Saturday, April 14, 2018


rainbow over Manhattan, Alexander Krivenyshev


In Memory of Paul Violi (1944–2011)

I did not realize that you were fading from sight
I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition

You most likely would have made a joke of it
Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft

I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition
The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open

Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft
You might call this the first of many red herrings

The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open
The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream

You might call this the first of many red herrings
The shield you were given as a child did not protect you

The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream
One by one the words leave you, even this one

The shield you were given as a child did not protect you
The sword is made of air before you knew it

One by one the words leave you, even this one
I did not realize that you were fading from sight

The sword is made of air before you knew it
You most likely would have made a joke of it

~ John Yau

The poet writes:

“‘Overnight’ is an elegy for the poet Paul Violi (1944–2011), whose work I first read in the late 1970s. I took the title of the poem from his book Overnight (Hanging Loose Press), which was first published in 2007. In the obituary that appeared in The New York Times, William Grimes wrote that Violi was ‘a poet with an easy, conversational style and satiric bent who reworked arcane historical verse forms and invented his own in poems that mimicked glossaries, errata slips, travel brochures and cover letters.’ I chose the pantoum—a form where every line appears twice in a predetermined order—as a way of honoring Violi and his poetry.”

This an excellent example of a pantoum. Because each line has to be repeated twice, each has to be interesting (striking, unusual, imagistic, moving) — and then the effect can be mesmerizing. Conversely, dull lines make for excruciatingly boring pantoums.

I read this poem after receiving the news that a friend of a close friend has advanced pancreatic cancer. It’s always a shock when a peer (or someone actually younger) is about to die, or has just died (e.g. Terry Hertzler, beloved of San Diego poets — we knew he was sick, and yet, and yet . . .) And even though none of us here knew Paul Violi, the poem makes him a part of our lives just a tiny bit. It universalizes him — makes us realize that we are not just ourselves, but also others.

The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream
One by one the words leave you, even this one

The shield you were given as a child did not protect you
The sword is made of air before you knew it

This is universal — we are all vulnerable, and every elegy is a memento mori. And yet “You most likely would have made a joke of it.” Humor is one of our main defenses — my father managed a joke even on his deathbed, and there are more such stories.

This poem works for several reasons, universality being the one that particularly hit me this morning. As John Donne put it, “each man’s death diminishes me.” A whole mental universe is now subtracted. The poem makes us acknowledge this, then live on as best we can manage, with our shield of humor and a sword made of air.

. . . or a rainbow, an optical phenomenon. I can see that it’s possible to say “Rainbows don’t exist!” 


~ Rainbows are more than half circles. They’re really whole circles. You’ll never see a circle rainbow from Earth’s surface because your horizon gets in the way. But, up high, people in airplanes sometimes do see them.

Photo: Colin Leonhart


~ “When making the rainbow, sunlight is emerging from many raindrops at once. A rainbow isn’t a flat two-dimensional image on the dome of sky. It’s more like a mosaic, composed of many separate bits … in three dimensions. More about the three-dimensional quality of rainbows below. Just know that your eye sees rainbows as flat for the same reason we see the sun and moon as flat disks, because, when we look in the sky, there are no visual cues to tell us otherwise.

So why are rainbows curved? To understand the curvature of rainbows, you’ll need to switch your mind to its three-dimensional-thinking mode. Cecil Adams of the newspaper column The Straight Dope explained it this way:

    We’re used to thinking of rainbows as basically two-dimensional, but that’s an illusion caused by a lack of distance cues. The cloud of water droplets that produces the rainbow is obviously spread out in three dimensions.

    The geometry of reflection, however, is such that all the droplets that reflect the rainbow’s light toward you lie in a cone with your eyes at the tip.

    It takes an intuitive leap to see why this should be so, but let’s give it a crack. Water droplets reflect sunlight (or any light) at an angle of between 40 and 42 degrees, depending on the wavelength …

    The sun is low and behind you. All the sunbeams head in, strike the cloud of water droplets ahead of you and bounce back at an angle of [approximately] 40 degrees.

    Naturally the beams can bounce 40 degrees any which way — up, down, and sideways.

    But the only ones you see are the ones that lie on a cone with a side-to-axis angle of 40 degrees and your eyes at the tip.

I also asked Les Cowley of the great website Atmospheric Optics. He’s a world-class expert in sky optics and EarthSky’s go-to guy for all daytime sky phenomena. Les told me:

    The cone explanation is sound and also my preferred one at Atmospheric Optics.

