Wednesday, December 31, 2008


And this morning, delight, rising from nowhere, as if my body was a glass of champagne and my blood was effervescent. I walk into a room and into an invisible bubble that silently bursts, carrying a hint of sandalwood, a hint of cold clean air from far away, a hint of ozone. The cat ducks her head into my hand, and looks at me curiously, knowing by my aspect that there are presences here she can't discern. Ordinarily, of course, it's cats who can see things we can't, but every once in a long while we get to turn the tables on them.

Farewell to the old year, then. It folds into the mystery of the past and opens the mystery of the present. This next, I think, will be the year of white roses.

Love to you all. Thank you for walking with me.

. . . lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold companionable streams,
Or climb the air: their hearts have not grown old.
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This Braided Cord

If I snip this braided cord
it will only bleed a little
and I will float up in the sky
with the dripping end dangling
like a shoelace from my belly.

And below, the other end
will sink like a lopped tower,
spouting gouts of wet red blood
in Jerusalem: in Jerusalem,
the navel of the world.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ask at the Box Office

"There must have been a moment," says Rosencrans (unless it's Guildenstern), with the rope around his neck. "There must have been a moment, early on, when we could have said no."

But of course there wasn't. By the time you understand enough to say yes or no you are already implicated, compromised, and obligated: accessory to murder, affections pledged, mortgaged to the hilt.

Any meaningful yes or no will necessarily look like ingratitude, if not betrayal. It's too late. It's already too late. We start too late. Every human life starts in medias res. We appear on the stage with a script in our hands, already reading. We're a bad sport if we lift our eyes from the script; we show terribly bad taste if we depart from our lines and object that we never consented to play this part. But that's what we have to do. Stop the play. Disappoint everyone.

The show's over. Go home. You can ask for your money back at the box office. (Good bloody luck.)

I understand that now. But I'm still reading out my lines, even if the paper's shaking and I'm slurring whole passages. Everyone on the boards is exasperated with me. They'll be more exasperated, soon. I can't do much more of this.
Another Country


It's part of our hominid heritage,
being able to glimpse the doors:
primates who couldn't see the hungry,
hawkheaded deities slipping in
from other countries didn't last long.

By the time you see an entrance
it's usually too late. You're already past it.
And a sudden swerve, of course, slams
that particular door once and for all.


But sometimes you round a headland
with the wind just right, and a bay opens,
the scent of apple blossom on the light breeze,
and you sail sweetly in. You'll never find this way again.

Once in, you must observe a thousand pieties.
You thank everything you eat. You give a kiss
to every witch that asks. You leave the cup
of wine by the well. You take off your clothes before
climbing into a strange bed, no matter how cold.
You use each gift only as the giver intended.

To live strictly is one of the reasons we come.
We get tired of this world's slovenly half-hearted
consequences, its prudery and prudence,
its cavils and caveats. We want to be
where edges cut.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Silly Spraddled Souls

The raccoon's bright black eyes expressionless
as he lifts his nose to the glass door's outside;
inside, the cat's eyes go wide, ears flatten,
as she lifts a fascinated nose to his.

Silly spraddled souls,
one foot on the gunwale of heaven's boat
and the other on the shore of desire,
watching the wet dark gap
between their legs

The fool has said in his heart:
give me time to think.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Last Year's Rain

The snow falls like white shadows
in slow motion of last year's rain

if I were to let the tears start now
I don't think they would ever stop.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Home for the Holidays

"You again?" he scowled. "What am I supposed to do with you?"

"Isn't there a story about this? They come home. Prodigal sons. And then you kill the fatted calf." I stood there with my hands in my pockets.

He sighed. "Huh. I think you're supposed to bring a contrite heart with you. You got one?"

"Well, I've got a beat-up one."

"Sure, sure, big surprise, bucko. I don't think that's quite the same thing."

"No. No, it's not."

I looked off to the familiar line of the Coburg Hills, with their radio towers. "But I'm stuck, Dad. My heart's not contrite. I'd do it all again. Hell, I am doing it all again."

"Yah. You think this is news to me?"

"No, I guess not. But what am I supposed to do?"

"What, you're asking me? How would I know? I gave you the plain road. You go off the map, you gotta find your own way."

"Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense."

"You bet it makes sense. You know, sometimes I think the stupidest thing I ever did was give you a gift for words. You don't just talk yourself into ridiculous things, you talk other people into them too. Plausible, lad. Glib and plausible. And the less you know the prettier you talk."

"Oh, come on. You gave me the gift. It's not like I try to misuse it."

"No. No, I'll give you that. I don't know, bucko, so far you're one of my big failures. I keep trying to make you come out right, but I made a mistake somewhere along the line. There's always something a little skewed, something a little out of true. Tell you the truth, I can't figure it out."

"Oh, great. So much for the All-Knowing."

He made a rude noise. "Not a claim I ever made. I didn't ask for this job. It's like Larkin said. We don't mean to but we do."

"Hmph. You know, this whole thing was a little easier back when it was all a little more formal. Awe and dread, you know. Fear and trembling."

"Piffle. What could ever scare you? You been pig-headed since day one. You always know better than everyone else, oh yes, no telling you anything. You think it was any different back in the days of the tents? Young men, they always know everything."

"Well, I'm not young anymore. And I don't know a damn thing."

"And you'd think" -- he jabbed a finger into his palm -- "you'd think that would make you less pig-headed. But glory, no! If anything, you're worse."

"Look, I didn't come here for insults --"

"Sure you did. That's exactly what you came here for."

I stopped a moment and looked at him. "What do you mean?"

Suddenly he looked very tired and very old. "I think it's time for you to ask someone else. I'm played out, bucko. I've done my best. It's time to move on. My stories won't help any more."

"What do you mean, move on?"

"You come back to me because you know I got nothing more. You come back because I'm familiar. You're scared, you're lonesome, you think: I'll go home and get me some insults. Then I'll feel better. But you're not going to feel better. I got the insults, all right, but they don't work like they used to. You can't nail something to sand."

I stared at him. "So no fatted calf."

"What did the calf ever do to you? Let the poor thing grow up. There's been enough suffering on your account."

"And where do I go?"

He scowled, and then grinned. "Over the hills and far away. That's how her stories always go, don't they?"

I smiled back ruefully. "Yeah. Yeah, except I'm supposed to be a handsome young man."

"Well, don't waste time then. What are you waiting for?"

"I wondered -- I mean, I know it doesn't make sense, but --"

He laughed, then, and shook his head. "I get you. God, what a piece of work you are. Go on, kneel down. Bless you. Now get the hell out of here."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Second Person Blogular

I learned the use of the second person blogular from Lekshe. She wrote the most poignant, simple love poems, and they were all addressed to "you."

Having always been in more or less in love with Lekshe (along with half the people who know her: it's no distinction -- she's the sort of person who inspires devotion), the effect of these poems was pretty powerful. They were addressed to me, after all.

Now, of course they weren't addressed to drab and unexciting me. But -- they were, too. She would emphatically deny that they weren't to me, or that they weren't to anyone else. The point of them (one point of them) was to leverage all that erotic intensity into getting past the you and me. I have no doubt they were also love poems with particular people in mind. But to Lekshe, what most people take to be the end of erotic love was its beginning. The point of Eros is not to settle your attention on a single person, and to absorb all their energy, while they absorb all of yours. That doesn't make you into little gods, no matter what Hollywood claims: it makes you into a dual black hole, sucking in light and giving none out.

Jarrett wrote in a comment a couple days back:

This is fascinating in light of your comment on my last post, that "what I do is not writing, that I'm not a writer, that I don't know art but I know what I like, that I'm just writing journals or at most letters." Now I understand the second person who creeps unseen through so much of what you write; she's the necessary other that makes this a mere epistle.

That's the other primary use, for me, of the second person in this blog. I need to be speaking to some one person in order to speak at all. The person varies. Sometimes in the course of a single sentence. When I come back to rewrite, she's often not the same person she was when I first wrote the line.

There are plenty of people to whom this will seem just creepy. But it's the way I have always experienced the world -- as a shifting lover, constant only in beauty.

What I have promised, says Eddison's Aphrodite, I will perform.

She has not promised constancy. She has not even promised love. Her only promise is that she will always, always be beautiful. She promises to break our hearts.

And that's enough.

So when I refer to "you" in this blog, I mean exactly what I say. I mean you.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Blogroll Addendum

Long, long ago, in the dark backward and abysm of time, I added a blogroll from That sidebar to the right. At the time this was a rather cutting edge thing to do, and I was one of the cool kids. For months, however, my blogroll has been frozen in space: the blogrolling team protests weakly, every so often, that they're working on it, but one starts to lose heart after the third "we're almost ready!" update followed by a couple weeks' silence.

So I have been unable to add Clumps and Voids, Peony Moon, Northern Wall, Box Elder, and Ouroboros to my sidebar. Probably others too that are escaping my sieve-like brain at the moment.

I'm not a patient man. If this goes on another six months -- I swear, I may do something about it!

