Saturday, October 14, 2017


“Just to be here is magnificent” — oh yeah?


~ “What do we think of happiness? What do we think of defeat, and of victory? Nowadays when people talk of a happy ending, they think of it as mere pandering to the public, or they think it is a commercial device; they think it is artificial. Yet for centuries men could very sincerely believe in happiness and victory, though they felt the essential dignity of defeat. For example, when people wrote about the Golden Fleece, readers and hearers were made to feel from the beginning that the treasure would be found at the end.

Well, **nowadays if an adventure is attempted, we know that it will end in failure. When we read —  I think of an example I admire — The Aspern Papers, we know that the papers will never be found. When we read Kafka’s The Castle, we know that the man will never get inside the castle. That is to say, we cannot really believe in happiness and in success. And this may be one of the poverties of our time.** I suppose Kafka felt much the same when he wanted his books to be destroyed: he really wanted to write a happy and victorious book, and he felt that he could not do it. He might have written it, of course, but people would have felt that he was telling the truth. Not the truth of facts but the truth of his dreams.

. . . We have had two world wars, yet somehow no epic has come from them — except perhaps the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I find many epic qualities. But the book is hampered by the fact that the hero, T.E. Lawrence, is the teller, and so sometimes he has to belittle himself, has has to make himself human, he has to make himself far too believable.”

~ Jorge Luis Borges, from an essay published in The Atlantic, September 2000.


That is indeed a grand divide between the past and modernity: in the past, literature based on the hero's journey almost always ended in triumph. The quest was rewarded. Borges points out what others saw as well: modern literature is full of defeat. Dickens bowed to the wishes of the public and rewrote the first, unhappy ending of Great Expectations so as to make romantic love triumph. Nowadays we almost take it for granted that the protagonist's dream will be defeated (I used the word "protagonist" because "hero" sounds too exalted to modern sensibility).

Perhaps the chief reason is not any rise in nihilism, but rather the rise in the living standard and a drop in infant mortality. As life became less harsh, readers could endure a greater injection of reality. At some point in the 19th century, the fake happy ending of King Lear was tossed, and the original one restored.

Perhaps we've also become more “Buddhist” and realize that a dream come true is often a dream that morphs into disappointment. One acceptable ending to The Castle would have K enter, but find the castle either empty or otherwise a complete letdown.

Borges points out that the trend toward the unhappy ending s a modernist bias that impoverishes us, and that it’s possible to have authentic literature that is loyal to the truth of human dreams, and not just literature that is relentlessly loyal to the dream-shattering reality.  Perhaps we should consider a more moderate solution: there can always be a partial happy ending. Rather than persist in crippling idealism, we can settle for more modest contentment. 

Lovers, John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1880


As for happy endings in the modern world, I think we do find them, but they are not simple and unmixed, like the "happily ever afters" of fairy tales. I think we discover we have to create our own meanings and our own happiness out of the materials and experiences of our lives.

Inevitably this is difficult, full of errors and disappointments, but not impossible. Our lives are stories we tell ourselves. What is modern, I think, is that the old standard narratives of religion and tradition are no longer available, or no longer fit. So making sense of things involves a lot more creativity and a lot more searching than it may have in other times.


Perhaps we place too much emphasis on endings, happy or unhappy. After all a life is NOT a novel or a movie. It’s not even a story (in the sense of one coherent narrative), but material for many stories, depending on perspective. It’s all in the interpretation.

Above all, a novel or a movie does not need to start with the protagonist’s birth and end with his or her death. The writer can choose any other point for beginning and ending. And a great deal depends on that choice, and determines whether we’ll see the ending as happy or unhappy.

Yet endings do bias us in terms of how we perceive the narrative. If a marriage ends in a divorce, the happiness of the first year is often forgotten. Only the bad things are thought about, told, and consequently more strongly remembered. Once in a while we see the opposite phenomenon: a marriage so idealized in memory that we know it couldn’t have possibly been so perfect.

But it’s our interpretation that counts, not “facts.” Still, here we have Borges saying that modernity can be characterized by unhappy endings, i.e. we know from the start that K will never enter the castle. “The Lost City of Z” will not be found. The “cure for cancer” (or  Alzheimer’s, arthritis, schizophrenia, etc) is also beginning to look like a myth. How was it that we ever managed to land on the Moon? Because it’s not all black and white, the past all happy endings and modernity all unhappy ones. It’s more complex than that. I’d venture to say, again, that life is on the whole easier and safer now, at least in the West. Thus, we are more able to endure the kind of “entertainment” (an interesting term) that is more realistic and complex, and this includes much suffering and small, limited triumphs. And we learn to embrace this complexity, and be grateful for whatever we get — in life and in art. 


And Milosz, in telling of his life, has a strange problem: his old age was glorious, but he has to belittle his incredible privilege of sudden worldwide fame by claiming an unhappy life. First I judged him as ungracious, but then I considered the facts: he was almost 70 when he won the Nobel Prize. It could have just as easily been Zbigniew Herbert, and many thought it should have been Herbert. But the gods in Stockholm chose Milosz. What a journey — from obscurity and downright humiliation to the acme of recognition and adulation. And the creative flowering that followed was perhaps the greatest source of joy.

I say “joy” in spite of Milosz’s insistence that his life had been unhappy because I can’t imagine a glorious old age as anything but a triumph (Yeats and Robert Penn Warren are other examples). But 1) Milosz had many decades in which to form an image of himself as cursed and rejected 2) as Borges describes, our age calls for unhappy endings; K never enters the castle.

Yet there is no denying that Milosz did enter the castle. He went past the frightful guardians; he miraculously evaded even the flaming swords of the cherubim, and reached the Tree of Life. (Kafka did too, but only posthumously). Imagine what it’s like to live on for more than two decades knowing that your words will survive you. Not for ever and ever, but any literary afterlife is a miracle.

And yet the many years of thinking of himself as failed and worthless demanded that Milosz say his life had been unhappy. The loyalty to an outdated self-image is hard to break.

Now, Dickens even at the height of his fame was described as an unhappy man. We can ascribe it to the unhealed wounds of childhood and/or to his frustration with his wife, and later with his much younger mistress, who apparently did not really love him and resented the miseries of being a secret mistress. So the dream of an angelic and completely loving woman remained unfulfilled (and no wonder).

And the older Tolstoy. Let’s not even get into Tolstoy. When a marriage goes wrong, it’s just too depressing.

Milosz was no Victorian, but maybe he too felt bitter about an insufficiency of erotic fulfillment (certainly not an absence — his poems make no secret of the fact that he’d had affairs). I’m guessing. Like Dickens, the aging poet turned to a much younger woman. Yet the difference of thirty years is a barrier, a source of feeling “not at home” with one another. They each grew up in a different world, and might as well be from different planets. Milosz’s dream seems to have been a woman who grew up in the same world as he did, in a white Lithuanian manor.

