Heavenly glow: Guido Reni’s 17th-Century “The Nativity at Night” shows blissful parents with their baby in a manger.

Whether you add an ox, a cow, or three wise men to the first nativity scene in Bethlehem, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph remain the stars of Christmas. For centuries, artists have shown the blissful parents looking down on their child stretched out in a manger — all three wearing a heavenly glow. Guido Reni’s 17th-Century “The Nativity at Night” is a good example.

Because the Roman Catholic Church wished to honor the Christmas trio, they set aside a day in December called The Feast of the Holy Family. It’s (supposed to be) a time for the faithful to reflect on how the “first family” showed them how to be better. But that may be more than the texts allow.

The feast is observed on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s and, should these fall on Sunday, the Family moves to the 30th. This year, they’re on the 29th.

To insure that the family continues to receive attention, over the years the Catholic Church has published documents explaining their essentiality. The Benedictine monk Bernard Strasser says in “With Christ Through the Year” that “The primary purpose of the Church in instituting and promoting this feast is to present the Holy Family as the model and Exemplar of all Christian families.”

A lot of people, when asked to describe this family though, conjure up the three in the manger scene and God forbid you interrupt the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Away in the Manger.”

For them, Jesus will always remain a child, thus they never hear what he said about “family” later in life. It results in a spiritual life that lacks the enlightened mind that William James described in 1902 in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.”

I don’t read that much about Jesus but I recently came upon a passage in John Dominic Crossan’s “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography” (Harper, 1994) where he records what Jesus said about family later in life. Crossan says it’s an “almost savage attack on family values.”

And it started when Jesus was 12, traveling with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem, like the family did every year, to observe Passover.

All went well until, on the way home, after a day on the road, Mary and Joseph couldn’t find their son among the family and friends who made up the caravan.

Panicked, they bolted back to the city to find the boy, which they finally did, in a temple, sitting among rabbis, listening to what they had to say, but also asking questions, the weight of which made observers turn their heads and say: Who is this kid!

The miffed mother and father went up to the boy — to use a certain parlance — and said: Hey! what’s going on! We’re at our wit’s end! Have you lost your mind! Is this how you treat your family! Is the Holy Family thing off?

And the boy, still racing from the discussion on the moral questions of the day, says — to stay with the parlance — What are YOU doing here! I’m at work! Have you no sense of calling? Why ARE you here!

The two were stunned, the good book says, because they had no idea what the boy was talking about.

I’ve always imagined them saying back — to stay with the parlance — Hey, you! Shut up! Get in the car! You don’t talk to your parents that way! Wait till we get home.

It’s a funny image, isn’t it, the Holy Family of Christmas — advertised by the Roman Catholic Church as teachers of how to be better — themselves in a tizzy: mother and father in the front seat and the kid in the back.

The Gospel of Thomas says the separation language got worse, “Whoever does not hate father and mother,” the older Jesus says, “cannot be followers of me, and whoever does not hate brothers and sisters ... will not be worthy of me.”

Hate? Hate Mary and Joseph? Is this the kid from the manger speaking?

And I must mention that Jesus, by introducing the concept of worth, was entering big-time into the field of economics. Later, as you know, he set a standard for price that was breathtaking.

I’ll add one more from Mark who says that one day Mary shows up at one of her son’s gigs — maybe he was 31. She sends a message, letting Jesus know she’s outside, with his brothers, and maybe he could step out and say hello.

When Jesus hears this, he doesn’t go: Wow, my mother, my brothers are here! Are they OK? Tell them to come in.

No, he says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” It must have driven the messenger nuts.

The gospel says he then turned to the crowd and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The messenger must have dropped a second time, hearing a proclamation on what it means to be a follower, a member of the Christian-Christmas family. That is, a loving community is your mother and brothers, a community that allows you to be born again.

Norman Brown in “Love’s Body” (Random House,1966) says that the issue of who’s your mother and brothers is the great political question of the day, of any day, and of every person who wishes to excel spiritually into adulthood.

Look at the annals of psychology, study the mystics, it’s not a Catholic thing or a Christian thing or even a Buddhist thing, but the struggle every person faces with how much they will give to the commonweal, to the outsider, to the good that cements a community of worth.

“Silent night, Holy night” is the quiet that allows a soul to find their community of worth and to create a Christmas in which they become the newborn child in the manger.

William Blake described the firmament as the Mundane shell we are all born in, like a womb; the Christians describe that womb as a living protoplasmic shell whose nutrients — like the yoke of an egg — feed each soul equally from the start and never flag in commitment.

That then is the message of Christmas, that every human being born — whether from a womb, a shell, or the firmament of community — can achieve divinity like Jesus did.

And that’s what the texts allow.

Feliz Navidad a todo el mundo.


— Photo by Dennis Sullivan

Mike Martin of Voorheesville served in the United States Army for 25 years beginning with a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968. A highly decorated soldier, he sits on his scooter in the village park in Voorheesville in front of a monument dedicated to fellow villagers who died in World War II.

In November 1998, I was scheduled to deliver a paper at the annual meeting of The American Society of Criminology in Washington, D.C. It was part of a session called “The Requirements of Just Community.”

The conference that year ran from the 11th to the 14th, Wednesday to Saturday. Because Veterans Day always falls on the 11th, there’d be lots of people in town.

When I called a hotel to book a room, I was astounded to hear prices way out of whack for what a cloud-ridden November D.C. deserved — I did not know it was Veterans Day.

I asked the lady on the phone if there were discounts, like being a member of AAA. Whatever I said — I do not remember — the price went down 15 bucks. I asked another question and the price dropped again.

Then I asked the associate if that was the best price the hotel offered. She said, well, we do have something and quoted half the original price. I was puzzled; she said it was a “Bounce Back Special.”

Bounce Back? She said, you know, you’re out and about on the National Mall all day, you come back to your room, freshen up and bounce back! Ready to go again.

I booked a room and then asked why the original price was so out of whack for Washington that time of year. She said it was because of Veterans Day on the 11th; there’d be lots of people in town. Supply-Demand.

I said: You mean to tell me that for all the veterans who come to your city missing arms and legs — some still carrying shrapnel in their backs — come maybe to touch the name of a friend on a stone wall — and that for parents who lost a kid in war and still couldn’t shake the grief, for those people, you jacked up the price?

There was a second of silence and then the clerk sheepishly said: I never looked at it that way before. 

I tell this story whenever I can but still do not know who the MBA exec was, or who his hired-hand brand consultant was, who gave the green light to the worker bees to jack up rates on those suffering from war. Is that what “Demand” demanded?

Who said the dividends of rich investors should take precedence over the needs of a community striving to keep its consciousness alive by honoring its dead? Who said dividends take precedence over people walking around with one leg because the other was shot off by an enemy of the country?

I’m not a big fan of war but I’ve often wondered about the guy who carries a gun in a far-off land, sent there by supposedly honest officials, to prevent the electorate at Starbucks from having a plane crash into the whipped cream of their lattè.

