Saturday, September 2, 2017


Max Beckmann: Odysseus and Calypso

If you knew how much suffering awaits you,
you would stay with me and be deathless,

croons Calypso of the Tidy Braids —

but bronze-armed Odysseus 
only broods on the beach.
His gaze caresses the watery horizon.

He wants his own life, its breakable glory. 

He wants his own life, its breakable glory. 
He wants to be Odysseus. We praise the man 
who chose not to be a god. 

Yet I wonder: would I choose
a life rich with the journey, yet doomed 
to lap at the shore of less and less? 

I could sail an infinity of sunsets 

even shipwrecked in Barstow, California, 

in a tract named Desert Meadows, 

married beyond return 

to a gun collector, TV on loud,
scrawny palm trees rasping in dry wind —

My morning walk, the hills carved in crystal. 

Petting the neighbors’ dogs and cats;
returning home to read about Odysseus.

I’d build a monument of pebbles
to the pebbles in Barstow, California.
Memorialize a dung beetle’s march. 

Every cloudlet with its knife-blade shadow.
Every fissure in the sun-struck ground.
Trace the faces of the dead in the dust—

silent dead who sing the siren
song of joy of mere existence. Even in
Barstow, caressed by the moonlight.

~ Oriana

Breughel the Elder: The Cave of Calypso 

I wish I had marked the moment in my life when the figure of Odysseus the Survivor, dressed in rags, disguised as a beggar, became more compelling to me that the figure of Christ. Of course we are rarely aware of such moments when they happen; it’s twenty years later that we say Yes. Yes. Of course. That’s when the Greek love of life and of the human prevailed over the otherworldliness of Christianity.

True, because of the childhood indoctrination and the massive repetition the figure of Christ can never quite lose its potent psychic grip. But the perspective changes. Jesus who said that if you but look at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery became an oppressive spokesman for Thoughtcrime. Jesus being nailed to the cross and the like S&M images stood for the barbarous idea of collective guilt and substitutional human sacrifice.

A station of the cross at Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe, NM; photo: Charles Sherman

Odysseus of Many Turns, never at a loss for words or wiles, Odysseus the supreme liar (or call him a born writer), is flawed and yes, barbarous. He too lives in a world filled with magic and the supernatural, an archaic honor culture with its unquestioned cruelty. Yet he was a man who cried many times, many times; a man who tried to embrace the shadow of his dead mother only to watch her slip through his arms like mist.

But it’s the scene when Odysseus rejects the offer of immortality that’s the most startling in the entire epic. I wrote about it in my poem, Archaic Penelope (“It’s my waiting that creates you”)

Here’s a seaweed-dripping cave
and a sea-nymph’s bribe:
immortality, but nothing else
will ever happen in your life —

and you pick mortality,
that beautiful blood flower;
scorn a sunny-smiled forever,
choose the storm.


As further commentary, let me quote from the New Yorker review of Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom:

~ “Carrère writes about the episode in the Odyssey when Odysseus has to decide between staying on Calypso’s paradisal island (where he has spent seven years) or returning home to Ithaca. Calypso’s charms are intense: she offers eternal pleasures, and she reminds our hero that Penelope, his wife back home, cannot possibly rival the beauty of an immortal goddess. Odysseus concedes as much, but still chooses to go home; he chooses the mortal and the mutable over the deathless and the eternal. Carrère reminds us that this decision is often seen as the pinnacle of ancient wisdom: ‘The life of a man is better than that of a god, for the simple reason that it’s real. Authentic suffering is better than deceptive bliss. Eternity is not desirable because it’s not part of our common lot.’

Against this, there is the radical eschatological mysticism of Jesus and, especially, of Paul, who “says that the only thing to expect from this life is to be delivered from it, and to go where Christ reigns.” There is “an unsolvable difference,” Carrère says, between Paul’s ideal and that of Odysseus. “Each of us calls the only true good what the other condemns as baneful illusion. Odysseus says that wisdom always consists in turning your attention to the human condition and life on earth, Paul says it consists in tearing yourself away. Odysseus says that, regardless of how beautiful it is, paradise is a fiction, and Paul says that’s the only reality. Paul, carried away, goes as far as congratulating God for having chose what is not to invalidate what is.”

