Friday, April 20, 2018

Monsters in the Sea and Angels in Heaven




I finished The Sea, The Sea. I'm now about halfway through Conradi's biography of Iris Murdoch, plodding through a particularly shapeless part, detailing a love life that is various and interesting but somehow, in Conradi's hands, never quite comes into focus. I'll learn more I suspect by reading more novels. (I like Conradi, by the way, but I think he might not be ruthless enough to be a really good biographer.)

Everything that comes from fifties and sixties feels icky and ungainly to me: our species lost some crucial sense of proportion, some instinct for beauty, during that time. We never recovered it, I guess, but the absence hurts most in those early years, when it comes along with some sense of what we had lost. Murdoch comes from those decades, essentially: that's where she came of age. But she stayed slant to it, which is as much as anyone can ask.

(It's the intellectual world that I inherited, twenty years later, as an undergraduate in the backwater of Washington State: it was Sartre who proved your virility back then. Remember? I owned a fat paperback copy of Being and Nothingness. I probably even read it: I read everything, back then. How lost that world is now!)

---

Anyway. Murdoch. One way to take The Sea, The Sea is as a mordant joke: the narrator in fact does precisely what one is supposed to do -- fall in love once and for all, with a passion that never wavers -- and the result is somewhat grotesque, forty years down the road, when all the tokens of status and influence have shifted. The narrator is quixotic, or maybe just demented: it's hard to say. One way to read the novel is as a sort of romantic dystopia: okay, so this is what perfect love is supposed to be? Let's play it out, then.

---

In each of the three novels I've read now -- The Bell, An Accidental Man, and The Sea, The Sea -- there is at least one supernatural event that remains unexplained: something that pleases me, even in my current violently anti-superstitious mood. It is necessary to be reminded, repeatedly, that we do not understand how this thing -- human life -- works. That we are almost certainly horribly deceived, and that under the influence of that deception we are probably committing crimes and cruelties that we do not comprehend. 

It is reassuring to read someone from my own withered time who has the conviction that the intimations, as Wordsworth would call them, have to be attended to. There are monsters in the sea, and angels in heaven. The fact that we must be mistaken about them does not mean we can ignore them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Taking My Own Advice

Well, I am taking my own advice unusually well, these days.

I began surfing about, looking for tables and lamps and used restaurant booth-benches on the internets, without finding much that captivated me, and then I heard my own solemn sententious voice, in a recent sermon, saying build one to throw away.

It's a software saying. "Rapid prototyping" is the dignified term. You don't really know what you're making till you've built it, so don't get ahead of yourself with planning and designing. Build a crappy one first, and then you'll know what building one is like. You'll know what the hard parts are, and which parts you don't need to worry about, and above all, once you have a clunky prototype and use it a few times you'll have some idea as to whether it even addresses the problem you're trying to solve. Remarkably often, projects turn out not to do that. They're intelligent, compelling solutions to problems that no one actually has. And there is the short history of a hundred failed dot-coms.

So I stopped looking for lamps, tables, chairs, and I just built a crappy workspace from the materials at hand:

Work Space: Rapid Prototype

And, when I began to use it, I realized: no way. Not here, ever. It's too low, and there's too little natural light. I will never want to work in a place that feels like a burrow. I want to be up in the light, up where I can see the sky, preferably on the roof of the Astronomy tower. That is the problem. Tables, lamps, and chairs are neither here nor there. I need a view.

I have no idea how I'm going to do that. But at least now I know what I'm trying to do. And I haven't thrown away a lot of time and money on acquiring, and trundling about, a bunch of irrelevant stuff.

And I worked a couple hours this morning in the living room, with real physical books, in the light of the big window, and felt happy. I'm working again, for real.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The Next Project

The Wreck Room: Site of Proposed Work Space

So the year is winding down. The year of losing weight, that is. The anniversary will be May 11th: that was the day in 2017 that I measured my waist, got 50 inches, and decided this really had to stop.

Am I embarrassed about throwing pretty much an entire year's allotment of oomph into losing weight, which is about as self-absorbed and self-centered a task as a person could undertake? Yes. I am. But tough. I needed to do this.

I'm not done yet. My initial goals were a 40 inch waist and 180 lbs: I hit those in January and February. My last one is to have a waist measurement that's 90% of my hip measurement. This one is a little harder to draw a bead on, since both measurements have been dwindling. I'm actually training now to build some butt muscle, which I felt silly about at first, but having read around some, I find that trainers of old people take this quite seriously, for good reasons, so that it's not just a matter of hacking the numbers. It's why the numbers were there in the first place. Glutes are a big deal in getting up and down, and lifting things off the floor, and generally not being feeble.

