Saturday, May 21, 2016


the “palm at the end of the mind”?


Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed.

~ Mark Strand, from "The Continuous Life”

How badly we need to undo the saying that the best thing is to have never been born — the so-called “wisdom of Silenus” (a minor rustic god of wine). And here at last is the antidote to the original anti-life venom: the contrary statement we need to hear again and again in order to fully love life: “the luckiest thing is having been born.” Yes. Given the chances against it, it’s a miracle to be celebrated every day.

“The luckiest thing is having been born” — it took over 20 centuries for a poet to finally admit this. True, we also have Rilke’s “Just to be here is magnificent.” And in Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, the dying Vito Corleone’s last words are: “Life is so beautiful.” (Oddly enough, that’s not in the movie — was the statement regarded as too controversial?)

In a similar vein:

“The day before singer Lou Reed died, according to his wife composer/performance-artist Laurie Anderson, he was floating in his swimming pool at home, and said, “You know, I am just so susceptible to beauty.”

Anderson said of it: “I think of that every day. How to open yourself to the world. And really appreciate it. Because boy, this is it. This is all we have. Right here. So you better pay attention. After Lou died, I was not expecting that at all—this feeling of being dazzled by life.” ~ Gregg Levoy

But we’ve been waiting for someone to simply to contradict the original statement, so famous and so poisonous.

The great task of poetry is to praise, to undo the great load of the hatred of this world, this life, the body, being human (especially being a woman), the stages of life, each one an adventure . . .

Silenus, marble sarcophagus, 2nd century c.e.

COPERNICUS, THE FOREFATHER OF THE “DEATH OF GOD” (the end of the era of the “small universe”)

From the moment when Copernicus announced that the earth, which had been the footstool of God, was but a minimal fraction of the universe, the old tribal deity began to die. ~ Will Durant, “Fallen Leaves”

Durant shows a keen insight here. We can indeed trace the beginning of the “death of god” back to Copernicus. The old gods go back to the “small universe” era. They lived on mountain tops, or in castles in the clouds. Even the earth was imagined as much smaller than today we know it to be. The stars were just little lights high up, but not too high, lights that went on so it wouldn’t be too dark when the sun went somewhere for the night.

It was also not yet quite as absurd to imagine that all that existed was merely a stage for the drama of the human life.

Durant also comments, ahead of his time, on how religion first begins to die “in the educated classes,” while thriving in poverty and hardship:

“Historically ‘underprivileged’ nations and classes have sought consolation in supernatural beliefs, dignifying themselves by association with mystic powers, and tempering the sting of poverty with hopes of a better fortune in another world. Chronic illness, deformity, or grief may serve like poverty to generate such creeds.”

At the same time Durant, who didn’t believe in a personal god, greatly admired the ethics of Christ.

“[I hope] that the love which radiated from Christ will overcome the fearful intolerance of empowered creeds.” ~ “Fallen Leaves”

Though my atheism is rooted in literature (via mythology) more so than science, my love of paleontology and cosmology also provoked disquieting thoughts. The universe seemed to be much too large and too ancient to be only about humans. Also, it didn't seem to need god -- for instance, it could be posited that the universe always existed, going through cycles, energy into matter, etc.

For me the notion that religion — any religion — was man-made mythology was sufficient to invalidate it as any kind of absolute truth. But I realize that for the average educated person the scientific worldview is a more powerful argument. One of the purposes of religion was to explain the universe. Without the development of science, atheism would be rare.

And to think that the gigantic shift in human thinking began with the idea that the earth moved around the sun, and not the other way. 

Copernicus House, Toruń (I was born in a charming ancient river-port town near Toruń)

Imagine that you are about to be born, but you do not know what gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status you will have when born. Nor do you know whether you will have a physical or mental disability. With that in mind, would you rather be born in North America in 1800, 1900, or 2000?

