Saturday, April 30, 2016


Christian Schloe, Metamorphosis

I Have Dreamed Of You So Much

I have dreamed of you so much that you are no longer real.
Is there still time for me to reach your breathing body, to kiss your mouth and make
your dear voice come alive again?

I have dreamed of you so much that my arms, grown used to being crossed on my
chest as I hugged your shadow, would perhaps not bend to the shape of your body.
For faced with the real form of what has haunted me and governed me for so many
days and years, I would surely become a shadow.

O scales of feeling.

I have dreamed of you so much that surely there is no more time for me to wake up.
I sleep on my feet prey to all the forms of life and love, and you, the only one who
counts for me today, I can no more touch your face and lips than touch the lips and
face of some passerby.

I have dreamed of you so much, have walked so much, talked so much, slept so much
with your phantom, that perhaps the only thing left for me is to become a phantom
among phantoms, a shadow a hundred times more shadow than the shadow that
moves and goes on moving, brightly, over the sundial of your life.

~ Robert Desnos

For some years this poem was erroneously labeled “The Last Poem,” allegedly found with  Desnos when he died of typhoid in Theresienstadt after the camp had already been liberated (this was not unusual; some prisoners were so sick they never recovered even after they began to receive medical care). It was assumed to be addressed to the poet’s wife, nicknamed “Youki” (Snow; her real name was Lucie).

It’s a wonderful poem even though it was written at a different time and under different circumstances. Many of us can identify with the experience of having fantasized about a loved person so much that the fantasies become more real than the beloved.

There is another poem by Desnos that I love. It begins “Remote from me and starlike,” and ends:

If only you knew how I love you . . . how
joyous I am, how strong and proud of
going out with your image in my head,
stepping out of the world.

How joyous to the point of death.

If only you knew how the world submits to me.

If only you knew.

~ Robert Desnos (“Remote from me and starlike”)

I think all of us would agree that falling in love involves uncertainty and anxiety. But we’d also agree that being in love is also a source of strength. I don’t mean being loved, which certainly is  a source of strength, but being in love, your mind filled with the image of the beloved. It’s like having a wonderful secret.

With the image of the one we love, we step into the world filled with a private joy. Yet we also step out of the world — the world of mundane cares, of aches and pains and tax returns. All that petty negativity simply ceases to exist. Death ceases to exist. There is only the beloved whose image we carry with us.

Some would say that this is escapist, and that it’s not good to idealize a “mere human.” But there is no denying that being in love — even without return, as long as we are not being actively rejected — is a source of strength. The world submits to us because we are not as dependent on the externals. We have something within.

Of course Desnos says it much better.

Christian Schloe, Woman/Clouds

 I can’t resist sharing one more thing not by Desnos, but about him. The text below is from Wikipedia. Perhaps the story is apocryphal — but what a story!

“One day Desnos and others were taken away from their barracks. The prisoners rode on the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon they arrived and the guards ordered them off the truck. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. The forecast was good: a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.

The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative in their movements. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos wasn’t executed. Through the power of imagination, he saved his own life and the lives of others.”

Last photograph of Desnos, 1945


Beauty is its own excuse for being. ~ Emerson

Ruskin was one of the first environmentalists, but he interests me primarily because he said that work should be a pleasure. A craftsman is happy and loves his work, in contrast to an assembly-line worker. Ruskin imagined a society of satisfied craftsmen producing things of excellence and beauty.

“John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the most ambitious and impassioned English social reformers of the 19th century. He was also – at first sight – a deeply improbable reformer, because he seemed to care mostly about one thing – beauty – which has a reputation for being eminently apolitical and removed from ‘real life’. And yet the more Ruskin thought about beauty – the beauty of things humans make, ranging from buildings to chairs, paintings to clothes – the more he realized that the quest to make a more beautiful world is inseparable from the need to remake it politically, economically and socially.

When Ruskin had begun his career as an art critic, his ambition had been to open his audience’s eyes to the beauty of certain paintings and buildings. But in middle age, a more direct and urgent goal came into view. He realized that the ugliness of most things in Britain (from the factories to the railway stations, the pubs to the workers’ housing) was the clearest indication of the decadence, cruel economic ideology and rotten moral foundations of his society.

Throughout his life, Ruskin contrasted the general beauty of nature with the ugliness of the man-made world. He set up a useful criterion for any man-made thing: was it in any way the equal of something one might find in nature? This was the case with Venice, with Chartres Cathedral, with the chairs of William Morris… but not with most things being turned out by the factories of the modern world.

So Ruskin thought it helpful for us to observe and be inspired by nature (he was a great believer that everyone in the country should learn to draw things in nature). He wrote with astonishing seriousness about the importance of looking at the light in the morning, of taking care to see the different kinds of cloud in the sky and of looking properly at how the branches of a tree intertwine and spread. He took immense delight in the beautiful structures of nests and beavers’ dams. And he loved feathers with a passion.

There was an urgent message here. Nature sets the standard. It provides us with particularly intense examples of beauty and grace. The plumage of a bird, the clouds over the mountains at sunset, the great trees bending in the wind – nature is ordered, beautiful, simple, effective. It is only with us that things seem to go wrong. Why can we not be as it is? There is a humiliating contrast between the natural loveliness of trees by a stream and the bleak, griminess of an average street; between the ever-changing interest of the sky and the monotony and dreariness of so much of our lives. Ruskin felt that this painful comparison was instructive. Because we are part of nature we have the capacity to live up to its standard. We should use the emotion we feel at the beauty of nature to energize us to equal its works. The goal of human society is to honor the dignity and grandeur of the natural world.

Ruskin’s approach to politics was to hold resolutely on to a vision of what a really sane, reasonable, decent and good life would look like – and then to ask rigorously just how a society would need to be set up for that to be the average life, for an ordinary person, and not a rare piece of luck only for the very privileged. For this he deserves our, and posterity’s, ongoing interest and gratitude.”

Ruskin, Northwest Porch, St. Mark


“The episode [in The Origins of Christianity] we remember best is Paul’s arrival in Athens to preach the Christian gospel and his outcry against the Greek statues. ‘O chaste and lovely images’, Renan cries out in his turn, ‘of the true gods and goddesses! — this ugly little Jew has stigmatized you with the name of idols!” ~ Edmund Wilson

Renan had his own peculiar brand of ant-Semitism, but it’s something else that interests me about this passage. I'm still pondering how best to interpret Renan’s strange statement about the TRUE gods and goddesses. Having left the Catholic church in his early twenties, he allegedly remained a “quasi-Christian,” as one source put it. Wilson considers The Origins of Christianity to be a masterpiece in the study of ideas, showing how ”the Christianity of the Apostles is no longer the Christianity of Jesus, the Christianity of the Scriptures is modified as it is attracted to the Greeks or the Jews; the Christianity of the Rome of Nero is something entirely different from the primitive Christianity of Judea.” But I digress: how are we to understand the outcry against Paul and his condemnation as idols of the lovely images of the TRUE gods and goddesses?

