Sunday, December 27, 2015


Thor’s Helmet Nebula 




La noche es infinita, she begins.
What is born in her mouth
slides out slippery like moonlight.

Infinidad, she says because
we’re infinite, but we are not
finished: the Universe is mostly

dark laced with dark,
pierced by the cry of the beginning. 

I pour infinity

into my native tongue,
let it create another world:
The night’s not finished.

The night’s not finished, it waits
behind the unfinished trees.
The unfinished, infinite night

makes the dogs bark,
makes coyotes laugh.
What do they hear

that we cannot hear?
There’s a space like a lover
that opens only once. Gabriela

waits, a lily burns in her hand.
What will you say to her?
Can you utter such a total Yes?

Do not ask if the angel
is real. Who wants a heaven
that is always day? We need

la noche, our native land,
black leche of the soul,
white of stars.

~ Oriana © 2015


To a rare religious reader of mine, this poem is about the Annunciation. To others, it’s simply “cosmic.” To yet others, it’s about the ability to make a commitment. Still others single out the line: “We are infinite, but we are not finished.” Continuing on the theme of human nature, we need both night and day.

To me, the poem is mainly “about” language, and the ability of language to create a world. But should my emphasis be privileged over someone else’s reading? No. The poem belongs to the reader.


What was that unforgettable line? ~ Samuel Beckett


In one of his poems written before the Nobel Prize, when he was more prone to bitterness, Milosz ponders human striving, then asks, “And for what, since we will be forgotten anyway?” Camus is one of the few thinkers who engage with this question, the first one I encountered who had a secular answer.

“In his most famous essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus made the point that Sisyphus stands for all humanity, ceaselessly pushing our rock up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again. Over and over, ceaselessly, remorselessly, always striving but never succeeding — if only because ultimately everyone dies and his or her personal boulder rolls back down. Gravity always wins.

Camus nonetheless concludes his essay with the stunning announcement that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” because he accepts this reality, defining himself — achieving meaning —within its constraints. Camus’ stance is that meaning is not conveyed by life itself but must be imposed upon it.

Denying our nothingness isn’t what Camus proposed; rather, he urged something closer to accepting our nothingness and pushing on nonetheless, achieving meaning via meaningful behavior, even though — or rather, especially because — in the long run any action is meaningless. Probably the greatest such account of people achieving meaning through their deeds is found in Camus’ novel The Plague, which describes events in the Algerian city of Oran during a typhoid epidemic.

The Plague is a “chronicle” compiled by the heroic Dr. Rieux, in order to “bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

Camus is the existential thinker most associated with the “life is absurd” characterization of the human condition. Often misunderstood, he felt that this absurdity didn’t reside in life itself, but in something uniquely human, namely the peculiar relationship (which he called a “divorce”) between the human need for ultimate meaning and the “unreasonable silence” of the world. For Camus, neither human existence nor the universe is inherently absurd, but rather the relationship between the two, whereby people seek something of the universe that it fails to deliver.

Ruminating on Sisyphus, Camus wrote that “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” And at the conclusion of The Plague, while the citizens of Oran are celebrating their “deliverance,” Dr. Rieux knows better, that the plague bacillus will some day return. But at the same time, his commitment to the struggle, to what defines human beings in an otherwise uncaring universe, is undiminished.”


“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” We don’t expect such statements to come to us from the twentieth century, in many ways an era of disillusionment (though also of startling progress in technology, and more slow but significant progress in human rights). The pursuit of excellence characterized ancient Greece. The ambitious strove for arete. But when it comes to the pursuit of ideals, the twentieth century taught us caution — extreme idealism tends to end up in catastrophe. We need here another piece of Greek wisdom: moderation in all things.
Intuitively, though, I know what Camus means: it’s the work itself that makes us happy, not the results. “We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy” is in line with Rilke’s “To work is to live without dying.” It doesn’t matter that what we accomplish will almost certainly be forgotten; we’ll be lucky if some small portion will persist in an anonymous fashion even for a while. But even if eventually it’s forgotten entirely, that’s not a reason to cease working. Work is its own reward — particularly if we are performing at the level of excellence.

But even without that “struggle toward the heights,” work is a blessing. That’s why Ecclesiastes, after concluding that all is vanity, advises the reader: “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

And one of the bleakest poems in the English language, Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” ends with

Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


I have yet another answer: 


Many writers deluded themselves that they will be remembered. “You are writing for posterity,” friends are forever assuring those who don’t have much recognition. Milosz does not kid himself.   He realizes that even eminent writers are forgotten after a while and meet the common fate of all of us: oblivion. What shall remain of us will be some anonymous particles, a few words that strangers may repeat, without attribution. Borges was another poet and writer who fully understood this.

So, again, why write if it will all be forgotten? Why build if it will all be demolished, and replaced with other buildings? Why plant even trees, if trees don’t live forever? Or, if we plant those trees that live longer than we do, we won’t be around to enjoy them at their most magnificent? And let’s not even talk about flowers . . .

On the contrary, let us talk about flowers. They teach us a great lesson: beauty is a joy even if it doesn’t last. Ultimately nothing lasts. But WHILE it lasts, the beauty can nourish and delight us.

So I live by two answers:

1. To work is to live without dying. ~ Rilke
2. We are of the moment, and should fully devote ourselves to that moment.

Only a moment? Yes. And that is enough.

And that’s why Sisyphus the Everyman can be happy.


“Is a person in the state of Nirvana aware of the world around him? If not — if he is completely detached from life on earth — what kind of reality is he a part of? And if he is aware of the world of our experience, he must also be aware of evil, and of suffering. But is it possible to be aware of evil and suffering and still be perfectly happy?

The same question arises with regard to the happy residents of the Christian heaven. Do they live in total isolation from our world? If not — if they are aware of the wretchedness of earthly existence, of the dreadful things that happen in the world, its diabolical sides, its evil and pain and suffering — how can they be happy in any recognizable sense of the word?

Both Buddhism and Christianity suggest that the ultimate liberation of the soul is also perfect serenity: total peace of the spirit. And perfect serenity is tantamount to perfect immutability. But if my spirit is in a state of immutability, so that nothing can influence it, my happiness will be like the happiness of a stone. Do we really want to say that a stone is the perfect embodiment of salvation and Nirvana?

Since being truly human involves the ability to feel compassion, to participate in the pain and joy of others, the young Siddhartha could have been happy, or rather could have enjoyed his illusion of happiness, only as a result of his ignorance. In our world that kind of happiness is possible only for children, and then only for some children: for a child under five, say, in a loving family, with no experience of great pain or death among those close to him. Perhaps such a child can be happy in the sense that I am considering here. Above the age of five we are probably too old for happiness.

Is God happy? If He is not indifferent, but subject to emotion like us, He must live in a constant state of sorrow when He witnesses human suffering. He did not cause it or want it, but He is helpless in the face of all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other.

If, on the other hand, He is perfectly immutable, He cannot be perturbed by our misery; He must therefore be indifferent. But if He is indifferent, how can He be a loving father? And if He is not immutable, then He takes part in our suffering, and feels sorrow. In either case, God is not happy in any sense we can understand.

The true God of the Christians, Jesus Christ, was not happy in any recognizable sense. He was embodied and suffered pain, he shared the suffering of his fellow men, and he died on the cross.

In short, the word “happiness” does not seem applicable to divine life. But nor is it applicable to human beings. This is not just because we experience suffering. It is also because, even if we are not suffering at a given moment, even if we are able to experience physical and spiritual pleasure and moments beyond time, in the “eternal present” of love, we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition. We participate in the suffering of others; we cannot eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life.


Basically the title is just provocation, reader-bait. Yahweh’s happiness is not the real issue. Who cares about the archaic old fart with his gorilla-like alpha-male displays. His goal has never been happiness, not his own nor that of “his” people. I speak of the projections of human needs here, of course, mainly the macho ego. The issue is rather whether long-term happiness is possible for humans. LK leans to “no.” Moments of happiness are possible, however, and that makes all the difference.

What about the future happiness of Jesus, for Kolakowski “the real god of Christianity” (not for me; I felt Yahweh had the real power; that kind of father has to die before the son comes into his own)? Suffering is what Jesus is supposed to do: it’s his definition. Maybe after the Last Judgment Jesus will finally be allowed to be happy — assuming he has no compassion for those in hell (Christianity seems to consist of contradictions).

To his credit, Dante grappled with the dilemma of compassion for the damned; to his shame, he grew to perceive moral progress as the loss of that compassion. Those in heaven do not feel the pain of those in hell, even when it comes to people they once used to love. That capacity is simply taken away from them. They may pray for those on earth or in the Purgatory, but the ability to feel distress or any other negative emotion has been taken away from them. Problem solved! (Ah, religions create so many unreal problems . . . )


Another reason we can't be constantly happy is that we require change and variety, and challenging stimulation. But a portion of Alzheimer's patients are happy, cherubic: without memory, they truly live in the now. That’s why the most plausible theory of heaven is that it means no memory. But would we choose that condition? Memory is dear to us — even the memory of sadness, because that was our sadness, our life. The former self is like a child to whom we can speak tenderly, now that at last we understand.

In the main, though, I return to my main answer: we have the ability to enjoy happy moments, and that is enough.

Vesuvius seen from the Space Station. Photo by Chris Hadfield


I've always had an easy and obvious explanation for the feeling that I'm "from another planet": I come from a different culture. I had a different childhood, read different books, saw different movies, heard different songs. Every bit of connection was precious, say someone who was familiar with Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien" or Dante's Inferno. Then I realized that even within the same culture, others too feel a certain irredeemable aloneness and realize no one can fully understand them. (Another somewhat related phenomenon is that a significant percentage of those who lose their life memories -- usually due to Alzheimer's -- become quite happy. Hence perhaps the idea that heaven means no memory: every moment is an ever-new experience of bliss.) This article explains why apparently all of us feel puzzled over how different we are from others.

You really are different, because your brain wired itself from your unique life experience. They are different because their brains wired from their experiences. We're the same in some ways, of course. We all have the same urge to do things that trigger our happy chemicals and avoid unhappy chemicals. But our triggers vary widely.