My students invariably get the point. They’d rather be born in our current day. And the reason is clear: western society on the whole is a far kinder place–and as Rawls would say, a more just place–today than it was 100 or 200 years ago. To put it another way, attitudes which were commonly held on gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and disability a century ago would shock most people today.

Consider one example. I have a friend who has severe scarring on his face from burns he suffered in a fire when he was a child. Up until the 1970s several American cities had so-called “ugly laws” that would give business establishments the right to withhold service from “such people” under the noxious assumption that these folk might make other patrons uncomfortable.

Think about that. Forty years ago a waitress at Denny’s could refuse to serve a customer with scarring simply because the waitress found the customer too ugly.

The overall trajectory is clear: the world is becoming a more humane, civil place. And for that we should be thankful.


That fundamentalist Christians are always assuming the world is getting worse is not surprising because they rejoice in it as a sign of the Last Days. They can barely wait for the Apocalypse. But that many liberals are stuck in the idea that everything is getting worse and worse -- that's just sheer ignorance. Not that we don't have huge problems — certainly. But just imagine being born in 1800, or even 1900, esp as a woman in a poor family —  the horror, the horror.

Lake Powell, photo: Preston Roulette


It can hardly be overemphasized that what constitutes the essence of the charismatic speaker or leader isn’t really their outgoingness at all. It’s their passion, their conviction, their sincere commitment to a belief, cause, or concern. And these enticing qualities have almost nothing to do with how temperamentally introverted or extroverted they might be. 

When such individuals address others, it’s the warmth and strength of their emotion—or the power of their eloquence—that inspires and motivates the audience (whether it be 1 or 1,000). Moreover, since they tend to delve deeply in to things, their studious intake of the subject they’re preparing to present may manifest vocally with quite as much intensity, even intimacy, as would be the case with an extrovert.

Although introverts are wired at birth to prefer solitude over socializing, and listening over talking, they’re not—by any reasonable definition—deficient in the art of self-expression or the power to influence others. For inherent in almost all of them is an “extroverted aptitude” altogether capable of charming and captivating those around them. As long as they have the knowledge, will, desire—and passion—to do so, introverts carry within them the same potential for charisma as do their more “out there” counterparts.
tourmaline crystal


“Catherine of Alexandria was removed from the calendar of saints by the Catholic Church in 1969, along with 200 others, due to “insufficient evidence of historicity”— a phrase meaning “they were just pretend.” Catherine was at the bottom of the class, one of 46 saints on the list whose existence was even more strongly declared “seriously doubtful.” Others removed at the time were St. Christopher and St. Valentine.

Though the church itself had decided Catherine was almost certainly a myth, there was little felt need to make this known. From museums to Catholic schools and websites, her story is still dutifully recounted in elaborate historical detail.

Colleges and cathedrals named for known fictions continue to act as if nothing has changed. Millions still pray for the intercession of characters who the hierarchy knows are no more capable of hearing them than Daenerys Targaryen.

I asked several faculty colleagues [at St. Catherine College in Minnesota] if they knew about Catherine’s quiet demotion. None of the non-Catholics did, and all were properly floored by the news. Of the Catholic faculty I asked, some knew and some didn’t, but all of them shrugged. Not one had a problem with a known fiction being presented to the masses as true.

Here’s where it gets much worse.

Catherine’s story tells of a noble Christian woman steadfastly defending her beliefs, then being tortured and executed on a wheel by a pagan king for rejecting the pagan religion. But scholarship suggests that “Catherine’s” biography was most likely borrowed whole cloth from the actual philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria, who, according to Socrates Scholasticus, “made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”

So why didn’t the early church just make Hypatia a saint? Because of a sore spot in her résumé: Hypatia was not a Christian.

So an imaginary double was created in her stead, christened Catherine, and martyred dramatically, if ironically, for the one attribute the real person did not possess: Christian faith.

The irony goes deeper still: Scholasticus and other credible contemporaries report that Hypatia was murdered by a group of Christian monks, an assassination later applauded in the Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiû for “destroy[ing] the last remains of idolatry in the city.”

