Sunday, December 24, 2017


 Boatmen dressed as Santa on Venice's Grand Canal


I did not choose California. It was given to me.
What would a man of the north
have to do with parched emptiness?
Grayish clay, dry streambeds,
hills the color of straw and clumps of boulders
like prehistoric reptiles — that’s for me
the soul of these regions.
And fog creeping out of the ocean,
begetting greenness in the ravines.
And spiny oak and thistles.

Where was it said that we would possess
the earth like a beloved,
and plunge into her deep, clear rivers,
and flow on fertile currents?

~ Czeslaw Milosz


WHAT! Milosz didn’t feel grateful for the privilege of living in California? Sure, sure, he suffered because of losing his homeland, most people I know would be willing to admit (having no idea just how intense this suffering could be — the greatest loss a human being can experience, Milosz claimed), but — here a non-immigrant might make a wide gesture with his arm — “he gained all this!”

And Milosz would know better than to say anything. He’d just smile that smile reserved for those who can never understand because they haven’t experienced things that for someone else have been the core experiences of life. For Milosz, that was not so much the loss of Poland, as the loss of Lithuania; after that, the loss of Poland, since that meant (to a great extent) the loss of the language and the culture; and still after that, the loss of Europe, that larger homeland.

Most of the poem, however, is devoted to lamenting the dryness of California, its “parched emptiness.” Milosz felt close to nature, but it was the meadows and lakes and forests of Lithuania, and later the northern French countryside, which reminded him of Lithuania; he had trouble feeling at home in California’s landscape — which he experienced as the landscape of scarcity and struggle for each drop of water — “hills the color of straw” except for the two or fewer months of the wet season (if we are lucky to have it) — so dramatically different from the lush green of the north. Add to this “spiny oaks and thistles,” and you have the cursed earth after the loss of Eden.

But then there was or course irrigation (“desert landscaping” wasn’t yet part of local consciousness) — and the deer that came to his yard, treating it as their salad bar, as Milosz’s friends noted. One time a doe gave birth to twin fawns on his lawn, and decided to stay there for a while. So as for “parched,” he didn’t have it all that bad there on Grizzly Peak in Berkeley. 

Worse by far was the near-complete lack of recognition (until 1980 and the Nobel Prize) and the loneliness he felt among the leftist academics (though he knew from experience that France was even more hostile toward those who left Eastern Europe for political reasons; as one [American] professor explained some students’ hostility toward me, “They feel you betrayed the revolution.” “This is the real revolutionary country,” I replied — of course that was long before the current political climate.).

And there were Milosz’s metaphysical wrestlings, now reading Swedenborg, now Simone Weil, now trying to feel at home again in the Catholic church (if my own experience is any guide, once you leave, you can’t quite return; once you have had a certain perception with the force of insight, there is no going back. On the other hand, as priests love to claim, that you can never fully leave: the emotional imprint of a Catholic childhood cannot be deleted — whether the affection for Mary and/or a favorite saint, or the chronic sense that you are of being a bad boy/bad girl — god is disappointed with you).

The result is that homeless feeling. You don’t belong here, but then you don’t belong anywhere. As an immigrant you are called an “alien”; this seems ironic, because it’s everything around you that feels alien, wrong, unreal.
About the feeling of unreality: this is part of what goes with exile, with living in a place that’s very unlike your country of origin. The first landscape also establishes neural circuits that dictate what reality is supposed to be like. The differentness of another place creates a pleasant feeling of novelty as long as it’s a vacation and you have a home to go back to. Once that home is lost, the loss of familiarity is traumatic: the limbic system, wired for early attachment, goes into a shock of grief.

And Milosz’s reconciliation? In one of his poems, he tries to resolve the problem by bravely asserting: “Here and everywhere is my homeland.” But in this poem, he resigns himself to homelessness:

Where was it said that we would possess
the earth like a beloved,
and plunge into her deep, clear rivers,
and flow on fertile currents?

Indeed, once we were exiled from Eden, we were doomed to wander among thorns and thistles — or the armored chaparral plants of Southern California, or the spiny-leaved live oaks that dot the those straw-colored hills in Northern California. (I can’t  forget how ugly I found chaparral when I first went hiking in the local hills.) In the biblical myths (which don’t transplant well to forest cultures) the “promised land” sounded more lush again, but only by contrast with the deadly desert around the cultivated areas.

Think of Hagar banished just outside the settlement, beginning to run out of water. Indeed, there is nothing in the Judeo-Christian scripture that might give us the idea we would “possess the earth like a beloved.” The eroticism of that image is reinforced by the image of plunging in her rivers and flowing on fertile currents. Instead: dry streambeds, reptilian boulders — not covered in moss, no. “Parched emptiness.”

And we here near the Mexican border want to scream that he didn’t know how good he had it in the greener north and not in the actual semi-desert. Oh the ingratitude of a man who hadn’t experienced real drought.

“I did not choose California.” Milosz seems to have had no idea how lucky he was — how nobody was going to pity him for living in California.

And he knew better than to say he feels like a dispossessed aristocrat, sentenced to dwelling in a pioneer shack after living in a palazzo.

“I did not choose California.” But that’s the immigrant trauma speaking. It takes a long time to pass. But pass it does. In his old age, Milosz did note that emigré poets run out of nostalgia. Some have nothing else to write about. Again, Milosz was lucky.

Bougainvillea near Monterey, California; Andrena Zawinski



Speak softly, God! It could mean to someone
that the trumpets of your kingdom called;
for their sound no depth is deep enough:
then all times rise out of the stones,
and all the long-lost appear
in faded linen, brittle skeletons,
crooked from the weight of their soil.
That will be a miraculous return
into a wondrous homeland.

~ Rilke, from “The Last Judgment”

Here, that homeland beyond all price is simply the earth — the whole earth. But we should also remember that most people used to get buried in the towns and villages where they were lived; the “wondrous homeland” was the familiar trees and grasses, the same river, the same meadows of clouds in the sky. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine didn't want to stay in heaven; she wanted to return to the moors. All readers understand this at the deepest level; the real heaven we want is the place we already love, or used to love in childhood and youth — our first great love.

