Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Cold Dark River

Oh, I have been so sad today, grief-struck, dumb. I think the last bits are dissolving and detaching and being washed away: the last bits of feeling I have any power, any influence, any say in how the world goes. People will listen to me, sometimes, and along with the special gift of idiocy that goes with growing up a straight white male, that can support the delusion that I can move them this way or that. But the fact is, people only listen while I'm saying what they want to hear. 

I am so tired, and so frightened. History is snaking up and around me, and around my children. It will eat us all.

And the words, the words that used to be my friends, turn into enemies in my own mouth. I start to speak and my mouth is full of lies. Spit and try again; spit and try again; but it's all lies, all the time.

Or say, sometimes, truths past their sell date. I just want to say something simple and true. I want to say, "oh yes, I see it, the glints and reflections of that plastic shroud of racism that settles over all our shoulders." But even to say it is to make claims and jostle others away from the mike. And I'm just timid and fat and old, and terrified of imprisonment. And I have nothing. No advice, no power, no good ideas.

Two strangers, young black men, embraced me on the street downtown a couple nights ago. "This guy needs a hug, doesn't this guy need a hug?" So we had a group hug there on the sidewalk, and one of them shouted, "I love my city!" I was grateful for the hug, which I did need, but I thought, "Oh, my dear young men, don't trust this city. It has an old and ugly heart"

You know. I love this city. I love coming over the bridge in the morning at sunrise, and all the gold-leaf windows, and the cold dark river scaled by the the wind. But that's different from trusting it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Interlude: Winter

Camassia is full of tiny ferns and bruise-colored leaves, and sudden shining mirrors have been inset in the hollows, waiting for gleams of sun. I could see chips fly from the woodpecker at his work, though I couldn't hear a sound.

The world is too large for me. I remember a time when I thought people got bigger, as they got older; but it turns out that the world grows much faster than we do. I dodge from cover to cover, like a timid vole, in the scant winter light, and I reach home with relief.

Fields of seablush and camas lily,fields we knew when the world was young.

And yet -- there at Oregon City, where Willamette Falls runs over the edge of the plate, and the river dodges between industrial buildings and power plant -- there is an older world implicit in it all, a world in which people were proud of what they built. Those people wanted their industrial buildings to be plain works of power. I'm confident that the thought that they were defacing the river never shadowed their dreams.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Springfield, Oregon, 1965

I remember the first black kids, they came when I was seven, two brothers. I had never seen a black person before. In the showers, I had to look: and incredibly, they were black even where their swimsuits would have blocked the sun. 

It didn't occur to me then or later to make them welcome. I had my own problems, and being befriended by the weird kid would have done them no favors, anyway. But I pondered the blackness. I could have forgiven the strangeness if it had been only a burning of the sun. But no, black all through: except for their ghostly whitish palms and soles, which was so contrary to all reason. It's your hands and feet that get dirty, that you have to wash. These creatures turned the world over. And life was already hard enough. 

What became of them? Where are they now? I don't know, but I doubt they have much reason to look back fondly.

Back then, black people weren't ordinarily on television. I had heard of negroes, of course, but they were in far away places, states in the south, of which my parents definitely, if obscurely, disapproved. I knew "nigger" was a very bad word. But the kids who could get a laugh, the ones who actually knew what swear words meant, used it when the adults weren't around.

"Where did you get that?" one would ask.

"Stole it off a dead nigger, and he ain't gettin' it back!" was the reply. Gales of laughter. 

It had nothing to do with the real world, any more than the half-understood sex jokes did. They were just essays, sallies into the forbidden. What happened if you said those words? Where you struck dead? Or did you gain access to something, some secret power or pleasure? Well, I didn't know. Better watch and see what happens to kids who could get a laugh. I had a feeling, and so did they, that they were courting destruction. I don't know what became of those kids, either.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Year, Wheeling

When I got home from my evening massage last night, Vega was setting, and Orion just rising in the east.

At four this morning, I woke, and realized I'd left my pack in the car. I slipped out of bed and walked out in my bare feet, on the frozen cement, to fetch it: I wanted to recharge my laptop before morning. My eye followed the handle of the Dipper, of its own accord, and extended its widening curve, falling toward the eastern horizon: and there was Arcturus -- my first reminder, this year, that winter eventually turns into spring. The year plays out in little, every night.

(This photo is credited to Stellarium, and edited, if I'm reading right, by one Bob King. It's labelled 10 p.m. in March: well, yes, but it's also 4 a.m. in late November, if you happen to be prowling about at that time of morning. The year wheels over your head as you sleep.)

I'm never sure how much people know about the sky. I was startled last year by discovering that lots of people, perfectly clever and informed people, had no notion of the ecliptic: they had never learned, and never observed, that sun, moon, and planets can only appear in one swath of the sky. I absorbed this with some consternation. Were these people who could see a full moon appear on the northern horizon -- or even the sun -- with equanimity? Would they notice at least a certain strangeness? I wasn't sure. The disquiet has never left me. Because of course I am walking about in multiple inexplicable ignorances, quite as obvious to people who have a good high school grasp of, say, chemistry, or classical music. The fact that, after all these years, I still don't know what sort of stuff potassium is, or what instrument makes that hollow moo, is pathetic. Do I pay no attention at all?

Friday, November 28, 2014


Rain: large white drops hang at the bottom of the window-awnings, shifting back and forth as the canvas blows, waiting their chance to drop free. The light concentrates in each one: they seem brighter than the gray sky, brighter than the cheerfully-lit interior of the restaurant. They dart back and forth, unable to quite fall from the bottom seam, like silver beads on a giant abacus. Finally the wind gives the awning a real shake, and all the drops leap off, a brilliant vanishing shower. At once new beads string themselves. They may keep it up all day: this is a true Oregon rain, with plenty of stamina. There's no particular reason it should ever stop.

