It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said 'Bother!' and 'O blow!' and also 'Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.
------------ Kenneth Grahame
Friday, August 31, 2012
Weary of Time
I try to gather some courage for the day, and know before I start that I'm going to come up short. The mantra that was so useful a few days ago – “everything you do will help” – is meaningless. I want to open my torso, take out the organs, one by one, wash them and polish them, and return them to their places. Political animosities are drawn to my face like moths by my anxieties, and I worry about them making their way into my ears or my nose or my mouth. Until enlightenment I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and in the supreme assembly of the Sangha, I mutter, but I don't really: I take refuge in the car starting and in scrambled eggs and in coffee fatted with cream. I think of all the cancers growing in my friends, and in strangers, possibly in myself: the race between cells that know restraint and cells that don't is not a hard one to call. The worst are full of passionate intensity, and single-mindedly, bloodily intent on replication. The faces in the Republican Convention hall didn't even look human to me: they looked like masks. And say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine.
I am out of the path, out of all paths. So damaged by grief. And not one of the ways seems to go toward the light.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
There May Be Rain
The pale, straw briznas will raise their heads,
and the dominion of the dandelions
will totter. Revolt after revolt,
season by season: Kentucky grass
will start the Civil War again;
stars and bars
will flutter in the wind.
The lawn mower stands
unsharpened in the shed,
its wheels still cased in twisted ruffs.
Too late now. The tide
is rising; with a sound like a thousand
serried typewriters, the thawed hail
will batter every window, flank
every weatherstripped redoubt.
There may be rain.
Oh, yes, there may be rain.
Monday, August 27, 2012
What Rough Crust
When I do realize that, it's important to a) get over myself and b) stop and get lunch.
God, though, how overpowering the sense of loneliness and desolation can be! And yet a good meal, a kind word, the touch of a hand, or unexpected good news -- however trivial -- can unseat it in a moment. I limp homeward as shreds of the sky fall, and panicked chickens slash my bare feet with their claws as they rush by. And even so, the stars trace their precise wheels on the far side of the world, and even, invisibly, on this side, turning like the edge of a pizza slicer. (And what rough crust, its hour come round at last, is lifting from the pan?)
I asked my client when her knee began to hurt. It was when she was sixteen, she said, when she was running down stone steps to catch a train in Zurich. Which I reckoned, as I pieced all the information together, was eighty years ago. Not much stays with us longer than the echoes of those moments of surprise and pain.
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Many things I want to do today: for one, get my hair cut – it's longer than it's been since that fatal day, in my senior year of college, when I asked my room mate to cut off my golden hippie locks. Like most of my major life decisions – getting married and having children, for instance – I have no idea why I did it. My theory is that if you actually know why you did something, it wasn't really a major decision: it was just a detail of implementation.
The gold, baby-fine hair drifted down to the floor. Martha found it too traumatic and had to leave the room. When we were done I was someone else: less arrogant, less confident, less opinionated. I had decided, though I didn't know it yet, to become a Buddhist: I had decided to get over myself.
It's a strange thing to pick up your old life, silky and gleaming and weightless, and feel it between your fingers. I wasn't sure, course, that I'd keep cutting it. I might have just let it grow again. But in fact, I've been cutting it for three decades, and whatever I do, I will never have long golden locks again. Long white hair is another thing entirely, with an entirely different range of meaning: more Dumbledore than Roger Daltrey.
Periodically I trim my beard. It's a task I enjoy and am good at. I end up with a handful of soft, stiff, multicolored fragments (but tending more and more to snowy white), which I must always handle, just for a moment, as I'm cleaning up: they too are soft and barely there, vanishing threads, and they always remind me of the day when I made one of the decisive, unknowable turns of my life, and my past whispered over my ears, off my shoulders, to the floor.
If I could have shed my name as well, I would have. I wanted to go forward with no tokens, no banner, no representation, no assertion.
‘Who are you, Master?’ he asked.‘Eh, what?’ said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. ‘Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless?
No one; or everyone.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Not the Golden Boy
Morning, and swallows dodge the power wires in their flickering hunt, zigzagging across the pale blue.
I am an old man this morning, with a straggly white beard and an enormous nose. My face blinked at me in the mirror, unrecognizable. How had I failed to notice that I had acquired an old man's nose? There it is, as plain as – well, as plain as the nose on my face. A great fleshy overhanging thing, anchored like a limpet on my nasal bones, breathing the sea water of the air, hairs poking out and waving in my breath, like the fronds of a barnacle that search underwater for sustenance. Was I born for this? Apparently. Over my nose, a jutting Neanderthal brow bristles and broods. And yet once, and not so long ago, I was a young man. And I'm still conscious – more conscious than ever, in fact – of reservoirs of power, agility, acumen. I do not yet have any sense of being on the wane. On the contrary, I feel fighting-fit and eager. But – and this is in sharp contrast to the young man I was – I feel nevertheless that I am in some sense a pawn, being moved in a game I don't understand.
