Saturday, January 27, 2018


Bosch, A Little Butt Music (not the official title; detail of Hell, the Garden of Earthly Delights)

“Two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. 42Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day on which your Lord will come.” ~ Matthew 24: 40-42


There’s the black truck
with orange flames
on its hood. There’s the girl
in the pink pajamas. There’s her sister
in a bumblebee suit.
They are playing with dirt.
When they find bugs
they scream
but no one hears them.
Their minds are growing though.
In the late afternoon light
they scoop the dirt into tin cans
so they can bury it
in the backyard.
I think we have the case
of two women grinding at the mill —
one will be taken and one
will be left,
but it’s way too early
to tell.

~ Mary Ruefle

On the surface this is a charming childhood vignette — the little girls, one in pink pajamas, one in a bumblebee suit, playing with dirt:

In the late afternoon light
they scoop the dirt into tin cans
so they can bury it
in the backyard.

But suddenly there is a surprising leap into a reminder of the apocalyptic focus of early Christianity:

I think we have the case
of two women grinding at the mill —
one will be taken and one
will be left

~ only some, a minority, will enter heaven. Fortunately the poem makes it seem pretty absurd:

one will be taken and one
will be left,
but it’s way too early
to tell.


Interesting how the poem manages to quietly challenge that whole “some will be chosen”  business.


That's one interesting way to interpret it — the poem does indeed challenge the idea that only one of these girls is somehow “worthy” of being chosen. Certainly both girls seem equally just little girls, playful, innocent, curious. It's bizarre to wonder which one will and which one won't get into heaven — and yet there are people, mostly fundamentalists, who seem quite obsessed with the question of who will and who won't get into heaven. Books on who will be “raptured” and who will be “left behind” (Catholics? Yoga practitioners?) have been best-sellers. Those concerned with the question are sure of one thing: *they* are the chosen, while those who are in any way different (educated, for instance) — well, to hell with them — literally.

Of course to the secular reader the religious angle is pretty ridiculous and even borderline psychotic — why this clinging to prophecies that failed already some two thousand years ago? What is this power that end-of-the-world religious nuts have over the gullible? The question has never been satisfactorily answered.

But there is yet another way to approach the theme, and that is the unfairness and randomness of life. It’s possible that one sister will go on to marry a decent and responsible man, while the other one will have the bad luck of falling for a charmer who will turn out to be an alcoholic, or a non-stop womanizer, or a malignant narcissist. One may go on to have two attractive, healthy children, while the other may end up with an autistic or severely bipolar child, or one blighted with cerebral palsy.

Hopefully this won’t be the case, and both sisters will be reasonably happy adults — but it could happen. I'm startled when I ponder that I know parents whose children have died, whether of cancer or in an accident — or that I have a neighbor whose son is autistic, or that the wife of the previous owners of the house was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, or that a dear friend’s grandchild just overdosed on heroin. Tragedy isn’t supposed to strike so close to home, but if you live long enough, it will — and closer yet.

Never look down on anyone who’s in midst of misfortune because tomorrow it may you on your knees.

Some people who see themselves as having a modern, rational, tolerant mentality nevertheless hold fast to the belief that “there are no accidents” and that “you are responsible for what happens in your life.” Perhaps the mother of the autistic boy wasn’t nurturing enough while he was an infant? Or the wife of an alcoholic attracted the wrong partner by having low self-esteem? Or the man who got laid off didn’t work hard enough?

To be sure, not all misfortune is random. But much of it is, calling not for judgment but compassion and support. In fact compassion and support are called for in all cases. While the abused child needs to be given priority, the abusive parents also needs help. In a more nearly ideal society, help would be available to all.


I wonder about the extent to which all those indoctrinated as Christians live with the expectation of a violent end of the world. They might deny it, but the emotional brain got wired a certain way in early childhood — one reason I think religion lessons are child abuse.

