Saturday, October 28, 2017


Egyptian dancer, 14th century bc. Without the benefit of yoga classes . . . how “modern” we were, in some ways, already that long ago. Now she is eternally young.
A sudden wind blows
through the new leaves and they are gone;
time blows through your hair,
the river of the dead

whose name’s forgiveness, very
small, a blue vein
in your temple. And the words
for these things are so terribly small;
and the world of those words

only slightly less mortal
than this instant of taking your hand,
of taking care to look both ways,
not to squeeze too hard, or be too aware
that no such mercy will be proffered

by a world that has no need
of words, or us.

~ Franz Wright, from “With a Child”

True, the world — the immense world — has no need of us and our words. But those close to us, not just our literal family but our larger, metaphorical family — including Facebook friends we’ve never met face to face, but who have become friends nevertheless — they need us and our words.

The world doesn’t need us, but we need the beauty of the world. This morning autumn finally arrived: when I opened the blinds, I saw beautiful milky fog. And though I woke up unhappy about a certain practical matter, the fog said “autumn,” and I began to calm down.

We need the poetry of the world and the poetry of words. We need gorgeous lines like these:

time blows through your hair,
the river of the dead

whose name’s forgiveness, very
small, a blue vein
in your temple

Now, Rilke would disagree with the idea that the world doesn’t need our words — he claimed the earth needs us precisely because only we have language, and can change matter into the realm of the mind: “We are the bees of the invisible.” I don’t think we can ever resolve this kind of mystical thinking (which Nietzsche dismissed as “not even shallow”). But we know that other human beings need our words — or at least those words that heal, that bring kindness, forgiveness. And the child that the speaker is walking with, holding his or her hand, needs words — any words that mean: I notice you, I value you, I will protect you.

So I prefer to stay with the personal. One woman whom I knew strictly through Facebook suddenly died (this was some years ago). Though I never met her in person, I was surprised how much I grieved. And this alone shows just how real words can be. Her posts about her guinea pigs — how trivial they seemed at the time  . . . but then there were none.

So never mind the world in general — our personal world needs us, we need one another — and our words are life-giving.

"October" from The Very Rich Hours of the Duke de Berry


~ “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth


I agree that we want to feel the rapture of being alive (cf Nietzsche: what counts is not eternal life, but eternal vitality), but I also feel we need to feel useful to others. That's how I understand the personal “meaning of life” — it's always within the social context of the interconnected lives of others.


~ “In Thank You for Your Service, Finkel focuses on the home front that had seemed so remote to these soldiers during their deployment. For several of the battalion’s survivors, who are struggling with a variety of psychological and physical ailments, home assumes an unrelenting immediacy that proves more baffling and tormenting than the war itself. It is a world dominated by an elemental loneliness. Removed from the bonds of their unit — severed from the love of comrades that Finkel calls ‘the truth of war’ — each soldier navigates the postwar on his own: ‘It is such a lonely life, this life afterward.’

Finkel refuses to pathologize soldiers, even as he concentrates on the 20 to 30 percent who have been psychologically damaged to some degree by their service in Iraq or Afghanistan: ‘Most are O.K.,’ he says, ‘and others are not.’

The book is all the more powerful for its detachment. Finkel champions the cause of those who are not O.K., yet is never partisan: ‘Every war has its after-war,’ its consequences and reminders, he writes, ‘and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans,’ a number that will have an impact on American social policy, medical care and the overall economy for years to come. Finkel invites his readers to imagine these half million veterans as ‘points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.’ Yet ‘another way,’ he continues, ‘would be to imagine them one at a time.’ And that’s precisely what he does.

He traces the fitful arcs, and sometimes premature deaths, of several lives connected directly or indirectly with the 2-16: Sgt. Adam Schumann, the central figure of the narrative, who is superb in combat but disintegrating in peace; Amanda Doster, a widow just holding chaos at bay, who for a time drives everywhere with a box of her husband’s ashes strapped in with a seat belt; Patti Walker, an advocate with the Army Wounded Warrior Program at Fort Riley, who ‘is defined by the stress of dealing with the problems of 49 wounded soldiers during the day . . . and then going home at night to the 50th … her husband, Kevin, who was blown up in Iraq’; Tausolo Aieti, a heavily medicated soldier with a perpetually ‘stunned look on his face.’ Despite having received diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, attention deficit and traumatic brain injury, Aieti graduates from a program at the Topeka V.A. to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Riley in the hopes of ultimately rejoining his unit.

