Saturday, June 29, 2019


Mt. Fuji, aerial view; Toshio Kawai


Because at bedtime I read,
Music is the memory
of what never happened, and heard
the slow movement of a Brahms sextet,

the melody, like a summer
that far north, brought back
a memory of what never happened,
long ago, in my room in Warsaw.

It was a dream of heaven:
I was in my bed, and the green-eyed
motorcycle rider I met
in the Mazurian Lakes, and waited for

that whole year, walking the leafy
length of Warsaw, found me at last —
this bridegroom of the wind,
his weight the sweet burden

of everything unknown.
That night at last I heard
the music of what never happened,
though it did: he’d come to me

in my other life. In that heaven
like the thin mist blown against
All Hallows’ graves,
I had no plans: I only wanted to feel

his body upon my body.
In the music that would never stop,
we lay dreamless in the silent dark,
far from time, not needing anything.

~ Oriana

Oskar Kokoschka, Bride of the Wind, 1913


~ “No animals appear to have been harmed in the making of these poems.” That’s David Orr writing about Mary Oliver’s work in a review of O Magazine’s spring 2011 poetry issue. Readers of Oliver know otherwise: some animals in her poems come to very great harm. Crows dream of murdering an owl, a caught fish flails and sucks at “the burning amazement of the air,” flying bluefish rip a school of minnows to shreds, and vultures look for death “to eat it, to make it vanish.”

And that’s just in one of her twenty-plus books, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Primitive.

Elizabeth Bishop’s animals, I’ve noticed, are harmed too. A depilated [shaved] dog is threatened with drowning, roosters clawed to death in a cock fight are flung on ash heaps, an owl’s nest is burned by a fire balloon, dead pigeons fall from the sky in Paris where winter “lies under a dead wing with damp feathers.” Often, animals are beleaguered or mocked: other birds are hysterical, an enormous turtle is helpless, tanagers are embarrassed (and that’s just in Florida!). Elsewhere, the celebrated enormous fish is weary with escape, the sandpiper is obsessed, puffins are silly.

Oliver and Bishop share a clear appetite for animal flail and gore and death. But many readers don’t seem to make very much of this. Critics praise the work, but tend to smile gently, indulgently, upon Bishop’s rhymes, her received forms and elegant impersonality, Oliver’s “old-fashioned” subjects.

Looking deeper, I find something else, a darker vision. Both Bishop and Oliver escaped from unhappy home lives: neglectful mothers, sexual abuse by an uncle, a father. “It was a very dark and broken house that I came from,” Oliver once told an interviewer. Bishop couldn’t or wouldn’t say anywhere near that much, even surrounded by all those confessing poets. She called them “the self-pitiers.”

There was no #MeToo for Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver (there was, in fact, for Bishop hardly any me at all). What seems to have saved both women is the hard, clear gaze of their poems, the large view: outward, across, away, up. But not always up. Sometimes down and precariously deep.

Oliver’s poems may start in the light of the natural world, but so many pass through or conclude in abject darkness. The end of a prose poem, “August”: “I think of the painting by Van Gogh, the man in the chair. Everything wrong and nowhere to go. His hands over his eyes.” Or “The Son” and “The Lost Children,” poems in which “loss leans like a broken tree,” always threatening. Bishop’s “awful but cheerful” formality and careful observation are the vehicle for the death of a young child in winter, whole catalogues of losses in “One Art,” unspoken grief in “Sestina,” in which the grandmother is “laughing and talking to hide her tears.”

Orr also wrote this about the poetry issue of O:

I wish, though, that [the magazine’s editors] had found space for someone—not a critic, necessarily, just someone willing to be honest—to talk about the actual experience of reading a poem. Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people. Not where poems come from. Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember.

I would argue that is the “actual experience” of reading a poem for most people: the igniting of a memory, the experience of joy, of solace. And I believe it’s as “actual” for the poet as it is for the reader.

I am struck by the similarity of Mary Oliver’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s fish poems, beginning with the act of catching a fish, which is made in both poems to seem remarkable, even a little brazen. After that, both women turn to a contemplation of what’s on the inside of the hooked fish. The speaker in Oliver’s poem says of the first fish she ever caught “I opened his body and separated/ the flesh from the bones/ and ate him.” Bishop’s speaker thinks of “the coarse white flesh / packed in like feathers. . . / the dramatic reds and blacks / of his shiny entrails.”

For Oliver, eating the fish is obviously a kind of communion and resurrection: “Now the sea / is in me: I am the fish, the fish / glitters in me; we are risen, / tangled together. . . .” Bishop’s communion is nearly unacknowledged: “I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little rented boat.” The victory here would seem to belong only to the fish, whose lower lip holds “five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth.” But then you remember that the fish isn’t even in the boat. In the end, the real victory is Bishop’s: “I let the fish go.” The victory is the letting go.

Oliver and Bishop outlived the great pain. At the end of her fish poem, Mary Oliver says so explicitly: “Out of pain, / and pain, and more pain / we. . .are nourished/ by the mystery.” For Bishop, “everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!”

Though it is perhaps too easy and too common to read poems by women as autobiographical, I should say here that it is hardly a coincidence that both fish, the eaten and the released, are identified as male. And since I will likely be taken to task for this reading, let me cast caution to the wind and keep going. I get the sense that these two poets are having a conversation. I can almost hear them. Miss Bishop, Mary Oliver says, let me help you. Elizabeth Bishop says nothing, but that is assent enough.

What if poets could speak across time, not only to each other, but for each other?

Time is an etoile, says Bishop, in the poem “Paris, 7 A.M.,” a star, a many-pointed thing casting itself out in several directions. Now is nowhere, says Oliver in “Fall Song.”

Think about it: in the absence of time, all things are equal, all poets coexist, happily. There is no anxiety of influence.  There is only something akin to the joy, the delicious surprise people sometimes feel when they complete each other’s sentences. The sound of the laughter that arises at such moments. Laughter, letting go and undoing, somehow, the harm.” ~

~ “The renewed interest and celebration of Bishop’s work might be partially due to the discovery of letters made public in 2015, written by the poet to her psychiatrist and friend, Ruth Foster. In them,

we learn much more about her early traumas and frustrations, her sense of abandonment, her experience with incest and physical abuse, her long struggle with alcoholism, and her consistent belief that poetry provided the one stabilizing force in her life. The satisfaction poetry gave her was more reliable, even, than love. Near the end of her life, she had this to say about her work:

“What one seems to want in art is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (In this sense it is always ‘escape,’ don’t you think?)” ~


What interests me about both of these poets is that they did not take the confessional route. They chose instead to “gaze at the world,” to use the phrase coined by Larry Levis. And it was precisely this outward focus that seemed to keep away despair.


WHY THE MALAYSIAN JET MH370 DISAPPEARED (the most likely scenario)
~ “At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator. He flew it frequently, and often posted to online forums about his hobby. In the cockpit, Fariq would have been deferential to him, but Zaharie was not known for being overbearing.

Up in the cockpit that night, while First Officer Fariq flew the airplane, Captain Zaharie handled the radios. The arrangement was standard. Zaharie’s transmissions were a bit unusual. At 1:01 a.m. he radioed that they had leveled off at 35,000 feet—a superfluous report in radar-surveilled airspace where the norm is to report leaving an altitude, not arriving at one. At 1:08 the flight crossed the Malaysian coastline and set out across the South China Sea in the direction of Vietnam. Zaharie again reported the plane’s level at 35,000 feet.

Eleven minutes later, as the airplane closed in on a waypoint near the start of Vietnamese air-traffic jurisdiction, the controller at Kuala Lumpur Center radioed, “Malaysian three-seven-zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one-two-zero-decimal-nine. Good night.” Zaharie answered, “Good night. Malaysian three-seven-zero.” He did not read back the frequency, as he should have, but otherwise the transmission sounded normal. It was the last the world heard from MH370. The pilots never checked in with Ho Chi Minh or answered any of the subsequent attempts to raise them. The Vietnamese controllers saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar.

The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. 


This leaves us with a different sort of event, a hijacking from within where no forced entry is required—by a pilot who runs amok. Reasonable people may resist the idea that a pilot would murder hundreds of innocent passengers as the collateral price of killing himself. The definitive response is that this has happened before. In 1997, a captain working for a Singaporean airline called SilkAir is believed to have disabled the black boxes of a Boeing 737 and to have plunged the airplane at supersonic speeds into a river.* In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 was deliberately crashed into the sea by its co-pilot off the coast of Long Island, resulting in the loss of everyone on board. In 2013, just months before MH370 disappeared, the captain of LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 flew his Embraer E190 twin jet from cruising altitude into the ground, killing all 27 passengers and all six crew members. The most recent case is the Germanwings Airbus that was deliberately crashed into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, also causing the loss of everyone on board. Its co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had waited for the pilot to use the bathroom and then locked him out. Lubitz had a record of depression and—as investigations later discovered—had made a study of MH370’s disappearance, one year earlier.

In the case of MH370, it is difficult to see the co-pilot as the perpetrator. He was young and optimistic, and reportedly planning to get married. He had no history of any sort of trouble, dissent, or doubts. He was not a German signing on to a life in a declining industry of budget airlines, low salaries, and even lower prestige. He was flying a glorious Boeing 777 in a country where the national airline and its pilots are still considered a pretty big deal.

It is the captain, Zaharie, who raises concerns. The first warning is his portrayal in the official reports as someone beyond reproach—a good pilot and placid family man who liked to play with a flight simulator. This is the image promoted by Zaharie’s family, but it is contradicted by multiple indications of trouble that too obviously have been brushed over.

The truth, as I discovered after speaking in Kuala Lumpur with people who knew him or knew about him, is that Zaharie was often lonely and sad. His wife had moved out, and was living in the family’s second house. By his own admission to friends, he spent a lot of time pacing empty rooms waiting for the days between flights to go by. He was also a romantic. He is known to have established a wistful relationship with a married woman and her three children, one of whom was disabled, and to have obsessed over two young internet models, whom he encountered on social media, and for whom he left Facebook comments that apparently did not elicit responses. Some were shyly sexual. He mentioned in one comment, for example, that one of the girls, who was wearing a robe in a posted photo, looked like she had just emerged from a shower. Zaharie seems to have become somewhat disconnected from his earlier, well-established life. He was in touch with his children, but they were grown and gone. The detachment and solitude that can accompany the use of social media—and Zaharie used social media a lot—probably did not help. There is a strong suspicion among investigators in the aviation and intelligence communities that he was clinically depressed.

If Malaysia were a country where, in official circles, the truth was welcome, then the police portrait of Zaharie as a healthy and happy man would carry some weight. But Malaysia is not such a country, and the official omission of evidence to the contrary only adds to all the other evidence that Zaharie was a troubled man.