But perhaps my emphasis is wrong; perhaps the critical word is LOVELY. It’s reasonable to think that Renan worshiped beauty. He adored the Greco-Roman civilization — “the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome” — finding it superior to that of the ancient Israel for a variety of reasons, including the legal system and precisely the cult of beauty, including the beauty of the human body. Perhaps the meaning of “true gods” is closer to “true values” — the humanistic values typical of the educated elite in France and other European countries.

Note also that Renan calls the Greek statues “chaste.” This is his reply to those who’d call theme obscene — the enemies of beauty, the enemies of the body with its unsettling sexuality. And yet, because of their beauty, the statues are the opposite of pornography. They draw us to the ideal. Rilke’s response was: “You must change your life.”

To be sure, Christianity is also a call to the ideal. Alas, it’s so warped by its obsession with death and the afterlife, with sin and punishment, that it could hardly be said to serve life. At its worst, it’s anti-life.

It could also be argued that perhaps Renan wasn’t even a quasi-Christian — he just wasn’t daring enough to reject Christianity in a more direct manner. Nevertheless, this passage betrays his real feelings. He loved the classical Antiquity; he did not love Paul’s teachings. To say that Paul’s teachings were false would have ruined Renan’s career. This outcry is perhaps the closest he comes to saying what he really thought. 


In retrospect I think that it wasn't only Greek mythology that deeply affected me — it was also those naked statues that said that human body wasn't evil. And it was also a couple plays that we studied in school, Oedipus and Antigone. It was the literary quality of that writing, so vastly superior to the Catholic propaganda, whether the Catholic Weekly or the Sunday sermons. Here was a culture in which the Catholic drivel and crucifixes simply didn't exist, and what a culture!

So yes, simply being exposed to something wider, to the richness of culture and the world beyond the Catholic prison — and ultimately to novels and movies where religion was merely a footnote, if that — had an effect on my mental development that I wasn't even aware of.  I couldn’t help seeing that the church was the domain chiefly of old women, not of any kind of vitality. Good minds were not drawn to it.

There were some attractions — the old time liturgy  (ignorance was bliss — I didn’t realize that the mass was derived from the Jerusalem temple ritual of animal sacrifice, and "hostia" meant “victim") —  and the music. But it wasn’t enough.

The more I think about it, the more clear it becomes: the culture wars were won by the secular side, starting with the classical Greek culture: they had better sculpture and better literature. I saw that the secular world offered better art in the broad sense, including a lot more beyond sculpture and theater. It offered a vision of moral and philosophical complexity that wasn't obsessed with sin and punishment, that both celebrated and lamented, that raised questions rather than force-fed catechism answers.

Later I discovered that the church had a more advanced, intellectual side as well, but that was for the elite, especially the Jesuits — not for a mere stupid girl (I overheard my parish priest saying: "Girls — they are so stupid"), part of the lay riffraff. In any case, even that more intellectual side did not fare well compared to the best secular writers and intellectuals. Dogma existed (e.g. Marxism), but it had to compete with other schools of thought, or with literature that simply ignored that particular dogma and instead said: Look, this is life. 

 Bernini, Rape of Proserpina

"Why do the rich have so much influence in politics?" asks Duke University Prof Nicholas Carnes in a Talking Points Memo piece.

Is it because the poor and working class don't vote? Is it too much outside money pouring into political campaigns and causes?

No, Prof Carnes writes, there's another "big reason" why the wealthy dominate US politics: "Wealthy people are the ones in office themselves."

"If millionaires in the United States formed their own political party, that party would make up just 3% of the country," he says, "but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House."

A working-class party, by contrast, would comprise less than 2% of Congress.

Unfortunately, he argues, the US political system is generally a contest between the rich and the rich.

"By the time most Americans get to the polls, the only options on their ballots are wealthy, white-collar professionals," he writes. "Do you want to vote for a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire business owner?"

He concludes:

Those of us who care about making our government more responsive to middle- and working-class Americans need to keep working to get the money out of our political institutions. But they also need to start asking what we can do to get more working-class people into them.


The best paragraph here is "By the time most Americans get to the polls, the only options on their ballots are wealthy, white-collar professionals," he writes. "Do you want to vote for a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire business owner?”

It's the government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich. Some say it's always been that way, and always will be. So maybe just tiny improvements here and there, tiny victories, is what we should celebrate.

No one represents the interests of the non-rich, for all the pious rhetoric about the middle class. Alas, I don’t think any substantial change is doable in the coming decades. The system is indeed rigged, but the rich have such an overwhelming advantage that I don’t see any way out. A grassroots movement? We’re seeing something of this sort now, but it’s already being beaten down by the establishment money machine.

My only hope is a bit of a lasting reform here and there. The labor movement won more decent working conditions. The unions have mostly gotten suppressed, but many of the reforms have proved lasting, and no, we no longer have child labor in the West. We don’t? I hear the skeptics say in a mocking tone. Definitely not the way it used to be. It takes a long, long time, but progress does happen.

Child miners, 1911



Scientists at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) gave mice Nicotinamide riboside (NR), which proved to have a positive effect on the functioning of stem cells. Their research is published today in the journal Science.

No negative side effects were observed in the mice given NR, even at high doses. NR, which is a form of vitamin B3, has not been scientifically tested on humans but is already available in certain nutritional supplements found in the U.S.

The EPFL researchers said caution should be observed when it comes to branding NR an elixir of youth, as further studies are required. One avenue of study would be to make sure the vitamin does not also boost the functioning of pathological cells, such as those found in cancerous tissue. According to the scientists’ data, the muscular power of mice taking NR did improve.

“This work could have very important implications in the field of regenerative medicine,” Auwerx says.

“We are not talking about introducing foreign substances into the body, but rather restoring the body’s ability to repair itself with a product that can be taken with food.

From Science Daily:

“Hongbo Zhang wanted to understand how the regeneration process deteriorated with age. To do so, he teamed up with colleagues from ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and universities in Canada and Brazil. Through the use of several markers, he was able to identify the molecular chain that regulates how mitochondria -- the "powerhouse" of the cell -- function and how they change with age. The role that mitochondria play in metabolism has already been amply demonstrated, "but we were able to show for the first time that their ability to function properly was important for stem cells," said Auwerx.

Under normal conditions, these stem cells, reacting to signals sent by the body, regenerate damaged organs by producing new specific cells. At least in young bodies. "We demonstrated that fatigue in stem cells was one of the main causes of poor regeneration or even degeneration in certain tissues or organs," said Hongbo Zhang.

