Saturday, June 2, 2018


“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant” ~ I call this egret the Angel of Slant Truth


So what if the history teacher was a tyrant,
totally in line with her subject?
And the mathematics teacher got lost in the music
of the spheres only he could hear?

So what if my great love thought life was
a cruel joke, and made sure
I saw that he was right?
All that matters now is the great

reconciliation, squeezing into a moment
as into a sliver of light
tunneling through a million linden leaves
from one minute to the next, as if

the only thing that is real
is the tiny and inaccurate rainbow
in the last drop about to fall
from the tip of a heart-shaped leaf.

~ Oriana


This is a half-new poem that was inspired by this excerpt of my own translation of a poem by Zbigniew Herbert:

If you set out on a journey may it be a long one
a replay of the world a journey to the essence
interview with the elements a question without an answer
a pact of surrender forced on you after fighting

a great reconciliation
~ Zbigniew Herbert, “The Journey”, tr. Oriana Ivy

Naturally we think of Cavafy’s “Ithaca,” but reconciliation (rather than, say, richness of experience as a consolation for mortality) is one of Herbert’s main themes. Reconciliation with what? With life, with reality, with the human condition. He wants to be reconciled rather than in rebellion. Though he knows “how difficult it is to be reconciled,” he wants the reader to begin that journey. In any case, at some point we cease struggling, and life itself forces on us a “pact of surrender.”

Reconciliation — that sounds more noble than the “diminished expectations” of the second half of life. It’s more inclusive and meaningful than that, though the shedding of expectations may have a great deal to do with the afternoon glow of such reconciliation. But it’s also a renewed delight in beauty. It doesn’t have to be a great beauty — but then any small beauty partakes in the overall great beauty around us.

If not for that beauty, I'm not sure I’d ever be reconciled to the basic unfairness of life, including the great irony of realizing that as soon as we gain some wisdom, it’s often too late to use it. Now that our social skills are better than ever, we don’t get out and socialize as much as we used to. Now that we’ve finally learned how to travel light, we may learn that health problems won’t allow us to travel at all. I mean this in the literal sense, as in going to Ireland or even the relatively nearby Palomar State Park (wonderful mountain woodland, with dogwood and wild rhododendrons); I'm not thinking of the Great Departure.

Nevertheless — I hope at least a few readers remember that “nevertheless” is the word of salvation. Nevertheless, at least I have memories of having hiked near the Palomar Observatory. Many times, many times. And now I have the small but luxurious beauties of my bougainvilleas, and those of my neighbors. The wind whispers “California.” Some dreams do not disappoint after all. 


Hope your days are filled with beauty, your flowers are thriving, and there is joy in your life. As in your poem, reconciling is not ‘settling.” It can be a joyous embrace — the light, glorious, in that small drop.

Where the bullfrogs do throat-singing: the pond near Mt. Palomar


Speaking of the Great Departure: Andy Warhol said that he wanted a blank tombstone, but we know he got this instead:

The “Praying Hands” and the soup cans left by fans — I think Andy would love it after all. However, not many know that the Praying Hands originated as a detail of a work by Albrecht Dürer, 1512.


and now for the ultimate in irony:
“and besides, it's always the others who die” — yes, that’s been everyone’s personal experience


~ “ . . . take the timeworn conundrum of “free will”, or rather one specific part of it: for which of my accomplishments in life am I entitled to claim credit? We’d surely all agree that some Trumpish child of privilege, born to wealth, deserves no credit for striking it rich. But as Galen Strawson vividly demonstrates, the matter goes deeper – and gets a lot more uncomfortable – than that.

What if you’re super-rich but got there thanks to your intelligence? You were just lucky to be born intelligent. What if differences in intelligence are down to nurture, not nature? Again, luck: you didn’t choose your parents or most of your teachers; and in any case, you might not have been gifted with the self-discipline to learn from them.

OK, but what if you taught yourself the self-discipline? Still luck: you were gifted with the sort of character capable of cultivating self-discipline.

On and on it goes: whatever your station in life, you got there by following some course of action. But even if that course of action were wholly your doing, you still had to be the kind of person able to pursue it; and even if you became that kind of person by the sweat of your brow, you still must have already been the kind of person who could raise that sweat…

Eventually, working backwards, you will reach some starting point that can’t have been your doing. The troubling conclusion is that the person born in poverty, with no parental support, who scrimps to put himself or herself through college, finally achieving success through ceaseless suffering, owes their triumph no less to luck than, say, Eric Trump does. Or, as Strawson pithily puts it: “Luck swallows everything.”

