Wednesday, June 10, 2020

In Lieu of Tablets


They say the Eye of the Needle was a gate in Jerusalem,
so narrow that you had to unload your camel to lead it through.
Then again, they say that if God makes a door as wide 
as the eye of a needle, the way becomes so wide
that all can pass through: camels, tents, wagons, all.

They'll say anything, you know. Listen at your peril.
What Jesus meant is plain enough to me.

I can't bring myself to pay some poor schmo 
to do my grocery shopping for me. I mask up once a week,
take my life in my hands, wash well. I think of the people
who crouched in cellars four years long 
in Sarajevo. This is doable.

There is a thunderous knocking on the door, on all the doors.
Not yet morning and the sky full of fearful stars. Prayer
that doesn't begin or end with listening 
is only a complaint, or a harangue.


The long slow sift of anxious scholarship, that's one.
The measures, pencil-marked and checked, 
and checked again on fine-grained wood; that's two. 
Dishes carefully washed and set to dry; that's three.
Three things that are pleasing to God.

Go tell the crowd that the golden calf
was a mistake. But the burning here 
means so much more than that. And I
am commanded to wait. If anything is handed to me
you'll be the first to know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The California of the Jealous Gods

I rise through pools of silver to a glimpse of sky, a fading sky, a dislocation of blue.

Was there ever a young man who so narrowly missed so many targets, as Heinrich von Kleist? Poor soul. But I haven't read his plays yet. 

I keep my mind on a short leash these days. Speak sternly to it when it pauses to sniff. The right way to live, maybe, but not the right way to create things. 

I could eat ten packages of girl scout cookies without drawing a breath, right now, and reach for an eleventh.

A breeze stirs the maple tree branches, and their leaves tap the sky.

I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that.

(I, on the other hand, have done the state no service at all, but here I am, withering out its revenue.)


     "I'll go in search of Athos by myself," he said. "Take care of yourself, dear friend!"
     "You're a man of steel," said Aramis.
     "No; I'm lucky, nothing more. But how will you kill the time, waiting for me? I suppose you're done with the thesis, and with theological explications of fingers and blessings?"
     Aramis smiled. "I'll compose verses."
     "Ah, verses bearing the scent of the billet-doux of Lady Whoever-She-Is. Why don't you teach versification to Bazin? It will console him."

Bizarre as von Kleist is, he can't hold a candle to Dumas, who opens wider vistas of the ungodded landscape. Dumas is astonishing in his amorality. The side of the musketeers is the right side because it is the side of our friends: no other moral superiority is claimed or wanted. Pretty girls, fast horses, jeweled swords: this is the pinnacle of life, and all the rest is stuff: feeble consolations for those who have lost the real game. 

Dumas does not make it into Harold Bloom's register of the immortals. Not highbrow enough, I suppose. Nevertheless, people will be reading Dumas when half of Bloom's classics are forgotten footnotes. 

More surprising than Dumas' popularity, I think, is the nostalgia he inspires. Were this merely cape-and-sword porn, I don't think it would leave so deep a trace. People come back to the Musketeers again and again. The gusto of youth and the bleakness of age are perfectly counterpoised: this is the eternal Spring, the California of the Jealous Gods.

Their hearts have not grown old. 
Passion or conquest, wander where they will 
Attend upon them still.

Monday, May 25, 2020

How I use Flashcards

I'm convinced that the key to learning a new language is simple: it's the ingestion of compelling comprehensible input in large quantities. Reading and listening to stuff you can more or less understand. Your brain will take care of the grammar and the vocabulary, behind the scenes, quite efficiently. All you have to do find stuff simple enough to understand, that you're really motivated to understand, and consume lots of it. Everything else will happen on its own.

So it might surprise you that I still use flashcards, in my enterprise of learning literary Spanish. I do it for a good reason and a bad reason. The bad reason is that without doing some sort of drill I don't really feel like I'm studying the language. The good reason is that I think -- though I'm still not entirely sure -- that with the right tools and the right approach I can develop my vocabulary a little more efficiently than I could by spending the same time reading or listening.

There are two keys to my method. One is spaced repetition, and the other is context.

