Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Mainsprings


Hazards

The mainspring contains a lot of energy. Clocks and watches have to be disassembled periodically for maintenance and repair, and if precautions are not taken the spring can release suddenly, causing serious injury. Mainsprings are 'let down' gently before servicing, by pulling the click back while holding the winding key, allowing the spring to slowly unwind. However, even in their 'let down' state, mainsprings contain dangerous residual tension. Watchmakers and clockmakers use a tool called a "mainspring winder" to safely install and remove them. Large mainsprings in clocks are immobilized by "mainspring clamps" before removal.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mainspring

"The mainspring is gone," I said. "Or I guess, to muddy the metaphor, the mainsprings are gone. My life still works, when I need it to. But the motive is gone.

"So what I'm hoping to understand -- to make -- is a new mainspring. And I thought, you know, I'm not proud, if there's a chemical shortcut I'm happy to take it. I think what I need, what I'm looking for, is a vision, an intense, clear vision, of...

"Okay, let's leave that be for the moment. If I could clearly describe the object of that 'of' then I wouldn't be here. I used to be able to tell you, pretty specifically. It was childish, but I knew what it was. It was the City on the Hill where the Cool Kids were, and I would go there and I would be King of the Cool Kids and all the women would want (in due order and without indecorous pushing or shoving) to sleep with me. 

"But I no longer believe in the City on the Hill. I no longer believe in the Cool Kids. I used to want in. But that doesn't drive me any more. So I'm adrift. I'm not particularly in pain, but... I'm not under sail any more. I'm just bobbing on the water."

"And you want to be under sail again?"

"Seems like madness, doesn't it? Isn't that precisely what the Buddha spent his life trying to achieve: freedom from being driven by fears and desires? And here I am, free at last, asking to be enslaved again?"

"That's one way to look at it, certainly. I can think of others. It's not how we typically look at it, in our profession, but we're not very philosophically sophisticated." Her smile hovered for  moment and disappeared. "But certainly a person needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning."

"Yes. And for the Buddha it was compassion. And maybe delight, I don't know. The delight is gone too. I mean, it flickers from time to time. But I wonder sometimes now if my earlier experiences of joy weren't just symptoms of my metabolic disorder, blood sugar swashing this way and that. I'm not transfixed by it now, not usually. There have been times in my life when I would turn a corner and see a fruit tree in blossom against a blue sky and I'd stagger, literally stagger, the beauty would knock me to my knees. Where has that gone? Now, now it's 'oh, there's pretty tree.' God help me."

"So you're thinking maybe if you nibble a mushroom, maybe you'll see the fruit tree of all fruit trees, lit up against heaven, and the mere memory of it will get you out of bed every morning for the rest of your days?"

I smile wanly. Why did I think I wanted a smart therapist? That was a goofy idea. "Yeah, I guess so. Something like that. Put that way it doesn't sound very... probable."

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Physics: Biology

 The ridiculous ease with which I'm losing weight on my new regimen makes me think I may have made this whole process much harder than it needed to be, by casting a biological problem (how do you get fat to leave fat cells faster than it comes in?) as a physics-and-will-power problem (how do you reduce calorie intake without overwhelming your will power?)

The physics-and-will-power solution worked, but it worked by main force, and it wouldn't have worked if a) I weren't already a guy who liked measuring things and keeping spreadsheets and b) if I hadn't been extremely canny about managing hunger hormones and c) if I hadn't had a nice calm stretch of water in my life that allowed me to devote the lion's share of my exertions of will to managing my eating. I suspect now I could have done the big weight loss with considerably less effort. But who knows? I still had to go through weaning myself from processed foods, from flour and sugar and seed oils, and that was never going to be easy. This (very mild) intermittent fasting regimen would not have worked if I had been eating as I was four years ago: four years ago fitting more than a day's calories into a ten-hour window was child's play. Now it's quite difficult.

But of course, we're only a month in, and we have novelty going for us, and we also have the nearness of the goal going for us: a .90 waist-hip ratio is very close. My 7-day rolling average stands at .905. I want to take it to .89 before even thinking of taking my foot off the pedal, because there's bound to be random fluctuation of .01 or .02. But it's very close, in the range of weeks, if not days, by now. And that's even without reckoning in prolonged fasts. I am (by my old way of reckoning things) within a couple pounds of my realio trulio end-goal.

The biology of weight loss boils down to having the time that the insulin is low and the glucagon is high -- and hence the entrance to the fat cells is closed and the exit is open -- being longer than the time that it's the other way around. Yes, accomplishing that will generally translate to being in an overall hypocaloric state, but that's accidental, not essential. 

That's my best understanding now. The proof is in the pudding, of course. I should know whether I'm right within a few weeks. 

Friday, April 02, 2021

Anoche cuando dormía...

 Oh well. Sometimes you just have to do something stupid: so here's a shot at "Anoche cuando dormía..." (Antonio Machado, 1903)


Last night as I was sleeping

I dreamed -- blessed illusion! --

that a fountain was flowing in my heart.

Tell me, water, by what hidden channel

do you come to me: spring of new life

that I never drank?


Last night as I was sleeping

I dreamed -- blessed illusion! --

that I had a beehive in my heart,

and golden bees were manufacturing

white wax and sweet honey

out of old grievance.


Last night as I was sleeping

I dreamed -- blessed illusion! --

that a burning sun shone in my heart:

burning because it gave the warmth

of a red hearth; sun because it dazzled, 

and brought tears to my eyes.


Last night as I was sleeping

I dreamed -- blessed illusion! --

it was God that I had in my heart.



There are three obvious things that have to be kept in translating this poem: 1) it needs to be in a popular verse form, something like English ballad measure, with regular meter and rhyme; 2) it needs to be in natural language, with only a few mild poeticisms, and 3) its parallelisms are fundamental and must be preserved.


Okay, so two out of three? It was beyond my powers to render this in any common English rhyme: I had to settle for a rough three-beat rhythm that was a least a little like the Spanish, and no rhyme at all. Yeats could have done it, maybe: but Yeats had his own work to do.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Sundry Remarks

Antonio Machado

I was hungry in the night, and I was wakeful in the early morning; but the moon was just past full and we don’t have the blackout curtains up, so I might have slept through that without noticing, if it had been full dark. Not a ferocious hunger, just a present one. It might have been wise to have eaten a little more when I broke my fast -- say half a bowl of stew -- I don’t think it would have taken much. In any case, I’m feeling quite stable at breakfast. So that’s good. So far I’m impressed by how fast things (meaning hunger, energy, etc.) have normalized. Now that I’ve had my breakfast, I don’t think that -- if you wiped my memory clean -- I’d have any way of knowing I was fasting yesterday.

