Saturday, July 15, 2017


Auroras in Jupiter’s Atmosphere, captured by Hubble

~ “Next morning, at first light, the Germans did indeed march into Prague in the middle of a heavy snowstorm which seemed to make them appear out of nowhere. When they crossed the bridge and their armored cars were rolling up Narodní a profound silence feel over the whole city. People turned away, and from that moment they walked more slowly, like somnambulists, as if they no longer knew where they were going.” ~ G.W. Sebald, Austerlitz

This is an excellent description of emotional shock: your mind is so overwhelmed by what happened that you become like a sleepwalker, dazed, walking somewhere— it doesn’t matter where — on automatic, slowly. It’s impossible to rush — because nothing makes sense any more.

Oddly, when I first read the paragraph, I misread it to mean that the German army started marching more slowly as if the soldiers no longer knew where they were going. I even thought that the soldiers had some half-conscious sense of the indecency of what they were doing. But that was just a moment of the peculiar misreading and misattribution — though I marvel at it too: the invaders are also damaged in a less obvious obvious way. But of course it’s the invaded who are in emotional shock.

And the snowstorm, making the scene almost black-and-white like a movie chronicle, adds to the sense of the unreal.

The author of the article that quotes the passage chooses to focus on the esthetics of it:

~ “The prose has Sebald’s usual formality, along with his strain of almost pedantic exaggeration (“and from that moment they walked more slowly”). It is powerful because it is both real and unreal, at once a vivid picture and a frozen allegory. Seabed is describing a collective death, a falling away, the people in this word picture, like the felled trees he describes in “The Rings of Saturn,” are as if caught in a kind of swoon. There are people here, but they are in the process of becoming unpeople.” ~

Those trees, “as if in a swoon”? The article begins with a description of Sebald that’s also quite “atmospheric”:

~ “Not that Sebald seemed to care about that. He was gentle, academic, intensely tactful. His hair was gray, his almost white mustache like frozen water. He resembled photographs of a pensive Walter Benjamin. There was an atmosphere of drifting melancholy about him that, as in his prose, he made almost comic by sly self-consciousness. I remember standing with him in the foyer of the restaurant, where there was some kind of ornamental arrangement that involved leaves floating in a tank. Sebald thought they were elm leaves, which prompted a characteristic reverie. In England, he said, the elms had all but disappeared, ravaged first by Dutch elm disease, and then by the great storm of 1987. All gone, all gone, he murmured. Since I had not read “The Rings of Saturn” (published in German in 1995 but not translated into English until 1998), I didn’t know that he was almost quoting a passage from his own work, where, beautifully, he describes the trees, uprooted after the hurricane, lying on the ground “as if in a swoon.” ~

Yes, this is wonderful — but it also reminds me of my mother when she said about Americans in general — this was before 9/11 — “They don’t understand anything.” What she was meant was: They have not experienced being invaded.

Will the 20th century be remembered chiefly for the two horrific world wars, or for going to the Moon, which showed what can be accomplished when there is will enough and the best minds working together?

Earthrise, photo taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, 1968


 1. People don't judge you as harshly as you think they do.

In a 2001 , psychologists Kenneth Savitsky, Nicholas Epley and Thomas Gilovich asked college students to consider various social blunders: accidentally setting off the alarm at the library, being the sole guest at a party who failed to bring a gift or being spotted by classmates at the mall while carrying a shopping bag from an unfashionable store. Some students imagined experiencing these awkward moments themselves — let's call them the "offenders" — while others considered how they, or another observer, would respond watching someone else do so. We'll call them the "observers."

The researchers found that offenders thought they'd be judged much more harshly than the observers actually judged people for those offenses. In other words, observers were more charitable than offenders thought they would be.

In another study, students who attempted a difficult set of anagrams thought observers' perception of their intellectual ability would plummet. In fact, observers' opinions hardly shifted at all.

2. You should think of intelligence as something you develop.

Is a person's intelligence a fixed quantity they're born with? Or is it something malleable, something that can change throughout the lifespan?

