Saturday, April 1, 2017


Salt flats in Bolivia


We’re not from here. We don’t aria, we warble.
We wore suits to get here, rumpled by the hot car ride.
Pumped our own gas. In Heaven two days,

still the custom shirtlessness offends.  Like it’s the g-d
French Rivera. (You say it yours. We’ll say it the right way.)
Nor do we au revoir. We eat without speaking, hunched over

our plates at the picnic tables. We prefer paper.
It’s not we’re unfriendly, but its our particular
God Almighty we won’t give up. First Sunday here,

and we’re missing Shirl and Jesse, who started
smoking again. Clove cigarettes, of all things.
What Heaven don’t stock Reds soft packs?

Then Tony stopped stopping by, on account
he works overnights at the baby factory,
low on the totem: cranial deformities.

Well it’s a job. It’s enough to crack your heart.

We stay up drinking slurpee-and-rums outside
the Kum & Go. Who knows how long them hot dogs
have roasted on the carriage, under the eternal heat lamp.

Everything here is an effigy to hunger. Time moves
not at all when all the clocks are confiscated. I am terrified
I will begin to speak in the first person about pleasure.

Stop wearing underwear to our “To Hell with Heaven”
meetings. They give us new names, say forget Louisville.
This here’s all the village you need. We lose every day

more folks to Heaven’s gen pop. We left the earth
but the memory turns us over in its hot light.
The Chief Risk Cherubim say unlearn the love of gravity

and then the earth can leave us back. Psychobabble mumbo
jumble. We dream of opening a garage but ain’t bum starters
nor oil changes no more. The technology outlived us.

There’s a choice to be made between the past,
the present tense. We are failure-angels, plain
and redneck, we’re going to fall down to the earth

we can’t stop loving, find our families and touch
their faces angrily. But first we will edge with pink
and yellow peonies our graves, our graves

which remind our deaths daily: redeem us.

~ James Allen Hall

Here is what the poet says about the poem:

“Ever since my father died in June 2015, I can’t stop thinking about his experience of the afterlife. The poem approximates speech and thought of folks I know in southeastern Indiana. Ever since November 2016, I can’t stop thinking about their experience of the afterlife we’re living in as well.”

“The poem approximates speech and thought of folks I know in southeastern Indiana” is the crucial statement here — this is their mentality, and they can’t imagine a “better place” that doesn’t look like home, complete with hot dogs:

Who knows how long them hot dogs
have roasted on the carriage, under the eternal heat lamp.

I love this passage. The typical complaints of everyday life are also part of the afterlife. What would existence be without them? I am also strongly reminded of the movie “Nebraska” (a masterpiece).

Funny, how the afterlife as imagined reflects nothing so much as a particular population’s likes and dislikes right here on earth — no fantastic imaginings. You could say that paradise is always “down to earth.”

How fitting that these “Hoosiers” (my nod to Kurt Vonnegut here) arrived in heaven by car. Indeed, how could these people be happy unless they can open a garage or have some other type of macho-shop work to do?

Metaphysics — god and the angels — are of no interest to the newly dead arriving from Indiana. In fact heaven is a dreadful place, considering that babies with deformities are being produced in a factory there. Still, it’s a job — the men can accept that fact. Above all, they require familiarity. They require Indiana. They can’t adjust — they make terrible immigrants.

We are failure-angels, plain
and redneck, we’re going to fall down to the earth

we can’t stop loving, find our families and touch
their faces angrily.

~ This is another great passage, with the surprise of “angrily” where we expect “tenderly.” But tenderness wasn’t a part of the lives of the newly dead — or not much. Provincial chauvinism was — hence “Rivera” is the correct pronunciation since it’s the way WE pronounce it (ignorant and proud of it).

Nothing fancy for these “folks” — they don’t want heavenly mansions. They prefer picnic tables and paper plates. What do you mean, there is no food in heaven? Existence would be meaningless without eating and drinking, the central ritual.

The poem is wonderfully imagined — including the “To Hell with Heaven” meetings. And the speaker doesn’t condescend to the newly dead. He grew up among them, he understands them. Like the movie Nebraska, this is a work of love. 

Last thought — I was reminded of Wuthering Heights and Catherine Earnshaw’s dream of heaven. She was so unhappy there (Nellie remarks, “Sinners would be not be happy in heaven”) that she cries and pleads to be sent back to the moors, her real heaven.

Heaven is right here. It’s the familiar. We realize this only when we lose it. Our graves redeem us: they remind us it’s not forever, so we don’t have the time to sulk and be unhappy.

