Saturday, May 26, 2018


Mother Jones shared this view from its NYC bureau. Mountains too look more spectacular against a stormy sky — you see details and colors that get washed out and bleached by sunshine. I'm thinking of one particular drive toward Whitney Portal when all I could think and say was Wow. Wow.



From this pinnacle of years
distance resolves all
in fog and shadow —
indistinct, unremarkable
triumph and defeat
blurred and softened
no longer sharp enough
to cut or carry pride
to wound or stir up
wild intoxication —
So quiet now, so kind
this dawning light
still dim and rosy
comforts without argument
and tastes like sweet relief —
all my dark sins fading
into the rising bright

~ Mary McCarthy

Let’s ponder the opening again:

From this pinnacle of years
distance resolves all
in fog and shadow —
indistinct, unremarkable
triumph and defeat
blurred and softened
no longer sharp enough
to cut or carry pride

“From the pinnacle of years” it all becomes more comprehensible, and usually more “only human” and excusable — nothing to get upset about anymore. Or to be proud about — now that we know we couldn’t have gotten there without a hefty dose of good luck and the help of others (who were part of our good luck, and whom we perhaps failed to thank, and now it’s too late since they are dead).

But pardon this darker note. The poem is the opposite of dark: it’s a joyful reconciliation. And note that it takes place not in the evening, symbolic of endings, but at dawn, a new beginning. Don’t be afraid of the “Big 0” birthdays. Each decade is a new stage of life, with its own blessings. And the amazing thing is that new softness. We stop punishing ourselves.
That’s perhaps the most important factor: we stop punishing ourselves. In a parallel development, we stop slave-driving ourselves for more achievement. We realize that neither our “sins” nor our accomplishments are as big and important as we used to think when we were younger. Nor will anyone remember them after we are gone — or if so, then not for very long.

Trees are more beneficial. Cats are more graceful and athletic. Dogs are more affectionate and forgiving, perhaps the only real “Christians” in this world.

Affection. If we stopped babbling about love and concentrate on affection, which is less about feelings and more about actions — if we stopped being stingy with affection, even toward strangers, it would be heaven — heaven being a place where everyone is kind. And I’ve seen people become more relaxed, generous, and kind as they grow older. Perhaps their thinking is, “What do I have to lose?” Yes, there are some frightfully bitter old people who will soon die for lack of love. The angry old man, the bitter old woman still waging war against her husband and children. But there are also some incredibly sweet old people — sweeter by far than the pouting young and the
harried middle-aged adults.

Affectionate child rearing is a great start, its benefits (such as good physical and mental health) lifelong. But even people who had nurturing, supportive parents don't have entirely smooth sailing, because the culture as such tends to be an abusive parent (how come we call life “the school of hard knocks”?) So finally we need to be loving to ourselves even if we never experienced being completely loved — it's a gift we learn to give to ourselves.

We become more forgiving, starting with ourselves. At long last, we can become the perfect parents to ourselves — the kind of parents no one has ever had. Yes, this is our final chance to have a happy childhood.

Or simply to be happy — because we finally know what is really important, and what makes us happy. To know what is important, and what is small stuff, and not sweating over the small stuff — that is the great achievement — and not publications or awards or luxury cruises. 


With so many memories, we can be happy because we develop selective amnesia. We stop going over and over bad memories as if ironing endless shirts (one of the bad memories may in fact be ironing shirts). It’s too late in life for that. Instead we reach into our library of joyful memories. That’s part of rewarding ourselves rather than punishing ourselves.

We learn that some ancient verities really are . . . surprise! — true. “Some things are better unsaid” — just because something is true, it doesn’t mean that it has to be said. We learn to think in terms of consequences, not “self-expression.” Kindness comes first.

On the other hand, other things need to be said — again, after thinking through the consequences. It may help others to know how you survived the unspeakable. Age often gives us the freedom to speak the truth.

As one wise woman said, “You can die having told the truth, or you can die having never told the truth. Either way, you are going to die anyway, so choose.” There is a tremendous satisfaction in finally daring to tell the truth. It’s empowering, enlarging. And what a tremendous adventure.

But, again, we need to consider the consequences. No point being Goody Two-Shoes. But no point being “brutally honest” either. Usually, though, if one goes into anything in depth, the potential brutality yields to more softness and understanding.

Cruelty, brutality — I think of these as more typical of youth: late childhood and early adulthood, before the brain has matured and life experience taught us that everyone suffers and intelligent compassion is the best response.
In Mary’s poem, the “dawn of old age” is presented as a stage of life governed by gentler emotions. 


