Saturday, August 19, 2017

Climbing


I must read and write again -- that's the long and and short of it. 

The other stuff, the diet & exercise, the languages, the frugality & investment, keeping up with the political news & carefully fashioning political opinions, maintaining a social media presence -- all these were all meant to be ancillary to a literary life, a life of reading things that are beautiful and dangerous, and writing as close to the truth as I can. But I've let tending the scaffolding replace tending the building.

No. The real reading and writing have to be there, or all the rest is useless.

Last night I pulled The Mezentian Gate off the shelf, and had a good look at its cover, which, as a teenager, I thought was the last word in hauntingly beautiful art. Now I find it extravagant and crudely colored, vague where it should be precise, and precise where it should be vague -- much like Eddison's book. But that's not the point. The point is that at the time, Eddison bowled me over and took me somewhere else, and so did this cover artist. (Barbara Remington, I find: the same as made the Tolkien paperback covers that so entranced my teenage self. And so exasperated Tolkien: "what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?" he demanded. Very rightly. What the hell is it?)



It's good to become aware that the extraordinary literary and artistic experiences I had were, in my mature view, experiences of stuff that was second-rate. It's not the quality of the stuff that matters, in the end; it's the quality of the experience. At fourteen Eddison was as steep a mountain as I could climb.

But anyway -- I have not done much climbing lately, though I have much better equipment and a lot of experience. So it's time to climb again. Read things that require all my attention, and write in answer to them. Even if it all turns out to be second-rate. If I'm here for anything, if I've trained all my life for anything, this is it: so I had better do it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Solvencia

The fact of the matter is that last fall I went into the ditch, and I'm only now climbing out of it.

In November, the presidential election. I was following it closely and I knew exactly what it meant: the end of democracy and social progress in the United States for the rest of my life. 

In December, my mother died. My failure as a son was complete and beyond remedy.

So. I've spent a while walking in despair. It's an interesting country.

People who express a lot of despair actually don't live there: they're teasing themselves with it, playing tag with it. They don't really believe it. When you believe it, it stops being a thing. It's not an alternate route: it's your own road, and it's the only road, and it's actually a pretty good place to have a good think. It's quiet there.

So I learned some things: one, that although I would have said I didn't have much hope for America, I would have been lying. Losing all hope for my country meant losing a lot, for me. It woke me up to how much I loved it and valued it: how basic a part of me it was. 

Of course, it's always been a painful relationship. So there's some relief in ending it. I still live here, but my alienation is absolute, now. I'm a foreigner. An expat with no pat to be ex of.

I don't want anyone else to despair: I'm not writing this to urge anyone else to despair, or to stir up anyone to confute me. Not interested. 

Losing my mom was another thing, more complicated, more difficult. It was a relief, first of all: I never expected her to die without having ruined me financially and emotionally, so to wake in a new bleak world, still solvent and still capable of love, was a surprise and a bitter-tasting pleasure. 

It marked the end of all joyless obligation. Obligation is a good thing, and I am happy with all my remaining obligations: they are all based on love. That's a luxury that I've just begun to understand.

So I'm starting my life over, just waking up. I have everything to do over again.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Before My Coronation

It was in the mid 1980s that I tossed my battered edition of the Canterbury Tales into my briefcase, gave a brief smile to my students, and walked out the door. I walked down a dim hallway and then out into the thin Connecticut sunlight and headed for the train station. I was done with academia forever, though I didn't know it at the time: I would never wear a tweed jacket again.

You don't leave academia just like that. It stays with you for a long time. It's a self-contained world, and its tumults can seem very important. One professor's scandal, another's missed tenure, are huge events. The cliques are as formidable as in high school; the rivalries as bitter; the betrayals are felt deeply.

And there is beautiful, difficult work being done. People make fun of academics -- they're easy targets -- because universities are mature institutions and the low-hanging fruit in most fields was gone centuries ago. The work still to be done is harder to explain. It takes some expertise to understand why it matters. But it does matter. Not all of it, of course. But at Yale I learned tremendous admiration for the careful, painstaking work that added up to, say, really knowing what the Beowulf-Poet meant by a particular image or turn of phrase. I will not laugh at the work these people do. I realized I was not up to it -- I was too slapdash and quicksilver. My work, when I finally found it, would be different: but not better. Just different.

There's a lasting regret in not being part of that secret ministry. But I hope I learned from them a rugged skepticism, a devotion to the verified fact, a respect for the second (third, fourth) opinion. I never heft an edition of some old poet -- an edition full of glosses and footnotes and erudite introductions -- without a surge of gratitude. I have been rescued from so many mistakes and misinterpretations: I have been handed the clean, beating hearts of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson. I'm grateful.

Nevertheless, I'm grateful too to have walked away from it. There's a culture of despair and depression that cobwebs academia -- especially now, when the promises of tenure and respect have proven mirages, and the remuneration dwindles while the work mounts. It's not, generally, a happy place. Much of the conversation, as I remember it, was savoring the hopelessness of the world, and counting over the number of ways in which we have decayed and the number of things we stand to lose.

