Sunday, August 14, 2016


Rob Gonsalves: The Sun Sets Sail

My great-aunt Regina’s 

husband, Edmund, a math teacher, 
bought the first radio in town.
The kilohertz apparatus
took up the whole table.
Tall, domed, with the latticed
window of the speaker,
it was the new cathedral.

The tuning knob was the size
of a door-knob; a mustache of light
radiated from the dial.
The back panel could be taken off,
revealing a futuristic
city of vacuum tubes,
some slender and some squat, aglow.

Edmund didn’t listen
to the radio; he only tuned it.
For hours he’d turn the knob,
the red-green arrow stuttering back and forth.
He leaned close, hovering over the frequencies,
adjusting his precision instrument.

The radio blinked and spewed
whines and whistles dopplering
from a squeak to a roar: buzz and clicks,
wheezes, gurgles, crackles, growl;
hysterical snatches of voices
in a Babel of tongues.

When his wife dared to suggest,
“Why don’t we just listen to the news?”
he’d scold her in his most severe
schoolmaster’s voice: “Renia, please —
you don’t understand about these things.”

She didn’t. They were the first
couple in town to get a divorce.

~ Oriana © 2016

Ah, how quickly "futuristic" becomes obsolete, and then forgotten. Thirty or at most forty years from now, who will know what vacuum tubes were?

~ “Trump is a deeply insecure, emotionally unsettled, psychologically repressed, attention-starved boy from a well-off family with a domineering father and acquiescent mother — an obsessive liar, BS-artist, serial exaggerator, ceaseless braggart, cruel punisher of smaller kids, torturer of defenseless animals.

Putin is a local teen hoodlum from across the wrong side of the tracks, from a poor and archetypically dysfunctional household, strong and laconic, cunning and manipulative, ruthless and implacably vindictive, colorlessly sinister, leader of a tightly knit gang of criminally minded youths.

Trump is fairly infatuated, smitten with Putin. He wants to be like Putin, seeks Putin's benevolent notice, longs to be Putin's favorite acolyte and someone viewed as Putin’s near-equal by the rest of town.” ~ Mikhail Iossel


What is really astounding is that Trump even claimed to have actually met Putin, “who couldn’t have been nicer.” Fact checkers quickly established that no such meeting ever took place. “We were on 60 Minutes together.” True, but one interview was recorded in Moscow, and another in New York. This is not exactly a meeting. Can a feeling of intense affinity lead to a formation of a false memory? Trump is so divorced from reality, so sunk in wishful thinking, that it’s impossible to tell if he’s deliberately lying or believes his own delusions.

I like articles that point out the likely origin of Trump’s narcissism, attention deficit, and other disorders that have been suggested. However imperfect our understanding, the attempt to understand is the opposite of raw, reflexive hatred.



“Hatred . . . is powerfully governed by the illusion that those we hate could (and should) behave differently. TRUE HATRED REQUIRES THAT WE VIEW OUR ENEMY AS THE ULTIMATE AUTHOR OF HIS THOUGHTS AND ACTIONS. Love demands only that we care about our friends and find happiness in their company. It may be hard to see this truth at first, but I encourage everyone to keep looking. It is one of the more beautiful asymmetries to be found anywhere.”

I remain an agnostic when it comes to free will — maybe it’s more a question of degree. At this point, however, the Western culture ascribes a lot of free will to people when none — or only a small degree — can be applied. And if we believe that the person deliberated on his actions ahead of time and decided to do evil while having the other options, then of course we are likely to hate this person.

Less attachment to free will would also mean less self-hatred. Sometimes the most loving thing we can say to ourselves (or to someone else) is “It’s not your fault.”


~ “Barbara Fried points out that the last four decades have been “boom years for blame,” with neoliberal policy increasingly holding the individual solely responsible for his fate. Freedom and dignity have become intertwined with personal responsibility—and blame is our new rallying cry. The growing fragility of our communities and families over the same time period has solidified the notion that one has only oneself to rely on.

