Saturday, December 31, 2016


        in homage to Osip Mandelstam

In Warsaw near the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier,
in a treeless square,
there used to scowl a statue

of Feliks Dzierżyński,
founder of the CheKa,
the Bolshevik Secret Police.
His nickname was “Bloody Felek.”

Before the unveiling,
someone managed to paint
the statue’s hands blood-red.
When the string was pulled,

the dignitaries gasped:
the blood of his victims
seemed to drip
from Bloody Felek’s hands.

The speaker on the podium
began to stutter. The military
band struck up, then
stopped; feebly began again.

To the hesitant tuba’s
failure to proclaim the dawn
of workers’ paradise,
the string was pulled back.

Fifty years later, ten thousand
people jammed the square
to watch the demolition
of a monument to a mass murderer.


My cousin Ewa tells the tale
of yet another fallen icon:
a giant statue of Stalin,
largest in the world. Taller than

the Statue of Liberty,
the dictator stained the sky
at the joining of two rivers,
the Volga and the Don —

his “sneer of cold command”
staring down the starving
Ukraine. The ten-story
pedestal still stands.

Stalin was toppled into the water —
shallow enough, they say,
that from the cruise boats you can see
his colossal face.

Ewa was on one of those boats:
“From where I stood,
I only caught a glimpse
of Stalin’s mustache.”

She giggles. She must have told
this story countless times.
We sit at the table smiling,
sipping home-made hawthorn wine.

Stalin’s mustache. The empty
pedestal still stands.

~ Oriana © 2016

“In homage to Osip Mandelstam” — because he wrote of Stalin’s “cockroach whiskers,” for which he paid with his life.

And Stalin’s great admirer just sent a man to a penal colony for having called him a Fascist on Facebook . . . well, at least he didn’t have him shot.

Though my poem wasn’t inspired by Shelley’s Ozymandias, my cousin’s story reminded me of that famous sonnet — and the ending (“The empty / pedestal still stands”) claims kinship with with the unforgettable image of the broken statue of the one-mighty ruler.

And here is the poem that I wish everyone in the world knew — along with the idea that no empire has ever been too big to fall.


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

~ “Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, was born about 3,000 years ago and is widely regarded as the most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. The Greeks called him Ozymandias. When he died in 1213 B.C.E., he left a series of temples and palaces that stretched from Syria to Libya, and countless statues and monuments commemorating his impressive reign. By the 19th century, when European colonization reached Egypt, most of these statues were gone, and the ones that remained were in ruin. In 1816, the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni discovered a bust of Ramses and acquired it for the British Museum. This is when Ozymandias’s life, in one respect, truly began.

“Ozymandias,” perhaps the most famous sonnet Percy Bysshe Shelley ever penned, was written in 1817, as the remains of the famous statue were slowly transported from the Middle East to England. Shelley imagines a traveler recounting a journey in a distant desert. Like Belzoni, Shelley’s character discovers a great bust, half-buried in the windswept sands. Next to the wreckage is a pedestal where the monument once stood. Inscribed in shallow letters on the slab of rock: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Of course, as Shelley’s poem tells us, nothing remained of these works or the king of kings. Just sand.

The poem’s message is perennial: All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline. The year 2016 has delivered a string of deaths that serve as bracing reminders of this inevitability: Prince, Nancy Reagan, David Bowie, Elie Wiesel, Bill Cunningham, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Merle Haggard, Patty Duke, John Glenn [Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Zsa-Zsa Gabor — minor, yes, but “famous for being famous” and thus a part of our collective psyche — and, just now, Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds]. Of course, it has also been a year that has ushered in a new empire and, simultaneously, the specter of apocalypse. The year’s end is a time to take account of kingdoms built, but also the sheer rapidity of their destruction. It is a chance to come to terms with the existential fragility that is overlooked in most of our waking hours and that must be faced even by the greatest among us.

David Foster Wallace argued that for most of us dying in the pursuit of wealth or prestige is simply our “default setting.” The problem isn’t that we’re picking the wrong things to die for, but that we aren’t actually picking. We chose to live by proxy. We allow ourselves to remain in a psychological trap that prevents us from seeing what might be genuinely meaningful in our own lives. In doing so, we risk, according to Wallace, “going through (our) comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to our heads and to (our) natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” We might call this the Ozymandias Trap — Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! — and be on guard against falling into it ourselves.