And what about the woman in Vilnius that he got pregnant and abandoned, going to Warsaw —   his first exile. I don’t even want to touch that guilt.

No, it was easier to stay with the dream, beautifully put by a relative, Oscar Milosz, who became a French poet:

“It happened that sometimes I kissed in mirrors the reflection of my face; since the hands, face and tears of Annalena had caressed it, my face seemed to me divinely beautiful and as if suffused with heavenly sweetness.”

Doesn’t that sound as if written by Borges, sunk in the beatitude of his luminous blindness? Or by Poe, inventing his Lenore, just as Petrarch, centuries earlier, invented his Laura, and Dante essentially invented Beatrice? For a writer, the written life is supreme, whether it’s the “truth of a dream” or an attempt at realism (there is no realism, strictly speaking; to write is to simplify). A writer’s happiness lies in being able to write, to create until the end. By that standard — and not just because of the Nobel Prize — Milosz’s life had a fabulous happy ending.

And what is a writer’s life is not a hero’s journey? But a happy ending is by no means assured.


This just arrived via email. Literature Today is asking for submissions, and here is what they want (verbatim):

1. Escape from self.

2. Scape from society. [yes, “scape” as in “scapegoat” — perhaps the editors wanted an alliteration here]

3. Escape from native place.

4. Escape from hope.

5. Escape from negative thoughts

6  Escape from values.

7. Any other relevant topic which explores the disassociation,
displacement, and angst of contemporary life

And this is probably as affirmative as we can get: 



~ “In the 1980s, around the time of the massive deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, I was working toward my degree in clinical psychology by training at a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. One sweet, diminutive, elderly patient sometimes wandered the halls. She had been committed to the hospital after she stabbed someone in a supermarket. She was what is sometimes referred to as a revolving-door patient: She was schizophrenic and heard frightening voices in her head, and when she became psychotic enough, she would be hospitalized, stabilized on medication, and then released back to the community. There she would soon go off her medication, become psychotic, be rehospitalized, stabilized again on medication, released, etc.

At her commitment hearing, she testified that she had become extremely upset in the grocery store before repeatedly stabbing the man in front of her in the checkout line. The hearing officer, aware of her history and sympathetic to this woman with such a sweet demeanor, asked helpfully if she had been hearing voices at the time. Yes, she replied, she had. “And what were the voices telling you?” the officer inquired supportively. She explained that the voices were telling her not to hurt the man, but he had gotten in the express checkout lane with more than 10 items, and that made her so mad that she couldn’t stop herself.

In addition to being a valuable cautionary tale about grocery etiquette, the story illustrates an important truth about violence and mental health: Violence is not a product of mental illness; violence is a product of anger. When we cannot modulate anger, it will control our behavior.

Violent crimes are committed by violent people, those who do not have the skills to manage their anger. Most homicides are committed by people with a history of violence. Murderers are rarely ordinary, law-abiding citizens, and they are also rarely mentally ill. Violence is a product of compromised anger management skills.

In a summary of studies on murder and prior record of violence, Don Kates and Gary Mauser found that 80 to 90 percent of murderers had prior police records, in contrast to 15 percent of American adults overall. In a study of domestic murderers, 46 percent of the perpetrators had had a restraining order against them at some time. Family murders are preceded by prior domestic violence more than 90 percent of the time. Violent crimes are committed by people who lack the skills to modulate anger, express it constructively, and move beyond it.

Violent crimes committed by people with severe mental illnesses get a lot of attention, but such attacks are relatively rare. Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” A 2009 study by Seena Fazel found a slightly higher rate of violent crime in schizophrenics—but it was almost entirely accounted for by alcohol and drug abuse. Likewise, the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that mentally ill people who did not have a substance abuse problem were no more violent than other people in their neighborhoods.

The attribution of violent crime to people diagnosed with mental illness is increasing stigmatization of the mentally ill while virtually no effort is being made to address the much broader cultural problem of anger management. This broader problem encompasses not just mass murders but violence toward children and spouses, rape, road rage, assault, and violent robberies. We are a culture awash in anger.

Anger disorders are a product of long-term anger mismanagement. They are a pathological misdirection of normal aggressive feelings. Anger is, at its essence, a part of the basic biological reaction to danger, the fight or flight response. The physiological shift makes us stop thinking and mobilize for immediate action, as though our life depends on it. It is a primitive response, and very powerful. Anger prepares us to stand our ground and fight. It helped our ancestors survive, but in today’s complex technological world, it is often more hindrance than help. The angrier you feel, the less clearly you can think, and therefore the less able you are to negotiate, take a new perspective, or effectively handle a provocation.

The violence that is a part of anger disorders is fueled by chronic repressed rage that has found no socially acceptable outlet. It is fostered by families in which adults behave in violent, intimidating ways or in which anger is tightly repressed. In either situation there is no appropriate model for the safe or constructive expression of anger.

The truth is, anger management skills are simple techniques that can and should be taught to children and adolescents. We should not wait to teach these skills until verbally or physically violent behavior has become habitual and, often, life-threatening.

The skills involve balancing the initial fight-or-flight response, governed by the sympathetic nervous system, with its opposite, the parasympathetic nervous system, which permits reasoning to take over again. It’s simple, but it requires a significant amount of practice. There are many techniques that can be taught to achieve this end: deliberate shifting from emotional to more objective thinking, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques, communication and listening skills, and identifying warning cues before anger boils over.

Mindfulness can reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. It has been used with success in populations as diverse as cardiac patients, prison inmates, police officers, and children. It incorporates deep breathing, heightened attention to one’s internal state, and the acceptance of internal discomfort. One can observe one’s own thoughts without identifying with them and acting on them.

Dialectical behavior therapy, a kind of cognitive therapy developed by the psychologist Marsha Linehan, was designed to meet the needs of extremely emotional, volatile individuals and has been used successfully over the past 25 years. It incorporates mindfulness skills and also teaches distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness.

Uncontrolled anger has become our No. 1 mental health issue. Though we have the understanding and the skills to treat the anger epidemic in this country, as a culture, we have been unwilling to accept the violence problem as one that belongs to each and every one of us. We have sought scapegoats in minority cultures, racial groups, and now the mentally ill. When we are ready to accept that the demon is within us all, we can begin to treat the cycle of anger and suffering.


