Monday, June 26, 2017


The fox doesn't care for this beautiful angel of death

I stray into an aspen grove,
among trees like brides —
white trunks with black scars
left by the missing branches.
Some say, if at sixteen

we could see our future life,
none of us would choose
to live. But I would have. 
Because aspen leaves
turn silver in the wind.

Where is he — the other one,
the man I was waiting
for him to become —
seems he wavers behind
each shimmering tree —

Over the eastern peaks,
the sky blackens with storm.
The lightning practices
its writing on the granite wall.
It was the mountains

in him that I loved,
not the man who said,
People will despise you
for having wasted
yourself on me.

And that was youth.
Now the woman
I was waiting to become
walks with thunder,
the delayed echo.

~ Oriana

No one ever overtly expressed contempt for me for having wasted myself on this particular wrong man, but I could sense disapproval at least, and disappointment. Recently I read something by Diana Trilling that neatly summed it up: “another woman who thought she loved a man she deeply hated — a not uncommon phenomenon.”

Being involved with “the wrong person” is in fact closer to being the rule rather than an exception. Call it a learning experience — that forgiving term that’s perhaps the ultimate in what I call the California mentality of learning not to be too hard on yourself. We are slow learners when it comes to life. Not too many of us have the self-confidence to discard partners as soon as we can plainly see we’d be better off without that person. Not while we’re young and struggling, focused on our flaws, unaware that we’re gorgeous simply because we are young and have the kind of fresh beauty and energy we’ll never have again.

Not that it’s ever a 100% black-and-white situation. There are the good times and the bad times, things you can’t even bear to remember and favorite memories in spite of the ultimate tragedy of the suicide. But more important from the general point of view, it’s not that there are wonderful alternate partners lined up to choose from, especially once past the typical age window for first marriages. The typical situation is very much the opposite of that. I was startled at the number of men who were dysfunctional in all kinds of ways: alcoholics, drug addicts, the chronically unemployed, those who can never settle on a single partner, the compulsive day-traders, the borderline mentally ill, and so on. “I just want someone NORMAL,” becomes the woman’ s plaintive chant. Told to lower her standards, she becomes unnerved by having to settle for less and less. Eventually she may see the wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “You love whoever is there to be loved.”

Some women give up on men and get a beautiful husky or a German shepherd, and seem a lot happier than those who are “dating.” Yet other women opt for becoming single mothers using a sperm bank, usually with their parents willing to help out, with the grandfather willing to become  the father figure. And those too seem to be happy and loving families.

The beautiful thing is the absence of any moral condemnation, at least in the cities. We pursue happiness as best we can.

But that’s mainly the wisdom of the second half of life. In the “youth” stage — a stage that’s defined by a kind of perpetual waiting for the future more so than age alone — we are still pining for what we thought was going to be the obvious, compatible career and family life — what we were “born for.” Perhaps youth as the immature stage of life ends only when we stop confusing the real and the ideal, accept the shattering of youthful dreams not as a tragedy but as a pretty typical human condition, and dedicate ourselves to making the best of the real.


But this is not a poem about a typical relationship with the wrong person. This particular relationship ended with the shock of a suicide. I was reminded of the poem when I read the following:

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” ~ Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Generally you can’t predict when that instant will happen or how it will change your life — especially the latter. Sure, a pregnant woman knows her “due date.” What a first-time mother can’t predict is how her life will be utterly changed. We can’t help imagining the future — which later turns out to be nothing like our imaginings. In some cases this is adaptive: if we could truly see, we might not have the will to go on.

What I’ve learned through my “instants” is that we need to find a refuge in case of the complete shattering of the future. You can’t necessarily run there right away — you need to recover from the emotional shock first. But after the acute phase, having a refuge is wonderful.

It’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned in life: never rely on a single source of fulfillment, especially not if it’s a relationship. Develop a reliable refuge in work, the love of beauty, friends, animals. Whatever works. Whatever is there for you when a hurricane comes so you don’t get destroyed.

For me, the beauty of nature of nature has been such a refuge. Just looking out of the window stopped suicidal thoughts more times than I care to remember.

