Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sex and Massage

I get no sexual pleasure from massage. This may surprise attentive readers of Mole, who will have observed that I get sexual pleasure from a great range of things, from walking in a heavy rain to pouring cream into my coffee. But it's true. I was enjoying watching a woman in one of my classes recently, a dancer, who was leaning over to take her books out of her pack, and it occurred to me that I'd had my hands on her naked body (modestly draped, of course, in the American style) a few times. The interesting thing is that it was the first time that my attraction to her and the massages had bumped up against each other in my mind: they belonged to completely different categories of experience. They simply had nothing to do with each other.

It's not that massage is erotically neutral. It's not. It's antithetical to eros. It moves in the opposite direction. Eros is about narrowing attention and winding it up. Massage, however, is about opening attention and unwinding it. I suppose they arrive ideally at the same place -- a place of stillness, communion, and release -- but they arrive by opposite means. And they don't mix well at all. Massage junkie though I am, I've always been irritated and thrown off if a partner starts massaging me during love play. Likewise, if I begin to have an erotic response to getting massage, which has happened once or twice, it breaks the mood and threatens to wreck the massage -- it is, in fact, a distinctly unpleasant and alienating experience.

The association of massage and sex, which I still encounter from time to time, depresses me. Not because it's a threat to the respectability of the massage profession. I'm not a big fan of respectability. That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is the tactile ignorance and deprivation it reveals. To a starving person all food is alike.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


I both have a body and I am a body, and this intimate relation puts my body in a closer juxtaposition with my immediate awareness than any other object that I can possibly contemplate.

-- Deane Juhan, Job's Body

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Tendrel is a Tibetan word, variously translated as "interconnectivity," or "dependent arising": a famous emblem of it is the "endless knot." The fact that it is a homophone of the English word "tendril" is, as we say, a happy accident.

In from the rain comes a glory of red hair
Framing slack morning features;
She hums as though this restaurant
Were her own kitchen.

Hair spangled with raindrops, pouring over the shoulders
Of a faded green sweatshirt,
Curling around a mild Irish face
Of placid benevolence.

I think of the previous life we lived together
When she was passionate and Greek
And hated my drinking;
Of the life when she was

An unlucky bricklayer, and I a poisonous woman,
His culminating disaster.
And I would like to apologize
For how troublesome a child

I was, when the Swedes burned everything
The Prince Elector's troops had left
(Which wasn't much) and she my father
Tried to teach us thrift.

But each life peels cleanly from the bone.
In this life we are strangers:
She eats her breakfast, reads her magazine

Let bygones be bygones. She does not remember
And neither do I.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


I open the window, and the icy rain blows into my face. Thank God.

I'm reaching for you, across the miles, along the filaments of light spun fine from the crescent moon.

We complain about Christmas, but really it's just what we need: a desolation, a hole in the bottom of the year. How could there be a solstice if we didn't really believe that all the light and love and warmth might really drain out of the world forever and ever? That it might be always Christmas, always frantic, every bond of affection a fetter, every song an insistent interminable jingle, every food cloying, every gathering enforced by loveless convention? It could be Christmas forever.

And then, finally, it's December 26th, and we realize -- as at the climax of all solstice celebrations -- that the nightmare has limits. We don't need the sun to return all at once. We just need to know that it's turned.

In the dark, I press my hands against yours, fingertip to fingertip. Bow my head till our foreheads rest together. Beloved. Stay with me here a moment. It's all we have. But maybe it's all we need.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Even to Me

Frost on the steps like white sand;
The shivering cat complains at the door.
Winter has finally come
Even to me.
Shadow Cabinet

Take a look at Dave Bonta's new site. A gestating book. It's a terrific idea, and I'm seriously thinking of stealing it. (The idea, not the book. The book would be well worth stealing, too, though.)

Saturday, December 16, 2006


The "professional exchange," they call it. You get a massage from a professional, and give them one, and they evaluate your work.

"Then you get some difficult clients," she said. "People who..."

And I picture men attempting to grope her. But I'm on the wrong track. She looks at me obliquely, as though sizing me up.

"People who start crying in their intake interviews. And, you know, want to hug you all the time."

I make a mental note to hug her sparingly, if at all. But I understand the crying part. The care she takes moves me, makes me feel like a lost five year old who's suddenly found home. She moved my arm in a complicated range-of-motion routine, and I remarked on it (probably unintelligibly; I was already on the endorphin-high I always get from good massage.) "It's really for myofascial stretching, not stretching the muscles," she said. But what had struck me was not that. It was the way she supported my arm, holding all of my arm with all of hers. It reminded me of the far-off days of Contact Improv. It was such a caring way to cradle an arm.

As she talks with me afterward she folds her laundry on the massage table, which creates a casual intimacy that enchants me. I wonder once again how much of what brought me to massage was my impatience with boundaries and formal distances. I have always, like Ahab, wanted to "strike through the mask." And it has sometimes been a destructive impulse, though I've never meant it to be. I read a book recently, The Educated Heart, about the necessity for boundaries and formal distances in bodywork. And I agreed with it, very strongly; but of course the reason we need to fence bodywork and formalize it is because it is already, in itself, a radical dissolution of boundaries, a radical lessening of distance.

Is the body real, or is it just another convention? Buddhist philosophy would say, just another convention. In which case, the dissolving of these boundaries will just reveal the next. The boundaries aren't out there -- they would say -- they're in my mind.

They're right and they're wrong, about that. They're right: I can already feel the impatience stirring. This still isn't intimate enough. The old affliction -- never enough -- that the Buddha diagnosed so brilliantly. And some of her clients reach for an intimacy that isn't there, or isn't there at least as they imagine it. But the Buddhist philosophers are also wrong. It reaches me, this loving touch. In some way it seems impossible to make it inauthentic. Even when a fellow-student touches me clumsily, with wavering attention, the touch marks our relationship, makes it different. All the hullabaloo about whether Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were going to shake hands -- well, in one way it seemed just silly. The political agreements and disagreements were what mattered. But in another, deeper way, it wasn't at all silly. Once you've touched someone, you will never be in quite the same relation to them again. And everyone knows that.

She's an athlete. I don't think I have ever touched a perfectly healthy body, before. Everything about it worked; every muscle yielded gracefully; massaging her was like reaching for an apple so ripe that it falls into your hand the moment you touch it. Her body was the physical equivalent of a mind of perfect equanimity. You could see why she'd be unworried about subjecting herself to the clumsy ministration of first-quarter massage students -- what could they do wrong, to a body so right in itself?

Friday, December 15, 2006


All night the storm
Danced with the trees,

The transformers blew
With soft brilliant gasps,

My unquiet viscera answered to the gusts,
And my skin fluttered like the leaves.
Trading Massage

As I left the room
She was already undressing,
Standing easily on one foot, and
Pulling a slipper from the other.
She flexed sideways, and her foot
Rose backward to meet her hand;
Her balance so sure that her eyes met mine
With kindly indifference
As the gray wool came free.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


At the moment I cupped the water in my hands
And tossed its glittering suffering into the air
I wondered if I was dashing it to its death.
So delicate. So beautiful. So ill-prepared
For a world of chlorinated water
And savage boys. And then it lay bedraggled
On the cement, in a dark stain of fluid.
How cold, I wondered, is cold water
To a creature so small that it breathes
By letting the air flow through it as it flies?
I shivered and watched, as my groin
Tightened, and the cold gripped me.
"I've killed it," I thought. It lay still.
The wind blew, and dried the stain,
And its four wings trembled.
Then as I watched, one feeler curled
With deliberation. It gathered its legs
Underneath it. I was stung by its gold and black,
By its glistening determination. I am wounded
To this day, by the pain of its survival.
It flew, unsteadily,
Into a grove of bamboo, and I lost it
In the crossing daggers of their leaves.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


I sat in the steaming water, hinting of sulfer, and watched the ghostly sunlight become more and more transparent on the high south ridge, the ridge more distant and more distant, more surreal.

The full moon rose. Crunching feet on the path. Now the sun was gone, the snow was all white with moonlight, and the ridge was closer again. The moon owned everthing.

I didn't look up as the newcomers undressed, or when they came into the pool. White round breasts in the moonlight, silvery with water. The pale gleam of round buttocks wavering in the moonlit water as one of them leaned over the frost-furred rocks at the lip of the pool, looking down at the river. The Breitenbush rushed below us, down a snowfield littered with rocks. Plumes of steam rose from other springs.

This was the silent pool, so nobody had to speak. The distance roared in my ears like the river. My gaze will always be wrong. I will always be outside. I will always be male.

Too long in the hot water. I hauled myself onto the frosty rocks. Steam rolled off my body in clouds. I stared into the water. Lifted my gaze to look at the moon. Only an overpowering sense of the sacred could have raised me above this ancient maleness, this outsideness, this displacement. And there was nothing here but a sign in curly letters announcing that this was a "sacred area."

Wrong from the start. Sacred wells, sacred pools, I could believe in, sure. Sacred areas? No. Not in a million years, not with a changed tongue and a new alphabet. There will never be a sacred area.

I watched Martha get out of the pool, all silver, and stand in the air, steaming, like me. Our bodies were running in dischordant rhythms. I knew that we would connect as friends and confidantes tonight, and tomorrow. But not as lovers.

