Sunday, March 30, 2014

Breakfast Hall

The Breakfast Hall

Hah! Here I am in the splendor of my private breakfast hall: eight feet wide, perhaps, and opening onto a vista of our ten-foot strip of back yard – mostly concrete – which ends in a mixed laurel and juniper hedge, under which the neighbors' magnificent chickens strut – glorious gray-speckled dominae, with red crests that take on an unearthly glow in the sunlight: they tear up the duff with gloriously contemptuous back-kicks of their powerful feet, and peck up whatever they find. Kiki likes to contemplate them too, but apparently all parties are convinced of mutually assured destruction. They keep a watchful eye on each other, but they stick to their spheres of influence.

The Chicken Hedge
 But my dining hall: Alan is coming back for at least the early part of the summer, and I'm going to require some private space, so I'm turning this odd slot of a room into a breakfast nook / writing space. It was simply storage, and the door to the back, before. So I've cleared some things away – my poor neglected bicycle, alas! among other things – and set up a card table and a folding chair, and moved my coffeemaker back here. The kitchen window, which used to be an exterior window, overlooks this space, and its sill can serve conveniently as a pass-through. When I'm done I can simply stand up and set my dishes up there. This all may work. We'll see. Two boiled eggs – I can do my back exercises while they boil – and broccoli steamed in the microwave, and a banana, and coffee. And straight up above my head, a skylight: white clouds drifting due east in a blue sky. I may even set the door ajar and get some spring air and some birdsong. 

The Elegant Pass-Through

Birdsong; spring air. It's good.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

For Livia Montana

(Who asked: “What does the beating of the heart and the taste of salt have in common?”)


you feel both in the tremble beside the trachea,
where the carotid and the swallow-muscles clutch.


Blood, they have blood in common,
the taste of tarnished copper in the mouth.


They have grief in common, the skin of the world's drum:
I wonder you would be asking this late in the day.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Quiet Dark

Fascinated always by watching the slow rise out of a slough of despond. I'm seldom in any doubt about whether I'm going in or coming out (though I should be; I'm often wrong). But the shift, though subtle, is radical. Perhaps the heart of it is doubting whether I'll be able to do all that is expected of me.

So much of it, almost all of it, is expectation, and a sense of the momentum, whether I'm making headway or falling behind. Which is why the worst time of all is the day after some triumph. Backsliding, doing worse, is practically guaranteed. It used to drive Martha nuts, when I was in school, that upon receiving good grades and favorable comments at the end of a semester – upon discovering that my anxiety was groundless – I pitched straight into gloom and depression. As soon as the initial happiness and relief wore off, my response was – all this work, for this? Nothing has really changed, except that now I'm higher up, so now I'll fall the harder. It must have been awfully exasperating to live with.

I am ordinarily a cheerful soul, though, full of delight in whatever comes along. The gloom was temporary. I loved the beginning of a new semester, brand new books, new skills to master, new things to find out. I was natural student, in many ways: I positively like dropping my point of view and adopting someone else's, I love listening hard and following something that's complicated, difficult, involved. I'm patient with needing to build up background and foundational knowledge. Hearing to someone who is passionately involved with their topic is one of my favorite things to do.

Once again I tail off here, puzzled: why am I talking about the long ago days of being a student? Maybe because it was the last time I was actually sure that I was good at something. I go back again and again, and try to figure out where it all went off the rails. I was so promising: what happened? Oh, lots of things happened. For one thing, the American university system hit its first severe pothole right as I was coming on the to job market. To get a job I was going to have convince people, not just that I was good and knew my stuff, but that I was one of the half-dozen best people in the world. I actually may have been, but I didn't have that kind of confidence. And I didn't want to be in a world that competitive. I enjoy competing occasionally, but it's not a state of mind I want to simmer in constantly. Most of the successful academics I knew, at least the ones with personalities like mine, were deeply unhappy.

So. But enough, enough, turn, now. That's all past, it's even long past. I've made my choices, I've taken this road and no other, and barring disaster, my life is fully shaped now. What I need now is to maximize what I have, to continue jettisoning things that will not serve me or anyone else, and to bear steadily in mind that my time is finite, very finite. I never had time to waste – no one is so rich in time as that – but I do not even have much to spend, any more. I need to be slower and more deliberate, to strike less often, but more savagely and surely. I am a big old fish in my small pond, now.

My back was stiff, threatening to “go out” yesterday. Better today, and I'm daring to hope that I've dodged that bullet altogether. Many stresses, mental and physical, converged on the last few days. Now they're lifting and dispersing, one by one.

