Sunday, July 9, 2017


Fourth of July Celebration, Salem Massachusetts


When his darkness seized me,
the great love of my youth,
when I dared to reach for

the most ravishing
narcissus in the mirror,
the earth opened and horses

rearing like black smoke
carried me off to marry
the Invisible Lord —

so my song would be both
beautiful and true.
Because love has two flowers:

narcissus and asphodel.
A hundred-headed narcissus!
We grow of many minds.

A hundred wishes, ten thousand —
and echo has the last word.
Narcissus — flower of youth,

rippling into departure.
Asphodel swaying in no wind,
in twilight memory of sun,

you have no scent except
in the mind that remembers.
Asphodel, flower of soul,

of love at the ripe hour:
the ancients understood
the soul feeds on flowers. Even

in hell, a life filled with flowers.
After trails of narcissi,
I walk in mothlike meadows.

~ Oriana

This poem is spoken by Persephone — or a woman who closely identifies with Persephone, but is also a singer/poet who needs to understand suffering and disaster before her songs have wisdom as well as beauty.

In Greek mythology, asphodel was the flower that grew in the Underworld. It was the favorite food of dead.

For me, the story of Persephone was THE myth. The young girl is playing in the meadow, picking flowers — and suddenly she’s in hell. That was it — that was my life. The meadow, then reality. The last idyllic summer in the Polish countryside — then alone in America. I could go on about the marriage, the chronic depression, the first attempts at writing ending with being told I had no talent. The relationship with a malignant narcissist (who nevertheless told me I did have talent); the relationship with an alcoholic who ended up putting a bullet in his brain. That’s of course a totally distorted view of my life — there were positive events as well — but if I look at just the catastrophes, then no other myth speaks to me the way Persephone’s story does.

But as Jean Shinoda-Bolen pointed out in her pioneering book, Persephone does not get stuck in the role of an innocent victim. She embraces her reality and becomes a queen, apparently quietly content.

One influence on the poem was a line by Lorca: “Flower of love: narcissus.” Another was a passage by William Carlos Williams stating that it cheered him to learn that there were flowers in hell.

One of the great lessons of my life has been that I can’t wait for men to give me flowers; I have to give them to myself. I need to nourish myself with flowers, with beauty.

Most people discover that it’s up to themselves to find ways to be happy. It’s not the task of others to make us happy — to think that way is to be setting yourself up for heartbreak.

Now, some heartbreak is inevitable regardless, and I don’t know anyone who’s entirely avoided a journey through hell. But we can learn. And even in hell, there are flowers.

 Asphodelus albus, white asphodel 

~ “Jonathan Brent, a Yale University Soviet scholar and Vladimir P. Naumov, a Russian historian and the secretary of a Russian government commission to rehabilitate victims of repression, have spent years in the archives of the K.G.B. and other Soviet organizations. Russian officials granted them access to some documents for their latest work, which primarily traces the fabulous course of the Doctors' Plot, a supposed collusion in the late 1940's by Kremlin doctors to kill top Communist leaders.

 The collusion was in fact a fabrication by Kremlin officials, acting largely on Stalin's orders. By the time Stalin disclosed the plot to a stunned Soviet populace in January 1953, he had spun it into a vast conspiracy, led by Jews under the United States' secret direction, to kill him and destroy the Soviet Union itself.

That February, the Kremlin ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north, apparently in preparation for a second great terror -- this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.

But the terror never unfolded. On March 1, 1953, two weeks after the camps were ordered built and two weeks before the accused doctors were to go on trial, Stalin collapsed at Blizhnaya, a north Moscow dacha, after the all-night dinner with his four Politburo comrades.

 After four days, Stalin died, at age 73. Death was laid to a hemorrhage on the left side of his brain. [There are reasons to think that he was poisoned with warfarin, a rat poison; see]

Less than a month later, the doctors previously accused of trying to kill him were abruptly exonerated and the case against them was deemed an invention of the secret police. No Jews were deported east. By year's end, Beria faced a firing squad, and Khrushchev had tempered Soviet hostility toward the United States.

Why Stalin might have been killed is a less difficult question. Politburo members lived in fear of Stalin; beyond that, the book cites a previously secret report as evidence that Stalin was preparing to add a new dimension to the alleged American conspiracy known as the Doctors' Plot.

That report — an interrogation of a supposed American agent named Ivan I. Varfolomeyev, in 1951 — indicated that the Kremlin was preparing to accuse the United States of a plot to destroy much of Moscow with a new nuclear weapon, then to launch an invasion of Soviet territory along the Chinese border.

