Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spring Flowers

I have only had one or two good nights' sleep since we switched to Daylight Saving Time. This has been the worst year I recall for that: also the worst year for pollen I have ever known. I walk about feeling that my eyes are huge sorry pouches, bulging with lymph. I look in the mirror and my usual calm clear blue eyes look back at me. Ha.

Spring would be physically difficult for me even if they didn't monkey with the clock: I seem to be one of those people whose internal chronometer never did adjust to leaving subtropical Africa. The light coming earlier throws me out of all reckoning. I wonder whether Daylight Saving Time is really such a disaster, or whether it's just the messenger, bringing all the misery of Spring all at once. At least I don't mind the sunlight and the warmer weather as I used to. I'm perfectly happy for sunlight to be washing the world, and me, and I'm actually grateful for the warmth.

It's been a strange season, nevertheless: oblique lights, unexpected resistances and startling glides. I have been using too much oil during some of my massages: sometimes coming to dry skin seems just too much to take, too sad, too disconnected, too much a prefiguring of death. I want to drench my clients with oil, wash them in it, as they do (I hear) in Indian, Ayurvedic massage. But I just use a little too much, and take it off again with the flannel sheets. People like being wiped down with the sheets: it's a new, piquant sensation to send them off the table with. It will do.

A strange season. An eddy, a remanso in the river of my life. We went walking on the Sandy River last week, and half the trees were fiery with new green, others brilliant with white flower. Half a dozen vultures wheeled over the bluff, the whole time. Martha glanced up at them, and said “We're not dead yet!” in a helpful, informative tone; but they reserved judgment. The only other party we saw was a pretty, plump young woman, in jeans that were too tight, trying to teach her little boys how to skip a pebble across the surface of the river. One was too young, though, and the other more interested in heaving the biggest rocks he could lift into the water, so as to make a grand splash. It all struck me as unendurably lonely, and I imagined that her husband had left her that morning, a note on the dresser, and that she was being brave: take the boys out to the river, and figure out the new life. No reason I should have thought that. But that's the cast of my mind.

I pause. A deep breath. I can hear the ticking of two clocks. A little patch of light makes it through all obstacles and lands on the floor, illuminating a jumble of socks, shoes, and sandals. I'm reminded of the woman who came to a neurologist, and asked him if she were dead. Nothing wrong, exactly, but she couldn't shake the conviction that she was a ghost, not really there. “Do I seem alive to you?” she asked.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013



It was late in the day –
when the red sun

forces his lever under canopies
and lifts with all his light –

when I first saw, first dreamt
the Smoke-Swallow: indistinct

and cutting collops of air
with his shrewd gray-ghost knife.

I turned and he was gone.


Now he comes with me,
as a cat comes along for a walk,

always at the corner of my eye,
never to be seen straight-on,

leaping, darting, hiding, picking
living sparks of light

out of the air. He never leaves,
never stays; his shrill call

is never quite
within the reach

of human ear.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Earth Day

Oh battered blue ball, you dusty eye –
you crinkled skin – you knob of a world,
scudding recklessly on solar winds;
falling toward a star that is
falling toward the center of a
falling galaxy: Oh my dear, sad, beaten thing:

Home of all homes, sea of all seas –
your secret fire, your burning nickle and iron heart
your scabbed skin of puckered continents,
your incontinent earthquakes, throwing bookshelves
and glass onto Japanese sofas–

Oh dear sweet wavering poisoned darling,
shuddering with the heave of time, crawling
with humans earnest and evil, cankered and sublime,
shaker of faiths, herald of covenants,
flooder of basements, spinner of
magnetic webs and borealic fancies –
Oh, whirler of cloud and rainscape,
twirler of lightning, sower of darnel and grain,
windsweeper, deathkeeper, infolder of hallows –
my poor dear
dirty-faced boy:

come, come home: your dinner is ready,
the light is going, rest
is sweet.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

In Control and out of Control: a Dispatch from the Front

For decades I have been exploring what it means to live a life I can't control. Psychology and neurology have increasingly made it clear: the brain is not unitary, and it's not under the dictatorship of the cerebral cortex. The part of ourselves that can speak can't really speak for us, can't really make promises about what we will do. It is not even in control of itself: it can't decide when to think and when not to; it can't decide to think of this and not of that. The experience of meditation makes that abundantly clear. We are dangerously out of control, all of us.

