Saturday, March 10, 2018


tourmaline slice, Brazil

How dare you come home from your factory
Of autumns, your slaughterhouse, weathered
And incurious, with your hair bound
Loosely, not making use
Of every single part of the horse
That was given to you. What of his hooves.
His mane. His heart his gait his cello tail
His joy in finding apples fallen
As he builds his coat for winter every year.

~ Lucie Brock-Broido, “Contributor’s Note”

We have just lost Lucie Brock-Broido. She wasn’t quite 62. An unusual and wildly imaginative poet, on the Gothic side and not especially a favorite of mine, but her Master Letters (loosely based on Dickinson’s correspondence with Higginson) and a handful of lyrics stand out. Together with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, she’ll be remembered as someone who who’s given us much beauty, and whom we lost too soon.

In this poem (what I quote here is an excerpt) the speaker mockingly berates herself for not making use in her work of every bit of life experience. But the portion I quote will always be “Horse” in my mind. It works better for me at the literal level. The horse doesn’t experience anguish over the meaning of his life. He rejoices in finding fallen apples.

“His cello tail” — wow. Horsehair is used for making the bows of string instruments. Thank horses next time you listen to a string quartet. But the image of the cello enters here too, the size and beauty of the instrument, and the wonderfully mellow sound is produces.

But the beginning is dark, making us remember the usual fate of old horses, and how we, enterprising humans, try to make use of every single part of the animal. (The Nazis come to mind, with their ideas of how to make soap, stuffed sofas, lampshades . . . )

But this is all extended metaphor, the poet wants us to know. It’s a reproach to herself for not making a fuller use of her life experiences in her poems.

How dare you come home from your factory
Of autumns, your slaughterhouse
. . . not making use
Of every single part of the horse
That was given to you. What of his hooves.
His mane. His heart his gait his cello tail
His joy in finding apples fallen
As he builds his coat for winter every year.

There is here a reproach about how we treat animals, but it’s not the gist of the poem. Ultimately we are the ones who age (“the factory of autumns”) and who feel that life is short and we mustn’t waste it.

I say that to make any use of one’s experiences at all is already quite an accomplishment. I don’t think I’ve made use of more than 10% of mine — at least when it comes to writing. And even that is overwhelming, blocking me with abundance whenever I try to choose a small sample. The great lesson I’ve learned is to think small. “We manage best when we manage small” ~ Linda Gregg (I know I keep quoting this — hardly any other piece of life wisdom has been as useful).

On the other hand, it could be argued that a lot of our experience — our whole life, in a way — goes into what we write, even if the actual narrative reflects only a tiny part of what we’ve lived through (or heard, or read about). The whole of what our mind has become influences even the shortest pieces we create. Rilke believed that nothing is wasted, not even that which on the conscious level we’ve forgotten. Somehow it will be passed on — not necessarily through writing, but in countless other ways. We touch the lives of others, an astounding privilege.

But then perhaps finding joy in fallen apples is enough. Nothing is wasted — or everything is wasted. It doesn’t matter as long as the apples taste good.

And what a work of beauty a horse is, or any animal. What luck if an animal approaches you, trusts you, lets you stroke that winter coat. Animals make us happy more reliably than fellow humans do. Maybe it’s not about “use”, but happiness of mere existence — which is like saying “mere miracle.”

My thanks to Charles for providing this image 

~ “The story told by Rappaport to Hogarth includes terrifying scenes of a street execution taking place in the yard of the prison, in his hometown, in 1942. Rapaport spent a couple of hours lined up against the wall waiting his turn before the unexpected arrival of a film crew saved his life. During this time he witnesses a grotesque scene where a Jewish man tries to persuade Germans that he too is German, only he is saying this in Yiddish, a scene which to Rappaport, in his current state of mind, appears to be infinitely funny. Then awaiting his turn in front of the firing squad, he decides to turn his thoughts to reincarnation.

Only many years later, in a private letter to his American translator Michael Kandel from 1972, did Lem for the first time admit that Rappaport’s story told by Hogarth is in fact his own.

In another of Lem’s classics The Star Diaries (The Eleventh Voyage), we find Ijon Tichy arrive on a planet ruled by revolting robots which, it seems, learned to be violent from people and are now engaging in terrifying behavior. The story climaxes in a macabre scene reminiscent of a selection in extermination camps performed on human children by robots wielding axes.

As Gajewska argues, the fragment stylized in Baroque-like language uses the ironic distance to undermine the possible associations with the historical events of the Holocaust. As such, this horrifying and grotesque depiction of the Holocaust is unparalleled in Polish literature. The story continues to reveal the true reason behind the robots’ erratic behavior (the robots are in fact people dressed as robots) and ends with a bitterly ironic conclusion: ‘It's comforting to know when you think about it, that only man can be a bastard.’

Agnieszka Gajewska explores these traces of Lem’s wartime experiences through categories of witness and survivor, themes familiar in Holocaust studies. The motifs related with Lem’s wartime experiences are not reduced to scenes of wartime violence but encompass such aspects as wartime displacement which Gajewska finds echoes of in Lem’s narratives and characters, like protagonists who at times seem like refugees traveling through distant galaxies. ‘One gets a feeling like they don’t have a place to go back to,’ argues Gajewska.

As Gajewska reconstructs Lem’s train of thought, such people are not able to identify with the funeral processions gathered over ditches full of human flesh described in The Plague simply because in Camus' world people attending funerals have time to despair and grieve. At the same time, Lem weighs in critically on his own approach which he recognizes as ‘barbaric’. He understands that artistic work is not capable of endlessly repeating the phrase ‘man-made soap from humans.’ At the same time, he emphasizes, for an artist, the importance of experiencing within oneself what he calls a sense of ‘complete doubt in man,’ an experience which has penetrated our present reality and electrified the air not only in the ‘Bloodlands’ – an experience which according to Lem, Camus was missing.” ~


Lem wasn't the only one who preferred not to speak directly about the horror he'd been through. Some survivors (of concentration camps, for instance) chose to stay silent. Or they'd speak about some experiences, then come to a point when they'd say, "I can't speak about it." It could be just too much. Growing up, it was my impression that the most common strategy was selective telling. Seeing an incident as funny, remembering some black humor, was another frequent tactic.

Milosz also mentions a survivor’s fantasy (or call it “magical thinking”) that everything is restored to the way it was before. The people who were too young to die are alive again, walking and talking. Beautiful buildings destroyed by bombs and fires and standing again. Part of Milosz’s religious conversion (fragile as it was) was the idea that god had the power to resurrect and recreate.

I remember that in one of Lem’s stories a planet was subject to frequent hits by meteors (bombing raids?). The inhabitants adjusted to this having underground factories that created replicas of anyone killed — ideally the replicant wouldn’t even be aware that he’d been annihilated. Likewise the rebuilding of structures was done with amazing speed. Like much of Lem’s work, the story is told by a visitor who shows an almost scientific detachment, and is permeated with absurdist humor. Now that I'm aware of the writer’s background, I am not surprised that the story seemed so particularly vivid to me, and that I remember it after so many decades. My having grown up among the survivors of bombing raids explains a lot.

“My past has disappeared,” Lem remarks in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. His past was murdered, deported, annexed away — his very survival seemingly random, owing to a chance arrival of a German film crew just as he was about to be shot in a mass execution. How does one cope with such memories? I don’t have to reach very far: my own father provided an excellent example. The answer is: black humor and selective telling. Very selective. Mostly silence.


“Man does not create gods, in spite of appearances. The times, the age, impose them on him.” ~ Stanislaw Lem


Neither do we choose the central themes of our life, or what we write about. In fact it’s a little strange that until the book by Gajewska no one questioned the origins of Lem’s darkness, or a title like Gruppenführer Louis XVI.

Dominique Signoret: Symmetriad


Again you provide a feast of ideas and questions! The poem by Lucie Brock-Broido and the discussion of Stanislaw Lem both ask what does the writer do with all his life experience, how is it done, and what is our responsibility to that experience as writers. Each life is so rich, experience so inexhaustible, it can never be “used up” — and most will use only a fraction of that in their work, and yet, nothing will be wasted. Each created object comes from the totality of its author’s life experience, in all the particulars unique to that history and that sensibility — no one else and no other time or place could have produced it. So the poem/novel/painting is like a hologram, replete with all the experience and information that made it both possible and necessary, for that artist, with that history, in that time and that place.

Lem also presents the problem of experience and memories so horrific, so evil, they can not be comprehended in any ordinary way; they seem to belong to a nightmare world, a world beyond reason, outside the boundaries of human possibility. This experience can stun us into silence, and, as noted, for many who endured it, silence became their response, a defense against the horror of memory. The suggestion that he reproduces the story of the holocaust in his science fiction demonstrates one way of processing such experience — holding it off at arm’s length, and creating a fable that shows all the evils occurring — but at a safe distance, in another time, another world.


