Monday, January 31, 2011

This Ghosty Mansion

but what a relief it it is
to realize that other people inhabit
this ghosty mansion of a body

that's just fred
who locked himself in the attic
over that girl and still howls from time to time

and that's emily who
turns down dinner invitations
with such precision

gordon who gazes with
surprising and unremitting greed
at vapid spotty girls chewing gum

and phillip augustus
who rarely descends from his second floor room
book in hand trying

to understand
that business in the netherlands
and russell

who is a county extension agent
in Illinois and sells patent seed corn
on the side

you never know who
will pad downstairs to the door
and peer out of my eyes

when someone knocks and
the sighing and the rattling of chains
might be anyone

Sunday, January 30, 2011


Imagine all the bluster gone:
the bruise-colored pools under her eyes
sublimated, effaced. Imagine a night's rest.

Sublimation: when something evaporates
without ever melting. I can't go forward
and I can't go back. But just below freezing,
if the vapor pressure is high enough
a solid can vanish into the air. Dry ice does it.
We're not without hope.

Hands that won't grip, that won't hold a water glass.
Eyes that won't focus, a wandering tongue
that won't settle to a single language.
I mutter imprecations in Russian and Malay.
Which day, which year is this? I go
to date a check and think,
it can't be 1978. It's January. It must be 1979.

She winces when I take the upper traps
gently between my fingers. A little roll of muscle
slender as a tinker toy, but it carries
all the misery of the world. Once again at the hoku,
where the thumb joins the hand, and
at the wrist extensors way up by the elbows.

I multiply by six billion, maybe seven,
to arrive at the human grief throbbing
through the body of the world,
meridians of pain, traceries of fear.

I carefully tie a medicine pouch
full of pollen, fill a syringe with the cowpox,
sing a quavery song in a forgotten tongue,
draw a battered staghorn beetle
from the sweating girl's side, to show her
that the evil has come out. Or I tell her
How I get purchase on the demon,
seize him by the trigger points,
and cast him from her body. All the same.

But imagine all the bluster gone
the bruise-colored pools under her eyes
sublimated, effaced. Imagine a night's rest.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


I've been steadily working through my stuff, purging and filing, working out my variation on David Allen's Getting Things Done system. I have boxes of stuff -- old letters, game designs, school papers -- I never unpacked from our 1983 move from Olympia to New Haven. And after that will come the great book purge: I plan to get rid of thousands of books. That is a rather daunting project too. But with the landmark of my 53rd year coming up -- a prime number, you know -- and with the recent experience of going through my father-in-law's stuff -- and with the kids grown -- well, this is end game, as far as stuff goes. A couple years ago I realized the name of the game was no longer acquiring stuff, and I consciously stopped doing it; I stopped buying books, for example. Now I'm committed to getting rid of it.

Or, more accurately, simply knowing what it is and whether it has any claim on me. I want no more surprises in my life. I want the edges of my commitments, particularly of my commitments to myself, to be sharp-edged and clear. The projects that aren't clearly to be done, or not to be done, must at least be clearly, and with an awake mind, put into a plainly marked “deferred” pile, and periodically reviewed to see whether they haven't slid over to the growing “not in this lifetime” pile.

I have never given Stuff its due, I think. Painfully, painfully, over the last few years, I've learned to clean the kitchen daily, and to keep my office / massage room in order. But I was a messy, disorganized kid and I've been a messy, disorganized adult. All my adult life I've had at least one room devoted to Stuff. At the old Milroy house in Olympia we called it “the Id”: it was the laundry room, but it was also where we threw stuff we didn't want to deal with. At our present house it's the basement. Don't know where it goes? Well, put it in the basement for now. “For now!” I want that phrase to vanish from my vocabulary. It means, I'm not willing to deal with it, but I'm not willing to let go of it. It means, it drops into the vague anxiety stratum, that noisome bilgewater under the planking of my mind, breeding pestilence.

Doesn't mean I have to deal with everything right away. Of course not: that's impossible. But it means knowing when I am going to deal with it. The Glomph is going into the basement? Fine. But it goes clearly labelled “Glomph,” and with calendar entry saying, “decide what to do about the Glomph in the basement.”

