Sunday, December 30, 2012

Distraction and Discontent

Surely even the late Roman emperors lived a bland, untitillated life, compared to ours: we are surrounded by professionals, who have made distraction a high art. I watch with some dismay as Facebook ads come closer and closer to the mark, even so queer and difficult a mark as me: why, there's the new book by my friend Murr Brewster! And a person could go study drumming in Africa! A weekend of meditation on the Oregon Coast, wouldn't that be a grand way to start the new year?

What happens, when things we actually want are dandled constantly before us? Do we become more or less susceptible? I am not sure, but possibly less. So much of clutching comes of a fear that this is our only chance at something we want: the pros run the risk of showing us, cumulatively, that there's a constant supply of the things we want. It's even possible that we might back up and think about wanting itself, as a frame of mind, as a way of being in the world.

Well, I don't imagine that troubles the pros very much. Let us think, and toy with the notion of an unworldly life! We'll be all the more discontented, in the long run.

The curtains glow with sunlight; the vinyl breasts of the booths gleam. Oblique winter lights ricochet across the cafe. It's good to be alive, to taste even the lukewarm lees of coffee at the end of December, to see the three posts of the milkshake machine glow like swords, and to imagine that summer might come again. Summer comes by stealth, these days; all seasons do. They spring at me without warning. Tomorrow could be high summer, and women wearing thin linen dresses, and yellow-jackets clustering on dropped fruit. Or it could be snow falling around the streetlights, or wet red leaves turning to mush in the gutters. You never know. The clasps that are supposed to hold me in time are so loose, now, that sometimes I think they're going to lose their grip entirely.

Where was I? Oh yes! Distraction and discontent. Well. Two can play that game!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Twelve Sets of Folded Bronze Wings

I found myself stumbling over my words, in my eagerness to tell a coworker about meditation. And now I am spinning in the backwash of my own enthusiasm: so much invested, so much hoped, so much that fell short. And yet. I have only twice, that I clearly recall, moved distinctly, decisively, to a new and better state of being. One of those times was when I moved away from home: the second time was the result of a regular meditation practice. That's it, in 54 years; two doorways. And the other things I have invested in – many many things, over the years – have returned far less.

But have you said anything, when you say that? As opposed to, say, fingers threaded through the hair at the nape of the neck, or the shadow of a cloud leaving the trees? So little comes into focus at one time: and memory, the neurologists tell us, is rewritten every time it's accessed, so that what we remember often is precisely what we remember worst. The more often I've told a story, the less I should believe it. That, at least, I've known since before the first door opened.

I sat shamatha this morning, taking the cushion from the back of the love seat for a zabuton, and my pillow from the bed for a zafu. After a few breaths I realized I had forgotten the prayer at the beginning, the prayer in which one sets the intention. I thrashed a moment or two between the impulse to start over properly, and the discipline of not following the thought – any thought – even the thought of the dedication prayer. You start making exceptions and the whole thing unravels: everything's an exception. So I shook free, let it go, followed my breathing: the cold air nuzzling at my nostrils on the inbreath, the faint rasp of the outbreath, the uneasy multifidi and rotatores trying to second guess this strange stillness. Sometimes you can feel the ribs hanging from your spine, like a twelve sets of folded bronze wings.

The light grew in the room as I sat. I said the dedication prayer in full morning, as full as it gets here at the withered end of the year. People forget that Icarus also flew: the line comes unbidden into my mind, and my ribs move restlessly, reminding me of the flirt of a crow's tail while it balances on a power wire in a stiff wind. Or of the twitch of a cat's ears when they're brushed by a thread. I do long to fly: or at least to jump from floor to windowsill, and peer at the open sky.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Thing That Hath Been

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

The wind of Christmas hath whirled hither again, nor shall it be remembered, nor shall it return but as new: when all thy gifts are broken, then shalt thy heart grope for what it cannot find, and scraps of paper only wilt thou discover, unless it be a ribbon on a bare twig.

A new Christmas cometh only when the old is gone entire: therefore make haste to put away tree and ornament, light and music, and let the dead of winter possess thee. Sweep the needles from the hearth with care, for a single one remaining will hold the season in darkness; and thy carols shall be sung before untenanted houses, and thy cup shall be empty.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Oh for an age so sheltered from annoy
That I may never know how change the moons,
Or hear the voice of busy common sense!

I roundly dislike being busy, which I always am this time of year: it's the giving season, and every day brings a new surge of gifts to the Foundation. I am grateful for the gifts, which, to disregard more important things, keep me in a job I love, and in company with people I love and admire intensely. But my attitude toward holidays has always been grumpy. They interrupt my routines. They're trying, for an extreme introvert: everyone gets in my face and demands my attention.

I watch, with amusement, my mind constructing stories to justify and make moral the fact that I simply dislike the holidays. For days some semi-independent bit of my brain has been at work trying to construct a narrative about holidays being invented to distract working class people from the fact that their masters never have to work, that they never have to get up at a particular time of day, and that they wander off to Jamaica or the south of France whenever they damn well feel like it. If we weren't abject servants – says my mind – we wouldn't need holidays. We could make any day worth living.

This, of course, is arrant nonsense. People love holidays, the filthy rich as much as anyone. They love to get together and jabber repetitive inanities at each other, and trade formulaic expressions of approval, and jostle for status, whether on their way to Mecca or to the mistletoe. They love picking a day at random out of the calendar and investing it with huge significance. It's Christmas! They insist. And when I grumble, it's only Christmas! because you say it is, nobody has the faintest idea when that Nazarene carpenter's son was born, I know I've gone too far. You can only try the patience of extroverts so far: they are not thoughtful folk. You have to play along.

So. Merry Christmas! May you have all the merriment you can take on board, and get it out of your damn systems, so I can get back to the life I love. Which has parking spaces at Fred Meyer even in the early evening, and gifts rolling into the Foundation at a nicely manageable pace, and cafes that open for breakfast at the same time every day. My life is such a rewarding one that holidays are a disagreeable interruption: may God bless you, every one, with a life so good! Then maybe we could dispense with all this.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Up in the rainy sky a gull is batted this way and that by flaws of wind: his gray and white appear and disappear in complicated patterns, because both colors perfectly match different regions of the cloudscape. I wonder what errand he's on, to keep him up so high in such unpromising weather: he must be expending an awful lot of energy. Doesn't seem like there'd be much percentage in it.

Down below, here, behind the window, I have finally finished my coffee and turned my cup on its side. A little sadness rises, like the tiny curl of smoke from a stick of incense: it has no apparent object, no sad thought to go with it. It rises and disperses, a physical sadness, maybe, a lingering sleep-melancholy. I breathe deep, and feel a faint unease in my intercostals: not quite soreness. Maybe that's from running up the ten story staircase of the parking garage yesterday: I was gasping by the time I got to the top.

This time of year the garage is more full than usual, with holiday shoppers, and I end up parking on the very top (instead of the ninth floor), and I always walk to the highest corner and look down on the streets running north, south, and west: canyons running between the buildings. Some dizziness, looking down from that height: my diaphragm disapproves of being that high, and clutches a little. I wonder how the gull feels, spun by the wind up there? Different, I expect. Their inner ears must be built to higher tolerances, and being blown by the wind is perfectly safe, of itself. I expect that it's being near things you can smack into that alarms a gull: and that it's empty air that feels secure.

