Saturday, November 24, 2018

User Interface

I finally bit the bullet and used my oven yesterday.

I actually have used this oven before, but it must have been ten years ago. It intimidates and frustrates me because a) the oven's conceptual categories don't match mine and b) the crucial feedback mechanism -- the little register that tells you the "phase" and reports the temperature setting -- is so dim that it can only be read -- if it's nighttime -- by switching off all the lights in the house and crouching down close to it. In daytime it can't be read at all.

So Martha and I sat down and read the owner's manual, the other day. We searched for a way to embrighten the register, but no luck. But at least I got over the conceptual stumbling blocks. It had seemed to me that, having set a "preheat" temperature and attained it, you should then proceed to set the baking time, using the "bake" button. Because now you're going on to the "bake" phase, capiche? That's what we're doing here, we're baking something. But the oven doesn't think that way. There is a "preheat" button. What it does is bring the oven up to a certain temperature, 350 degrees by default, and it leaves it there. Fair enough. Then there is a "bake" button. What this does -- so far as I can tell -- is go straight to whatever behavior will maintain the oven indefinitely at the set temperature. "I'm now baking at 350," the oven says to itself, even though it's sitting there at 70 degrees. After a while it will get there, but it won't ever engage the upper element to do so. And once it achieves 350, it will stay there forever. So it's very, very like the "preheat" button, and I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would ever use it. "Heat up to 350, but be slow about it!" Whatever.

So my first real conceptual difficulty was my conviction that, since I was setting out to bake something, I should at some point press the "bake" button. I have cleared that away. In the ordinary course of things I will never touch the "bake" button at all, unless what I want to do is reduce the heat. (I suspect I could use the "preheat" button for that as well, though I haven't run the experiment.)

My second conceptual difficulty was my naive belief that the oven would not let me turn it on for perpetuity. Surely it would turn itself off, by default, after a day, or three days, or something? Not a bit of it. Here we probably run into Things That People Do With Ovens that are beyond my ken: food drying maybe? Anyway, it ain't so. Once it achieves its heat, it will stay there forever, until the stars burn out. If you want to limit the time it will stay on, you use the "bake time" button, and then set the time using the up and down arrow buttons. The time set will appear in the amber lights that cannot be read in daytime, just as the temperature does. It goes up or down in 5 minute increments. To turn off the oven -- which seems to me to be a pretty fundamental oven command -- you push the "cancel" button. Cancel? Really? In what world does "cancel" mean "off"?

I write this all out -- recognizing that it must be tedious reading -- in order to fully wrap my mind around it. It's deeply counterintuitive, to me. And it makes me grateful for the innumerable good user interfaces I use every day. I don't often encounter an interface, any more, that isn't immediately understandable. It also drives home how bad it is, for the user, to not have an immediate response to every command, a way to know it was received and understood. In theory, knowing that every press of the "up" button increases the heat by five degrees, or the time by five minutes, should suffice. In practice, not being able to see the temperature or time induces real anxiety, anxiety strong enough to have kept me from using the thing for years. 

Anyway. I baked some chicken thighs and potatoes, and they were good. A great leap forward. From the stovetop to the profundities beneath. New worlds.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Crowding; Revelation

It's odd that practically no one ever talks about the centrality of invisibility, in The Lord of the Rings.

In Tolkien's world, to claim power and to disappear are often one and the same act. Or (to say the same thing, but reversing the poles) you can appear, or you can wield power, but you can't do both. (This is something somebody should probably have explained to President Trump: it would have saved many tears.) Those who choose power become invisible, and ultimately nameless. It's a disquieting idea, but I think it's one that bears a lot of rumination.

(The exception to the power/visibility trade-off is Aragorn-as-King-Elessar, and it's precisely Aragorn's oddly repeated revelation-of-majesty scenes that were most stirring to me, in my youth, and are now least convincing to me, in my maturity. When Tolkien tries even to approach power that is visible, everything starts to wobble, and his language gets ever more archaic and grandiose. I loved it, as a teenager, but as an adult I know the signs all too well: he's trying too hard.)

I've played for fifteen years, here, with the gratifications and drawbacks of being visible. The yen to disappear has never been absent, but lately -- lately it has crowded in on me. Visibility makes it difficult or imprudent, sometimes, to say exactly what I mean: one of my most characteristic things to do these days is to write out a paragraph or a couple pages in response to something... and to think: no. Not here, not now, not in this persona anyway. And {delete}.

I was reading the Wikipedia article on the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, and found the longing overwhelming. Oh, to be invisible, and to say exactly what I mean!

On the other hand: "He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible..." There's that, too.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


A sunny morning in late Fall, a quiet Sunday morning. A scrub jay complaining somewhere offstage. Shadows of leaves. Reflections from the birdbath making wavery lines on the hedge, as if the whole world were lightly underwater. Beyond, through the thin spots of the hedge, the sun wavers on the neighbor's lawn and chicken run as well, and slantwise to that a few yellow bamboo leaves drift down.

