Saturday, July 18, 2015


dolphin fresco at the Palace of Knossos, Crete, c. 1,500 b.c.e


Over the ocean a cave of blue
holds out against the night —
an entrance to the world beyond,
where it is still day.

I trace the glow of lucent green,
and you say look, that violet rim,
that lip of ripe plum purple.
The soul, we know, is tender blue,

like memory of being loved
back in the mother cave, and now,
this moment made of shades of blue,
a window of remaining light.

It’s Aphrodite’s blue-green glow,
the life that yet remains —
that kiss at mirror-edge where sky
marries the shining water.

How should we spend the last of time,
the light that lingers in the west?
I take your hand and we hope
that dark leap is a dolphin.

~ Oriana (2015)

This is a major theme that appeared in my life and writing only as youth faded: how should we spend what time remains? No question has ever been more important, or more difficult. Few of us “know what we want”; even fewer have any sure sense of what is best for us (and arguably it’s not even possible for us to know).

One answer is to simply take in as much beauty as we can from the world that offers it in such astounding abundance. If pressed against the wall for a quick answer, I would say I want “la grande bellezza” — great beauty. But at other times I would say, “tenderness.” Not romantic love with all its turbulence and impossible demands, but affection, tenderness. Being valued.

So holding hands while looking at a sunset on the Pacific is an image that provides an answer of sorts. It doesn’t begin to touch on the joy of work, but one can speak of only so much at a time. And besides, what if capacity for work happened to be lost? Is life then not worth living?

Perhaps being able to watch a sunset is enough, especially if one is lucky enough to be holding someone’s hand.

As the extraordinary movie “La Grande Bellezza” says, perhaps all we can know for certain as we grow older is that we can no longer waste time doing what we DON’T want to do. All we have to cover the embarrassment of being in the world is the “haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty.”

Not all that haggard, I’d argue. But then I am terribly spoiled living on the Pacific coast.

Yet almost everywhere on our “pale blue dot” (as Carl Sagan described the earth as seen from the rings of Saturn) there is an astounding abundance of beauty. More than haggard flashes. 


A strange awakening this morning: thunder. When was the last time this happened, especially in summer?

Then, first thing after getting up, the coincidence of finally learning what causes thunder. The air around the bolt of electricity heats up to 50,000 degrees. The superheated air then rushes away at supersonic speeds — hence the boom.

Psychologists used to believe that greater prejudice among older adults was due to the fact that older people grew up in less egalitarian times. In contrast to this view, we have gathered evidence that normal changes to the brain in late adulthood can lead to greater prejudice among older adults.

The frontal lobes are the last part of the brain to develop as we progress through childhood and adolescence, and the first part of the brain to atrophy as we age. Atrophy of the frontal lobes does not diminish intelligence, but it degrades brain areas responsible for inhibiting irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts. Research suggests that this is why older adults have greater difficulty finding the word they're looking for - and why there is a greater likelihood of them voicing ideas they would have previously suppressed.

Famous people are at a disadvantage when their frontal lobes start to shrink, as many of their utterances are part of the public record. But disinhibition is also costly for people outside the public eye. When I was teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts, an African-American student told me how her white grandfather had recently started referring to her as his "little nigger grandchild". She was shocked and hurt by this, and couldn't understand why her grandfather would say such a thing when she knew he loved her and was still mentally alert. The consequences of his disinhibited words were substantial, although he was creating friction only with family and friends.

In our research we have found evidence of a variety of problems of this kind. For example, older adults in our experiments are more likely than younger adults to rely on stereotypes and they have more difficulty than younger adults suppressing their stereotypic thoughts. But it doesn't stop there — we find that older adults are more likely to be socially insensitive across a variety of domains. Furthermore, all of these effects only emerge among older adults who show signs of poor frontal lobe functioning.

Our research indicates that older adults simply have greater difficulty suppressing prejudices than younger adults do.