This is why the researchers wanted to "revitalize" stem cells in the muscles of elderly mice. And they did so by precisely targeting the molecules that help the mitochondria to function properly. "We gave nicotinamide riboside to 2-year-old mice, which is an advanced age for them," said the researcher. "This substance, which is close to vitamin B3, is a precursor of NAD+, a molecule that plays a key role in mitochondrial activity. And our results are extremely promising: muscular regeneration is much better in mice that received NR, and they lived longer than the mice that didn't get it.”

But then I remember the great hopes that we used to have for resveratrol. NR, however, is involved in the mitochondrial energy production, so it’s more promising. Note the absence of human trials at this point. Humans are a naturally long-lived species, and some treatments that work in mice have been found ineffective in humans. 

Bruegel, Maypole

ending on beauty

Of all the stringed instruments I like the best
the harp stretched from hand to hand,
from blood to blood. From disaster to deliverance,
From error to perfection.

~ Miroslav Holub

A harpist from Ur, that unimaginably old city in Mesopotamia: Sumerian, going back almost 6,000 years. How hard life was then, “short and brutish” for most. Yet music already existed, bringing us the news of peace and beauty. Someone was not a soldier; someone was a musician instead, practicing long hours “from error to perfection.”

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Klee, Castle and Sun, 1928


He said that he had hurt himself on a wall or that he had fallen.
But there was probably another reason
for the wounded and bandaged shoulder.

With a somewhat abrupt movement,
to bring down from a shelf some
photographs that he wanted to see closely,
the bandage was untied and a little blood ran.

I bandaged the shoulder again, and while bandaging it
I was somewhat slow; because it did not hurt,
and I liked to look at the blood. That
blood was a part of my love.

When he had left, I found in front of the chair,
a bloody rag, from the bandages,
a rag that looked like it belonged in garbage;
which I brought up to my lips,
and which I held there for a long time —
the blood of love on my lips.

~ Cavafy, (1919), tr Daniel Mendelsohn

This poem is a great favorite of mine, at least among Cavafy's poems. And I think I know why. “Ithaca” is a great poem, a poem of wisdom, but it doesn't speak to the heart — or not much. It’s didactic. This poem is very intimate. It’s a personal narrative, and it skillfully uses the main tool that can make a personal narrative so effective: it uses a “narrow slice.” You take a small incident, just a few details, a gesture, and you fully explore that “narrow slice.” And suddenly that very small incident becomes unforgettable and symbolic.

It’s amazing what can be achieved through specificity. What is being described would not usually be regarded as promising poetic material. Cavafy makes it moving and tender, and seems to be telling us all. In fact a lot is left unsaid, and that works very well too.

The power of specifics is the power of images. A bandage comes loose, a little blood runs, the speaker slowly bandages the arm again — and then the final image, “the blood of my love on my lips.” What Cavafy offers us here is a great image of impoverishment. Judging by his poems — though of course Cavafy tried to be restrained —  Cavafy's love life was one of deprivation more so than fulfillment. So that image of him holding he blood-covered rag to his lips carries desperation: he was ready to latch on to anything, any remnant of the presence of the beloved.

A friend reported that a woman she knew told her she put her hands into her lover’s ashes and then “washed” her face in those ashes. Somehow that sounds perfectly natural. Smearing your face with ashes was in fact one of the traditional ways to mourn someone — not necessarily the literal ashes of that person, but the meaning of ashes in general is related to death. I found what my friend described to be very moving.

By the way, Cavafy has been called a poet of “erotic ashes.” But then most love poems are about lost love.

Constantine Cavafy, 1900

Half past twelve. How time has gone by.
Half past twelve. How the years went by.


Maggots, pus, rotten meat, dirty toilets — would anyone guess that “disgust sensitivity” predicts how politically conservative the person will be? When neuroimaging is used, the accuracy of a strong disgust response predicting conservatism is 95% to 98% (I know this seems hard to believe).

“Researchers showed study participants a number of images designed to provoke a reaction of disgust, such as dirty toilets, as well as a host of more pleasant images of babies and landscapes. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers were able to see how a participant’s brain reacted to the images. Specific neural pathways correlate with feelings of disgust, making it possible for researchers to identify when a participant felt disgusted, even when he or she denied those feelings.

Researchers then administered a political ideology inventory, during which participants answered questions about divisive political issues such as gay marriage. People who had shown pronounced disgust responses were more likely to identify with conservative political positions. The correlation was so strong, in fact, that based solely on fMRI scans, researchers were able to predict with 95% to 98% accuracy how participants would answer various political questions.”

That disgust at images of maggots etc correlates with conservatism has been known since the nineties. Later studies refined the initial findings. But this is the first study that didn’t rely on self-report of disgust, which can be misleading (speaking strictly for myself, I’d be tempted to pretend that nothing disgusts me — I'm a “tough lady”).

Studies have also found that those who are obsessively clean are especially likely to be concerned with “moral purity” — but let’s remember that we are dealing with correlations here, and degrees along a spectrum, not absolutes. And of course there are exceptions.

Other traits strongly predicting conservatism are the need for cognitive closure and the urge to impose distinctions between the in-group and the out-group.

Klimt, The Swamp, 1900


Women tend have a stronger disgust response than men, and yet are typically more liberal, so the researchers found it important to separate out gender as a variable in these studies. Perhaps the type of image is also important: women are probably less disgusted with blood, being used to it, or with dirty toilets or laundry, being accustomed to cleaning toilets and doing the laundry, changing diapers etc — but they might be more disgusted with maggots (I'm only guessing).

Also, the response is probably affected by age, as so many things are. Having, like so many women, become more radical with age and less patient with “incremental change” (the principle of “jam tomorrow, but never jam today”), I asked myself if my disgust response to certain physical images is weaker or stronger now than it was in youth. Years of cleaning, fishing out dead animals, and most recently gardening, have weakened my disgust response, which used to be pretty strong. If I'm correct, this would argue for a heavy involvement of experience rather than being wired from birth with a weak or strong response.

I am not sure if we can ever disentangle those nature/nurture complexities. Even studies which found brain differences between conservatives and liberals can’t provide the answer if these are genetic or rather acquired through experience. Identical twin studies lean to the genetic answer — but political leanings seem to be less genetically determined than traits such as extraversion.

As for small dead animals, I don’t bury them. I leave them on the grass for the local owl. He can be relied on. Listening to the hooting is one of the great pleasures of my life.




Each candidate was asked if he wanted to be a regular fighter or a suicide bomber or suicide fighter, but only 12 percent ticked the box for martyrdom.

That ratio stands in stark contrast to another set of foreign fighters, those who joined Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, more than half of whom volunteered to blow themselves up, according to West Point. And analysts say the disparity reflects how ISIS marketed itself to the world and the kind of future it envisioned.

