Tuesday, June 24, 2014


"Sure, there are few more melancholy sights in this world," said Tiz, "-- which is melancholy enough without addition! -- than that of an idealist who fancies himself a hard-headed man of the world: he has the hardships of both, and the comforts of neither." Balboa, who did not quite understand him, nodded gravely.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Secret of my Success

Stepping very carefully, here. There is so much that I have gotten wrong, so many twists in the fabric. I am wrapping my knee in hopes of convincing this bursa to disburse, and it's like that: desire has a tendency to bunch and cling to itself, and if you don't get it smooth, you'll end up cutting off your circulation and doing more harm than good.

But. I am remarkably alive and well. My sheer animal vigor astonishes me: I feel wolfish, intent, unburdened: the picaro of my own novel. The crow is strong in me: endless curiosity and indifference to pain, jeu d'esprit and a desire to mess with other creatures just to liven things up. I am neither tidy nor kind, but there is a gloss to me. Adding my bit of blight, as Kay Ryan would say:

briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.

Still -- or, rather, because -- carefully, carefully, walk carefully here. Never make precisely the same mistake twice, that's my motto: always introduce a variation. That's the secret of my success.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Swallows in Oneonta Gorge

Lower Oneonta Falls

In Oneonta Gorge yesterday, the light of the overcast day was such that we could see the insects hovering above the stream. The canyon was full of swallows hunting. When you can see their prey, your sense of what they're doing transforms: they fix on their targets from twenty yards away, and scream straight in upon them; when they dart aside and turn, it's because they missed and are preparing another run. I had always thought the darting and turning was the part where they caught their prey, but it's not. It's unnerving to watch, when you can see what they're actually doing. These are not charming birds flickering about in aimless exuberance: they're more like teenage boys intent on a video game, taking out their opponents one by one, absolutely intent and focused. Of the insects that I, with with my slow all-purpose primate eyes, could see -- the fatter slower ones -- almost none escaped: those who were missed on the first run were scooped in on the second or the third. I found myself rooting for the bugs. "Head for the undergrowth, you idiot!" I'd urge them, in my mind. "Don't hang there in the open like that, you're a sitting duck!" But they paid no attention to me, and the slaughter went on.

The surface of the stream was the province of a larger, plumper kind -- barn swallows, perhaps? -- the males having handsome, dark blue tail-coats; the higher air was taken by smaller swallows or swifts -- maybe violet-greens? -- but the same diffuse light that made the insects easy to see prevented the telling iridescent flashes. I couldn't tell if each was just favoring its own prey, or if the bigger barn swallows were hogging the prime hunting ground. 


"For me the most useful first steps are rather absurd. They're self-care on the primitive level: brushing my teeth and showering first thing in the morning, making the bed, washing the dishes, straightening up my living spaces -- in general, do the human equivalent of a cat grooming itself. After that -- find a partner to make work-commitments with who will check in with you and remind you that you committed to do X by time Y. An online one works fine. (I'd be happy to do that and I bet a dozen other folks here would as well. pm someone.) xoxo"

Yah. That was me, solemnly dispensing advice. And here I am, unwashed, out in the world, more or less, drinking coffee, and hoping the cogs will eventually catch. I am one dim, tousled cat.


And the name, Oneonta? Yes, I was puzzled too. That's not a Salish name at all, at all. Turns out it's no more an native Oregonian name than "Portland" or "Salem." Sez Wikipedia: "The Oneonta Gorge was first photographed by Carleton Eugene Watkins, a native of Oneonta, New York, who had traveled west during the time of California Gold Rush of 1849. Watkins named the Oneonta Falls after his hometown."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Degrees of Separation

If a heart lifts to the sky, and it does,
then what recoils? What do you recall?
the lipstick your four-year-old friend
insisted that you wear, the red cowgirl bandana
left on the floor because you cannot bend so far:

say this, or the swollen toes, the knees
red in their shallow dishes,
the neighbors' worry at
inadvertent trumpetings of pain
when you roll over in your sleep?

When I walk at night, pursued
by the close reasoning of the Moon,
how will I purge these from my thought:
the messages of fear and want,
letters delivered to me in the hope

that I might be the third or fourth or even fifth
degree of separation? I am not, I am not:
I am the seventh, eighth, ninth. I am
the dead-letter office of desire. Nothing
that comes to me

is going any farther.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


The pikas shrill from their hay mounds;
the dry shift of the stonefly pounds
across that laboring lake of air.

We came to the high country quick this year,
holding the sky to our face like a mirror,
the lakes and the forests behind us. Turn

and the line of the sun swivels and whips
and burns against our fingertips:
slow down, give ourselves time to earn

the meadow silence above the trees,
the shivering blood in our unsteady knees;
we came to the high country quick this year.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


An appointment for 2:00. I arrived on the dot, with the wind ruffling my shirt. I stood there on the corner, a bit lost, and glanced at the passers by. Of course you wouldn't come. Why would you?

I swung my pack forward, pulled my phone out of it, and lowered it to the ground. Checked the time. Glanced at the sky for encouragement. High clouds and a steady wind. There would be sailboats on the Columbia this afternoon, and kite surfers off Rooster Rock. That desire to let the wind lift you up; to let the river sweep you down: Spring pulsing.