The thing is, every time you put a Glomph in the basement, you're making a half-hearted commitment to deal with it sometime later, and that commitment weighs on your spirit. That's David Allen's contention, a sort of 21st Century version of Feng Shui, and I think he's absolutely right. Stuff that is vaguely and indeterminately held is Stuff that eats at you, pilfers your energy.

But the present experience, although it feels liberating, is also deeply painful. What I'm doing, basically, is digging through a whole substrate of vague ambitions and half-hearted commitments, and renouncing them. Forty years' worth of them.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Out of the blue, I'm sent another memoir in which I figure. A flattering portrait of me as an undergraduate, which I'm glad of, but which I barely recognize.

At the same time, taking heavy blows to my self-esteem. The truth of the matter is, I have no idea who I am. And of course, it doesn't matter in the slightest. No matter who I am, I have to do everything a great ape does. I don't believe in personhood anyway. But God, how it matters to us, this fiction! I hung on every word about myself, just as if I had any more significant connection to that young twenty-year old than with any other who wandered the world in in 1978. We really believe all this stuff, that origin is identity, and that what others see will make something real about us.

No. If it wasn't real before, it's not real now.

I got a request from a lawyer for the SOAP notes from a couple massages I did, and I don't have them. I never billed insurance for the massages, and so I never wrote up the SOAPs, and the notes are long gone. I feel horribly, horribly unprofessional, on so many levels. It's a lot easier for me to disregard the memoirist's picture of me than it is to disregard the picture of me that phone call formed in my mind, of a complete flake of a therapist. It was a bad period of time for me, and I was dropping lots of balls back then, but dropping balls in your personal life is one thing: dropping them in your professional life is another.

There's basically nothing to be done, but to confess I don't have the notes (which I did on the phone), and to write down what I remember, though I can't imagine it will be of any use to them.

Oh, young Dale is not happy with himself, no, Precious: not happy at all.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I was struck by a statement in a resistance-training book: if someone hit a point in training where they couldn't make any progress, it said, you couldn't just leave them doing the same thing this week as they did last week, because they would lose ground. There's no such thing as maintenance. If you're not gettting stronger, you're getting weaker.

“Maintaining” is just a tottery place where the forces in one direction temporarily equal the forces in the other. You don't get onto some plateau, where the forces of inertia are finally on your side. You're either going up or going down. Lama Michael once said precisely the same thing: “if you think you're not making progress in your meditation -- you're probably going backwards.”

I wanted to go to the sidelines and wait it out. I can't do that. Everything is a decision, forward or back. There's no neutral, no idle. What presents as a choice of three ways is actually only a choice of two ways. Up or down.

Which is not to say that there's no rest. There is. There's rest, there's sleep. But there's no limbo, no space between, no time out. There's no “good enough.”

I don't know how far I will fall, or what I will hit on my way down.

But it's better to be clear on this.

The glass is gone, and thank God! We've escaped the display room, for good an all. Now it's a long blind climb, the spelunking adventure of a lifetime. It may go underwater. But I'm not going to look for level passages any more. If it doesn't hold the promise of going up, I'm not interested.

Listen. If you listen, you can hear the air and the water moving, the respiration of the cavern. There's nothing dead or still here. This is the body of the earth.

I renounce all alliegances, close out all promises, cancel all debts. I'm going to climb to where I can feel the wind in my face and see the stars above the fir trees.

And falling, strangely enough, is the same as climbing: it's just climbing without traction. What matters is the intention. Falling will happen, it happens all the time. Falling is okay.

That's it. Nothing else.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Condensation Polymers

Quotations in italics are from the Wikipedia article on Carothers, the inventor of Nylon and Neoprene.

Wallace Carothers kept a capsule
of cyanide on his watch chain: you can't
be too careful. He went to work
at Purity Hall for DuPont

though he conscientiously told them
that he suffered from neurotic spells
of diminished capacity, which might constitute
a much more serious handicap there than here.

(Here being university, where incapacitation
from periodic gloom is the done thing.)
Purity Hall, where they did basic research
with a free hand, supposedly. Not really.