I came to this realization early, simply because I grew up in considerable chaos, in the shadow of my mother's distress about not being able to control her eating, which was the central tragedy of her life. I too, I knew very early, was not in control, at least not totally. Sometimes I was just along for the ride.

I'm grateful for the early lessons. I will never be even tempted to the contempt some people have for others who are out of control, or -- more accurately -- for people whose lack of control takes forms that put them beyond the pale. There but for the grace of God. No one chooses those breakdowns.

At the same time, and paradoxically, I've been aware of myself having a considerable discipline of will and fortitude. Like poor old Gordon Liddy, I could hold my hand in a candle flame if I needed to persuade someone of my grit. No problem. I may have had my demons, but ordinary fear was not one of them. I could, and did, defy crowds and bullies. There was something weirdly heroic about me. I was, to my peers in junior high school (the last time I had to live in mainstream America, thank God) a disquieting figure. As my teachers used to say -- it's remarkable how many of them said this of me -- I marched to my own drummer.

Reading Roy Baumeister's Willpower a year or two ago marked a turning point for me. I owned that weird heroism again. I thought a lot about self-control, self-regulation, as psychologists phrase it. It is neither a constant nor an absolute power, but it is a power, and I have at least as much of it as anyone else. I've thought long and hard about how to deploy it, where it can succeed and where it can't. I've brought that thinking to the particularly demon-haunted land of eating, and used it to build habits, and erect levees. I'm proud of the skill with which I've built. The structure is -- just barely -- strong enough to hold against the ordinary stresses of my present life. Give it a year or two, it may be strong enough to withstand even higher stresses. Should some misfortune -- sickness, accident, or death -- befall Martha or the kids, it would all crumble. Should I have to resume the ordinary full-time working world, with its stresses, exposure, and humiliations, it would all crumble too. At present, it is just strong enough. Just barely. The stresses of my birthday -- of the three-day oncology massage workshop last weekend --  did not, quite, break the levees. That's about as stressful as my life gets, these days. I made it.

It is not important, in itself. It's trivial. Who cares whether I weigh two hundred pounds, or three hundred? The extravagant value placed on these things by the culture weigh with me, and intimidate me, but they don't compel belief. It's not important, and nothing will make it so. It's only personally important, in that it bears -- intimately and horribly importantly -- on whether my life seems to have a future. On whether I have already lived out all the life available to me, or not. I realize this is a ludicrous over-investment of meaning, but it seems to belong rather to that group of important things I can't control, rather than to those I can. I bow, where I must.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Done With War

When the throbbing of war is abroad I try to hold my thumb on the drum head of my soul, to mute the resonance. Of course I am a sounding board: shivers of hatred and horror come from my soul, and I blame everyone I already blamed, only more so. It goes on, and on, war leaping from soul to soul like a wildfire leaping from tree to tree. Nobody is free. The fire is implacable. War is inevitable. It is larger, stronger, older than we are: it has its own purposes.

We will never be free of it, never, not in ten thousand years. But this, at least: I will never again, in deliberate word, thought, or deed, give my consent to it. Swept along I will be, I and my children and their children's children. We will be hounded across ruined landscapes by war after war after war. But I will never say: this is my war. This is my fight. These are the people who matter, and these are the people who do not; these are the people who deserve mercy, and these are the people who deserve cruelty. I know that war is not done with me, but I am done with war.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


They had moved the tables to the walls, and the floor was all ribbons and confetti. Aged men grinned and bobbed their heads. They were wearing sashes; buttons; bill caps with the insignia of their units. Crooked banners behind them, on the paneled walls, repeated the devices. But the celebration was muted now, folding in on itself. I noticed that some of the litter on the floor was money: dollar bills, five dollar bills, ten dollar bills. I frowned. I didn't like the idea of these ancients letting their cash drift about. The young people in the kitchen and on the floor, well – I'm fond of them, but they're not very dependable. And nothing seemed entirely under supervision, here.

I stepped behind the counter. There was a fat wallet resting on the rubber matting over the floor. I picked it up and looked inside. There were big bills in there. Hundred dollar bills, even thousand dollar bills.

The swing doors to the kitchen flew open, and a teenaged waiter staggered out, his face flushed, his eyes too bright. Two quick steps, and he'd seized the wallet.