As Jack Gilbert put it, “We have already lived in the real paradise.”

What? I can already hear the outraged chorus of those who can recite a million things wrong with just about any place on earth: the climate, the bugs, too much rain or not enough — and that’s just the nature part of it, before we get to human-caused problems. But none of it is especially relevant when measured against what really counts: FAMILIARITY.

Low Tide; Michele Arnesen


Homefulness (a coinage meant to encompass the opposite of homesickness) may take many years to develop. The first two years are the hardest. Even minor things come back as bits of grief, such as my literally gut-level thinking, during the first weeks, “This is not real milk”; “This is not real food”; “Why does the meat have no taste?” etc; and later, in California, much as I appreciate both palm trees and eucalypts, “These are not real trees.” Even Catholic churches were not real churches but shabby substitutes. I did fall in love with Los Angeles, but fully knowing that this was not a real city. Let me share a short poem from long ago:


I miss real trees. The eucalypts
are not enough, not even
their incense after rain. 
I’m outraged that their bark peels off
in untidy tubular patches.
There’s a right-wing homunculus

in the middle of my brain, screaming
that everything looks wrong.
The houses look wrong,
the schools, the stores.
The streets look wrong,
their lunar emptiness.

I try to appease my right-wing
homunculus with December roses;
yawning with contempt, he’ll say,
“What happened to the scent?
These are not the real roses.
And if your heart flips over that

scentless fabrication of false petals,
that’s not your real heart.”

~ Oriana


I hasten to add that the local pine trees, with their magnificent long needles, did win my false heart, as did bougainvilleas (in spite of not being real flowers). The sense of unreality would come and go, and finally come over me less and less often. I’ve managed to get attached even to Chula Vista. But I perfectly understand why Milosz settled in Krakow for the last years of his life. He went to Krakow to die because that city most reminded him of Vilnius (always Wilno to him).

We love the familiar: a little trickle of a waterfall in the local mountains and not the Niagara Falls. Wait — did I just say “a little trickle of a waterfall”? Like those in Cuyamaca Mountains, when they trickle at all, in a relatively wet year? Amazingly enough, I have made the journey from homelessness to homefulness. 

My bird of paradise doesn’t get enough sunlight to develop to full glory, but it does contribute its piece to paradise 


Thinking about the homesickness that occurs when the well loved, familiar landscape of one's homeland is lost, along with all that entails, the language, the customs, the culture, I realize I have not suffered this kind of loss. I have lived all my life until the last year in the same geographical area, where even the changes, in seasons, in the city, in the neighborhoods, were still modulations of the familiar, not erasures, not changes into something too foreign to recognize.

Truly we do all long for that landscape we first knew, the landscape of our childhood, and it is in that sense we are all exiles, separated forever from that first loved world, because, even if we could go back, it wouldn't be there. It is not simply space, but time that separates us forever from that first home, we can never recapture completely what it was, in its fullness, not only in its physicality,  but in the place we occupied there, the way it fit us, the way it looked, smelled, tasted, sounded, and what it meant to our younger selves. That is why nostalgia is a form of grief.

And while the relief and sense of belonging of "homefulness" are very real, home is at once more and less about a particular place. It persists in what are the most essential things, food, language, family. People will go to great lengths to obtain, reproduce and maintain a beloved and familiar food culture, no matter where fortune has delivered them away from that first home. And one's own first language is itself a 'home'- sometimes deliberately replaced so as to 'fit in', sometimes deliberately punished and suppressed by the authorities of the 'new' home, but its loss is always experienced as a grievous separation, a terrible loneliness. Family, of course, is obvious. I think of all those Holocaust survivors whose families were completely, or almost completely, obliterated. Without family, you are lost in the world, no matter where you go.


You are right about time also separating us from what we got used to, that first (or even second or third) emotional home. I even wonder if that’s perhaps one of the reasons we get sick and die — at some point the world becomes just too alien a place. As I write in “From the New World,”

Only we stand still,
immigrants approaching port,
our precious, useless past

in our arms. Ludicrous,
the luggage we take,
the old photographs. The future

will be exile, a new world.


Re: family. For me, just one special person is enough. I’ve learned to do without family, strange as that felt during the first years in the US. But then it’s different being without family at a later age, when you have your own home and other resources, than when you are still quite young, poor, and prone to feeling helpless.

Also, being a writer changes things — your work substitutes for all kinds of other connections. And having grown up as an only child helps too. That said, I do wish there were a group where I could get a bit of sense of having a family — of being unconditionally accepted, even my foibles welcome as yet another part of my unique being.

more on homefulness:


~ “Tiffany Watt Smith: One of the emotions I became really interested in when researching the book was homesickness. In the mid to late 18th century, it was diagnosed as a fatal condition called nostalgia—from nostos, “homecoming,” and algia, “pain.” There was an outbreak of people who were experiencing a longing for home that was so intense it produced a melancholy and an exhaustion, but also sores, pustules, and fevers. People who suffered from it couldn’t eat. They’d end up fading away and dying.

Nowadays we think of homesickness as something kids have on sleepovers. It certainly hasn’t appeared on a death certificate for 100 years. The last person who was diagnosed with nostalgia as a cause of death died in 1918.

Lofthouse: How did it become so much less serious, then? Why has the idea of homesickness changed so much?

Smith: With modernity came a different set of values. It’s not just that it got easier to travel and go back home and communicate through telephones and the Internet and so on. It’s about frontier spirit—in [the current] cultural atmosphere, longing for something that’s comforting and reassuring might seem unambitious. If I feel homesick today, I might think I should grow out of it and enjoy the adventure.

We used to have these words for the feeling of wanting to be home, the feeling of wanting to be in one place for a very long time, which have now disappeared. There’s a wonderful word: “homefulness,” which is the feeling you get when you turn the corner of your road or your airplane lands and you know you're near home. It’s a lovely combination of relief and belonging.

Lofthouse: Are there any emotions our culture takes more seriously than it used to?