And weeks before his new substance
came to the public as the stuff of stockings
and the parachutes that would win Normandy
He put his skills to practical use,

dissolving his capsule in lemon juice, knowing
that the ingestion of cyanide in an acidic solution
would greatly intensify the speed and effect
of the poison. No note was found.

He strokes the thighs of indifferent women now
and forever in the chains of consequence,
in the endless complex of condensation,
in the polymers of the afterlife.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Company on the Road

Paula wrote:

I cling to Graham Greene's image in Brighton Rock of the homeless, toothless crone saying the rosary in a wintry alley, glimpsed by the long lapsed Catholic anti-hero of the story, a young murderous punk who is strangely unsettled by the sight. I posit her against hierarchies of brocaded clerics, obsessively defended liturgies and the salvific claims of various personal pieties and devotions ( Morning and evening prayer from the 1979 prayer book ? I prefer the pre-Conciliar Breviarum Romanum. In Latin, of course. ). I posit her, even, against the trans-religious contemplative claims -- that union with God, that enlightenment, that realization is reserved for the handful who master all the practices, who make it through all the gates and who play by all the rules. That's simply a sophisticated version of the Rapture.

I take some deep breaths, and resolve to resume meditating and go back to my sangha -- or some meditating community -- once a week. It's been a long time, and I'm glad I stepped away from it. I had a lot to try and to settle. But it's time to go back. And these moments -- these pause-at-the-diving-board-ladder moments -- are a good time to review what the hell you think you are doing.

One thing I am not doing is seeking enlightenment, that “sophisticated version of the Rapture.” I don't believe the process of meditation has, or should have, an endpoint, and I think Paula's point is well-taken: there's a smug elitist streak in institutional Buddhism (as in all human endeavors), and it reaches its highest concentration in the notion of enlightenment and perfect masters. And while I've always been grateful for Buddhism's calm, practical recognition that a well-ordered state and a working economy make religious life easier -- that's why so many prayers express gratitude for not having been born in a border country, where life is nasty, brutish, and short -- the flip side of that is a hopeless structural confusion of secular and spiritual ambitions. If you get extraordinarily lucky, someone like the present Dalai Lama appears at the top, which could give you the impression that this whole system is guaranteed to work. It is not, and I don't endorse it. Of course I'm devoted to the Dalai Lama: who wouldn't be? But I'm not devoted to the office, nor to the structure that supports it. My Protestant background, with its radical democratic ethos, its distrust of of authority, its conviction that a lot of smug people are going to be pretty damned surprised on judgment day, won't let me be any more than a fellow-traveller with Tibetan Buddhism.

But if they're willing to have me, I'm happy to put my Canterbury pony alongside theirs, and jog along, sharing stories on the road. I could go find one of those radical Vipassana outfits, who eschew story and ritual, the modern-day puritans of Buddhist practice, and be more intellectually at ease. But intellectual ease is not what I'm looking for: I'm looking for a practice that lessens my suffering and increases my clarity. And for company on the road.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Creatures as Buddha Found Them

We are the creatures
as Buddha found them:
unshaking, unshoken,
unwaking, unwoken.

We are the sleepers
as Ahriman bound them:
unleaking, unloken,
unspeaking, unspoken.

Deb Scott's 17th stone for A River of Stones

Yesterday evening I rode my bike under a night sky still blue, with the moon circled in a rusty ring, and a long haunted shore of white cloud to the east, above Mt Tabor. Deb Scott, across the river in the West Hills, made a memorable stone of it. At the Powell's on Hawthorne Sage read from her new book and fielded questions with wonderful grace -- the more wonderful and endearing, now that I know her well enough to be able to see how nervous being at the podium makes her. I saw Tom Mattox and Shanna Germain there, but was too shy to introduce myself to them. Mary Marsh delighted and confounded me by hugging me and saying she loved my poems. Portland seemed like a magical place, last night. Winter meant nothing: we could have lit a campfire on Hawthorne Boulevard and roasted marshmallows over it, in perfect comfort, and sung songs all night until the moon went to rest beyond Deb's house.

