Griffith Observatory, Hollywood
“So why isn’t it blue?”
a little girl asks,
squinting through the coin
telescope. The moon rises,
huge, rusty orange,
terracotta almost, Etruscan.
Not a sleek virgin Diana
in the whispering woods,
but a scarred crone.
The rim compasses
a filament of light
only to the forgiving eye;
through the lens, it blisters
with unhealing craters,
like secret violence
behind the Muse’s smile.
Years ago you asked, terrified,
“Suppose we fall in love —
Only from an ignorant distance
can love look
We are children of an ancient fire —
the Eros of creation,
the plasma flower-flames of stars;
the fire sleeping inside rock;
the delicious fire
that enters us when we embrace.
On a mountain under the blue moon,
we hold each other above
constellations of street lights,
the great city endless and calm,
shimmering and fusing.
You point out the long boulevards:
Sunset, Hollywood, Santa Monica.
I see then those are holy names.
“What do you wish for?” you ask.
“The future.” You say, “We are next.”
We are next: not dust to dust,
but fire to fire. In between,
love and tears and the blue moon —
fired clay, the mottled hue
of everything that happens.
The observatory’s giant helmet
rotates. Wind brings the smell of sage.
A coyote slips across the road.
He leaps into the dark
through our hearts. We are next.
~ Oriana © 2015
Last night’s “blue moon”; photo by M. Kasprzyk
DID ADAM HAVE A FORESKIN? ST. PAUL’S “CIRCUMCISION OF THE HEART”
At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.“Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the Lord let him alone. Exodus 4:24-26, NIV.
“Yahweh could have chosen anything to identify his people as his own, and of all the possibilities, he chose circumcision to be their identity marker. From a literary standpoint, this makes the character of God in the Old Testament at least a little bit creepy, if not grotesque. But then again, they say the higher the initial cost of entrance into a community, the greater will be the retention of its members (ahem).
Christians are fond of saying that we are intelligently designed. I wonder if they feel the same way about the male foreskin? Is that a part of our intelligent design? Did God create Adam with a foreskin only to turn around and decide it was gross?
If you believe Adam was a real historical person, and if you believe that he had the same genetic make-up as the rest of his descendants, then you cannot turn around and say this extraneous anatomical feature was a consequence of “The Fall.” And yet the elimination of that feature became a central metaphor for Christian spirituality the moment Paul decided to appropriate it [metaphorically] for the rest of the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.
Paul was stuck with a dilemma: How do you take a religion rooted in primitive barbarism, where everything hinges on the shedding of blood, and make it palatable to a larger, more sophisticated audience? . . . Solution: You allegorize the practice and tell people that throughout the long history of the Jewish people God was really trying to tell us that we each have a “sin nature” or a “flesh” that we need to have “cut off” by the High Priest of Heaven, presumably with the “sword of the Spirit.” True circumcision, Paul elucidates, is of the heart.
Making the central symbol for his religion a metaphorical procedure rather than a medical one, Paul helped innovate the Christian message into something that people of all ethnicities could buy into. In so doing, he almost singlehandedly saved Christianity from historical obscurity.
Circumcision of Jeuss, Monologion of Basil, 989-994
Think about what this is saying for a second. The implication here is that we are born not as we should be, and we need someone else to come along and change us into what we are supposed to be. But hold on a second. Who made us like this? If we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by someone other than our biological parents, why are we being blamed for what we are?
Solution: It’s not God’s fault that you’re so messed up, it’s Adam’s fault, or else it’s somehow your own (depending on which kind of church you attend). Just as the male member needs to have divine surgery performed on it before it is pleasing to God, so must human nature be fundamentally altered before it becomes something God can be proud of.
Again this leads me to ask, hypothetically speaking: Did Adam have a foreskin? If so, was that a good thing or a bad thing?
A Fundamentally Anti-Human Message
I’ve written about this many times before (see my “Anti-humanism: How Evangelicalism Taught Me the Art of Self-Loathing“). I see at the heart of the Christian message a fundamental flaw which sees human beings as essentially broken (see also “We Are Not Broken“), needing to be fixed. But if anything is fundamentally broken, it’s the narrative that requires seeing human beings in the worst possible light, dependent upon a derivative goodness wherein someone else always has to swoop in and save us from ourselves, wretched things that we are. Any message which says that we deserve to be thrown onto a burning trash pile just for being ourselves is a bad message, and it’s not good news.