The Holy Ghost is a dove?? Are you kidding me? (photo: Antoni Zaborek)


By the way, note that in this poem the afterlife is synonymous with heaven. True, heaven as depicted here might strike some readers as rather infernal, but the speaker clearly means “heaven,” the celestial paradise. The idea that the newly dead have arrived in the other place doesn’t enter here. (The American dead arrive by car of course; in another mythology, there might be travel by water.)

This taking of heaven for granted is the Protestant attitude. As a Protestant friend explained to me, “In my church everyone assumes they'll go to heaven. You’d have to be a terrible sinner like Hitler to go to hell.” So just being a member of the right church is your passport to heaven. It didn't use to be that way in the past centuries, esp before the Reformation. Depictions of hell were more vivid by far. Here is a illustration from a French manuscript circa 1455:  

In Catholicism you can’t really win. To assume that you’ll go to heaven for sure is the sin of presumption; to assume you’re doing to hell is the sin of despair. But to worry too much about sinning is the sin of scrupulosity.


Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s most beautiful and interesting public spaces, our own Garden of Eden. I’ve been visiting it several times a year for decades now — the museums, especially the Timken Gallery, and the Arboretum, the enclosed botanical garden with its orchid displays and carnivorous plants — “smart plants,” as my dear companion calls them. And of course there are musicians, psychics, artists drawing people’s portraits and caricatures, jugglers — the typical entertainers found in such city Edens.

But during our last visit, we encountered something unexpected in front of the koi pond— a stand displaying Jehovah’s Witness literature. Yes, those familiar flimsy booklets urging us to “awake” — and more. And all of them . . . in Russian. 

Behind it stood a formally dressed couple. He was wearing a dark business suit and a tie, and she a nice red dress that somehow managed to look the opposite of sexy. They stood there quietly, not accosting anyone. I couldn’t resist stopping and trying to decipher the titles, which were on the self-help side, e.g. Sickness: How to Lower Your Risk; Your Family Can Be Happy.

Let me explain: when I was growing up, Russian was a required subject in Polish schools, starting in fifth grade. We found the language much easier to learn than English, but the Cyrillic alphabet was an obstacle. One of the odd features is the substitution of the symbol for “g” (g as in god) for the letter h in foreign-derived words because early on someone erroneously decided that Russian didn’t have the “h” sound (our teacher liked to say that initially even Hah-hah was rendered as ga-ga). Thus Jehovah became “Yigoda” (Yeeghoda) — as confirmed by the Russian couple.

He introduced himself as Dimitri. “Dima,” I said — a nickname, like Misha. He seemed happy to hear the endearment: “Yes, Dima.” I can’t believe that I didn’t ask the woman about her name. In my mind I’ll call her Vera — “Faith.” Though no one’s among us has seen god, and though the invisible looks shockingly just like the non-existent, the invisible Man-in-the-Sky exists, and his name is Yigoda.

The two Witnesses seemed very pleased to talk to us — I don’t suppose that they have too many “takers” in Balboa Park. A stand with brochures in English and/or Spanish would make sense, given that those are the two major languages in San Diego. Now, there are some Russians in San Diego, of course, but the chance that a speaker of Russian would be visiting Balboa Park on any given day, and be interested in the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, wasn’t very high, to put it mildly.

On the other hand, perhaps because the literature would be unintelligible to practically all passers-by, there would also be no complaints about religious solicitation on public property, in front of the koi pond reflecting the lacy Arboretum, toddlers toddling after the ducks. The JW logo was there if you looked for it, but mostly it was an incomprehensible stand with booklets in Cyrillic alphabet. Perhaps that was the logic behind it.

After some talk about the JW movement in Russia — Vera’s grandfather spent time in Siberia just for being a Witness, and now there is persecution once more, even a plan to ban them — we talked a bit about the doctrine. I praised Witnesses for not believing in hell. It’s the only example I know of hell-free Christianity. No one, not even Satan, is going to be tortured for millions of years (what would be the point of that?).

 And in spite of the anxieties of those who think it takes a high level of threat to motivate anyone to follow Christ, the Witness doctrine seems to work well just with the carrot of Paradise, without the stick of hell. “The worst that can happen to you is you die and stay dead,” Vera said with pride in such a progressive attitude: Yigoda does not use torture. Just the prospect of non-resurrection is apparently incentive enough.

