Saturday, August 30, 2008


. . . it's better not to make gods or demons smile: they don't laugh at the same jokes as us.

-- Jorkens

There's quite a number of facial muscles -- we didn't learn half of them in massage school -- and so far as anyone knows they're all quite useless, except for communicating emotionally with your fellow human beings. Which goes to show how important communicating emotionally is, to us social animals, from a purely cold-blooded, evolutionary point of view. Those who are bad at it tend to not to get to reproduce.

The apologetic email, telling us of our appointments for being photographed, and giving us instructions for how to dress, began "SMILE!" We were to bring a favorite book -- checked out from the library, of course -- to be photographed with.

I had imagined a group photo, but no, these were individual portraits, and the photographer spent the whole day at it. An hour on me alone. I had searched the stacks for a William Blake, but the only copy was a grimy, featureless mustard yellow. So I settled for a rather handsome Yeats.

He took pictures of me with the high library windows marching away behind me. His assistant darted here and there with reflectors. I brandished the book, clutched it, read it. Set a foot on the seat of a chair and rested the book on its back. At one point the photographer said, confounding me utterly, "do things."

Do things? I waved the book, pursed my lips, shrugged. Then I had to laugh, because the perfect line from the book came to my lips, and I recited, "O what am I, that I should not seem / For the song's sake a fool?"

Click. Flash.

After an hour of this, my face was aching. I had a horror, I found, of having the camera look at me and not seeming attentive, and seeming attentive requires quite a bit of exertion by the facial muscles. I tried giving up, breathing through the tension and letting my face relax, but if I succeeded it was only momentarily. The photographer had a whole bag of tricks for eliciting facial expressions from his subject: a sudden calling of my name, quick gestures, nods. I responded to them, willy nilly, even though I knew they were not authentic emotional communications, and I could have resented being played upon, had I not been so interested both in his craft, and in my inability to refrain from responding to it.

So now, of course, I am all curiosity to see such of the photos as I get to see. I don't even know what they're for, but I'm guessing they're for the Foundation's new website; if it's linkable I'll link it.

It is not accidental, I think, that we social mammals are unnerved by animals that are not social. Think of how regularly people remark upon the shark's mirthless smile. We can't help interpreting facial expressions, even when we're dealing with species that don't use them. No shark can smile, whatever muscular apparatus it has around the mouth: to smile you need a limbic brain, the equipment for participating in the emotional experience of another being. But we respond to the smile. It's smiling even though it intends to kill us: what a horrible creature it must be! We are so deeply social that even in danger of our lives, we are almost more outraged by the violation of mammalian emotional decorum than by the fact that we're about to be eaten. If you're going to eat us, we feel, you could at least scowl appropriately! Tigers may be scary (and they are: I'll never forget, at an evening zoo concert, watching a Siberian pace restlessly in the twilight. It gave me gooseflesh. Over millenia, that's been the last sight many a fellow-primate has seen.) But still -- they're just scary, not creepy. A tiger will snarl and bare its teeth as it sinks them into you. That's as it should be. It won't smile.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain's Choice Explained

I was puzzled too, but Sydney has a plausible explanation of McCain's choice for Veep.
Lord Dunsany

I have just read the most perfect short story I have ever read, or can imagine ever reading. It's a lighthearted, frivolous tall tale. It has moments of arresting beauty. And it says as much about what it means to have faith in worldly things as any human creature could well bear to hear. It's called "The Charm against Thirst," by Lord Dunsany.

It's in a collection of "Jorkens" stories, from the 1920's. I'd never heard of them before. Jorkens is a world traveler who tells fabulous stories in his club, if you buy him drinks and promise to believe him; he's close kin to the tale-spinning clubmen of Wodehouse. But where Wodehouse was an entertainer, pure and simple (an honorable trade, and one that no one ever practiced better), Dunsany carries the numinous in everything he writes, like a faint electrical charge. I've read five of the Jorkens stories so far, and they've all delighted me. They work perfectly as entertainments, but there's far more than that running below the surface: the ache to be believed, the mournful sense of being stranded in the workaday world, after a sight of wonders that have left you forever unfitted for it, but which you can never return to or properly convey.

Or maybe you're just an old fraud, cadging drinks. Hard to tell.

