Sunday, August 23, 2015


Ludovico Mazzolino, God the Father


But the woman was growing restless.
You see, there was no
narrative. No verbs. Paradise

is all description. No subjunctive
sighs or regrets,
no frolicking future tense.

When time like a ruddy fruit
hung from the branches of the galaxy,
I told the woman the truth

with the two-way tongue of a snake.
All those fluent ribs,
opalescent scales — it was Me

undulating in the subtle serpent.
Oh let them be as gods!
I laughed for joy when I saw

the woman bite into the tart flesh.
The multitudes of Me whirled
a wild polka through the nebulas:

At last! At last!
I’ve managed to create
a being that could disobey Me.

Enough hosannas of flowers,
the beaky orange birds.
I did not curse my brave 

children, nor did I strew  
thistles before them in their path.
I blessed them. To the woman

I said, “You are the Tree of Life.”
To the man, “Love her —
she’ll be your strength.”

Yes I knew
suffering would happen.
Yes, because I love stories.

~ Oriana © 2015

I hope that this present a more pleasant — if still deeply problematic — Mr. Deity (in Polish children politely refer to god as “Mr. God”).

Problematic, but not out-and-out abusive. (By the way, that’s also a Jungian concept: god as trauma.) Not the god of "Acts of God" (actually a valid legal term that my insurance, for one, does use -- never mind that to them god is dead).

Note the crown. Because most “holy scriptures” go back to an era of absolute kings, it’s understandable that phrases such as “heavenly king” came into being. Early paintings often show god on the throne. Sometimes it’s a double throne, for the father and the son. And sometimes it’s a double throne for Jesus and Mary. But below is a more tradition presentation, simply god the father on his throne (Germany, late 1400s), with Jesus and Mary clearly subordinate.

(for me the take-away message is that children see god as Superman, but later tend to drop the physical attributes. But I suspect that what people say and what they really believe may be different things — it’s hard to relate to a disembodied non-person.)

How people think about their god is actually of intense interest to psychologists. In particular, the human tendency to think about gods in anthropomorphic terms (think of all those pictures of God as a bearded white guy in the sky), in contrast with the ‘theologically correct’ Christian view of god as a disembodied force with few human characteristics.

For example, perhaps people think about god as being a kind of disembodied human mind. Or perhaps they find that difficult. Perhaps if put under time pressure they instinctively think of god as being more like a regular person. Or maybe they think of god as being something like a superhero – a regular person but with a few extraordinary powers (this is the idea that memorable supernatural beings are ‘minimally counter-intuitive’).

Andrew Shtulman (Occidental College, Los Angeles) and Marjaana Lindeman (University of Helsinki) They ran three studies with a similar set-up. Basically, they asked a bunch of people whether god has a variety of attributes – things like whether god can know things, make plans, be happy, or see things – as well as body-related things like breathe, exert force, has a brain etc.

What they found was that people tended to attribute psychological properties to god over physical properties. If you come from a Christian background, you might find that unsurprising.

What was surprising, however, is that they conducted one of the studies with Hindus in India. Hinduism embraces anthropomorphism much more than the Judaeo-Christian religions, but they found that Hindus were only slightly more likely to attribute physical properties to god – and, like the Finns and American in their study, they were much more likely to give their god psychological properties.

Strangely enough, they found that religious people were more likely than the non-religious to attribute both physical and psychological properties to god. It seems that being religious is not a guarantee of being more theologically correct!

They found similar results after putting people under time pressure (asking their subjects to give an answer as quickly as possible). The results clearly showed that people in both the USA and India find it easier to attribute psychological properties to god than physical ones. They quickly rejected most physical properties and, on the occasions when they accepted them, it took longer to make that decision.

Put together, these results show that people don’t tend think of gods in a ‘minimally counter-intuitive’ way. That’s interesting because it’s been shown that children do think about gods in this way. It seems to be something we are educated out of as we grow up.

 But the results also show that people don’t have different instinctive and deliberative views of god. It’s not that they instinctively think in anthropomorphic terms, only to reject is on sober reflection.

