Friday, June 24, 2005

Shy Girls

Sometimes you have to be quick to get ahead of the preconceptions and the expectations and the apprehensions, quick quick quick to reach past the settling coat, catch hold of that hand (lifted for a brief wave goodbye), and kiss that shy girl before she slips away from the party. It's the shy girls who know how to kiss, though.

First thought, best thought.

The rattle of casual drumsticks, the purr of the cat, the lapping of the morning sun against the porch. I'm sorry for all the things I've left undone, in this ramshackle life, but it will have to do.

A time to cast away stones.

When King Canute waded back to shore, did he change his pants? They must have been soaked.

A time to gather stones together.

I will spend today carefully gathering, but my thoughts will be with you. Vacation tomorrow.

The third, whom I love more the more of blame
Is heaped upon her, maiden most unmeek,
I knew to be my demon poesie.

Silly boy. But what are any of us doing, but trying to lift a hand off the page?
Last Words

My lord Yacatecuhtli,
the vulture is a thing that circles
& never has to land.
Everything he sees is on the way
to its final appointment:
all words to him
are last words.

Connected by a Line

Charcoal eyes measured the steps to the darkened gym doorway. Glanced, fast, at the runnels of empty malls and coffee spaces that surrounded them: two strangers, connected by a line.


I turned my hands out and cupped them slightly as I walked, feeling the air catch in them, and spill over. As often, nowadays, I found myself on the verge of tears, though not particularly sad or unhappy. A tilt of the light, the tremble of a leaf, can wrench my heart. I'm not sure what psychiatric or physiological condition this betokens. If any. Maybe it's just the travelling habit of the spirit -- it wears tears to go out walking.

I have not turned very well -- or more honestly, my turn has become a skid, leaving me travelling in the same direction, only less in control. "Oh yes," I thought this morning. "That's why I don't make sharp turns. I knew there was a reason."

Nevertheless, I am not stuck. I don't know why not. Even if I dump sugar in my coffee and eat fried potatoes with my breakfast. Even if I find myself ashamed today. This is a temporary setback. In any case, it's okay. My mortality is quite real to me. It's not to be prevented by eating one way or another. I mean to be done with being ashamed, and to ratify what I do. If it was worth it to me this morning, then so be it.

But that turns, itself, into an internal struggle, to which I can attach pride or shame, depending on how it goes. This is a clever noose, and it's not to be undone by thinking and resolving, however shrewd, however stern. Either meditation undoes these knots, or nothing does. I've come to this conclusion dozens of times. So I come to it again. Though without the tremendous surge of hope that it once inspired.

Somebody wanted Martha to write a chapter, in a proposed book, about why she became a Buddhist. She has no intention of writing it.

"Why did I become a Buddhist?" she said to me. "Because I thought it would work faster than it does. Because I didn't think it would be so hard." Then she laughed, that wonderful laugh. Often when I go up to kiss her goodbye, she's meditating. I wait a moment at the door while she murmurs the ending prayers, the prayers that "dedicate the merit."

I look back at my recent narratives, and I see what's missing. What any person who knew me offline would spot immediately. The mystery of how I nerved myself to get my first job. Of how I came to have a career, those things that I presented as inexplicable accidents: they're all due to Martha. Her encouragement, her thinking, her practical working-with-what-is-there.

"What would you do in your ideal job?" she asked me. I grinned crookedly. "Learn the rudiments of a new language every year," I answered. Which, as we mulled it over, we realized is about what you do, if you work in software.

She liked the university. She liked the thought of being a faculty wife, I think, and she would have made a good one; she's always had a gift for teasing academics, and bringing out the best in them. But never an objection to me giving up on an academic career, this career I'd spent five years and thousands of dollars training for. She saw what teaching did to me.

Likewise, when I came home one day last year and admitted to feeling trapped in my job, she picked it up right there. Started figuring out what we would need to do, what the exit-strategy should look like. I wasn't trapped at all. There were ways out if I wanted to take them. This, although I know the prospect of losing this income frightened her considerably.