"They're selling this narrative of victory and sustaining... Many of these individuals it would seem are buying into that message and are going into there to live — not die."

Nearly two-thirds of the enlistees were in the 21-30 age group, but the other ends of the spectrum were also well-represented. Some 40 recruits were under age 15 and about 400 were under 21. Almost a quarter fell between ages 31 and 40. About 4 percent were between 41 and 50 and there were even 42 men over the age of 50.

The oldest person in the database was nearly 70, a married father of five from Kyrgystan who wanted to be a fighter and not a suicide volunteer.

Many have families

While six out of 10 fighters were single, 30 percent reported being married — and they had more 2,000 children between them. The notes on some of the applications show that some showed up with hopes of bringing their families along later if they could get the money needed for travel.

Nearly two-thirds of the enlistees were in the 21-30 age group, but the other ends of the spectrum were also well-represented. Some 40 recruits were under age 15 and about 400 were under 21. Almost a quarter fell between ages 31 and 40. About 4 percent were between 41 and 50 and there were even 42 men over the age of 50.

The oldest person in the database was nearly 70, a married father of five from Kyrgystan who wanted to be a fighter and not a suicide volunteer.

While six out of 10 fighters were single, 30 percent reported being married — and they had more 2,000 children between them. The notes on some of the applications show that some showed up with hopes of bringing their families along later if they could get the money needed for travel.

The biggest recruitment period was July 2014, following some of ISIS' most significant territorial seizures and the announcement that it was establishing a caliphate with dominion over the world's Muslims.


A third went to high school and a quarter had a college education; only 17 percent said they stopped their schooling after elementary or middle school. That level of education was higher than the average for many of the countries the men called home.

 While the stats might suggest that the fighters had prospects in their homeland, the West Point experts noted that many of them had more menial jobs than their education might suggest — a possible source of frustration that could have played into their decision to join up.

The group was less educated on Islam than might be predicted. Seventy percent said they had only a basic understanding of sharia. And in an unexpected turn, those with a deeper understanding of Islamic law were actually less likely to choose to be suicide bombers or fighters, despite the religious justification for suicide attacks.

Only 104 had high-skilled or white-collar positions. There were 700 laborers, roughly 10 times the number of teachers, IT employees, or those in the military or police. But the vast majority were employed before they joined: Only 255 said they were jobless. Another big group had yet to enter the labor force: 656 students. 

The three biggest feeder countries were Saudia Arabia (797 fighters), Tunisia (640) and Morocco (260), although Tunisia has the highest per capita rate. But they came from all corners of the world — from China (167) to Iceland (1) and Australia (13) to Trinidad and Tobago (2).

About 10 percent hailed from Western nations, including the United Kingdom (57) and the United States (14). In Europe, France (128) and Germany (80) had the highest numbers.

Dodwell said that while much of the material confirmed the center's understanding of who joins ISIS and why, the "massive amount of diversity" was the biggest eye-opener and poses a challenge for those researching how to counter radical extremism at the root level.


No surprise about Saudi Arabia being the biggest “feeder country.” All that oil wealth made it easy to export the most cruel and archaic form of Islam. 


We need to consider all angles before babbling about “majestic.” On the other hand, you could say this is the ultimate MODERN view of "majestic". But even we idealize and romanticize lots of things, because humans seem to have that need. As TS Eliot observed (he did say a few wise things, if not many), humankind can endure only so much reality. This said, I think as technology and other advances lower the stress of everyday living (on the whole; let's not get into that), we can psychologically afford to take in more reality. The lower the stress, the greater the tolerance for looking at things like falling in love and motherhood in a more sober light.


“I remember how much it bothered me back when I was a Christian and nonbelievers would cite the brutality of the Old Testament people, throwing their barbarism in our faces, as if doing so invalidated our own, more refined theological system. Didn’t they ever hear of progressive revelation? Don’t they realize God was saving the good stuff for later, when we could handle it?

This practice of romanticizing the problems of the Old Testament placated me when I was younger and more impressionable. But further reflection made me realize two major problems with this explanation:

In the Old Testament, when it says for example that the people of Israel were told to run swords through all the women and children (and yes, even the unborn) of Canaan, it says that God told them to do it. Which means that either it is somehow okay to commit genocide under the right circumstances (tell me again how my atheist morality is the one that’s relativistic?), or else it was wrong and the Bible got it wrong when it said that God told them to do it.”


One of Carter's ("Godless in Dixie") best. I've kept the excerpt deliberately short, hoping to attract people to read the whole article.

For me the clarity about how I felt about Christianity wasn't complete until I worked over the specifics long after my "mythology" epiphany, which turned out to be only the first step of a long journey — though a life-changing step. I did have to think about issues such as, is the god of the OT different from the god in the NT (as Gnostics and many other "heretics" claimed)?

It’s now embarrassing to remember that as a Catholic child I felt deeply sorry for the Jews, “stuck” with the Old Testament and its cruelties, its rigid rules and regulations (presented to us as Jesus’ various encounters with the despised Pharisees). Only later reading and thinking made me see that indeed the Gospels were written so as to seem to be the completion, fulfillment, and vindication of the Old Testament — and definitely not its contradiction.

Abraham honored for willingness to kill his son is a foundational story for Christianity because it’s a model for Yahweh’s willingness to have his son killed as “bloody ransom” to himself (or is the ransom to be paid to Satan? any closer look only gets us mired in barbarous confusion). 

Don't be seduced by the lofty poetry of the Gospel according to John. If god REALLY loved man, he would have forgiven sins without requiring a blood sacrifice. And if god really loved Israel, he wouldn't have allowed Christianity to come into being. 

Giotto: Jesus as Seraph Giving the Stigmata to St. Francis, 1295-1300

“One of the most remarkable findings in this area of psychology is just how many poor people say they are satisfied with their lives — very often a majority of them, even in harsh environments like the slums of Calcutta. In a recent study of poor Egyptians, researchers asked them to explain why they were satisfied, and their responses often took something like this form: “One day is good and the other one is bad; whoever accepts the least lives.” This sounds like resignation, not happiness. Yet these Egyptians were, in terms of life satisfaction, happy.

There is a long history of philosophical thought, with roots stretching back at least to Plato and Aristotle in Greece, and the Vedas in India, that conceives of human flourishing in terms of the fulfillment of the self. Human well-being, on this sort of view, means living in accordance with your nature, with who you are. On this way of thinking, we might regard happiness as a central part of self-fulfillment.”

That’s because our brain constructs happiness regardless of circumstances — barring extreme conditions, of course. That’s why “money can’t buy happiness.” Oh well, to some extent it can. In the West at least, the rich report more happiness than the poor. Money helps, no question. Money can buy less stress and interesting experiences (like travel and educational workshops) that can prove fulfilling. Wealth provides security; it provides more options.  