Sunday, December 21, 2008


We asked the sun to return, but she's walking in the skyfields far to the south, and ignores us. Her secretarial staff tells us we've made our request in due form, but there's no telling gods what to do: she'll come back in her own sweet time.

The waitress in the restaurant up the street hikes up her skirt and sits astride me to take my order, rocking absent-mindedly while she writes it up. Dismounts and pats my chest affectionately. To her I'm ancient, harmless, an old dog gone in the teeth. I find to my horror that my voice has gone high and quavery, and my hands shake. I'll never do massage again.

The sky goes iron-gray, then darker, darker, to ice-black, and the snow hisses, blowing in my face like fine white sand. It stings my face and my eyes horribly, but it does melt, after a moment, and runs down to clot in my mustache and beard. I shamble home in the dark.

The snow lies in thick drifts over the furniture and the books and the piles of paper. I lie down on couch, which stirs it up: it swirls high above me. I am tiny. I'm lying at the bottom of my grandmother's snow-globe. Of course. We've come to Grandma's for Christmas. A fire roars in the hearth of her big, square-built, Illinois house. Slowly the snow settles back down on me, in huge, comforting flakes. Warm. Getting warm at last.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Borrowed Time

Snowing hard, after a night of rain. The ground sucks up the snow, silently breathes it in.

You are standing in the sky, wrote Diane Ackerman. When we say that our distant ancestors crawled out onto the land, we forget to add that they really moved from one ocean to another, from the upper fathoms of water to the deepest fathoms of air.

Light seeking light doth light of light beguile, says Berowne. Which is as close a summary of the uneasy Buddhist account of the Fall as I can think of.

I have your bio in hand, and I am more perplexed than ever. But really it is only the old mystery over again. "Why are we conscious at all?" asked Martha last night, back from a day with her aged parents, whose health is dwindling. "and why do we stop being conscious? It seems like it ought to be one or the other, not both." All this light and complexity ought to come from somewhere more mysterious than the industrial north of England. And the snow shouldn't just vanish into the ground.

All night I walked in the dingy linoleum tunnels under the hospital, looking for you. Little withered things with gray skin labored in dim cafeterias along the way. Making body parts, you'd said. When I finally found my way up into the upper levels, and located you, you were asleep in a chair. I covered you with my coat. Took off your shoes and socks, and warmed your icy feet in my lap. Then I tucked one under my shirt, between my left arm and my heart, and rubbed the other with hot cinnamon oil, which had a reddish tinge under the florescent light. Om mani padme hum, I murmured under my breath, over and over. It was so cold I could see my breath. It was a long time before your feet began to warm. But when they did your whole body suddenly flushed, the light came back into it, and your sleep changed. Your skin radiated heat. I fell asleep then too, propped against the wall, your feet warming my ribs and thighs.

Sometimes one of us comes to the fountain, and the other isn't there. We go and look at the cold dark river, and watch the water move into the uncertain North.

Just who is this lender, from whom we borrow time? He never lays out his terms. It's beginning to make me nervous.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Boring alert! Talking about my diet again. Feel free to skip.

My diet is quite simple. No more than 80 grams of carbohydrates per day, and no more than 5 grams of refined carbohydrates.

By "refined carbohydrates" I mean sugar and corn syrup and fine-milled flour: I also throw honey and molasses into this category. Any sugar. And anything that gooses your insulin levels. White rice. Potatoes. I'm also, for the moment, avoiding most fruit.

I don't bother counting and measuring most vegetables. Technically they're carbs, but in practice they're harmless when they're not sugar-delivery systems.*

In practice what this comes down to is meat, eggs, and fish, a couple slices of whole wheat bread, and a big salad every day, with all the balsamic vinaigrette I want on it. (that's where I spend my quota of refined carbs.) Some cheese and nuts. Cream and butter are fine.

If I'm hungry, I eat. It's been about two weeks, and I've lost nearly two inches from my waist. This is faster than I wanted to lose -- I'm shooting for an inch a month -- but it tallies with my experience of carb-restricted diets before. The weight goes really fast, at first. I haven't been weighing myself: too much of a bother, and either my weight fluctuates too much, or my scales are not accurate enough -- there are weird ups and downs -- that I find it more of a distraction than an encouragement. And anyway, I don't care what I weigh. I want to get rid of the belly. So I measure my waist every few days. I started at 47", and I want to get it to 32".

Here's my expectation: basically, refined carbs and sugars have to go out of my life forever. Fruit may or may not be possible -- I found last time that I could tolerate grapefruit, but not oranges; and cherries, but not bananas. If I'm lucky, when I get to 32" I'll be able to maintain just that way, and I won't have to count anything. But it may be that I'll have to restrict the carbs forever. I'll just have to experiment.

I'm expecting the weight loss -- or maybe I should call it the inch loss, since that's what I'm measuring -- to follow some kind of tail-curve. Six months of an inch a month, six months of half an inch a month, six months of a quarter-inch a month, and then years to get the last inches off. But that's wild speculation. It'll be interesting to see what the actual curve looks like. A lot steeper than that, if it's like last time, and bending more sharply to the horizontal at some point. And of course there's zero chance that I won't monkey with the parameters, in that long a time. If I can lose ten inches, in a year and half, I'll be a happy camper.

I know some of you -- very sweetly! -- are worried about my health, since there's a lot of fat, and a lot of saturated fat, in this diet. So it may or may not be reassuring to you (confession time! the delicately nurtured may wish to skip the rest of this paragraph) that I think I'm eating considerably less fat, and less saturated fat, than I was. When, for instance, I binged on toasted bagels with butter, I could easily, easily eat a whole stick of butter at a sitting. Without even blinking. Now, although I can eat all the butter I want, there's simply no way I could face eating that much. On what? On my chicken? On my salad? I could eat really staggering quantities of oil in a bag of potato chips -- what, half a cup, maybe? But even at my most prodigal slopping of salad oil, I'll never do anything like that with a salad. And of course cookies, cakes, muffins, and candies have simply disappeared. You have to understand that in a just world I would have been dead long ago: my body's capacity to withstand abuse has been remarkable. Even by the (in my opinion) misguided FDA guidelines, I'm eating better now than last month.

In any case, my doctor's watching my blood lipids every three months. If the triglycerides and LDL shoot up, I'll quit. I'm expecting them to drop, dramatically. But I'm Mr Empirical. If they don't, then it means I'm wrong, and I have to change what I'm doing. This would not be a good time to die, and I'm going to try to avoid it for the moment.

*peas and corn are the big exceptions. They pack a big carb whallop.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Your skin is made of light,
Your eyes glow like the sun seen through
a glass of ale, in sleepy summers
ten thousand years ago, before MRI's,
before mortgages, before hesitation.

Your ribs settle into my palms,
flexible as a girl's. You twist and laugh
and nuzzle like an otter.

Death tried to hold you, but he got greedy:
he pulled too hard and lost his grip, and
you were out of his hands.

We are marked where he seized us.
We are burnt, fragile, stretched out of shape
like a wet-dog sweater worn in the rain
by an obese cousin;
and of course
Death gets us in the end. But not yet.
Not now.
When you kiss me
you stick your tongue out at him.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How the Neighbors Disturb Me

Morning comes, in a patched white robe:
the smell of coffee and bacon and newsprint;
wet earth exhaling its last deep breath
before the snow comes.

Windchimes from next door.
A girl named Sweetwater sits on her porch
snug in her parka, smoking a cigarette,
watching the squirrels leap

from wire to branch. The last maple leaves
shiver. I clench my interdigitated hands,
sore knuckles taking painful comfort each from each;
force myself not to look at her.

She's native, and I have a notion
she doesn't like to be looked at casually.
She warms slowly, like a carefully tended fire
you nurse in the woods. It might not catch.

I've seen her fully alight only once
on the night Obama was elected,
her black eyes passionate. "I can't believe it,"
she said. "I can't believe it."

She looked directly at me then, and I thought
what fools we are to squander that first
direct look on ranging shots, instead of on
a deliberate smashing broadside.

I come home at night, lugging my folded table
and my duffel full of linens and oils,
climb sideways up the stairs; I see her
and her boyfriend smoking on the steps.

Sometimes during the day he plays the piano
masterfully. "Do I disturb you?" he asked once,
anxiously. (Everything beautiful disturbs me.)
"Of course not," I said.

Friday, December 12, 2008


You can hear the throb of the falls,
the river moaning as it loses purchase,
the endless spatter of water-brains on rock.
So many things drift and slide like this.
Stately, inevitable: toward headlong
pitches into empty air. Rafts. Lovers. Prayers.

Fingers over the side, trawling:
pale green spiders pulsing in
the diffuse syrup of the sun.
I am in no mood for repentence.
I don't look for portage. Having expended
my last, like a spawning salmon, I am content
to let the river take me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


This crowded geranium
supplies its own understory
of brown and crumpled tissue;
Dead intermixed with vigorous,
white-outlined thrusts;
straight lines ending in little curves,
fifty cocked penis stems ending each
in an orgasm of leaf.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What My Time Is For

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress.