Among other things, this has interesting implications for the way we talk, these days, about “privilege”. Some people undoubtedly have advantages over others thanks to their gender, race or class. But if it’s true that luck swallows everything, there is also a sense in which differing degrees of privilege are the only thing there is: your social situation is a matter of luck, but then so are your underlying skills and character.

We should fight, strenuously, to make society less sexist and racist. But the result won’t be a world in which accidents of birth matter less; it will be a less sexist and racist society, in which accidents of birth still account for everything.

I realize that plenty of people, some much smarter than me, don’t buy this view of free will at all. I’ve never been able to find a flaw with it, though. It’s dizzyingly unsettling, but that’s just my tough luck.” ~

One of the "circumstances beyond our control" is the historical era in which we are born. St. Sebastian (note the arrows -- apparently even his soul is a permanent pincushion) interceding for the plague-stricken at Pavia; Josse Lieferinxe (Netherlandish), ca 1500. Note also the angel and the devil flying above the city in aerial combat. Ah, the good old days.

 A provocative article. Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar argument in Outliers — though he concentrates mainly on nurture and the sheer luck of circumstances. It’s of course both nature and nurture interacting in complicated ways. That’s why fictional characters have to be simplified, their motivations made more coherent and one-sided than a real person’s contradictions and ambiguities.

(“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”? What if we had “One Hundred Thirty Ways of Looking at Jimmy”? Of course no one would open that book because that would be the Book of Life — the book that Mary is shown reading before being interrupted by Archangel Gabriel bursting in with the Annunciation, the ultimate sexual harassment.)

Titian: Annunciation, 1564; the dove is already swooping down; the cherubs seem to be the ones having fun

Circumstances. Luck. Forces beyond our control. “Dear Sir, Due to circumstances beyond our control,” I typed dozens of times in my first typing class, which assumed the students were in training to become secretaries and emphasized business letters. That I would not become a secretary was for me as obvious as the alleged blueness of the sky — actually hazy with smog due to circumstances beyond my control.

I wasn’t familiar with this tidy phrase in Polish — strange, given growing up in a country where people’s best-laid plans were interrupted by World War Two, soon followed by the Soviet take-over. History. We called it history, but for those born after the war that was normal — the idea that some survived because the bullet passed a few millimeters to the left or right, and hit someone else. Or my father’s release from a concentration camp due to an alleged bureaucratic mistake. The lucky ones survived to have children to whom they told the bizarre tales. Yet with all the stories of the miraculous escapes, our daily bread, we still didn’t understand the role of luck. And the church confused us by calling luck “the will of god.”

God or the gods — “circumstances beyond our control.” Even sacrificing one hundred bullocks did not always work. But bad luck could always be blamed on insufficient sacrifice. And often still is. Poor? You don’t work hard enough. Sick? You don’t eat enough veggies. Disabled? Too lazy to do push-ups and leg lifts. Because we know that the gods are just and life is fair.


For me some appreciation of the power of luck began when I father told me I shouldn't laugh at the grammar errors some children made because I was a child of of educated parents from whom I absorbed correct usage. “There are books in the house,” he stated, pointing out something so blatantly obvious that I never noticed it as a fact worth mentioning. I could hardly conceive of a house without books — that would be like a kitchen without food, a bed without a blanket — but in that moment I half-grasped the sheer luck my intellectual privilege.

Some years later another parental figure told me that it was wrong to be proud of one's intellect because intelligence was primarily genetic (he himself was a brilliant man who came from a poor, uneducated family). A few years later another man from a similar background told me, “All my former classmates are either working at places like car-wash, or are in jail.” ~ “But here you are, in graduate school,” I said. He replied,”I think intelligence is genetic.” And actually, my parents weren't children of intellectual privilege — their own parents had little education. But I had been lucky both in terms of nature and nurture. It was luck, not merit, that I could read for hours, sometimes forgetting to eat.

