Wednesday, December 31, 2003


I can remove Albert for THREE big wonderful hours today.

I had the thought today, as I took a shower, that my neck is like a newborn and I'm the clumsy, frightened new mother trying to figure out how to handle it. It's easier today that yesterday, oddly enough. My head doesn't feel quite as hellbent on pitching forward onto my desk. DON'T DROP THE BABY !

I was washing my hair, working the soap into the back of my head. What the fuck is this, I thought: this is not the occiput I've been washing for half a century, this big shelf of bone, this big meatless drop-off to the neck. Atrophy. Scary. Ugly.

It was a bad moment. I cried a little. I haven't cried much through this broken neck thing. I carried on for a minute or so right after the wreck, but I was doing more cursing than weeping; I remember a second little pity party I had at the end of the 14 hour ER stay. It was about 3 am, after all the xrays and CTs and MRIs and MRAs; DK had gone home, and I was waiting to be admitted. The ER was quiet. My curtain was shut. Lying flat on various hard surfaces in an extraction collar for all that time was taking its toll. Boo hoo. The other time was when I saw my car and realized how hard it had been hit. An ugly gash. Visible sign of force. Like my misshapen occipito-nuchal area today.

But overall, considering what bone I broke, it could have been way worse. So, all in all, I think a little gratitude's in order.

And, come to think of it, as I've been contemplating the weeds (my downscale version of considering the lilies) and contrasting the one-way trajectory of my aging with cycles of death and regrowth in nature, I'd forgotten one thing: bodies do heal. Bones knit. Muscles strengthen. So there's a little inner springtime happening even as the winter deepens, and I age.

Amen to that !

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

In Which I Take My First Baby Steps Into Uncharted Territory

Night is falling and the calm, mild weather of yesterday is turning. I've made coffee, put on a second pair of socks, and turned up the thermostat. The old radiator's beginning to whistle, a pleasant cozy sound.

The weather began to turn before my eyes as I sat in a plexiglass bus stop windbreak that was not living up to its name, that, in fact, was serving as a respectable wind tunnel. I hunkered down in the least turbulent spot. The wind roared, and the sky filled with bruise-colored clouds. I realized that Albert, the neck brace I'm in the process of shucking, actually does serviceable double duty as a neck warmer.

I'd just been to my first physical therapy appointment at the branch of my HMO in the next town over. It's on a major road leading from the western 'burbs into Boston, fortuantely on a direct bus route from the corner of my street. It's surrounded by malls of the most obnoxious sort and scads of car dealerships. The area takes its name and flavor from an old army munitions plant whose buildings, rehabbed, remain. With their blocks-long facade of tall windows and brick, they are far more architecturally pleasing than the malls that have sprung up around them. Despite the decorative cannons and the militaristic connotations.

I'm not a very physical person. I tend to live a few inches above and/or behind my body. Like a shadow, or a cartoon thought balloon. In school, gym was always a painful, shameful ordeal in every possible sense. One might say, delicately, that I have had "issues" in the realms of body image, eating, sexuality, that usual thorny nexus of carnality. Well, who hasn't, but let's just say you won't find me down at the local health club breaking a sweat on an "elliptical trainer" (disclaimer: I'm not even sure what that is -- it just sounds intense) or doing any "ab" related activities.

The walks I began to take by the river, last August just before my accident, were a begrudging realization that, being a 51 year old with the bone density of a 80 year old, I'd better do all I can -- including weight bearing exercise -- to try to improve matters.

So when I took "Albert" off yesterday for the first sanctioned hour and gingerly moved my neck around it was a rude shock. I do indeed have a body. With a neck. A neck that doesn't work very well right now. A neck that is not just a silent conduit between torso and head. A neck that is calling itself into question. Hello. Hell - oo !!! Here I am ! It's not just Albert that's the issue, it's -- gasp -- my body. Eek. Now what ?

Physical therapy is what. So, off I went. I got scrutinzed, palpated, draped in ice and instructed. (What the HELL are these big lumps at the base of my friggin' trapezius ?? Knots ??? Say WHAT ???)

And got three sheets of exercises: Isometrics. Posture. Range of motion. Plus a bunch more appointments.

Thus therapized, I went into the rapidly darkening day. As I shivered in the bus shelter, two elderly nuns cheerfully took their place beside me. They'd been shopping. At the mall. (Nuns ? At the MALL ? Shouldn't they be in the oratory reciting the divine office ? What world do I live in ?) They were deferential toward my neck brace; I was deferential toward their, well, nun-ness and their age, and ceded them the eye-of-the-storm spot.

Once home, since I had 30 minutes remaining of today's allotted two hours out-of-Albert, I tried out the exercises.

One might think 5 five second reps of anything would be easy.

One would be wrong.

Monday, December 29, 2003


It's a beautiful, balmy day -- bright and warm enough at four o'clock to sustain faith in the eventual arrival of spring, and even feed the delusional hope that the rest of winter will be mild and snowless.

I'm just back from a riverside walk, and am listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams' "Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus." It's new to me, and lovely. Based on a folk tune. Bucolic, like my walk. There were others by the river today, more than usual, taking the sun. Walking, bicycling.

A group of boys was fishing. One of them was jabbering into a cell phone, and two of the smaller ones were swatting at willow branches with sticks. I groused, inwardly, at the electronic toy, the fish killing, the swatting. I felt vulnerable and misanthropic. I had fleeting convent fantasies.

I longed for my cerebral, androgynous fantasy botanist to emerge from the woods.

On my agenda was returning to the river hermit's midden. For two reasons.

I'd left it two days ago with the tiniest of nagging worries that there was, in fact, a dead hermit in the collapsed tent. A tiny, irrational worry. I'm a little obsessive, but not overly so. Nonetheless, when I was trying to decide on my itinerary today, I chose the river over the cemetary so I might check and resolve this little folie de doute.

Plus, I wanted to take a picture. Raptor that I have become.

Little had changed at the site, although I think one of the suitcases had been moved. I went right to the tent, and nudged the bulgy part with my toe. Trash, not corpse. Phew. I lifted the corner of one of the half-open suitcases. It was full of wadded up clothes. A tabloid newspaper was splayed between two trees. I took some pictures and left. There were some green shoots in the mud near the river bank, and one stand of vivid green grass.

On my way back, a policmen on a motorcycle slowly approach on the paved path. I asked him whether ATVs were allowed. Nope, he replied. That's why he was there. Patrolling for them. He inquired solicitously about my neck brace, then rode on. Not quite my fantasy botanist, but he'd have to do.

