Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas 2009

The fir needles prick my feet like kitten claws;
every room is sharp and green; my hands

smell of sandalwood, tree sap, lavender.
On the table you fall asleep at once.

Squalls pass over the sky of your face,
dreams of the dying, of hospitals,
auditoriums and admonitions:

I draw them out through my fingertips,
eat them like kale. Underneath
there is a sweetness.

The swell of your throat,
the camber of your chest under my palms,
your breathing that rocks my shoulders --

this longest night of the year lifts its muzzle,
sighs happily when it catches your scent,
curls up to sleep again till summer.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Blog Manifest

This is sort of a riff in response to Dave Bonta's brilliant recent post about blogging.

Manifesto. Curious word: is it Italian? I will have to look up its history. I don't think I can quite manage a manifesto. A manifesto would imply that I am planning to think the same thing tomorrow that I think today. But a manifest, a taking stock of what you seem to have on board, that I might manage.

What is manifest? That I write an online journal, which a few people are kind enough to read. That I post essays, and poetry, and observations. And very occasionally drawings. A surprisingly large part of my mental and spiritual life takes place here. I'm grateful that people read: very grateful. And some of the readers have crossed the membrane into what we call, for what I'm sure are good reasons, “real” life. I'm grateful for that, too.

This is not a springboard to anything else. I have no intention of ever being a writer, a poet, an artist, or a man of letters. I am decidedly a man of the body. (That statement, now, might qualify for a manifesto.)

So. Start from the other end. What is this not? What do I exclude?

For one, ranting. I write a fair number of political vituperations that I never post. I have strong political passions. But my information is all second hand, and when I read other people's second hand smoke, I feel ill. There's enough of that going around. I admire researched political writing, when I can find it. But opinionating is a chump's game. I have a dreadful facility and fluency at it: may God protect me from using it.

The other thing my writing here is not – and I guess I am now simply repeating what I said about not being able to write a manifesto – the other thing it is not, is permanent. I am not trying to make an enduring object. I love the word “essay.” These are essays, attempts. I am trying to sketch elusive things, things that have barely traced themselves in my consciousness. A heavy hand would obliterate them, or caricature them. I'm glad for the fragility and fluidity of this medium. It is tentative and ephemeral. It makes no grand claims. It's content to die when I do.

I like the long shelf of archives that this blog leaves, too, like a layer of submerged ice in a lake in the Spring. Is it there, or is it not? Hard to say, exactly.

Friday, December 18, 2009


She is not looking at you.
She is looking into a vaulted space,

or a darkened box, through
a hole
or aperture;
which is backed by
a photosensitive plate --

a room: especially,
the chambers of a judge.

Monday, December 14, 2009


Everything had come apart. My family, first of all. My mother's remarriage had not established a new family: it had established a sort of way-post cum entertainment center with a swimming pool. Parties would coalesce there from time to time. Visitors would show up. Hospitality was perhaps the only value we all shared – in fact, it bordered on a passion, for my mother – so you never really knew who would be there. Friends of my brother's, friends of my sister's, friends of my Mom's. Friends of my stepbrothers. Vietnam vets. Hippie-free-school students or their traveling companions. Utopians planning a commune on BLM land up north somewhere. Guys who had been in the T-groups my Mom had led at the state penitentiary. They'd all be plied with liquor – you had to be sociable, after all.

I'd come out onto the deck and find a stranger, a couple sheets to the wind, gazing out over the hills, while the sun sparkled on the pool, and the swallows went on their vast circuits overhead, plummeting down every once in a while to skim a drink of water. So it went on, as my imagination holds it: always summer, always intoxicated. We kids, teenagers, weren't given drink, but it was winked at if we took it. The vets and traveling companions supplemented the drink with joints smoked a hundred yards or so down the vast, coarse lawn. A soft landing, for the moment. But nobody ever stayed long.

It was not, I'm sure, so disorganized as I perceived it to be. I was never good at tracking who people were, why they were there, or who they were friends of. I was not very socially functional. People just appeared, got inebriated, and wandered off again. Sometimes my Mom would cook a great meal. More often I'd eat the packaged foods I loved: some sort of “breakfast drink,” an envelope of chocolate powder you'd tear open and pour into milk. Tuna fish out of the can. Campbell's “hearty soup,” the sort you didn't mix with water. You dumped it into a pan. Sometimes the soup-stuff held its shape, like a can of cranberry sauce at thanksgiving, till you squashed it down with a soup spoon. It got runny as it got hot. It's still an occasional comfort-food for me.

Usually Mary – except she'd changed her name to Alex -- was off at some experimental boarding school or other. David had an apartment in town somewhere, some of the time, though I never saw it. We lived oddly separate lives. I had a whole wing of the house to myself, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room of my own with a TV. The kitchen was the only room I had to share. I heated my soup and ate it out of the pan, and watched the TV, and the years rolled by. I went to school. As time went by, my grades began to slip. I had always been an A student, but by the end of the ninth grade I was getting Cs and even Ds. I don't remember anyone but my junior high counselor giving me any kind of talking-to. He said I wasn't working up to my potential. I agreed with him: certainly I was not working up to my potential. I thought school was idiotic. The world was coming to a fucking end: the environment was being destroyed, populations were exploding all over the world, and the Last War was waiting to happen. I was supposed to care what grade I got in Social Studies?

It was a strange mix of independence and helplessness, which has marked me all my life. I'd go to spend the night with a friend, and he'd say, “don't you need to ask your Mom?”

“Oh, no. She doesn't care,” I'd say airily. What a pain it must be, I thought, to have a Mom who wanted to keep tabs on you all the time. My friends would look at me with envy, but also with pity. On the balance, I think, they preferred a Mom who cared.

So I was independent: but I was also helpless as a baby. I had not the slightest idea how to take care of myself. I couldn't cook. Packaged food simply appeared in the house. We bought cans of soda by the gross: Fresca, Fanta Orange, root beer, cola, Dr Pepper. Some diet, some not: to me those were just different flavors. If there was something I liked, my Mom would try to get it.

I didn't work, I didn't cook, I didn't clean up, I didn't wash my clothes. I look back on that time as my stint in hell. It's grimly humorous to me that this is the state to which so many people aspire. It's the logical end of upper class life in America: to be stranded, idle, catered to, useless, surrounded by convenience: reduced to an infantile, mewling consumer, with no project in hand but the increasingly difficult task of titillating a jaded palate.

I had subscriptions to Playboy and to Oui magazine. That was where my imagination went, when it wasn't going to science fiction and fantasy novels. I pored over the photographs. The images sank into me. I can find them easily in my memory to this day: particular images haunted me. Somewhere, somewhere was the world in which naked women looked at you frankly, with mischievous grins or solemn intensity, and loved being looked at. Somewhere. Not here, that's for sure.


Friday, December 11, 2009


My mother was a psychology professor, and she used to teach continuing education courses-- “Human Factors” -- for Air Force and Army officers back in the 80s. She liked teaching military officers. No back talk, no excuses: you gave the assignment, and they gave it their best shot. Even this kooky psychology stuff.

One day she gave them the assignment of writing an essay about how their command style was influenced by their ethnic background, and one of them, a full colonel, finally protested. “But ma'am,” he said, “I can't do that. I'm a white Presbyterian from the Midwest. I don't have an ethnic background.”

One of those golden teaching opportunities, and my mother made the most of it. I sometimes think that my mother, center-right, Eisenhower/Clinton-style Republicrat that she has always been , was at that time the most effective subversive in America. There were, of course, plenty of feminists preaching to the choir, then as now: but she was taking it to the chauvinist heartland. Another time she gave this class the assignment of keeping a log of their emotions for a day, evoking another of those heart-felt, bewildered protests: “but – what if I don't have any emotions that day?”

These were not stupid men. You don't attain that kind of rank (no matter what antimilitary prejudice may say) if you're dumb. But no one had ever invited them to think of “white Midwest Presbyterian” as an ethnic group, or to examine their feelings. And my mother – cheerful, disarming, unthreatening, and rather obviously delighted by men -- was maybe the perfect person to extend that invitation.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

She Has To Learn

"She has to learn," you said. In the photos, the teenage girl held the knife uncertainly. The carcass of the moose hung beside her. Pictures appeared and disappeared on the monitor, in a slow pageant. The girl got bloodier, but the moose didn't get appreciably cut up, for several frames. "You go in between the second and third rib," you explained, as one massage therapist, familiar with anatomy, to another. And in truth, the anatomy of big mammals is instantly recognizable. If you've studied one, you've studied them all. But the moose was huge. The girl didn't seem to be getting far with it.

"You have to really get in there," you added. "You're quartering it, you know."

I didn't know. I don't come from a hunting family. It's one of those huge but largely undiscussed cultural divides in America: there are people who hunt and people who don't. Here in Oregon, anyway. In the little village in Alaska, up by the mouth of the Copper River, where your daughter was struggling with the carcass, everybody hunted: and you'd gone home, apparently, partly for this, for her initiation into a hunting culture.

She has to learn. I pondered that. It was said with a mother's certainty, but of course you don't say such a thing unless you feel a bit defensive about it. What did she have to learn, I wonder? That there are things that make you squeamish that you have to go through with anyway? That part of life is accepting that you live at the expense of other sentient beings? Both true enough. But you said it again, later on, about another picture: "we made her climb up this ladder. It's slippery, like twenty feet!" You laughed. "You could just walk around that way and step onto the boat on the other side, but we made her climb up. She has to learn."

