Saturday, August 19, 2017

Climbing


I must read and write again -- that's the long and and short of it. 

The other stuff, the diet & exercise, the languages, the frugality & investment, keeping up with the political news & carefully fashioning political opinions, maintaining a social media presence -- all these were all meant to be ancillary to a literary life, a life of reading things that are beautiful and dangerous, and writing as close to the truth as I can. But I've let tending the scaffolding replace tending the building.

No. The real reading and writing have to be there, or all the rest is useless.

Last night I pulled The Mezentian Gate off the shelf, and had a good look at its cover, which, as a teenager, I thought was the last word in hauntingly beautiful art. Now I find it extravagant and crudely colored, vague where it should be precise, and precise where it should be vague -- much like Eddison's book. But that's not the point. The point is that at the time, Eddison bowled me over and took me somewhere else, and so did this cover artist. (Barbara Remington, I find: the same as made the Tolkien paperback covers that so entranced my teenage self. And so exasperated Tolkien: "what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?" he demanded. Very rightly. What the hell is it?)



It's good to become aware that the extraordinary literary and artistic experiences I had were, in my mature view, experiences of stuff that was second-rate. It's not the quality of the stuff that matters, in the end; it's the quality of the experience. At fourteen Eddison was as steep a mountain as I could climb.

But anyway -- I have not done much climbing lately, though I have much better equipment and a lot of experience. So it's time to climb again. Read things that require all my attention, and write in answer to them. Even if it all turns out to be second-rate. If I'm here for anything, if I've trained all my life for anything, this is it: so I had better do it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Solvencia

The fact of the matter is that last fall I went into the ditch, and I'm only now climbing out of it.

In November, the presidential election. I was following it closely and I knew exactly what it meant: the end of democracy and social progress in the United States for the rest of my life. 

In December, my mother died. My failure as a son was complete and beyond remedy.

So. I've spent a while walking in despair. It's an interesting country.

People who express a lot of despair actually don't live there: they're teasing themselves with it, playing tag with it. They don't really believe it. When you believe it, it stops being a thing. It's not an alternate route: it's your own road, and it's the only road, and it's actually a pretty good place to have a good think. It's quiet there.

So I learned some things: one, that although I would have said I didn't have much hope for America, I would have been lying. Losing all hope for my country meant losing a lot, for me. It woke me up to how much I loved it and valued it: how basic a part of me it was. 

Of course, it's always been a painful relationship. So there's some relief in ending it. I still live here, but my alienation is absolute, now. I'm a foreigner. An expat with no pat to be ex of.

I don't want anyone else to despair: I'm not writing this to urge anyone else to despair, or to stir up anyone to confute me. Not interested. 

Losing my mom was another thing, more complicated, more difficult. It was a relief, first of all: I never expected her to die without having ruined me financially and emotionally, so to wake in a new bleak world, still solvent and still capable of love, was a surprise and a bitter-tasting pleasure. 

It marked the end of all joyless obligation. Obligation is a good thing, and I am happy with all my remaining obligations: they are all based on love. That's a luxury that I've just begun to understand.

So I'm starting my life over, just waking up. I have everything to do over again.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Before My Coronation

It was in the mid 1980s that I tossed my battered edition of the Canterbury Tales into my briefcase, gave a brief smile to my students, and walked out the door. I walked down a dim hallway and then out into the thin Connecticut sunlight and headed for the train station. I was done with academia forever, though I didn't know it at the time: I would never wear a tweed jacket again.

You don't leave academia just like that. It stays with you for a long time. It's a self-contained world, and its tumults can seem very important. One professor's scandal, another's missed tenure, are huge events. The cliques are as formidable as in high school; the rivalries as bitter; the betrayals are felt deeply.

And there is beautiful, difficult work being done. People make fun of academics -- they're easy targets -- because universities are mature institutions and the low-hanging fruit in most fields was gone centuries ago. The work still to be done is harder to explain. It takes some expertise to understand why it matters. But it does matter. Not all of it, of course. But at Yale I learned tremendous admiration for the careful, painstaking work that added up to, say, really knowing what the Beowulf-Poet meant by a particular image or turn of phrase. I will not laugh at the work these people do. I realized I was not up to it -- I was too slapdash and quicksilver. My work, when I finally found it, would be different: but not better. Just different.

