Thursday, February 26, 2009


I felt my irritation lessen, replaced by pity. Like wax replaced by enamel.

So leave: leave under the gun-metal sky at dawn, walk down the gutterways, with the pulsing aureolae of the streetlights marking where the gravity slurs. Share a cigarette with the homeless guy in the park. Take the change out of my pocket and plant the pennies with him, so they'll grow into money trees.

Someone gave me two Martin Van Buren dollars as change, yesterday. They weren't gold colored exactly. They were a joyful color I'd never quite seen before: paler and brighter than gold. Ah, this, I thought -- now this, this was currency.

Blood Draw, Thursday, 8:45 AM

Look at the sky blue of the elastic band, leaping
in the flourescent light. Look at the pinkness
of your morning face. Look at the needle's end,
fucking my skin, looking for a warm arteriole
to open and accept it. Look at the scarlet
spilling into the tube!

(And later look at the one red dot
on the white gauze, a Japanese banner:
look at the purple bruising, like river silt,
upriver from the mouth.)

This blood, flowing from dark to light,
flowed from my mother to me, in the womb;
hers from her mother's, and hers from
the first blue-eyed freak, and hers
from the mother of us all in Kenya,
one stream of blood, only one,
in all those millennia, one river of blood,
yours and mine.

Don't stop that tube now, in the light.
Strip off your latex gloves. Pour my blood
over your face, let it stain your blouse,
rub it into your chest and hair, shake like a wet dog
and spatter drops over all the walls: my blood,
your blood, the blood of us all:
this one river of delight, this one
ache of living.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Farewell to Pasta

For many years I took a middling twice-daily dose of bupropion (a.k.a. wellbutrin or zyban) to moderate depression and anxiety. This December I tailed off, and finally quit altogether.

It was a good drug for me, arrived at after a fair amount of experimentation and observation by a terrific nurse-practitioner, who understood that antidepressant prescription is a fiddly incremental process, requiring experimentation and observation. We ran through a number of drugs, in different combinations and dosages, to arrive at it.

I didn't ordinarily so much notice the drug's effect as notice its absence if I forgot to take it. If I forgot it in the morning, by noon I could feel my anxiety levels rising; I could feel depression starting to stalk me, looming behind me, weighing his club. But the short-term effect that was a dead give-away, which happened even before that, was that I became angry, and found myself obsessing on some trivial irritation. Crankiness is one of the few vices I don't have, so if I found myself composing vituperative letters to the editor, or imagining domestic showdowns and ultimatums over, say, putting away the hairbrush in the same place every day, I'd check my pillbox. Sure enough. Forgot them this morning. (This sort of monitoring of my own emotional state, by the way, and being able to back off from it and evaluate it, is something I attribute directly to meditation: it's something I learned on the cushion, and it's been immensely useful.)

I've always hated taking the meds. They're scary drugs, and nobody really knows what happens when you take them long-term. Over the years I'd experimented several times with dropping my bupropion dosages. (You should do this very carefully, by the way, with any antidepressant, especially the SSRI's: it's easy to precipitate a psychotic episode by stopping them abruptly.) After the initial uncharacteristic crankiness, I could sail along all right for a few days. But pretty soon anxiety and depression would be disabling me again. Back to the meds.

This time, though, it worked. No depression. No anxiety. No crankiness even. I've been on an even keel for months now, without meds. Until last week.

On thursday morning I went into the kitchen to find a considerable mess, dirty pots and pans, sink full of dishes, half-empty cat food cans, the stovetop obscured by the pancake griddle (dirty.) I was furious. That was it. "If you don't want to clean up after yourself, you can find someplace else to live," I told the perpetrators (in my head.) I told them all about their delusions of privilege, and how their assumption that I was their servant was actually mistaken, thank you very much, and how I'd supported their useless parasitic lives for long enough, and this was my house, and if they wanted to keep living there, etc., etc. At that point, the monitor gently intervened, with his habitual question: "uh, half a moment, Dale. Have you by any chance forgotten your meds?"

Well, no, I hadn't, because I wasn't taking them any more. But this was clearly, clearly brain chemistry run amok. What was going on?