The “woman I was waiting to become” has turned out simply a woman who has developed her talents so that she has her work — and other kinds of satisfaction (or call it “refuge”) besides.

What most strikes me about this poem now are these lines — they alone seem to contain some universal wisdom:

Some say, if at sixteen

we could see our future life,
none of us would choose
to live. But I would have. 
Because aspen leaves
turn silver in the wind.

And because the black silhouettes of palm trees against the sunset still awe me every time. 


During World War II, British commandos kidnapped German general Heinrich Kreipe in Crete, followed by a dangerous 18-day march to the coast to rendezvous with a British ship. One day the party saw the snows of Crete’s highest peak. Kreipe mumbled to himself the first line (in Latin) of an ode by Horace about a snowcapped mountain. At which point the British commander, Patrick Leigh Fermor, continued the recitation. The two men realized that they had, in Leigh Fermor’s words, “drunk at the same fountains.” A recategorization. Leigh Fermor had Kreipe’s wounds treated and personally ensured his safety. The two stayed in touch after the war and were reunited decades later on Greek television. “No hard feelings,” said Kreipe, praising their “daring operation.”


This reminds me of the unforgettable scene in the movie The Pianist, when the German officer dramatically shifts from contempt to admiration when the Jewish pianist demonstrates that he is indeed a piano virtuoso. Again, the common cultural heritage and the awe of talent of talent and accomplishment take precedence over the shallower ethnic prejudice. 

Mt. Ida, Crete


Rebel barons made King John of England seal the Magna Carta — the Great Charter — on June 15, 1215, in a bid to limit the power of the monarch, who they viewed as cruel and greedy.

The document set out the principle that everybody was subject to the law, even the king, for the first time on written record.

Some of its key principles influenced the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other legal systems.

Due process can be traced to Chapter 39 of Magna Carta and is incorporated into the Fifth Amendment, which includes the provision that no person shall be "deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law."

"For America's founding fathers, Magna Carta symbol­ized the "rule of law," the precept that a government is bound by the law in deal­ing with its people," Ralph Turner, history professor emeritus at the University of Florida, said in an article titled Magna Carta in the United States.

"This view was set forth first in the Declaration of Indepen­dence, then in the state constitutions of the former 13 colonies, and in the fifth and 14th amendments to the federal Constitution," he wrote.

"It's England's greatest export," he said. "It affects the lives of nearly 2 billion people in over 100 countries throughout the world. It's the foundation of liberty, it's the foundation of human rights, it's the foundation of democracy.”

King John


~ “The steep decline in homicides in Europe continued from 1300 to 1950 without any reversal of trend, constitutes one of the longest, strongest, and most poorly understood trends in the social sciences. It is probably no accident that declining violence accompanied increasing wealth in Europe. As daily life was organized more and more around monetary transactions, homicides declined.

“Historical research on homicides in European countries found that rates were very much higher in the agricultural past than the urban present. Homicide rates in Amsterdam fell from 47 (per 100,000) in the mid-15th-century to around 1.5 in the early 19th century (1). Similar patterns applied to England, France, Italy, and Netherlands, as well as Australia, and the U.S. in a shorter time frame.

Scholars were stunned by the prevalence of violent crime in agricultural societies because it went against so much of the conventional wisdom in sociology that cities were dangerous because they fostered alienation with their anonymity and crowding.

Historian Barbara A. Hannawalt of the University of Minnesota analyzed violence in Medieval England and concluded that most of the homicides began as disputes amongst farmers as they toiled in the fields.

Insults to honor were taken seriously and such disputes frequently culminated in violence. Weapons of choice were the shepherd's staff, and the knife. Everyone carried knives, even women, because they were used for eating and guests were expected to bring their own. In a world of poor sanitation, even a minor knife cut could become infected, turning an assault into a homicide.

These disputes over honor in medieval English fields are reminiscent of the trivial altercation homicides in Detroit bars that accounted for most of the killings there. Opponents were not really fighting over some superficial insult but rather to maintain face, or social status. Measuring up in such disputes was critical to how they were perceived by peers, and thus affected their sexual attractiveness to women.