Ehrman’s argument that Jesus, if he began as a historical figure before being swallowed up by legend, was one of the many first-century apocalyptic preachers, is both convincing and extremely deflating. Here was one of those “the end is near” religious nuts. For me personally that was the end of any awe and affection that may have still lingered from childhood — though I always felt that the real power belonged to Yahweh, who was far from kind.

I was also torn by the contradiction at the center of Christianity: instead of judgment, there was supposed to be forgiveness, and yet Jesus was supposed to return, act as Judge at the Last Judgment, and toss the majority of humanity (now resurrected in the flesh) into the fires of hell. What a relief it was to simply walk away from these absurdities!

And it’s a relief to ponder that neither of the two little girls will grow up to be “taken” or “left behind.” Both will know joy and sorrow. problems, challenges, triumphs. If we are completely accepting of them both when they are children, at what point should that change? It shouldn’t.


Thinking about “the unfairness and randomness of life,” it seems to me that randomness, the accidental, is one of the very hardest things for human beings to accept. We are storytellers, we insist on pattern, plot, connections, consequences — meaning. It may be the most essential thing about us.

It is not only difficult to see things as random, uncaused, undeserved — it is terrifying. The child in us wails about unfairness, about what is deserved and what is not. Casting blame on the unfortunate is certainly harsh — to say there are no accidents, and you have earned whatever misfortune comes to you — but it is also a comfort. It is less frightening to think bad things come as just desserts than to accept they come without reason, are meaningless, and there’s no way to avoid them. So we tell ourselves that ancient and enduring story, that an all-powerful Someone (the Father) is in charge, giving out punishments and rewards, keeping order — and in this story it all makes sense. Of course, until it doesn’t. Until we see and think as adults, and know that suffering only means suffering, that pain and loss are more random than not, and as you note, if you live long enough you will know tragedy.

And the stories people tell themselves are often impregnable to reason and argument, capable of sustained delusion — a certainty of belief that is self-perpetuating, self-justifying, and smug. They will believe the most ridiculous things — for instance, that a barrage of prayers can convince/coerce/persuade the god they address to manipulate reality in their favor. Thus the prayers they guarantee will always “work’” All in a kind of magical/mechanical interchange with invisible/spiritual beings. These belief systems, as absurd as they may be, are much less terrifying than an indifferent universe, sometimes hard to live in, even when you know better. As my wise mother said when I was faced with a sudden crisis — “you’re never ready.”

It is these accidental ends
We can’t forgive
Forgetting time
Is always borrowed
In loans whose terms
Are undisclosed
And never generous

So we are caught again
And again
No ark or levee raised
Against the storm
No oil for our lamps
Stunned by how sudden
All accounts come due
How empty our hands
How wordless we stand
Our houses made of straw
Our gardens planted
On the lip of the caldera

~ Mary McCarthy


Yes, to ponder that someone died or survived because of being at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time was a very hard lesson many learned during WW2. And even so, believers would adamantly insist they were saved was because they prayed. This failed to explained why their sister died during a bombing raid — did she not pray hard enough? But a believer is never deterred by mere logic, taking refuge in mystery and god’s will. Sheer luck, good or bad, instead of god’s will or some other “meaning” — that is indeed terrifying to many.

In my case, the indifference of natural laws has always been a comfort. Sure, I’d curse bad luck — but at least it wasn’t punishment. And I didn’t have to waste mental energy trying to figure out an unanswerable “why?”

But that works only for smaller stuff — say, a downpour starts five minutes after you leave the house, and you get soaked through. An inconvenience, but certainly not a tragedy. You know nature had no malice toward you, and if you ask “why?” it’s in a jocular tone. My grandmother used to say on such occasions, “Don’t worry, you’re not made of sugar, you won’t melt.”

Now, the big stuff. A boyfriend’s suicide. For years he talked about it. I had recurrent dreams that someone tells me he’s dead. And nothing — nothing — prepared me for the emotional shock. The hopeless “why?” persists even though eventually it’s obvious that you are seeking a rational answer to an irrational act. And yet that and other insights eventually do register and the “why” simmers down to relative insignificance, instead of filling up your whole mind, as during the first months. As Freud observed, the voice of the intellect can be very quiet, but it will not cease until it is heard — at least for some of us. 

