Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Guerrillas and Armies

I've been reading Esdaile's history of the Peninsular War, Napoleon's attempt to extinguish the Bourbon dynasty and establish his brother on the throne of Spain. It's the conflict that gave English the word guerrilla. Small bands of irregulars would attack French supply lines, and then vanish into the hills and villages; the French had to expend considerable resources coping with them. The Spanish called this the guerrilla -- the "little war." As adopted into English it referred not to the war, but to the people who conducted it (what the Spanish would have called guerrilleros): "guerrilla fighters."

The Spanish, more talented as propagandists, in that century, than as soldiers, created a whole mythology around the guerrillas, one that persists today, and has given glamor to the image of the resistance fighter. These poorly equipped, impromptu civilians-turned-soldiers, so ran the Spanish myth, fought the veteran troops of Imperial France to a standstill. It was a triumph of popular resistance over authoritarian empire.

In fact, the guerrillas never had much more than nuisance value. What saved Spain from French domination was not her guerrilla fighters, but Napoleon's decision to invade Russia. When the French were not overextended they did not have great difficulty putting down these bands, which had little discipline and no training.

What exactly these fighters were has come in for closer scrutiny in the last few decades, and the truth of the matter is rather depressing. They were not mostly patriots. They were mostly bands of robbers, who preyed on the French not out of patriotic fervor, but because the French had something worth taking. They happily plundered their Portuguese and English allies as well when they got the chance, not to mention the cities and villages that they were supposedly defending, and they often proceeded with extraordinary cruelty against all these people.

(To keep things in context, it's true that the regular troops, English, Portuguese, French, and Spanish, as was standard in Napoleonic times, also plundered the civilian population. But they were generally less ruthless than the guerrillas.)

Now, we would like it to be true, that popular resistance can overcome military tyranny. It makes a lovely story. Americans treasure their own mythology of the minute-men, a likewise glorified and militarily rather useless bunch. But in fact guerrilla warfare is almost always pointless and ineffective. I can think of only a few cases in which it has succeeded. When it does, it has these characteristics:

1) invulnerable supply lines to a generous outside supply source
2) rugged terrain in which it's difficult for regular troops to move and deploy
3) a level of poverty and misery so severe that the people feel they have nothing to lose, and
4) guerrilla indifference to the suffering of their own people, such that reprisals against the civilian population do not deter them.

In other words, it is not a blessing to have a situation in which guerrilla war may be effective. And when, unusually, a guerrilla war is won, it puts people of singular ruthlessness in control, who have debts to repay to outsiders. These people are seldom a blessing to their country.

But the myth lives on. I was prompted to write this by seeing the photo, on Velveteen Rabbi, of a Palestinian mural of a boy -- obviously heroically, in the view of the artist -- throwing a rock at a tank. Many Palestinians continue in the delusion that a popular resistance can liberate them. In their situation it can't. They have virtually no outside supply sources, and certainly no invulnerable ones. Their terrain is quite practicable: the Israelis can deploy whatever they want wherever they want, within days -- usually hours. And their poverty, while bad enough, is not so bad that most people really have nothing to lose. The only thing that points towards success is the willingness of some of the guerrillas to incur reprisal.

In other words, the Palestinians can resist all they like for the next five hundred years without seriously inconveniencing the Israeli state. Their resistance simply can't win. I have no intention of disputing the rights and wrongs of their situation. I neither have an opinion on that nor want to have an opinion on that. But I do have an opinion about their chance of successfully resisting: it's zero.

If -- as I believe -- regular armies will ultimately determine the fate of any prosperous, gentle country, it behooves us to pay some attention to them, and to make sure their interests coincide with the general public's. People on the left -- partly due to this stupid idea that the will of the people will always triumph, and that guerrilla warfare is a viable option in most situations -- have tended to simply pay no attention to their armies, to wish they would go away, to think of them as tools of reactionaries; something we'll just get rid of someday. We can't afford to go on like that. We need to take armies seriously, and to ensure that our armies are democratic armies. This is why I -- alone among my personal acquaintance -- favor a draft: I would like to see an all-conscript army, with no upper-class exemptions (by which I mean the infamous college education exemptions of the Vietnam era.). Nothing strikes me as more ominous, in the politics of my generation in America, than the development of a huge professional army, drawn largely from the poor and uneducated. We have simply been lucky, so far, that this army has not realized a) that they hold the last resort of power in the land, and b) that their interests aren't the same as civilian interests. Let's hope they don't figure it out before we civilians do.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Change in the Weather

Cold this morning. A cloudy cover in the middle air. I love this, above all, about the maritime Northwest: a cold day can arrive in late July, just as a comfortable shirtsleeve day can arrive in late January. Nowhere in the world, that I know of, is one less hemmed in by one particular weather. Late winter and late summer in Connecticut were horribly oppressive: whether it was bitter cold or baking hot, it was simply going to stay that way for weeks. There was no appeal from it, no chance of waking up to find yourself at the far end of the weather-calendar.