As to why the Age of Chaucer was so much more violent than anything that came after, one plausible candidate is a scarcity of men in the population, thanks to prolonged wars and disease epidemics such as the Black Death to which men were more exposed due to activity patterns outside the home.

A scarcity of men forces women to be more sexually assertive so that premarital sexuality rises. With more to fight over, young men become more violent and crime rates increase despite the fact that men commit far more violent crimes than women and there are fewer of them. So the increase in aggressiveness of men overwhelms their decline in numbers.
These ideas could explain why crime rates in the medieval period were higher than subsequent centuries, but they cannot explain the ten-fold decline playing out subsequently as countries became more economically developed.

Physical domination of rivals is one way that men achieve reproductive success that was more important in hunter gatherer societies than in medieval England, and more important in medieval England than after the Industrial Revolution.

Direct physical competition is getting supplanted by economic competition where women select as mates men who are financially qualified to support children. In recent decades, men also did a great deal more child care and housework, selecting for a mild and nurturant disposition incompatible with violent confrontation. So violent crime gets concentrated in depressed areas where there is little economic opportunity and women are attracted to successful fighters, at least those associated with youth gangs.

In Victorian England, a wealthy man would negotiate with parents for permission to marry a daughter. Once married, he might choose to visit a brothel to add variety to his sex life. In either case, he negotiated new sexual relationships without any danger of physical rivalry with sexual competitors. Indeed, he might conclude either transaction without ever meeting a competitor.

Matters were very different in late medieval England where there was minimal privacy, where sexually active women could be encountered in taverns, and where everyday life was extremely violent.” ~


Reading a bio of Dickens (who was born in 1812), I got the impression of an awful lot of daily violence and sickening conditions in the poorer sections of the city — and yet that was nothing compared to the Middle Ages. We need to take a very unsentimental look at the past and see how far we've come along. In some ways at least, we live in paradise — relatively speaking, but still . . .

The “culture of honor” that demanded you take revenge for being “disrespected” in any manner has slowly yielded to a culture of respect for human rights — at least in the West. No single factor accounts for it, but it's interesting to examine several factors that seem to have been involved. (Also, it’s interesting to note that the “culture of honor” lingers not just in the inner-city gangs, but the American South. Prisons and military academies are also notorious for their “culture of honor.”)

~ “Even after they were brought inside the European home, in the twelfth century, dogs could be a problematic presence, especially in the delicate matters of politics. The rupture between church and state caused by Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon was hastened by the misbehavior of one poorly trained dog. When Cardinal Woolsey, Henry VIII’s envoy, arrived in Rome to try and negotiate an annulment for the King with Pope Clement VII, his dog Urian bit Clement’s toe on their first meeting. When, as was customary, Clement extended his leg to Woolsey so that he could kiss it, the dog leapt forward and bit him. The incident apparently drove Clement into a rage, and negotiations got off on the wrong foot.” ~


~ “Swiss bank officials sifting through dormant accounts have made an unexpected discovery. Among those not claimed since the Second World War lies an account in the name of Vladimir Ulyanov, containing the princely sum of 12.90 Swiss Francs.

According to yesterday's Neue Zuricher Zeitung, this Mr Ulyanov is the very same man who was later to rise to world fame as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The revolutionary leader lived in Zurich until April 1917, when German agents worried about the course of the war on the eastern front bundled him onto a train heading for Petrograd. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lenin had opened his savings account with the Zuricher Kantonalbank shortly before that fateful journey. It was from this account that he was to pay his membership dues to the local branch of the Bolshevik party.

In his hasty departure, he took the party with him, but not the account, whose contents have been underpinning Swiss capitalism ever since. One of Lenin's nieces is now claiming the loot, including interest.” ~


~ “Lawrence, as the world now knows, was not Lawrence. The illegitimate child of an illegitimate child, he was the son of Thomas Chapman, later to become Sir Thomas Chapman, the seventh Baronet of his line. The Chapmans were Protestant squires in Ireland, where they had acquired their first lands centuries before through the patronage of their kinsman Sir Walter Raleigh. Chapman, who already had a wife and daughters, ran away with Sarah, the family governess. The offspring out of wedlock of a Norwegian father and an English mother, she was a woman as powerful and almost as fiercely religious as his wife. Thomas and Sarah took the surname “Lawrence” and had five sons together, of whom the second was T.E., born in 1888.