Smith: We give happiness a lot of space in our discussions. But it’s a relatively recent phenomenon that happiness is something you’d want to aim for. If you look back to 16th-century Renaissance Europe, there's a fascination with sadness that’s almost the equivalent of today’s fascination with happiness.
You start seeing a lot of authors writing about how to be sad better, and what the appropriate sort of sadness is. It’s seen as valuable because it brings you closer to God. It makes you more humble and more serious. In some cases, a more severe form of sadness, melancholia, was aligned with genius. I think the way we valorize happiness today is problematic. It creates pressure to feel upbeat and cheerful all the time.

Lofthouse: Have you found yourself experiencing emotions differently since doing the research for your book?

Smith: Definitely. There’s some interesting research being done at the moment about the relationship between words and emotions. Learning new words for emotions means you might be able to identify those emotions as they come up in your own experience. And the more emotions you can identify and translate from vague, amorphous things into concrete terms, the easier time you have of it. I now enjoy feeling homefulness. I might have had glimmers of it before, but I don’t think I felt it in the same way.


So true about the fascination with melancholy as the opposite of our self-help craze about happiness. In most languages, the word for happiness is the same as the word for “luck.” It definitely wasn’t something you could “choose” or cultivate. I have only too much personal experience with how easy it is to cultivate sadness.

I’ve always felt wild joy on coming home from a trip. It was the best part of any trip — with one exception — coming back to Torrance (part of Los Angeles) from Europe. Torrance happens to be exceptionally ugly (Mobil Oil refinery is there), and I instantly detested that ugliness while missing the beauty of Europe. I was actually seized with grief looking at the streets in my neighborhood.

San Diego is beautiful, and while I missed the greenness of Poland, the great parks, the rivers, the woods — and the warmth of the culture etc — after coming back from my two trips to Poland, I wasn’t heart-broken. At that point I already had more of that “homeful” feeling. I was returning to a beautiful city, and beauty makes me happy.


I think we do experience emotions we don't have words for — and it is frustrating if we try to describe them. Sometimes it can be done with poetry, or dance or painting or music.


Nor can a word ever adequately describe an emotion, which has a lot to do with the body. I think William James was right: emotions are of the body first and foremost, with the mind bravely trying to interpret and often to control the emotions. Think of a preverbal child: the emotions tend to be very intense. Labeling them is a way to “chill.”


Just a thought on our cultural preoccupation with “happiness" — I find it as irritating as the push to always "be positive" to have what is annoyingly dubbed "positivity." That and the nonsense that we all must work toward having and fostering high "self esteem." These qualities are seen as absolute goods, but are more what I would call narcissistic delusions, usually unfounded in reality, and actually in opposition to fact. They seem to me likely to produce nothing more than a kind of blissful idiocy.

Hope that doesn't sound too harsh, but now more than ever I think we need to see clearly and act wisely.

Asian Paradise Flycatcher: What paradise means to me: lots of flies

~ “Growing up, my favorite superhero was definitely Superman. Hands down, no one else captured my childhood imagination more perfectly than he did. I was also taught to idolize Jesus growing up, and it always delighted me that my boyhood idol so closely mirrored the object of my religious devotion as well.

Both of them were, in a sense, born “from above” but came to earth to be our savior. Both somehow had ongoing relationships with their real fathers through a kind of communication that was indirect and atypical, and both struggled with their identity to some degree as hybrids living in a world that didn’t fully understand what they were about.

Curiously, they also disappear after their earliest years only to reappear again as fully grown adults, ready to dive into their life’s calling as saviors of the world, leaving the rest of us wondering what happened to them during all those lost years? Stories have been written (and shows have been produced) exploring the adventures of young Clark Kent, but none of those are, strictly speaking, canonical; or at least they weren’t to me. The Superman I grew up with was played by Christopher Reeve, and his boyhood history remained a mystery to all of us.

Same thing is true for Jesus. He shows up as a baby in a story we celebrate year after year with pageants and sales, then he disappears for nearly thirty years, save for a single story of a trip to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. It always bugged me that we didn’t know more about his childhood, especially since I was taught that children are to emulate Jesus as much as adults are supposed to, yet we are never told what Jesus was like as a child.

How are we supposed to know how we are to act as children? Doesn’t that strike you as a significant oversight on the part of the Holy Spirit, the Author of the Bible? If the kingdom of heaven belongs to little ones such as these, why does the New Testament do so little to address the spiritual lives of children?

Incidentally, there were stories written about the younger Jesus, only they didn’t make it into the Bible because they portrayed him as kind of a mischievous imp. One story tells of him breaking the Sabbath by fashioning pigeons out of clay (you weren’t supposed to make clay pigeons on the Sabbath because that’s too much like “work”), but then he claps his hands and makes them real and they fly away so that he doesn’t get in trouble. Other stories tell of people teasing him or correcting him only to have him slay them with a single word. Some of the stories have him bringing them back to life, but at that point I figure the damage is done, so the keepers of the canon decided those really oughta stay out of the official collection.

I should probably add here, as I always feel I must, that I don’t subscribe to the mythicist camp which so many of my fellow agnostic/atheist friends seem to have joined. I have to say that because a number of my readers will have already pushed back from what I’ve said thus far, protesting that any treatment of the life of Jesus which doesn’t discount his entire existence is of no use to them. I don’t have the time or energy to fight them on this. But I will say that where the birth narratives (aka “The Nativity”) are concerned, I’m as thorough a mythicist as they come.

Even the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once admitted he was persuaded against believing that the nativity stories were true the way they were being told. The details of wise men coming “from the east” following a star that moved across the sky finally to hover above the place where Jesus was born just didn’t add up, even to this learned man of faith. He admitted it was most likely “a legend,” and insisted instead that people of faith can still find deeper meaning in the stories without having to believe that they actually happened the way they were recorded.

I would go several steps further and note that the earliest gospel we have on hand, the gospel of Mark, says nothing at all about being born of a virgin, nor does it say anything about his birth being special. It would seem that whichever community produced the collection of stories we now call Mark had no awareness of a birth narrative attached to the object of their affections. Growing up, I always assumed it wasn’t included simply because that particular author didn’t see it as his job to include that part. Now that I’m older, however, I’m noticing a few more things that earlier escaped my attention.

