Saturday, January 6, 2018


Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664. Note that the painting on the wall is the Last Judgment. The rich presumably won’t enter Heaven unless they sell their possessions and give the money to the poor — have you ever seen this happen? The rich woman in the painting is in danger of dying during childbirth — can we endure the thought of her being tossed into the flames of hell forever?


Only sound, Tomas, slips,
ghost-like, from the body.
Speech is an orphan sound.
Push the lampshade aside,
and by staring straight ahead
you’ll see air face to face:
swarms of those who have stained it
with their lips before us.

~ Josip Brodsky, “Lithuanian Nocturne”

Only sound slips like a ghost from the body, as the soul is supposed to do at the moment of death. “Speech is an orphan sound” — the parent body already left behind. Brodsky doesn’t believe in any other ghosts — only sound — mainly words, but not exclusively. He does believe in a larger community beyond the individual, and our connection with it — call it the “collective psyche.”

As for the tradition meaning of “soul,” I’ve said it several times by now: the ancient Hebrews did not believe in the soul apart from the body — and the word for soul was ruah, “breath.” The breath of life. Life started with the first breath, and ended with the last breath. You were either dead or alive, meaning breathing. That’s why the dead awakened by the angel’s trumpet had to put on bodies in order to be judged at the Last Judgment.

But something does leave the body and “travel” — the sounds we make. Brodsky didn’t want to say “words.” That would be too narrow. He wanted to include laughter and sobbing — hence “sound”:

Only sound, Tomas, slips,
ghost-like, from the body.
Speech is an orphan sound.

Later the word “stained” reminds me of Beckett’s “Every word is a stain on silence.” But that’s not Brodsky’s attitude. He’s more like Rilke, he saw the multitudes of those who loved before us — the geological layers of all the immense loving that preceded us— ancient fathers like ruined mountains, the dried riverbeds of foremothers. There is “tenderness toward existence” in both Rilke and Brodsky.

I am also reminded of the poem by Akhmatova where she imagines a huge column of grieving people walking in the snow behind her and Marina Tzvetayeva. There is a feeling of community with others — with multitudes.

Aside from that solidarity with others, Brodsky also shows the reality of the mental realm. Millions have lost the notion of a detachable, brain-free soul that keeps on roaming, consciousness intact, "unencumbered" by the body. But what happens after death is gradually becoming less important than our notions of life while it lasts. And the life of the mind, understood as a process, certainly has a strong reality. In fact it's in recent decades that we understood how much of our memory is fictional, and that, conversely, fictional characters may have influenced us more than actual people. Brodsky could be called a "literary atheist" — something I call myself at times. 

Known for always cracking jokes, Brodsky had a very stressful life, especially before being expelled from the Soviet Union. He knew a lot about suffering. I recommend his essays — marvelous writing, and his best work, most readers agree. Too bad he died so young (at 55), of heart disease. He’s buried in Venice, the city he loved, in part because it reminded him of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again). “Watermark” is a magical collection of his essays about Venice, but the ghost of a different city flits through it here and there — the ghost captured in words, consisting of words . . . 


First I must thank you for posting the Vermeer, that limpid serenity he creates, the figure suspended in time, in exquisite, perfect light, her gesture always unfinished, her future never to arrive, each painting like a meditation on time and eternity. He has always been one of my favorite painters.


For a while even art critics thought that the woman was using the balance to weigh pearls. But careful (in fact microscopic) examination revealed that the scales are empty. This suggests that the painting belongs to the “vanitas” genre. All that gleaming jewelry is nothing in the end: vanity, all is vanity.

And yet great art survives for centuries, even millennia — great paintings and sculptures, great poems, great plays. The genes that the woman in the painting has passed on her children are most likely still surviving in the population, though her specific family line may have come to an end. The necklaces, the rich clothes and furnishings — only their ghosts survive, so to speak — their images in the painting. 


~  “What made the Emperor Nero tick, Suetonius writes in “Lives of the Caesars,” was “a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.” Many Romans were convinced that Nero was mentally unbalanced and that he had burned much of the imperial capital to the ground just to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a gold-leaf-and-marble palace that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill. At enormous venues around the city, he is said to have sung, danced, and played the water organ for many hours—but not before ordering the gates locked to insure that the house would remain full until after the final encore. Driven half mad by Nero’s antics, Romans feigned death or shimmied over the walls with ropes to escape.

Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament. He has always craved attention. Now the whole world is his audience. In earlier times, Trump cultivated, among others, the proprietors and editors of the New York tabloids, Fox News, TMZ, and the National Enquirer. Now Twitter is his principal outlet, with no mediation necessary.

Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, undo the collective nervous system of a country, and degrade the whole of public life.

Trump joined Twitter in March, 2009. His early work in the medium provided telling glimpses of his many qualities. He was observant. (“I have never seen a thin person drinking Diet Coke.”) He used facts to curious ends. (“Windmills are the greatest threat in the US to both bald and golden eagles.”) He was concerned with personal appearance. (“Barney Frank looked disgusting—nipples protruding—in his blue shirt before Congress. Very very disrespectful.”) He was fastidious. (“Something very important, and indeed society changing, may come out of the Ebola epidemic that will be a very good thing: NO SHAKING HANDS!”) He was sensitive to comic insult. (“Amazing how the haters & losers keep tweeting the name ‘F*kface Von Clownstick’ like they are so original & like no one else is doing it.”) He was post-Freudian. (“It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!).”)

In due course, Trump perfected his unique voice: the cockeyed neologisms and the fractured syntax, the emphatic punctuation, the Don Rickles-era exclamations (“Sad!” “Doesn’t have a clue!” “Dummy!”). Then he started dabbling in conspiracy fantasies: China’s climate “hoax,” President Obama’s Kenyan birth, “deep-state” enemies trying to do him in. Meanwhile, he kept an indulgent eye on the family business (“Everybody is raving about the Trump Home Mattress”) and, via retweeting, sought new friends, including anti-Muslim bigots, a PizzaGate-monger, and someone who goes by @WhiteGenocideTM.

But Trump’s tweets are most valuable as a record of his inner life: his obsessions, his rages, his guilty conscience. No bile goes unexpectorated. Trump, who does not care for government work, is more invested in his reputation as a creative writer, declaring more than once that “somebody said” that he is “the Hemingway of a hundred and forty characters.”

Last week, when Trump returned to Washington from Mar-a-Lago, he set a White House record with a sixteen-tweet day. He behaved less like a President than like a teen-ager locked in his room with an ounce of Purple Skunk, three Happy Meals, and a cell phone. In one tweet, directed at the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, he arguably narrowed the odds of nuclear confrontation—and did so with a reference to an anatomical feature that is a subject of keen and ongoing concern to the President.

A new book by Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” amplifies, in lurid anecdote and quotation, what we have been learning elsewhere every day for the past year: Trump believed that he would lose the election, but would multiply his fame, his fortune, and his standing in American life. To near-universal shock, however, he won. And the consequences followed. Trump has no comprehension of policy and cares about it less. He surrounds himself with aides who are either wildly incompetent or utterly defeated in their attempts to domesticate the mulish and bizarre object of their attention. 

There are no lingering illusions about the President’s capacities: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump “a fucking moron” and spared us a denial. Wolff’s book, which leans heavily on interviews with Steve Bannon, makes it plain that pretty much everyone in the President’s circle agrees that he is, in terms of character and intellect, fantastically limited. There is no loyalty or deliberation in the White House, only a savage “Lord of the Flies” sort of chaos. Each day is at once preposterous, poisonous, and dangerous.

Nero had hoped to last long enough on the throne to re-brand the month of April “Neroneus” and the city of Rome “Neropolis.” He did not succeed. When he was thirty, having spent thirteen years in power, he was condemned by the Roman Senate as hostis publicus, a public enemy [thus forcing him to commit suicide]. He was doomed. One of his last utterances seemed to mark the despair of the politician-performance artist: Qualis artifex pereo! “What an artist dies in me!” ~

Statue of Nero as a boy


Trump as a modern Nero is quite apt. That constant and primary need for adulation, for applause. He is so obviously and primarily concerned with his “ratings,” that desire for attention and fame unrelated to what the action is in terms of its morality, rationality, necessity or appropriateness. He is unfortunately a man of our times — I think of the polls of young people who, when asked what they aspired to become, answered “famous.”

That kind of ambition does not bode well for our future, to say the least, and also reflects a terrible poverty of the imagination. The question of the president’s neurological decay is critical—how can we allow someone bragging about the size of his nuclear “button” to have access to that kind of power?

