George Orwell in 1940, broadcasting for the BBC.

George Orwell began writing “Animal Farm” in November 1943; four months later, at the end of February, it was done. A cloth copy of the first edition runs to 92 pages. 

Too short for a novel, booksellers and publishers called it a novella. To one friend and political ally Orwell described the work as a “little squib” of a thing.

The story has been called a fable, a beast fable, an allegory, and satire; to some, it’s a religious parable.  

And, because the title of the book, when it first came out, was “Animal Farm: A Fairy Story,” unknowing readers thought it was the British counterpart of “Charlotte’s Web”; “Animal Farm” has pigs, Charlotte has her porker, Wilbur.

Early on Orwell thought the chances of the book finding a publisher were iffy. In his classic biography of the writer, “George Orwell: A Life” (Little Brown, 1980), Bernard Crick quotes from a letter Orwell sent to the Russian-born American poet and literary historian, Gleb Struve, where he tells the poet that “Animal Farm” “might amuse you when it comes out, but it is not OK politically that I don’t feel certain in advance that anyone will publish [it].”

Who would turn down a fairy tale? No one; but “Animal Farm” was a political minefield.   

At one point, Orwell told his long-time publisher Fredric Warburg — of Secker & Warburg who eventually published the book — that, while writing “Animal Farm,” he had already conceived of another work that expanded on the socio-politico tenets found in the fable — which we now know to be “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Animal Farm was “the story of the revolution betrayed,” as Crick says, “and [then there’s] the story [‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’] of the betrayers, power-hungry in each case, perpetuating themselves in power for ever.”

And although Orwell did refer to the fable as a squib — and a politically incorrect one at that — Google “Animal Farm” and a zillion hits will come up. People from nearly every age group and cultural stratum say it was on their summer reading list in high school; and these days, those taking the Advanced Placement Exam in English had better know every pig in every sty if they hope to get a Five.

As far back as 1982, a school district in Jackson County, Florida blackballed “Animal Farm,” calling it “pro-communist,” the exact opposite of the words Orwell wrote.

And, internationally in 2002, education ministers in the United Arab Emirates took “Animal Farm” out of circulation with 124 other titles, decrying the book for mocking Islamic and Arab values: They said there were pictures of pigs drinking liquor on the farm, and other “indecent images.”  

And yet more recently, in 2021, Carnegie Mellon University said that, in preparation for the upcoming “Banned Books Week,” it would not offer a list of books for people to examine, but recommend just one title: “Animal Farm.” 

I’m not sure whether they still exist, but the transcripts of the discussions that went into that decision are worth their weight in gold; they’re statements on cultural literacy. A student at the school should be doing a thesis on it.

That Carnegie Mellon took the step in the first place is direct homage to the lasting power of the work.

The story, of course, is about the lives of barnyard animals on the farm of a certain Mr. Jones who, the animals say, has mistreated them and they were not going to take it anymore.

The Spark notes (online edition) begin its summary of the book this way: Once upon a time a prize-winning boar called Old Major, called all the animals of the Manor Farm together into the big barn; he wanted to tell them of a dream he had of a society where all animals lived in harmony, where no boss-man was around to oppress or control them.

Old Major forewarned the community, however, that such societies do not just spring up, but must be worked for; he tells his comrades, “Your resolution must never falter. No argument must lead you astray … among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.” 

Then he adds, “Weak or strong, clever or simple, we are all brothers. No animal must ever kill any other animal. All animals are equal.”  

Old Major clearly knew his Marx; he then gave his comrades a Marxist revolutionary song, “Beasts of England,” to sing as a clarion call to animals everywhere to make a society where the needs of every citizen are met — equally, and without resentment. 

But over time — the story continues — differences of opinion arose so that the new chief pig, Napoleon, began to call all dissenters fascists who needed to be annihilated. 

And as the constitution and bylaws of the once-hoped-for just society began to dissolve, the chief pig decreed that thenceforth only one commandment needed to be obeyed: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. The revolution was dead.

Of course, great works of fiction like “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” easily stand on their own, but their meaning intensifies when we know that Orwell wrote both books after spending six months on the front fighting Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He was relieved of duty after taking a sniper’s bullet in the throat, the doctors saying a millimeter to the left he would have been no more.

During the war there were three “ideologically progressive” units fighting against Franco — Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists. What shook Orwell’s faith in humanity — the cause of the birth of the two dystopian works — was that at one point the Communists turned on their revolutionary comrades.

Crick says it began when, “The Communists spread the tale that the P.O.U.M. [Socialists] were secretly allied to the Fascists, even receiving arms from them across the lines at night, and that the Anarchists were ‘objectively Fascists,’” a canard, he adds, that “was repeated without question by Left-wing and even by some Liberal newspapers in Britain.”

It ended with four-hundred killed and a thousand wounded.

In his 1947 preface to the Ukranian edition of “Animal Farm,” Orwell told his readers that, “in the middle of 1937 … the Communists gained control (or partial control) of the Spanish Government and began to hunt down” every Socialist alive — state Socialists and libertarian Socialists alike.

Among the hunted himself, Orwell says we, “found ourselves amongst the victims. We were very lucky to get out of Spain alive, and not even to have been arrested once. Many of our friends were shot, and others spent a long time in prison or simply disappeared.”

He says the “man-hunts in Spain went on at the same time as the great purges in the USSR and were a sort of supplement to them. In Spain as well as in Russia the nature of the accusations (namely, conspiracy with the Fascists) was the same.” 

Orwell’s Communists were Napoleon the killer pig, the avatar of Stalin, destroyers of every revolution that seeks to meet the needs of all equally and without resentment.

He documented his experiences during the war in the much-lauded classic “Homage to Catalonia,” which, along with “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” makes one of the great, if not greatest, literary triptychs of all time.

To his dying day Orwell could not get over “how easily totalitarian propaganda can control the opinion of enlightened people in democratic countries,” as if he were talking about the United States today.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the dissenter Winston Smith is warned that, under Fascism, “There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy … always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.”

And for those who want “a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.”

Lappawinsoe, a chief of the Delaware people, was painted in 1735 by Gustavus Hesselius. Boys in the tribe went through a destiny-discerning ritual to become men.

Ever since Donald Trump got seriously involved in electoral politics, the issue of a person’s character rocketed to center stage, not just the probity of Mr. Trump — twice impeached and indicted now in four jurisdictions for felony crimes — but the character of every politician running for office; indeed, the issue has filtered down to the average person walking down Main Street in Anytown, USA.

And, while this average person walking down Main Street USA might refuse to challenge his ideological counterpart sur la rue about the probity of his character directly, we Americans run around these days judging each other on the Moral Character Inventory Scale (MCIS) as if partaking in a national rite.

Character is one of those words embedded in the personal thesaurus of each one of us but, when someone asks us to say what character is, we stammer like a child. A wonderful essay could be written about the mental gymnastics a person goes through when asked: “Are you a person of character?” Are you a moral person?

