Saturday, April 23, 2016


Klee, Castle and Sun, 1928


He said that he had hurt himself on a wall or that he had fallen.
But there was probably another reason
for the wounded and bandaged shoulder.

With a somewhat abrupt movement,
to bring down from a shelf some
photographs that he wanted to see closely,
the bandage was untied and a little blood ran.

I bandaged the shoulder again, and while bandaging it
I was somewhat slow; because it did not hurt,
and I liked to look at the blood. That
blood was a part of my love.

When he had left, I found in front of the chair,
a bloody rag, from the bandages,
a rag that looked like it belonged in garbage;
which I brought up to my lips,
and which I held there for a long time —
the blood of love on my lips.

~ Cavafy, (1919), tr Daniel Mendelsohn

This poem is a great favorite of mine, at least among Cavafy's poems. And I think I know why. “Ithaca” is a great poem, a poem of wisdom, but it doesn't speak to the heart — or not much. It’s didactic. This poem is very intimate. It’s a personal narrative, and it skillfully uses the main tool that can make a personal narrative so effective: it uses a “narrow slice.” You take a small incident, just a few details, a gesture, and you fully explore that “narrow slice.” And suddenly that very small incident becomes unforgettable and symbolic.

It’s amazing what can be achieved through specificity. What is being described would not usually be regarded as promising poetic material. Cavafy makes it moving and tender, and seems to be telling us all. In fact a lot is left unsaid, and that works very well too.

The power of specifics is the power of images. A bandage comes loose, a little blood runs, the speaker slowly bandages the arm again — and then the final image, “the blood of my love on my lips.” What Cavafy offers us here is a great image of impoverishment. Judging by his poems — though of course Cavafy tried to be restrained —  Cavafy's love life was one of deprivation more so than fulfillment. So that image of him holding he blood-covered rag to his lips carries desperation: he was ready to latch on to anything, any remnant of the presence of the beloved.

A friend reported that a woman she knew told her she put her hands into her lover’s ashes and then “washed” her face in those ashes. Somehow that sounds perfectly natural. Smearing your face with ashes was in fact one of the traditional ways to mourn someone — not necessarily the literal ashes of that person, but the meaning of ashes in general is related to death. I found what my friend described to be very moving.

By the way, Cavafy has been called a poet of “erotic ashes.” But then most love poems are about lost love.

Constantine Cavafy, 1900

Half past twelve. How time has gone by.
Half past twelve. How the years went by.


Maggots, pus, rotten meat, dirty toilets — would anyone guess that “disgust sensitivity” predicts how politically conservative the person will be? When neuroimaging is used, the accuracy of a strong disgust response predicting conservatism is 95% to 98% (I know this seems hard to believe).

“Researchers showed study participants a number of images designed to provoke a reaction of disgust, such as dirty toilets, as well as a host of more pleasant images of babies and landscapes. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers were able to see how a participant’s brain reacted to the images. Specific neural pathways correlate with feelings of disgust, making it possible for researchers to identify when a participant felt disgusted, even when he or she denied those feelings.

Researchers then administered a political ideology inventory, during which participants answered questions about divisive political issues such as gay marriage. People who had shown pronounced disgust responses were more likely to identify with conservative political positions. The correlation was so strong, in fact, that based solely on fMRI scans, researchers were able to predict with 95% to 98% accuracy how participants would answer various political questions.”

That disgust at images of maggots etc correlates with conservatism has been known since the nineties. Later studies refined the initial findings. But this is the first study that didn’t rely on self-report of disgust, which can be misleading (speaking strictly for myself, I’d be tempted to pretend that nothing disgusts me — I'm a “tough lady”).

Studies have also found that those who are obsessively clean are especially likely to be concerned with “moral purity” — but let’s remember that we are dealing with correlations here, and degrees along a spectrum, not absolutes. And of course there are exceptions.

Other traits strongly predicting conservatism are the need for cognitive closure and the urge to impose distinctions between the in-group and the out-group.

