Saturday, June 16, 2018


Chagall: Time is a river without banks (this title sounds like a line that Dickinson might write), 1928


A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were Troughs beside —

~ Dickinson, 1188

Perhaps this hints at what we’re thinking of when faced with the puzzle of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. What is strange is that he didn’t seem to have any trouble admitting to having been a heroin addict in his youth. Next to that, “I suffer from depression” or “I'm bipolar,” would seem almost trivial these days — various famous people have made this confession. There is no special stigma to it anymore, especially for someone successful and widely admired.

Maybe “I feel terribly lonely” might still seem like a confession of having failed — or being unhappy at all in a “think positive” culture. In Poland, being unhappy was accepted as normal. It was a given that all of us struggle against despair — and if now and then, exhausted, someone broke down and cried, his or her tears were respected. Here, I quickly discovered that being unhappy was perceived as a major failure — you might as well admit to being an alcoholic. And “it’s all your fault” seems to be the assumption in a hyper-individualist society that doesn’t appear to recognize that no, you are not the sole author of your fortune or misfortune.

Here is an interesting video by Alain de Botton exploring the subject of suicide rates becoming higher as societies become richer and more “developed” — and more meritocratic and less communitarian. Bourdain pushed himself very hard, perhaps harder than anyone should — as if his sole merit as a person rested on his achievement. Nor was he an uncommon instance of the “cult of overwork.” “I can’t sit still,” he reportedly said. Agitated depression, hypomania, or just culture-induced overdrive? Whatever it was, we know it’s all around us.



I’ve had this week, unfortunately, communication from a long-time friend who, under great stress, has been overwhelmed with a sadness close to despair, calling me and talking openly about suicidal thoughts, referring to the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, feeling anything good in her life was past and her life was not worth much to herself or anyone else. She is in the process of getting a divorce from her husband of more than 10 years, who was a life-long abuser, who beat her regularly and severely, undeterred by the police, jail time, and “anger management” classes.

It was such a typical pattern of domestic abuse—he isolated her, punishing her for contacts with old friends and any attempt to make new ones. She is an intelligent woman, but constantly expected he would change despite all evidence this pattern of abuse was a life-long one that he felt was justified, and actually caused by his victims (including his first wife and two sons).

He saw nothing wrong with his actions, and had no intention of reform — one of those men in love with the toxic exhilaration of their own rage. I was always afraid he would one day fulfill his repeated declaration that he would kill her. After the last brutal beating she finally began the process of separation and divorce in earnest — of course without any cooperation from him. He doesn’t want a divorce and can’t see why she does.

Then she lost her job. So, 64 years old, no husband, no job, no health insurance, no support system, no hope for better things in the future. And of course, as our culture insists, you are responsible for yourself and your situation — so this horrible lonely shambles of her life is Her Own Fault.

Intense individualism, the idea that you create your own trajectory through life, may seem to service the ideal of personal freedom, but is actually a terrible and terrifying burden. Whatever pain there is in your life is Your Fault. You don’t deserve sympathy or empathy, but a judgement on your strength of character. Pain and trauma, like poverty, is the result of moral ineptitude and laziness. You get, simply, what you deserve.

I think that it is here, on that lonely and terrifying pinnacle of individualism, that people can find the great attraction of subsuming their own will to a totalitarian leader, a totalitarian state — like Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia. It becomes such a relief to give up all responsibility, to be accountable only to pleasing the leader, to following his orders, making his dreams and wishes all come true — no matter how immoral, destructive or evil they may be, no matter how horrible enacting them may be.

In these circumstances nothing is unthinkable, nothing impossible, nothing too evil — and none of it is really Your Fault. No need to struggle with decisions, no need to feel guilty — you are not acting as or for yourself, but for the state and it’s totalitarian leader. The troublesome existential self is replaced by the  obedient, unquestioning “good soldier” — and all is simple and as it should be.

Think of Trump and his loyal base, still willing to defend the current cruelty of separating illegal immigrants from their children, and housing those children, thousands of them, in cages, in rooms where the lights are eternally on, and the air is full of anguished cries for mothers and fathers who aren’t there. If this is permissible,  acceptable, we have already crossed the line, lost the dream of America as a refuge  and example for any seeking freedom and the opportunity for a better life. Perhaps it is already too late, the lamp has gone out, the dream is dead. And we have nothing to be proud of.

These are hard and bitter days. All hope is with the strength of anger and refusal—and I’m afraid our window of opportunity is closing fast.

And Beauty as well is more important than ever.


Emile Durkheim was the first to study suicide. He noted that the rise in suicide rate followed the rise of capitalism and individualism, i.e. the weakening of human connections in favor of work, work, work. But as Freud wisely observed (the wisest thing he ever said), it’s work AND love. 

Nationalism or similar tribalism and mindlessly following the orders of a totalitarian leader is one type of escape from the pain of hyper-individualism. Religion has been perhaps the most common escape — unfortunately it easily combines with totalitarian politics. The point is that everything is prescribed for you: how you act as a man, how you act as a woman, what you wear, the food you eat, the events you attend, the movies and art you see and opposed to the forbidden kind, and so on. You don’t have to think for yourself, and you don’t make any big decisions.