There it was again, and it echoed in my memory long after. She has to learn. Here it seemed clearer: she has to learn to take a modicum of good-natured cruelty in stride. This was the long, authentic tradition of hunting peoples. They all do that: a little testing and pushing. Something at least a little dangerous, painful, and wholly unnecessary. Just to show that you're human, that you don't always have to take the easy way, that when the world throws down a challenge you can pick it up and show some fight.

I was always repulsed by the hunting kids I grew up with. I hated cruelty passionately, then as now, and I hated equally the fact that in rejecting cruelty I took on the status of wimp. In fact I wasn't a wimp: I stood up to physical pain and danger as well as anyone, and I took pride in it. Still do. But I didn't want to kill things and I didn't want to hurt them.

Many years later I learned to parse these things out a little differently. Whatever you think of the morality of hunting, surely the morality of animal farming is worse. To meet a moose in the wild and kill it is simply to do what cougars and wolves do. It's the universe as God designed it. You got an issue with it, take it up with God. The moose understands that as well as the hunter does. But to take in creatures and feed them and tend them, taking advantage of the bonds that social animals are so ready to form, and then one day to summarily cut their throats -- that's quite a different thing. How a herdsman can feel morally superior to a hunter is beyond me. And if you eat store-bought meat (as I do), you're fully implicated in that systematic treachery. Hunting seems awfully clean and straightforward, compared to that.

Still, looking at the photos of that carcass, I saw a human carcass, hung by the neck. We're really not that different. She has to learn. We all have to learn: or I wouldn't be able to buy hamburger at the store for tomorrow's lunch. Every parent of a meat-eating family hits that moment when their toddler realizes that their lunch is in fact that soulful cow in their favorite picture-book, killed and cut to pieces. And you have to explain somehow that it's all okay, and you know in fact that it's not, and you don't know whether to hope they accept your explanation, or to hope they spit in your face and denounce you as a hypocrite. I don't think I want to learn not to see a person dangling by the neck, when I see a moose dangling.

The only time I've done hard physical labor was on a farm in Yelm, Washington. We were building a barn, at one point, and at lunchtime, one of the crew, a wizened but tough little guy in his fifties, told us about hunting wolves from a helicopter. He had a funny story to tell us: when they came upon this wolf, it was taking a dump, and it tried to run, but it couldn't: wasn't done yet. So it was sort of hopping along, trying to finish, trying to run, and they got it. He was a good storyteller. You could see it vividly.

Everyone laughed, except me. I felt sick, and this image joined that my little private gallery of images -- I imagine everyone has one -- that can always take the shine out any day, however bright. That's hunting culture too.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


There's a meme I met at Tasting Rhubarb: three questions about feminism. About "what feminism means to me." Jean's response is incredibly thoughtful and spot-on: I love what she says about feminism and buddhist practice.

I don't remember who said it: feminism is the radical idea that women are people. But that's the heart of feminism to me. I use it by metonymy to mean even more than that. Women are people. Blacks are people. Asians and Native Americans are people. Muslims and Hindus are people.

It goes further than that: children are people. And it goes on to things that most of my countrymen find either dubious or ridiculous: dogs are people. Mice are people. Mosquitoes are people. And on to ones that even most of my fellow Buddhists find dubious or ridiculous: trees are people. Mountains are people. Rivers are people. The things you dimly sense walking in the sky, the alien-feeling thoughts that flicker in your head -- they're people too.

Once you start questioning: once you let go of the conviction that only you and a few people like you matter -- that you are the real people -- the whole house of cards begins to totter. And the centerpiece of that conviction, in this mildly dimorphic species of ours, has almost always been: men are really human: women are the lesser kind of human being. The kind that don't matter so much. The kind you don't have to take seriously.

Once you've taken that step -- some people you don't have to take seriously -- all the evils of the world are ready. If original sin were part of my world-view, that would be my characterization of it. That some people don't matter. Their suffering isn't important. Their opinions don't need to be heard.

And I don't care where you draw the line: who you include and exclude. Ultimately it's drawing the line that matters. I have had friends who really didn't think wealthy capitalists were people. These friends seemed gentle and reasonable. But they were Stalinists waiting to happen. Let the wave of history break just right, and they'd be in the foam of atrocity.

And like Dick Jones, I locate the transmission of this original sin in one particular place: in child rearing. It's how we treat children, at home and in school, that determines whether we pass this evil on. Are you automatically a real person, or only conditionally one? Or are you one at all? Those are the questions a child is asking as he or she grows up. We answer them, implicitly, all the time. And a person who believes his or her membership in the club of real human beings -- the club of people who really matter -- is at stake, is capable of almost any cruelty, any abomination.

So to me, the message of feminism is: the subjectivity of other people is as real as mine, and it matters as much as mine.

It makes for a muddy, confusing, difficult and inefficient world. One in which it's hard to know what to do for the best. But it makes also for a world of endlessly ramifying richness and beauty: huge, wild, and unpredictable. Feminism says that I, a prosperous white male American, don't get to be a member of the exclusive club of people who really matter, any more. But what it offers me in return is full membership in a messy and enormous universe of infinitely diverse, cranky, dangerous, wonderful, and intractable sentient beings. I'll take it, gladly.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Artificial Light

Every morning I do it, careless, unthinking: a quick swipe of the hand, and the room springs into bright light. The cats wince and hunch their shoulders against the glare. There's no coming back from that first flood of artificial light: it breaks something, and the day is wounded, after that. It makes the dark outside total and alien. It crowds hearing, smell and touch to the corners of the stage, if not clean off. From now on, all day, I'll be a creature of the eye. Vision will dominate my day. The slightest dimness will render me impatient and groping for switches. I'll burn lights far into the night with not the faintest awareness. I won't even know when sunset and sunrise are.

It was worse when I drove a car instead of riding a bike. Sure, I have lights on my bike, but they're not the floodlights that cars have: they're lights for making me visible, not for lighting up the world. Though I need to see more than someone in a car does. Branches or mounds of wet leaves that cars can safely ignore will take my bicycle right down. I do ride in the dark, this time of year, but I am at least aware that it is dark, and I ride slower because of it.

I can't quite figure out, let alone express, why being aware of the light outside seems so precious to me. It's some antidote to human megalomania, a brake on the tendency to sink wholly into the artificial world, to drown in a mess of human intentions and interpretations, the obsession with ownership and status, the constant monkey-chatter, the unflagging efforts to seize my attention. I think if young people today could travel back in time a generation or two, what they'd be most struck by would be all the blank spaces and dull colors. Most of the built world was not branded, not written on. It didn't blink and flash. It wasn't brightly colored. Images of beautiful half-dressed woman were so rare that pubescent boys had to hunt them out in the back pages of Sears catalogs; images of violence were so rare that television fistfight in a saloon, all slow roundhouse punches, could capture your full attention, even if nothing blew up or burst into flames. Restaurants didn't have pornographic pictures of their own food blazing down at you as you ate. Taverns didn't have television sets, not even little ones. It was a very dull world.

It all begins with that first careless flick, that violent explosion of light on a winter morning. What if I were to refrain from that? To refrain from turning on the computer and checking my email first thing in the morning? To give my other senses a chance to work, to enter the artificial world slowly and with some attention? I have a feeling my balance might be better all day.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


Frost on the skylight, lit obliquely by the shrinking moon. A braid of pale ropes, you'd say, glinting and gleaming against a muddy gray pier -- except that behind it all is the deep, deep black of the sky, and the cold behind that, sucking all the color away and leaving only these twisting skeletons. It's beautiful, and disquieting. Some of the frost-ropes are nearly two feet long: they veer like slug-tracks, and between them is a leaf-pattern that I can't quite grasp.

No sign of dawn yet. I go out and walk down the steps in my bare feet. I woke worrying about my son, who'll be driving early this morning to his Saturday training: he knows nothing of driving in icy conditions. But the frost melts at the touch of my foot. It's barely there. No real ice. He'll be okay.

He'll be okay. I say it over to myself, and it sounds demented, a lunatic thing to say. He'll be okay? In this world? This world may be fine for tricksters and shape-changers, for the weak in courage who are strong in cunning. For people like me. But he's only and always what he is. Which is "to stand above the skyline in an age of assassination."

These are old thoughts, weaving through my awareness like those icy ropes. Nothing new here. Old worries. Beyond it all the sky, emptied by the lopsided moon. A simple guitar melody sounds in my head. John Sebastian, softly crooning, "but darling be home soon..."

Sunrise is a full two hours away. Maybe I'll make some eggs and coffee. Or who knows? Maybe I'll even go back to bed. My eyes close gratefully, when I think of it. Maybe some more sleep.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Your Voice

Your voice used to rasp sweet
as a cat's tongue. Now cold
soaks into my finger bones,

traces the knuckle skin, brushes
the tiny seagrass that wavers
and weeps on the

backs of my hands. Spring
was many years ago
and will never come again.

