Saturday, December 26, 2020


photo: Tommy Richardsen


I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

Bing Crosby sings Christmas Bells:


Why this poem for Christmas 2020? Because it’s a poem that dares face despair. It was written during the American Civil War, regarded as the bloodiest civil war in human history. Each side quoted the bible, carefully picking passages that seemed to support or condemn slavery. This made it a holy war, and holy wars last longest and tend to be more ruthless, since each side feels it is their sacred moral duty to fight on.

Longfellow was on the side of the Union, so it’s not surprising that he writes

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But the speaker is too wise to simply blame the South. He knows the problem of war is the universal problem of humanity:

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But the very fact that the Christmas bells keep ringing is their reply. Longfellow makes it more explicit and poetic by actually having the bells speak — you can get away with it in poetry. The  bells insist on hope:

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Is this just wishful thinking? Not quite. We know that all tyrannical empires fall — it is just a matter of time. Blood-stained dictators die (or are helped to die, so to speak), and their successors, if any, don’t have the same ruthlessness. The Nazi Thousand-Year Reich lasted only eleven years. The Soviet Union collapsed after sixty-nine years. True, Putin described it as “the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century” and has taken some measures to restore a Soviet-style regime — and yes, he is a killer, but he’s no Stalin. Mao is dead, Fidel Castro is dead, Pol Pot died  in prison, Idi Amin got deposed — and their  successors, even if not democratically elected, seem to prefer a reign of peace and prosperity over a reign of terror.

Looking at history, we may indeed conclude that “the Wrong shall fail.” Indeed, we have to think that way, because life is unbearable without hope, and our brains are wired for “optimism bias.” Or as the Polish-American poet John Guzlowski says, “Hope is our mother.”

And ultimately there are more people of good will than those inclined to cruelty. Ultimately, human civilization is based on empathy and cooperation.

Dali: Christmas Tree, 1953


~ “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.

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.”

~ When he sat down to write the “Carol” Dickens was deeply involved with an effort to help the smallest victims of the Industrial Revolution, the nation’s poorest children. Only a few months earlier, he had shared a stage with Benjamin Disraeli in an event that raised questions and offered answers about the care and education of poverty’s children. Tiny Tim stands in for some of these unfortunates, but their most memorable incarnations are the filthy boy and girl—“yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish” that the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces as Ignorance and Want. Dickens’ theme is sounded in trumpets when a horrified Scrooge asks, “Have they no refuge or resource?” and the Spirit quotes Scrooge’s own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

Dickens and the Victorians were responsible for putting children at the center of the Christmas celebration, and probably the most positive way to look at the modern holiday is to recognize that no amount of blinky lights, tinsel, or reindeer with neon noses can actually corrupt the impulse to give something wonderful to someone we love―perhaps a child—to turn love, for a moment or two, into something palpable and visible, to yield to an impulse that has no objective but to lift someone’s heart. This impulse existed before Christmas, and for a while it animated Christmas, and if you cut through the modern clutter, it’s still there. It’s something to look at closely; it’s something worth writing about.

Even if we’ll never do it half as well as Dickens. ~


I enjoyed giving lots of Christmas gifts to my mother -- she was such an enthusiastic receiver, though she'd ritually scold me, “This looks too expensive. You've spent too much.”

~ Santa doesn’t know Zoology:

Both male & female Reindeer grow antlers. But all male Reindeer lose their antlers in the late fall, well-before Christmas.

So Santa’s Reindeer, which all sport antlers, are therefore all female, which means Rudolf has been misgendered. ~


Katherine Mansfield on Howards End

From her journals: May 1917:

Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of Howards End and had a look into it. But it’s not good enough. E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.

And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.

Martin Amis on Don Quixote

From his review as printed in The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000:

While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw—that of outright unreadability. This reviewer should know, because he has just read it. The book bristles with beauties, charm, sublime comedy; it is also, for long stretches (approaching about 75 per cent of the whole), inhumanly dull. . . 

Reading Don Quixote can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies. When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last (on page 846 – the prose wedged tight, with no breaks for dialogue), you will shed tears all right: not tears of relief but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that Don Quixote could do.

David Foster Wallace on American Psycho

From an interview with Larry McCaffery published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1993:

LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?

DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.

LM: But at least in the case of American Psycho I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.

DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. 

If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.–is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

Mary McCarthy on Franny and Zooey

In a review in Harper’s, October 1962:

Who is to inherit the mantle of Papa Hemingway? Who if not J. D. Salinger? . . . And who are these wonder kids but Salinger him­self, splitting and multiplying like the original amoeba?
In Hemingway’s work there was never any­body but Hemingway in a series of disguises, but at least there was only one Papa per book. To be confronted with the seven faces of Salin­ger, all wise and lovable and simple, is to gaze into a terrifying narcissus pool. Salinger’s world contains nothing but Salinger, his teachers, and his tolerantly cherished audience — humanity; outside are the phonies, vainly signaling to be let in, like the kids’ Irish mother, Bessie, a home version of the Fat Lady, who keeps invading the bathroom while her handsome son Zooey is in the tub or shaving.

A great deal of attention is paid, too, to the rituals of cigarette lighting and to the rites of drinking from a glass, as though these oral acts were sacred — epiphanies. In the same way, the family writings are treated by Salinger as sacred scriptures or the droppings of holy birds, to be studied with care by the augurs: letters from Seymour, citations from his diary, a letter from Ruddy, a letter from Franny, a letter from Boo Boo, a note written by Boo Boo in soap on a bathroom mirror (the last two are from another story, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”).

These imprints of the Glass collective person­ality are preserved as though they were Veronica’s veil in a relic case of well-wrought prose. And the eerie thing is, speaking of Veronica’s veil, a popu­lar subject for those paintings in which Christ’s eyes are supposed to follow the spectator with a doubtless reproachful gaze, the reader has the sensation in this latest work of Salinger that the author is sadly watching him or listening to him read. That is, the ordinary relation is reversed, and instead of the reader reading Salinger, Salinger, that Man of Sorrows, is reading the reader.

Seymour’s suicide suggests that Sal­inger guesses intermittently or fears intermit­tently that there may be something wrong some­where. Why did he kill himself? Because he had married a phony, whom he worshiped for her “simplicity, her terrible honesty”? Or because he was so happy and the Fat Lady’s world was so wonderful?

Or because he had been lying, his author had been lying, and it was all terrible, and he was a fake?

H.L. Mencken on The Great Gatsby

In a review published in The Chicago Sunday Tribune, May 3, 1925:

Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that. The scene is the Long Island that hangs precariously on the edges of the New York City trash dumps—the Long Island of the gandy villas and bawdy house parties. The theme is the old one of a romantic and preposterous love—the ancient fidelis ad urnum motif reduced to a macabre humor. The principal personage is a bounder typical of those parts—a fellow who seems to know every one and yet remains unknown to all—a young man with a great deal of mysterious money, the tastes of a movie actor and, under it all, the simple sentimentality of a somewhat sclerotic fat woman.

This story is obviously unimportant and, though, as I shall show, it has its place in the Fitzgerald canon, it is certainly not to be put on the same shelf with, say, This Side of Paradise. What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people. It is not that they are false: it is that they are taken too much for granted. Only Gatsby himself genuinely lives and breathes. The rest are mere marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.

Vladimir Nabokov on Dr. Zhivago

From an interview fragment dated October 1972, republished in Strong Opinions:

Any intelligent Russian would see at once that the book is pro-Bolshevist and historically false, if only because it ignores the Liberal Revolution of spring, 1917, while making the saintly doctor accept with delirious joy the Bolshevist coup d’état seven months later—all of which is in keeping with the party line. Leaving out politics, I regard the book as a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, and trite coincidences.

I applauded [Pasternak] getting the Nobel Prize on the strength of his verse. In Dr. Zhivago, however, the prose does not live up to his poetry. Here and there, in a landscape or simile, one can distinguish, perhaps, faint echoes of his poetical voice, but those occasional fioriture are insufficient to save his novel from the provincial banality so typical of Soviet literature for the past fifty years.

Vladimir Nabokov on The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment

In an interview with James Mossman, published in The Listener, October 23, 1969, and reprinted in Strong Opinions:

If you are alluding to Dostoevsky’s worst novels, then, indeed, I dislike intensely The Brothers Karamazov and the ghastly Crime and Punishment rigamarole. No, I do not object to soul-searching and self-revelation, but in those books the soul, and the sins, and the sentimentality, and the journalese, hardly warrant the tedious and muddled search.

Vladimir Nabokov on Finnegans Wake

From a 1967 interview in The Paris Review:

I detest Punningans Wake in which a cancerous growth of fancy word-tissue hardly redeems the dreadful joviality of the folklore and the easy, too easy, allegory.

From a different 1967 interview, this one conducted by one of Nabokov’s students at Cornell:

Ulysses towers over the rest of Joyce’s writings, and in comparison to its noble originality and unique lucidity of thought and style the unfortunate Finnegans Wake is nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room, most aggravating to the insomniac! I am. Moreover, I always detested regional literature full of quaint old-timers and imitated pronunciation. Finnegans Wake’s façade disguises a very conventional and drab tenement house, and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity. I know I am going to be excommunicated for this pronouncement.


The Famous Writers pronouncements on other Famous Writers are interesting in that for me they raise the question of who was the intended or imagined audience, the readers, for any of these writers. Not many were like Dickens, writing for a general audience in installments published in the popular press. The most modern ones mentioned: Fitzgerald,  Hemmingway,  Joyce, Salinger, Wallace and Nabokov all were writing for much narrower audiences. Joyce wrote for the literati and the critics, who might recognize and be interested in his verbal erudition and nimble shenanigans. Or Salinger, whose selected audience seems primarily adolescent,  those who might be greatly concerned with the authentic versus the the same time I find the Glass family to be a set of irritating poseurs, with their angst, their "Jesus prayer" and Seymour's "Perfect Day for Bananafish."....Dickens  gives us a conversion story with redemption through generosity and love, Salinger gives us Zen lite.