To return to Atticus Finch, it does indeed seem that some older adults start to show prejudice even if they never did before. Such changes in social attitudes are not inevitable, but they are common. And the people who find themselves becoming less tolerant or more prejudiced can be quite unsettled by the shift in their own attitudes - a change that can affect friendships and their position in society.”

My inhibitions against expressing contempt for religion have decreased, but that may be a separate, gender-specific case: it's been noted that women tend to get bolder with age, and don't seem to care as much about pleasing others. Like all writers worth reading, they are willing to offend (if you aren't offending anyone, you probably aren't saying anything true). This may be due to the insight that you can die having told the truth as you see it, or die without ever having told the truth -- so you may as well speak out. But racism, anti-Semitism, etc -- it's sad when these stereotypes become disinhibited in the elderly (usually starting in the late seventies, when aging accelerates in a dramatic fashion).

Of course that decrease in proper inhibition expresses itself in a variety of ways, not only in increase in prejudice. The ability to tell a story without endless digressions is also affected. How can we protect the frontal lobes from atrophy? We are just barely, barely beginning to understand anything about aging and the brain, and how inflammation can destroy the organ whose function determines how long and how well we live.

As for sticking to a story, staying on subject, it takes a lot of writing practice to combat the tendency to digress — since, as we grow older, everything reminds  us of something else. For me this was a struggle already in my younger years. I have a lot of knowledge, so everything  connects with everything. My motto — imperfectly practiced — is LESS IS MORE.


“Hoffman proposes that hyperactivity in the left frontal lobe combined with a weakened connection may lead to Broca’s area [a part of the brain involved in speech production] “dumping” language into Wernicke’s area—a part of the brain that normally receives speech information from the outside. A passing thought may be experienced as a whisper in one’s ear.

To test this theory, Hoffman and colleagues have experimented with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a noninvasive method that can inhibit small regions of the brain by producing light electric currents—in this case, reducing the hyperactivity of Broca’s area and portions of the temporal lobe. Although results are preliminary, most patients treated with TMS seem to experience relief from their auditory hallucinations, with improvements lasting anywhere from two months to a year. If validated in larger-scale studies, TMS could become an alternative treatment option.”

Of course the way the medical system works, someone would have to get very rich off TMS in order for it to gain a wide application. 

IS THERE ANYTHING WE CAN DO TO PREVENT THE DECLINE IN BRAIN FUNCTION? (the results of this study will surprise you)

“Before we began our experiment all our volunteers were subjected to a barrage of tests that measured things like memory, ability to problem solve and general psychomotor speed (reaction times).

Everyone was then fitted with an activity monitor to measure how much and when they were moving.

The volunteers were then randomly allocated to three groups and asked to do a particular activity for the next eight weeks.

One group we simply asked to walk briskly, so that they were just out of breath, for three hours a week. The idea is that walking - in fact any form of vigorous exercise - will keep your brain fed with lots of oxygen-rich blood. This was not a popular choice with some.

"Walking is my least favorite activity," sighs Ann. (Newcastle does have punishingly steep hills.)

The second group were asked to do puzzles, such as crosswords or Sudoku. Again they had to do it for three hours each week. The reasoning behind this approach is that your brain, like a muscle, benefits from being challenged. Use it or lose it.

The final group were asked to stare at a naked man for three hours a week. Or, to be more accurate, they were asked to take part in an art class which also happened to involve drawing a naked man, Steve.

By the end of our eight-week trial almost everyone in the walking group noticed a big improvement in their general health - how much easier they found managing a particular hill.

Some of the puzzler group had found the puzzles hard at first, but by the end of the eight weeks many were hooked and swapping Sudoku tips.

The most enthusiastic group, however, was undoubtedly the art class. Although a few found attending a class once a week daunting, all of them commented on how much they enjoyed it.

"I have become a compulsive drawer of everything," says Simone. "I have been out to buy myself some pastel pencils and even a book on 'How to'."