If you haven't read The King of Elfland's Daughter or The Charwoman's Shadow, and if you have a taste for fantastical tales, you should read those. But don't try them if you don't like that sort of thing. The Jorkens stories, though, won't offend those whose sensibilities are wounded by archaic language, or by magic taken seriously. Jorkens is just a club raconteur. You're not asked to believe him -- the narrator doesn't believe him either. You're just there for a story.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Breakfast at the Utopia Cafe

A little girl's face rises slowly over the table
Like a harvest moon, her eyes magnified
By enormous glasses. She chews with gusto,
Her mouth free and open. Her attention is
Arrested by the old man tip-typing on his laptop
In the corner. He nods gravely at her. She stares,
Athena in bulging-eyed owl shape,
Her floodlight gaze picking out
Every odd distortion that age has laid on him,
Every wrinkle, the queer way pink scalp shows through
His thin white hair: she turns urgently to her mother
To make a request concerning syrup.
Postal Poetry

Check out Postal Poetry, if you haven't yet. They have one of my napkins (in the archive; I forgot to link at first.)

It's a marvelous idea and it's being run by Dana Guthrie Martin and Dave Bonta. Life doesn't get better than that. Or anyway, websites don't.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Last Morning

Dear Friend,

On this, the last morning,
I want to make sure you know
How grateful I am.

Your kindnesses
Have been

And not, I know
Easy for you.
I have not been

A comfortable friend.
But time drove us together
Made us each believe

The other might supply
The missing end of our lives.
Lives, however

Do not end:
Only stories do.
Feel free to write the end of this one

In whatever way is useful;
I prepare

For the last day,
For a swerve and
A collision.

Only a presentiment,
You understand,
Not an intention.

But light comes around the corner
And Sage's dog Henry
Settles at the foot of the table;

(He likes to attend massages;
Most dogs do.)

Of all things to be feared
Surely death is the least.
Yeats got it exactly wrong:

Death takes what a man would lose,
And leaves what he would keep.
I can't well say

How little I fear
The sudden impact,
The snap

Of the cervical vertebrae.
It is only a moment
Of fear

A last clutch of all those
Fretful hardworked muscles
Which at last

When the rigor has passed
Will relax. And then,
Leaving them,

On to the next thing: a world
Of light and dark, of shiver and return,
Like this one. If we meet there

I hope I can be as kind
As you deserve of me.
Believe me, dear,

Always your friend,


Saturday, August 23, 2008


No, but listen. Far off
there is a music, intricate
and full of grace. There are people
who have danced until
the sweat soaked their shirts
they are sitting now
shoulder to shoulder, heads
almost touching. They don't need
to say anything; their bodies and the music
have said all there is to say. If I will never
be one of them, is that so bad?

Washes the east

You said
you wished we could feel
the way we felt thirty years ago
at the beach, the first time,
running from death and horror
and arriving at what seemed
an anchorage.

Is that more than roundabout way
of saying I wish I still loved you?

I can't do it myself.
And my friends are busy
far away
and troubled themselves.
There is nothing here
but the faintly caught music
and the rosewash sky.

Last night
Arcturus pricked the western sky,
worried, holding
an embarrassment of old old

And as the night turned,
he fell softly
into the mumbling waves:
he is a spring star, too young
for the rigors of winter.

In the small hours,
when even the summer stars have set,
the brilliant winter kings rise:
Capella rides, cold
and uncaring, into the empty sky.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Not Much to be Done

Sat this morning, in the untimed, ill-disciplined fashion I've taken up, watching the waves crest, run, wobble, collapse; long foam-laced rollers breaking up on the basalt rings below the cape. Supposedly I was making the waves the object of my meditation: but they were too interesting for that. Really I was sitting watching the waves, in the half-light of a cloudy, rainy morning.

Wondering about the shape of the final twenty years or so of my life. What remains to be done? Not a whole lot, really. Maybe, in fact, nothing: nothing, that is, but assimilating the idea that nothing remains to be done.

"If I had only a week to live, I would..."

It's a useful exercise, but people tend to think of particular things they would do. What you would mostly be engaged in though, I think, is not doing new things, but laying aside the old plans -- be they sober or drunken ones -- that have accumulated over a lifetime. What's left, with all those ambitions sliced neatly from the taproot? What would we look like, with only the past and the present to cover our nakedness?

Like not much, I'm thinking. A worm on a leaf, arching inquiringly.

Still. I want what I always wanted. The wind at my back pushes me on, habit moves my feet. I wince at remembrance, but it teaches me nothing.

Same old story, same old act;
One step up and two steps back.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I sat shamatha this morning. Felt the long, long sweeps of the shoreline behind my back. So far as I can tell, right around here was Cook's first landfall on his third voyage, when death was marking him. Cape Foulweather, which looms over our apartment, was the first place he named on the northwest coast.