Now it's morning, and we're soon to take ship. More on that anon. Go gently, sleepers.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I don't know the way forward from here. I've lost not only my meditation practice, but my far older habit of talking to myself, of hammering things out. I don't want to hammer things out, now. I'm afraid if I hammer on something it will collapse.

Well, it's just a surge of thoughts and feelings. It will be on its way in a moment. Meanwhile the dawn is coming. Even if I can't see it yet, in this brightly-lit kitchen, I can feel it, the same restlessness that gets the first birds piping in the pitch dark. Not light, but the seeds of light, beginning to germinate in the rain-soaked ground.

The German-made dishwasher works quietly. Kiki cracks a few dry kibbles ostentatiously, to let me know what my delay in opening a can of cat food has reduced her to. Floating on the air behind those sounds is only the faint silvery buzz my ears always produce nowadays -- an innocuous form of tinnitus, I suppose.

My mind wanders off for a few moments, wondering if Travell was right about SCM trigger points and tinnitus. Nothing intrinsically improbable about it, but I've never seen it work. I should experiment on myself. Maybe what's really wrong with me these days is that I can no longer hear the silence behind everything.

No. That silvery buzz is silence, now, for me -- it just sounds different, that's all.

6:30. Staff meeting this morning: I had better get going soon. Back exercises, shave, shower. I have an absurd impulse these days to document my morning routine, to photograph myself shaving, write poems about washing my hair, describe in detail how I tend my feet. A sense that without a witness all these things will be lost? A suspicion that I don't really exist? I'm not sure what that impulse is. I want to film my hand reaching for the razor, the water going down the shower drain. I want to make line drawings to document my sequence of back exercises, which magically keep low back pain, my old enemy, at bay. Odd that my fear of mortality should attach itself to this. All my writing, all my massage work, all the ideas I've argued about so passionately: all that can go away. Good riddance! But I'd be sad if the world never knew exactly how I shaved.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Byah Byah Byah

Steady rain, a medley of cheerful conversations, a baby enthusiastically practicing “byah byah byah” at various speeds and pitches behind me. Sunday morning at Tom's. Every once in a while a new family member takes a stab at hushing or distracting the baby, but he's pretty determined. He's getting this “byah byah byah” thing down. No time for games or chit-chat.

Through the window, the crimson of the ConocoPhillips station glows against the gray rain clouds and dark juniper borders. What we used to call a Phillips '76 station -- is it a false memory, or did they used to call themselves Union '76 stations? -- All the single-name gas stations of my youth have amalgamated, it seems. Soon we'll have only ArcoMobilExxonConocoPhillips stations, and perhaps the company will simplify its name to “Gas.” That would be a novelty. Have you noticed that gas stations no longer tell you that they sell gas? When I was a kid, you'd see signs on the filling stations: “Gas” would flash in red neon. Now they don't have time to tell you what they actually sell. Getting the brand out is far more important: no marketer worth his salt would waste signage telling you what the product is. Keep practicing, little guy! Your “byah byah byah” skills are going to be in demand.

The head of a local environmental non-profit, the other day, a man raised in New York City, was enthusing about his strategy meeting with a regional consortium of environmental groups. They were rebranding the Northwest wilderness. Very exciting.

How I do love the internets! My friend and wonderful massage therapist, Neva Winter, drew my attention (on Facebook) to a mysterious new kind of joint motion: “innominate rotation,” mentioned to her by a doctor. What the hell? External and internal rotation, lateral and medial rotation, those we knew about, but innominate rotation? My Latin was good enough to recognize the meaning: “nameless rotation.” Now that was something I could not possibly leave alone. What was "nameless rotation?" It sounded like it should be one of the 99 names of God.

Google got me a ways. “Innominate rotation” was just “rotation at the innominate bone” -- not a kind of rotation, but just rotation at one particular joint. (Though due to the oddities of the configuration of the hip, it is an especially tricky and interesting example.) But the mystery had just shifted ground. Why was the hip bone called the “nameless bone”? Was it a euphemism, like calling the vulva the pudendum, the “thing to be ashamed of”? Somehow that didn't seem quite in the style of early skeletal anatomists. Google again.

