Saturday, May 19, 2018


Van Gogh: The painter on the road to Tarascon (a print; a preliminary sketch also exists). The original was destroyed in a WW2 air raid. Altogether six of Van Gogh's paintings are missing and presumed destroyed.


We were bred on castles and knights,
reading in the pregnant dark — not quite fantasy —
but a past that loomed like a feverish dream.
Sick with nostalgia, our parents passed it on to us.
And now I set my feet below this castle’s stunted knob,
each day to walk to work or lull my child to sleep
in the park, at its feet. Will this pilgrimage give us peace?
Last summer, on a distant beach, we stacked wet sand
on more wet sand and topped our confection
with sea-weed. Then we watched the waves
level our glory to a blank. More armies have razed
this capital than Rome, Jerusalem, and Troy.
Napoleon wanted to carry Saint Anne’s church
back to France on the palm of his hand. Instead,
they found the bones of his soldiers buried here
while replacing a cracked Red Army base
with shiny flats, smartly down the road from a mall.
And every day, my son and I walk through grey husks
of Soviet fantasies on our way to the baroque and medieval
hive nestled next to the castle hill on which a duke
once dreamed a howling, iron wolf. I heard its call
even huddled under New World firs, watching quaking
aspen leaves, learning the robin’s song. I tracked raccoons
along the Mohawk River as it poured itself
into the Hudson’s history, to be subsumed.
There has been a great transmigration of souls.
And here we are. A nation born again. The Neris
flows swiftly by my eyes while I feel the thunder
of Atlantic waves washing our castles down.
Seagulls squawk like souls unmoored in dreams.
The sand is fine and glitters. The Kennedy Compound
glows in late light like a vanitas. Saint Andrew’s-by-the-Sea
sits atop its salient — a castle that feeds on our final hope:
that this not be the last goodbye, not for this boy
at my feet, nor this song I sing to him for sleep, our speech.

~ Rimas Uzgiris (this is not a translation; Uzgiris writes in English)

Insofar as I understand this poem, the speaker, who identifies as Lithuanian but has lived for many years in the US (he has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University, and is well published in many American journals), has returned for an extended visit to Vilnius (the write-up also says that he teaches “translation” at the Vilnius University). He seems to have become a hybrid, “fused” kind of person, just as this poem fuses Vilnius and the New World — “the New World” seems to be the right old phrase here.

Every day, my son and I walk through grey husks
of Soviet fantasies on our way to the baroque and medieval
hive nestled next to the castle hill on which a duke
once dreamed a howling, iron wolf. I heard its call
even huddled under New World firs, watching quaking
aspen leaves, learning the robin’s song. I tracked raccoons
along the Mohawk River as it poured itself
into the Hudson’s history, to be subsumed.
There has been a great transmigration of souls.

Note that he infuses Vilnius with his memories of the US — just as before he infused the US with the images and legends of Lithuania. His parents were constantly reminded of Lithuania; he, now in Lithuania but having grown up in America, is constantly reminded of places in America that formed his first landscapes, his own reality as opposed to that of his parents consumed with nostalgia for the places of their own growing up.

I don’t think I could possibly understand this if not for my personal experience and some of my own “fused” poems that came from it. My poem “Homeland” is built on this overlap:

Twenty years later under desert sky,
I remember the stencil
of drizzle in Warsaw (etc)

And “This Is How I Want to Survive” used to begin

Purple meadows stubbled with seaweed,
Pacific lapis-blue and green —
but I think of the Baltic, where my life began:
shallow bays sheeting with silver,
notched with meticulous waves (etc)

For a while I stay with the Baltic imagery, then return to the Pacific coast. Friends warned me that this is confusing, and I removed the first two lines and details that were too specific for either the Baltic or the Pacific. Yet what happens when you change countries is that kind of fusion (and confusion). The early landscape remains the “real” landscape. For Uzgiris, I suspect that it’s the landscape of the East Coast.

I don’t think he’s correct about “more armies” razing Vilnius than Jerusalem, say, but that’s the kind of patriotic exaggeration that’s common in immigrant families from countries that have known a lot of oppression. Again, if not for my own experience, I wouldn’t be able to understand this. Nor would I understand why Milosz thought of Vilnius (“Wilno” in Polish) as the real Poland (I’ve met other old Poles like that: “real Poland” was Lithuania or Ukraine), and kept disdaining Warsaw — not a word in Milosz’s poetry or essays about the beauty of either Warsaw or Krakow! He settled in Krakow because, he said, the architecture reminded him of Vilnius (Vilnius would no longer do because he wanted to hear Polish spoken around him).

Speaking of Jerusalem, I remember an American-Jewish acquaintance telling me that when he first traveled to Israel he imagined that he’d feel that this was his real homeland. “And instead, it was a foreign country!” he exclaimed, still astonished. For one thing, for him Hebrew was strictly the language of prayer, so it seemed to him that the Hebrew speakers around him were praying (I'm not making this up).

These matters become pretty complicated. Nor is it a voluntary matter: you can’t say, “I’ll just take the best aspects of each culture.” Like thoughts, memories have a way of arising spontaneously; I don’t think the speaker in any way wanted to think about the Kennedy Compound while in Vilnius. And yet it happened.