To me, this is why circumcision is a perfect metaphor for the Christian message. It takes an invasive and violent image, one which requires the shedding of blood, and it tells you that something which is completely natural to you must be cut off in order for you to become pleasing to God.
Oriana: THE IMPORTANCE OF FORBIDDING PLEASURE
The “circumcised heart” is a difficult image to process. What part of our heart are we to sacrifice to the demanding deity? The bible mentions the “foreskin of the heart,” but surely even back in those days of imprecise anatomy, the meaning had to be symbolic.
The function of the foreskin is to protect the glans, the most sensitive part of the penis, the one that receives the most pleasure. Religions have tried to forbid pleasure, or at least to limit it severely — the more severely, the better, it seems, given that only the most demanding and restrictive of fundamentalist churches have shown any growth in membership in recent decades.
Forbidding pleasure is a very important part of religion. If you make a sacrifice (fasting, not eating certain forbidden foods; no sex or sex only in marriage, without contraception; no masturbation), you are investing in that religion, and have to justify the sacrifice to yourself. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the need to assert strong belief.
The gods have always demanded sacrifice. If it happened to be animal sacrifice, let’s remember that sacrificial animals were not cheap.
And speaking of religion’s need to forbid pleasure: Maimonides claimed that the real purpose of circumcision was to decrease masturbation (I have no idea if it’s effective that way).
But let’s not forget that St. Paul was trying to define a “real Jew.” It’s not circumcision that makes a man a real Jew, he said, but circumcision of the heart, not by the knife, but by the Spirit. Nevertheless, the core imagery of cutting something off can’t be erased.
The circumcised heart can’t really follow its bliss. Typically you can’t just fall in love as you please, or eat and drink anything you’d like, or listen to music (depending on the religion), or study any subject that appeals to you. You do your religious duty. Whether you arrive at the point that the duty is always the same as what you WANT to do is debatable — sure, you can get to the point where you really want to fast, but at the peril of anorexia. Conflicts between duty and desire are difficult enough without religion entering the picture, but with religion, more misery is pretty guaranteed. Human nature is seen as fallen and depraved, and the deepest desires can be branded as sinful.
Obviously parents play a big role. If they dream that their daughter should become a nun, they will not send her to ballet classes. If a son steered to enter a seminary develops a serious interest in painting or sculpting, or, heaven forbid, acting, well, then he doesn’t have a circumcised heart.
(As for the “Feast of the Circumcision” it was at first emphasized as the day on which the blood of Jesus was first shed. But since circumcision — eight days after birth — was also the time when the boy received his name, the holiday got renamed as “The Feast of the Name of Jesus” — and was basically retired.)
But back to the circumcised heart — the heart devoted to religious duty. I remember a TV program that interviewed monks about their lives. All admitted that sex remained a problem. I can’t forget one monk, who said that he thinks a lot about having given up marriage and family life. “I keep wondering what it would be like to have children, whether I might enjoy being a father. Every day I think about it,” he said, almost breaking down. “I hope God is pleased with my sacrifice,” he added with unconcealed bitterness.
The sadness in his face spoke volumes. I thought, Get out, get out, before you’re too old. You could still get married . . . But what would be put down on his resumé? Back then there was no “Clergy Project,” no organization to help those who want to escape and live a full human life.
So the “circumcision of the heart” is about submission and sacrifice, allegedly voluntary but certainly heavily influenced by factors such as the religion one is born into. What’s being cut away? Freedom.
But do we really have free will, or are even our desires strictly determined? Let’s not even get into that . . .
Alas, the idea that there is no condemnation in Christ is itself a fiction. Both Bart Ehrman and Reza Aslan tell how the “Come to Jesus” Fundamentalist summer camps present Jesus as so loving and accepting that it’s not possible not to fall in love with Jesus. But when Ehrman and Aslan began to study the Gospels in the seminary, a different Jesus emerged. That Jesus did judge and condemn and threaten his enemies with hell.
