Sunday, September 11, 2016


Peter Landon, Daedalus and Icarus, 1799. Academic kitsch, but it's such wonderful kitsch. And it always interested me that art and poetry tend to glorify Icarus and put down the moderation of Daedalus, even though the ancient Greeks praised “moderation in all things” (metron ariston). But we, perhaps influenced by the Romantics, extol passion. 



We marched around the schoolyard,
memorized rifle parts. 
In June we were taken
to an indoor shooting range.

I pulled the trigger blindly,
shaken by the noise, the recoil.
Most of the time
I hit the side wall.

I pleaded poor eyesight,
was excused.
In truth I didn’t know
how to sight the target.


Grenade training: if you throw
a grenade to your right, you must run
to your left. I never got as far
as that. My fate was sealed in first grade

when I switched our primers
while a classmate was away
from our desk. My copy
had crisper, darker print. To be different

was to be wrong.
Someone else's meant superior.
I felt guilty about it for years.
I failed to confess it in church,

and felt guilty about that
also. At ten I confessed,
knees sunk into the hollowed,
creaky kneeling board,

the air musty with so many sins.
The priest solemnly insisted
I must give the primer back. 
Also say five Hail Marys

and three Our Fathers. By then
I lived in another town,
on the verge of suspecting
both religion and life were absurd.


There’s a New Age theory of the beyond:
we get to see our lives
moment by moment all over again.
What an economical design for hell.

But I wouldn’t beg for another
chance to do it right.
Impossible. I’d like to fail again,
in a brilliant new way.

I'd like an angel to be
not a giant like my six-foot-six
Military Preparedness instructor,  but a small
lap angel. He wouldn’t force me

to review my life
or scores on the shooting range.
He wouldn’t care about rifle parts,
wouldn’t listen to my “field report.”

He’d take me by the hand and say,
Relax, you unexpectedly
made it, here, eat this lily —
and I’d eat it the wrong way,

as the first time I was given a banana,
and ate it sideways,
leaving behind a delicately carved
banana-core — and we’d exit

laughing. You have to have
military preparedness for that.

~ Oriana © 2016

I apologize to those who expected my more typical, lyrical poem full of nature imagery. This is a personal narrative that’s close to absurdist humor. We really did have a Military Preparedness (or “Readiness”) class in high school. It was Beckett and Ionesco all the way.

(“We became savages under Communism,” my mother liked to say. But I begged to differ. Mainly, we became actors in the theater of the absurd.)

Back then, the official enemy was the U.S. But Poles knew who the real enemy was: the country to the East, usually referred to as “our brother.” And some Poles feared that Germany would invade again, trying to regain its pre-war “eastern territories” like Silesia and most of Pomerania. Not that Poland really had a chance, if it came to that. It would have to be an underground struggle again, just more of the tragic history.

But the poem only brushes against those tragic implications. Nor does it wade into my personal “history of tears” — just a few details, hardly major. No, the poem is about the absurdity of it all. It exits laughing. 

Image: Lilies in a Kraków pocket garden. Photo: Anna Stępień (who tells me the new right-wing Polish government has re-introduced the class as Defense Preparedness)


You love as many times as necessary, as necessary in order to be happy. ~ Samuel Beckett

How I wish I had come across this in my teens, when I fell in love easily, and felt deeply ashamed of being so “fickle.” Assuming I had a character defect, I decided to pretend I could stay in love forever, as the songs always said. Need I say that awful things followed that decision made at 18, the age of wisdom? There really should be a support group for victims of early marriage. The joke is on us. We never really got to be young.

How I wish that instead of our hopeless sex ed class (or in addition to it) we had a class on emotional education, on (blush) falling in love and the different kinds and stages of love. Maybe not a class, but at least a book for young readers that would explain that school crushes are normal and not a sign of pathological incapacity for lasting love, and especially on how normal it is for romantic love to end — while attachment love deepens over the years.

Yes, a book would be more private and effective in a repressed Catholic culture. And I’d have liked this book to include wise statements about affection and mutual nurturing, and the golden rule — something the church rather neglected in its obsession with sin and punishment.

“You love as many times as necessary” — I keep thinking about this statement by Beckett. The trust in life and in yourself. The acceptance, the permission. The admission that it's all right to love whenever love happens, “as many times as necessary, as necessary to be happy." That statement is so nurturing — instead of condemning you for having failed to live up the ideal of the one and only true love.