Mr. Varfolomeyev's fantastic plot was known in Soviet documents as ''the plan of the internal blow.'' Stalin, the book states, had assigned the Varfolomeyev case highest priority, and was preparing to proceed with a public trial despite his underlings' fears that the charges were so unbelievable that they would make the Kremlin a global laughingstock.

 Mr. Naumov said that that plan, combined with other Soviet military preparations in the Russian Far East at the time, strongly suggest that Stalin was preparing for a war along the United States' Pacific Coast. What remains unclear, he said, is whether he planned a first strike or whether the mushrooming conspiracy unfolding in Moscow was to serve as a provocation that would lead both sides to a flash point.

Mr. Brent said he believes that fear of a nuclear holocaust could have led Beria and perhaps others at that final dinner to assent to Stalin's death.

 ''No question — they were afraid,'' he said. ''But they knew that the direction Stalin was going in was one of fiercer and fiercer conflict with the U.S. This is what Khrushchev saw, and it is what Beria saw. And it scared them to death.''

The authors say that Stalin knew of his comrades' fears, citing as proof remarks at a December 1952 meeting of top Communist leaders in which Stalin began laying out the scope of the Doctors' Plot and the American threat to Soviet power.

''Here, look at you — blind men, kittens,'' the minutes record Stalin as saying. ''You don't see the enemy. What will you do without me?''

~ New York Times, July 2016

Stalin and Lenin side by side in the mausoleum 


Please don’t take this headline the wrong way: the movie is a charming, tender, and quite believable love story of the sort we are seriously starved for, and I want to encourage everyone to see it. In addition, it makes a big statement against bigotry and cultural inflexibility and isolationism. It affirms love, marriage, and the family. It affirms tolerance. It dares to present a sympathetic portrait of a young secular Muslim man who even as a boy only pretended to pray, and finally does find the courage to tell this to his parents. It affirms America but makes the viewer enjoy Kumail’s traditional parents also. It’s not surprising that I couldn’t find a single negative review of the movie. Not one.

Don't expect anything truly politically daring; it's a gentle first step. Some would argue that it IS politically daring since just touching Islam is playing with fire. If it happened to be about the children of Southern Baptists, we’d see it as wimpy, but in this case, yes, it’s at least a sweet sort of beginning.

It’s a beginning, a pioneering effort. Perhaps that explains why Kumail is mediocre at best as a stand-up comedian — muffled and half-mumbling, almost as if he were muzzled. We have plenty of Jewish comedians, ex-Catholic comedians, Afro-American comedians — they are at ease discussing their families and religious backgrounds, their childhood experiences, the eccentricities of friends, spouses, people they’ve dated — it’s standard material of which we somehow never get tired. Here’s another Jewish joke, and yet another one about the Virgin Birth or being sprinkled with the Holy Water, or someone imitating the speech and manners of his Mama. But Muslim comedians? That would be playing with fire.

The reviewers’ sole complaint is that the movie is too long. It could indeed use editing. But given the movie’s many virtues, we can forgive an occasional scene that could be cut. It’s not a perfect movie, nor is it “funny hah-hah.” But it’s part of of its excellence that it doesn’t try to be constantly, frantically funny as some comedies do.

There is also another repeated statement in all the reviews: the young couple is appealing, but it’s the parents on both sides who are outstanding. I found both sets simply riveting. My favorite scenes all have one or the other set of parents in them.

And perhaps the real love story is not so much between Kumail and Emily (does anyone care that her high-school nickname was Beetlejuice?) as between Kumail and Emily’s parents — who start out hostile toward him, and then come to bond with him. This part is absolutely endearing. We also feel how heartbroken Kumail’s Pakistani parents are at his alleged betrayal of them — and again, the parents’ love for their son comes through so powerfully that we know those family bonds are not breakable, and the mother’s having prepared Kumail’s favorite food as a parting gift tells the truth of the heart that mere words try to deny.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more the parents seem more interesting than the young couple. Emily in particular seems rather vapid. Not so her parents, especially her splendid tiny warrior of a mother. All the Pakistani characters are also interesting, especially he beautiful and classy Khadija, the young prospective bride we get to see last in the parade of “single Pakistani ladies” who just happen to “drop by.” She isn’t playing it for laughs. Suddenly we get to see that she is trapped and sadly unfulfilled, yearning to experience a relationship as a free woman.

There is also the side issue of the tension between Emily’s parents. Her father had a one-night stand, and afterwards felt so overwhelmingly guilty that he immediately confessed it to his wife — who, until the love and marriage-affirming end of the movie, could not bring herself to forgive him. Here I couldn’t help but remember the wisdom of Esther Perel who, against the absolutist moralism of those who insist on the priority of honesty even if it means wrecking a family, advises NOT confessing an affair, especially a brief, insignificant one in the past. 

