Saturday, December 29, 2018

Squinting into the Distance

Three months ago, I took a pretty complete set of measurements: chest, arms, shoulders, thighs, calves, with the intention of repeating the measurements quarterly: I was setting out to build muscle, working out four or five times per week, and I wanted to be able to measure my progress. Yesterday I did it again, and found that all the measurements were -- exactly the same, except a quarter-inch smaller around the chest and around the thigh. So that was disappointing.

Well, except. I weigh myself and measure my waist and hips every morning, so I know those measurements quite precisely. Three months ago I weighed three pounds less, and my waist was 3/4" larger, and my hips were .5" smaller. When I actually put all these facts together, I realized that there's really no other way to interpret them. My volume is staying the same while my weight is increasing: that can only mean that I am becoming denser. That three pounds can't be fat, given that the waist was shrinking. It has to be new muscle, and I have to have been becoming leaner. In fact the numbers meant I was doing exactly what I set out to do, and in fact going at twice the pace I had hoped. I've been building a pound of muscle per month. So that's cheering.

The point of this is not to brag, although of course I'm doing that too: the point is that it's easy to mistake and misinterpret what numbers mean if you don't have enough context. My initial and quite erroneous response was, "I haven't built any muscle, I've failed!" I might have taken that to heart and given up the project.


Ultima Thule. It hadn't even been discovered when New Horizons launched, and now we're going to get a look at it. Four billion miles is a long, long way from home.


"Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand," said Thomas Carlyle. 

You have to do some of both, of course, but my life has skewed toward squinting into the distance. It's surprisingly refreshing to spend most of my energy on what's clear and close at hand: cooking my food, doing my exercise, tending my finances, doing my work at the foundation. I am distinctly happier.

Monday, December 24, 2018

This Pleasant Lea

"If your religion excluded hearth and home, and was intellectual self-indulgence, then no wonder you jettisoned it," said Lekshe. It would be too much to say that was all it was, but some of it was. There was also Wordsworth's longing for attunement:

...For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Well and good, William, but you don't get attunement for free. A world in which you really believe in Furies is a far different world from one in which you saunter along pleasant leas and indulge a passing literary yen for wholeness. 

I've recognized in myself, and in some of my readers, a weakness for following the story rather than the discoverable and verifiable facts, which leads by easy stages to caging children in border camps. I and my people have been far too fond of having our cake and eating it too. 

Bread and stone, tree and water: a few things we all have handled daily, Pagans, Christians, and Buddhists alike. The morning sky and the bell. 

I am realizing my loyalty to science and experiment: to keeping alive the suspicion that if you can't dream up a repeatable experiment to demonstrate a difference, the difference may not be there. However obvious it may be. Lots of obvious things aren't true.

But also science is not enough, and a regular practice of compassion is necessary to keep me from "falling off the other side of the horse." Because in certain long views, who the hell cares? So the human species is experiencing an "outbreak," and will drown itself and many other species in its own shit -- why should I care? How is that different from any other biological shift? Much of what I cared about most deeply is already gone. The old growth forests of Oregon linger in a few little parks and sanctuaries, but the whole point of the old forests was their immensity, the fact that you could get lost in them. A lion on the savanna is magnificent, but a lion in a zoo is just sad. 

I don't know. I get muddled, I lose the thread, I repeat myself. And after all, the question of "am I a Buddhist"? is neither essential nor even interesting. The interesting question is, "what next?"

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sucky Little Promises

The changes come slowly, and all at once.  Two years ago I was rolling along consuming my way through an American life, despite realizing that, unless I increased my income, something was going to have to give. Despite fully understanding that the consumer life was not delivering on any of its promises, even its sucky little promises: the treats didn't even taste good; the conveniences weren't convenient. I was living lavishly, like a lord, but the poverty of my spirit was every day more obvious.

And then I just stopped.

It's not quite as simple as that, but almost.

Now I eat things that have names, rather than trademarks. Eggs, oats, apples, potatoes. I cook my own food. I have spreadsheets to tell me when, for instance, I'm spending a ridiculous portion of my income on Worcestershire sauce. I take the train or the bus to work. I think about what I earn and spend and invest, as if this was actually my life, as if I actually lived here, rather than being one of Steinbeck's temporarily embarrassed millionaires, camped awhile on the banks of the Willamette while my glorious future is preparing.

Many things converged. Some, I'm sure, I will only understand later, or not at all. "The death of Jesus set me free," as William Blake asserted: that's part of it. The election to the presidency of a man who, improbably, manages to unite in his person practically everything I have ever despised had a hand in it: my political despair is absolute. It's odd I guess that it's just when my sober assessment tells me that adopting a simple life can no longer move any of the needles that I should have found the wherewithal to do it. But I'm doing it for me, not for you. You can rot in hell, my countrymen. You will. You already do.

But I pull myself away from that. I don't mean to pay him or his people any more homage or attention than I must. Send them on their way. Don't let the trap hit you on the way down, sweethearts. I have other things to do, in the time left.

No. What is important now is dismissing fear, and turning only and always to what is beautiful. I practice this over and over. If it's neither practical nor beautiful, I want no part of it. And it must be here now, today, or this week, this month at a stretch. Not ten years from now. Not when the city on the hill is built.

And -- not opposed to this, but actually gracefully part of it -- I have to live as if my choices mattered, even though I know they don't. I have to stop consuming more than I need, not because it will have any effect, but for my own peace of mind. I don't mistake it for political action, which is the only real path forward (if there is one) for the environment. But I just can't do it any more, the relentless spend spend spend acquire acquire acquire waste waste waste. I'm done. I'm living as simply as I reasonably can. 


Milk-white sky, the ferns nodding occasionally, like sleepy old men pretending to pay attention: the quiet of the morning, one of the few parts of The Season that I really like, has set in. 


My religious impulses have withered, in these last two years, as my attention has turned to home and hearth. My affable tolerance for magical thinking has vanished, to be replaced by a maybe more authentic hatred for that sort of intellectual self-indulgence. I am much, much less nice. I have moments of contempt that frighten me: they come surging up from basement rooms I didn't even know my brain had. This is me too, of course, as I've always been. I work on it, kneading it, trying to soften it. Sometimes I think I'm getting somewhere.