    Rainbows don’t exist! They are nowhere in space. You cannot touch them or drive around them. They are a collection of rays from glinting raindrops that happen to reach our eyes. Raindrops glint rainbow rays at an angle of 42 degrees from the point directly opposite the sun. All the drops glinting the rainbow are on the surface of a cone with its point at your eye. They can be near and far. Other drops not on the cone also glint sunlight into rainbow colors but their rays do not reach our eyes. We only see those on the cone. When you look down the cone you see a circle. So rainbows are circles!

Photo: Goran Strand



On April 12, 1945 that Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his home in Warm Springs, Georgia. That evening, Harry S. Truman took the oath of office. Eleanor Roosevelt called Truman to the White House with the news of her husband's death. He asked her, "Is there anything I can do for you?" And she replied, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”

What a marvelous woman!

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1905, wedding photo. We tend to think of her as rather ugly, but here she is, a lovely bride. “Eleanor looks like an angel,” FDR remarked not long before they got married. But the point was she was an angel, and kept getting kinder as she grew older and more powerful. One veteran remembered when she came to visit wounded soldiers in a hospital: “At first we thought, ooh, she’s so ugly. But after she spent five minutes with you, she became the most beautiful woman in the world.”


~ “She found that, in fact, the worth of many such procedures and tests (e.g. mammograms and colonoscopy) was scientifically spurious and they were more about ritualistic reassurance than actual healthcare. “The pressure to do these tests comes partly from the medical profession and the medical supply and equipment industries,” she says. “The problem that they have always faced is ‘What do you do with well people?’ And here’s the answer: you test them until you can find that they’re not well by some standard. You’ll always find something.”

She is not anti-science, she stresses, and she is a believer in “evidence based” medicine. She is not criticising tests carried out when a physician actually suspects there is a problem or treatments carried out when there is a serious diagnosis. She has a PhD in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University and she is not the only one who is critiquing healthcare from this perspective. She references a team of doctors at Dartmouth Medical School who are currently “crusading against over-testing and over-diagnosis of American patients”.

And the book doesn’t stop with the medical profession. For Ehrenreich, the new obsession with health all turns on wider cultural issues, one of which she has covered in her work before – the destruction of secure middle-class professions. “It’s not just blue-collar people who were wiped out by deindustrialisation in the eighties,” she says. “The white-collar workforce [also have] no job security. So, what do you have control over instead? Your health.” She pauses. “Supposedly.”

The obsession with fitness and health has grown in parallel with job insecurity, she says, and exercise has now become a sort of generic defense mechanism. “I can’t really control whether Trump nukes Iran or North Korea, but I can go to the gym and my quads are mighty.”

She goes on to reference the work of the historian Christopher Lasch who contended that many of the radicals of the 1960s, people like Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda, “turned inward by the mid-seventies and began trying to work on something they thought they could control, their diet and their exercise. Lasch’s idea was that this was a retreat from politics.”

An avid gym-goer herself (“You could say that for all these years I was doing field work”), her chapter on fitness utopianism and gym culture is a fascinating work of anthropology. “You see these people, the guys especially, who’ll have a notebook in one hand so that they’re making a record of exactly how many repetitions they’re doing and what weights they’re using,” she says. “It’s as if they were both the manual labourer and the supervisor all at once.” She laughs. “Anyway, it amuses me.”

The book is often amusing. “I’m not trying to make it humorous,” she says. “It just happens to be funny.” There’s a darkly comic chapter, for example, that examines the lives and deaths of fitness gurus, including “public health big shot” John H Knowles, who argued that “you are responsible for your own health and if you in any way screw up and get sick it must have been something you were doing that you shouldn’t have been doing . . . He died at age 52 of cancer.”

She thinks that contemporary discussions of health have now, taking a cue from Knowles, turned into a form of moralizing. Bad health is increasingly seen as a consequence of one’s own behavior and lack of vigilance and not a consequence of public policy, poverty or bad luck. And at the core of Ehrenreich’s impatience with all this is her sense that the health and wellness obsession is ultimately selfish.

“There are many things we could be doing in the years after 45 or 50 that would be more outgoing and helpful to others,” she says. “There is no shortage of causes to be swept up in and things to do other than monitoring your weight, your mood and your intake of coenzyme q. It becomes very striking when you read some of our wellness guru . . . I mean, you could spend all your time applying skin products or doing odd things like Gwyneth Paltrow’s idea about steaming your vagina.”