But now, at the cafe: I watch the the power wires sway against the white sky, and the steady drips all along the length of the brown awnings that Tom has over the windows. Each drop contains the whole white sky, and falls, falls.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Further Reports as Events Warrant

Didn't get up till 9:00 – very late for me. A little under the cold and discouraging weather. Came straight out to get my breakfast and a dose of artificial light at Tom's. Spent an hour and a half on my Spanish, reading, making flashcards, looking things up. A jilguero? Well, my dictionary called it a linnet or a goldfinch, which makes no sense at all – I've never seen a linnet, but by God I know it's not the same bird as anything I'd call a goldfinch. Google images showed me a jilguero: a very handsome fellow indeed, as this Wikipedia photo by J.J. Harrison ( shows:

This is, apparently, what Europeans call a goldfinch. Who knew? Well, everyone who cares but me, probably. To this norteamericano a goldfinch is a brilliant yellow bird with white and black accents, and not even smidgeon of red. God save us, a red-faced goldfinch? Next they'll be putting green stripes on the American flag!

So I'm slow, and a bit troubled to think of those godless Europeans going about calling this lovely bird – not his fault, poor fellow – a goldfinch, and I'm late, and I need to go home and make a salad and getting my eating back on program. The last few days it's spun out. I've been in a funk. Last night I ate a vast meal of Thai food, great quantities of rice and a delicious yellow curry that was as hot as the sun: and I've been eating ice cream, and buttered toast with honey, and proffered Christmas cookies (No human being can decently turn down the first cookies of a splendidly proud nine-year-old, can he? This in-home massage gig has its hazards.)

So today, today is the day I get it back together. Undressed salad and plain meats and tubers, and tracking consumption to hold myself to a Spartan three thousand calories a day. I weighed and measured myself today, which was rather cheering, although my scale is obviously inaccurate – it gives me readings that vary by several pounds, as I get on and off – but anyway, I seem to weigh something in between 210 and 215 lbs, and to measure 45 ½ inches around the waist, which is at least ten pounds less, and two inches less, than the last time I measured. My erratic and varied eating innovations seem to be accruing (or rather disaccruing), which is pleasant to see.

Well, as Calvin would say: further reports as events warrant! xo

Monday, December 17, 2012

Chiefly Astronomical

The sun shone furiously over a  huge shoulder of cloud this afternoon: cars kicked bursts of water up from the drenched streets, like December pedestrians panting puffs of steam into the frosty air. Every drop and cloud of spray sparkled. Blaze, old girl, one more time!

A couple days ago the streetlights came on at four in the afternoon. Real cold has started to filter into the house. I start reckoning the time to the solstice. But the sun is still slipping away from us, dallying with New Zealanders, Chileans, South Africans.

Last night, I came out of the house where I'd been doing a massage, and Auriga was high in the sky, in a deep recess between curtains of cloud, and a planet of incredible brightness was burning, right up there beside it in Taurus, totally outshining Aldebaran. To my chagrin I couldn't say what planet it was: it seemed too yellow for Venus, but too bright for Jupiter. Altogether it was an eerie sky, with its unclaimed planet, and the folding wings of cloud around it. Auriga hangs like an interdict upon my hopes, at the best of times: neither it nor any of the winter constellations have ever had any love for me.

And now the sun has been buried. Everything is dark again, and a steady rain is falling. Cold. Last night as I washed up for my massage I held my hands in the hot water a long time before they finally warmed up.

According to Sky and Telescope, that planet was indeed Jupiter. No explanation of its brilliance, though. Maybe sometimes it just gets tired of being the runner-up to Venus.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

New Moon

You, love, you, all
countenanced in the white circumference,
and within
the earthshine
between the horns, the lemmas of Dis:
you, I love you still, you know. You,
who you said would remember, are forgetting:
I, whom you said would forget, remember. So it is,
So it goes on, like a net dragging the dewy hillside:
memory is neither clean nor dry. Only in poems
do you get to say “I told you so.”

Silk ears swivel and twitch,
muzzles lift, eyes widen,
lips lift and show the needle fangs.
Love is still alive and feral,
it still roams under the new moon,
trotting on ancient cinder paths:
and kindness, still there, whines
like a young dog longing for a walk.

I told you so. I know a bit about love:
I've served in this house a long time,
taking abuse and kindness as it comes.
The crescent silvers the scars,
The new blood holds the old blood in its arms,
and the thump of a dish on the kitchen floor
gets even an old dog to his feet.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


A exvolution, as of petals – overblossomed –
hands in prayer that open hingelike, and spread to the winter sun –
what has been swollen ebbing, softing – but still –
alert to the lightest brush – wincing – but refusing to withdraw;
we are still engorged with sun, unwilling,
fatted and feasted and stubborn
in this wane of year and life and blood.
We will not go until we're called: we will not sleep until
God's hand is fairly on our throats, and his thumbs
close both carotids. One more swell and burst of summer;
One more drench of blood, and then we'll go.
Quietly we'll walk the pale blue passages,
the papered walls, extravasated matter, gray and white;
we'll simplify, uncomplicate, and fade
as we go home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


How does one refuse to accept humiliation, while taking responsibility? The two look contradictory, but actually they are deeply congruent and mutually supporting. Both take the war to the enemy. And both depend on understanding oneself as vulnerable, contingent, unpredictable, and even dangerous.

This requires, I dare say, some exegesis. It may surprise some people to hear me speaking of “the enemy”: it sounds perhaps un-Buddhist. But in fact, they are out to get you. Your fellow human beings. Robert Sapolsky, an authority on baboons, once said something like, “if a baboon is unhappy, it's because some other baboon is making its life a misery.” It's true of all hierarchical primates, including human beings. The energy we have left over after supplying our basic wants we devote to establishing and defending our places in various social groups. Each of these has dominant members, and defines itself by excluding some people and humiliating others.

Modern society is complicated, of course, and there are many indirections to all this, but the upshot is that there are people working all the time to humiliate you, to make you anxious and doubtful. Some do it with malice, because they enjoy bullying. Most do it because they are themselves anxious and doubtful. But living a human life, or maybe I should say a sacred life, means shaking free of this. Don't let them drive you into shame and dread. There's no time for that. We have better things to do.

At the same time our enemies are, as the Buddha insisted, our best teachers. They find our weaknesses. They tell us the truths our friends will not. We need them. And ultimately we have to take ownership of our weaknesses. When I find myself boiling with anger at someone, I am doing what we baboon-style primates naturally do: I am accepting the terms of domination and submission, and I look – fiercely or miserably – for a way to reverse the relations, to bring my enemy down somehow, to build an alliance to defy and humiliate him. This also is a waste of time, and this also is letting the enemy choose the ground. And that's why I spoke of taking the war to the enemy. Our job is reject, once and for all, that what we are here for is humiliation, whether ours or theirs.

Once and for all? Well, no. Over and over. As often as it takes. We don't need to be baboons. We can do better than that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pocked and Pounded Silver

We drove upriver on the Washington side, crossed at Bridge of the Gods, and drove back down the Oregon side. It was very dark, and raining the whole time, so we only got out of the car a couple times. We hadn't been up the Washington side for a long time: we pulled over at Beacon Rock, and a couple other places. At one viewpoint, high up on the palisades, we could see up some fifteen miles up the river till it vanished in the rain-dim: each headland lighter colored and less distinct, and shreds of cloud tangled around hills' throats like scarves. The lightest thing in the landscape was the river, a pocked and pounded silver, much brighter than the sky. Mt Hood never showed his face.

Just diddled along, not trying to get anywhere or do anything. Stopped at Bonneville and looked in at our friends the sturgeon, their ruffs of gills and their dignified barbel goatees, their dull little eyes and slow sad undulations. When they open their mouths, a huge pouch suddenly appears under their necks: it's all very strange and rather Jurassic feeling.

Cold, cold and wet, but a beautiful day, in its fashion. We paid our toll, $1.00 in quarters, at the Oregon side of the bridge, and the bridgekeeper wished us “Merry Christmas!” Across the way was a nativity scene. I thought of Cheryl Strayed walking up to touch the bridge, at the end of her trek, and of the original Bridge of the Gods, sunk now by Bonneville, and I thought of just how many stories any one place can hold: as many as it needs to, really. Like that great unexpected pouchy fish mouth. Anything goes in.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On the Trail of Digression

Once upon a time, two very different friends, in the space of a few days, said to me, “I think you need to get some self-respect.”