I am myself in deep social and political despair, but I don't want to dwell on it or share it. Such solutions as come will come by addressing what can be addressed, and trusting in the mutability of things. I was on a retreat one time with my favorite Buddhist teacher: he had come down with a nasty flu. He sat on a bench, pale, miserable, panting slightly. I asked if he was feeling any better, and that drawn face was suddenly transformed by his characteristic impish grin. "Well, sometimes," he said, "impermanence is on our side."

So it is. And, at the same time, the beauty keeps coming, the sweetnesses of summer and skin, of cold water and blue sky, and my own incongruous, inexplicable good fortune.

So. I find myself gravitating to people who love to solve problems and fix things, and who plan for things no larger than their own households and their children's lifetimes. Cheery straightforward optimists. I simply want to work on things that I understand pretty well, and help people I know can be helped, and solve problems within my scope.

And it helps to remember that I've been a singularly crappy prophet. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I knew -- knew for a certainty -- that in twenty years we would have had a least one nuclear war, and that even without one, overpopulation would have made the world an uninhabitable hell-hole. Maybe I was right then, and just had the timing off by a couple decades. But maybe I was totally wrong. And maybe I'm totally wrong now in my gloomy expectations.

In any case, I have not noticed anyone anxious to make me emperor of the world: so spending a lot of time figuring out what I will do after my coronation is probably not a good use of my time. There are many other things to do. My neighborhood is full of joys to be made and sufferings to relieve.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Looking Forward

I don't want to spend all that much time looking forward to the next phase of getting my eating under control. There are too many variables in play, and it still seems surreal to me that I'm chugging along dropping a pound a week while feeling totally undeprived, feeling in fact self-indulgent. Any day now my body may realize that it's dropping weight, and some alert guard down in the hypothalamus, or wherever, will see the needle drifting down to the red and throw the "Starvation!" breaker. Then I will be thinking about food all the time, and refraining from eating will absorb all my mental energy. And then, inevitably, even in the little paradise I've made for myself in my little cottage in Portland, I'll need mental energy for something else instead, 300 million years of evolution will kick in, and I will have eaten both sides of the menu and three aisles of the grocery store before I entirely know what is happening. I know how this works. I'm an old hand.

I have emergency plans in place. But I'm hoping that if I do this very cleverly, that breaker will never get thrown. I have a hypothesis that the explosions of self-indulgent pleasure, morning and evening, may keep that guard drowsing. That keeping the weight loss to about a pound a week will make it gradual enough that the needle never really drops to the red. But for now, I just keep my eye on the ball, make my lunch soups well in advance, plan my life carefully so that I stick to the clear water. 10 pounds down, 32 to go. Even supposing all goes well, all the way through the Christmas holidays, it's March before even this phase, the drive to 180, is done. 

That will be a dangerous time. I'll still be twenty pounds above where the standard tables say I ought to be. It will be tempting at that point to try to drive to the finish line of 160, just to prove I can. But I think what I should do at 180 -- always supposing I get there -- is deliberately level off, by adding more veggies and plain potatoes -- i.e. bulk, and high-satiety-per-calorie foods -- and just see what being there is like, for at least a few months. I may find a sweet spot somewhere in the neighborhood of 180. If so, I'd be happy to just stay there, and maybe play with swapping in some different foods for my high-reward ones.

Because part of the stealth plan, here, is to make my high-reward foods so familiar that they're a little tiresome, so that I don't mind swapping them out sometimes for stuff that's less calorie-dense. I'm hoping to gradually switch them out till my diet is a bit less of a nutritionist's nightmare. I'm fully aware that the full British breakfast and a hamburger-and-milkshake dinner is not a diet that makes a centenarian. But being sixty pounds overweight doesn't make a centenarian either. You work with what you've got: I've got an appetite habituated since childhood to high-reward foods. It's not going to vanish overnight. But it may be malleable. Things do change.

Friday, July 07, 2017

To Tirzah

When I first read William Blake, as a teenager, the connection was immediate and visceral. This was my man: the only god in the literary pantheon (I took the dignity of the canon much more seriously back then than I do now) who understood the world as I did, and who saw himself as the forerunner of a new people, just as I did. My heart was full of revolutionary nonsense and mystical passion: I loved a lot of writers I subsequently came to think silly.

I never came to think Blake silly. He is not silly. His absolute rejection of cruelty and paltering resonates with me as strongly as ever, as does his commitment to the clear and boldly drawn line. Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders.

But there was one poem that came always as a slap in the face. It was "To Tirzah," and it was strangely out of keeping with the other Songs, a throwback to the sort of Christianity he otherwise rejected, the Christianity of Old Nobodaddy who hated the body, hated women, hated reproduction:

Thou, mother of my mortal part,
With cruelty didst mould my heart,
And with false self-deceiving tears
Didst bind my nostrils, eyes, and ears, 
Didst close my tongue in senseless clay,
And me to mortal life betray.
The death of Jesus set me free:
Then what have I to do with thee?

