Saturday, December 28, 2019



Tonight my daughter says goodnight
to every ornament on the tree

the snowman whose carrot-nose has broken
the winged seahorse
the iridescent grasshopper
the plastic snowflake
the golden doodle bounding through leaves
the pink glass octopus
the blue glass whale
the teacup diorama with the missing fawn and palm trees
the crooked angel at the top she calls mama
you get the point

she kisses the one two three burned out lights
near the porcelain baby carriage
emblazoned with the year of her birth

she is 23 months old
the same age as Angie Valeria Martínez Ávalos
the little girl found dead in the Río Grande
with her father Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez
last summer

do you remember them (?)

a picture of their corpses went viral
I had almost forgotten but then I read a poem
by Martín Espada called “Floaters”
and it all came back

I googled Óscar y Valeria
I looked at the picture

you should too
I can’t describe it

my daughter pets my face before I put her in her crib
she says goodnight to
the wooden zebra
the sparkly carousel horse
the santa made of baked clay
the mint chocolate chip ice cream cone made of green and brown felt

there is an impeachment
going on

something is happening
in Hong Kong

in Las Vegas
someone is putting
tiny cowboy hats
on pigeons
and nobody knows why

nobody knows why anymore

I’m not really thinking too hard about
that William Carlos Williams quote
about the news and poems

I’m thinking about
Óscar y Valeria
because of a poem though

and in this moment my daughter pets my face
and says goodnight
to the magi inside the snow globe in the kitchen

and I have all I want of heaven
in the crèche of my heart
in this catalog of tree decorations

the snowy-roofed church
the bear with an elf hat
a starship enterprise
the jingle bell reindeer
a silver mistletoe
the ceramic holly sprig
a rainbow-colored candy cane
the caroler sad but singing

I am sad but singing
and grateful
so very grateful

a poet in earmuffs and scarf
ridiculous as Bob Cratchit
and Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge

belling all goodnight

the way my daughter
bells love when she says my
and reaches out.

~ Dante Di Stefano

After a poem that flawlessly puts together the enchanting and the horrible by reporting without commenting, by simply juxtaposing two fathers and two little girls, explicit commentary would be a desecration. Let us remain in mournful silence for a while. And then let us again rejoice in the warmth of a child saying goodbye to the Christmas ornaments. That’s the reality we live in. There are worse fates. 


~ “If at the start of the Carol Scrooge is something of a self-parody of Dickens’s fears about himself—the solitariness, the unhappy childhood, the desire for money—by the end Dickens had successfully brought him into line with a far more optimistic view of himself, as he bursts out into the street ready to send himself abroad imaginatively as well as physically, as light-hearted as he is light-footed.

The Carol took Dickens a little over six weeks to complete, and he wrote the final pages at the beginning of December, following it with “The End” and three emphatic double underlinings. Then, he said, he “broke out like a Madman”: a whirl of parties, conjuring performances and dancing, as if he secretly worried that there would be something unhealthily Scrooge-like about staying in one place for too long during the festive season. 

The book itself needed to be ready in time for the Christmas market, and Dickens kept his customary sharp eye on every aspect of its production. Priced at a relatively modest five shillings, it was handsomely (and seasonally) bound in red cloth, with gilt-edged pages, four hand-colored etchings provided by John Leech, and four additional black and white wood engravings. Dickens had chosen to publish the book at his own expense, hoping that he would make more money by receiving a percentage of the profits than he would by accepting a one-off payment, and his anxiety is clear in the strained mood of self-congratulation that starts to appear in his letters: the Carol was a modern fairy-tale that would drive out “the dragon of ignorance from its hearth”; it was a “Sledge hammer” that would “come down with twenty times the force—twenty thousand times the force.”

The critics were almost uniformly kind. One or two murmured that Dickens’s genial tone was maybe a little overbearing, his hospitality a little suffocating—a view later echoed by G. K. Chesterton, who noted that Dickens “tended sometimes to pile up the cushions until none of the characters could move”—but otherwise the reviews were full of praise for his skill in producing a conversion story that was also squarely aimed at changing the hearts and minds of its readers. Francis Jeffrey applauded the Carol’s “genuine goodness”; the usually sharp-tongued Theodore Martin argued that it was “finely felt, and calculated to work much social good”; Thackeray described it with envy-tinged admiration as “a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness”; even Margaret Oliphant, who came up with the faintest praise of all, later characterizing Dickens’s book as “the apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding,” admitted that “it moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel.”

Many of the ways in which the Carol moved its readers have since passed into critical folklore. Jane Welsh Carlyle reported that “visions of Scrooge” had so worked on her husband’s “nervous organization” that “he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and had actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties.” A Mr. Fairbanks, who attended a Christmas Eve reading of the Carol in Boston in 1867, was so moved that thereafter he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every worker a turkey. “Dickens’ Christmas Carol helps the poultry business amazingly,” as one wag noted in Wilkes’s Spirit of the Times (December 21, 1867). “Everybody who reads it and who has money immediately rushes off and buys a turkey for the poor.” Wherever one looks in the period, in fact, there are examples of the Carol being read as a good book that also did much good. 

[Some] observed that Dickens’s enjoyment of Christmas seemed more determined, even ruthless, than one might expect from someone with a genuinely boyish sense of fun: whether he was learning a new conjuring trick, or mastering the steps to a dance, his son Charles noted, there was always the same “alarming thoroughness with which he always threw himself into everything he had occasion to take up.” If Christmas was a time for returning to the world of childhood, it was also a time for asserting control over it, measuring how far he had traveled from a period that he tended to look back on with the same self-pity that stirs Scrooge when he encounters his younger self: “a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge . . . wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.”