I had often wondered why the exploration along this coast came so late, and was so cursory: how could a navigator like Cook have missed the mouth of the Columbia, Straits of Juan de Fuca, indeed the whole Inside Passage? But now I understand: he was in a hurry. His real business was to find the Northwest Passage, and the summer was already waning. They knew by then that Hudson's Bay, as an entrance for the Passage, was a washout: if a passage was to be found, it was going to be by way of the Arctic Ocean, or Baffin Bay. Way north. Seawater, the science of the day declared, could not freeze: the ice encountered in the north must therefore just accumulations of river ice. The Arctic ocean should be open water. You just had to get there.

So Cook sailed north as fast as he could. No time to nose around river mouths and estuaries. His Russian maps, which showed Alaska as an enormous island, were worse than useless. He cursed them and went on, finding the Bering Straits anyway.

And came, of course, to a wall of ice. Cook saw at once that not the hugest rivers in the world could have produced such an ice pack. Science was no more dependable than Russian mapmakers.

He grimly established there was no way north, and bore away to winter in the Sandwich Islands, where he was to be held down in a couple feet of water and bludgeoned to death: he was a god, sure, but a god in the wrong place, at the wrong time of year. Europeans thought of gods as immortal, but Hawaiians didn't. Theology had failed Cook too.

It's simpler now that I'm cast out altogether. I gather scattered pieces of myself. I find odd bits here and there, things I hastily discarded lest they should make me look bad. No one's looking now; I can take them back.

A few of the Hawaiians, at considerable risk, brought some uneaten bits of Cook back to his shipmates. His right hand bore a very distinct scar: they recognized that.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Otter Rock

A bed so soft my back was protesting by midnight. I woke at intervals, all night, did stretches, disturbed Martha. For an hour maybe I tried the floor, but the carpet, though thick, wasn't quite thick enough, so eventually I got back in that ghastly bed. When first light finally came I got up and did my back exercises for a second time, an elaborate version. Sat shamatha for twenty minutes, facing floor-to-ceiling windows that opened on a blank view of fog. The far static of the surf was the only hint of the sea.

Yesterday the husband of a client turned out to be someone I knew at Informix, before it was bought by IBM. He was still in the business, working for a software company downtown; he had just come back from a year in London, managing their office there.

"That must have been fun," I said.

He looked at me.

"I mean, being in London," I said.

"Oh, yeah," he said, brightening. "London was great."

I gave my little pocket-history of how I left IBM and became a massage therapist.

His wife turned to him. "Maybe that's what you should do."

He looked at her the way he'd looked at me a few moments before. "Become a massage therapist?"

"Not that, but do something completely new."

He made a noncommital noise, and I changed the subject.

It was a hundred degrees in the Valley when we left. Two and a half hours later, we were here at the beach, a ghostly blue sky sometimes visible above the fog: sixty-five degrees, maybe. Gray wraiths twisting around the beach pines; a cool misty breeze lifting the smell of the sea to us.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


The little girl sat down beside me. "You're not thinking hard enough," she announced. "What's happened to you? You used to be the big thinker. People used to come read you because you were thoughtful."

I tried to smile. "Maybe I've had all my thoughts."

"Hmm. Maybe. Or maybe you just got careless. Maybe you started letting other people think for you."

"Maybe I've always let other people think for me."

A piercing stare. "Maybe. But anyway, you were more fun, for a while, there. Now you're not very fun."

"I'm sorry," I said.

She shrugged. "Hell, I don't own you. You don't owe me any fun. You know what? You think too much about what you owe other people. And not enough, at the same time. That's not a paradox." She scowled at me. "I mean in different ways. You think you owe it to people to think their way while you're with them. And then you go away and you think like someone else. But what you don't do is think like yourself. How the hell does anyone know what you really think?"

"For a little girl, you swear a lot," I said.

"That's what you ought to be worrying about. The fact that you owe the truth to people."

"Oh, please," I said. "Didn't I try that a long time ago? Wasn't it idiotic misery for all concerned?"

"I don't know. I don't think you were honest then, either."

"Oh, for God's sake. How's a person to know what's honest, from one minute to the next?"

"Huh. Who's swearing now? You know what's honest."

"Look, honey, I don't know from one minute to the next what my intentions are, or what I think. I'm a mess. Why can't you just accept that? Don't try to improve me, you'll only make me worse. Believe me, this is a small plot of land, and I've built as much character here as it can stand. Build any more and it will all fall over."