Perhaps the nineteenth century could still find hope in action that the twentieth century no longer could believe in...where the passionate struggles in Dostoyevsky can become distasteful for their melodrama and "sentimentality," and we have the whole development of the literature of despair, of the absurd, and eventually the kind of self-conscious, many layered, metafictions of David Foster Wallace. Here there is an attempt to find some kind of hope, some redemption, despite, and even through, all the many dehumanizing aspects of modern life, to include all the mad confusing worst of it and yet find and awaken and reanimate the human values buried at the core. Success, of course is not guaranteed,  and maybe the whole quest is a fool's errand. Foster Wallace committed suicide, leaving his next work unfinished, a work about boredom, that seemed to be both unreadable and unwriteable.

And speaking of fool's errands, I have never been able to finish Don Quixote myself, finding it colossally, monumentally, boring.


Don Quixote provoked similar remarks from my classmates in my one and only (I think) World Literature class. Strangely enough, I found it psychologically interesting. The two protagonists were such clear archetypes — one could almost divide people into the Don Quixote type and the Sancho Panza type. I loved the ending, when it’s Panza who craves to go errant quests. The pair was meant to describe the Spanish people, but I think there is a universality here, even pertaining to each of us. The Don in me thinks, “I want a gorgeous plant,” while Panza advises a fruit tree — or just anything you can eat. 

On the other hand, it was so much easier to read fiction — even quaint, antiquated fiction — back when I was a youngster in college. Now I’ve grown more restless, and don’t sink as easily into a book. I bless myself for having read giant novels such as Middlemarch or The Magic Mountain in my younger years — they enriched my life beyond measure.

Though I have a special affection for Catcher in the Rye because it was the first novel I read in the US, I too found the Glass family insufferable and ultimately not very interesting. They protest too much about their unique authenticity while putting down everyone else as a phony. Aside from Catcher in the Rye, very little Salinger remains in my memory, though I hugely enjoyed the phrase “with love and squalor.” It has stayed in my mind since my late teens. “Love and squalor” also happens to describe my young life, the years I also labeled “heartbreaks and hospitals.”

A good insight about the change of the reading audience. Dickens gave us an ageless treasure that anyone could understand and enjoy; Joyce ultimately degenerated into writing for a handful of scholars, his tale ultimately signifying nothing.


Orwell suggests the human animal is not fighting against socialism or capitalism, but anesthetizing comfort, and boredom.

~ Hitler could not have succeeded against his many rivals if it had not been for the attraction of his own personality, which one can feel even in the clumsy writing of Mein Kampf, and which is no doubt overwhelming when one hears his speeches. Hitler’s photograph published in Mein Kampf is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself. 

The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon. One feels, as with Napoleon, that he is fighting against destiny, that he can't win, and yet that he somehow deserves to. The attraction of such a pose is of course enormous; half the films that one sees turn upon some such theme.

Also he has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all "progressive" thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won't do. 

Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. 

However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin's militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people "I offer you a good time," Hitler has said to them "I offer you struggle, danger and death," and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation "Greatest happiness of the greatest number" is a good slogan, but at this moment "Better an end with horror than a horror without end" is a winner. Now that we are fighting against the man who coined it, we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

When one compares Hitler's utterances of a year or so ago with those made fifteen years earlier, a thing that strikes one is the rigidity of his mind, the way in which his world-view doesn’t develop. It is the fixed vision of a monomaniac and not likely to be much affected by the temporary manoeuvres of power politics. Probably, in Hitler's own mind, the Russo-German Pact represents no more than an alteration of time-table. The plan laid down in Mein Kampf was to smash Russia first, with the implied intention of smashing England afterwards. Now, as it has turned out, England has got to be dealt with first, because Russia was the more easily bribed of the two. But Russia's turn will come when England is out of the picture—that, no doubt, is how Hitler sees it. Whether it will turn out that way is of course a different question. ~


I once accidentally stumbled on a fascist website quoting an interview with Hitler, which presents Germany as a victim of Polish massacres of peace-loving Germans.

Of course now we have someone presenting himself as a victim of the lying media (Hitler too complained a lot about the "lying press") and other enemies of the people . .

As for reading Mein Kampf, I strongly recommend it. It's an atrociously bad book, atrociously badly written. It's anti-Semitism taken to the absurd. And yes, the victim mentality is part of it. Reading Mein Kampf (or even just browsing through it) will put an end to any notion that Hitler was a genius, just as reading the Bible puts an end to the idea that it's a sacred, infallible text (this is not to equate these two very different books). 


~ The most obvious fact about work is that you spend time to get money. The idea being that the more money you have, the more secure you will be, and thus, the more happiness you will experience. But what if that premise was backwards? New research is arguing that's the case. Instead of spending time to get money, truly happy people spend money to get time.

The research, which was reported on by the Harvard Business Review, surveyed a group of 100,000 working adults. Of them, it was consistent that those who were willing to give up earning more money in favor of regaining free time experienced "more fulfilling social relationships, more satisfying careers, and more joy," and overall reported higher rates of general satisfaction.

Study author Ashley Whillans posits that people who prioritize time over money — perhaps turning down a more time-consuming promotion, or outsourcing tasks — have a better quality of life. 

Whillans identifies this as something called "time affluence," which is as it sounds: the luxury of simply having enough time to do the things you want. She and her team analyzed data from the Gallup Institute on this, and saw a clear pattern: people who have enough time are happier, less depressed, experience more joy, exercise more, eat better, are more productive, and are less likely to get divorced.

However, it's not only the undervaluation of time that damages our well-being. It's also the underestimation of it. "We also suffer from future time slack; we believe we will have more time in the future than in the present moment," Whillans tells me. "Stated differently, we discount our future time. Interestingly, the value of a $100 is pretty consistent regardless of whether we are thinking about it today, tomorrow, or next week. However, with time we steeply discount how much our future time is worth.”

Why is it happening?

For a few reasons, almost all of which have to do with the way we perceive, and misperceive, what our time means and how much of it we have to budget.

People generally do prioritize money over their time, believing that having more will make them feel better. In reality, studies show that there's a happiness cap when it comes to earnings. Will you be happier if you make $1,000,000 as opposed to $100,000? Research says not really.

Some studies say the magic number is $75,000. Others say it's more in the range of $50,000. This is likely because when you jump from say $10,000 to $50,000, you notice a marked difference in your quality of life. You're more or less able to afford to take care of your responsibilities and pursue things you enjoy. 

But beyond that? The charms of high earners don't translate into happiness, and largely do translate into more time committed to work, which has been proven to make people less satisfied. Extraordinary earnings don't mean extraordinary happiness... that is, unless you use that money to outsource your business modules and buy yourself back the hours in your days.

"It is worth noting that people who are struggling to make ends meet or who feel uncertain about their financial future often feel happier when they choose money over time," Whillens says. "But most of us have at least some discretionary time to spend and for those of us that do, we might need to rethink our priorities." 

She went onto explain that it's easy to be misguided because, in culture, money is a symbol, and a powerful one at that. "Money is a sign of success, status, and social approval," she says. "Time signals a focus on being social over working but can also signal sloth and incompetence (or at least that's what most of us erroneously believe)." 

Whillens went onto say that it's not really our fault for prioritizing money. "In America, people think that being busy signals higher status. And, feeling important is a powerful motivator," she adds.

However, when it comes to your overall well-being, it might be time to rethink what a high earning potential might realistically do for you. If you're going to use success to ensure that you have the time and mean to pursue other aspects of life outside of work, it will likely benefit you. But working for the sake of earning money — especially in exchange for preserving hours of your life — is proven to not be the wisest, or most effective, approach. ~


~ More free time is great, but too much free time is also a bad thing. Science and common sense tell us that people who sit around all day feel unfulfilled, discontent, and downright bored.

So where's that Goldilocks point, the perfect amount of free time to have to maximize your happiness? Another new study, as yet unpublished, claims to answer that question. And the results suggest that the optimum amount of free time is actually pretty doable.

Cassie Mogilner Holmes, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, and a team of collaborators analyzed data on how 35,000 Americans use their time and view their lives. After crunching the numbers a straightforward pattern emerged.

They "found that employed people's ratings of their satisfaction with life peaked when they had in the neighborhood of two and a half hours of free time a day," reports The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker. If you have more free time on your hands, your happiness is likely to go down.

The study wasn't designed to figure out exactly why this might be so, though a handful of experts offer speculations in Pinsker's piece, from one theory that if you have more free time than everyone else you're going to be pretty lonely spending it to the idea that more than the magic number starts to make you feel like a lazy layabout.

The exact mix of reasons for feeling time poor probably vary by the person (and a few of us are actually time poor, though statistically speaking it's unlikely you're one of them), but the central takeaway of all this science and expert advice remains constant you probably have all the time you need to be happy. It's your mindset and your behavior that needs an adjustment more than your schedule. ~

and yet another:


~ Many Americans who work—and especially those raising kids—are pressed for time, wishing they had more of it to devote to leisure activities (or even just sleeping). At the same time, research has indicated that people who are busy tend to be happier than those who are idle, whether their busyness is purposeful or not.

A research paper released late last year investigated this trade-off, attempting to pinpoint how much leisure time is best. Its authors examined the relationship between the amount of “discretionary time” people had—basically, how much time people spend awake and doing what they want—and how pleased they were with their lives. (Some examples of “discretionary” activities were watching TV, socializing, going to the movies, spending time with family, and doing nothing.)

The paper, which analyzed data covering about 35,000 Americans, found that employed people’s ratings of their satisfaction with life peaked when they had in the neighborhood of two and a half hours of free time a day. For people who didn’t work, the optimal amount was four hours and 45 minutes.

