Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ten Posts from 2011

Some posts I liked from this past year:

Non Credo
Love is the only thing that's real, to me. If I have a path to God, it runs exactly as Dante's did, right through Eros. Nothing else matters, not really.

And anyway, I'm Aaron, not Moses.
The one who stayed behind, the one
who looked after the little ones
and tried to make everyone happy.

Eve of the Living
Outside, an oblique light is scattered by the light rain; the sun is shining, but the sky makes a dark, bruise-colored backdrop. The passers by look at me, their faces lit up as though they were on stage. People always get a kick out of seeing a white-haired man on a bicycle: they smile at me benevolently as I wheel it off the curb and onto the street.

Egg Thieves
Gods are never false. You can hear them
intoning the lines of Polonius:
“... as the night the day
thou canst not then be false to any man.

So there.” And then they hawk and spit,
a bit of April snowfall for a joke.

Advice from the County Extension
Consider the Eater of Hope
How he lingers in the dark threads
of water in the cracks of old concrete

And finally, having scooped
the pulpy stuff of cleverness away,
you'll come to the almond
amygdala, gleaming, and inlaid
with rage and desire like parquetry
or gold enameling, and hidden under that,
only glasswork made by tender hands:
fragile bowls of sky or midnight blue.

Luisa has Accomplished Fifty Today
Luisa has accomplished fifty today:
the age at which, my old professor said,
you don't take shit offa nobody.

What Impends
The woods are more open by the day.
Three croaks from overhead: a raven,
rattling like gravel in an ice cream churn.

The Sockiad
there were socks! A whole wall of socks! No problem. There were two basic kinds, athletic and gentleman's. That was easy. I wanted gentleman's. There were a number of dignified socks, navy and black, with self-effacing patterns: nothing to offend Jeeves' sensibilities. My heart rose. I could do this. Even with a Y-chromosome, I could do this.

Champagne Flutes
My mother had a set of champagne flutes,
very narrow, which fascinated me because
they filled so quickly

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


One of the things I watch for at this age, of course, is the onset of old-man habits. I've noticed one coming on -- slow, dogged preparation. Today rather than hopping into the passenger seat of the car, and hauling my pack onto my lap, I opened the back door and set the pack on the back seat. My patience -- which you might also define as my determination to do things the easy way, regardless of how long it takes -- has been steadily increasing. If it takes that long, well, it just takes that long. I'm not to be hurried or flustered.

Which seems all to the good: it's a combination of a longer view (if my back's a little iffy I'd better coddle it; I have several massages scheduled this week) and of not giving a damn how I appear. "Dashing" is no longer in my repertoire, no matter how I sling my pack around. I'll settle for "comfortable." And if people have to wait five extra seconds for me, well, it won't kill them.

Now, those who know me might observe that I've always had a dogged and deliberate streak, and further that they've never known me to be all that sensitive to the opinions of others. But they wouldn't be quite right about that. Even those of of us who are, as a middle school teacher delicately said of my daughter, "internally motivated,"* have a list of proprietary characteristics we pride ourselves on, and one of mine was swooping in and out of vehicles. It does injure my pride a bit to be observed deliberately loading the car when all I'm doing is going to breakfast. But pride, as I think now, is there to be humbled.

*"Your daughter is internally motivated," observed the teacher. "God yes," I agreed. "She's as internally motivated as a mule."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Choosing Up

A quiet pause here,
between two struggling worlds:
the mountain hidden behind
coarse-plastered walls of cloud,
the river obscured by fog, even
the freeway muted and cottoned and quiet.
Only the crows break through.
The trees tangle
their fingers in strands of cloud
in vain: they're too weak
to pull down the sky.
We are all at a standoff, and as we listen
to the sough of tires on asphalt
we wonder: when he comes at last,
whose side will the new year take?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Carol

The ghosts do come crowding, at this time of year.
It must be the dim and panicked backspin of the sun,
unable to find its footing, or maybe the long chain of money –
never long enough – jerking to its end,
punching the trachea. Last night your phantom
loaded me with gifts in gentle forgiveness,
and I woke up tearing the sheets with screams.

A response to a morning porch response.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Just the worst time of the year for a journey

Sometimes I want nothing better than the tack and gear of traveling: good old well-worn boots, backpack faded with sun and rain, a steel canteen that was new in 1945. Today or tomorrow is the shortest day of the year. Tonight is the night when we call the sun back. Unless we just want to follow it. What, after all, do we have to offer? We're hardly in a position to bargain.

