Saturday, July 7, 2018


“I caught this little cutie playing in my fountain in Nine Mile Falls, Washington," Angela Roth writes about her photo.

After the hundredth time I knew
I’d hear that question for the rest

of my life. I cried myself to sleep.
Many times. Many times.

Then I woke up and asked,
Where am I from?

Whose words do you speak,
my Old Church Slavonic mouth?

Who do you long for,
my Sephardic thigh?

Feet, did you walk
all the way from Ur?

Arms, did you build
the pyramids?

Hands, did you glean
in foreign fields?

Who did you give birth to, hips,
licked by tongues of firelight,

steep bent shadows
kneeling down? Where

are we from?
Let us count the stars

of our mother, the Great She-Bear
suckling the night sky;

let us ask
our father, the wolf.

~ Oriana

I used to be irritated by the remark, “We are all immigrants” when addressed to me; I wanted to emphasize that some of us are immigrants in a more immediate sense, and that it’s not easy to be an actual immigrant, especially if people always remind you of it by asking, “Where are you from?” But in today’s climate, I welcome the statement that we are all immigrants. In a larger sense, we are.

We are immigrants also when it comes to stages of life, but that’s a different poem:

Time the Hunter and his bright Dog
move on. Only we stand still,

immigrants approaching port,
our precious, useless past
in our arms. Ludicrous,

the luggage we take,
the old photographs. The future
will be exile, a new world.

Oriana, “From the New World”

But as I said, that’s a different poem.


That poem sang for me — I have often felt like a stranger in a country not my own, though I have never lived in any other, like a refugee, though I have left no homeland far behind, a curiosity, though unaware how my patterns of speech marked me as provincial. And yet to know myself, all of us, part of a universe of wonder and beauty, under the stars, of the stars, at our heart that wildness still, mother bear, father wolf, undeniable, ineradicable, the end and the beginning, always at home.

A beautiful poem, whose final lines feel inevitable and perfectly satisfying.


Thank you, Mary. “Always at home” — what a marvelous reply to my being perennially harassed by “Where are you from?” It reminds me of Milosz’s “Here and everywhere is my homeland” — which I used as an epigraph for my “Homeland” poem, which ends: “No one is foreign.”

Even before I left Poland I started having fleeting feelings of being a stranger there — just too rejecting of Polish nationalism (a pale ghost by contrast, by still) to fit, too interested in the larger world. Later of course I got to know this feeling “big time,” and in a much more literal sense. Now it’s less and less important — where anyone is from, even if it’s undeniable that the culture one experienced during the formative years is a lifelong influence, forming a kind of matrix for what a tree is, a city, a river.

But ultimately it’s simply not that important. What matters is whether or not we’re dealing with a good human being — kind, honest, dedicated, hard-working. Note that I didn’t include “intelligent” — because over many years of learning the hard way, I discovered that though I admire and even adore intelligence, goodness is much more important.

I wish for a world where a good person can feel at home anywhere on earth.

galaxy in the constellation Hunting Dogs



~ “First Reformed” is a devil-may-care film, made with the sort of reckless abandon, the desire to slam the cards of his anger face up on the table, that only an established filmmaker who’s still in a hurry will yield to. This time, the religion is up front: Hawke stars as the Reverend Ernst Toller, who, like Schrader, is originally from Michigan. Toller (whose name is that of a Jewish and Communist playwright and political activist who committed suicide in exile, in New York, in 1939) is the leader of a tiny congregation at the First Reformed Church in a fictitious town in upstate New York. He’s a terse, haunted, austere pastor in a spare, bright, austere, and museum-like church that’s two hundred and fifty years old and functions more as a virtual museum piece than a religious institution. Ernst has about ten regular parishioners, one of whom, a young woman named Mary Mensana (Seyfried), comes to him with her trouble.

Mary’s husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist, was recently released from a Canadian jail, where he was held for actions relating to his political activism. Mary is twenty weeks pregnant. Michael wants her to abort the fetus because he can’t justify bringing a child into the damaged world, and Mary asks Ernst to meet privately with Michael at their home. The dialogue between the two men — in its writing, filming, and performance — is one of the mind-bending treasures of the recent cinema, a scene of such agonized intensity as to bring to mind work by Carl Theodor Dreyer (about whom Schrader wrote a seminal book, in 1972). Its power involves revelations about Ernst’s life, and the tortured path that led him to his calling, that turn backstory into drama and open the movie both to the pressures and passions of family legacies and the present-tense bitterness of political follies.