"I'm a religious person..." I began to say, somewhere. Social media, I expect. But I stopped and didn't hit "enter." Maybe I'm not a religious person. What was it I started to mean, when I said that? That for me ecstatic experience trumped quotidian concerns? That I was willing to entertain falsehoods, if they would lead me to new understandings? That I was aware of larger consciousnesses than the one I call "mine" sharing my space? 

Or maybe, just that I'm a contrary old cuss, whose friends are largely unreligious academics, and I like rattling their cages? All of these, none of these, I don't know. 


The wind picks up, and for a moment or two the ferns are lively, and the hedge shakes itself like a dog coming out of a river. Merry Christmas, y'all. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

User Interface

I finally bit the bullet and used my oven yesterday.

I actually have used this oven before, but it must have been ten years ago. It intimidates and frustrates me because a) the oven's conceptual categories don't match mine and b) the crucial feedback mechanism -- the little register that tells you the "phase" and reports the temperature setting -- is so dim that it can only be read -- if it's nighttime -- by switching off all the lights in the house and crouching down close to it. In daytime it can't be read at all.

So Martha and I sat down and read the owner's manual, the other day. We searched for a way to embrighten the register, but no luck. But at least I got over the conceptual stumbling blocks. It had seemed to me that, having set a "preheat" temperature and attained it, you should then proceed to set the baking time, using the "bake" button. Because now you're going on to the "bake" phase, capiche? That's what we're doing here, we're baking something. But the oven doesn't think that way. There is a "preheat" button. What it does is bring the oven up to a certain temperature, 350 degrees by default, and it leaves it there. Fair enough. Then there is a "bake" button. What this does -- so far as I can tell -- is go straight to whatever behavior will maintain the oven indefinitely at the set temperature. "I'm now baking at 350," the oven says to itself, even though it's sitting there at 70 degrees. After a while it will get there, but it won't ever engage the upper element to do so. And once it achieves 350, it will stay there forever. So it's very, very like the "preheat" button, and I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would ever use it. "Heat up to 350, but be slow about it!" Whatever.

So my first real conceptual difficulty was my conviction that, since I was setting out to bake something, I should at some point press the "bake" button. I have cleared that away. In the ordinary course of things I will never touch the "bake" button at all, unless what I want to do is reduce the heat. (I suspect I could use the "preheat" button for that as well, though I haven't run the experiment.)

My second conceptual difficulty was my naive belief that the oven would not let me turn it on for perpetuity. Surely it would turn itself off, by default, after a day, or three days, or something? Not a bit of it. Here we probably run into Things That People Do With Ovens that are beyond my ken: food drying maybe? Anyway, it ain't so. Once it achieves its heat, it will stay there forever, until the stars burn out. If you want to limit the time it will stay on, you use the "bake time" button, and then set the time using the up and down arrow buttons. The time set will appear in the amber lights that cannot be read in daytime, just as the temperature does. It goes up or down in 5 minute increments. To turn off the oven -- which seems to me to be a pretty fundamental oven command -- you push the "cancel" button. Cancel? Really? In what world does "cancel" mean "off"?

I write this all out -- recognizing that it must be tedious reading -- in order to fully wrap my mind around it. It's deeply counterintuitive, to me. And it makes me grateful for the innumerable good user interfaces I use every day. I don't often encounter an interface, any more, that isn't immediately understandable. It also drives home how bad it is, for the user, to not have an immediate response to every command, a way to know it was received and understood. In theory, knowing that every press of the "up" button increases the heat by five degrees, or the time by five minutes, should suffice. In practice, not being able to see the temperature or time induces real anxiety, anxiety strong enough to have kept me from using the thing for years. 

Anyway. I baked some chicken thighs and potatoes, and they were good. A great leap forward. From the stovetop to the profundities beneath. New worlds.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Crowding; Revelation

It's odd that practically no one ever talks about the centrality of invisibility, in The Lord of the Rings.

In Tolkien's world, to claim power and to disappear are often one and the same act. Or (to say the same thing, but reversing the poles) you can appear, or you can wield power, but you can't do both. (This is something somebody should probably have explained to President Trump: it would have saved many tears.) Those who choose power become invisible, and ultimately nameless. It's a disquieting idea, but I think it's one that bears a lot of rumination.

(The exception to the power/visibility trade-off is Aragorn-as-King-Elessar, and it's precisely Aragorn's oddly repeated revelation-of-majesty scenes that were most stirring to me, in my youth, and are now least convincing to me, in my maturity. When Tolkien tries even to approach power that is visible, everything starts to wobble, and his language gets ever more archaic and grandiose. I loved it, as a teenager, but as an adult I know the signs all too well: he's trying too hard.)

I've played for fifteen years, here, with the gratifications and drawbacks of being visible. The yen to disappear has never been absent, but lately -- lately it has crowded in on me. Visibility makes it difficult or imprudent, sometimes, to say exactly what I mean: one of my most characteristic things to do these days is to write out a paragraph or a couple pages in response to something... and to think: no. Not here, not now, not in this persona anyway. And {delete}.

I was reading the Wikipedia article on the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, and found the longing overwhelming. Oh, to be invisible, and to say exactly what I mean!

On the other hand: "He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible..." There's that, too.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


A sunny morning in late Fall, a quiet Sunday morning. A scrub jay complaining somewhere offstage. Shadows of leaves. Reflections from the birdbath making wavery lines on the hedge, as if the whole world were lightly underwater. Beyond, through the thin spots of the hedge, the sun wavers on the neighbor's lawn and chicken run as well, and slantwise to that a few yellow bamboo leaves drift down.

There's a huge sadness behind me. I'm curled like a cat in its lap, feeling the rise and fall of its breath. Who knew it would take so long? How many corners would be turned, to reveal further corners in the far distance?