She talks about the extremes taken by Silicon Valley multi-millionaire “immortalists” like the futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil who hopes to cheat death by taking over two hundred different pills and supplements a day. “That must take up quite a bit of time,” she says.

In her book she almost revels in explaining how little control we, or Ray Kurzweil, actually have over our lives. She delves into the ways in which our immune systems can inexplicably turn against us as we age and her final chapter amounts to a gleeful relinquishment of control and a refutation of self-absorption. She also discusses how psychedelic drugs are currently being used to help terminally ill people to see their place in a wider universe and to accept their impending deaths. Has she ever done such drugs herself? “No,” she says. Then she thinks for a moment. “Actually, we took something at college, I don’t even know what it was . . . but I think the resulting state of mind was one of self-loss which is, at first, terrifying, and then great . . . But I don’t know what the relationship is between that and what they’re using experimentally now . . . The philosophical point here is that it’s impossible to face death if you’re a narcissist. Because if you’re a narcissist you are the world and if you die the world dies.”

“But the more you can lose yourself in other things, whether it’s in your work or in some political cause that’s important to you or just in the beauty of the world, then you begin to see that your own death is quite incidental. It’s not true of other people’s deaths let me say. I can’t even let myself think for a second about losing anybody I love . . . but I don’t understand the huge fear of death. I have been an insomniac for most of my lifetime. So how could I possibly be afraid of dying? It just sounds like some super new kind of Ambien that means you don’t wake up after four hours. For me it’s just like a nothing. A light switch being turned off.” ~

from another source:

~ “Four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich, 76, reached the realization that she was old enough to die. Not that the author, journalist and political activist was sick; she just didn’t want to spoil the time she had left undergoing myriad preventive medical tests or restricting her diet in pursuit of a longer life.

While she would seek help for an urgent health issue, she wouldn’t look for problems.

Now Ehrenreich felt free to enjoy herself. “I tend to worry that a lot of my friends who are my age don’t get to that point,” she tells the Guardian. “They’re frantically scrambling for new things that might prolong their lives.”

It is not a suicidal decision, she stresses. Ehrenreich has what she calls “a very keen bullshit detector” and she has done her research. 

The experience of [breast] cancer treatment helped shape her thoughts on aging, she says.

“Within this last decade, I realized I was not going to go through chemotherapy again. That’s like a year out of your life when you consider the recovery time and everything. I don’t have a year to spare.”

In Natural Causes, Ehrenreich writes about how you receive more calls to screenings and tests in the US – including mammograms, colonoscopies and bone density scans – as you get older. She claims most “fail the evidence-based test” and are at best unnecessary and worst harmful.

In Natural Causes, Ehrenreich uses the latest biomedical research to challenge our assumption that we have agency over our bodies and minds. Microscopic cells called macrophages make their own “decisions”, and not always to our benefit – they can aid the growth of tumors and attack other cells, with life-threatening results.

“This was totally shocking to me,” she says. “My research in graduate school was on macrophages and they were heroes [responsible for removing cell corpses and trash — the “garbage collector” of the body]. About 10 years ago I read in Scientific American about the discovery that they enable tumor cells to metastasize. I felt like it was treason!”

She continues: “The really shocking thing is that they can do what they want to do. I kept coming across the phrase in the scientific literature ‘cellular decision-making’.”

Ehrenreich, an atheist, finds comfort in the idea that humans do not live alone in a lifeless universe where the natural world is devoid of agency (which she describes as the ability to initiate an action).” ~


In the 80s there used to be bumper stickers that said, “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” It didn’t take much brilliance to see the shallowness and irony of this, the macabre black humor (nothing can make a dent in the old platitude, “You can’t take it with you”). But already earlier than that, during the seventies, the religion of “longevity” was born and kept growing and growing. Now it’s “He who lives longest wins.”

In fact there used to be a magazine called “Longevity.” It didn’t last very long since its founder and editor soon died of cancer — yes, another one of those health-nut stories . . .  But in spite of various famous and not-so-famous health nuts dropping dead at a pretty young age (e.g. the man who started the running crazy dying of a heart attack while running), and perhaps because we’ve become pretty secular and deep in our bones we know that we live only once, the desire to live as long as possible has taken a powerful hold — hence millions of people going for the strange diets, the fasts, the punitive fitness workouts, the fifty or more supplements a day.