Yes, I have a few unresolved Daddy issues.

On my way back I stopped on the footbridge to watch the ducks . It's a beautiful little bridge, light green, and gently arched like the bridges of Japanese floating world woodcuts. Next to it, and a beautiful foil to it, is an ancient railroad trestle bridge, its dense cluster of upright poles dark, charred. The ducks were swimming in pairs among the dried river grasses -- green headed mallard boys and their duller brown consorts.

To my surprise, as I leaned on the rail watching the ducks, DK arrived on his bicycle.

He had his bright yellow bike jacket on, and I was in my usual dun, nondescript garb. We watched the duck pairs doing little head bobbing dances and rearing up out of the water. Courtship, we guessed. Duck love. I showed him the dried burcucumber pods and the Japanese knotweed and its golden seeds. I watched him ride off feeling my usual mild sadness and bemusement at mere fact of existence.

I suppose, earlier, when I was feeling the solitary female in an aggressive and stick-wielding male universe, I should have taken comfort in the rhizomtously proliferating knotweed --

The Japanese Knotweed Alliance explains that "Japanese Knotweed is one of the most extraordinary examples of an invasive plant known. Firstly it is a giant herb, which every Spring grows rapidly to a height of 2 or 3 metres, only to be cut down by the first winter frost and grow afresh the next Spring. It is actually a dioecious plant which means that you need male and female plants for sexual reproduction to occur, yet in Europe, so far, we only have female plants. Not only is it a single sex, it is also a single clone, as work carried out at the University of Leicester has shown. Given that it must occupy many thousands of hectares in Britain alone (the same clone is also known to occur in continental Europe and North America), in total biomass terms, it is probably the biggest female in the world!

I knew I felt a strange affinity for the plant.

You go girl !

Sunday, December 28, 2003


g a t h e r i n g water is a reflective and well-written blog by a Unitarian Universalist seminarian. His recent essay on bible stories and samaritans is wonderful, riskily self-interrogating. I recommend it.

His latest entry is about a movement that's new to me -- cultural creatives. It appears, from his essay, that UUs (and others) are eyeing these folks as a congenial demographic, well worth courting and bringing into one's flock. He casts a skeptical, critical eye on the whole enterprise of designating and recruiting this demographic, whose belief system, it turns out, consists of a goulash of new age, esalen, ecological, spiritual, eastern, earth-centered, systems-theory, bodywork, liberal, activist concepts. All very white, middle-to-upper class, and homogeneous. He does not necessarily disagree with all the values they posit (most of them are treacily self-evident), but to wonder what the purpose might be in creating this category, so much like a marketing demographic. And to wonder at the wisdom of welcoming this particular project into a specific theology.

His discussion of "cultural creatives" piqued my interest and I visited their website.

Disclaimer: I tend to be a bit cynical about things new age. The homology with the french nuage, cloud, is not without import. My ambitious administrator father, after all, the dear Raul Stanati,

morphed into a reincarnationist meditating hypnotist; my rigorously Freudian psychoanalyst became an holotropic breathworks-propounding champion of alien abductions, and my very first beau, a lapsed Catholic, atheistic Marxist, in late life began to channel the spirits of dead Native Americans. Hoo boy. You can see where I hesitate even using the word "spiritual."

The CC website is replete with such images as a woman curled up on a sofa weeping with relief that her proclivity for taking yoga classes has finally been validated. Images of cozy conversations over hot mugs of cocoa and warm cinnamon buns. (Personally, I'd prefer hot chocolate soymilk. What ? No soy ? You gaia-hypothesis-spouting hypocritical exploiters of dairy animals !) And of course there's lots and lots and lots of "sharing."

The founders propose to "hold a mirror" up to these "optimistic, altruistic" folks who don't yet know that they are "cultural creatives" so that they will recognize themselves as a group and feel empowered to "speak more frankly in public settings" in ways that will eventually lead to a more "integral culture." (And sell more books, mutters my inner cynic.) Well, what monster would ever think of arguing with the idea of an "integral culture" ?

The "Cultural Creative" movement is the brainchild (perhaps they would prefer heart child or love child) of Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson. He's a marketing analyst/consultant and she's a psychologist with some Zen background. There is quiz a on their website that let's you find out whether you too might be a member of this elite, a book you can buy to learn more about yourself and the movement, and workshops, symposia, empowerment weekends and retreats you can attend to interface and share with other like minded CCs.

I checked out the Quiz. My eyes rolled so far up into my head I nearly needed an opthomological intervention to retrieve them. There's a checklist of 18 belief statements. Agree with ten, and you're in. Is there a secret handshake ? Let's take #10.

10. ... are concerned about violence and abuse of women and children around the world.

Now who on earth isn't ? But can you imagine the frisson of narcissistic and smug self-satisfaction the potential CC feels as he or she checks this one off ?

or this one

1. ... love nature and are deeply concerned about its destruction.

or this

7. ... care intensely about both psychological and spiritual development

Not just concern and care -- DEEP concern and INTENSE care.

There's lot's more: children, communities, neighborhoods, feminism, helping people, volunteering, maintaining relationships, limiting consumption, disempowering corporations -- all good things, but, jeez, aren't they kind of self-evident ? Ideas shared and lived by many types of "religious" and "humanistic" folks, or just plain nice folks, good folks, regular folks of many diferent stripes ?

And, finally, at #18, there's a sop to diversity, albeit oddly put. Cultural creatives

18. people and places that are exotic and foreign, and like experiencing and learning about other ways of life.

There's not much on their list about matters of racism, homophobia, immigrants' rights. Just this objectification of the "exotic" and "foreign" Other as an experience to be consumed.

There's a whole horrifically juicy page on lifestyles, which thrusts a blunt thumb into the squishy heart of the CC movement as if it were a Gigantic Jack Horner pie and pulls out a quivering plum of a silly and revolting stereotype. Lets take a look.

CCs prefer radio, especially NPR, and reading books over TV. OK, TV is bad. Uh huh. Well that's a no brainer.

CCs are "aggressive consumers of the arts and culture." This reminded me of a phrase I loathe: "voracious reader." Oh, the orality ! It's usually spoken in the first person -- "I am a voracious reader" -- with an air of self-display and smugness. Books (music, movies) as cultural capital. As accessories to one's ego. No different, on one level, than the ostentatious consumer luxuries the CCs scorn.