I dreamed I was at Burning Man, except that it was a resort with a swimming pool. A naked young woman leaned on a rail with me looking at the night sky flare and flicker. Then she leaned against me, and smiled when I put an arm around her. Some minutes later, with the scene somehow shifted, on a dark patio, I was emboldened enough to reach around her and put my hands on her pelvic bones, on the anterior iliac crests, with my fingertips in the soft tender inside rim of the pelvic bowl. She smiled tolerantly, but put her hands on mine and moved them decisively back to her hips. I was a friend, not a lover.

I was crushed: mortified that I had misinterpreted, distressed that I had overstepped. I felt the loss of trust and friendship like a physical wound. It struck me that all my life was of a piece: wherever the boundary was, I wanted to cross it, and the wanting was so habitual that I didn't even know what it was that I wanted any more. The dream of a land without boundaries alternated with the nightmare of a land without friendship, and both were driving me unmercifully. I woke flooded with grief. 4:00, my back aching, my eyes sore. I got carefully up out of bed, using the nightstand and the wall, straightening slowly, and stood for moment in the quiet dark.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Redwood Cafe

Morning: at the Redwood Cafe in Montavilla, where I just had a grand breakfast: a “breakfast sandwich” of scrambled eggs and roast pork and arugula on ciabata. Just why one makes “sandwiches” that are too large to handle, I don't really understand: but you can eat the innards as breakfast and the outards as toast and it works fine. I was breakfasting in splendid isolation, but now a second customer has come in. My fear of crowds was apparently misplaced.

Of course, they don't open till nine – when the day is half over – so it's more like lunch to me than breakfast. But I was getting increasingly unhappy about driving all the way over to Tom's: it was the sort of deep nonsense that cheap fuel fossil fuel breeds. A twenty minute drive just to get breakfast? When there are cafes within walking distance? (That serve, I have to admit, food that's much tastier and much less processed.) There was a reluctance to really admit I live in the Outer East; a reluctance to let go of our old neighborhood.

Also a reluctance to let go of the cafes of my youth: Tom's is indistinguishable from the cafes I grew up with. Whereas this place has intentionally kitsch touches, walls painted a deep, saturated red, and music that one might actually want to listen to. And, of course, chairs rather than booths. The coffee is made with probably double the count of beans per fluid ounce: if I treat it as agreeably flavored water I'll be in for a case of the jitters.

And here, of course – this is perhaps the heart of it – here I am an old man. I've got thirty years on every other human being in this establishment. At Tom's, I'm average-aged and in magnificent physical condition: here I'm on the far side of the hill and distinctly shopworn. My white hair flares in the morning light, and signals my incongruity.

                                              . . . derided by
         A kind of battered kettle at the heel.

But. Good food, a candle struggling to stay alight in its lake of wax, and a cloth napkin that delights my fingertips. I actually like all these things. It's not so bad, sometimes, that the world changes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Scotch Broom

 We walked, at Camassia. A crew of earnest but inarticulate young people were spraying chemicals to kill invasive grasses, which had been spray-painted a lurid teal color by some other (no doubt equally earnest and inarticulate) young people. We scooted past them at the entrance, lost them and found them again at whiles. It's not a big preserve.

A path snakes off to the bluff. A glimpse of three teenage girls who had taken their shirts off to bathe in the early March sun. On seeing us they grabbed their shirts and pulled them back on, though we were doing our best to pretend not to see them, and they were decently clad in bra-ish garments. “Once upon a time I would have felt bad,” mused Martha, “but now I think being embarrassed about taking your shirt off, when you're a teenage girl, is an integral part of doing it.”

The sky was blue, and Mt Hood's pure white made sharp edges against it. Indian plum was everywhere, its leaves standing up to fill with sunlight, its white flowers dangling down. A couple trilliums were trying it on. We met a white-haired woman who was plucking up invasive scotch broom. She was happy. “It's all new growth this year,” she said, “I think we're finally getting ahead of it.” She showed it to us, and I took a sprig to examine it, and learn to recognize it in its youthful state, in case we met any ourselves. “Slender ribbed branches” – with a star-shaped cross-section – easy enough to tell it, once you've rolled it between your fingers: it has a tough, briar-like feel.

In the afternoon, a deep, aching sadness. Martha was happy reading her book, but I was losing my place in the world. Deeply disoriented, as always after the change to daylight saving time. It makes me feel old and lost: the sun being in the wrong part of the sky, the jolting change to another schedule, the violent wrenching of all expectation, as if I'd gone to sleep in one season and woken up in another, with months of my life lost, and the sequence of natural life destroyed. I have lost my place. It will be days, or weeks, before I find it again.