The medical-industrial complex, not to be left behind in extracting money from relatively healthy people, came up with “preventive medicine” — mainly a wide variety of tests and vaccines no one heard about until recently, and oh, they can be expensive. And the old-time vaccines? Now you need a “booster shot.”

And now Barbara Ehrenreich, with her PhD in immunology, has had the nerve to rain on that lucrative parade. She has researched various tests and discovered that they can do more harm than good (other voices have been telling us this for some years now). Aside from that, there is the overriding question of the quality of life. When there isn’t much time left, how we spend it becomes more and more important. Would we rather spend it in medical waiting rooms (since, for the patient, most of medical practice consists of sitting and waiting), or doing something that brings us joy? Other than making the rich “health-care providers” even richer, what do we still have to give to others?

I happen to admire the idea I heard from a rabbi: that we should “recycle” all the love that we have received. You can think of it as “paying forward.” I also believe that “there is always something you can give.”

I also believe in the healing power of beauty, pleasure, and affection (these are overlapping categories). These are the things that make us healthier. Do you want an instant health boost? Look up at the sky and take in those gorgeous clouds. Or pet your cat and listen to her purr. That will definitely do you more good than taking any number of “preventive” supplements.

This certainly pushed my buttons! Many things in our culture and our particular point in history contribute to this obsession with health, wellness and longevity, an obsession that can easily be seen as it’s own self-parody in the proliferation of prescriptions, programs, “secret tricks,” diets, and activities that propose to ensure these much desired outcomes.

First I must agree that the whole mess defines a narcissistic focus on oneself, the “managing” and “perfecting” of the self, perhaps the only thing we feel we can control —a nd yet there is no joy or freedom of choice here — the thousands of guides and “instruction manuals” have already decided what your goals should be, and the programs they provide are demanding, rigid, and ritualistic — the kicker always being that if you fail to achieve the proposed goals, it is a personal moral failure and completely your own fault.

A simple yet pervasive example is the content of “women’s” magazines. They are filled with elaborate advice on exercise, diet, health management, and beauty. The tone is always imperative— DO this, BUY this, WEAR this, EAT this — like a drill sergeant shouting out orders to new recruits. And the advice consists of elaborate many stepped procedures for things like skin care and makeup application — to be followed every day. It is time consuming and exhausting simply to read about, ridiculous to think about doing. But then, there are all those products waiting for purchase!!

It may seem odd to compare the state of health care in the US to the way these magazines market products, but it is in the same magazines that pharmaceutical companies market new drugs, and new uses for old drugs, directly to the consumer. “Live Longer”—“Have Less Pain”—multiple page ads, all fronted with idyllic pictures of happy people enjoying life. Followed by several pages of small print black and white cautions and warnings. Of course no one reads all that—they remember the happy pictures, and the imperative words, which always include “Ask your Doctor!” These drugs are products in search of consumers—they will create the marketplace they need. Almost ten years ago Robert Kaplan pointed out in Disease, Diagnoses and Dollars that “providers create demand for their services by diagnosing illnesses.” The more you look, the more thorough and sensitive the diagnostic technology, the more you will find, and the more you will intervene — often unnecessarily — often with harmful, or even fatal conclusions.

What is the patient to do? My screening mammogram indicated something, was followed by the biopsy, the determination by the surgeon that surgery must be done, the surgery, a mastectomy, followed by severe wound infection, illness, and a pretty nasty scar. The pathology report? Ductal Carcinoma In Situ—in autopsy reports, according to Kaplan, found in about 40% of older women, while only 3% of women will die of breast cancer.  So, did I dodge a bullet thanks to preventive medicine — or did I undergo unnecessary trauma and complications?  When presented with a cancer diagnosis it is difficult to see beyond your fear of terrible illness and death—once the diagnosis is made it demands action. And yet not having the diagnosis, not even looking for it in the absence of any symptoms, might have been the best and happiest situation.

That is my story, and the story of thousands of others following the urgings of Preventive Medicine.  And often not one test, but a whole barrage of tests may follow—the recommended “cancer screening” for colon cancer—a simple test for occult blood in the stool, was followed in my case by :an upper endoscopy, upper GI, Lower GI, Barium Enema, and colonoscopy. When I said “Are we done yet?” the specialist’s reply was, “No, you have to swallow a camera.” And I did. All of this was at best uncomfortable, frightening and unpleasant. And of course very expensive and lucrative for the providers. And the result?? All normal.

