— 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!


— The Victoria and Albert Museum

William Morris designed this embroidery of birds choosing mates.

— Photo by Georgia Gray

Two birds perch on a windowsill at Indian Ladder Farms in New Scotland.

The first entry in the second edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints for February 14 reads: ST VALENTINE, Martyr (c. A.D. 269).

On Ancestry.com, you can trace your roses and heart-shaped chocolates all the way back to him.

Not exactly. St. Valentine wouldn’t know Valentine’s Day from a baseball game.

For a long time, it was believed there were two Valentines: a priest buried on the Via Flaminia (the road from Rome to Rimini) and a bishop from Terni, also a martyr.

But scholars who’ve looked into this say there was only one Valentine, that the people of Terni appropriated Rome’s version out of small-town chauvinism.

It was also believed the “romance” of Valentine’s Day came from the ancient Roman observance of Lupercalia, a mid-February festival of purification when citizens performed rites to rid themselves of impurities that threatened their future.

Young men ran about the city in a loin cloth — the historian Plutarch says — flailing away with strips of leather cut from the hides of goats sacrificed at the Lupercal altar.

The scourging was said to drive out spirits that brought disease and sterility. Women welcomed the straps across their backs believing the flagellation would bring babies.

But the running naked was halted in 495 when Pope Gelasius transformed the pagan rite by making St. Valentine the new protagonist. People could celebrate the 14th with clothes on.

There was no sense then that St. Valentine was a Cupid whose golden arrow stirred desire in witless “victims.”

That connection came in the 14th Century when England’s great poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), the Father of English Literature, included love-driven birds in a poem.

Lines 309-310 of his “Parlement of Foules” say: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”

In modern English that’s: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day/ When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”

Thus Valentine’s Day became the celebration of coupling as folks set their sights on the object of their desire.

“At the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400,” as scholar Jack Oruch points out in, “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February,” “the transformation of Valentine into an auxiliary or parallel to Cupid as sponsor of lovers was well under way.”

Two of Chaucer’s contemporaries also wrote Valentine poems and, right after his death, poet Jean de Garencière’s shared his Hallmarkian thought: “Au jour d’uy qu’homme doit dame choisir Je vous choisy … ”

This loosely means, “Since Valentine’s Day is a time to choose a love, won’t you be my Valentine?”

As we know, in the United States today, the “choisy” stuff is a $20 billion business as corporations run line after line on consumers that love can be shown through purchase.

In her article “How Your Small Business Can Find Customer Love This Valentine’s Day” on the Internet’s Constant Contact, Ashley Perssico tells small-business decision-makers to “aim your arrow at male shoppers.”

Pourquoi? In 2015, men spent an average of $191 on their petite choisy and women countered with $97.

And “while jewelry, going out, and flowers” accounted for most of the love-day dollars, 20 percent of folks, Perssico says, planned to get something for their pet. Spot and Tabby are now in the loop.

Thus, as St. Valentine has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, so neither does love except in a schmaltzy maltzy way. St. Valentine’s Day, just like Christmas, Halloween, and Mother’s Day, is a time for people to buy into the corporate sales pitch that feelings of love and community are enhanced when packaged products are bought for others.

I wonder what would happen if, instead of a Victoria’s Secret garter belt and heart-shaped box of chocolates, some poor soul offered his lover on the 14th a copy of Erich Fromm’s classic “The Art of Loving.” How would that play in Peoria?

Fromm says of course “giving” is a part of love but so are traits like care, responsibility, and respect. I like the last chapter, “The Practice of Love,” when Fromm hints at a few mandates.

He says the person who wishes to be a true lover — in addition to needing patience and discipline — must achieve a level of concentration that comes only from being “alone with oneself,” which entails disconnecting oneself from the spin of religion, the market, and state.

The logic is: Until a person finds out who he really is, he has no self to share with, or give to, another. The good news is that those who find their true selves are moved to listen to others, to take what they say seriously. Their philosophy is needs-based.

Fromm also says lovers who practice the art of love don’t waste time in empty chatter. They avoid “possible, trivial conversation, that is, conversation which is not genuine.” Their shared life-plan allows them to relate on a deeper level.

Fromm ends by offering some old-fashioned advice: Stay away from “bad company.” You want to be a good lover? Stay away from those (persons and things) who turn you away from yourself.