Thinking about the violence in our society, and anger management — it seems to me the problem is almost completely with male anger, whether driven by testosterone or cultural allowances and expectations for male behavior. However, I think there is an essential problem with thinking anger management can successfully reshape the violent expression of anger in our world. In order for any therapy, or any program of management to succeed, the subject has to want it to succeed, has to see their angry behavior as a problem they want to solve. My experience with angry and violent men has never found them eager or willing to give up their anger, or their violent behavior. To them, it is righteous, like the wrath of God, and full of an exultation, a powerful rush of pleasure. They may go to anger management classes if compelled, but they don't truly see their anger or their violent behavior as wrong, or something they want to give up. I have seen this intimately in terms of domestic violence. The perpetrator feels it is his right to be angry, and to impose that anger on the world, most commonly on the women and children closest to him. It is they who have provoked him, they who caused his angry acts, calling violence down on themselves. If anyone's guilty, it isn't him, it's his victims. This may seem a convoluted justification, but I think it's quite common.


I completely agree with you: violent men don’t want to give up their anger. The emotion gives them a feeling of power. It is so loud and macho: the male rage in full display. And of course it’s the victim’s fault —she provoked the anger. 

Cultural permission obviously plays a role, e.g. the recent empowerment of the Nazis and KKK by Trump, war-mongering etc. Also: the Islamic countries having gone backwards as radical fanatics gained power, and now they the women especially are suffering. The good part is that we can see it’s not strictly biological. As primatologists showed, even with baboons it’s not strictly biology: remove the bullies, and the troop develops a different culture, cooperative rather than competitive and aggressive.

Once I posted an article on how expressing anger through aggressive behavior (be it just verbal) only intensifies the anger — it doesn’t harmlessly “let off the steam.” One man got quite upset and ranted on and on about how unhealthy it is not to express anger. You could tell that he felt entitled to expressing anger, no matter the consequences, because after all only he counted — and supposedly his mental health depended on this “release.”

Unfortunately the recent studies on the ravages of anger and aggression can’t seem to overcome the earlier view that it is indeed “unhealthy” to try to calm down, say, rather than scream and rage (or worse). And recently we have had a huge setback, in the form of a president who empowers this ugly, entitled anger.

And since the problem is in part biological, it will always be with us. At best we can hope to ameliorate it through non-violent child rearing, non-violent communication and role models. And  right away I can hear a chorus of sarcastic: “Good luck with that!” But slowly, slowly . . . 

Picasso's portrait of his mother, 1896 — before Picasso became Picasso. Interesting to ponder that in another era he'd have been a fine conventional painter.


Interesting details here, e.g. the crew included pardoned convicts.

~ “On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus boarded his Spanish ship and sailed west. He had no idea where he was headed, and he almost gave up. In his Diario, on Wednesday, 10 October, he wrote:

“Here the men could no longer stand it; they complained of the long voyage.”

A day later, they saw floating sticks and canes and planks; then, 2 hours after midnight on the 12th, they discovered a New World, and its inhabitants. Columbus made these notes:

“All of them go around as naked as their mothers bore them,” and,
“They are all very well formed, with handsome bodies and good faces,” and,
“They should be good and intelligent servants.” ~


SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH: “After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom.”

~ “Recently she published Second-Hand Time, which reads as a requiem for the Soviet era. It chronicles the shock and the existential void that characterized the 1990s after the Soviet Union disintegrated, and helps explain the appeal of Putin’s promises to bring pride back to a wounded, post-imperial nation.

‘Nobody thought the Soviet Union would collapse, it was a shock for everyone,” she says. Everyone had to adapt to a new and painful reality as the rules, behavioral codes and everyday language of the Soviet experience dissolved almost overnight. Taken together, Alexievich’s books remain perhaps the single most impressive document of the late Soviet Union and its aftermath. Alexievich became a harsh critic of Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of newly independent Belarus. She left the country “as a protest”, and spent 11 years living in exile in various European countries, returning only a few years ago. “When you’re on the barricades, all you can see is a target, not a human, which is what a writer should see. From the point of view of art, the butcher and the victim are equal as people. You need to see the people.”

In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.” ~


~ “Alexievich’s fourth book, published in 1989, was about the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), the disaster that perhaps more than anything brought down the Soviet Union. At first the Soviet press was silent about the presence of the Red Army in Afghanistan, then portraying the mission as one of keeping peace rather than supporting a particular (and doomed) regime. In an age of television, the typical Soviet press image was of a soldier planting a tree.

Alexievich once again sought out veterans and the women, the young soldiers and their mothers. The result was a masterpiece of reportage, probably her best book, in which the problems (what we might now call post-traumatic stress) of the young men emerge through the words of their mothers as well as their own, and then the typical experiences slowly emerge through the individual memories. The book was published in English as Zinky Boys, which is awkward; the “zinc” is a reference to the coffins of soldiers.

For Alexievich, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not a radical new beginning, since, she seemed to be saying, the present cannot move into the past when the normal process of considering the past has been disrupted. When official nostalgia has filled the space needed for individual reconsideration, change can be literally fatal. Alexievich’s next book was about people of her parents’ generation, often heroes of the Second World War II, who committed suicide in the 1990s.

In her work there is no redemption from catastrophe because it is behind us and within us. The search for bits of the authentic past is individual and dangerous and disruptive, but there is nothing else to be done.

Alexievich is sometimes compared to Ryszard Kapuściński, the great Polish international journalist. But unlike him she resists the charms of constructing appealing characters from composites. She has no characters; only voices.

Alexievich had no trouble explaining to westerners, far more quickly than they themselves could usually grasp, that Russia had in fact invaded Ukraine. She also very quickly explained that the fault lay not with one man but with the experiences of Soviet generations, now reworked for new wars. When she listed the fake descriptions of events in Ukraine in the Russian media, she spoke of Russian society as a “collective Putin.” As she put it, “Putin placed his bet on the basest instincts and won. Even if he disappeared tomorrow, we would remain as we are.” ~

 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, May 2008
“Marx’s bourgeois sorcerer descends from Goethe’s Faust, of course, but also from another literary figure who haunted the imagination of his generation: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These mythical figures, striving to expand human powers through science and rationality, unleash demonic powers that erupt irrationally, beyond human control, with horrifying results.” ~ Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism

Marx as Prometheus, engraving


This question is often asked: What separates humans from animals? Anthropologists, however, would rather ask—and answer—what separates humans from earlier humans?

About 50,000 years ago, homo sapiens developed the capacities for “innovation, planning depth, and abstract and symbolic thought,” as a study published in Current Anthropology earlier this month puts it. In academia, this moment in human evolution is referred to as the shift toward “behavioral modernity.” Until recently, not much was known about why our species veered toward more sophisticated sensibilities.

A group of anthropologists and biologists at Duke University had a theory: It’s because our skulls changed shape. This would have led to, as their study argues, a “change in average human temperament toward a less aggressive, more socially tolerant individual.”

To test their hypothesis, the team measured more than 1,400 skulls—1,367 modern ones from 30 ethnicities; 41 from between 10,000 and 38,000 years ago; and 13 ancient ones from more than 80,000 years ago—paying special attention to the brow ridge, face shape, and endocranial volume. “The study was motivated,” the researchers say, “by us trying to find a biological explanation—with evidence—of what could explain the huge explosion of culture around 50,000 years ago.”