And then the spirit-breaking misery of my young adulthood. I came to see myself as very unlucky — was it largely the shattering of that early promise, again sheer circumstances? “I forgave myself for having had a youth,” the poet Thom Gunn said. First, we have to forgive ourselves — to see that it really was the circumstances. Then it’s easier to accept others. This greater acceptance and becoming less judgmental is what Sam Harris tries to get at in his book on the illusion of free will. Once we understand that a person didn’t really “choose” to act a certain way, we also understand that given the same circumstances (including the same genetic endowment, the same childhood and so on) we would have done the same.

If you were brought up in a culture of shame and blame, and became an expert at blaming yourself and punishing yourself, loosening of the belief in free will is enormously liberating. You begin to see that it was not your inherent badness, but the circumstances. You can finally sympathize not only with others, but with yourself. This is an enormous victory. Leaving the church was the beginning of this victory, but it didn’t mean that your concept of yourself changed instantly from “a wretched sinner who deserves eternal damnation” to “basically a good person.” That takes many years of healing, and the luck of having the right friends who are willing to counteract your habitual putting down of yourself.

Some have pointed out that if you can’t really blame yourself than you can’t feel proud of yourself either. But that doesn’t bother me. I have no need to feel proud of myself — though I can certainly feel happy about having written a successful poem or essay. By the way, once you’ve experienced the creative process — really experienced it in depth, and many times — there is no way you can feel that you are “in control.” Even if they produce a masterpiece, deep down they know they were terrifically lucky — because the whole universe has to be just right for that. But since creative people are often perfectionists, they end up being called “control freaks” — another paradox.

But there is a difference between determinism and fatalism. If everything is predetermined by fate (aka destiny, or, for some people, the divine plan), then what we do doesn't matter. Determinism merely says that there are reasons why we do X and not Y, and why doing Z doesn't even occur to us. At least some of the time we have the capacity to see options and ponder their consequences, stressful as such deliberations may be (this is precisely the agony of choice-making I mentioned before — the struggle for dominance among neural pathways).  

Though Shakespeare calls us the slaves of our passions, we are not passionate about everything. And growing older means gaining impulse control. (Still, if aging goes past a certain point, inhibition becomes less efficient due to GABA deficiency and there is less impulse control. But here another infinity opens up [thank you, Friedrich], so let me stop.)
 Thomas Benton: America, mural, 1930-1931


But why is our belief in free will so strong and hard to avoid? I think it comes from our experience of making choices, sometimes hesitating for a long time and feeling tormented. Perhaps the more torment (choice is stressful), the more we fall for the illusion of having “free will.” I see it as “competing neural pathways.” Each person is really a several selves continually evolving and rolled into one in an awkward, incoherent bundle of conflicting desires -- so when you ask someone, “What do you most want in life?” they can't answer (it's a rare and lucky person who can, e.g. Frank Lloyd Wright knew he wanted to be an architect already at the age of 9, and there was no “competing neural pathway” to that overdetermined “choice”).

A probabilistic view is a bit of a compromise. When no neural pathway (or “network”) gains clear dominance, we sometimes resort to tossing a coin. I've done it a gazillion times. And it's peculiar that we’d let chance decide, but in many cases that's exactly it. A coin falls a certain way and we go to a party we weren’t especially interested in — and happen to meet our future spouse — at which point people start talking about FATE. The contradictions never end . . . 

Temple Gate, Cambodia — try to imagine having been born in Cambodia instead . . . 

Since I’ve mentioned the role of random luck in wartime survival, let me quote from Zbigniew Herbert’s Mona Lisa:

well here I am
all of us were supposed to come
I alone am here
when he no longer
could move his head
he said when this is over
I will go to Paris

between the second and the third finger
of the right hand
a gap
into this trench I put
the empty cartridges of fate

(translated by Oriana Ivy)
Those rearing horses of the conquerors, those victory parades, how pretentious and even distasteful it finally becomes. 


“Luck swallows all” takes an interesting view of the eternal “free will/determinism” argument. Usually those who argue that all is determined and overdetermined work toward forgiveness and understanding of our mistakes and failures, moving to conclusions close to no one is to blame for anything they do or don’t do.

This results in statements such as “Addiction can happen anywhere to anyone” which absolves the addict from responsibility. But I think is also false in that everyone is not a potential addict—there is a space in that process, maybe a very small space, but there nevertheless, that requires acquiescence or refusal. A choice. Of course each individual’s ability to make that choice is shaped by that person’s circumstances of birth, position in society, kind of society, physical characteristics, genetic makeup, social and familial history, education, experience, tastes, habits — an endless list of circumstances unique to each individual and each point in time.