We're born with a lot of neurons but very few connections between them. Our neurons connect from experience — early experience, because young brains built the neural infrastructure that later experience relies on.

The brain creates another layer of neural circuits during the teen years. Of course you are an erudite adult who is not ruled by teen schemas. But puberty floods the brain with hormones that facilitate new connections between neurons. This makes evolutionary sense because our ancestors often moved to new tribes at puberty. Our animal ancestors moved to new troops at puberty, which prevented in-breeding. In new surroundings, you need to store new survival information, and natural selection created a brain that's ready to do the job.” 


Yes, we are doomed to uniqueness. Maybe not identical twins — but I never wanted to have an identical twin! And for all my longing for someone similar to myself, I am suddenly grateful and almost want to say, Vive la différence! Yes, it does make things more interesting, and then — the joy when there is a true moment of connection, of feeling the sameness in some precious little thing.

And in adulthood we continue to be shaped by the experiences we find either rewarding or painful. But we finally get the idea that it's possible to shape ourselves to some degree. In childhood it seems we internalize mainly punishment. In adulthood we learn how to reward ourselves — or we should learn it if we don't want to feel like a helpless, adult-pleasing five-year-old forever.

Meanwhile, speaking of coming from a different culture, here is a unique summary of Russian literature:


“John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues argue that political conservatives have a “negativity bias,” meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of “a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it,” as one of their papers put it).

In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets — centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns — would se
em well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.

The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. “One possibility,” they write, “is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene,” when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed. (The Pleistocene epoch lasted from roughly 2.5 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.)

All of this matters because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble.


Fear, as in “fear vote,” is a big factor in conservatism. But the negativity bias is not the entire story. Intolerance of uncertainty and complexity may be just as important for becoming a conservative, and possibly growing up as an insider as opposed to outsider. And, not surprisingly, educational level: questioning and awareness of complexity increase with the amount of education. I am very sensitive to threats and yet on the whole I can’t stand conservative positions, especially those of the religious right. I favor a strong government that does good things for the people: free education, free medical care, a solid social safety net.

I have always identified with the poor, the outsider. It’s long been observed that the American Jews, the richest ethnic group in the country, are also the least conservative (only 19% as opposed to 38% of the general public). Historically, they have been the most likely to lean to socialist and humanitarian views. Could it be, above all, education? Or religiosity? (Orthodox Jews are politically conservative, as are of course fundamentalist Christians.)

But aren’t religious people also less educated and less tolerant of risk, uncertainty, and complexity? Perhaps we’ll never quite disentangle all the factors involved. We do know that one’s political orientation is fairly stable. 



Several Religious Right pundits jumped on a nonsensical and convoluted tale about how blood moons and the Shemitah, a biblical day of debt relief, would lead to some sort of disaster in America on September 13. The far-right website WorldNetDaily marked the arrival of the Shemitah with articles titled “Mark This Date For Potential Disaster,” “Get Ready: Biblical ‘Shemitah’ Begins This Week” and “Countdown To Disaster.” One of the leading propagators of this theory was Messianic rabbi and Religious Right fixture Jonathan Cahn, who even wrote a book on the matter.

Essentially, Cahn claimed that prophecies pertaining to biblical Israel can now apply to the U.S. because the founding fathers, like ancient Hebrews, made a covenant with God. As a result of the country breaking that covenant due to national “sins” like gay marriage and legal abortion, he forecasted that September 13 would be the date that America faced divine punishment.

Contrary to Cahn’s predictions nothing catastrophic happened on that day in the U.S. Cahn defended his prophecy by pointing to an earthquake off the Gulf of California, a body of water which he conveniently forgot to mention borders Mexico, not the U.S. He also claimed that a stock market selloff on August 18 was close enough to his doomsday date, so he was right all along! (The Dow Jones has since rebounded since the August correction). He went on to insist thatanything bad that happens between September 2015 and September 2016 would also validate his prophecy.

Cahn’s prophecy caught on with commentators like Rick Wiles of “Trunews,” who said that between September 13 and October 9, there would be a major “financial plunge of the Dow Jones stock index, possibly 30 percent or more” as God sent a “big attitude adjustment” to America. The Dow Jones actually went up during that time.

Televangelist John Hagee went even further, claiming that there could be “a 50 percent correction in the stock market” in the fall due to the Shemitah and blood moon prophecies. “I believe, in the fall of this year, America and the world will face another economic crisis, perhaps as a result of war in the Middle East or an economic crash,” he declared…

After blowing his September prophecy, Cahn saw a biblical threat from Hurricane Joaquin. He said that the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling and the White House’s LGBT Pride Month celebration with rainbow lights had provoked God’s judgment, and now, Hurricane Joaquin would strike Washington, D.C. Cahn wasn’t alone, as Wiles too said that God was using Hurricane Joaquin to punish the U.S. by striking Washington, D.C., and New York. (It didn’t hit either city).

Cahn and Wiles were far from alone in making wild predictions about the effects of gay marriage.

One month before the Supreme Court issued its ruling, American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer warned that if the Supreme Court struck down state bans on marriage equality, then we would see violence in the streets: “If the Supreme Court continues to overreach and they aren’t checked, we are headed towards civil unrest, I don’t think there is any other way around it. If it’s not stopped and reversed, the tyrannical overreach of the Supreme Court, we are to have social dislocation and I believe we are going to have violence as a result.”

WorldNetDaily editor Joseph Farah predicted that “millions of Americans” would flee the country to evade gay marriage, televangelist Pat Robertson warned of financial calamities as a sign of God’s judgment for the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling and Massachusetts-based pastor Scott Lively said the Antichrist could emerge around September 23

The Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory, which was cynically fueled by GOP politicians, centered around fears that a military training exercise taking place between July 15 and September 15 of this year would produce grave consequences, such as a federal takeover of Texas, the declaration of martial law and the transformation of closed Walmart stores into FEMA camps. Others thought that Jade Helm 15 was a deliberate attempt to stoke chaos, which would justify military rule in the future.

This follows on the end of 2014, when we were supposed to have all died from Ebola, which Obama was deliberately bringing to the United States so he could close down churches and round up “patriots” into FEMA concentration camps. Always remember that there is no bottom here, no extreme too extreme, no claim too ridiculous, for the right wing. Ever.

Photo: George Takei


“A new study published in the journal Cancer finds that high-temperature cooking methods may increase the risk of kidney cancer if you consume a lot of meat.

And other studies have found that high consumption of well-done, fried or charred meats is associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

"The lower-risk methods are baking and broiling," says Stephanie Melkonian, a post-doctoral fellow at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and a co-author of the new study in Cancer.

How many hot dogs are safe to eat? We tackle your questions about an expert panel's conclusion that processed meats are carcinogenic.

Other lower-temperature cooking techniques include sous-vide — which is used in some professional kitchens – and preparing meat in a Crock Pot or some other type of slow cooker. Or you can make a traditional pot roast, which skips the high-temperature searing process in favor of lower-temperature browning.

If you listen to my story on Morning Edition, you'll hear chemistry professor Matthew Hartings of American University use a steak and a blowtorch to explain the chemical reactions that take place as meat is browned. Remember the Maillard Reaction?

Basically, as the outside of the meat browns up, and the temperature heats up, the chemical reaction creates lots of aroma and flavor compounds, some of which are molecules called cyclic amines. Harting says we evolved to like those flavor compounds. Think of it as an evolutionary nudge from our ancestors, who came to associate these smells as a sign that all nasty bacteria were cooked out.

But here's the potential downside: If you cook the meat too long, at too high a temperature, the chemical reaction keeps going, creating other compounds. Some of them, known as heterocyclic amines (or HCAs), can be carcinogenic when we consume them in high-enough concentrations.

As the National Cancer Institute explains, HCAs "have been found to be mutagenic — that is, they cause changes in DNA that may increase the risk of cancer.”

The study documented a nearly two-fold increase in the risk of kidney cancer associated with the intake of one particular type of HCA, known as MelQx, which is — according to the paper — "one of the most abundant HCAs commonly created in the grilling, barbecuing, and pan-frying of meats at high temperatures.”

It's important to point out that other possible mechanisms may explain the link between high consumption of red meat and increased cancer risks.

For instance, as the authors point out, "heme iron and N-nitroso compounds exposures, which were not measured in the current study, also may play a role." In other words: It's complicated.”


I love the fist image and also the title of the first poem. Of course I am partial to Infinidad.

The poem belongs to the reader afterwards. It becomes a noun after it is created as a verb.

Before I knew the story of Sisyphus I saw my life as an artist digging a hole, crawling out of it, taking a breath and then digging a deeper hole for myself and crawling out of it again ad infinitum.

But the most important thing is finding joy in the process of digging. That’s where happiness lies.

Love Vesuvius. She looks like a nipple.


Vesuvius is like a breast with an inverted nipple. I'm surprised by volcanoes with masculine names — there is a feminine look to volcanoes.

My image of myself as Ms. Sisyphus has actually been more like sculpting: chipping away, sometimes in an inspired fury, at other times with painful slowness; then refining, walking away, chipping some more . . .  And though compliments on finished pieces are always welcome, there is also a misplaced element to them, because old work doesn’t count for much . . .  as if the stone has indeed rolled down, now that a new block of stone awaits.

Getting an acceptance is nice, but the publication itself feels empty. The piece is no longer relevant by then. The joy of the words rolling out of the unconscious just right, that’s the reward. The work itself. Wanting to share it is an afterthought.

And this is strange since if there was no audience, if we were absolutely sure that no one would ever read our work, would we write? Well, 99% of writers can be absolutely sure that even if they have readers now, after a while their work will be totally forgotten. But, as I said, we belong to the moment, and must embrace the moment as if it were eternity.

Monday, December 21, 2015


Christmas in Kraków


My last Christmas Eve in Warsaw —
the gray, uncertain day
dying into the early dark,
we wait for the first star, then light
the twelve skinny candles on the tree
and break the wishing wafer. 