These are eloquent words,but for most of us this is no choice at all — because we were never in a position to choose, and because, anyway, we don’t accept the alternatives. Of course, eternal life does not exist; we do not choose, because we haplessly inhabit what is over what is not. But for Carrère, the difference is “unsolvable.” ~

~ “Jesus was an event within Judaism; it was not especially scandalous that a young Jewish radical went about proclaiming himself the Messiah, ambiguously calling himself “the son of Man,” and quarreling with the rabbis about aspects of the law. But it was another thing entirely to claim — as Paul did — that Jesus came to earth to wash away the original sin contracted by humans in Eden; that this Jesus was crucified by the Romans, was buried, and rose from the dead; and that he would soon come again, in a rescue mission that would usher in a new eternal kingdom.

In place of the intimate, familial struggle of the Jews and their God, Paul invokes a strict theology or sin and salvation. Kieerkegaard, at this most Protestant-masochistic, says that Christianity’s singularity lies in its understanding of sin; if that’s true, it was Paul’s singularity rather than Jesus’. The new theology transfers Judaism’s healthy involvement in this life onto a palpitating anticipation of the next; the present becomes eternity’s duller portal.

St. Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna (1450-1523)

Besides, the Christian heaven, being non-sensual, seems vague and vapid. Even hell — or a certain kind of hell — can have more appeal:

~ “Under the skies, on the roads, in the towns, in the woods, in the hills, in the plains, by the shores, on the seas, behind my mannikins, I was not always sad, I wasted time, abjured my rights, suffered for nothing, forgot my lesson. Then a little hell after my own heart, not too cruel, with a few nice damned to foist my groans on, something sighing off and on and the distant gleams of pity’s fires biding their hour to promote us to ashes.” ~ Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

Of course it’s the marvelously sensuous and musical language that makes such a passage bearable and even pleasing. When the writing is artistic enough, the nihilism doesn’t depress us.

But there is no mention of any artistic pleasures in heaven. No food, no sex, no art . . . well, maybe some singing and harp-playing. Would that be enough? Probably not, because what we intensely need is variety, meaning change. Just the everlasting daylight would drive us insane.

Well, no need to probe this non-choice any further. But the review contains also this interesting passage:

~ “I find Carrère’s ambivalence moving because I spent much of my childhood in Durham, around and inside its great Romanesque cathedral. When I realized, in my teens, that I did not believe in God, I had to wrestle with an unhappy idea: that this great building, which for centuries had housed generations of believers, was a monument to an error.

Could that be so? Could one say that a cathedral is a mistake, exactly? One shouldn’t, and yet the world views and beliefs of the faithful twelfth-century masons who cut and laid those stones are, when compared with mine, as distinctly magical as Harry Potter’s. (The first two “Harry Potter” movies used Durham Cathedral as a location.)

~ “The second great scandal of Christianity is the radical challenge it poses to conventional morality. In the tradition of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevski, Carrère emphasizes the punishing sacrifice of self that Jesus’ teaching enjoins. Classical and Jewish thinking had promoted the Golden Rule — Hillel said it was the essence of the Torah — but had never said, “Love your enemies.”

And not only love your enemies but also Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. This overriding command cannot be a worldly imperative; it is impossible. It is the shocking inversion of health that Nietzsche railed against, and perhaps the “hatred of humanity” with which Tacitus says Christians were charged. Everything natural and human is turned upside down. With only slight exaggeration, Carrère summarizes this outrageous benevolence:

Love your enemies, take joy in being unhappy, prefer being small to being big, poor to rich, sick to healthy. And whereas the Torah posits the elementary, evident, and verifiable truth that it’s not good for men to be alone, Jesus said: Don’t desire women, don’t take a wife; if you have one, keep her so as not to harm her, but it would be better if you didn’t have one. Don’t have children, either. Let them come to you, take inspiration from their innocence, but don’t have any. Love children in general, but not in particular, not like men have loved their children since time began: more than those of others, because they’re their own. And even — no, above all — don’t love yourselves. It’s human to want one’s own good: don’t.

You can feel both the attraction and the recoil in Carrère’s stridency. He fears what he deeply admires; he is repelled by an ideal he cannot quite dislodge.” ~

Simeon the Stylite, who stood on a column for 37 years; 6th century; Louvre


“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure,” Oliver Sacks wrote shortly before dying.

