Friday, June 29, 2012

Enter July, Full of Tongues

No, not guilt, and not be-shouldings: that's not how I roll. I come not from the quaint Victorian town of Neurosisville, but from the howling wilderness of modern Psychosis. The one-winged bird, wisdom without compassion, that's me, limping along with a cocked head and a glare in its beady eye. I may not be able to fly, but I can break your shin with this wing. Don't get chirpy with me.

I long to make something intricate and precise, a Swiss clockwork doll with infinitely articulable hands and fingers: a doll that could snap its fingers in time to West Side Story, perform tapotement on my forearms, or spread its fingers in front of the mirror and whisper “Showtime!” It could ride on my shoulder and sign for me, or snip cigars to hand out to my friends.

Here comes July.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What I did on my Summer Vacation

Tired, as I often am these days: year after year of trying, failing, trying again: respites brief and seldom. I am not easy in my skin. I shift, squirm, glance out the window.

In the morning, every morning, before the world is awake, I go outside and gaze at the sky, at the tumble of clouds or the strangely shifting veils of blue, the eastern sun struggling up through dirty rags and bandages, the power wires. Crows, gulls, hawks. Wandering frets of rain. The cement is cold on my bare feet. I examine every horizon, like a prisoner examining his walls. I try to imagine that I'm at peace.

At breakfast, I read my Spanish book, enter my fifteen new words into my flashcard program. Review my chemistry. Half a dozen new books by friends that I need to get to, reviews I should write. Responses I should make. Who knew that my friends would prove so prolific? I'm proud of them; they amaze me. But I hold them at arm's length. “This needs to be settled first,” I say, and I know that I've found the right words: the only trouble is that I don't know what they signify. What do I mean, “this”? What needs to be settled?

In the evening I do massage, touching mortal men doomed to die; I touch my own decay, feel the fading traces of my own desire. The conversations become more and more telegraphic. This upper trap, between my thumb and forefinger. You know what this means! Remember? This cradling of the head, these fingers gently pulling your hair, this rain of tapotement on your calves: you remember? We've had this conversation before. Just my hand closing on your wrist, and the whole story replays, of pulling your arm over your head, of reaching under your shoulder. Eventually I'll be able to give a whole massage by resting my hand for ten seconds on your sacrum.

I become more and more superstitious. I hoard talismans. Look for signs. Count crows crossing the milk white sky.

June is almost done. The Sun is growing old too, the light will be getting gentler. The year, thank God, is already on the ebb.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lady Franklin's Lament

From Baffin Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin – has sailed – too well –

I don't know if anyone actually sings it that way: it's the way it came to my ear, long ago, and I like it better than the words I find by googling, which say “In Baffin's Bay” and have the clunky fourth line “Lord Franklin with his seamen do dwell.” The point of the song and the lament is that we don't know where Franklin is – last seen, Baffin Bay, heading northwest – and that he's too bold and skillful for his own good.

Such a haunting song. I sing it to myself often, as I walk along, baffled by the fact that I, of all people, am still here. Not that Franklin was all that skillful, apparently: a bit of a good-natured bungler, maybe, without the wide streak of ruthlessness that makes a good explorer. But that's reality. We were talking about longing, and those people who vanish over the horizon. Which is, of course, all of them.

Huge clouds pile up, throw a water-balloon of rain, run away over the hills. They're followed by blue sky, and then another pile of huge clouds. Makes me uneasy. This is the weather of Ohio, not of Oregon, this whipsaw weather is not what I'm used to. But the shapes of the clouds are arresting. Citadels – cathedrals – lovingly worked and infinitely detailed, shifting like the minute hand of a clock, ineluctably but imperceptibly. You look back up and all the workmanship has changed.

Raw clay under my hands, the creak of the wheel, the spin of moody flesh, the crust of dry earth flaking away, sandalwood and lavender.

“Make me beautiful,” said one of my clients, with a hopeless shrug

“Well, that's easy,” I said. That's always the first thing you do, if you're doing it right. You just lay on hands, and wait for what's beautiful to rise up to meet them. Exactly like crouching down and waiting for an interested cat to come and smooth its whiskers against your hand. No skill required but patience, stillness, and kindness; but it's surprising how few people learn the knack of it.

I dreamed a dream and I thought it true
Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew

Friday, June 22, 2012

Reward Theory

I need to read and think more, but I have been struck by the “reward theory” of obesity: I have long been convinced that obesity is not a primarily a matter of faulty will in some individuals, nor of an intrinsic human propensity to store fat in good times – neither of those explanations holds up well under scrutiny. No, the prime mover must be something in the environment that overrides the homeostatic regulators. At first I was convinced that refined carbohydrates were the villain, and I still eye them with suspicion: the idea being that sugars and starches incite insulin resistance, and make fat cells reluctant to release their energy, so that I become hungry despite the fact that my body actually has plenty on hand – the cellular cupboards are full of food, but they're all locked.

