Sunday, December 4, 2016


Christian Schloe, Amor



I see you, aging, raging Herr Professor,
fist beating on the slippery headpiece of the sofa,
as you rail at the American woman poet:
Trouble is, I am an old man —
you don’t think it worth your while
to love me.

Admit it: it was Torschlusspanik,
the terror of the closing door,
life teasing, “Come on, Handsome,
time is running out.” Not for your
“immortality project,” safe in history’s coffin.
For the last chance to be the Beloved.

But love is shameless in its Schlamperei
from Schlampe, slut,
slouching by the lamp-post:
“Darling, let’s pretend we don’t know
for one real kiss you’d give all” —
the soul on her knees in that dingy light.

And you for forty-two years at Berggasse 19,
in the labyrinth of the steep apartment,
the entrance next to the butcher shop,
the butcher’s name also Sigmund —
your rich neurotics forced to pass
bloody slabs and halved carcasses.

Above, the room where you practice
vivisection of dreams —
except for the dream where you sit
in a barber chair, staring at the sign,
You are requested to close your eyes.
But because you said,

The voice of the intellect
is a soft one, but it does not rest
until it’s been heard,
I forgive you.
And because you knew,
deeper than lust, everyone wants to die.

What did you care for the Schlamperei
of those “instincts” you tried to track —

The word rhymes with eye.

~ Oriana © 2016

At the time I wrote the poem, my favorite stanza was about the voice of the intellect:

But because you said

The voice of the intellect
is a soft one, but it does not rest
until it’s been heard,
I forgive you.
And because you knew,
deeper than lust, everyone wants to die.

The last two lines refer to Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos: we have a drive to live, but we also have a hidden desire to die. Back when I wrote the poem, I knew that desire to die. Again and again I see the power of the stage of life we’re in.

That’s still an important stanza, and Freud has indeed been called a rationalist in spite of his study of “instincts” and “drives.” The quotation is accurate. I don’t deny the power of rational thought — ultimately it was the shift to rational thinking that put an end to my chronic depression.

But at my current stage of life, I am much more struck by the line “the last chance to be the Beloved.” The scene of Freud’s helpless rage at the poet h.d. (Hilda Doolittle) was described by h.d. both in her letters and (if I remember correctly) in h.d.’s marvelous Tribute to Freud, where she also describes how Freud showed her his favorite objet d’art, a statuette of Athena — “except she has lost her spear.”

This poem originally had a different first stanza:

Not the young Herr Doktor, traveling first class
while Frau Doktor and the children jolt
along in third, crowded on hard benches —
your nerves too delicate
for the smell of the proletariat.

In the rough draft there was even something this: “and always a old woman wrapped in a black scarf,/ holding a live chicken in her lap, / its feet tied with a paper string.” I realized that this was just too much detail and distracting imagery.

Nevertheless, the fact that young Freud, before he became financially successful, would insist on traveling first class while his wife, Martha, and his children had to travel third class, does say something about Freud’s character and his attitudes toward women. It was of course Martha who had to go the train station in advance and make the travel arrangements.

Let’s also remember that Freud wrote to Martha: “If one of us dies, I shall move to Paris.” A little  joke, sure — but you wonder how she felt after reading it.

The two were not close, to put it mildly. An affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, was indeed quite likely — we have the testimony of Jung, who said that Minna confessed her affair to him; we also have the testimony of Sandor Ferenczi, Freud’s disciple and friend, and the scholarly work of Peter Swales. Freud’s remark,’’I wish I might for once experience love that cost me nothing,” might indeed refer to the expense of an abortion (as Peter Swales suggests). If so, the price was really for Freud’s bizarre belief that birth control was harmful to a man’s health.

And there was a tell-tale surge in Freud’s creativity coinciding with the time of the affair, as Swales points out. Creative people know that phenomenon very well — both men and women. It’s astonishing — and humbling — to realize that just how dependent on hormones and other neurochemicals creativity is, how tremendously affected by falling in love, and, in women, also pregnancy and the menstrual cycle. (“You can’t separate the soul from hormones,” was my motto when I began to explore endocrinology.)

To me, however, it’s Anna Freud’s closeness to her father that seems the most telling sign of the absence of love in Freud’s marriage. Anna seems a classic case of a “spousified” daughter, the true supportive partner, soulmate, and intellectual companion (as Minna had been before). 

Now, Freud knew a number of brilliant, exceptional women. Lou Andreas-Salomé, for one, was eager to be his lover and muse — and no doubt there were other hopeful admirers. An intellectual man is powerfully attractive to intelligent women and can easily play the role of “homme fatal.”  

Fernand Leger: Three Women, 1921

But Freud was getting old. He wasn’t going to “risk his authority” by proving impotent. The deep affection of a devoted daughter would do. Yet he still expected h.d. to fall in love with him — madly. How dare this American poet not fall in love with him, she who was his “last dance” — the last chance in his life to be the beloved, to feel reborn and creative again as he felt when he and Minna became lovers?

Freud may have felt especially entitled because his mother worshipped him. He wrote, “For a man to have been his mother’s favorite son is a life-long feeling of triumph.”

But then we all feel entitled. To be the beloved feels like an inalienable right, as valid as the pursuit of happiness. To give up on it is to sink into depression. Other symptoms may mask the immense sadness at the core, the conclusion that life is not worth living, but the bitterness remains.

Yet here it’s important to remember that Freud also said, when asked what’s the most important in life: “Love and work.” Satisfying work can be a saving factor. And work is easier by far — just go the extra mile. We are not so sure how to attract love. Some give up on it quite early in life. Don’t.

Don’t expect too much from love; don’t expect love to be the savior. Meaningful work is also part of the equation. But don’t settle for never having experienced what it’s like to be the beloved.

As Ray Carver put it:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

~ “Late Fragment”

Carver wrote this poem knowing he was dying of lung cancer — an especially nasty way to die because in the end you end up suffocating, your lungs too destroyed to function. Every cell ends up in “oxygen hunger,” resulting in pain. But even while facing that kind of death, Carver comes across as someone who feels grateful, “even so.” He did get what he wanted from life. He does not hesitate to use the word many poets would never consider, finding it “old-fashioned” and “sentimental.” It’s the beautiful word “beloved.”

I think two gifts combined to make Carver feel himself “beloved on the earth.” The first one was the love of Tess Gallagher, a wonderful poet and human being, an equal and a perfect companion. Then there was “success”: lots of recognition of his work, his fame as a master of short story (though his poems are excellent as well). And I just remembered the third gift: being able to devote himself to writing.

He was loved by an equal, and he did what he loved doing. That might be sufficient paradise.

You may say, “Good for him. But I don’t have a chance for the kind of partner I’d like to have.” Here I’d like quote the pragmatic wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut: “You love whoever there is to be loved.” However, there is also the pursuit of happiness in some other — or additional — ways.

For someone who loves gardening, a shaded patio for growing tropical plants might provide that venue. For someone who loves animals . . . For someone who loves weaving and working with textiles . . .  but I don’t have to go on. The point is to have love in your life. As you devote yourself to it, you will feel beloved as well.