Years ago, when I first encountered Norman Brown’s classic “Love’s Body,” I was taken with his statement that “character is not innate,” that it must be developed. 

Such a view runs counter to the belief that character is fixed at birth, that we are born with an already-made moral structure so that, when we get caught doing something wrong, we can say, “I was born that way. I couldn’t help myself.”

That’s what Geraldine — the boisterous alter-ego of the old-time comedian Flip Wilson, used to say when confronted with bad behavior, “The Devil made me do it.”

Brown says, “A man’s character is his demon, his tutelar spirit” referring to the Greek daimon, a person’s inner spirit — what the Romans called genius, “a protecting spirit, analogous to the guardian angels invoked by the Church of Rome … The Greeks called them δαίμονες (daimones).” [Smith, “Dictionary,” 1880.]

In November 2006, I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Los Angeles called, “To Have A Calling in Life: A Human Antidote to Growing Up Absurd And, For Those Involved in the Criminology-Related Disciplines, A Sure Measure of Delinquency Prevention.”  

In that smörgåsbord of ideas I called attention to Socrates’ use of daimon in Plato’s “Apology,” which he called a “divinatory voice,” a voice that comes from so deep within that we think it’s divine.

Socrates said that voice “opposed me even in very small things if I was about to do something I should not rightly do.” For him, the daimon was a kind of superego informing him when he was being treasonous to himself and others. It is this protective voice that people of faith call their guardian angel and that Brown calls a tutelar spirit.

The image most Americans have of such a spirit is Clarence Odbody in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when an angel comes to earth and opposes George Bailey for doing something he should not rightly do.

Xenophon — a student and friend of Socrates — in his “Apologia” and “Memorabilia” expanded on what his teacher said, describing the daimon as inspirational direction, that is, as having a future-oriented visionary dimension. The philosopher Proclus Lycaeus went further by calling the daimon a transformative force, a sort of psycho-genetic energy system from which moral character is born.

Brown says this force is found “in a dream,” that the dream is the mother of our destiny, thus character and destiny are linked in a dream. Freud would call destiny one’s “ego-ideal,” the true self we are meant to be. 

Our aboriginal ancestors in the United States were very much in touch with this process. Indeed, they incorporated a destiny-producing dream sequence in a rite of passage which every young man had to endure to enter adulthood; a young man was forced to look his destiny straight in the eyes.   

In his ethnographic writings, John Heckewelder — a Moravian missionary who lived among the Delaware Indians for more than a decade beginning in 1771 — describes the destiny-discerning process the young male Indian had to go through in his “History, Manners, And Customs Of The Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania And The Neighbouring States.” 

He says, “When a boy is to be thus initiated, he is put under an alternate course of physic and fasting, either taking no food whatever, or swallowing the most powerful and nauseous medicines, and occasionally he is made to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, until his mind becomes sufficiently bewildered, so that he sees or fancies that he sees visions, and has extraordinary dreams, for which, of course, he has been prepared beforehand.” 

During the dream ceremony, the young man fancies “himself flying through the air, walking under ground, stepping from one ridge or hill to the other across the valley beneath, fighting and conquering giants and monsters, and defeating whole hosts by his single arm.”

He even connects “with the Mannitto [Manitou] or with spirits, who inform [the young man] of what he was before he was born and what he will be after his death. His fate in this life is laid entirely open before him, the spirit tells him what is to be his future employment, whether he will be a valiant warrior, a mighty hunter, a doctor, a conjurer, or a prophet. There are even those who learn or pretend to learn in this way the time and manner of their death.”

It’s what I described in my criminology paper as having a calling in life.

And during the dream encounter, the initiate is given a name “analogous to the visions that he has seen, and to the destiny that is supposed to be prepared for him. The boy, imagining all that happened to him while under perturbation, to have been real, sets out in the world with lofty notions of himself, and animated with courage for the most desperate undertakings.”

To confirm what he saw, Heckewelder spoke to “several of their old men who had been highly distinguished for their valour, and asked them whether they ascribed their achievements to natural or supernatural causes, and they uniformly answered, that as they knew beforehand what they could do, they did it of course.”

When the elders were asked how they knew what they were capable of, “they never failed to refer to the dreams and visions which they had while under perturbation.”  

Christian Miller — a professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, a man much in tune with every facet of character development — said in a talk at Notre Dame University not long ago that, even when a person accepts that character can change, he must remember that “it can change in multiple directions so …  just because it changes … doesn’t mean it necessarily will go in the good direction. We can also go in a vicious direction instead.”

Thus, each of us, he says, must be “intentional in thinking about how we can shape our characters … in a more positive direction.” 

His short video on character development is worth the attention of all: bit.ly/3sAEGYM.

In the meantime, I am willing to wage everything I hold dear that no native American in the history of our country ever emerged from his dream ceremony and described his destiny as, “I will be your retribution.”

The first verse of Chapter 12 of the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures says, “Dishonest scales are an abomination to the Lord; but when people weigh things honestly, the Lord is delighted.” 

The sentence structure here is an example of a literary form called “antithetic parallelism,” characteristic of much Old Testament writing; the first part of the verse says God is disappointed when people cheat, the second part says he’s happy when people measure things right.

The writers of Proverbs were prophets of justice in that they were constantly reminding God’s Chosen about what it takes to be a moral person. When a person goes to the store and orders five pounds of sugar, the sugar he gets should weigh five pounds.

The earliest recorded systems of weights and measures go back to the third and fourth millennium B.C.; the community must have had its fill of cheaters; thus sales and distributions of any sort thenceforth were to adhere to protocols set by a governing body about what a true weight and a true measure are.

Thus, three linear feet are always 36 inches and 36 inches are always a yard in the same way that five pounds of sugar always weigh five pounds — when the needle on a certified scale reaches five, not before or after. It’s a bedrock of justice.

The Hebrew scriptures reflect the rabbinical ethic on honesty. The Encyclopedia of the Bible says, “The Hebrews recognized the importance of exact weights and measurements in the commercial, ethical, and legal life of the nation.”

Deuteronomy 25:13-16 says, for example, “Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

The rabbinical bar of justice was set so high that businessmen had to periodically clean the dirt off their scales to avoid shorting people on their measure.

The following story is a case in point:   

Once upon a time a man went to the store and told the storekeeper, “Sir, I’d like five pounds of sugar.” The storekeeper started pouring sugar onto his scale to measure out five pounds, but the needle on the scale went to just three. The storekeeper said, “Sir, here’s your five pounds of sugar; that’ll be 10 dollars.”

And the customer — a man of justice — said in a quiet and easy tone, “Excuse me, Mr. Storekeeper, I ordered five pounds of sugar and you gave me just three; the needle on your scale only went to three and you’re saying that that three is five and you’re charging me for five. Did you not see the needle go to where I saw it go? Do you not see what I see? Have you never heard the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It starts like this:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite.

