Monday, July 30, 2012

Something I Ate

“Must have been something I ate,” we say, or possibly it was everything I ate: a couple days of high stress, a couple days of reckless eating. It came on yesterday, as I was finishing up the weekly reports for work: a sluicing diarrhea, and the strange intense pains that can go along with that. You would think that it would be a nice break for the bowels, dealing in fluids for a change; but it seems not – sharp, griping pains, and faint efflorescences of panic.

I made it home without accident, and spent a disturbed night, back and forth from the bed to the bathroom, pain enough to make me gasp and think of death one moment, and mere faint discomfort the next. I remembered a retreat I was on once, with Lama Michael, and Michael in the grips of a horrid flu. Pale and sweaty but good-humored. “Sometimes,” he remarked, “impermanence is on our side.”

And now I'm fine, and already it becomes dreamlike, the distress difficult to recollect. Now the fact that I took the day off work already is larger to me than the digestive episode, the fact that I disturbed the even, two-stroke motor of my life across the pond. It's nice to do something different. I cooked my own eggs – eggs from the neighbor behind us, the ones with the Yeats-and-Richard-Wilbur poetry board, or rather from their murmurous, mellifluous chickens – and ate a wedge of extraordinarily sweet cantaloupe, and shared Martha's grounds to make my coffee. And then I made a salad, and washed up, taking time out to lie down from time to time. It was very domestic and nice.

Maybe, I thought, maybe I could learn to stay home in the morning, make breakfast, not be so restless. I knew there was not a chance of that, though, not while I'm healthy. When the sun is out and about, I have to be too.

And now – it's about time for a nap, I think. My eyes are closing themselves. Later!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Glorious Summer

Typical of me, that at the moment of success, being fully booked for weeks, I should find myself most beset with doubts about whether I'm any good as a massage therapist. It used to drive Martha nuts, when I was in school: after the end of a semester, when it turned out I'd succeeded, my grades were good, my professors full of praise -- I'd go gloomy, dissatisfied, and doubtful. Maybe it's partly a primitive response, a reflex: if I were to delight in success, it would bring down the anger of the gods. Success exposes you, puts you on the map, makes you the target of poltergeists, controversialists, and spirits of envy. There is behind it, maybe, an existential conviction that if the universe was ever fully aware that I was here, it would crush me like flea between its fingernails.

I am aware, anyway of a strong impulse to jump overboard and begin a new life under a new name.

Meanwhile the trees are in full roaring leaf, crowding each other into the sky, shrugging sidewalks and driveways into ridges with their roots, struggling against each other, swaying and heaving like greco-roman wrestlers. It's hard to believe in Fall, or the Fall rains, right now.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Lips of the Planchette

A ticklishness sometimes, sometimes
unbearable, like the crawl of restless legs
at night, when sleep
refuses to meet your eyes –
sometimes though a stiff wind of joy,
and the flesh in tatters streaming out behind.

Does it matter which hand palms the coin,
when he has ten thousand, and each a blazing eye?
I would say only, wait, and sway, and say
Oh not the lovely defensible prayers
you learned as an adult, no: say the Lord's Prayer,
dear, or “Now I lay me down to sleep.”

Now as I wait for this hesitating chest
to rise again, just a little; now while I wait
to hear the faintest breath,
now while all the joists are breaking,
the studs splitting the drywall,
and the cinder blocks grinding

one against the other --
now tell your simplest rosary,
or lead your fattest darling to the knife;
now touch your nibbled fingertips
to the lips of the planchette;
forget shame, this once, and ask.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


I understand there was shooting in Colorado last week, some dozen people killed in a theater. That's all I know, and all I intend to know. I am not going to read about it. I'm not going to click links to it. I'm not going to learn the shooter's name. He wanted real estate in my mind, and I'm not going to give it to him, not for this. You want real estate in my mind, write a poem. Of course I have flickers of curiosity about it, but when I do, I deliberately turn my attention to something I feel deserves the reward of my attention. I respond the same way to terrorism. It's just not a game I'm willing to play. I recognize that I am as vulnerable as anyone else. These unhappy people might well kill me or my loved ones, eventually. But they can't make me act as though they merit my attention. I very deliberately pull up Via Negativa and read the latest incredibly beautiful poem Luisa Igloria has written. That's what deserves my attention. That's what's going to get it.