Klimt, The Swamp, 1900


Women tend have a stronger disgust response than men, and yet are typically more liberal, so the researchers found it important to separate out gender as a variable in these studies. Perhaps the type of image is also important: women are probably less disgusted with blood, being used to it, or with dirty toilets or laundry, being accustomed to cleaning toilets and doing the laundry, changing diapers etc — but they might be more disgusted with maggots (I'm only guessing).

Also, the response is probably affected by age, as so many things are. Having, like so many women, become more radical with age and less patient with “incremental change” (the principle of “jam tomorrow, but never jam today”), I asked myself if my disgust response to certain physical images is weaker or stronger now than it was in youth. Years of cleaning, fishing out dead animals, and most recently gardening, have weakened my disgust response, which used to be pretty strong. If I'm correct, this would argue for a heavy involvement of experience rather than being wired from birth with a weak or strong response.

I am not sure if we can ever disentangle those nature/nurture complexities. Even studies which found brain differences between conservatives and liberals can’t provide the answer if these are genetic or rather acquired through experience. Identical twin studies lean to the genetic answer — but political leanings seem to be less genetically determined than traits such as extraversion.

As for small dead animals, I don’t bury them. I leave them on the grass for the local owl. He can be relied on. Listening to the hooting is one of the great pleasures of my life.




Each candidate was asked if he wanted to be a regular fighter or a suicide bomber or suicide fighter, but only 12 percent ticked the box for martyrdom.

That ratio stands in stark contrast to another set of foreign fighters, those who joined Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, more than half of whom volunteered to blow themselves up, according to West Point. And analysts say the disparity reflects how ISIS marketed itself to the world and the kind of future it envisioned.

"They're selling this narrative of victory and sustaining... Many of these individuals it would seem are buying into that message and are going into there to live — not die."

Nearly two-thirds of the enlistees were in the 21-30 age group, but the other ends of the spectrum were also well-represented. Some 40 recruits were under age 15 and about 400 were under 21. Almost a quarter fell between ages 31 and 40. About 4 percent were between 41 and 50 and there were even 42 men over the age of 50.

The oldest person in the database was nearly 70, a married father of five from Kyrgystan who wanted to be a fighter and not a suicide volunteer.

Many have families

While six out of 10 fighters were single, 30 percent reported being married — and they had more 2,000 children between them. The notes on some of the applications show that some showed up with hopes of bringing their families along later if they could get the money needed for travel.

Nearly two-thirds of the enlistees were in the 21-30 age group, but the other ends of the spectrum were also well-represented. Some 40 recruits were under age 15 and about 400 were under 21. Almost a quarter fell between ages 31 and 40. About 4 percent were between 41 and 50 and there were even 42 men over the age of 50.

The oldest person in the database was nearly 70, a married father of five from Kyrgystan who wanted to be a fighter and not a suicide volunteer.

While six out of 10 fighters were single, 30 percent reported being married — and they had more 2,000 children between them. The notes on some of the applications show that some showed up with hopes of bringing their families along later if they could get the money needed for travel.

The biggest recruitment period was July 2014, following some of ISIS' most significant territorial seizures and the announcement that it was establishing a caliphate with dominion over the world's Muslims.


A third went to high school and a quarter had a college education; only 17 percent said they stopped their schooling after elementary or middle school. That level of education was higher than the average for many of the countries the men called home.

 While the stats might suggest that the fighters had prospects in their homeland, the West Point experts noted that many of them had more menial jobs than their education might suggest — a possible source of frustration that could have played into their decision to join up.

The group was less educated on Islam than might be predicted. Seventy percent said they had only a basic understanding of sharia. And in an unexpected turn, those with a deeper understanding of Islamic law were actually less likely to choose to be suicide bombers or fighters, despite the religious justification for suicide attacks.

Only 104 had high-skilled or white-collar positions. There were 700 laborers, roughly 10 times the number of teachers, IT employees, or those in the military or police. But the vast majority were employed before they joined: Only 255 said they were jobless. Another big group had yet to enter the labor force: 656 students. 

The three biggest feeder countries were Saudia Arabia (797 fighters), Tunisia (640) and Morocco (260), although Tunisia has the highest per capita rate. But they came from all corners of the world — from China (167) to Iceland (1) and Australia (13) to Trinidad and Tobago (2).

