Sunday, July 31, 2016


Jupiter: View from Jupiter’s South Pole, from the Juno spacecraft, NASA, July 20, 2016

Mazury region, former East Prussia

In the forest near the lake we found,
half-buried in white sand,
a weather-scarred plaque
with the name of a German village.

We stared at the steep fence
of the Gothic alphabet.
Around, like a prayer for the dead,
the long shush of wind in the pines.

I repeated the name of the vanished
village like a spell. 

I thought we’d always find

that greenest of all the lakes,

crowned with the tallest pine 

where we sheltered from rain.
He put his jacket around me.

The needles shone with drops,

a forest of crystal. But I forgot
the spell — the lake 

among a thousand lakes,
the evenings hyphenated

with gold dashes of the fireflies.
The village weathered 

into silence —
a memory of a forgetting

I would remember all my life.

The name started with an A,

as in always, and ended
with an N, as in never.
In between, forest and wind —

the dead keening for the dead
in the amber forgetting of pines.

~ Oriana © 2016



~ “Carole Peterson’s research has found that small children can recall events from when they were as young as 20 months old, but these memories typically fade by they time they’re between 4 and 7 years old.

People used to think that the reason that we didn’t have early memories was because children didn’t have a memory system or they were unable to remember things, but it turns out that’s not the case,” Peterson said. “Children have a very good memory system. But whether or not something hangs around long-term depends on on several other factors.” Two of the most important factors, Peterson explained, are whether the memory “has emotion infused in it,” and whether the memory is coherent: Does the story our memory tells us actually hang together and make sense when we recall it later?

Steven Reznick explained that shortly after birth, infants can start forming impressions of faces and react when they see those faces again; this is recognition memory. Recognition memory is our most pervasive system. The ability to understand words and learn language relies on working memory, which kicks in at around six months old. More sophisticated forms of memory develop in the child’s second year, as semantic memory allows children to retain understanding of concepts and general knowledge about the world.

“When people were accusing infants of having amnesia, what they were talking about is what we refer to as episodic memory,” Reznick explained. Our ability to remember events that happened to us relies on more complicated mental infrastructure than other kinds of memory. Context is all-important. We need to understand the concepts that give meaning to an event.

False memories do exist, but their construction appears to begin much later in life. A study by Peterson presented young children with fictitious events to see if they could be misled into remembering these non-existent events, yet the children almost universally avoided the bait. As for why older children and adults begin to fill in gaps in their memories with invented details, she pointed out that memory is a fundamentally constructive activity: We use it to build understanding of the world, and that sometimes requires more complete narratives than our memories can recall by themselves.

And, as people get older, it becomes easier to conflate actual memories with other stimuli. Reznick told me of a distinct memory he has of riding in a toy wagon and tractor with his sister. The problem is that he doesn’t so much remember doing it as he remembers seeing himself do it, and he discovered why when he came across an old photograph of him and his sister riding in that very same wagon and tractor on the sidewalk outside their childhood house. He had forgotten having seen the photograph before but had remembered what it depicted, and the latter over time became its own memory.” ~


I find the part about false memories the most interesting. As a poet who has written many personal narratives, I also face an odd problem: I know I'd otherwise have forgotten all sorts of things. But poems are obviously not an accurate record. And that inaccurate record continues to haunt me and shape me.

"We tend to confuse memories with the real experience that gave rise to those memories.” ~ Daniel Kahneman


~ “For a long time, scientists thought childhood amnesia occurred because the brains of young children simply couldn't form lasting memories of specific events. Then, in the 1980s, Bauer and other researchers began testing the memories of children as young as 9 months old, in some cases using gestures and objects instead of words.

"What we found was that even as young as the second year of life, children had very robust memories for these specific past events," Bauer says. So, she wondered, "Why is it that as adults we have difficulty remembering that period of our lives?"

More studies provided evidence that at some point in childhood, people lose access to their early memories. So several years ago, Bauer and her colleague Marina Larkina decided to study a group of children to see what happened to their memories over time.

At age 3, the children were all recorded speaking with a parent about recent events, like visiting an amusement park or a visit from a relative. Then as the kids got older, the researchers checked to see how much they remembered.

And they found that children as old as 7 could still recall more than 60 percent of those early events, while children who were 8 or 9 recalled less than 40 percent. "What we observed was actually the onset of childhood amnesia," Bauer says.

It's still not entirely clear why early memories are so fragile. But it probably has to do with the structures and circuits in the brain that store events for future recall, Bauer says.

When a child is younger than 4, those brain systems are still quite immature, Bauer says. "It doesn't mean they're not working at all," she says. "But they're not working as efficiently — and therefore not as effectively — as they're going to be working in later childhood, and certainly in adulthood."

Some early memories are more likely than others to survive childhood amnesia, says Carole Peterson at Memorial University of Newfoundland. One example, she says, is a memory that carries a lot of emotion.

Findings like that are persuading courts to allow more eyewitness testimony from children, Peterson says. In the past, she says, courts thought children couldn't tell the difference between fact and fantasy. But studies have shown that they can, and that "the amount they remember is staggering."

The key to using children as witnesses is to make sure they are questioned in a noncoercive way, Peterson says. "They want to be cooperative," she says, "so you have to be very careful not to put words in their mouth.”

The Power Of Story

Another powerful determinant of whether an early memory sticks is whether a child fashions it into a good story, with a time and place and a coherent sequence of events, Peterson says. "Those are the kinds of memories that are going to last," she says.

And it turns out parents play a big role in what a child remembers, Peterson says. Research shows that when a parent helps a child give shape and structure and context to a memory, it's less likely to fade away.” ~

(No, it’s not the media! It’s attentional bias.)

~ “Consider how Amy looks at other people. She sees their features and figure, whatever good and bad parts stand out, a balanced assessment of their beauty. She has no special reason to pay extra attention to their good or bad parts, no special reason to judge them any particular way at all. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t much matter to her how other people look.

Contrast that to how much her appearance matters to her. How we look affects how people perceive us, how we perceive ourselves, how we feel walking down the street. Indeed, researchers have found that the more beautiful we are, the more we get paid, and the more we are perceived as honest and intelligent.

Like for most people, Amy’s beauty is a big deal to her. So which does she pay attention to, the potential gains of highlighting her good points, or the potential losses of highlighting her bad points? Research suggests that she will focus on losses. It’s called loss aversion.

 Amy carefully checks on all her flaws each time she looks in the mirror. The balanced beauty assessment that Amy graciously grants others is lost when she views herself. She sees herself as less beautiful than everyone else sees her.

Plus, whatever has your attention seems more important than what you’re not paying attention to. It’s called attentional bias. It’s a natural fact that if you spend most of the time carefully examining your flaws, and only very little time appreciating your good points, the flaws will tend to weigh heaviest in your mind.

Indeed, it takes years, a lifetime, even, to build up the blind spots to beauty, and the checklist of flaws Amy knows by heart. She can jump from one flaw to the next and to the next with an impressive speed and efficiency that would be fantastic if it wasn’t all aimed at tearing down the beauty before her.

Your intimate knowledge of your beauty could just as easily let you appreciate your subtle beauties as your subtle flaws, but thanks to loss aversion, your attention is dialed up to to ten and stuck on ruthless judgment.

 And so it is. Amy’s loss aversion focuses her attention on flaws. This attentional bias makes her misjudge her beauty for the worse, the handiwork of her emotional self. Then her unique intimacy with her appearance lets her unforgiving judgments strike more overwhelmingly and more piercingly than could her worst enemy. Indeed, in this, she is her own worst enemy.