There's a huge sadness behind me. I'm curled like a cat in its lap, feeling the rise and fall of its breath. Who knew it would take so long? How many corners would be turned, to reveal further corners in the far distance?

But. To practical things. Start the chili, get a shower, go into work and get a few processes underway. I'm getting better at inhabiting my life, at bringing my attention to what's actually under my hands. Thinking about shopping and cooking and cleaning, deploying my resources of time and attention as if I actually meant to have the life that I have. I have camped in my life too much, spent too much time in it as if it was a hotel room rather than a house. I've indulged myself too much, ordering stuff in and leaving it to the staff to clean up: that's one way to look at it. Or you could say, I have indulged myself too little: I've never bothered to make myself really at home. I'm trying to do that now. 

But today I'm wistful, and full of regrets and second thoughts. Other half-lived lives move away, out of my range of vision. If I try to look straight at them they disappear.

A book I read recently suggested that I write about what my life will be like ten years from now, when all my dreams have come true and all my projects are accomplished. The exercise was so foreign to me -- entailed thinking so differently than I usually think -- that I resolved to do it. But I've failed so far to get started. Ten years, who knows if I even have ten years? What should I be hoping for? What might I be trying to do, in that time scale? I think in the main it's a good thing not to be obsess on the future, not to make life something that's going to happen later when I've achieved X or obtained Y. But drawing a complete blank on one's future is maybe taking it too far. And surely how I order my life implies its ten-year goals, for better or worse? My habits and daily activities point to some ten-year conclusion: is it one I want? 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Suddenly Opened

Suddenly opened little windows into the darkness
and though a wind made them shiver 
they did not quite disappear.

Four walls and a roof make a house, or they try to,
and an exile learns to carry matches
as a matter of course.

It's true that once your hair made a gold-red aureole
and my clothes have never fit well since,

but to presume beyond that
outruns my writ.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Fifteen Years After

Buried Templeby Natalie D'Arbeloff. Acrylic on paper, 37cm x 37 cm.

Fifteen years! I'll have more to say about that soon. It was a difficult time in my life, and I felt very much alone. And then these curious things came along, by the unlovely name of blogs: windows into other lives. Suddenly I knew other people who were interested both in literature and in the spirit, both in nature and in the wrought world, both in common kindness and in divine transcendence. A conversation sprang up, which has taken many forms: sometimes it's subsided, sometimes it's unexpectedly resumed. The company over the years has made my life much richer. Here's some of a recent interchange, when we took of the question why are we still blogging?
Rachel: Writing is one of the fundamental ways I experience and explore the world, both the external world and my own internal world. I think it was EM Forster who wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Blogging as I’ve come to understand it is living one’s life in the open, with spiritual authenticity and intellectual curiosity, ideally in conversation or relationship with others who are doing the same.
Dave: At some level, it's easier to keep blogging at Via Negativa, the Morning Porch, and Moving Poems than it is to stop. Basically I'm an addict. Writing poetry is fun for me — entering that meditative head-space required for immersion in writing. As for the social aspect, I've been in, or on the periphery of, several distinct blogging communities over the years, and at one time, we all commented on each other's sites, but with the rise of social media, most blog commenting went away — and I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing. Writing and responding to comments did take up a lot of my time ten years ago, and now that I can scratch that conversational itch on Twitter, or in real life with my partner, I'm OK with most interactions on my blogs being limited to pings. But I must immediately qualify that and admit that Via Negativa is a special case, because for well over half its existence now I've enjoyed the virtual companionship of a co-blogger, the brilliant and prolific poet Luisa Igloria, and a small number of occasional guest bloggers as well. I wouldn't say I'm competitive, but Luisa's commitment to a daily poetry practice has definitely forced me to up my game. Then there's Mr. Pepys. My Pepys Diary erasure project grew directly from sociability: my partner and I wanted to read the online version of the diary together, and I worried I might eventually get bored with it if I weren't mining it for blog fodder. 
Lorianne: I am not attached to the medium, but I am attached to the message, and the process of creating/sharing that message.  There has been a lot of hand-wringing among bloggers over the “death of the blog,” with long-time (and former) bloggers worried about attention divides between blogs and social media.  Where do “I” live if I post in multiple places: on blog, in a paper notebook, on social media? For those of us who do all three, the result can be confusing, distracting, and frazzling...or it can be creative, collaborative, and synergistic.
DaleI didn’t really expect ever to have readers, so in a way, having readership dwindle is a return to the early days... I’ve outlived some of my personas -- I’m no longer recognizeably very Buddhist, and my politics have morphed in some odd ways. I don’t think I’m as salable an item as I used to be :-) But the inertia, as Dave said. When I do have something to say and my censor doesn’t step in, the blog is still where I go. It’s been home for fifteen years: my strand of the web… The community that was established way back when is still important to me, and still a large part of my life. And there’s still a lot of value in having a public space. The act of making something public changes it, changes how I look at. I become the viewers and the potential viewers. It helps me get out of myself. It helps me work through my favorite game of “what if I’m wrong about all these things?”
Natalie: Why the hell still blogging? Not sure I am still blogging. I put something up on Facebook whenever I feel like saying hey, listen, or hey, look at this. Then I copy/paste the post to Blogger where I keep Blaugustine going, mainly out of a sense of imaginary duty. The idea that there are some real people out there who may be actually interested in some of my thoughts and/or artwork is undoubtedly attractive, even necessary. I live a mostly hermit life and don’t get much feedback of any kind. But my interior life is very active, all the time, and having a tiny public platform online where I can put stuff is really helpful. To be perfectly honest I think that’s about it for me and blogging at present. I don’t do any other social media, it would all take too much time which I’d rather devote to artwork.
BethI think a lot of it has to do with a sense of place. My blog is like a garden or a living room that I’ve put energy and thought and care into as a place that’s a reflection of myself and is hopefully welcoming for others.. The discipline of gathering work and talking about it coherently has been extremely good for me and for my art practice. And I’ve also really appreciated and been inspired by other people who do the same, whatever their means of expression. There’s something deeply meaningful about following someone’s body of work, and their struggles, over not just months but years. In today’s climate of too-muchness and attention-seeking and short attention spans, I feel so encouraged and supported by the quiet, serious doggedness of other people like me!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