Forensic examinations of Zaharie’s simulator by the FBI revealed that he experimented with a flight profile roughly matching that of MH370—a flight north around Indonesia followed by a long run to the south, ending in fuel exhaustion over the Indian Ocean. Malaysian investigators dismissed this flight profile as merely one of several hundred that the simulator had recorded. That is true, as far as it goes, which is not far enough. Victor Iannello, an engineer and entrepreneur in Roanoke, Virginia, who has become another prominent member of the Independent Group and has done extensive analysis of the simulated flight, underscores what the Malaysian investigators ignored. Of all the profiles extracted from the simulator, the one that matched MH370’s path was the only one that Zaharie did not run as a continuous flight—in other words, taking off on the simulator and letting the flight play out, hour after hour, until it reached the destination airport. Instead he advanced the flight manually in multiple stages, repeatedly jumping the flight forward and subtracting the fuel as necessary until it was gone. Iannello believes that Zaharie was responsible for the diversion. Given that there was nothing technical that Zaharie could have learned by rehearsing the act on a gamelike Microsoft consumer product, Iannello suspects that the purpose of the simulator flight may have been to leave a bread-crumb trail to say goodbye. Referring to the flight profile that MH370 would follow, Iannello said of Zaharie, “It’s as if he was simulating a simulation.” Without a note of explanation, Zaharie’s reasoning is impossible to know. But the simulator flight cannot easily be dismissed as a random coincidence.

In Kuala Lumpur, I met with one of Zaharie’s lifelong friends, a fellow 777 captain whose name I have omitted because of possible repercussions for him. He too believed that Zaharie was guilty, a conclusion he had come to reluctantly. He described the mystery as a pyramid that is broad at the base and one man wide at the top, meaning that the inquiry might have begun with many possible explanations but ended up with a single one. He said, “It doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to reconcile with the man I knew. But it’s the necessary conclusion.” I asked about the need Zaharie would have had to somehow deal with his cockpit companion, First Officer Fariq Hamid. He replied, “That’s easy. Zaharie was an examiner. All he had to say was ‘Go check something in the cabin,’ and the guy would have been gone.” I asked about a motive. He had no idea. He said, “Zaharie’s marriage was bad. In the past he slept with some of the flight attendants. And so what? We all do. You’re flying all over the world with these beautiful girls in the back. But his wife knew.” He agreed that this was hardly a reason to go berserk, but thought Zaharie’s emotional state might have been a factor.

Does the absence of all of this from the official report— Zaharie’s travails; the peculiar nature of the flight profile on the simulator—not to mention the technical inadequacies of the report itself, constitute a cover-up? At this point, we cannot say. We know some of what the investigators knew but chose not to reveal. There is likely more that they discovered and that we do not yet know.

Which brings us back to the demise of MH370. It is easy to imagine Zaharie toward the end, strapped into an ultra-comfortable seat in the cockpit, inhabiting his cocoon in the glow of familiar instruments, knowing that there could be no return from what he had done, and feeling no need to hurry. He would long since have repressurized the airplane and warmed it to the right degree. There was the hum of the living machine, the beautiful abstractions on the flatscreen displays, the carefully considered backlighting of all the switches and circuit breakers. There was the gentle whoosh of the air rushing by. The cockpit is the deepest, most protective, most private sort of home. Around 7 a.m., the sun rose over the eastern horizon, to the airplane’s left. A few minutes later it lit the ocean far below. Had Zaharie already died in flight? He could at some point have depressurized the airplane again and brought his life to an end. This is disputed and far from certain. Indeed, there is some suspicion, from fuel-exhaustion simulations that investigators have run, that the airplane, if simply left alone, would not have dived quite as radically as the satellite data suggest that it did—a suspicion, in other words, that someone was at the controls at the end, actively helping to crash the airplane. Either way, somewhere along the seventh arc, after the engines failed from lack of fuel, the airplane entered a vicious spiral dive with descent rates that ultimately may have exceeded 15,000 feet a minute. We know from that descent rate, as well as from Blaine Gibson’s shattered debris, that the airplane disintegrated into confetti when it hit the water.

The important answers probably don’t lie in the ocean but on land, in Malaysia. That should be the focus moving forward. Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say. The riddle may not be deep. That is the frustration here. The answers may well lie close at hand, but they are more difficult to retrieve than any black box.” ~


You may ask about the passengers, who surely would have noticed after a while that they are not headed for Beijing. Frantic cellphone calls, possibly rioting in the cabin — that was not what the captain would desire. The author speculates that the captain depressurized the cabin, killing them all (the oxygen in those colorful little masks is enough for only 15 minutes). 

The helplessness of the passengers and the godlike power of the deranged captain are among the factors that make the story so disturbing. It's a little world of its own up there. It could be us, at the mercy of a suicidal god.


To choose suicide that involves so many more deaths than your own, what does that kind of choice mean? I think there is often a huge amount of anger in suicide. My brother in law's nephew parked in front of his mother's house, then blew his head off. The horror there for his family to discover, unfiltered and unretouched, in all its gory and fresh detail. 

Also those instances when people drive into traffic, destroying others while they destroy themselves — they want to share their pain, inflict pain and loss in the very act of ending their own. There is anger and revenge in creating your own little apocalypse, more in these acts than simply wanting to be rid of one's own unbearable suffering. And maybe it makes one's own death seem less lonely, as well as making a statement  defying overwhelming feelings of powerlessness… as, i am powerful enough to be a destroyer of many lives, one not to be pitied or forgotten,  but feared.


I think you are right on. I also wonder about sexual rejection, and the hatred of women that it may provoke — the feeling of being a failure because of not being attractive to women. But above all, I imagine there must be a “takeover” by a profoundly irrational state of mind. 


After reading an article on how the kids who are most envied in high school often fall apart later, I recalled something that now haunts me again. There was a girl in my high school class who was beautiful without being popular — she was mean-tempered and a poor student. Basia didn’t excel at anything except painfully pinching other girls (no one else engaged in such juvenile meanness; clever verbal teasing was another story).

In spite of being a classic beauty, she lacked charisma and boys stayed away from her. Yet I remember a moment when I stood in a doorway and saw her as if for the first time, and stood there astonished — the first time I truly noticed how exquisite her face was — delicate, soulful. A kind of holy hush came over me.

And I thought, “Now I understand why men fall in love with women. It’s the beauty.”“Beauty holds us by a single hair,” I later read somewhere, and thought of Basia again.

She happens to be the only former classmate of whom I was later to receive some news: she’d become an alcoholic and allegedly went downhill fast (“looks like a wreck; and she used to be such a lovely girl”). I knew she started drinking the last year of high school — she freely confessed it, but it seemed innocent, just experimenting. Back in that lilac-lush springtime, it never occurred to me what turn that would take.

It was uncanny, Basia's combination of beauty with alcoholism and personality problems. It was a lesson about true attractiveness versus flawless features.

In college I’d known two beauty queen-types who later became grossly obese. The genes that make a person susceptible to obesity and alcoholism are essentially the same; in young adulthood, often a time of great stress, it seems that circumstances decide which it will be. I’ve also known two people who consciously chose junk food over alcoholism as less destructive to others and more socially acceptable, especially for women.

As for Basia, for all I know she may be dead by now. If a woman keeps drinking past the age of forty, her ability to detox alcohol decreases rapidly; fatal liver disease is not unusual. Also, suicide is much more common among alcoholics. In my memory, however, Basia is forever eighteen, forever beautiful. The lilacs are always in bloom.



I wrote this six years ago: “When life becomes stressful, I need art and beautiful writing, the life of the mind, all the more. I realize there is a parallel here with religious people turning to religion in times of hardship. People come in different flavors; some need religion, some need pets, some need sports — I need beauty. I feed on beauty and ideas. I am so glad that beauty is everywhere, reminding me that life is magnificent. As a friend said, “I believe in life before death.”

My need is just as intense now, but the avalanche of practical problems that constantly threatens to bury me in the mundane is a greater problem than in the past. I do all I can to secure as much life of the mind and connection with beauty as possible. It feels ecstatic to enter that different realm, even briefly.


“Juliet, Naked” — no nudity. And not much else to hold our interest, either. But perhaps one line will strike a chord with some viewers: “I want to have a child because I would like to experience unconditional love.”

“Late Night” — this “queen of late-night comedy” is no Joan Rivers. And this should remind us that there is no female host of a late-night comedy show. Joan Rivers didn’t last long, apparently due to squabbles with the network. She later succeeded with a daytime show. She was brassy, she could be offensive, but all agree: Joan Rivers really was funny. She had a way of being funny simply by being herself.

This cannot be said for Emma Thompson. She delivers an outstanding performance, but . . . she jokes are not funny.

However, there is an outstanding moment. Thompson’s character, Katherine Newbury, has been caught having an extramarital affair with one of her staff writers. She comes clean about it to the audience. Then she says, “Now, if a male show host had an affair with a staff writer, that would be reprehensible.” Pause, just long enough to make us expect something about a double standard, perhaps. Thompson goes on: “When a female show host has an affair with a staff writer, it is just as reprehensible.” 

The tender reconciliation between Katherine and her husband, who suffers from Parkinson’s, is also a beautiful moment. 

Finally, as a poet, I was delighted to hear the last lines of one of Yeats’s poems at the beginning of the movie, and then again close to the end. Let me quote the entire poem:

The Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

At the beginning of the movie, the enraptured dreamer, on her way to an interview, whispers the last three lines, only to get hit with a bag of garbage, an unsubtle symbol of a “dose of reality.” But toward the end of the movie, the dreams prevail. Strangely enough, between the quintessentially British star and the no-beauty-queen young Indian woman, a “diversity hire” who manages to loosen her up, Late Night ends up as a very upbeat American movie. 

American, yes; realistic, not. There is the stubborn fact that there is no woman late-night show host on American television — and, except for the few months when Joan Rivers tried, there has never been one. And she was so good on the nights when she took over for Johnny Carson! But here I'm getting dangerously close to wishing the movie had been based on Joan Rivers instead.


~ “More American parents are pondering the only child, because more American parents are raising them: The proportion of mothers who had one child at the end of their childbearing years doubled from 11 percent in 1976 to 22 percent in 2015, according to Pew Research Center, and census data show the trend continuing to tick steadily upward.

Culturally, only-child families — the fastest-growing family unit in the United States — are in the midst of a sea change. Individually, only children are the same as they ever were, which is to say that they are most definitely not all the same, which has never stopped society from branding the cohort with a slew of profoundly unflattering and occasionally contradictory stereotypes. They are spoiled brats, troubled misfits, social aberrations; they’re attention-craving showboats, but also, somehow, reclusive weirdos.