Since others don’t have the ability to criticize us like we can, and they don’t have any reason to pay special attention to our faults, their attention towards us is more balanced. They see the clearest good and bad things.” ~

Oriana: We usually blame mass media for promoting unrealistic beauty standards. But that doesn’t explain why we see many other people as more attractive than ourselves. It makes sense that it’s the negative daily scrutiny — the negative “attentional bias.” Women in particular will understand what it means.


~ “The first thing I’ve noticed with Trump is that he tends to slightly misuse words. In speech/language pathology, this is a word finding issue. In the current speech, Trump began by calling the Convention as a beautiful event. He complimented the speakers, saying:

“So many of the speakers were so amazing and really ground setting. Just ground setting.”

Clearly he meant “ground breaking,” but he didn’t notice.

Later he said that former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) people “swamped” Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). He seemed to mean that they mistreated him, which isn’t what “swamped” means.

People with word finding deficits rely on words with little meaning. They use phrases like “by the way,” or “believe me.” They depend heavily on empty words like “really” and “very,” and use a restricted list of adjectives.  Trump uses the words “tremendous,””amazing,” and “nice,” none of which tells us anything.

Many people with this issue often have attentional issues. If you know anyone with ADHD you’ve experienced this problem.

Every phrase Trump utters reminds him of something else. He jumps off his current track and follows another.

Here just one example:

“If I don’t win, meaning that final stage,  we beat 17 people, it was actually 17 because there’s one that we don’t even talk about, who joined who left very quickly. One statement, he was gone, OK? And then don’t forget, Hillary had a couple of guys that dropped out and then Bernie ran a good campaign…”

No matter what he starts with, Trump manages to turn the topic in two ways. He always brings it back to self-praise. Equally worrisome is that he also consistently turns it back to his rivals or perceived enemies.

For example:

“First of all the Secret Service is unbelievable. Let me tell you, these guys are fantastic. I’m the best thing that ever happened to the Secret Service.”

Speaking of Trump’s short attention span, here is Tony Schwartz, the ghost-wrote he wrote “The Art of the Deal”:

“He has such a short attention span that he was, in my experience, unable to retain much information about any subject because he couldn’t pay attention for long enough to do that. It’s reflected in the severe limits of his vocabulary, the elementary nature of the sentences that he speaks, the lack of specificity he gives about anything he would do as President.”


This is a whole lot more instructive than the previous reports that merely told us that Trump speaks at the fifth-grade level. Here at last we have a more specific analysis. Yes, it’s very striking that Trump constantly uses empty words like “amazing,” “fantastic,” and “incredible” — and filler verbiage like “Let me tell you.” A problem with finding specific words would account for that. It has been suggested that Trump shows signs of mental decline that may indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Frankly, I can hardly keep up with all the personality and brain-function disorders that Trump appears to display. But it’s not just “textbook narcissism.” His brain isn’t working right. 

This really makes me realize how important it is to "think outside of the cortex." Antonio Damasio makes a compelling case for the brain stem as the structure responsible for our sense of self, which in turn relies on the sameness of the internal body. And we share this with most animals. The richness of our consciousness is due to the complexities of the cortex, but not our elementary sense of having a self, or being a self (vocabulary tends to get slippery here, but hello there, good morning to me, it’s me again, my “daily body” — how amazing!)

This makes more sense about the sense of self than anything else I've come across. The brain stem! Yes, it would be an ancient, primary structure . . .

 His sense of self was probably very strong while it lasted.


Kevin Nelson, who wrote the most comprehensive neurological account of near-death experiences, explains: ~ “The brain stem orchestrates consciousness. When regions within the brain stem only millimeters in size are destroyed, a deep, permanent coma ensues.

The brain stem not only arouses us, it also regulates breathing, heartbeat, “fight or flight,” and vegetative functions. The arousal system contains the switches that shift our consciousness between its three states. The body’s nervous system connects with the arousal system through the spinal cord that extends upward as a great stalk, entering the skull to merge with the brain stem. The same system automatically controls our heart and lungs.

The brain stem began developing early on in evolution, 300 million years ago, and it has changed very little from species to species since that time. From rat to human, the brain stems of all mammals are curiously similar. The reason for this is that the brain stem’s function is so critical — to get it wrong in even the slightest way is usually incompatible with life itself.

The brain stem awakens the thalamus and cortex above, which in turn brings us the human experience, the mundane and the transcendent. Our brain stem is easily overshadowed by the grander thalamus and cortex; and everyone who has tried to understand the brain in spiritual experience has ignored the brain stem’s vital role in regulating consciousness. No more.

During REM sleep, the body is actually paralyzed. If a person wakes up and their brain doesn’t move out of REM, they might be still paralyzed. This is called sleep paralysis. Hallucinations, activation of the visual system, out-of-body experiences and dreamlike images while a person is awake are probably all related to activation of the REM system when someone’s awake.

Now why does this happen when a person has very low blood pressure — which occurs near-death — or when someone is fainting? As it turns out, the body systems that regulate the transition between REM and wakefulness are also responsible for the body’s reaction to low blood pressure. Why this happens is not clear, but it’s deeply wired in the oldest part of our brains, so the connection must be doing something good for survival, and it must be important.” ~


It’s somewhat startling to realize that both the sense of self and mystical experiences involve the most ancient parts of our brain. The more we discover, the more surprises lie ahead.

And thus it turns out that Descartes was wrong in more than positing the mind and body dualism. Cogito ergo sum? Only an intellectual could come up with this delusion. Besides, my guess is that, given the involuntary nature of thinking (to use a common idiom, thoughts “arise”), it would be more correct to say that thoughts think us.

I love Damasio’s conclusion that the sense of self derives from the continuity of our body, the stability of the inner physiological state. “I have a body, therefore I am.” We share that body-derived I AM not only with dogs and cats, complex animals who obviously each have a unique personality, but with rats and wombats, and probably most “sentient creatures.”

Anna Rosina Marquart, 1600s. It was the age of Descartes. I wear a ruff, therefore I am? 
It seems that for many centuries, being rich meant you wore uncomfortable clothes -- this was worse for women, of course, but men too wore ruffs and other crazy stuff. When did we start dressing for comfort? Was it the Sixties revolution or later? It seems a pretty recent notion.)


Conservative mentality is born of the “strict-father morality” (Lakoff). This is essentially the religious mentality, even if not all conservatives are religious. It could also be called the authoritarian mentality, since the role of authority is so critical. Was your father (or dominant parent) nurturing, or a bully? So much seems to depend on that. We tend to internalize the abuse and come to identify with the abuser.

After WWII, we saw a significant emergence of the psychological approach to human problems — seeing people as damaged rather than innately evil, to be healed rather than punished. Dr. Benjamin Spock has been blamed for the emergence of liberalism — he with his “permissive” idea that babies were to be picked up when they cried and fed when they were hungry.

It is now a platitude to say that what children need most is love. But looked at from the perspective of the past, this is a supreme heresy. Before WW2, most parents would say that what children need most is discipline — strict, harsh upbringing. They need to learn obedience.

Then came the psychological revolution, with its compassionate approach — trying to understand, rather than condemn.

But just to make the conservative-liberal distinction more complicated, there was Margaret Atwood’s insightful (though not original to her) statement that Trump is closer to an Enlightenment figure. The American culture reflects a constant tension between Puritanism and the Enlightenment, and it has to be conceded that Trump is hardly a Puritan. For all his hypocritical assertions about loving the bible, he probably doesn’t even believe in god. Yet he falls into the conservative camp of admiring and emulating “strong men” (note that he’s been praised by Putin and Kim Jong Un, and has expressed admiration for Saddam Hussain, who knew “how to kill his enemies” — and trying to win through bullying and insults.