But then you have other stories, like my cousin, who was having severe back pain, went to the ER, was admitted and told she needed back surgery. The next morning her nurse found her dead. Much later her mom told me the results of the autopsy—Stage 4 cervical cancer. In my shock I thought — but no one dies from that anymore!! Well, not if you get your Pap smears as recommended. There are no easy answers, really, the Pap is a pretty simple, low tech, inexpensive screening, but I think it is too hard to put the burden of decision on the patient. In our current system the marketplace—growth and more growth, and profitability (even for the so called “non-profit” institutions) makes the rules and runs the show.


So sorry about your ordeal over a potentially harmless DCIS. My next-door neighbor had the same — and was even given radiation for it! — with debilitating consequences and a long recovery that followed (she’s now healthy again — but it was obvious that what made her weak and sick was the treatment).

At the same time, some fifteen years earlier, I knew a woman who had the same diagnosis — but thanks to her courage and a fabulous oncologist who opted for “watchful waiting,” all she did was juicing. Several months later, there was no detectable trace of cancer. I know this doesn’t PROVE anything, but it does give me a pause.

Re: “profitability rules.” To gain access to a certain article I ended up subscribing to a medical bulletin for MDs. I didn’t realize it would mean daily email with just a bit of medical news — a drug trial, say. Most of it is devoted to “how to grow your practice”; “make your practice more profitable”; “revenue cycle management”; “does your waiting room spell success?” and every possible variation on the theme. Every day I have to delete this obscene thing.

One of my in-law relatives died of cervical cancer. After menopause, women usually stop going to gynecologists, and it seems that only gynecologists do the Pap smear — they (or their nurses) know what to do, and have the little bit of equipment it takes. Likewise, there is a non-sadistic, harmless alternative to mammograms — ultrasound scans. Once I had a wonderful gynecologist who had an ultrasound reader in his office — he could examine not just the breasts, but the whole system, including the endometrium. Then my insurance changed, and that was the end of that.

For one smart, dedicated doctor there are probably twenty or more who are in it only for money. And even the dedicated ones may unwittingly do harm — because a shocking amount of medical practice is not science-based. Barbara Ehrenreich is only one of the many authors who’ve called attention to that — though her particular emphasis is the useless and potentially harmful tests (she calls colonoscopy a “sexual assault”). 

But that’s relatively minor next to the revelation that as we get older our immune system turns against us and basically tries to kill us — and no, eating kale won’t stop it. That’s really Ehrenreich’s basic message: unless centenarian genes run in your family, you are not likely to make it to 100, much less past it. The unpleasant truth is that there just isn’t much you can do to live longer — and believe me, I’ve spent hundreds of hours researching the topic. 

Sure, eat your broccoli, get some (non-excessive) exercise — but unless you’re one of those centenarian ladies whose main exercise seems to be knitting, once you turn seventy, you could basically go any time. And even before seventy. So the advice to become absorbed in some kind of fulfilling activity and just not think about it is quite sound, I think.

I second this advice after having tried various fads — juicing, say. What a mess! And it does take time and mental energy that might go into creative work or anything else that’s more enjoyable. Joy. Even if it doesn’t make you live longer (though it might), it will make life worth living, and that’s more important by far.


“People die the way they’ve lived—even the demented and even, somehow, the brain-dead. The brave die bravely; the curious, with curiosity; the optimistic, optimistically. Those who are by nature accepters, accept; those who by nature fight for control die fighting for control.

[But] I’ve also noticed that everyone I’ve seen die does come to accept the inevitable loss of control at his or her finally unevadable death. At the end, something magical appears to occur—something beautiful, something Other—that seems to heal the spirit, allay all fear, and settle, finally, the struggle for control.” ~ Victoria Sweet, M.D.


This “something magical” appears to be the changed brain function as death approaches. Peacefulness — it need have nothing do with expecting to end up in a better place. Still, it happens.


correcting for a mistaken certainty with its opposite certainty. Leaping from one blind faith to the opposite blind faith. Tying yourself to the opposite mast.

Examples: “I eventually realized that Catholicism is BS. That's why I've put all of my faith in mindfulness.”

“I trusted her. Now I trust no one.”

“I was confident 45 would never win. Now I'm confident that he will never lose.”