I continue to be under the spell of Jack Gilbert’s poem, “We Have Already Lived in the Real Paradise.” That title is engraved in my psyche. The real paradise is not waiting for us after we die. It’s right here. There is no “better place.” Such deluded talk prevents us from fully seeing the paradise around us, which is part given and part created. I’d go so far as to say that to create a personal paradise is the task each person can undertake. And if not here, where? And if not now, when?

Start small: one beautiful object for the house, one art book that you’ve always wanted to have but for some reason kept denying yourself, one gorgeous plant or maybe that special breed of dog you’ve dreamed of since childhood — and you are no longer poor and/or harassed by life. And the beauty will grow. Soon you may even start calling yourself “beloved on the earth.

 Degas: Prima Ballerina, 1876 ~ I love the ecstatic feeling


~ “The most important divide in America today is class, not race, and the place where it matters most is in the home.

Among the educated elite the traditional family is thriving: fewer than 10% of births to female college graduates are outside marriage—a figure that is barely higher than it was in 1970. In 2007 among women with just a high-school education, by contrast, 65% of births were non-marital. Race makes a difference: only 2% of births to white college graduates are out-of-wedlock, compared with 80% among African-Americans with no more than a high-school education, but neither of these figures has changed much since the 1970s. However, the non-marital birth proportion among high-school-educated whites has quadrupled, to 50%, and the same figure for college-educated blacks has fallen by a third, to 25%. Thus the class divide is growing even as the racial gap is shrinking.

Upbringing affects opportunity. Upper-middle-class homes are not only richer (with two professional incomes) and more stable; they are also more nurturing. In the 1970s there were practically no class differences in the amount of time that parents spent talking, reading and playing with toddlers. Now the children of college-educated parents receive 50% more of what Mr Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon” time (after a popular book for infants).

Educated parents engage in a non-stop Socratic dialogue with their children, helping them to make up their own minds about right and wrong, true and false, wise and foolish. This is exhausting, so it helps to have a reliable spouse with whom to share the burden, not to mention cleaners, nannies and cash for trips to the theatre.

Working-class parents, who have less spare capacity, are more likely to demand that their kids simply obey them. In the short run this saves time; in the long run it prevents the kids from learning to organize their own lives or think for themselves. Poor parenting is thus a barrier to social mobility, and is becoming more so as the world grows more complex and the rewards for superior cognitive skills increase.

Mr Putnam’s research team interviewed dozens of families to illustrate his thesis. Some of their stories are heart-rending. Stephanie, a mother whose husband left her, is asked if her own parents were warm. She is “astonished at our naïveté”. “No, we don’t do all that kissing and hugging,” she says. “You can’t be mushy in Detroit...You gotta be hard, really hard, because if you soft, people will bully you.” Just as her parents “beat the hell” out of her, so she “whups” her own children. She does her best, but her ambitions for them go little further than not skipping school, not becoming alcoholic and not ending up on the streets.

At every stage, educated families help their kids in ways that less educated ones do not or cannot. Whereas working-class families have friends who tend to know each other (because they live in the same neighborhood), professional families have much wider circles. If a problem needs solving or a door needs opening, there is often a friend of a friend (a lawyer, a psychiatrist, an executive) who knows how to do it or whom to ask.

Stunningly, Mr Putnam finds that family background is a better predictor of whether or not a child will graduate from university than 8th-grade test scores. Kids in the richest quarter with low test scores are as likely to make it through college as kids in the poorest quarter with high scores.

Mr Putnam sees “no clear path to reviving marriage” among the poor. Instead, he suggests a grab-bag of policies to help poor kids reach their potential, such as raising subsidies for poor families, teaching them better parenting skills, improving nursery care and making after-school baseball clubs free. He urges all 50 states to experiment to find out what works. A problem this complex has no simple solution.” ~

 Picasso: Portrait of the artist’s mother, 1896

Thanks to the two extra votes delivered to each state for its two senators, the Electoral College gives less populated states a higher weight, per capita, than it gives more populated states in the decision of who should be the next president.

This was always a betrayal of one-person-one-vote equality, in that a voter in rural Wyoming has more than three times the power of a voter in New Jersey, the country’s most densely populated state. But those imbalances have become far more glaring, thanks to a filter bubble more pronounced than anything on Facebook: the “big sort” that has concentrated Democrats in cities and inner-ring suburbs, and Republicans in exurbs and rural counties.

The right way to think about the political conflict in this country is not red state versus blue state, but red country versus blue city. And yet we are voting in a system explicitly designed to tip the scales toward the countryside.

The major cities are now overwhelmingly the engines of economic growth and wealth creation — and also tax revenue. For complicated reasons — some of which have to do with rural poverty, some of which have to do with the basic physics of supporting infrastructure in low-density regions — a disproportionate amount of per capita federal spending and benefits now flow down to the low-density states. According to a study by the Tax Foundation conducted several years ago, for every dollar New Jersey pays in federal taxes, it receives 61 cents in benefits and other federal spending. For the same dollar of taxes Wyoming spends, it gets $1.11 back.

The urban states are subsidizing the rural states, and yet somehow in return, the rural states get more power at the voting booth.

The states that rank at the top of this list are the ones that are paying the highest proportion of the country’s bills while ranking lowest in terms of voting power in the Electoral College. The first 12 on the list have all voted for the Democratic candidate in at least two of the last three elections, and all but two of them went for Mrs. Clinton in 2016: New Jersey, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Connecticut, California, Washington and Oregon.

The gap between the two extremes is remarkable. South Dakota, one of the most empowered states in the country, received almost twice the return on taxes as California, the country’s most populated state, while also commanding nearly twice as much power per capita in the Electoral College. If anyone should be declaring themselves the heirs to the Boston patriots who rebelled against the unjust taxation of King George, it’s the big city blue state citizens who are funding a system that by law undercounts their votes.

To date, wealthy states like California, New York and New Jersey have not expressed much outrage at this situation, in part because they have experienced less economic anxiety than some of the struggling red states and in part because the injustice has not been as visible during the Obama years, thanks to his Electoral College victories. But as our cities get wealthier and more diverse and begin to realize how the system is genuinely “rigged” against them, tectonic forces may well be unleashed.

If a Trump administration that urban states voted overwhelmingly against starts curtailing voting rights and rolling back drug-law reform, reneging on the Paris climate accord, deporting immigrants and appointing justices that favor overturning Roe v. Wade, states like California and Massachusetts are sure to start asking hard questions about why they are subsidizing a government that doesn’t give them an equal vote.


How ironic that Ted Cruz attacked Trump for his “New York values”! But then the entire 2016 campaign is so rich in ironies, one hardly knows where to start.

Red Cliffs seen from Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch

“Happiness depends not on how well things are going but on whether things are going better or worse than expected.” ~ Robb Rutledge, neuroscientist.

~ “A new MRI study and University College of London indicates that the secret to happiness is low expectations.

Like happiness, compassion is always in part a function of lowered expectations. We are happier to accept other people’s difficult behaviors when we expect less from them.

It’s all about managing the “aspirational gap,” the gap between what is and what could be, what you have and what you expect. It’s all about expectation management.”

The joke goes that a child was so optimistic that, to test the extent of his optimism, his parents gave him a pile of horse manure. The kid's eyes open wide with delight. He dives into the pile and starts digging.

“What are you doing?” his parents ask.

The kid replies, “With this much manure, I'm betting there’s a pony in here!”

Imagine his disappointment when there wasn’t.