So, all right, money can buy happiness up to a point. But mostly, we still insist, and with a reason, contentment comes from within. “As long as I have my health,” people say, or, “I'm just glad to be alive.” There's much to said for low expectations and minimal ambition.

The title and these two paragraphs are much better than the article, so I’ll skip the link to save up on access to New York Times articles (I'm too cheap to subscribe — doesn’t seem a sufficient value).

As for the title — Ah, Sigmund, what did you start? Perhaps Viktor Frankl is the right response to this — “Man’s Search for Meaning.” But a child is happy or unhappy without any search for meaning, so I still say that looking out the window and loving the world, wanting to embrace the trees and kiss the flowers — that’s happiness enough, without having to win the Nobel Prize. The longer I live, the lower my requirements for what can make me happy.
Just seeing a hummingbird is enough.

Postscript: I still think that the wisest thing Freud ever said was his answer to what was most important in life. He replied, “Love and work.” Perhaps as the ability to work ebbs as we grow older — though the happiest people seem to be the ones who stay the most active — we shift more toward love. 

I don’t mean romantic love, but rather love as tenderness, affection, delight. Delight in the things of this world — by which I don’t mean fame and fortune, but rather trees and animals — can loom larger and larger. The simple act of watering houseplants becomes vastly satisfying. We can see that as a diminishment, but there is a more insightful interpretation of this phenomenon: an enlargement of the capacity to love. 
I have something to say to the religionist who feels atheists never say anything positive: You are an intelligent human being. Your life is valuable for its own sake. You are not second-class in the universe, deriving meaning and purpose from some other mind. You are not inherently evil — you are inherently human, possessing the positive rational potential to help make this a world of morality, peace and joy. Trust yourself. ~ Dan Barker

But this minuteness of our earth and of humanity shouldn't be any cause of emotional distress. From the new humility about “our place in the universe” can be born a stronger humanism: a focus on human cooperation and fuller appreciation of the only paradise we’ll ever have. We can be gentle, we can be kind; we can protect nature rather than destroy it (no “dominionism,” please). Though the universe wasn’t created for us, we can still use our intelligence to make this life (there is no other) as good as possible — for all, including animals.


A new study finds the dairy fats found in milk, yogurt and cheese may help protect against Type 2 diabetes.

The research, published in the journal Circulation, included 3,333 adults. Beginning in the late 1980s, researchers took blood samples from the participants and measured circulating levels of bio-markers of dairy fat in their blood. Then, over the next two decades, the researchers tracked who among the participants developed diabetes.

"People who had the most dairy fat in their diet had about a 50 percent lower risk of diabetes" compared with people who consumed the least dairy fat, says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, who is also an author of the study.

The study does not prove a cause and effect, but it builds on a body of evidence suggesting that dairy fat may have protective effects, both in cutting the risk of diabetes and helping people control body weight.

"It appears that children who have a higher intake of whole milk or 2 percent milk gain less weight over time" compared with kids who consume skim or nonfat dairy products, explains DeBoer.

And there's some evidence that dairy fat may help adults manage weight as well. As we've reported, researchers in Sweden found that middle-aged men who consumed high-fat milk, butter and cream were significantly less likely to become obese over a period of 12 years compared with men who never or rarely ate high-fat dairy.

So, in other words, the butter and whole-milk eaters did better at keeping the pounds off. In addition, a meta-analysis -- which included data from 16 observational studies — also found evidence that high-fat dairy was associated with a lower risk of obesity.

With all the new evidence that challenges the low-fat-is-best orthodoxy, Mozaffarian says it may be time to reconsider the National School Lunch Program rules, which allow only skim and low-fat milk.

ending on beauty:

In some old plays, when the traveler turns
his sleeve inside out it means

he is still lost on some interminable journey.
Under the moon, the white moths are breathing;

we take off our shoes and socks
just to step on the grass.

~ Luisa A. Igloria

Saturday, April 16, 2016


What compels us about images is the sense of the eternal. ~ Robert Hass


Pale gold of the walls, gold
of the centers of daisies, yellow roses
pressing from a clear bowl. All day
we lay on the bed, my hand
stroking the deep
gold of your thighs and your back.
We slept and woke
entering the golden room together,
lay down in it breathing
quickly, then
slowly again,
caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily
touching my hair now.

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

~ Donald Hall

How do we interpret the amazing last stanza? For me, it’s about “eternal moments.” Those are the moments of beauty and tenderness that stay with us for life. They are outside of time.

The speaker literalizes the idea of an eternal moment, making the mental physical. The golden minutes of the afternoons in the room that was filled with gold-tinged light are presented as preserved not in memory, but rather than actual tiny rooms in the bodies of the two lovers — rooms of gold that will last a thousand years.

Only poetry can get away with such literalization (or call it reification), and make us take delight in it. At the same time, this creates difficulty for readers who are not used to “translating” metaphor. But such translation is not an absolute necessity. It is enough that we are affected by the image: the gold bodies of the lovers dozing together in the golden room, and the timelessness of it, the tiny shining rooms being created and preserved inside the lovers.

Old Roses

White roses, tiny and old, hover among thorns
by the barn door.
For a hundred years
under the June elm, under the gaze
of seven generations,
they floated briefly,
like this, in the moment of roses,
by the fields
stout with corn, or with clover and timothy
making sweet hay,
grown over, now,
with milkweed, sumac, paintbrush.
roses survive
winter drifts, the melt in April, August
and men and women
who sniffed roses in spring and called them pretty
as we call them now,
strolling beside the barn
on a day that perishes.

~ Donald Hall, “Kicking the Leaves”

I love the simple first line: “White roses, tiny and old, hover among thorns.” Isn’t this what life is: the good days and the bad days (“thorns”). And though we may shrink into old age, the blossoms keep coming.

For a hundred years
under the June elm, under the gaze
of seven generations,
they floated briefly,
like this, in the moment of roses,

by the fields
stout with corn

I love the phrase, “the moment of roses.” In California we have flowers year-round, so we aren’t as aware that the season of flowers alters with other seasons. The moment of roses is profoundly symbolic — it’s really moments, plural — for me, the moments of fulfillment, of deep, quiet pleasure, a respite from the mundane struggle.

And there is also a deep symbolism in the survival of roses. Rose bushes have been known to survive for a hundred years. And beautiful moments keep happening, though to different people — the days perish, the generations pass, but beauty, however transient, has a certain everlasting quality. No wonder Milosz spoke about the “eternal moment,” and how poetry is the finding and recording of eternal moments — see my discussion of the first poem.

Donald Hall at his roll-top desk. The house goes back to 1865.


Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored. ~ Nietzsche

If I am correct, then in Buddhism this is all interdependent origination. But give me N
ietzsche's formulation any time.