About 10 percent hailed from Western nations, including the United Kingdom (57) and the United States (14). In Europe, France (128) and Germany (80) had the highest numbers.

Dodwell said that while much of the material confirmed the center's understanding of who joins ISIS and why, the "massive amount of diversity" was the biggest eye-opener and poses a challenge for those researching how to counter radical extremism at the root level.


No surprise about Saudi Arabia being the biggest “feeder country.” All that oil wealth made it easy to export the most cruel and archaic form of Islam. 


We need to consider all angles before babbling about “majestic.” On the other hand, you could say this is the ultimate MODERN view of "majestic". But even we idealize and romanticize lots of things, because humans seem to have that need. As TS Eliot observed (he did say a few wise things, if not many), humankind can endure only so much reality. This said, I think as technology and other advances lower the stress of everyday living (on the whole; let's not get into that), we can psychologically afford to take in more reality. The lower the stress, the greater the tolerance for looking at things like falling in love and motherhood in a more sober light.


“I remember how much it bothered me back when I was a Christian and nonbelievers would cite the brutality of the Old Testament people, throwing their barbarism in our faces, as if doing so invalidated our own, more refined theological system. Didn’t they ever hear of progressive revelation? Don’t they realize God was saving the good stuff for later, when we could handle it?

This practice of romanticizing the problems of the Old Testament placated me when I was younger and more impressionable. But further reflection made me realize two major problems with this explanation:

In the Old Testament, when it says for example that the people of Israel were told to run swords through all the women and children (and yes, even the unborn) of Canaan, it says that God told them to do it. Which means that either it is somehow okay to commit genocide under the right circumstances (tell me again how my atheist morality is the one that’s relativistic?), or else it was wrong and the Bible got it wrong when it said that God told them to do it.”


One of Carter's ("Godless in Dixie") best. I've kept the excerpt deliberately short, hoping to attract people to read the whole article.

For me the clarity about how I felt about Christianity wasn't complete until I worked over the specifics long after my "mythology" epiphany, which turned out to be only the first step of a long journey — though a life-changing step. I did have to think about issues such as, is the god of the OT different from the god in the NT (as Gnostics and many other "heretics" claimed)?

It’s now embarrassing to remember that as a Catholic child I felt deeply sorry for the Jews, “stuck” with the Old Testament and its cruelties, its rigid rules and regulations (presented to us as Jesus’ various encounters with the despised Pharisees). Only later reading and thinking made me see that indeed the Gospels were written so as to seem to be the completion, fulfillment, and vindication of the Old Testament — and definitely not its contradiction.

Abraham honored for willingness to kill his son is a foundational story for Christianity because it’s a model for Yahweh’s willingness to have his son killed as “bloody ransom” to himself (or is the ransom to be paid to Satan? any closer look only gets us mired in barbarous confusion). 

Don't be seduced by the lofty poetry of the Gospel according to John. If god REALLY loved man, he would have forgiven sins without requiring a blood sacrifice. And if god really loved Israel, he wouldn't have allowed Christianity to come into being. 

Giotto: Jesus as Seraph Giving the Stigmata to St. Francis, 1295-1300

“One of the most remarkable findings in this area of psychology is just how many poor people say they are satisfied with their lives — very often a majority of them, even in harsh environments like the slums of Calcutta. In a recent study of poor Egyptians, researchers asked them to explain why they were satisfied, and their responses often took something like this form: “One day is good and the other one is bad; whoever accepts the least lives.” This sounds like resignation, not happiness. Yet these Egyptians were, in terms of life satisfaction, happy.

There is a long history of philosophical thought, with roots stretching back at least to Plato and Aristotle in Greece, and the Vedas in India, that conceives of human flourishing in terms of the fulfillment of the self. Human well-being, on this sort of view, means living in accordance with your nature, with who you are. On this way of thinking, we might regard happiness as a central part of self-fulfillment.”

