Thursday, June 24, 2004

Wonderful Stuff

I'm smitten with Andi's two blogs, Overboard and Ditch the Raft. Sensitivity and clarity. The kind of thoughtfulness and richness that carry you into completely new waters while you think, "Oh, yes, really I knew this all the time; I just didn't know I knew it."

"Make it as simple as possible," said Einstein, "but no simpler."

The only thing I dislike about Andi is that she takes cuts in line. She's way too young to know so much, understand so much, and write so beautifully. It's not really fair to have achieved all that without having spent several decades screwing up.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Bray and Swagger

So I wrote this much -- the italics down below -- and learned again why I'm not old enough yet to write about political matters.

It was very easy to write my list of the awful things that Reagan had done. They've stayed with me, and roll out effortlessly. They may even be true, who knows? But in fact almost the whole thing is made up, invention and pastiche, phrases parroted and hastily re-upholstered in the cheap fabric of my own prose. I'm talking through my hat, talking about things I really know very little about, with that tell-tale daily journalist's bray and swagger. I hate that. It's the stupid noise of prattle like this that drowns out the sound of people who talk about what they actually know, people who have actually bothered to do their research, and who have engaged with people who disagree with them. It is precisely the flood of this kind of posturing, brainless drivel that makes people loathe political talk and retreat to the purely personal. The bray and swagger become a little too obvious, when you're among friends talking about the realities of your own life in your own house. So until I've grown up a bit, the piece below is the last of such stuff you get from me.

Ronald Reagan's Gift

I forgot to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Reagan, when I was writing about him earlier. I owe him for teaching me that yes, presidential elections can indeed matter. After watching Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon grind through the Vietnam War with exactly the same grim obstinacy, and watching Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter muddle their way through the slush of the waning Cold War with identical awkwardness, it was easy to believe that it didn't really matter who sat in the Oval Office. But Reagan changed all that for me. The destruction he wreaked on institutions, the energy he lent to the future (mercifully brief) takeover of congress by the radical Right, the plethora of enironmental and judicial regulations that he eviscerated by the shrewd deployment of executive orders, the unprecedented financial irresponsibility he introduced, the crippling blows to organized labor, the gang of criminals he brought into the White House, the deep and lasting conviction he engendered around the world that the United States is a dangerous lunatic -- the election of that man mattered. Cured me of muttering about "Republicrats" and thinking of Democratic Party workers as patsies, I can tell you.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


I'm shrinking. My elbows stick out in bony lumps. My face emerges with a new fine net of wrinkles around the eyes. If I lean forward, my shirt hangs free from my ribcage. I can easily slide my balled fist inside my waistband. My suspenders, always useful, have become indispensable.

It occurs to me -- this is an ordinary thought for most people losing weight, I think, but it's a brand-new thought for me -- that I'll be needing new clothes if this keeps up. That I can probably wear old clothes that have been the closet for years, if the moths haven't gotten to them.

Very odd, becoming smaller. There's been an unconscious comfort in being a large person, in knowing that I could put more weight behind a punch, if I had to, than a lot of people have in their whole bodies. I've never been inactive. I have a fair amount of muscle stowed away here and there amid the fat, and I have felt -- though I didn't know it -- physically powerful. I knew that a mugger would think twice about me. The prospect of being little is disturbing. I remember helping my Dad out of his hospital bed, and being momentarily overwhelmed by the smallness of his body under the hospital gown. He's not frail, by any means -- fit and in terrific health for a man in his seventies -- but he was just so small, compared to me.

For a long time, now, I have thought of myself as an orangatan. Slow, powerful, dignified, and deliberate. Not someone anyone would mess with. Not someone anyone would brush aside. Slowly transforming into a plain little monkey is rather frightening. I'm losing my gravitas. Dwindling. I almost expect the pitch of my voice to be rising. I might at any minute start chattering shrilly and hopping about, developing nervous tics and a flighty attitude. Soon I'll be shrieking and brandishing my fist from the treetops; as unnoticed, as inconsequential, as a scolding squirrel.