(Cults are especially notorious for turning people into mindless drones who will drink the cool-aide as ordered. But I can think of — I know you’ll laugh, but I’m not making this up — poetry workshops where peer pressure was so extreme that participants, myself included, did indeed cross out their best lines rather than trust their own judgment . . .  and where it was thought OK to tell a woman not to have a second child [presumably because that would be a betrayal of her talent — never mind that the woman was a better mother than poet].)

Indeed, how many children should you have? As many as possible — nationalists and religious leaders promote large families — but in the case of China not long ago, only one. The point is, you are not burdened with choice. And choice really is stressful. Unless we understand this, we’ll never understand why individualist societies have such high levels of misery and mental disorders, including addiction.

Speaking of addiction, I’ve come across articles that discuss Bourdain’s alleged alcoholism. I don’t really know, but it seems to me that he drank more in the more controlled, social, Mediterranean fashion. He certainly had male buddies. He may not have had the kind of supportive, nurturing partner or close friend that the lucky among us confide in, especially in difficult times. Support groups have evolved as a partial substitute, but when you travel a lot, that kind of community is disrupted. All we can say for sure is that Bourdain was alone in his last days. After work was done, there was no one to soothe him, hold him, made him feel of value regardless of achievement.

Some people turn to pets for affection. We mustn’t judge them. When life-giving affection is scarce, pets can indeed make all the difference. It does sound tragic — “The only source of love in my life is my dog” — but any kind of love is better than none. 

Is there a way out, some balance between the burdens of freedom and the loneliness that frequently attends it, versus the sheep-like existence of a follower? No solution fits all — some people are more “communitarian” while others truly enjoy solitude and having just one or two real friends. We do know that no one can make it alone. As for the burden of thinking, a Buddhist-Taoist attitude of letting things happen naturally may at least point the way. We struggle and strive way too much. Thanks to having frequently experienced the creative process, I love the workings of the unconscious and trust that solutions will come. Sometimes my life seems like a long series of lessons on how to relax more.

What does alcohol do? It depresses brain function, making the drinker more relaxed, less driven, less worried. There is, of course, some toxicity (as with all drugs), and the price for exceeding a certain amount is heavy indeed. The ideal is a mode of living that wouldn’t require seeking relief in drugs. Things we love doing and people (and animals) we love being with are essential. Fortunately we have begun research on effective ways to create health and happiness. We already know a lot — now it’s a matter of being able to apply that knowledge. 

Giovanni da Paolo: Paradise (detail)


It all coheres: the occurrence of great organized evil, the Holocaust, genocides, the abuse of children, the history and economy of the culture, the shape of history itself . . . The human capacity for evil, for atrocity, is not a great mystery. It’s part of the whole picture.

Alcohol also a self-medicating effort to deaden pain. It rarely ends well.

I love the detail image from Giovanni da Paolo 's “Paradise” — a vision of a well-populated garden of people in conversation. Hell may be other people, and so is Paradise.

And the example of the poetry workshop is also apt. The temptation to surrender to the group is probably just as strong, and common, maybe more common, than the desire to be free and independent.


We are mostly punished for thinking on our own and trusting our minds. Hannah Arendt’s insights are finally being appreciated, but after she published her articles on Eichmann, stating that he was startlingly normal and that his main failure was the refusal to think for himself, she was severely criticized and even persecuted — precisely for daring to think differently.


Dickinson’s poetry can be thought of as epistolary. She even said so:

“This is My Letter to the World
That never wrote to Me — ”

And often she literally wrote on the back of envelopes.

~ “Dickinson’s writing materials might best be described as epistolary. Everything she wrote — poems, letters, and drafts, in fascicles, on folios, individual sheets, envelopes, and fragments — was predominantly composed on plain, machine-made stationery. “Preserve the backs of old letters to write upon,” wrote Lydia Maria Child in The Frugal Housewife, a book Dickinson’s father obtained for her mother when Emily was born. It opens: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time as well as materials.” Dickinson’s envelope writings convey a sense of New England thrift and her relationship to the larger household economy of paper, but they also disclose private spaces within that household: the line “we should respect | the seals of | others – ” inscribed next to the gummed seal of A 842 resounds.

We often gauge a writer’s intentions by her published work, or by work she submitted for publication during her lifetime, but Dickinson offers no such certainties. Dickinson rejected print publication of her poems. In a letter to Higginson, she explains:

    I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish” — that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin. —
         If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her — if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase — and the approbation of my Dog, would forsake me — then — My Barefoot-Rank is better —

Yet she was not secretive about the fact that she was writing poems; she sent more than three hundred poems to recipients in letters — letters that were often indistinguishable from poetry.” ~


Thrift used to be regarded as a virtue of first rank — perhaps the primary one. Emily had never known poverty — and yet her father, an affluent lawyer, thought that The Frugal Housewife was the best gift for his wife on the occasion of having just given birth. Not that he was insensitive — it was the mentality of the times. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Not until the Fifties America do we get the shocking idea that it’s not necessary to save scraps of used-up soap, or that an apple core can be tossed rather than eaten (poor families ate even the little stem on top).