[Past that optimal point,] the subjects started to say they felt less productive overall, which could explain why having a lot of free time can feel like having too much free time.

One theory: Having too much free time might challenge a person’s self-image. For a man who provides for his family, Hamermesh says, “if I have so much time that I can spend it on, I don’t know, watching television, maybe I feel I’m not a real man.” (This feeling could be related to the pressure many people feel to appear useful and in demand as they vie for work in a competitive labor market.)

While overall life satisfaction is a metric shaped by many variables, Hamermesh said there’s some research specifically on how stressed people are feeling about time. “Perhaps not surprisingly,” he writes in his forthcoming book, Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource, “any switch that increases time away from work reduces stress.” Some of the biggest reductions in feeling stressed about time, he notes, come from substituting an hour of sleep or TV-watching for an hour of work. ~


I decided to pursue the topic after reading the headline “Most people are unhappy for the same  reason: free time” — meaning too much free time for those who don’t have fulfilling leisure activities. Free time that feels idle and meaningless is probably the most important reason so many go through a crisis when they retire. It’s also the reason that so many university professors continue to teach, at least part-time, well into their seventies, and editors may continue past eighty.

Writers never retire, though fiction writers may stop writing novels and switch to shorter forms: essays, reviews, online commentaries. The point is, they have to write something every day, or life feels meaningless.

Others may find meaning and fulfillment through volunteer activities. Some even find themselves  so busy they can’t understand how they ever managed to work full-time. I call these extreme types the manic seniors — but it’s better to be too busy than not busy enough. Let's face it: being busy makes us feel  happy.


“Life is both dreadful and wonderful...How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural — you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh



~ While "no two flakes alike" might be an attractive metaphor, it isn’t entirely true. Yet that doesn’t stop us from peering at the intricate crystal structures caught on our mittens. It also doesn’t stop researchers from painstakingly cataloguing every type of crystal that might form.

You might wonder what the shapes of snowflakes have to do with chemistry. Actually, the study of crystal structures of solids has its own discipline, crystallography, which allows us to determine the arrangement of atoms in these solids. Crystallography works by passing X-rays through the sample, which are then diffracted as they pass through by the atoms contained therein. Analysis of the diffraction pattern allows the structure of the solid to be discerned; this technique was used by Rosalind Franklin to photograph the double helix arrangement of DNA prior to Watson & Crick’s confirmation of its structure.

The story begins up in a cloud, when a minute cloud droplet first freezes into a tiny particle of ice.  As water vapor starts condensing on its surface, the ice particle quickly develops facets, thus becoming a small hexagonal prism.  For a while it keeps this simple faceted shape as it grows.

As the crystal becomes larger, however, branches begin to sprout from the six corners of the hexagon. Since the atmospheric conditions (e. g. temperature and humidity) are nearly constant across the small crystal, the six budding arms all grow out at roughly the same rate.

While it grows, the crystal is blown to and fro inside the clouds, so the temperature it sees changes randomly with time.

Those temperature changes morph the arms into different shapes and give us the diverse snowflakes and crystals we see. Since all the arms endure the same fluctuations, they can grow symmetrically. In reality, most snow crystals are irregular, he writes.

Why spend all this time classifying snowflakes? As Libbrecht explains, this is really the study of how crystals form. And that knowledge can be applied to making crystals for a host of other applications—silicon and other semiconductors in computers and electronics are built of crystals, for example.

Plus, they are stunning. ~


~ Since fruits propagate by seeds, their progeny doesn’t grow far from the tree, as the proverb goes; their only chance of spreading their seeds across the land, then, are the animals who eat the fruit, along with its seeds, then “plant” those elsewhere when they poop. The avocado’s abnormally giant seed presents anything from a severe digestive hazard to a death sentence for contemporary earthly species but, apparently, avocados coevolved with ground sloths and were originally eaten by gomphothere — elephant-like creatures that lived during the Miocene and Pliocene, between 12 million and 1.6 million years ago, who happily reaped the fruit with their hefty trunks, crunched them with their massive teeth, and passed the seeds comfortably through their oversized digestive tract.

Avocado’s strategy for propagation made a great deal of sense throughout the long life of its lineage — until the present moment. Even after thirteen thousand years, avocado is clueless that the great mammals are gone. For the avocado, gomphothere and ground sloths are still real possibilities. Pulp thieves like us reap the benefits. Homo Sapiens will continue to mold the traits of the few species of genus Persea it prefers. Ultimately, however, wild breeds will devolve less grandiose fruits, or else follow their animal partners into extinction. ~


Rita Levi- Montalcini's inspiring life is an exemplar of the "time/happiness" equation. Her passion for knowledge and science propelled and sustained her throughout her long life, no matter what her circumstances were. Danger and obstructions were simply hurdles to get over -- if you are refused a lab, work in your bedroom; if you are hunted, work underground. And I think her life also demonstrates that for those with a passion, whether for art or science, the activity of that passion transcends the definitions of both "work" and "hobby"-- becoming something greater than either, a kind of "serious play" that is the ground for many great achievements and discoveries. 


~ Tom Holland argues that all “western” moral and social norms are the product of the Christian revolution. He is haunted by St Paul’s claim that God chose the weak and foolish things of the world to shame the strong, and to drive the point home he might have looked at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. We encounter there an obscure young Jewish woman called Mary who is pregnant with Jesus, and Luke puts into her mouth a cry of praise that some scholars believe is a Zealot chant. It speaks of how you will know who God is when you see the poor coming to power and the rich sent empty away. It is this which must be weighed in the balance against the killing fields of Christendom.

What distinguishes the Judeo-Christian idea of love from the romantic, erotic, touchy-feely sense it has acquired in modern times is that it has nothing to do with feeling. Love for the New Testament is a social practice, not a sentiment. Only a love of this ruthlessly impersonal kind, which couldn’t care less about the gender, rank, skin color or personality of whoever needs your help, could prove equal to what St John darkly calls the powers of this world: Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and their lackeys.

These men are nationalist bigots, which suggests another sense in which Christianity can be subversive. Holland remarks that the early Christians’ refusal to identify themselves with a homeland was a cause of scandal. They were branded as rootless vagrants who delighted in being alien, and thus made a boast out of what should have been a source of shame. 

Christianity started life as an eastern, not western phenomenon, but rapidly left its birthplace behind. What held it together was faith, not territory. One was no longer to grovel before the idols of state, tribe, nation and household. And as for household, almost every reference to the family in the New Testament is deeply hostile. Kinship and blood ties no longer matter, and Jesus’s treatment of his mother is by no means always that of a good Jewish boy.

You can, however, make a fetish or idol out of anything, as Freud instructs us. Such false gods fill every chapter of this illuminating study. Yet Holland is surely right to argue that when we condemn the moral obscenities committed in the name of Christ, it is hard to do so without implicitly invoking his own teaching. ~

Crucifixion, Sano di Pietro, 1400s


The very title, “Dominion,” made me think of the project of world conquest (Catholic meaning  “universal”) — but it's the cultural dominion that is proposed here, and some of it is positive, based on ideas that were radical in their time. (We need to remember that, barring the extremes, nothing is all good  or  all bad.)

Perhaps the greatest surprise is that the author is an atheist. “Tom Holland is an unbeliever and also someone who was raised a Christian. And he too is someone who abandoned that belief early in life: he blames a fascination with dinosaurs — a gateway drug for many a budding young historian and religious skeptic. But in his latest book he turns his attention to Christianity’s impact on western thinking and to what will be, to many, an uncomfortable thesis. He argues that most of the things that we consider to be intrinsic and instinctive human values are actually nothing of the sort; they are primarily and fundamentally the product of Christianity and would not exist without the last 2000 years of Christian dominance on our culture.”

That's perhaps too sweeping. Humans are a very social species, and have a sense of fairness, for example, that seems essentially biological — it can be found in other primates, elephants, dogs, etc.

There is also the matter of cultural evolution -- e.g. the turning away from the worst kinds of legally sanctioned cruelty, disapproval of "might makes right," etc. The progress has been painfully slow, but evolution favors cooperation and the "good dad" over the bully.


The idea that Christianity is responsible for the moral and social norms of western culture is interesting to me primarily in seeing the way these core principles have been inverted and distorted by the Christian right in the US. Here they have turned "the poor shall inherit" into "blessed are the rich." And reversed the "relentless" principle of Christian love in society into doctrines of division and hate. The opposite of Christianity is presented as truly Christian without blink or apology.


Protestants in general have had a great deal of trouble with the idea that “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” They even invented a gate in Jerusalem that was supposedly called “the eye of a needle.” No, Jesus spoke in hyperboles like that, and no way can one twist the New Testament as the “prosperity gospel” — except that that’s exactly what has been done in the US, never mind what Jesus actual taught. You are right to speak about the total reversal.

THE PRIEST AND THE JESTER (the quest for the absolute versus skepticism)

A Dionysian celebration of postmodern ideas is found in the early (1959) work of the Marxist revisionist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. His famous essay “The Priest and the Jester,” published in the early 60s, speaks about “chronic conflict in philosophy which seems to be able to marshal its history: the conflict between the quest for the absolute and a flight from it [dogmatism and skepticism].

In every era the jester’s philosophy exposes as doubtful what seems most unshakable, reveals the contradictions in what appears obvious and incontrovertible, derides common sense and reads sense into the absurd . . . The attitude of the jester consists in constant reflection about whether perhaps the opposite may not be right. . . . There are more priests than jesters in a king’s court.”

The jester, representing this postmodern flight, is puer eternus: a sceptic observer of social order, one who is active, critical, and questioning all that appears self-evident. He stands for imagination, pluralism, individuality, playfulness and points to the tension between ideals. 