There must be some hidden message, some history I didn't know, I thought. I read it carefully -- I read everything carefully in those days, when the world was young, alas! -- and then steered around it. I have probably every other poem from the Songs by heart: but I had to go and look up the text of Tirzah, just now.

It has a reputation, says Wikipedia, as a difficult poem. It's not a difficult poem at all: it's just a poem that most of us would rather not hear. It's a categorical, contemptuous dismissal of his mother.

I can't help but think, at this distance, that it was precisely this poem -- though I consciously rejected it -- that sealed my intimacy with William. I too found myself helplessly bound to a person whose love threatened to choke and silence me, who seemed determined to bind me to the low horizons of worldly desire. Her heart's desire was to see me pluming myself in an expensive suit: was this what I had been born for? No. No, there had to be something beyond that.

I hate the poem. All the more in this time, when America is wracked by a childish tantrum of over-mothered, over-schooled boys who never got their time playing in the mud. It's dangerous, wrong, ungrateful, stupid. It cannot nor it will not come to good.

Nevertheless. There it is: manifestly wrong, self-contradictory, irreconcilable; and an indelible inheritance.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Making Room

The gift of men, Tolkien's immortal elves call it: death. 

The one thing that can make people finally clean out the utility drawer, give away an impossible accumulation of sewing materials, and get rid of the 1967 - 1973 Scientific American magazines. 

The thing that finally breaks all wedding vows. The thing that clears the way for creatures that are young, clean-limbed, and fresh to imagine (in their turn) that they will always be so. The thing that makes room.

My mother died last winter. Ours was a relationship of deep mutual disappointment and bright superficial cheer: we managed to wound each other and fail each other remarkably often, for people who saw each other so little. The one thing we each wanted of the other was the one thing we could not give: a respectful understanding. 

No parent-child relationship is ever actually over, I suppose, but the death of one party marks it, like a visa stamp on a passport.

I am free to travel, now. I'm sorry. I'll carry my failure forever: but it will be localized now: a dead zone in an otherwise living sea.

And maybe I will even clear out a few boxes and throw a few things away, ahead of time. She would approve of that.

Monday, July 03, 2017

What You Can Hear

It's no good listening for a pindrop now,
with the freeway surge and the rattle of leaves,
and the neighbor shouting (whatever he shouts).

No. listen early. They collect 
where the dew fall is heavy; they lift their queer snouts
to glitter in the sun. They drink quietly,

piercing the water's skin with a seamstress dream
of superfine proboscides: you can't hear that
either, nor the stitch of their silvery beating hearts.

But they fall, at awkoddward times. Say they lose
their grip and they fall -- whirl and twirl --
bounce on the turbulent air --
and a love of speed sets off a fear of space.

They ring when they meet the uprushing ground,
or collide with each other in flight: and that
you can sometimes hear.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A Navigable Channel



Stephan Guyenet is an obesity researcher. I'd been following his blog for a couple years: but it wasn't till I read his new book that I realized -- seeing it all there in one place -- how much I've learned from him. I have no idea whether he would think my current enterprise a sensible one! But his information has been critical to how I think about this stuff.

I had thought -- after the collapse of my low-carb hopes -- that I was done with diets. I'm  a little surprised to find myself doing one again, and I can't actually reconstruct exactly how I came to be doing it. The document where I track everything begins after the resolution was taken, and gives no clues about its origin. But anyway, here I am, eight weeks in, determined to lose a pound a week until I'm down either to 180 lbs or to a 40 inch waist. At which point I'll sit down and have a good think about what comes next.


I am not, actually, much of a fan of diets. My former plan of action was to just keep adding in wholesome foods until they crowded out the high-reward stuff, and let my weight do whatever it was going to do. But I was getting fat enough that it was making me really unhappy. And I was also getting dubious about whether I would ever really arrive at a habit of cooking every day and eating the stuff I thought I should eat, on any timetable that was useful to me. I might finally achieve my food goals, and begin losing weight, at age 95 or so: but that was a bit longer than I was willing to wait.

So I backed up and started over. Suppose I just started where I was -- took a baseline right here and now, with the absurdly huge high-reward* breakfast and the high-reward fast-food dinner, and my lunch and/or snack budget at a bowl of soup, a veggie, and a couple pieces of fruit? I could track what happened to my weight over the course of a week, and then just start hacking pieces of the high-reward meals out, until I'd reached a pound-a-week deficit. When the weight loss leveled out (as I knew perfectly well, from experience, it would) I'd hack out another piece. I would lose the weight and I would gradually be lowering the proportion of high-reward foods in my diet.

There was lots to hack: the hash browns and toast, to begin with -- foods I didn't think I should be eating at all -- and then the sour cream and the cream in my coffee, and the half milkshake from the Burgerville dinner, foods that really should be treats rather than staples... there was lots to cut. And by eating exactly the same high-reward meals every day, I would actually know, for certain sure, that (for instance) the hash browns I was forgoing were the equivalent of a pound a week. There was a pleasing concreteness to the enterprise. I need never count a calorie.