There's a lasting regret in not being part of that secret ministry. But I hope I learned from them a rugged skepticism, a devotion to the verified fact, a respect for the second (third, fourth) opinion. I never heft an edition of some old poet -- an edition full of glosses and footnotes and erudite introductions -- without a surge of gratitude. I have been rescued from so many mistakes and misinterpretations: I have been handed the clean, beating hearts of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson. I'm grateful.

Nevertheless, I'm grateful too to have walked away from it. There's a culture of despair and depression that cobwebs academia -- especially now, when the promises of tenure and respect have proven mirages, and the remuneration dwindles while the work mounts. It's not, generally, a happy place. Much of the conversation, as I remember it, was savoring the hopelessness of the world, and counting over the number of ways in which we have decayed and the number of things we stand to lose.

I am myself in deep social and political despair, but I don't want to dwell on it or share it. Such solutions as come will come by addressing what can be addressed, and trusting in the mutability of things. I was on a retreat one time with my favorite Buddhist teacher: he had come down with a nasty flu. He sat on a bench, pale, miserable, panting slightly. I asked if he was feeling any better, and that drawn face was suddenly transformed by his characteristic impish grin. "Well, sometimes," he said, "impermanence is on our side."

So it is. And, at the same time, the beauty keeps coming, the sweetnesses of summer and skin, of cold water and blue sky, and my own incongruous, inexplicable good fortune.

So. I find myself gravitating to people who love to solve problems and fix things, and who plan for things no larger than their own households and their children's lifetimes. Cheery straightforward optimists. I simply want to work on things that I understand pretty well, and help people I know can be helped, and solve problems within my scope.

And it helps to remember that I've been a singularly crappy prophet. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I knew -- knew for a certainty -- that in twenty years we would have had a least one nuclear war, and that even without one, overpopulation would have made the world an uninhabitable hell-hole. Maybe I was right then, and just had the timing off by a couple decades. But maybe I was totally wrong. And maybe I'm totally wrong now in my gloomy expectations.

In any case, I have not noticed anyone anxious to make me emperor of the world: so spending a lot of time figuring out what I will do after my coronation is probably not a good use of my time. There are many other things to do. My neighborhood is full of joys to be made and sufferings to relieve.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Looking Forward

I don't want to spend all that much time looking forward to the next phase of getting my eating under control. There are too many variables in play, and it still seems surreal to me that I'm chugging along dropping a pound a week while feeling totally undeprived, feeling in fact self-indulgent. Any day now my body may realize that it's dropping weight, and some alert guard down in the hypothalamus, or wherever, will see the needle drifting down to the red and throw the "Starvation!" breaker. Then I will be thinking about food all the time, and refraining from eating will absorb all my mental energy. And then, inevitably, even in the little paradise I've made for myself in my little cottage in Portland, I'll need mental energy for something else instead, 300 million years of evolution will kick in, and I will have eaten both sides of the menu and three aisles of the grocery store before I entirely know what is happening. I know how this works. I'm an old hand.

I have emergency plans in place. But I'm hoping that if I do this very cleverly, that breaker will never get thrown. I have a hypothesis that the explosions of self-indulgent pleasure, morning and evening, may keep that guard drowsing. That keeping the weight loss to about a pound a week will make it gradual enough that the needle never really drops to the red. But for now, I just keep my eye on the ball, make my lunch soups well in advance, plan my life carefully so that I stick to the clear water. 10 pounds down, 32 to go. Even supposing all goes well, all the way through the Christmas holidays, it's March before even this phase, the drive to 180, is done. 

That will be a dangerous time. I'll still be twenty pounds above where the standard tables say I ought to be. It will be tempting at that point to try to drive to the finish line of 160, just to prove I can. But I think what I should do at 180 -- always supposing I get there -- is deliberately level off, by adding more veggies and plain potatoes -- i.e. bulk, and high-satiety-per-calorie foods -- and just see what being there is like, for at least a few months. I may find a sweet spot somewhere in the neighborhood of 180. If so, I'd be happy to just stay there, and maybe play with swapping in some different foods for my high-reward ones.