But in recent decades, something has begun to shift. Families are shrinking, and improvements in gender equality have made childbearing more of a question than a given. As Gen X and millennial women prioritize personal and career goals, as couples marry and start their families later in life, more parents find themselves mulling the logistical, financial and philosophical possibilities of a smaller family: What would it mean for them if they had only one child? What would it mean for their offspring?

When they ask Billy Collins [the poet who wrote he never missed having siblings], he assures them that he found his circumstances, growing up in New York City in the 1950s, really quite ideal.

“On weekends, I’d run around with this ragamuffin gang of friends, but at a certain point in the day I would break off and go and hide somewhere. I really enjoyed just being alone,” he says. “What’s wrong with being alone?”

It’s rare to trace a pervasive social bias to a single source, but experts agree that we can blame the spread of so-called “Only Child Syndrome” — symptoms include social isolation, narcissism and general delinquency — on Granville Stanley Hall, the preeminent child psychology expert of the late 19th century, appointed the first president of the American Psychological Association in 1892. It was Hall’s decidedly unscientific 1896 survey of “peculiar and exceptional children” that led him to famously declare that “being an only child is a disease in itself.”

“His study was done in an era where children were quite isolated, they lived on farms with great distances between them, they had great workloads, and they didn’t interact with other children the way children do today,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author who has researched only children. “He concluded that only children are selfish, they’re lonely, they have more imaginary friends than other children — which is absolutely not true.”

Hall’s theories were ultimately debunked by an onslaught of credible research in the decades that followed. (In the mid-1980s, social psychologist Toni Falbo and researcher Denise Polit examined more than a hundred studies of only children conducted since 1925 and concluded that only children were virtually indistinguishable from other children in terms of personality. Like firstborn children or kids with one sibling, only children were found to have some intellectual and academic advantages.

While having brothers or sisters can certainly yield benefits for some kids — close, healthy relationships between siblings have been tied to happiness well into old age — the innumerable variables that shape any individual childhood make it especially difficult to draw clear conclusions about siblings vs. singletons as a whole. Overall, Newman says, the existing research simply doesn’t show that only children are at any measurable disadvantage.)

It’s been half a century since “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “The Brady Bunch” were pop culture touchstones. The definition of an American family now spans an incredibly vast and diverse array of possibilities.

And yet.

“Hall’s ideas just stuck,” Newman says. “As a culture, we became so mired in the stereotype, and it’s very hard to change our thinking.”

But Newman believes its grip on our collective consciousness is finally loosening. “It’s changing because there are more and more only children, and people are seeing for themselves that only children are not lonely, they’re not odd, they’re not selfish.”

Aimee Taylor, who owns a small marketing company in Ashburn, Va., says she has witnessed this transformation. For years, she believed her first daughter would be an only child — then her second girl arrived unexpectedly when her eldest was 9.

“With my younger daughter, who is 7 now, her friends come from much smaller families; she knows plenty of only children,” Taylor says. “My older daughter really did not; she was alone in not having a sibling. And this is a change in just over a decade or so, living in the same house in the same neighborhood.”

In that decade, prospective parents have struggled to build their careers in the wake of the recession, facing stagnant wages and soaring costs of living. The price tag of raising a child now tops $230,000 (college not included). For those who live and work in cities or wish to preserve the freedom and flexibility they’ve enjoyed well into their 30s, one child may be an appealing solution.

Sometimes, one child is the result of both choice and chance, a result of a narrowing fertility window as parents wait longer to start their families.

“If I was younger, we probably would have had two. But being older, and then with the expense of a child, we are comfortable with one,” says Melissa Wilson, who lives with her husband and 4-year-old daughter in Minneapolis. “We can have fun, we can give her what she needs, we don’t need to worry about it as much as if we had two.”

And sometimes an only child isn’t a question at all.

“It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to not have two children as it just never really came up,” says Beth Carter, who lives in Tacoma, Wash., with her husband and 7-year-old son. “It just was never something that we felt like we needed to do; I just did not have the desire. The question is so often framed as a decision not to have a second instead of a decision to have a second, and I think that’s so interesting, as if that is the default — that you’ll have another.”

Nonagenarian comedian Betty White loved being an only child: "I did a magnificent job of choosing a mother and father," she has said. "I was the happiest only child in captivity."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley did not: “I do believe that the children should outnumber the parents,” she once wrote.

People are often drawn to the idea of replicating a childhood model they enjoyed, or avoiding one they didn’t, which means that people who are close to their own siblings — such as Wilson, who moved to Minnesota in part to be nearer to her sister — might feel a bit unsettled at first by the prospect of raising one child.

“I was a little worried about her being an only child,” Wilson says of her daughter, who happily bounces from swimming lessons to gymnastics lessons to quiet time at home, where she likes to paint and practice reading. “But my brother-in-law is an only child, and he has lots of friends, and he did just fine. I just want to make sure she has enough friends that become close enough to be like family to her.”

“Only children are so often accused of being selfish, but in fact what I’ve found is that growing up as an only child makes you more open to the world,” says Sasikumar, who has a sister. “You kind of have to go out and find your people and find your tribe; you don’t have that ready-made for you at home in your family.”

When presented with the question “Do you wish you had a brother or sister?” Carter’s 7-year-old, an avid naturalist, offered “a resounding no,” she says. “He enjoys his friends, but he is an introvert. After school, he needs his quiet time. He’ll say, ‘I’m going to my room,’ or ‘I just want to watch a little David Attenborough.’ ”

Introversion isn’t solipsism; solitude isn’t loneliness. And if loneliness does come for the only child, perhaps it comes much later.

Despite the first line of “Only Child,” Billy Collins did eventually yearn for a sibling, as his parents aged into their 90s. In the poem’s second stanza, he conjures an imaginary sister named Mary, a nurse who helps tend to their elderly parents, and meets him for coffee to reminisce.

“It’s interesting to get together and trade stories with brothers and sisters, probably. What one person forgets, the other person remembers,” Collins says. “There is the burden of memory when it’s just you, and if you forget, it’s forgotten.

The prospect of such eventual heartache looms for only children and those who raise them, but Fields refuses to be burdened by an unknowable future.

“I’ve heard people say: What about when the parents get older, if you’re an only child?” she says. “But you can’t predict any of that, you can’t predict what’s going to happen.”

What she knows, right now, is that her little son is happy — gregarious, boisterous, the opposite of the shy, reserved only child she once was herself. “He’s very, ‘I’m here! The party has started!’ ” she says, laughing. “It works well for him.”

The only kids are all right, as all right as any of their peers. They’re wallflowers at the school dance, or class clowns, or quiet bookworms. They thrive in their hiding places. They flourish in the spotlight. There will only be more of them.

“The smaller family is definitely here to stay,” Newman says, and adds, emphatically: “One child is a family.”


“Nearly 47 percent of households with children are one-child families.” No further commentary is needed. 


The discussion about one child families reminds me of discussions about potential for social change. This trend to small, one child families is connected to economic and social forces — the need for more earners in a family to maintain the family, resulting in both partners working, and the advances in contraception that gave women more control over their reproductive lives. The end result can be a significant change that seems to happen over a single generation. 

The change in the social meaning and behavior in regards to tobacco use is another recent example. Change can happen, and happen fast, when supportive structures for certain behaviors disappear or undergo significant shifts. Smoking went from a marker of sophistication acceptable everywhere to a marker of its opposite,  of unsophisticated, boorish and unmannerly, even illegal, behavior, largely abandoned by almost everyone, yet still prevalent among the poorer classes.



In spite of my earlier "no further commentary is needed," I do want to add this brief note: look at the large families today. They are either very rich, or poor but religious in an extreme way. The dominant middle is already one or two children. And yes, it has happened quickly. 


“There's an interesting parallel between the rise of German and Russian fascism. Germany arrived at the beginning of the 20th century without colonies, putting them at a huge disadvantage. Russia arrives at the end of the century with very few strategic or economic advantages. It was to their advantage to turn geopolitics into a negative sum game: Everyone loses but you can make it so your enemies lose more.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


I would add the hurt national ego. Germany had trouble accepting its defeat in WW1; Russia (or at least Putin) can’t seem to accept having lost much of its empire and its previous super-power status. Putin called the dissolution of the Soviet Union the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century.

Russian Presidential Flag. Note the Tzarist two-headed eagle with a scepter and an orb, symbols of royal/imperial power. In the middle we have St. George killing the dragon.


~ “I spent four and a half years in mainland China and witnessed scientists paid by major corporations to make sure that the thing that you buy breaks within days or weeks of the warranty’s end. I watched as they intentionally inserted lower-quality capacitors rather than standard ones on the motherboard, because this one is going to last this exact amount of time and not a month more. My grandmother has her toaster that she got as a wedding gift. She’s 87 years old and still uses that toaster. Why at age 33, have I gone through seven toasters?” ~ Eric Lundgren,

Also Eric Lundgren:

“If a developed country doesn’t have a solution and you dump electronic trash to a less-developed country, what do you expect to happen? At age 19 I went to these other countries and witnessed the consequences of e-waste processing. I saw in China lakes where all the e-waste was being dumped, and children are playing in the lake and people are drinking water from it. You go to the hospital, and everyone has the same cases: mercury and lead poisoning. I went to Ghana where they burn e-waste to dispose of it and local people aren’t living past the age of 26. In Accra, the capital city next to Agbogbloshie [the world’s largest e-waste dump], everybody has respiratory problems. It’s a horrific sight, and if you would go there, you’d understand why I care so much, and why I’m trying so desperately to stop e-waste here in the U.S.”


~ “Close to the north pole of the moon lies the crater Anaxagoras, named for a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century B.C. The eponym is fitting, as Anaxagoras the man was one of the first people in history to suggest the moon was a rocky body, not all too dissimilar from Earth. Streaks of material thrown out during the impact that formed the crater extend 560 miles southward to the rim of another crater, this one named for Plato.

Like Plato, Anaxagoras the scholar did most of his work in Athens, but the similarities between the two men stop there. Influenced strongly by the Pythagoreans, Plato posited a mystical universe based on sacred geometric forms, including perfectly circular orbits. Plato eschewed observation and experimentation, preferring to pursue a pure knowledge he believed was innate in all humans. But Anaxagoras, who died around the time Plato was born, had a knack for astronomy, an area of study that requires careful observational and calculation to unlock the mysteries of the universe.

During his time in Athens, Anaxagoras made several fundamental discoveries about the moon. He reiterated and expended upon an idea that likely emerged among his predecessors but was not widely accepted in antiquity: that the moon and sun were not gods, but rather objects. This seemingly innocuous belief would ultimately result in Anaxagoras’ arrest and exile.