Not that age guarantees wisdom. It’s enough to contemplate one of the stock characters of comedy, going back to antiquity: SENEX IRATUS, “angry old man.” I think it’s very striking that it’s the angry old man who is the stock comic character, and not the proverbial “angry young man.” Maybe it’s because we expect young men to be foolish, but the old are supposed to show wisdom — a “wise old woman” is also a stock literary character.

The speaker in Mary’s poem is a wise old woman.

(Senex iratus can also be a tragic character — King Lear is that. It’s been remarked that King Lear rather than Hamlet is the play for our era. Note that both plays are extremely dark.)


Milosz said that the secret of poetry is distance. That’s the secret of literature and art in general, and — dare we say — of life, for the most part. You can’t be over-involved and controlling: you need to let a flower unfold on its own, and the same goes for a child — or a spouse. You need to let a man do “guy things” just as you need to let a cat do cat things like perch on high and survey the world.

But what’s really striking that you can’t be too controlling even with your own creative work. You learn to allow it to rise spontaneously like thoughts and dreams — there’ll always be a chance later to “caress the details” (that’s also a chance to ruin things by over-caressing, but we learn that in the end). You learn to trust your own unconscious. Let the brain do its thing — just as you learn that you need to let a dog be a dog, and a cat a cat.

The idea of non-striving goes against the Western culture. And yet the the idea that the harder you work, the better the results simply doesn’t apply to many activities. To my knowledge there is only one religion, or rather philosophy of life, that fully acknowledges this: Taoism. Perhaps the wisdom of aging is that we become Taoists without even trying. Mary’s poem expresses this wisdom in a lyrical way:

So quiet now, so kind
this dawning light
still dim and rosy (. . .)
all my dark sins fading
into the rising bright


photo: Cheri Edwards



(Oriana: I emailed Mary: “You will like the opening poem.”)


I do indeed like that opening poem, and am honored that you chose to put it there! Even more, your analysis gets at the heart of it, that with age comes new freedom, the possibility for a new kind of generosity toward yourself, your past, and all the others you have known and will come to know.

As time grows short it also enlarges. Without the pressure of a future, the present becomes more interesting, full of discoveries and joys we may have been too busy for. I often thought, even when quite young, how much I would like being an old lady, free of the rigors of making something out of myself, and the requirements of acceptability and success. I could be as eccentric as I pleased, or as sedate, I could fill my time with what I loved, and my mind with interesting thoughts. I would love to be a wise old woman, but one who laughs easily and often, and sees the world with more charity than fear. Still clear-eyed . . . not “fond and foolish,” deluded by any sense of my own unique importance. That, when finally punctured by reality, can bind you to Lear's agony on that “wheel of fire.” Take the long view, and learn humility, and kindness, and forgiveness.


I really have to exercise a lot of self-forgiveness when I think that I’ve gone through a particularly long and nasty depressive episode after having told myself that “my future was stolen from me.” It’s so liberating to think about it in a radically opposite way: the pressure of the future was finally gone. Amazing: the idea of the future ultimately became the most oppressive thing in my life. “Future” as ego and ambition — and now the freedom from he rigors of making something out of myself, and the requirements of acceptability and success.” Thank you Mary for that wisdom. 

The folly of Lear (perhaps the ultimate Senex iratus) was clinging to his ego — trying to be king when he was no longer king. Aging divests us of various powers, and also of various vain hopes and delusions — but if we submit to the process, if we let go, a new generosity toward self and others is indeed born, and oh, that new wealth.

Leonora Carrington (Anglo-Mexican, 1917-2011). I don’t know the title of this sculpture, but for me it’s “Wise Woman-Avia.”

(By the way, I don’t mean to say that men have a monopoly on becoming old fools while women become wise crones. The foolishness of old age tends to manifest itself in women in a different way: it’s trying to cling to being beautiful. Thus certain women become caricatures through repeated plastic surgery and excess make-up. It’s the notorious “beauty trap” noted already in Snow White’s step-mother.)



I love the Avia sculpture—open strength and beauty. Grace.


This is a wonderful bronze. 


You'd think this would be famous image, up there with certain paintings by Frida Kahlo. Oh well, the vagaries of fame.



~ “One time, I was having a conversation with Philip Roth about lane swimming, a thing it turned out we both liked to do, although he could swim much farther and much faster. He asked me, “What do you think about as you do each length?” I told him the dull truth. “I think, first length, first length, first length, and then second length, second length, second length. And so on.” That made him laugh. “You wanna know what I think about?” I did. “I choose a year. Say, 1953. Then I think about what happened in my life or within my little circle in that year. Then I move on to thinking about what happened in Newark, or New York. Then in America. And then if I’m going the distance I might start thinking about Europe, too. And so on.”

