Sunday, April 30, 2017


Klimt: Schubert at the Piano

named for its lucky shape,
I thought, what’s the German for horse?
Pferd, snorted my impatient mind.
And I heard “erd,” as in Erde, earth.

Why this love affair
with German — what would I say
to my grandparents at Ka-Zet
Lager Auschwitz-Birkenau —

Now parked near the dead forest,
white bones of conifers killed
by poison gas in the ground,
out the corner of my eye I saw

a horse klip-klop
across the parking lot.
And the horse was prancing —
lifting his feet high

as if dancing.
For all the skeleton trees,
and the skull and crossbones signs,
this was not

the Pale Horse of Death,
nor the Red Horse of War,
but Demeter’s child, dancing,
knocking on the earth.

And in my amazement I saw
I had to forgive it all,
though I had no right to —
not the moment when

my grandmother was told
what it meant, that thick
choking smoke one could smell
already from the train —

But watching the shining horse
dance out of the dead
forest near Horseshoe Lake,
under deep mountain sky,

I had to forgive all
Apocalypse, past, present,
and to come —
I forgave as if it mattered.

~ Oriana

Horseshoe Lake seen from above; the gray areas are the “dead forest”

Birkenau, the women’s camp, was where the gas chambers and crematoria were. My grandmother, who lived with us, told me what I’d now call the less drastic stories about life in the camp. Sometimes I’d wake up at night because she woke up moaning and screaming. She never told me her dreams, and I preferred not to guess. But I certainly did not have even the slightest idea that anyone could deny the reality of the Holocaust. I was astonished when I discovered that Holocaust deniers existed.

For me this is personal because precisely because my maternal grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor. I was forced to conclude that if god allowed Auschwitz, god would allow anything.


“Isaac was to be a whole burnt offering, meaning after Abraham slaughtered Isaac, he was supposed to burn him. The smoke from burnt offerings was to rise up to heaven and be a pleasing aroma.” ~ Brian, who blogs at A Pasta Sea

If this isn’t archaic, what is? Yahweh definitely has a body, including nostrils — he accepts the sacrifices by inhaling the smoke. I think we can stop right there.

Blake: Abraham

PLATO’S MADNESS AND ARISTOTLE’S SANITY: remembering Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

~ “Plato is the essential Buddha-seeker who appears again in each generation, moving onward and upward toward the “one”. Aristotle is the eternal motorcycle mechanic who prefers the “many”. I myself am pretty much Aristotelian in this sense, preferring to find the Buddha in the quality of the facts around me, but Phaedrus was clearly a Platonist by temperament and when the classes shifted to Plato he was greatly relieved. . . . Plotinus described his quest as “the flight from the alone to the Alone”: in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Mr Pirsig (though he does not appear to know it) is describing his “flight from Aristotle to Aristotle”.

[Phaedrus is the name Pirsig gives to his troubled, questing younger self who ended up getting electroshock therapy.]

~ “Phaedrus is dead: and that should be that. “You have a new personality now”, they had told him, and a new job, technical and Aristotelian, which should keep him out of trouble. And then he had his motorcycle, that microcosm of the Aristotelian universe, a deftly coordinated mass of metallic matter alive with underlying form that made it what it was under the poietikos nous, the “craftsman-mind” of Robert Pirsig himself.

It is Chris who is the real trouble, for he is showing signs of mental disturbance – and that is bad. Can this be the work of poor “dead” Phaedrus? Chris had been told “ghosts appear when someone has not been buried right”. And then Mr Pirsig realizes with a shudder that Phaedrus “never was buried right, and that was exactly the source of the trouble”. Phaedrus makes his first appearance on page 69; and we now know that this is going to be no ordinary motorcycle trip: it is to be a life-and-death struggle between mad, dead Phaedrus and Mr Pirsig’s new-found Aristotelian soul.” ~


Pirsig worshiped “quality.” Some things were of better quality than others; they had excellence to them, what the Greeks called areté (“aristos” = best).