The answer is probably a bit of both. But a large body of research suggests you're better off thinking of intelligence as something that can grow — a skill you can develop — and not as something set in stone. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues have been studying implicit theories about intelligence for decades, and they find that mindset really matters. People who have a "growth mindset" typically do better in school and beyond than those with a "fixed mindset.”

3. Playing isn't a waste of time.

Play is joyful in part because it's an end in itself. It's thus perhaps ironic (but fortuitous) that play is also a means to greater well-being and productivity, even outside the playroom. So make time for play; it's not something to outgrow.

Henri Rousseau: Football Players


~ “Around 40, observing older folk, I realized that living my life so that I could look back proudly wasn't necessary. People are good at revising history and get better at it with age.

I realized that if I aged happy, I could fabricate a story of myself as a popular hero, and if I aged cranky, I could just as easily fabricate a story of myself as an unpopular failure. My attention, therefore turned to priorities other than how I would account for myself in my dotage.” ~ Jeremy Sherman


I am infinitely grateful to Jeremy for stating this so clearly. It so happens that for quite a while I was almost obsessed with the question of how, looking back on my eightieth birthday, I’d see my life. I dreaded the possibility that I’d say, “I’ve wasted my life” — all this time and effort put into poetry, and for what? To reach very few, and then be forgotten? Shouldn’t I have tried harder for teaching jobs? Shouldn’t I have had an entirely different career — perhaps in the health field? Shouldn’t I have been a mother, and contributed in that simple way?

Some ten-fifteen years ago, this was a serious concern, even a central one. To say, “I have wasted my life,” seemed to me the most tragic thing that could happen to a person. “This will not happen to you because you’ve had five children — so at least you’ve done that,” I said to a friend, with genuine envy.

Oddly enough, I didn’t seem to be aware of the subjective and thus near-meaningless nature of this hypothetical self-appraisal. Obviously we contribute in ways of which we are not even aware. As another friend said (she was somewhat given to mysticism), “Perhaps you’re here just to smile at someone. Just to give them one smile. It could be as small as that.”

Indeed, I’ve had those moments of knowing I’ve made someone happy — and that made me happy. And any worry about having lived in vain, having wasted my life, was the farthest thing on my mind in such moments.

Or is the point simply to have taken in as much beauty as possible? Isn’t one more sunset — one more flower — reason enough to keep going?


A lot of people seem to believe that “we are here for a purpose” —- though that purpose may remain a secret from us. Fans of New Age philosophies even believe that we chose that purpose before being reincarnated — but the memory of it was removed from us (why? they can’t explain). I don’t believe that “we are here for a purpose.” But we do shape our narratives and forge our personal “meaning of life” — which evolves depending on the stage of life. We have so many lives in our life!

Heidegger has helped me — our gift to others is simply our unique being. And now comes Jeremy, explaining that how we choose to interpret our life story isn’t the essence. We’re clever: we can make it almost anything we want. What has always mattered to me is making a contribution, and that should be the proper focus of my attention.

To go back to Heidegger for a moment, I suspect he’s more correct than he knew: we make our contribution mostly in ways we don’t really control. We contribute just by being our unique selves. Beyond that, there’s our manner of relating to others: we can make a bit more effort to be more pleasant, more affectionate. And then there is indeed our work. I’ve come to realize that I can’t control the size of my audience. I can only to some degree control the amount of effort I put into my writing, hoping to achieve the best quality. But since it’s writing, effort is not the sole factor. A lot depends on the creative process, which is unconscious. I’ve learned to stay out of the way, to trust my unconscious.

So, on my eightieth birthday, if I am still alive, perhaps what I will say is, “I’ve learned to trust my unconscious.” And I’ve learned to relax about the idea of making some kind of worthy contribution, however minor. Yes, I'm making a contribution, I'm touching the lives of others. It’s mostly automatic: it happens. And that’s fine. That is enough. 