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

Blame proves a vital mechanism for coping with the chaos, hopelessness, and insecurity that threatens daily to strip our lives of dignity and order. We numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by reaching for images of ourselves as masters of own fates.

Self-blame is shored up by a multi-million dollar self-help industry. But its true power lies in its promise that we can will ourselves to happy and successful lives, in its ability to make a virtue out of failure, insecurity, and uncertainty.  Those who embrace blame tend to have little empathy for those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps. If I have to go it alone, the logic goes, then everyone else should, too.

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

 Bruegel, Netherlandish Proverbs


~ “1. When we give up on perfection

We should not only admit in a general way that the person we are marrying is very far from perfect. We should also grasp the specifics of their imperfections: how they will be irritating, difficult, sometimes irrational, and often unable to sympathize or understand us. Vows should be rewritten to include the terse line: ‘I agree to marry this person even though they will, on a regular basis, drive me to distraction.’

One must conclusively kill the idea that things would be ideal with any other creature in this galaxy. There can only ever be a ‘good enough’ marriage.

For this realization to sink in, it helps to have had a number of relationships before marrying, not in order to have the chance to locate ‘the right person’, but so that one can have ample opportunity to discover at first hand, in many different contexts, the truth that everyone (even the most initially exciting prospect) really is a bit wrong close up.

2. When we despair of being understood

Love starts with the experience of being understood in a deeply supportive and uncommon way. They understand the lonely parts of you; you don’t have to explain why you find a particular joke so funny; you hate the same people; they too want to try out a particular sexual scenario.

This will not continue. Another vow should read: ‘However much the other seems to understand me, there will always be large tracts of my psyche that will remain incomprehensible to them, anyone else and even me.’

3. When we realize we are crazy

This is deeply counter-intuitive. We seem so normal and mostly so good. It’s the others…

If we are not regularly and very deeply embarrassed about who we are, it can only be because we have a dangerous capacity for selective memory.

4. When we are ready to love rather than be loved

Confusingly, we speak of ‘love’ as one thing, rather than discerning the two very different varieties that lie beneath the single word: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and are aware of our unnatural, immature fixation on the former.

In adulthood, when we first say we long for love, what we predominantly mean is that we want to be loved as we were once loved by a parent. We want a recreation in adulthood of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret part of our minds, we picture someone who will understand our needs, bring us what we want, be immensely patient and sympathetic to us, act selflessly and make it all better.

This is – naturally – a disaster. For a marriage to work, we need to move firmly out of the child – and into the parental position.

5. When we are ready for administration (the practical side of life)

The Romantic person instinctively sees marriage in terms of emotions. But what a couple actually get up to together over a lifetime has much more in common with the workings of a small business. They must draw up work rosters, clean, chauffeur, cook, fix, throw away, mind, hire, fire, reconcile and budget.

6. When we understand that sex and love do and don’t belong together

The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. But in truth, they won’t stay so beyond a few months or, at best, one or two years. This is not anyone’s fault. Because marriage has other key concerns (companionship, administration, another generation), sex will suffer. We are ready to get married when we accept a large degree of sexual resignation and the task of sublimation.

7. When we are happy to be taught and calm about teaching

We are ready for marriage when we accept that in certain very significant areas, our partners will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. We should, at key points, see them as the teacher and ourselves as pupils. At the same time, we should be ready to take on the task of teaching them certain things and like good teachers, not shout, lose our tempers or expect them simply to know. Marriage should be recognized as a process of mutual education.

8. When we realize we’re not that compatible

The Romantic view of marriage stresses that the ‘right’ person means someone who shares our tastes, interests and general attitudes to life. This might be true in the short term. But, over an extended period of time, the relevance of this fades dramatically; because differences inevitably emerge. The person who is truly best suited to us is not the person who shares our tastes, but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently and wisely.” ~

I think the best foundation is a” deeply supportive relationship.” That’s what makes it all worthwhile. And if it’s missing, the marriage can go from “good enough” to “miserable” (even “hell on earth”) in a very short time. Fortunately, that deeply supportive attitude that seems to come so easily during the first months of love can be re-acquired and developed as we learn how to be truly kind.