You came around the corner, limping slightly: a windblown version of your photos, not so tall as I'd expected. You spotted me and checked, but then came on resolutely.

No words: that was the deal. You walked straight up to me and put your face in my shoulder, put your arms around my waist. I put my arms around yours, my hands registering the lumbar aponeurosis, the grain of the lats; the first phalange of my thumb finding its way home to an indentation between two vertebrae and nesting there. It was my heart, not yours, thumping: the blood rushing in my radial artery.

We hugged and stepped back, holding each other's elbows, gazing at each other's faces with curiosity. We both laughed, and squeezed. Stepped back again to hold both hands, squeezed again, and let go. I lifted my pack again, touched your shoulder in farewell, and walked on: lighter, happier, relieved, thoughtful. The ordinary light glanced from sidewalk to street window, and back again. Well. Thank you.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Half in Light

Night after night without sleep. Morally certain that two or three good night's sleep would make the swelling in my knee go away; morally certain that it will never, never happen. Macbeth hath murdered sleep. Some animal in my brain, who lurks above the amygdala, but not far above, tells me dispassionately, with great conviction, that I will never sleep until I am well; and that I will never be well until I sleep. Fair enough. Stories of inflammation and toxins flicker through my mind; but I can't bring said mind to bear long enough, and steadily enough, to deal with them rationally. I only note, in passing, my psychological susceptibility to them. I feel poisoned. So do we all. That doesn't make us poisoned: not, at any rate, in body.

Immense weariness. I tell myself I've made up my mind, I've decided, my life is not of a piece and it never will be. Stop chasing the will o' the wisp of health, of integrity, of wholeness! Just give it up. Live half in light and half in shadow. But I haven't made up my mind. I can't. Anything that looks even remotely like wholeness draws my eye, irresistibly. And in the meantime the years sift away. I used to be able to fake having something to offer: but now I am truly, obviously bankrupt. All this looks different in a middle-aged man: it will look even more different in a dying one.

I know, I have friends – or I used to have friends – who would label this as guilt, a morbid condition of self-disesteem: but I do not feel guilty at all. On the contrary, I feel exasperated and put-upon. Will no one stick to the damned point? The old stories are useless now. We are in a different country.

The one way forward seems to be in making. I don't believe that crap about artists being unacknowledged legislators. God help you if you take your laws from artists: I've known too many of them, and we're a sorry lot: we don't know a damn thing. It's not that I'll make an answer. Not even that I'll find an answer in the making. But making is the one thing that feels untainted, that feels free of the poison and the wheel. It is the one thing I can do. Craft: the right line in exactly the right place: that is as satisfying as ever. I will fashion things so beautiful they'll make the heart catch. And be damned to wholeness. There is not that much time: there was never that much time.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Pond Water of History

Reading Norman Davies' two volume history of Poland. For a while I was off reading history. I thought of all the history I've read that's left almost no mark -- I know I've read a monumental history of Spain, for instance, thousands of pages long, and that all I clearly remember from it is that Cordoba was once a splendid Muslim city with a famous library. Shouldn't I maybe have read the Wikipedia entry instead? Years of my life have gone into reading these things. And now, the Polish dynasties sieve through my head, systems of land tenure, the wealth of Danzig, a vaguely grasped notion of the importance of the Vistula River, the extraordinary number of nobles and Jews -- one in ten people in Poland-Lithuania was one or the other, in the 16th Century! Unless it was the 17th. Will I remember any of it? Am I wasting my time?

I think I am not, but I'm not doing exactly what I thought I was when I started. When I was young and foolish, I thought I could learn all of history and have it all available in my head, or at least a lot of European history, or at least a lot of English history. Now I know that almost all this stuff will fall right back out of my head again. That doesn't necessarily mean it's not worth doing. There is another kind of knowledge building up, a synoptic sense of what people have done and will do, what sorts of organizations have succeeded, what sorts have failed, and some of the common notions of why. It's all terribly vague and unsatisfactory, and the more you read the more you realize how variable and subjective the notions are, but as it accumulates I find that I'm far less likely to be fooled by the demagogues and politicians of the moment. I'm no better at predicting the future than anyone else, but I recognize the rashness of betting on my predictions better than most. History has a way of wriggling out of what people expect.

And there is a sense one gets for the fullness, depth, complexity of any one place and its people. It's like looking at pond water under a microscope: suddenly you become aware of the incredible richness and diversity referred to -- but also concealed -- by a name like "water" or "Poland." As you focus the lens, you find Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Prussians; Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, and an extraordinary number of Protestants (some of them handsome crackpots rivaling our own Baghwan Shree Rajneesh); a menacing array of Turks, Cossacks, Russians and Swedes circling the borders, searching for weak points. Each single one would reward a higher-power microscope with the same increase in complexity and variety.

That, too, is worth knowing: and you gradually obtain the conviction that the parts of the world that have not yet been given thousand-page histories by an Oxford or Harvard don are every bit as diverse and complex. You may not have looked at them yet through the microscope; you don't know what's there; but you know that if you did, they would resolve into new worlds and new constellations of sub-worlds. That, I guess, is what you really gain by reading these fat narrative histories: a sense for just how large the human universe is.