SOMETIMES THE TITLE DOES THE WORK (with one more statement about paradise)

Two titles went through me like lightning and prepared me for the big insight when I quit “doing depression” (once I understood my depression as a behavior, ending it became pretty inevitable). One was the title of a self-help book: EATING, DRINKING, OVERTHINKING. Simply putting overthinking in the addiction category did everything for me — I didn’t need the book, which turned out to be repetitious and mundane. But the title did the work.

The other was the title of a poem by Jack Gilbert: WE HAVE ALREADY LIVED IN THE REAL PARADISE. That instantly struck me as true. I didn’t expect any afterlife paradise, so there was no place to hide. I would have to make my own private paradise as best I could. You might say that title pushed me further on the way to acting like an adult rather than a sulking child.

So the encounter with these titles (sic! not the book, not the poem, but these two titles) was very important for the development of my philosophy of life. But the first important development was the encounter with Taoism and and the idea of letting go. Not that it was instant learning. I had to revisit the idea again and again, as well as experience the creative process many, many times over the years, before truly learning to trust the unconscious. 


Another hypocritical moral principle: be unattached to rewards, and you will be rewarded. ~ Jeremy Sherman

Ben Shahn Red Stairway, 1944



Studies show that experiencing awe, which is the feeling we get when we encounter something inspiring and transformational, like a stirring piece of artwork or the grandeur of nature, expands perception of time. In a series of experiments, psychologists found that prompting the experience of awe in the lab led participants to estimate that they had more free time available. Consequently, they were also less impatient, more satisfied with their lives, and even more willing to volunteer.

Unless we’re on vacation, few of us actively seek out experiences the promote awe on a regular basis. What this research suggests is that a monthly visit to the museum or the occasional nature hike can alter the way we perceive time while elevating the quality of our daily experiences.


The more decisions you choose to make, the less attentional resources you have for focusing on the present moment. What’s more, continuous decision-making is mentally draining, causes stress levels to spike, and ironically, leads to poorer-quality decisions over the long run.

If you’re prone to overanalyzing every minute decision, consider this: RESEARCH SHOWS THAT THE MORE OPTIONS YOU WEIGH, THE LESS SATISFIED YOU’LL FEEL ABOUT YOUR EVENTUAL CHOICE.

Taking the time to choose what not to decide can be a valuable investment, freeing up cognitive bandwidth and keeping you more in tune with the present. Barack Obama limited his suit collection to exactly two options—blue and gray—preserving attentional resources for more important matters. [Katherine Hepburn limited her wardrobe to white and black.]


By now, you’ve probably heard that multitasking diminishes rather than enhances your performance. Sure, simultaneously working on tasks feels more productive, but the attentional resources chewed up toggling back and forth leads to significantly poorer results.

Multitasking also comes with another cost—one that’s obvious when you consider the relationship between attention and time perception. It hinders the formation of new memories. By feeding our insatiable desire to get more done, we leave fewer resources available for consolidating new memories, prompting us to feel as if our lives are shrinking.


New adventures are more memorable, especially when they’re emotionally engaging. Making new friends, experimenting with novel hobbies, and taking on challenging projects at work require more from us cognitively and focus our attention on the present.

Going away on vacation can similarly provide a mental marker between life events, breaking up the routine of everyday life. It’s when every Wednesday night consists of going to yoga, ordering sushi and watching Modern Family that the weeks, months, and years begin to blur.


Studies show that people who feel “time-rich” tend to be happier and more fulfilled than those of us who constantly feel rushed. They experience fewer headaches and upset stomachs, and regularly get better quality sleep. And it’s not just people who are time-rich and financially successful. Studies show that time affluence is independent of income. Feeling less pressured promotes a happier existence, regardless of how much you earn.

And this is why there is value to slowing down our perception of time. The more we view time as plentiful, the better we are at savoring life’s essential moments as they unfold.” ~


The stress of having to make choices has long been my special interest. More options = more stress = less happiness. “Make fewer decisions” is the most interesting point here — and perhaps the most surprising to most. The notion that choice is stress is relatively new.

The finding about awe is also wonderful. Make time for feeling awe! Go to a museum, gaze at the ocean or a mountain panorama, re-read some masterpieces.

