Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas Day, 2020

 This is what I have always desired above all else: that this day should be a day like all others, a day with a morning, an afternoon, and a night, any of which might be made into anything. 

Rightly or wrongly, I've always disliked holidays: days that absolutely must be one thing and no other. They seem to me a disrespect to the world, an imposition on it that we have no right to make. Who are we to call this day Christmas, as if days were a thing to be ordered and sorted and classified by human beings? Who knows what we've lost, over the years, how many days born in the tenderest part of winter, that might have been days of learning or of loss, that have been made by brute force into days of festivity? It's hard for me to see this act of coercion as homage to Jesus of Nazareth, who came to make everything uncertain and raw-skinned and new. 

(Though he himself celebrated Pesach, and I doubt he would have had much sympathy for my desire to escape the strictures of a human life. What would I build with an unformed day, but the same old jail I build every day?)

Still. The longing for freedom reaches its peak on holidays, on the 4th of July and on Christmas. It's then that I most want to be far away from other people, far away from their anxieties and desires. Stop chattering, just for a moment, and let me think! All I want is one moment of stillness, one moment in the heart of winter, or in the heart of summer, unnamed and unnameable. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

A Pale and Uncertain Blue

 The moon carefully makes its way through the laurel leaves, to take up a post where it can look in the west-facing window. A quarter till seven, and no sign of dawn. She is still brilliant; mostly full; criss-crossed with hedge twigs. A small, hard, ambitious light, which illuminates nothing. I am not friends with the moon this morning. I just want the sun to rise, and bring summer with her.

So, a vaccine trial has come to town, and I'm going to try to sign up for it, I think: most of my hesitation is about the fine print. If I'm in the placebo group, how long am I committed to wait to get a real vaccine? Apart from that, it's a no-brainer: the control group is only 1/3 of the total, so that's a 66% chance of getting a good vaccine quite a bit earlier than the average Joe. It's not even in the first round of stage-3 trials -- in fact it will probably be approved for emergency use by the FDA while this trial is going on -- so if it does anything icky to people, it's something that doesn't show up for months. Meanwhile, COVID has also come to town, with a vengeance, and it definitely does icky things to people. Where do I sign?

As I write, the sky lightens, and the moon begins to lose her grip. No longer the absolute mistress of the sky.

The giving season has begun in earnest: for the next six weeks my workload doubles or triples. I bump up to thirty hours per week, instead of twenty, and work almost as much as real people do. As always, when this happens, I marvel that any regular working people keep their health into their fifties and sixties: there's simply not enough time to take care of yourself properly. Realized as I was going to bed last night that I'd inadvertently skipped my daily walk. That sort of thing is fine, for six weeks. Year round, the stresses would accumulate and things would start to break down. And one thing leads to another, when that happens. You eat more because you're tired, and you stop exercising, and then you're more tired, and joints get huffy and obstinate, and hauling yourself around the house turns into more than you want to do... and it just goes on, until you're totally sedentary, totally stressed, eating like a maniac, and just waiting for the first critical system to go. It's no mystery to me why American health is so poor.

But enough. Light is coming back to the world. The hedge is green instead of black. The blue of the sky is pale and uncertain, but it is blue, and it will become bluer.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Dubious Futures

 Or suppose you just opened the empty page and waited long enough for something to arise? 

"...there is no difference between inspiration and lack of distraction. They are the same thing."

I would guess that my most consistent error, in recent years, has been not making the space. Not sitting still. Yes, I have let myself be eaten up by political thought. I had to do the political thinking, because my former thinking was wrong. But my conclusion at the end of it all was that I had nothing very useful to say, certainly not directly. It may all rise to the surface eventually. Who cares? No point in taking responsibility for dubious futures.

If there's something I have spent years of thought and meditation on, it's just that fundamental, first question: how should I live? 

And although I manifestly do not know how to live, I also manifestly am further along than I was before. 

When I began blogging, I was first engaging with Buddhism. A long and fruitful struggle, ongoing. I might still qualify as a Buddhist, I don't know. I've misplaced my membership card. But anyway, at one point I had a bit of a readership that looked to me for wisdom, which was gratifying, if poisonous. If I knew so much about domesticating my mind, why was it so frantic and feral? Why could I not control (for instance) my eating? I felt fraudulent. I backed off. I thought: before I swagger around dispensing advice, shouldn't I actually be able to change my behavior?

So I did actually change my behavior, eventually. It was a huge effort, and is still a huge effort. It has been a surprisingly practical and detail-oriented effort.  One of my many false expectations was that something would fall into place. I'd get my mind and my attitude right and suddenly the difficulties would fall away.

That's not what happened at all. Instead I had to attack a thousand small problems and solve them one by one. What time do I eat lunch? Do I add carrot slices to my salad? Do I put salt in my morning oatmeal?

In a way, you could say it was just a matter of getting my mind and my attitude right: but much of what I had to do was lose my disdain for practical planning and detail. The right food has to be in the right place at the right time, or I'll eat the wrong food. I have to know how much I'm going to eat before I start, or I'll eat too much. 

So here I am, three years later. I've succeeded in that one behavior, anyway. A year and a half of losing the weight, and two years of keeping it off: I no longer worry much about the possibility of relapse. But I come back to weighing the role of meditation in it, and my role as a dispenser of  wisdom, and I find that I'm not very interested in it any more. I know far less about how anyone ought to live than I thought I did, and anyone else's way will lie through a thousand details, just as mine did: details I know nothing about and can't meaningfully help with. I don't know if you should put salt in your oatmeal. I don't know if you should meditate.

Probably this dispenser-of-wisdom stuff was mostly in my head to begin with: I didn't really have gaggles of people clustering around me wanting to know how to live. Such attraction as I had from the start, maybe, was my willingness to confess that I didn't know how to live. That allure, anyway, I should still have. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Slanted Lines

 Well, then: you've seen them go sprawling often enough, skinning their palms, banging their elbows, making chimp grimaces so as not to cry: what of that?