So, art equals pleasure, but which group enjoyed the greatest improvements in brain power?

Our scientists redid their battery of cognitive tests and the results were clear-cut. All the groups had got a bit better, but the stand-out group was those who had attended the art class.

The most enthusiastic group, however, was undoubtedly the art class. Although a few found attending a class once a week daunting, all of them commented on how much they enjoyed it.

"I have become a compulsive drawer of everything," says Simone. "I have been out to buy myself some pastel pencils and even a book on 'How to'."

So, art equals pleasure, but which group enjoyed the greatest improvements in brain power?

Our scientists redid their battery of cognitive tests and the results were clear-cut. All the groups had got a bit better, but the stand-out group was those who had attended the art class.

But why should going to an art class make a difference to things like memory? Clinical psychologist Daniel Collerton, one of our experts from Newcastle University, says that part of the benefit came from learning a new skill. "Learning something new," he says, "engages the brain in ways that seem to be key. Your brain changes in response, no matter how many years you have behind you."

Learning how to draw was not only a fresh challenge to our group but, unlike the puzzlers, it also involved developing psychomotor skills. Capturing an image on paper is not just intellectually demanding. It involves learning how to make the muscles in your hand guide the pencil or paintbrush in the right directions.

An additional benefit was that going to the art class meant that for three hours a week they had to stand while drawing or painting. Standing for longer periods is a good way of burning calories and keeping your heart in good shape.
The art class was also the most socially active, another important thing to bear in mind if you want to keep your brain sharp. This group met regularly outside class, were keen to exchange emails and there was a definite social aspect to this intervention.”

Until I read this article, I thought it was syphilis, but not from a prostitute. Those who knew him well said Nietzsche lived and died a virgin. But he was an army medic for a while, and it's possible to get infected through contact with blood. But brain cancer makes even more sense.

“A study of medical records has found that, far from suffering a sexually-transmitted disease which drove him mad, Nietzsche almost certainly died of brain cancer.

The doctor who has carried out the study claims that the universally-accepted story of Nietzsche having caught syphilis from prostitutes was actually concocted after the Second World War by Wilhelm Lange-Eichbaum, an academic who was one of Nietzsche's most vociferous critics. It was then adopted as fact by intellectuals who were keen to demolish the reputation of Nietzsche, whose idea of a "Superman" was used to underpin Nazism.

The new research was carried out by Dr Leonard Sax, the director of the Montgomery Centre for Research in Child Development in Maryland, America. Dr Sax made his discovery after studying accounts of Nietzsche's collapse with dementia in 1889. He was admitted to an asylum in Basle, Switzerland, and was initially diagnosed as being in the advanced stages of syphilis.

According to Dr Sax, however, Nietzsche's notes show no signs of the symptoms which are now regarded as evidence of this disease, such as an expressionless face and slurred speech.

"Nietzsche exhibited none of these symptoms," said Dr Sax. "His facial expressions remained vivid, his reflexes were normal, tremor was not present, his handwriting after his collapse was at least as good as it had been in previous years - and his speech was fluent."

Dr Sax added that in the late 19th century more than 90 per cent of those with advanced syphilis rapidly declined and died within five years of diagnosis. Nietzsche, in contrast, lived for another 11 years.

Nietzsche's physicians, according to Dr Sax, suspected that he may not have had syphilis, but were unable to suggest an alternative. Reporting his findings in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Biography, Dr Sax argues that a more plausible diagnosis would have been that the philosopher was suffering from a slowly-developing brain tumor. This would account for both Nietzsche's collapse and the migraines and visual disturbances he suffered.

Nietzsche scholars welcomed the new findings and said that they would help in the rehabilitation of the philosopher. "Nietzsche was not anti-semitic or a nationalist, and hated the herd mentality," said Prof Stephen Houlgate, a Nietzsche scholar at Warwick University. "If this new research gets rid of another misconception about him, I'm delighted.”