It’s odd enough that Matthew’s gospel tells one story while Luke’s tells a completely different one. Matthew’s gospel makes it sound like Joseph and Mary were from Bethlehem (it records no census trip, and two years later when the wise men show up, Bethlehem seems to be their permanent residence) while Luke’s insists that they were really from Nazareth and were only in Bethlehem because of a “worldwide” census. Never mind that we have no extant record of such a census ever being taken, nor would it even make practical sense to demand that everyone return back to the original place of their ancestors’ births.

Luke doesn’t even get the right name of the governor for the region, and that while selling himself as the one whose gospel will give us the most thoroughly detailed and accurate account of the events depicted therein. It should have caught my attention as a young Bible student that Luke even felt that need, which would indicate he felt there already were untrustworthy gospels floating around out there (Could he have meant Matthew’s, for example? We have good reasons to believe it predates Luke’s writing, yet he includes nothing of Matthew’s nativity story in his own). But that aside, all historical records invalidate Luke’s naming of Quirinius as the governor of Syria during this time period, placing him at least a full decade later than the time of Herod’s death (the same Herod who appears, still very much alive, at the time of Jesus’s birth).

The Miraculous Christ Child (Christ Kindl), Steyr, Austria. In some European countries, it's the Christ Child who brings gifts to children; in the US, Christ Kindl became "Kris Kringle" and got fused with Santa Claus.

One more thing struck me as a grown-up that I never noticed as a child: It says in Luke 2:19 that after a large choir of angels appeared in the sky, proclaiming the birth of the savior of the world, telling a group of shepherds exactly where to find the baby, “Mary treasured these things, pondering them in her heart.” A few days later when she and Joseph made their way into Jerusalem for his circumcision, not one but two old prophets independently approached them and declared that their child was a promised savior of mankind. Surely this all would have made a deep impression on the parents of Jesus, as would the later story of his debating the teachers in the Temple at age twelve.

But in Mark 3 we learn that as soon as Jesus had begun preaching publicly, his family—including his mother Mary—sought to take him away because, and I quote, “He is out of his mind” (see Mark 3:20-35, and note the inclusion of his mother at the end of the story). Does that even make sense? Would this woman, who was chosen precisely because of her receptivity to the leadership of the Spirit, and who was witness to all these awe-inspiring divinely inspired proclamations, decide when his chosen time had finally arrived that he had lost his mind and needed to be taken away?

I honestly don’t know what to think about that. I only know that this little detail tucked away in the gospel of Mark indicates to us today that Jesus’s family doesn’t seem to have believed he was something special sent from God, and that’s remarkable considering the stories contained in the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke. One is tempted to believe that these stories only appeared many years after the death of Jesus.

Like the stories people tell about catching that One Big Fish, this tale just kept growing every time it got told until it became what it is today.

Dead Sea Salt Formation

The Earliest Christians Didn’t Have Christmas
Students of the Bible know that the gospels weren’t the earliest Christian writings. That honor belongs to the Pauline epistles, the letters Paul wrote to the surviving churches in his care before he died in the mid-60s C.E. Turning to check his letters to see what he says about the first Christmas, we find an awkward silence on the matter.

Paul never says a word about a virgin birth, nor does he say anything about the events surrounding [Jesus’] miraculous entrance into the world, hailed by kings and angels alike. This is a pretty big deal, frankly, and it should have bothered me more that it did when I was younger.

A virgin birth is kind of a big deal. And if this was the fulfillment of a prophecy from hundreds of years before, someone else should have said at least something about it at some point. Either Paul, or Peter, or James, or John — somebody should have brought it up again at some point, but they don’t. They don’t repeat any of the stories that we later find in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the most likely reason for this is that those stories hadn’t yet been concocted by the pious imaginations of the communities which later created these stories.

In short, the earliest Christians just didn’t have Christmas. That tradition appears to be one of the last additions to make it into the canon, and it would appear that most of the earliest apostles (and their imitators) knew nothing of the stories that believers today accept with little question. They wouldn’t want to dispense with them because they’ve become too precious, too meaningful and too inspiring to the church after all these years.

Christmas is still everyone’s favorite, because who wouldn’t love the swaddling baby cooing in the manger, surrounded by cute animals and adoring angels? Who doesn’t love the idea of rich men coming from out of nowhere to give expensive gifts to this poor child whom they’ve never even met, following a star that moves across the sky, guiding them across a desert to find this family tucked away in a cave? It’s a beautiful story, and the modern celebration of it has honored it well.

I’m just pretty convinced it never actually happened. And for people like me, that overrides our ability to celebrate its significance, whether we’re theists or not.” ~


Neil Carter’s insights can be delightful: Jesus and Superman, so similar! Just these two paragraphs say so much:

~ Both of them were, in a sense, born “from above” but came to earth to be our savior. Both somehow had ongoing relationships with their real fathers through a kind of communication that was indirect and atypical, and both struggled with their identity to some degree as hybrids living in a world that didn’t fully understand what they were about.

Curiously, they also disappear after their earliest years only to reappear again as fully grown adults, ready to dive into their life’s calling as saviors of the world, leaving the rest of us wondering what happened to them during all those lost years? Stories have been written (and shows have been produced) exploring the adventures of young Clark Kent, but none of those are, strictly speaking, canonical. ~

And Carter seems right on about the notorious “silence of Paul” — the man regarded by scholars as the real founder of Christianity seemed to have no idea about the Virgin Birth and the rest of the nativity narrative (nor about the miracles, teachings, or most other events in the Gospels). The only event of true interest to Paul was the alleged resurrection, with its promise of immortality for the true believers. The manger, the three kings? That couldn’t be less relevant.

But the story has its charm; you don’t have to be a child love the idea that the divine child would be born with animals looking on. Pope Benedict injunction (fortunately ignored) that the animals be removed from the portrayals of nativity because of lack of “scriptural evidence” shows a complete lack of understanding of the emotional power of tradition. Besides, ultimately, only the animals are real.

Botticelli’s Nativity. Note that Boticelli gives little puffs of clouds as footholds for the angels. 


Love Neil Carter's article. Superman was also my favorite TV show. I wonder if the authors of Superman saw the similarities with Jesus. Probably not since they were Jewish: Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, high school students living in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933. They sold it to DC comics in 1938.

