May 30th, 2024
“The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored.”

But if we can read modernity’s soul at all, surely it is through the stigmata of the moment: proliferating tattoos. Tattoos are everywhere on the bodies of Americans; all of us know someone who keeps imprinting and imprinting his flesh in an endless gesture of self-expression.

Flannery O’Connor’s 1965 short story, “Parker’s Back,” describes an obsessive body-imprinter:

[Parker’s] dissatisfaction [was] acute, and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks [on his skin] had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare … Whenever Parker couldn’t stand the way he felt, he would have another tattoo… With the aid of mirrors [an] artist had tattooed on the top of his head a miniature owl.

Parker’s pièce de résistance is a huge image, on his back, of the “haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes.”

O’Connor’s observation that Parker’s tattoos seemed to have “penetrated his skin and lived inside him” prefigures, in an intriguing way, the recent much-discussed scientific study which finds that tattoos are “associated with an increased risk of malignant lymphoma.”

This conclusion, which surprised UD not at all (“[W]hen the tattoo ink is injected into the skin, the body interprets this as something foreign that should not be there and the immune system is activated. A large part of the ink is transported away from the skin, to the lymph nodes where it is deposited.”), has upset and shocked people; and indeed when close to 35% of your population has tattoos, you can expect this result.

But of course tattoos have long been known to predispose people toward infections, allergies, MRI problems, etc. The study’s authors next intend to examine links between tattoos and “other forms of cancer and inflammatory diseases.”

Many people covered with this deeply penetrative ink seem unconcerned, and that is possibly because the dark business of engaging in activities you know to be harmful (see also vaping) is your self-expression. That is your far and soulful country — the vampire God you bear on your back.

April 29th, 2024
Kristi Noem: Wrapping up the…

Michael Vick vote!

May 13th, 2023
“This life is a hospital.”

That’s the opening line of Baudelaire’s spectacular poem, Anywhere Out of the World, which UD reproduces below. But first, a small event which suggests that at least the USA, if not all of the world, is becoming a hospital: Texas legislators have introduced a bill that would train eight year old school children in battlefield trauma care — tourniquets, chest seals — so that during and after the various massacres that take place in their classrooms they can aid the wounded. (UD thanks Andrew for the link.)

A couple of thoughts about this. A lot of Texas parents are horrified by the idea; they say that children that young can’t be expected to do this kind of wound treatment.

But not so fast, says UD. The parents are assuming a one-shot deal, but especially in Texas one can assume that each child will experience multiple massacres; and with each massacre they will become more battle-tested, to the point where their weak and clumsy fingers will become expert binders of wounds. Give them time to become seasoned, and you’ll see how well they do.

Other parents point out that AR-15s don’t leave wounds; they leave broadly disseminated body parts at best and, at worst, deep pools of blood here and there with some flesh/organs/brain matter floating in them. Imagine the frustration of a highly trained eight year old as she scans the classroom for any X to tourniquet to any Y! Can’t be done.

So UD proposes revising the legislation: The state of Texas will fund/mandate elementary school field trips to Israel, where members of ZAKA, the organization that collects blood and body parts after terrorist bombings, will walk Texas children through the discovery, identification, and gathering process. Is that your BFF Jessica under her desk, or parts of her mingled with Jodie? Children will learn how to quickly discriminate among remains, based on fragments of clothing, pairs of glasses, blood spatter directions and locations, etc., etc.

The Holy Land is of course a blood-rich environment, and after their training children may wish to trace the bloody Via Dolorosa, and similar sites.