And in a moment of illumination, I knew, I knew both why I was cranky that morning, and why I hadn't been needing the antidepressants for the past few months. I knew what was different. I had bowed gracefully to the anxiety of these launches by telling myself (as I did over Christmas time) that for these three days I was dealing with enough, and I didn't need to pressure myself about my eating as well. Forget the carb restriction. Eat whatever you want, Dale. We'll get back to it when we're done with the scary stuff.

So the night before I had eaten an enormous bowl of pasta, and feasted on corn chips after that. And a few chocolate chips to round it off. A huge hit of high-glycemic carbohydrates. I could feel it, now that my awareness was on it: that desperate hunger, the insulin backswing. It was no accident that what made me so angry was an obstacle on my way to getting food. I would need to clean to stove before making my eggs. Breakfast would be five minutes later than I thought. Absolutely intolerable.

I was so delighted by this discovery that my anger began to ebb. I cleaned the stove and made my eggs. And after eating them, I no longer wanted to order people out of my house. I was able to formulate the thought that perhaps asking them to clean up would be a more proportionate and reasonable response. I was able also to note that I had actually generated a good third of the mess myself, something that had been completely invisible to me before.

The weight-loss has been interesting. I dropped twenty-some pounds right away when I started this, but then I levelled off at a shade over 200 lbs. I'm not sure whether I'm losing any more weight or not. The variations since then have been within my measurement margin of error. I'm guessing not: that if I eat "white stuff" (white flour, sugar, corn syrup, white rice, potatoes, pasta) my weight will tend to hover at 235, and that if I don't it will hover around 200. I'd love to be lean, but I have no intention of inflicting a restricted-calorie diet (what Gary Taubes accurately designates "a semi-starvation diet") on myself. If my hypothalamus wants me to weigh 200 lbs., 200 lbs. it is. I'm a big stocky Norwegian with a lot of muscle: 200 lbs. doesn't look that bad on me.

So this is it, I think. A farewell to white stuff. Pasta, adieu!

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I am the only person
who doesn't understand love.

Other people seem to know
where love comes from, what they want

and why; they know that partners
measure up to industry standards

or don't. They are orderly. One
at a time. But love trips me from behind

every time, totally unexpected,
wholly unknown. I've never even seen

his face. All I know
is that as I lose my balance,

falling forward, toppling into
an immense radiance,

unable to catch my breath,
blown out like a candle

by the wind of your eyes,
is that nothing else

has the slightest importance.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Launches and Chance-Met Cats

I know, I've been scarce. The unread blog posts are piling up in Google Reader: pretty soon I'll have to repudiate my blogging debts by taking the drastic measure of clicking the "mark all as read" button.

I've been busy. I'm signed up as a "preferred vendor" with the concierge services at three apartment/condo complexes. Which meant that I had to come up with a brochure in a hurry, and deal with obscure liability insurance issues, and also meant, last night, attending a "concierge services launch" -- standing for a couple hours in a lobby with pet groomers, maids, dog walkers, girl fridays, the zip car people, and my fellow massage therapist, so the quality could come by and have a look at us: we stood behind tables with our brochures and flyers spread out in front of us. There was wine and finger food.

Well, it's not the sort of thing I shine at. I smiled amiably at the residents, who were astonishingly young. As it got more party-like and the noise level increased I could distinguish absolutely nothing that anyone said, except the girl friday on my left, who had one of those clear, bell-like voices that I love. As the ineptness of the rest of us became evident she took on more and more of the burden of marketing us all. I have always deeply admired people who have social skills with strangers. It proceeds, it seems to me, from a fundamental trust in their goodness, which, as a Buddhist, I applaud, but which, as someone who grew up a shy, weird kid in American public schools, I've never managed to emulate. I just know that strangers are waiting to tape a "kick me" sign to my back, and snap their towels at me in the locker room.

So I have two more of these events to attend, tonight and tomorrow night. After that I should be around the cyberhood more.

A lovely, lovely massage last night, after the "launch," with one of my oldest clients: you learn so much more about someone's body every time you work with them, and you get so can recognize new issues and head them off before they settle in -- that tightness around the knee that would be trouble in a week or two if we didn't get it unwound; that little hesitation in turning the head that bids fair to become a snarl of lev scap trigger points if it's not worked hard. And you just find out what works and what doesn't. The same way you learn how your cat likes to be petted, that she loves smoothing back the whiskers, say, but doesn't care for the tummy rub. I treasure my steady clients. Not to put too fine a point upon it, I adore them. I spend a fair amount of time mulling over what I should do next time; where I should focus, and what sequencing will work best.