Cats are such great role models (this one is in a painting by Rubens)


Mary MacCarthy comments:

Thinking we are here for some purpose may be a remnant of our religious past — that there will come a reckoning and you will have to account for yourself before a powerful judge. Also has a bit of puritanism there — have you been thrifty and wise and productive, rather than just enjoying your sins??

I know in my days of shame and self accusation I took that parable of hiding your light under a basket very seriously. That there was a lot of potential I wasn't realizing, and I would eventually have to account for. For a long time I was very ashamed of my failures, of my “crash and burns” — of how others saw me/judged me/rejected me. But I think what I finally decided was it wasn't worth suffering over, that I could only try to do what I could, be as kind as I could, and my failures were no more significant than anyone else’s. I had to stop living a tragedy, see things more in a comic light. A good sense of humor is actually critical. 

In my more metaphysical speculations I have wondered if perhaps in this universe, or even in the multiplicity of universes, what might be happening is that every combination, every change, every possibility, must occur, that the universe is experiencing itself, and this is a kind of evolution moving toward some kind of larger consciousness, and in that way each life, whatever its shape, is part of this tremendous story, that includes everything in every permutation, becoming perhaps something more than all its infinity of parts.

Maybe that's  too flighty. Too unscientific. Too much like string theory and spooky action at a distance. Maybe there was never any God at the beginning, but one will be created by the end. Maybe the universe itself will become conscious. I know, I do have odd thoughts.

The thing about using your talents, and being productive, about achievement in general, is that in the long view, and I mean the very long view, it all comes to nothing. To dust. Cosmic dust star dust fairy dust, dust all the same. But before we are dust we can be flame — can create, can shine bright, however briefly, can be and do the most wonderful, surprising things.

On the more practical side, one of our lovely ospreys dropped his lunch in the backyard, where I discovered it ripening in the sun and covered with ants!!


Oh, that “failed” osprey — that fish was too heavy for him after all . . .  Yes, how ludicrous it would be to judge an osprey, to call any bird a failure — yet we don’t see that when we judge ourselves or others.

I’ve gone through the same agonies of thinking I was wasting my potential, and that was of course a terrible sin. I no longer believed in god, but I still felt guilty for decades. And of course it hurt and shamed me if anyone said, “You’re wasting your education” or “You’re wasting your talent”— as if they knew exactly how my talent and education should be used — like claiming to know god’s will.

Your metaphysical ideas fall more or less under the umbrella of “process theology,” with some Eastern influences (the supreme deity is interested in every possible experience). We’ll never know, but to speculate is human. Rilke could be regarded as a process theologian, with his idea that “we are building God.”

A good sense of humor is an excellent indicator of high intelligence. Scientists are always cracking jokes (I grew up among them, and later reported on scientific conferences — I know). Likewise, while teaching, I noticed that only the brighter students understood irony. The less bright took everything literally. 

photo: Joseph Constanza

A related theme is regrets — in old age, what will we most regret having done or not done in life?


A misleading illustration in New York Times accompanies a piece called "Death: A Nice Opportunity for Regret." It shows a tombstone with the epitaph "I Wish I Hadn't." It's misleading because research shows that the correct epitaph, for most of us, would be "I Wish I Had.”

Regret, scholars have found, comes in two forms: regretting things you did that you wish you hadn’t done (regrets of commission), or regretting things you hadn’t done that you wish you had (regrets of omission). When researchers ask people in middle and old age about their regrets, most people talk about the second kind – something they didn’t do, but should have. Choosing not to move to France, choosing not to tell that girl you love her, choosing not to learn to sail: on our deathbeds, these are what cause us the deepest pangs of what-if. “I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth,” Henry James wrote to fellow writer Hugh Walpole when James was 70. “I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.”

It’s not surprising, when you think about it, for regrets of omission to overshadow regrets of commission. If you regret something you did, there’s always a chance to un-do it – through divorce, for instance, or with tattoo-zapping lasers – so the effects of the mistake don’t necessarily linger. Even if you can’t fix your regrettable action, you can rationalize it with the thought that yes, it was the wrong thing to do, but at least you learned a lesson from it.

