Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to get a Bad Massage

I've moved this post over to my massage blog

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Long Hard Roads

Apparently there are two ways to make me really angry: one is to suggest that I'm stupid, and the other is to suggest that I'm complacent. I'll swallow a lot – I'm not ordinarily a terribly contentious or insistent fellow – but those will get a rise out of me, every time. You can suggest that I'm selfish, lazy, incompetent, or inconstant, and I'll probably just mildly agree that often enough I am all those things. But suggest that I don't understand, or don't care, and you'll find you've got one ferocious, vindictive Favier on your hands.

Understanding and caring are virtues, of course, but they're not the only ones in the calendar. Why do I clutch them so tight? Why is my ego so heavily invested in them that all my charity and compassion vanish if someone so much as hints that I'm deficient in them?

That may be an idle question. Who knows? I grew up with a father determined to instill understanding, and a mother determined to instill caring . But I have doubts about the historical determinism of psychology, and the usefulness of the historical method of understanding yourself. And anyway, that's not really what I wanted to ask. What I wanted to ask is, what does that tell me? What should I know and watch for, because of it?

Well, that I should loosen my insistence on both of them. That I will be most tempted to do hurtful things in the name of understanding and caring. And that sometimes I should let it alone, let myself appear stupid and complacent.

Lama Michael once suggested, as an exercise, dressing up in clothes you would never wear, styling your hair in a way you would never style it, driving a car you would never drive. Anything to interrupt the constant filtering of experience, the constant process of making sure that people we consider our enemies stay alien and hostile, and people we consider our friends stay cosy and friendly. Of course we think the people we identify with are nicer people: we signal them with a thousand signs that we're on their side, that we'll welcome their thoughts and approve of them. Our clothes, our comportment, our cars, our bumper stickers, our dialect, our vocabulary, our makeup, our tattoos – it's all designed to signal to others: I'm one of your kind, expect me to be nice or I'm your enemy, expect me to be hostile. And everyone else obligingly does the same. How could someone costumed as a lefty tree-hugger not go through life thinking that lefty tree-huggers are nicer people? They're the people who smile back, who are supportive, who give you the benefit of the doubt. In just this way, someone who goes about advertising himself as a conservative Christian will find that conservative Christians are nicer people. But suppose you swap your clothes, your makeup, your tats, and your hairstyles? You'll find out soon enough that your own people are not nearly so nice as you supposed. They'll be stony-faced, suspicious, and critical; they'll always assume the worst about you. They're not really such nice people as you thought.

Last night, on request, I read the long first chapter of the The Lord of the Rings aloud to Martha, Ashley, and Tori. Forty pages about an elaborate birthday party. (Try to sell a novel that starts like that nowadays!) Outside was the hiss of the waves, the sough of the wind. I was as close to happy as I'm ever likely to be.

We look before and after, and pine for what is not
our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught
our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought

They're all long hard roads, even the easiest ones.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Horse and Horseman

Last night the sun
dropped into the ocean without a splash,
and the water went black, went underground,
the line of the sky a faint orange
where it met the intractable dark.

So tell me, when the moon rose,
and the shadows slowly
redrew themselves on the walls,
where were you walking? Your quick bright form
appears, and disappears. The dead outnumber the living.
They always have, and we knew that, but
only gradually have we learned to know it
by the emptiness of hands that once held clay,
by the missing step in a staircase:
we the living are only froth,
riding on waves of the dead.

You misunderstand. I do not feel betrayed.
No one has wronged me. But to make this crossing
I must chose horse and horseman carefully.

I don't know this whale, gliding
off the point of Devil's Punchbowl.
He's long and pale, no Gray, and
he keeps his flukes to himself.
In diving, he shows his endless back, that's all.
Not a show-off. The flukes remain submerged,
and he pushes with them mightily.
You can see the hill of water that they raise
as he makes for deep water.
Like that. A horse like that. That's what I need.

For horseman? I need a boy
with long yellow hair, and a sullen look.
He must be outrageously lucky:
you must take these things on the volley,
if they're to be taken at all.