As this wise article points out, compatibility is an illusion that breaks down “up close.” We have to stop insisting on it. To be sure, there are degrees — sometimes you take one look at a person and have a strong premonition that this is a Trump supporter. Similar levels of education and shared cultural interests help, but they are not a guarantee. I also think that a lot depends on one's stage of life. In youth we have more energy to deal with another person up close and on a daily basis; later we may treasure autonomy and peaceful solitude more than the so-called “companionship.”

Finding the right balance of closeness and distance is tricky but doable — if the motivation is there. For an older woman who is reasonably financially secure, the motivation isn't that strong, especially if she is creative and needs a lot of solitude.

Still, to have “someone who cares” is a treasure. It doesn’t have to be a domestic partner as long as it’s an affectionate, supportive friend.


So when are we ready for marriage? When are we mature enough? We mature DURING marriage, and thanks in part to marriage — but not rushing in too early makes sense. My parents waited until 35, and it seems to have been a factor in how happy they were with each other (of course there are no ideal marriages).

Maybe, as Margaret Mead observed, we need different kinds of marriage for different stages of life: a marriage devoted to parenthood is one thing, and a marriage that’s best for later-life companionship is another. With luck, the same marriage can evolve to suit our needs, but in practice we don't see that all that often — while we do see couples who wage marriage as warfare, or as silent desperation.

Emerson said something surprising for the Victorian era: that we shouldn’t blame ourselves if we end up in an unhappy marriage. And with that kind of self-compassion, compassion toward the spouse also develops, and peaceful coexistence and cooperation can be built. Or an amicable parting (back then, of course, people just waited for the spouse to die).

But there is no need for gloom. I’ve met a number of people who’ve ended up with “good enough” second or third marriages that they don’t hesitate to call “happy.” The first marriage, they tend to say, is a “learning experience.” And the wonderful thing is that we do 



~ “Sinuses. Blind spots. External testicles. Backs and knees and feet shoddily warped into service for bipedal animals. Human birth canals barely wide enough to let the baby's skull pass — and human babies born essentially premature, because if they stayed in utero any longer they'd kill their mothers coming out (which they sometimes do anyway). Wind pipes and food pipes in close proximity, leading to a great risk of choking to death when we eat. Impacted wisdom teeth, because our jaws are too small for all our teeth. Eyes wired backwards and upside-down. The vagus nerve, wandering all over hell and gone before it gets where it's going. The vas deferens, ditto. Brains wired with imprecise language, flawed memory, fragile mental health, shoddy cost-benefit analysis, poor understanding of probability, and a strong tendency to prioritize immediate satisfaction over long-term gain. Birth defects. 15-20% of confirmed pregnancies ending in miscarriage (and that's just confirmed pregnancies — about 30% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and as many as 75% of all conceptions miscarry).

And that's just humans. Outside the human race, you've got giraffes with a vagus nerve traveling ten to fifteen feet out of its way to get where it's going. You've got sea mammals with lungs but no gills. You've got male spiders depositing their sperm into a web, siphoning it up with a different appendage, and only then inseminating their mates -- because their inseminating appendage isn't connected to their sperm factory. (To wrap your mind around this: Imagine that humans had penises on their foreheads, and to reproduce they squirted semen from their testes onto a table, picked up the semen with their head-penises, and then had sex.) You've got kangaroo molars, which wear out and get replaced — but only four times, after which the animals starve to death. You've got digger wasps laying their eggs in the living bodies of caterpillars — and stinging said caterpillars to paralyze them but not kill them, so the caterpillars die a slow death and can nourish the wasps' larvae with their living bodies.

You're going to look at all this, and tell me it was engineered this way on purpose?

