Sunday, May 31, 2009

My lover comes home tonight from far away
from fogs where sunlight glints on gray
from the thump and purl of insisting waves.

She won't still love me the voices say
the shrouded moon will have drawn her to play
with men far older and younger, who pray

sweetly in her own tongue, who pay
extravagant compliments and array
her in opals and pearls and jade.

My lover comes home tonight from far away;
She won't still love me the voices say.

Friday, May 29, 2009

I Am Sorry My Poems Make Sense

in admiration of Mary Szybist

I am sorry my poems make sense. I know it is wrong.
I can't help myself. I want as much as you
to suck the underlip of meaning into my mouth
to feel its tilt and tremble, to feel it follow
into ecstasies, into a wrenched and rendered sky.
But the ghosts will have their way. I feel
their delicate tongues in my ear. They put meanings there
like little eggs, and they grow huge in my head,
and then they come out in my poems, intolerably
distended. There's no help for it. But skance
your head -- be a crow and speculate a blowing bag --
and the meanings will tumble right back out again.
What's left might be a poem. We can hope.
The Gay Cavaliers

If I am to ride to my death
(and I am to ride to my death)
let me ride with the gay cavaliers;

not with the laggards and fainthearts,
objectors and complainers, who would
if only, who think better, who drown

in a welter of second (third, fourth, fifth
sixth, seventh) thoughts. Let me be with those
who hold their heads up, with those who make

rash vows and keep them. We are
all going down. Every one of us, in hospital
or home, in battle or on some dark highway

with our blood bubbling around us. No matter
how carefully we prepare our case, no matter
what supporting documents, coached witnesses,

and sympathetic judges, no one wins that one.
"I don't deserve to die," we say. "I'm sure you don't,"
Death kindly says, "but that's not my department."

So on this May morning, let me ride
with gay and gallant people, the sort
who give a twenty to a wheezy drunkard

and go without breakfast and lunch. The sort
who take infinite care tying a child's shoes.
Let the last you hear of us

be a ringing laugh, hanging in the bright air
a moment,
before it floats off over the hill.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the Soapbox

Massage careers are typically short -- three to four years, on average. There are two reasons for this. One is that it doesn't pay well, particularly if you're working for someone else; and the sort of people who are drawn to massage therapy are often not good business people, so that a lot of them -- who are perfectly good therapists -- simply can't get and keep a business going on their own. Keeping books, networking, and advertising; paying office rent and quarterly taxes; reckoning expenses and setting prices, are not in their skill set. They end up working at spas for fifteen bucks an hour, with no benefits, doing half a dozen massages a day. Which is hard physical labor, and not something many people are up to doing for long. And not what they had wanted to do in the first place.

Which brings us to the second reason most massage careers are short: people wear their bodies out. The most important thing I learned in massage school was nothing to do with massage techniques per se: it was simply learning how to do physical work without hurting myself. How to stand, how to let my shoulders settle, how to apply pressure with my weight, smoothly, from my center of gravity, rather than by pushing and jerking. I typically don't feel at all tired after a two hour massage: on the contrary, I feel light and energized and joyful. I'm grateful to East-West College for drumming body mechanics into me. It wasn't something they talked about every once in a while: it was something they emphasized in every class, every practical demonstration. All my instructors had been therapists for fifteen or twenty years -- three or four times the average career length -- so they all knew how important it was.

It has nothing to do with how big and muscled you are. I have clients who picked me because I'm big burly guy, and they imagine I'll give a strong massage. That's lucky for me, but it's nonsense, as anyone who's had a massage from one of those tiny, ancient Thai masseuses can testify: what matters is not your weight and muscle, but knowing how to use it. If I find myself straining, using my muscles hard, I know that I'm doing something wrong. It should all be easy. And the benefit runs both ways: a massage from someone who's working too hard doesn't feel right. It jolts and jerks. It doesn't feel safe.

The things I learned in school spill over into everyday life, of course. I sit differently than I used to. I don't use the backs of chairs much: I tend to sit on the edges of chairs now, with my belly thrust forward and my shoulders back, so my spine can have its natural curve. I noticed the other day that in the morning when I get up out of my bed, which is down on the floor, I no longer push myself up flat-handed, which is murder on the wrist. I use my knuckles, like any sensible ape, so that my wrist is straight. A straight wrist can bear a couple hundred pounds' force easily. A bent one can be injured by twenty.