I hung on. I knew the wallet wasn't his. We wrestled over it. I was a lot stronger than he was, and he lost his grip and fell back, but other young guys came through the swing doors, in the same state of excitation. It was time to retreat.

I took a deep gulp of air, and buoyed by that, floated up to the high, grimy ceilings. Exclamations below. Enough of this. I shoved off from the wall and glided out through a high open window, where I opened myself like flower, and let the wind take me.

I'm not a thief. I didn't take the money for me. But I didn't know who to take it back to. Who knew me well enough to know I wouldn't steal? I landed in a bright warm stream that meandering behind some condos, and made myself a fishlight. I wouldn't steal, would I? Thousands of dollars. You could buy things, with thousands of dollars. I began to be afraid, and swam quickly, and more quickly, down the shallow brook, with my shadow coming behind me. Had I stolen the money? Was I a fish? Did anyone know me that well? Did anyone know me at all? I darted under a bridge and hovered there, my heart pounding, my gills opening and closing, and my heart full of confusion.

Some time later, the thought appeared: what if I never took the money at all? I looked at my hands, and they were empty. The liquid sky was luminous. I could have, I said to myself. I could have dreamed it. I mean, who would hold a bash like that at Tom's? Why would they have been throwing money about? And what would a fishlight be doing there, in any case?

I'm not a thief, I said to myself. But there's a lot of things you can do with thousands of dollars. And that's a good trick, you know? Taking a deep breath so as to float to the ceiling. That's the kind of thing you only think of if you're a fish.

I don't think I'm a fish.

I stand up and wade up out of the water, beside the little ornamental bridge. I don't think I can fly, either. I pant a little.

I don't think I'm awake.

I don't think I ever took that wallet.

But there are a lot of things you can buy, with thousands of dollars.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Welding Torches

“Bones like fairy dust,” they said.
Stress fractures in the vertebrae; a fibula
that took two years to heal; two
bone marrow transplants.
The angel of death
hovers, beats his hummingbird wings,
darts in for little sips of nectar
with his hypodermic bill.

The wind comes off the snow
at four in the morning: the dog
shrugs in her sleep. Stars are swung up
by invisible hands, like toddlers
shrieking for – joy? – fear? – and the morning
builds slowly underground.

When I tell her she looks good,
she shrugs. “If you still have your hair,
people figure you're not sick.”
Her eyes glance at me for a moment
before they turn aside.

I cradle her feet while you
speak softly to her, five feet away,
a thousand miles away, where the stars
burn like tiny welding torches; where

they are building something in the night sky –
something sightless, infinitely complex.

I look up to see the tears come in your eyes:
all of our stories
are converging. The stars
run down your cheeks: this
is what flickers on the dark steel
rising in her nights.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

La Grande Salade

Lose five pounds in just seven weeks!

Well, I don't think it will be screaming from the tabloid covers any time soon. But it makes me happy. I'm eating a lot of good food, and submitting to a very mild calorie restriction: I'm aiming for somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day. There are problems with the calories as a measure -- the human body is not an internal combustion engine -- but it seems to be good enough. "Calories" of protein and fiber are somewhat more metabolically expensive for the body to process than "calories" of sugar, and different bodies, with different gut flora, may handle various foods in various ways. It's immensely complicated, and it's not a closed system. But measurement, in the real world, is not a matter of getting it exactly right: it's a matter of getting it right enough. Carpenters work with millimeters, not microns.

This is not, by the way, a diet: not a temporary regimen while I slim down. I'm trying to map out the terrain for how I want to eat for the rest of my life. So I fiddled with various calorie counters and tables to come up with a reasonable guess about how many calories a "normal weight" man of my age and height and activity level would consume, and came up with 2,500 as a first approximation. The real science of all this is vague and unsatisfactory: nobody really knows what an ideal weight is, or if the concept even makes sense. Life insurance companies, apparently, would be happiest if I weighed something like 160 lbs, so I took that as the first pencil-mark on the 2 by 4. If the counters and tables are right, if I just go on averaging 2,500 calories a day, and staying active, my weight should slowly ease down, making an asymptotic approach to 160. I actually have strong doubts as to whether the curve will look much like that; I have a suspicion that I'll level out around 175, which would be just fine. In any case, the rate of weight loss should steadily slow, as I approach wherever "level" will be: I might lose 20 lbs the first year, 10 the second year, and 5 the third year: something like that. Projections that far out are ludicrous, but that's the rough time scale I'm envisioning.