So yes, we’re prepared for the rain. For the flood, no. The truly awful — that won’t be us. They say that every soldier imagines the bullet will hit the guy next to him. We are that “every soldier.”

And believers see nothing morally obscene about thanking god for a “miracle” in case the bullet really does hit the guy next to us.

Also, speaking of unpredictability, so often we review various things that can go wrong so that we are prepared. But what happens is entirely different, and we are not prepared and have to improvise. Thus my anti-depression motto is “whatever happens, I will cope with it somehow.” I choose to cope rather than fall apart — because ultimately that’s easier. And I know that one day something will hit that will be too big to cope with. But it won’t be punishment. Most likely it won’t be my fault. Worrying about it is pointless. And until that day, there are all the other days.

"Our main myth is apocalyptic . . . and our children today live among and act out images of catastrophe. Suicide among children shows a startling rise. . . . The only hope, according to the authorized version of the catastrophe, is in a divine redemption. In face of that cosmic science fiction of Armageddon, psychology’s scientific fiction narrows the cause of devastated children to dysfunctional families." ~ James Hillman, “The Soul’s Code” (1997)

Hillman claims that the general culture affects children more than family — that parents kid themselves about how much impact they have on a child. First of all, a child’s life will unfold according to the “soul’s DNA,” Hillman claims — his famous “acorn theory” of vocation. The second most important factor is the larger society and the historical era, the time and place where they were born.

This reminds me of having grown up with eye-witness stories of WWII. All children and a lot of adults believed that WWIII was inevitable and would be worse by far, likely the end of civilization. Post-nuclear dystopia novels and movies were more a sub-category of realism rather than fantasy. It was not a religious Apocalypse that we feared, but we were aware of those predictions too. There weren’t that many Jehovah’s Witnesses in Warsaw, but a congregation existed — though frankly one didn’t have to be a Jehovah’s Witness to experience that apocalyptic feeling at least once a month or so. In view of the A-bomb, the Horsemen seemed rather superfluous.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the smashing of giant statues was almost comic relief. Oh, so there won’t be a nuclear war between Russia and the US? True, an insane North Korean leader could still press the button, but that was seen as survivable (if still extremely damaging).

Today’s children grow up without that horrific mushroom-shaped shadow over them, but with the constant news of shootings — and images of war, mass shootings including school shootings, and suicide bombings (or just bombings — e.g. the Boston marathon) — and, in the post 9/11 world, terrorist threat in general.

There is also the awareness of environmental destruction and of how life on earth could end due to the run-away greenhouse effect — many educated people are convinced that we are indeed convinced that we are indeed in the “end days” — it’s just that god has nothing to do with it. One way or another there is a widespread perception that humanity won’t continue past this century — some say past 2050. I wonder how this affects the children.


~ “The author of Mark (who, by the way, was not really an apostle or named Mark) was most likely writing to a community that lived through the time of the Jewish revolt (and subsequent massacre). They also knew that, during his lifetime, Jesus was understood by his followers (even his disciples) to be the Jewish messiah—not one equal to God himself, but a figure like King David who would overthrow the Roman rule and usher in the Kingdom of God. But, they wondered, how could he be the messiah given that he was crucified? Mark gives them an answer: because no one at the time understood what it meant to be the messiah. Before Jesus was to usher in the Kingdom, God intended for him to suffer and die “as a ransom for many.” Only later would he return to establish the Kingdom.

Why didn’t people realize this at the time? Mark reinterprets (misremembers) Jesus’ life to make sense of this. Mark says that Jesus intentionally kept his mission a secret; and he did tell his disciples, but they were just too dumb to understand. That’s why Jesus death was such a surprise to everyone. Mark seems to be letting his readers in on this secret for the very first time. He is reinterpreting what it means to be the messiah, and misremembering Jesus life to fit into that interpretation.