~ “Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is.But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.” ~

It does exist, but not as a disembodied abstraction. Quality exists in particulars, in individual examples.

One of the great lessons of my life has been that quality is worth paying for and (if it involves something you do) working toward. There is hardly anything else that’s as satisfying as producing quality and being surrounded by things of quality (those are usually also things of beauty).

Robert Pirsig and Chris, 1968


“One path – Plato’s path – sees the world through the eyes of the religious mystic as well as the artist,” Herman writes in The Cave and the Light. “The path of Aristotle, by contrast, observes reality through the sober eyes of science and reveals the power of logic and analysis as tools of human freedom.”

Western civilization depends on both for its vigor, according to Herman. “It’s the constant tension between these two ways of seeing the world – the material versus the spiritual, the practical versus the insightful-intuitive side – it’s the creative tension, like the drawing of a string of a bow, that creates the dynamism that’s been so characteristic of western culture throughout its history,” he said during a Nov. 12 presentation at the American Enterprise Institute. “The periods of time in which one side or the other tends to win out, those are times of stagnation and decline.

Herman narrates the last 2,400 years of Western history in terms of this contest. Early Christians such as St. Paul and St. Augustine relied on Plato for “the conceptual spine” of their faith, he said, and this relationship accounts for the religion’s rapid spread. Aristotle ended Plato’s hegemony in the 12th century when Thomas Aquinas relied on his ideas to reconcile natural reason with divine revelation. Aquinas’ singular achievement was “the fusion of Platonized Christianity with Aristotle’s science of man.”

“But it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t hold – because it can’t,” Herman said at AEI. In the book, he offers the Reformation and the Renaissance as Platonic repudiations of the arid Aristotelian scholastics.

And so the story of Western culture seeking a balance between Plato and Aristotle goes, to and through the settlement of the New World and founding of the United States.

American exceptionalism is about achieving that kind of a balance,” he said. “You have people who come with this highly Calvinistic belief in the creation of a perfect community, which they inherit from Plato . . . But, at the same time, also, the [Aristotelian] idea of liberty – religious liberty but also political liberty.

Plato comes off as the more dangerous of the two thinkers, although Herman allowed that “the legacy of both is ambiguous.”

Plato conceived of the world of human existence as a mere copy of the divine order in every way, from the earthly trees (which stand as images of the abstract Form of the tree) to the justice administered in human courts (nothing but a pale imitation of divine justice). A beneficent God (who is the ultimate Form from which the universe is copied) “demands from us not worship through ritual and sacrifice, but our mind’s assent to the lays and principles He has laid out for His Creation,” as Herman puts it in the book.

This idea leads to Plato’s vision of the ideal society as one governed by a Philosopher Ruler, one of the rare few who truly understands those principles and can order human society in accordance with them. Herman regards the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth-century (along with their more moderate cousin, American progressivism) as bat-faced children of Plato. He believes that they demonstrate the danger of Platonic thought triumphing too completely over Aristotle.

“I have historicized the historicizers and shown that the whole race/class/gender approach . . . is in fact itself the product of precisely the same kind of battle and precisely of one side — particularly the Platonist-Hegelian side, the Marxist side — having in a sense dominated and taken over the intellectual discussion,” Herman told the AEI assembly.

Aristotle inverted Plato’s view of the world because he regarded God as the Unmoved Mover who caused all things to exist. Thus, true knowledge comes from studying the created order and particular things within that order. “This reversal left Aristotle’s philosophy with a built-in bias in favor of the individual: in science, in metaphysics, in ethics, and later in politics,” Herman writes.

“When I started in this project, Aristotle was, I have to say, the guy I was pulling for, particularly when thinking in the political realms and the impact that Plato’s view of politics has had, the destructive role it’s had in the 20th century,” Herman said at AEI. “But I also ended up pulling for Plato, because I understood that degree in which that heroic willingness to stand and say this is true no matter what – Martin Luther, ‘here I stand, I can do no other’ – you need that in a culture.”