But. To practical things. Start the chili, get a shower, go into work and get a few processes underway. I'm getting better at inhabiting my life, at bringing my attention to what's actually under my hands. Thinking about shopping and cooking and cleaning, deploying my resources of time and attention as if I actually meant to have the life that I have. I have camped in my life too much, spent too much time in it as if it was a hotel room rather than a house. I've indulged myself too much, ordering stuff in and leaving it to the staff to clean up: that's one way to look at it. Or you could say, I have indulged myself too little: I've never bothered to make myself really at home. I'm trying to do that now. 

But today I'm wistful, and full of regrets and second thoughts. Other half-lived lives move away, out of my range of vision. If I try to look straight at them they disappear.

A book I read recently suggested that I write about what my life will be like ten years from now, when all my dreams have come true and all my projects are accomplished. The exercise was so foreign to me -- entailed thinking so differently than I usually think -- that I resolved to do it. But I've failed so far to get started. Ten years, who knows if I even have ten years? What should I be hoping for? What might I be trying to do, in that time scale? I think in the main it's a good thing not to be obsess on the future, not to make life something that's going to happen later when I've achieved X or obtained Y. But drawing a complete blank on one's future is maybe taking it too far. And surely how I order my life implies its ten-year goals, for better or worse? My habits and daily activities point to some ten-year conclusion: is it one I want? 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Suddenly Opened

Suddenly opened little windows into the darkness
and though a wind made them shiver 
they did not quite disappear.

Four walls and a roof make a house, or they try to,
and an exile learns to carry matches
as a matter of course.

It's true that once your hair made a gold-red aureole
and my clothes have never fit well since,

but to presume beyond that
outruns my writ.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Fifteen Years After

Buried Templeby Natalie D'Arbeloff. Acrylic on paper, 37cm x 37 cm.

Fifteen years! I'll have more to say about that soon. It was a difficult time in my life, and I felt very much alone. And then these curious things came along, by the unlovely name of blogs: windows into other lives. Suddenly I knew other people who were interested both in literature and in the spirit, both in nature and in the wrought world, both in common kindness and in divine transcendence. A conversation sprang up, which has taken many forms: sometimes it's subsided, sometimes it's unexpectedly resumed. The company over the years has made my life much richer. Here's some of a recent interchange, when we took of the question why are we still blogging?
Rachel: Writing is one of the fundamental ways I experience and explore the world, both the external world and my own internal world. I think it was EM Forster who wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Blogging as I’ve come to understand it is living one’s life in the open, with spiritual authenticity and intellectual curiosity, ideally in conversation or relationship with others who are doing the same.
Dave: At some level, it's easier to keep blogging at Via Negativa, the Morning Porch, and Moving Poems than it is to stop. Basically I'm an addict. Writing poetry is fun for me — entering that meditative head-space required for immersion in writing. As for the social aspect, I've been in, or on the periphery of, several distinct blogging communities over the years, and at one time, we all commented on each other's sites, but with the rise of social media, most blog commenting went away — and I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing. Writing and responding to comments did take up a lot of my time ten years ago, and now that I can scratch that conversational itch on Twitter, or in real life with my partner, I'm OK with most interactions on my blogs being limited to pings. But I must immediately qualify that and admit that Via Negativa is a special case, because for well over half its existence now I've enjoyed the virtual companionship of a co-blogger, the brilliant and prolific poet Luisa Igloria, and a small number of occasional guest bloggers as well. I wouldn't say I'm competitive, but Luisa's commitment to a daily poetry practice has definitely forced me to up my game. Then there's Mr. Pepys. My Pepys Diary erasure project grew directly from sociability: my partner and I wanted to read the online version of the diary together, and I worried I might eventually get bored with it if I weren't mining it for blog fodder. 
Lorianne: I am not attached to the medium, but I am attached to the message, and the process of creating/sharing that message.  There has been a lot of hand-wringing among bloggers over the “death of the blog,” with long-time (and former) bloggers worried about attention divides between blogs and social media.  Where do “I” live if I post in multiple places: on blog, in a paper notebook, on social media? For those of us who do all three, the result can be confusing, distracting, and frazzling...or it can be creative, collaborative, and synergistic.
DaleI didn’t really expect ever to have readers, so in a way, having readership dwindle is a return to the early days... I’ve outlived some of my personas -- I’m no longer recognizeably very Buddhist, and my politics have morphed in some odd ways. I don’t think I’m as salable an item as I used to be :-) But the inertia, as Dave said. When I do have something to say and my censor doesn’t step in, the blog is still where I go. It’s been home for fifteen years: my strand of the web… The community that was established way back when is still important to me, and still a large part of my life. And there’s still a lot of value in having a public space. The act of making something public changes it, changes how I look at. I become the viewers and the potential viewers. It helps me get out of myself. It helps me work through my favorite game of “what if I’m wrong about all these things?”
Natalie: Why the hell still blogging? Not sure I am still blogging. I put something up on Facebook whenever I feel like saying hey, listen, or hey, look at this. Then I copy/paste the post to Blogger where I keep Blaugustine going, mainly out of a sense of imaginary duty. The idea that there are some real people out there who may be actually interested in some of my thoughts and/or artwork is undoubtedly attractive, even necessary. I live a mostly hermit life and don’t get much feedback of any kind. But my interior life is very active, all the time, and having a tiny public platform online where I can put stuff is really helpful. To be perfectly honest I think that’s about it for me and blogging at present. I don’t do any other social media, it would all take too much time which I’d rather devote to artwork.
BethI think a lot of it has to do with a sense of place. My blog is like a garden or a living room that I’ve put energy and thought and care into as a place that’s a reflection of myself and is hopefully welcoming for others.. The discipline of gathering work and talking about it coherently has been extremely good for me and for my art practice. And I’ve also really appreciated and been inspired by other people who do the same, whatever their means of expression. There’s something deeply meaningful about following someone’s body of work, and their struggles, over not just months but years. In today’s climate of too-muchness and attention-seeking and short attention spans, I feel so encouraged and supported by the quiet, serious doggedness of other people like me!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

La Caza Que Practica

--Lo que busco decirle es que esa prolongada obsesión puede producir ciertos...
--Secuelas, es la palabra. A mi juicio, un cazador queda marcado por la caza que practica.