Perhaps that’s one reason it’s said that “immigration is not something you do for yourself; you do it for your children.” If I’d known it at the right time (but would I have believed it?), I would have never left. Call me selfish, but the idea of children and a “better life for your children” meant absolutely nothing to me, just as “God and fatherland” meant nothing to me at the time of leaving. Only later (but rather soon), fatherland, changed to homeland, did acquire a huge meaning. After decades, the meaning of the word is different once more.

For me, aside from the fusion, these lines also carry a lot of meaning:

Last summer, on a distant beach, we stacked wet sand
on more wet sand and topped our confection
with sea-weed. Then we watched the waves
level our glory to a blank.

Note also the title. Yes, the impermanence. You say “forever,” and already a year later, not to mention ten years later, where is that ridiculous “forever”? Heraclitus was right: the only certainty is change. And for those of us who changed countries, the only peace (rather than the resentment and bitterness felt by so many immigrants) lies in accepting both countries — and letting the fusion happen as it will.

And in the end, aren’t we all immigrants to some degree? Each stage of life is almost like a different country, and we are immigrants from the past, learning new words, getting past the shock, adjusting . . .  And after many decades, aren’t all memories fused, confused, intertwined, false, imaginary? Again, it’s a question of degree.

A back street in Vilnius. Photo: M. Iossel



I've not had any of these immigrant experiences, but the “fusion” experienced here seems to come to me now in moments usually when drifting off to sleep or just waking, where I'm not sure where I am — this house in Florida or my old one in Pennsylvania, or some conglomerate of both, as well as a sense of the past and present inhabiting the same space. Which of course they do, in my mind and memory.


I am fascinated by the discussion of immigrating from one’s own country, then how that country is remembered, forgotten, or fused with other memories and experiences from the new country, and what happens if you return to your country, and it is at once familiar and completely changed. Yes, as you say, we are all immigrants from our past, and know how even these personal memories stray and are reshaped over time, never remaining “true” or “accurate” to the original experience. It is enough to compare memories with someone else who was there—a sibling, a friend —and you will be astonished at the differences between them. As one of my sisters said “It’s like we grew up in different houses!”

Of course the unifying factor is the individual self, the memories and consciousness that are unique to you, your lived experience, your emotions, fears, hopes, and desires, whatever griefs, losses and traumas you have suffered—all like the fractured lens in the kaleidoscope, determining the kinds of changing patterns you will see.

I find this is also true, for me at least, in the landscape of my dreams. I will find the same or similar places in many dreams over many many years. Usually “fusions” of places I have lived or known, scrambled and re-shaped, but recognizable, the particular geography of my own unconscious mind. “Home” will always be the first place you remember, the first language you spoke, foods you ate, culture that surrounded and supported you. Those are the “real” places, real words, real foods, real customs.

And, sadly, we never can get back to that home, only to its shadows, echoes, remnants—because as we have grown and changed, so has the world, and at an increasingly accelerated pace. Think of the enormous transformations that have occurred since WWII. Not simply changes in style, but in substance, in how we live, work, and play, in how we think of and connect with others alone, a huge change, as technology has almost eliminated geographical distance as a significant obstacle to connection. Ironic that as we get closer in our always connected world “Home” gets stranger and farther away, perhaps increasing our nostalgia and dissatisfaction, maybe even a factor in the threatening rise of Nationalism, with all its desire for isolation and retreat into an idealized fantasy of a golden, unchanging past.


The golden and unchanging past is presumably what the conservatives want to “conserve” — just as they want to conserve religion as obedience to an imaginary, invisible dictator in the sky who seems to have proclaimed the subjugation of women, for instance, by cursing Eve in quite specific terms. It’s a complete disregard for reality — even if we grant that we can’t have an accurate fix on reality. There are still degrees of how much complexity a person can process, and how resistant he or she is to seeing things as all bad or all good.

Too bad that “Fifty Shades of Gray” is about sex. It would make a wonderful title for a book of life philosophy.

So wonderful that you mentioned dreams — talk about fusion! I love the way dreams scramble locations and narratives, and time travel, and can make us into someone else — once I once a Greek tutor to an ancient Roman family! And that wasn’t the only time I was definitely male in a dream.

We can’t step into the same story twice. Fundamentally, there is no story: the past as we remember it is fragmentary and fused, always changing according to our present understanding, and more complex than we could ever comprehend — the good and the bad completely intertwined. 


Like me at seventeen, a Polish bison apparently wants to “see the world”; Irek Smerszczynski
“You start writing in a foreign language in order to become a foreigner to your own past, so as to see it clearer and understand it better by having fewer words to account for it.” ~ M. Iossel


You become a “foreigner to your own past” even if you don’t change languages. But there are degrees of that “foreignness.” You do gain much more distance if you step out of your native language.

Milosz said that the secret of poetry is distance. But the secret of ALL good writing is distance.

I love the idea of becoming “a foreigner to your own past.” It hurts too much to think of your past in your native language. That’s the language in which you were a helpless child, easily humiliated and abused — by other children, I’d like to emphasize, perhaps even more so than by those bossy, powerful adults. The native language as the language of humiliation — I know we don’t normally think of it in those terms. But if you’re bilingual, just recall the first insults hurled at you — even something as primitive as “stupid” — and feel, just for a moment, those earliest emotional wounds start bleeding again.