I, too, want Plato in there as sort of the loyal opposition, but in the minority,” AEI scholar Charles Murray said to describe the desirable balance between Aristotelian and Platonic ideas.

Murray praised Herman for providing an antidote to the “nonjudgmentalism” prevalent on so many contemporary college campuses.

“It portrays throughout history the ways in which all progress has depended on people making judgments,” Murray explained, judgments about ethics, aesthetics, science, and the like.

Herman tells readers of the enormous influence that Plato and Aristotle had over Western culture, a reminder that many students might never hear in a contemporary academic setting. To the extent that the two Greek philosophers appear to crowd other singular figures out of the Western heritage, though, The Cave and The Light makes an argument that is true, but not true enough.

Oriana: After seeing one horrible failure after another of the attempts to create an ideal society, I think we've become more Aristotelian. That's also the tendency as one grows older: less idealism, more pragmatism. Idealism pushed to the extremes typically results in atrocities. But we need some idealism to inspire us. Always a question of balance.

Coleridge  said,
Every person is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian.”

For whatever it's worth, cat people are supposed to be Platonists (worshipping a distant deity) and dog people Aristotelians.


~ “The thing I see about the Bible that's unfortunate is that it’s a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world is that this particular society that’s represented in the Bible isn’t even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It’s pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can’t break loose and move into a modern theology.

One of the great promises of mythology is, with what social group do you identify? How about the planet? To say that the members of this particular social group are the elite of God’s world is a good way to keep that group together, but look at the consequences! I think that what might be called the sanctified chauvinism of the Bible is one of the curses of the planet today.

[But a new mythology is not likely to be born] I don’t think anything of that kind will happen because there are too many points of view floating around the world. All myths so far have been within bounded horizons.” ~

Tom (the interviewer; I apologize for having lost the page that gave his last name): ~ “The sacred literature of all major religions is written in the language of the Empire Era, and is deeply entangled with the warlord consciousness. If we are to move forward, we need to look at these texts with clear eyes, able to see tribal chauvinism, male chauvinism, militarism, etc., for what they are. Only then will we be able to translate the wisdom they do have into a fresh language appropriate to the planetary era.” ~

(I typed this from loose pages, so apologize for not having a link)


That’s a keen observation: the various “holy” scriptures were written in the Empire era. But something else needs to be added: it was also the pre-scientific era. The air was thick with supernatural beings. Gods did have bodies and could impregnate virgins. Feelings, especially communal unity and ecstasy, were channeled into rituals. Rational thinking was barely being born. We can’t create a viable new religion because civilization has advanced toward democracy (the idea of a King of Kings has less and less appeal) and the demand for evidence rather than blind belief.

In The Antichrist,Nietzsche complains, “Almost two thousand years, and not a single new god!” But the time for the birth of gods has long since passed. Temporary idols still arise, but are then forgotten. There is indeed too much cultural and intellectual diversity — and too much history of religion, not to mention the wider spread of the idea that we should ask for evidence — for a new devotion to survive long past the death of its founder.

But “spirituality” has gained new ground. Bernie spoke the language of new planetary spirituality when he said, “We are all in the same boat.” We’ve come to realize that the idea of interdependence has to replace “My god can beat your god” — and, when it comes to monotheism, “Mine is the only true religion — you are a devil-worshipper and are going to burn in hell forever.”

Still, new cults will probably continue to spring up, no matter how bizarre — think of Scientology, born as late as the second half of the twentieth century, and not in the Third World either. But I don’t think they’ll develop into major religions.

“Christianity was not helping me love people. It was preventing me from loving people. That’s why I left Christianity. When I realized religion is really not about the people, I left it.” ~ Dave Warnock, a former evangelical pastor.

Oriana: That’s because your primary duty is to an imaginary being, and not to fellow humans. That's the anti-human face of religion.