As far as actual personal risk goes, it's miniscule: we're all far more likely to be killed by a flood, or by lightning, than by such a shooter. For me, it goes into the large bin of “risks not worth worrying about.” It's both extremely unlikely and extremely difficult to fend off. Everything of that sort goes in the bin, along with West-Nile-bearing mosquitoes and mad cow and rabid bats and meteorites. Who cares? No one who does level-headed risk analysis. The death with my name on it is cardiovascular disease, cancer, car accident, stroke, or plain old traditional infection, our age-old enemies that cut us down with tuberculosis or pneumonia. If you're going to fuss about something, fuss about those.

I'm unimpressed by both sides of the gun control controversy. I'd like to see guns go away: I have zero interest in them, but I just don't care much either way. On the one hand, the military conditions of the Second Amendment have long since vanished. Credible military power is no longer within reach of civilians, in industrialized nations, whether they can buy submachine guns or not. On the other hand, I'm just as unimpressed by many of the arguments of gun-control advocates: they fail to explain why some very heavily armed civilian populations, such as those of Canada and Switzerland, very rarely experience these psychotic shooting episodes. To me, the obvious question these things bring up is not “why are guns not harder to obtain?” but “why is the mental health of our young men so bad?”

For every young man who breaks this way, there must be hundreds teetering on the brink, in similar misery, who just barely don't break. Now that, that is really disturbing. That is something that needs to be addressed. By all means, pass gun control laws, if you like: I'll vote for them. But don't think you've solved the problem if you do.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What The Night Horse Said

In the dark, cool Virginia Cafe. Here and there light gleams on polished wood: light from the windows, zigzagging in, on its third or fourth bounce. The windows look west, right at the mass of the Central Library: even on this fair, high-summer day, not much of the sunlight that makes it around the library and through the windows gets back to the booths. Back here, such light as there is comes from dim orange globes floating by the walls. I think you're supposed to kiss in here. That's what Virginia is for, right? In any case, you're not supposed to read.

I neglected to bring someone to kiss, so I'll just mull instead. Mulled Dale, that's what we've got on tap. But all my usual topics bore me. I've said too much and stretched my thinking muscles too little, lately. I think I need a book of poetry that will slap me around a little, kick my feet from under me, give me a sharp little push. It's not thinking, when you're just wandering around the bric a brac of your mind, absent-mindedly fingering thoughts you stowed away twenty years ago. It's not even mulling.

But I am a spirit of a different sort, says Ariel. Ariel and me, you know, we go way back: both bound to services that have stopped meaning anything, the aides of a resigned congressman, lingering on in Washington, or the wait-staff of the Cannibal Isles, maybe, while our principals have vanished. Voices, empty corridors, beaches piled with stormwrack. We wander about and amuse ourselves with practicing ventriloquism: we are dull, and faintly predatory. We're waiting for another storm and another cast of characters, I suppose.

I'm tired, despite my surefootedness and quickness. There's an old, old fatigue gaining on me. I've cut to the chase a few times too often, maybe. The rewinds flicker past me and I'm not even slightly interested. Why would I care about the backstory? I don't even care about the frontstory. I'm puzzled, impatient, tetchy. There's nothing here for me to do. Othello's occupation's gone.

Another day comes, after an evening of thunder and lightning, and of hoots and shrieks from drunks under the window where I was doing my massage. A deep, deep gloom overtakes me: unreasonable spurts of anger and impatience. I know that most of it is a response to the humidity, which I have always hated, but it's more than that: a sense of everything I ever grasped at drifting away, a profound sense of failure, of the world going on without me and leaving me behind with the other wrecks. Not a characteristic frame of mind for me, and not one that will produce anything good.