It is of course true that “luck”, or what I would prefer to call “chance” underlies just about everything. Think of imagining what would have happened in your life if at certain times you had not, for instance, happened to meet your future spouse, had not gone to the place you met, but some other place, and never met that person. Think of what would be now if your parents had never met — from each imagined difference a whole potential world follows, implying an infinity of worlds constantly dividing and moving forward into different possibilities.

But the “Luck Swallows All” article is not so much interested in removing blame as in denying pride in accomplishment — anything you manage to achieve is not your own, but the result of all the lucky chances that resulted in you, your life, your abilities, strengths and weaknesses, tastes and tendencies, genetics, environment — and so on. So we can’t be blamed or punished, and neither can we be proud of all our unearned gifts.

It seems to me this dualism—praise or blame, reward or punishment, absolution or penance, is well rooted in traditional religious teaching—and maybe in our own psychology. We are storytellers. We want things to make sense, mean something, have a plot. We want to move from a beginning to an  end, to move forward, not in a circle. We want to be the heroes of our own lives.

If all rides on a mere roll of the dice, luck, chance, happenstance, we lose the sense of meaning, of the possibility of meaning in our lives. And we can’t live without meaning, without choice. Even if some things are decided by the flip of a coin, we won’t believe everything is, no matter how well the argument is presented.

This topic interested me because so often it seems the determined and overdetermined argument involves a refusal of responsibility for yourself, your behavior and ethics. I feel the “it’s not your fault” diminishes in the same way  “trophies for all” does. Preventing and sabotaging achievement, subverting purpose and fostering carelessness and mediocrity. Maybe this is because I was educated by Catholic nuns.

Basically the article is immune to refutation. If we start to dig into causation, eventually we’re down to the random chance of genetics, parental education and income, historical and geographical circumstances, and so on. We may “choose” to work hard — but was any other choice possible, given the circumstances?

Addiction is heavily genetic, but stress has to be intense enough. If the stress is heavy enough, and the stress-relieving addictive drug is available, then, experts argue, even those who are normally genetically resistant will become addicts — for the duration of the stress. Remove the stress — e.g. the stress of combat during the Vietnam War — and the genetically resistant person will drop the drug. This was indeed the case with most addicted veterans. On top of removing the stressor, the second most important thing, it seemed, was reintegration into the normal life, with healthy pleasures providing sufficient rewards to make the drug superfluous and ultimately unattractive. Was “will power” ever involved? Again, the argument is that what we call “will power” is the interaction between genetics and circumstances. Removing the need seems sufficient.

I’d add “insight” for at least some cases. Some recovered alcoholics have said that once the thought “I don’t need to drink” rose in their mind, that was it. I could argue that I was addicted to my depression (every person’s depression is different), but in my case it was the thought “It’s too late in life for depression.” Now, can I take pride for having had that insight? It welled up from my unconscious, after a series of small that I could later trace. The insight was sudden, but the ripening toward it was very gradual — starting with the realization that I carefully hid my depression from someone I admired, afraid that his esteem of me would drop — which amounted to the admission that I had finally grown ashamed of being depressed (I'm not saying that this applies to depression across the board, especially not to acute situational depression).

So, a certain feeling of shame did happen. But taking pride in having dropped my depression? No, I can’t say I felt it at any point. At first I didn’t even feel lucky — feeling in general was so numbed down. Now I realize that I was indeed lucky — but also unlucky in that the insight happened so late in life. But it takes what it takes. Everything had to be just right — or I’d still be brooding and having crying fits. Well, perhaps until 2013, when circumstances forced an intense preoccupation with the practical side of life. External focus knocks out brooding.

But I realize that I’ve swerved away from the “luck swallows all” theme, and Mary’s excellent objection: can we afford to do away with both blame for bad actions and pride in accomplishment? Those are powerful social tools, and I predict a lot more debate ahead.

Maybe instead of “pride,” we can speak of feeling good after we perform an action that results in perceived success. That’s the brain’s inner reward system at work.