-- William Blake

The crows come tumbling
out of the treetops and chase a redtail
high up into the shifting airs,
raccoons pull the slats out of porch louvers,
and the cat paws curiously, delicately
at the moving images on the monitor.
They do all this moved by
the love of God and in the hope of
His mercy.

I will never apologize for loving you.
I will never think it was the wrong thing to do.
If it is complicated and difficult
that makes it like calculus
and knitting and programming computers
which are other things
I am not ashamed of.

I will never apologize for loving anybody
I will never stop loving anybody
I will never say my heart stops here.

Love is not tidy. It does not color
inside the lines. It gives money to beggars
whether they are going to buy
a sandwich or a bottle of wine.

I do not ask for justice and I do not offer it.
I ask for love and mercy
which are what I am willing to give
and what I hope to receive.

They say that if we don't hold people
to a standard then there will be no telling
the difference between a bad person
and a good person. And I say yes,
you're right. You're exactly right.
And we'll be forced to love the one
as much as the other: which is
what God told us to do.

You apologized for taking my time.
You don't understand, I said. You
are what my time is for.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Ouroboros Review

I have some poems in the first Ouroboros Review. What a gorgeous piece of work it is! I'm delighted to be in on the first issue, among so many wonderful poets & artists.

(PS: while those of you well-read in early fantasy fiction might suspect a connection between someone who goes by "Koshtra" and a publication called "Ouroboros," -- since "Koshtra" derives ultimately from E. R. Eddison's novel The Worm Ouroboros -- I had, alas, nothing to do with the naming or inception of the magazine.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Four Poems


We are ancient, crippled with sin,
our knuckles swollen with fear:
our dowager's hump of resentment
keeps us from lifting our heads.
We hobble through the green world muttering
indistinguishable imprecations.

The Moon Behind the Door

High half moon at dawn:
cobweb clouds, full of dust, cling
to the furniture of heaven.

Strange Coin

You were a girl a year ago. And now
womanhood has come to you:
large leaking breasts, battle-scarred
belly, plum-colored
shadows under the eyes. You have become
beautiful and mortal,
robbed of sleep, drawn by us
into the company of death.
You have given hostages
and are at the mercy now of newspapers,
insurance forms, conscriptions. You will never
be free again. Belittled,
vulnerable to every worldly power,
bound to pettiness. A little greedy sucking mouth
owns your nipples: she will never love you
as you love her. You have given everything,
and you've been paid in strange coin,
not recognized as currency.

What To Take With You

I'm pretty sure that on our flight out
we're allowed only a carry-on bag,
and that our personalities
are too big for it. But I hope
we get to pack the sun and the moon
and a few favorite stars,
the rose-stained eggshell cloud
snagged on the mountain,
the rain lifting on the morning wind,
and the brightness of our lovers' eyes.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bury Me Tenderly

It is only a hypothesis, Taubes says repeatedly, and it needs to be confirmed by empirical studies: the idea that what's behind diabetes, obesity, and most cardiac disease and cancer is the huge amounts of sugar, corn syrup, white flour and potatoes that have swamped the human diet, throwing the metabolic processes slightly out of kilter. But it's a hypothesis that explains the epidemiology of all those new, chronic diseases of Western Civilization. I am only suspicious of it now, because I so much want it to be true.

Most of my life I've been forty to sixty pounds overweight, and I've been told all my life that my inability to control my diet puts me in line for all these diseases, and that if only my will were not defective I would be healthy and lean. The metabolic hypothesis turns all this upside down. What if, as Taubes puts it, we don't get fat because we overeat? What if we overeat because we're getting fat?

At first that sounds like pure nonsense. But if the fat tissue is getting first dibs on the fuel coming in, and releases it only reluctantly, the body will respond by getting hungrier, and by decreasing its energy expenditure. We'll be hungry and reluctant to move. Which is precisely what is seen in the couch potatoes we love to ridicule. The correlation between overeating, sedentary habits, and obesity is obvious: but corellation is not causation. And the spectacular failure of programs of calorie-restricted diets and exercise to change the condition, despite huge and aggressive public health campaigns, and the fact that such basic vices as Vanity, Envy, Pride, and Lust can easily be rallied to their support, leaving only poor lightweights like Greed and Sloth to try to hold the line, should make us wonder if, after all, we've really got it right.

A theme I return to again and again is my skepticism about how much of what we do is really under the control of the storytelling part of the brain. A lot of that skepticism was born of my experiences in trying, and failing, to eat as people told me I should. My commitment to a diet would be as complete as I can imagine, my intention focused, my resolution of a sort that I've brought fruitfully to bear on all kinds of other things -- and within a few days I would have caved in completely. Perhaps I am a deeply defective person. I have many reasons to think so. But perhaps I was engaged in an endeavor that made no sense.

Picture a world in which all the medical authorities told us that our health problems and our unattractiveness were the result of taking in and storing too much oxygen. (Oxygen, after all, is a highly toxic substance: look what it does to iron!) If we would only breathe more moderately, then we would be healthy and attractive. You can picture what would ensue. All kinds of people would offer ingenious methods of breath-control. Learned authorities would get up in front of television cameras and tell us that of course the breath is under voluntary control, and it only wants discipline. People would invest enormous amounts of emotional and financial capital in controlling their breath. We would see psychologists investigating our pathological emotional commitment to overbreathing. And the sum total of oxygen consumed would not change a bit.

Because, despite the fact that yes, you can in the short term decide whether or not to breathe, in the long term you cannot. The body simply doesn't trust the conscious mind to run that process. If you don't do what it wants, it will take over and override the conscious mind entirely. The hypothalamus was here first. What it says goes. The cerebral cortex can sit lordly on its throne and issue orders all day, and as long as its orders don't contradict the hypothalamus its delusion of autocracy can remain intact. But put them in direct conflict, and you'll soon find out who's boss.

The only time I've lost weight easily -- almost spookily easily -- was on a version of the Atkins diet, a few years ago. Without any attempt to cut calories, without any portion control, without any attention to whether I bolted my food or ate slowly, and without any hunger, I'd lose a couple pounds a week. The rate at which I lost weight, in fact, concerned me: I'd been told that weight loss that rapid was unhealthy, and I tried to slow it up a bit. What concerned me even more was that I was eating a diet which medical authorities told me was horribly unhealthy. I assumed, at the time, that they had an empirical basis for this. I've learned since never to assume that about nutrition. For some reason nutritionists feel that they are exempt from empirical demonstration. After seeing authority after authority solemnly state that high-protein diets caused kidney damage, I decided to go look for myself and see what the studies were that proved this. It turned out that if you force-feed rabbits huge amounts of animal proteins they develop kidney problems. This was the only empirical basis for the supposed toxicity of high protein diets. The rest was all speculation, speculation which accounted rather badly for the good health and longevity of human populations which traditionally eat almost nothing but meat and fat. Why the Inuit and Masai weren't all on dialysis by age thirty (not to mention, why they weren't all dying of scurvy after three months of their animal-only diets) was left unexplained. furthermore -- and this is typical of nutritional "science," at least until recently -- no one even seemed to feel that it needed any explaining.

So. I had been planning to wait until after Christmas to undertake my new eating program. But I'm so excited about it that I think I'm going to do it now. It's not proven yet, but the weight of the evidence seems to me to indicate pretty clearly that refined carbohydrates are, at least for some people, metabolic poison. And Taubes' review of the evidence has convinced me that dangers of high protein & fat diets is purely speculative. (And the fact that it is still speculative, after so long a time as a ruling ideology of diet, is itself a sort of negative evidence. There's been plenty of time and opportunity to demonstrate this empirically. Why has no one ever managed to do it?) Likewise, I no longer believe that the supposed nutritional indispensability of carbohydrates has been demonstrated, or even proven to be likely.

So I'm off to undertake a fad diet. Bury my atherosclerotic body tenderly, next year! It's all Taubes' fault.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

45th Parallel

On the highway to the beach is a sign marking the 45th parallel, solemnly announcing that this place is halfway between the North Pole and the Equator. As a child I was thrilled by the obscure magic of this spot. As an adult I find it comic, to gravely mark a spot of land whose importance is that it corresponds to a mark on a map made to represent that land. I picture a map with the signpost marked on it, and a further sign affixed to the post to mark the mark of the signpost.

A curve of sandy-shouldered road snaking through the high salal.

You sat up on the table, holding the drapery to your chest, reminding me sharply of The Nude in Art. I rubbed the excess oil off your back with a towel. We are still friends after all these years.

A wind-torn flight of strange birds.

I got a cell phone. The last person in America to get one. A prospective client was angered, upon calling me, to find that it was my home phone and that my son answered. It was unprofessional, she said, in an email. I suppose so. I mostly felt defensive about my son. He's not always very fluent on the phone, but he does his best. But anyway, I did get the phone and now my business communication is not tainted by the existence of my family. That's professional, I guess.

The wind came across the pitching salt water. You fell on the seaweed-covered rocks, and I wasn't there to catch you.

Higher still and higher
from the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire
The blue deep thou wingest
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

I'm afraid I will never hear a skylark. Never see the Southern Cross.

Even in this absurdly fortunate life, sometimes grief rises like floodwater.