According to Mark, God’s plan also included a subsequent era in which followers of Jesus would suffer just like he did (which Mark’s community was currently experiencing). But not to worry, says Mark. Jesus will be returning soon, in judgment, to fulfill is ultimate goal as messiah and finally establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. That’s the promise God had made, through Jesus, to the Christian community…according to Mark.

The gospel of John, on the other hand, is written (again, not by John) in a completely different era—an era when the early Christian expectation of the Jesus’ “imminent return” was nearly a century old and thus beginning to look a bit silly. As a result, John remembers Jesus’ life in a completely different way. Although John still thinks part of Jesus’ mission is to suffer and die, Jesus’ ultimate goal is not to overthrow Roman rule and establish an Earthly Kingdom of God. That’s not the promise John’s Jesus makes. He instead promised his followers eternal life after death. Think John 3:16.

To make this offer, Jesus must be one with God himself. And so in John, Jesus doesn’t keep his mission or his true nature a secret, like he does in Mark. In John, the main purpose of his ministry is to declare who he is (one with God himself), prove it by performing miracles,[26] and then do what is necessary to grant this eternal life to his followers by suffering and dying. The resurrection is the final proof that he was telling the truth.

Ehrman draws an analogy between how Mark and John remembered Jesus and how people in the American North and South remember the civil war. For the former, it was a war brought on by southern rebellion, motivated by their desire to keep slavery legal. For the latter, it was the war of northern aggression, motivated by their desire to keep southern states from governing themselves. Same war, different memory.

For Mark, Jesus was someone who would deliver his community from their suffering and bring judgement on the political authorities who were suppressing them. For John, Jesus was someone who promised and provided the means to eternal life. Same guy, different memory.” ~


Ehrman sees the "historical Jesus" (he opposes mythicism) as one of many apocalyptic preachers common around that time. Not that he thinks we can reliably extract a historical Jesus from the gospels (including those gospels that didn't make it to the canon), but he thinks there is a certain "gist" in those stories that adds up to an apocalyptic preacher. The gospel of John, however, strikes out in a new direction, more universal and less Judaic (in fact it’s been argued that John’s gospel is riddled with anti-Semitism).


If I were brought across the sea to Paradise
and forbidden to write, I’d refuse Paradise,
since what good is heaven without art,
which has a joyousness beyond the self?

(lines from a poem by Edward Hirsch, "Marina Tsvetaeva")

I’ve often thought about it: for me the only heaven would be the kind in which I could do some meaningful work. It wouldn’t have to be writing, but I can see that for my younger self, completely in love with poetry, it would indeed need to be writing, or I’d be dejected and begging to be returned to my desk.

These lines in the poem also fascinated me:

When you love a person you always want him
to disappear so your mind can work on him.
The imagination is a storm-cloud of rapture . . .

~ Edward Hirsch, in the volume "On Love"

I wouldn’t insist on “always,” but most of the time. For me being able to relive the experience, to meditate on it, has been as important as the experience itself — sometimes more so.


Creation of animals, Master Bertram, 1383, Grabow altarpiece. Here the creator is Jesus rather than Yahweh. Both he and the animals look quite sweet.

compare with Tintoretto's Creation of the Animals (1550), where it's certainly Yahweh


~ “A man whose “magic” Speer often refers to did not seem at all magical. In Speer’s telling, Hitler is duplicitous and vacuous, so intimidated by accomplished people that he surrounds himself with shallow hangers-on; he is humorless and only laughs at the expense of others; he tiresomely repeats himself and is delusional, even before the war, with what Speer describes as “fantastic misreadings” of reality. Yet Speer was devoted to him. Awed by him, loyal to him.

