Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Naps, Binges, Bright Lines

 Pomodoro 1. Yet another food binge yesterday. Worked late, skipped my nap. The connection of binge-eating and extended reading is established beyond doubt. This is how I read my way through the corpus of English literature. I ate my way through it. Can I read multiple hours per day without binge eating? Is there some other way to do it? I wonder.

In any case, another thing is established beyond doubt: I must nap, no matter how late it is, or I will binge. Maybe I will binge also if I nap late: maybe it will mess up my sleep: but I don’t know those things yet. I do know I will binge without a nap. We should have plenty of opportunities to experiment with late naps, as the giving season gets into full swing.

A third thing established beyond doubt: it’s all got to be bright lines and exact measurements for me. Even a slight deviation or indulgence goes straight to full-blown bingeing: there’s no in-between space. In most parts of my life, I want to eschew black-and-white thinking and catastrophizing: but in this one, it’s the suitable way to think. If I don’t want a fifty+ inch waist and an early death, it’s 100 daily grams of burger, not 101, and it’s 500 daily grams of potato, not 501. That’s just how the Favier brain works. 100 grams of burger is 100 grams of burger, but 101 grams of burger is three bowls of ice cream, multiple bars of chocolate, and triscuits with cheese. It doesn’t make sense, but sense is not what we’re trying to make here. What we’re trying to make is a functioning dietary economy.

The mantra that has worked for me has been: “You don’t have to be heroic, but you do have to be exact.”

As far as the pomodoros go, the evening pomodoros are -- at present -- simply reading, and I’m marking them by page count: the first time with a book I establish how many pages makes a pomodoro, and just go by that. Easier than tracking times. 

Pomodoro 2...8:  9:45 - 1:00  Python. Working with JSON: quite a rabbit hole here, because my Crash book did not give a good explanation AT ALL of what we were actually doing. I’m a bit peeved about that. I’m going to need a different book.

Pomodoro 9: Nickleby, 16 pp.

Pomodoro 10: Richardson, 25 pp

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

(Accountability Post)

Pomodoros 3: Handicap 4

Pomodoro 1,2,3: Heather Cox Richardson, How the South won the Civil War, 75 pp. So far a disappointing book, but at least it’s a fast read.

Monday, October 25, 2021

What is a Pomodoro?

 Pomodoros 6: Handicap 2 

Pomodoro 1: I should have explained at once what a “pomodoro” is. It’s the common Italian noun for “tomato.” The tomato is a new world fruit, and we derive its name from the Nahautl word tomatl, but when it arrived in Italy, the Italians named it pomo d’oro, “golden apple”: apparently tomatoes back then were yellow. 

But how does it come to mean “a measured chunk of time devoted to a task”? That comes from the Italian student Francesco Cirillo, who in his first year of university found himself unable to focus on his homework. He grew more and more frustrated with his procrastination and distractions, until one day he seized his kitchen timer -- one of those kitschy ones, shaped like a tomato -- and set it for five minutes, muttering, “can I even study for five minutes?” It turned out that he could study for five minutes, with a timer running: and it turned into his main method of focusing and organizing his time. And so the chunks of time became pomodoros, and he called his strategy the Pomodoro Method. I have his book on hold at the library, and when I actually read it, I may have more to say. At present that’s all I know.

Pomodoro 2,3: Python. 7:15 - 8:05. Class names are written in CamelCase; instances and modules should be lowercase_with_underscores. Every class and module should have a docstring. NB you can use forward slashes in file names and they will work even on Windows! Yay!

with open(filename) as file_object:

    For line in file_object:


Python will close the file when the “with” block finishes. Nice.

with open(file_name, ‘w’) as file_object

    File_object.write(“some text to the file”)

Fine and dandy, but if there was something IN file_name when you started, Python erases it before handing you the file_object. Yikes. There are other modes: ‘a’ is append, ‘r+’ is read-write. If you don’t specify you get ‘r’, read-only.

JSON stands for JavaScript Object Notation, but it’s been generalized to a common format.

Pomodoro 4,5: Palmer: finished Will to Battle

Pomodoro 6: Nickleby, 16 pp.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

And Some Days Are Just Busy

 Handicap 7, so I really can’t expect much to happen today. A plausible sighting of Kiki up on NE Davis & 87th yesterday, so there will also be some cat hunting.

Pomodoro 1: Palmer, 12 pp.

Gives me 8

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Letting "What am I really doing?" Percolate

 Handicap 2, so I come out at 9

Pomodoro 1: planning 6:41 - 7:01  Posted yesterday’s stuff. Yesterday was also a huge improvement over the past few months, so I will continue with this. Having a structure to my time and a certain amount of accountability reassures me immensely. My list of handicaps grows: I have nine now (Though I’m not going to put all of them up on the blog. Not all handicaps are for display!) I think it’s all right to let the “what am I really doing?” question percolate a while, without forcing it. It’s not settled. But the ship was not going to respond to the helm, with no way on it. Move first, steer later. I have not forgotten. And I like having these planning pomodoros to bring me back and remind me of that. The programming project is only one of the three that occurred to me, and was by no means the frontrunner at first. There’s the how-to-live project, and there’s the grand appreciation of writers project. Something like them, or growing out of them, will happen. 

A sketch of the programming project: go through the Python book; learn the GUI, go through an introduction to graphics, create a hexagonal grid world, make a history game on it.

Pomodoro 2,3,4: Python Crash Course. 7:06 - 8:35 Create “Task” class. Wow. Actually coding absorbs time like a sponge. All I did was create a class and print it out :-/

Pomodoro 5,6: Will to Battle, 24 pp.