“Each created object comes from the totality of its author’s life experience, in all the particulars unique to that history and that sensibility — no one else and no other time or place could have produced it. So the poem/novel/painting is like a hologram, replete with all the experience and information that made it both possible and necessary, for that artist, with that history, in that time and that place.” Exactly, exactly. We are so unique that it can be a source of pain — at times we long for a  mental twin, a perfect confidant who understands all we’ve been through. But we alone have been through the experiences of our life.

Excellent remarks about Lem. Turning to a popular American writer, knowing that Kurt Vonnegut had survived the bombing of Dresden is one of the keys to understanding the darkness that keeps turning up his novels — note again the affinity for science fiction and absurdist humor. The novels, those brilliant “fantasies,” were created by men who knew they were alive thanks to sheer luck. Talk about understanding randomness and God the Utterly Indifferent . . . 

Stanislaw Lem, 1966

~ “Why does the ipso facto all-knowing God, for whom future holds no mysteries and by whom the nature and the sheer relative length of every human being's destiny is predetermined in advance, still, as per the endless strands of biblical narratives, gets angry at and disappointed with people, feels the need to punish them for their flaws and weaknesses, for their sinful acts and dire moral transgressions? Why would someone who predetermines humans' actions feel angered or, in rarer instances, pleased when the humans proceed to act in their exact predetermined ways?

And why does Jesus, knowing in advance everything that is going to happen to him at the end of his earthly incarnation, still behave in uncertain ways that would seem to presuppose the opposite?

Because, I would suggest, the Bible is a narrative, and one created by and for the humans. And God as its main protagonist also is a narrative. In order to be understandable to people, God must react in ways people can relate to. Limitless determinism is not something we the humans are capable of wrapping our minds around. We cannot comprehend anything which does not have a beginning or an end, and neither are we capable of grasping the fullness of God’s putative eternal knowing.

NOT-knowing — that's what drives and gives meaning to our lives. And so, the Bible — which, again, was a book written by ordinary human beings, mere mortal men, must feature as its primary hero — God — someone who is effectively a human being, only one possessed of limitless (and therefore, incomprehensible) power over other humans.

If you behave well, if you lead a sinless life, if you fear and obey God, you're going to go to heaven, which would be cool. And if not — well, hell…

But God already knows, and has known from the very outset of your existence, whether you're going to be a good person or not, a pious man or a sinner, a saint or a monster, in the final balance of your existence — God has already predetermined your character and your path through life for you! Why the pretense then, whence the ambiguity?

Because the book is a work of literature and God is a literary character — and as such, God must be relatable to people. That which cannot be comprehended by human beings cannot be expressed in human language. An all-knowing, all-powerful character is as good as a non-existent one. Thus, the God of the Bible cannot be the God described in the Bible. An all-knowing, all-powerful literary protagonist cannot exist, and therefore cannot be presented to people.
All-knowing God is sitting in some small room on the outskirts of the universe, checking His/Her smartphone messages . . . whereof there are none, of course because what's the point of writing someone who knows what you're going to write even before you start thinking of what to say? Where there is no Not-knowing, there is no point in knowing.” 

~ Mikhail Iossel

Note how glum Yahweh looks in this painting. Power doesn't make us happy — productive work and being loved make us happy. And who can really love the kind of god whose true power is based in the fear of hell?


Mikhail isn't of course the first one to write about god as a literary character. Jack Miles is best known for his best-selling God: A Biography (1996). Scholars such as Richard Elliott Friedman (a theist) have pointed to the evolution in the character of god from the early to the late books of the Hebrew Bible — he becomes less active, visible and vocal and more and more removed and abstract (also less cruel — unless we regard his decision to “hide his face” a species of cruelty). Trying to span all three Abrahamic religions, Robert Wright traced the Evolution of God (2009) — which recalls Nietzsche's admonition not to argue about the existence of god, since it's enough to trace the evolution of the concept.

But Iossel may be the first one to explicitly address the issue of omniscience. An omniscient narrator is of course a common device, but an omniscient character doesn’t work — it’s not knowing that creates the dramatic tension that literature needs. Now, all "sacred scriptures" were written in the so-called “Empire Era” — the era era of absolute kings and warlords — super-dictators with no checks on their power. It didn't take all that much imagination to come up with a "king of kings" in the sky. You could say it was a natural development, a parallel to the earthly hierarchies. But in order to have stories about this Supreme Being, Misha points out, we can't have him omniscient. The bible is literature, and to work as literature (or think simply "story") means you have to have uncertainty, so you can have dramatic tension.

Note the wonderful image at the end: god in a small room at the outskirts of the universe, checking his iPhone for messages
except there aren't any. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevski imagined eternity as a country bathhouse, with dried-up spiders in the corners. Iossel's final paragraph modernizes that, bringing us up to the 21st century. After all, we always insert what we know even into what seem like far-out fantasies. Those who wrote the bible were no different.

~ “My mother was paralyzed from the waist down the last 5 years of her life. She couldn't go any place without a lot of pain. But she loved to sit on her back porch and look at the little plot of grass back there. When she had a massive stroke and couldn't move at all or even talk, I asked her if she still wanted to live. She couldn't speak or move her head but she made it clear she did want to live. I think it was Dostoevsky who said that even a square foot of space could be enough to keep one wanting to live.” ~ John Guzlowski


I remember how Dostoyevski wondered about a prisoner chained to the wall — what kept him alive. He concluded that it was the knowledge that after four years the prisoner would be “off the chain” and able to walk a certain short distance — longer than just the four feet he was able to move while chained.

In a more common context, I’ve often wondered if I’d have the will to live if a stroke (say) deprived me of the ability to write. I lean to the view that as long as I could look at the world, that would be enough. There is so much beauty even in ordinary things.

Saying “yes to life” is pretty automatic — unless one is deeply depressed. It’s saying “yes to death” that takes some difficult mental processing. Eventually it somehow happens. There came a point at which I realized that I am less bothered by mortality than I was in my youth. Simultaneously, I also knew that I was no longer bothered by the ultimate meaninglessness of my existence (“ultimate” is the critical word here; in the immediate sense I am intensely grateful to my readers and anyone whose life I manage to touch in a positive way). Nor am I any more disturbed by the thought that I’ll be forgotten soon after I'm gone.

I confided to a fellow poet that I’ve arrived at a point that the thought of long-term meaninglessness and being quickly forgotten no longer bother me. “That’s a hard-earned attitude,” he responded. Yes, exactly. Though it seems that this simply happened, without any agonized thinking, I know that I did much agonized thinking in my youth — much clinging to desperate hope and ambition. 

Interesting: when longer-term meaninglessness and the prospect of being quickly forgotten ceased to bother me, enjoying life became quite important. Small pleasures became almost sacred. Watering my plants — a holy ritual (more meaningful, too, than anything done in church).

But let’s not forget that brain function changes with aging. Just the different levels of neurotransmitters predict the proverbial “mellowing.” And the more we “mellow,” the more we can pay attention to a patch of grass, the way it lights up in the afternoon sun.

~ “Conservatives react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do, [according to multiple studies]. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals. And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course). But no one had ever turned conservatives into liberals.

Until we did.

In a new study to appear in a forthcoming issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, my colleagues Jaime Napier, Julie Huang and Andy Vonasch and I asked 300 U.S. residents in an online survey their opinions on several contemporary issues such as gay rights, abortion, feminism and immigration, as well as social change in general. The group was two-thirds female, about three-quarters white, with an average age of 35. Thirty-percent of the participants self-identified as Republican, and the rest as Democrat.

But before they answered the survey questions, we had them engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm.

If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.

But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.

In both instances, we had manipulated a deeper underlying reason for political attitudes, the strength of the basic motivation of safety and survival. The boiling water of our social and political attitudes, it seems, can be turned up or down by changing how physically safe we feel.

This is why it makes sense that liberal politicians intuitively portray danger as manageable — recall FDR’s famous Great Depression era reassurance of “nothing to fear but fear itself,” echoed decades later in Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address — and why President Trump and other Republican politicians are instead likely to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and immigration, relying on fear as a motivator to gain votes.

In fact, anti-immigration attitudes are also linked directly to the underlying basic drive for physical safety. Arch-conservative leaders have often referred to scapegoated minority groups as “germs” or “bacteria” that seek to invade and destroy their country from within. President Trump is an acknowledged germaphobe, and he has a penchant for describing people — not only immigrants but political opponents and former Miss Universe contestants — as “disgusting.”

“Immigrants are like viruses” is a powerful metaphor, because in comparing immigrants entering a country to germs entering a human body, it speaks directly to our powerful innate motivation to avoid contamination and disease. Until very recently in human history, not only did we not have antibiotics, we did not even know how infections occurred or diseases transmitted, and cuts and open wounds were quite dangerous. (In the American Civil War, for example, 60 out of every 1,000 soldiers died not by bullets or bayonets, but by infections.)

Therefore, we reasoned, making people feel safer about a dangerous flu virus should serve to calm their fears about immigrants — and making them feel more threatened by the flu virus should cause them to be more against immigration than they were before. In a 2011 study, my colleagues and I showed just that. First, we reminded our nationwide sample of liberals and conservatives about the threat of the flu virus (during the H1N1 epidemic), and then measured their attitudes toward immigration. Afterward we simply asked them if they’d already gotten their flu shot or not. It turned out that those who had not gotten a flu shot (feeling threatened) expressed more negative attitudes toward immigration, while those who had received the vaccination (feeling safe) had more positive attitudes about immigration.