Well, it's the sort of thing you can say in Dear Abby, where everyone devoutly believes that the self exists and that respecting it is a good idea – hence the overflowing happiness one always discovers in that column – but what could it mean to me?

I saw at once that it was true, but I also saw that I had a difficult translation to perform before I could use its truth. I've spent the last five years carrying it folded up in my pocket, a one-item grocery list for the next time I'm in the other world: “pick up some self-respect.”

Oh dear, this threatens to become so abstract as to be useless. Let's ascend at once to cases. Suppose I were to take a corner wrong and sideswipe a parked car. Just barely: just enough to quietly scrape its paint. And suppose it was five in the morning, no one out and about. A person with self-respect – in our sense – would leave a note with his contact information. A person without it would drive away, rapidly refitting his stories about who he was in the world. He would think, “what is scraped paint? Do I care about scraped paint, on my own car? I do not. Why should I take on someone else's stupid automotive vanity? What can it matter? And if no one knows it was me, is it even I, in any sense that matters, that scraped the car?” And the longer he drove away, the more impossible coming back and owning up would be: for now he was not just a careless driver, but one who drove off without identifying himself.

The difference between the two responses – the difference that's important to me, anyway – has nothing to do with integrity. It has to do with acknowledging other people. Because, while it's very true that automotive vanity is stupid – and while it might very well be true that I would not myself care, if I came out of my house in the morning and found my paint damaged – nevertheless, my imagination can either extend itself to the owner of the scraped car or not. I can acknowledge that the owner of the scraped car might care. He might also care not at all for his paint, but care whether others cared about his feelings. I can imagine this – or not. If I decide not to imagine it, I have failed, not in integrity, but in compassion.

Has this case taken us far afield? Yes and no. Because of course my friends were not talking about anything like this.

I have been thinking a great deal about how central humiliation is to the human experience. Dreading it, experiencing it, avoiding it: sometimes I think it's most of what human beings do. Exactly what that has to do with self-respect, I hesitate to say at once: a number of suspiciously glib responses arise, but I would rather sit quietly for bit and think about it. But I will say this: that as I've been contemplating it, I've found a deadly cold anger, and a determination never to accept humiliation again. An old resolve, I think: it seemed almost to come from outside of me. I suspect I've laid my finger on the source of most of the seemingly random explosions of rage that are so disquietingly common in the modern world: that they're responses to intolerable accumulations of humiliation.

(And I will say at once, since I am on the Trail of Digression here, that to make the world a better place, what we must do at once and above all is stop humiliating each other. And on the internal side of that, always the more important and the more difficult, we must learn not accept humiliation.

(How does one refuse to accept humiliation, while taking responsibility? The two look contradictory, but actually they are deeply congruent and mutually supporting. Both take the war to the enemy. And both depend on understanding oneself as vulnerable, contingent, unpredictable, and even dangerous.))

Saturday, December 08, 2012


The minister said, in her eulogy, that if ever you were despondent you could go to Helen and she would tell you how wonderful you were. And that was true, and she was a lovely person that way. She thought everyone was wonderful, and made sure they knew it.

But you know, it actually took a little shine off, when she put it that way. Because we all, except the buddhas, have at least a little whisper of self that wants to be special. If everyone is wonderful, what does “wonderful” mean? It's another word for “ordinary.”

That itch to to be singular and special is probably the closest analog we Buddhists have to original sin. So long as I want to be better than other people, I've got to push some of them down; I want to curry favor with some and belittle others; I want to form a little circle of the best people, according to some criteria or other, and to lure some people in and push other people out. Writ large, you get the whole sorry history of the world. Writ small, you get the ongoing disasters and ruination of eros in the fields of family and friendship. It's often not such a good thing to want to be special.

All faiths take up the problem, but the Buddhist solution is perhaps the most complete and draconian. No “last shall be first” conveniently postponed humility for us. We take the more drastic step of denying that we're even distinguishable. How can you rank things if they're not even identifiably separate? The endeavor is absurd. If you're not sacred on account of having consciousness and hence buddha-nature, then – being able to type 140 words a minute, or bench press 300 lbs, or write immortal poems – or having teal as your favorite color, or rooting for the St Louis Cardinals, or pulling decisively into an intersection to make your left turn – or knowing the difference between “their” and they're,” or being too clever to identify with a major party, or understanding the difference between twill and serge – or – whatever the hell it is, everyone has their own bizarre and ridiculous list of the things that make them really special, God help them – really, can anyone think about this for more than a couple of minutes and not understand that the Buddha was right, that none of these things could actually make you valuable and precious, if the mere fact of having consciousness doesn't do it?

And what is consciousness, after all, but a cascade of thoughts and perceptions thundering down the rocks, driven on by the weight of all the stream of thoughts and perceptions of those before us, and pouring down into the little basins of the innumerable baby skulls below us? Watch a waterfall and try, try to follow a single drop run its way from the top of Multnomah Falls to the litter of debris below the bridge. That's “my” thought you're following. Sure. Give it up. It doesn't make any sense.

So what, then? If I give it up, if I give up ownership of the little eddies in my own skull-basin, halfway down the torrent, perched there among the moss and and the fume? What am I doing, what should I be doing? I am not sure, but I can very certainly say what my job is not: it is not to create water out of nothing, and it is not to persuade the other basins round about to acknowledge the specialness of the swirls of foam in my own bowl. Whatever it is – not that.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Things I said Elsewhere

At Marly's Palace:

I don't know if I could read Mervyn Peake any more. Loved him when I was a teenager, but back then his Ayn-Rand-on-acid, impudent "I owe nothin' to nobody!" stance was kind of adorable. Now that it's the official motto of the US House of Representatives I feel a bit different about it.

On Facebook:

Me: Tempted to identify myself on my various profiles as "religious but not spiritual." You know, just to goose people a bit. But also because it's true, so far as I can actually assign a meaning to either word. Which is not very far.

DJ: Why that way round? I'd have thought you'd have gone for 's but not r'.

Me: As far as I can tell people say they're "spiritual" when they believe in their premonitions and think the world shapes itself according to their own wishes and desires; and when they don't want other people's wishes and desires to count the same way. So I'm very anti -'s'. But ritual, the responsibilities of tradition, prayer, spiritual practice, accepting that I belong to others – all very 'r' – all those, I do subscribe to.

“The intellect of man is forced to choose,” said Yeats, “perfection of the life, or of the work.”

Dubious: I was struck by the lines, when I first read them as a teenager, but I was never convinced by them, and I'm not convinced by them now. Particularly though, in me: I have come down such a funnel that the life and the work are very nearly the same thing: if I go on as I began, stationing myself as someone who knows something about living, surely I must either demonstrate some skill at it, or see my audience leave in disgust?

But life and work have both reached an impasse – the same impasse, really. A number of options are open to me. But the step before me is occluded. I must either make it visible, or take some other way; or tell it so slant that the coffee cups slide off the table and the butter lands on the floor.

What then? Well – another way, a circuitous backstage quest, to work myself down, and come up by the trap, accompanied by red smoke and spurts of sulfur, or to work myself up and descend in the machine, trailing wisps of glory, my cheeks rouged and my wings outspread?

But maybe either way it doesn't really matter: maybe my bones are turning to glass, my muscles to air, my skin to cellophane, my blood to water, and I will be perfectly transparent: impossible to see except on very sunny days, when a prismatic glint might rise from my kneecaps. In sign of – some covenant or other. Tiny shepherds with little rice-grain sheep will point to the rainbows and fall to their own needle-knees, and peep in their tiny shepherd voices. I could try to tell them it's only a trick of the light, but my voice would be a snarl of thunder in the heavens, and I'd scare them to death.

So – once again, a long way round to zero.