Pomodoro 7: Python Crash Course. Had to play with print and formatting functions a bit.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Getting Meta

 Today is a work day: -4, so I come out at 8

Pomodoro 1: planning 7:35 - 8:00. Yesterday was a grand success. The main insight gained: I read at a FAR slower rate than I thought. Either I have slowed way down, or I used to spend a lot more time doing it. To cover the Dickens ground at the rate I feel that I ought to -- about a hundred pages per day -- I would need to be reading over three hours per day. So, that insight alone was worth the price of admission. Yesterday I did a Planning, a Palmer, two Pythons, and a Dickens: 5 pomodoros, bumped to 7 by my handicap. 

I still don’t know what I’m doing with my life, but at least I’m doing something. Which is a huge relief. I don’t think I knew just how much being dead in the water was distressing me, till I got a little way on the ship. Just to have a wake again, and the sea whispering under the planks. And maybe, after all it doesn’t matter so much what I’m doing: I’ll figure out what I’m doing partly by doing it.

At present, the most important thing would be either Python or the blog, I guess. The blog. I love writing and being read: but it may be that the blog is a dead end. Blog readership is falling off, for one thing; and for another, I am constrained by my past there, by the speaking voice and choice of topics my readers are used to. How many times can I run my stumbling toward enlightenment schtick? Okay, I’m overwhelmed by the intensity of beauty, and I can’t summon what it requires of me: what good does it do to say that over and over (and to exaggerate it)? My handful of readers loves it, but that doesn’t make it the right next thing to focus on. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea. Maybe the time has come to leave them.

Pomodoro 2: blogging 8:05 - 8:30.  Okay, this is getting meta, as the kids say nowadays: I spent a few minutes revising & posting my Pomodoro notes from yesterday as a blog post. In for a penny, in for a pound. Whether they’ll be of interest to my readers, I don’t know: but that’s their business, not mine. “Planning” and “blogging” may actually be merging into a single thing. I’ve always used the blog partly as a planning device -- am I doing the right stuff with my life, in the right way? Am I on track? So this is not such a radical departure as all that. And what the hell, warts and all has always been my motto. I can write up what I’m doing here and maybe fluff it up (and censor it a bit) and post it on the blog, next day: it will keep me honest, insofar as that’s possible.

Pomodoro 3: Python Crash Course: 8:35 - 9:00.pp 157-180

Just reading, this session. Classes! Object-oriented programming was the hot new thing when I was doing my computer science degree: I always expected it to fizzle -- it struck me as the exact equivalent of literary “realism” in programming -- but it’s still here, twenty years later, so I better come to grips with it. Classes and inheritance and all. I’ll make my daytimer out of a “task” class. And now -- I better get to work. A lot to do today.

Pomodoro 4: Nickleby, 16 pp.

Thursday, October 21, 2021


At present, frankly, three pomodoros in a week would be a triumph :-(

Today is an Exercise day: -1 so I come out at 6

Pomodoro 1: planning 7:40 - 8:05. Well, sticking to THAT was easy-peasy, but of course there’s first-time excitement here. Next up: Will to Battle.

Pomodoro 2: Will to Battle 8:15 - 8:40.  Note: the 5 to 7 minute break to get a second cup of coffee and wash the breakfast dishes doesn’t break the flow: if anything, it enhances it. Just add the extra time to the pomodoro. (So: 8:47). So: exactly 12 pages. Now THAT is information. A flood of light, in fact. If I read these books at the rate of 30 pages per hour, then no wonder it’s been taking me so long. I’m not entirely sure how much of my time was fiddled away on washing dishes and fixing the candle (which needed tending) but anyway, it’s a data point. This gets me, anyway, to the end of Chapter 16, and a respectable amount of the book to talk with Jarrett about. W to B is no longer “important” this week. Now I will do some exercise stuff.

Pomodoro 3: Python Crash Course 10:05 - 10:30.  Pp 148-150

Parameter name of *args is a tuple of arbitrary length for passing who knows how many elements to a function

Parameter name of **kwargs likewise, is a dictionary of arbitrary length

“Python matches positional and keyword arguments first and then collects any remaining arguments into the final parameter”

Well, that time went by quick, but it was also just two pages :-)

Pomodoro 4: Python Crash Course 12:10 - 12:35.  Pp 150-162

import file_name  … all functions available; invoke as file_name.function_name()

from file_name import function_name  … brings the name into this file: invoke as local function

from file_name import function_name as fn … likewise, but the local name of the function is now fn

import file_name as fn … does the same as the first but invoke as fn.function_name()

from file_name import *  … makes all the functions in file_name local ones, with possible havoc. Doan’ do this.

Pomodoro 5:  Nicholas Nickleby, 16 pp

Planning Notes 

Approximate values (how many fewer pomodoros to expect on days of particular sorts):

Work day -4

Exercise day -1

Soup-making day -2

Shopping day -1

Massage day -1

Dad-in-Eugene day -6

I can adjust these as I actually get data

Current projects: 

Planning (metapomodoro)

Reading Will to Battle

Studying Python / to-do project / hex-map project

Reading Nicholas Nickleby

Writing blog posts

Is there a limit to how many projects I should keep current, or will that be self-regulating? I guess the Pomodoro idea is that you re-evaluate what the most important thing to work on is at the end of every session, so things will just naturally come and go. I don’t really need criteria: a minute’s honest reflection will tell me what the most important thing to work on is.

Open question: do I want to keep studying Spanish? If so, how? I guess the main thing is, I don’t want it again to displace everything in the pomodoro space, which is what it did before: I do want to do it, but I don’t want it to be the main thing I do. If it were a third of my pomodoros, that would be fine. Half is not fine. Most is very not fine. It becomes in that case a form of procrastination. So I guess the rule here would be I only do a Spanish pomodoro after I’ve done two non-Spanish pomodoros. But if I have the “most important” rule, and observe it, I might not need any other. Today I guess the second pomodoro will be reading Will to Battle, since I want to be sure to have enough to talk about with Jarrett on Saturday.