And you have pounded the disks flat in the sand, with a palm or with a heel, while the sky considers every variant of steel, from the bright ripples there away just above the trees to the heavy tarnish above, and the lights drains away: is that supposed to tell us more?

Because the question, then, now, and probably always, was: how do I live? A question that you might think should arise only after "may I live?" and "may I choose my life?" but you would be -- not for the first time, forgive me, little light! -- you would be quite terribly mistaken, because the question comes up premature: botched and mottled, a monster, an awkwardness from its first day and ever after. It is the first question, and we ask it before any of its answers could possibly be of use to us. That's how we're made.

(And I would like to make clear, at this point, that I had nothing to do with the design of human beings. I take no responsibility, none.)

But it is obvious from the start that a life worth living would have music, dance, and singing in it, not just around the periphery, but at its heart. And not as packaged commodities for purchase, but as what we do ourselves with a whole heart; clumsy, lame, and hoarse as we might be. And it would come inevitably, twice a week: if we missed, there would come a knock at the door, and the maenads would drag us out to the dancing lawn. That's what happens in civilized countries. 

And it would have lovemaking, and the silence after, and the slow return of light. These things are obvious, aren't they? They don't need to be argued.

Most of life, now and always, will be made up of addressing the problems at hand. Life has two parts: addressing problems, and making beauty. In the intervals there is sleep, and the long dream; but we're not quite ready to discuss that.

Why should anyone listen to us, little light, when we don't yet know how to live? Why should our exhortations and denunciations be taken seriously? 


leaves have filled the pool

and some few float with their leafstalks

above the water line:

red diagonal strokes across

a lion-colored page

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Una luna gibosa

 Una luna gibosa, menguante, y las horas tan largas.  Dejo a mis hijos una tierra quebrada. He fracasado. Y estoy tan cansado, ahora; tan cansado. ¿Qué debería haber hecho? Y qué debo hacer ahora?

Allá, a través de la claraboya, la luna me reprocha. El tiempo malgastado; las ambiciones frivolas. Y ahora es demasiado tarde: soy viejo, estúpido, frágil. Mi única habilidad es el entendimiento de palabras oscuras, y ahora incluso eso me escapa.

No entiendo mis enemigos. No puedo persuadirlos o convencerlos. Son implacables, sin piedades. Inapelables.

Las horas tan largas. Y la mañana se rehusa a venir.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Un mundo sin alabanzas

 Halloween, hoy, pero no hay de trick-or-treaters, a causa de la pandemia. Leo ahora el libro tercero de Señor de los anillos (en español.) Esta vez me fijo sobre todo en la cortesía, que tan importante es por Tolkien: la virtud de virtudes. Y así es para mí también. Me pregunto si la cortesía debe ser siempre resultado de una sociedad de clases: ¿es posible tener cortesía sin señores? Y si no, ¿quiero de verdad una sociedad sin clases? No sé. He leído un libro sobre los bosquimanos, Affluence Without Abundance, el año pasado, y el autor dice que no tienen historias de heroes, y no tienen hombres de gran reputación. Envidia y desprecio es la respuesta típica a afirmaciones de toda clase de grandeza humana. Y eso me parece triste. Un mundo sin alabanzas no es el mundo que anhelo.

Monday, October 19, 2020


When continents settle, slumping

back to back, mountain ranges rise in violence and distress.

Did India mean the Himalayas? Should it have known better?

Or was it Asia's fault, standing in the fairway and gawking at the view?

Still, a whisper and a feathery touch behind the knees

tells me I am not out of the woods. Whose woods these are --

well, that would be telling, now, wouldn't it? The right road lost:

and mid way was a long long time ago. 

Again. Heave up the carcass for another flense:

waste not want not.  I have not explained the multiplicities

and variances carefully enough. No one measures

properly these days. Even my old and scattered notes make clear

that loving you could not be helped: not Archimedes' steering oar

could have have turned this sub- and rich and deep-spiced 

-continent aside. There is such a thing

as momentum.

Whosoever hath -- to him shall be given. Says so in the Bible.

Who am I to question holy writ? If I seize your wrist, if I scrape

my teeth against your palm as if it were the buttered leaf

of an artichoke, and find the space between your fingers with my tongue,

then it was written so. But that's to register as fate

the most contingent thing, the matter most free,

in all my life so far. The mountains stand white against the sky:

they could have been otherwise. I could not have been.

If I am not right, then am I wicked? Or mortally confused?

I walk the more surefooted in this blind dark

than ever I stepped in the sun. I have your hand for guidance.

When I press it to my ribs, my heart knocks against it,

and we walk under fir branches under the stars

under the weight of time.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Should you Pay Attention to the Polls?

No: if you're asking, then no.

Especially if you were shocked by Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016: no. Pay no attention.

If you don't have enough statistical savvy to interpret them properly, then they will just lead you astray; instill false confidence or false dread. Don't do that to yourself. You don't need to get fancy. You don't need to scry the future. Just vote. 

I follow the polls daily, as I did in 2016. I was not surprised by Trump's victory in 2016, though I was deeply distressed. On the eve of that election, you remember, I wrote: "My heart is convinced that Trump will win this election." I knew precisely what the polls said: they were giving us four chances in seven of winning, which is pretty close to a coin flip. If you didn't get that, then stay the hell away from polls. They'll do you more harm than good.

At this point -- at this point -- the best forecast has six chances in seven of Biden winning. Those are good odds. I like them. But that still means that if you held the elections seven times, and there was a reasonably fair count, Biden would win six times and Trump would win once. (I know, you can't hold the elections seven times. One time in each of seven identical dimensions? Something like that.) That is nothing like certainty. 

