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.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

American Sentences

Okay, help me here. All the cool kids are writing these things called American Sentences. If I understand it right, this is a poetic form invented by Allen Ginsberg, and it's a single seventeen-syllable line. And I don't get it.

This is a humiliating confession for me. I pride myself on getting poetry. There are some forms I like less than other forms, but for the most part I feel like I understand what they're getting at. The way that the ballad form goes for repetition and undeniable closure with with every quatrain, say. I may like it or not, I may think it's suitable for some particular poem or not. But at least I get it.

Not so with American sentences. First of all, the line. One line is the same as none. Isn't it? I mean, a line only comes into effect by being divided from other lines. What lines make are pauses, where you draw breath, or lift your eye. A single line isn't a line, it's an absence of lines.

Okay. And now syllables. First of all, the American language is a heavily stressed language. Its rhythms aren't made by patterns of syllables, they're made by patterns of stresses. From day one, no one's really minded if you have a few too many unaccented syllables, or a few too few. Who's counting? Not Americans. Now, if you have a language with syllabic quantity, like Latin or Greek, where syllables are actually long or short -- I mean, long or short in the amount of time it consumes to say them, where a long 'a' is (more or less) twice as long as a short 'a' -- counting syllables makes sense. You can make patterns out of them. And some languages, such as French, are severely handicapped, having neither stress nor quantity, and they have to count syllables to make poetry. What else can they do?

So. In an American Sentence we have seventeen syllables. Why? Why seventeen? Why not eleven, or twenty-one? Most verse forms spin off rhythms or patterns of daily speech, exaggerating tendencies that are already there. A line is more or less what you can say before taking another breath. Iambic pentameter is more or less the rhythm of English speech. Jingly rhymes come naturally to children, and rhyme-schemes spin off of that.

But seventeen syllables? It's artificial. It's arbitrary. It has nothing to do with natural American speech. There's no one who just always pauses on his seventeenth syllable. No one even knows when he or she's come to the seventeenth syllable. The only way you can figure out if you have seventeen syllables is by counting them out on your fingers. You can't figure it out by singing, or chanting, because there's no American song that has a seventeen-syllable line.

So I don't get it. I like some of the American Sentences people write. But not as poems, just as sentences. And I can't see why they'd be any better, or any worse, if they were sixteen or eighteen syllables long. I simply can't see it as a poetic form.

So help me out, here. What does an American Sentence feel like? It must touch some chord for you all, or you wouldn't keep reading and writing them. It must have some source in speech or song that's hidden from me. What is it?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Before Winter

for read write word #1

God's cocked hand
Is full of rain, broken levies, dirty water, and
Cholera: but unaccountably
He misses the beat
And does not throw.

Stubborn incandescence, the anapest
Of the year: warm wind in cool shadow,
The science of sidewalk-splits,
Fingers of frost in the Earth's warm belly.

You turn to me at the flood wall,
Hooded eyes laughing, making
Whispers into a tingle of ouzo
On the sides of my cold tongue.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Mountain Ash

A flash of light from the outlet, when I plug in the laptop: piercing blue at the center, yellow at the edges. I see, suddenly, all the wiring of the city, snaking through all those walls; the substations, the brooding gigantism of Bonneville dam, millions upon millions of lights burning, lights burning just to make a room cheerful, lights left on thoughtlessly. Motors running: kitchen appliances, clocks, stoves. I walk through the house with the lights out, and see tiny eyes glowing in every room, a dozen little red or green indicator lights on various gadgets that aren't even doing anything, but which feel the need to say that they're alive. Microwaves that want to tell me the time. Smoke alarms displaying vigilance. The machine equivalent of blogging.

Your pale face held an unearthly beauty yesterday, a beauty I wanted to reach through to, but am old enough to know can't be touched. Like reflections in a pool: the moment you touch, they vanish. Instead I turn your head and grasp the back of your neck and give the whole thing a soft wringing-out. "Like a cat picking up a kitten," someone said, an image that is inaccurate, but which always recurs. Then, putting a little traction on the skull with a thumb and forefinger in the suboccipitals, the other hand cradling the occiput, I rotate the head, slowly, barely perceptibly, like the wheel of the stars at night. I speculate that you must do yoga, and then realize that you, in your twenties, can probably take this range of motion quite for granted. All the way from the rising of Vega to the setting of Arcturus. I could turn even further, if I liked. Young owl.

