Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Intolerable Fluttering of the Leaves

The tidal rush of anxiety, and its foam of anger. Then the ebb, and all that's left on the beach is loneliness. Lost confidence, lost connection.

At first, of course, I try to recover it, Whatever "it" is -- it's not something I know I have when I have it. It only announces itself by absence. Confidence -- clarity -- equanimity -- something like that. At this point, how would I know? But having sat with it twenty minutes, now, I can maybe turn a little bit from clutching at the recovery, and wonder what its absence has to bring me. If nothing else, compassion and understanding. I'm not the only person who has lost it.

The solution is to give it away. I'm sure of that. To take such shreds of it as remain to me, and offer them someone, anyone. To leave it "free to all finders." I can find my bearings quite exactly by my fear. Let it blindly spin me to the direction it chooses. Then open my eyes, turn 180 degrees, and start walking.

This is, after all, the place from which I can take refuge, maybe the only place from which I can really take refuge.

The fluttering, the intolerable fluttering of the leaves. Presence, absence, presence, absence -- do you start to see? That's why I have to practice it over and over, not because I will succeed, but precisely and only because I will fail.

The six bright pennies that I chose to be the counters for my ngondro practice are the color of dark molasses, now. But they're still there.

Okay. Thank you for walking with me. I can go on from here alone.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


I've been tagged by Pronoia!

Four Jobs I've Had

1) Bucking hay in Yelm, Washington. It was hot. The diabetic farmer lost it and yelled at us a lot, especially toward mealtimes. The first day I managed to hook myself in the chin with my baling hook. Hint: a bale of alfalfa is MUCH heavier than a bale of hay.

2) Teaching Chaucer in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I took the train into Bridgeport and wondered every day if I was going to get mugged on the way to the university. Bridgeport is a scary town. Hint: play up the sex in the Canterbury Tales and sell Chaucer as a jolly old humanist. Chaucer as sad moralist is a drug on the market.

3) Doing restaurant kitchen prep in Portland, Oregon. My favorite job ever. I love chopping vegetables and I love the frantic warmth of a kitchen when the staff is jammin and the wait-staff is literally running. Hint: don't be alarmed by the tantrums of the chef. Within minutes all will be well again.

4) Programming in varied suburbs of Portland. What can I say? It's a living. Hint: you will never be a hotshot like the PhD's from MIT. Get over it.

Four Movies I Can Watch Over and Over

Ooh. This will be hard. I seldom watch movies. Mostly it's videos with the kids.

1) The Muppets' Treasure Island. My all-time favorite movie. (No, I am not sophisticated. Never claimed to be.)

2) GalaxyQuest. (See?)

3) Monty Python & the Holy Grail (you notice the theme of parodied adventure quest being hit pretty heavily along here?)

4) The African Queen (and here too. All four of them. Heavens.)

Four Places I've Lived

1) Eugene, Oregon

2) Olympia, Washington

3) New Haven, Connecticut

4) Portland, Oregon. (& that's it, really. I haven't moved around much.)

Four TV Shows I Love to Watch

Oh. Um, I haven't watched a TV show voluntarily for over twenty years. We have to go back to my youth, here.

1) Star Trek

2) Get Smart

3) Mash

4) That show Dean Martin did, with the girls who danced sexy. (Hey, I was twelve years old! The hormones were raging. And internet porn hadn't been invented yet.)

Four Places I've Been on Vacation

1) Mexico (the Pacific Coast, somewhere or other)

2) Greece (mostly by water)

3) Scotland (by tour bus. A lot of sheep and stone walls, up there)

4) Otter Rock, on the Oregon Coast. (every year for 29 years)

Four Blogs You Visit Daily

(Just four??? Sorry. Can't do this one. No way I can get my list down to four.)

Four of Your Favorite Foods

1) Twice-Cooked Pork

2) Chocolate-Hazelnut milkshakes, as made by Burgerville (eat your hearts out, non-Northwesterners!)