Soldier on. Fight for fair elections, wherever you are. Vote as early as you can, and if your state doesn't really know how to vote by mail, vote in person if you can. But most of all, just vote. There is no way to know what happens next.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Hombres Buenos

I am reading, for the second time, Hombres Buenos by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. It deals with two members of the Spanish Royal Academy who, toward the end of the 18th Century, undertake to travel to pre-revolutionary Paris, purchase the French Encyclopédie -- the distillation of Enlightenment thought -- and bring it home for the shelves of the Academy, despite the fact that the work is (theoretically) banned in both nations. They have a dispensation for the Academy from the Spanish king, but the task is a tricky one, nonetheless; the more so because vested interests in Spain are keen to keep the Encyclopédie out of the country, and dispatch an agent to follow them and to ensure their failure. So, as always in Pérez-Reverte, there is a boys' adventure story at the heart of things, to which we can turn whenever the struggle of the enlightenment becomes dull. And, also typically, there is a double narrative: we move in and out of the historical narrative, and Pérez-Reverte's first-person narrative of his discovery and investigation of the book-hunting expedition, which serves both as a relief from the 18th Century, for the historically short-winded, and a proof of Pérez-Reverte's care for historical accuracy.

The two members of the Academy -- the Good Men of the title -- are the Academy librarian, Don Hermógenes Molina, and a retired naval officer, Don Pedro Zárate. We follow them under the nicknames  of Don Hermes and el almirante (the Admiral). The heart of the story is the exploration of the extent their commitment to Enlightenment ideals; the most endearing qualities of both being the places where they simply cannot and will not follow Reason. For Don Hermes, the line stops at Church and King: a world without royal and religious authority is one that he can't contemplate. For the Admiral, it stops at the honor of a soldier. Or perhaps it's at fighting over male status and the sexual favors of beautiful women? Is there a difference? He is not sure, and neither is the reader. In any case, there is a sword-duel at dawn which is everything a boys' adventure aficionado could want. And of course, brooding over all is the impending revolution: we are well aware that the elegant Parisian philosophes and dandies of the narrative are headed, in a few short years, for the guillotine. It's all going to get very real very fast.

The book will feel very old fashioned to readers for whom the Enlightenment is remote and unimportant, a done deal; and that will include a lot of modern literary people. What have we to do with the tug-of-war between Reason and the Church, or between Reason and codes of honor? But to Pérez-Reverte, and to many people in the world, it's not a done deal at all. It's still a central, inescapable question: how much can we cede to Reason, and where must we balk? How much reality can we bear? How much should we bear? The political stresses of present-day America suggest to me that these questions are as active and important as ever, however  irrelevant they may feel to the present professional-managerial class. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

La Bloga Nuova


A number of things happened at once, I guess. For one thing, there was that blog post that went viral, and eventually found itself on Huff Post and in Reader's Digest: I got my fifteen minutes of fame and found that I loathed it. The very last thing I want to be is a public person. 

For a long time I had thought that I wanted to be a public person. Or, I don't know, you just fall into that, if you like to write, and people praise your writing. If you want to write, you must want an audience, right? And a bigger audience is obviously better than a smaller audience. It's your step for launching into immortality: make it as broad and sturdy as possible!

So -- yeah. But it turns out I don't want immortality. I don't want fame. I don't want to belong to my message and have to scurry around promoting myself and endorsing myself. I want to criticize myself, and discover everything that's wrong about what I said last week. A "brand" is exactly, precisely, what I do not want to have. Ever.  Immortality at the price of immobility? Too steep. I ain't paying that kind of money.

But I was already ruined, by then: I was thinking about my accursed audience, and what I ought to say, and what they needed to hear. Which was generally, "not any of things I am currently thinking about."  

So, yeah: fuck that. Incipit vita nova. 

So anyway, how y'all been doin'?


With my massage practice on indefinite hold, I have a bit more disposable time. And I may not resume that practice, even when this country limps its way to some extraordinarily belated end of the pandemic. I'm winding down. I'm not even sure I want to keep my day job till I'm seventy, at this point. There are other things I'm anxious to do: and I don't know how many years I'll still be sharp enough to do them.

So what am I doing? Let me count the things.

1) I'm maintaining my food and exercise regimen. For two years I've held my weight around 160 pounds, and I've laboriously added five or ten pounds of muscle during that time. I basically know what I'm doing, now. This takes a lot of time and focus and effort, and any fantasy that it would ever be effortless, something I could do on autopilot, is long gone. It's going to take about 25% of my disposable time, until I no longer have any disposable time. So be it. It's the price of mental acuity, and it's not negotiable. 

2) Spanish. I was in a holding pattern, really: for the last four years I've been tracking my reading (which has been the only skill I've been cultivating) and really it's been stalled out at ten or eleven pages of reading per day, for that whole time. I have gradually read somewhat harder texts, but the process is taking far too long. If I want the skills -- even the reading skills -- I need to do something other than noodle along reading a dozen pages and drilling myself on vocabulary every day. I've doubled my reading volume. I'm beginning to watch videos in simple Spanish. And I need to start producing Spanish, speaking it and writing it. I still believe (basically) that massive input is the key, but obviously it's not going to deliver the ease I want, even in reading, without an active component. I must start writing and even -- somehow, no matter how painful it will be -- speaking. Speaking might not happen this year: it might be an after-pandemic item. But it has to happen.

3) Reading great books. I want to read all the great books. Obviously, my death will intervene before I'm done, but so what? 

4) Writing in my blog, for my own precious self and no other persons, unless they decide to hang around, for whatever odd reasons, and at their own risk. I'm not editing myself on anyone's behalf. Done with that.

Until I retire, this is really all I have time for. There are other things I would like to do. I would like to program some games; I would like to program some stock-picking algorithms; I would like to learn statistics in depth. I'd love to build some climbing structure with ropes and monkey bars to play on. Acroyoga, wouldn't that be a blast? And how I would love to get back to cartooning. Oh, there's lots of things I want to learn and do! I don't have time for those things now, and I don't see where the room for them will open up. If I get my fluency in Spanish I'll just want to go on to recovering my German and French: I don't think I'll ever want to forgo languages. Those are central. So, for now, it's the Four Things, and that's about it.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Diagonal Slices of Cubes

Hexagonal grids can be represented as diagonal slices of cubes. Oh my. My brain has not strained this hard to comprehend something for a long time.

