reformed efforts. They somehow got in at the last minute and sent a guy with a power point down to participate in the Reformed version of Big Eva in Colombia. People loved it; thought it was great. It is all the rage nowadays: follow the TGC.

Of course, Colombians will say good things about anything. What we need brother, they have been known to exclaim in confidence and sincerity, is exactly what you just did here. What you just came and gave us made all the other conferences seem like a devotional; you totally put them in the shade. Colombians are encouragers, they love to be loved, they want you to fall in love with them, to think them grateful and eager. If you pour money in, they’ll cheer. It is part of how they are, and part of what they do. It is part of the warmth, and not altogether bad. It also requires a corresponding absence of judgment which fortuitously is also there in quantities.

The video was characterized by made up history. There was a made up story about how the early churches kept their originals of the books of the New Testament and about how when a copy was made, travelers were sent to the location of the original to compare and always preserve an accurate copy. It was intimated that Christians have always been scrupulously careful about the NT text. The other made up story came by way of a tissue of insinuations. It was the notion that any manuscript not agreeing with the Textus Receptus is associated with Alexandria, where diligent heretics modified the text to fit their views. There were so many things wrong with this part it was almost ingenious: there was implied Biblicism, there was conflation, there were selective details, etc.

The doctrine was: God preserves his word, of course. Translations that contain less than the TR can therefore not be said to contain all of God’s word. (It is interesting that the next conference has as its theme Mark 16:15. Is there a pattern emerging here?)

Then came the proof: verses where doctrine is minimized. Apparently, the Trinitarian Bible Societies, which claim to value the 17th century protestant confessions, have a Biblicist view not only of how heretics derive doctrine from Scripture, but how orthodox doctrines are derived as well. Noting how this guy does history, it comes as no surprise. It was all organized to prey on ignorance, of course; at least, one is hard pressed not to believe it is done without intent. What sort of intent? I wonder. And, if ignorance and chance come together this coherently, do I need to start believing in evolution?

Everybody is eager to start seminaries in Colombia nowadays. People down there are, people with money here are, and people with varying skills volunteer. As long as you need a translator to give the class or have some notoriety even if you are crippled by Spanish fluency, and as long as you do not cost them anything, you are qualified to teach, it seems. And who are the gatekeepers on all this? The organizers. Those who do the work of brokering the arrangements between the supply side and the demand side, and who answer to the supply, not the demand.

Bernard of Clairvaux lived a life between action and contemplation. He called it consideration. Consideration is what is needed.

NYC: a Place for Learning

I learn how life is. You see all these people standing before the doors, waiting to get into the boat, their heads down and their thumb constantly moving. Wires go into their ears; they talk to someone elsewhere, turning away from the physical presence that might disturb their attention. And over this scene stand the prophetic words of Heidegger: Technology alienates from being. I have seen a woman walking down the street with a phone in each hand, absorbed in each alternately, dimly aware of the surrounding world.

They use sunglasses as masks there, eye contact not being encouraged. Not that they’re not bold or curious. They are. I have looked up from my table at a veranda and almost always it is to see someone drop his gaze. You look at New Yorkers directly and they’ll automatically drop their gaze. They are curious about other people, but surreptitiously so. There are a lot of weirdos on the street, and these are looking for an opening. There are predators, and you want to make no contact with them at all, or seem like one. Life is so public in that place, so much the life of crowds that the fashion of the glasses is a fashion of armor too.

Because it is a hard life, that of the City. One of the things I learn is how forward you are expected to be. You make your way and you do not expect it to come to you. There is, of course, politeness and good service. But you must be forward: blessed are those who hustle and do what it takes. It is engaged, knowing, and unreceptive, which is to say: acquisitive. I went up and down Madison Ave looking to see a Dunkin Donuts, ubiquitous elsewhere. North of 38th one is not to be found: south there are two. North is the world of luxury goods, of shops in which security guards wearing nothing ill-tailored stare out, deftly avoiding your gaze, alert to the coming of one wearing the badges of inclusion. Affluence is paraded because it means success. Hard surfaces cover the vulnerabilities of the face for those who can afford to keep to themselves.

Two things I’ve learned about fashion. One is that a man can still look well with a mustache not entirely enormous, which I would not have formerly believed. Not an odd or an elaborate mustache, but something natural and ordered, corresponding to the face. Not many in our day will, but this guy understood all the factors and pulled it off. I have yet to wrap my head around how the thing comes to be. I did manage to wrap my head, thanks to New York, around another phenomenon: that is the man in sandals. The sandal is such a thing as requires a certain proportion around the naked foot and corresponding leg. It is more fitting for a woman because it can be more delicate, and so maintain proportion. There is a corresponding grace to the whole effect, which is of a different nature in the male. In men’s sandals, they must be less delicate, more substantial; but because they are, they usually overwhelm the foot, characterizing it not by grace but mere clumsiness. There is only a certain minimum of clunk available to the male sandal before it becomes effeminate, like a flip-flop. This all changes if you are a sufficiently large man. The proportions of a sufficient but not egregious sandal being dwarfed by a great foot clear up the problem. And that is what I saw, and wondered at, not having before believed such a thing at all could be.