All this fasting stuff is still experimental, and it’s way too early to plan schedules, but if I were to plan one right now, it would look like this:

1-day fast every other Tuesday (i.e. 4:30 Monday afternoon to 5:30 Wednesday morning), 
except
3-day fast every two months (i.e. 4:30 Monday afternoon to 4:30 Thursday afternoon)
except
5-day fast every six months (i.e. 4:30 Monday afternoon to 4:30 Saturday afternoon)

Yeah but
The thing is
With all this health ruckus settled, you are going to need to figure out what your days are supposed to be made of, Dale
What you are studying
What you are making
And how you know when you’ve done enough for the day
You have found one point of leverage
And that’s the moment you turn to Electoral-Vote.com
You need to turn to the study of the moment instead
There’s probably another point in the evening when you turn to YouTube
But anyway
Here’s a try:
In the morning half an hour, alternating Spanish literature and Canon
In the evening half an hour easy Spanish reading
That’s just an hour a day
And I’m sure you can do it
Even on hectic days
Maybe more on non-hectic days
But give this a shot
Right now it’s Machado’s poetry
And Lucretius
And the easy reading is Spanish’d Narnia
That’s not so hard, is it?
You can totally do this AND enjoy it
Silly boy.


---


Here's a go at translating "Sobre la tierra amarga..." (1903). I take unconscionable liberties with the stanza and the punctuation. Machado has three four line stanzas, but I think it works better in English with two sixes. And I can't bear ellipses in poetry. (What the hell are line breaks for?) But other than that it's a pretty close translation.

Dreaming, on this bitter earth,
has labyrinthine roads,
tortuous paths, parks
in flower and in shade and in silence;
deep crypts, ladders over stars;
altarpieces of hope and memory.

Figurines that walk and smile
(the melancholy toys of age):
kindly images
at the flowered turn of a lane,
and rosy chimaeras making their way
into the distance.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

2nd Fast

Today is the first 24-hour fast. Possibly 36, if I feel like going on till tomorrow breakfast, but certainly 24. I was going to start *after* breakfast, but I got up this morning and thought, “why the hell would I waste the 13 hours of fasting I’ve already accrued?” So my fast started at 4:30 yesterday, and I’ll break it at 4:30 today. I am having coffee, because piling caffeine withdrawal on top of fasting seems like asking for trouble; also I’ve taken my thyroid med and my vitamin D3. Otherwise, it’s water.

It’s oddly luxurious to not have to think about food prep and planning. Spacious. I have two white pint bowls that I use for my morning broccoli. In the evening I prep the broccoli and put it in the fridge, ready to steam in the morning, and last of all I start the dishwasher. In the morning I eat the broccoli, as I unload the dishwasher and make the rest of my breakfast; and before I sit down to eat my oatmeal and eggs I put the newly-empty bowl into the newly-empty dishwasher. So the one bowl spends the day on the shelf and the night in the fridge, while the other spends the whole day and night in the dishwasher, and in the morning they switch places: but the two never meet. But this morning they are on the shelf together, eyeing each other with suspicion and surprise.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“I live here. I’ve always lived here.”

“Nonsense. *I* have always lived here.”

I’m sure they’ll sort it out. I wonder if I have twin in the world, occupying my negative spaces? I imagine I do.

---

So now I have done 24 hours! Not much of a struggle, actually. Of acute interest will be: what do my hormones do now? I just ate my usual dinner, though an hour late. Will I be unusually hungry tonight, or tomorrow? Stay tuned.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Belated End of Year Check-In

 I neglected my end-of-year check-in this year. So here it is, three months late. Here's the chart for the weight. Weight is a crummy metric for Metabolic Syndrome: it's analogous to cholesterol -- we rely on it because it's easy, and gives us a spurious but scientific-feeling accuracy. You can see the major contours below, though: I lost weight steadily from May 2017 to August 2018, going from 220 to 150; then I gained back ten pounds; for the two years thereafter I've held pretty steady at 160.


Below is the graph of my waist measurement over the same time (sorry, I don't know enough about the charts and PNG formats to get the scales to look the same: but they really are over the same period of time)


From this you get a better picture of what the changes in weight meant, and what I was trying to do. The year I gained ten pounds, I did it deliberately, and I did it without increasing my waist measurement, which I've been able to hold pretty steady in the 33" to 34" range. Waist measurement is fussy and inaccurate and frustrating, but it's actually a direct measurement of what I was most eager to do: reduce my visceral fat. So the ten pounds I gained was mostly muscle mass: something devoutly to be wished. Not because it's decorative, but because muscle means you can get up off the floor and carry groceries, etc.; and because it provides an excellent glucose sink for people (like me, like at least half the American population) that have difficulty managing glucose in a healthy way. The glucose that doesn't end up in your muscles lands in your liver, and the liver has to flail about trying to store it in various generally unhealthy ways.

The attentive reader will see that over the past year and a half I've tried repeatedly to bring my waist down another inch or two, with no success whatever. (That's where the blue line, which describes my intention, goes jagged, as I revise it over and over.) I had thought the same strategy I used for my original weight loss would work again: why wouldn't it?

Well, it wouldn't because within a week or two of cutting down my calorie intake, I would find myself binge-eating, just like the bad old days. God knows I don't want to start that up again. It was during one of these binge-prone periods that I had my blood lipids done, which showed a mild deterioration, and inspired my doctor to urge statins, and made me take the project of further reducing my visceral fat, and improving my metabolic health, more seriously. (Yes, yes, I know that cholesterol is a crappy metric for metabolic health, but it's not totally irrelevant, either. A happy liver just doesn't crank out that much cholesterol.) Hence the reduction of saturated fat -- the switch from the nightly hamburger and ice cream to herring and turkey (which is going fine!) Hence also the time-restricted feeding, also going fine, with a quite roomy ten- or eleven-hour feeding window: the idea of that is making sure that my insulin actually has time to fall for a reasonable amount of time. (Calling thirteen or fourteen hours a "fast" seems a bit overblown to me. "Not snacking" seems nearer the mark. But it makes sense that if you want to burn fat you'll have to stop flashing the "don't burn any fat! we've got sugar to burn!" signal at some point; i.e. let your insulin levels fall.)

And also I'm interested in real fasting, fasting for a day or two or three -- partly because of the the autophagy and senescent-cell-clearance speculation, which is fascinating but not really settled health science yet, and partly because it seems at least possible that it works for burning fat without lowering metabolism, which in real-life terms, may mean without kicking off binge-eating.

I'm interested too for what you might loosely call spiritual, or psychological, reasons: I've been hagridden by obsessive attention to food all my life, and I long to shake loose of it. I have never, in 63 years on the planet, gone a full 24 hours without food. This seems rather immature to me: not because I think I should have the will power -- I don't believe I will ever have any more will power than I have right now, or that I have, or should have, particularly more or less than anyone else -- but because I'd like to practice managing my endocrine reactions better. I would be a better person if I didn't get cranky and unreasonable at missing a meal, or at even the prospect of missing a meal. And I think with practice I might get a handle on that.