As I said recently, in another connection, my good fortune sometimes unnerves me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Uneasy Money, Part III

"There's an almost mythic - hero's quest - quality to this part of your history," commented Mary.


That means two things. One is that I'm probably distorting the past, and the other is that I'll have to disappoint people at the end, here.

I don't triumph at the end of the story. It's sort of a draw. I did start "making a living" -- in the phrase which Rana rightly identifies as sinister, in its equation of earning money with life. My two computer science buddies and I got hired as research assistants, writing some code for our apparently-stern-but-absurdly-soft-hearted German Database professor's experimental database. Eventually we all got hired by a company at which said professor had connections. I've been working on database engines ever since. Has it been ten years? Not quite, I think.

It was surreal, again -- my life has had a lot of these surreal reversals -- to walk back into the world with a computer science degree in the mid-nineties. It was only then that I realized how wounding the academic job-market, or rather the lack thereof, had been. Suddenly I was wanted. Interviews were a matter of employers eagerly trying to sell me on working for them. It was very strange to go from saying, "well, I'm working on my dissertation at the top-ranked school in my field, and I've done some teaching..." & being cut off with a brusque "We're only interviewing people dissertation-in-hand." to saying, "well, I have a decent BA from the local state college, and no experience..." & having them say "let us buy you lunch at a fancy restaurant! Are you free tomorrow?"

I was a far better literary scholar than I will ever be a computer programmer. It's a little humiliating how much more my reception affected me than what I knew of my own capabilities. I'm a mediocre computer-guy, a jack-of-all-trades, reliable but decidedly un-brilliant. And now I've just watched another round of lay-offs wash past me, and I'm waiting for the one that will sweep me away; I doubt that I'll get a job as good as this again. But willy-nilly, even knowing as I did that I had just happened to catch an economic wave, being wanted built up my confidence, when the bleak sense of being superfluous had been eroding it. Ordinarily I don't put much stock in trying to make a career by second-guessing economic trends. "Do what you're good at, and never mind the market" I think is generally good advice. But there are some markets that get so flooded that applicants become mere supplicants, and the power differential between employers and employees becomes so huge that everything is distorted by it. Much of the academic market was like that in the eightiess. I suspect it's that way again, now. Power differentials do not often bring out the best in people.

So where am I now? Middle class. Putting my daughter through college is going to take a big chunk out of us, and if my son comes in about the same in the scholarship lottery (why do people bother with Vegas, when they can apply for scholarship money?) we'll come out at about zero. But I'm happier financially than I've ever been. My money troubles are just like other people's now.

I'm still sorting through the fallout of a life of easy money. My work habits still reflect, all too well, my sense that my career is a surreal fake, an odd fluke of fortune. I often don't take it seriously. I blog. I procrastinate badly. But as always, my old skills as a student -- so uncomfortably close to those of the sycophant -- keep me afloat. I listen. I know what people pay attention to and what they care about. Those things, I always make sure I do. But the conviction of unreality persists. I flirt with disaster, I think, in hopes that at some point something will seem real. But disaster never comes, and neither does reality.

This is real life, I tell myself. I tell myself that often, nowadays. Some things have become real to me. My relationships with people (other than at work) mostly seem real to me now. With my children. Mountain, water, stone and tree have always seemed real to me, and seem so still. But this cubicle, and these people I work with, the tasks I do, are never quite in focus. I never quite believe in them.

Alienation of labor? Alienation of spirit? The inattention of a spoiled brat? I don't know. Or maybe this is an existential drama, or a nihilist pit, that owes nothing at all to my history or to anyone else's. Is this real life? I don't know. I begin to feel the question, though, with more urgency. It's a pretty large portion of my life to leave in the dream-box.

Monday, June 20, 2005


I think that I've learned about all that shame and self-doubt have to teach me, for now, and that it's time to turn and walk in a different way.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Asking for Blessings

I've only ever tangentially approached the question.

Some questions, of course, are best approached tangentially. Some can only be approached tangentially. This isn't one of them, I think.

I skated past asking Sarah that. Left the question out on the coffee-table, where she could pick it up if she liked. That's as close as I ever got to asking it. She left it on the table.