And it’s interesting how a piece of art that expresses sadness can also be uplifting — if it’s true art — just because it’s art, and thus an affirmation of human creativity.
Albert Gyorgy, Melancholy


On decisions and happiness — the artificial and forced proliferation of variety in every possible product is hugely annoying. Corporations present this as “filling unique needs and preferences” but it is actually the attempt to create “needs” and “preferences” — to construct desires so that they can sell more and more products.

Capitalism must grow or die; its drive is always toward continuous growth. When prison becomes an “industry” there will be more and more prisons, and more and more prisoners created to fill them. They demand more “criminals” and they will find them or make them. This has already happened. So with products of ANY type. In every supermarket (and they seem to get bigger and bigger) the long shelves are filled with dozens of brands of say, toothpaste. And within each brand there are dozens of varieties. Each purchase, of no matter how basic and simple an item requires a series of choices, of making decision after decision, taking up our time and mental space with clutter, distractions, and meaningless demands for attention and time. It can be overwhelming, and it steals time, uses it up, fills it with insignificance, eats it up.

How can you avoid these pressures and demands when they are so universal, so pervasive? When they leave no time for peaceful, lazy daydreams, for contemplation, for pursuing ideas, being in the kind of quiet that invites inspiration?

The whole process bullies us out of precious time, filling hours and days with nonsense, with decisions dictated not by our needs and desires, but those imposed by a greedy, demanding marketplace.

I think you can tell how very angry this makes me. People get angry at the brazen and inhumane manipulations of Big Pharma, but that’s just one example of the pervasive manipulation by all market sectors. These “choices” are not a gift, but a burden.


One of my early blogs, and still a personal favorite because of the humorous opening, is The Burden of Choice:

The article puts it very well: continuous decision-making is mentally draining, causes stress levels to spike, and ironically, leads to poorer-quality decisions over the long run. I'm completely with you: we shouldn’t have to review endless varieties of toothpaste, facial creams, toilet tissue, and other trivia. Older and wiser means, among other things, sticking to the tried-and-true and ignoring commercial propaganda.

I don’t mind wearing the same clothes over and over. Life is too short to be spending hours wondering what to wear. The light went on for me when I read that Katherine Hepburn wore only white blouses and black pants — she never had to wonder what to wear, and was always elegant too.

The crucial question is: Is this important? As we get older, there is literally no time for pondering minute differences between brands or shades of lipstick. And those manipulative names. Fuchsia dream or peony passion? It simply doesn’t matter.

And things get even more complicated when it comes to choosing what to read . . . so much clickbait and trivia out there. And even good stuff, but just too much of it. Every day I battle against letting myself be overwhelmed. Every day I learn, again and again, that “less is more.”

Georgia O'Keefe: Calla lily on gray



~ “Writer Don DeLillo once wrote that reading poetry makes us conscious of breathing.

I like that.

Sometimes when I'm reading a poem, I feel my breathing, and everything else stops. Poetry seems to slow down time then, seems to give me a chance to hover over a moment or a thought or a feeling, look at it so closely that it becomes a part of me.

The basic direction of a novel is forward. We read to read the next word.

The basic direction of a poem is inward, into the poem and into the self. This isn't to say there aren't novels that stop our lives like poems do. They are just harder to find, but when we find them they touch us the way the great poems do.” ~ John Guzlowski

O’Keeffe: Abstraction, White Rose, 1927

The effort we put into something increases its subjective value. You may think your kids are really wonderful (smart, great personalities, and oh so cute) by objective standards, but it’s really the huge amount of labor that you put into raising them that makes you value them so extravagantly. Likewise, when a new project is canceled by the company after the employees already put in considerable effort into it, surprisingly deep depression will follow — even though the employees get paid as usual. ~ Dan Ariely (paraphrase)

Titian: Sisyphus


~ “In narrating the history of the Romanovs, from the boy Michael’s reluctant crowning in 1613 to the boy Alexis’s bloody demise in 1918, Simon Sebag Montefiore has no shortage of material. Using imperial correspondence never available before, he gives us a portrait of royalty’s intimate life ranging from the pathological to the uplifting. Moment by moment, mortal danger, obsessive sex, and worries about children compete for a ruler’s attention. One tsar is blown to bits by a terrorist bomb, another tortures his son and heir to death, a third is overthrown by his son in a coup d’état, and a fourth is murdered by his wife. Pretenders—a false Simon, a false Peter, two false Dmitris—vie for the throne and meet gruesome deaths. Impalement through the rear end recurs. As one wit observed, it was either Rex or rectum. Of course, the only reason failed claimants were illegitimate is that those who succeeded were called tsars.