3) Thai peanut anything

(Those with tender sensibilities want to skip now)
(Okay, I warned you!)
barbecue potato chips.

Four Places You'd Rather Be

1) The Well at the World's End

2) Koshtra Pivrarcha

3) The Last Sea

4) Antarctica

Four Albums You Can't Live Without

This is getting way too revealing. It's possible that I don't keep up with the times very well.

1) Laura Nyro, Eli & the 13th Confession

2) Crosby, Stills, & Nash

3) Simon & Garfunkle, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme

4) The Who, Who's Next

Four vehicles I've owned

1) A blue Honda Accord, one of their earliest models.

2) A grey Honda Accord, twenty years old. Still have it. Still runs.

3) White Plymouth Voyager van, '95. Getting a bit rickety.

4) That's it. I guess I don't go through cars very fast.

Four Tagees

Oh yeah, I forgot this part. I knew there was a reason I didn't do these. Choosing tagees is always so hard. Here goes!

1) Savtadotty

2) Lioness (this is a low trick, but you never know, it might work.)

3) Carmen

4) Zhoen

Saturday, January 21, 2006


She was loitering anxiously by the stage door. When she saw us, she lit up, and ran to meet us. She flung her arms around me, and cried "you came!"

Martha held up her hand and backed cautiously away. "My back's not so good," she warned. Jonquil's embraces can be on the violent side. Jonquil hugged her carefully. She was dressed for her servant-girl role in The Crucible.

It was time for the play to begin, but a number of the actors were still milling about the sidewalk, teenagers in knee-breeches and high collars, or black dresses and white bonnets. Nervous, disjointed hilarity and banter. They began to drift into the building. A skinny, grizzled, bespectacled bicyclist arrived and slowly dismounted, looking around him with slightly unfocused, apprehensive eyes.

"You shouldn't do that to me!" snapped Jonquil. "I thought you weren't coming!" He muttered something.

We filed into the auditorium, and wound up sitting down near him. He was troubled with a quiet cough, and couldn't seem to get quite comfortable.

Halfway through the performance, I glanced his way. He was gone.
Lies and Hiding

The next Qarrtsiluni theme is "Lies and Hiding." The editorial team is especially brilliant this time, so submit your best stuff.

Friday, January 20, 2006


Lights. A snake of white and red twisting out of Beaverton, over the West Hills. Not quite night yet -- the gun-metal sky gleams blue here and there, indifferent to the lights below.

It seems something more of the natural than of the human world, these lines of cars making homeward. Watching from a distance you would wonder how they knew it was time to flock, what impulse brings them all out at once, like crows gathering for the night. It displays nothing of the supposed human monopoly on planning and deliberation. Did I mean to get in my car and drive home? Often I just find myself on the road, with no clear idea of how I got there. If I had to explain my intent, I would be at a loss for a few moments, and when I did produce one I'd have no confidence in it. Like the crows, we gather at evening -- there's a restlessness, a sense that to linger would be to invite disaster.

Light thickens, and the crow makes homeward to the rooky wood.

As usual, the traffic slows almost to a halt as it approaches the tunnel. I don't believe, again, that there's a rational reason for this; we just balk at going into the ground, we hesitate, and only the press of cars behind us keeps us going at all. I peer into the cars around me. I can't really see any people. In the cab of a pickup, a woman's lined, expressionless face is lit momentarily by a flaring match. The face vanishes, and only a glowing cigarette-end is visible.

A surge of light and noise as we plunge into the tunnel. It's brightly-lit. I could look at faces now, but, like everyone, I drive with tense concentration, with no eye for anything but the road and the cars. The real increase in danger is probably tiny, but the unnatural confinement, and sense of being on a lit stage, makes us all uneasy. We're all anxious to be out of the tunnel.