I use Anki, a flashcard program that uses spaced repetition. There are lots of such programs out there, with various bells and whistles, but they all use some variant of this simple, sturdy algorithm: you create some flashcards. Then you go through them. If you get a card wrong, you'll be presented with it again when you drill tomorrow. If you get it right, however, it will double the time it waits to present you with it again. You'll see it in two days, instead of in one. Get it right again, you'll see it four days later. And again, you'll see it eight days after that. If you get it wrong, though, the interval for that card drops back to one and you'll start over with it again. 

There's some good science behind this: something like this algorithm is optimal for getting stuff into your memory. But there are also some problems. One is that it's easy to get overambitious and create an oppressively large deck that eats up all you study time. Drilling on vocabulary really shouldn't take up very much of the time you devote to your language. A quarter of your time is way too much. So pace yourself. Don't let it shoulder out your main task, which is guzzling down the comprehensible input.

The other main problem is that your brain is very shrewd, thrifty, well-designed learner. It learns exactly what it has to learn. If you have a flashcard that says "crow" on one side and "cuervo" on the other, it will remember that the other side of the "crow" card has "cuervo" on it. But it will only remember it when you're drilling. Meet "cuervo" in a text, and it won't necessarily remember it at all. You may have a vague feeling that you should know it, but you'll have to look it up. And that will leave you with the (legitimate) suspicion that all your drilling is just a waste of time. 

The trouble is that you're just learning an isolated factoid. Vocabulary is not a mass of isolated factoids: it's a densely interwoven network of associations. You haven't really learned the word "crow" in English until it has little tendrils of association with a bunch of other words, (bird, black, caw, ominous, fly, croak...). A word out of its web is useless, except for successfully drilling yourself with flashcards. What your brain is doing is learning what's on the other side of the flashcard. What you want it to be doing is weaving "cuervo" into the web of your Spanish vocabulary. 

So the "Spanish" side of my "crow" card will look like this, with the sentence where I met it included:


el cuervo

Han pasado cuatro años escuchando el graznido del cuervo.


I don't try to memorize the sentence. If I get "cuervo" right, I've gotten the card right. But every time I answer the card, I say the sentence (aloud or in my mind). I'm stitching the word into the web.

And if I get the word wrong, I don't just start that card over. I start it over, and I create a new card with the same word, but with a different sentence.

My new card might look like this:


el cuervo

Envió un cuervo, pero pronto volvió volando.


(And in the meantime, having refined my understanding of "cuervo," I might change the English side to "crow; raven" -- because "cuervo" refers to either.)

Now we're doing some serious stitching. And by the time you have three such cards, you're no longer having trouble with finding the Spanish word for "crow." You actually know it.

Now, this can be a little discouraging, because it turns out that to keep a reasonable-sized deck you can only add two or three words per day. If you had dreams of building a literary vocabulary in the space of one year, this will dash them. It can't be done. A decent speaking vocabulary, sure. But a real literary vocabulary takes years. It just does. 

On the other hand, note that you're not just learning the word "cuervo" here. You're now also learning "graznido," "envió," and "volando," and buttressing the words that you already knew, but maybe not so well as you imagined: "años," "cuatro," "volvió." Not to mention reinforcing the grammar and syntax. You're making the web denser and stronger. Now when you meet "cuervo" on the page it's a real word, a word that means something, a word that has tendrils of association running to other words and turns of phrase.

One of the side benefits of this -- unless it's actually the chief benefit -- is that often I discover, when I say over the example sentence, that I didn't fully understand it. (It's usually, of course, the sentence that sent me to the dictionary for that word in the first place.) There's something odd about it. The prepositions aren't the ones I would have expected: the verb forms strike me as odd. There's something I had skipped over, without really getting it. So drilling vocabulary becomes a little like memorizing poetry: it's a way of slowing myself down. I tend to gobble my language, rather than savor it, and I miss a lot that way.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Prime Motor

Every once in a while I think of the collapse of Joe McCarthy as a political power, which happened almost overnight. He went from the most feared man in America to a pathetic drunkard, whose colleagues avoided him in the Senate hallways, in a matter of days.

"Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses," as King Théoden remarked. Political life always seems overdetermined and implacable, until suddenly it's not. So "Up, Éorlingas, and fear no darkness!"


On the other hand, it's the silly polling season. No, dear friends, Florida and Texas are not in the bag. Sheesh. Get a grip.


Engrenage énorme dont le premier moteur est le moucheron et dont la dernière roue est le zodiaque.