(But Trump won’t win. One reason is that he doesn’t have a competent, totally supportive wife who’d calm him down and stop him from being such a jerk. He’s been trying to use his daughter Ivanka as a wife substitute (cf Harry Truman and Ross Perot, who also tried to display a competent daughter to cover up for having dysfunctional marriages) — but it just doesn't work; the American public wants to see a strong marriage; the spouse is a critically important part of the team.

On the other hand, all bets are off when it comes to this campaign, which has been called a long bad joke that just keeps going on. Trump is a caricature of machismo, which (in spite of the ridiculous extremes) endears him to those who worship machismo; Hillary does not conform to the nurturing mother archetype, so basically her appeal is not positive, but cast in negative terms: she is the lesser evil, the anti-Trump.)

Yet another important bit of knowledge came from the video on the brain stem. The most ancient brain structure is the one that endows us both the sense of sense and the capacity for mystical experiences — how sweet it is . . .  Also in the realm of health: the great good news that major diseases are declining.

The image of the month was of course the view of Jupiter from the Juno spacecraft. 

(A question on Facebook, I'm not sure if in jest: Is this pottery?)

Biology fact of the month — I’ve known this for a while, but the numbers have finally registered on me: the average human body has 30 trillion cells, but we also have 40 trillion bacteria that live in our bodies, mostly in the digestive system. Hello, Lactobacter; hello
there, dear Bifidum!



~ “Our visual brains have several distinct systems. One of them is more specialized for the graspable interaction space of the lower visual field and another is specialized for the visual field above the horizon. In his fascinating book, The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History, along with many more technical articles, the neuroscientist Fred Previc argues that this second visual system, specializing as it does in surveying “extrapersonal space,” the distant vistas above the horizon, is especially well-developed in human beings. 

Previc goes on to argue that this area of the brain is strongly activated during religious experiences, meditative activity, dreaming, and probably any kind of artistic or creative activity that encourages us to reach beyond the bounds of nearby time and space into the infinite and eternal. It’s no accident, according to Previc, that meditative states, trances, mystical or religious experiences are often accompanied by upward turn of the eyes.

It’s not just when we are gazing into a canopy of trees or a sky full of clouds that we raise our gaze. When we enter large and impressive buildings it’s also reflexive for our eyes to flick upwards. Think of a visit to a massive cathedral, a large courthouse, or even a corporate headquarters. That great expanse of space, so costly to build and to maintain, is there for a reason. It influences how you feel and what you think. Builders of impressive religious architecture have always known this. Large built spaces not only convey power and strength but they also cause us crane our heads in awe and to engage with the infinite. 

A recent initiative from the American Institute of Architects also urged us to look up. The motivation of that campaign was to encourage people to pay attention to the great architecture that’s around them—to look up from their phones and their immediate surroundings and take in the awe-inspiring vistas of the human creations that surround them. I could well imagine that when we do so, we’re also putting ourselves into contact with the lofty infinite, thinking big thoughts, and contemplating our place in the Universe. It’s also not at all unreasonable to suppose that the verbal associations that we make between the overhead and spiritual, religious, and moral dimensions of our lives may be related to this division of labor among the visual streams of information in our brains. Supreme beings are most often imagined as being far above us and not below us. We stake out the moral “high ground.”

Next time you’re out and about in the world (which I hope will be very soon), look up.  You might be surprised by how a simple act of looking will affect your mood and your patterns of thought.” ~

Road to the Clouds, Alberta, Canada
Oriana: I suspect that the reason some people don’t enjoy hiking is that they tend to look downward — which makes them scared — sometimes even dizzy and nauseous. The quick remedy is to look mostly slightly upward.

ending on beauty:


In order to separate ourselves from our griefs, our last resort is delirium; subject to its distractions, we no longer meet our afflictions: parallel to our pains and adjacent to our melancholies, we divagate in a salutary darkness.

~ Emile Cioran, “Abdications”

I was immediate drawn to “divagate.” It means to stray or wander about, also digress — from Latin “to wander or drift about” (e.g. the vagus nerve, or Hadrian’s Animula vagula, blandula). But the whole phrase is wonderful: “parallel to our pains and adjacent to our melancholies, we divagate in a salutary darkness.” And the Latin makes me think of “lost soul.”

By the way, we don’t have to reach for the extreme of delirium; depression in the sense of obsessive self-loathing is an example of divagation, the whole world devolving to the distorted, deluded inner world. I heard this once during a scientific conference and never forgot it: All “mental disorders” consist in paying attention to the wrong things.

The social media flatten our style; the use the same plain words over and over. The more it happens, the more I love an unusual and beautiful way of using words, a soulful probing.

Image: The Plaza Building, William R. Derrick, 1911

Saturday, July 23, 2016


The flying fox of Australia. Trump isn’t the only scary thing in the world. Photo: Kristy Louise


taking a shower once —
April, I just turned seventeen —
I saw the cleaning woman
on the sill of a corridor window, 
staring at me,
a wet rag in her hand.

I thought she’d turn away, but she
stared as I stood in thin breath of steam,
the hand-held shower riding
my skin in translucent rivulets. 
Only when I stared back
and slowly covered my breasts,
she clambered down from the sill.

I thought she’d never been young —
wheezing along the stony sheen
of the waxed corridors —
sad and sweaty, married
to a drunk who beat her;
she came bruised sometimes,
eye swollen shut with a fist.

She washed the floors and windows
at the Nencki Institute;
part-time cleaned apartments for the scientists.
But dishes weren’t safe
“in her delicate little hands,”
my father would joke now and then;
one time she even broke a spoon.
What went through her when she saw
a young girl’s April body —

Far away, in a corridor in my mind,
I am still standing naked
before the cleaning woman,
her bruised, bloated bulk;
clutching the rag, her swollen hand
raw and red —

When you say you love me,
you have to include her.

~ Oriana © 2016


~ “In the early 1940s, no less an authoritative figure than Allen Dulles, America’s chief wartime intelligence operative in Switzerland, recruited the famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung as “Agent 488.” Dulles, who a decade later became the first civilian director of the Central Intelligence Agency and was one of the architects of twentieth-century American hegemony, wanted Jung’s insights on the psyche of Adolf Hitler and the top Nazi cadre, as well as the German public that was believed to have been somehow mesmerized. According to biographers, Dulles passed Jung’s reports on to other top-level military commanders, including Dwight Eisenhower. “Nobody will probably ever know how much Prof. Jung contributed to the Allied cause during the war,” Dulles later wrote.

Indeed, we don’t know how Jung’s reports were interpreted and employed by the top American brass. We do, however, know how Jung explained Hitler’s catastrophic rise to power. For answers, Jung summoned another powerful figure from Norse mythology—not the complex and transmogrifying Loki, but the thundering patriarch-in-the-sky, Odin. (Think Zeus, or not-quite-retired-yet Anthony Hopkins with a bushy white beard and bulky golden armor.)

In a 1936 essay titled “Wotan”—another rendering of Odin—Jung described the Nazi leader as a manifestation of that “ancient god of storm and frenzy,” having awakened “like an extinct volcano, to new activity, in a civilized country that had long been supposed to have outgrown the Middle Ages.”

Although Jung definitely had an occult-oriented woo-woo side, he made clear in the essay that he did not believe Hitler was the literal incarnation of an immortal entity from the realm of Asgard. Rather, he wrote, the gods of yore were “personifications of psychic forces” articulated in the language of myth. To sneer at the utility of such allegory is about as insightful as pointing out that J. Robert Oppenheimer did not, in fact, transform into Krishna, destroyer of worlds, at the atomic bomb tests in New Mexico in 1945.

