Author: Len Holman

Len Holman is a retired teacher and writer. He is best known for "Len's Den", a series of brilliant essays for Dan Schneider's Cosmoetica, which can be found here.
Read More
An example of nostalgia in graffiti: "I'll trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday."

Apricot Days: Nostalgia Is A Good Thing, Sort Of

Any good Zen Buddhist will tell you that “mindfulness” is the key to a healthy, peaceful, mellow life. Being in the moment means claiming and expanding the present moment instead of reaching back to the past to learn lessons and then projecting into a hypothetical future to apply those lessons. It is an interesting, if difficult, thing to contemplate—let alone accomplish, but it leaves no room some important human (all too human) characteristics: daydreaming, memories—nostalgia.

The definition and significance of nostalgia have changed since the original Greek roots of “homecoming” and “pain.” For centuries, it was considered a debilitating and potentially fatal medical condition expressing extreme homesickness. But the modern view (there is always “the modern view”) is that nostalgia is a good thing, for it provides important psychological functions, such as to improve mood, increase social connectedness, enhance self-regard, and provide existential awareness. There are numerous studies which attest to the benefits of nostalgia, but I would prefer to spend a moment on apricots. […]

Read More
A stylized picture of brain chips, as designed by Elon Musk and Neuralink

Brain Chips & Elon Musk

It’s either a fringe fad for the very wealthy, just a fancier, but inevitable, next stage of the tech revolution, a boon for the betterment of humankind, or a dangerous first step into a nightmare: the neurochip.

Basically, a neurochip is an integrated circuit chip (such as a microprocessor) that is designed for interaction with neuronal cells. And there is no going back. We all can thank Pakastani-born Canadian scientist Naweed Sayed, of the University of Calgary, and his team for proving it was possible to cultivate a network of brain cells that reconnect on a silicon chip—or the brain on a microchip. We know what Elon Musk thinks, what he wants to do, but a microchip, by itself, is not horrific science fiction. Microchips are part of everyone’s daily life and—so far, at least—no noticeable deleterious effects have materialized. Well, not many.

NBC had predicted that by 2017, all Americans would start to be tagged with microchips, but as Big Brother-ish as that might sound, we are already surrounded and inundated by them. These baby-step chips are embedded under the skin in a cheap and simple procedure and it carries all your ID: credit card info, license, bus pass, library card—all the info normally carried in a purse or wallet, all stored in an RFID chip under one’s skin. Of course, there are benefits to this technology. For instance, no more baby mix-ups. Every year, 28,000 babies end up going home with the wrong parents. A chip implant at birth would forestall this tragic kind of event—not to mention (at the other end of the life’s line) it would prevent that occasional funeral home misidentification and perhaps accidental burial or cremation of the wrong body. Chipping your child is obvious. From abduction to runaways to kids just getting lost, having the ability to track and find them is priceless. RFID chips are everywhere—in clothes, shoes, pets, livestock, passports, and of course, your trusty cell phone. But these are merely a few chips off the ol’ block. Skin-deep is just a foretaste of The Next Step. […]

Read More
A cancellation sign on a shelf of books, for censorship of ideas.

Are Ideas Going Extinct?

Eliminating books by burning or banning them isn’t just about getting rid of the physical objects, and not just the ideas, either. It’s also about what state of mind and heart the people and society who do the banning are in. Setting fire to the Qur’an or Huckleberry Finn tells us more about the people than the pages.

Turning books to ash or hiding them from sight is ongoing. And it is not a new phenomenon. In the 15th century, Mayan sacred texts were burned by Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa. He wrote that they were full of “superstition and lies of the devil…We burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them great affliction.”