NIETZSCHE DESCRIBES HIS FATHER'S DEATH (probably of death cancer too)

"The first event that shocked me when I was still forming my conscience was the illness of my father. It was a softening of the brain. The intensity of the pain that he suffered, the blindness that befell him, his pale figure, the tears of my mother, the concerned air of the doctor and, finally, the unwary comments from the neighbors that they must warn me about the imminence of the misfortune that threatened. And the misfortune came: my father died. I was not yet four years old.

A few months later, I lost my only brother, a smart and vivacious child. He developed a sudden seizure and died in a few moments."

Nietzsche, Of  My Life. Autobiographical writings of youth (1856-1869), Valdemar, Madrid, 1997, Translation by Luis Fernando Moreno Clear



In his “Letters on Cézanne,” written to his wife Clara in 1907, Rilke writes, “I know a few things from [Cézanne’s] last years when he was old and shabby and children followed him every day on his way to his studio, throwing stones at him as if at a stray dog.” Rilke takes it for granted that children throw stones at stray dogs, and doesn’t seem surprised that they’d throw stones at the great painter when he was “old and shabby.” (In Arles, children and teens weren’t kind to Van Gogh either.)

I remember that in one of Hardy’s novels an adult throws stones at a stray dog. It was customary, and probably no one thought it cruel. The hungry dog needed to be chased away.

Given the shootings and bombings, it may seem frivolous of me to be saying Look! We no longer throw stones at a stray dog! Or at least it’s not customary! It would be seen as cruel!

But not so long ago, it wasn’t seen as cruel. And throwing stones at someone old and shabby — I guess that was only natural. And we aren’t talking about very long time ago . . .

I realize that there are still instances of cruelty to animals, the aged, and the homeless, but I don’t think anyone would mention it calmly, in passing. Even without Pinker’s statistics (“The Better Angels of Our Nature”), I’ve witnessed a diminishment of cruelty and violence over the decades. What saddens me is how much it persists in the movies and on TV, how often the characters use both physical and verbal aggression. And yet, in spite of this, a certain softening, mellowing, nuancing seems to be in progress.

According to Pinker, this started in the late 17th-early 18th century. He calls it the HUMANITARIAN REVOLUTION. Torture, slavery, child abuse, and cruel punishment used to be taken for granted. Now voices rose against those practices, as well as against despotism and wars of aggression. More and more people feel nothing short of revulsion when they see brutality — including cruelty to animals. Still a long way to go, but there is reason to celebrate the progress we have made.


There have been two great narcotics in European civilization: Christianity and alcohol. ~ Nietzsche

Both dissolve reason. Thinking is difficult; it’s not a happy state. Of course we prefer emotion, which energizes. As for the Christian hate groups, never dismiss the pleasure of hatred: it’s immensely energizing, and energy, as Blake observed, is eternal delight.

In the believer’s mind, God can do anything,
but in reality he can’t even say Hi.

~ seen on Internet


Through the Middle Ages, it was still possible to see biblical stories as realistic. Then the modern world started emerging, becoming vastly different from the biblical world, and a more critical consciousness developed. (It's also interesting that thousands of years ago there existed a huge number of deities; that number began to shrink as the locus of consciousness became internal.)

For me this is the gist of Auerbach's article: “The Homeric poems, though their intellectual, linguistic, and above all syntactical culture appears to be so much more highly developed, are yet comparatively simple in their picture of human beings; and no less so in their relation to the real life which they describe in general. DELIGHT IN PHYSICAL EXISTENCE IS EVERYTHING TO THEM . . . The oft-repeated reproach that Homer is a liar takes nothing from his effectiveness. HE DOES NOT NEED TO BASE HIS STORY ON HISTORICAL REALITY, his reality is powerful enough in itself; it ensnares us, weaving its web around us, and that suffices him. And this “real” world into which we are lured, exists for itself, contains nothing but itself; the Homeric poems conceal nothing, they contain no teaching and no secret second meaning. 