I recognized even then, that there's only thing I ever want to ask a teacher: "Please, give me your blessing!"

I watch the question and answer sessions at KCC with a mixture of impatience and amusement. One in every twelve questions, maybe, is a real question. The rest are all, in one disguise or another, "please, Lama Michael, give me your blessing!" And people are happy or sad at his answers, pleased or angry, according to whether he's answered with what looks to them like a blessing.

I almost never ask questions now. I guess partly because I'm ashamed, and partly because to sit in the room with him already feels like receiving a blessing. Asking for more would be just greedy.

Lekshe would say, I guess, that ordinary standards don't apply here. Here, greedy is good. Here I should be a glutton. But I'm not sure about that.

Or maybe it's just that at the bottom of this murky glass lies the dread that the question, asked directly, would get a direct answer. What if he said "no"?

Really, you know, the whole tiresome business of falling in love is the same thing. "Give me your blessing!" And we do give each other such blessings as we can muster. But like everything in this world, it's never enough. And so we start to doubt. Is this really a person who can dispense blessings? Isn't there maybe someone else who could do it better? Are these real blessings?

As usual, with the obstinacy of our kind, we clutch the wrong end of the stick. Anyone can give blessings. The hard part is learning to be able to receive them.

That's another reason I don't ask, "Lama Michael, can you give me your blessing?"

In my head -- with a kindly, weary smile -- Michael always says, "I don't know, Dale. Can I?"

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


The morning sun slid slant through the blinds. On the wall, where it spilled through the space at the side of the window, it made a pattern, the exact pattern of an unfleshed human spine, seen side-on; the dorsal wing of each vertebrae flaring upward.

I haven't seen you for a long time.

When I opened the cupboard door the salt-shaker fell out. It turned a somersault, so that when I caught it, just above the counter, it was perfectly upright in my hand. I swept a few grains of salt off the counter. I sometimes find my luck unnerving.

I couldn't be bothered with making coffee properly. I dumped some grounds and some chocolate into a cup of boiling water. With a teaspoon I skimmed off what skimmed easily, a couple minutes later, of the grounds; but I don't mind chewing on little bits of coffee bean in between sips.

I think of qB and of Sarsparilla, recently in Venice; I think of Dave in Plummer's Hollow, and Kurt in Tennessee. Good morning. (Good evening.)

The crows come down to the back porch. Yesterday I heard them cawing more loudly than usual, indignant, outraged. Went out back and saw that Christmas, our ancient dog, who could no more catch a crow than she could play the violin, was lying on the back porch, just below the rail where the food for the crows was set out. She's so deaf she might not have been able to hear the crows, but I got the impression she was enjoying riling them. The crows, meanwhile, complained bitterly. Yet another thing crows have in common with human beings: a huge sense of entitlement.

Bless you all. Another day. Good luck.

Monday, June 13, 2005


I woke this morning to silent tears, the tick of another heartbeat, a cloud of warm hair, the weight of grief. And this is one of the good lives.

A friend used to write of how horrible things were, of abused children and lingering deaths, challenging me, maybe, to give her optimistic it's-not-so-bad-after-all-answers -- saying, so how does your Buddhist cheerfulness answer that?

No. You don't understand Buddhism. It's far worse, far worse than that. If it were only despair and cruelty and weakness it could maybe be fixed. And if death was an end it could at least be escaped.

No. Worse than that. This life is saturated with grief. If you look close enough, you can see misery sweating from every pore of it. Worse than you think. If you could see what even the pleasure and satisfaction are made of, you'd recoil in horror.

The unmaking of this grief has nothing to do with stopping wicked people's wicked designs, with feeding the hungry and healing the sick. It's far harder than those (already impossible) things. Don't come to me look for it's-not-so-bads. It's worse.

If the joy were predicated on fixing this world, it would be time, past time, to cash in and go home.

One crow swept up into the gray sky, calling out hoarsely, as I pulled away from the curb. Blue gleam of black beak. An impudent flirt of scruffy feathers. A dry leaf whispered across the windshield, and spun away. A thread of cobweb tickled across the back of my hand.