It's true, it can rain for weeks at a time here, dark and wet beyond the conception or endurance of transcascadian Americans. But -- if you don't infect your mind with weather reports -- you go to bed each night knowing that tomorrow could miraculously be a beautiful Spring day, no matter what month you're in.

I kneel at the foot of the table. Spurt oil into my hand from the bottle at my waist, in a quick movement that has become entirely unconscious for me, and stroke her feet lovingly. Feet inspire a special tenderness in me. They labor in hidden pain or discomfort, bearing the brunt of work days. They're banished from the light and air, crammed into oppressive spaces, made to work but given no chance to stretch and breathe. And yet they have all the sensitivity and beauty of hands. They're so surprised and grateful to find themselves touched and kneaded. Sometimes you can feel the tension of the whole body move down through the feet and depart in a light shuddery gasp of relief.

They're all the more important in late pregnancy, when you're being cautious about the legs and thighs, and this is the only place caudal to the the glutes that you can still do heavy work. If the sadness of the lower limbs is going to find a way out, it will have to find it here.

I'm doing a lot of pregnancy massage these days. Probably my favorite work. It's frustrating, though, dealing with so-called "pelvic instability," the pain associated with the greater play in the pelvic bones. I'm morally certain I know where the trouble is, that it's thigh trigger points shortening the adductors and hamstrings, overwhelming the relatively weak external rotators (which is why, startlingly, it more often afflicts people in good shape, especially the swimmers and cyclers who train those inner thigh muscles extensively, than sedentary people) -- but deep work in the thighs is precisely what we're forbidden to do, until a couple weeks after delivery. All I can do is recommend the stretches and exercises in the book by Cecile Röst, and make sure the glutes and external rotators are as clear as I can make them.

A little light brushing up the extensor tendons on top of the foot. Supposedly it inspires the lymphatic system. It feels right, anyway. She's wandering back and forth across the line into sleep, as pregnant women so often do, but she doesn't seem to startle when she crosses. When I come back to the head of the table, lay a hand on her shoulder, and murmur, "time to roll over," her eyes open and she comes back to this world, visibly but easily. The faintest of smiles lights her face. I unpack the pillows, and she carefully turns, holding her full belly in her hands, and settles again with a sigh. I pack her in again, and in moments she's wandered back into sleep.

Friday, July 18, 2008


In my twenties and thirties I commonly "pulled my back." My lower back would seize up. The muscles I now know as the QL and lumbar paraspinals would go into very painful spasm, and I could barely walk. I could be out of commission for days. Heat and cold; lying flat on the floor with my knees up; nothing was terribly effective. Finally I went to a chiropractor. I don't recollect his treatment doing me any good, but he handed me a sheet of paper with "back exercises" on it, to take home. Mostly they were a few simple, easy yoga positions. I started doing them. Gingerly, at first. (You become very reluctant to do anything that will set off spasm again, when you have back trouble, which generally compounds the problem, adding immobility to the list of your back's difficulties.) But they felt really good. I had no theory to account for it, in those days, but it soon became apparent to me that they worked. In fact, I rapidly became aware that if I skipped them one day, I would start experiencing warning twinges. If I skipped them two, I was at high risk for "pulling my back" again. If I skipped longer, I was asking for trouble, and usually got it.

So, after a few painful lessons, I almost never skip, and never skip more than one day. Even I respond to as clear-cut a punishment-and-reward training system as that. And I haven't had that sort of serious, debilitating back spasm for fifteen years. I had thought it was simply going to be the way life was: that it happened in response to stress, and the idea that the stress of my life was going to suddenly go away was laughable.

Which brings me to stress. Now, it's true that these seize-ups usually happened at times of high stress. The last one I remember was when I was studying for the final exam in a wickedly difficult computer science class on compilers. I was very wrought up about it. I was studying long hours, and spending a lot of stressed time at the computer. When I thought of why my back seized up, "stress" was the answer that came to me.