All this is the world, but it is the world made obvious. I walk through the grim underworld of downtown Philadelphia, where the subways rattle and the cold light of ancient fluorescent tubes shows unrelieved corridors of wasted space. Nobody makes a bid for it. In the farthest habitable desolation, before the unvarying corridors begin, you have a Taco Bell. There is nothing of ambition in a Taco Bell since such a place contains nothing human kind associates with desire. The space ns Manhattan is at a premium in a way Philadelphia cannot rival, not being on an island. So it is concentrated, and humankind is concentrated, and for some purposes more observable in the avidity which this brings out.

Avidity, and other humanizing things. They don’t do ice as much now in New York, and that I celebrate. They give you water in glass bottles nowadays, not chilled either, and plain glass cups. None of it with ice, though this has not affected the potation of other chilled beverages. Perhaps it is in an effort to save water. After you are done they dump the remainder out and wash the whole apparatus, of course.

New York, the City

Hamilton, NJ, the Transit Hub

There is a disturbance, then a roar. The Amtrak tube lashes through, shaking the foundations. You glimpse it in a blur. It diminishes, it is gone, and the birdsong is loud in the aftermath. The birds have made their nests around the platforms, indifferent to the power and the glory of the trains.

No attendants on duty. You buy your ticket from a touchscreen and you read the signs. The slower NJ Transit trains use the two outer tracks, the Amtrak goes on the inner two. Concrete sleepers covered in grey rocks under the wires stretch away to both horizons, and that is all.

The NJ Transit

Not newer models, the trains. Mass transit is about efficiency of access and unencumbered transportation: this is what they do, in measurable, great quantity. Trains have their own way: they glide and have their sounds: the rush, the clack of slowing down, the lonely whistle, the hum. Three seats on one side, two on the other on the one-tier trains. Old plastic, scratched windows, the conductor only occasionally friendly and all business. The intercom squawks semi-intelligibly.

It feels like a step back in time, except that everybody is using small screens. No newspapers, no magazines, no books, just little screens and wires into the head.

New Jersey flashes by between stations. Princeton Junction, New Brunswick (Rutgers), and then the industrial wasteland and marshes. New Jersey, as you approach New York, seems like a place where they tried but failed to extend the city. Eventually you descend into darkness.

Pennsylvania Station

The darkness that leads out of New Jersey brings one to the dim underworld of New York. Pennsylvania Station is a functional place, and down on the platforms a dreary location indeed. The dead trudge up the stairs into the waiting areas of that underground complex. They spread out toward the various exits and join the living on New York’s teeming sidewalks. I Tiresias have walked among them. I have seen the wires coming from their ears, connecting them to their batteries, carrying them through the lower regions.

In the evening ticket holders wait for a track to be announced, and then rush down as soon as they can to get each man his seat down in that dim underworld, in the humming train that will bear them back to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


There was pizza. $1 for a cheese slice, and $3 for the other options. Warm pizza of the morning. The attendants speak to the customer in the customary English, and then shout at each other in Spanish. Efficiency is the rule in New York City. Don’t dawdle, don’t hang back, don’t be dumb. Know thy mind, if indeed thou hast one, thou idiot. The beckoning small pizza places angle into the structure of the city, wedged away in slices.

The Frick

A low place where tall structures are in demand, a breach in the ramparts surrounding Central Park, the Frick. A lawn even, and more unusually, a lawnmower. Inside: the bag inspection, the coat check, the inefficient dispatch of tickets, the guard who lectures and indicates, and after all the preliminaries the collection. It is a house of treasures: Vermeer, Gainsborough, Reynolds, van Dyck, Corot, Holbein (More and Cromwell), and two magnificent enormous Turners. The dead creep through it, listening to handheld devices, sitting often, dressed variously but mostly well, upscale. Good lighting on the art and a dimmer building, the sense of a house: dining room, hall, library, gallery, oval room, etc. The Frick has nothing contemporary, for it was Frick’s own collection made one hundred years ago or so. I Tiresias, blind seer of Athens, looked on what had been.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A tourist destination. Crowded stairs, slow entrance, bag inspection, statistical registration I Tiresias did avoid, unnoticed as at Thebes below the wall. Throngs of the dead like autumn leaves there. These dissipate. The dead congregate in the impressionist galleries, but not in the remoter 17th Century galleries. A vast place and somewhat seedy for seeing so much volume, so many dead. No meager collection, but functional galleries, and some living moments in galleries where the statues are about to come to life, impatient with the dead. The worn parquet, the foot-high ropes, the tramp of feet and murmur, the indescribable pastel paint on the walls is mostly all. The dead blow though, watched by the drowsy guards. The fierce statues disdain to exhibit life, waiting for the dead to pass. I Tiresias stared into those souls, stared into the round eyes of quintuped Assyrian cherubim. What a race, the Assyrian: beards and wings and bunched calf muscles.

