Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy Old Year

I used to. I used to read back in my journals, at the end of the year: I used to make up stories, the year in review, What I Accomplished Last Year, that sort of thing. Not this year. It would break my heart, for one thing, but I can pretend it's for other reasons. Because I'm above all that, say. Or because I recognize that my life is not a narrative at all, not an epic, but more an episodic sit-com, which will run until the jokes are so threadbare, and the plots so transparent, that even the die-hard fans will change the channel when my theme music comes on.

I could make resolutions, lists, plans for 2011, the year of the great leap forward, the year when I will finally eat properly, make my massage business a smooth-running, booked-solid machine, begin promoting myself as a poet, write my zeppelin-in-Africa novel, become a bestselling mystery writer (“Murder in the Sangha”), brush up my anatomy (what is the scientific name for the cheekbone, again?), get a handle on economic theory, teach poetry classes at PCC, get better lights on my bicycle, downsize to a non-mortgaged house, put my files in order, and buy a presentable jacket. I could.

But I think instead I'll sit here in the coffee shop, looking at a bit of unexpected blue sky through the window, and think of the friends who have helped me this year. You never know, till trouble comes, who will be both willing and able to give the help that you need. Some old friends come through, and some don't; some new friends appear suddenly with overwhelming generosity; some quiet acquaintances suddenly blossom into angels of rescue. You needn't -- and I don't -- think of these things as intrinsic characteristics of the people, or of the friendships. It's just the way of the world. I've let people I love down, and I've showered acquaintances with loving support, too. It's timing and resources, and a matter of matching the need to receive with the need to give. But the resonance, the pitch, changes over time. I'm grateful, that's all.

It has been a dark cold winter. As I sit here, still huddled in my jacket and eye-poppingly chartreuse bicycle vest, my feet are aching with cold. When the clouds wander over the sun -- as they do periodically -- my heart sinks. Last night at 11:00 we went on an expedition across town to where Alan had been forced to abandon the Honda, because its door-locks had frozen fast. We were armed with WD 40 and a milk jug of hot water to hold against the locks, but we never did manage to get into it. Triple-A apologetically said all they could do is tow it so we could put it into our heated garage, but since we don't have a heated garage, we passed on that. Martha took Alan to the fire station this morning: I'll pick him up tomorrow. I hope he doesn't have to deal with too much New Year's carnage tonight. And presumably, this being after all the maritime Northwest, temperatures will rise above freezing within a couple days and we'll be a two-car family again.

So -- that's how it goes, one thought leading to the next. I'm slammed at work, of course: hundreds of donations come in at the last minute, people trying to get their gifts in under the wire. My sense is of a real upsurge of giving this year, back up to pre-recession levels, but those impressions can be deceiving. I'll wait till I can run the numbers.

Pristine unwritten pages, blank slates? No. I don't have them, I don't want them. I want the palimpsest of my life as it is, messy, overwritten, painted and scraped and painted again. Subdued to what it works in, like the dyer's hand: and what it works in, clumsily and awkwardly, is love. Happy New Year, dear friends, old and new: and Happy Old Year too.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I am not fond of the medical profession and I don't want to be part of it. I dislike how it parades the authority of science, while so seldom paying its scientific dues. I dislike the priestly status of doctors. I dislike how quick they are to dispense medicines and to whip out the scalpel. And above all I dislike the credit they take for modern health, which is largely due not to the ruinously expensive and ever-expanding practice of “medicine,” but to medical research and civil engineering: clean running water and sewers have done far more for public health than all the doctors ever spawned.

I have lots of reasons to be less than enthusiastic about being regarded as a health care professional. The modern pattern of American health care is this: 1) you get sick or injured, 2) you go to a huge factory building called a “hospital,” (although few human refuges have ever been designed to feel less hospitable) where you are ignored for an hour or two, until 3) a person of huge status grants you a fifteen minute interview. This person, oddly, since he's ordinarily a stranger to you, is commonly referred to not as “a doctor,” but as “your doctor,” (as in “ask your doctor.”) The implication being that this person is as intimate with you as “your husband” or “your wife.” Actually, you've never met him before. 4) “your doctor” asks you a few brusque questions, ignores your answers, orders some tests, and writes a prescription for some poisonous substance or other. 5) you go get your tests, at a couple hundred dollars a pop, and 6) you go to the store and buy your prescription, go home, take your drugs, and either get better or don't. Sometimes there's a step 7): A couple days later someone (not “your doctor” -- he's too important) may call and tell you that someone else would like to cut you up with a knife and see your insides, depending on how the tests went.

Well, whatever you may think of this model, it's not one that fits massage as I practice it very well. Most of the people who call me aren't sick or injured. I don't “treat” them. I would never give a person drugs to take, or cut them with a knife. My status is roughly even with theirs, which is where I like it. I listen carefully to what they say and try to address their concerns. I do have some expertise in touching people; I have a good working knowledge of anatomy, particularly of the muscular and nervous systems, and I follow the research on stress and chronic pain, and the other conditions people typically call a massage therapist to fix -- although what this research mostly tells me that massage can't do much to address them. You can boil the results of most research on medical massage down to a pretty simple summary: it does people good to be touched lovingly. It doesn't usually solve their physical problems, but it makes them feel better.

Well, that's plenty for me. But it makes me a “health care professional” only in the most oblique, tenuous way.

In fact, I think what a massage therapist of my sort is most like is a “counselor,” a talk therapist. Like talk therapists, we have dozens of “modalities,” which mostly turn out, when studied comparatively, to be equally effective: i.e. about as effective as any untrained but caring and sensible person doing the same thing would be. People need to be touched, and they need to have someone to talk to. In a humane society, probably neither of these would ever be commercial transactions at all. But we are not in a humane society. We are in a mean, dehumanized, isolating society in which you can't even find someone to touch you or talk to you in a sustained, gentle, loving way, unless you pay them for it. The fact that there's a brisk trade in massage and talk therapy should make us ashamed of the world we've made.

For years, before I became an LMT, I muddled along trying to find people to exchange massage with. Sometimes I found people and sometimes I didn't. I had a couple wonderful massage buddies over the years: but people move, or get married to people who aren't comfortable with the idea. Convincing people in mainstream culture that “massage” isn't code for “sex” takes some doing: and getting clear on it in your own mind takes some doing, too.

When I got my license, and started practicing, suddenly it was easy. For the first time in my life I had all the touch I wanted. Touch is my primary mode of communicating with people: the one I'm most comfortable with and most fluent in. It is, to me, incredibly grounding and restorative. I am an introvert, in that a dinner party or an hour-long meeting at work ordinarily “takes it out of me,” and leaves me feeling depleted for many hours afterward. One thing I discovered, upon entering the massage subculture, is that touch restores that deficit. I can socialize or attend meetings for hours and hours, if I can be rubbing feet or shoulders at the same time, or getting my own rubbed, and feel no depletion at all.

A massage therapist needs to be careful about boundaries. Taboos about keeping covered up, and about touch, are the main way our culture maintains sexual boundaries; if you take away that framework, you have to create a new one to do the same job. Massage therapists have different taboos, with each other, but they're just as strong -- in some cases stronger -- than mainstream ones. Massage therapists get undressed around each other without much ado: a few perfunctory gestures of modesty, a little polite turning aside or looking at the ceiling, is plenty. But it would, for example, be entirely unacceptable to make a comment about someone's appearance. Something like “oh, you look nice today,” which would pass at any mainstream work meeting, would meet strong disapproval in a massage workshop. In fact, I think the main impression most people would take away from a conference of massage therapists, once they got used to all the flesh, would be of a particularly sober, unflirtatious community.

That really is much of what you pay for, when you buy a massage: for the boundaries. I'm not sure that most professional massage therapists give a better massage than a motivated amateur -- certainly more confident and practiced, more technically accomplished, easier with draping and so forth -- but better? More tender, more attentive? -- but one thing no massage therapist survives long without is a strong sense of boundaries, of how make clear that this is not erotic or romantic love, and how to stay clear about the matter themselves. The problem with amateur massage is not that it's so likely to be technically incompetent, but that its social and sexual implications are so unpredictable: it's likely to be more trouble than it's worth.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Masseurs, Masseuses, and Massage Therapists

People often stumble over what to call me. “He's a mass . . . mass . . . um, he does massage,” they say. The quick answer is, I'm a massage therapist. Longer answer below.

The word for what I do is massage. It's a French word, which should at first strike you as a little mysterious, since no important massage tradition begins in France. The terminology of western massage as we know it now comes from Germany and the Netherlands: the first important texts came from there, and its terminology was invented by 19th Century German-speakers. But 19th Century scientific Germans tended to use French, as earlier generations had used Latin: it was the general language of science, and if you wanted an international terminology that would sound modern and scientific, that was where you turned. And of course, if you were Dutch, your French was probably as good as your German, or better.

(Incidentally, a side-note here: the mysterious “Swedish,” in “Swedish massage,” and the now-defunct “Swedish exercises” is due mostly to Per Hendrik Ling, a Swedish genius, or charlatan, depending on who you ask, who popularized fitness exercises and physical therapy in the early 19th Century, and who may or may not have learned something about tui na from an even less-documented Chinese man known only as “Ming.” Ling -- yes, you're right, the potential for limericks here is seriously distracting -- didn't do much writing and what he did write is not very clear. He is a far less important figure than he's ordinarily taken to be, in the history of massage.)