Through persistent observation, Anaxagoras came to believe that the moon was a rock, not totally unlike the Earth, and he even described mountains on the lunar surface. The sun, he thought, was a burning rock. In fragment 18, Anaxagoras says, “It is the sun that puts brightness into the moon.” While Anaxagoras was not the first to realize that moonlight is reflected light from the sun, he was able to use this concept to correctly explain additional natural phenomena, such as eclipses and lunar phases.

Hailing from Clazomenae in the Ionian lands east of the Greek mainland, Anaxagoras grew up during the Ionian Enlightenment, an intellectual revolution that began around 600 B.C. As a young man, he saw Athens and Sparta align to drive the Persian Empire out of Ionia. When he relocated to Athens, Anaxagoras and his contemporaries brought philosophy to the budding Athenian democracy. Although many Greek philosophers of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. believed in one or a few fundamental elements—such as water, air, fire and earth—Anaxagoras thought there must be an infinite number of elements. This idea was his way of resolving an intellectual dispute concerning the nature of existence that had emerged between the naturalistic-minded philosophers of Ionia to the east and the mystical-minded philosophers to the west, in Greek-colonized Italy, such as Pythagoras and his followers.

The moon’s phases, Anaxagoras realized, were the result of different portions of the celestial object being illuminated by the sun from Earth’s perspective. The philosopher also realized that the occasional darkening of the moon must result from the moon, sun and Earth lining up such that the moon passes into the Earth’s shadow—a lunar eclipse. When the moon passes directly in front of the sun, the skies darken during the day, a phenomenon Anaxagoras also described and we now call a solar eclipse.

Anaxagoras also wrestled with the origins and formation of the moon, a mystery that still challenges scientists today. The philosopher proposed that the moon was a big rock which the early Earth had flung into space. This concept anticipated a scenario for the moon’s origin that physicist George Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, would propose 23 centuries later. Known as the fission hypothesis, Darwin’s idea was that the moon began as a chunk of Earth and was hurled into space by the Earth’s rapid rotation, leaving behind the Pacific basin. (Today, many astronomers believe that a Mars-sized body slammed into the early Earth, expelling material that then coalesced into the moon, though other theories exist for the origin of our natural satellite.)

By describing the moon as a rock of terrestrial origin, and the sun as a burning rock, Anaxagoras moved beyond earlier thinkers, even those who realized the moon was a kind of reflector. This forward thinking got Anaxagoras labeled as a chief denier of the idea that the moon and sun were deities.

Such an idea should have been welcome in democratic Athens, but Anaxagoras was a teacher and friend of the influential statesman Pericles, and political factions would soon conspire against him. In power for over 30 years, Pericles would lead Athens into the Peloponnesian wars against Sparta. While the exact causes of these conflicts are a matter of debate, Pericles’ political opponents in the years leading to the wars blamed him for excessive aggression and arrogance. Unable to hurt the Athenian leader directly, Pericles’ enemies went after his friends. Anaxagoras was arrested, tried and sentenced to death, ostensibly for breaking impiety laws while promoting his ideas about the moon and sun.

“In the Athenian democracy, with its ‘democratic’ trials before large juries on criminal charges being brought by private citizens—there was no district attorney—all trials were basically political trials,” Graham says. “They were often disguised as being about religion or morality, but they aimed at embarrassing some public figure by going after him directly if he was vulnerable, or a member of his circle if he was not. If you wanted to attack Pericles, but he was too popular to attack directly, you found the weakest link in his group. As a foreigner and intellectual with unorthodox new ideas, Pericles’ friend and ‘science advisor’ Anaxagoras was an obvious target.”

Still holding some political sway, Pericles was able to free Anaxagoras and prevent his execution. Though his life was spared, the philosopher who questioned the divinity of the moon found himself in exile in Lampsacus at the edge of the Hellespont. But his ideas regarding eclipses and lunar phases would live on to this day, and for his recognition of the true nature of the moon, a lunar crater, visited by orbiting spacecraft some 2,400 years later, bears the name Anaxagoras.

Anaxagoras, depicted as a medieval scholar in the Nuremberg Chronicle 


Anaxagoras, one of the pre-Socratics, is also famous for having said, “The descent to hell is the same from every place.” Virgil added that this descent is also easy — the challenging part is climbing out of it. 

The blessing gesture which is the inspiration for the Vulcan salutation



~ “In predominantly white Streeterville, Chicagoans can expect to live to 90. In Englewood, where the population is virtually all black, life expectancy is just 60.

“There’s a concept that is increasingly being understood, that your zip code has as much to do with your health as your genetic code
,” said Dr Marc Gourevitch, chair of the NYU department and the principal architect of the health dashboard.

“Another way to look at that is that your zip code shouldn’t determine whether you get to see your grandkids. And at some level, that’s how I see and feel about these kinds of data. It’s shocking.”

Streeterville is almost a caricature of physical and economic health. The lakefront neighborhood, a mere 14 blocks north to south, is home to a Northwestern University campus and three hospitals. On a late spring day, teens toss footballs and volleyballs as joggers zig-zag with leashed dogs in tow. On a full-length track in front of a pair of highrise condominiums, Kate Gardner jogs. She can’t muster one complaint about life in Streeterville, save for a few weeks of unseasonably cool weather.

“I know we’re lucky to be here, and that other people in the city don’t have it so good. It’s totally unfair,” she says.

The different health outcomes are multifaceted and correlate to almost every socioeconomic factor. The median income in Streeterville is nearly $100,000 a year, according to the US census. In Englewood, smack dab in the center of Chicago’s Southside, it’s a quarter of that. More than 80% of Streeterville residents have a college degree, compared with 8.2% in Englewood.
Then there’s the violence and the trauma it brings. Englewood has long held a reputation as one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. According to the Chicago Tribune, between 2000 and 2017 there were more than 4,800 shootings here.

The violence, of course, drives down life expectancy and health outcomes. But health inequities also drive violence. Take lead poisoning. For decades, Englewood had one of the highest rates of residential lead contamination in the country. Research has shown that lead poisoning in children is associated with dramatic spikes in impulsiveness and aggression.
Unemployment opened the door to drugs, drugs fostered an environment of violence, the community fell into poor health and dysfunction.

“When cocaine hit there was such a rapid decline, and it affected individuals across the spectrum,” said Rodney Johnson, whose family arrived in the community in 1966. He was one of many who left in the 1980s but he has now returned, in part to deploy his skills as a public health researcher.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There are patches of hope, like the abandoned lot Tina Hammond bought across from her home for $1, thanks to a city program. She and her husband made it into a green space with colorful planters, murals and space for community events like free yoga. They named it The Promise Land.

“It shouldn’t be that we have to have money or a certain income to get this kind of stuff,” Hammond said. “That’s why I envision just a beautiful space, something to get your mind off all the wretchedness that’s going on in life and all on these blocks. A place to just go and sit, relax and bring calm.”

There’s economic development too, bringing more healthy options to a community long described as a “food desert”. De Mello found her way to community work after being heavily involved in the siting of a Whole Foods market in Englewood, focusing on making sure products were affordable and accessible.

Violence is trending down too – though the reasons are still hotly contested.

More than anything, community groups like I Grow Chicago are giving residents hope. Their “peace house”, across the street from a community garden, is a frenetic jumble of answers to unmet needs. Visitors might be there for anything from toilet paper and toothpaste to a Reiki healing session.

“There was a time I wanted out of this neighborhood so badly,” said Ora Bradley, who watched her son Julius get caught in the drug game, spending time in jail.the I Grow Chicago campus, which has essentially taken over her block, is nothing short of a godsend. The organization trains community members in construction and is refurbishing homes as community space or affordable housing.

Bradley says she still wants to leave, but for a very different reason. She wants to donate her home to I Grow, to make it part of its growing “peace campus”.



 In “Lapidarium IV” (published in Polish in 2000), Kapuscinski relates trying to write an article on the Last Judgment, interviewing friends, historians, theologians. Each person had a different vision of it.

One (a historian, I imagine) was a literalist. “The Last Judgment? That’s impossible!” Kapuscinski asked why. “Because it would require that all the [resurrected] dead and all the living to appear — billions and billions of people over the last 200,000 years. There isn’t room enough.” Not in the designated Kidron Valley, running through the Old City of Jerusalem.

And he imagined how they’d have to stand in line, some of the living dying on their feet while waiting. And since those to be judged are now living, resurrected bodies, surely they need food. How to feed those billions?

Who goes first? The earliest-born? The Jews and certain other nations? Men and women separate, like lines for restrooms?

So perhaps a mobile Last Judgment, special vehicles coming to people from different epochs and locations?

And above all, how are the living and the dead to be judged? All by the same standard? What if something was not a sin according to their culture?

As a child, I never tried to work out the details for myself. The paintings were enough. The proceedings seemed efficient enough, like selection in concentration camps — the angels directing people to the left and to the right, the Elect in halos being handed white robes, the damned falling down naked into the pit.

 There was no Judgment, with some verdict or explanation — just this instant separation. And the best part was always the skeletons stepping out of the graves, putting on flesh.

The belief was absolutely literal. I blink, startled, when I think that I didn’t differ from other children my age in taking all this literally, “as shown in the pictures.” The paintings substituted for the impossible reality. If the church had not falsified the Second Commandment and commissioned artists to depict the invisible, I don’t see how the children, so prone to asking questions, would be indoctrinated as deeply as they were.
And no wonder the mainstream Protestant churches, devoid of such art, produce both tepid believers and non-passionate atheists.

All those paintings with god in the garment of clouds . . . how naive they seem now. And, when I was a child, the constant frustration of looking up at the clouds, trying to get a glimpse of his eyes and beard — at least his huge beard, gray, curdled, mingling with the clouds — no such luck. There would be no sign, no announcement (perhaps in Latin?), no revelation. It was a perfect Theater of the Absurd: we were to believe in the Great Absence.

I can’t believe that once I did believe. I can’t get back into my own childhood mentality. I believed in the Last Judgment and was in terror of it? That’s where child abuse comes in, but even that sounds absurd now: the church made her dread the Last Judgment. A nine-year-old girl cowering in fear that she will be plunged naked — in flesh, the better to suffer with! — into the fires of hell.

Why would God bother
with the Last Judgment:
bone joining bone, putting on flesh,

just to be judged? Redeemer,

(from my poem "Music Says That Freedom Exists")

Kidron Valley


~ “Researchers have found that spermidine increases lifespan in mice, flies, worms, yeasts and human cells. It also fights off age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. All because of its ability to make cells call in the cleaning crew.

So far, all spermidine studies have been done on animals or human cells. Researchers are just now performing clinical trials to test spermidine’s effect on actual people. They want to see if supplementing with spermidine can prevent cognitive decline in older adults. So far, the results look promising. And they’ve had no negative side effects to report.

