Saturday, January 27, 2018


Bosch, A Little Butt Music (not the official title; detail of Hell, the Garden of Earthly Delights)

“Two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. 42Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day on which your Lord will come.” ~ Matthew 24: 40-42


There’s the black truck
with orange flames
on its hood. There’s the girl
in the pink pajamas. There’s her sister
in a bumblebee suit.
They are playing with dirt.
When they find bugs
they scream
but no one hears them.
Their minds are growing though.
In the late afternoon light
they scoop the dirt into tin cans
so they can bury it
in the backyard.
I think we have the case
of two women grinding at the mill —
one will be taken and one
will be left,
but it’s way too early
to tell.

~ Mary Ruefle

On the surface this is a charming childhood vignette — the little girls, one in pink pajamas, one in a bumblebee suit, playing with dirt:

In the late afternoon light
they scoop the dirt into tin cans
so they can bury it
in the backyard.

But suddenly there is a surprising leap into a reminder of the apocalyptic focus of early Christianity:

I think we have the case
of two women grinding at the mill —
one will be taken and one
will be left

~ only some, a minority, will enter heaven. Fortunately the poem makes it seem pretty absurd:

one will be taken and one
will be left,
but it’s way too early
to tell.


Interesting how the poem manages to quietly challenge that whole “some will be chosen”  business.


That's one interesting way to interpret it — the poem does indeed challenge the idea that only one of these girls is somehow “worthy” of being chosen. Certainly both girls seem equally just little girls, playful, innocent, curious. It's bizarre to wonder which one will and which one won't get into heaven — and yet there are people, mostly fundamentalists, who seem quite obsessed with the question of who will and who won't get into heaven. Books on who will be “raptured” and who will be “left behind” (Catholics? Yoga practitioners?) have been best-sellers. Those concerned with the question are sure of one thing: *they* are the chosen, while those who are in any way different (educated, for instance) — well, to hell with them — literally.

Of course to the secular reader the religious angle is pretty ridiculous and even borderline psychotic — why this clinging to prophecies that failed already some two thousand years ago? What is this power that end-of-the-world religious nuts have over the gullible? The question has never been satisfactorily answered.

But there is yet another way to approach the theme, and that is the unfairness and randomness of life. It’s possible that one sister will go on to marry a decent and responsible man, while the other one will have the bad luck of falling for a charmer who will turn out to be an alcoholic, or a non-stop womanizer, or a malignant narcissist. One may go on to have two attractive, healthy children, while the other may end up with an autistic or severely bipolar child, or one blighted with cerebral palsy.

Hopefully this won’t be the case, and both sisters will be reasonably happy adults — but it could happen. I'm startled when I ponder that I know parents whose children have died, whether of cancer or in an accident — or that I have a neighbor whose son is autistic, or that the wife of the previous owners of the house was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, or that a dear friend’s grandchild just overdosed on heroin. Tragedy isn’t supposed to strike so close to home, but if you live long enough, it will — and closer yet.

Never look down on anyone who’s in midst of misfortune because tomorrow it may you on your knees.

Some people who see themselves as having a modern, rational, tolerant mentality nevertheless hold fast to the belief that “there are no accidents” and that “you are responsible for what happens in your life.” Perhaps the mother of the autistic boy wasn’t nurturing enough while he was an infant? Or the wife of an alcoholic attracted the wrong partner by having low self-esteem? Or the man who got laid off didn’t work hard enough?

To be sure, not all misfortune is random. But much of it is, calling not for judgment but compassion and support. In fact compassion and support are called for in all cases. While the abused child needs to be given priority, the abusive parents also needs help. In a more nearly ideal society, help would be available to all.


I wonder about the extent to which all those indoctrinated as Christians live with the expectation of a violent end of the world. They might deny it, but the emotional brain got wired a certain way in early childhood — one reason I think religion lessons are child abuse.

Ehrman’s argument that Jesus, if he began as a historical figure before being swallowed up by legend, was one of the many first-century apocalyptic preachers, is both convincing and extremely deflating. Here was one of those “the end is near” religious nuts. For me personally that was the end of any awe and affection that may have still lingered from childhood — though I always felt that the real power belonged to Yahweh, who was far from kind.

I was also torn by the contradiction at the center of Christianity: instead of judgment, there was supposed to be forgiveness, and yet Jesus was supposed to return, act as Judge at the Last Judgment, and toss the majority of humanity (now resurrected in the flesh) into the fires of hell. What a relief it was to simply walk away from these absurdities!

And it’s a relief to ponder that neither of the two little girls will grow up to be “taken” or “left behind.” Both will know joy and sorrow. problems, challenges, triumphs. If we are completely accepting of them both when they are children, at what point should that change? It shouldn’t.


Thinking about “the unfairness and randomness of life,” it seems to me that randomness, the accidental, is one of the very hardest things for human beings to accept. We are storytellers, we insist on pattern, plot, connections, consequences — meaning. It may be the most essential thing about us.

It is not only difficult to see things as random, uncaused, undeserved — it is terrifying. The child in us wails about unfairness, about what is deserved and what is not. Casting blame on the unfortunate is certainly harsh — to say there are no accidents, and you have earned whatever misfortune comes to you — but it is also a comfort. It is less frightening to think bad things come as just desserts than to accept they come without reason, are meaningless, and there’s no way to avoid them. So we tell ourselves that ancient and enduring story, that an all-powerful Someone (the Father) is in charge, giving out punishments and rewards, keeping order — and in this story it all makes sense. Of course, until it doesn’t. Until we see and think as adults, and know that suffering only means suffering, that pain and loss are more random than not, and as you note, if you live long enough you will know tragedy.

And the stories people tell themselves are often impregnable to reason and argument, capable of sustained delusion — a certainty of belief that is self-perpetuating, self-justifying, and smug. They will believe the most ridiculous things — for instance, that a barrage of prayers can convince/coerce/persuade the god they address to manipulate reality in their favor. Thus the prayers they guarantee will always “work’” All in a kind of magical/mechanical interchange with invisible/spiritual beings. These belief systems, as absurd as they may be, are much less terrifying than an indifferent universe, sometimes hard to live in, even when you know better. As my wise mother said when I was faced with a sudden crisis — “you’re never ready.”

It is these accidental ends
We can’t forgive
Forgetting time
Is always borrowed
In loans whose terms
Are undisclosed
And never generous

So we are caught again
And again
No ark or levee raised
Against the storm
No oil for our lamps
Stunned by how sudden
All accounts come due
How empty our hands
How wordless we stand
Our houses made of straw
Our gardens planted
On the lip of the caldera

~ Mary McCarthy


Yes, to ponder that someone died or survived because of being at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time was a very hard lesson many learned during WW2. And even so, believers would adamantly insist they were saved was because they prayed. This failed to explained why their sister died during a bombing raid — did she not pray hard enough? But a believer is never deterred by mere logic, taking refuge in mystery and god’s will. Sheer luck, good or bad, instead of god’s will or some other “meaning” — that is indeed terrifying to many.

In my case, the indifference of natural laws has always been a comfort. Sure, I’d curse bad luck — but at least it wasn’t punishment. And I didn’t have to waste mental energy trying to figure out an unanswerable “why?”