Consider Russia’s greatest tsar, Peter I. The common people regarded him as the antichrist and suspected he had hooves and a tail. Growing up, Peter hung out in the “German quarter,” the place assigned as a residence to foreign experts so they wouldn’t corrupt Russians with their Lutheran mores. There the royal youth drank, whored, learned Western ways of thinking, and started picking up low-born and foreign retainers. When he came to power, he organized them into his “All-Mad All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod,” which conducted elaborate parodies of church rituals. He made his old tutor “Patriarch Bacchus” and prescribed strict anti-ceremonies, invariably involving drunkenness, debauchery, and desecration. The mock-patriarch was attended by Archdeacons Thrust-the-Prick, Go-to-the-Prick, and Fuck-off. All this continued throughout his long reign (effectively 1689–1725). When the Synod wasn’t carousing, it ran the government.

When the young tsar decided he wanted to see the West, the Foreign Office announced that it would send “great ambassadors” to neighboring nations. It did not mention that Peter himself would go along incognito as the ordinary “Peter Mikhailov,” but it was impossible for anyone to miss a tsar who was six feet nine inches tall. And so Peter could get to know the ladies, whose whale-bone corsets he took for “devilish hard bones,” sample the dwarfs, and pick up manual trades. Fascinated by all things nautical, Peter loved the Netherlands—legend holds he once considered making Dutch the Russian national language—where he enrolled as “shipwright Mikhailov” in the Zaandam shipyard. As Montefiore remarks, “Holland formed his tastes, sartorial, architectural, and necrophilic.”

In England, he rented the house of the famous diarist John Evelyn, which the Drunken Synod utterly destroyed, using paintings for target practice, furniture for firewood, and curtains for toilet paper. Evelyn never could get compensation from the British government.

When Peter died, he left the throne to his queen, who became Catherine I. When he picked her up, she was Martha Scavronskaya, a nineteen-year-old daughter of a Lithuanian peasant and the widow of a Swedish soldier. Captured by the Russians, she was marched into camp naked but for a blanket and passed step by step up the ranks until she serviced Peter’s favorite, Prince Menshikov, who had once been a pie salesman and who now surrendered her to Peter. She was not the sort of monarch envisaged by Peter’s father, the pious Tsar Alexis.

When Peter’s ex-mistress Mary Hamilton, standing on the scaffold, spied the tsar, she expected to be pardoned at the last minute. Peter instead let the execution proceed, picked up the beautiful severed head, and took advantage of what we would call “a teachable moment.” Addressing the crowd, he delivered what Montefiore calls an anatomy lesson, “pointing out the sliced vertebrae, open windpipe and dripping arteries, before kissing the bloody lips and dropping the head.” Then he had the head embalmed and placed in his Cabinet of Curiosities. But Catherine, who understood Peter extremely well, kept her head, both literally and figuratively, and, true to his memory, resumed the royal debauchery even before official mourning for him was over.

There was Empress Anna, who arranged hair-pulling fights among crippled crones (they had to draw blood) and regarded dwarf tossing as a lot of fun. Empress Elizabeth took advantage of absolute power to become a fashion despot, prescribing in detail what everyone would wear. When she died there were fifteen thousand dresses in her wardrobe, not to mention several thousand pairs of shoes. Both empresses had endless lovers.

She had a friend, Countess Bruce, who gave prospective royal lovers a test run. Montefiore  claims that “far from being the nymphomaniac of legend, she [Catherine] was an obsessional serial monogamist,” only to tell us a few pages later that in addition to her long-term lover Potemkin she always had a succession of younger ones, which doesn’t sound like monogamy to me. One young lover “was resentful that her real relationship was with Potemkin.” “Real” is a relative term.

Today historians favor explanations that stress social or economic factors while disparaging narratives focusing on the personality of a ruler. After all, if something so chancy can matter, then how can we ever hope to achieve a social science? But the fact is that personalities do play an irreducible role, and Montefiore’s chronicle provides endless examples.