I asked myself awhile back: why did I find lawn statues of Buddha to be admirable, to the point of coveting one, and the commonplace statue of the Virgin Mary on the halfshell to be tacky ? The answer was bracingly ugly: the one seems exotic and hip, and would be a display of my own hipness. The other ? Ordinary. Which of course I am not, being a closeted Cultural Creative. Yeah, right. We settled on an ironic brace of pink flamingos. Non-denominational. (Well, there's nothing that's not a signifier of something. Deconstrct that, Harry.)

CCs, we learn, are into "stories, whole process and systems" and "symbols that go deep." As opposed to vapid algorithms and shallow symbols, I guess. Oh, yeah, they hate TV ads and kids' TV "more than most Americans." How radical.

And, of course, they "desire authenticity." As in (I'm not kidding) buying "Smith and Hawken garden tools" (whatever the hell they they cost more than my Home Depot rake, which, come to think of it, reeks of Sartrean inauthenticity) and patronizing "the natural foods industry." So it's a branding thing ? We are what we consume ? Authenticity as based on what you buy ? I'm getting the same willies here as I get in Whole Foods when I see the heaped shopping carts of the affluent and educated patrons whose SUVs clog the parking lot, and whose clever undisciplined children, shrieking at the tops of their clever little lungs, run me over with their heaping kiddo-sized carts.

Am I wrong to think that, on one level, a Little Debbie Cake as loathsome as it is, is more, well, honest than a four dollar save-the-rainforest vegan cookie ? Disclaimer: I AM vegan. And I hate how, sometimes, veganism devolves into just another subset of more refined consumerism.

Next we learn that CCs are "careful consumers." They read, of all things, that mag-for-the-masses "Consumer Reports," and are "practically the only consumers who regularly read labels." My late Uncle -- my dear linguistic and naturalist mentor, Peter -- read consumer reports religiously. His political worldview was right out of Rush Limbaugh.

I'm beginning to think we need to add another C to the acronym: CCC for Culturally Creative Consumers.

We read on, in "lifestyles" to discover that CCCs are "foodies" -- now there's an icky term -- who buy "resale" houses that they fix up, deplore "status-display" homes and "tract houses in treeless suburbs," preferring "authentic" styles (Frank Lloyd Wright, authentic adobe, authentic salt box) with access to nature, bike trails and historical preservation (so these are the guys who won't let you paint your house purple and who complain about your lawn flamingos !). Their houses are "nests" with "interesting nooks and niches" with the childrens' space "buffered" away from the adults'. (Kiddos off with the Nanny, I guess, while Mom and Dad engage in their authentic pursuits in their own private living areas.)

So now it's cutting edge to be aesthetically against "little boxes made of ticky tacky" ? I think not. They were lamenting Levittown in the fifties, for goodness sakes ! And who -- in Massachusetts at least -- can afford to buy anything other than maybe half a box made out of ticky tacky ? If that ? I am living in a house that we bought 6 years ago and that we could not afford to buy today. I'm a doctor. I'm not poor.

These CCC dwellings are full, of course, of "crafts" and "art." The decor is "eclectic." Book-filled, of course. And: "Status display happens inside the house and not outside, though it is not blatant: it is a display of personal good good taste and creative sense of style." So a little status display is OK, if it is of the right kind, and is, in fact, a simple statement of "good taste." Am I wrong to find this condescending, elitist, uncompassioante and, again, self-aggrandizing ?

CCCs drive hybrid cars. Or Volvos. Or "well-made Japanese cars." Oh, and they "loathe the process one goes through car at dealerships more than most people do." Such sensitive creatures. Verging on the neurasthenic ! I would argue that one can face even that painful "process" with a self-instructive and humanizing equanimity. I have.. And I am a quasi agoraphobic (as in its root sense -- fear of the marketplace) anti-consumer radical. It was liberating.

The next one kills me: the CCCs (see above) in their affinity for and approval of the exotic and foreign, "are on the cutting edge of vacation travel." As one might expect, they eschew mere cruises and tours for adventurous, spiritual and altruistic junkets to Indian temples, tourist-free back country (they aren't tourists, you know); they like "eco-tourism," "fantasy baseball camps," "save-the-baby-seals vacations" and "help-rebuild-a-Mayan-Village vacations." But not package tours. Never those. Or maybe just high priced, exotic, exclusive eco-altruistic package tours, no, I mean adventures. Are we getting a theme here ? A theme of lots and lots of disposable income ? Of elitism and exclusivity and self-importance ? CCCs, on the one hand, and the irredeemably and unteachably vulgar hoi polloi on the other ?

The next "lifestyle" comment takes the "cutting edge vacation" to ever more refined heights: CCCs are "experiential consumers." There's that consuming again. What hungry, hungry creatures these CCCs are. They are avid for consuming the, uh, experiences sold by the "experience industry" which is opposed to mere consumable "products." Here we've ascended into the realm of the "workshop," the "spiritual gathering, the "vacation-as-self-discovery" -- which must, of course, be "authentic" and provided by "fellow CCs."

Finally, the CC lifestyle is "holistic." Agains, CCs "consume" "personal growth psychotherapy, alternative health care and natural foods." They want to unify the "body-mind-spirit." "Unsympathetic physicians" call some of these preventive-medicine mavens "the worried well." The CC lifestyle is, again, into demonizing, dichotomizing. "Unsympathtic doctors," "tourists," "most Americans" versus the Culturally Creative Consumer.

After reflecting on all this, I can understand matthew gatheringwater's reservations. This is not the stuff of theology. This is the stuff of advertising. Branding. Marketing. It's about "good taste" and buying the right stuff and hanging out with people just like yourself that validate all your own prejudices. It's a club as smugly self-satisfied as any, probably more so. It's about narcissism and grandiosity and pleasure.

I'll take Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and the Berrigans, all the theistic and retrograde Catholic baggage notwithstanding, over this crap any day. And it disturbs me to hear that serious, respectable religious institutions are even giving it a second glance.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Decreational Vehicle

With a supreme effort of will, I flung myself out into the sunshine and headed for the river. No camera this time. Just a walk.

It was cold, but not overly so. The sun was sinking, but still bright. I turned down the small drive beside the Chinese restaurant, toward the granite marker announcing the path. There's a little roadway that curves along past a graffiti wall and comes out at the base of the railroad trestle bridge. It was very ugly there today. The fallen leaves were matted and rotting into a uniform brown crud around beer cans and plastic drink bottles. Up a small slope to the left, there were dumpsters and trucks. Junk. Everything seemed mud colored, putrefying, sad.

So I crossed the footbridge and took the usual route. The snow is gone. The various red berries and strange gold seedpods are still present, but sparser. I think the gold seeds might be Japanese Knotweed, apparantly a wildly invasive species. The beautiful nameless grass is still there, its seedheads nearly bare.