~ Jeremy Sherman


~ “The tendency of people to move to cities, either out of desire or perceived necessity, creates a great opportunity. If we managed urbanization properly, we could nearly remove ourselves from a considerable percentage of the the planet’s surface. That would be good for many of the threatened species we share this planet with, which in turn would be good for us, because we are completely enmeshed in Earth’s web of life.

Here I’m referring to the plan EO Wilson has named Half Earth. His book of the same title is provocative in all the best ways, and I think it has been under-discussed because the central idea seems so extreme. But since people are leaving the land anyway and streaming into cities, the Half Earth concept can help us to orient that process, and dodge the sixth great mass extinction event that we are now starting, and which will hammer humans too.

 The idea is right there in the name: leave about half the Earth’s surface mostly free of humans, so wild plants and animals can live there unimpeded as they did for so long before humans arrived. Same with the oceans, by the way; about a third of our food comes from the sea, so the seas have to be healthy too.

At a time when there are far more people alive than ever before, this plan might sound strange, even impossible. But it isn’t. With people already leaving countrysides all over the world to move to the cities, big regions are emptier of humans than they were a century ago, and getting emptier still. Many villages now have populations of under a thousand, and continue to shrink as most of the young people leave. If these places were redefined (and repriced) as becoming usefully empty, there would be caretaker work for some, gamekeeper work for others, and the rest could go to the cities and get into the main swing of things.

They will have to be green cities, sure. We will have to have decarbonized transport and energy production, white roofs, gardens in every empty lot, full-capture recycling, and all the rest of the technologies of sustainability we are already developing. That includes technologies we call law and justice — the system software, so to speak. Yes, justice: robust women’s rights stabilize families and population. Income adequacy and progressive taxation keep the poorest and richest from damaging the biosphere in the ways that extreme poverty or wealth do. Peace, justice, equality and the rule of law are all necessary survival strategies.

Here, alas, is the darker vision that we can’t deny:


More bodies washing up
on the shore
of your lawn and mine.

~ John Guzlowski

But that’s only part of it. Of course the future will be a mix of the good and the bad. Let’s hope the good — less violence, less extreme poverty — will prevail.



~ “As Amar Annus points out in a paper just posted on ResearchGate (link is external), “The rigorous behaviors associated with asceticism can be compared with a set of traits characteristic to the population group belonging to the autistic spectrum conditions (henceforth ASC). The most general autistic behaviors, which occur in ascetic monasticism, are the preference for solitude as well as the love of repetition, routines and rituals…”

Indeed, reading Annus’ inspiring paper suggested to me that here in fact may lie the secret of the success of the great monasteries in the West. Perhaps nowhere more than here in England was this apparent when Henry VIII set about dissolving them, so great was their wealth, power, and social importance that this megalomanic monarch found their success as intolerable as he did the authority of the Pope where his marriage plans were concerned.

According to the diametric model of mental illness, autism represents a hypo-mentalistic extreme opposite to hyper-mentalistic psychosis [i.e. schizophrenia], while genius could be seen as a creative synthesis of the two. Could it be that the genius of the monasteries was to combine within one institution both the autistic ascetics and the hyper-mentalizing religious fanatics?

One feature of high-functioning borderline psychotics is their excellent social and political skills, epitomized in what I have called psychotic savantism. With such psychotic talents to deal with the social, political, and financial side of monastic affairs and autistic gifts to provide the architectural, technological, and scientific expertise which was also concentrated in the monasteries, perhaps it is no wonder that they were so stunningly successful.

Today multinational companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook enjoy something of the same kind of success as the monasteries, and are even seen by some to be affronts to national sovereignty. Certainly, in the way in which they have fused the mechanistic basis of computer technology with the social and interpersonal mentalism of what we now call "social media", they have a genius of their own which also may be comparable to that of monasticism—and may turn out to be just as flawed in the long run.” ~


“The idea that war is a secular crusade and involves the smiting of the wicked pervades how Americans discuss it. If you want to save your soul go to church. There is no holiness to be found on a battlefield and nations seek it at their own peril. War always amounts to a failure of normal ‘politics’ to resolve a contention, which is why it is ‘politics by other means.’ People are often willing to be cynical about normal politics but drop such skepticism when it comes to politics and organized violence, which is usually infinitely more ethically murky than normal politics often is.”  ~ Adam Elkus


~ “Well," Brahma said, ”even after ten thousand explanations, a fool is no wiser, but an intelligent man requires only two thousand five hundred." ~ The Mahabharata

This reminds me of the little tale told me by Linda Brown: A disciple sits under a huge leafy tree. He calls up the image of his guru and asks, "How many lifetimes before Enlightenment?" The guru replies, "As many as there are leaves on this tree." The disciple gets up and starts dancing, repeating, “Ah, so few.”