The priest is the senex, a believer in a harmonious system of values; he guards the absolute, defends orthodoxy, tradition and sanctity. “The priest and the jester both violate the mind: the priest with the garotte of catechism, the jester with the needle of mockery,” Kolakowski concludes.

The priest is the guardian of the absolute; he sustains the cult of truths accepted by tradition as ultimate and unquestionable. The jester is the impertinent upstart who questions everything we accept as self-evident. If he belonged to good society, he could at best be merely a purveyor of dinner-party scandal. In order to point out the unobviousness of its obviousnesses and the nonultimacy of its ultimacies, he must be outside it, observing it from a distance; but if he is to be impertinent to it, and find out what it holds sacred, he must also frequent it.”

The essay asks how we approach the facts and events of our everyday lives: as the absolute and final reality, to be taken at its direct, empirical value, or as sections of a broader path at the end of which lies peace and consolation: pennies in a piggy-bank, saved up toward our (or mankind’s) eternal retirement. In the latter case we run the risk of dismissing present facts and present values as insignificant; in the former, of dismissing those that go beyond the present and require, for their fulfillment, a certain amount of effort and preparation on our part.

~ The Postmodern Challenge: Perspectives East and West

Laughing Jester, circa 1500; I’ve decided to repost the “priest and jester” entry from the past because it seems to have timeless relevance.


My father was an example of a jester, though once in a while he’d be a bit of a priest, trying to get at a general truth — it would be an exaggeration to call it an absolute, unless we are dealing with mathematics (he was a theoretical physicist, which is basically mathematics).

I think it’s much easier to be a jester. There are also secular priests, e.g. those who are really serious about ecology — anyone devoted to a “holy cause.” 



~ Autophagy literally means “self-devouring” – something our cells are doing constantly, breaking down damage and toxic waste products – and Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi has just been awarded the Nobel prize in medicine for his work in uncovering the complex mechanisms that underpin this remarkable internal recycling system. 

So how does autophagy keep us healthy? Why might dysfunctional autophagy contribute to diabetes, dementia, leukaemia and Parkinson’s disease? And will our new understanding lead to any cures?

The process of autophagy involves gathering up cellular junk and waste, sealing it in the cellular equivalent of a bin bag and transporting it to the cellular rubbish bin, called the lysosome, where enzymes break down the contents. “I often call autophagy the recycling van that delivers the rubbish to the recycling centre,” says Professor Katja Simon, of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in Oxford. It plays a key role in health, disease and aging, she says: “It is very important to degrade toxic waste for the survival of the cell, and a cell without autophagy cannot survive. But it has also been shown that it is important in disease development, such as in Parkinson’s disease, which is characterized by the accumulation of protein aggregates in neuronal cells. Furthermore, autophagy levels fall in the aging process. The characteristics of old age, such as wrinkles, hearing loss or cancer, are actually due to falling autophagy levels and the accumulation of toxic wastes in the cells.”

Simon’s work is particularly focused on red and white blood cells and disorders such as leukemia, in which autophagy doesn’t work properly. She is delighted that Ohsumi has been awarded the Nobel prize. “In the 1960s, he used an electron microscope to see structures and no one knew what they were. He discovered the molecules involved in the process.” Ohsumi’s lab mainly works with yeasts, and has uncovered key genes involved in autophagy. The science has come a long way since the 60s and researchers such as Simon can now measure autophagy by tracking the flow of labelled molecules associated with the process.

Mopping up damaged mitochondria – the powerhouses of cells that release energy – seems to be especially important in preventing diabetes and obesity. When this particular form of autophagy, called mitophagy, doesn’t work properly, toxic chemicals build up that cause further mitochondrial damage. This vicious cycle damages cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, and diabetes can set in. A drug that can fix diabetes and obesity by sorting out disordered mitophagy is an attractive idea, but we’re not there yet.

Another key role of autophagy is found in its link in proteins. In the body proteins are folded into 3D shapes. Aberrant proteins that aren’t folded up properly can form large clumps, or protein aggregates, that can be cleared by autophagy. When autophagy fails, the aggregates damage nerve function. This process is thought to contribute to the changes seen in Parkinson’s disease, including tremors, slow and stiff movement, loss of smell, and dizziness. The abnormal accumulation of proteins in the brain may be the common thread in different forms of dementia that cause debilitating loss of memory, language, judgment and cognitive and social functioning.

If scientists can stimulate autophagy, they could effectively stave off or even reverse the effects of aging. As Simon says, it’s not about making people live for ever, but about finding ways to stay healthy as we live out our lives. Studies on mice have found that stimulation of autophagy removes accumulated misfolded proteins, broken mitochondria and damaged DNA in hearts with age-related changes. But translating this lab work into effective treatments for humans is still a way off.

“Autophagy declines during aging and this has a major impact in our cells, since they accumulate toxic deposits,” says Ioannis Nezis, an associate professor at the University of Warwick. “This is especially harmful for neurons, since neurons do not divide, and the same cell keeps accumulating garbage. If we understand how autophagy is normally induced to selectively recognize and recycle these toxic deposits, we will be able to find compounds that can activate autophagy and keep its levels steady during the course of a lifetime and therefore avoid the accumulation of cellular garbage. These can be chemical drugs, or natural dietary compounds that can be used as supplements.”

So what can we eat to keep us autophaging efficiently? Nezis says lots of natural compounds have been tested in fruit flies, mice and test tubes, but we still don’t know for certain what works in humans and what amounts are needed. Pomegranates, turmeric, red grapes and red wine look hopeful, but Nezis says you may need liters of wine and kilos of grapes to get the required effect. Supplements containing distilled concentrates of the active molecules may prove more palatable.

Simon points out that cells switch on autophagy in response to starvation. Calorie restriction, such as intermittent fasting in the 5:2 diet or during Ramadan, may help us to live long and healthy lives. It is possible that reducing our calorie intake to 70% of what we have been used to eating will boost our autophagy and help to prevent a wide range of disease. Exercise also promotes more autophagy, as experiments that get mice to run on mini treadmills has shown.

Advice to feast on fruit, veg and red wine is hardly new. But thanks to this year’s Nobel prize-winner, our understanding of the science that underpins it is developing all the time. The next step will be drugs, supplements and interventions that could stave off the ravages of aging and a host of debilitating diseases. We are not there yet, but we are one step closer. ~

from another source:

~ Spoiler alert: Juice cleanses and detox teas don’t hold a candle to your body’s ability to detox. One of the ways it does this is through a natural process called autophagy, which is how your body cleans up cellular junk and keeps your systems humming. Early research suggests you can actually increase autophagy, which may reduce inflammation, protect against disease and even support anti-aging.

Autophagy means “self-eating,” but rest assured, this is a good thing. Autophagy is the method by which your body cleans out damaged cells and toxins, helping you regenerate newer, healthier cells.

Over time, our cells accumulate a variety of dead organelles, damaged proteins and oxidized particles that clog the body’s inner workings. This accelerates the effects of aging and age-related diseases because cells aren’t able to divide and function normally. (Note that autophagy is not to be confused with apoptosis, which is programmed cell death, a different process than the cleanup of the degeneration within the cells.)

This lysosome-dependent cell-regeneration process is critical to your overall health. In fact, the dysfunction of autophagy has been linked to several neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease.

A ketogenic diet gives you an edge when it comes to autophagy. The shift from burning glucose (carbs) to ketones (fats) mimics what occurs naturally in a fasted state—and this may increase autophagy in its own right.

Go on a protein fast. Once or twice a week, limit your protein consumption to 15g-25g a day. This gives your body a full day to recycle proteins, which will help reduce inflammation and cleanse your cells without any muscle loss. During this time, while autophagy gets triggered, your body is forced to consume its own proteins and toxins, versus incoming amino acids. ~

(the article points out intermittent fasting and exercise help  induce autophagy.)


MCT oil (medium-chain triglycerides, extracted from coconut oil) has also been found to promote autophagy. 

However, one can't help but notice how mainstream diet advice keeps on changing: first it's lots of carbs and next-to-zero fat; then it's high protein and next-to-zero carbs; then someone discovers that excess protein is turned into glucose anyway, and the only nutrient that can't be turned into glucose is  fat -- and we get the ketogenic diet, starring MCT oil and olive oil. 

It seems that the optimal diet has been worked out for various animal species
(e.g. any zoo is certainly interested in keeping its animals healthy). But when it comes to human nutrition, debate still rages.

ending on beauty:

The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart,
When the full river of feeling overflows.

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saturday, December 19, 2020


photo: Zac Hanscom



A road runs through my childhood,
with willows.
and a ditch on each side
crowded with tall nettles

and luxuriant horsetail.
Two white butterflies
flit over the nettles.
Along that road

stands a wooden cross.
Hung across the beams,
a crown of wildflowers
sways in the summer wind.

Silvering, the ghosts of flowers
tap lightly on the weathered wood,
as if knocking, asking
to be let in.

Now I speed on white freeways,
sky-level interchanges.
Tell me, am I still
on the road to Damascus.

~ Oriana



It is very haunting in itself and also about a haunting, of being haunted by an inner landscape from the past (childhood) that is disjunct from the outer landscape one currently inhabits. The differences between the two landscapes are extreme. The inner landscape speaks of a more rustic, natural, unpolished, mythic sort of place---the weeds in the ditches, the country road, the roadside shrine, the white butterflies and flowers, ghostly in both color and in that they exist as ghostly memories, not part of the present inhabited world. The final lines take us abruptly into the outside, current world of freeways, high skyway interchanges, demanding both speed and separation from the actual ground, which is all sealed and paved over.