Perhaps the chief lesson of Thank You for Your Service is that some people will always break in war, no matter the preparation they receive or the care administered to them when they return. The inevitability of psychological crises does nothing to absolve us of the responsibility of providing that care. But it should figure much more prominently in the reckoning whenever the hawks urge us on to another ill-conceived display of American military might.

Near the end of the book, Patti Walker finds a space for Adam Schumann at a facility called the Pathway Home in Yountville, Calif., where he spends four months. At Pathway, the ‘haunted soldiers’ of Iraq and Afghanistan meet their counterparts from the previous century’s wars: World War II and Vietnam veterans who live on the campus year-round. These men ‘never say hello, or even wave. They just sit there and drink.’ ‘That’s me in 30 years,’ Schumann declares one day. ‘If this doesn’t work out, that’s me.’


The concept of the “after-war” is very evocative for me. It reminds me of Kestrel Trael's comment that Hemingway was wrong — we are not stronger in the broken places: “the injury remains.” I am now over 4 months “post-op,” and it's startling to realize that the surgery was so traumatic that in a way I will always be “post-op.” Of course what I’ve been through is utterly minor in comparison to war injuries, esp brain injuries — but the funny thing is, it sometimes takes that relatively minor personal experience to gain a better understanding of “the injury remains.” Do these young people truly understand what they are signing up for? As with serious medical procedures, it's basically impossible to understand what you are signing up for.


This is all part of the uncounted damages of war--every war. My dad was a WWII vet, he never wanted to talk about his war experiences, his wounds (he had two purple hearts) or what he had seen. His unit landed on Omaha beach on D day, and went across Europe, ending in Czechoslovakia. The war was the central formative experience of his life. When he was ill, in the last year's of his life, he suffered delirium, and was reliving the war, Trying to get the nurses down out of the line of fire, into the foxhole. When he was out of the delirium (it was related to an infection) they asked if he would talk with a psychiatrist, and he agreed. For 2 hour he talked and wept, revealing he had suffered several nightmares a week re living war experiences for the last 60 years. 60 years! He would, in these dreams, get up and try to pull my mom into the foxhole with him. It wasn't talked about. That's not what you did. You came home, got married, had a family, went to work, and had nightmares--if you were lucky, only at night, allowing a relatively "normal" life. I wonder how much of the fear and horror of those experiences contributed to his problem with violent rages, something that lasted well past middle age.


OMG . . . 60 years of nightmares!!

Yes, the true cost of war . . . and even to civilians (I remember my grandmother waking up with nightmares) — but of course esp to soldiers who've been in combat. Violent rage can be a symptom of brain injury, which we are learning is very common. You don’t have to be hit — it’s enough to be close to explosions.

But in a way, all trauma is brain injury in the sense that it makes the brain function less well. For instance, trauma makes us prone to more extreme emotions. A relatively trivial thing can set off a disproportionate emotional response. It has certainly been true in my life. Studies found that that each heartbreak is harder to take -- this is esp true for women. But these days we use the word "trauma" somewhat casually. When I think of combat -- being shot at, seeing your best friend die in front of you -- I don't know how anyone can just “move on.” And now we know that the damage from that kind of super-stress can be lifelong.

No, it doesn’t make us stronger. Nietzsche was terribly, tragically wrong.

A loving dog can be the best therapist. 


Andy Warhol, Self-Portrait, 1986 (one year before he died, in large part because of the serious injuries sustained when he was shot by a mentally ill woman)

~ “The bra became widespread in America during the First World War, in part because the metal previously used to make corsets was needed for ammunition at that time.” ~

in Flanders fields


~ “The truth is that it is scorned men—not women—who unleash the furies of hell.