I challenge myself to endure this anger without having a single opinion, without blaming a single person, without reaching for a single solution. The lightning from last night is still flickering in my mind's eye; the thunder is still in my marrow. May it shake me to pieces, blast me to bits, scatter me on the gasping winds.

You will have to do things you have never done before, said the Night Horse. And I will.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I set off twenty minutes early, giving in to my anxiety – though I knew perfectly well it was displacement – about whether I would get to the bookstore in time. Went around the block, and parked on a quiet street, switched off the engine, and sat shamatha for five minutes, feeling the extraordinarily high pitch of my body, my heart pounding, my breath shallow, my mind balky and inclined to bolt. It's valuable to watch, at these times when I'm least inclined to watch. I don't know if it calmed me or heightened my nerves. It's easy to confuse awareness of nervousness with nervousness. And it's not merely a confusion, either: realizing I'm nervous can make me more nervous. If the goal was simply to become less nervous in the short term, I don't know that meditation would be such a good choice. But the deeper goal of course is to see what's there, to see how it works. What is actually going on?

It's a fear of exposure, of course – there isn't a much more exposed situation than reading your poetry aloud, especially if your poetry is on the confessional and emo side – as mine is: full of declarations of devotion and emotional extravagance of all sorts. My mind uneasily tried to recall Wodehouse's description of someone reading his verse aloud, in – what was it? “a sort of gasping bleat”? Oy. One of those characters with long sidewhiskers and no gumption. But you see where my mind is going, and why I'm so anxious. The question isn't: “will they like my poetry?” or “is my poetry any good?” It's, “am I actually a pathetic Gawd-help-us?”

M and Steve are old hands at running poetry readings, and they've structured it beautifully. There are two featured readers, Joyce Ellen Davis and I. But there's an open mike as well. If you want to read, you write your name on a ticket and toss it in the bowl. Steve pulls a few names out in the intervals before, between, and after the featured readers, and the open mike people trot up and read of their verse, or someone else's. Everyone gets to read, and everyone's paying attention because they might be up next. There's no dead air, everything is lively and good-natured, and no one tries to hog the mike. It's not easy to make events like this work.

Then there's the other source of anxiety: feeling responsible for members of tribes that may or may not be on good terms. There are folks from my sangha there – will my lines about the Buddha being dead and the Dharma rattling like zinc pennies offend them? There's Joyce's people, presumably Mormon, with little kids in tow: I wince a bit at a stridently anti-religious poem, and at a few sexually explicit lines in another. And a rather austere poet has come, whom I admire greatly, but who practices in the high modernist tradition of Eliot and Pound. Around her I feel terribly soppy, slipshod, and self-indulgent. I'm not an artist, I think: I just knock a few poems together on weekends. And there's even someone from my massage universe, with her daughter, and there my fears run the other way: if you're not an initiate into the hothouse world of poetry, is all this too rarified and labored to make any sense at all?

It's not my job, I suppose, to make sure all these people like each other. But I love them all and I want them to like each other. It's a bit like taking your new girlfriend home to meet your family, except that it's several girlfriends and several families.

It's all lovely. I can even see that I make a hit with couple people. The audience laughs at the right parts of my poems, and for the first time (that I know of) I sell a couple of my books cold, to complete strangers. The resolution I made a couple hours ago, not to do any more readings, because getting this het up is simply not worth it, strikes me as absurd, and I dismiss it. Of course I'll do more readings, I think. I should even get out and start drumming some up.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Very Tired Man About To Go To Bed

My restlessness rises and falls: anxiety about the reading tomorrow night swells, and then vanishes.

As I drove to my appointment tonight, there was sun falling all around, but straight ahead the haze had coalesced into something like cloud cover, and Mt Hood – which was straight ahead, because I was driving to Camas, already on the Washington side of the river – loomed dark, unsmiling, a few flecks of glacier gleaming on his somber body, where the setting sun had struggled through some thinning in the haze. It was ghostly, beautiful, menacing. Driving back, after sunset, the mountain had vanished altogether, and I crossed back over Columbia into a homely, quiet Oregon. The Glenn Jackson Bridge sometimes makes the whole landscape a miniature, the sort of thing you gaze at and wonder how they possibly did such fine detailing. Look, every individual needle on the every individual branch of every individual tree! And the light draining away over the four edges of the Earth.