But let me not lament the past. Instead, let me celebrate the wonders of now — which include having found (again) this quotation, completely unexpected given its source.

Photo: Charles Fishman


Last night I heard the owl. And I thought: “It’s as good as being loved.”

(I mean the owl that lives in the eucalyptus trees across the street. It always feels special to hear the marvelous hooting.)


It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then ~ Alice in Wonderland

Salvador Dali: Alice’s Evidence


“Most people have no idea what their talents are.” And if you are to do excellent work, and love it, and be energized by it, it should be in the area of your natural aptitude — “you should be in your element.” This is a very funny talk about something that is in fact tragic . . . most people don't know what their talents are, what they are good at. Schools tend to mis-define us and parents don't always realize that they have to be “hands off” — so most people spend their lives doing things they don't enjoy.


There should be much less separation between work and pleasure, life and work. I've always hated the idea of a “balanced life.” I’m all for a passionate life, without strict boundaries.

Another big factor is that some talents are valued and encouraged much more than others. Believe me, poets know!

And Vincent knew it too.

A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke. ~ Vincent Van Gogh


This is a superb video, ideal for Labor Day. Maybe I should put a piece of cardboard around my neck: "WILL WORK FOR MEANING." Watch it to the end for the brief discussion of the contrast between Adam Smith (efficiency) and Karl Marx (meaning), and how Marx has become more relevant in the post-industrial era.

I loved the part about the meaningful condition versus the “Sisyphic” condition — yes, perhaps meaningless work is the greatest torture, even though Camus tells us that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.

The presentation of how the effort we put into something increases its subjective value is not to be missed either. You could call it the “IKEA effect””: you will be more pleased with something you put a lot of effort into.

And you will value your children more if you put a lot of effort into raising them. The part about “kids for sale” is both funny and eye-opening. You may think your kids are really wonderful (smart, great personalities, and oh so cute) by objective standards, but it’s really the huge amount of labor that you invest in them that makes you value them so extravagantly. On the dark side, when a new project is canceled by the company after the employees already put in considerable effort into it, deep depression will follow — even though the employees get paid as before.


 In Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions of the world in 2014, the last one was: The most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!” in our “society of enforced leisure.” To some extent, I see this around me. I see a lot of "cognitive reserve" — bright, educated people whose jobs do not utilize enough of their intellect, so they write long book reviews for Amazon, create blogs and interesting and complex social media posts — sometimes in addition to creative work in the arts. Intellectual/creative work remains its own reward. Or, for some, work that is of obvious use to others, work done in the spirit of service. 

Photo: Camilla Evers


~ “A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.”

Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours–productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’”

Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry — too little time left.”

Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend:

“‘It is only half an hour’–’It is only an afternoon’–’It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes–or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less.” ~


“It will take only a moment.” Instead of zooming in on the work, we say, “I'll just take 10 minutes to answer email”; "I'll just check today's news headlines." Soon an hour has gone by, and then it's time to prepare a meal, then there is the laundry etc — but we keep kidding ourselves again and again.

I notice that every time I skip the news, my productivity improves. The best kind of morning I have starts with skipping both email and news and opening my writing program instead.

“Sorry — too little time left” is frightfully real. I remember when my mother began saying, “That’s not important.” She meant precisely that too little time was left to bother with most concerns.


Beware of drought in the heart love the wellspring of morning
love the bird whose name you don’t know and the winter oak
the light on the wall and the splendor of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath they exist to tell you
no one will console you

~ Zbigniew Herbert (from the cycle “Mr. Cogito”; my translation):

Only the beauty of nature is our source of emotional strength? No one will console you? Let me approach these questions in an indirect way.

John Ruskin fell pathetically in love with Rose la Touche, who was nine when they met; Ruskin was nearly forty. An Evangelical Christian, she naively tried to convert Ruskin, who kept proposing to her. Her nickname for him was “St. Crumpet.” After a bout of mental illness (possibly involving anorexia), Rose died at the age of 27. Ruskin commented:

“I wonder mightily what sort of creature I should have turned out, if instead of the distracting and useless pain, I had had the joy of approved love, and the untellable, incalculable motive of sympathy and praise. It seems to me such things are not allowed in the world. The men capable of the highest imaginative passion are always tossed on fiery waves by it.”

