Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Finding Her Picture

She always lifts her chin in photographs.
Defiant. Do your worst. As a girl
She stalked behind the pink and duct-taped
Flip-flops of her mother, the fraying cuffs of
Dirty sweat pants, that joggling vast behind, and glared at
The shoppers, daring them to disrespect her mom.

She is distinguished now, books to her name,
Prizes for teaching, elegantly scarved. Only
Late at night sometimes she buckles, goes for
Ice cream that she'll eat straight from the carton,
And walks again behind that phantom in the store.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


I had always pronounced Coleridge as three syllables (KOH-luh-ridge); but I noticed in bits of doggerel written to friends that he scans it as two (COLE-ridge), and Wikipedia says that's the right pronunciation. It feels wrong to me: Kohlaridge is such a wonderful otherworldly name, and Coal Ridge such a prosaic one. But I dutifully try to fix the pronunciation in my head.

My heart goes out to him: it always has. He noted somewhere, in some bewilderment, that he "was made for love," and it's striking -- even more striking than his extraordinary range of reading and knowledge -- how readily and deeply he loved. I can't help but wonder what would have become of him if the modern understanding of addiction and the modern methods of treating it had been available. I suspect that without opium, he would have been, rather than just one of the Romantic Pleiades, the dominating literary figure of his time: the equivalent of Milton in the 17th Century. None of the others had his range of gifts, or his ability to transcend the limits of his own time and culture. And the English-speaking world needed him desperately. He could have done much to bridge the chasms that were opening between science, religion, and art, and which have left all of us moderns stranded on our own sterile islands. Analyze, pray, or create: pick one and abandon the other two! Coleridge never accepted that.

Might have been, might have been. The wind rises and the weeds beside the window shiver. Suddenly it is Fall in earnest: a bright day, but with a chill in the air. Winter is gathering itself in the cool gray shadows. The birds wake uncertain and uneasy, these days: they sing a few hesitant snatches of song and then fall silent. We're all waiting for the rain.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

How To Fix It

Well, as Sky said, I left off the paragraph about how to fix it :-)

The problem is that we still, after all these years of bad guesses and bad science, don't really know what's wrong. It's hard to know how to fix it without knowing that. It's not even certain (though I think it overwhelmingly likely) that the modern diet is to blame. But we've also introduced an extraordinary number of drugs and toxins into our environment, without having a comprehensive understanding of their effects. And we don't really know how or when the damage is done: one recent study suggested that some of it is done in utero.

Still there are some prime suspects. At the top of my list are refined sugar, white flour and salt in the diet. Kessler's recent book is good, although, like almost all modern popular nonfiction, it's actually a short essay intolerably bloated with anecdote and repetition. He notes that some people's brain chemistry responds differently to sweet and salty foods: that the dopamine spikes in all of us, but in some of us it doesn't drop again right away, unless we stop eating. Few people will stop eating, under the influence of that.

The vilified Atkins had some ideas that didn't stand up to scrutiny, but his basic idea -- that refined carbs cause blood chemistry changes that make some people unnaturally hungry -- has stood up quite well. I'm quite sure that's one piece of it.

There have a been so many red herrings. Among things I think have nothing to do with it are: dietary fat. Cholesterol intake. Meat. Eating too fast. (Remember that what we're looking for is something that is not characteristic of pre-industrial diets.)

The solution I'm currently investigating is: making my food boring. When I was Atkins-ing, I noticed most of my bingeing behaviors went away. (You just don't binge on meat and fat, not without carbs. You slather butter on a potato and wolf it down, sure. Take away the potato? No. No one simply sits down with a dish of melted butter.) But one thing I could and did still binge on, though it was on a smaller scale: the salt meats. Sausage, salami, that sort of thing.

When I read Kessler on brain chemistry responses to salt and sugar, I realized this was one of the major players. And I felt the panic I have always felt when people suggested I do with less salt. No, says some primitive part of me, anything but the salt!

It's one of those shying-aways, those wincings, that you learn to pay particular attention to in meditation. It's often the thing that seems absolutely impossible, absolutely non-negotiable, that is at the center of a knot. That's the thing that needs to be softened before the knot can be worked.

I asked myself the question: what if there was no refined sugar and no salt in the world? What would my relationship with food look like?

And there was no answer. A blank. I could not even imagine such a thing. Things with no sugar and no salt don't count in my mental world as food at all. (This in itself is fascinating.) So what if I stopped eating either one, without restricting my food intake in any other way?

Well, for one thing, I'd have to pack my lunch. There is no such thing as restaurant food without lots of salt and sugar.

But for another, if I could do it, I think my relationship with food might come to be based on hunger, rather than on seeking stimulation. I don't know, because I can't really imagine it. Just speculation. But what if, rather than constantly seeking more and more intensity and piquancy, I deliberately sought plainness?

My relationship with food has always been Ahrimanic. I used to filch beef bullion cubes, when I was a boy, and suck them, rasping away with my tongue until it was quite raw. I loved cookies and cake and such too, of course, but not with same intensity. I was quite capable of eating an entire batch of brownies at a sitting, if they happened to be there, but that wasn't what captured my imagination. I wouldn't get dressed in the middle of the night and go out to find brownies. No, what I'd do that for was potato chips. Barbecue potato chips. I would eat them until the insides of my cheeks were tender and corners of my mouth cracked. That pain was not a disincentive: it was, on the contrary, part of the attraction. I was seeking a kind of oblivion in stimulation, the same sort of trance you sometimes see people go into with video games.