I did find an etymology offered, in an early Nineteenth Century text on midwifery. The innominate bone, this text genially explained, was so called because it didn't resemble anything else, so there was nothing to call it. Hence “the nameless bone.”

I have a pretty good nose for false eytmology, and this reeked. Of course the hip-bone looks like things, it looks like all kinds of things. From one side, like an elephant's ear; from the other, like a brooding vulture. That was just silly.

The question had got beyond my research skills, so I put it in the hands of a higher power: I asked about it in a long (and utterly unrelated) comment thread at Language Hat, about the Lithuanian treatment of Polish 'w's. Within a few hours I had my answer, complete with quotations from the Greek and Latin, and further linguistic questions far beyond my competence. I summarized in my last comment there:

Ah, y'all are magnificent! Now this is an etymology I can believe in. Galen [2nd Century “Father of Anatomy”] threw up his hands and said "you know, the whatsit bones, everyone calls them something different!" and centuries of dutiful students solemnly wrote down "Whatsit Bones."

Before the internet it would have take me days of work to get to that answer. Fun work, sure: but I'm a massage therapist and a poet and a house hunter. My time is limited.

And finally, yet another reason to love the internets. Peter Stephens, the last of the Whigs: The old battles are the only battles worth fighting, the ones that never get won: Jefferson vs. Hamilton, Jackson vs. Clay, Douglas vs. Lincoln. You get clarity today only if you can see a political fight in those lights.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spaces after a Period

All my life, I'd been a two spaces after the period guy. That's what I was taught in my typing class in 1974. Not as a recommendation, or as a best practice: simply as The Truth. A period was followed by two spaces. After God types a period, his right thumb goes duh-dum on the space bar. Everyone knows that.

But I work for a typographically savvy organization, and a couple years ago they established a house standard of a single space after a period. After more than thirty years of ending every sentence with a thumb-stutter flourish this was very difficult for me. I still end many of my sentences by typing two spaces, and then a backspace, and probably will to the end of my days. But I've changed over. I've converted. I'm a one-space man now.

I've long been curious about this change, so I was happy to see this article in Slate by Farhad Manjoo. According to him, the double-space rule was codified during the reign of the manual typewriter. It was making the best of a bad job: in monotype every character takes up the same width on the paper, regardless of whether it's a big fat 'm' or a tiny period, and you have a problem with periods (and colons, which are just as narrow: everything I'm saying here pertains to colons as well as periods.) They float way out there on their own, in a sea of white space. In order to ensure that your period works like a typeset period, so that it looks like it belongs to the sentence it ends, and has nothing to do with the next sentence, you have to exaggerate the space that follows it. And since we're in monotype land, space-and-a-half is not an option. You have to take two full spaces. And so a rule is born, and taught to a generation of typists, not as a best-of-a-bad-job rule, but as God's Own Truth. There are two spaces after a period. (This is in a nutshell the life-history of most rules, actually: kluge → standard → holy writ → shibboleth.)

I was surprised by a couple of things. One was how outraged I was by being required to do something that directly contradicted what I had grown up believing, and had conscientiously enforced as a teacher for several years myself. I was amused by the reaction -- since I have never been able to bring myself to see it as an important matter -- but that didn't mitigate it. A single space, my heart told me, was simply wrong, and no good could come of it. My heart sank every time I sent out a thank-you letter from the Foundation full of this awful error. I knew that people just like me were picking up their thank you letter, sighing at the solecism, and murmuring, “can't you expect literacy even from the Library these days?”

But I was relieved to find that actually, after I'd produced the letter, I couldn't really see a difference. So the next surprise was that while most of the time I couldn't see it, the person who reviews my letters could. For several weeks after the change, I would get letters back to do over, with an extra space circled in red. She was always right, I learned. Often I could only tell how many spaces there were by opening the document up and arrowing over the white space. One space or two, which to my eye was nearly invisible, was to her quite obvious and unmistakable. It's one of those moments, which I prize, in which I am forced to accept that what I see and what other people see are not the same thing. I used to think I had a good eye for that sort of thing, because I've always excelled at pattern recognition. But actually that works against me in this case. Some murky substratum of my visual processing believes, with all its heart and soul, that a single space and a double space are the same thing. I'm like a Japanese man, learning English, trying to persuade his voice and ear that 'r' and 'l' are not the same consonant. It's heavy going, and I don't think it will ever be second-nature.