True, the native language makes the joy more vivid too, but if your past contained a lot of pain, it’s much easier to deal with it in a foreign language (and in the third person [don’t say “I”; say “he”] — allegedly that’s the most healing method — but that trick is just for the few. Dickens writing about abused children — would it be bearable for him to write, and for us to read about it in the first person?).

But I don’t think it’s a matter of having fewer words. English has a richer vocabulary than any other language, and it’s possible for a writer to amass a huge vocabulary — even if the writer is not a native speaker. It’s rather that those words don’t carry the emotional conditioning that the native words acquired in childhood. It’s those words that decades later can still make you blush or choke up; they can frighten you or caress you. But writing demands distance. You won’t get much writing done if you are weeping.


“To grow old means to be rid of anxieties about the past.” ~ Stefan Zweig (Oriana: this reminds me of Frost’s “hope for the past”

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right.

~ David Ray)

More Zweig:

“Unhappiness makes people vulnerable, incessant suffering unjust. Those whom fate has dealt hard knocks remain vulnerable for ever afterwards.” (Oriana: I’ve seen suffering destroy people rather than make them strong. And suffering leaves scars, and often some degree of PTSD — even if it’s “only” shaking hands, hypervigilance, and a crazy startle response to the slightest noise, and other symptoms of an overactive sympathetic system, harbingers of shortened life expectancy.)

All the pale horses of the apocalypse have stormed through my life — revolution, starvation, devaluation of currency and terror, epidemics, emigration; I have seen the great ideologies of the masses grow and spread out before my eyes. Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia, and, above all, that archpestilence, nationalism, which poisoned our flourishing European culture.

“Supreme achievement and outstanding capacity are only rendered possible by mental concentration, by a sublime monomania that verges on lunacy.”

“It is never until one realizes that one means something to others that one feels there is any point or purpose in one’s own existence.”

“No envy is more mean than that of small-minded beings when they see a neighbor lifted, as though borne aloft by angels, out of the dull drudgery of their common existence; petty spirits are more ready to forgive a prince the most fabulous wealth than a fellow-sufferer beneath the same yoke the smallest degree of freedom.”

 “The sight of a wedding always has a disturbing effect on young girls; at such moments a mysterious sense of solidarity with their own sex takes possession of them.”

“In the straitjacket of a uniform, even though fully aware of their absurdity, an officer will carry out his instructions like a sleep-walker, unresistingly and almost unconsciously.”

“Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. What is most absurd suddenly seems the most probable.”


“Those whom fate has dealt hard knocks remain vulnerable for ever afterwards.” This strikes me as very true. PTSD is not just a military phenomenon.

Research has shown that "childhood adversity" means worse health and lower earnings for the rest of one's life. And even something like being in a car accident (at any point in one's life) increases the chances of becoming seriously ill, losing one's job, etc.

Note that Zweig includes emigration with starvation and epidemics. He was aware that changing countries is hugely traumatic. You don’t just (ahem) lose your homeland; you lose part of yourself and are forced to become a hybrid kind of person. If you change countries as an adult, you can never become fully fluent in the new culture; you are always limping, so to speak, while the native-born are dancing circles around you.

Is limping the metaphor I really want? No, that’s already a defensive euphemism. Let me be honest for once: that first year, and on occasion way beyond then (let’s face it: forever), you feel like a moron.


~ “75 years after his death, √Člisabeth Roudinesco reminds us, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, continues to “disturb Western consciousness” with his myths; his interpretation of dreams; his explanation of the id, the ego, and the superego; his accounts of Leonardo da Vinci, the Oedipus Complex, and Moses and monotheism; and his analysis of civilization’s discontents.

Roudinesco, the head of research in history at the University of Paris Diderot (Paris 7), provides an insightful, balanced, and sympathetic portrait of Freud. As she assesses Freud’s revolutionary ideas about rationality, sexuality, and the unconscious, Roudinesco demonstrates that Freud was less a scientific thinker who uncovered universal truths than a product of his time: a genius, to be sure, but very much a bourgeois shaped by society, family, and politics in the late 19th century.

Roudinesco is, of course, scarcely the first person to identify flaws in the core precepts of Freudian psychoanalytic theory. But her critique has an especially persuasive force because it is grounded not only in an analysis of Freud’s books, diaries, and letters but from accounts of his sessions with patients. Roudinesco points out that Freud, a product of the Enlightenment and German Romanticism, who strove to bring to light and confront the powerful subterranean forces motivating human beings, claimed that psychoanalysis was suitable for people who were intelligent, sophisticated, relatively young, aware of their condition and committed to improving it, and not for anyone suffering from psychosis, hysteria, melancholia, narcissistic neurosis, the death drive or destructive impulses; but didn’t always abide by these strictures.

Although she does not lay out criteria for measuring success and failure, Roudinesco notes that many patients felt Freud had cured them. “Sometimes the dramatic effect is absolutely shattering,” one of them declared. “You feel dreadful things happening inside you, can’t make out what they might be,” until, following a series of questions, “the whole truth dawns upon you, the Professor rises, crosses the room to the electric bell, and shows you out the door.” On the other hand, Roudinesco notes, twenty of the 170 people treated by Freud drew no benefit at all from the sessions and another ten “ended up hating the therapist.”