"No," she said softly. "Oh no. That's not what I mean, that's not what I mean."

The shadows became stark as the light rose in her. I could not have looked at her, if I dared. "You know what I am," she said. The light began to scorch.

"Do I?" I said bitterly. "Do you know what I am, then?"

"I know enough. I know enough to have come here, in this shape, at this time. What do you want, my dear? I can't know what you won't tell."

"Why have you come, now? Now when I'm broken?" I whispered.

"Because I love you, you idiot. Why did you think? Not because you're particularly prepossessing just now, believe me."

"Mortals are ridiculous. It's not just me."

"Never said it was just you." The laugh purled up and the shadows quivered. "Listen. No, listen: it's simple, dear. Do you think we expect anything else of you? Of course you're broken. You broke so long ago even we can't remember it. But look. I brought you this." She reached up and pulled the tender three quarter moon from its place in the sky. "It's not ripe. But you aren't good at waiting, so take it, now, and keep it with you."

I held out my hand and she put the raw, trembling moon in my palm. "You're not ripe either. It's a perfect match."

The light lessened, the way it does when they're going

"It will remind you," she said. I ventured to look, but she was just barely there, hugging her knees, and then I couldn't see her. But her voice stayed a few moments longer.

"It will remind you," she repeated. "Oh, you poor foolish man, I do love you."

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Late at night
Malvolio gazes in the mirror
And touches his smile in wonder.

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Ghost Ships

When the islander sold the corpse of his son
To Mr Banks of the Royal Society, we can only guess
What the transaction meant to him.

Necklaces of polished shell, breastplates scaled
With mother-of-pearl, cloaks of ten thousand scarlet
And indigo feathers (the death of flocks of tiny birds)

Were sold for a shining nail. For the return of
A stolen sextant, four men were taken hostage,
Men who spent a night in irons expecting

These apparitions of demonstrated savagery
And cruelty would slaughter them.
They had seen them do justice on their own people,

Lashing the white skin off their backs.
What would they do to strangers?
But in the morning, the sextant returned,

These pale, stinking, wolfish men were all
Smiles and affability, and seemed surprised
That they should take it hard.

The ships, the strange backward ships
With towering posts in the middle, instead of
At the ends, gliding in with the wind, reeking

Of urine and frying oil; the ships
Gliding in as if downhill, gliding in like the ghosts
Of friends abandoned in war.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Nobody Listening

I wandered, blinded, overwhelmed by work, out onto the street. Tried to walk one way, or another. The decision about which way to walk was too difficult to make. I thought of trying a new restaurant for lunch, but knew I could never muster the courage to walk into a new place. I wasn't sure I had the courage to walk into a place I knew. Hesitantly I walked a few blocks towards the river, then a few blocks north. The sun walked behind me, fingering his club.

Taking another step was more than I could do. I came to a halt. People hurried by me on the sidewalk.

A tall, thin, patched young man, with something of an Amish look, was playing a violin on the corner. He stood stiffly, and he wore clumsy boots. When he broke into a riff he would wiggle a little, the music in his body at war with his native awkwardness.

As I stood there, with the sun beating down on my head, I became aware that he was playing an intricate piece, and playing it with extraordinary virtuosity and passion. No one was listening to him. I don't know that I looked as if I was listening to him. But I closed my eyes and let myself be swamped by the music, filled up with it. It was very beautiful. Merry music, running directly against the grain of of my anxiety. And this young man from nowhere, playing. Just on the chance that someone might hear.

Suddenly I was okay. The weight lifted off me. I straightened up. I could breathe.

I walked over and dropped a five into the violin case open by his feet. "Thanks, man," I mumbled, probably inaudibly, unable to meet his glance. I went to try a new cafe for lunch.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Nous Sommes Trahis

Nous sommes trahis! cried Napoleon's soldiers, when they broke and ran at Waterloo. We are betrayed! It has been, throughout history, a very common thing for running soldiers to shriek.

They had not been betrayed, of course. They had simply lost. But it's much easier on the heart to tell yourself that you would have fought to the last, if only the people you trusted hadn't let you down. And it doesn't take an over-clever Freudian or deconstructionist to guess where the idea of betrayal comes from: they themselves are betraying their people by running. They are, themselves, the people who were trusted not to let their side down. Nous sommes trahis, indeed.