That made me laugh. The energy, the reach, the precision, the breadth, the curiosity, the will, the intelligence. Roth in the swimming pool was no different than Roth at his standing desk. He was a writer all the way down. It was not diluted with other things as it is—mercifully!—for the rest of us. He was writing taken neat, and everything he did was at the service of writing.

At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. “Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,” he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself. He loved fiction and (unlike so many half or three-quarter writers) was never ashamed of it. He loved it in its irresponsibility, in its comedy, in its vulgarity, and its divine independence. He never confused it with other things made of words, like statements of social justice or personal rectitude, journalism or political speeches, all of which are vital and necessary for lives we live outside of fiction, but none of which are fiction, which is a medium that must always allow itself, as those other forms often can’t, the possibility of expressing intimate and inconvenient truths.

Roth always told the truth—his own, subjective truth—through language and through lies, the twin engines at the embarrassing heart of literature. Embarrassing to others, never to Roth. Second selves, fake selves, fantasy selves, replacement selves, horrifying selves, hilarious, mortifying selves—he welcomed them all. Like all writers, there were things and ideas that lay beyond his ken or conception; he had blind spots, prejudices, selves he could imagine only partially, or selves he mistook or mislaid.

By the time I met Roth, he wasn’t writing anymore; he was reading. Almost exclusively American history, and the subject that seemed to concern him above all was slavery. His coffee table was piled high with books on the subject—canonical, specialist, and obscure—and many slave narratives, some famous and known to me, others I’d never come across before, and which I sometimes borrowed, to bring back a month or two later and discuss. Whenever I mentioned this scholarly reading jag of Roth’s to anybody, they always seemed amazed, but to me it was all of a piece with the man and his work.

Roth was an unusually patriotic writer, but his love for his country never outweighed or obscured his curiosity about it. He always wanted to know America, in its beauty and its utter brutality, and to see it in the round: the noble ideals, the bloody reality. A thing did not have to be perfect to engage him, and that went double for people, which, in Roth’s world, always really meant characters. The mixture of the admirable and the perverse that exists in people, the ideal and the absurd, the beautiful and the ugly, is what he knew and understood and always forgave, even if the people he so recorded did not always forgive him for noticing.
It would probably drive him nuts to be told there was something ancient and rabbinical in this attraction to paradox and imperfection, but I’m going to say it anyway. Sheer energy—Roth’s central gift and the quality he shared with America itself—is his legacy to literature, and it will always be there, ready to be siphoned off or mixed with some new element by somebody new. That Rothian spirit—so full of people and stories and laughter and history and sex and fury—will be a source of energy as long as there is literature. My first thought when he died was that he was one of the most alive, the most conscious, people I ever met, right to the end. The idea that consciousness like that could ever stop being conscious! And yet there it is preserved, in book after book, thank goodness.” ~ Zadie Smith


“The only obsession everyone wants: 'love.' People think that in falling in love they make themselves whole? The Platonic union of souls? I think otherwise. I think you're whole before you begin. And the love fractures you. You're whole, and then you're cracked open. ” ~ Philip Roth, The Dying Animal

The cry 'Watch out for the goyim!' at times seems more the expression of an unconscious wish than of a warning: Oh that they were out there, so that we could be together here! A rumor of persecution, a taste of exile, might even bring with it the old world of feelings and habits—something to replace the new world of social accessibility and moral indifference, the world which tempts all our promiscuous instincts, and where one cannot always figure out what a Jew is that a Christian is not.” ~ Philip Roth (December 1963). Writing About Jews, Commentary

~ “At no point in any of his novels or stories would he for a single moment allow the reader to start suspecting she or he might actually be smarter than the writer. That, counterintuitively, is a very rare quality in a literary text. He combined the ferocious intelligence of Saul Bellow with the Proustian fluidity of sentences. ~ M. Iossel



 To my amazement, I fell in love with “The Dying Animal.” The narrator and his young lover, a student — and his older lover, an elegant faculty woman — felt so authentic. And the intelligence, yes.

“He combined the ferocious intelligence of Saul Bellow with the Proustian fluidity of sentences” — without the Proustian clutter of excess detail. That’s why I think Tolstoy is a better parallel. His language is so natural you forget that this is literature.