Now rap rap rap! Like a woodpecker
Against a steel chimney. Horse and rider,
Boy and whale, sky and sea:
Now we'll see something worth seeing.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I have discovered in myself a new response to novels, when I glance at rows of them in the library. It's ridiculously naïve: but this is not real. This is all made up. I used not to mind that; I used to prefer it. Now there seems something dangerous about it. We are already prone enough to make it all up: why encourage each other? I am hungry these days for fact. I read mostly nonfiction. The more facts the better. How many people died of diphtheria in Cairo in 1908? That's the sort of thing I want now. Maybe it's because I am aware now of how hard facts are to come by. When I was a boy it seemed that facts were all over the place. My father was an inexhaustible fund of them. How far away was the moon? How much more likely were smokers to get cancer? What was the real, indisputable, Latin name for St John's Wort? My father knew all those things, and made sure that I did too. My world teemed with authoritative facts.

He meant no harm by this, of course, and in the long run I think it was good for me. I inherited, anyway, his respect for facts, and I learned early that much of “what everybody knows” is dead wrong. But it left me with the impression (which was easy to get anyway, growing up in the sixties) that the fact collection was all under control and proceding splendidly. My help would not be needed.

And what I could see, but it seemed that my father could not, was that all these facts were curiously helpless. My father steered by them, his own idiosyncratic course, but nobody else I knew did. Everyone else steered by stories. Even if they were obviously false stories: the stories in Genesis that my father found so ridiculous, or the New Testament miracles of walking on water, of loaves and fishes – my father, it sometimes seemed, was the only man in the world to whom it mattered that these stories were manifestly false. And I very gradually learned – for I was a voracious and indiscriminate reader – that most of the bedrock stories, the founding of America, the high nobility of the Civil War, and even my father's favorite stories of the religious persecution of science, were mostly false, or at least tendentious. My father, I decided, much as I admired him, had missed the point. What mattered was not whether stories were true: it was whether people wanted them to be true. Or rather needed them to be true. Many people did not at all want a fearsome avenging God: they knew they'd sinned, and that God was going to smite them. But somehow they needed him anyway. And so I wandered away into stories, as the things of real power, the things that really caught people by the throat and made them change their lives.

And I turned – partly I suppose out of sheer rebelliousness against the dominion of fact – to fantasy. It seemed more honest, somehow, to say right up front that you were talking about places that never were just because your heart yearned for them, or about imaginary phantoms just because you dreaded them. Others might mistake the Shire for the kindly England of Tolkien's childhood, but I knew better. Tolkien grew up like any American child, rootless and homeless, a fatherless, Catholic, South African colonial come home to precarious suburbs and a new school every year, a permanent alien and outsider. Tolkien could describe home with such overwhelming feeling, so convincingly, precisely because he had never had one and didn't know anything about what homes were really like. All he knew was what he longed for. I wasn't looking for the Shire to be real. I just wanted to know that someone else missed it, too.

Now that I'm sidling back into science, because I'm on the outskirts of medicine and I really need to know things – such as, does massage assist the metastasis of cancers? – I'm finding that facts are not so easy to come by after all. Good science no longer seems like the juggernaut driving all before it: it seems more like a delicate, fragile lighter-than-air craft, as threatened by its duller-witted partisans as by its enemies. I want to go back to school, or at least get some textbooks, and get a good scientific education. I didn't pay proper attention in the statistics class for my computer science degree: and the fact that I got an A makes me very uneasy about the general state of research. How many people actually know what they're doing out there? I haven't done a lab, nor written a science paper, since the the 8th grade. I read abstracts of papers and get only the vaguest sense of how important their results are: for my own field of massage research I've been relying heavily recently on Paul Ingraham, of, but I have only his word for it that he knows how to evaluate these things. I ought to be able to evaluate them myself.

It used to be thought that massage was not appropriate for cancer patients, because it would push the lymph around, and that might spread the cancer. There was never any evidence that this happened: it was just a plausible hypothesis, and one that nobody wanted to test. (For good reason: “Hey, let's take a group of sixty cancer patients, do massage on thirty of them, and see if their cancer progresses more rapidly!” is a study that's hard to get enthusiastic about.) I read a book about it a couple years ago that emphatically denied massage could do this, and it seemed to be the standard modern book on massage and cancer, but I don't recollect what research it rested on, if any. Even back then my common-sense response to the idea that massage might help metastasis was that if you were relying on your lymph standing still to save your life you were a dead man anyway: but common sense isn't always a very good guide in medical matters.