Jacking up prices and empathy are enemies; capitalism knows empathy doesn’t pay.

I have not known that many people who fought — as opposed to sat at a desk — in war but my Uncle Neil — Cornelius Joseph Sullivan — served in the Navy during World War II and then in Korea, retiring as Commander Sullivan.

He looked beautiful in the full-dress whites of the United States Navy, a specimen athlete from childhood. He’s buried in Arlington National. My brother Jimmy went to see him; he came back saying Neil didn’t say a thing.

The Commander died at Bethesda Naval from multiple sclerosis. I don’t know a lot about medicine but I’ve always wondered if the thing that brought him down wasn’t the South Pacific. I know Ezio Pinza wasn’t singing “Some Enchanted Evening” there.

I’ve long thought that Uncle Neil was a casualty of “the silent residue of war,” those things, factors, biological realities, and psychological nightmares that produce sleepless nights having infiltrated the vet’s DNA long after the war is over.

The silent residue of war is subtle but it does make its way into the protoplasmic-psychological being of its “victims” who never return to “normal.”

Three of my maternal uncles also fought in World War II. I never heard anyone mention PTSD in those days but I never saw any of them dive beneath a table when a firecracker went off on the Fourth of July. 

One drank a bit. At the end of a wedding, he’d start crooning old standards in a nasal tenor so that the kids would run around saying: Uncle Franny’s talking French!

Years later, I heard his son say he thought his father was an alcoholic. I was surprised, not about the alcohol but whether Uncle Franny saw things no human being should ever see. But I have no data. As I said, the silent residue of war is subtle.

In John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” one of the fated passengers, Doc Boone, is played by the fiery life-affirming (Academy Award-winning) Thomas Mitchell.

He’s cast as a lush and, because of his drinking, gets kicked out of town — and onto the stage — where he continues to drink but, when called upon to save a life, he appears straight up, front and center.

It didn’t strike me at first, but a way into the movie we find out that Boone was in the Civil War — it doesn’t say as a doctor or whether he carried a gun — but after watching the movie many times I’ve come to the conclusion that Doc Boone was a victim of the silent residue of war.

Walt Whitman, our great national lovely poet Walt Whitman, entered that War to serve the wounded and depressed, to be a spiritual-comfort nurse, offering manly affection to young men hurt and dying of loneliness — 17-year olds pining for mother.

At a hospital in Falmouth, Virginia in late December 1862, he looked out back and saw a pile of severed arms and legs. His diary says, “Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart.”

People who knew Walt before and after the war — the photos confirm it — say he came back different. He suffered a stroke on January 23, 1873 that I believe was the silent residue of war come home to collect.

My friend Dan Okada, a teacher of justice at Sacramento State University, was in the jungle of Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, with the First Air Cavalry Division of the United States Army, constantly under enemy fire.

Since his tour of duty, he wakes up every 2:30 a.m. unable to find relief in sleep. His is a case of the silent residue of war.

Then I see my neighbor, Mike Martin, riding up and down our street on a scooter, having served in Vietnam the same time Dan did. He’s had two operations on his neck and five on his back.

He used to jump out of helicopters from 20 feet, weighed down by 40 pounds of gear and massive rounds of large-caliber ammo. With respect to “’Nam,” he can quote Chapter and Verse.

Looking at his scrunched-up spine, a doctor once asked: Were you a paratrooper? Mike said no and went shopping for the scooter.

To Mike, to Dan, and to all vets similarly situated, I’d like to say: America has not forgotten you. Happy Veterans Day.

I won’t say Thank You for Your Service — some say that’s required — because I have no idea what your war was like, but it makes me crazy to think about those hotel execs who decided to raise the rates on you and your family, looking for a decent place to sleep, some of you rolling into the hotel lobby on a scooter.


— Photo by Dennis Sullivan

Teens at the East Greenbush Community Library welcomed spring with this artwork.

In a dozen different ways I heard people say, after Hurricane Dorian visited death upon the Bahamas, “I can’t imagine what that’s like.”

Of course I, too, was deeply concerned about the devastated souls there, but my thoughts turned to the imagination. Did those people mean that the suffering they saw was so great that their imagination couldn’t take it all in? Were they saying the imagination had limits?

Sometimes when people say they can’t imagine something, they are speaking figuratively but I think what folks were saying about the Bahamas is that they lacked the means to project themselves into the shoes of another.

Again, were they saying the imagination has a ceiling? What are its powers? And what is its purpose in life?

Google “imagination” on Wikipedia and you’ll find a dozen reference works that expound on imagination from a variety of angles — cognitive, poetic, psychological, economic, and political — but that list might be my gloss on the text.

If I had to define “imagination” this very moment, I’d say the mind has an ability to make images, or to combine images that previously appeared and were lying dormant until called upon. Like soldiers in the reserves.

But there are times when images crop up on their own and parade themselves before the mind’s eye — the oculus mentis as the Roman writer Cicero called it. A man can be sitting under the shade of a tree taking in the summer breeze and all of a sudden images of his grandfather appear and start running across his mind like the frames of a movie.

When I taught school years ago, I used to ask students where the imagination resides and they struggled to come up with an answer; they had a hard time placing consciousness too. The question was: Does our awareness of our self in relation to that self, and in relation to other selves, have a locality?

Whatever your answer is, we need to keep in mind that the imagination is a tool of consciousness put into play when we feel a need for a new conceptual world view — to remedy something that’s missing from our lives. The imagination is the daughter of scarcity.

That is, the imagination arose, developed, and continues to exist, because homo sapiens needed a tool to invent, reinvent, capture, project, introject, images to help people meet their needs. In this sense, the imagination is related to dream. When John Lennon chanted his peroration “Imagine,” he was asking the human community: What is keeping us from treating another’s needs as our own?

Historically, the Roman Catholic Church responded to this question with a “mystical body,” a paradigm that says the imagination is an agent of utopia, an envisioner of a world in which the needs of all are met, structurally. Nobody’s left out, they say, according to the gospel of Jesus.

Such a view is an antidote to the static and ill-will people generate when they minimize or dismiss the needs of others. Some do it with insolence and go nuts when they hear the word “utopia.” They flush it from consciousness like a bug pestering their wits while calling the bug a “nut job.”

But nut-job language is a smoke screen; it reflects a deep deep fear of the depths of one’s soul.

Walt Disney — the Walt of Mickey Mouse — demonstrated his utopia by creating animals, people, worlds, and fantasies and then — across the vast multi-acre venues he built — showcased the lives of those animals and people with life-scripts he wrote for them.

When the maestro launched his famed Fantasyland in the summer of 1955, he told those who gathered there that this was his “world of imagination,” a world where “hopes and dreams” come true.

Sounding like a poet, he spoke of a timeless land of enchantment, a land “of chivalry [where] magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true.”

But he let the crowd know that this land is accessible only to “the young at heart — to those who believe that, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”

What a sales pitch! Imagine: not living on a star but just wishing on it, and you wind up in the lap of eternity.