Most days we discover that we’re not quite up to the heroic task of extricating ourselves from the Ozymandias Trap. Others, we fear we’ve failed miserably. It is not realistic to love in the awareness that each day might be your last. But at least we can stop pretending that we will endure forever.

Ivan Ilyich can’t pretend that he’s not dying. He recognizes what Ramses II apparently did not: With his death, there is no justification of his life, there is no proof of himself to leave behind, there are no monuments where he is going.” ~

landscape agate



This is perhaps the most moving, and certainly the most realistic Nativity: Caravaggio, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609. I think it's superb, and I'm surprised it's not more famous.

These are all poor people — I think that's the source of viewers' discomfort — the unidealized truth of it. This is the painting that made me realize made me realize that in most art Mary is presented as if she were a pampered aristocratic woman in fine clothes — and often in a fine interior. Here she really is a poor peasant, one of the downtrodden — just like the shepherds.

Compare this to one of the conventional Nativities — this one by Girolamo Romanino, 1545

This is indeed a splendid robe. But at least the contorted boy angels are funny.


~ “I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write “I suppose,” though I know for a fact that I have made it up, but yet I keep fancying that it must have happened somewhere at some time, that it must have happened on Christmas Eve in some great town in a time of terrible frost.” ~
Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Heavenly Christmas Tree” (1876) 

A marvelous Borges-like opening. Is there any other short story that opens with a statement “I am a novelist”? The story resembles Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, and is definitely not for those seeking “Christmas cheer.” Inspired by Dostoyevski’s visit to London where he noticed many orphans wandering in the streets, it’s about a poor little boy who freezes to death and finds himself standing with other dead children around “Christ’s Christmas Tree.”

~ “I keep fancying that all this may have really happened — that is, what took place in the cellar and on the woodstack; but as for Christ’s Christmas tree, I cannot tell you whether that could have happened or not.” ~

This reminds me somewhat of Hardy’s magnificent poem “The Oxen.” The longing to believe is there, and the intelligent adult’s near-certainty that it’s only wishful thinking. 


~ “Nazi officials took high-performance drugs such as methamphetamine hydrochloride (crystal meth) and cocaine. German military units and aviators were dosed with the patent methamphetamine-based drug Pervitin (manufactured in Germany from 1937) to improve operational efficiency. And drugs such as Pervitin and metabolic stimulants were tried out on students, military recruits and, eventually, in concentration camps," Weindling wrote. 

"Questions remain, however, over precisely how the drugs were tested, prescribed, distributed and used."

 Even though "they're affecting the same systems in slightly different ways," meth and cocaine boost the release of two main neurotransmitters in the brain — dopamine and serotonin — which give users a sense of energy and euphoria, said Kristen Keefe, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah.

German, English, American and Japanese governments gave their military personnel methamphetamine to enhance endurance and alertness and ward off fatigue during World War II, according to the Methamphetamine and Other Illicit Drug Education project at the University of Arizona.

More recently, US officials said last year that some jihadist fighters in Syria may be using the drug Captagon, an amphetamine pill that can provide a surge of energy and a euphoric high.

In 2002, two American fighter pilots accidentally released a bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan. A lawyer for one of the pilots argued that the Air Force pressured the pilots to take amphetamines, also known as "go pills," which impacted their judgment.

The lawyer's argument was rejected in the actual hearing, Keefe said.

"The pilots were using Dexedrine, or dextroamphetamine, as 'go pills' to keep them awake and alert," Keefe said.

"Historically, it has been used to provide this increase in energy and ability to stay awake in pilots, military pilots ... troops," she said. "So, it's not a Nazi thing, as much as we might want it to be.” ~

Nazi eagle being removed


~ “The Führer, by Ohler’s account, was an absolute junkie with ruined veins by the time he retreated to the last of his bunkers [Hitler received intravenous injections of a drug today known as oxycodone and also used high-grade cocaine].