It was a beautiful night, and a beautiful place. I know that. Maybe I can even convey that, the rush of the water, the moon above the hemlocks, the darkness, the deep ragged weave of the forest. But I was wholly unbeautiful.

In the morning, before breakfast, I came down early, and sat alone in the silent pool. The colors of the sunrise were brilliant, where the moon had been last night. Two ravens flew over, and just before they were out of earshot one gave a hoarse grumbling croak.

By the time the breakfast bell rang, all the color was gone from the sky. I dried myself off and went to wake Martha. We came back to the pools after breakfast, but the silent pool was closed for cleaning, and we were chattered at by a man of striking features and striking banality of thought. And I looked at beautiful naked women and wonder why I ever believed in them.

One woman, all tattoos and pierced nipples, about my age. She and the chatterbox got on, finding opinion after opinion to share. I liked her face, though. I liked the dark nipples of the -- Indonesian? Filapina? -- woman. I liked the chatterbox's pale arms. I liked the cold water in our plastic bottle, which stayed cold, even though it sat a foot away from the hot water.

But it was all very distant to me, unreal, like the ridge fading with the sunlight, and I wonder what moon could ever make it all become real again. Or real for the first time?

I'm too tired to think. I have mistaken so many things. I still have so much unlearning to do.

That night, I told my classmates that I was going to bomb the massage quiz. I couldn't follow the sequences, couldn't remember the instructions. Andrea took me as a partner, and gave me the best massage she's ever given me. To ace the quiz? Or to soothe and comfort me?

By the end of my turn, working on Andrea, I was drenched with sweat. I got thirty out of thirty points. Did I deserve it? I don't know.

This morning, a job interview. They liked me, apparently; they invited me to a third interview on Friday, to meet the whole group. Still nothing quite connects, nothing quite makes sense. But I will write it all down here, moved by the same impulse that moved me to tell my classmates I was going to bomb the test. All you can say is the closest thing to the truth that you can reach at the time. Not very true. But better than nothing.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


I was seven years old, at the neighbor's house, and I surreptitiously broke off a little piece of styrofoam packaging and chewed on it.

"You shouldn't eat styrofoam," the Neighbor Dad said, his face full of concern. "It's just like glass, it will cut you up inside."

I nodded, full of interested understanding, pretending I hadn't eaten it, pretending he hadn't seen me, pretending he was just introducing a topic of general interest. In my experience if you pretended blank incomprehension long enough, and just refused to inhabit the same world as other people, the other people eventually became nonplussed and went away.

It worked now, too. He went away. I didn't really think the styrofoam was going to cut me up inside. But I didn't know. It might. I've waited, ever since, for that styrofoam to begin cutting. It will serve me right, if it does.

I remember it still, so it must have frightened me pretty badly. His words have sat in my mind ever since, like that maleficent styrofoam, cutting me up inside. Other words sit there in the same way, chance remarks, parting shots from bitter lovers, bits of magazine advice.

My own survival came to weigh on me, after a while. The end of my life and my love had been prophesied so often, so many dooms had been invoked over my blond-white head, that living on -- even thriving, in my queer, viral, parasitic way -- came to seem perverse.

Yet here I am. Apparently indestructible.

Still turned at this odd angle to the world, half in, half out. I open my hands to catch the light, I mold the clay of the hills, shear the coastlines; I take a deep breath and blow, and all the clouds rush away in turbulent swirls. What am I making, here? Why did I shape those trees, this street, that glimpsed face?

I am old, old, old; old with making, old with dreaming. I don't belong here, but nothing has the strength, it seems, to heave me out.

I kiss you gently as you sleep, night after night. I used to long for a real life. Now I know that I was never meant for that. I was meant for something else.

Snowflakes come out of the dark sky, like confused moths, brushing me with their wings. Winter, Summer, Winter, Summer. I can't keep track. The zodiac spins slowly around me; Orion trades with Lyra, Lyra with Auriga. Moments ago it was summer; now it seems to be the dead of winter.

I cradle your head in my hands, working the little muscles of the neck. All that head to hold. Poor little hybrid: head as heavy as a pony's, and just that little monkey neck to hold it all up.

In the middle of the dream your brown eyes open and look straight into mine, our faces upside-down to each other. Your eyes fill with confusion. I'm not what you expected to see. I don't whisper, "sleep, dear. Sleep." I turn your head, softening the scalenes, letting my fingers flow in among them. My other hand works your scalp. Soon enough, soon enough, you'll have the story put together again, about who you are, and who I am, and what light that is, falling through the high window.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Playground Nightmares

Words do not come easily, just now. I've lost my voice. Physically -- I have a wretched cold and my throat is on fire -- but also mentally. Something has shaken loose, in the core of me, and nothing verbal quite works anymore.

So I write, hoping that if I just pump enough words through, they'll wash the obstructions away and my voice will run clear again. It's not exactly that I have nothing to say. It's that I have nothing to say that feels bold or new. I have wandered backward into the nightmares of my childhood. There's nothing adult to be seen here. This is a country of selfish, inflated anxieties, and of endless primping of an ego that's never, quite, somehow, cued onto the stage. I come back to it with a little distance. But I haven't grown out of it all -- I've just been holding it at arm's length.

I wanted to take private yoga classes. A hopeless extravagance, for someone unemployed. But I sense that I've gone as far as I can with sitting meditation, for the moment. These are anxieties that live in the flesh, a hunch of the shoulders and slump of the spine that replicate themselves moment by moment, and they have to be addressed physically. And I don't know how to do that. But the idea of being in a class, on display in my physical self, horrifies me. It's all old, old anxiety, childish stuff, playground nightmares. I suppose I could try to learn yoga out of books. I have some suspicion of that; that it would be like trying to learn meditation out of books, a long laborious roundabout way of doing things.

I know that some of you are serious practitioners of yoga. What do you think I should do?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Confidence Skulls and Incubi

They keep the classrooms locked, so we accumulate in the hall before class, sitting on the carpeted floor, looking over our anatomy cards, chatting about what we did last night.

Kinesiology midterm, already. I drop my pack and settle to the floor. "Dale, here," says Clint, and he tosses me something about the size of a marble. "It's a confidence skull. It's a Buddhist thing." He's brought one for everyone. A carved wooden skull, sans mandible. Tests are not Clint's favorite thing. He's been having nightmares, he tells us, about this midterm.

He's shaved his head, except for an odd forelock. "Like a kewpie doll!" exclaims Lindsey, accurately.

I roll the skull between my fingers, surprised at how strong a gratitude I feel. I wonder what sort of "Buddhist thing" it is, but I doubt there's any information to be gleaned by asking. I'm not nervous about the test. My gratitude is for being included.

You would think it would be the massage class that would be tight, since we lay hands on each other all the time, but it's the kinesiology class that's become our common hearth.

"How old are you, Dale?" asks George, asking as if to settle a bet. "Forty-eight," I answer. Speculation ensues about the age of our instructor, a lithe and beautiful woman past her youth. Guesses range from mid-thirties to mid-forties. She has at least one teenager, we know.

And here she is, looking uncharacteristically worn.

"Where are our cupcakes?" asks Mae. "On my kitchen counter," says our teacher wearily, as she unlocks the door. Meaning she forgot them, I suppose. She has a discipline problem to deal with at home, she says, so she won't be joining us after the test. A chorus of genuine regret. "No cupcakes?" says Mae, mournfully.

We file into the classroom, get settled, several of us fondling our little skulls. Mae has torn off a wisp of her hair and is threading it through hers, producing a surprisingly gruesome effect. Andrea's already threaded hers through a fine chain around her neck. Lindsey springs up a moment later. "I just have to!" she says, and leans over to rub the fuzz of Clint's head. "So soft!"

Just eight of us, now. (Three people have dropped the class, including, alas, the Girl with the Magic Hands.) So we find a partner, and repair to the tables, with the curtains drawn so they're open just in front -- we can't see each other, but the teacher can see all of us. There's a lot of waiting around, during a palp test, and we're not allowed to speak. We sit on the tables and kick our feet, or pace around, as the instructor moves down the line, having one person in turn name and palpate the origin and insertion of some muscle on his or her partner, and run it through its actions.

We can hear George, the other side of the curtain. "The latissimus dorsi originates at the posterior iliac crest, the thoracolumbar aponeurosis, the spinous processes of the last six thoracic vertebrae, and the posterior surfaces of the last three or four ribs," he says, authoritatively. I'm a little amused. George always talks himself down, and gives the impression that he expects to fail horribly, but he doesn't fool anyone anymore. He has it down cold. " runs under the arm here and inserts here, at the crest of the lesser tubercle of the humerus. Its actions are to extend the shoulder, adduct the shoulder" -- he'll be moving Clint's arm as he speaks -- "and..."

He stops: he's gone blank. Silence. Andrea and I exchange a glance. He finds his way again. "...and medially rotate the shoulder." Andrea pumps a fist in silent triumph, and we grin at each other.

Mae's too young to drink, so Andrea's reserved a lane at the bowling alley. The rest of us can drink there, fetching pitchers out of the bar, and we sit at a cafeteria table under glaring flourescent lights. Our lane won't be ready for a while. James, who is a movie buff, is talking about other films by the maker of Amelie, which fascinates Andrea and bores George. Mae has found other friends at the bowling alley and is dividing her time between us.