And that’s odd, because people definitely do think about gods in anthropomorphic ways that are fundamentally incompatible with theologically correct ideas. For example, people frequently talk about god as if they have limited knowledge, or can’t be everywhere at once.

Shtulmanand and Lindeman explain it like this:

The logical inconsistency between (a) claiming that God is omniscient and (b) imposing limitations on God’s knowledge in a story-recall task may not be obvious to most people even at an explicit level. Barrett and Keil assumed that people could only make such a mistake if they held representationally distinct God concepts activated in cognitively distinct tasks, but our data suggest that many people are psychologically content to attribute logically incompatible properties.”


Human, all too human . . .  I should have suspected that the Hindu don't really see Ganesha as having the head of
an elephant

“My idea of deity is a great, luminous, oblong blur” ~ an American evangelist in the nineteen thirties, quoted by Robert Hughes in “The Shock of the New”

“Oblong” still points to its origin in the human body, but already shows a tendency to see god in more abstract and cosmic terms.

The familiar image in Raphael’s Transfiguration (c. 1520), where Jesus is presumably already in his radiant form, given that Elijah and Moses can be seen, seems awkward and childish (and strangely heavy-thighed). An oblong blur would be more dignified, and not so out of keeping with the modern world.

Imagine such a figure appearing at Home Depot. He would not be seen as a home owner, and thus would be ignored by the staff.

Raphael, Transfiguration, c. 1520


Then there is Abrahamic religions’ invariable assumption that humans are evil by nature. After a lecture by a “progressive” rabbi I saw that this applied to to “progressive” Judaism as well — why else would humans need a god? To be the “eye in the sky” and keep them behaving, since humans are evil. This condemnation of human nature as innately depraved is most extreme in Christianity. Humans are so evil that it requires the blood of Jesus to make them sufficiently “pure” to pass through the Pearly Gates.
 True, there is the motto: “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” I’ve been combing my mind for memories of anyone who hated the sin but loved the sinner, and coming up blank. If we hate unreliability, for instance, we’ll at least dislike those who can’t be relied on to be there when they  promised to show up, who don’t call back, who don’t do what they said they’d do. I don’t go out of my way to show my displeasure, but the possibility of a true closeness doesn’t exist. Life has taught me that unreliable people are chaos-makers and time-wasters.

Can psychology replace religion? I think the so-called “positive psychology” has a lot of potential that way. It tries to provide an affirmative, viable philosophy of life. It focuses on a person’s strengths, not flaws. It studies happiness, not pathology; optimal function, not dysfunction. Its founding father was Abraham Maslow (and, going farther back, I think Alfred Adler, with his emphasis on the pursuit of “mastery” rather than sex). It’s odd that positive psychology is still relatively obscure. My guess is that people conflate it positive thinking and self-help books, and thus it’s not taken seriously.

The usual markers of happiness are colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth (especially compared to those around you), family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, as outlined by London School of Economics professor Richard Layard in Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. According to the Goldberg study, however, what makes people happiest isn’t even in the Big Seven. Instead, happiness is most easily attained by living in an aesthetically beautiful city. The things people were constantly surrounded by—lovely architecture, history, green spaces, cobblestone streets—had the greatest effect on their happiness. The cumulative positive effects of daily beauty worked subtly but strongly.

In a paper titled, “Untangling What Makes Cities Livable: Happiness in Five Cities,” Abraham Goldberg, a professor at University of South Carolina Upstate, and his team conducted a statistical analysis of happiness in New York City, London, Paris, Toronto, and Berlin. They analyzed earlier Gallup happiness surveys and collected their own data, and found that people’s happiness was coming from an unexpected place.

The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise (when endorphins are being released).

But the next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).

In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton weighs the feeling of walking into an “ugly” McDonalds in the Westminster area of London compared to the feeling of entering the “beautiful” Westminster Cathedral across the street. He says that because of the harsh lighting, the plastic furniture, and the cacophonous color scheme (all those bright yellows and reds), one tends to feel immediately “anxious” in the McDonalds.