I am a great fan of getting stress out of one's life; of tackling it directly, by meditation, and by simply getting out of situations in which one is subject to impossible demands. And the correlation between stress and myofascial pain is beyond doubt. However. There's a certain irreducible amount of stress involved in being alive. And there is considerable stress involved in delightful, even ecstatic events: ask anyone who's ever had a wedding. A life without stress would probably not be worth living. And moreover, as science professors keep forlornly saying (knowing that no one will pay attention to them), "correlation is not causation."

The problem with attributing my back spasms to stress is that "stress" is an amorphous condition, and one that responds slowly to direct attack. Meditation and yoga and so forth do make one much better at letting go of stress -- but they do so slowly, over weeks and months and years, not in days. In general the only way out of overstressful conditions -- bad jobs, bad marriages, financial scrapes -- involves incurring even more stress, for some time. Your back is not going to wait that long.

And fortunately, it doesn't have to wait that long. Getting rid of the stress is an admirable goal, but you can stop abusing your body without getting rid of the stress. In fact, the sequence may work better in reverse: you may have more luck reducing your stress by stopping the abuse of your body, than vice versa. I don't believe worrying about my compiler exam brought my back to spasm. Sitting motionless in a badly designed chair with no lumbar support, under a blasting air conditioner, with my shoulders hunched and my head thrust forward -- that's what brought my back to spasm. Not taking the trouble to ensure a dark, quiet place to get a full night's sleep, and staying up too late, night after night. Going for weeks without aerobic exercise.

None of this is rocket science: and all of it can be dealt with by a stressed person nearly as well as by a relaxed person. The body, fortunately for us, is a physical object, and it responds beautifully to physical interventions.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Stretching II

Okay. Full disclosure: I stretch every morning, religiously, for about twenty minutes. Telling you not to stretch was a something in the way of shock tactics.

But very different activities that can be referred to by "stretching." One is what I was decrying in the post before last: trying to make your body move where you think it ought to be able to move. It's a really good way to injure yourself. Another is gently and attentively moving "as far as it goes," no matter where that is. As my adverbs make plain, that's the kind I approve of.

When you realize that the limits of movement are not the length of the muscle and tendon, but the length of the most tightly "hooked" strands of the muscle, you'll be more understanding and forgiving of the fact that "as far as it goes" may be considerably less today that it was yesterday. This is intricate living tissue we're talking about, not the waistband of a pair of jeans.

What I usually do -- whether I learned this from Anderson or not, I can't remember -- is to move "as far as it goes" -- what I think Anderson calls "finding the stretch" -- and then stay there, breathing into it at least three breaths. I back off immediately if it hurts, or starts to tremble. Generally I do the whole thing two or three times. Usually you go farther each time, but it doesn't matter whether you do or not: what matters is that you take as far as it wants to go, but no farther. Much of what's going on is not in the muscle being "stretched," it's in the other muscles that are finding themselves in different positions, undergoing different stresses. They wake up, become interested. We customarily neglect most of our body; paying attention to parts of it only when they're in pain or delivering exceptional pleasure. Which is a pity, because it has a great deal to tell us. A tremendous amount of information is available to us through the sensations of touch and proprioception, most of which we resolutely ignore. We mostly go through our day with our touch-eyes closed. So we're taken completely by surprise by a stabbing pain in the back, or a spasm in the neck, or a knee locking up. The messengers have been in the anteroom so long that they've forgotten their business; they're playing cards, doodling, dozing in the corner.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Birthday Presents

'After all that's what this party business was all about, really: to give away lots of birthday presents, and somehow make it easier to give it away at the same time. It hasn't made it any easier in the end, but it would be a pity to waste all my preparations. It would quite spoil the joke.'

'Indeed it would take away the only point I ever saw in the affair,' said Gandalf.

'Very well,' said Bilbo, 'it goes to Frodo with all the rest.' He drew a deep breath. 'And now I really must be starting, or somebody else will catch me. I've said good-bye, and I couldn't bear to do it all over again.' He picked up his bag and moved to the door.

'You have still got the ring in your pocket,' said the wizard.

Vergüenza. Shame. Yesterday I threw away a great deal of old stuff. Barely staying on top of tears. I was adored, once, said Andrew Aguecheek. The idea that someone might delight in me.