So the basic textbook terminology of massage is French. We perform effleurage (stroking), petrissage (kneading), and tapotement (drumming). And of course, the general word for what we do is massage, which is a self-consciously foreign word in English: its accent is on the second syllable, and its 'g' is slushed in a suspiciously French, effeminate manner. Obviously something fancy and not quite manly.

So what do you call a person who practices this faintly disreputable art? Well, any French speaker would call someone who does massage a masseur, if male, or a masseuse, if female. (These words have no particular spin, that I know of, in French. A male dancer is a danseur and a female one is a danseuse.) I grew up with these words, and they are the ones I would naturally use: my instinct would be to call myself a masseur.

But funny things happen when words are imported into another language. English has increasingly frowned on pairs of words that distinguish male from female. I grew up with the actor/actress pair, also borrowed from French: you would no more have called a woman an “actor,” thirty years ago, than you would have called a girl a boy: people simply would not have understood you. There's now a confused but fairly strong sense that there's something sexist or even salacious about the masseur/masseuse pair. They are felt to be not quite respectful, although most people could not tell you why. “Masseuse” in particular -- I found upon polling a group of massage therapists -- is felt by many to be ambiguous and suggestive, the word you'd use if you were not quite sure whether the person in question did massage or sex work.

Masseur is, I think, a doomed form. For one thing, its common English pronunciation is identical with the common English pronunciation of monsieur -- we say “muh-SIR” for both of them -- which is bound to make an English speaker uneasy. One of the few things we know about French is that muh-SIR is their word for “mister”: why would we use it, then, to denote a massage therapist? For another, there are more women in the field than men, more masseuses than masseurs, and so masseuse, in a language that doesn't like to use distinct male/female forms, will tend to win out. One of the recommendations for me that I have on my website refers to me as a “masseuse”: it took some force of will for me not to edit that into “masseur.”

I would no more call myself a masseuse than I would call myself, if I took to the stage, an actress. To me, and I would guess to anyone versed in French, “masseuse” clearly denotes a female massage therapist. To apply it to myself would be misleading, if not deceptive.

The emerging solution is “massage therapist.” I don't particularly like it. “Massage therapist,” to someone with linguistic sensibilities, is repellant: “massage” is French and “therapist” is Greek, so they have no business chumming up like that. And anyway, the whole thing is long-winded and highfalutin. Five foreign syllables to designate something so basic?

And yet I think we're stuck with it. “Massager” already means a machine -- that's what you call it when you don't want to call it a vibrator -- so that won't do. And the native English word for massage is “rub,” an excellent and durable word; but somehow I don't think “rubber” is going to catch on as a vocational title, nor “kneader,” nor “stroker.”

The problem is deeper than denotation: the problem is that the activity itself is suspect, and you need to counteract that by loading up hefty, high-status, imported words, and employing lots of syllables. It could be worse, I guess. According to the State of Oregon, I am a “mechanotherapist.” A six-syllable word, that no one has ever seen, and no one knows how to pronounce? Please, just call me a “rubber.” I'll take the chuckle-nudge-snorting.

So I'm a massage therapist. My massage is “therapeutic,” -- you always have to say that: it means that it's not erotic -- and so I find that I am suddenly a health care professional, whether I believe that massage as I practice it has any medical benefits or not. (I've written about this before, here and here.)

Words have consequences. Nobody asked me if I wanted to be a health care professional. As a matter of fact, I don't: I just want to do massage. More about that in later posts. For the moment: call me a “massage therapist.” It will have to do.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Placebo: Five Points

Most discussions of placebo exasperate me. It's one of those things, like childrearing, that everyone thinks they're an expert about, especially people who know very little about it. People make lordly pronouncements and expect to be taken seriously, and if you probe a little bit you'll find they have not read any of the basic texts on the subject, and they're familiar with neither the methodological problems nor with the research. They are, in fact, pig-ignorant, and they're just saying whatever occurs to them on the spur of moment. Remarkably enough, people who dislike the idea of placebo effects tend to downplay them and pour contempt on research about it, and people who like the idea tend to play it up and find every study full of promise. Double standards abound.

So let's start by lining up some of the things that everyone ought to know before they even start talking:

1. No. You are never going to get a double-blind study of placebo effects. If that's not immediately obvious to you, go home and stop bothering me.

2. Of course regression to the mean accounts for some of it.

3. We're not talking about cures for cancer, here. We're talking about mild but extremely interesting and puzzling benefits, across a wide spectrum of conditions.

4. There is no conspiracy against placebo research. Drug companies are anxious to understand placebo effects because they'd like to be able to get what they regard as noise out of their studies, and they're embarrassed by how often their concoctions don't outplay sugar pills. But they're not worried about placebo research putting them out of business.

5. Repeated attempts to establish the credulity of the patient as the variable that correlates most closely with the effectiveness of placebo have failed. The most closely correlated variable is the confidence of the dispenser in the efficacy of the treatment.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Letter from Home

I'm coping, more or less. My back is occasionally sending jolts of dazzling pain to keep me from getting complacent.

The lot we were looking at, with the possibly unlivable house on it, got bought, so we're sad (primarily Martha) and relieved (primarily me) about that. I was having nightmares about trying to get under that house and jack up bits of the foundation, while rats and their fleas nibbled on me, and the floors split open.

Only two more days and this Christmas mania will die down and we'll be able to do things like grocery shopping again. Hooray! I'm very fond of Dickens but at this time of the year I have a hard time forgiving him for his part in launching the Christmas juggernaut. Weeks of international dementia. I know I could make some money by touting gift certificates but I can't stand to participate in the madness.

So we drive around some, looking at dismal little houses in dismal parts of town. It's a blessing that we have the same responses to places.

"What do you think of that one?" A little beige box among little beige boxes.

I'm quiet for a little bit, and then I say, "Well, there's nothing really wrong with it. It's just . . . sad."

"Oh, that's a relief. When you didn't talk right away I thought maybe you liked it."

What we most want is a spacious yard -- overgrown and ratty is fine -- with some mature trees, not necessarily with a view but not at least in dead flat terrain. Any old shack will do: we'd actually like to buy cheap and improve. We're perfectly willing to take something down to the studs and redo it. That would be fun, in fact.

We're going to a counselor and try hard to implement his advice, which is twofold: 1) to keep inquiring about each other's experience and feelings, 2) to refrain from trying to ratchet down each other's anxiety. He's fond of quoting Kierkegaard: "anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." His idea is that rather than trying to soothe ourselves down, we should let our anxiety rise to the next level, where it will actually impel us to do things. And he's right, I think, that we spend an inordinate amount of time protecting each other and assuring each other that everything's just fine as it is. We generally respond to anxiety by trying to make it go away.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dark Sweatshirts

Actually, what I'd really like for Christmas is a couple dark sweatshirts, double extra large, endowed with some cunning technology, or hidden (to me) uncoolness, that would prevent my descendants and their partners from making off with them. How many dark sweatshirts have I bought? A dozen at least. And how many do I have now? None. There's something about a dark sweatshirt that speaks to the deeps of twenty-somethings, and inspires them to think, “The old man doesn't really need this: it's more my kind of thing.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Some Nativity Scenes

She came to the door carrying a glass of wine from home: tonight was a night for drinking chablis and she meant to go on as she'd started, whether she was dropping in on a neighbor's Christmas party or not.

She was in her fifties, all in black, with a pleasing décolletage. Not dressed to the nines, at all, but the sort of woman who goes on good-humoredly making the most of what she's got. She immediately perched in the most comfortable chair by the fire and became, effortlessly, the center of attention.

Her husband preferred to stand, having obtained a beer, and watched her fondly. A builder, an unreconstructed Northwesterner, of the sort of who simply doesn't talk when he has nothing to say, so comfortable with his silence that there's nothing awkward about it. You could see that in his view, his wife was the clever one about talking, so he delegated all that to her: he cast a professional eye on the remodeling my friends had done. Eventually asked a question or two about it, in a voice so soft I couldn't catch the words. He never did sit down.

“How pleasantly inclusive we're being with these older people!” I found myself thinking, as the conversation bubbled along. It was a few moments before it occurred to me that, to the thirty-somethings in the room, the newcomers were of a muchness with Martha and me.

I've accepted my gray-and-white hair and beard without resentment. I don't mind the physical changes I've gone through, especially since, generally speaking, I feel healthier and more vibrant than I did in my twenties. But I still unconsciously categorize myself with the young adults. When I worked in a cubicle for IBM I felt middle-aged, but now I don't.

My public status, however, has definitely changed. I'm of that age at which a man is well past the fork in the road, where the sign on the left says “Distinguished” and the sign on the right says “Invisible.” I'm on the right-hand road. Only particularly kind or polite young people take any notice of me, now. Which is a good thing: my time is no longer wasted on young people who are selfish and rude. There's a certain luxury in being middle-aged, in this country of the obsessively young. You fall off the radar. No one's tracking you any more: you can make your life whatever you please.