Both the domestic and foreign policy of Alexander I reflected his increasing tendency to mysticism. He was taken in by the charlatan Baroness de Krudener, who claimed in Biblical gobbledygook to have heard directly from God that Napoleon’s fall would be followed by the rule of an angelic monarch heralding the Second Coming. At the Congress of Vienna, the British Foreign Secretary Castlereagh, reacting to Alexander’s insistence on applying Christian principles to international relations, observed that “the emperor’s mind is not quite sound” and that, upon one occasion, “it was not without difficulty we went through the interview with becoming gravity.” The resulting treaty, he said, was “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.” (This is the same Castlereagh for whom Byron wrote a famous epitaph: “Posterity will ne’er survey/ A Nobler grave than this./ Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:/ Stop, traveler, and piss.”)

Montefiore’s picture of the Congress of Vienna differs from the one in my European history textbook: “In perhaps the most self-indulgent international junket of all history, a congress of two emperors, five kings, 209 reigning princes, about 20,000 officials from marshals and ministers to clerks and spies, and just about every gold-digger, mountebank, and prostitute in Europe, maybe 100,000 in all, bargained, blackmailed, and fornicated their way through banquets and balls, to reshape a continent after twenty years of war.” Alexander’s piety did not prevent him from saying to one Countess at a ball: “Your husband seems to have left you. It would be a great pleasure to occupy his place for a while”—to which she replied, “Does Your Majesty take me for a province?” And yet it was this conference, not the high-minded Versailles a century later, that produced a lasting peace. At least when compared to idealism, debauchery has its advantages.

Would the dynasty have fallen if Nicholas II had not been such a narrow-minded twit? In response to a suggestion that young Nicholas chair the trans-Siberian railway committee, his father Alexander III responded: surely you see “he is an absolute child. His opinions are absolutely childish. How could he preside over such a committee?” Nicholas played hide-and-seek into his twenties. Alexandra had, if anything, still less sense. The infamous Rasputin was only the last mystical swindler to dominate them, influence the appointment of ministers, and advise on policy. Before him was one Monsieur Philippe, a hierophant who had not even finished high school but whom Nicholas made a licensed doctor and court physician. He specialized in the power of psychic fluids and astral forces to heal sickness and cure female sterility. When Nicholas was preparing to meet the Kaiser, Alexandra advised him not to worry because “our Dear Friend [Monsieur Philippe] will be near you and help you answering . . . questions.”

Philippe advised an aggressive policy in the Far East, which coincided with the influence of another adventurer, Bezobrazov, who persuaded the tsar to help finance a paramilitary brigade. And so, the tsar’s chief minister Sergei Witte rued, “Russia had two contradictory foreign policies, the imperial and the Bezobrazovian.” The result of such governance was disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese war, which sparked a revolution that in 1905 almost toppled the throne.

Told that the army was unreliable and that he needed to regain the confidence of the people, the tsar replied: “Isn’t it rather for the people to regain my confidence?” Days, even hours, before Nicholas was forced to abdicate, he and Alexandra were insisting that the supposed danger was all an exaggeration. If Nicholas had listened to his two most talented ministers, Witte and Stolypin, or if he had more closely resembled his equally conservative but much more competent father Alexander III, the result might have been different.

However arbitrary its punishments, Russia had far fewer police than other European powers. Nikita Khrushchev recalled that he saw his first gendarme when he was twenty-four years old. Montefiore correctly observes that tsarist repression was mild compared to its Soviet successor. Between 1905 and 1910 terrorists killed as many as sixteen thousand officials. In Anna Geifman’s amazing book on Russian revolutionary terrorism, Thou Shalt Kill, we read of a small-town reporter who asks his editor if they should run the biography of the newly appointed police chief, only to be told, no, just save it for the obituary. And yet only three thousand terrorists were hanged. Many more were sent to Siberia, mostly in conditions so lenient that Stalin managed to escape a total of eight times, on foot, by train, and by reindeer.