The Big Sick: Emily's father is trying to have an awkward conversation about 9/11 in the hospital cafeteria

Perhaps it’s just my age showing — I find long-lasting relationship more interesting than “young love.” And, again perhaps for personal reasons, I find the immigrant drama of love-hate relationship with a complex new culture more interesting than the young couple’s shared interest in horror movies. That’s also why Kumail, who didn’t leave Pakistan until he was 19 — and in a sense never quite left it, even though he is the most Americanized member of his family — is vastly more interesting than Emily.

Anthony Lane, who reviews The Big Sick for the New Yorker, ends his piece with this paragraph:

What stays with me most . . . is the roster of young Muslim women who are invited to Kumail’s family’s house, by his mother, as prospective wives. One of them, Khadija (Vella Lovell), who seems funny and perfect, pauses on the sidewalk and tell him, in a tired voice, that she just wants to be in a relationship and to relax at last. She, too, is an American, and it’s her story, as much as Emily’s, that I want to hear.”

Personally, I wanted to hear Khadija’s story a lot more than Emily’s. 


Still, it’s a safe bet to say that practically everyone will enjoy “The Big Sick.” Rare these days, ultimately it’s a movie permeated with love — above all, the see the parents’ love for an adult child, one who’s no longer a cuddly little creature but a complicated and flawed being.  We see the sacrifices made for the sake of love. We see love win. And none of this smarmy or cliché-ridden. It’s difficult, flawed love — but it’s still a movie about love. This is such an opposite of the great majority of movies, permeated as they are with hatred and aggression.

 The Big Sick: Kumail's traditional but ultimately lovable parents

Gore Vidal quipped, “If instead of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims, this would be a better country.” For better and for worse, the Puritan imprint is still strong.

~ “According to several studies, we are the most individualistic people in the world; this may be a remnant of the Protestant rejection of church hierarchy and emphasis on a personal relationship with God.

We’re also highly meritocratic, a possible reflection of the Protestant work ethic. Compared to other countries, the U.S. has consistently been late to introduce public welfare programs such as nationalized health care. We choose equality of opportunity over equality of outcome—even though opportunities aren’t always equal.

Some scholars have seen a moral absolutism in American affairs — suggested by our huge prison population and our denigration of other nations as “evil” — and laid it at the feet of Puritanism.

 But the Puritans can’t be blamed for everything. We might also see the fingerprints of the Victorians on our prudishness and social Darwinists on our meritocracy.

In any case, as the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the 1830’s after coming to the U.S., “I think I can see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores.” ~

Puritans, Westminster Assembly; (1643-49) John Rogers Herbert

~ “At the nation’s first official Independence Day celebration, there were no fireworks, no sparklers, and no rowdy parties. The parade was solemn, with reverent music and the call-and-response singing of two choirs. Songs were sung in German.

Those marking the nation’s hard-won independence at that first celebration had not participated in the long and bloody war, and they were not celebrating the newly free nation’s victory over the British oppressors at Yorktown. They were thanking God for peace.

That subdued celebration was on July 4, 1783, in the Moravian village of Salem, now part of the hyphenated city of Winston-Salem in Piedmont North Carolina. On January 20 of that year, a preliminary peace agreement in Paris had signaled the end of the Revolutionary War, even though the Treaty of Paris would not be signed until September.

Ecstatic over both victory and peace, Alexander Martin, the governor of the new state of North Carolina, proclaimed July 4 a day of public thanksgiving. The governor’s order was not widely heeded. Some of the more backwoods areas of the state didn’t even hear about it until the designated date had passed. But Governor Martin, on his way to somewhere else, stopped in the thriving settlement of Salem on June 30 and mentioned the proclamation.

Despite the short notice, Salem and the other Moravian villages that made up the Wachovia settlement scrambled to put together suitable observances. All the villages celebrated at least a little, by ringing bells or attending church. But the grandest, most extensive celebration was at the settlement’s main town, Salem. That, plus the Moravian fondness for documenting everything, gives Salem its claim to the first-ever Fourth of July celebration.

A little more than a decade later, Moravians bought land in the North Carolina hills and began the Wachovia settlement. Salem was established as its center in 1766, with five outlying congregations. The Moravians were an industrious, inventive, highly organized, devout people who valued education for all. Their way of life can be observed today at a living museum.