Well, yes, but what about choice? When you need some cash, do you ever ask yourself, “Should I go to the bank and make a withdrawal, or should I hold up a 7-11?” Obviously, for 99% of the population (or whatever the exact figure may be), the question never arises. It’s not a choice. If a person told you, “I'm so proud of myself: last night again I refrained from robbing a 7-11,” you’d want to run. But a probation officer dealing with a convicted robber might see it in a different light. Probing the reasons for that restraint could be useful in terms of crime prevention — but not with the object of eliminating the pride that the parolee may feel. You want to say, “Whatever works.”

Yet we do have the subjective and often stressful experience of making choices — as I said elsewhere, “we have many selves inside one brain.” Another way of putting it is that we have many neural pathways competing for dominance. Again, there are reasons why pathway A rather than pathway B ultimately “wins,” but basically the picture is too complicated to even bother trying to untangle the gazillion factors that may be involved. And for social reasons, it may be best to let blame and praise continue to be used — as no doubt they will. I agree that we want to be the heroes of our stories. Irrational, yes, since deep down luck underlies all — but our psychology may require certain beliefs — over which we have no conscious choice, and so on down the line — there is no way out of this conundrum.

“Free will” may not exist, but consequences of actions do exist. And both society and above all our own brain take care of whether we feel good or bad after having done something. For you and me, the problem has been mainly self-punishment, with the wisdom maturity finally liberating us. Pride? I don’t desire to feel proud of myself — that seems so childish and ignorant. But if for the word “pride” we substitute “happiness,” then I'm fine with it. And I don’t think it would subvert achievement if we say to a child, “I'm do happy that you won the contest” rather than “I'm so proud of you for having won the contest.”

It really all depends on the degree of blame and pride. If those become excessive, then it makes sense to question them. When individualism runs wild, we end up with suicidal depression at one extreme and gloating in how supposedly “I did it all myself — no one ever helped me.” Both cases involve delusional thinking. Now, a bit of delusion can be adaptive. But too much in either direction brings to mind Catholic wisdom: both pride and depression (acedia — often unfortunately render as “sloth” rather than brooding) are deadly sins.

(On a personal note, Dante’s description of the “sullen” in the Inferno was one of the first steps leading to my depression-ending insight.)

Badlands National Park


I think I agree, maybe what we need is not so much pride as happiness with what we do and have done. And sometimes change is possible, as you say, with alcoholics sometimes just realizing “I don't have to drink.” In fact, that was somewhat like what happened when I quit smoking. I was a 2 pack a day smoker for 23 years. I was off work and on compensation after injuring my back at work. A miserable situation. Pain. Disability. No money. Bills keep coming. Compensation money erratic, too little, too late. Treatment dictated by comp doctors,  and pretty ineffective. I think the process was something like — my life is out of control — OK — here's something I Can Control! I quit smoking over a three day period and never smoked again. It's been almost 30 years. And I am proud of that, but in the telling it's obvious many factors were making that decision possible. Thinkable, doable. But still not inevitable. It certainly made me a happier and healthier person.

This is the kind of thing we can discuss endlessly...And I know how I stubbornly cling to the idea of that one small space, that pause, where a choice can be made...even with all the determining factors , still, a choice.

And I just as stubbornly continue to believe, it's never too late for joy!!

I’ve heard that cigarettes are even more addictive than heroin, so wow, the thought “Here is something I CAN control” might be predicted not to be sufficiently powerful. But with all the other circumstances, not to mention factors hidden from us . . . it was!!

After my success with “choosing to quit doing depression,” I began to wonder if there was something else I could quit or change. And I thought I was too tense (“intense” if looked at from a different angle, but it’s certainly a two-edged sword), and decided that I would like to become more relaxed. Lots of techniques on how to become more relaxed, right? And here I discovered that no, I couldn’t just decide. It wasn’t happening.

Also, it was both unnerving and enlightening for me to realize that even half a glass of wine had a much more profound effect on me than any conscious effort, e.g. all my earnest attempts at meditation. Or 25 mg of Benadryl, much less 50 mg. Progesterone used to be my “serenity hormone,” but in a couple of months I became habituated, alas — but the memory of those first weeks on progesterone (which some women can’t tolerate) is still beautiful to recall. 

(By the way, I called the pharmacy and asked, “Is it normal to suddenly feel go good, so calm?” And I learned that apparently I was progesterone-deficient all my life — “So many women are.”)