Maybe the true optimist would say “Horse manure! That’s so much better than what I expected!  I thought you were going to give me anthrax for my birthday!”

Even manure is a happy gift when your expectations are low enough.

I recently lowered my expectations for what I get from a friend who used to annoy me. Immediately, my annoyance vanished and I felt greater compassion for him.

I'm convinced that like happiness, compassion is always a function of lowered expectations or standards. We’re happier to accept other people’s difficult behaviors when we expect less from them.

So there you have it. If happiness and compassion are your sole goals, lower your expectations.

Through the floor. Expect no good things to come to you, from you, from circumstances or from others and you’ll be eternally delighted, grateful for any good things that happen.” ~

Then the author, Jeremy Sherman, goes on to question if contentment and compassion should always be our primary goals. I think “it depends” — the stage of life makes a lot of difference.

If you want to “think big,” be prepared to suffer big. That may not be so tragic when you are young and have a lot of future stretching before you — you can try again, or explore a different career. But past a certain point, just enjoying life starts becoming a priority. Or even “less stress.” I am astonished as I write this — I grew up in the ethos of achievement, and my contempt for mere happiness could not be more complete. How we change.

The country that year after year scores first in happiness is Denmark. Good social safety net may have something to do with it. Nevertheless, researchers have concluded that Denmark’s secret is low expectations:

~ “on surveys, Danes continually report lower expectations for the year to come, compared with most other nations. And "year after year, they are pleasantly surprised to find that not everything is getting more rotten in the state of Denmark," the paper concludes.”

and marketing research shows that high customer expectations correlate with low customer satisfaction.


The author says something with which I strongly identify: “I once expected to make it big, and when I didn’t, I eventually got over that expectation, and have been much happier ever since. Every little success these days is a surprise and delight.”

This is “companion wisdom” to the “burden of choice.” Choice is stressful, but sometimes you can simply walk away from it. Or you can make your choice quickly, slam the door, and never look back, wondering “what if.” You just keep on moving forward. If I’ve learned it, with my genius for regret, anyone can. It’s child’s play compared to managing expectations.

High expectations most often lead to disappointment and bitterness. Ambition kills joy (I can attest to it). Less choice, lower expectations — it may sound dismal, but, contrary to the self-help mantras that used to circulate not all that long ago, studies bear out the “cynical”(??) idea that we’re much better off with minimal choice or none, and low expectations. Why? Precisely because “happiness depends not on how well things are going but on whether things are going better or worse than expected.”

Nevertheless, do the best work you can. Work really is its own reward. Certain sayings become clichés because they are absolutely true. A lot of people found out the hard way that NOT trying to turn doing what they love into a business is best. So many self-help ideas are simply horrible. Most “recipes for success” are actually recipes for disaster.

Having low expectations of external reward should not keep anyone from producing quality. By all means, let’s concentrate on the work, not the outcome. A pleasant surprise may or may not follow, but if it does, we’ll prove once more that it’s the change for the better that makes us happy, rather than a steady level of “good.”

Expecting dedicated work from yourself is one thing; expecting it from someone else is generally a mistake. I learned this piece of Buddhist-like wisdom about ten years ago: you suffer because you WANT something from someone. Then you give the person the power to disappoint you, to make you feel betrayed and dis-valued. The person in question may or may not be consciously trying to hurt you and/or manipulate you. It helps to see that the problem is actually yourself: your expectations. You want something from them. The more intensely you want it, the greater the potential pain.

Try saying: “There is nothing I want from [X].” It may work instantly, or it may take a few repetitions before the desire is completely extinguished. Once the desire is gone, the pain is over. It’s magical. (And as a side bonus, once you drop desire and expectations from someone, they may actually start trying to please you as you look at them indulgently, with a little Mona Lisa smile.)

That’s the pain of unrequited love. That’s also the mother crazily determined that little Jimmy become a doctor — we realize the potential heartbreak. Fortunately popular psychology abounds with warnings to parents not to invest in specific expectations — and parents seem to have learned. I remember this little scene in an inexpensive Mexican restaurant. Next to us sat a couple with a cheerful little girl of seven or eight. The waitress was good-natured and chatted with the girl. After the waitress walked away, the girl exclaimed, “When I grow up, I want to be a waitress!” Her mother calmly replied, “Sweetheart, we will love you and support you no matter what you become when you grow up.”

Now that can be dismissed with a chuckle. But actual early adulthood is quite often the time of the shattering of dreams. When New Age was more popular, we spoke of the dreaded “Saturn return” that starts almost as soon as you leave college. But another memory is more powerful: according to Matthew and Mark, the last words of Jesus were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Our first impression is that something tremendous was supposed to happen — and it didn’t happen.

Theologians can dance around anything — they are the real dancers on the head of a pin — but there is no canceling the primal emotional impact. So while the theologians argue that what Jesus MEANT was to praise god while dying under torture (considering the ending of Psalm 22), and no, he didn’t really expect angels to take him off the cross and carry him up into the clouds, and how he VOLUNTEERED to be the substitutionary sin sacrifice, and on and on, spinning, rationalizing — the fact remains that once we know about those words, we can never forget them. Most likely there won’t be a last-minute miracle. The worst CAN happen.


Of course it need not be a person that we want something from. It can be life, fate, the circumstances. Our whole upbringing makes us expect certain things, taking it for granted that this is “how it ought to be” — that’s what we were born for.

Such expectations are mostly unconscious (though we can learn to influence them to some degree — reminding ourselves about the “best laid plans of mice and men,” for instance — this is a realm where ancient platitudes do work). And the dropping and/or shattering of those deep expectations may be much harder to deal with than, say, ceasing to expect certain people to show up on time — or even to be loved back every time you fall in love.

Yet we do have real wealth, the kind that doesn’t show on bank statements. A rich inner life is invaluable, as are all the people and things we love. And it’s not only that we can read great literature and listen to great music; we can feel happy just watching a sparrow hop around in the grass. Little beauties nourish us.

And the great beauties too — the Pacific Ocean! How does one even begin to count the Pacific Ocean among mere “blessings”? It’s cold and vicious and magnificent.


It can be hard to lower one’s expectations, especially with inane self-help mottoes out there: expect the best and the best will happen! Visualize a million dollars in your bank account — dare to be a millionaire!

Not that we need to linger imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s enough to briefly reflect on “what if” in order to figure out how we’d cope, remembering that “there is always a solution” or “things will work out somehow.” Platitudes can be life-savers, like a cow keeping you from freezing. “I’ve done my best, given the circumstances” is a nice warm cow. “That too shall pass” never fails to provide nourishing milk. 

(a shameless digression: it makes sense that the rich would be more prone to anger, because their expectations are higher — their wealth is supposed to insulate them from anything going wrong.)


~ “And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jung-bu’s question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity and bitterness, as if they belonged to all of us, he casts his arms wide tot he sky and the snowy mountains, the high sun and the dancing sheep, and cries, “Of course I am happy here! It’s wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!” ~ Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard


Peter Matthiessen with a snow leopard cub


Granted, not everyone does, but the “mellowness” of the “autumn years” is proverbial. It’s usually ascribed to the wisdom of experience. A less flattering view is biological: it’s serotonin dominance, while dopamine, the “get up and just do it” neurotransmitter, wanes. Serotonin is the “I don’t care; it doesn’t matter” neurochemical. Missed your flight? Broke an heirloom? LOL. If you’re serotonin-dominant, it just doesn’t matter. This certainly looks like wisdom!