~ “It was an accident in a Berlin laboratory (then a center for alchemy) in 1704 that changed the course of art forever. A chemist rushing to create a batch of cochineal red (made from bugs) accidentally used potash contaminated by (the iron in) animal blood that turned the concoction a deep blue – henceforth known as Prussian blue due to its geographic origins.” ~

Vicente Palmaroli: Portrait of Maria de los Dolores Collado and Echague, 1870
“Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we've ever met.” ~ Marguerite Duras

WOMAN AND DRAGON, Apocalypse 12, Beatus d'Osma, 11th century


The rebuilding of the historic Old Town required special skills. Here: the restoration of a decoration on Pigeon Street (now Beer Street), 1953 (I've decided to translate the street names because of the comic element).


~ “The Harrowing of Hell is an odd “doctrine” involving an even odder word.

The idea was built out of and built on top of a smattering of strange phrases from scripture. For example, 1 Peter 3 says something about Christ being “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey.” (I like Wycliffe’s translation there, describing these imprisoned spirits as those “which were sometime unbelieveful.”) To appreciate the oddness of that passage, note that the epistles of Peter also refer to Tartarus — the underworld of Greek mythology. And note also that this bit in 1 Peter 3 seems to be borrowing heavily from the apocryphal and dazzlingly weird books of Enoch.

By the time Christians got around to writing creeds, then, this had developed into the doctrine that Jesus — in between his execution and resurrection — had “descended into Hell.” This is the only mention of “Hell” in those creeds, and the Christians who wrote and endorsed the creeds at that time had a very different understanding of what that word meant than the Christians of a few centuries later who would elaborate and embellish that word into the basis for a wholly new doctrine borrowed from extracanonical sources even stranger than Enoch and Hesiod.

This can be confusing for 21st-century Christians because the word “Hell” can be traced back all the way to early Christianity, but the contemporary understanding of what that word means — both denotation and connotation — didn’t come around until much, much later. So we read the creeds talking about how Christ “descended into Hell” and we imagine they meant the same thing we understand when we see that word. This is a bit like someone reading Nietzsche’s references to the “superman” and interpreting that as him talking about Clark Kent.

Anyway, neither of these “doctrines” — Hell or the harrowing thereof — really took off in the Christian imagination until visual artists got ahold of them. That brought about the earliest version of the art/doctrine feedback loop or the pop-culture/doctrine cycle we have now. The preacher talks about “Hell” and the artist is inspired to paint something loosely based on it. The next preacher’s description of Hell is based, in part, on that painting, thus inspiring the next artist’s creation. Lather, rinse, repeat. For centuries. Etc.

This process is still happening, which is why today, in 2018, when a revival preacher warns of “Hell,” he’s not just referring to the place — whatever it is — that the creeds say Jesus descended unto, but also to the place Dean Winchester descended unto. And that’s true even if neither the preacher nor his congregation ever watched Supernatural, because that preacher also never read “Paradise Lost” or “The Inferno” or the Gospel of Nicodemus or the Visión de Tundal. He and that congregation are certain that this word “Hell” refers only to a word they imagine comes from the Bible, but their understanding of that word comes from Milton, Dante, Bosch, Jack Chick, Dario Argento and, yes, even Eric Kripke.

All of which is to say that the “Harrowing of Hell” is — like “Hell” itself — better understood as Christian folklore than as Christian doctrine.

That’s reflected in the name for it — an English name. The English language — even the Old English from which we get this word “harrowing” — didn’t exist until centuries after the creeds first suggested something about Christ descending into Hell. The “doctrine” of the Harrowing of Hell didn’t flower into anything like its current state until after medieval English writers — and, more importantly, medieval English theater troupes — ran with it. That’s where we first get the idea that Jesus didn’t merely descend into the underworld, but that he “harrowed” Hell.

Harrow doesn’t get used much anymore as a verb. It’s still quite often used as an adjective, though. We say something is “harrowing” to mean that it is distressing or painful in a deeply unsettling way — something that is not just agonizing but traumatizing. It leaves a mark, a deep groove that cuts below the surface. A harrowing experience is painful in a way that changes us.

