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.