The storekeeper, piqued by the criticism of how he weighed things, grew testy, “Night wind? Lamb? Dancing star? Kite? What do you take me for, a fool? I set the rules; I am the Chosen One; what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”  

Not one to back down in the face of injustice, the customer came right back, “Sir, you have violated the rules our community has held dear for eons: two and two are four, five pounds of sugar are five pounds of sugar determined when the needle on the government’s certified scale reaches five, not three. According to the code of our ancient covenant, sir, you are a resounding ‘cheat.’”

Now heated beyond compare, the storekeeper gathered his workers into a posse and made them all chant: “Three is five, five is three!” He shouted over them with, “I am the Chosen One who alone can fix it! If you go after me, I’m coming after you. You will not replace me.” He ordered the posse to arm themselves.

Many years ago, when I was hired to work on a grant by a New York state agency, there was an employee in the division with whom I had gone to school at the University at Albany’s Ph.D. program in criminal justice. 

One morning while this fellow and I were chatting in the coffee room, the director of the agency stuck his head in the doorway and said, “Ralph [we’ll call him Ralph here], Ralph, I saw the report you handed in and your data do not match what I’m trying to achieve here; go over the numbers again and bring me something better.”

Ralph caved; I knew it, he knew it, he knew I knew that he had sold out, the two of us once journeymen in the same school where we were taught strict standards of justice.

Later I ran into Ralph and asked him right away, “Ralph, why did you sell out and besmirch the code of honor we were taught to live by?”  

All he said was, “Dennis, I have a wife and a mortgage. Adios.”

I never saw him again.

In 1895, the esteemed French sociologist, Gustave Le Bon, came out with his classic “Psychologie des Foules” in which he described how people morph when they become part of a crowd. The usual translation is “The Psychology of Crowds”; mine is “The Psychology of the Mob-Mind.”

Le Bon said that, when people become part of a crowd, it “makes them feel, think, and act in a manner different from that in which each of them would feel, think, and act if they were alone.” They succumb to a “sentiment of invincible power which allows [them] to yield to instincts which, had [they] been alone, [they] would perforce have kept under restraint.” 

Such a sentiment, he said, is “contagious, and contagious to such a degree that the individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.” He is like a “hypnotized subject … an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”

On his own, such a person might be “a cultured individual … [but] in a crowd, he is a barbarian … a creature … [possessing] the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings …. A trace of antipathy [can turn] into furious hatred.” 

And the wily leader of such a mob knows he must hold them “in fascination by a strong faith (in an idea) in order to awaken the group’s faith … [such a leader] must possess a strong and imposing will, which the group, which has no will of its own, can accept from him.” It’s Le Bon meets “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Sigmund Freud was so taken with Le Bon’s assessment that he wrote “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” describing what takes place in a person’s psyche when he sacrifices his needs, interests, desires, and goals, his “ego-ideal” to a collective mind designed to cheat and steal.

I’m a long-time baker of pies and breads. While at the store a short time ago, when I picked up a five-pound bag of sugar, I saw that the bag contained no longer five but four pounds of sugar!

I could hear the night wind whispering in my ear, “Do you see what I see, little lamb?”

I responded, “I just want to find 453.592 grams of sugar.”

— Photo from MertonCenter.org

Thomas Merton

As has been mentioned here before, Pope Francis, during a six-day visit to the United States in 2015, was invited to (and did in fact) address a joint session of Congress — on Thursday, Sept. 24. He was the first Pope of the Holy See ever to do so.

In a subtle way — paradoxically — he was being quite bold, giving the kind of sermon a deeply-Christian preacher might give to his congregation at Sunday service. There were more than a few in the politically savvy conclave who thought they were back in college listening to a lecture in The Politics of Social Justice 101.

The Pope started by calling attention to the elements a society needs to evolve successfully into the future. He said, “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”

By satisfying common needs he meant meeting the needs of all, which was then, and remains, the calling card of his papal administration; in Congress, he was challenging America to see if it had the brass to adopt such a view.

In using the word “vocation,” as in “having a calling,” he was describing the inner energizing force a society needs to help the least of its members, “those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk,” without resentment, where the undying care for others is a cardinal rule.

The Pope was more than intimating that societal instability does not arise when neighborhoods and communities attend to “the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.” The gloss on the text is: He was calling for the needs of the poorest person in America to be responded to in the same way those of the richest person are. He is not one to brook benevolent triage.

But, when we look at American society today, we see social-movement-like rivulets of dystopian resentment springing up everywhere toward those in need, those who require extra (special) attention, more time, more money, more care. If the dystopians had their way, the weak and needy would fall off the face of the Earth and wither from memory.

The Pope is very smart — and not just because he’s a Jesuit — more because he’s ingested the core message of Jesus, which he lives out each day with humility. From the start, he rejected all the trappings of papal royalty — like living in the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo — in favor of his namesake Francis of Assisi.

As the Senators and Representatives — the Supreme Court judges were there too — listened to his every word, the Pope drew attention to those Americans who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people,” a spirit that enables a country to withstand “crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity.”

He mentioned four Americans who fostered such a spirit: (1) Abraham Lincoln; (2) Martin Luther King Jr.; (3) Dorothy Day; and (4) Thomas Merton — for which he received a rousing applause.

Lincoln and King everybody knew but Day? Merton? Puzzled faces abounded: “They aren’t in the history books!”

I greatly admire Dr. King, as I do our 16th president — though not fully understanding all he did — but what more than thrilled me that day was to hear the Pope mention two visionaries who helped shape the ethical foundation of my life: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton — and by ethical I mean the values I live by each day.

I started reading their works more than 50 years ago and, in the case of Merton, I read him still — he’s the person who’s most influenced my life.

With respect to Dorothy Day, some members of Congress were aware of her because a group of Catholics had been feverishly pushing Rome to make her a canonized saint. And on April 28 of this year, millions more knew her because the New York City Department of Transportation led the inaugural ride of a 4,500-passenger Staten Island Ferry called the Dorothy Day.

In the 1940s, Day had a cottage on Staten Island she used as a respite from running her Catholic Worker soup kitchen and house of hospitality on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She took the ferry back and forth, which she no longer does because she’s a permanent resident of the Island: Section 10, Resurrection Cemetery overlooking Raritan Bay.

But in the case of Merton, who has no boat, the average person walking down the street in any-town-America can no more identify him than they can the local Roto-Rooter man.

Merton was a poet who entered the Trappists in 1941 and almost never left the monastery’s grounds in Kentucky for 27 years. In 1968, when a new abbot took over, the abbot gave Merton permission to travel to Bangkok, Thailand to make a presentation at an important international gathering of monks from East and West.

Many at the time considered Merton — Christians and believers of other faiths alike — the most important spiritual writer of the 20th Century; he kept emphasizing how important it is for a person to be his/her/their authentic self if they wanted to be with God.