The stories about the Virgin Birth and angels in the sky seem to get bigger and bigger as time goes on.


Ah, Superman and Jesus: so both are Jewish conspiracies :)

Both are savior archetypes, originating during a time relative helplessness (what high school boy doesn’t dream of being Superman?)

We have mainly the painters to thank for the extreme popularity of the Nativity narrative, starting with the Annunciation. Thousands of paintings! But once mainstream painting became secular, we’ve been witnessing the secularization of Christmas — and Santa Claus and the reindeer taking the place of religious figures.

WHERE DID THE WISE MEN COME FROM? (for now, never mind it’s a myth)

Where did the Magi come from? The usual answer is from Persia. They are identified with a caste of Zoroastrian astrologers and philosophers known to be active in Persia from the sixth century BC. The term “magi” is derived from the Greek magos which in  turn was derived from the Persian term for the philosopher-astrologer-priests. They were active during the empire of the Medes. But did the wise men really come from Persia? By the time of the Roman Empire the Medes were long gone.

Whether there was an active Zorastrian caste of astrologer-priests at the time of Christ’s birth is debatable. That they had an interest in whether a new born king of the Jews would appear is also debatable.

I’m increasingly interested in the idea that they came from the Arabian peninsula, from the Kingdom of Sheba, which was in today’s Yemen. Why Yemen? Archeologists are increasingly agreed that the ancient and powerful kingdom of Sheba was located at the Southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, and that it’s reach extended deep into Eastern Africa. The three gifts of the magi indicate an origin in Sheba since the kingdom was known firstly for its vast wealth from the gold mines of Africa, secondly, the Boswellia tree–from which the gum that is used to make frankincense is tapped–is native only to the Arabian peninsula and Somalia. Thirdly, the commiphora tree–from which the resin to make myrrh is derived–also grows only in the Arabian peninsula.

The Kingdom of Sheba therefore grew rich on these three unusual, rare and precious commodities: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Of course in the ancient Middle East wise men from Persia could have brought these gifts, but if they were seen not only as rich gifts, but a sort of diplomatic gift–kings bringing the best produce and commodities from their own country in homage to a neighboring king, then identifying the country of origin with the gifts makes sense.

Apparently you no longer HAVE TO believe in it. You can be admitted to heaven even though you don’t believe in Virgin Birth. I certainly applaud not being told what you have to believe the way I was told what I had to believe, no questions asked — it was compulsory like attending mass on Sunday — but doesn’t the church realize that this is a slippery slope? Is belief in the changing of water into wine also optional now, or will soon be? What about walking on water? And the rest of the supernaturalism?

The Resurrection will probably be the last to go. All this is fine with me, even when I remember how I agonized trying to force myself to believe that all that mythological stuff was literally, historically true, and now they tell me . . .

In any case, it’s fascinating to watch the religion in the process of secularizing itself.

Note that all the angels are female. Parthenogenesis (“virgin birth” with no contribution from the male) does happen in nature, but the offspring is exclusively female. Thus, it would make sense if Baby J were a girl. 

Nativity, Caravaggio, 1609. Note the stark realism.  


I love the Caravaggio.


It certainly dares to be different: instead of beauty and elegance and the angels, we get a realistic portrayal of poverty.

speaking of animals . . .  if the gentleness of Jesus is so difficult to accept . . .


~ “Children’s books, like children themselves, come in for a fair amount of scolding, whether it’s the periodic “family values” attacks on books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” or the international stir kicked up just last month when an English mum argued that the non-consensual wakeup kiss at the end of “Sleeping Beauty” reinforces rape culture. You might think that “The Story of Ferdinand,” about a gentle bull who refuses to fight in either pasture or bullring, only wanting to sit under his favorite tree and smell the flowers, would be immune from such content-shaming. But the eighty-one-year-old book, which was written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson and is the basis for the new animated film “Ferdinand,” opening on December 15th, was caught in the culture-war crossfire of its own era. Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt were on Team Ferdinand. Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco were not. But the battle lines weren’t drawn quite as neatly as those rosters suggest.

Set in the country somewhere outside Madrid, “The Story of Ferdinand” had the good or bad fortune to be published in September, 1936, three months after the start of the Spanish Civil War, when Fascist military forces began rebelling against the leftist Republic. In the book, the peaceful Ferdinand is mistaken for the “toughest, meanest bull in all of Spain” after he gets stung by a bee and starts “bucking and jumping and acting like he was crazy.” Carted off to the bullring, however, he reverts to languid form, sitting down and smelling “all of the beautiful flowers worn by the ladies in the crowd.” The picadors, the banderilleros, and the matador do their best, but “no one could get Ferdinand to fight,” and so he returns to his beloved pasture and tree. A sweet tale. But with Spain at war and the rest of Europe on the verge, Ferdinand’s pacifism conveyed a loaded message if looked at the right, or wrong, way. The book’s publisher, Viking Press, had wanted to hold it back until “the world settles down,” according to a reminiscence by Margaret Leaf, Munro’s widow, written on the book’s fiftieth anniversary. The author and illustrator insisted on going ahead, which the publisher did—though apparently without much faith, putting all its advertising muscle behind another picture book on its list that year: “Giant Otto,” by William Pène du Bois, which centered on a floppy dog the size and shape of a four-story burial mound. “ ‘Ferdinand’ is a nice little book,” Viking’s president reportedly proclaimed, “but ‘Giant Otto’ will live forever.”

“The Story of Ferdinand” sold respectably, at first, moving fourteen thousand copies in its first year. But it took off, in 1937, for reasons no one was quite sure of. By its first anniversary it had sold eighty thousand copies, a phenomenal number for a picture book during the Depression. By that Christmas, as this magazine reported, sales were “running slightly behind Dale Carnegie and well ahead of Eleanor Roosevelt.” The following December, the book “nudged ‘Gone With the Wind’ off the bestseller lists,” Margaret Leaf notes. Ferdinand merchandise began turning up in stores—and not just the usual toys, dolls, pajamas, and cereal boxes, but also women’s scarves, hats, and a Cartier brooch that sold for fifty dollars (roughly eight hundred and fifty dollars today). The bull ambled down Broadway as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and enjoyed the flowers on a float in the Rose Parade, in Pasadena. The story was adapted for radio by “The Royal Gelatin Hour” with Rudy Vallée, and on film by Walt Disney, in 1938, winning an Oscar for Best Animated Short. Life magazine proclaimed the book “the greatest juvenile classic since ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ ” while asserting that three out of four copies were bought by “grownups . . . largely for their own pleasure and amusement.”