In 2019, bad company translates to corporations that bombard the populace, through advertising and social media, with an image of personhood that says: When you purchase packaged goods and services — and pawn them off on others — you’re showing fidelity and commitment.

A subtle but insidious part of the pitch is that it includes a roster of what a person’s needs are, followed by details about how and where need-satisfaction can be purchased. Of course there’s always a freedom discount on the Fourth of July!

Would anyone dare give a copy of “The Art of Loving” to his or her love-bird on the 14th with an offer to read along and then discuss what was read? Would such a gift be greeted with guffaws?

The development of the Valentinian concentration mentioned above requires deep doses of solitude to discern what one really needs and then to measure those needs against the formulae the corporate world sells as love-affirming.

I also know that, when a person feels at home in his own skin, he (or she) is more inclined to accept diversity in others — and without resentment. That’s when Cupid’s shaft has altered the political economy of one’s being.

When I first read “The Art of Loving,” I created a catechism of my own. I made up all the questions about love I could think of and then added the answers as they arose. That wasn’t the case in grammar school when they told me what to say.

The catechism was a Valentine’s gift to me equal to a hundred dozen roses and the largest box of heart-filled chocolates ever seen, enough for any St. Valentine to die for.


— Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri

Sylvia Plath

Even if you’ve read the most meagre bit of psychology, you’ve run across the “true self” -“false self” distinction in personality.

The discussion is always accompanied by a list of what each self causes in the lives of others, as well as the bearer. I don’t want to give away the ending but the false self never fares well in the ratings.  

In his bold 1951 essay, “To Be That Self Which One Truly Is,” the much-acclaimed innovative psychotherapist Carl Rogers (1902-1987) says people begin to live only after they’ve found their true selves. All else is façadic foreplay.

I thought about the true-self - false-self distinction yesterday when I re-read the “Foreword” to the “Journals of Sylvia Plath” first published in 1982. It deals with false-self - true-self “stuff” in a puzzling way.

Bio-wise, Plath was a poet who seemed unable to escape the throes of despair. She solved the problem — after insulin and shock treatments — by taking her life. She was 30. To describe the details of where her two kids were when she stuck her head in an oven, is prurient. You can find out on your own.

The Foreword to the journals was written by poet Ted Hughes, who happened to be Plath’s husband for six years. What Hughes says about his wife’s search for who she was is mind-bending.

He says Sylvia struggled with who she presented to herself and to the world but the mind-bending part is when he says: “I never saw her show her real self to anybody.”

Astounding. If someone said that about me I’d be devastated.

Did Hughes mean his wife wore masks in her dealings with others? How could he tell? He starts to clarify but winds up bending the mind again.

He says Plath relied on her false-self, “Except in the last three months of her life” (December 1962, January and February 1963). I presume he means she finally became SYLVIA PLATH.

It had to be a source of relief for the poet, the true-self-self finally winning the war. But logic forces us to conclude that her true self, however well greeted at first, proved to be too much to bear.

I’m still looking for a description of the metamorphosis Hughes alludes to, the ways it showed toward him, toward the kids, and of course in her work. Had a door opened for Plath? Is that the appropriate metaphor?

Hughes says once Plath crossed her Rubicon “her real self, being the real poet, would now speak for itself, and would throw off all those lesser and artificial selves that had monopolized the words up to that point.”

In terms of work, and this is not ironic, Plath’s new “real poet self” produced a collection of poems, “Ariel,” that put her on the map of Foreverdom. Women especially continue to rate her very high.

When I first read Hughes’s assessment of his wife I wondered: If she found out, finally, who she was (the schisms being over) why did she see death as her only option? She should have been on the moon dancing with Fred Astaire.

Another thing about the journals is that Ted Hughes destroyed a batch of those toward the end. He said, “I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival).”

While admitting to controlling the narrative of Sylvia Plath, Hughes says he was justified; he said he provided a palliative for the kids. But why would anyone who had achieved nirvana, shall we say, care if it all “hung out?”

And would not a true-self-self want the world to see what a true-self looks and behaves like? A self-sans-spin, despite traits of oddity. Was that not what William Burroughs in “Naked Lunch” and Allen Ginsberg with “Reality Sandwiches” were trying to accomplish?

When biographers began looking into Plath’s life, Hughes and his surrogate, sister Olwyn Hughes, used artifice to deflect people from getting at Plath’s true story.

Poet/writer Anne Stevenson in “Bitter Fame,” (1989) — which some say is the truest view of Plath — said Olwyn interposed herself so much in the project that the book was “almost a work of dual authorship.”