The effect of the drugs could appear to onlookers to be little short of miraculous. One minute the Führer was so frail he could barely stand up. The next, he would be ranting unstoppably at Mussolini. Ah, yes: Mussolini. In Italy, Blitzed will come with an extra chapter. “I found out that Mussolini – patient D, for Il Duce – was another of Morell’s patients. After the Germans installed him as the puppet leader of the Republic of Italy in 1943, they ordered him to be put under the eyes of the doctor.”

For Hitler, though, a crisis was coming. When the factories where Pervitin and Eukodal were made were bombed by the allies, supplies of his favorite drugs began to run out, and by February 1945 he was suffering withdrawal. Bowed and drooling and stabbing at his skin with a pair of golden tweezers, he cut a pitiful sight.
Hitler, July 1944

“Everyone describes the bad health of Hitler in those final days [in the Führerbunker in Berlin],” says Ohler. “But there’s no clear explanation for it. It has been suggested that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. To me, though, it’s pretty clear that it was partly withdrawal.” He grins. “Yeah, it must have been pretty awful. He’s losing a world war, and he’s coming off drugs.”

He pauses. “You think it [nazism] was orderly. But it was complete chaos. I suppose working on Blitzed has helped me understand that at least. Meth kept people in the system without their having to think about it.” ~


So actually the mystery of the Hitler’s insanity may be simpler than anyone supposed. We don’t have to reach for paranoid schizophrenia. But factors such as Hitler’s possible brain damage from exposure to mustard gas during WWI may also be part of the equation.

And then some of the decisions he made were just plain stupid. As someone observed, “There is no cure for stupid.”


Kenny Baker, who “manned” R2D2, died in August. Here he is with Han Solo, Darth Vader, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew, 7'3"), and Luke Skywalker.

Let me remind you that Darth Vader was the father of both Princess Leia and Luke, her twin brother


~ “John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues argue that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of “a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” as one of their papers put it).

In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets — centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns — would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.

The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. “One possibility,” they write, “is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene,” when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed. (The Pleistocene epoch lasted from roughly 2.5 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.)

All of this matters because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble.” ~


George Lakoff’s answer is that liberals grew up in nurturant families, while conservatives tend to come from punitive families. This seems plausible: punishment would make you more attuned to threatening stimuli. Of course this is not a 100% proposition: sometimes children run the other way, e.g. the most militant atheists tend to have had the most punitive religious indoctrination. Rebellion certainly happens, but it’s more the exception than the rule.

The replicated finding that conservatives are more disgusted by images of filth, maggots, insects, etc. also fits with the fear theory, though somewhat obliquely: there is a kind of fear of contamination.

Finally, it’s been suggested that conservatives have little tolerance for novelty (which means uncertainty), ambiguity, and complexity. They prefer familiarity and simplicity.

The final irony is that the more liberally minded, though not as threat-oriented, perceive conservatives as a threat — perhaps even the greatest threat. They see them as easily manipulated through inciting fear and hatred of anyone different (“the other”), and dismissive of facts — they live in an alternate reality of paranoid conspiracy theories, and are not reachable through persuasion.


~ “The problem with this is watching Fox News actually makes you less informed than if you don’t watch any news at all. In a 2012 study, Fox News viewers rated the absolute lowest in ability to correctly answer questions on a quiz about recent news events. People who didn’t take in any news programs at all did better on the quizzes. NPR listeners rated the best. Consistent liberals in the Pew research were big fans of NPR, by the way. It was the second most common outlet cited as a favorite by consistent liberals, topped only by CNN.

Fox News is one of the main factors, possibly the main factor, driving political polarization in this country. Huge chunks of this country listen mostly or solely to a relentless stream of misinformation coming from Fox News, coupled with warnings, implied or even baldly stated, to avoid listening to other, more factually accurate news sources. Unsurprisingly, then, more people are becoming conservatives and people who were already conservative are becoming more hardline about it. If you have any Fox viewers in your family, you probably already suspected this, but now Pew has given us the cold, hard facts to confirm your suspicions.” ~

To detox from this sickening polarization:


~ “Kessler defines “capture” as a triad of basic elements. The first is a narrowing of attention. This is followed by a “perceived lack of control” and then a “change in emotional state.” What we end up doing, he writes, “may not be what we consciously want.”