Keep in mind that Disney — and utopianists of his ilk — let his imagination take him where it had to go; or maybe he needed to go somewhere and called upon it to bail him out. How else could he meet Snow White, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and the ever-endearing Thumper?

As a scholar of the human condition, I’ve been long interested in the imagination’s ability to allow a person to project its self (consciousness) into the life-circumstances (consciousness) of another, and feel sympathy for that other. Ethicists say that, when a soul gets good at this, it finally has a moral compass.

A lot of people know the Adam Smith who penned “Wealth of Nations ”— a core capitalist manifesto — but earlier in life Smith showed interest in the imagination’s ability to help one person connect with another through feelings of sympathy, what today we’d call empathy.

In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” he said such a process is radically transformative — I see no other way to read the text.

One wonders how the Smith of a nationally-sanctioned-private-wealth-production ideology squares with the Smith of empathy, his version of a mystical body, that there’s only one boat.

Utopia is a world, a country, and local communities where people treat the least as the richest among them. In a somewhat oblique way, that’s what the radical American documents of the 1770s were reaching for.

Some of the 2020 candidates for the presidency of the United States seem to reaching for the same thing. It’s certainly a far cry from a political economy where one person can drive another in the ground and live unimpeded.

Some say the driven-down deserve such treatment because they’re losers, lazy, dumb, and lacking pedigree. Maybe they’re a Mexican working in a cement plant breathing in deadly dust or a dark-skinned fellow wearing a dastaar in the front seat of a cab.

The Walt Disney in me says hogwash to those who deny that human worth is based in need — not age or gender or race or any other demographic accident: but need — and that all quid pro quo economies are non compos mentis.

Never mind $15 an hour; let’s put everyone down for a $100,000 a year (including students), and let’s provide everyone with a modest shelter of choice, and let’s guarantee the means to stay alive (health) without imposing tariffs.

Of course in such a society there’s paperwork, there are conflicting differences, and cheaters of ill repute, and those who’ll pull the wool over the eyes of a child for a measly sawbuck.

But, in the world of Walt Disney, the world of a world he brought into being, at least everyone says: I know how you feel. And lots of them do something about it.

Or is that a dream too hard to imagine?


— From Ladri di bicilcette

Often heralded as a cinematic masterpiece, “The Bicycle Thief,” directed by Vittorio De Sica, opened in the United States in 1949; the original Italian “Ladri di biciclette” opened in Italy the year before. Ladri is plural: thieves. A lot of people in the United States use the singular and, in doing so, miss the point of the film.

The movie portrays the life of a poor unemployed man who gets a job pasting advertising bills on city walls. The only requirement for the job is that he have a bicycle; he does but it’s in hock.

His wife strips the sheets off their bed (her dowry), drags them to the pawn shop, exchanges them for the bike, then sends her man off to bring home the bacon. Marx would call the bike the means of production.

On the first day of the job, things start out well but, when Antonio gets up on a ladder to paste a fancy bill, a man sneaks from behind a car and steals his bike, the means to his family’s dinner.

A good part of the movie is the “victim” (later accompanied by his son) trying to track down the getaway man. Walking around depressed because of ill-luck, he eyes a bike in front of the Stadio Nazionale del PNF, Rome’s famous soccer stadium, unattended.

He quickly tells his son to go home and, once the boy’s out of sight, rushes to the bike and is off riding on somebody else’s supper.

But this time — thus “Ladri” — onlookers see the perpetrator and, mob-like, rush the bike, drag the thief to the ground, and pummel him with justice.

The kid, who missed his train, had come back and witnessed the ignominy being dished out to his father.

But there’s a deus ex machina: The guy who owns the bike appears. In the midst of the crowd he peers down at a frightened child standing beside a dispirited soul, and tells the crowd: No big, let him go — and the thief, the second thief, is freed.

Here’s where the analysts come in: The father had been the victim of a crime, an act of hostility, when his bike was stolen. But when he finds himself in a similar situation, that is, when he sees an unattended bike the way his was, he responds not with feeling for how the other guy might feel when he sees his bike gone, but with retributive hostility.

The thinking is: Somebody got me, I’ll get somebody; anyone who leaves a bike unattended deserves what he gets — though the paperer does not say the same about himself, that he deserved hostility in the first place.

When the mob came, the people in the mob also dished out a deserts-based justice, acting like hostile vigilantes. They behaved the way the wallpaperer did. The situations differ, of course, but both reflect a transgression of personhood.

The twist in the movie is that the second victim of a bicycle theft does not respond with retributive hostility but commands the crowd: Let the guy go. He responds with hospitality. He not only stops the mob from beating on the perpetrator but treats the offender as he might a guest in his home or a beloved family member.

On one level, we do not know what the guy’s thinking is, such that he would respond to hostility with hospitality. And yet he’s countercultural in the sense that he contradicts the prevailing ethic to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and enjoy diminishing another.

Which is how the current president of the United States behaves. As he said in a November 2012 tweet, “When someone attacks me, I always attack back ... except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!” An admission of a hostile disposition.

Again, we do not know what the second thief’s thinking is about relative worth and how a harm-done should be responded to. Regardless, the father could not fathom what it takes to be hospitable in the face of hostility, to respond to loss with largesse. But that would be another movie.

De Sica’s movie ends with the father, walking home with his son, his tail between his legs. He begins to cry and the son, seeing a man bereft of dignity, takes his hand and offers hospitality — to a criminal, a criminal who happens to be his father. The child has seen beneath the surface separations that keep us apart to where we’re all connected.

I thought of De Sica’s film last week when a story appeared in the news about a bicycle, a bicycle that wasn’t stolen but given, freely given, given by one person to another without knowing the recipient, without assessing whether the recipient deserved it, the only measure being the measure of need, and nothing was asked for in return. Pure hospitality.

The late famous Algerian-born French deconstructionist philosopher, Jacques Derrida, used to say there is no such a thing as a pure act of hospitality, but does not this case of a bicycle freely-given apply?

The recipient of that bike is now a 29-year old Kurdish woman, Mevan Babakar, who was desperate to find the man who gave it to her when she was 5 years old and living as a refugee outside Zwolle, Netherlands.

She went back to that city after all those years to see if she might find, not a getaway but, a giveaway man. She looked in the face of every old man she saw on the street, ready to sing her psalm of gratitude, but no luck.

When she turned to the Web and told her story to the world, in no time the man was ID’ed, but the kind soul said he wanted no light shined on him. He said it was no big deal, all he was doing was honoring personhood.

The 20th-Century Dutch spiritual writer Henry Nouwen looked into this kind of hospitality, asking how people find the strength to offer hospitality in the face of hostility.

In his beloved “Out of Solitude,” Nouwen says hospitable people “instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” They do not steal your bike.

He says the hospitable “can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion ... can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement ... can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is [be] a friend who cares.” They do not respond with ire.