This is actually very exciting: I feel like I’m finally coming to grips with this thing. The most important two things generally, here, are going to be the planning and the python: really half of my pomodoros, in general, should be devoted to those two (Planning hopefully falls off rapidly -- I won’t really have that much planning to do. But I do have some!) And it’s not all meta-planning: there’s planning within the projects to be done. The basic, real aim here is to put my weight where I want to be putting it: NOT to let myself be diverted into the vales of vague self-improvement, but to actually be making things, and developing skills that I will immediately use.

I may want to make a radical distinction between morning pomodoros (only Most Important Things) and day/evening pomodoros (Anything Is a Win).

Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Quiet and Dark of Winter


She's gone: missing three days now. Martha thinks she's just hunkered down somewhere. My conviction immediately was that she is dead: that she sensed the onset of heart failure, or kidney failure, and crept under a bush somewhere to be still. I walk around the neighborhood, making my little "come get dinner!" clicks, and calling softly, sometimes. But I'm not really calling: I'm summoning the past. 

We've done all the things, of course. Now the days just drift by. On one of them we'll wake up with the new reality as settled business. Not quite yet though. 

A rare, obscure impulse to take a selfie on Sunday: there I am, still embodied, with a mask around my neck.

The rains are here, finally, but the lawns haven't even yet entirely greened. Still, this battered little city seems to have escaped the drought summer without a major smoke event, so we can count ourselves lucky. And now we go on into the quiet and dark of winter. 


And, just like that, two weeks gone. I didn't feel like posting this right away and getting a lot of "hope your cat's okay!" and "my uncle's cousin's stepbrother got his cat back by posting tuna fish pictures on the internet," and so forth. Also actually posting a picture of myself as an old man held me up. I keep thinking there's some mistake: I can't actually be old. If I come back to the post, and the picture, surely something other than an old man will be looking back out at me? But he's still there, so -- out into the world he goes.  Whoever he is.


How am I to live? I don't even know if that's the right question. Or rather, I suspect it is a question that answers itself: as a directional indicator, at least. If you wake up wondering, "how am I to live?" then you can be confident that you're moving, or at least facing, in the wrong direction. At present the sun is obscured in a pure white sky, so it's difficult to guess where the it might be. And likewise, every way I face seems to bring the same question. The failure of orientation is so complete that it suggests a sensory breakdown. If no attempts at light bring anything but darkness, then Mr. Occam would suggest that the problem is not a lack of light, but a lack of sight.

So "how am I to live?" has a simple and direct answer, valid under all circumstances. "Not this way."


Lear.  ...who is that can tell me who I am?

Fool.  Lear's shadow.

Lear's mistake is to try to lay down his burden. He thinks that he has earned a rest. Nobody earns a rest. We just go to our rest, when we are called. All that trying to lay your burden down ahead of time does, is deliver you to the mercy of hellkites, and take your true and loyal daughter away from you.  You may not understand it, but you are holding something together. It is not your job to second-guess the future. It is your job to pay attention to your nearest and dearest, and use whatever meager discernment the years may have given you.

Thursday, September 23, 2021


It's an effect that's easiest to see on a wet winter night, with a streetlight shining through a tangle of bare tree twigs: the surfaces that most directly reflect the streetlight to the observer form a circle around it, a halo of streaks. Each streak is itself more or less straight, but they're arranged in a circle, a sort of crown of thorns. It moves as you do, tracking with the light.

You don't usually see it with the sun, I think because the sun is just too bright: if you're looking that directly towards it you're too dazzled to see anything else.

The week of the fall equinox, though, the rising sun lines up with the east-west streets, and if you happen to be walking east on a tree-lined street at exactly sunrise, and the trees are wet from the recent rains, you can see the sun's version of it: a brilliant circle of golden fire. A doorway into a world of unbearable light.

You can't look at it for long, of course, and when you turn away and close your eyes, the negative image turns with you, in bruise purple and dark green. Within seconds, what you saw is replaced by what you wish you had seen; with fragments of Dante, with words for light. The golden apples of the sun. Mithraic altars built by homesick legionaries in godforsaken, rainswept Britain; Byzantine mosaics in candlelight. What did you really see? What door did you fail to open?

It's gauche, profane, even to talk about it. Is it better to leave it be, and maybe forget it; or to talk about it, and certainly distort it? Forgetting it seems like the larger disaster.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Between Showers

The wind bears me along, as water bears a fish.
There are eddies and volutes before me and behind;
thrash of leaves, the hiss and moan 
of a premature October: rain at last! And a sky
built like ancient masonry, clouds heaped, 
toppling, at one corner, while at the other 
a basket of fresh-washed sheets, not yet folded;
iron gray, tarnished silver, long streaks of yellow
Where the stain of the sun will not quite come out.
I walk, like the other old men of this neighborhood. The rest
are dead, I suppose, or housebound. One tiny wizened man
with a long white beard, I have heard is a geologist,
who can tell you exactly what the hill slope is going to do
when the Big One arrives: a useful man to know, 
quite apart from being immortal. We acknowledge 
each other gravely, peering out at each other
from under our white, bristled eyebrows: hunched old guys
who mean to give Death as good as we get. We walk:
we don't look back. Somewhere behind us 
is the piper of tinnitus, our attendant lord, 
that thin wail of quarter-tones 
like the surge against a jetty;
the sound is a delicate craft of bright steel 
glimpsed through the shifting cloud; its engine
is there and gone, there and gone. Flying on instruments now,
as the sky darkens, and lights appear in the windows.
Good night, dear loves: good night. It's time to scrape our shoes
and get in before the rain.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

In America, Where The War Is


Barnaby Rudge is the first of Dickens' books to be a real novel. It's wildly uneven in quality, but it's a complete novel, conceived and executed as such. It's meant to cohere: everything is in its place.