I don’t think it ever dawned on Ruskin that pedophilia is not the kind of love that should be returned. But never mind Ruskin’s attraction to nymphets. Unrequited love is a universal human dilemma, and a great source of inspiration, at least for poets. “Depression strokes the feathers of the Muse,” a friend of mine remarked when I lamented that giving up melancholy made me less lyrical, which used to be so effortless when there was a pool of immense sadness to dip into for instant “atmosphere.” 

a sketch of Rose la Touche on her deathbed, by Ruskin, 1875

Like the middle-aged Ruskin wondering what marvels requited love would have done for him, I went through years and years of asking myself various “what if” questions: what if I’d stayed in Poland, what if I’d had a happy marriage and a beautiful Polish daughter (she’d be a goddess in my eyes), what if a brilliant professor had “discovered” me, what if I had had a mentor . . . Then a friend answered, “We don’t write because we have a mentor. We write because we are compulsive.”

Instantly I knew she was right. Having a mentor is obviously not what makes you a writer. Yes, it would have been helpful, but . . .  Thinking about it wasn’t helpful, so I simply stopped thinking about it. I just “shut up” — and have been a happier and more productive person since, quietly going on about my work.

I also happened to read Sheldon Kopp’s “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” The back cover said: “A grown-up can be no man’s disciple.” And inside: “There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.”


Nevertheless, I wonder about Herbert’s “No one can console you.” True, he indicates that “no one” doesn’t mean “nothing.” There is the miraculous birth of the morning and splendor of the sky, there is the nameless bird and the bare winter oak. As Larry Levis admonished his (young and self-centered) students: gaze at the world.

And that is wonderful advice. The answer is not within; it — or at least “consolation” — is outside. Gaze at the world. Engage with it.

But that’s not everything. There are also other human beings to engage with, and yes, they can console during times of distress. A close friend is invaluable, but sometimes a perfect stranger will pay you a compliment out of the blue, lifting you to a state of gratitude that can transform a difficult day. Being valued by others, even in small ways, helps us value ourselves.

And that’s the essence of it. I discovered that I need to be deeply supportive to myself, and to do things that express that deeply supportive attitude toward myself. Recently, that has meant getting rid of the accumulation of stuff (books, books, and more books!) that no longer serves me, creating shelf space for the special books that are loved NOW — and for displays of beautiful minerals. It also means that if I want to have a soothing time reading before bed, I give myself that treat without any guilt that I should be instead doing ab exercises. There will be time for those too — a time when the loving thing will be precisely to do the exercises.

Herbert was a bipolar alcoholic who had trouble truly loving anyone. (Once he even said that he never loved any woman except for his grandmother — but that may have been a deluded “bipolar” statement.) He had a devoted and long-suffering wife, whom he appears to have treated mainly as a servant. Apparently he never experienced a deeply supportive relationship going both ways, which alone would have led to a feeling of connection and, if needed, consolation. Being a poet, he managed to get just enough nourishment from the “loyalty of objects,” the beauty of nature and art, and the world of ideas. But his mature work doesn’t include a single love poem, and human warmth in general is mostly missing. When he warns the reader to “beware of drought in the heart,” he is preaching to himself. 

Donald Trump started out boasting that his much-flaunted wealth meant that he could self-fund his campaign and that this made him incorruptible, a feckless notion that went flying out the window as soon as he became the presumptive, official party nominee and went running to fat cat funders with his diminutive hands out.

As The Washington Post‘s Matea Gold reported Sept. 1, “The New York billionaire, who has cast himself as free from the influence of the party’s donor class, has spent this summer forging bonds with wealthy GOP financiers — seeking their input on how to run his campaign and recast his policies for the general election, according to more than a dozen people who have participated in the conversations.”

And let’s not get started on the wacky world of Trump’s actual finances, his bragging about using cash to buy political favors, his failure to release tax returns, his dodgy connections with overseas banks, Russian plutocrats and organized crime. “... It is safe to say,” The New York Times recently reported, “that no previous major party presidential nominee has had finances nearly as complicated…”

Now there’s a classic Times understatement for you. It continues:

    As president, Mr. Trump would have substantial sway over monetary and tax policy, as well as the power to make appointments that would directly affect his own financial empire. He would also wield influence over legislative issues that could have a significant impact on his net worth, and would have official dealings with countries in which he has business interests.

What a swell idea to put him in charge.

Not that Hillary Clinton and husband Bill are polestars of virtue. They seem to have gone out of their way to favor the wealthy and make sure they themselves always have a well-upholstered seat at the groaning banquet table of foundation, government and political largesse.

