Use any trick you know to redeem humanity

Lessen the doldrums
of fellow bipeds
Coax their spirits
to busk and bounce
Squeeze their chakras
Ungum their works
Use any trick you know
to redeem humanity
from impotent glum
Inject with joy
inseminate with light
the wombs of mankind

~ James Broughton

1 December 2008

Photo courtesy of

It stands to reason...

‘Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.’

—  from The Alchemist of Paul Coelho

2 December 2008

The Other Tiger

It wanders through its forest and its day
Printing a track along the muddy banks
Of sluggish streams whose names it does not know
(In its world there are no names or past
Or time to come, only the vivid now)
And makes its way across wild distances
Sniffing the braided labyrinth of smells
In South America I dream of you,
Track you, O tiger of the Ganges banks.

It strikes me now as evening fills my soul
That the tiger addressed in my poem
Is a shadowy beast, a tiger of symbols
And scraps picked up at random out of books,
A string of labored tropes that have no life,
And not the fated tiger, the deadly jewel
That under sun or stars or changing moon
Goes on in Bengal or Sumatra fulfilling
Its rounds of love and indolence and death.
But by the act of giving it a name,
By trying to fix the limits of its world,
I turn a living beast to a fiction,
No longer a tiger out roaming the wilds of earth.

We’ll hunt for a third tiger now, but like
The others this one too will be a form
Of what I dream, a structure of words, and not
The flesh and one tiger that beyond all myths
Paces the earth. I know these things quite well,
Yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me
In this vague, unreasonable, and ancient quest,
And I go on pursuing through the hours
Another tiger, the beast not found in verse.

Jorge Luis Borges
El irá por su selva y su mañana
Y marcará su rastro en la limosa
Margen de un río cuyo nombre ignora
(En su mundo no hay nombres ni pasado
Ni porvenir, sólo un instante cierto.)
Y salvará las bárbaras distancias
Y husmeará en el trenzado laberinto
De los olores el olor del alba
Y el olor deleitable del venado;
De América del Sur, te sigo y sueño,
Oh tigre de las márgenes del Ganges.

Cunde la tarde en mi alma y reflexiono
Que el tigre vocativo de mi verso
Es un tigre de símbolos y sombras,
Una serie de tropos literarios
Y de memorias de la enciclopedia
Y no el tigre fatal, la aciaga joya
Que, bajo el sol o la diversa luna,
Va cumpliendo en Sumatra o en Bengala
Su rutina de amor, de ocio y de muerte.
Alarga en la pradera una pausada
Sombra, pero ya el hecho de nombrarlo
Y de conjeturar su circunstancia
Lo hace ficción del arte y no criatura
Viviente de las que andan por la tierra.

Un tercer tigre buscaremos. Éste
Será como los otros una forma
De mi sueño, un sistema de palabras
Humanas y no el tigre vertebrado
Que, más allá de las mitologías,
Pisa la tierra. Bien lo sé, pero algo
Me impone esta aventura indefinida,
Insensata y antigua, y persevero
En buscar por el tiempo de la tarde
El otro tigre, el que no está en el verso.

      ‘For me, it is as though at every moment the actual world had completely lost its actuality. As though there was nothing there; as though there were no foundations for anything or as though it escaped us. Only one thing, however, is vividly present: the constant tearing of the veil of appearances; the constant destruction of everything in construction. Nothing holds together, everything falls apart.’

Eugene Ionesco (Can anyone refer me to the French original?)

3 December 2008

Exciting as iodized salt

In the world, as in our lives, much good can be accomplished with simple, quotidian thoughtfulness.  It turns out that if you want to help impoverished people in the third world, the most bang for the buck can be obtained from iodized salt, for lack of which people are suffering classic thyroid symptoms:  low energy, susceptibility to infection, and depressed mental acuity.

Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s NYTimes

4 December 2008

The friends round about us

Happiness is contagious.  It spreads through social networks as widely and as rapidly as the flu.  Fear and worry also can spread, but not so strongly.