Clint asks me what music I listen to. I find this a difficult question to answer, and what I say is not particularly true; I say I listen to old stuff, Beatles and Stones and Zeppelin. Actually I listen to all kinds of stuff, whatever's on the radio, new stations or oldies stations. There's all kinds of wonderful music. I wonder why the question makes me so anxious. I guess because I no longer know what liking this music or that music is supposed to say about me. Wary, as ever, of being pigeon-holed. If I say Red Hot Chili Peppers or Sarah McLachlan, will I have branded myself as... something? I look at Clint's guileless face and find myself ashamed of my reticence and caution.

Cosmic bowling. The black light picks out the skulls on Clint's wristband and ring, and the white of his boxer shorts as he clownishly wiggles his hips before taking his three steps and bowling. How he can bowl with his pants riding so low is a mystery to me. He can't, very well. George leans over to me and murmurs, "I've never seen a grown man suck so bad at bowling."

A certain moroseness has been growing in George. There's just five of us left when we head into the karaoke bar -- all four men from kinesiology, and Andrea. We're all flirting lightly with Andrea. But for George possibly it's serious; it seems to have an edge to it.

Karaoke. Andrea does a creditable "Son of a Preacher Man." James, who reveals an unexpectedly commanding stage presence, does Metallica's "Sandman." I've never seen karaoke before and I'm delighted by it. It reminds me of blogging: singing for each other, all amateurs together, rather than being passive spectators of remote, professional artists; borrowing the taped instrumentals just as we borrow the professional-looking typesetting of html apps to make a show of being real writers.

"Back to never never land," James growls into the microphone, radiating sinister, and wholly feigned, malevolence. I glance at George's closed face with some uneasiness. Some are born to endless night, Blake whispers to me. I hope not.

But George is the exception. The rest of us are simply having a good time.

We shut the bar down. That strange moment arrives when ordinary lights come up, and tired waitstaff begin to wipe things down, and all the shabbiness of worn carpets and tattered upholstery is revealed, and a sudden quiet hangs in the stale air.

This is the time when the incubus usually settles heavily on my shoulders, whispering to me about the futility of my love and my perpetual isolation. But not tonight. It's absent. We say our good nights affectionately, and I drive carefully home, with nothing, nothing on my shoulders.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Do I Owe You Email?

Hell yes. The first person on my "reply to at once!" list sent their unanswered mail four months ago. If you've heard from me more recently than that, which is very unlikely, you jumped the queue.

Sorry. You're in good company, anyway.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Moon, Again

Walked out under the streetlights. Eastwards the white lob of the moon, dwindling from full; westwards the illuminated green glass towers of the Convention Center. I shrugged into my jacket, and stopped, resting a knee on the brickwork wall, and looked at the night.

Took a bit of something out of my pocket and touched it to my lips. Doubting all my decisions, and painfully aware of how many moons have already run out under my fingers. An old song from my childhood, about rain-drenched streets, came to my mind. Accidents of time and space. This wall, this knee, this evening. It all could have been different.

I turned my talisman in my fingers. I'm not such an unwary prey of samsara as to believe the whole story of loss and missed opportunity that its refraction of the streetlights told me. But still. You can't help but listen.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Occasions of Joy

A couple weeks ago. I drove through a landscape of fog and suddenly looming, yellow, fluttering leaves, till the sky suddenly cleared and turned bright blue; turned into a little small-town college campus, and walked into the nearest building, and there was Tarakuanyin. She held out a hand to shake, but I hugged her instead. So glad to see her, and to feel her shoulders under my hands.

So we found a little cafe, and talked, and discovered old mentors in common. A beautiful Irish voice, slowed to cowboy cadences. Altogether such a lovely experience, out of the clear blue autumn sky. Pure gift.

(If you haven't read TK, read the harrowing series of posts that begins here. She's an extraordinary writer.)

Yesterday. Half the sangha is gone to India, including all our official teachers. So Peggy was leading a half-day of shamatha. I wish, I wish she did this weekly. She's all business. No long introductions and explanations, no question-and-answer period for people to talk and try to impress the teachers, or each other. We're here to sit; let's sit.

So we sit a full hour -- Peggy also doesn't trim down the time of the meditations -- and it's wonderful, and since we're observing the customs of the all-day sit, there's silence at the breaks, which means I can walk out, at the first break, in silence, all the benefit of the meditation intact, and go home in the quiet morning to prepare my massage room. Life as I have dreamed it could be.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


There have been times, I know, when I have felt loveless. But I know that without being able to revisit the feeling. Nowadays there seems always to be a tenderness welling up in me. Sometimes pleasurable, sometimes painful. But always there.

For much of my life I was troubled by it. Along with the tenderness there used to come a hunger, and a sense that there was something I should do in response to it. I felt all the more isolated: all that love, and no way to say it, no way for it to flow from me to you.

I think that of all the things practicing the Dharma has brought me, the most valuable has been the understanding that there is nothing that needs to be done in response to it. That it already does flow from me to you. I was stuck in a narrow materialism, I believed the boundaries of my self where absolute and impermeable. And I was so alone.

Of course I am usually still hungry. I want everyone for a lover. I want to embrace every stranger who smiles at me, and every stranger with sad eyes. I want to hold everyone, feel them fall asleep in my arms. And the rules that say I mustn't do those things -- well, I guess I accept them now: I understand, at any rate, that those rules have never been the source of my loneliness, and that abolishing them would not have filled my emptiness. But I don't think they will ever feel right to me.

Life is so short, after all, and the gale is blowing all the time, that tearing wind fluttering the hair and grabbing at the clothes, and all we have to hang on to is each other. Someone comes along and says, oh no, you must hold on to just these people. Not those people. And I want to say, for God's sake, don't you feel the force of that wind? Don't you see how important it is, that we be able to hold on to each other?

But no. They don't feel it, they don't know it, they don't see it. All right. Then I just need to hold on another way. I will hold on with words, and with the sanctioned touch of supposed therapy -- as though sickness were what made touch necessary! -- but yes, I will solemnly nod my head and pretend to be a therapist, rather than someone who holds on to people so they won't be blown away by the storm. And so I won't be blown away by the storm.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Feminism 5

By way of Sage, the question is: what five things has feminism given you?

1) Touch. Permission to be tender with my children, parents, and friends. To hug, ruffle hair, snuggle.

2) Flourishing gay friends. Two old friends in particular come to mind. Both came out in their twenties, and both were transformed. Their voices deepened, they looked you in the eye, their feet were on solid ground, and they laughed from their bellies.

3) Twenty years of life. I'm just guessing. But my grandfather, who worked virtually all the time, dropped dead at age sixty-two. People who can't be soft and can't rest die young.

4) Sex as play. When sex is neither conquest nor performance, it's a lot more fun.

5) Permission to be silent, to dwell in uncertainty, to listen, and to wait.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Next Thing

Or perhaps I've just added the horror of poverty to all the other horrors.

I don't know how to judge. I only know that I ache with sickness, the horror of a life of accumulated shame and doubt and fear. I feel certain tonight that this clutch around my heart will never ease.

It's good I guess to be brought face to face with it -- this grimacing creature that's mocked me all my life, scoffing my state and grinning at my pomp. I guess. Or maybe I should never have looked up.

But. Get a grip, Dale. The truth of the matter is -- it's not that bad, either way. And it doesn't last that long. It's just one moment, and then another, and then another. It's okay. The clutch eases in fact quite frequently. Only once did it stay for long, and that was long ago and far away.

At this point, kiddo, the best thing to do is walk straight into it. What else is there? After all, this is what you've always longed to do: to shatter everyone's expectations, to fail spectacularly in every particular. So do it. Fail.

But not as a slave. Don't fail that way. Fail as a free human being.

Just do the next thing. Even if that is what you used to tell yourself when you paused by the windows at IBM, having wasted half a day, taking a deep breath before going back to your cubicle to waste the other half. It was good advice then, even if you couldn't take it. It's good advice now. Do the next thing.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I and Tiel of Knocking from Inside will among those reading poetry Saturday evening at

Missa's Herbal Products and Health Care
6026 NE Glisan
Oct 21 - 7 PM

Yikes! Never done such a thing.

Monday, October 16, 2006


5:30 a.m. I close the bedroom door and pad quietly downstairs. At the landing I pause, as always, to part the window curtain and see what the sky is up to.

The overcast is starting to break apart. Through one tear in the clouds, I can see Sirius burning, throbbing blue and white and blue and white. Comforted, as always, by knowing the stars are always there, way beyond the reach of greedy hands. Made lonely, as always, by knowing that they're beyond the reach of my greedy hands as well. I drop the curtain and go on downstairs.

Good morning. Wherever you are, the sky will be holding you. Don't forget to look up.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Neighboring Tribes

There lives not three good men unhanged in England, and one of them is fat, and grows old.

Woke this morning full of anxiety about whether, when we reach week three, and are supposed to be giving two massages and receiving one each week, anyone will want
to trade with me. It is a very juvenile-feeling anxiety -- like wondering if anyone will date you in highschool -- which jumbles up particularly disagreeably with the fact that in this case my chief insecurity is that, in this context, I am so old. In both my classes I am by far the oldest student. Quite old enough to be the father of most of them. The young women in my classes are careful not to encourage me -- perfectly civil, but avoiding much eye contact and staying very neutral. Which of course is precisely how I would behave, if I were them, but that doesn't make it less nettling.

