Friday, March 27, 2020


Henry Martin Gasser (American, 1909-1981): A Street Corner in Paterson, New Jersey. The painting style reminds me of Benton.


My cousin Franek is a pioneer,
raising broilers “the American way.”
I find him in a shed, behind a pile of
carcasses. “Sometimes it’s awkward,”

he says. “A neighbor sticks in his head
just as I’m slaughtering chickens,
says, God bless, and there I stand
with a lifted axe.”

I peek into the other shed: crowded, tense,
white chickens ripple in the stifling air.
“Poor chickens,” I say,
remembering, a few days back,

a yard on the outskirts of Łódź,
with cypresses, an Italian garden.
“Amazing,” I confirmed,
leaning on the fence to watch, 

in the neighboring yard,
a strutting rooster and five hens
basking in the September sun.
The rooster, classic red-brown,

shiny green feathers spangling his tail,
with a sharp cackle called his hens.
Waddling in their matron plumpness,
they followed him out of sight.

Now, in the countryside, I want my
“walk in the Polish woods.”
We cross a stubble field,
then enter not the dusky

forest of nostalgic dreams
lit with ferns like green stars,
but a sparse stand of young pine.
My cousin’s little girl, Veronika,

named after my grandmother,
picks mushrooms,
skipping around
with delighted shouts.

An old country woman
in a black skirt, black scarf,
bow-legged, steps out on the path.
“God bless,” she says.

“God bless,” we reply.
Is she over seventy?
So weather-beaten,
her face like the earth —

She’s probably never been near
lipstick or moisturrizer.
Gone to the doctor once or twice,
preferring kerosene salve

and vinegar compresses.
Gave birth at home;
will die at home, in her own bed,
her rosary hanging on a nail.

She says she’s here
to gather kindling wood.
Crosses the path and disappears
among the trees.

Older than the trees.

~ Oriana

~ “Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He'd had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn't put him in the cells; they hadn't sent his squad to the settlement; he'd swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he'd built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he'd smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he'd earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he'd bought that tobacco. And he hadn't fallen ill. He'd got over it.

A day without a dark cloud. Almost a happy day.

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch.

From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.

Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.

The three extra days were for leap years.”

~ The final passage of Solzhenitsyn's “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”


Amazing what people can endure. Dostoyevski also commented on that.


Famous last lines of famous novels re-written for social distancing:
The Great Gatsby

“So we beat on, fists against the window, borne back ceaselessly into the house.”

Blood Meridian

“He never distances, the judge. He is going on spring break, going on spring break. He says that he will never die.”


“He had won the victory over himself. He loved dried beans.”

Animal Farm

“The creatures inside looked from couch to man, and from man to couch, and from couch to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The Catcher in the Rye

“It’s funny. Don’t ever look at Instagram. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

The Unnamable

“…you must watch more Netflix. I watch more Netflix. I’ll watch more Netflix.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“But I reckon I got to light out for the backyard ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally says she’s going to make me a colorful chore chart and set a daily limit on Disney+ and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Absalom, Absalom!

“I don’t hate them he thought, staring at his roommates through the heavy Progresso air, the Ikea living room fluorescence: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate them! I don’t hate them!”

My Ántonia

“Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable social distancing memes.”

The Haunting of Hill House

“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” (Okay, this one was eerily perfect exactly as written.)

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.” ~ Flannery O’Connor


This is a great observation: people in despair can't read novels. They may start, but in a short while they are crying.


Wow! "To despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience." That hits the nail on the head. To despair is to refuse life, refuse living.



~ “Preston traces the emergence of many new viruses to the degradation of various ecosystems, particularly tropical forests and savannas. Viruses in a damaged ecosystem tend to mutate and adapt quickly. “When a virus that lives in some nonhuman host is about to crash into the human species, the warning sign may be a spatter of breaks—disconnected emergences, at different times and places. I tend to think of rats leaving a ship,” Preston writes. “Crisis in the Hot Zone” focusses on the history and origins of the Ebola virus. 

Patients infected with Ebola endure horrifying symptoms; due to damage to the brain, their faces often take on a ghostlike expression. “They act as if they were already embalmed, even though they are not yet dead,” Preston writes. 

The heroes of Preston’s tale are the doctors on the front lines and the scientists at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, in Maryland. The responsibility of U.S.A.M.R.I.I.D., Preston notes, is to identify “methods for stopping a monster virus before it ignites an explosive chain of lethal transmission in the human race.” 

Preston’s description of the extensive decontamination of one scientist, Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Jaax, after her glove was potentially breached during an examination of an Ebola-infected monkey, is one of the most spine-tingling passages I’ve ever read. In an arresting account, Preston chronicles the quick thinking of U.S.A.M.R.I.I.D. researchers as they raced to stop an outbreak of Ebola at a primate-quarantine unit in Reston, Virginia, in 1989. His story unfolds like a medical thriller as it follows the scientists’ formidable efforts to prevent a spread into the human population. 

As I write this to you in isolation, I remain haunted by Preston’s concluding words, written twenty-eight years ago, about the state of America’s public-health infrastructure: “We lack the forces to deal with a monster, at the very time when a monster could appear.” Preston’s work challenges us to ask what we’ll do and how we’ll react when the next “monster” virus appears at the door.” ~ 

~ Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, about Richard Preston’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone”

Ebola virus



~ How did a flimsy polymer cup become the most significant health device of the 21st century? It all started in 1910 with a little-known doctor who wanted to save the world from one of the worst diseases ever known.

In the fall of 1910, a plague broke out across Manchuria—what we know now as Northern China—which was broken up in politically complex jurisdictions shared between China and Russia.