As I said, I am all for cherry-picking from religious traditions. Let’s read only those passages that inspire us — but with full awareness of that selectivity.
WHO STILL SMOKES? THE POOR, THE UNEDUCATED, ALCOHOLICS AND THE MENTALLY ILL
In the 1960s, more than 40 percent of Americans smoked. Now, that's down to 18% . Not only are fewer people smoking, heavy smokers are consuming fewer cigarettes.
Smoking is far more common among those living below the poverty level, those with GED-level education, and among American Indian or Alaskan Natives. Rates are also much higher in the lesbian, gay and transgender community.
The Midwest has a higher smoking rate than other areas and nearly double the rate in the West.
West Virginia has the highest rate in the country.
Only 6% of those with post-graduate education smoke.
(From a different source:) Surprisingly, few studies have addressed the association between smoking and drinking despite the fact that 80 to 95% of alcoholics smoke cigarettes. NIAAA estimates that alcoholism is 10 to 14 times more prevalent among smokers than non-smokers. Other studies estimate that roughly 70% of alcoholics are classified as "heavy smokers", smoking more than one pack a day.
And a previous recent blog post explored the link between smoking and schizophrenia.
Alas, there is still a lot of smoking in Europe. The health campaigns against smoking have not been as aggressive or effective.
THE DANGERS OF FRUCTOSE
A long time ago a biochemist friend of mine, then a graduate student at UCLA, remarked, “We just discovered that fructose does really horrible things to the arteries.” He made a face: “REALLY horrible. Fructose just destroys the arteries.”
This was long the campaign against high-fructose syrup. Biochemists knew fructose was a lot more harmful than glucose some twenty year earlier than that.
Here are two fairly recent articles.
FRUCTOSE AND INCREASED RISK OF PANCREATIC CANCER, SMALL INTESTINE CANCER, AND POSSIBLY OTHER CANCERS
Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2012 Oct;19(5):367-74. doi: 10.1097/MED.0b013e328357f0cb.
Fructose consumption and cancer: is there a connection?
Port AM1, Ruth MR, Istfan NW.
PURPOSE OF REVIEW:
Cancer cell metabolism is characterized by high rates of glucose uptake and anaerobic glycolysis. Sugar consumption has increased dramatically in the industrialized world, with refined fructose intake skyrocketing upwards in the USA over the past 30 years. Fructose provides an alternative carbon source for glycolysis, entering downstream of glucose and bypassing two key rate-limiting steps. Considering that glycolysis is the major pathway which fuels cancer growth, this review will focus on regulation and flux of glucose versus fructose through this pathway, and consider whether epidemiologic and experimental data support a mechanism whereby fructose might potentiate cancer growth in transformed cells.'
Fructose intake is associated with increased risk of pancreatic and small intestinal cancers, and possibly others. Fructose promotes flux through the pentose phosphate, which enhances protein synthesis and may indirectly increase tumor growth. Fructose treatment is associated with more aggressive cancer behavior and may promote metastasis.
Whereas glucose favors overall growth kinetics, fructose enhances protein synthesis and appears to promote a more aggressive cancer phenotype. Fructose has become ubiquitous in our food supply, with the highest consumers being teens and young adults. Therefore, understanding the potential health consequences of fructose and its role in chronic disease development is of critical importance.
FRUCTOSE, OBESITY, AND SUGAR ADDICTION
There are two other things about fructose that make it different from glucose. One is that all the fructose you eat is cleared on its first pass through the liver. In other words, the liver scarfs up all the fructose and immediately converts it to fat, while glucose stays in the bloodstream for some period of time. That’s why we call starches hyperglycemic molecules; they keep glucose levels in your bloodstream high for a long time. That is good for the brain - the brain loves to eat glucose. It’s good for the muscle. But fructose doesn’t actually supply any energy to your brain at all, it doesn’t supply any energy to your muscle; it only gets stored as fat. That’s really quite remarkable, if you think about it. You eat sucrose - one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose - that glucose is being used by your muscle and your brain - your brain loves getting that glucose - but the fructose is all just getting stored as fat.
But does it also mean that you get hungrier - you want more sugar if you’re using fructose rather than glucose?