All the other diets I had undertaken -- with the single exception of the most successful one, the Atkins-y low carb one -- had begun by carefully removing all the the high-reward foods from my diet. They generally went a week or two and then crashed spectacularly, with binges and self-reproach: the combination of serious hunger -- and when you lose a lot of weight the body has hormonal responses that are very serious indeed: your endocrine system does not take starvation lightly -- the combination of serious hunger and the enticements of readily available high-reward foods was one that I was not, in a life with any ordinary ups and downs in it, going to resist. I understand that people like to believe they can control themselves, and I like to believe that too. It's a useful illusion in many endeavors. But in this one, it won't do. If I am seriously hungry, and high-reward foods are within reach -- as they are, 24 hours a day, in any supermarket in the land -- it's only a matter of time before I eat them. Pretending this is not true will not help me.

So what I'm trying to do, here, is maintain a weight loss quick enough to keep my interest and my motivation high, without kicking off starvation responses and without eliminating the high-reward ecstasies my environment has taught me to equate with "having enough to eat." So far -- and eight pounds is not very far, in a forty-two pound enterprise -- I've been surprised to find that there is in fact a navigable channel in front of me. Whether it's open all the way to the 180-lbs-or-40-inches-re-evaluation remains to be seen.

*food reward is a technical term. See Guyenet.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Good Morning: Good Luck

A quiet morning: the ship barely rocking, the water a glassy gray.

I've given up the chase. Let them go wherever they're going, in the wide world. I'm done.

I eat my breakfast, and feel the relief and the restorations going on, in a thousand microscopic construction sites throughout my body. Repairing, refitting, renewing.

The empire will have to look after itself, for a while. I could wish people were happier, and less frantic, and more thoughtful, but there's not a lot I can do about it.

Lean on the rail, and watch the hills sharpen and define themselves as the light grows, and the birdsong increases. People wake in their little houses, run a hand through their hair, and think of coffee.

Good morning. Good luck.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Six Weeks In: Variety

So the diet rolls along, a bit more difficult now, as I knew it would be: the weariness of restriction is cumulative. But still entirely doable. Dropping a pound a week. 

Variety. "Eat a variety of foods," say the USDA guidelines earnestly, and everyone says the same; and yet there's no science to back that up. And research shows plainly that variety leads to overeating, for rats as well as for human beings.

What the advice is trying to prevent, of course, is deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. Now that I am eating so much the same thing every day, for the first time I have to take account of that: though a diet as full of eggs and meat and fresh fruit and vegetables as this is very unlikely to be missing anything. Still I'm going to do some reading.

I tend to eat the same thing every day anyway. A waitress at Tom's used to make fun of me for it, in a rather aggressive way, as though the fact that I ate the same thing every morning affronted her. I never quite understood why that might be, but I just went on with it. Why would I eat anything but what I liked most?

So rather than correct these defects in myself -- habitually eating breakfast out and always eating the same thing -- I thought I'd harness them. So far, so good.

The really nice thing about this regimen is that I actually know. There's no guesswork to it. I don't depend on calorie measurements or food processors' labeling. I simply eat the same stuff every day, and if it doesn't amount to a deficit of a pound a week, I chop another piece out. I chopped out half the hash browns a couple weeks ago, and half the toast last week. The rest of the hash browns are about to go, I think.

In previous diets the uncertainty, the guesswork, interacted very badly with the hunger hormones. I don't much trust myself to measure and estimate properly when a large part of my brain is intent on subverting me. I'm less apt to fool myself than many people -- than most people, I flatter myself -- but I don't trust myself to be able to outwatch my lizard-brain when it thinks I should be eating. And once uncertainty was introduced -- did I really measure that properly? Did I really note that down? Was that frozen dinner label really accurate? -- it gnawed away at my resolve. Was there really a point in depriving myself if I had already screwed up? 

No. Other people do the measuring. I just do the eating. 

If you follow the study of obesity, you'll know that most of it has relied on self-reported consumption, and that we've discovered recently that people are spectacularly bad at self-reporting consumption -- to the point that some researchers have suggested simply throwing out all the research that depends on it. That's how bad we are. I have no reason to think I'm uniquely gifted at self-reporting, or immune to self-deception. So I'm outsourcing as much of it as I can. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Diet

So -- I am on a diet, have been for the past month. I've lost five pounds, which is exactly the rate I'm aiming for.

It's an absurd diet, but it's working for me. I have not yet found it irksome. I am rarely hungry. It is not healthy -- though it's considerably healthier than my free-range diet -- and it's expensive. But I could eat this way the rest of my life.

It goes like this:

Breakfast: a Spanish omelet at Tom's, with sour cream and hash browns and toast, and coffee with cream, and everything.

A bowl of soup, broccoli, romaine salad, and a couple pieces of fruit for whenever. Usually lunch, but sometimes in the evening. These things are all optional. I eat most of them most days.