From a stand-up achiever we modulate to a sit-down sage. A little manic during our go-go-go years? Relaxing finally feels natural, and not a torture. Energy is an eternal delight? Some yearn for laid-back serenity instead.

Serotonin has been called the Zen neurotransmitter. Dopamine modulates sex and aggression, not that evident in older age, as well as memory and thinking, long-term planning and impulse control. No other species has such high concentration of dopamine in the brain as humans do, nor such a lateralized brain (there’s more dopamine in the left hemisphere).

Higher dopamine means less obesity and lower risk of cancer. Drugs that block dopamine increase the risk of obesity and cancer. Part of the reason for both “mellowness” and increased obesity and disease risk in older age is dopamine deficiency.

Testosterone raises dopamine levels, as does a high-protein diet. Meat and fish provide tyrosine, a precursor for the production of dopamine. Coffee stimulates the release of dopamine; marijuana lowers dopamine. T3, the main thyroid hormone, also increases dopamine. Too much or not enough dopamine, and you have no end of problems. There is a sweet spot, but . . . As we age, the brain just doesn’t produce dopamine as it used to. That’s true of all neurotransmitters, but dopamine declines more steeply.

Yes, of course it’s all more complicated than just the levels of neurochemicals. But just as sex hormones humble us into recognizing how much our “spiritual” attraction is really hormonal, so I think we should be more humble in our adoration of the “wisdom of age” and recognize the biological substrate of this peaceful “mellowness.” I have nothing against mellowness, but oh, there is nothing I wouldn’t give to regain the brain function (including prolific creativity) I had in my twenties and thirties. And part of it was dopamine.

Parkinson’s patients given dopaminergic drugs can experience bursts of creativity. They may start painting, sculpting, writing — even if they’ve never tried creative projects before. But no one will prescribe such drugs to people who simply want to increase their creativity. L-Dopa in particular has dangerous side effects, even to the point of destroying neural tissue. Low-dose Deprenyl seems safe enough, but just try to find a doctor who feels confident enough to prescribe it.

Wild Green Oats Extract (sic), sold as “Dopa-Mind,” is supposed to increase dopamine, but I have my doubts as to its effectiveness compared with coffee — especially now that we know coffee is is mostly beneficial.

Frida Kahlo: Doña Rosita Morillo


~ “I had a feeling once about Mathematics, that I saw it all—Depth beyond depth was revealed to me—the Byss and the Abyss. I saw, as one might see the transit of Venus—or even the Lord Mayor's Show, a quantity passing through infinity and changing its sign from plus to minus. I saw exactly how it happened and why the tergiversation was inevitable: and how the one step involved all the others. It was like politics. But it was after dinner and I let it go.” ~ Winston Churchill

ending on beauty


Do not wait for me Penelope

I am not the Navigator
I am the great pink boar
wallowing at Circe’s trough

O Penelope these are my last
human thoughts

~ Sutton Breiding


Great photos as usual.

The article about Freud was as enlightening as the article about Castro. Surprising biographical details.

Really good article about the nurture gap. It covered a lot but it didn’t mention the importance of the father as role model, teacher and leader.

I love “THE SECRET TO HAPPINESS AND COMPASSION: LOWER EXPECTATIONS.” That sums it up right there. I’m going to use that as much as possible.


I’ve always found biographies fascinating. You discover so much that could be classified as pathology and/or terrible behavior.

The article on nurture made me remember with sadness the whole numerous extended family I profited from having as a child. It’s not just the parents. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, older cousins — so sad to be losing that developmental benefit . . . Not true for everyone, but something that couples considering immigration should ponder if they are leaving the whole family behind.

Since I didn’t expect an increase in audience for the blog, my happiness when it happened was through the roof! But I'm careful not to start expecting this to continue, or it will be a downer. It’s very tricky to be “detached from the outcome,” but it’s the best policy. Campbell said that “following your bliss” means doing what you are best at doing. Every other reward is secondary.

Monday, November 28, 2016


Detail of The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Augustus St. Gaudens, 1900, National Gallery of Art; patinated plaster.

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die —
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year —
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

~ Robert Lowell

As we watch the KKK and the Neo-Nazis celebrate their “victory,” I thought I’d post this famous poem with a bit of commentary from poetry critics. 

For me the best comment on the poem — and on the monument — is contained in this clarification by Paul Doherty:

~ “Though it is true that Shaw's father wanted no cenotaph to his son's memory, it was not he who referred to his son’s troops as “niggers.” According to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the remark was supplied by the Confederate officer who, questioned about the location of Shaw's grave, replied, “We have buried him with his niggers.” The phrase evidently became something of a Union rallying cry. But [Shaw’s father ]wrote, “Since learning of the place of our dear son's burial, we would not remove his body if we could. We can imagine no better place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. My only desire in this respect now is that I may someday be able to erect a monument over him and them. —What a body guard he has.” ~

I teared up reading this. Indeed, Colonel Shaw could have no better guard of honor. 

St. Gaudens: The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment, a bronze relief sculpture created in 1884, stands on the Boston Common

Helen Vendler:

~ “Asked to participate in the Boston Arts Festival in 1960, Lowell delivered "For the Union Dead," a poem about a Civil War hero, Robert Gould Shaw, whose sister Josephine had married one of Lowell's ancestors, Charles Russell Lowell (who, like Robert Gould Shaw, was killed in the war). The poem is thus, though undeclaredly, a family poem; and in it, Lowell quotes from a letter that Charles Russell Lowell wrote home to his wife, Josephine, about her brother's burial: “I am thankful that they buried him with his ‘niggers.’ They were brave men and they were his men.”

"For the Union Dead" honors not only the person of Robert Gould Shaw, but also the stern and beautiful memorial bronze bas-relief b Augustus Saint Gaudens which stands opposite the Boston State House. It represents Colonel Shaw on horseback among the men of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a regiment entirely composed of Negro soldiers. By his own earlier request, Shaw — who had the right, as an officer, to have his body brought home for burial — was buried with his men in a mass grave after the battle of Fort Wagner, in which he and they had fallen. Far from criticizing the Brahmin past from the vantage point of the Catholic present, as he had done in Lord Weary's Castle, Lowell now criticizes Boston's Irish-American present in comparison with the New England past. It is not he, any longer, who illuminates the past; the past, with its noble but fading light, now illuminates the debased present.

Lowell now conceives of the events of public history as existing solely in commemorative art, on the one hand, and metaphysical "immortality," like that of Shaw, on the other. Past deeds of war have vanished into these aesthetic and virtual forms . . . . With the disappearance of history as firm past reality, the poem tails off into the abjectness of a Boston now ruled by the immigrant Irish, who have taken over territory formerly belonging to the Lowells and their kind.

The Irish have defaced the historical Common on which Emerson had his transcendental vision; they have undermined the State House and the Saint Gaudens relief in order to build a parking garage; they have abandoned civic responsibility in letting the Aquarium decline; everywhere, reduced to the synecdoche of their vulgar automobiles, their "savage servility / slides by on grease."