What one feels in the Westminster Cathedral, however, is a calmness brought on by a series of architectural and artistic decisions: the muted colors (grays and bleak reds), the romantic yellow lighting that bursts out onto Victoria Street, the intricate mosaics, and the vaulted ceilings. Although the Westminster Cathedral has the same principle elements of architecture as the McDonald’s—windows, doors, floors, ceilings, and seats—the cathedral helps people to relax and reflect, where the fast food restaurant causes one to feel stressed and hurried.

It seems part of humans’ appreciation of beauty is because it is able to conjure the feelings we tend to associate with happiness: calmness, a connection to history or the divine, wealth, time for reflection and appreciation, and, perhaps surprisingly, hope.

People's physical beauty can help with dating and often it spells a path to economic success. But the beauty around us—the sky-high nave of the Westminister Cathedral, the ability to appreciate a simple lunch—offers hope that life can inch closer to perfection.

“So long as we find anything beautiful, we feel that we have not yet exhausted what [life] has to offer,” writes Nehamas. “That forward-looking element is … inseparable from the judgment of beauty.”

Beauty often starts with something small. For the participants in the Goldberg study, it is about the appearance of a city; in the Monet painting, it is the appreciation of eating in the countryside; for Plato and many other philosophers, beauty is about achieving knowledge. But just because beauty can begin with the appreciation of colors, cuisine, and colonnades does not make it a superficial pursuit. As the 18th-century French writer Stendhal wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”

For me beauty if far more than the “promise” of happiness; it’s happiness itself. I am made happy by beauty, and unhappy by ugliness.

Actually, the study confirmed that for most people, Freud was right: happiness is sex. But after that (and, surprisingly, after exercise) comes living in a beautiful place and enjoying beauty in various forms. That’s why, all along the California coast, crowds gather near the beach to watch the sunset. Sometimes I think if I were paralyzed and unable to write, life would still be worth living — if I could still watch another Pacific sunset.

It matters!

“Imagine for a minute that you were at a coffee shop and were offered the option of being served coffee in either a lovely porcelain cup or in a not-so-lovely plastic cup. Which cup should you pick?

According to Aradhna, when we drink coffee—or for that matter, when we eat or drink anything else—we taste it not just with our taste-buds, but also with our other senses. The sense of smell, as most people know, is inextricably intertwined with the sense of taste. (Without being able to smell, for example, some people claim that we cannot distinguish between potato and apple. I’ve never checked this myself, but after seeing this video—particularly the latter half—, I have a good mind to try it out on my kids!) Indeed, Aradhna argues, it is not just the sense of smell that is intertwined with taste, but virtually all the other senses, including touch, sound, and sight are too, which is why the texture of chips (soft vs. crisp), the sound that it makes when we bite it (its “crunchiness”), as well as its color (golden yellow vs. white or brown), can all significantly affect our enjoyment of it.

According to Aradhna, the reason all of our senses matter is because all sensory inputs are ultimately combined into one overall evaluation in the part of our brain called the orbitofrontal cortex. In other words, we literally cannot distinguish the extent to which different sensory inputs contributed to our overall enjoyment of food. This may be one reason why people’s brains light up more—meaning there is evidence at the neurological level that people derive greater enjoyment—when they taste the same wine from a bottle that they think is more (vs. less) expensive.

A question that follows from the perspective of someone who wishes to maximize their pleasure from drinking a cup of coffee, then, is: should one attach importance to the cup? Or, put in more general terms, does “packaging” matter? Does the cover of a book matter for enjoying its content? Does a person’s physical attractiveness matter for enjoying their company?

The answer, according to Aradhna, would be resounding “Yes!” While she points to one reason why we enjoy something more when it is presented in a more pleasing manner—namely, that our brain combines all sensory inputs into one overall evaluation—findings from yet another stream of research, on “halo effects,” reveal another reason why superficialities matter. Halo effect findings reveal that, when something is more pleasing to our senses, we impute a whole bunch of other positive qualities to it. Thus, for example, a good-looking person is thought to be more intelligent, competent, and warm, which is why attractive people earn more money than their less-attractive counterparts. Halo effects seem to apply, within some limits, to inanimate stimuli as well, which is why we enjoy a shopping environment more when it looks and smells good.