But that works only for smaller stuff — say, a downpour starts five minutes after you leave the house, and you get soaked through. An inconvenience, but certainly not a tragedy. You know nature had no malice toward you, and if you ask “why?” it’s in a jocular tone. My grandmother used to say on such occasions, “Don’t worry, you’re not made of sugar, you won’t melt.”

Now, the big stuff. A boyfriend’s suicide. For years he talked about it. I had recurrent dreams that someone tells me he’s dead. And nothing — nothing — prepared me for the emotional shock. The hopeless “why?” persists even though eventually it’s obvious that you are seeking a rational answer to an irrational act. And yet that and other insights eventually do register and the “why” simmers down to relative insignificance, instead of filling up your whole mind, as during the first months. As Freud observed, the voice of the intellect can be very quiet, but it will not cease until it is heard — at least for some of us. 

So yes, we’re prepared for the rain. For the flood, no. The truly awful — that won’t be us. They say that every soldier imagines the bullet will hit the guy next to him. We are that “every soldier.”

And believers see nothing morally obscene about thanking god for a “miracle” in case the bullet really does hit the guy next to us.

Also, speaking of unpredictability, so often we review various things that can go wrong so that we are prepared. But what happens is entirely different, and we are not prepared and have to improvise. Thus my anti-depression motto is “whatever happens, I will cope with it somehow.” I choose to cope rather than fall apart — because ultimately that’s easier. And I know that one day something will hit that will be too big to cope with. But it won’t be punishment. Most likely it won’t be my fault. Worrying about it is pointless. And until that day, there are all the other days.

"Our main myth is apocalyptic . . . and our children today live among and act out images of catastrophe. Suicide among children shows a startling rise. . . . The only hope, according to the authorized version of the catastrophe, is in a divine redemption. In face of that cosmic science fiction of Armageddon, psychology’s scientific fiction narrows the cause of devastated children to dysfunctional families." ~ James Hillman, “The Soul’s Code” (1997)

Hillman claims that the general culture affects children more than family — that parents kid themselves about how much impact they have on a child. First of all, a child’s life will unfold according to the “soul’s DNA,” Hillman claims — his famous “acorn theory” of vocation. The second most important factor is the larger society and the historical era, the time and place where they were born.

This reminds me of having grown up with eye-witness stories of WWII. All children and a lot of adults believed that WWIII was inevitable and would be worse by far, likely the end of civilization. Post-nuclear dystopia novels and movies were more a sub-category of realism rather than fantasy. It was not a religious Apocalypse that we feared, but we were aware of those predictions too. There weren’t that many Jehovah’s Witnesses in Warsaw, but a congregation existed — though frankly one didn’t have to be a Jehovah’s Witness to experience that apocalyptic feeling at least once a month or so. In view of the A-bomb, the Horsemen seemed rather superfluous.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the smashing of giant statues was almost comic relief. Oh, so there won’t be a nuclear war between Russia and the US? True, an insane North Korean leader could still press the button, but that was seen as survivable (if still extremely damaging).

Today’s children grow up without that horrific mushroom-shaped shadow over them, but with the constant news of shootings — and images of war, mass shootings including school shootings, and suicide bombings (or just bombings — e.g. the Boston marathon) — and, in the post 9/11 world, terrorist threat in general.

There is also the awareness of environmental destruction and of how life on earth could end due to the run-away greenhouse effect — many educated people are convinced that we are indeed convinced that we are indeed in the “end days” — it’s just that god has nothing to do with it. One way or another there is a widespread perception that humanity won’t continue past this century — some say past 2050. I wonder how this affects the children.


~ “The author of Mark (who, by the way, was not really an apostle or named Mark) was most likely writing to a community that lived through the time of the Jewish revolt (and subsequent massacre). They also knew that, during his lifetime, Jesus was understood by his followers (even his disciples) to be the Jewish messiah—not one equal to God himself, but a figure like King David who would overthrow the Roman rule and usher in the Kingdom of God. But, they wondered, how could he be the messiah given that he was crucified? Mark gives them an answer: because no one at the time understood what it meant to be the messiah. Before Jesus was to usher in the Kingdom, God intended for him to suffer and die “as a ransom for many.” Only later would he return to establish the Kingdom.

Why didn’t people realize this at the time? Mark reinterprets (misremembers) Jesus’ life to make sense of this. Mark says that Jesus intentionally kept his mission a secret; and he did tell his disciples, but they were just too dumb to understand. That’s why Jesus death was such a surprise to everyone. Mark seems to be letting his readers in on this secret for the very first time. He is reinterpreting what it means to be the messiah, and misremembering Jesus life to fit into that interpretation.

According to Mark, God’s plan also included a subsequent era in which followers of Jesus would suffer just like he did (which Mark’s community was currently experiencing). But not to worry, says Mark. Jesus will be returning soon, in judgment, to fulfill is ultimate goal as messiah and finally establish God’s Kingdom on Earth. That’s the promise God had made, through Jesus, to the Christian community…according to Mark.

The gospel of John, on the other hand, is written (again, not by John) in a completely different era—an era when the early Christian expectation of the Jesus’ “imminent return” was nearly a century old and thus beginning to look a bit silly. As a result, John remembers Jesus’ life in a completely different way. Although John still thinks part of Jesus’ mission is to suffer and die, Jesus’ ultimate goal is not to overthrow Roman rule and establish an Earthly Kingdom of God. That’s not the promise John’s Jesus makes. He instead promised his followers eternal life after death. Think John 3:16.

To make this offer, Jesus must be one with God himself. And so in John, Jesus doesn’t keep his mission or his true nature a secret, like he does in Mark. In John, the main purpose of his ministry is to declare who he is (one with God himself), prove it by performing miracles,[26] and then do what is necessary to grant this eternal life to his followers by suffering and dying. The resurrection is the final proof that he was telling the truth.

Ehrman draws an analogy between how Mark and John remembered Jesus and how people in the American North and South remember the civil war. For the former, it was a war brought on by southern rebellion, motivated by their desire to keep slavery legal. For the latter, it was the war of northern aggression, motivated by their desire to keep southern states from governing themselves. Same war, different memory.

For Mark, Jesus was someone who would deliver his community from their suffering and bring judgement on the political authorities who were suppressing them. For John, Jesus was someone who promised and provided the means to eternal life. Same guy, different memory.” ~


Ehrman sees the "historical Jesus" (he opposes mythicism) as one of many apocalyptic preachers common around that time. Not that he thinks we can reliably extract a historical Jesus from the gospels (including those gospels that didn't make it to the canon), but he thinks there is a certain "gist" in those stories that adds up to an apocalyptic preacher. The gospel of John, however, strikes out in a new direction, more universal and less Judaic (in fact it’s been argued that John’s gospel is riddled with anti-Semitism).


If I were brought across the sea to Paradise
and forbidden to write, I’d refuse Paradise,
since what good is heaven without art,
which has a joyousness beyond the self?

(lines from a poem by Edward Hirsch, "Marina Tsvetaeva")

I’ve often thought about it: for me the only heaven would be the kind in which I could do some meaningful work. It wouldn’t have to be writing, but I can see that for my younger self, completely in love with poetry, it would indeed need to be writing, or I’d be dejected and begging to be returned to my desk.