I don't often eat potato chips any more. A couple times a year, maybe, if I'm especially upset or wretched. And yet, my whole response to food is essentially that same one, on a small scale: a quest to be stimulated, stimulated possibly to the point of pain. And the diet books and articles all play up to it: your food can still be delicious and various! They all say that. Don't worry, you can still eat for stimulation!

So. I just finished eating three eggs, with no salt, here at Tosi's, instead of my heavily salted eggs and bacon. Just as an experiment. Because I've never deliberately eaten a non-salty breakfast before. They tasted better than I thought they would. But it is strange -- the dietary equivalent of meditation, of sitting still and doing nothing.

Friday, September 25, 2009


There are a number of homeostatic ("standing the same") processes in the body. One of the most critical is the one that maintains the proportions of sodium and potassium in the body. Every cell in the body depends on this proportion staying within certain tolerances. There are enchantingly clever mechanisms to keep it that way, and the body will undertake draconian emergency measures if it seems to be really going out of whack, cannibalizing bones, organs, and other tissues to get what it needs.

This process rises to our consciousness only in the veiled form of feeling thirsty (too much sodium) or craving salty food (not enough sodium) or possibly craving chocolate (not enough potassium). Most of the time we have no consciousness of it at all. It just works. Similarly, our breathing is regulated by the levels of oxygen in our blood. If there's not enough, we breathe more deeply. Too much, we breathe more shallowly. This process too just works. We don't make notes on our calendar: "must breathe more today." Or "not going for run: remember to cut breath intake this afternoon!"

There are actually dozens of such systems in the body, regulating all sorts of things. One thing is conspicuously absent in all of them, and that is participation by the cerebral cortex. All of them "happen automatically." You don't have to think about maintaining the Ph levels in your body. If they shifted minutely, you'd be quite dead. But the parts of the brain that do this monitoring, being very primitive, and essentially the same in iguanas as in us, don't enter our consciousness.

One of these homeostatic processes, and one which is very poorly understood, is maintaining the volume of fatty tissue at a certain level. Since this one has gone freakishly wrong in the modern world, it's the focus of much attention, most of it unscientific and silly: you might even say hysterical. The first thing to get into your head about this process is that, like all the others, it's supposed to just work. You're not supposed to have to think about it and control it from the cerebral cortex. (Which explains, incidentally, why attempts to do so are so pathetically ineffective.)

There are a couple myths to get out of the way here. One is that the volume of fat in the body is supposed to fluctuate: that fat is for long term energy storage. I was taught this in school. You probably were too. It's false. Fat is for short term energy storage. It gets us from one meal to the next. The body has no long-term energy storage: if it did, fat people would starve much more slowly than thin people, and the body would plunder its fat stores before cannibalizing other tissues. It does not, in fact, do this. That's why no one responsible recommends fasting as a diet method. In the absence of food, the body gets right to work consuming its own muscles and bones. We may consider our fatty tissue expendable, but our bodies clearly do not.

There are animals that use fat as long term energy storage, but they are all hibernating animals. Bears, for instance. Most mammals do not, and human beings certainly don't. If you give most animals an abundance of their natural foods, they do not get fat. They get horny. They reproduce a lot. But their body weight stays constant. It you want to fatten animals, as any rancher knows, you have to stuff them artificially with something that will throw their homeostatic processes out of whack. You don't fatten a cow by letting it graze endlessly. A cow allowed all the grass it likes stays obstinately at its goal weight. You fatten it by filling it up with sugars and injecting it with hormones.

The other myth that goes along with this, is that prehistoric human beings used to live in scarcity, on the brink of starvation all the time. Certainly some of them starved some of the time, but it was not the ordinary lot of your ordinary prehistoric human being. It was not until human beings developed agriculture that starvation became a way of life: a good harvest meant plenty, and a bad harvest meant starvation. Before agriculture, food supplies were, by and large, fairly steady and reliable: people were no more likely to be starving in their native habitat than modern chimps are likely to be starving in theirs. It happens, but it's not a way of life. We didn't evolve obesity as a way of coping with food shortages. (Which is good, because it isn't particularly helpful in that.)

We process millions of calories in the course of a year. If we were off by just a percentage point or two we would not be fifty or a hundred pounds overweight. We would be overweight by thousands of pounds. Or underweight by a hundred: that is, dead. This is not a process that is, or was meant to be, under conscious control. I know, I know, people who are normal weight think that they "eat sensibly." If I were normal weight, I'd believe that of myself too. But in fact they eat just like I do: they eat until they feel satisfied, and then they stop. Sometimes they want a treat but decide not to have it, just like I do. Sometimes they decide they want a treat and they have one, just like I do. This has nothing to do with our body weights.

Evidence for this is what happens when you do try to put the cerebral cortex in control of this process. Everyone who's been on a diet knows what happens. You become increasingly irrational and obsessive about food. Eventually you enter a twilight zone of struggle that is completely unlike normal consciousness. And then, sooner or later, you eat whatever you were trying not to eat.