The young men, on the other hand, do not seem cautious this way. Altogether the young men surprise and please me. There are a lot of men in my classes -- two thirds in my Massage I class, and half in my Kinesiology class -- and they are comfortable in their bodies and comfortable with touch in a way that I think would have been rare, or even impossible, when I was their age. Some of them of course, like me, were raised in the cultural far-left, children of flower-children. But some are just ordinary working-class guys, who grew up in Tigard or Salem, guys who like to watch football and tinker with their cars on the weekend. Mostly it seems their wives or girlfriends have encouraged them to do this, told them they had a gift for it. Thirty years ago this sort of man wouldn't even have considered it. Now here they are, practicing bilateral tree strokes and shingling on other men with no more fuss about it than the mild acknowledgement that "it's a little weird to do this on guys." It's not a big deal.

Working class. One thing this experience is bringing forcibly home to me is how very segregated my school and work environments have been. In my work life, for years, the only hint I have that there even are working-class people have been the barely visible trace presences -- the crews of dour Hispanic landscapers, the young women with long blond braids who silently appeared to water the plants, the cleaning crews of smiling, but again silent, Hispanic women who showed up and cleaned around you if you were working late. In that environment it was easy to fall into thinking that everybody goes to college and sends their kids to a private school.

These people -- these young men, in particular -- have a sort of openness about them. After the rather pinched and self-conscious academics and software engineers I've grown accustomed to they're lovely to be around -- perfectly willing to make mistakes and be corrected, and full of an oddly old-fashioned gallantry toward the women. No doubt a proportion of them are jerks, but there's something touching about how anxious they are to make sure the women's privacy is respected when they're undressing to get on the table, how careful they are with the draping. Many of them are very big, burly men, and they carry it very gently and -- what? Almost apologetically.

This is not my tribe either. But it's a nice one to visit.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Went in this morning, signed a couple papers, surrendered my badge, my laptop, and sundry keys and passwords, and walked out into the free air of a bright Indian summer day. Done.

Very queer, to have time. So many entrenched habits of haste, and calculating time. Unnecessary at the moment, but I keep finding myself hurrying. I went home and took a nap. Tried making some tabouli, which I'd never made before. The pleasures of touching fresh food, squeezing lemons, chopping tomatoes and scallions and parsley.

All very odd, nostalgic, and not quite real-seeming. I feel like an adult pretending to be a child. How tracking time and eating out of frozen cardboard boxes and tin cans came to represent adulthood to me is a little hard to fathom.

I mostly don't feel free, at the moment, so much as disoriented, and a little at a loss. What now?

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Hmm. I started off, once again, trying to write something for Qarrtsiluni on education and failing. Once again, it's turned out to be all about me. So now it's a rather unformed blog post.

I have been groping for the analog. At some point, at some point of my life I felt just this way. There was even a similar catastrophe of loss hanging over me.

Finally I got it. Just now. And of course if I'd paid attention to the earworm, I would have known right away. School's... out... for... summer! School's... out... for... ever! Alice Cooper, right? And the image in my head? A blond little boy races up the steps and goes into a school.

Ah. But. The point is, it's not a school. No chain-link fences. No barbed wire. No asphalt to skin your knees on. Not a real school. It looks like a house. Real schools look like prisons.

The image is from a short documentary someone made about the New School, the little private alternative boarding school I attended for two years. It ended up with that song and that image. Liberation. That's what it was about.

I hated school, before that. Passionately. But the odd thing is, I didn't know it. I was bored. Many of my classes were desperately uninteresting. I was "weird," which meant I was mostly friendless. My movements were almost completely prescribed -- sit at this desk in this room, go to this section of the cafeteria; the only time I could move on my own was on that desolate plain of asphalt during recess. And recess was a dangerous time, because bullies too had liberty of movement then. Any sane person would hate all this. And I did.

But, as I say, I didn't know it. I had no conception of freedom.

I recognize it now, now that I'm leaving it. The craven subservience, the regimentation of movement, the good-boy eagerness to please, pretending to want to do things I am completely uninterested in -- what does all that remind me of? Oh yeah. Of course. School.

That was where I trained in this passive-aggressive style, this say-yes-mean-no. Like a beaten dog, I wag my tail and fawn, because I don't dare bite. That's even where I learned to sit like this, slumped and slouching, defeated. That's where I learned to watch a clock. To think of time as something to be gotten through somehow. To live in worlds of imagination because the world I was in had nothing, nothing to interest me. The real world was simply something to be borne. It had nothing to do with desire.

I'm not sure how I let my worklife devolve into this. Sure, my company got acquired by the company which is a stock emblem of dullness and conformity. But that doesn't really account for it. Not everyone here is slumped hopelessly in their cubicle, surreptitiously blogging. Some of them are alive, have hopes and fears and investment in their work. How? How does that work? Why doesn't it work for me?

I'm not sure. But I suspect a piece of it is that I have never connected with anyone here, never felt like anyone from my own tribe was ever in these buildings. I'm pretty sure I'm wrong about that. That there were people I could have made friends with. But I didn't, because it would be too risky. Of all places, the place where you don't reveal yourself is work.

The single most telling moment in all of this was when I told my boss what I was going to do next. "Um... something like, uh, massage therapy or physical therapy." And the next time I mentioned it, it had become physical therapy, which had to recommend it -- what? Well, maybe that it was less touchy-feely. But I suspect that what it really had to recommend it was that it wasn't the truth. It wasn't my real desire. To let my real desire be seen in this environment felt horribly rash. Anything other than the truth would have done. And when he asked me what I was going to do next week -- he was just expressing friendly interest, I think -- did I say I was starting massage school and I was terribly excited about it? No. I said I was going to sleep a lot. "Sleep a lot?" he repeated, in some puzzlement. I nodded, affably, vaguely.

Certainly no one from my tribe was going to find me while I was so assiduously hiding. And nobody, my tribe or not, was going to know me or value me for who I was, if I was carefully withholding all significant information about it.

Writing mole and having people respond to me has been a wonderful step out of hiding. But I would like to appear as myself to everybody. Surely at age 48 one is a little old to be hiding like this. To be so anxious to please.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Embodiment of Grief

While the computer talked to the porcelain-shaping machine, and the dentist and assistant had both wandered off, I sat up and found & massaged a variety of trigger-points in muscles of my thighs and calves and forearms. Stood up and stretched. All my life hitherto, when I've been waiting for dentists to finish something, I've just sat in the chair like a lump, considering myself under authority and therefore obliged to be utterly passive. Screw that.

When they were done I walked out with a new crown, happy that I've discovered that novocaine, while doing not much to mitigate what I dislike about dentistry -- chiefly the noise of the drills rattling the tiny bones of my inner ear -- makes me miserable for half a day after an appointment. Now I do without it, and I walk out of the dentist's office perfectly free. Really done. My face still my own.

My fragile mood collapsed at some point. Anger and despair and grief filled me. Bitter denunciations of capitalism, of patriarchy, of monogamy, all the myriad systems by which people establish ownership of other people's time, persons, and affections, rose of their own accord in my mind. Old, old rants, simplistic, out-dated and old-fashioned since the advent of Napoleon, but still rising with huge power. I was filled with malice, like the venemous Rousseau, and believed myself sweetness and light.

Winding myself up farther and farther, wrapping myself up in my own story. There is only one story. Believing in it implicitly. Grieving. Resenting.

This mood too collapsed, and I thought, "why this story? Why not some other, or none at all? Why keep nailing myself to this particular tree?"

I stepped out of the shell of my body. It slumped there like an abandoned rag-doll. I stepped out of the story. Enough already. Let Rousseau simmer in his own juice. I'm not staying here.

No sooner had I stepped out than I was awash in love and pain, soaked in it. Missing you horribly, horribly, horribly. What have I done wrong? Another story threatened to step in smoothly and start to shape itself. Guilt, remorse, resolution, all the stupidities.

No. I don't want it. I don't want it. Damned flies, always drawn to pain, spreading pestilence. Go away. I took a breath, watching it from beginning to end, from the stir at the nostrils to the sinking of the ribs. That's better.

There, there below, that crumpled, miserable body, slumped in a cubicle chair. What's to be done with it?

Well. Pick it up gently, first of all. Sit it upright. So. Pinch the nostrils shut and breathe into its mouth. One breath of love. One breath of pain. One breath of love. One breath of pain.

We're here to teach each other, remember?

And that mood collapsed too.

It's little enough that survives the wreck. Memory, they say, dies with the body. Thank God for small mercies.

Or you could say, with equal truth, it's little enough that gets smashed up. A little engine droning worn-out stories all day, like some infuriating child's toy. The sooner we're done with it the better. That would be another perfectly sensible way to approach it.

But the body brings its own gifts to the party. Its own light, thicker and even more cryptic. Rhythmic hunger. A rush of saliva into the mouth, a rush of blood into the genitals -- renewing the hunger, renewing it multiple times a day. Bringing us back to another kind of simplicity. Back to square one. Muscles hunger for movement. Eyes hunger for sleep.