These lines in the poem also fascinated me:

When you love a person you always want him
to disappear so your mind can work on him.
The imagination is a storm-cloud of rapture . . .

~ Edward Hirsch, in the volume "On Love"

I wouldn’t insist on “always,” but most of the time. For me being able to relive the experience, to meditate on it, has been as important as the experience itself — sometimes more so.


Creation of animals, Master Bertram, 1383, Grabow altarpiece. Here the creator is Jesus rather than Yahweh. Both he and the animals look quite sweet.

compare with Tintoretto's Creation of the Animals (1550), where it's certainly Yahweh


~ “A man whose “magic” Speer often refers to did not seem at all magical. In Speer’s telling, Hitler is duplicitous and vacuous, so intimidated by accomplished people that he surrounds himself with shallow hangers-on; he is humorless and only laughs at the expense of others; he tiresomely repeats himself and is delusional, even before the war, with what Speer describes as “fantastic misreadings” of reality. Yet Speer was devoted to him. Awed by him, loyal to him.

Speer belittles the architectural work he did for Hitler, mocking the designs as “pretentious,” but what remains astonishingly true is that he believed in Hitler’s architectural jingoism. Hitler tells Speer that Berlin, compared with Paris and Vienna, is “nothing but an unregulated accumulation of buildings,” and here Speer’s nationalist insecurity aligns with his architectural ambition. He, too, wanted to assuage Germany’s wounded pride, to wipe off the humiliation of losing the First World War by erecting edifices. He toiled to make a reality of Hitler’s imperial megalomania—buildings that would last a thousand years, structures that reflected a Germany to which the rest of the world would bow—so much so that his disapproving architect father, on seeing his models, told him, “You’ve all gone completely crazy.”

As a child, I could not have seen this book as the silver-tongued project of exculpation that it is. Nor would I have recognized how much Speer’s class privilege makes this possible. Speer’s class sneer is always present, always subtle, in his references—to Hitler’s petit-bourgeois background, to the unrefined tastes of Hitler’s other henchmen. He detests Bormann, whom he calls “a peasant” with “no culture,” a feeling rooted more in class than in morality. He objects not so much to what Bormann does as to the crude nature with which he does it, as though Bormann’s murderousness would not be so offensive had he exhibited some finesse. The burning of the Berlin synagogues and the “smashed panes of shop windows” offend his “sense of middle-class order.” He asks the slave laborers in his armaments factory if they are satisfied with their treatment. Evil is tolerable if purged of coarseness.

In my graduate class at Yale, a classmate once said, while studying the war in Sierra Leone, “African violence is different.” In that word, “different,” was a repressed shudder. He meant that hacking people to death with machetes lacked something that might have made it more bearable. A cold-blooded elegance, an efficiency, a remove. I will always remember that student because he illuminated for me the Western idea that turpitude, when committed by a certain kind of person and in a certain kind of way, is worthy of being engaged with. Speer, with the cultured, reasonable, modest manner that is the easy inheritance of the privileged classes, represented a kind of Teutonic ideal. It made possible his memoir, a well-written act of image-making. It made possible his designation as the “good Nazi,” somehow better than the others, a man whose ruthlessly steady hand kept the German war machine churning, who denied that he knew of millions of Jews being murdered, who burst into tears on seeing a photo of Hitler after his death.

Did I sense the insecurity that pervades this memoir, and, by extension, the Third Reich itself? A collection of men-children with infantile fantasies. Dreams of victory parades. Great halls built to impress. Bigger as better. The ringing echo, in Hitler’s refrain of “We are not inferior,” of a man desperate to believe himself.

It is interesting now, as Europe tries to find a sense of self, to read of Speer’s fleeting dream of an economically united Europe, with Germany as its leader. Or of Hitler’s belief that Islam was more compatible with Germans than Christianity. Or Speer’s suggestion that democracy is inherently not German and the Weimar Republic an aberration of Germanness because “tight public order was in our blood.”

Right-wing populism is rising again around the world, and it is hard not to look for lessons here. Hitler rose to power because he exploited in Germans that sense of what Speer called “personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy,” which “was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims.” He turned history into a reservoir of resentments. And he spoke simply. Speaking simply, in this case, meant discarding complexity and disregarding truth.


Speer wasn’t merely Hitler’s architect. Later during the war he ran the entire slave labor program.

I saw Speer interviewed. He cried a little when he recounted that he cried when told of Hitler’s death — which he couldn’t explain. Somehow he’d been under the spell of Hitler’s charisma, in spite of allegedly finding Hitler a repetitious bore.

In fact a lot of educated people, including Hitler’s top military officers, felt contempt for Hitler’s lack of education and his mediocre mind — and understood perfectly that invading the Soviet Union was a disaster (his generals warned Hitler accordingly) — and yet were somehow mesmerized by him.


Let us detox with something that’s sad yet beautiful:


January 25 was Virginia Woolf's birthday. It reminded me of the great affection her husband Leonard Woolf gave her — and she was profoundly grateful to him. This is her moving suicide note — perhaps the most loving suicide note anyone has ever written:

~ “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.I can't fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.” ~ 

Virginia Woolf; photograph by Giselle Freund, 1939

~ “You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier 'til this terrible disease came. (. . . ) Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.” ~

Note that she did not write this to Vita Sackville-West or any other lover. Perhaps love is best defined not as a feeling but as acts of caring and patience. 


~ “We all know family drunks—red-nosed, slurring and a little bit out of control. But in an alcoholic family, the nondrinkers are sometimes as irrational as the drinkers.

Trump’s adored older brother Fred was one of those heart-breaking men who could not stop drinking. Fred, Trump has said, was, “the  best guy. He just had everything.”

But Fred was an alcoholic. When he went off to college, according to his younger brother, he started to drink too much. “He would tell me, ‘Don’t ever drink. Don’t ever drink.’”

Fred Trump could not take his own advice. He died at 42. For Fred’s kid brother Donald, it was a defining moment. “Because you’re so closely tied to your sibling, it’s not always easy to remain detached and impassive,” write Patricia Olsen and Dr. Petros Levounis in their book Sober Siblings, in which they urge the nondrinkers in a drinking family to get treatment.

Untreated, teetotalers like the Diet Coke–swilling Donald are often control freaks, hyper-competent because somebody has to get things done in an alcoholic household, shockingly honest and occasionally suffused with rage—all scars from the family tragedies that have led to their not drinking. 

“The family is also directly affected by the alcoholic’s behavior,” writes Janet Woititz in Adult Children of Alcoholics, her classic book about the alcoholic family. “Unable, without help, to counteract this, the family members get caught up in the consequences of the illness and become emotionally ill themselves.”

Trump has “opened up” to reporters about Fred’s death from alcoholism, but the actual cause of death is not on the record. (In fact, no one dies of alcoholism, they die from alcohol poisoning or liver disease, heart attacks or car accidents or suicide.) Fred Trump’s cause of death is never mentioned by his brother.

One of the horrors of alcoholism is the distortion and damage it can visit on the innocent—those who don’t drink. “Years of living with an alcoholic is almost sure to make any wife or child neurotic,” explains the book Alcoholics Anonymous. “The entire family is to some extent, ill.”   