From Boston to Baghdad, from Kabul to Korea, from Aurora to Newtown, the world is imperiled by angry men feeling disrespected, their tender sensibilities hurting so bad that their fingers are twitching on gun triggers and bomb timers.

Author and psychologist Steve Taylor recently wrote an article about young men, perceived disrespect and murder. “Even more dangerously—especially with young men—slights can trigger a violent reaction,” he wrote. “Criminologists have noted that many acts of violence stem from a sense of slight … In recent years, in the US there has been a disturbing rise in the number of ‘flashpoint killings’—casual murders triggered by trivial confrontations.

Yes, men have had to cede some control. Wives go to work, women get to pick their mates (in America; apparently the Tsarnaev brothers’ sisters were bartered off by mom and dad in the time-honored old-country tradition), women get to choose whether to bear children (in most U.S. states), and women now make up one-fifth of the U.S. Senate. Oh, and in America, men who beat their girlfriends, like Tamerlan, can get arrested. Small advances for womankind, but for some entitled men, this is all it takes to make the world seem utterly off-kilter.

Curiously, these guys belong to the gender with all the physical strength and most of the well-paying jobs in the world. And yet, some of them still feel so profoundly disrespected that they will go out and kill one or more of their fellow human beings just to get some of that stuff Aretha Franklin spelled out.

Scratch any jihadi and you will find a profound sense of having been disrespected and losing personal power, especially with respect to women. They are obsessed with controlling women, whose presence in their lives is simultaneously regarded as impure. Remember 9/11 bomber Mohammed Atta’s will, which demanded that no woman touch his dead body and no pregnant woman come near his grave?

But it’s not just the jihadis.

All over the world, but especially in rifle-butt, no-background-check America, some men grab their easily obtainable weapons at the merest whisper of a diss from another man or a woman. Googling “disrespect” and “murder” gets more than three million results, page after page of headlines in just the English-speaking world alone, describing men—young and old, black, white, red and purple—stabbing, shooting and otherwise killing fellow citizens over perceived “disrespect.”

But why are men so liable to react violently to being disrespected, while women, who are arguably disrespected far more often in society at large, mostly just roll with it?

Women and girls face systemic sexist disrespect from childhood to the grave. There’s all the obvious, blatant stuff, like sexual harassment, videotaped rape and misogynistic rap music, not to mention getting paid three-fourths of what men do for the same work.

Then there’s the endless dissing that is so subtle that, unless we’re students of gender politics or like to walk around gnashing our teeth all the time, we just ignore. In that category, off the top of my head, go things like a television series glamorizing female prostitution, media obsession with female politicians’ clothing, women’s work-life angst, and our own preoccupation with weight, hair, beauty and aging.

I have been trying to get my head around how put-upon some men seem to feel. Whenever I write about things like misogynist bullying, videotaped rape or benevolent sexism, I get attacked for being anti-man by commentators who invariably blame the effects of feminism for any and all bad male behavior.

What can be done about a peculiarly male persecution complex too vast and entrenched for anti-bullying programs? We might simply have to live through this era, as these men—be they homegrown right wingers who feel slighted, angry misfits, dissed gangstas or jihadis enamored of vestigial honor cultures—slowly evolve or die off. If they don’t, pressure-cooker bombs may soon be the least of our woes." ~


It’s interesting that toxic masculinity is so closely tied to over-reaction to perceived “disrespect” and thus a tremendous insecurity. This quotation sums it up:

“Toxic masculinity aspires to toughness but is, in fact, an ideology of living in fear: The fear of ever seeming soft, tender, weak, or somehow less than manly. This insecurity is perhaps the most stalwart defining feature of toxic masculinity, and examples are endless. Donald Trump flipping out when someone teases him about his small fingers. (Or about anything, really.) The ludicrously long and shaggy beards on “Duck Dynasty,” meant to stave off any connection to the dreaded feminine with a thicket of hair. The emergence of the term “cuckservative,” flung around by hardline right-wingers to suggest that insufficient racism is somehow emasculating . . . The emotional selling point of guns is that they feed the cult of toxic masculinity. Being able to stockpile weapons and have ever bigger and scarier-looking guns is straightforward and undeniable overcompensation for insecure men, who are trying to prove what manly men they are.”