~ “To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as though they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing . . . What was most extraordinary is that they left no mementoes behind, no thrones, no mystic rings, no texts either of the soil or the soul. It was as if they had never inhabited the earth. There was no crying out for their return. They were not forgotten because they had been part of the glory of the earth. At the same time, no man ever uttered a petition in his heart for the restoration of those unreal shapes. There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed . . .

Thinking about the end of the gods creates singular attitudes in theming of the thinker. One attitude is that the gods of classical mythology were merely esthetic projections. They were not objects of belief. They were expressions of delight . . .  It is one of the normal activities of humanity, in the solitude of reality and in the unworthy treatment of solitude, to create companions, who, if not superficially explicative, are, at least, assumed to be full of the secret of things . . . However all that may be, the celestial atmosphere of these deities, their ultimate remote celestial residences, are not matters of chance. Their fundamental glory is the fundamental glory of men and women, who being in need of it create it, elevate it, without too much searching of its identity. The people, not the priests, made the gods.” (~ quoted by Leon Surette in The Modern Dilemma)


The ancient Greeks used all the same arguments for why their gods existed — the efficacy of prayer and sacrifice (my son was healed!), the fulfillment of prophecies (the oracles were a terrific business), the sensation of divine presence etc. And then . . . nothing. As Stevens says, “dissolved like clouds.”

(Oh those careless Greeks -- where did they mislay Athena's helmet or, more important, Hermes's caduceus? Funny, a typical Abrahamic theist can easily deal with the question, "How come Wotan's throne has never been found?" -- but, even if reasonably intelligent and educated, are thrown by the same question about Moses's tablets of commandments or the Ark of Covenant or the "true cross." The field is of course rife with charlatanism: during the Middle Ages and beyond, the foreskin of Jesus was kept as a relic in quite a few churches.)


Even after the dissolution, the dead religion had huge imprint on the arts and on the Western civilization in general, creating a counterweight to Catholicism. Even though Apollo was dead, his naked beauty kept casting its subversive spell. It will be the same with Christian themes in literature, for instance, or the metaphorical use of Christian images.

Liberal Judaism may be the first to go. Cultural Judaism and cultural Christianity will linger a bit. And then of course some percentage of people have such a great emotional need for something like religion with its attractive promises of pie in the sky, and such complete absence of what I'd call the “truth drive,” that they will believe anything. And then there is the communal high of emotional contagion — whether it’s evangelical services, soccer games, or the Nazi rallies.


~ “In the Fourth Elegy, Rilke [says]:

                              . . . Aren’t lovers
always arriving at each other’s boundaries? —
though they promised vastness, hunting, home.

When we fall in love we expect infinite adventure, expansion, newness, and at the same time to be infinitely accepted and familiar — “at home.” Impossible, and contradictory, expectations — and when the come up against the quirks and limits of any particular beloved, we are likely to feel as if we had bumped into a solid oak door when we thought we were walking into a grassy field. It is in this mood, I think, that Rilke comes to the notorious remarks about requited love:

                                   . . . Sing
of women abandoned and desolate (you envy them, almost)
who could love so much more purely than those who were gratified.

For the unrequited lover doesn’t have to be disappointed in those “boundaries”; her love (it is always her), because, like a mystic’s, it no longer wants anything, can become what the mystic’s is, a pure assents to the other person’s existence.” ~ Allan Williamson, Falling off a World, in Poets Teaching Poets, p. 90

As with Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” I fell for Rilke’s claim about the alleged superiority of unrequited love. It seemed like a consolation during a time of need — but now I see that it was more of a trap, keeping me emotionally tied to the wrong love object.

Oh, sure, unrequited love seems more “pure.” In fact it’s a terrible waste of time and mental resources. And it can be quite degrading, since the person who’s in love without return is prone to grovel, write long gushy letters, keep trying again by writing more letters . . . waste gas by driving by the house of the beloved, and so forth . . .  When teens engage in such behavior, we indulge them — it’s OK to be immature when young. But a forty-year-old woman wasting away with passion — sorry, Rainer, that’s not noble — that’s merely pathetic. 

