Sunday, December 18, 2022

Because I Think I'm Making Progress

I know it's tiresome, the way I yatter on about my attempts to control my eating, and I know that the project seems endless. I'm well into its sixth year, and rolling out an elaborate "maintenance" plan, complete with graphs and algorithms, and I think it would be reasonable for a reader to say, "why don't you just get the hell over it and think about something different, and more interesting, for a change? Nobody else gives a damn about this"

Which is quite true: there's really nobody anymore who cares that much whether I weigh 150 or 250 pounds. And it doesn't even matter to me that much: I'm close enough to the end of my life that moving life expectancies around by 5% or 10% doesn't, in absolute terms, amount to much. Who cares?

There's three reasons I do care. One psychological: it's that this bears crucially on the narrative of my life. I grew up believing that under challenge I would always collapse, and that being fat was the outward sign of my cowardice and lack of fortitude. I believed also, like my mother, that this doomed me to being perpetually, and essentially, unlovable. So psychologically, it's as fraught as it can be. Is it my fate to become ever fatter and ever less loved? 

That reason is nonsense and always has been. It was nonsense of my mother as well, who grew ever fatter and had three devoted husbands. The fat wasn't particularly a problem, even to her longevity: she made it into her early 80s. The Doom of our House was always a stupid fiction.

So if this was only a psychological problem, it would make sense to simply drop it. Who cares how much I eat? Nobody. It's of compelling interest to no one at all.

However. The second reason has to do, not with longevity or lovability, but with physical well-being. Being fat renders me sulky, pimply, smelly, and impotent. It makes me susceptible to joint pain and back problems. Very little of that has to do with subcutaneous fat, which is pretty harmless: I think it has to do with visceral fat and chronic systemic inflammation. When I have a big belly my baseline is feeling really pretty crappy.

I used to think that people were exaggerating all these things, in the interests of the diet industry and so forth. Now that I have direct experience of it, I no longer think so. The differences are large, unmistakable, and unmistakably tied to a very particular threshold of belly fat. My body hates being fat.

The third reason though is much more important, and it has to do with -- I know a lot of you dislike this way of talking about it -- cultivating virtue. 

The opposite of gluttony is supposedly temperance, but in my case the virtue I'm cultivating is actually fortitude. It is the virtue I have always missed most. It has to do with keeping resolutions, and remaining steadfast in the face of adversity: it has to do keeping commitments. It has to do with not letting passing whims and glittery little distractions drive your life. The reason I keep practicing "whupping the food thing" is that I keep benefitting from it. Fortitude generalizes, in all sorts of ways. It keeps making me a better person: it keeps making my life better. Pablo Casals, when asked why he continued practicing the cello at age 96, answered simply, "because I think I'm making progress." And that's my answer too.

The difference in how I work, now, is striking: I used often to hit a wall -- if I was lucky, not till mid-afternoon -- beyond which I was utterly unable to push myself to do anything more. This happened daily; and there were days when I never managed to work at all. That just doesn't happen to me now. I get tired, sure, but if I look at a stack of work that will just take an hour more, and make tomorrow much easier -- I just do the work. No fuss, no bucking or shying of the mind. This is intimately related to restraining my eating: it's subjectively obvious that the virtue that enables me to proceed with work is the same one that enables me to refrain from eating what I've decided not to eat. I'd call it fortitude. Psychologists call it self-regulation. The general public calls it will power. 

I really think fortitude is a better name. Because it's not a matter of one part of me dominating the other parts: it's a matter of holding fast to a larger understanding of what's going on, and a matter of the various constituents of my spirit being better aligned. Self-regulation and will power suffer all the ills of despotism: blindness and caprice and grandiosity. And they're prone to sudden catastrophic failure. Fortitude is the opposite of that. I don't try to not to be tired, or not to be hungry. I just do what needs to be done anyway.

There is not much glory to this progress. I am well aware that this is remedial work. Many people were trained up in fortitude, as children, or at least discovered it early. I came to it late: so I'm celebrating triumphs more appropriate to a nine-year-old than a sixty-four-year-old. But it was the obvious, first thing that I needed to do, and I'm doing it.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

How to Live

The leitmotif of my social, political, and personal life: we don't know how to live. At one point I was thinking: you know, Dale, maybe all you mean is I don't know how to live. There's a great deal of profit in mulling that one over, and I'm not done doing it, but I think I'll stand by the first formulation. This is not just my problem. This is our problem. 

It's a political problem in the local and immediate sense that until we know how to live, our opponents have not the slightest reason to listen to us. If we're not offering a better life, why should they? We consider ourselves just reeking with virtue and goodness, but of course so do they, for equally flimsy reasons. Given that we can't and won't talk to each other, what else could we ground our choices on? Each of us looks at the other and thinks, "well, that looks like a petty and stupid life." And we're both right. So. Impasse.