Holding a jagged shard of a wish,
mother intones: “Health and success,
fulfillment of all dreams.”
Kissing on both cheeks,
we break the wafer each with each.
So begins Wigilia,
the supper of Christmas Eve.

The number of the dishes
has to be odd: spicy red borscht
with uszka, “little ears” —
pierogi with cabbage and wild mushrooms
soaked back to dark flesh
from the pungent wreaths;
fish — the humble carp;
potatoes, a compote from dried fruit,
and poppy-seed cake.
Father counts: “If it doesn’t
come out right, we can always
include tea.”

He drops a pierog
on the starched tablecloth.
I stifle laughter as he picks it up
solemnly like a communion host.
On the fragrant, flammable tree,
angel-hair trembles in silver drafts.

Then we turn off the electric lights.
Now only candles in the dusky hush.
Father sets a match
to the “cold fires.” Icy starbursts hiss
over the staggered pyramid of gifts:
slippers and scarves, a warm skirt,
socks and more socks,
a book I will not finish.
We no longer sing carols,
mother playing the piano —
the piano sold by then,
a TV set in its place. 

Later, unusual for a Christmas Eve,
we go for a walk. The streets
are empty; a few passers-by
like grainy figures in an old movie.
It begins to snow.

I never saw such tenderness —
snowflakes like moths of light 
soothing bare branches,
glimmering across
hazy halos of street lamps.
Each weightless as a wish,
snowflakes kiss our cheeks.
They settle on the benches and railings,
on the square roofs of kiosks —
on the peaceful,
forgiven city.


“When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it but the attempt foundered on the deep-rooted popular attachment to these mid-winter rites.”

(and the Roman feast of Saturnalia as the origin of Christmas was used in the attack on traditional observance)

“In addition to the association with immorality and the concept of misrule, another of the central objections to the feast for the stricter English Protestants between 1560 and 1640 was its popularity among the papist recusant community. Within the late medieval Catholic church, Christmas had taken a subordinate position in the liturgical calendar to Easter. Its importance, however, had been growing and was further enhanced by the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, for whereas, as John Bossy has recently pointed out, the more extreme Protestants had little time for Christ's 'holy family', reformed Catholicism laid great stress on this area. The Tridentine emphasis on devotions to the Virgin Mary in particular elevated the status of the feast during which she was portrayed as a paragon of motherhood.

Certainly, English recusants seem to have retained a deep attachment to Christmas during Elizabeth I's reign and the early part of the seventeenth century. The staunchly Catholic gentlewoman, Dorothy Lawson, celebrated Christmas 'in both kinds... corporally and spiritually', indulging in Christmas pies, dancing and gambling. In 1594 imprisoned Catholic priests at Wisbech kept a traditional Christmas which included a hobby horse and morris dancing, and throughout the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Benedictine school at Douai retained the traditional festivities, complete with an elected 'Christmas King'. The Elizabethan Jesuit, John Gerard, relates in his autobiography how their vigorous celebration of Christmas and other feasts made Catholics particularly conspicuous at those times and, writing on the eve of the Civil War Richard Carpenter, a convert from Catholicism to Protestantism, observed that the recusant gentry were noted for their 'great Christmasses'. As a result, by the 1640s many English Protestants viewed Christmas festivities as the trappings of popery, anti-Christian 'rags of the Beast'.

The celebration of Christmas thus became just one facet of a deep religious cleavage within early seventeenth-century England which, by the middle of the century, was to lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and revolution. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it but the attempt foundered on the deep-rooted popular attachment to these mid-winter rites.

The following December the issue led to violence in London when a crowd of apprentices attacked a number of shops in Cheapside which had opened for trading on Christmas Day and forced their owners, 'diverse holy Londoners', to close them. In reporting the incident Mercurius Civicus sympathized with the shopkeepers but argued that to avoid 'disturbance and uproars in the City' they should have waited 'till such time as a course shall be taken by lawful authority with matters of that nature'.

The following year, when Christmas Day fell on the last Wednesday in the month, the day set aside for a regular monthly fast, Parliament produced the anticipated legal rulings. On December 19th an ordinance was passed directing that the fast day should be observed in the normal way, but:

With the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights…

Both Houses of Parliament attended fast sermons delivered by Presbyterian ministers on December 25th, 1644, the Commons hearing from Thomas Thorowgood that:

The providence of heaven is here become a Moderator appointing the highest festival of all the year to meet with our monthly fast and be subdued by it.

In January 1645 the newly-published Directory of Public Worship, which outlined the basis of the new Presbyterian church establishment, affirmed bluntly that 'Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued'.

During the Christmas of From 1646 onwards, with Parliament victorious over Charles I, the attack on the old church festivals intensified; as the Royalist author of the ballad The World is Turned Upside Down put it, 'Christmas was killed at Naseby fight'. In June 1647, a further Parliamentary ordinance abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month. During the Christmas of 1647a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title The Stillborn Nativity. Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.

n December 1650 the republican council of state urged the Rump of the Long Parliament to consider increasing the penalties for those caught attending 'those old superstitious observations', and in 1652 a proclamation published on Christmas Eve ordered that shops should be open and the markets kept on 25th, and that shopkeepers should be protected from violence or intimidation. Four years later, sitting on Christmas Day 1656, Oliver Cromwell's second Protectorate Parliament discussed a bill to prevent the celebrations in London. In 1657 the Council of State again urged the mayor and aldermen of London to clamp down on all celebrations in the capital, and a number of people attending church services on December 25th were held in custody and questioned by the army. Richard Cromwell's council repeated the injunctions to the mayor in December 1658. Insistent Puritan pressure, therefore, for the abolition of Christmas was kept up to within a few months of their fall from power at the Restoration, but it is clear even from the constant repetition of the government injunctions that it met with anything but willing acquiescence. In fact, the attack on Christmas produced instead a heated literary controversy and active, and on occasions violent measures to protect the traditional customs associated with the feast.

 The counter-attack upon [pro-Christmas] opinions began with the publication of Christs Birth Mistimed by Robert Skinner, and of Certain Queries Touching the Rise and Observation of Christmas by Joseph Hemming, a Presbyterian minister in Staffordshire. Hemming presented sixteen questions or 'queries', which attacked Christmas on the grounds that the date of Christ's birth was uncertain, that the feast had no scriptural basis but was purely a human invention, and that it was a superstitious relic of popery. He argued that Christmas had begun as a Christian version of the Roman mid-winter feast of the Saturnalia and that customs such as Yule games and carols were relics of these pagan rites. The following November this point was repeated in greater detail by Thomas Mockett, rector of Gilston in Hertfordshire, in his work Christmas, The Christians Grand Feast. In order to encourage the citizens of ancient Rome to convert, argued Mockett, the early Christians came up with their own equivalent of the Saturnalia, thus bringing:

...all the heathenish customs and pagan rites and ceremonies that the idolatrous heathens used, as riotous drinking, health drinking, gluttony, luxury, wantonness, dancing, dicing, stage-plays, interludes, masks, mummeries, with all other pagan sports and profane practices into the Church of God.

By perceiving these essentially harmless and deeply cherished folk customs to be a threat, the Puritans succeeded only in alienating large numbers from the new regime they had established. The attack on Christmas was thus one of the Parliamentarians' biggest mistakes, and one which was ironically the result of anxieties, originally misconceived but ultimately self-fulfilling.

 1.Christmas was once against the law in America. When the Puritans came to this continent they brought their objection to Christmas with them. They believed it was a creation of man, not Christ, so it should not be considered a holy day. They weren’t too keen on the revelry that went along with the holiday, either. Christmas was celebrated in America by Anglicans but most Protestant groups forbade it. It wasn’t until June 26, 1870 that Christmas took its official place on the American holiday calendar.

2. Christmas trees were forbidden as a part of the celebrations until as late as 1640. Since the tradition of bringing evergreen boughs or trees into the home at the Winter Solstice was pagan in origin, the early Church forbade them. The first recorded instance of a Christmas tree dates to 1510 when the town of Riga in Latvia brought a tree into the town square, decorated it and then burned it. Thankfully, we have relegated the burning part to the Yule log. Approximately 30-35 million Christmas trees are sold each year in the U.S.


WILL CHRISTMAS SURVIVE? Christmas has always been the most JOYFUL holiday, and there is much to be said for the power of joy. So I predict that secularized Christmas will still be around even a hundred years from now — perhaps hardly recognizable, just as our Christmas would already shock true believers just a century ago.

Will religion be around? Reform Judaism, the most evolved of the Abrahamic religions, is heavily leaning toward agnosticism, as is Unitarianism. Liberal Protestantism in general will be the next to fade away. The metaphorical readings will inevitably give rise to the question: “So god is a metaphor for WHAT?” We simply don't need this archaic metaphor as a complicating layer of reality. We need ethics, and examples of ethics. This is where some of the old stories may still be useful. But the story of Jonas Salk not patenting the polio vaccine has a greater power for me.

I’ve had an interesting debate on Facebook about which holiday is more central and is more likely to survive a hundred years from now: Christmas or Easter? Theologians insist that Easter is more important. But Christmas has a universal appeal. Once people recognize that they don't need to be saved, the whole salvationist theology falls down like a house of cards. But the motif of parental love, present in nativity, is ever-lasting. Take that away, and you have Harlow's self-destructive, "crazy" maternally deprived monkeys. That is the rock, the foundation: the bond between parent and child. Mysticism is b.s. next to the power of that.

That, ultimately, is the “rock” on which all human culture is built. It’s “rock-a-by baby.” A human infant cannot survive without a certain minimum of love — not just physical care, but emotional love. And the need to be loved, to be touched, to be completely accepted by at least one person (or being — dogs make great therapists) remains a great human universal.

True, there has been less and less emphasis on Baby Jesus in Christmas. Maybe eventually Baby J will go. But we will need to have some kind of love fest that’s not strictly about romantic love, but more about cheer and good will and peace, at least temporary.


“MOTHER TERESA OFTEN TOLD US THAT AS MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY WE DID NOT SERVE THE POOR TO IMPROVE THEIR LOT, BUT BECAUSE WE WERE SERVING JESUS, who said that whenever service was rendered to one of the least, it was rendered to him. Jesus promised eternal life to those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked. . . . I do believe that Mother Teresa had a great deal of compassion for the poor, but it’s hard to deny that she was more interested in improving everyone’s lot in the next life than in this one.”