"Again and again in Russian literature we see a claim to a kind of spiritual and moral exceptionalism that is fundamental to Putin's rhetoric. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called the 'biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,' it is not surprising that he continues to draw on the myth of a Russia divinely foreordained to stand firm against the corrupting forces of the West.”

The question Putin is grappling with, Andrew Kaufman says, "is one that recurs throughout the nineteenth-century Russian classics: What is the source of our national greatness?"

Nineteenth-century writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, for instance, believed that Russia's mission was to establish a widespread Christian empire — with Russia at its epicenter, Andy says, pointing to The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov as exemplary novels. Dostoevsky's contemporary, Leo Tolstoy, on the other hand, believed that every nation is unique and worthwhile — none better or worse than others.

"Tolstoy was a patriot," Andrew says. "He loved his people, as is so clearly demonstrated in War and Peace, for example, but he was not a nationalist. He believed in the dignity of every human being and culture."

Tolstoy was able "to uncover the full-blooded truth of every one of his characters, no matter their nationality," Andy says. "In his Sevastopol Tales, which were inspired by his own experiences as a Russian soldier fighting against the French, British and Turks in the Crimean War, Tolstoy celebrates the humanity of all his characters, whether Russian, British or French."

And so Putin has two distinct traditions to choose from, Andrew says. "He has chosen the Dostoevskian tradition, not the Tolstoyan one.”

Westward, No

In certain works by Dostoevsky, says Laura Goering, professor of Russian at Carleton College, "the West is depicted as something seductive, yet soulless, a temptation to be resisted at all costs."

For example: Writing about his 1862 journey to Europe in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, Dostoevsky describes the Crystal Palace in London: "You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal."

Laura says, "That conflict is further played out in The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan's materialism is opposed to Alyosha's spirituality and Dmitri's very Russian breadth of soul.”

Again and again in Russian literature, she says, "we see a claim to a kind of spiritual and moral exceptionalism that is fundamental to Putin's rhetoric. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Putin called the 'biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,' it is not surprising that he continues to draw on the myth of a Russia divinely foreordained to stand firm against the corrupting forces of the West."

Get Real

The genius of Russian literature, aficionados say, is that it is so very real. The great 19th century writers, such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol did a masterful job of capturing the corruption, hypocrisy, inequity and greed — as well as that yearning "Russian soul" — of their times.

To Nina Khrushcheva, the spirit of Russia is captured in Dead Souls, a novel by Gogol. The story, she says, circles around the "messianic paradigm of greatness, large size, central control — in which affairs of the state are more important than affairs of an individual.”

Putin, she says, is like a character in another Gogol work, The Government Inspector, a play whose title is sometimes translated as Inspector General. She says that the character, Khlestakov, a petty clerk "is only a simulacrum of greatness, of real achievement."

As far as fictional constructs go, adds Nina — author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics — Russia today needs to start living as if it's in the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pnin. The title character "is as soulful a Russian as they come," she says, "yet he has the courage to live in the real world.”


In many ways, the US seemed like the propaganda image of the Soviet Union, except more Orwellian (advertising being more sophisticated than political propaganda). What really astonished me is that Americans thought theirs was a classless society. And populism was like proletariat to the square power. The cowboy instead of Europe's aristocratic ideal, and the "new Soviet man." The cult of the pioneer — Dostoyevski thought that Russia's destiny lay in Asia, the East/Siberia being like the American West. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin — for all their anti-capitalist rhetoric, they actually had a lot of admiration for the US as a role model.

Also, I've always wondered why, when there was a chance (but maybe not — overextended?), the US didn't annex (or buy) Baja California. It's easy, from the inside, to see how lovely and convenient that would be. The Empire. The beachfront real estate. The nationalist dream is easy to understand.

In the culture of distraction to be focused and productive is the real counter-culture.

And that is quite a change from being like the lilies etc — remember the “flower children”? I love flowers, but . . . those people were not into gardening, to put mildly. They were just not into work, though that came back somewhat if you did something creative or unconventional. Interesting to watch these changes.

Freud [in a letter to his wife:] "If one of us should die, I shall move to Paris.”

Many years earlier — Freud [also in letter to his wife:] "Do you know what Breuer said to me one evening? ... He said that he had found out that there was concealed in me under the shroud of shyness an immeasurably bold and fearless human being. I have always believed this myself and never dared to tell anybody. ... But I could not give expression to my ardent passions ... so I have always suppressed myself, and that, I think, must show. Such stupid confession I make to you, sweet treasure, really for no good reason, unless it is the cocaine that makes me talk.”

By the way, Freud’s wife, Martha, outlived him by eleven years.


“Here’s one popular assumption: it’s important to look within and discover who you really are, your true self. Our thinkers would be skeptical of the existence of a true self, especially one you can discover in the abstract. They understood that we are multifaceted, messy selves who develop by looking outward, not inward.

Our personalities are formed through everything we do: how we interact with others, our reactions to things, the activities we pursue. You don’t behave the same way when speaking to your mother, say, as when dealing with a junior colleague, your dentist, or a close friend.

Each of us is a complicated being bumping up against other complicated beings all day. Each encounter draws out different aspects.Who we are consists of behavior patterns and emotional ruts we’ve fallen into over time – but that means we also consist of numerous possibilities of what we can become.


We aren’t just who we think we are, we can work on becoming better people all the time

Once we find ourselves, the assumption continues, we must embrace and be true to that self. But the first great philosopher in the Chinese tradition, Confucius, who was born in the sixth century BCE, would have thought differently. The problem with authenticity, he’d say, is that it’s not freeing the way we believe it to be. Who is that authentic self you think you have discovered really? It’s a snapshot of you at this one moment in time. If you stay true to that self and allow it to become your guide, it constrains you. It doesn’t allow for the sort of growth you experience when you recognize that you are ever-changing.

We flourish when we recognize our complexity and learn how to work with it through self-cultivation. You grow, for example, when you understand that you are not a hothead just because you tend to think of yourself as short-tempered, or shy because you see yourself as an introvert. Most labels are patterns of behavior we’ve fallen into and can be broken. We aren’t just who we think we are, we can work on becoming better people all the time.


Confucius teaches that certain rituals – “as if” rituals in particular – are transformative because they break patterned behaviors we’ve fallen into. When you smile as if you’re not angry, or bite your tongue instead of lashing out you are faking it. It’s because those “as if” moments create a tiny break from reality that they are so valuable. We act “as if” we are different and our feelings are more mature. By doing so, we transform into someone who is kind and generous rather than someone exercising the right to express authentically honest but destructive feelings. As we complete these rituals again and again, letting our behavior lead our feelings rather than the other way around, we become different – and better – over time.