The other piece of body maintenance is the trigger-point self-treatment, which I mostly learned on my own, first from Clair Davies' wonderful distillation, and then from Travell & Simon's wonderful book, his source. This has been a godsend. The general knowledge about what musculoskeletal pain is and how to fix it is abysmal, both among the public and among the medical community. Every day people tell me about how they've been diagnosed with ligament injuries, tendonitis, arthritis, carpal tunnel, and bone spurs. I can't legally object to these diagnoses -- that's not within my scope of practice, as a massage therapist -- but secretly I know that seventy-five percent of them are crap. Some of these people are in tremendous pain, and they've been told that nothing but general analgesics or dubiously effective surgery will help. Mostly they just have trigger points in the muscles, from bad sitting habits or muscle overuse or trauma. It all has nothing to do with deformations of bone, or connective tissue injuries. It's just muscle injury, and muscles, which are richly supplied with blood and designed to recover quickly from damage, heal up remarkably quickly, if they're given the chance.

What people don't want to hear is this: you have to let injured muscles heal, and you have to stop re-injuring them. It's mostly as simple as that. You can't sit stock still at a desk for ten hours a day, with your shoulders hunched and your back slumped and and your elbows unsupported, and expect your muscles to just take it. They won't. It's not because you're getting old, and it's not because you're fat, and it's not because you're stressed. It's because you're abusing your muscles. Muscles need to move often and freely.

I don't think anyone should work at a desk for a full workday. If you have to, then you must take care of yourself, by doing, at a minimum, this:

1) Take all of the breaks legally allowed you, and get the hell away from the desk. Stand up and walk away. Don't, for God's sake, spend your breaktime sitting. Walk, run, dance, do gymnastics, stand on your head. Lie down, if at all possible. Do anything but sit.

2) Make excuses to get up during your worktime. When I'm doing data entry at the Foundation, every fifteen or twenty minutes I need to print out a report of the commited data. Every time I hop up and walk the thirty feet to the printer to fetch the print-out. It's not efficient. I could let them pile up and fetch them all at once, and save myself five or ten minutes a day. I do it deliberately, though, to force myself out of the chair. I believe that the better blood flow probably makes me a smarter and more efficient worker anyway, so that it's worth it even in work terms, but whether it does or not, I'm going to keep doing it.

3) Pay attention to the ergonomics of your workplace, and experiment with changing it. Periodically bring your awareness to how your body feels when you sit this way or that way, try adjusting your chair higher or lower, try having your elbows supported, try having your keyboard and monitor in different places, at different heights. Try sticking a paperback book under one buttock or the other, & see if your spine likes that better.

If you're doing a full day of desk work, be aware that you're undertaking something that's very difficult for the human body. If you were digging ditches all day, or cutting down trees, or scything a wheatfield, you'd know that, and no one would find it remarkable that you wanted to lie down and rest, do something different, when you got a break. Desk work is supposed to be easy. We don't think of it as something that strains our physical abilities to their utmost. But it does. To do it and remain uninjured, over the long haul, requires a lot of attention and a lot of effort. It won't just happen. What will just happen is back pain, neck pain, spasms, cramps, searing pain in the wrists (elbows, knees, hips), aching eyes, and headaches.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Minding Words

I'm writing a column for Sage Cohen's Writing the Life Poetic zine. The first article has been posted on the WLTP blog: Give up Being a Poet.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What They Don't Teach in Massage School

Sometimes you have to search:
Each body is the same and each is different.
In some the joy is curved in the outer
gastroc belly; in some it twines between

the sixth and seventh ribs.
Some people carry it prisoned in the forearm,
nestled in a sheet of tissue that connects
the radius to the ulna. It's seldom where you expect.

You arrive at the zoo, pretending to visit.
In the bustle of closing time, you pull
A warm key from your pocket. Quick. Thrust and turn:
fade into the crowd. Go home.

The tigress won't move, won't blink an eye.
Her ribs rise and fall. But you both know
that in the dark of midnight
a nudge of her head will swing the door wide.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Clear skies; fresh air blowing down from the Gorge. Dandelion fluff wandering out on the wind, out over the sea.

I've lost the thread, as I do, periodically, upon having achieved or completed something. Othello's occupation's gone. What was I doing with my life, again? Who am I this time?