By even her own words, Mother Teresa’s view of suffering made no distinction between avoidable and unavoidable suffering, and instead cultivated passive acceptance of both. As she put it, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”  Or consider this anecdote from her life:

     One day I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, “You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.” And she joined her hands together and said, “Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.”

Mother Teresa’s outlook on suffering played out in her order’s homes for the sick and dying, which doctors have described as deficient in hygiene, care, nutrition, and painkillers. Miami resident Hemley Gonzalez was so shocked by his volunteer experience that he has founded an accountable charity to provide better care. “Needles were washed in cold water and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates. There were people who had chance to live if given proper care,” . . . “I have decided to go back to Kolkata to start a charity that will be called ‘Responsible Charity.’ Each donation will be made public and professional medical help will be given,” Gonzalez said after returning to the U.S. He also launched a Facebook page called, “Stop the Missionaries of Charity.”

Mary Johnson is a former nun who joined Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, at age 19. For the next twenty years, she lived a life of service and austerity among the sisters, which she has described in her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst. But beneath the stark simplicity of her daily routine stirred a host of emotional, interpersonal and spiritual complexities, including the order’s tangled view of love and pain. Johnson’s thoughtful observations offer a window into the woman who inspired her spiritual vows and who ran her order of women religious.


The Mother Teresa I knew was a remarkably dedicated, self-sacrificing person, but not one of the wisest women I’ve known. Both empowered and shackled by religious faith, Mother Teresa was generous and unreasonable, cheerful and never content, one of the world’s most recognized women and one of its loneliest and most secretive.

Q: As a postulant in the Missionaries of Charity, one of your superiors, Sister Dolorosa, told you, “Mother always says, love, to be real, has to hurt.” Did you believe that?

Johnson: In the beginning of my life as a sister, I tried my best to believe what I was told, including that the greatest sign of love was Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. I’d never known the sort of mutual love in which two people rejoice in each other, strengthen each other, enjoy each other. I do believe that true love is willing to suffer for the beloved when necessary, but I don’t believe that suffering is the truest or best sign of love. I certainly now reject the notion that love demands the immolation of self for the beloved, though that’s something Mother Teresa seemed to believe all her life.

Q: During your time with the sisters, you gave up all possessions—your hair, which had to be shorn every month, an audiotape sent by your parents, even photographs. How does this relate to the fusion of love and pain?

Johnson: The Missionaries of Charity set out to live like the poor they serve. We each had two sets of clothes, which we’d wash by hand every day in buckets. We are rotting vegetables and stale bread that we’d begged from wholesale grocers. We slept in common dormitories, without any privacy, on thin mattresses we’d made ourselves. Living poorly day by day convinces you that life is hard. For a Missionary of Charity, ideal love was self-sacrificing, even to the practice of corporal penance.

Q: Your first session of self-flagellation is imprinted in my mind: “My knees shook. I took the bunch of knotted cords into my hands. From Sister Jeanne’s stall, I heard the beating sounds, one, two, three. . . . I swung harder. The skin of my lower thighs turned red, then red with white streaks as I hit harder.”

Johnson: When I took that rope whip into my hands, I was scared, I was excited, I hoped that I was on my way to conquering my selfishness and becoming a holy person. When you visit the homes and shrines of various saints, you often see hair shirts or whips or spiked chains on display. This is a religion in which nearly every house of worship, classroom, and private home has as its most prominent feature the image of a bloodied, tortured man. We were taught that wearing spiked chains and beating ourselves allowed us to share in his work of redemption. I know it doesn’t make much sense when you say it just like that, but within that entire system it had its own weird logic.

Q: After Mother Teresa’s death, the public learned of her struggles with anguishing doubt. You quote the words of a priest who comforted her with words that glorified her pain: “Your darkness is the divine gift of union with Jesus in his suffering. Your pain brings you close to your Crucified Spouse, and is the way you share His mission of redemption. There is no higher union with God. 

Johnson: I often wish that Mother Teresa had found someone who would have encouraged her to look at her doubts honestly, to examine them, to confront them. But instead of finding someone who encouraged her to think for herself, she found Father Joseph Neuner, SJ, who spun Mother Teresa’s doubts in such a way that the doubts themselves were deemed a sign of her holiness. I believe that the anti-intellectual bias of the Missionaries of Charity can be traced to the day that Mother Teresa was told that the content of her doubts was something she ought never explore. We all tell ourselves stories that help us cope; wisdom looks at those stories and knows how to distinguish the true stories from the coping mechanisms. Mother Teresa swallowed the stories whole.

Help us to understand the theology under this mindset.

Johnson: Ah, Valerie, theology is a story that seeks to explain things. In the Catholic Church, official theology is determined by the hierarchy, who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. When Mother Teresa admitted to the priests and bishops who were her spiritual directors that she was tormented by feelings of distance from God and by doubts in God’s existence, these priests and bishops didn’t want to encourage real questioning; they probably didn’t even give themselves permission to question deeply. Unquestioning faith enables the system to continue undisturbed. Official theology often serves politics.

In this particular case, Father Neuner taught Mother Teresa to reframe doubt as a sign that she had drawn so close to God that she shared the agony of Jesus, who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mother Teresa’s doubts did not therefore require examination, but a greater, unquestioning faith. The adoption of such a dogmatic stance proscribed any questioning of the Church’s teachings, including those that caused such suffering to those Mother Teresa served—like prohibitions against birth control and the effective relegation of women to second-rate status in the Church. When these priests convinced Mother Teresa never to question, they were molding her into one of the most outspoken proponents of official Church teaching. The same thing happens on a smaller scale whenever a member of the faithful is taught that reason must be subjugated to belief.

Q: Because of her opposition to contraception and her seeming disinterest in modern medicine, some have called Mother Teresa a friend of poverty rather than a friend of the poor. How do you see that?

Johnson: Most people today would say that we help the poor by helping them out of poverty. That was never Mother Teresa’s intention. Mother Teresa often told us that as Missionaries of Charity we did not serve the poor to improve their lot, but because we were serving Jesus, who said that whenever service was rendered to one of the least, it was rendered to him. Jesus promised eternal life to those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked. Mother Teresa was undeniably interested in reserving a really good spot for herself behind the pearly gates. I remember once when we were having dinner and a sister was serving water for the other sisters. Mother Teresa stopped the table conversation to point to that sister and tell us, “Jesus knows how many glasses of water you’ve served to the poor. He’s counting. When you get to heaven, he will know.” I do believe that Mother Teresa had a great deal of compassion for the poor, but it’s hard to deny that she was more interested in improving everyone’s lot in the next life than in this one.

Q: Why don’t supporters hold the Missionaries of Charity accountable?

Johnson: Supporters of the Missionaries of Charity are often theologically similar to the sisters, interested not so much in the (to their minds) short-term goal of helping the poor as in the long-term goal of getting everyone to heaven. It’s a little bit like certain evangelical Christians who look forward to nuclear holocaust in the Middle East because they believe devastating war will herald the end of the world and the union of all the good with God.


Of course Catholicism teaches that as a human being you are a wretched sinner who DESERVES to suffer. This is my chief grudge against the church: how could you convince an innocent little girl that she was evil? I was a reasonably happy normal child until the indoctrination; then I was redefined as a sinner who deserved to be thrown into hell. How could you do this to a child??!!

But of course they don't see even rape as anything esp terrible because suffering is good for you. I picked up the idea of self-inflicted suffering mainly from the lives of the saints — but that's a conscious memory. I may have picked it up also from the church culture in general.

One surprising thing about Mother Teresa was her chronic doubt. It would be easy for me to imagine her drawing strength from the certainty of her belief, the way I draw strength from the certainty of my knowledge that there are no gods. Her letters reveal that Mother Teresa wasn’t at all sure if god existed. Unfortunately the priest who was her spiritual advisor persuaded her not to examine the doubt, but to accept it as part of the suffering that was god’s gift to her, the way a disease would be.

It can be difficult to explain to a non-Catholic: the more you suffer here, the shorter your time in Purgatory (possibly even none) — and off you go to heaven, to live into eternal bliss! (but since pleasure is so bad, will you be able to enjoy that bliss? Or is "bliss" simply peacefulness, attainable without self-flagellation?)

Somewhat tangential: I see America as a profoundly anti-Christian country (despite all the fundamentalist sound and fury). I think it’s due to the Protestant stamp on the culture, a lot less (and not at all when in the liberal denominations) into damnation, and not at all into suffering. Not that Americans are exactly known for their devotion to la dolce vita, but are in my observation actually in that direction, yes. “You only live once” is something I hear all the time, and not just from avowed atheists! (But then only 5% of atheists admit to being atheists.) And note that it's the Catholics who use the crucifix with all the gory detail of the tortured naked body — the Protestants use the bare cross.

Should I add that the liberal Protestants are increasingly more and agnostic, with some openly agnostic ministers? As are the Reform rabbis? And even the fundamentalists — I can’t say I know that many, but those I do — they never worry about going to hell. Take paradise for themselves for granted. Sin away — all is forgiven. Nothing can separate you from the Lamb. Ah, if only someone said this to me when I was growing up, in the anguish of repression and scrupulosity!


There’s something very strange about religion. There have been recent appalling acts of terrorism, allegedly carried out in the name of religion. However, we also know that some of the most virtuous and noble human acts are carried out in the name of religion. How can religion generate both such savagery and such nobility? How can the principles of religious faith be used to justify terrorism, and at other times encourage acts of great altruism and justice?

To make sense of this, we need to distinguish between two fundamentally different types of religion: dogmatic religion and spiritual religion.

Dogmatically religious people are those who think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. For them, religion isn’t about self-development or experiencing the transcendent, but about adhering to a set of rigid beliefs and following the rules laid down by religious authorities. It’s about defending their beliefs against anyone who questions them, asserting their "truth" over other people’s, and spreading those beliefs to others. For them, the fact that other people have different beliefs is an affront, since it implies the possibility that their own beliefs may not be true.