It's wonderfully warm out, in the fifties if not sixties, and after a couple days of freezing temperatures that feels like summer. The moist air carries a multitude of scents: the world is alive and breathing again. I like ice and snow as a novelty, but its charm wears off fast. I am entirely a creature of the temperate Northwest coastal zone: freezing temperatures put me out of my reckoning. During this last cold snap I actually contemplated purchasing wool socks, which I haven't possessed (or felt the lack of) since skiing and climbing as a child. Perceiving my feet as cold, and thinking of that as remediable, was as foreign to me as seeing two spaces after a period. There was only a vague sense of discomfort, a nagging impression that something was wrong. I discovered they were cold only by finding myself persistently endeavoring to sit with one foot under the other knee, the only footwarming habit familiar to me. “Hey, I know what this is,” I thought. “This is my feet being cold! People wear wool socks to address this!” I felt a sudden kinship with all those heretofore inexplicable wool sock wearers. My brothers and sisters, after all!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Tell Me

Tell me
stories about the last time
you wore your shirt inside out and

tell me again
that there was never an interregnum

a time when the lights went out;
that even then, the whales pulled
their oars in deep places

tell me the wind
drops in little bays even
where the headlands lean out
over the fretting sea.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Under Auriga

The arms of the firs struggle
in the wind, prayer flags waver and snap,
scraps of paper cartwheel
over the white-lined grass.
Let my memory be blown
out of your mind: let this winter
be the end of me.

Lyra will come
in Spring evenings scented with daphne,
Vega will burn in the calm mild air;
may no trace of me trouble the season.
May your purity of mind and strength of limb
rise from the first hot bath
of the turning year:
may you stand in clouds of steam
under stars that have never heard of me.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Silver sky, and a silver vehicle parked by the cafe window: some modern cross between a van and a station wagon, enormous, twice the size of the station wagons I grew up with. But precisely the color of the clouded sky, in this cold dawn. It gleams in the same way, its blankness full of light, every shadow hinting of tarnish. It is a dark morning, but full of light. Reflections of the lamps that hang from the ceilings of Tosi's march out across the sky, phantom lights against the phantom sky. Everything is gleam and reflection. The morning light pools and beads and skitters like drops of mercury; the tops of the firs are mixed up with the low clouds. Their heads are smoky and indistinct: maybe it's their breath fogging the cold air.

I'm reading a wonderful mystery novel aloud to Martha: Three Bags Full, by a young German named Leonie Swann. It's the story of sheep investigating the murder of their shepherd. They are sheep to the life: easily spooked, in constant need of the reassurance of the flock, given to the obscure impulses of communal remorse and shame that drive herd animals, and fitting everything else in around the central business of life, which is grazing. They are a bit muddled and out of their depth with human beings, but some things they have down cold. Voices suddenly drop, at one point, and the sheep nearby become attentive: “human beings rarely bothered to be quiet, and when they did it always meant something.”

On hearing the news of Pearl Harbor Hitler raced to tell it to Jodl and Keitel, exulting that 'Now it is impossible for us to lose the war: we now have an ally who has never been vanquished in three thousand years.' (Churchill, on hearing the same news, came to an identical but contrary conclusion: 'So we had won after all.')

Reading John Keegan's Second World War for the . . . third? fourth? time. Sometimes it's good to be reminded that fascists do eventually self-destruct. I have nothing to say about Giffords' assassination, which opens old wounds, except this: people have mistaken the fortitude and determination of American democracy before, and have paid dearly for it. If you want a fight, you'll get one.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Reading Sage Cohen's Productive Writer -- I promised a review of it, which I've been (yes, I'm aware of the irony) slow in producing. It's interesting to read something like this now, when my writing and my relationship with it are in their maturity: the last time I read this sort of “How to Write” book I must have been in my early twenties. Many of the issues she brings up (and deftly deals with) are so long vanished from my life that I have to look at them a while to dredge up the memories of them. Not being able to write? Not knowing what to write? Never happens to me any more. If some morning I open my laptop and find I have nothing to say, I think, “huh! Nothing to say today,” and go on to do something else. The idea that the fountain of inspiration has run dry never occurs to me. Not writing would be much harder for me than writing is, nowadays. It's just what I do.

