Saturday, November 30, 2019


 Aurora, Norway; photo: Jan Olsen 


It’s been snowing all night.

My mother and I take turns

pushing father’s wheelchair.

He dozes. He’s already part of the snow.

Mother remembers that he used to have

an excellent sense of direction.

No use now.

Only night and snow.

A ship is waiting in the harbor.

It could still be a hundred miles.

The stars look blurred, as if caught

in a long photographic exposure.

Who knew that life could take 

anyone that far north.

Dying can last many years.

We don’t even notice the cold.

~ Oriana

This poem was inspired by a dream I had when my father was near the end of his life. Parkinson's is a very cruel disease. It also tends to last a long time, so you get used to this new reality (“we don't even notice the cold”). 


You speak of your father, the long dying, the indignities of the flesh that come with age and illness...yes, all that comes to us, and yet we dream, even in ruined bodies, even in the ashes of desire, there still is the yearning, the need to fly, the reach for joy, the unmistakable stamp of the individual created self. My father also had Parkinson's, that cruel disease, and his last years were in a nursing home, the care he needed beyond what we could do. Even getting him into a chair took two nurses and a mechanical lift. A handsome once strong man, he was almost skeletal, skin over bone, muscles wasted, unable to even shift his body in the bed.

He kept his signature humor though, and his stoic nature. All his remaining children were  with him, some almost daily, in particular my brother Paul, who came to watch and talk sports with him, and help him with his meals. And when he died, on April Fools day, (of course) he waited til Paul left, and his nurse had checked on him, then went quietly, alone, and I cannot help but feel this was a choice, an active one, not a passive surrender — accomplished in a way particular to himself. Even then, reduced by disease and age and the terrible limitations of his body, he was himself and remained undefeated, still essentially exactly who he was.

It is the particular tragedy of Alzheimer's that in erasing memory it erases that essential self. But my father, immobile in his bed, had dreams and memories still filled with wonder and amazement. Each night he said he traveled far, through all the places and times of his life,  and was amazed he always woke in the same bed. When my sister questioned how he could do that, he looked at her with conviction and said “teleportation" — as though she should have known something so simple.

It is too easy and too dismissive to simply see delusion here. This is rather part of that very human gesture of imaginative creation,  the flight of desire in dreams, the yearning to experience freedom in its most central form — to be free of the confines and limits, the terrible fragility of the body caught in the prison of time…to have the freedom to fly.


Your father’s nightly travels sound better by far than what my father went through — as soon as he was in a “home,” he as flooded with waking nightmares of being on the run, at crowded train stations, ducking into store fronts — hiding from the Nazis (his brother-in-law was one of the top Resistance leaders, with a price on his head). Thus there was both the deadening, the constant dozing that I mention in the poem, but also those periods of paranoid agitation. It seems that the doctors didn’t know (not sure they do now) that dopaminergic drugs have to be used with great care when a patient has gone through a lot of trauma, or he’ll keep on reliving it — and his terror is a torment even to witness.

The doctors kept adjusting my father’s drug cocktail, but perhaps it took the atrophy of certain brain areas to calm down the torture by traumatic memories. Later the UCLA neuropathologist who did the autopsy said that he’d never seen a brain so extremely destroyed. The region that controls the wake-sleep cycle was virtually gone. How does a human being manage to live on with so little brain function left? Is there some life force going on automatic, even when continued existence means more and more pain? Is there a drive to make sense of things (including the hallucinations) that persists to no apparent purpose, just because that’s part of being human?

And yes, some humor left as long as he could speak, even on his deathbed. He was an incorrigible mocker; said that when already in the coffin, one should suddenly sit up and say, “Hah-hah!”

So yes again, “the terrible fragility of the body caught in the prison of time” — and the remnants of human essence that make us recognize that this is still a human being, that wonder of wonders, his brain the most magnificent thing in the universe.

Aging in general can be very cruel. We know what is coming, and yet we are shocked by the thousand disabilities and indignities of aging. So let me step back somewhat, and consider the so-called autumn of life, when, with luck, there is still a chance to be useful to others and enjoy small pleasures. As Longfellow's poem suggests, we can still tell ourselves that we are resting, re-gathering our strength in order to resume the quest. True, it may be a different quest, more modest, wiser (or so we tell ourselves) than in youth, more about service than heroic achievement. But, let's face it, people tend to need a quest (or simply purpose) of some kind as long as there is breath enough and mind enough.


With favoring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Whither, ah, whither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

~ H.W. Longfellow

Vladimir Kush, Bound for Distant Shores

I admit to harboring much affection for some of Longfellow’s classics. They don’t just give rest to my restless mind; they make me ponder “life’s unanswerable questions.”

Ultima Thule — in antiquity, it was the northernmost region of the earth, the limit of travel and discovery. Longfellow uses the myth of Ultima Thule to present a contrast between our sunlit dreams and the stormy reality where “wreck and sea-weed line the shore.” It could also be the contrast between youth and older age.