I have two favorite oils, both of which I buy at a local shop, Escential Oils, on Hawthorne. One is infused with oil of lavender, and the other goes by the name of Egyptian Musk. I have never managed to find out what is in Egyptian Musk, so I can't use it on anyone who has skin sensitivities of any sort. I trust Escential Oils not to put anything noxious in it, but everything is an irritant to somebody.

Even though I ask them to go light on the lavender, they never go light enough. I end up cutting it with unscented oil, half and half.

Many, maybe most therapists have switched to lotion. And I carry some with me, because you get the occasional client who really dislikes oil. But to me there's something sweetly luxurious, a biblical sensuality and prodigality, to oils. In some kinds of Indian massage they practically bathe you in warm oil.

I couldn't tell you exactly what guides me in choosing between my favorite oils. If it seems to me that someone needs to be calmed and soothed, I use lavender. If it seems to me that they need to be woken up and stimulated, I use the musk. But gender plays in it too: other things being equal, I tend to use the musk on men, the lavender on women. But I don't know until I reach into my bag which I'm going to choose, and I often don't really know why.

Dear readers, do you all have any favorite scents I should experiment with?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Story is King

Reading Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories, which I heartily recommend. He's writing about how the orthodoxy that dietary fat is the main evil of the American diet established itself, despite the lack of compelling evidence for it. He goes through the various studies meticulously. Over and over someone will set out to demonstrate that dietary fat causes human heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or obesity: the data will fail to support the hypothesis -- and the researcher will conclude that it must be true anyway. And the press reports another study that implicates dietary fat in chronic disease. As the examples accumulate it becomes a little surreal feeling.

What impresses me most is how persuasive familiar narratives are, how they override both evidence and common sense. One familiar narrative was the tobacco one -- courageous scientists bucking the big money and insisting that smoking caused lung cancer, while lickspittle lackeys of Big Tobacco published studies saying it didn't, or that at least it wasn't so bad, or argued that the evidence was ambiguous. That was a true story. When the familiar characters appeared, regarding dietary fat -- powerful financial interests arguing something wasn't harmful, and goverment-sponsored scientists saying it was -- the power of the narrative was overwhelming. Facts just don't matter, at that point. The story must be served.

Again, the story of original sin, always so powerful in America. Primitive people used to eat grains and vegetables, ran the story. Then we were corrupted and became greedy and cruel and began eating vast quantities of animal fat, and God struck us down with all kinds of diseases. The facts all disappeared from under that story -- it turns out hunter-gatherers probably ate more animal fat than we do, and of course they didn't eat grains at all. But again, facts can't stand against story. The story wins, every time.

I make a grim little game, every time a new war comes around, of trying to spot the bogus atrocity stories. They always show up. I correctly identified one early on in the first Gulf war. The Iraqis, so went the story, deliberately switched off the power in a Kuwaiti hospital wing in which premature babies were on life support. In some of the stories they actually went through and deliberately killed the babies. It was widely reported in the press. The fact that it was false was reported, too -- eventually. In tiny "corrections" buried in the back pages. I had no facts at the time, of course: I just recognized that the story was too good. It fit too well. It was too much what people wanted to hear. I've suspected others, but that was one I was sure of from the start, and pegged at the time.

This is one reason why I don't watch television. It consists almost entirely of familiar narratives, played over and over, incessantly. In the most popular one, something evil comes along and hopes to prey on something innocent, and heroes violently destroy it, in the nick of time. Over and over and over. American kids watch tens of thousands of these narratives. And you wonder that, confronted with a threatened innocent, they look around for a weapon and an evil predator to kill? And that they're in a terrible hurry to do it? The story is irresistable. They actually think -- or rather feel -- this is how the world works, that this is a reasonable response to evil. The fact that they've never seen it happen in real life matters not a whit. The story is king.

I'm grinning
Through the transparent ground.
Cast a cold eye
On this, you chowderheads.
These rotting shreds are what
You thought you loved.
On life, on death: what do you know
Of this parched country, you who spit juicy,
Runny fluids? Horseman,
(Ah, horseshit, Mr Yeats,
who was riding, even then?)
Pass by.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Help is on the Way

For those of you who find the holidays difficult, Richard Thompson's highlights of the history of Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Priscilla Outdoes Herself

Priscilla Gilman's drawings. Oh my God. She's so good.
Remedial Religion

I started writing this in response to a post by Zhoen of One Word, who wrote:

I will never call myself a Buddhist, for instance, because that involves accepting their dogma and ceremonies.

But it got a bit long for a comment, and she wasn't looking for arguments anyway, so I'm posting it here instead.

Huh. Well, I guess it depends on what Buddhists you get hooked up with. I've been a Buddhist for, what, fifteen years? And no one has ever asked to believe or affirm anything. (Which is good, because I don't and can't :->)

With Christians, who are often terribly anxious to know what you "believe," I always have to say, "well, tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you if I believe in it at the moment." & the answer, if we get so far, is usually "sort of." Very few religions make such a huge deal of committing to believe a checklist of cosmological assertions. They've just been extremely successful ones. (If I were in a contentious mood, I might say extremely virulent ones.)

But I think that, as William James observed long ago, there are two basic sorts of people: people who are at ease in the world and people who aren't. People who are at ease can be happy with any religion or none, and don't really take any of it all that seriously. But those who aren't at ease -- such as me -- have an intense and seldom-absent perception of being fundamentally and obviously wrong in the world. So I'm drawn to religions that have plausible programs for changing my relationship to the world (or to "God," if you're talking theistic religions.) I have less than no interest in convincing people who are at ease in the world that they shouldn't be. It's quite possible that religion is a sort of remedial course for people who are spiritually or psychologically damaged. I don't resent people seeing it that way at all. I see it that way myself, in some lights and at some times of day.

So to me my religion is more like an exercise program or a diet than a set of beliefs, which explains why I'm not enthusiastic about "cherry picking." The parts of any program you tend to leave out are probably the parts that will change you most, so if the point is to change yourself, you'd probably better view the impulse to leave things out with suspicion.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I listened to you play a Chinese tune on your recorder. It curled up at the ends in strange, mournful ways. It was to go with the poems you're translating, you said.

You sleep alone by the sea. All night, the sound of the waves breaking. In the morning, you'll walk on the beach.

All locked up in our little houses, scattered around the world. And I used to think I knew what to do about it.

You laughed when I said Shelley was a Puritan, but that's exactly what he was. One of those people who says, no. It's not all right. It's not all right that there's sin and suffering in the world, and I'm going to stop it.

But that was at the beginning of the ocean, not at the end.

I sleep on the floor beside your bed, so I can hear you breathing. Don't worry: I'm an early riser. I'll be gone before you wake. You'll never know I was there.

And in the old, old country with its worn-down hills, there's snow falling. It will kiss your face. If I could kiss your face, I'd melt too, vanish in a trace of delight. Worth the long drifting fall through the dark air. A moment of warmth.

I think you still don't understand that it's precisely the clumsiness, the awkwardness, the hesitations, that love is made of. I would never love someone who was graceful all the time.

I'm empty, a carapace, the cast skin of a human being. I wander from place to place, looking for someone to make me real. But like the old man said, you can't burn snow. You must have something to work with.

This is as real as I get.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Give me a kiss
to take with me, so
I have one in my pocket.
They say that keeps you dry
if it's drizzling on the day
he takes you over.

But they shrug when I ask
if I can take the scarf you made for me.
It doesn't really matter, they say.
Nothing keeps you warm.

Words die in my mouth
and turn to copper
pennies on my tongue. Fare

for the old man who crouches
by the riverbank and munches
obols and shillings and sous.
He's not interested
in market value. He likes
the taste of coins.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


We regret to inform you that the confidence maintenance costs of this post have not been met. It has therefore been unposted.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Blue Triangles

She said, I am made of blue triangles of glass
cut from the windows of a factory. I shatter
easily. My bones knit weaker than before
and every time I get more fragile. She said,

I like to climb on top and close my eyes.
She said, there are too many turnings
to remember so I just turn each time
in the direction of the sun.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Middle Age

For a while I was bothered by the invisibility of middle age. A large number of younger people stop seeing you: you're not a potential friend, rival or lover, in their minds, so you have no conceivable use. One glimpse of your white hair and you simply vanish from their field of vision. You're not there. For someone who liked flirting as much as I did, that was difficult, at first. But I don't mind it now. In fact it's useful: I can effortlessly avoid getting tangled up with narrow and selfish people. They don't even see me.

So far, at fifty, there are only three things that I really dislike about being middle-aged. One is the decline of my sight. I can't read fine print without reading glasses, any more. I can't read even normal print, for very long, without them. So I have to pack glasses around, lose them, buy them again. A bother.

Another is that I can't hear soft, deep voices very well any more. It's difficult also to follow conversations in noisy, crowded places. I particularly resent the cavern restaurants, so common now, that have deliberately ruined their acoustics so that there will be a cheerful roar of voices and a din of music. It is cheerful, but when it means you can't follow the conversation at your own table, you start to feel like a stranded dinosaur, with the cheery little mammals all chittering around you.