Peeling an apple? Toothless old people needed to do that, but the peel was then given to a child as valuable nutrition (no, not because of the fiber). The child wasn’t necessarily hungry — but you simply never threw out food.

Basically you never threw out anything. But in an era of excess, that’s known as hoarding.

Not that Emily was a hoarder, no. She made use of any scrap of paper better than anyone else we can think of, writing down brilliant lines as she kept house. Don’t forget that, in answer to a census question, she described her occupation as “keeping house.” Poet? That sounds presumptuous. And besides, with rare exceptions, “real poets” were male.


My grandma used to save the backs of envelopes, and any parts of mail with useable blank space. She would cut them neatly into sheets and clip to make a tablet. She also saved string . . . taught us how to knit a cord of string using an empty wooden spool with 4 nails on the top.


I grew up in New England with very frugal parents . . . we saved everything. To her dying day my mother saved envelopes and string — recycled everything. I might add that a friend of mine recycles envelopes to send me letters and poems. I seem to have let the thrift go but it could be I have lived too long.

I still do all kinds of crazy things in the name of thrift. It's very hard to break away from it, even if it ultimately makes no sense. I know a woman who still eats the apple core when she eats an apple — just as in childhood.




~ “History teaches, but has no pupils,” the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote. That line comes to mind when I browse in the history section of a bookstore. An adage in publishing is that you can never go wrong with books about Lincoln, Hitler, and dogs; an alternative version names golfing, Nazis, and cats. In Germany, it’s said that the only surefire magazine covers are ones that feature Hitler or sex.

Why do these books pile up in such unreadable numbers? This may seem a perverse question. The Holocaust is the greatest crime in history, one that people remain desperate to understand. Germany’s plunge from the heights of civilization to the depths of barbarism is an everlasting shock. Still, these swastika covers trade all too frankly on Hitler’s undeniable flair for graphic design. (The Nazi flag was apparently his creation—finalized after “innumerable attempts,” according to “Mein Kampf.”) Susan Sontag, in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” declared that the appeal of Nazi iconography had become erotic, not only in S & M circles but also in the wider culture. It was, Sontag wrote, a “response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and, possibly, in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality.

Americans have an especially insatiable appetite for Nazi-themed books, films, television shows, documentaries, video games, and comic books. Stories of the Second World War console us with memories of the days before Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq, when the United States was the world’s good-hearted superpower, riding to the rescue of a Europe paralyzed by totalitarianism and appeasement. Yet an eerie continuity became visible in the postwar years, as German scientists were imported to America and began working for their former enemies; the resulting technologies of mass destruction exceeded Hitler’s darkest imaginings.

The Nazis idolized many aspects of American society: the cult of sport, Hollywood production values, the mythology of the frontier. From boyhood on, Hitler devoured the Westerns of the popular German novelist Karl May. In 1928, Hitler remarked, approvingly, that white settlers in America had “gunned down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.” When he spoke of Lebensraum, the German drive for “living space” in Eastern Europe, he often had America in mind.

Among recent books on Nazism, the one that may prove most disquieting for American readers is James Q. Whitman’s “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law” (Princeton). On the cover, the inevitable swastika is flanked by two red stars. Whitman methodically explores how the Nazis took inspiration from American racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He notes that, in “Mein Kampf,” Hitler praises America as the one state that has made progress toward a primarily racial conception of citizenship, by “excluding certain races from naturalization.”

Whitman writes that the discussion of such influences is almost taboo, because the crimes of the Third Reich are commonly defined as “the nefandum, the unspeakable descent into what we often call ‘radical evil.’ ” But the kind of genocidal hatred that erupted in Germany had been seen before and has been seen since. Only by stripping away its national regalia and comprehending its essential human form do we have any hope of vanquishing it.

The vast literature on Hitler and Nazism keeps circling around a few enduring questions. The first is biographical: How did an Austrian watercolor painter turned military orderly emerge as a far-right German rabble-rouser after the First World War? The second is sociopolitical: How did a civilized society come to embrace Hitler’s extreme ideas? The third has to do with the intersection of man and regime: To what extent was Hitler in control of the apparatus of the Third Reich? All these questions point to the central enigma of the Holocaust, which has variously been interpreted as a premeditated action and as a barbaric improvisation.

Since 1945, the historiography of Nazism has undergone several broad transformations, reflecting political pressures both within Germany and abroad. In the early Cold War period, the emergence of West Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet menace tended to discourage a closer interrogation of German cultural values. The first big postwar biography of Hitler, by the British historian Alan Bullock, published in 1952, depicted him as a charlatan, a manipulator, an “opportunist entirely without principle.” German thinkers often skirted the issue of Hitler, preferring systemic explanations. Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” suggested that dictatorial energies draw on the loneliness of the modern subject.

In the sixties and seventies, as Cold War Realpolitik receded and the full horror of the Holocaust sank in, many historians adopted what is known as the Sonderweg thesis—the idea that Germany had followed a “special path” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, different from that of other Western nations. In this reading, the Germany of the Wilhelmine period had failed to develop along healthy liberal-democratic lines; the inability to modernize politically prepared the ground for Nazism.