This story certainly explains much more than the stories I believed when I was younger. It explain why I got so voraciously hungry when I had been eating copiously, for instance, something the primitive calories in / calories out theory didn't explain at all: and it explained why low-glycemic foods had no appeal at all, no matter how hungry I was. It was all very well for people to say that I couldn't really be hungry if I didn't want to eat my salad: but that was untrue. The truth of the matter was that the salad was completely irrelevant to my hunger: I could have eaten quarts and quarts of greens without making a dent in it. Eating that stuff did nothing to sate my craving for cookies or potato chips. I had far more luck with low-carb diets than I had ever had with the officially sanctioned low-fat diets of my youth. A low carb diet worked for weeks, and had an astonishing effect on my appetite. For the first time in my life, I could forget to eat: lunchtime would simply go by, unnoticed.

But the cravings for my favorite foods would grow on me, waiting for some moment when I was emotionally low or needy, or had let myself become really hungry. Then they'd pounce, and suddenly I was off on a huge binge: I wouldn't be able to rein myself in for days. They'd start with something that actually was low-carb – pepperoni, say, or something heavily salted or smoked. And once the bets were obviously off, I'd move on to the things I loved most of all: the ice cream, the potato chips, the cookies.

Now along comes the reward theory, which, as I understand it, goes like this: foods that are unnaturally rewarding – that is, that are tastier than anything a human being would ever have come across a hundred thousand years ago – have the same effect we were attributing to insulin resistance, though by a different mechanism: in the presence of these foods, or perhaps in the presence of just the thought of them, the ordinary satiety feedback loops are somehow interrupted, and the body doesn't release its fat stores properly, and we become ravenously hungry – not for just anything, but for those specific foods that make our reward centers light up like a Christmas tree. We will eat these things till we injure ourselves.

Apparently the problem is not just one of overeating, though of course we do that too. The problem is the tastiness itself. It would make us fat even if we didn't overeat. This is bizarre, but an experiment by John Glendinning et al appears to demonstrate it. (See Stephen Guyanet's blog for a more intelligible summary of the experiment. It's really quite astonishing.)

Now, this does not necessarily tell me what to do. There is not necessarily any way to undo the damage that artificially tasty foods have done to my hunger-satiety regulation. The obvious first thing to try, is simply to eat plain foods and to stay away sight, sound, or thought of the things I crave: not at all an easy thing to do in a world filled with diabolically clever advertising and fast food drive-up windows. But I'm giving it a shot, and the meditative discipline I've acquired should help: I have a lot of experience with training my attention. I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Retreat of the Angels

Potencies and powers
recede over the pines;
empty pale spaces where the sky
hales back.

I fold one arm over the other,
and my hands fall warm on either triceps.

Without thinking I work the muscle fibers,
search for sore spots. It's my job.
Put your bare feet in my lap

and, absently, my thumbs will burrow
for deep aches in between the metatarsals,
while my fingers spread them open like a book.

Read this: the history of our kind. Sapolsky says
if a baboon is unhappy, it is because 
some other baboon is making its life a misery.

We do not think hard enough.
We do not sit down, like Shakyamuni,
and say: “why suffering?”

And why we don't sit down is easy enough:
because we already know the answer:
because we don't care enough to stop
miserabling each other. Simple as that.

The hands of the last morning clouds
open to the wind, are blown away;
the blue folds into itself,

its intention curdles. We have not changed.
The angels
keep up their long retreat.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


So oddly shaped and dear, this head,
with its glossy black dressing:
the shape of a filbert meat.

The hair runs silk through my fingers, and
I can roll it like a trackball. You would think
it meant a heart at rest; you would think
it precluded the biting back of tears. You would be
an old fool.

Oh wind, oh rain, oh God, oh dear,
the grief runs on and on so straight:
A long-distance runner, pounding
on the grass of empty hills.

Up hill and down hill: an echo of feet
that clutch now, nerveless rinds,
in the tray of a wheelchair. As if

someone forgot to trim the claws
from a drumstick in a school lunch:
as if his shoes
were not still by the door.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Paint it White

I want to see the sun
blotted out from the sky.

Mist shading sometimes into rain: the sky a damp, indistinct gray-white. June in western Oregon: the sort of June that seems right and proper to me, Spring as I have always known it. Everything more than a few yards away is softened and blurred a little. That's how I prefer it. I don't like the glaring light and harsh lines of what they call beautiful days. Not for everyday living.

Summer will come of course, a few weeks of what people call good weather, and women will wear distracting clothes, and I'll glance at them guardedly, careful to betray no unbecoming yearning. It's wearing, even exhausting, sometimes: even now, when I no longer particularly cultivate desire, the habits of a lifetime still drive me. Wanting, and wanting to appear not to be wanting – how much of the energy of my life has disappeared into that fruitless back-and-forth? Most of it, maybe. What Buddhism has given me, above all its other gifts, has been other ways to think about desire, other things to build with it than envy or covetousness or shame. I'm a slow learner, but that's not the Buddha's fault. The fact that I'm learning at all is what I pause on.

Wilder, deeper, more intractable, is love itself, and grief: I am helpless and blinded by both of those. That, maybe, is the work of another lifetime.