And yes, looking at beauty, petting an animal (sometimes even just looking at an animal), reading just the right poem — these certainly have an effect, however temporary. But I had to resign myself to the fact that the kind of dramatic experience I had with quitting depression was probably once in a lifetime — and ultimately not under my conscious control either. A tiny part of it, perhaps. And just as my father pointed out to me that my good grammar and spelling were not my merit, so a friend pointed out that in effect I had the resources to “choose” not to be depressed. I’ve since met a few others who had a similar experience — one woman even with bipolar expression — but I’d never insist that if I could, anyone can.

So — it depends. Sometimes we can decide (or at least have the subjective experience of it), and sometimes we can’t. 

For me, understanding the power of circumstances was enormously liberating. For others, it may be depressing. It depends.

Never too late for joy? I’ve read about a man who finally became happy when dying. That’s when he realized he didn’t have to accomplish anything, achieve anything, meet anyone’s expectations. Nothing was expected of him — since he was dying anyway. “There’s nothing I have to do!” he kept saying, chortling with joy. He became downright bubbly with happiness, and became a favorite with the medical staff. Visitors started enjoying coming to visit him. I wish I could say that next he recovered, but the article said nothing about that . . . In any case, we can assume that at least he died happy — “exit laughing.” 


~ “My self-surprising first impressions of mainland China:

I find myself wondering if I should move here. That is not a response I could have foreseen. It might just be puppy love. At present, if I were to bet on a culture I'd bet on this. It feels way more stable than the West I know and with no lack of colorful exuberance.

A few reasons:

China has a very long history of patient inquiring pragmatic reverence for reality. It has a much deeper and cleaner tradition than the West's fervid reverence for petulant and exacting imaginary gods. Tao–Confucius–Buddha philosophy is a good way to seed a culture.

They understand our research [into factors governing decision making] much more readily than most of the people I talk to in the states. They've been systems thinkers a long time.

The society is amazingly civilized. The people seem well adjusted. I haven't sensed the avid need for assertive personal space-taking that has us bruising and retaliating against each other in the West.

There's an innocence here that we're beginning to miss in the west.

The people actually seem to like Xi a lot. He is a powerful leader but in a long tradition of leaders who were not despots – strategic, intellectually adept leaders looking out for the general welfare. They could not, would not elect a Trump.

Capitalism is much harder to keep in check with democracy than with a long tradition of a strong state.

Communism gets lip service recognized as lip service. It's revered about as seriously as any national myth.
The Chinese seem to enjoy fantasies without mistaking them for reality.

In Indonesia, the people I asked didn't know a single atheist. Here the people I ask don't know a single religious person.
 I've learned about 20 Chinese Characters. 4000 more to go to get by, another 65k for a rich vocabulary. I've listened to 20 hours of lectures on Chinese history and am reading about the social psych differences.

If I were offered a teaching position here for a year, I could imagine taking it.

The plasticity of human nature continues to amaze me. I would not have guessed this place is possible for us humans but here it is.

I could be wrong. I'm only four days in. If I am wrong I'll report that too. And of course, I know it has a dark human underbelly. Anyone who holds out for a society that doesn't is an ideological fool trying to escape what can't be escaped. The question for me is what society manages the dark human underbelly best. This one is doing pretty good it seems to me.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Jeremy has since added:

“I've now had a somewhat sobering conversation about the constraints imposed today under the banner of Communism here.

And I get a sense that some of what's impressive here is a symptom of a growing economy. Unrest and unscrupulousness rise as incomes fall. Incomes are rising here as they did in the US in the Mid-20th Century.” ~


China has been an empire for how long? Five thousand years? Not always a thriving empire — in fact one with periods of decline and fall more than once in its history. But unlike Ancient Egypt or Ancient Rome, the Maya and Inca empires and so on, China has managed to continue. This alone shows there is something amazing about the culture, a resilience that appears to overcome even catastrophes.

As Jeremy has pointed out in another post, the Chinese tend not to take any ideologies seriously — or at least not for long. Some may still pay lip service to communism, but they are not “true believers” and they know it. Jeremy later called the Chinese communists “false believers who know they are false believers,” in contrast to American Evangelicals.

