Wednesday, August 30, 2006

About Me

Updates in italics

I was born in 1958. I've been happily married twenty-five years. I have a daughter, 21, and a son, 17.

I've worked developing and testing software for the last ten years. But I've moved on.

My favorite job so far has been washing dishes and chopping vegetables in a restaurant. Not now. I like both my present jobs better even than that. I work for a terrific non-profit half-time, and do massage on evenings and weekends.

I know most of the constellations visible in the Northern Hemisphere, but not all of them. I stopped because I thought it was a bad idea to have a name for everything in the sky. But still, if you ask me what that bright star or planet up there is, I can probably tell you.

I play solitary, improvisational congas, from time to time.

I practice Buddhism, in the Tibetan tradition. Meaning I meditate. Except when I don't.

I have a shrine on top of my dresser.

I have an M.Phil. in English, which is the degree some institutions give you when you've been a grad student so long that they can't in good conscience send you away with just an M.A.

I wrote half of a dissertation on Old English Poetics, and half of one on Chaucer and Abandoned Women, before I gave up on all that.

I have a B.A. in Computer Science, too.

I'm starting school to qualify as an LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist) this Fall. Yes, 48 years old is rather late in the day to start a new career. But it's what I've always wanted to do. 49 now, got the license. I love it as much as I thought I would.

For highschool I went to a hippie free school, as a boarding student.

In my youth I wrote a couple short novels. They were very bad.

My beard is mixed up white, blond, gray, silver and copper. It's short.

My favorite poet might be Blake.

My favorite artist might be Cezanne.

My politics used to be radical. I suppose they still are, but I don't take them very seriously anymore.

I love Oregon, and the city of Portland, passionately.

Being more than a couple hundred miles from the ocean makes me panicky.

I once wanted to be a (literary or visual) Artist, with a capital 'A'. Everything about that desire fills me with loathing now. So I am not very tolerant of Art or Artists (although I love good writing and good pictures.)

When I was quite young I wanted very badly to be an astronaut. Since the career path to being an astronaut was being a military pilot, and I could not stomach much of what military pilots are expected to do, I gave up on the idea. I've borne a grudge against American militarism ever since, on that account.

I love wind and rain and clouds.

Before I die I want to travel to the southern hemisphere and see the southern stars.

I love learning enough of a language to be able to read it, laboriously, with a dictionary. After I get that far I tend to get involved with another language.

I sometimes invent alphabets.

I draw pictures on napkins.

By the time I was twelve, I had climbed many of Oregon's mountains (though not Hood or Jefferson), and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

I am shy and a little hard of hearing, so I avoid the telephone whenever possible. I've gotten better about the phone. Honest!
About "About me"

Writing a summary of myself makes me uneasy -- after all, we Buddhists think that the reification of the self is the beginning of all suffering and wrong-doing, so why deliberately undertake it? -- but on the other hand, I'm always grateful to bloggers who post an "about me," and I like reading them. So I've written one, posted below. Let me know if anything, or everything, seems misleading. Or if there's outrageous lacunae.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


This burning haunted summer, dry wells,
The taste of ash, the smoke
Of creosoted beams. Wildfire
Licks the grass.

I am tired of all this talk of heaven and hell.
I try, but my mind can find no purchase
Scrabbling like a great dane on an ice rink --
I understand the stars pounding, thud thud thud
In the night sky, hurting my ears, stinging my eyes.
But all the rest, your cloisters, sitting-boxes --

No. But you are right about one thing:
There is something wrong, something twisted,
A breech presentation, a convolution
To confound the midwife. A foot wrong here;
An umbilicus wrapped around the neck.
A rope is simple, said the philosopher, but
To untie a knot in it you must move it
In complicated ways. But the rope is simple.
Perhaps it's like that.

Or perhaps it is as simple as the dying master
Who had one thing to say. His pupils leaned close
To hear his final teaching.

"I don't want to die," he said.

Now the snow is sifting down in Santiago;
It falls on tongues speaking soft Spanish;
It is winter in the Antipodes.

I lie down beside you in the little tent.
I say my prayers. I hold you tenderly:
The ghost of summer, holding winter
In its arms.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The End of Summer

The path to Bridal Veil Falls has been closed for months. Quietly reopened again, so that even though it's one of the falls that are closer than Multnomah, and it was a hot August sunday, there weren't many people there.

Bridal Veil is unique among the Gorge waterfalls in that the trail to the falls goes down, not up; the falls is actually below the highway. We went slowly, on account of Martha's knee; on some of the steeper patches she walked backwards, a trick I learned when my own knee was dodgy. What makes going downhill so hard on knees is that going forwards you come down hard on your uncushioned heel; if you turn around you can come down gently on your toes. Of course, you also can't see where you're going.