How can you put spermidine’s impressive age-reversing powers to work for you? Well don’t starve yourself for sure. Instead just eat any of these spermidine-rich foods:

    Wheat germ
    Strongly fermented cheese (like blue cheese and aged cheddar)
    Leafy greens
    Green peas
    Shell fish

I do have one quick caveat about increasing spermidine in your diet though. If you have psoriasis, spermidine is not the anti-aging compound for you. That’s because scientists believe spermidine might contribute to the disease by causing skin cells to regenerate at a rapid pace.

If psoriasis isn’t a problem for you, you should be safe to eat more spermidine. Researchers say the effects of adding more spermidine to your diet should kick in within three months. That’s how long it takes for spermidine levels to increase in your blood stream.” ~


Spermidine is a polyamine, a member of a family of compounds that contain at least two amine groups (-NH2), are known to be essential to good cell function, and decrease with aging. “Spermidine, a naturally occurring polyamine, has recently emerged as exhibiting anti-aging properties. Its supplementation increases lifespan and resistance to stress, and decreases the occurrence of age-related pathology and loss of locomotor ability. Its mechanisms of action are just beginning to be understood. Autophagy is the main mechanism of action of spermidine at the molecular level. However, recent research shows that spermidine can act via other mechanisms, namely inflammation reduction, lipid metabolism and regulation of cell growth, proliferation and death.” ~

Before anyone tries to revive the wheat germ fad, the warning from Dr. Gundry is in order: no, not even pressure cooking can remove the harmful lectin from wheat germ. He’d also remove soybeans from this list, though fermented soy products are fine. Legumes are fine if pressure-cooked.

“Matcha,” the Japanese green tea powder, also contains spermidine, but not black tea (though black tea provides other benefits). You can also add cheddar cheese to the sources of spermidine.

ending on beauty:

I only want to fling words about wildly
in the face of posterity's oblivion
like crystals into the nightclub of the clouds

~ Sutton

Saturday, June 22, 2019


Claudia Barzan has gone underground again — in an unspecified location.


Dushka, my Soul, don’t be so proud
of not being made of ordinary stardust.
When I go you too will go.
Some say it will feel just as it did
before being born. But Dushka,
before I was born — open any
history book — it was murder.

Dushka, do you remember
the red streetcars in Warsaw?
And the chestnuts rioting in bloom
in front of the Polytechnic?
We took Wawelska Street,
the long way home so we could pass
the small park of the first kiss.

Dushka, it was New Year’s Eve,
snow on my eyelashes,
silence on bare branches.
For thirty years now
I’ve lived with a Norfolk pine.
People say I should cut it down,
its roots buckle the sidewalk. But one
high noon on its tip I saw

a mockingbird sing his imitation
of a car alarm, so how could I cut down
my thousand-green-fingered pine?
A neighbor said, “In another thirty years 

it will be the tallest tree in town.”
I said in thirty years
I don’t think I
ll be alive.
I am taking the mockingbird
with me.

~ Oriana

Mimus polyglottos 

You’ve seen them at dusk, walking along the shore, seen them standing in doorways, leaning from windows, or straddling the slow-moving edge of a shadow. Lovers of the in-between, they are neither here nor there, neither in nor out. Poor souls, they are driven to experience the impossible. Even at night, they lie in bed with one eye closed and the other open, hoping to catch the last second of consciousness and the first of sleep, to inhabit that no-man’s-land, that beautiful place, to behold as only a god might, the luminous conjunction of nothing and all.

~ Mark Strand


I’ve tried and tried to do exactly that: catch the precise moment of falling asleep, that sudden erasure. But of course the closest we can come is sense the approach of sleep, the brother of death, showing us “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” — telling us not to be afraid. 

Also, there is this advice from the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 - 1536)

Before you sleep, read something that is exquisite and worth remembering. ~ Erasmus
Magritte: Decalcomania, 1966


“Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke


~ ““‘Everyone knows’ that Prohibition failed because Americans did not stop drinking,” historian Jack Blocker wrote in the American Journal of Public Health. He summarized what’s now the conventional wisdom: “Liquor’s illegal status furnished the soil in which organized crime flourished.”

But there’s a lot wrong with these present-day assumptions about Prohibition.

Carry Nation with her famous hatchet. Being 6' tall (i.e. taller than most men at the time) probably bolstered her self-confidence.

People like Carry Nation, as extreme as they were, were driven by real problems caused by excessive drinking, including alcohol-induced domestic violence and crime as well as liver cirrhosis and other health issues. This was perceived as a widespread problem, at least in popular media: George Cruikshank’s 1847 series of drawings, The Bottle, portrayed a father spending all his family’s money drinking and, eventually, killing his wife by attacking her with a bottle. And as historian David Courtwright documented in The Age of Addiction, per capita alcohol consumption increased by nearly a third from 1900 to 1913, largely due to advancements in brewing that helped make beer much cheaper.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the evidence also suggests Prohibition really did reduce drinking. Despite all the other problems associated with Prohibition, newer research even indicates banning the sale of alcohol may not have, on balance, led to an increase in violence and crime.

It’s time to reconsider whether America’s “noble experiment” was really such a failure after all.

Alcohol is still a problem in the US today

The perception of failure, experts argue, is one major reason America has not taken much action on alcohol in recent decades, even as booze is linked to more deaths each year than any other drug besides tobacco.

“The legacy of Prohibition and the interpretation that was given to the Prohibition experience was that alcohol control policy and controlling the availability simply did not work, so the focus should be on the individual abuser rather than the availability of alcohol,” Philip Cook, a public policy expert at Duke University, told me.

America continues to be plagued by alcohol-related problems. There are 88,000 deaths linked to alcohol each year — more than drug overdose deaths, car crash deaths, or deaths from gun violence. There are policies that could reduce the number of deaths, such as a higher alcohol tax. But there’s been little reception to these kinds of policies, as Cook told me: “I’ve spent much of my career documenting the benefits of higher alcohol taxes. And for the most part, I think that’s fallen on deaf ears, politically.”

He said that’s driven, at least in part, by the failure of Prohibition, which drove people to see alcohol control overall as ineffective. I’ve seen this in some of my own work: After Vox published my case for raising the alcohol tax, a fairly common response from readers was represented by this comment: “This would be ‘Prohibition Lite.’ We know how Prohibition turned out.”

Prohibition reduced drinking

For Carry Nation, the battle against alcohol was personal. Her first husband, Charles Gloyd, drank to excess. Pregnant, Nation went back to her parents, knowing that staying with “a drunken husband” would leave her “helpless” and with “no means of support.” Six months after Nation gave birth, and a mere 16 months after their wedding, Gloyd died of “delirium tremens or from pneumonia compounded by excessive drinking,” according to Fran Grace’s Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life.

Prohibition meant to address these problems by reducing drinking. On that metric alone, it succeeded.

This is not controversial among experts. When I asked Courtwright, a drug historian at the University of North Florida, whether Prohibition led to more drinking, he responded, “No well-informed historian has believed that for 50 years.”

Courtwright’s The Age of Addiction has the statistics: “Per capita consumption initially fell to 30 percent of pre-Prohibition levels, before gradually increasing to 60 or 70 percent by 1933.” That suggests a 30 percent reduction, at a minimum, in consumption — although that was less than the initial effect, as people figured some ways around the law.

Some experts give lower estimates. A 2003 study from economists Angela Dills and Jeffrey Miron, a libertarian critical of prohibiting alcohol and other drugs, found that national Prohibition reduced liver cirrhosis deaths — a commonly used proxy for all drinking at the time — by 10 to 20 percent.

Even the lower estimate, though, indicates that national Prohibition and state-level bans led to a reduction in drinking. (In this sense, it might be worth referring to “prohibitions,” plural: Some states enacted their own prohibitions before 1919, and some kept prohibitions after national repeal — Mississippi’s was the last to go in 1966. So the exact cutoff for when prohibitions started and ended can be messy, but nationwide Prohibition had its own effect since it was so big.)

Why did drinking fall? In short, prohibitions increased the price of alcohol and difficulty of getting it. The monetary price itself increased — “when the nation’s 1,300 breweries could no longer legally produce full-strength beer, urban prices rose between five- and tenfold,” Courtwright wrote in The Age of Addiction. To get alcohol, people then had to find out how to make it themselves or develop connections with people who had a source of booze. The quality of the alcohol, too, was often worse than when it was legal.

With lower consumption came benefits, historians have found. Courtwright, again:

    Asked why her husband, a shipyard worker, was drinking less, a New Jersey housewife replied simply that it was due to liquor’s poorer quality and higher cost. Across the Hudson River, in Manhattan, the number of patients treated in Bellevue Hospital’s alcohol wards dropped from fifteen thousand a year before Prohibition to under six thousand in 1924. Nationally, cirrhosis deaths fell by more than a third between 1916 and 1929. In Detroit, arrests for drunkenness declined 90 percent during Prohibition’s first year. Domestic violence complaints fell by half.

There were costs too, Courtwright told me: “The iron law of prohibition is you will have fewer consumers, but each one will, on average, be worse off and more disruptive than consumers in a legal market.”

For example, the remaining drinkers were more likely to drink more potent forms of alcohol — it’s easier to smuggle one bottle of whiskey than multiple bottles of beer. More potency meant more intoxication for individuals, which meant more negative effects among them. (Not to mention the booze was more likely to be poisonous, due to misguided federal regulations.)

Prohibition may not have increased crime after all

Even if Prohibition did lead to less drinking, what about Al Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre? Surely the big increase in these types of crime wasn’t worth the benefits.

But it’s not clear Prohibition really did cause, on net, more violence.

Prohibition did lead to more violence in some places, particularly big cities where a black market and organized crime took off. But as Prohibition reduced drinking, it also reduced alcohol-induced violence, like domestic abuse. So the increase in organized crime may have been offset by a drop in more common, and less publicly visible, types of violence driven by alcohol.

Alcohol is known to induce violence. In modern times, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimated alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated that alcohol contributed to 47 percent of homicides.

Domestic violence was of particular concern in the early 20th century, especially for the women leading the charge on Prohibition. The movement for Prohibition was closely linked to women’s suffrage, with Susan B. Anthony herself advocating for stronger alcohol laws and Prohibition.

So what were Prohibition’s overall effects on crime? Emily Owens, an economist at the University of California Irvine, analyzed the effects of national Prohibition and state-level prohibitions in studies published in 2011 and 2014.

She found, contrary to popular perceptions about Prohibition and crime, that prohibitions were associated with lower murder rates — as much as 29 percent lower in some cases. Where crime did increase, it wasn’t always prohibition but other factors, like the swift urbanization that was occurring in the era, that were mostly to blame. Once you control for other factors, she told me, fluctuations in homicide during the 1920s “appear to be more closely connected to these [non-prohibition] changes.”