Or maybe, this is just the trajectory of my own life, and I'm generalizing unwarrantably. But life feels less and less a burden, and more and more of a gift, as the decades go by. I was so hagridden by expectation, when I was young. Now everyone knows that I will never be anything distinguished. The pressure's off.

Of course, sadness, too: we have given our hearts to things that are bound to be lost. But unlike them, I have the gift of men. I will not have to see the end of them.

Yesterday Mt Hood stood out with incredible clarity, covered with freshly fallen snow, a few ragged wisps of cloud caught in his hair. His scoliotic western spine is turned towards us, here, graceful curves running up to his peak. Too pretty, maybe, in a photograph: too symmetrical, but in life an overpowering vision of what is beautiful and remote. I'm not quite sure how people live without a mountain peak on the skyline. In Olympia we had Rainier, and here we have Hood. I missed it terribly, when I was in New Haven: I never got used to knowing that, whichever way I looked to the horizon, there were only more of the same miserable little hillocks with multitudes of human beings crawling over them.

But oh, quiet, Dale. It's wind and rain now, and a smudgy whitish sky, cold and stark for Christmas. I feel the rain tip-tapping on my my ancient bones, filling the bowl of my skull: sweet rainwater gathering in the little lakes dammed by the gathering of my finger-bones in the mud. It sings softly:

Oh sweet dear God, oh sweet dear God, I'm ready any time.

I hold baby Jesus against on my chest while he sleeps. A big day this week, getting born, taking on all the frantic hope and desire of the breeding world. But the two of us have this morning to gear up for it all. No one's paying attention to us now: it's just the two of us. When the time comes we'll play our parts gamely enough, whatever they are. But for now we're going to catch up on our sleep.

Friday, December 17, 2010


You can go on living with the blade
of nostalgia in your hearts forever,
my pale darlings. It changes nothing.

--------------- Chase Twichell, “The Blade of Nostalgia”

And now a fresh faint blue sky, a delicate enamel
filling in the trays of air between the telephone wires,

between window frames and curtain folds,
between lampposts and cornices;

and then my fingers on your breathing ribs.
Everything settles into long pools

when the outflow is stopped: this morning
the clouded water for my shaving shivered

as the razor dipped in it again and again,
and the soap fled away across its surface,

to be balked by a ceramic shore.
By the time I lift the plug it desires nothing more

than to cling to the sides of the basin; but once it thought
of the air that spills over snowy roofs,

of sea froth, and the scud of clouds on those dizzy nights
when the moon recuses itself.

I stand still in the shower and the unscraped
soap flows down my face and down my chest

I feel the light beat of drops against my eyelids.
I hold my hands to pool rinsing water

in the hollow between my breasts: my coarse silk
graying coat holds soap just like the sink.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Some flaw in the ceramic: my coffee cup trembles on its saucer, unable to find its footing.

Sometimes just stopping and loosely holding can be very powerful. Hands on the chest, or on the feet, or the small of the back -- anywhere -- just resting there, just saying, pay attention to this, here, breathe into it, notice it, feel how alive and yearning it is.

Glittering stars, this morning. Light winds came with the dawn, stirred the leaves, put me in mind of something huge and old sighing, shifting in its sleep. It's truly winter, now, and the pitiless, brilliant winter stars are out: Capella drives his indifferent chariot past Regulus and Aldebaran. God help all who are abroad and homeless; God help the betrayed and the abandoned.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fire Your Bad Clients

One thing you learn early, running a business even as small as mine, is that a customer who starts troublesome will stay troublesome. The person who's willing to take an hour of your time on the phone, getting free advice and diagnostics before (possibly) agreeing to book an appointment, is precisely the same person who will no-show, and who will fail to pay for the appointments he does show up for. He's often the same person who will make inappropriate remarks and push boundaries. These clients are rare -- I've only had a couple of them in four years of practice -- but they can take up an inordinate amount of time, if you let them. My advice is save your effort: go the extra mile for clients who don't start off by asking for extra miles.

It's not just the time, it's the expense of spirit. One of the main reasons to work for yourself is that if you don't like working with someone, you can just stop. You don't have to be rude, and you don't have to blame them: you can just say that you don't think you're the right therapist for them, that you don't think they're benefiting from your massage as they ought to, and that they should try someone else. It's not that hard. They can't make you schedule another appointment.

You owe it to your other clients not to let the rare unpleasant person poison your work. Massage is just not something you can do well with a troubled and turbulent spirit. One person who leaves you feeling humiliated and ill-used can lower the quality of a whole subsequent week's work. Even in simple business terms, it's not worth it. Your peace of mind is your stock in trade, when you do massage: that's half of why people come to you, to get a sense that there's a world of calm and peace out there, somewhere, where people have the time and attention to spare to touch them lovingly, even if they can only get it for an hour at a time. The last thing anyone wants is a harried, unhappy, distracted massage therapist.

One of my massage books advised therapists, as part of maintaining therapeutic boundaries, not to tell their clients if they were having a bad day, or if they were going through troubled times. The massage session should be about the client, not about the therapist. I thought this was excellent advice: the only problem with it was that -- like so much excellent advice -- it was impossible to follow. If I spend an hour and a half touching somebody, they know damn well what kind of day I had. Skin doesn't lie. That's one of the reasons I got into massage in the first place: because of the fundamental honesty of it.

No. You can't afford bad clients. They'll wreck your practice. You have to bite the bullet and fire them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cold Fire

She suddenly reached for me and climbed into my lap. For several heartbeats I held her against my chest. Then she sat back to study my face. She put a questioning finger on my beard, and then on my moustache, examining them closely. She looked into my eyes, full of curiosity. Then suddenly she rucked up my hair.

These investigations filled her with delight. She turned back and crossed her mother's lap to reach her father's, and announced her findings: “I like him.” She had a settled pro-Dale policy for the rest of the evening: she brought me toy cars, napkins, and foil tea-bag wrappers. Eventually, with due ceremony, she conferred upon me the Order of the Pink Jacket: I was to hold it for her, until such time as it was required.

A cold raw morning. The edges of the awnings flutter outside the windows at Tom's, flickering against the white sky. We are in a nest of cold fire: burning, burning.

I hate to think of having nothing to give back. Who is it, Mary Oliver? Who has the conceit about death being the formal handing on of possibilities, the occasion on which you give back to the living all the opportunities you botched during your life. In that case, I'll be leaving a rich inheritance.

But. The truth of the matter is that I am wholly imaginary, both my honors and my failings: I hold the Order of the Pink Jacket, a wedding ring, a license to practice massage in the State of Oregon, and a diploma styling me magister philosophiae: but I am a small mammal in a huge tumbled landscape, breathing roughly in the cold thin air, my ribs rising and falling, my pulse visible in my belly. I'm frightened of shadows falling from the sky and of sudden gleams in the thicket. I cock my head for the sound of water, but only hear the wind.

I see the amphitheater at Epidaurus, the toppled columns, the winter sun; I see the steam rising from the pools at Breitenbush. All this, and a spider running along the edge of a leaf, and a wet hand print fading from the rock as I watched it. It all seemed important at the time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Spirit Level

I've been reading a book called (for reasons not yet explained to me: did I miss something in the introduction?) The Spirit Level. It's a good book: it argues that economic inequality of itself causes many of the ills mistakenly attributed to poverty. I find its arguments as convincing as epidemiological arguments ever are,* but there was one sentence in it that appalled me. I don't have the book to hand, but the gist of it was, we must not entertain the idea that racial inferiority causes these problems we have been discussing, because that is a racist idea. No. No, a thousand times no. We must entertain it because many people think it's so, and we must dismiss it because it's false. That, or simply throw our credentials as scientists out the window.

In any case, this book increases my liking for the basic idea of a so-called “negative tax.” I dislike huge government programs as much as any Republican or Libertarian does: I think they're intrusive and coercive and inefficient. (The only one I really like is the food stamp program, which comes closest to my ideal of simply giving poor people what they most need -- to wit, money.) I keep voting for the parties that support huge programs, though, because they're the only wealth redistribution mechanisms that people will support, and a capitalist system without robust redistribution goes to hell in a handbasket. But I find it patronizing and heavy-handed. “Rule a large country,” said Lao Tzu, “as small fish are cooked.”

(But in any case, that's idle theorizing. What we need now are jobs, about twenty million of them, and we need them yesterday.)

I don't believe that most of the poor are poor because they're improvident or stupid or lazy. I think they're poor because they don't have enough money.

Democrats often wonder why the white poor so often vote with the Republicans, against their own interests. I think the answer is fairly simple: they know that the Democrats view them with even more contempt and condescension than the Republicans do. Many people would rather have respect than prosperity.

* I.e. not very. It's extremely difficult -- essentially impossible -- to isolate cause, as opposed to correlation, by way of epidemiological evidence. I think their hypothesis is probably true, though I don't think they have a knockdown argument for it. The correlation is indisputable.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

In which I Shift my Alliegance to the Republicans

I find myself in the manifesto-writing mood, a mood I deeply distrust. Political passion is almost always a displacement of deep irrational anxieties: we assign the major political players roles in our personal psychodramas, and watch Obama flounder in despair at our own unassertiveness, or watch Palin in horror, as the personification of all our childhood humiliations at the hands of the pretty, vapid, ignorant and cruel. I suppose a celebrity political system will always operate this way. But at least we can shake free of believing in it, when our full attention is on it.