There are things about it which are downright bad. The supposed resolutions of the plot are mechanical and silly: the King pardons Barnaby, Dolly Varden renounces coquetry, and Mrs Varden (least convincingly of all) surrenders her "uncertain temper." None of this particularly makes sense, but Dickens at least knows it all has to happen. There is none of that rambling off the tracks of the plot which makes the earlier novels such odd junk-drawers, jumbled troves of jewels and plastic cereal-box prizes. The result is an orderly drawer with everything in its place. It's been achieved mostly by throwing out the jewels: but if Dickens hadn't learned to do it, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend could never have happened.

The first time I read Barnaby Rudge it made almost no impression on me. I simply did not want to hear one of its messages -- that street rioters are mostly knaves leavened with a few fools. This time, I am  haunted by the image of Barnaby borne along by the mob, turned into a leader (and marked for execution) by his extraordinary innocence. It hits close to home, nowadays. 

The first time I read Barnaby, also, I had never had a corvid as a hearth companion -- as Dickens had. I was slower to credit how close these relationships can be, than I should have been. Dickens had a couple of pet ravens: Grip is a portrait from life.

Dickens' mythopoeic gifts never fail him. The image of the Fool and the Raven in the foam of the mob is indelible. Grip's meaningless slogans, picked up anywhere, taught to him for any reason or no reason, travel along with Barnaby and inspire him. The extremely slow John Willet likewise picks up a slogan for his son Joe's military career, and the loss of his arm in the British defense of Savannah (Georgia): 

'It's been took off!'

'By George!' said the Black Lion, striking the table with his hand, 'he's got it!'

'Yes, sir,' said Mr Willet, with the look of a man who felt that he had earned a compliment, and deserved it. 'That's where it is. It's been took off.'

'Tell him where it was done,' said the Black Lion to Joe.

'At the defence of the Savannah, father.'

'At the defence of the Salwanners,' repeated Mr Willet, softly; again looking round the table.

'In America, where the war is,' said Joe.

'In America, where the war is,' repeated Mr Willet. 'It was took off in the defence of the Salwanners in America where the war is.' Continuing to repeat these words to himself in a low tone of voice (the same information had been conveyed to him in the same terms, at least fifty times before), Mr Willet arose from table, walked round to Joe, felt his empty sleeve all the way up, from the cuff, to where the stump of his arm remained; shook his hand; lighted his pipe at the fire, took a long whiff, walked to the door, turned round once when he had reached it, wiped his left eye with the back of his forefinger, and said, in a faltering voice: 'My son's arm-- was took off--at the defence of the--Salwanners--in America--where the war is'--with which words he withdrew, and returned no more that night.

I regret, this time around, that by the time Dickens was finishing Barnaby he was anxious to be done with it and go on to other things: I feel (as an at least occasionally bitter old man) that the story of Geoffrey Hareton, if Dickens had turned his full attention on it, could have been made something more than sketch; and I wish he could have thought of something better to do with him than pack him off to a monastery. I suppose in Dickens view it would have been unseemly to leave him walking about on English soil, after committing (technically) murder. But Dickens' inability to scrape up a penny's worth of religious awareness renders Hareton's ending even more perfunctory than the bright "pack them off to Australia!" finishes of Copperfield's lost lambs. Once cloistered in a monastery ("known throughout Europe for the rigour and severity of its discipline") he is officially no longer a person of interest: all good English protestants know that being in a monastery is essentially being dead, and that there can be nothing more to say of him.

But mind, Barnaby Rudge was born into a literary world we can hardly imagine nowadays, before the flowering of the English novel that was marked (and largely formed by) Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Sir Walter Scott was the man to beat, and I would say that Boz beat him, even with this novel. If you haven't read Barnaby Rudge, don't bother, unless you've already read the standards: David Copperfield, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Great Expectations. But if you have read those, and are curious to see where they came from, give it a go. Slow John Willet and Grip the Raven are worth the price of admission.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

The Cry of Gulls

The American Civil War was, top-to-bottom and on both sides, a religious war. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything about America.

When I was young we were taught to sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in school. I imagine that's not done nowadays.


A faint yellow cast to the sky this morning, but it's been an extraordinarily easy smoke season here, this year, given that it's been weeks and weeks with no real rain. Everything is as dry as the shriveled sponge you might find on a high shelf in the laundry room. If the rains come soon we may get off lightly. They're still at least ten days away. I check the ten-day forecast every day. Nothing. It's been a lovely late summer: cool mornings and warm afternoons, and golden haze in the distance.


I used to wake every morning and spring out of bed: I'd be on my feet before I really knew I was awake, eager for the day, intent on my breakfast and my book and my brief ambitions. Now I wake slowly, even if my bladder is full and urgent. I look at my hands in the morning dark, open them wide and clench them curiously into fists, to see if they'll do it. Still alive: still strong. I'm still here, for some reason. Or for none. I hear the cry of gulls, in my mind's ear. They don't really come this far up from the river: it's some trick of my gimpy auditory processing. I turn on my side, throw off the covers, swing my legs forward into emptiness, freeze my core, and push myself upright with one arm. From there I can stand without any particular stress on my lower back. I sway slightly, reassuring it: see? I can move that much, and no sirens go off. A new day. Thus.


Glory, glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

A Lonelier Thought

I remember the moment at a grad school party at Yale -- we had lovely parties! -- when I announced I wasn't finishing my dissertation: I wasn't going to teach: I didn't know what I was going to do. We were going home. 

I wasn't even sure, really. I was trying it on. I remember the gestalt of the counter with its varieties of cheap alcohol, and the cheap paneled cupboards above it, typical of the cheap apartments we all camped in, though I don't remember whose apartment it was or what the pretext for the party might have been. I remember David Mikics -- who surely became a distinguished academic somewhere -- tipping his head to one side and staring at me intently. Ben Slote -- who wrote wonderful short stories -- startled, his eyes going wide: "Really?" 