“Immigrants are like viruses” is a powerful metaphor, because in comparing immigrants entering a country to germs entering a human body, it speaks directly to our powerful innate motivation to avoid contamination and disease. Until very recently in human history, not only did we not have antibiotics, we did not even know how infections occurred or diseases transmitted, and cuts and open wounds were quite dangerous. (In the American Civil War, for example, 60 out of every 1,000 soldiers died not by bullets or bayonets, but by infections.)

Therefore, we reasoned, making people feel safer about a dangerous flu virus should serve to calm their fears about immigrants — and making them feel more threatened by the flu virus should cause them to be more against immigration than they were before. In a 2011 study, my colleagues and I showed just that. First, we reminded our nationwide sample of liberals and conservatives about the threat of the flu virus (during the H1N1 epidemic), and then measured their attitudes toward immigration. Afterward we simply asked them if they’d already gotten their flu shot or not. It turned out that those who had not gotten a flu shot (feeling threatened) expressed more negative attitudes toward immigration, while those who had received the vaccination (feeling safe) had more positive attitudes about immigration.

All of us believe that our social and political attitudes are based on good reasons and reflect our important values. But we also need to recognize how much they can be influenced subconsciously by our most basic, powerful motivations for safety and survival. Politicians on both sides of the aisle know this already and attempt to manipulate our votes and party allegiances by appealing to these potent feelings of fear and of safety.

Instead of allowing our strings to be pulled so easily by others, we can become more conscious of what drives us and work harder to base our opinions on factual knowledge about the issues, including information from outside our media echo chambers. Yes, our views can harden given the right environment, but our work shows that they are actually easier to change than we might think.” ~

John Bargh is a professor of social psychology at Yale University and the author of “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do”


Interesting. It’s by now almost common knowledge that people tend to express more conservative views when they feel less safe. Oddly, no one has suggested that conservatives could voice more liberal opinions when they feel safer than before. It seems pretty obvious now that someone has demonstrated this effect. 

“Nobody is so strong to make it on their own, just as nobody is so weak that they can’t be of help.” ~ Anonymous


I wonder if we will arrive at the simple conclusion that what makes us stronger is not having suffered, but having received love — and hopefully continuing to receive it.

The “macho” I-don’t-need-love attitude seems to go with hyper-individualism and conservatism. It’s certain men who have the fantasy of going to Alaska (or another place that embodies harsh wilderness) and living off the land in what they imagine is a totally self-sufficient way. After all, people are evil. Government is evil. Women are evil.


What organizes people into sustained political factions like left versus right? Supposedly our opposing answers to some fundamental question, but what is that question?

At core, it’s tight versus loose, constraint versus freedom. Conservative versus liberal vaguely represents this distinction, conservative implying constraint, liberal implying freedom.

Can one do without the other? Not really. Sure, we all want freedom but most of us recognize that one person’s freedom can easily become another person’s constraint. On a dance floor, one guy flailing freely constrains other people into smaller spaces. We experience constraint, or social order as security. What we really want is security and freedom in the right mix, and unless we’re sociopaths or narcissists we recognize that we need to balance our security and freedom with other people’s security and freedom.

In our personal lives, we experience the tension between constraint and freedom. Our quest for personal liberty is not a quest to fall apart unconstrained but for the liberty to choose our own constraints. We want the autonomy by which we can choose how to discipline our own lives, choosing what’s on our own to-do lists, but also what to constrain off our to-do lists. To be deliberate about anything, we de-liberate ourselves, protecting against distractions.

We find that same distinction in our social lives. We want freedom of association, not because we want to interact with everyone but for selective interaction, freedom to set our own constraints. We want the autonomy to choose our friends and choose the people we keep at bay, freedom of association but also freedom of dissociation, the ability to walk away or protect ourselves from those we think will be toxic influences.

Politics has always been a tense negotiation over constraint vs. freedom, a safety net to keep each of us together and trampoline to bounce each of us as high as our life freely permits. We are willing to sacrifice some autonomy or freedom for some safety even though it constrains us.

The tension is built right into the name of our nation. “United states” is an oxymoron. Which are we, a “union,” a constraining marriage for better or worse, or loose and free individual states? Both, of course, and in tension, at multiple hierarchical scales from individuals to families, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, the whole country and the whole world.

There’s little hope that we could ever reorganize the parties to represent cleanly this distinction, for example, the left always advocating for freedom and the right always advocating for constraint. If we could, maybe they would recognize how much they depend upon each other, or maybe they would just bicker as they currently do as though their hyperbolic half-answers were the whole answer.

Libertarians pretend that more freedom always solves everything. Social conservatives argue as though constraint solves everything. They don’t mean it.

Remembering that what we’re all really negotiating the right balance of constraint and freedom, security and liberty, may make us more receptive to negotiation, and smarter negotiators too, not taken in by hyperbolic half-truths about the one true way.


Reading articles by Jeremy Sherman is an excellent antidote against the “hyperbolic half-truths about the one true way.” No one wants excess constraint. But excess freedom would in the end mean less freedom for most, and possibly dangerous chaos (imagine no traffic laws).

Jeremy keeps pointing out that absolutes don’t work in the real world. We can’t have it all. We need to keep asking what works in a particular situation, and not once and for all, under all circumstances.

“Political ideology is another source of faith-based hobby high horses similar to religion and spirituality, and often linked to it, just variations on the know-it-all fantasy fad.

Samantha Bee made this point, comparing the NRA to Scientology. I think she's right with implications for all sorts of fads, from the Alt-Right to Eckart Tolle, from absolute conservativism to absolute tolerance, from Libertarianism to Communism. Same swagger of authority; different flavors. 

It's not what you claim to believe but how you clutch and strut it.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Canterbury Cathedral


Canterbury, close-up of the statues of kings


~ “Of course we need the concept of hell. Do you really think that someone who murders someone should get away with it? If there is no hell, then they’re never going to get punished if they don’t get caught, and even if they do get caught, they may not get punished enough. Is that justice?”

It’s an amazingly vindictive attitude that we have here in the United States. Many Americans don’t really seem to care if the prisoners will get better. They care about whether the prisoners are punished.

The response I usually give to that common Christian argument is that, for most Christians, what you DO doesn’t really matter. What matters is what you BELIEVE. In the world of Christianity, you can be a Jeffrey Dahmer or even a Ted Bundy . . . and if you ask God for forgiveness before you die, you’ll spend eternity in bliss.

Why? Because the most awesome person who ever existed got punished instead. Right. OK. And you’re lecturing me on justice? What kind of justice is that? Honestly? That’s outrageous. I mean, if you start out saying hell is necessary for justice and then turn around and say that your own moral system depends on an innocent man suffering for the very worst evils of the worst people in history so they could go to eternity in heaven…um, you’re a bit off, to put it mildly.

Instead of thinking that prisoners deserve whatever punishment they get, and anything they don’t get is undue grace, maybe we can think about the importance of deterring certain crimes, so that the focus is more on prevention than on punishment. Doing so may require turning away from a conservative Christian thinking that sin deserves infinite punishment and anything less than that is grace. It may require us to forget about punishment and the murky concept of what people deserve and think about deterrence. How can we effectively deter crime — not punish criminals.

The justice of hell is not interested in deterrence as much as punishment — if we do away with punishment and try to focus on deterrence, we may find that — surprise — we actually have less crime, especially if we see that prisons and detention centers that we currently have are conditions that encourage crime. And trying to deter crime will also make us concerned about how prisoners are treated, perhaps — not as if they are being punished, so much as if we actually want them to go out and succeed in society.

People may say, “But that will cost money!” Yes. Yes it will. But prisons are pretty expensive. I mean, they’re so expensive that the state of Utah has found it less expensive to give the homeless housing and a caseworker than to put homeless people in jail (note that Utah was the only one of the top ten religious states that wasn’t high on the incarceration rate list). The average prison cost per inmate is about $31, 000 a year — for often terrible conditions. Imagine spending that money helping the people, instead, getting on their feet?

Getting there [to helping instead of punishing] will require us to get rid of the concept that people deserve eternal punishment for any wrong they do, and that anything less than that is grace from the justice system; getting rid of the concept that it is just to punish retributively instead of seeing if a kinder, more respectful approach that recognizes dignity in those who break the law, especially if the latter approach is more effective at reducing harm inside and outside prisons; and being critical of those who enforce the law — making sure they are making society better for all involved instead of seeing those who do wrong as “choosing” whatever fate they assign them.

And that starts with pulling out of the American psyche the linchpin that so many are taught from childhood, especially in states in which the incarceration rate is highest — the concept of the Christian hell. We need to stop believing it, stop preaching it, and stop teaching it to the next generation. It’s not the last step, but it seems a needed first step for us to stop incarcerating America.” ~


Clinging to the need for punishment, for sinners/criminals getting what they "deserve," is part of the same set of needs for safety and survival that is the backbone of conservatism. And all of these originate in the structure of the patriarchic family, reflecting the child's dependence on, and fear of, the powerful Father. The father keeps us safe, punishes and protects. Vengeance and justice are his prerogatives and his duties.