I find Nouwen’s words to be a little too abstract but there have been times, when someone stole my bike, that I turned to them for the hospitality they offer.


Aldous Huxley in 1954


On Oct. 18, 1958, “The Saturday Evening Post” published an article by the late British-American philosopher and novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) called “Drugs That Shape Men’s Minds.”

From the title, readers might have thought they were getting something on the Salk vaccine or some other elixir that changed their lives.

But that was not so. It was Huxley telling the public that in the past several years he had taken — on and off — psychedelic drugs and that the experience had changed his life.

He said he saw into, as I read the text, the core of his being where all the pettiness that keeps human beings at odds with each other is miniaturized to nil.

He spoke in the language of mysticism, the way enlightened souls describe their commitment to the All, God, the Universe, replicating the bliss the first human beings felt when they were born.

Fans of Huxley knew what he was talking about. They had read “Doors of Perception” when it appeared in 1954 and deemed it a classic.

There Huxley described his experience on mescaline, a psychedelic drug derived from varieties of cactus which Native Americans in Mexico had known for thousands of years, often in connection with religious celebrations.

Huxley was a low-key and deliberative man but in “Doors” he said in bold print that the images produced after ingesting mescaline (and since then LSD), had rearranged his mind almost primordially. He took a dose and fell into the lap of God or maybe God had fallen into his.

He said he experienced what the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers were after in third century Egypt when they went into the wilderness to strip themselves of every jot that stood in the way of reaching God (the All, the Universe, Collective Consciousness).

I’m not sure what anybody’s view is on things like psychedelics, the experience of God, eternal life, and living purposefully but, when you hear Huxley talk, you wonder if there are rules for such things.

And I’m not talking about the fact that psychedelics have been criminalized in the United States for decades; what the law says, Huxley asserted, is irrelevant to what he was doing — finding God without harming a flea.

But you might ask: What do the doctors say? We do know that under a doctor’s care the actor Cary Grant took close to 100 doses of LSD, saying it made him the Cary Grant cineastes know and love. He was sharing the bliss.

Sometimes the Xanax crowd, when they hear “psychedelic,” get superciliously huffy: You can’t be serious that a drug can produce God. Or the bliss before the Fall. A pill? A tab? No discipline or rules? Call me an Uber!

It’s not funny. A lot of those who read Huxley’s words in “The Saturday Evening Post” got bent out of shape, some hot under the collar.

One of those had been a fan of Huxley for decades, the famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton; he considered Huxley a guru.

When Merton entered the monastery 17 years before, he adopted a lifestyle that scheduled each monk’s actions down to the hour, day in and day out, not even a break on Christmas. The Trappist horarium was contemplative to the core.

Merton wrote about his experiences and, because he wrote with the soul of a poet, became the most important spiritual writer of the 20th century. Many consider him a mystic.

So when Merton read Huxley’s prose, his id sorta went whacko: WHAT! God in a PILL! Has Huxley gone nuts! I’ve been on the purgative path for decades: There is no shortcut — chemical or otherwise.

Merton had not come upon the piece on his own. The monastery did not subscribe to things of “the world” like the “The Saturday Evening Post.” A woman friend of Merton’s sent it, thinking he should know. (An act of instigation.)

Merton says in the Nov. 18 entry in his journal, “Aldous Huxley’s article on drugs that produce visions and ecstasies has reached me with the protests of various Catholic women (sensible ones). I wrote to him about it yesterday and the article is on the notice board in the Novitiate conference rooms.”

Merton was the monastery novice master and he wanted his neophyte spiritual-seeking charges to see up close the foolishness that some, even exceedingly intelligent souls, can succumb to.

In a Nov. 27 letter to Huxley, Merton told his mentor that he was puzzled by all the drug stuff and that, maybe before he weighed in, he ought to experiment himself.

But then he offered a Thomistic, hair-splitting argument telling Huxley his experiences on mescaline and LSD were “natural” and “aesthetic,” flash-in-the-pan ignitions of enlightenment, not reality. And he’d better watch it; he might become an addict!

Merton said the true experience of God is “mystical” and “supernatural” beyond the power of men’s minds. All Huxley got was a Red Bull shot-in-the-arm blink of eternity.

Huxley wrote back telling Merton he knew what he meant. He said at first his experiences were “aesthetic” but they soon morphed into serious foundation-shaking agents.

The full exchange is priceless to read: two giant minds addressing the proper means to a worry-free heaven on earth.

But keep in mind that long before the mescaline, Huxley had written, in1931, “Brave New World,” a depiction of society where people have consigned their lives to imperialist usurpers. Seventeen years later, Orwell followed with “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” and the world had two great 20th-Century dystopias to ponder.

With respect to people consigning their lives to imperialist usurpers and becoming social automatons, Neil Postman said in his 1985 “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that “Orwell feared ... those who would ban books ... Huxley feared ... there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” In other words, why explore a mind that’s dead?

Postman added, “Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.” Orwell feared that “truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

When I read those words, I think of America today, hordes of people taking as their best friend: Hydrocodone, Oxycontin, heroin, morphine, fentanyl, chemicals that delete the mind — let’s not forget Xanax and the hourly vape pen at work — resulting in a loss of purpose in life.

The late sociologist David Matza said in his classic “Delinquency and Drift” (Wiley, 1964) that people who live life without purpose become delinquent actors; purposelessness affects stability, they become drifters.

Which is what the United States is today: a nation of drifters, we’re a nation adrift. Nature abhors this kind of vacuum but fascism loves it, imperialist usurpers grifting the drifter.


An engraving by an unknown artist is captioned “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet … ”

To begin a discussion on the spiritual life in the middle of 2019 is to open up a can, no, a barrel of worms — and not for the reasons people think.

Maybe the great English writer on religion and mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, had it right when she began her short but classic treatise “The Spiritual Life” in 1936 with, “The spiritual life is a dangerously ambiguous term.”

I would never use “dangerous” but there are so many misconceptions about the “spiritual life” that I’m tempted to write a book to straighten them out. “What does a spiritual person look like?” “How do such people live?”

And the misconceptions have little to do with the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) and SBNA (Spiritual But Not Affiliated) movements today, which go back to the 1960s when people (in hordes) began challenging the foundations of “church” and “religion.” Monks and nuns fled their digs like fearful birds.

The Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey on “Religion” found that 27 percent of Americans now put themselves in the spiritual-but-not-religious category (up eight percent from five years earlier).

It’s part of the secular humanism movement going on in the country where believers no longer accept “God” as the only source of moral authority. You can understand why worship is down; it’s no longer seen as a binder.

Underhill and more recent writers on spirituality have also dispelled the notion that the spiritual life has something to do with an inner spirit, some kind of spiritual thing inside us. The problem with cultivating such “interiority” is that devotees too often divorce themselves from social life.

Underhill said, “Most of our difficulties come from trying to deal with the spiritual and practical aspects of our life separately instead of realizing them as parts of one whole.”

