Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The Fall of Meredith

Illustration for George Meredith's The Adventures of Harry Richmond. George du Maurier (1834-1896)

In my youth, George Meredith was one of those novelists you were always going to get to one of these days. There was no hurry. His novels were always sitting, fat and well-bound, on the library shelves. But I never did get around to him. A couple days ago until I happened to pick up Chesterton's little book on Victorian literature -- sheer happenstance: my eye had fallen on it at the library when I was looking for something else -- and there was Meredith, ranked beside, if not above, Thomas Hardy. Huh, I thought. I'll read a Meredith novel. After poking about a little I settled on Harry Richmond, and went to the library website to slap a hold on it: that's the usual way I obtain books these days. To my astonishment, they held exactly one Meredith novel -- The Egoist -- and that was that. The solidity and permanence of Meredith was a mirage, a trick of the light.

I was piqued, rather than discouraged, and went off to Gutenberg. Sure enough, plenty of Meredith there, although apparently not much in demand. So now I'm eight chapters in to Harry Richmond. It's interesting, so far -- well worth reading, and it casts oblique lights forward and back. Many of us young men are in a similar plight, I often think: raised to princely expectations, groomed for monarchy, and then rudely thrown into the world as ordinary people after all.

I wonder why Meredith fell? So many mysteries.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Sad Cypress; Glad Morning

Cyparissus (1670s) by Jacopo Vignali: Wikipedia Commons

Cool morning air drifting in from the windows; a light blue sky beyond the hedge. For the moment, untroubled and at peace.

It's an arborvitae hedge. Martha pronounces it, charmingly, as "arborviety," rhyming with "variety." Tree of life, that is, which seems a little highfalutin for a hedge shrub. But apparently it got the name because tea made from it cured scurvy. 

It's a kind of cypress. A thuja. The which name is another anomalous perplexity, at first sight, but it turns out to just be an odd spelling of the Greek name for a particular sort of cypress. Thuia, would be the normal English spelling. What possessed some botanist to spell it with a 'j'?  'i' and 'j' are originally just variant forms of the same Roman letter, but to anyone with linguistic sensitivities the 'th', which fairly screams its Greekness, sits very uncomfortably in the same short word with a Latin 'j'. 

I do not know why cypress trees are associated with sadness, though I suppose the internets would tell me. They don't strike me as particularly sad trees. A little dusky, but not strikingly dark like a yew.

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.

... I'm back! The internets say that of course cypress trees are sad because once upon a classical time Cyparissus accidentally shot and killed his pet stag, and he made such a nuisance of his grief that the gods turned him into a tree: an immortal cypress so that he could grieve forever. But then other of the internets say that Cypress trees are not only immortal but protective (here the arborvitae theme is foreshadowed, no?), so they're planted in cemeteries to guard the dead from demons. That seems more likely than the stag story, but of course you never know. So I will put Mr Vignali's picture up top. One does hope he gave the model a comfortable pillow to embrace, but artists are notoriously ruthless.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Absorbing a Setback -- Naps -- Deep Work & Deliberate Practice

Morning. Up before the sun today: for the first time since the solstice, I had to turn on lights to perform my morning ceremonies. A little sad for the waning of the light. I have, now, a late-found affection for summer and warm weather. Some combination of getting older and getting thinner: I tolerate heat much better than I did when I was younger and stouter.

Speaking of thinner and stouter, I dropped back below 160 lbs yesterday. During the stresses and disruptions of this Spring I went off the rails with my eating for a week or two, and skipped or reduced a bunch of my workouts, and found myself at 165 lbs, with a 34 1/2 inch waist. It's taken four weeks to bring things back to where I want them to be. One complexity is that I don't have a goal weight or waistline, any more. My goal is a relationship -- the hips measuring three inches more than the waist -- and what that may work out to, in absolute pounds and inches, I can't know until I get there. Plus, I don't know whether the three inch thing is really appropriate for my age. Some people think that more padding is to be desired, at my advanced age, but what they base that on is (so far as I know) a single study that shows that you die slower if you're fatter. I don't know that I want to die slower: I just want to die later. The active and healthy-looking old people I see are skinny as a rail. I suspect that's the way to go. Not having absolute numbers to aim for, though, is a bit of a psychological disadvantage. My graphs show me moving in the right direction: but the waist and hip measurements are mushier than the scale's. It will be nice when I have a simple stable number of pounds that I want to weigh. 