The grass growing through the cracked sidewalk was so green that it jarred my eyes. The red of the stop sign, a huge glowing splash of blood, stayed in my vision long after my turn. The street rolled under my feet -- brown scattered duff, rough pavement, mossy curbstones. Trash spun by the wind of the passing cars trembled and skittered. I could feel the air pressed and driven by the little car; I could feel the tires shake as they explored every pitch and unevenness of the road.

If not now, never; if not here, nowhere.

No. Go elsewhere for comfort: nothing at this shop but grief, and joy.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Uneasy Money, Part II

The shame and despair evoked by thinking back to those first years in Portland is so thick that I'm finding it difficult to go on. And it's hard to make a story of it, because the essence of that pain was that my life no longer had a story. I went chasing shadows of old stories. I took a few classes at Portland State, German and English literature, and of course, given the amount of literary and linguistic training I had, it would have been strange if I had not done well. But you can only be a golden boy once. I did find English grad students to hang out with, and a German Stammtisch to go to at noon, but people in general were (rightly) suspicious of me. What was I doing there? My story was that I was just keeping up my languages while I finished writing my dissertation, but I don't think it was a convincing story. There was a faint air of fraudulence about me. I think most people sensed it.

I really don't know when I officially gave up on my dissertation. I used to wander off supposedly to work on it. I would end up at strip bars and come home eight hours later, tipsy, occasionally drunk. The strip bars too were a matter of chasing old stories. I wanted again to be the extraordinary man, the one who could cross barriers, the one who used to be the only male friend of lesbians who had entirely given up on his gender, who was one of the only two male members of the VLS reading-group at Yale (it stood -- I forget why; perhaps there was a movie by that name? -- for the Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Which sounds a great deal more interesting than it was. We got together once a week and drank mint tea and discussed Feminist & Queer theory.) So I sat at the bar, and talked to strippers, and of course they told me I was different -- and they did talk unguardedly to me, and some of them maybe valued their aquaintance with me -- but we weren't friends. I was a customer. I was buying an odd semblance of friendship. It was all fraudulent still. A girl might brighten when I came in, and hop up to hug me, and talk and laugh with me at the bar, but I was tipping and buying her drinks -- of course she was glad to see me.

Money does that. It lays a film of fraudulence over everything. In almost every conceivable relation it casts a shadow, if you're sensitive to such things. Melville's Confidence Man tells a new friend he really has no money, and the man begins to backpeddle and distance himself. "I conjure you back!" the Confidence Man intones, and lays a ring of golden dollars around his friend, who thereupon realizes that it was all a joke. Back comes the bonhomie and enthusiasm.

Anyway. At some point I began taking computer classes, as well, and I ended up -- perhaps it wasn't as haphazard as this, but I remember it as being almost by accident -- getting a second BA in computer science. But another thing had happened along the way. I had gotten a job.

It was a part-time job washing dishes. There was a restaurant just up the street that we liked to go to sometimes -- it was run by a socialist lesbian who actually did something as queer as give her employees health-insurance, and parental leaves. And they had a kids' playroom that Tori liked. A place, in short, frequented by our tribe. One day there was a help-wanted sign in the window, and -- I really have no idea how I rose to doing it, but I filled out an application. I got a call shortly thereafter.

I loved it. I loved virtually everything about it -- the easy comraderie, the accomplishment of keeping up with the tide of dishes through a Friday-evening rush, the gratitude of managers for someone who showed up precisely when he said he would and did exactly what he said he was going to do. I loved the work itself, which -- to my astonishment -- I was quite good at, filling racks of dishes and whirling them into their old-fashioned dishwasher. After a few weeks I graduated to doing pantry-work, mostly preparing and restocking the salad bar. Chopping vegetables. Washing lettuce and mushrooms. I was good at that too.

One day I was training a man about my age, who was pursuing a degree in psychology at Portland State. As I showed him the best way to move things around in the walk-in freezer, and incidentally told him a little of my background, he began to eye me with some perplexity. I could sense his discomfort growing. Eventually he asked, hesitantly but almost compulsively, "Don't you get bored with this?" My enthusiasm, I think, unsettled him.