It’s also strange that some people still believe that a select few have a spiritual life and others not, and that the spiritualists chose it.

The truth is: There is no choice, there never was; every person who’s ever been born has, or has had, a spiritual life by virtue of their incarnation.

The spiritual life reflects a near-genetic consciousness that emerges from experiencing life as finite, a finity that manifests itself in bodily aches and pains and psychological suffering.

The spiritual person — the person who lives a spiritual life — accepts this fact equanimously, which at its best includes accepting all that comes one’s way: There are no pluses and minuses; no state of being is better than any other; living in and accepting a moment of pain is a joy.

Of course, achieving such a state requires great psychological depth, one that must be cultivated. And it’s hardly a consciousness where the person involved is divorced from the world. On the contrary, the deeper a person enters into the solitude of his being, the more he feels connected to every other self. It’s an axiomatic paradox.

The great American scholar of ancient Greek and Latin — who later became a student of what it takes to be happy — Norman O. Brown, describes living such a unified life as the expression of “love’s body.”

In his 1966 book called “Love’s Body,” he laid out the requirements for achieving this highest level of spiritual-life consciousness. At a minimum, he said, it requires the discipline of a Marine.

I do not recommend Brown’s book for everyone. It can provoke a level of reflective self-analysis that can be (disturbingly) transformative and thus disabling.

But those who meditate on, understand, and accept Brown’s use of metaphor, at some point come to see that the needs of others are equal to their own (which is the basis of identity politics). And the quality of a spiritual life is reflected in how well the person lives out the paradox.

The late insightful philosopher Mary Warnock said the connectedness we’re talking about does not emerge from an overarching deity but from an imagination-based sympathy where one person projects himself into the life of another and says: I am you, you are me.

This is the bedrock of good behavior, the basis of a spiritually-ethical-life lived without a god.

And it must be said that without inhabiting such a consciousness — religiously speaking — a person can go to church a hundred times a week and “om mani padme hum” till satori’s cows come home, and be nowhere close to being spiritual.

Neurotic racists go to church, sexist men believe in an all-powerful God then treat their wives as inferior beings. It’s the lived consciousness of the spirit that counts, repeat: lived consciousness.

And one does not have to be a monk or nun to achieve it, only live with the discipline it requires.

When the Beat poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton finally reached Asia in the fall of 1968 — he had been enclosed in a monastery since 1941 — he scooted about unbeaten paths in a childlike frenzy asking every “holy” man he saw — in India, Ceylon, and Thailand — what the spiritual life was all about. Can a human being really embody love, show empathy and compassion when others tear him apart, cause him grave psychological harm?

In November, he came upon the mystical lama and poet Chobgye Thicchen who had been a teacher of the 14th Dalai Lama when Tenzin Gyatso was a boy.

The lama told Merton that the Buddhists have a word for living a spiritual life filled with love and compassion; he said it was born of an enlightened mind called “Bodhicitta.”

He clarified that there are three levels of such consciousness.

On the bottom rung, there are those called “kingly.” They are interested in the spiritual path but save themselves first, and then go back for others.

On the second level, the lama said, there’s the “Boatman.” They, too, ferry across the river of salvation but bring others with them.

He said the saints — I’ll call them that — on the highest rung are known as “shepherds.” They see the needs of others as equal to their own but go a step further by treating the needs of others as preceding their own. The Christians say it’s because the other person is seen as Christ.

At this level of consciousness, there is no failure because the devotee attends to each person, one at a time.

The lama also intimated that the Shepherd never seeks credit, never looks for anything in return, accepts no benefits or rewards or any other form of payoff. True believers believe that when people reach this level they become divine, the living embodiment of Love. 

And none of this, the Shepherds say, has to do with appearances, with amassing things, with getting into power so as to satisfy one’s self first. These are all defensive psychological fortifications which, paradoxically, wind up imprisoning the bearer.

And every spiritual writer, with any sense of proportion, will add that there is no spiritual life without solitude. Solitude is the crucible in which a person dispels illusions.

But go cold turkey and you’ll go nuts. You’ll soon see the need for the discipline of the Marine but a soldier who, as the embodiment of love, is never called upon, nor ever opts, to kill.


— CC BY 2.5

“The Conversation” was painted in the 1930s by Arnold Borisovich Lakhovsky, an artist of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, born in the Russian Empire in 1880. He ended his career in New York, dying there in 1937.

Do you have a name for it? I looked online and found “Windbag,” “Chatterbox,” and “Know-it-all.”

The Synonyms page lists “Blowhard,” “Gasbag,” and “Gascon,” the last coming from Gascony in France where people never stop talking about themselves. At a festival each August, they pick the biggest liar.

I think you know the “type,” the guy who grabs your ear, starts blabbing, and will not let go.

In one of his “Satires” the great Roman poet Horace says he met one of these guys on the street (in Rome) and, try as he might, he could not escape. Once the guy got going, the poet said his ears dropped like those of a donkey who just had a load put on his back.

Some people are less than kind when they speak about “the talker.” I’ve heard some, after a drink or two, call them “sickos,” “narcissists,” or “sicko narcissists,” claiming the talker is interested only in himself.

In a way, that’s true but it’s hard to tell because the talker never reveals himself. He might yak about his favorite pizza or a baseball team he likes but it’s done behind a façade that’s hard to get around.

“The talker” seems to be imprisoned and controls each situation to prevent the other from getting the upper hand. It’s a body without psychological grounding.

After years of being battered by their rat-tat-tats, I learned to confront talkers directly. I now say something like: Maybe we can save this conversation for another time; I don’t have it in me today to continue. I know you agree. (There’s no negotiation.)

I mentioned “conversation” but the situations described contain none. And, whether you agree with that or not, you have to tell me what your definition of “conversation” is. It sounds simple but you’ll stretch your brain trying to do so. When I hear people say: I just had a great conversation! I assume “great” means they know “conversation.”

I like conversations, I like good conversations and by that I mean: When I talk, the other person listens. And it’s easy to tell. First by the eyes, and then when the listener enters my world, asks questions of clarification, in the long run is interested in who I am. Sincerity is always evident.

Ask your reference librarian, go online, search “conversation.” The offerings are endless. You will even find people talking about the “art” of conversation. Art?

Some people, when they hear “art” in reference to conversation, become puzzled. Painting is art, poetry is art, and things like music but somebody talking to somebody else, an art? Hey: I talk, my buddy talks, we say what we say, conversation over.

Such a view is clearly at odds with an understanding that conversation is personal exchange. In his insightful (and multi-million seller) “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey lists his Habit No. 5 as: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” It’s the kind of proverb you find in the Bible.

It sounds Yogi Berra-like but there’s listening and there’s listening and Covey explains the difference. “Most people,” he says, “do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”

Which means the talker is working the crowd for his own benefit.

The brilliant comedian Brian Regan mocks this tack in an acerbic bit, “Me Monster.”