(By the way, a lot of children of JW’s leave the sect; but there are also a lot of adult converts. No hell, and resurrection with the prospect of paradise — that seems sufficient motivation.)

You die totally, body and soul. Souls don’t exist separate from the body (this was in fact the belief in ancient Judaism — a person was a breathing soul). The soul (i.e. consciousness) doesn’t leave the body at the moment of death and fly off, a little ghost. It ceases to be. Hence the need for bodily resurrection if a person is to exist again. (At least that was what the two Russian Witnesses told us, and what I had previously heard from a drywall worker who evangelized in pauses between filling in the holes in the walls in my house; in my later reading, I came across the statement that the resurrection is to be understood as “spiritual,” and thus cremation is fine. Well, never mind. In any case, JWs are “mortalists”; there is no inherent immortality of the soul.)

Since we are in “the end days” (they started in  October 1914, when Jesus “returned invisibly”; the movement itself dates back to the 1870s; it was born in Pittsburgh), some people will be bodily resurrected in the not-too-distant future. After the battle of Armageddon (being a JW makes it possible to survive Armageddon) and other calamities predicted in the Book of the Apocalypse, there will follow one thousand years of earthly paradise without sickness or death, under the reign of Jesus (who is the “Son of God” but is not god; only Jehovah is [the name Yahweh is not used]). Then, according to the article in Wikipedia, Satan will be released again for the ultimate test. “Those who fail will be destroyed, along with Satan and his demons. The end result will be a fully tested, glorified human race.” 

(By the way, according to Catholic logic, god doesn’t control Satan because that would interfere with Satan’s free will. So it’s Satan who’s in charge.)

According to what I’ve read, many of the resurrectees will not be Witnesses who “died in the Truth.” The non-JWs will be given the opportunity to learn the teachings and accept the JW baptism, required for life everlasting. I suspect this inclusive doctrinal update was added fairly recently, not in 19th-century Pittsburgh (just as the end days were originally thought to have begun in 1799). The same is probably true about allowing cremation.

The Witnesses use their own translation of the bible and consider their version to be inerrant. Not surprisingly, they regard their doctrine to be the only true religion; all the rest are false. The leaders of the movement establish the answers to all questions (e.g. how Noah’s Flood was possible), claiming divine guidance (the seven members of the Governing Body were invisibly chosen by Jesus himself). Independent interpretation is discouraged (as is education beyond high school, a former Witness told me: “You won’t need to know any of those things in Paradise.”)

End of the world, John Martin, 1853

Why am I writing about all this? My first motive is completely self-centered: I want to preserve the memory of this encounter with the two Russian Witnesses. They were quite charming, actually. The woman smiled non-stop.

I enjoyed the encounter. Perhaps because I rarely socialize, when I do, I greatly appreciate the uniqueness of each person, the brief gift of their personality, gestures, intonation — no matter how absurd some of their beliefs may be. And, mind you, there was no threat of hell, just the talk of resurrection and paradise. How sweet! For the time being, I forgot that the paradise had to be earned not just with believing in Adam and Eve and the world being only 6,000 years old and the rest of it, but also with constant worship and ministry. And while there is no hell, what is ahead is the wholesale slaughter of Armageddon — and Armageddon is “imminent” (after all, the gentle Jesus with his love for all is already invisibly present among us).

Secondly, I want to express my amazement at the mix of logic and illogic here. That death is a state of nonexistence is a very logical belief. The same goes for the non-existence of hell: “the worst that can happen to you is that you die and stay dead.” I also agree with the sweet Russian woman that “something in us humans wants to live forever.” But she said it as if it were at least partial evidence that some form of immortality must exist. We have the desire to live forever —why would we have it unless resurrection were possible? This is obviously wishful thinking rather than logic. But then how are we to look for logic here? Note that all the Witness publications on this stand in San Diego’s glorious, faux-Hispanic Balboa Park were in Russian . . .

Bosch: detail of the Earthly Paradise
I don't think this is Jehovah's Witnesses' idea of 1000 years of Earthly Paradise. But who knows. It’s the phenomenon of seemingly intelligent adults believing the most outrageous promises (Mexico will pay for the wall!) that is way more startling than the couple in a giant oyster shell.