This adjective still bears traces of the much-older verb and its Old English origins. To “harrow” meant to plunder or pillage. That had an analogical meaning related to the agricultural tool we still call a “harrow.” That’s a big frame with spikes or blades that can be dragged across a field to break up clods and weeds (or to smooth out the infield during the seventh-inning stretch). I’m not sure which meaning came first — whether what the tool did to soil was named after what invading armies did to villages or vice versa — but it’s easy to see how they are related one way or the other.

So, then, what was Jesus up to down there in the “Harrowing of Hell”? Whatever it was, the experience was harrowing for Hell — unsettling and traumatizing, leaving the place forever after scarred and wounded by it. Jesus, this odd story/folklore/doctrine says, plowed through the place, raking it to pieces, plundering and pillaging.
I think the Harrowing of Hell should pay a bigger part in our thinking about the imitation of Christ. WWJD? He would harrow. And what would he harrow? Hell, and all its works. Harrow the principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual wickedness in high places.

We need to do a lot more harrowing. We need to make things more harrowing for those principalities and powers, those princes of Hell in all its forms. Break their big pieces into little pieces, carve out their weeds, pillage and plunder, proclaim liberation to the spirits in prison. Harrow, and harrow, and harrow some more.” ~


In research published on April 10-2018 in the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons present the most definitive evidence to date that the human brain makes new neurons throughout life.

Previous studies of animal brains have led many neuroscientists to conclude that the capacity for neurogenesis, or the production of new neurons, declines with age and virtually ceases in the mature brain. “In mice, researchers have shown that neurogenesis drops pretty dramatically after middle age,” said the study’s lead author Maura Boldrini, MD, PhD, a research scientist in psychiatry and a member of the Columbia Stem Cell Initiative. A recent study of human brains was also unable to find new neurons in adult brains.

The brain’s hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, has been a major focus of studies on neurogenesis and stem cell biology. Although neuroimaging studies of humans show that continued growth in this structure occurs in adulthood, many scientists have argued that this represents existing neurons growing larger, or an expansion of blood vessels or other internal support structures, rather than the addition of new neurons. To address the question, investigators dissected and examined a representative sample of human hippocampi from healthy people of different ages after they died.Scientists at Columbia were able to pursue this research by setting up a brain bank and collecting postmortem and extensive clinical information on the donors, said J. John Mann, MD, the Paul Janssen Professor of Translational Neuroscience in Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry and senior author on the new paper.

After Mann and his colleagues collected a deceased donor’s brain, they obtained all of the donor’s relevant medical records and conducted a “psychological autopsy.” Using interviews with friends and family members, the researchers determined whether the subject might have had a neurological or psychiatric disorder at the time of death. The resulting collection of brains has become a unique resource for neuroscience, allowing investigators to perform detailed studies on human brains representing the whole spectrum of life, health, and disease.

In this new work, Boldrini and Mann’s team used a combination of molecular probes and mathematical modeling to track neurogenesis in brains from 28 healthy donors ranging in age from 14 to 79 years old. Based on the prevailing view in the field, they expected to see neurogenesis decline with age. It didn’t.

“It does appear to be the case that neurogenesis in the hippocampus is remarkably preserved in human beings,” said Mann.

“We found there were on the order of thousands of neuroprogenitor cells and immature neurons both in the youngest and the oldest people analyzed,” said Boldrini.

However, the analysis revealed that the older brains had less vascular development, and the neurons in older hippocampi expressed lower levels of proteins associated with plasticity, or the formation of new neural connections.

The results point to a new model of brain aging, in which older brains retain the ability to make new neurons but may become less able to form new connections between them and keep them supplied with oxygen.

“It is possible that the changes we see in the older brains are related to some cognitive-emotional changes that occur with aging,” Boldrini said, “and exercise, diet, and medications may help, but future studies are needed to investigate these ideas.”

Now the researchers hope to explore the underlying mechanisms for the changes they found in older brains using stem-cell culture techniques in collaboration with the Columbia University Stem Cell Initiative. “With these techniques, we should be able to understand better how new neurons mature and how that could be manipulated,” said Boldrini.

from the article summary:

“Thus, healthy older subjects without cognitive impairment, neuropsychiatric disease, or treatment display preserved neurogenesis. It is possible that ongoing hippocampal neurogenesis sustains human-specific cognitive function throughout life and that declines may be linked to compromised cognitive-emotional resilience.” ~

newborn neuron

ending on beauty:

 (I do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

~ e. e. cummings

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