They also had a strong pacifist tradition, dating to their founding amid the religious struggles of the 15th century as a “peace church.” Members were forbidden to serve in the military. They lived by the teachings in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

It’s little wonder that by 1783, the Moravians in Salem were thrilled that the battles were over. During the Revolution, both British and rebels harassed them, collected fines, and even attacked them physically. Some young men hid in the forest to escape being pressed into service. A few did join with the rebels; the church forgave them later.

The 1783 Independence Day celebration, as documented in the Salem Diary, started with trombone music, of which Moravians were fond. At 2 p.m., there was a Love Feast, a Moravian tradition that is more a celebration of community than a sacrament. People gathered in the church for a service that included a simple meal (usually coffee heavy with cream and sugar, plus a sweet bun).

As Moravians have long made music central to their worship, the service also included the singing of a “Psalm of Joy.” That gives the Moravians at Salem some claim to having come up with the first patriotic song celebrating the nation’s freedom. (This was years before Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”) Johann Friedrich Peter, who was the chief scribe and keeper of the Salem Diary, also served as composer-on-call, whipping something up whenever the occasion called for a new hymn or a celebratory opus. Some accounts say he wrote the cantata “Psalm of Joy” for the occasion, but Richard Starbuck, assistant archivist at the Moravian Archives in Winston-Salem, said that the composition wasn’t entirely new. Pressed for time, Peter adapted a piece he’d written celebrating the end of the Seven Years War.

The cantata, often described as “challenging,” was sung entirely in German.

The Moravian pacifist motto 

Garibaldi was born on the Fourth of July!

Oriana: That was the biggest part of my doubt once it arose . . . It was very hard to overcome the ever-growing suspicion that all gods were human creations. I didn't know about Garibaldi's position. My guess would have been that, like other nationalist leaders, he used religion to increase the zeal to kill the enemy. This is a sweet surprise.

The post below adds credence to the statement that facts rarely change people’s beliefs.


~ “One of the greatest religious movements of the 19th century began in the bedroom of two young girls living in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York. On a late March day in 1848, Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, 14, and Kate, her 11-year-old sister, waylaid a neighbor, eager to share an odd and frightening phenomenon. Every night around bedtime, they said, they heard a series of raps on the walls and furniture—raps that seemed to manifest with a peculiar, otherworldly intelligence. The neighbor, skeptical, came to see for herself, joining the girls in the small chamber they shared with their parents. While Maggie and Kate huddled together on their bed, their mother, Margaret, began the demonstration.

“Now count five,” she ordered, and the room shook with the sound of five heavy thuds.

“Count fifteen,” she commanded, and the mysterious presence obeyed. Next, she asked it to tell the neighbor’s age; thirty-three distinct raps followed.

“If you are an injured spirit,” she continued, “manifest it by three raps.”

And it did.

Margaret Fox did not seem to consider the date, March 31—April Fool’s Eve—and the possibility that her daughters were frightened not by an unseen presence but by the expected success of their prank.

The Fox family deserted the house and sent Maggie and Kate to live with their older sister, Leah Fox Fish, in Rochester. The story might have died there were it not for the fact that Rochester was a hotbed for reform and religious activity; the same vicinity, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, gave birth to both Mormonism and Millerism, the precursor to Seventh Day Adventism. Community leaders Isaac and Amy Post were intrigued by the Fox sisters’ story, and by the subsequent rumor that the spirit likely belonged to a peddler who had been murdered in the farmhouse five years beforehand. A group of Rochester residents examined the cellar of the Fox’s home, uncovering strands of hair and what appeared to be bone fragments.

The Posts rented the largest hall in Rochester, and four hundred people came to hear the mysterious noises. Afterward Amy Post accompanied the sisters to a private chamber, where they disrobed and were examined by a committee of skeptics, who found no evidence of a hoax.

The idea that one could communicate with spirits was hardly new—the Bible contains hundreds of references to angels administering to man—but the movement known as Modern Spiritualism sprang from several distinct revolutionary philosophies and characters. The ideas and practices of Franz Anton Mesmer, an 18th-century Australian healer, had spread to the United States and by the 1840s held the country in thrall. Mesmer proposed that everything in the universe, including the human body, was governed by a “magnetic fluid” that could become imbalanced, causing illness. By waving his hands over a patient’s body, he induced a “mesmerized” hypnotic state that allowed him to manipulate the magnetic force and restore health. Amateur mesmerists became a popular attraction at parties and in parlors, a few proving skillful enough to attract paying customers. Some who awakened from a mesmeric trance claimed to have experienced visions of spirits from another dimension.