In contrast, you can’t really claim to have learned a lesson from the wrong thing you didn’t do. If you regret not doing something, the story might have had any one of a number of different endings, and it’s easy to fantasize about how much better every one of those endings would have been. That’s why the boy who got away, the job you didn’t take, the place you didn’t live will always hold a special, unfalsifiable allure.


Regrets are often a function of having made a trade-off earlier in life -- the same trade-off that many twenty-somethings make between professional and personal goals. When people choose to focus on one, they tend to find themselves regretting their failure to focus on the other. “Sadly, it seemed to us that people’s regrets reflect a trade-off between educational and career pursuits on the one hand and interpersonal relationships on the other,” write psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Victoria Husted Medvec of Cornell in an analysis of several studies of regret. The common finding, they write, is that “those who spent time on interpersonal relationships regretted not achieving more professionally,” while “those who spent time in professional pursuits regretted not devoting enough attention to friends and family.” It’s enough to make you think that no one can ever be satisfied.

The urge to avoid late-life regret is an unacknowledged driver of decision-making in one's twenties, the thing that keeps many young people from making decisions at all. Regret-avoidance can be a reason to forestall committing to something – a job, a girlfriend, a religion, a place to live – because you’re afraid you’ll end up regretting it later. Better, to some folks, to keep all their options open than to risk the possibility that they will want to re-visit one of those options the instant it disappears. If there's a moral to be learned here, I guess it would be the slogan on the Nike ad: just do it.

I totally understand this way of thinking. I’ve used regret-avoidance as the touchstone for a lot of my own big life-altering decisions (when considering whether to have children, for instance, my husband and I subscribed to the “If we don’t do it now we’ll regret it later” school of irrationality). But it’s a stupid way to make decisions. Regrets are virtually impossible to avoid — and we’re often wrong about which specific choices would have led to regret.

Rudolph Valentino, 1918, the greatest movie idol in the 1920s.


That's another thing it would have been good to understand earlier: regrets are impossible to avoid, and that we typically regret things we didn't do rather than those we did.

For all my regrets of having come to the US, I’ve finally accepted the idea that if I hadn’t gone, I would have lived with the regret of having missed my chance. Either way, I’d have regrets — but the regret of not having gone would have probably been more acute. The only solution is to accept the unavoidability of regrets, and try not to spend much time in the regret zone. Just too many unknowns anyway. Instead of thinking of “what-if’s,” do some work instead. Instead of “gazing within,” gaze at the world. Look at the trees — they are amazing!

fractal patterns of tree branches

TESLA WAS BORN DURING A THUNDERSTORM! Nikola Tesla was born around midnight, between July 9 and July 10, 1856 during a fierce lightning storm. According to family legend, midway through the birth, the midwife wrung her hands and declared the lightning a bad omen. This child will be a child of darkness, she said, to which his mother replied: “No. He will be a child of light.”


My dad said, "life is like playing piano with oven mitts on." You go to hit one key and you hit others. We never do anything for just one reason and it never has just one effect. ~ Jeremy Sherman

Renoir: Two Young Girls at the Piano, 1892


“[Martin Seligman], who pioneered much of the field of positive psychology, found that training people to change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and less prone to depression.

The same goes for locus of control: not only is a more internal locus (“I can change this”) tied to perceiving less stress and performing better but changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then, seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.

Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened.

Resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be learned.”

(apologies for the lost link)

Romania's marital prison: couples locked up here quickly became motivated to reconcile

~ “In the summer of 1922, Ruth Epperson Kennell, a children’s librarian, left New York City for the far reaches of Siberia. She traveled with her husband Frank and 132 other ‘pioneers’. In Siberia, they joined the Kuzbas colony, a utopian commune in the coal-mining town of Kemerovo, founded by ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, a leading Wobbly (Industrial Worker of the World) who had jumped bail in the US and escaped to Russia. Haywood and hundreds of other foreigners were eagerly establishing industrial and agricultural communes to aid the ‘new Russia’. Kennell claimed that the Kuzbas pioneers – re-enacting American settlement of the West and industrial development on a new frontier – were building, not a new Atlantis, but a ‘new Pennsylvania’.