The thing I dislike most is that I can't think quite as well as I used to. It's subtle. But I used to be able to solve quadratic equations in my head, and I can't do that any more. I notice it playing Tetris: I'm not as quick at visualizing how shapes will rotate and fit together. It's not a huge change, but it's unmistakable. I don't (to drop into Computer jargon) have as many registers for storing temporary information. I can't hold two sums in memory while working out a third. I'm not as clever as I used to be. And I don't have the long-term memory capacity that I used to have, either. I don't think I'll ever again learn a language from a language family I don't already have a handle on. Not to read easily. I was defeated by Chinese and Tibetan, a while back. I'll never really learn Arabic, or Welsh, or Hausa, now. I don't think it's anything pathological: it's just ordinary wear and tear on the brain. It's the reason that mathematicians do their best work in their twenties. There aren't many mental activities that require that kind of memory capacity, or that much quickness and dexterity of mind, but I notice that I'm not quite as good at the ones that do.

But that's it. That's the whole, for me, of the discontents of middle age. I wouldn't be twenty again, for the world: I was so lonely and desperate, with no pharmacological weapons against depression and anxiety, no resources of meditation, and no idea of how to maintain my body's equanimity. I love knowing what to do when I get anxious. Knowing what to do when I have a sore shoulder or low back pain. Knowing what to do when cravings get out of hand. Knowing how to get company when I'm lonely. I am so much better now at the day to day business of being alive, of keeping my body and mind and spirit in running order. And I've learned enough hard lessons that I not only know what to do: I do it, mostly.

The nicest thing is that I'm not in the running for glory, any more. My name will never be known. As a child I acquired absurdly high expectations, no less burdensome for being vague. Someday I would have a name. I would be the acknowledged best at -- something. I lived under those baleful stars for years, panicking because my chances at greatness were slipping away. And if I was not great, then I was nothing. Worse than nothing, because I had squandered the gifts given to me, wasted my opportunities. My junior high school counselor used to ambush me in the halls (as I remember it: thinking back, I wonder if this can be true) and tell me, more in sorrow than in anger, that I was not living up to my potential. I was, apparently, a great disappointment to the world.

Actually, of course, the world had no particular interest in me, and friends and family would have been more pleased by emotional steadiness and generosity than by honors and distinction. But clear through my thirties I was haunted by glory, and horrified by my failure to live up to my supposed potential. It was not until I coasted into my forties that I realized I had been sold a bill of goods. I was not a genius. The legitimacy of the concept of potential was dubious, and the validity of techniques for measuring it were even more dubious. I was able to entertain a novel, exhilarating hypothesis: what if I was an ordinary person?

Well, then, my life didn't really look so bad. I had done some things wrong, and some right, like most people. I only had to figure out the ordinary things that ordinary people had to figure out. How to make a living, how to have a marriage and a family. How to accommodate my mild social and psychological disabilities. I did not have to figure out those things and figure out my path to glory.

The relief has been tremendous. I knew all along, I think, that I was no genius, and that I was not destined for greatness. There was a huge upheaval in my life. Things suddenly came into focus in a new way. What was wrong with working for IBM was not that I was betraying my genius: what was wrong was that I hated it. If I wanted to touch people it wasn't necessarily because I was a prophet of the age of Aquarius; it could simply be because I liked to touch people, and I could do work that let me do it. The love I felt welling up, all the time, didn't have to be yearning for revolution and universal brotherhood. It could be just love, loving this person, here, now.

The deficiencies that loomed so large, for a fledgling genius -- a certain wishy-washiness, a lack of confidence in my opinions, shyness with new people or in groups -- were actually quite minor for an ordinary human being, and possibly even endearing. I did indeed have to learn to make telephone calls, if I was to work as a massage therapist, but I didn't have to transform myself, by some übermenschlich triumph of will, into a forceful and confident person. I could be a shy person making phone calls. That was okay. Ordinary people are allowed to be shy and awkward sometimes.

So thank God for middle age. I'm glad to be here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Moon has become Huge

The moon has become huge. It takes up a third
Of the sky. Stars scramble away in alarm, hide
In the branches of trees.

I kiss the involutions, the doorways, mouths
Into the heart.

I hold you
All night while you sleep. My arm
Goes numb. When you stir I touch my lips
To your forehead, and
You make little noises and settle again.

The gull, blown sideways, slips down the
Updraft, gives a thin wail, before dissolving
Into the lavender rush of dawn. The sun is coming up
Bigger than the moon.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


we looked out the garage door
to see the rain falling like silk
transparent handkerchiefs, and the fall colors
muted but not yet gone.

This morning Orion, his dogs
at his feet, walked down the
hill of the morning sky.

On Walcheren Island
eight thousand down with malaria
and the town of Vlissingen
pounded to ruins. English
sailors step through
their handiwork and grieve, but
none of them doubts the necessity.
Women and children, they soberly
note, were burned to death
inside the church on Sunday morning.

How much would we really have to know
to stop being cruel? I gaze in wonder
at people who think they know that much

Standing behind you,
holding the flowers of your breasts
to the rain of the shower.

You apologized because, you said,
you were not in the habit of expressing affection.
I suppose it's true, in
a trivial way. But every word, every breath
is a testament. You have no idea
what towns are beaten flat
and what gardens are brought to flower
by your love.

God I guess forgives us
because repairing us
is beyond his powers.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Saturday, November 08, 2008


Already my hold in this world is weakening
The next is appearing. Doorways
Start to shade themselves in
In blank walls. I find myself in conversation
With people who are not quite living,
Not dead. Crows flap towards me
Veering off suddenly when they realize
I am still alive. (It's only a technicality, but
In this matter crows are punctilious.)
I walk through walls that shouldn't be there
Find myself in kitchens that have not yet
Been built. Women fall in love with me
Under the ludicrous misapprehension
That we live in the same world. I don't know how
To disabuse them.

The flesh is sliding off my bones as though
I had been hours in the stew pot. Clean white
Ulna. Tapered radius. The lovely jigsaw
Puzzle of the wrist. I must be careful
Not to move too suddenly and step out of the meat
Altogether. My bones startle people;
They flash at inconvenient times. Thoughts
Stream from my skull like the banner of cloud
That tugs from the summit of
Mt Hood. Nothing will stay put.

Love burns and scorches. All the bits of
Me that are peeling off, like birch bark,
Catch fire. I am not long for here.
I would like the time for a proper goodbye
But I think it may be too late.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Coming Home

Why was I in tears last night? It wasn't because I think Obama's policies will save the country, or the world. We are dug into a hole so deep that maybe we will never get out: and I made my peace with that a long time ago. We may stand at the end of humanity's little run on this planet: we learned sorcery before we learned wisdom, and we're more likely to destroy ourselves than not. That hasn't changed. Presidents come and go. Some will be better and some will be worse.

No. I was in tears for personal and very American reasons. I learned in the late sixties that I belonged to a treasonous family. President Richard Nixon told me so himself, in so many words. We didn't support his war: therefore we were traitors.

Well. You tell a person he's a traitor, at the age of fourteen, and he believes you. It's not like telling a forty year old that. At forty, a person just recognizes the hyperbole and shrugs. But at fourteen, if your president tells you you're a traitor, it sinks into your heart. You will never feel the same way about your country again.

So ever since, I've wandered in America as a traitor. And all the narratives that got built into my life as an American child -- about freedom, about opportunity, about government of the people, by the people, and for the people -- all turned into bitter parodies. They were all stolen from me. I was American; I couldn't help it; but none of the American stories belonged to me any more.

Last night I got my stories back. It was McCain's concession speech, even more than Obama's speech, or Obama's election, that did it. McCain said -- and I think he believed it, though many in his audience didn't -- that Obama loved his country. He said that the fact that he and Obama disagreed didn't mean that one of them wasn't American. McCain told me, after more than forty years in exile, that I wasn't a traitor any more. I could come home.

It's not that I can believe the stories in the simplistic way I could when I was a child. Nothing can erase, and I wouldn't want anything to erase, my knowledge of Sand Creek and My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Americans have done evil and they will do it again. They don't live up to their stories. (So who does?) Lincoln, the man Obama quoted last night, the man on the penny and the five dollar bill, suspended Habeas Corpus and jailed the opposition press. I know all that, and much more, to my nation's discredit. But no one sensible expects their childhood stories to be literally true, any more than sensible People of the Book believe that God made the world in seven days, or that Noah's flood covered more than a local patch of the Middle East. These stories aren't history. They're stories of the heart. They're stories about who we are. They're stories about what we want to be true. And as of last night, the American stories are stories about me again.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

It Rains

Sat this morning, with my massage blanket around my shoulders, hearing the rain rattle and hiss outside. My eyes were unfocused, a little crossed. Every once in a while, apparently of their own accord, they uncrossed and focused, and the room swam into clarity.