I wish I could recall your voice:
how it wounded the air
like a finely ground saw;

how it drew blood from my ears, back
when there was blood in my ears, back
when there was warmth in the world.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Well, survived another Thanksgiving! What is it Nietzsche said? What does not kill us, makes us linger. Something like that. Another bird gone to its autumn grave, another parody of a celebration. Oh well. The small rain down can rain. This one had to be this way, for various reasons. But I'm damned if I'll do much more obligatory feasting in this life. It's too short for that. After I'm dead, you can celebrate all the holidays with me that you like. Prop up my stiffened corpse at the head of every table, and I'll drink with you toast for toast. Or at any rate, you can put the cup to my dried-up lips and let the wine trickle down my chin, each time. It will gleam in the candlelight. Very festive.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

All Over With Green

Tanagers whistle in the Spring
Winds whistle in the park
Onagers whistle in the Fall
Fathers whistle in the dark.

The child is gotten
And rotten is wild
The clover is shotten
All over with green.

(Dragons come gently
And nuzzle their hands
Dappling for apples
Warmed by the sand.)

Managers mutter in Spring
Dragons mutter in Fall
Wild bad children sing
Whenever the clover calls.

The child is Winter
And splintered and guiled
But the Summer is quilted
All over with green.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


As a small child I was excited to learn that people changed their names when they got married. The most liberating idea in the world. A new name! A new life! Everything new! "I wonder what my name will be?" I said.

Everyone laughed, and someone explained to me. No. I was boy: I would have to be me forever.

Friday, November 20, 2009


My blood is indigo.
I am no mere soldier: I soar
above hour and mile, each capillary
a darkened trembling midnight blue.

I will live forever now. Cut loose
from death, from illness, from love,
I suck the stars from their places:
they beat in my gut like drums of light.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On the Bicycle in Autumn

Edwin Stanton, U.S. Government Archives

I turn onto Stanton Street, a wild surf
of leaves running before me. The phantom
of the old Secretary of War, with his ragged beard,
gleams and is gone. Ball's Bluff.
Young men sliding down the cliffs to die.

Hooker, Burnside, Hancock:
these streets were named for Union heroes
forgotten now by most. (Fremont is a thoroughfare,
but I've never glimpsed McClellan:
the Far West had its own estimation
of the marshalls of the Great Republic.)

Swash and surge, dull yellow, duller brown.
The colors are rich but muted. Half the leaves are wet,
sodden, slick, and bunched; the others are dry --
violent yellow, hectic red, streaked with black;
even stubborn mutinous green.
Twigs and branches scatter on the road;
twisted fingers reaching for my spokes.

I dismount at the trophy shop and enter,
disheveled by the wind. The girl brings a brass
plaque, like a polished leaf: In Memory of
Mary Catherine Lamb
. For a chair
in the library. Another soldier
struck down in quite another war, I think,
except there's really only one:
one long losing war. I fold the metal gently
in its paper wrapping, stow it in my pack,
and turn my bike for home.

Mary Catherine Lamb, photo Christopher Rauschenberg

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Boat Drifts

Maybe a Buddhist who neither meditates nor gives is no Buddhist at all: only a person who has at one time entertained a set of opinions, which could as well have been opinions about Hegel, or toothpaste brands, or French parliamentary procedure. But it lingers and dominates.

And it has left me with some conviction, absurdly enough, that I know what I am here for -- a question the Buddha never propounded, and never attempted to answer. I have made up an answer out of Buddhism, and my psychological weaknesses, nevertheless: I am here to love and be loved; I am here to learn how not to believe in my own stories; I am here to find the Northwest Passage to the Pure Lands. Each of these projects decisively excludes the other two, but I find myself unwilling, even unable, to abandon any of them. And meanwhile, the boat drifts, and the sky darkens.

Or you could as easily say -- and meanwhile, I have come into unimaginable plenitude. And that's true too.

Someone who has been hungry all his life may be excused, maybe, for taking a year or two simply to explore the sensation of being well fed. It changes everything: it changes the color of the sky and the tilt of the ground and the smell of the autumn air.

I have felt for nearly thirty years now that I have no claim against the universe. In that moment of sunlight through the leaves, in Olympia, I thought, "I could die now with no sense of anything left undone, with no feeling but gratitude for all that has been given me." My pitcher was full, overflowing: the glistening honey-colored stuff ran down my sides, sticky and sweet, all lit up by the sun. There is nothing I must still do, or get, or feel, to have had a full life.

But apparently there was a hidden reservation, a secret clause in that treaty. Because of this deep sense of a longtime need finally filled. I am rudely, extravagantly alive. I am juvenile and ungovernable. And still it goes on. I am younger than I've ever been. This world, that should be decorously closing, is unfolding richer colors, disclosing deeper petals. It's too late now to worry about frosts.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gas Pains and Swollen Glands

At Breitenbush, recently, I took an all day workshop on low back, hip, and pelvic work. In the morning I was feeling pretty on top of things, because I've long been aware of how often low back pain derives from trigger points in the gluteus medius. It's always suspect number one. (If you stick your hands into the back pockets of a pair of levis, the heels of your hands will be on the gluteus medius. It's tremendously important: it's the main muscle that holds you upright, when you're walking, while the opposite leg is off the ground.) I learned some new things about leg positioning, and how to work the piriformis -- generally the culprit in false sciatica -- but it wasn't till afternoon that we ventured into really new territory, and the reason I took the workshop.

The psoas major. I'd spent several frustrating sessions with one client, knowing perfectly well that the psoas had to be the source of his hip pain and difficulty walking, and making no progress at all. I just couldn't get to it.

image from Wikipedia

It's tricky. The psoas runs from the sides of the lumbar vertebrae down through the bowl of the pelvis, and attaches high up on the inside of the thighbone. It's the strongest hip flexor: that is, it pulls the thigh forwards and upwards. If you're in a marching band and the conductor tells you to get your knees higher when you step, he's telling you to contract your psoas more forcefully.

The psoas is suspect number two, or three anyway, in low back pain, and it had always defeated me. It's towards the back of the body, but it's no good trying to get to it that way: the thick spinal muscles and the QL are layered above it. You have to go in from the front, and push right into the belly, almost all the way to the spine. We'd spent a day working on this in massage school, and I never felt confident that I'd even located the damn thing, let alone worked it. I hate making people uncomfortable, and there's no way that rummaging around deep in someone's abdomen is going to be comfortable.

Still. If that's the muscle that needs help, that's the muscle you have to get to. So I was keen to try again. The teacher -- Robert Sirch -- was excellent, and my working partner was wonderfully patient and helpful. (She apologized a couple times, of course, for having a normal amount of adipose tissue for me to work through, as though it was a great moral failing to have a normally rounded belly. Sigh.) I was at least sure of where the psoas was and what it felt like, now. When we swapped places, and she was poking her fingers deep into my belly in turn, I was uncomfortable. It was tender: I felt like I was having gas pains. Did that mean she was doing it wrong, poking into the intestines, instead of getting the muscle?

It wasn't until later that night that it came to me. "Gas pains," what were these "gas pains," really? In a moment of sudden glorious illumination, I understood. The pain I'd learned to call "gas pains" had nothing to do with gas, nothing to do with intestines. It was nothing more sinister than a jacked psoas muscle. I'd shied away from that sensation, when in fact it was my best guide.

Back home, I worked it on myself. Lie on your back. Bring your knees up, and let them fall to one side. That lets the intestines fall away, and brings the psoas up a little. Poke in your fingers, about midway between the the point of the hipbone and the belly button, and let them sink deep, in the direction of the spine. When you get to it, It feels -- if it's jacked up, which mine was, on the left -- like a hot dog under your fingers. And when you work a trigger point in it, it feels like -- well, like a gas pain. A sharp wincey pain in the belly. If it's not jacked, you may not be able to find it or feel it at all. I made working it part of my routine for a few days, till the tweakiness in my low back was completely gone. (Caveat: if you're prone to constipation, IBS, or other bowel problems, know what and where the sigmoid colon is before you try this: you don't want to be poking an inflamed colon.)

This moment harked back to an earlier moment of illumination. I got the flu towards the end of my year in massage school. As I was getting better, I did lots of trigger point work on myself. Much of the misery of the flu is caused by how much it jacks the muscles. Nobody knows, incidentally, why it does this, but if you know how to resolve trigger points on yourself the wretchedness can end a lot sooner. So I was working away, and came to the SCM, the V-shaped pair of muscles on either side of the adams apple, which run from below the ears to either side of the top of the breastbone. You can grab them between thumb and finger and work the points out of them.

I had no sooner started when I thought -- uh oh. I've got hold of a swollen gland here, not muscle. I know this sensation! The glands under my jaw get swollen when I have the flu, always have. I'd better not work here.

There's some delay before the book learning rises to the surface. I had plenty of time, lying there on the couch being sick, to contemplate the phenomenon.

Glands? What glands? My anatomy books were to hand, and I pulled them out. Sure, there were lymph nodes under the jaw -- but not that far down. There could have been nothing between my fingers but muscle. Simply nothing else there. Again, the little light bulb pops on. "Swollen glands," indeed! It was a jacked SCM, nothing more, nothing less. I worked them again. Painful as hell: but I could feel my headache subsiding, even as I worked. By the time I was done it was almost gone.