Kessler says he was drawn to study the power of unbidden influence — thoughts, feelings and behaviors that override reason and will — through his earlier FDA-related work on tobacco and obesity; he has written three books on those subjects. “Is it possible that the same biological mechanism that selectively controls our attention and drives us to chain-smoke and over-eat . . . is also responsible for a range of emotional suffering?” he asks.

Kessler concludes that it is, and in a section on the neural underpinnings of capture he explains the commonalities. These include the basic workings of brain circuits that enable us to selectively focus attention, couple sensory experiences with feelings, form and recall memories, and learn. The result is behavioral patterns that are sometimes useful and sometimes destructive.

Why some people are captured — obsessed, fixated, enthralled — by particular events but others are not is one of life’s bigger mysteries. The capture theory does not shed light on this question. Without predictive power — who will be captured, why or when — the theory can’t really serve as a basis for understanding or action. And that is because it is a description of what happens, not an explanation of why.

The author hopes that by understanding capture, we might “release those caught in its vicelike grip.” But the most he can do — the most anyone can — is point out that people can undergo reverse capture by forming strong attachments to new ideas, people and causes. Even so, this is not something one can do readily, in part because it’s extremely hard and in part because we don’t know in advance what kinds of commitments will come to be our salvation.” ~

~ "I’m convinced that the best way to get release from capture is to find something more positive that can be more meaningful that captures you. For one [person] it was music, for another it was running, for [Winston] Churchill it was painting. You don’t necessarily control what you’re captured by, but you can put yourself in a position to be captured by certain things." ~


I find that a great way to fight “capture” is to ask oneself, “What is my purpose in life?” And we know that the answer is not going to be “to bite my nails.” Nor will it be “to eat all the candy bars I can.” Nor, “to see how many reasons I can find for self-loathing.” And simply understanding that begins to break the spell.

Awareness, awareness, awareness. We may not know exactly what kind of positive commitment will produce the desired shift of attention, but the question about life purpose will immediately throw doubt on whatever it is that has produced negative capture.
I urge you all to become more flexible


 ~ "The Pitt team didn't think the primary motor cortex would control the adrenal medulla at all. But there are a whole lot of neurons there that do. And when you look at where those neurons are located, most are in the axial muscle part of that cortex.

“Something about axial control has an impact on stress responses,” Strick reasons. “There’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress. And when you see somebody that's depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel.  Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress. And I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.”

Strick focused on movement, but Bruno specializes in sensory neuroscience, so he read more into the findings in the primary somatosensory cortex. Some of these tactile areas in the brain seem to be providing as much input to the adrenal medulla as the cortical areas. “To me that's really new and interesting,” said Bruno. “It might explain why certain sensations we find very relaxing or stressful.”

I thought of a good back scratch, or, for some reason, the calming sensation of putting your bare hand into a plate of fresh pasta.

The idea that primary sensory and motor areas in the brain have a part in to modifying internal states in such a prominent way has caused Bruno to question the very nature of these areas of the brain. “It's not clear to me—from our work, and from their work—that what we call motor cortex is really motor cortex,” he said. “Maybe the primary sensory cortex is doing something more than we thought. When I see results like these, I go, hm, maybe these areas aren’t so simple.”

As Strick put it, “How we move, think, and feel has an impact on the stress response through real neural connections.” ~

Early 20th-century gymnastics in Stockholm

Favorite vintage ad:
Who needs a live horse when you can have this perfect substitute . . .  Note the three settings: trot, canter, and gallop. Imagine what gallop must do to corpulence (shudder).

And note that this Hercules Horse-Action Saddle reduces corpulence AND creates appetite. Also cures indigestion and gout. Whatever happened to this panacea?

Favorite art story of 2016:

the 1520 Durer engraving that was found at a flea market — Durer's trademark billowing tresses

Least favorite person of 2016: this Fatty Boom-Boom (aka Horror Clown). Just his fourth-grade way of speaking should have disqualified him, but apparently it’s precisely that moronic simplicity that has a terrific appeal to millions.