Rain. There are few things more comforting to me than the sound of rain. The only time in my life I've lived long without it was the five or six years we spent in New Haven. Even when it rained, in New Haven, it rained wrong. Great big fat drops that actually made you wet. It didn't sound quite right. It was dirty and intrusive. It made people anxious. They'd linger under awnings, peering out at it as if it was nuclear fallout. When I'd just arrived, I was sitting in a cafe with a bunch of other first-year grad students, and it was raining hard outside. Someone suggested we go, and someone else suggested we wait until it stopped raining. I laughed, thinking it was a joke. They looked at me. And I realized that I was truly in a foreign place, where what I'd learned as the rules of nature don't apply. Rain stopped, here. And sure enough, fifteen minutes later, there were only occasional stray drops. Unsettling. Rain as something you could actually avoid, like a pothole in a street. You could just go around it. I never got used to that.

Here the rain sings all winter. The sky weeping gently for all the sin and suffering below. It falleth as the gentle rain of heaven..

Carolee, who inspired me to resume sitting, asked me to tell her about the Pacific Northwest. It rains here, Carolee. It's a quiet gentle green country, and it rains.

Monday, November 03, 2008

If I were King

This is just for fun. I don't know anything about economics or taxation, but, having always had a utopian bent (which I view now with extreme suspicion, but which will out, from time to time) I can't help every once in a while but try to think about what I'd do if I were king. I do wish there was a larger conversation going on in America about just what we want the country to be and how best to get there.

It is not entirely reassuring that, according to economists, our collective well-being depends upon our individual foolishness. Maybe it should be reassuring -- since individual foolishness is never in short supply -- but there's a fundamental madness revealed by the fact that the sudden realization that we are living beyond our means, and our attempt to respond to that rationally by reducing our spending, should imperil the economy. If our economic health depends on an ever-increasing indiscriminate consumer frenzy, you kinda have to wonder whether it's an economy that's worth keeping healthy at all. I was some sort of socialist in my younger days, but always halfheartedly, since I was also ardently anti-centralist and libertarian. I could never quite make the ends of the laces match up, between the two. I'm not a socialist now.

(By the way, calling Obama a socialist is, of course, absurd: taking the highest income tax level from the 36% it's been under George Bush back up to the 39% it was before does not pitch us headlong into a different economic system. On the larger scale it really doesn't count as a change at all.)

Capitalism has, among other systemic flaws, the tendency to suck wealth from the bottom and accumulate it at the top. There's nothing mysterious about this. All other things being equal, the winner of a poker game is the guy who starts with the most money, because he can afford to lose more often and still stay in the game. Add to that basic fact all the advantages of growing up rich -- the good schools, the good medical care, the varied experience: you wind up with people who are going to be a little better at making money, and a lot better at keeping it. So over time the money just keeps trickling up. There aren't many respectable economists, I think, that would dispute this. You don't have to regard rich people as sinister and predatory. It's just the systemic effect, over time, of market capitalism. The so-called "progressive" income tax was introduced in America, in 1913, explicitly to counter this tendency. If that's socialism, then America has been socialist for nearly a hundred years, now.

There are various methods for pushing the wealth back down towards the bottom. The simplest solution, and the one I favor, is just to tax the wealthy and give the money to the poor. If I ran the zoo, I'd slap a really hefty transfer & inheritance tax on absurdly large estates -- say, estates of over five million dollars or so -- and give the money to the poor. A guaranteed national income, or maybe a "negative tax," as Milton Friedman called it. And then, rather than establishing huge elaborate government programs, we could just let the market do the rest. I don't really understand the repugnance to just giving money to poor people. I know, some of them will get drunk with it. Some rich people get drunk too. It's too bad; but no one seems to think that taking away their money is the proper response to it. A lot more poor people, if you gave them that extra money, would buy health insurance for their kids. Some will object that the poor will all stop working and give up trying to better their circumstances, because the government is giving them $5,000 a year, or whatever. This strikes me as just silly. You don't live that comfortably on $5,000 a year. And people are greedy. They want more. A few people are hopeless as workers, that's true; but that's nothing new. It wasn't caused by welfare and and it won't be fixed by capitalism.

I'm not fond of taxing income. We want people to work, don't we? Why penalize them for it? These are the people who are producing the country's wealth. Why do we punish them so heavily, and reward parasites that simply swap around stocks and bonds and other pieces of paper? And why do we just leave inherited wealth sitting there? When I was idly living off my inherited money, I paid maybe a couple hundred dollars in taxes per year, tops: when I began working, I suddenly paid tens of thousands every year. That struck me then, and strikes me now, as absurd. We should tax assets, not incomes. If we did that mostly through inheritance taxes, we could essentially never tax people on anything they themselves earned. I should think people would like that. And my heart does not bleed for the billionaire who is allowed to pass on only five million dollars tax-free to his kids. It just doesn't.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

SAT Morning

I knock softly at the door. Light leaks from under it, which concerns me a little. How much has he slept, I wonder? I open the door a little, and pause, as I always do -- I always disliked it when I was a teenager, if people barrelled into my room -- and then go in. He's sleeping in his clothes, as he tends to do these days.

"Time to get up," I say, rubbing his back a little. He wakes readily enough, which is good. He probably did get some sleep.

I go downstairs, scramble some eggs, make some toast for him. I never hang around the house at breakfast, let alone cook it for anyone: this is my silent way of marking the importance of the occasion.

Martha comes down in her nightgown. Goes over the list one more time. Goes over the instructions with Alan. Makes sure he's not carrying a phone that will go off: supposedly your scores are cancelled should you commit such an enormity. Checks to make sure he has everything, twice. Two number 2 pencils? Eraser? Calculator? Photo ID? Alan bears all this with typical patience and good humor, answering, "check!" spiritedly to each inquiry.

Tori appears, sleepy. She's wearing one white sock and one black sock. "I like your socks," I say. "They show originality of thought." I give her a little half-hug -- Tori doesn't do full hugs. "Or absence of it," I add.

Tori smiles faintly and drifts to the window. "I don't believe it's morning yet," she says. "It's too dark."

"Standard time starts tomorrow," I say.

I go out, into a remarkably balmy dawn, to warm up the Honda. Leaves swirl around my feet. Soon they will be a sodden mess. Weather this warm in November means only one thing, in the maritime Northwest: a bruising rain is on its way from the ocean. By tomorrow the remaining leaves will be beaten from the trees by the deluge. But at the moment all is quiet, warm and still.

I leave the Honda running and trot back up the porch stairs to the house. Alan is moving toward the door. Martha's running over reminders and exhortations for the third time. That's her job, in the family: to think of everything that could go wrong. My job is to quietly make sure people are awake and underway on time.

I reflect, not for the first time, on the sexism and unfairness of it. She gets to seem fussy and overanxious, and I get to seem strong and solid: but if she weren't here, I would be the one having to fuss, checking to make sure the pencils were sharpened, making sure he's got something to eat with him, running over the SAT instructions. And if I weren't here she would somehow manage to drag herself and Alan out of bed on time. Thousands of mornings and events together have shaped our responses this morning. The family works, and we are very fond of each other. But I wonder sometimes how much playing our parts costs us.

I drive through the quiet leafy streets. "Did you take the SAT's?" asks Alan. I can't remember. I remember the GRE's. I think maybe I didn't take the SAT's.

"I'm really not sure," I said. "I don't think they were as standard then as they are now." Though I don't know. Maybe it was me that wasn't standard.

"When did the SAT's start?" asks Alan. He has an orderly and historically oriented mind, and likes to have things in their places. He also still, at moments of abstraction, expects me to know everything.

"Golly. No idea," I say. We subside into silence. We're never big talkers, just the two of us. We rely on the females in the family to make conversation go. Sometimes when I drive him to school he'll make an effort to start a conversation, always the sort of question you'd ask a distant acquaintance: "How are you doing, these days?" And I make an effort to answer, in the same vein. If Martha or Tori were in the car we'd all be chattering away.

I pull up to the nearby high school. We're a bit early.

"How long does this go?" I ask.

"I don't know. But I can make it home fine on my own," he says. Two guys, casual, sure of themselves. No fuss.

A few kids are going in; a sprinkling of parents. Martha would no doubt go in with him and make sure everything was happening right, go over the checklist one more time. I just drop him off. He's perfectly capable of dealing with finding the place and making sure he has everything. Though again, I only have that confidence because I know Martha's been on it.

"Break a leg," I say.

"Cheers!" he says, and he's off.

I make myself drive off without watching to make sure he gets in the building okay. Leaves swish under the tires. Tears prickle my eyes.
The Trees

Dave Bonta is hosting this month's Festival of the Trees. It ends with a piece of one of my poems, so I have a personal interest in this one, but the festival has been since its beginning one of my favorite flowerings of the web.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Gifts of the Eye

I look at the faces on the bus. If I were to sketch them, I would be drawn ineluctably to one of two things: exaggerating what is striking about them, or downplaying it. Do I admit that she has a big chin? Do I, even, delight in it, allow it to take over my representation as in fact it momentarily takes over my perception? And what are the spiritual consequences of the choice?

She looking over my shoulder, would probably want me to de-emphasize the chin. Because there's the danger of losing the person in the chin. To draw the chin big, is to deny the common humanity. There is an element of cruelty, of dehumanization, in grotesquerie; or there can be. She becomes only a vast chin, cleaving space. All other facts about her dwindle. We all live, after all, in terror of being caricatured.