After his talk at Bangkok on the morning of Dec. 10 — he was slated for a Q and A in the afternoon — the tired traveler took a shower but, somehow on the way out, grabbed hold of a faulty fan and was electrocuted on the spot: dead at 53. His first big trip outside the walls in 27 years and whammo.

In addition to his many works on peace and justice and embracing a life of solitude, Merton left seven volumes of journals containing thoughts from nearly every day of his adult life. Every page is a Rorschach card revealing a man in search of peace within.

He mandated that the contents of the journals not be released to the public until 25 years after his death — he’d named names. Thus, in 1995, the first of the seven volumes appeared, which all together run to 2,966 pages. I’ve read all seven several times and Volume Seven as many as eight times. It’s on my bed now; I’ll read some tonight.

The great spiritual writer, Madame de Guyon, says in her treatise, “A Short Method of Prayer,” that every soul needs to take a few minutes out each day for meditative reading to assess if they’re going in the right direction.

She says every such soul needs to have a book that shows them how to be a more mature and happier person; the aspirant should start reading just “two or three lines, [to] enter into the full meaning of the words, and go on no further [until] satisfaction [is found] in them … not reading more than half a page at once.”

In other words, she was advocating for meditative self-reflective reading so that a person can assess his/her/their progress in becoming a better, happier, more sensitive person each day.

To those sympathetic to Guyon’s urging, I recommend Merton’s journals, all from beginning to end, 1941 to 1968, to see how one thoughtful solitary struggled to rid himself of falsity and be at peace with himself and the world around him.

Of course such reading requires laying down the phone and iPad and finding a quiet place to sit in peace and ponder for a while.

For those bothered by Merton being a monk, a Catholic, and forever talking about God, I suggest simply viewing him as a poet, a man, who sought to transcend every one of those categories — monk, Catholic, God — himself, unwilling to be hemmed in by any construct that stifles the authentic self within.

In his “Disputed Questions,” the poet prefigured Pope Francis by 50 years when he said, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

“Dr. IQ” transitioned from radio to television. Here, in a Dec. 15, 1958 episode, an answer is solicited from an audience member of the number of candles President Dwight Eisenhower had on his birthday cake.

To lighten things up today, let’s play “Dr. I. Q., The Mental Banker.”

People of a certain age will recall “Dr. I. Q.” as a popular audience-participation quiz show that flourished on radio in the 1940s. Many consider it the first great quiz show to ever hit the airwaves; its ratings were always in the top 10.

Members of a live studio audience were randomly selected — announcers with mics roamed the theater so contestants could be heard — to answer a question put to them by Dr. I. Q. If the contestant got it right, he was awarded a bevy of silver dollars, the amount determined by how hard the question was.

One of the announcers would begin by introducing a contestant, “Doctor, I have a lady in the balcony.”

And the Doctor would shoot back right away a question like, “Mexico, our nearest neighbor to the south, touches three of our states besides Texas. Seven dollars if you name all three.”

The contestant had 10 seconds to answer, the Doctor from time to time cautioning the audience “No coaching now.” The pace was lickity-split. Correct answer or not, the announcer was onto the next person.

And if a contestant got the question wrong, Dr. I. Q. always had a sugary aloe, “Oh, I’m sorry! I think you’d find that a rooster is the only kind of chicken that doesn’t lay eggs — but a box of 24 delicious Mars Bars to that lady and two tickets to next week’s production here at the beautiful Orpheum Theater in downtown Minneapolis.” (That from an actual show.)

Let’s begin our game here right now. I’ll be the MC and start with this, “Doctor, I have a young man at The Altamont Enterprise newspaper.”

And, playing the part of the Doctor as well, I respond: “I have a two-part question for the man at The Enterprise, sir. Part 1 for 20 silver dollars is: How many punctuation marks are there in the English language?”

And Part 2 of the question, for 100 silver dollars, is: Name every one of those marks. The clock is ticking, no coaching please.

And also playing the part of the contestant, here is my answer to Part 1, “Doctor, there are 14 punctuation marks.”

“That is correct! There are 14 punctuation marks, 20 silver dollars to the man from The Enterprise.”

And here, Doctor, for Part 2 of the question, are the names of the marks: (1) the period, (2) the question mark, (3) the exclamation point, (4) the comma, (5) colon, (6) semicolon, (7) dash, (8) hyphen, (9) brackets, (10) braces, (11) parentheses, (12) apostrophe, (13) quotation marks, and (14) ellipsis.

“That is correct! 100 silver dollars to the man at The Enterprise. Outstanding, son, outstanding!

As a writer, I keep those 14 stabilizing tools in a small kit bag atop my writing board daily. They are my Good Samaritans. I have studied and mulled over their nature so much I can split enough hairs to make Dr. I. Q.’s hair stand.

Of course, the neophyte writer has at his disposal style manuals that show the proper way to lay down a comma or a dash. In assessing those marks myself, I have long considered the exclamation point as a kind of fascist, the writer telling the reader to get hyped up with what was just said, as in, “I really like you!” How about, “I really! like you.”

When I look over the conversations I have by text, I am amazed at how often people use the exclamation point to make a point. Even Jeb Bush’s logo for his presidential run in 2016 was: Jeb!

In an oft-quoted study done in 2006, researchers looked at the number of times men and women used the exclamation point in their electronic communiqués and found that women used far more than men, as well as more emojis, caps, and word repetitions.

In a June 2019 article in “BBC Worklife” titled “The danger of overusing exclamation marks,” Emily Torres said she knew why in her own case: “Each unnecessary exclamation mark is a little request to my recipient to my request to please like me, and please say yes.”

She said her fear was, “I won’t get what I want or need, so I soften my tone and emphasise my interest. I add a layer of friendliness because I don’t want to be perceived as cold.”

For years, I facilitated a poetry workshop at the public library in our village at which I found myself repeating the maxim, “Some words incorporate others.”

That is, I can say, “I went to the store quickly” but cannot say “I ran to the store quickly.” If you’re running, you’re already quick; “ran” incorporates “quickly” thereby eliminating the need for it; poets speak of such economies of scale as “concinnity.”

All the poet/writer really wants to do with punctuation is have the reader assume the same rhythm/pace/breathing pattern that occurred when he received the story (via vatic consciousness) in the first place.

I don’t think there ever was a writer who’s taken more flak for her use of punctuation than the great American treasure Emily Dickinson. Even the poet’s so-called friends, when they started putting her posthumously-collected poems into book form — Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd — edited her punctuation as if she didn’t know the English language.

The reality is they were pandering to the Victorian reader’s constricted breathing patterns that conflicted with how easily Emily’s breath flowed onto the page.

Here’s a riddle: If Emily Dickinson were one of Santa’s reindeers, who would she be? The answer: Dasher. Per pound, per square inch, or by any other measure, Dickinson used the dash more than any reindeer in history.

Here’s an example in her poem #18 (she never titled her poems; a numbering system was later devised by editors).