After taking stock of their painstaking measurements, the researchers were surprised by how well their data supported their hypothesis. They found that there had indeed been a structural change in the human cranium—specifically, our brow ridges shrunk and the upper parts of our faces got shorter. It happened in the late Pleistocene era, and the shift indicated a lowered level of testosterone acting on the skeleton.

The researchers think that sexual selection could have been what feminized our skulls. “Facial masculinity appears to be an honest signal of behavioral tendencies,” the authors explain in the paper, and “as population density and social complexity increased, females may have preferred males with more feminized faces that signal a greater propensity to invest in parenting effort.”

“Although our results don't really pertain to populations of humans living today,” the researchers say, “it's important to note that the potently biggest leap forward in human technology was likely accomplished through advances in cooperation, not intelligence.”

Leonardo da Vinci, drawings of a skull


I wonder if sexual selection was the central factor — or simply the likelihood that groups with the highest degree of cooperation (and, perhaps by chance, with the least bullying males, and thus less stress and more healthy females and young) survived better and reproduced more. And why 50,000 years ago? Did a special environmental pressure emerge just then?

At the same time, it IS interesting that the most attractive men seem to possess a mix of masculine and feminine traits. Painters typically gave Jesus — and I'm sure they wanted to present him as beautiful — a rather feminine face. Angels, likewise icons of idealized beauty,  also tend to have feminine faces (there are no bearded angels). 



~ “Researchers at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz, Germany said last month that – by studying a type of worm called C. elegans – they’ve made a breakthrough in understanding why humans age. They call the aging process a quirk of evolution. Their work involves identification of the genes belonging to a process called autophagy – from Greek words auto meaning self and phagy meaning devouring – a normal physiological process related to the destruction of damaged cells in the body, which, these researchers explained:

    … promote[s] health and fitness in young worms but drive[s] the process of aging later in life.

Thus these researchers have provided what they say is “some of the first clear evidence” for how the aging process arises as a quirk of evolution.

And they say their findings may also have broader implications for the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease where autophagy is implicated. The researchers show that by promoting longevity through shutting down autophagy in old worms there is a strong improvement in neuronal and subsequent whole body health.” ~

ending on beauty:

Remember what it was to carry your load? Your you. That
weight. Wondrous it was. At intervals light-struck. 

Silence and then the
cutting of water, sleeping audible, 

thrown about by breath, keeping a sharp lookout —

~ Jorie Graham, Exchange

Saturday, October 7, 2017


 “Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky” ~ Kahlil Gibran


The ferryman is counting up his fares
as blood congeals and stains and spills and clots.
It’s cash or coin. No cards. No thoughts and prayers.

A mother tears her clothes, a boy despairs.
Their vigils litter cities lit with dots.
The ferryman is trembling, counting fares.

He’s had to buy new oars, to make repairs,
stays up nights counting bullets, mopping spots
of blood off of his deck: the thoughts and prayers

just one more thing needs sweeping, extra cares
tossed on his shoulders already in knots.
A better boatman wouldn’t bear such cares.

I have my work, and up there, they have theirs,
he tells himself, but jumps when he hears shots.
So many. He can’t stand to count the fares.
He navigates a river red with prayers.

~ Katie Bickham, Rattle, 10-5-17 — Poets Respond

Charon Crossing the River Styx; Joachim Patenier (d. 1524)

I admire the way the poem updates the myth in the light of the latest news. I especially love the last line.


~ 'Phuong,' I said — which means Phoenix, but nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from its ashes. I knew before she had time to tell me that she was waiting for Pyle too. 'He isn't here.’
~ 'Is he in the mortuary?' I asked Vigot.

'How did you know he was dead?' It was a foolish policeman's question, unworthy of the man who read Pascal, unworthy also of the man who so strangely loved his wife. You cannot love without intuition. ~ Graham Greene


Graham’s big quarrel was with “innocence.” It’s the innocents (and he regarded Americans as notoriously innocent), he claimed, who end up causing all kinds of damage. He wrote: “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

My other favorite quotations by Graham Greene:

“Reality in our century is not something to be faced.”

 “Human nature is not black and white, but black and grey.”

“In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”

Times Square 1958; Pete Turner


And this quotation sounds like Graham Greene, though actually it was William Burroughs who said it:

“There is a basic incompatibility between any organization and freedom of thought. Suppose Newton had founded a Church of Newtonian Physics and refused to show his formula to anyone who doubted the tenets of Newtonian Physics?”  ~ William S. Burroughs, 1970

The basic incompatibility between any organization and freedom of thought was also something that Graham Greene discovered re: the attitude of Catholic church toward his writing (though the rejection was not unanimous, and fortunately it's been a long time since the era of burning "heretics" at the stake).

William Burroughs. I love the image, not just “that face” but also the way the photographer chose the Exit sign.


~ “Vice-president Biden recalled in a speech the other day how, during his meeting with Putin in the latter's Kremlin office, he told Putin: “Mr. President, I’m looking in your eyes and you have no soul” — and Putin seemed to have taken that as somewhat of a compliment, by responding, “We understand one another.” ~ M. Iossel

~ which reminds me of Graham Greene’s “Reality in our century is not something to be faced.” 

This Biden-Putin exchange took place in 2014. Was it just me, or did it get pretty much zero attention back then? The American vice-president says to Putin, "You have no soul," and this gets ignored? (It's obviously Pope Francis in this photo, and not Biden, but I thought the contrast between the two faces merited posting.


~ “GRIEVANCE COLLECTING is a step on the journey to a full-blown paranoid psychosis. A grievance collector will move from the passive assumption of deprivation and low expectancy common to most paranoid personalities to a more aggressive mode. He will not endure passively his deprived state; he will occupy himself with accumulating evidence of his misfortunes and locating the sources. Grievance collectors are distrustful and provocative, convinced that they are always taken advantage of and given less than their fair share.” ~ Willard Gaylin, Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence (shared by Haley)

Murderers often see themselves as victims who want “justice” and are administering justice.  


1- Men in the United States are chronically lonely.

Boys in the United States — just like all human beings — need touch, caring, warmth, empathy, and close relationships. But as we grow up, most of us lose those essential components of our humanity.

What’s worse: we have no idea how to ask for those things, or admit we need them, because we’re afraid it will make us look weak.

As a man, you might be thinking, “Not me, I’ve got drinking buddies. I play poker with the guys. I’ve got friends.”

But do you have confidants? Do you have male friends who you can actually be vulnerable with? Do you have friends whom you can confide in, be 100% yourself around, that you can hug without saying “No homo,” without feeling tense or uncomfortable while you’re doing it?

For many men, the answer is “no.” So, we spend our time posturing instead.

From an early age, we have an unhealthy ideal of masculinity that we try to live up to. Part of that ideal tells us that Real men do everything on their own. Real men don’t cry. Real men express anger through violence.