At the time, it seemed like lunacy. I had invested so much in this career: the prime years of life. I had worked -- not as hard as other people, and not as hard as I thought I should -- but I had worked like a son of a bitch. I had written some really pretty brilliant papers. I was well regarded. Fellow students who were going to be academic superstars someday sidled up to me to ask how to pronounce this line of Chaucer or how to understand that line of Beowulf. I was good. Throw all that away? Self-indulgence. Ludicrously abandoning a distinguished career that I had paid dearly for, in time and effort and money. 

Now it feels like I dodged a bullet. The people I still know in American academia are mostly miserable. I became a computer programmer instead, and then picked up a third career as a massage therapist, and it all worked out fine. Was I prescient? Or just irresolute and lazy? We'll never know. I'm jogging along, seven years till retirement from my half-time work, uncertain about how much of a massage load I'll pick up again when the pandemic finally dwindles. It's all fine. I don't have to read a bunch of crappy articles about poems that I love. I don't have to manufacture trendy ideas about them. I can just read them. And that's all to the good. Did I dimly glimpse what was going to become of the humanities in American universities? Who knows. Maybe it's that I just didn't show up for myself. I still wonder.


I got my eighth pull up, this week.


Our main problem in approaching the Fermi paradox, we often say, is that we are working with a sample of one. We are the only intelligent species we know: so our guesses about what other intelligences will be like -- how recognizable they will be, how likely they are to recognize us -- are necessarily wild.

Now, I don't think this is quite true. We are the only technological species we know, but there are quite a few species out there who give us a run for our money in various ways. Elephants, dolphins, corvids, chimps, octopuses, orangutans. We haven't spent enough time thinking about what makes us peculiar in that company. We focus on language and tool-using as being what sets us apart. But I am more struck by our attitude toward strangers.

Human beings are fascinated by strangers, and willingly spend much of our time among them. This is profoundly weird, among animals. We not only seek out human strangers: we try to make pets of all sorts of other species, including really dangerous and improbable ones. We itch to know and make ourselves known to other creatures. And an assumption underlying the Fermi Paradox is that this weirdness is a property of intelligence: alien intelligences will have this quirk as well, and the first thing they'll do, upon achieving the technology for it, is to turn their radio telescopes on the sky and search for strangers, just as we do. But what if seeking out strangers is an odd human kink?

Intelligent animals do tend to be social animals. But that's not the same as being animals that seek out strangers. Most animals, including the intelligent ones, either avoid strangers or try to drive them off. If they didn't grow up with you, they don't want to know you. Some leave their homes at some stage of life to mate outside their family groups, and sometimes establish new ones, but that's as far as the stranger-seeking goes. They don't gather into villages, let alone cities. For the most part, if they don't recognize you, they want nothing to do with you.

So there's my first solution to the Fermi paradox. Why haven't aliens found us? Well, possibly because they're not looking for us. And if they are looking for us, it may be only out of curiosity about our technology. If they can find us, they can probably find species that do much more interesting things. We find ourselves utterly fascinating: that doesn't mean everyone else will.

Second: when we ask "where is everybody?" we assume that everyone will be interested in space travel. But here again, we are the odd man out among the intelligent species we know. We are colonists. Other intelligent animals, except possibly corvids, show no interest in moving into other ecological niches. They want to stay where they are. We have the odd notion of going outside our biome: to other creatures I'm guessing that this will be a very weird idea. Possible? Maybe. It might also be possible to take our brains and nervous systems, flay off everything else, put them into tanks, and take them to places our bodies couldn't go... but why would you want to do such a thing? To more sophisticated creatures, I suspect that's how leaving their ancestral biomes may strike them. We have no idea if we can create an off-world human biome, over the long term. Maybe we will be able to eventually. But maybe the idea is just plain nuts: biological nonsense. Maybe no one is visiting because no one wants to scrape the brains out of their bodies and fling them somewhere else. Maybe everyone else has a clear picture of how miserable a creature would be, outside its biome, and we haven't quite figured it out yet.

Third: maybe it's no use. Maybe even when you discover another intelligent species, it's impossible to learn to speak with them. This seems to me more likely than not. There is a moment in C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet -- charming in its idiocy -- when the linguist Ransom astutely notes that the Martian he has just encountered forms his plurals with a particular suffix. It's a step above aliens who magically speak English, but not a very high one. It's not going to be that easy, if it's doable at all. Maybe no one is trying to communicate, because everyone has given up. Beneath all the silly assumptions of commonality is a profound one, and one which I suspect is profoundly wrong: that the higher intelligence goes, the more it converges. The more intelligent species are, the more likely they are to be interested in the same things in the same ways. My guess is, that's backwards. The more intelligent, the more divergent. People who are anxious to talk with aliens imagine them eager to supply us with a proof of the Collatz conjecture, or with the trick to generating power by nuclear fusion. But suppose they're more interested in swapping recipes for compositions in sense-experiences that we can't imagine? Supposing we can figure out how they talk, how would we even discover what they're talking about? When what they're hoping we can supply them with is the solution to an awkward problem in the stanzaic forms of infrared umami versification?

"Maybe we are alone," people say, and they are distressed at the thought. They mean, "maybe there is no other intelligent life in the universe." But maybe we are alone in a more profound way: maybe there is intelligent life, maybe there's lots of it, but we just can't understand it or get it interested in us. That is a lonelier thought.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Time to go Shopping

The sticky part is that these direct perceptions of God are both perceptions of reality as it is, and symptoms of a mental illness. The navigation becomes a bit tricky. Does one want to be well and do good to one's fellow creatures, or does one want to see God? Of course we would all like to be able to do both at once, and some authorities say we can do both at once. Or they go so far as to say that the two projects are identical. Which would be nice, of course. Very tidy.

