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