Imperial eagle of the German Empire 1889-1918. Note the "eagle within the eagle."
In Germany, left-oriented scholars like Hans Mommsen used this concept to call for a greater sense of collective responsibility; to focus on Hitler was an evasion, the argument went, implying that Nazism was something that he did to us. Mommsen outlined a “cumulative radicalization” of the Nazi state in which Hitler functioned as a “weak dictator,” ceding policy-making to competing bureaucratic agencies. Abroad, the Sonderweg theory took on a punitive edge, indicting all of German history and culture.

The Sonderweg argument was attacked on multiple fronts. In what became known as the Historikerstreit (“Historians’ Dispute”), right-wing scholars in Germany proposed that the nation end its ritual self-flagellation: they reframed Nazism as a reaction to Bolshevism and recast the Holocaust as one genocide among many. Joachim Fest, who had published the first big German-language biography of Hitler, also stood apart from the Sonderweg school. By portraying the Führer as an all-dominating, quasi-demonic figure, Fest effectively placed less blame on the Weimar Republic conservatives who put Hitler in office. More dubious readings presented Hitlerism as an experiment that modernized Germany and then went awry. Such ideas have lost ground in Germany, at least for now: in mainstream discourse there, it is axiomatic to accept responsibility for the Nazi terror.

Outside Germany, many critiques of the Sonderweg thesis came from the left. The British scholars Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, in their 1984 book “The Peculiarities of German History,” questioned the “tyranny of hindsight”—the lordly perspective that reduces a complex, contingent sequence of events to an irreversible progression. In the allegedly backward Kaiserreich, Eley and Blackbourn saw various liberalizing forces in motion: housing reform, public-health initiatives, an emboldened press. It was a society riddled with anti-Semitism, yet it witnessed no upheaval on the scale of the Dreyfus Affair or the Tiszaeszlár blood-libel affair in Hungary. Eley and Blackbourn also questioned whether élitist, imperialist Britain should be held up as the modern paragon. The Sonderweg narrative could become an exculpatory fairy tale for other nations: we may make mistakes, but we will never be as bad as the Germans.

Ian Kershaw’s monumental two-volume biography (1998-2000) found a plausible middle ground between “strong” and “weak” images of Hitler in power. With his nocturnal schedule, his dislike of paperwork, and his aversion to dialogue, Hitler was an eccentric executive, to say the least. To make sense of a dictatorship in which the dictator was intermittently absent, Kershaw expounded the concept of “working towards the Führer”: when explicit direction from Hitler was lacking, Nazi functionaries guessed at what he wanted, and often further radicalized his policies.

Even as debates about the nature of Hitler’s leadership go back and forth, scholars largely agree that his ideology was more or less fixed from the mid-twenties onward. His two abiding obsessions were violent anti-Semitism and Lebensraum [“living space” for Germany to colonize]. As early as 1921, he spoke of confining Jews to concentration camps, and in 1923 he contemplated — and, for the moment, rejected — the idea of killing the entire Jewish population. The Holocaust was the result of a hideous syllogism: if Germany were to expand into the East, where millions of Jews lived, those Jews would have to vanish, because Germans could not coexist with them.

Hitler and Hindenburg, Potsdam. Hindenburg was expected by some to make Hitler more moderate and well-behaved.

And the Poles, Russians, and other nationalities that lived in the territory that Hitler desired to conquer? They too were to be exterminated in some manner. As the war continued, the Nazis noticed that there were Nordic-looking children in those Eastern lands, blond and blue-eyed. Why kill them if they could be taken away from their parents and raised to be good Germans? And that program too was begun, even though it gave a lie to the idea that you had to be a real German to be racially superior, and that Poles, Russians, and other Slavic people were subhuman (Untermensch), just like the Jews. 

~ “In just the past two or three decades, women in more than token numbers have taken their place alongside men at the upper levels of government, the professions, and business. They now earn more than half of all college degrees, and they will shortly make up a majority of lawyers, doctors, and college faculty. While they still account for only a small minority of political and business leaders, that, too, is changing.

In her remarkably wide-ranging book, Alison Wolf describes these women at the top—why their numbers have grown so fast in recent years and what their lives are like. She estimates they make up roughly 15 to 20 percent of working women in advanced countries, or about 70 million women worldwide. The book says relatively little about the other 80 to 85 percent of women, and virtually all Wolf’s interviews are with women in the upper-middle class, mainly her friends and colleagues; and, it seems to me, disproportionately women in business or finance.

The median age at first marriage for women increased from twenty-one in 1960 to twenty-seven in 2011. Reliable contraception made it feasible for women to undertake long years of education and commit to careers in a way that had not been possible before, and they began to be encouraged by, of all people, their fathers—their “besotted” fathers, in Wolf’s words. One reason for the change in the attitudes of fathers is that in the second half of the twentieth century, families became smaller.

As families became smaller, fathers became more ambitious on behalf of their daughters, since in a two- or three-child family they might have no sons. By the 1980s, women were entering the upper echelons of society on their own, and many had high enough incomes to have children without marriage and support them, if they had to. Sex, marriage, and children no longer had to go together.

