Monday, July 31, 2006


Across from me, Martha dozes in a recliner. To her right Alan is sleeping, his head on the hand that has the monitor connectors taped to it. From the other hand the IV tube snakes away up to the clear bag of steroids and antibiotics and painkiller.

He's okay. What we thought was strep was in fact a nasty tonsil abscess. A couple hours ago the ENT doctor lanced it, and after a period of spitting out blood and pus and looking miserable, he was looking a little more cheerful and asking when we could go home. And not long after that he fell asleep. Martha and I went out to grab some food. Came back, and he was still asleep. So now we're just waiting to see how he feel when he wakes up -- good enough to come home, or should he stay the night?

The setting sun filters through the blinds. It's very peaceful here. I've never been in a hospital where it was peaceful, before. Maybe it's because we're in the pediatric wing, for reasons I don't fully understand -- Alan is sixteen and I'm guessing the the only six-foot patient in this wing. But anyway, it doesn't have the constant irritating sounds, the insistent ringing of bells and beeps and pagings that generally make hospitals hellish. I've never quite understood the theory behind making sure that people can't rest in hospitals, though it seems to be widely accepted. But anyway, here, and now, it's actually pretty quiet. The high-pitched almost-whistle of the air conditioning. The occasional fussing of a baby. Alan's barely-audible snoring.

Update: Alan's home today and much improved. Thanks for all your kind words!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


It is with amusement -- I'm sitting here grinning -- that I consider how just now, at the nadir of my confidence in Buddhist institutions and in some of its claims, I have been busily preaching the Dharma in several unfortunate people's comment-threads. Who am I hoping to convince? Three guesses.

Well. The rose blossoms across the sky.

I say, I know this, or I know that, but I don't. There's the hugeness of the sky, and the sweetness of the rose, and beyond that, who cares? Not me.

Ring the bell once, twice, three times. Bow to the Buddha, bow to your own awakened mind. Suppose you are looking at the blue sky through a fragment of blue glass. And someone says: which blue are you looking at?

You remember, from the high places, you look down on the western sea, at about five o'clock? And it's nothing but shimmering. Like that. And you realize that the sea isn't made of water at all -- what a ridiculous error! -- it's actually made of light, and the light is made of metal. Steel, maybe.

And then when the sun drops over the horizon you forget all this. You look at the gray heaving sea, and you say -- oh yes, how foolish! the sea isn't made of water; it's made of fog. And the fog is made of dirty rags. Everyone knows that.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Knell of the Magi

Flames swirl, and servants
Lay three shrouds in the coals;
A shivering brotherhood
Shudders and swells in the shoals.

Sweet burning, the purling
Extravagance of light;
Endwarped cedarwood,
Curling and turning to white.

At play in the plunge of fire,
In the glowing shallows of hell,
Still longing to be understood,
Each pulls at the tongue of a bell.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Some Great Sudden Hest

And in thy face strange motions have appeared,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest.

All of Oregon seems to be laboring under some great sudden hest, this weekend: a damp hundred-degree heat and a gray haze; a breathless restraint, a sullen crawling yellowish heaven. What treason the sky may be contemplating, I can't say, but its dependents must fret until they know.

My mood is unsuited to this oppression. I, for once, am breathing freely. I've made a rash decision and scrambled on board a ship bound for God knows where; but now that we're fairly underway, and land is disappearing astern, there's no point in regret, and no way to second-guess my decision even if I wanted to. Obeying a great sudden hest of quite a different sort.

Among my rash acts has been applying to massage school, to begin evening classes in the Fall. I have an interview there Thursday evening. Suddenly all sorts of unthinkable things are thinkable. A binding has broken loose, since Montreal, and I am unstuck.

Also unsecured. I've thrown up all my sangha work. I am taking refuge in Samsara; and no doubt Samsara is already thinking of ways to let me down. But at present I feel I simply have to throw a tuft of grass up for the wind to catch, follow it, and take the adventure God sends me.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


A perfect day, sunny but not too hot. I bought a sandwich, which they gave to me in a bag, and then I climbed a grassy embankment, and dodged across the five-lane road. There was a campus here that I'd always meant to visit. I knew they held community college classes; I'd considered brushing up my Spanish here. And there were offices of the University of Oregon System and a couple high-tech training institutes. Well and good. A campus, I thought. I'll sit in the shade, eat my lunch, and watch the students walk by.

