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. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

Bucking and Bridling

 How my mind bucks and bridles, when fixed on the matter of my back pain! Now I am a disciple of Stuart McGill, religiously doing my "big three" exercises, an apostate from the "pain is an opinion" faith. And then I fall into doubt, and whisper that it's not working: and work myself up into a fret about it, when all the while I have not even done the simple assessments that McGill requires as the first step in his Back Mechanic book. 

The correlation between back pain and psychosocial stress is as plain as can be, in me, and in the literature. But that doesn't mean that we understand either the causation or the mechanism. Maybe we move foolishly, under stress, and ignore our own perceptions, and injure ourselves in quite physical (if not necessarily measurable) ways. There is something charming about McGill's insistence that there is always tissue damage. And it sets a red flag. How the hell does he know? He doesn't.

But anyway, I must force myself to complete his assessments, first. My symptoms are puzzling to me, and it seems to me that this pain is not like the pain I have had before: I may have two injuries, one old and one new, the old one having to do with flexion of the lumbar spine, and the new one to do with extension and torsion of the thoracic spine. Or it may, of course, simply be free-floating pain inspired by grief and anxiety about my father's state of health: which of course I can hardly help taking as prefiguring my own future. No way to isolate the variables, here, that I can think of.

In the meantime, I've maybe rashly extended credit to McGill, and altered much of my exercise regime, in order to bend my spine less and spend more effort building up the strength and endurance of the "guy-wire" muscles of the spine. My working McGillian hypothesis is that my original back trouble was caused by flexion, and I addressed it historically by erasing the lordotic curve of my low back, and building the flexive strength of my abdominal muscles, all too successfully. Now I must restore some of that curve and train up the opposing extensive muscles. But I'm suspicious of how exactly the "normal" curves of the spine were determined, or whether there are good reasons to think that this "normal" is actually relevant to anything. Really the value here is that I'm trying different things and interrogating my daily movements and postures. 

If there is value. Probably if I changed nothing and just waited, the pain would just go away anyway.

"You think too much: that is your problem." Well, yeah, but it's also the only strength I've got. Might as well use it. And anyway, don't declare defeat before the troops have even been deployed. Do the damn assessments.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

A Prayer for the Last Rain

I go in the morning of the day to the high places
where the clouds build tower upon tower, and the light
comes up from the moving water to fill the sky;

I break the glazed bowl and scatter the offerings
as you told me to, remember? that July in the days before.
My fingers remember the grit and the hard edges

and the loom of the forgoing, the endless necessary
and useless refusal of pleasure, which amounts to nothing
and informs nothing; the shape of the leaves left by the wind

on the hilltop. Christ Jesus, walking in this bitter way,
gave us three instructions: the first two I have forgotten,
but the last was "do not break the bowl!" and if I wake in tears,

of a Saturday, it is just this memory: of all that I have broken,
and forgotten, and lost. If you make a bowl of your hands
and let it fill with light, how will you keep it? It spills

and the moving air takes it. That high-strung English boy
thought it was seed for the west wind, but it is only the splash
of a ruined vessel. All of the made things break;

all of the leaves crumble. The pouring rain smells of tannin,
the mud runs clean, and the gutters fill with yellow and orange and red.
Please let this rain never end. Let this one be the last.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Narnia After The Snowmelt

The lab numbers are back, and the cholesterol ones haven't moved at all. The triglycerides went down sharply, but my triglyceride numbers were already pretty good. I really thought that losing these last two inches from my waist, and cutting out the red meat and ice cream altogether, would move the needle on the cholesterol: but not a bit. 

I had already laid down the number that was going to make the statin decision: if the total cholesterol / HDL ration was still over 5.0, I'd start taking them. My number was 5.5, so -- here goes. I don't buy the story of cholesterol being a driver of ill health, but there's probably some value in taking the LDL level down. If I have any side effects from them, I'll stop. I don't really view it as a terribly important decision, which is why I sort of picked a number out of a hat to make it for me. I've already given it more energy than it deserves.