Predicated on a traditional understanding of the roles assigned to each member of the nuclear family (“happy motherhood, accomplished fatherhood”) and a “psychologizing of psychic life,” Roudinesco writes, his therapeutic approach “initially represented an authentic innovation but would end up subject to ridicule.” And Freud “spent a good deal of time contradicting and combatting himself.”

At times, for example, he behaved like an “old-style paternal marriage arranger, blending the couch and conjugal counseling.” He told some patients that society forgave adultery more readily than divorce and with others favored “a good separation,” providing it was followed by another marriage. The sexuality of girls, according to Freud, “is organized around phallicism (“they want to be boys”) and an awareness that the clitoris in an inferior substitute for the penis.

And yet, even as she situates Freud in the milieu of bourgeois, fin de si√®cle Vienna, and the traditional cultural and scientific norms of the nineteenth century, Roudinesco does not lose sight of the immense dimensions of the revolution he wrought. In the literary masterpieces he wrote, in the transatlantic psychoanalytical movement he founded, and in his professional practice, Freud identified a new, flawed, yet immensely valuable way of understanding human sexuality, defining it as “a universal psychic disposition and the very essence of human activity.” And he gave us, she writes, a cluster of concepts to represent sexuality: the drive, the source of unconscious psychic functioning; the ego, superego, and id; the libido; bi-sexuality; and “desire, a tendency, an accomplishment, an infinite quest, an ambivalent relation to others.” ~


Freud’s abandonment of the incest theory (i.e. sexual abuse of children led to pathology later) in favor of “blaming the victim” — i.e. it’s the children who lust after parents (or other adults), and then present this fantasy as what really happened — remains a big stain on Freud’s legacy. This is where his Victorian conservatism asserted itself in the most negative manner. 

Nevertheless, this lapse — this turning away from the truth in favor of Victorian proprieties and blaming the victim — should not blind us to Freud’s real accomplishments. 

Stefan Zweig paid this tribute to Freud:

~ In a letter dated 8 September 1926, [Zweig] wrote to Freud, "Psychology is the great business of my life". He went on explaining that Freud had considerable influence on a number of writers such as Marcel Proust, D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, giving them a lesson of "courage" and helping them overcome their inhibitions, "Thanks to you, we see many things. Thanks to you we say many things which otherwise we would not have seen nor said." Autobiography, in particular, had become "more clear-sighted and audacious.” ~ (Wiki)

Freud at 16 with his mother, Amalia


~ “For Del Ficke, protecting the soil means, first of all, no more tilling the ground, breaking it up with plows and discs. "Tillage is the most destructive thing in agriculture," he says.

That's not even controversial anymore. Many farmers have adopted "no-till" farming, recognizing its environmental benefits. But Ficke goes way beyond that. After he harvests his corn or soybeans, he plants something else on those fields right away — often a mixture of grasses and legumes like cowpeas. On some of that land, he keeps those "cover crops" growing right on through the next summer, instead of conventional crops like corn. His cattle graze on those fields the way bison once grazed on the prairie.

The roots of these cover crops, decaying in undisturbed soil, enrich the soil. So do manure and urine from his grazing cattle. With time, the soil grows darker, more fertile — chock-full of microbes and fungi.

Soil that's full of decaying roots and microbes is like a sponge; it soaks up water and is better able to handle floods and droughts. It's also full of plant nutrients, so Irlbeck won't have to spend as much money on fertilizer.

"I think there is a movement, and I believe that farmers want to be part of that movement," he says. "It's just figuring out how to do it and stay economically viable.”

That's the catch. Planting those additional soil-building cover crops costs money up-front, Irlbeck says, and it takes years to see the benefits. This is the main reason why only 5 or 10 percent of farmers in Iowa are really doing it.

In fact, until recently, a lot of his neighbors thought he was a little crazy. Now, they're asking him lots of curious questions.

Farmers are now hearing about the virtues of healthy soil from some of the biggest, most powerful names in American agriculture.

These include Monsanto, the seed and chemical company; food giants like General Mills and Walmart; also environmental organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Nature Conservancy. They're all talking about healthy soil as a way the farmers can help the environment.

It's driven in part by concern over global warming. Tilling and draining soil have released enormous amounts of carbon dioxide over the years. Regenerative farming puts some of that carbon back in the ground, slowing global warming.

A coalition of food companies and environmental organizations has set up a new organization, the Soil Health Partnership, which in turn has signed up a hundred participating farmers.

Del Ficke, the soil health pioneer, has mixed emotions about this partnership. He's in favor of anything that persuades more farmers to reduce tillage or plant cover crops, but he doesn't entirely trust the companies' new-found enthusiasm for soil health.

"Are they feeling it their heart? Is it a marketing deal? What is it?" he says.

There may, in fact, be a marketing angle to soil health. Some food companies have been talking about a new label for food that's grown using methods that improve the soil. On the supermarket shelf, it might take its place beside packages labeled as organic, non-GMO, or Fair Trade. This one might be called “regenerative."