Later you talk eagerly, glowing, sitting on the bed. I stand a little awkwardly -- I'm not willing to claim the intimacy of sitting on the bed or on the floor, and there's no other seat to be had -- and I feel again how oddly my age sits on me. But no. Really my age suits me, I think. I have always been this old, and now I've grown into it. The thing out of place is the way I thought of people my age when I was young, or maybe, to be more accurate, how I didn't think of people my age. In a just world you'd ignore me completely, tit for tat, as paper cut-out rather than as a person. Fortunately, fortunately, it's not a just world.

Sun on the mountain ash, its fruit a glowing rust-color, the even-set leaflets rippling in the breeze.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Time to Walk

Dawn just beginning to break. No hint yet of birds. Kiki comes to delicately inquire about breakfast. I'm not the usual person to feed her, but I'm sitting here at Martha's place. Perhaps?

But no. I'm tip-tapping away at a keyboard, as usual. After an expectant pause, there is the sound of crunching behind me. A little dry cat food. Then she vanishes, off to make her early morning rounds, whatever they may be.

No sound of birds yet. Put my coffee back in the microwave. So many habits I'll have to establish, if I'm to eat breakfast at home.

Thoughts crowd me, that never crowd me at Tosi's. I should clean the kitchen. I really should establish a weekly routine, everyone cleaning the kitchen once a day, and make it happen. I should have done it fifteen years ago, for that matter, rather than have vanished from the squalor every day. I need to get those SOAPs off to that insurance company. I ought to get my room set up for writing. I should paint it, too. And speaking of painting, both porches, front and back, really need to be not just painted, but rebuilt. What would that cost, I wonder? A lot of money we don't have. Will the economy improve if we elect Obama, or is it too late? Probably too late, I reflect. Several good years of recession, no matter what. We should never have incurred this debt on the house. Why did I let that happen? I used to make good money.

Well. So that's why I always eat breakfast out, so that I'll have lofty thoughts about Buddhism and literature in the morning, rather than this long depressing mumble about the home front, laced with recrimination. Let Martha do the long depressing mumble.

No. Not content with that any more. The changes I invoked, I have to deal with.

There is a lightening in the sky, just enough to make the silhouette of the neighbor's dogwood visible. I open the door to breathe the free air a second, and to see what the sky looks like out of the direct glare of the kitchen lights. It's quite light out there, really, and the air is as fresh as if it had wandered straight here off the Pacific.

I turn off the kitchen lights. Now I can see the sky, mottled gray-blue and iron; the trees are still just black cut-outs against it. I'm reminded of the tattoo across a client's shoulders. "The trees were dark, but the sky was still blue." Proust. And leaves, just like these. What a marvelous thing to discover, on turning down the sheet. It seemed unprofessional to remark on it. It seems unprofessional to mention it on my blog. But I mean. So wonderful.

Tori comes in. "You can turn on the lights, if you like," I say, but she gets her cereal in dark, without speaking, and goes into the living room, where Ashley has been sitting quietly at her computer, all this time. It's nearly seven, though. I can't expect to have the kitchen to myself forever, not even on Sunday morning. The urge to get out is mounting, becoming irresistable. The air is calling. Three crows fly silently over the dogwood. What do I do, if I'm not going to Tosi's? Walk up & around the reservoir up on Mt Tabor?

Now the first bird, or the first one I can hear. Scrub jay. They don't usual weigh in this early. Are the other birds really silent, still? I open the door again. Someone else is peeping faintly. At the turn of the weather, though, I don't really know what to expect. In summer, when it was this light, the full chorus was going. The birds are disconcerted too, having to change their habits. They want someone to refill their coffee; they want the clink of dishes from the diner kitchen, the smell of bacon. Only the jay is awake enough to complain about it though.

The sky is almost white, now. Time to walk.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Juvenilia IV

These two have been in the oven a long time.