I'm reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, whose middle initial was not in fact S, but H: West Point took it into its head that the initial was S, and the army obstinately continued to use it, although Grant's middle name was Hiram. Then the newspapers, during the war, took a fancy to pretending it stood for Unconditional Surrender. (Those were the only terms he would offer to the starving garrison of Vicksburg, knowing they had to take them: in fact he tended to be generous in paroling captives, and letting them keep their property, but he didn't want anyone unclear that they'd been beaten.) You might think that at some point he might insist on getting his name right, say when he was president, but it doesn't seem to have mattered to him. He was an oddly humble man, a sort of military boddhisattva, even as he directed the enormous cruelties of the first modern total war: he is terribly pleasing, if mystifying, in his simplicity. Anyway, I have got him to the end of the war, which is the part of his career I knew a fair amount about anyway. Now I strike into unknown territory with him.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Thanksgiving Day, 2014. The pavement and the sky are the same gleaming gray: headlights make brief lines of light on the road, but the Sun doesn't answer, above. She's walking up high in the skyfields, pensive and forgetful. We have to make do with what light we have, here below.

The old feeling of confinement, I have always felt during the holidays: less now, and lit up with occasional intimations of liberty, but still there's the stubborn mass of humanity on the other side, insisting that today can mean only one thing. I loathe that, and always have, and I expect I always will. In me the impulse to celebration and the dictates of the calendar seem never to coincide. So I wait it out, as inoffensively as possible. But more and more these days, I dream of breaking loose, of going somewhere where Thanksgiving and Christmas have never been heard of, where people go about their business as if it was any ordinary day, free to any experience.

I love routine, doing the same thing every day, beholden to no one: I am not exactly antisocial, I think, but a little goes a long way with me, and to be with people in groups means not being able to hear or understand, and trying to balance jostling, half-caught expectations against each other. I wish sometimes I had a higher specific gravity, that I didn't tumble so wildly in the slipstream of other people's desires, but maybe it's just the price I pay for being able to see as I do. At my age, well into my fifties, I've largely given up on ever being a different person. The question these days is what to do with the person I already am. I will always be timid and eager to please, in my own mind's eye, however stubborn and willful I may appear.

I do want people to be happy, but I'm well past the delusion -- intellectually -- that I will make them happy by doing what they want me to do, or being what they want me to be. What will make them happy is shaking off expectation and seeing with raw, tender eyes -- seeing what's really there to see. What they think they want of me is beside the point, and I don't have the time to throw away on indulging them any more. Or actually, I never did. The time is short. Evening comes early, this time of year.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dentist With Cavities

Ten days ago, there was a windstorm whipping the rotten mountain ash to and fro: it was threatening to bring it down and wreck our fence. So, with possibly more valor than discretion, we determined to take it down: we leashed it so it would fall, hopefully, in the direction we wanted, and sawed it and wedged it and hacked it and hauled on it till it finally came down; or anyway, settled itself securely in the arms of the neighboring pine and silk trees.

The weather was icy cold (for the marine Northwest) and as I was sawing I could feel the various muscles of my abdomen and low back looking at me dubiously. It was so much fun, though, that I ignored them. And when the tree finally did come down, as Martha and I were both hauling on it, and a gust of wind was helping it, I fell down too. Not a troubling fall.

But the next day all my lower back and abdominals were jacked and unhappy: not an honest soreness, but the sort of jolty pain that makes you think about kidneys and gall bladders and makes you want not to bend at the middle, not for anything.

For four days it stayed just like that. I cancelled some of my massages, taking myself down to one per day. (Doing massage actually seemed to help; I felt better after doing one; but I was pretty sure that doing more would be a bad idea.)

The first two days I was not worried. No matter how weird it felt, it was just over-use, and it would go away. I did my back exercises in the morning, though it took twice as long as usual, getting down to the floor and cautiously exploring which moves I could still make. But day three and four, I didn't like at all. What was the deal? It should be getting better.

The cold snap continued, and the cold felt like it was getting into my bones: I felt old and useless. Turning over in bed was something I had to plan and execute carefully, and getting out of it was an ordeal. And the whole thing was humiliating, in a dentist-with-cavities way. Muscle pain was supposed to be something I knew how to deal with!

On the morning of the fifth day, I took a hot bath.

The transformation was extraordinary. Everything knotted loosened, everything crooked straightened. I could breathe freely. The soreness dwindled to ordinary muscle soreness. I was human again. The generalized pain ebbed away, and I could tell that the remaining unhappy muscle -- possibly the only one that had ever really been tweaked -- was my left iliopsoas. I could work it judiciously, making it contract and relax. This stuff I knew how to work with.

From the time of that bath, the recovery that had stalled out resumed. The next day I was better, and the next better yet. This morning I could do all of my back exercises in ordinary way -- no hacks, no workarounds, and at most a tiny reduction in range of movement. Martha found heating pad at the girls' house, and I have used it a lot. Heat. It's a grand thing.

I wish I knew a) if the heat was really the agent -- maybe I was just due to get better anyway -- and b) if it was the heat -- what did it do? Is there a mechanical explanation, or is it purely a nervous response?

Always an adventure, inhabiting a body.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Kiki Encounters Monstrosity

Kiki loves water, and is drawn to anyplace it may be running or trickling. Last night I was taking a bath (my back still being iffy). Showers Kiki knows as normal human behavior, but baths were a new idea.

The noise of water brought her trotting into the bathroom. It was fairly dark: I'd left the lights off. She stopped short, seeing no one at the washstand, her tail lashing. This was just weird, very weird. Slowly she looked towards the tub, and slowly craned her neck to see over its side. It took her still a moment to piece it all together. Her eyes widened, and she backed away, and then fled. It was several minutes before she could bring herself to come look again. She crept in and jumped up on the washstand and gazed down at me in disbelief.