 

                     #18

 

Morns like these — we parted —
Noons like these — she rose —
Fluttering first — then firmer
To her fair repose.

Never did she lisp it —
It was not for me —
She—was mute from transport —
I — from agony —

Till—the evening nearing
One the curtains drew—
Quick! A Sharper rustling!
And this linnet flew!

 

Twelve dashes for 52 words — nearly 25 percent — might be an indoor record.

When I first read Miss Emily, the dashes bothered me but I learned to understand the way she spoke, so now, I’m happy to report, I breathe like her.

It’s been on my mind for years to go to our grammar school up the road and find out at what grade kids in our school system are taught punctuation (and grammar) and how the sales pitch is received.

Are the kids interested in what it takes to express themselves clearly? How about the teachers?

Do they understand that the more a person’s words follow the natural rhythm of his/her/their innermost self, the greater the chance is that that person will find a modicum of happiness in life?

For the correct answers to these questions, Dr. I. Q. says he’s got a million silver dollars waiting in a truck just outside the gates of Fort Knox.

“Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez, circa 1632.

After Judas Iscariot, Jesus’s other apostle Thomas — known as Didymus, the twin — was arguably the most despicable of the very first Christians. Judas sold out Jesus for money — for 30 pieces of silver, the gospel writer Matthew says, while Luke and John say he was possessed by Satan, that is, had gone off his rocker.

The case against Thomas was based on his denial of the most fundamental belief of Christianity — the raison d’être for Jesus being born — that he, though having experienced human death, rose from the dead and thereby beat death at its own game.

With Thomas’s denial we get the archetypal character of the “doubting Thomas,” an epithet applied to someone who rejects belief in some basic principle or event. The disbeliever is chided, “Ah, don’t be such a doubting Thomas.”

The gospel writer John says that, after the Good Friday execution on Golgotha, the official Registrar of Deaths had Jesus listed in the dead column but that he soon appeared, as if alive, to all the apostles, except Thomas was out at the time.

When he got home the 11 others excitedly exclaimed, “We have seen the Lord! He was here! He showed in person! He’s alive!” Thomas thought they were off their collective rocker: Jesus was dead; everybody saw him die on the cross.

But Thomas conceded he would believe if he could stick his finger in the holes in Jesus’s hands from when they nailed him to the cross, and could stick a hand in the hole in his side where a soldier had pierced him with a spear.

The story continues: Eight days later, all 12 apostles — Matthias had replaced Judas — were gathered in a locked room and Jesus appeared again, this time passing through the door as if he was Casper the Ghost.

He wished everyone peace, “Pax vobis,” then turned to Thomas right away — it was a business trip — and said, “Thomas, take your finger and stick it in these holes in my hands and put your hand in my side where the spear went, and stop being a disbeliever: Believe!”

All a stunned Thomas could say was, “My Lord, my God.” The vulgate says: “Dominus meus et Deus meus.”

Looking at him Jesus said, “You believe because you see what’s in front of your eyes, but blessed are those who do not see such things, physically, and believe.”

The moral of the story? The true Christian believes that Jesus rose from the dead — bodily — and that that body, as some gospel texts proclaim, later ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God.

What resurrected these thoughts in me was an article in The New York Times this past Easter (April 9, 2023) by an Anglican priest, Tish Harrison Warren, called “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?” She meant bodily.

Not to be disrespectful but the “bodily” part reminds me of when my chums and I played “Cops and Robbers” as kids and someone got shot dead; after a few minutes the dead person got up, came running back in the game shouting, “New Man! New Man!” And we accepted it.

Warren’s article turned out to be an interview she did with the renowned scripture scholar N. T. (Tom) Wright whose 848-page scholarly treatise “The Resurrection of the Son of God” appeared in March 2003.

Wright, once the respected Bishop of Dunham in the Anglican Church — the same denomination as Warren — also held the esteemed Chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College in the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

He was long interested in a Christian’s view of life after death and, with respect to whether Jesus rose from the dead bodily, he said all the biblical talk about resurrection and apparitions, etc. was not metaphorical. The guy came back.

Wright’s thinking is considered by many as theologically and Christologically conservative; in 2005, he threatened to discipline clerics in his Anglican Church who registered or blessed a civil partnership. He was incensed that an openly gay Anglican vicar had exchanged vows with another man inside a Newcastle church.

On March 11 of the same year — two years after his magnum opus appeared — the bishop found himself on a stage in the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with John Dominic Crossan, an Irish-born, former Roman Catholic priest, prepared to debate/discuss/dialogue — but not argue — with the man about the correct view of the life and death and after-life of Jesus. The session was advertised as “The Resurrection: Historical Event or Theological Explanation.” It was standing-room only.

To those committed to getting to the bottom of this pons asinorum, the session was their “Rumble in the Jungle” or “Thrilla in Manila.”

Everything the two said, and discussed, and exchanged views on that day, can be found in “The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue,” which Fortress Press put out a year later; its editor, Robert B. Stewart, included articles from eight renowned scholars to help make sense of the issues.

I might add that Crossan was and remains the world champion of scholars on Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. He’s got more than 15 books on the subject without an ax to grind.

What he shared in his discussion with Wright was what he’d said many times before. In his 1998 “The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus,” he said, “Bodily resurrection has nothing to do with a resuscitated body coming out of its tomb … Bodily resurrection means that the embodied life and death of the historical Jesus continues to be experienced, by believers, as powerfully efficacious and salvifically present in the world. That life continued, as it always had, to form communities of like lives.” As in communities of love.

In other words, Jesus died, and was no more, and would never be again. And for all the talk of Mary Magdalene finding an empty tomb on Easter morning, the stark reality is that a renegade peasant Jew like Jesus, crucified on a cross for being a rabid insurrectionist, was not likely to see a burial at all.

As Martin Hengel says in “Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross”: “The crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey. In this way his humiliation was made complete. What it meant for a man in antiquity to be refused burial, and the dishonor which went with it, can hardly be appreciated by modern man.” Id est, Jesus was chum.

When I was in fourth grade in a Roman Catholic school being taught a lesson on the mother of Jesus rising from the dead and being assumed into heaven, bodily — the same “perk” as her kid — I told the nun that that was preposterous; I said Mary, like everyone else, was buried below forever and ever.

I wrote about it in a monograph in 2010 “El Día Que Me Hice Un Poeta” (“The Day I Became a Poet). After I registered my objection — I was 10 — as I say in the text, “The nun responded as quickly as I had to her: Impossible, [she said], that is blasphemy; the things of God are not the things of this world. The body of the mother of the son of God lives in heaven forever and ever without stain of sin or death.”

Two things I am sure of: the first is that the day I became a poet, life and death were one; the second is that, if John Dominic Crossan were a web designer today, he’d offer his services to any loving couple who wanted to marry, doing for them what Jesus had done for him.  

A very much belated Happy Easter.