La Caza Que Practica

--Lo que busco decirle es que esa prolongada obsesión puede producir ciertos...
--Secuelas, es la palabra. A mi juicio, un cazador queda marcado por la caza que practica.

"What I'm trying to say is that a longtime obsession can produce certain..."
"Consequences, is the word. To my mind, a hunter is permanently marked by the hunt that he practices."

--El Asedio, Arturo Pérez-Reverte

I've been sick for a past few days -- mildly, some virus or other; enough to keep me home from work and cancelling appointments, but not otherwise very distressing. I'm better now. Just did my resistance training for the day, and reveling in the post-exercise glow. I miss that now, when I can't get it.

Being homebound and not minding makes me realize how large a change I've undergone, in the past year and a half. I used to hate being homebound. Now I rather like it. I have lots of time to cook and clean. I'm no longer all about escaping the house and being in the world. I still like being in the world: I just find being at home more interesting and rewarding than I used to. I tussle with problems such as "can I replace the hamburger in my dinner with something cheaper and healthier, without wrecking its satiety quotient?" and it seems valid to me, a worthy enterprise, an interesting one. This is progress, I think. Unless it's just dwindling. Fading into the west. Whatever. There are worse things.

Pearl-white sky: birds shifting in the hedge. Occasionally a drip of water from somewhere above makes a single leave shudder, but otherwise we're sunk in a huge stillness and silence. Nothing needs to be done. Winter, as we understand it here, has arrived.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Size Of My Bones

There were giants in those days.

Yesterday, we set out on a chilly, gloomy day for what Martha calls the Rhododendron Gardens, and I call Crystal Springs -- what's the real name? I forgot to check -- at the edge of the Reed College campus.

We walked, and talked philosophy and Buddhism and Christianity and politics and mortality. Whenever we paused, the waterfowl began to gather. "I'm sorry, we don't have anything for you," said Martha. They gathered anyway.

The sun came out and everything was brilliantly lit -- mallards and wood ducks and geese paddling around us. Every time a duck went uptails nearby, its little orange-pink ankles showing above the water as its feet churned to keep its head down, we laughed.

Behind us, a couple of shadowy, quick-moving young people -- people younger than us, anyway -- took pictures. The old couple nestled together watching the sunlit ducks. "We're going to be a stock photo. Golden years," says Martha. I grimace and stick my tongue out.

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

All my life I thought I had big bones. I was "husky," a word much used in my childhood but which seems quaint now. My bones are actually the same size as everyone else's, something I could have discovered any time these sixty years by simply measuring the circumference of my wrists.

Beyond the wood on the west side of the lake lie the rail yards, and a deep bass roar and rattle comes from them, at times. All of us, mammals and waterfowl, are used to it, and take no notice. It's just the rumble signifying the end of the world: we've heard it all our lives.

We stand up to go. As we look down into the shallows we see a crayfish crawling cautiously out from under a rock. "A crawdad!" exclaims Martha, falling into her native dialect, which always pleases me. "I didn't know there were crawdads here."

And so back home, refreshed but hungry, and late for lunch.