I didn't get bored with it. If it had paid enough money to support a family, I would happily have stayed there the rest of my life. I suppose I might have gotten bored with it eventually, but the puzzles of how to do the work best and quickest fascinated me as much as any software problem I've ever had to solve as a professional. Any problem in the real world is infinitely complex.

For the first time in my life, I was getting a paycheck that seemed real to me. I had gotten paychecks before, as a TA, or as a piece-editor, and a couple times as a course instructor, but those were all covered with the money-film, one way or another. I had bought my way into Yale, a voice always whispered to me, and all those jobs were just little illusory reflections of the Yale glamour. But I had earned these checks. I worked hard, and I got paid for it because it was valuable to someone. It will probably strike a lot of people as ridiculous, but I was far prouder of those sixty-dollar checks than I ever was of the "honors" grades I got from graduate school. A thirty-year clutch of panic and despair began to untwist itself in my insides.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Uneasy Money, Part I

I had what Dickens once called the worst possible start in life, for a young man: I inherited an ambiguous amount of money. Not so much that I would never have to work -- but enough that I could take my time getting started in life; enough to learn habits of idleness and self-indulgence I would not be able to sustain; enough so that I never felt committed to any particular career path, because I could always train for something else. Enough so that I was well into my thirties before I got a real job.

It fell out strangely. I didn't grow up with money. My father was a highschool teacher. He was (and is), a prudent, shrewd, long-headed man. He took to buying rental properties. He was willing to wait to make his profits; he rented his properties at under the market rate, looking for the good renters, the long-term, conscientious people, and finding them. He wasn't making a lot of money, but over the years the equity accrued. He tended his houses carefully. Property values rose. He was doing well.

Meanwhile, we lived on a highschool teacher's salary, and were well-content -- I was, at any rate. I never expected anything but to have to make my own way. I knew that plenty of kids didn't have three square meals a day and a safe home and a room to share with their brother. I was lucky, and I felt lucky. I took pride in my father's virtually immortal station wagons -- he bought them a couple years old, and drove them so sensibly, and maintained them so well, that they outlived everyone else's. Buying a new car struck us as profligate, a ludicrous waste of money (still does strike me that way, for that matter.)

Then my grandfather, my mother's father, died. Died young, everybody said, which confused me -- I had met him once or twice, and he was a terribly old man -- his hair was quite white. He was sixty-two.

What his death was to mean to me didn't emerge for a a few years. He had been a farmer, and a county-extension agent. He went into business with a partner who was concocting corn hybrids. As a county-extension agent, a farmer travelling from farm to farm on the weekends, he was ideally placed to sell hybrid seed. And they were good hybrids: they nearly doubled the corn yield. The partnership became a prosperous company; the company became a corporation. And then, when I was ten years old, a couple years after my grandfather's death, it went public. And we were millionaires.

My life had changed radically, in the meantime. My parents had divorced, and my mother had remarried. I lived with her and my stepfather. He was a hardworking, hard-drinking engineer. He worked at Weyerhauser paper mill, designing pulp-processing machines, I think. He had bought property on top of a hill at the outskirts of Springfield and built a beautiful house, with his own hands -- designed it all and built it all from the foundations to the roof. Built his own swimming pool. By small-town Oregon standards we were already a wealthy family. Already I was an object of envy, which was ironic, because I was in those years perfectly wretched. But I had spending money, when many of my school-fellows did not. I could buy myself and my acquaintances dr peppers and hershey bars at the corner store. I lived in a big house on the hill, with a swimming pool. I had a treehouse down in an oak grove -- half a mile from the house, but still on my stepfather's property. He built it with characteristic design-sense, structural know-how, and skill. I imagine it's still there, if the grove is still there, resting sturdily on its two-by-sixes.

And now we had money, real money, the kind of money people dream of having. It first presented itself -- suitably enough -- as a worrisome thing, possibly a misfortune. My mother had a talk with me, an uncomfortable talk. We had money. A lot of money. But we shouldn't talk about it. Children of rich families might be kidnapped. People might try to scam us. We had to play our cards close to our chests.