The final question takes the whole to another level...asking if this speaker, haunted and inhabited by a landscape foreign to her surroundings and the present time, is not on the way to some great revelation, some experience of reversal or conversion that will be life changing. This question leaves many others in its the speaker waiting for this experience still, or having had it, now continuing the journey in order to fulfill its demands? Was this something she sought or wished to avoid...this sudden overwhelming conversion experience? Is she a pilgrim or prisoner? Caught by the past or the present? Does she want to move forward or back, or is she pulled equally in both directions?

Very engaging and thought provoking, and part of what we all experience in some measure, that split between the inner and outer worlds, the present haunted by the past, the mix of longing and regret.


The cross also symbolizes martyrdom, or at least great suffering — and it so happens that the last couple of days I was pondering my accumulated suffering, wondering all over again (strange as that may seem after so many years) if I would have left Poland if I had any inkling of that suffering, and leaned to No. But of course by now all the arguments for and  against have been rehearsed endless times, and I don’t mean just rational arguments that  can be put into words. The gist is basically emotional, the self-inflicted wound is emotional — and that’s simply the price. But then in life there is a price for everything.

And yes, something great and near-miraculous was supposed to happen — but don’t we all have that outrageous expectation? I suspect that in great part it is an imprint of Catholicism, with its legends of the saints, be it St. Paul or the apocryphal St. Christopher carrying the Christ child on his shoulders across the stream, the child growing heavier and heavier with the weight of all the sins of the world. Rilke has a brilliant poem about this — how we keep waiting for the one great thing, which in fact has already happened — not one but a number of “great things.” It’s an interesting discovery, both humbling and consoling.

Also, in my case the easy answer is that the “great thing” happened to me when I was 17 and came by myself to America. But that didn’t end that crazy hunger for something extraordinary, some instant of a great light. But life is now more like that crown of dried flowers still knocking against the weather-beaten wood — but gently, calmly. And I’m grateful.

(A quick clarification: I was essentially a city child. But my summers were a different world: the Polish countryside. Most of my “Polish poems” contain the images of those half-mythic summers.) 

It was a simple wooden cross, and not a crucifix, but I couldn't find the image I wanted. The tiny roadside chapels with the wildflowers in jars and empty milk bottles are charming beyond words.



~ In A Perfect Spy, John Le Carré writes of America, “No country was ever easier to spy on … no nation so open-hearted with its secrets, so quick to air them, share them, confide them.” Presenting the country as the opposite of England, rather than its logical extension as is often assumed, he continued: “They loved their prosperity too obviously, were too flexible and mobile, too little the slaves of place, origin and class.” Driving through Ohio, welcomed into homes and college campuses to report on American decline and rebirth, I remember thinking of these lines.

Or listen to him on political fanaticism in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, writing of Karla, the Russian spy chief: “Karla is not fireproof, because he’s a fanatic. And one day, if I have anything to do with it, that lack of moderation will be his downfall.” It is an insight that has stuck with me since.

Yet the most penetrating observations in his espionage novels were not about foreign adversaries or global conflict—they were about decaying old England. “They are the body corporate I once believed was greater than the sum of its parts,” he wrote of the ruling class in A Perfect Spy. “In my lifetime I have witnessed the birth of the jet airplane and the atom bomb and the computer, and the demise of the British institution.” It is impossible not to read those lines and think of Brexit and the disastrous response to COVID-19.

So who are the ruling class? “The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,” le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, says in The Secret Pilgrim. “Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skillfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool.” Who today can look at the former premier David Cameron, or current Prime Minister Boris Johnson—both the products of Eton and Oxford—and not smile reading these lines?

To watch Johnson in particular—a cosmopolitan with a bohemian multicultural background, born in New York, named after a Russian, great-grandson to an assassinated Turk, who nevertheless presents himself as the most English person of all—is to see the shadow of Jerry Westerby, the tragic hero in The Honorable Schoolboy, another outsider inside the upper class, like le Carré himself. Westerby’s speech is full of “good old boys” and the like. But, as le Carré writes, there is a “hardness buried in the lavishness.” And, as with all le Carré’s characters, a romanticism underneath the world-weary cynicism.

Le Carré also presents a bygone Englishness that many of us wish still existed. How, for example, does Smiley react to his ultimate victory in Smiley’s People? “Did I?” He responds to the news that he has prevailed over his nemesis. “Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.” Oh, how Johnson must wish he could find a way to reenact that scene with Brexit, or the coronavirus. Did I win? Oh, yes, I suppose I did. England’s tragedy today is that it has allowed the part of the understated victor to slip from its grasp; now it must beat its chest in a way Smiley would loathe.

In fact, the reality is that the English upper class doesn’t just con its fellow countrymen, but the wider world as well. I’ve lost count of the number of times European diplomats and officials have told me of the brilliance of the old British civil service before Brexit. Even as the wool is pulled from their eyes, they still don’t see that they’ve been conned, that the British foreign office was never a Rolls-Royce, just richer and better dressed than it is today. Even now, a certain type of Englishman, eyebrow permanently raised, can prosper mightily abroad by presenting this same cultured cynicism and easy wit.

Smiley is the central hero of le Carré’s works, and like le Carré himself, the kind of hero a certain part of England loves: calm and pudgy and resolute and cultured, driven by inner passions that he must occasionally escape to the countryside to soothe lest they overwhelm him. “George doesn’t alter,” le Carré writes in A Legacy of Spies, his final Smiley novel. “He just gets his composure back.” He is a cynical romantic with a terrible domestic life who commits himself to England for reasons he is never quite sure of—a player of the great game, but wise to it. He is an outsider uncomfortable in any social class, but capable of moving through them all. To be English, after all, is to always feel a little bit out of place, even in England.

Smiley—and, by extension, le Carré—also embodies a different England. In A Legacy of Spies, Smiley looks back on his career and what it was all for. Was it for world peace, whatever that is? “Yes, yes of course.” But that’s not really the answer. “In the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again.” So was it all for England, Smiley wonders. Perhaps. He is a patriot, but a moderate one. And, anyway, he asks: “Whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?”

This is le Carré the fierce anti-Brexiteer, whose politics were never far from the surface in his novels. “I am European,” Smiley says. “If I had a mission—if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”

In A Perfect Spy, le Carré is back grappling with the same question of human motivation. What is it that drives us to spy or fight or hope or kill? For England, or for class, or for Europe, or for America? Under all of it, he was also a kind of romantic, just one who is well hidden. I wonder if it’s for this reason that Smiley and his creator remain the heroes many of us Englishmen most want to be? But enough of that, or as Smiley himself said, closing le Carré’s final Smiley novel, “Forgive me, Peter. I am pontificating.” ~


~ His particular ability, animating his Cold War novels, was to capture the psychology of an empire in decline, the British sense of a world that was suddenly and simultaneously decolonized, Soviet, and American, three centuries of dominance coming to an end in lonely mansions looking up at gray skies pouring with rain. As Connie Sachs, an Oxford don who has trained generations of spies, puts it to Smiley in drunken, postimperial melancholy, “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.”

It might have been easy to scoff at this in the light of the new millennium, when Britain appeared to have reinvented itself as effectively as New Labour, goaded on by the fulminations of Niall Ferguson and Martin Amis into a digital, consumerist cool and by new imperial adventures in the old staging grounds of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the events of recent years—Brexit, Trump, and, of course, the astonishing, ongoing unraveling precipitated by Covid-19—remind us that imperial decline may, in fact, be the norm of our times. In this world of shrunken horizons, where instead of one nationality or race hubristically attempting to rule the waves, the waves themselves rise inexorably over humankind, Le Carré’s fiction of decline manages to speak to us all. ~



~ Have you ever thought there was an uncanny family resemblance between your friend and her partner? Or wondered for a fleeting moment whether the pair walking down the road were husband and wife, or brother and sister? You might not be imagining things. Animals of many species “learn” what a suitable mate looks like based on the appearance of their parents, and so, it seems, do humans. 

Scientists have long known that species including birds, mammals and fish pick mates that look similar to their parents. This is known as positive sexual imprinting. For example, if a goat mother looks after a sheep baby, or a sheep mother looks after a goat baby, then those babies grow up to try to mate with the species of their foster mother, instead of their own.

It seems humans also “learn” from our parents in a similar way. When you ask people to judge the similarities between heterosexual couples and their parents from photos, a fascinating picture emerges. Women tend on average to pick partners whose faces look a bit like their fathers’, while men often choose partners who slightly resemble their mothers. Resemblance doesn’t stop at faces – you can also see subtle similarities on average between partner and parent height, hair color, eye color, ethnicity and even the degree of body hair.

But what’s really going on here? We tend to look like our parents, so how do we know that people aren’t just picking a partner who resembles themselves? We know that such self-resemblance influences partner choice. But a number of studies have suggested that this can’t be the whole story. One such study of adopted women found that they tended to choose husbands who looked like their adoptive fathers.

We also know that, in general, heterosexuals are more attracted to those who resemble their opposite-sex parent than their same-sex parent. What’s more, research has shown that it’s not merely appearance that matters: it’s also about your relationship with that parent. People who report more positive childhood relationships with a parent are more likely to be attracted to partners who resemble that parent.

This isn’t Freud’s Oedipus complex revisited. Freud believed that children have a suppressed desire for their parents. But this branch of research doesn’t in any way show that we secretly desire our parents, just that we simply tend to be attracted to people who resemble them to some extent.

If anything, we seem to find our immediate family members unattractive. For instance, people find the very idea of sexual relationships with their siblings deeply unappealing. This aversion seems to develop automatically through two distinct processes. One process turns off attraction to those that we spend a lot of time with during childhood. The other turns off attraction to any infants that our mother looks after a lot. Sexual aversion to siblings might be nature’s way of ensuring we don’t try to reproduce with someone who is too closely related to us and reproduction with close relatives is linked to an increased likelihood of genetic disorders in any resulting offspring. This aversion to close relatives is known as negative sexual imprinting. However, genetic sexual attraction can occur between siblings that have been separated and meet first as adults.