 “Yet I'll hammer it out,” says Richard II, the only person in either the play, or the audience, who doesn't understand that the poignancy of his storymaking is that his story is over, and he has nothing to say that will move horse or horseman ever again. Only a tongue, still wriggling, like a severed lizard's tail in the dust. “Yet I'll hammer it out.” Don't bet on it, even here and now, Mr Citizen Plantagenet! For the meaning was never yours in the first place. The meaning, dear prince, is what was to be hammered out of you, distilled out of your own battered flesh.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Mr Favier's Wednesday Morning Sermon

And only and ever love, the cupping of the hands around a fugitive flicker – the flame half glimpsed, half invented: only a fool would think the way to keep it would be to clutch it tight and grind the wick between his fingers.

No. Breathe on it as gently as I breathe on the cascade of your hair between my fingers: as I turn your head slowly, wheeling the heavens on the pivot of my knuckles.

Stars in deep pools of sky, almost overgrown with thickets of dark cloud: Regulus, Capella, Rigel: the horsemen of Winter. They're alight too, even as they disappear behind the banks, reappearing at odd whiles, all night long. The shade of Archimedes twists the Earth with his long boat hook, keeping it spinning. And still the breath in, the breath out, and the silk between my fingers. If you can't hear the drumbeat all this moves to, you're not listening hard enough.

All night long I heard the horsemen galloping across the sky, I felt the heave of that enormous lever, I felt your cheekbone come to rest in my waiting palm; and fire flared from between my fingers. And behind it all, rising and falling, the rattle and throb of the drums.

So don't clutch, no; but don't piss it all away, either. You think you're going to live forever?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Turning Sky

The moon rises over Mississippi.
A dish of boiled peanuts sends
a ripple of vapor over her face: but quiet,
and long lines of shadow grow.

Say, in the north country, far away,
the frost is buckling interlace,
Celtic knots that will burn away with the sun.
Say the little girl with immodest hair

can't be in two places at once: even so
at waking she holds the earth of each
in one dreaming hand, and the same sky turns
with bright enameled birds:

herons stalk, and a sudden rushing pair
of pileated woodpeckers
answers the taste of home
and the shine of her willful head.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


It was a green block of – something. I discovered it in a closet and was drawn to it powerfully, inarticulately. I pushed a finger into it and it felt like something that would spring back – it resisted with some spirit – but it didn't spring back. The dent remained. And it gave with a faint crunch, like crusted snow. I didn't know if I had ruined it, whatever it was. I hid it where I found it, upside down, hiding the finger-dent.

My childhood is full of such hidden transgressions. It's strange, because my parents were mild and reasonable people, and I was a willing and obedient child: a quick confession would have liberated me from many quiet miseries! But I was unable to confess, then or ever. And I crept back again and again to take the stuff out, and to stick my fingers into it. That strange snow-crunch; that feel of breaking flesh; and an odor of post offices and attic rooms.

I suppose it was floral foam, of some sort. I'm sure it cost less than a dollar. Soon there was no way to hide the fact that I had mangled it. I kept going back and crunching it, craving the sensation, wondering what it was, wondering if it was poison, wondering if my secret transgression would end up killing me. “I had no idea he was going into the closet for that,” my tearful mother would say. Everyone would say there was no way she could have expected it, why would any boy do such a thing? And behind her back they'd note that I had always been a queer boy, no accounting for me. This at least was quick. Perhaps it was a blessing.

You could lodge things in it: paperclips, toothpicks, straws. It would take the imprint of a key, of a coin, of a knuckle, though not very finely.

Like almost all the stories of my boyhood, this one trails off into hypotheticals, variants, perplexities; it changes locales and characters. I'm five years old, or ten, or thirteen. I can remember my sin being discovered, in various ways, but I doubt any of them happened. My mother found the mashed up foam and clucked at me. She discarded it without a second thought. It disappeared and I never knew why. I was challenged as to what on earth I had done it for. Who knows? At most one, perhaps none of those things happened. I will never know.

Tonight I find myself longing for that block of foam, for its unearthly lightness – like balsa wood; for its malleability; for the burst of strange tactile information it sent pouring up my nerves. And above all for its secrecy, and for the alien countries it hinted at, where this was the stuff of soil. The moon rose in cold backwash of fog and fir bough tonight, contending with the streetlight, and all of it, even the streetlight, was too far away to touch.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Kiki loves a good string to chase as much as any cat: to lurk, and pounce – “aha!” – and almost get it, as I tug the end past her flickering paws: a quick frenzied pursuit and then a pause, while she studies the terrain, pretends nonchalance, and then – suddenly – pounce, again!

But when she tires of the game she turns, tail twitching, and cuffs my hand. Usually, though not always, with her claws sheathed. Just letting me know that we're done pretending, that she knows it's my hand pulling the string, and that she'll tear it to bloody shreds if I don't quit. Kiki is not one of your mild-mannered cats.

Sometimes, after an illness, I have a similar sense of impatience with appearances, impatience with having my instincts trifled with. I don't know what hand is pulling the string exactly so as to capture my attention: but I know it doesn't move of itself, and I'm tired of the game.

Friday, November 23, 2012

What I did for Thanksgiving

Sick, like I used to get sick when a child: nothing but fever, burning merrily. This is the second time I've managed to sit up in the last 36 hours. Kiki adores this new temperature setting, and this new propensity for staying in bed: every time I come to consciousness she's nestled in some blazing crook.

There's no suffering to it, not even when I find myself giving little moans, every fourth breath or so. To suffer I think you have to be lodged in time, and I'm free of all that. The moans are just the obvious thing to do.

At first spreadsheets were in all the background: I was working some complicated data transformation, over and over. “I need to save this,” I would think. But gradually that burned away too.

Back to bed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Personal Space

“I don't want to be a widow,”
you said.
The leaf that shivers
over the wire:

in her green interview,
no one told her
about the jump
in November.

And I, with my coffee precarious by my thigh, and a white upland morning contending with the lamp: about to turn to my Spanish, and to leave aside a poem that won't quite set. Death is turning up everywhere these days: he is one of those loud, intrusive strangers who uses your first name in your face and is too familiar with your wife. – Did you never hear, Mr Death, of personal space?

– No, hum a few bars and I'll fake it! – he grins, with a mouthful of teeth, and you realize you'd better leave well enough alone. Buffoon he may be, but he's not one to trifle with.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Close of Day

The hem of the cloud cover
does not quite reach her ankles:
her toenails are polished with silver,
but tarnish remains in the seams of her feet.

Slow and ancient
marsupials are there
in the pools of light.
You can't see them but you can feel
the hesitation of their wrinkled paws,
the tremor of their slow hopeless grope.
They arch their backs
and their blind snouts
nose in the skirts of cloud.

Coming to the edge today,
I looked and saw dolphins
playing in the deep, drawing
clusters of stars behind their tails:
spurts of darkness
rose above their heads.

I set one slender spike
and raised the sledge.
Catlike hisses came from
the unseen watcher
as if from some steam engine
afraid to die;
but oh, the sting of the haft
as the hammer struck home!
It's ringing still
in the great bones of my enormous arms,
and their shivering light filled
the hang of the emptiness
where the dolphins played.

But nothing
holds back the evening for long
and the creatures that nose for night
are older than me,
older than my kind;
and the even the light that still runs out
through flaws in the shell
is forced by the irregular beat
of this dear deep beast, my heart.

Friday, November 16, 2012


A strong impulse to withdraw, to head for the hills, to wander in the oak savannas of the central Willamette Valley: I want nothing but the sound of running water and sight of hawks high up in the sky. Too much. I'm tired of cajoling people out of bed to face another day of disappointment, tired of washing other people's dishes and cooking other people's food, tired of buses and trains full of damaged people and halfwits, tired of obscure struggles with rules that slyly shift so that they always favor the Haves and keep us off balance, so that we're always running and never catching up, and so that we always blame ourselves and not our masters. Tired of it all. Tired of trying to maintain a spiritual equilibrium at the same time, a compassion that recognizes that our masters are just as frightened and wanty as we are, that they're cruel out of panic and desperation, just like we are. That we are, globally speaking, ourselves the Haves, clutching more than our share. I just want them to be bad, so I can hurt them and enjoy it, or anyway spew poison out on my blog, or on Facebook.