But the Biblical narrator, the Elohist, had to believe in the objective truth of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice—the existence of the sacred ordinances of life rested upon the truth of this and similar stories. He had to believe in it passionately; or else (as many rationalistic interpreters believed and perhaps still believe) he had to be a conscious liar—no harmless liar like Homer, who lied to give pleasure, but a political liar with a definite end in view, lying in the interest of A CLAIM TO ABSOLUTE AUTHORITY . . . THE SCRIPTURE STORIES do not, like Homer’s, [seek to] please us and enchant us—they SEEK TO SUBJECT US, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels. Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, [the bible] seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This was for a long time comparatively easy; as late as the European Middle Ages it was possible to represent Biblical events as ordinary phenomena of contemporary life. But when, through too great a change in environment and through the awakening of a critical consciousness, this becomes impossible, the Biblical claim to absolute authority is jeopardized; the method of interpretation is scorned and rejected, the Biblical stories become ancient legends, and the doctrine they had contained, now dissevered from them, becomes a disembodied image . . .   

The Old Testament presents universal history: it begins with the beginning of time, with the creation of the world, and will end with the Last Days, the fulfilling of the Covenant, with which the world will come to an end. Everything else that happens in the world can only be conceived as an element in this sequence; into it everything that is known about the world, or at least everything that touches upon the history of the Jews, must be fitted as an ingredient of the divine plan.”
~ Erich Auerbach, from The Scar of Odysseus chapter of Mimesis



Second most popular poem


Blackberry bushes
scrape one side of the tracks,
the train stopped in the woods

by the semaphore’s arm.
My father jumps out.
In his cupped hands he brings me

blackberries warm from the sun.
He pours the glistening
berries into my hands.

The sweetest, the blackest
he brings me
forever from nameless woods.

I am eating the black sun.
Father goes to pick more,
and I know he’ll be left

behind — a flash of his shirt
in thorn-studded brambles,
at the window my mute

screaming mouth. But the train
blows a whistle for the fathers,
lost: he jumps back onboard,

and like a slow waltz,
rocking side to side,
in blackberry woods

we begin to keep time,
lips stained with
departing purple.

~ Oriana © 2015



If my life would be over in a year, this is what I would want:

“... simply take in as much beauty as we can from the world that offers it in such astounding abundance.”
~ while holding hands with the person I love.

Love the image of lightning and thunder and your comment is perfect for the picture.

Donald Trump is a perfect example of frontal lobes deteriorating.

I’m surprised that the art class was better than doing puzzles or cardiovascular exercise. I do all three so I should live very long….I hope, but you never know.

Interesting about the early plethora of gods and now with the expansion of secularism we have three standing, The God of the Hebrews, Christ and Allah.

IN BLACKBERRY WOODS  is a beautiful way to end the blog.

This is definitely one of my favorite blogs.


Freud said that the most important things in life are “love and work.” I’d amend that to “love and work and beauty.” And should the ability to work end, as may happen, love and beauty would be enough.

Surprised that you are surprised about the effectiveness of an art class on cognitive function! Creating art is challenging to the brain, and socializing is involved as well — lots of brain areas light up when we socialize.

The vanishing gods . . . The main Hindu gods are holding up pretty well. But I wonder if they’ll survive an increase in prosperity. It’s poor people who need religion most, and who seem to get the most out of religious festivals, which in India include an ecstatic element such as dancing. That part of religion I’d actually love to see surviving rather than being displaced by sports bars.

This is a lazy way to do a blog, but right now it suits me particularly well. I just wonder if I’ll get too spoiled to return to longer original essays. And for those who may be wondering why this particular development: I happened to read a study that concluded that my type of post gets the fewest “likes” on Facebook and is the least read (since it actually requires reading). I realized that choosing the best posts for the blog, with some commentary, was a way of making my best finds available to readers who really do read, and of archiving this content. It’s part of my “harvesting” project. 

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