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.