“It’s apocalyptic. Unbelievable. It kills 100% of those infected, no one survives. And it kills them within 24 to 48 hours of the first symptoms,” says Christos Lynteris, a senior lecturer at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews, who is an expert in medical mask history. “No one has come across something like this in modern times, and it is similar to the descriptions of Black Death.”

The Chinese Imperial Court brought in a doctor named Lien-teh Wu to head its efforts. He was born in Penang and studied medicine at Cambridge. Wu was young, and he spoke lousy Mandarin. In a plague that quickly attracted international attention and doctors from around the world, he was “completely unimportant,” according to Lynteris. But after conducting an autopsy on one of the victims, Wu determined that the plague was not spread by fleas, as many suspected, but through the air.

Expanding upon the surgery masks he’d seen in the West, Wu developed a hardier mask from gauze and cotton, which wrapped securely around one’s face and added several layers of cloth to filter inhalations. His invention was a breakthrough, but some doctors still doubted its efficacy.

“There’s a famous incident. He’s confronted by a famous old hand in the region, a French doctor [Gérald Mesny] . . . and Wu explains to the French doctor his theory that plague is pneumonic and airborne,” Lynteris says. “And the French guy humiliates him . . . and in very racist terms says, ‘What can we expect from a Chinaman?’ And to prove this point, [Mesny] goes and attends the sick in a plague hospital without wearing Wu’s mask, and he dies in two days with plague.”

Other doctors in the region quickly developed their own masks. “Some are . . . completely strange things,” Lynteris says. “Hoods with glasses, like diving masks.”

But Wu’s mask won out because in empirical testing, it protected users from bacteria. 

According to Lynteris, it was also a great design. It could be constructed by hand out of materials that were cheap and in ready supply. Between January and February of 1911, mask production ramped up to unknown numbers. Medical staff wore them, soldiers wore them, and some everyday people wore them, too. Not only did that help thwart the spread of the plague; the masks became a symbol of modern medical science looking an epidemic right in the eye.

Wu’s mask quickly became an icon through international newspaper reports. “The mask was a very novel thing . . . it had an effect of strangeness, which the press loved, but you imagine a black-and-white photograph with a white mask—it reads well,” says Lynteris. “It’s a marketing success.”

When the Spanish flu arrived in 1918, Wu’s mask was well-known among scientists and even much of the public. Companies around the globe increased production of similar masks to help abate the spread of flu.

 A nurse using a mask during the 1918 flu pandemic

The N95 mask is a descendant of Wu’s design. Through World War I and World War II, scientists invented air-filtering gas masks that wrapped around your entire head to clean the air supply. Similar masks, loaded with fiberglass filters, began to be used in the mining industry to prevent black lung.

“All the respirators were these giant, gas mask-looking things,” says Nikki McCullough, an occupational health and safety leader at 3M, which manufactures N95 respirators. “You’d wash them out at night and you could wear them again.”

This equipment saved lives, but it was burdensome, and a large reason why were the filters. The fiberglass required a lot of effort to breathe, and the full head enclosures were hot to wear. By the 1950s, scientists began to understand the dangers of inhaling asbestos, but people working with asbestos preferred not to wear bulky respirator masks. Imagine working in construction in 85-degree heat and having your head wrapped in rubber to protect yourself from an invisible threat.

So in the 1970s, the Bureau of Mines and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health teamed up on creating the first criteria for what they called “single use respirators.” The first single-use N95 “dust” respirator as we know it was developed by 3M, according to the company, and approved on May 25, 1972. Instead of fiberglass, the company repurposed a technology it had developed for making stiffer gift ribbons into a filter, by taking a melted polymer and air-blasted it into layers of tiny fibers. “They look like somebody dropped a bunch of sticks—and they have huge spaces between them,” says McCullough.

As particles, whether silica or viruses, fly into this maze of sticks, they get stuck making turns. 3M also added an electrostatic charge to the material, so even smaller particles find themselves pulled toward the fibers. Meanwhile, because there are so many big holes, breathing is easy.

The longer you wear an N95 respirator, the more efficient it becomes at filtering out particles. More particles just help filter more particles. But breathing becomes more difficult over time as those gaping holes between the fibers get clogged up with particles, which is why an N95 respirator can’t be worn for more than about eight hours at a time in a very dusty environment. It doesn’t stop filtering; it just prevents you from breathing comfortably.

N95 respirators were used in industrial applications for decades before the need for a respirator circled back to clinical settings in the 1990s with the rise of drug-resistant tuberculosis. HIV had a lot to do with its spread across immunocompromised patients, but tuberculosis infected many healthcare workers, too. To stop its airborne spread, N95 standards were updated for healthcare settings, and doctors began wearing them when helping tuberculosis patients. Even still, respirators are rarely used in hospitals to this day because it’s only outbreaks like COVID-19 that necessitate so much protection.

As Lynteris and many others point out, the respirator never really faded from significance in China. Wu went on to found China’s version of the CDC, narrowly miss winning a Nobel Prize, and be featured in many biographies (including his own autobiography). More recently, during the SARS outbreak, people in China wore facial protection to prevent the spread of illness. Then as pollution took over cities like Beijing, they wore respirators to filter pollution.

The N95 respirator isn’t perfect. It isn’t designed to seal well to the face of children or those with facial hair, and if it doesn’t seal, it doesn’t work as advertised. Furthermore, the N95 variants that are worn in high-risk operating rooms don’t have an exhalation valve, so they can get particularly hot to wear.

But the N95 respirator evolved over hundreds of years in response to multiple crises. That evolution will only continue through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. McCullough says that 3M is constantly reevaluating the N95 respirator, tweaking everything from its filters to its ergonomics. “My mom would say they look pretty much the same [as in 1972], but we want them to look simple so they’re easy and intuitive to use,” says McCullough. “We’re always improving the technology. We have thousands of scientists at 3M working on [it].” ~

I have just learned that there is also a reusable kind of N95 mask. That’s probably the kind that would work best for the average person who’s just out for a walk and wants to filter out pollution and most pathogens. It’s not the super-protective kind designed for medical personal. Please don’t try to stock up on professional N95 masks — they are needed in hospitals.