Friday, June 18, 2004


It doesn't say who she looked back for. Lot's wife. A young man she had a soft spot for, maybe. An old friend in the trade. Someone she passed the time of day with at the well. No one who deserved to live, we know that -- we have it on unassailable authority.

We may dread a life with no decisive moments. But do we dread it more than a life in which a backward glance at some love -- any love -- is so worthless, that following it is annihilation? In which the history is written so that Lot's wife's young man can never be known, and her love is nothing but salt?

To believe in decisive moments, you must believe that there are other moments than this. And if someone can be on the right side of a decisive moment, someone can be on the wrong side. I think I will stay here, with Chenrezig, white as salt, the jewel glowing between two of his hands, the crystal rosary flickering in the still fingers of his third, the lotus opening in his fourth. Chenrezig would have looked back, too. In fact it is Chenrezig who looked back. No wonder his face is so pale.

Thursday, June 17, 2004


I am wont to say that all sentient beings possess basic goodness, or buddha-nature. It turns out that this is not true. Someone has taken over the last radio station in Portland that actually played music in the morning and replaced it with yet ANOTHER perky-girl-and-yuk-yuk-guy morning show, in which brain-damaged people telephone in to talk about sex, and produce irritating guffaws that occupy endless stretches of air-time. This person clearly has no goodness whatsoever, and should be taken out and shot repeatedly, in whatever areas of his alien body might contain clusters of nerve tissue, until he is quite dead.

Thank you. I feel better. We now return you to our regularly scheduled mealy-mouthed Buddhist piety.
Rivers of Slurry

Tired and worn. Cobwebs of unease settle on my face. They whisper to me that I am forgetting something important. They have lied to me before, but -- how can you ever know that you have not forgotten anything important? They might be telling the truth this time.

Rivers of slurry, eddies of doubt. My mind is full of faint accusatory whispers. Fat chance of confronting these witnesses. They don't seem to have heard of the sixth amendment in there.

Yesterday I sat on the low wall by an empty but well-kept up building, surrounded by flourishing oaks and pines. I watched the wind toss swirls of glossy green oak leaves, which skittered like the sun on the sea. Behind them were dull, gray-green sprays of pine needles. And behind them again the high blue sky. I ate my can of tuna in splendid solitude, sitting cross-legged on a sidewalk that can never have been used much, even when the building was not empty: it's not an obvious track from anything to anything. Now it's littered with crunchy gall-shales.

So this morning I picked up my Chinese books and learned my first forty characters over again. I don't know why I ever study Chinese. It drains out of my head almost as fast as I learn it. I'm so good with Western languages that it seems like I ought to be at least adequate with Eastern ones, but I'm awful with them. But I keep coming back to Chinese, because I love the characters, even if they won't stay in my head. Once every couple years I have to spend six months with them.

Yu, fish, I am learning for the umpteenth time. A little head on top of a tian on top of the "four-dots" for an animal. Terribly satisfying. Why? No clue. Not the most powerful imagination in the world could make this figure into a picture of a fish. But it is a fish. That delights me.

Okay. Enough! -- or too much. Good night. xoxoxo.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

An Inarticulation

There is something not quite articulated -- or possibly just wrong -- in the relation between this odd unexpected resurgence of my youthful utopianism, and my Buddhist conviction of "basic goodness."

I've seen people shipwreck in just this way. The Buddhist hope for transcendant happiness gets muddled with ambitions for worldly happiness, and in short order the fact that Buddhism isn't fixing the world is taken for evidence that the hope is foolish. It's a good way to ruin a Buddhist practice. And it's for that reason that I take a rather dim view of "engaged Buddhism." I'm all in favor of political engagement, and I'm all in favor of Buddhism, but that doesn't mean that I favor mixing the two.

I've been sloppy, or at least vague -- and speaking in personal shorthand. Il buon tempo verra -- what does that mean to me?

The unrepentent radical Shelley, in Italy, had it inscribed on a ring that he wore. "The good time will come." And its message for him, was more or less the same as the message of his Ode to the West Wind: my success or failure in life is not to be judged on whether I bring tyranny low and establish universal brotherhood in my lifetime -- because I certainly won't. I may not even be read in my lifetime. My lifework is to plant seeds, which may well lie dormant for generations. But someday, the things I have planted will come to fruition.