I noticed long ago, of course, that the silhouette of a cube is a hexagon, and I knew there had to be some useful application of that, somewhere in the wide world.

Visualize a 3x3x3 Rubik's cube, give the center cube coordinates of 0,0,0, keep all the sub-cubes the sum of whose coordinates equal zero, and voila! -- you have the representation of a hexagonal grid, one central hexagon surrounded by six others. The central one shares an edge with all the others: each other shares one edge with the central sub-cube and an edge with two other neighbors. And you can calculate distances between hexes and all sorts of things using plain old spatial xyz coordinates.

I did not invent this idea. I don't know who invented it. It comes to me by way Amit Patel, whose interactive explanation of the idea is a gorgeous piece of work.

And so by way of Amit Patel's (free) website I come to discover that someone else has actually written a Python library for manipulating hexagonal grids, which you can use -- even commercially! -- for free. I haven't used it yet, so I don't know if it actually works, but my God. The staggering amount of value that is being added daily to the human world! It boggles the imagination. This is just one trivial example: but it's happening all over the world, all the time. 

Which is why, despite all the man-made disasters we're enduring, I do not quite lose hope. A Python library for manipulating hexagonal grids is never going to be headline news, but the increase in human strength -- in our capacity for intellectual cooperation -- that it represents, may be bigger news really than this year's wildfire season.

The morning comes yellow, smoky, and dreary, and there's a dusting on ash on the skylights: but my heart is full of delight and gratitude this morning.


How many political posts have I written, and left unpublished? It must be dozens. I read and think much about politics these days, and I work things out sometimes, to my own grudging satisfaction; but as I do so I realize more and more how ignorant and superstitious my opinions have been all my life; how wrong I have been about so many things. And so I write things out, and then I leave them sitting as drafts. So much I don't know, so much I don't understand. I would only mislead and misrepresent. Let the damn ideas simmer a while. I need to know more, so much more. The last thing the world needs is one more Rush Limbaugh. Which is what I would be, a left-wing version of him, if I let my tongue loose.


Rain will come to the Northwest again, eventually, and the fires will go out, and in a year or two the pandemic will have faded, and there will be a clear bright fearless dawn, whether I'm here to see it or not. Much love to you all, my dears!

Saturday, September 05, 2020


The Spanish for "verdigris" is cardenillo. I have had a hard time learning this, because cardenillo seems to me like it should mean some shade of red: I guess I have "cardinal" and "carnation" and "carmine" in mind. Pretty much the opposite of verdigris.

The Spanish derives from the Latin carduus, thistle, which arrives as the sturdy Spanish cardo, munched by good Spanish donkeys in a thousand stories Which seems at first only to make matters worse, because thistles are resolutely purple. Cárdeno means purplish or violet. What does that have to do with the green of a green penny? 

Verdigris is actually as blue as it is green: sometimes more blue than green. If you google "blue thistle" you will find pictures of flowers that are not too far from the color of oxidized bronze. Maybe that's the way of it.

But there's still the odd matter of the diminutive. The "bronze disease" is the "purple-itty"? I'm not  satisfied. I still can't make cardenillo feel like it should mean "verdigris," even with blue thistles dancing in my head: there's a mystery here.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Twelve Chin-Ups

Twelve chin-ups, today! Four years ago I couldn't do one. So that's cool. I look pretty silly when I'm doing them, because I wear a knit cap so as not to scrape my bald spot on the rough ceiling when I bump top.  A superannuated sailor-man.

Possibly more exciting than the number (though there is a deep, childish pleasure in getting a new number!) is the control. I don't swing or sway or wriggle or lunge. Up I go, like I owned the place.

Resistance training is the most gratifying thing in the world: if you do the work and avoid injury, making better numbers is pretty much guaranteed, and -- in sharp contradistinction to the way most of the rest of life works -- the rewards are greatest right at the start. The payoffs come really fast, when you're starting out.

My whole home gym probably cost me $75.00. My dad gave me some old dumbbells, and a barbell, and a few weights. I had to buy a few more plates, over the years, as I got stronger. For a chin-up bar, I bolted a grab-bar that I bought for $3.50 onto a beam in the ceiling. I splurged and bought a nice band with handles. That's it. A towel and a pillow play supporting roles, but I already had those. On an ordinary day I'll have two or three exercises on my to-do list, which I fit in whenever I feel like it. (Today is chin-ups, leg scissors, and shoulder raises). No big deal: ten minutes here, fifteen there, when I'm sick of screens and books, and feel like my brain could use a power wash.

Since I yam what I yam, it involves spreadsheets and meticulous tracking, of course, and a elaborately-worked-out 14 day cycle. But a normal person could skip that part.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

In Lieu of Tablets


They say the Eye of the Needle was a gate in Jerusalem,
so narrow that you had to unload your camel to lead it through.
Then again, they say that if God makes a door as wide 
as the eye of a needle, the way becomes so wide
that all can pass through: camels, tents, wagons, all.

They'll say anything, you know. Listen at your peril.
What Jesus meant is plain enough to me.

I can't bring myself to pay some poor schmo 
to do my grocery shopping for me. I mask up once a week,
take my life in my hands, wash well. I think of the people
who crouched in cellars four years long 
in Sarajevo. This is doable.

There is a thunderous knocking on the door, on all the doors.
Not yet morning and the sky full of fearful stars. Prayer
that doesn't begin or end with listening 
is only a complaint, or a harangue.


The long slow sift of anxious scholarship, that's one.
The measures, pencil-marked and checked, 
and checked again on fine-grained wood; that's two. 
Dishes carefully washed and set to dry; that's three.
Three things that are pleasing to God.

Go tell the crowd that the golden calf
was a mistake. But the burning here 
means so much more than that. And I
am commanded to wait. If anything is handed to me
you'll be the first to know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The California of the Jealous Gods

I rise through pools of silver to a glimpse of sky, a fading sky, a dislocation of blue.