~ “The materialist world view is often associated with despair. In “Anna Karenina,” Konstantin Levin, the novel’s hero, stares into the night sky, reflects upon his brief, bubblelike existence in an infinite and indifferent universe, and contemplates suicide. For Dennett, however, materialism is spiritually satisfying. In a 1995 book called “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” he asks, “How long did it take Johann Sebastian Bach to create the ‘St. Matthew Passion’?” Bach, he notes, had to live for forty-two years before he could begin writing it, and he drew on two thousand years of Christianity—indeed, on all of human culture. The subsystems of his mind had been evolving for even longer; creating Homo sapiens, Dennett writes, required “billions of years of irreplaceable design work”—performed not by God, of course, but by natural selection.

“Darwin’s dangerous idea,” Dennett writes, is that Bach’s music, Christianity, human culture, the human mind, and Homo sapiens “all exist as fruits of a single tree, the Tree of Life,” which “created itself, not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly.” He asks, “Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not.” But, he says, it is “greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. . . . I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.” ~ Daniel Dennett

O Trees of Life, when will your winter come? ~ Rilke

“DOWN WITH THE TZAR!” — how the anniversary of the October Revolutions is playing into the recent protests

In Moscow protesters were chanting: “Putin the thief, go away!” Thousands of people gathered on the Palace Square of Saint Petersburg in front of the Hermitage and shouted: “Down with the Tsar!” The scene was reminiscent of the famous images captured 100 years ago on the same square during Bolshevik revolution.

According to Echo of Moscow radio station, 60,000 people took part in anti-Kremlin rallies in 82 Russian cities.

“Russia is against corruption!” was one of the most popular slogans chanted in dozens of cities, where Russians said they were “sick of the Tsar” of Putin’s geopolitics and wanted to see domestic politics, fair elections and non-corrupt politicians.

“We do not want Syria, we want roads in Irkutsk,” a young protester told reporters.

“Every day for 17 years they have been giving us false promises that our life is close to getting better,” an opposition leader addressed the crowd in Tomsk, another Siberian city situated 1,788 miles away from Moscow. Thousands of teenagers joined the protests in Siberian towns saying they hated to see the thieves rule their country.

Every day for 17 years they have been giving us false promises that our life is close to getting better,” an opposition leader addressed the crowd in Tomsk, another Siberian city situated 1,788 miles away from Moscow. Thousands of teenagers joined the protests in Siberian towns saying they hated to see the thieves at the rule of their country.


It’s the February (actually March) Revolution that deposed the Tzar and instituted a brief period of democracy. The October (actually November) Revolution put an end to that; Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized dictatorial power, supposedly on behalf of the proletariat. But as Trotsky observed (before joining Lenin), “The dictatorship of the proletariat can only mean the dictatorship OVER the proletariat.”

The tragedy of the February Revolution was Kerensky’s failure to withdraw Russia from WWI. Had he done so, the Germans would have had no reason to smuggle Lenin in sealed car “like a dangerous bacillus” across Germany, from where he made his way into Finland and eventually into Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was briefly renamed). Without Lenin, there would have been no October Revolution. Historians speculate that without the “Bolshevik threat,” Hitler would not have later come to power.

Opposition leader Alexey Navalny in handcuffs 


~ “The official reason proffered for ignoring [March 12, the outbreak of the February Revolution that deposed the Tzar] is that Russia remains too divided over the consequences of that fateful year.

The more likely explanation, some Kremlin officials, historians and other analysts say, is that President Vladimir V. Putin loathes the very idea of revolution, not to mention the thought of Russians dancing in the streets to celebrate the overthrow of any ruler. Moreover, 1917 smudges the Kremlin’s version of Russian history as a long, unified march to greatness, meant to instill a sense of national pride and purpose.

For the record, the Kremlin is sticking to the official line of avoiding domestic discord.

“For one group of people, the revolution was the death knell of Great Russia — it was ‘Brexit,’ when we stopped our development in Europe,” said Mikhail Shvydkoy, Mr. Putin’s special representative on cultural matters, in an interview in the wood-paneled cafe at the Central House of Writers, a prerevolutionary mansion. “For many other people, the Soviet past was the best time of their lives.”

Mr. Putin strives to unite the country, he said, whereas “any festivities on the state level would deepen those divisions.”

Striking workers on the first day of the February Revolution, St. Petersburg 1917
Mr. Putin’s critiques of the revolution contrast markedly with his usual glowing tributes to Russian history.

“We know well the consequences that these great upheavals can bring,” he said in his state of the federation speech in December. “Unfortunately, our country went through many such upheavals and their consequences in the 20th century.”

At an earlier public forum, after disparaging Lenin, he said, “We didn’t need the world revolution.”