What really interests the Chinese is good food and sex, the primary pleasures. And their allegiance is to China, its primacy in the world, its Mandate of Heaven — understood not as the whims of the “petulantgods,” but as the way things are. (This reminds me of what I was told about Judaism: You don’t have to believe in god. You just need to believe in being Jewish.)
Emperor Zhou the Dragon Slayer

Still, even these supreme realists and pragmatists did suffer from the ravages of Maoism. The young everywhere hunger for idealism, and idealism pushed to the extreme leads to nightmares. Whether it’s Hitler Jugend or the Red Guards — or, come to think of it, the medieval Children’s Crusade — is just a variation on the same story of idealism gone wrong.



One thing I'd like to add to Jeremy's article is that I believe that the future of contemporary fine art is in China. Currently there is a booming art scene and it will only get bigger with the population and surging financial growth.  



~ “Robert Biedron is one of Poland's young, rising political stars. He's an atheist in perhaps Europe's most Catholic country and its only openly gay politician. And now he is being viewed as a frontrunner for Poland's presidency.

"I'm a dreamer. I was born in a very traditional, conservative part of Poland. I am gay and being an atheist, it wasn't easy for me," says Mr Biedron, mayor of Slupsk, a city about 18km (11 miles) from the country's Baltic Sea coast.

He is being talked about as one of the leaders of a new progressive political movement that is being organized.

A former Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, has urged him to run for president in 2020. Opinion polls put him third behind the popular incumbent, Andrzej Duda, and the ex-prime minister and current European Council President, Donald Tusk.

Robert Biedron has made his political career to date seem surprisingly easy. A left-wing former gay rights activist, the 42-year-old became Poland's first openly gay MP in 2011 and then Slupsk mayor in 2014.

"As an MP I was beaten up four or five times on the street," he says.

"Now, they are all smiling at me and greeting me." Several minutes later a man does exactly that. The mayor points out that a few years ago things would have been different.

"They would probably have said 'You faggot', or they would spit at me. Today, they say 'Good Morning Mr Mayor' and this is a sign of change.”

PiS (a right-wing party) easily remains Poland's most popular party. That is not the case in Slupsk, a city of more than 90,000 in north-western Poland.

"Poland is not only devoted to a conservative, populist, authoritarian political party," says Mr Biedron, who has taken a pay cut, reduced the city's debt by tens of millions of zlotys, boosted spending on education and social housing and is building a new theatre.

He has also taken a red sofa out onto the street to chat to constituents.” ~


This article has given me some hope about the future of Poland. There are at least islands of greater openness. The backward Catholics will simply have to die out — I don’t think the young are attracted to the church.

I really hope Biedron runs for president. He can’t win, but at least he’d be in public a lot, showing that a gay atheist can be an excellent human being.

A park in Slupsk (in Pomerania, not that far from Grudziadz, where I was born). Ah, those begonias . . . I’m so familiar with them, going back to when some were planted in a hammer-and-sickle pattern.


~ “Ever feel as if motherhood literally sucked the life out of you? Well, there’s some science to back that up. A recent study in the journal PLOS. One reported that the more children a woman gave birth to, the faster she aged.

The study, which looked at DNA in 100 postmenopausal women, found that those who’d experienced more pregnancies and births had increased levels of oxidative damage — an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants that is an indication of accelerated cellular aging. The authors declared their findings “the first evidence for oxidative stress as a possible cost of reproductive effort in humans.”

But wait: Maybe having children revitalizes you, keeps you young. Because the week before that study was published, another had come out — in the same journal — showing that the more children a woman gave birth to, the more slowly she aged.

That study, on 94 women with an average age of about 40, found that over the course of 13 years, those who gave birth to more children had longer telomeres, the protective casings at the end of a DNA strand. Like a candle that burns down every time you light it, telomeres get shorter each time a cell divides. The authors suggest that elevated estrogen levels in pregnancy may protect DNA from the damaging effects of oxidative stress.

Individually, such studies make for irresistible headlines, but few news stories acknowledge the persistently contradictory nature of findings in this area. We want the answer to be simple, but it just isn’t. Poke around in the literature and you will find as many articles describing the protective effects of childbearing as those that refer to it as utterly depleting.

How could having kids affect health and longevity in such disparate ways? Why can’t we definitively say how pregnancy will affect any human body?

“I don’t think there is a simple answer,” says Grazyna Jasienska, head of the Human Reproductive and Evolutionary Ecology group in Poland and a co-author of the study showing accelerated aging in mothers. “It’s interesting because it’s complicated.”