Was there ever a young man who so narrowly missed so many targets, as Heinrich von Kleist? Poor soul. But I haven't read his plays yet. 

I keep my mind on a short leash these days. Speak sternly to it when it pauses to sniff. The right way to live, maybe, but not the right way to create things. 

I could eat ten packages of girl scout cookies without drawing a breath, right now, and reach for an eleventh.

A breeze stirs the maple tree branches, and their leaves tap the sky.

I have done the state some service, and they know't.
No more of that.

(I, on the other hand, have done the state no service at all, but here I am, withering out its revenue.)


     "I'll go in search of Athos by myself," he said. "Take care of yourself, dear friend!"
     "You're a man of steel," said Aramis.
     "No; I'm lucky, nothing more. But how will you kill the time, waiting for me? I suppose you're done with the thesis, and with theological explications of fingers and blessings?"
     Aramis smiled. "I'll compose verses."
     "Ah, verses bearing the scent of the billet-doux of Lady Whoever-She-Is. Why don't you teach versification to Bazin? It will console him."

Bizarre as von Kleist is, he can't hold a candle to Dumas, who opens wider vistas of the ungodded landscape. Dumas is astonishing in his amorality. The side of the musketeers is the right side because it is the side of our friends: no other moral superiority is claimed or wanted. Pretty girls, fast horses, jeweled swords: this is the pinnacle of life, and all the rest is stuff: feeble consolations for those who have lost the real game. 

Dumas does not make it into Harold Bloom's register of the immortals. Not highbrow enough, I suppose. Nevertheless, people will be reading Dumas when half of Bloom's classics are forgotten footnotes. 

More surprising than Dumas' popularity, I think, is the nostalgia he inspires. Were this merely cape-and-sword porn, I don't think it would leave so deep a trace. People come back to the Musketeers again and again. The gusto of youth and the bleakness of age are perfectly counterpoised: this is the eternal Spring, the California of the Jealous Gods.

Their hearts have not grown old. 
Passion or conquest, wander where they will 
Attend upon them still.

Monday, May 25, 2020

How I use Flashcards

I'm convinced that the key to learning a new language is simple: it's the ingestion of compelling comprehensible input in large quantities. Reading and listening to stuff you can more or less understand. Your brain will take care of the grammar and the vocabulary, behind the scenes, quite efficiently. All you have to do find stuff simple enough to understand, that you're really motivated to understand, and consume lots of it. Everything else will happen on its own.

So it might surprise you that I still use flashcards, in my enterprise of learning literary Spanish. I do it for a good reason and a bad reason. The bad reason is that without doing some sort of drill I don't really feel like I'm studying the language. The good reason is that I think -- though I'm still not entirely sure -- that with the right tools and the right approach I can develop my vocabulary a little more efficiently than I could by spending the same time reading or listening.

There are two keys to my method. One is spaced repetition, and the other is context.

I use Anki, a flashcard program that uses spaced repetition. There are lots of such programs out there, with various bells and whistles, but they all use some variant of this simple, sturdy algorithm: you create some flashcards. Then you go through them. If you get a card wrong, you'll be presented with it again when you drill tomorrow. If you get it right, however, it will double the time it waits to present you with it again. You'll see it in two days, instead of in one. Get it right again, you'll see it four days later. And again, you'll see it eight days after that. If you get it wrong, though, the interval for that card drops back to one and you'll start over with it again. 

There's some good science behind this: something like this algorithm is optimal for getting stuff into your memory. But there are also some problems. One is that it's easy to get overambitious and create an oppressively large deck that eats up all you study time. Drilling on vocabulary really shouldn't take up very much of the time you devote to your language. A quarter of your time is way too much. So pace yourself. Don't let it shoulder out your main task, which is guzzling down the comprehensible input.

The other main problem is that your brain is very shrewd, thrifty, well-designed learner. It learns exactly what it has to learn. If you have a flashcard that says "crow" on one side and "cuervo" on the other, it will remember that the other side of the "crow" card has "cuervo" on it. But it will only remember it when you're drilling. Meet "cuervo" in a text, and it won't necessarily remember it at all. You may have a vague feeling that you should know it, but you'll have to look it up. And that will leave you with the (legitimate) suspicion that all your drilling is just a waste of time. 

The trouble is that you're just learning an isolated factoid. Vocabulary is not a mass of isolated factoids: it's a densely interwoven network of associations. You haven't really learned the word "crow" in English until it has little tendrils of association with a bunch of other words, (bird, black, caw, ominous, fly, croak...). A word out of its web is useless, except for successfully drilling yourself with flashcards. What your brain is doing is learning what's on the other side of the flashcard. What you want it to be doing is weaving "cuervo" into the web of your Spanish vocabulary. 

So the "Spanish" side of my "crow" card will look like this, with the sentence where I met it included:


el cuervo

Han pasado cuatro años escuchando el graznido del cuervo.


I don't try to memorize the sentence. If I get "cuervo" right, I've gotten the card right. But every time I answer the card, I say the sentence (aloud or in my mind). I'm stitching the word into the web.

And if I get the word wrong, I don't just start that card over. I start it over, and I create a new card with the same word, but with a different sentence.

My new card might look like this:


el cuervo

Envió un cuervo, pero pronto volvió volando.


(And in the meantime, having refined my understanding of "cuervo," I might change the English side to "crow; raven" -- because "cuervo" refers to either.)

Now we're doing some serious stitching. And by the time you have three such cards, you're no longer having trouble with finding the Spanish word for "crow." You actually know it.

Now, this can be a little discouraging, because it turns out that to keep a reasonable-sized deck you can only add two or three words per day. If you had dreams of building a literary vocabulary in the space of one year, this will dash them. It can't be done. A decent speaking vocabulary, sure. But a real literary vocabulary takes years. It just does. 