There is also a damning lack of heroic figures in the revolution. Czar Nicholas II was deposed and thus weak. Alexander F. Kerensky, the central figure in the provisional government, proved ineffective. Lenin fomented appalling bloodshed and destroyed the Russian Orthodox Church, a pillar of Mr. Putin’s support.

“Vladimir Putin cannot compare himself to Nicholas II, nor to Lenin nor to Kerensky, because that is not Russian history to be proud of,” said Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and the author of a best-selling book, “All the Kremlin’s Men,” which details the inner workings of the Putin government. “In terms of 1917, nothing can be used as a propaganda tool.”

In the absence of official spin, other factions are only too happy to provide some, often referring to current events. At one recent forum, Vladimir R. Medinsky, the conservative minister of culture, said the revolution underscored the dangers of letting liberals rule, because they always put self-interest above Russia.

Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church, speaking at the same event, lambasted those who destroyed the czarist state rather than seeking compromise.

Liberals retort that a repressive government ignoring vast income disparity and curbing basic rights should be worried about history repeating itself.

Bolshevik (1920), by Boris Kustodiev

The authorities cannot celebrate 1917,” said Nikita Sokolov, a historian. “Whatever might have happened, the impulse of the revolution was social justice. A country with such inequality can’t celebrate this. Also, the authorities think that any revolution is a color revolution.” (a “color revolution” roughly means a popular uprising)

For the Communist Party — an ever-weaker link in the loyal opposition — the establishment of the Soviet Union was a singular achievement. It plans to celebrate not least with parades in Moscow and elsewhere on Nov. 7, which in Soviet times was the main national holiday.

Many historians and others note that Russia lives with a certain ambivalence toward 1917. Although many perceive it as having wrecked the country, its symbols are still enmeshed in the fabric of daily life.

At a recent forum, Leonid Reshetnikov, a historian and retired lieutenant general in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, described trying to explain to his granddaughter why the city of Yekaterinburg had a church dedicated to the czar and his family, who were canonized by the church, as well as a monument to Yakov Sverdlov, the local Bolshevik commander believed to have ordered them shot there.

We live in historical schizophrenia, with these monuments to Lenin, to all of them,” he said, going on to denounce any street protesters as potential revolutionaries.

“How do we explain to young people that they must not be revolutionaries, that they must be loyal citizens — yes, fight for Russia, wish it well, but under no circumstances plot, overthrow, march, kill?”


Trying to depose the existing government — no, dictators don't want people to be reminded that it's ever possible. I can see that this is a dreadfully uncomfortable year for Putin. Actually I can hardly wait until November 7 — I’m very curious about what will happen (or not happen) then.

A discussion of the events of 1917 is badly needed — and an acknowledgement that almost nothing is all good or all bad. Most things are a complex mix of both. But something seems to be brewing . . . Lenin addressing Red Army troops heading for Poland, 1920. Trotsky to the right


~ “The unknown victim, nicknamed Ötzi, has literally been in cold storage in her museum for a quarter-century. Often called the Iceman, he is the world’s most perfectly preserved mummy, a Copper Age fellow who had been frozen inside a glacier along the northern Italian border with Austria until warming global temperatures melted the ice and two hikers discovered him in 1991.

The cause of death remained uncertain until 10 years later, when an X-ray of the mummy pointed to foul play in the form of a flint arrowhead embedded in his back, just under his shoulder. But now, armed with a wealth of new scientific information that researchers have compiled, Inspector Horn has managed to piece together a remarkably detailed picture of what befell the Iceman on that fateful day around 3300 B.C., near the crest of the Ötztal Alps.

The glacier not only froze Ötzi where he had died, but the high humidity of the ice also kept his organs and skin largely intact. “Imagine, we know the stomach contents of a person 5,000 years ago,” Inspector Horn said. “In a lot of cases we are not able to do that even now.”

Those contents, as it turned out, were critical in determining with surprising precision what happened to Ötzi and even helped shed light on the possible motive of his killer.

The more scientists learn, the more recognizable the Iceman becomes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall (about average height for his time), weighed 110 pounds, had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and a size 7½ foot. He was about 45, give or take six years, respectably old for the late Neolithic age — but still in his prime.

Ötzi had the physique of a man who did a lot of strenuous walking but little upper-body work; there was hardly any fat on his body. He had all of his teeth, and between his two upper front teeth was a 3-millimeter gap, an inherited condition known as diastema, which Madonna and Elton John also have.

When viewed through the window of the museum’s freezer, where he is kept now, his hands not only appear unusually small, but they also show little sign of hard use, suggesting that Ötzi was no manual laborer.