It's easy to think of these as the times of failure. They are, after all, when I eat stupidly, drink too much coffee, linger unprofitably and compulsively on pleasures that don't please.

But, precisely because they are the times when things obviously don't match up, they are actually windows. It's a good thing not to have my ducks lined up, sometimes. To watch them paddle away into new water. Not to know what the hell I'm doing. Nothing more poisonous than knowing what I'm doing. If I really knew what I was doing, it would be time to close up shop and go home.

My shoulders drop and the heartspace opens. I can breathe again. Spread my hands out and look at them, backs and fronts: for as long as I can remember I've looked at my hands this way, puzzled, trying to understand what they mean. They're characters, glyphs. Words, clearly; chapter headings, maybe. I return again and again to Chinese, maybe, in the hope of someday learning to read my hands.

Alfred the Great wrote somewhere of yearning for heaven as the place where all will be made clear. He was a man of immense curiosity. He wanted to understand everything. But I don't think he ever noticed how things disappear, once you know them. If we actually were in danger of understanding everything, we would probably be in danger of completely erasing the world.

Not something that worries me much.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Ahriman wants us tired, hungry, itching for comforts and treats, constantly titillated, always short on time, always desperate for more of something. A cranky child up past its bedtime is, in Ahriman's view, the perfect citizen: never happy, never content, never able to moderate his desires or his fears. The complete consumer.

So we scramble to get to work in the morning, and stay up too late at night, and the one thing we never do is wake up without an agenda, stand still at the window in the slant morning light, and think what it is that we're doing with our lives. Stand and consider whether a life devoted to scratching itchy places until they bleed is really what our hearts want. Whether there might not be another way.

Ahriman burns, burns in the sky: stars for knuckles, fires for eyes. He crouches there, ruling an obscure heaven thickened by streetlights, with his swollen tongue and his throbbing eyes. He's bloated, hungry, panting, sweating. This is our God. We've served him faithfully, days and nights without count.

Don't expect to be rewarded. He's not that kind of God.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Unswift, but curving to the hand
(like the sound of a bell, returning to the wrist)
a longed-for voice, turning up or down
at the end of a phrase, a frieze
of stick figures crowding all one way,
glyphs marching lemming-like to cliffs
and dropping, one by one.

If she came back to me, to be hooded or flown
at some bright chase, what could I say?
I would know again the slow drip
of incapacity; I would see again,
in the hollow of the moon, the hand
emptying, fading, a vanishing disk,
wearing away, fraying, consumed, a shell

of turqoise fading into violet, of cobalt
fading to lavender, its threads unraveling;
this old, this ancient, this sorry harridan,
more beautiful than any girl, more wise
than any master. Walk on. She follows,
an inescapable, unobtainable lamp;
she follows, this bruised eye of love.

Friday, May 15, 2009

In Which I Unsubscribe from a List

Sometimes you don't know how hard you're holding onto something till someone tugs at it. I'd have thought I'd abandoned the idea of being an academic completely, that there was no lingering regret or nostalgia there. But I recently had an extremely unpleasant exchange on a scholarly listserve (I know! How quaint! But scholars are like that.) It's for Chaucer scholars. I'd lurked there for years -- possibly decades? But I almost never posted.

But someone had questioned whether students should be made to learn Old English in order to complete an English major. I then questioned whether Beowulf belonged in the syllabus of an English survey class. The responses were withering, and rather cruel: the assumption that we were simply too lazy to learn Old English, and too stupid to appreciate Old English poetry, reeked from every response. That was not the depressing part, although it was irritating: the depressing part was that absolutely no one would actually produce an argument. "I include Beowulf because it's written in English," someone declared. As if that weren't precisely the question that had been raised: is Old English close enough kin to be regarded as the same language as Modern English? And, the related question, is its masterwork Beowulf properly regarded as part of the tradition of English literature?

It has not always been so regarded. In the 19th Century, which is when people other than a few antiquarian cranks began reading it, it was generally considered a different, though of course genetically related, language. It was called "Anglo-Saxon." Renaming it "Old English" was largely a political move by astute academics, not a linguistic one. The West-Saxon dialect in which Beowulf is written is actually more uncle than father to Chaucer's Middle English. There's lots of ways to slice the pie. The old saying that "a 'language' is a dialect with an army" has a lot of truth to it: if Portuguese was spoken in a just a few villages it would be probably be regarded as a difficult dialect of Spanish, not its own language; if Catalonia had ever managed ever to win its independence, Catalonian would certainly be regarded as a language, not a Spanish dialect. There are no dependable objective ways of deciding these borderline cases. The motive for renaming Anglo-Saxon Old English was, at least partly, justifying its inclusion in the study of English literature.