I’m writing about “First Reformed” with an intentional allusiveness; I’d rather err in the direction of avoiding spoilers. Suffice it to say that Ernst is an angry and bitter man; that he directs much of that bitterness at political leaders and much of it at himself; that he grows attached to Michael; and that, despite Michael’s sometimes dubious methods, he finds virtue in Michael’s fight and sense in Michael’s madness. Ernst’s increasing identification with Michael’s extreme activism, along with his deepening friendship with Mary, gives the movie its dramatic core.

“First Reformed” is also a story of apostasy — from above, so to speak — of the repudiation of many of the temporal forms of church life in favor of its rarefied spiritual mission. In this regard, it’s a sort of Kierkegaardian film, contrasting Ernst’s impractically modest ministry with a large nearby institution, the Abundant Life church, a virtual suburban concert hall—enormous, plush, well funded, shopping-mall bland, and run like a business by its wise and worldly leader, the Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who also oversees the practical affairs of First Reformed. The bond between the two men is warm, but there’s conflict looming: First Reformed is about to celebrate its two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary at a “reconsecration,” providing a major photo op for the state’s governor, for Abundant Life, and for the major donor who’s keeping First Reformed afloat, a local industrialist named Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), whose company is also a major local polluter.

It also seems as if Schrader’s philosophical temperament, political rage, erotic ardor, and self-scourging religiosity were fusing uneasily in “First Reformed” with his lifelong artistry as a filmmaker and his talent as a showman. At times, the ideal side of the film and its cinematic side separate, and the gaps register as flaws in the aesthetic texture, letdowns in artistic energy. Sometimes the urge for showmanship, for dramatic conflict, gets in the way of what Schrader is trying to say; at other times, the desire to say something, the force of his own character, takes the place of dramatic emotion. Yet when those sides meet—as they do through much of the film—the high-energy contact is of an ecstatic, arc-bright wonder and terror.

an excellent performance: Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedrik the Entertainer), the pragmatic Pastor of The Church of Abundant Life 

from another source:

~ “First Reformed” is a talky film, a point emphasized by Schrader’s choice of having the camera isolate the characters almost all of the time. But it is fascinating talk. Toller and Michael debate a doomed planet and the meaning of despondency. “You might despair at bringing a child into this world,” Toller says, “but it cannot compare to the despair of taking a child from it.” In ministering to a youth group, Toller debunks the very Calvinist idea that godliness and prosperity can be compatible (“that’s not what Jesus teaches”). In his confrontations with one of his own church’s benefactors, a Trumpian tycoon named Balq (made appropriately loathsome by actor Michael Gaston), Toller makes clear the unacceptability of good acts without good faith. Toller’s instincts are sound, his faith less so—“if only I could pray,” he tells his journal, a 12-month assignment he gives himself without much hope he will be able to finish. He drinks. When his stomach pain becomes too great, he mixes his whiskey with Pepto-Bismol.

“You’re always in the Garden,” says Jeffers, referring to Toller’s evident funk over the future of mankind. “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.” You have no idea, Jeffers tells the unhappy minister, “what it takes to do God’s work”—by which he evidently means marketing, promotion and filling a megachurch. It takes, Jeffers declares, living in the real world.

There is not much one can reveal about the narrative of “First Reformed” without giving away too much. But it is safe to say the film takes a ferociously damning view of pop Protestantism, the institutional hypocrisy of evangelicals regarding climate change and what is essentially the buying of indulgences by a wealthy few who make munificent contributions to various causes without correcting their profitable crimes. Schrader is positing that the real world is, and should be, about the life of the mind, the health of the soul—and love. Ultimately, that is where “First Reformed” ends up, even if it seems to be going everywhere else.” ~


I want to recommend “First Reformed,” but find it difficult to discuss it without spoilers. Yes, it's heavily influenced by The Diary of a Country Priest and probably by Bergman's Winter Light (I have to trust the reviewers on that), but it’s a courageous movie that's definitely not simplistic. You can say, “Here's a cliché, and here is another one” — but it's still a complex movie you can discuss for a long time afterwards.

In this movie, Mary is the savior. Charles has suggested that Mary is meant to be an angel. There are certainly clues that point that way, but the fact that she’s a single mother pregnant with a male child suggests a strong parallel with Mary the mother of Jesus. Regardless, a character can have more than one underlying meaning.

The movie also mentions Joseph. However, it’s not the Joseph of the New Testament, but Joseph of the Old Testament, the one whose brothers sold him into slavery. “Take off my shoes because I'm standing on holy ground” fuses him with Moses.