In sum, presentation matters. The cup from which we drink matters, perhaps not as much as the coffee itself, but it can certainly add significantly to, or detract significantly from, our enjoyment of the coffee. Likewise, it stands to reason that we enjoy a book more when its cover is better-designed and a hotel room more when it is more put-together, etc.”

Sensory pleasure really IS important for our health and well-being, both emotional and physical (there is really no separating those two). Beauty of our surroundings -- and presumably of the objects we use -- is in fact important for happiness. When it comes to matters like housing, it can be critically important. The so-called superficialities are not in fact entirely superficial: we do judge a book by its cover, among other things. A beautiful cover will attract readers. Oscar Wilde even said that beauty is more profound than truth.

“The notion that happiness is actually attainable belongs to the second half of the 18th century, as Freud pointed out. Previously there had been a general consensus that no one can be called happy until he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace. Paradiso was strictly for the pages of Dante. In Greenland, for example, the Greenlanders bought into Christianity on account of its persuasive description of pain and suffering. The vale of tears was real. And then Captain James Cook, and his French counterpart, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, embarked upon their great voyages. Bougainville’s Voyage autour du monde (1771) seems to suggest that this journey had less to do with discovery or French imperialism, than the pursuit of happiness. What’s more, Bougainville suggests that happiness was actually found—in Tahiti.

Bougainville stresses two things. First, that the Tahitians live a life of wellbeing, and don’t have to work too hard either. Second, that the women—and to some extent the men too—throw themselves willingly at French sailors, which adds significantly to the happiness of French sailors. There are of course darker strands to the narrative—Bougainville mentions at least one murder, and hints that in fact sexual bliss may actually have been obtained in exchange for a few nails or other useful items. But nevertheless, I think we can say that Bougainville was concerned less with the pursuit of happiness itself, than with the fact it had finally been located and lived out in the southern hemisphere. It was just a question of transporting the south back into the north (as Margaret Mead would ultimately argue, in her 1928 bestseller Coming of Age in Samoa). Captain Cook got there a little bit late in the day but it was his crew who were the first Europeans to witness surfing. Thus “the most supreme pleasure” (as surfing was described by Willliam Anderson, Cook’s surgeon on the Resolution) was just the ticket to “allay all perturbation of mind.”

These travelers' tales of transcendence had a powerful impact on subsequent thinkers. Freud, for one. His theory of the id and the ego transposes the 18th century map of the world, specifically the north/south divide, onto the map of the human psyche. The “southern” id was having all the fun—the pleasure principle—while the more northerly ego was reining in the hedonistic savage self with a good dose of the “reality principle.”

This article argues that equating happiness with hedonism is wrong. Personally, I need meaningful work and beauty. Freud said “love and work” — for me love and beauty and work are all fused. If I have beauty and the freedom to do the work I love, then every cell in my body gets the message I need to keep on living: “You are loved.”


This is a society where it’s very easy to see oneself as a “loser.” I have suffered from self-blame immensely. Eventually I managed to see the broader context and redefine “success” -- but only after years and years of needless suffering, including suicidal depression.

“Ron Paul epitomized the spirit of blame in 2011 when he passionately argued in a televised debate that the decision to forego health insurance was a fundamental right of Americans. When the moderator asked him if this would mean that someone without health insurance who was critically injured should die rather than receive government help, audience members could be heard shouting, “Yeah!” Take a risk and succeed, and you are a hero. Take a risk and fail, and you are to blame—even if it costs you your life. Risk and blame are the hallmarks of worthy personhood in contemporary American society.

But the puzzling question is why people who do not benefit from a system of blame—that is, most Americans—cling so fiercely to its creed. Seeking an answer, I spent several years researching the American working class, the very people whose homes are underwater and whose college debt goes unpaid. I witnessed how blame was deployed in everyday life to solve problems—to anchor the self, judge worthiness, grant dignity, and make sense of failures. In short, I learned that blame is a strategy to make certain what is uncertain.