I close my eyes, feeling the exhaustion in my eyelids. I'm sorry, readers, I know you want me to be suffused with joy and walking confidently into a new future. That will happen, maybe. But just now I am grieving.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

If Winter Comes


Hot sweet almond oil, cane sugar, and flies
Throbbing like a plucked cello string:

The Fall
Sinks toward winter.


Mr Keats is dead,
Drowned in Mr Shelley's pocket;
The winged boat scuds empty
Over the Italian sea.

Build a fire on the beach,
And burn the poet's heart.
It is only a muscle, after all,
The size of a fist.

A fist that will not shake
Against Castlereigh anymore;
But we will never shut up,
Do what you will.


Why should I say
Goodbye to ghosts?
They will tell the truth
When no one else will.


1. According to Poets' Graves,

Shelley was drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia while sailing to meet Leigh Hunt. Shelley's body washed ashore several days later and was cremated on the beach at Via Reggio with Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and Edward Trelawny in attendance. His heart, which refused to burn, was first passed to Hunt who later gave it to Mary Shelley.

When Shelley's body was found, a copy of Keats' poetry was discovered in his pocket - doubled back - as though it had been put away in a hurry.

The present poet has apparently misremembered the story, and has the party on the beach keeping the body and burning the heart.

2. Poems referred to include Keats' ode To Autumn and Shelley's Ode to the West Wind & Masque of Anarchy.

3. The astute reader will also recognize more oblique references to the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and to the contemporary Cassandra Pages and Frizzy Logic.

I've received an extraordinary gift. It left me speechless. Take a look.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


At first, just a huge relief. But now, surprisingly, I find myself angry, in a diffuse and uncomfortable way. Certainly the company has not ripped me off -- if anything, I've ripped them off; I don't think they've gotten their money's worth out of me. And they're better than many companies. But still it seems weird to me that no one even noticed I was struggling, for the past five years. I've been in a great deal of mental pain for years. No one ever knew that. No one ever attempted to know it, that I can think of. I don't fault anyone in particular, but -- what a strange way to organize work, so that a person can float through it like a phantom, part of nothing, speaking to no one, sinking farther and farther down into a murky substrate of objectless anxiety -- and no one even knows it.

Not that they would have known what to do about it. Not, at any rate, the Europeans or Americans. My Indonesian project manager, the one in Toronto, is the only one who has had a human response to this. He wanted me to take time off, rest. He has the concept that injured things need to heal, and need to be treated gently and kindly. I feel terribly grateful to him, not just for the sympathy, but also for making me feel that my sense that somehow life at work ought to proceed differently isn't just a mental disease. If I had had a manager like him earlier, who knows how my relationship with this work would have developed? At this point, though, I feel such revulsion to software that I can't picture ever working in the industry again.

Of course, at every step I've chosen isolation. I've chosen to have no friends at work. I've chosen not to tell people I'm struggling. But my recent experiences have told me that, for the most part, I was right. There was nothing to win by saying it, and plenty to lose. My two bosses, one from Montana, one from Paris -- if they understand where I am, they don't have a language for it. I talk to them, and they are clearly groping in the dark. When I say that my work does no one any good, they seem completely baffled, as though to want to do people good was a bizarre desire; maybe sick, maybe infantile, I don't know, but in any case, inappropriate to express at work. More than anything else, I think, I am an embarassment. In all these years I still haven't learned how to blend in with these people. I can't speak their language.

I'm making them sound unkind, and they're not. They're not unkind. They are just so foreign to me, and I to them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Well, I did it. Gave my two weeks' notice at work today.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Red sky burns to ash
around the New Moon's cradle.
Ramadan begins.


I don't know how to bring the streams together, these two extraordinary teachers, each shattering my life but each with a different idea of what happens next. I think I need to be very quiet, and listen to a lot of silence.

I heard the first bell, signalling the end of meditation tonight. But after the dedication prayer, Jef struck the bell so softly that I couldn't hear it, could only hear the silence struck softly, three times. Put my hands together and bowed. Then laid my hands down in my lap, palms up, the fingers loosely interwoven, and looked at them, for a long time.

A lonely tumult in the clouds.

I am grateful, though I don't understand.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Soothing Down

I remember one time in graduate school, as a tutor, having a conference with a student of mine in the grad student lounge -- we tutors had no offices, so we found space where we could. A British friend of mine, a fellow grad student, was sitting on a couch at the far end of the room. My student had dissolved into tears, because I was giving her a B in her writing class. She was a senior, she wanted to be a writer, and this was the end of all her hopes. I was soothing her down, talking her through it, explaining that getting a B in your writing class at Yale did not sink your writing career, assuring her that I certainly thought she could be a writer, she had a talent for it, there were plenty of people working as respected writers whose work I would give worse marks than I gave her essays, a B was a good grade, a Yale degree was a slam-dunk, she had limitless opportunities ahead, and so on. We spent about half an hour at this, she periodically sobbing. I was vaguely aware of my friend's escalating discomfort. He shifted and squirmed and finally bolted from the room. When he finally returned -- after she was safely gone -- my friend looked at me wonderingly, shaking his head. "I can't believe you sat through that," he said, "I wouldn't have lasted five minutes."

I'm not sure whether he was admiring my fortitude or deploring my idiocy. But it struck me forcibly, because it had simply never occurred to me that a person might do anything else. I thought it was my job as a teacher to soothe her down, but moreover, much more importantly, it was simply my job as a person. It didn't matter whether I liked it -- of course I didn't like it -- but that's what you do with people who are upset. I don't know what my friend would have done -- told her to stop? Sent her away? -- but whatever it might have been, it was entirely outside my conception of the possible.

Emotions first. We've always lived that way, in my family, my wife's family, and "our little family." When someone's wrought up, upset, in tears, we drop everything and just soothe them and pet them and calm them down. And I think it's a good policy, in general. people in that state aren't good for much. Certainly not much good for thinking. Oh, they think they can think, just as drunks think they can drive. But they can't.

But I wonder. I wonder if we've wandered too far down this road. Thinking of how often I hear myself and others in my family say, "I just couldn't..." -- couldn't make the phone call, couldn't keep on working, couldn't talk to my sister. Whatever it is; it doesn't matter. I'm just wondering whether we haven't granted "being upset" too wide a dominion. Does it really have to incapacitate us? Do we always have to attend to it? Does it always come first?

Just wondering. There are many many ways to be in the world. I forget that, over and over.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wind Blowing Backward

Sadness turns stiffly in a slow circle
And settles again, an old dog in its bed.

For all the stories that I tell, there is still
The ruthless scour of time. I am getting older.
And these discontents will still be here
When they're overtaken by the discontents
Of nursing homes and broken hips.

The wind is blowing backward today
From summer into winter.
Love grows in the spaces between maple leaves,
In the quiet interstices of the mind,
In the hollows between my fingers.
It grows in the lungs
Between the inbreath and the out.
It grows in the shadows of blades of grass,
In the dark of closed junk drawers,
In the pockets of coats that disclose
Unexpected shells.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dirty River

We came down, down to the brown river, where the pungent smell of the alder-sap mixed with the reek of dead fish and a whiff of motor-oil to make a smell that I would remember all my life as river-smell. The Willamette was a dirty, dying river in those days.

We played fox and hounds, galloping down the packed-earth trails, finding passages through the blackberries, maybe -- or maybe not -- and finding also strange, disquieting things; beer bottles, odd bits of clothing, crumpled mercenary magazines, .22 shells, charred skeletons of unskillfully, unsafely made fires. Things you didn't find in the deep wild, where we usually went. We were in alien country, and it made me uneasy.

It is the anomalies, of course, that mark the memory. The day that I leaned over, high up on Mt Washington, looking about five hundred feet as nearly straight down as makes no matter -- that happened far more often, but I remember very little of all that. I remember that one time only because it was anomalous too. I was very hungry, and it was the first time, in my years of climbing, that I lost my head for heights. Before that, looking five hundred feet down had been no different from looking across five hundred feet of flat valley floor. I was scornful of people who fussed about it. You were no likelier to fall off a five hundred foot drop than you were to fall off a porch. Why make a to-do about it? But this time I clung to the rocks, and Mt Washington rocked underneath me, and I looked down in fascinated horror, knowing that my will could not resist the inexplicable necessity of falling. I held still. The moment passed. But I would never be completely sure of my head for heights again.

So. What were we doing, so close to home? I don't remember. I only remember the fear. There was a dread behind the whole thing, a sense that something was wrong. Fox and hounds. Even the name of the game was wrong; we were not a hunting family.

Looking back, I think I know what it was. It must have been my mother, just after the divorce, out on a date. We were all of us indulging, guiltily, in pleasures my father would have disapproved of. Playing at blood sports. Going to a city park instead of to the wilderness; playing by the dirty river rather than hiking in the pristine woods. We were having fun. But we were also witnessing the destruction of our world, the collapse of our certainties. We would never be safe again.
Loving Everybody

You don't have to love everybody. You don't even have to like everybody.

Recently I've heard a couple people say ruefully that if they were enlightened, they would serenely and sincerely love even their most irritating relatives. They'd want to spend time with them. I find this a little puzzling. Why? Do we really have reason to think so?