But you see? An untested hypothesis became a standard medical protocol (“no massage for cancer patients!”) And the scientific basis for my present conviction that massage is fine for cancer per se (though radiation or chemo may contraindicate it) rests on information I no longer remember, derived from research which (if it exists) I couldn't reliably evaluate even if I did read it. And I'm one of the science-minded massage therapists. Oy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Terror in my Kitchen

Called in sick to work today. I do have a cold, but really I just needed to punch the reset button. There are times when my mind gets overstuffed with a sense of obligation, of duties impending, ten thousand things that I ought to do all contending for the upper spot, fighting to be the thing that I actually do, like a swarm of beetles climbing over each other. Enough already. No one is going to die if I don't go in to work today.

(I'm very glad, by the way, that I didn't become a doctor. What if I couldn't say that?)

It's interesting that this mental condition afflicts me, not at the times when I'm genuinely too busy, but at slack times. I guess that's when I start thinking about all the things I ought to do, as opposed to the one thing that I must get done if I can.

It's not really dependent on the external world, of course. It's more in response to the internal tides of my mind. Any old duties, real or imagined, can play the roles. It's an old play and they all know the words. If I wasn't so self-indulgent, if I had the right kind of will, if I had a spirit like a clean bright sword instead of like a forgotten egg-whisk, if I had a genuine spiritual practice, if I lived up to my potential, if I was lean instead of fat, quick instead of slow, true instead of false – a long monotonous mumble of self-reproach in multiple voices, telling me about chances missed and resources squandered. As if anything one could actually do, in the real world, could satisfy them all. No. Not if my blog won a Pulitzer and my massage research won the Nobel prize and W. S. Merwin admired my poetry. Not even if I weighed 155 pounds.

A brilliant day. Not yet hot, but it will be. By this afternoon it will be a scorcher. The light is shockingly beautiful, playing over the faces of passersby, making their summer shirts into flaming banners of blue or yellow or white. They go by, stage representations of themselves, their faces a little too big, too real to be true, their eyes squinting into the rising sun. What shall I do with this day?

It doesn't matter. I'll sit shamatha a little while, and clear up odds and ends, do some paperwork. The kitchen is already clean.

I'm ashamed of being proud of the kitchen, but I am. So I'll tell you about it. All my life I've lived with messy kitchens, taking what modern businesses would call a just-in-time approach to cleaning. When you're out of bowls, you wash some. When you need to wash vegetables, you clean the sink. When you have nowhere to put groceries, you clear a counter. What this means, of course, is that when you contemplate preparing food you are contemplating an enormous task, hours of work. Just to put the groceries down you'll need to clear a counter which means you'll need to clear the sink which means you'll need to deal with whatever dubious things have been in there since you don't want to know when, and you'll have to look up which of those containers can be recycled and which can't, and, you know, the food at Burgerville is actually local and fresh and surprisingly good and they never make you wash up. So it's gone on, year after year. Until about a year ago, when I started cleaning the kitchen every morning, first thing in the morning, cleaned it until it was completely clean. Every single morning.

It's sort of miraculous. The house feels utterly different to me. I swear I can feel my pulse slow down when I enter that kitchen, as my heart realizes, it's actually under control here, I don't have to worry. I didn't know I was worrying, but apparently I was.

It meant adopting what was, for me, extreme ruthlessness and cruelty and immorality. A couple days ago Martha brought in a tiny new potato that had grown in our compost, and washed it and put it on the counter. We'd grown a potato! Inadvertently, but we'd done it! Very cool.

Well. Yes, but it was now our solemn duty to cook it and eat it. And I knew, I knew the fate of that potato the moment I saw it glistening on the counter. It was going sit there, and sit there, and sit there, and grow old, and the flesh under its peel would turn green, and it would sprout, and eventually, after having served as evidence of our inadequacy and a trigger for depression for months, it would be thrown back into the compost whence it came.

But you see, it wasn't mine. It was Martha's.