Self-blame is shored up by a multi-million dollar self-help industry. But its true power lies in its promise that we can will ourselves to happy and successful lives, in its ability to make a virtue out of failure, insecurity, and uncertainty. As Kelly, a line cook who has lived on and off in her car, explained, “Life doesn’t owe me any favors. I can have a sense of my own specialness and individuality, but that doesn’t mean that anybody else has to recognize that or help me accomplish my goals.” Those who embrace blame tend to have little empathy for those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If I have to go it alone, the logic goes, then everyone else should, too.

As Fried argues, blame is costly, both socially and politically. Blame divides potential communities of solidarity into winners and losers. Even more worrisome, the quest for personal responsibility and the eagerness to blame oneself for failure obscures the larger forces that have weakened our social safety net, our communities, and our families. Doing away with gratuitous blame—directed at others and at ourselves—requires building institutions that restore, carefully and thoughtfully, our collective supply of meaning, trust, and dignity.

A reader’s comment:

Corporations should be required to have human resources that offer effective and LEGITIMATE support to employees, and are not just the corporations pathetic hiring/firing/chastising back-stabbing arm.  As employees feel stronger and are actually trusted by corporations, they will take more initiative and pride in their work.... you know, like how it used to be in America in the 1950s!  The worst thing to happen to the USA is libertarians and people who hate other people. 

Another reader:

About welfare leading to unsustainable taxation:  My view is that we could afford to pay out a good deal more welfare without so much as noticing the cost.  The problem is that the 0.1% and multinational corporations are paying negligible taxes, and receiving enormous amount of welfare.  The government -- until recently the Pentagon, now more NIH, because the cutting edge of the economy has shifted from technology to biology -- takes on enormous investment to produce innovations like the computer, and the Internet, and then gives those over to private interests to exploit.  This is the socialization of risk and privatization of profit.



I can't help it, I'm still thinking of Lenin's strange death — most likely poisoned by Stalin, first using a small dose, which didn't do the job but caused an odd, medically unexplained pain in the eyes, and then the massive dose which caused convulsions (stroke doesn't cause convulsions, but many poisons do). There were orders not to do tissue toxicology. Lenin was planning to remove Stalin from power. He also had a plan to democratize (at least to a degree) the Central Committee. Imagine an alternate history . . .

This idea is haunting me again, along with the thought that throughout history, many rulers have been assassinated.


ZUCCHINI, YELLOW CROOKED-NECK SQUASH, AND THE MIRACLE OF PECTIN: healing inflammatory intestinal disorders, protection against diabetes

We tend to think about squashes, both summer and winter, as starchy vegetables. This thinking is correct, since about 85-90% of the total calories in squashes (as a group) come from carbohydrate, and about half of this carbohydrate is starch-like in composition and composed of polysaccharides. But we also tend to think about polysaccharides as stagnant storage forms for starch that cannot do much for us in terms of unique health benefits. Here our thinking is way off target!

Recent research has shown that the polysaccharides in summer squash include an unusual amount of pectin—a specially structured polysaccharide that often include special chains of D-galacturonic acid called homogalacturonan. It's this unique polysaccharide composition in summer squash that is being linked in repeated animal studies to protection against diabetes and better regulation of insulin. We expect to see future studies on humans confirming these same types of benefits from consumption of summer squash.



~ lowers cholesterol

~ lowers high triglycerides

~ helps prevent colon cancer and prostate cancer

~ promotes stable blood glucose and lowers the risk of diabetes

~ helps relieve gastroesophageal reflux (“heartburn”)

~ alleviates both diarrhea and constipation

~ may help arthritic joints by stimulating the production of synovial fluid

~ may help prevent the formation of gall stones

~ may help lower blood pressure


~ and a nod toward my “years of perdition”


“So did your Monday start with a bang?”
asks Tess, the phlebotomist.
I answer with an underwater stare
since I’m about to faint, having sat

for an hour on an empty stomach
in the waiting room, a parade
of humanity in wheelchairs
and their jumping-jack caretakers

surging to the little window, then back
against the wall. Tess inserts
another vial into the butterfly
needle. My veins are baby-fine

but my blood is dark red.
This worries me: my blood so dark
with the years, but silent about
the shipwreck of my life.

The phlebotomist ponders
my fish stare, pulls out the
needle with a kindly smile:
“I see. So this has been the bang.”

~ Oriana © 2015

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