"What I'm trying to say is that a longtime obsession can produce certain..."
"Consequences, is the word. To my mind, a hunter is permanently marked by the hunt that he practices."

--El Asedio, Arturo Pérez-Reverte

I've been sick for a past few days -- mildly, some virus or other; enough to keep me home from work and cancelling appointments, but not otherwise very distressing. I'm better now. Just did my resistance training for the day, and reveling in the post-exercise glow. I miss that now, when I can't get it.

Being homebound and not minding makes me realize how large a change I've undergone, in the past year and a half. I used to hate being homebound. Now I rather like it. I have lots of time to cook and clean. I'm no longer all about escaping the house and being in the world. I still like being in the world: I just find being at home more interesting and rewarding than I used to. I tussle with problems such as "can I replace the hamburger in my dinner with something cheaper and healthier, without wrecking its satiety quotient?" and it seems valid to me, a worthy enterprise, an interesting one. This is progress, I think. Unless it's just dwindling. Fading into the west. Whatever. There are worse things.

Pearl-white sky: birds shifting in the hedge. Occasionally a drip of water from somewhere above makes a single leave shudder, but otherwise we're sunk in a huge stillness and silence. Nothing needs to be done. Winter, as we understand it here, has arrived.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Size Of My Bones

There were giants in those days.

Yesterday, we set out on a chilly, gloomy day for what Martha calls the Rhododendron Gardens, and I call Crystal Springs -- what's the real name? I forgot to check -- at the edge of the Reed College campus.

We walked, and talked philosophy and Buddhism and Christianity and politics and mortality. Whenever we paused, the waterfowl began to gather. "I'm sorry, we don't have anything for you," said Martha. They gathered anyway.

The sun came out and everything was brilliantly lit -- mallards and wood ducks and geese paddling around us. Every time a duck went uptails nearby, its little orange-pink ankles showing above the water as its feet churned to keep its head down, we laughed.

Behind us, a couple of shadowy, quick-moving young people -- people younger than us, anyway -- took pictures. The old couple nestled together watching the sunlit ducks. "We're going to be a stock photo. Golden years," says Martha. I grimace and stick my tongue out.

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

All my life I thought I had big bones. I was "husky," a word much used in my childhood but which seems quaint now. My bones are actually the same size as everyone else's, something I could have discovered any time these sixty years by simply measuring the circumference of my wrists.

Beyond the wood on the west side of the lake lie the rail yards, and a deep bass roar and rattle comes from them, at times. All of us, mammals and waterfowl, are used to it, and take no notice. It's just the rumble signifying the end of the world: we've heard it all our lives.

We stand up to go. As we look down into the shallows we see a crayfish crawling cautiously out from under a rock. "A crawdad!" exclaims Martha, falling into her native dialect, which always pleases me. "I didn't know there were crawdads here."

And so back home, refreshed but hungry, and late for lunch.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Salting An Egg By Feel

The mornings grow dark, only half-light spilling in;
I can't see to sprinkle salt onto my egg
(warm from its boiling, pulsing in my hand.)
I know from memory,
from mornings lighter than this
what it feels like, done right; a couple
little taps with my forefinger, the shaker held
just so. It works just fine. The sense of touch
will do. I don't need to see it any more. But I worry
about people who have never seen bright mornings:
how will they learn how it's supposed to feel?

Sunday, September 30, 2018


The foliage outside my window is checkered, yellow and green: where the sky shows through it's pale and uneasy. A crow mutters somewhere above. September is closing.

That I should be so deceived, still, by the games of getting and spending! But here we are, and the thin trembling equinoctial quiet is barely perceptible. Another narrow escape? Maybe. Maybe.

A few deep breaths. Short of sleep, as so often nowadays. I will nap, if I can. I no longer have to worry about naps running beyond their writ, anyway. A half glass of water sets an infallible two hour alarm.

An old blessing descends. Even though I have largely given up talking -- which, you would think, would make it easier -- I listen too seldom these days. The restless chatter of my inner monologues takes most of my attention. I need to listen more, and harder.

For example: the singing of a simple sad voice, far away.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018


Master of the Senate, the third volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, continues to illuminate the history of my country as no other has done for me. It is a biography of Johnson -- one of the best biographies I have ever read -- but it also, and more importantly, is a history of the United States in the 20th Century. I finally have a bridge from the Civil War era, which I felt I understood quite well, to the present. I can follow the lineages. The line that leads from Nathan Bedford Forrest to Joseph McCarthy  to Donald Trump senior to our present affliction; the line that leads from Ulysses S. Grant to my grandfather (a socialist carpenter who moved from New Jersey to Texas, and named his son after Eugene Debs) to Hubert Humphrey to my father and to me -- all this territory is awash in light. So grateful. History is a magnificent thing. To be able to understand the backstory of your own life, and to be able to see the conflicts of our time in a longer perspective. So valuable.

Then there's this book, Atul Gawande's Being Mortal. A lovely and important book. One of the tasks of this part of my life is preparing the end of it properly, so as to save myself and others much grief and expense. I love Gawande's nuance and precision, his recognition of the forces at work. I've seen I suppose more of the ends of lives than most people, as an in-home massage therapist, and I'm grateful for knowing so intimately how the end stages go, and what the choices really mean. 

As usual, I'm a keen follower of the long trailing edge: neither of these books is new. But if you haven't read them you should.


I continue. 153 lbs. Today I did five consecutive pull-ups, a personal record. I can do a two-point stand (rising to standing, from being seated on the floor, without aid of hands, elbows, or knees.) 

Power was out Sunday morning, so I went to Tom's, for the first time in, oh, six months I suppose. I do like the distant sociability of eating out and working in a cafe, but I don't really miss the food, and I can't really justify the expense. Mulling over whether there might be other ways to arrive at the same end.

My concentration continues to concern me. I am working on my diet book, but not nearly at the rate I would like to be -- four or five pages per week, maybe. It seems to me that I should go several times faster, since really I know what I want to say and how I want to structure it, and I have plenty of free time. But the time, all too often, seems to run out into the sands of social media and disappear. Hmm.