Something spooky to tell her grandchildren on Halloween. "It had lowered its whole huge primate carcass into the water, and was wallowing there!" I have no doubt the telling of the story will become a holiday tradition, chez Kiki.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Lights Out

I love it when the lights go off in a place I have only ever known illuminated. Seeing the place -- a cafe, an office, a library -- for the first time with the natural light falling dim and slantwise, shadows zig-zagging over suddenly unfamiliar shapes: the places become old, haunted maybe, or hallowed. My life right now feels like such a place: the lights of my relentless conception have gone out, and my life is all foreign, oddly-shaped, and shrouded. A little pathetic, like some famous, admired person glimpsed in his tattered old bathrobe, unshaven and sticky-eyed. This: I wish I could stay in my life like this. I know the lights will come on again, but I wish they could stay off. A little longer.

This morning, in the bath, I thought I would stay there till April. Write me care of The Most Noble and Steaming Tub, 86th Avenue (waterproof ink only, please!) "Oh," wrote Tolkien, "water hot is a noble thing!"
Water cold we may pour at need
Down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed:
But better is beer, if drink we lack
And water hot poured down the back.
 Now a brilliant sun and cold November air. Grateful for all gifts, large and small. Take care, dear.

Saturday, November 08, 2014


The courage to slow down, to take things one at a time, to take a full breath, from beginning to end, without my attention flickering to someone, somewhere, who might approve of me. (Because of course the worst thing in the world, would be to miss a morsel of approval.)

It's been an odd schooling, but an effective one. No one's approval particularly means anything: it's all contingent, unsteady, unpredictable. Steering by it would be disaster. Yet that's what I've been doing. Despite the obvious, which I should know and do know: people approve of you because of what they need, not because of what you need. It's a hard, bitter world, in some ways, and we're all scrabbling at the bottom of a barrel in the dark.

Sometimes you hold on to my hand as though I were life itself. And I simply stop, and hold in return. What else are we here for? It's not as if there was anything to say. 

Still, though, if it doesn't drive me, it still moves me, it's such a thrusting habit of mind: "maybe this means I'm special! Maybe I've found it!" Even though I know perfectly well that to be special is to be bound and helpless, a hostage to my imagination. If I want to be free, I had better not want to be special. You don't get both.

And I do want to be free. Even a hint, the glint of Vega over a dark housetop, the wind stirring my hair as I step wearily out of my car, and turn to haul my table out of the back seat -- even those quiet messengers -- my heart rises to meet them, not with a feverish urgency, but with the hinted memory of a long-forgotten ease. Those messengers are the ones to welcome: those are the friends that will bring me home.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Drinkers

The dark builds higher and higher, in the north,
until it crumples, and the rains begin. We tell them
about the ebbing of the light, but no one believes it,

not till they see the roaring firs, the tree shadows
jogging each other's elbows as they drink
greedily suck

the light down from the sky. Pitcher after pitcher.
They are inexhaustible drinkers, and they carouse
into the night.

It's not until they sleep that any dawn can come,
and any timid, wandery light can make its way
up into the washed and beaten hills.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

and one who is waiting

Sad and foolish, sad and foolish: even those of us who stop to think -- especially us, maybe -- are prone to flukes and spurts of stupid ignorance. But in the mass, it's terrifying: to the historian, counting off genocides on his fingers, it has gone beyond that, to a principle.
O long-awaited, are you nearly here?
Is that your shadow I see from the window,
beginning to cross the field?
I have not labored, I have idled. Oh, I have read, and read, and read: empires and parliaments, poets and explorers, bitter artists and puzzled scientists have been swept into the mulch bag of my sprawling, undisciplined mind. I have more riches in any odd corner of my brain than most yahoos will ever collect in a long gaping life: but what have I done with it all? Even to think of presenting my true account, on His return, is to burn with shame.
Everywhere I look, there are emblems
from years of laboring: nettles
that stung my hands, fronds of palm
 But. It is yet another temptation of idleness, to brood on lost opportunity and the neglect of my Genius. The point is to work here, right here right now, with the tools I have. Because I have wormed my way up to a point of vantage, in spite of all that waste. And there is love to spend still.
.     .     .     I read tonight
that certain moths drink the tears

of sleeping birds, turning sorrow
into sustenance. O long awaited,
I have never left, I am still here.
I am still here, improbable, improbable though that is. I am still here, and my grip is the hand-grip of thirty thanes. I am walking now on that dusky road, with the sudden conviction that even now -- even now -- someone is waiting.

*these verses are from Luisa Igloria's "Wanderer," from Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


The sadness comes with the turning of the leaves. I pause on the aggravations of the moment, consider writing something pissy about wishing the Obama administration had let the banks collapse, since the apparently the only thing that will school Americans is a full-blown depression. But I turn from it in disgust. One more ignorant voice is not what's needed: I would only add to the confusion. For my own sake, too, better to stick to things I actually know. Which boils down to a few periods of English literature, and the lurches of my heart.

Listen to the wild patter of the drums, up at the high range of my hearing, a skirling accompaniment to my tinnitus. Someone is always playing, up away behind my shoulders somewhere. A beat to quarters, maybe, but no one has told me what the fight will be about. Maybe you're told after it's all over, in the quiet aftermath? Maybe.

Last night I rubbed the wool-socked feet of an old man, a man so old he's outlived his hospice assignment. They were willing to help him die, but if he's just going to live and live, he'll have to make other arrangements. He's deafer than I am, and we make a fine comedy team, since neither of us likes to ask for clarification, and both of us tend to mumble. It's a fine illustration of -- something, but it also goes to show why I'm in the business I'm in: his feet speak to my hands perfectly clearly, even through the wool, and we sit companionably by the November woodstove. His wife makes intermittent attempts to bring us to a verbal understanding, but we mostly ignore her. We'll stick to the wool. She'll get her massage later, on the table, her bathrobe over the top of the blankets for extra warmth. It's turned cool. The Fall here at last.