But here is Roth’s warning about over-estimating intelligence:

“You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn't annihilate human nature.” ~ Philip Roth, American Pastoral

“. . . nor had I understood till then how the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others.” ~ The Plot Against America

~ “Just how imaginary, however, is the world recorded in Roth’s Plot Against America? A Lindbergh presidency may be imaginary, but the anti-Semitism of the real Lindbergh was not. And Lindbergh was not alone. He gave voice to a native anti-Semitism with a long prehistory in Catholic and Protestant Christianity, fostered in numbers of European immigrant communities, and drawing strength from the anti-black bigotry with which it was, by the irrational logic of racism, entwined (of all the “historic undesirables” in America, says Roth, the blacks and the Jews could not be more unalike). A volatile and fickle voting public captivated by surface rather than substance—Tocqueville foresaw the danger long ago—might in 1940 as easily have gone for the aviator hero with the simple message as for the incumbent with the proven record. In this sense, the fantasy of a Lindbergh presidency is only a concretization, a realization for poetic ends, of a certain potential in American political life.” ~ J.M. Coetzee, “What Philip Knew,” November 18, 2004, The New York Book Review

~ “Critic Joan Acocella, writing in 2004 about "The Plot Against America" for the New Yorker, reported that Roth had said in earlier interviews he never felt the sting of anti-Semitism directly, yet he was "surrounded from birth" with the notion of Jews "as an object of ridicule, disgust, scorn, contempt, derision, of every heinous form of persecution and brutality." Those conflicting senses of safety and persecution would come to define many of his characters, and the specter of anti-Semitism — the revelations of the Holocaust came during his formative years — courses through his novels.” ~ Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2018


Milosz also observed that in retrospect there is a tendency to see everything that happened (e.g. WW1 and WW2) as inevitable. This is an error, Milosz claimed: just because something happened doesn't mean that it was inevitable. We try to rationalize the irrational. 


~ “Though Roth “was bored out of his mind when he had to attend Hebrew school as a boy,” he was happy to be Jewish, Bailey said.

“He liked Jews as human beings. He liked their warmth, he liked his male friends’ filial piety, which he made a lot of fun of too, in ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ especially,” Bailey said, referencing Roth’s 1969 novel that depicts the therapy sessions of a sexually frustrated Jewish man.

In 1998 he won the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Literary Achievement Award and in 2014, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution, bestowed him with an honorary doctorate.

“I welcomed the honor,” Roth told a friend after the ceremony, suggesting that for all his aversion to religion he still felt a strong Jewish bond. “Who takes Jews more seriously than the J.T.S., and what writer takes Jews more seriously than I do?” ~


Roth will be buried at the Bard College Cemetery, where Hannah Arendt is also buried. It's interesting to remember that Arendt too was once villified as anti-Semitic.



~ “Arguably the most important revolution in modernity has been away from seeing people as evil sinners who need punishment rather than as wounded human beings who need healing.” ~ B.F. Skinner

William Leslie shared this anecdote: A friend was once walking with a Tibetan monk into an auditorium where the Dalai Lama was about to speak. A fire-and-brimstone preacher was up on a soapbox haranguing people. “You!” He yelled and pointed at the monk “are going to burn in Hell!” After walking a little further the monk turned to my friend and said “that poor man, he's so full of anger.”

Do we have the right to punish people? Billions would reply “Yes” without hesitation. Parents certainly think they have the right to punish children. “Justice” is just a nicer word for revenge. Of course it sounds better to say, “We want justice” than “We want revenge. We want the “bad guy” to suffer enormously. Yes, even forever. Payback!!

And yet I think that at least in terms of the “creeping enlightenment” I’ve observed over the decades, there has been a movement away from cruelty. It is not as legitimate as it used to be.

It’s not just corporal punishment that’s increasingly in disfavor. Flogging was once a standard practice; now it appalls. Bullying and emotional and sexual harassment are behaviors we struggle to eliminate, not accept as part of life. Rather than yell at a child and hit him, a parent is more likely to try to explain why certain behavior is bad, and invoke the Golden Rule. Respect for children is one of the frontiers in the battle against the “might makes right” mentality. It’s been said that we are entering the “dignitarian era” marked by respect for the humanity of another rather than desire for revenge.

Note the word “entering.” The right wing is fighting back for their “right” to punish whoever they want to, including whole countries (“Let’s bomb them back to the Stone Age”) — but it’s a death rattle. Nevertheless, though the overall trend is toward reward rather than punishment (especially when it comes to child rearing and animal training), we are mere beginners when it comes to addressing problems in non-punitive ways, and certainly make mistakes such as overdoing the “gold stars” in school.

B.F. Skinner, an atheist psychologist appalled by the concept of hell, was one of the under-recognized founding fathers of the anti-punishment movement. He recognized that harsh punishment creates life-long scars and mental and even physical health problems. He was a strong advocates of using rewards instead. Animal training changed radically due to Skinner’s influence. Eventually children benefited as well, though his name is rarely mentioned in connection with more humane child-reading practices. Of course plenty of other psychologists emphasized the importance of affection and the harm caused by the punitive approach.