He talks about the guy at social gatherings who talks “plenty for everybody, ‘Me myself right and then I and then myself and mee me I couldn't tell this one about I cause I was talking about myself and Me-- MEeee-- MEEee- MEEEEE-- MEEEEEEEEEEE! MEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!’ Beware the Me Monster.”

It’s funny social commentary but Regan belts it out with such indignation that you see he’s had it with batterers.

Charles Derber, a sociologist at Boston College, in “The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life,” says the conversational narcissism we’re talking about is “the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.”  

And it occurs everywhere: at home, at work, on the golf course. He says, “The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.”

I did a little survey of my own and everyone I talked to said they have talkers in their lives.

On the other hand, the conversationalist, rather than steal a conversation, helps the other articulate his views and feelings and positions on life, which sometimes allows for confessions of failure and emptiness. When things go right, he hears bits of scriptural wisdom being born before his ears.

As soon as I hear “articulate,” I can think only of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s “Native Son.”

The 20-year old Chicago South Sider could never articulate, could never say who he was or hoped to be, and what he needed to get somewhere. The script of his life had been written without him; no one listened.

Bigger might be stereotypical but what he needed is not: the need for an empathetic listener to help articulate being. When it’s good, as I said, empathy brings forth jewels.

But in today’s age, as people digest digits of information about surface realities from a cell phone — there’s articles written on it every other day — the cell phone has become the hangman of conversation.

In “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Sherry Turkle sounds like Emily Post with a section on “Table Manners” as a condition to restore personhood.

How ironic that today the windbag, the chatterbox, the know-it-all gascon is the texter who views the human voice as an interrupter. What kind of empathy can be learned from such a screener?

I’m not a dystopianist but I keep hearing the words of the party hack, O’Brien, in George Orwell’s “1984” telling people not to worry about things like empathy because, “In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy … .”

He told his lumpenprole not to worry about human relationships because “We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends ... There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother.”

What an insane proposition; such a world could never be. But if you have doubts, that will require a conversation. No windbags allowed.


The cover of “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves,” by Frans de Waal, depicts the face of a chimpanzee.

A devout cowboy loses his beloved Bible out on the range — so the story goes.

A few weeks later, a chimpanzee shows up with the treasured book under his arm. The cowboy can't believe it. He takes the book from the chimp, raises his eyes to heaven and shouts: “It’s a miracle! A miracle!”

“Not really,” the chimp says. “Your name is written inside the cover.”

It’s an Aesop’s fable of sorts but I keep wondering what drove the monkey to show up. Did he know what it felt like to lose something and wanted to save someone grief? Do monkeys see the world that way?

Why didn’t he throw the book away? Was he devout too? And where’d he get the address! How’d he get there, Uber? Can a monkey be in charge of his own destiny?

These are all questions of political economy — the energy a person uses to manage his life — and are based in how a monkey feels about things and acts accordingly. It always includes a sense of justice.

I can say something intelligent about these things now because I just finished reading (studying) Frans de Waal’s new extraordinary book “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.” It just came out in March (W.W. Norton).

If someone asked me to describe the book in a sentence, I’d say it’s about the inner life of animals: how they feel about themselves and others, the pains they suffer and those they inflict, as they negotiate their needs in life in a community of others seeking the same thing.

I started reading de Waal 30 years ago, impressed with his desire to understand the psycho-social life of animals — especially chimps, bonobos, and capuchins — and how his findings always wind up pointing a finger at the human race.

“Mama’s Last Hug,” which has gotten rave reviews, is about the last days of an agèd chimp, Mama, who was once a major player in the community in which she lived. At the very end, she tenderly rubs the face of her friend (and collaborating-researcher of 40 years), Jan van Hooff, with her old wrinkled hand. Jan had come to see her off; she was a relative.

I get the sense Mama could feel the loss her friend would feel when she was gone — like a cherished Bible.

Mama’s, and all the other stories de Waal has told in his decades-long exposé of justice among animals, are always about the animals but, again, the morals of their stories keep pointing at us.

One of the reasons I liked de Waal in the beginning was that he had tapped into the work of the great Russian/World Citizen, Geographer/Gandhi-like anarchist and social theorist, Peter Kropotkin, especially his landmark “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution,” which appeared in 1902.

As a young man, Kropotkin, assigned to Siberia in government service, set out to test Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” principle only to discover that living beings embraced another ethic — mutual aid — when members of a community gather around those in need to alleviate their suffering. Those who are best at it look for nothing in return.

Kropotkin saw that, when mutual aid was practiced, the persons and groups involved stood a greater chance of making it to the future as well as enjoying quality-of-life now. Win-win for everyone.

That’s all I’ll say about Kropotkin except to add that every high school student in America who takes Biology or Earth Science — or whatever their current versions are — should be required to read (and be able to discuss intelligently) the basic tenets of “Mutual Aid,” clarifying, for example, how Kropotkin and Darwin converged or differed on the chances of a society making it to the future.

I might add that Darwin was perplexed by the mutual aid thing: Why would anyone live for the benefit of another? And would a chimp return a Bible to a fellow chimp just like he did for the cowboy?

De Waal and his colleague Sarah Brosnan homed in on these questions by asking members of their capuchin monkey community how they felt when someone treated them unjustly — being defined as less and being paid less in return.

Political scientists would call it the unjust distribution of resources (rewards, compensations), when one gets less for doing the very same thing someone else did, and under the same conditions.

De Waal and Brosnan situated two capuchins, who are ace barterers, in side-by-side cages so that each could see what was going on with the other.

A pebble was thrown into the cage of monkey A — let’s call him Arthur — to retrieve. He easily did and was given a cucumber slice as a reward.

The researchers then threw a pebble in the cage of monkey B — we’ll call him Bob — and Bob retrieved the pebble and got a cucumber slice just like Arthur. Things were going well.

Then the researchers repeated the experiment but with a hitch: This time, when Arthur retrieved the pebble, he was given a big fat juicy grape, a lot better than a cucumber chip.

But when Bob performed the same task, he got the usual cucumber chip. He got worked up: Cucumber? Where’s the grape! Arthur got a grape!

Bob, no pun intended, had gone ape.

The experiment was conducted with many groups of monkeys over time. Those who got the short end of the stick, the lesser-prized rewards, generally got testy; some hurled the pebble back at the researcher; some whipped the cucumber at him: How dare you!

Such anger grows out of a sense of being defined as inferior: doing the same thing as someone else and getting less for it. We look at what the other got and are wounded.

It’s like when Thanksgiving rolls around — maybe it’s just the kids — and the slices of pie are meted out; we look around and see we got the smallest. The feeling is always: Why do I get the short end of the stick? Where’s my grape!

This kind of reactive anger and resentment exists in all social institutions in the United States today. A lot of people see what a lot of other people are getting and get fired up with injustice. They start flinging their cucumber chips back at society and the more-crazed do it with a spray of an AK-47.