Yes, there are many aspects of biological life that astonish with their elegance and function. But there are many other aspects of biological life that astonish with their clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures, "fixed that for you" kluges and jury-rigs, and appalling, mind-numbing brutality. (See Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes for just a few of the most obvious examples.) If you're trying to reconcile all this with a powerfully magical creator god who made it this way on purpose, it requires wild mental contortions at best, and a complete denial of reality at worst.” ~


“The perfection of the world” was supposed to be the the strongest argument for the existence of god. I distinctly remember the idea from my religion lessons. Imperfection (e.g. disease, natural disasters) was ascribed to the fallen state of humanity and god’s inscrutable will. But the wonders of biology, e.g. the intricacy of the human eye, were supposed to be an obvious proof that a creator designed it all — that’s why perfection prevailed. Yet here is an example after example of “bungling” — explainable only by tracing evolution, a slow and imperfect process that can succeed marvelously given millions of years, or fail within a short time, the species going extinct.

I learned much of this in my first college biology class, decades ago, so for me this was just a neat summary. But I have met those who seriously argue that god "designed" evolution. This is a common cognitive bias: if something exists, it must have been "made" for some particular purpose by an intelligent agent. An excellent book on the types of cognitive bias underlying religious beliefs is Jesse Bering's “The Belief Instinct.” Of course one way out of this would be to posit an imperfect, limited, not especially talented deity — a bumbling sort of god who makes mistakes — but that’s not the kind of god that people want.

The more we discover about the workings of nature, the more we can see the independence of its processes from any deliberate design that would make sense to humans. Dawkins is at his best discussing evolution and how it doesn’t depend on an infinitely wise divine “watchmaker.” Eventually the argument that there simply had to be a creator will be seen as childish, on par with  the flat-earth arguments of the sort, If the earth were round, then then on the opposite side would walk upside down.

Gauguin: The Yellow Christ

“Christianity: man is crucified upon his own body.” ~ Charles Baudelaire


In 1895, Baron Franz Nopcsa’s sister Ilona was walking along a riverbank near the family home when she found an unusual-looking skull, and she brought it to her teenaged brother. It soon became his obsession.

The skull belonged to a previously undiscovered duck-billed herbivore from the dusk of the Mesozoic, around 70 million years ago, and was buried in sediment before a mass extinction that would wipe out three-quarters of all plant and animal species on earth. Crushed by geological forces, the skull was in terrible shape.

In the fall, Nopcsa entered the University of Vienna and took the skull with him. Like a cat with a gift rat, he presented it to his professor, a famous geologist, expecting him to take it from there. But the professor sent Nopcsa back to Transylvania and told him to figure it out for himself. Whether it was lack of interest or funding or the cunning strategy of a master teacher, it was the making of a great scientist.

In the library of Sacel Castle, Nopcsa taught himself geology, physiology, anatomy and neurology. He wrote to scientists all over Europe asking for more books. At the time, very few European dinosaurs had been found. Unable to compare his fossils with others, he relied on his imagination. Working along the river strata, he began to excavate, preparing the fossils he found with homemade glue. From the tiniest scratch on the fossilized braincase, he speculated about the relationship between the pituitary gland, which regulates growth, and an organism’s size, applying what he’d learned of soft tissue and blood circulation. Drawing on the jaw mechanics of lizards and alligators, he rearticulated his dinosaur’s jaw and envisioned its musculature. In this, he was breaking new ground—comparing his dinosaur to living things.

In time, Nopcsa would identify 25 genera of reptiles and five dinosaurs—the duck-billed Telmatosaurus transylvanicus, the beaked and bipedal Zalmoxes robustus, the armored Struthiosaurus transylvanicus and Magyarosaurus dacus and the meat-eating Megalosaurus. Four of these would become the “type specimens” of their species, the fossil blueprints against which all examples would be judged.