Sometimes I want to make a numbered list, just for the relief of seeing the numbers appear on the page, each in its place, the reassurance of four coming after three.

Christmas doesn't come like that. It's dangerous, variable, driven by rumor and anxiety. It lies buried somewhere at the far edge of the year, like a landmine. Somewhere else, somewhere far and far beyond, are the pale blue mornings of March and April. It's hardly worth even thinking of, though. For now, there's wax under our fingernails and stray fir needles on the backs of our jackets, and the neighbor's lights reflected in the driveway puddles. There's clouds climbing the ridge and backing off, there's condensation on the windows or frost, depending on which way the thermometer tipped at three this morning.

Butter and sugar crusting over my slowly curing chest: a layer of bone, a layer of muscle, a layer of fat. I wash my hands and wait, wait for the hot water to come. When it does I let it pool in the cup of my palms, soften the connective tissue, loosen the joints.

Okay, I'm ready for the new year to start. Huddled over the sink, I lift my head and see that strange stout man with the twinkly eyes, that Santa Claus, who lives in mirrors these days, with his shirt hanging down over his belly, and a faint puzzlement at the corners of his pursed mouth.

Merry Christmas, old man, whoever you are! Pull yourself together and get to work.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Few Hints on Charitable Giving

This is, in some ways, the perfect time to be down with a cold. Work is mostly a matter of plodding along doing data entry. I don't need to be at my best: I just need to keep my head down and go on typing. Hundreds of gifts to process. Charitable fund-raising is an very seasonal enterprise: I handle more gifts in a week, at this time of year, than I ordinarily handle in a month. Anything that needs special handling causes the work flow to buck and pile up: I feel like Lucy and Ethel on the assembly-line, between Thanksgiving and New Year's. The giving season.

Here's a few hints about how to do charitable giving:

1) Make one big donation to one good organization, rather than a bunch of small ones to a bunch of organizations. Two reasons for this. One is that you minimize the proportion of “handling” – the generation of thank-you letters, data entry, and so forth – so more of your money goes to what you actually want it to go to. The other reason is that you'll get less ask mail. Organizations don't trade the names of people who give larger amounts: they trade the names of the little donors, especially the ones who haven't given recently. (Now, this is the opposite of the rule for advocacy giving. An advocacy group gets a lot of its clout from being able to say they represent a lot of people, so you want to spread your gifts of that sort as thin as possible.)

2) Do a bit of research: at least check the organization's rating on Charity Navigator. If they don't have three or four stars there, you'll want know why not, before you give.

3) Don't staple your check to anything. Just don't. If you don't trust the organization to keep track of your check, you don't trust them enough to give them money.

4) If you have any helpful suggestions about the organization's process? – save them for later. Don't make them between Thanksgiving and New Year's. The whole organization is scrambling, and the last thing they have time for is a closely argued proposal for changing the font on their reply envelopes. It's really, really, just not the time!

5) If you're moved to put a smiley face on the envelope you send back? Or a note saying “keep up the good work!” or “thank you!” – it will be read and it will set a little glow in the heart of the person who opens it. Probably they won't have time to make any special answer, but believe me, it makes a huge difference. It doesn't get tossed unread. It registers.

And – thank you. Thank you. We mean it when we say thank you. You guys are the best.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Marginal Notes

I just read a biography of Andrew Jackson, and I'm nearly finished with John S. D. Eisenhower's history of the 1846-1848 war with Mexico. I generally find post-revolutionary American history depressing, and I expected this to be the most depressing period of all: the time when American racism and imperialism was at its rawest and ugliest. But – maybe because my expectations were so low – I've been somewhat pleasantly surprised. Even Jackson comes off better, at a closer view, than I expected.

What I had not taken into account was that American dealings with the Indians and Mexicans had a good deal more to do with Britain and France than I had imagined. I'm so used to thinking of America as a superpower that I was misinterpreting things. England and France were the superpowers of the day, and any time they came into conflict with the United States they started stirring up Indian revolts and looking for ways to nose into North American territories that were under shaky or dubious authority – which meant, usually, ostensibly Mexican territory. The U.S. was looking for security. It's not a glorious motivation, but it's better than simple self-aggrandizement.