Michael, it finally occurred to me, is to evoke the Archangel Michael, the warrior angel — except that this Michael cannot win against Satan.

And Toller, though I don't doubt he was named after the German activist, has a name with "toll" in it — as in, "Do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls.” As a noun, the word “toll” means “price”; Toller certainly pays a price for insisting on the teachings of Jesus rather than the Prosperity Gospel.

The eye lamp in Mary’s living room -- is it surrealist art or the Eye in the Sky that sees everything, including our thoughts? Not that Mary and her depressed eco-warrior husband could afford avant-garde art, but this is a sophisticated, layered movie and we know it's not an accidental detail.

What about Jesus himself? Is he relevant? There is a hint that Mary’s child may turn out to be extraordinary — but only the way that any child has that potential. “Would you withhold that wonder and mystery from the world?” Toller asks Michael, who foresees nothing by climate-caused suffering ahead, and wonders if it’s ethical to bring a child into a doomed world.

Jesus is a shadowy presence here, both a force for the good and for evil in the sense of escapism. Do nothing, be happy — Jesus has already suffered, so you don’t have to! is one of the cheerful messages of the Abundant Life church. But for those who actually know the teachings, the challenge is always to forswear the pursuit of wealth (talk about an unpopular idea) in favor of “love thy neighbor.” What act of kindness can you perform today?

(How I wish this happened to be the emphasis of all religions — and not the many kinds of sin.)

(And maybe, just maybe, rather than sing “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb,” children could pick up the trash along the riverbank?)

Some viewers are disappointed and disgusted by the ending, which could be dismissed as the “all you need is love.” The happy ending is indeed a big surprise in this otherwise dark movie, but it makes its own sense. While quotations from the bible fail — each side can find biblical support for any point of view — love ends up saving lives. 

It's hard to tell if the "eye-lamp" in Mary's living room has a religious meaning. It probably does. This is a very deliberate movie; some might even say it's heavy-handed that way.


“Religion Christless” — after seeing First Reformed, this phrase strongly resonates.


From the department of sad irony — this photo was taken in Leeds, England.



I don’t accept the explanation that he always sounded garbled like that, and it’s a genetic condition, like dyslexia. Go to his Youtube interviews made in 1990s, and you’re in for a shock: an alert look, restrained emotionality, coherent sentences, intelligent, relevant responses, a fairly sophisticated vocabulary typical of a college gradate. And no non-stop bragging and non-stop self-focus. A decline in brain function since then is terribly obvious. The brain attached to this mouth is producing strange language poetry.  


“I have broken more Elton John records. He seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. I don’t have a guitar or an organ. No organ.”

~ “The person I am in the company of my sisters has been entirely different from the person I am in the company of other people. Fearless, powerful, surprising, moved as I otherwise am only when I write.” ~ Diaries of Franz Kafka

Oriana: My perception exactly: we are “fearless, powerful, surprising” in our writing — our best self. And we can be that self also in the company of someone who is completely supportive, a fully trusted ally who will not attack us, so we are free of defensiveness.

The mural in Prague remains my favorite Kafka memorial


~ “We’ll be seeing the flag everywhere this week, and that could be a little depressing since for some Americans this is not the best year to think about our flag and what it is coming to represent. So maybe we could think instead about a flag from another time—a flag that is and is not a flag. Let’s see if that allows us to change the subject.

As have other notable citizens of the Republic, Jasper Johns had a dream. The year was 1954, and he was twenty-four years old and living in a loft in a condemned building on Pearl Street, near the Brooklyn Bridge. He dreamed that he painted an American flag. And then he awoke, and said, Let it be so. Everyone knows the result: one of the iconic images of postwar art.

That’s the story Johns told, anyway, and there is no reason not to believe him, since there is no other good explanation for where the idea of painting a flag could have come from. Johns said he liked it because it allowed him to treat the design of the painting as a given, a found object, and then to do various painterly things to it. The painterly things include a collage of newspaper and magazine clippings, which is just visible underneath the paint, and the use of encaustic—wax mixed with pigment—which gives the piece its weathered surface. The painting is in the Museum of Modern Art. You need to see it to get it. You can “experience” Andy Warhol’s soup cans in reproduction, but not the “Flag” paintings of Jasper Johns.

 How “Flag” got into MOMA tells a story about politics and American life in the nineteen-fifties. “Flag” was included in Johns’s first solo exhibition, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, in the winter of 1958. Castelli had discovered Johns almost by accident, during a visit to the loft of Johns’s partner, Robert Rauschenberg. Johns’s loft was downstairs, and when Rauschenberg went there to fetch ice cubes for drinks from the communal refrigerator Castelli went along with him and found a studio filled with paintings of flags, numbers, maps, and targets. He realized that he had discovered gold, and he signed Johns up.