Because part of the stealth plan, here, is to make my high-reward foods so familiar that they're a little tiresome, so that I don't mind swapping them out sometimes for stuff that's less calorie-dense. I'm hoping to gradually switch them out till my diet is a bit less of a nutritionist's nightmare. I'm fully aware that the full British breakfast and a hamburger-and-milkshake dinner is not a diet that makes a centenarian. But being sixty pounds overweight doesn't make a centenarian either. You work with what you've got: I've got an appetite habituated since childhood to high-reward foods. It's not going to vanish overnight. But it may be malleable. Things do change.

Friday, July 07, 2017

To Tirzah

When I first read William Blake, as a teenager, the connection was immediate and visceral. This was my man: the only god in the literary pantheon (I took the dignity of the canon much more seriously back then than I do now) who understood the world as I did, and who saw himself as the forerunner of a new people, just as I did. My heart was full of revolutionary nonsense and mystical passion: I loved a lot of writers I subsequently came to think silly.

I never came to think Blake silly. He is not silly. His absolute rejection of cruelty and paltering resonates with me as strongly as ever, as does his commitment to the clear and boldly drawn line. Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders.

But there was one poem that came always as a slap in the face. It was "To Tirzah," and it was strangely out of keeping with the other Songs, a throwback to the sort of Christianity he otherwise rejected, the Christianity of Old Nobodaddy who hated the body, hated women, hated reproduction:

Thou, mother of my mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my nostrils, eyes, and ears, 
Didst close my tongue in senseless clay,
And me to mortal life betray.
The death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

There must be some hidden message, some history I didn't know, I thought. I read it carefully -- I read everything carefully in those days, when the world was young, alas! -- and then steered around it. I have probably every other poem from the Songs by heart: but I had to go and look up the text of Tirzah, just now.

It has a reputation, says Wikipedia, as a difficult poem. It's not a difficult poem at all: it's just a poem that most of us would rather not hear. It's a categorical, contemptuous dismissal of his mother.

I can't help but think, at this distance, that it was precisely this poem -- though I consciously rejected it -- that sealed my intimacy with William. I too found myself helplessly bound to a person whose love threatened to choke and silence me, who seemed determined to bind me to the low horizons of worldly desire. Her heart's desire was to see me pluming myself in an expensive suit: was this what I had been born for? No. No, there had to be something beyond that.

I hate the poem. All the more in this time, when America is wracked by a childish tantrum of over-mothered, over-schooled boys who never got their time playing in the mud. It's dangerous, wrong, ungrateful, stupid. It cannot nor it will not come to good.

Nevertheless. There it is: manifestly wrong, self-contradictory, irreconcilable; and an indelible inheritance.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Making Room

The gift of men, Tolkien's immortal elves call it: death. 

The one thing that can make people finally clean out the utility drawer, give away an impossible accumulation of sewing materials, and get rid of the 1967 - 1973 Scientific American magazines. 

The thing that finally breaks all wedding vows. The thing that clears the way for creatures that are young, clean-limbed, and fresh to imagine (in their turn) that they will always be so. The thing that makes room.

My mother died last winter. Ours was a relationship of deep mutual disappointment and bright superficial cheer: we managed to wound each other and fail each other remarkably often, for people who saw each other so little. The one thing we each wanted of the other was the one thing we could not give: a respectful understanding. 

No parent-child relationship is ever actually over, I suppose, but the death of one party marks it, like a visa stamp on a passport.

I am free to travel, now. I'm sorry. I'll carry my failure forever: but it will be localized now: a dead zone in an otherwise living sea.

And maybe I will even clear out a few boxes and throw a few things away, ahead of time. She would approve of that.

Monday, July 03, 2017

What You Can Hear

It's no good listening for a pindrop now,
with the freeway surge and the rattle of leaves,
and the neighbor shouting (whatever he shouts).

No. listen early. They collect 
where the dew fall is heavy; they lift their queer snouts
to glitter in the sun. They drink quietly,

piercing the water's skin with a seamstress dream
of superfine proboscides: you can't hear that
either, nor the stitch of their silvery beating hearts.

But they fall, at awkoddward times. Say they lose
their grip and they fall -- whirl and twirl --
bounce on the turbulent air --
and a love of speed sets off a fear of space.

They ring when they meet the uprushing ground,
or collide with each other in flight: and that
you can sometimes hear.