There’s the heroic ego quest of the first half of life — to put it more simply, the dreams of youth, which can be outrageously ambitious and optimistic (in part due to student essays, I’ve discovered that it’s the rule rather than the exception) — and the “diminished expectations” of the second half of life. One way or another, we try to make the best of of what we’ve come to know as reality rather than the fantasy we started out with. And yes, after the school of hard knocks we need some rest and recovery. Then, with luck, new meanings unfold, and the quest, though transformed, does indeed seem endless.

We start by yearning for the Garden of Hesperides, the golden apples of immortality (or call it fame, outstanding achievement, or simply
winning in some manner). From the perspective age, however, there’s something to be said for reaching Ultima Thule.It’s a place of giving up with honor; of saying “We’ve done our best, given the circumstances.”

In Ultima Thule, you accept yourself completely. No need for
self-improvement. What you see here is not a “stepping stone” or a “gateway” to a more wonderful place. You no longer have to prove yourself, to show (primarily to yourself) how tough you are, how much you can take. You are tough just to have lived this long. Now you can have a more mellow relationship with reality. And actually it’s a lot more interesting to have a relationship with reality (as we now understand it) rather than with a dream.

The first stanza is especially  meaningful to me, in a personal sense: my dream was not the “American Dream,” but the dream of America. America as myth, as the Promised Land. But that was springtime. Now it’s more like Egon Schiele’s Autumn.


But, again, reality turns out to be more engaging and fascinating than the ignorant dreams of youth. And note that the quest continues because it must — it's life-long though it’s a more modest quest, and paradise is no longer expected.

Yet the poem is more subtle than simply dividing life into self-deceiving youth and chastened and sober older age. Note

That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

It’s not just the land of fiction, but also of truth — just as the myth of Atlantis appears to have arisen out of something real, but long lost. (And isn’t it amazing that “truth” rhymes with “youth”! No need to reject one’s youth as lies, lies, lies.)

Egon Schiele: Double Self-Portrait; too bad that Schiele didn't live long enough for a real "double self-portrait."

Maybe this shows me as a lost romantic, but every time I rediscover this poem I fall in love with it again. Maybe it's the music more than anything else; I can't help loving certain classics because the music is so ravishing.

But saying that it’s autumn is trying to make reality more gentle. In late November, we can’t deny the season that follows. 

Still, as Jeremy Sherman writes,

Our joy must depend
on to-do's without end
Keep yearning. You'll find that you miss less.


“I was in love with everything—I wanted to look with love at the angry people so that their eyes would be forced to respond; and I wanted to bring gifts to the envious and tell them that I am worthless.” ~ Egon Schiele

Let's relax by contemplating a lovely quail:

~ “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. 

The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our nation falls short of its highest potential.

I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as [Archibald] MacLeish once remarked of poets, “There is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style.”

In free society art is not a weapon, and it does not belong to the spheres of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But in a democratic society the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist, is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man—the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, And nothing to look forward to with hope.”

I look forward to a great future for America—a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral strength, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.

I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.

I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.

I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world, not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.

And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.” ~ JFK, speaking at Amherst, MA, in October of 1963 (a month later he was assassinated)


I also found this JFK quotation: “Poetry is the soul of the country.” Not imaginable anymore, such statements.


My God. We had this eloquence. Now we have the tweeter.

In the movie “Hidden Figures,” we get to hear JFK speak — a brief excerpt of one of his speeches. Yes, exactly, the eloquence. I felt heartbroken at the contrast with now.


~ “What am I thankful for? I’m thankful for my parents, who immigrated to this country as poor students, worked their way up in a country that wasn’t always welcoming to them, and stayed and put down roots for my sister and me so that we could succeed; who taught us that tolerance and compassion and hard work aren’t simply buzzwords, but human values, and the tenets of the country they chose to make their home; who have shown me through every action of their lives that no one gets anywhere on their own, and that if you’ve had an ounce of success, it’s your duty to recognize those who helped you along the way, and to pay it forward.

I’m thankful for my sister, who has always been a role model for me in every way; who, as a woman in the male-dominated field of engineering, taught me that sometimes you have to fight for every inch of ground; who, growing up a decade earlier than me in a much less racially tolerant place and time, encountered racism in many forms and passed along tools to fight it; who, as a person with a prosthesis, shows me every day that a “disability” doesn’t have to stop you from doing what you want and that I always, always need to be aware of the limits other people may be working with.

I’m thankful for my husband, who (like all the other men I choose to keep in my life) treats me like an equal; who values my opinions and my abilities and respects my body; who listens to me when we disagree and defends my right to disagree with him; who loves me because I’m smart and have opinions and speak my mind and stand up for what I believe in. In other words, because I’m what others might call—have called—a nasty woman. 

I’m thankful for my husband’s parents, who raised a son who thinks of women as equals; who—as a mixed-faith couple—demonstrated tolerance and acceptance; who—though they spent their lives in sharply-divided Ohio—have, for as long as I’ve known them, been advocates for tolerance and civility; who, as lifelong teachers, worked to foster those values in generations of others.