It seems a pity to me that we teach virtually no practical anatomy in school. We teach a lot of things that are of little or no practical use -- when will you ever need to know, as an end-user, which side of the body your gall bladder is on, or whether the liver or the kidneys come first in the filtration process? Cell metabolism is fascinating, but it's not something you can easily get under the hood and monkey with. But knowing that "tension" headaches are usually caused by hypertonic neck muscles, that trouble turning the neck is probably due to shortened lev scap muscles, that low back pain most likely comes from jacked glutes -- everyone who owns a body is likely to need to know these things. There's a reluctance, in science, to study things on the gross level, on the level that you can see and touch. Which is unfortunate for two reasons: one, it's the level at which you can most often intervene and actually fix something that's going wrong, and two, it's the most compelling level. Everyone wants to know how their body works on that level. It's fascinating to identify the tendon that pops up on the back of your hand, and the muscle that bulges way up on your forearm, when you lift your index finger, and to be able to picture the mechanics of it. It's just plain cool. It engages the curiosity in a way that, say, blood lipids or alveolar transfer usually don't.

Our Bodies, Our Selves was, among other things, a great pioneering work in practical anatomy. We need more books like that, and we need to teach them in schools. You shouldn't have to wait until you're fifty years old and go to massage school to learn that your "swollen glands" are actually jacked neck muscles, and that you can actually do something about them. It's not just our private parts that are shrouded in ignorance and shame, and ruled by taboo and folklore. It's the whole body: this whole marvelous mechanism we inhabit, and depend on, and attend to, ordinarily, only when it's so badly injured or in such pain that we can't do our work any more. It's a fascinating large-print book in front of our eyes all the time: we really should spend more time reading it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How I am a Conservative

I realized this morning that when I called myself a conservative, in my last post, I was using an archaic idiom. "Conservative" has come to mean "a lickspittle lackey of corporate interests, defender of provincial intolerance for difference, and uncritical admirer of the military-industrial complex, with a fundamentalist literalism about founding documents" and I am, I hope, not that.

I am however an ideological conservative, by which I mean that I think liberty and justice are better and more durable when they grow organically out of custom and tradition, than when they're designed theoretically (by some) and imposed by violence (on others). I am a conservative, that is, as opposed to a revolutionary.

That's all.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

How the Light Gets In

Woke with Leonard Cohen running through my mind:

Ring the bells that still will ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

The songwriters I'm growing old with: Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. I like to think of my life as having had dramatic turns -- from antisocial to social, from atheist to buddhist, from anarchist to conservative, and so forth -- but when I look at the singer-songwriters that first caught my imagination, and still can, I realize that really I've been much more all of a piece than I think. The same themes run through it all: loneliness; longing for God; wanderlust; love of the down and outs, the odd men out, the beautiful losers. The beauty in the breakdown. The refusal to endorse sanitized packaged quality-controlled materialism; the refusal to say that all suffering is deserved and all beauty is up for sale. The conviction that it's not a feast unless everyone's invited, even the awkward ones who can't stay sober and haven't had a bath this year. It's all there from the start. I haven't changed that much.

The world around me has changed. It's filled up with love and understanding. I feel seen and held and appreciated to a degree that would have been inconceivable to me when I was thirteen years old, listening to the stereo in the dark at 2:00 am. I had listened to the songs so many times that I could play them at a bare whisper in the living room, and hear them at full volume and in full detail in my mind's ear, without the risk of waking anyone. I'd fall asleep sometimes on the floor in front of the stereo, and wake up stiff and chilled with dawn trickling through the eastern windows. It was poetry, poetry and music, keeping me alive. The only connection with other human beings -- though I'd never met them and never would -- that seemed real enough to bother with. They kept the thread from snapping through that long spiritual and emotional poverty.

There's no way to thank them, except to lift up the song again. But I don't think they want anything else from us.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


Weary, weary, weary. Unable to sleep, with Martha snoring next to me like a bandsaw all night. Around 4:00 she wakes enough to become aware of my wakefulness. Sighs at my inexplicable insomnia. Offers to rub my back to put me back to sleep, which is very sweet: strokes once, twice, and then is asleep and snoring again. I get up. Sister is crying in the downstairs bathroom, where she's been shut up to stop her from peeing everywhere. In the daytime we can at least keep up with her. Martha has an elaborate and well-researched plan to stop her. It involves spraying cat pheromones, and a number of other things, and I don't understand it.

Alan gets up at 6:30 to go to his fire training. I make him some eggs, working despairingly around the huge mess in the kitchen. Not just the mess from his D&D buddies last night: every surface of the kitchen not littered with dirty dishes is covered with sticky-taped trays, so that Sister won't jump up and pee on them. This does indeed make it so that Sister can't use the room as a bathroom. It has as a minor side effect, though, that I can't use it as a kitchen. "I can't sleep in my bed, I can't cook in my kitchen, I can't pee in my bathroom," I pout to myself. Oh, such troubles I have. I can't drive my car, either, because Alan's taking it. Feeling myself immensely ill-used, I laboriously kit myself out in my new rain gear and ride the couple miles to Tosi's. It does not, of course, rain. At Tosi's I take all the stuff off again.

But now I'm happy. My laptop comes through for me: all I have to do this morning is loop the power cord over the top of the screen, and that changes the tilt of the connection enough that it can suck. Sucking -- I think of it that way, now. Like trying to get a fussy baby to nurse.

And the new rain gear makes me deeply happy. From J&G in Eugene: I bartered some massages to have a personal shopper, who found me the coolest rain pants in the world, and excellent booties (nothing will make booties cool, but these are dry and have good traction, which is better than cool), and a rain jacket. I thought I was just bartering for the shopping, but she's giving me the stuff, too. It all makes me much happier than any set of cash transactions could. Carlyle talks of Capitalism making cash "the sole universal nexus between man and man": any subversion of that feels like a triumph. I often think of how much emotional texture the world of objects must have had before cash economies. Every object had a story to go with it: it carried your history with the person who made it or acquired it, their work that went into it, your work or your stuff that you traded for it. Your whole world would be rich with what we now condescendingly call "sentimental value" (as if, when push comes to shove, there is really any other kind.)

So will I build my altar in the fields,
And the blue sky my fretted dome shall be.

I got by interlibrary loan Richard Holmes' selection of Coleridge's poetry, with wonderful notes, which I'm reading with increasing excitement and appreciation. Holmes is right that Coleridge is often presented, unfairly, as a flash-in-the-pan poet. He actually had a long and fruitful poetic career. I used to think of him in the same way I think of Keats and Shelley -- meteors, more intriguing often for the might-have-beens than for the achievement. But now I think of him more like Wordsworth, as someone who actually accomplished all he was sent to do: though neither he nor his friends ever recognized it.

Much of his best later verse he did not publish, because he thought it too dark, or too obviously passionately addressed to a woman not his wife. He never lost the sense of pastoral responsibility he took on as a lay preacher in his early days, and he felt he should protect his audience from lines such as these:

O Man! Thou vessel purposeless, unmeant,
Yet drone-hive strange of phantom purposes!
Surplus of Nature's dread activity,
Which, as she gazed on some nigh-finished vase,
Retreating slow, with meditative pause,
She formed with restless hands unconsciously.
Blank accident! Nothing's anomaly!

(Though these in fact he did publish -- "Human Life" -- with a self-refutation carefully attached.) He is somehow the most human, the most endearing of the Romantic poets. The least grandiose. For all his posturing and theatrics, he meets you honestly on the road, as a fellow human being and nothing more.

Stop, Christian passer-by! -- stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seem'd he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise -- to be forgiven for fame
He ask'd, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Reporting Live from the Front

So this Thinkpad T41, like its predecessor, is not long for this world. Much as I like these machines in most ways, they have fatal flaw: the power connection gets loose after a year or two of daily use, becomes unreliable, and finally fails altogether. Meaning the power doesn't get to the battery, the battery doesn't charge, and the laptop doesn't go. For a while, by tilting and waggling and prayer, you can get the juice to flow again, intermittently, but the writing's on the wall.

Soldering the damn thing is possible. Someone in town here offers to do it for $150, but they emphatically decline to guarantee the result. But $150? That's halfway to a brand new ASUS eee.

I was particularly peeved when I was thinking that I'd just gotten the present machine a few months ago. But a year and half is really not so bad a run for a used laptop. They're not terribly durable. So I'm looking at cheap netbooks. Probably Linux: I've about had it with being pushed around by Mr Gates. Not only do you have to buy his damn operating system, then you also have to buy the virus protection to make up for its security flaws. A better operating system with rational security from the start and a reasonable footprint seems like a much better deal. Plus I have been not at all happy about Windows' increasingly pushy updates. I'll download things when I damn well want them, Mr Gates!

So anyway, if it falls silent here, you'll know there's been a direct hit, and I've had to scramble for cover. Then, hopefully, communications will resume from some Finnish-Taiwanese outpost in not too long a time. If anyone knows of a cheap netbook alternative that they like, let me know!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Spooky Things

The morning after Halloween, somebody had abandoned part of their Halloween costume on our lawn: a pair of black feathered wings, apparently a riff on angel wings. They lay awkwardly on the maple leaves: tawdry somehow, as most Halloween things are in the light of day.

But they still had the power to spook some of the residents of our neighborhood. Not long after daybreak they started assembling, scores of them, in the trees and the telephone wires, and started shouting, in shrill (for crows) voices. They did not like that black feathered thing on the ground. It was damned eerie and wrong. They wouldn't leave off making a racket until we came out and took the thing inside. Then they subsided, and in a few minutes later, after a few more warning shouts, they were off to do their morning crow things.