Work with the shifts and detours – chance conversations, experiences, interactions – that nurture an expansive life

Just as we often view the self as stable, we see the world as stable, too. Of course we realize that life can change, but at the same time we tend to proceed under the assumption that the world is generally predictable and that we should figure out how we will fit into it. If we see ourselves as good at maths, we continue along that academic track; if we consider ourselves whimsical, we seek a life partner who will join us on our adventures.

Mencius, a Confucian scholar living during the late 4th century BCE, saw the world as fragmented and capricious. He would advise that we should work with the shifts and detours – chance conversations, experiences, interactions – that nurture an expansive life. Rather than making plans for our lives, a Mencian approach means setting trajectories in motion.

When you are contemplating a big change, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences

What’s wrong with a life plan? When you plan your life, you make decisions for a future self based on the person you are today not the one you will become.

Rather than boxing ourselves in by committing to big decisions, the Mencian way would be to approach them through the small and doable. When you are contemplating a career change, say, or a break up or move, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences on a small scale. Pay attention to your responses to these experiences, because they will guide you in new directions.

If you think you can lay out a perfect plan for your life, you’ve missed the “Path.” Instead, recognize that we are complex creatures constantly pulled in different directions, and that it’s through working on our interactions, experiences and responses that we grow. It’s the small actions through which you conduct yourself that matter most in transforming yourself, and the world, for the better.


I discovered some of those principles as a writer. For instance, I was always using the accidental — whatever was floating around — as part of whatever I was writing. I let the weather come into it, a few words from a book or conversation of the moment. The writing became richer that way than if I tried to follow a rigid focus.

Yet in spite of knowing how complex and changeable everything was, I hung the "depressive" label on myself. Reading articles to the effect that it was genetic was a huge hindrance. I had to start perceiving depression not as an emotional condition, but as a set of behaviors which I could decide to perform or not to perform. I could brood over my past, or I could do something else.

Deciding not to be depressed was perhaps the single most important event in my recent personal history. It was based on insight, but productive behaviors had to take the place of brooding — it was very exhausting at first.



“Having grown up in what comedian Jim Gaffigan might describe as a “Shiite” Irish Catholic family, and protected by 17 years of Catholic education (kindergarten through college), I was more or less immune to the ubiquitous and graphic gore surrounding almost everything in my Catholic world. In fact, the first time I remember thinking about it at all was on my wedding day when a Jewish friend who had apparently never been inside of an old-school blood and guts Catholic church was blown away by what he saw there. The graphic depictions of brutality on the stained glass windows and on the stations of the cross led him to observe that he too would hate the sons of bitches who had done all of those terrible things to Jesus. Until that moment, I don’t think that it had ever dawned on me how much Catholics celebrate death and bloodshed.

The world is apparently awash in the body parts of holy dead people, including the mummified head of St. Catherine of Siena, the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua, and the finger of St. Thomas the apostle. (Yes, the VERY finger that the doubting Thomas supposedly poked into the wounds of the risen Christ.) My favorite among these has to be the “Holy Foreskin” which was passed around Europe until the 18th century: It was believed to be the foreskin of the young circumcised Jesus Christ himself.’

I suppose that none of this should be surprising when a religion celebrates events with names such as ”the murder of the holy innocents,” “the agony in the garden,” the “scourging at the pillar,” and the “crowning with thorns.” For Catholics,the highest admiration has always been reserved for those individuals who died for their faith, and the more gruesome the death, the more attention and esteem they earn. Very early in my elementary school years we were regaled by the story of St. Tarcisius, a child martyr that is now the patron saint of altar boys. (Yes, I actually was an altar boy.)

Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt reflected on the peculiar tendency to make children reflect upon their own mortality when writing about his grim Catholic upbringing in Limerick, Ireland. According to McCourt, someone was always making him promise that he would die for something.  His amiable but shiftless father would stumble home drunk after a night on the town, roust his young children out of bed, and make them promise that they would be willing to “die for Ireland.”  His schoolmasters regularly made him promise to "die for the faith if called upon.”

Staying on message, the nuns that taught me at Gate of Heaven School in Dallas, Pennsylvania, rarely missed an opportunity to remind us that "You know not the day nor the hour," and every Ash Wednesday our parish priest would grind ashes into our foreheads while mumbling "Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

Perhaps the ultimate of macabre Catholic traditions is the preservation of the bodies and/or body parts of long-dead saints. In my own hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, the body of a nine-year-old boy is preserved in a glass case inside one of the local Catholic churches. It looks like something that you might see in a spooky wax museum, and it sort of freaked my daughter out when she first saw it as a little girl. It is the actual body of St. Crescent, who was martyred in Rome during the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians during the third century. St. Crescent had been entombed in the Roman catacombs until 1838, when the body was exhumed and entrusted to the religious order (the Rosminians) that eventually founded the first Catholic parish in Galesburg. The body was shipped to Illinois in the hope that it would help the church attract new followers, much as the freak shows outside of circus tents were designed to turn bystanders into paying customers for the big show inside. Local legend has it that it is only the presence of St. Crescent in our city that protects Galesburg from tornadoes. In the same vein (pardon the pun), the dried blood of St. Januarius is said to protect Naples, Italy, from volcanoes, earthquakes, and plagues.

As evidenced by my one other encounter with the body parts of a saint, these relics are most effective if you publicly flaunt them at least once a year. In 2003 I was in Budapest with a small group of American academics. We were strolling around the streets taking in the sights when we came upon a procession of elaborately costumed people accompanied by musicians that sounded vaguely like a small town American junior high school marching band. There was a great deal of pomp and solemnity, and the focal point of the assemblage was a skeletal human right hand held aloft in a glass box. By luck, we had stumbled upon the annual Holy Right Hand Procession in which the right hand of St. Stephen (the first Hungarian king and the patron saint of Hungary) is paraded around the city. I really did not think too much about this until my companions began talking about it. They found the whole affair to be grisly and more than a little bit creepy, and they were somewhat taken aback by my nonchalance. This became the first time I had ever been put in the position of trying to explain the Catholic rationale for such practices, and I do not think that it went very well.

A certain degree of gullibility from the masses is required to maintain these corporeal celebrations. For example, my wife and I visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium, in the summer of 2013. The centerpiece of this magnificent church is a vial of blood allegedly drained from the body of Jesus Christ during the crucifixion. It was brought back to Europe by a guy returning from the crusades who claims to have received it as a reward for his great service in Jerusalem. I don’t know about you, but I would have at least required a certificate of authenticity like you get with autographed baseballs, but everyone seems to have just accepted his story as it was. Anyway, this vial of blood (or is it . . .?) became a big hit in the city and it too gets carted around town once a year during the annual Procession of the Holy Blood. On non-procession days, one can view and worship the holy blood in the church under the watchful eye of a stern looking priest, following a donation to the basilica, of course. Background organ music adds to the sacred ambiance of the event, although the rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” that we heard when we were there pushed the entire scene into the realm of the surreal.