That may well have been true. Munro sounded near-wistful when he wrote, in 1937, that he had published a book “I thought was for children, but now I don’t know.” Munro had finished his text long before the Spanish Civil War broke out, and always maintained he had nothing in mind but a funny story—he had only chosen a bull as the main character because mice and cats and bunnies were played out, he claimed. But as Viking had feared, the juxtaposition of a brutal Spanish war and a peaceable Spanish bull seemed more than coincidence to many observers—and fears of a coming wider conflict no doubt fuelled such readings. As a writer for The New Yorker observed, in a January, 1938, Talk of the Town story, “Ferdinand has provoked all sorts of adult after-dinner conversations. Some say he’s a rugged individualist, some say he’s a ruthless Fascist who wanted his own way and got it, others say the tale is a satire on sit-down strikes—you see the idea.” Leaf told the Times, in a piece that ran under the headline “writer for young tells of new woes,” “Letters complained that ‘Ferdinand’ was Red propaganda, others said it was Fascist propaganda, while a number protested it was subversive pacifism. On the other hand, one woman’s club resolved that it was an unworthy satire of the peace movement.” Publisher’s Weekly reported that Munro had received a complaint from a Geneva-based diplomat of undisclosed nationality who pointed out that “the real fate of any little bull who would not fight was a tragic trip to the butcher shop.” The implication was that Munro had dismissed the challenges facing professional peacemakers, and that Ferdinand must be some kind of dupe or quisling. The book was reportedly burned in Nazi Germany and wouldn’t be published in Spain until after Franco’s death.

Another strain of criticism worried about Ferdinand’s effect not on the League of Nations or impressionable Brown Shirts but on its originally intended audience. “Ever since Munro Leaf wrote his story about the mal-adjusted bull, our nurseries have been flooded with pieces about locomotives tired of the track, lambs who have lost their wool,” and so on, a writer for The New Yorker reported in yet another Talk of the Town piece on Ferdinand, with tongue perhaps halfway in cheek. The unsigned article accused lesser children’s authors of being “forced by a literary trend to play Cassandra with a lisp. We have no idea what, good or bad, will come of introducing futility so near the dawn of life, but it was only last week that our little nephew, waking from an anxious dream, stirred and sighed and said, ‘Oh God, another day!’ ” A columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, parroting the book’s more excitable critics, noted that “something uncomfortably alarming is being engineered under the specious cloak of juvenile publication” and insisted that “something ought to be done about it.” This writer, too, was having a bit of fun with all the hand-wringing. But he also seemed to put his finger on something real when he wrote, “Certain irate fathers assert that the book is a deliberate attempt to make mollycoddles out of little boys.”
 “Mollycoddles,” “Cassandra with a lisp.” To some benighted eyes of the late nineteen-thirties, Ferdinand’s passivity clearly signified suspect masculinity. In 1938, the novelty jazz duo Slim and Slam—the guitarist Slim Gaillard and the bassist Slam Stewart, best known for the hit “Flat Foot Floogee (with a Floy Floy)”—recorded a song called “Ferdinand the Bull,” in which Slim sang:

Ferdinand, Ferdinand
The bull with the delicate ego. . . .
Ferdinand got his hands on his hips
Look at Ferdinand swishing. . . .
When the picador missed him
What did Ferdinand do?
He kissed him!

The song concludes: “Ferdie is a sissy, yes, yes.” Leaf himself fretted over that gloss on his hero. The Los Angeles Times, recounting a 1939 conversation with the author, wrote that he was less worried about the misperception of his book as political propaganda than “the fact that because Ferdinand only smelled the flowers and wouldn’t fight he, Leaf, must bear some resemblance to one of the softest-petaled and most delicate of garden flowerets. So he likes to have it known that he is a lacrosse player and won a boxing championship at Harvard—which, he admits, isn’t so much of a championship.”

 Psychoanalysts took their own swings. According to a 1940 interpretation published in American Imago, a prominent Freudian journal, Ferdinand is “an eternal child. . . . He does not regress; he simply remains locked in his happy innocence, nursing himself with the abundance of infantile pleasure.” The author describes the bull inhaling the scent of his beloved flowers with “his nostrils widened and his eyes closed or even worse, half-closed, like the eyes of a woman in ecstasy,” and concludes that the story is “a clear cut castration threat.”

As you’d expect where bulls and silly ideas about manhood are concerned, Ernest Hemingway also had an opinion. In 1951—the dust hadn’t yet settled, apparently—he published a short, fable-like story in Holiday magazine, of all places, titled “The Faithful Bull.” It begins:

One time there was a bull whose name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers. He loved to fight and he fought with all the other bulls of his age, or any age, and he was a champion. . . . He was always ready to fight and his coat was black and shining and his eyes were clear.

Hemingway’s fable ends: “He fought wonderfully and everyone admired him and the man who killed him admired him the most.” Personally, I’ll stick with the original Ferdinand, whose own story concludes: “And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”

Today, Ferdinand is hailed as an icon of gender nonconformity, his tale a celebration of “difference”—a shift that serves as not a bad yardstick for how much the culture has evolved over the last eight decades. Myself, I like to think of Ferdinand—despite the Iberian setting of his story—as a proud American refusenik in a continuum that begins with Bartleby, the Scrivener, or maybe Thoreau, and goes on to include Benjamin Braddock, the hero of “The Graduate,” and, for younger audiences, Maurice Sendak’s “Pierre,” of “I don’t care” fame. At the same time, I wonder if there are now parents and teachers who object to Ferdinand’s introducing toddlers to blood sports. A subject for further litigation.” ~

 How “The Story of Ferdinand” Became Fodder for the Culture Wars of Its Era, by Bruce Handy, The New Yorker, December 15, 2017

Disney's Ferdinand, 1938


“But only the memory of letters is left to us. We can no longer rely on letters! It is a nightmare to never again receive a letter.” ~ Erin Moure



As James Madison wrote in his account of the Constitutional Convention, slave states were concerned that the direct election of a president would diminish their sway in federal affairs. Why? Because a huge proportion of most slave states—enslaved people—were unable to vote. Slave states had crafted one work-around for this issue by pushing through the Three-Fifths Clause, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. But a popular vote of the president—based strictly on the population of white men who were allowed to vote—might prevent proslavery presidents from perpetually assuming control of the executive branch.