I turned down the path toward the river hermit's encampment. The river is full and fast from snowmelt, and opaque. I looked from a distance: no blue dome. Lawnchairs still there. I approached, cautious, feeling like a trespasser. It was little more than a midden.

The tent was in fact there, but collapsed. Oddly enough, scattered on top of it and around it, was luggage: four or five big suitcases, unmatched, one partly open and full of clothes. The collapsed tent was vaguely lumpy, and covered with plastic sheeting and tarps. A long, rolled-up rug and cloth thing protruded, with a swaddled knob at one end, like a head. For a moment I worried that it contained a dead hermit. I sniffed the air: no rotting flesh. I hoped the hermit had found suitable shelter.

Then, suddenly, down the little root-bound mud path, roared an all- terrain vehicle, a hideous unnatural radioactive lime green, on four big bulbous tires. Like some awful sci-fi video game insect. Certainly not legal, and certainly unwelcome. The driver greeted me cheerfully and drove past, a flesh-and-petrochemical embodiment of intrusive noise and environmental depredation, and seemingly oblivious to any possibility that his presence might be inappropriate.

My woodland sanctuary had been invaded by the internal combustion enemy, an ugly coital coupling of vile machine and thoughtless human, direct descendant of the infernal engine that, three months ago, broke my neck and derailed my life.

Disgusted, I turned around and walked home with the wrenching image of bulbous rubber grinding the beautiful nameless grass into the mud.

FDA Official Advises "Think"

Tracing History of Infected Cow May Take Time:

A spokesperson from the FDA weighs in on tracing the type of feed consumed by the Mad Cow.

"Think yourself what you might have eaten four and a half years ago,' he said. 'That's not the kind of thing people keep really accurate records on."

It does not reassure me that someone "in charge" engages in this type of specious argument.

How can he even posit a similarity between records that might reflect what a single human has eaten -- an obsessive compulsive foodie's diary maybe -- and the records kept by a large livestock producing corporation ? It may well turn out that the farm in question did not "keep accurate records," but there's a hell of a better chance that it did than for any single human. There are receipts, tax forms, bank and credit records. Plus cattle -- correct me if I'm wrong -- don't eat something different every day. I bet they eat the same slop day in and day out for years and years. Businesses keep records of stuff like that. Individuals don't. The FDA spokesperson is probably setting us up for a whitewash and cover-up, hoping we'll fall for his invalid argument. Or at the very least for the likelihood that the industry is totally unregulated, held to little or no account, held to no standards of record keeping and animal tracking.

Of course the first thing out of Scott McClellan's mouth was that the President was about to pound down some beef.

My God, is there no one in the Bush administration that is not porking out on beef this week ?

The crucial question is, will we even be able to tell the difference when these twitchy, demented men come down with Mad Cow ?

I bet even that mass-pheasant-murdering Cheney is disobeying his cardiologist and having a few mandatory Republican patriot burgers. (Just double up on the Lipitor, Dick. The boys at Pfizer are looking out for you.)

"Porking" is, despite the mixedness of its metaphoricity, intentional. As Dr Greger points out, it's currently legal to feed cow brains and other offal to pigs. Pigs don't live long enough prior to slaughter to manifest prion brain disease. Chickens eat that stuff too. And pets. Is BSE something we really want to mess with ? Those prions are hardy motherfuckers. Not much kills them.

I remember back in the day (you know, when titans trod the earth) when I was in med school, I was memorizing obscure neurological diseases. For some reason -- probably its cool Euro eponym -- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease impressed me. Myoclonus, then increasing dementia, eh ? "I'm going to remember that," I vowed, "and someday I'm going to find a case."

Little did I know that, as time went on, nature, abetted by corporate and governmental greed and ignorance, would be working at serving me up just such a case.

On a platter.

Friday, December 26, 2003

For the Birds

It's easier to photograph weeds than birds.

The other day I noticed our side weedlawn was being swamped by a flock of brown birds. Dozens of them were pecking at the ground as dozens were landing beside them. They kept coming, more and more of them, falling through the air past my second floor window onto the lawn. I should know what kind of birds they were: midsized, brown, dull, thick, speckled. They are commonplace birds, ubiquitous. I think they might be starlings, and when I turn to Peterson, there is this mild rebuke:

The Starling, like the Crow, English Sparrow and Robin, should need no introduction, yet it is surprising that some people do not know the bird.

Mr. Peterson, I do know Crows and Robins. I am familiar with cardinals, blue jays, and red winged blackbirds. Also chickadees. And pigeons. And mallards. Mourning doves, too. Oh, and sea gulls. But that's the extent of my pathetic life list.

I've seen little yellow birds in the woods, and various sorts of geese and swans on the river. I saw a strange bird on Boston harbor, once, which seemed to float submerged midway up its long, dark neck. As a child, I admired the picture of the scarlet tanager in my Uncle's audubon book.

As to sparrows, I suspect I have seen them, probably many of them. But, sir, again I plead ignorance. Does it count for anything that I have dubbed my ex-husband, not unkindly, "Philip My Sparrow" after the Elizabethan Song ?

Of all the birds that I do know
Philip My Sparrow Hath no peer
For sit he high or sit he low
Be he far off or be he near
there is no bird so fair so fine ...

And for the rest of the lyrics I must consult my tattered, masking-taped paperback copy of An Elizabethan Song Book edited by WH Auden and Chester Kallman, which I inherited years ago from my father, dear Raul Stanati. Beneath Raul's familiar loopy signature there is the date: 1/26/68. Thirty five years !

He was studying for a PhD in Musicology, and taking a course in Renaissance music; he subsequently switched departments to Education, and I inherited his wonderful collection of early music: I still have the Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft LPs in their scholarly, ultra-serious beige sleeves: Archive Production, History of Music Division.

I listened to them so passionately and so incessantly that the music has become deeply imprinted in my brain. And then I moved on to the superstars, Alfred Dellar, Julian Bream, Franz Brueggen. Scraps of those songs still haunt me like ghosts in a thicket . Virgine Bella. I care not for these ladies. Riu riu chiu. Flow my tears. If I love Amaryllis, she gives me fruit and flowers.

This was the sound track to my Freshman year at college. Passionate about music and poetry, but studying biology. Homesick, lonely, disconnected, at a loss.

...Nor yet so fresh as this of mine
For when he once has hath felt a fitte
Philip will cry still yet yet yet yet
yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet

Yes, the birds on the lawn were Hitchcockian. And Raul Stanati wanted his doctorate. He wanted his daughter to be a doctor.