She should have talked to herself: I was secretive and distrustful by nature, and I was already sick of being envied. But my mother had a great capacity for being cheated. She was not a good judge of character. People borrowed money from her and didn't pay it back. She got involved in a big real-estate deal in Costa Rica, and it ate up millions of dollars, but the lucrative resort that was supposed to emerge from the jungle and start raking in money never did emerge. The man she chose to manage her money -- she had an insurmountable aversion to handling it herself -- was a compulsive gambler. I don't think he embezzled any of the money -- he just bet on risky investments and lost, over and over.

This happened over years. In the meantime, we learned to be rich. We went to fancy restaurants. We had a wine-cellar. My mother, who had always wanted to travel, went to Russia, and to China -- she was one of the very first Americans to go to China when it was "opened" by Nixon. She repeatedly redecorated her houses -- she had divorced my stepfather by then -- with exquisite taste. My older brother, who loves fine-quality things, bought beautiful expensive suits, and, when he came into his own money, set about losing it with a single-mindedness that rivalled my mother's.

I, however, wanted nothing to do with any of it. Inherited capital was anathema to me. I wavered between calling myself an anarchist and calling myself a socialist, as a teenager and as a young man, but if there was anything I was sure of, it was that the power over other human beings conferred by having money, particularly unearned money, was monstrous. I cultivated indifference to it. I wore my tattered jeans and t-shirts. The money wasn't just in my family: some was put in my name. But I contemplated giving it away when I came of age.

I came of age, and somehow I never quite got around to giving it away. I was busy going to college, for one thing. We had sobered up enough to change to a trustworthy money manager, by then -- he did all the money stuff. I had only very vague ideas of what forms the money took, whatever I happened to see on papers that I had to sign. I apparently owned two-thirds of a Taco Time. I owned stock in something that was eventually to become Enron. There were mutual funds and bonds involved. It was all completely unreal to me. Art was real. Literature was real. The liberation of Eros was real. Money, on the other hand, was a hallucinatory non-object that had floated into my life out of nowhere. Surreal.

But as time went by, fear hardened in me. I was very timid socially, from the start, and I had been terribly inept at sports in school. (This was mostly because I was a year younger than the other kids in my grade, and had never practiced them; but if I knew that then, I didn't believe it.) The very little physical work I had ever done I had done very badly. I was slow. I had no initiative. Burned into my memory was the only time I ever went strawberry-picking -- this was a common summer job for kids in Oregon, and one day I went with a friend. I still recall vividly the manager coming by that morning, looking in my flat with its handful of berries, and praising me for my swiftness. I was flustered and confused. Was she mocking me? I knew I was going slow, much slower than anyone around me. She was gone before I realized what had happened -- she thought I had already picked a flat, and started on a my second. I was mortified. It was lucky that I didn't have to work because, I thought, I simply wouldn't be able to. Who ever would hire me?

I imagine most young people have similar misgivings. But most young people have to go to work anyway, and so they soon learn that someone who's responsible and steady and has some common sense doesn't have to have great skills or great speed or great initiative to be worth hiring -- that they're not actually so spectacularly incompetent as to be unable to make a living. But I never learned that. I shone in college: I was a brilliant student, really. Graduate schools were anxious to get me. Teachers had always adored me. But I knew I could never make my way in the real world. The money I had despised and ignored gradually, imperceptibly, came to seem absolutely necessary.

But there's one thing you can count on about money -- if you despise and ignore it, it will go away. Grad schools offered me full scholarships and handsome stipends, but I ignored them. I went to my first-choice school, and paid out-of-pocket for it. Well, after all, it was an investment. Everyone said that.

Six years and no finished dissertation later, with a wife and a daughter and a son on the way, the world was looking quite a bit different. I ran the numbers repeatedly -- I was good at numbers -- and no matter how I ran them, they said the same thing. If no money came in, we'd run out of it. Not right away. Not even soon. But we would run out.