I love the scene in The Lord of the Rings, when Gandalf proposes that Frodo was meant to inherit the Ring, and suggests that this is a comforting thought; and Frodo replies flatly that it is not. I am, perhaps, given to magical thinking, but I derive no comfort from it. If this world was designed, it was designed for purposes that are unfathomable by us, and certainly far from my own. God as a nice dependable buddy is a conception fit for children and idiots. God makes the world considerably more menacing and incalculable, not less.
I swam yesterday, for the first time in a year at least, plowing through the water, registering the unaccustomed strain on tendon and ligament; delighting in the water, but not trusting it as completely as I used to. The crescent moon was barely visible: it hung between two fir trees, but seemed to appear and disappear on its own schedule. I was an old, solitary orangutan in my forest pool. The hair on my chest is quite white now. It readily took the dye of the setting sun: it was orange, not gold. I'm not the golden boy any more. I wonder what I am?
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
We Need the Eggs
World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992
F21 Schizotypal Disorder
A disorder characterized by eccentric behaviour and anomalies of thinking and affect which resemble those seen in schizophrenia, though no definite and characteristic schizophrenic anomalies have occurred at any stage. There is no dominant or typical disturbance, but any of the following may be present:
(a) inappropriate or constricted affect (the individual appears cold and aloof);
Hmm, I don't think so, but would I know?
(b) behaviour or appearance that is odd, eccentric, or peculiar;
(c) poor rapport with others and a tendency to social withdrawal;
A tendency to social withdrawal, certainly. I don't think I have a poor rapport with others, though.
(d) odd beliefs or magical thinking, influencing behaviour and inconsistent with subcultural norms;
Oh yes, always I have had odd beliefs; and being inconsistent with subcultural norms has always been a bit of a specialty of mine. Magical thinking? Dunno. To me, a lot of what the culturally normal do looks like magical thinking. (See? Those odd beliefs, again.)
(e) suspiciousness or paranoid ideas;
(f) obsessive ruminations without inner resistance, often with dysmorphophobic, sexual or aggressive contents;
Do I do anything without inner resistance? I doubt it. I do write a lot of dysmorphic prose and poetry, in which I imagine myself to be huge, or misshapen, or tiny, or insubstantial. I think about sex a lot; about aggression, very little. Obsessive rumination might be my middle name, but I'm not sure that's what this is driving at.
(g) unusual perceptual experiences including somatosensory (bodily) or other illusions, depersonalization or derealization;
Pretty much all the time.
(h) vague, circumstantial, metaphorical, overelaborate, or stereotyped thinking, manifested by odd speech or in other ways, without gross incoherence;
This makes me giggle. “Vague, circumstantial, metaphorical, overelaborate.” Why didn't I make that the name of my blog?
(i) occasional transient quasi-psychotic episodes with intense illusions, auditory or other hallucinations, and delusion-like ideas, usually occurring without external provocation.
Quasi-psychotic? Aren't we chasing the chickens with chickens here? You tell me if they're quasi-psychotic. They're intense, certainly.
The disorder runs a chronic course with fluctuations of intensity. Occasionally it evolves into overt schizophrenia. There is no definite onset and its evolution and course are usually those of a personality disorder. It is more common in individuals related to schizophrenics and is believed to be part of the genetic "spectrum" of schizophrenia.
And here I thought I was supposed to be the vague and circumstantial one! (Why, I wonder, is “spectrum” in quotation marks?)
Well, that doesn't get us terribly far. But I am rather taken by the idea that this particular genetic spectrum survives because it supplies tribes with their prophets and shamans. Though why having prophets and shamans should be an evolutionary advantage is not altogether clear. "We talk to the dead, so you don't have to!" Reminds me of the Woody Allen joke:
"My poor uncle thinks he's a chicken." -- "Why don't you take him to a psychiatrist?" -- "Well, we would, but we need the eggs."
Friday, August 17, 2012
But it's old summer, already pregnant with Fall. I can wake at first light, and still have gotten enough sleep. The sun can pound down on us all it likes: it can't alter the fact that September is only two weeks away. My spirits lift, as always, at the first intimations of Fall. Almost always, when we're driving home from our annual beach trip (which is coming up soon!) we'll see a few branches of vine maple going red up in the Coast Range. The rains will come, sooner or later, the mists and the cloudlight. Weather this hot can fill me with dread, if it comes in June, but it can't scare me now. I can even enjoy it, in a perverse way, and guess at how people who actually like this weather experience it. The heat soaks in, all the way to the bones. My body sits a little looser on me, like my clothes after I've lost weight.