My weedlawn was teeming with nameless birds, possibly starlings, probably not sparrows. I grabbed my camera and ran out the front door. Startled, they swarmed upward in a great cloud, and landed in a maple tree. They studded the bare branches like fruit. I pointed the camera, focused and snapped, and the whole great mass of them wheeled off. I could not advance the film fast enough to catch them midflight.

My song book's in tatters, the music is locked up silent in wax grooves; the grave jackets of the DGG Archives LPs have split. Raul Stanati got his EdD; his dissertation was on teaching song forms to high school students using Beatles tunes. I, of course, got my MD. Decades later, dear Raul, after taking up meditation, disavowed ambition and declared that exerting undue influence and control over one's children lives was folly.

By then it was too late for me.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Where Is Upton Sinclair When We Need Him

What a swell policy: do a woefully inadequate number of tests, and then lose (hide, shred, cover-up, misplace) the results.

Via Buzzflash:

USDA Refused to Release Mad Cow Records

Marriage Bed

Veneman: The beef is tainted, EAT MORE BEEF !

With the USDA in charge, bioterrorism wannabe Osama Bin Laden can just kick back in his cave and let Anne Veneman do his dirty work.

Watching the local 11 pm news last night (yes, yes I know, what do I expect) one might dismiss the mad cow/BSE story as a piffle. Over footage of a poor cow staggering about (implication: this is the sick cow -- we've found it, it's in custody, not to worry !) we saw the aggie secretary spending more time reassuring us that eating beef is completely safe, and that she was going to serve beef on Christmas, than in giving the details of the story.

Which would have included (as the Globe article stated this morning) that this was a downer cow -- a cow too sick to walk into the slaughterhouse under its own steam -- whose BSE test was sent off weeks ago. And which was immediately sent into the slaughterhouse and made into meat. Meat that is now being tracked down for a recall.

And tell me again why it should it ever be OK to make a "downer" cow into food ? Oh, yeah -- the legislature declined to pass a bill prohibiting it !

And why on earth would a "downer cow" be sent into the food chain even before the BSE test results return ?

Oh, yeah -- it's just a pathetically inadequate epidemiologic "screening" test run on 20,000 cows a year (out of how many millions ?), not a test designed to protect the public from any one specific sick cow.

Take home lesson ?

The government exists to protect corporations and the mainstream news media exists to protect the government.

Heaven help us all.

Obvious lessons in this:

Avoid TV news. Its function is to lie, and shill and pander. There are better sources of information available.

Go vegan. It's kinder and safer and more healthful.

Sunday, December 21, 2003


From my second floor window I see fading orange and purple through cloud rifts; a string of Christmas lights, draped across some shrubs, in a gap between houses; a solitary streetlamp just above the clotted tangle of the horizon. Like a big, strange star. The longest night approaches.

I have felt a heavy silence in me. Something mute and dumb. A great, deadened fatigue with talk, opinion, display, analysis, critique. What is "right speech" ?

A fragment from a hymn floats up: Let all mortal flesh keep silence

It turns out , to my surprise, to be an Advent hymn, and the prescribed silence is one of awe in face of the coming of Christ.

Today, in face of increasing terrorist "chatter," the government elevates the threat level to orange. A vague, unspecified menace is described in apocalyptic terms: near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experienced on September 11. I suspect cable news has begun its own ceaseless chatter. We must be vigilant. We must keep shopping. They hate freedom.

The department of homeland security site advises stockpiling, among other things, "moist towelettes."

Chatter, silence, awe, impending event.

Friday, December 19, 2003


Christmas pageants, like the event they re-enact, tend to proceed according to script, hewing as closely to the text as the Birth did to the prophecies that foretold it. The census, the overcrowded inn, the manger, the swaddling cloths. The shepherds, the star, the Magi. The gold, the frankincense, the myrrh. Phrase follows phrase with the comforting, iconic predictability of a much beloved bedtime story.

In my own Northern version of these things there is always snow, a vision more derived more from manger scenes on New England commons than from the reality of Bethlehem’s climate. Rather than dialogue, there is always a narrator: third person, omniscient. A decree went forth. No room at the inn. The shepherds watched their flocks by night. Hark ! The herald angels sing. Gospel, shot through with the bright tinsel of carols, and padded with the pure white cotton of fake snow.

I have a small, black-and-white photo of the Christmas pageant S. and I put on over forty years ago. I was 10, she 13. It was Christmas night, Aunt Sofie’s annual party. The grownups smoked, drank cocktails, and talked long into the night with Sinatra Christmas songs on the hi-fi. S. and I put on entertainments. They indulged us by watching.

In the photo, S. and I sit side by side on a kitchen chair to which we’ve taped a donkey’s face and ears. The donkey is goofily toothy; its nostrils flare; its eyelashes are absurdly long. I am wearing a bedsheet and a sheer, silky scarf as a veil, and am holding, in an oddly casual manner, a swaddled baby doll: we are virgin and child. I am cocking my head and mincing coyly for the camera. A real ham. S. is in drag. With a brown hairnet taped to her chin, and a construction paper handlebar mustache, she looks more like a civil war general than Saint Joseph, but the chenille bathrobe and the crooked wooden cane are pure Sunday School.

Behind us, taped to the wall, is a large Santa cutout.

But it’s really not such a nice story, is it. The overcrowded inn is the least of it. Take the wise men. The children’s version never mentions how they were summoned by Herod as celestial-event consultants, nor that Herod’s project was a search and destroy mission against the infant who threatened his sovereignty. The Magi were to be his unwitting patsies. They would lead him to the little bastard usurper ! Warned at the last moment, the wise men did not to return to Herod’s palace.

The children’s version usually ends well before Herod, thwarted, flying into a rage, orders the slaughter of all infants under two. This, too, had been pre-ordained in scripture. So the new parents pack up the infant and flee on their kitchen chair donkey into Egypt. Except I doubt that was part of our screenplay. Ours was the Disney version. With a cardboard Santa chorus line.

It was only as an adult, and after my own son had been born, that Herod took his rightful place in my inner Christamas pageant: symbol of the terrible, death-dealing political context into which the miraculous child was born. Into which so many miraculous children (for all nativity is miracle) are still born. The Slaughter of the Innocents is an essential part of the Christmas Story, the canvas on which it is painted, the blood in which it is written: the blood that portends the blood that will be shed at the other end of the long, dramatic arc. And the Coventry Carol, which sings of it, is the most beautiful and terrible of lullabies, the perect Christmas song:

Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lullay, lullay
Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day,
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

Herod the king in his ragin,
Charged he hath this day,
His men of night, in his own sight,
All children young to stay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting not say, nor sing,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

And An Unsavory Tradition It Is

Continuing the tradition of using Anita Rust as repository for my various and byzantine unpublishable and/or unreadable epics, I have posted my Disaster Poem, a blankish verse screenplay about a Poet Laureate's sinister plot -- complete with evil machine -- to transform every poem ever written into an advertisement for "Blackbird Coffee."