A cheeseburger and half a small vanilla milkshake from Burgerville for dinner.

That's it. That's the diet. I write everything down, and weigh and measure myself every morning. Wednesday morning I take the average of my weight the last seven days. If it's not a pound under the previous week's weight, I chop something out of breakfast or dinner. So far I've chopped once: I leave half the hash browns, now. I expect to have to chop out all the hash browns, the sour cream, and the toast, before I hit the end of the road, but I'm hoping I get to keep the cream. And hoping I get to keep the half milkshake.

It's weird to be this in control, and this unobsessive, and yet to be steadily losing weight. It's weird to be eating the stuff I most like, and yet to be "on program." 

The end of the road? That's a little hazy. Beginning this, my waist was fifty inches: I want to get it down to forty at most. That's probably some fifty pounds I want to lose. In theory I'm sixty pounds overweight -- I'm about 220 -- but I can't see myself at 160. Seems too small. We'll see, of course. That's a long way to look ahead: a full year. Bound to be bumps and turns in that amount of time.

What makes this doable is that twice a day, breakfast and dinner, I get to wolf down food that gives me an ecstatic rush. It seems that I can't, or anyway won't, live without that. But with an ecstatic rush in prospect tonight -- or tomorrow morning -- forbearance of other stuff takes no will power at all. I don't feel it as deprivation. In fact, I feel that I'm indulging myself outrageously (which, of course, I am, by any reasonable standard: but reasonable standards and I parted company long, long ago, in re food.) 

And the other thing that makes it doable is that I don't have to do a lot of food prep, which may -- let's face it -- never be something I'm motivated to do. Other people do the cooking: other people do the portion control. I don't have to think about it. I just show up.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Aliens, and Alice Munro

I long for aliens.

I want the barbarity of a language wholly unlike ours. I long for intelligence unconstrained by the local obsessions of high-strung social mammals: from time to time I tire of monkeys.

I long for senses unknown to us, and for the faltering reach of metaphor and analogy to try to capture and convey experiences that we can never have, but that we that we will know exist.

Aliens! They would test the limits of our tolerance and understanding in ways we can't even imagine.

There are people who long for aliens because they think they will arrive and tell everyone else that they were right all along.

That is not what is going to happen.

I took to reading, when I was a boy, not because I was a literary type with any special affinity for words, but because I wanted aliens. I read science fiction out of a deep hunger for otherness. (Otherness was not, otherwise, very easy to come by in Springfield, Oregon in the 1960s.)

At first the mere appearance of otherness sufficed. Tentacles, clustered eyes, and so forth. But I soon caught on to the fact that most of the writers had just fitted put their standard human heroes or villains with ornamental limbs and mandibles. Only a few, only a few, gave me real aliens that were windows into otherness. There was a short story by... Isaac Asimov? About some military experiment that converted human beings -- or loaded their minds, or something -- into the native species of Jupiter. (Human beings, obviously, could not begin to survive on Jupiter, regardless of technological enhancements.) But for some reason the experiment just didn't seem to work: their explorers seemed to arrive, but never to report back. The narrator was their last try before closing up shop.

What he discovered was that being this new creature was so wonderful, the experience so rich, the sheer physicality so joyful, that he had no intention of ever going back to being a human being. Like his predecessors, he deserted his species at once and lit out for the Jovian territories.

There! Now that was a real alien: that was the sort of alien experience I was after. And then there was Ursula Le Guin, with her pregnant king (did Left Hand of Darkness really come that early?) and a few others. But I came to the end of them quick: science fiction was still mostly a comics-and-pulp hack genre, back then. That was lucky for me, because as I came to the end of it, still hungry for more, I groped my way back to H. G. Wells and Jules Verne: the classics of the genre, such as they were. And then, a funny thing happened. The aliens of these writers were not especially gripping -- sometimes they were in fact ludicrous -- but the writers themselves were alien. The 19th Century was a different place. Their language was different; their presuppositions and preoccupations were slightly but distinctly other. 

I had found another way to travel to other worlds, and meet alien minds, and I never looked back: I became a voracious reader of literature from long ago and far away. Though I still tire of monkeys.

Why do I think of this now? Because I'm a dozen pages into a book of Alice Munro's short stories, and I'm having that experience more powerfully than ever: I am in hands of an alien, more intelligent and tough-minded than me, who is going to show me things I never dreamed of and make me understand things I never understood. 

Thank God for aliens. You never know when they're going to show up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Greed

A slight shudder of pleasure as I drink in the vanilla milkshake. I am intent on taking on calories: totally focused on these few moments, when I have enough. The taste fills my mouth. My nervous system lights up like a Christmas tree. Martha starts reading me something aloud from her book, and I pay no attention, except for a quick spurt of anger: can she not leave me alone for the thirty seconds when life comes into focus, and is no longer a meaningless jumble of cross-purposes and baffled will?

But I'm an old hand at this. I let the anger slide away, as quick as it came. She doesn't know, can't know, won't know, and I'm not going to tell her, or anybody. This is between me and the milkshake.