I went as the swallow goes, to get a sense of it. If one is going to see the Met and absorb anything at all, one has to stay in the city, one has to arrive early and late, one has to have copious time if one is not to see it as the dead do. The dead file past the statues, up the staircases and down. I went among them, I Tiresias, and when I had finished drifting along with them I emerged, not even a statistic for the quantitative.

Dulce Vida

Lexington Ave. Crammed against a panel of glass facing the sidewalk. Ajiaco, maracuya, aguepanela, sancocho. Sweet corn—so out of place—and auyama. Good green sauce, authentically Mexican in a Colombian restaurant. The usual incongruity. A Brazilian waiter, solicitous, trilingual. Quick service, Colombianly awkward.

New York Public Library

Of its many locations, I went to the classical building that hove into view a few blocks west of Park Ave. The steps were thronged for a medieval event: an outdoor performance drawing great applause. The living congregated there, and the dead were on the fringes, hoping to understand. A line led in, a bag inspection, a splendid building, some celebrants. Steep stairs, a well-kept place. The dead milled in it, sat pointlessly at the top, engaged the desperate memorial of photography with their little screens, gesturing on their surfaces. I Tiresias watched their wish to even wish anything at all dismayed. Backstairways lead to vast hallways, past the reliquaries and into the world of life again.

Juan Valdez Coffee

The stark modern interior, of a dark variety. The attendant who did not speak audibly. The latte they call café con leche. The old lady sneaking in to use the counter without buying anything. The hulking transvestite. The attendant coming to stare at the impertinent old lady. The young woman going through her email on a mackintosh computer. The Slavic conversation of some emotion. The light roast from Huila in the red packaging. The leg of Tiresias fell asleep.

Grand Central Station

They go with purpose under that vast canopy, those wells of light, that spacious crossing of the paths of all the world. Ramps lead to the bowels of the city. Wrought and industrial iron, marble, the everlasting sound of throngs that move with purpose.

Bubble Tea

Is it not one of the consolations of the age? A limited menu, three Asian girls, the wait, the crowded premises, the odd machinery. Good strong black tea, the creamy milk, the tapioca bubbles, the ingenious large straw and the sealed package. The chewy slugs are soft and swift, and the moment passes. There are few urban consolations like straightforward bubble tea.

150, and the Sidewalks

From 30th north to 86th, south to 10th and back up to 30th = 140 blocks. From as far west as Columbus Circle to Lexington Ave in the east, another 10 in zigs and zags. With musea and other distractions, a good days of walking = 150 blocks at least. I Tiresias have seen the city, and there is enough of it. The surge across the streets with all the living intermingling and so many different embodied souls to see can be endlessly repeated. I have seen Jewish gentlemen in a comfortable interiors that advertise kosher chicken soup. I have been among the smoking hot-dog stands with kebabs and emanating middle-eastern music. I have noticed glasses and cloth napkins, plain and elegant booths, counters, steaming trays of food, pretzels and pizza, coffee, donuts and animated conversations. The buildings rise, rank upon rank, various, splendid, curious, dull, and renewed as the city renews itself, that strong, great city. New York City Ferrari, art supplies, instruments of music, oysters for $1, theaters, billboards and vast churches.

And I know that what New York City doth not have, doth not matter.


I’ve noticed that people from around here don’t talk about going to see Delaware. Many places are mentioned, but Delaware is not. So we went to see Delaware. It isn’t far and nobody ever talks about going to check out Delaware.

If you pay attention to your junk mail you may have noticed how many financial things come from Wilmington, DE. Downtown Wilmington is just one large bank building after the other: Chase, PNC, Citizens, Bank of the Pumpkin, etc. That is what they do. It is a hilly place, located between the Brandywine and the Christina Rivers, and has river walks along both that are pleasant. The Brandywine is a cheerful stream in a gorge. The Christina is tidal, with seafowl and rusting railroads.

It looks like Baltimore often, with small rowhouses on straight streets. We have rowhouses in Philadelphia of all kinds, but when they’re on straight streets they tend to be impressive, if they’re on narrow streets they are quaint, and if they’re on windy streets they are jumbly. Wilmington has nice little rowhouses and then the hood rowhouses, from what I can tell. The hood is downhill from downtown—one of the hoods at least. I don’t mind driving through the hood since it reminds me of the third world, so it is familiar, and I have an old car, so I fit in. Beside rowhouses they do pizza and fried chicken in Wilmington, and I saw three yellow and green Jamaican restaurants.