I have shifted my emotional alliegance to the Republicans. Republicans are happy people. They believe everything is going to work out. They trust people to spend their own money. The economy and the environment, think the Republicans, will prove resilient and bounce back from anything. Things aren't really under human control anyway. Democrats, on the other hand, believe the worst of everybody, including themselves. People can't be trusted. The rich will plunder up to the bitter end, ruining themselves and country in the process; the humiliations of the poor will drive them to crime and addiction. God forbid you should give the poor money, say the Democrats. No, you should give them programs, to turn them into better people, people more like us. Not that we're anything to write home about: but at least we're not like those horrible Republicans.

The Republicans are wrong about almost all the issues I care about. But they're emotionally right, spiritually right. We aren't in control of any of this. And we aren't so bad. What we need to do is -- as Margaret Thatcher would say -- pull up our socks and get to work. Right here and right now, on the local and personal problems that we fully understand and are equipped to deal with. We do need to vote people into office who understand how the world works -- people who understand science and history. But most of the world's problems, most of our problems, do not have a governmental solution, not in the long run. Real historical solutions tend to emerge, not to be imposed. If we stave off World War III long enough, if we stave off totalitarianism (which is often the same enterprise) long enough, if we limit environmental damage as much as we can, we'll get through.

Not (to bow to the depressive Democrat in me) that we won't take horrific losses in the process. My blood runs cold when I think of the destruction of species and of habitats; also when I think of the destruction of languages and cultures, when I think of the huge human die-off required to come back to a sustainable population. The world, natural and human, will come to the other end of this algae-bloom of humanity much the poorer, in many ways. But we'll be all right. Really. And people will fall in love just as deeply as ever, and they will stop short, breathless, at the beauty of a dewdrop glistening on a dead leaf, just as they always have.

Bad times come to an end. History takes unexpected turns. In the nature of things, disasters are foreseeable, but creative solutions are not. Should the worst come to the worst -- should the last war or the global winter come, should this be a die-off of species to rival the three or four great die-offs written in the fossil record -- all it means is that other new and wonderful things will arise. There will be beautiful things we have never dreamed of.

Our species and our planet are mortal. I don't think our time has come, this millenium, but if it has, let's die with our heads up. No one taught us how to be superintelligent animals, and it's no particular shame if we don't get it right. We gave it a shot.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Zeppelins and Rain

In the 1930s Hugo Eckener, piloting the Graf Zeppelin east across Siberia, turned far north to avoid storm fronts. He came finally to the Stanovoy Mountains. They were reported to be 5,500 feet high, and beyond them would be the Pacific. But at 5,500 feet, they were still going up, with icy ridges on either hand, the mountains still loomed above him. The zeppelin had a theoretical ceiling of 8,500 feet, but Eckener doubted, if they went that high, and then spilled enough hydrogen to get back down again, that they would get ever get the airship back to inhabited lands. And nobody really knew how high the mountains were. It was deadly cold.

At six thousand feet, they finally made it over, and the clouds opened, and ahead of them was the blue Pacific. The mountains dropped steeply on this side, and in a few minutes they were warm and sunlit, in a green country, on their way to an ecstatic welcome in Japan.

Eckener openly despised the Nazis. Goebbels tried to persuade him to paint huge swastikas on the body of the Hindenburg, and Eckener refused. Swastikas on the tailfins, sure, like any other aircraft: but he wasn't having his ship made into a floating billboard. It's a bit of a mystery how Eckener survived the Nazi years. There is a story that Hindenburg made Hitler promise to leave him alone. It's plausible: Hindenburg admired Eckener, and Hitler admired Hindenburg.

December. Yesterday a searching rain drenched me, as I rode down to the Library Foundation. My gloves and the sleeves of my jacket were soaked through, and even my rain pants failed me, letting water through the inner seams, so that the groin and inner thighs of my jeans were soaked. I was cold and uncomfortable all afternoon. Most of my gear had dried out by evening, but when I started suiting up for the ride home, I picked up my gloves and they were still heavy. I twisted them in my hands and a dribble of water ran out of them onto the floor. I wore them anyway. But the ride home wasn't bad. The rain had nearly stopped by then.

It's grounding to have to attend to the weather, and to be out in it every day. Keeps the hypos from getting the upper hand of you, as Melville would say. There's something obscurely damaging to the spirit about living too much in controlled environments, and always having the temperature and light suit your whim. If you don't have any struggles with unwelcome sensory stimulation you start making up emotional disturbances, just to make sure you still exist.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

No Bank Will Ever Finance This

I ride home over the Hawthorne Bridge, sometimes in a whipping rain, sometimes under a calm moon, and serpents of light swim beneath me on the water: red, amber, green, blue, wriggling at different harmonics, depending on the wind and the uneasiness of the river, but all of them, always, swimming upstream, trying to find their way up the Willamette to Eugene, I suppose, where I was spawned. Light, sky, water.

My mind returns to the river and the sky, working with them again and again, like those little puzzle-toys of wood and wire. What happens if you solve them? Do they come apart? If so, can you put them together again?

A friend asked how I was doing, and I answered: sometimes I feel like I'm carrying a tray of glasses someone filled to the brim with grief, & I have nowhere to put it down.

It's tedious, I know: I remain tethered like one of those cold dogs you see waiting outside a supermarket, shivering and shifting on its paws. Sometimes the temptation to do something is very strong. But I think my job right now is to wait.

A Latina woman raking leaves, her pit bull gamboling beside her at the chain link fence: a quick bright animal with an enormous broad head. He had a friendly aspect, but I didn't reach out over the fence to pat him. She told us the place had been empty for years, except for raccoons and rats. She didn't know the story. She warmed to us as she talked, and we warmed to her.

The place was full of abandoned stuff. Little House on the Prairie books. Mildew. Cardboard boxes half-packed. We found a trapdoor in a closet, which dropped down into a cellar -- a hole dug in the dirt -- about six feet square and not high enough to stand in: ghostly canning jars on a shelf drifted with dirt and dust. A fresh, gleaming pile of raccoon scat on the floor: apparently on hearing our approach, someone had hurriedly lightened ship and put to sea.

Could people live in it, or even camp in it while they built the real house out back? We weren't sure. It was on what they call a flag lot, almost double-sized -- in the center of the block, in back of everyone else's back yard. There were some dead and dying trees that would have to be taken down, but others that were vigorous. Holes in a bank of earth out back that I took to be rat dwellings. The realtor, who treated us warily -- probably taking our interest in the place as evidence of mental instability -- viewed it with undiguised horror. “One thing I can tell you,” he said, with admirable frankness, “no bank will ever finance this.”

Monday, December 06, 2010


Last night was dark and windy, out in the yard: dry leaves rattling against fence and foundation. I dug a hole two or three feet deep, and then opened the cardboard box from the emergency veterinary clinic where they'd euthanized Brother Cat. They'd wrapped him in a little blanket. I rolled him out of the blanket and into the hole: he fell neatly into place, as if it was a little gymnastic routine we'd been practicing for weeks.

I shoveled the dirt back in, and then switched to a hoe to scrape the last few inches in, and smooth it out. I've become skilled at burying animals, in the last few years. A couple animals ago, we would have been more ceremonious about it, gathered around, chanted together. I murmurred a few om manis, and went back into the basement to put the tools away.

I sat on a wooden crate and took my shoes off -- they were caked with mud -- and stowed them up high on a shelf, the same shelf that holds the Christmas ornaments. Easier to let them dry out, and then knock the earth off them tomorrow, than to try to clean them now.

When I woke this morning there was still wind, and a little rain. 4:00 a.m. I got up and puttered about a little. Unloaded the dishwasher. The kids had overfilled the garbage pail, so I got an old plastic bag to drop the surplus into, and then took both bags out back to where the garbage can is. The stones that mark the path were rough on my bare feet, and the wet earth was cold. Poor old Brother. Never warm again.

As things fall away around me, as animals die, and we look at downsizing the house and sinking genteely down out of the middle class, as my beard and hair go whiter, I ought to feel myself diminished and waning. I don't. I feel more vigorous than ever, like camp fire flaring up in a breeze. I am, in simple fact, stronger and fitter than I've ever been in my life, and I have more determination and grit than ever. And I believe in less and less. Every time I've taken something on faith, I've regretted it. I believe my own eyes (most of the time) and my own hands. The rest will have to tend to itself. I'm not ready to be rolled into a hole in the ground just yet.

Finally a little blue light seeps into the cloudy sky. This morning was slow in coming.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Cain planted corn and decided
that he owned the land he worked;
Abel taught sheep to believe
he was kind, and cut their throats.

Eve never did learn to shut the door
on salesmen with catalogs of apples,
a deal of seed, and a wriggling discourse;
and at night she told Adam
about how they would be rich.

Never mind who finally murdered whom:
at that point it was just a matter of time.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Procedures Manual: Thanksgiving

Create an effigy. It need not be lifelike: a gesture at representation will be enough.

Set it in a convenient chair. It may slump from time to time, and require to be “punched up.” So long as it doesn't fall, you're fine.

As soon as food is present, set it on “automatic eat”: from this point on, it will pretty much run itself.