— Painting by Omaste Witkowski

For James O’Donnell

Not too long ago, in the midst of a conversation I had with a woman at our local coffee shop, the lady asked, “What do you do?” As in: what kind of work?

I said, “I'm a poet.” 

She said, “Wow, a poet. I never met a poet before. I know poets write poems but how does such a thing happen?”

I said, as a poet, “I spend my days sitting by the well of silence waiting for words to be born; I’m a handmaiden, a midwife. I receive newborns into the world before the State, Religion, and the Marketplace get at them and start twisting meaning for their own purposes. So you see, as a poet, I can have no horse in the race.”  

The lady continued listening then came forth with a “Double wow.” Pausing for a second, she said, “Well of silence? What is a well-of-silence? And where might such a thing be?”

I said wow back to her, letting her know I would answer her questions another time, that they were heavy questions requiring heavy answers.

“For now all I’ll say,” I told her, “it’s a pleasing vocation, being a poet. There’s not a lot of money involved but the well offers an equanimity no ideology or cost-effectiveness scheme can equal.” 

I was waiting to hear a third wow but all I got, oddly enough, was silence; she stood there musing before me. I remember thinking, “This lady might be for real; she really wants to understand how a word is made flesh.”

And I will add that, if one is called to listen to words being born for a living — before the horse-racers get at them — that that work requires a special kind of ears, a special listening skill or competency — and all I mean by “special” is that it involves hearing ordinary and extraordinary speech simultaneously.   

You can understand how someone might get stuck at “well-of-silence;” the thought bedazzled my acquaintance at the coffee shop.

Some writers — as real readers know — keep notebooks that contain drawings, profiles of places and persons met, short poems, and the like, every form of which speaks to what takes place at — and the effects of — the well of silence. It’s the reflective part of a poet’s life. 

And the content of such notebooks — even of famous writers — ranges from (seemingly) scribbled notes to deeply profound thoughts. The late great American poet Allen Ginsberg used to put thoughts down in prose and from those sculpt a poem.  

And even though at times the words that emerge from the well of silence appear indecipherable — they’ve just been born! — I disagree with the British writer Lawrence Norfolk who thinks such thoughts constitute a “junkyard of the mind.” 

He says notebooks are no more than a bin, “of failed attempts” conceived in “widely-spaced times and places,” reflecting “diverse scrawls of varying levels of calligraphic awkwardness,” due to a “lack of firm writing-surfaces [and] different modes of transportation.”  

Such a statement — for all its purple prose — raises a million questions. The first is: Norfolk says a notebook is a repository of failed attempts — as if a poet or writer had volition over what he was called to listen to.   

Some writers refer to their failed attempts as “false starts.” For example, a novelist might say: “I started writing about a detective from the homicide division in a small midwestern town only to find out no murder occurred so there was no need for the cop.” A start like that goes into the trash.  

The writer, Jon Gingerich, said he wanted to save writers from all “Dead Ends and Bad Beginnings.” Indeed, he offered the reader a “Guide to Successful Storytelling Patterns.” 

So many people seem unaware that we all engage in storytelling patterns every day of our lives, that it’s au naturel, part of human DNA. Gingerich just wanted to save people from wasting time, from spilling the ink of life onanistically, and succumbing to a cycle of defeat and loss.

When a woman is in labor, she does not think she’s wasting time waiting for the baby to come. She’s all Zen, life lived a second at a time: no horse no race no false start. Biologically, she is the well of silence.

The late great socio-political journalist ethnographer Janet Malcolm — she really was a mystery writer — had a book appear a few years before she died called “Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers” (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013). As a teacher of writers, she explains her use of “false starts” though there never was a hint of falsity in her.

Of course I believe there is no such thing as a false start: I write what the Muse tells me to and when she tells me; poetically she is the well of silence; she says everything I need to hear and when I need to hear it.

For years I taught a course at our public library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity.” From the very start, all the “students” were chaffing at the bit to tell how the well of silence had affected them. Through the library’s Friends group, they put out a book of their stories which is a wonderful guide to successful storytelling patterns. It is called “Tangled Roots.”

For those wondering what an entry in one of my notebooks looks like, I offer the following written on May 10, 2023; at 6:51 pm; in Voorheesville, New York.  

 

The note reads:

She said to him: I can only go at a certain pace. He said: You’re much too slow. She said: I’m dying, won’t you take me along?
 

He said: Lady, we all got problems; the river of life moves at a pace all its own.

And I, sitting between the two, says to the gent: This is your love speaking who’s on her way out, and all you offer is: Achtung!

 

Achtung? Imagine saying to a rose on the first day of May: Achtung! A rose; the first day of May; Achtung; a defilement of planetary consciousness.

 

The guy said those things; I was there, I heard Achtung.

 

And the aforementioned slow-poke friend of mine did die and left behind a raft of unexplored selves.

 

I can say more of her last days on earth but I am just a poet — look at my bank account — a transparent eyeball selling nothing short because I sell nothing at all.

Except for a few Julius Caesar books these days and for that I offer a mea culpa.

Spread out across the top of an old glassed-in bookcase in our living room is a creche — a nativity scene — that depicts the birth of Jesus: Mary, Joseph, Wise Men, shepherd, animals, all those chosen to witness what Christian theology came to call the Incarnation, are there.

We keep our set up all year round; the silence is arresting.  

Creche comes from the Old French crèche meaning feeding trough or manger, the basis of the much-loved Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger.”

(And, editorially speaking, with respect to Christmas carols, Nicholas Parker, at the New York Public Library, said, “Christmas songs in the pop or jazz music canon, such as “Let It Snow,” “Last Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “White Christmas,” etc., don’t count as Christmas carols! A carol has to be traditional or biblical in nature.” QED.)

As a kid, I was taken with the word manger — I have no idea why — the Greek is φάτνη — the Christmas committee in some churches pack their manger with straw to make things look real.

The Methodist Church in our community used to have a “living creche” they set up along the main road; in the cold of December, parishioners gathered round the child to relive the first Christmas. A teacher from the high school brought a lamb for nuance.

I still admire those who gave up their evenings that way but I wonder if any passersby got something from it: Did it affect their view of Christmas, or Jesus, or what it means to be part of a Christ-like community?

Since nobody at Jesus’s birth wrote about what they saw, their story died with them — the gospel writers never met them and no oral tradition passed it on.

Thus, it was up to painters, poets, writers, and makers of ceramic statues to say how people looked, how many there were, where they stood in relation to the child, and the expression on each face as if in a photograph.

In terms of accuracy: The gospel writers provided the outline, the artists ran with the ball.

The characters in our creche are sizeable: The wise men measure 10 inches tall and have full bodies; the same for Joseph. There is no stable or covering so our scene is al aire libre.

Center stage is the child Jesus stretched out in a manger, looking upward. The gospel writer Luke says — the only evangelist other than Matthew to write about the event — “And she [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.”

They said it took place in a stable — later they said a cave — because the family had no money, but the truth is the little town of Bethlehem was flooded with out-of-towners reporting for a census — every room everywhere was full. So the family could have had money.