Anyway -- to the purpose of my rather thought, as Mr Chaucer would say -- this is important to me because I had two criteria, from way back when I started this weight loss enterprise. One was, I had to keep the weight off for five years. The other was, that I had to be able to absorb a setback -- to go off the rails and get back on. For the first, well, I won't know for another three years whether I can declare success or not. But I seem to have demonstrated the second, now. I can recover from driving into the ditch, using exactly the same methods I used for the long march. They haven't magically become ineffective. (If that sounds absurd, well, it is: but it is also my experience of all the diets heretofore that have failed. Once they "broke" their effectiveness was wrecked.)

So -- that's all good. 

The other thing: I'm learning, in earnest, to take naps. In experimenting, a la Cal Norman, with trying to make space for blocks of "deep work" in my schedule, I discovered something important: the problem was not so much that social media was sucking up my time as that I was too fatigued. That is, I was lingering on Facebook and so forth because I was too tired to do real work, and I was too tired because my nightly sleep is regularly broken -- BPE -- and I was never making up the deficit. So I'm learning to sleep in the day. So grateful for having the flexibility of schedule to make that possible. A huge luxury.

There are two things I want to focus "deep work" time on: "deliberate practice" of Spanish, and "deliberate practice" of massage. I have periodically little fits of anxiety and dismay about whether my massage is good enough, which have never been wired to actually doing anything to improve it. But it does get better when I study and practice it. There's nothing magical about it. It follows the same path as any other skill. 

The anxiety is kind of stupid anyway, since it's already good enough, in practical terms: there's no way that the average kid just a year or two out of school is going to do work as effective as mine, and about half of the massage therapists out there are kids just a year or two out of school. From the business point of view, it hardly matters how good I am. It only matters from the point of how I feel about myself, and how I respond to anxiety. I'm sick of responding to anxiety about my worthiness with extravagant spiritual projects or literary enterprises that never quite happen. For more decades than I care to think about, my response to doubting my skills has been to work on a new and secret set of skills that I will someday unveil to the astonishment of the world. Screw that. I can just work on the things I actually do, and actually get better at them, right out in the light of day.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Venustas Ergo Venustas

I find the world much more difficult and obscure than most people do. I have friends to whom it seems obvious that a person belongs to herself: a statement which I find fascinating, bizarre and indefensible. But to them it is self-evident. I have friends for whom it is self-evident that there is a God who created people, and who believe that they therefore belong to Her: again fascinating, again bizarre, again indefensible. 

It's not clear to me that we exist, in any way similar to the way we imagine we exist, anyway: so Descartes' clear starting principle is for me the iffy conclusion of a dubious chain of assumptions. What are my responsibilities, even if I was created, even if by some unknowable fiat I not only exist, but belong to myself, even if "I" and "myself" are meaningful categories that can be meaningfully linked by a property relationship? That's not clear to me either. To me these are speculations in the outermost spheres of wild hypothesis. To my friends, they're daily realities worth killing and dying for.

Really. I'm not making this up, I'm not trying to invent difficulties. I'm just saying it's dark, to me: I stumble through an obscure world of shifting shapes and dissolving outlines, punctuated by moments of brilliant, wounding, transcendent beauty. 