Oriana: We badly need to promote positive masculinity, teaching young boys what once seemed obvious: that when men respect women and use their superior physical strength to protect women rather than to harm them, and to be kind in general, they will be rewarded in all sorts of ways — by women, but also by the society at large. We need to spread the idea that a really strong man doesn’t have to impress with “toughness.” On the contrary, he can afford to be gentle. 


I have often puzzled over the extreme reactions of men to any perceived “disrespect" — reactions that can go from verbal to physical to lethal in a flash, all seeming way out of proportion to the actual "offense." A deep insecurity, and it seems to me, a constant sense of being threatened, a constant fear of losing one's place, one's "face", one's "honor," (an especially toxic idea)and one's identity. One of the ugliest manifestations of this is the frequently violent and brutal responses of "straight" men to "gay" men, who don't even have to have spoken, or done anything at all, to be perceived as a threat and reacted to with assault — verbal, physical, lethal. And as in "honor" killings, the actor feels perfectly justified in his actions.

None of this makes any sense, except as a perceived threat to insecurity about one's own masculine identity. The roles of men are as proscribed culturally as those of women, denying and disallowing much of what is most human, allowing only a certain range of emotion and action. So men become divided from their own feelings, and any inclinations toward what has been declared "feminine" must be fiercely resisted and repressed. As we move away from these cultural formulations toward a more generous sense of human identity, there has been a countermovement or backlash, coming from those who sense their power, their place in the world, dissolving, shifting, being "stolen" from them.

This is visible everywhere these days, and dangerous still. We can't forget the lessons of history, that societies who felt secure in their cultural progress have found themselves destroyed by fascism, genocide and all the associated evils we cannot afford to ignore.


The only question ever is what to do here and now. It’s never what to do always everywhere. ~ Jeremy Sherman



~ “Take a careful look at the image of two brains on this page. The picture is of the brains of two three-year-old children. It’s obvious that the brain on the left is much bigger than the one on the right. The image on the left also has fewer spots, and far fewer dark “fuzzy” areas.

To neurologists who study the brain, and who have worked out how to interpret the images, the difference between these two brains is both remarkable and shocking. The brain on the right lacks some of the most fundamental areas present in the image on the left. Those deficits make it impossible for that child to develop capacities that the child on the left will have: the child on the right will grow into an adult who is less intelligent, less able to empathize with others, more likely to become addicted to drugs and involved in violent crime than the child on the left. The child on the right is much more likely to be unemployed and to be dependent on welfare, and to develop mental and other serious health problems.

What could possibly cause so radical a divergence in brain development? The obvious answer is that it must have been some illness or terrible accident.

The obvious answer is wrong.

The primary cause of the extraordinary difference between the brains of these two three-year-old children is the way they were treated by their mothers. The child with the much more fully developed brain was cherished by its mother, who was constantly and fully responsive to her baby.

The child with the shriveled brain was neglected and abused. That difference in treatment explains why one child’s brain develops fully, and the other’s does not.

Neurologists are beginning to understand exactly how a baby’s interaction with their mother determines how, and indeed whether, the brain grows in the way that it should.

Professor Allan Schore, of UCLA, who has surveyed the scientific literature and has made significant contributions to it, stresses that the growth of brain cells is a “consequence of an infant’s interaction with the main caregiver [usually the mother]”.

The growth of the baby’s brain “literally requires positive interaction between mother and infant. The development of cerebral circuits depends on it.”

Prof Schore points out that if a baby is not treated properly in the first two years of life, the genes for various aspects of brain function, including intelligence, cannot operate, and may not even come into existence. Nature and nurture cannot be disentangled: the genes a baby has will be profoundly affected by the way it is treated.

The details of how the chemical reactions that are essential to the formation of new brain cells and the connections between them are affected by the way a mother interacts with her baby are extremely technical. Suffice it to say that there is now a very substantial body of evidence that shows that the way a baby is treated in the first two years determines whether or not the resulting adult has a fully functioning brain.