Monday, June 11, 2012


for Jessamyn Smyth, on her birthday

She worried at first
when her skin began to dry and peel
and fragments of it lifted and curled

like the scales of a fir cone.
The air was cold on
muscle and fat, and the grit

was unmerciful: it was only reasonable
to suppose the turn was fatal.
But later, as the flakes fell soft, and fluttered down

She felt viscera blossoming,
and strands unwinding,
and she understood

that everything was opening,
that the bones were unfolding
their gorgeous petals of marrow,

the blood was glistening
on the tip of each arteriole,
fine nets of nerve were

rooting in the ground and pulsing in the sky.
Not even the grit
could find purchase;

not even the dust
could annoy, and sleep
would come again like the shadow

of purple
on a little girl’s eyelids
when her father lifts her from the car seat

and tenderly
carries her into the house.
Home now: home at last.

Friday, June 08, 2012

River God

Blue, or not blue, clear at the shift,
uneasy surfaces meddling with slicks,
antlered logs and shavings of wind:

the river god, quick in all his hatreds.
Jealous of skies, or of nothing;
remembering his daughters only

to thwart them when they might be finding friends.
He is hard to love, the river, in all his petty malice.
He blusters and fumes at bridges,

makes empty threats, leers up skirts,
shakes his slimy beard and hides, shivering,
panicked by tug or pebble,

in the reed-bed. To tell the truth he stinks:
he's needed a change of clothes this age and more.
There's whiskey on his breath, or worse.

And yet his blood is ours, he sucks
all the springs of the valley. We feel his cold lips
bruising our throats in Spring;

our hearts hesitate when he takes
a rattling breath; and we know
when the time comes

grumbling and swearing, he'll roll us – bolts
of gray meat tied with gristle string –
down his muddy drain and out to sea.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Significant Figures

One of the joys of a weird alternative education is that I now, at 54 years of age, am doing with great pleasure what most of my cohort did sullenly at age 16. I've backed off my open courseware Fundamentals of Biology course, because it became clear by week two that without chemistry it was going to be hopeless. Now I'm happily settled in with my Complete Idiot's Guide to Chemistry (I liked the Khan Academy lectures, and will keep watching them as well, but they don't have exercises, and there's something reassuring about having an actual book in my pack when I'm trying to learn something.) And I'm learning about significant figures, which no doubt most of my readers, who went to real schools, learned about at a tender age.

It is deeply, seriously cool. How to work with numbers that are unreliable. In the real world, almost anywhere that it matters, numbers are unreliable, and you end up rolling your eyes at some of the laborious arithmetic people undertake, knowing that the final digits of most calculations are trash. What I didn't know was that people had systematized how to do this. There's a protocol for it! I would no doubt have been irritated by it at age 16, when I didn't realize just how leaky the arithmetical boat would be for actually getting anywhere; at 54, I'm enchanted.

The sky is darkening: I should hop on my bicycle before the rain comes, I guess. But suddenly I'm happy. I have book full of things to learn, and a bicycle to ride, and the leaves across the way are greener than any leaves have ever been since human beings first made their way across the Bering bridge and wandered down the West Coast. This beautiful, beautiful place.

I am so happy that I deserted: that I left academics, and didn't become a specialist or a professional, learning more and more about less and less. It would have been the lucrative thing to do, but my heart always hated the idea. And now I'm free to take up chemistry lovingly, rather than wade resentfully into a pile of academic journals. I'll never have one of those palaces in the West Hills, where I go to do many of my in-home massages, the spacious rooms and lovely windows looking out over the champagne, where the lights twinkle at dusk. But I think I enjoy the views more than the inhabitants. And I get to lay hands tenderly on people, which is what I always wanted most of all.

It's been a life with a lot of odd turnings and detours, but I would not trade it for any other, not for any other at all.

Saturday, June 02, 2012


A heavy, humid Spring morning, chill but not brisk. The worst weather for doing massage: I'll break a sweat because it's so humid, and then the sweat will go cold on my forearms. Hate that.

Wishing desperately to turn a corner, to find a door in an ivy-hung wall and slip through to a secret, quiet space. I feel like I've been walking through clouds of spiderweb, and everything's clinging to me, holding me back: tethers without connection, distractions without interest. I know that I'm just anxious about the day, anxious about disappointing people, anxious about getting backed into commitments I don't want and can't keep.

I used to feel this way all the time: now it's an anomaly. I have to remember that, and keep choosing paths that lead away from the feeling and not into it. The feeling itself leads into the feeling, for one thing.

All this unhappiness, all this sadness, piling up like river-wrack on a weir.

Stepped out on the porch this morning, and in the sky a huge gray ship was foundering in a pale sea, in slow motion and in silence. The faint sound of a few half-hearted birds behind me, but nothing in front but that enormous impending ship, coming down to impale itself on the redwoods and douglas firs.

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Friday, June 01, 2012


Almost an out-of-body experience,
he said gruffly: too masculine
to say it straight, too full of pain
not to say it at all. And strange,
because massage is all about the body;
maybe “out-of-body” meant
out of pain for a minute or two.
There's not much I or anyone can do
when the crustacean claws the innards,
and the sugar-piss bloats the calves.
But I can still sometimes do this:
send them out on the wide sea of stars,
to float on the raft of my hands.