I found that the women who reported a better relationship with their parents after puberty were more likely to be attracted to partners with similar eye color to them. In contrast, if a woman was close to her parents earlier in life, she was actually less likely to prefer the eye color of her parents in a partner. In science, we always like to see replications with different samples, methodologies and research groups before we generalize findings too much. So far though, the intriguing pattern of this early study suggests that there may be complex developmental patterns underlying how we construct our idea of an ideal partner. Perhaps we are seeing the actions of both positive and negative sexual imprinting at work.

But one question remains. If we’re finding preferences for parental resemblance across different populations, then what is the biological explanation for this behavior? It turns out that coupling up with a distant family member seems to be the best bet, biologically, to produce a large number of healthy children. One possibility is that if you are attracted to people who look like your parents, then chances are you may get a crush on distant relatives. This might give you better chances of more healthy children, and so this behavior persists.

Despite this research, if you were to tell me that your partner doesn’t look anything like your parents, then I wouldn’t be surprised. Parental resemblance probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s wish list. Like most people, you probably want a partner who is kind, intelligent and attractive. But if all else is equal, then that comfortable feeling of familiarity might be enough to get a relationship underway, or to maintain feelings of trust in a relationship. ~


Note that we are talking about physical resemblance here, not resemblance in personality. When it comes to personality, one thing I’ve heard is “we all marry our mother” (who tends to be the primary parent). So yes, familiarity seems to operate — at least based on an anecdotal level. 

But back to physical resemblance. In my own case, for whatever it’s worth, I found myself attracted to men who looked like my maternal cousins. I felt more at ease with them, and instantly felt a higher level of trust. The relationship felt in some ways like a continuation of an already familiar relationship.

A friend confided that she feels that way around men who look like her favorite uncle. 

Whenever I feel an automatic sense of closeness with a person, I can usually trace it to physical  similarity with someone I was fond of (or even had a crush on) early on. 

Logically, we are on shaky ground here — a physical resemblance to someone dear to us does not guarantee that the potential partner will be similar in more significant ways. Be that as it may,  I wouldn’t be surprised if some early imprinting did in fact take place. Many psychologists have affirmed that we seek the familiar.



~ You might notice  that in some ways the effects of our  experiences are similar. You write of  a constant sense of fullness, an almost overabundance of inner being, which from the outset  counterbalances and compensates all deprivations and losses  that might possibly come. In the course of  my work this last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: life’s bestowal of  riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and  within us, how much it helps to remember! ~ Rilke, Letter to Lisa  Heise, May 1922


I love this passage, so comforting as one grows older, closer to losing everything. We need to remember the riches that life has granted us — all that wealth of beauty and experience.

Our resentments and frustrations at not having been granted this or that are indeed petty when we remember life’s generosity — how much we’ve been given after all, the beauty and affection we’ve enjoyed day after day. Gloria Steinem said that her first thought after her breast cancer diagnosis was “I’ve had a fabulous life.”

I too was once given a serious diagnosis, and, to my amazement, instead of terror I experienced a great sense of gratitude. “Life has given me so much,” I realized — at a time when by all objective standards my life was at its lowest low. But that’s just when I remembered that I had known great love, had extraordinary parents, had been able to enjoy masterpieces of literature, art, and music. The beauty of nature was with me daily. At what could be also seen as my most miserable  moment, I realized that I had nothing to complain about.


“Childhood is looked upon as the happiest time of life. Is that always true? No, only a few have a happy childhood. The idealization of childhood originated in the old literature of the privileged. A secure, affluent, and unclouded childhood, spent in a home of inherited wealth and culture, a childhood of affection and play, brings back to one memories of a sunny meadow at the beginning of the road of life. The grandees of literature, or the plebeians who glorify the grandees, have canonized this purely aristocratic view of childhood. But the majority of the people, if they look back at all, see, on the contrary, a childhood of darkness, hunger, and dependence. Life strikes the weak – and who is weaker than a child?

My childhood was not one of hunger and cold. My family had already achieved a competence at the time of my birth. But it was the stern competence of people still rising from poverty and having no desire to stop half-way. Every muscle was strained, every thought set on work and savings. Such a domestic routine leaves but a modest place for the children. We knew no need, but neither did we know the generosities of life – its caresses.

A quotation from Trotsky’s Autobiography  – its opening paragraphs


I’m thrilled by the phrase “life’s caresses.” I feel infinitely grateful to my mother for flowers on the table. And for taking me to the High Tatra mountains in springtime, just to show me wild crocus blooming in the snow.


~ At times, Trump’s railing-against-his-fate outbursts seem like a story straight out of William Shakespeare, part tragedy, part farce, full of sound and fury. Is Trump a modern-day Julius Caesar, forsaken by even some of his closest courtiers? (Et tu, Bill Barr?) Or a King Richard III who wars with the nobility until being toppled by Henry VII? Or King Lear, railing against those who do not love and appreciate him sufficiently? How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless electorate.

“This is classic Act V behavior,” said Jeffrey Wilson, a Shakespearean scholar at Harvard who published the book “Shakespeare and Trump” this year. “The forces are being picked off and the tyrant is holed up in his castle and he’s growing increasingly anxious and he feels insecure and he starts blustering about his legitimate sovereignty and he starts accusing the opposition of treason.

“If there are these analogies between classic literature and society as it’s operating right now, then that should give us some big cause for concern this December,” said Wilson, the Shakespearean scholar. “We’re approaching the end of the play here and that’s where catastrophe always comes.” ~

“It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia  O'Keeffe: Cow's Skull with Calico Roses



The Basque language, or Euskara as it is known by its speakers, is truly an amazing and one-of-a-kind language in Europe. It is widely agreed - and certainly true - that Basque is the only remaining Old European language, having survived on its own for centuries, while the others disappeared before the spread of Indo-European languages. 

It is spoken today in Basque Country, by some 750,000 native speakers, and around 1,185,000 passive speakers. Basque Country is the home of the Basque people, and it is an area that straddles the border of Spain and France, centered around the Bay of Biscay. Basques and their identity are the last remnants of an ancient, Old Europe, and their independence is denied even today. Their own name for the region is Euskal Herria. 

As a language, Basque shows no connections to its neighboring languages, all of which belong to the Romance family. An interesting theory links Basque with languages of the Caucasus mountains, such as Chechen and Georgian, which are also unique. Either way, Basque is definitely a language that carries immense importance, and the Basque people deserve their independence.


Native to the Southern Caucasus Mountains region, the Kartvelian languages are certainly amongst the oldest still in use. They consist of Georgian, Svan, Zan, Mingrelian, and Laz. They are one of the world’s primary language families, and are thoroughly unique in many aspects, surviving in this mountainous region for countless centuries. 

The geographical isolation of the tribes that lived here, allowed for undisturbed development of unique societies that would later dominate the region. The Georgian language has its earliest written form dating to 430 AD. But the language itself is certainly much older. This language family is not related to any other in the world, and it has roughly 5.2 million speakers around the world. Its earliest reconstructed form is called Proto-Kartvelian, reaching far back in time and showing certain borrowings and influences on Proto-Indo-European, even if it predates it, telling us that it had contact with the Indo-European nomads. 


Tamil is a part of the Dravidian languages, and is spoken by the Tamil people, who are native to the southernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. It is also one of the oldest surviving classical languages that are in use today. In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu it is the official language, adding to the wealth of dialects and languages that are in use in India. 

Tamil has no connection ‘genetically’ to the dominant Hindi language of India, which is Indo-European, and also, can’t be understood by Hindi people. It has around 75 million native speakers worldwide. It has a long tradition that survives to this day, and its earliest written form dates to 300 BC, making it over 2000 years old. 


We cannot focus only on the languages whose age is determined by their earliest written form. One great example of this are the oldest languages of remote tribes of Siberia and the Far East of Russia. This is a truly enormous expanse, which means that many of these languages are isolates - an astonishing phenomenon that shows us the diversity of the wild Siberia. 

Paleo-Siberian languages include: the Ket language, Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages, Nivkh and Yukaghir. These in turn consist of many separate regional forms and dialects. It is certain that these languages predate by far the dominant languages of modern Siberia, like Russian, Tungusic, and Turkic languages. 

Even though these simple nomadic tribes never developed a written system of their own, it should not be overlooked that their languages are very, very old, which allowed them to thrive and develop for centuries in the wild landscapes of the world’s remotest region - Siberia. 


Another language without an early written form, but boasting anciency and absolute uniqueness - Ainu. It is the language of the Ainu people who are native to Northern Japan, and predate the modern Japanese people who settled the islands. Ainu is a language isolate, having no connections whatsoever to Japanese. Some small connections with the Paleo-Siberian languages exist. 

Ainu people and their language are endangered today, and they show distinct genetic and cultural traits in comparison to the Japanese people. They show us a clear glimpse into the ancient world that predates the establishment of modern nations. And even though their language never had a written system of its own, its advanced age cannot be argued.


Arabic language belongs to the group of Semitic languages, and is certainly amongst the oldest still in use. Even though it encompasses many sub-groups and variants, it is unified in a standardized form of Classical Arabic - a lingua franca of the Arab world. Amongst the oldest written languages, some inscriptions date to 125 AD.

It is a great example of how a language of a powerful conquering nation can establish itself over a wide area and survive for centuries in its original form. With its spread, it influenced many modern languages all across the world, leaving loanwords everywhere it went.


Part of the Northwest Semitic group of the Afro-Asiatic languages, Aramaic is certainly amongst the oldest languages in the world. It boasts roughly 3,100 years of written history, placing it at the top of our list. It was originally the language of the Aramean tribe, which spread over the regions of Levant, Syria, and Mesopotamia, and already had established kingdoms around 1000 BC.