Enormous gearing, the prime motor of which is the gnat, and whose final wheel is the zodiac.

-- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Reading Hugo

Reading Victor Hugo for the first time. When I was young, and first barreling through the classics, I obtained somewhere an absurd prejudice against French language and literature, and mostly skipped it. A couple decades later I had a limping reading-knowledge of French, and was waiting to read it all in the original. Now, with a clearer picture of my mortality, I've realized that if I'm going to read much French literature, I better read it now and in translation. If I get to it later in French, that will be gravy. But better get to it now.

Nearly through the second volume of Les Misérables. It's a bit trying, when he drones on about theology and monasticism. But it's illuminating even then. This is where I came from, where the American Democratic Party came from: all the glories, absurdities, and contradictions of liberalism are on display.

The belief in supermen, and the convenient now-you-see-it-now-you-don't deism, are the most striking things to me. Hugo is dazzled by Napoleon, and Jean Valjean is just Napoleon transposed to private life. The superhero motif sails on to the present day. 

God is indispensable, but malleable. You can make him be whatever you need to him to be at the moment. It's not, of course, Hugo's fault, but prosperity gospel and no-fault Christianity are already in the wings.

But this is the captiousness of hindsight. There's a great deal of sentimentality, and your shoes fill with it as you squelch your way through the novel, but Hugo does bludgeon home one of the great ideas of his time: that we are making criminals and prostitutes, that society is producing them on an industrial scale, that these conditions could have no other outcome. 

Whether Hugo ever set these insights against his own bargains with Eros, I don't know: I might look about for a biography. I suspect that the superhero shtick will have come in handy for him, there.

Sunday, April 05, 2020



I have asked how not to become morose
at a time when all lights flicker, a time

when the sky hesitates, the sun
avoids my glance, and the moon

pitches after a restless night into
the sickly western haze.

The dawn is not cool; the afternoon
has no warmth; evening brings a glare

of streetlamps, blue and unlovely,
that give false counsel to the moths

and little of use to my feet.
I have asked, and receive your silence.


Well, I will try my own answers.
To live at times of crisis is the common lot:

we are not singled out. Boccaccio 
pulled his hood over his nose and hurried away,

Chaucer put off his trip to Paris, and wondered
if his butt of wine would come this year.

Peevish princes, venal and unwise
are not a new invention of our time,

nor are mobs that drag a man
with the wrong name off to death.

These are old, old stories. 
Often told, half-listened.


And no answer. Let me try again:
all this fret and unease comes

because we think we know:
and we do not know.

There are better times and worse times, perhaps;
certainly lives happier, lives more distressed;

but we are swallowed by the fish of the future
and what we will find in its belly

we do not know. Not what we thought.
Did we really love the lineaments 

of the made world so much, that we must
fear to lose them? Let them go.


Democracy, the rights of man, 
the golden rule: they will all be found

and lost again, broken and restored.
The storytelling apes will have 

their algae-bloom, their die-off;
the rains will come and the seas will rise.

Is it our business to know, or even to attend?
Yesterday at twilight an apple tree

was heavy with white blossom,
whiter than could be believed, so that I stopped

and tried to tell how mere reflection 
could be brighter than the dimming sky.


The wind rises. Branches toss their heads,
a ruffle runs through the ferns; sparrows

jostle by the pool. There is a new front,
slate gray, implacable, moving inland:

too slow for the motion to be seen, but eating up the sky.
Still silent? Or is this your answer? Rain,

a day-long, week-long rain. The crows call
each to each. All my failures are laid out

before me, but even those
the rising wind lifts, and carries away:

it leaves only this blessing, 
this enormous blessing, of the rain. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Daily Bread

Thank you for this food, gathered and grown
at unknown price by unknown hands;

brought from far places by those
who would rather be at home.

Thank you for these loved ones 
who step glad and unafraid

into darkness, take my hand,
and find the courage I could not.