That old wall-eyed professor, he approves of everyone;
Thinks anyone is worth the time of day.
What can he know? No, find the
Razor-tongued, vitriolic man,

Whose students run in tears from his office,
And try to please him. Be sure not to smile
At anything cute. Don't laugh unless you see
The corners of his mouth begin to move.

Look for the greed in every generosity.
Obtain the dental records of that horse's sires
To the third and fourth generation. It's tricky
You have to look like you don't want his approval

Or he's sure to withhold it. Show how every action
Defeats its avowed end. How the sentimental
Is laced with cruelty. Set yourself ready to sneer
Because you never know

When an opportunity might arise, and then
You might sneer at the same thing
And find yourselves comrades.
The blessing! So suppose you do that,

Your reward will be someday
To run in tears from that office yourself
With cruelties tailored expressly for you:
And armed with those, and the skills you have learned,

One day you may have an office of your own.

Some One Time

Rose-white; the track of a thrush,
A dotted line against the clouds:
The softness of your vulva
In my fingers.

Folding the sky into
An origami of moisture;
The sweetness of your wetness,
The curved lines of pubic hairs

Barely felt, like the lines on the back
Of a drawn-on napkin; a braille
Of wanting. You came

The hard lozenges under my tongue
Of nipples that have woken
After long slumber. It is painful
And so folded in

With suffering past and to come,
That grief overcomes even delight,
And suddenly I go slack, and bury my head
In your shoulder.

"It's okay," you say,
Using my own words against me.
And you are right. The sky
Is stitched, and unstitched,

Day and night, the clouds fold
And unfold; the labia kiss my fingertips;
If nothing is forever, it is only so that
Some one thing can be in some one time.

Damn Nagarjuna,
And all his tribe:
Your sweet-and-sour taste
Lingers on my lips.

The thrush comes to
A momentary halt: its thin branch
Sways once, black,
Against the white sky.
Juvenilia III

I don't remember why I didn't post this. Possibly because I backslid for a day or two before I fully recovered. It must have been written in July.


So I knew I'd been gradually gaining weight back. But not that much, I thought. And I was feeling good, in my body, strong from massage, fit from bicycling. I don't have a great ambition to have the same waist I had when I was seventeen. I may not be svelte, but I'm in much better shape, at fifty, than I was at seventeen. I stand straighter and move easier and it takes a lot longer to tire me out. I take a malicious delight in the fact that a lot of the athletic jocks who made my life a misery in junior high school can barely waddle back and forth between the house and the SUV now; I float past them on my lovely blue and silver Trek in ungenerous exultation.

Then came the last couple weeks: all hell broke loose in a number of ways. Business mysteriously tanked. Was it the weather? High holiday season? All I know is that the phone went silent.

The weather was sultry. Some people have less of an urge to eat in that kind of weather: not me. Any discomfort makes me want to eat. And someone brought home a half-gallon of limeade.

I love limes, and limeade, with the sort of fervor that hobbits have for mushrooms. A tall glass full of ice, refilled with limeade, and refilled again. In no time the half-gallon was gone. I got some more. I haven't tried to reckon just how much sugar I consumed: I don't think I want to know.

It was interesting to watch, since I have a clue about the mechanics of it now. From that point on, I was riding the isulin roller-coaster. For years I've given up putting sugar in my coffee. Now, in some bemusement, I could watch my hands reach for the sugar in the morning. "I don't take sugar in my coffee any more," I would tell them. They would nod agreeably, and tilt a couple tablespoons into the cup.

And suddenly I was hungry all the time. All the time. Hungry even when I was stuffed, when no human being could possibly be hungry. Desperately hungry, the way you'd feel if you'd starved for days. At any idle moment I started thinking of what I would eat next. Nothing was going to stop me from eating. And meanwhile, a totally unexpected emotional bomb had burst beneath me, lofting me completely free of any self-control I might have tried to bring to bear on it.

Yesterday I was finally able to call a halt. I pulled out a measuring tape. 47 inches. Mein lieber Gott! At my most expansive I was still under 49. I must weigh something like 225, then.