Proponents of such a label say it could encourage farmers to join the movement, paying them to help the soil. But Matthew Dillon, director of agriculture for Clif Bar & Company, doesn't think it's a good idea, at least not yet.

There's a lot of uncertainty about what farming practices really are best for the soil in different regions, he says, so it's too soon to starting using such labels. In an interview with the news site Food Navigator, Dillon said that the labels "may be "good for marketers, but they may not necessarily be good for consumers or for farmers if we're not all clear what the terms mean," he says.” ~


~ “Flat-Earthers are not the first group to be skeptical of existing power structures and their tight grasps on knowledge. This viewpoint is somewhat typified by the work of Michel Foucault, a famous and heavily influential 20th century philosopher who made a career of studying those on the fringes of society to understand what they could tell us about everyday life.

He is well known, among many other things, for looking at the close relationship between power and knowledge. He suggested that knowledge is created and used in a way that reinforces the claims to legitimacy of those in power. At the same time, those in power control what is considered to be correct and incorrect knowledge. According to Foucault, there is therefore an intimate and interlinked relationship between power and knowledge.

At the time Foucault was writing on the topic, the control of power and knowledge had moved away from religious institutions, who previously held a very singular hold over knowledge and morality, and was instead beginning to move towards a network of scientific institutions, media monopolies, legal courts, and bureaucratized governments. Foucault argued that these institutions work to maintain their claims to legitimacy by controlling knowledge.

In the 21st century, we are witnessing another important shift in both power and knowledge due to factors that include the increased public platforms afforded by social media. Knowledge is no longer centrally controlled and—as has been pointed out in the wake of Brexit—the age of the expert may be passing. Now, everybody has the power to create and share content. When Michael Gove, a leading proponent of Brexit, proclaimed: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts,” it would seem that he, in many ways, meant it.

It is also clear that we’re seeing increased polarization in society, as we continue to drift away from agreed singular narratives and move into camps around shared interests. Recent Pew research suggests, for example, that 80 percent of voters who backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election—and 81 percent of Trump voters—believe the two sides are unable to agree on basic facts.

Despite early claims that a worldwide shared resource of knowledge such as the internet would create peace, harmony, and a common interpretation of reality (this idea comes from as far back as HG Well’s “world brain” essays in 1936), it appears that quite the opposite has happened. With the increased voice afforded by social media, knowledge has been increasingly decentralized, and competing narratives have emerged.

This was something of a reoccurring theme throughout the weekend, and was especially apparent when four flat-Earthers debated three physics PhD students. A particular point of contention occurred when one of the physicists pleaded with the audience to avoid trusting YouTube and bloggers. The audience and the panel of flat-Earthers took exception to this, noting that “now we’ve got the Internet and mass communication … we’re not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers, we can decide for ourselves.” It was readily apparent that the flat-Earthers were keen to separate knowledge from scientific institutions.

Again, this theme occurred throughout the weekend. Flat-Earthers were encouraged to trust “poetry, freedom, passion, vividness, creativity, and yearning” over the more clinical regurgitation of established theories and facts. Attendees were told that “hope changes everything,” and warned against blindly trusting what they were told. This is a narrative echoed by some of the celebrities who have used their power to back flat-Earth beliefs, such as the musician B.O.B, who tweeted: “Don’t believe what I say, research what I say.”

In many ways, a public meeting of flat-Earthers is a product and sign of our time; a reflection of our increasing distrust in scientific institutions, and the moves by power-holding institutions towards populism and emotions. In much the same way that Foucault reflected on what social outcasts could reveal about our social systems, there is a lot flat-Earthers can reveal to us about the current changing relationship between power and knowledge. And judging by the success of this UK event—and the large conventions planned in Canada and America this year—it seems the flat-Earth is going to be around for a while yet.” ~


Angela, listen, I may be a power-mad homicidal dictator and mafia boss and mega-thief bent on the destruction or the West, but I'm also a romantic at heart, and every time I see you in springtime, something stirs inside me like a flock of baby buzzards… ~ M. Iossel




This dichotomy has consequences for liberals on either side.

For the liberal in North America, Islam is the faith of a small minority of Muslims who are often discriminated against and whose rights must be protected, as with any minority group.

But for the liberal in a Muslim-majority country, Islam is a tool the government uses to justify censorship, oppression, and other illiberal values, like forcing women to wear the hijab, persecuting homosexuals, and publicly lashing bloggers.

The same holy book that Muslims in the United States and elsewhere revere as divine and peaceful is used by the governments of Muslim-majority countries to endorse everything from domestic violence to the execution of apostates.
The hijab—worn proudly by Muslim-American women who choose it as a symbol of their identity—is forced on women in many Muslim-majority countries by their governments, imams, or husbands.

And many criticisms of Islamic doctrine made by liberal reformers and dissidents in Muslim-majority countries are labeled 'Islamophobic' when voiced here.

It’s easy to see how this can get very confusing very fast. In their well-intentioned effort to protect what they see as a targeted minority, Western liberals unwittingly find themselves fighting to guard and protect the same backward values that their counterparts in Muslim-majority countries are fighting against.” ~ (excerpt from The Atheist Muslim, p. 133)

from Amazon:

~ In much of the Muslim world, religion is the central foundation upon which family, community, morality, and identity are built. The inextricable embedding of religion in Muslim culture has forced a new generation of non-believing Muslims to face the heavy costs of abandoning their parents’ religion: disowned by their families, marginalized from their communities, imprisoned, or even sentenced to death by their governments.