I've been trying to figure out why I so loathe changing the clocks twice a year for so-called Daylight Saving Time. I've always hated it, but growing up as a morbidly sensitive boy you get used to the fact that there are things that greatly distress you that ordinary people shrug off, or even enjoy. This is just one of those things, like torturing insects, that nobody is going to feel as strongly about as I do.

So later that same morning, seven people assembled at the Foundation for our 9:30 Monday morning meeting, each one of them knowing in their heart that it was really 10:30, each pretending that we were doing it at the usual time. I wanted to gather all my friends to cluster on the telephone wires roundabout and shout "Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" with me. Instead I meekly delivered the fundraising report.

It's partly that I love watching the slow change of the seasons against the stable marks of the hours, the sun rising later and later. And then suddenly somebody moves the marker, just as the drama had become most interesting, and it all becomes meaningless and confusing. For a week or two I'll be disoriented, and when I come out of that strange state, it will be winter. I never get to see fall turn into winter, and I never get to see spring turn into summer, because there's this sudden arbitrary convulsion of the clocks twice a year.

Don't read this last bit. This is where I turn into a crank, like your Uncle Fritz who's still passionate about bimetallism.

If I were emperor I'd decree two clock times, a universal 24-hour clock, with 6:00 AM being some randomly chosen time -- say, sunrise on the Pacific coast of Ecuador -- which you'd use when you needed to coordinate time across more than a couple degrees of longitude, and then a local time, with 6:00 AM being sunrise wherever you happened to be. We have the technology to do this. There's no need to be fiddling with clocks all the time. We're perfectly capable of creating clocks that know where they are and will automatically key themselves to the sunrise there.

I know, I'm the morbidly sensitive boy: but as the only morning person in a houseful of night-owls, I watch the wrenching daily struggle of my household to wake up at an arbitrary clock time, rather than at a time that their circadian rhythms could synchronize with, and I wonder why the devil we do this to ourselves. The technologies that mandated our clock time are obsolete now, and our coordination requirements are now global. Two-hour time zones, across thirty degrees of longitude, made sense in the days when railroads were king and telephones were rare (which is when they were invented). I don't think they do any more. In your daily work you're as likely to need to set up meetings with people in Bombay and Shanghai as with people in Pittsburgh and Duluth, in which case the time zones are more confusing than helpful. As fossil fuel becomes more expensive, mid-range travel, on the hundred- to three hundred-mile scale, will probably become rarer. You'll be dealing either locally or globally. The variations between clocks that know the sunrise won't matter locally, because they're so small, and beyond that you'd just switch to the universal clock. There'd be some complications, of course, but there are complications now: we just take them in stride because we think it's natural for 7:00 to be one time in Paris, and another in Tokyo, and neither to tell you anything very accurate about where the sun will be in the sky. If there were only two times -- local or global -- your watch (or rather, I suppose, your phone), could just toggle between them. "Sure, I'll call you at 15:30 U, which will be (toggle) 2:30 my time." And when you were trying to arrange to conference in Li Zhan Jun in Guangzhou, she'd know right away, without trying to do any mental gymnastics, that 15:30 U would be the middle of the night for her people. Would that be harder than what we do now?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

What the Pikas Said

The blush of sunset is fading from the sky: a pair of ravens, cut-out scraps of black paper, cross that dim orange country, that ocean of passionate air. They're all business now. There's not much that ravens are afraid of, but even they are uneasy in the half light, and they're heading straight home.

My feet are sore. But all is quiet, and I'm down in the valley land, and confident of hitting the forest road soon. I try to remember if there's going to be a moon tonight.

It's that time when hikers begin to sing, when they're in company, such scraps of old song as they have in common: old maudlin or patriotic songs that they learned in childhood, back before singing was something left strictly to professionals or karaoke exhibitionists, back when everybody sang. At ordinary times and in ordinary places they'd be embarassed to sing such songs. But the woods at twilight make even the brashest primates want to huddle together and forget their pretensions of independence. If I had someone to sing with, I'd sing. Home Sweet Home. America the Beautiful. Something like that.

Here it is. Forest Road 2143. It strikes me again as odd that big impersonal streets that mean nothing to people get names, but these little tracks in the wilderness, that can mean life or death -- or anyway a night in bed or a night shivering in the leaves -- only get numbers. Maybe the problem is that there aren't enough names to go around. Lost Road. Ten Mile Road. Home for Dinner Road. They'd all have names like that.

It's just a matter of time now. I walk steadily. I have a flashlight, but getting a better picture of the road isn't worth blasting my night vision. My feet can find their way.

I suspect that it's often this way with vision quests: it's only when you're pondering their failure that you find the message that was really left for you. Because to hear something new, first you have to set aside what you were expecting. Coming home empty handed, I suddenly hear again the whistle of the pikas, and their failure to leave their comfortable dens and show themselves becomes itself the message. It's not that you can't find your way, they tell me. It's that you're already home.

Friday, October 30, 2009


I walk down through the ferns on the wrong side of the mountain. The sun is level and glints in my eyes. Sometimes it's more important to lose elevation fast than to know exactly where you are.

There's a little watercourse, and the rule of thumb -- don't try this in Alaska, but it works here in the Willamette Valley -- is, if you follow the flow of water, you'll come to human dwellings eventually.

I have nothing but a certain gift for entering other people's worlds. It's all I ever had: it's what God gave me to make my way with in the world. Some were given a gun; some were given a gift of song or dance; some an agility with numbers; some a way with words or syllogisms, with clay or paint, with giving orders or taking them.

I was given a pale gray pebble. My gift. It warms when another heart is near and sends me words, pictures, bits of song. It tells me what they've heard in the past, and what they long to hear now.

It comes at a price, of course. I must be below the tree line by nightfall, or the mist people will take me. I see them now, beginning to show themselves, cleverly using thorn branches to accentuate their thrawn, bony arms, using the pale lichen to draw their beards, peering through the clinging beads of the recent rain to make their eyes. I never know if they're what I came from, or what I'm fated for, but someday I'll find out. Someday I'll linger too long on the mountain top, and those cold fingers will coil around my ribs and thighs.

I haven't learned much, in this little jury-rigged life, but I have learned this: you pay for gifts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I hold your foot to my chest, as my thumbs
work their way up the sole. Fold the metatarsals
around one hand with the other, and then

splay them with both. Work the motherloads
under the ball of the foot, under the first toe-joints.
Tweak the tips of the toes.

Give each a little tug: like straightening five little spines.
Hold them a moment, feeling the heartbeat echo
in them, with some sense that's neither quite

hearing nor touch, the life pulsing, glowing like the sun
seen through closed eyelids. This is love if anything is.
Wading ashore on a bright day. This new

gentle country, after months of stormy crossing.
I have outlived all my people. I am ancient,
made of shrivelled flyaway tatters

and gnarled stick-bones. The sun is all the more grateful
for that. The lendings all thrown off. I come ashore
slowly, like a wasp

crawling from a puddle, brilliant in the sun.
I am too old to die now. I am past
the dangerous withering phase.

There's nothing in me now but light and love,
the sunbeat, and a few fine scraps
of deathless skin and bone.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Difference Between Chaucer and Shakespeare

Language Hat quoted a letter that appeared in The New York Times, in which one Andrew Charig said,"Shakespeare wrote before English was standardized; Chaucer before it was English at all."

This was so breathtakingly wrong-headed that I decided to write a bit about it here. Chaucer is indeed English. I don't think any scholar of linguistics or of English would deny that. Mr Charig's error is just a silly one, and doesn't deserve to be belabored for its own sake. Perhaps he was dimly remembering someone saying that Beowulf was not really English (which I would pretty much agree with), and mistook Old English for Middle English, which happens all the time: any Chaucer scholar is used to patiently correcting people who speak of Chaucer's language as "Old English." But the perception that Chaucer is far more difficult and foreign than Shakespeare, and that there's a sort of watershed divide in the two centuries between them, is common. That's what I want to talk about.

Let's actually look at some. Here are two fairly typical stanzas, one from Chaucer's time and one from Shakespeare's. I picked these by opening books at random. They are both, as is common for both periods, on Roman topics: the first is about the rape of Lucrece, and the second about Saint Cecilia. Read them both and see which you think easier. The squiggles above the 'e's in the last line of the first selection, by the way, are simply an early way of writing a letter 'n'; and I've used 'f's as the closest approximation I have for the "tall 's'" used in manuscripts (for an 's' that is not final.)

This is Lucrece addressing a nightengale after her rape.

And for poore bird thou fing'ft not in the day,
As fhaming anie eye fhould thee behold:
Some darke deepe defert feated from the way,
That knowes not parching heat, nor freezing cold
VVill wee find out: and there we will vnfold
To creatures ftern, fad tunes to change their kinds,
Since mẽ proue beafts, let beafts bear gẽtle minds.

This recounts a Life of Saint Cecilia. She was an early saint, intensely committed to preserving her virginity.

This maiden, bright Cecilia, as her life sayeth,
Was comen of Romans, and of noble kind,
And from her cradle up fostered in the faith
Of Christ, and bore his gospel in her mind.
She never ceased, as I written find,
Of her prayer, and God to love and dread,
Beseeching him to keep her maidenhead.