But that's not what I'm giving away. I mean, it is, but that's not the point. What I need to give away is the shame. It's a strange shame. I listen to other people's shame -- heavy, palpable, self-revulsion -- and nothing resonates. This is a light, shifting, pervasive shame, not heavy at all. It has less to do with anything I do than with what I am. Yesterday a resolve took shape: never to be ashamed again. What else can I do, to honor the love that people have given me? If I don't give away that shame I will be taking away, as Gandalf would say, the only point there ever was in the affair.

What would a life without shame look like? I've asked that question before. I can't even imagine an answer. Which tells you just how inwoven it is. I don't think I will be able to imagine an answer. I can only discover it as I go.

If the imagination of a life without shame fails, though, it is remarkable how precisely and readily the actions such a life would dictate are apparent to me. I have only to ask the question, and the answer appears.

Like most resolutions, it is unlikely to be kept. I will probably fail, repeatedly. Which is fine, so long as I learn from the failures. That's why you make resolutions, after all: to get a close look at what actually prevents you from doing what you want to do.

I will not be ashamed any more. Whatever I need to do in order to be unashamed, that's what I'll do.

The hardest thing will be resting, when I am weary.

I found myself starting to weave it all again, a life of shame, building it all up again, losing all that ground. That would be a piss-poor return. I must not do that.

Forgive the rambly-ness and obscurity of this post. I shouldn't post it at all, but I feel I have to anchor this resolve at as many points as possible.

Bless you, thank you. Be careful. But not too careful.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Another Poem for Tatz

last seen en route from Lumsden

We have been grateful for the smallest kindnesses:
a shelf that holds up books, dry socks.

-- Jan Zwicky

What shall we say of these characters
Typed into one computer, at an idle moment
To appear on another screen, half a world away?
A jumble of spider legs, disassembled
Into ones and zeros, traveling
From one indifferent machine to another;
Typed in Frankfurt, or Wales, or Canberra,
And skittering, disembodied, by wire or wireless
All the way here, to be reconstituted
Into the spider legs we use for letters,
Into the spiders we use for words.
This is love, in one of her guises:
One of the few requirements of love being

Sing for me, darling;
Sing for me in Saskatchewan
And I will kiss your hands:
The base of your thumb; the thenar eminence;
Each fingertip.
I want to study your hands
For years. I want to be
A distinguished professor, writing monographs
About the way your ring finger creases
When it's bent so that one's lips
Can brush its knuckle:
I will become the world's foremost authority
On the taste of the webbing between your first
And second finger, on the right.
I will hold your hand
As the sky darkens and the world
Complexifies into destruction,
Tracking each line, each scar, each tiny hair
And counting the time
Well spent.

Now light
Pours across the northern prairie,
Too much light for such a shallow saucer,
It spills at the edges, and droplets land
So far south as my upturned face.

Darling, try not to worry. You haven't,
But I have seen the string of your heart
Blazing with blue light, coruscating
Like a fuse. There is no time to worry,
Even if there were need.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Look. Don't stretch. I know your doctor told you to. Your physical therapist told you to. All your friends tell you to. Every magazine published in America has told you to, in articles richly illustrated with indecently radiant fifteen-year-olds, dressed (sort of) as twenty-year-olds, in graceful yoga poses. The implication being, not that you can stretch this way if you're fifteen, but that if you stretch this way you'll look fifteen.

We'll leave aside for the moment why you'd want to look like you were stuck in the most unhappy, self-absorbed and useless stage of your life. You do: so do I. We're stupid. But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about stretching, and why you shouldn't do it.

Here's the story as most people hear it: because you're stressed out, you tense your muscles, which makes them (as we learned in eighth grade science class) short. And in a process vaguely but devoutly believed in, your muscles somehow stick that way. As your mother told you your face would stick that way when you took to making horrible faces. So now you have tight muscles, and they're prone to injury, causing you pain, and making it hard to move.

Presented that way, the solution looks obvious. The muscles are too short: well, we'll just stretch them out. Make them longer. Problem solved. Maybe it will hurt a little, but you deserve to hurt, because you inflicted this tightness on yourself by not being radiantly, serenely fifteen. After you've expiated all that sinful stress, and atoned for this self-abuse, you'll be blessed, your body will be fifteen, everybody will love you, and your body will no longer hurt.

Now, unfortunately, it's precisely people who are prone to abuse themselves to whom this story will sound most convincing, and they will swing with gusto into abusing themselves by stretching out painfully, trying to force their muscles into a relaxed state. And they will injure themselves, over and over.