John Guzlowski:

Toxic God?

The nuns I had in the mid-1950s used the possibility of nuclear holocaust to frighten us from sin. They told us of a ruined world, swirling nuclear winds, poisoned air, radioactive boils on our bodies, our parents left dead somewhere behind us — all because we weren't praying enough for the death of communism and keeping ourselves pure and sin-free.



Thank you for sharing your experience of Catholic intimidation. Younger people may not realize just how negative Catholicism used to be. My main image of God was an “eye in the sky” (yes, enclosed in a triangle, as in a popular image) spying on me to record every sin, including of course every sinful thought that ever crossed my mind.

Leaving the church was only the first step of liberating myself from this toxicity. As I said elsewhere, it was the single most courageous act in my life. I was 14.

Some may question that statement, and suggest that my leaving Poland and coming to America by myself at 17 was more courageous than my leaving the church. Not so. When I left Poland, I simply didn't realize what I was doing. My notion of America had almost nothing to do with reality. This is not a hyperbole. As for what it’s like to be an immigrant, I knew exactly zero.

When I left the church, I knew that if I happened to be wrong, I would end up “frying in hell” for eternity (think of Pascal’s Wager). But I also saw that an unspeakably cruel deity who sentences people to fry in hell forever was not worthy of worship. Besides, I could no longer worship this “toxic god” even if I tried to. So, if the worst came to worst, I was resigned to eternal damnation.

It's been very, very hard to shake off this kind of indoctrination, since it was burned into your brain before you had any defenses. The constant repetition of the message that you are a miserable sinner and deserve to go to hell takes its toll. This is the kind of emotional child abuse for which the church has never been sued, but if you think about it, it was universal in the bad old days.


“Our Communist Party was the Catholic Church” ~ John Banville, an Irish writer.

Hey, finally someone who saw this just as I saw it — regarding Poland, of course.

The official Communists were pathetic amateurs next to the real masters of mind control, the emotional terrorists bar none. The Big Brother, the Eye in the Sky — not living in a mono-Catholic country, Orwell missed the obvious.




It’s not as clear-cut as that. Those who primarily want to know, even if the facts are uncomfortable, prefer to believe in at least some contexts — it’s not always possible to fact-check, and in any case it’s laborious and we just want to live without worrying about some certainties, however ultimately unfounded. But those whose primary need is to believe — no facts can ever penetrate their armor against reality. Reason? It’s the voice of Satan.

One of my saddest discoveries has been that those who want to know, who have a kind of “drive for truth” that's most obvious in scientists, are a small minority. Historically, the truth seekers were regarded as dangerous and not infrequently ended up being burned at the stake.  

~ “Your intelligence, your creativity, your tastes in culture or romantic partners, the degree to which the world has mistreated you: the chances are they’re much less quirky or extreme than you think, especially since we’ve each got strong ulterior motives to believe otherwise. Or to put it another way: thinking you’re special is just one more way in which you’re normal. This is the famous Lake Wobegon phenomenon known as “illusory superiority”, which explains why most people think they’re above average at driving, at being unbiased, and various other things. Though it works the other way, too: imposter syndrome is a classic case of thinking you’re special, but in a negative way.

The trouble is that both the positive and negative forms of thinking you’re less normal than you are lead to misery – either by convincing you you’re unusually bad, or by turning life into an isolating, adversarial exercise in maintaining your sense of being unusually good. The latter also means that any aspect of your life or experience that’s just ordinary – which, by definition, is going to be most of them – feels like an affront to your identity. “Never forget that every mind is shaped by the most ordinary experiences,” wrote the French poet Paul Valéry. “To say that something is ordinary is to say it is of the kind that has made the biggest contribution to the formation of your most basic ideas.” To disdain the normal means disdaining most of what happens. Doing that is pretty normal, too, to be honest. But it’s a recipe for a joyless life.” ~


That’s another thing we learn as we grow older: we’re not “separate, different, and superior.” We’re ordinary, though in some ways we’re unique — only we have this particular set of genes and only we have had this particular set of life experiences. And perhaps we’ve learned to excel at something — that’s a huge blessing. Having a partner who’s reliably there for us is another blessing. But there are millions of others who also excel at something, and millions also blessed with a reliable partner (or sometimes a caring daughter or son).

That’s just one of life’s paradoxes: we’re unique, but we’re pretty ordinary: more normal than not. We’re human. 