The byproduct is isolation. Most men spend the majority of their adult lives without deeper friendships, or any real sense of community. Not to mention a complete inability to release anger or sadness in a healthy way.

Simon Sinek echoed similar insights on Glenn Beck’s show:

    “We’re seeing a rise of loneliness and isolation. No one kills themselves when they’re hungry; we kill ourselves when we’re lonely. And we act out, as well.

    In the 1960’s, there was one school shooting.

    In the 1980’s, there were 27.

    In the 1990’s, there were 58.

    In the past decade, there have been over 120.

    It has nothing to do with guns, it has to do with people feeling lonely.

    How do we combat the loneliness that kids are feeling? All of them attacked people in their own community, and all of them attack people they blamed for their own loneliness.”

This loneliness compounds as men grow older.

Without deeper friendships or a strong sense of community, the isolation is soul-deadening and maddening. You are alone.

Any slight from someone you care about can feel emotionally traumatizing. After enough rejections and feeling like an outcast, you begin to believe that people are just cruel and not worth the effort. You perceive people as threats.

And the effects on our health are devastating. Here is Dr. Dean Ornish, the founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, on the effects of loneliness:

    “I am not aware of any other factor — not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery — that has a greater impact on our incidence of illness, and [chance of] premature death.”

Before we ask, “How could he do such a thing?” we have to understand how that person felt on a daily basis, and how those feelings grew over the years.

2- Men in the United States are deprived of play opportunities.

You might be offended by this suggestion.

How could this guy talk about play after a shooting?! Play is for kids!


Homo sapiens play more than any other species. It’s impossible to prevent a human from playing. We play shortly after we are born, and the healthiest (and least stressed) humans tend to play for their entire lives.

Play may be God’s greatest gift to mankind. It’s how we form friendships, and learn skills, and master difficult things that help us survive. Play is a release valve for stress, and an outlet for creativity. Play brings us music, comedy, dance, and everything we value.

Above all, play is how we bond with each other — it’s how we communicate “I am safe to be around, I am not a threat.” Play is how we form connections with other humans.

The irony is that loneliness would not be a problem if we all got ample time to play. Not only would we have deeper friendships, we’d also have better relationships with ourselves. Play allows us to enjoy our own company.

There is a strong correlation with play deprivation and mental illness.

When you deprive mammals of play, it leads to chronic depression. When you deprive a human child of play, their mental and emotional health deteriorate. Play suppression has enormous health consequences.

“But the Vegas shooter loved to gamble! He went on cruises!”

That’s not the type of play I’m talking about.

To better understand this dynamic, we need to look at the background of another mass shooter.

In 1966, Charles Whitman shot his wife and mother. Then, he climbed up the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, and shot 46 people. In total, he murdered 16 people. At the time, this was the biggest mass shooting of its kind in United States history.

Dr. Stuart Brown and his team of researchers were commissioned to find out what “The Texas Sniper” had in common with other mass murderers.

They gained a key insight when they examined their childhoods.

Brown recalls:

    “None of them engaged in healthy rough-and-tumble play. The linkages that lead to Charles Whitman perpetrating this crime was an unbelievable suppression of play behavior throughout his life by a very overbearing, very disturbed father.

Healthy and joyful play must be had in order to thrive. Boys need to wrestle with their dads, and they need to roughhouse with other boys. Parents and teachers need to play with their kids.

But more importantly, they need to encourage those kids to go out and play. And then, let them be.

In an effort to improve our kids’ test scores and beef up their future resumes, we’ve stripped away nearly all of their free play opportunities. Recess has been sacrificed in the name of Scantrons, and pills are prescribed to the kids whose bodies and minds cry out for play.

The result: A generation of the most anxious, depressed, and suicidal American children on record.

This is in alignment with Dr. Peter Gray’s research, who studied the epidemic of mental illness and the decline in play:

    “Over the past half century, in the United States and other developed nations, children’s free play with other children has declined sharply. Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents, and young adults… The decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people.

This is why I believe mental illness may be the biggest health crisis of our lifetimes. Because those kids will grow up into isolated adults who don’t know how to play, or seek out their friends when they are lonely. They have no emotional support.

They are alone.

In the most memorable chapter of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the author describes the research of James Gilligan, a young psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s.

Gilligan was invited to make sense of the Massachusetts’s prisons and mental hospitals, where he interviewed murderous inmates. He included in his notebook this heartbreaking observation:

    “They would all say that they themselves had died before they started killing other people… They felt dead inside. They had no capacity for feelings. No emotional feelings. Or even physical feelings.

    Universal among the violent criminals was the fact that they were keeping a secret. A central secret. And that secret was that they felt ashamed— deeply ashamed, chronically ashamed, acutely ashamed.

    I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed or humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”

ALL OF US will face difficult times in our lives where we will experience shame, humiliation, disrespect, and ridicule.

Do you know what gets us through those hard times?

Friendship: The love and support you get, from the people you play with.


These factors about mass shooters are often true:

    They are deeply lonely. They have no significant friendships to rely on, and very few quality people to confide in.

    They experienced ongoing play deprivation. Their innate ability was crippled, and they struggle to maintain a healthy emotional connection with themselves and others.

    They are deeply ashamed. They experienced extreme ridicule, rejection, or humiliation.

Are there other factors at play here?

Absolutely. Mass shootings are complex, and so are people. They don’t fit perfectly into our narratives.

Do the above three factors always lead to murderous behavior?

Of course not. But over time, they destroy an individual’s emotional health. And that’s the point.

We’ve created a culture where the first two factors — loneliness and play deprivation — affect everyone. And because friendship struggles to take root in this environment, we are more likely to be struck by the third factor — shame.

Even though we’re in the safest period in the history of civilization, these shootings will keep happening in America. They happen every single day. Guns are a part of the problem, and so is the media. But there is a bigger problem:

We are a culture that continually neglects the emotional health of our boys, and our men.


I wouldn’t know about the benefits of “rough-and-tumble” play, but the benefits of classes in music, dance, art, creative writing, and crafts have been shown again and again. We know that children and teens (both boys and girls) who take such classes (a kind of “creative play”) do better in school and become better-adjusted adults.

But I also wonder if the article is accurate in its presentation of men. We also know that there is a significant “happiness gap” between men and women: men are generally happier and more satisfied with their lives. Women are much more more likely to suffer from depression and have a lower self-esteem. Does the culture really support the emotional health of girls and women?

Or is it more a matter of biology? As everyone knows, men are vastly more prone to rage and violence. Add to this easy access to guns.