Older people remember, “there was no room for them in the inn” but the New International translation says, “because there was no guest room available for them.”

And swaddling clothes? Old creche scenes show the boy wrapped round and round in a bundle of wide ribbon; biblical scholars went back to the Greek and came up with “cloths.”

Thus Luke 2:7 now reads, “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” “Cloths” and “guest room” are new; “manger” remains.

(Paradoxically) the scholars were hoping the text could provide context.

In our creche, Mary is kneeling next to the child — the colors of her robes are a Rorschach test.

For a long time, I thought Joseph got the short end of the stick — though I think he saw deeper into who the child was than the mother: though they both knew they had a gifted and talented kid on their hands, with intimations of divinity.

I’m not saying Mary was on the outs, just that Joseph and the boy spent time together in the wood shop and, as woodworking artists know, the silence of wood runs deep.

Some scripturalists treat Joseph like he was a piece of wood, instead of a man trying to solve a problem. That is, Matthew says, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.”

As in: Mary says to her boyfriend, “Joe, I’d like to get married but there’s something you ought to know first.”

And Joseph, because he was, as the Bible says, “faithful to the law, and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

What! It’s not even Christmas Eve and Jesus’s parents are getting divorced!

I have inches-thick commentaries explaining what the gospel writers meant by virgin birth — virgin as in sex with a spirit doesn’t count.

A modern-day version would have Joseph staring down every guy who came near the house and checking Mary’s cellphone when she went into the shower.


Our set has one shepherd, who’s as tall and wide as the wise men. Draped over his left arm is a lamb in easy repose.

Animal-wise, our set includes a camel, a donkey, and the lamb: the lamb a projection of the lamb of God Christians sing about in their liturgy: “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” then they say “have mercy on us,” which means they believe the lamb is a god.

At night, a stressed-out Joseph dreams of an angel who tells him not to worry but “to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”

Again, as if a Holy Spirit “intervening” your wife should get a religious discount.

The angel tells Joseph that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

There’s a doctoral dissertation in the creche thing: an analysis of the facial expressions of each of the characters in a Christmas creche. The research design could include examining the top 1,000 creches ever made — however determined, however randomly selected — to see how many witnesses the purveyors project were there, what their faces looked like — how elicitive of truth — was the family poor?

I wish all the souls in our creche could speak so I might interview them like a Rolling Stone reporter at the first Woodstock, dated 0 B.C./0 A.D.

Luke says, “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.”

Which we expect of shepherds, but then it gets weird: “An angel of the Lord [appears] to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

They must have thought it was an invasion from Mars.

The angel tells them not to worry but to go to Bethlehem and find a new-born “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger,” then the light show begins because it says: “a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to every living soul.’”

The shepherds must have thought they were seeing The Mormon Tabernacle Choir dosed on acid.

And yet they “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,” and find, “Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”

Then they lose it altogether, the gospel says, “When they [the shepherds] had seen him . . . [the child Jesus] they [went out] and spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

Spread the word? What word! Everybody amazed? At what! What did the shepherds say? And who was taking care of their sheep!

(The shepherds were the first apostles.)   

This is the best Christmas I ever had. How about you? Does your creche have a manger?

— Image from the National Archives
Detail from a World War II poster urging, “Remember Dec. 7th,” the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, bringing the United States into the war.

For Walt Chura of Simple Gifts
 

In the summer of 1954, the great innovative psychotherapist Carl Rogers presented a paper at a mental-health conference in Toronto, Ontario called “Personality Changes in Psychotherapy.”

He wanted to share with the conferees the results of a four-year study he conducted that asked the question: What is therapy?

One would think that everybody at a mental-health conference would know what that was (especially Rogers) but the conferees wanted to hear what the cordial mystic guru — to some a miracle-worker — had to say about how better to help people heal. His words were always instructive.

Of course, Rogers’s research team was interested in what takes place during the therapeutic session, how the “talking cure” affects a person’s cognitive development: remembering, understanding, analyzing, and all the other dimensions of human consciousness.

They were trying to nail down the click that takes place in a person’s mind when a door opens and the aspirant moves from point a to point b, then from b to c and so on, and at each stage becomes a more mature (realized) adult; many dedicatees experience past, present, and future melding into one — further relieving anxiety. (No small feat even for a pro.)

People who experience success in therapy are happy to share stories of their new-found-freedom: They say they feel better; get along better with others — even somebody they meet on the street; they say they see things clearly — read situations better — and thus find themselves in fewer hissy-fit-hassle-ridden conflict situations, even when the other person is at fault. They say they feel closer to achieving their dreams: Nirvana might be just around the corner? That’s not an LOL.

In Toronto, Rogers referred to the patient who makes great strides in therapy — who is better able to relate to others as an adult — as a “well-adjusted person.” It’s not a phrase we hear in the United States anymore because the country no longer has shared, agreed-upon values to adjust to, there are no ideals that say how one American should relate to another for a “common good.”

Much has been written about how the United States did have a collective sense of herself after World War II, when some/most people thought everybody was in the same boat or, if there were different boats, the big boats weren’t sticking an oar into the little boats’ eyes.

That sense has dissipated, deteriorated to the point where the country is rudderless, afloat like an anchorless ship — a serious mental disability a lot of people still refuse to admit exists. They have distanced themselves so far from feelings associated with a harmonious community that nothing anybody else does matters to them; they’re nihilists. The country is flooded with nihilists.

Of course, as soon as anyone hears the words “well-adjusted,” they ask: Adjusted to what? Which is the right question, and an especially poignant one for America right now because there is no United-States-of-America; “America” has no home; is homeless — I just said an anchorless ship — we’ve lost the competency to relate to each other in a cordial neighborly way, which the framers of the Republic, with all their flaws, were hoping that was the least Americans could do.

And relating to others in a cordial neighborly way is in fact a competency — techniques and frame of mind — that people must learn, and practice, and get good at it, if they are to have a society where, for example, everybody has enjoyable work to do, where people feel part of a nurturing family, a culturally-enriching school district, and friendly local “fraternal” organizations like the Rotary Club and the Bicycle Days Committee.

The idealists say everybody should get two months of vacation each year, fully paid, all the sick leave they need, and a sabbatical every 10 years: a whole year to think and read and study and ponder and do the things their soul is longing for — paid in full — untaxed — no one having to worry about a guy at the mall whipping out an Uzi to mow the food court down.

(I’m thinking of putting out a pamphlet called “Ways to Have a Healing Vacation.”)

Thus, if a sincere person wishes to be a well-adjusted American, what America is he going to commit himself to? America is a mirage of shifting identities. It’s like someone looking in the mirrors of a barber shop to see what they really look like.