The denial to see what is plainly before us, and the normalization of this kind of aberrant thinking and action is to my mind actually suicidal, and as it continues to devolve I wonder what kind of future we can even dare to hope for. And just as in other historical instances of denial, we all bear the responsibility for our own inaction. This is my poem about such complicity, written well before Trump, but just as true for this as it was for other historical instances of refusing to see injustice, genocides and abominations wherever they occur.


The radiance of evil
burns the world down
to a fine white ash.
It settles on your hair
and eyelashes. You
breathe it in, you
taste it on your tongue.
You don’t know who
has been burned
but you are part of it.
You walk in ashes,
you find them in your
pockets, you rub them
out of your eyes. The streets
are deep with ash.
Women weep
behind high walls
until the air is thick
with grief. You
have not lifted
a finger. You fear
you will never
be clean again.

And, sadly, I do not think I am exaggerating our present danger.


Yes, fame at any price . . .  because it’s good for the “brand” — meaning oneself. People didn’t use to think of themselves as a “brand” they were selling, but when you examine the cultural history, that can trace that trend back to the salesman culture of the fifties — the idea that you “sell yourself.” This used to be a vulgar expression, implying prostitution. Then it became normalized: what a salesman really sells is his personality, we were told. You knew how to “sell yourself,” or you didn’t. Forget modesty: you were supposed to present yourself as the best, brightest, most accomplished — even if that meant “embellishing.” In the end, constant bragging and brazenly lying became much less objectionable than in the past. 

There used to be an ideal of modesty, with the now-forgotten proverb, “Let all mouths praise you except your own.” Alas, self-promotion took over completely. And that, I think, created a path for utterly shameless, obscene self promotion.


“Everybody was painfully aware of the increasing pace of his repetitions. Wolff describes a scene where, at Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, “a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognize a succession of old friends.” Wolff writes, “It used to be inside of 30 minutes he’d repeat, word-for-word and expression-for-expression, the same three stories—now it was within 10 minutes.” He added, “Indeed, many of his tweets were the product of his repetitions—he just couldn’t stop saying something.” ~


These are not “subtle” symptoms of dementia . . .  

For me the most telling evidence was the video in which he didn’t seem to recognize Melania, shaking hands with her as one might with a stranger.

"An idiot surrounded by clowns"? What if, sooner or later, it turns out to be dementia, as in Reagan's case . . .  

Reagan had the unswerving devotion of his wife to shield him and cover-up for him, but Trump has only his staff — and it’s clear that nobody really loves him. Adoration continues to flow from the delusional Evangelicals, at least some of whom have decided that Trump is Jesus Christ and this is the Second Coming. 


~ “Language is closely tied with cognition, and the president’s speech patterns are increasingly repetitive, fragmented, devoid of content, and restricted in vocabulary. Trump’s overuse of superlatives like tremendous, fantastic, and incredible are not merely elements of personal style. These filler words reflect reduced verbal fluency. Full transcripts of the president’s interviews with outlets like the New York Times and Time reveal the extent of his disorganized thought patterns.

Dysfunction of social cognition and behavior

Some of the president’s most concerning behaviors suggest a decline in social cognition: reduced insight and awareness into the thoughts and motivations of other people, coupled with symptoms like impulsivity and disinhibition that make him behave rudely and create needless controversy.

Episodes like these often occur because of impaired frontal lobe brain systems. These typically provide some degree of restraint from saying the first thing that crosses your mind. In a healthy brain, these ideas must make their way through multiple layers of checks and balances that take into account the social propriety and appropriateness of the audience for a given remark. Such frontal impairment often does not stop at troublesome communication, but has physical manifestations such as childlike facial expressions and physical restlessness, both features we see in Trump.

Dysfunction in memory, attention and concentration

The integrity of other primary cognitive domains like memory, attention, and concentration are tied up in all of the problems I mention above. Memory impairment is specifically implicated in episodes like forgetting to sign orders — not once, but twice — that were the purposes of the press events the president was attending. Attention and focus are key to forming memory; the lack of either makes it more likely to forget why one was in a room in the first place.

The symptoms I’ve observed raise the concern for mild cognitive impairment preceding frontotemporal dementia, which is particularly heavy on the behavioral symptoms like those the president displays, as well as more typical Alzheimer’s dementia, or dementia with Lewy bodies.