. . . I’m thankful for my friends, strong women and men alike, who keep me honest, who challenge me to think harder and wider and more carefully, yet have my back in whatever I’m in; who set an example for me by their own actions; who are often smarter and kinder and more articulate than I can be, and who so often say what I mean but can’t put in words. They have had different experiences than I have, which they share with me, and they listen when I share mine. They are survivors: of assault and abuse, of discrimination, of threats and hurdles of all kinds. I’m thankful they refuse to be silenced. I’m thankful for their children, whose parents are raising them to get in good trouble, and to make the world into the kind of place we want it to be for them.” ~ Celeste Ng


And here are some of my favorite lines on giving thanks from a poem by Anna Kamieńska:

How to leave without thanking
animals and particularly the cat
for his being so separate
and for teaching us with his whole body
the wisdom of concentration

photo: Alexey Menschikov


~ “For a time, Charles Lindbergh was as close as a mortal can get to being a real-life Superman. After piloting the first solo, nonstop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, the 6-foot-3 college dropout turned aviation icon could go few places in public without being mobbed. To his adoring American fans, he was Lucky Lindy, the Lone Eagle and, later, a devoted husband and father to six children.

But to Lindbergh’s seven other children — the ones living in Germany — he was mild-mannered American writer Careu Kent. That’s right, it turns out the globe-trotting Lindbergh’s most daring trans-Atlantic feat in his later years was the two-decade round-trip voyage between his American and German families. Despite having once been the most photographed, most famous person on the planet, Lindbergh — thanks in no small part to the modern miracle of trans-Atlantic travel he had helped unleash — managed to pull off a double life like few else in history. 

It was a secret life that remained a secret for quite a while. Lindbergh died in 1974, and it was not until 2003 that the world learned the full scope of his infidelity. That’s when three Germans, Dyrk and David Hesshaimer and their sister, Astrid Bouteuil, came forward claiming that the aviator was their father. To prove it, the siblings shared more than 100 letters Lindbergh had written their mother, Brigitte, and a DNA test conducted by the University of Munich that confirmed the paternity of the three siblings, and of four other children. The siblings, who didn’t come forward until after their mother’s death, per her request, did not seek any claim to Lindbergh’s estate, only acknowledgment that he was their father.

The revelation was shocking to many. According to Winston Churchill, Lindbergh was “all that a man should say, all that a man should do and all that a man should be.” He and his longtime wife, the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were regarded as the “perfect couple,” a relationship cemented by the public tragedy that unfolded in 1932, when their 20-month-old son Charles Jr. was kidnapped and murdered. 

But Lindbergh’s impeccable reputation would suffer considerably in the following decades after he became a pariah for his Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitic statements. That didn’t stop President Dwight D. Eisenhower or Pan Am airlines from enlisting Lindbergh as an overseas representative in the 1950s. During the last two decades of his life, he spent months at a time away from his wife and five surviving children in their Connecticut home on overseas trips. During one of those trips, the 55-year-old Lindberg met Brigitte Hesshaimer, a 31-year-old Munich hatmaker, and started a secret love affair that would produce three children. The prolific American would later have an ongoing affair with Brigitte’s sister, Marietta, that produced two more sons, and another with his secretary, Valeska, which produced another two children.

For a decade and a half, until his death in 1974, Lindberg made a circuit in southern Germany a few times each year, visiting his three paramours and seven children. The kids were told he was a famous American writer on a secret mission and that their interactions with him should be kept quiet. They remember trips to the countryside with him and the American-style pancakes he would make them. In his last letter to Brigitte, a dying Lindberg made his final goodbye and sent his love to her and the children, requesting again that they “keep the secret.”

Lindbergh may have benefited from his fame and good looks — and the means to travel overseas frequently — but psychologists claim that leading a double life is not as uncommon as you might think. Many of us lead very different private and public lives, even if just in the form of fantasy or daydreams. “It is on a spectrum ranging from secrets we keep from others and even ourselves to pathological,” says Robert Motta, director of the doctoral program at Hofstra University’s School-Community Psychology. And, according to the General Social Survey, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women have had sex with someone other than their spouse while married.

On the bright side, a double life can provide an opportunity to be a better person. Despite a reputation as a distant, unsympathetic man in his everyday life — one who subscribed to eugenics theory and disparaged the weak — Lindbergh was caring and attentive to his German families in his later years, including to two of his mistresses, the Hesshaimer sisters, who were both disabled as a result of childhood illnesses. “I am aware that our actions have tainted the image of an impeccable American hero,” Astrid told The Telegraph in 2005. “But they also reveal that a man once thought of as emotionless and unattainable was in fact a caring and loving father.”

From another source:

“When the children [with Brigitte Hesshaimer] were born, he carried on visiting his new family but never told them his real name. “He visited about four times a year for a few days, and made sure they had a wonderful time,” Schroeck said.

He took them on trips to the country and told stories of his travels. He never failed to meet his financial duties towards their mother, for whom he built a house.