So. I breathe a few times, touch the ceramic of my coffee cup for its warmth, think of Carolee coming to Portland and of Antonio Machado's verse. I think about the light falling slant across the table. I think about the thick glasses of Christopher Luna and the way conversation roils around you, when you can't hear well enough to understand any of it, but you are rocked in the warmth of it, at a party. I think of a coworker coming into my office every evening to give an the end-of-the-working day's hug, something I find stupefyingly improbable, and for which I'm terribly grateful. Touch, you know, is all I have ever believed: the words just rise and fall, crest and ebb, like bubbles around a boiling egg. They don't mean anything. They bobble me back and forth; maybe they crack me, if they're hard enough; but they never reach my heart. A strange thing for a writer to say, maybe, but it's true.

Hands, flesh, breathing, the knocking of a heartbeat against my fingertips, the arch of the small of a back that's covered with ribbed fabric, so that my fingers run up and down the rivulets, the lines of force. Have you ever thought about the relentless verticality of the human body, its up-and-down-ness? Like a sunflower; like a poplar tree. It's a queer thing, and I'm not sure if it's a blessing or a curse.

Still: the air I breathe into my nostrils is cold and dry, and the pale light that falls across the table is a winter light. Barely a month to the solstice. The trees across the street are despojado y deshojado, despoiled and unleafed, and their branchlets are yellowish whips in the cloudwash. November.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Poor Judgment

I'm afraid I had to giggle when Petraeus solemnly averred that he had shown poor judgment in having an affair. Does anyone actually use their judgment when they have an affair? Weigh this with that, take one thing with another, ask their staff for second opinions? If he actually used his judgment, sure, then it was pretty damn poor. But I would guess that he was just tired of using his judgment. He used his judgment all day long, in life-and-death decisions, and there came a point when he was sick of it, and told it to go take a hike. All of us do that eventually, but most of us, fortunately for the world, are exposed to fewer temptations of lesser moment. The fact that we ate two entire bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies doesn't make the front page of the New York Times, and we don't have to tender our resignation about it.

My first thought, when I saw Paula Broadwell on the Jon Stewart Show, was, “Ah, now there's trouble!” (Well that's not quite accurate, my first thought was “my God, what lovely arms!” Trouble, that was my second thought.) But Paula Broadwell is not quite my type, and she would never adore me, so I needn't congratulate myself on my perception. The fact is, mutatis mutandis, I might have done exactly the same thing as General Petraeus. Which I'm not particularly proud of, but not I'm not especially ashamed of it, either. Titanic feats of will, white-knuckling one's way against temptation, are not a special interest of mine.

David Petraeus did show poor judgment, but it wasn't when he decided to have an affair – if he ever did such an improbable thing. He showed poor judgment when he had the first inkling that such a thing was possible, and he kept the door open: when he let things set themselves up so that more and stronger temptations would keep on arriving. He's the only one who knows when that was: but I'm guessing it was long before the first email that would have interested the FBI.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

para dar un alivio a estas penas

I give. I've been working all morning on translating these simple lines:

Para dar un alivio a estas penas
que me parten la frente y el alma
me he quedado mirando a la luna
a través de las finas acacias.

... and I have nothing to show for it. I think this is the hardest kind of poetry to translate: simple, obvious, almost childish, resting its weight on the language itself rather than on the cleverness of the poet.

The problem boils down to two words: pena and frente. Pena means grief, pain, punishment. But the “punishment” sense has vanished from English pain, except fossilized in legal phrases – “on pain of death,” for instance – and the “grief” sense, it never had. Both are crucial here. It's not just pain that the poet is undergoing, it's loss of a loved one, and the loss of a loved one is a punishment, a punishment for some unspecified transgression.

The marvelous ambiguity of the next line is perfectly translatable. “que me parten la frente y el alma,” can be rendered exactly with “which divides my forehead and my soul,” preserving the the doubt about exactly what's being divided. Is it his forehead that's being divided from his soul, a standard flesh/soul dichotomy? Maybe. Or is each being split? Maybe the pain he's talking about is a splitting headache? And maybe the soul is being split because some of it is remorseful and some of it is not?

So far, so good: but the real translation problem is the word frente. It is a forehead, and that is probably the strongest literal sense here. But it's also “front,” as in the line of battle; it's also “front,” as in what you present to the world, and it's also “face,” as in what you prepare to meet the faces that you meet. So this:

To gain some relief from this punishment
that divides my face – and my soul –

or this:

To relieve this pain
that splits my forehead and soul...

or even this:

To find some respite from this grief
that tears the front from my soul...

But the more farfetched you get, the farther you wander from the directness of the poem, which is perfectly colloquial and straightforward: Jiménez is saying nothing outré or forced, and you do violence to the poem if you create a translation like the last. It's not a poem that's trying to startle you: it's a very quiet, gentle sing-song.

To relieve this pain
that splits my forehead and soul,
I have lingered, watching the moon
behind the slender acacias.

There is something in the moon that suffers;
something, in the halo of silver
that kisses my eyes,
and dries – weeping – my tears.

I don't know what the moon has
that caresses – lulls – calms –
and silently watches the prisoner
with a saint's immense compassion.

And tonight, as I suffer and think
of freeing this flesh from my soul –
I have lingered, watching the moon
behind the slender acacias.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Massage in Winter

Cold air from all sides. It stirs the hair on my forearms and tickles my scalp. Delicious when I push my hands under your shoulders, between the heated flannel and your skin: warm oil; glowing flesh; the massage table and its trimmings an enfolding rose of warmth.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prayer for a Winter Kittening

Let all that is whole be broken,
let all that is true be false,
let vanish all premon and token,
let the cord unwind from the halse.

Let me see by the light of winter
new muzzles that gleam and chirr:
let the sleep of my dreaming sinter
in the stroking of newborn fur.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


They have all had one thing in common: amusement at a half-secret joke; a characteristic lift at the corners of the eyes. Some have been sad, and some cheerful, but they all have had a keen quizzical glance, which says, “can he really have said that, and still be taking himself seriously?”

Saturday, November 10, 2012


The afternoon I found myself drawing a fine reproduction, in scarlet pencil, of a small splatter of ketchup: easier than facing the shrieks of desolation that would have met an attempt to wipe it up & leave no record of its beauty. Or the dread of walking out on a rainy morning, and knowing that six blocks would take half an hour, because every drowning worm on the way must be rescued. There might be twenty such, and each must be lifted tenderly: they are easily injured, especially when waterlogged. At two years of age, she suddenly comprehended that all the dinosaurs had died. She grieved for a year.

She grew somehow to be a young teenager. I sent her out one day to pick up the windfall apples in the backyard. She took a bucket readily enough – she was always a willing and obedient child, when she was not in despair for the loss of life and beauty – and set forth. From time to time I looked out the window. For an hour she worked, with great diligence. Every apple had to be inspected, lest a wasp or spider or ant be troubled. If it had such residents, they must be coaxed gently out, and new homes found for them: then common humanity required waiting to see that they were settling in, and to make sure the new place exposed them to no predators. When she finally wandered in, with the bucket one-third full, and the yard still full of windfalls, I thought, “She'll never find work.”