Now, this is not the whole story. There's binge eating to be considered too. But normal-weight people binge as well as fat people. There's no particular reason to think that the homeostatic processes shouldn't be able to deal with binges. The sodium-potassium one does fine: after you gorge on potato chips, you don't die: you just become terribly thirsty, and you take in a lot more water. The body could deal with a massive intake of ice cream by simply making us rather uninterested in food for a week or two.

No, something breaks or overrides the homeostatic feedback systems. That's why we're fat. It has nothing to do with "will power" -- that will o' the wisp of popular superstition. It has to do with blood chemistry and brain chemistry, and what happens when you introduce artificial substances into a body that wasn't designed to handle them.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Oh, for heaven's sake, Dale, there's no time for that sort of thing. If you have nothing to say, be silent. There's no virtue in multiplying pixels.

Sometimes it seems that the whole enterprise of writing is nothing but whining, a toddler tugging at his mom's sleeve: "Mom, look! Mom, look! Mom, look at me! Mom, look!"

It's time to slow down, take stock. I have been embarrassingly unsettled by the cloud of invisible twitter-birds that momentarily settled in my tree, here. Someone must have linked to my "no more Tennysons" post on twitter, because suddenly scores of strangers were visiting, and leaving without saying a word. Which stirred up the muddy sediment of ambition at the bottom of the glass. Faugh. Enough. We've been there before: we know where that road goes.

So enough. Forget all that. There are things you need to do. You've been off-balance for a long time, now. Lunging won't help matters. Sitting will.

Last night, the muttering of the wind and the sighing of the trees, the skitter of restless cats on the stairs. This morning, my bare feet on the landing, my hand pulling aside the curtain. The sky was black, but Orion paused to look at me, before walking on up the hill of the southern sky, clearing a path through the spiderweb clouds for the morning star.

My prayers have been turbid and confused. The best-disposed gods in the world would not know how to answer them. You can picture them, exasperated, in their paper-littered offices: "what kind of requisition is this? I'd be happy to grant him something if I could figure out what the hell he wants. Jesus. File it under 'pending,' would you?"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Coleridge, Wordsworth, Holmes, Me

"Davy in the kindness of his heart calls me the Poet-Philosopher -- I hope, Philosophy & Poetry will not neutralize each other, & leave me an inert mass...

"Newton was a mere materialist --Mind in his system is always passive -- a Lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God's image, & that too in the sublimest sense -- the image of the Creator -- there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system."

-- Coleridge, in letters to Th. Poole, 1801

circa 1801: "While Wordsworth gained the authority of poetic success, Coleridge found the authority of his poetic failure."

-- Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions

I find it difficult to forgive Wordsworth's public denigration of Coleridge's poetry. After all Coleridge did for him! The bits of Coleridge's poetry that have worn well are as brilliant as ever, but Wordsworth's colors have faded uniformly over time. Wordsworth was a better poet: but Coleridge wrote better poems. I'd trade the whole Wordsworth corpus for "Frost at Midnight" or the "Dejection" ode. Or The Ancient Mariner, for that matter -- which Wordsworth was so snotty about.

Poor Coleridge! After a life of virtuous self-abnegation, condemned to come back eventually as a timid no-poet masseur! Just goes to show, you should bust out and live a little.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dear World

I have never wanted to do things to you, World,
with my poems: it's more that sometimes you and I
hurt each other so deeply that
I finally take a deep breath and say
I think we have to talk.

Maybe it's our ages. I was
nine months old when we met, and you
were just getting over a few million bad marriages:
I guess I was sort of a
rebound relationship.

Still sometimes it's so good, and I
don't want to be ungrateful. I owe everything to you.
It's just that sometimes
I start to think
Maybe there's somebody else.

Monday, September 21, 2009


One long inspiration swells
each red arteriole. At the farthest shore
every inlet of the pallid lung
blushes with the Magi.

Long fingered hands give poisons out
and bear back jagged scraps;
they throw the bitter leavings
to the tide of departing air.

Meanwhile their gifts go wandering
in hidden places, drifting with the blood:
chalices secret with burning,
gifts of corrosive life.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


There is only one thing I've ever really been good at, and that's loving. I'm not persistent enough to be a scholar, not ruthless enough to be a poet, not disciplined enough to be an engineer, and not outgoing enough to be a teacher.

I love, though, all animals and all people: there are very few of God's creatures for whom I can't find passionate admiration. This makes me a pleasant fellow to be around, no doubt, but it doesn't fit me for many sorts of employment. Hence the blessing of massage: all that's really required of me, beyond a modicum of skill and a smattering of anatomical knowledge, is that I be able to devote a couple of hours, at the drop of a hat, to physically loving and admiring somebody, appreciating their tension and grief, absorbing their suffering and working to transform it, in the obscure laboratory of my hands, into well-being. For me this is an easy thing to do. All my life I've wanted to lay hands on people. All my life I've felt that I had the gift of easing pain with my hands, and not be able to use it distressed me.

It's very odd to now be making a living from it. As if I were making a living by eating cake, or by reading P.G. Wodehouse. This is all I ever wanted to do: to lay on hands, to be together with people quietly and tend them lovingly.

And what was, only three years ago, completely impossible, is now my livelihood. I don't understand why I should be granted this extraordinary good fortune, why I, at an age when most people are beginning to give up on their dreams, should have mine delivered to me on a platter. My luck seems to me, as it always has, uncanny. But I'll take it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I wanted to pull this comment up from down there, two or three posts ago, because it's wonderful, and it asks for help from readers of mole. This was from Julie Martin:

I need to return to this post, but was struck by your reference to a time when even the second-rate educators imbued children with the habit of learning poems by heart. To have immediate access to amazing language, which then strikes a prompt chord with one's listeners: transformative.