Is this sadness? It's the stock word for this slowness, this awareness of time passing and things falling away. But I don't really regret anything, or wish anything was otherwise. I still have this yen to explain things, to tell you how it really was, before it disappears; but I feel that I've been -- in this regard -- neatly boxed into silence. Encysted, so as to cause no trouble to the fleshly grass. There are worse fates: but there is still a faint tickling, an itch to be understood. And meantime, the leaves are flushed with embarrassment and delight, giddy and trembling on their high branches. This, they say, is their prime: and who's to say they're wrong?

Monday, November 03, 2014

Día de los Muertos

I have few experiences of the spooky, the uncanny, the unheimlich, these days. Halloween has become opaque to me. Decayed or injured bodies repulse me, and the enjoyment of them distresses me, for perfectly daylight and pedestrian reasons, but they don't spook me. The supposed grotesqueries of age, crossdressing, and deformity either move me to pity or don't move me at all. I'm just not on the page. I have other things to do.

But last night, as I worked late in my darkened office, I heard the door creak open, and a figure in a long white dress swept past, in full Día de los Muertos make-up. I knew very well that it was Minka, who always inspires delight and tenderness in me: but it was also a dead woman, laid out lovingly for burial, decorated not for horror but for honor.

Later, as I passed her dark office on the way to the printer, her skull face turned to me with its familiar warm, engaging smile. That, if you please, was spooky.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

An Arithmetic Problem

Here, I have an arithmetic problem for you. Suppose you have a hundred million dollars invested in nice blue chip stocks. The stocks grow in value at the same rate as the US economy -- they're duds, as growth stocks -- but they pay out a nice 4% dividend. Being a millionaire and all, you like to live high on the hog, so your expenses are $500,000 per year (despite the fact that you bought your house outright, and have no mortgage payments. Hey, you like nice stuff, okay?).

Now. The question is, how much do we need to tax your income, to keep your proportion of the country's wealth stable? Remember, the worth of your assets, your stock in Wells Fargo and General Electric and Shell Oil and so on, is growing right along with the economy. (Actually, they're growing faster, if you know how to pick 'em, but let's pretend.)

Okay. So your dividend income is four million dollars. You spend half a million. To keep up with you -- to keep you from pulling ahead of the economy, and getting an ever-larger piece of the national pie -- we need to take the rest in taxes: we need to tax your dividends, in other words, at 87.5%.

Now, this is not to redistribute anything. This is simply to keep the status quo: this is just to keep economic inequality from increasing. 87.5%.

I don't know if you know the stiffest tax the U.S. levies on dividends? Well, it's 20%. You shell out $800,000 in taxes. Ouch! Still, that leaves $2,700,000 sitting in your checking account at the end of the year. What to do, what to do? Hmm.

Well, you could always buy a bit more Wells Fargo, General Electric, and Shell.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Still feeling a little tender-tummied and uncertain, I walk, a little slower than usual, down the predawn street, past all the buttoned-up little houses. I say to myself, it's different, now: when I was young I prowled the suburbs imagining I was shut out from everything interesting. Now -- I say to myself -- I know that they're all shut up in their little boxes because they're timid and not very interesting. But actually I don't really know. Am I inside or am I out? My confidence can evaporate between one step and the next.

The slow, diffuse light makes its way up from the ground to the gray sky. The Mediterranean cedars have left their soft, bright yellow powder-puff cones on the sidewalk: the blotches of pollen glow eerily in the half-light of morning, out of the shadows cast by the trees. The sidewalk slabs tilt this way and that, lifted by the cedar roots. I wonder what it's like to live under the shadow of these trees. They have a reputation for dropping their massive limbs without warning, unprovoked; and they are very dark.

Stories rise and fall: old stories, new stories, jumbled together, canted this way and that, lifted by unseen arms. None of the edges quite meet. I suppose my job is simply to wait and to witness.

Your pale smooth skin in the half dark -- that unearthly gleam of Northern European flesh! -- she is green in her hidden places -- this afternoon my supple old hands will be resting on the pommels of your shoulders, like lids resting on eyes, and we'll be breathing in tandem. Friendship grows imperceptibly, but it tips up the slabs, sooner or later, heaving even my old carapace up into the air. All those edges, exposed to the slow light of day.

Listen: it's good, and it's enough, more than enough. More than I ever imagined, when I was a teenager, walking the dawn streets. longing and doubting. These finger branches reach out to a wider sky than I ever knew existed.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Friends over Fifty

1) Everything comes back to haunt you. You're never done with anything just because you've turned your back on it. 

2) People talk through their hats all the time. They just make shit up. All the time. 

3) You end up disappointing people anyway. Disappoint them now, for the right reasons, (instead of later, for the wrong ones). 

4) If it's too hard, give up. 

5) Take the time to make it beautiful. 

6) It's all right if people misunderstand you. You misunderstand them too.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Brisk Footsteps

The world feels so dangerous, in so many ways, right now. This is not a state of mind I have inhabited much, certainly not in the last few decades, and I'm finding it unpleasant. I have withdrawn from almost everything and everybody. It all seems fraught with waste and risk. I don't believe that most people's benevolence is more than temporary and conditional. Maybe it's a sea-change, maybe it's a reversion. But it's strange. I leave communications unanswered. I feel like Richard II in his prison cell: finally coming to full awareness of his situation, at the precise moment when he no longer has power to change it. 

And yet, nothing has happened. My life continues, as pleasant as ever. The Fall is lovely.

Jack Gilbert wrote:

Innocence has gone
out of me.
The song.
The song, suddenly
has gone out
of me.