Across a little bridge. A miniature promontory stands out into the splash pool. Beyond that is a little protected cove. The sun can't get to it. Cool even on this hot day. A mist of spray wafting over. Dark wet basalt walls on either side. Martha negotiated the climb down, took off her shoes, and soaked her knee in the cold water. Beside her, a couple feet away, was a large frog, glowing green and gold. For a long long time it didn't move at all. We all got to take a good look at it. Eventually it got a little worried, or remembered that this was a frog life, and he was supposed to watch out for predators, and he scuttle-hopped away to disappear into a crevice in the rocks.

Up above, the sun poured green through the thick leaf-canopy. The white falls -- it's really a skitters, not a falls, hence the whiteness of the Veil -- played endlessly, and the pitch black water was lit weirdly and beautifully, at the tips of its little waves, by the green and yellow glints reflected from the shining leaves -- the same color scheme as the frog, and as striking against the black background.

As we usually do at a falls, we didn't talk much. We wandered about, or found rocks to sit on, or climbed up the little headland. There was really only one way to climb, and the handholds were smooth, and gleamed with the oil of thousands of human hands.

On the way back we talked about camping. But we all knew that this, really, was the end of summer. The poison oak was already the red of raw salmon, and since there wasn't much snowmelt left to feed the creeks, the falls were small and quiet.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


He came in bundled up, drowning in a huge mound of ratty brown knit scarf, bulky sweaters stuffed into an overcoat like sausage into a sausage-skin, a hat covered with a hood, thick glasses. Mild watery blue eyes, magnified, gazed at me more in sorrow than in anger. "I think we need to talk," he said.

Oh, Lord. "Look," I said, "I know what you're going to say, and..."

"No you don't. No you don't. This is why people don't talk to me, they imagine they know what I'm going to say. They don't."

"Okay, I don't," I agreed. Anything for a quiet life. "But still, you're wasting your time."

He was unwinding his scarf, which now enveloped his head, and fell in loops like a boa. Or perhaps more like a boa constrictor. A muffled "Hmmph!" sounded from under there. "I'm wasting my time? Don't be ridiculous. Time is tricky to work with, I'll give you that, but I never waste it." His head emerged from the coils of yarn, his hood fell off, and he swept his knit cap off his head. His hair stood up in tufts.

"Look," he said, "I'm not trying to make you give up anything, okay? You're thinking of some other guy."

"I know what the rules say. And everyone says the same thing. So I'm out. Not in the game any more. You can concentrate on your other clients."

"Doesn't work that way, and you know it. This isn't an optional relationship, not for either of us. You think I answered an ad, to get this gig? 'Troubled universe needs firm, loving God, infinite compassion, omnipotence a plus.' That how you think it works?"

I was starting to get irritated. "How do I know? I'm not even a theist. What are you hanging around me for? Tons of people believe in you. Go talk to them! They need to hear from you, believe me. They get up to all kinds of screwy stuff when they're on their own."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone wants to talk about other people. This is about you, bucko. Don't you worry about other people. I'm on it. The point is... you listening?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm listening," I grumbled.

"The point is, you got to meditate."

He folded his arms and pursed his lips.

"I have to meditate? That's all?"

"That's what I said! That's what I come for! You want it on stone tablets? I'm supposed set a bush on fire and crouch behind it and talk in a big voice, is that it? Jesus." He started winding himself up again.

"Well, but wait, wait just a minute. Do you mean like shamatha, vipassana, ngondro? What are we talking about here?"

"'Give us a sign! Give us a sign!' they always say," he muttered. "And you show up and give a perfectly good message, and then what? It's not good enough." He pointed a finger at me. "I don't give a damn what practice you do. It's all the same to me. I sent Penny, sometimes you listen to her, but this time I could see it was no use, I had to come myself. Meditate. That's it. That's the message. Don't make it complicated."

"Hey, but wait just a -- that's not fair, you could at least --"

But he was out the door.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Only Joy

That's all. After lying awake for hours, we went out and sat in lawn chairs, and talked quietly in the finally-cool night air, in our pyjamas. Vega cold and blue and beautiful through the branches of the apple tree. Three pairs of racoon eyes glowing in a flashlight beam. A ghost in the kitchen, in a white dress, when we came back inside. Turned out to be Tori.

So much grief and fear and pain. I don't believe in any of it. I only believe in the joy. But I have no language to explain that. And so many dead, so many lost, it's true. And soon enough we'll spin off into that distance too, and other people will have to adjust to the discomforts and dislocations of our disappearance. They'll get over it.

We speak of radical hospitality, of radical inclusion. But of course it's trickier than that. It would be a fairly simple matter if people only wanted to be invited. But of course, they want to be invited on their own terms. And that -- that we can't do for them, even if we would.