Domenico Ghirlandaio: Slaughter of the Innocents   


I was reasonably aware, especially since “the slaughter of the innocents” (for which there is no historical evidence) was such a favorite story and subject of paintings, or so it seemed. But just Stations of the Cross, each one described to us children in excruciating detail, were enough. My grandmother happened to love doing the Stations of the Cross, so I had more than average exposure.

But it was really in Spain where the gore and the body parts were on much more spectacular display; no one on our tour could help looking away in revulsion. I was afraid the WASPish lady from Connecticut was going to throw up. The tour guide seemed unaware of how appalled we were, even though most of us had a Catholic background.

The Los Angeles cathedral of the Queen of the Angels has an interesting basement area, where the failed attempt at modernity is abandoned and we get the feel of traditional Catholicism. And sure enough, the tomb of St. Viviana or Vibiana (or even Bibiana) is there, her body allegedly having been transported from Rome (how would we know? if the clergy were smart, they simply left the tomb empty). She is one of those "virgin martyr" saints of dubious authenticity. But a saint was needed, the big ones were already taken . . .

A friend commented that on a trip to Europe her son was so disturbed by the relics, the gory paintings, the stories, that he could endure only a limited exposure. The modern Western mentality can tolerate the glorification of these atrocities less and less. It doesn’t surprise us that these days a child would be disturbed. But start the exposure to the tortured martyrs early enough, alongside fairy tales and Winnie the Pooh, and a child accepts this stuff as normal . . . except that with less cruelty around us now in the West, no matter what's on the news, and more gentle child rearing, no matter how we ourselves were raised, as adults we get to see that the gory stuff, the standard Catholic S&M, as the pathology that it is.

There is a growing repugnance against both violence and seeking martyrdom. How miserable life used to be — and that misery, both causing it and enduring it, was widely excused and even glorified. Happiness is a modern concept! 

Of course the great master of the sadistic imagination under the guise of piety was Dante. This is one of Gustave Doré's illustrations to Dante's Commedia, showing the Ninth Circle of Hell, where the souls of the damned show like straws frozen in the ice. Satan, the "Emperor of Pain," here looks like a giant Batman.

“Alcoholics, it is now clear, are not all of one kind. Investigators have found that, among men, there are at least two types -- those with early-onset abuse (prior to age 25), and those whose illness sets in later in life.

Researchers suspect that family incidence of alcoholism runs unusually high among early-onset alcoholics, suggesting a genetic predisposition. This group comprises 40% of the estimated million male alcoholics in the United States. Impulsivity and violent behavior are common among these men, who are motivated to seek alcohol is as a way to get high.

By contrast, men who become alcoholics later in life have less family [history] involvement and use alcohol as a way to relieve anxiety and stress. (Women problem drinkers are more in keeping with the late-onset male pattern.)

One group of studies implicates a gene that affects the ability of brain cells to respond to dopamine — a neurochemical active in pleasure responses. Unable to get enough dopamine because they lack a sufficient number of receptors for it, the thinking goes, such people use
alcohol as self-medication in an attempt to boost dopamine levels.

But other researchers point to evidence of a "mean gene" that impairs the action of serotonin, a wide spread neurotransmitter that normally dampens many brain stimuli, including those wrought by dopamine.

So who's right? As researchers duke it out in the lab, Frederick K.Goodwin, M.D., sees sense in the seemingly contradictory findings. What it most likely means, says Goodwin, head of the National Institute ofMental Health, is that there may be more than a single gene involved in
alcoholism, just as there is with diabetes. "There's no doubt it's a complex picture."

Dr. Goodwin suspects that future research may even turn up a common genetic predisposition to a complete host of addictions, including alcohol and drugs — perhaps even extending to food and sex. Then, he feels, yet another factor — genetic in some cases, perhaps environmental in others — would influence the specific form of the addiction.”


It's dreadful when you learn that a 12-year-old boy is already drinking . . . or a 14-year-old starts passing out. And you may hear stories like, "Already when I was only six years old, I'd sneak into the living room after the guests left, and drink whatever was left in the glasses." Very hard to overcome those genes — usually combined with stressful family life, but then you'd expect family life to be stressful when a parent is an alcoholic -- or both of them. So it's very hard to separate causal factors here, but the fact is that the inheritance is not 100% (apparently it's 25%) -- one sibling may turn out perfectly fine, while the other one develops early-onset alcoholism already in young teens. I've witnessed two cases of that pretty "up-close."

ending on beauty:

There is a silence more musical than any song. ~ Christina Rossetti


Thank you for helping readers better understand the metaphors of Donald Hall’s poetry.

Great point about the US buying Baja. We might be living there now! Too bad.

This pearl of Chinese wisdom is also  very good — "we are multifaceted, messy selves who develop by looking outward, not inward.”  Rather than “be ourselves” we should try to be better human beings all the time.

I had a friend whose favorite quote was, "Each time you make a decision, you limit yourself.” Then he would ask, “Did you make a decision about that?”

The Holy Foreskin was my favorite story.


Perhaps the fact that Baja California remained with Mexico is for the best after all. If Baja happened to be American, it would be prime real estate, and probably too crowded, full of skyscrapers by now. Also, Mexico probably feels it has ceded too much territory. . .  In any case, there is much merging near the border.

The very appearance of the article on Chinese wisdom in The Guardian, and the popularity of this course in Harvard, make me suspect the pop psychology of trying to “find yourself” and “be yourself” is on the decline. We are in constant development, and hopefully the culture is moving away from “looking within” toward a more external focus. Alas, the gaze is now mainly on the IPhone screen rather than on the actual world. But that too will have to change, though for the moment we seem to be hopelessly addicted.

Your friend was clever, but actually it’s good to limit oneself. No achievement is possible if a person tries to keep all options open. Smart people limit themselves early. They close the doors and focus on just a few things — or even just one. That’s the great question we should have been told to ask ourselves even before college: would you rather be pretty good at many things, or truly excellent at one thing? Artists and athletes know the answer. Like Chinese wisdom, the wisdom of limiting your choices should become more widely known.

Ah, the “holy foreskin”! It’s harder and harder to understand how people could ever believe such stuff. Charlatanism never dies, but it changes form. 


I like “Old Roses” better. Very low key, not reaching for a thousand years — a hundred-year-old rose bush is enough. The hardiness of roses inspires me more than the “golden” naps of lovers. With roses, you don’t have to fake anything. They are hardy as hell.


Darlene, I agree. I probably should have used only the rose poem. “Gold” arguably overreaches. A rose bush is real. We can see it as a symbol, but first of all it’s out there near the barn. Splendor resides in the small and the ordinary, in the visible and not the invisible.