Still, at least I *am* reading and writing again. So that's good.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Heart of the Matter

Just finished this novel, which is quite beautiful in its odd way, and strikes me -- however it may have struck other people -- as a deconstruction of Catholicism, and of Christianity generally. What does it mean to suffer for others? Does the idea even make sense? Does expiation by suffering create goodness, or poison it? Or both?

And can pity be a vice? It can be, I think, and this novel seems to think so too: a version of pride, of believing we can take care of people, that we know best for them, that we can intercede for them. And believing that so strongly, it's only a small step to deceiving them for their own good: protecting them from information that would only hurt them. The more we take on, the more we isolate ourselves, and the more we forget that we ourselves are deceived and pitiable and desperately in need of help.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Two Real Things; And What I'm Doing, Pt 2

Now when I drive the car the world spins by, slightly blurred, unimpressed; it doesn't give damn which of us is moving, or whose eyes have gotten old. The tape runs: I arrive (as we say) at the store, just as I used to. It's just that the car has never really moved, and no one in the store will see me. Well, except that one solid, oddly real young black woman, who very deliberately does not look at me. She has her own stories, and she intends to keep them.

Once again, the self-check runs awry. This time, to my surprise, it scans the overlarge bar code on my eighteen-egg carton, at which it balked before; but this time it will not read the little bar code on the little sticker on the apples. In frustration, I try to look them up, but I'm not sure the apples I key in are the right ones. Am I paying too much? Too little? Really, I can't say that I care, even if I am so near and careful these days.  It accepts the apples, with a tag of "" I'm trying to buy jonagolds, cheap at 98c per pound, but I've probably paid for golden delicious at some higher rate. Whatever. I pay with a card, and carry my bag out into the parking lot. A perfect half moon appears over the trees. I stop to look at it. Two real things, I've seen two real things on this trip: the young black woman and the half moon.

I stow the grocery bag in the passenger seat, and drive home. I take the engineer's route: possibly slower, but it edges around the hill on a couple little twisty alleys instead of dropping down fifty steep feet, and then going right back up on the main drags. The inefficiency of that route appalls me. It matters no more than the price of the apples, of course. In both cases the real contours of what we're doing here are not to be altered. You go to the grocery store a certain number of times, then there's a brief time when somebody else has to do it for you, and after that everyone adjusts to your absence.

At home I pour the oats into their big plastic jar, set the apples on the counter to be washed, and put an extra old plastic bag around the burger to put it in the fridge. (In my pantry chef days I learned that a single layer of plastic really doesn't do it, not for a couple days in the fridge. Whether this notion is true, I have no idea: it's just another one of those unreal swirly things that go by.) Life is mostly made of unreal swirly things. But there's an occasional moon, an occasional young black woman, to keep you off-balance, to keep you wondering if some of these things might not be real after all. You think you're being careful and you think you know the difference; but you aren't and you don't.


Despite the large recoveries of control over my life -- or possibly because of them -- I find myself in some anxiety about how I'm spending my time: does it really line up with what I want to be doing for the next couple decades, should I be lucky enough to be doing anything at all? The answer to that is rapid and easy: no. It doesn't. I need to look it over again, the list of things I'm committing myself to doing, and a rough outline of where I'm actually putting my time. Do I actually have a rough outline of that? Actually --

Actually, no, I don't. And if this weight loss enterprise has taught me anything, it's that my intuitive sense of quantities and proportions is worth diddly squat. I need to measure and track, if I want to have any idea what's going on. Pound in stakes, and measure the high-water marks.

Closer, yes: we're closer than we've ever been. And nobody is looking for precision or perfection here. But I do need to know what I'm doing.

Friday, August 10, 2018


A while back, in an online forum, someone wrote about having once been obsessed with their weight, in a bad way. They went on to give in evidence -- well, everything that I'm doing. Tracking everything. Carefully measuring weight and girth daily. Planning food intake carefully and following the plan exactly. This, she said, was her unhealthy obsession. She didn't want to do that again. She just wanted to lose weight.

So I mulled that over for a while. I suppose one person's unhealthy obsession is another person's due diligence. I feel less obsessed -- less hagridden -- by food than I have ever felt. It's true that I plan and track. But when I'm not shopping, cooking, eating, recording -- I'm not thinking about it. I used to fret about food a lot, and I spent a surprising amount of time "deciding what to eat." Mealtimes nevertheless came upon me suddenly, causing chaos and dismay. What should I eat? What did Martha want to eat? What should we do, at that tangled intersection of spending and indulgence and health risk and consumerism and HOW CAN WE SOLVE IT RIGHT NOW BECAUSE OH MY GOD I'M STARVING?

I used to eat so much more, and yet I was starving so often. The hunger was brutal. People with unbroken appetites have no idea how hungry we get.

I only get that hungry now if I've missed a meal by a couple hours. The uncertainty itself was a big contributor. If I didn't know what I was going to eat -- and knowing there was a part of myself that would try to stop me from eating what I wanted to -- there was a mounting anxiety as the hunger sharpened, and it all came to a crisis, and something had to be done immediately. There was no way to satisfy all the contending, contradictory demands, and the way of sheer indulgence glowed brighter and brighter and easier and easier before me. There was no way to do it right; but by God I could do it wrong in style! And not much later, I'd be eating epic quantities of takeout pork fried twice, followed by ice cream, followed by wheat thins. Eating my way through the evening. Maybe eating right would start tomorrow.

I have a hard time seeing my present way of eating as more obsessive than that. Yes, I plan it all. Yes, I write it all down (which takes about twenty seconds, with standard abbreviations. A typical food day's diary entry looks like this: "8/6/18 hb, al+b, chili, salad, hd, orange.")