Yet in the upper-middle class, they usually do go together. These women rarely go it alone, but instead make what Wolf calls “assortative” marriages; they marry men very much like themselves—well educated and fully engaged in their own high-powered careers. Assortative mating, of course, greatly increases the family income, and exacerbates the inequality that plagues the US. Even though men and women in all social classes are marrying later, upper-middle-class couples wait to have children until they are married, and their divorce rate is low. In contrast, more than 40 percent of children in the general population are now born to single mothers, and the divorce rate in the working class is about double that of upper-middle-class couples.

According to Wolf, couples at the top lead very different lives, not only from the lower classes, but from previous generations. Within the households, husbands and wives are virtually interchangeable. Both tend to be high earners, and both tend to be equally competent at childcare and household tasks. I say “tend,” because she says that some differences remain once children arrive, but the differences are not great. Women and men function like a team in all parts of their lives, pulling together at their manifold jobs, one stepping in when the other falters. They now have more in common with each other than either has with members of their own sex in the lower classes.

What most differentiates them is their total absorption in two things—their careers and their children. They devote extremely long hours to their professions, which often require them to be electronically available at almost all hours. According to Wolf’s data, upper-middle-class couples now work on average more hours per day than the rest of the population, and unlike the lower classes, they have no more leisure time now than they did in the 1960s. Contrary to what one might expect, upper-middle-class women usually return to work full-time after childbirth, whereas other women more often stop paid work at least temporarily or return only part-time. As Wolf points out, for upper-middle-class women to interrupt their careers means large sacrifices of opportunity. Moreover, their income is usually sufficient to cover the considerable expense of hiring nannies or other forms of child care. But even more important than the money is the fact that for these women, their sense of identity is tied to their professions. They are full participants in what James Surowiecki recently called “the cult of overwork.”

Since upper-middle-class parents spend almost all their time on work and children, what do they have to give up? Sleep, for one thing. According to Wolf, upper-middle-class women sleep much less than lower-class women. (The difference between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent is an hour and a half nightly.) And perhaps they give up sex, as well. Surveys cited by Wolf show they have sex on average once a week, but wish they had more. As Margaret Carlson observed in Time magazine, “sleep is the new sex.”

Upper-middle-class couples also give up home-cooked meals and spotless households, as documented by Wolf. Very little time is now spent on cleaning and other household drudgery (which still tends to be done mainly by wives), and even less on cooking. In fact, cooking usually amounts to warming up prepared foods or ordering take-out. Couples often hire women to come in and do housework once or twice a week, but they do very little themselves between visits from the maid. In the 1970s, there were ads for Wisk detergent that featured women who felt mortified because their husband had “ring around the collar.” Nowadays almost no one would be mortified, and certainly not the wife. In a New York Times article titled “The Case for Filth,” Stephen Marche concludes, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.”

But there is something more serious these couples are giving up—civic engagement—and Wolf has a chapter on that, called “Something to Regret?” “Earlier generations of educated women,” she writes, “worked largely in schools, or volunteered in the community, because little else was on offer.” They were the social and political activists. Now paid employment has largely displaced volunteering in the community. Moreover, many ambitious women no longer become teachers, except at the college level, because the pay and prestige are greater in other professions. Wolf quotes from an interview with sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol: “Women were the ones who stood up for welfare, and made the case for the public good.”

One of Wolf’s main themes is the “fracturing of sisterhood.” As men and women in the upper-middle class attain something very close to equality both in their work and at home, they pull away, Wolf writes, from the bottom 80 to 85 percent, where men and women remain segregated at work—in part because of the changes in the upper-middle class. Since upper-middle-class women are working long hours outside the home, someone has to care for their children and clean their houses, and those people are almost always other women. This is what Wolf refers to as the “return of the servant classes.”

Much of what privileged parents are trying to accomplish, says Wolf, is to ensure that their children do not fall out of the upper-middle class. To that end, parents work on their children’s résumés, almost from birth. As infants, their toys need to be educational as well as enjoyable. Getting into the right preschool is a precursor to getting into the right elementary school, and so on, right up until they are set up to get into the most prestigious colleges and beyond. I believe obsessive parenting, born of insecurity about the future, imagines the world to be more precarious than it probably is for upper-middle-class children. Just as upward mobility has become harder, I suspect downward mobility is also harder. Socioeconomic strata are now, unfortunately, fairly fixed, and these parents have the means to cushion setbacks. Nevertheless, privileged parents don’t want to take any chances.

The consequences of hyperparenting are unknown, since the phenomenon is only a few decades old. My views are shaped largely by observing my own family and friends, and that is not much to rely on, but I will speculate anyway. I see great advantages for the children, but also some warning signs. Young upper-middle-class children are, indeed, remarkably precocious. Since they have been exposed to adult conversations almost constantly from birth, they are much more articulate and broadly knowledgeable than children were a generation ago. They are also remarkably at ease with other people, both adults and children, because they are with them so much—with their parents’ friends, in early preschool, and in playgroups often organized among nannies. And having endured little frustration or isolation, they seem to me happier and more affectionate than children were in earlier generations. They love being with their parents (and why not?). They don’t go “up the street” to do “nothing.”