For any writer to make such a statement is extraordinary. It’s like an artist handing over her brushes and canvas to a passer-by and saying: paint on, Macduff.

Janet Malcolm in her brilliant “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes” (Knopf, 1994) takes on the true-self - false-self issues related to Plath but quickly takes aim at those controlling Plath’s narrative.

The book reads like a mystery, a who-done-it (like all Malcolm’s do) as she tracks down those intent on photoshopping Plath and, to mix metaphors, muddy the waters of veritas.

There are other pieces to the puzzle that need attention. First, the younger of Plath’s kids, Nicholas — who was left with his sister in the other room on Fitzroy Road — hanged himself in 2009. He was 47 and had been a successful academic. Some have commented on the trans-generation thing.

Nick’s sister, Frieda (now 58) — a poet, writer, painter — the other child in the room at Fitzroy — remains alive and fighting: she will not shy away from digging into all of her mother, especially at the end — and is always curious as to what her father was doing each step of the way.

Frieda (Hughes) wrote the Foreword to the newly-released (November 6, 2018) “The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963” (Harper) where Plath is there for all to see. For those interested in the life travails of a literary personage, it’s rich.

Frieda says her real concern was the 14 letters her mother wrote to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, the last three years of her life, the last dated Feb. 4, 1963, a week before Sylvia died.

In this final letter, the poet says her grim-psych-pall-over-existence-self had returned, “What appals me is the return of my madness, my paralysis,” she says, “my fear & vision of the worst — cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies.”

In an earlier letter she avers that when she was pregnant, Hughes knocked her around and she miscarried shortly after — though medical evidence shows she had a serious appendix problem and had gone out of her mind in a fit of jealousy.

She thought Ted was out with another woman and tore into tiny (non-stickable-back) pieces his recent work — a play, batches of poems — when there were no computers to back things up). She had destroyed a piece of his heart and he was never the same after that.

Ted found solace in Ms. Assia Wevill who, after Plath’s death, helped raise the kids — and even had a daughter, Shura, with Ted.

But Weevil ran into trouble too. She too stuck her head in an oven, taking Ted’s 4-year old daughter with her.

Though Hughes appears to have been upright in many ways, as husband and father, a lot of people say he brought Plath down. Some showed up at his readings and guerilla-warrior-like shouted: “murderer!” “murderer!” Poet Robin Morgan begins her poem ''The Arraignment” with, “I accuse/Ted Hughes.'”

And on the cemetery stone where “Hughes” appears after Sylvia’s name, marauders have come in the night to chisel the “Hughes” off.

Emily Gould in an enlightening essay “The Bell Jar at 40” — the “Bell Jar” being Plath’s only novel — says everything we know about Sylvia Plath requires “closer reading.”

She says then we see, “another, more nuanced story about Plath as a woman and as a writer, one that shows the writer’s sense of terror about the consequences of becoming herself.” That is, the consequences of becoming “That Self Which One Truly Is.” It is an issue folks don’t like to grapple with.

I mention this because America is going through a true-self - false-self conflict right now. And, looking from the outside in, I see not only a nation being torn apart but also a generation of cynics being born who refuse to eat the reality sandwiches being served them.


There are some people and groups throughout history who were so taken with the birth of Jesus — the Christmas story and all it implies — that they hoped Jesus, after he died, would come a second time.

In anticipation they live(d) lives devoted to what they believed are the good tidings of Christmas — the gospel Jesus preached and lived.

One of those groups is the religious community of Shakers who in the late-18th Century settled tracts of land near the roads we drive to and from the Albany International Airport.

They were an offshoot of the Quakers, the peaceful ones, and because of their energetic dancing during religious services, came to be known as the “Shaking Quakers,” which I’ve always taken to be a kind of put-down.

The real name of these shaking people, if you will, is the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. You can see right in their name that they were waiting for Jesus to come again — they wanted another Christmas.

A lot of people today have a hard time understanding such a thing because they have no conception of Christmas or, if they do, it has no “religious” dimension.

A survey by the Pew Research Center a year ago this month asked Americans what Christmas meant to them. The vast majority said they celebrate Christmas, and usually by going to church and visiting with their family — nine out of 10.

But the data also reveal that a goodly number of the youngest among us — in particular the Millennials — say Christmas is a cultural thing, not religious. A cynic might say they caved to the market.