In retrospect, I think I must had some kind of minor Robert Pinsky-related psychosis back in 1999-2000 when I wrote this and -- giving new and definitive meaning to unreadble and/or unpublishable -- this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Devo of the Dolls

It's a gray, cold morning. There was wet snow overnight, the translucent, gray slushy kind that turns to water underfoot. Then to ice. The plow came at 2:30 am. I listened to the repeated concussions of the blade on the driveway, the ensuing long scrape. Men at work. DK was asleep; a cat was pressed against my feet.

When I was a child, I used to pretend my bed was a boat. I was adrift in the night safe in its hold, with a whole host of dolls and stuffed animals. Can I remember them ? There was Ella, the red stuffed elephant. I got him (yes him) when I was one. I still have him: a pathetic rag of a thing. Eyeless, patched, its red velvet worn napless, its back seam splitting. There was Teddy, a large yellow stuffed bear. (I did not waste a lot of imaginative energy on naming my dolls.) I slept with Teddy until adolescence. One day he mysteriously disappeared. Vanished. Poof. I've always suspected my parents of the crime, as they had begun to joke about my eventual sharing of a bed with bear and husband. There was a vinyl boy doll, Mickey. There was Nancy, also vinyl; she was a Campbell's Soup Doll -- 1950's avatar of product tie-in marketing to children. There was Ginette, a yellow haired girl doll. They formed a complex social group whose details I can't remember. Ella was the boss, and was somehow responsible, at midnight every New Year's Eve, for making sure the year changed correctly. I wish I remembered how that worked.

I still can't sleep properly without hugging a small pillow.

One doll I had who was not a member of that night boat crew was Poor Pitiful Pearl. She was a girl doll with bangs (like me) and a tattered, patched blue dress and black stockings. And a kerchief. I always assumed that I was given the doll as a secret, ironic adult joke. Poor Pitiful Paula. Nostalgia items, both of us. Dance with the dolly with the hole in her stockings.

In John Cheever's Falconer the prison doctor had holes in his socks.

As do I, from time to time.

My Bubbi took the skill at using a darning egg to the grave with her. I mend socks like I would a laceration. She taught me a fabulous way to patch the knees of blue jeans. In recent years I have grown lazy. Used iron-ons. Which fall-off. Devolution, dears.

Pincushion, darning egg, beeswax.

Email, Ipod, Cell Phone.

Now it's bright and cold and windy. Twice I've had to go out and retrieve trash cans skidding acress the drive.

I got a letter, today, from Moscow, from a 23 year old man with the same unusual last name as mine, looking for information on his ancestry. I was pleased and excited; he'd found me on the internet -- I've a digital trail of poems, and one has my home address on it.

I called my father, who was intrigued, but suspicious.

I have a rare and beautiful last name. Last night, during the credits of Kieslowski's Decalogue I decided that I should have some kind of Deeply Euro first name to go with it. I was drooling over the Polish names: Miroslava, Ewa, Graznya, Halina. Or, even better: Wojchiech, Witold, Zbiegnew. There's a bit of the transvestite in me. Bubbi would find that scandalous. She found my brother's shoulder lenghth late 60's hair scandalous. She said, once, famously: you look like a gorilla.

Poor pitiful Paula and the Gorilla. Teddy -- return from your grave at the Andover Dump and avenge us !

In Which I Realize That I Have Become A Not So Ornamental Hermit

I looked in the mirror this morning and thought: Saddam.

I've spent the past two and a half months in a spider hole, and it shows. The glazed, disoriented look. The long, witchy gray hair. Dirty fingernails. If my legs are any indication, there could be a little beard happening under the DeSalvo collar. What next ? Corkscrew toenails. Vermin. Scrofula. Formication.

I've spent two and a half months communing with dead vegetation.

My colleague, pressing me to come to the clinic Xmas party tomorrow, emailed me: i'm worried that your monastic living may be too sobering. even for you. She has my number. Hint: it's an integer between zero and two.

The whole trajectory of my life has led to this spot. Of the universe. That's a weighty acculmulation of events. Even my brain feels old.

I realize that this is yet another permutation of the fiendish collar I've had to wear: from cheerfully named Aspen, to Albert "The Boston Strangler" DeSalvo, to Gregor "behold my carapace" Samsa, to Poe with his various burials and immurations , and now, finally, to Saddam's Spider Hole.

I actually pored over the pictures of his little kitchen and bedroom and the schematic of the hideaway with great interest, scanning his shelves, inspecting his furniture. Nice digs, I thought.

My second skin. My turtle shell. My rat hole. And here's a new note: my hide-out. Am I incarcerated or on the lam or both ? Odd that it could be both. Prisoner or fugitive. Prisoner of flight.

Funny how it happens. Becoming a cartoon of myself.

This morning, staggering about the kitchen before coffee, I found myself talking to DK. What are these words I thought, even as I jabbered, pouring from my mouth ? Things I've said hundreds of times. Phrases boiling up, Pavlovian, from Broca's area. Phrases imprinted there, branded there by, in this case, the dailyness of a marriage. Nothing special. Some little, half-conscious, call and response. Some comforting, automatic sheltering super-structure. It was a moment of, well, spleen.

I need more coffee. And to take a walk before it rains.

In five days, my three months sentence will be up, and some sort of parole will begin. Parole is French for "word." As in "word of honor." From Latin Parabola. Parable. The sentence -- the judgment, the rule, the law, the complete thought, the imposition -- simplifies to a word. "I promise." Parable -- "a fictitious narrative for telling a spiritual truth." A spiritual truth ? The phrase hurts my ears.

I need to reel it all back in. To real it all back in.


Tuesday, December 16, 2003

I'm More Of A Prude Than The Next Guy, But This Is Ridiculous

The latest whacky exploits of the Lone Star State's criminal justice system is enough to leave the primmest of jaws more dropped than a pair of proverbial drawers.

Didn't the Supreme Court -- hardly, save perhaps for Justice Thomas, a bastion of kinky eros -- just dope slap TEXAS for its anti-sodomy laws after the intrusive arrest of two gay men for having sex in their bedroom ?