The second is much easier to read. But I've played a bit of a trick on you, by letting you assume they're in chronological order. They're not. The first is Shakespeare, but in the original spelling: the second is Chaucer, in modernized spelling.

There are only two grammatical tip-offs here, which I'm betting only English scholars would catch: the participle "comen," (in the second line of Chaucer's stanza) which Shakespeare would not have used, and "knowes not" in the fourth line of the Shakespeare -- Chaucer would have said "knoweth not."

My point is that the chief reason Chaucer looks so much older to us is because of the universal editorial decision not to modernize his spelling. The grammatical differences are trifling. What really makes it look old is the Middle English spelling -- which is essentially the same as Elizabethan spelling.

Shakespeare is actually, in my opinion, more difficult to read than Chaucer, for a modern English reader: not because of any spelling or grammatical differences, but because the Elizabethans are far more fancy and ornate in their poetry. Look how straightforward Chaucer is! Of course, this is mature Chaucer -- The Legend of Good Women -- and that's immature Shakespeare -- The Rape of Lucrece. But they're both typical of their times. Shakespeare is by no means the most flowery of Elizabethan writers, and Chaucer is no simpler than most Middle English writers (Gower, for example, his main rival, is even easier.)

The only very important difference between Shakespeare's English and Chaucer's English is in pronunciation. The great vowel shift happened in between them -- that somewhat mysterious alteration that moved the sounds of all the English vowels away from the common European sounds for them. A second change was that 'e' in final position became silent: "name" became a one-syllable, not a two-syllable word. (Chaucer said "nahm-uh," Shakespeare said something quite like what we say.)

But neither of these changes is apparent on the written page. Nor are more minor changes, such as the fact that in Chaucer's English the 'k' and 'gh' in a word such as "knight" had not yet fallen silent. In fact, written Elizabethan English and written Middle English look very much alike: it takes more linguistic sophistication than the general reader usually has to tell them apart -- unless an editor has decided to modernize the spelling of one and not the other. Then they look very different indeed.

Here's the two passages as you'd see them in standard editions, for a college course:

'And for, poor bird, thou sing'st not in the day,
As shaming any eye should thee behold,
Some dark deep desert, seated from the way,
That knows not parching heat nor freezing cold,
Will we find out; and there we will unfold
To creatures stern sad tunes, to change their kinds:
Since men prove beasts, let beasts bear gentle minds.'

This mayden, bright Cecilie, as hir lyf seith,
Was comen of Romayns, and of noble kynde,
And from hir cradel up fostred in the feith
Of Crist, and bar his gospel in hir mynde.
She nevere cessed, as I writen fynde,
Of hir preyere, and God to love and drede,
Bisekynge hym to kepe hir maydenhede.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why I don't Stretch

A new version of this post is up on my massage website: I've removed the old version here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In which a Worm and a Bottle of Shampoo Astonish Me

I have an earworm this morning. Madonna, I think it is. And I'm wondering if the lyrics can really be as bizarre as the worm assures me they are.

"Don't go for second best, baby," it sings to me. I can go with that, Worm. Like Elizabeth's best friend in Pride and Prejudice, marrying that appalling parson. Don't do that!

"Put your love to the test." Pause. Perplexity. Put your love to the test? Like, voluntarily? Like the world's not going to supply enough tests? But it comes around again, relentlessly, as earworms do. Yep, that's what it says.

And goes on to this: "you've got to make him express how he feels, and then you know his love is real." Silent staggerment. Did she really say that, Worm? Are you sure you're not making this up?

So we're not talking about the parson. We're talking about a love contest, and you come in second if your lover doesn't talk about being in love. You're afraid it's not real and therefore you want to make sure it is by... inducing him to say so?

I try wildly to relate this to any experience of love I've ever had. I understand wanting to hear "I love you." Who doesn't want to hear that, from the right person? But it doesn't make you a contest winner, and it doesn't make it real. What makes it real is when you have the flu and they wipe the stray spit-up off your face with a washcloth, and kiss your forehead. What makes it real is you still want to read their poems and they still want to see your paintings a year later. What makes it real is when they get up with the baby at three a.m. because you have to be a work at seven and they have till nine. What makes it real is cutting you slack for saying something stupid you don't mean when you're upset, but making sure they understand the grain of truth in it, and dealing with it. And when your heart still skips a beat when they turn their head a certain way in a certain light.

As a good Buddhist, I grope for understanding. What kinds of experience lead you to view love the way this worm does? How does the issue become not do you really love me? but can I succeed in inducing you to talk glibly about loving me? And how did it become a contest, with rankings? But I get nowhere.

Contemplating these things, as I sit in the bathroom, I can come to no illumination. I shake it off and reach for the cheap shampoo at the edge of the tub. Reading material. I turn it over and squint at the fine print. Again I am astonished. Say yes to beauty, I read, without paying the price.

Say yes to beauty without paying the price? "Um..." I say aloud, "I don't think so."

Sometimes I wonder if the people from my home planet are ever coming back for me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Note: this was inspired by Rachel Barenblat's wonderful Likeness poem (I almost titled it "Sumac, Lemur, Condor.")

Suppose I just admit I didn't think it through.
Dear Adam. I thought you'd give each thing one perfect name.
That would be The Kissing Stone. This would be The Apple Tree.

And it started like that. But one bright morning you called her Dear,
and by evening you had called her Idiot. And the tree
became The Tree of the Knowledge of Dear and Idiot

and The Apple became Sin and I myself
became Something that Walked in the Garden.
I thought I would be able to keep up, but day by day

you multiplied names and all your kindred did the same,
and now I sink bewildered under languages
outnumbering the stars, each one naming Stars: I say them

over to myself at night, but dear, dear children
of the children of my children, I can't remember them all.
You pray to me in words I can't recall. Your murmur rises

to my ears like the song of multitudinous birds
fretting in hedges, like the sound of waters in a still country:
I hear your voices, but the words, the words escape me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Woke at 3:30 this morning. Padded down to the landing, and looked out. The clouds were clearing. Orion climbing up; Sirius trotting at his heels.

Weary, weary, weary, but no sleep in me. In the massage room, I looked at the wicker trunk and shopping bags of books that Martha put there temporarily a few weeks ago. It was time for me to accept that I didn't know whether these things were more or less temporary than me, so I moved my zabuton and zafu out of the corner, and pushed them into it. Then I set my shrine up, which I took down temporarily, months ago, and had never put back up. This involved a fair amount of shifting and sorting to get everything off the top of my dresser that had accumulated there: the two volumes of the Trigger Point Manual, my leftover brochures, Fiona Robyn's book The Letters, Stephen Dunn's Poems. Then I got the candlestick and the offering bowls out, cleaned them in a cursory fashion. The mala Tori got me in Japan. The pictures of Sarah and Michael. The little battered wooden Buddha.

Where was the block of wood, covered with blue brocade, that made a higher place for the buddha? The old mirror covered with blue silk for a backdrop? No idea. I searched the room, its closet, the basement: no luck. Martha would no doubt know, but she was asleep. Anyway. The important thing was to have a shrine and to sit.

But it was clearly wrong. The little wooden buddha sitting disconsolate, dwarfed by the candlestick, loomed over by Sarah's picture. I couldn't sit in front of that. Well. Just temporarily. The box for the shoes I bought recently was there on the floor. I set it there and set the buddha on top. Filled the offering bowls. Lit the candle. Stiffly made my three prostrations, said my prayers, and meditated. The shadow of the the buddha large on the wall behind, its ears hanging low. It made me laugh, the buddha on the shoebox: it was such a perfect emblem of my rickety slapdash meditation practice.

Of course it's all temporary, all makeshift. I thought of Buddha Shakyamuni, all those years ago, dropping into the pond of humanity, and this tiny ripple from his life rocking the reeds, two and half thousand years later. He would have enjoyed the humor of this.

I said the sealing prayer. "By this virtue may I quickly realize Mahamudra, and establish all beings in this state." My lips twitched at the word "virtue," as they often do. It's not very often that I say that prayer without a strong sense of its irony. ("Realize enlightenment by this virtue? Good luck, man!")

Empty the offering bowls, pour the water out beside the back porch, stand a moment under the still-dark sky and breathe. Then back to blow out the candle. Darkness falls on the buddha, and on the shoebox. Morning is still a long way away.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Warm today; almost balmy. Everything feels full, ripe, expectant. But still it doesn't rain. Yellow leaves linger on the trees: only a few fall silently, slowly, through the pregnant air. I used to dive for pennies in my stepfather's pool. I'd watch them fall through the water like that, in slow motion, sideslipping, spinning, hesitating.

Not a sound from the birds. There's a hell of a rain building up.

Brimming with love: the slightest jostle would spill it. Carrying all this light. It's like carrying a saucer full of milk downstairs. It doesn't really matter if some falls: the cat will get it anyway.

It gets harder and harder to understand, as I get older. Everything becomes more obscure. I'm no longer afraid of not doing what I was sent here to do. I know I will do it. Or I already have done it. But I know less than ever what it is.

For now, carefully, step by step, with a warm shadow at my feet.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The trees and shrubs in frantic agitation. For a moment a whole flock of starlings is blown backwards by a specially strong gust, all of them flapping mightily, all shoved tailward. Then they get the better of it , by climbing up out of the strongest current of the wind, and labor forward to the trees they're aiming for, while the leaves swirl through them, flying in the opposite direction. They arrive, subdued for their kind, carefully establishing a good grip on the branches, barely muttering to each other, like parachutists checking over their equipment.