Now, this is an idea that slips easily into a number of unpleasant forms. It easily becomes contempt for all these backward apes who are living in the present, while we are living in the highly-evolved future. It also easily becomes a complacent sojourn in a fantasy world in which none of our ideas need ever be tested against reality, or even against other ideas. And in any case it's a perfect example of granting conceptualization priority over perception. An invitation to "be there then" rather than "be here now." As such any Buddhist might look askance at it.

But there's another way in which it can dovetail with a Buddhist view. We're urged to view every sentient being as a Buddha. Exhorted to remember that any one of them really might be. What does a Buddha in the form of a grocery checkout clerk look like? Well, like a grocery checkout clerk, is my guess. Treating any old person you meet with the respect, affection, and devotion you'd accord the Buddha -- probably nothing in the world, not all the practices or rituals or philosophical understandings ever invented, will ever work more powerfully to evoke the Buddha in that person.

We can view the social and political world with the same eyes, the same expectation. This is a "pure land" -- it's just one that does not yet know that it is. The political and social structures of our world don't have to be viewed as horrible impositions -- they can be viewed as structures of liberty and justice that just haven't flowered yet. Obscured and confused, certainly. Capable, as is any unenlightened person, of inflicting enormous suffering. But if any Jerusalem is ever to be built in England's -- or America's -- green and pleasant land, it will be built of these materials. There's nothing else to build with.

Well. I'm not at all satisfied that this has been a successful raid on the inarticulate. I haven't entirely convinced myself, at any rate.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Il Buon Tempo Verra

It is not necessary to hope, said William the Silent, in order to persevere.

Well, he should know. But it helps.

* * *

George Washington and Admiral de Grasse embraced on the deck of the Ville de Paris, when the French finally, finally arrived with serious help for the rebellion. When De Grasse, it is reported -- an even larger man than Washington -- kissed him on both cheeks and greeted him as "mon cher petit general!" Washington's staff found it difficult not to laugh. But somehow I don't think Washington did.

(Washington never lost hope. Why not, I wonder?)

* * *

I hold that man very foolish and very wretched, wrote King Alfred, who will not learn all he can in this life, and ever hope to reach that life in which all will be made clear.

* * *

William Blake wrote:

I shall not cease from mental fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

* * *

I still say, with Shelley, Il buon tempo verra. The good time will come. Not because I know it will. Not even because I can see that it's at all likely. But because every time I say it, there's a flicker of truth in it at that moment, and it's another piece of life snatched back from Satan.

I used to think it absurd that Christians held hope to be a virtue. William the Silent was my ideal -- face the full despair, and fight on anyway. Clear-eyed, dispassionate evaluation of the odds is what's needed, not soft-headed enthusiasm. But that was back when I bought the pseudo-materialist schtick that the world was there outside of my skull, and my consciousness was here inside my skull, and the two were made of completely different stuff. The world was real, and my thoughts were not.

Now I think that the material world's claims to reality are, if anything, somewhat shakier than those of my mind. My thoughts are not subsidiary to reality. They are part of it.

My only doubt now, is whether it would not be still wiser to say "the good time is already here."

Monday, June 14, 2004

Nobody that Tiny

I've been glad of the press coverage of the rites of Ronald Reagan's passing. President Reagan was a mysterious figure to me. But he captured the hearts of a large proportion of my countrymen, and I'll never really understand them if I don't understand their love for him.

He'd barely flickered across my consciousness before he ran for the presidency. He was known in my lefty academic circles as the man who, as governor of California, had taken the best educational system in the country, and in a few short years made it one of the worst. We disliked him, but we didn't take him very seriously. He was rather a joke, outside of California -- as Arnold Schwarzenegger is now. I remember being pleased when he got the Republican nomination. He was so ignorant and so far-right, I thought, that he would certainly bomb in a national election.