I had an epileptic friend who was crushed by realizing that his visions of God were "just" symptoms of his illness. We had a running argument about this: I held the position that the fact that these visions were symptoms of his illness had no bearing whatsoever on whether they were true perceptions. I never convinced him of that, though. And he never convinced me of the contrary. (They were his visions, not mine, so it was none of my business anyway.)

There are times when you hear the mutter of the weight of Earth shifting on its aching bones, a low groan below the bottom range of human hearing. Or other times when you see the Sun come to rest inside some young person's chest, irradiating everything from their heart-center, every gesture drenched in light, till the brightness makes you close your eyes and turn away to recover yourself. Or there's another music, beyond another range of hearing, neither Earth nor Sun. It has something to do with those places where the outlines of hill and mountain become shapes of blue and gray tiled against each other. Overlapped edges. 

It's all horribly easy to trivialize. Vide ten million picture postcards. The sun through a wave just before it breaks; the gulls against the sunset; the line of the sea cliffs. Pay down your dollar and you can hold it in your hands, and send it to your Aunt Catherine with a line or two about the weather. Sure. That too.

But now I've lost the thread, which is not surprising. Who cares about the postcards? Ruat Coelum. We were speaking of the sun.

Shadows of the unseen trees to the east shifting on the laurel and juniper, as the sun rises. The real one, I mean; the one that flares up in a billion years or so and catches the marshmallow on fire. I am very tired, and I have failed in more ways than I even knew I was trying. But you all know that: we're all tired. 

It's time to fetch a mask and go shopping. Lots of love, you. 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Great Antony

[Re-enter Witenberg]

Witen. Forgive me for using the door marked "gentlemen":

my need was great. There was none marked for knaves.


The trouble with reading Shakespeare is that pretty soon everything comes in pentameter, and you are liable to come down with the dread Middlemarch Epigraph Disease.

First Gentleman. Nay, 

but this wording of our great original

o'erflows the measure: 'a speaks of antic turns and japes,

and abuseth the hist'ry of this his mother tongue.

Second Gentleman. And affecteth the grammar of a bygone time:

'a useth 'thou' and 'ye' consistently,

as never yet the Bard did in his life.


But I am besotted with Antony and Cleopatra. As always, I begin reading it with great dislike: for the first two acts there's no one on stage who is not detestable, in one way or another; the "haw haw aren't women stupid, and aren't we stupid for liking them!" jokes don't land with me as they're aimed; all the "great Antony" this and "great Antony" that is annoying when the only Antony we've seen is a vacillating nincompoop. Antony and Cleopatra when they're riding high are thoroughly unattractive.

But then they start to lose, and gradually they acquire a weird grandeur. They actually are, in their way, thoroughly devoted to each other and thoroughly devoted to their love: and they're quite willing to pay the price of it. Antony sends on Enobarbus's baggage, and we finally glimpse the great Antony of hearsay. The grief and nostalgia is particularly poignant for us, maybe, equally belated, equally overripe Americans, mourning the democracy-in-arms of Eisenhower. 

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Learning to Live

They proposed mapping out a perfect day, and I drew a really frightening blank. A perfect day? I didn't even know how to imagine a good day. 

"Well, there's your problem, right there."

All right. In my perfect day, there are three work sessions. In the first, I work directly on the Thing. In the second, I work indirectly on the Thing. And in the third I work on something deliberately far afield from the Thing, looking for the serendipitous finds that will eventually fertilize the first two sessions.

In between, I take care of business. Make my food and eat my food. exercise. Do laundry. Go to work. Do a massage every once in a while. Find the perfect sun hat. Dally. Things like that.

The alert reader will have noticed that all this depends on the Thing. On the Thing existing, and on knowing what it is.

Now, maybe there's my problem, right there, and maybe not. I am suspicious. Is that really the question? What is my mission? That's the "meaning of life" move, and I think it's usually a misdirection. "What's the meaning of life?" people ask, when what they really mean is "I'm tired of doing the dishes." Mark Manson avers that life is about having fun and solving problems: and that it's not really that hard to figure out what fun is available or what problems are pressing. It's only difficult when you're terrified by all the fun, or when you believe all the problems are insoluble. Then, and only then, do you go about, lugubriously and portentously, looking for life's meaning. (And at no time, I note in passing, could you be less qualified to establish what it is.)  Here could follow a whole disquisition on "the meaning of life" assuming a Creator who meant us to do this and not to do that, and how suspiciously that looks like the intellectual move of a child desperate to please an imaginary parent. But maybe not today.

The practice, maybe -- I'm speculating here -- the practice might be discovering more fun activities, and trading insoluble problems for soluble ones.


I walked, and said to myself, "the truth of the matter is that I don't know how to live," which is true enough. But that's hardly something new: I have never known how to live. What of that? The fact is that I've spent most of my life desperately evading authorities who wanted to coerce me into doing things I didn't want to do. I've outrun all authorities, now. I'm jogging along comfortably. No one's going to make me do anything. The fact that I haven't learned how to live -- how is that my fault? How is that surprising? I've been on the run. Of course I haven't learned how to live. What am I, Count Tolstoy, or Prince Siddhartha? Am I a man who started life with the resources to make it new? I hit the ground running with a pack of hounds after me. I should give myself some credit. 

People who know how to live work in groups, I mean really work, digging up roots or building weirs or hunting difficult prey. They dance, not because they are good at dancing (though they are) but because dancing is what you do. Their feet strike the ground in time with the drums, and the moon glistens on someone's shoulder and flashes on the curve of their cheek. So I hear. How would I know? That's not what I've been doing. I've been busy avoiding work details and team-building events. I've been learning to keep a low profile, and to live on very little. I've been designing priest holes and bomb cellars, in my spare time, for inclusion in prospective home designs. The art of life has not been an item on my daily agenda.