I believe that memorization is life-altering even when the poetry learned is second-rate. My grandmother's most quoted lines, for example, apparently traced to Evangeline. (Okay: perhaps a Longfellow exception.) I also hate the disappearance of quoted aphorisms, another perfect, frozen literary confection -- the saved freezer snowballs that you can throw in July.

Of course, the loss of the best literary expressions is but one aspect of the bathtub draining of common background knowledge. See, e.g., the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs survey finding that 77 percent of OK high school students could not name the first U.S. President. People yearn for elevated language and music: how maddening to see starvation in a world of plenty.

To wander around with unfurnished heads is analogous to reinventing the first crude wheel every day. Or like the Olmec and successors, inventing the wheel only to use it exclusively on toys for 2000 years.

Now I'm again fired up to have my after-school kids memorize. I can't compel and I loathe contests, so any ideas from Mole readers on what might incent? We presently post a QOTD and POTD, but they are not carried out the door in any heads.

Me (Dale) again: I agree about memorization. I tend to harp on it here. For one thing, until you've tried to memorize, the virtues of poets like Longfellow -- and he does have virtues -- may be hard to see. If you don't memorize old poetry, poetry that was written in order to be memorized, you simply fail to get one of its main functions. When I first read Shakespeare, on my own, at age sixteen, with no guidance, I found it very mysterious because I was really not very aware that it was meant to be staged. I puzzled over lines such as

-- "Bernardo?"
-- "He."

Of course, when you watch the play, this is not a mysterious exchange. The other guy can't see Bernardo in the dark, and wants to know who he is, and Shakespeare wants the audience to know his name, so he makes him answer to it. But I, knowing nothing of Shakespearian drama except that I was supposed to find it full of meaning, thought until my head ached about this little exchange, without being able to make much of it. When I finally got to see Shakespeare on the stage, years later, little lights popped on in my head all over the place.

When you memorize, similar things happen. The lights pop on. That's why the funny inversions of syntax, that's why the counting of syllables, that's why the archaic contractions and exclamations! Suddenly you realize that all this stuff -- which you thought of as posturing and affectation and obsessive ornamentation -- was all done for your benefit. It's to make it easier to remember. You'll never look at old poetry in the same way again.

Friday, September 18, 2009


If I have learned anything from this visitation, it is that I dare not be passive. There is not much time left, not really, and I must be quick and decisive. I must set all my birds into the air at once.

Always I have flown them one by one. No more. I must hold nothing back. Let them rise in a screeching cloud, and each find its way on its business as it can.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009



Dimethyl Sulfoxide is an eager solvent.
It penetrates the skin with such ease
that moments after touching it with your fingers
you can taste it in your mouth: a taste, some say
like garlic; others say like oysters.

It can be used to carry other compounds
into the body. Cyanide, for one; LSD, for another.
Touch this and die. Touch this and see God.

Today I saw you on Morrison Street,
your fingertips meeting your face.
And I thought: joy is like that. It carries
death and wonder under the skin.

In the weak, struggling sunshine of September
I could feel the wanting and delight seep through me.
I could taste it on the sides of my tongue.
I wonder what your name is. I wonder
what payload I am carrying.


The rain started today. First the air became wet,
kissing my face,
and then the droplets found anchors in
the threadwork of my arms. By evening
the streets were wet with drifting rain,
and not a drop had fallen from the sky.

We breathe it in, this ghost rain,
like corpse-dust. Another form of joy:
another witchery. We know water so well
we don't think of it as solvent.
But it dissolves iron nails and houses,
ruins books and wooden floors. We see its
white precipitate swirling around a streetlight
and we say how pretty. We see its solid
split hale trees down the middle and leave them broken,
we see it lay street and sidewalk under curses
of unwalkability: but we never learn.
We breathe the water into our lungs.


But listen: this is indirection. I am trying to
find directions out. Teasing. As if I could want
anything else. The blinds lay lines of sun
across your face and draw
tattoos of light across your cheek. I am helpless.
Touch this and die. Touch this and see God.

Death by pneumonia is death by drowning:
what is death by love? Under the awning
you wait uncertainly, and huddle your summer coat
over your shoulders. You turn to the shop window,
and your fingertips meet your face.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

More Poetry

In my second year of grad school at Yale, I made a faux pas, which I still regret. On learning that a couple of friends were going to be reading poetry at an event, I mused, after absent-mindedly congratulating them, "I wonder, do we need any more poetry?"

It was a terribly rude thing to say, and I still, twenty-five years later, regret having said it. It was philistine and awkward and unpleasant. But now I'm going to say it again. Do we need any more poetry?

Well -- in one sense, no. We have more than we can read already. We have not only more good poetry than we can read already, we have more great poetry. I am only now, after forty years of assiduous reading, getting around to Li Po, who stands in the Chinese poetic tradition, very roughly speaking, as Chaucer does in the English. He is not just a good poet. He is a Major Poet. An Important Poet. He is an amazing poet.