We wandered away from watching the election returns the night he was elected, silent and shell-shocked. He hadn't just won; he'd won big. Against a man whom I thought, and still think, was the best man to occupy the oval office in the 20th Century. I admired Jimmy Carter, though I thought he was a poor president. So who was this man, this joke from California, who had beaten him?

I never did find out who Ronald Reagan was. I found him distasteful, but I didn't loathe him. Maybe you never loathe anyone like you loathe your first political bete noire. Richard Nixon was the man I hated, deeply and enduringly. I've practiced a long time to soften that hatred. It hasn't been easy.

But I didn't hate Reagan. He gave me the creeps -- I certainly would never have left him alone in a room with my children -- but mostly I was just baffled by him. He'd make a really poor showing in a debate, and I'd find in the morning papers that he was considered to have won it. The famous Reagan charm was invisible to me; I just saw a bad actor, overdoing his lines. For me the Reagan years were surreal. I have never felt so alienated from America, not even during the Nixon years.

So I've listened closely to the NPR reports and retrospectives, hoping to understand this phenomenon. Trying to make that leap of imagination. I listen to the snippets of his speeches and try to imagine how I'd hear them if I thought he really believed what he was saying. I think I'm beginning to get a glimmering. And I think he really did believe what he was saying. Clinton (who I'm sure was just as baffling to the Right as Reagan was to me) helped when he referred to Reagan as exemplifying "the indomitable optimism of the American people." And it helped me a lot, trivial though it may seem, to learn that he was outraged when he found out that Nixon had paved the horse-trails at Camp David.

One evening at KCC Martha -- who has always been the person to ask, in pure humble curiosity, "Mommy, why is the Emperor wearing no clothes?" -- asked Lama Michael about how it can be that the Dalai Lama meets with someone like George W. Bush and comes away saying -- as he always does -- that he's a very good man, a very sincere man. You sometimes get the feeling that the Dalai Lama would have come away from meeting Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler saying the same thing.

Michael, who has been known to tell us that, to step out of the strait-jackets of our egos, we should try wearing polyester suits, and has advised us, knowing us mostly to be deep-dyed liberals, to go out and vote Republican for once, and try driving a big SUV around -- immediately confessed that this troubled him, too. After thinking about it for a while, he said that he thought the Dalai Lama could see a lot more than we could. That we make our political opponents into little caricatures, and freeze them as such in our minds. "But nobody is really that tiny," he said.

So I listened to Reagan talking in his hushed, intimate tones about the Shining City on the Hill, and I suddenly made the connection to a night, when I was a teenager, and I brought myself to tears picturing the secular paradise I was going to help build someday. "The City of Man," it would be called. Like all utopias, it needed just one founding condition: that everyone in it have pretty much the same prejudices, temperament, outlook and ambitions as me. And since my prejudices, temperament, outlook, and ambitions were clearly the right ones, why should that be hard?

I don't pretend to understand everything about Reagan and his appeal, but I think I opened the heart of it when I made that connection. And I found myself listening to Margaret Thatcher talking about his large-heartedness not with contempt, but with wistfulness. It's probably true. There was something large-hearted and magnanimous about him, just as there was about that ignorantly arrogant damp-eyed teenager, who dreamed about the City of Man.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Chloe and the Ice Cream Truck

One of my favorite students at Pacific Crest was Chloe. She had impossibly wide-open light blue eyes in a fearless face. She was a disciplined student; one of the few in my War and Peace class who always kept up with the heavy reading load. She'd take up any question. She formed opinions readily, and defended them warmly, but not doggedly; she was always interested in what other people thought. A joy to have in class.

One Spring morning we were upstairs, deep into Tolstoy. I think we were discussing Ellen Vasilievna Kuragina, whom they all despised, none more fiercely than Chloe. (They never did learn to like Prince Andrei, but they loved Pierre, and watching him fall into Ellen's clutches filled them with dismay.) I was trying to nudge the discussion on to why Tolstoy had created this character at all. The conversation faltered, and quiet fell in the room. Several students seemed to be surreptitiously checking the contents of their pockets. I was bewildered for a moment, until my middle-aged ears picked it up too -- the sound of an ice-cream truck's music.