One can only be amazed by the utter incompetence of tsarist police. The terrorists who stalked and killed Alexander II had come close several times, but security remained so lax that although the main entrance to the Palace was guarded, the tradesman’s door in the back was not. Over a period of months, a terrorist carpenter managed to smuggle in a little bit of nitroglycerine every day, until he had accumulated three hundred pounds. When people detected an odor, the tsar’s security police dismissed it as a gas leak. Even though a revolutionary had already been found carrying a map of the Winter Palace with the dining room plainly marked, the terrorists managed to blow up the dining room, killing twelve people and wounding sixty-nine others.

Incompetent tsars, especially the last, were an object lesson to their successors. No one had to teach Lenin that half-hearted tyranny doesn’t work, and Stalin made sure no one escaped from his Gulag. In a weird kind of succession, Nicholas II’s chef, one Spiridon Putin, became the grandfather of Russia’s “new tsar,” as his entourage often calls today’s ruler. Vladimir Putin knows his history. He faults predecessors not for tyranny, repression, or even misjudgment, but for unpardonable weakness. As Montefiore recounts the story, Putin once asked his courtiers “who were Russia’s greatest traitors?” and then answered the question himself: “The greatest criminals in our history were those weaklings who threw power on the floor—Nicholas II and Mikhail Gorbachev—who allowed power to be picked up by hysterics and madmen. I would never abdicate.” It doesn’t look like he will.

House where Nicolas II and family were executed; Pavel Ryzhenko: The Ipatiev house the morning after, 2004.


I’m pondering the statement: Christianity originated as a counter-dogma to Judaism. But within Christianity, Protestantism started as a counter-dogma to Catholicism's lack of sincerity and seriousness (back when indulgences were a big money-maker for the church). Protestantism wanted to be more severe, almost to go back to stern Judaism (that's why the emphasis on the Old Testament — which Catholics were forbidden to read, even after it was officially OK to read the New Testament).

After my exposure to hellfire catholicism, I found American catholicism (from a tourist point of view, so to speak) unbearably non-serious, with the whole congregation taking communion — as if they all believed themselves to be in the state of grace!! As if they never heard they were worthless!! Why, those sinners didn't seem to be aware they were sinners . . . which I thought was specifically American: it didn't dawn on them how bad they were.

Or if it did, it didn’t matter — they were going to heaven anyway because “Jesus loves me” — a very Protestant sentiment. The American Catholics didn’t know how Protestantized they were.

And what if a sign would appear over the altar: “Not everyone in this church is going to heaven”? Imagine the panic. Now that would be the Catholicism that I was forced to grow up with.

I'm sharing this as automatic emotional reactions I had, not to be confused with rational thinking. Btw, I was also very curious about Protestantism. I tried Lutherans and Presbyterians — now THAT wasn't even religion. I finally found something like religion in a Greek Orthodox church, quite lovely and satisfying if I happened to want a religion (note: it would have to be beautiful) — but I was already beyond a point of no return.

[These days, it could be argued that the Protestants no longer know what they are protesting. But I came across this statue of Luther unexpectedly playing the lute — and then noticed the plastic folding chair in the right corner. Now THAT is something that Luther would protest.]

Theism: NEVER AGAIN, much as I enjoy some of the great sacred art and music. But those can be enjoyed on an esthetic level, no belief necessary.

Hans Memling, Saint Ursula
St. Ursula (the name means “little she-bear”) was allegedly a martyr killed in Cologne along with a group of anonymous virgins. Like so many virgin saints, she appears to be fictional; in 1969 she was removed from the official calendar of the saints.

from Wiki: ~ “Her legend is that she was a princess who, at the request of her father King Dionotus of Dumnonia in south-west Britain, set sail to join her future husband, the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica, along with 11,000 virginal handmaidens. After a miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pan-European pilgrimage. She headed for Rome with her followers and persuaded the Pope, Cyriacus (unknown in the pontifical records, though from late 384 there was a Pope Siricius), and Sulpicius, bishop of Ravenna, to join them. After setting out for Cologne, which was being besieged by Huns, all the virgins were beheaded in a massacre. The Huns' leader fatally shot Ursula with a bow and arrow in about 383 (the date varies).” ~

“Eleven thousand” seems to have originated in a misreading of an early text. 


On your comments about American Catholicism — there is a lot to that observation. I was educated through high school by Catholic nuns, in grade school the Holy Ghost order, a German order, and in high school, by Ursulines, whose patron was that Ursula with the 11,000 virgins you mentioned. We had to know our catechism, but I never believed in either heaven or hell, eternal bliss or punishment. I never felt I was a sinner. When I encountered protestantism through Lutheran friends in high school, I was simply unimpressed. Too dull, too plain, too boring.