I'm doing it this way, slow though it is, for a three reasons. One is, I don't want to think of this as a temporary yoke that I'll throw off at some point. I want to acquire the eating habits I'll have for the rest of my life. Establishing habits is damn hard work, and I don't want to have to go through it twice. If I'm going to accustom myself to eating a certain amount, I want to just get it right the first time. Second, the evidence is pretty clear that rapid weight loss is normally followed by even rapider weight gain: people who successfully lose weight usually do it slowly. My plan was, if I found myself losing more than a pound a week, to up the calorie count. Third (this is probably actually the same as the second one, stated differently) is that I don't want to panic my body into slowing its metabolism, or shedding lean mass -- which it will do, if it gets the idea that its maintenance energy needs might not be filled.

I've been hungry twice, so far. Hungry, that is, in that mean, savage way -- hungry like I used to be all the time when I was eating mostly junk. Both times I got hungry like that, I just ate. Hungry is bad news. I'm not going to do hungry. So one day I ate 2,800 calories, and another, 2,600. Big deal. The weekly totals still came out fine.

So the question -- the real question -- is, why is this so easy this time? I've put together probably a dozen regimens. Maybe even a couple dozen. They've all gotten off to grand starts. A few lasted two weeks. A couple lasted a couple months. This is already one of the gray elders, at 7 weeks, and it hasn't even begun to get wobble and get difficult. Why is that?

1) I'm eating satisfying food, and lots of fat and protein. My breakfast? A big pile of eggs and bacon. I eat the foods I love most: hamburgers and tuna fish sandwiches. Fatty hamburger. Tuna fish with real mayo. I eat and by God I know I've eaten.

2) I view sugar, and its evil twin corn syrup, with suspicion. I don't eat much. I do eat some: sweet pickle relish and ketchup. I eat a lot of fruit. By any reasonable standard, I eat a lot of sugar. But I eat far less in a day than there is in one can of soda pop.

3) La grande salade. I always call it that, on the model of Napoleon's Grande Armée. Every couple days I make a huge salad. It's very simple: just romaine, carrots, cuke, and radishes. A whole big head of romaine, or two, if the heads are small. I eat a big bowl of this -- a really big bowl, I mean, like a small mixing bowl, not like a soup bowl -- at least once a day. Often twice. Often I eat half a gallon of salad per day. I eat it with my fingers, without dressing, because I like eating with my fingers, and it crunches like potato chips. I love it.

Now, two important notes about this salad. One is, I used to hate salad. I used to hate romaine. I didn't much care for the other ingredients I put in, either. I just started eating it, daily, because I knew the stuff would be good for me, and because salad was the form in which vegetables came that I hated least, and because I suspected that I would only be able to eat reasonably if I found some way to fill my stomach with food that was not calorie-dense. So I made it an iron-bound rule, that I always had to have the salad available, and I ate a bunch every day. Of course I broke the rule every once in a while. That's how it goes, with rules. But making and eating the salad is just what I do, now: it happens almost without effort.

But the other important thing about la grande salade? I made it into a habit before I started counting calories. I started this habit a year ago, and I was careful to make it the only habit I was working on. It takes about six weeks, to settle a habit. This was a hard one. It took a lot of effort of will, at first. But I didn't mix it up with any attempt to short myself on any other food that I really did like. I didn't want it associated with deprivation. I ate my potato chips and ice cream just like before. It's just that also -- I ate the salad.

A queer thing happened, a bonus that I really, really did not expect. I started liking the salad. I liked its taste. I liked its texture. I liked everything about it. Last week, when Fred Meyer was out of romaine, I was distressed, like I was distressed when Safeway's freezer case broke down last year and there was no ice cream. No romaine? How could I get by with no romaine? What would I do for salad?

I think it was then that I realized my taste had genuinely changed. A year ago I could not have imagined missing romaine, could not have imagined that such a thing was even possible. I'd always (inwardly! I try to be polite) scoffed at people pretending to like the stuff, or anything green. I thought they were delusional. I still view people who claim not to like junk food that way: I'm pretty sure they're making it up. How can you not love a glazed doughnut? That's just silly.