“We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world,” Jung wrote. “But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find . . . the unfathomable depths of Wotan’s character explain more of National Socialism than all [proposed] reasonable factors put together.

Crucially, Jung argued that modern people could not accept the reality of any manifestation of the unconscious; and that is what caused all sorts of problems. This is as true today as it was eighty years ago—perhaps more so, in this tech-obsessed time of data journalism, STEM supremacy, and quantitative hegemony. The more adamantly people deny the influence of unseen forces—that is to say, unconscious impulses—over their own behavior, the more power those forces exhibit.

Wotan represented “an irrational psychic factor which acts on the high pressure of civilization like a cyclone and blows it away,” according to Jung. This suggests Wotan did not awaken at random but was summoned by circumstance.

To truly understand why people do what they do requires a spelunking trip into a dark realm where the virtue of reason and the clear ties between cause and effect do not apply. In this age of quantitative supremacy, when figurative language has been sacrificed at the altar of Freakonomics, the notion of a monster rising from the collective Id is unfathomable, which is not to say impossible. Indeed, the resolutely subjective and unabashedly speculative approach represented by Jung’s analysis of Hitler is essential to understanding today’s spooky and, yes, dangerous, American political scene.

Toward the end of his essay on Hitler, Jung speculated that, if Wotan has awoken, then “other veiled gods may be sleeping elsewhere.” Which brings us to Donald Trump.

Trump may be racist and fascist but that doesn’t make him Hitler. Fascism was and is a veritable rainbow coalition of hatred. Some favor jackboots, others loafers.

Just as Hitler was not known to crack wise from the podium, Trump’s stump speeches do not call to mind “storm and frenzy.” Trump is no Wotan, no berserker—he is a wisecracker, adept in the cool medium of television. He represents an entirely different Jungian archetype—namely, the pan-cultural mythological figure of “the trickster,” who arrives at moments of uncertainty to bring change, often of the bad kind. In the Norse pantheon, the shape-shifting trickster character is Odin’s blood brother, Loki, god of mischief and lies.

If further proof is required that Trump the Insult Comic Candidate is a manifestation of the Norse trickster deity, it must be noted that Loki is a master maligner who, in one epic roast, delivered cutting put-downs to the other major lords of Asgard in a sort of Viking version of the 2016 presidential debates.

To complete this reprisal of Jung’s analysis, we must revisit the fraught matter of national character. I submit that if Wotan summed up the Furor Teutonicus, then the quintessentially American deity must be Loki.

Loki on the Snaptun Stone

The trickster god has visited this young nation before, in the person of P.T. Barnum and in the character of Tom Sawyer. Even the foundational myth of George Washington and the cherry tree bears Loki’s mark. Little George did a bad thing, but his candid admission earned forgiveness from the father figure. Now, highfalutin’ historians might tell you that the cherry tree story is a fabrication and that Washington did tell lies, but the power of the myth stands, impervious to those facts. Similarly, journalists may lose their breath trying to keep up with Trump’s constant fictions, but his supporters don’t seem to care about something so trifling as veracity. Like Little George, they forgive him because he at least gives the impression of honesty and doesn’t hold back.

Moreover, what sort of god asks his subjects for forgiveness? Not Loki, that’s for sure.

When considered in the context of the dark psychic currents of the national experience, Trump’s appeal becomes self-evident. Is it really so shocking that a racist, misogynist, mafia-connected, serially fraudulent boor could find a successful place in American life—especially in this age of misinformation and artifice? Loki has awoken. He walks among us, gaining strength, and he doesn’t need your stupid vote, loser.” ~

Loki with a fishing net; 18th century Icelandic manuscript


~ “The United States has two root ideologies: one of them being the Puritanism of the 17th century, and the other being the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Trump is more of an Enlightenment figure, but, in relation to women . . . he certainly feels that a girl’s place is to look nice and stand behind, beaming adoringly. Which is sort of old-style, 1950s-beauty-contest stuff, rather than religious-right-fundamentalist-puritan stuff.

He’s all for a certain kind of women, but not women in general, I would say. But no, he’s not much of a puritan. Whereas Cruz certainly is. And Rubio is similar. The Tea Party is of that root from American society, which never really went away. It might have looked in the 17th century as if we were having a bad experience with Salem witches, and were quite embarrassed about it afterwards, but it’s never really left.


Yes, given the puritanism of the Religious Right, Trump certainly seems closer to the Enlightenment. He's relatively secular -- for instance, his acceptance speech didn't discuss how he's "faith-based." And he's not conservative about women in the crazy religious fundamentalist way -- his daughter helped modernize his thinking on strong women (though there's still a long way to go).  
Trump as an Enlightenment figure! When compared with the likes of Ted Cruz, yes. This is a marvelous observation.

Of course Trump’s anti-intellectualism and reliance on an emotional appeal hardly make him stand for the Enlightenment in the full sense of the word. But Atwood is onto something important in the context of the two main currents in the American culture. 


In the strict father family, father knows best. He knows right from wrong and has the ultimate authority to make sure his children and his spouse do what he says, which is taken to be what is right. Many conservative spouses accept this worldview, uphold the father’s authority, and are strict in those realms of family life that they are in charge of. When his children disobey, it is his moral duty to punish them painfully enough so that, to avoid punishment, they will obey him (do what is right). Through physical discipline they are supposed to become disciplined, internally strong and able to prosper in the external world.

What if they don’t prosper? That means they are not disciplined, and therefore cannot be moral, and so deserve their poverty. This reasoning shows up in conservative politics in which the poor are seen as lazy and undeserving, and the rich as deserving their wealth. Responsibility is thus taken to be personal responsibility, not social responsibility. What you become is up to you; society has nothing to do with it. You are responsible for yourself, not for others — who are responsible for themselves.

Winning and Insulting
In a world governed by personal [not social] responsibility and discipline, those who win deserve to win. Why does Donald Trump publicly insult other candidates and political leaders mercilessly? Quite simply, because he knows he can win an onstage TV insult game. In strict conservative eyes, that makes him a formidable winning candidate who deserves to be a winning candidate. Electoral competition is seen as a battle. Insults that stick are seen as victories — deserved victories.

Consider Trump’s statement that John McCain is not a war hero. The reasoning: McCain got shot down. Heroes are winners. They defeat big bad guys. They don't get shot down. People who get shot down, beaten up and stuck in a cage are losers, not winners.

The Moral Hierarchy

The strict father logic extends further. The basic idea is that authority is justified by morality (the strict father version), and that, in a well-ordered world, there should be (and traditionally has been) a moral hierarchy in which those who have traditionally dominated should dominate. The hierarchy is: God above man, man above nature, the disciplined (strong) above the undisciplined (weak), the rich above the poor, employers above employees, adults above children, Western culture above other cultures, America above other countries. The hierarchy extends to: Men above women, whites above nonwhites, Christians above non-Christians, straights above gays.

We see these tendencies in most of the Republican presidential candidates, as well as in Trump, and on the whole, conservative policies flow from the strict father worldview and this hierarchy.


Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward evangelical Christianity, since God, in evangelical Christianity, is the ultimate strict father: You follow his commandments and you go to heaven; you defy his commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be "born again" by declaring your fealty by choosing his son, Jesus Christ, as your personal savior.

Such a version of religion is natural for those with strict father morality. Evangelical Christians join the church because they are conservative; they are not conservative because they happen to be in an evangelical church, though they may grow up with both together.