Rubens, detail


~ “From Dr. Park Dietz’s mouth to God’s ear: “When we engage in an obsessive questioning of why a shooter did it, we are granting their [sic] exact wish.”  Dr. Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist and researcher, has personally evaluated many mass murderers and has provided expert testimony in numerous criminal trials.  His conclusion (and here I quote from Hamlet rather than Dietz):  “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

What Dietz has found is that there is a common motive behind these mass shootings. The details vary in each case, but these shooters obsessively blame others for their problems and fantasize about the attention and historic notoriety that their savage act will provoke. The key to ending, or at least minimizing, the plague of mass killings, is to deprive the shooters of what they crave most: Fame.

This is precisely what The New York Times gets wrong (along with most other news media) – and don’t think they don’t understand the risk. We’ve been on this merry-go-round of violence long enough for anyone with a lick of sense to realize that publicizing slaughter begets copycat slaughter.

Don’t put the killer’s face on the landing page of The New York Times’ website. Don’t analyze and interpret his scribbling, social media posts, clothing, or graphic symbols. After John Wilkes Booth’s accomplices in the Lincoln assassination plot were executed, one Washington newspaper wrote, “we wish to know their names no more.” Exactly – that’s the posture we need our news media to adopt. Of course, this stands in opposition to the media quest for ever more clicks and eyeballs.

In conclusion, here’s Dr. Dietz again: “I have repeatedly told CNN and our other media, if you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24/7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.” ~


So — the ultimate result of the desire “to be famous” — apparently the unfortunate goal of far too many. Not the ambition to achieve excellence in any way, simply to be “noticed” in as big a way as possible. What a shabby, ugly dream. Then of course the narcissism, the resentment, the toxic masculinity and desire for revenge. Mix in our cultural worship of guns and violence — undeniable — just listen to the soundtrack of any “action film.” All so alike — shooting, fighting (grunts and groans and thudding) explosions, collisions, squealing tires and screaming sirens. And there you have it, the screenplay.


Agree with everything. Denying fame to the shooter makes sense and it might turn out to be part of the solution — but the whole gun culture and easy access are part of huge psycho-cultural pathology. Will we live long enough to see something done, or will things only get worse? It’s unnerving not to know. Meanwhile the body count keeps mounting.


~ “Geoff Farrar, 69, grey-haired, lanky, and boisterous, was a mentor to many young climbers, and was well known in the cliff-scaling Carderock community, where steep rocks rise above the Potomac River just outside Washington, D.C. As a climber in this area myself, I was acquainted with both men. Farrar had taken DiPaolo under his wing as a teenager and taught him to climb nearly 20 years earlier. They’d stayed close, maintaining a bond between mentor and protégé, until that shocking day when DiPaolo killed Farrar with a claw hammer at the foot of the cliffs they’d climbed together so many times.

“I didn’t know it was going to happen,” DiPaolo told police in a written statement after he was arrested.

How, then, did it happen?

We often dismiss such disturbing murders as the result mental illness, or rather comfortably conclude that an otherwise normal person “snapped,” or became momentarily deranged. Self-delusion may be easier than accepting the alternative. “I think anyone is capable of it,” University of Alaska forensic psychologist Bruno Kappes told me when I asked how we can comprehend someone suddenly snapping in a violent murderous rage.

The fact is, rage can explode without warning. Overpowering judgment, compassion, fear, and pain, the fiery emotion serves one purpose — violence, both in words and actions. It may help explain why homicide is responsible for nearly 16,000 deaths in this country every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it may definitely help explain why people are far more likely to be murdered by a friend or acquaintance than by a stranger.

It’s important to acknowledge that powerful emotions like rage and fear can lend us power in a crisis. They can give a petite woman the strength to move a car and free a trapped child or drive a soldier against normal instinct to run into a hail of bullets to save a comrade in jeopardy. Such rapid-response brain circuitry undoubtedly played a role when U.S. Air Force Staff Sargent Spencer Stone and two friends subdued a fellow train passenger — a terrorist armed with an AK-47 and a knife — in France last summer. “I really wasn’t thinking,” Stone told me. “It wasn’t a conscious decision — I just went. It was automated.” Stone and fellow Americans Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos, were all recognized for heroism in that case. But sometimes this automatic lifesaving response can misfire and lead to a story of unexpected tragedy rather than heroism.

Impulsive violence has long been studied by neuroscientists. For many years, researchers postulated that this kind of aggression was based in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with fear, and with a subdued level of activity in the prefrontal cortex, known for its cognitive functions and role in rational behavior. Research has shown, for instance, that aggressive boys tend to have a high level of activity in the amygdala and a correspondingly low level of activity in the prefrontal cortex.