Which vanish almost at once, leaving behind longings, traces, puzzlements. Descartes, bless his heart, was sure that he existed. For my part, I'm sure that the experience of beauty can exist, momentarily at least, however we conceive of the experiencer. And that's about as far as I get with first principles. This is why I'm so fun at parties.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Afterwards

gently to the water
the hierarchs recede
and the old men of the forest lift their heads
gently to the water
rain and rain
forty-seven days
and the drift of abandoned boats
but all that behind us now
gently to the water

You spoke and the dazzle is around us still
you felt and our own bones ached
you saw and the darkness fell
gently to the water

Crusted with bits of colored glass and shell
criss-crossed with scars that are old and white
or young and angry red and damped with sand
bring these unsteady hands
gently to the water

they undo the webbing
and the cinch under your trembling arms
begins to ease the breath comes back to your chest
where some small white-furred creature lifts its head
and with infinite caution makes its way
gently to the water.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Just Beginning to Breathe

for Jarrett on his birthday

So I was thinking today
how much I admire your work:
the attention to what ordinary people
want and need, to making the conversation
general. I was thinking about
the love of cities, where strangers
bring what they have and find what they need:
the glory of civilization, and its shame,
which are the same thing (generally) and I was thinking
of how hard and necessary it is to help people
go where they need to go
when they need to go there
and how the City is the whole human problem
and solution
at the same time.
General. Trafficking has a bad name, 
but I remember your earnestness when I said
if those people in Vancouver didn't want to pay the cost
they shouldn't come to Portland: you said, 
"But we want them to come!"
You lit up. We want them to come.
I was thinking that today 
is your birthday and how much better the world is
how much better my world is
because you are in it: of the wild,
unreasonable generosity that opens 
the gates and makes the streets a necklace
threading the shops and the houses: the jewelry of 
a barely imagined giant
just beginning to breathe.

Friday, April 26, 2019

About that Presidency

Edited to add: This was written just before Biden officially declared -- very early days in the primary race. As my Dad reminded me, there's a lot we don't know yet, and we should view our assumptions with a lot of skepticism.

---

Here's how I see the next presidential administration, should the Democrats win it (I give them a fifty-fifty chance; maybe sixty-forty.)

The Senate will still be firmly in Republican hands. The House will probably remain Democratic. It's four more years of legislative deadlock, head-butting, name-calling, maneuvering. In office or out of it, Trump will still be tweeting like a lunatic, with a devoted following and a Fox News amplifier. He'll be slightly discredited, but he'll also be back where he loves to be, flinging dung from the outside. It will be very, very hard to get anything at all done. The fighting will not be clean. It will be an ugly four years, regardless. The Senate Republicans will resume their obstruct-the-president-at-whatever-cost approach.

What will the president's role be, then? What will be required of her?

Two things. First: she'll need to present a coherent and appealing picture of the path forward, so that people -- especially people in states that presently field Republican senators -- will want to give the Democratic Party a chance. The vision thing.

Second: she'll need to fight hard, scrappily, ferociously and continuously. It's going to be a fight from day one, an exhausting one. She's going to have to know where all the levers of power are and how to pull them. And she's going to be heading up a vast bureaucracy, the Federal Government, that will be depleted and demoralized, largely paralyzed by the legislative deadlock. So she will need high-level managerial skills, and extraordinary discipline.

Then perhaps we win the 2022 and 2024 elections. Perhaps we don't. That's a long ways out. At that point maybe we can implement some version of the Green New Deal. But that's not what we're doing right now. Right now, we're picking our champion for a brutal, four year slugfest.

To lay my cards on the table: right now my favorite candidate, by far, is Elizabeth Warren. She's become the de facto Democratic policy engine. She's laying out what we need to do, and she's doing it well. I have a soft spot for wonks, after all. I made phone calls for Dukakis. But: I doubt I'll be voting for her in the primaries. I don't think she's a particularly good campaigner. She's nearly as old as Joe Biden. I think she'd struggle to win back the midwestern states that we lost last time. And if she did win -- she's never managed anything larger than a Senatorial office. She knows the legislative process up and down, but I'm not sure how much good that will do us if Congress remains paralyzed.

Who does that leave? Well, there's Sanders. He does "the vision thing" but I don't see him as a scrapper, or a bulldog. He would keep the vision front and center, and we need that. But he's even older than Warren. Would he be able to get down into the pit and wrestle for the scraps, which are all we're going to get next time? I doubt it. Detail and discipline are not his strong suits. And as far as campaigning goes, we haven't yet seen what happens when the oppo machine gets to work on him. They'll have a lot to work with.