Dogmatic religion stems from a psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club.

At the root of these impulses is a fundamental anxiety and sense of lack, caused by our sense of being distinct individuals, existing in separation to other people, and a world "out there." This generates a sense of being "cut off," like fragments that were once part of a whole. There is also a sense of vulnerability and insecurity, caused by our insignificance in the face of the world. As a result, we need to "bolster" our sense of self, to strengthen our identity. And religion, and other belief systems, helps us to do this.

Dogmatic religion is dangerous because it creates an in-out group mentality. It encourages people to withdraw empathy and morality from other groups, to see them as inferior and ignorant.

"Spiritual" religion promotes the higher attributes of human nature, like altruism and compassion, and fosters a sense of the sacred and sublime. "Spiritually religious" people don’t feel any animosity to other religious groups; in fact, they’re happy to investigate other beliefs, and may even go to other groups’ temples and services. They usually aren’t evangelical; their attitude is that different religions are suited to different people, and that all religions are different manifestations or expressions of the same essential truths.

This is why religious people are capable of the most appalling acts, but also of some of the most noble. This is why religion produces both good and evil, both Osama Bin Laden and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

The division between dogmatic and spiritual religion seems the best answer to the old puzzle: how can religion inspire both evil and good? In reality there is of course some overlap between the dogmatics and spirituals, but seeing the polarity helps clarify the persistent mystery.

Another important distinction is that dogmatics believe in a vengeful god, while spiritual people see a loving and merciful god or “cosmic consciousness” (Christ consciousness, Buddha consciousness). They see the necessity of rejecting certain parts of the bible or other “holy” scriptures. Ethics trumps the literal interpretation.

Note Yahweh in the little window in the sky


In 1977 two other scholars from the School for Oriental and African Studies at London University -- Patricia Crone (a professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) and Michael Cook (a professor of Near Eastern history at Princeton University) -- suggested a radically new approach in their book ''Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World.''

Since there are no Arabic chronicles from the first century of Islam, the two looked at several non-Muslim, seventh-century accounts that suggested Muhammad was perceived not as the founder of a new religion but as a preacher in the Old Testament tradition, hailing the coming of a Messiah. Many of the early documents refer to the followers of Muhammad as ''hagarenes,'' and the ''tribe of Ishmael,'' in other words as descendants of Hagar, the servant girl that the Jewish patriarch Abraham used to father his son Ishmael.

In its earliest form, Ms. Crone and Mr. Cook argued, the followers of Muhammad may have seen themselves as retaking their place in the Holy Land alongside their Jewish cousins. (And many Jews appear to have welcomed the Arabs as liberators when they entered Jerusalem in 638.)

 Mr. Cook and Ms. Crone have revised some of their early hypotheses while sticking to others. ''We were certainly wrong about quite a lot of things,'' Ms. Crone said. ''But I stick to the basic point we made: that Islamic history did not arise as the classic tradition says it does.''

Ms. Crone insists that the Koran and the Islamic tradition present a fundamental paradox. The Koran is a text soaked in monotheistic thinking, filled with stories and references to Abraham, Isaac, Joseph and Jesus, and yet the official history insists that Muhammad, an illiterate camel merchant, received the revelation in Mecca, a remote, sparsely populated part of Arabia, far from the centers of monotheistic thought, in an environment of idol-worshiping Arab Bedouins. Unless one accepts the idea of the angel Gabriel, Ms. Crone says, historians must somehow explain how all these monotheistic stories and ideas found their way into the Koran.

 ''There are only two possibilities,'' Ms. Crone said. ''Either there had to be substantial numbers of Jews and Christians in Mecca or the Koran had to have been composed somewhere else.''

Indeed, many scholars who are not revisionists agree that Islam must be placed back into the wider historical context of the religions of the Middle East rather than seeing it as the spontaneous product of the pristine Arabian desert. ''I think there is increasing acceptance, even on the part of many Muslims, that Islam emerged out of the wider monotheistic soup of the Middle East,'' says Roy Mottahedeh, a professor of Islamic history at Harvard University.

Christoph Luxenberg’s work, based on the earliest copies of the Koran, maintains that parts of Islam's holy book are derived from pre-existing Christian Aramaic texts that were misinterpreted by later Islamic scholars who prepared the editions of the Koran commonly read today.

Scholars like Mr. Luxenberg and Gerd-R. Puin, who teaches at Saarland University in Germany, have returned to the earliest known copies of the Koran in order to grasp what it says about the document's origins and composition. Mr. Luxenberg explains these copies are written without vowels and diacritical dots that modern Arabic uses to make it clear what letter is intended. In the eighth and ninth centuries, more than a century after the death of Muhammad, Islamic commentators added diacritical marks to clear up the ambiguities of the text, giving precise meanings to passages based on what they considered to be their proper context. Mr. Luxenberg's radical theory is that many of the text's difficulties can be clarified when it is seen as closely related to Aramaic, the language group of most Middle Eastern Jews and Christians at the time.

For example, the famous passage about the virgins is based on the word hur, which is an adjective in the feminine plural meaning simply ''white.'' Islamic tradition insists the term hur stands for ''houri,'' which means virgin, but Mr. Luxenberg insists that this is a forced misreading of the text. In both ancient Aramaic and in at least one respected dictionary of early Arabic, hur means ''white raisin.''

 Mr. Luxenberg has traced the passages dealing with paradise to a Christian text called Hymns of Paradise by a fourth-century author. Mr. Luxenberg said the word paradise was derived from the Aramaic word for garden and all the descriptions of paradise described it as a garden of flowing waters, abundant fruits and white raisins, a prized delicacy in the ancient Near East. In this context, white raisins, mentioned often as hur, Mr. Luxenberg said, makes more sense than a reward of sexual favors.

In many cases, the differences can be quite significant. Mr. Puin points out that in the early archaic copies of the Koran, it is impossible to distinguish between the words ''to fight'' and ''to kill.'' In many cases, he said, Islamic exegetes added diacritical marks that yielded the harsher meaning, perhaps reflecting a period in which the Islamic Empire was often at war.

A return to the earliest Koran, Mr. Puin and others suggest, might lead to a more tolerant brand of Islam, as well as one that is more conscious of its close ties to both Judaism and Christianity.

Some Muslim authors have begun to publish skeptical, revisionist work on the Koran as well. Several new volumes of revisionist scholarship, ''The Origins of the Koran,'' and ''The Quest for the Historical Muhammad,'' have been edited by a former Muslim who writes under the pen name Ibn Warraq. Mr. Warraq, who heads a group called the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society, makes no bones about having a political agenda. ''Biblical scholarship has made people less dogmatic, more open,'' he said, ''and I hope that happens to Muslim society as well.''

 Andrew Rippin, an Islamicist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, says that freedom of speech in the Islamic world is more likely to evolve from within the Islamic interpretative tradition than from outside attacks on it. Approaches to the Koran that are now branded as heretical -- interpreting the text metaphorically rather than literally -- were widely practiced in mainstream Islam a thousand years ago.

''When I teach the history of the interpretation it is eye-opening to students the amount of independent thought and diversity of interpretation that existed in the early centuries of Islam,'' Mr. Rippin says. ''It was only in more recent centuries that there was a need for limiting interpretation.''

John Edward Wansbrough (February 19, 1928 – June 10, 2002) was an American historian who taught at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Wansbrough's emphasis was on the critique of traditional accounts of the origins of Islam. Born in Peoria, Illinois, Wansbrough completed his studies at Harvard University, and spent the rest of his academic career at SOAS.

He caused a furor in the 1970s when his research on early Islamic manuscripts, including the analysis of the repeated use of monotheistic Judeo-Christian imagery found in the Qur'an led him to posit that the rise of Islam was a mutation of what was originally a Judeo-Christian sect trying to spread in Arab lands, rather than by simple cultural diffusion. As time evolved the Judeo-Christian scriptures were adapted to an Arab perspective and mutated into what became the Qur'an which was developed over centuries with contributions from various Arab tribal sources. Wansbrough's research suggests that a great deal of the traditional history of Islam appeared to be a fabrication of later generations seeking to forge and justify a unique religious identity. Within this context, the character of Muhammad could be seen as a manufactured myth created to provide the Arab tribes with their own Arab version of the Judeo-Christian prophets.

Interestingly, the Koranic concept of the Christian Trinity is the Father, the Mother (i.e. Mary), and Jesus. There was an early Christian sect, the Choloridians, who did believe in this kind of Trinity.


As we age, the firing of neurons becomes more chaotic, in proportion to the decline in the levels of GABA, the neurotransmitter that makes the firing more selective. The article points not only to the potential anti-aging use of benzodiazepines, but also of meditation, which increases GABA-ergic inhibition, thus improving cognitive function and emotional regulation.

“The slowdown of the brain with old age is due to the lack of a brain chemical which helps neurons to be selective about what they respond to, reveals research involving the world's oldest monkeys.

The reason GABA is so important in the brain is that it works as a "gating" mechanism, explains Leventhal. By helping neurons to respond only to specific stimuli, it enables the brain to make sense of the vast quantity of incoming information.

However, as people get older the neurons in their brains increasingly fire non-selectively. Interpreting information then becomes like listening to "whispering in the discotheque as opposed to shouting in a quiet room," Leventhal says.

Higher brain functions, such as visual recognition or understanding language, require the processing of information in the brain but decline as people get older. This decline appears to be due to a reduction in a neurotransmitter called GABA, say researchers, which means neurons with specific tasks become more easily fired by some other stimulus.

Macaque monkeys, with an age equivalent to 90-years in humans, were not as sharp as their younger counterparts in visual tests despite having perfect eyesight. But when they were given drugs to increase levels of GABA in the brain they improved vastly, say the team.

Delivering GABA calms the neurons down and they become more selective, says neuroscientist Audie Leventhal, at the University of Utah School of Medicine, who led the study. "They look the same as they did 20 years ago," he says.

When GABA and a GABA-enhancing drug were delivered to the brain cells, the team saw an improvement in the selectivity of neurons in the older animals within a couple of minutes.