Of course I was exiled from religion class because I wouldn't pray, and was informed I was a danger to the innocent other girls, that no one wanted to let me “drag them down to hell with me!” This even though I didn't talk about my unbelief, and merely stood quiet during prayers.

But on the other hand there was much that was progressive about these Ursulines. They insisted on their mission to provide good education for women, refused to bow to limits imposed by the bishop, were the first to begin integration in their schools, years before it was the law, and were progressive in their curriculum, including courses in aviation. (One of the older nuns had been one of the earliest women pilots before she joined the convent.)

In high school my friends and I also learned some satiric songs about religion and the church, I have no idea how, and were comfortable enough to sing them for our favorite teachers. (Outside classroom hours!) One was I think from Woody Guthrie: “There’ll Be Pie in the Sky when You Die — That's a Lie!" The other I'll include for you here:

First you get down on your knees
Fiddle with your rosary beads
Bow your head with deep respect
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!!
Then get in line in that processional
Step into that small confessional
There the guy who’s got religion’ll
Tell you if your sin’s original
If it is, try playin’ it safer
Drink the wine and chew the wafer
Two, four, six, eight,
Time to transubstantiate!!

And our Favorite nun laughed. Later she left the convent.



You never believed in heaven or hell, never felt you were a sinner! I am so envious . . .

The effort to make us believe we were sinners was prodigious. Though the term “utter depravity” wasn’t used, it was pretty much that. That was the human nature. We all — young children included! — deserved to go to hell forever.

It was because of the Original Sin. Now, the sacrament of baptism was supposed to wash away the stain of the Original Sin, so what happened? Stain removal failed? That was one of the many questions I had, but I knew better than to ask. Now of course it’s easy to see that the church needed the stain to stay so it could convince you you were a sinner. Never mind logic, never mind contradictions.

All those imaginary problems, as if life weren’t hard enough . . . 

St. Ursula with Two Angels and a Donor; Benozzo Gozzoli, 1460. Note the inscription “Angelus” (angel) in each angel’s halo; I wonder why the painter (or maybe the donor) thought there was a need for the labeling. Like St. Catherine of Alexandria, also very popular in the past, St. Ursula was most likely fictional. But how can we resist those eleven thousand virgins . . . By the way, St. Ursula was the patron of school girls.

~ Lutherans who believed that God manifested himself in history not once, in the person of Christ, but repeatedly, were, as one critic put it, “Painfully exposed to the euphoria of the hour.” “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler,” said one. ~ (cited by Peter Watson, “Nazi Religions of the Blood”)

~ that puzzling confusion between Christ and anti-Christ. You’d think it would be easy to tell the difference. You’d think. But apparently it was all about the euphoria of making Germany great again, and the millennia-old capacity to divinize the ruler, the strongman.

Let's detox with this image of the Milky Way over Cape Hatteras Lighthouse


~ “Excess carbohydrates—not total and saturated fats—are more harmful for human longevity, according to a new diet study. These results contradict decades of health advice to reduce fat intake.

Researchers in the study, called PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology), recorded the food intake of over 135,000 people from 18 different countries, including high-, medium-, and low-income nations. They found that those who ate plenty of butter, cheese, and meats lived up to 23% longer lives than those who cut back on fats.

But carbs aren’t just starchy foods. Fruits and vegetables are, too, and when it came to those, more was always considered better. Yet the study found that eating three to four servings per day—as opposed to the daily recommended five servings—had the greatest health benefits.

Instead, the PURE researchers are recommending that about 35% of our calories come from fats.” ~


The study was correlational, so no direct causal relationship can be inferred. Neverthelesss, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the health benefits of healthy fats, including butter (preferably grass-fed) with its short-chain fatty acids, found to be beneficial to intestinal health and much more. For some reason, everything that was supposed to be bad for you (e.g. coffee, wine, chocolate, eggs) is now being found to be good for you, and vice versa. Watch this blog for an upcoming article on the benefits of butter.

ending on beauty

You scream, waking from a nightmare.

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

~ Galway Kinnell, Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight

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