There was a banked wall of lawn and then a moat of parking lot -- for which you needed a quarterly pass, I presumed to keep interlopers such as I from just drifting in -- which surrounded the campus on all sides. The lot was more than half full. But there were no students to be seen. Half a dozen very large buildings, inscrutable in their reflective, smoked-glass windows. Evidence of a couple hundred people having arrived, in the form of empty cars. But not a soul in sight.

I walked clear around the campus. In that time I saw exactly four human beings. Outside a job-training office a young woman sat on a bit of lawn, spreading sunblock on her bare legs. Outside a -- what? an industrial arts building? -- a stout young man hesitated, casting anxious surreptitious glances at me. Around by the System offices a tall woman walked briskly, talking into her cell-phone, also glancing sidewise at me, determined not to meet my eyes. And around the back, marked "staff parking" -- the servants' quarters, by the dumpsters -- an anomalous woman in heels and dark elegant suit strode past me, rummaging in her leather bag.

There was a shady bit of lawn. I did sit down and eat my sandwich. But a crawling horror of this place began to prickle around my neck. To walk from a sandwich shop to the campus -- my subversive scheme for visiting the campus even though I wasn't purchasing any education -- involved crossing pristine, never-trodden lawns (presumably soaked in weed-poison, to maintain that unearthly green purity), and then crossing the parking lots to arrive at the first sidewalks. No sidewalks led from the street into the campus. Why would they? Who would do such an outlandish thing as walk into the campus from the road?

I had thought that the place and its parking were designed to keep me out of some inner place, some courtyard where students laughed and played. I could understand this plan, even if I didn't approve of it, and planned to flout it.

But there was no inner place. There was no place at all, here. They were not keeping me out -- there was nothing to keep anyone out of. This was not a creation of over-controlling authority. It was the naturally occurring loneliness of the suburbs. Nobody had to encourage these people to dart from car to classroom, from classroom to car. They did this by instinct. I had pictured questioning, or at least flustering, authority; but I was the one getting flustered.

Back across the banked pristine lawn, the five-lane road, and down the banked pristine lawn on the other side, that walled off the mall parking lot. Into my beat-up van. I drove back to work -- driving in through yet another wall of poisoned grass, and into yet another moat of parking lot. Not a soul. This is how you do it, I thought to myself, not very coherently, as I parked. This is it. This is how you train people to drop bombs on civilians. If they're lonely enough they'll do anything.
A New War

Here, slightly edited, is part of mail I sent today to a friend I've been in some conflict with since the latest fighting began in the Mideast. I copy it here in hopes that it may make my otherwise (I'm afraid) erratic and difficult behavior more intelligible.

I should know by now that when new war starts, I should simply leave cyberspace for a week or two. The hatred is just too much for me, it's so toxic to me, and I start thrashing, and trying to make everbody who comes down on one side see the other side with love and understanding, and it's just stupid, the worst possible time to try to do that. I can't seem to help myself, though. I forget -- since I don't do television and only occasionally do radio or newspapers -- that I'm talking to people with the images fresh in their minds: they're seeing the children bleeding in their parents' arms, and that's what's important: preachy little buddhists are very far away and very unimportant.

Friday, July 14, 2006


There's a short short of mine up at Qarrtsiluni, titled the 5th of July. The latest Qarrt topic is turning up some really interesting stuff. Extra credit: devise the plot of the novel that would have as integral parts all of these short shorts.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Black Oaks

Black oaks against an intensely blue sky, their leaves glittering and gleaming. I don't understand how they do that. From this distance you would think that each node of each leaf was inset with a fragment of mirror, catching the sun. Look at a single leaf up close and it's a dull, dark green -- no luster, no shine. How do they shimmer and sparkle like that?

I walked down to look at the brown water of Cedar Mill Creek. The blue-black backs of the swallows shone like tempered metal as they flickered, hunting, under the bridge, under my feet. Directly below, the reflection of the noonday sun was as impossible to look at as his counterpart in the sky. A predatory dragonfly skimmed the water, a hungry blue-green jewel.