Struggling to reconcile the Muslim society he was living in as a scientist and physician and the religion he was being raised in, Ali A. Rizvi eventually loses his faith. Discovering that he is not alone, he moves to North America and promises to use his new freedom of speech to represent the voices that are usually quashed before reaching the mainstream media―the Atheist Muslim.

In The Atheist Muslim, we follow Rizvi as he finds himself caught between two narrative voices he cannot relate to: extreme Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry in a post-9/11 world. The Atheist Muslim recounts the journey that allows Rizvi to criticize Islam―as one should be able to criticize any set of ideas―without demonizing his entire people. Emotionally and intellectually compelling, his personal story outlines the challenges of modern Islam and the factors that could help lead it toward a substantive, progressive reformation. ~

Some quotations:

To start with, religion doesn’t provide answers; it makes them up.

Cultures are dynamic by nature, continuously evolving. Religion dogmatizes them. It cements them in their place, freezes them in time, and prevents them from moving forward. By locking culture up into a time warp, religion makes it look like the bad guy, absolving itself of blame. Cultures carry potential for change. Religionizing them effectively kills off that potential.

The word Salafi comes from salaf, meaning “ancestor”—and refers specifically to the earliest generations of Muslims, from the time of Muhammad himself. Salafism is a rigid doctrine prescribing the revival of this early Islam, believed by its adherents to be the religion’s purest form.

Herein lies the problem: if there were a book that talked about Muslims the way the Quran talks about disbelievers, heads would roll. Literally.

I found endorsement for almost all of the Saudis’ actions in the Quran. The beheading of nonbelievers was right there in verses 8:12–13; the amputation of hands for theft in verse 5:38; domestic violence in 4:34; the killing of polytheists in 9:5; and so on.

#ExMuslimBecause Misogyny, homophobia, stoning people to death, and killing apostates don’t suddenly become “respectable” when put in a holy book. —@LibMuslim (a tweet quoted by Ali Rizvi)

It’s not “radicalization.” It’s increased faith. Faith is not a virtue. Faith means to believe outlandish things without any evidence, simply because someone centuries ago told us to. It fetters the intellect and taints the conscience.

You know deep down that your faith is really just an accident of birth.
The notion that this life on Earth is secondary to the afterlife—a fundamental tenet of many religious faiths—is deadly when it is genuinely and sincerely believed from the heart. I also believe this to be true of many other elements of religious belief.



The “Atheist Muslim” is a much needed statement about the mistake of allowing no criticism of an Islamic fundamentalism under the proposition it would be unjust “Islamophobia.” But the unjust and repellant tenets voiced in the Koran and embodied in Islamic fundamentalism cannot be simply ignored or denied. Hatred and misogyny are right there in the text. Can the subjugation of women be any more obvious than the chador, the veil? The repulsive vision of a paradise involving an endless supply of virgins to be raped?

Islam is no more a religion of love and kindness than the similarly brutal Old Testament. Tiptoeing around these issues is like defending female genital mutilation and child marriage as part of “culture” and “tradition” that must be respected. All culture and tradition is not intrinsically good simply because it is culture and tradition… most of which is traceable to the most primitive, early, superstitious, tribally organized societies—where there is little or no individual freedom, especially for women, and little or no separation between civic and religious law. We can, and must, do better than that.

I guess that might upset some, but there you have it. By refusing any objective criticism we actually obstruct the most progressive members of this very large and diverse group of peoples, as they struggle to move forward into a future only possible through change.


Jeremy Sherman, a writer whose wit and wisdom I’ve come to quote in practically every blog now, said that no religion should be tax-exempt or contempt-exempt.

We can point to this or that verse in some man-made text elevated to being the “Word of God,” and say Look: here it says Don’t kill, and here it says “Don’t steal.” Oddly enough that never stopped invaders from killing or stealing land — the “holy scripture” ever on their lips, their massacres and other crimes allegedly the will of an invisible “heavenly king.” The conquered people had to be killed or enslaved because they worshiped a different fictional deity! An abomination!

I want to highlight what strikes me as very important, yet is rarely said, precisely for fear of giving offense to the most reactionary, least educated members of a given society:

All culture and tradition is not intrinsically good simply because it is culture and tradition… most of which is traceable to the most primitive, early, superstitious, tribally organized societies—where there is little or no individual freedom, especially for women, and little or no separation between civic and religious law. We can, and must, do better than that.

Strange: religion sometimes starts as a step forward. For instance, early Christianity gave women a new standing, even allowing them to lead services. Christianity was supremely popular with women and slaves at first. But as the church solidified, the predominantly reactionary nature of religion asserted itself, priesthood became exclusively male, and soon enough greed and violence followed. 

Religion may start as a concern with justice and mercy, but then it typically aligns itself with the rich and powerful, and legitimizes the preservation of oppression. It is a huge roadblock to every kind of progress social, scientific, philosophical all the time claiming to provide "consolation" to the poor and the outcast, who are supposedly so weak they'd find life unendurable without religion.