It's our problem, not just mine, also in this way: I can't work it out by myself. I can't unilaterally start living a different life. I need people to live it with. And, more importantly, I need people to work it out with. Hegel (I'm told) said of Kant, "he wants to learn to swim before he gets in the water," and that's what I think I'm doing when I try to figure out how to live before I have a community to live with. That's not how how to live works. But I'm so imbued with individualist doctrine that any whiff of community panics me. I might be circumscribed! Horrors! As if this present life was freedom.


"Every particular view of the virtues is linked to some particular notion of the narrative structure or structures of human life." Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p 174.

I used to like the way my Buddhist teachers talked about ethics. They likened it to gardening. You clear away weeds, not because you hate weeds, but because you're trying to grow something else, something not yet robust, that might otherwise be crowded out. Likewise you clear away vices, obstructions (kleshas) to make room for wisdom and compassion to grow.

The narrative structure of human life implicit here is of growth over time. And it's unproblematic to Buddhists because they have lots of time: life after life. Clear the weeds and time will do the rest. 

One of the things that alienated me from Buddhism was that I never thought reincarnation was likely, or even particularly plausible in its own terms. No one of course insisted that I "believe in" reincarnation -- that's not the way modern Western Buddhists do things. They just suggested that I hold my opinions of death lightly, and imagine that it might not be so. Good advice. I did that.

It's not terribly easy to tell the difference between holding your opinions lightly, and pretending to believe something you don't: but at some point I realized I had gone from one to the other. I really don't think anything continues after death. I think life ends -- like a candle flame that's blown out, or a song that comes to a close. There isn't any more after that, and it doesn't make any sense to justify what we do now in terms of what will happen then. Holding that lightly felt less and less authentic. There was a wobble in my practice that I didn't know how to handle.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Alisdair MacIntyre

 "... it was because a moral tradition of which Aristotle's thought was the intellectual core was repudiated during the transitions of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries that the Enlightenment project of discovering new rational secular foundations for morality had to be undertaken. And it was because that project failed, because the views advanced by its most intellectually powerful protagonists, and more especially by Kant, could not be sustained in the face of rational criticism that Nietzsche and all his existentialist and emotivist* successors were able to mount their apparently successful critique of all previous morality. Hence the defensibility of the Nietzschean position turns in the end on the answer to the question: was it right in the first place to reject Aristotle?" After Virtue, 3rd ed., p 117

*emotivism: the doctrine that all moral positions are subjective emotions masquerading as objective truths 

Smite the Vices

Here I am in the sixth year of my weight-loss project, and it is still the project that consumes most of my disposable will-power. Humiliating, but there’s nothing to be gained by trying to ignore or conceal it. It gains a certain shabby philosophical dignity if I call it “cultivating temperance,” I guess. It has the advantage of being easily and precisely calculable. If my waist/hip ratio is over 91%, then I’m not temperate enough. Hardly a full account of the virtue, but as a heuristic it works fine. Some virtues are difficult to evaluate. Not this one.

Looming behind this is the project of cultivating chastity. Lest this one should seem interesting – it amounts to not squandering precious work time on stupid, repetitive, commercial pornography. This also is humiliating, but there it is. But until I have the temperance habits fully in place, and have freed up some self-regulatory oomph, I may not make much progress on it. Although I think the temperance skills have already been transferring to this realm. (But possibly that’s just age-related decline of libido. Here again, the nuts and bolts of cultivating virtue contribute all too generously to the prime virtue of humility.)

There is the danger of sinking into a sort of mindless video game of smite the vices, and forgetting what all this is in aid of. The vices and virtues are not the point. Unbearable, dazzling beauty: being overwhelmed by the infinite fractal elaboration of the worlds, visible and hidden – that is the point. I could win the game and lose the life. This is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Remember that.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Inventing the Wheel

Well, la! One head on the little YouTube screen
says we need a new religion, and another says
it's stupid to reinvent the wheel. And I would think
the second was right (because I like cathedrals),

but then I think: those of us unchurched 
are creating a new religion willy nilly, 
and the only question is do we do it right
or do we do it like chuckleheads -- worship at the temples
of commerce, make offerings to the algorithms
of liking, train our attention
to ever greater feats of distraction. That
is our present devotion. We're inventing it anyway,
a lonely lopsided Flintstone 
pentagon of a wheel. Stop.

Here is what we do in our church: 
we never gather and we never sing
we blame but never praise
we cultivate indulgence; we wallow in dread;
we pick the scabs of anxiety.
The stupidest Congregation of the Bigot
in Podunkville does better than that.