Lowell's anti-Irish statement, though covert here . . . , shows a new commercialized history replacing an old ethical history. The bas-relief shakes, and the statues "grow slimmer and younger each year" so that they will, if the process continues, disappear altogether . . . . Christian language, the "Rock of Ages," is debased to gross advertisement, heartless in its appropriation of Hiroshima for commercial purposes. What saves the poem from Pharisaic superiority is the speaker's own confessed participation in the degradation he so scathingly observes: "When I crouch" — he says as he offers the most startling image in the poem — "When I crouch to my television set / The drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons."

Lowell has now realized that the inner life, even that of a prophet, cannot remain immune from the corruption it describes. The savage servility he observes, if it is that of the Irish politicians turning Boston into one long financial and ethical scandal, is also that of the poet, representing old Boston, servilely crouching to his television set as the savagery of long-standing segregation victimizes Negro children in the white Protestant South — as though Shaw and the men of the Massachusetts 54th had died for nothing.” ~

Thomas Travisano:

~ “Just as Lowell's "For the Union Dead" presents its catalog of losses, so, too, does it present a peculiar, and parallel, catalog of survivors: almost nothing mentioned in the poem quite disappears. The aquarium stands in ruins, but it stands. Its "cowed, compliant fish" may be no more, but a "bronze weathervane cod" still sits atop the roof, even though it "has lost half its scales". Later the fish reappear, in the angry final lines of the poem, having suffered metamorphosis into dynamic, mechanical monsters:

    giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
    a savage servility
    slides by on grease.

These two versions of the fish-as-survivor characterize the two opposing types of survivor in the poem. Survivors appear either as static and attenuated simulacrums of their former selves, or brutal mechanical transformations. Some of the poem's many figures have lost all but a vicarious existence, and live on in the form of monuments, statues, pictures, and other visual objects. These icons are static except in the sense that they suffer physical erosion and a parallel erosion of their dignity, through desecration, displacement, or neglect.

But there is a different order of survivor, like the extinct dinosaurs, who reappear as devouring steam shovels, or the Mosler safe, whose commercial viability overshadows in the minds of its promoters the human losses at Hiroshima, or the new mechanical fish that end the poem. Each of these survivors embodies a new, aggressively commercial, mindless, and mechanistic order.

By contrast, the displaced Saint-Gaudens statue is the central image linking the first group of survivors. It preserves in vicarious stasis its "bronze Negroes," who maintain a curious simulation of life (William James could "almost hear [them] breathe"), a life mirrored by the "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier[s]," who "doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns."

But the Saint-Gaudens statue differs from all the other static monuments in one sense: it "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat" because it is an uncomfortable survivor, reminiscent of such values as heroism, sacrifice, and racial equality, that no longer seem relevant in downtown Boston. This is true in part because racism and racial tension also survive, as does a replica of the ditch in which Colonel Shaw and his black Massachusetts volunteers were buried without the customary military honors by the Confederate soldiers who mowed them down at Fort Wagner.

The form of that ditch is further replicated in the very "underworld garage" being gouged beneath the Statehouse. The continuing reality of racism reappears in "the drained faces of Negro school-children" whom the narrator observes on television attempting to integrate southern schools. But Colonel Shaw emerges finally as the poem's protagonist, seen largely in terms of the way heroic death is memorialized. His predicament bears more than a passing resemblance to the speaker's long dead "uncle Charles," of "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid” — another Union officer and leader of "colored volunteers," buried on that occasion in Concord and with full military honors, attended by "Phillips Brooks and Grant." 

Colonel Shaw is seen in terms of a culture that is on the verge of utter disappearance. His heroism is of a past order that seems uncomfortable even for an observer who mourns its passing. For this

        Colonel is as lean
    as a compass-needle.

    He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
    a greyhound's gentle tautness;
    he seems to wince at pleasure,
    and suffocate for privacy.

His wincing at pleasure, his erect, and perhaps narrow moral rigidity ("lean / as a compass-needle") is derived from a culture growing from deeply rooted Puritan beliefs in public probity and Election, out of keeping with a pleasure-seeking and profoundly commercialized contemporary culture. He yearns to escape from history's spotlight. Understanding the value of sacrifice for a higher good, he remains inflexible in its pursuit, and this places him on the margins of contemporary culture.

    He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
    peculiar power to choose life and die—
    when he leads his black soldiers to death,
    he cannot bend his back

Dream textures weave in and out of the poem, despite its prevailingly gritty, realistic tone, and dream-logic knits the various strands. The poem's logic resembles the subtle, associational logic of dreams, with its many surrealistic images, its curious doublings and transformations. The "stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier" may be lost in a dream, as "they doze over muskets / and muse through their sideburns," but the central dream-figure is Colonel Shaw himself. When last seen:

    Colonel Shaw
    is riding on his bubble,
    he waits
    for the blessèd break.

The bubble he rides survives, with typical dream logic, from the fish tank, and from the faces of the school children who "rise like balloons." Colonel Shaw yearns to escape the vicarious simulation of life in which he is trapped, to depart a world that has a stable place for him neither in its public environs nor in its collective awareness, and to achieve the "privacy" for which he continually "suffocates." Shaw's final heroism may be the fact that he lingers still, in spite of his yearning to depart.


Carnival in Canon City, Colorado 1925

~ “Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival makes being a linguist look pretty cool—its hero Louise (Amy Adams) gets up close and personal with extraterrestrials and manages to save the entire world with her translation skills (and lives in a chic, glass-walled modernist palace all by herself). But how realistic were her methods?

Betty Birner, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University:

There are two ways of thinking about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The weaker version is linguistic relativity, which is the notion that there’s a correlation between language and worldview. “Different language communities experience reality differently.”

The stronger view is called linguistic determinism, and that’s the view that language actually determines the way you see reality, the way you perceive it. That’s a much stronger claim. At one point in the movie, the character Ian [Jeremy Renner] says, “The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that if you immerse yourself in another language, you can rewire your brain.” And that made me laugh out loud, because Whorf never said anything about rewiring your brain. But since this wasn’t the linguist speaking, it’s fine that another character is misunderstanding the Sapir-Whorf.

But the movie accepts that as true! By learning the aliens’ language, Louise completely alters her brain.

Oh yeah, the movie is clearly on board with linguistic determinism, which is funny because most linguists these days would not accept that.

So in real life, learning another language can’t suddenly alter how you perceive time?

No linguist would ever buy into the notion that the minute you understand something about this second language, get sort of a lightbulb going off, and you say, “Oh my gosh, I completely see how the speakers of Swahili view plant life now.” It’s just silly and its false. It makes for a rollicking good story, but I would never want somebody to come away from a movie like this with the notion that that’s actually a power that language can bestow.

Is there anything to the idea at all?

It was funny in this movie to see this notion of the cyclicity of time. That’s really central in Whorf’s writings, that English speakers have a linear view of time, and it’s made up in individually packaged objects, days, hours, and minutes that march along from past to future, while the Hopi have a more cyclical notion that days aren’t separate things but that “day” is something that comes and goes.

So tomorrow isn’t another day. Tomorrow is day returning. You see that concept coming from Whorf into this movie was actually kind of fun. I thought, well they got that right! They took it in a really weird direction, but ...

Someone did their homework.