Thank you for this breath, these ribs
splayed by greed but closing now as slow

as flowers at the half light, 
and help me daily to remember

there is a dale behind the dale;
there is a mountain behind the cloud.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Time of Fire

One long-missing piece has reappeared, and fallen into place: the great books piece. I let myself be pulled away from reading the classics, while I wandered among Buddhist texts and dabbled in radical hermeneutics. But I'm back, and I suspect I'm back to stay. Reading great books has been, along with Buddhism, what has led me towards sanity and happiness. I thought of putting "great books" in scare quotes, but I decided not to. Great is as good a descriptor as any. There are books that I can return to, over and over, that meet me each time with something new and unexpected. Most of them are considered classics, by somebody or other. The label of classic amplifies the power of the book, of course: I attend more carefully because it's a classic, and I harvest more from it because I'm attending carefully. But that's a minor effect. Mainly, the classics are just far, far better books. End of story. I'm not interested in arguing the point: someone can argue that Middleton (for example) is just as good a playwright as Shakespeare, and produce endless perfectly respectable arguments to that effect: but it's not so, and you and I both know it. 

So I am back to a program of reading. In the last couple weeks it's been The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, Macbeth, and Cervantes' Novelas Ejemplares. I read where the reading seems rich, and leave off when I like (I won't take either the Nights or the Novelas at a single gulp: I'm no longer interested in mortifying my readerly flesh.) So -- that's good. And that's a piece of the "what do I do with my life now?" question answered. 

Another piece of that question has been answered, or at least reframed. I have become very interested, after the experience of this last vacation, in the idea of living within my temporal means -- to be clearer, in how the way I live now is, in various not-terribly-obvious ways, putting my future in hock. Every deferred decision, every object without a defined place in the household, every ambition in suspended animation, is a borrowing against my future resources. Sometime I will have to deal with X, and when I get time free I find -- as during this vacation -- that's it's not free at all: it's already allocated. If I go on this way I will never have a vacation. And I need a vacation.

A third piece. Alain de Botton, though sometimes silly and exasperating, is right about this: that to keep what's important before us we need rituals, daily, weekly, and seasonal rituals. If we are not part of a community that provides those, then we need to invent them. I need daily aspiration prayers, weekly observances, and seasonal holidays to mark the important things. Men require more often to be reminded than informed, said Montaigne.

It becomes clearer and clearer that I must curtail my consumption of social media, or maybe cut it off altogether. Its effect on me is obvious, and bad. It is more or less the opposite of ritual: it predictably inspires me to fear, and to focus on things I have no effect on.


Women, don't cower in the house.
Come with us. You've just seen death
and devastating calamity, but
you've seen nothing that is not Zeus.

My courage returned to me today. I don't know why. After writing the above I spent a week in a quietly panicked state, unable to settle to anything, frightened by everything from going to the grocery store to the prospect of learning to use Skype: and now, suddenly, the sky clears, and the stars come out. I remembered Yeats: 

The good are always the merry
Save by an evil chance;
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance.

It doesn't do to spend too long away from my touchstone writers.

And, as I said, I think I must make a calendar, of hammered gold and gold enameling. Make my own weeks and months and seasons, my own feast days and sacrifices. March is a good month to begin. It has always been my month of beginnings. The end of March, with Venus setting soon after the sun: it is the time of fire.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The Business of the Mole

The business of the mole


Pese a las apariencias, Coy no era un tipo pesimista; para serlo resulta imprescindible verse desposeído de la fe en la condición humana, y él había nacido ya sin aquella fe. Se limitaba a contemplar el mundo de tierra firme como un espectáculo inestable, lamentable, y inevitable; y su único afán era mantenerse lejos para limitar los daños.

"In spite of appearances, Coy was not a pesimistic man: to be that requires losing one's faith in the human condition, and he had been born without that faith. He limited himself to contemplating the world of dry land as a spectacle that was unstable, lamentable, and inevitable; and his only ambition was to keep his distance, so as to limit the damage."

--Arturo Perez-Reverte, La Carta Esférica

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


So. Today we regroup. So there’s another big fuck-up, and the temptation is to go catastrophic. But really, dude. You are still under 165 lbs, which is a miracle. You are not suffering a breakdown, you're suffering a denial-of-service attack from your lizard brain. You wanted and needed a break that you didn’t really contrive to give yourself during your “vacation,” which turned mostly into “re-upping your massage license week,” so now you’re taking it as you can. That’s fine.