Exactly. You would have to eat exactly twice as much sucrose as starch to get the same amount of energy supplied to your muscle and brain. The brain realizes that, it keeps relaying a feedback so that the more sugar you eat, the more it wants you to eat. Hence the addiction to sweetness. That’s the dangerous thing about this molecule.
You might ask - well why did we evolve such a complicated system? Why does only the liver feed fructose straight into fat? I think it’s quite clear why this happens. We have a symbiotic relationship with plants. Plants want to spread their seeds around, so they surround them with fructose. High-fructose material surrounding the seeds gets us and other animals to eat them and this craving of fructose makes us eat them a lot and we end up carrying their seeds around and spreading them. But at the same time, it gives us an advantage because those fruits ripen just at the end of the growing season, which generally means, in almost all environments, that you’re not going to have much to eat over the next few months. So the best way to survive is to convert everything you eat at that time into fat. That is the long-term storage mechanism that allows you to survive until the next growing season. That’s why fructose was spectacular for us 10,000 years ago, getting us through these famines that we faced every year. But today we don’t have famines and so we just get fat.
And here’s an additional comment. The way we’ve attempted to avoid this problem is by using artificial sweeteners. The problem with those is that a disconnect ultimately develops between the amount of sweetness the brain tastes and how much glucose ends up coming to the brain.
So the brain figures you have to eat more and more and more sweetness in order to get any calories out of it. The consequence of people eating lots of sweeteners, no matter what they are - whether they’re natural or unnatural - is that it increases the addiction for the sweetness. As a consequence, at the end of the day, your brain says, 'OK, at some point I need some glucose here'. And then you eat an entire cake, because nobody can hold out in the end. The only way really to prevent this problem - to break the addiction - is to go completely cold turkey and go off all sweeteners - artificial as well as fructose. Eventually the brain resets itself and you don’t crave it as much.
WHY GENERALS THOUGHT THAT WWI WOULD BE OVER IN MONTHS
"We think of the First World War as having its causes in Europe, where the greatest bloodshed and destruction would take place. But several of the illusions that propelled the major powers so swiftly into war had their roots in far corners of the world.
The biggest illusion, of course, was that victory would be quick and easy. “You will be home,” Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany told his troops, “before the leaves have fallen from the trees.” The German campaign plan called for knocking France out of the war in 42 days. The Allies were not quite so arrogant, but were confident of triumph in months, not years.
A second illusion of those who marched proudly into battle in 1914 was that they would be shooting at the enemy, but that he would not be shooting back, or at least not effectively. How else to explain that most soldiers on both sides had no metal helmets? And that millions of French infantrymen, as well as the Austro-Hungarian cavalry, wore combat uniforms of brilliant red and blue? As the war began, troops from both sides advanced over open ground en masse, as if they were not facing repeating rifles and machine guns: bayonet charges by the French, and ranks of young Germans walking, arms linked, toward astonished British soldiers. The British would make plenty of similar suicidal advances of their own in the years ahead.
Where were these illusions born? They came from the way generals cherry-picked previous wars to learn from. A close look at the siege of Petersburg, Va., in the American Civil War, for instance, would have provided a lesson in trench warfare — and a sense of what it meant to be under fire from an early ancestor of the machine gun, the Gatling gun. A similar foretaste of both trench warfare and the power of the machine gun could be had by studying the siege of Port Arthur (now Dalian, China) in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.
But the men who led Europe into the First World War found it more comforting to look elsewhere — at battles where victory was swift and the enemy had little firepower. In 1914 Europe had not had a major war in more than 40 years and, except for the Russians, almost all officers who had actually seen combat had done so in lopsided colonial wars in Africa and Asia.
Erich von Falkenhayn, for example, chief of the German General Staff for the first two years of the war, had been in the international force that suppressed the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. Another veteran of that campaign — and of military service in Indochina and Algeria — was Robert Nivelle, later the French commander on the Western Front and the leader of a 1917 offensive that left 120,000 French soldiers dead or wounded and sparked a mutiny. Joseph Joffre, Nivelle’s predecessor, had served in Indochina and Madagascar, and had led an expedition across the Sahara to conquer Timbuktu. Most of the British generals had served in the colonies; when war broke out, Britain had more troops on active duty in India alone than in the British Isles.