Very, very quietly, slip back and draw the curtain. You may think someone will notice something wrong. Well, they will, but the last thing they will think is that the effigy is not you.

Now you're at liberty, so long as you stick to the empty parts of the house. Wander from room to room. Daydream. Thanksgiving will soon be over, and real life will start again soon. Just come back often enough to reach through the curtain and make sure that the puppet doesn't fall out of the chair: remember, you'll need it again at Christmas.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Everything for Happiness

I took a post down the other day because it was a little wrong and a little premature. But I liked this sentence, so I resurrect it here:

These are not, after all, my holidays. The religions of sacrificial lambs and chosen peoples are not mine, however appealing the bodhisattva Yeshua may be; and much as I approve of giving thanks, I can't think of the survival of that pale, bigoted, grasping tribe of Englishmen on their American beachhead as a great historical blessing.

I wish I could speak more freely of what's going on with me, but it may be just as well to cover the pot tightly and let it cook.

Martha and I have been looking at smaller houses, fixer-uppers, and lots where we might build, say, a straw-bale house. Portland is serious about encouraging infill, rather than sprawling, so it would be easy to buy a rundown house, make it reasonably liveable, and build an “accessory unit” -- a granny flat, as some call it -- in the back yard. I'd like to have a hand in building a small snug house with the passive solar well thought out and built in from the start. I'd be happy in a condo, myself, but Martha needs a yard, both as a buffer and as a place to tend: and we both would love some native flora to tend, and to find some small battlefield on which to meet the English ivy and clematis and Himalayan blackberry that are overrunning our native ground.

For now, the task is getting our house ready to sell, and getting ready to move from a four-bedroom house with a full basement to something with half the living space and an eighth of the storage. There's various painting and small repairs to be done, and both the front and back steps need to be rebuilt. We're thinking of next summer as the time to actually sell and move, but I suspect that when it happens it will happen in a rush -- we'll find the place we really want and suddenly we'll be scrambling and there will be a grand panic. That's okay.

Everything for happiness, and misery everywhere -- who says that? Sir Joseph in the Aubrey-Maturin books?

I think and think and work and work, and sometimes I fall through the ice, and sometimes I wander through abandoned industrial landscapes, full of broken, unidentifiable machinery and overgrown foundations. Bits and pieces, fragments. I learned that a Cooper's hawk has a haunting shriek, with a dying fall, whereas a sharp-shinned makes happy little chucking noises, unbecoming a raptor. Maybe now I'll finally be able to distinguish them with confidence.

We saw a raptor down Holgate way, in Southeast, that we couldn't identify. Sharp-pointed wings, smaller than a redtail, too big for a kestrel, a rapid flight almost like a night-hawk. It haunts me.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Koshtra at 52

Olympia, 1975

It was a '55 Chevy pickup truck, which made it twenty years old, then: the same age as you. You called it turquoise, but it had faded to robin's-egg blue, with a net of fine cracks in the paintwork. A bench seat. You drove it with your left hand, except to shift. Then you took your arm from around my shoulders, and the purring coughed to a higher note, and you put your arm back again.

We drove in the darkness of the woods of western Washington: there is not much darker than those woods, at night. But in the rain, you needed both hands, because the wipers were broken, and then you drove right handed, your left hand thrust out the broken window, moving the wipers by hand.

It's always nighttime, as I remember it, or early morning, in the fog. And that was how it was until the night of the snowfall.

Suddenly there was light, light rising from the ground, and a fresh three inches of snow, and more twinkling in the streetlights. As we rounded the curve of the parkway, you straightened the wheel but the truck continued to turn. It lifted its feet apologetically, and gave itself to the skid. You spun the wheel skillfully. Turn in the direction of the skid. Well, that's what they tell you, but the truck had heard a different song. In every dance, there comes a time of surrender. A time of trusting to your partner, letting go. And this time, thought the truck, was that time, and her partner was the snow.

So holding the snow's hand she let it twirl her, gracefully gliding over the dance floor, a long and breathless pirouette, right into the oncoming lane, across to the further curb, which we struck not fast, but hard, so that our bones rang with it. The truck thought about rolling over, but decided not to, and dropped back to all four paws with a thump.

And then it was simply still, and silent, and the snow fell.

Then the snow said to you privately, are you willing to give him up? And you said no, I'm not. And I looked at your face, in the faint upwelling light, knowing nothing of this, and thought, this is who I want to die with, when it comes to that.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fling Open

the windows. Get a breath of air into this place, man. You're taking things way too seriously.

Across the street, a construction worker with saddlebags of gear slung on both hips, in an orange t-shirt, stands out against the airbrush fog of the sky. People make fun of construction guys for standing around, but that's what the good ones do. Look at it. Think it out first. Measure twice, cut once.

This guy is roofing a vaguely Japanese gate that will brand the extinct Hollywood Video store as a new branch of the Umpqua bank. I like the Umpqua bank. They sponsor New Music Monday on some radio station or other, here -- new songs by local bands. All I know about it. So I'll forgive the Japanese gate. Besides, its new wood is a brilliant warm orange-yellow -- an unearthly hue, though natural. The gate and the worker on top of it float, a superrealist vision, above the quotidian world, in this thin unexpected November sunshine.

Already the sunlight is draining away. Somewhere to the east the cold fog is rising up over the sun.

Time to get on my bike and ride on down to the Foundation, enter the final batch of last week's gifts, and run the weekly reports, so as to have them ready for the 9:30 meeting. Later, compadres. Go with God. Be gentle as pigeons and wise as snakes, and keep your powder dry.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Calm and Dispassionate Assessment

I have lost my face. I have only a raw pulpy mass of sensitivities, hanging off cheekbone and brow. I look out of the bloody caves of my eyesockets as if out of reversed telescopes, and see tiny, busy, ant-like figures far away. Not ready to appear in public. Wind me up, wind me up in linens brushed with petroleum jelly, darken the room, and wait. Just wait, dear.

I write blog posts about the Third World War, or medical practice in America, or building for passive solar in the Pacific Northwest, or neo-Pagan family structures in the post-industrial world, and edit them until they disappear. What I have is a face of raw hamburger and a clutch of blue-penciled paper. I walk backwards, explaining my positions carefully to non-existent juries, and feel with my toes for the edges of the cliff. Wait.

At the same time, I am, inexplicably, a comfort to my family. I read aloud to them. Last night, after Thanksgiving was finally over, I read them “A Bit of Luck for Mabel” -- that grand short story of Wodehouse's. They laughed and laughed. I do lovely, effective massage: I'm at the top of my game. Do I even need a face? Do I need to convince the juries? Maybe this is a life, after all.

But the holidays come, inescapable nightmares, huge paste-like smears over the calendar. When the holidays come I despair of ever having a face. Let me buy a plastic Ordinary Joe mask, and keep it by the door. Nobody cares to look closely anyway. It should do. Just make sure it's buttered on the inside, so it doesn't stick: things are painful enough already.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Yet Another Crow Poem

a crow in glossy black knickerbockers
snicksnops over the asphalt's yellow lines:
he has business with the blowing cellophane.

Friday, November 19, 2010

March into the Quaint

I am reading After the Victorians, by A. N. Wilson, a history of Britain in the first half of the 20th Century. Wilson is not easy for me to classify. I'm sure my British friends would be able to tell me exactly where he's taken to stand in the spectrum of English politics and class, these things never being very vague in England. I prefer at the moment not to know.

The greatest interest for me, in this book, is that the events immediately preceding my birth have passed into the historical record, and are now subjects of history in the same way that Victorian times were the subject of history when I first began reading seriously, a generation ago. It's all over and done with, the party passions are receding, and the Horrifying and the Exalting are both making their inexorable march into the Quaint. (And I, obviously, am headed that way myself.)

The greatest shock to me was turning to the photographs, seeing one of John Cowper Powys, and reading this: John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) is surely the greatest English novelist in his generation.

Now, of course, such a statement will never be uncontroversial. But the fact that someone could make it was, to me, staggering. When I was studying for my doctorate in English at Yale, in the early 1980's, there were precisely two people in my class who had read Powys, I and Ian Duncan. We both thought he was terrific. Nobody else had heard of him.

I have been out of academic circles for a very long time. Probably Ian, who last I knew was at Berkeley, making a brilliant academic career, has had a hand in this remarkable literary ressurection. I read Powys when I was perhaps 20 years old, a dusty library book called A Glastonbury Romance, picked nearly at random off the shelves, because anything Arthurian, in those days, had huge magnetism for me. I read the book in a trance. Much of it was beyond me: it teased and disturbed. I was well aware that I had a bigger fish on the hook than my line could stand.

So of course, the next thing on my reading list is to go back to Powys, with I hope a stouter line. I suspect it will still get away, but I'm excited, as I was excited by Nicholson Baker, as I have been excited by modern poetry. It seems I am awake again, as a reader, after a long sleep. And a strange country it is, that I've woken in.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rain Songs

Last night the rain sluiced down, soaking my hair and my jacket and my shoes. I walked up 6th Avenue to the bus stop, so happy with the rain, so happy with the cold, feeling myself young and strong and alive.