Love. Love and hunger, hunger and love: I think of nothing else these days.

All that wanting.
All that wanting.

A fragment of Cyndi Lauper floats through my head:

We think we know what we're doing
We don't know a thing.

Burned by the sun above, and the sun below. A man with thinning hair needs to learn to wear a hat, on a day like this.

On either bank the young thickets of blackberries grow strongly, fiercely, exulting in the light, pushing their iron thorns out above, thrusting their iron roots out below. They mean to keep what they have taken.

Because it's all in the past now
Money changes everything
Money changes everything.

Winter will come here, whether we believe it or not. The gentle rain, the endless shifting silver clouds. The sky will learn softness and mercy. The creek will whisper in a happy undertone to the reeds. The colors will fade to the grays and drabs and tans of my childhood, and the only brilliance will be the young green of soaked grass, the dripping of holly leaves.

Love turns into hunger, and hunger into love. They must contain each other somehow. But turning this dusky matte oak-leaf in my fingers, I can't imagine how.

Friday, July 07, 2006


I resolved this morning that today -- just today -- I will not hurry. I'm finding it a queerly difficult vow to follow, and queerly rich to observe. I had not realized how much of my day I hurry, how much, in various ways, I strain to somehow push something faster than it wants to go. It does not, I think, make anything move much faster, but it does cloud and fret and abrade my mind.


Is nature more real than the human, and is the body more real than awareness?

Put baldly, both questions are clearly stupid, questions to make a philosophy professor shrug his shoulders impatiently. I am not interested in the correct answers to these questions -- if I thought they were available, I suppose I would be -- but I'm interested in my kneejerk answers to them, which are yes, and yes.

Put the questions a slightly different way: Is nature more important than the human? Is the body more important than awareness?

Or put the questions yet another way: Is the human derived from nature? Is awareness derived from the body?

Again, these are stupid questions. They make assumptions that are false: among them, that these are discrete categories, when they're clearly overlapping. And these questions beg other questions: what is real? Important to whom? And, most important of all: why do you ask?


Three baby crows have fallen from their nest above our front yard. Two have come to grief: one hit by a car, one killed by a cat. The third made its way to the back yard -- a dangerous be-catted place. Martha, who always prefers action to waiting, and who learned from the Audobon wildlife people that the handling of baby birds does not, as folk tradition avers, put their parents off them, took the baby crow and put it on the trampoline, and sealed off the entrance: with high netting all around, but open above, it was cat-proof but crow-accessible. A clever solution.

But not one that pleased the mother crow. She was infuriated, diving repeatedly at Martha and screaming at her. Martha couldn't step out of the house without the crow denouncing her in vehement shrieks.

After a day of this, Martha told me, "I think she wants me to put the baby back down in the yard."

I disagreed. I thought she just wanted us to leave the baby alone and stay the hell away.

The next day, after being scolded all morning by a mother crow that refused to eat our Judas dog kibbles, Martha took her life in her hands, acted on her intuition and took the baby off the trampoline and put it in the bushes behind.

The mother crow's fury abated. She complained, of course -- you're not a crow if you don't complain -- but the edge was off it, and that afternoon she came to the back porch for kibbles, meeting Martha's gaze with some embarassment (which crows express by repeatedly wiping their bills against something.) And next day, all was back to normal.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Meeting for Lunch

I took the train into work yesterday. The drive generally takes forty-five minutes; by train it took a little over an hour going in, and an hour and forty-five minutes coming back. Not sure I can face adding an hour to my commute time. Though that does include twenty minutes' walking, which doesn't count as time lost. Still.

Anyway. The interesting thing is how vulnerable I felt, being un-carred. Imperceptibly I've become accustomed to having that metal shell around me when I'm out and about. I've been working in the suburbs for years now, and all my walking and bussing habits have gradually disappeared. I've become car-dependent. It's insidious.

I've speculated before about the attraction of cars having more to do with territory than with convenience. It's a little private space of your own, travelling around with you. The speed at which you travel confers a kind of anonymity. So you're picking your nose at 158th avenue; who will ever know it was you, by the time you get to 182nd? Everything goes away. The world is disposable. But this little lair, with whatever comforts most signify to you, it does accompany you. A room of your own.

