Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Aliens, and Alice Munro

I long for aliens.

I want the barbarity of a language wholly unlike ours. I long for intelligence unconstrained by the local obsessions of high-strung social mammals: from time to time I tire of monkeys.

I long for senses unknown to us, and for the faltering reach of metaphor and analogy to try to capture and convey experiences that we can never have, but that we that we will know exist.

Aliens! They would test the limits of our tolerance and understanding in ways we can't even imagine.

There are people who long for aliens because they think they will arrive and tell everyone else that they were right all along.

That is not what is going to happen.

I took to reading, when I was a boy, not because I was a literary type with any special affinity for words, but because I wanted aliens. I read science fiction out of a deep hunger for otherness. (Otherness was not, otherwise, very easy to come by in Springfield, Oregon in the 1960s.)

At first the mere appearance of otherness sufficed. Tentacles, clustered eyes, and so forth. But I soon caught on to the fact that most of the writers had just fitted put their standard human heroes or villains with ornamental limbs and mandibles. Only a few, only a few, gave me real aliens that were windows into otherness. There was a short story by... Isaac Asimov? About some military experiment that converted human beings -- or loaded their minds, or something -- into the native species of Jupiter. (Human beings, obviously, could not begin to survive on Jupiter, regardless of technological enhancements.) But for some reason the experiment just didn't seem to work: their explorers seemed to arrive, but never to report back. The narrator was their last try before closing up shop.

What he discovered was that being this new creature was so wonderful, the experience so rich, the sheer physicality so joyful, that he had no intention of ever going back to being a human being. Like his predecessors, he deserted his species at once and lit out for the Jovian territories.

There! Now that was a real alien: that was the sort of alien experience I was after. And then there was Ursula Le Guin, with her pregnant king (did Left Hand of Darkness really come that early?) and a few others. But I came to the end of them quick: science fiction was still mostly a comics-and-pulp hack genre, back then. That was lucky for me, because as I came to the end of it, still hungry for more, I groped my way back to H. G. Wells and Jules Verne: the classics of the genre, such as they were. And then, a funny thing happened. The aliens of these writers were not especially gripping -- sometimes they were in fact ludicrous -- but the writers themselves were alien. The 19th Century was a different place. Their language was different; their presuppositions and preoccupations were slightly but distinctly other. 

I had found another way to travel to other worlds, and meet alien minds, and I never looked back: I became a voracious reader of literature from long ago and far away. Though I still tire of monkeys.

Why do I think of this now? Because I'm a dozen pages into a book of Alice Munro's short stories, and I'm having that experience more powerfully than ever: I am in hands of an alien, more intelligent and tough-minded than me, who is going to show me things I never dreamed of and make me understand things I never understood. 

Thank God for aliens. You never know when they're going to show up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


A slight shudder of pleasure as I drink in the vanilla milkshake. I am intent on taking on calories: totally focused on these few moments, when I have enough. The taste fills my mouth. My nervous system lights up like a Christmas tree. Martha starts reading me something aloud from her book, and I pay no attention, except for a quick spurt of anger: can she not leave me alone for the thirty seconds when life comes into focus, and is no longer a meaningless jumble of cross-purposes and baffled will?

But I'm an old hand at this. I let the anger slide away, as quick as it came. She doesn't know, can't know, won't know, and I'm not going to tell her, or anybody. This is between me and the milkshake.

Twice a day, I eat to satiety. Anyone would laugh at what constitutes a "diet" for me. I laugh at it myself. And this is still more the control group than the experiment: I'm just holding things steady, measuring, establishing my baseline. I expect to have to bring it down, to cut things out. For now, a week into this project, I am not even trying to make progress. I'm just trying to discover where I am.

Still, any restriction at all makes me panicky, resentful, sly. I become juvenile. Greedy. Cunning. I would steal this milkshake from anyone, no matter how needy or vulnerable, if I had no other way to get it. Without a second thought. It's queer thing to know about oneself. Keep me supplied with milkshakes, I'm a model citizen; otherwise, lock your doors.

Half a small vanilla milkshake, and a cheeseburger. It isn't really a huge meal, not like the breakfast, but it's enough to light the tree, enough to make life worth living. I can be hungry at other times, as long as this is in prospect.

Greed. Pure greed, nothing else. I do pretty well handling the more spiritual and intellectual sins. Pride and wrath I'll take on, best two out of three, any time. Sloth and avarice? They heel like obedient dogs. Envy? Who cares? Why bother?

But the simple supposedly lesser sins of the flesh, those, I am powerless against. I want what I want when I want it, with the shamelessness of a two year old. It's always been this way. And now I'm fat, and want not to be, so I have to to engage with this greed -- understand it -- fool it, or tame it. To be this old, and be so undignified, so squalid!