So now they're going after -- entrapping on a "tip" no less-- housewives selling vibrators ?

Of course Wal Mart can continue to sell vibrators because Wal Mart vibrators are for aching manly, pumped-up, God-fearing, missionary positioning, heterosexual muscles.

The historically prissy Commonwealth of Massachusetts has dabbled in these life-ruining, bedroom invading antics. Viz. the 1960's case of Professor Newton Arvin. It's a grim story, and the book tells it well.

The Texas law states that:

" obscene device is a simulated sexual organ or an item designed to stimulate the genitals..."

Don't you love it ? "Obscene device."

The phrase made me think of the Enola Gay, about to be re-displayed at the Smithsonian, without the pesky "context" of the 140,000 dead and the deep ethical issues surrounding its mission. James Carroll discusses this in the Globe today, noting

"In 1995, a previous exhibit drew fire from veterans groups and the Air Force Association because curators had provided "context" which suggested that President Truman's decision to use the weapon was not uncontroversial, even at the time. (Eisenhower's opposition was noted.) That exhibit was abruptly canceled.

The exhibit that opened yesterday provides no context for the display of the Enola Gay. Not even the casualties it caused (more than 140,000 deaths) are noted. The bomber is being displayed, the current museum director said, "in all of its glory as a magnificent technological achievement." A group of historians protested "such a celebratory exhibit" with a statement that drew hundreds of supporting signatures from scholars, and on Saturday more than a dozen of them, together with numerous Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings, came together. The issue is the construction and reconstruction of history, a question not only of the past, but of the present and the future. If America remembers its first use of nuclear weapons as morally uncomplicated -- or worse, as an event to be celebrated -- its present commitment to a huge nuclear arsenal, and its future readiness, under Bush policies, to build "usable" nukes will seem acceptable."

I remember the 1995 controversy. DK and I visited DC that summer. It was a grim trip. We visited Arlington Cemetary, the Holocaust Museum, the Enola Gay exhibit, the Vietnam Wall. We were struck by the contrast between all that death, and the broad boulevards flanked by tall white marble facades.

I was writing poems about Hiroshima around that time, and, after our trip wrote these two:

Smithsonian Exhibit Enola Gay Protest, 7.2.95

There were frightened kids.
That was the worst thing about it.
Children were just crying.

...a bystander

There was the crying,
but there also was
a drift of ash on a white sleeve,
and blood, spattering a sock,

not because the pretty airplane
got all dirty,
or because bad grownups
were screaming : repent ! regret !

but because a child
can drift black upon the air,
or boil red away
almost before its cry fades,

then be papered over
by text, flag, finesse,
and that's
the worst thing about it,

the rest comes out
with cold water,
a kiss, and Baby on Board
whistled in the dark.


Enola Gay, 2

i. Nuit Blanche with Gideons

No clocks. Must be past three.
I lie in a Holiday Inn white night
somewhere between Ecclesiastes
and the Song of Songs
in Washington DC.

Less than half asleep, I hug a pillow
to quiet my premenstrual middle,
and try to imagine a long life lived
without each month's
punctuation of blood --

how different it would be,
how restless one might get,
like a small boat unmoored
and without horizon,
how moved one might be
to leap up,
to do something, say something,
anything at all,
just to break the silence

Vanity of vanities,
says the Preacher.

I am a Rose of Sharon
a lily of the valleys .

ii. Period

The Smithsonian guard
who rifled through my purse
with his fastidious stick,
(smaller than night- ,
but larger than swizzle -)
was looking for lambsblood, ashes, sedition.
I'd had the foresight
to leave it all behind
in the hotel room
in the nightstand,
by the Gideon.

Tour guides, wallet, Kotex, Metro map --
he waved me through,
a good enough citizen,
past the curatorial disclaimer
toward the big, silver tailpiece
and blinding fuselage,
toward the black & white montage
of headlines screaming victory,
and the large screen filled
with an endless loop
of Paul Tibbetts' face
reciting the National Epic:
how sweetly the seven branches
of the Hiroshima River
arborized in the bombsight !

And what a triumph of the science
of restoration was on display there !
Little Boy, in olive drab facsimile
clung to Enola's plump belly
as the text assured us that we,
the public, were in no peril
from lingering radiation,
ambiguity, ghosts.

As I marched through the exhibit
hands above my head as prescribed
for safekeeping,
I felt a deep red fist clench
and unclench inside me,
squeezing out a satisfying pain,
a secret red sedition,
a Rose of Hiroshima,

warm to the thigh while I waited
as it whispered its way
toward the lily-of-the-valley
death-white marble
Smithsonian floor.


It's all one big death-affirming, life-and-love denying package.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Jingle Bell Rock

I am not a party girl.

But when DK told me our friendly neighbor J. had invited us to his yearly Xmas open house, I knew we just had to go. If only to see J's digs, about which we have been consumed with curiosity. J. is a collector (as in antiques and yard sales, not John Fowles) who keeps a fantastically neat yard, smokes large cigars and looks a little like Detective Munch from the defunct crime show Homicide. Who I always thought was cute. In a twisted existential sort of way. Rowwrrrr.

Anyway, that's how I came to find myself sitting at a basement rec room wet bar drinking too much diet pepsi. Hardly a dive on 52th street, but it would have to do.

Some guy behind the bar -- not J. -- noticed my Albert DeSalvo Collar and asked about it. I told him a little about the accident -- cell phone dude, fractured C2, outta work for months, yes we did eventually get a lawyer -- and he was, tipsily, off and running with unsolicited advice.

You gotta keep that collar on as long as you can !

(Fuck, no, this baby comes OFF at the first possible MOMENT !!)

Especially in the courtroom. I'm not kidding. Be sure you wear that thing in the courtroom.

(Courtroom ? What courtroom ? NO Courtroom !! I do not DO courtrooms.)

You gotta get yourself to a chiropracter immediately !

(No fucking way. I have a broken neck !! Where the VERTEBRAL ARTERIES go through !! Arteries that, under NON-FRACTURE circumstances, can be injured by CHIROPRACTIC MANIPULATION !!!)

You gotta make sure you rack up those medical bills !!

(Oh, yeah, now that's always fun -- schlepping through ghastly weather to medical appointments and uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking tests !)

Think of your pain and suffering, the depression, the lost wages, think of maybe even losing your job, think of the prospect of future painful disability !!!

(Keep it up, fella, and I'll be bawling into my diet pepsi. Right here between the electric snoring Santa and the juke box. )

You're looking at SIX FIGURES here !!!!