Thank God for Atkins. There's only one way I know of to break the power of those blood-sugar swings, and that's to go completely cold turkey on the carbs for a couple days. Doesn't matter what the hell you eat, so long as it's not carbs. No sugar, no corn syrup, no flour, no rice, no potatos. No fruit. Eggs, bacon, butter, hamburger, hot dogs are fine. Just no ketchup, no barbeque sauce, no juice, no flavored-corn-syrup salad dressings: none of those thinly disguised mainline sugar hypodermics. We're not aiming at nutrition, the first couple of days. We're just aiming to stop the blood-sugar levels from swinging wildly.

I quit at noon yesterday. I ate a vast salad drenched in oil (the carbs in vegetables apparently metabolize so slowly they're not a problem) for lunch and some hot dogs for dinner. At breakfast today I find it hard even to remember the desperation of that urge to put sugar in my coffee. Here's my coffee, there's the sugar. "I don't have sugar with my coffee," I say. "All right!" say my hands brightly, demurely pretending they always do whatever I say.

I can't say what a relief it is to be free of that sugar-compulsion. It infects everything. There's a subtle current of desperation running under every other emotion, when it holds sway.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Juvenilia II

I wrote this when McCain first chose Palin. Might as well post it now, since she's in the public eye at the moment. I write about politics sometimes, but almost never post what I write: I don't like the tone I slip into. It's easy, all too easy, to write out of contempt, but not much worth reading usually comes of it.


I'm trying not to take it as a studied insult, McCain's selection of Palin, but that's what it feels like. It's the nightmare of the last eight years replayed at high speed, and thrown in my face. Americans, it says, are vapid and ignorant. All they want is pretty faces and pretty words. They don't give a damn really about knowledge and hard work and experience and human decency. They're incapable of distinguishing packaging from content.

That's what it says to me. And it only hurts, of course, because I'm afraid that it's true. Perhaps it is, and democracy for America was always a stupid idea. Maybe the mob really is incapable of governing itself.

I felt more than a twinge of this when Obama won his first caucuses. He's won my grudging approval since, by running the smartest, best-organized, best-disciplined presidential campaign that has ever been run by anyone. And of course by having policies that I approve of, or at least don't loathe, and by seeming to be an intelligent and decent man. And above all by his motto for hiring: "no drama queens," he's supposed to have said. I approve down to the bottom of my boots.

But at first it felt much like this: I was just exasperated. This is serious, folks. This is the presidency of the biggest, baddest rogue state of them all that we're talking about, a superpower bristling with nukes, and with an enormous army posted all over the world. This is the economy that's taking down the stability of the global climate. This is not a job for a freshman senator from Illinois. It's not a job for a neophyte governor of Alaska, either.

You want change? Fine. Elect a congress that will enact change. That's where change is supposed to happen. There's only one way a president of the United States will make fundamental changes -- by overthrowing the constitution. Is that what you want? Think, for God's sake, think for a change.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


It's embarrassing just how much gratification figuring out how to reliably reproduce this simple braid pattern gave me. It took at least an hour, and of course it's so simple that once I grasped it I felt that any dunderhead should have been able to figure it out in five minutes. But I also felt the delight of seeing complicated things unfold from simple principles, which is one of my chief pleasures, and the delight of kinship with long-dead Indian and Tibetan and Celtic artists, whoever they were, who first figured these things out. I'm sure they got the same rush of gratification. Once you know how it works, you can make it work anywhere, any time: it's like the pleasure of learning your first arithmetic, and finding that it works everywhere: two plus two is always four, whether it's apples or oranges or noble truths. How cool is that?

I'm dutifully reading a biography of William Pitt the Younger, because I don't know anything about him, and that seemed weird, for someone who is as interested in Napoleonic times as I am. I've discovered, though, why it's taken so long for me to learn anything about him: he is the single most boring Important Person who ever lived.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Against "Carrying the Practice"

When I first started going to the Tibetan Buddhist place, KCC, what I mostly went to was a Sunday evening discussion group. We read books by Kalu Rinpoche or Alan Wallace or Pema Chödrön and talked about them. A consistent theme, and one of the reasons I liked the group, was how, as our teacher put it, to "carry the practice" into everyday life. Putting the insights gained through meditation to work. When push came to shove, I felt, this was what mattered. If the practice didn't make me wiser, kinder, calmer, and healthier to be around in my daily life, what good was it? So we talked about how to deal with difficult relatives or unhealthy cravings or exasperating work situations in light of the Dharma. They were good discussions, and I miss them. I couldn't understand why our teacher stopped holding them.