Evangelical Christianity is centered around family life. Hence, there are organizations like Focus on the Family and constant reference to “family values,” which are to take to be evangelical strict father values. In strict father morality, it is the father who controls sexuality and reproduction. Where the church has political control, there are laws that require parental and spousal notification in the case of proposed abortions.

Evangelicals are highly organized politically and exert control over a great many local political races. Thus Republican candidates mostly have to go along with the evangelicals if they want to be nominated and win local elections.

Pragmatic Conservatives

Pragmatic conservatives, on the other hand, may not have a religious orientation at all. Instead, they may care primarily about their own personal authority, not the authority of the church or Christ, or God. They want to be strict fathers in their own domains, with authority primarily over their own lives. Thus, a young, unmarried conservative — male or female —may want to have sex without worrying about marriage. They may need access to contraception, advice about sexually transmitted diseases, information about cervical cancer, and so on. And if a girl or woman becomes pregnant and there is no possibility or desire for marriage, abortion may be necessary.

Trump is a pragmatic conservative, par excellence. And he knows that there are a lot of Republican voters who are like him in their pragmatism. There is a reason he likes Planned Parenthood. There are plenty of young, unmarried (or even married) pragmatic conservatives, who may need what Planned Parenthood has to offer, cheaply and confidentially by way of contraception, cervical cancer prevention, and sex ed.

Similarly, young or middle-aged pragmatic conservatives want to maximize their own wealth. They don’t want to be saddled with the financial burden of caring for their parents. Social Security and Medicare relieve them of most of those responsibilities. That is why Trump wants to keep Social Security and Medicare.

Laissez-faire Free Marketeers

Establishment conservative policies have not only been shaped by the political power of white evangelical churches, but by the political power of those who seek maximally laissez-faire free markets, where wealthy people and corporations set market rules in their favor with minimal government regulation and enforcement. They see taxation not as investment in publicly provided resources for all citizens, but as government taking their earnings (their private property) and giving the money through government programs to those who don't deserve it. This is the source of establishment Republicans’ anti-tax and shrinking government views. This version of conservatism is quite happy with outsourcing to increase profits by sending manufacturing and many services abroad where labor is cheap, with the consequence that well-paying jobs leave America and wages are driven down here. Since they depend on cheap imports, they would not be in favor of imposing high tariffs.

Many business people are pragmatic conservatives. They like government power when it works for them. Take eminent domain. Establishment Republicans see it as an abuse by government — government taking of private property. But conservative real estate developers like Trump depend on eminent domain so that homes and small businesses in areas they want to develop can be taken by eminent domain for the sake of their development plans. All they have to do is get local government officials to go along, with campaign contributions and the promise of an increase in local tax dollars helping to acquire eminent domain rights. Trump points to Atlantic City, where he build his casino using eminent domain to get the property.

Political Correctness

There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict father morality and its moral hierarchy. Many of them are poor or middle class and many are white men who see themselves as superior to immigrants, nonwhites, women, non-Christians, gays, and people who rely on public assistance. In other words, they are what liberals would call bigots. For many years, such bigotry has not been publicly acceptable, especially as more immigrants have arrived, as the country has become less white, as more women have become educated and moved into the workplace, and as gays have become more visible and gay marriage acceptable.

As liberal anti-bigotry organizations have loudly pointed out and made a public issue of the un-American nature of such bigotry, those conservatives have felt more and more oppressed by what they call “political correctness” — public pressure against their views and against what they see as “free speech.” This has become exaggerated since 9/11, when anti-Muslim feelings became strong. The election of President Barack Obama created outrage among those conservatives, and they refused to see him as a legitimate American (as in the birther movement), much less as a legitimate authority, especially as his liberal views contradicted almost everything else they believe as conservatives.

Donald Trump expresses out loud everything they feel, with force, aggression, anger, and no shame. All they have to do is support and vote for Trump and they don’t even have to express their "politically incorrect:" views, since he does it for them and his victories make those views respectable. He is their champion. He gives them a sense of self-respect, authority and the possibility of power.

Why His Lack of Policy Detail Doesn’t Matter

I recently heard a brilliant and articulate Clinton surrogate argue to a group of Trump supporters that Trump has presented no policy plans for increasing jobs, increasing economics growth, improving education, gaining international respect, etc. This is the basic Clinton campaign argument. Hillary has the experience, the policy know-how, she can get things done, it’s all on her website. Trump has none of this.

What Hillary’s campaign says is true. And it is irrelevant.

Trump supporters and other radical Republican extremists could not care less, and for a good reason. Their job is to impose their view of strict father morality in all areas of life. If they have the Congress, and the presidency and the Supreme Court, they could achieve this. They don’t need to name policies, because the Republicans already have hundreds of policies ready to go. They just need to be in complete power.

    “Our propaganda was based on a clear insight into the psychology of the masses. Our opponents appealed to reason, lived under the delusion that through political education the masses will become discerning and made immune to our poison. I’ve never had these illusions. I knew the utter lack of critical spirit in the mass, which doesn’t allow it to see contradictions. I knew that the mass will follow more easily the appeal to hatred and national honor, to rash action and excitement, than the call for insight and reason, that habituation and conditioning will stir it towards anything, even to war, for which we had to win them.” ~ Joseph Goebbels


~ “The lamentable, endlessly recurring cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity that has been so characteristic of human history derives significantly from the turning to metaphysical illusion in the effort to evade the traumatizing impact of human finitude. A vivid contemporary example is provided by post-9/11 America and its “rhetoric of evil.”

The seeds of the rhetoric of evil can be found in the ancient religious metaphysics, originating in Persia and pervasive in contemporary religious fundamentalism, known as “Manichaeism”—the idea that the movement of history is explained by an eternal struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In the rhetoric of evil, Manichaeism is harnessed for political purposes — one’s own group is claimed to embody the forces of good, and the opposing group, the forces of evil. Through such attributions, which are inherently nationalistic or ethnocentric, one’s political aims are justified as being in the service of the good.

The essence of emotional trauma lies in the shattering of what I called the “absolutisms of everyday life,” the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is chaotic and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face to face with our finitude and existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. Often traumatized people try to restore the lost illusions shattered by trauma through some form of what I have called “resurrective ideology."

Following 9/11, the Bush administration declared war on global terrorism and drew America into a grandiose, holy crusade that enabled Americans to feel delivered from trauma, chosen by God to rid the world of evil and to bring their way of life (= goodness) to every people on earth. Through such resurrective ideology and its rhetoric of evil, Americans could evade the excruciating existential vulnerability that had been exposed by the attack and once again feel great, powerful, and godlike. A similar evasion can seen at work when the man-made deadly threats of climate change are attributed to benign metaphysical entities such as God or Nature.

Is there an alternative to metaphysical illusion and destructive resurrective ideology? Yes, we must dwell with one another in our common human finitude so that our shared existential vulnerabilities can be brought into dialogue where they can be held and better borne.” ~

Perhaps the core of intellectual maturity is the perception that nothing (well, practically nothing) is all good or all bad — it's a complex and shifting weave of all shades, not just of gray but of all colors, some yet unnamed.

This is a great article — and so relevant to ideas like “make America great again.” That’s the post-9/11 “resurrective ideology.”

The essence: “The seeds of the rhetoric of evil can be found in the ancient religious metaphysics, originating in Persia and pervasive in contemporary religious fundamentalism, known as “Manichaeism”—the idea that the movement of history is explained by an eternal struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

In the rhetoric of evil, Manichaeism is harnessed for political purposes — one’s own group is claimed to embody the forces of good, and the opposing group, the forces of evil. Through such attributions, which are inherently nationalistic or ethnocentric, one’s political aims are justified as being in the service of the good.”