Speer belittles the architectural work he did for Hitler, mocking the designs as “pretentious,” but what remains astonishingly true is that he believed in Hitler’s architectural jingoism. Hitler tells Speer that Berlin, compared with Paris and Vienna, is “nothing but an unregulated accumulation of buildings,” and here Speer’s nationalist insecurity aligns with his architectural ambition. He, too, wanted to assuage Germany’s wounded pride, to wipe off the humiliation of losing the First World War by erecting edifices. He toiled to make a reality of Hitler’s imperial megalomania—buildings that would last a thousand years, structures that reflected a Germany to which the rest of the world would bow—so much so that his disapproving architect father, on seeing his models, told him, “You’ve all gone completely crazy.”

As a child, I could not have seen this book as the silver-tongued project of exculpation that it is. Nor would I have recognized how much Speer’s class privilege makes this possible. Speer’s class sneer is always present, always subtle, in his references—to Hitler’s petit-bourgeois background, to the unrefined tastes of Hitler’s other henchmen. He detests Bormann, whom he calls “a peasant” with “no culture,” a feeling rooted more in class than in morality. He objects not so much to what Bormann does as to the crude nature with which he does it, as though Bormann’s murderousness would not be so offensive had he exhibited some finesse. The burning of the Berlin synagogues and the “smashed panes of shop windows” offend his “sense of middle-class order.” He asks the slave laborers in his armaments factory if they are satisfied with their treatment. Evil is tolerable if purged of coarseness.

In my graduate class at Yale, a classmate once said, while studying the war in Sierra Leone, “African violence is different.” In that word, “different,” was a repressed shudder. He meant that hacking people to death with machetes lacked something that might have made it more bearable. A cold-blooded elegance, an efficiency, a remove. I will always remember that student because he illuminated for me the Western idea that turpitude, when committed by a certain kind of person and in a certain kind of way, is worthy of being engaged with. Speer, with the cultured, reasonable, modest manner that is the easy inheritance of the privileged classes, represented a kind of Teutonic ideal. It made possible his memoir, a well-written act of image-making. It made possible his designation as the “good Nazi,” somehow better than the others, a man whose ruthlessly steady hand kept the German war machine churning, who denied that he knew of millions of Jews being murdered, who burst into tears on seeing a photo of Hitler after his death.

Did I sense the insecurity that pervades this memoir, and, by extension, the Third Reich itself? A collection of men-children with infantile fantasies. Dreams of victory parades. Great halls built to impress. Bigger as better. The ringing echo, in Hitler’s refrain of “We are not inferior,” of a man desperate to believe himself.

It is interesting now, as Europe tries to find a sense of self, to read of Speer’s fleeting dream of an economically united Europe, with Germany as its leader. Or of Hitler’s belief that Islam was more compatible with Germans than Christianity. Or Speer’s suggestion that democracy is inherently not German and the Weimar Republic an aberration of Germanness because “tight public order was in our blood.”

Right-wing populism is rising again around the world, and it is hard not to look for lessons here. Hitler rose to power because he exploited in Germans that sense of what Speer called “personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy,” which “was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims.” He turned history into a reservoir of resentments. And he spoke simply. Speaking simply, in this case, meant discarding complexity and disregarding truth.


Speer wasn’t merely Hitler’s architect. Later during the war he ran the entire slave labor program.

I saw Speer interviewed. He cried a little when he recounted that he cried when told of Hitler’s death — which he couldn’t explain. Somehow he’d been under the spell of Hitler’s charisma, in spite of allegedly finding Hitler a repetitious bore.

In fact a lot of educated people, including Hitler’s top military officers, felt contempt for Hitler’s lack of education and his mediocre mind — and understood perfectly that invading the Soviet Union was a disaster (his generals warned Hitler accordingly) — and yet were somehow mesmerized by him.


Let us detox with something that’s sad yet beautiful:


January 25 was Virginia Woolf's birthday. It reminded me of the great affection her husband Leonard Woolf gave her — and she was profoundly grateful to him. This is her moving suicide note — perhaps the most loving suicide note anyone has ever written:

~ “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.” ~ 

Virginia Woolf; photograph by Giselle Freund, 1939

~ “You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. (. . . ) Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.” ~

Note that she did not write this to Vita Sackville-West or any other lover. Perhaps love is best defined not as a feeling but as acts of caring and patience. 