Biden? Well, older again. Not a particularly good campaigner either -- his previous presidential bids have fizzled out ingloriously. He tends to go on and on, and periodically to put his foot in his mouth. He does have the experience of the Obama administration, so he ticks that box. But his vision is locked in to the world of the 1970s (as is Sanders', for that matter: Biden is the 70s "Old Left" -- it was old even then -- and Sanders is the 70s "New Left.")

No. The two I look to, when I look past Warren, are Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris. Buttigieg strikes me as very like candidate Obama: someone who is able to project an aura of being new and exciting while actually being a cautious centrist. Obama won me over by running an incredibly brilliant, disciplined campaign. I never much liked his centrist policies, but his political abilities were astounding. Buttigieg may be a similar wunderkind; I don't know. He has the silver tongue, but whether he has the managerial skills, I don't know. His resume is pretty skimpy. I do think Buttigieg is the only candidate in the field who understands why anyone would have voted for Trump, and has thought constructively about how to bring those people back. We need to bring those people back. They're not going to evaporate just because they lose an election. We're going to be living together from now on, decade after decade. We can't roll the Republic back four years: we're going to have to find a way forward.

Then there's Kamala Harris, whom I suspect I will end up supporting. She has administered a large bureaucracy, as AG of California. She is very smart. She hasn't always done the vision thing terribly well, but she has surprised me lately by her boldness: she seems to have been biding her time, but she has emerged as a genuine Green New Dealer. And she has incredible discipline. She will stay on point, totally focused, for as long as she needs to. She's young enough to be able to pound her way through four years of exhausting fighting. And for what it's worth, I like her, for the same reasons I liked Hillary Clinton. I like that she chose the difficult and murky ways of the inside paths to power. She's understands that it's all trade-offs, if you're going to try to make things happen in the real world. You do the work, and you let people call you names, and you smile.

So there we are. At the moment of going to press, I'm for Harris. I guess like Warren better, but I like Warren mostly as a wonk, not as a fighter or a figurehead. She serves as a wonk as well in the Senate -- or better -- as she would in the White House.

In any case, I will support whoever the Democrats choose. The party is the only thing that really matters, in American politics, and the sooner we understand that the happier we will be. I like the Democratic Party better than I have ever liked it, in my long years of grudging support: so there's that.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Forgetting the Sky

It's not just that joy is joy
though that would be sufficient
it's that joy makes all the rest of life align
sensibly

therefore
a life not focused on 
putting oneself in the way of joy
is not the right one

regardless of whatever else 
may be right about it.

Noted
there is no forcing it
joy comes on its own schedule
at its own hest
as it will; but

Walking hunched, head down,
brooding on wrongs suffered committed & ahead
is sad in itself but more importantly
it is the way to miss joy
which tends to approach

in that space behind the left shoulder, 
where an affectionate spouse would kiss you in passing,
or where a cat would ride if it were accompanying you
on a dumpster dive; where the fringe of an epaulet
might tickle.

for any and all these things it is required
to let the shoulders ride back
and let the sternum
be prow:

We won't spend much time afloat
said and done,
and forgetting the sky is our first
and worst mistake.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Glorious First

A cannon shot in 1794
began a wave that beat upon the shore
and back again, a surge of marbled gray
that ran against the quays of Malabar
and twisted, tangled, ran once more away;

you remember that year
my darling, centuries after, when one small wave
rocked against our hands in seeming play?
The sea was shining then as once before
under the filtered sun at the closing of the day.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Painstaking Letters

Suppose some fluttering thing -- marred by suspicion
but carrying in its claw, neat-folded to its breast,
a scroll of painstaking letters and awkward 
illumination, suppose it is here after all, 
in the cage of my chest, and that is what these furtive
movements and shuddery stillnesses, what these moments
of nausea and grating crumbles of delight, what these
dizzying lurches mean?

I have not fed the birds, but still they come, and still
they grow beside my heart, and still they clutch
messages from some far time when each stroke of the pen
cost someone's blood and overturned a trough. The grinding of
some azure stuff, the mixing of a walnut ink: and all the while
murderous fleets standing off beyond the rocks,
signalling disaster. Still. They wrote; they had to.