 In 1958, Johns was still virtually unknown, but, somehow, the image of a Johns painting appeared on the cover of ArtNews the week the show opened, and Alfred Barr, moma’s founding director, went to inspect the work of the new prodigy. Dorothy Miller, moma’s curator for painting and sculpture, accompanied him. Barr no longer held the director position, but he and Miller were powerful figures at the museum. They decided to purchase four works from the show. “Flag” was one of them.

But, as Mark Lamster explains in a forthcoming biography of the architect Philip Johnson, moma’s acquisitions committee was reluctant to pay for a work that was possibly poking fun at the national iconography.

Barr asked Philip Johnson to buy “Flag” and loan it to MOMA. Johnson had been associated with the museum from its founding, and served on the board of trustees. He bought the painting for nine hundred dollars. The understanding was that he would donate it back to the museum at the appropriate moment; he liked the painting and hung onto it for fifteen years.” ~

 Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954


~ “I think even from a distance, when you look at Jasper Johns Flag, it's clear that this is not your typical everyday American flag.

In the first place, as you can see when you look closely, this is a flag that is constructed, not sewn. It's solid, right? It's thick. It's object-like. It has this surface that is smeared and painted and dripped on with colored encaustic, which is a mixture of wax and pigment. You can see through it.

And underneath the pigment are strips of collaged newspapers. And when you really begin to look at these you can see that there are dates that are recognizable they allow us to locate this painting, this flag, this timeless symbol of our nation within a very particular context, the 1950s in America, which is right in the midst of the McCarthy era and the beginning of the Cold War, when symbols such as the flag would have had a very particular and potent valence.

Using the flag, Johns said, gave him a great deal of freedom, because he didn't have to design it. It was a symbol that gave him room to work on other levels, and specifically, on the making of the painting.” ~ Anne Umland, MOMA curator



~ “Trump follows in the familiar footsteps of Argentina’s Juan Perón, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, and many other populist demagogues. Trump’s political ascendance is partly explained by the socioeconomic forces generated in the wake of globalization, technological change, and immigration. But the explanation has a second part that is just as important: as these socioeconomic forces relentlessly took their toll — over a period of decades — on the lives of struggling Americans, the government didn’t have an effective response. It had plenty of time and ample resources. It also had genuine policy options. But rather than deal proactively with the increasingly severe problems of modern society — as Progressive reformers did in addressing the massive demands of early industrialization, and as Franklin Roosevelt did in launching the New Deal to address the Great Depression—the government of our own time hasn’t taken up the challenge. And the public’s desperation and anger have grown.

The framers [of the Constitution] crafted a government some 230 years ago for a simple, isolated agrarian society of just four million people, nearly all of them farmers. Government wasn’t expected to do much, and the framers purposely designed one that couldn’t do much, dividing authority across the branches and creating veto points that made coherent policy action exceedingly difficult.

Compounding matters, they put Congress at the center of the constitutional order, and they designed it in such a way that legislators would be electorally tied to their local jurisdictions and the special interests therein. As a result, Congress — the institution that makes our laws — is simply not wired to solve national problems in the national interest. It is wired to allow hundreds of parochial legislators to promote their own political welfare through special-interest politics.

This approach may have been fine for the late 1700s. But it is poorly suited to a complex modern society filled with vexing problems. On all manner of issues, our government is immobilized by its myriad veto points and the jockeying of special interests. Often, it is ineffective because it can’t act at all. But even when government has been able to act, congressional lawmaking has typically led to policy concoctions that are cobbled together on political grounds to attract disparate legislators with disparate interests into coalitions—not to provide coherent, intellectually well-justified solutions to the nation’s problems.

Congressional policies literally aren’t designed to provide effective solutions. Look no further than U.S. tax policy, which is not a policy at all, but a grotesque conglomeration of special-interest favors and loopholes. Or to government actions on health care, which are perennially hobbled by insurance companies, hospitals, drug firms, and other vested interests to yield policies that are a complicated, fragmented mess. Americans want a government that works. But what they have is an antiquated government that is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of modern times.

Populist leaders don’t just feed on popular discontent. They feed on ineffective government — and their great appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective: through their own autocratic power.

