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.