Caretaker—the responsible one—hero—the one whose success distracts from the family problem—scapegoat—the one who speaks the truth others are afraid to mention—cheerleader and lost child: An alcoholic family creates a group of archetypes, according to therapist Sharon Wegsheider, as well as Woititz and others.

Donald Trump plays at least four of these roles. He is a proud patriarch who looks after his children and grandchildren; he gives them jobs, he urges them not to drink. Most of all, Trump is the scapegoat, a man who “tells it like it is,” as his followers often say admiringly. Although drinkers often say what they think—in vino veritas—their rule-breaking family members are even more likely to say what they think. 

But the effect of no liquor is as marked as the effect of too much liquor. 

Passionate teetotaling temperance is as much a part of American history as intemperate drinking. (The word teetotal is a stuttered version of total, as in total abstinence.) Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, started out as temperance crusaders. Phineas T. Barnum was so hooked on temperance that he offered to pay New York City taxes, send every child to school and present every family with a library and other goodies if the city would declare prohibition. The city was not interested.” ~

Trump siblings: Robert, Elizabeth, Fred jr, Donald, Maryanne

~ “Monkeys' vocal equipment can produce the sounds of human speech, but they lack the connections between the auditory and motor parts of the brain that humans rely on to imitate words.

"What you'll find in the textbooks is that monkeys can't talk because they don't have the appropriate vocal tract to do so," says Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna. "That, I think, is a myth. My colleagues and I all get very tired of seeing this. But you see it in all the textbooks. Lots of popular books, and also scholarly books about the evolution of language, assume that in order to evolve speech we had to have massive changes in our vocal tract. "

In the past, scientists looked at dead animals to judge what their vocal tracts could do. But Fitch says that made people vastly underestimate the flexibility of nonhuman mammals.

He and his colleagues monitored a long-tailed macaque named Emiliano as he made a wide range of different gestures and sounds, including lip-smacks, yawns, chewing, coos and grunts. Their special equipment took a rapid series of X-rays that allowed them to capture the full range of movement in the monkey's vocal tract. Then they used computer models to explore its potential for generating speech.

Friday, in the journal Science Advances, his team reports that monkeys would be physically capable of producing five distinguishable vowels — the most common number of vowels found in the world's languages.

The bottom line, says Fitch, is that a monkey's speech limitations stem from the way its brain is organized.

"As soon as you had a brain that was ready to control the vocal tract," Fitch says, "the vocal tract of a monkey or nonhuman primate would be perfectly fine for producing lots and lots of words."

The real issue is that monkeys' brains do not have direct connections down to the neurons that control the larynx and the tongue, he says. What's more, monkeys don't have critical connections within the brain itself, between the auditory cortex and motor cortex, which makes them incapable of imitating what they hear in the way that humans do.” ~


I remember, some years ago, great interest in teaching sign language to chimps. But it turned out that chimps had nothing interesting to say, and the interest waned.


~ “The simple answer to why barns are painted red is because red paint is cheap. The cheapest paint there is, in fact. But the reason it’s so cheap? Well, that’s the interesting part.

Red ochre—Fe2O3—is a simple compound of iron and oxygen that absorbs yellow, green and blue light and appears red. It’s what makes red paint red. It’s really cheap because it’s really plentiful. And it’s really plentiful because of nuclear fusion in dying stars. Zunger explains:

‘The only thing holding the star up was the energy of the fusion reactions, so as power levels go down, the star starts to shrink. And as it shrinks, the pressure goes up, and the temperature goes up, until suddenly it hits a temperature where a new reaction can get started. These new reactions give it a big burst of energy, but start to form heavier elements still, and so the cycle gradually repeats, with the star reacting further and further up the periodic table, producing more and more heavy elements as it goes. Until it hits 56. At that point, the reactions simply stop producing energy at all; the star shuts down and collapses without stopping.’

The element that has 56 protons and neutrons in its nucleus in its stable state? Iron. The stuff that makes red paint.

And that, Zunger explains, is how the death of a star determines what color barns are painted.” ~

 Barn and Clouds, Minor Martin White, 1955
YOU EITHER GET BETTER OR BITTER. I was getting more and more bitter, but I managed to catch myself in the nick of time. “Better late than never” has certainly been true in my life, again and again.


~ “There’s no real cure for the common cold, but a little bit of whiskey or bourbon (that’s a little bit, we said) could offer some relief.

The classic hot toddy, typically made of whiskey, honey, lemon juice and hot water, can subdue the injustices of your inevitable winter cold. The hot water of the toddy helps to relieve nasal congestion, just like heat of a bowl of chicken noodle soup (or Jewish penicillin) does.

And the whiskey helps with sniffle issues, too. “The alcohol dilates blood vessels a little bit, and that makes it easier for your mucus membranes to deal with the infection,” Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News.

Before you go ordering a half-dozen Manhattans from the local pub, know that too much alcohol will do anything but make you feel better. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it pulls fluid from the body. You know how after a wild night out you wake up with an unquenchable thirst (and a horrible headache)? This is because you’re dehydrated. When you’re already feeling like crap, you’ll especially want to avoid hangover symptoms. So if you are self-medicating with one (ONE!) hot toddy, make sure to drink extra amounts of other, non-alcoholic beverages, like water, to replenish. Like your mother always told you, drink plenty of fluids, especially when you’re nursing a toddy.” ~


I mentioned to Jose that I had “la gripe” and he answered with one word: “Tequila.”

Of course in Poland and other Slavic countries that answer would be “vodka.”

Some people swear by “mulled wine.”

Apparently the type of alcohol doesn’t matter — though beer would probably be too weak to really dilate blood vessels. “Nothing dilates the small blood vessels as well as alcohol,” a Polish biochemist told me.

This advice is strictly for people who don’t have a problem with alcohol.

ending on beauty:

When I die
I want it to be said that I wasted
hours in feeling absolutely useless
and enjoyed it, sensing my life
more strongly than when I worked at it.

~ David Ignatov, For Yaedi

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Indra. Note Ganesha the Elephant God in the bottom part. It's such an exhilarating image. Imagine if instead of the crucifix we had a dancing god.



hangs a curtain of pearls
threaded with infinite skill:
each pearl reflects every other pearl,
suspended in the moon gleam.

We too are interlaced
more than we dare believe.
We dream of heaven
because we have known hell. 

My mother, already unconscious,
lifted her arm and reached out
as if to lace her hand with the hand
of someone waiting on the other side.

Then she went into that love.

~ Oriana

I knew that gesture so well. My parents used to hike a lot. My father would be the first one to cross a stream, then wait for my mother to catch up. Then he’d stretch out his arm to her, and she’d take his hand before crossing.


The poem that opens this week's blog is exquisite — that interlaced "curtain of pearls" self reflective, that hand reaching for the other hand, with such confidence, such love — a gesture at once intimate and universal.


Yes, the trust that your partner will always “be there for you” — based on decades being there for each other. To me, barring something extreme, marriage is a non-abandonment contract.


If I imagine a  dancing god we couldn't have Christianity.


Definitely a radically different Christianity (if it would even exist) with a dancing Jesus. A celebration of this life, not its rejection.