The younger Rilke of Malte Laurids Brigge was even more extreme in trying to reject the need to be loved (this may have had to do with his after being left by Lou Andreas-Salomé)

“To be loved means to be consumed by fire. To love is: giving light with inexhaustible oil. To be loved is to pass away; to love is to endure.”

This is a false opposition. It’s good to love AND to be loved. And it’s precisely loving without return that feels like being consumed by fire, since it easily turns into an obsession, its intensity interfering with the productive “giving light.” To be loved is not to “pass away” but rather to be made stronger due to being valued.


True, a real relationship is bound to bring disappointments — we are indeed doomed to bump against the “boundaries,” the limitations. That’s how we learn and grow. And the unexpected joys of a real relationship, the strength that comes from being loved (rather than from suffering; what a delusion that was!) — one can’t get that from fantasies of dancing with the prince.

And it’s possible that too much dreaming about someone makes it more difficult to deal with the real person. Robert Desnos wonders:

I have dreamed of you so much that you are no longer real.
I have dreamed of you so much that my arms, grown used to being crossed on my
chest as I hugged your shadow, would perhaps not bend to the shape of your body.

Realistically speaking, it’s not that the arms wouldn’t know how to embrace the real person. It’s that the real person is such a shock after the perfection of fantasy, the desire to embrace might vanish.

By the way, Williamson himself discusses the negative side of this view, the lack of balance between innerness and outerness (my spell check suggested “uteruses” in place of outerness). Yes, in Rilke it’s always a woman — Gaspara Stampa, the Portuguese Nun, the hinted-at nun-like woman in general — who weeps the “pure” tears of unrequited love. The problem is that such a woman has no satisfying life in the world, no outlet for her energy, intelligence, and creativity. (As we say these days, “She has no life.”) Thus a visiting priest (for instance) can become an object of all-consuming fantasies.

When I look back to the periods of being especially vulnerable to intense unrequited love, I see above all the lack of fulfillment in the realm of work. It was worst before I discovered my vocation as a writer. Being a love junkie is a sad pathology. At the same time we may be tempted to say, Better a fantasy love life than no love life at all. No — that energy should go into some form of productive work and engagement with actual human beings — un-idealized, but also vastly more interesting. Into reality, not exclusively fantasy. Again, as we say these days, “Get a life.”

Otto Dix: Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926. Need we say that she “had a life”?

“I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.” ~ John Green

It seems to me that that’s also the way insight operates. Mainly on the unconscious level, the brain can be working on a problem — e.g. religious beliefs — for many years. Then a searing, revolutionary thought suddenly arises, the brain rewires itself in a fraction of a second, and there is no going back: whether to idealizing a person you now clearly perceive as a self-destructive addict who’s also toxic to others, or to believing in god, angels, heaven, hell, the devils armed with pitchforks, pushing the sinners deeper into the fire or into huge cauldrons of boiling pitch.

And your mouth falls open: how could you have ever believed those things? An invisible man in the sky, with a white beard, in a kind of flowing night gown? LOL. Then you remember the power of brainwashing, especially in childhood. Or the power of romantic yearning, of really wanting to see X a magical person. Fantasy can be more important than reality — until reality hits, often “slowly, and then all at once.”

Insight does take preparation. Ripeness is all.  

Canada Goose goslings

~ "WHY DO THE RICH HAVE SO MUCH INFLUENCE IN POLITICS?" asks Duke University Prof Nicholas Carnes in a Talking Points Memo piece.

Is it because the poor and working class don't vote? Is it too much outside money pouring into political campaigns and causes?

No, Prof Carnes writes, there's another "big reason" why the wealthy dominate US politics: "Wealthy people are the ones in office themselves."

"If millionaires in the United States formed their own political party, that party would make up just 3% of the country," he says, "but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House."

A working-class party, by contrast, would comprise less than 2% of Congress.

Unfortunately, he argues, the US political system is generally a contest between the rich and the rich.