I chucked it into the compost after two days. Yes, it was a perfectly good potato. But I've discovered a startling fact: when you clean the kitchen daily, everything in it belongs to you. When mysterious objects appear on the counter, I wash them or throw them out with reckless disregard of their origins. There's only three things I do with things that appear on my counters now. If I recognize them as things that belong in the kitchen, I wash them or I put them away. If I don't recognize them, I throw them out. I've instituted a reign of terror in my kitchen. And though there is some occasional murmuring, I think everyone is grateful for it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Not an Accident

I think of Lucy (probably vaingloriously) as a poet more or less like me: someone with a gift for prose who dabbles in verse and sometimes gets lucky. But you don't get a poem like Accident Spot by luck. Go read this one.

and here and there still the pale scarlet
bloodsplash of a poppy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

To Mend a Broken Heart

Split the sternum and open the cage
of the ribs. Scoop out the heart and lay it
in a bed of ice, like some monstrous
meat salad, a dish for the athropophagi.
Now sew in the valve of a cow's heart;
season with a little paprika. Suture well.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Failure Guaranteed

I touch people. I try to give relief to their suffering, solace to their grief, comfort to their loneliness.

But I am not a healer, a doctor or a teacher. Suffering, grief, and loneliness are not pathological conditions. They are not diseases to be cured. They are not caused by bad hygiene or sin or ignorance.

I study, sure. I learn techniques. I have a spiritual practice that I try to follow. But I'm offering nothing from Mt Sinai. Nobody has handed me any tablets. I lay my hands on a client as one suffering, grieving, lonely human being lays hands on another.

Suffering or joyful. I draw radiance from them: I get whispers of love, intimations of plenitude, from their skin. I am profoundly grateful to my clients. Not as in “thank you for your patronage!” As in “thank you for taking me into your home, thank you for traveling these bewildering twisty roads with me, thank you for trusting me with the shrine of your body.”

It does seem to me sacred – holy. The body. I am more in sympathy with Judaism than with Buddhism, in this regard. This body is not disposable container: it's a temple. I have the same sense, at the end of a massage, that I have at the end of a Buddhist meditation practice, of having entered a special place with special rules, a place where humility is the only attitude that makes sense, a place where my quotidian agendas fall away and become meaningless.

Some of my clients see it this way; others don't. Last night I finished a massage and murmured “thank you.”

Her eyes popped open, and she said, “What? Oh. Thank you,” in a flat, ordinary voice. It was a bit startling. Had I gone that journey alone? I don't think so; but I don't think she knew I was with her.

Which is fine. I trust massage to work. It's like meditation in this way as well: failure is guaranteed. Part of massage is, and ought to be, a failure of connection, a missed stairstep. There's always a wistfulness, a heightened sense of distance, a sense of how far we are from real communion. If we were capable of perfect communion, there would be no need for massage, just as – as you always have to tell tyro meditators – if we were capable of perfect meditative stability, there would be no need for meditation. What we are working with, in meditation, is distraction: what we are working with in massage is loneliness.

Monday, August 09, 2010


the spray of nothing knowing
nothing owing nothing lost
and pulling us the spinnaker of God

Saturday, August 07, 2010

George Jackson, Sir

I tell myself, when it gets bad, how hard can it be? I've done all the hard parts. I've raised my kids. I only have twenty years to muddle away, and then I get to die. That's not so bad. Twenty years will fly away in no time. There's really nothing more to trouble about.

It all fades away, and I don't believe in any of it; I fall, slow motion, to a clever little piano tune about rain, all the way down, just a few glancing blows from the rigging. Below me only salt water.

None of it made any difference: all the histrionics, all the wanting, all the learning, all the careful preparation for things that never happened, couldn't have happened. I won't say I wasted my life: you can't say you wasted your life without having some life in mind that you think would have been worth living. Should I have served some other master? That's the only question I find mildly interesting: and it's too late now. And anyway, what other master would have had me?

Some long-forgotten persona pleads: but there was no way to know, when we started. I shrug. How does it matter? I could never have lived an honest life. I fledged in a nest lined with lies. We're all of a piece, and we all went down in the flood together, and good riddance.