(A shameless digression:

“It’s telling that the emblem of Allah is the lunar crescent. This clearly points to his pagan origins as the moon god, the chief god of the Quraish, Muhammad’s tribe (a god who by the way had three daughters before Muhammad canceled their existence). The Black Stone of the Kaaba (possibly a meteorite) is still the sacred object in Mecca, receiving veneration. The names Yahweh and Elohim, used thousands of times in the OT, never occur in the Koran. The bible mentions Jerusalem, “the city of David,” 800 times; the Koran, not even once.”)

~ “Did a secret society bring about the French Revolution? In the classic fictional version of this widely believed conspiracy theory, Alexandre Dumas’s novel “Joseph Balsamo,” a Masonic society known as the Illuminati gather in a ruined castle in 1770 and plot the overthrow of the French monarchy. Their leader, called the “Great Copt,” speaks of the day when “the monarchy is dead…religious domination is despised…social inferiority is extinguished.”

Dumas would have found a great deal to appreciate in Jonathan Israel’s Revolutionary Ideas. Israel, a much-respected professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, does not present the French Revolution of 1789 as the result of a literal conspiracy. But he repeatedly characterizes it as the work of a “small minority” or “unrepresentative fringe” of disaffected Frenchmen who, in his view, consciously and deliberately sought to bring about the greatest political upheaval the Western world had ever seen. Israel does not contend that they belonged to a secret society. But he does argue that they shared a common creed, which they acted deliberately to realize. It is very much the same creed outlined by the Great Copt, although Israel would add sexual and racial inequality to the list of injustices his heroes sought to overthrow.

Rising literacy rates, declining patterns of religious observance, and a consumer revolution that put books within the reach of millions do not concern him. He takes no interest in the common people’s culture, and never considers the possibility that they might have conceived and articulated revolutionary political ideas on their own. “Most ordinary folks did not read their books and would have scarcely understood them had they tried.” . . . Only ideas matter for understanding how the Revolution came about, and what course it took. A particular set of ideas was its “sole fundamental cause,” and conflicts over these ideas drove it forward.

The proponents of “radical Enlightenment” were not only atheists, but also democrats, social egalitarians, feminists, advocates of complete religious toleration, and even, for the most adventurous among them, believers in sexual toleration . . . ideas in clandestine books and pamphlets, mostly printed in the Netherlands, that subsequently reached a wide European audience.

But history does not have the neatness, or the moral clarity, of conspiracy fiction. There was no Great Copt plotting out the events of the French Revolution and driving it forward. And, alas, there was no unified, coherent radical Enlightenment either — at least not as Jonathan Israel has imagined it.” ~


Interesting that the struggle of Enlightenment, the foundation of modern democracy and egalitarianism, is far from over . . . Ideas can be very powerful, but there was also the rising price of bread. Still, I appreciated the reminder that the Netherlands played an important role as the country of tolerance and printing presses that spread the forbidden Enlightenment ideas. It’s not the Revolution I admire (and especially not the Reign of Terror), but the visionary minds that dared imagine a different social order.

And the ideas lived on, though the opposition to them is still fierce (note our “culture wars”), even murderous (ISIS and other terrorists). As Sam Harris says, this is the great story of our time. Will the guiding idea, the idea of human rights, prevail once and for all? We still can't be sure, though there has been steady progress — with vehement authoritarian backlash always on its heels.


The idea of a secret society of “Illuminati” determining the movement of history seems to me one of a kind with the “Great Men” theory and even the “Ancient Aliens” theory. If we can’t have a god, or gods responsible for everything, then it must be great ideas, or great men, or the Masons, or the Priory of Sion, or some other secret cabal, including meddlers from outer space.

Yes, as human beings, we anthropomorphize, we see agency everywhere, and we tell ourselves and each other stories generated by that inclination. A lot of this kind of thinking seems to me essentially backward — that great men (or supernatural beings, or wise and powerful aliens) are behind the curtain, like the Wizard of Oz, pulling the strings, creating history — rather than seeing that it is history that creates exceptional men and exceptional ideas. Revolutionary ideas arise when the time is ripe for them, and usually appear in more than one place, in more than one imagination, whether those ideas are social, political, scientific or practical.

Notions of conspiracy and control in the hands of a few secret “actors” must assume passivity, incapacity, inertia, in all the rest of us. This kind of thinking follows the pattern of patriarchy,  paternalism, religion, and the forms of hierarchies wherever they are found. “Secret Movers” are only necessary if you assume most everyone is incapable of original thought and self determination. Sheep in need of a shepherd, wayward, clueless, lost.


And it’s usually only in retrospect that we even notice which ideas and individuals stand out as visionary. As a side note, Tolstoy tried to combat the “great men” idea of history. It’s indeed easy to imagine that under different circumstances Napoleon would have become a minor novelist and Hitler a minor landscape painter. Jefferson would have bequeathed us nothing more than Monticello.

I’ve taken the liberty of putting in bold your excellent statement that was first hinted at by Shakespeare: Ripeness is all.

The Death of Marat, David, 1793

VIA NEGATIVA TO HAPPINESS (or at least contentment)

~ “British journalist Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. He believes that the negative path is the one, if not to happiness, then to fulfillment. His brilliant analysis of what’s wrong with that “happiness industry” shows the limitations of spending your mental energy on such staples of the self-help guides as positive imagery, getting yourself motivated(!!!), and dousing your mind of all thoughts that you could possibly fail at your life’s most cherished goals.

On the contrary, he advises thinking about the some of the very worst outcomes you could possibly imagine, including your own demise. Instead of trying to rid your mind of all negative imagery, he advocates embracing it, watching the negative thoughts drift in and out of your consciousness without trying to drown them out.

Burkeman strips his message down to its roots in Stoic philosophy which, as he argues, forms the basis for modern cognitive behavioral therapy. By this he means that the Stoics of ancient Greece believed that our emotions are determined by our judgments—or, as Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” An event, in and of itself, has no emotional meaning. It’s what we make of it that determines how we feel. Stoics could observe events without judging their inherent goodness or badness and, as a result, accept these experiences on their own terms. Things happen and it’s up to us to decide how to interpret what these things mean and how they ultimately will affect us.” ~

A little more on the via negativa to happiness:

~ "Here's the word that will change your life," Schuller tells his audience. After a dramatic pause he yells out, "Cut! … Cut the word 'impossible' from your life.... Cut it out forever!"

A few months later Schuller, the ringmaster of this failure-is-not-an-option lovefest, declares his Crystal Cathedral bankrupt.

Accept the idea that you will inevitably die. Learn to celebrate your failures. See the wisdom in your pessimistic thoughts. Burkeman writes that "the effort to try and feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable." He argues that "it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness — that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy."

Using the example of the disasters that have befallen many who have tried to climb Mt. Everest — the ultimate type-A personality goal — Burkeman shows persuasively that "goal setting" as a path to success is a fallacy.

Countless books relate the triumphs of the adventurers and the corporate executives who set ambitious goals for themselves — and who take risks in the relentless pursuit of those goals. What those books don't tell us is that the leaders responsible for the world's most spectacular failures possess exactly the same qualities. It's a simple insight, but a powerful one.” ~

(Alas, the link has expired, but I'm pretty sure that the author is Susan Krauss Whitbourne, who frequently posts in Psychology Today and Huffington Post)


Yes, the Mt. Everest trail is by now strewn with the frozen corpses of extremely motivated people who refused to “think negative.”