At the same time the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish philosopher and mystic, also surged in popularity. Swedenborg described an afterlife consisting of three heavens, three hells and an interim destination—the world of the spirits—where everyone went immediately upon dying, and which was more or less similar to what they were accustomed to on earth. Self love drove one toward the varying degrees of hell; love for others elevated one to the heavens. “The Lord casts no one into hell,” he wrote, “but those who are there have deliberately cast themselves into it, and keep themselves there.” He claimed to have seen and talked with spirits on all of the planes.

Seventy-five years later, the 19th-century American seer Andrew Jackson Davis, who would become known as the “John the Baptist of Modern Spiritualism,” combined these two ideologies, claiming that Swedenborg’s spirit spoke to him during a series of mesmeric trances. Davis recorded the content of these messages and in 1847 published them in a voluminous tome titled The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind. “It is a truth,” he asserted, predicting the rise of Spiritualism, “that spirits commune with one another while one is in the body and the other in the higher spheres…all the world will hail with delight the ushering in of that era when the interiors of men will be opened, and the spiritual communication will be established.” Davis believed his prediction materialized a year later, on the very day the Fox sisters first channeled spirits in their bedroom. “About daylight this morning,” he confided to his diary, “a warm breathing passed over my face and I heard a voice, tender and strong, saying ‘Brother, the good work has begun—behold, a living demonstration is born.’”

Upon hearing of the Rochester incident, Davis invited the Fox sisters to his home in New York City to witness their medium capabilities for himself. Joining his cause with the sisters’ ghostly manifestations elevated his stature from obscure prophet to recognized leader of a mass movement, one that appealed to increasing numbers of Americans inclined to reject the gloomy Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and embrace the reform-minded optimism of the mid-19th century. Unlike their Christian contemporaries, Americans who adopted Spiritualism believed they had a hand in their own salvation, and direct communication with those who had passed offered insight into the ultimate fate of their own souls.

Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox embarked on a professional tour to spread word of the spirits, booking a suite, fittingly, at Barnum’s Hotel on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane, an establishment owned by a cousin of the famed showman. An editorial in the Scientific American scoffed at their arrival, calling the girls the “Spiritual Knockers from Rochester.” They conducted their sessions in the hotel’s parlor, inviting as many as thirty attendees to gather around a large table at the hours of 10 a.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., taking an occasional private meeting in between. Admission was one dollar, and visitors included preeminent members of New York Society: Horace Greeley, the iconoclastic and influential editor of the New York Tribune; James Fenimore Cooper; editor and poet William Cullen Bryant, and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who witnessed a session in which the spirits rapped in time to a popular song and spelled out a message: “Spiritualism will work miracles in the cause of reform.”

Leah stayed in New York, entertaining callers in a séance room, while Kate and Maggie took the show to other cities, among them Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, where one visitor, explorer Elisha Kent Kane, succumbed to Maggie’s charms even as he deemed her a fraud—although he couldn’t prove how the sounds were made. “After a whole month’s trial I could make nothing of them,” he confessed. “Therefore they are a great mystery.” He courted Maggie, thirteen years his junior, and encouraged her to give up her “life of dreary sameness and suspected deceit.” She acquiesced, retiring to attend school at Kane’s behest and expense, and married him shortly before his untimely death in 1857. To honor his memory she converted to Catholicism, as Kane—a Presbyterian—had always encouraged. (He seemed to think the faith’s ornate iconography and sense of mystery would appeal to her.) In mourning, she began drinking heavily and vowed to keep her promise to Kane to “wholly and forever abandon Spiritualism.”

Kate married a devout Spiritualist and continued to develop her medium powers, translating spirit messages in astonishing and unprecedented ways: communicating two messages simultaneously, writing one while speaking the other; transcribing messages in reverse script; utilizing blank cards upon which words seemed to spontaneously appear. During sessions with a wealthy banker, Charles Livermore, she summoned both the man’s deceased wife and the ghost of Benjamin Franklin, who announced his identity by writing his name on a card.

Her business boomed during and after the Civil War, as increasing numbers of the bereaved found solace in Spiritualism. Prominent Spiritualist Emma Hardinge wrote that the war added two million new believers to the movement, and by the 1880s there were an estimated eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe. These new practitioners, seduced by the flamboyance of the Gilded Age, expected miracles—like Kate’s summoning of full-fledged apparitions—at every séance. It was wearying, both to the movement and to Kate herself, and she, [like Leah] began to drink.

On October 21, 1888, the New York World published an interview with Maggie Fox in anticipation of her appearance that evening at the New York Academy of Music, where she would publicly denounce Spiritualism.