It's a bit comical to me, now, to recall how bizarre this fact appeared to me. To most people in the world, this fact makes its appearance quite early and remains part of life's scenery from then on. But it struck me as preposterous. And I had become very skilled at ignoring money, by this time, so I kept on ignoring it. But it was a nightmare behind me, an impending unacknowledged disaster. I had managed to get into my thirties, and I had no resume. I had an M.Phil. from an impressive school, I knew three dead languages and a couple living ones to boot; I could decipher both a medieval Latin manuscript and the Anglo-Saxon jottings in its margins with some confidence, but there was only one job that qualified a person for. Teaching. And I hated teaching. I was terrible at it. I had the skills to be a brilliant student. I was a gifted listener, very good at discerning the drift of a teacher's thought and falling in with it.

But a teacher can't just listen. A teacher has to speak. Develop topics and put them out there, regardless of whether people agree with them or show interest in them. And this, I found, I simply could not do. I froze. I watched fellow graduate-students whom I privately thought far less bright than I was become prize-winning teachers. They had the confidence to do it. I did not. There are few experiences more humiliating than failing, abjectly and unequivocally, in full view, at the front of a classroom. I fled. Back to Oregon. I had to start over, somehow.

Monday, June 06, 2005


Pronoia tagged me with a meme! I know I'm supposed to view this with mild nonchalant disdain, but I've never been tagged with a meme before, and it delights me. I was crestfallen -- though I bore it with stoic fortitude -- when nobody tagged me with the Fahrenheit 451 one.

Total Number of Books I Own

No idea. I know that when we moved back to Oregon from New Haven, thirteen years ago, we decided to sort through our books and get rid of all but the ones we positively couldn't do without. After an hour or two of diligent work, I came downstairs with a book.

"I can do without this," I said.

"That's mine!" said Martha, indignantly.

So much for getting rid of books. We mailed 72 cardboard boxes of them -- that's got to add up to a few thousand -- and I probably acquire books at a rate of 2 or 3 per week, so -- it's a lot of books.

The Last Book I Bought

I bought two at the same time: The American Crow and the Common Raven, by Lawrence Kilham. It was recommended to me some time ago by Dave Bonta and I just now sprung for it. It's perhaps the most beautiful paperback book I have ever seen: a jet black cover framing a wonderful black-and-white Audobon-style drawing of crows -- unpretentious but striking. Once I'd held it in my hands, I knew I had to buy it. The book is marvellous. The man just sat and watched crows for many months, and wrote about what he learned. That, to me, is the essence of Science. I love the discipline of experiment, but close observation is an even more fundamental discipline than that, and it is, I think, a rather neglected one.

The other was Tappan's Handbook of Massage. A classic I've been meaning to pick up forever. One of those texts that seems oddly familiar on a first reading, like Hamlet, because everyone quotes it

The Last Book I Read

Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal. When I reach the dull middle stage of learning a language -- when I basically have the grammar down, and I just have to learn thousands and thousands of words and idioms -- I like to proceed by reading translations of favorite kids' books. I already know the story, and they're not going to get all fancy and literary on me; and I know that any word or idiom they expect a sixth grader to know is one that I should get down cold. And it's fun. So I finished la Piedra Filosofal last week, and I'm into la Camara Secreta, now.

Five Books that Mean a lot to Me

Two of them, The Lord of the Rings and The Screwtape Letters, I've written about in other posts.

What the Buddha Taught, by Walpola Rahula. This is the book that turned me into a Buddhist.

The Poetry of William Blake. This is my old paperback Blake, which I bought in 1976, my sophomore year in college. It has my scribbled notes in Jerusalem and the Four Zoas, from my first encounter with those wells of madness. (Or founts of sanity. I've never been sure which they are.) Like most large paperbacks, its binding wasn't up to hard use, so it's now completely cocooned in strapping tape -- Urizen looms spectrally through the lines of encelluloided string in a very pleasing fashion. This book disappeared for a few months, and went to live in Tori's room. I lately learned that she read the whole thing, Jerusalem and Zoas and all, when she was sixteen. She probably has more Blake by heart than I do, now.