There are two basic truths about religion that need to be universally recognized: 1) every religion is totally man-made and culture-bound; thus, there can be no “one true religion” 2) religion is primarily a tool of social control, wielded in concert by the religious leaders and the ruling class. When control starts slipping, new “interpretations” of the old lies emerge. The dreadful thing is childhood indoctrination. It’s very hard to “de-program” emotional conditioning. Hard, but not impossible. It’s now a good ten years since I had my last nightmare about hell. (With all the talk about the “consolations” of religion, where is the discussion of its outrageous emotional terrorism?)

~ “Those who believe in an authoritarian God represent 32 percent of America. They believe God is very angry and willing to punish anyone who is unfaithful or who acts in an ungodly way. They may even believe that God causes earthquakes and human disasters as a wake-up call about the sinful behavior of people.

Another 16 percent of Americans believe that God is critical but will neither punish nor comfort his flock. This God has an unfavorable view of society. He does not intervene with the world, but he will cast judgment on people in the afterlife.

The second largest group, comprising 24 percent of the American population, sees God as distant and uninvolved. He does not hold opinions about the world or about personal behavior; thus we are left to our own free will to decide what is right and wrong. This God is less of a person and more like a cosmic force that set the laws of nature into motion.

Those who perceive God as distant have higher levels of income and education than any other group. Approximately a third of all Catholics, Protestants, and Jews believe in a distant God, yet this group is more open-minded when it comes to gay rights, abortion, and premarital sex. Within this group, many people question the existence of God.

In contrast to 72 percent of Americans who believe in an authoritarian, critical, or distant God, only 23 percent see God as gentle, forgiving, and less likely to respond with wrath. Like those who believe in an authoritarian God, believers in a benevolent God think he is very active in their lives. He listens, responds to prayers, and cares deeply about the suffering of others, but he sometimes causes suffering and pain.

Only a quarter of Catholics, mainstream Protestants and evangelicals embrace a loving God, whereas less than 14 percent of black Protestants and Jews see God as a benevolent force.
Envisioning an authoritarian or critical entity — be it another person or God — will activate the limbic areas of the brain that generate fear and anger. However, when you perceive God as a benevolent force, a different part of the brain is stimulated: the anterior cingulate. The God of the limbic system is a frightening God, but the God of the anterior cingulate is loving.

Our Survey of Spiritual Experiences illuminated a fifth personality of God that we think the Baylor study missed. When we asked our survey participants to described their spiritual experiences, many talked about God as an emotional presence, using words like peace, energy, tranquility, or bliss. God was not a separate entity, but rather a force that permeated everything. God didn’t create the universe, God WAS the universe, a radiance that extended throughout time and space. God was light, God was freedom, and for many people God was consciousness itself.

Based upon national surveys conducted by the Barna Group, 11 percent of Americans believe that God is “a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach.” Eight percent define God as “the total realization of personal, human potential,” and 3 percent believe that each person is God.

Something happened in the brains of our ancestors that gave us the power to tame the authoritarian God. No one knows exactly when or how it happened, but the neural structures that evolved enhanced our ability to cooperate with others. They gave us the ability to construct language and to consciously think in logical and reasonable ways. Our research shows that they are the same structures stimulated when we meditate and pray, which is what allows us to consciously envision a loving and compassionate God.

We can’t get rid of our old limbic God, which means that anger and fear will always be a part of our neural and spiritual personality. However, we can train the newer structures of our brain to suppress our biological tendency to react with anger and fear.

Along with the Unitarians, Unity Churches, and Quakers, the Church of Religious Science developed philosophies of greater open-mindedness by proclaiming the inner divinity of the human being and extending kindness to every person regardless of their religious orientation. In these churches, God, consciousness, morality, and science are melded into a universal HUMAN spirit that is simultaneously mystical and materialistically pragmatic. In many ways these modern churches reflect the same deist philosophy that had captured the imagination of the eighteenth-century leaders of the Enlightenment. God had fallen out of heaven and taken up residence in the mind.” ~

Source: the section “THE FOUR GODS OF AMERICA,” in “How God Changes Your Brain” by Andrew Newberg and Mark R. Waldman, 2009. The authors quote the results of a survey conducted by Baylor University.

Andrea Del Castagno Our Lady of the Assumption


Alas, if during your formative years you were brainwashed to believe in a punitive god, you can’t suddenly start believing in a loving god just because that would be so comforting. There may have been a few cases of that happening due to a mystical experience or a powerful insight (e.g. Luther stopped worrying about getting into heaven once he decided that faith alone was the admission ticket). But even after a mystical experience, I wonder how complete the turnaround may turn out to be. Limbic brainwashing may be alleviated, but can it ever be removed completely?

It’s sad to ponder that the more liberal congregations — those who try to present god as all-accepting rather than punitive — are the ones in greatest decline. But there may be some consolation in the growing popularity of the Universal Unitarian fellowships. Perhaps a church needs to become as secular as possible to meet the needs of those who want the family feeling that can come with church membership but don’t want to have to swallow absurd beliefs.

It’s also striking that those who believe in the indifferent deist god (or no god at all) tend to have higher income and more education.