The tendency of childhood to extend almost to middle age is also a problem. Privileged children put in many years of education, and therefore are likely to be financially dependent on their parents longer than in previous generations. But the dependence goes beyond money. In many cases, they become such pals of their parents that they become helicopter children—hovering over their parents almost as much as their parents hover over them. I know people in their twenties who text their parents nearly every day from college, just to keep in touch.

In any case, the cult of overwork has been joined by the cult of children, and even though one would suppose upper-middle-class working women would have less time to indulge the latter, against all odds it has reached its apogee among them and their husbands. How that turns out remains to be seen.” ~

Merganser duckling sky-diving


To the cult of children we should add the cult of pets. Affection for pets seems to increase as education and income go up. Of course sometimes it’s pets instead of children.

Of course hard, inexhaustible work can provide deep fulfillment. Let me quote Virginia Woolf on gardening:

“The first pure joy of the garden . . . weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness. Gladioli standing in troops; the mock orange out. We were out till nine at night, though the evening was cold. Both stiff and scratched all over today, with chocolate earth in our nails.” ~ Virginia Woolf


~ “One of the few things that Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918, had a talent for was causing outrage. A particular specialty was insulting other monarchs. He called the diminutive King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy “the dwarf” in front of the king’s own entourage. He called Prince (later Tsar) Ferdinand, of Bulgaria, “Fernando naso,” on account of his beaky nose, and spread rumors that he was a hermaphrodite. Since Wilhelm was notably indiscreet, people always knew what he was saying behind their backs. Ferdinand had his revenge. After a visit to Germany, in 1909, during which the Kaiser slapped him on the bottom in public and then refused to apologize, Ferdinand awarded a valuable arms contract that had been promised to the Germans to a French company instead.

Not that this deterred the Kaiser. One of the many things that Wilhelm was convinced he was brilliant at, despite all evidence to the contrary, was “personal diplomacy,” fixing foreign policy through one-on-one meetings with other European monarchs and statesmen. In fact, Wilhelm could do neither the personal nor the diplomacy, and these meetings rarely went well. The Kaiser viewed other people in instrumental terms, was a compulsive liar, and seemed to have a limited understanding of cause and effect. In 1890, he let lapse a long-standing defensive agreement with Russia—the German Empire’s vast and sometimes threatening eastern neighbor. He judged, wrongly, that Russia was so desperate for German good will that he could keep it dangling. Instead, Russia immediately made an alliance with Germany’s western neighbor and enemy, France. Wilhelm decided he would charm and manipulate Tsar Nicholas II (a “ninny” and a “whimperer,” according to Wilhelm, fit only “to grow turnips”) into abandoning the alliance. In 1897, Nicholas told Wilhelm to get lost; the German-Russian alliance withered.

Wilhelm was a compulsive speechmaker who constantly strayed off script. Even his staff couldn’t stop him, though it tried, distributing copies of speeches to the German press before he’d actually given them. Unfortunately, the Austrian press printed the speeches as they were delivered, and the gaffes and insults soon circulated around Europe. “There is only one person who is master in this empire and I am not going to tolerate any other,” Wilhelm liked to say, even though Germany had a democratic assembly and political parties. (“I’m the only one that matters,” Trump has said.) The Kaiser reserved particular abuse for political parties that voted against his policies. “I regard every Social Democrat as an enemy of the Fatherland,” he said, and he denounced the German Socialist party as a “gang of traitors.” August Bebel, the Socialist party leader, said that every time the Kaiser opened his mouth, the party gained another hundred thousand votes.

When Wilhelm became emperor, in 1888, at twenty-nine years old, he was determined to be seen as tough and powerful. He fetishized the Army, surrounded himself with generals (though, like Trump, he didn’t like listening to them), owned a hundred and twenty military uniforms, and wore little else. He cultivated a special severe facial expression for public occasions and photographs—there are many, as Wilhelm would send out signed photos and portrait busts to anyone who’d have one—and also a heavily waxed, upward-turned moustache that was so famous it had its own name, “Er ist Erreicht!” (It is accomplished!)
In fact, Wilhelm didn’t accomplish very much. The general staff of the German Army agreed that the Kaiser couldn’t “lead three soldiers over a gutter.” He had neither the attention span nor the ability. “Distractions, whether they are little games with his army or navy, traveling or hunting—are everything to him,” a disillusioned former mentor wrote. “He reads very little apart from newspaper cuttings, hardly writes anything himself apart from marginalia on reports and considers those talks best which are quickly over and done with.” The Kaiser’s entourage compiled press cuttings for him, mostly about himself, which he read obsessively. A critical story would send him into paroxysms of fury.
During Wilhelm’s reign, the upper echelons of the German government began to unravel into a free-for-all, with officials wrangling against one another. “The most contradictory opinions are now urged at high and all-highest level,” a German diplomat lamented. To add to the confusion, Wilhelm changed his position every five minutes. He was deeply suggestible and would defer to the last person he’d spoken to or cutting he’d read—at least until he’d spoken to the next person. “It is unendurable,” a foreign minister wrote, in 1894. “Today one thing and tomorrow the next and after a few days something completely different.” Wilhelm’s staff and ministers resorted to manipulation, distraction, and flattery to manage him. “In order to get him to accept an idea you must act as if the idea were his,” the Kaiser’s closest friend, Philipp zu Eulenburg, advised his colleagues, adding, “Don’t forget the sugar.”