This has revealed fragilities in the system. Now you address them: 
  1. You need to have some frozen soup, so when you run out -- as with the burger -- you’re not really out. Build some resilience into the system. Figure out how to freeze some soup. It’s not rocket science. All over America people are freezing soup. You can do it too.
  2. When the girls invite you over for dinner, what you do is consider whatever the hell you eat to be the equivalent of your burger and potatoes. You may miss your ordinary meal, but you tough it out. You’ve actually eaten more calories, probably. Enlist Martha to help you get through the rest of the evening. You can do this thing. Yeah, it’s hard, it’s place where it’s easy to break down. Maybe sometimes you will. But it’s not a system failure. Even if you binge every time, all that means is that you need to compensate with less consumption in your daily regimen, and you can do that. Seriously, dude: get real. This is not system failure.
  3. Every Wednesday and every Saturday is a soup-making day, unless you have a quart per day on hand to get you through to the next one. You can’t rely on yourself to make soup on a work day. That’s fine. But it does mean that the Wednesday-and-Saturday expectation is non-negotiable.* Nothing has higher priority than making the soup, on those days. 

*Duh moment: what has actually changed is that my biweekly visit to my Dad has become a Wednesday thing, not a Monday thing. Which means every other Wednesday is rather overloaded. Making soup *and* making the Eugene run is a lot to ask, maybe too much to ask. On the other hand it leaves the *Monday* free for cooking… so think and plan. You’ve learned to plan a couple days ahead, which is a huge triumph. Now you learn to plan a whole week ahead. Again, this is a thing all your ancestors pulled off. You can learn to pull it off too.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Her Permitted Say

A clear blue sky: a new day.

This time not on anyone else's behalf: this one I am making for myself, "of hammered gold and gold enameling,.." 

I am weak, but not so weak as I was, and there is still time, a little bit of time.

The first one, appropriately enough, is the Arabian Nights: The Book of One Thousand Nights and a Night. Foolish and embarrassing stuff, but you enter by the door that opens to you. And there is that moment, that moment of surfacing from one tale to find yourself in the framing tale, and the vertigo of half-remembering that there's a frame above this one too, which hints of a frame still larger and more unknown.

Every night we wake from sleep: there's always the hope, or the fear, that someday we'll wake from waking, and recover the thread of the previous tale, the one of which this life's tale was just an explanatory aside. 

And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased saying her permitted say.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020


During my forty-five years or so of trying to lose weight, with varying intensities of effort, crowned with failure after failure, I gradually formed my expectations for what would happen if I succeeded. If I finally really lost weight, I would be celebrated and praised; people would be fascinated; I would be cornered at parties and asked for the secret of my success. I would modestly plume myself: admired by all, and anxiously consulted by would-be followers. What I didn't really expect was that I would disappear. 

But in fact I vanished. I was littler, of course: a continual wonderment to myself, a small lithe creature made of bone and hard muscle, that could wriggle through small spaces like a boy. My body in fact is a delight to me. This is the boyhood I never had. Even though I was only pudgy, and not yet fat, when I was a boy, I was intensely shy, and intensely aware of being weaker and slower than my peers. (I skipped a grade early in elementary school, so this was simple fact, not damaged self-image.) Only now am I having the experience of being physically competitive, full of energy, light on my feet: my vigor astonishes me. But I am smaller, and I have disappeared.

I should have expected this. There are two kinds of people: people who have never had much trouble with their weight, and people who have struggled with it all their lives. Neither kind wants to hear about my success. In crossing over, I have become suspect, unreliable, a traitor of sorts. The first sort are not interested, because -- why would they be? They know why people are fat: it's because they stuff their faces and have no will power. A previously fat person may have reformed, but there still is a whiff of bad character about them. Someone who let that happen to them? Ugh.

To the second sort, I am a standing reproach. I don't want to be. I do not in fact think that it is the fault of fat people that they are fat: I think that I have been extraordinarily fortunate in having had the resources to address a problem that ordinarily is insoluble. My solution is not portable. In a sense, I have nothing to say to fat people. My advice would run: "Establish a life essentially free of social, psychological, and financial stress; free up two hours per day to deal exclusively with preparing food, and line up a perfectly supportive household with no dependents. Then, here's what you do: ..." Who is still listening, by then? Who should be? Almost no one. 

Still, I'm a little sad sometimes, a little wistful. I had friends I valued, who have dropped away. A life of being jerked around by one's own hormones, dragged about against one's will, leaves marks. I will always be a fat person, as an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic; and in losing weight I have lost one of my communities.