Twice a day, I eat to satiety. Anyone would laugh at what constitutes a "diet" for me. I laugh at it myself. And this is still more the control group than the experiment: I'm just holding things steady, measuring, establishing my baseline. I expect to have to bring it down, to cut things out. For now, a week into this project, I am not even trying to make progress. I'm just trying to discover where I am.

Still, any restriction at all makes me panicky, resentful, sly. I become juvenile. Greedy. Cunning. I would steal this milkshake from anyone, no matter how needy or vulnerable, if I had no other way to get it. Without a second thought. It's queer thing to know about oneself. Keep me supplied with milkshakes, I'm a model citizen; otherwise, lock your doors.

Half a small vanilla milkshake, and a cheeseburger. It isn't really a huge meal, not like the breakfast, but it's enough to light the tree, enough to make life worth living. I can be hungry at other times, as long as this is in prospect.

Greed. Pure greed, nothing else. I do pretty well handling the more spiritual and intellectual sins. Pride and wrath I'll take on, best two out of three, any time. Sloth and avarice? They heel like obedient dogs. Envy? Who cares? Why bother?

But the simple supposedly lesser sins of the flesh, those, I am powerless against. I want what I want when I want it, with the shamelessness of a two year old. It's always been this way. And now I'm fat, and want not to be, so I have to to engage with this greed -- understand it -- fool it, or tame it. To be this old, and be so undignified, so squalid!

Still: towers of cloud against sudden piercing blue, and rain batters the windshield, and then the Gorge opens to show squalls at either end, with the river glistening in a sudden moment of spring in between; and clouds of forget-me-nots appear on the banks, resolve into flowers, and vanish again as we make the curves. This too.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sacristan

One of the privileges of being a massage therapist is that I'm no longer afraid of getting old, and dying. Oh, I don't want to, of course. There's always that instinctive flinch away from death: no sentient creature is without it. But I mean the particular fear that comes of growing up in a world in which old bodies are carefully concealed and well-wrapped, even when they're allowed to appear at all. People really just don't know what their bodies are going to be like, when they're seventy, eighty, ninety. Except me. I know exactly what they're going to be like: the textures and tensions of skin and flesh, where the skeleton is going to loosen and stiffen; and so of course I know what mine is going to be like too. I know what deterioration can be mitigated and what can't. I'm not subject to the fantasy that I will somehow be the only person to hit 80 years of age without looking old; nor am I subject to vague exaggerated horror about that transformation. It's real, ordinary, everyday. I, too, should I make it to 95, will probably wear a diaper of sorts when I climb laboriously onto a massage table. But I'll enjoy my massage as much as ever.

---

Bodies remain wonderful, magical. The Jewish conception of the body as a temple, a sacred space, has always resonated with me. Years of daily familiarity have heightened that sense, rather than diminishing it. This body, here, now, under my hands, these forms that are like and unlike any other body that has been on my table, that are like and unlike those of any other mammal, any other vertebrate, any other sentient creature. This is a house of God, if anything is: and it's one that we are uniquely suited to understand and venerate.

---

My status, as a massage therapist, is low: somewhere in the range of hairdressers and housekeepers, even if it sometimes ranges as high as that of physical therapists or as low as that of prostitutes. One is "a treasure," of course, but one is never taken quite seriously. Which I'm happy about. If I were a less privileged person it might rankle, I guess: but these days I don't really want to be taken seriously: I don't want my feet to sink that deep in the sand. I'm traveling light: I have a long journey to make and I'm not planning on building any houses on the way. 

I think, always, of the dipper: that comical little bird, "usually seen bobbing up and down on a rock in mid-stream," otherwise modest and nondescript. It is a shaman, a traveler in two worlds: it will vanish into a stream or a waterfall's splash pool, and you'll glimpse it, if you're lucky, swimming under the water, with as much ease and speed as it flies through the air. It doesn't need respect, on either side of the mirror. It has its own business to mind.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Falconry

Let the longing settle 
onto the back of your hand,
like a butterfly -- 
the faint snick of alien toes 
that grip your surface with care 
and oblivious precision --
like that. As a lepidotperan
one learns respect 
for open country 
like the human skin, 
and for the winds 
that blow across it. 
Let the longing settle
like that. Just long enough
for the wings to pulse
once, twice, three times, 
and the full strangeness
to begin to register: 
of warm skin; the scent -- 
for their feet are olfactory -- 
of an omnivore: 
the dire ape of legend. 
It will take to the air before 
it has quite understood
more than a general threat 
and a wild unease:
let it go, then, 
haphazard on the breeze.

Monday, May 01, 2017

A Quieter Return

They say that if there was air between here and the Sun -- I know, I know, the physics of that are impossible, but play along -- if there was air to conduct sound, we would hear the huge roar of the Sun's furnace, all the time. That's how loud, how fierce the ongoing explosion.

Maybe my tinnitus is the sound of the stars burning, then. Different ones coming into focus at different times.