It's such a simple relationship, so uncluttered with words or status, a purely private compact, which has no social implications or expectations beyond the space of the session. One of my favorite interactions has always been that of an unplanned love-fest with a chance-met cat, when I'm out on a walk. Certain gregarious cats -- or is it just any cat, in a particular mood? -- will run out to greet you, especially on a chilly day, and you can squat on the sidewalk and have a glorious petting feast, purring and stroking in a perfect orgy of mutual appreciation. And then, just as abruptly, the cat's had enough: that's all, done for now! And walks off with its tail in the air. The relationship's over, but there's no recrimination, no disappointed hopes, no implicit contract broken. It might happen again on this street. Might not. No problem, either way.

Now, this is not the way I want my family- and love-life to be. Human love inevitably ramifies into the past and the future, expectations and history tangle and implicate, and I wouldn't want it any other way. But massages, and chance-met cats, are wonderfully restorative. I would find life without them very difficult.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Outside the Insurance Office

Outside the insurance office, the office where
the Japanese agent wears her bleached
blond hair like a teased lampshade,
and where they pipe
music onto the sidewalk (Is it
insurance music?) there is
concrete curbing, the leavings of some
landscape ambition never realized, and
being my father's son
I can't see such a thing without suffering
an Ovidian transformation.
My big toes harden into half-hoofs
The four little toes merge into
the other hoof-halves on each side.
My eyes grow bright and beady. My head cocks.
I am no longer nice: I am
all lechery and mockery. I give a little bleat,
and skip up onto the curbing,
four inches wide, plenty for my goat self:
I walk the tightrope across the office front.
Their gum-chewing pauses in there.
They want to see if I'll fall. I never do.
At the street I drop lightly to the pavement,
and assume the guise of a kindly, white-haired man
walking home from the bus stop. You never know.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Time with a New Lover

There comes a time with a new lover
when you have to tie your shoes
in front of her, and she will see
how slow you are, how clumsy, how

the ends don't match up and the loops
have always slipped and it's so hard
to make the knot cinch where you think
it ought to cinch and you know, while

your face turns red, because you are
too fat, that just as in Mrs Murdoch's
first grade class, in the end, in the end,
you will have untie the mess you have made

and start all over again, and go even
slower because you are flustered, and
she realizes you are stout and old, and
it will always take this long to go for a walk.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


All the details are from Shelby Foote's history. I suspect this is a very bad poem, but I liked some bits of it, and I missed you all so I wanted to post something. I hated these kids in school: handsome strong boys whose grandpas had moved to Oregon from Arkansas because there weren't any niggers here, who had something better to do than school. I see it differently now. These are the kids who get sent to Iraq and get limbs blown off, who have minimum wage jobs to look forward to, if any. We're happy enough to use them as cannon fodder, and they're happy enough to go, at first: they believe what they're told. And afterwards, well, nobody listens to them anyway, so it doesn't matter.

His beard was gleaming gold and curly.
He couldn't find a comfortable way
to set the stump of his leg on the saddle;
by the end of the day he slid down
gasping with pain, and his adjutant
handed him his crutch.

Indomitable, they called him, the sort of boy
who never cries uncle, no matter how his face
Is ground into the dirt. One arm useless,
one leg gone, the Confederate sky falling
in lazy gray flakes on the long mud road:
John Bell Hood of Texas
who wasn't much good at school.

Joe Johnston wouldn't fight, because
he knew he'd lose; he fell back brilliantly
mountain by mountain. Sherman couldn't catch him:
the blue troops swept up to the breastworks
and found them empty, again and again.
Joe had slipped away.

But surely he'd fight for Atlanta? Alarmed
telegraphs tried to tell. Johnston wouldn't say:
He never liked to tip his hand. In Richmond
the anxiety grew. Lincoln would be re-elected
if Atlanta fell. That would be the end.