Let's back off a little and look at what really happens when your muscles are "tight," and why stretching is often the very worst thing you can do when they are.

Muscles are essentially long, parallel microscopic threads, which are arranged in parallel bundles, which are themselves arranged in parallel bundles. We talk of a whole muscle contracting, but that's not usually what happens. Usually a few of the bundles contract at a time. Then they run out of oxygen, and they let go while other bundles step in. It's not often that the whole muscle is working at once -- when it does, it will also become completely exhausted at once, and that's when you can't hold on any longer and fall from Mt Rushmore. It's all about fuel supply. The amount of oxygen the muscle strands can store is suprisingly small. They run out in a few seconds, at most minutes, if they're not spelled by their buddy strands.

So what happens when a muscle is "tight," or "knotted"? Well, one thing we can be sure of -- it's not steadily contracting and burning oxygen. It doesn't have enough fuel stored to do that for five minutes, let alone days. No: something quite different is happening. It is, in fact, "sticking," more or less as your mother warned your face would. When a muscle strand contracts it hooks itself chemically into a shorter strand, in a very ingenious way. Once it's hooked this way, it actually requires no energy at all to stay contracted. In fact it needs more energy to unhook itself. And sometimes, apparently, the strands hook themselves in such as to cut off their own fuel supply. Some of the muscle is contracted and can't let go. Now we've got a real problem. Now we've got those tight muscles you want to stretch out.

Okay, so you conscientiously stretch the muscle out, even though it hurts. What happens? Most of the muscle is nowhere near the limit of its motion. But the contracted fibrils are very close to their limit. What happens is precisely what you would expect: the stuck ones simply snap.

Now, a little of this is fine. Tiny muscle strands snap all the time. The system is built with massive redundancy. But there's a limit, and by the time you're in enough pain, and restricted enough in movement, to notice, you're probably past the limit of reasonable tearing. You're looking at seriously damaging a muscle that's already in trouble. Don't do it.

Your job at this point is to do whatever you can to encourage fluid exchange in the muscle. Fresh, nicely oxygenated blood has to get in there. When it does, those strands of muscle will release all by themselves. That's what they want to do. So you do three things:

1) Relax the whole area as much as you can. Take the stress off the surrounding muscles. Make room there.

2) Alternate cold and heat. Cold causes the blood vessels and capillaries to contract, which forces fluid out; then the heat opens them again, and fresh blood, full of oxygen, rushes in. That's what we want.

3) Squeeze the muscle where it's "knotted," deliberately, so as to push the old fluid out of it.

4) And then move it a few times, gently, as far as it wants to go, but not farther.

Movement is wonderful. Moving is what muscles want to do. They love it. What they don't like is holding without moving. They hate that, in fact. It's not the active people who move around a lot who have serious muscle trouble. It's people who sit still, working at a computer, or reading, or doing fine work with their hands. Muscles aren't designed for that. They hate it.

I was surprised to learn that there is actually nothing to pump blood back to the heart and lungs. I had vaguely thought that the pressure from the heart pushes the blood all the way out and back, but of course it doesn't. It can't: it disperses too widely, down to the single-cell level, before it enters the venous system and heads back. Blood makes its return journey solely under the impetus of gravity and the movement of the skeletal muscles (above all, of the inner calf muscles). There are nifty little valves in the veins that keep the blood from moving backwards, but the forward movement is all up to you. If you don't move, the old, blue, de-oxygenated blood doesn't, either.

So I want you to move. I just don't want you to "stretch," with the intent of lengthening your muscles and tendons. Your muscles and tendons are a fine length. When the body wants them longer it will lengthen them itself, effortlessly; it needs no help from you. What it does need you to do is to move through your whole range of motion. Call it stretching if you like, but it should be easy. It should feel good. "Stretching" that hurts should properly be called "tearing" -- because that's what it is. Travell & Simon use a phrase repeatedly, in describing what they follow trigger-point work with, that I like a lot: "taking up the slack." That's all that needs to be done, and all that should be done.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fully Implicated

Some of my favorite bloggers post very infrequently. I love Google Reader for making it easy not to lose track of them! Two poems from the seldom-seen have blown me away recently:


. . .
And once more I know myself, a being
Fully implicated, known, never alone.
And shining, shining for a future.
. . .

Independence from Chaos

. . .
afraid to open
and greet the star-cracker dawn
rabbit thumping

against my chest
. . .

