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


 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.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Balance and Quickness

I've had an informal goal for a while of working up to being able to do twenty pull ups in a row. But recently YouTube served up a video to me, made by a guy my age, who was doing a pull-up challenge, clearly chuffed with himself for being able to beat Jeff Cavaliere.  Cavaliere's challenge was to do fifty pull ups in as few sets as you could, with of course various parameters for what counts and how much rest between sets and so on. For the first set, this guy did 19 pull ups, and he had a few more in the tank. So here's an old  guy, a guy my age, who can do twenty pull ups. It's possible.

He had an enormous back and shoulders, and I thought: you know, I don't particularly want to look like that. Maybe twenty pull ups actually isn't what I want. The number came out of thin air, basically -- I think Jeff Cavaliere said something in some video about "banging out twenty pull ups" -- and I never really investigated farther. It just lodged in my head, and since I'd recently worked my way up to being able to do five or six, from having been unable to do any at all, I thought, "cool! That's what I'll work up to!" And it's just been sort of a brain burr, since then.

It makes sense that you'd need a huge back to be able to do that. Or else that you'd have to be very light. But being shaped like a gorilla is not actually what I want. I want a body that's lighter and quicker than that, not so specialized for one movement. And it's not like I *need* twenty pull ups, in my daily life. It's just a number that floated into my life, and now it's lodged there. I think it's time to gently dislodge it and let it float away. Twenty pull ups is not in my future.

What I do want is more quickness and balance. Watching the generation ahead of me, it becomes clearer and clearer that if I manage to dodge the chronic "diseases of Western Civilization" -- cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis -- what will take me down is simply falling. Falling and hitting my head, or falling and breaking my hip. That's what I should be training to avoid. I do almost nothing that requires balance and quick responses, which means, I'm pretty sure, that they are gradually deteriorating. I have the requisite strength, now -- I can sit down on the floor and stand up again without using my hands or my knees. So that's great: no amount of balance or quickness would help that much if I were not strong enough to catch myself on the way down. But on the other hand, no amount of strength will help if I topple too far before trying to catch myself. I'm going to need the balance and quickness, too.

I never fall. I think of myself as a person who does not fall. But by the time I start falling, it will be late in the game to fix it.

I do a few things to cultivate balance. I often put my socks on standing up, for example. I do step-ups onto a chair, as part of leg day, which was meant to be a quads-and-glutes exercise, but has turned out to be much more of a balance exercise. But I do nothing to cultivate quickness, nothing at all. I think I need to learn to hop, and scamper over rough terrain, and do a lot of getting quickly to the floor from various directions and in various attitudes. I'm quite sure all these motor sequences can be trained, and that someone's already thought it all out. I just have to go find them. Find them, learn them, and practice them.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Opinions: Throwing Rocks: Being a Traffic Cop

Good morning.  There is a moment when you feel the lever shift, under your hands, and you look up to check whether the top of the load has shifted against the sky. But mostly it's quiet, this morning: another silent rush of the tide under the pylons. The gulls are not awake yet, and we're in the deep quiet of January.

Von Tal is restless, and he writes:

We've got an American public whose historical understanding of the Revolution is that one day a crowd threw rocks at soldiers in Boston, and that from then on victory was a forgone conclusion. Six grinding years of keeping an army in the field, hunted up and down the Atlantic coast, was superfluous detail. It would have been "names-and-dates-of-battles" trivia: no need to teach that, or learn it.

So now a bunch of wannabe revolutionaries are hiding at home wondering why their revolution isn't accomplished, since they clearly have done all that was necessary. They threw the rocks: why isn't there a new government?

On the one hand, of course, thank God: if they had known what they needed to orchestrate and organize, things might have gone otherwise. On the other hand, if they had known what signing up for a revolution actually entailed, they might have thought better of it in the first place.

I've watched left wing idiots doing the same thing all my life: now I'm watching right wing idiots doing it. You don't want six years barefoot and bleeding in the snow, don't sign on, guys.

Yeah, well, maybe. How do you know? How do you know any of the stuff you supposedly know? And what are you willing to bet on it? 

The twice-warmed coffee is sour on my tongue. Finally, after much dithering, I ordered some votive candles online, to be coffee warmers. I already have the little scaffold for my cup to sit on. I have a boy's love of open flame, and my theory is that keeping the cup warm, rather than reheating in the microwave, will a) keep me at my post longer, b) keep my coffee warmer longer, and c) reduce the eventual bitterness of multiply reheated coffee. This being a thing, Herr von Tal, that a man might actually gauge by experience and actually know. So the candles, I am informed, left San Bernardino by truck yesterday, accompanied by Stallings' translation of Lucretius. In the 21st Century economy this is not an odd packaging, nor an odd origin. Why should candles and Lucretius not arise in San Bernardino? Riddle me that.

And here is Mark Manson on opinions:

One thing I would add to this, is that an unexpected bonus is the emotional relief that comes of shedding opinions. One does not realize, until one does it, how heavy the burden of all those opinions is, how anxiously they must be defended, how vulnerable they make you to every passing stranger. I practice not having opinions about other drivers, when I'm on the freeway. What do I know of what they are rushing toward, and what they are fending off? "No one made me a traffic cop," I murmur. Thank God. I am so grateful that no one made me a traffic cop. And I am correspondingly grateful for the people who undertake that burden, leaving me to float, irresponsible and free, in the flow of traffic. If someone's driving strikes me as aggressive or erratic, I simply drop back in the current till I'm well away from them. 

There was a time -- there are still times! -- when I soberly thought it was my duty to think like a traffic cop, and come to decisions about the culpability of any driver who irritated me. Just how wicked were they being? How inexcusable? What punishment should be meted to them? How much better than them am I? All these questions struck me as reasonable and responsible. Now they strike me as signs of immaturity, if not mental illness. "No one made me a traffic cop." It's something of a mantra.

Lots of love, dear ones. I hope your day has unexpected presents that delight you.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Hijas de la Carne

No lo cuento para que me comprendan, ya que he renunciado a semejante pretensión; ni para que comprendan al Príncipe Hurón. Lo cuento porque dicen los sabios que las palabras son hijas de la carne y como tales se pudren si las guarda encerradas.

I do not tell it so that you will understand me, since I have renounced such a claim; nor so that you will understand Prince Hurón. I tell it because the wise say that words are daughters of the flesh, and they spoil if you seal them up.

-- Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial

It doesn't happen very often, nowadays, that I finish a book and think, with total conviction, this one I will be reading again. But it happened with Kalpa Imperial.

Friday, January 08, 2021

A Surgeon Extracting the Stone of Folly

Pieter Van Huys

Alas! If it were so easy.

The llama, orgulous of his orgle,

His fifteen minutes of fame, or his hour;

Our ornaments of desire that strangely lapse

With the mere shift of a species. And thus this day

Gray and still, and the morning incomplete.

But we are spirits of another sort, which is to say

That kindness walks among us, and grief,

And uncertainty about how to greet this guest.

Do we offer him a seat, hang his black

And faded hood up on the hat rack, stand his scythe

With the umbrellas? Do we distract him with a long discourse

Concerning the rights of vegetable loves?

He is obliging, to a point, but he has a job to do.

Count this love then in the hidden book, the ledger

Suspected in the jumbled shelves just glimpsed

Behind the scowling holder of the house. We can't help thinking

Even now, that someone older, more astute,

Must be keeping score.