So that's the current project. Still pushing to get that waist/hip ratio down to 90%. And tomorrow is the next fast: 24 hours this time. (Or put another way, skipping lunch and dinner.) Wish me luck!

Friday, March 26, 2021

A Change of Days

 

The bound flow of a calligrapher's hand,

The bandaged fingers and braced-up wrists

of a gymnast's well-chalked grip:


What kind of gift

have you brought to this meal? 


What will you say 

that you have not said before?


With a primate's practiced peck

of thumb and forefinger I catch 

a sugar ant, and absentmindedly

roll it to its death:


I will notice the smell of its small catastrophe

later, when the sun is high, and I rub my eyes,

aching from the light.


I hesitate to go again into the world

until I can answer these questions.

If this small space is room enough for sin

why would I need more?

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

First Fast

 So a 17-hour fast (I was aiming for 16.) Finished my lunch around 1:00 yesterday, and broke my fast around 6:30 this morning.

Observations:

  1. I drank a couple cups of hot water in the evening, and I got up to pee after every damn sleep cycle. Four times, I think. I don’t know if it was hunger, or a revved metabolism, or the extra water, or the combination: but anyway, it was not a great-quality sleep. NB I did have one of those really deep naps yesterday afternoon, so that’s a possible factor. Also recollect that carb bomb of the birthday croissant and two enormous cookies. That probably destabilized my blood sugar a bit.

  2. The hunger really does come and go. It doesn’t just ramp up and up. And I wasn’t all that hungry when I woke up to pee: certainly not so hungry as to make it especially difficult to get back to sleep. A really interesting thing was that when I when I got up in the morning, and was on the verge of breakfast -- breakfast was within sight -- the hunger vanished. A lot of it apparently consisted of anxiety about whether I would be able to do the fast, and whether fasting meant I would never get to eat again. I could easily have dawdled another hour before getting breakfast. (I did in fact take my first walk before I ate.)

  3. At no point was I anywhere near as desperately hungry as I used to be -- multiple times a day -- when I was fat. No cravings.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Little Fishes (part 2), & the Theory of Fasting

Huh. Okay, last night was the canned herring with lemon and pepper. The idea was, I'd eat 300 calories' worth of them, and add some olive oil to the potatoes. Upon opening the cans, I abandoned the oil idea at once. They're not kidding when they call them "oily little fish"! Even I, who adore fats, was not going to add more oil than that. That was plenty.

Once again, I'm startled by how much food my 100 grams of hamburger translates to in other proteins. No wonder beef tastes so good! A calorie bomb.

There's bunch of stuff thrown in with this version of the herring -- this is definitely processed food we're talking, here -- but I don't think you could seriously argue it was, nutritionally, a worse dinner than the burger and ice cream. And it was delicious.

(One advantage of eating precisely the same dinner for four years straight, I suppose, is that anything new will seem marvelous.)

So here is a second success. Today and the day after I'll be finishing up my ground turkey. Then probably it's on to the canned salmon. Science marches on.

---

One of my many unexamined dietary assumptions was that a person should seek a steady state, a perfect calorie intake, and stay there. From my recent reading, this appears to be wrong: actually cycling through periods of glut and deprivation is what the system is designed for, and both states confer advantages that a steady state will not. That, at any rate, is the hypothesis I'm working from now. Not big swings in body weight -- not ten pounds a go -- but some alternation of surplus and fasting. In a period of glut the body builds muscle much more readily, and muscle mass is good for you in a couple different ways, practically and metabolically. And at some point in a period of fasting the body kicks into "conserve and repair" mode and starts cleaning up damaged cells and mitochondria. Then you get shiny new cells with snazzy new appliances, if I understand right, but more importantly, you stop the old senile cells from sending confusing and inflammatory messages to all the other cells in their neighborhood. This clean-up process is called autophagy, and it's thought to be why calorie restriction sometimes extends lifespan.

The catch, for the humble end-user of this theory, is: what counts as a "fast"? 16 hours daily? 1 day every 2 weeks? five days per quarter? And how much calorie restriction: 50% 75%? 100%? Nobody really has any idea what the ideal protocol would be. Autophagy turns out to be a difficult thing to detect: you can't just prick your finger and get a number for it. Presumably some clever person in a laboratory will figure out how to do this, at some point; but for now, it's just guesswork. My plan is to do what seems offhand to be easiest, which is one day (36-hour) fast every two weeks. I'll give that a shot next Tuesday. It doesn't seem (in prospect) all that difficult to just not eat for a day.

Monday, March 08, 2021

The Great Protein Swap

Hi Dr P-----,

Thanks so much! I'm afraid there's nothing mysterious about my cholesterol numbers edging up this year :-)

I propose seeing what I can do with diet and exercise, first, and seeing if I can get that total chol/HDL ratio at least back down to 5 by June. I'm not dead set against taking statins, but I want to at least put up a fight. I'm pretty clear about what I need to do.

Can we plan on another lipid panel in June, and go from there?

Dale

The great protein swap begins tonight, with ground turkey (thanks Am!) instead of burger and ice cream. I reckon 150 grams of Turkey about equals the calories of 100 grams of burger, and 50 more grams would about match the ice cream. We’ll see how much I actually want, but certainly 200 grams would be a plausible place to start. 

And salt tracking started last night. I’d be very surprised if limiting salt had any effect on the cholesterol -- it really shouldn’t -- but it might have an effect on the blood pressure, which would in turn affect the results of Dr P’s risk calculator. And it’s just been hanging, for a long time, and I’m tired of it being an issue out in the offing. Anyway, this is just to get a starting read on how much I’m actually adding to my food at the moment (not counting the salt already in the lunch soups, which should be, I dunno, less than 1/3 of a teaspoon per serving, probably a lot less; also not counting the salt I throw into the oatmeal, which is about 1/4 teaspoon.) If you don’t know your starting numbers, you don’t know anything.

The other big question in the offing is fasting. I’ve got a book on hold at the library, about fasting and autophagy -- The Switch, by James Clement -- and decide how I’m going to start fasting after that.

[Evening] Well, the turkey (150 grams) was not what I expected. I doubled (at a rough guess) the olive oil, making perhaps a four inch pool rather than 2 ½ - 3 -inch, and ended up crumbling the turkey, and it drank every bit of the oil. So rather than having potatoes saturated with oil, I had very tasty turkey and dry potatoes. The combination was pleasing and I in no way felt deprived: but the turkey was so tasty that I must remember to examine its label carefully. Did they sneak some sugar into it? [ans: no. Turkey and Rosemary extract.] By the reckoning on the package, the turkey calories will have been 210, which should be less, even with the extra oil, than the 100 grams of hamburger and ¼ cup of ice cream. So I would call this part of the project a grand success. Whether it has any impact on my waistline or lipid numbers, of course, we won’t know for some time. Tomorrow will be canned fish, of one sort or another -- I bought four different sorts -- and some olive oil drizzled on the potatoes.