An American delegate to The Paris Peace Conference called Lawrence the “successor of Muhammad.”

Unlike his brothers, who grew up in ignorance of the deception, T.E. learned at some point during his boyhood that his outwardly respectable churchgoing parents, despite all his mother’s puritanical religious sermonizing, were living in sin, using assumed names, and acting out a lie. Aspects of T.E.’s behavior often have been explained as an outgrowth of this: of his knowledge that his parents were frauds, and of his having to play a false role himself by answering to the name Lawrence. Decades later he tried calling himself by other names—Ross and Shaw—but they seemed wrong, too. Writing of himself in the third person, he said: “The friends of his manhood called him ‘T.E.’ for convenience and to show him that they recognized how his adopted surnames—Lawrence, Ross, Shaw, whatever they were—did not belong.”

He was a born double agent. He loved deceptions, puzzles, and disguises. But so did others in the England of his time. It was the age of Frederick Rolfe, who passed himself off as Baron Corvo and wrote an autobiographical fantasy in which he became Pope Hadrian the Seventh. When Lawrence was a child, impersonation took its timelessly bestselling form in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894).

All his life, Lawrence told tales, passing off his inventions or exaggerations as the truth. But so did a surprising number of his noted contemporaries. It is notoriously difficult to find a completely true sentence in the multi-volume memoirs of David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister under whom Lawrence served. Ford Madox Ford, who was central to London’s literary set when Lawrence tried his hand at writing, bragged of friendships with people he did not know, and described encounters that never took place. Harold J. Laski, theoretician of the Socialist Left, friend and correspondent of Justice Holmes, did the same thing.

In fabricating stories, Lawrence cheated as a child cheats, with no essential dishonesty, meaning no harm, but passionately desiring the attention and recognition that the achievements bragged of will bring. He sought the approval of adults. As a boy, he was the perfect Scout (though the Scout movement had not yet started), disciplining himself to learn stealth, craft, and all sorts of survival skills that he was unlikely to be called upon to use in his home town of Oxford. He taught himself self-denial and endurance, gave up eating meat for years, practiced going without sleep, built muscles, and rode a bicycle one hundred miles a day. Later he learned to be a crack shot.

With a head disproportionately large, he looked shorter than his five feet four inches. With his puckish grin, his impish love of teasing, and his irreverence, the shortness made him look like a boy who never grew up. Indeed he was in some ways a case of arrested development. Emotionally he never reached puberty; typically, his lifelong attitude toward the opposite sex was that of a twelve-year-old who thinks that including girls in activities spoils the fun.

Perpetual boyhood was a theme that ran strongly through the British imagination in his time (and afterward). It found its full expression in Barrie’s Peter Pan, which appeared in 1904, when Lawrence was in his teens. Adult Britons lingered, in continuing fascination, in the world of their childhood, as witness the enormous hold on public attention exercised by Kipling’s tale of school days, Stalky & Co., and by Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Lawrence’s contemporaries P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne (creator of Winnie-the-Pooh) were like him in refusing to become adults; and like him, too, in creating imaginary worlds—for the Arabian desert portrayed by Lawrence is a work of art—into which the schoolboy in every reader can escape. So T.E. Lawrence’s strong appeal to the imagination of Englishmen, at least in part, may well have been due—may still be due—to his having tapped this powerful vein of sentiment buried beneath the surface of British life.

Lawrence skirted the question of why Allenby’s campaigns rather than his own had won the Middle Eastern war. He wrote that Allenby’s “too-greatness deprived the Arab revolt of the opportunity” of defeating Turkey. In fact, Aqaba aside, the bedouins with whom Lawrence rode were never able to defeat the Turks at all; it took a million-man British army to deliver a knockout blow to the Ottoman Empire—a blow the hit-and-run bedouins were not remotely capable of delivering themselves.