Oriana: I am not happy with the article’s recommendation of benzodiazepines (benzodiazepenes don’t increase GABA levels, a common misconception; they increase the sensitivity of GABA receptors). But there is an interesting drug that’s an analog of GABA: gabapentin. It also happens to be inexpensive and remarkably safe.

ending on beauty:


In Catechism classes I was told that after death there is immediate judgment (as opposed to the Last Judgment), and all my sins will be reviewed (something like, "On January 5, 1982, 3:12 pm, envied a neighbor her nice new car"). Only this morning, i.e. decades later, it occurred to me that the only kind of deity I could respect would be one that instead asks a different question: WHAT GOOD HAVE YOU DONE?

I think my answer would consist of several parts, including the good I think I’ve done as a teacher, as a friend and lover, and as a poet (yes! a stranger coming up to me after a reading, obviously affected by an insight in a poem of mine, uplifted — that counts, doesn’t it?) But I’d start with beauty — I have tried to nourish people with beauty.

And I think the deity that I could respect would have not only an ethical aspect, and be friendly and cuddly, but also have the attribute of beauty (am I thinking of a feline deity?) Just indulging in flights of fancy here — but if one can create a god, but create a cruel, punitive one? For social control through guilt, yes, but at the individual level, there is a need for a beautiful friend . . . 


Monday, December 14, 2015


Soviet sculpture studio, 1953


I know I’ll never meet anyone
who’s had my childhood,
surrounded by portraits of Lenin
and Karl Marx, with Engels tossed in

for the sake of the Trinity.
We all knew who God the Father was,
who the Son with slant Siberian eyes,
Engels the long-suffering Ghost.

I’ll never meet anyone
who’s heard about the Tzar’s
Winter Palace, the first salvo fired
from the battleship Aurora,

the Finland Station, Smolny Institute.
Those were family names;
it didn’t matter that they stood
for shattered dreams.

You love what you grew up with:
not the moronic regime
but the springtime of blossoming emblems,
the lilacs of ideals, the enormous width

of The International. When you sang it,
you sang with a million mouths.
Aren’t all poems about forbidden love?
The swooning lilacs instead of suicide?

Marx’s beard like a wild shrub
grew on every wall. In summer we ate
cucumber sandwiches, in winter
cucumber soup — it was the humble

potato soup with finely chopped pickle.
What can you expect from reality,
that fat woman who opens a can
of Campbell’s chicken noodle.

~ Oriana © 2015


I'm fascinated by the amount of Soviet-era nostalgia that the Russians are experiencing. There is a bad side to this — nationalism, the yearning to regain lost power. Russia adores Putin, the latest incarnation of a Tzar-like autocrat. But then there is a purely emotional and universal aspect of this nostalgia: you love what you grew up with. You love the familiar. You see certain faces around you, and they become your family. Marx: a great-grandfather. Lenin: the smart, successful uncle. Engels: the eccentric old bachelor uncle, somewhat pitied.

The loss of the familiar is traumatic. It’s at the core of what I call the “immigrant trauma.” It doesn’t matter that by objective standards the new country has a higher standard of living. The new country is all wrong simply because it is different.

I never wrestled with Marxism as a set of doctrines. My struggle was with religion. I just replied to someone who used the worn-out “gaps in knowledge” argument a scientific worldview:

“The god of the gaps” is a last-ditch defense that's crumbling almost every year — every decade for sure. We'll never run out of mystery, but already the 19th century was ripe for tossing the archaic myths — fascinating as myths, but hardly as a way to describe reality. Still, I can see that some people have an emotional need for a parent in the sky, and that prevails. To them I say, “I can to some extent empathize with your need, and you are welcome to say, ‘I don't care about the truth. We can’t know the truth in any absolute sense anyway, so I'll just stay with what is emotionally fulfilling to me.’ I respect that emotional need. We agree on other things, so let’s build on that, and keep silent about that ancient 24/7 surveillance system, the old Eye-in-the-sky (a fiction that caused me so much suffering, it still hurts to remember).”

And I can see that one can grow attached to the holy icons and have favorite saints (I speak of Catholicism). Unlike the god of punishment, the saints were kind. Mary was kind, grace streaming from her porcelain palms. In a small town with little going on, the church and its festivals can be the center of a life, an enriching element of experience, imaginary or not, that goes beyond the pedestrian chores. And the church is likely to be the most beautiful building in town, and being part of the choir the only opportunity to make music.

In a city, one can go to the opera and experience something akin to the ecstatic worship of ancient Greeks. In a small town before TV and Twitter and video games, there was soccer and church.

Again, my struggle was never with Marxism; my great personal battle was with Catholicism. Both the school and the church stuffed my young head with nonsense. But my indoctrination into the Soviet doctrine (I think it’s incorrect to call it “Marxism” or even “Marxism-Leninism”) was not a fraction as intense as my Catholic indoctrination — and there were our parents, too, who vigilantly counteracted propaganda that might be brought home from school (history lessons were an outstanding example). Still, it is my Catholic indoctrination that makes me understand why some people fell apart emotionally or even committed suicide when they could not make any sense of life once the Soviet Union was dissolved, its founding principles revealed as mistaken, and nothing convincing offered in their place.

Here is the Nobel Prize-winning Svetlana Alexievich writing about about a doctoral student who committed suicide — the memories of a friend of his:

“From the account of his friend, Vladimir Staniukevich, graduate student in the Philosophy Department:

I think that he was a sincere Marxist and saw Marxism as a humanitarian idea, where “we” means much more than “I.” Like some kind of unified planetary civilization in the future . . .

All the pages [of his dissertation on Marxism and religion ] were crossed out. Diagonally, in red pencil, he’d written furiously: “Nonsense!! Gibberish!! Lies!!” It was his handwriting… I recognized it…

His dissertation didn’t pan out. Well, to hell with it! You have to admit you’re a prisoner of utopia… Why jump from the twelfth floor on account of that? These days how many people are rewriting their master’s essay, their doctoral dissertation, and how many are afraid to admit what the title was? It’s embarrassing, uncomfortable…

He and I once talked about socialism not resolving the problem of death, or at least of old age. It just skirts it…

I saw him make the acquaintance of a crazy guy in a used bookstore. This guy, too, was rummaging around in old books on Marxism, like we were. Then he told me:

“You know what he said? ‘I’m the one who’s normal—but you’re suffering.’ And you know, he was right.”

“The phenomenon of Hitler will trouble many minds for a long time to come. Excite them. How, after all, is the mechanism of mass psychosis launched? Mothers held their children up crying: ‘Here, Führer, take them!’

“We are consumers of Marxism. Who can say he knows Marxism? Knows Lenin, knows Marx? There’s early Marx… And Marx at the end of his life… The halftones, shades, the whole blossoming complexity of it all, is unknowable to us. No one can increase our knowledge. We are all interpreters…

“At the moment we’re stuck in the past like we used to be stuck in the future. I also thought I hated this my whole life, but it turns out that I loved it. Loved?… How can anyone possibly love this pool of blood? This cemetery? What filth, what nightmares…what blood is mixed into it all… But I do love it!

“I proposed a new dissertation topic to our professor: ‘Socialism as an Intellectual Mistake.’ His response was: ‘Nonsense.’ As if I could decipher the Bible or the Apocalypse with equal success. Well, nonsense is a form of creativity, too… The old man was bewildered. You know him yourself—he’s not one of those old farts, but everything that happened was a personal tragedy for him. I have to rewrite my dissertation, but how can he rewrite his life? Right now each of us has to rehabilitate himself. There’s a mental illness—multiple, or dissociated, personality disorder. People who have it forget their names, social positions, their friends and even their children, their lives. It’s a dissolution of personality… when a person can’t combine the official take or government belief, his own point of view, and his doubts… how true is what he thinks, and how true is what he says. The personality splits into two or three parts…

There are plenty of history teachers and professors in psychiatric hospitals… The better they were at instilling something, the more they were corrupted… At the very least three generations…and a few others are infected… How mysteriously everything eludes definition… The temptation of utopia…”

Marx as Prometheus, engraving, 1843


This is of course a truly tragic story, but it reminds me of a conversation I had at Yaddo Artist Colony in the early nineties, when the fall of the Berlin Wall was a relatively fresh event. I casually remarked (I forget the context) that “anything is possible. Look, who ever thought that Communism would fall?” A young woman looked up at me with tremendous resentment in her face, and exclaimed, “Yes, and now there are thousands of New York intellectuals with nothing to believe in!”

~ “My heart bleeds for them,” I replied. But my sarcasm wasn’t completely sincere. I did feel some empathy for those New York intellectuals. I knew the experience of shattered dreams, of idealism crudely destroyed.

Asked why she returned to China, a woman who once had a successful career in finance in New York and London replied, “I missed the idealism.”

But that idealism is all lies, I can imagine someone reply. That would not be incorrect either. The theory is mostly erroneous and it doesn’t work in practice; there is a lot of corruption. This woman was smart enough to know that. Yet she still missed the idealism, or at least the aura of it. Of having a “we” that’s greater than the “I.” Of hearing about how “we” are building a more just society, even if it’s not true.

Idealism. Ah, those humans, those prisoners of utopia . . . 

We love what we grow up with. As the graduate student said, “I also thought I hated this my whole life, but it turns out that I loved it. Loved?… How can anyone possibly love this pool of blood? This cemetery? What filth, what nightmares…what blood is mixed into it all… But I do love it!”

This was only slightly true for me. But whatever you grow up with has a power. Some might say that it’s perverse that I grew to hate the Catholic church as a much worse totalitarian regime, while preserving a sentimental nostalgia for the International, the images of Marx, Lenin, and Engels on the walls of public buildings, carried in May First parades.

But for the pre-revolutionary generation, the nostalgia was for their own childhood and youth — for the Tzarist splendor, the ladies in magnificent furs descending from sleighs to attend a ball at the Winter Palace . . .

The gate of the winter palace. The gilded emblems of Tzarist Russia, removed in 1917, are now fully restored


And there is something else I can’t quite label, but it came to my mind because of certain dreams I had after my recent stem-cell treatment. Stem cells carry the promise of promise of regeneration. I woke up in the wee hours feeling radiantly happy, vaguely recalling dreams in which I was overflowing with a sense of youthful health and energy. It was a triumphant feeling.