Arshile Gorky: Garden in Sochi, 1948
In the movie, the experts pretty much dismiss Heptapod A on the grounds that it doesn’t match what’s being said in Heptapod B. Are you familiar with any human languages where there’s no relationship between what’s spoken and what’s written?

Well, I wouldn’t say they’re totally unrelated. What I gathered is that the written form is not encoding the sounds of the spoken form, right? And certain dialects of Chinese are like that. They have these characters and the characters stand for a word or a concept, but a Chinese character isn’t made up of individual symbols that stand for individuals sounds in the way that English does. In English, the word dog has a D and that corresponds to the sound duh. In Chinese, it’s not quite that way. Now I gather there is a phonetic aspect to Chinese, but largely Chinese uses logograms, where the symbol stands for the word. It doesn’t stand for a sound.

Logographic systems on Earth are essentially similar. The Japanese have three different writing systems. One of them, Kanji, is shared with Chinese. The spoken languages are very different. The Japanese speaker and the Chinese speaker can’t talk to each other, but they share a writing system because the writing system doesn’t actually match phonetically onto the sounds of the language.

When you think about it, it’s not that weird because we do the same thing with numerals, right? I pronounce the number 7 very differently than a French speaker—I don’t even know the word for seven in French—but if I write it down, they understand the concept.

. . . It was a nice touch that the circularity of the image mapped onto the cyclicity of their worldview. The past, the future, it’s all just one big cycle that they can see from outside. It would sort of make sense that there’s no need for word order, that there should be this holistic aspect to a sentence in such a world where there’s really no linearity to time. I thought [the filmmakers] put some real thought into making it be not just be a clone of a human language, even though, yeah, you had to give up the word-order issue.

As a linguist, you would have really liked to see the translation process in detail.
Right. In a way, she proceeded the way a linguist would proceed in doing field research. Get very basic concepts, get the person to understand that we want to get individual words. You’ll usually start with things like body parts—okay, point to your arm, what’s their word for arm—and you build up from there. And she did that.

Other governments around the world are also trying to translate the aliens’ language. One thing that really stood out to me is that they say the Chinese government is learning to communicate with the aliens by playing Mahjong. Is that even possible?

It doesn’t sound to me like anything a trained linguist would do. But it does again sit with the movie’s interest in a Whorfian perspective, because Whorf is all about How does a language categorize things? Now, I don’t know how to play Mahjong, but my understanding based on the movie is that it’s a matter of different tiles being in different categories. So if that’s true, then it fits the Whorfian perspective they’re taking, in that, the Chinese approach is to say, How do they categorize aspects of reality? Here’s one way that we categorize it.

And then of course, another major issue that Louise brings up, is that there’s a winner and a loser in Mahjong, which could be dangerous when teaching a language to a potentially threatening species.

Right. So that again is taking a sort of Whorfian view that if you’re dealing with a language that categorizes the world in terms of winners and losers, this was going to superimpose a competitive view of reality on you. That is way more deterministic than I would go, but it makes for a good movie and good linguistic discussion.

Let’s say, just hypothetically, that aliens were to land on Earth right now and that the U.S. government wanted you to go in there and communicate with them. How would you start?

Okay, the first thing that I would need to do would be to determine for sure what modality they’re using for communication: Is this primarily oral, is it primarily via sound, visual, what have you? Beyond that, I would do kind of what [Louise] did, which is establish the very basic vocabulary: This is what I’m called, what are you called? I would identify the parts of the body, try to establish if they have one unit per object, one unit per sentence, whether it’s sound or image, depending on the modality they’re using.

Even in a spoken language, there are languages in which you can encode what for me would be an entire sentence can be one word. “He likes them” can be one word in Swahili, but it’s three words for me. So I need to find out: What are their units and how large a chunk of meaning does each unit convey? And then get those basic words or units. I would try to get the basic correspondences of meanings to units, and then see if there’s an ordering difference—in English, “Kim loves Sally” is quite different from “Sally loves Kim.” So I’d have to see whether ordering makes a difference.

And then I would simply build up, and that’s the part that they sort of skipped in the movie, that slow buildup from I’m called a human to quite abstract words like weapon. That is a very abstract concept, and one wonders how they established that that is the meaning.

It turns out that the word the humans translate as “weapon” could also mean “tool” or “gift.” What did you think about the fact that the aliens came to Earth purely to give us their language?

As a linguist, I loved that the movie revolved around their giving up this gift, even though it’s only a gift on the quite silly deterministic reading where the minute you have their language, you have the ability to see the future. That just made me laugh. But it’s the logical extreme of a Whorfian worldview, right? Like, oh my goodness, by understanding their language, you suddenly have nonlinear time and can therefore see the future. But I loved that it all hinged on them giving this gift of language and hence this gift of an improved worldview.

Do you think a movie like Arrival will push people to become interested in linguistics?

I actually do, and that is a great thing. It’s funny that very early on, Ian says, “You approach language like a mathematician.” I get that from my students in the department of English a lot, because they’re people who are used to looking at themes in great literature, and then they come to linguistics and it feels very much like math to them. Because it is a science. So to see a character, a linguist, portrayed as doing something that is really fun and very much like puzzle-solving, I think that’s a plus. We need more linguists as electronic communication becomes more and more important.

Not to mention in case of alien invasion.

You know, maybe someday. ~

Cyclops, William Baziotes, 1947

~ “Like so many other revolutionary leaders—César Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua, both Eva and Juan Perón in Argentina, among others—Fidel Castro was born out of wedlock to a poor woman and her wealthy and lighter-skinned lover or attacker.

The monstrous Latin American class divide split these children in two even when, as in Fidel’s case, the father loved the washerwoman Lina Ruz—the future revolutionary’s mother—eventually married her, and favored Lina’s children over his legitimate ones. What this meant was that, although Fidel Castro grew up in comfortable circumstances, he was socially unacceptable. Fidel does not mention this directly to Frei Betto, but we know from other sources that the “good families” of Cuba always saw the brilliant, athletic, tall, and handsome Castro boy as “the bastard,” “the upstart,” the gallego’s son. He was un cualquiera—an “anybody.” What Fidel does mention several times is that because he was not baptized until he was six—probably because his parents did not get married until then—he was also known as a “Jew,” a term that was fully intended to be offensive.

Small wonder that Fidel soon developed the underdog’s obsession with honor and dignity. And also an obsession with the strategic first strike. As a child, his brother Raúl says, he picked fights constantly. And he did so again once he found politics. As a young university student he carried a gun, joined in street brawls, signed up for a failed expedition against the dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and, during a visit to Bogotá in 1949, raced to change into a borrowed police uniform in order to join the fighting when the popular leader Jorge Gaitán’s assassination set off a national revolt.

He also learned the first rule of the pugnacious: never acknowledge when you’re beaten. Although he has been defeated, knocked down, and forced to backtrack in tests of will against a broad array of enemies (particularly against his principal one, the United States), he has said so in public only rarely. More importantly, he has in fact refused to back down or acknowledge defeat in circumstances that threatened not only his survival but—as in the Cuban missile crisis—the very survival of civilized life. (It was the Soviets who backed down then, not he.) Era cuestión de dignidad, he has said over and over to explain these moments of breathtaking defiance. It is a particularly Latin American, Spanish-inspired vision of what dignity consists of and it comes out of the twinned obsessions with virility and with being condemned by the gods to the loser's fate.