Any meditation, any contemplation, any prayer
is better than this. Any tradition, old or made up.
And the thing is, I have always had it backwards
You don't find out the truth first and then 
go looking for the church that matches. That's
a project bound to fail. 

The people of the church
must gather first, and build and find together.
What we know is: this does not work. That's
enough to start with. The rest comes later.

Thursday, November 03, 2022

Aureliano José

There is a family tree at the beginning of Gregory Rabassa's splendid English translation of Cien años de soledad, but I found it confusing, because it didn't preserve birth order. So I've been constructing my own as I go along, and this is where I presently am:

                     José Arcadio Buendía

                     = Úrsula Iguarán



| | |

José Arcadio Buendía Colonel Aureliano Buendía   Amaranta

= Rebeca Buendía = Remedios Moscote

|           |

—----             -

|             |

by Pilar: Arcadio         by assorted women: 17 assorted Aurelianos

= Santa Sofia de la Piedad By Pilar: Aureliano José 



|          |                                   |

 Remedios José Arcadio Segundo Aureliano Segundo

            = Fernanda del Carpio



|                         |     |

José Arcadio Renata Remedios (Meme) Amaranta Úrsula

Laid out this way, the figure who keeps catching my eye is the person at the center, Aureliano José, son of the Colonel by Pilar Ternera. He's a minor character, although he is the only child of the Colonel who is actually raised in the household. He is murdered in the general slaughter of the Colonel's sons, and vanishes from the novel, without leaving much trace. His main significance seems to be as a link between the incest anxiety of the first generation and the actual incest of the last generation. He falls in love with his aunt Amaranta, into whose bed he regularly creeps as a boy. She shoos him away eventually, after some ambiguous dalliance. He goes away to fight in one of the Colonel's insurrections:
Así padeció el exilio... hasta que le oyó contar a alguien el viejo cuento del hombre que se casó con una tía que además era su prima, y cuyo hijo terminó siendo abuelo de sí mismo.

—¿Es que uno se puede casar con una tía? —preguntó él, asombrado.

—No solo se puede —le contestó un soldado— sino que estamos haciendo esta guerra contra los curas para que uno se pueda casar con su propia madre.
Two things to note here: the point of the shaggy-dog incest story, as told to Aureliano José, is that a man becomes his own grandfather -- the extremity of individualist, even solipsist fantasy -- and the identification of why the Liberal revolutionaries are fighting against the priests: so that one can marry one's own mother. This is not exactly the standard interpretation of the Liberal cause.

The question is: why? Why is this incestuous solitude what all of the Buendías seem to be struggling for?

I saw one of those silly lists of "the fifty greatest books" the other day. It was a composite, assembled by some algorithm that searched out a bunch of such ranked lists and crunched them together somehow. Cien años de soledad came in third, on this list. I doubt this conveys much information about greatness, but it certainly conveys a lot about current popularity and prestige. This is a central novel of our time, which suggests to me that this theme resonates far beyond the particular psychology of Gabriel García Márquez. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Fall 2022

Struggling to rise again from a fall. Winded. Sick of an old grief,
scolded by regrets of such long standing that they qualify for pensions (go ahead,
retire, please!) and the long low bank of dirty cloud carries particulates 
from sweet mossy forests that were never meant to burn, but are burning now.

What I have to ask myself is, do I feel lucky? And I do not. Lucky all my life
but not today. Dust off the knees of my old-man jeans; straighten the last few inches
that used to come for free. The masks for the pestilence work very well
for fire smoke. Isn't that convenient! And the various stupid accomplishments

of the past decade slide away. Tired of it all, and ready to arrange my limbs,
settle my debts, confirm my suspicion that the chips I'm playing 
are actually worth nothing at the desk. 
Poor Grendel's had an accident: so may you all.

Friday, October 14, 2022


If I'm really done with Locke and I think I am
Renouncing my inheritance, the social contract, that government
instituted to secure these rights
, then I am giddily set free,
let loose (or abandoned) to imagine other things, but then

so was that young neurotic Austrian painter of landscapes
and designer of Aryan battle flags: he imagined his people
right into hell. So soft, soft on that, please. Go slow.

Listen. Suppose there is an America, drunk and unsteady,
made of dreams and pixilated stories, lost and looking for the way home:
a person of sorts. Suppose it's our job to try to get him home to bed
without damaging himself (or others) more than can be helped.
Suppose he is us, and our every imagining blazes a path
in the flickering net of his brain. Suppose his incoherent weeping 
is ours. Suppose 
it all matters dreadfully, and we are to hang his mask on our faces
and learn to face the world.