They were told their father was an American writer, Careu Kent. She made them promise never to mention him to anyone, even friends or family, saying he would not come back if they did." 

In spite of what Schroeck calls this "stigma of silence", David Hesshaimer, 38, said that his mother seemed content — even after Lindbergh's affair with her sister.

The Lindbergh family were understandably shocked at the news and refused to believe it, particularly as both the Hesshaimer sisters were disabled," said Schroeck.

"Lindbergh subscribed to the teachings of eugenics and he believed in breeding healthy children from healthy parents. It was very surprising for his family to learn that he had fathered children to two disabled women who were unable to walk properly.” ~


He believed in, ahem, breeding . . .

from Comments:

A hero, a traitor, a cad, and a loving father. Straddling two lives, more complicated and human than superhuman.

Charles Lindbergh's German son Dyrk and David Hesshaimer, and his daughter Astrid Bouteill. The rest of Lindbergh’s German children decided against going public. 


“How cities have changed. I’m looking at Monet’s “Carnival, Boulevard des Capucines,” painted in 1873. The buildings shine. The tenements, the streets, the city are a source of light. The city glows, it shines like a star. Now the same boulevard is a canyon filled with noise, car exhaust, and dust.” ~ Ryszard Kapuściński, “Lapidarium III” (translated by Oriana)


Much has been said about how the automobile changed and even destroyed the urban landscape — no need to repeat it. But there were also problems caused by the multitude of horse carriages, and by the use of coal for heating. Still, it’s wonderful to look at Monet’s painting: a festival of light, a vignette of the belle époque.

Not that the modern Boulevard des Capucines is all that bad.

But as you bask in Monet's gilded radiance, remember the horse apples. And this brings us to:


~ Dairy farmers in Massachusetts are using food waste to create electricity. They feed waste into anaerobic digesters, built and operated by Vanguard Renewables, which capture the methane emissions and make renewable energy.

The process begins by gathering wasted food from around the state, including from many Whole Foods locations. We visited the chain's store in Shrewsbury, Mass., which has installed a Grind2Energy system. It's an industrial-strength grinder that gobbles up all the scraps of food the store can't sell, explains Karen Franczyk, who is the sustainability program manager for Whole Foods' North Atlantic region.

The machine will grind up all kinds of food waste — "everything from bones, we put whole fish in here, to vegetables to dry items like rice or grains," Franczyk says as the grinder is loaded. It also takes frying fats and greases.

While Whole Foods donates a lot of surplus food to food banks, there's a lot waste left over. Much of it is generated from prepping prepared foods. Just as when you cook in your own kitchen, there are lots of bits that remain, such as onion or carrot peel, rinds, stalks or meat scraps. The grinder turns all these bits into a slurry. "It really becomes kind of a liquefied food waste," Franczyk says.

From here, the waste is loaded into a truck and sent to an anaerobic digester. "There's no question it's better than putting it in the trash," Franczyk says. She says the chain is committed to diverting as much waste as possible and aims for zero waste. In addition to food donations, Whole Foods composts; this waste-to-energy system is yet another way to meet its goal. "We really do like the system," she says.

We visited Bar-Way Farm, Inc. in Deerfield, Mass. Owner Peter Melnik, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, showed us how his anaerobic digester, which is installed next to his dairy barn, works.

"We presently take in about a 100 tons [of waste], which is about three tractor-trailer loads, every day," Melnik says. 

In addition to all the food waste from Whole Foods, he gets whey from a Cabot Creamery in the area, as well as waste from a local brewery and a juice plant.

In the digester, he combines all of this waste with manure from his cows. The mixture cooks at about 105 degrees Fahrenheit. As the methane is released, it rises to the top of a large red tank with a black bubble-shaped dome.

"We capture the gas in that bubble. Then we suck it into a big motor," Melnik explains. Unlike other engines that run on diesel or gasoline, this engine runs on methane.

"This turns a big generator, which is creating one megawatt of electricity" continuously, Melnik says — enough to power more than just his farm. "We only use about 10 percent of what we make, and the rest is fed onto the [electricity] grid," Melnik explains. It's enough to power about 1,500 homes.

He says times are tough for dairy farmers, so this gives him a new stream of revenue. Vanguard pays him rental fees for having the anaerobic digester on his farm. In addition, he's able to use the liquids left over from the process as fertilizer on his fields.

"The digester has been a home run for us," Melnik says. "It's made us more sustainable — environmentally [and] also economically."

Vanguard Renewables hopes to expand its operations in the state and elsewhere. "There's more than enough food waste in Massachusetts to feed all of our five digesters, plus many more," says CEO John Hanselman.

Massachusetts has a state law that prohibits the disposal of commercial organic waste — including food — by businesses and institutions that generate at least one ton of this waste per week. This has created an incentive for food businesses to participate in the waste-to-energy initiative.

Hanselman points to Europe, where there are thousands of digesters in operation. His hope is that the concept will spread here. "The food waste recycling through anaerobic digestion could be done in every part of the country," Hanselman says.