("And She Waiting.") It's a condition caused, he said, by the return to love with perspective. An undeception. And so it is, yet I glimmer that it's actually, and more deeply, a deception. Just because I do the same thing over and over, start the same scene over and over, doesn't mean that the world has only that one scene in it. I need to open my hand and turn it over, palm to the sky.

Too much time indoors, too much time online, too much time checking empty nets for fish. And in the meantime, brisk footsteps in the hall outside: death, wearing sensible pumps, checking to make sure that I'm keeping my parole. Not to worry, Ms Death, I'm still in here.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Second and third chances, fourth and fifth:
the lazy susan of the world turning one more time,
the offers coming slowly, going slower. You hammered out one tune
and now it plays back, slowed to mournful. Oh dear

if only I had known, when that brightness was flaring
how very deep and lasting was the dark,
would I have caught my wrist, held back my hand?
I think not: that wisdom isn't dealt to such as us.

Here is the lingering surprise of turmeric,
its hidden bite, its lasting stain: here is the old
sweetness of tarragon, the wistfulness of rosemary;
here is the sourness of chili past its date.

If I hesitate, if the rice vinegar and the Worcestershire
swap queens, and play resumes, is it any wonder
that my powdered fingers and my dizzy nose
are pawned again to hope?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


I don't think I will ever tire of the ragged, ungainly grace of douglas firs, tracing the lines of one individual against another, the swoops and sudden checks, the raw edges. I will not live long enough to really see even one of them.

I spoke of the weariness of dishonest living. A friend pointed out that economic necessity makes liars of everyone who has to work for a living. The dream of an honest life may be a noble one in the abstract: but it assumes an absence of coercion that is never going to be within most people's reach.

And yet, one of the reasons we are subjugated is that we are simply too beaten, cowed, and tired to fight. There has to be some glimmer of hope that an honest life is on the other side, I think.

All that fire, all that energy, can it really be for nothing? Or are we simply in the wrong world? Or we just sitting in a room, having carefully painted every window black, deploring the darkness? Well, one thing I can be reasonably sure of is that I am not going to be the one person who figures it out. And it is not going to be figured out alone. We build a house -- a house with real windows -- together, or it doesn't get built at all.

The wind comes off the snow fields, above the tree line, or in from the ocean at dusk. Or sometimes it's just the slow exhalation of a suburban lawn, finally unharnessed, free of the day's fret and strain. I sit on the curb and watch the sun climb through the branches of the firs and the power wires, his red toes and fingers sure, quick, precise. Morning.

Thursday, October 02, 2014


I lift my snout warily, sniff the air, swaying on my haunches
like an old truck with bad shocks.
My nostrils flare. I am the oldest
of all my race, my race the oldest of all.

In the second grade I was in love
with a little girl named Susan. In the first
with a girl named Julie. I still remember
how Julie walked to the front of the room

to hand in her assignments. I remember the smell of chalk.
I loved her foolishly and completely, exactly
the way I love now. I don't think anything has changed.
Except that now I am vast, having grown a new chamber

every year, to my enormous shuddering heart.
A new tree-ring. I grow annually more ridiculous,
more huge, more slow. My heavy paws thud
to the ground. I shake my head, and my ears whip

and clap. I might dig for truffles today,
if the soil is damp and the air is dry,
(carrying those secret messages
that only my kind receive.) Look up!

The leaves come falling on my scuffly head;
Julie's hair swings back, and Susan tilts her face,
a hint of mushroom haunts the air,
and all the stars are breathing underground.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Bare Ruined Choirs

I watch him hang his stick on the rail
and climb the six stairs, one by one.

then, moving like a slow motion bumblebee
he makes his way down the lighted hall,

bumping his right side (never his left)
till he reaches the bedroom  door, the moment

of greatest danger, with the world
swirling around his knees as he turns.

He makes it. The brown robe bumps
the doorjamb (on the right) and he's gone.

She finally draws a breath. In this one thing
she's not allowed to help. Later she says

it's hard, because it's harvest time;
it's so hard to let the apples lie.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Way Everything Works

My first software job, when the ink barely dry on my Computer Science diploma, was being a QA guy, a software tester, for a midsize local company. I'd been only a day or two on the job when I found a bug. A bug! I was sure of it. I verified it.

I showed it to my boss, who was unimpressed. "Sure," he said, "let's have you learn to file a bug report." My coworkers also were not very interested. I began to wonder if I had found myself a dud of a company. The next day I found three more bugs. I was hot stuff! Only nobody seemed very excited.

As time went by, I learned why. There was a enormous database of known bugs. The software was riddled with bugs. It was miraculous that it worked at all. Each development cycle, the developers would spend a few weeks fixing the worst ones, but the backlog steadily grew. Many of the bugs were so deep in the infrastructure that they couldn't be torn out without rewriting the thing from scratch. Some -- many -- most -- of the bugs would never, ever be fixed.

This was a successful product of a successful company. And as I moved on to bigger-name companies, ones you've heard of, I found that this was true of all software. A QA guy's job is not to discover the few rare, uncommon bugs. It's to find the important bugs, the ones that users will typically encounter, the ones that will make them grumpy. And yes, this is true of the software that decides how to modulate the force of the brakes in your car, and the software that decides whether a command to launch nukes has really been received from the White House. You might want to think about that. Or you might not.

As I wander on through life, observing various human endeavors, I've come to realize that everything is like that. Nothing has really been built to specs. Nothing quite operates as advertised. The flaws are various and infinite. All you can do is fix a few of the most glaring problems. The rest will have to stand. You can see it in software, because software is uniquely observable: it does exactly the same thing, over and over again, and it breaks down readily into tiny discreet steps. But everything works that way.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Taking Stock

Like the silence after a slammed door. The light is soft and diffuse: rain showers wander in, window-shop, wander away. I have been off balance for several days. A growing sense that I am off track, seriously astray. I need to slow down and take stock. Fortunately, this is exactly the right sky for that.