~ “We all know family drunks—red-nosed, slurring and a little bit out of control. But in an alcoholic family, the nondrinkers are sometimes as irrational as the drinkers.

Trump’s adored older brother Fred was one of those heart-breaking men who could not stop drinking. Fred, Trump has said, was, “the  best guy. He just had everything.”

But Fred was an alcoholic. When he went off to college, according to his younger brother, he started to drink too much. “He would tell me, ‘Don’t ever drink. Don’t ever drink.’”

Fred Trump could not take his own advice. He died at 42. For Fred’s kid brother Donald, it was a defining moment. “Because you’re so closely tied to your sibling, it’s not always easy to remain detached and impassive,” write Patricia Olsen and Dr. Petros Levounis in their book Sober Siblings, in which they urge the nondrinkers in a drinking family to get treatment.

Untreated, teetotalers like the Diet Coke–swilling Donald are often control freaks, hyper-competent because somebody has to get things done in an alcoholic household, shockingly honest and occasionally suffused with rage—all scars from the family tragedies that have led to their not drinking. 

“The family is also directly affected by the alcoholic’s behavior,” writes Janet Woititz in Adult Children of Alcoholics, her classic book about the alcoholic family. “Unable, without help, to counteract this, the family members get caught up in the consequences of the illness and become emotionally ill themselves.”

Trump has “opened up” to reporters about Fred’s death from alcoholism, but the actual cause of death is not on the record. (In fact, no one dies of alcoholism, they die from alcohol poisoning or liver disease, heart attacks or car accidents or suicide.) Fred Trump’s cause of death is never mentioned by his brother.

One of the horrors of alcoholism is the distortion and damage it can visit on the innocent—those who don’t drink. “Years of living with an alcoholic is almost sure to make any wife or child neurotic,” explains the book Alcoholics Anonymous. “The entire family is to some extent, ill.”   

Caretaker—the responsible one—hero—the one whose success distracts from the family problem—scapegoat—the one who speaks the truth others are afraid to mention—cheerleader and lost child: An alcoholic family creates a group of archetypes, according to therapist Sharon Wegsheider, as well as Woititz and others.

Donald Trump plays at least four of these roles. He is a proud patriarch who looks after his children and grandchildren; he gives them jobs, he urges them not to drink. Most of all, Trump is the scapegoat, a man who “tells it like it is,” as his followers often say admiringly. Although drinkers often say what they think—in vino veritas—their rule-breaking family members are even more likely to say what they think. 

But the effect of no liquor is as marked as the effect of too much liquor. 

Passionate teetotaling temperance is as much a part of American history as intemperate drinking. (The word teetotal is a stuttered version of total, as in total abstinence.) Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, started out as temperance crusaders. Phineas T. Barnum was so hooked on temperance that he offered to pay New York City taxes, send every child to school and present every family with a library and other goodies if the city would declare prohibition. The city was not interested.” ~

Trump siblings: Robert, Elizabeth, Fred jr, Donald, Maryanne

~ “Monkeys' vocal equipment can produce the sounds of human speech, but they lack the connections between the auditory and motor parts of the brain that humans rely on to imitate words.

"What you'll find in the textbooks is that monkeys can't talk because they don't have the appropriate vocal tract to do so," says Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna. "That, I think, is a myth. My colleagues and I all get very tired of seeing this. But you see it in all the textbooks. Lots of popular books, and also scholarly books about the evolution of language, assume that in order to evolve speech we had to have massive changes in our vocal tract. "

In the past, scientists looked at dead animals to judge what their vocal tracts could do. But Fitch says that made people vastly underestimate the flexibility of nonhuman mammals.

He and his colleagues monitored a long-tailed macaque named Emiliano as he made a wide range of different gestures and sounds, including lip-smacks, yawns, chewing, coos and grunts. Their special equipment took a rapid series of X-rays that allowed them to capture the full range of movement in the monkey's vocal tract. Then they used computer models to explore its potential for generating speech.

