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


Saturday, December 29, 2018

Squinting into the Distance

Three months ago, I took a pretty complete set of measurements: chest, arms, shoulders, thighs, calves, with the intention of repeating the measurements quarterly: I was setting out to build muscle, working out four or five times per week, and I wanted to be able to measure my progress. Yesterday I did it again, and found that all the measurements were -- exactly the same, except a quarter-inch smaller around the chest and around the thigh. So that was disappointing.

Well, except. I weigh myself and measure my waist and hips every morning, so I know those measurements quite precisely. Three months ago I weighed three pounds less, and my waist was 3/4" larger, and my hips were .5" smaller. When I actually put all these facts together, I realized that there's really no other way to interpret them. My volume is staying the same while my weight is increasing: that can only mean that I am becoming denser. That three pounds can't be fat, given that the waist was shrinking. It has to be new muscle, and I have to have been becoming leaner. In fact the numbers meant I was doing exactly what I set out to do, and in fact going at twice the pace I had hoped. I've been building a pound of muscle per month. So that's cheering.

The point of this is not to brag, although of course I'm doing that too: the point is that it's easy to mistake and misinterpret what numbers mean if you don't have enough context. My initial and quite erroneous response was, "I haven't built any muscle, I've failed!" I might have taken that to heart and given up the project.


Ultima Thule. It hadn't even been discovered when New Horizons launched, and now we're going to get a look at it. Four billion miles is a long, long way from home.


"Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand," said Thomas Carlyle. 

You have to do some of both, of course, but my life has skewed toward squinting into the distance. It's surprisingly refreshing to spend most of my energy on what's clear and close at hand: cooking my food, doing my exercise, tending my finances, doing my work at the foundation. I am distinctly happier.

Monday, December 24, 2018

This Pleasant Lea

"If your religion excluded hearth and home, and was intellectual self-indulgence, then no wonder you jettisoned it," said Lekshe. It would be too much to say that was all it was, but some of it was. There was also Wordsworth's longing for attunement:

...For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Well and good, William, but you don't get attunement for free. A world in which you really believe in Furies is a far different world from one in which you saunter along pleasant leas and indulge a passing literary yen for wholeness. 

I've recognized in myself, and in some of my readers, a weakness for following the story rather than the discoverable and verifiable facts, which leads by easy stages to caging children in border camps. I and my people have been far too fond of having our cake and eating it too. 

Bread and stone, tree and water: a few things we all have handled daily, Pagans, Christians, and Buddhists alike. The morning sky and the bell. 

I am realizing my loyalty to science and experiment: to keeping alive the suspicion that if you can't dream up a repeatable experiment to demonstrate a difference, the difference may not be there. However obvious it may be. Lots of obvious things aren't true.

But also science is not enough, and a regular practice of compassion is necessary to keep me from "falling off the other side of the horse." Because in certain long views, who the hell cares? So the human species is experiencing an "outbreak," and will drown itself and many other species in its own shit -- why should I care? How is that different from any other biological shift? Much of what I cared about most deeply is already gone. The old growth forests of Oregon linger in a few little parks and sanctuaries, but the whole point of the old forests was their immensity, the fact that you could get lost in them. A lion on the savanna is magnificent, but a lion in a zoo is just sad. 

I don't know. I get muddled, I lose the thread, I repeat myself. And after all, the question of "am I a Buddhist"? is neither essential nor even interesting. The interesting question is, "what next?"

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sucky Little Promises

The changes come slowly, and all at once.  Two years ago I was rolling along consuming my way through an American life, despite realizing that, unless I increased my income, something was going to have to give. Despite fully understanding that the consumer life was not delivering on any of its promises, even its sucky little promises: the treats didn't even taste good; the conveniences weren't convenient. I was living lavishly, like a lord, but the poverty of my spirit was every day more obvious.

And then I just stopped.

It's not quite as simple as that, but almost.

Now I eat things that have names, rather than trademarks. Eggs, oats, apples, potatoes. I cook my own food. I have spreadsheets to tell me when, for instance, I'm spending a ridiculous portion of my income on Worcestershire sauce. I take the train or the bus to work. I think about what I earn and spend and invest, as if this was actually my life, as if I actually lived here, rather than being one of Steinbeck's temporarily embarrassed millionaires, camped awhile on the banks of the Willamette while my glorious future is preparing.

Many things converged. Some, I'm sure, I will only understand later, or not at all. "The death of Jesus set me free," as William Blake asserted: that's part of it. The election to the presidency of a man who, improbably, manages to unite in his person practically everything I have ever despised had a hand in it: my political despair is absolute. It's odd I guess that it's just when my sober assessment tells me that adopting a simple life can no longer move any of the needles that I should have found the wherewithal to do it. But I'm doing it for me, not for you. You can rot in hell, my countrymen. You will. You already do.

But I pull myself away from that. I don't mean to pay him or his people any more homage or attention than I must. Send them on their way. Don't let the trap hit you on the way down, sweethearts. I have other things to do, in the time left.

No. What is important now is dismissing fear, and turning only and always to what is beautiful. I practice this over and over. If it's neither practical nor beautiful, I want no part of it. And it must be here now, today, or this week, this month at a stretch. Not ten years from now. Not when the city on the hill is built.

And -- not opposed to this, but actually gracefully part of it -- I have to live as if my choices mattered, even though I know they don't. I have to stop consuming more than I need, not because it will have any effect, but for my own peace of mind. I don't mistake it for political action, which is the only real path forward (if there is one) for the environment. But I just can't do it any more, the relentless spend spend spend acquire acquire acquire waste waste waste. I'm done. I'm living as simply as I reasonably can. 


Milk-white sky, the ferns nodding occasionally, like sleepy old men pretending to pay attention: the quiet of the morning, one of the few parts of The Season that I really like, has set in. 


My religious impulses have withered, in these last two years, as my attention has turned to home and hearth. My affable tolerance for magical thinking has vanished, to be replaced by a maybe more authentic hatred for that sort of intellectual self-indulgence. I am much, much less nice. I have moments of contempt that frighten me: they come surging up from basement rooms I didn't even know my brain had. This is me too, of course, as I've always been. I work on it, kneading it, trying to soften it. Sometimes I think I'm getting somewhere.

"I'm a religious person..." I began to say, somewhere. Social media, I expect. But I stopped and didn't hit "enter." Maybe I'm not a religious person. What was it I started to mean, when I said that? That for me ecstatic experience trumped quotidian concerns? That I was willing to entertain falsehoods, if they would lead me to new understandings? That I was aware of larger consciousnesses than the one I call "mine" sharing my space? 

Or maybe, just that I'm a contrary old cuss, whose friends are largely unreligious academics, and I like rattling their cages? All of these, none of these, I don't know. 


The wind picks up, and for a moment or two the ferns are lively, and the hedge shakes itself like a dog coming out of a river. Merry Christmas, y'all.