I sometimes talk to these fired-up souls — with a sympathetic and open mind, I really want to know — and have discovered that, after a sentence or two of outrage, they are unable to describe what’s going on in the feeling department.

They’re can’t articulate envy, jealousy, and the injustice they’re feeling: analytically and therapeutically.

A few weeks ago, Congresswoman Katie Porter from California, quizzed Jamie Dimon, chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan, during his appearance at the House Financial Services Committee.

Dimon had just received a $31 million juicy grape from his company’s reward-distribution center, called a bonus.

Porter greeted Dimon cordially but then homed in on why some monkeys he worked with got cucumber chips of $16.50 an hour while he got his $31 million carload of  grapes.

Porter asked: Are you aware that, when the resource-distribution-center in your company offers many of your monkey-colleagues cucumber chips worth $16.50 an hour, they are barely able to survive? That they are flooded with constant anxiety over how to make ends meet?

Watch Dimon’s response on Youtube: he mumbles, he homina-homina-homina’s like Ralph Kramdem.

If a consulting monkey was called in to set that reward-distribution system straight, he’d say: The great big fat unequal grape-cucumber chip compensation system — $31 million versus $16.50 an hour — is flooding society with hordes of short-stick-enders who, filled with anger and rage, go rogue, and sometimes in beastly ways.

But, as we know, when some monkeys hear the words “equal distribution of resources,” they go ape and, quite strangely, among them are those trapped in a $16.50 an hour cucumber-chip existence.

That is one reason America is not happy these days. Would taking the blindfold off the eyes of Justice be a first step toward healing?


— Photo by Rhododendrites

James Frey signs a book at the BookExpo America 2018 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City.

When James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” appeared in April 2003, it was sold as a memoir in the nonfiction section of the store.

In the book, if you’ll recall, Frey expounds on his life 10 years earlier when at 23 he was strung out on crack and booze and wrangling with law-enforcement officials, felony-wise, in several states.

His parents couldn’t take it anymore; they dragged him to a 12-step program and locked him up. A good part of the memoir has to do with things there.

When the book first came out, it got some good reviews but then people started piling on Frey, saying he didn’t tell the truth; his memory didn’t smell right.

The poet and essayist John Dolan in “Exile” (May 2003) began his piece with, “This is the worst thing I ever read.” You can guess what he said next from the title: “A Million Pieces of Shit.”

Very few can predict the trajectory of a book’s success but after Oprah Winfrey picked the memoir as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, it shot to number-one on Amazon; The New York Times listed it 15 times as a best seller. Sales reached the millions, it was translated, there was talk of a movie.

When Winfrey had Frey on her Oct. 26, 2005 show, it was billed as, “The Man Who Kept Oprah Awake At Night.” She said the book is, “like nothing you’ve ever read before. Everybody at Harpo is reading it.” The staff kept asking each other, ‘What page are you on?’”

Frey was a hit, and “memoir” had moved up a notch on the Great Genres of Literature Scale.

Then the Earth shook. An article appeared in the Jan 8, 2006 edition of “The Smoking Gun,” saying Frey prevaricated. He didn’t write a memoir, he spoke fictoir.

William Bastone, the journal’s editor who wrote the piece, called it “A Million Little Lies.” For example: At a Barnes and Noble appearance Frey told onlookers he had been in jail “a bunch of times ... the last time ... for about three months.”

But Bastone found that Frey had hardly seen a jail: “The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond.”

There were no felonies, no skirmishes with police. From cover to cover, Frey had projected the identity of someone else, someone he thought might better win fans and bring him what? Fame? Glory? Adventure? I have no idea but, whatever it was, Frey had impersonated someone.

And those who impersonate do so to borrow strength for a self they feel does not measure up. Whether called imposters, prevaricators, or impersonators, this “type” offer no solid ground to stand on. Like the wind, fakers destabilize.

But if I tell you, “Hey, let’s play a game; I’m going to tell a story I imagined,” then we’ve set the ground rules for a fictive, make-believe world. There’s no truth to stretch or alter.

Memoir is an art form that reflects a person’s endeavor to see the record of one’s life as if it’s occurring now. It’s a mirror to find grounding in.

In the case of Frey, at first Winfrey thought the criticisms were no big deal: “To me it seems to be much ado about nothing” but, as the difference between what Frey said his life was and what it really was, was revealed, Winfrey called Frey back to the show saying: We gotta talk.

In front of a nation, she told the prevaricator he “duped” her and that readers felt “betrayed.” I’m sure she meant her book club (as well as her considered reputation as a judge of life-affirming literature). On TV, she fried Frey.

Frey’s publisher, Random House, took positive steps by offering a rebate to anyone who thought they were buying “memoir” but got BS, composites, lies, the imagined projections of a weak ego to save itself. What’s the right phrase here? Fake news? No, it’s fake personal history.

All “victims” had to do, Random House said, was: (1) give proof of purchase; (2) provide a piece of the book; and (3) issue a sworn statement, saying they believed they were buying truth and all they got was lies — and were, as Oprah Winfrey was, duped.

This of course was an era when writing and selling memoir had become big — it was an economic and psychological phenomenon. Every soul seemed compelled to tell its story, and in public, some the devotees of memoir guru, Mary Karr.

And it was Karr who said in her 2015 “The Art of Memoir,” that the first commandment of memoir is: Thou shalt not dupe; truth must abide.

Duping is a virus that destabilizes the liar’s body as well as every body it touches. The title of her second chapter is “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader.”

Which means, if your memoir is a Christmas tree, no tinsel. No tinsel, no glitz, no dazzle, no sleight of hand, no duping jive of anyone, any time.

While Frey was under siege, a similar thing was happening to David Sedaris, the eternally side-splitting humorist some consider a Will Rogers.

Sedaris’s truth IQ got called on the carpet by Alex Heard in the March 19, 2007 edition of “The New Republic.” He called his view of Sedaris’s story “This American Lie.”

He said that Sedaris said, at 13, he had volunteered in a mental hospital and got assigned to a black man, Clarence. One of his first jobs was to help Clarence lift an old woman from bed to gurney.

Sedaris said that, as they lifted, the old lady’s sheet fell off and there, before his virgin eyes, appeared a pile of wrinkled old flesh; whose teeth then bit him!

Heard, who had begun looking into Sedaris’s claims, called Sedaris, went to Richmond to interview his family, and then to the asylum where Sedaris said he and Clarence had worked.

Heard found there was no Clarence, there was no old lady, no body got bitten. And the place didn’t look like how Sedaris had painted it. Heard then gave a pile of other stretchings-of-truth.

I’m always puzzled why people exaggerate, why they project a self that is not who they are, but say it is.

Did Sedaris exaggerate for a bigger payday? For fame? A house? A psychological boost?

Creating a make-believe self and saying it’s you, and then calling the deception memoir, is identity-laundering, borrowing strength to counter weakness.