My earliest memory is of being two years old, and unable to speak. I knew what language was, but I couldn't master it. I stood there holding on to the arm of a sofa – shoulder height to me – and I longed, I longed to speak. And I learned. I learned so greedily, I learned to read, I learned Spanish and German and French, Latin and Old English and Old Norse, scraps of Greek and Chinese and Tibetan, and I still couldn't speak, and I still can't speak. Still standing there, holding on to the arm of the sofa. I still can't say what I mean, and people come and go in some great world that I can't understand.

Another night of no sleep, another night of uselessness. In the end I was good for nothing, affected nobody. I never did learn to speak. I'm still standing here, still mute: except that now I'm fat and deaf and old, as well.

So who cares? Not you: not me. I might as well shrug it off, and pick some other life out of the closet. I could be a sage on a lacquered box, whose ancient glittering eyes are gay. I could be a kindly old man with a long white beard, gentle and simple, soaking up the sun in some quiet corner. I could vanish from the physical world altogether, and become nothing but a voice, a reminder, and ask the Goddess to cast a glamour about me: I could be Mentor, wrapped in old stories that no one minds but no one can shake off. Ask the old man by the door: he knows all that kind of thing. I could learn to keep a garden. I could get a dog. I could even write poetry. Poets are supposed to be old men.

Zafus and zabutons, knees and sitz-bones, prostrations in front of glittery shrines, forehead to the cool wood floors. I've watched the sunlight move across the floor as the sun moves across the sky. I've sat still while mornings turned into afternoons, while afternoons turned into evenings. There's nothing like looking, if you want to find something, but what you find is not always what you expect.

I am grateful for it all, you know, even if I have squandered it. And even as I write, here, the mood lightens, and the antic recedes, and a real smile replaces the grimace. I look forward to seeing you. At a night sentry-challenge from a member of the feuding families, Huck Finn identifies himself: George Jackson, sir, I'm only a boy. How can anyone blame you for picking up identities where you find them? You find yourself in a dangerous world, and you proffer the story that works: what else does anyone ever do? If you're not given a plausible name, you have to make one up. Please don't shoot me, sir. I'm only a boy.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Night Elizabeth Bishop Broke Off Our Affair

Your precision terrifies me, and I think
well no wonder you took to drink,
having all that intolerable fact
and no saving, blurring, merciful tact.

Of course I love you I say
And your forearm turns away,
the ulna and radius within untwist
until the shaking supine wrist

lies supplicating, flat,
and you say sharply, what do you mean by that?
I lay my cheek in your palm, on the table
and realize that I am not able

to answer. I can't construe,
not having the facts you do,
not knowing where the lines must fall,
guessing each one smudges all.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

the gods on friday

the gods are spelling “your” and “their”
the gods have got no underwear

the gods are whites, the gods are blacks
the gods are doing jumping jacks

the gods fly up, the gods fly down
the gods are wearing long white gowns

the gods come here, the gods go there
the gods have not a thing to wear

Sunday, August 01, 2010


Adam was God's drum. He thumped him into life,
made him ring and shiver, word made flesh
and flesh made word made flesh, skin singing
on a shuddering frame of ribs: and ever since
when thunder rolls above you can feel His hands
thud on the marrow, His rain beat on the earth.

Tapotement, from French tapoter, to tap or to drum, is the technical term for the use of percussion in massage. It's used extensively in several massage traditions, including Tui Na, the Chinese precursor of Shiatsu, and "Swedish" massage. (By the way, remind me to write about that odd "Swedish" misnomer, sometime.) Tapotement was not much favored at my massage school, nor, as far as I can tell, is it much valued or taught in the profession these days, but I adore it, both as giver and receiver.

A client recently asked me, "why does that feel so good?" The textbook answer is that striking the muscle causes it involuntarily to contract, and then to relax, and perhaps it does: but it doesn't at all feel like that's what's happening. It feels like you're being turned into a great musical instrument, into something that resonates to a higher music.

It requires a skill which most people could acquire, but few do: I fortunately already had it, as player of hand-drums. It boils down to not letting your dominant hand take over, and the easiest way to practice it is to practice drumming in triplets, or waltz rhythm -- ONE two three ONE two three, so that your hands alternate carrying the stress and relinquishing it.