Partly, we are coming on to the Season Of Not Being Who Anybody Wants Me To Be -- some call it the Holiday Season -- and I'm hunching my shoulders against it. But it's more than that. I am, in fact, astray. And at this point in my life, the losing and finding of myself make such a deep palimpsest that the sheer multiplicity is confusing. I've rolled out so many versions of myself, with so many promised features, that I can't keep them straight any more: all I know is that the marketing people are way ahead of the developers.

Well, first: take the time. The world can do without me for a little bit. 

Second: back way, way off. There was a time when The Big Picture was something I spent too much time on. Now I spend too little on it. Time to zoom way out and ask some large simple questions, again: what do I really want? Which pursuits, and how much time to each, and how to judge if each chase has a beast in view?

Third, take soundings. Check facts. Don't be railroaded by hearsay and speculation.

When I do take the long view, the first fact that presents itself is this: I have already won. I have already beaten the odds; I have already made a rich and joyful life out of improbable, unprepossessing materials. The desperation that used to be the bass-line of my awareness -- I can let that fade, now. There is other music to hear.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Machine in the Field

I can never get a quorum. I would like, just once, to hold a plenary session with all the various parts of my heart, brain, and soul present, and really hash things out. But they never all show. In the midst of enthusiastic resolutions and votes by acclamation, the continual nagging thought: "isn't this an awfully small crowd?" You can look at all the concord and say, "oh, this is the real me!" but it's not. It's just the bits of me that showed up this time. The others will be along by and by, surly and bitter, doggedly pursuing their own ends. They never signed on in the first place.

Frustration: and I don't know how to put it to work. On the one hand, I want to quantify absolutely everything and lay out the rules and control everything. But that's not the solution either. There needs to be give in the system, I know that. But the formula escapes me. And I don't really know where I want to drag this ramshackle machine. The day shift pulls it one way, the night shift another, and after a week or two it remains in pretty much where it was. But older, shakier.

I really do not know what any of us want any more. I'm adrift. And have been -- I suddenly see -- for years. Or maybe forever. Maybe even to ask for a direction and a goal is to ask for falsehood, ask for blinders. It may well be.

I have never quite appreciated how finite my resources are. I've never really built that into my plans. There is still, after all this time, a tinge of grandiosity in me. Once the golden boy, always the golden boy: never mind the white hair and the occasional old man's hesitation. "I am as fierce and wild as ever," somebody mutters. But I look over my shoulder to try to see who's talking.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Toll Road

It's like waking from one of those long, complicated dreams: slow discoveries of deceptions (major or minor), the resolution of a vague, large, looming disaster into a coat flung over a chair; the slow focus whereby north is fitted to north, south to south; and the room revolves, finds its groove, settles.

The disappointment and relief of plain day. My heart has been wrenched and wrung and left out to dry: now its rough and prickly fabric, though stiff, is serviceable enough. I can dress, and walk at dawn. Nothing has changed.

What did I think? Well, I didn't think. I put off thinking as long as I could. And now what? 

Well, I know two things, now. That this is not enough: and that I am utterly alone.

I walk along the warped and faded piers, where the boats nod, and count the morning stars. The wood is stained with salt and long pounding, the rasp of painters, the droppings of gulls. The morning still has more of the night than the day in it.

I think of yesterday, of the grooves where the beach grass has never been able to take hold, the streaks of white running straight up to the crest. The wind throws the sharp edges of the grass against my arms, and the sand fills my shoes. Sometimes there's a second, even a third crest -- you never know -- and then the sea opens out on either hand, running out of sight in the misty distance, miles of beach north and miles south, and no two- or four-legged creature in sight. It's a fine pale loneliness, up there.

Well. Good morning. I'm all out of dreams: I must make my way as a waking creature, whatever the tolls.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Wave, The Particle, and the Holy Spirit

To many of us incorrigibly religious people, the fact of Presence is simply indisputable. We may, and do, argue all day about what exactly it is or isn't. We can be frustratingly vague or charmingly naive. (God is a free swerve of intention; God is an old man who sits on a cloud.) But to us God -- or Something -- is no more a proposition to be disputed than light is. If someone proposes to you that there is no such thing as light, you're perfectly willing to hear them out, but it's with a sort of indulgent tolerance. "All right, well, no such thing as 'light.' What do you call all of this, then?" And they point out that we can't see the light rays -- or particles, or wavicles, or whatever -- traveling from the lamp to the wall, and that we might very well be making them up, and we can see, yes, that's true, we might; but somehow the argument doesn't make as much of an impression on us as they think it should.

When all of our talking and thinking and feeling about moral life and ecstasy and affection has been phrased in terms of God, all our lives, and someone proposes that there is no such thing as God, it sounds like nonsense, as if they were proposing that none of the meaningful parts of our lives existed. Or it sounds like they are very horrible people indeed, if their lives have no moral or ecstatic or affectionate component to them. The truth, of course, is disappointingly bland. They just have different names for all these things, different ways of thinking about them. They try to do the right thing, they experience just as much awe, they love their kids just as much as we do. If there are fundamental philosophical contradictions in their point of view, well, there are fundamental philosophical contradictions in ours, too. My question is not so much: "are we right, or are they right?" -- but rather, "are we even disputing about anything?"

Well, except, of course, that people are murdering each other all over the globe according to the exact shades of the God color they wear. Really I think mostly they need to create a royal row to divert attention from their hand being in someone else's pocket, but the fact remains.

A sweet pale blue sky, and the leaves turning.