The question's not all that important, and I don't really care how it's decided: Beowulf can look after itself, these days. And I understand that modern scholars who hoped to make a living out of selling their skills in Old English would not look kindly on someone proposing to drop it from the English syllabus. But the point is that I would expect this group of people to at least be able to have a conversation about it, a conversation that appreciated the complexities of classifying languages and dialects, and which bore in mind that everything you keep in a syllabus comes at the expense of dropping something else out. Whether Beowulf is worth reading in the original -- well, to me, and to most people who have ever read it, that's a stupid question. Of course it is. But the intelligent question is, is it more worthwhile than reading, say, Dryden and Pope? Or Swinburne and Sir Walter Scott? Those are the sort of trade-offs we're talking about. (A further depressing thing was the realization that no one was interested in this probably because almost none of them ever had given a damn, or ever would give a damn, about Dryden or Sir Walter Scott.)

Of course, the main thing that distressed me was not being taken seriously. It wounded my amour-propre. If I'd finished my damned dissertation at Yale, if I'd stuck it out through the recession of the 80's and gotten an academic job, people would have responded to me completely differently. But still, there would have been no real conversation. Because scholars, of all people, are the least likely to actually talk about these things. The discussion of such things is the currency of their economy: they can't afford to do it for free. I remembered, in the course of this interchange, the oppressive atmosphere of the years when I was writing, or rather not writing, my dissertation: every stray thought I had, I seized and hoarded. It might be an article someday! It might prove that I'm a serious scholar! There was something horrible, and deforming, about treating my own thoughts as property. I hated it.

But. But. The first couple years at Yale were so wonderful. Because we weren't scholars yet, we grad students, and we did talk about books. We had wonderful conversations. It was the world I wanted to live in. Coming from Springfield, Oregon -- it was amazing, incredible. Like coming out of a dark hole and being in the sunlight for the first time. I was so grateful for the friends there, for the talk. It made me so happy.

And then it all crumbled and went away, as people got their degrees and went off to teach in Georgia or upstate New York or L.A., and for twenty long years, I had nothing of the sort. It's this blog community, all of you, who have given it back to me. I'm terribly grateful to you all. Thank you. All of you. For being willing to talk, and to listen. Most of you haven't read Beowulf in Old English. That's all right. Because you'd want to if you had the time. And even if you didn't want to -- if you did it anyway, you'd want to talk about it. It would engage your heart and your mind and you'd say what you damn well thought about it.

I unsubscribed from the Chaucer list this morning. I subscribed thinking I would find conversations of the sort I love, many years ago. I almost never did. I don't need to look for them there any more, though.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You Sir Name?

Having so much fun with Chinese. It's a swaggering, arrogant written language. It makes no concessions to human weakness. It's been, for thousands of years, the tool and the proving ground of intellectual elites. It prides itself on being difficult. One of the most striking things about it is its economy. Information is conveyed by one thing and only one thing. For example, there is an ending signifying the plural, but you mustn't use it if you've specified a number. It's "ten horse," not "ten horses." You've already established the number -- why cave in to human frailty and repeat that information by signalling the plural again? That would be a syllable wasted! If someone has not been paying attention, let them pay the price! There's a Strunk & White zeal for omitting needless words, in written Chinese. Such a striking contrast to Indo-European prolixity.

To ask someone their name, you say "nín guì xìng?" Which can translate to a flowery English "what is your respected surname, sir?" But it feels nothing like that. It feels more like "you sir name?" Three single syllables, shot one by one. If you missed the gist of it, too bad.