~ “He’s a cult leader. As such, his charisma is transactional. The followers endow the authoritarian leader with authority that is completely impervious to facts and reality.” ~


Of course a cult leader could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes. Arendt is right about the masses not caring about truth versus falsehood, but there is another factor as well: the leader must be seen as ONE OF US: white, male, promoting the master race versus the slave races, our country versus the inferior countries, our right to destroy the environment since we are boss, might makes right, women don’t own their bodies, and so on. 



~ “Joseph Smith had between 30 and 40 wives.

Mormons follow 13 key articles of faith — including a belief that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built on the American continent

    Mormons believe that God has a physical body, is married, and can have children

    Followers also believe that human beings can become like gods

    Those completing the Temple Endowment Ritual can wear the temple garment — a special type of white underwear worn day and night” ~


But what really interested me is the belief that god has a physical body and is married (to whom? multiple wives?) and fertile (able to have children).

Zeus, the Artemision Bronze


~ “It all came down to a numbers game, starting with population. The North had a population of 22 million against the South's 9.1 million which included the slaves.

The Union possessed a navy the South couldn't touch, industry and armaments the South couldn't match, currency backed up in California gold
, and women not encumbered by hoop skirts so wide you could hide 30 children under them.

Now, this is not meant to suggest that there weren't some close calls for the Union throughout the war — there were. But the U.S. government had already been through several wars the past fourscore years while the Confederate government was never able to get their shit together. While the Union had transformed Washington, D.C., into the most fortified city on the planet, the Rebels were still fighting over what flag to use.

When the threat of foreign intervention cropped up, Lincoln threw ambassadors like John Quincy Adams' son at the Europeans while the Confederates had nothing to offer but peach cobbler and the overuse of "y'all." In short, the South never stood a chance against the Union politically, militarily or diplomatically.

But what about the brilliant strategy? Didn't they have Robert E Lee and all those guys? Well …

General Lee aside, both the North and the South had their share of dumbass generals, and the case has been made that the Confederates had the larger share, which is not too surprising when you consider that they lost.

The biggest problem was that the military elites from both the North and South were educated in old school battle techniques, but were firing off state of the art weaponry. Which meant they were still lining up and squaring off against each other in battle, but instead of shooting Revolutionary War muskets, they were shooting longer ranged rifles and the very first machine guns. Which made as much sense as taking grenades to a water gun fight -- one where no one shows up with water balloons. And why early Civil War battles like Shiloh killed more soldiers than every war in American history up to that point put together ... in just two days.

But better guns coupled with opposing soldiers so close they could foxtrot together wasn't the only problem for the generals. Both the North and South executed some bafflingly stupid strategies that cost the lives of thousands of men. Like when Robert E. Lee ordered Major General George Pickett to lead over 12,000 soldiers across an open field and into the [loving arms] firing rifles of Union soldiers, getting half of his men killed on the spot. Or when Union commander George B. McClellan became one of the few commanders in U.S. history to desert his troops not once or twice, but three times on the battlefield.

Seriously, with friends like that, who needs anything other than a last will and testament?” ~


I'm startled to have come across this so soon after finding the article on how Germany never had a chance of winning WW2 — and for some of the same reasons: completely outnumbered and outgunned.

With a larger army, you can win if you simply have the political win to wage the war of attrition — time is on your side. Lincoln definitely had the will. 


Stated as it is in terms of population and supplies it is evident the South could not have won against the superior numbers and industrial advantages of the North and its weaponry. The tragedy of numbers is certainly due to the use of old battle strategies completely inadequate and even ridiculously wrong-headed in the face of superior modern weapons. This lag in adjustment is also not peculiar to the Civil War but can be found again and again, in both world wars, and in that long misery of VietNam, where battle strategies were completely inadequate to guerrilla tactics. In a recent Smithsonian article on Calley and the MyLai massacre it is even suggested that the massacre was a response to the frustration of an enemy you could not see, not identify, not touch, who was both everywhere and nowhere, who attacked and disappeared, again and again.

Thinking of the “culture” of the South I cannot help but see the disjunction between delusion and reality — an entire society that was a “whited sepulcher” — gracious and romantic “gentility” supported and made possible with the utter dehumanization and enslavement of an entire group of human beings denied all human rights. Drape it in lace, put it behind white pillars, you can’t conceal the stench. Twain satirizes this so well in Huckleberry Finn, all those chivalric notions paid for in human flesh. I think of what could be hidden under those ridiculous crinolines, of the nauseating nostalgia for slavery in Gone With the Wind. And I wonder if our present state is sinking deep into another of these terrible disjunctions.


You are right on about the tragic lag in warfare theory versus practice. I live near the Navy stockyards, watching obsolete and very expensive warships still being built. All those clunky, metal dinosaurs! And in spite of the emergence of drones, billions are still being sunk into obsolete bombers. The price of even one of those could do wonders for schools, hospitals, medical research, the infrastructure, and so on — the obscenely useless killing machines being produced at the expense of things we badly need.

There was also a Star Trek episode on a culture famous for its art and love of beauty — the refinement made possible by the work of slaves kept underground, out of sight. Naturally, rebellions have to be put down, and the Star Trek visitors’ awe turns into horror. This is a thinly veiled human cultural history — slaves made civilization possible. And an Indie film maker (sorry to have forgotten his name) said, “Women are our last slaves.”

It’s only rather recently that a significant portion of society accepted the belief that many, rather than few, should be able to enjoy the “good life” — not just in terms of material comfort, but also access to education and cultural experiences such as travel abroad. As always, there has been a backlash, and cries that there is nothing wrong with inequality — that the poor are lazy (that again) and deserve to subsist on poverty wages in dangerous, decaying neighborhoods.

What a setback from the progress achieved in the decades immediately after WW2, when there seemed to be the understanding that higher wages for factory workers, for instance, improved the economy as a whole. Henry Ford was a pioneer who understood that paying the workers enough so they could buy the car they were producing would ultimately pay off. I can’t quite understand how his wisdom was lost and the greed of the few prevailed. All we know is that the disastrous trend started with Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich.

I agree that again we see delusions triumphing over reality. Alas, the lessons of history are not cheerful — the triumph of delusions can last for a very long time. 


it’s one thing to contemplate slavery in Antiquity, and another to have it well into the middle of the 19th century. The startling use of “bucks” and “wenches”  — since obviously you don’t want to use words making them human like anyone else.

By 1650, hereditary enslavement based upon color, not upon religion, was a bitter reality in the older Catholic colonies of the New World. In the Caribbean and Latin America, for well over a century, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers had enslaved “infidels”: first Indians and then Africans. At first, they relied for justification upon the Mediterranean tradition that persons of a different religion, or persons captured in war, could be enslaved for life. But hidden in this idea of slavery was the notion that persons who converted to Christianity should receive their freedom. Wealthy planters in the tropics, afraid that their cheap labor would be taken away from them because of this loophole, changed the reasoning behind their exploitation. Even persons who could prove that they were not captured in war and that they accepted the Catholic faith still could not change their appearance.

Increasingly, the dominant English came to view Africans not as “heathen people” but as “black people.” They began, for the first time, to describe themselves not as Christians but as whites. And they gradually wrote this shift into their colonial laws. Within a generation, the English definition of who could be made a slave had shifted from someone who was not a Christian to someone who was not European in appearance.

 As if this momentous shift were not enough, it was accompanied by another. Those who wrote the colonial laws not only moved to make slavery racial; they also made it hereditary. Under English common law, a child inherited the legal status of the father. As Virginia officials put it in 1655: “By the Comon Law the Child of a Woman slave begot by a freeman ought to bee free.”

But within seven years that option had been removed. Faced with cases of “whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or Free,” the Virginia Assembly in 1662 decided in favor of the master demanding service rather than the child claiming freedom. In this special circumstance, the Virginia Assembly ignored all English precedents that children inherited the name and status of their father. Instead, the men in the colonial legislature declared that all such children “borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” In Virginia, and soon elsewhere, the children of slave mothers would be slaves forever.

Conservative Christians have done so much more than the New Atheists to get people over to our side. First, they get people to realize how awful the Bible actually is, since all their beliefs stem from it. And once people are willing to admit the Bible isn’t the “Good Book” they always thought it was, it’s not very long until they reject its authority altogether.” ~ Herman Mehta

Though I was already an atheist when I took my “The Bible as Literature” class, it was only then that I realized the bible is filled with archaic cruelty — a morally obscene text. What was presented to me during religion lessons was a highly selective version. True, it wasn’t possible to skip stories like Noah’s Flood or Abraham and Isaac, but you could present them with the emphasis on mercy, however slender or last-minute. The story of Job, even though it has a tacked-on happy ending? It was entirely omitted, the bet between god and Satan unknown to me until college. The gang-raped concubine cut into twelve parts? Let’s be serious: you can’t expect a nun to pronounce the word “concubine.”

On the other hand, I never heard the bible referred to as the “Good Book” either. The Catholic church knew better, but their lips were sealed. The authority was not the bible — it was the edicts of the Pope.

But in a majority Protestant country, what Mehta says is plausible. And I'm pretty sure he's right: conservative Christians have done more to make people leave organized religion than the New Atheists.

Savannah: an infrared photo

~ “There are plenty of secondary reasons for [the increase in mental illness], but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.

If social rupture is not treated as seriously as broken limbs, it is because we cannot see it. But neuroscientists can. A series of fascinating papers suggest that social pain and physical pain are processed by the same neural circuits. This might explain why, in many languages, it is hard to describe the impact of breaking social bonds without the words we use to denote physical pain and injury. In both humans and other social mammals, social contact reduces physical pain. This is why we hug our children when they hurt themselves: affection is a powerful analgesic. Opioids relieve both physical agony and the distress of separation. Perhaps this explains the link between social isolation and drug addiction.

Experiments summarized in the journal Physiology & Behavior last month suggest that, given a choice of physical pain or isolation, social mammals will choose the former. Capuchin monkeys starved of both food and contact for 22 hours will rejoin their companions before eating. Children who experience emotional neglect, according to some findings, suffer worse mental health consequences than children suffering both emotional neglect and physical abuse: hideous as it is, violence involves attention and contact. Self-harm is often used as an attempt to alleviate distress: another indication that physical pain is not as bad as emotional pain. As the prison system knows only too well, one of the most effective forms of torture is solitary confinement.

It is not hard to see what the evolutionary reasons for social pain might be. Survival among social mammals is greatly enhanced when they are strongly bonded with the rest of the pack. It is the isolated and marginalized animals that are most likely to be picked off by predators, or to starve. Just as physical pain protects us from physical injury, emotional pain protects us from social injury. It drives us to reconnect. But many people find this almost impossible.

It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.

There are some wonderful charities doing what they can to fight this tide, some of which I am going to be working with as part of my loneliness project. But for every person they reach, several others are swept past.

This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.” ~


Nothing is all good or all bad. The more communitarian society of the past also meant less privacy, and more people living under the same roof could mean feeling trapped with a relative you didn’t like. But for a child, I think, having an extended family is mainly positive. I am enormously grateful to have had all those cousins, and my live-in grandmother, when I was a child.

The negative aspects were there too, to be sure. It wasn't all about mental and emotional richness and support. But “social isolation” was not a concept that had any reality for me until I came to the US. And then immediately America = loneliness came into being.

“People used to be a lot more available to each other in the past,” I was told. Now everyone seemed “too busy.” So I’ve learned that the way to cope was to keep busy.


“The tragedy of marriage is that women think men will change and they don't, and men think women won't change but they do.” ~ (sounds like Oscar Wilde, doesn't it? But no; it was said by a little known writer, Leonard Cyril Deighton.)


In marriages that aren't a tragedy (Hollywood would call them a “dramedy”), both people change but only gain respect for the more mature partner. In any case, it's always a different marriage every 5-7 years or so.

D.H. Lawrence said that marriage is about disappointment. I suspect that every marriage has to go through the stage of disappointment before moving on to a deeper level of cooperation and commitment. Let’s face it, the couple have to learn how not to drive each other crazy, how to grow a little deaf so that certain remarks are simply not heard, and so forth. Otherwise what I’ve seen is couples waging marriage as warfare — very sad.


~ “Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.

Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.

“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”

The stress response in humans is facilitated by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys and spit adrenaline into our blood whenever we’re in need of fight or flight. That stress response is crucial in dire circumstances. But little of modern life truly requires it. Most of the time, our stress responses are operating as a sort of background hum, keeping us on edge. Turn that off, and we relax.

For a long time, it has been understood that the adrenal glands were turned on and off by a couple discrete pathways coming from the brain. “Folks said there was one particular cortical area, perhaps two, that controlled the adrenal medulla,” Strick explained.

Randy Bruno, an  associate professor of neuroscience at Columbia University, further explained that “the way people usually think about the cortex, it’s very hierarchical.” That is, perceptions come in from the world and get sent from one part of the brain to the next, to the next, to the next. They go all the way up the chain of command to the frontal cortex. That sends some signals down to create motor actions.

If stress is controlled by these few cortical areas—the part of the brain that deals in high-level executive functioning, our beliefs and existential understandings of ourselves—why would any sort of body movement play a part in decreasing stress?

Now Strick seems to have solved his own problem. In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Pittsburgh neuroscientists showed that they have discovered a discrete, elaborate network in the cerebral cortex that controls the adrenal medulla. It seems that the connections between the brain and the adrenal medulla are much more elaborate than previously understood. Complex networks throughout the primary sensory and motor cortices are tied directly to our stress responses.
“This is suggesting a much more decentralized process,” said Bruno of the findings. He was not involved in the study.“You have lots of different circuits built on top of one another, and they’re all feeding back to one of our most primitive and primordial response systems. They've really shown that stress is controlled by more than the traditional high-level cognitive areas. I think that’s a big deal.”

The Pitt team didn't think the primary motor cortex would control the adrenal medulla at all. But there are a whole lot of neurons there that do. And when you look at where those neurons are located, most are in the axial muscle part of that cortex.

“Something about axial control has an impact on stress responses,” Strick reasons. “There’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress. And when you see somebody that's depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it has an effect on how you project yourself and how you feel.  Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress. And I suspect that if you activate core muscles inappropriately with poor posture, that’s going to have an impact on stress.”

“These neural pathways might explain our intuitive sense for why there are many different strategies for coping with stress,” said Bruno. “I like the examples they give in the paper—that maybe this is why yoga and pilates are so successful. But there are lots of other things where people talk about mental imagery and all sorts of other ways that people deal with stress. I think having so many neural pathways having direct lines to the stress control system, that’s really interesting.”

Strick focused on movement, but Bruno specializes in sensory neuroscience, so he read more into the findings in the primary somatosensory cortex. Some of these tactile areas in the brain seem to be providing as much input to the adrenal medulla as the cortical areas. “To me that's really new and interesting,” said Bruno. “It might explain why certain sensations we find very relaxing or stressful.”
I thought of a good back scratch, or, for some reason, the calming sensation of putting your bare hand into a plate of fresh pasta.

The idea that primary sensory and motor areas in the brain have a part in to modifying internal states in such a prominent way has caused Bruno to question the very nature of these areas of the brain. “It's not clear to me—from our work, and from their work—that what we call motor cortex is really motor cortex,” he said. “Maybe the primary sensory cortex is doing something more than we thought. When I see results like these, I go, hm, maybe these areas aren’t so simple.”

The Pitt team has previously injected the heart and seen cortical areas that are involved in controlling its rhythm. They believe that may explain cases of sudden unexpected death—from epilepsy, from brain injury, even from strong emotional stimuli (positive and negative) leading to heart attacks. There is also the emerging field of neuro-immunology, which is looking at the effects of stress on the immune system.

All of this lends some credence to people who may once have been dismissed by people like Strick himself, who are skeptical of anything that isn’t borne out by a concrete mechanism. As he put it, “How we move, think, and feel have an impact on the stress response through real neural connections.” ~


I realize that this is purely “anecdotal,” but the article reminded me of the time when my knee wasn't yet too bad, and a new Pilates class opened up at the Y, so I did Pilates twice a week rather than just once. One surprising result was that I got to feel a lot happier overall. I worried less, had a more “can do” and “just do it” attitude, etc. — this in spite of the fact that I detested the instructor. Then they canceled the class, and in a short time I was back to baseline.

One possibility is increased testosterone, which is a feel-good, let's-get-active hormone. This is not to deny the benefits of improved posture etc. But the hormonal connection should also be investigated.

Another interesting part of this article is the impact of sensory experiences. I am deeply affected by the experience of beauty. I will never forget one spectacular palm tree I could see from my window during the most stressful years of my life. The lush green fountain-like beauty of that palm tree stopped any thought of suicide (and I thought of suicide every day). 

 ending on beauty:
~ Hamlet: Denmark is a prison.

Rosencratz: When then your ambition makes it one. ’Tis too narrow for your mind.

Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.

Guildenstern: Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream. ~

Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2


We pay attention to different things in the text depending on the stage of life and the current central themes of our life. Usually the emphasis here is on "king of infinite space," but there was a time when what struck me most was "bad dreams." And now I am excited by what is being said about ambition: “Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.”

Yes, I know, but this image was more beautiful than anything portraying Hamlet than I could find.

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