Friday, in the journal Science Advances, his team reports that monkeys would be physically capable of producing five distinguishable vowels — the most common number of vowels found in the world's languages.

The bottom line, says Fitch, is that a monkey's speech limitations stem from the way its brain is organized.

"As soon as you had a brain that was ready to control the vocal tract," Fitch says, "the vocal tract of a monkey or nonhuman primate would be perfectly fine for producing lots and lots of words."

The real issue is that monkeys' brains do not have direct connections down to the neurons that control the larynx and the tongue, he says. What's more, monkeys don't have critical connections within the brain itself, between the auditory cortex and motor cortex, which makes them incapable of imitating what they hear in the way that humans do.” ~


I remember, some years ago, great interest in teaching sign language to chimps. But it turned out that chimps had nothing interesting to say, and the interest waned.


~ “The simple answer to why barns are painted red is because red paint is cheap. The cheapest paint there is, in fact. But the reason it’s so cheap? Well, that’s the interesting part.

Red ochre—Fe2O3—is a simple compound of iron and oxygen that absorbs yellow, green and blue light and appears red. It’s what makes red paint red. It’s really cheap because it’s really plentiful. And it’s really plentiful because of nuclear fusion in dying stars. Zunger explains:

‘The only thing holding the star up was the energy of the fusion reactions, so as power levels go down, the star starts to shrink. And as it shrinks, the pressure goes up, and the temperature goes up, until suddenly it hits a temperature where a new reaction can get started. These new reactions give it a big burst of energy, but start to form heavier elements still, and so the cycle gradually repeats, with the star reacting further and further up the periodic table, producing more and more heavy elements as it goes. Until it hits 56. At that point, the reactions simply stop producing energy at all; the star shuts down and collapses without stopping.’

The element that has 56 protons and neutrons in its nucleus in its stable state? Iron. The stuff that makes red paint.

And that, Zunger explains, is how the death of a star determines what color barns are painted.” ~

 Barn and Clouds, Minor Martin White, 1955
YOU EITHER GET BETTER OR BITTER. I was getting more and more bitter, but I managed to catch myself in the nick of time. “Better late than never” has certainly been true in my life, again and again.


~ “There’s no real cure for the common cold, but a little bit of whiskey or bourbon (that’s a little bit, we said) could offer some relief.

The classic hot toddy, typically made of whiskey, honey, lemon juice and hot water, can subdue the injustices of your inevitable winter cold. The hot water of the toddy helps to relieve nasal congestion, just like heat of a bowl of chicken noodle soup (or Jewish penicillin) does.

And the whiskey helps with sniffle issues, too. “The alcohol dilates blood vessels a little bit, and that makes it easier for your mucus membranes to deal with the infection,” Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News.

Before you go ordering a half-dozen Manhattans from the local pub, know that too much alcohol will do anything but make you feel better. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it pulls fluid from the body. You know how after a wild night out you wake up with an unquenchable thirst (and a horrible headache)? This is because you’re dehydrated. When you’re already feeling like crap, you’ll especially want to avoid hangover symptoms. So if you are self-medicating with one (ONE!) hot toddy, make sure to drink extra amounts of other, non-alcoholic beverages, like water, to replenish. Like your mother always told you, drink plenty of fluids, especially when you’re nursing a toddy.” ~


I mentioned to Jose that I had “la gripe” and he answered with one word: “Tequila.”

Of course in Poland and other Slavic countries that answer would be “vodka.”

Some people swear by “mulled wine.”

Apparently the type of alcohol doesn’t matter — though beer would probably be too weak to really dilate blood vessels. “Nothing dilates the small blood vessels as well as alcohol,” a Polish biochemist told me.

This advice is strictly for people who don’t have a problem with alcohol.

ending on beauty:

When I die
I want it to be said that I wasted
hours in feeling absolutely useless
and enjoyed it, sensing my life
more strongly than when I worked at it.

~ David Ignatov, For Yaedi

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