Still: towers of cloud against sudden piercing blue, and rain batters the windshield, and then the Gorge opens to show squalls at either end, with the river glistening in a sudden moment of spring in between; and clouds of forget-me-nots appear on the banks, resolve into flowers, and vanish again as we make the curves. This too.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


One of the privileges of being a massage therapist is that I'm no longer afraid of getting old, and dying. Oh, I don't want to, of course. There's always that instinctive flinch away from death: no sentient creature is without it. But I mean the particular fear that comes of growing up in a world in which old bodies are carefully concealed and well-wrapped, even when they're allowed to appear at all. People really just don't know what their bodies are going to be like, when they're seventy, eighty, ninety. Except me. I know exactly what they're going to be like: the textures and tensions of skin and flesh, where the skeleton is going to loosen and stiffen; and so of course I know what mine is going to be like too. I know what deterioration can be mitigated and what can't. I'm not subject to the fantasy that I will somehow be the only person to hit 80 years of age without looking old; nor am I subject to vague exaggerated horror about that transformation. It's real, ordinary, everyday. I, too, should I make it to 95, will probably wear a diaper of sorts when I climb laboriously onto a massage table. But I'll enjoy my massage as much as ever.


Bodies remain wonderful, magical. The Jewish conception of the body as a temple, a sacred space, has always resonated with me. Years of daily familiarity have heightened that sense, rather than diminishing it. This body, here, now, under my hands, these forms that are like and unlike any other body that has been on my table, that are like and unlike those of any other mammal, any other vertebrate, any other sentient creature. This is a house of God, if anything is: and it's one that we are uniquely suited to understand and venerate.


My status, as a massage therapist, is low: somewhere in the range of hairdressers and housekeepers, even if it sometimes ranges as high as that of physical therapists or as low as that of prostitutes. One is "a treasure," of course, but one is never taken quite seriously. Which I'm happy about. If I were a less privileged person it might rankle, I guess: but these days I don't really want to be taken seriously: I don't want my feet to sink that deep in the sand. I'm traveling light: I have a long journey to make and I'm not planning on building any houses on the way. 

I think, always, of the dipper: that comical little bird, "usually seen bobbing up and down on a rock in mid-stream," otherwise modest and nondescript. It is a shaman, a traveler in two worlds: it will vanish into a stream or a waterfall's splash pool, and you'll glimpse it, if you're lucky, swimming under the water, with as much ease and speed as it flies through the air. It doesn't need respect, on either side of the mirror. It has its own business to mind.

Thursday, May 04, 2017


Let the longing settle 
onto the back of your hand,
like a butterfly -- 
the faint snick of alien toes 
that grip your surface with care 
and oblivious precision --
like that. As a lepidotperan
one learns respect 
for open country 
like the human skin, 
and for the winds 
that blow across it. 
Let the longing settle
like that. Just long enough
for the wings to pulse
once, twice, three times, 
and the full strangeness
to begin to register: 
of warm skin; the scent -- 
for their feet are olfactory -- 
of an omnivore: 
the dire ape of legend. 
It will take to the air before 
it has quite understood
more than a general threat 
and a wild unease:
let it go, then, 
haphazard on the breeze.

Monday, May 01, 2017

A Quieter Return

They say that if there was air between here and the Sun -- I know, I know, the physics of that are impossible, but play along -- if there was air to conduct sound, we would hear the huge roar of the Sun's furnace, all the time. That's how loud, how fierce the ongoing explosion.

Maybe my tinnitus is the sound of the stars burning, then. Different ones coming into focus at different times.

Already I can feel those giant fingers gently plucking at me, loosening my hold on the earth. All these new celebrities: time was, I would look at a tabloid and think, oh yes, that name! I'm supposed to know that name, she's famous for something. But now I look and think, look, a name: I've never seen it before, and if I ever see it again, I won't remember having seen it now. And everything is like that. A truer sight than before, really. But is it really truth we're hankering after?

No, I don't think so. The glimmer, maybe. A homecoming and a coronation. Not such a lucky thing for the fatted calf, was it? Or for Odysseus's maids: those hapless girls, who just wanted fun. Why do we go on with this, blaming this man's art, condemning that man's scope? What do we think we'll arrive at, when justice is fully dealt? An empty house that rocks in the wind.

No, I'm looking for a quieter return. No havoc, no retribution, no edging aside of more plodding dutiful sons. I think maybe the fantasy is to go home knowing what I know now, just to look with the eyes I have now.

But it's all gone. Houses, parking lots, even the streets are gone. There's no going back to any of that. My world has been erased behind me.

For a long time, I've declared it my intention to efface all signs of myself. Like a Cheshire cat licking its substance away, till it's only a tongue, a disembodied grooming. So this is a good thing, right?

Maybe so. Maybe so. God bless all who are abroad, in the wide sky, on the shifting sea. I'll lift my old head, when you come into the courtyard. Oh yes, I'll recognize you. Some loves and delights do last.

And trust, and even an odd kind of faith.

Travel safely. And come home soon, huh? We miss you here.