Hard to know, hard to know. I was disappearing anyway, for other reasons and in other ways. I have always had a deep longing to disappear: that operates as well. To turn sideways and vanish into the air, light as bubble, a fleeting arc of iridescence floating on the wind: it may be the deepest desire of my heart. So it may be that I was due to depart anyway. I'm less and less present in the online world, as well as in such incarnate worlds as I ever inhabited. But on occasion I miss some of my former friends, and some of my former life.

Thursday, January 16, 2020


So it's colonoscopy time again next week, and I'm surly about it. I don't mind the procedure. I even enjoyed the first one -- or was interested by it, anyway -- because they didn't put me under and I could watch my insides on the monitor. The procedure is fine. What makes me grumpy is a) it's a hideously expensive and elaborate test without a large likelihood of return on investment, and b) it disrupts my painfully-arrived at diet for a whole week, forcing me to choose less healthy foods. No seeds, no nuts, no whole grains. So my breakfast oatmeal, with chopped nuts, is out of bounds. Replaced it with home fries this morning. The quarter cup of peanuts I eat in the afternoon I guess gets replaced by a couple tablespoons of creamy peanut butter: I'll need to go buy some today. And the flax seeds I chew in the evening are of course out. For a week. To reduce the chances of an early exit by colon cancer by half a percent, or whatever it is, while taking the small but severe risks of bowel perforation, bad anesthesia outcomes, and hospital-sourced infections.

The only real reason I'm going ahead and doing it is to convince my doctor that, although I won't take steroids, I'm really a good little patient who usually does what he's told. And the only real reason I want to stay on good terms with my doctor is that if I'm dying in pain I'll want opiates, and the physicians' guild holds the monopoly on them. Simple as that.

Among the many ironies of my life is that politically I'm dedicated to universal health care that, in my own person, I don't particularly want. I would far rather go without health insurance. Much of modern American health care, and especially the expensive parts of it, I would gladly forgo. I want the vaccines; I want the emergency trauma care. I want the check-ups. But I don't want a heart transplant. I'm not excited about dragging out my potential cancer death or cardiac failure, and I have no interest whatever in spending much time in the sleepless disease-vector boxes that are modern hospitals. God. TVs on all the time, lights never more than half-off, and never a let-up in the goddamned noise; I'd rather sleep on the street than in a hospital. Drug me if I'm in pain and let me die already.

I love medical science. I love being able to look things up and nose around in research articles. Medical science is wonderful. I'm not one of those people who bitch about "Western Medicine" per se, or who thinks alternative medicine is fabulous. But our peculiar three-player medical delivery system, in which all the money extracted has to flow through an insurance company before it reaches any caregiver, and runs through multiple curtains of obfuscation and profit-taking before it gets there, does not thrill me. And it would be lovely if I had somehow had back some of the $500 to $800 per month I've been paying, decade after decade, for medical services probably worth $5,000 in total. Seriously: it's hundreds of thousands of dollars I've paid into this system. I could find a use for a few hundred thousand extra dollars.

I probably won't post this: there's not really any point, and it sounds too like a certain sort of right-wing yapping that I don't want to encourage. I'm not thinking clearly enough, perhaps, about all the unknown unknowns. The number of ills that can befall a person is truly astonishing, and I might well wake up grateful in a hospital bed tomorrow morning.

But I am still surly. Even if the scrambled eggs and home fries this morning made really a nice change from boiled eggs and oatmeal. I just want everything to hold still long enough to lose that goddamn inch or two from my waist. I don't want to spend my time chasing rather remote chances of colon disease when I'm staring down the barrel of quite likely cardiovascular disease. Living long enough to get colon cancer would really be something of a feat, given my history and my family history. Something I could be proud of.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Tudors and Italianate Lords