There was a time when I would wrestle and struggle and try to figure out what I should write. It was because I'd taken on board somehow the daft idea that I should be a novelist, and so I was trying to excrete a novel from my brain by main force. It was a deeply unpleasant experience, and I don't recommend it to anyone. I eventually concluded that a person should only write a novel -- or anything else literary -- because they must: because the thing grows up in their dreams and daydreams and demands to be written. All my best writing happens because it has to.

I neither have nor want the novelist's skill of holding a steady viewpoint or two, and of organizing things into long narratives. That's not my gift. I'm not a literary infantryman; I'm a light skirmisher. Take a few pot shots and scamper away. Marching in uniform is just not my thing. If I ever do write a long narrative, it wouldn't be a conventional one -- not because I have anything against conventional novels; I adore them; but just because I wander off the track so easily. It would have to be something in the Brautigan line, if it was anything.

But I'm finding Sage's book very useful, because it does kick me in the seat of the pants and get me to thinking about questions that have gathered dust for a while. I have no desire to make money from my writing -- that seems like a dreary way to wring a little bit of money from a great deal of effort, and likely to spoil both my writing and my joy in it -- but I do have some modest goals for this blog, and I've neglected them. For one thing, I want to promote and showcase some of the bloggers I most admire -- to do something like Dave Bonta's Smorgasblog -- and I seldom get around even to linking people. And since was apparently hacked, and has become unsafe, I've even stripped my blogroll from Mole. This is not acceptable: I don't want Mole to look like anything but what it is -- one cell in a complicated literary organism.

For another thing, the comment software that took over from Haloscan won't do. I'd rather have flat, non-threaded comments, which I think generates a more genuine and inclusive conversation: but the real problem is that its log-in protocol is over-rich. It feels pushy: one more player trying to horn in on the “social network” space. It's just the comments, for God's sake. I find myself logged in variously as “Koshtra,” “Dale”, or “Dale Favier,” with various avatars, depending on where I've been lately. Or not logged in at all, and appearing as “Guest.”The difficulty is that they have seven years of my comments in their system as hostages, and I treasure my comments. I'm very reluctant to abandon them; equally reluctant to take on trying to import them into some other system.

And last, I have to disentangle this blog from my massage website. That site, I think, has to become its own Wordpress site, and stop being poor cousin to Mole: I have to give serious thought to where I draw the line between writing suitable for my massage clients and writing suitable for Mole. There is a line, and I need to draw it, even if it's hard. No reason why someone shouldn't read the blog content of both sites: but they shouldn't have to.

So. I'm not much given to resolutions, but I'll commit to resolving all three of these issues this year. And I'll write that review for you, Sage. Honest.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Scabs and Scales

Two of the toes of my left foot, the second and fifth, had been badly bashed, and their nails had become thick and crumbly: it took me a long time to realized that somehow getting bashed had rendered them susceptible to fungus, and that they were never going to recover on their own. I read around on the net a little and tried, improbable as it sounded, Ointment of camphor, eucalyptus, & menthol and “aggressive debridement” -- filing them down. After a few days, the the nails had gone dark, and then sloughed off altogether, which was fascinating, if a little alarming. They grew back in, not quite right, but much better.

The smell of menthol always reminds me of things forbidden. In my early teens I found discarded pack of menthol cigarettes, and I smoked a couple of them -- cautiously, and, like Bill Clinton, not inhaling. It was a strange feeling: deeply attractive, deeply disturbing. The wickedness of the tobacco companies was a common theme in my nonsmoking household, as I was growing up. But the menthol put a strange twist to it all. It felt so refreshing, so much the opposite of smoking, like a mouthwash. And the nicotine, like caffeine, fizzed in your synapses and made you smarter, livelier. And then for days afterward I could taste the hint of tobacco, lingering on my tongue, in the soft tissue of the insides of my cheeks and in my soft palate.

