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


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


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.


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.


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

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Bistolfi's Cross

Cross that no one sees, that we all feel --
invisible and certain as a wide mountain --
we sleep on you, and on you we live:
your two arms rock us; your shadow bathes us.

Love pretended to make a bed for us, but it was
only your living gaff and your naked beam.
We believed we were running free through the fields
and we never descended from your clench.

Your wood is all of fresh, human blood,
and on you I breathe in my father’s wounds,
and on the dream-nail that wounded you I die.

The lie, that we have seen the nights and days!
We were caught -- as the son on the mother --
on you: from the first wail, to the last agony.

~Gabriela Mistral

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Rodin's Thinker

With his chin fallen on his rough hand
the Thinker remembers he is flesh of the tomb:
mortal flesh naked to fate,
flesh that hates death and shivered at beauty.

And shivered in love, all of his burning spring;
and now in autumn sinks into truth and sadness.
The memento mori passes over his brow
all in sharp bronze, as night begins.

And in his anguish, his muscles tear, suffering.
The furrows of his flesh fill with terrors;
they tear like the autumn leaf, to the strong Master

who calls them to bronze… and there is no tree twisted
by the sun of the plain, nor lion with wounded side,
contorted as this man who thinks of death.

~Gabriela Mistral

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Three Ways to Think about Saving Forty Cents

View from the Exercise Carpet in the Wreck Room: Massage Sheets Drying

I saved forty cents this morning. Something like that. Instead of running my load of massage linens through the dryer, I hung them up to dry. Google tells me that running a dryer once adds about forty cents to my electricity bill.

And forty cents, you know, buys... well... nothing. I don't think there's a single thing I buy for that little money, any more. Throw in another few cents savings, maybe, for the incremental wear and tear saved on the dryer, but it still doesn't add up to much.

And then there's the set-up cost. I bought a hundred feet of line -- we needed line anyway, and we have a good bit left, but still, I spent a dollar at least. So I don't even make back expenses until the third time I do it.

This is the first way, and probably the most common way, to think about saving money. You do all this work (actually this was not a lot of work, but there's five minutes of browsing the internet, lost to me forever!) and you get nothing out of it. What earthly good is forty cents?

Ah, but let's annualize it! A massage therapist does a lot of laundry: I was typically running the dryer four or five times a week, every week of the year: some 250 loads at forty cents apiece. That comes out to $100.

This is the second way of thinking about it, and I confess that it's still not very exciting. $100 is in fact money, but it's not a whole lot of it. And it's earned at the distinctly uninspiring wage of $4.80 per hour. Wouldn't I be better off to sink that time and energy into drumming up more business? $100 is what I charge for a single in-home massage, after all.

There's actually a lot of ways to pursue this line of thought. Do chore time and creative-marketing time actually come out of the same bucket? What about the overhead of doing that $100 massage, the driving, the marketing, the oils, the linens? (And, yes, the sheet-washing?) What about the fact that Uncle Sam is deeply interested in my massage earnings, and expects a cut of them, but turns up his nose at my line-drying earnings? You can bat it around a lot of ways. But it's still true that $100 a year doesn't seem like a lot.

But there is yet a third way to think about it, and this is the one that had me pinning my sheets to clothes-line in the wreck room this morning. To grasp this, you need to understand The Four Percent Rule. This rule says that you can rely on taking out 4% of your savings (intelligently invested) for the rest of your life, without exhausting them. Which means that to be financially independent -- to live on your savings -- your annual expenses must be no more than 4% of your savings; or to turn it around, once you've saved up 25 times what you spend in a year, you never need to work again. (This is hugely controversial, by the way, and can be argued six ways from Sunday, but I find Mr Money Mustache totally convincing, on this one.)

Due to the outrageous good fortune of my life, and a certain innate miserliness, this savings is within hailing distance, for me. (And a good thing, too, because at 58 I don't necessarily have a whole lot of working years left in me.) But I'm not there yet. Despite the fact that Martha and I earn well below the Oregon median income, we are saving money, to the tune of some $3,500 a year. So we are inching towards that financial independence number.

How exactly does this fit in with the forty cents I saved this morning? Well, the "25 times" may sound awfully daunting, but actually what it shows is the extraordinary leverage of reducing your annual spending. $100 per year is not much money. But the savings needed to safely generate that $100? $2,500 dollars. There's no legerdemain here. Saving this forty cents has exactly the same financial impact as saving an extra $2,500 this year. Or to put it another way: it magically scoots me eight months closer to financial independence.

All of a sudden, saving that forty cents looks a whole lot different.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


After the hammer blow, the silence
rocks back and forth: a powdery membrane
a handsbreadth from the ear and keyed
to the faltering rhythm of the heart:

oh beloved

we knew this would be steep,
but we did not know then 
the frailty of knees that are cramped and snagged
by the stillness of a hundred days of dread;

we thought
we would climb with the vigor of young 
clean-bodied ape,

not this hobble.
And at the center, it is nothing but that one same fear
repeated ten thousand different ways. The hammer lifts
and our stunned hand aims again.


all these failures mount to one,
one collapse of bravery:
the inevitable diastole 
of any clench of hope.