The early 20th century saw U.S. Postal Inspector and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, hot on the trail of vice, immorality, and obscenity. In 1873 he lobbied Congress to pass an anti-obscenity law titled “An Act for the Suppression in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.” He is credited (if that’s the correct word) with the burning of fifteen tons of books. These included Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, anatomy texts for medical students, and especially anything related to providing women information on contraception. “Books are feeders for brothels,” he declared. One cannot, of course, overlook the Nazi contribution. As soon as they came to power in Germany, books began turning from paper and ink to flames and smoke. On May 10, 1933, there was a nation-wide event which took place across 34 university towns. Nazi-led student groups burned books which propaganda minister Joseph Geobbels deemed “un-German”, including works by Helen Keller, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of Jewish writers, not the least of which was Heinrich Heine, who wrote, presciently, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” […]

Read More
A stylized illustration depicting the flag of Cuba and an injured brain, for Havana syndrome

The Ghost in the Machine: From Havana (Syndrome), With Love

Imagine suffering tinnitus, visual problems, vibrations inside your skull, nausea, vertigo, insomnia, fatigue, and dizziness. You are understandably alarmed and immediately visit your doctor, who pronounces you fit and well. You get a referral to a more specialized physician, who runs quite a few very sophisticated examinations. She finally pronounces that you are in peak condition—fit and well. But the symptoms persist—excruciatingly so—to the point where you go to a renowned, top-of-the-line expert (you have excellent insurance!) and you are put through a battery of tests and procedure involving machinery you’ve only seen n sci-fi movies. After three days of expert investigation, the doctor gives you the results: You are fit and quite well, and he suggests a visit with a psychiatrist. Puzzling, frustrating and very worrying, right?

The symptoms were first reported in 2016, by U.S. and Canadian embassy staff in Havana, Cuba—thus the sexy “Havana Syndrome” moniker the media so adores. By 2017, more people, including U.S.  intelligence and military personnel, reported pain and tingling in the ears in other places, like China, New Delhi, Europe, and Washington, DC. The people in the Cuban embassy reported these debilitating neurological attacks and the Trump Administration called them “targeted attacks.” Those evil Cubans or Russians or Somebody had a secret, powerful “sonic weapon” to harm the Good Guys. Panic ensued. Fifteen Cuban diplomats were expelled from Washington, and most of the U.S. staff was withdrawn from the embassy in Havana. Five years later, more than 200 U.S. Government officials were claiming the effects of what came to be known as the “Havana Syndrome.” President Biden signed a bill which compensated the victims.  The victims of an affliction which, up to now, has no known cause, but has generated a wide variety of theory and pearl-clutching speculation about not just targeted attacks, but targeted attacks by a microwave weapon wielded by hostile foreign powers—Russia, in particular. In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study of the 21 diplomats, led by Douglas H. Smith, Director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. Smith and his team found signs of brain damage but no signs of impact to the patients’ skulls—a condition they called “immaculate concussion.” […]

Read More
A picture of the universal "toxic" sign against yellow, with the "male" sign sticking out.

Masculinity And Its Discontents

The Romans had a word for it: virtus, derived from vir, “man.” A constellation of attributes, of virtues, which were perceived to be masculine strengths—originally, in the early days of the Roman Empire, the term indicated martial courage. Eventually, this idea of manliness morphed into a wider, deeper idea of what masculinity meant, such as prudence, justice, self-control, and courage; virtus came to describe a good man, one who did the right thing. During the time of the fading of the Roman elite, the upper class no longer thought themselves unmanly if they had not served in the military.

Virtus, and all it implied, was generally not applied to women, to whom the term pudicitia, “modesty” or “chastity” was given. Cicero, that redoubtable polymath (eventually beheaded by order of Marc Antony), used the term to describe his daughter as being “brave” during his absence. So, these attributes, these virtues, could be held by women—although derived from the basic masculine model. Our term “virile” and “virility” come from this root. […]

Read More
A photo of three women's legs in fishnet stockings.

Working Girls, Morality, and Capitalism

People—even the poorest most downtrodden of us—have one thing of value with which to bargain for food or shelter or a pretty trinket or a fancy dinner for two at some high-end bistro, or maybe for their very lives. It’s a commodity that needs no stock broker or bank vault or coin purse. In  fact, money and cars and stuff are treated with more respect and care than items of barter: their bodies. And bargaining with their bodies for basics, for extras, for salvation and groceries, for safety and security, produced—for women as well as men—a whole range of policies and emotions, a wide swath of anger, and apoplectic reactions to the merest idea, even the slightest suggestion, that prostitution should be legalized.

The arguments against legalization of sex for money (or is it money for sex?) mostly bunch together in just a few main categories: health concerns, legal  problems, safety issues, and the big one—the one which overlaps and underpins most of the others—morality.

Health concerns are often mentioned in connection to the sex trade. It is argued that legalizing prostitution would lead to regular health checks, perhaps medical insurance. Toulouse Lautrec’s painting, “Rue de Moulin: Medical Inspection,” shows us this idea of inspection was already obvious in the 19th century. But some arguments against the idea of legalization are that health tests are unreliable, they take too long to result in definitive diagnoses, and one I really smiled at:  thinking that health testing would prevent disease is like thinking pregnancy tests prevent pregnancy, which is as flawed an analogy as one could find, since both kinds of tests are not taken to prevent anything, but to see if anything happened. In both cases, action of some kind would be taken if the tests were positive. Health IS a concern, but maybe OSHA could open a cubicle in their main office for this. In any event, if prostitution were to enter the mainstream consciousness of society, all the concerns of health and safety would have to be addressed.  Admittedly, current health and safety issues of non-sex workers aren’t being addressed very much now, but at least the idea of providing health care for prostitutes would always be a legitimate policy matter for governments to address. […]

Read More
An illustration of a man dropping a vote in a voting / ballot box.

Voting: A Different Perspective

Twenty-three thousand years. Science has dated footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico to a time well before the 13,000 or 15,00 years that puzzled experts had estimated human beings set their feet in North America.

Humans have been voting since their beginnings, just as they do now. Paper ballots are not the only way to do that. In that very early time in hominin awakening, those beings voted with their feet. They wanted out their old habitats, deciding to go someplace else, giving their previous residences a negative vote. Archaeologists and anthropologists are still finding scraps of their voting behavior in North America. But these items are not merely the fascinating detritus of early humans, but election results.

Humans still vote with their feet, moving from city to city, state to state, even country to country.  We also vote in many other ways—for the station with the cheapest gas (getting tougher to do); we vote for the best market, the best value. We vote so much and so often, under the rubric “choice”, that we don’t see our behavior as voting at all. We tend to think of voting as being ONLY putting paper into boxes, but if one considers voting as choices being  made, without the patriotic  music and images, one can use a completely different template to observe society. For example, one chooses one gas station over another, mostly based on price. That means that the motorist chooses against all the others. But this way of presenting it leaves out Identity-based voting. A motorist might go to the same gas pumps for years—out of convenience when prices all over town are about the same. The station is on the side of the road she drives on from home, so she doesn’t have to cross over any double lines or cut across oncoming traffic. But if prices begin to become too much for her budget, her vote will change to some other gas pumps which spew out the precious liquid at a more reasonable price. Her loyalty to a particular place is fluid.  So, as far as choice is concerned, the idea of Identity Politics is ridiculous, since the person voting (making his or her choices) would not only be foolish to keep going to the same gas station out of muscle memory or tradition or convenience, but harmful to the family budget. […]

Read More
A stylized image of Violette Leduc, author of Thérèse and Isabelle

“Thérèse and Isabelle”: Violette Leduc’s Honest Eroticism

If you haven’t read anything by Violette Leduc, you are not alone.  This haunted, underappreciated writer was never a literary star, yet she produced wonderful, edgy, heartbreaking prose with sometimes horrifying honesty and startling clarity. Her works ripple with eroticism—sometimes very subtle, sometimes more explicit, but always the words provide for the reader what erotic literature tries to do but often fails miserably: an honest, real-person account of passion, sex, and female presence—written in a psychologically sharp and uncompromising, but beautifully-phrased, prose style. She is as honest with herself as she is with her reader; she is brutal as Homer’s Iliad, but much more open than Beauvoir’s journals and memoirs. The reader is comforted with the surety of feeling that she holds nothing back. So it is with her novel, Thrérèse and Isabelle.

Thérèse and Isabelle was originally the first section of her novel (150 pages), Ravages, which Violette Leduc offered to the publisher, Gallimard. And contrary to the received wisdom of free-love, wide open sexuality of the French, it was considered “scandalous” and obscene and was censored by the publisher. Eventually it was published as a stand-alone novel. Leduc’s work reflects the misery and rejection she felt growing up; it reflects her desperate need for affection and her constantly remembering and feeling the circumstances of her birth: the illegitimate daughter of a man who rejected her and never legitimized her. Her mother was both critical and distant. […]