I lay in the dark, smiling, so energetically happy that I had trouble falling back asleep. My first thought was: those dreams were like the Soviet propaganda, especially the glossy magazines like The Soviet Life, which always showed the young who radiated health and good cheer. Their red Pioneers neck scarves, their shiny eyes and perfect teeth!

I don’t remember any other time when I thought that my dreams resembled the Soviet propaganda. The image of youth is of course powerful in itself, carrying the connotations of health and optimism, of being yet untouched by death. Everything is possible.

(I realize I must be the only writer in the world to have said, “I woke up feeling like the Soviet propaganda.” Why not the American propaganda? To me, American propaganda is consumerist. It’s about finding the right toothpaste. It doesn’t have the well-scrubbed Mormon missionary look with victory in one’s eyes.)

Youth is an image of victory, of having a future. Those tend to be the most difficult years of one’s life, marked by a lot of struggle and heartbreak. Many young people are not at all happy — this is a prime time for suicide — but the attractive image prevails over the complicated reality. 

(PS. True, there is an element of the heroic in the American Western, but those movies were not a significant part of my growing up. Nor was Superman — I never even heard of that figure before I came to the US. But speaking of the “Wild West” — both Lenin and Stalin were very impressed by the US as a pioneer country and saw it as a model for developing the great expanse of Asia under their control, the Soviet Union also being a pioneer country.)

I hasten to say that I did not feel sad when the Berlin Wall fell down. On the contrary, I felt happy. The system was rotten and deserved to collapse. Only much earlier than that, and only for brief periods of time, I felt some sadness when I thought that the dream of a just society not based on greed simply could not work.

But I had such thoughts rarely at best. First of all, what mattered most to me was not political theory but beauty. I drew my sustenance from the beauty of nature and whatever beauty I could find in culture: music, the visual arts, literature. Then there was the world of ideas in its infinite variety, not merely the ideas of economic order. And, secondly, I have gradually acquired a measure of realism: the knowledge that nothing is perfect, that social progress is slow and full of setbacks. My creative work has taught me patience.

At the same time, my sentimental affection for the portraits of Marx, Lenin, and Engels is not something I’d deny. But that’s like the remnant affection for the images of Madonna and Child. It’s about familiarity. It’s not about belief. (Familiarity CAN be a large component of belief, but it doesn't have to be.)

Marx correctly pointed out that capitalism created with the urban working class — which was supposed to destroy capitalism. He never imagined that capitalism would eventually destroy — or almost destroy — the working class. As it became obvious that capitalism was winning, Marxism became largely archaic, irrelevant. Only the young Marx is still appreciated, especially his observations on alienated labor versus the right to meaningful work.

Karl Marx in his youth

Marxism is easy to parody. Its similarity to religion has been noted endless times. Here is Zbigniew Herbert’s witty vision of that similarity:


In paradise the work week is thirty hours
salaries are higher prices always dropping
physical labor is not tiring (because of lower gravity)
chopping wood is like typing
the social system is stable the government moderate
it's certainly better in paradise than in any country

At first it was supposed to be different
luminous circles choirs and rungs of abstraction
but one couldn’t separate body from soul
precisely enough and the soul would arrive
with a drop of blubber a thread of muscle
one had to compromise
mix the grain of the absolute with the grain of clay
still another falling away from the doctrine the ultimate one
only John foresaw it: the resurrection of the body

God is seen by few
exists only for those made of pure pneuma
the rest listen to communiqués about floods and miracles
in time all will see God
when this is to take place nobody knows

In the meantime Saturday at noon
the sirens roar sweetly
and heavenly proletarians come out of the factories
carrying their wings awkwardly like violins

~ Zbigniew Herbert, tr. Oriana Ivy © 2015

“Saturday at noon”? Herbert wrote this when work on Saturday, at least for half a day, was standard, as was the six-day school week. Even though he postulates the thirty-hour work week, he can’t quite make the leap beyond what was his reality at the time this poem was written (in the nineteen sixties, I think).

And the roar of sirens signified the beginning and end of the work day. When I lived in Łódź, a city with large textile industry, that was my reality for three years, as much as the church bells. It was all fused: the bells of St. Andrew’s and the sirens of the Textile Works of the October Revolution.

Herbert was no indifferent to this fusion, so characteristic of the life in Poland before the fall of communism. But he’s more interested in metaphysics. In this poem he solves the central problem of heaven: the eternal boredom of not having work to do. “Luminous circles choirs and rungs of abstraction” would hardly satisfy. Not even the most refined intellectuals and estheticians could endure an abstract, do-nothing heaven. Maybe singers would be fulfilled for a century or two — but even they might start wanting new songs.

Herbert’s solution: factory work, the kind extolled by the Soviet propaganda. Factory work is so orderly, so concrete. You actually produce something considered useful — cars, for example. (Cars in heaven? Well, why not — the kind that work best in low gravity.)

Just as few people are capable of becoming violin virtuosos, so few can be either pure altruistic Marxists or otherworldly Christians. Herbert is concerned with the happiness — or at least reasonable contentment — of the many. After all, it’s the “masses” or the “sheep” whose needs are supposed to be fulfilled by ideologies or religions. What are people to do with their time? A non-tiring factory job is a practical solution. Hence the fusion of the heavenly paradise and the workers’ paradise.

Pointing out the similarities between Marxism and religion has become a cliché — the prophets, the sacred books, salvation (though here the proletariat is to be the Messiah), the need for a dictatorship, whether earthly or celestial. But to my knowledge no one has gone as far as Herbert in presenting the fusion of the two — in the afterlife at that. Human nature wins over idealism! ~ though perhaps we need both Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa to be complete human beings.

This poem has charm whether or not the reader has the historical and ideological background. Ultimately, it works by being charming.

A mural by Diego Rivera



Sirens roared a hoarse hunger.
The walls thudded a thick pulse,
brick crusted with centuries of soot,
the looms’ horizontal

music of massive shafts:
axis and thrust,
the surge and ebb of shuttles.
Behind the wire-paneled glass,

the trembling strings of cotton dust,
women in gray scarves like nuns
lifted and lowered their arms
under rows of spidery lamps.

The old owners’ names
over the wing-like gates
were supplanted with red-lettered signs:
“Lenin Thread Manufacture,”

“Textile Works
of the October Revolution.”
But for me the factories
had no names as I passed

through the black-walled streets,
narcotic with ugliness and rhythm,
the knocking of returning shuttles:
More! More! Again! Again!

Multiple metal hearts
hammered my lullaby at night.
They repeated like an iron god:
I am that I am that I am.

~ Oriana © 2015


Ah, the October Revolution that actually took place in November . . .  One of the good reforms was that of the calendar: Russia finally caught up with the rest of Europe by adopting the Gregorian Calendar, which goes back to 1582. Spelling was also simplified, though the Cyrillic alphabet was retained (unfortunately, in my opinion).

The last line surprised me as it welled up. I was merely describing the factories, I thought, trying to render the experience of a child caught up in their huge rhythm. I wasn’t trying for any statement linking the industrial (or Russian) revolution with religion. But poems come from the unconscious, which makes these hidden connections. One “supreme dictator” (here presumably the industrial looms) reminded me of the alleged supreme dictator of the universe.

Pope Innocent X by Diego Velasquez, 1650. How come I'm vaguely reminded of Lenin?

“If your god is real, then my non-belief is part of its divine plan.”

Nevertheless, I love papal haute couture. Pope Francis has been trying to cut back on the splendor, I know. I think it’s a mistake, like making churches more like the Protestant ones, severe and ugly. The only excuse for Catholicism is the esthetics of excess. 


From Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on hierarchy as a destructive force:

The central discovery made by Sapolsky when he worked as a primatologist concerned the social and biological effects of removing aggressive males. As is often the case with important discoveries, a lucky accident played a part. Sapolsky studied a troop of baboons where the alpha males fed at the garbage dump of a nearby hotel. When the aggressive male baboons died after eating TB-infected meat, the culture of the surviving baboons changed dramatically. All the alpha males were gone; the the troop now had twice as many females, and the surviving males were less aggressive and more “socially affiliative.”

The levels of stress hormones decreased and individual health improved. Males started carrying baby baboons, which was never observed before. Troop members sat closer to each other without fear. No male aggression was directed at females. More time was spent grooming. Males began to groom other males, which is “as unheard of as a flying baboon.” And a newly introduced adolescent male would gradually acquire the new culture, so the transformation of culture that happened in one generation proved lasting. And the troop not only survived; it thrived.

And that reminds me of other studies where bullies were removed from animal or human groups, and the improvement in health and sociability that followed. Fear is not good for us; love is. As Sapolsky says: “Affiliation has enormous power.” Connection. Cooperation.

It’s a truism that some women begin to thrive only after a divorce or the death of a domineering spouse. The explanation is simple: stress levels go down. The woman is now free to lead her own life without constant criticism or another form of harassment. Of course sometimes it’s the woman who is the dominator, and then the man begins to blossom as soon as he separates. The positive changes in health and behavior may begin as soon as the decision to separate is taken.

A stray thought: the culture can go the other way just as quickly. An American woman doctor who worked for a while in Saudi Arabia noted that her Western male colleagues quickly became comfortable with the denigration of women, and behaviors such as opening a door for a woman disappeared. 

Robert Sapolsky and one of his research subjects


“Our primate ancestors passed onto us certain social protocols, and we have passed them onto God. In primate cliques subordinates will often shrink down before the dominant male, thus accentuating his largeness and superiority. The god of the Abrahamic religions, in company with gods of other traditions, is often portrayed as a large male who requires that subordinates lower themselves before Him.

Larger size often equates to dominance in many other species, and plays an important role in the rank structures of men. As cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker has pointed out, the “Big-men” who ruled over hunter-gatherer societies were often literally big men.