There is certainly an unpleasant side to this, but it must have been fruitful ground for the writing of poetry. I've picked up my primer of Tu Fu again. My God. If he were the only Chinese poet, it would be worth learning the language to read him.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Longing and the Far Away

if I could read the lights that slip and vanish
on the smooth wet jelly of your eyes
if I could open the secret compartments
by turning your nipples just so
(two right, four left, three right)

the longing and the far away

if I could see the clear water
upwelling, that brings
your uncomplicated kindness
from the groundwater
the substrate of love below
the fossil beds and coal seams
and the burdens of dust

the longing and the far away

if I could tell just who
made the arrangements
for us to meet in this life
too late and too soon

if I could understand
the longing and the far away

the longing and the far away
if I could understand

Sunday, May 10, 2009


My daughter, she isn't a sleeper. Often she wakes in the small hours, and there's no getting her to sleep. I'll pick her up, when she's done nursing, and carry her back and forth, in the old carriage house in back of the provost's mansion at Yale. I'll sing her songs, old easy-to-sing songs, songs from here and there: sea shanties and folk songs. Bob Dylan. Arlo Guthrie. "Longer boats," by Cat Stevens, is a favorite, with its refrain, "longer boats are coming to win us, they're coming to win us, they're coming to win us." Tori sometimes asks for that, by what she conceives to be its name: "komintowinnus?"

I'll walk and sing for a long weary time. And then I'll lie down with her on my chest, and we'll both fall asleep for a couple hours.

I guess that was a while ago. I was in grad school then, so it must have been the mid-eighties.

Today she looked very small, down in the back row of folding chairs. A towering young man was on either side of her. I worried: would she manage to get around to the stage at the right time, in the right order? Would she trip on the steps? There were all those hands to shake, and a photographer waiting at the other end of the platform: wouldn't she get confused? She never was much good with lots of stimulation. She tended to just stop, when bewildered. I was afraid the whole ceremony might come to a halt, with Tori, fluttering like blinded moth, unable to proceed.

She's a brilliant student, said one of her professors to me this morning. So mature. Several steps ahead of most of her peers. No, I answered. No, you don't understand. She has tiny little fingers and toes. She still doesn't sleep through the night. I know, I know she can look like a student, and talk about how ribozomes produce proteins and the consequences of Lord Curzon's policies for later Pakistani politics and the development of Elizabethan stagecraft, but this business of graduating her from college is absurd.

Somehow though no one quite grasped that this was a ridiculous idea. It was all "phi beta kappa" and "cum laude." Nobody would talk sense.

She made it across the stage fine. Shook hands with the Dean, and the President, and the commencement speaker, Ray Suarez, and she never tripped once. Stood for her photo with aplomb. So that's all right.

But tonight when she wakes up she'll be little again, and I'll sing her "komintowinnus," and she'll fall asleep on my shoulder. You wait and see.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


The first thousand years were the hardest.
The oil in the bottom grew tacky; it snagged
my ectoplasm, pulled me out
of the little shape I had.
Every time the sea surge
spun us over the rocks
I thought it was a hand: I thought
I'd found a master. That I was getting out.

But gradually you learn. The second thousand years
I learned to fill that brass-lined space completely,
till the lamp was like a second skin. I knew
the rocking, and the bumping over stone.
I told myself I didn't miss a body.
Nothing hurts, when you're made of smoke; except that
Tugging from the sticky oil. I imagined houris,
but all of them were small and curved
like the inside of the lamp.

When you finally came I knew, though. I knew at once
it was a human hand. Heat, say the philosophers
in Baghdad, travels well through metal.
And the motion was deliberate. Not the slow
sleepy indifference of the sea. Your fingertips
were warm through the thin worn skin of brass.

Well. That's the deal: you call and I have to come.
But no one told me how much work it would be.
Like smoke, I poured out, into the dizzy air
And I tried to remember
How to harden. I was terrified. I might just blow away.
I had only the touch of your fingers for an anchor.

In the stories they say I took my shape at once.
They have to say that kind of thing. They leave out
The time you had to stay with me and whisper reassurance.
The time you had to tell me it was all right after all
If all I was, was smoke. That the granting of wishes
could wait. How I wailed when the wind rose,
and cowered in your shadow.

Monday, May 04, 2009

In Which I Cut a Dashing Figure

What with one thing and another, I never got to sleep last night. Now it's 8:00, and I have a staff meeting to attend at 9:30. But I puttered around and got things done. I've just finished my second breakfast, à la Holbytlan -- first breakfast was before the store was open, the second was after the shopping trip. I've been setting up a mailing list for my massage newsletter, which I've meant to start sending out ever since I began practicing, and have been collecting email addresses for (you can opt in on my intake interview forms, and soon, I hope, on my massage web page) from day one, but which I've never gotten around to: a bit comical, given how much I babble on here, but this is an audience that found its way here because it likes to hear me babble on, bizarre though that has always seemed to me: writing for an audience that just wanted massage is a different matter. I have always been way too sensitive to the possibility that someone, somewhere, might dislike something I have to say: that's why I was such a dismally bad teacher.