Thursday, September 22, 2022


Martha being in Colorado a couple days makes me realize some things I ought to have realized long ago, but being me -- a substance considerably more dense than the marrow of a neutron star -- I had not actually realized: to wit, that none of my problems of concentration or of maintaining self or social ties have to do with Martha's presence: in fact I do substantially worse when she is not here than when she is. I am less likely to read carefully, to stay on task, to keep my diet, to stay in touch with people, to exercise, to maintain the house. I deteriorate by every measure I track, and by every one I can think of that I don't. It is only due to Martha's presence that I am not already a fat and aimless hermit. So there's that. 

Not that I actually blamed Martha for my deficiencies. That is not my way: dense though I am, I am not quite that dense. But I think from time to time I have refrained from blaming her, which is for some purposes the same thing. No, old friend, no: all these tendencies are my own, and all solutions will grow out of the only soil in which any of the goods of my life have grown. 

Throw the windows wide. Comfort poor Van, who is appalled by Martha's disappearance, and sleeps all day on her spot on the couch, not even rousing himself at the sound of a can of cat food being opened. (His consciousness is on strike: it refuses to return to work until she's back). Water the plants. Muse on the variations of cloud building and dissolving, north over the neighbor's gable. Count, if I must. One hundred and fifty breaths is one attempt at falling asleep. Fifteen long breaths, if I'm lying on my belly, opens the subway stops along the lumbar spine. How many before Martha is back? Too many to count. It's only a day, by the reckoning of the world.


--Esto es un disparate, Aurelito --exclamó.
--Ningún disparate --dijo Aureliano-- es la guerra. Y no me vuelva a decir Aurelito, que ya soy el coronel Aureliano Buendía.


Reading Schindler's Freedom from Reality. The first part is a close-reading of Locke, which is just so good and so telling, and illuminates so much about the American political predicament.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

A Twitch of Light

All the beasts 
come snuffling to your hand.
You pet the bears and the serpents
and pat the shy outstretched hand of the orangutan
ruff up the parrot's feathers the wrong way
at which he loudly complains
and comes back for more.

So. Breathe out, cough maybe.
It didn't 
matter so much after all, did it?
Pull out the dart, and the barb remains
at a blurred purple distance under the skin
pulsing, poisoned, pretty,

Or at least as durable as the reddened skin
which for practical purposes 
is time everlasting.
I guess you really thought 
the ark wouldn't come, or the dart wouldn't strike:
that there was something you could do
a way to change
the order of operations. Not because you ever said as much,
I don't mean that, but because of how stricken you are
now that everything has come to pass
feared and desired. (An uncharitable guru might say,
what did you think fear and desire were for, anyway?
But that's not how we roll.)

Stroke every loving creature;
let the barb do its work. A numbness
and a rush of gratitude:
a twitch of light behind the hills.

Monday, September 05, 2022


The thing about D.C. Schindler -- yeah, he's a Catholic, and yeah, my list of problems with Catholicism is as long as your arm -- but the thing about Schindler is that his philosophy places beauty right square at the center of life, as the dynamic heart of experience and intelligence.

I've grown up in a world that views beauty as an option, an ornament, something you can dabble in at the end of the day if your serious work is done: a matter of private taste, with no objective importance or reality. This view is so obviously and immediately wrong, to me, that all the philosophies undergirding it -- which includes all the ones I encountered in my youth -- struck me as obviously and immediately wrong. Or at least irrelevant. I don't know much, but I do know that beauty is the center of life, not its periphery. It's not an inert thing you titillate yourself with from time to time: it starts things, it precipitates thought and action. It is the fundamental experience of orientation. How can you tell if you're faced in the right direction? If you're perceiving beauty. Life is, in some ways, as simple as that.

I think Plato and the Neoplatonists could have helped me think through this, if I had met them in auspicious circumstances, but I met Plato early as The Man Who Is Wrong About Everything, and I never met the Neoplatonists at all. The closest I got to them was the C.S. Lewis of The Abolition of Man, or the G.K. Chesterton of Orthodoxy (and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, though I was slow in recognizing it.) Religious conservatives were to me simply the Enemy in those days: the people whose philosophy found its fullest expression in napalming little girls in faraway countries: the gulf was just too wide to cross. And in those days I believed in the redemptive power of Freedom and Socialism: let them work their magic, and beauty, as the natural state of things, would follow as a matter of course. (I suppose I still subscribe to Freedom and Socialism, in some of the stricter political senses of those words, but I no longer believe either one can save us, or make our world significantly more meaningful or beautiful. They're just political strategies to me, now.)