As we’ve discussed, the fundamental causes of ineffective government are rooted in the Constitution, particularly in its design of Congress, which is wired to be a bastion of special-interest politics and is incapable of crafting well-designed policies that solve national problems. As a decision-maker, Congress is inexcusably bad and utterly incapable of taking effective action on behalf of the nation. That being so, the effectiveness of government can be improved by moving Congress from the center of the lawmaking process to the periphery, where its disabling pathologies can do less damage—and by extending a greater role to presidents in the actual crafting of legislation.

Why take greater advantage of the presidency? Because its wiring is very different from Congress’s and actually propels its occupants to champion effective government. Presidents are institutionally predisposed to think in national terms about national problems, and their overriding concern for their historical legacies drives them to seek durable policy solutions to pressing national problems.

How might executive leadership be responsibly leveraged in the service of effective government? The way forward, in our view, is to expand the president’s agenda-setting authority by requiring that Congress vote up or down on presidentially crafted bills. Such a reform would streamline and enliven the legislative process, reduce its perversities, and enhance the prospects for coherent, intellectually well-justified policies — which presidents, far more than Congress, have incentives to craft — all the while ensuring that formal protections remain in place to keep presidents (and others) within proper democratic bounds. They would still be constrained by multiple checks and balances already built into the political system, including the courts and the Bill of Rights.

Among other things: (1) The president’s ability to control the nation’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies needs to be curtailed through limitations on the appointment power and the adoption of strict rules for behavior. These agencies are super-powerful, and they can too easily be put to nefarious use. They need to be mainly in professional hands, guided by professional norms. (2) The president’s pardon power, granted by the Constitution, is entirely unjustified —and dangerous if criminal activity infects the president’s inner circles — and should be eliminated. It has nothing to do with effective government. (3) The president needs to be required, by law, to be totally transparent about his business and economic interests, and to take appropriate actions—through divestment, for example—to ensure that no conflicts of interest exist, or even appear to exist, that might compromise his decisions in office.

It is a big mistake for the nation, and for U.S. democracy, to think that government should be tied up in protective knots — for the ages, regardless of who holds elective office — to ensure that no president or government could ever do anything that we don’t like. The price of such tightly protective arrangements, after all, is that action of any kind becomes very difficult, and government will rarely be able to do anything positive either. Above all, it will lack the capacity to do what government should be doing and must be doing — by responding effectively to the demands and needs of U.S. society — if it is going to defuse the populist threat to our democracy and prevent the rise of future demagogues.

An effective government won’t always do what we want. But it will facilitate problem solving. And in so doing, it will protect our democracy. A presidency that is selectively more powerful is the key to making that happen. ” ~


 A challenging article. The author is fully aware of how unpopular his view is going to be while Trump is in power. But there are some very good points here, e.g. special interests controlling Congress, which was never designed to design a coherent policy for the entire nation (perhaps too large and too polarized for any government to deal with). Still, perhaps it’s the Congress that needs to be reformed, rather than the presidency — or perhaps all the branches need a thorough re-thinking (I'm not holding my breath).

The problems with the US Congress don’t explain why the crisis is so widespread — why so many countries are in a state of crisis. The author admits that modernity — along with the counterrevolution against modernity — has indeed created huge problems for the whole world.

Still, we would be wise to ponder why FDR was able to be effective — and LBJ to a lesser degree, but let’s not forget Medicare and Civil Rights, accomplishments that would likely be impossible to enact now.  

"government by organized money" ~ the perfection of that phrase


“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” ~ Mark Twain


One exception to naked people's lack of influence is Adam and Eve, who allegedly decided the fate of humanity. The fact that they never existed heightens the irony.

This reminds me of what Twain said about Adam:

“Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake; he wanted it only because it was forbidden.” ~ Mark Twain

Twain looks so sensitive and intelligent in this photo. We know he was something of a sacred monster, but if all I had was this photo, I'd be drawn to the man in it.



~ “Henry V — yes, that Henry V, the king of England who conquered much of France and inspired some of Shakespeare’s finest battle speeches — heard a rumor in 1421 about an object of great power in one of the French villages now in his dominion. Henry’s new wife, Catherine of Valois, a daughter of the defeated French king, was pregnant with their first child when Henry learned of the holy prepuce of Coulombs.

A prepuce is a foreskin, and “holy,” of course, signifies one of divine origin, which meant that the holy prepuce of Coulombs was none other than the foreskin of one Jesus of Nazareth, whose body was elevated from earth to heaven, according to Scripture. Most of his body, that is — apart from those snipped folds of baby penis skin he left behind, which became known for easing the suffering of women in childbirth. Well, at least for those women with access to the centuries-old miracle flesh. And so, six years after Henry’s triumph at the Battle of Agincourt, he sent his cavalry back to France to retrieve the sacred relic (once more unto the breach, apparently for the sake of a baby in breech).