And we thought that W was as dumb as a president could get . . .


“Those people who now say how they would have stood up to Hitler — believe me, they wouldn’t have.” ~ Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels’ secretary

  Hitler, Magda Goebbels, Joseph Goebbels

Carrie Fisher on why Star Wars worked:

“Movies are dreams! And they work on you subliminally. You can play Leia as capable, independent, sensible, a soldier, a fighter, a woman in control — control being, of course, a lesser word than master. But you can portray a woman who's a master and get through all the female prejudice if you have her travel in time, if you add a magical quality, if you’re dealing in fairy-tale terms.”


I’ve often wondered why “Star Wars” felt religious in some ways. Carrie Fisher supplied the term I was missing: “fairy tale.” Religious tales and adventure movies are built on the model of the folk fairy tale.

“Religion is a fairy tale for adults.” ~ Albert Einstein (in a letter) (Oriana: not really for adults, or else childhood indoctrination would not be seen as so necessary.)

Fairy tale motifs and magic — not that one can separate the two, since most folk fairy tales have witches or wizards, good and bad fairies. Something supernatural happens — someone has super-powers. The Force is just another form of magic — a way to control reality (even if it appears to violate the laws of nature) to produce the outcome you want. Like prayer, but, in the movie and its sequels, a lot more reliable. Nor do you have to sacrifice any lambs to be able to slaughter enemies with such incredible ease.

Sure, there were some pretensions to mysticism, and Yoda made an adorable little guru, but . . . if you’ve ever watched a magic show, with the magician making something (or someone) levitate, that’s basically it — except for our eternal hunger that the magic be real and not based on tricks. If only we attain that special state of mind, or sufficient serenity or concentration or . . .  faith? Since faith is supposed to move mountains?

How odd that in reality it takes dynamite to make any impression on a mountain.

Still, I did enjoy the original Star Wars, and I did feel a genuine sadness when I learned of Carrie’s death. Part of it was due to what she became after Star Wars — in spite of Star Wars. She was not afraid to speak the hard truths, to embrace the complexities of life rather than stereotypes. “Society honors its dead troublemakers and living conformists.” ~ Mignon McLaughlin

ending on beauty

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

~ William Butler Yeats





Thanks for starting the new year out with a blog.

I especially like the quote “I am a novelist and I suppose I made up this story.” Don’t we all wonder where our imagination ends and the real story left off . . . even as poets . . . how much do we make up . . .

I too loved Star Wars saw it three times each time looking for special things, and at the time I remember thinking how many Christian symbols he used but now I can’t remember them . . . and how many people recognized them, if they weren’t versed in the Bible.

R2D2 was so lovable but so was his sidekick C-3PO. I admired Princess Leia. A favorite saying here was “Let the Wookie win.” 

May the Force be with you in this year of the ass.  


Oh yes, how much we make up — and many years later may accept the poem’s version as “what really happened.” What really happened may be mundane or unbelievable or “out of character” for the fictional character. Endings are especially vulnerable that way — beware of autobiography.

R2D2 upstaged the loquacious C-3PO, but back then almost everything about the movie felt so novel and exciting — even those things that on closer look were ridiculously old-fashioned, like Leia’s shooting a laser rifle but always wearing that long white (virgin symbolism?) princess gown, and of course being a princess to start with.

“The Force” seemed pretty New Age to me, but “may the Force be with you” seemed to echo “may God be with you” — and that’s the origin of “goodbye.” But then there is no such thing as religious originality — everything’s been copied and rehashed and changed to fit new needs.

By the way, I used to have a Metaphors Be With You bumper sticker. I almost can’t believe anymore. But Star Wars was a huge cultural phenomenon, and that too seems a tad hard to believe now. After all, it wasn’t a particularly deep movie, the religious elements notwithstanding. Star Trek was very rich in meaning by contrast, but it seemed a poor, modest thing next to the Star Wars pizzazz. Star Trek had a vision of a future humanity — you could say it stood for optimistic secular humanism, while Star Wars was something of a throwback to magical thinking.
Actor Anthony Daniels as C-3PO

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