Hood, well, Hood
might not be the sharpest tool in the shed
but everyone knew he'd fight. The telegram
Finally came. Joe relieved of command:
John Bell Hood of Texas
had the Army of Tennessee.

In Joe's tent, Hood begged him
to put the order aside. At least until
the battle for Atlanta was fought. My God,
he didn't even know, said Hood,
where all the divisions were. "I'm a soldier,"
Johnston said. "What a soldier does

is obey." But he softened before Hood's anxiety.
He promised to stay and help a day or two.
He lied. He didn't mean to. But that night he did
what Joe always did best: he slipped away,
and John Bell Hood of Texas
had the Army of Tennessee.

He fought, all right: it was what he knew how to do,
What he'd done in the Valley, when the world was young;
savage attacks that had driven the green Union boys
and sent them running for home. Stonewall had been
His stern but loving father then. He gave the orders
and Hood obeyed. Now Hood was on his own. And

Sherman's men were different stuff. Ungallant,
impossible to catch in the open, building earthworks
everywhere they paused, burrowing like chiggers
in the flesh of the South. They knew when to fight
and when to run. Sherman exulted in the favor
The Rebs did him when they put Hood in command.

A month later, a soldier came at night
to ask for furlough. What was left of the last
marching army of the South was in tatters there.
He was sick and wounded and wanted to go
where his people were starving, and
starve at least at home. He wrote about it afterwards,

how the tears ran into the golden beard
the whole time. Hood signed his furlough and sent
him home. The tears never stopped, dripping
like diamonds in the light
of the burning kerosene, and he never spoke:
John Bell Hood of Texas weeping in his tent.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Not as it Appears

The other day Martha came back into the house. "I'm going to need to take the Honda instead! The Ford has a low tire," she called to me. "Okay!" I called back. I was taking the bus to work anyway.

On my way out I looked at the Ford's tires. They looked fine to me. I walked all around. Sighted down to see if the curves looked different. Nothing. They were the same.

That night when I got home, I said, "so one of the Ford's tires is low? Which one?"

"The front, on the passenger side," she said, promptly.

Now, I've known Martha a long time. If she says something's so, it's so. I went back out, armed with my new knowledge of which tire was supposed to look lower. Went around the car looking at the tires.

Back inside. "You're sure about the tire being low? I believe you," I added hastily, "but I just can't see it."

"If you believe me, why are you asking again?" she laughed.

We found the tire gauge. I went out and measured the air pressure. The left front tire was fine, but the right front tire, sure enough, was six pounds low. I still couldn't see the difference.

I drove it to a gas station and filled the right front back up to 36 lbs. All the while I chewed over the fact that, although I had accepted the fact, and was acting on it, I still didn't really believe there was a visible difference to the tires. There must have been. But I was finding it impossible to believe that while I couldn't see it, Martha could. I use reading glasses now, sure, but Martha does too, and this wasn't a matter of fine print, it was a matter of proportions and shapes. Not, in other words, a matter of the eye: a matter of the brain's visual processing. I have learned to accept, though grudgingly, that other people can see and hear things I can't. I often have to fish out my reading glasses to read fine print that my kids read with ease; I've long accepted that other people can hear sounds in a certain range -- say, the base line of a song on a radio next door -- when I can't hear a thing. But this was different. This wasn't my eyes or my ears. This was my brain not being able to detect something.

It bothered me like having a beetle dropped down the neck of my shirt. The fact was simple enough; the evidence was overwhelming; but I kept groping for another answer. The Honda must have a warning light that I didn't know about. Martha must have unconsciously noticed the car handling differently yesterday. She must have checked the tires and be teasing me by pretending to have detected it by sight.

Preposterous, all of them. She could see it and I couldn't, that was all.

This, I thought, was the simplest and easiest case. A discrete physical fact that could be established by measurement. But it's just one of countless things that I can't see and other people can. And likewise there are countless things that I can see and other people can't see at all. When we get to complex things that are impossible to measure -- the good faith of a White House spokesman, say -- the perceptions are just as sharp and just as firmly believed. Many of them are dead wrong. Many of mine, many of yours. But making ourselves understand that intellectually is a huge effort. Making ourselves understand it viscerally is even harder. When we already distrust the people who see something different from what we see, hostility blossoms. We know they really see what we see. They're just pretending not to, out of malice or greed or sheer stubbornness. They must see what we see.