And it worked. The sweet scent of the holy foreskin reportedly helped Catherine give birth to a healthy Henry VI, who became the youngest king of England ever just nine months later, when his father died from dysentery. It’s a remarkable story, and not just because it involves a 15th-century royal who had an interest in the birthing process beyond whether its end result itself had a foreskin. No, the story of Henry and the holy prepuce is just the tip (sorry) of an even more remarkable tale of superstition and skepticism, of anatomy and divinity, of commercialism and communion, of reverent awe and reliquary disgust. In short, the journey of the holy foreskin over the centuries is the story of being human in a changing world.

Among early Christians, says Andrew Jacobs, author of Christ Circumcised, circumcision was a “hot topic,” with many Jewish followers of Jesus insisting that gentile followers should undergo circumcision. Of course, male circumcision is a hard sell in parts of the world unaccustomed to applying sharp objects to the penises of infants, let alone to those of grown men wishing to change their religious affiliation. But the apostle Paul was not your average salesman, and in his letter to the Galatians, he rewrites the covenant of circumcision, pointing out that “in Jesus Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” One can imagine the relief of male Galatians upon hearing those good tidings.

Paul’s new take, under which Christ’s circumcision alone fulfills the Lord’s covenant, however, placed a premium on the resulting holy foreskin. And so it was only a matter of time before that foreskin started to pop up all over Europe.

Early Christians got serious about venerating the material remains of early saints during the fourth century. By the time the Second Council of Nicaea met in 787 and required that every Christian house of worship have a holy relic at its altar, church leaders were really only sanctioning a trend already underway.

There were several possibilities when it came to a good relic, and a hierarchy developed to classify them. First-class relics were the saints’ physical remains, from skulls and bones to vials of blood. Second-class ones were the saints’ possessions. A third-class relic was one that had touched the saint’s body, including some of the grisly torture devices that had been used to deliver their martyrdom. As David Farley puts it in his book An Irreverent Curiosity, relics were “products of another age, a time when saints were posthumous medieval rock stars, pilgrims their devout groupies and monks their roadies.”

The relic trade really took off during the Crusades when plundering Europeans returned from the Holy Land and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 with relics by the cartload, including the head of John the Baptist and the table from the Last Supper — or so it was said. For a church in the Middle Ages, possessing a relic, especially a Vatican-approved one, was a spiritual and commercial boon. Pilgrims journeyed long distances and paid to see and touch and kiss the material remnants of even B-list saints. Such relic tourism contributed to local economies for centuries, and a cottage industry in relics, trafficking largely in forgeries, grew up to meet the demand. And there was no bigger draw than the relics reputedly associated with the Son of God himself.

There were holy baby spoons and holy cloaks that covered the baby Jesus. At least 29 churches claimed to possess one of the nails used to crucify Jesus, and there were enough pieces of the “true cross” floating around medieval reliquaries to build an ark. Still, Christ’s ascension, a key doctrine of the faith, meant that the ultimate first-class relic — the body or blood of Jesus — was nearly as inconceivable as it was irresistible. As Jacobs, a professor of religious studies at Scripps College, puts it, the “absence of Christ’s bodily remains was both proof of his uniqueness but also became an itch Christians desired to scratch.”

From as early as the sixth century, relic sellers found a way to resurrect the divinely discarded detritus, from Jesus’ sweat and hair to his fingernails, even urine and feces (holy shit!). “In terms of relics, there are some legit body parts that came from people who were later canonized as saints,” Farley says of the trade, “but the relics of the Holy Family, it’s safe to say, are all fake, created in the Middle Ages by industrious relics salesmen.”

And as the flesh and blood of Christ’s otherwise departed body, the holy foreskin was the ultimate relic.

Part of becoming a successful relic — besides having a mildly credible physiology — is having a great backstory. And, as the only real piece of Jesus Christ remaining on the material plane, the holy foreskin required a provenance story befitting its importance. And for that, the tradition of the most pious penis turned to Charlemagne, the legendary eighth-century French king who it was claimed had acquired the most sacred of all relics while crusading through the Holy Land (something he almost certainly never did).