Recently, rather than going into the Burgerville to have lunch, I went through its drive-thru, and then stopped in the grocery-store parking lot to eat my hamburger in my car. It is not a pleasant parking lot, of course. There are no pleasant parking lots. It's a field of asphalt with cars parked in it.

Even the interior of Burgerville is a far pleasanter place. What impulse drove me to eat here? Just that it was my own nest, my little six square yards of territory. I had escaped from the public space of cubicle-land. I wanted to be in my own space, however unpromising that space might be. I cranked up my radio, unwrapped my hamburger, and ate.

When I was done I licked my fingers, wiped them, crumpled up the paper bag with the hamburger-wrapping and napkins inside -- with a strong twinge of environmental guilt -- and put the car in reverse. Time to drive back to the office.

For the first time I focused on the car directly facing mine. It wasn't empty. Through the reflections on the windshield I could see a woman, dressed in office casual, hunched in the driver's seat. Her head was bowed over a little cardboard tray of french fries. I could see her tousled brown hair, but not her face. She was plucking the french fries up in bunches, and loading them methodically into an unseen mouth. She didn't look up as I backed my car away from hers.

Maybe I will start taking the train.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Answer to Dweezila, 5

Jean commented, You do realise you have to carry on now? Having got this involved, we need to know the whole story of how you got from there to here. I falter, at that. How did I get here?

I know things that looked like turning-points at the time. I view them with some skepticism. People love to find turning points. Decisive battles. Reigns of great kings. Declarations of rights. History, and personal history especially, is usually considerably more messy and inconclusive than that.

But here's a thing like a turning point. It was summer. I must have been thirteen. I stood in my bare feet on the sidewalk in front of my stepfather's house -- my house. The cement was already hot in the morning sun. Ants hurried erratically past, chasing their shadows.

I said aloud, "I have to get out of here within a year."

Or at least somebody said it in my voice, and I knew it was true. I had to get out.

"She may die. I still have to get out," said the same voice.

My mother's second marriage went bad faster than her first. She had made friends in graduate school, and her friends didn't like her husband -- and as always, she was fatally susceptible to other people's stories; their story was that this was a sensitive woman's unhappy marriage to a boorish alcoholic. It was not, to my mind, particularly true. Mostly what was true was that they -- and she -- were lefty New-Agey idealistic psychology students, and he was a phlegmatic, no-nonsense, Republican engineer. And she knew the way out of a marriage, now, which must have sped things up.

So anyway, after a brief disorienting time of having my mother energetic and happy, we were back to what I knew as real life: slow revolution around a center of brooding despair, an implacable machine for devouring chocolate, gazing blankly at the television soap-operas. The spell of depression was broken from time to time fits of sudden extravagant affection. She would seize me and hug me. I was the apple of my mother's eye. I was cheerful and encouraging, affectionate and sweet. The one unbroken piece of her life. I was not at all sure that she would survive, if I left home. Suicide -- never talked about -- hovered in the corners of the house. I might be abandoning her to die, if I went away. I looked at that and decided to go.

My sister had been away for two years already at a couple different free schools. My brother was sometimes at the house, more often not -- drinking heavily, bussing dishes at a steak house, showing up at random in the early-morning hours on his motorcycle. Sometimes he had his own apartment, sometimes not.

Next year my sister was going back to the New School, in Spokane, one of those free schools. I sounded the idea that I might go too.

I was only thirteen. But I was going to hell in a handbasket. I had always been an A-and-occasional-B student, but in the last two years my grades had plunged to C's and D's. Nearly flunking some classes. And I was starting to get in trouble sometimes. There was not, my mother may have thought, much to lose; it was worth playing a longshot that a radically different environment would straighten me out.

I was in terror -- as I always have been since -- of talking to strangers on the telephone. Then as now I will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. My mother eventually agreed that I could go to the New School. But only if I was willing to make the phone call to arrange it.

I made the phone call. Stammered my way through a conversation with the director of the school. I got out.

I was to spend a couple more summers, and one strange twilight year, my sixteenth, living with my mother, back in Eugene, in a big empty house on the heights above the Willamette River. But in my mind I always think of myself as having left home at age thirteen. I left home the moment I decided to let my mother die.