The slow wheel of heaven over our heads, the summer stars sinking in the west.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Changing a Lightbulb

I trotted downstairs to the basement, where we keep our stationary bicycle. For the past few months I've been putting in "seven miles" -- so it assures me, I suspect it's more like four -- every other day on this contraption, which we refer to as "the stuck bike."

But to put in seven miles on the stuck bike you need to be able to see its odometer. At the bottom of the stairs I flicked on the light for that side of the basement. Nothing happened.

I hesitated. Could I see the odometer by the light of the dim narrow window? I took a look. Not a chance. Could I track by counting my "steps"? I'd taken to counting lately. 140 regular steps, 70 faster, 105 regular, that made a mile. I could count it out. But could I keep track of the number of miles at the same time? On my fingers, perhaps?

The watchman I've posted in my mind stirred uneasily. "Hey, boss?" he said. "Take a look at this. I don't think it's quite right."

Reluctantly I brought my attention to it. Oh. Yeah. There is another way to handle problems like this. And the place we keep new lightbulbs is in the basement, five paces away from where I was standing, in fact.

With an effort of will I made myself do what most of you would have done without thinking. I changed the lightbulb. And it occurred to me, as I did so, that for two days, since we got back from the beach, I've been working around the fact that the light in the bathroom has been burned out, without it ever once having occurred to me that I might seize the initiative and change the lightbulb there.

Such is the strength of my habit of passivity. And of my children's. All initiative in our family is delegated to Martha, a burden she staggers under -- but also relinquishes reluctantly. My automatic response to a difficulty is to change, not my circumstances, but myself. Which has its upside of course. I'm temperamentally less easily fooled by the blandishments and threats of Samsara than many people; I'm not always imagining that a million dollars or a newer car will give me a new life. But it has also, obviously, a downside. I spend a lot of time in the dark, concocting workarounds.

The habit has to be undone, piece by piece. I have to notice when I'm being pathologically passive, and I have to respond differently. It is not a glorious task, it's not even a dignified one, but it's the work of my life, at the moment.

The joke is maybe so old that some of you don't know it:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?

-- Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I hold a spoonful of coffee, light brown, trembling. A tiny line of light where the sky reflects from its convexity. All the answers are trembling there.

Well. I put the spoon in my mouth. Bitterness runs over the sides of my tongue. Warmth soaks through the skin of my palate, and into the bone above it. My teeth answer to the heat, waking into the world. Morning. Maybe there's nothing to be learned.

Twin threads of sadness and joy are tracing their way along my veins. Melancholy and sanguine humors. Medieval European medicine has always made immediate sense to me. Grief and happiness move through the body not like winds, as the Chinese have it, and certainly not like electricity, as modern scientists believe. They seep, suffuse, saturate, spurt. They are liquids. A trickle of tears. A small translucent fountain of seed.

I wash my hands in the clean water of the Bull Run River. It's nothing but fluids, bitter or salt, sweet or sour. Running into our bodies and out of them. I cup my hands and the water overflows my fingers. So many stories we tell, and believe. Don't trust anything but your hands, that's my advice. If your hands don't understand it, it doesn't make sense, no matter how many words affirm it.

When we arrived at the Coast there was a disquieting brown cast to the ocean, as though flakes of old bronze were floating under the surface. Whether that had anything to do with the dead zones up north, I can't say -- by the end of the week the sea was green and gray again, laced with white.

I picked up a shard of mussel-shell, and rinsed the sand off it in the little creek that wanders down the beach. Like the bowl of a spoon; inside, where the mussel had been weeping, was an opalescent film. I turned it towards the light. The colors shifted, veils of lavender and violet, hints of green and blue. Over all the silver gleam, cloudlight and seashine.

I understand why people have asked questions of shells and tea-dregs. Ossified fluids, liquids that have stopped running long enough to form an answer. That I might hold in my hand.

But not really. What remains is beauty, not answers.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Gone to see the Whales

I'm probably un-netted for the next week or so while we make our annual pilgrimage to Otter Rock.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Five Threads

In October I'll begin taking massage classes. One evening class at a time.

1) This is what I have always wanted to do. This is my vocation. This is my calling and when I'm doing it my life will be wonderful.

2) I'm just excited because I've always loved taking classes. In the event I'll want to do massage no more than I wanted to teach college or program computers.

3) The external circumstances are irrelevant. The problem is not what my work is, my problem is my relationship to it. What I really need to do is meditate, and fix the problem where it actually is. (Hospital patients fretting to change their beds, and all that.)

4) I'm excited because I can communicate by touch, as I can by writing, as I usually feel I can't in speech. What I really ought to do is learn to speak, so I can communicate as other people do.

5) Always, always, I have waited overlong to change my circumstances. I have tried to accomplish over years, by sheer force of will, or by the cultivation of clearer perception, what a change of circumstances would have done overnight. I should have done this years ago.