The damage caused by neglect and other forms of abuse comes by degrees: the more severe the neglect, the greater the damage. Eighty per cent of brain cells that a person will ever have are manufactured during the first two years after birth. If the process of building brain cells and connections between them goes wrong, the deficits are permanent.

This discovery has enormous implications for social policy. It explains two very persistent features of our society. One is the way that chronic disadvantage reproduces itself across generations of the same families. There is a cycle of deprivation – lack of educational attainment, persistent unemployment, poverty, addiction, crime – which, once a family is in it, has proved almost impossible to break.

The way that the development of a child’s brain is dependent on the way that the child is treated by its mother explains why this depressing cycle happens. Parents who, because their parents neglected them, do not have fully developed brains, neglect their own children in a similar way: their own children’s brains suffer from the same lack of development that blighted their own lives. They, too, are likely to fail at school, to be liable to get addicted to drugs, to be unable to hold down a job, and to have a propensity to violence.

The second persistent feature is the dismal failure of rehabilitation programs that aim to diminish the rate at which persistent young offenders commit crimes. Many different approaches have been tried, from intensive supervision to taking young offenders on safaris, but none has worked reliably or effectively. Recent research indicates that a large majority – perhaps more than three quarters – of persistent young offenders have brains that have not developed properly.

They have, that is, suffered from neglect in the first two years of life, which prevented their brains from growing. As a consequence, they may be incapable of responding to the same incentives and punishments that will steer those with more fully developed brains away from crime.

That result may lead you to conclude that nothing can be done about the social problems that result from childhood neglect. But that would be wrong. There is a way to break the cycle, and it is not terribly difficult to achieve. It consists in intervening early and showing mothers who neglect their children how to treat them in a way which will lead their babies’ brains to develop fully.

“Early intervention”, as the policy is called, has been tried in parts of the US for more than 15 years. It consists in ensuring that mothers identified as “at risk” of neglecting their babies are given regular visits (at least once every week) by a nurse who instructs them on how to care for the newborn child.

Data from the city of Elmira in New York State, where such programs have been in place longest, show that children whose mothers had received those visits did much better than children from a comparable background whose mothers were not part of the program: they had, for instance, 50 per cent fewer arrests, 80 per cent fewer convictions, and a significantly lower rate of drug abuse.” ~


Startling. It reminded me again of how much help I received from the hospice workers when I had a “hospice at home” for my dying mother, and my sad realization that a person had to be dying to qualify. What if we provided a similar (not necessarily as intensive) program for new mothers who don't have anyone to help them? Everyone agreed with me, but with the resigned air of "it will never happen."

Of course the “early intervention” should start with pre-natal services. And as with hospice, there should be a nurturing attitude by the providers — no rush, no condescension, no shaming the woman for not knowing how to cook a nutritious meal (especially if she grew up eating mainly junk food — sugary soda and potato chips for lunch). It would never be like having a loving grandmother helping every day — but we can dream, can’t we . . . 



~ “The English-speaking world is the new Soviet Union. The best way to understand what has gone wrong with the Anglo world, and America in particular, is simply to think of it as a staggeringly ironic repeat of history. A few short decades ago, the Soviet Union fell, after thirty or so years of stagnation, which its complacent, pampered leaders, utterly divorced from lived reality, vociferously denied could ever be happening to begin with. That steadfast denial opened up the possibility of sudden collapse, and collapse it did: into authoritarianism, extreme inequality, superstition, cults of personality, tribalism, vendetta, violence, corruption, and kleptocracy. That is exactly what is happening to America, from the denial to the pampering to the sudden shock. Falling life expectancy, flat incomes, a shrinking middle class — short of war, or a giant meteor striking the earth, more severe indicators of collapse simply don’t exist. So. What led to the collapse?