And there's plenty more where he came from. The shelf-life of poetry, if it has one, has not yet been reached in historical time. There are people who won't read an old poem, and I don't really know what to do for them. Someone who thinks Shakespeare beyond his sell date is someone I probably just can't talk to: I wouldn't know where to begin. But beyond that, whole new literatures have been unearthed in my lifetime, and translated into English. I have on my shelves a book I picked up free, some thirty years ago. It's a translation of what I'm assured is -- and believe to be -- a great classic of Vietnamese poetry. It's become something of a memento mori, for me, because I have gradually become aware that I will never read it. Not because I don't want to. Not because I won't love it when I get to it. Not because I doubt that it is in fact the great classic of a great literature. No, the reason I will never read it is very simple: it's that I will die before I get around to it. Dead as a doornail. And the Tale of Kieu will end up in a second-hand bookshop, or possibly pulped and recycled on the spot. (I'm sorry, Kieu. I didn't mean it to end like this!)

So: on the demand side, no. We don't need any more. What about the supply side?

Poetry doesn't have a general audience, any more. This is occasion for much hand-wringing, and remarks on what crude barbarians we have become. Sure, I can go with that. But the fact is that written poetry only ever had a large audience for a century or two -- during the 19th Century, with a slop backwards into the late 18th and a slop forward into the early 20th -- and this was a direct consequence of technological advances that greatly increased the potential audience of poetry without much increasing the number of potential poets. To wit, advances in printing, which made it cheap to produce lots of copies, though it was still quite expensive to produce just a few. The great medieval poets didn't write for a general audience: they wrote for little court circles, and counted their hand-transcribed editions in -- if they were very popular -- scores, not hundreds, of copies. The same goes for most Renaissance writers, in the early days of printing: Shakespeare's readership -- as opposed to his play audiences -- was quite small.

The effect of printing was to artificially preserve the small community of poets -- all the Romantic and almost all of the Victorian poets knew each other -- while their audiences grew. So there was still something similar to the small court circle: it just had a fishbowl of interested (but mute) listeners around it.

This highly artificial and temporary situation is what many writers now look back to nostalgically as the way things ought to be, and what many of us aspire to. We want to be known nationally. We want to be the Coleridge or the Tennyson of our times. We want lots of people to buy our books.

But population has exploded and technology has moved on, and a very different landscape has appeared. There are not, now, a score of good poets in a generation. There are thousands of them. Bad news if you want to be Tennyson, and have graduate students write dissertations about your poetry a hundred years from now. Because let me tell it to you straight: there are not going to be any more Tennysons. Not ever again. English poetry has shattered into a thousand little circles: and that's not because there are no good poets any more, but because there are scads of them. There are going to John Ashberrys for the the foreseeable future, because academics grind on regardless -- the exact counterpart of the medieval monasteries, producing their Lydgates -- but Tennysons and fishbowl audiences are gone. This is a good thing. Because those mute audiences didn't want to be mute. And now when you find a poet as good as Tennyson -- it takes more digging, I admit, than it did when there was a desperate scramble to catch hold of the single national microphone, but it's still quite doable -- when you find your Tennyson, you can strike up a correspondence with her. She'll probably even read your poetry in return, if you ask nicely. This may be a hard time for poetic egos, but it's a wonderful time for poetry.

So once again, we are writing in small circles. We are publishing our poems in human-scale numbers: editions of a dozen or a hundred copies. We are talking to each other in poetry.

Look at it this way. In Chaucer's time, in all of England, how many young men or women were there who could even conceivably get a shot at air time for their poetry? Who might get a chance to read their poems at a royal or noble court? A few hundred, tops: dependents of great houses; monks in some of the great monasteries; members of the royal or noble families themselves. There just weren't very many potential poets. Probably a number on the same order of magnitude as, say, the number of poetry bloggers in Cleveland today.

You may think that modern culture is inimical to poetry: that we are so busy truckling to capitalism and so bombarded with entertainments and so ignorant of our traditions that not many of these potential poets will ever write poems, and far fewer of those will write good ones. And I may agree with you. But even if you think it's a hundred times unlikelier for a potential poet to become a good poet nowadays, when the pool of potential producers of English poetry has gone from a few hundred people to hundreds of millions of people -- as it has -- you're still looking at a generation with some thousands of Chaucers in it. Not hundreds: thousands. (Do the math, if that's your sort of thing.)

There is simply no way that we could, or should, pare that number down to the small literary circles that used to make literary history. There will be no more Tennysons, because we are awash in Tennysons. There are half a dozen poets in my blogroll that I think are that good. Odds are they won't be in the Norton Anthology in the year 2050: those slots will be taken, as they are now, by the pets of academia -- good poets, some of them, no doubt: but to call them the good poets of the early 21st Century is simply delusionary. It doesn't work that way anymore. The floodgates are open, and we're swimming in poetry. If you want to be a literary Name, that's distressing. If you want to make a living by selling your poetry, God help you. But if you just want to read and write poetry, it's marvelous.

MFA programs tend fundraise and justify their existence by advertising themselves as the cultivators of the next Tennyson. That's rather bogus. But to call MFA programs a Ponzi scheme (because what they really cultivate, economically speaking, is the next generation of people who will start up and teach in MFA programs) is to miss the point. There may be no more Tennysons, but there is a deep need for literary circles, for communities of reading and writing, for opportunities to study under masters and to learn the traditions of the craft. Online communities like this are also springing up left and right, and I expect great things of them as they mature.