This life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds; one man would like to suffer in front of the stove, and another believes that he would recover his health beside the window.
It always seems to me that I should feel well in the place where I am not, and this question of removal is one which I discuss incessantly with my soul.
‘Tell me, my soul, poor chilled soul, what do you think of going to live in Lisbon? It must be warm there, and there you would invigorate yourself like a lizard. This city is on the sea-shore; they say that it is built of marble and that the people there have such a hatred of vegetation that they uproot all the trees. There you have a landscape that corresponds to your taste! a landscape made of light and mineral, and liquid to reflect them!’
My soul does not reply.
‘Since you are so fond of stillness, coupled with the show of movement, would you like to settle in Holland, that beatifying country? Perhaps you would find some diversion in that land whose image you have so often admired in the art galleries. What do you think of Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships moored at the foot of houses?’
My soul remains silent.
‘Perhaps Batavia attracts you more? There we should find, amongst other things, the spirit of Europe
married to tropical beauty.’
Not a word. Could my soul be dead?
‘Is it then that you have reached such a degree of lethargy that you acquiesce in your sickness? If so, let us flee to lands that are analogues of death. I see how it is, poor soul! We shall pack our trunks for Tornio. Let us go farther still to the extreme end of the Baltic; or farther still from life, if that is possible; let us settle at the Pole. There the sun only grazes the earth obliquely, and the slow alternation of light and darkness suppresses variety and increases monotony, that half-nothingness. There we shall be able to take long baths of darkness, while for our amusement the aurora borealis shall send us its rose-coloured rays that are like the reflection of Hell’s own fireworks!’
At last my soul explodes, and wisely cries out to me: ‘No matter where! No matter where! As long as it’s out of the world!’

August 6th, 2022
The Mind of a Murderer

In the worldview most folks in the anti-abortion movement have, abortion is murder. It’s worse not only in the sense that it’s certain death, but that it’s intentional. From their standpoint, if some women die because they’re refused care, that isn’t a certain death, there isn’t intentionally going to be a death, so that’s the lesser of the evils in that situation.

December 1st, 2020

One of the president’s lawyers issues the following statement about a fired Trump official who said that the election was clean:

He should be drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot.

May 9th, 2017
UD’s Day

I had to be on the Red Line to Dupont Circle to meet my friend and former student Carolyn and her boyfriend for noon lunch at Bareburger. They live in Zurich and are in DC for a few days.

Mr UD dropped me at Grosvenor metro rather early, and it occurred to me that I probably had time to give blood at the National Institutes of Health Blood bank. Medical Center metro is the next stop after Grosvenor, so I had to decide quickly.

It was an extremely beautiful spring day – cloudless blue skies and lilac trees in flower – and this stirring setting jarred against the dark reading I’d been doing that morning — my friend Hal Sedgwick’s lengthy, meticulous description of his wife Eve’s nineteen years of breast cancer. I was in the middle of his account, reading a paragraph here and a paragraph there, in bed, at the breakfast table, and now on the train.

And somehow the combination of this painful reading, and my having, a few nights ago, watched the three-part PBS series on cancer, propelled me straight over to NIH.


I give blood at NIH because my father spent his career there, and I guess it’s a form of communion. Certainly it’s a form of nostalgia, walking the long spartan corridors with random Impressionist posters slapped on their walls.

When the documentary began describing Nixon’s war on cancer in the 1970’s, I recalled Dad’s remarkable luck and timing: Government money poured into his lab in those days. A 1974 New York Times article mentioned some of what he and his colleagues were up to.

In the United States the National Cancer Institute’s Dr. Herbert J. Rapp has obtained some success by injecting BCG directly into tumors. His experimental procedure is to inject tumor cells into the flanks of a guinea pig. After six days the animal will die from the spread of the tumor cells even if the original tumor is removed. However Dr. Rapp found that if on the fifth day he injected BCG into the animal, the tumor would disappear in 60 to 70 per cent of the guinea pigs.

My father had it all, I thought, as I pulled out my passport to show the NIH security officer. I often say this to myself – My father had it all. – because I often try to figure out why a man with four healthy children, a loving wife, and one of the world’s best, most meaningful jobs, committed suicide.

I clipped my laminated identification card (they got my photograph from the passport) onto my jacket and boarded a campus (NIH has always called its grounds the campus) bus to Building Ten. Its enormous lobby now houses a clothing and jewelry market! Last thing I thought I’d see in that space.

“What size shirt do you want?” You score a free shirt with a message on it about the importance of giving blood just for checking in at the NIH bank’s front desk. I got one big enough for Mr UD, but felt vaguely guilty about taking it, since it seemed to me likely I’d fail one of the many tests you have to pass before they let you give blood.