Why Blake? The transcendent joy, and the overwhelming cruelty of needless suffering, in this life. He experiences both intensely, and he never lets one experience disfigure or obscure the other.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. I guess partly because it gave me a much-needed dose of skepticism about political action, and partly because it gave me an also much-needed dose of skepticism about the project of forcibly remaking my character. (I don't know how much of the second lesson Tolstoy actually intended to teach.) And because I love the story.

And now I'm tagging -- PPB, with the injunction that she's not to omit the junk books; Dweezila, because she seems much too real and close to the bone to do memes like this; Tish, because I'm curious, and K, because I worry about his low-syllable count (is it just bad case of Haiku, or might he be coming down with Real Life?)

Friday, June 03, 2005

For Rana


Fall, then, miserably, wretchedly, horribly.
Sink to the very bottom, where the ravens
Tear frogs In a dark well. Because the light
Comes up from the bottom of this well,

Not down from the top. Things happen as you fall,
Unseen things crystallize and shift; centers
Of gravity shear to one side or the other;
Voices call in passing, voices you once knew

And can know again. But only from the bottom.
So I would say, sink fast, sink hard, sink angry,
All the way down, because under your feet
A secret light is opening, and stones are blossoming.


It isn't enough to love. Not even enough
To be honest. One wants to work, to put hands
On crooked things and make them straight,
On sickly things and make them well,

On obscure things and make them plain.
To steal these tasks from loving hands is to steal
Everything. It is not a crime easily
Forgiven, not now, not in one's prime and pride

Of strength. So now we stop. Under this sky,
We must retrace our steps in silence, waiting
Once again, for our inheritance
To be returned. Again. This sky. And silent.


It's little enough that an idle bystander
Can say, at times like this; the awkward hug
Or the glib reassurance. Words richochet, or
Lose themselves. The Radix Malorum

Glints, and has his day, and boasts his card
Trumps all others. But he is lying, though he
Doesn't know it. Far below, the light is rising
Which he will never know, and the stone

Is blossoming, and tasks are rising to the hands
That were made for them. There are truths
I don't know how I know, but I know love,
Which brought all things, is bringing these things too.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Buddhist Tragedy

Paula spoke with God recently, on Prospect Hill. He, living up to his reputation as a tetchy God ("Chatting like this really chafes my numinosity", he complained) concluded by asking, "-- WHAT THE FUCK -- PARDON MY FRENCH -- ARE YOU TRYING TO TRANSCEND ANYWAY ????"

Which, Paula says, is a good question.

I'm sure it is a good question, for her. For me, it's not a very interesting one, because the answer is up-front and obvious. I want to transcend unhappiness.

I never understand why nobody faults Buddhism for its devastating practicality, its drab utilitarian worldliness. People will fault it for all kinds of odd things -- the late Pope chided us for our pessimism, of all things, and a great many people take us to task for being impractical. Which I really can't fathom. What could be more optimistic than thinking that all sentient beings are capable of achieving omniscience and bliss? And what could be more practical than unwinding all the perplexities of the world, and bringing them down simply to -- "Why am I unhappy? And what's to be done about it?"

No, what people ought to complain about is how stubbornly quotidian and self-interested we are. Christians are Warriors of the Light; we are Applied Scientists of Cheerfulness. Well, sure, we want to establish all sentient beings in lasting happiness: but that's just because we've concluded that their happiness and our own happiness is one and the same thing. There's nothing noble about it. Enlightened (as they say) self-interest.

There is no such thing as Buddhist tragedy. It's simply not possible. Without Great Souls, and Death as an End, and Final Judgement, how do you even conceive tragedy? When Claudius and Hamlet get together in their next lives and work out their little differences, and Hamlet's father and mother, brother and sister now, beam at them and bring them hot chocolate. When Macbeth admits it was a horrendous miscalculation, and Duncan tells him not to mention, it -- we all make mistakes -- and Desdemona puts together a powerpoint presentation detailing the exact progress of that dratted handkerchief, so as to clear it all up for Othello, while Iago chimes in and explains how his own suffering moved him to generate more suffering and the idea was that at some point his own suffering would go away, but it just never worked out that way -- well, you get the picture. Hard luck on Shakespeare that the Dharma hadn't shown up in the West yet, but a stroke of good fortune for us.