The room slowly went dark; the piano became a looming mass on my right, and the crescent moon rose over the marshland below the bluff. I didn't want the massage to end. It was the one entirely right thing in my life.

Her husband had chased the kids back up to bed, with ominous threats of not being able to do something or other tomorrow if they didn't stay put. After ten minutes or so I heard a soft creak on the stairs. The six year old had to peek in to see her Mom getting a massage. Perhaps I should have looked stern and forbidding, but I couldn't help grinning at her. She crept down again, at intervals, while the moon rose, and we shared the secret of her disobedience: she stared in wonder, and I in turn wondered what category of experience this would fall into, in a six-year-old's world.

A ring of dust where the vase used to be.

Jesus, help me be kind. Help me find a way to be a blessing, not a curse, to those around me.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Good News

An old woman I had never seen before came up to my table yesterday and said: "I just wanted to share some good news with you."

I looked up at her and smiled, though my heart sank. How long was she going to keep me from my book? Was she going to tell me about how Jesus had died for me? But no. "I became a great grandmother this morning," she said.

"Oh, congratulations!" I said, giving her hand, which she'd laid on the table, a quick squeeze.

"My granddaughter had -- not one... not two... not three... four babies this morning! Two boys and two girls!"

I was almost, but not quite, sure that she was unhinged, and probably had no children at all, but I couldn't see how it mattered. "Oh, that's wonderful!" I said.

She beamed at me and went on her way, completely untroublesome.

Today it seems to me -- I've spent my whole life doing this, participating in stories I was pretty sure were false, in order to spare the feelings of fragile people, in order to share moments of joy that were nevertheless as real as could be hoped for. I could never in a million years have said, "nonsense, woman, you have no more great grandchildren than I do: you were just desperate for the touch of a hand. Take the touch and welcome, but go away now and let me read!"

People want, more than anything else, that you should believe their stories. I will confess here, as I will never be able to confess to anyone in the flesh: I don't believe any of your stories. Not one. I do love you, though. I wish that was enough.
Yes, a post just disappeared from here. One of those messages you realize, moments after pressing "send," will reach everyone but its intended audience, sowing confusion all along the way.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Friends to this Ground

Death came walking up to me, unsteady on his feet.

"Spare any change?" he muttered.

I had someone wriggling on my table the other day. Kept apologizing for it. She was happy and getting a lot of benefit from the massage. Where did the convention come from, that it's indecorous and counterproductive to move on the table?

Certain topics come up, and they make me restless. I want to speak. I know the answer to this one. I know what needs to be said.

These are almost always topics that are not within my expertise; and it would do no harm if I identified this anxiety to speak as "the sensation of being wrong about something."

Some people find it almost impossible not to participate, when you move them. You lift their arm and they lift it too. They usually apologize for this. They often report that some friend or lover has told them it betokens a lack of trust, or an inability to let go. When I offer an alternative explanation -- that their motor reflexes are set at a higher sensitivity -- they're usually surprised. I wish the amateur psychologists would back off a little.

It's true that most people can learn to disable this semi-automatic participation in moving their bodies. It's a motor skill, like wiggling your ears, that most people can learn but many have never had occasion to. But I've never observed any correlation between this involuntary movement and a tendency to distrust, or a tendency generally to hold bodily tension.

Friday, August 01, 2008


Feeling old and shaken, dispossessed. "They act as though no people had ever been conquered and dispossessed, before," wrote some busybody, "when in fact it's the daily experience of mankind. Get over it."

The play of cold water, wet stone, hooded sun: this is the end of all that exhausting march? To have to listen to revisionist histories, to hear myself maligned in the only matter in the world in which I'm blameless?

Yah. Get over it. Since when does any of us get to write his own story, interpret his own life? It doesn't mean what I say it does. It means what other people say it does.

In the quiet dawn I sat down on the front steps and watched the light turn, luff, and fill. Another day under weigh, working to windward under light sail. Rain comes walking down from the north: a little pattering drumbeat, a wandering, crossed rhythm.

Last Tuesday, Tele's little nine-day-old baby lay on the couch, sleeping. Every once in a while she would startle, as babies do, give an odd little croaking whuffle, and reach her hands out of her blanket, the fingers expanding and contracting like sea-fronds. Still asleep. I knelt there with a hand lightly on her wrappings, following the rise and fall of that tiny respiration.

"I massaged you when you were still in your Mom's tummy," I told her. But she was walking in dreams, her eyelids flickering faintly, her thoughts no more accessible now than they were then.