Monday, January 16, 2017


And whan that hit ys eve, I renne blyve,
As sone as evere the sonne gynneth weste,

To seen this flour, how it wol go to reste,
For fere of nyght, so hateth she derknesse.

--Chaucer, Prologue to the Legend of Good Women. 

I still don't know how flowers go to rest,
how they draw petal over petal, as might
a man pull on his wretched coat at five;
I still don't know what muscles they contract,

or how they know that dusk has settled in.
I still don't even know what aim is served:
from what night ravening brutality
do they imagine that they save themselves?

But I do know how they feel when the dark
is drifting over lawn and field, and when
such beauty as they have is spread too wide;

each tender raw integument withdraws
and looks for shelter under every other; 
each eye desires a curtain and a close.

Friday, January 13, 2017


The snowy white parallelograms of the rooftops are brighter and harder than the sky, which recedes uncertainly behind them; gray, maybe, or blue -- the color of a heron standing in a lake. I have been walking on the packed snow, so I am sensitized to the minor variations in hue: you need to pay attention on the half-packed snow, because the clumped and battered surface is uneven, and the variations are hard to see; and yet it hardly matters, too, because it's still malleable, hardly real terrain at all. My footprints remade it as I went.

In places it has packed down tight and turned to gray ice, though: there will be more and more of that. Half of Portlanders don't shovel their walks: many of them don't even know you're supposed to. It may be ugly walking for a couple days, when this finally begins to melt.

Last night, a full moon on the unfamiliar snow.

This cold and immobility stops up my heart and clogs my mind. I don't think I've had one clear, definite thought or feeling since the solstice. My longing for rain -- rain that falls and flows and doesn't freeze -- is intense. I want to remake my life and become a better person, somehow, but nothing really moves or changes. It's all a cold whiteness, slowly going to gray.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Late In The Day

Icy cold. I work at rebuilding my life, a life in which I am no longer a prince, nor even a free man. There is no swagger left in me. I mean to survive, one way or another, grimly and meanly. 

It has recurred to me often, over the decades, that originally education was for princes, and that we still fill students' heads with all sorts of nonsense appropriate to persons of political power and social influence. Really, of course, we are powerless and without influence, and we would have done better to learn how to keep our heads down and our mouths shut.

"The good priest studies till he dies," says a Hungarian proverb: and I still study. I can't help myself anymore: it's old, old habit. 

For what? Well, I like to know things, and it comes in handy oftener than you might think. There's a reason why better-educated people live longer, even controlling for economic and social class. Bad information and stupid ideas will kill you.

But return: if neither a prince nor a citizen, then what? And why? Questions I should have attempted answers to a long time ago. It's a bit late in the game to ask them now.

These are not questions I can answer after one good think, or a year's good thinks. I will build them, over time. I am feeling my way in a dark and unfamiliar mansion, having woken without a name or a purpose: only, still, with the blood beating in my ears, and with the conviction that enemies and allies are asleep close by. 

Well. Many things are going to happen, rapidly, that none of the sleepers expect. Of that, at least, I am sure.


So at times I look into where to run. Ecuador, where reasonably good health insurance costs $80.00 a month? Possibly the best deal, if it stays that way: but uncomfortably close to the northern hemisphere. If one is to run somewhere that might survive a few minor nuclear exchanges, one would want to be much further south... New Zealand is a lovely place, but I doubt I could afford to retire there. I think more of el cono sur: Chile or Argentina. I could retire there right now, and hoe my beans, and think philosophic thoughts. 

Though when I ramble the countryside of the Chilean south, in Google maps, I don't find the lush temperate rain forests that I love. Even far south, there is a desolate feel to the countryside. Maybe that's just thinking ahead to exile: but to me there's an austerity to Patagonia. It will never be, as Western Oregon so palpably is, the Shire.

And of course, as the oligarchs consolidate their power everywhere, their hands will reach south as well, as they have so often in the past. There is no place beyond their reach -- certainly no place that has anything worth stealing.

So. Selfish thoughts, selfish thoughts: but my political despair is so complete at the moment that expressions of hope grate on my ear like the sawing of a beginner on an out-of-tune fiddle. People don't seem to realize. It's not just that we lost: of course one loses from time to time. I've spent my life losing. It's that it's no longer possible to win: I regard my supposed allies with no gladder eye than my enemies. The basic democratic political virtues -- courage, honesty, and trust in one's countrymen -- no longer have critical mass. I don't believe that Americans as I know them are capable of self-government. Once people don't trust their fellow-citizens to count their votes, democracy is dead: whether the votes are actually counted right or not no longer matters. 

So I wander the lonely roads on the hills above Concepción, and look down at the glimmering ocean, and reckon my retirement income in Chilean or Argentinean pesos. Probably, of course, I just stay, and the tide just comes to me wherever it finds me: in my little house in East Portland, probably, scrambling eggs in the morning and looking up the etymology of stubborn Spanish words. I never have been quick or nimble.