Oh, God, and such important things left undiscussed. That is the real problem. The things we aren't talking about.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


They are delicate, slender people, easily chilled: they wear droll curls, and shiver in sweaters and hoodies while I sit comfortably in my T-shirt. I watch their quick smiles and bird-like movements with some envy, some desire. Though truth to tell, I am comfortable in my florid bulk: I like my solidity and deliberation. Wind and tide are nothing to me. I hold my own, without effort, in the world.

These two now, they huddle in their clothes, and lean towards each other over the table, so that their heads almost touch; their gleaming hair almost brushes the table. When the waitress comes they fall back, like startled cats, but having ordered, they gain confidence and lean together again. They are so young, so young. They bounce in their seats, when they laugh. Their voices rise in bubbly little strings that tickle my ears.

They prop themselves on their elbows: one shoulder goes forward, and their heads roll over the other one. They peer at each other, with their heads on one side, as if they were birds peeking through branches. Are they in love? I can't tell. What does love look like, when you're that young, and that nervous? Would they even know?

I stretch, and take a breath into the huge slow bellows of my chest. We saw a sitka spruce on Cape Meares that was already old when Chaucer was picking out rhymes for the Parlement of Foules: I feel ancient and gigantic, like that tree, with a momentum of life in me that could not possibly run down in mere century or two.


Yesterday, Martha said, "I think you better take me walkies." So we went to Bridal Veil:

Monday, September 01, 2014

In The Doorway

No: I've said it the wrong way, or at the wrong time, or wearing the wrong mask. Whether it's true is actually not particularly an issue, if the other criteria for right speech are not met. Walk it back, erase it, start over, read and listen and think.

I feel as though I had been repeatedly kicked in the face (or sometimes the stomach, or sometimes the balls) and I was kicking back, as one does. But one does not have to believe in oneself. I am horrified, horrified, horrified by my friends, sometimes. All the more reason to shut up, sit tight, gather more info, mull it over. What are friends for, if not to kick you?

And of course the real sources of my vulnerability are deeper and more troubling. Never have I been more aware, painfully aware, of the crookedness of my relationship with the world. So many things I must feel and not say, so many caveats and trapdoors. And in the meantime minutes, hours, days, years, even decades trickle away. I am awkwardly placed in the doorway, where everyone has to apologize to me as they squeeze by. It's one thing for a cat: a grown man, and a stout one at that, is supposed to handle his bulk more conveniently.

And in the meantime, the rage of the world goes on, without missing a beat. It's the relentlessness that's so wearing: that and -- at this age -- knowing that it's not going to stop.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pregnancy Massage

I take three large pale green pillows
to each pregnancy massage:

once you're on the table, on your side
I pack you in. One goes under your head;

one between your knees, spacing 
bottom leg from top;

and the third is to hug
to your chest. It keeps

the top shoulder from cranking down
and keeps you modest

when I undrape your back.
That's the theory. In fact

This configuration takes on a thousand shapes:
magnifying the sweep of the spine

into a character written with an impudent brush
on my massage table: this woman is

a cedilla, her calves the only 
exception to the 'c';

and this one an extravagant
'h' in the insular script,

a splendid lumbar lordosis
kicking the ass way back 

while the top thigh 
reaches high and forward.

I never know what you
will write, or whether 

you will hug the table
or the sky. The belly 

argues with its own logic,
yours and not yours.

We all start here, in 
the warm, swollen fruit

of aching flesh,
carried on diagonals

of endless variation.
Above, the ribs rise and fall,

and the strapping-tape abdominals
stagger like a little man 

carrying groceries. But each
of you, having written

a glorious letter of your own,
sighs "oh, this is comfortable!"

As if I had planned it all.
I fuss and tuck and adjust

to support the illusion;
but you are writing this letter,

you are building this house, and these, my hands,
are yours.

Friday, August 29, 2014


Clouds: not the foreign thunderheads that global warming has brought us, but real Oregon clouds, blurs of shifting silver, white, gray. The rumpled covers of winter, who has just opened an eye and checked the clock, before rolling over and getting in that last hour's sleep.

How quickly it all runs away, winter after summer after winter! Feeling I need to set the house of my spirit in order. I have been gone too long, and everything is untidy and askew. This breath of winter is unsettling, disturbing, exciting. I am ready to work.

I have not taken much seriously, in this life: it's so short, and the sides are so steep. But I do want to make a few things while I'm here.

I need to be careful, to guard my tongue and my time. Too much has gotten away from me: I spend too much time chasing my chickens back into their coop.

This strange, translucent convalescence continues. I grow stronger and steadier every day. I spend my time pounding stakes into the ground and marking them with orange blazes, making approximations, waiting for my surveying gear to arrive. I know the ground pretty well, now. Soon I'll be ready to start.

These days, when I come to the top of a rise or turn a corner, and pause to take in the new country, I find that word on my lips. "Soon now," I mutter. "Soon."

Monday, August 25, 2014


Sometimes people seem like blobby, bumbly gray ghosts to me, bumping against each other like balloons. Or like particularly stupid flies who can't find their way out of the open window.

I want to say: think! Think about what you actually want. Not what you're supposed to want, and not what you crave at the moment as a release or a respite. No: what's your heart's desire? I think in most of us it distills to a few simple things. We're making it a lot more complicated than it has to be.

Still. The morning comes quick, with jagged sun splinters, and the day ratchets up and kicks into life, and the momentum of all my past compromises and makeshifts sweeps me into motion, and there I am, running with the tide of it, a little phototropic creature leaning to the sky, but moving always slantways with the current.

I am not big on fresh starts and new beginnings. Americans are too fond of them. "If only we could escape history first," they say, "then we could get on the right track." But we are our history, we are nothing but our history. Our past is all we have to work with. I know the impulse all too well, but I think we had better abandon it. No. instead, say "what is it that my heart wants?"