“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began,” Maggie said. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound.” The sisters graduated from apple dropping to manipulating their knuckles, joints and toes to make rapping sounds. “A great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them,” she explained. “It is a very common delusion. Some very wealthy people came to see me some years ago when I lived in Forty-second Street and I did some rappings for them. I made the spirit rap on the chair and one of the ladies cried out: ‘I feel the spirit tapping me on the shoulder.’ Of course that was pure imagination.”

She offered a demonstration, removing her shoe and placing her right foot upon a wooden stool. The room fell silent and still, and was rewarded with a number of short little raps. “There stood a black-robed, sharp-faced widow,” the New York Herald reported, “working her big toe and solemnly declaring that it was in this way she created the excitement that has driven so many persons to suicide or insanity. One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.” Maggie insisted that her sister Leah knew that the rappings were fake all along and greedily exploited her younger sisters. Before exiting the stage she thanked God that she was able to expose Spiritualism.

The mainstream press called the incident “a death blow” to the movement, and Spiritualists quickly took sides. Shortly after Maggie’s confession the spirit of Samuel B. Brittan, former publisher of the Spiritual Telegraph, appeared during a séance to offer a sympathetic opinion. Although Maggie was an authentic medium, he acknowledged, “the band of spirits attending during the early part of her career” had been usurped by “other unseen intelligences, who are not scrupulous in their dealings with humanity.” Other (living) Spiritualists charged that Maggie’s change of heart was wholly mercenary; since she had failed to make a living as a medium, she sought to profit by becoming one of Spiritualism’s fiercest critics.

Whatever her motive, Maggie recanted her confession one year later, insisting that her spirit guides had beseeched her to do so. Her reversal prompted more disgust from devoted Spiritualists, many of whom failed to recognize her at a subsequent debate at the Manhattan Liberal Club. There, under the pseudonym Mrs. Spencer, Maggie revealed several tricks of the profession, including the way mediums wrote messages on blank slates by using their teeth or feet. [from Wiki: Doctors from the audience came on stage to verify that the cracking of her toe joints was the source of the sound.]

She never reconciled with sister Leah, who died in 1890. Kate died two years later while on a drinking spree. Maggie passed away eight months later, in March 1893. That year Spiritualists formed the National Spiritualist Association, which today is known as the National Spiritualist Association of Churches.

from Wiki:

~ “In 1888, Margaret and Kate confessed that their rappings had been a hoax and publicly demonstrated their method. Pressured by the Spiritualist movement and her own dire financial circumstances, Margaret attempted to recant her confession the next year, but their reputation was ruined and in less than five years they were all dead, with Margaret and Kate dying in abject poverty [and were buried in pauper's graves]. Spiritualism continued as if the confessions of the Fox sisters had never happened. C. E. M. Hansel notes that "remarkably, the Fox sisters are still discussed in the parapsychological literature without mention of their trickery.” ~

~ “In 1904, the body associated with the peddler spirit was supposedly found in the cellar when a false wall fell down. The Boston Journal published a story about the discovery on November 22, 1904. The tin box of the peddler was found in the cellar and is now in the Lily Dale Museum. Skeptical researcher Joe Nickell concluded after researching the box and the primary sources of the bones that they constituted further hoaxing. The bones were, at least in part, those of animals. There has been no confirmation that the peddler existed. Also, the alleged false wall appears to be due to an expansion of the foundation, not concealment of a secret grave.” ~

The Fox sisters


Such scandals (many other mediums also got exposed as frauds, especially by the famous Harry Houdini, who made it a side specialty of his to reveal their tricks of trade) did hardly any damage to the spiritualist movement. At this point it comes to me as no surprise. People need to believe is on the whole greater than their drive to know the truth. The “us/them” divide is also involved here — the medium knows how to become “us” with all her clients. Thus, “all is forgiven.”

Also, people simply tend to dismiss any evidence that doesn’t support their beliefs, and seek out evidence that supports those beliefs. This is the notorious CONFIRMATION BIAS. Let’s not flatter ourselves: we are not “open-minded.” It takes an awful lot of reality hitting us on the head before we’re willing to admit that things are not as we’d like them to be.

And in some cases the resistance to evidence appears to be total.

Photo: Oliver Sacks

“Watching gangster films, I realize it’s easy to empathize with anyone you get to know, and not the many strangers you don’t.” ~ Jeremy Sherman
That’s one of the lessons of The Godfather, isn’t it? We get so attached to these guys  that we forget these are not exactly good men . . .  Just because we get to know them — just because we watch one of them toss slivers of garlic into hot olive oil, or learn they have names like Luca (“Luca sleeps with the fishes” is the meaning of the two fish delivered to the Corleone family) — they become at least somewhat part of “us,” and thus we are willing to forgive them. 