In signing a two-year contract with the Society for Technical Aid to Soviet Russia, and leaving the comforts of middle-class life in the US, Kennell made a decision that was surprisingly popular. An article in the radical Liberator by the proletarian bard Mike Gold, headlined ‘Wanted: Pioneers for Siberia,’ provided the spark that set the Kennells’ life in a new direction. It also gestured toward the attractions of a broader exodus that was not just about escaping the US: these pioneers wanted a part in the building of something new. This was especially the case for US women at a moment in which they’d gained the vote but otherwise nothing had really changed for them. Appealing to ‘the Young Intellectuals who have not fled to the boulevard cafés of Paris, there to sip cocktails in a sort of noble protest against American Puritanism’, Gold’s article convinced the Kennells to pack up their worldly goods and leave their 18-month-old son in California with his paternal grandmother.

Although more men than women volunteered their services to Russia in its early years – and many of the women who did come were simply accompanying husbands – Kennell was among those who went to Russia not as dependent wives but as workers. Indeed, what made the Kuzbas enterprise appealing to her was the chance to escape what Lenin had described as the ‘crushing drudgery’ of housework, by living communally.

Kennell also, it turns out, craved freedom from bourgeois morality, and found herself increasingly drawn to an engineer from New York who she met in the colony office. When her husband departed in a dispute between Wobblies and Communists, Kennell felt relieved rather than sorry. As she noted in the popular satirical magazine American Mercury: ‘In the spring of 1925, more than one matrimonial partnership melted, usually on the wife’s initiative. The colony women found in Siberia the freedom their souls craved.’

Kennell was among the hundreds of American women who looked to revolutionary Russia as they tried to imagine a new way of being in the world. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, suffragists, settlement house workers, prison reformers, muckrakers and other ‘New Women’ concerned about social justice, joined the struggle for ‘Russian freedom’. Many saw the effort to liberate ‘darkest Russia’ as universal in its significance. Long viewed as a kind of ‘dark double’ to the US (with a similarly ‘unsettled’ frontier, and a tradition of serfdom terminated at almost the same moment that American slavery was abolished), the Czarist regime seemed to epitomize an age-old dynamic of a wealthy few brutally oppressing the masses. Lillian Wald and other settlement workers wrote admiringly of the ‘tender’ revolutionary women in Russia whose hatred of injustice drove them to take up arms against their government. After the successful revolution, New Women in the US regarded with approval Soviet attempts to socialize housework through public laundries, dining halls and nurseries. They celebrated the new ideal of ‘comradely love’. And they praised laws granting women the vote, legalizing abortion, simplifying divorce and mandating equal pay.

By the late 1920s, every year saw hundreds of ‘American girls’ – relief workers, journalists, performers, educators, artists and adventurers – ‘barging into the Red capital’ to witness and take part in the ‘new life’. The celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan arrived in Moscow in 1921 to start a dance school, eager to see if there was ‘one country in the world that does not worship commercialism more than the mental and physical education of its children’. The photographer Margaret Bourke-White made the first of several trips to the Soviet Union in 1930, determined to document Russia’s industrial progress, declaring: ‘Things are happening in Russia, and happening with staggering speed … the effort of 150,000,000 people is so gigantic, so unprecedented in all history.’ And 22 African-American women and men, including notable Harlem Renaissance figures such as Dorothy West and Langston Hughes, traveled to Moscow in 1932 to act in a film showing ‘the first authentic picture of [American] Negro life’. The film was never made, but most members of the group – several staying on permanently – found much to admire in the Soviet Union.

Why has fascination with revolutionary Russia, particularly among women, been forgotten? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the ‘Soviet dream’ became a nightmare for many, including the unlucky Americans who tried to live out their lives there, optimistically (and sometimes accidentally) giving up their US citizenship and then finding themselves trapped: some wound up in the gulag or died, and nearly all who stayed lost the idealism that initially drew them there. For the many who stayed for several years or months – that is, long enough to feel like they were more than just tourists, but short enough to feel like their own fate was not tied up with the Soviet Union’s – it was in many cases possible, at least for a time, to rationalize violence, repression and paranoia as temporary and necessary steps on the road to building true socialism.