So while I found Lewis and Chesterton and Tolkien weirdly attractive, and I thought their critique of modern habits of thought was in some ways persuasive, I still didn't really, finally, take them seriously. They were a side-street in my mind, a lane I found myself turning into over and over, even though I knew that it couldn't lead anywhere. 

But now, with Schindler -- by way of John Vervaeke -- it suddenly seems to me this street does lead somewhere. I kept turning here because it was, in fact, the direction in which I wanted to go. I don't need to become a Catholic to take truth and beauty seriously. Lots of people have taken truth and beauty seriously. More of them than haven't, actually.

I'm not saying that "beauty" can stand in for "goodness." Beauty is an intimation, and it can be a misleading one. It suggests that there is something to be understood, that there is a form and a structure and a logic to something, even though I can't immediately grasp it; but of course I can mistakenly think I have grasped it, and embrace things that are bad because I have misunderstood. This happens all the time: in fact it might be fair to call that mistaken grasp the stuff of daily life. Some traditions lay so much stress on the delusiveness of beauty that they reject it altogether. But I think that's ridiculous. A person who is blind to beauty is blind, period. There is no other place to start.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022


 I am occasionally asked if I believe in God. Making answers to that question can be a parlor game. The easiest move is to say: "you tell me what you mean by God, and I'll tell you if I believe in it." The people who are most likely to ask the question generally refer to a clotted tangle of nonsense by the word "God," and you can lead them into perplexities, if you like that sort of thing, by asking them a few questions about just what this "God" is. It's not a way to make friends.

In the past I have imagined saying, "if you mean a being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good, who is also someone you can have a nice chat with and ask for favors, then, decidedly, the answer is no." They usually do mean that -- among other things -- and I usually would mean no. 

But the problem is that "no" is the wrong answer, in two ways, to two different questions, which are maybe what they're more urgently asking. The first question is: "do we have any common ground? Can we talk to each other about the important things?" And the answer to that is emphatically yes. Of course we can. 

And the other question is: "is reality like a person?" The answer to that is yes, too. That is, it's more like a person than it's like a rock or a toaster. I often have much more in common with the person who asks if I believe in God, however naive their conception, than I have with someone who believes that reality is like a great big rock, or a great big toaster. It's not that I think reality is very like any of these things: but it seems to me that it is immensely complex, inexhaustible, structured, self-organized, and self-transcending. And also, surprisingly intelligible. Which makes it far more like a person than like a rock or a toaster.

It's still not very much like a person. It leads you easily into absurdities to think of it as a person. It's a natural mistake, because, as social mammals, the most complex things we're designed to understand are persons, so when we try to understand something even more complex, we play to our strengths. We're groping. We can only use the tools we have. 

The most important question behind the question is: is reality something we can have a relationship with? Is it something that we can love? Is is something that can love us? And my answer to that, again emphatically -- passionately -- is yes. It's not only possible, it's necessary. We already do love it: it already loves us. To understand and unfold that is a work much larger than a lifetime, larger than all the lifetimes. But we did not step into reality from somewhere outside it. We are not strangers here, looking to strike up an acquaintance. To see the universe as alien and unintelligible -- that is a really extravagant philosophical position, a totally untenable one. That we, each of us, popped into existence ex nihilo, and must grope about looking for ways to make contact with an alien universe -- that is the default philosophical position of the modern world, and it makes even less sense than God as a patriarch of ancient Palestinian herdsmen. We are not foreigners here. We love, and are loved, from the very beginning to the very end. For better and for worse.

Such a sweeping statement prompts the question, "am I really saying anything? What is this love worth, if everyone has it all the time? This love isn't (necessarily) passion, or fondness, or esteem: it's only a philosophical assertion of connectedness. It's not what one hankers for on a lonely Saturday night by a silent phone.

In a way, no, it's not saying anything. But it flips figure and ground. It changes the question of loneliness from, "how do I connect in this alien, unintelligible universe?" to "what must I do to shake off this delusion of separation?" My loneliness is not something I have found: it is something that I make, moment by moment. The task is to not to start something, or build something; it's to stop something, dismantle something.

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

The House with the White Roses

I can hear the sugar, the sweet coffee, as a ripple or a purl in my tinnitus: the sugar makes it sing in a slightly more textured tone. 

Dear love, I tried to explain, but it falls off into hesitancies and silences. That we might think what we are doing, as Hannah Arendt said. Might we?

Or more simply that we might learn to breathe.

Beside the freeway, they are building something huge, and the sound of the pile driver echoes for miles. Every once in a while metal strikes metal: and instead of thudding, it rings like a bell.