As so often, for me, my real problem here is not the task, but my conviction that the task ought to be easy, or even that it ought already to be done; and the way to get unstuck is simply to jettison the conviction. It isn't easy -- wiser and more learned people than I have found it impossible -- and whether it should already be done or not, it's not done, which only means that it needs doing. 


I have the enormous advantage, now, of being sixty-three, which is the precise age at which one discovers that one will never make oneself new. Whatever I make will be made with the materials at hand: I am a wary, slow-processing, obstinate man who requires a lot of transition time -- who likes to wake up before the sun, and to have a couple hours to get used to the idea that a new day is underway, before having to cope with broad daylight. I'm not going to magically turn into anything else. Turning myself into an ideal human being -- decisive, quick-witted, and flexible -- now that, that would be a task to inspire despair. But I don't have to do that. I only need to find more fun within my measure, and to take on problems of reasonable scope. Everything else, everything else I can let fall away. I can let it drift away in my slow, dark wake.


Which is not to say that I am not in need of redemption. Oh no, I am not saying that. Not to say that I don't need a visionary journey, which involves a substantial risk of never returning. I do need, as Paul Simon would say, a shot of redemption. But don't confuse that with learning to live. They're two different tasks: they accomplish two different things. Don't get muddled.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Rain in the Morning

The lash doesn't just describe a beautiful curve: it does come to the end of itself, and it does crack.

No one promised us soft mornings with a white sky and a gentle rain. We just thought that because it happened when we were children, it would always happen. What else could we think? But when I became a man, childish things were taken away from me. Rain in the morning was only one of them.

But look: there is no time for chasing vanishments. We have real work to do, and real enemies to outwit.

Back then, I could hear a hectic music, sometimes: the skirl of pipe and tabor. Back then my heart would lift, even if the battles I imagined were the mock-battles staged by our masters, and not the real fights on our own behalf, which I would only understand late, late in my life, when my strength was already dwindling, and my teeth were broken and rotting from so much nibbling on lies. My heart would still lift, and it lifts now. 

They still go in terror of us. They have won every contest, and they clutch every prize, and still we give them the horrors. It's not much to work with, is it? But it's not nothing.

Rain in the morning. Just once, before I die. 


There is no enemy. There is no battle. And there will be rain in the morning, many times. The sky is altered but it's still the sky. And death is granted eventually to every one of us. So take comfort, you silly overwrought boy. Leave this posturing and really think. Really think.


One tiny fragile thing at a time.


It is possible to turn, turn in that very slight and graceful way, so that you're presented edgeways to the world, and infinitely narrow, so that for practical purposes you disappear. Then you step sideways, along that plane: and you're gone. Not in this world anymore. Then you have a little time to think. You can still hear the footsteps of busy, anxious, unseen people, but they can't see you or even imagine you. Have you forgotten this? I think you have. That's one of the real problems.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Eat and Reading

 The story is told of an American Buddhist teacher -- I can't remember which one -- that a student, finding him eating lunch with a book before him, asked if this multi-tasking didn't running counter to his mindfulness principles. Shouldn't he be doing just one thing at once, with all his attention?

The teacher fixed the student with a baleful stare. "When I eat and read," he replied, "I eat and read."


This story passed into the idiolect of my marriage, so that "eat and read" was understood, and sometimes conjugated, as a single verb: "I was eat and reading yesterday when the phone rang..." 

I was binge-eating the other day, after a visit with my father -- those visits reliably precipitate binges -- and I noted that suddenly that as I ate, I was reading as I used to read: cruising through a hundred or a couple hundred pages per day. The penny dropped: so that's why I got through so little reading these days! I've been reading The Old Curiosity Shop for nearly a month, and I'm only two thirds through it: time was I would have dispatched it easily in a week. The reason I do so little reading now is that I no longer eat and read. I just read when I read, and reading by itself is a different activity, one that doesn't keep me bound so tightly into its orbit.


Not sure what to do with that realization. Maybe I'm not a reader: maybe I was never a reader: maybe I was just an eat and reader. Being the sort of person who reads a Dickens novel in a week has been part of my identity for so long that I have difficulty even bringing the notion that I might not be that sort of reader into focus. It's taken me four years to notice that there has been a change.

My knee-jerk response is, well, I must simply make myself read more. Or take up gum, or something. I can't actually read less. That would mean I was no longer me.


Or I could just not read as much. I don't need to be me, after all. Often I wish I weren't me. Why defend this identity? What do I really stand to lose?


Meanwhile, I got Eric Foner's classic history of the Reconstruction out of the library. (I have a couple more recent books on the same topic on hold, but they're taking forever to come in.) I realized at some point that much of my history reading was undershooting the target. Long ago I decided since that wars change things, I should read about the wars. It's useful to understand these things -- I often wish lefties understood more about military matters -- but for understanding the changes, what you really want to know is what happened after the shooting stopped. So rather than reading yet another history of World War II last year, I read Tony Judt's Postwar Europe. And now I'm reading about the Reconstruction. I've always shied away from it, knowing it would be grim reading, and that it's largely (from my perspective) the story of how the bad guys won after all. But all the more reason to dig in.


But I think one thing I am doing wrong -- if I want to read as I did back in the old eat and read days -- is that I am reading too many books at once, and taking my books as medicine, rather than as psychedelics. The whole point is opening the doors of perception, nicht? Washing the windows. Instead I've been primly reading improving books. No wonder my attention flags. I should take my reading in heroic doses.