Lawrence skirted the question of why Allenby’s campaigns rather than his own had won the Middle Eastern war. He wrote that Allenby’s “too-greatness deprived the Arab revolt of the opportunity” of defeating Turkey. In fact, Aqaba aside, the bedouins with whom Lawrence rode were never able to defeat the Turks at all; it took a million-man British army to deliver a knockout blow to the Ottoman Empire—a blow the hit-and-run bedouins were not remotely capable of delivering themselves.

It was an ambitious young American showman and jack-of-all-trades, Lowell Thomas, who invented “Lawrence of Arabia” and made him into one of the world’s first film stars. Thomas was about twenty-five at the end of 1917, when he raised enough money to send himself and a cameraman to the Middle East in search of a story with romance and local color that he could sell. He had been pointed toward the Middle East by Britain’s information director, John Buchan, author of the novel Greenmantle (1916), in which a young Oxford scholar in native turban leads a Moslem uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

Almost immediately on arriving in the Middle East, Thomas found his man. At first even Thomas questioned the far-fetched tales that Lawrence told him, but (according to Thomas) T.E. “would laugh with glee and reply: ‘History isn’t made up of truth, anyhow, so why worry?’” Later, Lawrence was to remark: “On the whole I prefer lies to truth, particularly where they concern me.” Lawrence claimed that the fictions he passed off as accounts of his adventures satisfied his “craving for self-expression in some imaginative form”; and when a friend objected, he countered with “What does it matter? History is but a series ofaccepted lies.”

Lawrence, with his romantic fantasies, and Lowell Thomas, with his hyperbole and ballyhoo, together concocted a story that took the world by storm. Using the photos as lantern slides as he narrated, Thomas created a show that toured the globe and broke entertainment-business records. In London alone, a million people came to see it.

To an audience sickened for years by the sordid grime and hopeless slaughter of trench warfare on the western front, Lowell Thomas brought a hero in gleaming white robes who rode to victory. Thomas’s story of a young Oxonian in native garb becoming a warrior-prince of the desert, to some extent prefigured in Greenmantle and A.E.W. Mason’s Four Feathers, struck a deeply responsive chord, much like that struck by Edgar Rice Burroughs in Tarzan. It was as though the story had been there all along, waiting to be told; and the role of Oxford’s desert prince was there, too, waiting for Lawrence to play it.

. . . But the story [of Lawrence’s adventures] was false fundamentally. Neither T.E. nor any of his colleagues could have passed for Arab in the Middle East. As Lawrence admitted in 1927 to his biographer, the poet Robert Graves, “I’ve never heard an Englishman speak Arabic well enough to be taken for a native of any part of the Arabic-speaking world, for five minutes.”

Mrs. George Bernard Shaw, a confidante of Lawrence’s, to whom he confessed much that was false, once exclaimed in exasperation that “he is such an infernal liar!”; but her husband disagreed. T.E. “was a born and incorrigible actor,” wrote Bernard Shaw. “He was not a liar. He was an actor.”

In the one meeting he claimed to have had with T.E.—but which it now seems Malraux invented—Malraux provides a clue as to Lawrence’s enduring interest and appeal. “He was extraordinarily elegant. With an elegance of today, not of his own time. A roll- neck sweater, for example, a kind of nonchalance and distance.”

It was his special quality: he does not age or date. He belongs to today. Even his theory of strategy is as current as this morning’s headlines. He had a genius for taking the road we would want to follow. His attitudes and interests anticipated those of the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s; and so did his style. He was casual. He was cool. He never stopped being young. He shared the modern crazes: motorbikes; speed; celebrity.

Like public figures of today, he was launched by the news media and the entertainment industry, now so intertwined and pervasive. In writing fiction in which real characters make an appearance, he looked ahead to the popularity in our time of novels, television series, and films that are situated on the frontier between fact and fiction; in some ways Seven Pillars is like a Costa-Gavras movie—a setting of apparent historical truth into which untruths are inserted without being labeled as such.