And earlier today, Joyce's extraordinarily beautiful face as she lay on her back, eyes closed. It's not done, stopping a massage in order to paint a portrait your client. And I don't have any paints. And I wouldn't know how to paint, even if I did. I just finished the massage.

And then tonight, I bought chips and sour cream (for the first time in a month!) from a young dreadlocked cashier, absurdly handsome. He looks like an actor who would play a basketball star in a contemporary movie. Which prejudiced me against him, at first, but he is so very kind and conscientious at the register that I'm beginning to believe that it really is his deepest heart's desire to see that I leave the Safeway having found everything I was looking for.

A stout middle aged Caucasian woman was stepping in to take over from him – the end of his shift? She reached up – a good foot above her head – to rub his shoulders, and he accepted gratefully, like a cat that loves to be petted. The scenario was so improbable that I can't quite believe it, even now. What would become of all of us massage therapists, if this sort of thing caught on? Crikey. We'd have to go find real jobs.

But there it is: a great river running between two states, down from the mountain to the sea, and a bridge between two glittering cities. I live in a little crooked house in the city on the left bank, up on an unnamed ridge. But I'm not a character, and there aren't any stories about me. I'm just a very tired man about to go to bed.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Out in the Provinces

Gentle rain, drifting slow and slant, barely visible, glowing gray-white sky; everything green and glad. July, as we know it here. It's warm out – by our standards, anyway: 55 degrees, or 14 to you furriners – and I'm still wearing my sandals. About to go get a massage from Neva, out in Hillsboro. There are only a few ways to climb up over the West Hills, and all of them offer the same extraordinary sense, when you come over the crest, of a new world opening up: sky, sky everywhere, the Coast Range dim and blue beyond the sparsely peopled champagne, and the light falling always unexpectedly across the distance. If you've ever fretted on the East Coast for months at a time, and then driven west through the crowded, irritable, privately-owned countryside of rolling bumps, and come finally to the Hudson valley, where you can actually see out a ways, and taken a deep breath and let your shoulders drop, then you've known a pale imitation of this experience, which I have several times a month. So you rule the world over there, in your humid, filthy megalopolises at the seat of the last great standing empire: so what? We live in one of the last places worth living in.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thank You Notes

Time was I adored a slack, girlish, expressionless face, eyes wide and distrustful: now, it produces barely an echo in the far halls of desire. That girl, over there, now, with a rosebud mouth: even when she catches her underlip in her teeth, you can tell that she's seeing her face in the mirror. She has practiced. She's practicing now.

No, nowadays I want a face that wrinkles frankly with laughter, faces that do rueful or appreciative, eyes that laugh. I want hands that are lined like beach sand. I want skin with a little slack, flesh with a little give, a body that's been lived in comfortably.

Girls we called them, unselfconsciously, when I was young, long ago, in the vanishing country of the 1960s. They took my breath away. I don't know why, now. I guess I thought they would be doors into new countries. Now I take them to be doors into heavily perfumed closets full of repugnant stuffed animals. Neither even begins to be near the mark, I suppose. People are not doors. It's little enough any of us can give to anyone else. And we can give nothing at all until they stop expecting things of us.

Vapor trails scatter and melt in the unsteady sky. Yesterday I watched an airplane coasting the moon, and then a swallow actually crossed his pocked face. I tried to do the numbers: how often should the path of bird or plane cross the tiny disk of the moon, floating in all that sky? It was a surprisingly complex problem, and it defeated me handily. But once I had envisioned all the lines drawn by all the birds all day, I could see it was less unlikely than I first thought: that the moon would be caught often in that net. And of course when you look up at the sky, where do you look? At the moon. And then your gaze is snagged by any nearby bird, and if it seems to be heading for the moon, you keep watching. Not so unlikely after all; not if you spend a lot of time looking at the sky.