The Roaring ’20s were a wild time, with rapid urbanization, improvements in mass communication and transportation, and general social rebellion. All of that likely led to more violence, including organized crime, than there would have been otherwise. So Prohibition alone can’t be blamed for more organized crime — and it potentially reaped benefits with reductions in other kinds of alcohol-related violence, such as domestic abuse.

“The public perception that creating this illegal market for alcohol opened up an opportunity for organized crime to earn a lot of revenue, that’s something that’s not disproven. That could still definitely be true,” Owens said. “However, it doesn’t outweigh the less sexy, less movie-friendly story about alcohol and violence, which is that it affects family members, it affects kids, it affects violence that happens inside someone’s home.”

Some research, such as a 2015 study by economist Brendan Livingston, produced similar findings to Owens’s studies, suggesting prohibitions — both capital P and lowercase — were linked to reduced crime and violence, at least temporarily.

America may have overcorrected after Prohibition

There’s evidence that setting a higher alcohol tax, imposing a minimum price on alcohol, limiting the number of alcohol outlets in a given area, revoking repeat alcohol offenders’ right to drink, and much more could help reduce drinking and its risks. Crucially, the evidence suggests these policies would affect not just casual or moderate drinkers but heavy drinkers, too. Experts say this could be achieved without the risks and downsides Prohibition presented.

But lawmakers and the public have not been amenable to these kinds of policies. The last time Congress took up the alcohol tax, in 2017, lawmakers cut it (with support, of course, from the alcohol lobby). The tax hasn’t increased since 1991, lagging behind inflation with every passing year.

Cook said, and elaborated on in his book Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, that this neglect of alcohol policy doesn’t match the evidence. But Prohibition has skewed the public’s and lawmakers’ perceptions of such policies.

Alcohol policy “needs to be considered in light of an accurate interpretation of the history of Prohibition,” Cook said. “Instead of saying that Prohibition was a failure so alcohol control is a nonstarter, turn that around and say that Prohibition on its own terms was successful to some extent. And there’s no reason to reject this overall approach [of alcohol control] just because of a misread of history.”

There’s a balancing act to strike. Prohibition had benefits when it came to health and some areas of crime and public safety, but it had a negative impact on pleasure, freedom, and other areas of crime and safety. That’s true in general for alcohol and other drug policy: Policies can impact freedom, pleasure, health, crime, safety, or a combination, but almost always with downsides in one or more of these categories as well — with different effects depending not just on the policy but the type of drug, too. Maybe a higher alcohol tax or some other approach would achieve a better middle ground than Prohibition did.” ~

Prohibition in action: Pouring out alcohol


It seems evident that what will work to reduce the damages, personal and social, of alcohol abuse, is not prohibition, but regulation. That, and a change in the social perspective on this ancient tradition of alcohol use for pleasure, celebration and even medication, a habit as much cultural as individual. Of course regulation curtails freedom, but when the time is ripe, the exchange of certain freedoms becomes acceptable, to achieve advantages in health and safety that we have come to see as more important and more desirable.

For example, driving and smoking — two activities heavily regulated, where the actual regulations are not fiercely resented and rebelled against, but accepted as just and necessary, even righteous, by almost everyone. The rejection of smoking is particularly recent, and part of a cultural re evaluation. Not only are there many fewer smokers, those who cling to the habit and push against the new regulations are regarded with scorn. Their habit has not been legally outlawed, simply made more expensive and more limited. Yet in many ways smokers have become social pariahs, pushed out of public venues and generally unwelcome. These are not legislated changes but part of a cultural re evaluation of an activity once seen, until very recently, as sophisticated and inoffensive, acceptable everywhere. Restaurants , airplanes, hospitals, offices, even college classrooms, open to smokers well into the 80's, unimaginable now.

How did this happen?? Largely through a very public process of exposé and education, forcing us all to learn and acknowledge the devastating toll of smoking on the body, and the long history of the tobacco industry's denial, concealment and obfuscation of those ill effects. Even the mythology, the film stars with their glamor, the Marlboro man with the old west as his stage, couldn't survive the change in social attitude toward smoking and smokers. Now the old scenarios, ones we actually grew up with, seem almost unimaginable.

These changes, these regulations, for driving and smoking, have become so much a part of the fabric of everyday life,  they are almost invisible, and go unquestioned. Other instances of dangerous freedoms are present as areas of conflict, and primary among them substance abuse and firearm availability. We have seen that "wars" on drugs are not only ineffective but counterproductive. Gun regulation can hardly be mentioned without a response so fierce it is almost hysteria. Yet we have seen gun regulation work successfully in other countries, while our own gun violence continues to escalate.

I think what we need to be able to regulate these things is something much like the education of the public that happened with tobacco. There has to be a cultural sense of agreement before regulation can become effective and accepted. In the case of substance abuse, including alcohol, we are faced with a history that extends almost to our beginnings, heavily represented in our most central mythologies. The gods got drunk, and Jesus turned water into wine for a wedding celebration. Intoxicating substances have been part of social and religious ritual world wide, just about forever. And we want freedom here to make a personal choice, so the regulations that are imposed are either minimal or ineffective.

With guns we have a particular issue in the US, embedded in our Wild West mythology and our dedication to individual freedoms. No matter the degree of inaccuracy in these stories, they dominate the culture. I don’t believe effective regulation can come without changes in cultural attitudes. What such changes require apart from education — I’m not sure. It has been said that here we love our guns more than we love our children, but we love our mythologies more than anything on earth, and cling to them tightly, even when it hurts.


I totally agree. And sure, we already have some degree of alcohol regulation, but nothing like the rigorous public eduction that preceding the increasing bans on smoking. And when you consider that still within our lifetime there were ads in which a man dressed as a physician would  announce, “This is the brand I recommend to my patients” — wow, it shows how much can be done when there is a will. And this despite Big Tobacco’s money!

You are so right about the power of mythology — and alcohol has a mythic tradition that goes back millennia. And while no amount of smoking is good for the human body — all smoke inhalation is bad, including incense — there is disagreement as to the effects of small amounts of alcohol. It’s only last year that a large study concluded that ~ “No amount of alcohol is safe, according to The Global Burden of Diseases study, which analyzed levels of alcohol use and its health effects in 195 countries from 1990 to 2016.

While the study's authors say that moderate drinking may safeguard people against heart disease, they found that the potential to develop cancer and other diseases offsets these potential benefits, as do other risks of harm. The report urges governments to revise health guidelines to suggest lower levels of consumption.

"Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none," the report states. "This level is in conflict with most health guidelines, which espouse health benefits associated with consuming up to two drinks per day."

The study looked at a broad range of risks posed by alcohol consumption, including diseases, driving accidents and self-harm. According to the report, alcohol led to 2.8 million deaths in 2016. It was the leading risk factor for disease worldwide, the study found, accounting for almost 10 percent of deaths among those ages 15 to 49. Drinking alcohol was also a leading cause of cancer for people older than 50.” ~

The study has of course provoked criticism. We need more nuanced studies — we always do. But perhaps we also need to look at something glaringly obvious: smoking and heavy drinking — alcoholism — and the consumption of sugary junk food, while we are at it — have a strong correlation with poverty. That’s the proverbial can of worms that we as a culture would prefer not to open. 

PS. We may indeed be witnessing the beginning of a change in attitudes toward regular drinking. ~ “Instagram accounts like Sober Girl Society and Sober Nation have tens of thousands of followers, as does Ruby Warrington, author of the book Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, which was released last December.

And while there is virtually no downside to taking a break from drinking alcohol — or quitting altogether — science is just beginning to study the ways abstinence might be good for you.

Short breaks improve health

So far, there are a handful of studies that point to some benefits of abstinence for even moderate drinkers — in addition to the widely recognized benefits for people who have alcohol use disorder.

A 2016 British study of about 850 men and women who volunteered to abstain from alcohol during Dry January found that participants reported a range of benefits. For instance, 82 percent said they felt a sense of achievement. "Better sleep" was cited by 62 percent, and 49 percent said they lost some weight.” ~


“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” ~ George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946


~ “What unites [Warren and Buttigieg], and separates them from Sanders and Joe Biden, is their unabashed intellectualism. Both have made braininess central to their political brand. And it’s working—a fact that offers a window into the changing culture of the Democratic Party.

Warren and Buttigieg don’t showcase their smarts in exactly the same way. Warren does it with deep dives into policy: proposal after detailed proposal on subjects such as housing, climate change, child care, college tuition, and antitrust. Her campaign sells Warren has a plan for that T-shirts. She talks gleefully about “nerding out” on policy, and when asked at a CNN town hall whether she preferred being a politician or a professor, she replied, “Oh, teaching, are you kidding?”

If Warren plays the brilliant professor, Buttigieg plays the brilliant student. Among the people who introduced him when he announced for president was a former teacher who began her remarks by describing how he had wowed the judges at a high-school economics competition sponsored by the Federal Reserve. Type Pete Buttigieg into Google, and one of the prompts you get is “languages.” News reports often mention that he speaks seven, and this spring a video of him speaking Norwegian went viral. In April, he filmed a video in French offering his condolences for the fire at Notre-Dame.

What’s new is that Warren and Buttigieg are leaning into their credentialed intellectualism rather than worrying that it will make them appear elitist. Bill Clinton’s anxiety about appearing smarter than thou seemed borne out when George W. Bush used Al Gore’s academic affectations against him in 2000. After a widely discussed New Yorker essay in which Gore confessed his fondness for Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s book Phenomenology of Perception, Talk magazine asked Bush to admit a weakness. He answered slyly, “Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something.”

As late as 1994, according to the Pew Research Center, voters who had graduated from college were 15 points more likely to identify as Republicans than Democrats, and voters with graduate degrees were almost evenly split between the two parties. By 2017, college graduates’ partisan leanings had flipped: They now favored Democrats by 15 points. Among Americans with graduate degrees, the shift has been even starker. The Democratic advantage, which stood at two points in 1994, had grown to 32 points by 2017.

As a result, the educational composition of the two parties has diverged. From 1997 to 2017, the share of registered Republican voters who finished college stayed the same. Among Democrats, it rose by 15 points. This shift has influenced the way the two parties see education itself. In 2010, Democrats were seven points more likely than Republicans to say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on America. By 2017, they were 36 points more likely.

Warren and Buttigieg have realized that intellectualism mobilizes Democrats. Unlike Biden and Sanders, they both poll significantly better among voters with college degrees, who in recent decades have grown substantially as a share of the Democratic primary electorate. Buttigieg’s reputation for detailed, thoughtful answers—as showcased in his widely hailed CNN and Fox News town-hall events—has helped elevate him above his closest generational rival, Beto O’Rourke. And Warren’s unabashed wonkery has helped her close the gap with Sanders on the party’s left flank.