Then there’s Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, the man infamous for telling the Times of London in 2009 that his bank was “doing God’s work,” head of the very same gang that gave Hillary Clinton those big six-figure lecture fees you’ve heard about.

Hillary Clinton has claimed she wants to get rid of the deductible performance pay loophole, but there are several bills out there that would do the job and so far she hasn’t endorsed any of them. Why would she when she already relies so heavily on the counsel — and campaign cash — of many of these bank CEOs and their elite associates at law firms and corporations?

So far, close to half a billion dollars have been raised for her campaign, $50 million alone during the last two weeks of August at 22 fundraisers. According to The New York Times, that’s an average of $150,000 an hour.

It’s all part of a long tradition going back to Bill and beyond. And despite the objections of those who say there’s no evidence of a direct link between money given and favors granted, remember: It’s not just about the quid pro quo. It’s about the web of influence, the nod to the insider, the guy who knows a guy who knows a guy.

How can you be sure a Hillary Clinton White House will be any different? Given all the evidence, given the billions of dollars in play, you can’t.

But here’s one hopeful sign: Politico reports:

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren and her allies aren’t waiting for Election Day: Months before the votes have been counted, they’re already exerting pressure on Hillary Clinton’s transition team over key hiring decisions... They’re vowing to fight nominees with ties to big banks, and warn against corporate executives assuming government roles in regulating the industries that made them rich.

Warren believes “personnel is policy.” She and her colleagues have reserved an especially hot place for the Wall Street big shots and corporate nabobs who fancy a job in the Clinton administration. It’s called the “Hell No” list.

Attention must be paid to that list or with a Clinton back in office it’s four more dreary years of greased palms and the status quo. That could be a recipe for disaster almost but not quite as horrific as an egotistical know-nothing with his fingers in the piggy bank and worse, near the button.

 This face (Miles gloriosus/ the boastful soldier) by Leonardo makes me wonder how Leonardo might draw Donald Trump
The very thing that is potentially destroying us is at the same time waking us up. ~ Paul Levy


"When surgery first started 300 years ago, you would have people walking around with blood and pus all over their outfits. In that situation it makes a lot of sense to make the system very clean," Gilbert said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver.

"But if you go into any wound infection clinic and speak to a surgeon, they are constantly sterilizing the bejeebers out of their operating room. There is theoretically nothing there – they have scrubbed themselves with sterilizing agents – but somehow, magically a pathogen gets into the person when they're in the operating theatre and they get sick.

"This is a situation where one organism from one person hasn't had any competition from any other microbes on the skin or in the environment because there's nothing else there," he said.

Florence Nightingale noted the virtues of open windows in her Notes on Nursing in 1859. "True nursing ignores infection, except to prevent it. Cleanliness, fresh air from open windows, are the only defence a true nurse either asks or needs," she wrote.

Last month, Jessica Green at Oregon University reported that air conditioned hospital rooms had less diverse populations of microbes compared with rooms that were aired by leaving the windows open. But the air conditioned rooms had a greater portion of pathogens that lived on humans or belonged to groups that caused disease.

"There's a good bacterial community living in hospitals and if you try to wipe out that good bacterial community with sterilisation agents and excessive antibiotic use, you actually lay waste to this green field of protective layer, and then these bad bacteria can just jump in and start causing hospital borne infections or mediated infections," Gilbert said.

"If you open the windows and let all of these other bacteria in from outside, you will either dilute out the pathogens or not allow the pathogens to establish themselves because there is too much competition for the nutrients and energy that the bacteria need to survive," he added.

Mark Enright, research director at AmpliPhi Biosciences and a microbiologist at Bath University, said: "I do think that opening windows is a good thing. Air flow is a good thing in hospitals; you don't want pockets where organisms can pool and swarm and pass on.”

We are finding out more and more about the good bacteria or simply the advantages of microbial diversity — in the gut, in the mouth, in the air at home, office, or hospital.

I used to think my mother was ridiculously old-fashioned in her practice of daily "airing" the house. Now it seems there is something to it. 

 Andrew Wyeth, Wind from the Sea, 1947

ending on beauty

Here and everywhere
is my homeland, wherever I turn
and in whatever language I would hear
the song of a child, the talk of lovers.
Happier than anyone, I am to receive
a glance, a smile, a star.

~ Milosz, “Mittelbergheim”

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