Monday, July 07, 2008


A light blue summer dress, skimpy enough
To make a man labor to walk on, while he staggers inside
And assimilates a blow to the stomach.
She's coming to see me? Not possible.

Overcome with tenderness, I clasp her hand
"Love you," I say, without thinking, as I might
To my daughter. She blushes faintly.
"I love you too," she says, only a little awkwardly.
I turn quickly away. "I'll see you on the fifteenth,"
I say. Brisk. Matter of fact.

"All those years I tried to get women
To take their clothes off, and to touch them,"
I said. "And it turns out all I had to do
Was charge them money for it."

"That's an unworthy thought," said Martha, primly.

For thirty-five years
I trained harder than any athlete, any yogi
To find the sex in every thought, every relation,
Every image: sorting, clutching, scanning:
A famished raptor drifting over its shadow
On the yellow grass.
How is it that in the moment of laying on hands
It all goes away?

But it's always been that way.
At the moment of touch, everything shifts.
Reconfigures. The kaleidoscope jumbles;
The patterns reform. Reality surfaces,
Like the vast gleaming back
Of a whale; what we thought was empty water
Was warm, breathing, thinking flesh.
Desire dwindles to a triviality
And tenderness is all there is:
The raw heart beats, unmoving;
The blood stands still; and my body
Revolves around it like the Sun.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Anne Lamott

I don't buy books any more. Since my income is about a quarter of what it was when I was a programmer, and since I'm a fundraiser for library programs, I get books from the library instead. This is good in some ways. Books were threatening to inundate the house; by most people's standards, I suppose they already had. I was starting to recognize the impossibility of continuing another twenty years with the same habits of book acquisition. And different books seem to ambush me in the library than ambushed me at Powell's, and the change is refreshing. Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. That was a lot of fun. Six Frigates, that naval history that brought me through the heat o' the sun recently. (The library's quite rich in readable military history: I suspect I'm not the only person in Portland who survives depression by reading about people trying to kill each other. It's a weird solution, since in real life I find people trying to kill each other a bit of a downer, but it seems to be otherwise in books about the past. & when it comes to coping with depression, I have no pride and no political correctness.)

Anyway -- Six Frigates had made me curious about James Madison. I have pictures, or at least caricatures, in my head for most of the Founding Fathers, but none for Madison. It's a lacuna I've been meaning to fill for twenty or thirty years. So I wandered through the library's biography stacks, surfing the letter 'M'. None of the Madison biographies seemed quite the thing, so I wandered on, or rather backwards, into the 'L's The name "Anne Lamott" caught my eye. I'd heard the name before; I was sure of it. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. I liked the title, so I picked it up.

I don't know why it was in the biography section, since it was a collection of personal essays. But it started off with the ham essay, and so that oriented me. A couple years ago, everybody seemed to be trying to get me to read this ham essay. Something to do with winning a ham and giving it away.

I'm not proud of this, but there's nothing like having everybody tell me I should read something to make me lay back my ears, bare my teeth, and dig in my heels. Then a couple years later, when I'm sure nobody's looking any more, I'll surreptitiously pick the thing up and read a page or two. If I don't like it, I don't have to hurt anyone's feelings. If I do like it, no one gets to tell me "I told you so."

Lamott delighted me and irritated me. She's sweet and perceptive and realistic, and she writes about what she knows. She gives the impression of complete honesty, complete disclosure (I may not be as impressed by this as some people are, since I know I give the same impression.) The irritating thing is that she breathes my air a little. She occupies precisely the same writing-space that I do, writing about personal faith from the standpoint of personal doubt, and it's a little spooky how many essayistic habits we have in common. The slow, sidling return to the original image with a soupcon of added meaning. The candid exposure of doubt. The inclusion of the ludicrous and ugly in descriptions of beauty. No wonder people recommended her to me: if I were a better writer, I'd be Lamott's male Buddhist twin.

Two things impressed me most about the book. One is, how grateful I am to have landed in a religious tradition without a creator. It looks absolutely exhausting, trying to square the reality of the world with the doctrine that an absolutely good person made it on purpose. I don't think I could stick it out. It's obviously a valuable teaching -- it takes you new places, way out of your comfort zone -- but compared to that, I find, say, holding George Bush to be my spiritual teacher fairly easy. (In Buddhism, you know, you are supposed to be grateful to anyone who angers you, and consider them your teacher, because they're showing you the aversions you're not willing to release.)