I was too tired to read aloud to Martha, so I turned out my light, and she stroked my back. Sleep hovered for a while, and then backed away again. I was too tired to sleep. After half an hour or so, I turned my light back on, and read to her after all. The Truelove: we're getting into the later novels of O'Brian's opus, when he begins repeating himself, and his discontinuities begin to seem less like artistic daring and more like senility. Tried to sleep again: same routine. No luck. Got up, went out to the living room, made myself a sandwich, wandered about the web. Around two o'clock, I saw that the light in the bedroom was on again: Martha too was up and reading again. But at four o'clock, when I finally felt able to sleep, the room was dark. I climbed in beside her and fell asleep.

A couple hours later, the alarm: I had rashly agreed to give Tory a ride to work at seven. So here I am, done with that, having my coffee at Tom's, weighing the pros and cons of trying to eke out another hour or two of sleep before work. Maybe. We'll see. I've learned not to fret too much about sleeplessness, and trying to predict when I'll be able to sleep. It will all sort itself out eventually, until the next change of the clocks, when we'll get to do it all again.

Of course, it's not all the time change: that only gives the sadness and disorientation a local habitation and a name. The current pulling me away is strong. Just now I found a withering sprig of scotch broom in my pocket: slender, ribbed, dark green, out of place.

Thursday, March 06, 2014


One of the things you learn, by my age, is the absolute priority of the body. Gone are the fantasies of trumping its exigencies by will and imagination. Its rule is total. Its judgements can't be appealed.

The freedom left by this realization is shaped differently, but it is really no less spacious. The fourth wall here is death: it is the audience we play to, and never acknowledge, but never turn our backs on. Wall and doorway, barrier and opening. It's where the meaning sits, inscrutable, beyond the footlights.

I let someone trim my beard, for the first time in my fifty-five years, yesterday. She had me sit on the edge of the barber-chair, and scrutinized my face. Her eyes were screwed up, and her lips were pursed and wrinkled like a rose, and she darted at me with the clippers, shearing here and there with sudden darting moves. Like a hummingbird. All the while careful not to do the obvious and easy thing, which would have been to stand between my legs.

I have to be careful not to touch people, nowadays: I am so used to it in my work, that I'm at risk of forgetting to observe the taboos properly, like the foreigner  in the Dilbert comics ("My people have no personal space!") who stands nose-to-nose with people. ("Oh, I get it, your pockets are for your use only?") I am impatient, sometimes. If it's a temple, then why don't you honor it? You can't have it both ways. Sacred is sacred.

Monday, March 03, 2014


What I have promised, I will perform, says Eddison's Aphrodite, and I must say, that despite her reputation, and her dubious family background, she is the deity that has always dealt most fairly with me. She gives fair warning, and she makes few promises, and what she does promise she delivers. I have never regretted her service.

Not that it would signify, if I did: I have grown old in it and I'm fit for no other, now. It has more to do with the dazzling white of the sky than with fugitive nymphs, at this point. So bright that the pattern of the douglas fir boughs, against it, is printed on the inside of my eyelids. I was promised intensity, and the ability to take or leave anything else life might offer with a shrug, and she has given me those. Eyes open or closed, background or figure: the ragged boughs are there, with the light pouring through them.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Minotaur Between Clients

I'm a homebody. I like to draw
circles in a dish holding sand. I widen
the halls in that labyrinth and knit
the minotaur a scarf. He visits me
between clients.

--Luisa Igloria, "Open Relationship," The Saints of Streets

Home: the rain drawing beaded trails on the window pane, slantwise to the lines it's drawing on the air -- crosshatching itself, in what appears to be defiance of geometry and common sense. But of course, the glass is oblique to me; that explains it.

A jumble of impressions: the worn steps of a lovely old house on Capitol Hill -- a true neighborhood in defiance of all probability: I am introduced the neighbors at twilight. Inarticulate young men, with their extraordinary energy and shyness. An enormous willow, with its hanging whips already going spring yellow. (Yet another beaded curtain, hanging crosswise!). The doctor, sharp-eyed with intelligence and kindness, shaking my hand.

And a new-built house, and a city now largely Asian and African. Streets that are allowed to be one way in both directions, at different times, and streets I find myself on that were so steep that, had I been driving a standard transmission, I would have simply had to abandon my car right there and proceed by foot.

I too am a homebody, or perhaps a minotaur, and I am glad to be back in my own labyrinth. Seattle is, as ever, a place slightly outside of time, a Narnian wardrobe. I'm glad to know it is there. I'm glad to be back.  

On Facebook, I wrote : Well. I have just done AWP 2014, in my fashion. Three massages, two tête a têtes, one off-site reading. Back home, and I am as new as a bright copper penny. I have met and hugged the poet I most admire in all the world. I have drafted a poem. Here's to being my cranky middle-aged idiosyncratic self, and living within my neurological means!