More sinisterly, Wilhelm’s patronage of the aggressive, nationalistic right left him surrounded by ministers who held a collective conviction that a European war was inevitable and even desirable. Alfred von Tirpitz, Germany’s Naval chief—who realized at his first meeting with the Kaiser that he did “not live in the real world”—consciously exploited Wilhelm’s envy and rage in order to extract the astronomical sums required to build a German Navy to rival Britain’s, a project that created an arms race and became an intractable block to peace negotiations.

The Kaiser was susceptible but never truly controllable. He asserted his authority unpredictably, as if to prove he was still in charge, staging rogue interventions into his own advisers’ policies and sacking ministers without warning. “You cannot have the faintest idea what I have prevented,” his most obsequious aide, Bernhard von Bülow, complained to a friend, “and how much of my time I must devote to restoring order where our All Highest Master has created chaos.”

The Kaiser’s darkest secret was that every few years—after his meddling and blunders had exposed his incompetence or resulted in a crisis—he would suffer a full-blown collapse. His entourage would scrape him off the floor, and he would retire to one of his palaces, where, prostrate, he would weep and complain that he’d been victimized. After the moaning came the pacing, in uncharacteristic silence. Occasionally he would give way to tears. Gradually he would recalibrate his sense of reality—or unreality—and after a few weeks would bounce up again, as boisterous and obstreperous as ever.

The Kaiser wasn’t singly responsible for the First World War, but his actions and choices helped to bring it on. If international conflict is around the corner, it would seem that you really don’t want a narcissist in control of a global power. Wilhelm’s touchiness, his unpredictability, his need to be acknowledged: these things struck a chord with elements in Germany, which was in a kind of adolescent spasm—quick to perceive slights, excited by the idea of flexing its muscles, filled with a sense of entitlement.

At the same time, Wilhelm’s posturing raised tensions in Europe. His clumsy personal diplomacy created suspicion. His alliance with the vitriolic right and his slavish admiration for the Army inched the country closer and closer to war. Once the war was actually upon him, the government and military effectively swept the Kaiser aside. And the gravest damage occurred only after Wilhelm abdicated, in November of 1918. (He spent the rest of his life—he survived until 1941—in central Holland.) The defeated Germany sank into years of depression, resentments sharpened, the toxic lie that Germany had been “robbed” of its rightful victory in the war took hold. The rest, as they say, is history.” ~


VIA NEGATIVA TO HAPPINESS (or at least contentment)
~ “British journalist Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. "He believes that the negative path is the one, if not to happiness, then to fulfillment. His brilliant analysis of what’s wrong with that “happiness industry” shows the limitations of spending your mental energy on such staples of the self-help guides as positive imagery, getting yourself motivated(!!!), and dousing your mind of all thoughts that you could possibly fail at your life’s most cherished goals. On the contrary, he advises thinking about the some of the very worst outcomes you could possibly imagine, including your own demise. Instead of trying to rid your mind of all negative imagery, he advocates embracing it, watching the negative thoughts drift in and out of your consciousness without trying to drown them out.

Burkeman strips his message down to its roots in Stoic philosophy which, as he argues, forms the basis for modern cognitive behavioral therapy. By this he means that the Stoics of ancient Greece believed that our emotions are determined by our judgments—or, as Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” An event, in and of itself, has no emotional meaning. It’s what we make of it that determines how we feel. Stoics could observe events without judging their inherent goodness or badness and, as a result, accept these experiences on their own terms. Things happen and it’s up to us to decide how to interpret what these things mean and how they ultimately will affect us.”
. . .

A little more on the via negativa to happiness:

"Here's the word that will change your life," Schuller tells his audience. After a dramatic pause he yells out, "Cut! … Cut the word 'impossible' from your life.... Cut it out forever!"

A few months later Schuller, the ringmaster of this failure-is-not-an-option lovefest, declares his Crystal Cathedral bankrupt.
Accept the idea that you will inevitably die. Learn to celebrate your failures. See the wisdom in your pessimistic thoughts. Burkeman writes that "the effort to try and feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable." He argues that "it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy."

Using the example of the disasters that have befallen many who have tried to climb Mt. Everest — the ultimate type-A personality goal — Burkeman shows persuasively that "goal setting" as a path to success is a fallacy.
Countless books relate the triumphs of the adventurers and the corporate executives who set ambitious goals for themselves — and who take risks in the relentless pursuit of those goals. What those books don't tell us is that the leaders responsible for the world's most spectacular failures possess exactly the same qualities. It's a simple insight, but a powerful one.” ~


~ “Personality change is not unique to adolescence. If you zoom out and look across the entire lifespan, what you see is an average increase in desirable personality traits – less angst, greater self-control, less close-mindedness, more friendliness. Psychologists call this the “maturity principle” and if you’re a self-conscious and anxious 20-something, it’s comforting to know that, assuming your personality follows a typical course, then the older you get, the mellower you will become.” ~ Christian Jarrett


This mellowness of later years is one of life’s greatest gifts. The memory of the torments of youth has never left me — making me all the more grateful for the blessings. “I have such a grateful nature, you could bribe me with a sardine.” ~ Teresa of Avila 



“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

“Reason is the Devil's greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil's appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom ... Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism... She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets.”