~ in 2015 Don DeLillo addressed the [epidemic of mass shootings] during a conversation with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman:

~ “This is World War III. It’s a fact. It’s everywhere. Innocent people are being slaughtered everywhere. It’s terrorism that is expanding…almost geometrically. What’s left? What happens next? We have our lone shooters, our individual terrorists. Where do they come from? What motivates them? I think in many cases the gun is the motive as well as the weapon itself. A gun makes it possible for an individual, a man—a young man, usually—to make sense of everything that’s happening to him, either in three dimensions or in his mind. It gives him a motive. It gives him a sense of direction. It’s a substitute for real life and it’s the way he will choose to end his life, as well as the life of innocent people, of course.

DeLillo published Libra, which explored the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald, a man with whom DeLillo became borderline obsessed, and whom he spoke about at length with Treisman. Oswald is an antecedent to the lone gunmen of today, but, again, one thing lies at the heart of the matter.

“I think many of these young men have the same sense [as Oswald] of being nowhere. We have to mention the fact of imitation. Are they doing it because other people did it? Did other people give them the idea to do it? What is in such a man’s life that allows this? It’s an outlet, perhaps, for his anger, for his fear, for his disappointment, for the fact that he hasn’t quite figured out who he is. The gun. It’s the gun. This is what gives him the idea. Does he buy the guy because he wants to shoot somebody, because he wants to kill 12 innocent people? Or does the gun exist to begin with? I would like to imagine that in most cases it’s the latter. He has the gun because he’s an American, and he’s allowed to buy a gun. It’s the gun that is the motive. This is crucial. If he didn’t have it, what would he think? What would he do to find that kind of disastrous satisfaction? He wouldn’t know what to do. He wouldn’t start punching people, would he? He has to have the gun. That’s in the middle of it all.”


Oswald immediately struck me as a scrawny, non-macho kind of man. Yes, he probably felt he was a failure. But Stephen Paddock, though hardly a hunk, was quite rich, which counts more than looks as “success.” And since wealth means power, did he really need the substitute power of guns? The gun itself as a motive makes no sense unless it represents power to someone who otherwise feels powerless. A janitor who collects assault weapons makes a certain sense in terms of compensation. But why would a multimillionaire collect them?

Obviously no one has offered any convincing answers that could explain every lone shooter. That would be like having an answer for every suicide, while in fact the WHY? persists as long as the memory of the act lives in the minds of those who were close to the person who killed himself. There is no rational explanation for an irrational act.

As so often in life, we are left with scraps and fragments. Somehow that person failed to find a way to figure out a way to make a positive contribution, to find a way to enjoy life that would also be of service to others.

Suicide is said to be a private act, but I see as a social act: aggression not only against the self, but also against others. Always. Sometimes in a minor way, since only a small number of people will be affected; at other times, there is the desperate desire to go out in a blaze of mayhem.

And there remains the question of why the gun culture flourishes here and not, say, in Canada. We’re dealing with the complexities of social pathology interacting with individual pathology. During the Middle Ages and beyond, practically every man carried a weapon of some sort, be it a gentleman’s sword or a peasant’s proverbial knife hidden in a boot. Death by violence was common. Then slowly, slowly, civilization began to prevail. Despite the impression we get from the news, death by violence is now more rare than at any other time in the history of humanity. Let’s hope this remains so.

(A shameless digression: Though in the past I was extremely familiar with the impulse to commit suicide, the fact remains that I always failed even to attempt it. I have just now come across at a quotation from Milton that seems relevant. The devil Belial rejects the idea of extinction: “for who would lose, / Though full of pain, this intellectual being, / Those thoughts that wander through eternity.” Yes, the amazing adventure of having a mind, even 

if the thoughts are painful.)

  Belial and His Followers, a woodcarving, 1473


Not only boys — all children in our society have been denied freedom and free play. And most of this has happened in a generation. My mother was considered extremely overprotective, and yet we had much more freedom than most children today. We spent most of our time outside and unsupervised, and could move freely in the neighborhood, or take long walks, as long as we were home for meals and bedtime. We played the usual games,or made up our own, nothing was organized or supervised by adults. Now children have  pre-arranged  play dates instead of free play, and their time is heavily scheduled with organized activities. Adults are always present and in charge, or at least supervising. This has not only changed childhood but also the roles of adults, who can now be charged with neglect if, for instance, they allow their children to walk to the park alone.

Is this a reaction to the dangers of child predators, or the intense competition to create an impressive "resumé" for children headed to college? Perhaps, but the result is the child's loss of independence,  creativity, self determination, and joy.


Americans love their guns. Maybe it's because the cultural myth of the  Wild West persists, and has grown bigger than its actual place in history, or because a gun in the hand is an enormously powerful advantage in any confrontation. It seems many men, at least most I know, find argument and confrontation enjoyable, a sort of pastime or sport. Everything becomes a power struggle, an arena, a place to win or lose. Think of aggressive drivers and road rage. I don't know how much of this is biological and how much is cultural, but it is always there, a game of scoring points and gaining dominance, pervasive in ways that shape our lives.

And we have a culture of violence. Not only the mythos of the cowboy and the aggressive conquest of the West, but the stories and images we produce and consume are fantasies of violence and aggression. Listen to the sound track of TV dramas, or action movies. You will hear long, repetitive passages of gunfire and explosions, interspersed with the more intimate sounds of physical struggle — fists slamming into flesh, grunts and cries of pain and anger. It goes on and on, again and again — and nobody seems to get bored, or find it at all ridiculous. These are the images we see, the stories we hear, and they shape not only our sense of reality, but reality itself.


So true about the over scheduled children and, worse, about the gun culture and the cowboy as the cultural model. Europe has long had the aristocratic model — the gentleman. It may have become eroded at this point — there have been outcries about the “proletarianization of the culture” — but the cowboy remains an American phenomenon.

That’s not to say that male aggression are dominance games are confined to the US. The hormonal factors are here to stay (though aggressiveness is affected by culture). It’s only that the fixation on the gun makes it so much more dangerous and lethal.

You are so right about the “soundtrack of violence.” We badly need models of affection and cooperation, of soft speech and non-aggressive conflict resolution. 


Just a note on the “combat sports”— primarily football. It is statistically proven there is marked increase in domestic violence on game days.


Well, there goes the “catharsis” theory. It makes sense that exposure to aggression would increase the tendency to express aggression — you’re activating those very brain regions.


“BEHIND EVERY MAN NOW ALIVE STAND THIRTY GHOSTS, for that is the number by which the dead outnumber the living,” wrote Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968.

~ That number no longer is accurate: The Population Bureau estimates that around 107 billion people have lived on earth to date, and there are close to 7 billion human beings currently alive -- which means that behind each of us alive today stand fifteen ghosts.

A ghost is a soul (no? well, then, what is it?), and a soul weighs 21 grams, according to (eminently Google-able) Doctor Duncan "Om" McDougall. Thus, the total weight of all the ghosts standing behind our backs is 224.7 million kilos, which would seem like a fairly heave load, but when distributed equanimously between us, amounts to the mere 315 grams of ghost weight per single living person, or a little over 10 oz, or 63 nickels.