The other thing I'm struck by – coming to this history now, and knowing a lot more about military matters than I did when I first formed my impressions – is that the defeat of Mexico, far from being a foregone conclusion, was one of the most astonishing feats in the history of American arms. Virtually all the advantages – of numbers, terrain, matériel, and motive – were with the Mexicans. American artillery was better – they had done their European shopping more scientifically than the Mexicans – but that was about it. By most ordinary reckonings, the Americans should have lost badly. (The Duke of Wellington, in fact, was sure that the war, and in particular Scott's lunge to Mexico City, would end in an American disaster.) It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the American troops, from generals to privates, were simply, in modern-day parlance, much more empowered and self-reliant than the Mexicans.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Empedocles, dear friends, is sick:
Sick of the long fever.

A catch of sulfur in his lungs
And he struggles, retching, to Etna's lip,
On a day when the fires are hot, and
His own elements at war, he comes to look
With longing at the love
Of fire for rock, of rock for fire.

Empedocles, dear friends, is sick:
Sick of the long fever.

Four elements, four only, it's very simple.
And between them only two passions:
Love and strife. See how the dandelion
Loves the earth, and how his seed
Strives to leave it: nothing else is needed
To explain the motion of our souls.

Empedocles, dear friends, is sick:
Sick of the long fever.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Aggressive Debridement

“Aggressive debridement” was recommended by the only good study I could find, and I paused on the word “debridement.” Both prefix and suffix pointed to a French origin. Free association fetched up “bride,” but that's a good Old English word, and although I could imagine “debridement” developing from that – divorce is not too far-fetched a metaphor for detaching dead or diseased tissue from living tissue – I didn't think it likely. Further association brought me to “debris,” which seemed far likelier, but I couldn't imagine the phonological history that would invent a 'd' out of thin air. At that point I resorted to the online etymological dictionary.

It turned out to have a Germanic root after all, but it's the root that gave us “bridle”: a word that French and English horse-people have shared since long before the Conquest. French débrider meant literally “to unbridle,” which is not a first very intuitive, but débrider eventually became the word for taking all the tack off a horse: at which point the imagery becomes quite exact and satisfying. Most horse tack is in fact dead tissue – leather – which you take off to the relief of the living flesh. To 18th and 19th Century surgeons, who were as familiar with saddle horses as we are with automobiles, the metaphor would have sprung easily to mind.

So I could go back to filing down that ugly toenail. The universe was intelligible, after all.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Coffee Bubbles, Teeth, Aengus

A cluster of a dozen bubbles, about the size of those little circles that like to float above Scandinavian vowels, floats in my coffee cup. One of the bubbles pops, and the other bubbles immediately close ranks, huddling together to reassure each other in their grief. I spend a while trying to figure out the physics of this, but I've never studied fluid dynamics – I don't even really understand why the bubbles form in the first place, let alone why they huddle – and I give it up.

The mathematics governing such things must be very complex. And yet, given how long we can watch them – waterfalls, cream swirling into coffee, the switchbacks of water droplets running down a wet window – I suspect that our unconscious minds must be able to almost grasp it: we're drawn to these things as we are drawn to what we almost, but can't quite, predict. As we are to a good story. A story fascinates us if we can almost, but not quite, predict its outcome: every plot turn makes you think: “of course! I could have guessed that, it had to happen!” at the same time as you know: actually, “I wouldn't have guessed that in a thousand years: it's only in hindsight that its inevitability is clear.”

But still, there some understanding of how things must be. Something snaps shut with a satisfying click.

The birch trees are pale yellow, and their peeling white and black bark gleams behind the strands of leaves, like eyes behind a teenager's hair. I am too cold with my coat off, too warm with it on: I settle for wearing it like a cape.

December. We met the neighbor whose back yard meets ours: she was all in black, black pants, black sweater, black parka, black mittens, and she looked very slight, as though she might blow away in a strong wind. Her teeth were pleasingly crooked, stitched in every which way: I wanted to draw them. She's looking after the place for her brother and his wife, who will be back in the spring. They have a poetry board in the front yard: the weathered poem in it is Yeats's Wandering Aengus:

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Remember's better to understand than to be understood. Ask again.

Monday, December 05, 2011

German Radio

Duck under the awning, sprinkled black with mildew
listen to the rustling patter of six-legged, hurried things,
nurse your sore, string-wound hands against your chest.

Breathe the dust of rotting canvas, taste
the brown of sugar and the red of ketchup, grope
in the sudden dimness for German instruments

that can't ever be deceived. Here,
where each transistor is its own heavy resistance, here
set the tuning band to seek, here:

put yourself in the sway of blond and delicate boys
who dreamed a mastery of circuits when you still clutched
a pistol and a plastic tomahawk.