It took me a long time to find out that, except for short-term goals, I change too fast and know too little to "visualize an ideal future self," as so many self-help books recommend. My vision of my future self at 22 was as a psychology professor! Good grief! (I was beginning to discover myself as a writer as an undergraduate, but got discouraged by a person I mistook for a mentor; I became a poet and writer only in my mid-thirties.)

At this point I am very aware that “the stage of life rules.” At the very least, it’s enormously important. The future that stretches ahead when we are in our twenties begins to shrink . . .  until it’s no longer pleasant to contemplate any future self. Of course later life is no longer as dismal as presented by Shakespeare in the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech in As You Like It. And yet . . . friends now tell me that the fastest way to get themselves depressed is to think ten years ahead. Past a certain age you don’t dare do that. “At my age, you don’t even buy green bananas,” Maggie Smith says in “The Best Marigold Hotel.”

But the paradox is that without those fantasies about the radiant future, life actually gets better. The whole world becomes enlivened as we pay attention to what IS, not what should be. By letting go, not trying to manipulate things but just letting them be, we discover how endlessly surprising and interesting reality actually is.


There is something so false, so saccharine,  and so misleading in the “happiness” and “self help”  industries, which are also very judgmental and prescriptive, urging constant “positivity” while we feed ourselves rich meals of “high self esteem.” When I hear someone repeating these directives I want to shake some sense into them. Everyone is NOT a winner, and if you insist everyone is, the word means nothing. Insisting on feeding self esteem is insisting on delusion, and abandoning any effort to grow and improve, certainly any effort to master something. It can only produce self-involved mediocrity.

“Happiness” as a lifetime goal is itself problematic. What do you want to be happy about? Projection into the future is always chancy and if you hang everything on achieving your own projections you will most likely be severely disappointed — and will have missed everything going on in the present, all the small steps on your way. Ultimately I think happiness actually comes in embracing and paying mind to the present, being in the process as it is occurring, not focusing always ahead to some ideal endpoint far in the future.


That’s apparently why older people are happier than the young. Society tends to force young people to be always “planning for the future.” Everything is supposed to be a stepping stone to some grand goal. Past a certain age, nothing is a stepping stone to anything anymore, so you relax and start enjoying life at long last. I have a friend past ninety, in poor health, who nevertheless is enjoying life as never before — a terrific inspiration.

In any case, we need to redefine happiness and “success.” Sometimes I wish those terms would just disappear — they have caused to much misery (even suicide) because people see themselves as failures by completely crazy standards.



~ “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.

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.

"The greatest mystery," according to André Malraux, whose work Camus greatly admired, "is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.” 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.” ~

Titian: Sisyphus

One of the nurse’s aides I had in the hospital said, “I was a lobotomist in Kentucky for 16 years.” ~ “You were no such thing,” I began to explain, but she interrupted, “I didn’t do anything disgusting, like remove blood from dead people.” 



Stewart Guthrie cites our tendency to see faces and face-like patterns everywhere as an example of interpreting sense data in ways that are relevant to survival. For early humans — as well as modern ones — the most important elements in the environment have tended to be other humans. Other humans are where we get our resources, knowledge, care, affection, vital information, and most other goods. They’re also the sources of most significant threats: physical aggression, social ostracism, bullying, and competition. So it makes sense for our brains to be finely tuned to over-perceive human agents in our environment.

For Guthrie, “perceptual uncertainty is chronic.” That is, it’s hard to always know for certain what we’re seeing or experiencing, and even harder to know what might be causing that experience; our senses are unreliable, and our ability to tell causal stories about the world even more so. This unreliability, combined with our human-oriented social brains, leads us to err on the side of perceiving events as having been caused by humans or human-like agents: the leaves didn’t move because of the wind, but because someone moved them.

Plenty of research over the past decades has suggested that humans are intuitive mind/body dualists, sensing at a gut level that our minds are somehow separate from, and independent of, our bodies. Guthrie’s not talking here about metaphysical, Cartesian-style dualism; instead, he’s referencing our general tendency to feel that emotions, inner states, dreams, and so forth belong to our “minds,” while physical sensations and actions belong to our bodies. This mind-body dualism allows us to perceive minds in places where there are no bodies: for example, in wind that blows our hats off, or in the gurgling of water in a stream.

Finally, our minds are constantly making the anthropomorphic equivalent of Pascal’s wager: “betting” that it’s most worthwhile to use models of human agency in interpreting perceptions. If we’re wrong, we don’t lose much: a moment of distraction. But if we’re wrong in the other direction, we stand to lose a lot: we could get ambushed, killed, or excluded from social relationships. So when choosing which models to apply to our perceptual experience, we tend to err on the side of choosing the model labeled “human mind.”

Guthrie’s model, when added up, presents a picture of humans as intelligent, socially aware animals whose evolutionary history has pressured us to be hyperalert to signals of agency and intelligence in our environment. Since we’re intuitive dualists, this intelligence doesn’t always have to be connected to a body, which means our minds are free to detect agency in the shapes of clouds, in meaningful coincidences, and in experiences we interpret as answered prayers. Together, these proclivities lay the cognitive foundation for the universal human tendency to believe in gods and spirits – the core of religion, according to most cognitive scientists of religion.

An interesting consequence of Guthrie’s theory — which in the years since 1993 has become almost universally accepted among CSR researchers — is that it may help explain why there’s such an overlap between the autism spectrum and irreligion. People with autism-spectrum disorders are generally less socially oriented than neurotypicals, and tend to be poor with social cues, body language, and imagining others’ mental states. Such people are also often less interested in imaginative play or storytelling as children than their peers. Together, these traits make it unsurprising that autistics tend to anthropomorphize less than neurotypicals.

On the other hand, many autistics are high systemizers, showing interest in impersonal systems with regular, predictable features. Interestingly, there’s evidence to suggest that the networks of the brain that underlie systemizing thought are distinct from, and may even inhibit, those that drive social cognition. Guthrie points out that the brain’s so-called “default mode network” is likely oriented toward social events and relationships. The fact that dozens of brain-imaging studies have found this network to light up when subjects had no tasks to attend to implies that, whenever humans aren’t actively engaged in a focused task, they tend to revert to daydreaming about what matters most: other humans. (Anecdotal corroboration: this is certainly true for me, for example when I win my recent arguments in the shower.)

So if some people tend to be higher systemizers, and to use social cognition less than most folks, then according to Guthrie’s theory you’d expect such people to be less likely to anthropomorphize, and therefore be less religious than average.* And, in fact, this is exactly what studies have found: people on the autism spectrum tend to be less religious than normal.

The fact remains that individualism and low levels of interest in personal relationships are two of the best predictors of religious nonbelief. So Guthrie’s theory may not be all-encompassing, but it certainly sheds light on many of the basic features of the religious landscape. Religion may not be exclusively social. It may not be solely our brains’ tendency to anthropomorphize reality. But there is something deeply social and anthropomorphic about much of what we call “religion,” and Guthrie’s lifetime of work forces us to take that fact seriously.


The broader pattern here is that we have evolved to see patterns even where there are none, to connect the dots. For instance, the belief in cosmic justice (“the just universe”) is our default setting — it takes skeptical thinking to see randomness and coincidences.