There is a downside to all this: which is the fragmentation of literature. Literature has for centuries served as a table around which a nation could sit, a shared space of things all had read. Any random railway carriage in Victorian England would have held people who had some of Tennyson's poetry by heart in it. But literature is rapidly losing that function. And we have to beware of what a biologist might call "assortative mating": with so many poetry communities, you're likely to find your way to one that suits you perhaps a little too well. It was good for poetry when, say, Browning and Swinburne were jostled together and had to read each other. I'd urge poets to read poetry that makes them a little uncomfortable, poetry that's not quite their thing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Real Stuff

There are excellent philosophical reasons to assume that mind is the primary stuff of the universe. It is the only stuff we experience directly. The physical world we apprehend only by way of mind: it's tiresome and trite to insist on, but until people get it, we have to keep insisting on it: we don't experience the physical world. We experience the images of the physical world that our mind creates. We know that all of these images are inadequate, and some -- the ones we experience while dreaming -- appear to be completely made up. The physical world is not the primary, bedrock fact we deal with. The primary, bedrock fact is awareness. It is not hardheaded to believe in the reality of the physical world: it is, rather, a leap of faith.

It's a leap I'm happy to make. I believe the physical world is real, every bit as real as my own mind. What I don't believe is that my conception of it is anything but a crude cartoon, a drastic oversimplification, tailored to my own capacities and obsessions. And I don't think it's a settled question whether mind or the physical world, or either, is primary -- which generates which, and how. We simply don't know.

Consciousness appears to vanish when brain activity ceases, and perhaps it does. But that doesn't necessarily mean that brain activity creates consciousness. When you draw down blackout shades, to all appearances the sun vanishes: but that doesn't mean that the open window creates the sunshine, and it doesn't mean that the sunshine stops when you draw the shades. Correlation is not causation.

I am perfectly happy to entertain the hypothesis that brain activity creates consciousness. What I'm not happy with is to accord this hypothesis the status of scientific theory. It does not account well for some of the basic facts of our experience. Why are we aware of our own thinking? Why do we have a sense of self? Why these persistent experiences, across an incredible diversity of times and cultures, of divinity, and of crossing the limits of the individual mind? It's possible that all these things are accidents, by-products of the evolution of the brain. Accidents do happen. But that's not the sort of explanation that gives you confidence in a theory: it sounds much more like desperate speculation than like solid reliable understanding. A theory of what consciousness is ought to account for the facts of consciousness. I don't think the materialist hypothesis, to date, does that very well. Which doesn't mean it's wrong, of course: it could just be incomplete. But I do find it irritating when people take this hypothesis to be as well grounded and thoroughly proven as the theory of gravity, or the theory of evolution.

What would I take as proof? Well, for a beginning, someone should be able to produce a specific thought by a specific physical intervention in the brain. Someone should be able to stimulate a physical path of neurons that produces, for instance, the thought that "two plus two equals four," or "stars are distant suns." Propose that to any neuroscientist and see if they think they're going to be able to do it soon.

Somebody will no doubt bring up the ape who appeared to see something fluttering around its head when its brain was stimulated in a certain way. That is, indeed, extremely interesting, but it's doesn't really bear on this question. No one (that I know of) has ever denied that the physical brain and the mind influence each other. There wouldn't be much point in having either, if they didn't. The question is how they influence each other, and if one is the origin of the other. That's what we don't know.

Monday, September 07, 2009

How to Have Stupid Conversations

She said I have stupid conversations all day long
what does it matter? why do we do any of it? what's the point?

and I tried to say that's how we know, that's how we know
that all beings have buddha-nature, because if they didn't

it wouldn't wound us. If we didn't know
there was a buddha there, why would we mind

a few dumb conversations? rocks and trees are dumb
all day long, they have nothing to say for themselves

and we never suffer in consequence. It's because
we know they are doing what they were meant to do

and we stand in relation to them as we ought to stand
(if we are attending.) But as someone speaks, dribbling

anxiety and desire, saying the same thing over
and over and over and over and over and over and

expecting you to believe their words are more than wind,
you know that their soul is crumpling, and so is yours

they are dying in front of your eyes, and dragging you
down with the wreck. That's how you know

that there's something else. You have to learn
to see around the corner, to catch the gleam of light

escaping from their spirit. To learn the knack
of pulling them up short by the heartstrings.

Open a little space. Be something they don't expect.
Say nothing, but let your eyes ask theirs to dance.

It is an old, old joke, the oldest there is, that we
are snared in this misrepresentation,

this travesty of flesh. Just let your eyes widen, and
crinkle at the corners, to show that you get the joke.

Saturday, September 05, 2009


"Do you speak Spanish?" asked the waitress.

They've seen me studying languages for years, writing out vocabulary lists, making flash cards, drilling myself in a dozen different languages. This behavior strikes them as bizarre, but endearing. I seem like a nice enough guy in spite of it. I'm sort of a mascot, at Tosi's.

"Well, I read it," I said cautiously.

"I can't figure out what this guy wants. I think it's Spanish he's speaking," she said, dubiously. I hesitated. "Go on, talk to him!" said Martha.

It was Spanish. He was a diffident young man, standing by the hat rack, smiling anxiously, ducking his head apologetically. My decades-old schoolroom Spanish took a few minutes to warm up, but we finally got going.