An abandoned Soviet observatory. ”Those places lost their significance together with the utopian ideology, which is now obsolete," says Tkachenko. (Looks like an UFO, doesn’t it?)


Admirers of Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird have been shocked by the transformation of the lawyer Atticus Finch into a racist in the newly published Go Set a Watchman, set 20 years later. But psychologist William von Hippel says it should not necessarily be a surprise — he argues that it's not unusual for people to become more prejudiced as they get older.

 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.


Schizophrenic individuals who experience auditory hallucinations seem to hear voices emanating from within their own skulls. These voices are often vulgar or derogatory; they may constantly criticize one’s actions or command the listener to commit destructive acts, such as self-harm or violence. Sometimes, hallucinations consist of not voices but sounds—whispers, growls, or screeching. In Allie’s case, numerous voices chattered away in a foreign language, distracting her as she took tests in high school and college.

Interestingly enough, the same brain areas that activate when people hear real noise also light up in schizophrenics during hallucinatory episodes. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, several studies have found increased activation in Broca’s area (a language processing region) and in the primary auditory cortex in schizophrenics as they “hear” voices that aren’t real.

That tiny part of the brain that is so critical to processing auditory information in humans, the primary auditory cortex, is often smaller in schizophrenic individuals. Across multiple fMRI studies, researchers have found that reduced volume of the anterior superior temporal gyrus (which contains part of the auditory cortex) in schizophrenics is correlated with increased severity of hallucinatory episodes.

Researchers [also] found that subjects with a history of hallucinations demonstrated reduced connectivity from Wernicke’s area (language processing) to Broca’s area (speech production).

This disconnect may explain the brain’s confusion of internally generated thoughts with external voices. Hoffman proposes that hyperactivity in the left frontal lobe combined with a weakened connection may lead to Broca’s area “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.


One type of voice that a schizophrenic may hear is a running commentary on the person’s action: “She’s just picked up her books. Now she’s leaving the classroom.” But more typical is a chorus of negative voices. These voices are critical, even abusive: taunting, mocking, persecuting.

Now, almost all people have an “inner critic” — a nasty inner nag that with maturity, and with luck, we can replace with the voice of self-compassion and nurturing self-encouragement. But almost all of us grew up with lots of criticism, convinced that “I'm not OK” — so the “inner critic” is a term that’s immediately understood. Imagine hearing amplified “inner critics” — in plural, and as voices actually speaking to you, as if from the outside. The radio is speaking to you. The band is singing an insulting song about you.

We need to remember that schizophrenia is a brain disease associated with atrophy, i.e. actual loss of neural tissue (there is a similarity to Alzheimer’s here), and the loss of connectivity. The larger the volume loss in the auditory cortex, the more severe the auditory hallucinations.

There is no denying that childhood trauma plays a role in schizophrenia, and that stress makes the symptoms worse (as do stimulants, in contrast to tranquilizers). Nevertheless, it’s the deteriorating brain of the sufferer that badly needs rescue. Anti-inflammatory and anti-epileptic drugs show promise, as does non-invasive stimulation of certain neural areas. 

Marcel Duchamp Descending a Staircase, photo by Eliot Elisofon, 1952
ending on beauty:

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

~ H.W. Longfellow

This is not accurate — darkness does not really fall like a feather dropped by an eagle in his flight. But no matter — we are too enchanted by the verbal music to be analyzing the content. 

Dusk, the coast of Finland. Photo: David Whyte

Saturday, July 16, 2016


Storm cell over Kopenhagen


Still one more year of preparation
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return,
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

And that will be the subject, with addenda. Also: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.

No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.

~ Czeslaw Milosz, tr Robert Hass


There are many poems about the horrors of war. This one, among many by Milosz, starts with the sentiment that reminds me both of Ecclesiastes and of Auden’s “About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters”:

The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return,
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

And that will be the subject, with addenda.

Again we are asking if mass slaughter — this time in the form of acts of terrorism — will always be with us. Some are saying that we are in midst of WWIII — this time a war between the culture of secular modernity and a tribal/medieval version of a totalitarian religion hijacked by extremists who would like to restore the 7th century — and also bring about the End Days. Once again the world feels broken.

As Mary Oliver put it,

It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.

Where do poets turn for consolation? As always, mainly to the beauty of nature. The cycles of nature go on, and the atrocities are merely "addenda." I think Milosz's great love of nature made it possible for him to have enough positive emotion to continue to be a poet. 

And in spite of the last line, he did learn how to speak relatively calmly. As he himself said, the secret of poetry of distance. It’s emotional distance that gives us enough control so that we can create art that, paradoxically, can evoke strong emotion.

The stanza about the mothers (“I still think too much about the mothers”) is particularly moving. It’s not sentimental. Milosz is reporting what he saw. He could have made it more gruesome, but he's actually being restrained.

This, for me, could be the whole poem:

I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.


Speaking about a great book on the subject, it does exist, and thanks to Milosz at that, but it remains relatively unknown. It’s My Century by Aleksander Wat, a transcribed “spoken diary” of his wartime years, with an emphasis on his stay in various Soviet prisons. He started out as a Dadaist  poet and a devout Communist. The prison experiences completely transformed him. The volume was posthumously published in Polish in 1977 (Wat, seriously ill and in chronic pain, committed suicide in 1967.) The book was translated by Richard Lourie and published in English in 1988. It’s dramatic and insightful.

a drawing of Milosz by David Levine

. . .  talking about the ability to speak calmly . . .

“WHITE TRASH” (politeness as the most important marker of class status)

“An Australian writer wrote in 1949 that we don’t have a real democracy; we have what’s called a democracy of manners. Which means that people will accept huge disparities of wealth, but they will vote for someone who pretends to be just like us.”

~ Nancy Isenberg: I became very aware of the importance of how Jefferson talked about the poor. He has this amazing line where, at the same moment that he’s calling for the education of the poor, something the Virginia legislature would reject, he refers to the poor as “rubbish.”

I began to look more closely at how Americans talk about class. There are a long list of slurs and of terms such as waste people, vagrants, rascals, rubbish, lubbers, squatters, crackers, clay-eaters, degenerates, rednecks, and of course, trailer trash. And you’ll see that just by paying attention to the words people use … what comes up over and over again, is the way the discussion of class throughout our history has forced on the centrality of land and land ownership, as well as what I call breeds, or breeding. And both of these big concepts come from the British. For example, the early indentured servants, the poor who the British wanted to dump into British colonial America, they were called waste people. And where does that term come from? It comes from the idea of waste land.

[Interviewer:] Trump appeals to voters who some people might call white trash voters. He embodies this kind of excess that you talk about when writing about Dolly Parton, Tammy Faye Baker. He’s tacky. He’s like a caricature of a rich person that appeals to poor people. 

Nancy Isenberg: Right. And this is one other thing I talk about: the problem of our American democracy. And we can take it back to Andrew Jackson. An Australian writer wrote in 1949 that we don’t have a real democracy, we have what’s called a democracy of manners. Which means that people will accept huge disparities of wealth, but they will vote for someone who pretends to be just like us. And how do politicians do that? In Trump’s case, he steps down from his penthouse, puts on his bubba cap, and yes, he sounds as if he’s someone who could work on the docks, the fact that he refuses to ever be polite – which as we know, in terms of the old measure of social breeding, politeness was the most important marker of class status.