~ “Greta Gerwig’s star-studded adaptation of literary classic Little Women dazzles on the silver screen this Christmas. The film features a delightfully fussy Meryl Streep as Aunt March and not one, but two marriage proposal scenes from resident coming-of-age film heartthrob Timothée Chalamet as Laurie. Gerwig’s adaptation is both hilarious and heart wrenching from open to close. The canonical work has been adapted dozens of times for the stage, screen, TV, and even as an opera, and Gerwig’s version is the sixth feature film of the same name.

Gerwig makes Little Women a story within a story, highlighting the semi-autobiographical nature of the original work. We watch fiery sister Jo March novelize her family’s life as it happens, ultimately publishing Little Women at the end of the film. The role of headstrong Jo, played by Saoirse Ronan in Gerwig’s version, has been performed in other adaptations by icons such as Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder. 

Of course, the original Jo was none other than Little Women author Louisa May Alcott herself, who wrote the 1868 book about her family’s real poverty-stricken life in Concord, Massachusetts. Louisa May Alcott was educated by the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who were all friends of her family, and so her predisposition and drive to write shouldn’t come as a surprise. Gerwig takes care to imbue the character of Jo with details from Louisa May Alcott’s real life: As we see Jo do in the beginning of the film, Alcott began publishing thrillers under pen name A. M. Barnard in the early 1860s and wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. 

In 1868, Alcott’s publisher asked that she write a book for girls. She was unenthusiastic about the project, but needed money, and so begrudgingly obliged. “I don’t enjoy this sort of thing,” she wrote in her journal. “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” Alcott loosely based Little Women off of the lives of her and her real sisters Anna (represented in the book by Meg March), Elizabeth (Beth), and Abigail, who went by May (Amy). The book was an instant hit—it’s first print of two-thousand copies sold out in two weeks, and soon readers begged for a second volume. Those two volumes became the 759-page classic that readers still devour today. 

According to a letter Alcott wrote to a friend, Jo’s marriage at the close of the Little Women book was only fan service. “Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her.” Unlike her protagonist Jo, Louisa May Alcott herself remained unmarried for the rest of her life. In an 1883 interview, she said, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body...because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man.” 

Louisa May Alcott, a staunch feminist and abolitionist all her life, fell ill in her later years and died of a stroke in 1888, at age 55. Though she may be disappointed Gerwig chose to faithfully adapt Jo’s marriage from her novel, she might be proud to see Jo fighting to own her book's copyright, as Alcott did herself.” ~

The movie is about writing, among other things:

“Writing doesn’t confer importance,” Jo says. “It reflects it.”

But Amy disagrees. “Writing things,” she says, “is what makes them important.”


from a review of the TV series: “It’s very hard to see Jo, the rebel, writer, tomboy, misfit and author avatar – an enterprising girl who raises money for her sick father by selling her own hair – marrying a paternalistic professor who is so critical of her writing that she “corks up her inkstand” and sets up a boys’ school.”


Apparently Alcott was annoyed by readers of Volume I who deluged her with letters begging her to let Jo marry Laurie. The German professor was her revenge for being pressured to marry off her heroine (who earlier protests that marriage shouldn't be the sole goal of a woman's life). Pretty much everyone is disappointed by the book's ending. Gerwig's movie makes the professor younger than in the novel, and downright handsome— definitely neither “almost forty” nor “rather stout.” Making the movie version of Jo fall for an attractive man was a solution used by previous screen adapters as well. Stout? Never.

from an article in the Paris Review:

~ “He isn’t old, nor anything bad, but good and kind, and the best friend I’ve got next to you. Pray don’t fly into a passion; I want to be kind, but I know I shall get angry if you abuse my Professor. I haven’t the least idea of loving him, or anybody else. —Little Women
Literature has known many divisive characters. The dubious morality of Humbert Humbert, the disreputable spikiness of Holden Caulfield, the judgment and snobbery of Emma Bovary—all have pitted readers against one another since time immemorial. That said, there’s one character more controversial than all of these put together: Friedrich Bhaer.
Jo offers to mend his socks, and he offers to teach her German. Soon they’re reading fairy tales and Shakespeare together. And there it begins, the pattern of their relationship. He’s the mentor, she’s the pupil. She domesticates and cares for him; when she cries they read fairy tales.

Being paternalistic was hardly a novelty in storytelling of this period, and lord knows, for her era, the relationship is practically modern. Is this, ironically, what rings slightly false? The monastic purity and the gentle bohemianism? The godly philosopher? All plausible enough, and yet! The impending romance bears down like a particularly dreary train at five miles an hour.

I still don’t buy the romance. But I don’t think Jo is settling, exactly: it is a pragmatic relationship, but that has its appeal. They are not marrying out of financial necessity or societal expectation. To the contrary. They are marrying, Alcott makes fairly clear, to assuage their loneliness. But what I did not understand when I was younger is that this is part of why people couple and partner, and that companionship is not a small thing. Jo has married someone she respects; she has managed to find someone with no family to compete with her own; she is able to be both child and lover. From Alcott’s perspective—and frankly the generations of readers who’d be influenced by her—there are worse things.” ~ (I’ve included a portion of Part 2)


Yes! In the novel, this is a pragmatic marriage — in keeping with the overall pragmatic theme as opposed to romantic delusions. But did Gerwig have to make the professor so sexy? Well, what would movies be without handsome actors and being the audience’s wish fulfillment? So . . . she had to. 



~ “Our culture’s sentimental attachment to stories of young women about to bloom is strong. Jo’s anger—at her own powerlessness, at her culture’s obsession with marriage, at others’ assumptions about what shape her life should take—is legible; Marmee’s is not. A subtext of “Little Women” is that the explosive potential of these four girls is not, and will not be, realized; this is why Marmee belongs at the heart of the story. Gerwig’s adaptation is too committed to the idea of Jo as a transformative feminist hero to plumb these depths. 