On the bus, it was delightfully warm, yet well-ventilated and airy. Everyone looked glum and put-upon. The downpour had sent extra people looking for buses, of course, so we were full, as Americans understand it. The driver asked us to move back. People shuffled back an inch or two, making room at the front for perhaps a couple more people. Americans, western Americans anyway, have not the faintest idea how to scrunch together. People I know who have arranged Dharma events here and in India tell me that they reckon the same space that will comfortably hold 200 Americans will comfortably hold 500 Indians. I had an absurd urge to sing out, “come on, folks squeeze together and let more people on! You were just out in that rain, you know how anxious they are to be aboard!” We could have taken on at least a dozen more passengers. But no. The riders were mute and sullen. I felt a fleeting contempt for my people, so convinced of their divine right to personal space, so willing to snatch what they imagine to be their own and to deny it to their brothers and sisters. And I looked at the enormous display of wealth -- all the iPads and iPods, the Blackberries, the shoes and jackets and dresses worth thousands upon thousands of dollars -- and thought, what right do you all have to be so unhappy? And if you are, then why don't you do something about it? Strike up a song, for God's sake. We could all have a terrific time, here. We could sing old favorites and enjoy each other's company. We could marvel at the fact that every single one of us is on our way to a warm dry home, where we'll change into dry clothes, where there is central heating and electric lights and food in the fridge.

Well. I'm a shy introvert: I was no more likely to exhort people to scrunch up or to lead them in a rousing group sing than I was to grow a second head. And the intense happiness, the rain-drunkenness, was dissipating as I walked home, under a gentler rain now. I'm glad it came. For a while there I thought maybe it was done with me for good.

Why don't we sing? Why don't we all know rain songs, to sing together on the bus? Oh, this is not a rich country at all: it's a poor, poor place, a wretchedly poverty-stricken detention pen of great apes accustomed to nothing but zoo cells, and terrified by the forest. We have nothing to give to each other or to anyone else. And what other meaningful measure of wealth is there? A wealthy man is one who can afford to give things away: almost every culture but our own knows that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Like the Wasps

Like the wasps I have built
a tenement of paper,
hole upon hole of storage...

Chase Twichell, from "Partita for Solo Violin."

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Well, but we don't even know
when the sky began to snow
when the soft yet utter
white began to flutter,
when the trembling girlish flakes
began to kiss the cedar shakes.

We don't know when the sphere of white
coalesced around the light,
when it began to spark and swirl
and dramatize the breeze's curl;
we only know the street is gone
and looks no different from the lawn.

And then again we don't know when
an impulse firmed into a yen,
or how intention to inquire
precipitated such desire;
what gave these clouds the final shove,
and set loose such a fall of love.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Burning Ground

This is where I live, in the burning ground,
surrounded by the skeletons of loved ones,
the ghosts of the dead, the whispering of poets
that died many hundred years ago.

If we were not precious,
uniqueness could not make us so.
If you found two of me, one in the kitchen
scrambling eggs, and one dressing in the bedroom,
which of us would you judge worthless?
Which would you throw out?

We are not children, dear.
We've seen love check at a pimple, we know
that innocents hang, that children go hungry,
that hearts wear out their cases,
as a knife wears out its sheath.

Here the smoke is greasy in our eyes;
here the caged ribs,
the blackened timbers of a ruined house,
fall: but here is where love remains
when all the rest is burnt.

Monday, November 08, 2010

We Three

Among the the infirmities of body mind and art,
The failing of the future in the past,
Will we finally sit at table, just we three?

No interloper will be left to take a part,
No unknown speaker horn into the cast:
Our dwindling talk will finally be free.

Oh my heart, my poor old ragged heart,
Scraped over so many portages, are you launched at last
On the wide water that will take you to the sea?

Saturday, November 06, 2010


A couple days ago a troubled aged moon rode in the pools left by the cloud-wrack, and I wrote an American Sentence: “the moon's thin arms cling to the ghost-gray smear of her vanishing father.”

If you're marinated in Coleridge, as I am, you'll know the antecedents: his epigraph to the Dejection ode, from “the grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” --

Late, late yestre'en I saw the new moon
With the old moon in her arms,
And I fear, I fear, my maister dear
We shall have a deadly storm.

Which inspired in their turn possibly the most brilliant lines Coleridge ever wrote:

For Lo! The new moon winter-bright
And overspread with phantom light --
With swimming phantom light o'erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread --
I see the old moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming on of rain and squally blast,
And O that even now the gust were swelling
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast . . .

Well, well, you'll never be Coleridge, Dale; never mind; we're just doodling here. Your lines will do for a pale 21st Century “poem.”

It just happened to be an American Sentence. As you may recall, I don't think the American Sentence makes much sense as a verse form. English verse is a stress-counting creature, not a syllable-counting one. But I recollected that I could make it a “haiku,” as we disastrously miscall that other unsuitable-to-English form, that 5-7-5 thing. So I tried it out.

The Moon's thin arms cling
to the ghost-gray smear of her
vanishing father.

Ugh. Ending a line with “of her”? No thank you. And the feminine near-rhyme of “of her” with “father” is icky, if your attention is drawn to it like that. In fact, maybe that near-rhyme is a problem anyway. Hmm.

Well, leaving aside how to chop this thing into lines, if at all, I turned to the problem of titling it. “Waning crescent?” There's a nice inbuilt semantic contradiction there: “crescent,” etymologically, means “growing.” This moon of course was not growing, it was dying -- the last of the old moon, not a new moon yet. And then I realized that this was critical to how I saw this Moon. Not everyone observes the distinction I do -- or even knows it exists -- between the last edge of the old moon and the first edge of the new moon. The poem makes no sense if you think it's a new moon. Maybe it should go like this, and then the problems of lineation and title might both solved:

Old Moon

Waning crescent: the moon's thin arms cling
to the ghost-gray smear of her vanishing father.

And so, it becomes a poem of four-beat lines, and as Nicholson Baker's Anthologist insists, all English poetry is really in four-beat lines. Good enough. For now. But I still think that internal near-rhyme is a problem.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Glowing of Such Fire

I feel the pulse of your blood whenever I look up
and the sky is crowded with hurrying angels,
their feet cracked and bleeding, tracking light across the clouds;

I hold your heart cradled in my worn-out hands,
and it throws strange shadows; light pours
between my fingers, it spurts and crackles and flares;

There are things you can't undo, and the first of these is love.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Nicholson Baker

So my friend Jarrett -- you know Jarrett, the man who writes both Creature of the Shade and Human Transit, the one who can make Australian foliage fascinating and can take your breath away with principles of laying out bus routes? Yes, that Jarrett. So Jarrett wrote me an email, I think he's worried about me, and he said he was reading a novel by one Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, and that it reminded him sharply of me.

Well, if you really want someone to read a book, that's how to get them to read it. “Man,” you say, “ this book is just you,” and since we're all desperate to get a handle on who we might be, we read it. And usually we get a ways in and we think, “I don't know who this is, but it's not me. Why does Lucy think it is? What can she have been thinking of? Is it that the protagonist is bald?” and it just goes downhill from there.

But in this case, it so happens, that this book is me, for better and worse: the narrator is hapless and sweet and and can't keep his attention on things and is intermittently wise, and it puts me in mind of Dave Bonta, who once said that I was the wisest person he knew, except when I wasn't, and I felt that about covered it.

And all I really have to say so far, and I'm only on page 28, is that if I'd known people were writing novels like this I wouldn't have stopped reading novels.

Just for instance. The narrator picks ups up a New Yorker magazine:

Let's have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows it's a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Rain Likely

Today's weather forecast: “Rain likely in the morning... then rain in the afternoon.”

It's challenging, reporting the weather during the nine-month rainy season in the maritime Northwest. There aren't really that many captivating ways of saying “it's going to rain all day, what else?”

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Patria Mellita

Every burning mountain of his face
crowned with white pus, the corners of his mouth
scaled and cracking, the sores
as red as swollen strawberries;
his cup of tea will tremble on his lap
as he pours the sugar in, not from a spoon,
oh no, not from a sugar bowl,
but from the five pound bag: until
an inch of sugar mud lies on the teacup bottom
and the liquid squirms in its shifting depths.
You can't help but wonder what adjustments
are made in the great confinement of his gut:
what racing messengers of insulin collide,
fall sprawling, at the liver's gates;
how sweetly of honey must his urine smell,
how bees must cluster on his toilet's lips.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Dale Alan Favier sits in a half-booth, typing on his diminutive netbook. The half-booth is the one wedged in the corner, at Tom's: there wasn't room for a whole booth here, so on the side that runs aground on the corner, there's only a pull-up chair. That corner of the building is beveled, and it was once a doorway -- the door has been replaced by a window, but the window is still bordered by frosted glass strips, and topped by an arch.

This is one of the places a disgruntled waitress said I could sit as long as I liked. Just so long as I didn't sit at the prime full booths along the windows. She's anxious about having shown her irritation with me, and apologizes every time she sees me, which is becoming tiresome. Get over it, lass. Why shouldn't you want to earn what you can? And anyway, I've come to like the half-booth. There's a patch of sky through the window, and patterns of light that come through the frosted glass. That glass is checkerboarded into one-inch squares, and when a car goes by on Division Street, a little shape, a moving darkness representing it, travels backwards across each square of light. When cars are going both directions, as now, at the morning rush hour, the patterns go both ways at once. The shapes don't move steadily, even when the cars do: they swoop, starting slow at the edge of each inch, moving quickly across the center, and then slowly peeling off the other side of the inch, as the car vanishes (as I can see by the plate windows) in the opposite direction.