The other thing that impressed me in this book, was how Lamott brought her spiritual life into her family, and in particular how she dragged her son to church every other Sunday, how she made sure he knew it was the center of her life. It made me think of how little of my inmost life I share with my family. I tell you all much more about it than I tell them. We took Tori and Alan to the "Sunday school" at KCC, every once in a while, but it never really took. If anything I suspect that I put Tori off Buddhism by talking about the illusory nature of the self. Teenagers are already anxious enough about the substantiality of their selves; they don't need any extra doubts about it. And Alan has absorbed his grandfather's easy scorn of religion as obsolete superstition: he thinks the whole thing is absurd.

I know some people at KCC who are distressed because they don't share their faith and practice with their partners, who look at me and Martha with some envy. I think they're imagining an intimacy and congruency that aren't really there. It's not easy to share this sort of thing with your lover, even when you're supposedly doing the same practices and acknowledging the same teachers. You never both feel quite the same about a teacher at the same time: generally one of you is inspired while the other is irritated. One of you wants to go to lots of teachings precisely when the other wants never to hear another mealy-mouthed Buddhist sermon in his life. In some ways it might be rather nice not to share a faith, to have it be acknowledged as a private space you go into.

But I wonder if I've given up too easily, if I shouldn't work a little harder to let my family know what these central experiences of communion and liberation mean to me. It doesn't really seem like the people closest to me should be the last to know.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

What Bones Are For

I've been researching and writing about rib pain in pregnancy. It's an interesting subject, but in trying to write about it I found I kept bumping against a fundamental misconception about what bones are for, and how they function in the body. We tend to think: skeleton is to body as frame is to house. That's certainly how I thought of it, before I went to massage school. What are bones for? Well, to hold your body up, obviously.

It's a perfectly sensible thing to think, but it's quite wrong, and it insidiously distorts how we think about the body and its discomforts. If you've seen a model skeleton, or a real one, it's immediately apparent that the thing can't stand up. It needs to be wired firmly together. So we amend our idea of a frame to include the ligaments. Okay, we say, it's like a frame nailed together, or lashed together, with ligaments.

But we're still wrong, because the damn thing still won't stand up, without a post to support it. As you push it around, and try to imagine making it stand up, it becomes quite clear that the skeleton, admirable though it is, would be a disaster as a frame. That's not its function at all. The bones are not really there to support weight. What supports your weight is your muscle and connective tissue. The real function of bones is almost the opposite of our naive conception: they're as much there to keep us from stretching, as to keep us from collapsing. They're spacers. For the arm to work properly the wrist and the elbow have to be kept a certain distance apart. That's what the bones are for.

Most joints of the body come apart easily, if you remove the muscle and connective tissue. There is, for instance, no bony reason why our arms don't simply come off: they're held on entirely by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. If you've ever had to lug a heavy suitcase through an airport, you'll know that you can't simply hang the suitcase off your bony frame and walk along comfortably, taking the weight on your legs. Not even with a shoulder strap. Your neck and shoulder muscles start screaming bloody hell. The bones are not analogous to a house frame at all.

Why does it matter? Well, because if it's painful to move a joint, we tend to think that something must be out of whack with the frame. The bones are deteriorating, or maybe the ligaments have been overstretched. Our doctors will take x-rays and helpfully tell us we have osteoarthritis (which means, in English, "you're in pain, and there are some bones near the painful place.") Or tendonitis ("you're in pain, and there are some tendons near the painful place.") Or that we have bursitis, whether we do or not. And they tell us that the only thing to do for it is to take painkillers. Our chiropractors will tell us that our bones are subluxated and need to be repositioned, which may or may not be true: what is certainly true is that bones, ordinarily, only stay subluxated if the muscles are pulling them out of position.

Most pain is muscular in origin, and can be treated by 1) rest and 2) massage to resolve knots. It should be the first explanation for pain that we look for, since it's by far the most common: instead it's often the last.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

You're Doing Fabulously

The smoke has arrived from California; the sky at its rim is a dingy, smudged, yellowish gray. Gray sky here in Oregon is no novelty, but that particular shade is different, and disquieting.