The story that Gerwig’s film wants us to own—the story that so many redemptive, 
individualist readings of the novel push us toward—is the one where there are survivors, singular women who somehow escape. I don’t think this was the story Alcott was telling.

“I am almost suffocated in this atmosphere of restriction and form,” Abigail May Alcott wrote in her journal in 1842. Her husband, Bronson Alcott, was home in Concord after a more than six-month trip to England. He had left Abigail alone with four girls under the age of twelve, in deep debt, and with no income. She struggled. Yet things did not get better when he returned with two friends, Charles Lane and Henry Wright, in tow. The three men were in the early days of planning what would come to be the nominally egalitarian, vegetarian commune Fruitlands, but their condescension toward women was keenly felt by Abigail. She describes how they silenced her inside her own home: “I seem frowned down into stiff quiet and peace-less order.”

It’s possible that Louisa’s most feminist act was not only the invention of the indelible Jo but rather the insistence that Marmee’s anger—both expressed and suppressed—should be a central part of this story about creativity, love, home, and world-making. When she was seventeen, Louisa wrote in her journal about finding a note from Abigail: “[Her letters] always encourage me; and I wish someone would write as helpfully to her, for she needs cheering up with all the care she has. I often think what a hard life she has had since she married—so full of wandering and all sorts of worry!”

Louisa never did become a Marmee. She was not wrong that writing and Marmee-dom were at difficult odds in the eighteen-sixties and seventies, and she’d spent a lifetime painfully observing her own mother’s struggle with anger, misrecognition, and powerlessness, in her marriage and in motherhood. Louisa made her choice, and I’ve always cheered her radical vision of womanly independence. Still, her novel remains as good a reminder as any that one of the central problems of human life—motherhood—is, has been, and always will be a creative wellspring, not only a story to overcome or leave behind. It makes me angry that this fact is still so hard to see.” ~


I agree that Marmee deserves to be presented in greater depth. She plays the martyr, the saint — but we never get to know her as a person. We don’t really know the reasons for her anger (she says to Jo: “I feel angry nearly every day of my life”). Well, we can guess: having internalized the ideal of selflessness, she misses herself — or rather, her true selves, since each of us contains multitudes. And how did she end up marrying that improvident fool? If only she’d waited . . . But in that era the terror of ending up as a spinster made many women accept the first marriage proposal they got.

Abby May Alcott, Louisa's mother

Yes, I confess: I saw Little Women on Christmas Day. To my surprise, I liked Aunt March best (Muriel Streep's magic); of the sisters, again to my huge surprise, Amy and Beth. Amy seems completely genuine and has a steely dignity. Even in her revenge scene, she is impressive: this young person knows exactly what she wants — and knowing what you want is a rare treasure.

What I call the "facts of life" speech that Aunt March delivers to Amy is one of the strongest scenes in the movie. Maybe only Meryl Streep could do it and still delight us. And, frankly, as long as only women can get pregnant, I think that speech is timeless. Amy's speech to Laurie to the effect that we are not quite helpless in matters of love is also pretty amazing — and dignified, no matter that some feminists might be outraged.

What I'd love to see is a series (I think it would take a series) about Transcendentalism, with one segment devoted to Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands (Bronson was quite a fruitcake) and one to his famous daughter.

Bronson Alcott, the fruitcake Utopian



~ “Like most people who have read Little Women, I held an irrational hatred of Amy March. In my humble opinion, it's one of the great rip-offs of literary history that she ends up with Laurie, and to this day, I'm still pissed she burnt Jo's book. But in Greta Gerwig's new interpretation, Amy (Florence Pugh) gets the credit and nuance she deserves, and it makes her the most relatable character in the movie. 

The new film starts off basically in the middle of the book. Jo is already in New York, Amy is in Europe, Meg is Married, and Beth is still living at home with her parents. The childhood parts of the story are told in flashbacks, and the timelines move along together. Because of that structure, you first meet Amy as an adult. She's with Aunt March, and she's already thinking about getting married to Fred Vaughn when she happens to run into Laurie abroad. It makes it easier to forgive the childish antics you see later in the movie, because you know who she's about to become. 

Instead of coming off as the bratty kid who turned into the even brattier young woman who's only looking to marry rich, you get to know her as someone who's struggling with her art and identity, and trying to figure out how marriage fits into that. She wants to be the very best at her craft, or she doesn't want to do it at all. She won't accept mediocrity in any facet of her life. She's not entitled. She has incredibly high standards. There's a difference.
There's one scene in particular where she explains to Laurie what the stakes are for her, as a woman, in deciding who to marry. She doesn't see this as something that's just about love, and she shouldn't. 

While Jo usually gets all the credit for being the radical one in this family, this version of Amy is radical in her own way, because she's realistic. Jo decides to say "f*ck it" to literally every societal norm, but Amy knows how to play the game, and it took this new interpretation for me to see it that way. By choosing to marry Laurie, she's taking the path that is most likely to give her the future she wants, and you can't really blame her for that. She's not that one-dimensional person I've made her to be in my head. 

Everyone who reads Little Women wants to be a Jo, but after seeing this new version of the story, I'm proud to say I'm actually way more of an Amy. If that means I get to end up with my own version of Laurie, that doesn't sound like a bad deal.” ~


Amy comes across as incredibly strong and articulate. I liked the surprise at liking Amy more and more as the movie goes on — and the perhaps even greater surprise at liking Beth and feeling very touched by her death — well, surprises make life more interesting.
What others have called a surprise but I'd call a manipulation — making the German professor quite young and attractive so it's no shock and only natural that Jo falls for him — I felt a distance watching the whole set-up, and especially disliked the cliff-hanger scene of rushing to the train station while it rains — just too manipulative. And talk about trite! There should be a one-year ban on cliff-hanger scenes in the movies.