By the late 1930s, it had become hard to argue this; with the coming of the Cold War it became almost impossible. Today, a ‘new cold war’ is the inevitable lens for assessing the Russian ‘chapter’ in US feminism. For a feminist movement that has always been under siege, the story of ‘American Girls in Red Russia’ does not represent a usable past in a political sense. That Kennell remained loyal to the Soviet Union until her death in 1977 is not a reason to admire her. But this chapter is indeed usable in the sense that it allows us to understand something about human desire and fallibility, about the persistence of inequities between men and women, and of the belief that a better world is possible.” ~


Oriana: It’s of course immensely clever advertising, starting with an invisible product that you never have to deliver. The temptation is to answer that it all started in the pre-scientific era, when impressive natural phenomena such as lightning and thunder were taken as evidence that an angry invisible person was having a celestial temper tantrum and needed to be appeased with animal sacrifice. But wait, this went on and on in spite of the growth of scientific knowledge, and even now preachers go on TV to announce that earthquakes happen because of gay marriage . . .  Even worse, we’ve had new cults being born, most notoriously scientology — which seemed to prove that there is no absurdity that humans will not believe, no matter how late in history.

"The impatient man is his own enemy; he slams the door on his own progress.” ~ Idries Shah


~ and now we know that taking an art class beats even exercise. Also, taking ibuprofen appears to cut the risk by 50%.

“One in three cases of Alzheimer's disease worldwide is preventable, according to research from the University of Cambridge.

The main risk factors for the disease are a lack of exercise, smoking, depression and poor education, it says.

Of the seven risk factors, the largest proportion of cases of Alzheimer's in the US, UK and the rest of Europe can be attributed to physical inactivity.

The study says about a third of the adult population in these countries are physically inactive.

Physical inactivity is also linked to increased risks of other health problems, such as cancers and cardiovascular diseases.”

The Cambridge team analyzed population-based data to work out the main seven risk factors for Alzheimer's disease.

These are:

    Mid-life hypertension
    Mid-life obesity
    Physical inactivity
    Low educational attainment

They worked out that a third of Alzheimer's cases could be linked to lifestyle factors that could be modified, such as lack of exercise and smoking.

The researchers then looked at how reducing these factors could affect the number of future Alzheimer's cases.

Simply tackling physical inactivity, for example, will reduce levels of obesity, hypertension and diabetes, and prevent some people from developing dementia
They found that by reducing each risk factor by 10%, nearly nine million cases of the disease could be prevented by 2050.

In the UK, a 10% reduction in risk factors would reduce cases by 8.8%, or 200,000, by 2050, they calculated.

Current estimates suggest that more than 106 million people worldwide will be living with Alzheimer's by 2050 — more than three times the number affected in 2010.

Prof Carol Brayne, from the Institute of Public Health at the University of Cambridge, said: "Although there is no single way to treat dementia, we may be able to take steps to reduce our risk of developing dementia at older ages.

"We know what many of these factors are, and that they are often linked.

"Simply tackling physical inactivity, for example, will reduce levels of obesity, hypertension and diabetes, and prevent some people from developing dementia.

“As well as being healthier in old age in general, it's a win-win situation.” ~

ending on beauty:

Evening, and the stars are fishing, mirroring
themselves in the stark, quiet pools of the stream.
Ahab is hungry for the one that got away, himself.
Venus presents herself as a voluptuous goldfish.

There are so many of them, mostly nameless.
None have the impulse to be caught or catch themselves.
They are just fishing by being fish, feeding on the surface.

Such times, to wish upon a star is to wish a nameless wish,
to hook desire to a shimmering light in the water.

~ Kerry Shawn Keys, The Stars Are Fishing

Van Gogh: Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888

No comments:

Post a Comment