In the ’60s and ’70s, suddenly the middle class is being associated with TV dinners, and all Americans somehow want to rediscover their roots. And this is linked to Alex Haley discovering his African roots, and Jewish writers who looked at the New York Jewish ghetto praised the idea of [as one wrote] of having “a ghetto to look back to.” “But while it’s nice when the ghetto is in the past, or the people coming over on Ellis Island are at a distance, people are still very fearful about living next to someone who isn’t of the same class or the same background.

So, the other thing I talk about is that class has a geography. Not only has our country particularly since the World War II period, where you have the rise of suburbia and the middle class, reinforced racial segregation, we’ve also imposed class zoned neighborhoods. And what could be a better way of ensuring that people are divided, that people measure each other by the value of the land that they own – owning a home is still considered the most important measure of being in the middle class.

It’s actually ironic that working class men would want to embrace the confederacy, because one of the things I highlight about the confederacy is that it very much relied on reinforcing a racial and a class hierarchy, and this is a hangover from the antebellum period. The planter elite saw themselves as very much to the manor born. They assumed that they were the class that should exercise political power and rule. They began to defend the idea that a born to rule elite should control southern states, and particularly South Carolina, and they are very dismissive of poor whites. Not only was it reinforced during the confederacy, it existed before the confederacy.

So the confederacy is one of the most elitist political systems that we’ve had in this country. To assume that somehow the confederacy embraced poor whites, it even goes against the history of how the conscription laws worked. As we know the poor always suffer the worst during wars: they lose their land, they’re the ones who are put on the front lines, and you have high numbers of poor whites who desert from the confederacy because they don’t think it’s fighting for their interests.

In 1790 John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead but they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one,” he wrote, “indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species.” His argument is exactly what Lyndon Johnson said, when he talked about the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

People will tolerate having people above them, they’ll defer to an elite class, just as long as they have someone beneath them. We forget the psychological power of that. Americans like the rhetoric of equality but they don’t like it when it’s real, and they don’t really defend it when it comes to how can we create an equal society. When it’s so easy to dismiss different groups, usually in very shallow ways, just as a way for us who are of the middle class to feel that somehow we deserve what we have. We always want to mask it, we always want to rationalize it, but it’s been with us and it’s still with us. Not only are we not a post-racial society, we are certainly not a post-class society.


The first time I saw the term “white trash” I was completely startled. I was trying to learn English by reading “Gone with the Wind.” It was the passage when Scarlett blames her mother’s death on white trash — those worthless people get sick and then spread disease. In this case, Scarlett’s mother, who apparently took Christianity seriously, was trying to help a sick poor family. I was startled because even though there are of course pejorative Polish terms for the social bottom, they are mere chunks of sound — there is none that means “rubbish.”

So true that the coarseness vs softness of language seems to be one of main markers of social class — offhand perhaps the most important one. It's actually beyond class. There's something essential conveyed by how a person expresses themselves — through words, tone of voice, and body language.

Habitual loudness is one of the most annoying social markers. Yet right away it also indicates the person probably grew up in the kind household where it was difficult to be heard above the noise. Not their fault. The positive aspect of it is high energy, exuberance, the colorful slangy expressions. On the negative side: aggressiveness, non-nurturance, ugliness. You lose some, you gain some.

But I come back to the ability to speak calmly. It’s a mark of intelligence and education. A genetic, social, historical privilege. A temperamental trait as well, associated with sensitivity and introspection, with an appreciation of quiet and solitude. Literacy and the habit o f reading have a lot to do with it. Can the habit of reading survive texting and Twitter? Sometimes I am glad that I'm no longer young.


Guido Reni: Bacchus and Ariadne, 1619-1620. Her face seems to say, "Look who's come here now to say Trust me." 

It’s interesting that Bacchus and Ariadne was such a popular theme in painting for a while, only to disappear later, while Orpheus and Narcissus, say, persisted. And it's interesting that Ariadne starts out as a female savior to Theseus, is betrayed by him, and is in turn rescued by a male savior, though not a typical one -- not a hero, but the god of wine and ecstasy and arguably of the arts. Here the god is a symbol of the true marriage, true fulfillment.

I identify with that myth. Ariadne’s saw as goal as helping Theseus to greatness — just as a woman (both in the past and even in the modern times) may project her own talent and ambition onto a man. But the man is almost certain to let her down. It’s only when she discovers her own artistic vocation that she is “saved.”

I think it was only when I became a dedicated poet that I became the “real me.” Of course you can “find yourself” more than once in life, or not at all. Guido Reni presents Ariadne as very young, as the convention demanded. But I can’t help but think of her as older than that, having had the time to prepare for the beginning of her new “real life.” The lucky individuals have enough autonomy to implement that new self, the new life — sometimes only after retirement, or in widowhood. 

time makes pebbles of us all, smooth and rounded to perfection
though we once were hard-edged, angry chunks of rock

~ Magdalena Pasnikowska


A sharp dissonance emerges between Churchill as the jovial bulldog of popular American imagination and the somber reality of a life marred by bitterness and tragedy. In all, suicides  close to Churchill included a brother-in-law, a former stepfather, a daughter’s estranged lover, a former daughter-in-law, and a daughter.

His rather weird return to office in 1951 was not what was needed by the country, or Clementine [Churchill’s wife], or Churchill himself if truth be told, and his last ten years after he finally retired from office in 1955 at the age of eighty are sorry to contemplate. There were more screaming fits from Randolph [the alcoholic son], still convinced that his parents had connived in his cuckolding (and he might have been right), and more trouble with the elder daughters. Their lives were blighted by alcoholic and amorous turmoil, culminating in Diana’s suicide in 1963. It’s no surprise that Clementine was hospitalized for depression.

You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life. ~ Winston Churchill

[T]here was a real sense of prophetic mission among a lot of people who answered this call for Crusade. You can’t have a normal war for Jerusalem. That seems to me as true today as it would have been in the 11th century. Jerusalem, from the medieval Christian perspective, was both a city on earth and a city of heaven, and these two places were linked. The idea that the Jerusalem on earth was being dominated by an unbelieving, infidel — in their terminology “pagan” — group was unacceptable.

The rhetoric that was associated with the people holding Jerusalem is pretty shocking: Christian men are being circumcised in baptismal fonts, and the blood is being collected! They’re yanking people’s innards out by their belly buttons! This is not normal talk. Hatreds and passions were stirred up. The heart of it, and why it was so successful, was that the call to Jerusalem was felt so strongly.

On why the slaughter stood out, even for medieval times:

Warfare on this scale, with this level of brutality, with the end of cleansing the streets of Jerusalem with the bodies of the people you have killed — that’s not typical of the medieval experience. What I’ve tried to bring to the table is the apocalyptic element of thought: the idea that we are entering into the battle of the Last Days here, we’re moving in prophetic times. …

[F]rom the perspective not just of medieval Christians but even of a lot of the modern evangelical Christians I grew up around, the end of the world is something you look to with hope and excitement — maybe even more so in the Middle Ages, because the end of the world was going to be a military event, and soldiers were going to be involved in it. You’re recruiting people to fight in the grandest epic of all time. That sort of sense of apocalyptic, history-making, epoch-ending excitement is what’s missing from the other [academic] explanations [of the crusades].

On other scholars overlooking the fact that religious wars differ from political ones:
Their argument is the Crusades were just an example of the realities of war. It was understood, for example, that if you laid siege to a city and the city did not surrender, if you subsequently took that city by force, the population and all of the goods in the city were forfeit. My response to this is, I’ve never found an instance of medieval Christians defeating a city of medieval Christians and when they took the city they killed everyone inside. Never happened.

On the idea that the Crusades constituted an “ethical revolution”:

What the Crusade introduced into medieval thought was the notion that war was not just a necessary evil, it was a positive good. Not only did it not count against you, it was actually a moral good to massacre the enemy.