But more recently, neuroscience has taken a more critical look at the so-called “lizard brain” concept of the amygdala and limbic system driving people to commit beastly acts. A new generation of research points instead to distinct neural circuits in the hypothalamus — associated with drives such as thirst, hunger and sex — which appear to respond with saber-rattling speed to different types of threats and provocations.

These circuits of aggression are part of the brain’s threat detection mechanism embedded deep in hypothalamus. In experiments, when this tiny knot of neurons (technically, the ventromedial hypothalamus) is stimulated by an electrode, an animal will launch into a violent attack and kill another animal in its cage. If the region is inactivated, aggression abruptly decreases.

And there is an evolutionary context to such biological influences. Sudden aggression — sometimes referred to as the fight-or-flight response — is vital to our survival, but engaging in violence simultaneously puts our survival at risk. For this reason, only a few specific triggers will activate the brain’s rage circuits for sudden aggression; but once tripped, the reaction can be overwhelmingly strong.

The roots of violence and the neural circuitry that lies behind such responses, run deep. In a social species, an individual’s success and access to resources depend upon one’s rank within society. Aggression, especially among males, is often how dominance in the animal world is established. Human beings have language, and verbal head butting can quickly escalate into explosive violence. “Police are searching for a motive…” we always hear, but it is a search in vain. Such violence is not driven by reason. It is driven by rage.

What is missing from the baffling news reports of someone suddenly snapping violently is the backstory of chronic stresses on the individual that lower the threshold for triggering these circuits of violence. Prior to the homicide, DiPaolo had become something of an outcast, increasingly shunned for recklessness and his slovenly, drug-head manners and attitudes. His former climbing partner, Matt Kull, told Outside magazine that he’d severed the relationship because of DiPaolo’s drug use while climbing and his growing disregard for the safety of himself and other climbers. This was reinforced by the many interviews I did as well.

But recognizing the importance of biology in our behaviors — even learning from them — holds only some of the answers we need in the face of tragedy.” ~


I think the crucial statement here comes toward the end: there is the
backstory of chronic stresses on the individual that lower the threshold for triggering these circuits of violence.” And often there is the backstory of domestic violence, or prior violence in general. This points to the way toward possible prevention.

I've seen a few women explode in a verbal rage out of proportion to the "insult." In one case it was a close friend of mine and I happened to know she was going through a romantic break-up and the rage was really against her boyfriend and not against the co-worker whom she verbally abused on very little provocation (a mild teasing remark). That's of course nothing compared to homicide, but it also seems to be the doing of the hypothalamic “lizard brain” — yes, even crazy verbal outbursts are rage, though you'd think that speech is strictly “cortical.” But it's not. It turns out that swear-words are indeed subcortical. Thus the stories of Alzheimer's patients who've lost all speech — except for swearing. That's the priest who can say only one word: the F word.

Aggression is primeval,
reptilian, hypothalamic, and it’s not always bad — as the article points out, acts of heroism can also result, depending on the context. And this is not a sufficient explanation of premeditated murder. Even in those cases, we can trace a history of cumulative stress — but that’s usually in retrospect, and too late.

Suicide presents a similar puzzle. It’s regarded as mostly impulsive, but the victim often goes through elaborate preparation, and is strangely fussy about the manner of dying: this particular location on the bridge, and no other; this drug and no other — even though more efficient methods exist. 

Manet: The Suicide, 1881


Thinking about punishment, revenge and rage — all so full of anger like the anger of a frustrated infant . . . powerless. small, weak, dependent, ignored by the bigger, powerful, and sometimes cruel others in his life. That statement, “Anger is the emotion of a victim” speaks so truly to those impulsive outbreaks of rage coming after a long history of insult and abuse, those murderous rages that occur in families or between friends. Even the seemingly random attacks on strangers do not come out of a void, but a long history of actual or perceived abuse or neglect. Somehow, these actors feel they are avenging all the wrongs they have suffered, forcing the world to see them, to See Them, and to feel their power.


Yes, that’s the ultimate irony of it all: murderers very often see themselves as the real victims. And to some extent they are, but nothing excuses the kind of revenge they seek to exact, often in the guise of “justice.” The act of violence may indeed be impulsive and due to the “lizard brain” — but the “backstory” of stress, anger, and resentment is the essence here.



~ “Anger, and particularly rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviors to dispositional or personality-related factors rather than to situational factors. For instance, if I forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I suddenly felt very tired (situational factor), whereas if Emma forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is useless (dispositional factor). More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person's actions and the neurological activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person's patterns of thinking.” ~ Neel Burton


When it comes to our own actions, we usually see the importance of situational factors, but when it's someone else, we don't “grant them innocence” — they did something because of their personality — they are mean or lazy. To me the most interesting part is the idea that we accept the illusion that the other person had a high degree of free will, and deliberately chose to do something that annoys us. It takes "enlightenment" to see that it was more the circumstances, past and presence.