We walked: that’s what we do. It’s a good place for walking and it was a good day. We walked for an hour and a half before lunch and an hour and a half after lunch. Walking in a place you’ve never been to before is my idea of traveling, as long as the place has things to notice you are not sorry to be noticing. I even walk in suburban settings, but prefer the city. In Wilmington we got all city. It was great. For such a small place, it was very, very great.

They do seafood in Wilmington. I guess the closer you get to the coast the more they start using seafood. That’s the rule. We did not go with the seafood, however. We went with the $3 hamburgers and $3 fries at one of these modern day food courts not consisting of restaurant chains and without an attached mall called a market: such as the North Market in Columbus or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. This one was considerably smaller than either, but had more available seating. The pizza place and the steak shop were separate, which you’d never see in Philadelphia. They had a generic burrito place too, which I’ve never seen before. It was very unusual for me. I think they’re really trying to push that waterfront walk, for health and restaurants.

Returning to the hamburgers, they had a guy dressed as a chef doing most of the honors and they were clearly not used to handling volume. (Look, I know about volume; I worked at MacDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—these places do volume; these guys did not know how to handle volume, believe me.) But they knew the importance of the pickle, and that says a lot. These were no thin-sliced rounds, but over a quarter of an inch thick. Very impressive. Impractical on a hamburger, but still, the principle of the thing is right. You take it out, you eat it, it is good. Very good. It was the best pickle I’ve had since I don’t know when. Most restaurants neglect the importance of the pickle, but this nameless place somewhere near the train station in Wilmington does not neglect it. It was a fine pickle. It did not taste like the things you get in a jar at the grocery store. It did not taste like the thing that comes on your plate beside your fries at most restaurants. It tasted like neither of these standard flavors of pickle you get in the USA always and everywhere. It tasted like a really good pickle, and it was a testimony to the enduring importance of the pickle. Proper pickles, even if only a slice of one, are key. Everything else followed from that, so it is a good place.

Tomorrow we are probably going to try NYC, having done Wilmington. I hope those guys out there have places where you can get a good pickle. The importance of the pickle has come home to me like never before, and all because I went to Wilmington Delaware. I am very glad I went. I thought it was a great place. Very.

Returning First Class

For some reason United shunted us into first class for the return trip. It was the complete reverse of the trip out, once we got on the plane. Our checked bag even was the first one to come out of the baggage claim at O’Hare (which went swiftly indeed for O’Hare). Customs these days is not badly run, and one feels that with all the dull-witted travelers the TSA has to handle, they don’t really do too badly either.

In first class–never done it before myself–of course you have that vital quantity: space. The seats are wider, the space before is better, and after so many flights in the constricted spaces usually provided, one almost feels there is too much, that first class is an excess. It took some getting used to, some dispelling of the air of unreality about it all after the flight down. With airlines nowadays one is happy if things go without unanticipated calamities, but one does not expect to have improvements. One does find one can adapt, however, to the rare eucatastrophe.

Of course there’s the drink before take off, which is all vanity and ostentation to make one feel what class one has attained or purchased. Then the thing gets rather interesting: first the hot cloth offered with tongs, then the heated cashews; the drinks come in real glasses, and the meal on crockery liberally distributed over a far wider tray than the crowded fuselage of the plane behind one could hope to accomodate. It is airplane food but in slightly larger quantities, perhaps more thoroughly heated, and in superior circumstances. And of course the solicitous flight attendant helps. It made flight more than tolerable, and showed one what travel might be if one is willing to pay, or in our case, if one is lucky.

It is a great way to come home, first class.

They even have a special magazine, with articles not well -written but written about exclusive and capricious things with a kind of art. Advertisements for handmade shoes from Italy, etc. And you get a glimpse of what life can be on this planet, for some. After you have flown first class, and wondered at the space, and reflected on how it must be for the masses behind you, and remembered the crowded conditions you are all too familiar with you begin to think: it is going to be difficult to spend two, three or four hours in those conditions again the next time? You get off–not as stunned by the experience–and see the stunned, weary expressions of those your distant companions when they catch up with you at the baggage claim and you begin to understand.

There is a pull, and allure, and it is not altogether innocent. There is an awful lot of money sloshing around this world, and you get glimpses of it and what life on this planet can be, if you pursue it, if you can. We stayed in a very solicitous hotel, better than most of the places we manage to do, though we certainly run the gamut on the lower half of things; and like all things of its kind, there were realms up beyond ours even in that hotel. But in an A320 the range is limited, the slash between first and the rest is striking, and it makes you think.