It takes a cognitive effort to see that much depends on mere chance, though we can make the best of it. And we can still reject an immoral, outdated religion, and venture to find and/or create our own journey.

For me the article becomes more interesting in the second part, when it gets to autism and individualism being associated with less religiosity. The third trait is being male. Men tend to be less religious — this was found already in surveys going back to the 1930. However, women who work outside the home are more similar to men in that they are less interested in religion.

At the same time, science has chipped away at the anthropomorphizing of nature by supplying natural explanations for various natural phenomena. Thus, we know that storms and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are not caused by angry deities that need to be appeased by animal or human sacrifice and/or rituals and prayers. It’s not witches or demons that make us sick or sour the milk.

Finally, technology and medicine have made us feel less helpless. When we are sick, we are hoping for the most competent physician, not the most pious one.

The irony here is that the less we need religion, the better we understand why our ancestors did. In my childhood I was puzzled why the most devout churchgoers were elderly women. Now it seems pretty obvious.

But it still seems puzzling that a do-nothing god, a god that can’t even say Hi, is constantly being asked for complicated favors that would violate the laws of physics on behalf of a single "undeserving" (you need to appear "humble" while asking) individual.

Doré: Beatrice gives Dante a tour of heaven


~ “I drove around some PA farm country yesterday. Don Draper could have been born in any of the houses—“I’m a whore child, ain’t you heard?”—and people actually still talk like his family did. You hear them talking at restaurants etc. “Communists do have souls, but they can’t get into heaven.” Who can’t get into heaven is a big topic around here. Sometimes I get why dumb hipster kids want to wear pro-Soviet T-shirts—especially if they live in a place like this.” ~ RLB (I have a reason for using only the initials, but would rather not go into it).

Oriana: “Who can’t get into heaven is a big topic around here.” Some hold the view that cats can’t, but “good dogs” can. Alas, this is just the type of discussion that religion tends to generate — all tangled up in unreality, absurdity, and judgmentalism.

By the way, I have nothing against Pennsylvania per se; a scenic state, a lovely place to visit. Besides, as someone said to me, “As you get deeper into inland California, believe me, it’s not that different from rural Alabama.” I have indeed spent some time in inland California, as well as in Arkansas — and while Arkansas, with its tent revivals, still struck me as being ahead in fundamentalism, I know the basic truth of that statement. 

Pennsylvania, stone bridge over the Susquehanna; Kerry Shawn Keys

~ “Damage from extreme weather events during 2017 racked up the biggest-ever bills for the U.S. Most of these events involved conditions that align intuitively with global warming: heat records, drought, wildfires, coastal flooding, hurricane damage and heavy rainfall.

Paradoxical, though, are possible ties between climate change and the recent spate of frigid weeks in eastern North America. A very new and “hot topic” in climate change research is the notion that rapid warming and wholesale melting of the Arctic may be playing a role in causing persistent cold spells.

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to suppose that losing half the Arctic sea-ice cover in only 30 years might be wreaking havoc with the weather, but exactly how is not yet clear. As a research atmospheric scientist, I study how warming in the Arctic is affecting temperature regions around the world. Can we say changes to the Arctic driven by global warming have had a role in the freakish winter weather North America has experienced?

Weird and destructive weather was in the news almost constantly during 2017, and 2018 seems to be following the same script. Most U.S. Easterners shivered their way through the end of 2017 into the New Year, while Westerners longed for rain to dampen parched soils and extinguish wildfires. Blizzards have plagued the Eastern Seaboard — notably the “bomb cyclone” storm on Jan. 4, 2018 – while California’s Sierra Nevada stand nearly bare of snow.

This story is becoming a familiar one, as similar conditions have played out in four of the past five winters. A warm, dry western North America occurring in combination with a cold, snowy east is not unusual, but the prevalence and persistence of this pattern in recent years have piqued the interest of climate researchers.

The jet stream – a fast, upper-level river of wind that encircles the Northern Hemisphere – plays a critical role. When the jet stream swoops far north and south in a big wave, extreme conditions can result. During the past few weeks, a big swing northward, forming what’s called a “ridge” of persistent atmospheric pressure, persisted off the West Coast along with a deep southward dip, or a “trough,” over the East.

New terms have been coined to describe these stubborn features: “The North American Winter Temperature Dipole,” the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” over the West, and the “Terribly Tenacious Trough” in the East.

Regardless what it’s called, this dipole pattern – abnormally high temperatures over much of the West along with chilly conditions in the East – has dominated North American weather in four of the past five winters. January 2017 was a stark exception, when a strong El Niño flipped the ridge-trough pattern, dumping record-breaking rain and snowpack on California while the east enjoyed a mild month.

Two other important features are conspicuous in the dipole temperature pattern: extremely warm temperatures in the Arctic near Alaska and warm ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific. Several new studies point to these “ingredients” as key to the recent years with a persistent dipole.

The new twist in this story is that the Arctic has been warming at at least double the pace of the rest of the globe, meaning that the difference in temperature between the Arctic and areas farther south has been shrinking. This matters because the north/south temperature difference is one of the main drivers of the jet stream. The jet stream creates the high- and low-pressure systems that dictate our blue skies and storminess while also steering them. Anything that affects the jet stream will also affect our weather.

When ocean temperatures off the West Coast of North America are warmer than normal, as they have been most of the time since winter 2013, the jet stream tends to form a ridge of high pressure along the West Coast, causing storms to be diverted away from California and leaving much of the West high and dry.

If these warm ocean temperatures occur in combination with abnormally warm conditions near Alaska, the extra heat from the Arctic can intensify the ridge, causing it to reach farther northward, become more persistent, and pump even more heat into the region near Alaska. And in recent years, Alaska has experienced periods of record warm temperatures, owing in part to reduced sea ice.

My colleagues and I have called this combination of natural and climate change-related effects “It Takes Two to Tango,” a concept that may help explain the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge observed frequently since 2013. Several new studies support this human-caused boost of a natural pattern, though controversy still exists regarding the mechanisms linking rapid Arctic warming with weather patterns farther south in the mid-latitudes.

More extreme weather ahead?

In response to the strengthened western ridge of atmospheric pressure, the winds of the jet stream usually also form a deeper, stronger trough downstream. Deep troughs act like an open refrigerator door, allowing frigid Arctic air to plunge southward, bringing misery to areas ill-prepared to handle it. Snowstorms in Texas, ice storms in Georgia and chilly snowbirds in Florida can all be blamed on the Terribly Tenacious Trough of December 2017 and January 2018.

Adding icing on the cake is the tendency for so-called “nor’easters,” such as the “bomb cyclone” that struck on Jan. 4, to form along the East Coast when the trough’s southwest winds align along the Atlantic Seaboard. The resulting intense contrast in temperature between the cold land and Gulf Stream-warmed ocean provides the fuel for these ferocious storms.

The big question is whether climate change will make dipole patterns — along with their attendant tendencies to produce extreme weather — more common in the future. The answer is yes and no.

It is widely expected that global warming will produce fewer low-temperature records, a tendency already observed. But it may also be true that cold spells will become more persistent as dipole patterns intensify, a tendency that also seems to be occurring.” ~

IS THERE A PERFECT DIET? (especially during the flu-and-cold season?)

~ "All healthy persons are alike; each unhealthy person is unhealthy in his own way."