But let's not kid ourselves, the movie is about romance — because it's what sells, and it's a Christmas movie, and . . . that's what sells.



The new film version of LITTLE WOMEN is good, but this is the kind of gem that Greta Gerwig could not capture. This is a passage about Beth's doll collection. (I love the term “dollanity”): 

“One forlorn fragment of dollanity had belonged to Jo and, having led a tempestuous life, was left a wreck in the rag bag, from which dreary poorhouse it was rescued by Beth and taken to her refuge. Having no top of its head, she tied on a neat little cap, and as both arms and legs were gone, she hid these deficiencies by folding it in a blanket and devoting her best bed to this chronic invalid.”


I was surprised how much I liked Beth in the movie version. She was refreshingly quiet, non-chaotic. She is kind because she enjoys being kind. I was touched by the scene on the beach where she reveals she knows she's dying (“You cannot stop the tide” — to which Jo replies, in a juvenile and arrogant way, “I can stop the tide”), and by her actual dying. Growing to like Amy was another surprise.


Agree, I liked Beth and even Amy more than the others.


Probably everyone would say that the movie belongs to Jo, but she is way too domineering for my taste. She gets on my nerves again and again — simply not a pleasant person. Her exhausting  boisterous persona, spare me: too loud, too hyper. Perhaps it’s this particular actress, who I think is trying too hard. Beth and Amy seem so natural by contrast.

One issue that remains unresolved for me is Amy’s giving up her art because she thinks her talent is only “middling.” “Someone told her that,” Charles remarked. That’s fairly likely, especially considering that as a woman, she wasn’t taken as seriously as the male students (though most of them were also secretly dismissed as talentless).

But that’s a separate huge issue of its own. Ultimately the movie director is right to have concentrated on the economics of marriage — and, at first (with Meg’s marriage), on the way that marriage breaks up the original closeness among the sisters. Alas, it is a kind of death — though society has not come up with a better solution. Everything comes with a price.


Most people will probably enjoy this movie. It’s well made, and visually satisfying. Is it the kind of movie I’d want to see again? No, but then there are few movies that I ever want to see more than once.

I think a serial adaptation would be more appropriate (though perhaps somewhat boring
— unlike Louisa Alcott's actual life). This is a complex novel, with a lot happening. Within the time limitations of a movie, there are too many complicated characters, so finally it’s difficult to feel that every sister’s individuality, as well as her development of character over the years, the life lessons, have been revealed in depth. Any movie based on this novel has to be overly compressed by nature — or else be very selective. There are times when the action becomes too chaotic and frenetic for my taste. But then I like quiet movies that take their time: few characters, no fear of silence. Now and then this movie does it too — the scene on the beach where Beth talks about her imminent death works for me very well.

This is perhaps the least likable Jo ever. But I know that many would disagree — this movie, in its “meta-ending,” allows her to become a successful author who manages to to keep the copyright — and presumably stay single too, though that’s unclear in that meta-fiction way that just doesn’t commit to one version of reality. So if Alcott hinted that marriage is actually a kind of death, this movie tries to have the best of both worlds.

But even if traditional marriage is a kind of death, these sisters manage to have a life in spite of it. Whatever my quibbles, the movie is engaging. You won’t be thrilled, but you will not be bored either.

This adaptation has been called “radical” by some — because the metafictional ending lets Jo be a successful writer AND a socially successful woman, i.e. a respectable wife and mother. That would indeed be ahead of its times, and we know that Alcott wished to have Jo remain a “literary spinster.” The publishers persuaded her that a heroine needs to end up either married or dead. But in our times, a woman who has a both family and a writing career (or any other career) does not strike anyone as a radical. Gerwig merely chose to cater to the modern mentality.

A radical adaptation would probably show Jo as a lesbian. Whether we need such an adaptation is another question. I think we need a riveting documentary of Alcott’s life. We live in the age of increasing recognition that life is in fact wilder and more mysterious than fiction, and the lives of extraordinary women are finally coming into view. 


In Little Women what stands out to me is the poverty of choice and limitation of freedom all these women face, not only determined by the rigidity of their society's definition of female roles, but also by the primacy of economics in determining any and all possibilities. Their struggles are defined by their situation as women, but even more stringently by their poverty. The trajectory of each life, its fundamental shape and the nature of each one's struggle, is their place in an economy where, first and foremost, that place is defined by that of the men they are dependent on. Independent efforts to gain an economic status where more freedom and security is assured are very limited and chancy. What is their capital?? Well, as it has been for most of history, their bodies...all they own enough to sell. Not getting far enough with selling her writing, a product of skill and imagination, in desperation, Jo sells her hair . An action heavy with meaning in her time and place, her "one beauty," part of the bargaining power of a "dowry" that might secure her a place in marriage.

And marriage, the final solution for a woman in this world, is also a very chancy thing. A husband may gain you some social legitimacy but not provide adequately, or at all, for you and whatever children may come. Certainly this was Louisa's own mother's situation: a husband, and for Louisa a father, so flighty and irresponsible that he leaves his wife and family destitute and desperate. In the novel, the absent father is allowed the excuse of war and duty, but this doesn't make the family situation any the less desperate. Alcott's fictional world echoes her own lived reality, one presented over and over in fiction. Even when humorously treated there is that sting of fear and desperation — imagine being Dickens's Mrs. Micawber!!