So. Right now the numbers are dead even: it's 36.5" for both of them. Holding the hip measurement steady, that would be a waist target of 33.0" -- three or four months away, at my regular loss-rates. I suspect the end-game will be harder and longer, though. We'll see. 

But in any case, the project should be winding up in a few months. Of course, maintaining it will in many ways be no different. I will still have to cook food and track everything. I have zero expectation that my appetite will magically repair itself -- that I will ever be able to eat ad libitum. But both the stress and the reward of change will diminish. I will gradually have -- I am already noticing that I begin to have -- more spare oomph to deploy. I will be able to to undertake a new project, and hopefully a less selfish one. Or anyway, to prepare for a new project.

As I write here -- this is not so far what I meant to write, I meant to brainstorm about the new project -- it has become clear. The next thing I have to do is make a work space at home. That's my next project.

My work space used to be the cafes I breakfasted in. Bright lights, large sturdy tables I could spread out books and spill coffee on, comfortable booth seats I could sit in for hours. I don't do the cafes any more, so I need to make that space here at home. Here, where I sit now, in the wreck room. I need: a bright light, a sturdy table I can spill coffee on, a chair I can sit in for hours. 

Well, that was easy. The theory was easy, anyway.

I have never really tried to make spaces in my own home, and I find it an oddly disquieting ambition. But no odder, no more disquieting, than being a skinny guy. I will do this thing.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

The Sea, The Sea


The idea, I guess, was this: suppose you were one of those people whose life was principally organized around love (there are, I understand, some odd creatures with other kinds of lives. I often puzzle over them. What are such lives like? I digress.)

So suppose. And suppose that your loves, rather than coming sequentially, as decorum requires -- suppose they all existed simultaneously, jockeying with each other and informing each other and contending with one another?

With each new love we get to design a new story of ourselves, and tidy the old one away: this is how most of us lie to ourselves most outrageously and destructively. And since Murdoch is interested in the truths of love, she thought it worth doing to plunge her narrator into a welter of revisiting loves. He's gone away to a lonely village by the sea to contemplate his life, supposedly, but he is haunted by the loves of his life, none of whom will stay tidied away. 

One of the things I most admire about Murdoch is that, even coming of age at the height of anti-Dickensian modernism, she understood perfectly well Dickens's reliance on melodrama and improbable coincidence to reveal the connections of our lives, or anyway the meaning of those connections; and she continued to use it. You can picture the realist critics (still a force to be reckoned with in the 1970's) clucking at the driving coincidence of the novel -- that the narrator just happened to move to the village to which his first love, forty years vanished, had retired. But that's the point. You can't actually move away. Everything follows you.

I am only halfway through, so maybe she provides an explanation of some sort. I hope not. But this is far the most powerful and engaging novel of hers that I've read so far. There is a lot at stake here: there's a lot I care about. 

-------

I am no longer beguiled, or even beguilable

I wrote, not long ago, about novels. It turns out I was lying. I am beguiled by this frightening novel. I approach it cautiously. I care about the people and they're going to get hurt. 


-------

Or maybe the heart of the matter is the rebellion, Shelley's rebellion. Why can we not just push the unlatched gate open, and be free? Why can we not just move to Italy, where the sun always shines, with everyone we love, and live together in the light? There is such an overflowing abundance of love in us. How could it be stopped or stymied?

And the answer takes shape (and will no doubt win, because Murdoch is in fact a realist.) Why can we not just be free? Because we will not. There is no argument. There is just the stubborn weight of the world, bearing down on us. The gate is unlatched because it can't move. It never needed a latch.

I simplify too much: the answer is more complicated than that. And I hope there is more complication ahead, because I have seen this for a long time and I badly want it explained.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Last Marvelous Gift

Joy
snakes upward, with a little flickering tongue,
after so long beneath the duff and the pine twigs:
dead, they said, but
you know how it is with reptiles, in the cold
they shut down but 
sometimes
they neglect to die.

So in the mornings, I work out: I am determined not to lose muscle mass, and so far -- judging by my strength -- I have not. I lie on my back and explore this new lean body with my fingertips. Everything about it delights me, even the slight slackness of pelt that's slung like a pair of bandoliers, and the thin wattle at my throat when I cock my head a certain way. You can't be fat for forty years without it leaving marks. I'm content to bear my scars. Underneath it is all lean muscle, all strength and hardness. I feel old but deathless. Rendered.