Fowler and Christakis found that each happy contact increases a person's odds of happiness by an average of 9%, while an unhappy contact decreases those odds by 7%*....‘I think that happiness is more likely to spread because here’s an emotion that’s about social cohesion,’ says Fowler.

New Scientist article
Science Magazine article
Study in the British Medical Journal

I’ve spent the last hour searching for a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh in which he tells us that choosing the people with whom we surround ourselves is the most important determinant of our spiritual trajectory.  I also remember a variant in which one Zen monk says to another that the people we choose around us represent half of our practice, and the other replies, ‘No.  It is everything.’.  (If you come across either of these quotes, please send them to me.)

* For comparison, a 10% increase in income is associated with only a 2% increment in happiness, and even this is short-lived.

5 December 2008


One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river.

“Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.”

“You are not a fish,” replied the friend, “So how can you truly know that they are enjoying themselves.”

“You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu. “So can you truly know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”

Zen stories

There is a long and ridiculous history of psychological literature denying that animals have an inner life, and attributing all empathetic behaviors to instinct and reflex.
New Scientist article

6 December 2008

art by Bambi Papais

No more Pearl Harbors

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the moral calculus seemed so simple:  The Japs had no regard for individual human life.  The Nazis were maniacal conquerors.  We were innocent victims and noble guardians of our allies in freedom. 

Now we know that FDR had advance warning of Pearl Harbor [rebuttal], and that he consciously chose not to defend our base in Hawaii or to re-deploy ships, in order to shock the American people into accepting a role in the Good War.

For millennia, warlords have rallied the people to do their bidding, and to feel righteous if not sanctimonious about their participation.  Soldiers on both sides of the front feel virtuous and heroic as they slaughter one another, and suffer slaughter themselves.

Young men lose their humanity to military discipline, and their empathy to the imperatives of war.  Even the fortune ones who suffer no bodily harm return to civil society crippled and maimed.

September 11 was the New Pearl Harbor ordered up by Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz and their cronies at the Project for a New American Century in 2000.  But We the People have become wiser and better organized since 1941, and it is more difficult to sell us the snake oil of war.  The draft is a political non-starter.  Millions of Americans are on to the deceptions of our government, and thanks to the Internet we are able to share with one another the truths that traditional news organs dare not print.

All wars leave residues of bitterness and hate that lead to futherr violence generations into the future.  No wars are necessary or good.  All war is avoidable, with patience and diplomacy and humanity.  (I’ll admit to the prudence of a modestly-sized defensive army for deterrence.  Switzerland has such an army, and has not fought in a war for 200 years.)

A new age of peace is upon us, even as the horrors of war are in our face each day.

— Josh Mitteldorf

7 December 2008

What will it take?

If an alien space ship landed in Times Square, would businessmen risk being late to their sales calls to pause and investigate?

If we woke to find wild horses in all colors of the rainbow grazing on our front lawn, would we be shaken free from our usual notion of reality?

I have heard the Holocaust described in terms of the mundanity of evil — how easily men can become inured to everyday inhumanity, so that atrocities loses their power to shock.  What concerns me more is the domestication of the miraculous.

How can our eyes be opened to the sublime in our everyday experience?

— Josh Mitteldorf

8 December 2008

L’existentialiste malgré lui

I am nothing
I shall always be nothing
I cannot wish to be anything.
Aside from that, I have within me all the dreams of the world.
the Tobacco Kiosk owner has come to the door and is standing there.
I look at him with the discomfort of an half-turned head
And the discomfort of an half-grasping soul.
He shall die and I shall die.
He shall leave his signboard and I shall leave my poems.
His sign will die, and so will my poems.
And soon the street where the sign is, will die too,
And so will the language in which my poems are written.
And so will the whirling planet where all of this happened.
On other satellites of other systems something like people
Will go on making something like poems and living under things like signboards,
Always one thing facing the other,
Always one thing as useless as the other,
Always the impossible as stupid as reality,
Always the mystery of the bottom as powerful as the mysterious dream of the top.
Always this or always some other thing, or neither one nor the other.
(If I married my washwoman’s daughter
Maybe I should be happy.)
I enjoy, in a sensitive and capable moment
The liberation of all the speculations
With the conscience that metaphysics is a consequence of not
feeling well.
The man has come out of the Tobacco Kiosk (putting change in his trousers?).
Ah, I know him: he is Esteves without metaphysics.
(The Tobacco Kiosk owner has come to the door.)
As if by a divine instinct, Esteves turned around and saw me.
He waved hello, I greet him “Hello there, Esteves!”, and the universe
Reconstructed itself for me, without ideal or hope, and the owner of the Tobacco Kiosk smiled.

— from Tobacco Kiosk, by Fernando Pessoa

9 December 2008

‘The foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in the UN General Assembly on this day in 1948.  Freedoms, democracy, social justice, equality under the law, peace — it’s all there, spelled out in great detail.  It remains to us to implement this document, and all will be well in the world.

Personally dedicated to the task of preparing this Declaration, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the Human Rights Commission in its first years, asked, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

10 December 2008

Collect the rocks that they throw at you — they will be the base of your pedestal.

«Il faut collectionner les pierres qu’on vous jette. C’est le début d’un piédestal.»

Hector Berlioz was born this day in 1803.  I had wanted to write about Berlioz the madman, the opium eater who composed brilliant, eccentric music, that couldn’t stick with one melody for more than a few moments. 

Musical opinion labeled him a freak...It became customary to think of him as a phenomenon uniquely eccentric and sui generis, and of his admirers as a race apart.  - David Cairns

What I found in his biography was a more responsible, though passionate man.  He was better known during his lifetime as a critic and a conductor than a composer.  I can’t think of an activity that requires more focus and presence of mind than conducting a symphony orchestra.  He had great respect for other composers and artists of his era.  He once designed to murder the family of the intended fiancée who called off his nuptials, but later behaved responsibly toward women despite his intense passions.

Listen to his Roman Carnival Overture

11 December 2008

Healthy mind, healthy body

The ‘placebo effect’ is the the pharmaceutical industry’s word, their attempt to segregate and quantify the enormous power our minds have over the wellbeing of our bodies. 

The effect is best known with respect to pain.  Pain is subjective and responds subjectively to suggestion.  But it is also true that state of mind affects deep healing.  Recovery from every disease from the common cold to cancer responds stunningly to our confidence and loving connections with others.

Traditional doctors are healers as well as scientists.  In the last 40 years, there has been a misguided effort to segregate the latter role and devalue the former, in an attempt to make the delivery of medical services more efficient and cost-effective.

The results have been uniformly disastrous.  Americans spend more health care money and suffer poorer health than anywhere in the developed world.  

Here is the story of a study that deeply undermines the pharmaceutical industry’s claim to measure the value of its products independent of the mental state of the patient.

There is an enormous opportunity here for us to heal ourselves with our intentions, with our attention, and with the caring community around us.  Mental factors are not just helpful supplements; they are as powerful as any treatment Western medical science has yet discovered.

12 December 2008

This Life, which seems so fair

This Life, which seems so fair,
Is like a bubble blown up in the air
By sporting children’s breath,
Who chase it everywhere
And strive who can most motion it bequeath.
And though it sometimes seem of its own might
Like to an eye of gold to be fixed there,
And firm to hover in that empty height,
That only is because it is so light.
But in that pomp it doth not long appear;
That which is most admired devolves to nought,
As thought it erst derived, and turns to thought.

Wm Drummond (of Hawthornden), born this day in 1585
(with liberties by your editor, JJM)

Study what thou art
Whereof thou art a part
What thou knowest of this art
This is really what thou art.
All that is without thee also is within.

13 December 2008

Hope is a Western disease

It implies dissatisfaction, and it is rooted in the illusion that seeks for a resolution of our discontent through a change in circumstances. 

Hope is also the source of all progress. We imagine a better way of doing things, a better life. We work toward the future that we envision. 

Achieving the object of our ambition rarely makes us happy or fulfilled, but paradoxically the world becomes genuinely a better place.  And the process of working toward a goal is in itself a source of satisfaction.  Hope combined with engagement and dedicated, assiduous activity is a serviceable recipe for fulfillment.

Hope is insidious only to the extent that it defers the satisfaction, and makes it dependent on an imagined future condition.  Oriental and African cultures are rooted in a cognizance of the present as locus of all experiential value.

We live in the age of the Global Village, the marriage of East and West in which we may hope to achieve the fruits of progress without the illusion that devalues the present.

— Josh Mitteldorf

14 December 2008

Art of Leila Bakashvili

“Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.”

Muriel Rukeyser, born this day in 1913, seamlessly integrated a life of poetic creation with social activism.  She wrote essays for the Daily Worker, and investigated environmental lung disease and deaths in WVirginia construction workers.  One of her most famous poems is about seeking intimate communion with a cockroach.

‘...her life and her poetry without any separation—you couldn’t get a knife between the two things with her. The real influence was her human model of what a poet could be.’
William Meredith

15 December 2008

L. van Beethoven, man of the people

It’s easy to think of Beethoven’s arrogance as a disdain for people who had less talent than he.  But that’s not the way it seemed to him.  He thought of himself as a champion of the common people, against pretensions of the stuffy aristocrats.  He once had an extended visit with the poet (scientist and philosopher) Wolfgang Goethe, for whom he had great respect, but commented ‘The Court suits him too much. It is not becoming of a poet.’

When his clothes became impossibly shabby his friends crept into his dwelling one night and substituted new ones. Beethoven never noticed the difference when he dressed the next morning.

It has been said that all of Beethoven’s personal excesses date from his loss of hearing, which was horribly painful physically as well as emotionally isolating.  Considering the gifts Beethoven has left to us, it would be charitable of us to believe it.

Beethoven stories
Listen to Alla Danza Tedesca from String Quartert Op 130.

Today is Beethoven’s birthday.

16 December 2008

Simulated dawn

David Servan-Schreiber at the Univ of Pittsburgh Center for Complementary Medicine studies non-psychiatric approaches to psychiatric issues.  He has identified seven ways we can take charge of our own wellbeing and mental health:

  1. Heart rate biofeedback, to learn to regulate the natural rise and fall of our pulse rate with our breathing.
  2. Eye movement reprogramming, to re-assimilate and neutralize past traumas.
  3. Light/dark cycles that reinforce our circadian rhythms.
  4. Some acupuncture points are connected to the emotions.
  5. Omega 3 fatty acids (fish oil) in the diet oppose depression.
  6. Aerobic exercise is the most effective and long-lasting antidepression program ever studied.
  7. Emotional communication and connection to others enhances our wellbeing.

For many of us who are affected by seasonal depression, #3 is particularly relevant this time of year.  Awaking suddenly each morning in a dark room can be jarring and disruptive.   There are inexpensive commercial systems that control a dimmer switch with a timer to awaken us gradually in the morning with light.  Allowing time in bed to review our dreams and envision the day’s activity is a luxury we can all lavish upon ourselves.

17 December 2008

Unity of life

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers. It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and in flow. I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Rabindranath Tagore

18 December 2008

The sufficiency of time

Life is long.

There is time for everything you want to accomplish.  There is time for everything you wish to experience. 

— Josh Mitteldorf

19 December 2008


It’s easy to say ‘infinity’.  We imagine it as simply larger than whatever is at hand.  But it is a marvelous exercise to try to conjure infinity by scaling the mind up, contemplating larger and larger entities.

Jorge Luis Borges, in one of his trademark short vignettes of unimaginable imaginativeness, describes a library that contains not just every thought but every possible combination of symbols (limited to 400 pages of text):

All—the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language . . .

Brian Hayes reviews The Unimagineable Mathematics of Borges’s Library of Babel

20 December 2008

Don’t be judgmental.  It’s bad, Bad BAD!

Think of the last time you successfully dressed someone down for something that you thought was morally questionable, and he responded as you had hoped and changed his behavior...

In a flash of lucidity, we perceive our moralizing as a ruse, an arbitrary show of sanctimony, desperate in its drive to bend another’s will to our own.

21 December 2008

Sap check’d with frost

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
Lose but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

— Shakespeare

22 December 2008

Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

David Whyte

23 December 2008

Traum der Liebenden
by Marc Chagall

Christmas truce

On Christmas Eve, 1914, opposing WW I soldiers got up from their trenches, declared a truce over the heads of their commanding officers, and celebrated the holiday together.

Listen to John McCutcheon sing about it

was lying with my messmate on the cold and rocky ground
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound
Says I, "Now listen up, me boys!" each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war
As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht.” “’Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night
Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ’em hell
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.

John McCutcheon
Historical speculation on this event...

24 December 2008

The trumpet shall sound, and we shall be changed

Listen, from Handel’s Messiah

25 December 2008

Nature is no doubt simpler than all our thoughts about it...

‘What today do we consider to be apart from the laws of physics, which may someday be encompassed by the laws of physics?’

‘...He’s gone as far as he can go.  He’s studied every aspect, and stretched himself to the end.  So he’s up against mysteries all around the we can talk about mystery and awe - that’s what we have in common.’

‘...These moments of revelation are so exciting...that I’ve often paid attention to what the condition is, and I can’t find any correlation with anything...It’s the hope of this kind of gold that keeps you going.’

Watch Richard Feynman talk about avoiding conventional thinking and finding new perspectives

26 December 2008

A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity

When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror — for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.

I believe that despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving, fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us — the dignity of man.

— from the end of a very political Nobel lecture by Harold Pinter, 1930-2008
Pinter graphically catalogues the imperial sins of the US government, and Britain’s complicity in these crimes, then talks about the writer’s role in awakening a benumbed public to the need for moral resistance.  Watch and listen to the same lecture

27 December 2008p

Fully Realized

We are fully realized beings. It is our joy and our privilege to aid others in the full realization of their dreams, even as we realize fully that all human ambition and all desire arise from delusion.

— Josh Mitteldorf

28 December 2008

The Soul’s Prayer

IN childhood’s pride I said to Thee:
‘O Thou, who mad’st me of Thy breath,
Speak, Master, and reveal to me
Thine inmost laws of life and death.

‘Give me to drink each joy and pain
Which Thine eternal hand can mete,
For my insatiate soul would drain
Earth’s utmost bitter, utmost sweet.

‘Spare me no bliss, no pang of strife,
Withhold no gift or grief I crave,
The intricate lore of love and life
And mystic knowledge of the grave.’

Lord, Thou didst answer stern and low:
‘Child, I will hearken to thy prayer,
And thy unconquered soul shall know
All passionate rapture and despair.

‘Thou shalt drink deep of joy and fame,
And love shall burn thee like a fire,
And pain shall cleanse thee like a flame,
To purge the dross from thy desire.

‘So shall thy chastened spirit yearn
To seek from its blind prayer release,
And spent and pardoned, sue to learn
The simple secret of My peace.

‘I, bending from my sevenfold height,
Will teach thee of My quickening grace,
Life is a prism of My light,
And Death the shadow of My face

Sarojini Nayadu (1879-1949)

29 December 2008


Born this day in 1904, Dmitri Kabalevsky was a composer of entertaining music for the masses, just what the Politburo ordered.  His most memorable pieces were created for children, and they are delightfully playful, inventive and fun to play.

Listen to two of them that I have played since childhood:
                     Joking                    Sonatina

30 December 2008

We find ourselves poised as always on the edge of the unknown, and of the unexpected each day we assimilate just so much as we are able.

Caroline Peterson

31 December 2008

Queen of Hearts — Archive of past entries. Bullfrog Design