Romantic this posture may be, and unreasonable, but it would be a mistake to consider it foolish. From the reasonable perspective of those with less deeply riven histories, the smart premise is that it is virtually impossible for the poor worker to win the millionaire’s daughter (a favorite Latin romantic conceit), or for Fidel Castro to overthrow the United States. Therefore, it is better not to try. But if one must reach for such a goal, the logic goes, then a gradualist and conciliatory policy is the safest option. As Fidel has shown, however, in a confrontation where the underdog’s chances are virtually nil, reasonableness may not be the best option at all. Better to tip the scales in your favor by knocking them over. Sometime the policy will have to work, and when it doesn’t, the element of dignidad provides a better aesthetic than the middle-of-the-road alternative. Who is more beautiful: the poor man who elopes with the rich man’s daughter, or the poor sucker who slaves away as an accountant under the rich man’s scorn, saving up his pennies toward a small purchase of respect? Fidel knew the answer: Socialismo o muerte!

 The heroic compulsion does not alone account for the dreamlike trance that Fidel’s exhortations in the Plaza have produced in so many Cubans for so many years. Nor is the revolt against itself that colonial capitalism seems to breed in its entrails enough to explain how socialism should have come to establish its most enduring outpost on a tropical island. (And on a tropical island which was by no means the poorest or most backward nation in Latin America when Fidel took power.) Anti-imperialist sentiment, that gelatinous explosive, had an enormous role, of course, all the more so because in Latin America, and in Cuba particularly, the most radical haters of the United States were often young men who, like Fidel, chose el gigante del norte as their honeymoon site (it was New York he took his young bride to in 1948). There is also the extreme allure of young men—Che, Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel—who have gone up to the mountains to fight for the nation and then descended again, gaunt, branded with fire and sacrifice and the glory of combat, and cloaked in victory.

Castro and Hemingway

But in the end, it is Fidel alone who accounts for Fidel, Fidel who, with his supernatural will, historic sense of moment and of mission, quick trigger finger and massive ego, has single-handedly led Cuba into its encounter with history and kept it there. Never, during the forty years of alleged plots and power plays and desperate efforts to finally be rid of him, has anyone claimed that he could substitute for Fidel or be his equal, and that is why, of course, he endures.” ~  [this was written before Fidel’s death, though “endures” can also be taken to mean historical importance.]

“Covert CIA plot to wait until Fidel Castro dies of old age successful” ~ headline in The Onion

The first, happy year with M, he said to me, “If I had to die right now, I wouldn't mind. I could just go anytime. “ I knew what he meant: life had finally granted him the fulfillment he wanted. He was so sated with happiness that he felt calm and accepting — and willing to let go of life with gratitude.

Isn’t there an expression: I feel so happy I could die? Die and not resent it, that is, because somehow what is most important has been granted to me.

Even at a very unhappy time in my youth I experienced a similar serenity and a similar perception of being ready to die, even though I was only 28. Just before my most serious surgery, I realized (an unforgettable minute when it all flowed to me) that, for all the misery I’d also experienced, life had given me great gifts and blessings. I had known great love; I didn’t know motherhood, but I didn’t resent it because now I didn’t have to worry about leaving an orphan. I had had the best of literature, art, and music; I’d seen gorgeous scenery; my Polish summers were a paradise of nature, even the time I got chased by hissing geese that nipped my shins.

I felt reconciled to the possibility of dying, even though I hadn’t yet “done” anything to speak of. That was irrelevant somehow. I felt peaceful and accepting: life had been generous to me; I didn’t feel cheated.

Occasionally this theme appears in poetry: in Keats’s “Ode to the Nightingale” Sexton’s “Starry Night,” Hölderlin’s “To the Fates.” Hölderlin says he’ll enter the world of shadows content after he’s had his fill of singing: “Once I lived as the gods; more is not needed.” Keats and Sexton want to die sated with beauty: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”; “Oh starry, starry night! This is how I want to die.”

And there is Jack Gilbert’s wonderful title: “We Have Already Lived In the Real Paradise.” It’s all in the title; more is not needed.

It’s not dying we dread, but not having lived.

 Van Gogh: Starry Night on the Rhône
The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy — it is synonymous with existence. ~ Hafiz


“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part I

So already in the 19th century we had a warning that we aren't very good at telling reality from entertainment . . . And of course what we want is entertainment.


~ “One of my biggest pet peeves about many story villains is that they walk around twisting the ends of their mustaches and declaring that they are the bad guys. In reality, most people involved in evil behavior don’t see that behavior as evil.

In a conflict, each side sees itself as good and justified and the enemy as evil. In fact, you can argue that the only real thing that differentiates a protagonist from an antagonist is that the author is taking the protagonist’s side and showing his or her justifications rather than the justifications of the antagonist.

In a conflict, the enemy is painted to seem horrible. WWII propaganda fascinates me because each side is vilifying the other. American propaganda shows a swastika-bearing boot crushing a church, or a swastika-bearing arm stabbing a dagger through the Bible. Meanwhile, the Nazis were painting Hitler as a Christ-like figure wearing a cross and bearing a sword to vanquish the evil dragons representing Germany’s enemies.

“The face of evil is no one’s face,” writes Roy Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. “It is always a false image that is imposed or projected on the opponent.” And philosopher Hannah Arendt said, “The most horrifying things about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal.”
Pure evil, argues Baumeister, is just a myth.

Psychologist Albert Bandura would probably agree. He theorized that people who do evil have justified the morality of their actions to themselves in some way. By convincing themselves their behavior is moral, these people can separate and disengage themselves from immoral behavior and its consequences.

Minimizing, distorting, or disregarding the pain one’s actions create for others certainly reduces feelings of guilt for harming others. When I was collecting propaganda to talk about stereotyping, prejudice, and hatred for my classes, I discovered Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (the goal of which is to teach tolerance). I was astonished by the number of images of slaves looking—or even saying—they were happy to be in the positions they were in.

In many cases, the propaganda identifies the happy-looking slaves mentioned with the n word. Epithets like this are used to dehumanize people who are being mistreated. As Roy Fox writes in his article Salespeak (printed in the book Common Culture: Reading and Writing about American Popular Culture, 5th ed), “Names [are] sacred: they communicate the essence of our identity, not just to others but to ourselves as well. To rob someone of her name was to appropriate her identity, to deny her existence.”

Rather than taking personal blame for evil, many people blame a larger group or organization. Over and over in history, people who have committed atrocities blame the orders they were given, and because they believe that following orders was the greater good, they feel little or no guilt for their actions.
So when you create your story villains, don't show your villain twisting his mustache ... show him arguing that his evil behavior was all for the good.” ~

 “Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism” ~ Slavoy Žižek

 ~ “Atheism can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within the harmonious whole of evolution, whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.”

“The death of Christ,” says Žižek, “is not any kind of redemption… it’s simply the disintegration of the God which guarantees the meaning of our lives.”

Oriana: I think already the Book of Job does that, showing that suffering happens for no reason -- it’s not divine punishment -- it’s not “justice” (“justice” is just a more respectable word for revenge). If Christianity is atheist, in my view it’s because there is an essential incompatibility between the OT god of vengeance (never called “father”) and Christ’s message of non-judgment and compassion.