I don't think human beings will ever stop deliberately harming each other until they understand, viscerally, that other people don't see what we see. And I don't think that will ever happen. It's simply too difficult to achieve. Yogis spend lifetimes trying to reach this understanding: it's part of what a Buddhist means by "wisdom" or "understanding emptiness." Getting that the world is really not as it appears -- feeling the play of appearance wash over you as a phantasmagoria of self-generated perception. It's like feeling the wind blow through your body. Which of course the cosmic wind actually does: subatomic particles go whistling right through the space our bodies occupy without turning a hair. We are truly insubstantial.

There's no big practical value to learning to perceive it. There's no worldly reason to spend the hard frustrating work of meditation that is supposed to help in the process. I won't earn more money or impress the girls or escape death. There's no reason but this: it's the deepest bliss and the greatest relief I know. I've known it only for a few moments at a time, now and then, moments of grace. I don't even know for sure that meditation makes it happen more often. But rare as it is, and impossible as living there seems to be, having experienced it transforms everything. Just to have seen it once cracks open the carapace. A little light leaks in. It's really not as it appears. Thank God.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Bits Cut Loose

The hug I gave to Ann last week, for instance: could I conceivably say that it is not part of me? And can I say it's dead, because it happened in the past? Of course it's not dead, while I remember it and while Ann remembers it. But more than that. It's not dead because it's colored everything we both have done in the week since. It spreads like a tint in water. Impossible to kill, impossible to isolate. And yet if anything is me, it is that warm and lovely hug, after a massage, in the Sunday dusk. I have been leaving bits of me behind all my life: and by now the bits that have lost all contact with my body and my present stream of consciousness are far, far bigger and more important than any bits that are still to come. Why should I mind about dying, about this particular lump of tissue becoming inert? It has never had much importance, even just in relation to the other bits of me cut loose and swimming in the universe, and each day I get closer to my death it has proportionally less. This part of me, though it carries the brand-name and logo -- Dale Favier in the Flesh! -- is not the most important part of me. It's not a very important part of me at all, actually.

Quiet gray dawn. Out my window I see the leafless, tangled, silvery twigs of the neighbor's dogwood tree, and its darker, mossy branches. Their lines arrange themselves in concentric circles for my eye. And behind, the the dark green of the doug firs boughs, wavering. Just barely, at the range of my hearing, birds peeping. Or am I imagining it? I can't tell.

Loving you this morning intensely, missing your bright eyes, missing your laughter. Last night the waxing moon rode in a surf of wispy clouds, running fast before the wind. I thought of the warmth of your chest, of how I love to listen to your heartbeat.

The light has grown while I write. Almost the plain light of day now. I love you. Take such good care today. And tonight, God willing, I will hold you, in one of your incarnations. And we will send more bits of ourselves out on the water.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Unearned Blessings

A recent comment on my last post asked if I thought my meditation practice helped me to be in the moment, and to fully experience such mundane pleasures as that of making breakfast. It was flattering and kindly meant, but red flags blossomed immediately. Don't go there, said some inner monitor.

The reaction was strong and immediate, and I've been mulling over its origins. There are a couple parts to it. One is that if it's true, it's only weakly true. Much more important are other "causes and conditions," as we Buddhists like to say: my family leaves me alone in the early mornings; my work schedule leaves me free to savor them; and my ship has glided into unexpectedly happy, calm water of late. All these have much more to do with being able to gaze wonderingly at the violet-green beads of coffee bubbles than my haphazard meditation practice.

Another comment, from Rachel of Velveteen Rabbi mourned being unable just now to access such "a state of appreciation and gratitude." Case in point. Anyone who thinks my spiritual practice more advanced than Rachel's needs their head examined, or at least needs to spend a few hours reading VR. Yet I get the blessing just now and she doesn't.