The English-speaking world is in an ideological bubble. The fall of the Soviet Union was the failure of pure socialism. Now, ironically, the fall of the Anglo world is its perfect, almost precise, mirror image: the failure of pure capitalism. The simple lesson of the last century is this: either system alone cannot last, endure, or work. Now, the rest of the world knows this. Even Rwanda is building public healthcare — Rwanda, which just three decades ago, was the byword for genocide. Even Pakistan is building public transport and hospitals and schools. The entire rest of the world knows that capitalism is just one tool in the box of building genuinely prosperous societies — and quite often it is precisely the wrong tool. Yet on the Anglo world goes, impotent but still monogamously wedded to capitalism, so now you can get same-day drone delivery of anything at all from Amazon, recommended by your Fakebook friends — but you can die for lack of basic medicine, you don’t have savings, and you’ll never retire, while everyone else knows that trying to use capitalism alone to build, say, working healthcare or educational or financial systems is like trying to water a garden with napalm.

Limited by that childish belief, in America, for example, public investment has become completely verboten, sacrosanct, beyond imagining, to the point that hospitals are closing down. Have you ever heard of a society closing hospitals? Why would a sane society ever do that, if its population is growing (or even if it isn’t, because healthcare is always advancing)? Such insensible, unreasonable, thoughtless, inhumane, grotesquely foolish extremism is the precise mirror image of a few decades ago, when, it was forbidden in the Soviet Union to, say, even set up a little dry cleaning shop. In just this way, the ideological bubble that the Anglo world is in trapped in, like a web holding a fly, condemns it to fall behind the world, and its future resembles that of Russia’s.” ~

“We have achieved a lot in my lifetime. Dr King was not about nothing, Eleanor Roosevelt was not about nothing. I think in the final analysis that we shall overcome.” ~ Harry Belafonte, age 90.
Oriana: I think so. The struggle against racism, the struggle for women’s rights — even though we are currently witnessing setbacks, there has been a lot of progress, and no, there is no going back to the 1950s.


This immediately reminded me of one interesting response I had when I said I was an atheist. The man said, wistfully, “It must be nice not to have the feeling that you are being constantly watched.” ~ “It’s fantastic,” I replied, remembering my relief at 14 when I realized that no, there was no all-seeing, mind-reading “eye in the sky.”

Here Orwell’s Big Brother inevitably comes to mind. But nothing will match what the nun described to us. When little boy asked, “Does God see you even when you're in the bathroom?” ~ “Of course,” the nun assured him. “There is nowhere you can hide.” This made me nervous about going to the bathroom because you had to pull down your panties, and it might seem like mooning god. (I'm not making this up.) Fortunately this particular phobia passed after several weeks, but those were quite uncomfortable several weeks when I was trying to figure out a way of least exposure, e.g. pulling my skirt down in a certain way.

That was long before my discovery, thanks to Michelangelo, that it was rather god who was mooning us. 

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel: God Departing to Create Plants



~ Can smoking marijuana prevent Alzheimer’s disease? Yes, but there are some things that you need to know first: 1) Do not use marijuana when the brain is young; 2) Smoke only one puff of marijuana each day between the ages of thirty and sixty; 3) Use the kind of marijuana that was popular in the 1960’s, i.e. that has not been genetically altered to enhance the level one or two ingredients; 4) If the signs of dementia have already appeared, it is unlikely that smoking marijuana will be beneficial; doing so might only worsen the symptoms of the dementia.  An explanation for each of these points follows.

Research in my laboratory has demonstrated that stimulating the brain’s marijuana receptors offer protection by reducing brain inflammation and by restoring neurogenesis. Thus, later in life, marijuana might actually help your brain, rather than harm it.  It takes very little marijuana to produce benefits in the older brain. My lab coined the motto “a puff is enough” because it appears as though only a single puff each day is necessary to produce significant benefit.

Does the balance of THC and CBD matter? A recent study (J of Alzheimers Disease, vol 43, p 977, 2015) suggests that both compounds working together reduced brain inflammation far more effectively than either THC or CBD working alone. ~

Radiolarians, a drawing by Ernst Haeckel

ending on beauty: 

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

~ Vladimir Nabokov, the opening of Pale Fire (1962)

Dublin, 1966; Evelyn Hofer

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