As Madison explained, the solution to this concern was the Electoral College. The Constitution apportioned electors based on the number of senators and representatives a state had. Each state got two senators regardless of population, but the number of representatives a state received depended upon its population. And since slaves qualified as three-fifths of a person in counting a state's population, slave states received extra representatives—which translated into extra electors. Through this constitutional calculus, slave states were able to maintain their grasp on the presidency for decades.

As for Hamilton’s notion that the wise electors would judiciously deliberate and choose the most qualified candidate? It’s utterly irrelevant today, since most states bind electors to their state’s popular vote. Some progressives have filed lawsuits to free electors from these laws and allow them to “vote their conscience,” a shamefully anti-democratic and myopic rationalization. More than 100 million people vote in each presidential election. Why should electors—mostly party loyalists with no notable qualifications for choosing a commander-in-chief—be able to nullify these votes? What gives them the right to toss out the democratic choice of the people in their individual states and pick their favorite candidate instead?

But wait, the counterargument goes, Clinton won more votes than Trump. Shouldn’t electors be able to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote? Yes, they should be, and if enough states pass the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, they will be obligated to do so. This agreement would bind states’ electors to the winner of the popular vote; it would take effect the moment enough states—those whose electoral votes total 270—have passed it. The NPVIC is a precise, rational tool to address the Electoral College’s obsolescence. The fight to free electors from voting for their state’s popular vote winner is ad hoc silliness and a recipe for future disaster.

[The Electoral College] is an excellent example of the system’s absolute failure to serve any positive purpose in modern American democracy.” ~

from another source:

~ “Standard civics-class accounts of the Electoral College rarely mention the real demon dooming direct national election in 1787 and 1803: slavery.

At the Philadelphia convention, the visionary Pennsylvanian James Wilson proposed direct national election of the president. But the savvy Virginian James Madison responded that such a system would prove unacceptable to the South: “The right of suffrage was much more diffusive [i.e., extensive] in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.” In other words, in a direct election system, the North would outnumber the South, whose many slaves (more than half a million in all) of course could not vote. But the Electoral College—a prototype of which Madison proposed in this same speech—instead let each southern state count its slaves, albeit with a two-fifths discount, in computing its share of the overall count.

Virginia emerged as the big winner—the California of the Founding era—with 12 out of a total of 91 electoral votes allocated by the Philadelphia Constitution, more than a quarter of the 46 needed to win an election in the first round. After the 1800 census, Wilson’s free state of Pennsylvania had 10% more free persons than Virginia, but got 20% fewer electoral votes. Perversely, the more slaves Virginia (or any other slave state) bought or bred, the more electoral votes it would receive. Were a slave state to free any blacks who then moved North, the state could actually lose electoral votes.

If the system’s pro-slavery tilt was not overwhelmingly obvious when the Constitution was ratified, it quickly became so. For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency.” ~

James Madison

~ “Why does the sun set so slowly around the solstice? At the December (or June) solstice, the sun rises and sets farthest south (or north) of due east and due west. The farther the sun sets from due west along the horizon, the shallower the angle of the setting sun. That means a longer duration for sunset at the solstices.

Meanwhile, at an equinox, the sun rises due east and sets due west. That means – on the day of an equinox – the setting sun hits the horizon at its steepest possible angle.

The sunset duration varies by latitude, but let’s just consider one latitude, 40o north, the latitude Denver or Philadelphia in the United States, or Beijing in China. At that latitude, on the day of solstice, the sun sets in about 3 and 1/4 minutes.

On the other hand, at 40o north latitude, the equinox sun sets in roughly 2 and 3/4 minutes.

At more northerly temperate latitudes, the sunset duration is greater; and at latitudes closer to the equator, the sunset duration is less. Near the Arctic Circle (65o north latitude), the duration of a solstice sunset lasts about 15 minutes; at the equator (0o latitude), the solstice sun takes a little over 2 and 1/4 minutes to set. Regardless of latitude, however, the duration of sunset is always longest at or near the solstices.” ~


1) Oleic acid lowers cholesterol

Patients at risk of heart disease were often prescribed a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet (Step 1 Diet). Both the high-carbohydrate diet and a high monounsaturated fat diet lowered total blood cholesterol levels. However, patients on the high monounsaturated fat diet saw lower LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides than those on the carbohydrate diet.

The cells of the small intestine absorbed less cholesterol when oleic acid was present, because fewer proteins to transport cholesterol were produced.

2) Oleic Acid Protects Against Heart Disease

The famous “seven countries study” followed Mediterranean men and women over many decades and compared them to their counterparts in northern Europe, Japan, and the US. Those with diets rich in monounsaturated fats, including oleic acid from olive oil, had lower rates of heart disease.

The seven countries study was the first to definitively link saturated fat intake to total cholesterol levels and heart disease. Many of the modern dietary recommendations about fat intake are based on this study. Men and women in the “seven countries study” with elevated cholesterol levels had higher risks of death due to heart disease.

These protective effects are largely due to a decrease in total blood cholesterol levels, especially “bad” LDL-cholesterol. Limited evidence from an 8-week study of 23 patients with high heart disease risk connects a high monounsaturated fat diet to other heart-protective roles (blood clotting and circulation).

Because oleic acid also acts on insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, inflammatory markers, and blood vessel function those who consume it are protected against heart disease. Oleic acid also lowered cholesterol levels in a study of 180 patients randomly assigned to high- and low-monounsaturated fat diets over 2 years.