The company is currently building an anaerobic digester on a farm in Vermont. The gas produced there will be piped to Middlebury College, which will help the college reduce its carbon footprint.

Steven Melnik:

Inside the digester, it's about almost a million gallon tank. It's heated to 105 degrees. And inside there are tiny microbes. 

We produce a megawatt of electricity every hour.


John Hanselman:

So we saw what was happening in Europe, where anaerobic digestion is extremely widespread.

Across the United States, we don't have that incentive program. We don't have the federal energy policy or any federal benefits for anaerobic digestion. I think we are at the cusp. We are at the early days. We have finally got the economics to work.


I love articles that make me hope there is a future for humanity and for the earth. Improved desalinization plants could provide safe water; anaerobic digesters could turn both manure and food waste into energy. And there is more, much more. It's better to light a few candles  than weep in the dark and conduct our own funeral as a foolish, greedy species that is bound to destroy itself. I wish to celebrate any solutions that are being found. May reason and love of life prevail.


In Hamlet there is a little-noticed moment when Horatio expresses worry that Hamlet does not have sufficient skill at fencing to stand a chance in a sword fight. Hamlet replies, “I have been in continual practice.” (Act 5, Scene 2)

It’s not a famous line, but for some reason it touches me to the core. I too have been in continual practice, the practice of paying attention and being astonished. I can’t quite say for what purpose, or have faith that a grand occasion to exercise those skills will ever arise. But purpose may be beside the point. At least once a day, I reflect on the paradoxes of the world and instantly I am in “immense amazement.”

“What use are you? In your writings 

there is nothing except

immense amazement.”

~ Milosz, “Consciousness”

And thus I too remain in continual practice, and in continual astonishment.


~ “His experience in Russia radicalized Diderot. It turned him from a savant into a liberal. He realized that there would never be an “enlightened” despot, and, when the American Revolution happened, he welcomed it in a way he might not have a decade earlier.

And then, sometime after his return to France, Diderot revised, though he did not publish, the single literary work of his that seems likeliest to last: the philosophical dialogue called by tradition “Rameau’s Nephew.” Set in the Café de la Régence, the same café where he had met Rousseau, it pits a stylized version of an actual louche character of the time—the notorious Jean-François Rameau, who really was the composer’s nephew—against an equally stylized version of Diderot himself. 

The two—called Lui and Moi, Him and Me—argue about life, inheritance, meaning, pleasure. Lui, Rameau, is the louder voice in the dialogue, speaking up unapologetically for the view that there is nothing in life worth pursuing except immediate physical gratification: food, sex, even defecation. All the higher motives and values that Moi invokes are pious fictions. Rameau’s nephew, as Curran writes, “reduces virtue, friendship, country, the education of one’s children, and achieving a meaningful place in society to nothing more than our vanity. . . . We are all corrupted, acting out various pantomimes to get what we want.” Even his own selfishness, Lui maintains, is the result not of choice but of constitutional and inherited tendencies, the “obtuse paternal molecule” (a strikingly prescient term for DNA) that runs in the Rameau line.

“Rameau’s Nephew” is, in this way, the first debate between two such materialists, both of whom reject superstition and the supernatural but end in radically different places. We live within that dialogue today, with some of us accepting that the material view of a world without inherent meaning can produce only fatalism, others that it can give us the great if ambiguous gift of freedom. When Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett debate free will, they are reprising Diderot’s dialogue—with Harris arguing, like Rameau’s nephew, that free will is a comforting illusion, enforced by those parental molecules, and Dennett replying, in the voice of Moi, that *what we call free will is an emergent property of minds and moves, and that we are as free as we have to be to will what we need. Experience, the expanding germ of thought, is enough. If we experience our lives as free, they are acceptably so. Rameau’s nephew insists that we are soulless bags of meat and blood, even as our minds pretend to have motives; Moi insists that what it means to have a soul is to be a bag of meat and blood with a mind inside.

It’s an argument worth having. In some ways, it is the only argument worth having, since the specific cases are not decidable in advance in one way or another. Sometimes we’ll decide that Lui is right and that what looks like a turbulence of soul and spirit—as with certain psychological disorders—is best viewed as a physiological condition; sometimes Moi seems righter, and our response to other things—human altruism—is little dimmed by talk of flesh and inheritances.

When Voltaire and Diderot met at last, in Paris, in 1778, the long-awaited meeting of the two master minds of the Enlightenment, they had a squabble about Shakespeare. Diderot made a joke about a giant statue that used to stand in front of Notre-Dame, saying that Voltaire’s plays couldn’t touch Shakespeare’s balls. Voltaire did not take it well, and the two parted on sour terms. But the episode is a reminder that the health and vitality of the French Enlightenment lay in the fact that it began and ended in a love of art and literature.