Bernard Shaw wrote that “through an accident in his teens Lawrence never grew up. He looked like a boy. His great abilities and interests were those of a highly gifted boy. He died, not as a great thinker, but as a boy tearing along on a motorcycle at miles an hour.” Only a fine line separates an existentialist hero from what the London press has taken to calling “a crazy, mixed-up kid”; and T.E. was so much of his century that he could be said to be on either side of the line.

Lawrence was haunted by the knowledge that life is ephemeral. Insofar as anything endures, he believed, it is the art of a Dostoevsky or the fame of an Alexander, and he aspired to both; indeed he wanted them so much that he cheated to get them. Seven Pillars is a cheat either as a novel—for a novelist’s job is to decide what he wants to say, but T.E. would not run the risk of doing that—or as history, for it does not tell the truth; and the campaigns of Lawrence of Arabia were a cheat because T.E. fabricated them. So it may not be for his works or deeds, considerable though their influence has been, that he will be known in distant ages.

It is as a voice of our time that he is certain to be heard. As other men lust for power or wealth or women, he craved to be noticed and to be remembered—and he was and he is, and he will be.


"Seven Pillars of Wisdom" is a novel, yet we widely assume that it's non-fiction. It raises an interesting question: just how important is the historical truth? Or would we rather have an inspiring story?

Most notably, his account of being captured by the Turks has been shown to be pure invention.

That's not to say that all of the book is invention — just some of it. “Lawrence himself made tribal leader Sharif Hussein and his sons, Abdullah and Faisal, into the real stars of his epic tale. It was Faisal, Fromkin says, who thought of taking the key port of Akaba in Jordan by land, storming the Turks with an army riding camels. “But it was typical of Lawrence to play down and be modest about the things that he actually did — while telling whoppers, lies of all sorts, about things he claimed he had done,” Fromkin says."

I think we’d all agree that even if the self is real and reasonably stable — let’s keep Buddhism out of this — even if the self is real, it is not a thing. It is not an entity, a little ghost that lives inside the head, or folded inside the body like an internal shadow. We’d all agree that such images are absurd.

More and more people would be willing to say that the self, or call it a soul, is a process. It’s a sum of complex brain functions. From there it should be an easy step to the perception that the self or soul is mortal and dies when the body dies. But that goes against our wishful thinking — who wouldn’t prefer to continue to exist, especially if bliss is promised — and against practically all religious traditions except for pure Buddhism.

Yet any survival of consciousness after death is extremely unlikely. Being a complex brain process rather than a thing, the “soul” doesn’t go anywhere; it ceases when the brain ceases working, just as the candle flame goes out when the fuel (the candle wax) is exhausted. Something of us may remain, e.g. an author’s books may be read after his death — but that’s legacy, and not the continuation of a unique consciousness.

But for the sake of a thought experiment, let’s consider the impossible. What would it be like if an individual consciousness did continue?

First, we’d have to consider the limitations of historical context. Imagines that Queen Victoria dies — but her “soul” (for the sake of argument let’s imagine that the soul is a thing) survives. So the queen “wakes up” as if from anesthesia — an experience she did actually have, since ether was beginning to be used during childbirth. She “wakes up” — only to discover that she’s no longer the queen of England. There are no servants, there is no palace. Her maids of honor aren’t hovering around her. Her crown, her jewels, her embroidered cushions, books . . .  her many favorite things? There is no courtly dress, or any other kind, for that matter. Tea is not being served. Where is the Prime Minister? Why isn’t he here, giving her a briefing? It’s irrelevant now. Nothing earthly is relevant anymore — not the Parliament, nor the whole British Empire.

There is, perhaps, a non-stop religious service going on. Maybe there are clouds to perch on, and other disembodied souls to talk with — though their English may sound strange to Victoria, just as hers sounds peculiar to those from other times and locations . . . Nor do they have anything interesting to say. Ah, yes, here comes Albert . . . But after decades, he too doesn’t seem to have anything to say — anything that might be of current interest, that is, like recent court gossip. What’s the poor former queen to do? What is there to give her the will to continue to exist? Like everyone, she belonged to her moment in history. Taken out of that context, she’s no longer Queen Victoria.