And it's just food. It's not self-worth, or appreciation of art; it's not a moral triumph or a collapse into self-indulgence. It's just food. I like it. I eat it up. When I'm done I forget about till my next meal -- also planned, also ready to go. If this is obsession, so be it. I'll take it over my former experience, gladly.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Boiled Down to Six Principles

Here's the list:
  1. Eat your favorite stuff
  2. Track what you eat
  3. Measure systematically
  4. Eschew variety
  5. Steer by your own weight
  6. Minimize decisions
It was surprisingly hard to boil my weight loss success down to principles, and I found I couldn't do with less than six of them. There they are.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Stuckness and Failure

If you recall from our recent episode, this was the list of things I am doing:

  • The Dale Health Initiative (diet and exercise) 
  • Working at the Library Foundation (my day job) 
  • Massage 
  • Writing my blogs (this and my not-dead-yet massage blog) 

And there were reasons I felt stuck, stymied, and semi-failing in all of them. To take them in order:

The Dale Health Initiative has actually been a major success: my sense of failure here is a weird psychological phenomenon, "success hangover," which afflicts me sometimes in moments of victory. It's entirely bogus. I am down to 154 lbs, running one last weight-loss experiment to see where I want to set the parameters for the long-term management of my weight and size. I am becoming appreciably stronger and better-muscled every week. There is simply no way to categorize this as stuckness or failure. So my job here is some simple CBT-style "talking back" to the anxious, depressive mind. It has succeeded, it is still succeeding, it's pretty cool, and I have the striated delts and the sixpack (well, fourpack, anyway) to prove it. Enough.

Work at the Foundation: there was actually at least a grain of truth here. There were some things I was not keeping up with well: there's a couple low-visibility tasks I tend to put off, because I hate them. And my last data-pull for a fundraising campaign was flawed and weird: I had to patch it up after the fact -- never something you want to do, working with data -- and I never figured out what was wrong in the first place. I'm at peace with making mistakes. If you can't make peace with that you don't belong in software. But I hate not being able to reconstruct my mistakes, not being able to learn from them. That is a failure. 

So I've put in some serious time designing checks for my next data pull, and process for documenting the steps -- things I should have done long ago -- so that if something goes south again, I'll catch it in the act and know what I did wrong. And I've instituted a new zero tolerance policy for putting off those tasks. If one of them shows up, I deal with it that day, right away, and I set myself up for public accountability on them. They're not very important, it's not that hard, and I just need to do it.

So that's two down. Next up: massage.

It's high summer, in a heat wave, and my appointments have dwindled. I've lost a couple of regulars and I'm not seeing many new people. None of this is surprising: it's part of the game. Regulars die, they move away, they realize they can't afford it. None of this has to do with me losing weight, turning sixty, and suddenly looking my age. 

I'm doing a lot of processing of having a very different face and body. I have lines, wrinkles, topography. There are hills and gullies where there used to be smooth swells. It's all very different. I don't really know who I am any more. And so, in the fashion of my kind, I connect the anxieties: business obviously has gone down because I look different.

Well, probably not. For one thing, I don't actually look worse: I think most people would say I look better. I may not have as much body weight to use, but I'm stronger and my stamina is better. I used to sweat profusely when anxious -- as, for instance, when seeing a new client -- and now I don't: now it takes a LOT to make me sweat. My appearance actually is just not a very good explanation for the dwindling business. Sure, there are people who won't want an old guy. So what?

And the dwindling business actually doesn't need an explanation. There's normal attrition of clientele, there's the summer heat, and there's the fact that for the last half of my massage career my viral "What People Really Look Like" essay has done all my marketing for me. I've actually had an unusually long run of having my practice filled with long-time regulars. Now I need to drum up business. There's not anything that needs explaining, here. There's just stuff that needs to be done.

I need to update my equipment. My table is shabby, my linens are worn, my carry-bag is busted at the seams. None of this matters with regulars, who don't notice and wouldn't care if they did. But they matter for first impressions.

I need to market. I hardly ever update my massage website. I don't even know what it looks like on a phone: I've never had to worry about it, and I haven't kept up with such stuff. It's not particularly easy to schedule with me. In a business with a lot of "threshold resistance" that's stupid. I need to market, and I need to make it easy to schedule. This is not rocket science. It's business 101.

So there's obvious ways forward.

The last item, the topic of writing -- we'll take that up later. There's plenty to do there, too.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018


I acquired stuff yesterday. I don't do that very often nowadays. But I got a 6 quart slow-cooker off Craigslist for $15, which required going to the west side; and while on the west side I stopped at a used sports equipment shop and bought a couple 25 lb plates for my barbell. And now I have new stuff. I'll be able to make six days' worth of lunches at a time, instead of four. I won't have to shift all my plates off the barbell onto the dumbbells and back again; and now, with the big plates, the barbell sits high enough off the ground that getting the bar up onto my lap for hip thrusts will no longer be a weight-lifting challenge in its own right. 

Stuff that's new to me, that is. You could buy these weights at 62 cents per pound used, or $1.09 new. (Why, why would anyone care whether their plates were new?) I carried the plates one at a time out to the car, delighting in them. I have always had a thing for hunks of solid metal. I had some silver ingots at one time -- before I wised up about investing -- and I used to just take them out sometimes to heft them, and feel the weight and density and close-bonded strength of the things. Same with these plates: metal delights me, and no doubt one of the reasons I cling to my antiquated "standard" weights (rather than Olympic) is that they are simply metal. No plastic sleeves, no rubber bumpers: just iron. Ferrum. Fe. The most common element on earth, by mass; and, as a word, as pretty an illustration of metathesis, and the corrosive influence of the letter 'r', as there is in the English language.

Me, my jammies, and my eye-urn in the new workspace

So. Many delights, and half-again-ing of recipes, in store for me. And a lovely day for a swim at Broughton beach. (Tuesday! It's the weekend!)

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

About That Crisis

My last post about "how do I serve?" elicited some responses that made me stop and reconsider: several people said, in essence, "what makes you think you aren't serving right now?"

I'm doing four things these days: 

1) Massage
2) Working at the Library Foundation (my day job)
3) Writing my blogs (this and my not-dead-yet massage blog)
4) The Dale Health Initiative (diet and exercise)

So... why do none of them count as useful? 