Indeed, one can’t help loving Diderot, even while realizing that the one typical gift of French intellect he lacks is wit. He is funny and good-natured, but, though he attempted a few aphorisms, he left not a single memorable one behind. To think freely, as he did, is to think past shapely sentences to those open books. You can’t make an encyclopedia with a miniaturist’s mind. Wit is, typically, a conservative genre: it summarizes what’s known; to condense a truth to an aphorism, you need to be fairly certain that your listener will accept it as a truth. Diderot was the enemy of truths that people knew already, and so he couldn’t compact—only enlarge.

He wasn’t a wit, but he had a sense of humor, which he applied to the world. Heroic materialism may be the hope of our existence; but comic material is the salve of our lives. Diderot exists in memory to show that materialism can be miserable or it can be magical. It all depends on the material, and on the light.

~ ““Monsieur Diderot, I have listened with great interest to everything that your brilliant mind has inspired. But your grand principles, which I understand quite well, make for good books and bad actions. Your plans for reform neglect the difference between our two positions. You work on paper, which accepts everything. It is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to either your imagination or pen. I, a poor empress, work on human skin, which is rather irritable and sensitive.” As recalled by her in a conversation with a French diplomat, this was the response of Catherine the Great to Denis Diderot, the philosophe and leading spirit of the Encyclopedists, who accepted Catherine’s invitation to travel to Russia with the aim of guiding her in transforming Russia into a state founded on Enlightenment ideals. 

By applying the ideas presented in the pages of his Encyclopedia, Diderot told Catherine, Russia could become a state as advanced as any that existed in Europe. More intelligent than the Encylopedist, Catherine responded: “All your grand philosophies… would do marvelously in books and very badly in practice.” 

Summing up her impressions of her excitable guest, she observed that “at times he seems to be one hundred years old, but at others he doesn’t seem to be ten”. In 1794, as the empress reflected on the descent of the French Revolution into blood-letting during the Terror, Catherine condemned Diderot and the rest of the philosophes, who “served only to destroy” and bring about “calamities without end and innumerable wretched people”.


Pardon the repeat of the quotations about paper versus human skin. I found Catherine’s statement so striking that I think it’s worth reading more than once. That’s something that we intellectuals should constantly bear in mind: the difference between paper and human skin — the gulf between theory, however brilliant and well-meant, and the messy complexity of reality. 

A little known fact about Empress Catherine:

~ Catherine decided to have herself inoculated against smallpox by a British doctor, Thomas Dimsdale. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Her son Pavel was later inoculated as well. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire and stated: "My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger". By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations (almost 6% of the population) were administered in the Russian Empire.” ~ (Wiki)

Catherine the Great of Russia (Marie-Antoinette also had a double chin, which she lost in an untimely fashion. Not so Catherine, who was a popular monarch.)



~ which can claim there is no God, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust into the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within the harmonious whole of evolution or whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.”

“The death of Christ,” says Žižek, “is not any kind of redemption… it’s simply the disintegration of the God which guarantees the meaning of our lives.” 

I think already the Book of Job does that, showing that suffering happens for no reason -- it’s not divine punishment -- it’s not “justice” (“justice” is just a more respectable word for revenge). If Christianity is atheist, in my view it’s because there is an essential incompatibility between the Old Testament god of vengeance (never called “father”) and Christ’s message of non-judgment and compassion (contradicted at times even in the Gospels).

Does everyone have a Big Other? Do I too have a Big Other? I'd love to sound rational and say No -- unless, to some extent, the collective genius of humanity; the goodness of most, the endurance. Hmmm . . . I don't know if "to some extent" will save me. Some claim that we all worship something, some Big Other -- it's only human.

In writing I sometimes invoke my Big Other, realizing that there are endless complications and limitations. And nature is also the Big Other. But for daily use I have a Small Other -- the cognitive unconscious (not to be confused with Freud’s concept of the unconscious). I know that my “back-burner” brain is smarter than my consciousness. The smarter neural processors will communicate the answer to consciousness when that answer is ready. I call it “email from my other self.”…/11/slavoj-zizek-on-atheism.html



~ “Imagine if someday, perhaps soon, researchers in natural teleology like us did come up with a plausible, tested explanation for how purpose emerged in a purposeless universe, an explanation say as simple as our explanation for lightning.

What would happen to the comforts and social benefits afforded to us by religion and spirituality? Would people have to abandon them? Not for the universal purposelessness of Crick’s chemical world but for a scientific natural teleology that explained the emergence of purpose in a purposeless world. Such a discovery would still be a threat to the credibility of religion and spirituality upon which so many people depend.

I am an atheist. I think God or a higher power is highly unlikely, not impossible but unlikely and unnecessary. The universe is 14 billion years old and we only see purposeful behavior starting with the origins of life, roughly 4 billion years ago, organisms trying to regenerate, soft vulnerable creatures nonetheless persisting in a continuous lineage for billions of years by dint of their purposeful effort to survive and reproduce.