Of course this kind of primitive and childish thinking is inaccurate and inadequate. The idea of "deserving" reward and punishment, heaven and hell,  salvation and damnation, is part of the same idea that wants to insist on "fairness." It all falls apart when you realize there is no all-powerful father out there to mete out reward and punishment. Realizing there is no ‘fairness" — that no one is looking out to ensure all get what they “deserve” — can be a hard and bitter pill to swallow.

I am reminded of an incident in my childhood, when my father was giving a few of us 'a good licking' for some misbehavior, and one of my sisters,  not involved in our misbehavior, came into the room, and got the same beating we did. She complained her innocence, and our father said, "well, that's for the next time." Of course when the next time came, that was forgotten. She felt, and still feels, the 'injustice ' of getting one more beating than she "deserved."

None of these childish and primitive ideas serve us well.


Perfectly said — and thank you for sharing the story of your sister who is still haunted by that one more beating than she “deserved.” How easily we are brainwashed as children, how quickly convinced that we are “bad” and “deserve” punishment. The church, the government, the school, the family — what collaboration in this regard. Sometimes I wonder how we humans ever escape  all this insane cruelty. At some point we need to receive enough nurturing, enough affection to insure survival — perhaps sufficient early affection immunizes us to some degree.

One theory of authoritarianism is the strict-father hypothesis. People who received harsh upbringing tend to end up as conservatives. Children of nurturing parents end up more liberal. But awareness can enter this equation — victims of harsh upbringing may come to realize that it’s wrong to perpetuate the abuse, physical and/or verbal. That’s the hope — the increase in awareness and empathy.

Meanwhile, though, we battle all those who are convinced that they know what “justice” is — even if it includes eternal torment for those who merely happened to be born in a different country and thus into a “wrong” religion.


~ “Every year, from 5 to 20 percent of the people in the United States will become infected with influenza virus. An average of 200,000 of these people will require hospitalization and up to 50,000 will die. Older folks over the age of 65 are especially susceptible to influenza infection, since the immune system becomes weaker with age. In addition, older folks are also more susceptible to long-term disability following influenza infection, especially if they are hospitalized.

Influenza virus causes an infection in the respiratory tract, or nose, throat and lungs. The virus is inhaled or transmitted, usually via your fingers, to the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes. It then travels down the respiratory tract and binds to epithelial cells lining the lung airways via specific molecules on the cell surface. Once inside the cells, the virus hijacks the protein manufacturing machinery of the cell to generate its own viral proteins and create more viral particles. Once mature viral particles are produced, they are released from the cell and can then go on to invade adjacent cells.

While this process causes some lung injury, most of the symptoms of the flu are actually caused by the immune response to the virus. The initial immune response involves cells of the body’s innate immune system, such as macrophages and neutrophils. These cells express receptors that are able to sense the presence of the virus. They then sound the alarm by producing small hormone-like molecules called cytokines and chemokines. These alert the body that an infection has been established.

Cytokines orchestrate other components of the immune system to appropriately fight the invading virus, while chemokines direct these components to the location of infection. One of the types of cells called into action are T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infection. Sometimes, they are even called “soldier” cells. When T cells specifically recognize influenza virus proteins, they then begin to proliferate in the lymph nodes around the lungs and throat. This causes swelling and pain in these lymph nodes.

After a few days, these T cells move to the lungs and begin to kill the virus-infected cells. This process creates a great deal of lung damage similar to bronchitis, which can worsen existing lung disease and make breathing difficult. In addition, the buildup of mucus in the lungs, as a result of this immune response to infection, induces coughing as a reflex to try to clear the airways. Normally, this damage triggered by arrival of T cells in the lungs is reversible in a healthy person, but when it advances, it is bad news and can lead to death.

The proper functioning of influenza-specific T cells is critical for efficient clearance of the virus from the lungs. When T cell function declines, such as with increasing age or during use of immunosuppressive drugs, viral clearance is delayed. This results in a prolonged infection and greater lung damage. This can also set the stage for complications including secondary bacterial pneumonia, which can often be deadly.

While the influenza virus is wholly contained in the lungs under normal circumstances, several symptoms of influenza are systemic, including fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches. In order to properly combat influenza infection, the cytokines and chemokines produced by the innate immune cells in the lungs become systemic – that is, they enter the bloodstream, and contribute to these systemic symptoms. When this happens, a cascade of complicating biological events occurs.

One of the things that happens is that Interleukin-1, an inflammatory type of cytokine, is activated. Interleukin-1 is important for developing the killer T cell response against the virus, but it also affects the part of the brain in the hypothalamus that regulates body temperature, resulting in fever and headaches.

Another important cytokine that fights influenza infection is something called “tumor necrosis factor alpha.” This cytokine can have direct antiviral effects in the lungs, and that’s good. But it can also cause fever and appetite loss, fatigue, and weakness during influenza and other types of infection.

Dominique Signoret Asymmetriad

Why your muscles ache

Our research has also uncovered another aspect of how influenza infection affects our bodies.

It is well-known that muscle aches and weakness are prominent symptoms of influenza infection. Our study in an animal model found that influenza infection leads to an increase in the expression of muscle-degrading genes and a decrease in expression of muscle-building genes in skeletal muscles in the legs.

Functionally, influenza infection also hinders walking and leg strength. Importantly, in young individuals, these effects are transient and return to normal once the infection was cleared.

In contrast, these effects can linger significantly longer in older individuals. This is important, since a decrease in leg stability and strength could result in older folks being more prone to falls during recovery from influenza infection. It could also result in long-term disability and lead to the need for a cane or walker, limiting mobility and independence.

Researchers in my lab think that this impact of influenza infection on muscles is another unintended consequence of the immune response to the virus. We are currently working to determine what specific factors produced during the immune response are responsible for this and if we can find a way to prevent it.

Thus, while you feel miserable when you have an influenza infection, you can rest assured that it is because your body is fighting hard. It’s combating the spread of the virus in your lungs and killing infected cells.” ~

~ Laura Haynes, Professor of Immunology, University of Connecticut


ending on beauty:

I go where I love and where I am loved,
into the snow;

I go to the things I love
with no thought of duty or pity;

 I go where I belong, inexorably,
as the rain that has lain long

in the furrow; I have given
or would have given

life to the grain;
but if it will not grow or ripen

with the rain of beauty,
the rain will return to the cloud
. . .

pitiless, pitiless, let us leave

to those who have fashioned it.

~ H.D, The Flowering of the Rod

Saturday, March 3, 2018


Paul Klee: The Approximate Man, 1931. For whatever reason, I was reminded of the right-wing politician who had the sign "A former fetus" under his name on the door of his office.

Late at night the Web is a dangerous swamp
of voyeuristic self-scrutiny and addictive impersonation,
the ego testifying for and against itself, seeking evidence
of triumph and complicity, sanction without malice,
pretext or God. Who is this man obsessively looking up
all his persona narrators, feeling like a hodgepodge,
trapped somewhere between Heaven and earth,
spitting against the wind? Is it because he knows
he’s getting closer to the end, will soon vanish
and become nothing? Is this why he’s studying
everyone who answers to his name, because
one may have invented time or sympathy or God
and will love him, even momentarily, for who he is?

~ Philip Schultz, Googling Ourselves

It’s been years since I last googled myself, an unsettling experience — meeting that fragmentary and vaguely “false” self that resides online. “Vaguely” or in fact extremely false? But then is there a “true” self? And does it matter?

(I remember that I used to be quite annoyed whenever people called me “sweet.” My ambition was to be a great poet and a powerful intellect, and instead I was constantly coming up against the feminine ideal of “sweetness.” It took me many years to change my hierarchy of values — not that creativity or intellect had to be diminished.)

OK, you may say, how about a more “complete” online self? But that would require lots of time to read about, and are people all that interested in a sprawling bio or a detailed profile? Is anyone going to pursue the subtle clues about your ever-shifting personality? Of course everything will feel false in some way — but so what?

I am all for fragments and ruins. All we can have is different perspectives and partial narratives. As in art, you have to select (or the Internet selects for you). From the point of view of art, selection is actually a virtue. A “narrow slice” is what makes a narrative poem work — and not just a poem.

“We manage best when we manage small,” Linda Gregg writes. Think small. That will simplify the task, but won’t necessarily make things so simple as to provoke the charge of “simplistic.” On the contrary, dealing with fewer details invites a greater depth. A small but interesting incident, a couple of irresistible specifics — explore those in depth and you’ll be surprised by the discoveries as a whole world opens up (Nietzsche was right — there is no escaping infinity).

Who we “really” are can’t be defined. Fortunately, it’s not all that important. What we are loved for is not as critical as that we are loved at all. That’s a sufficient miracle. 