The physics of it absorbs me, and I think of all the swooshes of light, the curving and tumbling backwashes of air, that each car is creating as it goes. These movements of light are just one instance, a minor one that happens to be visible to one observer in one place. Each car actually is casting lights and shadows all around it, making elaborate patterns, everywhere it goes. And so, for that matter, are you and I. Not even to speak of the emotional wake I trail behind me, the guilty feeling waitresses, the annoyed line-cooks, the customers who smile or ignore me, thinking I approve or disapprove of them: all that turbulence behind me. It is, probably, far bigger and more important than I am, and I have very little control over any of it. I often think of myself and other people this way, as moving focal points of turbulence, and I'm uneasily aware that most people don't habitually see it this way. Or maybe ever see it this way. They'd be offended by it, I think. You're supposed to see people as subjects, as the lordly masters of their actions, not as tumbling chips in the kaleidoscope lens.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blond Day

Two pale boys in black hoodies, twins, their flaxen hair shockingly white; they are both grave, austere. Their eight years seem to have brought them to bitterness. They read the newspaper. They are waiting for their parents to finish their meal, but they seem to expect no happiness when it's done. I don't know what can bring eight year old boys to such preternatural stillness, such absence of hope, but it doesn't augur well. They're not dull boys: they look in fact uncommonly intelligent. But entirely inward.

“Are you all right?” asks the waitress, with a little edge to her voice. And I'm doing it too, I realize: willing them to be happy, to be carefree, to save us all from the adult world. They're letting us down. One of the parents gives an infinitesimal nod, and the waitress leaves. The boys read the paper, carefully, and eat the remains of their toast. One has his hood up, framing his face with black; the other's hood lies like an Elizabethan ruff, a black backdrop to his white jaw, to the long curve of his skull. His white hair strays over it. I think of Richard III, of the young princes in the tower. They must have been about this age.

His mother strokes the ruffed one's jaw. He lifts his cheek, like a cat, but he's not paying attention to her: he's examining the photos on the wall. When he lowers his eyes, I see that his eyelids are a delicate bluish purple, like the inside of shell. I wonder if he's ill. But some very fair children just have that coloring: I did myself.

As they rise to go, both boys are suddenly radiant with smiles, and the ruffed one confides something to his mother, speaking carefully. He has one hand in his pocket, and one on her elbow. He is earnest and confident: he knows he'll be listened to respectfully. The family files quietly out of the restaurant.

We're in the dark world, now. Day will come briefly, the sky may even clear for hours at a time, but it will be bordered with black on both sides. Day is a momentary illumination, the glimpse of a solemn, white-blond face. The rain has beaten leaves, twigs, and branches out of the trees and into the streets: the tawny leaf-sludge glows in the oblique light that dodges the rain clouds, and then everything is extinguished again. I think of wet, dreary dawns in London and in Paris, of lights that come up from illuminated streets.

For now, I breathe with difficulty, and struggle to remember how to do complex things like walking and eating. I am less at home than ever, more outcast and alien. I watch my hands to learn how to turn doorknobs, how to open cupboards. The hands are the last to forget, I'm told.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Angel in the Whirlwind

I'm reading Angel in the Whirlwind, a history of the American Revolution, by Benson Bobrick. I particularly liked this sentence about John Adams. “In religion, Adams was a Congregationalist of the Unitarian school and as such lacked an aptitude for paradox.” It's something you could say of many of my countrymen.

“How is it that the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of slaves?” asked Samuel Johnson, in re the American discontents.

Dazzling, dazzling, the white church spires:
across the bay, dark ships fret at their wires.
The smell of a slaver can never be scoured from the plank;
we sanded and scrubbed and still the living wood stank.

(This verse is what got me started writing in rhymed couplets, yesterday. Do other people get railroaded by forms, like that? I just had to write something in rhymed couplets. Fourteeners will take me that way too: when I need to write something in fourteeners it's no use trying to write anything else.)

Private note to historians of the American Revolution: you don't have to tell me which side you're on. It's not really the done thing, among historians; and to tell the truth, it's not that hard to guess.

So I stand by a pile of rubble that used to be my house, and try to imagine building again: but there seem to be no beams left, only clapboard and shingles and broken sheetrock. I pick through the wreckage without much hope. I do turn up keepsakes from time to time, but I don't have anywhere to put them.

I don't know what you call that color, where the pale blue of the dawn sky picks up hints of orange from the the sunrise. The disheveled doug firs are almost black against it. Twenty or thirty crows suddenly scramble up from the shrubbery and flap their way up into the firs. They settle there like perfectly designed accessories, as ragged and unpredictable as the fir boughs. If you don't like crows, you probably don't like doug firs: they're not seemly trees. They're assymmetrical, quirky, and defiant, with long sweeping boughs that are always a little out of true, like cowlicks on a kid who can't stay out of trouble. They don't know how to be orderly, any more than crows do.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


She rose pale and spotted with nipples and eyes,
moored by her hands to the gate of lies,
she stood wordless in the rocking boat
what she could not say was stuck in her throat.

He reached bloody hands to the sun and gripped
and squeezed the ball till it spurted and dripped,
and silver lights dribbled on the bay:
all of her strength was drabbled away.

“All this is mine, the sun and the sin,
breast and feather and beak and skin:
all this is mine, mine to collect
mine to eat up, mine to infect,”

-- he boasted, and yet could not cross the water
and it came suddenly to the Stream's daughter
that for all of it, he was afraid of her,
afraid of the water, afraid of the stir

and fret of the knotting waves;
afraid of the tide that sucks into caves,
afraid of the mouths that fasten by night
over the eyes and the candlelight.

Unseen in the darkness that spun
out of the wounded, withering sun
a sparrow flickered against the gate,
and the sparrow said to her only, “wait.”

His feet clutched the slimy rock,
he waded forward and the shock
of cold water hurt his mind;
cold water unconfined

ate into his ankles and knees;
his calves and thighs began to freeze.
I only wanted to love you, he said
and from out of his trembling head

came rivers of crawling and biting things
twitching with mandibles and stings;
they poured like tears from his nose and eyes,
terrified by the water's rise.

Blinded and emptied he sank
and the water boiled for a time and stank
and still the sparrow at the gate
whispered only, “Wait. Wait.”

The water grew still and then
suddenly it moved again:
lights were flickering there below
fish made of sundrops began to glow

and swirled into a net of light:
They rose together, silver bright,
and the sparrow said “soon,”
and soon up rose the glimmering moon.

Oh my darling, come to shore,
clothe yourself, and fear no more,
The night is marked now by the sacred rune
of the fishy, silver, glimmering moon.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Monday Morning

Kim, my dear friend from college, wrote in the comments on the “Eruptions” post below:

I wondered this morning, when I walked the dog: well, what if any of us had known how to say a single true thing? What would it have been? Though the problem seems to be not-belonging in the social sense, I suspect it would have been truer to discuss not-belonging in the physical sense, the incarnational sense. "Dale," I might have said, "excuse me, but I simply do not know where I am."

October lifts his dark head: his breath is icy in the bedroom when I wake. No telling the time by the light when I wake, now: it's dark whether it's 4:00 or 6:00.

I go downstairs and do the first pass of cleaning up. Sunday is Alan's Dungeons & Dragons day, and his friends bake. Brownies and cookies. They have also been known to make souflees. And always of course an enormous pot of ramen, a dozen packets at once. They do a reasonable job of cleaning up, by young-man lights, meaning they gather all the dishes from the living room and stack them in the kitchen, where, as they know, the dish-fairies will take care of them.

Monday morning is the only morning that all the dishes won't fit in the dishwasher. I go methodically along, emptying yesterday's dishwasher load onto the shelves, yesterday's handwashed recyclables into the recycling bins, loading the dishwasher anew, collecting yesterday's newspaper and putting it in the recycling. I wash some of the stuff that can't go into the dishwasher, but some of it – the big, crusted cookie sheets often daunt me, first thing in the morning – I leave for later. Wipe down the counters, the table, the stove. The mess is confined to the counter to the left of the sink, now, and it can wait till I get back from Tom's. When Martha wakes she'll have clean coffee things and a clean table for breakfast.

I fantasize about tiny houses, or a houseboat on the river: a place that would force us not to accumulate, not to lay things aside for later. I increasingly feel the burden of all these decaying possessions, and a Thoreau-like passion for whittling down to the essentials seizes me. At the same time, I know it runs counter to what we most deeply are: comfortable, expansive, Victorian householders, who like to putter about, who gather sentimental treasures and souvenirs inexorably, who can't stumble across a curious piece of driftwood or an odd colored stone without bringing it home and putting it on the mantel.

And yet, again – I must be out and away, in the morning. I love the comfort of this common roost, I love to gather in the evening like a lot of crows, make a pointless commotion, swap the stories of the day, fiddle and squabble with the bright shiny things we've found, joke and squawk: but in the morning, an hour, even when I alone am awake, is the longest I can stand. Then I must cast off, take to the air, soar alone over the landscape, leave everyone and everything behind.