So far I'm not missing the ice cream at all: that's encouraging. That was the last refined sugar in my diet.

Meanwhile, I have introduced a second daily walk, which I'm gradually going to increase until it's the same length as my first daily walk. (Gradually, because last time I kicked up my walking distance rapidly my knee objected strongly.) So far so good, with that. My main exercise is still resistance training, mostly bodyweight. I have to be very prudent about how I stress my knees and my lumbar spine. I am not a big fan of cardio, either by preference or by theory, but 15 or 20 minutes a day was really not enough. And I like what having a walk on either side of my afternoon siesta does to my mental clarity. I might start tying the walks to waking from sleep, come to think of it. That's an idea.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Little Fishes

 


Well, my doctors are at it again, trying to get me to take statins. So I've been going through what I went through ten years ago, browsing studies and reading Cochrane reviews and getting the lay of the land. American medicine is very aggressive about preventive statins. It's a maddening edge-case, for me: kind of a toss-up. On the one hand, the benefit is clear enough: if you put a thousand at-risk people on statins for five years, you'll prevent some 18 major cardiovascular episodes. But as far as I can tell, no one clearly understands why. The popular narrative of cholesterol "clogging" arteries is not what actually happens. And meanwhile, you've also put 982 people on a serious systemic drug for five years, without measurable benefit. I don't have confidence that these studies (all of which are underwritten by people who -- surprise! -- want to sell statins) are looking really carefully for long-term side-effects. I don't doubt that the research is conscientious, by its own lights. But its lights are not exactly mine. The balance has shifted slightly in favor of the pro-preventive-statins side, in the last ten years, but not much. I'm undecided.

But still, even given all the caveats, my cholesterol is outlandishly high, and probably indicates that I should do something about it. One thing, which I'm already undertaking, is to increase my (quite lame) cardio: I'm gradually going to double my modest daily walking time.  The other thing, of course, is my diet.

I have fixed a lot about my diet, in the past four years, but there's two big changes I've left for later: salt and saturated fat. Salt is a project I'm not willing to undertake yet. But I eat a lot of saturated fat at dinner: 100 grams of ground beef, and a densely-packed quarter cup (probably half a cup, unpacked) of ice cream. I have not had much luck tampering with those: I've partly been able to make all the other changes because I still able to look forward to gorging myself on saturated fat at dinner. But I think I'm going to take another, sustained shot at replacing the burger and ice cream with little fishes. Sardines, or herring, or whatever you call them. Little guys towards the bottom of the food chain. It needs to be canned, because no way am I taking on the burden of purchasing, storing, and prepping fresh fish every day. Not happening.

So. I'll have a lot of calories to spend -- upwards of 400 -- if I drop the burger and ice cream. I have a hard time picturing eating 400 calories of sardines. (Truth be told, I have a hard time picturing eating sardines at all) So at least it will be an "all you can eat" situation, which may placate the appetite demons somewhat.

We'll see. It's an experiment. If I can't do it -- if it leads to intolerable cravings and binges -- then I'll just accept that, resume the burger and ice cream, and go on my way: moving one blood lipid marker down is not worth putting the whole project at risk. Maybe I've done as much as I can: if so, that's all right. But I am going to make the attempt. Market day is Monday, so that's when I start.

---

Having to decide about the statins evoked an odd emotional crisis, which I'm still sorting out. My doctor ordered me to start taking them in a note on my online chart. It was not camouflaged as a suggestion, or a consultation. It was phrased simply as a command. This is a new-ish doctor for me, who is busy and rather rushed, who probably was not bearing in mind, or didn't know, or didn't care, that doctors have ordered me to take statins before and I have said no. 

I don't respond well to being ordered, when I think I ought to be consulted. As a white man with and advanced degree and a retirement stash, I'm greatly impressed with my own importance and dignity, and I expect everyone else to be too. 

At the same time, I score off the charts on those personality quizzes that assess agreeability. I prefer to avoid conflict. And I'm keenly aware that I want to stay on the good side of my health care people, because they have control of the pharmacopeia. If I'm dying of cancer someday I may want all the opium I can eat, and this is the doctor who will be deciding if I get it. I'm also aware (really I am!) that even thinking this thought wanders over the line into paranoia: I really doubt that many doctors are going to make that decision by pondering whether I was willing to take statins when they told me to. 

No, what's really operating here is a reluctance to accept my low status and vulnerability. Where my two options appear to be knuckling under and accepting that I'm powerless old man, hoping not to be stranded on the ice floe, with an ever-growing list of cumulatively debilitating daily medicines to take; or becoming one of those ridiculous superstitiously anti-medical cranks who refuse to go near a hospital when their appendix bursts. Comical, in any case. Nobody retains their dignity in the face of the Western way of doing medicine. Nobody retains their dignity in the face of age, in any case. And isn't it -- supposedly -- my goal to get rid of my dignity? Isn't my dignity precisely and exactly the source of my suffering? I thought abandoning my dignity was my life's project?

The fact is that this decision is trivial. If you did a study with fifty subjects, and a fifty-person control group, you would probably conclude that a) statins have no benefit and b) statins have no side-effects, either. You can't even see these effects in a small study. I may have opinions about the wisdom of setting standards for preventive drugs that result in the majority of the population eventually taking them, but -- that's another question, and not one in which the opinion of an IT guy / massage therapist / occasional poet weighs much.

So that much is clear. The decision is actually unimportant. What is important for me -- apparently -- is how I hold it, which stories I tell myself about it, and what state of mind they leave me in. The story of letting myself get pushed around is not going to be one that -- for instance -- inspires me to have a go at eating little fishes. The story of crotchety, shrill defiance, and insistence on my dignity, in defiance of due authority, may undergird the little fishes project, but it takes me that much further on the road to suspicion and isolation.  I'm already further down that road than I want to be.

---

Anyway. If any of you have helpful hints or suggestions about little fishes, please give them to me! My plan Monday is to plant myself by the canned fish and read labels and just try whatever they've got. 

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Von Tal in the Ice

Ice Storm, February 2021

Lo ’mperador del doloroso regno
da mezzo ’l petto uscia fuor de la ghiaccia

The deep forest is gone. I made the mistake, fifteen or twenty years ago, of taking a shortcut home from the beach, through what I foolishly thought was still the deep forest, along old logging roads and such analogs to country lanes as we have here. There was no forest. It was ugly slash, the remains of multiple clear cuts, stumps and scrawny miserable third- or fourth-growth Douglas firs: the scars everywhere, and the junk logs, detritus, and brush dumped into the creeks. Nothing left. There is no deep forest now. A few parks: in Joni Mitchell's phrase, tree musee-ums. And even the closest of those have been burnt over in the seasonal wildfire romps, now. Why should I care about further losses? It's all been trashed. If you didn't know what a real forest was supposed to look like, I suppose you could take these places for forest. I can't. 

In this mood, I am probably as close as I will ever get to understanding the hearts and minds (loosely speaking) of Trump supporters. They too think everything has been ruined: though why they loved what they loved makes no sense to me. To my mind, suburban America has always been hideous and its pastimes have always been ridiculous. I still feel that way, and I have less inclination than ever to apologize for it. But they loved it, or thought they did, and now they've lost it, or believe they have, and they've found someone as stupid and hostile as they are to be a focusing-glass for their rage. Go for it, guys. Tear the country apart. The chances of making it worse are small. 

Of course, I don't believe that people in this mood can hang together or take constructive action. I have only to look at myself in the mirror, to know that. You can't cooperate if you think other people are stupid losers. You can't build anything without hope. So the Trumpists will roll through like the wildfires from time to time. But the idea that they could actually build something -- a third party, for example -- is absurd. Nihilists don't build. They don't trust each other any more than they trust us. So you want to keep tabs on them enough to get out of their way during their brief flares. For the rest, relax. They may commit random acts of terror, but that's about all they're up to. I don't worry about them any more than I worry about lightning strikes on a clear day. Could happen: will happen to some unfortunate soul: but who cares? Plenty more human beings where we came from.

---

So the question -- this is me again -- is not whether von Tal is right. He probably is, given his premises and his point of view. But there's the dizziness, the flash of nausea, in moving from his point of vantage to mine. Am I to trust people? Am I to regard myself as one of them? As a Buddhist? As an American? As a Democrat? As a Portlander? What's at stake, and how deep is the trust to be? And do I even have any say so, really? You can't actually decide to trust people. You just do or you don't, and your conscious mind scuttles to keep up, supplying excuses, suspicions, or extenuations, as required.

The facile reply is that we don't have any choice. We have to trust people, or we die. That's the human condition. Choosing universal distrust is choosing to die: always has been, always will be. But that leaves a wide space for maneuver. We don't have to trust very many people. I don't have to accept every designation that my busy neighbors may assign me. I don't have to regard myself as a member of any of these tribes: with a little flexibility of mind I can just wriggle past the obvious, brute-force ones. Pay such of my taxes as would be readily garnished, because according to others I'm an American, an Oregonian, etc.; beyond that I can just go my own way, avoid law enforcement and lawyers like the plague, and mind my own garden. Not so bad. Who cares what the other human beings do? Who cares what they assume about me? With minimal camouflage I can be whatever they expect me to be in public. Nowadays, while wearing a mask, I don't even need to produce the required facial expressions. I walk stony-faced down the sidewalk, peering briefly into every set of eyes that goes by me. Unintelligible flickers; counterfeits of consciousness. Who cares?

Really, it's the universalizing religions that challenge us to a wider sympathy, a wider identification. And  they are subject to immediate wear and tear: it doesn't take long for the story of the Good Samaritan to be encysted. Pretty soon you can slaughter all those other odious Samaritans with a good conscience. For every Blake insisting that everything that lives is holy, there are forty snide commentators pointing out that all Republican (Democrat) lives are worthless.

So, I don't know. Was Rush Limbaugh's life infinitely precious? Why?

And there are such huge things in motion, carrying me with them. One very valuable part of having lived for a couple generations is that I can see, clearly, that many of the things I thought were manifestations of my special snowflake perceptions, when I was a teenager, were just broad cultural currents that happened to sweep me up early because I was directly in their way. For example, my love of Tolkien and high fantasy -- my impatience with gender roles and acceptance of varied sexualities -- my contempt for  authority -- were all just in the American air and water. I was bobbing along in a current that was gradually going to sweep up everyone. I was not specially discerning: I was just spun into main channel a bit early.  It gives me a little twinge of distress, now, when I see the Lord of the Rings appear in lists of "one hundred books that everyone should read." No! Only special weird people love the Lord of the Rings! I remember vividly the first time I met actual other living human beings, in person, who loved the book. It was 1971, and it seemed miraculous. Soul mates! I was not alone in the world after all! 

---

But back up a little. You can't decide to trust people: but you can practice it, if you want to. Do I want to? I don't know.

---

Or maybe people are not the point. I always think of Fermi's supposed paradox -- if there is alien life, why hasn't it contacted us? -- with some amusement. The assumption that alien life would want to contact other alien life is so very much the assumption of an uneasy, semi-hierarchical social animal, one that dreads yet is fascinated by strangers. We are a weird species, in that regard. Other intelligent species are probably either not social at all, or perfectly social: either content as individuals, or content as a hive. Who cares what other species are doing, so long as they're not trying to catch us and eat us? Wandering around perpetually trying to gain the approval of strangers is practiced, so far as I know, only by a couple very weird species of primates.

So let that go. Let other people go. I am still here, shaggy and unbrushed, blinking in the new sunlight. I have a family and a few treasured friends. I'm fine. 

---

Nevertheless: I am missing something obvious. There are wheels within wheels. I can taste it: there is a deliberate stupidity in all that I'm thinking right now, a falseness. I have been telling myself stories in a dark corner for too long. It's time to get out for a walk, if it's possible. It's time -- speaking as one of those weird primates -- to ask a stranger for help.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Ambush

 


Von Tal says:

Left out of the conversation? The fact that, for nearly all of our evolutionary and historical time, we have been surrounded or neighbored by predators, animal or human.

The possibility -- probability -- of sudden death or capture, by sentient beings that desire our death, or our absorption, is not our abnormal state. It was our normal state. And we patrolled our boundaries, or helped each other to escape, and that is what made the social bonds we most trust. We saved each other's lives.

And although that is not the world we live in now, you can tell it's our normal world, because all our stories immediately return to it. Countless narratives of banding together to defeat predators. Despite the fact that most of us will never meet a creature that means to kill us in our lives. 

In the absence of predatory enemies, we experience, paradoxically, much higher levels of anxiety, because we do not know -- push come to shove -- that anyone will come to our defense. In the absence of predators, we imagine them; but we don't know if anyone will try to save us from them. We don't know who we can trust. We have never had the bonding experience of escaping death together. In fact, the overwhelming tendency of human beings is to help each other out in an emergency. The "total breakdown of society" fantasy is a wildly unrealistic one. Actually what happens is we pull together, we sacrifice for each other. We become more of hive-creatures under stress, not less of hive-creatures.

But we don't know that. And we imagine the worst.

Well, sure, maybe. I realize slowly, on this bright and mild and strangely quiet February morning, that there is a reason for the quiet, and it's a simple and slightly embarrassing one. I forgot to put in my hearing aids this morning. I can just barely hear a sharp crow-voice: "Point of order! Point of order!" Really he's  making a racket, and others are probably bickering too. But it floats, barely perceptible, at that range where hallucination and guess are interchangeable. My ears are a step ahead of me in drifting away from the world.

I read a biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate. The Most Famous Man in America. I should probably read some of Beecher's essays, because he's so much where my tribe originated: the transmutation of Puritanism into Hedonism: the vigorous endorsement of ecstasy and the pettifogging evasion of its consequences: the tunnel vision that sees one sort of evil clearly, and is blind to another sort. And the real origin of my personal disasters, and the waste of my life. Which is not a wastage that is very important, but it's one that concerns me closely.

We fought a long and horrible war, and won it, over whether a black person was a human being. And then we lost the peace, and had to fight it again; and now we are going to have to fight it again. The terms change slightly but the war goes on.

And also this: I remember watching Donald Trump declare himself to be without sin, in an interview before his election. I thought he would lose the devout Christian vote then and there. But even our enemies had been converted by Henry Ward Beecher: today's typical American Christians totally believe they are without sin, and they didn't mind a bit that Trump made that claim. They approved of it. They bask in God's unconditional love. That interview made not even a momentary blip on the political sonar.

Which goes to show that exchanging a stern God for a loving one actually makes no political difference. It's irrelevant. Those of us who once thought it would change something -- the joke's on us. As so often, we believed our own stories, and followed them into an ambush. Sauve qui peut.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Mahamudra

 

Paula Modersohn-Becker

The point from the start was to figure out how to live. Some people grow out of asking "why? why? why?" -- with infuriating persistence -- in toddlerhood. Not me. Partly no doubt because my parents strongly encouraged curiosity, so I generally felt I was a good boy when I inquired. And then, I had a rare father who could actually tell me why the sky was blue, and what held the Moon up, or what was really happening in Southeast Asia. But mostly because what you don't know can cut you off at the knees, and often does. It's pure self-defense to know as much as you can, about everything you can. You have to look after yourself, in this life.

But you end up studying yourself in the mirror, and seeing a strange, inquisitive face examining you, with great attention, although maybe not with overflowing sympathy. The eyes overlarge, and the belly swollen with -- promise? Or what? You tell me.

How to live: which includes what to do with your days: maybe boils down to that. Certainly how to hold your days up to the sun. (Or up to whatever sky God gives you.) 

But first, anyway, you have to slow down and quiet down, until you can hear the drip of the snowmelt and the grooming of the cat and the shift of the heat exchanger. More haste, less speed. 

And so: I sit. For the first time in months. A couple minutes in, and the refuge prayers come back to me: I say them over and resume. Sit a few more minutes. Say the dedication prayers. "May I quickly realize Mahamudra." The great seal, the great gesture: and never in all my reading and practicing did I ever find out what the hell Mahamudra meant, beyond that literal translation. Which, in my current state, pleases me. Obviously, I don't know what it is: if I did I wouldn't need to realize it. That's the whole point.

Well. Good morning, dear ones.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

St Valentine

       Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
       Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?

A glorious mane, a weight of silvered soot:
I wake to the smell of apple wood. An arm
overlaid, a quiet breath, a hood:
a murmur not quite heard, but understood.

A wheeling hammer's axis, near its head 
so that it seems to waver as it falls:
a slalom through the air, an oscillation,
a limp in Newton's gait: an imperfection.

If we wake now, and turn towards the east?
A clutter of trinkets that bring to memory
what's best forgotten: a dirty red and violet:
a blurred burst in silhouette.

Walk back, walk back. The hammer strikes,
rebounds. You have but slumbered here. Tell me
what the story was? I have lost track:
only that the hounds bayed at my back.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Joy


So how do I recover the knack for joy?

To be clear: I'm not trying to be happy. The transitory wash of feelings will follow its tidal rhythms, regardless of my actions or attitudes: content and discontent only function properly if they continue alternating. To want to stop the pendulum at one end of its swing -- to exist in perfect contentment -- is to want to stop the clock. That's not what I'm after.

But there's the foreground of happy and distressing experiences, and there's the background, or the setting. A person who is experiencing (non-acute) depression is not necessarily having an experience of the daily events of their life much different from mine: good things and bad things happen, mood lifts and falls. One of the commonest things people say after a suicide is "My God, I talked to him just hours before that, and he seemed fine." He probably was fine then, as far as it goes. It was not the foreground that was the problem. It was the background. Is there a net of joy under us, waiting to catch us, or is it a horrible, airless vacuity? That's what's different. We may never fall, for good or ill, but the experience on the tightrope is fundamentally different, according to what we think we would fall into if we did.

It's natural enough to cast this in terms of afterlife, but it doesn't need to be cast in those terms. I'm fairly sure that my consciousness will simply stop, when I die. Poof. After that, it's not my problem, nor anyone else's. But we live in time, and we imagine it, willy nilly, coming before and after. Where are we coming from, and where are we going? These nonexistent spaces, are they full and radiant, or empty and horrible? It's a nonsense question, put in those terms: it's undiscoverable and unfalsifiable. But we answer it whether we mean to or not.

There have been seasons when my conviction that the nonexistent spaces were full and radiant was very strong. And seasons, as now, when it has dwindled to a queasy hope.

I'm describing this as if it were a question of fact to be discovered, which it almost certainly isn't. That's just the way we talk. We make up the answer out of moments of transcendence, moments of exquisite joy or clarity or awe. It doesn't take much. But it does take some. It takes at least the possibility that, at any turning, anywhere, any time, something overwhelmingly beautiful and dangerous might appear. So those moments, and how we hold them, matter disproportionately. Hence the daily prayer, the daily ritual, the meditation, the weekly ramble in the Gorge. Not because these moments can be summoned. They can't. But if I don't deliberately put myself in their way, they can be missed: and if I miss them too often, I may come to distrust them entirely, or forget them. And then I'm really lost.

So there's my answer, in a nutshell: I've lost the knack for joy because I've stopped putting myself where it's found. I've stopped looking for it. I don't think it's any more complicated than that.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Losing My Place


I have lost the knack for joy
, I wrote, and then I studied the words for minute. Were they true?

The more I thought it about it, the more I decided they were. I am notoriously bad at personal history -- I never know when or how things happened, and I often find, when I examine my just-so stories about myself, that they're absurd. I'll think event X caused personality defect Y, when a cursory review of the documents shows that Y was in full force years before X. My past is strewn with documents, so it's not that hard to check.

But with all due skepticism, I trace this loss to Mr Trump's nomination, campaign, and election; and then the pandemic set the seal on it. I lost the knack for joy: and I lost much of the impulse to write, which was tightly interwoven with it.

As I watched Trumpism wash through America, I thought again and again: "what was my contribution to this? How did I make this happen, or allow this to happen?"

Well, the answer was clear. I had a least one devoted reader who was also a devoted Trump fan, and I recognized at once that I was appealing in exactly the same way Mr Trump was. I used to practice a sort of diaristic magical realism. I talked to stars and mountains and ghosts. Something that appealed emotionally got free rein, and if facts got trampled in the process, who cares? Other people would take care of the facts. I was busy with the realm of the emotions and of the soul. What I was interested in was joy and delight. Nothing else mattered, not really.

And so I was shocked into silence, inward and outward. I didn't want to be part of spreading this poison. I mistrusted myself deeply. I stopped my supposedly harmless riffing on supernatural themes. No, I'm not meeting Vajrasattva in the parking garage. No, I am not conversing with ghosts. No, I am not dissolving into the wind. I'm someone who washes his hands and wears a mask and is determined to get the vaccine, because viruses don't give a damn about Vajrasattva and never have. Misty devotion to to deities such as the Great South Wall Protector lead straight to children in cages. The hell with misty devotion. The hell with deities. I'm trying to keep my family alive. 

When I was setting out in life, the Enlightenment looked like a done deal. Everyone acknowledged the primacy of science. I gave myself to old books and old stories, partly because I already loved them, and partly with a sense that the post-Enlightenment world was losing something precious: that a salvage operation was in order. That we were throwing sources of joy and wisdom out, as well as sources of superstition and bigotry, The march of science was inevitable: it had the backing of the liberal West, of Soviet Communism, and of global Capital: how could it falter? It needed no help from me. I could wander among the wreckage of our cultural past, find lost treasures in the rubble, wash the mud off them and hold them up to the sun.

And the treasures are there, sure enough. I was right about that part. But science, reason, rationality, commitment to what can be ascertained and confirmed by rigorous experiment -- they turned out to be as fragile as the treasures I was hunting. I had misunderstood. It was all fragile.

The joy blew out like a candle, and I lost my place. I read political news in the morning, instead of poetry. I begin a novel and drop it impatiently: they're just making stuff up. Anyone can make stuff up. The hard thing is sticking to the truth.

I don't quite recognize myself, in all this, and that's probably a good sign.

In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Posing a Hypothetical


My dental floss comes in a plastic box, of course -- God forbid anything should not be encased in plastic -- and it has a handy little metal tab to cut the floss, because actually having tools around to do obvious jobs would be beyond the capacity of my countrymen. It allows them to sell a spool of waxed thread for an improbable amount of money: I've avoided reckoning up how much I pay per foot, because after all, a person has to end the day with a little bit of pride intact.

But this particular spool resists being pulled with unusual vigor. I have to seize the thread with a specially good grip and drag it out to arm's length. It feels like one those exercises I once learned to make sure the brachial nerves are moving freely through the thoracic outlet. Or like a martial art move, founded on an ancient tradition of archery practice. The extended floss pose. 

My life has disintegrated into a jumble of tiny competencies, earned with toil and stubborn practice, to carry me from one portion of my day to the next. But the mainspring of my life is gone, and I know it, and some invisible malevolence in the low cloud cover knows it too. One flosses in order to preserve one's teeth and gums, right? And one preserves one's teeth and gums so as to be able to eat at an advanced age. And why does one want to eat at an advanced age? Well, presumably for the same reason one wants to eat now: but the questions begin to verge on the impolite. All the sequences of questions tend the same way. Why? In service of what? The thing in the cloud cover shifts, and cocks its head, listening for my answer.

Not such a fool. Nobody sensible answers a question like that. "For life to mean something," I say, "Somebody must intend it. And nobody intended this life: it just happened.

"Furthermore, even if somebody intended it, why should I be governed by their intention? 'The death of Jesus set me free: Then what have I to do with thee?'"

But this is to move the whole discussion into enemy territory, under the enemy's rules of engagement: no good will come of that, not with that restless thing in the sky trying to sniff me out. And anyway it is not quite what I mean.

Once, the latest woman I had a crush on was the final answer to all these questions. Eros was tightly bound to Godhead, and the final answer was "because I crave it desperately, because I need it, because I turn to it like a sunflower to the sun." All the chains of questions ended up just there, and I had a reason to get up in the morning. 

With age, though I am still as scandalously full of desire as ever, the stitching has loosened. Godhead isn't bound to the pleasures in an obvious way, any more. So that's one thing, and the other is, that the old stories of my life are coming apart. I used to prepare, relentlessly prepare, for the moment when I would go public, and deploy all the skills prepared in secret, and be revealed in all my glory. But it's obvious now: that moment will never come. I will never be revealed. I'll be rolled off the end of the treadmill and vanish, like everyone else. Whether I converse in fluent Spanish or understand Lucretius or have opinions about the Secretary of Agriculture or not. So why am I still preparing for the great reveal? ... At this point, just because old habits die hard. 

The malevolence above is definitely paying attention, now. It's attentive, searching. I had better confuse the scent.

So suppose one stood in directly, as directly as possible, for the sweetness. Suppose one forgot about preparation. Suppose one said "this, this just here and just now, is the reveal. This is as much of an apocalypse as you get. And probably more of one than you deserve, frankly."

No, no, I'm not throwing any gloves down or making any promises. I'm just posing a hypothetical. What if?

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Easier Said


A man my age, at the grocery store, wearing a black mask lettered in white: "This mask is useless."

I said to him: "I don't give a shit whether you live or die either, sweetheart, so don't get too excited about how special it makes you. Lots of people don't give a shit."

Except not aloud, of course. And I would even have spoken civilly to him, if I had needed to. But the rage persists, an hour later. It's just poison, of course. I think people who nurture rage are nuts. It too, doesn't give a shit. About him, or about me, or about you. So I just work with it. It's not that hard. Every time it arises, I give a little shrug, open my hands, let the rage roll out of them, breathe out and let the rage go out with my breath. It doesn't take many iterations: a dozen or two, to process the main part of it. The trick is having the time and mental space to deal with it, and not to put myself in the way of things that will provoke it again. 

I really do want him to die, painfully, starting now. Which is discouraging. That's not how I want to be. The supposed origin of my rage against him is that he is indifferent to my life: and here am I, not only indifferent to his life, but actively desiring his death. Where is the moral high ground I supposedly inhabit? Really I'm just enraged because he's not agreeing with me, and because I'm terrified that Martha will die of Covid before she gets the vaccine, and because I didn't sleep well last night, and because every weekly shopping trip, as the case counts rise, feels that much more foolhardy. If this guy hadn't conveniently presented himself, I would likely have found something else to be enraged about.

And further, of course -- and adding to the rage -- is the fact that much of his motivation was precisely to inspire this response in me, and I'm totally falling for it. He wanted to take up space in my mind, and I've made him welcome there. More fool me. There's no end to this game: the only way to win is not to play.

Yeah: easier said than done. Hope you've got a nice little cough and a little fever tonight, dude. May your death be slow and painful.

---

Where I want to be is on the bare hills under the stars, real stars, the millions of stars I used to see just twenty miles from home on a dark night, which now I'd have to drive out to eastern Oregon to glimpse. I need to be on a hilltop with the wind ruffling my hair and the stars all different sizes and colors above me, watching me with an indifference that's a benediction. They don't care if I live or die either: but in their case, it's a balm and a relief. You can rest on that indifference, like a leaf on the surface of a brook, and go tumbling down toward the sea. 