It makes far more sense to assume no self/soul and no afterlife. To quote Peter Watson in his discussion of the pragmatist John Dewey:

~ But the most important element of the anti-essentialist argument is the notion there there is no such thing as a fixed human nature, either generally or as applied to individual people. This view,  of the self-contained individual self, what Dewey called the “belief in the fixity and simplicity of the self,” he put down to “the theologians’ . . . dogma of the unity and ready-made completeness of the soul.” His insight was to see that, on the contrary, any self may include within it a number of inconsistent selves which do not necessarily act in harmony. This is an idea that ran throughout the twentieth century in all manner of disciplines. It is, for many, a most liberating doctrine. ~

To use a different language, the brain constantly forms and re-forms many different neural pathways that struggle for dominance (that’s why choices can be so stressful). There isn’t a single self; there are many.

At the same time, we experience a sense of the continuity of the self. When we wake up in the morning, we know who we are (most definitely not Queen Victoria). But that’s an experience created by the brain stem, the most archaic of the our brain structures. And the current neurological opinion is that this sense of continuity comes from having a body. I have a body, therefore I am. Too bad for Decartes. Too bad for the theologians. 


~ need I say how revolutionary this is to me? It goes against all my childhood indoctrination and “socialization” (it would be unfair to see it as exclusively religious indoctrination; the overall culture was harsh). Unfortunately it takes a very long time to heal from the idea that you’re fundamentally a pretty terrible, totally flawed person. That’s why Heidegger’s statement that simply our being is a gift to others is so moving to me.

I was thinking of this once more after a Facebook friend again berated himself for being a terrible son, husband, and father. I happen to know his mother, who speaks of him and his kindness to her in the highest terms. He’s in fact a wonderful son and a generous, kind person. But he happened to have an emotionally abusive father who put him down. It was startling to see the son continue to verbally beat himself up even after the father’s death. I quickly spoke up against it. Nor would I buy the excuse about the alleged need to keep himself humble.

I don’t think it can be denied that we’re getting farther and farther away from the culture of shame and guilt that has been in dominance for centuries (consider that the first tenet of Calvinism is “total depravity”). And while much alarm has been raised over “permissiveness” and the alleged narcissism of our times, I think we are finally becoming aware that just acquiring self-control over childish impulses is only the first step toward adulthood. An equally important step is liberating oneself from the punitive superego (the Freudian lingo fits here best). The internalized critical voice that always berates you, persecutes you, never finds you adequate — are we ever “improved” by listening to it?

Sure, it didn’t help to be raised in a religion that told an 8-year-old that he or she were a wretched sinner deserving eternal damnation except for the unmerited mercy of god and the sacrificial death of Jesus for our sins. But I don’t want to single out religion as the sole emotional abuser. Parental figures, teachers in particular, contributed a lot of shame and ridicule. And what about peers? Their bullying could be the most cruel of all. Some of us can point to a single dominant figure who did most of the criticizing and berating; for others, it was “in general.”

And some of us have to become middle-aged and beyond to realize that we are not being watched 24/7 by some “eye in the sky” and can make our decisions without having to please the deity and/or our parents (often dead for many years at this point). Sometimes we need to get a little silly to realize this. If we want to each ice-cream for breakfast, it can be amazingly liberating to realize that yes, we can — there is no supervision about it. Or rather, being adult, we are our own supervisor; at this point we have learned that actions have consequences, so we have to pause and think if we want to risk gaining weight. But the decision is ours, and it’s not in the moral realm — and it has nothing to do with being either a terrible person or a saintly one.

Is it a big deal, this being so hard on yourself? In my experience, those who judge themselves too harshly will also judge others harshly. The supposed Christian ideal of being gentle to others while being “stern” with yourself doesn’t work . . .  those who internalize emotional abuse tend to pass it on to others. Not knowing how to be gentle to themselves, they will not be gentle to others, especially not their own children. Self-loathing is not confined to the self. (As Dostoyevski noted in Brothers Karamazov, “Above all, don’t be so ashamed of yourself. A lot of evil comes from that.”)