Colonial wars seldom lasted long because the German, French and British Armies had modern rifles, machine guns and small mobile artillery pieces, as well as steamboats and railroads that could move men and weapons as needed. The Africans and Asians usually had none of these things.
In 1898, for example, a whole panoply of British officers (including Winston Churchill) who would later fight in Europe were on hand for a battle at Omdurman, in Sudan. The 50,000 Sudanese they faced were armed only with spears, swords and antiquated rifles. In a few hours, the six Maxim machine guns of the far smaller Anglo-Egyptian force fired half a million bullets, leaving nearly 11,000 Sudanese dead and some 16,000 wounded, many fatally. The battle determined the outcome of a war in less than a day.
Yet another illusion on both sides in 1914 was that a key force would be the cavalry. After all, hadn’t cavalry service been a path to military glory for more than 2,000 years? At the Cavalry Club on London’s Piccadilly Circus and its counterparts in Paris, Berlin, St. Petersburg and Vienna, officers eagerly anticipated more of the same. The initial German invasions of France and Belgium, for example, included eight cavalry divisions with more than 40,000 horses — the largest such body ever sent into battle in Western Europe. Tens of thousands of the unfortunate animals were laboriously shipped to the front over great distances: to the Middle East from New Zealand, to Belgium from Canada, to France from India.
Faith in the cavalry also sprang from colonial wars. British horsemen made a charge at Omdurman and did so far more spectacularly a year and a half later in another colonial conflict, the Boer War. Masked by an immense cloud of dust kicked up by thousands of galloping horses, the British successfully charged, almost unscathed, through Boer forces besieging the town of Kimberley, in present-day South Africa. “An epoch in the history of cavalry,” declared the London Times history of that war. “A staggering success,” read a German General Staff report on the battle.
None of the many military observers in the Boer War seemed to notice that one simple defensive measure could have stopped the great charge at Kimberley dead: barbed wire. On the Western Front in 1914, that, along with the machine gun, would spell doom for the cavalry and for the other illusions as well."
A reader’s comment:
The criminal stupidity of WWI generals is only one of degree. Our military is always fighting the last victorious war and seldom looking at the ones we lost. We might have learned, for example, from our horrific experiences suppressing and betraying the Philippines in the early 20th century just what guerrilla warfare entailed. That might have limited our disastrous experience in Vietnam. Then again, our disaster in Vietnam seemed to deter us very little in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least Obama---in Syria, Iran,-- has learned caution if our myriad armchair generals have not.
END OF LIFE AND THE APPRECIATION OF BEAUTY
OLIVER SACKS: A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.
I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”
“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.
I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.
I feel sorry for those who have never seen the “real” sky, away from light pollution caused by artificial lights of a city. What a vertigo of glow the countryside sky is on a clear night, when one can see billions of stars, and the edge of the Milky Way is very distinct.
It’s not just the “night sky” up there; it’s the Universe. And we are thrilled by the splendor. As Kant said, “Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.”
Milosz also observed that rather than withdrawing from the world as he grows older, feeling more indifferent toward its beauty, he finds the world more and more beautiful and life ever more sweet, every day precious.
It is a beautiful surprise that the fear of death, which used to occasionally torment me when I was younger, has grown much less as I’ve grown older. This is apparently fairly common. The need for the fairy tale of heaven grows less, not more, and one looks at the richness of life one has lived.
Three women walked into autumn
in a mountain village at night.
The youngest, the beautiful one, said,
“Let’s lie down and look at the stars.”
Oh speech beyond delight:
two women lying down
on the road, while the third
like a mother stood guard.
No star was withheld. A sky like that
needs to be seen lying down.
The pavement felt like a good
firm bed, neither cold nor hard.
In my childhood such wealth
was called a diamond night —
this dome of blazing darkness,
this vertigo of light.
And we were not afraid.
We lay open-eyed
while above us burned
the diamond city of time.
We could wish endless wishes,
but there was no need,
with such luxurious
light in our lives. We lay silent
in the silence of the stars,
letting the kingdom come.
~ Oriana © 2015