As I've aged in the Dharma, though, I've become more and more skeptical of the usefulness, or even the possibility, of "carrying the practice" as a conscious endeavor. A friend of mine was contemplating suing the people he used to work for, who had treated him abusively (and illegally.) He asked me, did Buddhism have anything to say about how he should proceed? Besides just "concede"?

My answer, basically, was no. It doesn't have anything to say. You can't really run "what would the Buddha do?" scenarios, not very usefully. And to my thinking now, that's not what Buddhism is for. Buddhism is really pretty useless as a guide to daily life. We simply have to do our best, as we did before we met the Dharma, to look out for our own interests and yet to be fair and kind. It's hard and often unsatisfactory. Often there just don't seem to be any good solutions. That's life. Buddhism doesn't change it. Often it doesn't even shed any new light on it.

So what good is it? Why do I still think practice is worthwhile? Why do I still do it?

Buddhist practice changes two things: what we see, and how much space for creative response there is in between seeing it, and our habitual response to it. These are both things that happen before conscious problem-solving even begins. By the time we're contemplating a practical problem, and trying to decide what to do, the parts that Buddhist practice can help us with are mostly already over.

Buddhism, of course, has ethical precepts, just as any religion does, and they're much the same as everyone else's. Ethics is not something that changes a lot. Be kind, follow the reasonable rules of your people, do your share of the work & take only your share of the gain, think how it must be for the other guy. Avoid getting drunk. Try not to lose your temper. Tell the truth. Keep your promises. Give to the poor. That sort of thing. Nothing radical there. A good Buddhist and a good Muslim and a good atheist all look pretty much alike. And all of them find themselves in ethically perplexing situations where the rules aren't much help. You do your best. What else?

In Buddhism we work on familiarizing ourselves with the workings of our own mind. We watch its habitual patterns. We identify what it chooses to pay attention to, and what it prefers to ignore. In meditation, we attempt to stop, for the space of a few minutes, or at most a couple hours, taking our perceptions at face value, and attend instead to the process of perceiving. Instead of contemplating the stupidity of Sarah Palin, we attend to how we seek out only information that makes her look stupid, and avoid information that makes her look thoughtful. We watch ourselves construct her stupidity; we watch how obsessively we return to its construction, how urgently we resist its deconstruction. We begin to understand her stupidity as a property of our own minds, rather than as a property of Palin herself; and we begin to understand how we in fact are violently injuring our own hearts by holding on to our contempt for her.

Do we then vote for the McCain-Palin ticket? Of course not. And there's no reason why a Republican Buddhist should change her mind and vote Obama-Biden. That's not the level of change we're looking for. Buddhists have no more political perspicacity than anyone else, and there's no reason why they should. We shouldn't look for that. What we should look for is a deeper understanding of what our minds are doing.

In particular I distrust a sort of "heroic Buddhism," in which you really try to act as the Buddha would, with no concern whatever for your own well-being, letting everyone else's physical and emotional needs take precedence over your own. Without the Buddha's clarity this is only another variety of attachment, and an invitation to abuse. If Buddhist practice works, then true and effective generosity will grow of its own accord. Buddhist selflessness in practice would not look much like Jewish-mother selflessness. For one thing, the more you understand about the mind the better you understand that, generally, what people regard as the sources of their happiness are actually the sources of their misery, and that "doing what they want" is possibly the least kind thing you could do. A genuine Buddha would be a pain in the butt. The Buddha Shakyamuni's brother-in-law, you'll remember, wanted to kill him, and I bet he wasn't the only one.

In the long run -- yes, this understanding seeps into the practical world. We do become gentler, easier people to be around. We hold our opinions with a slightly less desperate clutch. We see things a little differently. But hard choices and perplexities don't go away. My feeling about practice now, is -- just do it, and leave it on the cushion. In daily life just do your best, as you always have. Don't look to Buddhism to solve your problems and change the externals of your worldly life. That's not what it's for.