After a minute, Chloe stood up, with the air of a person who has considered gravely and come to a serious decision. "I'll be right back," she said.

In a twinkling two-thirds of the class had followed her out the door.

"I think we'll take a ten minute break," I said to the nearly empty room, and the rest of them shot out.

Five minutes later we were reassembled, and discussing Ellen Vasilievna again, sometimes in indistinct mumbles, over ice-cream bars and popsicles.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Graduation at Pacific Crest Community School

I sat there with tears leaking from the corners of my eyes. Tori stood behind the lectern, huddled a little forward, her face incandescent. "First of all I have to thank my parents," she said. The tassle of her mortarboard trembled. "You've been great. I wouldn't have made it without you."

We're a Norwegian-Irish-English-Scottish mix: we color up easily, and besides Tori'd gotten sunburnt two days before. She was a radiant pink; her face glowed against the black cap and gown. Emily had spoken about her: how within two weeks of starting at Pacific Crest, she'd been elected to the judicial committee, and been re-elected every year since; how she'd determined to finish a long story for her senior project, and succeeded in finishing a hundred-page novella; how she was "any teacher's dream." And how she has absolutely no sense of geographical direction, and can be made to yawn if you say "yawn." (Which she had demonstrated, there on the stage; Tori, blushing and laughing, did indeed have to yawn.)

Tori went on to thank her science teacher, who bears the improbable name of Tigerin, and her writing teacher, Julie, who helped her with her long story, and then her friends, and everybody. "I'm pretty quiet, and you probably don't know how much I like you all."

They all get introduced, and they all speak, at Pacific Crest. Fifteen graduates this year: their largest class ever, I think. I've cried at every Pacific Crest graduation I've been to. The love is palpable. The introductions are frank, verging on roasts at times; there's no attempt to mask how frustrating teaching these kids can be. But no one can walk away without being staggered, I think, at how well these teachers know the kids, how hard they've worked to make their educations meaningful, and at how much they value each one of them. And the students understand it as love, and return it. They treasure their teachers, and their fellow-students, in a way that would seem outlandish to most of their peers.

At the heart of it are Becky and Jenny, who started the school, and who have the gift, above all, of valuing students for what they are. It's all the truisms. They believe in these kids. And they really do value the kid who rebuilt his Mom's transmission for his senior project, making an automatic into a stick, every bit as much as the kid who did an elegant study of the survival value of intra-special variation. The kid who wrote and illustrated a children's book about her horse, as much as the kid who designed and taught a sea-kayaking class, culminating in an expedition to the San Juans, taking five of his classmates out to sea for three days.

I watch this extraordinary event, and I think of ordinary graduations, in which a few students may be singled out for praise, but most are shuffled across the stage as quick as may be, and it makes me sad. A graphic representation of our conviction that a few chosen people are valuable and the rest are dreck, that human worth is something you achieve by besting your peers and distinguishing yourself from the herd.

Every one of those kids could speak. Not all in elegant periods, with classical citations, maybe; but for every single one what they had to convey was more urgent than the fact that they were standing in front of a crowd. Not one of them, not even the quiet Tori, was overwhelmed by standing up in front of a hundred and fifty people. Not one felt that his or her voice could not legitimately be heard.

I can't think of any life's work more valuable, more precious, more rare than what Becky and Jenny have done in creating this school, and keeping it going for eleven years.

Monday, June 07, 2004


Kierkegaard argues very persuasively, I think, that we must at some point have chosen sin; we must have freely given up our freedom. Faced with a clear choice between happiness and unhappiness, we chose unhappiness. And the choice having once been made, we now want -- sometimes -- to renege on it; but it turns out that unmaking the choice is by no means so easy as making it. Kierkegaard gives the poignant example:

If a child who has received the gift of a little money -- enough to be able to buy either a good book, for example, or one toy, for both cost the same -- buys the toy, can he use the same money to buy the book? By no means, for now the money has already been spent. But he may go to the bookseller and ask him if he will exchange the book for the toy. Suppose the bookseller answers: My dear child, your toy is worthless; it is certainly true that when you still had the money you could have bought the book just as wll as the toy, but the awkward thing about the toy is that once it is purchased it has lost all value.