These youngsters say the historical facts surrounding Jesus’s birth, as found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke — the Christmas narrative — have little meaning for them. Was there a manger? Maybe. Was Mary a virgin when Jesus was born? Who knows?

Shepherds, wise men? Nice touch but not applicable. More important is what will I get my Secret Santa.

While Pew’s data are interesting, none of the survey offers answers to questions having to do with whether Christmas changed people’s lives. Because the questions were not asked.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful to know how such a change occurs? Would an outside observer be able to see it?

As we know, the proof of the value of any ethical system is found in whether people follow its mandates. In the case of Christmas, is it possible to celebrate Christmas without including something about Christmas in it?

The Shakers are worth our attention because they offered the world not only a unique vision of what Christmas means but also a way of life that reflected the mandate of the manger.

They set up communities where the resources of everybody were shared, where every person was treated as everybody else; women are equal to men without exception.

The founder, Ann Lee, was a woman. Not long after came Lucy Wright who led the “church” for 25 years. In terms of equality she reminded her family, “There is a daily duty to do; that is, for the Brethren to be kind to the Brethren, Sisters kind to the Sisters, and the Brethren and Sisters kind to each other.”

Because of such values the Shakers seemed distinction-blind. They took in black people, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, ministers as well as penitents. The only prevailing variable was need.

Before the Civil War their numbers grew to 6,000 living in more than 20 communities stretching from New York to Indiana down to Kentucky. Unable to fight in the war because of their pacifism — they were exempted by the president himself — they took in wounded from both sides, they fed and clothed slaves, they gave beds to slaveholders.

One of the marvels of the Shakers is that their sense of community found expression in invention. They invented the flat broom, the clothespin, garden seeds sold in paper packets, the circular saw, and much more.

The beauty and simplicity of the cupboards they built and the chairs they sat on reflected Mother Ann’s maxim, “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.”

The great poet and Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.”

The devotional 1984 documentary “The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God” by Ken Burns and Amy Stechler Burns highlights the radical simplicity of Mother Ann’s followers in every frame.

And in “The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers” (Yale University Press, 1992), Stephen Stein documents the ways the communities grappled with the same kinds of issues every family faces.

After the Civil War, changes in economic and social conditions saw fewer people called to live the Shaker life. The closing of their communities, one after the other in the early part of the 20th Century, is the sad vision of a tree losing its last leaves.

Thus, of the 6,000 who once awaited the Second Appearing, two remain: Brother Arnold Hadd, 61, and Sister June Carpenter in her 70s, both of whom embody the Shaker spirit at their Sabbathday Lake community in New Gloucester, Maine.

I’ve heard more than a few cynics rail over the years: Well, if they were that good, what happened? And then they smirk because another communal experiment failed.

Nothing happened to the Shakers. They have given, and continue to give, America a viable model of community, especially Her early-21st-Century version buried in turmoil, alienation, and vindictive aggression.

We might want to amend many of the Shaker ascetic practices but never the hospitality they extended toward each other and those who came to them in need.  

After the fiery devastation that just took California — and the long drought before that — more than 50,000 people are looking for a home, a community to live in, a hook to hang their continuity on.

Can the care offered by an insurance company match the selfless hospitality a Shaker community affords? The model is there for the taking.

Dire climate-change forecasters say that fire, drought, flood, and related hurricane conditions will not cease but aggravate. And the measure of hardship will no longer be whether the rich on New York City’s Upper East Side, and their counterparts everywhere, will be able to score a grape or two from a surviving vineyard.

Section IV of Part II of the “Millennial Laws or Gospel Statutes and Ordinances Adapted to the day of Christ’s Second Appearing,” first prepared by Father Joseph Meacham and Mother Lucy Wright at their New Lebanon community in August 1821, contains an “Order of Christmas.”

It says that “on Christmas day Believers [and here we substitute Americans] should make perfect reconciliation, one with an other; and leave all grudges, hard feelings, and disaffection one towards an other, eternally behind on this day; and to forgive, as we would be forgiven, and nothing which is this day settled, or which has been settled previous to this, may hereafter be brought forward against an other.”

The Order then adds that Christmas Day is a time “to remember the poor of the world, and to carry to the place of deposit ... such garments and goods, as are designed for them.”

Do you think Meacham and Wright presaged the needs of Californians a Christmas 200 years later? Amid a discouraging moment or two I’m inclined to think the Second Appearing is already upon us.