Yesterday morning her phone reminded her, at 6:30, that she had “an observation” at 8:00. She typed up a full lesson plan, arrived on time, improvised brilliantly with a large stuffed horse (unexpectedly presented to the class by a parent) & generally shone for the observer. You would think the worm-rescuer had vanished. Until you see her tenderness with the kids hitting sensory overload, and her uncanny ability to head off tantrums in autistic ones.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Erasing our Necessity

After my reading, my partner poet asked me, on-stage, during the question and answer period, why she could not find me in my poems. I said something inadvertently, unthinkingly, which has been reverberating inside myself. And I think it must be true.

I said, "I write so that I will not be needed."

     - Ivy Alvarez

Just so, parenting. Just so, living in general: in some fundamental way, our task is to erase our own necessity.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Yellow Leaves

I'm at the window of the Virginia Cafe. Most of the leaves outside are yellow, but towards the hearts of the trees, some are still green. I've seen this a few times this year. There's one especially striking ilanthus near my house, showers of yellow on the outside, and inside, all brilliant green. I don't know if this year is different, or if I've just never noticed it before. Do a tree's leaves usually turn from the outside in?

In any case, the leaves are wet and glowing yellow, and they fall one by one, rocking as though they were the visible ends of ghostly seesaws: back and forth, up and down. They are all bright and yellow. The semantic fields of autumn are pushing me to say “gold,” but there is no gold there, not a hint of it. It's yellow, painfully intense and pure. Some of the trees have a dusting of lichen that answers to the colors of the leaves. But there is no gold anywhere.

Something wary and feral wakes in me on wet, glowing days like this. I want to wander and climb: it's a restlessness that makes me want to trace lines on the faces of strangers, to read their features like a text in Braille. The whole world seems like a faintly glowing cipher, a letter in an unknown script. My kinship isn't with stupid, obvious human beings: it's with whatever demiurge created them, with the hand that painted both the faces and the leaves. Not God the Father, but some slighter, flickering deity in love with curves and oblique lines. There is something being said that neither the faces nor the leaves ever understood. It's neither happy nor kind, but there's an alien delight in it, and I'm tempted to forswear my humanity and follow that delight instead. As if you might open a notebook and shake it so that all the written letters fell out of it, like thin wire confections and curlicues, and drifted on the floor: or as if you might take the print of a face, on one of those golden leaves, take the delineations, and leave only a glowing blur behind – a shapeless mute nob on a neck-stalk, not even aware that the lines that used to make its face have been taken away. How, after all, could it ever know? Who would tell it?

And now the light drains away, and the rain picks up. The leaves fall faster, and the glow is all gone. A dull and sodden world supervenes, and my imagined kinship with the demiurge makes me frightened and ashamed. Time to wrap my coat closer around me, and walk back to the office. And hope not to meet myself on the way.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Rasping a Glint

Pedernal yesca
tinder and flint
hafted and skinted
rasping a glint

moglie sposa
woman of nest
Jael the Carpenter
hammer in heft

ferliche and fairly
driven and drone
lifting the gold spike
driving it home

Thursday, October 25, 2012


The spiritual equivalent of altitude sickness: the mix of awe and compassion is too thin for me, and my soul lies gasping on the pebbly ground, while the hemlocks throb against the twilight. If I could just catch my breath –

You might have to go on without me, and pick me up on the way back.

I was given a massage tool when its owner died: a white serpentine in a shallow 'S'-shape, smooth as jade, which warms quickly to the hand. I've never used tools in my practice, but I keep the serpentine on my bedside table, and I toy with it sometimes before I fall asleep: it fits into my hand in various ways, and seems always on the point of conveying something of terrific importance to me. I fell asleep one time, holding it, and hoped it would bring me a dream, but it remained silent. Dreams aren't sent like credit cards. You have to earn them.

I am failing, failing some important test, and I don't even know what it is.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Life of Emily Dickinson

I'm reading Sewall's biography of Emily Dickinson. It's a really wonderful book, and I highly recommend it. He is at war with what he calls, with a capital 'M', “the Myth” – which is the story that Dickinson, disappointed in love, and really too fragile for this world, withdrew from it and attempted to vanish behind the masks of poetry, as a way of escape. He sets up a counter-story, of a woman finding her vocation and simply dropping the obligations of an intensely social world (the typical life of an upper-class New England lady was a mass of social obligations) that would have eaten all her time and pulled her away from her life's work.

You can practically feel his longing: he wants very much for it to be true. But he's too disciplined and conscientious to skew his evidence, and I don't find myself believing his story much more than the the story he so successfully shoots down. I'm not convinced that Dickinson believed in her own poetic immortality, or that she was easy in her skin.

I'm aware of wanting to make a third story, to co-opt her and take her for my own. I would make her endlessly restless, a person of deep religious feeling but impatient with doctrine and suspicious of religious professionals. I would make her disappointed in love, in a drastic if unspecific Shelleyan way. She flings herself at people (in writing at least), and leaves them uncomfortable and bewildered by her enthusiasm. Nothing quite works out, and she moves restlessly away, having been failed – somehow – she doesn't even know how. But person after person moves out of her orbit, unsatisfied and unsatisfying.

All the while, I can see why I'd try to make this the Dickinson story: I can see the tendentiousness of my own mind, its eagerness to co-opt her, to make her play out one version of my own psychodrama, to find a way out or around or through this baffle. Nothing will come of that.

Again and again, I come to the baffle, the stone in the tunnels in Cirith Ungol that I can get neither around nor through nor over, though I can hear the voices of my enemies, carrying away what I love. What was all this for, then? That is probably not a question that means anything, but it is an insistent one.

I grow more and more wary of this sort of thinking, thinking of purposes and destinies and the fate of character. I looked at my recent poems, though, because someone else was looking at them, and I thought, my God, what a bitter and resentful person wrote these poems! And all alike. Flinging himself at the baffle again and again. It's time to stop and think, instead: time to back off.

In the meantime: sun and rain in a complicated dance, and the grape leaves – whatever they really are – phosphorescent in the mist, and hugging Deb Scott on Mississippi Avenue. An arc of color where the rain was sorting the light, and photos of robed Rinpoches on an office wall. I wait for November, and the healing dark, and the recovery of touch.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Torn Edge of Autumn

Morning lifts its shoulders, trees crane their necks and gape at the sky, a crow pounds its way through the thin air. Everything's a bit raw and ragged.

Here at the torn edge of Autumn. Looking backward and forward: longing for the long oven, the flare of heat and light; longing to have my bones and flesh eaten by the fire, and my breath set free to ripple in the air, up and away. I love that I don't know which way the wind will be blowing: whether the vapor will wander up over the Cascades or run south with the rain, up the valley toward the southern hills and the oaks. Or even run east with the cold stiff wind from the Columbia Gorge, and out to sea: I'd like that best of all.

So grateful for my work: for skin and flesh, for the beating heart and the blood flowing, the sweetness of palm and sole. The quiet breath, the invisible catch of a almost-snore, the lift of a chin when my thumbs rise up under the suboccipitals. Twilight, night-time, streetlights; the deft way I've learned to swing my table up on the pivot of my knee and toss it into the floor space between the front and back seats of the car, moving all that weight with almost no effort, feeling much younger and stronger than when I was, actually, young and strong.

Grateful for a warm bed and chill air, for the pad of Kiki's paws, through the covers, on the backs of my knees, at three in the morning. For unexpected bare skin, for hair settling onto my forearm, for inquiring sounds that never rise to words, and are met with equally inarticulate reassurances. For the sound of Tori rising at six thirty, and getting her breakfast. For the shuddering gasps of the garbage and recycling trucks as they trundle through the neighborhood, coming faithfully, every week, as evidence that we are a settled and prosperous people.

The autumn spiders are enormous; when you walk into their thick strands they break with a palpable ping. “I always feel bad about breaking their webs,” said our neighbor. “They work so hard!”

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Against Democracy

I'm not convinced that democracy is a good idea. It's an idea that I love, but in practice it can become terribly poisonous and discouraging. It just requires too much grown-up behavior. We're not up to it.