Memoir, no matter what your position on lying is, is not fiction. When a person says, this is my life, it cannot be someone else’s. Truth injects sanity into the psyche, and into our relationships with everybody we touch. It stabilizes.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and his excretion-filled tsunami of prevarications. Fact Checker says, after 800 days, Trump stomped on the truth 9,451 times. The researchers call it “false or misleading claims” but we all know it’s destabilization.

In history books, Abraham Lincoln is spoken of as “The Great Emancipator”; in days to come, Donald Trump will be called “The Great Prevaricator,” a man who tore a nation into — in the words of James Frey — “A Million Little Pieces.”


— dhanley87

Limerick poet, Michael Hartnett (1942-1999), Munster’s poet laureate, declared in his 1975 “A Farewell to English” that henceforth he would write only in Irish intent on preserving as best he could the heart of the Irish soul.

One of the great benefits of growing old(er) is that I have been able to free myself of all the prejudices I harbored as a youth.

But despite such progress, there’s a person, or type of person, who still gets to me — on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

I’m talking about Plastic Paddy, the Irish-American stentorian gasman draped in emerald blaring his 2 a.m refrain of  “The Wild Colonial Boy” unable to count the many sheets to the wind he’s become — and thinking Castlemaine is a large building in the State of Maine.

And how often is this Paddy accompanied by a lass sporting a Kelly green T-shirt inviting oncomers to “Kiss me I’m Irish.”

I’ve talked to a number of these Hibernophobes and realized that the St. Patrick’s Day they celebrate has nothing to do with Ireland and the people who live there.

They might claim Irish heritage but the Irish part is subculturally divorced from the people who call the Kingdom home.

I have also asked these Paddies what poet they like best: Seamus Heaney, Paddy Kavanagh, or Paul Durcan?

And asked as well: Can you tell me why Ireland was the first country in the world to sanction same-sex marriage by popular vote — a country whose ties with the Roman Catholic Church was hithertofore impregnable.

The Plastic Paddy phenomenon has not escaped the attention of others, some feeling their patience tested as much as mine.

In October 2016, the Irish journalist Rosita Boland explored the world of Plastic Paddy in an article for The Irish Times, “How Irish-America sees Ireland.”

Boland sought to find out if the “Irish” in Irish-American was grounded in a cultural reality. She headed to Boston, the city whose clannish Irish-American population is the most concentrated in the United States.

Like an unabashed ethnographer, Boland entered the lives of eight Irish-Americans — who had never been to Ireland — to query them about connections to their roots.

Her conclusion was, “When Irish-Americans talk about identifying with the Irish they mean the Irish who came to settle in the United States and their descendants, not those of us living in Ireland.”

Her Bostonian sample saw Ireland as an “abstract, romanticized receptacle of dreams and green fields, and the place that will soothe a lifelong ache.” The sweet ersatz isle of John Ford’s “The Quiet Man.”

One of those interviewed by Boland was Rob Anderson, a Natick man who plays bagpipe in two Celtic bands; he himself was perplexed by his Irish-American identity. He said he was aware of, “the expressions that people in Ireland have about us: Plastic Paddies and the fake Irish.”

Then he offered an apologia of sorts, “I guess there are two factions of people in Ireland, one who see us as silly and that we are Yanks, the other who is grateful that things have moved on for the people who emigrated. I know there are a number of people in Ireland who don’t consider people like me as Irish, and that’s technically accurate, but we’re doing our best to keep our Irish culture and heritage alive, and pass it on to our children. At the end of the day that should be enough.”

Case closed? Not exactly.

Anderson revealed that, when talking about his Irish self, he had two scripts: “If I’m talking to someone from the old sod — Ireland —” he says, “I’ll say I’m an American of Irish descent. If I’m talking to someone here in America it’s easier to say I’m Irish, because here everyone comes from somewhere.”

He then showed the root of his thought. He said his grandmother used to say, “Those who had to go got up and left Ireland. They endured a 3,000-mile boat journey, and when they landed here they saw signs that said ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ It’s those people I identify with. They are the people who made the Irish in America what they are today.”

Because there’s so much to unpack in what Anderson says, we’ll put it atop the agenda for St. Patrick’s Day night when, after the fifth jar of stout, we start discussing in earnest. The topic ranks up there with “identity diffusion” among Irish Americans as well as the incendiary, “Are you a Plastic Paddy?”

I would like to add something else to this agenda: the 21 A-list essays explaining how Ireland became “modern” found in “The Princeton History of Modern Ireland” (2016) edited by Richard Bourke and Ian McBride.

Of these enlightening explorations, I would require every wannabe Hibernophile to read Maurice Walsh’s “Media and Culture in Ireland, 1960-2008.”

It’s explosive. The Irish journalist looks at every piece of the cultural erector set from which the modern-Irish-self was wrought, giving especial attention to those powerful forces that sought to take charge of the identity-shaping process for their own ends, especially the Roman Catholic Church.

Walsh talks about how subversive television became in the 1960s, serving as a mirror in which the Irish could gaze upon themselves as they were — individually and collectively.

On talk shows broadcast on RTÉ, Ireland’s national television station, such as “The Late Late Show” (modeled on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”), the Irish people from O’Connell Street to Blackwater Bridge in Kerry, saw for the first time probing questions posed to government and church officials.

Colm Tóibín, the Irish novelist, said that without such shows it’s quite possible — with respect to the touchy subject of “sex” for the Irish — “that many people in Ireland would have lived their lives in the twentieth century without ever having heard anyone talking about sex.”

And when, after dinner each night, the Irish family gathered around the television set instead of kneeling around the bed to say the rosary, officials from the Roman Catholic Church’s Marian devotion team, condemned television as harmful to the health of the family. Their view was that of the Mayo-born prelate Patrick Peyton: “The family that prays together stays together.”

But church authorities took a severe blow when the Irish investigative journalist Mary Raftery produced a three-part documentary, “States of Fear,” exposing the sexual and physical abuse of children in Ireland’s industrial and reformatory schools from the 1930s to the 1970s — by members of Catholic religious orders. The country froze in shock.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issued an apology to the abused and to all the people of Ireland. Then, in 2000, a Child Abuse Commission was set up.

When the commission’s report came out nine years later “The Irish Times” called it “the map of an Irish hell ... a dark hinterland of the State, a parallel country whose existence we have long known but never fully acknowledged. It is a land of pain and shame, of savage cruelty and callous indifference.”

We need to add this item to our agenda as well.

In James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” an Irish nationalist, Davin, fed up with his friend Stephen Dedalus’s lack of commitment to things Irish, annoyedly asks, “Are you Irish at all?”

An indignant Dedalus retorts, “Come with me now to the office of arms and I will show you the tree of my family.” It didn’t matter, Davin thought his friend had been touched by Plastic Paddy.

Whether one’s roots in Ireland are deep or shallow, every Irish American on St. Patrick’s Day 2019 ought to include in their celebratory discussion (as the sixth pint of Guinness is being poured) Davin’s question: “Are you Irish at all?” We all want to know.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh!