Saturday, March 10, 2018


tourmaline slice, Brazil

How dare you come home from your factory
Of autumns, your slaughterhouse, weathered
And incurious, with your hair bound
Loosely, not making use
Of every single part of the horse
That was given to you. What of his hooves.
His mane. His heart his gait his cello tail
His joy in finding apples fallen
As he builds his coat for winter every year.

~ Lucie Brock-Broido, “Contributor’s Note”

We have just lost Lucie Brock-Broido. She wasn’t quite 62. An unusual and wildly imaginative poet, on the Gothic side and not especially a favorite of mine, but her Master Letters (loosely based on Dickinson’s correspondence with Higginson) and a handful of lyrics stand out. Together with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, she’ll be remembered as someone who who’s given us much beauty, and whom we lost too soon.

In this poem (what I quote here is an excerpt) the speaker mockingly berates herself for not making use in her work of every bit of life experience. But the portion I quote will always be “Horse” in my mind. It works better for me at the literal level. The horse doesn’t experience anguish over the meaning of his life. He rejoices in finding fallen apples.

“His cello tail” — wow. Horsehair is used for making the bows of string instruments. Thank horses next time you listen to a string quartet. But the image of the cello enters here too, the size and beauty of the instrument, and the wonderfully mellow sound is produces.

But the beginning is dark, making us remember the usual fate of old horses, and how we, enterprising humans, try to make use of every single part of the animal. (The Nazis come to mind, with their ideas of how to make soap, stuffed sofas, lampshades . . . )

But this is all extended metaphor, the poet wants us to know. It’s a reproach to herself for not making a fuller use of her life experiences in her poems.

How dare you come home from your factory
Of autumns, your slaughterhouse
. . . not making use
Of every single part of the horse
That was given to you. What of his hooves.
His mane. His heart his gait his cello tail
His joy in finding apples fallen
As he builds his coat for winter every year.

There is here a reproach about how we treat animals, but it’s not the gist of the poem. Ultimately we are the ones who age (“the factory of autumns”) and who feel that life is short and we mustn’t waste it.

I say that to make any use of one’s experiences at all is already quite an accomplishment. I don’t think I’ve made use of more than 10% of mine — at least when it comes to writing. And even that is overwhelming, blocking me with abundance whenever I try to choose a small sample. The great lesson I’ve learned is to think small. “We manage best when we manage small” ~ Linda Gregg (I know I keep quoting this — hardly any other piece of life wisdom has been as useful).

On the other hand, it could be argued that a lot of our experience — our whole life, in a way — goes into what we write, even if the actual narrative reflects only a tiny part of what we’ve lived through (or heard, or read about). The whole of what our mind has become influences even the shortest pieces we create. Rilke believed that nothing is wasted, not even that which on the conscious level we’ve forgotten. Somehow it will be passed on — not necessarily through writing, but in countless other ways. We touch the lives of others, an astounding privilege.

But then perhaps finding joy in fallen apples is enough. Nothing is wasted — or everything is wasted. It doesn’t matter as long as the apples taste good.

And what a work of beauty a horse is, or any animal. What luck if an animal approaches you, trusts you, lets you stroke that winter coat. Animals make us happy more reliably than fellow humans do. Maybe it’s not about “use”, but happiness of mere existence — which is like saying “mere miracle.”

My thanks to Charles for providing this image 

~ “The story told by Rappaport to Hogarth includes terrifying scenes of a street execution taking place in the yard of the prison, in his hometown, in 1942. Rapaport spent a couple of hours lined up against the wall waiting his turn before the unexpected arrival of a film crew saved his life. During this time he witnesses a grotesque scene where a Jewish man tries to persuade Germans that he too is German, only he is saying this in Yiddish, a scene which to Rappaport, in his current state of mind, appears to be infinitely funny. Then awaiting his turn in front of the firing squad, he decides to turn his thoughts to reincarnation.

Only many years later, in a private letter to his American translator Michael Kandel from 1972, did Lem for the first time admit that Rappaport’s story told by Hogarth is in fact his own.

In another of Lem’s classics The Star Diaries (The Eleventh Voyage), we find Ijon Tichy arrive on a planet ruled by revolting robots which, it seems, learned to be violent from people and are now engaging in terrifying behavior. The story climaxes in a macabre scene reminiscent of a selection in extermination camps performed on human children by robots wielding axes.

As Gajewska argues, the fragment stylized in Baroque-like language uses the ironic distance to undermine the possible associations with the historical events of the Holocaust. As such, this horrifying and grotesque depiction of the Holocaust is unparalleled in Polish literature. The story continues to reveal the true reason behind the robots’ erratic behavior (the robots are in fact people dressed as robots) and ends with a bitterly ironic conclusion: ‘It's comforting to know when you think about it, that only man can be a bastard.’

Agnieszka Gajewska explores these traces of Lem’s wartime experiences through categories of witness and survivor, themes familiar in Holocaust studies. The motifs related with Lem’s wartime experiences are not reduced to scenes of wartime violence but encompass such aspects as wartime displacement which Gajewska finds echoes of in Lem’s narratives and characters, like protagonists who at times seem like refugees traveling through distant galaxies. ‘One gets a feeling like they don’t have a place to go back to,’ argues Gajewska.

As Gajewska reconstructs Lem’s train of thought, such people are not able to identify with the funeral processions gathered over ditches full of human flesh described in The Plague simply because in Camus' world people attending funerals have time to despair and grieve. At the same time, Lem weighs in critically on his own approach which he recognizes as ‘barbaric’. He understands that artistic work is not capable of endlessly repeating the phrase ‘man-made soap from humans.’ At the same time, he emphasizes, for an artist, the importance of experiencing within oneself what he calls a sense of ‘complete doubt in man,’ an experience which has penetrated our present reality and electrified the air not only in the ‘Bloodlands’ – an experience which according to Lem, Camus was missing.” ~


Lem wasn't the only one who preferred not to speak directly about the horror he'd been through. Some survivors (of concentration camps, for instance) chose to stay silent. Or they'd speak about some experiences, then come to a point when they'd say, "I can't speak about it." It could be just too much. Growing up, it was my impression that the most common strategy was selective telling. Seeing an incident as funny, remembering some black humor, was another frequent tactic.

Milosz also mentions a survivor’s fantasy (or call it “magical thinking”) that everything is restored to the way it was before. The people who were too young to die are alive again, walking and talking. Beautiful buildings destroyed by bombs and fires and standing again. Part of Milosz’s religious conversion (fragile as it was) was the idea that god had the power to resurrect and recreate.

I remember that in one of Lem’s stories a planet was subject to frequent hits by meteors (bombing raids?). The inhabitants adjusted to this having underground factories that created replicas of anyone killed — ideally the replicant wouldn’t even be aware that he’d been annihilated. Likewise the rebuilding of structures was done with amazing speed. Like much of Lem’s work, the story is told by a visitor who shows an almost scientific detachment, and is permeated with absurdist humor. Now that I'm aware of the writer’s background, I am not surprised that the story seemed so particularly vivid to me, and that I remember it after so many decades. My having grown up among the survivors of bombing raids explains a lot.

“My past has disappeared,” Lem remarks in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. His past was murdered, deported, annexed away — his very survival seemingly random, owing to a chance arrival of a German film crew just as he was about to be shot in a mass execution. How does one cope with such memories? I don’t have to reach very far: my own father provided an excellent example. The answer is: black humor and selective telling. Very selective. Mostly silence.


“Man does not create gods, in spite of appearances. The times, the age, impose them on him.” ~ Stanislaw Lem


Neither do we choose the central themes of our life, or what we write about. In fact it’s a little strange that until the book by Gajewska no one questioned the origins of Lem’s darkness, or a title like Gruppenführer Louis XVI.

Dominique Signoret: Symmetriad


Again you provide a feast of ideas and questions! The poem by Lucie Brock-Broido and the discussion of Stanislaw Lem both ask what does the writer do with all his life experience, how is it done, and what is our responsibility to that experience as writers. Each life is so rich, experience so inexhaustible, it can never be “used up” — and most will use only a fraction of that in their work, and yet, nothing will be wasted. Each created object comes from the totality of its author’s life experience, in all the particulars unique to that history and that sensibility — no one else and no other time or place could have produced it. So the poem/novel/painting is like a hologram, replete with all the experience and information that made it both possible and necessary, for that artist, with that history, in that time and that place.

Lem also presents the problem of experience and memories so horrific, so evil, they can not be comprehended in any ordinary way; they seem to belong to a nightmare world, a world beyond reason, outside the boundaries of human possibility. This experience can stun us into silence, and, as noted, for many who endured it, silence became their response, a defense against the horror of memory. The suggestion that he reproduces the story of the holocaust in his science fiction demonstrates one way of processing such experience — holding it off at arm’s length, and creating a fable that shows all the evils occurring — but at a safe distance, in another time, another world.


“Each created object comes from the totality of its author’s life experience, in all the particulars unique to that history and that sensibility — no one else and no other time or place could have produced it. So the poem/novel/painting is like a hologram, replete with all the experience and information that made it both possible and necessary, for that artist, with that history, in that time and that place.” Exactly, exactly. We are so unique that it can be a source of pain — at times we long for a  mental twin, a perfect confidant who understands all we’ve been through. But we alone have been through the experiences of our life.

Excellent remarks about Lem. Turning to a popular American writer, knowing that Kurt Vonnegut had survived the bombing of Dresden is one of the keys to understanding the darkness that keeps turning up his novels — note again the affinity for science fiction and absurdist humor. The novels, those brilliant “fantasies,” were created by men who knew they were alive thanks to sheer luck. Talk about understanding randomness and God the Utterly Indifferent . . . 

Stanislaw Lem, 1966 


~ “Why does the ipso facto all-knowing God, for whom future holds no mysteries and by whom the nature and the sheer relative length of every human being's destiny is predetermined in advance, still, as per the endless strands of biblical narratives, gets angry at and disappointed with people, feels the need to punish them for their flaws and weaknesses, for their sinful acts and dire moral transgressions? Why would someone who predetermines humans' actions feel angered or, in rarer instances, pleased when the humans proceed to act in their exact predetermined ways?

And why does Jesus, knowing in advance everything that is going to happen to him at the end of his earthly incarnation, still behave in uncertain ways that would seem to presuppose the opposite?

Because, I would suggest, the Bible is a narrative, and one created by and for the humans. And God as its main protagonist also is a narrative. In order to be understandable to people, God must react in ways people can relate to. Limitless determinism is not something we the humans are capable of wrapping our minds around. We cannot comprehend anything which does not have a beginning or an end, and neither are we capable of grasping the fullness of God’s putative eternal knowing.

NOT-knowing — that's what drives and gives meaning to our lives. And so, the Bible — which, again, was a book written by ordinary human beings, mere mortal men, must feature as its primary hero — God — someone who is effectively a human being, only one possessed of limitless (and therefore, incomprehensible) power over other humans.

If you behave well, if you lead a sinless life, if you fear and obey God, you're going to go to heaven, which would be cool. And if not — well, hell…

But God already knows, and has known from the very outset of your existence, whether you're going to be a good person or not, a pious man or a sinner, a saint or a monster, in the final balance of your existence — God has already predetermined your character and your path through life for you! Why the pretense then, whence the ambiguity?

Because the book is a work of literature and God is a literary character — and as such, God must be relatable to people. That which cannot be comprehended by human beings cannot be expressed in human language. An all-knowing, all-powerful character is as good as a non-existent one. Thus, the God of the Bible cannot be the God described in the Bible. An all-knowing, all-powerful literary protagonist cannot exist, and therefore cannot be presented to people.
All-knowing God is sitting in some small room on the outskirts of the universe, checking His/Her smartphone messages . . . whereof there are none, of course because what's the point of writing someone who knows what you're going to write even before you start thinking of what to say? Where there is no Not-knowing, there is no point in knowing.” 

~ Mikhail Iossel

Note how glum Yahweh looks in this painting. Power doesn't make us happy — productive work and being loved make us happy. And who can really love the kind of god whose true power is based in the fear of hell?


Mikhail isn't of course the first one to write about god as a literary character. Jack Miles is best known for his best-selling God: A Biography (1996). Scholars such as Richard Elliott Friedman (a theist) have pointed to the evolution in the character of god from the early to the late books of the Hebrew Bible — he becomes less active, visible and vocal and more and more removed and abstract (also less cruel — unless we regard his decision to “hide his face” a species of cruelty). Trying to span all three Abrahamic religions, Robert Wright traced the Evolution of God (2009) — which recalls Nietzsche's admonition not to argue about the existence of god, since it's enough to trace the evolution of the concept.

But Iossel may be the first one to explicitly address the issue of omniscience. An omniscient narrator is of course a common device, but an omniscient character doesn’t work — it’s not knowing that creates the dramatic tension that literature needs. Now, all "sacred scriptures" were written in the so-called “Empire Era” — the era era of absolute kings and warlords — super-dictators with no checks on their power. It didn't take all that much imagination to come up with a "king of kings" in the sky. You could say it was a natural development, a parallel to the earthly hierarchies. But in order to have stories about this Supreme Being, Misha points out, we can't have him omniscient. The bible is literature, and to work as literature (or think simply "story") means you have to have uncertainty, so you can have dramatic tension.

Note the wonderful image at the end: god in a small room at the outskirts of the universe, checking his iPhone for messages
except there aren't any. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevski imagined eternity as a country bathhouse, with dried-up spiders in the corners. Iossel's final paragraph modernizes that, bringing us up to the 21st century. After all, we always insert what we know even into what seem like far-out fantasies. Those who wrote the bible were no different.

~ “My mother was paralyzed from the waist down the last 5 years of her life. She couldn't go any place without a lot of pain. But she loved to sit on her back porch and look at the little plot of grass back there. When she had a massive stroke and couldn't move at all or even talk, I asked her if she still wanted to live. She couldn't speak or move her head but she made it clear she did want to live. I think it was Dostoevsky who said that even a square foot of space could be enough to keep one wanting to live.” ~ John Guzlowski


I remember how Dostoyevski wondered about a prisoner chained to the wall — what kept him alive. He concluded that it was the knowledge that after four years the prisoner would be “off the chain” and able to walk a certain short distance — longer than just the four feet he was able to move while chained.

In a more common context, I’ve often wondered if I’d have the will to live if a stroke (say) deprived me of the ability to write. I lean to the view that as long as I could look at the world, that would be enough. There is so much beauty even in ordinary things.

Saying “yes to life” is pretty automatic — unless one is deeply depressed. It’s saying “yes to death” that takes some difficult mental processing. Eventually it somehow happens. There came a point at which I realized that I am less bothered by mortality than I was in my youth. Simultaneously, I also knew that I was no longer bothered by the ultimate meaninglessness of my existence (“ultimate” is the critical word here; in the immediate sense I am intensely grateful to my readers and anyone whose life I manage to touch in a positive way). Nor am I any more disturbed by the thought that I’ll be forgotten soon after I'm gone.

I confided to a fellow poet that I’ve arrived at a point that the thought of long-term meaninglessness and being quickly forgotten no longer bother me. “That’s a hard-earned attitude,” he responded. Yes, exactly. Though it seems that this simply happened, without any agonized thinking, I know that I did much agonized thinking in my youth — much clinging to desperate hope and ambition. 

Interesting: when longer-term meaninglessness and the prospect of being quickly forgotten ceased to bother me, enjoying life became quite important. Small pleasures became almost sacred. Watering my plants — a holy ritual (more meaningful, too, than anything done in church).

But let’s not forget that brain function changes with aging. Just the different levels of neurotransmitters predict the proverbial “mellowing.” And the more we “mellow,” the more we can pay attention to a patch of grass, the way it lights up in the afternoon sun.

~ “Conservatives react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do, [according to multiple studies]. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals. And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course). But no one had ever turned conservatives into liberals.

Until we did.

In a new study to appear in a forthcoming issue of the European Journal of Social Psychology, my colleagues Jaime Napier, Julie Huang and Andy Vonasch and I asked 300 U.S. residents in an online survey their opinions on several contemporary issues such as gay rights, abortion, feminism and immigration, as well as social change in general. The group was two-thirds female, about three-quarters white, with an average age of 35. Thirty-percent of the participants self-identified as Republican, and the rest as Democrat.

But before they answered the survey questions, we had them engage in an intense imagination exercise. They were asked to close their eyes and richly imagine being visited by a genie who granted them a superpower. For half of our participants, this superpower was to be able to fly, under one’s own power. For the other half, it was to be completely physically safe, invulnerable to any harm.

If they had just imagined being able to fly, their responses to the social attitude survey showed the usual clear difference between Republicans and Democrats — the former endorsed more conservative positions on social issues and were also more resistant to social change in general.

But if they had instead just imagined being completely physically safe, the Republicans became significantly more liberal — their positions on social attitudes were much more like the Democratic respondents. And on the issue of social change in general, the Republicans’ attitudes were now indistinguishable from the Democrats. Imagining being completely safe from physical harm had done what no experiment had done before — it had turned conservatives into liberals.

In both instances, we had manipulated a deeper underlying reason for political attitudes, the strength of the basic motivation of safety and survival. The boiling water of our social and political attitudes, it seems, can be turned up or down by changing how physically safe we feel.

This is why it makes sense that liberal politicians intuitively portray danger as manageable — recall FDR’s famous Great Depression era reassurance of “nothing to fear but fear itself,” echoed decades later in Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address — and why President Trump and other Republican politicians are instead likely to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and immigration, relying on fear as a motivator to gain votes.

In fact, anti-immigration attitudes are also linked directly to the underlying basic drive for physical safety. Arch-conservative leaders have often referred to scapegoated minority groups as “germs” or “bacteria” that seek to invade and destroy their country from within. President Trump is an acknowledged germaphobe, and he has a penchant for describing people — not only immigrants but political opponents and former Miss Universe contestants — as “disgusting.”

“Immigrants are like viruses” is a powerful metaphor, because in comparing immigrants entering a country to germs entering a human body, it speaks directly to our powerful innate motivation to avoid contamination and disease. Until very recently in human history, not only did we not have antibiotics, we did not even know how infections occurred or diseases transmitted, and cuts and open wounds were quite dangerous. (In the American Civil War, for example, 60 out of every 1,000 soldiers died not by bullets or bayonets, but by infections.)

Therefore, we reasoned, making people feel safer about a dangerous flu virus should serve to calm their fears about immigrants — and making them feel more threatened by the flu virus should cause them to be more against immigration than they were before. In a 2011 study, my colleagues and I showed just that. First, we reminded our nationwide sample of liberals and conservatives about the threat of the flu virus (during the H1N1 epidemic), and then measured their attitudes toward immigration. Afterward we simply asked them if they’d already gotten their flu shot or not. It turned out that those who had not gotten a flu shot (feeling threatened) expressed more negative attitudes toward immigration, while those who had received the vaccination (feeling safe) had more positive attitudes about immigration.

“Immigrants are like viruses” is a powerful metaphor, because in comparing immigrants entering a country to germs entering a human body, it speaks directly to our powerful innate motivation to avoid contamination and disease. Until very recently in human history, not only did we not have antibiotics, we did not even know how infections occurred or diseases transmitted, and cuts and open wounds were quite dangerous. (In the American Civil War, for example, 60 out of every 1,000 soldiers died not by bullets or bayonets, but by infections.)

Therefore, we reasoned, making people feel safer about a dangerous flu virus should serve to calm their fears about immigrants — and making them feel more threatened by the flu virus should cause them to be more against immigration than they were before. In a 2011 study, my colleagues and I showed just that. First, we reminded our nationwide sample of liberals and conservatives about the threat of the flu virus (during the H1N1 epidemic), and then measured their attitudes toward immigration. Afterward we simply asked them if they’d already gotten their flu shot or not. It turned out that those who had not gotten a flu shot (feeling threatened) expressed more negative attitudes toward immigration, while those who had received the vaccination (feeling safe) had more positive attitudes about immigration.

All of us believe that our social and political attitudes are based on good reasons and reflect our important values. But we also need to recognize how much they can be influenced subconsciously by our most basic, powerful motivations for safety and survival. Politicians on both sides of the aisle know this already and attempt to manipulate our votes and party allegiances by appealing to these potent feelings of fear and of safety.

Instead of allowing our strings to be pulled so easily by others, we can become more conscious of what drives us and work harder to base our opinions on factual knowledge about the issues, including information from outside our media echo chambers. Yes, our views can harden given the right environment, but our work shows that they are actually easier to change than we might think.” ~

John Bargh is a professor of social psychology at Yale University and the author of “Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do”


Interesting. It’s by now almost common knowledge that people tend to express more conservative views when they feel less safe. Oddly, no one has suggested that conservatives could voice more liberal opinions when they feel safer than before. It seems pretty obvious now that someone has demonstrated this effect. 

“Nobody is so strong to make it on their own, just as nobody is so weak that they can’t be of help.” ~ Anonymous


I wonder if we will arrive at the simple conclusion that what makes us stronger is not having suffered, but having received love — and hopefully continuing to receive it.

The “macho” I-don’t-need-love attitude seems to go with hyper-individualism and conservatism. It’s certain men who have the fantasy of going to Alaska (or another place that embodies harsh wilderness) and living off the land in what they imagine is a totally self-sufficient way. After all, people are evil. Government is evil. Women are evil.


What organizes people into sustained political factions like left versus right? Supposedly our opposing answers to some fundamental question, but what is that question?

At core, it’s tight versus loose, constraint versus freedom. Conservative versus liberal vaguely represents this distinction, conservative implying constraint, liberal implying freedom.

Can one do without the other? Not really. Sure, we all want freedom but most of us recognize that one person’s freedom can easily become another person’s constraint. On a dance floor, one guy flailing freely constrains other people into smaller spaces. We experience constraint, or social order as security. What we really want is security and freedom in the right mix, and unless we’re sociopaths or narcissists we recognize that we need to balance our security and freedom with other people’s security and freedom.

In our personal lives, we experience the tension between constraint and freedom. Our quest for personal liberty is not a quest to fall apart unconstrained but for the liberty to choose our own constraints. We want the autonomy by which we can choose how to discipline our own lives, choosing what’s on our own to-do lists, but also what to constrain off our to-do lists. To be deliberate about anything, we de-liberate ourselves, protecting against distractions.

We find that same distinction in our social lives. We want freedom of association, not because we want to interact with everyone but for selective interaction, freedom to set our own constraints. We want the autonomy to choose our friends and choose the people we keep at bay, freedom of association but also freedom of dissociation, the ability to walk away or protect ourselves from those we think will be toxic influences.

Politics has always been a tense negotiation over constraint vs. freedom, a safety net to keep each of us together and trampoline to bounce each of us as high as our life freely permits. We are willing to sacrifice some autonomy or freedom for some safety even though it constrains us.

The tension is built right into the name of our nation. “United states” is an oxymoron. Which are we, a “union,” a constraining marriage for better or worse, or loose and free individual states? Both, of course, and in tension, at multiple hierarchical scales from individuals to families, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, the whole country and the whole world.

There’s little hope that we could ever reorganize the parties to represent cleanly this distinction, for example, the left always advocating for freedom and the right always advocating for constraint. If we could, maybe they would recognize how much they depend upon each other, or maybe they would just bicker as they currently do as though their hyperbolic half-answers were the whole answer.

Libertarians pretend that more freedom always solves everything. Social conservatives argue as though constraint solves everything. They don’t mean it.

Remembering that what we’re all really negotiating the right balance of constraint and freedom, security and liberty, may make us more receptive to negotiation, and smarter negotiators too, not taken in by hyperbolic half-truths about the one true way.


Reading articles by Jeremy Sherman is an excellent antidote against the “hyperbolic half-truths about the one true way.” No one wants excess constraint. But excess freedom would in the end mean less freedom for most, and possibly dangerous chaos (imagine no traffic laws).

Jeremy keeps pointing out that absolutes don’t work in the real world. We can’t have it all. We need to keep asking what works in a particular situation, and not once and for all, under all circumstances.

“Political ideology is another source of faith-based hobby high horses similar to religion and spirituality, and often linked to it, just variations on the know-it-all fantasy fad.

Samantha Bee made this point, comparing the NRA to Scientology. I think she's right with implications for all sorts of fads, from the Alt-Right to Eckart Tolle, from absolute conservativism to absolute tolerance, from Libertarianism to Communism. Same swagger of authority; different flavors. 

It's not what you claim to believe but how you clutch and strut it.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Canterbury Cathedral


Canterbury, close-up of the statues of kings


~ “Of course we need the concept of hell. Do you really think that someone who murders someone should get away with it? If there is no hell, then they’re never going to get punished if they don’t get caught, and even if they do get caught, they may not get punished enough. Is that justice?”

It’s an amazingly vindictive attitude that we have here in the United States. Many Americans don’t really seem to care if the prisoners will get better. They care about whether the prisoners are punished.

The response I usually give to that common Christian argument is that, for most Christians, what you DO doesn’t really matter. What matters is what you BELIEVE. In the world of Christianity, you can be a Jeffrey Dahmer or even a Ted Bundy . . . and if you ask God for forgiveness before you die, you’ll spend eternity in bliss.

Why? Because the most awesome person who ever existed got punished instead. Right. OK. And you’re lecturing me on justice? What kind of justice is that? Honestly? That’s outrageous. I mean, if you start out saying hell is necessary for justice and then turn around and say that your own moral system depends on an innocent man suffering for the very worst evils of the worst people in history so they could go to eternity in heaven…um, you’re a bit off, to put it mildly.

Instead of thinking that prisoners deserve whatever punishment they get, and anything they don’t get is undue grace, maybe we can think about the importance of deterring certain crimes, so that the focus is more on prevention than on punishment. Doing so may require turning away from a conservative Christian thinking that sin deserves infinite punishment and anything less than that is grace. It may require us to forget about punishment and the murky concept of what people deserve and think about deterrence. How can we effectively deter crime — not punish criminals.

The justice of hell is not interested in deterrence as much as punishment — if we do away with punishment and try to focus on deterrence, we may find that — surprise — we actually have less crime, especially if we see that prisons and detention centers that we currently have are conditions that encourage crime. And trying to deter crime will also make us concerned about how prisoners are treated, perhaps — not as if they are being punished, so much as if we actually want them to go out and succeed in society.

People may say, “But that will cost money!” Yes. Yes it will. But prisons are pretty expensive. I mean, they’re so expensive that the state of Utah has found it less expensive to give the homeless housing and a caseworker than to put homeless people in jail (note that Utah was the only one of the top ten religious states that wasn’t high on the incarceration rate list). The average prison cost per inmate is about $31, 000 a year — for often terrible conditions. Imagine spending that money helping the people, instead, getting on their feet?

Getting there [to helping instead of punishing] will require us to get rid of the concept that people deserve eternal punishment for any wrong they do, and that anything less than that is grace from the justice system; getting rid of the concept that it is just to punish retributively instead of seeing if a kinder, more respectful approach that recognizes dignity in those who break the law, especially if the latter approach is more effective at reducing harm inside and outside prisons; and being critical of those who enforce the law — making sure they are making society better for all involved instead of seeing those who do wrong as “choosing” whatever fate they assign them.

And that starts with pulling out of the American psyche the linchpin that so many are taught from childhood, especially in states in which the incarceration rate is highest — the concept of the Christian hell. We need to stop believing it, stop preaching it, and stop teaching it to the next generation. It’s not the last step, but it seems a needed first step for us to stop incarcerating America.” ~


Clinging to the need for punishment, for sinners/criminals getting what they "deserve," is part of the same set of needs for safety and survival that is the backbone of conservatism. And all of these originate in the structure of the patriarchic family, reflecting the child's dependence on, and fear of, the powerful Father. The father keeps us safe, punishes and protects. Vengeance and justice are his prerogatives and his duties.

Of course this kind of primitive and childish thinking is inaccurate and inadequate. The idea of "deserving" reward and punishment, heaven and hell,  salvation and damnation, is part of the same idea that wants to insist on "fairness." It all falls apart when you realize there is no all-powerful father out there to mete out reward and punishment. Realizing there is no ‘fairness" — that no one is looking out to ensure all get what they “deserve” — can be a hard and bitter pill to swallow.

I am reminded of an incident in my childhood, when my father was giving a few of us 'a good licking' for some misbehavior, and one of my sisters,  not involved in our misbehavior, came into the room, and got the same beating we did. She complained her innocence, and our father said, "well, that's for the next time." Of course when the next time came, that was forgotten. She felt, and still feels, the 'injustice ' of getting one more beating than she "deserved."

None of these childish and primitive ideas serve us well.


Perfectly said — and thank you for sharing the story of your sister who is still haunted by that one more beating than she “deserved.” How easily we are brainwashed as children, how quickly convinced that we are “bad” and “deserve” punishment. The church, the government, the school, the family — what collaboration in this regard. Sometimes I wonder how we humans ever escape  all this insane cruelty. At some point we need to receive enough nurturing, enough affection to insure survival — perhaps sufficient early affection immunizes us to some degree.

One theory of authoritarianism is the strict-father hypothesis. People who received harsh upbringing tend to end up as conservatives. Children of nurturing parents end up more liberal. But awareness can enter this equation — victims of harsh upbringing may come to realize that it’s wrong to perpetuate the abuse, physical and/or verbal. That’s the hope — the increase in awareness and empathy.

Meanwhile, though, we battle all those who are convinced that they know what “justice” is — even if it includes eternal torment for those who merely happened to be born in a different country and thus into a “wrong” religion.


~ “Every year, from 5 to 20 percent of the people in the United States will become infected with influenza virus. An average of 200,000 of these people will require hospitalization and up to 50,000 will die. Older folks over the age of 65 are especially susceptible to influenza infection, since the immune system becomes weaker with age. In addition, older folks are also more susceptible to long-term disability following influenza infection, especially if they are hospitalized.

Influenza virus causes an infection in the respiratory tract, or nose, throat and lungs. The virus is inhaled or transmitted, usually via your fingers, to the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes. It then travels down the respiratory tract and binds to epithelial cells lining the lung airways via specific molecules on the cell surface. Once inside the cells, the virus hijacks the protein manufacturing machinery of the cell to generate its own viral proteins and create more viral particles. Once mature viral particles are produced, they are released from the cell and can then go on to invade adjacent cells.

While this process causes some lung injury, most of the symptoms of the flu are actually caused by the immune response to the virus. The initial immune response involves cells of the body’s innate immune system, such as macrophages and neutrophils. These cells express receptors that are able to sense the presence of the virus. They then sound the alarm by producing small hormone-like molecules called cytokines and chemokines. These alert the body that an infection has been established.

Cytokines orchestrate other components of the immune system to appropriately fight the invading virus, while chemokines direct these components to the location of infection. One of the types of cells called into action are T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell that fights infection. Sometimes, they are even called “soldier” cells. When T cells specifically recognize influenza virus proteins, they then begin to proliferate in the lymph nodes around the lungs and throat. This causes swelling and pain in these lymph nodes.

After a few days, these T cells move to the lungs and begin to kill the virus-infected cells. This process creates a great deal of lung damage similar to bronchitis, which can worsen existing lung disease and make breathing difficult. In addition, the buildup of mucus in the lungs, as a result of this immune response to infection, induces coughing as a reflex to try to clear the airways. Normally, this damage triggered by arrival of T cells in the lungs is reversible in a healthy person, but when it advances, it is bad news and can lead to death.

The proper functioning of influenza-specific T cells is critical for efficient clearance of the virus from the lungs. When T cell function declines, such as with increasing age or during use of immunosuppressive drugs, viral clearance is delayed. This results in a prolonged infection and greater lung damage. This can also set the stage for complications including secondary bacterial pneumonia, which can often be deadly.

While the influenza virus is wholly contained in the lungs under normal circumstances, several symptoms of influenza are systemic, including fever, headache, fatigue and muscle aches. In order to properly combat influenza infection, the cytokines and chemokines produced by the innate immune cells in the lungs become systemic – that is, they enter the bloodstream, and contribute to these systemic symptoms. When this happens, a cascade of complicating biological events occurs.

One of the things that happens is that Interleukin-1, an inflammatory type of cytokine, is activated. Interleukin-1 is important for developing the killer T cell response against the virus, but it also affects the part of the brain in the hypothalamus that regulates body temperature, resulting in fever and headaches.

Another important cytokine that fights influenza infection is something called “tumor necrosis factor alpha.” This cytokine can have direct antiviral effects in the lungs, and that’s good. But it can also cause fever and appetite loss, fatigue, and weakness during influenza and other types of infection.

Dominique Signoret Asymmetriad

Why your muscles ache

Our research has also uncovered another aspect of how influenza infection affects our bodies.

It is well-known that muscle aches and weakness are prominent symptoms of influenza infection. Our study in an animal model found that influenza infection leads to an increase in the expression of muscle-degrading genes and a decrease in expression of muscle-building genes in skeletal muscles in the legs.

Functionally, influenza infection also hinders walking and leg strength. Importantly, in young individuals, these effects are transient and return to normal once the infection was cleared.

In contrast, these effects can linger significantly longer in older individuals. This is important, since a decrease in leg stability and strength could result in older folks being more prone to falls during recovery from influenza infection. It could also result in long-term disability and lead to the need for a cane or walker, limiting mobility and independence.

Researchers in my lab think that this impact of influenza infection on muscles is another unintended consequence of the immune response to the virus. We are currently working to determine what specific factors produced during the immune response are responsible for this and if we can find a way to prevent it.

Thus, while you feel miserable when you have an influenza infection, you can rest assured that it is because your body is fighting hard. It’s combating the spread of the virus in your lungs and killing infected cells.” ~

~ Laura Haynes, Professor of Immunology, University of Connecticut


ending on beauty:

I go where I love and where I am loved,
into the snow;

I go to the things I love
with no thought of duty or pity;

 I go where I belong, inexorably,
as the rain that has lain long

in the furrow; I have given
or would have given

life to the grain;
but if it will not grow or ripen

with the rain of beauty,
the rain will return to the cloud
. . .

pitiless, pitiless, let us leave

to those who have fashioned it.

~ H.D, The Flowering of the Rod

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