63 nickels: not a bad title for a short-story about something perhaps mundanely realistic, like divorce or competitive eating.

63 nickels weighs our individual allotment of ghost matter — the extra load we all carry through our lives." ~ M. Iossel


It feels enlarging to think of one's ancestors going back thousands of years. We owe them gratitude. I feel a certain tenderness imagining “behind me” a child or a bewildered young bride. And yes, just through laws of probability, there may have been someone famous. Regardless, they all contributed to the slow progress of the world. They too are history, even if scantily recorded, or not at all. We owe them gratitude. And I feel particularly grateful to those who survived the Middle Ages — I'm astonished humanity made it at all!

This connects with the larger principle: no person is just an isolated individual, but also humanity. Not just “part of humanity”: — we are in a way a summation up to this point. And every person who doesn't give up, doesn't commit suicide when adulthood hits and life gets tough — that ordinary brave person contributes in a myriad unknown ways. We are the  descendants of survivors.

Near Georgia O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch

~ “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” ~ Richard Dawkins, “Unweaving the Rainbow”

“Hiersein ist herrlich.” = Just to be here is magnificent. ~ Rilke, 9th Duino Elegy


“Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure —these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what it is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." ~ Steve Jobs

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I have encountered to help make the big choices in life.” ~ Steve Jobs

 Van Gogh: Spent sunflower heads, 1887
~ “EARNESTITIZE: To declare whatever BS with gravitas and earnestness that lulls people into deference.

Pence is a master earnestitizer — among masters, the entire GOP bench.

No one seems more lulled by ernestitizing than the GOP voters these days. In this, they took over league championship from the new-agers who 20 years ago you could fool with any malarky, sufficiently earnestitized.

The point is this. There is absolutely nothing a con can't make sound earnest and profound, especially whatever BS the con's mark is already inclined to believe.

To un-sucker ourselves we have to recognize that earnestness is a complete undicator. It indicates nothing.

Truer things can be said lightly.
Falser things can be said heavily.” 

~ Jeremy Sherman

Oriana: Preachers and certain PR and sales people are also master earnestitizers.

and more from Jeremy — how to defend yrself against accusation such as “You’re being judgmental.”


~ “Go through every pejorative, every term or phrase that has negative connotations implying an insult if it were used to describe you. I think you’ll find that they all denote (describe) universal natural human traits, as universal as having toes, fingers, eyes, mouths.

So if everyone has these universal traits, how does having it become a supposed mark against you? By people treating the universal trait as a rare pathology when they disagree with how it’s applied to the situation at hand.

You’re being judgmental.

Indeed I am, like you, like anyone. We all make judgments. The question here is whether I’m misjudging.

You’re being negative.

Of course, I am, like you, like anyone. The more positive you about something, the more negative you are about its opposite. The question here is whether I’m being negative appropriately for the situation.

You’re being defensive.

Of course, I am, like you, like anyone. The only question here is whether I’m defending appropriately in this situation.

You shouldn’t call people names.

Of course I should, like you, like everyone. We all call names, including positive ones, like you’re a wise person, or she’s an angel. The question here is whether I’m name-calling appropriately.

Sounds like you have some anger and hate.

Of course I do, like you, like everyone. The question here is whether I’m angry and hating appropriately.

Using this response technique is not just a matter of mouthing a snappier response. It’s shifting your attitude about morality. The pejoratives (being judgmental, being negative, being biased, name calling, etc.), imply that a universal human trait is universally bad. One should never judge, be negative, be biased, name call, etc.

That’s as ridiculous as deciding that since mouths are sometimes used inappropriately, we should all have our mouths surgically removed.
Blake: Job’s friends rebuke him


~ “Studio 360” host Kurt Andersen tells us that America has featured magical thinking and nutty impulses for centuries. Thanks to our mix of religiosity and Enlightenment values — plus the do-your-own-thing vibe of the 1960s and the super-powered distribution channel known as the Internet — Americans have developed a “promiscuous devotion to the untrue,” Andersen writes. In “Fantasyland,” he chronicles those he considers purveyors of secular and religious pipe dreams, from Cotton Mather to P.T. Barnum, from Walt Disney to Oprah Winfrey. And, of course, from Donald Trump the real estate huckster to Donald Trump the commander in chief.

“Fantasyland” reads like the work of an author who comes up with a catchy idea and then Dumpster-dives his way through history for anything supporting it. The Salem witch trials, the Gold Rush, Scientology, Civil War reenactors, the tech bubble — all are evidence of Fantasyland, a place where reality and make-believe are blurred and exploitable. It’s all quite clever, but if ever a 462-page book felt fleeting, this is it. Andersen rushes through so much, and it’s not always clear why. Hip-hop rates a random paragraph; so does the pill. Some variant on the word “fantasy” appears on virtually every page, just in case we didn’t get it. And the author’s contempt for people of faith grates. From the Puritans on out, almost any religiously inclined community resides in “Fantasyland,” save American Jews, whom he considers “religiously reasonable,” and American Catholics, whom he finds at least “more reality-based than Protestants.”

The story concludes, inexorably, with the American president. “Donald Trump is a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis,” Andersen writes, describing Trump’s personal reality as “a patchwork of knowing falsehoods and sincerely believed fantasies.” Still, Trump gets some credit for keeping a firm grasp on the nation’s unhinging. “Trump waited to run for president until he sensed that a critical mass of Americans had decided politics were all a show and a sham,” Andersen explains.

At that point, Trump fit right in.


Catholics more reality-based than Protestants? Well, a smaller percentage of Catholics believe that the world is about to end, with Second Coming by 2050 at the latest (41% of Americans hold that belief, according to a Pew Survey). The Catholic church has wisely downplayed the Apocalypse, perhaps discerning the truth of the ironic insight of Alfred Loisy, a Catholic priest and theologian who said, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church” (“Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c'est l'Église qui est venue”: Loisy 1902).

Loisy thus showed remarkable common sense so lacking among apocalyptic Fundamentalists. Religiosity and Enlightenment don’t really mix — and yet it does seem a fact that America is a strange mix of the two.

(A shameless digression about Loisy: among his other “heretical” opinions was the view that early Israel worshipped the god El, the plural being Elohim; Yahweh became the tribal god, and then the sole god, only later.) 

If you really believe this, then concerns such as clean energy or investing in the infrastructure become irrelevant. Hurricanes? Caused by gay marriage. Mass shootings? Caused by gay marriage and disrespect for Trump.


An advertisement from 1875 touted this fence as “The Greatest Discovery of the Age,” patented by J. F. Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois. John Warne Gates described it more poetically: “Lighter than air, stronger than whiskey, cheaper than dust.”

We simply call it barbed wire.