Though we may be disappointed by Jo's marriage, and it is certainly Louisa's  way of disappointing her audience while at the same time she bows to their demand for a conventional ending — it is realistic…

This is a story from a world where women's choices were neither many nor great. Meg marries into genteel poverty, Jo marries a kindly father. Amy manages best, gaining a measure of security and freedom by marrying a rich man. Beth, of course, that Victorian angel, dies. The other possibility, of economic independence, must be outside social conformity, and outside this novel, though most responsible for it — that is Louisa Alcott's own writing spinsterhood.


from a perceptive article (there are so many articles out there about this movie!)

~ “Amy sees marrying well as a duty. Meg has married poor, Beth will never marry, and Jo has embraced low-earning work. So when Aunt March reminds her, “You are your family’s hope,” it’s essentially a demand. The other members of the March family might thrive on sanctimonious self-deprivation, but Amy gets that people gotta eat.

“Don’t tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is,” she tells Laurie in one of the film’s best scenes, as the two gaze across the classroom of her Paris art school and bicker over whether she ought to marry the blindingly rich, malignantly dull Freddy Vaughn. While Jo has trotted off to Boston to scribble away in penury, unsure of her talent, Amy is measured about her own painting skills. She tells Laurie she will be “great or nothing” but already knows that greatness eludes her. And so marriage it must be if the Marches are to carry on. For this Amy, matrimony isn’t the culmination of her girlish desire for frippery and wealth; it’s a mark of her evolution from selfish to expansive.” ~

But here is something from the same source that truly astonished me:

~ “What’s funny about the whole ordeal is how much more Alcott altered her own sister May’s story than those of her other sisters. Lizzie (Beth) did die at 22, weeks before the family even moved into Orchard House, her body weakened by scarlet fever that she’d contracted from a poor German family. Two years later, in 1860, Anna (Meg) did marry a penniless man named John Pratt, who bears far more than a passing resemblance to Little Women’s John Brooke. But May didn’t actually marry until she was 38 — her husband was a 22-year-old merchant whom she met abroad, not a family friend and certainly not Louisa’s former love. Rather than entirely abandon her art at a young age, the real May exhibited broadly in Paris, including in the famed Paris Salon. She’s also the only sister who lived with Louisa into adulthood.” ~


The most amazing thing to me is that May married a 22 year old  man. How often did that happen in the 1860s?

The movie would have been more interesting if they made May a successful artist. What were they thinking?


That’s why we need yet another version of the story — one closer to the reality of their lives. For instance, Beth was not really at peace with dying young. Apparently she raged against it.

But when it comes to the novel, Alcott was concerned with what sells — not to mention that her publishers were even more concerned with that. But I’d love to know more about May and her life, unusual both in terms of a challenging career and a marriage to a much younger man. (How often does it happen even now?)

The director was already being pretty radical to play with the ending just enough to suggest that the “real” Jo did become a successful author. Perhaps Gerwig didn’t want to take too many chances, altering the novel too much. Romance sells better than having art shows in Paris.



Because of the “war on Christmas” rhetoric, the posts on how “Jesus is the reason for the season” and the counter-posts on how Jesus never was the reason for the season since Christmas originated in much more ancient pagan celebration of the winter solstice, I began examining my early memories. I was only slightly surprised to discover that for me Christmas had always been about the special food on Christmas Eve (which in Polish is not called “Christmas Eve” but “vigil” [Wigilia] —see my poem “Cold Fires”in the previous blog), the evergreen tree (which in Polish is not called a “Christmas tree”) and its scent — ah, the scent! — this holiday was very much about the scent of an evergreen), the gifts, the tree lights and ornaments, the wishes, the nice clothes, the carols, the family warmth and coziness. Even back when I did go to church, that was not the important part of the holiday. If food was a “ten”, then church was a “one.” 

So when I stopped going to church on Christmas or any other day, Christmas went on as usual. I hardly noticed. 

Nor did I miss anything. I left the nativity story as I left children's books — which I also didn’t miss, except maybe Winnie the Pooh.

God was the all-seeing, all-powerful tyrant to be feared, and the sweetness of the nativity creche did not obscure that. Not for me. I did like the animals though. They were the best part. They lent the most comfort and a momentary forgetting that here was a terrorist religion based on threats of hellfire. It was marvelous to forget that part for a little while and keep on enjoying the celebration. 

So Christmas was basically secular from the start. But that doesn’t mean that I object to the creche displays. True, at first it was a tad of a shock to discover that it was all a myth — not Mary’s virginity, since that part was obvious, but the birth in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth, the census that historically never took place (and no census ever requires people to go back to the their original hometown), the fact that the “slaughter of the innocents” never happened but was invented to echo the slaughter of the first-born Egyptian infants, and later the flight into Egypt so that there could be a return from Egypt. The events of the life of Jesus were fashioned to fit the liturgical Jewish history. 

Again, it was only later that I wrestled with the heavy possibility that Jesus never even existed — or if he did, the layers of legend obscured the historical person past the point where historicity was recoverable. Perhaps there were two or three itinerant end-of-the-world preachers on whom the figure of Jesus was loosely based. Perhaps there was only one, a high-functioning but mentally ill charismatic preacher. We’ll never know. 

But even before I fully digested the made-up nature of it all, I was able to enjoy the stories as stories — the way I loved Greek myths, even with the cruelty inherent in many of them. “The Greeks really had great imagination,” I used to think — never mind the fusion from other tradition, never mind any scholarly examination. And I don’t mind if someone says “Merry Christmas” to me — I say it back to them, knowing that to neither of us it’s about religion.


“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” ~ Jonathan Swift


I loved Gulliver’s Travels. On first reading I loved the Liliputians and the Giants. On re-reading, a little older, I esp appreciated the flying Island of Laputa, inhabited by abstract thinkers and their servants. And I liked the land of the noble horses as well.