The Dale Health Initiative, which has been the spotlight act lately, has been wildly successful. And that is basically the problem: it's a success; I've won; so now it's over. I have a hard time with success. When I meet a goal my standard response -- this drives Martha crazy -- is to fall into a phase of angsty self-doubt. Somehow my success is not real: I've just put one over on people. It's not as perfect as it should be. It's not where I really should have put my energy. Something's wrong with it: something's wrong with me. The fact that I've transformed my diet, lost 65 pounds, shrunk my waist by fifteen inches, built lots of new muscle and strength, attained mobility and flexibility and endurance that I never had in my youth -- none of that matters, because I still consume too much sodium. (Yes. Welcome to the Dale mind.) 

It's largely a natural response to hedonic adaptation: "if this is such a great success, then why am I not wildly happier than I was before?" --Well, because that's not how day-to-day emotional happiness works. It's the increase in well-being, it's the achievement in excess of expectation, that feels good. It has to work that way or it would fail in its main motivational function. When my circumstances improve, in a short time they simply become the new normal. And just maintaining the gains (or losses, I should say?) is a lot of work. The rewards are mostly in, but a lot of the costs remain.

And of course, the Health Initiative is self-absorbed and (the way I do it) isolated. Most of my meals I make just for myself. Exercise happens in the Robinson Crusoe island of the Wreck Room: there's no "going to the gym." So there's not much in the way of doing anyone else any good, unless its reflection via the blog is helping anyone.

But -- more important -- I've managed to discount everything else I do as basically having run its course. I've cast it to myself that I'm coasting to the close, and just waiting for all my  enterprises to die. And that's where my perceptions are most seriously out of whack. It's just not true, not true of any of them. I am at the moment a bit stymied and frustrated in all of them, but it's not a crisis, and there are clear paths forward for all of them, if I just slow down, take them one by one, and address the difficulties. These things are doable. None of them has dead-ended. I just haven't had much attention to give them, so of course they've been coasting.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A Long, Slow, Obscure Developing Crisis

I was and remain skeptical of the notion that will power (self-regulation, putting-off-the-marshmallow, whatever you want to call it) is trainable, and I still find it difficult to imagine what the mechanism of that "training" might be, but I don't know how else to explain the steady progression in my self-control. There were changes in my life a year and a half ago that substantially reduced my stress, and which made bringing my eating under control possible, but those were one-offs, and this development seems to keep going. There's all kinds of ways in which I can self-regulate now, all kinds of planning I can undertake and carry out. Eating, spending, exercise, social media fritter: they're all becoming workable.

I suppose an explanation that doesn't involve the will being generally trainable would simply be that when you've got more will available, you construct new daily routines, and as those daily routines become habitual, the will you used to construct them becomes available for new construction. That would account for the appearance of steady progression. It looks like more and more self-regulatory power, but actually it's just that the steady finite surplus "accumulates" in the form of habits.

There also of course is just an enormously increased sense of self-efficacy. But none of this quite explains how easy it now feels -- how progressively easier it feels -- when I encounter a temptation, to shrug my shoulders and say, "sounds nice, sure, but I'm not someone who yields to temptation any more. That's not who I am."

On the other hand, I am in a long, slow, obscure developing crisis: the grandiosity of my former self -- the flip side of yielding to temptation -- has also been going away, and it leaves me up against my limitations and my mortality, in a particularly bleak way. In the last third of my life (assuming luck), what can I do that's of any use to anyone? How can I serve? I don't know. So many of my basic assumptions are dissolving, in this corrosive political atmosphere. I need to find or make a compass: I need to wake with a purpose. Eating right and exercising are well and good, but they're instrumental goals, not ultimate ones. The point of maintaining a car is that you eventually mean to drive it somewhere.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Stopping on the Road

I was content to be a foot soldier of the Enlightenment. (Or so I say. That's the way we talk.) But now --

But now, at the same time that I renew my faith in objectivity, in reason, in measurement, in rigor -- I no longer expect them to win. And I am no longer content. Which is sort of backwards, but there it is. Whether our triumph was impossible or inevitable actually comes to more or less the same thing, as far as living a life goes: not much was required of me.

Victory or defeat, it never supplied a real meaning, a real answer to "what am I doing all this for? And what should I be doing, anyway?" But it made the question less pressing. In the meantime, I had yens to follow, itches to scratch, terrors to lay aside. One is an animal after all, first and last. (Or not.)

Can I say, finally, that I am really disabused of the illusion of importance? I am totally useless. And I can no more find a meaning than a Shakespeare play can read itself aloud. That's not the way meaning works. Persons mean things, and if people themselves are to have meaning, it can only be because they are being spoken. By gods or God. The existential notion that a person can mean his own life strikes me as (forgive the pun) absurd. How long am I to stand in the sun, trying to jump over my shadow?

It is equally absurd to try to believe in God because she would make this whole meaning thing work. Were she to exist, she would not be available for that sort of bargaining, and she would rightly scorn me, if I approached her with that motive. If Pascal really expected to win his wager on those terms, the more fool he.

No. If my life has a meaning, it already has it, and it was meant by someone else, and no doing of mine can find it or lose it. Or even understand it. So leave that.

(A squirrel comes to drink at the bird bath, looks up and sees me seeing him, and plunges away into the hedge.)

Still, a person could wake in the morning with a purpose, even an urgency. Some people do. And (I'm told) they're happier that way. But could I do such a thing? At this late age? "Had I but followed the arts!" But such nonsense. Art can't mean itself any more than people can mean themselves. It can only be: I see this thing and I must make it visible to others, because the loneliness otherwise is unbearable. Does that count as a purpose, or as an affliction? Both, I suppose.

This worries me: my generalized love for people is dwindling. I am as fond as ever of my friends and family, but my heart no longer rushes out eagerly to meet strangers. I have lost some critical bit of belief: I no longer assume that they will turn out to be unique and interesting. They will be the same old people going through the same old motions, and they will want me to take them seriously, and be cross with me because I can't do it. I never understood how much the conviction that there are interesting people waiting for me -- somewhere -- out there -- inspired me. If there are not, why leave the house?