Koi zigzag in the brown water. The surface is half silver, piddled with leaves; the koi move deliberately, almost ceremoniously, signing their names on the shifts of the pond. My hands remember your chest, the way your ribs rose gratefully to fill my palms. Desires and memories signed their names under the surface there, writing slowly, fading quickly. Thank you for yours of even date.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pulling Up Stakes

Yesterday I pulled a metal stake up out of the ground. It had barbs, or wings, but they actually came off, while we were trying to dig it out: a fat chevron of steel-plate. But the stake kept hanging on by sheer cussedness. I almost wrenched my back hauling it up. Turns out that a foot and a half of nobbly metal, once well-bedded in soil, resists uprooting with surprising tenacity. But I got it at last.

Golden light, walls of large-leaved vines embroidering hedges, and trees of with deep purple, lustrous foliage, always moving out of my vision. As so many things do these days! My eyes seem always out of focus.

It's strange to no longer be acquiring or building. I am getting rid of things, avoiding accomplishments. I want to be easy to pull up, when the time comes.

In the morning, the light and the birdsong begin to pour into the house at about 4:30. I wake and leave the bedroom for the cooler air of the living room, lie on the sofa, half awake, feeling the tide of the day rise around me. All my laboriously memorized poetry is gone: no verses come to me. I'm very alone. I wish now that I had memorized less verse and more birdsong: I don't know the names of these creatures, though I've listened to them for decades. It seems a dereliction, an unkindness.

Slowly, the mornings will ebb again, and I'll get full nights of sleep again, maybe. Or maybe not. But yesterday I actually napped, a feat I have never accomplished before without exhaustion. That's promising.

Massage steadies me, nourishes me. It's a loving-kindness practice, for me: how much of myself can I give away without asking return? Trickier than it sounds. There are so many sorts of return, and so many ways of asking, or inveigling. It's easiest when an interruption comes, a phone call, say, just as I'm packing up, so I can vanish without ceremony. It's the deepest wish of my heart, nowadays: to disappear, to perfect my vanishing skills. I want to be so practiced, that when I sink into the water for the last time there's not even a ripple left on the surface.

Friday, July 06, 2012


The tresses harum-scarum,
the slanting of the skim
the clewing and the rocking and the lolling of the limb;

the stutter of the sternum,
the belly's gulping catch,
the spooling and the locking and unloosing of the fetch;

the kindling of the sacrum,
the kindliness of kin,
the tuning of the turning of the trembling of the skin:

all that vanishes at midnight,
the carriage and the horse –
what remains is just the scamper of the mouse upon its course.

Thursday, July 05, 2012


Bright sun, clear sky, but still cool. The sap is flowing strong in trees-of-heaven, and though I understand – as I ride beneath them on Lincoln street – why some people call them “stink-palms,” it isn't an unpleasant smell to me, though it is a dangerous one, an invitation to nostalgia and grief. It's the smell of the fullness of summer, and I've never belonged in summer. I'm a creature of winter, of shifting, indirect light, of fog and rain, of the clarity of long-running rivulets. In the direct sunlight I am a swollen, awkward, blundering creature.

I carry four things in the left front pocket of my jeans. The fob that magically opens the doors and enables the elevators of my office building; the small key to my bicycle lock; a wooden skull, a bit smaller than an ordinary marble, carved for me as a good-luck piece by Clint in massage school; and a red-orange beach agate, like a little sun. I've lost the pale blue-green, almost turquoise, sea-glass I used to carry in that same pocket. Time goes on and things get lost.

Nothing magical in my right front pocket. Keys and change. Wallet in my right back pocket. That's it. Martha finds it comical that when I put on a clean pair of jeans I methodically put everything from the pockets of the old pair into the pockets of the new pair. I'm not sure why. How do other people keep track of their stuff? You have to do it somehow.