~ “If you’re like most people, your resolve to get in better shape, declutter your home, learn a new language, or “be a better person” likely dissipates by the time February rolls around. 

The reasons this happens are varied, but experts say there are several common pitfalls that keep people from achieving their New Year’s resolutions.

“’New Year’s resolution’ is kind of this buzzword that can make people crazy,” said Dr. Stephen Graef, a sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Most people have a toxic relationship with the term. So from the beginning we set ourselves up for failure because we know that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of people are going to ultimately get off their path of resolution.”

Some of the biggest mistakes people make, he says, are setting goals that are too broad, too big, or too many. 

Making a resolution to lose weight, for example, is too general a notion that does not give you something specific to work towards or a well-defined path to follow. Similarly, if you want to be more physically fit, but have barely gotten off the couch in two years, planning to run a marathon isn’t going to be feasible. And aspiring to not only lose weight and run a marathon, but also learn a new skill, a new language, and a new instrument? That’s just setting yourself up for failure.

“I think we try to set not only too extensive of a goal but also too many goals,” Graef told CBS News. “We might really try to shoot for the moon too quickly and that doesn’t work out, or not only do we want to go to the moon but we want to go to Mars and Neptune and Saturn. And if we try to do all of those, we don’t have the mental and physical resources to be able to accomplish that.”

Fortunately, avoiding these pitfalls and adopting some strategies to stay on track can help you achieve your goals. Follow these expert tips to stick to — and actually achieve — your resolution for the new year.

Be honest with yourself. 

Often times, we set goals because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. “Many people don’t make their own resolutions out of what’s most meaningful and desirable for them but they set it out of what other people told them they need to do out of fear or guilt,” said Dr. Karen Lawson, director of the Integrative Health Coaching program at the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota. “So the motivation doesn’t come from within but comes from the outside and that doesn’t tend to lead to success.” Be honest with yourself and figure out what is important and valuable to you so you can set a goal that comes from within.

Stick to one thing. 

Trying to accomplish multiple goals at once will quickly get overwhelming and only lead to failure. Stick to one thing, master it, and move onto the next. Having trouble deciding which goal to work on first? Graef recommends first focusing on the behaviors that get the mind and body running more effectively, like exercising, eating nutritious foods, or quitting smoking. 

From there, take inventory of all the goals you have for yourself and figure out which you are most passionate about. “Think to yourself, ‘If I knew that this was going to be my final year on earth, how would I really want to spend that time?’” Graef said. 

Another strategy is to focus on the goals that will benefit you in significant ways. “Am I going to spend three months learning salsa dancing, or if there’s an opportunity in the future to do a lot more public speaking, maybe someone would rather spend those three months on that because they know it’s going to have the most transcendent impact on not only their career but their comfort level in other social settings, as well,” Graef said.

Make SMART goals. 

When it comes to setting goals, stick to the SMART method. That means making your goals:


“This gets people to identify very concrete and specific steps,” Lawson said. “You might have a grand goal of ‘I want to be a better person,’ but OK, let’s bring that home and figure out what that actually looks like and how you can move in that direction. It’s not that you can’t have those lofty goals, but bring them down and make them concrete.” For example, if your goal is to think more positive thoughts, Lawson recommends setting an alarm on your watch or phone twice a day and when it goes off, take a moment to think about something specific that you’re grateful for.

Arrange your environment for success. 

If certain aspects of your environment are hindering your progress, change them. Want to wake up earlier but find yourself hitting snooze every morning? Graef suggests putting your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you will be forced to get up to turn it off. Having trouble making it to the gym? Sleep in your gym clothes to make it easier to get out the door for a morning workout. Can’t stop snacking? Get the junk food out of your pantry and refrigerator and replace them with healthier options like fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Chart your progress. 

Once you’ve identified your goal and have a specific plan set for how to achieve it, tracking your progress is key to success. “It feels very good to check things off and cross them off, so that’s very rewarding in and of itself,” Graef said. Having a visual picture of your progress can also be helpful. “If on your calendar, you’ve marked off five days in a row where you’ve met your goals, that’s going to really increase the likelihood that you don’t want to break that on the sixth day. It just looks aesthetically pleasing to the human eye to have that consistency in that tracking,” Graef said.

Make yourself accountable. 

Take steps to make yourself accountable for your goals to help stay motivated. For example, if you aim to run a 10K, sign up for one and pay for it in advance. Though Graef notes that this strategy may not work for everyone, announcing your goals on social media can also help some people stay motivated. Alternatively, simply sharing your resolutions with family members and close friends and discussing your progrelp keep you on track.

Celebrate successes and be compassionate with yourself when you slip. 

“People on the whole tend to be harder on themselves than they are with other people. They tend to beat themselves up,” Lawson said. “So when we have a day when we fall down on the diet, instead of telling yourself that you’re weak or bad, tell yourself that you had a bad day and that tomorrow’s a new day to start over.” It’s important to be compassionate with yourself, acknowledge your slips, and move on. 

Similarly, celebrating successes — however small — is important to success. “Acknowledge when you had a really great day, or even a really great moment an hour ago,” Lawson said. “Figure out ways to be happy and joyful and congratulatory for when you’re doing it right.”




After I made my life-changing decision not to be depressed (because it was too late in life to be depressed), I defined the opposite of depression as productivity — which was pretty exhausting, until I found my balance and my brain function normalized (e.g. regaining access to positive memories — this took longest). I think "vitality" is quite precise. You become enlivened and the world becomes enlivened, full of color.

Caroline Myss (I'm not a fan, but now and then she says something worthwhile) defined self-esteem as a degree of animation. That's very close to "vitality" — though I also see it as centered on taking interest in the outside (the opposite of depressive introspection, aka “brooding”). “The answer lies outside” was one of my happiest discoveries.