The emotional life of a buddha is a mystery, really. We have no idea what emotions a buddha experiences. We don't even really know what emotions feel like to a buddha. One thing I think we can be pretty confident of is that a person who was really completely egoless would experience the world, and emotion, in a radically different way. Are we really sure a buddha would be fond of her exasperating sister? And if so, what the subjective experience of that fondness would be? I don't think so. I don't think we really know a thing about it.

We know that a buddha acts benevolently toward everybody. We infer, naturally, that she must therefore be having the emotional experience that would motivate us to be benevolent -- i.e., that she's fond of everybody. But I don't think this is a valid inference.

It's important to get this straight, because it can be a real obstacle to practice, and I think an unecessary one. Yes, we must cultivate compassion. Yes, we must seek to dismantle our aversions. We do practices to discover and nurture our loving feelings towards people, including our enemies. But does that mean we have to be fond of them all the time? That "carrying our practice in our daily life" entails always feeling affectionate toward people who hurt us, or hurt people we care about?

Well, I hope not, because I'm certainly not going to do that. In fact, I'm not even going to try to do that. My experience of trying to generate emotions is one of uniform failure. Worse than that: although I fail to produce the desired emotion, I succeed in producing a lot of resentment. Resentment at the person, because now, in addition to what irritated me before, they're now the occasion for me seeing what a bad Buddhist I am. And resentment of the Dharma, because it asks something of me that I can't do. This is not a good outcome. I need to have a good relationship with the Dharma. I need to feel it's something that will make me happy.

We need to be very clear about what the Dharma really asks of us. We do need to cultivate compassion. We do need to try to hold benevolent intentions toward every sentient being. We do need to practice not believing in the stories about people we generate when we're angry at them, the stories about their malice and perfidy and so on. But we don't have to be fond of them. We don't have to invite them to lunch. And we certainly don't have to want to invite them to lunch.

There are practices in which one visualizes showering one's enemies with benefits. And in which we try to see with our enemies' eyes, and to understand that if we felt and perceived exactly what they feel or perceive, we would behave in exactly the same way. There is huge value in these practices. But they are not, if you look at them closely, practices of generating affection. They're practices of generating understanding. Maybe if we understood everyone perfectly, we'd be fond of them all. Maybe not. I don't know. I suspect the question wouldn't even arise. We would naturally act to relieve their suffering, just as we naturally act to relieve our own.

But affection, as we know it, is all tangled up in what Buddhists call "attachment." We like people because they say nice things to us, make us feel good, gratify our desires, and make us feel generally reinforced and safe and approved of. We are told that there is also, in the mix, something that is different, a compassion that has no reference to these pleasures, a love with no reference to self. But we are not very good at distinguishing it from the love that does depend on pleasure, and does refer to ourselves. So when we try to generate affection for people, what we mostly end up doing is trying to pretend that they make us feel good, when in fact they make us feel lousy. That sort of pretense is not a sound foundation for any kind of practice.

We don't really know how to generate the emotions of a buddha. We don't even really know what they are. Which is all right. We go on practicing compassion, we go on practicing discernment. Our job is not to feel anything in particular. Our job is to be kind, where it will do some good, and -- above all -- to learn to see clearly. The feelings will take care of themselves.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Distinctively Human

I am studying a fabulous book, Trail Guide to the Body by Andrew Biel and Robin Dorn. It will be my kinesiology text this winter. I'm busily memorizing muscles and where they attach to bones, their "origins" and "insertions," as they're called. As always a new nomenclature has its delights and its mysteries -- the selection of which end to call the "origin," supposedly the end that attaches to the bone that holds more or less still, perplexes me sometimes. Obviously both bones move, and which will hold more still depends on what you're doing. And instead of calling the attachment at the other end the "destination," they use this queer word "insertion," which makes it sound as though the muscles thread into holes in the bones. Which they don't.

The Latinate and Greekish words don't bother me; it's nice to have a standard terminology, so that, theoretically, American and Latvian and Malay and Zambian bodyworkers could all have the same names for these things. But this advantage is lessened by the outlandish English pronunciations of the terms. Stresses fall apparently randomly, c's are softened into s's according to whim, short vowels are made long and long made short. It's neither Latin nor Greek nor English, but a strange thing all its own.

But I digress. The book is wonderful, with terrific illustrations, written in lively, clear prose. And it's playful. Among the illustrations of the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles of the neck, the prominent ropes that run down from the ear to the sternum, is an old engraving of Byron with his head torqued sideways, with the SCM highlighted in red. The legend beneath runs: "Lord Byron shows off his SCM."

Biel delights in pointing out what is distinctively human. He notes that the commonly-held notion that an opposable thumb is uniquely human is quite false -- many primates have an opposable thumb. Ours is just longer and more heavily muscled. But there are many distinctively human traits. One is the copious fatty tissue of our buttocks. No one really knows what it's there for. Another is that we, alone among primates, can't grasp objects with our big toes.

When I was studying science in school, long ago, we were told that our large brains and opposable thumbs were what set us apart from other animals: we were (so ran the obvious implication) uniquely gifted in thinking and manipulation. But this was a selective filtering of traits, and not even a correct one. You come away with a different picture if you pick other traits -- we're the primates with fat asses, and the ones who can't keep a grip with our feet. No wonder we're always trying to "save" labor (by making someone or something else do it). And no wonder we lose touch so easily with the ground.

Addendum, December 2006

"Make it as simple as possible," Einstein famously said, "but no simpler." After a couple months of studying with Biel & Dorn's book, I'm a little disenchanted. Every once in a while Biel tries to make things simpler than they can be. In a couple cases this leads him to say something that is clear and easy to remember, but which is unfortunately not true. Hopefully he'll fix these things in the next edition. It's still a great book for hands-on learning your way about the body, and I'd still recommend it for that: but if Netter's atlas says something different, listen to Netter. The extensor pollicis brevis does not extend the interphalangeal joint of the thumb -- it doesn't even cross that joint. And the extensor carpi radialis brevis inserts at the lateral epicondyle, not the lateral supracondylar ridge. These are inaccuracies of only an inch or two. But an anatomy text, even a friendly informal one, should not say things that aren't true.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Qarrtsiluni has moved. I don't think I mentioned that I have another "short short" up there, the last of the short shorts. The new theme is "education." Send 'em something!

I'm also very honored to have my poem "Meiosis" appear in Sage Cohen's Weekly Poem. Sharing space with Rumi and Jack Gilbert makes me feel very proud and quite ridiculous.

I've been reading up on massage as a career and came across references to the national convention of a massage therapy organization. And found myself thinking of it with great enthusiasm. What a terrific thing! Think of all the people you could meet, all the cool stuff vendors would have on display, the contacts you'd make and the things you'd learn! & I remembered then being sent to some software convention in Seattle, a few years ago, and finding it all horribly off-putting and boring, and wondering what on earth it was being held for. And I realize now, it must have been exciting to some people -- to the people who really belong in software -- in just that way.

Even more extraordinary, I have been speculating about various ways to advertise myself and "gain visibility" with pleasure. This is really bizarre. I have always hated that sort of thing with a passion, and efforts to induce me to do such stuff -- to give papers and be on panels and do demos and what-not -- on the part of my employers or advisors, has always made me surly and mutinous. But there's a huge difference between selling yourself as something you aren't, so you can do something you don't want to do, and selling yourself as something you are so you can do something you do want to do.

In prospect, anyway. Will it be so in reality?

Well -- I'll find out.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Oregon is burning. At every horizon there is an uncanny bloom of haze, whose color defies description. Yellowy-lilac. A blurred mass of noncolorfast cohorts of the Assyrian, coming down like the wolf on the fold. The sun arrives jaundiced at the ground.

I suppose a lot of you don't know the smell of forest fires. It's a pleasant enough smell, itself, while the fires are distant, if you don't know what it means.

I spent some time this morning poring over detailed maps of Portland, looking for the stitched lines of railroads. There were none nearby, which is what I thought. So I am perplexed. Last night was hot and we had the windows open. And, as often, I heard the sound of trains running over tracks, the hollow booms of containers landing on loading docks, the heavy vibration, where sound shades into sensation, of wheels hitting joins in steel rails. But there are no trains. The nearest is miles away, near the river.

A few weeks ago the house rocked slowly, like a ship. Yet another earthquake.

One of the hottest summers in memory. A week or two ago I was surprised to see a sight I associate with June: between the slabs of a sidewalk, ants boiling up, a mass of red-glinting brown. Spilling over. A late hatch.

In the indefinite haze thunderclouds imagine themselves, and vanish, as I remember them doing in Texas. They don't belong here. They're not Oregon clouds.

It's time to go dead slow, and watch carefully, holding our souls carefully in our cupped hands. This is no time to be clever.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson

"Gene Robinson," says the back-of-the-book blurb, "is the first openly gay bishop in Christendom and his election has set off a worldwide firestorm of reaction...."

This book moved me twice to tears. Once very early on, in the prologue, in which the author describes her own confirmation, and its intimation of a promise which she -- shortly thereafter moving away from the church, and spending decades away from it -- would not learn to understand or fully receive for many years:

That confirmation day was the last time I would ever wear a white veil, and I would not make an unconditional promise to obey anyone or anything again until I made my way back to the church and to a differently-understood God many, many years later.