I remember when a friend, who also happens to be a therapist, commented on my love for animals: “That's also typical of autistics.” It didn't make me conclude that I must be autistic — millions of people love animals to the point of preferring them to other humans, and you do meet mothers more affectionate toward a pet than toward their children (and guess who gets better quality nutrition: the pet or the children?)

What’s more to the point is the ability to handle abstractions, deal with lots of detail without getting overwhelmed, and the need for solitude. The standard explanation used to be: Sure, you love being alone, you love demanding, solitary work, you hate noise — because you are an introvert. It’s biological: you have different neurochemistry and a different arousal threshold. Gentle stimulation works well; strong stimulation overwhelms and distresses. When I once commented that a lot of movies are
visual rape,” I was surprised by the amount of agreement.

Introversion IS biological. Introverts do have different neurochemistry. But aside from that, now there is an interesting theory that introversion is on the autism spectrum.

Fellow introverts, please don't be shocked and read the whole article, which definitely doesn't equate introverts with autistics. Another interesting speculation which immediately struck me as true to my experience is that“highly sensitive persons”, as Elaine Aron calls them in her excellent book, are easily overwhelmed by strong stimuli, and that's along the scale of openness to experience (not the best label, in my opinion).

~ “Jennifer Grimes posits that introversion is not the opposite of extroversion, but that they are two different traits altogether. And she proposes something that has come up from time to time: That introversion actually is on the autism scale.

Grimes’ thesis explains that if you take each of the factors this new model proposes and follow it along a continuum to their most extreme expressions, they correlate with the widely used Baron-Cohen Autism Spectrum Quotient.

Depending on how much we have of each factor (and how they interact with other personality traits), we can be simply introverted or, moving along the continuum, have Asperger's syndrome or, moving further yet, have full-blown autism.

Consider, for example, that many of us tend to think slowly and are not quick at communicating. At the introvert level, no big deal. Take that communication difficulty and move it along the scale Grimes proposes and you get to Asperger's and then autism.

Same with our tendency to focus deeply: At the healthy end of the scale that can be perseverance. Take it further, and you hit perseveration, which is not so good.

Grimes suspects Aron’s sensitivity theory is outside of introversion. “That sounds like it belongs more in openness — the tendency to become frazzled and overwhelmed coupled with physical sensitivity is its own thing.”

If introversion requires its own scale, it follows that extroversion does too. And if autism is on one far end of the introversion scale, what's on the far end of an extroversion scale? Narcissism? Exhibitionism? Lady Gaga?” ~


The opposite of autism is, in some ways, schizophrenia. In high-functioning autism it’s all about the outside world, which is endlessly fascinating. In schizophrenia, everything is about you: everything you see and hear carries a secret meaning you alone understand.

Yes, both introverts and autistics prefer solitude, and both can focus deeply. But a typical introvert is highly capable of introspection, and also has empathy for others — though perhaps not quite as much as his or her empathy for animals. Still, put an introvert in a room full of other introverts who share his or her intellectual interests, and you’ll see intense interaction and long in-depth conversations, often delving into quite intimate areas. Extraverts talk about sports and the weather; in my experience, it’s introverts who don’t seem too shy to discuss sex and other quite personal experiences. Introverts enjoy depth, and what’s depth without getting personal?

Still, even if Jung got introversion and extraversion wrong (and I'm not saying he did, or we would have a lot more male than female introverts; true autism has a tremendous male prevalence), we still owe him gratitude for having voiced the view that there is nothing wrong with being an introvert, and that introverts have a lot to contribute.

And I'm grateful to Elaine Aron as well. True, greater sensitivity to stimulation may life on a different spectrum, but a typical introvert is also a “highly sensitive person,” easily unpleasantly overaroused by crowds, noise, and bright lights (due to a lower arousal threshold, which also makes it easy to be perfectly content in solitude, entertained by one’s own thoughts). Her book is a valuable guide to how to make the best of this sensitivity.

dog tooth calcite and hematite



~ “The researchers, from the University of Manchester, first latched onto an old immunosuppressive drug, cyclosporine A, used since the 1980s to prevent transplant organ rejection and reduce symptoms of autoimmune disease.
The scientists found that the drug reduced the activity of a protein called SFRP1, a key growth regulator that affects many tissues including hair follicles.

But because of its side effects, CsA was unsuitable as a baldness treatment.

The team went on to look for another agent that targeted SFRP1 and found that WAY-316606 was even better at suppressing the protein.

The drug was originally intended to treat osteoporosis.
” ~


Just as Viagra was originally intended to treat heart disease.

My grandmother used to say, “Whoever finds the cure for baldness will become the richest man in the world.”

It doesn’t surprise me that immunosuppressive drugs would be the ones with the potential to become the much coveted cure for baldness. As we age, our immune system increasingly turns against us. If those drugs didn’t have serious side effects, baldness would have been “conquered” decades ago. 

Rather than present a photo of a bald man, I’d rather post this striking image of the ridiculously misnamed “bald eagle.”

ending on beauty:

Because the bird flew before
there was a word
for flight

years from now
there will be a name
for what you and I are doing.

~ Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

saguaro in bloom; Lana Dejong

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