Be that as it may -- I like my salad now. And I think it's half of why this is being so easy: I'm eating not only the high-satiety foods, the fats and proteins, but also the high-volume salad. My body is convinced that it really has eaten. The leptin goes out to every Middlesex village and farm, to tell everyone to forget about food for a while. And we do: we forget about it.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

He Said Some Clever Things on Facebook

If I really do have the food thing whupped – and it's really starting to look as if I do – then I'll gradually start having cycles free (as we old computer geeks say) to devote to other things. And one of those will be to make some policy decisions about what I want to do with my time and energy. I have been managing various life upheavals for a long time. If, by the grace of God, the current peace endures, I have only one piece of my life that really needs tinkering, or might need tinkering: I don't really know any more what I am doing with my writing time, and what I want to be doing with my writing time. Do I want to write books, and if so, what kind do I want to write? Do I want to pursue poetry? Write self-help books? Just go on journaling happily into the sunset? Write fiction? Independent literary criticism? Mysteries à la Michael Innes, or fantasies à la Peter Beagle? I've toyed with all those notions, all seeming at some time or other good. I don't know if I want to write commercially: in general it seems that people make money, these days, by writing the same thing over and over, which doesn't much appeal. The few times I have tried to write for markets, I've done it badly and unhappily; but I knew a lot less about myself and how I work, then, than I do now.

What my morning time has filled with, in fact, has been Facebook, a thing I have mixed feelings about. I like my Facebook communities: they're porous – new people show up all the time – and they keep me in touch with the various facets of my diverse interests. It's the main place I strike up new friendships and have serious talks with people I don't know well. It's entertaining. It's also a huge, huge time-sink. Sometimes I think I'll just check my Facebook notifications one more time, and find that I'm ninety years old and ready to hand in my keys. But I'm suited to it: I'm a bit too expansive for twitter, but I do have an epigrammatic turn that fits well into Facebook's constraints.

So it's fun, but I don't quite think that I want it to be what I do with the lion's share of my writing time. Do I want my epitaph to read: “He was a kindly massage therapist, he kept a good database for the Library Foundation, he whupped food, and he said some clever things on Facebook”? A man could do worse, but I feel an itch to do a bit more than that.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Industrial Eaters

I've been reading some despairing Facebook posts by parents who are trying to get their kids to eat good food. The biggest difficulty is, that the kids are getting showered with junk food every time they're out of the direct supervision of their parents. You'd be surprised -- if you're not a parent -- by the number of kids' activities that are punctuated by rewards of candy, chips, and various foul corn syrup concoctions that manage to bill themselves as "healthy" (because they're fruit-flavored or low-fat, usually; some vague gesture of that sort -- "low-fat pudding," "gogurt," that crap.) In the rare schools where they're trying to hold the line, there are thriving black markets in junk. And once most kids have tasted this stuff, getting them to eat real food can be a Herculean task. The food industry has us right where they want us. By the time most kids get through school, they'll be habituated to this stuff. A 1,500 calorie meal will seem normal: the blast of pleasure, the chowing down while the leptin and stomach-distension feedback circuits go dead -- these will be their experience of eating, and if they don't get those experiences, they won't feel that they've eaten properly at all. That's what happened to me, a bit early in the industrial-food wave; probably what happened to you, what almost certainly will happen to your kids, unless -- as one of my Facebook friends said -- you home-school on a remote ranch.

These are combined effects of political decisions and the market: our heavy subsidies for certain kinds of industrial farming make the raw materials of sugar/corn syrup, fat and salt (without which junk food just don't go) absurdly cheap. You just need to squirt flavorings into it, maybe texturize it, and Bob's your uncle. You can even then go about mouthing pieties about obesity and healthy living with the odd scraps of your advertising budget. Keep 'em confused; keep 'em feeling guilty about their crappy eating; They'll show up at the 7-11 or the drive-up window: you can bet on it.

And the beauty of it is, that to eat any other way requires establishing half a dozen habits, layered on top of each other. Getting rest, cleaning, planning food, shopping, coordinating meals, cooking: no one of the habits very complex or onerous, but practically nobody is going to have the vision and persistence to build them up step by step and actually de-industrialize themselves. They're exhausted, they're hungry, the kitchen's a mess, and you have the food they grew up on right there, in any easy-open package in the kitchen, or at worst, at a drive-thru. You think you have to worry that they'll go shopping for whole foods instead? Don't be silly. You've got 'em.