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Ötzi’s death at sometime in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, they found, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 6,500 feet, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 10,500 feet up.

On his body was one prominent wound, other than the one from the arrowhead: a deep cut in his right hand between the thumb and forefinger, down to the bone and potentially disabling. By the degree of healing seen on the wound, it was one to two days old.

From this, Inspector Horn surmises that Ötzi may have come down to his village and become embroiled in a violent altercation. “It was a very active defensive wound, and interesting in the context that no other injuries are found on the body, no major bruises or stab wounds, so probably he was the winner of that fight, even possibly he killed the person who tried to attack him,” he said.

Then he left, fully provisioned with food, the embers of a fire preserved in maple leaf wrappings inside a birch-bark cylinder, and quite a lot of other equipment, most of it probably carried in a backpack with a wooden frame. For weapons he had only a flint dagger so small it seemed to be the Copper Age equivalent of a derringer, a six-foot-long stave for a bow that had not yet been completed; and a beautifully crafted deerskin quiver with a dozen arrows, only two of them with arrowheads attached.

Inspector Horn reckons Ötzi was in no hurry. At 10,500 feet, he made what appeared to be a camp in a protected gully on the mountain saddle, spreading his belongings around and sitting down to his last meal.

“Roughly half an hour before his death he was having a proper meal, even a heavy meal,” Inspector Horn said. The Copper Age menu was well balanced, consisting of ibex meat, smoked or raw; einkorn wheat (an early domesticated variety), possibly in the form of bread; some sort of fat, which might have been from bacon or cheese; and bracken, a common fern.

There is even evidence that some of his food was recently cooked. “If you’re in a rush and the first thing is to get away from someone trying to kill you, that’s not what you do,” he said. Ötzi’s longbow was only half a day’s work from completion, he added, but there was no sign that he was working on it at the time.

Half an hour after Ötzi dined, the killer came along and shot him in the back from a distance of almost 100 feet. The arrow went under his left armpit and ripped through a roughly half-inch section of his subclavian artery, a wound that would have been quickly fatal and probably not treatable even in modern times, especially where it happened. By the angle of the wound, he was either shot from below and behind, or he had been bent forward when he was hit from above and behind.

“The aim of the offender was to kill him, and he decides to take a long-distance shot — could be a learning effect from what happened one or two days before,” Inspector Horn said. “Which is pretty much what you see all the time nowadays. Most homicides are personal, and follow violence and an escalation of violence. I want to follow him, find him and kill him. All the emotions we have in homicide, these things have not died out in all these years.”

Robbery can certainly be ruled out, he said. Ötzi had a copper ax, a valuable artifact only rarely seen in burials of the period. His clothing and kit were a match for the harsh alpine climate, and probably valuable, made from the leather and fur of at least 10 animals of six species.

“This was not a robbery gone bad or something,” Inspector Horn said; clearly, the killer was trying to cover up his act. “You go back to your village with this unusual ax, it would be pretty obvious what had happened.”

Ötzi’s cold case continues to yield surprises to scientists in many disciplines who still are studying his remains. Last year, for example, they discovered that he was infected with an unusual strain of H. pylori, the bacteria believed responsible for ulcers today.

Both in life and in death, the Iceman seems uncannily familiar to his modern descendants, said the museum’s deputy director, Katharina Hersel.

“He is so close to us. He uses the same equipment as we do when he goes to the mountain, just the materials are different,” she said. “And we are still killing each other, so maybe there hasn’t been so much evolution after all.” ~


A fascinating article, though the title is misleading: we'll never know the identity of the killer except for surmising that it was a man with whom he'd had a violent quarrel a day or two earlier. A great comment by the police inspector on murder in general: “Most homicides are personal, and follow violence and an escalation of violence. I want to follow him, find him and kill him.”


~ “It’s been more than 20 years since Dr Allen Ault stood in a death chamber and gave the order for the execution to go ahead.

“I said, ‘It’s time,’ and the electrician threw the switch.”

Despite the passage of so many years, he feels troubled to this day by what he did. “I had a lot of guilt, my conscience totally bothered me,” he said. “When the switch was thrown that first time, and I realized I had just killed a man, that was pretty traumatic. Then to have to do it again and again and again, it got so that I absolutely could not go through with it.”

As commissioner of the department of corrections in Georgia, Ault gave the order for five executions by electric chair in 1994 and 1995. After the fifth life was taken, the cumulative distress reached breaking point and he resigned from the post and moved to a job in the US justice department that had nothing to do with the death penalty.

Since then, he has found himself haunted by the memory of the five men whose lives he ended. “I don’t remember their names, but I still see them in my nightmares,” he said. 

One of Ault’s prime concerns relates not to the eight convicted capital murderers who are set to die, but to the men and women of the execution team who are being asked, just as he was two decades ago, to kill in the name of justice. “To ask corrections officials in Arkansas to kill eight people, two a day – as someone who went through this, I can’t tell you how deeply concerned I am for their mental health,” he said.

Now those nightmares are back in force, triggered by the knowledge that what Ault considers to be a disaster-in-the-making is about to unfold in Arkansas. Next month, the state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, has scheduled no fewer than eight executions over 11 days – a conveyor belt of killing dispensed at a clip not seen in the US for at least half a century.

The executions are set to take place by lethal injection at a rate of two a day over four separate days. On 17 April, it will be the turn of the inmates Don Davis and Bruce Ward; on 20 April, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee; 24 April, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones; 27 April, Jason McGehee and Kenneth Williams.

On Wednesday, 23 former corrections officials from 16 different states sent a joint letter to Hutchinson urging him to reconsider. They warned, several on the basis of personal experience, that participating in executions can exact a “severe toll on corrections officers’ wellbeing” and that by doing so many so quickly Arkansas was “needlessly exacerbating the strain and stress placed on these officers”.

One of Ault’s prime concerns relates not to the eight convicted capital murderers who are set to die, but to the men and women of the execution team who are being asked, just as he was two decades ago, to kill in the name of justice. “To ask corrections officials in Arkansas to kill eight people, two a day – as someone who went through this, I can’t tell you how deeply concerned I am for their mental health,” he said.

“As the old saying goes,” he went on, “you dig two graves: one for the condemned, one for the avenger. That’s what will happen to this execution team – many of them will figuratively have to dig their own grave too.” 

 Ault said his role at the head of the team that had killed five men left him feeling “lower than the most despicable person”. He felt degraded to a level below that of the heinous murderers he was confronting, a sense that was amplified by how much planning went into the protocols. “I had a manual about an inch thick that I had to follow. What I did was much more premeditated than any of the murders committed by those I executed.”

Then there was the defenselessness of the man on the gurney: “You are taking a totally defenseless person, planning, premeditating, even rehearsing, then killing him – any sane person other than a psychopath would be dramatically affected by that.”

The Arkansas governor has so far given scant details about how he intends to deal with the intense psychological burden he is placing on the shoulders of the state’s execution team, beyond indicating that counseling will be available.

“If the governor is so hot on this, he ought to go down to the death chamber and do it himself. But he won’t, they don’t, they never do. Politicians are never in the room when it happens, they never have to suffer anything.”

Ault found that several members of his team were so troubled by the part they played in snuffing out life that they required therapeutic help, and one senior member of the corrections department had to be relieved of his job. He has seen the same pattern of damaged psyches repeated in death penalty states across the country. He personally knew, he said, three former corrections officials who participated, to their distress, in executions and went on to take their own lives.” ~


A male friend raised an interesting point: no chest hair on the crucified Jesus. At 33, we wouldn't expect abundant chest hair, but some modest curly tufts would be perfectly normal. I ventured a guess that it was in line with rejecting the "animal" in us. Body hair looks like remnant animal fur, and not just Abrahamic religions, but humans qua humans are invested in denying that we are animals.


~ “At bottom, every human being knows very well that he is in this world just once, as something unique, and that no accident, however strange, will throw together a second time into a unity such a curious and diffuse plurality: he knows it, but hides it like a bad conscience — why? From fear of his neighbor who insists on convention and veils himself with it. . . . Only artists hate this lovely life in borrowed manners and loosely fitting opinions and unveil the secret, everybody’s bad conscience, the principle that every human being is a unique wonder; they dare to show us the human being as he is, down to the last muscle, himself and himself alone — even more, that in this rigorous consistency of his uniqueness he is beautiful and worth contemplating, as novel and incredible as every work of nature, and by no means dull.” ~ The Dawn

Van Gogh: Self-Portrait

DELUSIONS CAN BE ADAPTIVE (just read the fabulous opening example)

“A patient lies in a hospital bed in the neurological ward, his head wrapped in bandages. He’s just suffered a major trauma to the brain. The injury has wiped out the region that controls motion in his left arm. More than that, it’s destroyed the man’s ability to even conceive of what moving his arm would be like.

He’s paralyzed, in other words, but he doesn’t know that. He can’t know.

“Would you be so kind as to raise your left hand?” his doctor asks.

“Certainly,” the patient. But the hand remains where it is. “It’s gotten tangled up in the sheets,” the man explains.

The doctor points out that his arm is lying free and unencumbered on top of the sheets.

“Well, yes,” the man says. “But I just don’t feel like lifting it right now.”

The inability to recognize one’s own disability is a disorder called anosognosia, and it offers an unusually clear window into that peculiarly infuriating and astonishing aspect of human psychology: our seemingly boundless capacity for delusion. Faced with stark and unambiguous information that a part of their body is paralyzed, anosognosia sufferers can effortlessly produce a stream of arguments as to why this is simply not the case. They’re not lying; they themselves actually believe in the validity of their claims.

We’d like to think that we mold our beliefs to fit with the reality that surrounds, but there’s a natural human impulse to do the reverse: to mold our reality so that it fits with our beliefs, no matter how flimsy their justification may be.

Psychologists define “delusion” as a manifestly absurd belief held in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, specifically as a symptom of a disorder like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But we’re all delusional to some degree. In fact, a certain amount of delusion may be essential for our mental health.

As we go about our lives, we form all sorts of beliefs and opinions about the world, which psychologists divide into two types. The first kind, “instrumental” beliefs, are ideas that can directly help us accomplish our goals. I believe that a chain saw can cut down a tree; I believe that the price of a first-class postage stamp is 47 cents. These kinds of beliefs tend to be directly testable: if I rely on them and they fail, I’ll have to revise my understanding.

The other kind of belief, the “philosophical” kind, are not so easily tested. These are ideas that we hold these beliefs not because they are demonstrably true, but because of the emotional benefits of holding them. When I say that I live in the greatest country on earth, or that true love lasts forever, I can’t really offer any evidence supporting these ideas, and that’s okay. They’re worth believing because they fulfill my emotional needs.
We get into trouble when we confuse the two types, and start holding instrumental beliefs for emotional reasons.

What kind of emotion tends to lead us astray? Well, one of the most powerful is the need to feel in control. Countless psychological experiments have shown that for both humans and animals, helplessness in the face of danger is intensely stressful. Believing that we have power over our destiny helps relieve that negative experience, even when that belief is unfounded. Hence the enormous appeal of “magical thinking” — the belief that one’s thoughts and private gestures by themselves can influence the surrounding world. If you’ve ever put on a lucky shirt because you thought it would help your favorite sports team win, leaned sideways to keep a bowling ball out of the gutter, or felt like you were more likely to win the lottery because you used numbers that had special significance to you, then you’ve succumbed to the delusion of magical thinking.

When you start relying on emotionally-motivated beliefs to make decisions with real consequences, you’re treading in dangerous territory. One fellow I know had to sell his small business and move lock, stock and barrel to rural Idaho because his wife had a dream about the Apocalypse. She said if he didn’t come with her, it would mean divorce. I like Idaho, but having to move there in the dead of winter strikes me as a steep price for confusing two modes of belief.

I wish I could wrap up this essay by giving you the secret key for avoiding delusion, but it’s not easy. The whole problem with delusion is that we don’t want to escape from its clutches. Even I don’t. I mean, look at us: suspended on a tiny dot in the middle of the vastness of empty space, doomed to suffer and die, and never know the reason why. If we woke up every morning and stared reality in the face, we’d slit our wrists. Maybe literally. Psychologists have long known that depressed people are less delusional than the rest of us; they’re much more perceptive of their own flaws, a phenomenon called “depressive realism.” (Imagine knowing exactly how flawed your “Call Me Maybe” is.) So I say: Raise a cheer and throw up your arms, assuming you’re able. Enjoy your delusions while you can. Let’s just hope that they don’t wreak too much havoc along the way.

This makes sense: we don't care all that much if our beliefs are true or false -- only if they fulfill our emotional needs. But now and then truth does break in . . . as for Tom De Vocht, the ex-Scientologist who suddenly saw that Scientology was a farce, or for the priest who was re-reading the familiar Catholic seven proofs of god’s existence — and realized they were all invalid. Sometimes reality proves powerful after all.

Magritte: Heartstring, 1960

 ending on beauty

When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me
as if clinging could save us. I think
you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.

~ Galway Kinnell, “Little Sleep’s-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” The Book of Nightmares

Montreal After Overnight Snowfall by John Caruthers Little, 1968

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