Already I can feel those giant fingers gently plucking at me, loosening my hold on the earth. All these new celebrities: time was, I would look at a tabloid and think, oh yes, that name! I'm supposed to know that name, she's famous for something. But now I look and think, look, a name: I've never seen it before, and if I ever see it again, I won't remember having seen it now. And everything is like that. A truer sight than before, really. But is it really truth we're hankering after?

No, I don't think so. The glimmer, maybe. A homecoming and a coronation. Not such a lucky thing for the fatted calf, was it? Or for Odysseus's maids: those hapless girls, who just wanted fun. Why do we go on with this, blaming this man's art, condemning that man's scope? What do we think we'll arrive at, when justice is fully dealt? An empty house that rocks in the wind.

No, I'm looking for a quieter return. No havoc, no retribution, no edging aside of more plodding dutiful sons. I think maybe the fantasy is to go home knowing what I know now, just to look with the eyes I have now.

But it's all gone. Houses, parking lots, even the streets are gone. There's no going back to any of that. My world has been erased behind me.

For a long time, I've declared it my intention to efface all signs of myself. Like a Cheshire cat licking its substance away, till it's only a tongue, a disembodied grooming. So this is a good thing, right?

Maybe so. Maybe so. God bless all who are abroad, in the wide sky, on the shifting sea. I'll lift my old head, when you come into the courtyard. Oh yes, I'll recognize you. Some loves and delights do last.

And trust, and even an odd kind of faith.

Travel safely. And come home soon, huh? We miss you here.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Retirement Savings

The shapeless lean of a gray sky: car after gasoline-burning car goes by, making the window dark and light as the reflected light from the pavement is blocked, and released.



Wealth wears away with the husking,
and the thresher shares with a nesting mouse,
who adores the English mysteries.

It's not a lot that she's risking:
She lines the bed for her and her spouse
with the fur that flies when they sneeze.

By a heap of kernels she's basking--
settles into
A Death While Hunting the Grouse,
and takes her granivorous ease.



Happy Tuesday! May all things beautiful and wonderful come to your door, plain or decorated, bare or disguised, and may the sorrows pass gently with time.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

The sun of April is ardent still, and good,
and the furrow of expectation shines;
but today do not fill its longing breast,
because Jesus suffers.

Do not stir the earth. Let go, meekly,
the hand from the plow; abandon the fields
when they are already returning to us the hope
that even Jesus suffers.

Already the blood has run under the olives
and three times he has heard one he loved deny him.
but -- rebel of love -- his heart still beats,
still suffers.

Because you, harvestman, sow hate
and I nurse my rancor at dusk,
and a boy walks like a weeping man,
Jesus suffers.

He is still on the wooden frame
and his lip trembles with terrible thirst.
I hate my bread -- my verse -- my happiness,
because Jesus suffers.


~Gabriela Mistral

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Good Life

Well. Let's start back at the beginning, then, before the dreams flickered to a faint blue life, and then died again. There is the sound of a snare drum, just keeping the time, a little cymbal to mark the measures, maybe. Just so. Only this, and so much. There was a time before: and it was much like this.  

Circle back. The problem, then as now, was the tyranny of habit. A chained dog will not stop chewing its paws, no matter now much they hurt. But the solution is not to pepper the paws, nor to call the dog to reason. The solution is to unchain it and let it run.

Let it run. A dog needs to run.

Suddenly I am not in love anymore, though, and I have been in love all my life. It's a shock. It's not that I don't love anyone: I love as much as ever, probably more than ever. But the infatuation, the conviction that my happiness lies in being seen for what I am (or for I might be) by some one particular person, who has gathered into herself all the importance of the world -- that has vanished. And I've never been without it before.

I talk of circling back. But if I don't have that to circle back to, what do I have?

Well. Two hands and a cloudy sky. What did I ever have?

The toms add in to the snare, the complexity builds. If we had a horn player or a guitar, it would be near time for them. A bridge, and a hesitation --

The rain in my face, or the moon trawled by cloud nets on a windy night, or one blue star, where I'd thought the evening or the morning had broken itself. 

But not now, not yet. Somehow, not even yet.

If it is not, now, to please the beloved, then it must be for something else. For the rain or the cloud or the moon or the star itself, maybe. THUD and there goes the base drum, and long wavering roll, the sharp raps of the rim shots. How long since I have danced even a shuffle? Years. 

But if there is one stone to keep hold of, it's just this: that I am free. Just in the simple terms that might be set for a middling-old American white guy. Nobody has much of a hand on me. I should recall myself, and come back. Back to Start: but not, this time, as a moon-puppy. As an ordinary man with a beard on his face, walking around the block one last time, with no one to please and nothing to fear. I don't need to chew my paws any more. It's been a good life. It's a good one still. 

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Vulture

A math teacher stooped in his pulpit walk:
as he turns he lifts one dull black tine
(a primary feather, like a sprig of chalk)
and slowly underscores the horizon line.

