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.