Even in the ancient times, it was used as a royal, prestigious language in some of the oldest courts of the world. Royal Inscriptions in Aramaic date to the 10th century BC, solidifying its position as one of the oldest languages still in use. It is also written in a highly unique Aramaic script, the earliest form of which was based off of Phoenician.


We all know that the Chinese history spans far back in time, and was always amongst the most advanced civilizations on Earth. The Chinese language is equally old, and is also amongst the most unique languages of the world. It is highly complex - both in the written and the spoken form - and its writing system can consist of up to 100,000 different symbols! It truly is one of a kind. The earliest written form of Chinese dates to 1250 BC, making Chinese one of the oldest living languages.


Persian, also known as Farsi, is a widely used, and a very old Indo-European language, belonging to the Indo-Iranian subdivision. It boasts around 70 million native speakers around the world. It is attested in written form as early as 6th century BC, but its history is known to reach further than that. Old Persian was the language of the Achaemenid Empire, which lasted from 550 to 330 BC, and later in the Sasanian Empire as well. The oldest writing dates to the rule of Darius I - and are written in cuneiform. 


Gaeilge is the Irish branch of the Goidelic languages, a part of the Celtic family of Indo-European languages. While not as old as some of the other languages on our list, Irish Gaelic is certainly amongst the oldest. The earliest writings in Irish date to 4th century AD, in the form of the linear Ogham scripts. 

After centuries of brutal suppression in Ireland by the English occupiers, Irish is today once again accepted and is experiencing a revival. One of the largest surviving Celtic languages, it is a great insight into the history of the Irish people and Europe as well.


I am disappointed that Lithuanian and Latvian weren't mentioned as the oldest living Indo-European languages in Europe.

“Death is a very liberating thought [...] One should try to write as if posthumously.” ~ Christopher Hitchens (died on December 16, 2011).


I think now meaning of “one should try to write as if posthumously” is to write without an ego. Another might be to try to imagine the world as it’s likely to be in the future — to form a vision of the future that’s neither naively optimistic nor too dark. Of these efforts, writing without an  ego is actually easier, I think.


~ Santa Claus meets a profound human need to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful human-like figure with superpowers who looks after us and has our best interests at heart. Both God and Santa may have magical powers, but they are sufficiently human for us to connect with. They are not “abstract” or “beyond our understanding.” We know they both have agendas and we’re encouraged to live our lives accordingly. And we know that God and Santa both control powerful consequences for us.

If you were thinking of starting up a new religion, Pascal Boyer (2001) has offered a blueprint for a successful God figure. It turns out you couldn't ask for a more effective candidate than Santa Claus. Santa checks off all the boxes in Boyer’s list of effective God qualities. Not surprisingly, it doesn't take much for kids to accept Santa Claus, believe in his power, and try to please him. In fact, it is easier for a child to believe in Santa Claus than to resist such belief. Similarly, it takes less effort for most adults to believe in God than to become atheists. This has nothing to do with the “truth” of such beliefs. It simply reflects the way supernatural beliefs map on to the cognitive architecture of our minds, and how widely and conspicuously supported such beliefs already are in our culture.

It doesn't hurt that Santa gets a lot of outside help. He’s a good “meme” (Blackmore, 1999). Society reinforces and enables Santa by making him a major part of popular culture. People talk about him, sing about him, and show him in popular movies and books. It's really a shame that we blow the whole Santa thing almost overnight for the kids. In doing that, we leave them with a huge hole in their psyches. They still have that abiding need for a magic, caring, all-powerful figure, and we are only too glad to replace Santa Claus with a more up-to-date version that even the adults can participate in.

Santa Claus is really God with training wheels. Once they've had practice believing in Old Saint Nick, kids don't require much shaping to accept another magic figure in the sky who has essentially the same abilities and wants the same thing from them. Pleasing Santa, pleasing God, what's the difference? The bottom line is, there is someone all-knowing and all-powerful who cares about you, and who watches over you. 

In the case of God, who is geared to a more adult audience, the requirements are a little more sophisticated, and so are the consequences. We adults are in it for more than toys and candy canes. Our needs are bigger, although we don't hesitate to beg and bargain just like a child. Unlike Santa, who either comes through for you or doesn't, God is a lot more powerful. The way we've constructed him, God can actively punish. Just read the Old Testament. This is a being who doesn’t hesitate to let you know his displeasure in more devastating ways than withholding a Game Boy.

Some years ago I had an animated conversation with magician and social critic Penn Jillette, whose wife was expecting their first child at the time. Penn told me in no uncertain terms that he would not allow Santa Claus into their home. I believe the phrase “God with training wheels” emerged during that conversation. Penn hoped to immunize his kids against theism by keeping Santa at bay. The idea is certainly not without support. Belk (1987) analyzed similarities between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, including the role of miracles, gifts, prayer and omniscience, and concluded that Santa Claus is a secular version of Christ.

Speaking as an evolutionary psychologist, I asked Penn if he really believed he could insulate his children from latching onto a magical omniscient, omnipotent character by keeping Santa Claus out of his home? I told him I thought he was fighting a rear-guard action against some powerful evolutionary wiring that predisposed us to accept powerful controlling figures. It begins with our parents, and moves on to our grandparents, and “tribal elders” such as teachers and doctors. The progression is obvious in the way kids latch onto Santa Claus. But Santa is just an early choice; God is the ultimate version for most people. Could Penn really banish such a hardwired human pattern?

“It doesn't always work,” he pointed out. “Look at you and me. We didn't fall for it.”

What do kids believe?  I wondered what we really knew about kids’ beliefs. Working with my student Stephanie Tytus, we interviewed kids ages 4 - 6 to learn what they believed about Santa Claus and God. The results were remarkably consistent and in some cases pretty amusing. In general, kids had a difficult time distinguishing between Santa and God. Often when they started talking about one, they ended up talking about the other. They knew both were human looking,  had magical powers, and lived “up there” as many of them put it. Some of the youngest ones got confused and reported God living in the North Pole and Santa living in heaven. Interestingly, such confusion is not confined to children. [Footnote 1]

Kids believed neither God nor Santa were hemmed in by the laws of physics and could move freely through time and space, including being in two places at once. Kids saw the similar physical appearance of God and Santa (both are old white guys), and reported that they had similar agendas (they want us to be good). They knew it was useless to try to fool either character - the "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" syndrome. Many kids quoted the line “He sees you when you're sleeping/ He knows when you're awake,” but many weren’t sure whether it applied to God or Santa or both.

This article is not about being the Grinch. I love Christmastime and, unlike Penn Jillette, I enjoy the idea of sharing Santa Claus with kids. It's a joyous childhood fantasy. I don't think you're going to change Human Nature by boarding up the chimney and keeping Santa out of your house.

I don't remember the moment that I realized Santa Claus wasn't real. I can only imagine it wasn't a very pleasant experience. It was costly. It took away some of the innocence and joy that was part of my childhood. But it had to be done. Santa was replaced by an alternate understanding of Christmas morning that didn’t rely on a supernatural being. It was my parents giving me those gifts, not a magic guy in a red suit. 

In its own way, this was even richer. It was part of the real world, and it was filled with love. I couldn't have imagined how that richness felt while I still believed in Santa Claus. But I took a leap of faith and moved into a more adult understanding of the world. It paid off and I found other ways to fill the void. We don't need to base our safety and our place in the universe on supernatural beings. There is plenty here in the real world to make every day, not just Christmas morning, full of joy and wonder.

[Footnote 1: There is a widely recounted cross-cultural story of Santa/God confusion, although it has begun to take on the status of an urban myth (; see also The Economist, 1993 and Hartford Courant, 1997). According to this tale, in the years immediately following World War II, at least one Japanese merchant, in a newfound attempt to embrace western culture, decorated its store window on the Ginza with a model of Santa Claus mounted on a crucifix.]

Hasidic family in Jerusalem


My parents took care to make sure I didn't believe me Santa, or ghosts and witches. I think it was a successful inoculation against the supernatural. Even though for some years I did go to church, my faith was riddled with doubt. At fourteen I managed to relegate Christianity to mythology. 

That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy Christmas and its cheerful colors and shameless excess. It's a holiday of hope and generosity. In 2020, we need Christmas lights more than ever.  


~ Taking a stroll with Shane O’Mara is a risky endeavor. The neuroscientist is so passionate about walking, and our collective right to go for walks, that he is determined not to let the slightest unfortunate aspect of urban design break his stride. So much so, that he has a habit of darting across busy roads as the lights change. “One of life’s great horrors as you’re walking is waiting for permission to cross the street,” he tells me, when we are forced to stop for traffic – a rude interruption when, as he says, “the experience of synchrony when walking together is one of life’s great pleasures”. He knows this not only through personal experience, but from cold, hard data – walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier.

O’Mara, 53, is in his element striding through urban landscapes – from epic hikes across London’s sprawl to more sedate ambles in Oxford, where he received his DPhil – and waxing lyrical about science, nature, architecture and literature. He favors what he calls a “motor-centric” view of the brain – that it evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well.

This is neatly illustrated by the life cycle of the humble sea squirt which, in its adult form, is a marine invertebrate found clinging to rocks or boat hulls. It has no brain because it has eaten it. During its larval stage, it had a backbone, a single eye and a basic brain to enable it to swim about hunting like “a small, water-dwelling, vertebrate cyclops”, as O’Mara puts it. The larval sea squirt knew when it was hungry and how to move about, and it could tell up from down. But, when it fused on to a rock to start its new vegetative existence, it consumed its redundant eye, brain and spinal cord. Certain species of jellyfish, conversely, start out as brainless polyps on rocks, only developing complicated nerves that might be considered semi-brains as they become swimmers. 