As I walked this morning, before dawn, there was actually a little rain, or a least a heavy dewfall. It felt miraculous. A post-apocalyptic blessing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Draft of Policy Guidelines for Public Review

You go further into the dark. Forget
what you may have stepped on, what you may have done
to your bare feet. Damage assessment
comes later, if at all.
You, and I mean all of you --
your dicey back, your runny nose, that fold of flesh
that used to be plump with fat, where the hamstring meets the glute --
you have one last run, and only one, 
and you're doing it in the dark. 
Kick this thing over. Get it started. A nice 
even pace.

Listen, the story comes after, if at all.
Not yours to worry about. Yours is to run.
It's not really different. We may be hunted
by different animals, we may have sharpened other spears.
but the same bloody sun will rise, and the open
is no place to be when the light arrives.

Thursday, June 24, 2021


I am a reptilian thing with huge jaws, trying unsuccessfully
to reach an itch between its shoulders: I can't quite twist my neck
so far, and my thrash foams the water and frightens the fish. Hard luck

for the anglers. Remember how the pennies would warm in the sun
until they were drops of fire? You could pitch them in and dive for them
and they almost burned your fingers. Copper, veering to red:
little suns wavering among the green shadowed rocks,
while the water's huge respiration pulled the light
this way and that -- If it's wings growing there, we will need more
than the simple plates that do for a lizard's shoulder blades.
Hence no doubt the itch. We'll need bony ridges for the muscles to grip,
tendons for guy-wires, reciprocating levers for the forelimbs --

It is of course all nonsense about gold and dragons. Gold is insipid,
pale and unlovely under the water, incapable
of oxidation, doomed to be forever itself and never to burn.

It's copper, burning always, burning to peacock blues and greens,
burning to make your heart ache. Copper, answering fiercely to the sun,
to the water, to the air. Copper for the shells already clustering,

pea-sized, in my belly. What else would dragon eggs be made of?
In long years, long after the new webbing of my new grown wings
has extended and dried, after my first exultations in the air,

after I am so used to strength and freedom
that this present weakness is a dream: I will come home to this
cold green dark and shadowed river and lay my drops of fire

in the river mud, to glow and blaze and glitter;
you will need both hands to prise one up, should you
be so unwise, and it will carry heat like the pennies

so long ago, when you were a tow-headed boy
and the river-water made you gasp, and red coins
winked in the sun.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Infinite Regress

The last day or two I have been nearly as unhappy as I have ever been. It's in the way of unhappiness that one of my preoccupations has been establishing exactly how unhappy, and since when. Since the miserable days of teaching that ill-fated Chaucer course at Bridgeport University? Not quite that unhappy: that was the only time in my life I've been so unhappy that I didn't want to eat. But anyway. Long years ago.

And I am unhappy on account of nothing: nothing is wrong. I have suffered no loss. Everything jogs along as before.

Minor setbacks in most of my current projects. Some binge-eating on a small scale: which is to say, a day or two of eating as I used to eat every single day of my life. A minor pause in my reading. A little back trouble, entailing a setback in my exercise. The pain is trifling: I've had canker sores that occasioned more distress. The pestilential neighbors had a party and played loud, bad music that was just their usual hysterical shouting and profanity, mildly tweaked into an insistent rhythm. All these things are lightly discouraging. Not so discouraging that one should find oneself saying aloud, "I wish I were dead. Why am I not dead yet?"

Of particular silliness is the irony that timor mortis conturbat me: If I so want to be dead, then of all things intimations of mortality ought to be the most welcome. But of course emotions have their own life, and logical consistency is not what they aim at. What do they aim at?

Well, they are saying you must change your life

Gah. I'm tired of changing my life. I'm tired of running perpetual experiments on myself and trying to get myself to do things that will supposedly result in happiness. The whole project is misconceived. 

What, then? I can imagine no response but to embark on another program of self-improvement, training myself not to try to improve myself. At least the infinity of that regress is so obvious that even I can't miss it.


Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, the daily Covid new-case count reported by the Oregon health department dipped below one hundred. It was a fluky number, of course; Monday's numbers are often artificially low. But it was nice to see. A harbinger. 

I have been so focused on the fact that I have had an easy pandemic -- it would probably be hard to find another American on whom it's had so little impact -- that maybe I've underestimated its cumulative effect on my mood and imagination. I handle being alone just fine, and anyway, I was homebound with the most congenial person imaginable. I'm under no economic threat. I had no professional ambitions to be dashed. And extraordinarily, none of my family or close friends fell ill: and now they are all vaccinated. The risk is receding daily, even with the delta variant. So -- an easy pandemic. And now, they say, happy days are here again. But for me the sense of constriction has not lessened. The ambiguities multiply. 

I used to love being among strangers. Hence the restaurant breakfasts for most of my life. Just a sense of the abundance and variety of human life. I loved to study the faces going by. I had given up the restaurant breakfasts before the pandemic: but now, I didn't even have the bus or the train. And even the faces I saw were either masked or offensively unmasked. Something withered. My association of strangers with abundance and possibility evaporated. They were just more people: more stupid, obstinate people, incapable of critical thought or collaborative action: chattering primates hell-bent on their own destruction. The fewer of them the better. Godspeed, delta variant.


I treasure, above all, a sense of spaciousness. Wilderness. Of all the calamities of the past five years, none has distressed me so much as the wildfires. Not even fresh air to breathe: not even a national park to escape to. Everything has been ruined. There is nowhere to go. 


Thus von Tal, who is given to extravagant Germanic gloom. But surely Dale is somewhere here as well? He can't quite have vanished. The cool morning air is not tainted with wood smoke. Birds are in fact tuning up, as dawn gets underway. The sky may have been served its writ, but it's still there. And you well know that its death was guaranteed, from the beginning. Emptiness is a wind that blows no matter what the weather.

Wrong from the start, said the infamous Ezra Pound, that most American of Americans. Is it that we haven't stepped far enough back, or that we've stepped back too far? I'm not sure.