Life-history theory asserts that since the body has a finite amount of energy to work with, energy put toward reproduction is energy not spent on self-maintenance. It’s maternal martyrdom at the cellular level. In most species, increased reproduction is linked to decreased lifespan. This is the theory researchers expect to confirm when studying how childbearing affects longevity in humans, but apparently, it isn’t quite that cut and dried.

“Although the relationship between women’s fertility and their post-reproductive longevity has been extensively studied, the nature of this relationship remains unclear,” the authors of yet another PLOS One article declared in December 2015. “A meta-analysis of 31 studies on this topic did not show a consistent pattern. The relationship … can be negative, positive, or absent.”

Childbearing comes with a vast array of variables: maternal nutrition, disease risk, time between pregnancies, breastfeeding duration, number of pregnancies, even the baby’s gender. Boys tend to grow faster in utero, to weigh more at birth, and to make higher lactational demands, so “having sons may be more energetically expensive for mothers than having daughters,” Jasienska explains in “The Arc of Life.”

And breastfeeding is even more “energetically expensive” than pregnancy. Women who exclusively breastfeed their babies need to eat an extra 640 calories a day; only 300 additional calories per day are needed during the last two trimesters of pregnancy. It’s a factor that tends to be neglected by research into the relationship between fertility and longevity.

“The [overall] costs are not the same for someone who eats well compared to someone whose food intake can’t cover the excess energy needs of pregnancy and lactation,” Jasienska says. “[In] well-off women who have many children, we see increases in longevity. For someone in an economically developing country, for example, the costs of reproduction are much more intensely received by the mother’s body.

in the highlands of Guatemala, Pablo Nepomnaschy found a population to study with similarly wide-ranging fertility rate: between one and 10 children. Nepomnaschy is the director of the Maternal and Child Health Lab at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, and co-author of the study that linked childbearing with longer telomeres. He began collecting data on a group of indigenous Kaqchikel Mayan women in 2000, expecting his findings to support life-history theory. Instead, he found the opposite.

He says he then happened upon a study in which researchers in Israel found that both mice and humans exhibited faster tissue rejuvenation after pregnancy. The fetal cells that mingle in the mother’s organs and bloodstream, the authors suggested, may act like an injection of youth.

“I was blown away by [these results] … reproduction is costly, but maybe it’s associated with biological mechanisms that slow down aging,” Nepomnaschy said. On average, women live longer than men. So there may be something built into female DNA, or into the process of reproduction, that helps maternal cells recover from being temporarily neglected.

Perhaps it’s that there’s an optimum number of human offspring. A recent analysis of 18 cohort studies, seven of which included men, uncovered a J-shaped association between number of children and risk of mortality from all causes: Parents of one to five children had a reduced risk of death compared with those who had either no children or at least six. For both men and women, the greatest reduction was for parents of three to four children. Other large studies cite the magic number as two.

Pregnancy is one thing: parenting is another. Do social support systems after birth — or lack thereof — affect a mother’s recuperation? Surely decreased sleep and increased stress play roles here, too.

Nepomnaschy says that as with childbearing, the biological costs and benefits of childrearing may vary by population and counteract each other. Jasienska explains that on one hand, “if parents have limited resources and must share them with many kids, this is not going to be good for their health. On the other hand, children help their parents and also take care of aging parents. Our study showed that women with high fertility have shorter life span, but in men, number of daughters is related to longer life span.”

It’s likely that no study will ever separate out all of the factors to definitively say how pregnancy and parenting affect the body. Especially not if what we’re looking for is a simple answer — an irresistible headline that purports to be applicable to anyone.” ~
Mama; photo by Anna Stępień


It’s complicated — certainly not all good nor all bad. Nor is motherhood the same for all women, to put it mildly. But some women make excellent mothers and enjoy being mothers — I would never put them down for being more attracted to motherhood than to professional careers. And more women would have at least one child if help with child care were more available.

What seems missing from this discussion is the role of positive emotions. True, those may be offset by the stresses of motherhood, but if those stresses are not excessive, then positive emotions generated by a loving interaction with the child would promote longevity. We see this already with pet ownership.

Aerial view of a dog (again, my thanks to Anna Stępień)
ending on beauty:

soon I'll be ready for an alpine asylum
a blanket a wheelchair and whisky
under the icy, mint-sweet stars

~ Sutton Breiding, 8th Moon/3
Andrew Wyeth: Night Sleeper, 1979

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