When last I weighed this much I was soft, in so many ways. I have never lived in a body so serviceable, so apt, and I am not taking it for granted: this is a last marvelous gift from the dealer of grace.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Small Liberties



A sly grief, twining up through the blue sky and the sudden maple blossom. Another trick of age has come upon me: I squint, now, at moments of irritation or perplexity. Wrinkle my nose, in that wonderfully expressive, nonsensical English phrase. I catch myself doing it, and in the moment the fact that I turn sixty in a few days becomes suddenly explicable. Inevitable.

Still the wind is fresh, and the crows climb up to play in the gusts, and there's a fine sunlight, laid on with a hasty brush. It will do, I suppose. I suppose it must. I walk up to where Burnside Street bridges the freeway to have a look at the mountain. Pure white and larger than usual, as though someone over on the far side had carelessly elbowed it, shoved it closer.

---

Home. Stew in the crockpot: done for now. I'll leave it to simmer overnight. In the morning I'll add some broccoli, portion it out into containers. Lunch for us for the next five days.

Dark flows in now. I'll wash up at some point, do the dishes, call it a night. 

That which is impossible to thee is not impossible to me: I shall save my word in all things and I shall make all things well.

---

Small liberties: taking transit instead of driving, and not having to trouble about my car -- I don't need to remember where it is, or track how the parking fees might be tallying, or worry about going out of range of it: none of that. I'm free. But I am so small, now, the wind could blow me away. An eddy might blow me aboard the train, or sweep me off again.

Good night!

Thursday, March 01, 2018

An Irreparably Broken Appetite

Circling back, as I do these days, to why my weight loss efforts are working -- I have been "on program" since last May, losing a pound a week: I started out at 222 lbs and I'm presently at 170 -- why did it work this time? 

There's lots of answers. Every time I've failed I've learned something. I painstakingly built up a knowledge and habit of simple cooking and maintaining a kitchen, which I badly needed even for the "Tom's and Burgerville" stage of my present weight loss: a big part of this was the huge crock pot of soup or stew, made every five or six days, that has been my (and Martha's) daily lunch. Other habits, and learning about what makes me tick -- what makes me hold a line or crumble -- were essential. But the one that stands out to me most at the moment, and the one that was very different this time, was conceptual: it was deciding that my appetite was totally, irreparably broken.

Lurking behind every attempt before this was the idea that at some point, if I ate the right things, or ate in the right way, if I developed the right habits and attitudes, I would eventually want to eat the right amount of the right things. This idea was peddled to me by all sorts of people of all sorts of dietetic persuasions. Back in prehistoric Scarsdale days, I was told that I would learn to find fat greasy and disgusting, and my grapefruit-purified appetite would naturally find salad and cottage cheese as attractive as a burger and fries. Atkins told me that if I stopped eating carbs my appetite would be healed, and I wouldn't want to overeat. Different people identified different food demons, but the common theme was: exorcise the demon, eat the right things in the right way, and your appetite will be a trustworthy guide once more. You'll naturally eat the right amount.

And I totally bought it. I bitterly resisted logging my eating and measuring my food, because I hated the constraint, and because it really wasn't going to be necessary, right? Once fixed, my appetite would be reliable again. The artificial constraints -- a needless scaffolding -- would fall away, and what I wanted to eat and what I should eat would be exactly the same thing. Such an appealing dream! And however much everyone disagreed about other things, they all seemed to agree on this. Getting back to a naturally dependable appetite was possible!

Well, after the collapse of my Atkins-ing, I was finally open to not believing this. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I ever found it particularly believable. I suppose partly because I so much wanted it to be true; but also because the Natural held such cultural sway. What you wanted couldn't just be wrong, because that's not how the world worked. Desires were healthy. They could get twisted a bit by a weird upbringing, hijacked by taboos, corrupted by conceptual distortions, but they always had a healthy foundation, which, given enough reasoning and effort, you could return to. I had real difficulty abandoning this conviction, and entertaining the idea -- which really, all evidence supported -- that my appetite for food would never be a reliable guide to what I should eat, or how much I should eat. 

When I finally came around to this, I found it oddly liberating. I didn't have to make myself like anything, or to pretend I disliked anything. I didn't have to change my instincts or my appetites. I didn't even have to change what I ate at all (even if eventually I did.) All I had to do was eat less. 

It was still a formidable problem, and one that has required all my will power and ingenuity to address. My particular solution wouldn't necessarily work for anyone else. But it was finally the right problem.