I was reading Sapolsky's memoir a couple months ago, and he talked about how stress levels shot up in all the baboons whenever the alpha was challenged, and the lines of the hierarchy became unclear. I see the same thing at election time: the human beings all become anxious and fearful, and liable to outbursts of rage; their intelligence, individual and collective, seems to drop several notches. I'd prefer to think that we're capable of a non-hierarchical society, but I wonder if we are.

One of the signs of this is the disinclination to vote for anyone imperfect: the longing to vote for a perfect human being, rather than for an ordinary party, run by ordinary human beings, with a list of things it would like to do. I was puzzled by the responses to Obama until I understood this. He's a good solid center democrat, way over to the right of me in many ways, over to the left in others. His voting record in the Senate was clear and consistent, if short. He's as good at trying to do what he said he was going to try to do as any president I remember. No surprises. Standard Democratic Party stuff. But the excitement that surrounded him was intense, and I think it's best understood in terms of primate psychology: we had had a weak alpha for a long time, who couldn't speak persuasively, and made many obviously bad decisions. Here was a confident, persuasive one. And he was a different color! Maybe that would make a difference! I really think much of the excitement, and consequent disappointment, is as simple as that. We're not really very complicated critters, in a lot of ways.

And instead of blaming themselves for electing a Democratic president, a divided Senate, and a Republican House – a configuration which our constitution pretty much guarantees will prevent any significant legislation – Americans are preparing to do exactly the same thing again. And again, they will blame the subsequent paralysis on Obama and on Congress, as if anything else could happen. The marching orders of the Republican House are – present right-wing legislation. The marching orders of the Democratic Senate are – quash it.

I've always been irritated by employers who blame their employees. You've got the power; you set the rules; if they're not getting the work done, it's your fault, not theirs. I feel that way about the American public blaming congress. If you want them to work, you have to give them consistent orders that make sense.

I see no sign that Americans, generally, take their responsibilities as a democratic people seriously. They don't take the time to do democracy properly: they won't learn about the issues, they won't engage with the Americans who disagree with them. They seem to me childish, petulant, and irresponsible. They have no idea how to solve the problems of the country, and yet they're eager to blame congress for also having no idea. The constant bleating pleas for “leadership” are ominous. This is a democracy. We are supposed to be the leaders. That's the whole idea.

It's only this situation that has enabled the lobbyists for the large business and corporate interests to gain their ascendancy. They do take the time to learn about the issues, to work out long-range plans, and to engage with people who don't agree with them. I don't like these people – they're political mercenaries: but the fact is they're behaving more like citizens, by and large, than we are.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Warm Rain

Warm night: the rain has slackened, for a bit. the air is rich with the smell of torn leaves: tannin, wet soil, and ozone. I am not in sympathy with the rain, today; I am too full of doubts and hesitations. I vowed to dedicate my powers / To thee and thine -- have I not kept the vow? I wrote that down and then asked, well, have I? And only the dripping water from the tattered twigs answered. Intellectual beauty? Do I even know what that means? The clouds are pregnant with still more rain. There's more to come. Where the moon may be, behind all that wrack, I can't even guess.

I have been considering for days the problem of the letter 'y': my sense that its tail should be bold, flowing, and sinuous runs -- smack! -- into the fact that as I usually hold a pen, the tail runs exactly at the angle of the nib, making a line far too meager. And pulling to the left leaves the letter unpleasantly squashed, while pulling to the right looks affected if not innovative. I keep thinking there should be a simple solution to this problem, but none comes. I fear it will have to be innovation. Or maybe the tail maybe has to jack away from itself, at last?

Good night!

Sunday, October 14, 2012


High ceilings: a clean bare apartment, in the modern, comfortless style. The floor-to-ceiling windows, which might have looked out over the city lights, were covered with matte black shades. The books were few and serious: T.C. Boyle, Jared Diamond. The effect was elegant but lonesome.

So also was the young woman, who had no fund of smalltalk, nothing to expose or to apologize for. One of those rare clients who seem to go nowhere during a massage, who stay warily present and alert. You ask them if they're comfortable and they answer at once and clearly, with the same readiness and tone they would use in a job interview. I sometimes wonder if the pheromones are simply wrong, with such clients. Have I done something wrong, or failed to do something right? I'll never know, but I'll be astonished if she calls me again.

I pondered the massage, and my responses, as I drove home. I sometimes feel a little awkward with clients that much younger than I am. They come from a different world. When I was young there was much solemn discussion and hand-wringing about the generation gap, but it seems to me that the distance separating me from young people now is far greater than the one that separated me from my parents. My parents and I grew up dabbling occasionally in despair. But these young people grew up immersed in it, they live and breathe it. They believe in nothing, and they have never trusted anything enough to be betrayed by it. My heart aches for them.

Or possibly it aches for myself, and all this has nothing to do with her. I need to bear that possibility in mind, too. As I drove through the rainy night, I went methodically through my heart, labeling the potentially toxic responses and putting them up to dry. Here was my dismay at being treated formally and distantly; here was my anxiety about being old and fat; here was the millionth iteration of the story of my only being able to talk my game; here was the faint but insistent conviction that my body is awkward and de trop; here was the sense that my tongue is thick with some ancestral poison, which prevents me ever from expressing the kindness and generosity that overflows my heart. I hung them carefully, one by one, with the clothespins of the dharma. Let them hang like prayer flags, till they turn to powder and fly with the wind.

This, I feel, is my great qualification for doing massage. All of us who work along the boundaries of intimacy, doing massage or talk therapy, need this capacity above all others: to be able to see our own responses, and not believe in them – not ratify them – and certainly not impute them to the people we work with. Nothing needs to be done with them. They don't need to be accepted or rejected, evaluated or justified. They just need to be given proper ventilation: they'll disintegrate on their own.

Underneath it all is a floor of heat and fire, that ancient, inarticulable potency, the thing that all prayer invokes. We can't afford to smother that with damp laundry. Hang it up and let it dry.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Unscrawled Heaven

I find myself still softly searching
For my Delinquent Palaces –

Oh, me too, Emily. Myself the only prince cast out.

The rains have begun at last. I can see the tracers, pale gray lines against the faintly paler sky, as if heaven was a paper slant-ruled for forward-leaning cursive. I want to form each letter slowly, perfectly, each one dropping to dissolution. Incipit liber primus. Here beginneth Book One.

I crouch by the gutter and dabble my fingers in the clear water: I squint up at the sky, and my eye-sockets fill. Clear ink runs down my cheeks, streams into a thicket of beard. Down at the corner stop someone sneezes, and the brakes of the city bus gasp. Rain. It falleth as the merciful rain of heaven upon the place beneath. And I am the place beneath: my delinquent palaces seem to have deliquesced.

Blowing, sputtering, I reach the shelter of the porch. I want to extend my fingers so that a drop will fall on each fingertip. Thimbles of cold wet water; gloves of rain. O heaven, endless white unscrawled heaven, when can I begin to write?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Not Training to Injury

I've always exercised: that's pretty much the only thing I'll talk about in this series that I have always done right. And it's been somewhat by accident that I've achieved it, because once again, my guides were not great.

I used to walk a good deal. I loved walking. I took long thinking walks, and talked to myself, argued with myself, recited poetry, made plans. It was fun. When I moved to New Haven, walking was no longer fun. It was difficult and dangerous. People viewed you with suspicion: why were you walking? Streets were difficult to cross. Muggers were numerous and savage. In the winter, snow and ice made walking a struggle. It was a discouraging time, and I lost the habit. I was in graduate school and I felt I didn't have time anyway.

But I got back to Portland, and I took up swimming, which I had always loved: I swam at the old YWCA up on 10th Avenue. I was doing it for exercise, by then. I had Kenneth Cooper's Aerobics in hand, as my manual, and I tried to train up, according to his guidelines.