Still. Isn't there also a subtle cruelty and dehumanization in standardizing, in classicizing, my image? Doesn't it carry the same message, in a way? That she cannot both have a big chin, and be a human being? That I can't simultaneously see her chin and the pilgrim soul in her?

The standardizing impulse tends to win out. We see normalized images of people all day, every day. All over the world people are photoshopping images, to make them more normal, to erase the grotesqueries of the human form. With the result that we view even minor deviations with horror. After a day's immersion in the images presented by TV and magazines, we emerge onto a street of bizarre, deformed human beings. Lopsided faces, bulging asses, duck-footed walks, stubby fingers. Hairs like spines poking from warts, from ears, from noses. Pouches under the eyes, under the chins. Scarred, mottled, wrinkled, patchy skin.

It's my job to touch people, to love them in all their physicality. When the clothes come off so do a thousand little deceptions, sartorial photoshoppings. We have people undress for massage, in the Western tradition, not really so much because clothes hamper our work but because what people want is to lay aside their clothed personalities, to be touched as they are instead of as they present themselves all day.

There's something about touch that undoes the dichotomy. Once I am touching someone's chin, its divergence from the classical simply vanishes. My fingers are finding the exact way the facial muscles lie, how the fascia clings or pulls free. I'm at a level of detail and closeness that renders the classic and the grotesque equally irrelevant. I don't use my eyes much, when I'm doing massage, unless I need to be checking for bruises or injuries. I use my hands, and my fingers don't think someone's chin is big. They don't care about that sort of thing, and when I'm thinking with them, rather than with my eyes, I don't care about it either.

And when the clothes are back on and the lights turned back up, it's what my hands know that I pay attention to, still. The image my eyes present seems both artificial and inaccurate. I don't believe in it any more.

Exaggerating and normalizing are the great gifts of the eye. But they can be poisoned gifts, if you rely on them too much. Especially for perceiving human beings. It's too easy to forget, just looking at people, that if you laid your hands on their bare chests they would be warm, rising and falling with the breath, pulsing with the heartbeat. Every single one of them.

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Note: if you were not on the Hawthorne bus last night at 6:15, (stage left, third seat down) the chin under discussion here is not yours.

Note also: if you were there then, I thought your face was marvelous and wanted to draw it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Aching in his Skin

Through a hole in the cloud, one dim star.

The prodigal son comes footsore to the ridgetop,
Stares down at the tents of home. A scrape
Of sandals behind him. He's not ready, this soon,
To speak, but he manages: "I'm home, Dad."

The old man hawks and spits. Looks him over,
And finally says, "what, was you gone?"

The sifting, braiding sea.

Our supposedly prim forebears at least
Made cars that you could neck in. What is it with
These bucket seats, divided by an elbow-high
Island for the gearshift? Don't people
Make out any more? They might have been designed
By Queen Victoria.

Listen to the thump
Of the tree's green heart.
He reaches
Up to suckle the sun;
He reaches
Down to suck the water.
Trembly in the wind,
Aching in his skin,

Monday, October 27, 2008

Not Alone

what humpty dumpty told his therapist before the incident with the wall, from i am maureen:

my feet are changing, and my elongated toes
grasp railings quite agilely. up there,
i see things so clearly. i’ve been thinking
about my blessings. it comes to mind to be grateful
my kids aren’t made of egg shells

And this photo and few simple words about the week's edge, from tasting rhubarb:

All weekend, I hid, curled up, chewing my fingers. Go away. Go away. That frightening, fragile edge. This tender, mysterious edge.

I'm so grateful to this whispery world where people can sometimes tell the truth.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hole in the Head

The morning sun, having made a lurchy, staggering lift-off from the horizon, just clearing Mt Hood, glares straight into my eyes, blinding me. Tatters of mist catch in the orange leaves; steam rises from the glaciers of the mountain. The world spins slowly, trying to catch my car as it turns the corner. Hah! Just missed.

I understand those wretched people who made holes in their foreheads, hoping to open their third eye, taking Lobsang Rampa for a real guru, when in fact he was a British plumber who knew not a damn thing about it all, but probably had some skill at making holes in things. My head feels like a prison sometimes, thoughts batting against the inside of my cranium like moths caught in a light fixture, increasingly frantic as the heat becomes unbearable. Open the damn thing. Let them out. And let the light in.

It's discouraging, when you see the obduracy of attachment and aversion in people who have meditated strenuously for years. We were happy enough, here in the West, to pick up the Zen notion of instant enlightenment. No mess! No fuss! One snap of the fingers, one ring of the bell, and the extras will hop up off their cushions and start their dance number in the background while the light wells up all around you and it's perfect clarity, perfect love, now and forever. We were less eager to pick up the Buddhist time scale: kalpa after kalpa, a scale to rival science's, making this life a tiny little speck of time. Hundreds of thousands of lives bound to the wheel. Not so fast, bucko.

In the meantime. The warmth of an untidy bed, newspapers scattered about, the Sunday comics. Reading V.S. Pritchett's memoir, A Cab at the Door, on the advice of that marvelous poet, Julia Martin (no blog yet, I'm working on her, but anyway coming soon to a Qarrtsiluni near you!) What an extraordinary gift he has for conveying the way in which parents cast the glamour of their delusions upon their children. Our children, God help them, believe in our bluster far more deeply than we do.

I love the way you rise up suddenly, like an otter, glowing with life, puckish and impertinent. I half expect you to be dripping, and to shake the river water out of your hair. Maybe a kalpa's not so long a time after all.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


The light of a row of candles in a tray; a twist of fabric through the curtain rod, leading the eye in a parabola up to the ceiling and down again. I've never known a person so young who knew so much about making a place. I'm often a little wary when I get a young client: so often they won't trouble to make themselves comfortable. Low lights, warm room, empty bladder, phone ringers off, kids and animals settled -- older people will see to all those things. Younger people often won't. I've become a lot more assertive about the ordinary comforts. I don't have magic hands. I'm an ordinary massage therapist, and if you aren't comfortable, you're not going to call me back. But anyway -- no need for assertiveness tonight.

Marvelous tattoos. That's one thing I like about young clients. You never know what art work you're going to find.

The flesh firm and dense. It always takes a while to calibrate. What's hypertonic, in this body? What's the range? The fascia here is all tight, but I'm not sure what that means. I close my eyes and stop thinking about it. Let my hands think instead.

No grief, here. I've had a series of grief-stricken clients, and it's taken a bit of a toll. But there's a lot of happiness here. There's been grief, plenty of it, and recently; but she's flickering now like a trout in a sunny stream. I hope she's happily in love, or happily caught up in her work. It feels like that.

I hear things, when I do massage. Little moans of pleasure or worried intakes of breath. They're not real: that is, they're not real sounds that you could tape. It's some tactile or energetic information that my brain delivers to me by converting it into sounds. A sort of synesthesia, I suppose. When it first started happening I thought they were real sounds, and I'd try to listen more closely, and then they'd go away, of course.

Full of tenderness. I sit at the head of the table and work the masseters, the jaw muscles, with my fingers, and then I lay both thumbs beside the nose and drag down to the jawline. Those of us who feel obliged to smile at people all the time get jammed up there. I always love that particular move: it says this is for you, and you don't have to produce anything for me in return, not even a smile. Especially not a smile.

My hands come to rest, and I breathe, and listen for your breath through my fingertips. "Thank you so much," I say. Since I can't say "I love you, dear" to someone I met two hours ago.

I go off to the bathroom to wash my hands, and to give her time to get off the table and get dressed. Wait till I hear her moving around the room, and come out to pack up. Sheets, face cradle cover, pillowcase, and sweatband into the the laundry bag. I tip the table on its side. The face cradle itself comes into two pieces and fits inside the table. The table folds in half and buckles closed.

I love the paraphernalia of my work. I think you can tell what a person feels about their work by how they feel about its tools and apparatus. I remember being faintly annoyed, when I was a programmer, by the periodic bother of IBM replacing my work computer with a newer, faster, better one. For almost all practical purposes, one machine was as good as another for me, since I wasn't doing performance tuning or testing. But the people who loved programming were delighted with their new machines, petted them, took them for spins, tried this and that, chattered excitedly about how fast they could run a TPCH, speculated about changing the cache parameters. Me? "Seems to work fine," I'd say.

But I'm delighted that way with my table, my linens, my cushions and bolsters. Cleaning the table is never a chore for me, even though I do it before every massage; I delight in opening up the table, wiping it down, looking it over, oiling the lock-bolts. I even love doing the laundry and folding the sheets. I love them the same way I love looking over pens and notebooks and fine papers at the stationers.