The Hateg dinosaurs turned out to be unique. They were unusually small—in some cases nearly miniatures. Nopcsa’s titanosaur belonged to a family of massive sauropods reaching lengths of 100 feet and weights of 80 tons, yet M. dacus was the size of a horse. His Telmatosaurus was smaller than a crocodile. Others were roughly an eighth the size of their non-Romanian cousins. The question was, why?

The most obvious possibility was that Nopcsa had found juveniles. Yet he didn’t believe this to be the case, and he was determined to prove otherwise. Certain bones grow together with age, and a good comparative anatomist, which Nopcsa was, can tell the developmental age of an organism by examining these sutures—so long as he has the right bones. But paleontologists don’t get to choose their bones, and Nopcsa’s Transylvanian miniatures presented either the wrong ones or were crushed beyond analysis. Looking for other ways to discern age, Nopcsa began to examine slices of bone under a microscope to study cell structure.

“Bones grow from the inside out, like trees,” explains Weishampel. “It’s possible to guess an age by counting the rings.” Today this method is known as paleohistology, and Nopcsa’s significant early contributions, particularly in determining which bones are most useful for analysis, remain largely uncredited, according to Weishampel.

Certain that his dinosaurs weren’t juveniles, Nopcsa looked to explain why they seemed unable to grow beyond a certain size. And he began to formulate the argument that Hateg was once an island—another claim supported by research after his death. Hateg Island’s environmental pressures, he concluded, limited the dinosaurs’ development.

“Islands are unique places, where biology gets a free hand,” says Weishampel. “Large animals tend to get smaller—for example, the dwarf elephants of Malta, hippos in the Mediterranean.” And, as it happens, the dwarf dinosaurs of Transylvania. The theory is that fewer food options lead to the success of animals with smaller anatomies. “And small animals,” Weishampel continues, “tend to get larger, like Komodo dragons, boas and tortoises in the Galápagos.” Nopcsa correctly identified the first set of conditions, and the second, scientists now speculate, can be explained by the idea that animals whose body sizes are held in check by predators on large landmasses tend to expand on an island with fewer of them. Nopcsa’s theory of what he called “island insularity” developed into what scientists now know as the “island rule.”

It is easy for the intrigue and romance of Nopcsa’s exploits, and the manner of his tragic death [by suicide; he was manic-depressive], to obscure the quieter fact that the baron was one of the great scholars and scientific minds of his time—and was largely self-taught. He was one of the first scientists to look at fossilized dinosaur bones and see a living, social creature. In fact, he was a staunch believer in the evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs, decades before the idea became widely accepted among paleontologists. His overall contributions to the field have led some to call him the forgotten father of dinosaur paleobiology. “Nopcsa was asking questions nobody else was asking,” says David Weishampel, a paleontologist at the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at John Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Nopcsa was equally brilliant as a structural geologist. While most of the scientific community still scoffed at the theory of continental drift, he provided some of the strongest evidence for such movement. He mapped the geology of Albania and became one of the country’s foremost ethnographers and historians. “It would be no exaggeration to say that he knew the country and its people better than any foreigner of his day,” says Robert Elsie, a scholar of Albania and the translator and editor of Nopcsa’s memoirs, published in English in 2014.

Over his career, Nopcsa published several tomes and more than 150 scientific papers. Yet his name barely appears in textbooks. No historical plaque adorns any of the places he lived or taught. Even his grave is unmarked.

opalized dinosaur jaw

ending on beauty: 
Ah, the earth fooled
the singer, the many-voiced
Eurydice, from ravine,
from waters. She bows
our backs deeper in the
dank weed, before the year
goes out, with showers,
with angry rain.

~ Johannes Bobrowski

I love the way the earth becomes "the many-voiced Eurydice." This is a poem of the northern climate, so Eurydice, like Persephone, departs into rain and darkness . . . until the many-voiced springtime.

Note the musical repetition: “from ravine, from waters” and later “with showers, with angry rain.” There is something atmospheric, something that says “poetry” — and it results from 

the mere omission of "and."


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