This cements the demented irony of the eventual identity theft: a pagan woman murdered by Christians for her beliefs was transformed into a Christian woman murdered by pagans for her beliefs.

When the time came to teach the final section of my critical thinking course at the college, I included this question on the topic choices for group research: Did Saint Catherine of Alexandria exist?

The students were puzzled by the question. Not one had ever heard that their school might be named for a nonexistent person. But one group took the topic.

It took very little time for them to find the whole story, Hypatia and all. In the process, they learned something I hadn’t known—that “Saint Catherine” was returned to the church calendar in 2002, not as a result of new evidence, but in recognition of her “usefulness as a symbol,” an iconic figure to emulate and to admire.

In the Q&A after the presentation, the (mostly Catholic) students, to their credit, erupted in outrage.

If it were openly acknowledged that the college is named for a fictional character, one student said – if we were all gathered together behind the Wizard’s curtain – that would be different. Instead, they were asked to invoke her concretely, to literally plead for her guardianship of our college, her blessings on us all.

And what does it say about humanity, another asked, that we have to create fictional heroes? Is it even good to require perfection, virginity, and martyrdom before we can admire someone?

At the root of the discussion was a queasy feeling that either blithe incuriosity or willful patronizing was at work here, that the love of these stories had at some level mattered more than the truth. The truth certainly mattered to these students – not whether something was “culturally true,” or “that-which-is-true-but-never-happened,” or any of the other concepts that ought to go find themselves a word that isn’t already defining something else. These students wanted to know the truth, definition 1, about the name that would be on their diplomas.

Finally, someone asked: “And what about Hypatia?”

Yes. What about Hypatia? What does fiction do to the reality it supplants? What about this actual flesh-and-blood woman of actual accomplishments, cast aside in favor of a cardboard cutout? Isn’t there something especially vile about what the mythic Saint Catherine does to the real human person Hypatia?
The crowning irony: the imaginary saint, St. Catherine of Alexandria, was regarded as the patron of philosophers

In Alzheimer’s disease results from clinical studies have been inconclusive but promising. In one randomized double-blind study, Alzheimer’s patients on a ketogenic diet showed significant cognitive improvement compared to patients not following the diet. In cell cultures, ketone bodies have been shown to be effective against the toxic effects of beta-amyloid, a key pathological feature of the disease. The diet may also help reduce oxidative stress and enhance mitochondrial function.

Mitochondrial dysfunction is also thought to play a contributory role in Parkinson’s disease, with its characteristic movement and cognitive impairment. In one small clinical trial of five patients with Parkinson’s disease, patients on the diet reduced their scores on the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale by 43.4%.

The diet may also prove helpful in the treatment of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. Mitochondrial dysfunction is also likely to play role in this devastating disease of the motor neurons. Though human studies have not yet been performed, mouse models of the condition have yielded promising results. In these mouse models, animals given a ketogenic diet showed significant motor improvements compared to animals on a normal diet.

Researchers speculate that the diet may prove helpful in even more neurological conditions, such as recovery from stroke and brain injury. Though the diet is an accepted treatment for refractory epilepsy, in other neurological conditions more clinical trials are needed to see if the diet is truly efficacious. If borne out, the diet may open another therapeutic avenue for the treatment of these diseases.

ending on beauty
In becoming a photographer I am only changing medium. The essential core of both verse and photography is poetry. ~ Minor Martin White (1908-1976)


From the mountains thick-pelted 

they rise; the prairies are marching, 

the silver heads of bison bow.

The real heaven is passing by,

the wind on their backs,

along their flanks the sun’s burnish.

Myths surge, and animals yet uninvented, 

darkening into existence —

Let me walk with them — may my eyes

be vast like that — 

let me name them before the last sky 

marbles in mid-flow, still far from the entrance.

~ Oriana © 2016

Minor Martin White: Barn and Clouds, 1955

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