To call barbed wire the greatest discovery of the age might seem hyperbolic, even making allowances for the fact that Alexander Graham Bell was about to be awarded a patent for the telephone. But while we think of the telephone as transformative, barbed wire wreaked huge changes on the American West and much more quickly.

Joseph Glidden’s design for barbed wire wasn’t the first, but it was the best. Glidden’s design is the same as the barbed wire you can see today. The wicked barb is twisted around a strand of smooth wire; then a second strand of smooth wire is twisted together with the first to stop the barbs from sliding around.

Farmers snapped it up. Why? In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Homestead Act. It specified that any citizen — including women and freed slaves — could lay claim to up to 160 acres of land in America’s western territories. All they had to do was build a home there and work the land for five years. The idea was that the Homestead Act would improve the land and improve the citizenry, creating free and virtuous hardworking landowners with a strong stake in the future of the nation.

 Settlers needed fences, not least to keep those free-​­roaming cattle from trampling their crops. There wasn’t much wood and certainly not enough to fence what was often called the “Great American Desert.” Farmers tried growing thornbush hedges, but these were slow-​­growing and inflexible. Smooth-wire fences didn’t work either — the cattle pushed through them.

The US Department of Agriculture conducted a study in 1870 and concluded that until farmers could find fencing that worked, it would be impossible to settle the American West. The West, in turn, seethed with potential solutions: at the time, it was the source of more proposals for new fencing technologies than the rest of the world put together.

The idea that emerged from this intellectual ferment was barbed wire. It changed what the Homestead Act could not. Until it was developed, private ownership of prairie land wasn’t common because it wasn’t feasible.

While barbed wire spread because it solved one of the biggest problems settlers faced, it also sparked ferocious disagreements. The homesteading farmers were often trying to stake out property on the territory of Native American tribes. And 25 years after the Homestead Act came the Dawes Act, which forcibly assigned land to Native American families and gave the rest to white farmers. Philosopher Olivier Razac comments that the Dawes Act “helped destroy the foundations of Indian society.” No wonder these tribes called barbed wire “the devil’s rope.”

Old-​­time cowboys also lived by the principle that cattle could graze freely across the plains — the law of the open range — and they hated the wire. Cattle got nasty wounds and infections from running into it. When blizzards came, the cows would try to head south; sometimes they got stuck against the wire and died in the thousands. And while the attraction of the barbed wire was that it could enforce legal boundaries, many fences were illegal, too — attempts to commandeer common land for private purposes.

When barbed-​­wire fences went up across the West, fights broke out. In the “fence-​­cutting wars,” masked gangs with names like the Blue Devils and the Javelinas cut the wires and left death threats warning fence owners not to rebuild. There were shoot-​­outs, even a few deaths. Eventually, authorities clamped down. The fence-​­cutting wars ended, and the barbed wire remained.

“It makes me sick,” said one trail driver in 1883, “when I think of onions and Irish potatoes growing where mustang ponies should be exercising and where four-​­year-​­old steers should be getting ripe for market.” And if the cowboys were outraged, the Native Americans suffered far worse.

These ferocious arguments reflected an old philosophical debate. The 17th-​­century English philosopher John Locke — a great influence on America’s Founding Fathers — puzzled over the problem of how anybody might legally own land. Once upon a time, nobody owned anything; land was a gift of nature or of God. But Locke’s world was full of privately owned land, whether the owner was the King or a simple yeoman. How had it become privately owned? Was it the result of a guy with a bunch of goons grabbing what he could?

If so, all civilization was built on violent theft. That wasn’t a welcome conclusion to Locke or his wealthy patrons. He argued that we all own our own labor. So if you mix your labor with the land that nature provides — for instance, by plowing the soil — then you’ve blended something you own with something that nobody owns. By working the land, he said, you’ve come to own it.

This wasn’t a purely theoretical argument. Locke was actively engaged in the debate over Europe’s colonization of America. Political scientist Barbara Arneil, an expert on Locke, writes, “The question, ‘How was private property created by the first men?’ is for … Locke the same question as, ‘Who has just title to appropriate the lands of America now?’” Locke also made the claim that the land in the new world was unclaimed — that is, because the indigenous tribes hadn’t “improved” the land, they had no right to it.

Not every European philosopher agreed. Jean-​­Jacques Rousseau, an 18th-​­century French philosopher, protested the evils of enclosure. In his “Discourse on Inequality” he lamented, “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him.” This man, said Rousseau, “was the real founder of civil society.”

Rousseau did not intend that as a compliment. But it’s true that modern economies are built on private property — on the legal fact that most things have an owner, usually a person or a corporation. Modern economies are also built on the idea that private property is good, because it gives people an incentive to invest in what they own, whether that’s a patch of land in the American Midwest, an apartment in India, or even a piece of intellectual property such as the rights to Mickey Mouse. It’s a powerful argument, and it was ruthlessly deployed by those who wanted to claim that Native Americans didn’t have a right to their territory because they weren’t actively developing it.

However, legal facts are abstract. To get the benefits of owning something, you have to be able to assert control over it. Until barbed wire was developed, Western settlers had legal rights over their land but no way of exerting practical control.

The barbed-​­wire barons — Bet‐A‐Million Gates, Joseph Glidden, and others — became rich. The year that Glidden secured his barbed-wire patent, 32 miles of wire were produced. Six years later, in 1880, the factory in DeKalb turned out 263,000 miles of wire, enough to circle the world ten times over.


~ "After just nine weeks of internet-delivered cognitive behavioral therapy, the brain of patients suffering from social anxiety disorder changes in volume. Anxiety is reduced, and parts of the patients' brains decrease in both volume and activity. This study could help us develop more effective therapies for one of the most common problems in mental health.

The researchers found that in patients with Social Anxiety Disorder, brain volume and activity in the amygdala decrease as a result of online cognitive-behavioral therapy. The results are presented in Translational Psychiatry, a Nature publication.

“The greater the improvement we saw in the patients, the smaller the size of their amygdalae. The study also suggests that the reduction in volume drives the reduction in brain activity,” says doctoral student Kristoffer NT Månsson, who led the study together with Linköping colleague Gerhard Andersson and researchers from the Karolinska Institutet, Uppsala University, Umeå University and Stockholm University." ~


Reduce the stress, and changes in the brain follow. And supportive words, words that lead to greater clarity (which usually means less fear and a stronger sense of being able to cope), can certainly reduce stress.

The Keltic tree of life mandala. Such images were unavailable to me when I was growing up. Only now I realize how limited was the art, religion, and the overall "culture" that I even knew existed. There's been such a tremendous cultural expansion.

ending on beauty:

How many peaks are you west of Tzuke
in your thatched hut this snowy night beside those tiger tracks
if I knew where you were in that distant darkness
I would follow your evening bell all the way up the mountain

~ Wei Yung-wu, trans. Bill Porter