3) Oleic Acid Lowers Blood Pressure

In a study of 23 patients with elevated blood pressure, those assigned to high monounsaturated fat diets all had significantly reduced blood pressure after 6 months. Eight patients were able to stop taking blood pressure medication entirely while on the diet [R].

However, the drop in blood pressure observed in that 23-patient study was also linked to a reduced saturated fat intake, and to increased nitric oxide levels stimulated by polyphenols present in olive oil, not just to the high monounsaturated fat content.

Rats with high blood pressure fed a different form of oleic acid (bioactive 2-hydroxyoleic acid) decreased their blood pressure to normal levels after 7 days of treatment. These effects were attributed to changes in the production of proteins that control blood vessel contraction (increase in PKA and decrease in Rho A kinase proteins).

Integration of oleic acid into cellular membranes can alter their structure to allow certain receptors to be present or absent at the membrane (G-protein coupled receptors, specifically members of the adrenergic receptor family).

Increased levels of oleic acid in the vessels of rats fed a high olive oil diet were associated with an increase in receptors that lower blood pressure (via PKA)

4) Oleic Acid Improves Insulin Sensitivity

When a group of adults (162 healthy people) was put on a 3-month high saturated fat diet, their insulin sensitivity decreased, compared to a high monounsaturated fat group.

Ten overweight patients with non-insulin-dependent diabetes improved their glycemic profiles (blood glucose and insulin value correlation) when placed on a high monounsaturated fat diet for 15 days.

In mice with diet-induced diabetes and obesity, substitution of oleic acid for saturated fats in the diet improved symptoms (hypothalamic inflammation, insulin resistance, and body fat).

Eleven pre-diabetic patients were fed 3 diets, each for 28 days, one diet high in monounsaturated fats, another high in saturated fats, and a third high in carbohydrates. These patients had less belly fat and better insulin sensitivity on the high monounsaturated fat diet.

5) Oleic Acid Prevents Obesity

According to the World Health Organization, a high monounsaturated fat diet was the best predictor of low obesity rates worldwide [R].

A 28-day diet high in monounsaturated fats decreased belly (central) fat, which is associated with obesity, in 11 insulin-resistant patients.

6) Oleic Acid May Improve the Immune System and Resolve Inflammation

Oleic acid is incorporated into cell membranes and can directly interact with the immune cells (neutrophils) responsible for controlling the duration and intensity of tissue inflammation [R].

Part of the inflammatory response in the human body requires the formation of reactive oxygen species by neutrophils at the site of inflammation. This recruits other molecules necessary for healing. This response is increased in the presence of oleic acid leading to faster resolution of inflammation including the release of cytokines (IL1-b).

Neutrophils are also responsible for pathogen identification and defense. They more efficiently engulfed (phagocytosed) and killed microorganisms when incubated with oleic acid [R].

Recruitment of neutrophils to the site of inflammation increased when oleic acid was present in lung-injury model mice but decreased when tested in a second study in cells outside the body. So, it remains unclear when or where oleic acid may assist with this early response to inflammation.

7) Oleic Acid May Help with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Forty-three rheumatoid-arthritis patients given a dietary supplement of fish oil (high in omega-3) and olive oil (high in oleic acid) had the best improvements in both pain and mobility compared to fish oil alone or a placebo (soy oil).

8) Oleic Acid May Decrease Chronic Nerve Pain

Oleic acid inhibits a receptor (TRVP1) involved in pain perception (sensing of spiciness, hot temperatures, and itchiness). This is part of oleic acid’s natural role in inflammation [R].

Injection of oleic acid and albumin at the injury site in mice reduced the pain and involuntary movements associated with paralysis after spinal injury.

Albumin and oleic acid also promoted new nerve cell (dendritic) growth in normal mice and in mice genetically modified to have human TRVP1.

Injections of oleic acid in a mouse pain-model reduced pain and inflammation similar to that observed in human arthritis patients.

9) Oleic Acid Is Essential for Brain Function

Oleic acid is produced during the repair of nerves (mature axons) and plays a role in the production of myelin.

Adrenoleukodystrophy, a rare genetic disorder that leads to the breakdown of myelin, can be treated with a mixture of fatty acids, including oleic acid, to slow the disease and reduce brain inflammation.

10) Oleic Acid Improves Mood

A small 3-week study (14 to 18 people per test group) associated an oleic acid-rich diet with higher resting energy expenditure (mitochondrial activity), lower anger levels, and increased physical activity.

In 20 adolescent boys with ADHD, oleic acid levels in the blood were positively linked with brain plasticity and with the openness and extraversion of the boys’ personalities [R].
11) Oleic Acid Decreases Age-Related Cognitive Decline

High monounsaturated fat intake was correlated with reduced risk of cognitive decline in a survey of over 5,000 elderly Italians (over age 65).

This decreased risk is probably due to oleic acid’s role in the maintenance of neuron structural integrity.

The brain’s need for monounsaturated fatty acids increases with age in rats.

12) Oleic Acid May Slow Aging

Long-lived species like humans typically have higher levels of oleic acid in their membranes than shorter-lived species like rodents.

Aging is often linked with oxidative stress in cellular membranes and with DNA damage caused by free radicals released during energy production (glycolysis and electron transport). Rats that consumed more olive oil and probably have more oleic acid in the membranes had less age-related oxidative stress because these fatty acids are less susceptible to free radical damage.

13) Oleic Acid May Prevent Cancer

Oleic acid’s ability to decrease oxidative stress in the cell and thus to protect DNA from oxidative damage also lowers cancer risk.

Two studies interviewed more than 5,000 women with and without breast cancer about their dietary habits. Women with high levels of oleic acid in their diets were less likely to have cancer.

Mice with induced lung cancer (adenocarcinoma) fed an oleic acid-rich diet had increased rates of survival and longer disease-free periods.

However, mice with salivary gland tumors fed an oleic acid-rich diet increased tumor progression, possibly due to a lack of other monounsaturated fats in the diet.

ending on beauty:

I don’t have time for dying, leaving
these glorious sunsets and even small
things like that trail of ants and I have
yet to coax a butterfly to sit on my hand.

~ Una Nichols Hynum, “Aunt Betty”

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