“Go outside, even for a short while, no matter what the weather” has become one of my mottoes. It's so energizing. Another is what Larry Levis said: “Gaze at the world.” There is a danger in living too much inside your head, analyzing ad infinitum. It can lead to depression, and depression can lead to suicide. "So much depends on a walk around the lake" ~ Wallace Stevens


~ “Ad Kerkhof is a Dutch clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. e
He has observed that before attempting suicide people often experience a period of extreme rumination about the future. They sometimes reported that these obsessive thoughts had become so overwhelming that they felt death was the only way to escape. Kerkhof has developed techniques which help suicidal people to reduce this rumination and is now applying the same methods to people who worry on a more everyday basis. He has found that people worry about one topic more than any other — the future, often believing that the more hours they spend contemplating it, the more likely they are to find a solution to their problems. But this isn’t the case. His techniques come from cognitive behavioral therapy and may sound remarkably straightforward, but they are all backed up by trials.

If you find yourself awake in the middle of night worrying, with thoughts whirling round repeatedly in your head, he has several strategies you can try. This is where imagery comes in useful again. Imagine there’s a box under your bed. This is your worry box. As soon as you spot thoughts that are worries, imagine taking those individual worries, putting them into the box and closing the lid. They are then to remain in the box under the bed until you decide to get them out again. If the worries recur, remind yourself that they are in the box and won’t be attended to until later on.

[Another technique: WORRY TIME]

Set aside a time for worrying. Your worries relate to real and practical problems in your life, so you cannot rid yourself of them altogether, but you can learn to control when you think about them. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously commanded his brother not to think of a white bear, and we know from the experiment on thought suppression which followed that, given that instruction, you can think of nothing but a white bear. … Likewise, telling people not to think of their worries isn’t going to work. Instead Kerkhof recommends the opposite. Set aside 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening to do nothing but worry about the future. Sit at a table, make a list of all your problems and then think about them. But as soon as the time is up you must stop worrying, and whenever those worries come back into your head remind yourself that you can’t contemplate them again until your next worry time. You have given yourself permission to postpone your worrying until the time of your choice. Remarkably, it can work. It puts you in control.

“The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” ~ Seneca, Letter 13, warning against wasting time on worrying



~ “In 2008, Richard Thaler co-authored the influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness with Cass Sunstein. In this and his other research,  Thaler explains the flaws and biases that influence our actions. This led to the theory that you can use subtle nudges to encourage people to make better decisions, particularly when planning for the long term, such as saving for retirement. 

Loss Aversion and Anchoring

People can make bad economic choices based on something Thaler dubbed the “endowment effect,” which is the theory that people value things more highly when they own them. In other words, you’d ask for more money for selling something that you own than what you would be willing to pay to buy the same thing

This relates to another key theory, known as loss aversion. People experience the negative feeling of loss more strongly than they feel the positive sense of a gain of the same size. This is also impacted by anchoring: If you are selling an item, your reference point is most likely to be the price you paid for something. Even if the value of that item is now demonstrably worth less, you are anchored to the purchase price, in part because you want to avoid that sense of loss. This can lead to pain in financial markets, in particular. 

Planner Versus Doer

We’ve all been there, torn between making a sensible decision that sets us up well for the future and something that provides more immediate gratification. This is the internal struggle between what Thaler and others describe as your planning self and doing self. One way to avoid this conflict is to remove short-term courses of actions. This goes against the traditional economic notion that more choices are always better. 

This is where nudges come in. Thaler and Sunstein pioneered the idea of using nudges to create alternative courses of actions that promote good long-term decision making but maintain freedom of choice. One method of doing this they found is simply changing the default option—switching users from opt-in to opt-out, for example. This has been used in public policy, particularly with the creation of “nudge units” in the US and UK, to boost both retirement savings and organ donation. In 2014, a study by the Economic & Social Research Council found that 51 countries had developed centralized policy units influenced by behavioral sciences.

Availability Heuristic  

People are inclined to make decisions based on how readily available information is to them. If you can easily recall something, you are likely to rely more on this information than other facts or observations. This means judgements tend to be heavily weighted on the most recent piece of information received or the simplest thing to recall. 

In practice, research has shown that shoppers who can recall a few low-price products—perhaps because of a prominent ads or promotions—tend to think that a store offers low prices across the board, regardless of other evidence. And in a particularly devious experiment, a psychology professor (naturally) got his students to evaluate his teaching (pdf), with one group asked to list two things he could improve and another asked to list 10. Since it’s harder to think of 10 bad things than just two, the students asked to make a longer list gave the professor better ratings—seemingly concluding that if they couldn’t come up with enough critical things to fill out the form, then the course must be good.  

Status Quo Bias

Most people are likely to stick with the status quo even if there are big gains to be made from a change that involves just a small cost. In particular, this is one of the implications of loss aversion. That’s why a nudge, such as changing the default option on a contract, can be so effective. Thaler’s research on pension programs shows that while employees can choose to opt-out of a plan, the status quo bias means once they are in it, they are actually more likely to stay put. 

Governments have used this to encourage better behavior. In 2006, the US passed a law that encouraged firms to automatically enroll their employees in retirement savings plans, which they could opt out of at any time. By 2011, Thaler and a colleague estimated that 4.1 million people were in some type of automatic escalation plan and annual savings increased by $7.6 billion by 2013. In the UK, a national scheme to automatically enroll people in a personal savings plan had an opt-out rate of just 12 percent.   

These flaws—or human traits, to be more charitable—may not seem unusual, but Thaler argues that appreciating the implications of human behavior has lost its importance in dominant economic theory. As the field relied more and more on mathematics, there was a push to explain the world using rigid, complex economic models. These models tend to focus on what can be measured, and the irrational decisions humans make hardly fits that mold. 