That’s because our brain constructs happiness regardless of circumstances — barring extreme conditions, of course. That’s why “money can’t buy happiness.” Oh well, to some extent it can. In the West at least, the rich report more happiness than the poor. Money helps, no question. Money can buy less stress and interesting experiences (like travel and educational workshops) that can prove fulfilling. Wealth provides security; it provides more options.  

So, all right, money can buy happiness up to a point. But mostly, we still insist, and with a reason, contentment comes from within. “As long as I have my health,” people say, or, “I'm just glad to be alive.” There's much to said for low expectations and minimal ambition.

The title and these two paragraphs are much better than the article, so I’ll skip the link to save up on access to New York Times articles (I'm too cheap to subscribe — doesn’t seem a sufficient value).

As for the title — Ah, Sigmund, what did you start? Perhaps Viktor Frankl is the right response to this — “Man’s Search for Meaning.” But a child is happy or unhappy without any search for meaning, so I still say that looking out the window and loving the world, wanting to embrace the trees and kiss the flowers — that’s happiness enough, without having to win the Nobel Prize. The longer I live, the lower my requirements for what can make me happy.

Just seeing a hummingbird is enough.

Postscript: I still think that the wisest thing Freud ever said was his answer to what was most important in life. He replied, “Love and work.” Perhaps as the ability to work ebbs as we grow older — though the happiest people seem to be the ones who stay the most active — we shift more toward love. 

I don’t mean romantic love, but rather love as tenderness, affection, delight. Delight in the things of this world — by which I don’t mean fame and fortune, but rather trees and animals — can loom larger and larger. The simple act of watering houseplants becomes vastly satisfying. We can see that as a diminishment, but there is a more insightful interpretation of this phenomenon: an enlargement of the capacity to love. 
I have something to say to the religionist who feels atheists never say anything positive: You are an intelligent human being. Your life is valuable for its own sake. You are not second-class in the universe, deriving meaning and purpose from some other mind. You are not inherently evil — you are inherently human, possessing the positive rational potential to help make this a world of morality, peace and joy. Trust yourself. ~ Dan Barker

But this minuteness of our earth and of humanity shouldn't be any cause of emotional distress. From the new humility about “our place in the universe” can be born a stronger humanism: a focus on human cooperation and fuller appreciation of the only paradise we’ll ever have. We can be gentle, we can be kind; we can protect nature rather than destroy it (no “dominionism,” please). Though the universe wasn’t created for us, we can still use our intelligence to make this life (there is no other) as good as possible — for all, including animals.


A new study finds the dairy fats found in milk, yogurt and cheese may help protect against Type 2 diabetes.

The research, published in the journal Circulation, included 3,333 adults. Beginning in the late 1980s, researchers took blood samples from the participants and measured circulating levels of bio-markers of dairy fat in their blood. Then, over the next two decades, the researchers tracked who among the participants developed diabetes.

"People who had the most dairy fat in their diet had about a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes" compared with people who consumed the least dairy fat, says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who is also an author of the study.

The study does not prove a cause and effect, but it builds on a body of evidence suggesting that dairy fat may have protective effects, both in cutting the risk of diabetes and helping people control body weight.

"It appears that children who have a higher intake of whole milk or 2 percent milk gain less weight over time" compared with kids who consume skim or nonfat dairy products, explains DeBoer.

And there's some evidence that dairy fat may help adults manage weight as well. As we've reported, researchers in Sweden found that middle-aged men who consumed high-fat milk, butter and cream were significantly less likely to become obese over a period of 12 years compared with men who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy.

So, in other words, the butter and whole-milk eaters did better at keeping the pounds off. In addition, a meta-analysis -- which included data from 16 observational studies — also found evidence that high-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of obesity.

With all the new evidence that challenges the low-fat-is-best orthodoxy, Mozaffarian says it may be time to reconsider the National School Lunch Program rules, which allow only skim and low-fat milk.

ending on beauty:

In some old plays, when the traveler turns
his sleeve inside out it means

he is still lost on some interminable journey.
Under the moon, the white moths are breathing;

we take off our shoes and socks
just to step on the grass.

~ Luisa A. Igloria

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