And do the same with the people you love. You don't have to give them what they ask for. You have to give them what they want. A far harder task, but a far more rewarding one.

Inquire, inquire, inquire. Ask again. Don't assume you know. You don't.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Well. We will walk on the long empty beaches, and climb the headlands.

Captain Cook named ours Cape Foulweather: apparently he arrived on a typical day. Foulweather's profile is as familiar to me as my wife's. He rises from a lagoon of sorts -- successive rings of black basalt worn down into bracelets -- and lifts his head up into the sky. We have a gorgeous sideways view of him from the balcony. Often the clouds are low enough -- or the fog is high enough; these terms lose much of their meaning, at the Coast -- that his head is lost in it: you just see his black throat, muffled and wreathed, fading into a bare loom, and then vanishing into the pale shifting gray.

This is all prospective, you understand. We're not there yet. At this rate we won't even make it today. Who cares? I'm on vacation. I am unfolding my time like an origami goose. --Well, I admit I don't really know how origami geese unfold time, but I'm trying to do it as like them as possible.

I have been working hard and steadily for many months: I'm happy for a break.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

An Essay on Love

comes toppling from the crest:
it starts at the full, and by the time you realize,
it is different, dispersing, differentiating,

falling. It is not the more
or the less real for that.

If we are careful
we will not confuse
recollection with collection,
but we need not be persnickety.

It is by design that most of love
is caught in the nets of memory,
shaped, formed, reformed
by the pressure of the mesh.

Don't fuss too much.
Don't insist on priority
or authenticity. It's all real:
just real in different ways

at different times
for different purposes.

Friday, August 22, 2014

He Neglects to Come


"I will explain in detail. It was a religious song. I placed myself in the position of a milkmaiden. I say to Shri Krishna, 'Come! come to me only.' The god refuses to come. I grow humble and say: 'Do not come to me only. Multiply yourself into a hundred Krishnas, and let one go to each of my hundred companions, but one, O Lord of the Universe, come to me.' He refuses to come. This is repeated several times. The song is composed in a raga appropriate to the present hour, which is the evening."

"But He comes in some other song, I hope?" said Mrs. Moore gently.

"Oh no, he refuses to come," repeated Godbole, perhaps not understanding her question. "I say to Him, Come, come, come, come, come, come. He neglects to come."

-- E.M. Forster, A Passage to India

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


It's all right, you said:
all your life you have been hurt.

All this sky
and the wafts of winter that come
from gray canvas clouds, like
exhalations from the lobbies of hotels
when you walk sweating by the doors
in August (this month, the month
when the guns spoke and were silent) --

A cool air, a vacancy
where the heat has been taken away,
and you lean in toward the riches
that can afford to spill even this
absence of heat --

As the better sort of servant
I have been everywhere:
the dressing rooms, the spare
refrigerators full of champagne;
the poolsides with fires that dance
on top of sparkling heaps of white quartz.

And I know this: that under the silk
and the terry robes, there are bodies just the same,
scarred and suffering, written over
with the charact'ry of pain.

But this sky, where we began --
this August sky speaks
of winter high up and long ago;
of snow sifting down, and its light
has no kindness.

The fine white criss and cross
might have been written anywhere:
I learn to read with difficulty,
sounding out the words with my fingers.
It's all right, you said. 
All your life you have been hurt.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dangerously Full

A dark gray morning, promising rain. We have not had a good heavy rain for a long time: and though that's not a really a problem here, at this time of year, it makes me deeply uneasy. So I'm hoping the rain will really come down when it rains, and wash the whole world. I have superstitious conviction that all those unrained rains are accumulating up there, weighing heavily in the sky: something somewhere is getting dangerously full.

It's a strange interim time, neither this nor that. Everything rolls along. My massage schedule is full of regulars that I adore; things go like clockwork at the office. Whence this unease? I accidentally took a video of myself with my phone, and it revealed a grizzled old man with something of the Badger about him, rather than the Mole: loose-jowled, unshaven, bright-eyed; amused and ornery. I have no idea who he was.

In this phase of my life -- whatever it may be: this will be one of those chapters my biographers will fret about a title for -- I have largely given up needling myself about whether other people are right after all. No: they're just not. The way I see it is the way it is.

I can't read novels these days. I think to really fall into a novel you have to have the conviction that its author, at least in his writing persona, has a deeper understanding of the world than you do. I can't find that conviction. Nobody knows shit. I read history, which is a humbler endeavor, and I read poetry, which is humbler still. But before I'm going to read several hundred pages of dense prose about something the author just made up out of his head, I want to know: so what makes you so special? What makes your made up world more worth paying attention to than mine? I've lost that curiosity and humility. I really am a different creature: my phone saw true.

A client in tears about Robin Williams' death: I put my arms around her and told her things would get better. I don't know when I got so clumsy: that's the kind of comfort Ron Weasley would offer. I used to walk around thinking I knew how other people could be happy: now I know that I don't. I don't know that. Oh, I can see it clearly enough: "you are locked into your suffering" -- as Leonard Cohen crooned it -- "and your pleasures are the seal." But diagnosing is one thing: curing quite another. It's probably good that I no longer think I have anything to offer people: that man, Mole, with his squinty glasses and his velour coat, was genuinely dangerous.

Trucks and buses rumble by on 39th; a bearded man in a tattered parka pushes a grocery cart down the sidewalk; a girl wearing khaki shorts and a backpack hitched high, who no doubt thinks her bottom is too big, walks rapidly but unsteadily across the crosswalk; a young man with three-days' growth, carefully cultivated, and a neckerchief --  a neckerchief, for God's sake -- lounges against the telephone pole by the bus stop and manages an apotheosis of fatuity. No, I am not in a generous frame of mind: I'm not inclined to ask my fellow-man for answers. I have my own fields to till.