I think of the Lewis River, or closer to home, the Washougal: I haven't seen either for years. I've developed a dread of returning to wild places I knew when I was younger. But sometimes you go to such places and they're still there. And meanwhile, the memories run, on bare feet, ahead of you. They will visit even if you don't. 

Oh, don't lecture me, Favier. I am not one of the fools that you call friends.

I am reading D.C. Schindler, and I am buried in a chapter called "Beauty and Love," which possibly makes all kinds of sense if you've spent ten years reading Thomas Aquinas. I however am bogging down a bit. But. His point early on is well-taken, that modern philosophy has had remarkably little to say about beauty and love. Which is why I've mostly ignored it. If you're not talking about beauty or love, what the hell are you talking about? And why would I listen?

The little house around the corner, the one with the white roses, is for sale. I think often and often, these days, about how neither I nor anyone I know expects their house to remain in their family. We're all just camping: none of us really dwells anywhere. These sprawling encampments of the homeless offend our eyes chiefly, I think, because they don't keep a decent veil drawn over how cheap and temporary all of our places are; not to mention how endlessly we produce garbage. Trip us up a bit economically, and it all becomes visible. Our pretensions to stately homes, with rolling lawns and graveled walks, are stripped away, and there we are: fat people living in tents, surrounded by trash.

But, as Marx said, the point is to change it.

And anyway, there is also a sneaking impudent joy nibbling at my toes. That too. And I can hope that whoever buys that house keeps the roses. Back to work: back to work, sir.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Closed for the Season

Now the wind and the weather and the whether come down
down from the hills, down from the down. Lift me up on the rocking roses
all rock-roses, 

false supposes;

lift me up

and carry me out to see the sea. 

The bank has crumbled, the cliff’s edge edges

air where the sea steps used to be; a moon’s bite out of the asphalt shows

the etiquette of gods at tea 

isn’t what it used to be. 

Lift me up

and carry me out to see the sea.

This year a dead zone out at sea: bronze fields like hammered shields

and each dint pried by the sea-sun yields

algae red as spattered blood

algae read as battered mud.

Lift me up

and carry me out to see the sea.

There was a restaurant in a little house, with surfboards dangling up above:

chowder and beer and cheese on toast, a waitress bronzed as this year’s sea

from years of summer waitressing,

years of wading in the surf,

years of surfing in the rain;

she used to admire 

the doting lovers we used to be.

Old now, we stop. The windows are boarded over;

the clay toppled down to the golden sea,

the steps fallen down all the way to the beach,

the roses tumbled out of reach.

Closed for the season. Leave off asking

Reasons for this or that or each

And carry me out to see the sea.

Saturday, July 16, 2022


That huge paper carapace
hung on a wicker frame, riding my neck,
painted with smiles or leers, wrinkled
with a prince's thoughts; only now
do I dare to shrug my narrow shoulders
and dart from under the screen. The paper prince 
remains, brooding on the fate of kingdoms
and weighing out which uncle first to kill;
but I am free to run, with a rat's love,
my tail whipping back and forth for balance:
my spine a fishing rod, each jump a cast,
my claws as light and sharp as needles
finding purchase where the huge
and clumsy paper of my royal fingers
clutched in vain. Soon to be within the wall,
safe in my native dark, free
to seek my kind.

Thursday, July 07, 2022

A Moment of Knowing

"I really love America," said John Prine. "I just don't know how to get there any more."


Oh, man. Abortion. As so often, I look like a Democrat, but that's because I'm politically homeless. I think that the theory on both sides is individualistic lunacy. A fetus is not some alien intruder in a woman's body. Neither is it a brand new person planted in a convenient uterus by a person who, by virtue of his sex, is a priest of the Sky god. The fetus and the mother are the same person -- not just up until birth, if they get so far, but until long after it. Personhood is a thing that's achieved slowly, mostly after birth, and it's accomplished by love. I don't understand how anyone can look at a pregnant woman and think they're seeing two people: that seems to me like living in la-la land. So practically nothing either side says about this situation even makes sense to me. A pregnant woman is faced with the question: am I ripe for growing gradually into two people? Does that make sense? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. In any case, bringing in the cops makes not the slightest bit of sense. This is not a question the police can helpfully decide.

Doesn't the father have rights? Hell no. "Rights" again: Americans are effing crazy on the topic. You don't have the right to dictate a woman's choices just because you had sex with her, or because you married her. You get a say by earning a say. If you've failed to earn it, then too bad. Maybe you should try harder. Maybe you should grow up.

Notice that I don't particularly think a woman has "rights" over her own body. I just think she is her own body. I have a very hard time seeing "rights" as having any useful bearing on the conversation.


There: hopefully I've offended everybody, now.