Nikifor Krynicki was a Polish “naïf” painter. Like Andy Warhol, he was of Lemko ancestry, related to the Ukrainian culture. As with Andy, did it matter? It made him more of an outsider, I suppose, even less likely to end up in art school, but neither he nor Andy represent “Lemko art” (the very statement sounds ridiculous), and that's fine. 


“The practice of poetry enables us to posit the Other as an equal” ~ Michel Leiris

Oriana: ~ and not just humans. You can’t really write a good animal poem from the point of view “I'm human and therefore superior.” That’s why effective poetry touches our heart and expands empathy — it makes see others, in the broadest sense, as our equals, endowed with feelings, personality, intelligence. It can deal with their flaws too. The point is that we get to perceive a unique being. 

There are people who'll never grant you equality. They have a great need to feel superior: whether by virtue of being male, rich, white, tall, adult vs a child, living in New York vs elsewhere -- whatever it may be, they are just not open to how interesting another person (or animal) may be and what gifts they have to offer when treated with kindness. Non-egalitarian behavior usually stems from insecurity; the other is seen as a threat rather than a bringer of gifts (the greatest of which is simply their unique being). Growing up in a hierarchical culture reinforces this unwillingness to grant equality (or call it respect) to another.

Michel Leiris by Francis Bacon, 1976

“Maybe the problem is movies but less their violence than their invincible heroes. Blockbusters keep us on the edge of our seats but we always know how they’ll end, never with the hero failing, always with them victorious to swelling music in the end.” ~ Jeremy Sherman



~ “One of the speakers at the conference, Alana Karran, an executive coach who led a guided meditation that retraced the steps of a typical NDE, pointed out its similarity to the hero’s journey, or quest narrative, the structure that the American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell identified and named the “monomyth” in 1949.

The quest underlies just about every form of storytelling, from religious myth to Greek epic to Hollywood blockbuster to personal memoir. In this structure, a protagonist is shaken out of his normal way of life by some disturbance and—often reluctantly at first, but at the urging of some kind of mentor or wise figure—strikes out on a journey to an unfamiliar realm. There he faces tests, battles enemies, questions the loyalty of friends and allies, withstands a climactic ordeal, teeters on the brink of failure or death, and ultimately returns to where he began, victorious but in some way transformed.

This is key to what makes near-death experiences so powerful, and why people cling so strongly to them regardless of the scientific evidence. Whether you actually saw a divine being or your brain was merely pumping out chemicals like never before, the experience is so intense and new that it forces you to rethink your place on Earth. If the NDE happened during a tragedy, it provides a way to make sense of that tragedy and rebuild your life. If your life has been a struggle with illness or doubt, an NDE sets you in a different direction: you nearly died, so something has to change.

The mind doesn’t “go” anywhere [when the brain flat-lines], any more than the image from a slide projector goes somewhere when you switch the projector off. Rather, the mind and consciousness are emergent properties of the brain, knitted together somehow by all the physical and chemical processes in our nervous system.
But if so, then how does that knitting occur? This is the crucial question for consciousness studies. George A. Mashour, one of the co-authors of the University of Michigan study on rats, is firmly in the materialist camp. He notes that if it’s hard to explain how a healthy brain produces consciousness, it’s even harder to explain how an impaired brain near death produces such vivid, “hyper-real” sensations. “Whether there can be a scientific explanation for NDEs is a critical flash point for the science of consciousness,” he told me.

Let’s say experiments are done, and there is finally a comprehensive, scientifically rigorous, and materialist account of what causes an NDE. What then? Does it mean that all the stories people tell of seeing angels and meeting their deceased relatives are just fairy tales to be ignored?

I would say no. What I saw at the conference—even at its most bizarre—showed me that even a hard-core materialist can learn a great deal from NDEs about how people make sense of the things that happen to them—and above all, about the central role that the stories we tell play in shaping our sense of who we are.

Lukasz Huculak, Blue City


~ “He also discovered that just as we have a “panic button”, we also have a “CALM BUTTON.” “The only time locus ceruleus (a cluster of nerve cells on each side of the brainstem that can cause the brain to be completely flooded with adrenaline during high stress) is completely silent is during REM consciousness. Switching to REM is the most powerful brake on the locus ceruleus. There is a dreamy state with no feeling of terror.”

What happens to a patient who has a near-death experience?

If blood flow to the brain is threatened in some way one of the brain's crisis reactions has to do with a consciousness switch. The brain has only three states of consciousness from which it can choose. It can be awake, in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep or in non-REM sleep. What we found in subjects who've had near-death experience is that instead of moving smoothly from waking to REM consciousness, their brain switch is more likely to blend these two conscious states together. We feel that blending has taken place during fainting or cardiac arrest and this blending of REM consciousness and waking consciousness gives near-death experience many of its important qualities.

What about out-of-body experiences?

Olaf Blanke in Switzerland showed quite convincingly that when the temporal parietal areas, a region of the brain just above your ears, are disrupted then an out-of-body experience can be triggered. In fact if you have a trickle of electrical current, you can, with a flip of a switch, make someone feel they're out of their body. That brain region is important for the integration of many sensations, particularly motion and our knowledge of where we are. REM consciousness turns that region off, so that is a ready mechanism for triggering out-of-body experiences.

Why do they often take on religious significance?\

People draw on their life experience and memories while having these episodes. If you ask yourself what you are going to be thinking about if you feel you are in the last moments of your life, most people will reflect on their past and concentrate on things that are very important to them.

Could drugs induce such intense feelings?

We have the ability right now to understand the molecular basis of a very important spiritual experience, and that's a mystical sense of oneness. People have of course known for ages that drugs such as psilocybin mushrooms and mescaline can induce these states, but only recently have we known the chemistry behind that and it seems to involve a portion of the serotonin neurochemistry. A segment of that chemical system seems to be very important in producing mystical experiences. As we understand the neurochemistry better and where and how it acts on the brain, we will be able to refine chemicals that will have a profound, mystical effect. How we use those chemicals is another matter.” ~


I love the idea of having the CALM button, not just the “panic button.” I suspect meditation is an attempt to activate the “calm button.” What seems to work for me, at least in terms of reducing relaxation quickly, is the “rag doll” command.

As for the vividness of purely subjective experiences:  A few years ago I had an extremely vivid experience of false memory. It took unshakable evidence to convince me that what I remembered happened did not actually happen — my brain really did make it up, while simultaneously convincing me that this was the truth of the matter. I'm not saying that NDEs are simply false memory — but the incident was yet another time I realized, to my shock, that the brain could do the most amazing things and come up with those elaborate and compelling narratives with no basis in reality. And I’ve experienced some hallucinations too, and read Oliver Sacks on the normalcy of such experiences — which feel absolutely real in the moment.


Both the poem about Googling on the internet and the discussion of NDE’s have in common our tendency, actually our insistence, on making stories, creating a narrative that orders and makes sense out of our lives, giving experience a plot line, so that we see a story there, and not a simple string of unrelated events. These stories of ours are acts of invention, something we do automatically and pretty much universally, because we need them. We need meaning, need to believe there is meaning to our lives, that things add up to something, that our stories are real and our journey is not pointless—we are going somewhere, not just in circles, but to a destination.

The wild things people do on the internet are often made in a frenzy of self-invention—creating avatars, personae with different names, and setting them loose to play different parts, different voices and attitudes, like an electronic masquerade of shadows, fractional identities engaging in a kind of shadow dance, elaborate and often free from the usual restraints and courtesies of interaction by persons in the real, physical world. Such fun! And danger as well—these invented characters and scripts may seem free of consequence, but are not. It is easier to become your worst self here, to follow your meanest impulses—think of trolls, of cyber bullies and stalkers, whose imaginary games can have severe consequences in the world outside.


We certainly need stories, patterns, meaning. Problems arise when we confuse fantasy and reality — insofar as we can approximate reality. The imaginary animals of the Middle Ages — it seems that people did believe in them, and in “here be monsters” warnings on medieval maps. Much, perhaps even most, of what people believed to be true just a century ago has turned out not to be true on closer investigation. And no doubt we still believe a lot of “facts” that are yet to be debunked, with new falsehoods being manufactured all the time.

It’s interesting that in our “scientific age,” the problem of telling reality from fantasy is facing us with renewed urgency. New information technology can spread both accurate information and total lies with equal speed — and with possible deadly consequences (e.g. a rumor that someone has desecrated the Koran).

Our need for story and meaning is obvious in the telling of dreams — our conscious mind doesn’t like the chaos that a typical dream is, so when we recount a dream — even review it ourselves — we simplify it and make the narrative a lot coherent, omitting details that don’t fit. When it comes to NDEs, again I suspect there is heavy “editing.”


As for the idea that NDEs confirm that the soul goes somewhere after death, I think Dr. Nelson makes it obvious that there is a neurological explanation for everything described by those who’ve recounted NDEs. What we don’t know is whether the majority of humanity is finally ready to go a step further in its cultural evolution and accept an absence of a personal afterlife. The problem is the concept of the soul as a thing that “goes somewhere” after death — reminiscent of the question that troubled humans for millennia: where does the sun go for the night?