Give this message to this one messenger,
(wet-winged, drenched in the throb of the heartspace)
and tell him to come home when he can;
tell him the wind still breaks in unseen foam
over the crest of the hills.

Friday, February 01, 2019

Soon, Quixote

Accelerating my Spanish is succeeding well, and my second run at Tormento has been a great success: I sprinted to the end out of real curiosity to see how on earth Pérez Galdós was going to end it. Looking around for the next read, I find Don Quixote looming ever closer. Perhaps not the next undertaking, but soon.

Don Quixote sits queerly in my mind's attic. I read it in translation at age seventeen or eighteen, my first year at Evergreen, when I read so many of the classics that have stayed with me, and I thoroughly disliked it. Its sexism and casual acceptance of violence -- which were probably no worse than in any other 17th Century book -- displeased me. In those days I was ferociously idealistic, and I roundly disliked snark and satire. (I never have developed much of a taste for them: but if anything would dispose me that way, it's been the government of the last couple years.) My heart was with bold dreamers such as William Blake, or sad ones such as William Butler Yeats. And anyway the damned book went on and on: nearly a thousand pages of small print, and yet things never came to any point, that I could see. Somebody would get beaten up and everybody would laugh. What fun.

It was really the only classic, of the many I read that year, that I failed to connect with. I was a generous reader, for my age, but Quixote defeated me. I couldn't figure out a way to like it. I remember confessing this to my favorite Professor, who thought a bit and said that when he disliked a classic, it generally meant that it had something to teach that he was reluctant to learn. I thought, and think, that was probably true. And I retain my unfashionable reverence for classics. So I've always had in the back of my mind the project of taking another run at Quixote.

So now, as I cast about in Spanish literature -- in a situation strangely like that of my seventeenth year, confronted with a new wealth of classics on every side, but uncertain of my guides -- I go browsing among lists of imprescindibles libros en castellano, and what I find, again and again, at the head of the lists, is -- Don Quixote. 

So -- soon, I think. I find, when I turn the lamp right on it, that I have acquired a sense of incapacity, which startles me: a sense that I would not be able to read 17th Century Spanish. Where I came by that nonsense, I don't know, but I'm highly displeased to find it creeping up on me. Of course I can read 17th Century Spanish. If you don't know a word, look it up; if you don't know a phrase, google it. For heaven's sake. I've read in far more obscure and difficult languages than that. 

So -- soon, it's Quixote. A couple more middling-hard novels first, I think. But soon.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Thinking Projects

I'm thinking projects, which has not been how I usually think. I usually think systems, and that's usually the way I want to think. Get the systems right and the results come of their own accord. I'm not able to read in several languages because I ever made a project out of them. I just studied some and read some every day, and now I know them. I'm in good physical shape, not because I ever set goals for my fitness, but because I walk and exercise every day. It's the right emphasis. But it's not the only emphasis. And some things just hit a holding pattern, or stall out, without milestones and end goals.

So I want to back off from the daily-routine approach, for a moment, and think in a project-oriented way. I've got three projects going:
  • learning Spanish
  • writing my diet book
  • maintaining my massage business
All three are either stalled out (diet book and massage biz) or in a holding pattern (learning Spanish.)

Spanish. Okay, the issue here is that I've been doing this for many years -- reading maybe half an hour per day, learning a couple words per day and adding them to Anki flashcard decks -- and while my Spanish does gradually get better, that's actually a ton of time to have invested to still not be at the level I'd like to be. (Which is, to be able to translate written Spanish into written English, skillfully and rapidly enough to make it possibly a paying side-gig.) I think I must be just *barely* over the break-even point. If I double, or even increase by half-again, the time I put in -- and if I do some writing as well as reading -- I might be able to get where I want to be in a year or two. But right now, it's absorbing a lot of my disposable time and not yielding any rewards beyond its own pleasure. (Which is considerable, mind you. I like doing it.) I may be in the position of someone saving for retirement at the rate of ten dollars a month. It's the right way to do it -- put some aside every month -- but if  it won't yield the desired result within the span of human lifetime, the scale is wrong. It's not enough of an increment over steady-state. So what I need is:
  • an alteration of the daily system, obviously, to step it up,
  • a timeline with milestones
  • a way to evaluate my progress
The timeline I can just make up: a year and a half. And the end milestone is also easy: I can take a qualifying test at one of the online translating companies, and just see how I do. Intermediate milestones are a little harder. I'll have to ponder that. Also I should investigate subject-matter expertise: what's wanted that's hard to get?