I have a suspicion that my new-found tolerance for heat, in the past few years, has to do with being more fit. I spend much more of my life up and about, cycling and doing massage and what not, these days. My tolerance for standing around has also gone way up. I used to hate it: I think just because it was somewhat difficult for me. My heart didn't like pumping that hard. It wasn't used to it. I think the heat used to push me that way too.
Or – it could have to do with having air-conditioning in our new house, a voluptuous by-product of our virtuous installation of a heat-pump. We have not used it much. But just knowing that we could makes it possible to shrug and scoff at the sun. (I've never lived with air-conditioning before. An amazing luxury; a guilty pleasure.)
In any case, I find that I don't hate the summer as I used to, not at all. Of course, summers go by a lot faster than they used to, too; seasons ripple by at about the rate of weeks, when I was a teenager – or days, when I was a kid. Every time I look up it seems that we're entering into the pleasures of a new season: I don't have time to get tired of any of them.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
I've always felt at home with women who strip for a living; there's something cut-to-the-chase about them, an impatience with pretenses, that answers to my own. And these are only kids, after all. They sit cross-legged on the bed in their pjs and speculate about the day, while the old man potters about packing up his massage kit. The sun floods into the dim room around the edges of a crooked blanket slapped up for a curtain; the feeble air-conditioner wheezes. I see the two young women in double-exposure: both as vulnerable girls, my daughter's age; and as the objects of desire I used to see up on stages back in the bad old days. They pay me in crisp fifties, which I – picturing them as having come from the wallets of men who look like Paul Ryan – handle with faint reluctance.
They are absurdly, impossibly beautiful. One odd thing about the alchemy of massage is, that while their beauty strikes me in retrospect, it makes no impression on me at as I'm working. All the emblems and totems of status go away with the clothes. Backstage, we're all human, and nothing but human. All those markers, so important in the faces we present to each other, just go away: the flatness of the tummies doesn't mean a perfect 10 and trophy potential, but only that the lay of the abdominal muscles is easier to read; the pimple behind the ear is not a flaw, but a marker of stress and a buoy to steer around. I don't want to possess them: I want only to unwind and unclot their bunched muscles and accumulated unhappinesses. The beauty a person has on the massage table is not special or exclusive: it's the beauty everyone has. Not negotiable currency.
And now, as I pack up, we are all equally awkward; all, equally, jammed halfway into a world that can neither digest us nor spit us out. If we had ever learned to be fluent or at ease in the appearances, to serve up the appropriate small-talk on all occasions, I suppose we would be Paul Ryans or the wives of Paul Ryans. But we are only grateful for each other, grateful for the daily bread of ordinary respect and kindness.
We are de trop in the world of Paul Ryan: slackers, failures, also-rans. But as I stand by the table holding this young woman's hand in both of mine – pausing for the space of two synchronized breaths – I permit myself to doubt that his world holds many such moments of tenderness. I'm content to live here, on the margins, where the unauthorized spaces open. This is as much home as I will ever have.
Saturday, August 04, 2012
Ninja Massage Therapist
It's supposed to get hot today. 95 degrees, just like for the grown-ups over there on the far side of the mountains, in Real America. I've gotten my bike ride in early, before the heat, after a short restless night. But I'm anticipating my two o'clock massage – in an old, un-air-conditioned apartment building – with some trepidation. Client, prepare to be dripped upon! I doubt my tennis headband will stem the flood. (This is, by the way, the same client who exclaimed, upon seeing said headband, “Ninja massage therapist!”)
But it's August 4th, and it will be the first hot day of the year. I've been told that this is supposed to be the local effect of global warming: even milder summers for the maritime Northwest. Too good to be true, I expect. But certainly last summer was idyllic: lots of these cloudy mornings, and the sun coming out too late to roast anything. It was wonderful. Everyone complained, and I nodded sympathetically: dreadful! Dreadful! And wriggled with delight. And at night the moon would roll into the cool night, up through the zodiac corridor, enormous and quiet, and the wind would run through the grass, like a sweet night-lizard bringing sleep. And so it will tonight, and while I sleep he'll make the crossing over the Columbia, stepping carefully, like a cat walking on a sheet of ice.
Friday, August 03, 2012
A Note On My Artistic Process
surprised at the funeral of a neighbor child
explained his presence: “Where emotion is,
there am I.” I hate you, Mr Henry Fucking James.
No. And even if a wind gathers
and sand scours up my legs
the buildings yaw backward the ticking
pauses the tinnitus changes note and
the patter of the congas
trails off –
if my head grown long and heavy
slews back panning street and sky
and the lozenge of day-fire
streaks across the film –
even then I will not tour
other people's lives or even mine.
I live here. Put your fingers
in someone else's soup,
Mr Henry Fucking James.