In his “Letters on Cézanne,” written to his wife Clara in 1907, Rilke writes, “I know a few things from [Cézanne’s] last years when he was old and shabby and children followed him every day on his way to his studio, throwing stones at him as if at a stray dog.” Rilke takes it for granted that children throw stones at stray dogs, and doesn’t seem surprised that they’d throw stones at the great painter when he was “old and shabby.” (In Arles, children and teens weren’t kind to Van Gogh either.)

I remember that in one of Hardy’s novels an adult throws stones at a stray dog. It was customary, and probably no one thought it cruel. The hungry dog needed to be chased away.

Given the shootings and bombings, it may seem frivolous of me to be saying Look! We no longer throw stones at a stray dog! Or at least it’s not customary! It would be seen as cruel!

But not so long ago, it wasn’t seen as cruel. And throwing stones at someone old and shabby — I guess that was only natural. And we aren’t talking about very long time ago . . .

I realize that there are still instances of cruelty to animals, the aged, and the homeless, but I don’t think anyone would mention it calmly, in passing. Even without Pinker’s statistics (“The Better Angels of Our Nature”), I’ve witnessed a diminishment of cruelty and violence over the decades. What saddens me is how much it persists in the movies and on TV, how often the characters use both physical and verbal aggression. And yet, in spite of this, a certain softening, mellowing, nuancing seems to be in progress.

According to Pinker, this started in the late 17th-early 18th century. He calls it the HUMANITARIAN REVOLUTION. Torture, slavery, child abuse, and cruel punishment used to be taken for granted. Now voices rose against those practices, as well as against despotism and wars of aggression. More and more people feel nothing short of revulsion when they see brutality — including cruelty to animals. Still a long way to go, but there is reason to celebrate the progress we have made.


~ “Two thousand years ago, Roman builders constructed vast sea walls and harbor piers. The concrete they used outlasted the empire — and still holds lessons for modern engineers, scientists say.

A bunch of half-sunken structures off the Italian coast might sound less impressive than a gladiatorial colosseum. But underwater, the marvel is in the material. The harbor concrete, a mixture of volcanic ash and quicklime, has withstood the sea for two millennia and counting. What's more, it is stronger than when it was first mixed.
The Roman stuff is “an extraordinarily rich material in terms of scientific possibility,” said Philip Brune, a research scientist at DuPont Pioneer who has studied the engineering properties of Roman monuments. “It's the most durable building material in human history, and I say that as an engineer not prone to hyperbole.”

By contrast, modern concrete exposed to saltwater corrodes within decades.
The mystery has been why the ancient material endured. “Archaeologists will say they have the recipe,” said Marie Jackson, an expert in ancient Roman concrete at the University of Utah. (Pliny the Elder once wrote an ode to concrete “that as soon as it comes into contact with the waves of the sea and is submerged becomes a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves.") But it's not the complete picture: It's one thing to assemble the ingredients, another to know how to bake the cake.

To that end, Jackson and her colleagues peered into the microscopic structures of concrete samples, extracted from the sea walls and piers as part of a project called the Roman Maritime Concrete Study. “This rocklike concrete is behaving, in many ways, like volcanic deposits in submarine environments,” Jackson said.

Where modern concrete is designed to ignore the environment, Roman concrete embraces it. As the scientists report in a study published Monday in the journal American Mineralogist, Roman concrete is filled with tiny growing crystals. The crystals, like tiny armor plates, may keep the concrete from fracturing.

The scientists subjected the concrete samples to a battery of advanced imaging techniques and spectroscopic tests. The tests revealed a rare chemical reaction, with aluminous tobermorite crystals growing out of another mineral called phillipsite. Brune, who was not involved with the study, called the work a “significant accomplishment.” He likened it to the scientists biting into a cake of mysterious flavor and determining that the baker used organically sourced dark chocolate.

In this instance, the key ingredient proved to be seawater. As seawater percolated within the tiny cracks in the Roman concrete, Jackson said, it reacted with the phillipsite naturally found in the volcanic rock and created the tobermorite crystals.

“Aluminous tobermorite is very difficult to produce,” she said, and requires very high temperatures to synthesize small amounts. Cribbing from the ancient Romans might lead to better production of tobermorite, which is prized for its industrial applications, she noted.

The Romans mined a specific type of volcanic ash from a quarry in Italy. Jackson is attempting to recreate this durable concrete using San Francisco seawater and more abundant volcanic rocks. She has several samples sitting in ovens and jars in her lab, which she will test for evidence of similar chemical reactions.