"By the time most Americans get to the polls, the only options on their ballots are wealthy, white-collar professionals," he writes. "Do you want to vote for a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire business owner?” ~

(oops, I lost the link)

Do I look presidential?


~ “One metaphor comes to mind, the great mountains of garbage that impoverished people in third-world countries sift for any small thing of worth they might be able to use or sell. Those mountains have begun to collapse, swallowing up the scavengers, killing them. Trump has created such a mountain, of offenses to be scavenged, but the sheer size of the pile means that we might miss the decisive bit that enables us to hold him accountable. We are in danger of being swallowed up by the sheer volume of compromising material, no longer able to distinguish the bad from the very bad, no longer able to retrieve the bits, some of them huge hunks, that time has buried in the ever-growing stockpile of new transgressions. Add to that Trump's own stinky red herrings, the lies he launches to deflect our attention away from other looming revelations about his conflicts of interest. ~ Brooks Riley

Oriana: to have entered regress rather than progress, that feeling I first had with Reagan, but not as strongly . . . which surprises me, since I generally say that I've never hated any president as intensely as I hated Reagan, and only then W. Rump is an overwhelming phenomenon, indeed a mountain of garbage that threatens to swallow all. And this of course is his strategy: to keep us overwhelmed and helpless by daily additions to the mountain of garbage.

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”? You’ve got to be kidding.

~ "Imagine this scenario:Hillary Clinton is president. It's learned that she has deep ties to Putin and the Russian spy agency. She puts utterly unqualified billionaires in cabinet posts. She pursues public policies that benefit her and her billionaire friends. She puts her daughter Chelsea in a position of influence in the West Wing, gives her her own office and allows her to use that position to forward her own business interests. And Chelsea's husband is her chief advisor. The private business trips taken by Chelsea and her husband are paid for by the taxpayers.

She refuses to release any tax returns, she blocks access to the visitor logs in the White House and Bill refuses to live in the White House so our tax dollars are spent keeping him safe in Chappaqua. Hillary spends almost every weekend lounging in her own, privately-held resort. Her private resort gets reimbursed for any and all "official" government functions (including security) because she chooses to conduct all her "business" and personal functions there. She and her family live in three White Houses at the same time.

In an interview, she names the wrong country that she bombed, while bragging about the chocolate cake she was eating while she ordered said bombing. I could go on and on. The point is that the outrage, the outcries, the screaming by Republicans would be heard around the world and impeachment proceedings would already be underway." ~ Ira Rogers


Still, there is a difference between an oligarchy/kleptocracy and oligarchic terrorism as practiced by Putin 

Alexei Navalny after unknown attackers doused him with green antiseptic outside a conference venue in Moscow, Russia, on April 27, 2017. Navalny, who authored a documentary about the Russian prime minister's alleged corrupt wealth that was viewed more than 20 million times online, was the key force behind nationwide anti-government rallies in March, Russia's largest and most widespread in years. (source: The Atlantic)


~ "Everywhere in the Western world — and especially in the larger countries of Europe and in the US — the urban-rural divide is deepening and sharpening to the point of societal unsustainability: the divide between hope and hopelessness, future-bound optimism and fearful rootedness in the past, open-mindedness and desperate adherence to the old ways, tolerance and suspicion of "the other," inquisitiveness and apathy, education-based knowledge and proud anti-intellectualism. We are currently at the critical phase of that confrontation." ~ M. Iossel


Of course there is no denying that there are two Americas (there are many Americas, but let’s go for the most obvious divide). Leaving the coastal cities and going inland feels like traveling to a foreign country. But that has been observed for decades. I’ll never forget how an American scientist visiting in Warsaw said, “In America, there is the East Coast and the West Coast — and nothing in between.”

That “nothing” is Trump country. After nine difficult months in Milwaukee, coastal California really was a different country
— and paradise. I can imagine living anywhere along the coast — and, with some difficulty, in eastern cities like Boston. In the South or the Midwest — never. 

I still see the greatest divide along the lines of nationalism versus globalism. But it’s also true that the educated people tend to be anti-nationalist. Nationalism is like evangelical religion: it’s based on the “high” of emotional contagion. 

Yuval Noah Harari, TED talk, February 2017:

~ “The old 20th-century political model of left versus right is now largely irrelevant, and the real divide today is between global and national, global or local. And you see it again all over the world that this is now the main struggle. We probably need completely new political models and completely new ways of thinking about politics. In essence, what you can say is that we now have global ecology, we have a global economy but we have national politics, and this doesn't work together. This makes the political system ineffective, because it has no control over the forces that shape our life. And you have basically two solutions to this imbalance: either de-globalize the economy and turn it back into a national economy, or globalize the political system.” ~ 

Georg Emil Libert (Danish): View of Sommerspiret, the Cliffs of Møn, 1846. Reminds me somewhat of Caspar Friedrich's Chalk Cliffs

WHEN TO SAY I'M SORRY (and other secrets of being more effective)

~ “Saying “I’m sorry “ at the beginning of a conversation will have a much greater impact than throwing your apology in at the end of a long explanation.


The tone in which you speak lets your listener know whether you’re asking a question or making a statement. However, if you’re like many people, you may find that you speak your sentences as if they were questions. This can make you sound less confident and can undercut your effectiveness when you’re trying to convince someone to believe that you know what you’re talking about.


We’d all like to be more effective in reaching our goals, and according to behaviorists, the way to improve our effectiveness is by rewarding ourselves for the little steps that take us closer and closer to those desirable outcomes. First, find something you really like to do or something you’d like to have that can, realistically, serve as a reward. Then, take the goal that you are hoping to achieve that, realistically, you could achieve but just haven’t succeeded at yet. Next, work backward from that goal to your present state.  Arrange to give yourself those desired rewards as you inch closer from where you are now to the desired end point. As you start to make progress, only give yourself a reward when you’ve moved forward from where you are now. For example, if you’d like to cut back on your television watching and instead read more often, reward yourself by allowing yourself to watch television only when you’ve read for 20 minutes, then 30, then maybe 2 hours. By the time you’ve gotten to the 2 hour mark, who knows, you may enjoy reading so much that you won’t even care about watching television anymore. 


According to levels of processing theory, the more meaning you put into what you’re trying to remember, the better your chances of remembering it. Even putting a list of words you need to remember into a sentence, rather than just memorizing them through rote, will give you that deeper processing edge.” ~

Mt. Etna erupting; Nunzio Sintisi


~ “For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that a genetic variation in the brain makes some people inherently less anxious, and more able to forget fearful and unpleasant experiences. This lucky genetic mutation produces higher levels of anandamide — the so-called bliss molecule and our own natural marijuana — in our brains.

In short, some people are prone to be less anxious simply because they won the genetic sweepstakes and randomly got a genetic mutation that has nothing at all to do with strength of character. About 20 percent of adult Americans have this mutation. Those who do may also be less likely to become addicted to marijuana and, possibly, other drugs — presumably because they don’t need the calming effects that marijuana provides.

The endocannabinoid system, so named because the active drug in cannabis, THC, is closely related to the brain’s own anandamide, is the target of marijuana and has long been implicated in anxiety. It exists throughout the animal kingdom, though one would be hard-pressed to find a nonhuman animal clever — or foolish — enough to eat solely for the purpose of stimulating its own receptors with cannabis.

The major naturally occurring cannabinoid in our brain is anandamide, something our bodies synthesize. Anandamide is, aptly, taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss because, when it binds to the cannabinoid receptor, it has a calming effect.

We all have anandamide, but those who have won the lucky gene have more of it because they have less of an enzyme called FAAH, which deactivates anandamide. It is a mutation in the FAAH gene that leads to more of the bliss molecule anandamide bathing the brain.