When a lieutenant in the Proud Boys hears “well-adjusted,” he thinks of the recruit who spews venom at the system, preys on human weakness, keeps ammo hidden in the car — long guns aside — and a bunker to hide in when the cops come; he does everything the Proud Boys Handbook requires, uses violence to settle scores, interjects suspicion in every group he comes upon. Looking at such a recruit, a Proud Boys lieutenant will say: I say, that boy is one “well-adjusted Proud Boy!”

Using “well-adjusted” alone, therefore, shows why Rogers said “well-adjusted person,” person being the operative word, as in: What’s the difference between a well-adjusted Proud Boy and a well-adjusted person? And a “person” is not an “individual,” a unit among “units” for utility’s sake — paying social services and the police to clean up deviant detritus.

After many years of observing and helping people grow into adulthood, Rogers put together a book called “On Becoming a Person” in which he touches upon every aspect of therapy right down to the words people use when they experience a seismic shift in their personality — as it’s happening — patients the true definers of what therapy is.

Also, while people refer to themselves as Socialist, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Anarchist — whatever — there is a group whose members call themselves Personalists, always making clear that Personalism is not a political stance but a way of life that has implications for politics. One personalist I know says he votes 365 days a year with his body — the kind of devotion some say a healthy Republic needs to stay alive.

When people entered Rogers’s study, they were handed a list of the qualities of a very mature person and asked to pick which ones most reflected them, and then to put in another pile the qualities that were not like them — it was a base from which the team would work.

Then each subject was asked whether the self they were right then, squared with the person they thought they ought to be, or wanted to be, or felt called to be, their “ideal self,” the self they had to bank their life on.

Looking at how people scored themselves on these dimensions, Rogers and his team saw right away that troubled people experience a wide gap between the self they see themselves as and the self they feel they ought to be, maybe the self they were born with. It’s a tricky subject to document because people don’t like talking about “self” stuff.

Which explains why America is a hodge-podge of once-lofty ideals riled up by grunts battering America in the face. Imagine: Some folks are still calling for civil war — ready to hack down a neighbor like they did by machete in Rwanda in 1994, a homeland where no one felt at home.

I love the song “America the Beautiful” but now I hear “America the Confused,” “America the Angry,” “American Despair” identities that swish back and forth like dirty tide water.

At this stage of my life, I find all this so sad. I have no god but, if I had one, she’d be the goddess of understanding and compassion, the genealogical mother of love.

Being a grandparent, I sometimes wonder what other grandparents say to their grandkids.

Some grandparents are unable to speak to their grandchildren once they reach high school age. They’re like two acquaintances forced to be together with nothing to say.

I believe, like Shakespeare, that human life is lived on a stage that every person stands on whether they wish to or not, whether they acknowledge the fact or not.

And for those who frump it and say they have nothing to say, well, by doing so, they’re having their say: to the puzzlement of family and friends.

On the stage, as we read the script assigned us — some say they create the script themselves — we attest to our value in life, our worth in relation to others, and our place in the history of human existence, all with grave consequences for our subconscious.

Macbeth speaks for Shakespeare speaking about life as a minimalist:
 

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.
 

I would love to sit down with Billy S. and ask him what that means and how such thinking affected his writing.

With respect to the stage conceit, I’ve often said that, when I was young, my parents were in the first row, in the footlights, directly facing the audience. Then, when they died, without me doing anything, I was whisked to the front where they once stood and it was me in the footlights facing the audience, directly, eye to eye, the footlights revealing the intensity of the relationship.

I was there for a while but then, when my son and his wife had a child, I was whisked to the back of the stage and my son moved to the front, at the footlights, the grandkids behind him, in front of me. I’m farthest back from contact with the public.

All these shifts in generational positioning have had me asking questions about who my grandchildren are, and not just mine but grandchildren en générale — the intergenerational thing.

My grandkids are related to me but they live in a whole other universe in that, when my son was growing up, he was in the house here — we had a face-to-face relationship; I had some control over him and to a large extent the conversations we needed to have.

I have three grandchildren and continue to wonder who they are, and how I might introduce myself without pushing them away — but remaining true to myself — in no way wanting a pal.

I used to say I wanted a grandfather like me but I also know some kids are born into the wrong family, which means they have the wrong grandparents: I might be no more my grandchildren’s cup of tea than the guy selling hot dogs at the food cart in front of the New York City Public Library on 42nd Street.

On one level, it doesn’t matter; on another, well, the story is worth its weight in gold, that is, how grandkids assess their grandparents in private, and whether later on they have a sense they came from them.

The passage of traits from generation to generation needs more study, especially from grandparent to grandchild.

Because I’m a poet, I have written a birthday poem for each of the three grandkids — not an occasional poem — for nearly every year of their lives. They’re in my published books.

The oldest grandchild just turned 19, the last day of August, the week after he left for school in Maine. I have many poems for him.

What follows is a short prose poem I’m sending him as soon as I’m done here. When he reads it, I hope he doesn’t say he’s in the wrong family.

Maybe you speak to your grandkids the way I do — I have no idea. Regardless, I pass on the following text in case you are one of those grandparents who sometimes wonders how other grandparents speak to their grandkids.
 

THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO SAY BUEN VIAJE

For C. M. A. SULLIVAN

A guy I once knew used to say: If you knew me like I know me, you’d … and then he’d stop like he just got caught doing something bad.

It was noticeable. I saw it because years before I began to fly above the world and see as Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson does in “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.”

The Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, spoke of such sight in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. (Lagerlöf got the prize in 1909, the first woman to do so.)

It seems as though Hans had a facility — by flying on the back of a goose high above the earth — to see everything as it was and, to some degree, as it was meant to be: simultaneously.

Seeing things from up above turned me inside out, though sometimes I think it happened the other way around. It’s not weird, I eased into it — I can talk about the practice another time.

If I were developing a Psychology-of-Self Inventory (PSI) I would include a question or two about vision — ask everyone to say how (and what) they see, and show all work as required in math.

I’m still bothered by the number of people who spew anger into the face of others because, they say, life has cheated them.

A woman I know comes to mind — Freud would love her — she never laughed or smiled. When I saw the extent of her sorrow, I took up my pen and wept.

I hope this doesn’t sound like it’s coming from another world.

At Starbucks today I spoke to a young barista named Mimi. I said: Mimi, you’re like the Mimi in “La Bohème,” a beatnik in love with all that’s love and the fanciful flights of dreams: She got TB and died.

At her last breath Puccini has the orchestra blast forth a thunder darker than the Dies Irae — I think it’s the Buddha speaking.

If someday you wonder who your grandfather was — I’ve told you once or twice — well … maybe even this is premature.

In the evening when the sun is down, I read a bit before the lights go out, buzzing like a bee inside a flower.

Some nights I can’t sleep because the day’s events and what’s in store have me watching one second pass by another.

The genius of my self is the way I see — which sometimes shows in the form of an assassin: but I always get to sleep and, in the morning, feel like Jesus on Christmas Day.

August 16, 2022

4:39 p.m.

The Ville

Happy 19th!

Pages