We find no evidence of purposeful behavior in the first ten billion years of the universe’s history. That leads me to believe that matter came first. Mattering or purpose emerged from it. Through our research, I have a plausible testable guess for how purpose emerged. I no longer depend upon a supernatural explanation for purpose nor on the denial of purpose. I believe that purpose is real and has no universal purpose. My goals and purposes matter to me but I don’t believe that they matter to the universe. And I’m OK with that.

I also study history and find plenty of evidence of religion and spirituality bringing out not the best in people but the worst — for example, people claiming all the high-horse privileges due to the righteous, without any real effort to behave righteously, people embracing superhuman standards, failing to live up to them, and rationalizing it through self-righteous projection.

I have mixed feelings about religion, on the one hand appreciating and honoring its use, on the other hand finding it dangerous to our earthly priorities.” ~


It's still interesting to look at the evolution of god: from a cruel tribal deity to be propitiated to a toothless old relic, and now a vague and dissolving cloud — as Jeremy says, “not impossible but unlikely and unnecessary.” But one’s immediate social circle becomes ever so more precious. That's all we have: one another. And books — someone's wonderful brain at a distance. And that's a lot. An immeasurable wealth. No need for a
king — this is no longer the era of kings and emperors. 

And yet, and yet . . . Though many of us can outgrow the desire for an invisible Big Daddy (or maybe a more accepting Holy Mother — it’s easy to imagine her whispering, “Don’t be so hard on yourself”) to hold our hand and guide us through life’s many maddening decisions, it seems we never quite lose the desire for meaning — for the Big Other, to use Žižek’s phrase.

It may be a different Big Other in different stages of life. The paradise of youth may turn into the harbor of Ultima Thule of the waning years. But the point is that we hold on for as along as we can to something human, some form of usefulness and caring. And if life doesn’t provide enough of that caring, is it any surprise that some turn to the imaginary?

A plausible scientific explanation of how life and purpose emerged after billions of years of non-life would be fascinating, but still insufficient for those without a scientific bent. For certain people, the desire for meaning and caring can apparently be satisfied only through religion. Thanks to my recent close encounter with mortality, I'm reconciled to that. Life can be so terrifying that irrational belief is better than keeping one's eyes open, I'm tempted to say. Sure, let us see signs and omens rather than crumple in despair. Let us listen to the merciful Holy Mother as she whispers, again and again, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”


How does purpose emerge in a purposeless universe? Does purpose require a person of some sort, an intelligence, a will? It is the usual assumption. But it seems matter is not inert, waiting for an outside will to provide motion, atoms engage, link, build...they can’t avoid it. Chemical structures and reactions occur, and it seems rather the more common process is an increase in organization, not entropy, but the increase in organization that leads to the evolution of substances necessary for life, and the explosion of forms of life that fit almost everywhere we have been able to look, even in places we assumed too hot, too cold, too poisonous, too dark, too dry.

Purpose certainly is evident in living creatures...the purpose to survive, to live, and to reproduce. As consciousness becomes self consciousness, awareness of ones own identity, a gradual thing in the evolution of animals, the sense and scope of purpose grows. Most importantly, I think the reflexivity of that consciousness grows, gaining ever more ability to comprehend both itself and the greater world it inhabits. Perhaps that very reflexivity is itself the heart of all. The universe is its own purpose and end, not for any reason other than to be and to know itself.


Here we circle back to the mystery present already in “The Far North.” It’s also the mystery of our dreams — as we tell them to some captive listener, we supply a meaning and narrative coherence. We tame the “wild” dream, even as we sense that no, the dream had a life of its own that we hardly even touched. Is it even “our” dream, or was Jung correct in suggesting that we dream collectively? No wonder that in the past centuries people universally believed that spirits (generally “unclean”) could possess you, could make you visit places where you’ve never been, and yet recognize every house and tree . . .

And even now, our stupendous knowledge is still minute next to our ignorance, and theists make a clever use of that, pointing out that science can’t explain X or Y. Well, religion can’t explain anything, but then its function is not tell us not to eat pork because it might be unsafe; its function is to tell us not to eat pork because not eating it means we belong to a certain group, without which we are nothing. Apparently we’ll do anything just to belong. We must have meaning, but a lot of that meaning depends on belonging. Thus, an astronaut in a space station knows more acutely than ever that he’s a part of humanity. But what’s the purpose of humanity? We shrug. We live on.


I wanted to check how many centuries after Jesus the concept of Trinity developed, and found this unexpected image of the Trinity, before the dove was hit upon. Here I think the balding man is meant to represent god the father. Of course the whole interpretation could be wrong, and this is an early rock band, circa 350 c.e. (By the way, I love the bemused facial expression on the faces of the alleged members of the Trinity.)

Earliest depiction of the Trinity, 350 AD. I love the smiles of all the Three Persons! The balding one must be God the Father. (So this is what we'd have if someone hadn't invented the Holy Dove.)