How to live? I don't know. The morning is dark, and the fern are glossy with rain: some of the fronds are dark green, and others the rich dark brown of an old copper pot. It's the first day of February. I switch on a light, just for company, just for something to stand against the cold blue-grayness of the world beyond the windows.

It is true, still, that if you ask for help, it will come. That of course is another thing easier said than done.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Things Taking Shape


There's a couple things taking shape. One is that the jury is no longer out: except within very strict limits, social media has to go. I'll keep an handhold on Twitter and Facebook, to link to posts here, and I'll probably set aside some time to check it once a day. It is, after all -- as Dave Bonta says -- where the people are. But it consumes too much time, and it fosters a habit of demanding continual stimulation that is ruinous. Enough already. I'm pretty much done with it. 

Second. I've been thinking long and hard about the project of learning Spanish. There have been two goals there, really, though I haven't really distinguished them and considered them separately till recently. One was to learn Spanish well enough to read the Spanish classics: at least the Golden Age dramatists and poets, and the 20th Century Spanish and Latin American poets. The other goal was to "really" learn Spanish. Which involves a lot of listening, writing, and speaking.

For goal one, reading Spanish literature, I'm on the threshold of that now. I could plow into Calderón and Quevedo tomorrow and give a good account of myself. I can cruise through an uncomplicated modern novel at a rate of thirty pages a day, my passive vocabulary is pretty extensive, and I have the background.

Goal two is more problematic. I am shy of the exposure of finding native speakers and practicing conversation, which is the royal road to fluency (whatever that is), but, more legitimately, I am asking myself: is such an investment of time worth it? Because it is, simply, time. Hours of time daily. There's no way of finessing that. And it's time spent in order to be able to watch TV shows and have casual chats. Do I really want to watch TV shows and have casual chats? Those aren't things I much care to do in English, actually. How much do I want to do them in Spanish?

People talk about an hour a day as though it were a trivial investment. Actually it's large proportion of one's disposable time. It's something to weigh seriously. It's time that I would not be, say, writing, or drawing, or coding, or learning some other skill. 

The jury is still out on this one. For one thing, there's an argument to be made that you don't really know a language well enough to fully experience its literature if you can't watch its TV and chat about the weather in it. There's probably some weight to that.* For another, it's been a longing of mine for ages, to "really" (always such a suspect word, in interior dialogues!) learn a language. Is giving up on that giving up too much? I don't know. I'll mull it over. But it might be best -- it often is, with things one finds oneself procrastinating about -- to just pull the plug and decide not to do it. 

---

I underestimated Joe Biden. He's a run-of-the-mill speaker and debater -- nothing to write home about -- and I took that as his measure, which was not very bright of me. Turns out he's a total professional, like Obama: he knows exactly how things work and what order things have to be done in, and who he has to put in charge of what.

As with Obama, my respect is grudging. I'm not a center Democrat. I wince at some of the appointments and policies. And we have yet to see how the battle royale about the filibuster turns out. But the man knows how to govern and administer. He's exactly what we need, at this incredibly delicate, fragile moment. 

---

I got the first dose of the vaccine, last Wednesday. As a massage therapist, I count as a health care worker, so I'm in the first wave. It's a relief to know that, even as I dawdle and second guess and hang about, my body is busily manufacturing antibodies. In one way, nothing changes: none of my behaviors will change, for a while yet. But it feels totally different. We will win this thing, eventually.

Also: I am very, very tired.


*On the other hand: by the "fully fluent" argument, I've never read Beowulf, or Chaucer, properly. And how fluent is fluent? Being able to chat in Mexican, Chilean, and Galician Spanish (but not Argentinian)? Being able to chat with scholars about literature? There's a thousand different fluencies a person might aim for. 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Nature of Things


The gulf between those who believe in souls and those who do not is the widest conceptual gulf I have encountered. It is really very difficult for us to understand each other. There isn't any middle ground: nobody believes in half a soul, or an intermittent soul. It's all or nothing.

You can go along happily in conversation for a long time, thinking you're having a meeting of the minds: then suddenly the ground drops from under you, and you realize that all your apparent agreement was a mirage. You haven't really understood each other. You weren't talking about the same thing.

Reading Lucretius, at long last, having found a translation I like, and I find him easy and comfortable, We're on the same side of that gulf. We think that our personhoods are chance constellations, shapes made up by dreaming shepherds out of random stars. Some philosophical problems become easier, some become harder, when you think that. But they all become different.

Nothing can emerge from nothing, says Lucretius, and Nature does not render anything to naught.

It can be a terrifying thought. Lear quotes Lucretius. Nothing will come of nothing, he says, Speak again. To Shakespeare, a world without souls is a deadly transactional world of quid pro quos, where all love is conditional and everything is bought with something else. I don't think he was right about that: but Shakespeare is not a man to dismiss lightly. Not at my time of life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Candles

 I thought I would sleep late this morning, since nothing was on my schedule and nothing looms: but I woke at four. I stirred the stew in the slow-cooker -- there's a hot spot on one side where the rice starts to glom, otherwise -- and went back to bed. Counted breaths to a hundred and fifty, little sheep jumping over a uvular stile, and then gave it up. I was brooding on Senate rules and presidential pardons, viral mutations and vaccine distribution: for all the world as if all that was in my sphere of control, and anxious courtiers were waiting for my pronouncements at the Rising From The Royal Bed.

So I got up, and here I am, a semi-retired sixty-something nobody in particular, having shooed away the phantom courtiers, figuring out the shape of the day. Nearly seven, and not a trace of dawn in the midwinter sky. There probably would be if I went outside, but from here it's all reflections from the lamp, the lurid glow of the laptop screen, the little green and red and amber lights of various electronics that dot our nighttime. For background music, the hum of many little motors doing little tasks: the heat exchanger, the fridge, the clock of the microwave, who knows what-all? Always that ambient buzz, not quite harmonizing with the silvery song of of my tinnitus. What was silence like, again? Does anyone remember?

And a candle. Lucretius and the votive candles arrived post-haste a couple days ago -- somebody drove up from San Bernardino and up over the Siskiyou Pass, with a dull ache in their bladder, and ate a burger and fries in Medford while their rig grumbled in the pullout, to deliver them to me, and I'll never know who it was. Somebody else, equally unknown, drove it to my front porch, and, a bit unnervingly, posted picture of the box standing there on my doormat, which was emailed to me within seconds of being taken. I opened the door and there it was. "You look so like your photographs!" I told it. Anyway, thanks to you both, and may the days be kind to you! The candles work splendidly: my coffee stays hot, but unembittered. Whether Lucretius works so well, I don't know: I'm going to finish Stephenson's Quicksilver first.

Here comes the dawn. Beyond the hedge, a soft surprisingly mauve sky: I had though we'd have one of those dark leaden overcasts, but it's a free sky, with real light washing over it. And now the first squirrels are moving in the laurel branches. So the world is still here.