On the other hand, note that you're not just learning the word "cuervo" here. You're now also learning "graznido," "envió," and "volando," and buttressing the words that you already knew, but maybe not so well as you imagined: "años," "cuatro," "volvió." Not to mention reinforcing the grammar and syntax. You're making the web denser and stronger. Now when you meet "cuervo" on the page it's a real word, a word that means something, a word that has tendrils of association running to other words and turns of phrase.

One of the side benefits of this -- unless it's actually the chief benefit -- is that often I discover, when I say over the example sentence, that I didn't fully understand it. (It's usually, of course, the sentence that sent me to the dictionary for that word in the first place.) There's something odd about it. The prepositions aren't the ones I would have expected: the verb forms strike me as odd. There's something I had skipped over, without really getting it. So drilling vocabulary becomes a little like memorizing poetry: it's a way of slowing myself down. I tend to gobble my language, rather than savor it, and I miss a lot that way.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Prime Motor

Every once in a while I think of the collapse of Joe McCarthy as a political power, which happened almost overnight. He went from the most feared man in America to a pathetic drunkard, whose colleagues avoided him in the Senate hallways, in a matter of days.

"Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses," as King Théoden remarked. Political life always seems overdetermined and implacable, until suddenly it's not. So "Up, Éorlingas, and fear no darkness!"


On the other hand, it's the silly polling season. No, dear friends, Florida and Texas are not in the bag. Sheesh. Get a grip.


Engrenage énorme dont le premier moteur est le moucheron et dont la dernière roue est le zodiaque.

Enormous gearing, the prime motor of which is the gnat, and whose final wheel is the zodiac.

-- Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Reading Hugo

Reading Victor Hugo for the first time. When I was young, and first barreling through the classics, I obtained somewhere an absurd prejudice against French language and literature, and mostly skipped it. A couple decades later I had a limping reading-knowledge of French, and was waiting to read it all in the original. Now, with a clearer picture of my mortality, I've realized that if I'm going to read much French literature, I better read it now and in translation. If I get to it later in French, that will be gravy. But better get to it now.

Nearly through the second volume of Les Misérables. It's a bit trying, when he drones on about theology and monasticism. But it's illuminating even then. This is where I came from, where the American Democratic Party came from: all the glories, absurdities, and contradictions of liberalism are on display.

The belief in supermen, and the convenient now-you-see-it-now-you-don't deism, are the most striking things to me. Hugo is dazzled by Napoleon, and Jean Valjean is just Napoleon transposed to private life. The superhero motif sails on to the present day. 

God is indispensable, but malleable. You can make him be whatever you need to him to be at the moment. It's not, of course, Hugo's fault, but prosperity gospel and no-fault Christianity are already in the wings.

But this is the captiousness of hindsight. There's a great deal of sentimentality, and your shoes fill with it as you squelch your way through the novel, but Hugo does bludgeon home one of the great ideas of his time: that we are making criminals and prostitutes, that society is producing them on an industrial scale, that these conditions could have no other outcome. 

Whether Hugo ever set these insights against his own bargains with Eros, I don't know: I might look about for a biography. I suspect that the superhero shtick will have come in handy for him, there.

Sunday, April 05, 2020



I have asked how not to become morose
at a time when all lights flicker, a time

when the sky hesitates, the sun
avoids my glance, and the moon

pitches after a restless night into
the sickly western haze.

The dawn is not cool; the afternoon
has no warmth; evening brings a glare

of streetlamps, blue and unlovely,
that give false counsel to the moths

and little of use to my feet.
I have asked, and receive your silence.


Well, I will try my own answers.
To live at times of crisis is the common lot:

we are not singled out. Boccaccio 
pulled his hood over his nose and hurried away,

Chaucer put off his trip to Paris, and wondered
if his butt of wine would come this year.

Peevish princes, venal and unwise
are not a new invention of our time,

nor are mobs that drag a man
with the wrong name off to death.

These are old, old stories. 
Often told, half-listened.


And no answer. Let me try again:
all this fret and unease comes

because we think we know:
and we do not know.

There are better times and worse times, perhaps;
certainly lives happier, lives more distressed;

but we are swallowed by the fish of the future
and what we will find in its belly

we do not know. Not what we thought.
Did we really love the lineaments 

of the made world so much, that we must
fear to lose them? Let them go.


Democracy, the rights of man, 
the golden rule: they will all be found

and lost again, broken and restored.
The storytelling apes will have 

their algae-bloom, their die-off;
the rains will come and the seas will rise.

Is it our business to know, or even to attend?
Yesterday at twilight an apple tree

was heavy with white blossom,
whiter than could be believed, so that I stopped

and tried to tell how mere reflection 
could be brighter than the dimming sky.


The wind rises. Branches toss their heads,
a ruffle runs through the ferns; sparrows

jostle by the pool. There is a new front,
slate gray, implacable, moving inland:

too slow for the motion to be seen, but eating up the sky.
Still silent? Or is this your answer? Rain,

a day-long, week-long rain. The crows call
each to each. All my failures are laid out

before me, but even those
the rising wind lifts, and carries away:

it leaves only this blessing, 
this enormous blessing, of the rain. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Daily Bread

Thank you for this food, gathered and grown
at unknown price by unknown hands;

brought from far places by those
who would rather be at home.

Thank you for these loved ones 
who step glad and unafraid

into darkness, take my hand,
and find the courage I could not.

Thank you for this breath, these ribs
splayed by greed but closing now as slow

as flowers at the half light, 
and help me daily to remember

there is a dale behind the dale;
there is a mountain behind the cloud.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Time of Fire

One long-missing piece has reappeared, and fallen into place: the great books piece. I let myself be pulled away from reading the classics, while I wandered among Buddhist texts and dabbled in radical hermeneutics. But I'm back, and I suspect I'm back to stay. Reading great books has been, along with Buddhism, what has led me towards sanity and happiness. I thought of putting "great books" in scare quotes, but I decided not to. Great is as good a descriptor as any. There are books that I can return to, over and over, that meet me each time with something new and unexpected. Most of them are considered classics, by somebody or other. The label of classic amplifies the power of the book, of course: I attend more carefully because it's a classic, and I harvest more from it because I'm attending carefully. But that's a minor effect. Mainly, the classics are just far, far better books. End of story. I'm not interested in arguing the point: someone can argue that Middleton (for example) is just as good a playwright as Shakespeare, and produce endless perfectly respectable arguments to that effect: but it's not so, and you and I both know it. 

So I am back to a program of reading. In the last couple weeks it's been The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, Macbeth, and Cervantes' Novelas Ejemplares. I read where the reading seems rich, and leave off when I like (I won't take either the Nights or the Novelas at a single gulp: I'm no longer interested in mortifying my readerly flesh.) So -- that's good. And that's a piece of the "what do I do with my life now?" question answered. 

Another piece of that question has been answered, or at least reframed. I have become very interested, after the experience of this last vacation, in the idea of living within my temporal means -- to be clearer, in how the way I live now is, in various not-terribly-obvious ways, putting my future in hock. Every deferred decision, every object without a defined place in the household, every ambition in suspended animation, is a borrowing against my future resources. Sometime I will have to deal with X, and when I get time free I find -- as during this vacation -- that's it's not free at all: it's already allocated. If I go on this way I will never have a vacation. And I need a vacation.

A third piece. Alain de Botton, though sometimes silly and exasperating, is right about this: that to keep what's important before us we need rituals, daily, weekly, and seasonal rituals. If we are not part of a community that provides those, then we need to invent them. I need daily aspiration prayers, weekly observances, and seasonal holidays to mark the important things. Men require more often to be reminded than informed, said Montaigne.

It becomes clearer and clearer that I must curtail my consumption of social media, or maybe cut it off altogether. Its effect on me is obvious, and bad. It is more or less the opposite of ritual: it predictably inspires me to fear, and to focus on things I have no effect on.


Women, don't cower in the house.
Come with us. You've just seen death
and devastating calamity, but
you've seen nothing that is not Zeus.

My courage returned to me today. I don't know why. After writing the above I spent a week in a quietly panicked state, unable to settle to anything, frightened by everything from going to the grocery store to the prospect of learning to use Skype: and now, suddenly, the sky clears, and the stars come out. I remembered Yeats: 

The good are always the merry
Save by an evil chance;
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance.

It doesn't do to spend too long away from my touchstone writers.

And, as I said, I think I must make a calendar, of hammered gold and gold enameling. Make my own weeks and months and seasons, my own feast days and sacrifices. March is a good month to begin. It has always been my month of beginnings. The end of March, with Venus setting soon after the sun: it is the time of fire.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

The Business of the Mole

The business of the mole


Pese a las apariencias, Coy no era un tipo pesimista; para serlo resulta imprescindible verse desposeído de la fe en la condición humana, y él había nacido ya sin aquella fe. Se limitaba a contemplar el mundo de tierra firme como un espectáculo inestable, lamentable, y inevitable; y su único afán era mantenerse lejos para limitar los daños.

"In spite of appearances, Coy was not a pesimistic man: to be that requires losing one's faith in the human condition, and he had been born without that faith. He limited himself to contemplating the world of dry land as a spectacle that was unstable, lamentable, and inevitable; and his only ambition was to keep his distance, so as to limit the damage."

--Arturo Perez-Reverte, La Carta Esférica

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


So. Today we regroup. So there’s another big fuck-up, and the temptation is to go catastrophic. But really, dude. You are still under 165 lbs, which is a miracle. You are not suffering a breakdown, you're suffering a denial-of-service attack from your lizard brain. You wanted and needed a break that you didn’t really contrive to give yourself during your “vacation,” which turned mostly into “re-upping your massage license week,” so now you’re taking it as you can. That’s fine.

This has revealed fragilities in the system. Now you address them: 
  1. You need to have some frozen soup, so when you run out -- as with the burger -- you’re not really out. Build some resilience into the system. Figure out how to freeze some soup. It’s not rocket science. All over America people are freezing soup. You can do it too.
  2. When the girls invite you over for dinner, what you do is consider whatever the hell you eat to be the equivalent of your burger and potatoes. You may miss your ordinary meal, but you tough it out. You’ve actually eaten more calories, probably. Enlist Martha to help you get through the rest of the evening. You can do this thing. Yeah, it’s hard, it’s place where it’s easy to break down. Maybe sometimes you will. But it’s not a system failure. Even if you binge every time, all that means is that you need to compensate with less consumption in your daily regimen, and you can do that. Seriously, dude: get real. This is not system failure.
  3. Every Wednesday and every Saturday is a soup-making day, unless you have a quart per day on hand to get you through to the next one. You can’t rely on yourself to make soup on a work day. That’s fine. But it does mean that the Wednesday-and-Saturday expectation is non-negotiable.* Nothing has higher priority than making the soup, on those days. 

*Duh moment: what has actually changed is that my biweekly visit to my Dad has become a Wednesday thing, not a Monday thing. Which means every other Wednesday is rather overloaded. Making soup *and* making the Eugene run is a lot to ask, maybe too much to ask. On the other hand it leaves the *Monday* free for cooking… so think and plan. You’ve learned to plan a couple days ahead, which is a huge triumph. Now you learn to plan a whole week ahead. Again, this is a thing all your ancestors pulled off. You can learn to pull it off too.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Her Permitted Say

A clear blue sky: a new day.

This time not on anyone else's behalf: this one I am making for myself, "of hammered gold and gold enameling,.." 

I am weak, but not so weak as I was, and there is still time, a little bit of time.

The first one, appropriately enough, is the Arabian Nights: The Book of One Thousand Nights and a Night. Foolish and embarrassing stuff, but you enter by the door that opens to you. And there is that moment, that moment of surfacing from one tale to find yourself in the framing tale, and the vertigo of half-remembering that there's a frame above this one too, which hints of a frame still larger and more unknown.

Every night we wake from sleep: there's always the hope, or the fear, that someday we'll wake from waking, and recover the thread of the previous tale, the one of which this life's tale was just an explanatory aside. 