Warren and Buttigieg are also likely benefiting from the contrast with Donald Trump. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a president who was really smart. I mean really, really, really smart,” declared Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, at Buttigieg’s announcement rally. “Someone who spoke multiple languages, including having a beautiful command of English.”

If Warren or Buttigieg wins the nomination, the 2020 presidential race will feature the most profound intellectual contrast in modern American history. It’s difficult to envision a debate between Warren, who asks crowds, “Do I have any net-metering wonks out here?” and Trump, who claims that tariffs are a payment China makes into the United States Treasury. Or between Buttigieg, who speaks about John Rawls and James Joyce, and Trump, who speaks about “Two Corinthians.”

It’s likely Republicans would try to turn intellectualism into a negative for either Warren or Buttigieg. After all, the general electorate is neither as highly educated nor as favorably disposed toward higher education as Democratic primary voters. It’s a tactic that’s worked in the past. What’s harder to know is what will happen if a Democratic nominee wears these attacks as a badge of honor. To the debates over whether America is ready for a woman or a gay president, Warren and Buttigieg are adding an additional wrinkle: Is it ready for a nerd president, too?” ~

Mayor Pete and his husband, Chasten


Oops! Here I meant to insert a pearl of wisdom, but now see that the elephant entanglement is a better choice after all.

~ “In the early weeks of 2005, [the famous architect Philip] Johnson died, at the age of ninety-eight, in the most elegant sickroom imaginable, the Glass House, the open-plan interior of which had been outfitted with a hospital bed that, along with around-the-clock nursing care, made it possible for the architect to spend his final days overlooking the site of some of his happiest moments as a cultural power broker. His rigorous aestheticism persisted to the very end. Lamster poetically reconstructs his exit scene:

A gentle snow began to fall through the New Canaan woods. Johnson had always thought the Glass House was most magical that way; the falling snow created the illusion that you were rising on what he called a “celestial elevator.” 

Philip Johnson (seated) in his Glass House

One of Johnson’s clients was Donald Trump.

“In 1983 DT hired Johnson to design Trump Castle, a $200 million condominium tower at Madison Avenue and 60th Street that would have featured a moat, drawbridge, crenellations, and pinnacles coated in gold leaf. “Very Trumpish,” a deadpan Johnson commented to the Times.

Fortunately that project fell through, though Trump turned again to Johnson, who in 1995-97 refashioned the exterior of Gulf and Western Building, now the Trump International Hotel and Tower, with gold-tinted glass as stipulated by his patron. Although in private the architect was withering about his crassest client, he intuited the importance of flattering him profusely.

The bankruptcy-prone developer also tried, unsuccessfully, to engage Johnson in a partial remake of his foundering Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. Their day trip to inspect the gaudy property produced an exchange that encapsulates both Trump’s phallic strutting and Johnson’s shrewdness. As Lamster writes, the host offered his guest his own philosophy of women:

T: You have to treat them like shit.

Johnson: You’d make a good mafioso.

T: One of the greatest.”

  Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California, designed by Philip Johnson


“And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form–upon the printed page.” ~ Einstein

“To conclude: I have so far been speaking only of wars between nations; what are known as international conflicts. But I am well aware that the aggressive instinct operates under other forms and in other circumstances. (I am thinking of civil wars, for instance, due in earlier days to religious zeal, but nowadays to social factors; or, again, the persecution of racial minorities.) But my insistence on what is the most typical, most cruel and extravagant form of conflict between man and man was deliberate, for here we have the best occasion of discovering ways and means to render all armed conflicts impossible. I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action.” ~ Freud

Here we see that Einstein puts hope in Freud’s knowledge of human psychology, while Freud — long before the development of nuclear weapons — seems to have faith that Einstein’s discoveries on the frontiers of physics might “blaze the trail” toward world peace.

The author who published these excerpts was actually writing about Islamic extremists:

~ When we are "on" strong sacred values, we just aren’t thinking straight, to put it bluntly. And if challenged on those values, people often become morally outraged, willing to sacrifice life, limb, and the safety of their own families in conformity with what their group holds dear. They think this way even when the price is so great that destruction is all but assured. Efforts to prevent violence based on rational interventions are unlikely to be effective because radicalized individuals aren’t functioning as rational actors.

It is becoming evident that any kind of belief systems associated with such powerful ideations, whether political, religious, cultural, or otherwise, may be an evolutionary dead-end. Strong belief shapes cognition, limiting the ability to think flexibly, and is associated with narrower, more constrained personality, among other things. When people are embroiled in armed conflict, they don’t care so much about the consequences, becoming numb to the physical costs and rewards of their actions. ~ Grant Hilary Brenner MD.

He goes on to suggest that less perceived peer pressure to engage in violence has the potential to weaken a radicalized individual’s willingness to commit violence.


~ “Throughout history, couples have gone to extraordinary lengths to choose the sex of their child. In the middle ages, women believed they could swing the odds of having a son by asking their husbands to turn their faces eastwards during sex. Others disagreed – husbands should be seduced over a cocktail prepared with red wine and fresh rabbit’s womb.

If that didn’t do the trick, the 18th Century French anatomist Procope-Couteau had a rather extreme measure. Men who’d “give their left testicle for a baby boy” should do exactly that, he said. He claimed the surgery was no more painful than extracting a tooth.

We now know that bad weather makes for more baby girls, as does fasting for Ramadan or suffering from morning sickness. Meanwhile mothers with dominant personalities, a taste for breakfast cereal or billionaire husbands are more likely to have baby boys. Crucially, a predisposition to having more sons or daughters is encoded in our genetics – men with more sisters tend to have girls while those with more brothers tend to have boys. What’s going on?

In fact, the odds of having a boy vs. having a girl have never been exactly 50:50. Worldwide, there are around 109 boys born for every 100 girls. This might seem like a lot, but it’s necessary. Men have weaker immune systems, higher cholesterol, more heart problems, a greater susceptibility to diabetes, higher rates of cancer and lower chances of surviving it. They make up over two-thirds of murder victims, three-quarters of traffic accident fatalities and are three times more likely to commit suicide. Mothers have to have a higher proportion of sons in order for an equal number to survive.

The relative odds of conceiving sons or daughters have been baffling scientists for decades. The phenomenon was particularly mysterious to Charles Darwin, who meticulously studied the proportion of male and female offspring in a number of animals.

He was convinced that the elaborate features of many male animals, such a peacock’s tail, must be a consequence of a dire shortage of the opposite sex. In these species, he figured, more competition had favored males which stood out from the crowd.

There was just one problem. In every species he studied, there were almost (but not exactly) the same number of males and females; the variation was not nearly as wide as he had expected. After failing to find any convincing evidence, eventually he abandoned the whole topic
, remarking “…I now see that the whole problem is so intricate that it is safer to leave its solution for the future.”

Back in 1972 Robert Trivers turned his attention to Darwin’s problem. “I said whoa – now there’s an idea worth devoting my life to,” says Trivers. Together with a colleague, Dan Willard, he developed one of the most famous theories in evolutionary biology. It’s known as the Trivers-Willard hypothesis and it goes like this.

Let’s assume you can choose the sex of your children – and the game is to leave as many descendants as possible. You have a gamble to make. If your children are male, who knows, they might become the next billionaire tycoon, or US President (or both), with plenty of girlfriends to choose from.

It’s a scientific fact that high social status is attractive to women. Fertile women prefer more dominant men and the lucky few who achieve money or influence tend to marry younger, more often and have more extra-marital affairs than their peers. If your son is a success, it could be a big evolutionary win. But if he isn’t, he may find himself unable to find a partner at all.

In many animals – red deer, elephant seals, gorillas – the stakes are even higher. Successful males may have harems of hundreds of females, while low-ranking or weak males may never reproduce or die trying.

Then there’s the issue of resources. Because they tend to be larger, sons require a lot more food than daughters and in many societies they’ll require more education and money. To produce a son capable of becoming a dominant, high-status male, parents will need to make a big investment.

With these factors in mind, Trivers proposed that in favorable conditions, such as where the parents were high status or food was abundant, it would make evolutionary sense for parents to produce more sons. But in less favorable conditions, natural selection should favor parents who produce more daughters, since females don’t face such fierce competition. Even if they aren’t particularly attractive or socially successful, it’s likely they’ll have at least some children.

“At the time I gave the joke that this was the perfect theory because it would take 20 years to prove me wrong. But 11 years later I was proved right,” says Trivers.

Back in the 80s, scientists discovered that in red deer at least, dominant females have a 60% chance of giving birth to a son. But could this also be true in humans? The first evidence came from an unlikely source. In 1958, China’s ruling party announced an ambitious new project: the Great Leap Forward, which they hoped would propel the nation of peasant farmers to industrial glory in the space of a few years.

Families were ordered to abandon their farms as the country prepared to step up steel production by 30%. Gardens were turned into makeshift smelting yards as possessions – from cooking pots to tractors – were melted to artificially inflate the total.

Before long, the country was transformed – but not in the way the government had hoped. Just a year after the project began, grain output had dropped by 15%. A year after that, it dropped again. Within four years of the famine setting in, 45 million people were dead.

Nearly four decades later, economist Douglas Almond found himself poring over Chinese census records to find out what had happened afterwards. But he wasn’t looking at the records of the victims – he wanted to know what life was like for their middle-aged children.

Together with colleagues from Columbia University, he compared the records of those born soon after the famine with information about the province in which their parents were born. Some areas were affected more than others, so the team were able to compare the prospects of those whose mothers had gone hungry with those whose mothers had not.

What they found was alarming. Though the children hadn’t experienced the famine themselves, those from famine-stricken regions were less likely to be literate, employed, self-sufficient and tended to live in smaller homes. Women tended to marry later and men were lucky to marry at all. Finally, across the whole sample, those born to affected mothers were significantly less likely to be born male in the first place. The effect even seemed to carry over to their children, who were also more likely to conceive daughters.

To estimate the size of the effect, remember that worldwide there are around 109 boys born for every 100 girls. But between 1960 and 1963, the number of male children born in China fell to just 104 boys for every 100 girls, a difference of around 5% according to a later study on the famine. The ratio didn’t return to normal until 1965.

We now know that from smoking to war, to climate change, unfavorable conditions predispose women to having more girls. On the other end of the scale, women with more dominant personalities, a diet rich in high calorie foods (such as breakfast cereal), or married to U.S. Presidents tend to give birth to more sons. For billionaire fathers, the odds of having a boy are 65%.

At this point you might be wondering why, with all these influences at work, the ratio of men to women in the world isn’t wildly unequal. Surely a disaster on the scale of the Great Chinese Famine should have produced a generation primarily of girls?