My supervisor is leaving the Foundation, to run the database for a much bigger, international non-profit. We have our little "party" for her today -- one of those odd little events when we all sit around the conference table for half an hour and chat, and praise the admin's discernment in treats. These affairs were really dismal in software companies, where people-skills were rare -- a dozen male programmers awkwardly loitering together eating spongy cake, all twitchy, longing to be back in their cubicles, one or two managers making what they hoped were team-building gestures and being resolutely jolly. But even here, in a fundraising office, where people-skills are the stock-in-trade, it will be a bit funereal. The card the admin bought had a black envelope, something nobody but me noticed; I guess the significance of black in correspondence has dwindled away, since the years when you were notified of your son's death in Vietnam by a black-edged letter. But it was appropriate to my feelings.

I'll be tempted to lift up my head and howl, like Hagrid when they have to leave the infant Harry Potter on the doorstep. I'm devoted to Faith, but it's more than that: she's been the living symbol, for me, of leaving the corporate software world, of appearing in the world exactly as what I am. I want nothing at the Foundation to change, which of course is very foolish, since change is what it represented to me: that's how fast we set about walling ourselves in again, once we've broken out. I know that. Still. I took to Faith immediately. At the first set of interviews, when a couple people were leaving and another had not yet come in, I said to her, sotto voce, "this is what I'm worst at in the world, talking to strangers." Not something I could conceivably have said to anyone, in my former life, let alone to a stranger. She smiled with quick comprehension and said "you're doing fabulously."

There's the difference between the world in which I used to work and where I work now. Taking care of each other emotionally is simply assumed to be part of working together. The level of interpersonal intelligence is extraordinarily high. Checking in, making sure there's no hurt feelings, making sure people know you appreciate what they're doing for you, that you know how hard they're working -- we all do it. There was no lack of good will or kindliness at the software companies I worked at. But nobody knew how to apply them. And it matters, it matters deeply, over time. You need to hear it, out loud. "You're doing fabulously."

Oh dear. I'll miss her terribly.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Third Turn

"I don't think you really think poorly of your own poetry at all, do you?" commented Jean. She's right, of course. I wouldn't inflict it on you all if I thought it was awful. I value you highly, and I try not to abuse the privilege of having your ear too often.

But I'm anxious that people should know that I have no aspiration to write great poetry, or to be a great poet.

A student reported that he once said to C.S. Lewis, "the amount of really great poetry is very small." At which Lewis snapped, in some irritation, "The amount that can be read with pleasure and profit is enormous."

I agree. I don't have much patience with the idea of "greatness" in the arts, which I think does more harm than good. It does some good: to approach anything -- art, poetry, another human being -- with reverence, open to learning, is the best way to see what is there. This has something to tell me of great importance and significance. If I don't like it, that's because I don't see it properly.

It's a fruitful attitude, and I wish I, and everybody, spent more time in it. If I thought reverence for great art instilled it more often, I'd approve of it highly. But it seems to me that many of the people who make the most extravagant claims for great art spend most of their time dismissing things that fall short. The chief value of greatness, for them, is that it allows them to luxuriate in contempt for things that are not. You know the sort of people, always talking about how bad this poetry is or how execrable that art is. I always want to say, "for heaven's sake, if it's that bad why are you piddling away your time on it? Go look at some Goya, read some Yeats! Do you think you're going to live forever?"

And then there's what the idea of "greatness" does to the artists. It makes every artistic endeavor a referendum on the quality of their souls. Are they among the saved or the damned? It brings self-consciousness and anxiety into a process that needs above all self-forgetfulness and (in the best sense) carelessness. The best art, I think, is not created by people who are trying to create a great work of art. Praxiteles, I'm guessing, didn't give a damn about art. He wanted to get Hermes, get him exactly right. The greatness, if there is such a thing, is not a special tincture of genius added to the art. It's simply what happens when a person of terrific skill and intense imagination gets it perfectly right. There's no way to just skip being good and go straight to being great. If I had one piece of advice to give to artists and poets, it would be, "just try to do the best work you can. Greatness will happen if it wants to. It's really not your concern. You can't know and it wouldn't matter if you could."

I think what we all need to do, to increase the pleasure and profit of art, is to approach it, and each other, with more reverence. There's no lack of wonderful art and poetry in the world. What's lacking is generosity and openness of appreciation. The greatness isn't in the poem, or in the poet. It's not in the reader either. It's in the communion between poet and reader, refracted through the poem. Which is why -- as we all know, in our bones -- a poem is not complete until it's been read. That's what's important. And that's why I don't care that my poetry's not as good as William Blake's. It can still be an occasion for that intensity of communion; sometimes the more intense and precious for being local, ephemeral, and flawed. I'm not looking for more than that. As T.S. Eliot would say, the rest is not our business.