"He's wondering if he could work a couple hours for a meal," I reported. "He's traveling, on his way to visit his brother up in Washington. He doesn't have any money."

"I'll ask Tosi," said the waitress, dubiously.

It was the Sunday morning rush. Eventually he vanished into the back, probably to wait for another hour till someone had time for him. When we left Martha gave the waitress an extra five. "This is to buy that guy breakfast," she said. We both had a hunch that Tosi would feed him, at least.

Of course, we didn't know if there was really a brother in Washington state, though I thought there probably was: he was definite that he was headed for Aberdeen, which is not a place that someone from down-country Mexico would ever have heard of. Whether he was here legally was extremely doubtful, but that wasn't our lookout. He was a stranger and hungry.

The fact that he had no English predisposed me in his favor. Not from the border country then, which is hard and dangerous country, fertile in criminals: large disparities in wealth always brings out the worst in human beings, and I inherited a certain amount of my father's El Paso knee-jerk distrust of border Mexicans. But everyone in the border country knows enough English to ask to work for a meal. This was a Mexican from deep in the country, obviously. I never did entirely understand where it was he was telling me he was from: he agreed with my suggestion that it was near Guadalajara, but I had a feeling he probably would have agreed if I'd suggested it was near Moscow.

Must have been ten years ago. Nowadays there's always somebody in the kitchen who speaks Spanish. Tosi's son has learned a bit now, because if you're dealing with cheap labor, in the West, a bit of Spanish is indispensable. But in those days the migrants were mostly in the valley or over the mountains, working the fields. There were lots of them here in Oregon, but they were pretty invisible to a Portlander. Now there are whole Portland suburbs, and not small ones, that are predominantly Spanish-speaking.

Immigration is a difficult issue for me, one that cuts many ways. For one thing, I just don't want any more people in Oregon, period. Every new person makes the preservation of the things I love most about this state -- its wilderness, its slowness, its courtesy, and its tolerance -- more unlikely. Immigration accounts for about half the population growth in America generally, I understand: I'm sure it's far more in Oregon. People keep coming here. They keep coming here in spite of an unemployment rate rivaling that of Michigan. And although they're mostly people that, individually, I'm happy to have here, there comes a point when sheer numbers mean more about how people behave than any qualities of the people. People litter in their public parks back east, not because they're despicable people, but because people have already littered in them. One more soda can is neither here nor there: why get het up about it? And people drive fast and aggressively because everyone else drives fast and aggressively. Hell, I drove fast and aggressively, when I lived in Connecticut. It's self-defense. As people crowd together, more and more strangers, the various predators accumulate, the thieves and scammers and muggers. Strangers are both more numerous and scarier, and so you become suspicious and hostile towards them, which makes them all the readier to prey on you. And so it goes on.

So. All that. But. Hospitality is the point. Hospitality is one of those things I'm anxious to preserve. What do you do with a hungry stranger? You feed him, of course. You give him a bed and send him on his way with a full belly. When I was a freshman in college, reading the Odyssey, our professor was at pains to explain to us that what was really horrifying about the Cyclops to the Greeks was not his gigantic stature, nor his single eye. It wasn't even the fact that he ate people. It was the fact that he violated the laws of hospitality. That was a bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but an instructive one. Hospitality is, in most cultures, a cardinal virtue. It's one that's decayed sharply among Americans, during my lifetime -- possibly one of the most striking cultural changes I've seen, during my life, though I haven't heard it much remarked upon.

And of course, it's the most elementary kind of fairness. My people came here, hungry strangers, just a few generations ago. People were kind to us, gave us a meal and a job, even though we were just dumb Norskers, grinning by the hat rack without a word of English in our mouths. Now we're going to slam the door on people who come in the same way? Who can feel comfortable with that?

So I wind up -- without a position, agreeing with everyone and no one. Surprise!

In the Lord of the Rings the young hobbits ask Treebeard which side he is on, and he's a little puzzled to answer. He finally answers, cautiously, "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them."

Friday, September 04, 2009

Too Big to Miss. Autumn. Why I Hate the Republican Party.

Tosi's. Across the street from me is a billboard of a jaunty young woman, hands on her hips, staring up at a giant cock, with Too big to miss! lettered in italics above her. It's an ad for the Oregon State Fair. What's the world coming to?

To be fair, I guess it could be a giant hen. All you can see is its legs.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...

Autumn, heavy with nostalgia. We don't usually have a Fall, here in western Oregon, the way you understand Fall in other parts of the country. Deciduous trees are a minority here. The fruit's mostly been picked. This is not so much a season of its own as a transition between the two real seasons we have, the dry season (July through September) and the wet season (October through June.) Any western Oregonian can feel it: the huge weather systems building out over the Pacific somewhere. Maybe next week, maybe next month: but soon, anyway, they'll come rolling up over the Coast Range, every week or two, each one bringing a couple days of dark cloud and pouring rain, easing off to a few days of showers and drizzle, and then maybe a bright day or two, possibly even sunshine, before the next one roars over us. It's like the breakers coming in: breakers of cold wet air crashing over the West Coast, one after another, all winter long. This is a quiet, in-between time, waiting for the first wave. We pretend it's not here. We don't want to jinx it. If we talk about weather, we talk about how the dark and the rain will be here soon.