(Okay, I actually was a mediocre teacher. Some students really liked me. But only being a brilliant, life-changing teacher would have made the agonies of standing up in front of bored classroom endurable to me.)

But I digress. I've signed up with MailChimp, which is free if you have under 100 subscribers -- a neat model for attracting small business, I've always thought: when you get your 101st subscriber, are you going to fuss about the modest monthly fees? No, you'll stick with the software you know, where your data already lives, where your account is already configured, and that you've learned to trust.

Sorry. Just drifted off to sleep. Where was I? Oh yes! The wonderful Pronoia recommended Michael Port's book, Book Yourself Solid, to me, and he told me in no uncertain terms that I have to keep in touch with my clients. I know he's right. And besides, I would like to. So I'm working on that.

I like Port. He says some smart things right off the bat, and he doesn't want to make me into somebody I'm not. And he's not a hot-air marketer: almost the very first thing he says is that you have to make yourself genuinely the best person for the job: you have to make yourself an expert, the person to go to for X. Imagine, a marketing book by someone who thinks that the quality of what you have to sell matters! I'm surprised they didn't drum him out of the profession. (Okay, that was the lack of sleep talking. The only marketers I've known have not been anything like the Dilbert caricatures.)

Um... so what was I talking about? I'm going to cut a dashing figure in this staff meeting, I can tell you.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


"Things alter."

"Things, what things are these?"

Try again then. "It alters."

"What does?"

No. Still no good. And you can't say : "Alteration," full stop. Because no one knows what the hell you're talking about. It's not a sentence. English demands a subject, some busy officious ego to go do all this altering. "Everything alters," then. Better. But it makes it sound as if what I want to talk about is the universality of impermanence, which is almost what I want to talk about, but not quite. Maybe something doesn't alter, who knows? Some Buddhist doctrines say that there are things that don't change: emptiness itself, and mind itself, for starters. How would I know? Why would I care?

Look. The sun glowed through the clouds in Old Girl's photo. It will never ever do that again, not that exact way. And what we hold is the photo, not the sun. It never does to forget that.

Oh, dear. I am getting old. And my hair is getting long. Cut one tiny thread and I could spin backwards to the age of thirteen, when I stopped cutting my hair. It was beautiful hair then, thick and blond and fine-threaded. A couple years later I had the sort of head of hair that women would cluck over and murmur "such a waste!" Meaning that gorgeous hair was wasted on a boy. I didn't think it was a waste. I was vain of it, and I liked the way it flew wild. When Monique first saw me, at sixteen, tearing down drywall, shirtless, it was my hair that made the conquest. Something wild and masculine and free. She thought she'd like that. Not so much, maybe, as it turned out: and the bits she would have liked best were the bits that turned out to be bogus. Too bad, so sad: everything alters. Remember?

Yellow-white as the sun. It darkened over time. In the photos from Yale it's dark, almost brown. There's my favorite photo -- I wonder what became of it? I'm crouched down in my coal-and-snowflake overcoat, conversing earnestly with one of Tori's two-year-old play dates, a little Chinese girl. We're in perfect accord about something. Ah, it's the photo, though, not me and the little Chinese girl. And now that even the photo's gone, what is it, would you say, that I have?

Not much. That's what I'd say. It won't do to try to keep that sort of thing. I've never been much for keepsake photos.

I'll tell you a secret: I stopped cutting my hair less because I was wild and free than because I was living on my own and was too timid to walk into a strange barbershop full of grown men. But now: even if my hair is mostly white and thin on top; even if when it gets long I look more like a skid road derelict than like the blond emanation of Jim Morrison -- the love I have is deeper than any I had then, than any I could possibly have had then.

I'm taking no photos of this sun. Couldn't if I wanted to.

(But a poem, now, a poem isn't a photo. A poem about the sun doesn't pretend to be the sun. This lanthorn doth present the moon. No, of course it dothn't.)

(And the point? Oh dear, oh dear, you've known me all this time, love, and you still expect a point? What a waste.)
Bad Measure

There's a lot of resistance to measurement. Legitimate resistance, because it's so often done badly, or in bad faith. The census is one example. It's stupid to go out and try to count all the noses, one by one. It's not the best way to get an accurate count: any scientist who counts populations of anything knows that.