He is deliberate, hooded, ugly, sincere.
There is a beat (stroke of pen, sweep of oar)
in his blood-naked head only he can hear:
this is what it means for an old man to soar.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

To The Hebrew People

Pogroms in Poland

Jewish race, flesh of pain,
Jewish race, river of bitterness
like the heavens and the earth, endure,
and nurture still your forest of cries.

Your wounds have never wanted for air;
never stopped you stretching out in the shade
to wring and renew your bandage,
redder than any rose.

The world has been lulled with your moans,
and it plays with the strands of your lamentation;
the furrows of your face, that I love so much,
like the deep cuts of a saw.

Trembling the women rock their child,
trembling the man cuts his sheaf,
the nightmare kneels in your dream
your word is only the miserere.

Jewish race, there even remains in you
breast and honeyed voice to praise your hearthstones;
to recite the Song of Songs, though broken
your tongue, your lip, your heart.

In your woman Mary still walks,
over your visage moves the profile of Christ;
from the slope of Zion they have seen him
call you in vain, as the day dies…

Seeing your pain in the Good Thief
he said that immense word to him;
to annoint his feet he looks for the braid
of the Magdalene, and finds it bloodied.

Jewish race, flesh of pain,
Jewish race, river of bitterness
like the heavens and the earth, endure,
and nurture your wide forest of cries.


~Gabriela Mistral

Friday, March 10, 2017

Except Food

I have more of my life under control than most people, I think. I love both my jobs, which put me contact with interesting people and afford many warm friendships, and for which I pretty much set my own hours. I have always followed an exercise routine, which is modest but keeps me strong enough to lug my massage table over a few blocks and up a couple flights of stairs without puffing. For years, I have studied one foreign language or another for an hour or two a day. I have time to write poems and little lyrical essays. I read interesting books. I spend time with my family. I get out into nature once a week or so. I can afford what I buy and know precisely where my money goes. I don't drink, smoke, or dope. I'm my own master.

Except for food, of course. Food is ridiculous.

There's a dreary family history behind this, a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, as Stephen Dedalus might say. Everything about food is supercharged with meaning: it is the axis of coercion and liberty, pleasure and death-wish. Every encounter with food is some sort of showdown. It's totally crazy. No way to live.

It used to be worse. There used to be orgies of potato chips alternating with oreos, enormous restaurant meals that left me uncomfortably full, daily multiple soda pops. I would eat until I couldn't eat any more, but I was almost always hungry. My evenings generally consisted of settling in with an entertaining-but-not-challenging book and bags of chips and cookies. I'd read for hours, and when replete with one sort of snack, I'd switch to another for relief. It is rather horrible to look back on: I'd get terribly sick if I did that now.

So the present state of insanity, which includes perhaps five restaurant breakfasts per week, of astonishing volume and unhealthiness, and seven fast-food dinners per week from Burgerville, bless them -- is in fact a step UP from that. Sad but true. And in the last year or two my project of wedging a cup or two of broccoli and a large salad into every day has been running a success rate of about 50%, which is something.

But the fact is that the next step -- which will, incidentally, save us at least $7,000.00 a year -- has to be cooking and eating almost exclusively at home. It's going to be a major life overhaul. I've started: I have the breakfast proof-of-concept now. (That five breakfasts per week? It used to be seven).

I find the scale of the project daunting. But it's the last piece of my life that I really want to be different.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

In the Ear of Christ

I

Christ, with your fresh-sliced skin:
Christ, with your river-emptying veins:
these poor people of the world are dead
of laxity, of fear, of cold.

You are at the head of their beds,
(if they have you), in a form too bloody,
without the tenderness that women love,
and with those marks of violent life.

They would not spit at you for being crazy,
but they would not be able to love you either,
their impetus is too slack, too worn.

Because like Lazarus they already stink, already stink;
better not to move, than to disintegrate.
Not love -- not hate -- wrings a cry from them.


II

They admire the elegance of gesture and color:
but in your wooden contortion --
your blood-sweat, your last shudder,
and the purple brilliance of Calvary --

it seems to them there is exaggeration
and plebeian taste; one who wept like you,
had thirst and suffering, would not let
those two bright tears congeal in his eyes.

Their own are dull eyes of damp tinder
without virtue of weeping (that cleans and cools);
their mouths are loose buttons,

wet and lascivious (not firm, not red),
and like the end of autumn: so unstrung
and polluted the cores of their hearts.


III

Oh Christ! May pain make that soul alive,
which you gave them and which has fallen asleep,
return it, deep and sensitive,
to the house of bitterness, passion, and outcry.

Gaffs, irons, claws which tear your flesh
as if it were fruit or a sheaf being shared;
flames that catch on your sectioned flesh,
flames like rings or knives --

weeping, weeping in warm streams,
renew the cloudy glass of those eyes
and restore the old fire of their gaze.

Sprout them from your innermost heart, Christ!
Or if that is impossible, if they are ruined bedstraw,
come down, and scatter them on the winds.


~Gabriela Mistral