If Tolstoy were a diet-and-health blogger, this might be how he would begin.

What differs among the animals is the composition of the digestive tract. Animals have evolved digestive tracts and livers to transform diverse food inputs into the uniform set of nutrients that all need. Herbivores have foregut organs such as rumens or hindgut chambers for fermenting carbohydrates, turning them into fats and volatile acids that can be used to manufacture fats. Carnivores have livers capable of turning protein into glucose and fat.

If diets differ because of digestive tract differences, we should expect the same pattern to recur in humans. All humans have the same nutrient needs, but our optimal food intake may vary if our digestive tracts differ.

In fact there is evidence for variations in digestive tract structure among human populations. The blogger Melissa McEwen has summarized evidence that some populations have slightly larger colons, suggesting a slightly more plant-focused diet, and others have slightly smaller colons, suggesting a more animal-focused diet.

Longer colons allow more fermentation of plant fiber, but they don't dramatically change macronutrient ratios of the diet. Across human populations, the optimal human diet probably doesn't vary in any macronutrient by more than 5% of energy or so.

So there is little support for a "blood type diet" or "metabolic type" with significantly different food needs. All healthy people can and should eat a similar diet - one that approximates to our body's nutrient needs.

Each Unhealthy Person is Unhealthy in his Own Way

People who are malnourished will benefit from getting more of the things they are malnourished in, and perhaps less of others which balance those - as reducing zinc may help someone who is copper deficient, or reducing omega-6 fats may help someone who is omega-3 deficient. People exposed to toxins may benefit from an extra dose of toxin-metabolizing nutrients. People with infections may benefit from diets which starve pathogens of needed nutrients, or which support immune function. People with gut dysbioses may benefit from removing or reducing whole classes of foods - starches, fructose, FODMAPs, fiber, even protein.

Infections can make a big difference in the optimal diet. Ketogenic diets, which starve the brain of glucose but feed it with small molecules derived from fats, are highly effective against bacterial infections of the central nervous system, since bacteria depend on glucose metabolism. But hepatitis B and C viruses can utilize the process of gluconeogenesis—manufacture of glucose from protein—for their own benefit, so people with hepatitis benefit from higher carb diets.

Other pathologies disrupt the ability to handle certain nutrients. Diabetes is characterized by an inability to secrete insulin, and diabetics usually benefit from low-carb diets. Migraines, like epilepsy, may be caused by genetic or other impairments to brain glucose metabolism, and can often be cured by ketogenic diets, as several of our readers have discovered.

With ill health, the optimal diet often changes. Sick people often have to tweak their diet, and the nature of the change varies with the nature of the pathology.

Ketogenic diets are therapeutic for bacterial and viral infections, but can feed protozoa, fungi, and worms (which have mitochondria and can metabolize ketones). Response to a ketogenic diet can help expose the nature of an infectious pathogen.

Because neurons are dependent on glucose or ketones for energy, any pathology which disrupts glucose utilization will cause neuronal starvation, and neurological and psychological distress, which can be relieved by provision of ketones. A well-designed, nourishing ketogenic diet may often ameliorate psychiatric and neurologic disorders.

Dietary tactics can help prevent as well as treat disease. For instance, fasting upregulates autophagy ("self-eating"), the cellular mechanism for recycling damaged or unnecessary components. But autophagy is a central part of the innate immune system; it is how cells destroy invading microbes. Intermittent fasting as a regular practice helps keep the body infection-free, and during intracellular infections refraining from food is often a helpful strategy.

There is no one diet that is perfect for everyone, but that is mainly because not everyone is healthy.” ~


I suspect that clearing out infections is only part of the story. Clearing out incipient cancer cells may be even more important. The improvement in my health when I severely reduced carbs was astonishing. (Warning: you can gain weight on an excessively high-protein diet because it’s child’s play for the liver to convert protein to glucose. Atkins didn’t seem sufficiently aware of it, though he did recommend mostly fats for those who were “weight-loss resistant”.)

Re: dysbioses (think: “irritable bowel” or “leaky gut”). From Dr. Steven Gundry I learned why whole grains used to make me so sick — lectins! Most of them can be destroyed by pressure-cooking, but not the most dangerous lectins, which are found in whole grains (have you ever wondered why Asians thrive on WHITE rice? Lectins are concentrated in the husk). NSAIDs such as ibuprofen also damage the intestines — you will not see a warning anywhere on the label.

Feeding your resistant starch-loving microbiome is ultimately more tricky than feeding yourself.

By the way, ketogenic diet is an opportunity to experience the benefits of “good fats” — olive oil, avocado (a great source of potassium, by the way), fatty fish. Eliminate all sweet fruit — it can make a very nice difference in how fast your health will improve and how much weight you’ll lose (if your main goal is weight loss). 

Finally, the older you get, the more your blood sugar and insulin tend to rise — even if you are not diabetic. Ketogenic diet simulates fasting and calorie restriction — two ancient practices that have been vindicated in modern times as effective for maintaining good health and sharp mind well into old age. 


Yes, we were warned for so long to avoid all fats, esp. the bad ones in meat, milk, eggs, butter. When Joe had his bypass surgery I changed our diet in the recommended ways — he was never overweight but his arteries were very badly occluded. Now the prescriptions have been set on their heads again. I tend to be as skeptical of dietary claims as I am of new pharmaceuticals. In both cases I tend not to accept anything drastic, or anything that claims to be an ultimate solution to a complex problem. Last year's new miracle drugs  too often become this year's lawsuits.


Your caution is certainly understandable: everything we were told was bad for us is now supposedly good for us, including butter — in moderation, of course, and preferably from grass-fed cows — then it’s a health food, providing intestine-nourishing short-chain fatty acids and muscle-developing CLA (those interested, please google). I try to be skeptical as well, having been badly burned by my miserable vegetarian experience. How I wish I simply tried to stick to the way my grandmother ate! The wisdom of tradition.

(By the way, on my first trip back to Poland I was struck by the fresh, rosy skin of my butter-eating relatives, even those in their seventies. Alas, at the time they were being heavily propagandized to switch to margarine — that was before the findings about the increased rates of heart disease and cancer in margarine eaters. Need I mention fresh-from-the-farm eggs, cream, and sour cream? Or the home-made pickles and sauerkraut? I don’t think those days are ever coming back again — except that small towns have not abandoned their little gardens and those wonderful pickling jars on the windowsills.)

But there are some very interesting studies of the ketogenic diet (we have to recognize that there is the “bad keto” (heavy on bacon) and the “good keto” (heavy on avocado, olives, and olive oil).  The discovery about keto and epilepsy goes back to 1921, and that’s pretty startling right there . . . though of course humans knew for thousands of years that fasting (or intermittent fasting) — and keto basically imitates the physiology of fasting — cured or controlled all kinds of conditions. Now we’re just beginning to understand why.

But as with everything, we have to watch out against going to crazy extremes and listen to our bodies.

avocado flower opening

ending on beauty:


No longer prefect, this isn’t home anymore.
I planted day lilies and cassia for nothing.

Cassia renowned for enticing us to stay on,
day-lilies never making it sorrow forgotten:

they are a far cry from this riverside moon,
come lingering out farewell step after after.

~ Po Chu-i, tr David Hinton