Anyway, I'm glad to have gotten my waist down to 32 inches, which is sort of the land of fable, for me. I wake up in the morning, suck in my gut, and explore the terrain curiously with my hands: the segmented columns of the rectus abdominis and the lat-like flare of the obliques; the easily palpable guy-wire of the linea alba, the startlingly strong pulse of the abdominal aorta. A landscape I knew was there from my anatomy texts, and from years of doing massage on other people, but which I'd never been able to read with my fingers. Narnia after the snowmelt.

So lots of crosscurrents, here; and lots of over-interpretation. I can fix on the small waist, and the greatly-improved triglyceride/HDL ratio, which is quite close to 1.0 now, and which is supposedly the best marker for insulin sensitivity (in Caucasians), and think of this as a victory. Or I can fix on having caved in on the statins, which means that I'm not immortal after all, that I haven't outrun the medical establishment, and that I'll die awash in medicines like my mom did, not even knowing what the hell all of them were for. 

Or I can decline all the stories, and acknowledge that actually very little has changed, and that possibly the most important development of the past three months has been learning not to dread going a day or two without food.

I am in the critical phase now: the weeks after the weight loss, when my motivation for tracking and restricting intake is lowest, but my body will make its most determined hormonal bids to get the fat stores back up. People focus on the weight loss, but that's actually the easier part. The harder part is convincing the body that this is the new normal. My set-point may come down -- the evidence on that is scanty and contradictory -- but if it does, it will take a long time, at least as long as the weight loss did. Some people say that if you nudge your intake up very gradually, your metabolism will speed back up even while your fat stores remain constant. Maybe, but maybe that's wishful thinking. It would be nice if it were true, but I don't see any reason to think it must be.

So I set my data points for my do-it-yourself homeostasis: nudge my weekly intake up, and if the 7-day rolling average of my waist-hip ratio hits 0.91, fast it back down to 0.89. That should keep me in range. And I can entertain myself by working on getting my glutes swole, to cheat up that denominator.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Fire Drill

I pull into the three-quarters full parking lot and find a space on the far side, so that people with trouble walking can get the nearer spaces. (One of those things you can allow yourself to do when you're semi-retired and not in a hurry any more.) A beautiful morning. Some deep breaths. Do the little juggling routine: key into my pocket, glasses off, tie on mask; glasses back on, get out of the car, fish the key back out of my pocket, lock the car. 

I stride toward the building, feeling bold and enterprising. But I slow as I approach. A wave of some dozen masked people comes out. A second, and a third wave. Each wave wanders deeper into the parking lot, and then stops. What the hell?

Oh. I've seen this behavior before. It's a fire drill. More waves come out; they gather in little clusters, chatting: some cheerful, some resigned. Who knew how many people were in a nondescript, three-story medical building? There must be a hundred of them.

I stop well away from them: they're all masked and probably all vaccinated, but a crowd is a crowd and it's going to be a while before I'm comfortable in one. (As if I ever was.) Besides, nothing's happening till the floor captains have counted noses and the drill is over. So I go for a little walk in the parking lot. It's  godforsaken stretch of ground between the light rail tracks and a shopping center. But it's a bright and blessed June morning nevertheless.

Every one files back in, and after a few minutes, to give them time to become a functioning medical organism again, I follow them, and after a reasonably short time (but long enough to have been asked my name and birth date three times) I'm back on the sidewalk, plus a wad of gauze taped to the inside of my elbow, and minus a vial of blood. My lipid panel! It's been three months since the last one: I'm ten pounds lighter and two inches narrower, and now I get to see if I've moved my numbers.

This is wildly, wildly outside my comfort zone. I actually made this test happen. I initiated an interaction with my health providers. I have never done such a thing before.

It's boy thing, I guess. You always hear of women needing to drag their husbands to the doctor. I've never exactly needed to be dragged, but I've tended to go limp -- like a peaceful anti-nuke protester -- and I certainly never started anything.

But now I have, and I'm feeling absurdly cocky and sure of myself. A bit pathetic, but -- hey, it's part of the project of inhabiting my own life, and it's gone well so far, and I'm taking it as a win.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Prawns with the Heads and Tails on

What put you off Dickens, you said, was his absolute moral certainty. And sure, I know what you mean: there is a juvenile insistence on innocence and depravity which can be grating. Especially the innocence part, which generally means a weak, languid inability to assert oneself. The Victorian enthusiasm for Little Nell strikes us as pathetic, if not pathological.

But as I read The Old Curiosity Shop, I am struck by the centrality of the demonic Quilp. The narrative adores Quilp: he draws Dickens' attention as Edmund draws Shakespeare's in King Lear. Whenever he is on stage, the language gains force; the dramatic intensity shoots up; everything becomes more vividly felt and extravagant. Sure, he's the bad guy: but without him, could there be a play? Of course not. What actor would turn down such a gorgeous role?

So Dickens may be morally certain, but his novels are not. What if the meaning of life is self-assertion and dominating your inferiors? How do you know it's not? Is it better to be Nell's grandfather, or Dick Swiveller, than to be Daniel Quilp? I don't think so, and I don't think the novel thinks so. I'm only a hundred pages in or so, which is barely getting started in a Dickens novel, but there's an interesting absence here: where is the young hero? Where is the young Dickens stand-in -- the Copperfield, the Clennam, the Pip? The shadowy narrator has already effaced himself and vanished. The entire field of virile masculinity is occupied triumphantly by Quilp, who faces down legions of discontented female rebels with ease and relish. I can't think off-hand of another Victorian novel that leaves the Young Hero slot so empty. Instead what we get is Quilp, leering at his mother-in-law in the mirror, and crunching up the heads and tails of prawns and the shells of boiled eggs.

Dickens, like Shakespeare, goes where the story takes him. And that to my mind is the whole duty of a storyteller.

When I realized how few books I would still get to read in this life -- do the numbers sometime, O fellow reader; you will be as appalled as I was -- I sketched out a course of "great books" to read. At first I had four historical categories, from which I'd pick books in turn. But soon I realized that might leave me reading, say, John Gower, or Ben Jonson, without ever having gotten back to Macbeth or Copperfield: that couldn't be right. So I expanded the categories to six: Ancient & Classical, Medieval & Renaissance, Shakespeare, Enlightenment & 19th Century, Dickens, and Moderns. And then I said the hell with it. I could die tomorrow. It's Dickens and Shakespeare that I want to read. Gower and Jonson can wait: they can wait till my next life, if necessary. And suddenly all my vacillation and weariness about reading were gone. I will crunch up my Shakespeare plays with their tails and heads, and my Dickens novels with the shells: and be damned to comprehensiveness or correctness. 

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

The Doubts

They come in delicately, like shrimp,
their antennae forming long and graceful curves,
their expressions undecipherable. These are the doubts.
They move slowly, seemingly without intention,
but they crowd until the panic starts to rise.

Is it the opaqueness of the eyes, or the stiffness?
Or maybe the capacity for suffering, beyond
mammalian imagination? They die in multitudes
when the waves go bronze, and the sea's skin
is a rocking shell of copper colored plates.
They die without objection, quiet to the last,
not rushing even then. And the sun goes down.
Evening brings the smell of their decay.

You asked me once to tell about the whales
still in the deep places, untroubled. So I did.
I had a voice that persuaded then: I was young
and believed in victory. Far out to sea and far below,
I said, they are moving, huge and slow, older than us,
older than time, waiting us out. They know places still
that we do not. At last you fell asleep,
exhausted by fear and wretchedness: but I lay awake
and all night the stars picked their way across the sky.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Making the Corn Right: Nixtamalization

"Nextli" is Nahautl for "ashes,"
"tamalli" for corn meal dough.
"Nixtamalization" is soaking the corn
in a wood-ash solution.

Everyone did it:
if you lived on maize, you prepped it
with wood ash. Otherwise
you were courting deficiencies

of niacin or amino acids.
And yes, right now, yes
I could do with a tamal.
But the point is

No one knew why they did it
Or they believed they did it
for some other reason:
it made the corn right.

And this is why I say
to storytellers, 
great and small:
just make it right.

Don't worry about niacin.
You don't have to know what the fuck 
the ashes are doing. 
You can be wrong

and still be right.
the goddamn