It's the dark that most distresses outlanders. The rain, they've all heard of, and they come braced for it. But for weeks at a time the sky can be dark, dark gray: you go to sleep to the sound of rain and wake to the sound of rain. If you're going to read, even at noon, you turn on the lights. If you're used to the bright days of a continental winter, sun on white snow, it's enervating and demoralizing. I love it, myself: the gray layers of cloud pulled up over our heads like bedclothes. We're held and cradled by the sky. The long dreamtime. And then, you never know when a bright day will come. November, January, March: at any time the clouds can all roll back. The sun reappears, the weather is a soft, mild sixty degrees, and everyone walks out on the gleaming wet streets as if woken out of a deep sleep, staring at the new world.

Yah. Health care. I've been deeply disappointed by the whole asinine debate, and the bills shaping up in the house and the senate bid fair to do more harm than good. A weak gesture towards covering the uninsured, one real stride forward -- forcing the insurance companies not to discriminate against pre-existing conditions -- and then a dozen provisions that entrench the current stupidities of the system, digging us even deeper into absurdity. The somewhat more intelligent bill -- Wyden's, bless his heart -- is of course being ignored.

The debate and the bills under consideration have basically nothing to do with each other. It's surreal. To hear the arguments, you'd think universal coverage was under discussion, and some huge government health plan was being proposed. There's nothing of the sort even on the table. Instead, it's business as usual: "insurance" for normal health care -- which is ridiculous: "insurance" is for things like house fires, things you can reasonably hope won't happen, not for annual check-ups, dental work, setting your kids' broken limbs, and nursing care when you're old, which no one can reasonably hope to avoid. And this "insurance" is tied to employment, which may have been less stupid back when people stayed in jobs for more than a few years at a time, but now is deeply, deeply stupid, a huge burden on employers, and a nightmare for the unemployed. There's simply no reason for "insurance" to be our model for health care at all. People act as if there's some God-given reason why there should be third party in the health business between the consumers and the providers. The fact that everyone hates that third party, mostly passionately, should clue you in to the reality: there is no value added, none whatever, by the insurance industry. They're a completely parasitical growth. They need to be surgically excised, now, before they twist themselves even deeper into the healthy tissue.

So anyway. Here I am again, an unhappy but helpless Democrat. I hate what they're doing, but the alternative is even worse. As long as wealth is distributed this way, I have to vote Democratic, out of sheer commonplace humanity, so that people don't die for lack of food and insulin. The damned no-tax Republicans are forcing me to support a centralized bureaucracy that I hate every bit as much as they do. Thanks, guys.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Up Against the Wall

It's clear at least that my troubles with food will never be resolved until they have the highest priority in my life. And it's embarrassing, because it's such a trivial matter, of importance only to myself. To make it the ruling concern of my life is, indisputably, to become a trivial, self-absorbed person. At least for a while. I can hope it will be temporary, but I don't know that.

But I am so tired of it that I'm going to do it anyway. It keeps rising up anyway, dominating my consciousness. I feel horrible, physically and mentally, when I eat badly, and I eat badly a lot. If it were possible to solve the problem simply by never eating again, I would gladly simply shut down the digestive system and do without it. I loathe food, much of the time, and I loathe being under its dominion. Often enough, I hate everything about it. Even as I'm wolfing it.

One nice thing, about having come to this pass, in my fifties, is that I can accept that my relationship with food will never be different. I will never have a normal relationship with it. If I'm to eat in a reasonably healthy way, I'm going to have to have abnormal, draconian, arbitrary rules about it, and follow them like some pathetic fanatic. As if I thought it was important. Which it isn't. It's just food, for God's sake. It's not as if it was a moral issue, or something that involved the well-being of my friends and family. But if I can't walk away from it -- and it's clear now that I can't -- then I must try to solve it.

So some things to remember, in no particular order:

1) If I'm ever tired or hungry and don't have the food I should eat immediately to hand, I have already failed, whether I then eat badly or not. I should never, ever find myself in that situation. I shouldn't beat myself up about eating badly, if that happens. I should beat myself up about having let it happen. I should always know what my next meal is going to be, and how I'm going to obtain it.

2) Never: refined sugar / corn syrup / fructose, white flour, potatoes, white rice, corn, pasta, fruit juice, salt meats.

3) Always have on hand, ready to eat: fresh meat and vegetables and nuts. I can eat as much of these as I like. Also unsaturated or monosaturated oils: no problem.

4) Repeat after me: carbohydrates are not a basic food group. Carbohydrates are not a basic food group. Carbohydrates are not a basic food group. They are emergency rations, like freeze-dried hiking food. They're handy, and they keep forever, because they're not real food. On any given day I can have either a slice of whole-wheat bread, or a little cheese, or as much whole grain as sits comfortably in the palm of my hand, or a piece of fruit. (Okay, I know, I know, technically fruit is real food, and you'll find wild primates feasting on it all over the place. If I eat it, my blood sugar goes whoosh! and then plummets, wham! and soon I'm gnawing on chair legs and eating the couch cushions. Don't tell me about how healthy it is. I'm not listening to you. Can't hear you! La la la la la!)

5) One hour of prime time per day is allocated to food procurement and preparation, and all its collaterals, such as keeping the kitchen clean. This is more important than writing, than keeping my job, than maintaining my family relationships. It's even more important than studying Chinese.

6) No eating after 7:30 at night. Except, twice a week, a piece of good chocolate half the size of a business card. (Yes, I read about that study too. Go, science!)