This of course has nothing to do with other people. It's not that they are better or worse. It's that something in my temperament has shifted. And I don't think it's a change for the better. These are the first steps on the road to a morose old age: I had better stop right here.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Back from the Wallowas

The morning opens slowly, cautiously. A gray milk sky softly addressing the skylights; a breeze making the outer scraps of the hedge tremble. Rain is being thought of.

Back from the Wallowas, from that strange country of the conquest. Extraordinarily beautiful, but the proportions are beyond human. I wondered what houses cost over there, but I haven't even looked it up: I doubt I could live with that immensity, day to day, set against the tantrums and waywardness of human beings. The contrast would be a continual fret. And of course, living anywhere but the city, you would live there only to watch it being ruined. No. I'll stay here in the Valley where I was born.

You can't really photograph the open hills, and you can't run through them the way you'd want to. You'd need to be an antelope to live there properly.

So I watch the ferns under the hedge shift and nod in the morning light. This is a good place. A human-scale place.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Enough Of That

The Luftschiff nuzzles at me like an unweaned puppy. But not that, I think... something else? -- But really, to think this way is to fall into error. It's not the thing that matters. It's the work, it's the kind of work, it's the quality of attention. Any thing will do. A poem. A regular old obscure blog-ramble. Don't get caught up in the thing.

I do not want to be a public person anyway, not in any ordinary sense. 

A quick shudder of fear, an awakening in a dim and unfamiliar room. Realizing how much I've lost, am losing; what a small person I have become. A querulous, petulant note has crept into my voice. You can hear it at the end of my last post. Enough of that.

I do not have to be smart, or accomplished. I just need to gather myself and attend to what's in front of me.

I need to be cutting things loose and throwing them overboard. Not that much I need for the journey; and nothing at the end of it.


The thing is, I put my attention in one place and perforce take it off another. While I've fixed the eating and the spending, my distracted-social-media quotient has been rising. So now, with a little oomph to spare again, I'm battling that back. And I have my work space now, and I'm using it... so back to real reading and writing and thinking, and a couple hours' work in the morning before "checking" -- I'm beginning to loathe that word -- all the websites I "check," like a dog compulsively checking the fence posts as it trots along. This is doable: I'm doing it. One thing the success at losing weight has done is to increase my sense of efficacy by a lot. Of course I can do things and change habits: it only takes the intention and the attention and the resources. Bring them to bear on one thing at a time, until the new system runs more or less of itself, and then the oomph is free for redeployment.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Island in the Wreck Room

"My God, you just keep on losing weight," said my client last night. And then, her voice sharpening -- she's in her seventies, the age when losses keep coming -- "are you all right?" 

My Dad remarked, in his slow, thoughtful way, "160 seems kind of low."

Maybe. I'm at 158 now; trying to level out. I get no help whatever from my appetite, which so far as I can tell still believes I should weigh 75 pounds more than I do. I have to steer this thing myself, carefully and deliberately.

I am nothing like emaciated. But I do note a curiosity about just how small I could become, and a delight in having control over it: the germ no doubt of anorexia, which bears watching. Still the greatest risk by far is simply falling back. I have no intention of dropping the reins, and I have no expectation that exercising this control will ever be much easier. This is my life, as far as eating goes. It's a good life. I like my food. I like knowing what I'm eating tomorrow, and making sure everything is ready and prepped well ahead of time. I like being master in my own house. 

So I just watch the numbers carefully: the numbers will take care of me. The process becomes very slow, now, but I have a goal still: getting my waist measurement to be 90% of my hip measurement. At present those numbers are 35.25" and 36.25". When my hips were 37.5" I thought that number could not really go down much, but it did, by almost two inches. I really do think it's stopped, and will even rise now, as I'm working up my lower body strength (which has always lagged, almost ludicrously, my upper body strength). The nice thing about this goal is that I can't be tricked into mistaking muscle loss for fat loss, or fat gain for muscle gain. But it's slow going, building muscle while losing a bit more fat -- reaching this goal may take half again as long as losing the 75 pounds did. Which is fine. I am smack mid-channel, right where the charts and tables say I should be. There's no urgency about the finishing touches. So long as the distance between the two numbers is lengthening, I'm making progress.

Holding the hip number still, the waist number would need to drop to 32.6"; holding the waist number still, the hips would need to grow to 38.8". Just reckoning roughly, here -- there's no point in being exact -- I should be trying to lose an inch or so off my waist, landing somewhere around 33.5", and gain an inch or so in the hips, landing somewhere around 37". This of course strikes me as impossible, but I already am living in an impossible world, in which my waist has shrunk by fourteen inches. All things, apparently, are possible.

I work out every morning, alternating core-and-glute days (when knee and elbow joints get to take the day mostly off) with days of lifting, pushing, or pulling. I find all of this very satisfying, but it is a sort of Robinson Crusoe endeavor, alone on my carpet-island in the wreck room. I feel sometimes I should be more in the world than I am, more in contact with people. But when it comes down to it, I'm not feeling very sociable or very well-disposed to my countrymen. Let them lie in the bed they've made: I have other things to do.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Making It Taste Better


On Facebook, I said offhandedly, in re my morning broccoli, "I don't try to like it." A couple of people chimed in with helpful suggestions on how to make it taste better, which all sounded good (and all involved increasing its calorie density.) In my present frame of mind I found this odd, and telling. We go so automatically to "how do I make this taste better?" 

But I don't want my food to taste better. It already tastes so good I'm strongly tempted to eat more than is good for me. Why on earth would I want it to taste better? It's basically impossible for me to enjoy my food more than I do now. My levels of enjoyment tune to what's available and expected. Right now, my oatmeal is especially enjoyable because I like it more than my broccoli, and my boiled eggs are more enjoyable still because I like them more than my oatmeal. If I raised the baseline on the brocs, I could make the oatmeal tastier by adding, say, brown sugar and cream, and then make the eggs tastier by scrambling them in butter and adding various tasty things. I would end up enjoying the breakfast -- well, exactly as much as I do now, after the novelty wore off (which would take... two days? Three?) And I would start to get fat again. The enjoyment is a zero sum game, but the caloric accumulation is decidedly not.