You can see where this tends to go. Immediately the thought of the blessing as something I have earned comes up, it starts burrowing grublike into the rich soil of egotism, waiting to hatch all kinds of suffering. The day will come soon enough when I'll be in a hurry and the damn coffee will take forever and its grounds will look like mud with an oil slick on top and remind me of construction sites and environmental disaster rather than gems in black sand and I'll hate being poor and wasting my time on this stuff, cooking like a drudge while other people are writing brilliant things. Shall I add to that the conviction that my unhappiness shows the poverty of my spiritual practice, and the knowledge that actually I'm a cheap charlatan who only talks the talk?

No, I think it's better to take blessings as wholly unearned and undeserved, free gifts of God (Buddha-Nature, Allah, Nature, whatever you like to call it.)

Still. On the other hand. What other motivation do we really have for practice? If we're too austere about it, we're at risk of falling into the sort of determinism that undoes our practice altogether. If it doesn't do anything for us, why do it? Why did we ever start, except from a conviction that our spiritual life was a shambles, and our suffering could somehow be mitigated, and we could grope our way towards those blessings that worldly amibitions and pleasures kept promising but signally failing to deliver?

I think it best to abandon thoughts of having earned blessings, when we're feeling blessed. (This fortunately is fairly easy to do: everything's easy to do when we're feeling blessed.) And when we're not feeling blessed, the most fruitful attitude is -- not to heroically try to manufacture a feeling of gratitude that we don't have, but to fall into the most abject and selfish attitude of petition. Please, God, help me now. Show me what to do. Help me. Traditions like mine have special deities that you can go to in this state, gods and goddesses of compassion such as Chenrezig or Green Tara, more or less equivalent to Mary in the Catholic tradition or the suffering human Jesus in some Protestant traditions. When you're miserable somehow the embodied gods that you can see, the ones who remind you of the people who have been kind to you, work better than the serene untroubled Buddhas and God-the-Fathers who appear as gems in the coffee filter.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Reporting Live from the Breakfast Table

It must have started in Olympia, when I was eighteen, in college. I would wake up at five or so (I am an extreme morning person) hungry and lonesome. Martha (an extreme non-morning person) wasn't going to wake until nine or ten. What to do? Well, get out and walk. And eventually, walk the couple miles downtown. And there in downtown Olympia was a cafe, called The Spar. What Easterners call a diner. And, having at that time plenty of money, I'd go in for breakfast. It turned out to be a grand place to study. Bright lights, no music, a skillful waitress always somewhere entertaining on the continuum from irrascible to cheerful. Bang, down came the cup of hot coffee. Bang, down came the eggs and hash browns. I spent hours there, which they didn't seem to mind, so long as I tipped well: there were plenty of tables, even as the morning drew on and people with more normal metabolisms showed up. It was marvelous. I wasn't alone, but I didn't have to interact. I'd spend an hour on my Spanish, then an hour reading books for class, then an hour writing. The coffee magically stayed there, hot, while I read and wrote. It was my favorite time of day. Still is.

It was a pleasant indulgence. Pleasant indulgences become habits, and habits become necessities: breakfast out has been a necessity for thirty years. Family members are perplexed, even alarmed, if I'm home in the morning. What's wrong?

It's a habit I can no longer afford, though. Not daily. So I'm working my way into new habits. I'm sitting here in my massage room at a card table. The coffee at my elbow is mysteriously defective. It gets cold and runs out. My water glass also, when it empties out, just sits there stubbornly. My breakfast was good, but it was a bother to make (no eggs! had to run out to the store.) And it refused to wash up after itself.

This is hardly the stuff of tragedy. But --

Excuse me. I've got to make myself another cup of coffee.

I wrote that some weeks ago. Making breakfast has become usual for me, now. One thing I had not at all anticipated was that I would come to love the process itself. Cracking open the lustrous brown-shelled eggs, and whisking their contents into a smooth mass A dollop of milk. Dropping bits of cheddar into the pan, splotches of warm orange in the warm yellow. The smell of coffee beans when I open the bag. Watching the grounds emerge, like glistening black sand, as the last of the coffee drains from the filter into the cup. Seeing a few iridescent bubbles form in the hollows: tiny violet-green beads gleam against the rich black, and then vanish again. The warmth of the stove touching me now and then, carelessly, like an old accustomed lover. And then washing everything up so that it's all clean and ready for tomorrow morning, the fry pan and the spatula drying on the drainboard, everything orderly and complete. Eating is only one of pleasures of breakfast, now.