But something did happen at that altar rail, something I could not undo or escape. I felt it happen when the bishop laid his hands on my head and said:

Defend, O Lord, this thy child Beth with thy heavenly grace, that she may continue thine for ever, and daily increase in thee more and more, until she comes to thy everlasting kingdom.

I had no idea what that prayer meant. I responded to its poetic language and cadence, and to its calm formality, but sensed something more: a convenant, a promise.

This book has a hero. He's aged and old-fashioned, sometimes intolerably complacent, and sometimes over-involved in his financial well-being and daily comforts, but at times -- and especially at crises -- transcendently noble and awe-inspiring. I'm speaking of course not of Bishop Robinson, who is none of those things. Robinson is a thoughtful, engaging, generous-spirited man of great ability and great faith, of whom one grows very fond in the course of reading this book. But he's not the hero of it. The hero is the American Episcopal Church. Again and again it rises to the challenges presented to it. This is the second passage that moved me to tears. It's Robinson speaking about the Convention in which his election was confirmed:

"I was seated in the House of Bishops right before the end of Convention," he said, "and at the first break, one of the bishops who had voted against me and had stood up with the group who said, 'This is the worst thing that's ever happened in the history of the church,' came over and knelt down beside my chair and said, 'Hello, I'm Bishop So-and-So from the diocese of So-and-So.' He said to me, 'When you were introduced to the House today, I neither stood nor applauded like the others did, and two minutes later I was thinking, "What a lousy way to begin a relationship." So I hope you'll forgive me. And this is going to be really hard for me, but I'm going to work as hard as I can.'"

To me, the central story of this book is not Robinson's personal story. It's the story of a community of faith taking its ideals and its communion seriously. Churches need not be -- though they too often are -- clubs of like-minded people congratulating each other on their spiritual correctness. They can be communities that challenge their members to transcend their prejudices and interests, to leave the comforts of their certainties, to bring each other to face the fact that what they profess and and what they do don't match up.

The inspirational story here, to me, is the story of people determined to do the right thing, the vestries and volunteers who worked to make "a church with no outcasts," and the clergy who understood, however uncomfortably, that a church of Jesus has to be a church of radical inclusion. Robinson summed it up:

"We have those big red, white and blue signs that say 'The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.' And unless we're going to put an asterisk after that and in fine print list the people we don't really mean it about, then we better start acting that way."

If you read the Cassandra Pages you'll be entirely unsurprised at the unobtrusively beautiful writing here. You will also recognize the passion for inclusion -- which includes her opponents. She never travesties or belittles the opposition, and there is never a hint of triumphalism. At his consecration Robinson said, "There are many faithful, wonderful Christian people for whom this is a time of great pain, anger and confusion. God is served by our being loving to them."

Once at my sangha, Lama Michael was asked a question -- I forget the exact question now, but it was about not being a Christian in a Christian society. And after his usual long pause, he began his answer by saying, "Well, I'm not entirely sure that I'm not a Christian." This book engenders a similar uncertainty in me.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

About Me

Updates in italics

I was born in 1958. I've been happily married twenty-five years. I have a daughter, 21, and a son, 17.

I've worked developing and testing software for the last ten years. But I've moved on.

My favorite job so far has been washing dishes and chopping vegetables in a restaurant. Not now. I like both my present jobs better even than that. I work for a terrific non-profit half-time, and do massage on evenings and weekends.

I know most of the constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere, but not all of them. I stopped because I thought it was a bad idea to have a name for everything in the sky. But still, if you ask me what that bright star or planet up there is, I can probably tell you.

I play solitary, improvisational congas, from time to time.

I practice Buddhism, in the Tibetan tradition. Meaning I meditate. Except when I don't.

I have a shrine on top of my dresser.

I have an M.Phil. in English, which is the degree some institutions give you when you've been a grad student so long that they can't in good conscience send you away with just an M.A.

I wrote half of a dissertation on Old English Poetics, and half of one on Chaucer and Abandoned Women, before I gave up on all that.

I have a B.A. in Computer Science, too.

I'm starting school to qualify as an LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist) this Fall. Yes, 48 years old is rather late in the day to start a new career. But it's what I've always wanted to do. 49 now, got the license. I love it as much as I thought I would.

For highschool I went to a hippie free school, as a boarding student.

In my youth I wrote a couple short novels. They were very bad.

My beard is mixed up white, blond, gray, silver and copper. It's short.

My favorite poet might be Blake.

My favorite artist might be Cezanne.

My politics used to be radical. I suppose they still are, but I don't take them very seriously anymore.

I love Oregon, and the city of Portland, passionately.

Being more than a couple hundred miles from the ocean makes me panicky.

I once wanted to be a (literary or visual) Artist, with a capital 'A'. Everything about that desire fills me with loathing now. So I am not very tolerant of Art or Artists (although I love good writing and good pictures.)

When I was quite young I wanted very badly to be an astronaut. Since the career path to being an astronaut was being a military pilot, and I could not stomach much of what military pilots are expected to do, I gave up on the idea. I've borne a grudge against American militarism ever since, on that account.

I love wind and rain and clouds.

Before I die I want to travel to the southern hemisphere and see the southern stars.

I love learning enough of a language to be able to read it, laboriously, with a dictionary. After I get that far I tend to get involved with another language.

I sometimes invent alphabets.

I draw pictures on napkins.

By the time I was twelve, I had climbed many of Oregon's mountains (though not Hood or Jefferson), and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

I am shy and a little hard of hearing, so I avoid the telephone whenever possible. I've gotten better about the phone. Honest!
About "About me"

Writing a summary of myself makes me uneasy -- after all, we Buddhists think that the reification of the self is the beginning of all suffering and wrong-doing, so why deliberately undertake it? -- but on the other hand, I'm always grateful to bloggers who post an "about me," and I like reading them. So I've written one, posted below. Let me know if anything, or everything, seems misleading. Or if there's outrageous lacunae.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


This burning haunted summer, dry wells,
The taste of ash, the smoke
Of creosoted beams. Wildfire
Licks the grass.

I am tired of all this talk of heaven and hell.
I try, but my mind can find no purchase
Scrabbling like a great dane on an ice rink --
I understand the stars pounding, thud thud thud
In the night sky, hurting my ears, stinging my eyes.
But all the rest, your cloisters, sitting-boxes --

No. But you are right about one thing:
There is something wrong, something twisted,
A breech presentation, a convolution
To confound the midwife. A foot wrong here;
An umbilicus wrapped around the neck.
A rope is simple, said the philosopher, but
To untie a knot in it you must move it
In complicated ways. But the rope is simple.
Perhaps it's like that.

Or perhaps it is as simple as the dying master
Who had one thing to say. His pupils leaned close
To hear his final teaching.

"I don't want to die," he said.

Now the snow is sifting down in Santiago;
It falls on tongues speaking soft Spanish;
It is winter in the Antipodes.

I lie down beside you in the little tent.
I say my prayers. I hold you tenderly:
The ghost of summer, holding winter
In its arms.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The End of Summer

The path to Bridal Veil Falls has been closed for months. Quietly reopened again, so that even though it's one of the falls that are closer than Multnomah, and it was a hot August sunday, there weren't many people there.

Bridal Veil is unique among the Gorge waterfalls in that the trail to the falls goes down, not up; the falls is actually below the highway. We went slowly, on account of Martha's knee; on some of the steeper patches she walked backwards, a trick I learned when my own knee was dodgy. What makes going downhill so hard on knees is that going forwards you come down hard on your uncushioned heel; if you turn around you can come down gently on your toes. Of course, you also can't see where you're going.

Across a little bridge. A miniature promontory stands out into the splash pool. Beyond that is a little protected cove. The sun can't get to it. Cool even on this hot day. A mist of spray wafting over. Dark wet basalt walls on either side. Martha negotiated the climb down, took off her shoes, and soaked her knee in the cold water. Beside her, a couple feet away, was a large frog, glowing green and gold. For a long long time it didn't move at all. We all got to take a good look at it. Eventually it got a little worried, or remembered that this was a frog life, and he was supposed to watch out for predators, and he scuttle-hopped away to disappear into a crevice in the rocks.

Up above, the sun poured green through the thick leaf-canopy. The white falls -- it's really a skitters, not a falls, hence the whiteness of the Veil -- played endlessly, and the pitch black water was lit weirdly and beautifully, at the tips of its little waves, by the green and yellow glints reflected from the shining leaves -- the same color scheme as the frog, and as striking against the black background.

As we usually do at a falls, we didn't talk much. We wandered about, or found rocks to sit on, or climbed up the little headland. There was really only one way to climb, and the handholds were smooth, and gleamed with the oil of thousands of human hands.

On the way back we talked about camping. But we all knew that this, really, was the end of summer. The poison oak was already the red of raw salmon, and since there wasn't much snowmelt left to feed the creeks, the falls were small and quiet.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


He came in bundled up, drowning in a huge mound of ratty brown knit scarf, bulky sweaters stuffed into an overcoat like sausage into a sausage-skin, a hat covered with a hood, thick glasses. Mild watery blue eyes, magnified, gazed at me more in sorrow than in anger. "I think we need to talk," he said.