If her effort is successful, the concrete could yet have a role to play in human history — “if one was indeed interested in making sea walls” and “forced to protect shoreline environments,” Jackson said. (In one 2014 study, a team of European climate scientists predicted that, if the next 90 years follow the trend of the past 30, the cost of constructing barriers to hold back the sea might rise to as high as $71 billion per year. The alternative, coastal flooding, could do trillions of dollars in damage annually.)

Modern sea walls require steel reinforcements; a future in which “large relic walls of twisted steel” dot the coast would be “very troubling,” Jackson said. The Romans didn't use steel. Their reactive concrete was strong enough on its own.

“It's not just a historical curiosity,” Brune said. “It may yet have a part to play.” ~

Ancient Roman concrete, Portus Cosanus, Tuscany

from another source:

Roman concrete is known to have included lime (CaO) volcanic ash, and seawater. Replicating the formula sufficiently precisely that engineers will feel comfortable using it for structures that must last decades has proved challenging, however. Since their chemistry was rudimentary, it is thought the Romans stumbled on the formula by watching volcanic ash turn to stone on exposure to seawater. Tragically, however, the details were lost sometime after Rome fell to less technologically attuned invaders. Work like Jackson's to identify the contents could help us reverse engineer it.

Modern concrete, including the vital ingredient Portland cement, is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses, accounting for around 5 percent of human-induced emissions. If that doesn't sound like much, consider the vast and increasingly successful efforts to replace larger sources with clean technologies. Yet a world run on renewable energy and electric cars could still be brought undone if our ever-growing thirst for carbon-emitting concrete eats up our remaining carbon budget.

A third of concrete's damage is done by the heat needed to fire the kilns in which the cement is made, while half comes from carbon dioxide released when limestone (CaCO3) is heated. The Roman process reacted the lime with carbon dioxide in seawater, actually reducing its concentration.

~ The Romans were aware of the virtues of their concrete, with Pliny the Elder waxing lyrical in his Natural History that it is “impregnable to the waves and every day stronger”. ~


After realizing that the Judeo-Christian god, like all the other gods, had been invented by humans and did not exist outside of the believers’ minds, I had no trouble seeing it all as mythology — both the stories of the Old Testament and events like the Virgin Birth and Resurrection. It was only natural to conclude the virgin birth was absurd, the resurrection never happened, and Jesus is never coming back.

Likewise, it was terribly unlikely that a Jew would tell anyone to drink his blood, given the huge taboo . . . so the Last Supper with its symbolic cannibalism never happened. It seemed to echo Dionysian mysteries and was probably meant to appeal to those familiar with the Greco-Roman mythology (one of the great ironies in the history of religion is that Christianity became the religion of the Gentiles, not the reformed Judaism of the Jews who were the intended original audience). Nor did Jesus die for anyone's sins like a sacrificial animal. That was just disgusting, archaic on the face of it.

When it comes to those big inventions, my attitude was soon, “How could I have ever believed this shit?” And I have to remind myself that it’s easy to brainwash a child, with her immature brain. You just repeat certain things, no matter how impossible they sound.

The shock was the small things. Scholars like Bart Ehrman publicized the historical findings that there was no census requiring anyone to go to the town of one’s birth (a bizarre idea; that’s not how census is done), no slaughter of the innocents, no flight into Egypt, no reading of a non-actual (conflated) passage of scripture at the synagogue in Nazareth (there was no synagogue in Nazareth, which wasn’t a functional town in the first century). Nazareth may have been a Greek mistranslation of Nazarene, which referred to men so consecrated to piety that they were not allowed to cut their hair. Oddly enough, it’s those relatively minor confabulations that shocked me at first — not the “big stuff.”

No resurrection, no second coming — that was easy. But — the slaughter of the innocents never happened? — I was in a state of shock for hours. What a web of lies had to be invented.

Bart Ehrman also made sense of the apocalyptic preaching, gradually de-emphasized in the later gospels — there were many apocalyptic preachers during that era. Ehrman assumes that there was a historical Jesus and he was one of those end-of-the-world nuts, common after the Roman conquest of Judea — in a way it made sense that it would take divine intervention for the Romans to be defeated and Jerusalem to be restored to its proper place as the center of the world.

(If there was a historical Jesus, he meant the end days literally, clouds of glory and all. Later I was able to see this metaphorically, as applying to the last decades of a human life — there just isn’t time for a lot of things that may have been fine in youth.)

Slaughter of the Innocents; Domenico Ghirlandaio

ending on beauty: 

Press close bare-bosom’d night—press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds—night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night—mad naked summer night.

~ Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 21

Andrew Wyeth, Night Sleeper, 1979

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