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.