Oh, Lord. "Look," I said, "I know what you're going to say, and..."

"No you don't. No you don't. This is why people don't talk to me, they imagine they know what I'm going to say. They don't."

"Okay, I don't," I agreed. Anything for a quiet life. "But still, you're wasting your time."

He was unwinding his scarf, which now enveloped his head, and fell in loops like a boa. Or perhaps more like a boa constrictor. A muffled "Hmmph!" sounded from under there. "I'm wasting my time? Don't be ridiculous. Time is tricky to work with, I'll give you that, but I never waste it." His head emerged from the coils of yarn, his hood fell off, and he swept his knit cap off his head. His hair stood up in tufts.

"Look," he said, "I'm not trying to make you give up anything, okay? You're thinking of some other guy."

"I know what the rules say. And everyone says the same thing. So I'm out. Not in the game any more. You can concentrate on your other clients."

"Doesn't work that way, and you know it. This isn't an optional relationship, not for either of us. You think I answered an ad, to get this gig? 'Troubled universe needs firm, loving God, infinite compassion, omnipotence a plus.' That how you think it works?"

I was starting to get irritated. "How do I know? I'm not even a theist. What are you hanging around me for? Tons of people believe in you. Go talk to them! They need to hear from you, believe me. They get up to all kinds of screwy stuff when they're on their own."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone wants to talk about other people. This is about you, bucko. Don't you worry about other people. I'm on it. The point is... you listening?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm listening," I grumbled.

"The point is, you got to meditate."

He folded his arms and pursed his lips.

"I have to meditate? That's all?"

"That's what I said! That's what I come for! You want it on stone tablets? I'm supposed set a bush on fire and crouch behind it and talk in a big voice, is that it? Jesus." He started winding himself up again.

"Well, but wait, wait just a minute. Do you mean like shamatha, vipassana, ngondro? What are we talking about here?"

"'Give us a sign! Give us a sign!' they always say," he muttered. "And you show up and give a perfectly good message, and then what? It's not good enough." He pointed a finger at me. "I don't give a damn what practice you do. It's all the same to me. I sent Penny, sometimes you listen to her, but this time I could see it was no use, I had to come myself. Meditate. That's it. That's the message. Don't make it complicated."

"Hey, but wait just a -- that's not fair, you could at least --"

But he was out the door.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Only Joy

That's all. After lying awake for hours, we went out and sat in lawn chairs, and talked quietly in the finally-cool night air, in our pyjamas. Vega cold and blue and beautiful through the branches of the apple tree. Three pairs of racoon eyes glowing in a flashlight beam. A ghost in the kitchen, in a white dress, when we came back inside. Turned out to be Tori.

So much grief and fear and pain. I don't believe in any of it. I only believe in the joy. But I have no language to explain that. And so many dead, so many lost, it's true. And soon enough we'll spin off into that distance too, and other people will have to adjust to the discomforts and dislocations of our disappearance. They'll get over it.

We speak of radical hospitality, of radical inclusion. But of course it's trickier than that. It would be a fairly simple matter if people only wanted to be invited. But of course, they want to be invited on their own terms. And that -- that we can't do for them, even if we would.

The slow wheel of heaven over our heads, the summer stars sinking in the west.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Changing a Lightbulb

I trotted downstairs to the basement, where we keep our stationary bicycle. For the past few months I've been putting in "seven miles" -- so it assures me, I suspect it's more like four -- every other day on this contraption, which we refer to as "the stuck bike."

But to put in seven miles on the stuck bike you need to be able to see its odometer. At the bottom of the stairs I flicked on the light for that side of the basement. Nothing happened.

I hesitated. Could I see the odometer by the light of the dim narrow window? I took a look. Not a chance. Could I track by counting my "steps"? I'd taken to counting lately. 140 regular steps, 70 faster, 105 regular, that made a mile. I could count it out. But could I keep track of the number of miles at the same time? On my fingers, perhaps?

The watchman I've posted in my mind stirred uneasily. "Hey, boss?" he said. "Take a look at this. I don't think it's quite right."

Reluctantly I brought my attention to it. Oh. Yeah. There is another way to handle problems like this. And the place we keep new lightbulbs is in the basement, five paces away from where I was standing, in fact.

With an effort of will I made myself do what most of you would have done without thinking. I changed the lightbulb. And it occurred to me, as I did so, that for two days, since we got back from the beach, I've been working around the fact that the light in the bathroom has been burned out, without it ever once having occurred to me that I might seize the initiative and change the lightbulb there.

Such is the strength of my habit of passivity. And of my children's. All initiative in our family is delegated to Martha, a burden she staggers under -- but also relinquishes reluctantly. My automatic response to a difficulty is to change, not my circumstances, but myself. Which has its upside of course. I'm temperamentally less easily fooled by the blandishments and threats of Samsara than many people; I'm not always imagining that a million dollars or a newer car will give me a new life. But it has also, obviously, a downside. I spend a lot of time in the dark, concocting workarounds.

The habit has to be undone, piece by piece. I have to notice when I'm being pathologically passive, and I have to respond differently. It is not a glorious task, it's not even a dignified one, but it's the work of my life, at the moment.

The joke is maybe so old that some of you don't know it:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

-- Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I hold a spoonful of coffee, light brown, trembling. A tiny line of light where the sky reflects from its convexity. All the answers are trembling there.

Well. I put the spoon in my mouth. Bitterness runs over the sides of my tongue. Warmth soaks through the skin of my palate, and into the bone above it. My teeth answer to the heat, waking into the world. Morning. Maybe there's nothing to be learned.

Twin threads of sadness and joy are tracing their way along my veins. Melancholy and sanguine humors. Medieval European medicine has always made immediate sense to me. Grief and happiness move through the body not like winds, as the Chinese have it, and certainly not like electricity, as modern scientists believe. They seep, suffuse, saturate, spurt. They are liquids. A trickle of tears. A small translucent fountain of seed.

I wash my hands in the clean water of the Bull Run River. It's nothing but fluids, bitter or salt, sweet or sour. Running into our bodies and out of them. I cup my hands and the water overflows my fingers. So many stories we tell, and believe. Don't trust anything but your hands, that's my advice. If your hands don't understand it, it doesn't make sense, no matter how many words affirm it.

When we arrived at the Coast there was a disquieting brown cast to the ocean, as though flakes of old bronze were floating under the surface. Whether that had anything to do with the dead zones up north, I can't say -- by the end of the week the sea was green and gray again, laced with white.

I picked up a shard of mussel-shell, and rinsed the sand off it in the little creek that wanders down the beach. Like the bowl of a spoon; inside, where the mussel had been weeping, was an opalescent film. I turned it towards the light. The colors shifted, veils of lavender and violet, hints of green and blue. Over all the silver gleam, cloudlight and seashine.

I understand why people have asked questions of shells and tea-dregs. Ossified fluids, liquids that have stopped running long enough to form an answer. That I might hold in my hand.

But not really. What remains is beauty, not answers.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Gone to see the Whales

I'm probably un-netted for the next week or so while we make our annual pilgrimage to Otter Rock.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Five Threads

In October I'll begin taking massage classes. One evening class at a time.

1) This is what I have always wanted to do. This is my vocation. This is my calling and when I'm doing it my life will be wonderful.

2) I'm just excited because I've always loved taking classes. In the event I'll want to do massage no more than I wanted to teach college or program computers.

3) The external circumstances are irrelevant. The problem is not what my work is, my problem is my relationship to it. What I really need to do is meditate, and fix the problem where it actually is. (Hospital patients fretting to change their beds, and all that.)

4) I'm excited because I can communicate by touch, as I can by writing, as I usually feel I can't in speech. What I really ought to do is learn to speak, so I can communicate as other people do.

5) Always, always, I have waited overlong to change my circumstances. I have tried to accomplish over years, by sheer force of will, or by the cultivation of clearer perception, what a change of circumstances would have done overnight. I should have done this years ago.

Monday, July 31, 2006


Across from me, Martha dozes in a recliner. To her right Alan is sleeping, his head on the hand that has the monitor connectors taped to it. From the other hand the IV tube snakes away up to the clear bag of steroids and antibiotics and painkiller.

He's okay. What we thought was strep was in fact a nasty tonsil abscess. A couple hours ago the ENT doctor lanced it, and after a period of spitting out blood and pus and looking miserable, he was looking a little more cheerful and asking when we could go home. And not long after that he fell asleep. Martha and I went out to grab some food. Came back, and he was still asleep. So now we're just waiting to see how he feel when he wakes up -- good enough to come home, or should he stay the night?

The setting sun filters through the blinds. It's very peaceful here. I've never been in a hospital where it was peaceful, before. Maybe it's because we're in the pediatric wing, for reasons I don't fully understand -- Alan is sixteen and I'm guessing the the only six-foot patient in this wing. But anyway, it doesn't have the constant irritating sounds, the insistent ringing of bells and beeps and pagings that generally make hospitals hellish. I've never quite understood the theory behind making sure that people can't rest in hospitals, though it seems to be widely accepted. But anyway, here, and now, it's actually pretty quiet. The high-pitched almost-whistle of the air conditioning. The occasional fussing of a baby. Alan's barely-audible snoring.

Update: Alan's home today and much improved. Thanks for all your kind words!