Then, on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in Rome, a truly monumental occasion. To show his gratitude, the new emperor reportedly gave the Church the one item on its wish list that could be acquired from no one else. It wasn’t long before as many as 18 holy foreskins were popping up in churches all over Europe, from Belgium to Spain to Coloumbs, each tracing its esteemed lineage to Charlemagne. The medieval saint Catherine of Siena claimed she was the spiritual bride of Christ and wore the holy foreskin on her ring finger to prove it. [But it was visible only to her.]

Many medieval theologians argued that all holy foreskins were frauds because no piece of Christ’s divine body could have remained on earth. The 17th-century theologian Leo Allatius took his thesis to an absurd extreme, arguing that Christ’s holy bridal ring had in fact ascended to become the rings of Saturn. One of the motives for downplaying the existence of a discarded foreskin may have been anti-Semitism in the later church. The holy foreskin “reminds people that Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish, and that his parents were Jewish,” says Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a professor of ancient religion at the University of Exeter. “He wasn’t a ‘Christian’ at all.”

Other church scholars, including St. Thomas Aquinas, disagreed. They saw no problem with the existence of a divine foreskin; for them, Christ’s circumcision represented the first time that he had shed his blood on earth, his first sacrifice. In other words, the redemption of humanity began with the bris of Jesus.

Still, from our modern perspective, it is easy to forget the many purposes that relics served in the ancient world. They provided worshippers with a means for easing pain and sorrow, for restoring health, for making wishes, for coming to terms with death and the dead. “We snicker at the idea of people praying to a foreskin, [but] … religion isn’t based on empirical truth; it’s based on faith,” says Farley. “People believed it at the time, and they treated it as a piece of the divine.”

Moreover, early Christians did not see a clear demarcation between the physical and spiritual worlds. “The idea that Christianity is only focused on intangible, nonmaterial concepts like faith and spirit is a very modern, Protestant idea,” says Jacobs.

The long-standing popularity of relics can also be understood in terms of today’s two big cultural obsessions — professional sports and celebrities — where fans often seek out a connection with their favorite teams or stars (including their discarded jerseys and other possessions). The relic system, says Farley, also “acted as an instrument of tribalism” since saints and their relics were often associated with particular places in the same way that sports teams are today.

Reliquary of the Holy Umbilical Cord, Cluny, 1407



~ “Mammals tend to get [large] when they invade the ocean. The pinnipeds—seals, sea lions, and walruses—tend to be immense blobs of muscle and blubber. The same could be said for manatees and dugongs. And whales are almost synonymous with bigness. Time and again, lineages of furry mammals have gone for a swim and over evolutionary time, they’ve ballooned in size. Why?

Most of the explanations for this trend treat the ocean as a kind of release. The water partly frees mammalian bodies from the yoke of gravity, allowing them to evolve heavy bodies that they couldn’t possibly support on land. The water unshackles them from the constraints of territory, giving them massive areas over which to forage. The water liberates them from the slim pickings of a land-based diet and offer them vast swarms of plankton, crustaceans, and fish to gorge upon.

But William Gearty from Stanford University has a very different explanation. To him, the ocean makes mammals big not because it relieves them of limits, but because it imposes new ones.

“As you enter the water, you start to lose heat from your body that you aren’t losing on land or air,” he explains. To counteract that constant loss of heat, humans use wet suits, whales have blubber, and otters have thick fur. “But really the easiest way to counteract it is to get bigger,” Gearty says. As bodies balloon, volume increases faster than surface area does, so you produce more heat in your body but lose comparatively less of it from your skin. But animals can’t become infinitely big because larger bodies also demand more fuel. There’s only so much food that an animal can reasonably find, catch, and swallow.

So, the need to stay warm sets a floor for the body size of oceanic mammals, while the need to eat sets a ceiling. And the gap between them, Gearty found, is surprisingly narrow—and far more so than on land.

Together with Jonathan Payne, also from Stanford, and Craig McClain from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, Gearty collected data on the sizes of almost 7,000 mammal species, both living and extinct. He showed that the marine groups—whales, manatees, and seals—have all independently hit an average optimum mass of around 1,100 pounds.

There’s obviously a lot of variation around that—a sperm whale is clearly not the same size as a dolphin. But crucially, that variation is much lower in the sea than it is on land. “The minimum size in these aquatic groups is thousands of times larger than the minimum for terrestrial groups, but the maximum size is only 25 times larger,” says Gearty. “I found it strange that no one had noticed before.”