Friday, December 02, 2011


What strikes me immediately, viewing his photo, is that, at even seven years old, he is already irredeemable. He sits under the Christmas tree, having wrapped himself up – swaddled himself, really – in a red bathrobe. He is hunched over his crossed legs and studying something. The openness and wide eyes expected of a child at Christmas are conspicuously absent. He is disappointing everyone by his inwardness. He has already had too much, and wants to hide: he hides inside his robe, inside his pajamas, inside his body. The way he hunches includes whatever he is poring over – it's almost certainly a book – decisively excludes everything else. He will spend his life finding, or building, protected spaces to inhabit.

And yet, on the contrary, as a corrective, or a corollary, he loves the wind and the open spaces, at least when he's alone. He doesn't learn to be afraid of heights until young adulthood. He turns around, having climbed up to a ledge on Oregon's Mt Washington, and the land hundreds of feet below swoops and turns bizarrely. He is fascinated and horrified. Now he knows what ordinary people feel like, why they're so silly and cautious on cliffs and bridges and rooftops. But he also knows that he'll never be fearless again: and he never is.

He is in the first grade, and he is in love with a little blonde girl named Susan. He watches her gravely. He never bothers her. He looks her up in the phone book and finds her address. Then he looks up the address on the city map and thinks he could find it, maybe. He sets out one afternoon. No plan in mind: he just wants to see her house. He is so normally unenterprising that when his father, driving home from work, discovers him, a few blocks from home, he's astonished. He pulls over. The boy climbs into the car, defeated.

“What are you doing here?” asks his father.

“Walking,” says the boy. He never says more than that. His father drives him home, and he never tries it again. But he longs for Susan, with an intensity that never really makes sense. He never tries to make it make sense. He's learned, by now, that all the really important things can't be made sense of and can't be spoken.

Not aloud. But there's one secret exception: there are books and maps. No living person can tell him anything he wants to know. There's no way to talk about Susan, or about the wind, so that anyone will understand it. But there are hints, sometimes, in books. And there are maps of places he has never been, with names he can read, but can't say. He searches maps obsessively, preparing as best he can for the voyages he may have to make, and any book in a language he can't read transfixes him. When he finally gets to take a language class – it's not till he's eight or nine – he devours it. The truth about Susan and the wind might be written down in Spanish: there's no telling. Wherever it is, it will be in someplace odd and neglected. He studies codes and ciphers and secret writing.

Susan has vanished: she's replaced by Julie in the second grade, and then Dottie in the third. He and Dottie actually sit on the swings together and talk, talk about all the things they read about. He wants to give Dottie a ring. He wants to write to her in some secret writing, some cipher. But she vanishes too, when he moves to Springfield, and acquires a no-nonsense stepfather. Everything is a jumble and a mess, after that. Some orderly progression was interrupted there, and never resumed.

He stands at the freeway entrance from Moses Lake, Washington, his patched jeans faded to a pale blue, his long blond hair blowing in the desert wind. Billy sits dejectedly among the packs. When a car goes by, they both stick their arms out, thumbs poking up. Billy thinks it doesn't matter if they stand up or not, and they've been there four hours already. But Dale will only sit down if there's no car in sight.

A knock on the door of the Mexican hotel room. They both giggle. It's her friend, the dancer, the one who reportedly goes on to make blue movies a few years later.

“Are you guys okay in there?”

“We're fine,” chirrups the girl.

“We don't want any pregnancies here,” warns her friend, who believes in getting down to brass tacks.

“We're being careful,” says the girl. And they are. They're just touching each other. He's amazed and grateful. He's far too young for her. His heart is skidding like a jet ski over choppy water. It's twilight.

She knows Spanish. When the Mexican guys croon dirty things to the tourist girl who won't understand it, she spits, “chinga tu madre,” and they veer off, startled. He knows she won't want to know him when they get back to the States. And anyway, she'll be hundreds of miles away. She's tipsy now: and she's just had a soft spot for the chuckleheaded little brother of her friend's friend from the start, and she's been amused by his obvious, undemanding crush on her. And they're leaving Guadalajara tomorrow, going their separate ways. What the hell.

The wallpaper is a dim blue-green, and he'll remember the deep peace of that room, the peace of being accepted, the pulsing warmth welcoming his fingers, forever.

Up on the ridge, where we are now, at least a few stars win out over the ambient light of Portland: Vega has been appearing in the early evening, against all odds, falling westward, telling me that I have not blown all my chances, that I'm still, somehow, blessed; that it's still my job to carry the chalice to the stone. This business of bearing sacred blood becomes more mysterious, not less, as time goes on. Whatever it depends on, it's not anything I'm accustomed to calling “me.”