Amazingly though, UD sailed through one after another challenge: blood pressure, blood iron, pulse, temperature; and she aced the written exam too. So no weaseling out of it.


UD‘s MO when she actually gets to the couch and the nurse pressing and pressing and pressing her veins has always been exactly the same. She pops over to the little recovery room and selects the stupidest gossip magazine she can find. The trick is to be so utterly distracted by What Really Happened on Brad and Angie’s Plane that one fails to notice a needle going in. This approach has always worked for me.

Once the needle settled, I felt comfortable enough to chat with the nurse who sat beside me for the duration. She yawned and said her commute was getting to her. “I live in Baltimore. Have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. Traffic’s real bad. But this area – Bethesda – is completely unaffordable.”

I looked at my very dark red blood as she took the pouch away. I marveled at its color.


Back on the metro, I returned to Hal’s unflinching and sorrowful account. He drew to a close as my train approached Dupont.

On Wednesday April 15th I rented a car and drove to the Liberty Grove Crematorium in New Jersey. It was a simple place, rather industrial in character, but very tidy and clean. After a while Paul Giffone arrived (with a station wagon I think) with Eve’s body in a plain cardboard coffin which he unloaded with the help of the man at the crematorium. Together they placed the coffin on a kind of gurney. At my request they opened the coffin so that I could see Eve one last time. I had brought a Tibetan necklace of colorful felt beads that I had bought for Eve at the Rubin Museum’s holiday craft fair the previous December and that Eve was happy with. I placed the necklace inside the coffin, resting on Eve’s chest. Then they closed the coffin, wheeled the gurney up to the door of the furnace, and moved the coffin onto a kind of conveyor belt which carried it into the depths of the furnace. They closed the door of the furnace and went into the adjacent office leaving me alone, as I had asked. I don’t remember how long I was there – maybe an hour or so. I read aloud the text of the Sukavati, which T had given me. Then I recited the mantra of the Heart Sutra many times. At some point in my recital I had a distinct feeling, with no real sensory component, of a kind of expansion emanating from the furnace into the room and beyond. It seemed to me as though something was being released from Eve’s body, which was no longer there, and expanding into space. It felt to me like an expanding bubble that would just keep on expanding and expanding. It wasn’t an experience I had anticipated or would attempt to explain but the feeling of liberation was real.

January 17th, 2011
Blood Blogging…

… is a regular feature of University Diaries. UD is a veteran blood donor, and she donates at the National Institutes of Health. This is just down the street from Suburban Hospital, where Sargent Shriver was admitted yesterday.

NIH is also the place where UD‘s father, an immunologist who studied cancer, spent his career. She likes to give at NIH because walking its campus and halls reminds her of his happy years there.

So after lunch with Georgia, once her student and now her friend (they went to Le Pain Quotidien in ‘thesda), she asked Georgia to drop her off at NIH.

This being the federal government and all, she and Georgia had to get out of her car, and get patted down, and (while someone checked the car’s trunk and back seat) show identification, in order to get visitors’ passes. UD apologized to Georgia, who said, “I’m happy to do this! I’m too uncomfortable with the procedure to give blood myself, but the fuss makes me feel as though I’m doing my bit.”

Once at the Clinical Center, UD walked its eerily empty halls (holiday today) to the distant blood bank. The security guards had assured me that the blood bank was open.

It was closed. But the Plateletpheresis Center was open, and UD was, she explained to the woman working there, up for that.

“Hm. It’s pretty late for you to donate today. Would you be willing to make an appointment for later?”

After they put together a platelets date for UD, she again trekked the long corridors of the Clinical Center, all the while recalling her lab-coated father.

The afternoon was cold and gray; the trees were gray, with a few white trunks. She descended the very slow Medical Center Metro escalator with its cold white archway, and she thought of a line she’d just read in the Norman Maclean Reader, the book she was carrying with her.

His prose never moves far from a sense of despair, a fear that life merely happens, incapable of being charged with meaning and grace.

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