The enormous relief of the fifth of July. It's like the day after Christmas: a year before I have to do this again! My two least favorite days of the year, days on which failure is guaranteed, when the fact that I am not what was wanted or expected is made clear and put on public display. I don't struggle against it. Two days of misery per year, that's not much, in a generally happy life. It's like the county taxes. You just pay it.

Summer begins now, in western Oregon, summer for real. I'll survive it. I have the four things in my pocket, and I have friends, even if they're far away.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Twinkling of the Treats

Possibly the most effective step we've yet made in getting our eating under control was undertaken with very little thought: in fact, mainly by accident. Martha asked what I was thinking, and I – caught a bit off-guard – answered that I was gloomily considering that I knew what the next step was, but that we would never take it: we needed to get everything we thought we shouldn't eat out of the house, and, when we did bring home something to eat that we thought we shouldn't, to toss all the rest of it out when we were done.

I'd been thinking that for a while: there's the times when we're just jonesing for cookies, or chips, or General Tso's chicken, when it's really hard not to go out and get it. But those times don't account for most of the junk eating we do. Most of the junk eating happens just because the stuff is there. We know it's there, and that knowledge twinkles somewhere in our neural networks, shooting off reminders. “There's half a bag of potato chips in the cupboard! Chips in the cupboard! Chips in the cupboard!” Only a matter of time till a reminder hits a big clot of hunger or anxiety or mere boredom, and – bang! Eating the stuff. I'd even find myself thinking “I'd better clear this stuff out of the house” – dutifully eating it so that I wouldn't be tempted by it any more. (Yes, I know. Welcome to my brain.)

But the thing is (I went on), we never resolve on these things at the same time in the same way, and I couldn't see it ever happening. A longstanding part of our couplehood has been supporting each other in self-indulgence. We both needed to think this was a good idea at the same time.

Martha said, no, we didn't: that if I needed her to hide her treats from me she could do it easily. It would even be rather fun. And from that moment, treats disappeared from the house.

That must have been two weeks ago, and I haven't eaten a treat since. No ice cream, no cookies, no chips. And – this is important – not because I've resolved not to. I've made no resolve. I've wasted no mental energy on that. I can have all the ice cream etc. I want: I just can't store it.
It turns out that, while I crave a treat desperately if I know it's in the house, I have not, so far, actually wanted one so much that I'll go out and make a special trip to get it. The mismatch is ludicrous and I'm startled by it. It's as though there were an inverse square of law of treat attraction. Not only that, but my brain obviously takes ownership very seriously. The cookies in the store are not only far away – they don't belong to me yet. Which means that, while they may show up forcefully in my consciousness from time to time, they don't just sit in there twinkling. It's the damnedest thing. If I own them, some portion of my brain, it seems, thinks about them continuously. If I don't own them and don't see them, though, they really truly just vanish from my mind for hours and even days at a time.

The fact that they may actually be there, in some cunning hiding place of Martha's, doesn't register at all. The craving seems to hook to a concrete and definite recollection. Abstract and general knowledge doesn't offer the purchase of a specific memory of a specific bag of chips in a specific cupboard.

This actually all makes a fair amount of sense if you consider that mostly what primates do all day is wander around looking for things to eat, or figure out how to get to things they know are there, or divvy up treats amongst the band other under more or less threat of violence. Hunter-gatherers do a lot of spotting treats and mulling over how to get at them, or how to get them away from competitors. Most of us great apes seem to have moved into the evolutionary niche of finding particularly clever ways to get at scarce energy-dense foods, which possibly helps explain why we're so high-strung, and so socially high-stakes. Gorillas never went that way – they still just munch leaves all day – and they're notably sweeter-tempered and easier-going than the rest of us. Human beings went that way with a vengeance, though. It doesn't make a lot of sense to snatch leaves out of each other's mouths when there's abundant foliage all around. But a honeycomb trove? A tender young lamb? That's worth fighting about, or kowtowing for.

(Yes, I have been reading Robert Sapolsky, A Primate's Memoir. Oh my God. What an amazing book!)