And finally, on what the Crusades helped unleash:

[On] the Islamic side, the notion of jihad was dying out [before the Crusade]. Holy war was something that had happened in the past, and there had been this steady state reached in the Middle East. I’m not sure that the Turks saw what they were doing when they were engaging the Byzantines as engaging in jihad. After the First Crusade, within 10 years of it, you get Islamic voices like Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami … saying we need to revive jihad. He says: The Franks [a catch-all name for the Crusading forces] have been waging jihad against us; now we have to get the jihad going back up again.

It also seems to me that the new model of jihad borrowed from what the Crusaders brought. You get the idea of martyrdom — the idea that if you died you would go straight to heaven. You get mythical holy figures appearing in battles that Muslims were fighting against Christians. You get a more poisonous relationship between religion and warfare than existed before.

Mind-boggling: Almost a millennium later, we’re still dealing with the fallout. ~

St. Louis leading a crusade


~ The strength of neuroscience, Churchland suggests, lies not so much in what it explains as in the older explanations it dissolves. She gives a lovely example of the panic that we feel in dreams when our legs refuse to move as we flee the monster. This turns out to be a straightforward neurological phenomenon: when we’re asleep, we turn off our motor controls, but when we dream we still send out signals to them. We really are trying to run, and can’t. If you feel this, and also have the not infrequent problem of being unable to distinguish waking and dreaming states, you might think that you have been paralyzed and kidnapped by aliens. ~ Adam Gopnik, “Mindless”

Interesting: in my nightmares, on the contrary, I run faster than I ever could in real life (well, at seventeen I was a great sprinter — just months before I shattered my knee). But those are nightmares. I am running for my life, and no speed is great enough. I wake up, my heart pounding.

In waking life, I can’t even WALK fast. I could maybe sustain two minutes of slow running if my life depended on it. Maybe the knee replacement will change this, but as of now I'm handicapped. And since I'm incapable of running, you can’t imagine how strange it feels to run in my dreams! Now if only the Nazis stopped shooting at me (in the same dreams, that is). 

Assyrian lion hunt 7th century bc


Something strange is going on in medicine. Major diseases, like colon cancer, dementia and heart disease, are waning in wealthy countries, and improved diagnosis and treatment cannot fully explain it.

Of course, these diseases are far from gone. They still cause enormous suffering and kill millions each year.

But it looks as if people in the United States and some other wealthy countries are, unexpectedly, starting to beat back the diseases of aging. The leading killers are still the leading killers — cancer, heart disease, stroke — but they are occurring later in life, and people in general are living longer in good health.

Colon cancer is the latest conundrum. While the overall cancer death rate has been declining since the early 1990s, the plunge in colon cancer deaths is especially perplexing: The rate has fallen by nearly 50 percent since its peak in the 1980s, noted Dr. H. Gilbert Welch and Dr. Douglas J. Robertson of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., in a recent paper.

Screening, they say, is only part of the story. “The magnitude of the changes alone suggests that other factors must be involved,” they wrote. None of the studies showing the effect of increased screening for colon cancer have indicated a 50 percent reduction in mortality, they wrote, “nor have trials for screening for any type of cancer.”

Then there are hip fractures, whose rates have been dropping by 15 to 20 percent a decade over the past 30 years. Although the change occurred when there were drugs to slow bone loss in people with osteoporosis, too few patients took them to account for the effect — for instance, fewer than 10 percent of women over 65 take the drugs.

Perhaps it is because people have gotten fatter? Heavier people have stronger bones.

Heavier bodies, though, can account for at most half of the effect, said Dr. Steven R. Cummings of the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute and the University of California at San Francisco. When asked what else was at play, he laughed and said, “I don’t know.”

Dementia rates, too, have been plunging. It took a few reports and more than a decade before many people believed it, but data from the United States and Europe are becoming hard to wave off. The latest report finds a 20 percent decline in dementia incidence per decade, starting in 1977.

A recent American study, for example, reports that the incidence among people over age 60 was 3.6 per 100 in the years 1986-1991, but in the years 2004-2008 it had fallen to 2.0 per 100 over age 60. With more older people in the population every year, there may be more cases in total, but an individual’s chance of getting dementia has gotten lower and lower.

There are reasons that make sense. Ministrokes result from vascular disease and can cause dementia, and cardiovascular risk factors are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. So the improved control of blood pressure and cholesterol levels should have an effect. Better education has also been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, although it is not known why. But the full explanation for the declining rates is anyone’s guess. And the future of this trend remains a contested unknown.

The exemplar for declining rates is heart disease. Its death rate has been falling for so long — more than half a century — that it’s no longer news. The news now is that the rate of decline seems to have slowed recently, although it is still falling. While heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 300,000 people a year, deaths have fallen 60 percent from their peak. The usual suspects: Better treatment, better prevention with drugs like statins and drugs for blood pressure, and less smoking, are, of course, helping drive the trend. But they are not enough, heart researchers say, to account fully for the decades-long decline.

The heart disease effect has been examined by scientist after scientist. Was it a result of better prevention, treatment, lifestyle changes?

All three played a role, researchers said.

In the 19th century, experts tried to explain why tuberculosis was a leading killer. That’s what happens when people live in cities, doctors said, and there is little to be done. By the start of the 20th century, one out of every 170 Americans lived in a tuberculosis sanitarium.

Then, even before the eventual development of drugs effective against it, TB started to go away in the United States and Western Europe. But experts disagree about why. Some say it was improvements in public health and sanitation. Others say it was changes in medical care. Others split the difference and say it was both.

The tuberculosis surprise was eclipsed in the 1930s as heart disease became ascendant. It would kill us all, the experts said.

And sure enough, by 1960, a third of all American deaths were from heart disease. Now, cardiologists are predicting it will soon fall from its perch as the No. 1 killer of Americans, replaced by cancer, which itself has a falling death rate.

Dr. Cummings, intrigued by the waning of disease, has a provocative idea for further investigation. He starts with two observations: Rates of disease after disease are dropping. Even the rate of “all-cause mortality,” which lumps together chronic diseases, is falling. And every one of those diseases at issue is linked to aging.

Perhaps, he said, all these degenerative diseases share something in common, something inside aging cells themselves. The cellular process of aging may be changing, in humans’ favor. For too long, he said, researchers have looked under the lamppost at things they can measure.


Wonderful news. So perhaps the dramatic decline in smoking, less air pollution (remember when lead was added to gasoline?), and better nutrition (at least the educated are aware of the need to consume vegetables; some people are even juicing) have been having an effect.

Of course there are still huge differences between the richest and the poorest, the most educated and the least educated. If you walk into a market in a poor neighborhood (or a little town in a depressed area of Vermont, say), you see practically no fresh produce — or fresh as opposed to processed meat and seafood. The poor are the most likely to smoke and be obese.

The future is likely to bring us major advances in regenerative medicine. Some will no doubt be related to a more sophisticated use of stem cells and hormone replacement. Various anti-aging proteins and other chemicals in the plasma of young people are finally being studied. This makes me acutely aware of having been born too late. But it could have been worse.

And my best friend is 90, and doing amazingly well. Individual differences will always be with us, and intangibles such as having something to live for. 


ending on beauty:

My power animal is prehistoric, so far
undiscovered. I wait for its bones
to be found. I’m not hopeful;
it was drawn to bright lights
and may have stood directly under the meteor,
blue head cocked like a microphone.

~ “Red Sugar Blue Smoke” by Brendon Constantine

Black cat in the Old Jewish Quarter, Alfama, Lisbon; photo: M. Iossel