I knew the stuff was mortal. I threw the rest away. Still the memory of the menthol tugged at me, and whispered to me of different lives, lives in which you didn't count the cost of things, in which a moment's rush was worth what it seemed to be worth. I eyed the mothers of my friends who smoked, their yellowed fingertips, the stale tavern odor that hung about their clothes, and wondered what women who valued the rush so highly did all day, and what their fingers would taste like.

Bloody linens unrolled across the sky: a wounded morning, seeping through its bandages. I suppose there's always this urge to pick away at the scabs and scales. I always wonder what new tenderness is there; I always wonder if the new life beneath is being protected or smothered by its shell.

You could say, with St Vincent Millay, Am I a spy in the land of the living, that I should deliver men to death? Or with Yeats, Those that I fight I do not hate, those I defend I do not love. Or you could walk on the rust red cinder paths of the Cascade passes, with the broken brick dust of the whirring grasshoppers at the corners of your mouth and eyes, and the silence of the mountains pressing on your ears and making them sing like mosquitoes.

If I hold your face in my hands, and tilt your face to the light, what do I see? Still something oblique, something that always escapes the camera and the poem. We played truth or dare when we were kids because we thought the hidden thing was something you could say in words. Now we know better: but the ache of that curiosity never goes away.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Next Christmas

I take a deep breath, and feel the QL cautiously release a bit, the paraspinals ease, the curve of my lower back open a little. The extra pounds I put on over the holidays are pushing against the tenth and eleventh ribs, at my sides above my hips, and against the xiphoid process (that tip of bone at the bottom of the sternum). Sometimes I get back to a more human way of eating right after Christmas, but this year I kept eating like a mall-dweller, clear through till now, the official final day of the holidays.

Our counselor recently asked me to give him a physical description of my holiday anxiety, and seemed a little surprised, possibly a little disappointed, when I could give him a quite precise one, right off the bat. Hey, this is my territory: the body and the visualization of emotional states. It's a stiffness of the whole chest and abdominal cavity, knotted together by the abdominals and the QL, a turgid, steel blue mass, slightly colder than body temperature. As if an alien insect had laid its eggs in my thorax, midway between the xiphoid and the navel, and the egg sac was pushing everything outwards, and in the meantime all the muscles of the spine and abdomen were poisoned and ossifying, growing ever stiffer, weaker, and less serviceable.

I had played with the idea of radical withdrawal, of declaring unilaterally that I do not celebrate Christmas or any of its trumped up simulacra (Kwanzaa, Hannukah-on-Steroids, whatever.) And if I thought it would solve the problem, and give me back the last month of every year, I'd do it. But in fact it is my holiday, my ethnic tradition, for better and worse, and I'd be throwing out the baby with the bath. Whether the holiday is foisted on me, as a Buddhist, is a meaningless question. There's no such thing as a culture without festival times. The trouble is not the holiday -- commercialized and coercive and full of bizarre superstitions though it may be -- the problem is that I go limp and play possum in its presence, hoping that it will just nose me about a bit and then wander off, rather than deciding to eat me. I need to decide how I celebrate Christmas, and celebrate it that way, and the hell with everyone else.

I realized, as we celebrated what we call “our little Christmas” on December 26th -- “little” because it's what we do with “our little family,” rather than our extended family -- that I actually like the gift-giving, on a reasonable scale, and without the sense of obligation. It's the industrialized Christmas, with the extravagant feast and thousands of dollars of shoddy products changing hands in a feverish potlatch of mutual disappointment, that I hate. That, and having allowed “our little Christmas” to be marginalized. Our little Christmas shouldn't be the little one. It's the big one, and it ought to be the center of our celebration.

I've thought along these lines before -- a couple years ago I even went so far as to send out Christmas cards, for the first time in thirty-some years -- but I've never been so aware of it, and never so determined to change it. To make it happen, of course, I'm going to have to start preparing well beforehand, making my plans apparent to everyone before anyone else starts planning -- in August, say. And I'll have to make a strict list of the people I'm giving gifts, and figure something out for everyone, which will take sustained effort, and will require admitting to myself, long before December, that Christmas is coming and that I am going to celebrate it. Celebrate it. Not weather it.