The question: “where do we go after we die?” is a false one — as false as the question “where does the sun go for the night?” The knowledge that the sun doesn’t go anywhere — it’s the earth that rotates — is relatively recent. I don’t blame the writers of the bible and various other “holy” books for having no idea that it was the earth’s rotation that causes night and day. And given our still vague understanding of how the brain works, I am not totally surprised that so many people still believe in some kind of little ghost inhabiting our body — a ghost that leaves at the moment of death and travels to — ?? here it’s not terribly clear. In any case, sooner or later there is judgment — sometimes more than just one, depending on the religion.

The fallacy that persists in practically all religions (including New Age) is precisely this: the soul is a thing, an entity, and it “goes somewhere” after death.

But the soul, loosely translated as the mind, both conscious and unconscious, is not a thing. It’s a process. When a movie ends, we don’t ask, “Where did the movie go?” When the projection (or whatever the current correct term is) ends, the images cease to appear on the screen. The signals that were translated into the images no longer reach the screen. They didn’t “go” anywhere; they can be activated or stopped.

A candle flame is another analogy. A flame is not a thing — it’s a continual production of light and heat as long as there is both fuel (the candle wax via the wick) and oxygen. When wax becomes depleted, the flame ceases. The flame doesn’t go anywhere — it simply ceases to be.

If we knew that the “soul” is a process with the same certitude that we know about the rotation of the earth, there would be no bizarre obsession with the question of which souls go to heaven and which to hell. Alas, self-righteous answers to this false question have caused to end of grief over the centuries. 

(Once I fully understood that the fallacy of soul-as-thing is the foundation of all theistic religions, I almost decided to stop writing about religion — we need to outgrow this twaddle. But then again, aside from the pernicious nonsense, religions have given us some fascinating mythology — stories that it would be a pity to lose forever, and that are an important part of our heritage.)
blue city of Chefchaouen, Morocco

~ “It has long been presumed that America is more Christian than Europe. But it’s a myth. The Donald Trump phenomenon reveals what several intelligent Christian observers have been saying for some time: that a great many Americans don’t really believe in God. They just believe in America — which they often take to be the same thing.

God was hacked by the American dream some time ago. “The evangelical church in America has, to a large extent, been co-opted by an American, religious version of the kingdom of the world. We have come to trust the power of the sword more than the power of the cross,” writes Gregory Boyd in The Myth of a Christian Nation.

Trump doesn’t even begin to model Christ in his life. On the poor, on appealing to fear, on telling the truth, on sexual ethics, on (not) loving his enemies, on making greed his God, Trump models the anti-Christ.

But none of this makes much of a difference to Republican voters who have long been linked with evangelical Christianity. Trump waves his Bible around — though he is apparently unable to name a single verse from it when asked — and talks a lot about making America great again and the threat from Islam. And that speaks volumes about what sort of faith it is that Republican believers actually believe in. Little wonder, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas says, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.

America itself has long been its own civil religion. When the Pilgrim Fathers got in their little boats and sailed to the new world, they took with them a narrative that had begun to build in England, that the protestant English were actually the chosen people. America, then, was to be the new Israel. The pilgrims had landed safe on Cannan’s side, the promised land. The original 13 colonies in North America “were nothing other than a regeneration of the twelve tribes of Israel” as one American newspaper put it in 1864.

In other words, America became its own church and eventually its own god. Which is why the only real atheism in America is to call into question the American dream — a dream often indistinguishable from capitalism and the celebration of winners. This is the god Trump worships. He is its great high priest. And this is why evangelicals vote for him. But the God of Jesus Christ it is not. The death of God comes in many diverse and peculiar forms. In America, it is the flag and not the cross that takes pride of place in the sanctuary.” ~


The fusion of religion and nationalism shouldn’t surprise me: religion has always been used to legitimize and support the regime in power. And yet it does surprise me because god is supposed to be, well, international. He is an Israeli import, and some people may indeed privately think that god is Jewish, but in public no one would ascribe a nationality to god. No one? I think the kind of Americans who voted for Trump have no doubt that god is an American (a white American male, of course, armed with an assault rifle). They may not say so out loud, but does anyone doubt that this is what they think?

Let’s ponder the final insight: “The death of God comes in many diverse and peculiar forms. In America, it is the flag and not the cross that takes pride of place in the sanctuary.” I noticed this right away: the prominent display of the American flag in that church in Milwaukee I attended a few times because I didn’t want to risk offending my hosts. The second thing I noticed is that I couldn’t spot anyone in the church who seemed genuinely pious.

Almost everyone who attended went to communion. But as for any real communion with the divine, insofar as I could perceive it (for instance, there is a certain delicate beauty that radiates from the face of a person deep in prayer) — no one.

Now, let me quickly add that in Polish churches the majority of church goers seemed just as superficial as here, eager for the whole business to be over so they could get out into daylight and fresh air. But there were always those individuals who seemed genuinely sunk in prayer. They were in a different mental space, and it showed. I constantly wondered how many people (including priests and nuns) truly believed in god — but when it came to the handful of the pious, there was no doubt.

But then I left the church when it still had Latin. With that melodious murmur in the background and without the commands to rise, kneel, sit etc, it was possible to travel to that other mental realm, that meditative space (sometimes a personal reverie rather than anything “pious,” but for now let’s keep it simple). Vatican 2 imposed a collective worship that simply didn’t allow the privacy for an individual experience. Many statues of the Madonna and saints were removed; with them went the image of people kneeling before the statue, praying — often with an obvious intensity.

And the American nuns and priests struck me as a cheerful lot. They did not have that tormented look that so many Polish priests and nuns had. It didn’t take long before it dawned on me that the American “faithful” believed they were all going to heaven. They also seemed to believe that their prayers would be answered, had a miracle story or two to tell (often involving angels), and said things like, “My grandmother in heaven must have been praying for me.” 

Sin? Hell? Who wants such negativity? Forgiveness? As Trump put it, he doesn’t need forgiveness, and I think most Americans share that sentiment — they don’t need forgiveness. The level of threat is low, as a former minister I knew would put it.

But something needs to fill the vacuum when god the father ceases to be scary and Jesus is no longer the startling radical, the champion of the poor. The idolatry of nationalism, with its own sacred images and songs, was really there from the start — it merely expanded.

(Let me clarify: In Poland during the time I was growing up there was already considerable fusion between Catholicism and nationalism, but I was still able to separate out Jesus as a distinctly non-Polish, supra-national figure — and one with a radical message, though I was confused between the humanitarian and the punitive aspects — the threat of the Last Judgment, an eternity in hell for most of humanity. Yahweh was an alien, scary Jewish god — but Jesus, a more accepting figure, was invoked much more often. But it was indeed in the US where I first saw the national flag prominently displayed in churches; the fusion with nationalism seemed complete.)


I too lamented the loss of Latin, there was so much beauty there, in the language and the music. The argument that people didn’t know what it all meant was patently false—our missals, and every child had one, had the Latin and the English translation on facing pages. We knew what the words meant. The priest facing away from the congregation had his concentration directed toward the altar, toward god, as the congregants’ also was, and should have been.

Ditching Latin they replaced those beautiful words and prayers with mundane and uninspiring translations, and prosaic new hymns. We had the “folk mass” with guitars, and the priest faced the congregation, now an “audience” — and all solemnity and mystery was replaced by a sort of social interaction, the congregants giving each other the peace handshake, all the focus between the people and each other, not between each individual and his god.

In my view religion in the US is a pretty secular affair, like belonging to a social club, where all the members believe in a very secular, and particularly materialistic dogma. The righteous and deserving are wealthy, white, and nominally Christian—“Americans.” And then there’s everyone else. The Unchosen.


The “Unchosen” is a charitable term. The traditional idiom was the Elect versus the Damned, i.e. the great majority of those marked for eternal damnation, though their main “trespass” (?) was not being born to Christian parents.

Even as a child, I thought this was particularly unfair to the Chinese — don’t ask, but my special sympathy regarding eternal damnation went to the Chinese, for some reason.

Since you remember Latin, you probably also remember when only Catholics were going to enter heaven (though again, just a minority of them). Everyone else was going to fry in hell forever — that was the official doctrine relayed to little children by the saintly nuns. Then there was more and more relaxation of the doctrine.

But relaxation is not enough. As I’ve explained in the commentary after the posts about NDE’s, it’s high time to stop believing that the soul is a little ghost that “goes” somewhere after death. Once the absence of a personal afterlife is accepted by most people, we will lose the unhealthy obsession with who goes where after death — who is “chosen” versus “unchosen.” 

And you are so right: there is a secular quality to religion in America (I’ve sampled Protestant services as well, so my impression is not based strictly on post-Vatican 2 Catholicism). I’ve tried different terms for it: shallow, lacking in piety, observance-only. But you, Mary, hit on the best term: secular. As you say, “religion in the US is a pretty secular affair, like belonging to a social club.” And yes, we know who the “chosen” are.