The table is old, now. I bought it years ago, back when doing massage was an idle fantasy I knew I'd never pursue, when for years at a time I had the application papers for massage schools tucked away in my top drawer, a guilty secret, tucked under my socks. I'll need to replace it at some point. And I really need to get an adjustable face cradle. I have a certain reluctance for changing anything at all, right now, because I can't believe it's really true, that I really get to do this. I'm afraid if I change anything it will all vanish, that the dream will vanish and I'll wake up to another day stranded in an arid cubicle in the industrial burbs, looking wistfully out at the sky.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Oh, hell. I've been clumsy and stupid and offensive and hurt people's feelings, and I'm really really sorry. I didn't mean to. I was just running off at the mouth, as I do sometimes. All right, most of the time. Please forgive me, and know that I value you far more than I value any stupid opinions I might hold. (Or might have held, since I seldom think the same thing two hours in a row.)
Taking and Sending

Crescent moon, high above the fog. Streetlights make spines of light that poke through the leaves.

A huge young woman, one buttock for each of the two seats she occupied, reading on the bus. She was swaddled in witchy velvet, a hooded cape. Black cloth bags were perched about her person. I was practicing taking and sending, trying to take on that mass, to take on the chafing of those bulky thighs against each other, the humiliation of being very fat in a country that has a hysterical aversion to fat. Knowing that any mistake I make will not be an ordinary person's mistake, the passing result of inattention, but evidence of a fat woman's expected stupidity; knowing that I'm a death's head to women who are desperately afraid of getting fat, knowing that many men won't risk their status by being seen with me. I breathe all that in. Breathe out -- what? That's easy: the certainty of being loved. The daily touch, the physical affirmation of work, family, friends; the easy cuddling. The laying on of hands. Give that all away.

As I feel the witchy cape settle around me, I notice all the shiny dangly things, the earings, the necklaces, gleaming and twinkling. Two buttons draw my gaze, jet disks, like little pools of wet black oil. What can they be? Is that a pouch, a purse, nestled there where her breasts jut over her belly?

The buttons blink. The pouch resolves into a tiny dog, staring intently at me. I slide into his consciousness easily, as you will sometimes, when you're taking and sending. I am made of nothing but devotion, loving this woman with my whole heart, perched on this belly, nestled by this breast, the best, most loving, most wonderful woman, a woman of extraordinary abilities and extraordinary tenderness, loving me beyond desert or imagining. Her fingers gently cradle my ribs. I adore her. I bask in her love.

The polarities reverse, and I'm breathing in the assurance of love I was trying to send. It's not at all uncommon, with taking and sending, to realize, when you allow yourself to slide all the way into your fantasy of other people's suffering, that you're simply, completely, stupidly wrong. I should have such daylong tenderness, such love, such pleasure in the touch of hand or paw.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Responsibility of Poets

There's a poll up at Read Write Poem, asking "what is your responsibility as a poet?"

I guess I don't understand why you'd even want to talk about it. It seems odd to me, to talk about the responsibility of poets. As so often, nowadays, I feel like I've missed some critical piece of the conversation to date.

Why introduce the notion of responsibility? If you have a responsibility to do something, you do it whether you like it or not. Did any single poet in the history of the world ever write a good poem that she didn't like writing? Do you really want to browbeat poets who want to write about the gleam of black tulips into writing odes to Senator Gordon Smith's voting record? It makes no sense to me. I find it difficult to believe we're talking about anything, frankly. Poets are going to write about whatever they're going to write about, no matter what we say they ought to do.

Lets keep responsibility in the sphere of being a human being, and not staple it to particular avocations. If you care about the poor -- as Jesus, for one, emphatically instructed you to -- it will be in your poetry somewhere. Or -- even better -- the roots of that caring, beyond day to day political squabbling, will be in your poetry.

I understand wanting to refute the people who say poetry is effete, idle self-indulgence. I understand resenting that, and wanting to say: no. This is important. This is the most important thing I can do. And I believe that in fact is true. There is nothing more important to a poet than writing poetry, and that's as it should be. But to me "responsibility" lumbers into this conversation like a bull elephant, drunk on fermented apples, wandering into a glassware shop. When the heart wants to sing, it must sing, and it will sing. What good can it do to say that it has a responsibility to sing?

My motto is H.D.'s , who wrote:

I go to the things I love
With no thought of duty or pity.

I don't think poetry has much influence on day to day politics, which is probably a good thing, because poets tend to be political imbeciles. A poet as wonderful, subtle, beautiful, and perceptive as Ezra Pound could be a sucker for Mussolini's drivel. There's no guarantee that poets will have any political sense, and in fact there's a strong prima facie case for expecting them to have none.

Here's what I think is the sum total of poets' responsibility: 1) to try to see clearly, 2) to love, and 3) to cultivate their gifts & do the best work they can. It's no different from other human beings' responsibility. If your eyes and your heart are open, your poetry will do the right thing. Don't pester it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


You are old, Father William.

Bits of poems surface.

Because I am mad about women,
I am mad about the hills,
Said the wild old wicked man,
who travels where God wills

There lives not three good men unhanged in England,
And one of them is fat, and grows old.

What shall I do with this absurdity,
Heart, O troubled heart
This old age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs that shake against the cold:
Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang

But I don't feel old. I feel in my prime, full of piss and vinegar, spoiling for a fight, hungry for flesh, full of love and discontent. Last night I got off the bus and walked slowly home through a shifting hall of subtle colors, sunset blushing the turning trees into magenta clouds, gold phantoms in their chains, glints of green. White flowers glowed in surprisingly wet, deep, dark corners. I had to stop at the flowers, stupefied, and just watch a while. Like Geoffrey Chaucer lying on the grass to watch the daisies open in a May dawn six hundred years ago. He really did that, you know. One man, one place, one time. No doubt his leggings were stained with grass and wet with dew, but he didn't give a damn, and neither do I, standing like a halfwit, gaping at the flowers, beads of late sunset condensing on my beard. A woman came by, walking a Great Dane so tall that his head came to my ribs. An affable and good-natured creature. She smiled at me, askance, pulling the Dane's head away lest he lick the sundrops off my face.

At the corner, the unruly sage bush, well past its prime, but you can still grasp the remains of the flowers and come away with your hand smelling like a dream of the Mohave. Beyond the massive trees there were lavender pools in the sky, eddies of pink and violet, sprays of silver. And behind it all, behind it all, night gathering, a vast catlike creature huddled on its four legs, crouching low, intent and alive and utterly silent.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Without Rest

I drive carefully in the pre-dawn fog. Her headlights are a little out of true, the left a little higher than the right. They don't quite intersect, half a block ahead. Dear little cross-eyed Honda. I flip through the radio channels. That engaging but vapid new Nickleback song. Then "I got the rockin' pneumonia, and the boogie woogie blues." Fun, but over almost at once, and succeeded by one of those brassy energetic 60's pop bands -- not Chicago, but of that ilk, can it be Weather Report? -- that I've disliked so long that I don't remember why I dislike them. I reflect that I can't even hear them any more, I've only listened to my dislike of them for so long. I wonder what they sound like?

I listen a moment. "God, I hate this," I note, still not sure whether I've heard them, or just forty-odd years of accumulated dislike. Still, I punch the "seek" button.

Ah. George Harrison. "... 'cause it takes so long my Lord. My sweet Lord." That carries me the rest of the way to Tosi's. I sit in the parking lot till the last of the steel guitar fades away.

I'm on the run, I know I am. Doing my best not to think about things. But I can only do that so long.

The bland fog lightens. Ghosts of the doug firs across the street appear. Everything is gentling down into an ordinary day. The cars sweep by, endlessly, people on their way to work. At five they'll all drive back. And tomorrow I'll be sitting here watching them drive to work again.

I drink my coffee with deep appreciation. You know, the quality of the coffee beans doesn't matter a bit. Any bean will do, so long as its not old or moldy. What matters is whether the coffeemakers and pots are quite clean. Yesterday I paid four times this much for an indifferent pot of bitter coffee, in a gleaming silver vessel that I know, in my heart, was cursorily rinsed in the kitchen. You could taste the tang of days of old coffee grime.

I look back over what I've written, noting the snark. I check: yes, I am feeling a little sick. This cold has hung on for weeks, possibly months. It's actually unlikely to be a cold virus, which, as we all know, tends to last for two weeks (or fourteen days, if you take rose hips and echinacea.) I wonder what it is? I'm tired of it.

It's of a piece: one of the things I'm not thinking about.

Now the fog is phosphorescent with dawn: the whole sky is impregnated with silver light. A sense of intelligences pulsing above, light handing off to light. Thousands at his bidding speed, and post o'er land and ocean without rest.

I close my eyes, and the burning lessens. Sit up straight and ease my shoulders, let them hang. The upper traps and the lev scaps eye me suspiciously. They're not about to let go: they know this is a momentary shift of posture, and that I don't really mean it.

Last night, the young nervous collie, jealous of me, wanting my approval, took it out on various imaginary intruders. Barked at the fire. Growled at the couch. Industriously licked my arm as I worked on your upper traps and lev scaps. Physician, heal thyself. I know.

They also serve who only stand and wait. Ah, but that's not "sit and wait." You have to stand. You can't be on the run. And it's silly to run, anyway. God has my address. He has my social security number. He knows how to get hold of me.

Three long breaths, my shoulders hanging, again. This time I mean it. This time they start unwinding, strand by strand. I love you so much, so much. My sweet Lord.