So: I will take one of those exams in July 2020.

As far as the daily routine goes: I'll double the time reading. Right now I mostly read on the train to and from work, which probably amounts to about half an hour of reading per day; and I learn two words per day. So I'll add forty minutes of reading in the morning, and make it four words per day. In addition I should start doing some translation exercises, with some kind of checking in with a reliable literate native speaker. (I have a hazy memory of a website that provides that sort of exchange... with an "eight" in its name? Duolingo had a translation component, but it didn't have any checking worth a damn.)

---

I wrote the foregoing two or three days ago, and it's been surprising to me how deeply I've responded to having an intellectual project again: I hadn't realized how much I've missed feeling that I was building a skill.

---

I decided, by the way, that there is no salt problem. I don't actually eat as much as most Americans and I don't think it makes much difference anyway.

---

I bought a little 8-inch cast iron skillet, and have been using it nightly. It brings me great joy. So suited to its work, so reassuringly solid and real and durable. The cheap light nonstick pans I've been using wound my spirit. I'm not sure why it's taken so long for me to finally try cast iron: I think I had exaggerated ideas of how difficult and elaborate seasoning them would be. In the event, the skillet I bought was supposedly preseasoned, and I just started using it, with plenty of oil, oiling it up again after I cleaned it: within a couple days it has become more nonstick than my ailing, supposedly nonstick, lightweight chemist's confections. Sometimes I make things more complicated than they have to be.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

End of Year Check-In, 2018

2018 saw the end of the weight loss project. But I've changed nothing about how I regulate my eating: I just slightly increased the quantities of a few of my daily foods. I doubt I will ever be able to eat ad libitum, like a person whose appetite has never become disordered. I am on a diet for life, you might say. Which takes fair amount of tedious planning and effort, but I actually find it psychologically easier than the ceaseless fret of "what do I get to eat next?" -- which feels to me now, at the rare times when I entertain the possibility of returning to it, like a worse confinement than just restricting my eating. I know exactly what I'm eating next, in what quantity, so I don't have to think about it. I don't have much of a yen to go back to those cycles of craving and fleeting gratification and self-contempt. It was not much fun and a lot of ickiness.

Here's the charts:

Red line: weight in 2018. The blue lines were projected weights I was steering by.




Waist measurements in 2018

(You can see the 2017 charts here). I levelled off my weight at about 155 pounds (70 kg), with a plan to gradually bring it up to 160 pounds (72.5 kg) while either keeping my waist where it is, at 33 inches (84 cm), or bringing it down to 32 (81 cm). Changes at this point are slow and will be mostly invisible to the casual viewer. Lots of resistance training.

The other thing I'm undertaking in 2019 is trying to figure out my salt intake, and probably reducing it. I find the science on sodium intake confusing so far. And like the science on diet, founded on a lot of very dubious self-reported data. I don't think most people have any idea how much sodium they're consuming, just as they don't have any idea how many calories they're consuming. I'll keep reading, and in the meantime, I'll undertake to describe how much salt I'm eating with an actual reliable number. 

If there's one firm conclusion I've drawn about weight loss, it's that the primary difficulty has nothing to do with will power or psychology, and everything to do with accurate measurement. It's an engineering problem with fairly fine tolerances, and we approach it with laughably inaccurate measurement tools: what we end up doing is wildly oversteering until we capsize. I expect the salt problem -- if there is one -- will look a lot the same.

Anyway, happy new year to you all! The sun is shining, and melting the ice on the skylights: squares of pure pale blue are appearing there. As we say in the Buddha hood, may all beings have happiness, and the causes of happiness; may all beings be free of suffering, and the causes of suffering

xoxo