According to Keith Bowers, an ecologist at the University of Memphis, there are good reasons why the population never veers too far from the gender balance. “Sons need more food than daughters, so consistently over-producing males create a more competitive family environment,” says Bowers. If all parents had sons when times were good, they may struggle to find a mate or territory when they grew up. Meanwhile, those with a genetic predisposition to over-produce daughters while everyone else is having sons would have a big advantage. “Over time you’d expect roughly equal numbers of males and females to be born,” says Bowers.

Perhaps it’s time to put the cereal away, leave your testicles alone and accept that, in the end, the chances of having a boy are – and should be – roughly 50:50.” ~



~ “At my first sales job, I had about 25 colleagues who did the same work. After the first month, I noticed something peculiar.

Only 4 of my co-workers brought in more than half of the total sales. I was 17 years old at the time, and I had no idea why that was. These folks were the superstars on the floor — the untouchables.

Little did I know that this relation holds true for almost everything in business. It’s called Price’s square root law.

Value Creation Is Not Symmetric

Derek Price, who was a British physicist, historian of science, and information scientist, discovered something about his peers in academia. He noticed that there were always a handful of people who dominated the publications within a subject.

Price found out the following (now called Price’s law):

50% of the work is done by the square root of the total number of people who participate in the work.

In my example, that means 5 people (square root of 25) should bring in 50% of the sales. That means Price’s law is pretty accurate. On my floor, 4 people brought in about 50%-60% of the sales.

 After my first job, I noticed the same ratio at every single company I’ve worked with. The contrast was the biggest when I worked in London for a major corporation, where top sales performers were rewarded big.

Again, the number of people who were rewarded were the square root of the total salespeople. It’s also true for our family business. In every workplace, the relationship between value and people is asymmetric.

Only a handful of people are responsible for the majority of the value creation. It’s very similar to the Pareto principle (the difference is that Price looked at the relationship between people and the work they produced). [Pareto’s principle is also known as the 80/20 rule: e.g., 80% of the profits come from 20% of the products. One of Pareto’s own examples was that 80% of his peas come from only 20% of his pea plants.]

Do Something You’re Good At

That’s the best career advice one can get. Peter Drucker said it for decades. And when you do something you’re good at, you can provide more value.

Look, life is not symmetric nor linear. Only a few people in every domain are responsible for half of the results.

Hence, find the domain you can be the important minority — you’ll also get the majority of the benefits.” ~


The exact mathematical proportion isn’t the point. The message here is that only a few people do most of the work (step into any office: it’s actually blatantly visible) — only a few products generate most of the profit — only a few poems, paintings, etc have emotional power — or call it “magic.” But it’s very difficult to draw practical implications. We also have the emotional need to keep on trying new things — even though most of these will be unsatisfying.

Most restaurants are bad — but we have to do some exploring to discover the good ones. We have to generate ten ideas so that perhaps one or two will work. Yes, by all means do what you’re good at, but once in a while try something new and different. Be excellent at something, but also just “go with the flow” and sample the richness of the world.

Finally, there is the idea that certain things are worth doing even badly. I’ve met mediocre painters who were radiantly happy. Which is ultimately more important: generating the most “value,” or loving what you’re doing? If the two coincide, great. If not, go for what makes your heart sing.

Ballet class in a poor neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya


“Marx saw religion as a symptom of a cruel economic world: people had religion because their lives were rotten; make their lives better and religion will melt away. . . . Tradition had it that well-fed, educated, cosmopolitan people often wander away from religion, whereas their hard-scrabble neighbors thank god for their crumbs.

In an 1844 paper on Hegel, Marx wrote: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.’ The task of history, therefore, is to ‘establish the truth of this world.’ For Marx it is social revolution, not science, that will finally dissolve religion.”

~ Jennifer Michael Hecht, “Doubt: A History”

Milosz, who had a huge interest in the decline of religion as the central phenomenon of modernity, had a different suggestion: not so much prosperity, and not science, but TECHNOLOGY. It’s feeling less helpless that’s crucial, Milosz said. It’s going to the doctor rather than praying. It’s using the cell phone to call for rescue if needed. It’s having all kinds of stimulation and entertainment outcompeting church services and events. 

(Freud also saw the feeling of helplessness as the origin of religion — but he went back all the way to infantile helplessness.)

Also, I think we live in a more compassionate and less punishment-centered world, at least in the West, so the longing for a “better place” becomes less relevant. It's easier to accept that this is OUR place — not a way station, but our HOME, to be cherished and enjoyed, without hoping for the proverbial pie in the sky. But for that attitude to become prevalent, there is indeed a need a sufficient prosperity and security.

And of course people are less likely to revolt against a cruel economic world if they are promised eternal bliss in the afterlife — if they meekly obey the masters. But Milosz had something to say about this too: “It’s difficult to convince a modern person that real life begins only at the moment of death.”


~ “Autoimmune diseases turn people’s own immune systems against their bodies. In the United States alone, women represent 80 percent of all cases of autoimmune disease. Women are 16 times more likely than men to get Sjogren’s syndrome, in which the immune system goes after the glands that make tears and saliva, and nine times more likely to have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, in which it sets it sights on the thyroid. Sjogren’s forced Venus Williams to drop out of the U.S. Open in 2011. The singer Selena Gomez underwent a kidney transplant after suffering complications from lupus, which is eight times more common in women.

Some scientists now think the placenta itself might be the reason why women are so disproportionately affected. In a paper published last week in the journal Trends in Genetics, Melissa Wilson, an evolutionary biologist, along with her colleagues from Arizona State University, put forward an explanation called the “pregnancy-compensation hypothesis.” It suggests that women’s immune systems are engaged in a fierce tug of war with placentas, even when the organs aren’t actually present.

Here’s how the theory goes: Women—and all other placental mammals—evolved such that they would be pregnant for many of their adult years. Before the advent of birth control, that was pretty much the fate of the female sex. In modern hunter-gatherer populations, Wilson told me, it’s not uncommon for women to have eight to 12 children each.

When the placenta grows during pregnancy, the organ sends signals to the mother’s immune system to change its activity so that the mother’s body doesn’t eject the placenta and the fetus. This might even mean turning down the immune system in some ways, or for some periods of time. If the immune system gets turned down too much, though, it risks leaving women sensitive to pathogens, which would also be bad for the fetus. So instead, the mother’s immune system ramps up in other ways throughout adulthood, Wilson and her colleagues think, so as to remain vigilant against germs even when some of its parts become dormant during pregnancies.

Things get complicated, however, when those pregnancies don’t actually occur. Women today tend to have far fewer children—less than two on average in the United States, according to the CDC. Wilson reasons that without a more or less constant pushback from placentas during pregnancies—the pushback that women’s immune systems have evolved to anticipate—the immune system can get too aggressive, too ramped up. It starts looking for things to attack that aren’t dangerous, which is how autoimmune diseases set in.

This is certainly not the first theory for why women suffer from more autoimmune disease than men do. One has to do with a protein called BAFF; another has to do with the fact that women have two X chromosomes instead of one. The way Wilson sees it, the pregnancy-compensation hypothesis synthesizes many of the previous theories into one and provides the evolutionary explanation behind them. “They were all right,” she says. “But everyone was looking under their own streetlight, and we just waited for it to be daytime.”

Johann E. Gudjonsson, a professor of skin molecular immunology at the University of Michigan, found that women have more of a molecular switch called VGLL3 in their skin than men do, and that all this VGLL3 might be what causes a heightened immune response in women. In this case, then, the VGLL3 might be how the body ramps up the immune system, but the pregnancy-compensation hypothesis might be why it does so.

Similarly, Hal Scofield, a professor of pathology and medicine at the University of Oklahoma, says that it appears there are lots of genes involved in the immune response on the X chromosome, and since women have two X chromosomes while men have only one, women have more of those immune genes. The placental theory that Wilson’s team devised could be the reason this happens. Because women have to have strong immune systems that buck against the placenta, they evolved to produce more genes involved in the immune response. “I don’t think there’s any way out of thinking that placental pregnancy has to have influenced the evolutionary immune system,” Scofield told me.

Scientists could try to determine whether the number of pregnancies a woman has is predictive of her risk of autoimmune disease. If Wilson’s theory holds, women who have more pregnancies should have a lower risk. Or scientists could study the differences between mammals in the wild and zoo animals, which are sometimes on birth control, to determine whether they have differences in their autoimmune function.

Wilson says that the hope is to eventually learn what it is in the immune system that’s trying to respond to the placenta, and to target that thing with vaccines or treatments. More research could mean major improvements in the way women’s autoimmune diseases are treated.” ~


I was reminded of Dr. Steven Gundry’s observation about the Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda: the women were stricter vegetarians, but they typically suffered from a variety of autoimmune diseases. Gundry’s theory is that the women are exposed to more toxic plant lectins that disrupts the intestinal wall and provoke the immune system into misguided action. But just because the men are more likely to cheat and eat occasional hamburger or piece of chicken doesn’t mean that the male Seventh-Day Adventists, too, aren’t exposed to massive amounts of plant food — in fact men consume more food overall — so the difference between men and women shouldn’t be so pronounced. It’s been common medical knowledge that women — across the general population — are more susceptible than men to autoimmune diseases.

Men appear to be protected by testosterone. Testosterone is known to reduce the number of B cells, a type of lymphocyte that releases pathogen-fighting antibodies. Women have a more aggressive immune system that gives them an advantage when it comes to fighting off infections, but can also go wrong and attack the body’s own tissue. Basically as we grow older our own immune system increasingly turns against us, but this is much more pronounced in women.

Autoimmune disease tends to follow infections. Amplified by sex hormones, women’s “hyperimmune response” may persist and inflict severe damage on the body’s own tissues. And more and more diseases tend to be identified as auto-immune. Yes, as we age, our immune system turns against us — particularly in the case of women. Estrogens (yes, plural: it's actually a family of hormones) activate the immune system, while androgens tend to suppress it. At a later age, it's probably mainly the low levels of immuno-suppressive androgens that dooms so many women to multiple chronic illnesses.

So why do women tend to live longer nevertheless? That’s a separate issue involving multiple factors. But anecdotal evidence shows that a rare 100-year-old man tends to be a lot more healthy  than the more commonly found 100-year-old woman. 

(To return to Dr. Gundry for a moment, and his belief, going back to Hippocrates, that all disease begins in the gut, I found this:

~ “Recently, scientists have started looking at a different kind of environmental factor – the microbiome – as a possible cause for sex discrepancy. The term “microbiome” describes the families of bacteria that live on all normal healthy people – in their mouths, on their skins, in their intestines and (in women) in their vaginas. Men and women differ in their microbiomes, and specific microbiome patterns are associated with specific illnesses. Details of how and why these associations occur are not yet known. Future studies may find that differences in male and female microbiomes are related to sex ratios of autoimmune illnesses.” ~


ending on beauty:

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

~ W.H. Auden, The More Loving One