People with the variant FAAH gene are less anxious and are thus less inclined to like marijuana. They actually experience a decrease in happiness when smoking marijuana, compared with those with the normal FAAH gene, who find it pleasurable. If you naturally have more of the real thing you understandably have little use for marijuana.

Obviously, there is more to abstinence than grit and moral fiber: Having a double dose of a gene mutation gives you a big advantage in being able to “just say no.”

Interestingly, the frequency of the advantageous FAAH mutation differs widely among ethnic groups. According to recent data from the HapMap, an international project that studies genetic similarities and differences in humans, roughly 21 percent of Americans of European descent, 14 percent of Han Chinese living in China and 45 percent of Yoruban Nigerians have been found to carry this gene variant.

By now you must be wondering why on earth we have cannabinoid receptors in our heads in the first place. In fact, they are among the most numerous receptors in our brains. And while we’re on the subject, we also have opioid receptors and nicotine receptors that are lock and key with opiates and nicotine. The body makes its own endogenous “keys” for all these receptors. As for the benzodiazepine receptor, the brain manufactures the calming neurotransmitter GABA, which binds very close to the benzodiazepine site, the place where anti-anxiety drugs like Valium and Klonopin bind. Well, if you believe in intelligent design (count me out), you would have to credit the creator with a really wicked sense of humor to have hard-wired our brains for such varied temptations, to say nothing of the fact that, neurobiologically speaking, some of us are barely tempted at all. It’s all very unfair.

None of these studies should be taken to mean that biology calls all the shots. Far from it. The environment plays a critical role and can sometimes even trump genetics. For example, primates who are genetically at low risk of drug abuse can easily be converted to compulsive drug users just by exposing them to cocaine or by putting them in crowded, stressful situations.

Probably anyone — regardless of genetic risk — can become addicted or abstinent in the right environment.

a reader’s comment:

Thank you NYT for another good article around mental health. As a mental health therapist in a state where marijuana is legal, I hope the conversation broadens to include the information you discuss here. It sounds like 80% of Americans are biologically set up to struggle with anxiety. That is a big number! A number that should be taken seriously, especially as I think of my children's generation who are growing up with (thank God!) so much more choice. I haven't heard meaningful conversation from their school health programs or from my adult friends for that matter around genetics, mental health and drug/alcohol use.

We like to think it's rare for people to have bad genes, poor mental health or difficulties with substances. It isn't. We need to continue to normalize seeking mental health support because most of us haven't won the lottery. We have to work really hard (therapy, exercise, medication, body work, sleep, play, relationships etc...) to find happiness and stability in our daily lives.


So, it seems that happiness is genetic and chemical after all — at least to a significant degree. It’s easier for the lucky 21% to feel relaxed and content (or 45%, if you are Yoruban). Maybe articles like this one will make people less judgmental about those who are prone to anxiety. Likewise, if someone has a happy temperament, let’s not assume that that's necessarily due to wisdom. A lot of it is genetic and/or environmental luck. Even the finding that people tend become happier and more “mellow” with age is not so much about wisdom as about changed neurotransmitter ratios in the brain. Also, the less future left, the more you live in the now — because you have to.

By the way, there is a legal non-prescription drug that increases the levels of anandamide [a fatty acid derived from arachidonic fatty acid], the “bliss molecule” in our brain. It’s acetaminophen (Tylenol). That’s probably why acetaminophen works for emotional pain, as well pain in general. How I wish I’d known this in my youth! Chocolate also contains anandamide and two other cannabinoid-like compounds (dark chocolate or cocoa nibs are recommended). Celery, parsley, and tea all contain tiny amount of anandamide. Another food capable of raising anandamide levels is black pepper — but how much black pepper can you consume . . . )

ending on beauty


that photon feast of particle pie
that mulberry season of youth
those blueblue oracles of another sky
the dandelion-people out in the starfields
now I'm but the astronaut of these empty pages
under the cold existential sun of hope
and a dead child inside me stares and stares
at the endless concrete of afternoons
listening closely for that sonic boom
of immortal summer days

~ Sutton Breiding

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