I don’t have a Big Other (unless, to some extent, the genius of humanity; the goodness of most, the endurance). In writing I sometimes invoke that Big Other, realizing that there are endless complications and limitations. And nature is also the Big Other. But for daily use I have a Small Other -- the cognitive unconscious (not to be confused with Freud’s concept of the unconscious). I know that my “back-burner” brain is smarter than my consciousness. The smarter neural processors will communicate the answer to consciousness when that answer is ready. I call it “email from my other self.”


~ "Without Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), we probably wouldn’t be celebrating Thanksgiving today. It was due to her efforts that the holiday became an established tradition in all of the United States, reaching far beyond its origins in New England. Hale was a truly remarkable woman and doesn’t get near the credit she deserves. She had a tremendous impact on American life, and even wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb.

As the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular monthly periodical in America up until the Civil War, Hale campaigned tirelessly for the adoption of Thanksgiving as a true national holiday. Godey’s provided her with a huge platform and she used it to popularize the holiday she loved so much. While she never saw the day recognized as an official federal holiday in her lifetime, it was eventually proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln and subsequent Presidents largely due to her influence). Instead of Pilgrims, we should be decorating with pictures of Sarah Hale.

Sarah Josepha Hale never wrote a word about the Pilgrims. In her magazine Godey’s Ladies Book Hale mentions Boston and not Plymouth when writing about the history of the holiday in 1870:

    “To the Colony of Massachusetts belongs the honor of introducing this holiday, soon after the settlement of Boston, though the exact date is not known. From that Colony the observances of Thanksgiving became the custom in all New England, then advanced slowly but steadily to the Middle States and the West. This first Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania was held in the year 1843.”

Even though writers like Hale occasionally made references to a “first Thanksgiving,” the holiday did not originally commemorate any particular event in American history. It wasn’t the Puritan settlers that were important to early adopters of Thanksgiving, but the day its self. In fact, one historian couldn’t find any references to the Pilgrims in any colonial or state Thanksgiving proclamations from 1676 to 1840. That’s just how inconsequential Plymouth was though to be in early America.


For several centuries New England Thanksgiving celebrations were more like Christmas than today’s Turkey Day. Because the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas, they turned Thanksgiving into their de facto Winter Holiday. It was also the most popular holiday in that part of the country as a result. If Christmas hadn’t re-emerged in the 19th Century it’s possible that most of our Thanksgiving decorations would be a little less Autumn-like and a lot more wintry.

The events of 1621 only became the “first Thanksgiving” centuries after their occurrence, and largely because America had begun to lionize the the Pilgrims and see them as part of a broader a national origin story. It became especially popular in public schools seeking to “Americanize” recent immigrants. In a lot of ways the story its self served as a piece of American-propaganda, an attempt to teach the values of hard work, tolerance, and religious freedom.


Many people think of Thanksgiving as a harvest festival and it’s easy to see why. The decorative motifs of Thanksgiving are all rather harvesty: pumpkins, fallen leaves, corn, even the colors associated with it are all rather muted and Autumn-like. However, Thanksgiving was not always a harvest festival, and some of its origins lie outside of the farmstead.

The Pilgrims of Massachusetts were Puritans, and Puritans tended to celebrate a thanksgiving only when circumstances warranted a celebration. With that in mind the first real official Thanksgiving on the record books took place in July of 1623 after a long period without rain that threatened to kill off all the Pilgrims’ crops. By the 1660′s most of the New England colonies in North America were celebrating an annual Thanksgiving in the late Fall, though sometimes Thanksgiving wouldn’t be proclaimed until December.

The first national Thanksgiving day also took place in December. In 1777 the Continental Congress of the fledging United States of America proclaimed December 18 a day of Thanksgiving to commemorate an American victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Thanksgiving was proclaimed again in December of the following year, but was moved back to December 30, this time in honor of America’s newest ally, France. After the conclusion of the War for Independence the Continental Congress got out of the Thanksgiving business and left such celebrations to the states.

President George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789 to celebrate the adoption of the US Constitution. Six years later he would proclaim another Thanksgiving holiday, this one on February 19. Abraham Lincoln is credited with turning Thanksgiving into something of a fixed holiday, but even then there were bumps on the road. His first Thanksgiving declaration celebrated the day on April 13, 1862. The next year he issued two Thanksgiving proclamations, one in August, and one (finally) on the last Thursday of November. This would become the standard for nearly 80 years, though President (Andrew) Johnson did once move Thanksgiving to the first Thursday in December.

For several centuries Thanksgiving was celebrated by Presidential or Gubernatorial proclamation and was not an official holiday. Governors and later Presidents were expected to proclaim the last Thursday of November a Thanksgiving holiday, but they weren’t actually obligated to do so. In 1939 then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week, enraging his critics but lengthening the holiday shopping season. Two years later the holiday was officially moved to the fourth Thursday of November where it’s been ever since.

A turkey painted by the court painter Ustad Mansur, 1612, India, the Moghul period


“Dr. Donald Stein began working with traumatic brain injury patients in the early 70's. There was anecdotal evidence that women were recovering better than men. But, during the height of the feminist movement, few people wanted to look for brain differences in men and women.

But he persisted. Systematic work with rats documented the difference, but it was, as most things are, more complicated than a simple difference between male and female. Female rats' ability to heal depends on where they are in their estrus cycle: it was hormone dependent. When female rats were injured when their progesterone peaked, their recovery was much better. The highest level of progesterone present led to the fastest recovery of brain injury in these mice.

When [both male and female rats were] injected with progesterone, swelling in the brains of injured rats the brain was reduced and the males healed as well as the females. More importantly than how their brains looked, was how they healed. Cognitive impairment was markedly reduced.

In an initial study of the effects of progesterone in 100 patients, 40 percent of those given the placebo died within 30 days, compared with 13 percent who received progesterone. Not bad for an initial test. And the first major breakthrough in the treatment of traumatic brain injury in 30 years.” ~

This is a huge difference in mortality. Let us have a moment for silence for those who could have recovered if treated with progesterone, but died because they ended up in the placebo group (not blaming anyone; that’s how research works).

"And it turns out it works for all sorts of brain injuries—not just car accidents.  Surgery, strokes, and brain lesions, too,” the author of the article casually remarks.

Strokes? Progesterone has been shown to help the brain heal after a stroke, but basically it’s never used? Aren’t we talking about millions of people?

(Don’t hold your breath. There isn’t much money in progesterone, so there isn’t much interest.)

By the way, estrogens (it’s a whole family of hormones) also help in general tissue healing, but progesterone is specific for the nervous system.

And it seems that it might also shrink brain tumors.

Progesterone is regarded as the safest of all hormones. It’s the only hormone approved for use in pregnant women. It’s safe for men as well (it’s actually an androgen).

It also appears to help reduce and even eliminate symptoms of auto-immune diseases — but that’s a separate topic.


The article starts in a casual manner, two sisters talking. One of them remarks, “People treated with progesterone during the first hours after a traumatic brain injury are 1/3 as likely to die in the first 30 days. I read about it in the New York Times.” Yes, we read about such miracles once, and then never again. That’s where the issue of profitability comes in. Never mind that people suffer and die needlessly. If no one can get really rich off helping them recover, then they are out of luck.

ending on beauty:

It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You . . . You said,
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

~ Wallace Stevens, “On the Road Home”