I have no objection to Kierkegaard's argument, except that it is not true. I never did choose unhappiness. I never freely chose unfreedom. Believe me, Mr Kierkegaard -- I would remember it, if I had.

That I am in a most wretched and lamentable state of what Mr Kierkegaard would call sin, and my own tradition calls confusion, is obvious. That buying my way out of it will cost (at a bare minimum) all I have, is likewise obvious. But why make up this improbable history of how it came about?

Well, we are hungry for stories. It's clear from the sutras that the Buddha Shakyamuni's followers pestered him continually for a story. I am a Buddhist now, 2500 years later, precisely because he steadfastly refused to tell one.

The Buddha answered "Malunkyaputta, I never said 'Follow me and I will answer your questions' nor did you say 'I will follow the Blessed One because he will explain these matters'.

"Then what is your position? You are like a person shot with a poisoned arrow, who says 'I will not have this arrow removed until I know who shot it, his name, his family, whether he is tall or short, young or old.....' This person would die before all these questions could be answered."

The stories can be useful. Assuming the guilt for my own confusion may not make much sense, and it may not really square with anything I remember, but it does bring home to me that getting out of it is my own responsibility. If I made this snare of sin, then I am going to have to unmake it. Every single moment of confusion is my own creation; every moment of loneliness is caused, not by God slamming the door on me, but by me slamming the door on God.

But the stories can be deadly, too. It's all too easy to make our fellow-sufferers into the enemies of God -- as if their rejection of Him was any different from ours! To pour contempt and loathing upon them. "Christians aren't perfect," we say smugly, "just forgiven." As if we weren't continually trampling that forgiveness underfoot, or escaping it with the skill of Houdini! And as if that was any different from the rejections that take the form of, say, doctrinal athiesm, or unreflective pleasure-seeking. It's no different at all: it's only the story that makes it look different. And that would be true even if, by chance, the story we clung to were the correct one, accurate to the last detail.

Friday, June 04, 2004


Nicht eure Sünde - eure Genügsamkeit schreit gen Himmel, euer Geiz selbst in eurer Sünde schreit gen Himmel!

Not your sin -- your frugality cries out to heaven, your stinginess even in your sin cries out to heaven!

--Nietzsche, Zarathustra

A Prayer to Jesus's Father

I know we don't talk much. Too much water under the bridge. Some relationships just don't work out: faults on both sides, no doubt.

But I do have this prayer, stuffed in my jeans pocket. Or maybe a it's a recipe. I think it's addressed to you.

Pound me like tapa cloth,
Knead me like blood clay;
Beat until smooth, and the lumps are gone.

I learned a yoga pose a long time ago. You lie on your back, holding nothing, palms open to the sky.
It's called the corpse pose, because you just lie there, doing nothing.

"It's the first and the last pose you learn," said the yoga teacher. He was turning away from us as he added quietly, "it's the hardest pose."
Friday Morning

He pulls a piece of paper from his jeans pocket, limp and frayed at the folds, and spreads it open. "Oh, yeah," he mutters. "Fate."

Folds it up and returns it to his pocket. No time for that now. He has things to do.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Cedar Mill Creek

I am still not entirely reconciled to working in the suburbs, this queer hybrid of countryside and city, where freshly asphalted four-lane parkways sweep to trivial ends in empty fields -- building lots that were cleared during the boom and then left to turn to fragile, surprisingly beautiful meadowland, rich with lupine and blackberry, dotted with escaped ornamentals from the hi-tech light-industrial parks. It's quiet out here, except for the ubiquitous buzz of powerlines, and full of birdlife: meadowlarks, redwing blackbirds, shrill-piping running birds like overgrown sandpipers, barn swallows. Big campuses, half of them empty, darkened spaces full of disused cubicles. Almost no one walks out here but me. A few joggers. It's eerie to me, how many people work in these buildings -- hundreds, I think -- and how most of them are so incurious about their surroundings that they've never walked anywhere here, except from their cars, through the mammoth parking lots, to the ID-badged doors. Surreal. Truman show. Crews of Mexicans keep up our grounds beautifully -- for whom? No one looks, no one walks by these flowerbeds, but me. Not that I've ever seen. The Mexicans eye me impassively as I walk by. So far as I can tell, they don't give a damn that I'm the only person who appreciates their work. In fact, they look as suspicious of me as the people who glance at me from behind the tinted glass of their SUV's.