Asparagus is one of the best foods to cleanse your arteries. Full of fiber and minerals, it helps lower blood pressure and prevent blood clots that can lead to serious cardiovascular illness. It works within the veins and arteries to alleviate inflammation that may have accumulated over time. It boosts the body’s production of glutathione, an antioxidant that fights inflammation and prevents damaging oxidation that causes clogged or blocked arteries. It also contains alpha-linoleic acid and folic acid, which prevent hardening of the arteries.


Avocado helps reduce the “bad” cholesterol and increase the “good cholesterol” that helps to clear the arteries. It also contains vitamin E, which prevents cholesterol oxidation, as well as potassium, which is known to lower blood pressure. 


Broccoli can prevent artery clogging because it is loaded with vitamin K, which prevents calcium from damaging the arteries. Broccoli also prevents cholesterol oxidation and is full of fiber, which lowers blood pressure and reduces stress. Stress can lead to tearing and plaque build-up of arterial walls. These little trees also contain sulforaphane, which helps the body use protein to prevent plaque build-up in the arteries.

Fatty Fish

Fatty fish—mackerel, salmon, sardines, herring and tuna—are rich in healthy fats, which can help to clear the arteries. Omega-3 fatty acids help to increase the “good” cholesterol while reducing triglyceride levels, decreasing blood vessel inflammation and the formation of blood clots in the arteries, and can even lower blood pressure.


Instead of reaching for the cookie jar, try a healthier alternative—nuts. Almonds are the best choice because they are high in monounsaturated fats, vitamin E, fiber and protein. The magnesium in almonds also prevents plaque formation and lowers blood pressure. Walnuts are another good source of omega-3 fatty acid, which will reduce “bad” cholesterol and raise “good” cholesterol levels, which in turn lowers the risk of plaque build-up in the arteries.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated oleic acid, an essential fatty acid that lowers “bad” cholesterol and raises “good” cholesterol. Rich in antioxidants, it is one of the healthiest oils to use in cooking or for dressings.


This summertime favorite is a great natural source of the amino acid L-citrulline, which boosts nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide causes the arteries to relax, decreases inflammation and can help lower blood pressure. Watermelon also helps to modify blood lipids and lowers belly fat accumulation. Less fat in the abdominal area lowers the risk of heart disease.


The main component of this spice is curcumin, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory. Inflammation is a major cause of arteriosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries. Turmeric also reduces the damage to arterial walls, which can cause blood clots and plaque build up. Turmeric also contains vitamin B6, which helps to maintain healthy levels of homocysteine, which can cause plaque buildup and blood vessel damage in excess amounts.


This dark, leafy green is filled with potassium, folate and fiber, which helps lower blood pressure and prevents artery blockage. One serving per day helps lower homocysteine levels, a risk factor for heart diseases such as atherosclerosis.

Soluble fiber

Soluble fiber binds to the excess LDL cholesterol in your digestive tract and removes it from your body. Whole grains also contain magnesium, which dilates blood vessels and keeps your blood pressure at regular levels.

(I modified the last entry here. The original says “Whole Grains” — and I cannot tolerate those. But there are other sources of soluble fiber. They include okra [note the wonderful slime], Brussels sprouts, carrots, apples, almonds, avocados, sweet potatoes, broccoli, turnips, pears, figs, and guavas. 


L-citrulline is a substance called a non-essential amino acid. Your kidneys change L-citrulline into another amino acid called L-arginine and a chemical called nitric oxide.
These compounds are important to your heart and blood vessel health. They may also boost your immune system.

L-citrulline boosts nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide helps your arteries relax and work better, which improves blood flow throughout your body. This may be helpful for treating or preventing some diseases.

There is some evidence to suggest the supplement could possibly help lower blood pressure in people with mild hypertension.

L-citrulline supplements may ease symptom of mild-to-moderate erectile dysfunction (ED). Scientists say L-citrulline does not work as well as ED drugs such as Viagra. However, it appears to be a safe option.

Animal studies suggest L-citrulline might also help people with blood vessel problems such as slow wound healing due to diabetes.

Early human studies done also hint that L-citrulline may be helpful for Parkinson's disease and certain dementias.

Some people also take L-citrulline to build muscles and improve athletic performance. But research shows it does not help well-trained athletes perform or exercise better.


It’s up to you to decide whether to spend money on a citrulline supplements (those usually contain arginine as well). A cheaper and arguably more beneficial ways to increase nitric oxide in your body include moderate exercise and a diet rich in beets (yes! beets are rich in dietary nitrates; that’s why some athletes swear by beet juice), citrus, leafy greens (Popeye was right about spinach! except you’d have to eat a lot of spinach), arginine-containing protein (fish, eggs, the rest), and nuts and seeds.

A reminder: stress is as bad for your cardiovascular system as smoking.

Ending on beauty:

I think that I am here, on this earth,

To present a report on it, but to whom I don’t know.

As if i were sent so that whatever takes place

Has meaning because it changes into memory.

~ Milosz, “Consciousness”

My quick response to the first two lines: “to your readers, silly.” But then two lines of sheer wisdom, and the reason I keep reading Milosz. Changing events into memory is also Keats’s “soul-making.”