Lip smacking — the nonhuman primate equivalent of kissing — is a common appeasement display in monkeys and apes, and may be intended to emulate infant suckling noises. It is understandable how sounds associated with nurturing might appease aggression. Like other infantile behaviors, this gesture may also communicate, “Like an infant, I pose no threat.”

Hand kissing is a customary way of showing submission to a king, typically while bowing one’s head or kneeling down. Often the custom was — and is, in the remaining monarchies of the world — to kiss the king’s signet ring. This custom remains strong in the Catholic Church, a monarchic hierarchy in which the pious kneel before the pope and kiss his ring. Other Church customs would suggest that this gesture is rooted in ancient primate displays intended to connote infanthood — for instance, the pope is referred to as father, and his flock are considered his children.

Foot kissing, a behavior observed widely in primatology, is another way submissive monkeys and apes demonstrate acquiescence to dominant members of their societies. This behavior carries forward to human societies that are highly rank structured, such as monarchies. For instance, kissing the king’s foot has always been synonymous with supplicant behavior — e.g., showing him extreme deference, begging for his mercy, or even recognizing that he represents God.

Christ — who is sometimes referred to as Christ the King — is also greeted with foot-kissing, as are his proxies. At the Basilica in Rome stands a large bronze statue of St. Paul, built in the fifth century. Though the statue has stood stalwart now for fifteen centuries its feet have been worn thin by the lips of pilgrims. There was even a custom in the Catholic Church of kissing the feet of the pope.

It is worth reiterating that such displays are fundamentally submissive in nature, intended to secure the favor of a more powerful being.


I was facing the nightmare of total knee replacement surgery. I already had one knee surgery, in medicine’s Dark Ages. My lateral meniscus was removed due to a tear. The surgery, including the recovery, was indeed a nightmare of pain and disability. But the worst was ahead: within several years it became known that removing the meniscus leads to severe arthritis in 100% of the cases. Far from being pretty useless, as assumed by the surgeons, and easily replaced by scar tissue, the meniscus turned out to be critical for shock absorption.

100% severe arthritis. I wasn’t going to be a miraculous exception. Soon enough that became quite obvious. I could still walk — but every year more slowly and for shorter distances.

The more I read about the total knee replacement, the more videos I watched, and the more I talked with former patients, the more disastrous it appeared, horrifically stressful on the body — and yet it seemed the only solution. Then through a series of happy coincidence I found a place that did stem cell therapy for joint injuries. And — another happy coincidence —- it turned out that the surgeon I consulted, the third one this year, regarded as one of the two top joint specialists in San Diego, actually performed the stem-cell procedure.

A big breakthrough that allowed the treatment to become more widespread and affordable was the discovery that the human body fat is a rich source of stem cells. There is roughly one adipose stem cell per 100 fat cells. (By comparison, bone marrow contains one per 250,000 to 400,000 cells. Nevertheless, some centers still rely on the more established procedure using bone-marrow stem cells, which requires more difficult harvesting from the hip or femur).

(Blood is another good source of stem cells. Since blood can be frozen for future use, more potential opens up.)

From the Stemgenex website:

“Adipose (fat) tissue contains a concentrated amount of cells known as mesenchymal stem cells which are capable of replication or becoming different types of cells throughout the body such as neurons, bone, cartilage, muscle, tendon, etc

The advantage of using mesenchymal stem cells from your adipose fat is that they are one of the richest sources of stem cells in the body (2500 times more stem cells reside in fat vs. bone marrow) and they are very easy to harvest via a mini-liposuction procedure.

Adipose derived stem cells also have a much higher immunomodulatory capacity than those of bone marrow derived stem cells which can greatly benefit patients with auto-immune conditions.”


The results of stem cell therapy depend largely on the quantity of stem cells injected. The age of the patient is also a factor: younger patients have more effective stem cells — no surprise.

Here are two stories I heard at my stem-cell clinic in Sorrento Valley near San Diego (Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles is another stem-cell pioneer in Southern California. At this point there are stem-stem clinics everywhere in the US, especially in and around large cities — and yet the public remains largely unaware of this alternative).

1. An NFL quarterback came for his treatment (sports injuries provide a “rich target environment” for stem cell repair in lieu of surgery). The plastic surgeon who does the liposuction (so “mini” that only a local anesthetic is used) was in despair: there was no visible fat on this patient. He appeared to be all muscle. Yet eventually the surgeon managed to get enough fat from the buttocks, and the treatment was performed.

2. A 92-year-old woman came asking for stem-cell treatment for her arthritis. The staff first refused, saying that her stem cells would not be effective. But the feisty old woman refused to be discouraged. “What else am I supposed to do with my money?” she asked — and got the treatment.

(Alas, I blew my opportunity to ask about her results. In any case, that question can be easily deflected with “It’s still too early to know.” It takes about five months for the evidence of cartilage regeneration to show up on X-rays, though functional  improvement can become evident within weeks.)


There is a difference in the way you are treated — even in the way you are touched — when you pay out of pocket. It’s not so much the $20 coupon for Starbucks — what hospital would ever think of it? — it’s simply how you are spoken to: the tone of voice, the politeness. A stem-cell clinic is no Walmart medicine. To establish a good reputation, they need to cater to the patient.

The patients were almost all older men. “They look like rich CEO’s,” my friend observed. “The kind not afraid to take a risk.” One could read that in their self-confident bearing. Just the way they sat in the waiting room was subtly different. Suddenly I was in the company of such men, for the first time in my life. 

Speaking to me in the soothing way one speaks to child or a pet, the plastic surgeon described each step of the mini-liposuction: “And now you will feel a tiny sting, but it won’t last long.” The discomfort was less by far than during a typical dental visit.

“You’ve got great-looking fat,” I was told. “Want to see it?” There it was in a large syringe, pinkish, with small fluffy yellow cloudlets. “So pink?” I exclaimed, amazed.” “A bit of blood gets in,” the surgeon explained. “The yellow is the fat. We do it slowly and gently, because the idea is to keep the fat alive, not like during ordinary liposuction, where you’re going to throw the fat away.”

Now that I knew the fat was a source of stem cells, throwing out fat seemed almost a sacrilege.

The fat was then transferred to a device that looked like a modest little box, but apparently centrifuged and processed the stem cells. It was a holy of holies approached only by the staff with little masks on their faces.

An hour later I was back from Starbucks, and the stem cells were ready for “deployment” — a term that entered the language during the first Gulf War. Stem cells are “deployed” via an ultrasound-guided injection.

“Your stem cells look really good,” a technician remarked. I can’t deny the warm feeling that suffused me, though not much later I reflected that she probably says it to every patient. But then, who knows, perhaps one can tell by the color or density of the special solution (which also contains amniotic-fluid growth factors).

(I don’t remember seeing a microscope anywhere, but then I didn’t look for it. Perhaps they do check the cells, but then perhaps they don’t. Can one even check the vitality of stem cells as one can easily check the quality of sperm?)

Then I proceeded to the
deployment room. First I got an IV infusion of the left-over stem cells: “We just let them into the general circulation. It might do some good,” the technician said. Finding the right vein took longer than the infusion itself. Then the technician disappeared and the high priests entered the room — the surgeon and his specially trained assistant, Patrick, the one who had previously told me, “Ten years from now, there won’t be knee replacement surgery. Stem cells will be the standard treatment for arthritis. This is the future.”

This is the future. It took about two minutes. “That’s it,” Dr. Hanson said, applying a small gauze pad to the injection site.

But there was a bit more. 90% of the stem cells were given to the knee, and then I was asked if there is another joint I might want to heal. I said my left shoulder often aches after typing.

“Let’s take a look,” Dr.  Hanson said, and put the ultrasound gizmo to my left shoulder. “There is bursitis and a small tear,” Patrick announced, looking at the screen. So that shoulder got injected too. About an hour later, on the way back, I became aware that the soreness was gone. It’s as if I took naproxen (Aleve) and it took effect — with naproxen there is there is almost a distinct moment when the pain lifts off and is no more, like a quantum leap. That’s the anti-inflammatory effect, but I wonder if the neural pain pathways also get switched off. That’s very distinct with two gel acetaminophen caps too — the pain is suddenly gone, like flipping off a light switch.

The following day I did some typing, and the shoulder did not hurt. The right shoulder didn’t feel so good in the evening, though it’s a mild ache. But I bet that shoulder has some damage too. I’d love to check out my hips too, and maybe ankles. But first let’s see the results.

Sunday morning the knee caught up to feeling better, though it’s supposed to take a month before I really can tell the difference (or longer, depending on age and amount of damage). Later I could feel some referred pain below and above the knee —- a brief, transient ache. But nothing I’d call real pain (and I’ve had a lot of experience with “real pain”). This is great news because one is not allowed non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, naproxen) for a week before and two weeks after the procedure. By blocking certain enzymes, they interfere with tissue repair.

X rays in May will tell us how much cartilage will have grown back from the pretty-much bone-on-bone condition.

The Los Angeles area has much more choice when it comes to stem cells clinics — Beverly Hills has a center, West LA — there’s online information. For the knee, there should be amniotic-fluid growth factors, not enriched platelets.


Perhaps the greatest promise of stem cells is in the area of heart disease, the #1 killer. In fact all kinds of horrific surgeries could be avoided if stem cells, the body’s own regenerative mechanism, were to be given the research priority that’s long overdue.

At the same time, we need to admit that conservative physicians regard stem cells as the unproven Wild West of medicine. At this point it is a leap of faith, with results based both on animal studies and what is classified as “anecdotal” human evidence (e.g. X-rays showing a regrowth of cartilage). Many will say that we need another 5-10 years before we can say anything definite about the effectiveness of these treatments (which are actually widely available right now).

If only we could have the equivalent of the Race to the Moon in this area, and in regenerative medicine in general! Dream on . . . 

Do I recommend stem cells in lieu of knee replacement, or any other joint surgery? It’s too early for me to say anything about the effectiveness of the treatment: I had it only last week (December 11, 2015). Watch this blog for a later report.

ending on beauty

John Guzlowski quoted me on his page. He selected this:

Life should be a joy: not a ledger of sins and failures to live up to impossible standards, but an iridescent beauty like a dragonfly. ~ Oriana