Somehow it never quite worked out. I would always get sick (with what I thought of as a cold), at a certain point in my training programs, and spin out for a week or two, and have to start over. I documented my progress meticulously. Always that failure, and starting over, the gradual progression, getting more distance and more speed and then – failure.

I did the same thing with weights. I got dumbbells and started lifting. Daily. With elaborate systems worked out to lift more and more, with more and more reps, and no endpoint, no point at which it was good enough. Curiously enough, I never got very far before I hurt myself, my elbows or my shoulders, and would have to quit for a while.

I'm very grateful for the periodic failures and blessedly minor injuries, now, because I think they saved me from doing what I've seen many, many of my clients do: undertake a determined and resolute program of training to injury. They take up some repetitive exercise that is really hard on the joints, and up the ante, up the ante, up the ante, doing it longer, harder, and more frequently – until something gives. They injure a knee, a hip, or a shoulder, and – suddenly they can't do their chosen exercise any more. They can't do it at all. Any many of them, at this point, give up exercise altogether. It's deeply discouraging to them. Especially for those of them who were athletes in school, it can be a severe identity crisis. If they're not supremely fit, getting better and better – then what are they? They're nothing. Failures. Has-beens.

I don't exercise any more, as I used to understand it. I don't try to get better and better. Doing massage keeps my hand and upper body strength pretty good. I bicycle to and from my writing-cafe – three or four miles from home – most mornings. I'm always meaning to get my weight machine set back up, but I never quite do it. And maybe it's just as well.

The other bit of exercise I do every day is what I call my “back exercises.” Way back when I used to have a lot of low back trouble – in New Haven, curiously enough – I went to a chiropractor. The adjustments didn't do anything for me, but he handed me a sheet of paper with exercises on it, and I did the exercises, and they helped a lot. I think when I started doing them, they took about 25 minutes, every morning, which is a big investment of time. I streamlined them more and more, till now they only take about 10 minutes, I think. I do them every single morning. I'm convinced (caveat, caveat, caveat, sample of one, your mileage may vary) that these exercises keep my erstwhile back trouble at bay.

(I know now that these “exercises” were actually borrowed yoga poses. One of these days I'll document my routine for you. Remind me.)

These exercises helped my back dramatically. Every once in a while, once every couple months, maybe, I'll be pressed for time some morning and skip them. By afternoon my back will be twinging in that old, ominous way. If I skip them a second morning, I'll “throw my back out” that day, almost for sure. Even I can respond to feedback that clear. I don't often skip any more, and I never skip two days in a row. Life is short, and I don't want to spend much of with my back in spasm, gasping on my hands and knees.

What do these three activities – the back exercises, the bicycling, and the massage – have in common? I enjoy them all, they're knit into my daily routines, and they are not progressive. They're not a training program. I'm not trying to get anywhere with them. They're just the way I live. If I don't do them, I get grumpy, or my body starts hurting, or I can't sleep. It's become pretty obvious and self-reinforcing.

So. Why did I start with exercise, in a series about learning how to deal with food? Because for me, dealing with food depends on careful deployment of will power, and replenishing will power depends on sleep, and sleep depends on exercise. It's that simple. I don't exercise, I won't eat right. It's not about burning calories; it's about feeling good. And about waking up with enough oomph in the bank to get through the day.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

This Food Thing: The Family Curse

“You know,” I found myself saying to Martha the other day, “I think I have this food thing whupped.”

I went on to walk it back and qualify it and add disclaimers: a long way to go, just maybe over the hump, could still be wrecked by this or that – you know. That's my way. I'm a cautious man. I don't believe in rashly drawing the gods' attention. But really, I do think I have this food thing whupped.

“This food thing,” what thing would that be? Overeating, eating compulsively, eating lots of things that I know are bad for me. It's an embarrassingly big deal for me, and always has been. I've been struggling with it all my life: I've hovered on the official overweight/obese line, sometimes ten, twenty pounds from it one way or the other, as I tried various approaches and lost control of them, but always within hailing distance of it, and always, until recently, always with the dread that it will get away from me altogether, and that I'll become downright enormous.

I've noticed with friends and clients that many of them, maybe most of them, believe in a family curse. It's their fate to die of cancer, or to always make bad relationship decisions, or to be unwise with money. It's the fatal weakness of their family: and it's bound to get them eventually, no matter what they do. There's a grain of truth to it, often – all these things do run in families. But they believe in them much more strongly than the data warrants.

The curse my family laid on me was, that I was going to become fat, and I was going to die of a heart attack. I've known this all my life. My mother's father – the one everyone exclaimed I was the spitting image of – died of a heart attack at 62. My mother was fat, and hated being fat, and told me over and over that if I kept on eating as I was, I would become fat too. Which would, of course, be the worst thing that could befall anyone. But she also came from an Illinois farm family that believed one of the cardinal virtues was stuffing your menfolk, so at the same time that she warned me about this, she fed me unlimited amounts of rich food. Everything I liked to eat was on hand, all the time.

I ate. This was my fate. I'd eat, and become fat, and die early. Serve me right for my wickedness: but there was nothing to be done about it.

Oh, I'd go on diets. All of them worked, for a while, and I'd lose ten, fifteen pounds, maybe – quite quickly – and I'd picture losing the rest of the weight, how easy it would be, and I'd escape the family curse, and be free! And then the weight loss would, mysteriously, stop. Following the diet would become harder and harder, the sruggles against myself would become epic, titanic. And then – suddenly – I'd break. I'd eat. And eat and eat and eat, and accept my fate.

The state of obesity research and nutritional science, in those days, was abysmal, and the dietary advice was almost uniformly bad. One of my “diet” foods was low-fat fruit-flavored “yogurt,” sweetened to a candy with corn-syrup. Medical authority solemnly told me to avoid things like butter and red meat, and eat this poisonous processed crap instead. It wasn't until much much later that I discovered how little and how bad the science behind this advice was. It was science, right? It was the Surgeon General. It had to be true.

Medical authority also told me how to exercise to lose weight: low-intensity, endlessly repetitive, supposedly “aerobic” exercise. Here again the science was bad or simply non-existent. No one has ever been able to demonstrate that exercise of this sort, or of any sort, leads to people losing weight. It simply doesn't. Exercise and obesity basically have nothing to do with each other. But again, the recommendations were laid down by all the authorities I knew of. I wasn't a science guy. I was an English major. I took the authorities at their word. So when I did undertake exercise, what I did was try to jog, daily, for longer and longer amounts of time. Eventually I'd hurt myself, or need to do something else with all that time, and I'd give it up. And again, I knew, anyway, that there was really nothing I could do. My fate was waiting for me: there was never really any getting away from it.

It's been a long hard haul since then. I've had to learn a lot, and unlearn a lot. I've had to get stricter with myself in some ways and easier on myself in others. I've had to run a lot of experiments in what Paul Ingraham calls “the laboratory of me,” and make up new approaches based on the results. But I do think that I have, finally, whupped this food thing.

I sat down and drew up an outline of how I did it. I might write a post on each of these. Or I might not. But here's the outline:
  1. A habit of exercise, and learning not to “train to failure”
  2. Protecting my sleep
  3. De-stressing my life
  4. Learning to distrust carbs
  5. Commuting by bicycle
  6. Keeping the kitchen work-ready
  7. La Grande Salade
  8. Training the will, getting help, and hiding treats
  9. That palatability study, and learning to trust carbs again. Some of them. Some of the time.
Who knows if I'll actually follow this out and write all the posts? I might. And who knows whether I've really escaped the family curse? We'll see. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Redder Than Yesterday: Manaza

The Sunday cartoons are reader than yesterday
and the wind threw
the gap in the window flew
them off the table, and they rock
gently to the floor. You rock
too. The floor holds your hips in his wide
carpeted hands: did you know there's a word
in Spanish for a big hand, a mitt, a paw?
Manaza. True story.

In response to this morning porch entry.