The wetlands have been left alone, out here. One thing to be grateful for. I'm sure, left to themselves, the developers would have dumped the marshes full of fill dirt, or something worse. So I'm glad the wetlands are protected. Beautiful marshes stretch across this land. I walk down to Washington County Bridge #1409, crossing -- so the sign tells me -- Cedar Mill Creek. (Cedars? In this kind of country? & Where, around here, does the water drop rapidly enough to turn a millwheel? I have a feeling the same people who dropped these hi-tech campuses out of the sky also named this creek.)

But anyway, this brown creek, less than ten yards wide, wanders through cattails and high grass, and runs slowly under Bridge #1409. I stand on the bridge in the afternoon, bright sun falling down on my head from above, and up to my face from a dazzling reflection below. A low bridge. Fifteen feet above the water. Barn swallows dive under the bridge, over and over, darting below my feet without a care. And today three muskrats, in a dignified line, swam strongly, calmly down the center of the creek, directly below me, appearing one by one on my side of the bridge, legs pumping rythmically, unhurried, clearly the masters of their brown, reed-lined world. So big I peered carefully at their tails to make sure they weren't beaver. They have nothing to fear from human beings, I guess -- human beings stay behind their tinted glass, roaring up and down the roadways, of no more interest to muskrats than the distant turkey-vultures.

This country keeps still -- as Tolkien might have said -- a disheveled naiad loveliness. For now. The next economic boom, so devoutly desired by the people of Oregon, hangs over it like the blade of a guillotine. Soon enough, the muskrats will learn that they have plenty to fear.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


I took Tori to the Portland State library so she could read some articles for a paper she's writing. She studies steadily, with a calm discipline that amazes me. Read her way carefully through two articles in difficult academic journals, taking careful notes. She's old enough to look perfectly at home in a college library, now. Gave me a curious twinge.

As did wandering through the stacks at PSU. Wandered up to the Middle English section and pulled down my only publication (Chaucer Review, 1991 -- "Anelida and Arcite: Anti-Feminist Allegory, Pro-Feminist Complaint." Check the big department stores and airport bookstalls; bound to be copies there.) There I am, in all my glory -- quoting in French, Latin, and Italian (what a fraud! I knew not a word of Italian). Making a trendy and somewhat dubious argument. But it was a good reading of Chaucer's poem. Even at my worst, I've always been a sensitive reader.

And my footnotes are -- still -- magnificent. The only genre I've ever mastered is the footnote. The magisterial evaluation, the wry aside, the six-line demolition of unworthy critics, the hinting at vast learning and contemplation held in reserve -- I had it all.

Odd that I published that. I had already given up on an academic career when it was accepted. I had, in fact, forgotten that I'd sent it off, when I got the acceptance. It was an early chapter of one of my dissertations: sending it out may in fact have been a sort of surrender on ever finishing a dissertation. "Here: there's a piece out of all this wreck that might be worth saving, but there ain't no book here, I know that!"

A vanished life. And one just blossoming. And an accidental, grizzle-bearded father walking through the sour book-dust of his past.

Not a past I look back on fondly, for the most part. Like so much of my past, I mostly just feel grateful that I escaped from it more or less intact. So much of my past is a tangle of false hopes and masquerade. Pretending to know Italian, pretending that I'd read all of the Teseida in the original, is pretty typical of my past. I'm glad to be in the present. I carry on my various poses and pretences for only minutes at at time now, rather than years. It's a sweet, hard-bought freedom.
Happy Boy, Part II

Lekshe's back!