Anger happens not only because of something in the present; it’s often based on past wounds. As I reworked my life philosophy, I was nourished by the idea of living not from one's wounds, but from one's greatness. In addition, it really helps to see that people do not exercise all that much "free will"; we are the victims of victims, as Louise Hay says. Not to be angry, but to understand. The power of intelligence.

Once when doing a writing workshop in prison I casually tossed a remark, “Anger is the emotion of a victim.” There was one inmate who was just thunder-struck by that statement, as if in that very moment he chose to move beyond being a victim. We never really know how much the right words at the right time can accomplish — I wasn't trying to change anyone's life.

(Later the inmates who took the workshop filled out an evaluation form. One question was: “What’s the most important thing you learned from this class?” One person wrote: “Anger is the emotion of a victim.” I have an idea about who that was.)

(By the way, a neurotic person tends to blame herself for virtually everything, seemingly unaware that it was mostly the circumstances. This often happens as a result of having received a lot of criticism from a harsh parent, or a harsh “collective parent,” including both school and church in a culture that uses shame and blame as a chief means to manipulate the young into submission.)


~ “At the beginning of the age of the automobile, nobody said, All right: 30,000 people a year are going to die. Is that a decision we want to make? What did happen is a very intense discussion about whether a car should be allowed on the road and who should be at fault when a car drives over a four-year-old in the street.

In the 1930s, we ended up as a society deciding that four-year-olds should be the one to blame. We began to train people even before they began to speak about how to cross the street and how to avoid getting run over in the street. We redesigned our world to be safe for automobiles and dangerous for children.

It’s not that the Amish view technology as inherently evil. No rules prohibit them from using new inventions. But they carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it. And the best clue as to what will happen comes from watching their neighbors.

The Amish use us as an experiment. They watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves. I asked one Amish person why they didn’t use automobiles. He simply smiled and turned to me and said, “Look what they did to your society.” And I asked what do you mean? “Well, do you know your neighbor? Do you know the names of your neighbors?” And, at the time, I had to admit to the fact that I didn’t.

And he pointed out that my ability to simply bypass them with the windows closed meant I didn’t have to talk to them. And as a result, I didn’t.

One thing it’s taken me awhile to understand is that I don’t think the Amish believe in progress. I don’t think the Amish believe there is a perfect world in the future. I think that is something that drives a lot of our society: the idea there must be progress and there is a place we need to get to.

[As for us], I think we’re willing to do a lot more experimentation and have a lot more failure, to be fair. It’s pretty crazy if you stop to think about it to realize that car travel is so important to us, that were willing to sacrifice 30,000 to 40,000 lives a year for it.” ~

~ “In 2006, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute found that THC inhibits the formation of amyloid plaques by blocking the enzyme in the brain that produces them, and now Schubert and his team have demonstrated that it can also eliminate a dangerous inflammatory response from the nerve cells, ensuring their survival.

“Inflammation within the brain is a major component of the damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease, but it has always been assumed that this response was coming from immune-like cells in the brain, not the nerve cells themselves,” says one of the team, Antonio Currais.

“When we were able to identify the molecular basis of the inflammatory response to amyloid beta, it became clear that THC-like compounds that the nerve cells make themselves may be involved in protecting the cells from dying.”

~ “Additionally, low doses of THC can enhance mitochondrial function and does not inhibit melatonin's enhancement of mitochondrial function. These sets of data strongly suggest that THC could be a potential therapeutic treatment option for Alzheimer's disease through multiple functions and pathways.” ~


Much research remains to be done — to determine dosage range, for instance. This research should have been done decades ago, but was stifled by the criminalization of marijuana. Who knows how much human tragedy might have been prevented — and could potentially be prevented in the future. The diseases of aging in general, and prevention of brain diseases in particular, should be top priority, with thousands of labs around the world working on this and sharing information. But, as the saying goes, “That would make too much sense.”

The neuroprotective effects of marijuana are only a part of its health benefits, but again, since such research is marginal at best, it will be decades before we have mainstream applications — if ever. For now, the rough idea is that the effective doses for the older set are actually quite low. 


ending on beauty:

Look at me, I'm shameless like
the wounds of Christ.
No one thought we could bend dark
nights into black roses
and become rare and beautiful
like a unicorn. Feel me,
put your fingers on my scar
and trace the history of the earth.
I'm pure water coming out from
the mouth of God. Drink.

~ Romeo Oriogun, Most of the time . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment