Saturday, December 3, 2022


Li Po says: “I sing, and moon rocks back and forth; / I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.” Anna Akhmatova: “The word dropped like a stone / on my still living breast.”

Rabi’a al-Basri, writing in 717 ce: “Kings have locked their doors / and each lover is alone with his love. / Here, I am alone with You.”

my dream about the second coming

mary is an old woman without shoes.

she doesn’t believe it.

not when her belly starts to bubble

and leave the print of a finger where 

no man touches.
not when the snow in her hair melts away.
not when the stranger she used to wait for

appears dressed in lights at her

kitchen table.
she is an old woman and
doesn’t believe it.

when Something drops onto her toes one night
she calls it a fox
but she feeds it

~ Lucille Clifton


Paul Klee: City of Dreams


~ Colonial Americans, especially in Virginia and Massachusetts, were from the start sophisticated tellers of stories about themselves, their origins, their settlements, and their relationship to those who lived there before them, to the people, Red and Black, whom they subjugated or owned. Their stories were also about their connection to the mother country, Great Britain, from which most had come, stressing whom they owed their allegiance to and from whom they got the right to possess the land they had settled.

Usually they knew exactly what they were doing and why. Fact and fiction, reality and desire, action and thought, aspiration and imagination, history, natural science, and theology, the access through language to narrative patterns and claims were part of the American experience from the start. The earliest settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts began the making of American identity. Jefferson was one of its most gifted and influential storytellers.

In 1757, at the age of fourteen, Jefferson inherited a large share of the property his father had amassed, “the lands,” he later wrote, “on which I was born and live.” Peter Jefferson was the largest property owner in Albemarle County in west-central Virginia. A surveyor, cartographer, planter, and slave-owner, he had married upward. A native Virginian, he came from a moderately well-to-do but not wealthy family.

His wife, Jane Randolph, made him and their ten children, two of whom were sons, kin to one of the most influential families in the colony. Peter and Jane Randolph Jefferson’s children belonged to the privileged elite. Peter had an eye for wealth, power, and adventures, for settlement and expansion, and even for books, which his eldest son inherited. In his will, he made customary provision for his wife, his daughters, and his sons. It was an unusually equitable will for its time.

None of Thomas’s sisters inherited land. They inherited domestic slaves, a small amount of money, and their educations at the expense of the estate. Peter Jefferson’s wife got life tenancy of the family home, Shadwell, about three miles from the small village of Charlottesville. The will provided that each son should inherit either one of two large properties, one on the Fluvanna River, about 2,300 acres, the other on the Rivanna River. The Rivanna land, including Shadwell, was on the southern part of the lower ridge of the South Mountains, which ran north to south for about eighty miles, about thirty miles east of the Blue Ridge. Its highest point was almost 1,500 feet above sea level. As the first son to come of age, Thomas chose the land on the Rivanna, about five thousand acres.


Rain dripped through the roof of a plantation called Fairfield into the room in which nineteen-year-old Thomas Jefferson was sleeping. It was Christmas Day 1762. He was two years away from coming into his inheritance. He awoke to find his pocket watch, which he had placed by his bedside, floating in water. His “poor watch,” he jokingly complained to his closest friend, John Page, “had lost her speech.” It had also lost a representation, probably a silhouette, of a young lady he was passionate about. His wallet, stored for the night a foot from his head, had also been attacked. It had been eaten through by rats.

Christmas Day was not a religious day in Church of England Virginia. It was a day of social celebration. The first thing on the young man’s mind that morning was his need to communicate with his good friend. One of the first things in his hand, other than the “poor watch” that he rescued, was his pen. He had a story to tell and a state of mind to write about. The rain and rats didn’t spoil his humorous, satirical, and self-revealing mood. Very little he wrote after his school days reveals a notable sense of humor or an inclination toward self-satire. There’s no record of his telling jokes or responding to other people’s.

But on Christmas Day 1762, he had his moment as a humorist, a self-mocking memoirist, the kind of writer he never was to become. Still, the story creator, the exaggerator, the tall-tale teller, the writer who could use language effectively to define himself to himself and others was there from the start. “This very day, to others the day of greatest mirth and jollity,” he wrote to Page, “sees me overwhelmed with more and greater misfortunes than have befallen a descendant of Adam for these thousand years past I am sure.”

Jefferson’s lamentation about the loss of the image in his watch was spontaneous self-expression. Job’s “misfortunes,” he humorously acknowledged, “were somewhat greater than mine, for although we may be pretty nearly on a level in other respects, yet I thank my God I have the advantage of brother Job in this, that Satan has not as yet put forth his hand to load me with bodily afflictions.” At least he was young and healthy. He was also indulging his pen in playful self-mockery. “You must know, dear Page, that I am now in a house surrounded with enemies, who take counsel together against my soul and when I lay me down to rest they say among themselves Come let us destroy him.”

These enemies were a host of aggressive rats in a parodic and comic misfortune, with a semiserious complication. The rats had, he wrote, animating them into playful agency, conspired against him as agents of the devil. “I am sure if there is such a thing as a devil in this world, he must have been here last night and have had some hand in contriving what happened to me. Do you think the cursed rats (at his instigation I suppose) did not eat up my pocketbook which was in my pocket within a foot of my head? And not contented . . . they carried away my . . . silk garters and half a dozen new minuets,” sheet music he needed for his violin practice and pleasure. “But of this I should not have accused the devil (because you know rats will be rats, and hunger without the addition of his instigations might have urged them to do this) if something worse and from a different quarter had not happened.”

To blame the devil was not a religious construction. Jefferson was never to believe in supernatural creatures except for a first cause. That was his view from early on. “When I went to bed I laid my watch in the usual place, and going to take her up after I arose this morning I found her, in the same place it’s true but! . . . all afloat in water . . . and as silent and still as the rats that had eat my pocket-book.”

As a storyteller he could have it both ways: it could not have been accidental, though the denial was an affirmation that it was accidental. He had been unlucky. He also had been careless. It was good fun to make the Devil take the blame. “There were a thousand other spots where it might have chanced to leak as well as at this one which was perpendicularly over my watch. But I’ll tell you: It’s my opinion that the Devil came and bored the hole over it on purpose. Well as I was saying, my poor watch had lost her speech: I should not have cared much for this, but something worse attended it: the subtle particles of the water with which the case was filled had by their penetration so overcome the cohesion of the particles of the paper of which my dear picture and watch paper were composed that in attempting to take them out to dry them Good God! . . . my cursed fingers gave them such a rent as I fear I never shall get over. This, cried I, was the last stroke Satan had in reserve for me: he knew I cared not for anything else he could do to me.”

It was, he mock angrily concluded, his fingers that were “cursed.” But the clumsy fingers whose touch had completed the shredding of the image firmly held the pen that created this expressively imaginative letter. Among his gifts as a writer, he had at times, for eighteenth-century prose, a colloquial and conversational voice.

In Jefferson’s Virginia, courtship between members of the same class was highly ritualized. He was marginally too young to marry; the lady in the silhouette was of marriageable age. The woman whom 19-year-old Jefferson had fallen in love with was 16-year-old Rebecca Burwell. He had attempted to engage with her in Williamsburg, with no significant success. Shy and almost speechless, his first attachment of the heart was strong but recessive. She was the recipient of and the projection of the dialectic between his desires and his shyness. With Rebecca, his body talked awkwardly and mostly in flight. Expressive and bold on paper, in her presence he tended to be irresolute, tongue-tied. Apparently, sex and courtship both enticed and confused him.

Whatever his physical intensity, he gave it no expression for the record. Rebecca seems not to have taken him seriously enough to advance their relationship beyond Williamsburg dances and social gatherings. Much of the relationship was in Jefferson’s head. It was also in his letters to friends. The image that had been enclosed in his watch had been, he wrote to Page, “defaced.” But “there is so lively an image of her imprinted in my mind that I shall think of her too often I fear for my peace of mind, and too often I am sure to get through Old Cooke [Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England] this winter: for God knows I have not seen him since I packed him up in my trunk in Williamsburg.” ~

Young Thomas Jefferson

“There's nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even if he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” ~ Paul Celan, 23 November 1920 – 20 April 1970


~ According to a recently conducted poll that’s gone viral on Telegram, 30% of Russian families save on foodstuff. My boss also saves on foodstuff: he stopped buying beluga caviar and French champagne.

Average Russian family spends half of their salary on groceries and not because they eat more.

The other half of the wages is for purchasing Chinese off-brand clothes. Unsurprisingly millions of men choose to work for law enforcement agencies and as security guards — free clothes hence disposable income to spend on hobbies like fishing in an ice hole.

A year ago, a third of the families could not afford new footwear in a country where president has stolen every election in the past quarter century on the promise he’ll improve living conditions.

When I first visited my wife’s aunt’s family in Monino, a site of Air Force base, my aunt was impressed that I wear a cotton shirt. It was a telltale sign that I’m wealthy and great husband material. She also believed that America wants to break Russia apart and enslave them. I told her, “in your dreams.”

My wife’s father, a retired Military Intelligence officer, was amazed that I don’t drink vodka and don’t smoke. I told him “I can also juggle with three balls.” Russia is a country of low expectations.

The remainder of the rubles pay the school administration to fix leaking roof and enterprising teachers who blackmail parents with bad grades, and if there’s anything left -- the utility bill.
Millions of households are heavily indebted on their utility bills, and pay them in installments like for a new iPhone. Americans foreclose on a mortgaged property. Russians foreclose on a utility bill.

Young families earn more than middle-aged folks who have life force equal to that of American retirees in Florida, but they’re stuck with the exorbitant mortgage payments for the apartment the size of a kennel in a humongous apartment complex.

More people live in one solid block of vertical real estate in Russia than on five square miles of subdivisions in Suburbia USA. Go green!

Average Russian family does not have a car. That’s why state-owned federal TV pitched a story of a happy family receiving from the government a Lada sedan for the son killed in Ukraine.

Average Russian family does not take vacations. Over 80% have never been abroad. And that does not include people who pop across the border for shopping in Georgia, Kazakstan, China.

Over half of Russians have never visited a medical doctor or dentist. When I travel outside of Moscow, the first thing I notice that people are missing teeth. Like, half a mouth of missing teeth.

There are effectively two classes of Russians: have-teeth (20%) and have-no-teeth (80%).

Those who have no teeth, Putin dubs drunks and suggest sending them to the trenches because it’s better to die for him than from home-brew alcohol. This message is addressed to wives to cash in on good-for-nothing husbands.

But what do Russians think about the mobilized? Let’s ask Google.

At first glance, Russians want to see their favorite actors and musicians in military uniforms and less glamorous surroundings of the war front. Not so much their husbands and sons. And it looks like they don’t care much about salary for the mobilized husband.

Perhaps Putin is wrong about Russians and they are not a bunch of low-life drunks? It’s hard for the people with teeth to admit that people without teeth are human being too.
~ Quora

Tim Orum:
The problem with serfs that have too many teeth is they use them to eat. The less they eat the more for the noblemen and women and their minions. That’s taught in Serfdom 101.

Geoff Caplan:
According to official Russian figures, 25% of households don’t have indoor toilets. This is much the worst figure in the developed world — and according to the Ukrainians many of the orcs who have been billeted in their stolen apartments don’t appear to understand how to use a flush toilet.

Plus a state pensioner has to subsist on around $US 250 a month.

This is what happens when the plutocrats steal all the wealth and leave the people to fester in poverty. 


Many have pointed out that the elderly in Russia have it the worst. Apparently they are forced to spend almost all of their income on food.

Kathy Leonhardt:
The thing that perpetually stuns me is the belief by Russia that we (the West) want to INVADE or take her…. honestly— it’s like the last woman (or man ) in the bar at 3:00 am out cold over a barstool — we ARE NOT interested!!!! Absolutely NOT interested!!!


I was moved by the descriptions of poverty in Russia, shocked actually, to think of that vast majority living in such misery, and so inured to it they accept it as the norm. In the US a good measure of poverty is the condition of a person's teeth — dental care is very expensive and often, even for those with insurance, not covered. Good dental care can be seen as an expendable luxury rather than a necessity. The very poor often have bad teeth, or no teeth. It seems in Russia this is also true but the proportions are reversed, it's not a minority but the majority of the population that are too poor to afford dental care, going on with poor teeth or no teeth at all. Nothing about this is comical — dental health is integrally connected to one's general health, particularly to the heart, and to risks of infection.

What can inure people to such miseries as are described? Beyond oral health this large majority often lives without indoor plumbing, reliable electric power, or sufficient and affordable food. So many people living like serfs in the 19th century, without hope of anything better. I think the answer is the efficiency and all pervasiveness of the propaganda machine. Information of the world outside the Russian state is limited and tightly controlled. Of course it is also distorted as well, to suit the narrative that the world outside is filled with evil...capitalists and Nazis who want only to steal, invade, repress and destroy everything they can reach.

When these poor Russians, like Putin's conscripted soldiers, see that the outsiders do not live in the same misery, the reaction can be anger, the wish to destroy, the effort to steal, and bewilderment that the world is not what they were told it was. They may very well try to steal washers and refrigerators, or smash them to pieces. Leaving their excrement everywhere may not be simply inability to operate the indoor plumbing, but an angry response to their own deprivation of something so basic everyone else takes it for granted.

I have to also suspect that in terms of Russia's military Putin himself was duped by his own propaganda. I don't think he actually knew how hollow and ineffective his forces had become under the all pervasive sway of corruption at every level of responsibility. I think he was surprised and humiliated, as well as enraged. He seems to have painted himself into a corner, and I wouldn't be surprised if he actually decided to use those nukes he keeps threatening us with.

The actual condition of those weapons is of course also in question. If all the funds for maintenance have been redirected to corrupt officials, can these weapons even be functional...or are they masks of the Kremlin's paper tiger, useless as the cardboard armor of his soldiers?


The good news is that Putin is unlikely to use nukes — NATO’s response is just not worth it.

The bad news is that even though the condition of most of Russia’s nukes may be pretty useless, they’ve got so many of them that if just 10% detonate, the world will be fried. But again, it is VERY UNLIKELY that Putin will use nukes. Nukes are useful as a deterrent, but not really as a battlefield weapon.

Russia is betting on its artillery. Why go into a city and risk fighting in the streets? Let’s level with city with artillery, and afterwards we can search the rubble for anything that could still be looted.

I imagine Putin was indeed shocked to find out the truth about his troops. Let’s remember that this guy, regarded as quite smart, thought that Kyiv would fall in three days!

As for poverty in Russia, I remember how shocked I was when I first heard about the food shortages, back in the times of the Soviet Union. I learned about people drinking “keepyatok” — boiled water — because there was no tea or coffee. One Russian emigré mentioned those embarrassing rumblings in her belly — because she was hungry!

In Poland agriculture was in private hands — mostly small family farms — so there was plenty to eat. Yes, occasional trouble getting quality meat, so you had to settle for whatever was available, and stand in line for it . . . But on any Sunday, the streets smelled wonderful — chicken broth, roasts, cutlets . . .

Another bonus of small-farm agriculture was that everything was organic, even though the concept wasn’t yet really born. I was told that German merchants used to cross into Poland, buy food, and then sell it in Germany at good profit as organic. (That was after the wall had fallen, so we are speaking of capitalist Germany here.)


Russia’s countryside is allegedly like a third-world country. Cities, especially major cities, look pretty Western, with high-rise towers. But it’s interesting that Finland shows zero interest in regaining Karelia — it knows that it would cost a lot to bring Karelia up to the Finnish standard of living (roads, buildings). I remember how Germany complained about the cost of modernizing former East Germany. 


Which reminds me of one more thing: though much is known about the Russian troops looting and raping as their standard behavior, it’s only recently that I learned how shocked the Russian soldiers were after they entered Germany and saw how rich Germany was. And that made them angry: so this was a rich country invading their hungry homeland . . .


~ More are more details are gradually leaking out concerning conditions that the Russian soldiers are facing.

One student who was recently discharged from Russian forces in Ukraine says he was equipped with a Soviet-era bolt-action rifle, and had to share rations and a sleeping bag when first sent to the front.

“When times were hard, we had a certain number of people and there weren’t enough sleeping bags for everyone, you could only cover yourself with a raincoat. We were able to get two or three people into a sleeping bag to keep warm,” said Vladimir. He was a young man who appeared to be in his late teens.

“At first we didn’t have enough food. After that, everything was fine with supplies, they were completely sufficient, but at first we shared with each other” Vladimir said.

Vladimir said he had, like many others, been given a Mosin sniper rifle — a bolt-action weapon designed in Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century and updated in the 1930s.

This is not the only report. Other reports of young men being sent to fight in Ukraine with inadequate clothing and equipment have stirred deep public concern in Russia. President Putin has given orders for better coordination between government, regions and industry to meet the needs of the military. Whether those orders have been met is still uncertain.

Putin ordered a “partial mobilization” in Russia in September. But in reality, Moscow’s proxies in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine began calling up men of fighting age much earlier.

Vladimir was drafted into the forces of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) on Feb. 23, the day before Russia sent its forces into Ukraine.

On Monday, November 28, he was among dozens of young men who were demobilized at a ceremony in the town of Starobesheve.

Hopefully Vladimir will return to his own home and be able to have a bed to himself. Vladimir is fortunate to be alive after experiencing this. ~ Brent Cooper, Quora


~ As Russia's brutal, pointless, little-heeded war against Ukraine lurched on, grim images emerged on social media of Ukrainian soldiers caught in the bloody quagmire around Bakhmut, an eastern city that after months of fighting has devolved into a ravaged landscape of splintered, shell-torn trees, yawning artillery craters, strewn dead bodies, and sodden Ukrainian forces hunched in a muddy, freezing, deadlocked trench warfare against relentless enemy barrages that in its desolation and destruction some have likened to "the new Passchendaele." That infamous 1917 clash, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, saw the Allies suffer roughly 300,000 casualties and inflict almost that many on the Germans in one of the most costly battles of World War One; it is remembered not only for its horrific loss of life but its freezing, sucking mud, "a monster," that drew soldiers to their deaths.

In "a bloody vortex for two militaries," Russian leaders desperate for a victory have been focused on moving reinforcements to the killing fields of Bakhmut. After so many reverses for their elite units, fighting has reportedly fallen to a mix of separatist militias, mercenaries and newly mobilized, ill-trained conscripts backed by massive artillery barrages, often aided by drones to make them particularly, lethally accurate. Amidst reports of Russian assaults on a "World War One hellscape," observers cite Russia's stunning disregard for their own troops, with commanders sending "single use" soldiers out in waves "like meat" to find Ukrainian positions; with Russian losses estimated at up to 300 a day, Ukraine "has become one giant graveyard" for them. Others say Ukraine's wet, cold winter is "the biggest killer" for "under-trained, under-supplied, ambivalently led" recruits lacking proper food, gear, boots or shelter, with dozens freezing to death.

For many, Putin's bloody debacle in Ukraine reflects a system "in which medievalism meets Stalinism meets dark farce," the "barbarism to which Russia’s 'new normal' has sunk... part horror movie and part theater of the absurd" in which leaders rant about a "holy war" against Satan and even the few surviving protests have a touch of the surreal. But the remaining, mostly elderly residents of Bakhmut, who make up perhaps 10% of its pre-war population of 80,000, have more concrete concerns: Sheltering in wet basements, they face a winter without adequate power, water, heat, food. Intrepid volunteers have mobilized to deliver wood stoves, chop firewood, gather warm clothes and other necessities; harrowing videos show them evacuating, often under heavy shelling, the ill and infirm. Those who stay are pissed. "Why is Putin so stupid?" asks one woman. "Doesn't he have enough land?”

Over a century ago, H.G. Wells described the First World War as "the war that will end war," though over time the term has morphed into, "the war to end all wars." It was used first hopefully, then desperately, for a conflagration that began for no truly coherent reason in September 1914, lasted over four years, and ended with roughly 40 million casualties, about evenly divided between dead and wounded.

Wells believed the conflict would create a new world order in which future conflicts would be impossible, and a world government would protect individual human rights regardless of sex, creed or color. By crushing the Kaiser's German empire, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the Allies would serve as not just soldiers in war but "crusaders against war." “There shall be no more Kaisers," he wrote. "We are resolved. That foolery shall end! It is the last war.” Oh, what a falling off was there.

"War will only end when people so realize its horrors (that) they prefer to refrain from fighting even when they believe that they have a just cause.” ~ Bertrand Russell on the "more calm and equable courage" peace requires.


~ The Russian-language segment of the FB now is such a Fellini-like choir of previous newly-left and the more recent newly-left. There is something in it from the emigrant cycle of the post-Bolshevik times of the last century: Constantinople-Paris-Berlin-Prague; only now also — Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan.

Photos, sharing impressions and observations, life hacks, jokes about the old and the new, artistic texts, congratulations, family memories, projects, plans for the future…

The future is hidden in darkness. Gradually, the understanding comes that there is no return to the previous life. ~


“You can’t go home again” holds here. Once you step out of the circle of family and friends, you become an outsider. Without knowing it, you have burned the bridges behind you. If you stayed abroad long enough, you’ve become a different person, and so have those you left behind. There is an irreparable gap in shared experience. Nor are your old friends eager to have you tell about those other lands and cities. They are basically interested in their own current lives, not your life. You’ve become a stranger in a strange land — in your own native country, after having been a stranger elsewhere.

Oddly enough, as I sat waiting for my next plane connection at the huge airport in Frankfurt-am-Main, I instantly understood that I was now a different person and could never go back to who I used to be. Not that I could define that difference, or engage in speeches about freedom and Western individualism and/or capitalism. To this day I can't quite explain why I had that sense of having been instantly changed. Was it hearing German spoken around me, and rather liking it? Was it the immense brightness of the fluorescent lights forming their own sky? Or was it rather being on my own, suddenly an adult? I'm content to let the mystery remain: I was changed. And there was no return to my previous life.


Getting older -- I mean seriously older -- also bears some similarity to being an immigrant. You are judged to belong to "another era," before iPhones. And you don't have a future. Those who wait to inherit hope you'll soon be gone. That makes being an immigrant seem relatively easy, even if you spent the first year or two crying yourself to sleep.



~ Time is not our friend, of course. It has no sympathy for us. We don't swim in it the way fish swim in water. We pass through it as its uninvited guests. It ages us, and in the end it kills us. But it is in a race against it that some of us, one in a million or billion in every successive generation, produce the miraculous masterpieces of art and spirituality that time can bring as gifts to its master, and our true homeland -- eternity. The Great Pyramid of Giza or the Cathedral of Chartres, Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel, or a Shakespeare play or Tolstoy novel or Dante's epic -- all of these have been created within the bonds and bounds of time. Eternity, to quote one of time's greatest visionaries and diviners, is in love with the productions of time. ~


It was William Blake who said, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Very few paid attention to Blake while he was alive. And yet he stepped into eternity — or, to be more accurate, literary and artistic immortality.


~ On October 6, 1962, the members of New York City Ballet boarded a plane in Vienna, bound for Moscow, the first stop on an eight-week tour that had been arranged by the State Department. The party numbered around ninety, including the dancers, the conductor Robert Irving, two mothers (escorting underage dancers), several translators, the company doctor, and the company’s co-founder and artistic director, George Balanchine.

Balanchine had not wanted to go. Born in St. Petersburg in 1904, during the reign of the last tsar, he had experienced cold and starvation in revolutionary Russia, before fleeing the country, in 1924, going first to Europe and then, in 1933, to America. The U.S.S.R. filled him with dread, and his return brought to light one of the great themes of his life: he had set his own path away from the Marxist materialism of the Bolshevik Revolution, and quietly built, in N.Y.C.B., a village of angels and a music-filled monument to faith and unreason, to body and beauty and spirit. It was his own counter-revolutionary place, an alternative vision of the twentieth century.

The dancers had stocked up on peanut butter, candy, tuna, Spam, toilet paper, and other necessities. Balanchine had also asked that they please dress well, since he wanted his company to present an elegant image. When they landed at Sheremetyevo, Balanchine emerged from the Jetway in a suit and bow tie, a trenchcoat draped casually over his arm. A full-court reception awaited him, with klieg lights, flashing cameras, Soviet officials, American diplomats, and a press corps eager to record his return. The sparring began immediately: “Welcome to Russia, home of classical ballet,” one of his hosts began, and Balanchine proudly responded, “No, Russia is home of Romantic ballet, America is the home of classical ballet,” by which he meant his modern ballet.

It was Cold War code: culturally, the war was being fought in part on the battlefield of abstraction, and Balanchine was taking a defining role. Stalin’s doctrine of socialist realism had long defined art in the U.S.S.R., and in dance this meant lavish narrative “drambalets,” often with socialist themes. Balanchine had pushed classical technique and the human body to new physical extremes, especially in his recent plotless dances, “Agon” (1957) and “Episodes” (1959), performed in simple practice clothes on an empty stage. In the U.S.S.R., such abstraction was still deemed a political threat, a slippery artistic form dangerously free of any fixed meaning that could be approved or censored. (Who could say exactly what “Agon” was about?) Balanchine flashed his American passport in case anyone didn’t get the message. But his attention was not fully there. He had seen his brother Andrei, who was standing patiently to one side, waiting.

“Andruska! It’s you,” he said, as they embraced, and his expression softened with emotion. They had not seen each other for some forty years, since the Revolution had torn their family apart. He was surprised that Andrei was so short, and it was true that Balanchine, who thought of himself as small, seemed to tower over him. At fifty-seven, Andrei was already gray, and next to his dapper sibling he appeared aged and shy, in a rumpled suit with drooping, oversized pockets (stuffed with tobacco, cigarette papers, and homemade filters composed of cotton and sugar). Although he was younger than George, he looked like an old man.

Andrei, who lived in Tbilisi, had followed the path of their father, Meliton Balanchivadze, a Georgian composer who had spent his career collecting traditional Georgian music and forging a style influenced by it. By now, Andrei was a well-known composer in Georgia, but his life had nonetheless been constrained by the harsh realities of Soviet existence—and by his brother’s American success. In the eyes of the state, Balanchine was a traitor, and a curtain of fear had fallen between him and his family. Fear, in his mind, of recrimination; in theirs, of association and disappearing into a Soviet night. Since leaving, Balanchine had received only one letter from his brother, and it had been delivered to him by a man he suspected of being an agent of the secret police. In it, Andrei had implored George to return to the U.S.S.R., but George sensed, correctly, that his brother had written the letter under duress and ignored it. Andrei had also sent a terse cable notifying him of their mother’s death. That had been the extent of their communication. It was a peculiar fact of exile and the Cold War that, in order to care for each other, they couldn’t know each other. The only protection they had was silence—its own kind of family tie.

The brothers went to dinner together at a nearby restaurant that served Georgian food. Balanchine eagerly selected favorite dishes from the menu, only to be told each time that the item was not available, so they finally settled on coriander chicken—all that was on offer that evening. The Hotel Ukraina, where Balanchine was staying with the company, had a similar empty grandeur. It was monumental, a fortresslike complex in yellow stone with eight turrets and a central tower with a high spire topped by a Soviet star. One of the “Seven Sisters” commissioned by Stalin to compete with American skyscrapers (and modeled in part on the Manhattan Municipal Building), the Hotel Ukraina was devoid of human scale, built in a style that Lincoln Kirstein, the company’s co-founder, called “Stalinoid Gothic.” Completed in 1957, it already felt old and run-down.

The enormous gray marble lobby resembled a train station, with a large restaurant emitting a pervasive Soviet smell of onions and cabbage. The thirty-seven floors and more than a thousand rooms were served by only a few very slow elevators, manned by stolid ladies in suits, and the wait could be more than half an hour to travel a few floors. The thirteenth floor was said to house the bugging apparatus for the whole building, and on each floor a uniformed matron sat at all times (with a cot for sleeping), controlling keys and entry. Once a guest passed muster, the walk to a room could seem miles long, down dreary carpeted corridors, and the rooms themselves were decorated in a worn Biedermeier style with Oriental throws. Everyone had been told that the ceilings were lined with bugging devices, and the dancers made a sport of discovering them.

They ate at the restaurant in the lobby: pirozhki, dark bread, cucumbers, pickles, borscht, chicken Kiev (“gray leather,” one of the dancers said), bottled sweet sodas, Russian ice cream. Balanchine asked for Borjomi, a sulfurous mineral water he remembered from childhood; to the dancers, it reeked of rotten eggs, but he guzzled it down. A pall of surveillance hung over everything. Their movements outside the hotel were tightly controlled, and buses carried them to rehearsals every morning, as well-wishers shouted, “No politic, no politic!” 

A few of the dancers ignored the restrictions and walked through the wide streets and crowded markets anyway. The requisite “interpreters” (undercover secret police) were their constant companions and occasional adversaries in chess matches, played with ice hockey blaring on TV in the background. Contact with family back home was difficult. Mail arrived erratically via diplomatic pouch, usually already opened, and making an international phone call could take hours. If the caller was lucky enough to get a connection, it was often only one-way—the person in Moscow could hear but not be heard, as operators seemed to be controlling the flow of information leaving the U.S.S.R.

The response to the performance, by this audience of officials, was polite but restrained, and Balanchine found himself devastated, confused, and angry that he was angry or that he cared at all. Once the official contingent finally cleared out, however, a group of students from the upper balconies rushed enthusiastically to the front and applauded the dancers. A fancy reception followed, hosted by the American Ambassador, Foy D. Kohler, at his elegant residence, Spaso House, formerly a merchant’s palace. The gracious, imperial-style rooms were crowded with dancers and the Soviet artistic and political élite—including, it was noted, Khrushchev’s son-in-law, whom Balanchine studiously avoided in order to minimize any political complications.

The next day, the production moved to the gigantic, six-thousand-seat Palace of Congresses, which had been sold out for days. It was an impressive, if cold, new theater, a huge stone-and-glass structure originally built to host the Twenty-second Congress of the Communist Party, in 1961. The dancers were amazed to find air-conditioning, a fully stocked restaurant, and marble bathrooms with plenty of toilet paper.

Seeing the cavernous stage, Balanchine immediately pulled the planned dancers for “Serenade,” who could barely be seen in the vast auditorium, and replaced them with taller ones. This time, and for most of the rest of the run, the Soviet people stood and cheered for the company, urging on their favorite artists by chanting their names (“Meetch-ell! Meetch-ell!” for Arthur Mitchell) and, at the end, calling for Balanchine to take a bow—“Ba-lan-chine! Ba-lan-chine! Spa-si-bo! Spa-si-bo!”—until he appeared from the wings and bowed modestly. As the Russian crew began to extinguish the lights, he gently implored the audience to go home; the dancers needed to rest.

He had to admit his immense satisfaction that audiences especially loved “Episodes” and “Agon,” his new abstract dances to largely atonal Webern and Stravinsky scores. The dancer Allegra Kent was even dubbed “the American Ulanova,” a reference to the beloved Soviet dancer Galina Ulanova. Critics were more ideologically constrained and complained that these dances were cold and lacked the warmth of theatrical dress and a human story. Balanchine patiently endured interview after interview, tirelessly explaining his approach to beauty and the human figure. His un-Sovietized Russian flowed, and, at times, even the facial tic that had been with him since childhood—a kind of nervous sniffing and nose twitching—melted away as he meticulously answered in his native tongue those who called his work mechanical, grotesque, or “repulsive.” But when a prominent critic told him that his ballets had no soul he sharply retorted that since Soviets didn’t believe in God they couldn’t know about the soul. And, when a delegation from the Ministry of Culture asked him, please, to cancel “Episodes” because “the people” couldn’t understand it, he responded, in a rare show of temper, with a Russian equivalent of “Fuck you” and walked out.

It all wore on him—the daily petty humiliation of waiting in the freezing cold while some guard, who by then knew exactly who Balanchine was, double- and triple-checked his papers before allowing him into the Kremlin or the theater. One day, he forgot his official pass, and the guard turned him away, leaving a gaggle of frustrated journalists shouting from the other side of the barrier, a scene that delighted him by exposing the comedy of Soviet officialdom.  

Everything seemed grim and gray, he said—the food, the dress, the way people warily checked their every movement, even while walking down the street. His stomach clenched when an old friend invited him to his home, two cramped and dingy rooms, and proudly showed him that he had his own bathroom. Balanchine complained that the phone in his hotel room rang mysteriously in the middle of the night and that the radio would suddenly turn on. He was haunted by nightmares about losing his passport or being thrown into prison or suffocating. “A little green devil is following me,” he said, and he was not joking. He was losing weight fast and looked noticeably gaunt, and bursitis was making his shoulder inflamed and painful.

His temper flared. One night, after a bravura technical performance by Edward Villella in “Donizetti Variations,” the cheering audience called Villella back for bow after bow, until he finally performed an impromptu encore. Balanchine was beside himself with rage and stood in the wings fuming. Such a deviation from the score was everything he had fought against, and he was as angry as the company had ever seen him. As he later put it, “This is not circus.” 

The dancers were on edge, too: one got so drunk at a reception that he started smashing glasses and bad-mouthing “America of purple mountains majesties,” until he was escorted out and put on a plane back to the United States. Allegra Kent recalled “horsing around in crazy ways,” and other dancers remembered her performing an “improvised beatnik twist” for a gathering crowd of astonished Russians. There were whispers of dancers having affairs with their K.G.B. handlers and falling in love with Soviet musicians. The dancer Shaun O’Brien was arrested for taking pictures of pigeon tracks in the snow and held in custody for hours, where he was questioned at length about Little Rock, Marilyn Monroe—and Cuba.

Cuba. On October 22nd, in the middle of the company’s Moscow run, President Kennedy went on national TV to inform the American people that the U.S.S.R. had installed offensive nuclear missiles in Fidel Castro’s Cuba that were capable of reaching American cities. He coolly announced a strict quarantine of the island and the readiness of the United States to retaliate on Soviet soil in the event of a nuclear strike. When the news of this terrifying standoff reached the Embassy in Moscow, Kirstein, Balanchine, and a couple of others were informed of the situation. 

Kirstein and Betty Cage, who helped run the company, quickly came up with a disaster strategy. Plan A was to charter a plane; if the word came from the Embassy, the dancers could board waiting buses to the airport and take off immediately. If they couldn’t get to the airport, they’d resort to Plan B: get everyone inside the Embassy. Plan C was to then arrange a “prisoner swap” with the Bolshoi dancers, who were on a cultural-exchange tour in New York. When Kirstein shared these wildly unrealistic scenarios with the Ambassador’s staff, the response was swift: “The first thing we will know at the Embassy is that the phone will be cut off.”

For the moment, he was told, there were no plans for evacuation, and the Ambassador would attend rehearsals to allay any panic. As a comfort, the Embassy kitchen was made available to the dancers, who occupied themselves eating hamburgers and steaks, and in a touching sign of solidarity the staff at the Ukraina placed vats of flowers on the tables for the company. While N.Y.C.B. continued to perform at the Palace of Congresses, Khrushchev and other officials went to see an American singer at the Bolshoi Theater—a way of signalling calm while still snubbing Balanchine. (Kirstein nervously scuttled back and forth.)

On October 27th, “Black Saturday,” an American U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over Cuba and the pilot killed. Information was not widely available, and secret negotiations were under way, but the surprise downing of the plane (by a local commander) further frayed nerves in Washington, Moscow, and Havana. By then, the United States was already at DEFCON 2, one level below war; U.S. long-range missiles and bombers were on alert; and planes carrying atomic bombs were taking off around the clock, prepared to move on targets in the U.S.S.R. In Cuba, surface-to-surface missiles and nuclear warheads were ready in the event of war, accidental or otherwise.

In Moscow that afternoon, in a separate incident, Soviet troops moved into place around the American Embassy to protect protesters who were throwing ink and eggs in a large demonstration against the imperial capitalist United States. (The protest was staged, it later transpired, by Soviet authorities, who bused in confused students and workers for the event and supplied them with posters and things to throw.) The American Embassy told the dancers to stay away and informed Kirstein that, if war broke out, it would be powerless to help them, and they would all have to use their wits to survive. Officials warned that the audience that night might rush the stage and advised the company to be prepared to immediately bring down the heavy safety curtain in the event of a riot.

That evening, the dancers, aware of some vague but imminent danger, nervously gathered at the theater. Balanchine was strangely calm and commented dryly that he hadn’t yet seen Siberia. He never believed there would be a war, he later explained, because neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy wanted one, but there was more to his detachment than that. Russia had held a gun to his head once before, with the Revolution, and this time he had been training himself for years to expect death and to live only in the present moment. That “now” for him was one of the greatest skills in ballet. (He liked to say to his dancers, “What are you saving it for? You might be dead tomorrow!”)

As the curtain rose on Bizet’s “Symphony in C,” the dancers stood for a moment in disciplined anticipation, staring into the blackened house of the theater. Irving was poised at the podium, baton raised for the downbeat, and at that moment the audience suddenly grew larger than itself and rose in spontaneous applause. With the first note, an adrenaline rush brought on by pent-up fear and relief flowed through the dancers’ bodies, and they danced with the energy of life-giving release. At the end of the piece, Bizet and Balanchine’s exuberant and decisive close elicited rhythmic chanting from the audience, until finally Balanchine, looking small and thin, stood center stage and spoke quietly into the hushed auditorium. He thanked them all and then asked them to please go home; the dancers were tired and would be back tomorrow.

When tomorrow came, Armageddon had been averted. Kennedy and Khrushchev had reached an agreement, and late that afternoon the news was broadcast in Russia and around the world. As it happened, that night was N.Y.C.B.’s last performance in Moscow, and after the cheering and chanting at the end of the show Balanchine took the stage again. This time, he graciously invited the audience to follow the company to its next destination, which would be Petrograd, he said, deliberately using a name for St. Petersburg that predated the Revolution. Despising Lenin, Balanchine refused to use the name Leningrad for his beloved native city.

The moment they arrived and checked into the Hotel Astoria, Balanchine grabbed a couple of company friends, saying, “Let’s go to my old house”—by which he meant his aunt’s old rooms on Bolshaya Moskovskaya, across from the old Vladimir Cathedral, which he had often visited while a student at the Imperial Theater School. The apartment building was still there, and he could see his aunt’s window, but his heart sank when he saw that the once beautiful house of worship across the street was now a factory. Worse, the mighty Kazan Cathedral, which they had passed on the way, had been converted into an anti-God museum. Still, he raced to the Imperial Theater School, on Rossi Street—but to his companions’ surprise he stopped short at the entrance. His mind locked, and he couldn’t go inside. How would he manage the memories that were so tightly packed inside this old building? He found a small church that was still open and lit a candle there instead.

The people he had known were still alive; he just didn’t recognize them—didn’t want to recognize them, perhaps. His once beautiful young teacher Elizaveta Gerdt, for example, was now an old woman, he sadly noted. He had wanted to see the choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky, an idol of his youth, but when he saw Goleizovsky’s “Scriabiniana” performed by the Bolshoi he was so embarrassed that he cancelled the visit. He didn’t want to meet a feeble and wrinkled old man and preferred his memories of this crucial iconoclast. In Leningrad, he met a few members of his first dance company, Young Ballet, but now they just seemed to him “old and brown and bent like mushrooms. How can you feel affectionate and sentimental about a mushroom?” He did want to see Fyodor Lopukhov, whose “Dance Symphony” had been such a formative influence, but the old choreographer declined a visit. Balanchine’s obsession with aging was irrational, of course, and he was older, too, but he couldn’t stand that his colleagues, who had been so lovely and vibrant, had grown old and “dumpy,” as if the ruin of their bodies was part of the ruin of Russia itself.

The more he was fêted, applauded, and celebrated, the more depressed, self-controlled, and in charge he became. When he learned that students and artists couldn’t get tickets for the company’s performances, he arranged a free performance of his most radical works at the Palace of Culture: “Apollo,” “Agon,” and “Episodes.” He met with Soviet choreographers to discuss the principles of his art, and when the youngest among them asked for more he met them again informally at the theater. When Konstantin Sergeyev, the artistic director of the Kirov Ballet (and an apparatchik), obsequiously presented him with a silver samovar and flowers onstage, noting that Leningrad was Balanchine’s home town, Balanchine pointedly accepted on behalf of New York and America. It all reminded Kirstein of the coronation scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible.” “Do you remember that scene?” he said to a journalist. “Ivan is on his throne. The nobles bow down before him; they heap gold upon him. And he sits there, implacable—he is absolutely implacable.”

Balanchine was also tense, moody, competitive, and despondent. When he taught class at the theater, he seemed distracted, and the dancers watched quietly as he peered out the window in a daze, vacantly recalling how he had watched the tsar’s uniformed parades out of these very windows as a child. Ironically, the company happened to be there for the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which brought out the Soviet fleet, flags, tanks, banners, huge photographs of Lenin, parades, loud slogans, and carousing crowds. What Balanchine remembered of the Revolution were piles of bodies in the street, and people eating dead horses and rats.

At the theater, the celebrations were marked by the cancellation of “Episodes” because the musicians were too drunk. It was hard for Balanchine not to see everything through the lens of 1917, or else through the rose-tinted glass of the tsar’s empire, and he angrily complained that the theater was full of dowdy working-class people who ate and drank noisily during the performance and didn’t care a whit for what they were seeing—something that was manifestly untrue. 

One night, he stood immobilized in the wings as the crowds chanted, and when one of the dancers urged him to go onstage he refused to move, saying, “What if I were dead?” Betty Cage thought that Balanchine was on the verge of collapse and had already arranged for him to skip Kyiv, the company’s next stop, and return to New York for a week before rejoining the company for its final performances, in Tbilisi and Baku. He needed a break. For him, Kirstein said, being in Russia was “a kind of crucifixion.”

Balanchine flew to Helsinki on November 8th, spent the night, and left the next morning for New York. Eugenie Ouroussow, a White Russian princess who ran Balanchine’s school, met him at Idlewild, and reported in a letter to her son the two “main points” he had made on the car ride home: that the company had produced an artistic revolution in Russia, and that Russia had “crushed” Balanchine. That week, he and his wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq, entertained guests constantly, as if cooking and hospitality could repair his battered mind. Barely a week later, he departed again for the U.S.S.R., bags stuffed with extra pointe shoes for the dancers.

He rejoined the company in Kyiv just in time to board the plane for Tbilisi, where, again, Andrei was waiting, this time with family in tow. It was a looking-glass moment, the life he might have had. Suddenly, he was little Georgi, and he met the relatives he did not know: Andrei’s glamorous wife, their darkly handsome sons (one named after Balanchine), and their daughter, a dancer. There was also Apollon Balanchivadze, George’s half-brother from his father’s first marriage, whom he had known briefly as a child. 

Talking freely was difficult. They were shadowed, and at Andrei’s apartment George nervously pointed to the ceiling, indicating that everything was bugged and they couldn’t speak. Still, in snatches and pieces, he learned the story of his family’s sad fate.

Worst of all: his sister, Tamara. His voice later turned ashen when he spoke of her, in the only recording we have of his account of her tragic end. George had last seen her as a child, and, in the years after he left Russia, Tamara had grown tall and angular, with intense, skeptical eyes and none of her mother’s fragile beauty. She had become a set designer and, after marrying a German who deserted her to return to Germany, ended up working in theater in Moscow and Leningrad. The last the family heard from her was in 1941, just days before the German siege of Leningrad began. She may have been killed during the siege, or she may have died of illness or starvation or perhaps on a train in the war zone trying to get back to Georgia. No one quite knows. She simply disappeared.

Andrei was a survivor. Like his father, Meliton, he was outgoing and prone to excessive toasts and speeches, and he had a wonderful singing voice. He won Soviet medals and honors for his Georgian-style music, and occasionally enjoyed arraying them on his jacket like a general’s insignia. At the right moment, he would strip them off, grinning, make some loud anti-Soviet declaration, and then restore them all again. He played at the margins, calculating in part that the cost to the authorities of arresting the brother of the famous George Balanchine would be too high. But in fact he also did everything he was supposed to do: led the composers’ union, taught at the academy in Tbilisi, composed music in the correct style, and won the requisite awards. So they let him play the jester—within limits. His career was celebrated, but he was rarely permitted to travel to the West. He must not defect, and he never tried.

Apollon was older and less fortunate. Arrested and indicted in 1924 for fighting in a special gendarmes unit of the White Army, he had spent years in prison, in isolation, and although he was eventually released, he was arrested again in 1942 and this time sent for ten years of hard labor in Kazakhstan. Upon his release, he became a quietly practicing priest, and kindly organized a vespers service at a local church specially for George.

George knew that his mother, Maria, had died three years earlier, but he knew little of her sad life. He had last seen her when he was eighteen, in 1922, when she left Petrograd to join Meliton in Tbilisi. Meliton was away much of the time, and she ended up living modestly on a small street in an old church converted by the Bolsheviks into apartments. The frescoes were still on the walls, and some of the nuns who had once made fresh Communion bread in the front rooms resided there, too. Often alone, she wore a brooch with pictures of Tamara, George, and Andrei, and would sit anxiously by the radio listening for word of her Georgi—would they ever let him come home? She watched the mail closely and couldn’t understand why he wrote to say how much he hoped to receive letters from her but didn’t send a return address. In a letter to Andrei, she worried that they had lost the “thread of connection to Georgi. Where is he?!” She faded away as quietly as she had lived, and Andrei arranged a small plot in a large and prestigious cemetery in Tbilisi, as befitting his stature as a famous Georgian composer.

Balanchine wanted to visit his father’s grave. Not his mother’s—she had always been a kind of spirit figure in his mind, and he didn’t need her bones. He had her snowy ethereality instead. It was his father whose photo had sat propped on his bedside table for years, and yet Meliton had often been absent as a father, and he had doted not on George but on Andrei, as his musical son and successor. The image of his father, next to his icons, perhaps wasn’t really there for comfort; rather, it was there so that George could show him. See me. Watch me. I am a musician, too.

And now George wanted to see his father’s grave. Not because he loved him—seeing is not the same as loving—but because his father was music, which was what he had become, whereas his mother was the soft inner sanctum that was destroyed, or left behind, that he could get to only through women and dance. Besides, his father was his roots, his soil, and he wanted to see and smell the Georgian heritage he had claimed for so long as his own. Meliton was buried in Kutaisi, near the Balanchivadze family enclave of Banoja, some few hours west of Tbilisi, and George went there with Andrei, Apollon, and his colleague Natasha Molostwoff, accompanied by the inevitable K.G.B. posse. They departed by train at 7 A.M., and Molostwoff later recalled that their car was full of “wild Georgians,” who flocked around Balanchine, taking pictures, talking, touching, celebrating their lucky encounter with this famous artist. When they finally arrived in Kutaisi, exhausted, Balanchine insisted that he and his brothers go alone to Meliton’s grave, at the Green Flower Monastery (Mtsvane Kvavila). Their escorts waited at the tall iron gates to the cemetery.

The story of Meliton’s death, it turned out, was not simple. Andrei told George that Meliton had died, in November, 1937, of a gangrenous leg he’d refused to have amputated, and recalled finding their father lying in bed at home saying that death was a beautiful girl who was coming to take him in her arms, and that he was looking forward to it. But it was later whispered among grave keepers that Meliton had been taken away in the night and shot before being ceremoniously buried—not here, but in the “Pantheon” of famous Georgians under a large pine tree at the foot of the Bagrati Cathedral, a magnificent church turned into a museum by the Bolsheviks.

It wasn’t true that he was shot: Meliton most likely died of gangrene, as Andrei had said, but the rumors were a sign of the violence engulfing Georgian life at the time, and they cast an additional pall over Meliton’s passing. It was the height of the Great Terror, led in Georgia by Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin’s cruelest henchmen and, like Stalin, a Georgian. In the year before Meliton’s death, Beria had begun purging the local Party and intelligentsia, a process which accelerated in the next two years. Thousands were killed or sent to the Gulag, including family and friends of Meliton and Andrei. In 1936, at a dinner before a performance of Andrei’s ballet “Heart of the Mountains,” Beria allegedly poisoned the Party stalwart Nestor Lakoba (who had fallen from Stalin’s favor) and then escorted him to the elegant Moorish-style opera house, where the Tbilisi élite witnessed the spectacle of his agonized convulsions as the ballet continued; he died the following morning.

Friends of Meliton whom Georgi and Andrei had met in their home as children had been victims, too. Mamia Orakhelashvili, who had become highly placed in the Party, was arrested on June 26, 1937, and tortured and shot in front of his wife, Maria. By one account, she was forced to watch as her husband’s eyes were gouged out and his eardrums perforated before his execution. She and her daughter were then arrested and sent to the Gulag, and her daughter’s husband, the famous conductor Evgeni Mikeladze, was blindfolded, tortured, and eventually executed. There were show trials broadcast by radio, and Beria’s agents had quotas and routinely slaughtered hundreds of “enemies” in a single night. No one was safe. Closer to home, Meliton’s nephew Irakli Balanchivadze was arrested later that year for “Trotskyism” and shot.

 But not Meliton, who was probably too old and too studiously apolitical to matter. Official reports did not mention his gangrene and merely noted that his dead body lay in state in the main hall of the music school he had founded in Kutaisi, and that a small service was performed by a local folk choir before he was interred under the pine tree at Bagrati. Then, in 1957, in a macabre finale, Meliton’s bones were dug up and reinterred in a new, official Pantheon at the Green Flower Monastery, where he now lay near a small church used by the Bolsheviks, it was said, to store cement. His grave, unlike the others around it, was left unmarked except for a large rock and a miniature carving of piano keys. The K.G.B. didn’t give George or Andrei much time with their father, but before they left the brothers poured some wine and spilled the first glass over the grave in the Georgian way.

They also visited the medieval Gelati Monastery, high on a mountain above Kutaisi. Founded in 1106, it had been closed by the Communists in 1923 but preserved as a historical monument, because kings were buried there. Among them was the king who ordered the monastery’s construction, David IV, revered by Georgians as “the builder,” the architect of their country’s medieval Golden Age. David envisioned Gelati as a “second Jerusalem,” and it became a center of Christian culture and especially of Neoplatonism. Its misty grounds, practically in the clouds on a wooded hillside, include the Church of St. George, the Church of St. Nicholas, and the astonishing Church of the Nativity of the Virgin. This was what Balanchine came from and believed in—these were his saints—and although formal worship was not permitted and the monks had long since dispersed, he and his entourage were allowed inside the Church of the Nativity. There they found themselves under a massive arch that seemed to reach as high as Heaven, with light flooding in through the small windows onto the faded but still colorful ancient frescoes. An intricate mosaic of the Virgin and Child with the archangels Michael and Gabriel appeared high in the apse, and a photo shows George in his trenchcoat standing stoically before them.

By the time they left Kutaisi, on the night train back to Tbilisi, it was pouring rain, but Balanchine had seen what he had come for: his father’s Georgia was now his own. It felt to him primal, a Biblical land, and he even enthused to some of the dancers that after Noah’s flood there had been a flight to the Caucasus. Ancient Greece, he said, was settled by Georgian tribes, and these were his tribes, his people. Being Georgian was another way, too, of setting himself against Russia. No wonder some of the dancers were sure that he had been born there. He had told them so. At moments, he may even have believed it.

None of this seemed to deepen his relations with Andrei, who enthusiastically proposed that they make a ballet together, as they had put on shows as children. After dinner one evening at his home, Andrei hopefully played recordings of his music for George and even sat at the piano and regaled his brother with his prize-winning compositions. Balanchine sat bent, with his head buried in his hands, and said nothing. Finally, in frustration and despair, Andrei stopped and waited in painful silence, before awkwardly changing the subject. Natasha Molostwoff, who was there, was appalled: couldn’t Balanchine just say something nice, anything at all? He couldn’t.

The N.Y.C.B. performances were sold out, and on opening night the streets around the opera house were thick with crowds. A sea of people parted for Balanchine as he made his way into the theatre, as if he were some kind of Christ figure—or movie star. The police had been summoned, in anticipation of a crush of people pushing their way in, but the crowds were orderly and civil as, night after night, they pressed into the packed house. On the last night, after the final curtain fell, Balanchine stepped onto the apron of the stage to thank them all. Before the dancers boarded the train to Baku, they piled their extra tights, leotards, leg warmers, and pointe shoes into a bin and left them for the local dancers, who had none.

“Baku or bust”: for the company, Baku was a countdown. They marched through four days of performances, and on the final night a group of them stayed up until dawn dancing and playing strip poker with no heat and the hot-water faucets running full blast until the walls sweated. On December 2nd, the company packed into buses to the airport, then departed on a rickety plane for Moscow. It was snowing hard as they changed for a flight to Copenhagen, destination New York, and by this time the dancers were all chanting in unison: “Go, go, go, go!” As the jet lifted off the icy tarmac at Sheremetyevo, the exhausted company broke into cheers, relieved to, as one of the dancers later put it, “get the hell out of the U.S.S.R.” No one was more relieved than the gaunt Balanchine. “That’s not Russia,” he said. “That’s a completely different country, which happens to speak Russian.”

Soon after landing at Idlewild, Balanchine made a trip to Washington, D.C., for a debriefing at the State Department. By all accounts, the tour had been a personal and political victory, but Balanchine was unmoved. To him, the company’s success meant nothing. Instead, this was the moment when a mirror broke in his mind. He could no longer hold a nostalgic reflection of himself and an imagined tsarist past. That image, which had sustained him even as he also stood against it, no longer existed, and for all his proclamations of Americanness he was left feeling even more homeless and unmoored than he had felt before he set out. Russia really had disappeared. There was no more place to be exiled from. Exile was no longer a state of being; it was a flight—a flight into the pure glass-and-mirrored realm of the imagination, its own kind of home. ~

Soviet elections poster: "Women workers and women peasants, all to the polls." Below: "Under the red flag — in one row with men — we bring fear to the bourgeoisie!" How terribly dated this language is now. Also, let's remember that there was only one party and one candidate.


~ Russian president said to mothers of mobilized soldiers: “men live useless lives and die from vodka.”

“There’s no higher goal than to get killed in Ukraine while dispatching Ukies.”

“No greater valor than to die for motherland rather than from liver cirrhosis pooping tiny diamonds in a villa on Lake Como,” confessed propagandist Vladimir Adolphovich Soloviev.
“A man who died in Ukraine has not lived his life in vain.”

“I foresee the beginning of the collapse of the West in spring 2023,” psychic Svetlana Dragana on Channel One.

“We should reduce the world to smithereens not to face war tribunal in The Hague,” head of RT Margarita Simonyan.

“We are hitting infrastructure, and it will be destroyed. Ukraine will be sent to the 18th century,” Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Pyotr Tolstoy in an interview with French TV.

“Russia is a nuclear power, and you must understand that a nuclear power cannot lose a war. I am not threatening with nuclear weapons. West, better get ready, you will feel a lot of pain.”

“The next target after energy facilities should be banking infrastructure facilities. The goal is to sow chaos, leave Ukrainians without work, without livelihood.” General of the Russian Federation Andrey Gurulev.

That said, buckwheat is also very good. ~

Tim Kennedy:
It must take a severe kind of mental sickness to repeatedly threaten the whole world with annihilation. That includes oneself, family etc. Thanks Misha for another comic horror article.

Alan Taylor:
Sanctions relief should be tied to Russian denuclearization. Russia has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not grown-up enough to play with dangerous toys.

Alexander Paunovsky:
I have seen people being sent to mental institutions for a lot less than what Vlad The Mad is doing.


Brad Walker:
I like how Misha chose to represent the Russian love of vodka with Stolichnaya, a brand long synonymous with Russia but which has been headquartered and made in Latvia since Putin took office and whose corporate leadership are staunchly anti-Putin.


Putin is a very rich man trapped in a poor man’s body and mind. ~ Warner Moelders, Quora

He really could have just chilled and lived out the remainder of his days on yachts with supermodels….now it seems he'll most likely experience one of those Russian mystery deaths in the next few years. ~ Steve Bailey, Quora

It was important to Putin that he would be remembered, and he has definitely assured that will happen. ~ Daniel Aaron

Putin is  presiding over the final decline of the Russian empire as it gets firmly consigned to mid-tier regional power status. A journey that Russia has been on since the dissolution of the USSR. His attempt to “make Russia great again” by invading Ukraine has fallen at the fist hurdle.

He’s going to end up being more of a footnote in history. A man who failed to stop the rot and lost a last desperate gamble. ~ Matt Clark



~ When my grandmother was a young girl and expressed interest in learning to bake cakes, she was gifted a copy of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. In 1950s America, Betty Crocker was the epitome of cake, and her cookbook was its most expert guide. With its 449 pages of recipes and photograph after photograph of bright pink chiffon cake and fluffy angel food cake, the book was impressive.

“I was starstruck,” my grandmother told me. “And I was proud that I owned it. It was my own cookbook.”

As she flipped through the book’s pages, she noticed something about the dozens of illustrations of pearl-bedecked, apron-clad women taking cakes out of the oven: “They didn’t look at all like my mother,” my grandmother, née Elena Maria Fiorello, told me. Her mother, Eleanor, was a Sicilian immigrant with a tomboy-meets-Audrey Hepburn style; she wore peg pants with ballet flats or jeans with loafers.

“I don’t think my mother owned an apron,” my grandmother said. “And she wouldn’t be caught dead in a house dress.”

Eleanor Fiorello, my great-grandmother, was an anomaly for her time in more ways than one. Much like her daughter would later do, she balanced raising children and keeping a home with a strong presence in public life. Eleanor had been forced to drop out of high school to work in a shirt factory but went on to become a respected leader in local politics, serving as a selectman and then as deputy sheriff (she was also a champion sharpshooter). As an immigrant, a woman, and an outspoken Democrat, Eleanor Fiorello was an unlikely combination in 1950s Connecticut. She still put food on the table every night—and spent hours simmering homemade red sauce on Sundays—but she hardly fit the Betty Crocker mold. And neither would her daughter.

Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book is the best-selling cookbook in American history, with approximately 75 million copies sold since 1950. Not only did it guide generations of women in the kitchen; it was a cultural force, functioning as a blueprint for what it meant to be a good wife and mother. Cookbooks are one of those banal texts that we might ignore or dismiss, but this one, like so many others‚ tells a story about U.S food and everything that is wrapped up in it: family, power, class, culture, ethnicity, gender—and what it means to be American.

When eight-year-old Eleanor arrived to the US from Sicily in 1920, anti-Italian sentiment still gripped the nation.

“There was a lot of pressure for them to assimilate,” my grandmother said of her family. “My grandfather demanded that more than anything—if his wife slipped back into being too not American, or not American enough, he would remind her that that was important.”

Her grandmother’s English was poor and heavily accented, and despite her dresses and high heels—“she looked like Betty Crocker,” my grandmother remarked—some people still stared at her as if she were “less than a human.” The family took pains to assimilate, and by the time my grandmother was growing up the message was clear: We are Americans.

Around the same time my Sicilian family arrived on the East Coast, Betty Crocker was “born” in Minneapolis to the Washburn Crosby company (what would soon merge with other milling companies to become General Mills). Betty’s birth had been something of an accident. In an advertisement for their signature product, Gold Medal Flour, Washburn-Crosby included a puzzle that readers could solve and send in for a prize. Much to the surprise of the all-male advertising team, thousands of women included letters alongside their completed puzzles, asking why their dough was lumpy or how to make their cakes rise.

The male employees were loath to sign their names to any letters in response, and so they invented a new name—Crocker for William G. Crocker, a recently retired executive, and Betty because they thought it sounded wholesome. After an informal contest among the women of the office to sign the letters, a secretary’s signature was chosen. With that, a handful of businessmen selling flour invented a fictional homemaker—and the perfect woman for the first half of the 20th century was born.

With the rise of radio in the early 1920s, Betty Crocker quickly became a star, with actresses and staff of General Mills bringing her to life on the airwaves. The arrival of World War II skyrocketed Betty to a new level of fame. General Mills distributed millions of pamphlets on the war effort, while Betty broadcast a message of community and patriotism on her widely popular radio show. In 1945, Betty Crocker was named the second-most influential woman in America by Fortune magazine—just behind Eleanor Roosevelt. At her height, she received as many as 5,000 letters per day.

Many of the women who wrote to Betty Crocker believed she was a real person. They often addressed their letters as “dear friend.” And they wrote not just of their cooking but of their marital problems, their children, sometimes their feelings of inadequacy or a lack of purpose.

For millions of women, Betty Crocker was not just a name on a cake mix: she was the guide to whom they turned for support about everything in their lives, both in and outside of the kitchen. As such, her cookbook had an unprecedented impact on women’s lives: for many, the messages that they received about how to be a wife and mother came from the trusted friend they had known for years.

By the time Crocker’s comprehensive cookbook was published in 1950, she had been a national sensation for nearly three decades. In the first weeks after the cookbook was published, it was selling a staggering 18,000 copies per week. This cookbook is 1950s domesticity incarnate: encouraging women to strive for perfection in their kitchens and to see homemaking as an “art.” But for immigrants and the children of immigrants, Betty also seemed to teach another kind of lesson.

Looking back, my grandmother explained: “Of course I was American because I was born here, but I can see that it Americanized people. I look at what a strong influence that cookbook had because it taught you how to be an American woman.”

A little more than ten years after receiving the cookbook, my grandmother got married at age 18, and Betty Crocker continued to accompany her in the kitchen. Meeting her husband’s Irish-American family proved to be a clash of cultures, especially around meals.

“There were certain assumptions, that my food had to be strange,” she said. “I was trying to make their food, which to me was tasteless,” she added. Her family, for their part, jokingly referred to my grandfather (David McHugh), as “Davie Mercuto,” and quickly introduced him to their homemade wine that my grandmother described only as “strong.”

My grandmother never became a Betty Crocker devotee, though the cookbook did bridge the cultural divide. After an effort to impress my grandfather with her family’s red sauce failed—he said it was good but didn’t taste like Chef Boyardee—my grandmother turned to the cookbook.

“Here I was chasing my tail trying to do something good, so I did refer to the Betty Crocker cookbook.” She made roasts—and even Irish soda bread.

But the constraints of the suburban lifestyle espoused by Betty Crocker—the mandate to have a home-cooked meal every night and new hors d’oeuvres for the dinner parties—chafed my grandmother. After her husband graduated law school, my grandmother found herself thrown into the competitive world of young lawyers. The word she used to describe this period of their lives was “plaid.” The men wore plaid pants, and the women wore long plaid skirts. In an effort to fit in, she donned the requisite plaid skirt and turtleneck sweaters at every law firm party.

“It made me feel like I was choking, because I was like my mother, and I was uninhibited like her,” she said. She soon started to wear what she wanted, to do what she wanted to do: my grandparents sometimes took their young sons out for day trips on their twin motorcycles.
After her children were grown, my grandmother started searching for more. She attended classes at her local community college, and it was there that a friend passed along an advertisement in the New York Times: Yale was accepting adult students. After a year of wavering, she applied on a whim: “I needed to prove that I could do it,” she told me.

She could do it, it turned out. Alongside a rarefied swath of 18-year-olds from across the country, my fortysomething grandmother was accepted to Yale. On her first day of college, walking through the iron gate, she had one thought: “My mother would be so proud right now.”

When it came time to pick a major, she chose American Studies. She finished Yale and then graduate school at NYU, and at times when my grandmother was working long hours, my grandfather picked up the slack in the kitchen. He learned some of her Italian recipes, and I remember him calling her when she was working late to ask what she wanted on the menu that night. When my grandfather fell ill last year, the thing he complained about most to me was the hospital food. When I asked him what I could bring him to eat, he didn’t hesitate: “Grammy’s meatballs.”

My grandmother occasionally consults Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book for roasting times, or a cake here and there. Her well-worn copy is yellowed with age. Now the cookbook is mostly a memory, a cultural object my grandmother studies with an almost anthropological eye. For her, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book has been dwarfed by years of reading and learning, one book among a crowded shelf of many others. ~


Mary Walker earned her medical degree from Syracuse University in 1855, at a time when very few women became physicians. An abolitionist, she volunteered for service as a surgeon in the federal army during the Civil War, but she was turned down. Refusing the army’s offer to make her a nurse instead, Dr. Walker volunteered her services as a spy, but was turned down again. So, she began treating the wounded and sick as a volunteer civilian doctor, until ultimately the Army hired her as a contract surgeon, the first woman ever employed by the U.S. Army in that role. In April 1864 Dr. Walker was captured while behind Confederate lines. She was a prisoner of war for four months, until released in a prisoner exchange. For her services Mary Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor. She is the only woman in American history to receive the medal.

Mary Walker was a suffragist, prohibitionist, war hero, and pioneering physician, but it was her preference for traditional male clothing that earned her the most notoriety. She was arrested on numerous occasions for wearing men’s clothing. Once when asked why she wore men’s clothes she answered, “I don’t wear men’s clothes. I wear MY clothes.”

Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832, one hundred ninety years ago.

“Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” ~ Joseph Brodsky


~ For many couples, moving in together signifies a big step in the relationship.

Traditionally, this meant marriage, although nowadays most cohabit before getting married, or splitting up. But there is a third choice: living apart together.

Not only is it surprisingly common, but living apart together is increasingly seen as a new and better way for modern couples to live. Surveys have previously suggested that around 10% of adults in Western Europe, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia live apart together, while up to a quarter of people in Britain statistically defined as “single” actually have an intimate partner – they just live somewhere else.

Living apart together supposedly gives people all the advantages of autonomy – doing what you want in your own space, maintaining preexisting local arrangements and friendships – as well as the pleasures of intimacy with a partner. Some even see it as “subverting gendered norms” – or at least that women can escape traditional divisions of labor.

But our research shows a darker motivation – people can end up living apart because they feel anxious, vulnerable, even fearful about living with a partner. And, despite living apart together, women still often continue to perform traditional roles.

While some who live apart have long distance relationships, most live near one another, even in the same street, and are together much of the time. Nearly all are in constant contact through text, Facebook, Facetime and other messaging platforms. And virtually all expect monogamous fidelity.

Surveys show three different types of couples who live apart together. First are those who feel it is “too early”, or who are “not ready” to live together yet – mostly young people who see cohabitation as the next stage in their lives. Then there are the couples who do actually want to live together but are prevented from doing so. They can’t afford a joint house, or a partner has a job somewhere else, or can’t get a visa, or is in prison or a care home. Sometimes family opposition, for example to a partner of a different religion, is just too intense.

Third is a “preference” group who choose to live apart together over the long term. These are mostly older people who have been married or cohabited before. It is this group that are trying to use living apart to create new and better way of living.

Our research, however, based on a nationwide survey supplemented by 50 in-depth interviews, points to a different story for many “preference” couples. Rather than seeking a new and better form of relationship through living apart together, the ideal remained a “proper” family – cohabitation, marriage and a family home. But respondents often feared this ideal in practice, and so “chose” to live apart as the best way to deal with these fears while still keeping a relationship. Often they had been deeply hurt in previous cohabiting relationships, financially as well as emotionally. Some women experienced abuse. As Michelle explained: “I don’t want to lose everything in my house, I don’t want to be possessed, I don’t, and I don’t want to be beaten up, by someone who’s meant to love me.”

Not surprisingly, Michelle had “built a very solid brick wall” with her current partner. It was living apart that maintained this wall. Another respondent, Graham, had experienced an “incredibly stressful time” after separation from his wife, with “nowhere to live and no real resources or anything”. So living apart was a “sort of self-preservation”.

Current partners could also be a problem. Wendy had lived with her partner, but found that “when he drinks he’s not a nice person … He was abusive both to me and my son”.

Living apart together was the solution. Maggie was repelled by her partner’s “hardcore” green lifestyle: his lack of washing, sporadic toilet flushing, and no central heating (which she needed for medical reasons). She also felt her partner looked down on her as intellectually inferior. So living apart together was “the next best thing” to her ideal of conjugal marriage.

Some men found the very idea of living with women threatening. For Ben, “not a big commitment merchant”, living apart together was at least “safe”. And several men in the study hoped to find more “compliant” partners abroad. Daniel, whose current, much younger, partner lived in Romania, explained how his “whole universe was blown apart” by divorce. And how he felt that “females in England … seem to want everything straight off in my opinion – I just didn’t want to communicate with English women at all.”

Given these fears, worries and aversions, why do these people stay with their partners at all? The answer is a desire for love and intimacy. As Wendy said: “I do love him…[and] I would love to be with him, if he was the person that he is when he’s not drinking.”

Maggie told us how she “really loved” her partner and how they had “set up an agreement” whereby “if I do your cooking and your washing and ironing can you take me out once a month and pay for me”. Even Gemma, who thought living apart together gave her power in the relationship, found herself in “wife mode” and did “all his washing and cooking”.

For some people, then, choosing to live apart is not about finding a new or better form of intimacy. Rather living apart is a reaction to vulnerability, anxiety, even fear – it offers protection. ~

Jenn Kerwin:
Not for everyone. Some people just like to have the peace of solitude whenever they want it.... And I'm sure for a lot of women they get tired of constantly having to pick up after their husbands.

Melodi Girty:
Living together if one spouse is ailing can mean bankruptcy. It’s horrible that medical bills and prescriptions in this country are so high. I’m sure that those things also figure in as well. I have actually known a couple that divorced and lived separately just so one could get cancer care without losing everything.

Loftin Tucker:
It's not that they can't afford to live together because their combined income keeps them out of reach for help so they have to live alone to get help.

Barbara Findlin:
It seems marriage is obsolete they live together and when they separate there’s no lawyers and no court involved.

Linda Snider:
Makes sense. Living together can mean loss of everything, abuse and misery. But people want intimacy.

Blüt Betragen:
I stopped dating a long time ago because I don't want to run the risk of someone using their sex to have me thrown in jail for nothing, lose custody of my kids or have all of my stuff stolen from me. There really isn't anything a relationship has to offer me as I can take care of myself and my own kids. I still sleep with women occasionally and that's all I really need there. I also don't want my kids getting screwed over for my worth because some step Mom thinks what mine/theirs is hers all of a sudden. I enjoy the time I have to do what I want as well. I have no one telling me what I can and can't do. Lol.


Living alone is perhaps the greatest luxury in the world. You have to be able to afford it, but then, wow! Eating whenever and whatever you like, going to sleep late or early, depending on your own choice, playing the music you love at the volume you enjoy, getting or not getting a pet, buying or not buying a new refrigerator that you won't have to share with anyone . . . and yes, the much-remarked on not closing the door to the bathroom when you're using it -- and a myriad of other freedoms that may seem very minor, and yet add up to feeling a lot more free than in a shared household. 

Of course living alone need not mean the lack of a partner. She or he is probably also the kind of person who enjoys living alone. But you still meet and do things together, without the petty everyday annoyances that ruin so many marriages. 

Joe Milosch:

After reading Simon Duncan’s article, Why More Couples Live Apart, I wondered why Duncan passed over the economic side in such a cavalier manner. The size of the debt young people accrue by their mid-twenties must influence their decision to live separately. It is not just the educational debt. It is the debt needed for the youth to live in a world they inherited.

The credit debt is astronomical for daily necessities that the boomers never needed. Many jobs require a cell phone with app capabilities: resume and payroll apps are considered the cost of acquiring and keeping a job. Even the lowest on the status ladder must have phones capable of internet access to obtain work schedules and other needed information.

My brother is a day laborer for three small construction companies. His phone needs e-mail, text, and camera capabilities. He needs a GPS to go to different jobs in Orange County. It’s sad but true that employment requires a reliable car, cell phone, and internet system. These are debts that exist as monthly payments. Finding a rental or paying rent requires internet access.
Today, we saddle young people with necessities that they buy on credit and require monthly payments near $300 dollars. Rent, food, and gas are not extras. Therefore, a person making less than fifty thousand dollars a year acquires five to ten thousand dollars in debt by the end of the year. This debt doesn’t include any entertainment or luxuries like television.

Brewing your own coffee is not going to keep you out of debt. On top of this monthly debt, a young adult has the educational debt accrued to be employable. Instead of a couple marrying with a low debt of under five thousand dollars, a college-educated person would carry a debt load of 40 thousand dollars. Two college graduates might be indebted 100,000 thousand dollars+/-.

In 1990 I got married, and both my wife and I had our college degrees, but we carried zero debt. That was because college was affordable without having to mortgage our future. Our monthly debt, including rent, came to $650. We were an exception to the rule. When we bought our home, we did not live extravagantly. We ate out twice a week and took a two-week vacation annually.

It would have taken us 15 years to pay the debt a couple today carries. Today, we need to add cars, cell phones, and the internet. We both worked, shared the bills, and invested in our retirement. If a young single person has a debt of $100,000, why would they add debt belonging to someone else?

In 1859, James Stewart Mills, an English philosopher, wrote an essay titled On liberty. He said it was the government’s duty to provide free public education and health care. These programs enabled people to contribute economically without debtors' prisons. Today, debt imprisons young people and forces them to live separately.


Generally, one is not responsible for a spouse’s student debt, but the laws are tricky. You have to make sure any debt is entirely in your spouse’s name, and few people have the legal and accounting knowledge to arrange things just right so that debt-collecting agencies don’t go after your common assets.

And you are right: the investments people have to make just to be able to hold a job are outrageous to start with (sounds somewhat like the Russian recruits needing to buy their own uniforms and body armor). Add to this the price of housing. That’s why so many single adults still live with their parents — while we, the lucky boomers, couldn’t wait to move out and live on our own! I did it working only part-time and finishing college. But what was affordable then is now expensive.

I have no idea how to solve it except by making public education free or nearly free up to the PhD level. Likewise with health care.

Subsidized housing or rent controls? I don’t really know. We need to take a good look at how other countries manage. The US situation has become unsustainable.


~ Conventional wisdom has it that only children are smarter and less sociable. Parents, freed from the shackles of constantly settling sibling disputes, devote more time and money to the singleton, exposing them to a greater variety of higher-level activities (there’s a term for what happens when you spread that time and money over more kids: resource dilution). Conversely, since those only children never have to share a toy, a bedroom, or a parent’s attention, it is assumed they miss out on that critical life skill of forever-having-to-get-along.

But are their actual brains different?

Jiang Qiu, a professor of psychology at Southwest University in Chongqing, China and director of the Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality in the ministry of education, led a team of Chinese researchers that sought to answer this question with more than 250 college-aged Chinese students. They used standard tests of intelligence, creativity, and personality type to measure their creativity, IQ, and agreeableness. They also studied their brains, to see if growing up as an only child affects the structure of them. It did.

On the behavioral tests, only children displayed no differences in terms of IQ, but higher levels of flexibility—one measure of creativity—and lower levels of agreeableness than kids with siblings.

The brain scans then confirmed these findings, showing significant differences between only children and non-only children in the brain regions associated with flexibility, imagination, and planning (supramarginal gyrus) and with agreeableness and emotional regulation (medial prefrontal cortex). The scans also revealed differences in the parahippocampal gyrus, which helps manage emotional and mood regulation.

The study concluded that the family size we choose, or end up with, affects not only the environment in which children grow up, but also the architecture of their brains. The research was published in Brain Imaging and Behavior.

The idea that only children are somehow deficient was started 125 years ago by Granville Stanley Hall, a leader in the child-study movement, writes Lauren Sandler, author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joys of Being One. Having worked on the 1896 study “Of Peculiar and Exceptional Children,” Hall cast only children as “oddballs” as “permanent misfits,” descriptions that have stuck over the years with remarkable persistence. “Being an only child is a disease in itself,” he claimed.

There is ample evidence suggesting the stereotypes of the “lonely only” are wrong. Toni Falbo, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and research methodologist Denise Polit undertook a meta-study looking at only children and intelligence and personality. They found that only children, along with firstborns and people who have only one sibling, score higher IQ marks and achieve more, but aren’t markedly different personality-wise (context matters: an only child in an unhappy household may be disagreeable; so might a child with five siblings in a poor family).

Jiang and his co-authors hypothesized a few reasons for their findings. Creativity —defined as having original ideas that have value—is strongly influenced by everything from family structure and parental views, to interactions and expectations (one older study showed that children were more likely to excel if they had a mother whose abilities matched her expectations). Parents of only children may interact more with their children, and seek out more opportunities to extend their children’s creativity. A parent might also have higher expectations of an only child, or they might give the child more independence, and some studies have shown that independence fosters creativity.

Mark Runco, editor of the Creativity Research Journal and a distinguished research fellow of the American Institute for Behavioral Research & Technology, applauded the study but with a few caveats. He noted that the authors focused on flexibility, which is just one of three measures of creativity assessed by the verbally administered Torrance test; the other two are originality (the number of unique or original new ideas a person has) and fluency (how easily a person can move between them).

“Flexibility is important but it’s not as important for creativity as originality,” he said. There were no significant differences in originality scores.

He also noted that just like IQ tests, creativity tests are not perfect measures of the thing they are measuring. “You are looking at performance on a test and it’s not perfectly indicative of what a person can or will do,” in real life, he said. Creativity involves spontaneity and intrinsic motivation—things which are a bit hard to assess on a test. ~


I've never desired having siblings. I’ve seen too much sibling rivalry (some of it lifelong) to regret not having a brother or sister (the most children that professionals in Poland had was two; three was already a "large family"; one was probably more common by far than three or more). 

When it comes to inheritance, nothing beats being an only child. It's wonderful not to have to worry about sufficient income in your older years. But you don't think about that when growing up and encountering a peculiar prejudice against only children.

In spite of parents' having one child being practically the norm in my social circle, I grew up with freely expressed prejudice against only children. I kept hearing that they are “selfish.” On the contrary, I think that they tend to be people pleasers (maybe because they worked so hard to please their parents). If they need therapy, it’s to teach them to stand up for themselves (of course many non-only children, especially female, also grow up with that very common problem, which may have more  to do with gender roles than the number of siblings).

On the whole, each person is unique, and not very much can be explained by having or not having had siblings. True, studies show that only and first-born children are more likely to be high achievers, but at the individual level I have not found that to be an accurate predictor. Studies also show that first-born and only children have a higher IQ and better thinking skills, but when I think of the smartest individuals I've known, including my father, oddly enough they tend come from large families and are not necessarily first-born. Maybe that has been just my peculiar luck . . . still, it's a confirmation of the informal observation that statistics often don't apply in individual cases. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, was the eighth child.

It seems that some years ago there was a trend to put a great emphasis on birth order, including only children who were thought to be equivalent of the first-borns except for not having had the experience of being “dethroned” when a younger sibling is born. But in the end it was all dubious “folk wisdom” rather than true science, and we no longer seem to have all those articles on the problems of the middle child or the like. Relief!


Best rebuttal to moon landing deniers:

Yes, NASA hired Stanley Kubrick to film a fake moon landing. But Kubrick was such an obsessive perfectionist that he insisted on shooting on-location.


~ Stone Age cooks were surprisingly sophisticated, combining an array of ingredients and using different techniques to prepare and flavor their meals, analysis of some the earliest charred food remains has suggested.

Plant material found at the Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq — which is famous for its burial of a Neanderthal surrounded by flowers — and Franchthi Cave in Greece revealed prehistoric cooking by Neanderthals and early modern humans was complex, involving several steps, and that the foods used were diverse, according to a new study published in the journal Antiquity.

Wild nuts, peas, vetch, a legume which had edible seed pods, and grasses were often combined with pulses like beans or lentils, the most commonly identified ingredient, and at times, wild mustard. To make the plants more palatable, pulses, which have a naturally bitter taste, were soaked, coarsely ground or pounded with stones to remove their husk.

At Shanidar Cave, the researchers studied plant remains from 70,000 years ago, when the space was inhabited by Neanderthals, an extinct species of human, and 40,000 years ago, when it was home to early modern humans (Homo sapiens).

The charred food remains from Franchthi Cave dated from 12,000 years ago, when it was also occupied by hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens.

Despite the distance in time and space, similar plants and cooking techniques were identified at both sites — possibly suggesting a shared culinary tradition, said the study’s lead author Dr. Ceren Kabukcu, an archaeobotanical scientist at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom.

Based on the food remains researchers analyzed, Neanderthals, the heavy-browed hominins who disappeared about 40,000 years ago, and Homo sapiens appeared to use similar ingredients and techniques, she added, although wild mustard was only found at Shanidar Cave dating back to when it was occupied by Homo sapiens.


A breadlike substance was found at the Greek cave, although it wasn’t clear what it was made from. The evidence that ancient humans pounded and soaked pulses at Shanidar Cave 70,000 years ago is the earliest direct evidence outside Africa of the processing of plants for food, according to Kabukcu.

Kabukcu said she was surprised to find that prehistoric people were combining plant ingredients in this way, an indication that flavor was clearly important. She had expected to find only starchy plants like roots and tubers, which on face value appear to be more nutritious and are easier to prepare.

Much research on prehistoric diets has focused on whether early humans were predominantly meat eaters, but Kabukcu said it was clear they weren’t just chomping on woolly mammoth steaks. Our ancient ancestors ate a varied diet depending on where they lived, and this likely included a wide range of plants.

Such creative cooking techniques were once thought to have emerged only with the shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to humans’ focus on agriculture — known as the Neolithic transition — that took place between 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.

What’s more, she said, the research suggested life in the Stone Age was not just a brutal fight to survive, at least at these two sites, and that prehistoric humans selectively foraged a variety of different plants and understood their different flavor profiles.

John McNabb, a professor at the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton in the UK said that scientific understanding of the Neanderthal diet has changed significantly “as we move away from the idea of them just consuming huge quantities of hunted game meat.”

“More data is needed from Shanidar, but if these results are supported then Neanderthals were eating pulses and some species from the grass family that required careful preparation before consumption. Sophisticated techniques of food preparation had a much deeper history than previously thought,” McNabb, who wasn’t involved in the research, said via email.

“Even more intriguing is the possibility that they did not deliberately extract all the unpalatable toxins. Some were left in the food, as the presence of seed coatings suggests — that part of the seed where the bitterness is especially located. A Neanderthal flavor of choice.”


A separate study into prehistoric diets that also published Tuesday analyzed ancient humans’ oral microbiome — fungi, bacteria and viruses that reside in the mouth — by using ancient DNA from dental plaque.

Researchers led by Andrea Quagliariello, a postdoctoral research fellow in comparative biomedicine and food at the University of Padua in Italy, examined the oral microbiomes of 76 individuals who lived in prehistoric Italy over a period of 30,000 years, as well as microscopic food remains found in calcified plaque.

Quagliariello and his team were able to identify trends in diet and cooking techniques, such as the introduction of fermentation and milk, and a shift to a greater reliance on carbohydrates associated with an agriculture-based diet.

McNabb said it was impressive that researchers had been able chart changes over such a long period of time.

“What the study also does is support the growing idea that the Neolithic was not the sudden arrival of new subsistence practices and new cultures as it was once thought to be. It appears to be a slower transition,” McNabb, who wasn’t involved in the study, said via email. ~

A Neanderthal hearth was unearthed at Shanidar Cave, where charred plant remains were also found.


Merlin Sheldrake’s new book Entangled Life looks at the complex world of fungi, its adaptive ability, and its interconnectedness with all other forms of life. He spoke with Robert Macfarlane, author of Underland, about his relationship to fungi and its strategic lessons on growth in the face of climate crisis.

Robert Macfarlane: I want to plunge straight in and ask about the title of your book, Entangled Life. I hear echoes of Darwin’s famous “tangled bank” paragraph, closing the later editions of On the Origin of Species, and “entanglement” is one of the favorite tropes of what might be called Anthropocene ecology, conspicuous in the work of Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway, for instance. What do you mean by “entangled” and for that matter, what do you mean by “life”!?

Merlin Sheldrake: Plunge! I think of the word “entangle” as a knotting and re-knotting, a raveling, an intertwining. The word appears to have some of its roots in Nordic and German words for “seaweed,” presumably because they are life forms that knot and clump with themselves—

Entangled Life is a book about fungi, most of which live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelium is how fungi feed. Animals tend to find food in the world and put it in their bodies; fungi put their bodies in the food. To do so, they must ceaselessly remodel themselves, weaving their bodies into relation with their surroundings. This entanglement—with themselves, with their physical surroundings, and with other organisms—is their staple mode of existence. On a very literal level, then, I use the word entangle to refer to the ancient growth habit of this little-understood kingdom of life.

But fungi don’t keep to themselves. Mycelium is the living seam by which much of life is stitched into relation. Fungi string their way through the soil, through sulfurous sediments on ocean beds, through coral reefs, inside plant leaves, roots and shoots. Bacteria use mycelial networks as highways to navigate the bustling wilderness of the soil. Nutrients circulate through ecosystems through fungal networks. Tug on strand of mycelium and you’ll find it hitched to something else.

Fungi embody the most basic principle of ecology: that of the relationships between organisms. This is another sense in which I use the word entangled. Fungi form literal connections between organisms and in doing so remind us that all life forms, humans included, are bound up within seething networks of relationships, some visible and some less so.

This relates to your question about life. Evolution’s most well-worn iconography is that of a tree, mirroring the genealogical trees used to portray lines of human descent. Since Darwin, the dominant narrative within evolutionary circles has portrayed lineages as endlessly diverging from each other like the branches of a tree. But over the last several decades, it’s become clear that divergence is only part of the story. Some of the most dramatic moments in the history of life occurred when single-celled organisms engulfed unrelated single-celled organisms which continued to live inside them. Within the bodies of these new composite organisms, branches of the tree of life that had been diverging for hundreds of millions of years did something entirely unexpected, and converged.

In light of these discoveries, many biologists have begun to reimagine the tree of life as a reticulate mesh formed as lineages not only branch, but fuse and merge with one another. Strands of the mesh loop in and out of the realm of viruses—entities that many don’t consider to be living organisms at all—and make it clear that life shades off into non-life gradually. If anyone wanted a new poster organism for evolution they needn’t look far. It is a vision of life that resembles fungal mycelium more than anything else.

Are we in broad agreement, would you say?

RM: Yes, I think so. I remember in reading Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, where they take aim at the ubiquitous metaphor of the “tree” on basis of its implicitly hierarchical-vertical structure; they propose in its place the model of the “rhizome,” which weaves and moves by node and network. But I always felt they were a little harsh on trees; for as your research as a plant scientist, and your writing in Entangled Life both reveal, trees are themselves participants in a vast web of mutualisms, wafting aerosol signals between each other above ground, and sharing resources below ground via mycorrhizae…

But enough of that; I want to pick up now on those closing sentences of your answer: we are speaking to each other from our respective lockdowns here in England. The entanglement of the “realm of viruses,” as you call it, with the human sphere has rarely—perhaps never—been as visible to us as it is now. It is a reminder firstly that what we call humans are profoundly multi-species beings, seething colonies of fungi, bacteria and viruses; and secondly that not all entanglement is good entanglement, as it were. I can’t miss asking you to reflect on the current situation (I think you may just in fact have had Covid-19) and in particular on what might be learned from our predicament.

MS: Well I think I just had it. In the absence of widespread testing it’s hard to know. In any case, my experience was mercifully short. I woke up feeling like I had aged 80 years overnight and after a miserable day in bed I was more or less back to normal. What can we learn from our predicament? I think it depends on how much we’re willing to learn. In 2016 the UK underwent an exercise to simulate the effect of a viral pandemic on the country’s systems and infrastructure. It revealed terrible shortcomings, yet insufficient action was taken because those in power were unwilling to learn. Right now we can see a wide range of governmental responses to a common threat, from competence to tragic confusion. I expect that we’ll see a similarly wide range of willingness to learn. Perhaps it will become clear—to those who remain unpersuaded—that a stubborn refusal to change our habits is fatal.

The planet is made up of reverberating dynamic systems in which small causes can ripple into large effects. An invisibly small entity can cause human societies to grind to a halt. Are we as in control as we think? Clearly not. This isn’t news. Invisibly small organisms have been shaping life on the planet for as long as there has been life. Nonetheless, for our lack of control to be revealed in such vivid and painful detail does help dispel some of our delusions and challenge us to find comfort in—or just endure—uncertainty. It’s been astonishing to watch many of our social, political, and economic certainties unclamp themselves so readily. 

Viruses are prodigious catalysts of evolution. By shuttling genetic material between organisms they generate evolutionary novelty and have even made possible some of our deepest intimacies: as placental mammals we depend on genes acquired from viruses to develop within our mothers. Viruses enter their hosts and must suspend their immune systems; developing mammals are faced with a similar challenge. In the absence of these viral genes, it wouldn’t be possible for embryos to share bodily space with their mother without being rejected as an other, a non-self. I can’t stop thinking about this. Our parental care, our social bonding, our need for closeness—all have their roots in a viral infection. I hope that the current period of cultural evolution catalyzed by a virus can draw us towards a state of greater care, bondedness, and consideration—both towards other humans, and towards the more-than-humans with whom we share the planet. Of course, it could do quite the opposite.

RM: Fascinating. I have certainly been skeptical of the early wave of what might be called “pandemic utopianism”; an undetailed belief that societies will emerge from the chrysalis-phase of this crisis profoundly transformed for the (progressive) good. There is a strong counter-narrative in terms of historical precedent which finds that power consolidates power after pandemics (especially with regard to marginalized or vulnerable groups). I’m thinking particularly here of the catastrophic consequences of disease for indigenous communities in the North and South Americas, introduced by colonizers.

My strong sense is that there are abundant changes for the good which might occur, but each will need to be fought for—by tired citizens, emerging from a bruising period of existence—to prevent a relapse to the status quo or worse.

Watching Milan re-imagine its urban-planning away from the current priority for choking motor-vehicles, and towards cycling and pedestrianism—in large part given the increasingly clear co-morbidity between air pollution and COVID-19—is one example of a positive change that could have taken decades now taking months. Turning back to Entangled Life, then—can I ask you to tell us a little about your own life’s entanglement with fungi. How did your fascination with this world-shaping, vision-changing kingdom of life begin, and what shaped its growth?

MS: There are many strands. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that things transform. Why do things change? And how do they change? My curiosity has led me back again and again to the organisms that deftly arrange and rearrange the world. As a child I used to make piles of leaves and lie inside them to try and catch them in the process of rotting; I cultivated plants and mushrooms and watched them grow; I took up brewing.

Fungi are among the most gifted of life’s decomposers—and composers—and it’s been hard to stay away. Of course, human lives have pivoted around the metabolic ingenuity of fungi for a long time—bread, alcohol, cheese, soy sauce, psychedelic compounds, penicillin, cancer treatments, organ transplants… it’s a huge list. Fungi are often described as a hidden kingdom of life, which may be so. But many hide in plain sight and it’s hard to unsee them once you’ve noticed they’re there.

Symbiosis was another gateway concept for me. The more I learned about biology, the more I became interested in the often astonishing ways that organisms had evolved to collaborate with each other. Fungi are key players in some of the most blockbuster symbioses in Earth’s history, and it was my interest in these relationships that led me to study mycorrhizal fungi and their underground networks of influence—a tangled enquiry from which I’m yet to emerge.

And then there’s the urgency. There are a number of ways that we might partner with fungi to help us to adapt to life on a damaged planet and we don’t know nearly as much as we should. Ongoing environmental devastation has brought about renewed interest in the fungal world, and radical mycological possibilities abound: some fungi produce powerful antiviral compounds which reduce colony collapse disorder in honeybees; in the process of mycoremediation, fungi can be harnessed to break down toxic pollutants; in mycofiltration, contaminated water can be passed through fungal mycelium which filters out pathogens and heavy metals; in mycofabrication, fungi are used to produce sustainable materials, from bricks to “leather.” Not to mention the many ways that fungi change the way we think, feel, and imagine. I anticipate that my fungal fascinations will only increase as the global crisis worsens, and I suspect that I’m not alone.

RM: As someone who has also—especially in my two most recent books, Ness and Underland—tried to write about entanglement, I’d be interested to hear how you approached your task from a literary (as well as a philosophical and scientific) perspectives. This is your first book—
and a wildly, wondrously ambitious first book at that. Can you tell us how you found both the work and the craft of writing at this length for the first time, on this subject?

MS: It was an adventure. Early on I decided to produce a first draft by writing very quickly and scrappily. Somewhere in this puddle of text, I hoped, I might find a book. The momentum of this approach helped prevent paralysis. It also allowed me to see more clearly the themes emerge. Reworking this formless mass became a process of trying to understand mycelium, which is conceptually and intuitively slippery: Mycelial coordination takes place both everywhere at once, and nowhere in particular; a fragment of mycelium can regenerate an entire network, meaning that a single mycelial individual—if you’re brave enough to use that word—is potentially immortal; mycelial networks are indeterminate shape-shifters, living maybes that fuse and branch, decanting themselves into their surroundings.

Mycelium used to feel like a kōan, unintelligible to my mammalian mind. But I’ve come to think of our minds as the most mycelial parts of ourselves. Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form. A portrait of someone’s mind might look something like a mycelial network; mind maps certainly do. It soon became clear that mycelium would be a foundational metaphor for the book whether I liked it or not. 

There were other guiding figures. Knots helped me a lot. Since I was a child I’ve loved tying and untying knots and the way it makes me think, and I often found myself imagining the book’s themes and stories as cords that I could splice, braid, and weave. Music was another, in particular musical polyphony, which involves voicing more than one part or telling more than one story at the same time. In polyphonic music, melodies intertwine without ceasing to be many. Voices flow around other voices, twisting into and beside one another.

And yet, when listening to polyphonic music several streams of consciousness commingle in the mind and a multitude of parts can coalesce into a single piece of music that doesn’t exist in any one of the parts alone. It was this type of listening that helped me to feel my way through the writing process. I came to think of fungal mycelium—which is both a multitude of growing tips and a single interconnected entity—as polyphony in bodily form. Mycelium is what happens when elongating fungal cells, which are streams of embodiment rather than streams of consciousness, commingle.

All the while I did my best to maintain as much contact with the fungal world as possible. I drank large pots of tea made from chaga and reishi mushrooms, for example, and tried to eat mushrooms for at least one meal a day. I still do. ~


I too try to eat mushrooms at least once a day. It's a health food, and entirely non-fattening. Higher mushroom consumption is associated with lower incidence of cancer, especially breast cancer.


~ Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people—and Christians are no exception.

These twin statements are generalizations, but they capture the essence of a fascinating finding in a Pew Research study about Christian identity in Western Europe. By surveying almost 25,000 people in 15 countries in the region, and comparing the results with data previously gathered in the U.S., the Pew Research Center discovered three things.

First, researchers confirmed the widely known fact that, overall, Americans are much more religious than Western Europeans. They gauged religious commitment using standard questions, including “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?” and “Do you pray daily?”

Second, the researchers found that American “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer.

The third finding reported in the study is by far the most striking. As it turns out, “American ‘nones’ are as religious as—or even more religious than—Christians in several European countries, including France, Germany, and the U.K.”

“That was a surprise,” Neha Sahgal, the lead researcher on the study, told me. “That’s the comparison that’s fascinating to me.” She highlighted the fact that whereas only 23 percent of European Christians say they believe in God with absolute certainty, 27 percent of American nones say this.

America is a country so suffused with faith that religious attributes abound even among the secular. Consider the rise of “atheist churches,” which cater to Americans who have lost faith in supernatural deities but still crave community, enjoy singing with others, and want to think deeply about morality. It’s religion, minus all the God stuff. This is a phenomenon spreading across the country, from the Seattle Atheist Church to the North Texas Church of Freethought. The Oasis Network, which brings together non-believers to sing and learn every Sunday morning, has affiliates in nine U.S. cities.

In April 2018, almost 1,000 people streamed into a church in San Francisco for an unprecedented event billed as “Beyoncé Mass.” Most were people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Many were secular. They used Queen Bey’s songs, which are replete with religious symbolism, as the basis for a communal celebration—one that had all the trappings of a religious service. That seemed completely fitting to some, including one reverend who said, “Beyoncé is a better theologian than many of the pastors and priests in our church today.”

The Catholic-themed Met Gala in May 2018 was another instance of religion commingling with secular American culture. Fashion’s biggest night of the year saw celebrities sweeping down the red carpet dressed in papal tiaras, halos, angel wings, and countless crucifixes. These outfits, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accompanying exhibition, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” drew the ire of some Christians. But it’s notable that so many celebrities, not to mention average Americans, embraced the theme with gusto. It’s easier to imagine this happening in America than in, say, staunchly secular France.

The Pew survey found that although most Western Europeans still identify as Christians, for many of them, Christianity is a cultural or ethnic identity rather than a religious one. Sahgal calls them “post-Christian Christians,” though that label may be a bit misleading: The tendency to conceptualize Christianity as an ethnic marker is at least as old as the Crusades, when non-Christian North Africans and Middle Easterners were imagined as “others” relative to white, Christian Europeans. The survey also found that 11 percent of Western Europeans now call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

“I hypothesize that being ‘spiritual’ may be a transitional position between being Christian and being non-religious,” said Linda Woodhead, a professor of politics, philosophy, and religion at Lancaster University in the U.K. “Spirituality provides an opportunity for people to maintain what they like about Christianity without the bits they don’t like.”

Woodhead pointed to another finding in the Pew study: Most Western Europeans still believe in the idea of the soul. “So it’s not that we’re seeing straightforward secularization, where religion gives way to atheism and a rejection of all aspects of religion,” she said. “We’re seeing something more complex that we haven’t fully got our heads around. In Europe, it’s about people disaffiliating from the institution of the Church and the old authority figures … and moving toward a much more independent-minded, varied set of beliefs.”

The U.S. hasn’t secularized as profoundly as Europe has, and its history is crucial to understanding why. Joseph Blankholm, a professor at UC Santa Barbara who focuses on atheism and secularism, told me the Cold War was a particularly important inflection point. “The 1950s were the most religious America has ever been,” he said. “‘In God We Trust’ becomes the official national motto. ‘Under God’ is entered into the pledge of allegiance. That identity is being consciously formed by specific actors like Truman and Eisenhower, who are promoting a Christian identity at home and abroad, over against a godless communism. It’s the Christianization of America—as a Cold War tool.”

The Pew survey shows that 27 percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even though they’ve left organized religion behind, many still pray regularly and believe in God. This raises an issue for researchers, because it suggests their traditional measures of religiosity can no longer be trusted to accurately identify religious people. “I think people are doing things that don’t mirror Christianity sufficiently enough for our categories to continue to be as explanatory as they once were,” said Blankholm. “These categories are at their limit—they’re in some ways outmoded.”

Sahgal said she was aware of this problem, and sought to make the survey questions more granular so they would capture reality more accurately than the traditional questions alone would have done. So, for instance, the survey didn’t stop at asking respondents whether they believe in God. It drilled down further, asking whether they believe in God as described in the Bible or whether they believe in some other higher power.

As religiosity takes on forms that scramble our old understanding of that term, it’s forcing researchers to ask themselves anew what we talk about when we talk about religion.
“Those challenges are going to get worse—and they know it,” said Blankholm. “But I love that they’re developing a new vocabulary, because that’s exactly what we need.” ~


On religion in the US: the turn noted in the 1950's was to embed religion into the state, to make us "one nation Under God," inserting "in God we Trust" on our money, and "under God," into the Pledge of Allegiance is definitely a deliberate reaction to the US versus USSR and its "Godless Communism." To be an American was automatically to oppose the enemy's atheism with our dedication to Christian theism. They forget these were new additions and assume we were always a "Christian State," that to take the "God " out is to break with our original history.

There is talk of the Right's "Christofascism," strongly part of the Republican party, of Trump's cultists, and of the intent of the Supreme Court, now addressing it's next assault on freedom and equality with the question of businesses rights to refuse service to gay couples. They have their ducks in a row and are ready to shoot.

I find the religious "Christianity" in the South even more aggressive and coercive than elsewhere. Often upon just meeting you will be asked where you go to church. In group gatherings the hosts will take up holding hands and launching into a long prayer… it becomes socially awkward to 'withdraw' even when you are not willing… your religion or lack of religion is not allowed a private space. Everybody is either praying, asking for prayers, or declaring prayers will "work" for whatever problems come up. They seem to think their god can be coerced by  a good enough barrage of prayers.

This all seems very primitive and even laughable, but these same folks are all OK with the worst racist, misogynistic and homophobic actions. Their ignorance is abysmal and they are proud of it, quite hostile to any rational arguments, even when they propose ridiculous re-locating an ectopic pregnancy to the womb, or forcing a raped child to endure pregnancy and birth.


I had some fun with this when I tried to insert “Allah” instead of “God.” On money: “In Allah we trust.” In the pledge: “One nation under Allah.” I tried to imagine the faces of the Christian fanatics if you told about the “Allah substitution.” I don’t know what would be more shocking: the insertion of “Allah”, or referring to god as “she.”


~ Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilization of Islam showed that modernization by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.

Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking. Over the years, research and waves of protests and crackdowns indicated massive disappointment among Iranians with their political system. This steadily turned into a deeply felt disillusionment with institutional religion.

In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN (GAMAAN), conducted an online survey with the collaboration of Ladan Boroumand, co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran.

The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularization.

Iran’s census claims that 99.5% of the population are Muslim, a figure that hides the state’s active hostility toward irreligiosity, conversion and unrecognized religious minorities.
Iranians live with an ever-present fear of retribution for speaking against the state. In Iran, one cannot simply call people or knock on doors seeking answers to politically sensitive questions. That’s why the anonymity of digital surveys offers an opportunity to capture what Iranians really think about religion.

Since the revolution, literacy rates have risen sharply and the urban population has grown substantially. Levels of internet penetration in Iran are comparable to those in Italy, with around 60 million users and the number grows relentlessly: 70% of adults are members of at least one social media platform.

For our survey on religious belief in Iran, we targeted diverse digital channels after analyzing which groups showed lower participation rates in our previous large-scale surveys. The link to the survey was shared by Kurdish, Arab, Sufi and other networks. And our research assistant successfully convinced Shia pro-regime channels to spread it among their followers, too. We reached mass audiences by sharing the survey on Instagram pages and Telegram channels, some of which had a few million followers.

After cleaning our data, we were left with a sample of almost 40,000 Iranians living in Iran. The sample was weighted and balanced to the target population of literate Iranians aged above 19, using five demographic variables and voting behavior in the 2017 presidential elections.


Most Iranians, 78%, believe in God, but only 37% believe in life after death and only 30% believe in heaven and hell. In line with other anthropological research, a quarter of our respondents said they believed in jinns or genies. Around 20% said they did not believe in any of the options, including God.

These numbers demonstrate that a general process of secularization, known to encourage religious diversity, is taking place in Iran. An overwhelming majority, 90%, described themselves as hailing from believing or practicing religious families. Yet 47% reported losing their religion in their lifetime, and 6% said they changed from one religious orientation to another. Younger people reported higher levels of irreligiosity and conversion to Christianity than older respondents.

A third said they occasionally drank alcohol in a country that legally enforces temperance. Over 60% said they did not perform the obligatory Muslim daily prayers, synchronous with a 2020 state-backed poll in which 60% reported not observing the fast during Ramadan (the majority due to being “sick”). In comparison, in a comprehensive survey conducted in 1975 before the Islamic Revolution, over 80% said they always prayed and observed the fast.

Iranians also harbor illiberal secularist opinions regarding religious diversity: 43% said that no religions should have the right to proselytize in public. However, 41% believed that every religion should be able to manifest in public.

Four decades ago, the Islamic Revolution taught sociologists that European-style secularization is not followed universally around the world. The subsequent secularization of Iran confirmed by our survey demonstrates that Europe is not exceptional either, but rather part of complex, global interactions between religious and secular forces.

Other research on population growth, whose decline has been linked to higher levels of secularization, also suggests a decline in religiosity in Iran. In 2020, Iran recorded its lowest population growth, below 1%.

Greater access to the world via the internet, but also through interactions with the global Iranian diaspora in the past 50 years, has generated new communities and forms of religious experience inside the country. A future disentangling of state power and religious authority would likely exacerbate these societal transformations. Iran as we think we know it is changing, in fundamental ways.

The Azadi Tower, Tehran. “Azadi” means “freedom.” 

Peezee (Quora):
Islam and every religion is incompatible with the world and needs to be destroyed.

Neel Maharaj:
Persia was culturally and scientifically an advanced nation before Islamic invaders destroyed it. Since then, it's been a downhill. Hope it removes the shackles and reclaim its lost position in the world.

Vikas Nagpal:
Iran would one day fully embrace its own religion and culture, to get to a place that it deserves to. An old learned civilization can only be suppressed so much.



Research has shown that curcumin helps prevent processes that drive aging and chronic disorders, including cell senescence and chronic inflammation.

Curcumin is a yellowish pigment found in turmeric, a plant in the finer family.

In studies, curcumin intake has been shown to extend lifespan of diverse  species, from roundworms to mice. In a study of fruit flies, for example, it increased the average lifespan by 26%.

In addition, research suggests it can help in the management of many conditions including metabolic syndrome, elevated lipids, arthritis, and more.

A number of studies have found that curcumin supplementation led to improvements in cognition and memory.

How  does curcumin deliver its benefits? Science has identified several drivers of aging and chronic disease. Curcumin affects many of them in ways that improve health.


Every strand of DNA in our body has protective end caps, called telomeres, that help maintain the stability and function of the genetic material.

As we  age, these telomeres shorten. When they are too short, the cell becomes dysfunctional or dies. Shortened telomeres limit regeneration and stem cell function.

Telomerase is an enzyme that builds up the length of existing telomeres.

Curcumin has been shown in preclinical studies to give a boost to this anti-aging enzyme. I can enhance the expression and activity of telomerase, increasing the health and life and cells.


In animal studies, curcumin has been shown to:

form new neurons in the hippocampus

improve performance on memory tests

reduce neuroinflammation

protect against memory loss


Glycation occurs when sugars attach to proteins, fats, or nucleic acids, causing deleterious structural and functional changes. It is a major contributor to accelerated aging and many diseases of older people.

This process even occurs in people with normal blood glucose. In diabetics and pre diabetics, glycation is accelerated, leading to faster aging and higher risk for chronic disorders.

Preclinical studies have shown that curcumin protects cells and tissues from the damage caused by glycation.

One team of researchers has shown that, in cell culture models, curcumin can also block harmful effects when glycation has already occurred, preventing the inflammation and cellular dysfunction caused by advanced glycation end products (AGEs)


As cells age, some become senescent. These cells are dysfunctional and emit protein degrading enzymes but refuse to die to make room for healthy cells. Senescent cells also secrete inflammatory compounds that damage surrounding tissues.

Curcumin has demonstrated senolytic activity in preclinical studies, which means it has the potential to reduce the number of senescent cells in tissues. In other similar models, it has also been shown to help favorably modulate the secretion of inflammatory compounds from these cells.


Maladaptive activity of various essential structural and functional proteins in cells has been tied to accelerated aging, metabolic abnormalities, and chronic inflammation.

Curcumin modulates their activity in ways that reverse age-related changes and protect cells against age-related damage. It can:

Inhibit nuclear factor-kappa B (NF-kB), a protein complex associated with chronic inflammation.

Reduce activity of mTOR, a protein linked to rapid aging and metabolic abnormalities that contribute to chronic disease.

Boost activity of AMPK, an enzyme that supports healthy metabolism.

Enhance the function of sirloins, proteins critical for maintaining health and longevity, and

Support activity of  Nrf2, a protein that regulates the body’s defenses against oxidative stress.


Acts as a potent free-radical scavenger

Triggers production of the body’s own antioxidant enzymes

Reduces chronic inflammation

Supports healthy mitochondrial function

Activates autophagy, cellular “housekeeping,” to rejuvenate cells and keep them functioning optimally.

These and other actions can help reduce the risk for disease and prevent accelerated aging., December 2022


What made me discover curcumin was its promise to lower the inflammation of arthritis. But this was the case of trying one worthless brand after another until I finally found which one works: OMAX. I don’t normally promote specific brands, but this is a special case where I found that ONLY Omax curcumin did anything at all. They use MCT oil as the carrier, rather than simply fill capsules with powder. The powdered preparations, for all their boasting of “enhanced absorption,” did nothing; Omax curcumin brought striking relief. I used to apply the methyl-salicylate lotion twice an hour; now I need it only a few times a day. I can also walk, with a walker, longer distances than before.


~ An experimental vaccine successfully eliminated aging cells from the bodies of mice, helping to prolong the rodents' lives and reverse some signs of age-related disease. The researchers say the experiment is a step on the road to a similar vaccine for humans, but could it really work?
The new vaccine targets senescent cells, which are cells that have stopped multiplying due to damage or stress, but don't die when they should, according to the National Institute on Aging (opens in new tab) (NIA). These cells accumulate as we age, as the immune system becomes less efficient at clearing such cells from the body. Senescent cells release compounds that trigger inflammation and thus damage nearby healthy cells. And evidence suggests that this buildup of senescent cells contributes to a slew of age-related diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's and atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque builds up in the arteries.

For the past decade, scientists have been working to develop "senolytic therapies," or drugs that can clear senescent cells from the body. Some of these drugs have reduced inflammation, delayed the onset of age-related diseases and extended the life span of rodents. A couple dozen of these drugs have entered clinical trials in human patients, Robbins said.

The potential benefit of using a vaccine rather than drugs to target senescent cells is that people could be given the shot at, say, age 50 and avoid accruing senescent cells in the first place, Robbins said. A vaccinated person's immune system would be trained to look for senescent cells and destroy them on sight; in contrast, someone taking senolytic drugs would need to take them repeatedly, as senescent cells would reaccumulate after each course of treatment, he said.

To develop their senolytic vaccine, the researchers selected a specific target, or "antigen," on senescent cells — a sort of bullseye for the immune system to aim at. But because cells throughout the body can become senescent, different senescent cells look different than one another, senior author Dr. Tohru Minamino, a professor at Juntendo University Graduate School of Medicine and the director of cardiovascular medicine at Juntendo University Hospital in Tokyo, told Live Science in an email.

In this proof-of-concept study, the team zeroed in on just one cell type: senescent vascular endothelial cells, which line the insides of arteries, veins and capillaries. They analyzed which proteins appear in large quantities on the surfaces of these cells, to see which proteins would make a good target for their vaccine.

From the proteins identified, they picked one called "glycoprotein nonmetastatic melanoma protein B" (GPNMB), which seems to accumulate with age in some tissues and contribute to various diseases, according to a 2011 report in the journal Aging (opens in new tab). The same protein also appears in abundance on certain cancer cell types, including melanomas, according to a 2018 report in the journal Steroids (opens in new tab).

In their own study, the team examined tissue samples from human patients with atherosclerosis and found that their vascular endothelial cells bore far more GPNMB than the cells of those without the disease. Evidence suggests that molecules spewed by senescent cells directly contribute to the buildup of plaque in atherosclerosis, according to a 2020 report in the journal Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine (opens in new tab); with this in mind, the team wanted to see whether expunging GPNMB-heavy cells from the body would help reduce the density of these plaques.

To test this idea, the team used a mouse model of atherosclerosis and then eliminated GPNMB-positive cells from the rodents, using genetic modification. Upon removing the cells, they found that the amount of plaque in the mice's arteries swiftly decreased. These findings convinced the team to make GPNMB the target of their senolytic vaccine.

The team specifically created a peptide vaccine, a type of vaccine that targets short segments of a longer protein sequence. Once injected into mice, the vaccine prompted the immune system to build antibodies against portions of the GPNMB protein; these antibodies latched onto the protein and tagged the attached cells for destruction. GPNMB-positive cells, arterial plaques and inflammatory molecules significantly decreased in mice given the vaccine, compared with mice given a placebo shot. Specific molecular markers of senescence were also reduced in vaccinated mice compared with controls, they found.

To see if the vaccine showed any effect on general signs of aging, the team vaccinated middle-age mice, a little over a year old, and then tested their agility at about 1.5 years old. Mice given a placebo shot moved less often and more slowly in their old age, but mice given the vaccine remained far more spry, the team found. What's more, in a third experiment, the team found that mice given the vaccine lived slightly longer than mice given the placebo, hinting that the shot may somewhat prolong life span.

The team didn't notice any side effects in their vaccinated mice, which is somewhat surprising, Robbins said. Since the GPNMB protein can be found on a variety of cells, not just senescent ones, one might expect some off-target effects. In general, "I don't think there's ever going to be an antigen that's specific to senescent cells," so there will always be a concern that the vaccine might send the immune system after healthy cells without intending to, he said. The researchers will have to look out for such effects as they move their vaccine toward human trials.

In addition to moving the new vaccine into human trials, the team plans to develop additional vaccines that target different types of senescent cells, which may have different surface proteins that can be targeted by the immune system, Minamino said. But first the team will need to identify those proteins and then formulate vaccines to match, he said.

"At this point, we don't know what senescent cell subtype we should be targeting" in anti-aging treatments and vaccines, Robbins noted. It may be that one subtype of senescent cell causes more trouble than the next, but at this point, we just don't know. That said, there's a new National Institutes of Health grant called "The Cellular Senescence Network (opens in new tab)" (SenNet) aimed at figuring that out. The goal of the field, in the long-term, is to develop a senolytic vaccine or drug that can counter multiple aspects of aging, in one go, he said.
The new findings were published Dec. 10 in the journal Nature Aging.


I don't think we know enough about senescent cells and senolytics at this point. There is some evidence that "zombie cells," while definitely destructive since they contribute to age-related diseases, also have a positive function in helping to heal injured tissue.

ending on beauty:

If they wanted to, all the gulls
on this beach could join their wings
to make an airplane–or a ship–
to carry me to some other shore . . .
Through the dense mystery of night
we’d venture, skittering over the water.
With a scream of triumph, my gull-ship
would alight on land and greet the dawn.
Walking on virgin soil
I’d hold out my hands to the rising sun
like two newborn wings.
Two wings, to lift me
to a new life!
~ Juana de Ibarbourou (1894-1979), tr. Liz Henry


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