What is it that I want, that I might still get, in the twilight of my days? I asked myself that, and the answer came with unexpected readiness: I might understand. I gave up on that, somewhere in the welter of the "works and days of hands," and I shouldn't have. I look into the world, and it looks into me, and the periphery fills in with color and design, and the music is there, even if I can't hear it. That much is clear. I accepted, at some point, that I would never understand anything. I think it began when I failed wretchedly to understand spherical geometry. Some light went out, and for a long time no one -- well, no one I really paid attention to -- no one told me it could be relit.

I am not as clever as I was then. But I am also far less hagridden by anxiety and neediness. I don't give a damn what anyone thinks of me. I reach out my hand and my fingers close on something. There's a moment of knowing and of purchase, prise, affordance. 

Friday, June 24, 2022

First Confession

The thing is, we all do philosophy. We all decide what's real, and what's important: and we act accordingly -- or, when what we've decided doesn't actually make sense, we rebel against it in mute rage, and act otherwise. But whether we're carrying out our project or sabotaging it -- we have a project. This is how one should live.

I can't get away from it by refusing to do more philosophy. That doesn't leave me philosophy-less: it just leaves me stuck with the philosophy I happen to have now. A tattered collection of inherited prejudices and a few things I struggled to think out in my teens or early twenties, when things were so obviously Not Working that I couldn't ignore it.

And  time passes. And every day new exigencies press in on me, and the box I live in gets smaller. And in due time -- if not sooner -- my health will collapse, and I'll realize that I have no resources to live differently, even if I understood how. At that point, I'll be just a steel ball in the pinball machine, batted from bank to bank. The lights will flash, and the counters will whir, but the numbers won't be tracking anything.


"... the true process of philosophy," wrote Iain McGilchrist, "is to cure the ills entailed on us by philosophizing." 

I think this is right: but it might seem to suggest that the solution is to leave off philosophizing, which I think is wrong. There's no way to back out. Having come this far, I can only go on.


Ugh. I hate the liftoff of this post: that ugly "we," that my friend Jarrett so rightly identifies as "the white male we."  A warning flag for me now, that says: probably drifting into posture and pose, and away from real engagement. So back up a little bit.

The most challenging thing to me about watching John Vervaeke's lectures and dialogues is his insistence on public thought. Extended consciousness. What we computer science types call distributed processing. People are wiser when they are problem-solving collectively. This runs smack into all my prejudices and sense of self. I have always, like a good little American, prided myself on going my own way and doing it all myself. And I recognize this now as stupidity (not to mention a trait that makes me a docile, easily manipulatable political subject): but God it's a hard habit to break. I even imagine having a real conversation in real time and I blanch. That's reinforced by my difficulty hearing, sure: but it predates it. 

My plan has always been to work out my salvation (or enlightenment, or spiritual growth, or even just ameliorated suffering) on my own. That's good insofar as I take responsibility for it: I don't expect anyone else to walk my path for me. Nobody's going to save me. I do it myself or I don't do it at all. So that's good. But then I've never really been tempted to just submit to priestcraft: I'm a stubborn son of a bitch. The real problem with working out my own salvation -- being "spiritual, not religious" -- is that it simply imports and replicates the disasters of Puritanism. One of the main things I need to get free of is the notion that I'm an isolated individual consciousness locked inside my skull, peering out of the grimy windows of my eyes at an alien world. That's not what I am. I'm an intensely social mammal, a product of my world and my time, and to do much thinking -- and in particular to do much transformative thinking -- I need to get the hell out of my head. Transformation doesn't happen in there. The conditions are too controlled: the habits are too strong. I need, if not a church, then some close analogue.


Heh. That wasn't even what I was setting out to "confess," but it seems to have surfaced first. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Desperate Entitlement

Starting a two-week cut, today, after two weeks of maintenance. This was very first time that I've tried to simply hold my weight steady. A skill that, hopefully, I'll need to make much use of. But I'm still not down to the green zone yet, so chopping some 300 calories out of the daily regimen: expecting to drop maybe two pounds and maybe a percent from the waist-hip ratio. The green zone -- between 90% and 91.5% -- is a place I've been a couple times before: but the challenge is to stabilize that.

The main problem, psychologically speaking, is that I'm so accustomed to motivating myself with "getting to goal." I love tracking numbers, and watching them form patterns, and fluctuate. They have a compelling life of their own: and they blow through your soul like the wind, if you let them. So there's a certain amount of reconceptualizing that needs to be done. Nothing alive is actually static, of course: what I'm aiming at is... more like an eddy than a stasis. That's the right way to think of it: a swirl between the upper and the lower green lines. Dark water with glimmering curves in it: for a while. For a little while.