A minor note about the mundane translations that replaced the Latin: I don’t think that the Church attracts the fine minds it used to (I'm not saying that most priests were especially bright, but some of the best and brightest were recruited already in their teens by the Jesuits, and given a rigorous education). Then, starting in the sixties, the brighter clergy (including some Jesuits) began to leave. Soon it was a mass exodus. And the younger artists and intellectuals are likely to be secular, and thus their gifts are not available for tasks such as creating beautiful translations. 

Finally, the popular culture has also arguably outcompeted religion. 

Jesus faces stiff competition from the superheroes of the popular culture. Most American little boys grow up adoring Superman and Batman a lot more than Jesus.

~ “The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States.”

“The cushions of the Presidency are nothing but filth and blood. The pavements of Congress are also bloody.”

Walt Whitman on Pierce, Fillmore, and Buchanan:

They showed “that the villainy and shallowness of rulers...are just as eligible to these States as to any foreign despotism, kingdom, or empire—there is not a bit of difference.”

According to a recent survey of political historians, Trump displaced Buchanan as “the worst president in American history.” ~


~ “[Alexander Dugin’s] “Foundations of Geopolitics” engages with obscure strains in 20th-century fascism, relying heavily, for example, on theorist Julius Evola, who advised Mussolini and the SS and promoted extreme misogyny as well as racism for use by the Russian elite. All sex for Evola is rape and a woman outside the home “a monkey.” He and Dugin both sneer that modern men—not to mention gays, lesbians, and transsexuals—are “feminized.” In the Evola-Dugin playbook, sexual and racist anxieties lie at the root of today’s Russian fascism. And with but slight qualification, one can see Rob Porter, Steve Bannon (an Evola fan), Roy Moore, and Donald Trump as decadent facsimiles.

The chief aim of Foundations is to revive Evola’s fascist idea of traditionalism, which calls for the eradication of any trace of modern, polyethnic, egalitarian, feminist, and democratic cultures— “American globalism” — in favor of a vast, Eurasian, authoritarian empire of racially pure regimes in which women are confined to the home and breeding. That empire would unite regimes across Europe and extend to the United States and Latin America.

Beginning in the late 19th century, geopolitics has been the study — in the United States, Germany, and now Russia — of how to forge vast empires. In 1997, during an imperial low in 1997 for then collapsed Russia, Dugin first urged the creation of “Eurasian” influence. He thought of this largely as a matter of covert operations and information wars rather than, as in Crimea, naked Russian aggression. Urging murderous conquest of Donetsk, however, Dugin egged on the invaders to “kill, kill, and kill!” Such bloodthirstiness was enough to put Dugin temporarily out of favor even with Putin.

Dugin and Putin are not always on the same page. For instance, Putin has tried twice to join NATO to cooperate in Europe and has thus not always been set on fascist expansion. Nonetheless, in revenge for a disintegrated Russian sphere of influence, Dugin speaks for a wide elite audience, often including Putin, about breaking the power of “soulless,” “cosmopolitan” American “Globalism.”

Twenty years ago, Dugin wrote presciently about creating a Trump-like presidency: “At the global level, for the construction of a planetary New Empire the chief ‘scapegoat’ will namely be the USA — the undermining of whose power which (up to the complete destruction of its geopolitical constructs) will be realized systematically and uncompromisingly by the participants of the New Empire. The Eurasian Project presupposes in this its relationship of Eurasian expansion in South and Central America to remove its output from under the control of the North (here, the Hispanic factor could be used as a traditional alternative to the Anglo-Saxon) and also to provoke every kind of destabilization and separatism within the borders of the USA (it might be possible to lean on the political forces of the African-American racists). The ancient Roman formula of ‘Carthage must be destroyed,’ will become the absolute motto of the Eurasian Empire, because it itself will absorb the essence of all geopolitical planetary strategy awakening to its continental mission.” (Chapter 4 “The Re-division of the World,” p. 248)

Like many in Russia’s military elite, Dugin advocates a “White” Russian Orthodox empire against Chechen rebels and other Muslims. He also aims to sow division in the United States, offering as a depraved “White” racist, an ugly projection: “lean on the political forces of the African American racists,” by which he presumably means Black Lives Matter.

Stirring racist violence among his followers is the most profound form of “destabilization,” though Dugin’s advocacy of sowing “chaos and disruption” also applies to Trump’s threat in November 2016 to denounce a “rigged” election, as well as Trump’s obsequious embrace of Putin in Vietnam in November 2017, excoriating “hack leaders” of the CIA and FBI.

Were Russia not a “White” power, furthering violent attacks on black and Latin people and on the wellbeing of most ordinary Americans, as well as the ugly empire Dugin projected in 1997 in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the U.S., one might see its stand against American aggression as morally justified. Instead, as Dugin’s schooling of Russian officers underlines, Russia seeks to create a rival empire with even more horrific aims.

At a strategic February 2016 “InfoForum” in Moscow, Andrey Krutskikh, a senior Kremlin adviser, menacingly announced that Russia was planning an information assault on the November election which would be equivalent to the first Soviet nuclear explosion: “You think we are living in 2016. No, we are living in 1948. And do you know why? Because in 1949, the Soviet Union had its first atomic bomb test. And if until that moment, the Soviet Union was trying to reach agreement with [President] Truman to ban nuclear weapons, and the Americans were not taking us seriously, in 1949 everything changed and they started talking to us on an equal footing.

“I’m warning you: We are at the verge of having ‘something’ in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.”

Dugin’s account of geopolitics is also fundamentally dishonest. While Foundations extols Nazi advocates of Lebensraum in the East, he often “forgets” Hitler’s genocidal assault on Russia. And fascinatingly, Dugin‘s Foundations ignores the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who argued for an ever shifting westward “frontier” wiping out indigenous people. German imperialists, notably Hitler, saw the genocidal American “Wild West” as a model for the “Wild East” of Poland and Russia. Turner worked closely with Friedrich Ratzel, a German geopolitician, who coined the term “Lebensraum”: vast continental “living spaces” to be settled by those who murdered or enslaved indigenous inhabitants. Ratzel’s student Karl Haushofer taught the term to Hitler and agitated widely for conquest of the “Wild East” during the Nazi regime.

But Dugin bizarrely denies Haushofer’s role in invading Russia. Like the violent American Right, Dugin wants to recreate an imaginary Russia not as the defeater of Nazism in World War II—his book does not once name “the Great Patriotic War,” as Russians refer to the conflict—but as a now White Fascist Sun for orbiting racist autocrats.

Yet in addition to using bots targeting likely Republican voters, the Russians tampered with voter registrations and perhaps even the machines to elect Trump. This systematic cyberwarfare is the most successful act of aggression inside the United States ever achieved by a foreign power. Though others executed the tactics, Alexander Dugin was the architect.


~ “The official state motto of the Soviet Union was "Proletarians of all countries unite!"
The unofficial state motto of Putin's Russia could well be "Corrupt politicians of all countries unite!”

If Western democracy stands in the way of Putin's mafia's business interests, Western democracy must be destroyed.

In Trump, Putin has found his kindred spirit. It was love at first sight — on Trump's part. This forever will remain the greatest success of Russian intelligence: a former two-bit KGB functionary was able to install his personal asset in the White House.” ~ M. Iossel


Funny, my recent labors cleaning the carpet combined with watching a video on Dante made me realize why his Paradiso is so abhorrent to me. It’s not the lack of dramatic tension, as I previously hypothesized; it’s the lack of accomplishment.

No work, no accomplishment; no challenge, no tears, no triumph.

And of course nothing ever happens.

Emily Brontë’s didn’t just walk on the moors and write. She spent her remaining time brushing the carpet in the parlor. I perfectly understand her. The carpet gets cleaner: instant gratification.


Below: Notre-Dame of Laon. It occurred to me that part of the reason I like churches when they are empty is simply the large space -- just as I like large living spaces, with at least the living room and the master bedroom having a certain "sweep" — and why I visually prefer the West coast, which offers such spectacular stretches of nothing.

~ “But what do people do when actually subjected to sexual harassment? To find out, the researchers placed advertisements in newspapers and posted fliers around campus advertising a position as a research assistant in a psychology lab. They recruited 25 women to come in for what appeared to be a job interview. The researchers trained a male actor to pose as the interviewer and to subject each woman to the sexually harassing questions. The researchers covertly videotaped the interactions.

What happened when the interviewer asked the harassing questions? Not a single woman walked out of the interview. The videos showed that the women, smiling uncomfortably, answered the harassing questions, without challenging the interviewer. At most, they tried to pivot after responding, to refocus the interview on substance. A few (nine, or 36 percent) asked the interviewer why he had asked such personal questions, yet all but two of these women waited until the end to do so, when they were invited to raise any questions they had. Tellingly, not a single person filed a complaint or reported the interviewer. Over the course of the study, the actor sexually harassed 25 women in an identical manner. He was never reported.

The researchers found that the women who contemplated the situation hypothetically imagined they would feel angry, but women who were put through the experience reported feeling afraid. Their fear prevented them from confronting the harassment.
Psychologists have a term for this disconnect: an “affective forecasting error.” We have immense trouble knowing how we will feel in response to a stressful situation. As a result, we misjudge what behavior would be a normal response. In particular, we imagine people will be more assertive and confrontational than they typically are.