We emerge, and suddenly we are out of the country of freeways and housing developments and industrial parks. The exit lane ends at an ordinary downtown traffic light. This is Portland, "the city that works," as it smugly but truthfully proclaims itself. There are people on the sidewalks, and plenty of open shops. Everything has become human-scale again. Crows must feel just this way when they reach their roosting-grounds. All the irritations of social and family life lie before them, the bickering and crowding and posturing, but they've escaped the dread of some powerful, unknown, silent owl falling on them from behind.

I drive slowly through downtown, slowing to give people trying to exit parking-garages a chance to get out. Now that I'm free of the suburbs, I'm in no hurry to get home. I watch the people crowding the bus stops, the people working out in the gym at the Hilton, the people crossing the streets, the stately bicyclists in business dress and the hell-for-leather bicyclists in spandex. I float happily over iron gratings of the Hawthorne bridge, clustered also with bikes and pedestrians. The river glitters below us.

Now it's just a straight shot down Hawthorne Boulevard, an uncertainly trendy arterial. Past the Baghdad Cafe and the Fred Meyer. Clear down to Mt Tabor, which is neither a mountain nor tabor-shaped, but a small round volcanic hill, complete with cinder-cone and crater, smack in the middle of the city. We live nestled under its shoulder.

I pull in, under the huge maple trees in front of our house. Clouds roll over the moon. The stillness when I kill the engine is deep. I close my eyes and take a long breath. Home.
Teju Cole is not going to be here much longer. Get it while you can.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Sky at the End of the World

1980. Early one Sunday morning, I walked into town as usual, down the road above Puget Sound. The Spar, in downtown Olympia, was the only cafe that opened early enough for me, and I walked the two miles down there from my tiny house, of a morning, to sit by the windows and write my great American novel, or my college papers; or to banter with the iconic waitresses, who had grown old with the cafe, having started as teenagers in the 1940s. It was now more a haunt of college students and state workers than of loggers, but it still served the sort of breakfast that keeps a man on his feet to set choke and fell trees all day, or puts a pot belly on a college student. Eggs and hash browns and sausage. Hot, watery coffee slapped down at my favorite booth before I even sat down. It was the first cafe I loved, taking no more notice of holidays than I ever did, opening at five every morning, a place where I could write for three hours, plied unobtrusively with coffee, while the sun rose and the rest of the world caught up with us.

It was a strange, dim, yellow morning. I'd never seen a sky quite like it, a dingy, gray sky, old and tired. The sky at the end of the world, I thought. Skies in Olympia were gray far more often than not, but it was always a fresh gray, mist and cloud rolling in from the ocean, darker and bluer when it was carrying extra rain, but always new. This parchment-yellow was odd and unsettling.

My steps slowed a little as I crossed the stone-balustraded bridge over the southern tip of the inlet, into the little downtown. The morning was growing darker, not lighter, and yellower. A fine drizzle began, That was entirely to be expected, here at the pivot of the Olympic Penninsula. But this drizzle wasn't cold on my face. It was dry and gritty. It seemed almost like snow; but it almost never snowed here, and certainly never in May. Little particles were landing on my coat sleeves, and they neither melted nor evaporated. It was drizzling fine, beige particles of sand.

I hurried on to the Spar, where they no doubt would know what was going on. A forest fire, possibly. But I knew what the ash of forest fires was like, and I knew the smell. This was nothing like that. It had no smell, unless maybe the dusty smell of an ancient, untended house. Maybe some port installation had caught fire?

Downtown was empty. No cars on the streets. For once I regretted being unplugged, having no TV or radio or daily paper. Other people clearly knew something I didn't. I arrived at the Spar, anxious for bright lights and human fellowship.

The Spar was empty and dark. Scrawled in felt pen on a piece of cardboard, stuck on the glass of the door, was the single word: "CLOSED."

I turned around and hurried home. By the time I got there, the oily dust had gathered, like a fine snowfall, on every flat surface. I was coughing, and my eyes were watering.