I was chatting with Tori about classical philosophers and eating. I associate controlling my eating with a bunch of (suspiciously gendered and denigrating) stereotypes of housewives fussing about their appearance. But, I told her, I can totally transfer over to the image of philosophers taking control of their lives: all the philosophers seem to have been notably abstemious about food. Tori asked about the hows and whys of that, and I said I guessed it was different in every case. Epicurus because the pleasure of food should take second place to other higher pleasures, such as philosophical friendship and conversation; Diogenes because, as a sort of classical Mr. Money Mustache, he thought that devotion to luxury was a form of slavery; Plotinus because the body was an embarrassment and impediment to the divine. Pythagoras because eating souls, including the souls of beans, was obviously wrong. (A diversion on Fava beans threatens there, and on the story of the ox that Pythagoras convinced to forgo beans, and which lived long beyond an ox's ordinary span. Whatever that may be. You know, right, that my name means "farmer of fava beans"? Much could be made of that.) Anyway. The point is that the unexamined diet is not worth eating. Or something like that.

But to be marginally more serious: I have been making an effort to think of this five-plus-year project as a spiritual enterprise, both because it's more motivating and because it's more true. Gluttony was simply the vice that was directly in my way. The obvious obstacle, smack in the fairway. Addressing it addresses more than my waistline. It addresses the surges of desperate entitlement, instilled I suppose as an American child: I deserve a treat, I deserve all the treats... which of course is an unsustainable train-wreck, and the basic driver of the present ruination of the environment. If I deserve anything, it's probably a kick in the pants; but surely the real project here is to become an adult, not a child, and to stop thinking of the world as a gallery of treats and punishments. I was not gaining a happier life by obstinately accumulating treats: I was making myself, and my world, sick. There are other ways to be.

This project has entailed planning ahead and shopping. It's entailed prepping my breakfast and cleaning the kitchen every night. And there's been a generalized effect from those disciplines to other parts of my life. Folding the wash as soon as it's dry. Planning my workdays so as to avoid bottlenecks. Sticking to irksome tasks, large or small, until they're done. Procrastination has quietly vanished out of my life: it's just not something I do any more. When I become aware of something that needs to be done, I do it, or plan it, and there's an end of it. 

Do I exaggerate, here? Possibly. But let it stand. It's truer than not.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

On the Road from Piraeus

Inquire of the angel, I suppose they'd say. Of my angel:
that deathless thing of which I'm a vague and blundering counterfeit.

All right then, angel, speak up: tell me. What is it I should do?
At the question, sudden silence. The skin of the universe twitches.

Not that there is no answer, but that the answer is reserved.
I have not asked the right way. Not in the right order: not

with the right observances. How many times must I be told?
How many ways? You must learn to ask. Well yes, that's an answer

of sorts. But I am old. A year shy of getting cheap fare on the bus.
Doesn't that work here? I guess not. On this line

It's payment in full, every time, for every one. How
democratic. Really? That's my question? How do I ask?

The angel is prowling behind my back, now. No good
trying to spot him. By indirections find directions out. Right.

In the thin sunlight a slave tugs my sleeve. It's to be dinner
at Polemarchus's place. They won't take no for an answer.

Torchlight horse race later. Bring all of your friends.
But I had a question. Who doesn't have a question? You think

you're special? Well, apparently. No one wiser, 
said the oracle. As if in savage sport. The bowl of the sky tips

and the blessings begin to drain out, and the slave 
has a grip on my hem like death. Just a quick jaunt to Piraeus,

but now eternity has got her freezing hands on me. Glaucon,
Glaucon, you have betrayed me: you and your absent brother

Who waits with his pen in his hand.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Improbably to Harbor

 Maybe it was a common quail, which
is certainly what it looked like. Maybe 
somebody's pet, who knows? We met
where the sidewalk plunges between two cliffs
of juniper, a tunnel already dark when the sunset starts.
"I looked at her and she at me," 

like Lola and the boy in the song. 
She pattered on towards me
then scuttled on past. I was going south and she north
after all, and the sun was going down. Time flies,
even when we don't.

Out along the terrace of 85th Avenue
the trees were backlit, all the branches afire:
polished gold and copper against 
the slate foil of the clouds.
I'm ill today. For once I was not striding:
I was sauntering. Stopping

to look up, dumbfounded by the towers
building and collapsing in the sky. I hope
my trusting friend found her way to cover;
I hope somewhere, beyond the shores 
of those heaving clouds, a lover is adoring you
as you deserve. I hope 
what burns behind the trees
illuminates your face as you turn to him; 

and I hope that, with that, your joy scuttles
improbably to harbor.