What if any of us had known how to say a single true thing?

I gave a massage to a young friend, yesterday. Her body was so supple, so undamaged, the tensions so laughably easy to unwind. Everything worked beautifully. It was like an exquisite machine just out of the package. So different from a fifty, sixty, seventy-year old body. The scapulae running free, gliding a handsbreadth in any direction with never a skip or a catch, the head rolling from side to side so smoothly, so easily. It makes you feel like a terrific therapist: you can handle a body like that like a Harlem Globetrotter handles a basketball. Spin it, toss it, roll it here and there; everything works, everything is effective.

She's engaged to be married, to a shaggy, amiable, great bear of a young man. He looked up from the couch, and said, “Ah, you've got a glow!” when she came downstairs. I ached, thinking of all the pain in store for them. Even the blessed lives, the sort I devoutly hope they will have, hurt like hell.

"Dale," I might have said, "excuse me, but I simply do not know where I am."

Only just now, have I realized the connection, realized how much she reminds me of Kim, at that age: all that vitality, all that unrealized power, the thin wrapper of clumsiness, of awkwardness, laid over a deep, fundamental grace. I've known a number of young dragons, now, newly out of the shell. At Breitenbush we met a couple of students of Kim's – she teaches voice in Seattle – who spoke of her with something like awe. The awkwardness doesn't fool me for a moment, nowadays.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Marking out the Sadnesses

Listen, the blue wall rises above your head
there is no marking out the sadnesses.

Forget the poetry, then, and just struggle with the words in a straight line. A whispery morning of spiderweb.

Knox dragged his cannons from Ticonderoga to Boston, a terrific feat, straight over the Berkshires in the dead of winter. I think about that kind of thing. Another way in which I am wrong. I'm not supposed to care about it, but I do. About one percent of the American population died in the six years of what we call the Revolutionary War: it was (proportionally) the most costly war in American history, save the Civil War. I don't quite understand why, or how, it has fallen out of the public consciousness so thoroughly, become so quaint and unfashionable. I'm conscious of the solecism, talking about it on my blog as if it was important. The Civil War, now, it's all right to talk about that. But to even mention the Revolutionary War is to line up with cranks, with tiresome men who button the top button of their polyester shirts and talk too loud and have infallible plans for making a million dollars. It's not that I would even have agreed with the revolutionaries. I would have hunkered down, calling down plagues on both their houses, neither Tory nor Patriot: it takes more than a penny tax on government xeroxes to drive me to start murdering my fellow human beings.

But, of course, they didn't know what I know: they didn't know that you could feel just as dispossessed, just as humiliated, just as lorded over, by a fully representative government: they didn't know that mass democracy would end up looking less like Athens than like late Imperial Rome. They thought they were fighting for their fundamental dignity. So maybe I would have fought on the Patriot side, after all. Few people more thin-skinned about their dignity than I am. I understand that explosion of anger.

I served on an English Department graduate student committee, at Yale. We sponsored some event, for which we bought a deal of wine. The next morning I and another student were summoned by the chair of the department to bring all the empty bottles, so that he could see that we – the committee – weren't squirreling some away on our own account. I was incensed. It was with considerable difficulty that my friends persuaded me not to quit Yale on the spot. They couldn't see why it bothered me: why the casual implication that I would cheat and steal, if not closely watched, should be offensive. The only person who understood my anger was the fellow-student who'd come to us from West Point. Nobody else seemed even to grasp the concept.

I marvel at George Washington, at his steadiness and perseverance. It had to do I think with the quality described by that queer, old-fashioned word: honor. It's what's missing from our lives, public and private. We have our Franklins and Jeffersons and Hamiltons: we have worldly cleverness and ideological fervor and vaulting ambition. Plenty of all of those. What we desperately lack is that dogged resolve, that determination to do nothing mean or underhanded, which earns over many years a deep, abiding trust.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Their honor they put last, in the chief place. That was what counted. And you can feel it, when 18th Century men write about their honor, or the horror of being dishonored: it's central to them, a mainspring of their thought and action. For something so central to simply vanish from a culture is astonishing. (I say “men” advisedly. The concept of honor for women was an entirely different and lesser thing: it had to do mostly with sexual fidelity, and it's hard to see it as much more than an instrument of subjection. More about that anon.) Your first guess, of course, would that “honor” hasn't really vanished: it's just going by another name. People do still talk about integrity, about being true to yourself, that sort of thing. And that, certainly, is half of what 18th Century men meant by honor.

But there's a stark difference. Integrity, being true to yourself, is a strictly private affair. It's nobody else's business: it's between you and your conscience, or (if you do God) between you and God. No one can rob you of your integrity. No one can make you be false to yourself.

Someone can, however, rob you of your honor. Honor is not private: it is held by others. In escrow, so to speak.

Not just any others, of course. There were hordes of disgusting chatterers and scribblers in Revolutionary times, just as there are now, gossips and hirelings, people who will assassinate character as readily as they'll eat a scone. It was understood that you simply ignore such people.

I suppose one reason that “honor” dropped out of our consciousness is that we are now supposed to take the mass of human beings seriously. I'm afraid I can't do that. As sentient beings possessed of Buddha-nature, as infinitely precious spiritual equals, certainly. But as judges of my honor? I hardly think so. I don't give a damn what they think of me.

Another reason is the sexism of “honor,” and the value that we now place on the domestic sphere: we hold men to a far higher standard, in their domestic lives, than the 18th Century did. Reading aloud to the kids and doing your share of changing their diapers and being there to hug them when they need it – we value those things, now, as much as we value anything, and rightly so.

Or again, you may bridle – I do – at the honor of gentlemen who signed a document asserting that all men were created equal, and then went home to be served coffee by their slaves.

The fascinating thing to me about Washington, what made him so extraordinary, is his absolute certainty that he was doing his best. He was so sure of it that he achieved a humility and mildness that are astonishing. He was the least resentful of men. He was not a typical man, of course: it was widely recognized even at the time that his moral qualities were extraordinary. I'm not the first person to admire them. Just down the street here, almost within sight of Tosi's, is a statue of the man, be-wigged and be-sworded, standing in a frozen swagger: that high-bridged nose, those small unimpressive eyes, gazing off into posterity. Only someone amazingly self-confident can endure being betrayed, abused, and traduced so calmly.

“What about your self-respect?” they asked.

“Self-respect? I don't have any of that,” I answered.

“Then I think you'd better get some,” they said, shortly. I suppose they are right: but I don't quite know where, at this late date, one goes shopping for it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Eruptions from the Past

My sister would have been fifty-five years old, today. It's as difficult to imagine her being fifty-five as it is to imagine John Lennon being seventy. The good die young, / And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust / Burn to the socket. (If anyone should know, it's you, Mr Wordsworth!)

I grope hesitantly towards a new life. Or more precisely, maybe, I grope towards an old life that I never really lived.

Strange eruptions from the past. People prate about the evils of Facebook, its transcience and inanity – as if all this doodling were not transient and inane – but its real powers are just beginning to reveal themselves, and – to confound all of our knavish tricks – they turn out to be historical powers. The dead past isn't dead, Faulkner insisted; it isn't even past. And nothing proves it like old friends from high school or college surfacing, and tagging you with pictures.

My friends Norman and Marcel, from my hippie free school, had started up a design studio in Seattle. I visited them, and here is a polaroid picture of me examining a polaroid picture there. (Ask your grandparents what a polaroid picture is.)

Notice the luxuriant hair and scanty beard: now the hair is scanty and the beard is – well, at least respectable. That was my favorite shirt. A strange pale green, a color without a common name. A knit turtleneck. I always shoved the sleeves up over my elbow. I imagined, at the time, that it gave me a raffish yet practical look. You roll up your sleeves to drop your pretensions and get to work, right? But to me, this photo is all about pretension. I was in awe of Norman and Marcel. I knew that they understood the world of visual art in a way that I never would. They had passionate responses to design that I never understood, or rather, understood just enough to know that my eye settled for the hackneyed and conventional, while they were stirred to go beyond that to things more complex and more important. No doubt I had been looking at graphic designs all day and pretending to be able appreciate what I was seeing. I was out of my depth, bewildered by the big city and my sophisticated friends: I was just a yokel from Springfield, after all. I longed for the glamour of Seattle, but I knew I wasn't really up to it. I couldn't hold my liquor, I got confused by dark bars with pointy lights that lit nothing up, and I got maybe a third of their jokes, though of course I laughed at all of them. I pretended to be a writer, because that's almost cool like an artist, so long as nobody reads the grandiloquent, hectoring opening chapters of your plotless and unfinishable fantasy novels, and of course there was small danger of that.

So little, so little has changed: I still long to be one of the cool kids, and I still never will be, and I still will cultivate anything but my own garden.

Maybe it's not too late, though. Maybe all this fuss is to some purpose. And I find sometimes, to my surprise, that some of the people from my past remember me with affection, rather than contempt. I walk through dim hallways of memory, searching for doors, searching for clues about how I should have lived my life, how I should live my life now. I think I have to treat that awkward young man more gently, soothe his touchy pride, and coax the real stories from him, the stories he was always too ashamed to tell.