The mediæval lord had been, by comparison, a coarse fellow; he had merely lived in the largest kind of farm-house after the fashion of the largest kind of farmer. He drank wine when he could, but he was quite ready to drink ale; and science had not yet smoothed his paths with petrol. At a time later than this, one of the greatest ladies of England writes to her husband that she cannot come to him because her carriage horses are pulling the plough. In the true Middle Ages the greatest men were even more rudely hampered, but in the time of Henry VIII. the transformation was beginning. In the next generation a phrase was common which is one of the keys of the time, and is very much the key to these more ambitious territorial schemes. This or that great lord was said to be "Italianate." It meant subtler shapes of beauty, delicate and ductile glass, gold and silver not treated as barbaric stones but rather as stems and wreaths of molten metal, mirrors, cards and such trinkets bearing a load of beauty; it meant the perfection of trifles. It was not, as in popular Gothic craftsmanship, the almost unconscious touch of art upon all necessary things: rather it was the pouring of the whole soul of passionately conscious art especially into unnecessary things. Luxury was made alive with a soul. We must remember this real thirst for beauty; for it is an explanation—and an excuse.  --GK Chesterton, History of England.  (By "territorial schemes" he means such things as the enclosure of the commons & the dissolution of the monasteries.)

One thing that makes Chesterton's history so readable, for better and for worse, is that he actually cares. He's on one side or the other, in any historical conflict that he discusses. He's not (usually) unfair or tendentious, but -- for instance -- he sees the advent of the Tudors as the ruin of much of what was good in medieval England, 

A lot of history I read when I was younger studiously avoided taking sides, and I think it was the poorer for it. Oh, eventually you figured out whose side the authors were on, but it was thought unseemly for them to actually say it out loud. The narrative problem is insuperable: if the writer doesn't appear to care who won, then why should the reader? Why are we reading history at all?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Off On An Expedition

Morning. Still dark. A glimpse of the moon through the hedge, shaking free of the clouds for a moment, but it's gone again. La puesta de la luna. It's late, after 7:00, but there's barely any light in the sky, even now. Winter still holds its dominion.

(Oh! There's the moon again, just above the neighbor's rooftop!)

We use such similar verbs for the setting of the sun, in English and Spanish: the same verb you use for putting things away, or setting them carefully in place. The rising, however, is different. La salida de la luna, they say in Spanish, the going-out of the moon, as if the moon was leaving on a shopping trip. I always have a hard time remembering that, since to me the moonrise signifies the coming of the moon, not its departure. It's joining us, not leaving us. But that's not how Spanish sees it: to Spanish, the moon is off on an expedition, when it rises. Leaving the house.

Finally some light in the sky. La salida del sol, though my breakfast-nook windows don't look east. The skylights are blue with early cloudlight, and the trees and hedge are suddenly an intense, sharp-cut black.

Last couple of days I read G. K. Chesterton's little History of England. Chesterton, Chesterton, what are we to do with you? You're so good when you're good, and you're so bad when you're bad. You wear better than most your contemporaries, though. 

Here he is being good:

We have all read at school that Simon de Montfort and Edward I., when they first summoned Commons to council, chiefly as advisers on local taxation, called "two burgesses" from every town. If we had read a little more closely, those simple words would have given away the whole secret of the lost mediæval civilization. We had only to ask what burgesses were, and whether they grew on trees. We should immediately have discovered that England was full of little parliaments, out of which the great parliament was made. And if it be a matter of wonder that the great council (still called in quaint archaism by its old title of the House of Commons) is the only one of these popular or elective corporations of which we hear much in our books of history, the explanation, I fear, is simple and a little sad. It is that the Parliament was the one among these mediæval creations which ultimately consented to betray and to destroy the rest.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Under the Hunting Skies

A etched cry in the high hills.
A cloud shadow runs from the gully to the rise:
a small uncertain thing shifts and turns
under the hunting skies

Tell me the story as you heard it first
when the rain was rattling pots by the door;
a small uncertain thing gathers itself
and gathers itself once more.

You remember the king who studied the dust
where the rain had written his epitaph?
The clouds went kiting away that day
and swept the floor with a laugh.

A small thing  dodges left where the ticking 
of white and black caught the eye:
grows sure-footed as the beat quickens,
and dodges again to the right.

Say what you like for the hunter,
say what you like for the prey:
the game goes to the swift and the wary
as the cloud shadow runs away.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

End of Year Check-In, 2019

Here's the charts for 2019:

Weight in 2019
Waist in 2019

The project for 2019 was to increase my weight by ten pounds, while losing half an inch off my waist. The weight-increase worked fine. But things went off the rails twice -- there were two periods in which I had a week or two of not eating according to program, and some binges -- not on the scale of binges as I used to know them, but bad enough. Things may or may not be under control again: it's too soon to know. I ended the year with my waist an inch and a half larger: not at all what I was aiming for. 