The traffic lights sway on Sandy Boulevard. A single crow dares the wind also, cocky as ever, tacking port and starboard, and finally dropping almost to the ground to make his windward progress, going well beyond his target telephone wire. Then he lets the wind sweep him up and back -- a sudden swipe of motion, almost too rapid for the eye -- and there he is, having snagged the wire, bobbing back and forth, the wind rucking up his feathers: insouciant, full of himself. In a moment he's on his way again, leaving the impression, as crows often do, that he did it just to prove he could.

I rode here to Tosi's in the rain this morning, as an experiment. The gloves may do, even though they're not waterproof. The rain pants, flimsy as they are, kept my jeans dry, so that's all right. I'll definitely need booties or something to keep my feet dry, though. And a sweatshirt to go under my rain jacket.

The wind and the rain, the deep breathing of this living sky: I am in love. So grateful for this breakfast, and for this day.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Piper at the Gaits

There are times when the gait of everyone I see
is fabulously grotesque. Here's one
doing a Groucho walk; another waddling
to shame the ducks; another powering
down the sidewalk as if forcing his way
through an angry tide of syrup.
Where can they all possibly

be hoping to arrive? When they come
to the end of the world, they'll walk right off,
absorbed in posturing. For one moment
their eyes will cross mine, checking to see
if I register their brand. Then they'll drop
into the abyss, without even a wail.
Whoosh! Legs still pumping.

No business of mine. No one appointed me
the judge of walks. I sit with my cloven hooves
tucked demurely under my shaggy thighs,
and play my pipes. Little filaments
of music, drifting like the threads of Whitman's
spiders, catching what they may: something or nothing,
sweet or sour, tomorrow or today.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Somewhere in his mammoth biography of Coleridge, Richard Holmes notes that Coleridge's emotional instability, difficult as it was for his friends, kept him curious and learning and growing into middle age. He never hardened, as Wordsworth and Southey did, into a caricature of himself. The world was always new and wonderful to him, no matter how wretched he might be at any given moment.

One way of looking at my life over the past couple years is that I've plunged back into world, and given myself up again to the rollercoaster of Samsara. My meditation practice is practically gone. I no longer peddle myself as the sage of the internet: it would be too ludicrous, even for me, to pretend to be anything but the plaything of pleasure and pain, bobbing where the wind takes me.

Still my main response to this is relief. I feel not that I've missed a chance, but that I've dodged a bullet. It made me deeply uncomfortable when people would refer to me as wise. I knew that it was not true, for one thing, and for another, I had an obscure but urgent sense that accepting that designation would land me in a blind alley that I might never escape.

And anyway, I had other work to do. It's no small thing to have established what Buddhists call "right livelihood." In addition, I've cleared my mornings for writing. I commute by bicycle now, which I love. I've fought the food thing to a draw. Love is as difficult and wonderful and upsetting as ever. The fundamental struggles of my life are all either won or in full play, which is where they ought to be.

But it's time for some serious meditation again. My clarity has been deteriorating. My eyes are clouding over. This could be a blind alley too.

Love in Winter

Cold clouds
Drifting over long descents of bare field,
Full, feverish faces hidden in the broad chest of God,
Tears flowing like butter over pancakes. Maudlin,
Desperate, eager, kissing like the first time or the last,
Lips and tongues swollen, heavy with love,
Charged with wanting. Yes, winter is coming,
The long dark: but chilled skin melts under hot fingers,
And blood beneath rises to meet them; the flames
Burn hotter in the cold.

Monday, October 05, 2009


We lay in a rough circle, each doing our own practice, and the teacher walked among us. She saw that the woman lying beside me was crying, silently, huddled in a fetal position. She stooped to cradle her head, and stroke her side briefly; then she brought her a rolled-up towel -- to cuddle, or to catch her tears: I was not sure which. I was distressed that, involved in my own practice, I had not noticed that she was in tears. I felt I had been found wanting. Yet I hesitated too to do anything: bearing in mind how often such interference is only a pretext for inserting oneself into another's consciousness.

I sat up, and after a little hesitation, came near and laid a hand on her head, and just sat that way for a few minutes, loving her, washed over by tenderness. Then we began the road back, so I withdrew again, glad to have been able to connect without making any demand for recognition or recompense. The teacher was still making her rounds. I felt the tears come in my own eyes: I was thinking of how I could settle back into my own practice, knowing there was a watchful caretaker at hand. Thinking that it was not all up to me.

I've spent my life taking care of people. It's what I do: it's my calling. But it's always been informed by knowing that I'm not enough, not equal to the suffering and distress: knowing that attention paid here is neglect there. I imagined a world in which that was not so, in which a loving teacher was always making the rounds, in which love would be in the context of enough. That, I suppose, is what haunts me.

After the session, she came up to me and asked, "Did you put your hand on my head?"

"I hope that was all right," I said.

"Oh, it was wonderful! It let me stay there, it let me... thank you!"

She hugged me, long and intensely. "Thank you," she said again, and I turned aside a little, shaking my head and mumbling "thank you." We hugged again, and I picked up my stuff and left; delighted, embarrassed, perplexed.

In the context of plenitude, how different it would be! I could not have explained my own tears: I'm glad no one asked me to.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Stag at Breitenbush

I limp to the water's edge: look at
the writing-brushes of the ponderosa pines
poised against the sky. If Lao Tzu were here
he'd say something clever about the trees.

Nothing. Stripped to the flabby flesh,
dusty, full of poisons, harried and harassed,
cornered at last in a sacred place, I lower
my head. I still have the antlers of my pride.

Don't fuck with me. I have been patient,
in my fashion, and I am old, but it is still
not safe to taunt me, not safe
to back me into a cage.

It's not the mood you would choose
for entering a cathedral.
I come with my sins stinking fresh,
reeking of bad faith.

Full of anger at those who have helped me,
full of despair at intimations of hope,
grown old in the quest for youth,
grown fearful in the quest for courage.

How long would it take
to unwind all these crusted bandages?
Longer than I have. The scabs are
meshed with the linen, the blood

is matted in my fur. Still
there's no sense waiting till you're clean
to take a bath: the hunters gather silent
as I wade into the pool.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Finding Her Picture

She always lifts her chin in photographs.
Defiant. Do your worst. As a girl
She stalked behind the pink and duct-taped
Flip-flops of her mother, the fraying cuffs of
Dirty sweat pants, that joggling vast behind, and glared at
The shoppers, daring them to disrespect her mom.

She is distinguished now, books to her name,
Prizes for teaching, elegantly scarved. Only
Late at night sometimes she buckles, goes for
Ice cream that she'll eat straight from the carton,
And walks again behind that phantom in the store.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I had always pronounced Coleridge as three syllables (KOH-luh-ridge); but I noticed in bits of doggerel written to friends that he scans it as two (COLE-ridge), and Wikipedia says that's the right pronunciation. It feels wrong to me: Kohlaridge is such a wonderful otherworldly name, and Coal Ridge such a prosaic one. But I dutifully try to fix the pronunciation in my head.

My heart goes out to him: it always has. He noted somewhere, in some bewilderment, that he "was made for love," and it's striking -- even more striking than his extraordinary range of reading and knowledge -- how readily and deeply he loved. I can't help but wonder what would have become of him if the modern understanding of addiction and the modern methods of treating it had been available. I suspect that without opium, he would have been, rather than just one of the Romantic Pleiades, the dominating literary figure of his time: the equivalent of Milton in the 17th Century. None of the others had his range of gifts, or his ability to transcend the limits of his own time and culture. And the English-speaking world needed him desperately. He could have done much to bridge the chasms that were opening between science, religion, and art, and which have left all of us moderns stranded on our own sterile islands. Analyze, pray, or create: pick one and abandon the other two! Coleridge never accepted that.

Might have been, might have been. The wind rises and the weeds beside the window shiver. Suddenly it is Fall in earnest: a bright day, but with a chill in the air. Winter is gathering itself in the cool gray shadows. The birds wake uncertain and uneasy, these days: they sing a few hesitant snatches of song and then fall silent. We're all waiting for the rain.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

How To Fix It

Well, as Sky said, I left off the paragraph about how to fix it :-)

The problem is that we still, after all these years of bad guesses and bad science, don't really know what's wrong. It's hard to know how to fix it without knowing that. It's not even certain (though I think it overwhelmingly likely) that the modern diet is to blame. But we've also introduced an extraordinary number of drugs and toxins into our environment, without having a comprehensive understanding of their effects. And we don't really know how or when the damage is done: one recent study suggested that some of it is done in utero.

Still there are some prime suspects. At the top of my list are refined sugar, white flour and salt in the diet. Kessler's recent book is good, although, like almost all modern popular nonfiction, it's actually a short essay intolerably bloated with anecdote and repetition. He notes that some people's brain chemistry responds differently to sweet and salty foods: that the dopamine spikes in all of us, but in some of us it doesn't drop again right away, unless we stop eating. Few people will stop eating, under the influence of that.

The vilified Atkins had some ideas that didn't stand up to scrutiny, but his basic idea -- that refined carbs cause blood chemistry changes that make some people unnaturally hungry -- has stood up quite well. I'm quite sure that's one piece of it.