These trends aren’t consistent with the idea of the ocean as a release. Instead, it suggests that the water imposes strict constraints. To thrive in it, mammals must be just the right size—big, yes, but not too big and not too small. And Gearty could calculate the boundaries of this Golidlocks zone with a set of equations that connect a mammal’s size with the heat it loses to the water and the rate at which it can find food. These equations predicted both the optimum 1,100-pound average that seagoing mammals have evolved toward, and the narrow range of sizes around that ideal.

And as always in biology, there are exceptions. Sea otters, for example, are unusually small for marine mammals—they’re about as big as a Labrador. That might be because their extremely thick fur, with up to a million hairs per square inch, allows them to stay warm without being big. They also spend a lot of time on land, where heat loss is less of a problem.

At the other extreme, the baleen whales go way beyond the 1,100-pound optimum. The biggest of them, the blue whale, can reach up to 400,000 pounds. It and its truly gargantuan relatives only emerged in the last few million years of whale evolution, and Nick Pyenson from the Smithsonian Institution thinks he knows why. Around 3 million years ago, a combination of changes to glaciers, winds, and currents created large surges of nutrients in coastal waters, which then fed hordes of crustaceans and small fish—potential prey for whales. But as I wrote last year:

These bonanzas weren’t evenly distributed. They were concentrated in particular, far-flung places—all-you-can-eat buffets separated by literal food deserts. And that, Pyenson says, is why the giant baleen whales evolved. They are beautifully adapted to hunt down sparse but concentrated prey. Their huge size allows them to survive for long stretches without encountering any food. And they evolved a foraging technique called lunge feeding, where they accelerate into a shoal of prey, open their ballooning mouths, and suck in vast volumes of water.

The emergence of concentrated prey, and the evolution of a technique for capturing them, allowed whales to smash through the diet-imposed ceiling that keeps other marine mammals big, but not too big. That's why they, rather than manatees or seals, transformed from big animals into the biggest animals that ever existed.

Blue whale, the largest animal in the world 


~ “Through graduate school and my postdoctoral fellowship, my research was in the area of cancer biology. I'll never forget the time that I had lunch with Bob Weinberg, probably the most famous and most important cancer researcher of all time. When someone asked him why cancer rates were rising, he said, "mostly because we're living longer. If you live long enough, you will get cancer.”

Just 100 years ago, the leading causes of death were pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infections such as cholera. Thanks to vaccines and improvements in public sanitation, these have been all but eradicated in the developed world. Even deaths by accidents have been cut by half, per capita, over the past century. We are living longer and healthier lives than ever before. Until we get cancer.

But why is cancer the beast that stalks us all? The genetics of cancer is extremely complicated, but one doesn't need to appreciate all the mechanisms in order to grasp the basics. Cancer results through the accumulation of the wrong combination of mutations in the wrong order. Inside our cells, we have genes and proteins that drive cells to divide and multiply and others that hold cells back. When these control mechanisms malfunction, cancer results.

Every day, we suffer hundreds of mutations around our body. Obviously most of these are harmless, but occasionally they can cause problems. The morbid reality is that every time a cell divides, it's a roll of the dice. Eventually, a mutation will strike that inches a cell toward becoming cancerous. Then, years later, it will get nudged again. In their now-classic paper, "The Hallmarks of Cancer (link is external)," Bob Weinberg and Douglass Hanahan outline the six defining features of a cancer cell. Key to the transition from normal cell to cancer cell is the accumulation of mutations.

So it seems simple: Mutations are bad. Well, for individuals yes, but mutations are also essential for evolution. They are the raw material of all evolutionary innovation. Over evolutionary time, mutations (this time in the "germ line"—sperm or eggs) are what produce all manner of diversity in the forms of various tweaks, tugs, and random changes in all possible directions. Most of that random variation is neutral or bad, but occasionally, a mutation that brings a new and creative functionality will emerge. Natural selection then acts on that beneficial mutation, and this is the essence of adaptation and evolutionary innovation.

So mutations are what drove evolutionary innovation and adaptive radiation, from the earliest single-celled organism building the first signs of stable energy metabolism nearly four billion years ago, through to the expansion of the human cranium over the past two million years. Mistakes in our DNA are the reason there is more than just cells and goo on our planet.

Mutations are responsible for everything great that we are, and they will eventually kill us all. Mutations: Can't live with 'em, can't progress without ‘em.” ~

ending on beauty:

Oh smile, where are you going? Oh upturned glance,
a new, warm, receding wave from the heart —
alas, it’s in us all . . .
Are we mixed into [the angels’] features
as slightly as that vague look in the faces
of pregnant women? Unnoticed by them in their whirling
return to themselves. (How should they notice it?)

~ Rilke, Second Duino Elegy


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