It was days later that the weather cleared enough to be able to see, off to the southeast, the new shape of Mt St Helens. It had been the most elegantly symmetrical of the great, free-standing peaks of the Cascade Mountains. Now it looked, for all the world, as though a giant had stooped down and bitten off its head. It was no longer white: it was a dirty grayish yellow -- a low, ugly, lopsided stump against the sky.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


First of All

The sky opened up today, after much rain.
It said to me, "Be kind, oh, be kind;
There is so much you don't know."


Shadows of my old words
Obliterate the present. Why
Should I make new ones,
To block my view tomorrow?


God sent me on a ticklish mission
Today. He wants me to find out
What he wants. I got out of it neatly.
"I know what you want, sir," I said.
"You want me to find out what you want."


An astronomer, said the radio,
Has discovered that "the cosmic constant
Is not constant." This is news to them,
I guess. But I could have told them that.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


It's quite a big room. Several families of refugees could be put up in it, without a fuss. The ping-pong table could be set to one side, and sleeping-bags laid out on the beige-carpeted floor. Machines along one wall supply soda-pop -- a dollar for 20 ounces -- and candy bars or jerky or corn nuts. With enough change you could live here for a long time.

The lights would be irritating. Flourescent lights, motion-activated. Everytime a sleeper rolled over the lights would come on, and everyone would grump. Also, the TV plays continually, though I've never seen anyone watch it. It plays the company channel, interviews with vice presidents and company commercials. But the sound is off, at least. It loops along doing its own thing with admirable indifference. But otherwise not much would trouble you. The room is almost always empty, unless someone like me wanders in to get a snack.

No refugees will ever be put up here. It reaches its maximum population once or twice a year, when ping-pong tournaments are arranged by zealously team-building middle-managers. Otherwise it's a quiet place, refrigerators humming, TV flickering, lights buzzing faintly, day and night.

The nicest thing about the room are the big windows. The whole south wall is windows, from thigh-height to the ceiling. Half-open blinds hang over them, so everything is glimpsed in long narrow horizontal bands between the slats. Your field of vision is mostly occupied by the parking lot and a vast box of dull yellow, some place of light industry, I suppose, across from it. But while that building, as a building, is breathtakingly boring, its roof -- visible, because we're on the second floor here -- is a labyrinth of fantastic coiled piping and stacks and ventilators, and mum steel boxes corded with power lines, which rise from the tarpaper and make queer sillhouettes against the horizon.

That horizon, and what's beyond it, is what I really come to this room to see. I buy an Almond Joy and walk over to the little alcove between the last snack machine and the windows. I raise the blind so I can see without stripes.

Beyond the dinosaur shapes of the neighbor's roof is a low, somber green ridge of fourth-growth doug fir; beyond that again a misty blue ridge only a little higher. Beyond that is the sky.

I have tried to understand why the skyscapes from this room are so compelling. Is it just that I gaze at them from my captivity? Possibly. Or is it because they're half-screened by the blinds, and framed below by the dinosaur-roof? Whatever the reason, the sky here always fascinates me. It's deeper here, more detailed and elaborate, wilder but more coherent. The sun sets through a pounding surf of cloud; landscapes emerge and vanish; towers of mist crumble into gray ruin; sudden hopes of light gleam through the tattered robe of the sky. I'm so still sometimes that the lights decide no one's here, and wink out.

I chew the sickly-sweet candy -- it begins cloying almost at once -- and stare at the sky.

I look a long time. Finally I lift my hand to let the blinds down again. The site managers have asked us to leave them down; otherwise the south side of the building gets too warm. The lights respond to my movement at once, winking back on in apologetic haste. ("You should have said you were here!") I crumple the wrapper and toss it into the wastepaper basket. The door closes behind me. Five minutes from now, when I'm sitting in my cubicle again, they will wink back off. But the noiseless TV will play on, in the empty room.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Yes, I do owe you email. I owe everyone email. And yes, I'm hopelessly behind on reading even the blogs I usually follow avidly. But no, I don't have anything to post.

You're in luck, however, because now you can read Ruth's essay, An Indian Scale, on Qarrtsiluni instead. Which you should do forthwith.