Today, behavioral economics is still considered a somewhat separate subject within the broader discipline. But if Thaler has it his way, the field of study that just won him a Nobel prize won’t exist for long: “If economics does develop along these lines the term ‘behavioral economics’ will eventually  disappear from our lexicon. All economics will be as behavioral as the topic requires.”

Richard Thaler. Thaler made a cameo appearance as himself in the 2015 movie The Big Short, which was about the credit and housing bubble collapse that led to the 2008 global financial crisis.[53] During one of the film's expository scenes, he helped pop star Selena Gomez explain the 'hot hand fallacy,' in which people believe that whatever is happening now will continue to happen in the future.


The endowment effect is so true especially when it comes to owning fine art. My experience is that when people own art they put an unrealistically high value on it and this always leads to am emotional and financial  loss. 


~ “In 1950, both the world and Alan Watts were at a pivotal point. Russia had recently detonated its first atomic weapon, ushering in an age of global anxiety.

By the spring, Watts himself was undergoing a jarring transformation: his first wife had their marriage annulled because of an affair, and he resigned his position as an Episcopalian minister. Watts left the church, he later remembered, “not because it doesn’t practice what it preaches, but because it preaches.”

And so, the newly single Alan Watts — practitioner of Zen Buddhism, student of Taoism, authority on comparative philosophy, ex-priest and prolific author — began hobnobbing with the likes of Joseph Campbell and John Cage. He moved to a little farmhouse in upstate New York and began writing The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. 

Given the circumstances, the book was aptly named. What it contains is timeless.

A central thesis of The Wisdom of Insecurity is that the present moment is all we have. 

Without being doctrinaire, Watts takes us radically beyond “eat when you’re eating, walk when you’re walking” mindfulness: the present is truly the only place we exist. What we call the past is a construct of memory, the recollection of which constitutes a present experience.
To illustrate, Watts asks us to remember a time we saw a friend walking down the street. We’re not witnessing the actual event, he points out, because we can’t shake our friend’s hand or ask him a question. “You’re looking,” Watts says, describing the scene, “at a present trace of the past.”

Understanding this concept changed me: the past ceased to be a tormentor. If recalling past events is a present experience, and doing so (in my case) often involved things that were embarrassing or painful, I simply stopped. The past is no longer needed to provide periodic mortification.

According to Watts, the future is likewise a construct, “and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present.”

Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements—inferences, guesses, deductions—it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead…Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

So, to know happiness in the future, we must be happy now. Delaying enjoyment of your life is to always live in Christmas Eve, with the many gifts around you staying securely wrapped.

Moreover, to participate in the moment — to be fully aware, is to be unified with the experience, and free from the separating identity of being the experiencer.

To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening. To understand joy or fear, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it. So long as you are calling it names and saying, “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it.

Not only are you not being aware of it, you are creating the “I” who is afraid, and thus, by this separation, guaranteeing fear’s constant threat.

“This is not a psychological or spiritual discipline for self-improvement,” Watts writes. “It is simply being aware of this present experience, and realizing that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it. There is no rule but ‘Look!’

Centuries of Occidental society and culture have made grasping, much less embodying, this revolution in thinking very difficult. We are hardened materialists, fully beholden to identity and addicted to distraction. We evade pain and crave security, and doing so assures us painful, insecure lives. The imminent unknown is not to be avoided, but embraced. Our resilience, our adaptability, is reliant upon us being completely sensitive to the moment, and understanding it as being a new, unique experience. We live in a series of infinite nows, which are always dying, and always being reborn. To be immersed in this reality is to be transformed, for it is there that eternity is available.

“For the perfect accomplishment of any art,” Watts tells us, “you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

If it’s possible, we live in an even more anxious, insecure age than when Alan Watts published his extraordinary little book. We have exchanged the magic of the present moment for the immediacy of social media. We have inherited a government which is no longer a capable agent of securing the future. We watch the latest in a series of superhero movies before putting our noses back in our phone.

Alan Watts lived the rest of his life as a committed philosophical polymath. He lectured, wrote books, directed television, and became a lodestone for the Baby Boomers’ emerging spirituality. He married three times, claiming to be “an unrepentant sensualist, an immoderate lover of women and the delights of sexuality.” When questioned too sharply by students, he called himself a “spiritual entertainer.” 

He died in 1973 at age 58, confirming his friends’ fears of excessive alcohol consumption. But decades before all that, even as he emerged from a frightful midlife metamorphosis, Alan Watts gifted us the music of the eternal. It is up to us to begin the dance.” ~



~ “In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Pittsburgh neuroscientist Peter Strick showed that he has discovered a discrete, elaborate network in the cerebral cortex that controls the adrenal medulla. It seems that the connections between the brain and the adrenal medulla are much more elaborate than previously understood. Complex networks throughout the primary sensory and motor cortices are tied directly to our stress responses. 

That discovery transformed Strick’s understanding of how bodily movements influence our health. He’s starting pilates. 

Once they managed to chart the connections, the researchers were astounded at what they saw. The motor areas in the brain connect to the adrenal glands. In the primary motor cortex of the brain, there’s a map of the human body—areas that correspond to the face, arm, and leg area, as well as a region that controls the axial body muscles (known to many people now as “the core”).

And when you look at where those neurons are located, most are in the axial muscle part of that cortex. 

“Something about axial control has an impact on stress responses,” Strick reasons. “There’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress. And when you see somebody that's depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel.  Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress. And I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.”


Done slowly, with total mindfulness, Pullup and rolldown is my favorite exercise. The first benefit of doing it daily that I noticed was improved posture.


ending on beauty:

Text: John Guzlowski; graphics: Lee Zimmerman