“To be a Christian, you must pluck out the eye of reason.”

“There is on earth among all dangers no more dangerous thing than a richly endowed and adroit reason... Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God.”

~ Martin Luther


I’ve posted this church sign before, without realizing that it’s a sanitized quotation from Luther’s writings 500 years ago. I can understand that the word “whore” would be too much for a church sign (though it’s common in the mouths of biblical prophets, though it’s also translated as “harlot,” which strikes me as subtly less harsh — unlike “whore,” “harlot” is a relatively pretty word in terms of the way it sounds). Note Luther's inflammatory, violent language; only his anti-Semitic statements are even more extreme.

When I first posted it, I got this interesting comment: “People are either communists in religion and rugged individualists in finance or vice versa.”

I think that for “finance” we can substitute “social-economic arrangements,” e.g. the social safety net. The religious right is invariably hostile toward any “social programs,” which are equated with communism. At the same time, faith is about total, blind obedience. But I mean the religious right, not mainstream Protestantism — which includes the modern liberal Lutheranism.

So I certainly don’t mean to lash out against Protestantism per se. In spite of Luther’s foaming at the mouth about reason, liberal Protestant scholars have given us a critical examination of the foundations of Christianity and reconstructed the way the bible was composed. This used to be called “higher criticism” but is more usefully know simply as historical criticism. And it started already in the 17th century. Luther’s courage to think on his own (again, in spite of his professed hatred of reason) has proved a lasting inspiration.

Luther throwing an ink-pot at the devil

“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.” ~ Christopher Hitchens, "Mortality"



~ “Researchers working with mice discovered in 2010 that thalidomide attaches a key tumor-causing protein to the regulatory protein cereblon (CRBN). This change signals to the trash-disposal system that this molecular structure must be eliminated—somewhat like putting a garbage can out on the curb. Tragically, thalidomide can also recruit and tag for destruction a protein required for fetal limb development, leading to birth defects.

Pharmaceutical companies are now trying to harness this tagging-for-disposal approach with many other proteins that can cause disease. Their work has given rise to a new area of drug research called “protein degradation therapy”—a term of art referring to treatments that zero in on and eliminate proteins known to wreak havoc in the body. Researchers in this field have started with cancer, where the molecular targets are relatively clear. Later, researchers also hope to use these same approaches with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“That’s the promise—that you’ll be able to target a range of things,” says Aseem Ansari, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is involved in this area of research. Despite thalidomide’s success, protein degradation so far remains largely untested in humans—and it will probably be several years before early trials in patients can advance enough to prove the approach will work beyond multiple myeloma.

In one of the key papers in the protein degradation field—a 2015 study published in Science that convinced drug companies the approach had promise beyond multiple myeloma—a team at the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute injected mice with a thalidomide-like drug. This degraded a protein called BRD4—essential for leukemia growth in both mice and people. “To our delight and amazement the targets of these molecules were degraded by the cell in as early as 15 minutes, and by an hour they were almost completely gone,” says Jay Bradner, an oncologist and the study’s senior author.” ~


Thalidomide is also an anti-angiogenic compound — it prevents the formation of new blood vessels that tumors need in order to grow. 


ending on beauty:


There are books I love.
When I read them I feel tears
Come to my eyes. You know
What I mean. Sometimes

You’ll be sitting in a car
Reading a novel you’ve read before
Waiting for your wife or husband
To get done with the shopping

And you come to a part
About something so close
To you that you feel the writer —
Even if she’s making it up —

Must have in some past life
Lived that moment you lived
In some life, lived a pain
So hard you want to take

The writer’s hand and hold it
Against your own chest
And say nothing.

~ John Guzlowski


  1. Last night I had dinner with a couple of friends. She was raised Lutheran. He was raised Jewish.

    She mentioned her parents -- practicing and serious Lutherans both -- were on a tour of German sites associated with Luther and the reformation. I asked her if there ever any discussion of luther's strong antisemitism in her church. She looked at me like she had no sense of what I was talking about. I looked at her husband. He gave me the same look. These are smart, highly educated people. But they were surprised. They had never heard of Luther's antisemitism, nor how it was used to prop up hitler and nazism.

    Afterward, I was talking with my wife, and she was surprised I was surprised. She mentioned to me that even though I had 12 years of Catholic education I probably never heard about the terrible things the Catholic Church did. She was right of course. Just as the USA tries to forget the terrible things it's done in the past, churches have selective memories.

    1. Yes, absolutely. The Catholic church won't discuss how they massacred the Gnostics and otherwise simply exterminated anyone who was seen as a threat. Aside from the Inquisition and the public burning at the stake, the church employed hit men. There was a price on Luther's head (he was protected by a powerful duke). This is the notorious Catholic "trail of blood" -- but we know other religions are by no means innocent. There is this tendency to become a ruthless, murderous dictatorship. And the whitewashing of history, yes, of course, at all levels. Nationalism is pretty similar to a religion.

  2. In more recent history, there was the Mormon-led massacre at Mountain Meadows. The victims were non-Mormon -- churches don't like competition. Other religions are a threat.