As a friend pointed out, the best therapy is simply to ask, “What told you you were a terrible person?” A young child does not conclude this on his own. There is typically someone with parental authority who poisons the young mind. Now, the step that follows is to remember that “we are the victims of victims.” Our persecutor was himself relentlessly shamed by someone else while growing up. Is forgiveness next? In my experience, understanding alone is enough — you simply can’t hate your critic the same way as before once you understand what made them harm you. So it doesn’t matter if you consciously “forgive.” Understanding alone rewires the brain circuits (or, if you prefer a different lingo, it changes both the consciousness and the unconscious) and does the work. 

Dali: Shame

~ “News and people traveled faster than anyone had ever experienced. The cost of moving products and services plummeted in the same way Amazon or cloud-based apps have driven down distribution costs. Such forces made it easier for big companies in one place to serve customers everywhere. The technology “made possible a division of labor and specialization of production for ever larger and more distant markets,” wrote James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, his epic Civil War history. So by 1850, factories were making certain types of craftsmen obsolete, department stores were driving local shops to close, and people found themselves losing jobs to someone far away.

Much like today, money in the early 1800s flowed to the new economy and away from the old economy. Capitalists who owned production got richer, and laborers lost power. The gap between rich and poor widened.

Cue the kind of anger Donald Trump has tapped into.

Slavery turned into a flashpoint issue, but the real unrest boiled up from this giant economic rift. Technology transformed the North into an industrial economy while the South was anchored in an agricultural economy, one that couldn't operate without slavery. The North had a population that saw the advantage in embracing technology and progressive ideas (including that slavery was bad) and moving forward. The South's way of life and economic fortunes rested on keeping things as they'd been. The South viewed the North as a threat.

Look today at red states vs. blue, or even Trump supporters vs. “establishment” Republicans. Those divisions broadly define where digital-cloud-mobile technology and the modern economy work in favor of the population vs. where they work against them. Trump says “make America great again,” which, to his supporters, means “make America what it used to be.” To people whose livelihoods have suffered because of economic shifts ushered in by technology, moving backward looks better than moving forward—not just in economic issues but in social mores as well.

The big difference between now and then is that instead of that shift from agriculture to industry in 1850, today we’re seeing a shift from industry to software. The more that software can leverage the work of fewer humans, the fewer humans are needed for work, and the more profits flow to owners of the software. One industrial company, United Technologies, provides an example. At 218,300 employees, the company’s workforce hasn’t grown in seven years, even while revenue jumped from $42.7 billion in 2005 to $57.7 billion in 2012. That’s $15 billion not being spent on more employees. Productivity created by technology tends to put more earnings into fewer hands.

The lives of many of the people in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., are going one way. The lives of many people in industrial or rural areas are going another. It may not be a North-South divide, but you can see a break widening between the coasts and the nation’s interior.

Look at what’s coming. Autonomous vehicles will eat driving jobs of every kind. Artificial intelligence will eat rules-based white-collar jobs like accounting. Block-chain technology will result in software-based contracts that eliminate the need for mortgage brokers and lots of lawyers. Factory work will be diminished by 3-D printing. The total disruption of the 20th-century way of life is inevitable and far from over.

Of course, like the tech revolution of 1850, ours should eventually create enormous opportunities we never dreamed possible. It is the path to wealth and comfort for every part of the country and every level of society. The best news is that, like in 1850, the U.S. leads the world in all of the important technologies. If we as a people can get through this, we won’t make America great “again” — we’ll make it into something cooler and better than it’s ever been.” ~


Interesting how this time it's the coasts vs the “heartland” — though I think the South remains a particularly reactionary hub. But hasn’t the split existed for a long time — the progressive coastal belt and the huge conservative land in-between? I’m reminded of the American visitor in Warsaw who astonished us by saying, “In America there is the East Coast and the West Coast, and nothing in between.” And that was the mid-nineteen-sixties.

“God is not dead. He is alive and working on a much less ambitious project.” ~ graffito (only those who’ve aged enough and are settled into the “afternoon of life” will understand this)

a blue-footed booby

ending on beauty:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

~ William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

eglantine = wild rose

Lithuanian girls dressed as fairies


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