Or take the testing of kids in public schools. I'm all for measuring how well schools are doing. It's something that's critically important to know. My objection is not to the measurement, but to the clumsy and intrusive measurement being done. There's simply no reason to test everyone repeatedly. It's like the census, only worse: it's not only inefficient, it's also interferes significantly with process we're trying to measure, and it demoralizes both teachers and students. Not only that, but it violates a cardinal rule of measurement: the people doing the measurement should not have a vested interest in how the measurements turn out. Having teachers assess their own efficacy is bad metrics.

This testing collects a huge amount of data, at a heavy cost, that we actually already have. We already know that our kids aren't learning the factual content we'd like them to learn, that they leave high school well behind European and Japanese kids. That's not in doubt. It's worth monitoring, because we hope it will change, but for policy decisions we already know what we need to know: our education system isn't good enough.

And there are other things we want to know. How good are students at problem-solving? How much initiative and entrepreneurial spirit do they have? How good are they at working in teams? How kind and responsible are they? These are things that to my mind are more important than the date of Gettysburg, or how not to dangle a participle, or the chief exports of Korea.

These things are all quite measurable, and we need to know them urgently. Our future depends on our schools getting these things right, or at least not getting them terribly wrong. If we improve the factual content scores by five percent, but do it by turning out kids that are half as kind and responsible, we have not made progress. We've gone backwards. I'm worried by the fact that a high school graduate in Singapore is more likely to know the year of Gettysburg than a high school graduate in America. But I'm far more worried about the fact that so many American kids feel that cheating on tests is okay. If you need to know the date of Gettysburg, you can look it up. But if you need a moral compass, where will you find that? And how will you even know you need it?

My point, again, is that measurement is a good thing. It ought to be in the fundamental tool-kit of every adult. But not dim-witted, test-every-kid, count-every-nose measurement. Thoughtful measurement, measurement that's designed to find out the things you really need to know.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Good Measure

I had a professional interest in metrics, when I worked in software, and I maintain a vivid amateur interest in the subject. I measure lots of things: my exercise, my food intake, my moods. How long it takes to get places. How long it takes to do chores. The rate at which I'm learning Chinese characters, and the rate at which I'm forgetting them.

I like measuring things because it brings to light misunderstandings. Human beings excel at detecting pattern and form. We are not so good at quantity and scale, and the mistakes we make there can cause a lot of difficulty.

Martha and I once made a list of all the projects we wanted to do around the house. We then estimated, independently, how many hours each project would take. The results were illuminating. My estimates were usually three or four times greater than hers. As we talked through our estimates, we learned a great deal about how we think of work and time.

I would count in things such as, "we probably won't be able to find the right stuff at the hardware store. We'll have to come back and plan it over, and go to the store again when we know what's there. So that's another two hours." Or, "something will get screwed up at this point, and we'll have to do some of it over, so I added another day for that."

"What will get screwed up?" Martha would ask.

"I don't know. Doesn't something always get screwed up?" I'd say.

Then we tracked, for a while, how long these things actually took. The time usually fell in between our estimates. Martha generously conceded that they were usually closer to mine than to hers. But when mine were off, they were sometimes wildly off. I would allocate days to a half hour job.

It was good to get a better sense of how long things would take. But what was even more valuable was getting some insight into how our expectations diverged. Why was Martha willing to take on things we didn't have time for? Why was I so miserly about time, so unwilling to commit a few minutes? Well, because we had different projects in our minds' eyes.

And we had different senses of what "counted." I would double-count store trips; Martha would fold them together. "We'll be going to the store anyway. We can get that on the way."

True enough. But Martha allocated no time for mistakes, backtracks, do-overs. I habitually added half again for "the things that will go wrong."

"But what could go wrong?"

"Something always goes wrong," I'd say. But actually that's not true. Sometimes everything works. I have a really unreasonable dread of overcommitting my time: I'm nervous if time-commitments don't have an hour or two of insulation between them. Sometimes it's not very important to be exactly on time. Allocating an extra half hour in order to be completely sure of not being five minutes late to a casual lunch date is not, actually, good planning.

Anyway, my point is that this is the sort of thing you learn by actually measuring things. The process of measuring is, itself, a process of discovery, a way of investigating your assumptions and expectations.