But let’s not forget our #1 protective remedy: ordinary soap. Use it often.

Let’s take a musical break: a beautiful Tzarist waltz, On the Slopes of Manchuria.

Hailang River, Manchuria

What happens when you get a COVID-19 test?

~ First, a medical professional puts a swab — an extra long, one-headed Q-tip — way, way, way up your nose. That captures viral particles, along with a bunch of other stuff that Dr. Davey Smith, a research virologist at the University of California, San Diego, referred to as “biological gunk,” like mucus and random cells. 

The next step, Smith said, is isolating the viral RNA — the genetic material that the virus uses to replicate itself. The RNA in a virus like the one that causes COVID-19 is similar to DNA, but instead of the twisted ladder of a double helix, it’s half that because it’s split down the middle. Some viruses carry their genetic code as DNA, but RNA viruses mutate a lot faster. That feature helps them jump species and evade both natural and medical efforts to kill them. Influenza, for instance, mutates so quickly that we need a new vaccine for it every year.

Just like DNA can identify a person, RNA can identify the virus that causes COVID-19. Isolating it requires a series of steps — adding different chemicals and repeatedly spinning the sample in a centrifuge — that aim to separate the sample into layers like a fancy cocktail shot, with the layer containing the RNA floating on the top. Then the RNA has to be further purified. 

There’s more than one way to separate out RNA, and companies sell kits that include the chemicals you need to make it work (called reagents, because they’re used to induce a chemical reaction).

From there, the RNA is mixed with short segments of DNA called primers. The primers and RNA get combined with loose building blocks of DNA, enzymes that work like genetic construction crews, and more reagents. Mix it all up, and your RNA turns into DNA.
Finally, the new DNA needs to be replicated until you have enough of it to actually study. That’s another chemistry kit — more primers, building blocks and reagents — doing what basically amounts to biological copy-paste, over and over. This is called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and the primers used here are especially important. These replication primers are basically fragments of the virus you’re looking for, Smith said, that will bind to the genetic material of that specific virus and nothing else If there’s no COVID-19 in the sample, then COVID-19 primers won’t replicate any DNA.

“We put in some special dyes so when it builds the right DNA we’re looking for, we can see the color light up on special machines,” Smith said. If you had COVID-19, your sample will now show up with freshly built, brightly colored DNA to prove it.

This process is not particularly special or time-consuming and involves techniques used all the time in genetic research. PCR, in particular, is so crucial to the entire field that the guy who invented it won a Nobel Prize back in 1993. We use this same technique to test for all kinds of other viruses, from influenza to Zika, said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Florida International University.

PCR doesn’t actually take that long to do — you can get results from an influenza PCR test in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the chemistry set-style kits are something you can order from a website, and other needed machines can be as cheap as a used sedan. Any lab that works regularly with DNA has the ability, in theory, to do this testing.

In other words, the bottleneck slowing down test results is not a technical one. It’s about logistics and supplies, Smith said. In the earliest days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was conducting all the COVID-19 testing in-house so they could monitor quality control, and they’ve been slow to authorize new labs to use their test kits. As more labs came online, though, they began running low on everything from the swabs they stick up people’s noses to the reagents that power the PCR’s chemical reactions to the human lab techs who actually do the tests, Smith and Trepka told me. It’s like a traffic jam.

Compare that to South Korea, where people can get their results in about a day. There, the government had been stockpiling the necessary chemicals for years after COVID-19’s cousin MERS briefly hit that country in 2015. That helped the country move quickly to approve and decentralize testing as soon as COVID-19 arrived.

Is there no other way to test for COVID-19?

For right now, nope. That’s changing fast, though there are trade-offs. PCR is a great way to test for viruses because it’s both specific (unlikely to produce false positives) and sensitive (unlikely to produce false negatives), Trepka said. There are other tools that doctors use to test for more familiar viruses. For instance, if you think you have the flu, there’s a test you can take right in your doctor’s office that looks for antigens — the substances on a virus that stimulate your immune system into action. It produces results in as little as 10 minutes, but it’s not very sensitive and might tell you that you have the flu even if you don’t. “They’re helpful in clinical care but we don’t use them to monitor outbreaks,” Trepka said.

Meanwhile, new tests — like one from Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche that the Food and Drug Administration authorized on March 13 — are under development. The Roche test is 10 times faster at producing results than the standard PCR system. But unlike the PCR test, it requires the use of a rare (and proprietary) instrument. There are only 110 of these machines in the whole country. And that test still requires reagents, Smith said. As big companies like Roche bring these kinds of testing systems online, they’re sucking up the already limited quantities of reagent that smaller labs need for PCR tests. These big companies, such as Roche, are also making more reagent, Smith said. “But it’s very much profit-driven and they can corner the market very quickly,” he told me. “That’s not the end of the world, but it’s hard in the middle of the epidemic.”


It's a rather clunky multi-step system. There's hope that a new test will be developed -- one that looks for the antibodies against the the virus. It could also identify those who have already become immune, and whose plasma might help the ill.
A brain-based personality test helps people understand themselves better and why they are attracted to certain other personality types

~ “Why do we fall in love with one person and not another?

This question has vexed philosophers, psychologists and poets for generations. The theories—proximity, pheromones, timing—don’t fully explain the mystery. We can be in a room full of attractive, available strangers—and be open to love—and still choose one person over all others.

A decade ago, the biological anthropologist Helen Fisher set out to answer this question of how we choose whom we love. Dr. Fisher is known for her research scanning the brains of people in various stages of love, and she went looking for neurological clues.

She found them—and, in the process, she developed a broad personality test that, unlike many others, is based on brain science rather than psychology: The Fisher Temperament Inventory measures temperament, which comes from our genes, hormones and neurotransmitters. It can help people understand themselves and why they are attracted to certain people, both romantically and as friends or colleagues. 

To develop her test, Dr. Fisher spent two years reviewing medical and academic literature, searching for the personality traits linked to a biological system. She identified four systems, each with its own host of traits: the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems. Dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters, govern our “stay or go” scale, which decides how comfortable we are exploring unknown risks or whether we prefer the familiar. Testosterone and estrogen are hormones and determine the extent to which our brains express male or female traits.

We all have all four systems—as do humans, monkeys, lizards and birds. But we each have different levels of activity in each system. Some of us are dominant in one or, more often, two areas. Some are more balanced. It’s more of a spectrum. “This is a new way of understanding personality,” says Dr. Fisher, who is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Ind., and the author of several books, including “The Anatomy of Love.” “You are not putting people in buckets.”

DOPAMINE—People who are high on the dopamine scale tend to be curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic, restless, enthusiastic, impulsive, and mentally flexible. These are the explorers and the risk takers (personally and in business). They are very good at idea generation. They can’t tolerate people who are boring.

These people are drawn to people like themselves.

SEROTONIN—People who have high serotonin activity are more sociable and eager to belong. They’re quite traditional in their values and less inclined toward exploration. These are the builders and guardians. They’re calm, cautious, controlled, like to make plans, persistent, concrete thinkers, detail-oriented, structured, fact-oriented, loyal. They prefer loyal people over interesting or exciting people.

These people are drawn to people like themselves.

TESTOSTERONE—People expressive of the testosterone system are tough-minded, direct, decisive, skeptical, competitive, emotionally contained, inventive, experimental, exacting, analytical and assertive. They tend to be good at rule-based systems—engineering, computers, mechanics, math, and music. These are the rank-oriented directors.

These people are drawn to people who are the opposite.

ESTROGEN—People who are expressive of the estrogen system tend to be intuitive, introspective, holistic, imaginative, trusting, empathetic, and contextual long-term thinkers. They are sensitive to people’s feelings, and typically have good verbal and social skills. These people are negotiators. They’re big-picture thinkers, tolerate ambiguity well, have mental flexibility and strong executive social skills. They’re highly emotionally intelligent.

These people are drawn to people who are the opposite.

When interacting with a dopamine type: 

Do: be energetic, optimistic and enthusiastic. Be flexible, spontaneous and creative. Explore new information and ideas. Speculate and theorize. Give them variety, possibilities and choices. Be daring.

Don’t: Smother them with details. Go heavy on process. Require rigid schedules or routines. Moralize (avoid “ought” and “should”). Dwell too long on one point. Be repetitive.

When interacting with a serotonin type: 

Do: Discuss concrete topics. Be orderly and calm. Make and stick to schedules and plans. Emphasize the “right way” of doing things. Accentuate tradition. Minimize risks and uncertainties. Emphasize details.

Don’t: Present an unsubstantiated point of view. Give unfounded theories or speculations. Use intuitive statements or phrases, such as “I suspect…” Exaggerate. Leave issues unresolved. Be unorganized.

When interacting with a testosterone type: 

Do: Be direct and tough-minded. Get to the point. Focus on the goal. Be logical and unemotional. Avoid sustained eye contact. Give the big picture first, then details. Disagree and debate, backed by facts. Engage the person’s sense of fairness. Give orders clearly.

Don’t: Be self-deprecating or minimize your achievements or rank. Apologize unless appropriate. Make moralistic statements (avoid “ought” and “should). Be long-winded, redundant or effusive. Talk about theories without linking them to facts.

When interacting with an estrogen type: 

Do: Think contextually and long-term. Balance facts with feelings. Give theories and use ancillary data. Find points of agreement. Appreciate the person’s contributions. Express caring. Reveal your feelings. Sit facing them and use an “anchoring” gaze.

Don’t: Be competitive or confrontational, aggressive or blunt, or impersonal or aloof. Interrupt. Push for a decision before the person has explored all the options. Forget that this type sees meaning in everything.” ~

“This sounds surprisingly like the astrological elements that are fundamental to personality and Jung’s types upon which Myers-Briggs inventory was based; for example, fire (action oriented, adventuresome ), earth (practical, skill builders), air (aware, social), and water (sensitive, empathetic). What’s old is new again.” ~ Ellen Bartin

My favorite photo of Jung


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

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

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

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

There was an urgent message here. Nature sets the standard. It provides us with particularly intense examples of beauty and grace. The plumage of a bird, the clouds over the mountains at sunset, the great trees bending in the wind – nature is ordered, beautiful, simple, effective. It is only with us that things seem to go wrong. Why can we not be as it is? There is a humiliating contrast between the natural loveliness of trees by a stream and the bleak, griminess of an average street; between the ever-changing interest of the sky and the monotony and dreariness of so much of our lives. 

Ruskin felt that this painful comparison was instructive. Because we are part of nature we have the capacity to live up to its standard. We should use the emotion we feel at the beauty of nature to energize us to equal its works. The goal of human society is to honor the dignity and grandeur of the natural world.

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

Ruskin: Peacock feather


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



Pablo Picasso at 91: “And now I must go back to work.” It was Sunday, April 8, 1973. He painted that night until 3 AM and then died.

One of Picasso's last self-portraits, July 3, 1972



~ “Who’s happier, men or women? Research shows it’s a complicated question and that asking whether males or females are happier isn’t really that helpful, because essentially, happiness is different for women and men.

Women’s happiness has been declining for the past 30 years, according to recent statistics. And research shows that women are twice as likely to experience depression compared with men. Gender differences in depression are well established, and studies have found that biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to the disparity.

But research also shows that women are more likely to experience intense positive emotions — such as joy and happiness — compared to men. So it seems that women’s more intense positive emotions balance out their higher risk of depression. Research also shows women are more likely to try and get help and access treatment — allowing them to also recover sooner.

Early studies on gender and happiness found men and women were socialized to express different emotions. Women are more likely to express happiness, warmth, and fear, which helps with social bonding and appears more consistent with the traditional role as primary caregiver, whereas men display more anger, pride, and contempt, which are more consistent with a protector and provider role.

Recent research suggests that these differences are not just social, but also in the brain. In numerous studies, females score higher than males in standard tests of emotion recognition, social sensitivity, and empathy.

Neuroimaging studies have investigated these findings further and discovered that females utilize more areas of the brain containing mirror neurons than males when they process emotions. Mirror neurons allow us to experience the world from other people’s perspective, to understand their actions and intentions. This may explain why women can experience deeper sadness.

Psychologically, it seems men and women differ in the way they process and express emotions. With the exception of anger, women experience emotions more intensely and share their emotions more openly with others. Studies have found in particular that women express more pro-social emotions — such as gratitude — which has been linked to greater happiness. This supports the theory that women’s happiness is more dependent on relationships than men’s.

As you can see, it’s a complicated picture. Yes, women are more sensitive to stress, and more vulnerable to depression and trauma, but they are also incredibly resilient and significantly more capable of post-traumatic growth compared with men. Studies show that this is due to their sociability and ability to connect at a deeper level with others, both male and female.

It’s also important to recognize that despite these differences, the benefits of happiness are far-reaching for both women and men. And that research shows happiness is not merely the function of individual experience but ripples through social networks. Happiness is infectious and contagious — and it has a positive impact on the health and well-being of everyone.” ~


Dennis Prager said that happiness is an obligation. I understand what he means in a certain context.


Depression means a focus on oneself and one’s misfortunes. I’ve noticed that a happy mood makes one more likely to be kind to others — to smile, to speak in a pleasant voice and say pleasant things, to offer help, and so on.



“In 1931, the great American painter Edward Hopper painted Hotel Room, a large-sized canvas. A woman is sitting in underwear on a hotel bed. She hasn't unpacked her travel bag or suitcase yet. The woman, whose facial features are immersed in the shadows, is reading a flyer, probably a road map. She seems indecisive, almost distraught, without help. The melancholy of anonymous train stations and hotel rooms, endless and without destination, wraps up this frozen scene.”

The women Hopper shows us reading are not dangerous but in danger, not because of their vivid imagination, but because of the depression that awaits them.”

~ Laure Adler, Women Who Read Are Dangerous 

Edward Hopper, Hotel Room 1931


I interpret Hopper's painting quite differently. First thing she does is take off her clothes to relax. When one goes to a hotel room the first thing you see is a what to do list in the town the hotel is in. That's what she's looking at. She is not looking at a map because she has arrived. She is sad because she has nobody to go with.

"Hotel Room" is not one of Hopper’s best because there is too much white in the painting. It looks unfinished.


I agree that it’s not one of his best. It remains pretty much unknown for a good reason. His main theme is loneliness, but in his most interesting painting the monotony of the theme is not a problem — we enjoy the interesting details. For all the desolate feeling, they are still a visual feast. Here there isn’t much to enjoy. 

In addition, the room feel awfully cramped. I like the more "spacious" paintings that are Hopper's lasting gift to us. I realize that the room is supposed to feel cramped, but that's just one more reason why I don't enjoy looking at this painting.



(not new — this discovery goes back to 2013 — but interesting enough to be worth re-reading)

~ “Earth's internal engine is running about 1,000 degrees Celsius (about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than previously measured, providing a better explanation for how the planet generates a magnetic field, a study has found.

A team of scientists has measured the melting point of iron at high precision in a laboratory, and then drew from that result to calculate the temperature at the boundary of Earth's inner and outer core — now estimated at  6,000 C (about 10,800 F). That's as hot as the surface of the sun.

The difference in temperature matters, because this explains how the Earth generates its magnetic field. The Earth has a solid inner core surrounded by a liquid outer core, which, in turn, has the solid, but flowing, mantle above it. There needs to be a 2,700-degree F (1,500 C) difference between the inner core and the mantle to spur "thermal movements" that — along with Earth's spin — create the magnetic field.

The previously measured core temperature didn't demonstrate enough of a differential, puzzling researchers for two decades.” ~


One problem is that we don’t know the exact chemical composition of the earth’s core. It’s mostly iron, but what other elements might be important? 


This month’s conversation is with Moulie Vidas, an associate professor of religion and Judaic studies at Princeton University. His books include “Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud” and a collection of essays, coedited with Catherine Chin, “Late Ancient Knowing: Explorations in Intellectual History.” — George Yancy

George Yancy: I’m delighted to engage with some of the important beliefs within Judaism to get a deeper sense of this living and historical religious tradition. I’m aware of some of the similarities between Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but in what ways would you say Judaism differs from the other two?

Moulie Vidas: Speaking very generally, I’d say there are two characteristics that set most forms of Judaism apart from Christianity and Islam. First, whereas Christianity and Islam imagine themselves as universal religions, Judaism is usually imagined as a religion for a specific people, for Jews. This of course does not mean that Judaism does not concern itself with humanity as a whole, but the orientation is different.

Second, in comparison to Christianity and Islam, Judaism places less of a stress on belief and more on practice. To be sure, one could formulate core Jewish “doctrines” (and many thinkers have), but it is not a coincidence that the most classical Jewish literature lacks such a formulation. Most Jewish movements are concerned not with what you believe about God, but with how the tradition informs your life: how you pray and celebrate the holidays; how you conduct your family or business affairs; what you eat and so on.

Yancy: An essential part of Judaism is that Jews have a covenant with God — an agreement or commitment between God and his people. Is there anything in this covenant regarding how Jewish people ought to approach death? And does that covenant speak to the promise of an afterlife?

Vidas: The covenant as we find it in the Hebrew Bible is about life, not about death. It promises, to those who keep it, a long and prosperous life (see, for example, Deuteronomy 6:2, in which one keeps the commandments so that “your days may be long”) rather than an afterlife. In fact, the Hebrew Bible mentions neither heaven nor hell: it speaks of “she’ol,” a dark underworld to which everyone goes after death, regardless of how they acted during their lifetime. There is also only one chapter in the entire Hebrew Bible that refers explicitly to a collective resurrection of the dead in the future (Daniel 12).

In contrast with the “this world” emphasis of these biblical manifestations of the covenant, we find already the earliest rabbinical texts looking increasingly toward another world. What the rabbis meant by this usually was not the immediate afterlife following a person’s death, but rather the afterlife following resurrection of the dead at the end of times. At the same time, we see from the Second Temple period onward the development of the idea that different souls have different destinies immediately after death. The righteous are rewarded in heaven and the wicked are punished in hell. The distinctions between these two kinds of afterlife, the immediate one and the eschatological one (end-of-times version), are often unclear, and the way these elements are imagined varies greatly among different Jewish texts and authors.

Yancy: This is fascinating, especially the point about the emphasis placed on life, not death. Might it be said that Judaism places more emphasis on life because the mission should be to live observant lives, good and decent lives in the here and now?

Vidas: I think that’s a fair characterization of a great deal of Jewish tradition: Its intellectual and spiritual energy aims at the shaping of a particular kind of life. But you certainly also find opposite tendencies. For example, the Mishnah, the earliest Rabbinic text (third century A.D.), records Rabbi Jacob’s teaching that our world is merely a vestibule for the afterlife in the world to come. There are periods in Jewish history in which the self-sacrifice or martyrdom was seen as the ultimate expression of the love God demands. And there is a strong pattern, especially in some of the mystical texts of kabbalah, that aspires to become closer to God by transcending this life; sometimes these texts invite practitioners to a meditation in which they simulate their own deaths, imagining their souls as having already departed from their bodies.

Different Jewish interpretations of the story of the binding of Isaac reflect this range between an emphasis on life, on the one hand, and the spiritual possibilities presented by death on the other hand. According to the Bible, Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but just before the sacrifice was executed, an angel of God intervened and told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Many Jews see in this story precisely the Jewish celebration of life: sacrificing life is opposed to Jewish values. But there are other Jewish understandings of this story — we find, for example, interpretations that celebrate Isaac as a willing sacrifice, providing a role model for future martyrs prepared to die for God; or representations of Abraham as eager to kill his son; and even the interpretation that Abraham did actually kill Isaac, who was then resurrected by God.

Yancy: Say more about she’ol, especially as I understand it to have different interpretations. Is it a place? And are we all bound for such a place, Jews and gentiles?

Vidas: In the Hebrew Bible, she’ol is the underworld, located below the earth, where all dead are destined to go, regardless of their deeds or ethnicity. But beginning with sources dating from the third century B.C.E., we find this idea that after death the souls of the righteous and the souls of the wicked have different destinies. The usual name for the place where the wicked souls go is “gehenom”; but at some point, Jews began understanding the word “she’ol” in the Bible as referring to gehenom. This is the Jewish equivalent of the Christian hell. But the dominant view in Judaism has been that the punishments of hell are temporary, lasting up to 12 months. Once transgressors have paid for their transgressions in hell, they can move up to heaven.

There is a range of other views, including that at least for some offenses the punishment in hell is eternal; but the utmost punishment in traditional Judaism is not such eternal torments but the complete annihilation of body and soul — the lack of any type of afterlife.
Regarding the second part of your question, in the earliest rabbinical literature, we find the idea that gentiles, just like Jews, are judged according to their deeds: They can be punished but they also can be saved. Many later texts indeed assume the punishment of non-Jews by definition. That idea appears alongside the dominant idea, originating in the biblical prophets, that in the world to come gentiles will worship the same God as the Jews in a harmonious existence.

Yancy: Despite its this-worldly emphasis, is there a conception of the soul within Judaism, that which separates from the body at death?

Vidas: Yes, that idea is pervasive and important to most strands of Judaism. Its earliest manifestation is in Ecclesiastes 12:7: “the dust returns to the earth, where it once was, and the soul returns to God who gave it.” Most Jewish texts from the medieval period on speak in terms of “body-soul” dualism that we know from Greek philosophy and from Christianity, in which the human being is composed of two separable entities, the body and the soul. There are also Jewish texts that present these two elements in conflict, with the soul being the pure, moral component, and the body the seat of mundane and even sinful desires. But most texts in the Hebrew Bible do not even make the distinction between body and soul.

Moses Maimonides, a 12th-century philosopher and one of the greatest thinkers of the Jewish tradition, presented a particular view. Bodily resurrection played such a small part in his writings that he was faced with accusations from other Jews that he did not believe in it. 

In response, Maimonides wrote the “Treatise on Resurrection” in which he affirmed his belief in resurrection. But for an intellectualist philosopher like Maimonides, bodily resurrection could never be the culmination of existence, so he posited — perhaps absurdly, from a traditional perspective — that it was only a passing stage. In this view, the resurrected people will die, and then reach the ultimate goal of salvation: an incorporeal existence of human intellectual perfection.

Yancy: Christians are comforted by the faith that their loved ones who have died will be seen again after death. Are there ways that Judaism brings comfort, through a narrative of reunion, to those who have lost loved ones to death?

Vidas: The Hebrew Bible often describes death as being united with one’s kin or people. When Abraham dies, we are told he “died in a good old age … and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8); when God tells Moses about his death, he says Moses is about to “lie with his ancestors” (Deuteronomy 31:16). Most scholars agree that these expressions reflect an ancient practice of burying family members together in a family tomb. It may also indicate, already in the biblical period, an idea that one joins one’s family in the afterlife. Certainly, this is how many Jews read these expressions today: To die is to join one’s loved ones.

Yancy: I realize that there are very important mourning practices within Judaism. How do such practices relate to the fact of our death? Mourning suggests profound grieving. In what way do such practices have importance for both the living and the dead?

Vidas: The period of seven days, the shiva, after the death, is the most well known. For the mourners, it is a period characterized by some restrictions: They sit at home, they do not work, they may not engage in acts of personal grooming such as washing or shaving. But if these restrictions involve a withdrawal from society, the shiva is also a period of community, since it is a commandment for others to visit the mourners’ home and comfort them.

One of the most popular and yet mysterious of Jewish mourning customs is the recitation of the kaddish. This is a prayer for the sanctification of God’s name and for the hastening of redemption. It does not mention death or mourning at all and, for most of its early history, appeared in different contexts of liturgy that have nothing to do with death. And still, for most Jews, it is the text most associated with mourning, especially on the personal level. Observant Jews who mourn the death of close relatives recite it every day for 11 months.

Yancy: Most of us are terrified by the fact that we will die. In what ways might Judaism help us to embrace our death with greater courage?

Vidas: There is an enormous diversity in the Jewish responses to this fear, but I think there is something you can say about the Jewish tradition and this question in general. This tradition offers those who take part in it — even if they do not believe in the afterlife or God or the resurrection — a strong and immediate sense that their individual, particular lives are part of a long, collective story, a meaningful narrative.  

But let me also mention, in conclusion, a more specific and distinctive grappling with this fear of death, from one of the greatest works of modern Jewish thought, Franz Rosenzweig’s “Star of Redemption” (first published in German in 1921). This book opens with a discussion of the fear of death and a condemnation of philosophy (modern German philosophy in particular). Rosenzweig argues that philosophy tries “to remove from death its poisonous sting.” Philosophers evade confronting death by claiming to transcend the finite human, by replacing the perspective of particular, individual humans with an absolute, objective perspective. What Rosenzweig offers instead is a thinking wholly grounded in the realization that we are mortal, which he says will allow us to embrace life: particular, individual and finite.


I had never heard of the punishments of hell as temporary—twelve months should be quite enough, wouldn’t you think? Remember as little kids trying to imagine eternity—suffering the most horrible tortures forever and ever with no end.

I was affected by the statement that the Jewish tradition gives its members “a strong and immediate sense that their individual, particular lives are part of a long, collective story, a meaningful narrative.”

I thought I was part of a meaningful collective narrative, something like MLK’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I suppose that would be called secular humanism. November 8, 2016, we lost the narrative.



Hell is temporary also in Islam. Eventually even the devils are saved.

I too identify with secular humanism. True, the steady progress we've been making has suffered setbacks. But I think the overall trend is still strong. For instance, no one seriously suggests taking the vote away from women. Again, in spite of recent rise in hate crimes, there is less racism and blatant discrimination against minorities. And at least we are talking about universal health care. 

And every progressive voice counts. I find solace in that.


An interesting article. I do not fear death. I fear the suffering before death.


Our knowledge that death awaits us is already a source of suffering. To overcome it, we need either a strong belief in a happy afterlife, or an intense engagement with this life, often through work or social service. 

Discussions about death and ideas of what might follow seem particularly urgent these days, with our fragility and impermanence so terrifyingly on display. The images of the dead in body bags outside a New York hospital, waiting to be loaded onto a refrigerated truck, is one I won't forget, so like the descriptions of the carts sent round to collect the dead in the medieval plague years.

The degree of our vulnerability comes with the shock of a full body blow…our unpreparedness, our confusion, the inadequate and foolish bumbling of our government leaders, the refusal of our people to feel any of this, either threat or restriction, applies to them individually, so they go on meeting with friends, socializing, far past when all these should have been strictly avoided, has made us now the fulminating center of the pandemic.

I think our strong and fiercely held sense of individualism, of our rights and freedoms as individuals, works dangerously against us here, threatening safety and survival. There is too much "me first” — "I'm getting mine before it runs out” — leading to irresponsible behaviors, like ignoring orders to obey social distancing, or hoarding supplies and causing shortages. We had panic buying, and in the US it was both comical and frightening —people wanted toilet paper and bread, yes, but also lots of guns and ammunition. That, unfortunately, says a lot.

These things frighten me as much as the danger of death and infection itself, even though there is also evidence of courage, sacrifice and generosity everywhere — certainly from those in the front lines, the nurses and doctors, the first responders,  all the service workers who keep the lights on, the streets open, the necessary supplies moving. We are social beings, and isolation is unnatural and painful…we are finding inventive ways to connect and share, whether singing from balconies in Italy or putting together virtual symphony orchestras, musician by musician, to make and share music free to the world . We keep on being human, in the worst and the best ways we know.

What I also know is that I might die, or not, but lose those most beloved and important to me, and even sparing that, will lose some, that we will all be losers, that the world will be emptier by far, and far far different than we ever imagined .

Fear lives in my chest like an unwelcome guest, stealing my breath even before the virus has a chance to.

It is also interesting to see what things we want to share in our separation: encouragement, humor, and very frequently, beauty. Music, as I have noted, but also beautiful images, words, stories. Museums have opened their galleries to the virtual world, a local artist organization has made its usual live musical presentations and lectures available on line, we can watch plays and performances, all for free, streamed online. I'm looking forward to Alvin Ailey's masterpiece Revelations to be streamed next week. And people are using these, watching, listening, in the thousands. Not only because they are entertainment and we are alone and bored, but because beauty heals, beauty is a comfort, and a shout of defiance against the dark, against these dark times , helping us to keep on, as sustaining as hope, or medicine, or a mother's good soup.

Ideas of the afterlife, of heavens and hells and purgatories, seem less important to me now than ever. We invented them because we don't want to let anything go, we can't imagine ending, and we want to see some satisfaction of our ideas of justice, somewhere else, if we cant get it here. But the huge indiscriminate toll of death in a pandemic gives the lie to all that. There is no question here of "deserving." And after this, hell is superfluous, unnecessary,  an idea both grotesque and ridiculous. What we know without question, as we face such an enormous threat, is that life is its own reason, only life. In the world where all connection is threatened, meeting with shadows in the afterlife has only a thin and anemic appeal, unconvincing, unsatisfying, nowhere near enough. Only life, only living, our light in the dark, the story we make against silence.

I hope these thoughts are not too extreme. Solitude and anxiety, too many days listening to the numbers on the news.

I have been writing quite a bit though, and there is joy in that.


Yes to all you say. Life has to be very miserable indeed for the idea of the afterlife to have the importance it had during the Middle Ages, say, when all kinds of self-mortification were used by the pious to hasten death and shorten the time in Purgatory. Now we want more life, the only life we can be sure of.

There are still plenty of unresolved mysteries, e.g. a clock stopping at the exact time when someone dies, or the person close to the dying one suddenly feeling sick and perhaps nearly fainting when the actual death of the other takes place. Almost everyone who lives long enough can tell a story of this sort. If this is evidence of anything, it would be not of afterlife, but of  mysterious connections that we can’t explain — and perhaps will never be able to explain. For now all we can say is that those mysterious events are too within the realm of nature — we don’t have to posit anything “supernatural.” Quantum physics is mind-boggling enough. Nature humbles us until we say, “We don’t know, we don’t understand, and perhaps we’ll never know.” 

As for some people revealing themselves as greedy villains while others act heroically, I was reminded of my mother’s saying that that was one of the lessons of wartime: it revealed those who were moral swine, but it also turned certain other people into heroes and saints. Extreme situations show people’s ability to sink or rise. Of course the vast majority just try to survive — without hurting others. They realize as never before that “we are all in this together.”

Meanwhile the art, the poems, the stories. Here is the ending of a poem by Alison Hawthorne Deming, The Enigma We Answer by Living:

[we are] all playing the endgame of a beautiful planet

that’s made us want to name

each thing and try to tell

its story against the vanishing.


The statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

~“Theologians have sometimes had the impertinence to wonder why God would send anyone to an eternal torture chamber. The general theological answer has been that we should be thankful he sends anyone to heaven. He doesn't have to. He could send everyone to the eternal torture chamber. 

Corporatists have this attitude about bad working conditions and unemployment.
“We're Gods. Be thankful we offer anyone jobs.” ~ Jeremy Sherman



~ “Exactly how déjà vu works has long been a mystery, partly because its fleeting and unpredictable nature makes it difficult to study. To get around this, O’Connor and his colleagues developed a way to trigger the sensation of déjà vu in the lab.

The team’s technique uses a standard method to trigger false memories. It involves telling a person a list of related words – such as bed, pillow, night, dream – but not the key word linking them together, in this case, sleep. When the person is later quizzed on the words they’ve heard, they tend to believe they have also heard “sleep” – a false memory.

To create the feeling of déjà vu, O’ Connor’s team first asked people if they had heard any words beginning with the letter “s”. The volunteers replied that they hadn’t. This meant that when they were later asked if they had heard the word sleep, they were able to remember that they couldn’t have, but at the same time, the word felt familiar. “They report having this strange experience of déjà vu,” says O’Connor.

His team used fMRI to scan the brains of 21 volunteers while they experienced this triggered déjà vu. We might expect that areas of the brain involved in memories, such as the hippocampus, would be active during this phenomenon, but this wasn’t the case. O’Connor’s team found that the frontal areas of the brain that are involved in decision making were active instead.

O’Connor presented these findings at the International Conference on Memory in Budapest, Hungary, last month. He thinks that the frontal regions of the brain are probably checking through our memories, and sending signals if there’s some kind of memory error – a conflict between what we’ve actually experienced and what we think we’ve experienced.

“It suggests there may be some conflict resolution going on in the brain during déjà vu,” says Stefan Köhler at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

If these findings are confirmed, they suggest that déjà vu is a sign that your brain’s memory checking system is working well, and that you’re less likely to misremember events.

This would fit with what we already know about the effects of age on memory – déjà vu is more common in younger people and trails off in old age, as memory deteriorates. “It may be that the general checking system is in decline, that you’re less likely to spot memory mistakes,” says O’Connor.

Christopher Moulin at Pierre Mendès-France University in Grenoble says the findings do not bode well for people who don’t experience déjà vu at all. “Without being unkind, they don’t reflect on their memory systems,” he says.

But people who don’t experience déjà vu might just have better memory systems in the first place, says O’Connor. If they’re not making memory errors, there’s no trigger for déjà vu, he says.

We still don’t know if déjà vu is beneficial, says Köhler. “It could be that déjà vu experiences make people cautious, because they might not trust their memory as much,” he says. “But we don’t have any evidence for that yet.”~

ending on beauty:

It was a shadowy yard, walled high with stones.

The trees held early apples, dark

wine-colored skin, the perfected flavor of thing
ripe before their time.
Clay jugs sat alongside the wall

I ate apples and sipped the purest water

Then my father appeared and tweaked my nose,

and he wasn’t sick and hadn’t died either;

that’s why he was laughing, blood

stirring in his face again,

he was hunting for ways to spend this happiness

~ Adelia Prado, Lesson, tr. Ellen Doré Watson