Sitting at a desk all day, it’s easy to start feeling like a brainless polyp, whereas walking and talking, as we are this morning, while admiring the Great Sugar Loaf mountain rising beyond the city and a Huguenot cemetery formed in 1693, our minds are fizzing. “Our sensory systems work at their best when they’re moving about the world,” says O’Mara. He cites a 2018 study that tracked participants’ activity levels and personality traits over 20 years, and found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness. There is substantial data showing that walkers have lower rates of depression, too. And we know, says O’Mara, “from the scientific literature, that getting people to engage in physical activity before they engage in a creative act is very powerful. My notion – and we need to test this – is that the activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater almost as an accident of walking demanding lots of neural resources.” 

(from — sorry not to have the exact link)


Walking a walk also a cognitive workout — all those outdoor sights and sounds to process. Helps prevent dementia.


I read that Einstein formulated his famous theory while walking around Lake Bern in Switzerland. I believe it.


~ To Haffkine, the bustees [villages on city outskirts] were an ideal proving ground for his nascent vaccine. In each household, he had a group of people living in identical conditions, equally exposed to cholera. If he could inoculate some of each family and leave some untreated, with enough participants he might finally produce some meaningful results.
At the end of March, two people died of cholera in the Kattal Bagan bustee, signalling a new outbreak. Haffkine traveled to the bustee and inoculated 116 of the 200 or so inhabitants. Afterwards, his small team observed 10 further cases there, seven fatal - all among the uninoculated.

The results were encouraging enough for the Calcutta health officer to fund a wider trial, but convincing people to be vaccinated was easier said than done. Years of top-down medical programs by the British government had sowed distrust among the population, and to many the very concept of vaccination was still alien.

Haffkine's solution was to work with a team of Indian doctors and assistants, rather than the British - Drs Chowdry, Ghose, Chatterjee, and Dutt, among others. And he had a new trick up his sleeve in the world of vaccinology: publicly injecting himself to prove he thought his preparation was safe.

"What is remarkable, and is often lost in the story, is that after the initial resistance people began to queue in the slums in Calcutta for Haffkine's cholera vaccine, they queued for the whole day," said Professor Pratik Chakrabarti, the Chair in History of Science and Medicine at the University of Manchester.

"He would spend hours and whole days in those slums working with Indian doctors. He would start vaccinating in the morning before people went to work, and continue after they came back in the evenings, sitting by an oil lamp in the slum."

Haffkine's work in the Calcutta slums placed him among a select group of scientists who pioneered a profound and global shift in the way disease was understood and treated. But unlike Edward Jenner before him and Jonas Salk after, Haffkine's name never really entered the public imagination, either in India or in Europe.


Building on the work of Pasteur and Jenner, Haffkine discovered that by passing cholera bacilli through the peritoneal cavity of guinea pigs — 39 passes in total — he could produce a strengthened, or "exalted" cholera culture, which he could then attenuate using heat. An injection of the attenuated bacteria, followed later by an injection of the exalted bacteria, appeared to immunize guinea pigs against a lethal attack of the disease. 

Up until that point, diseases like cholera had been thought of in miasmatic terms — that they traveled in bad air — and tackled with what Prof Chakrabarti called "broad spectrum treatments". ("You put someone in a bath and steam them until they are half dead, or spray carbolic acid everywhere.") But the work of Haffkine and others was giving disease management a focal point — a virus or bacterium that could be cultivated and attenuated, targeted precisely in the body. 

After Haffkine's experiments in the bustees of Calcutta yielded promising results, he was invited by the owners of tea plantations in Assam to vaccinate their workers. Haffkine conducted large scale trials there on thousands of plantation workers, but in the autumn of 1895 he contracted malaria and was forced to return to England to recuperate. According to his records, he had by that point inoculated nearly 42,000 people against cholera. 

Haffkine noted later that while his vaccine appeared to reduce cases, it did not appear to reduce mortality in those who were infected. When he returned to India in 1896, he planned to address this deficiency by testing a new two-pronged formula he had developed. But there was a more pressing problem in Bombay that would take Haffkine away from cholera for good.

The world's third plague pandemic began in Yunnan, China in 1894. It spread down to British Hong Kong and from there by merchant ship to the bustling coastal metropolis of Bombay in what was then British India, where the first case was discovered in September 1896 at a grain merchant's quarters at the city's docks.

At first, the British government underplayed the severity of the outbreak, keen to keep a key port city open for business. But the disease tore through Bombay's tightly-packed slums — its mortality rate nearly twice that of cholera — and the number of dead soared. The governor turned to Haffkine for help. Haffkine traveled to Bombay, where he was set up in one small room and a corridor, with one clerk and three untrained assistants, and tasked with coming up with the world's first plague vaccine from scratch.

"He didn't have a lot in terms of space, manpower or facilities, but it was the first time he was working independently and had his own lab," said Chandrakant Lahariya, an epidemiologist in Delhi. "He knew that developing a plague vaccine at record pace would make him a leading scientist of his time."

Haffkine worked tirelessly through that winter. He discovered that if he placed plague bacilli in a nutrient broth to which he had added a small quantity of clarified butter or coconut oil, the bacilli formed into a signature stalactite growth, creating microbes and toxic products on the side. He was using the same approach he had devised for the new treatment of cholera, combining the microbes with the toxic products they produced to form a single-injection vaccine.

In December, Haffkine successfully inoculated rabbits against an attack of plague, and by January 1897 he was ready once again to test a fresh vaccine for a deadly disease on a human.
On 10 January 1897, Haffkine injected himself with 10cc of his preparation - a significantly higher dose than the 3cc he planned to use in wider testing. He experienced a severe fever but recovered after several days. 

At the end of that month, a plague outbreak occurred at Bombay's Byculla House of Correction - a jail housing hundreds of inmates - and Haffkine went there to carry out controlled tests. He inoculated 147 prisoners and left 172 untreated. There were 12 cases and six deaths among the untreated and just two cases and no deaths among the treated.

The apparent success at Byculla jail set off a rapid expansion of production and testing and Haffkine was relocated from his small one-room laboratory to a government-owned bungalow, and then on to a large lodge owned by the spiritual leader the Aga Khan, who also volunteered himself and thousands of members of his Khoja Mussulman community for inoculation. 

Inside a year, hundreds of thousands of people had been inoculated using Haffkine's vaccine, saving untold numbers of lives. He was knighted by Queen Victoria, and in December 1901 he was appointed director-in-chief of the Plague Research Laboratory at Government House in Parel, Bombay, with new facilities and a staff of 53.

Then disaster struck. 

In March 1902, in the village of Mulkowal in Punjab, 19 people died from tetanus after being inoculated with Haffkine's vaccine. The 88 others inoculated that day were fine. All the evidence appeared to point to a fatal contamination of bottle 53N - prepared 41 days earlier at the Parel lab.

An Indian government commission was tasked with investigating, and it discovered that Haffkine had changed the procedure for sterilising the plague vaccine, using heat instead of carbolic acid because it sped up production. The heat method had been safely in use at the world-leading Pasteur institute for two years, but it was unfamiliar to the British, and in 1903 the commission concluded that bottle 53N must have been contaminated in Haffkine's lab in Parel. Haffkine was fired as director of the plague lab and placed on leave from the Indian Civil Service.

In 1904, two years after Haffkine was suspended, the plague reached its peak in India, killing 1,143,993 people that year. Haffkine's vaccine was the "main line of defense", Hawgood said, but its creator was stuck in London fighting for his name.

Documents revealed that the assistant who opened bottle 53N dropped his forceps on the ground and failed to sterilize them properly before using them to remove the bottle's cork stopper.

Haffkine was finally exonerated in November 1907 after Simpson and Ross's campaign raised the matter in the British parliament. Haffkine was granted leave to return to employment in India and he gladly returned as director in chief of the Calcutta Biological Laboratory. But his redemption was incomplete - he was barred from carrying out any trials, limiting him to theoretical research.

He returned briefly to the study of cholera and became interested in developing a new "devitalized" vaccine - a method that would later become widely used - but his repeated applications to the Indian government to carry out trials were refused. In 1914, aged 55, Haffkine retired from the Indian Civil Service and left the country. The Mulkowal disaster had been indelibly printed on him, and done him lasting damage.

Between 1897 and 1925, 26 million doses of Haffkine's anti-plague vaccine were sent out from Bombay. Tests of the vaccine's efficacy showed between a 50% and 85% reduction in mortality. But "no figure" could be put on the number of lives he saved, Hawgood said. "The numbers are just enormous."

Haffkine returned to France and devoted his later life to his faith, becoming increasingly orthodox and establishing a foundation to promote Jewish education in Eastern Europe. He never married and lived his final years alone in Lausanne, Switzerland. He was a "scholarly, lonesome, handsome man of few words, who remained a bachelor," wrote the Indian bacteriologist HI Jhala. 

Haffkine died in Lausanne in 1930, aged 70. A short obituary notice circulated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted that his plague vaccine had been "adopted throughout India" and his lab had "issued many thousands of doses to various tropical countries". The notice also quoted Lord Lister, the great British bacteriologist and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, who called Haffkine, simply, "the savior of mankind".

"He inspired so many scientists to take up vaccine research in the early 20th Century, but somehow his contributions were forgotten," Dr Lahariya said. "We should never forget that Haffkine made a viable vaccine in a two-room lab with a very small team. It is almost unbelievable." 

Haffkine's name does live on prominently in one sense. In 1925, five years before his death, the Indian government was lobbied by some of his supporters to rename the Parel lab 'The Haffkine Institute'. The government agreed, and the name remains to this day.


Another mostly unsung hero.
Interesting read. The dropped forceps probably resulted in many deaths directly and indirectly considering what it did to his career. Another example of how small mistakes can have enormous consequences.


ending on beauty:

Yet there was a man within me
Could have risen to the clouds,
Could have touched these winds,
Bent and broken them down,
Could have stood up sharply in the sky.

~ Wallace Stevens