And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased saying her permitted say.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020


During my forty-five years or so of trying to lose weight, with varying intensities of effort, crowned with failure after failure, I gradually formed my expectations for what would happen if I succeeded. If I finally really lost weight, I would be celebrated and praised; people would be fascinated; I would be cornered at parties and asked for the secret of my success. I would modestly plume myself: admired by all, and anxiously consulted by would-be followers. What I didn't really expect was that I would disappear. 

But in fact I vanished. I was littler, of course: a continual wonderment to myself, a small lithe creature made of bone and hard muscle, that could wriggle through small spaces like a boy. My body in fact is a delight to me. This is the boyhood I never had. Even though I was only pudgy, and not yet fat, when I was a boy, I was intensely shy, and intensely aware of being weaker and slower than my peers. (I skipped a grade early in elementary school, so this was simple fact, not damaged self-image.) Only now am I having the experience of being physically competitive, full of energy, light on my feet: my vigor astonishes me. But I am smaller, and I have disappeared.

I should have expected this. There are two kinds of people: people who have never had much trouble with their weight, and people who have struggled with it all their lives. Neither kind wants to hear about my success. In crossing over, I have become suspect, unreliable, a traitor of sorts. The first sort are not interested, because -- why would they be? They know why people are fat: it's because they stuff their faces and have no will power. A previously fat person may have reformed, but there still is a whiff of bad character about them. Someone who let that happen to them? Ugh.

To the second sort, I am a standing reproach. I don't want to be. I do not in fact think that it is the fault of fat people that they are fat: I think that I have been extraordinarily fortunate in having had the resources to address a problem that ordinarily is insoluble. My solution is not portable. In a sense, I have nothing to say to fat people. My advice would run: "Establish a life essentially free of social, psychological, and financial stress; free up two hours per day to deal exclusively with preparing food, and line up a perfectly supportive household with no dependents. Then, here's what you do: ..." Who is still listening, by then? Who should be? Almost no one. 

Still, I'm a little sad sometimes, a little wistful. I had friends I valued, who have dropped away. A life of being jerked around by one's own hormones, dragged about against one's will, leaves marks. I will always be a fat person, as an alcoholic will always be an alcoholic; and in losing weight I have lost one of my communities.

Hard to know, hard to know. I was disappearing anyway, for other reasons and in other ways. I have always had a deep longing to disappear: that operates as well. To turn sideways and vanish into the air, light as bubble, a fleeting arc of iridescence floating on the wind: it may be the deepest desire of my heart. So it may be that I was due to depart anyway. I'm less and less present in the online world, as well as in such incarnate worlds as I ever inhabited. But on occasion I miss some of my former friends, and some of my former life.

Thursday, January 16, 2020


So it's colonoscopy time again next week, and I'm surly about it. I don't mind the procedure. I even enjoyed the first one -- or was interested by it, anyway -- because they didn't put me under and I could watch my insides on the monitor. The procedure is fine. What makes me grumpy is a) it's a hideously expensive and elaborate test without a large likelihood of return on investment, and b) it disrupts my painfully-arrived at diet for a whole week, forcing me to choose less healthy foods. No seeds, no nuts, no whole grains. So my breakfast oatmeal, with chopped nuts, is out of bounds. Replaced it with home fries this morning. The quarter cup of peanuts I eat in the afternoon I guess gets replaced by a couple tablespoons of creamy peanut butter: I'll need to go buy some today. And the flax seeds I chew in the evening are of course out. For a week. To reduce the chances of an early exit by colon cancer by half a percent, or whatever it is, while taking the small but severe risks of bowel perforation, bad anesthesia outcomes, and hospital-sourced infections.

The only real reason I'm going ahead and doing it is to convince my doctor that, although I won't take steroids, I'm really a good little patient who usually does what he's told. And the only real reason I want to stay on good terms with my doctor is that if I'm dying in pain I'll want opiates, and the physicians' guild holds the monopoly on them. Simple as that.

Among the many ironies of my life is that politically I'm dedicated to universal health care that, in my own person, I don't particularly want. I would far rather go without health insurance. Much of modern American health care, and especially the expensive parts of it, I would gladly forgo. I want the vaccines; I want the emergency trauma care. I want the check-ups. But I don't want a heart transplant. I'm not excited about dragging out my potential cancer death or cardiac failure, and I have no interest whatever in spending much time in the sleepless disease-vector boxes that are modern hospitals. God. TVs on all the time, lights never more than half-off, and never a let-up in the goddamned noise; I'd rather sleep on the street than in a hospital. Drug me if I'm in pain and let me die already.

I love medical science. I love being able to look things up and nose around in research articles. Medical science is wonderful. I'm not one of those people who bitch about "Western Medicine" per se, or who thinks alternative medicine is fabulous. But our peculiar three-player medical delivery system, in which all the money extracted has to flow through an insurance company before it reaches any caregiver, and runs through multiple curtains of obfuscation and profit-taking before it gets there, does not thrill me. And it would be lovely if I had somehow had back some of the $500 to $800 per month I've been paying, decade after decade, for medical services probably worth $5,000 in total. Seriously: it's hundreds of thousands of dollars I've paid into this system. I could find a use for a few hundred thousand extra dollars.

I probably won't post this: there's not really any point, and it sounds too like a certain sort of right-wing yapping that I don't want to encourage. I'm not thinking clearly enough, perhaps, about all the unknown unknowns. The number of ills that can befall a person is truly astonishing, and I might well wake up grateful in a hospital bed tomorrow morning.

But I am still surly. Even if the scrambled eggs and home fries this morning made really a nice change from boiled eggs and oatmeal. I just want everything to hold still long enough to lose that goddamn inch or two from my waist. I don't want to spend my time chasing rather remote chances of colon disease when I'm staring down the barrel of quite likely cardiovascular disease. Living long enough to get colon cancer would really be something of a feat, given my history and my family history. Something I could be proud of.