There have a been so many red herrings. Among things I think have nothing to do with it are: dietary fat. Cholesterol intake. Meat. Eating too fast. (Remember that what we're looking for is something that is not characteristic of pre-industrial diets.)

The solution I'm currently investigating is: making my food boring. When I was Atkins-ing, I noticed most of my bingeing behaviors went away. (You just don't binge on meat and fat, not without carbs. You slather butter on a potato and wolf it down, sure. Take away the potato? No. No one simply sits down with a dish of melted butter.) But one thing I could and did still binge on, though it was on a smaller scale: the salt meats. Sausage, salami, that sort of thing.

When I read Kessler on brain chemistry responses to salt and sugar, I realized this was one of the major players. And I felt the panic I have always felt when people suggested I do with less salt. No, says some primitive part of me, anything but the salt!

It's one of those shying-aways, those wincings, that you learn to pay particular attention to in meditation. It's often the thing that seems absolutely impossible, absolutely non-negotiable, that is at the center of a knot. That's the thing that needs to be softened before the knot can be worked.

I asked myself the question: what if there was no refined sugar and no salt in the world? What would my relationship with food look like?

And there was no answer. A blank. I could not even imagine such a thing. Things with no sugar and no salt don't count in my mental world as food at all. (This in itself is fascinating.) So what if I stopped eating either one, without restricting my food intake in any other way?

Well, for one thing, I'd have to pack my lunch. There is no such thing as restaurant food without lots of salt and sugar.

But for another, if I could do it, I think my relationship with food might come to be based on hunger, rather than on seeking stimulation. I don't know, because I can't really imagine it. Just speculation. But what if, rather than constantly seeking more and more intensity and piquancy, I deliberately sought plainness?

My relationship with food has always been Ahrimanic. I used to filch beef bullion cubes, when I was a boy, and suck them, rasping away with my tongue until it was quite raw. I loved cookies and cake and such too, of course, but not with same intensity. I was quite capable of eating an entire batch of brownies at a sitting, if they happened to be there, but that wasn't what captured my imagination. I wouldn't get dressed in the middle of the night and go out to find brownies. No, what I'd do that for was potato chips. Barbecue potato chips. I would eat them until the insides of my cheeks were tender and corners of my mouth cracked. That pain was not a disincentive: it was, on the contrary, part of the attraction. I was seeking a kind of oblivion in stimulation, the same sort of trance you sometimes see people go into with video games.

I don't often eat potato chips any more. A couple times a year, maybe, if I'm especially upset or wretched. And yet, my whole response to food is essentially that same one, on a small scale: a quest to be stimulated, stimulated possibly to the point of pain. And the diet books and articles all play up to it: your food can still be delicious and various! They all say that. Don't worry, you can still eat for stimulation!

So. I just finished eating three eggs, with no salt, here at Tosi's, instead of my heavily salted eggs and bacon. Just as an experiment. Because I've never deliberately eaten a non-salty breakfast before. They tasted better than I thought they would. But it is strange -- the dietary equivalent of meditation, of sitting still and doing nothing.

Friday, September 25, 2009


There are a number of homeostatic ("standing the same") processes in the body. One of the most critical is the one that maintains the proportions of sodium and potassium in the body. Every cell in the body depends on this proportion staying within certain tolerances. There are enchantingly clever mechanisms to keep it that way, and the body will undertake draconian emergency measures if it seems to be really going out of whack, cannibalizing bones, organs, and other tissues to get what it needs.

This process rises to our consciousness only in the veiled form of feeling thirsty (too much sodium) or craving salty food (not enough sodium) or possibly craving chocolate (not enough potassium). Most of the time we have no consciousness of it at all. It just works. Similarly, our breathing is regulated by the levels of oxygen in our blood. If there's not enough, we breathe more deeply. Too much, we breathe more shallowly. This process too just works. We don't make notes on our calendar: "must breathe more today." Or "not going for run: remember to cut breath intake this afternoon!"

There are actually dozens of such systems in the body, regulating all sorts of things. One thing is conspicuously absent in all of them, and that is participation by the cerebral cortex. All of them "happen automatically." You don't have to think about maintaining the Ph levels in your body. If they shifted minutely, you'd be quite dead. But the parts of the brain that do this monitoring, being very primitive, and essentially the same in iguanas as in us, don't enter our consciousness.

One of these homeostatic processes, and one which is very poorly understood, is maintaining the volume of fatty tissue at a certain level. Since this one has gone freakishly wrong in the modern world, it's the focus of much attention, most of it unscientific and silly: you might even say hysterical. The first thing to get into your head about this process is that, like all the others, it's supposed to just work. You're not supposed to have to think about it and control it from the cerebral cortex. (Which explains, incidentally, why attempts to do so are so pathetically ineffective.)

There are a couple myths to get out of the way here. One is that the volume of fat in the body is supposed to fluctuate: that fat is for long term energy storage. I was taught this in school. You probably were too. It's false. Fat is for short term energy storage. It gets us from one meal to the next. The body has no long-term energy storage: if it did, fat people would starve much more slowly than thin people, and the body would plunder its fat stores before cannibalizing other tissues. It does not, in fact, do this. That's why no one responsible recommends fasting as a diet method. In the absence of food, the body gets right to work consuming its own muscles and bones. We may consider our fatty tissue expendable, but our bodies clearly do not.

There are animals that use fat as long term energy storage, but they are all hibernating animals. Bears, for instance. Most mammals do not, and human beings certainly don't. If you give most animals an abundance of their natural foods, they do not get fat. They get horny. They reproduce a lot. But their body weight stays constant. It you want to fatten animals, as any rancher knows, you have to stuff them artificially with something that will throw their homeostatic processes out of whack. You don't fatten a cow by letting it graze endlessly. A cow allowed all the grass it likes stays obstinately at its goal weight. You fatten it by filling it up with sugars and injecting it with hormones.

The other myth that goes along with this, is that prehistoric human beings used to live in scarcity, on the brink of starvation all the time. Certainly some of them starved some of the time, but it was not the ordinary lot of your ordinary prehistoric human being. It was not until human beings developed agriculture that starvation became a way of life: a good harvest meant plenty, and a bad harvest meant starvation. Before agriculture, food supplies were, by and large, fairly steady and reliable: people were no more likely to be starving in their native habitat than modern chimps are likely to be starving in theirs. It happens, but it's not a way of life. We didn't evolve obesity as a way of coping with food shortages. (Which is good, because it isn't particularly helpful in that.)

We process millions of calories in the course of a year. If we were off by just a percentage point or two we would not be fifty or a hundred pounds overweight. We would be overweight by thousands of pounds. Or underweight by a hundred: that is, dead. This is not a process that is, or was meant to be, under conscious control. I know, I know, people who are normal weight think that they "eat sensibly." If I were normal weight, I'd believe that of myself too. But in fact they eat just like I do: they eat until they feel satisfied, and then they stop. Sometimes they want a treat but decide not to have it, just like I do. Sometimes they decide they want a treat and they have one, just like I do. This has nothing to do with our body weights.

Evidence for this is what happens when you do try to put the cerebral cortex in control of this process. Everyone who's been on a diet knows what happens. You become increasingly irrational and obsessive about food. Eventually you enter a twilight zone of struggle that is completely unlike normal consciousness. And then, sooner or later, you eat whatever you were trying not to eat.

Now, this is not the whole story. There's binge eating to be considered too. But normal-weight people binge as well as fat people. There's no particular reason to think that the homeostatic processes shouldn't be able to deal with binges. The sodium-potassium one does fine: after you gorge on potato chips, you don't die: you just become terribly thirsty, and you take in a lot more water. The body could deal with a massive intake of ice cream by simply making us rather uninterested in food for a week or two.

No, something breaks or overrides the homeostatic feedback systems. That's why we're fat. It has nothing to do with "will power" -- that will o' the wisp of popular superstition. It has to do with blood chemistry and brain chemistry, and what happens when you introduce artificial substances into a body that wasn't designed to handle them.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Oh, for heaven's sake, Dale, there's no time for that sort of thing. If you have nothing to say, be silent. There's no virtue in multiplying pixels.

Sometimes it seems that the whole enterprise of writing is nothing but whining, a toddler tugging at his mom's sleeve: "Mom, look! Mom, look! Mom, look at me! Mom, look!"

It's time to slow down, take stock. I have been embarrassingly unsettled by the cloud of invisible twitter-birds that momentarily settled in my tree, here. Someone must have linked to my "no more Tennysons" post on twitter, because suddenly scores of strangers were visiting, and leaving without saying a word. Which stirred up the muddy sediment of ambition at the bottom of the glass. Faugh. Enough. We've been there before: we know where that road goes.

So enough. Forget all that. There are things you need to do. You've been off-balance for a long time, now. Lunging won't help matters. Sitting will.

Last night, the muttering of the wind and the sighing of the trees, the skitter of restless cats on the stairs. This morning, my bare feet on the landing, my hand pulling aside the curtain. The sky was black, but Orion paused to look at me, before walking on up the hill of the southern sky, clearing a path through the spiderweb clouds for the morning star.

My prayers have been turbid and confused. The best-disposed gods in the world would not know how to answer them. You can picture them, exasperated, in their paper-littered offices: "what kind of requisition is this? I'd be happy to grant him something if I could figure out what the hell he wants. Jesus. File it under 'pending,' would you?"