What are the consequences of this prediction error in cases of sexual harassment or assault? Many victims blame themselves for not having “the wherewithal to get up and leave.” It seems that our affective forecasting errors lead us to blame victims for failing to exit harassing situations, because we incorrectly believe that if it happened to us, we would have marched straight to HR.

This psychological bias also leads us to doubt the veracity of victims’ claims. When Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her as her supervisor at the Department of Education, many who heard Hill’s story thought, “If what she says is true, surely she would have reported Thomas immediately, as any sane person would have. Surely, she would not have followed him to her next job. She must be lying, because her behavior is not consistent with how a normal person would react to harassment.” Yet her behavior is perfectly consistent with how normal people react to harassment. The Boston College study confirms this.

As social animals, we are strongly motivated to maintain group ties and preserve social harmony. We hate to stand out, violate social scripts, break face, or risk embarrassment. Yet at the same time, the power of these unwritten social rules remains invisible.

The problem is, in our culture that idealizes individualistic autonomy, we tend to think that people shouldn’t care about creating awkward situations or disrupting social norms. We expect people to disobey immoral orders, refuse unreasonable requests, and break away from their peers when the group is doing something wrong. We think people should be confrontational when the situation calls for it.

Yet these expectations defy our social psychology; they ignore our fundamental need to belong to our community.
(Some research shows that people from less individualistic cultures are less prone to these social prediction errors, possibly because they recognize that community members are motivated to act in ways that promote social harmony.)

The silence of sexual harassment victims can be understood as a particularly gendered manifestation of this broader social psychological phenomenon. There is a large disconnect between what people think they would do in idealized versions of their individualistic selves and what people actually do—as they are embedded in social relationships and communities and affected by cultural norms that prescribe roles and dictate appropriate social behaviors.

This disconnect is generally ignored by our laws, which entrench the problem. Our legal system frequently asks jurors to apply their ordinary sensibilities to determine what a “reasonable person” in their community would do in response to a given situation. This standard invites them to rely on their faulty assumptions about social behavior to pass judgment on others, such as complainants who wait years to report sexual harassment or assault.

In one case, a waitress who waited 17 days to report her supervisor’s serial sexual harassment was deemed to have acted “unreasonably” in waiting so long.

The reasonable-person standard pervades the law yet ignores the gulf between what uninvolved parties think is normal and what actually is. We must recognize this gulf and treat victims with the sympathy, patience, and understanding they deserve.” ~


One of the members of my MFA committee was harassing me. Well, I wanted to get that degree without undue delay. So I persuaded myself that the harassment was "mild," even though it involved attempts to kiss me. Also, I knew the prof would deny it — though another MFA student told me she'd have nothing to do with that particular man because he was "way too touchy-feely." And I can think of other times when I stayed silent — in one case, it was assault — because it was simply either the easiest way, or in my self-perceived best interest (especially since stories circulated of how women were treated if they went to 

the police). 


As to why women wait so long and remain silent about sexual harassment — I see no mystery there. The consequences of raising your voice to complain have always been clear, and negative. High risk and minimal or no gain. Speaking up required either great courage or an overwhelming anger overcoming caution and self preservation. Remember what they did to Anita Hill.


~ “[Ezekiel] hears the voice of God more often (93 times) than any other prophet, and the way God addresses him as ‘son of man’ or ‘mortal’ is also unique. Ezekiel experiences a variety of other auditory phenomena, including command hallucinations which are not described in any other prophet, 3:3 ‘He said to me; mortal eat this scroll that I give to you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.’
Even the rabbis thought it was strange that Ezekiel actually ate the scroll and they explained it by saying he was ingesting the wisdom of the Torah (law). Other examples of command hallucinations which are carried out are the shaving of Ezekiel’s head (5:1) which would have gone against priestly prohibitions to shave.

[from another source: Ezekiel heard a voice commanding him to lie on the right side of his body for 390 days then switch to his left side for 40 more days. A voice also told him to eat food cooked with human excrement.]

. . . Ezekiel also hears people gossiping about him by the walls, 33:30 ‘As for you mortal your people who talk about you by the walls and at the doors of the house say to one another each to a neighbor “Come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord”.’ Ezekiel hears the conversations God was having with others, 9:5’ To others he said within my hearing “pass through the city and kill, your eyes shall not spare”.’ Sometimes this voice can be loud, 9:1 ‘Then he cried within my hearing with a loud voice saying “draw near your executioners of the city”.’ 

Like many individuals with schizophrenia, Ezekiel does his best not to listen to these malign voices, 8:18 ‘and though they cry within my hearing with a loud voice, I will not listen to them.’ In his visions he also sometimes hears voices, as for example in the ‘Chariot Vision’, 12:5 ‘And there came a voice from above the dome of their heads’. Also in these visions, as well as voices Ezekiel hears non-verbal auditory phenomena, 1:33 ‘each of the creatures had two wings covering its body. When I heard the sound of the wings like the sound of mighty waters like the thunder of the almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army’. No other prophet hears command hallucinations, conversations with third parties about himself, hears voices in their visions, or has non-verbal auditory experiences. All these auditory phenomena are said to be characteristic of schizophrenia.” ~


But at least we got some art and poetry out of these hallucinations (and some bad horror movies). Below is Gustav Doré’s “Valley of Dry Bones.” Remember that the bones have to put on flesh and be re-animated with the “breath of life.” Hence the whole awkward idea of resurrection in flesh, which made sense to the ancient Israeli’s with their emphasis on life = breath, but not really to those ancient Greeks who were mystically inclined and tended to favor the spiritual realm (possibly an Egyptian influence).

And rather than in heaven, the resurrected dead would be on the new perfected earth, apparently tending the new Garden of Eden — completing the cycle. Or they might be in the New Jerusalem, receiving the tributes of foreign nations. Oh well — time to take rest from unreality.

And here is a painting of the same subject: The Valley of Dry Bones by Quentin Metsys the Younger, c. 1589. (“Shall these bones live?”) The strategic placement of the skeleton's hand (lower left) actually calls tremendous attention to itself. 


~ Warren Davis, Morristown: “I had a client that had been significantly overweight for many years. He was active. As a matter of fact he was a mail carrier and walked many miles every day delivering mail. One day he came to my office and had lost a lot of weight and was quite thin.

He had decided to put himself on a restrictive diet consisting of only canned peas, mayonnaise, and half sour pickles. (I swear this is true.) I asked him where he came up with this diet and he confessed that he made it up himself. I warned him that he probably wasn’t getting a balanced diet so he started taking vitamins and he’s been doing very well on it for quite a long time.

I know it seems crazy but I’m starting to believe after all the back and forth we’re being given with nutritional advice from the “experts” and all the crazy fad diets (paleo, blood type, hi fat, low fat, low carb, hi styrofoam, hi protein, low polyester, hi blubber) it’s becoming harder and harder to find fault with anything and I’m starting to believe that nobody really knows anything.

I spent my whole childhood eating trans fat because we were told how horrible butter was. Now I can’t get enough.” ~

This comment was a lot more interesting than the article. Anyway, the mailman probably never felt like seconds. His diet sounds low-glycemic, and the pickles also nourished his good bacteria. This reminds me of another guy — he didn’t know how to cook, but he knew how to boil an eggs, so he ate exclusively hard-boiled eggs — no obesity there either.

Let’s not forget Nathan Pritikin, who drew a practical conclusion from the observation that there was no heart disease in the concentration camps — and set about reversing heart disease in his clinic in Santa Monica, California, where he charged thousands of dollars for keeping his patients on a diet whose main staple was steamed broccoli. “You need never go hungry,” Pritikin allegedly said. “You can eat all the steamed broccoli you want.”

I'm not saying that people who eat extremely restricted diets are role models. But I do suspect that extremely restricted diets work best. Which also reminds me: just as bread sales dropped dramatically because of the popularity of the Atkins diet, there was a study in which all the subjects ate nothing but white bread. And they too lost weight — probably because how much bread can you force yourself to eat?

People usually reject extreme diets by saying that no one could remain on such a diet for a long time. But the man who ate exclusively hard-boiled eggs, and the mailman with his three-item diet show that it’s not an impossible feat. And I know another man who lives by himself and also eats what seems like a strange and restricted diet (lots of kale smoothies in lieu of meals), and he prides himself on his health and fitness.

Again, I am not saying that these are role models. But the facts that they are thriving undercuts all kinds of beliefs about a “healthy diet.” I’ve met people who were convinced that you MUST eat fruit — you’ll die if you don’t. But Dr. Gundry relates that the summer he and his wife decided not to eat fruit, each lost five pounds without any other changes in the diet.

You are what you eat? Perhaps you might claim with equal validity, “You are what you don’t eat.” 

ending on beauty (bleak, but still beauty)

For Elie Wiesel

It is cold and late — only you walk
street after empty street

Each yellow leaf is a smoldering star:
torn from a million jackets,
not one could be extinguished

~ Charles Fishman, In Black Rain

(Photo: Haley Hyatt)