The unevenness itself is telling. My eating is not "fixed," and I doubt it ever will be: I think the safest assumption is that my appetite is permanently broken, and I will always have to monitor and deliberately control my eating. So that's discouraging, although I expected it: most people who have maintained weight loss over years report the same thing. The other thing to note is that going off the rails corresponds exactly with stress: it's not difficult to locate my parents' health troubles in the summer, or the onset of the holidays, on either graph. That's the decisive factor, and it's largely out of my control. This probably runs into the ditch any time my family has serious worries.

But backing off a bit, it's worth pulling up the full charts, back to the beginning of this project in May 2017:

Weight Since May 2017

Waist since May 2017

On this scale, the failures of this year look less important. Basically I lost the weight in the course of 15 months, and have kept it off for a subsequent 16 months.

I decided from the start that "success" in this project meant still being on track and in control five years later -- to wit, in May 2022. And in fact, my goal at the start was to get down to 180 lbs and stay there -- my present 160 is way beyond what I had thought possible. I need to remind myself -- since I tend to forget -- that this has still been, according to my original goals, wildly successful.

Other notes. The experiment in quitting red meat, and substituting bean salad for my nightly hamburger, was a resounding failure, and is involved in the end-of-year collapse. I've backtracked on that one. Maybe someday. Maybe not. 

The other thing to note here is that now, in maintenance mode, exercise actually matters. I attribute part of my success in losing my weight to totally ignoring exercise as a contributor to weight loss: it's a trivial factor, not worth taking into account, if you're trying to lose a pound a week. Calorie intake totally swamps calorie output ("you can't outrun your fork," as they say.) But when you're talking half a pound a month, or half an inch a year, the exercise is an important factor. I had cold viruses twice in December, and basically stopped lifting for that month, and even stopped walking for a week or two, which had a lot to do with how bad the numbers look there. I'm lifting again now, and have done some thinking and planning about how to get back on track after exercise setbacks: hopefully I won't be so derailed again. Not exercising at all feels really crappy and depressing. I need to get back to it as quickly as possible, even if it's just "ghost workouts": going through the motions with light weights (or none.)

So that's the year: 2019 is a wrap.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Unsettling Prospects

A deeply discouraging start to the new year. More on that anon, maybe: I have my end of the year report to get out. Stepping back a ways, I can see that I'm just a couple pounds and a waistline inch on the wrong side of the blue lines, with both numbers being about where they were a year ago: I haven't gained ground but I haven't lost it either. The important habits are in still in place. The recent defeats may have been local and temporary. We'll see.

A lot of reading that has given me furiously to think. Tony Judt's Postwar, a history of Europe from 1945 to 2005 (which is when it was written), was excellent. I, like everyone else in the West, paid far too little attention to the details of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Finally making up a little lost ground there. But I have at least some context for understanding the EU and Brexit and Orban and so forth, now. It's strange to be so old that I can read judicious and illuminating narrative histories of times I actually lived through.

And, running athwart that stream, I read David Sinclair's Lifespan: Why We Age -- and Why We Don't Have To. From the title you would assume a tiresome and stupid book full of silly claims, but it's actually a serious and thoughtful book by a respectable Harvard medical researcher. He thinks, with good reason, that living to 120 years in good health will soon be normal, rather than exceptional -- for people who can afford it, anyway.

It's an interesting thought-experiment: what if I have sixty good years in front of me? How would I change my life, how would I think about it? I have been assuming, reasonably enough, that I have five to fifteen years of good health in front of me, which is time enough to wind down and tidy up. How does the prospect of sixty years change things? That's another lifetime, as we have traditionally reckoned these things: plenty of time to establish a new career or two, or to take on some really big projects. It's an appealing prospect, and whether Sinclair turns out to be right or not, it's interesting to just "try on the view," as Lama Michael used to say. I am by habit inclined to focus on cutting losses: it's healthy for me to buck that tendency. Supposing I don't deteriorate? What if fifteen years from now I'm getting fitted with new-grown eyes and ears, and can do calligraphy and eavesdrop in cafes better than ever? Priorities shift: proportions change.

You don't realize how confined your point of view has been, until you come to a sudden prospect and look into the distance.

But it's also unsettling, and stirs up anxieties from the bottom of the pond. Questions about being good enough, and unwelcome impulses toward grandiosity. I don't want those demons back.