(And at this point, he reaches into his pocket, extracts a business card, and shoves it my way. He's, get this, a financial adviser. He wants my business. A piece of the broken neck action.)

What was I saying about low, dishonest decade ?

I kept flashing on Dr Nick from the Simpsons. And Lionel Hutz, Esq.

Boy, did that conversation ever weird me out.

Even Albert was amazed.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Old Lace

In the center of the round, white blossom -- the compound umbel -- of Queen Anne's Lace is a single, tiny red/purple flower. Though small, it's shocking as a bloodstain, or bright red lipstick on a pale face. It's all very sexual: the lace is bridal and the red blossom nothing short of a deflowering. And, as they senesce, the blossoms involute, curl up, introvert. They become gray/brown, dry, spare, frail. The incurling rays are still astonishingly beautiful.

What drew me to the weed that, for lack of identification, I've had to call "the beautiful nameless grass" was both its macroscopic elegance -- it's chest high, with long, arced, graceful blades, and a flame-shaped, open airy seedhead -- and the shocking extravagance of its seeds. They're tiny, maybe 3 mm, and relatively sparsely arrayed on each spikelet. Late summer, each seed bore tiny feathery tongues of the most extravagant mauve and orange -- appendages that seemed more suited to orchis or lepidoptera that to a Northern riverside weed. They reminded me of feather boas -- sexual, seductive, alluring. As auntumn deepened, of course, the seeds lost their fantastic antennae, the grass turned dry and brown. But still, the seedhead kept its flame shape: abstracted, platonic.

One of my river photos was of tree branches against sky: the branches were mostly bare, but still bore a few round leaves, and two kinds of pods: long ones and round ones. These were easy to find in the tree book: it's an alder, and the pods are male and female catkins. The long ones, Freudianly enough, are male, and the round ones female.

Beautiful, extravagant, sexual nature.

I've found it not comforting, exactly, but somehow appropriate, to have had this several month bout of retreat and broken-ness be in autumn. I am decades past my deflowering; I grow smaller, dryer, more abstract; I am going to seed in a decidedly unbotanical way, dispersing, and my elements will persist utterly changed, distributed, incorporated. I think of the eons that preceeded my birth; I think of the eons that will follow my death. I think of the moment of creation, the big bang, when everything that is was together, all of us. I try to envision something enormous enough to include all that, some compassion, some God-is-Love: and, at that final extra step, that leap of faith, that moment of appeal, I fail. I can't say it. Can't say "This is God," or "I believe in God." Can't posit a deific object separate from everything, separate from me, from you, from the river, from the beautiful grass, from my eye that sees it, from my mind that wants so much to know its name.

But maybe it's just a word, after all. Maybe it's best kept nameless. Maybe, if I had found the grass in my field guide, I might have stuck it in an easy category -- oh, that's just witchgrass, johnsongrass, sorghum -- and missed the wild and generous detail of its appearance and evolution.

There's even more at risk in naming God.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Changing State


The ice forms first at the riverbank
where the water is still and shallow.
There it begins its marginal life
honing the secret edge

that inches toward the main channel molecule by molecule
progressing regressing

which is called changing state

Against the brown water
the new ice is clean, almost white.

Willow leaves blanket the shore
up to a collar of bare mud,
then, under the ice, less distinct,
they blanket the river bottom.

they are narrow as penstrokes
they translate themselves

Downstream, half hidden behind a thicket,
there’s a tent and tarp,
an old bike, a plastic water jug, a half
buried sneaker, a rusty lawn chair.

Massive, uniform, smooth,
the water pushes east.
It reflects the bare trees.

I would like to say three things about the river.

Between water and ice is the longest night.

All movement is fall.

The rest is ditch.

No Vacancy

In my dream I was parked on a bridge on Commonwealth Ave near Boston University, looking West down a broad, empty boulevard toward a mid-sized office tower. It was a dream version of Commonwealth Ave and B.U. -- both them and not-them as only a dream can be.

I was on a cell phone giving someone directions to my Aunt Sofie's summer house, a wonderful little cabin on a pond where I spent childhood summers, that's long given way to someone's pricey McMansion in the woods. In my dream I was to meet someone there, and I was full of delight at the thought.

Suddenly, a puff of smoke emerged from the office tower, then another, and another, and I realized with mounting horror that it would soon collapse in a 9-11 like disaster. All the street lights and building lights went out. I leaped from my car and tried to find our apartment, which, in my dream, was also on Comm. Ave. I couldn't find it. I didn't remember where I lived. I was lost, running down endless streets, University corridors, and scaffolding-covered sidewalks. No one could tell me what had happened.

At the beginning of one of my very early journals, college probably, I copied an epigraph out of Henry Miller, something to the effect that the greatest joy is to be lost in an unfamilar city. I took it to mean plunged into the new and strange, adventuring, even to be seeing things with fresh eyes or beginner's mind. I've had dreams in which I am in a new city, or a new house, exploring: pleasant, liberating, exhiliarating dreams.

Last night's dream was the antithesis of that. I was lost in a familiar city, in a city of my own making, in a thicket of my own construction. There was a reaching toward an idyllic past; there was dislocation and disorientation in the present; there was an intrusion of great menace. There was, of course, dread: which is always a gaze toward the future.

The familiar becoming unfamiliar, in my dream, was a horror. An unmooring. A loss of place, a threatened loss of self. An expansion upon the chill we fifty-somethings feel when we can't retrieve a name or word, or take a little longer finding the car in the parking lot. With death brooding over it all, inevitable. With social menace compounding garden variety mortality and pain. This was not seeing with "beginners eyes" -- seeing the familiar as if new, shorn of layers of concept and judgment. This was dissolution, psychosis, dementia.

This morning, as I made my third cup of coffee, the word "vacant" occured to me.

I sat yesterday for the first time in a while, eschewing the zafu for my desk chair, and was vacant for the better part of thirty minutes. Vacancy is nothing like emptiness. It's an amalgam of dullness, blankness, sleepiness and mental detritus. It's white noise, test pattern, electronic TV snow. It's akin to treading water, killing time, daydreaming, muddle.

I was refusing to heed the centuries of wisdom that have gone into prescribing meditation posture. There's nothing inherently mystical about how a straight spine fosters alertness. I couldn't do even quarter lotus to save my life, but even Burmese position gives a taste of the tripod stability of butt on the cushion, knees on the floor. Even the cosmic mudra -- its loveliness aside -- is sort of a strain gauge, a monitor of one's tension or laxity. I learned to meditate with eyes shut, but I think the zen prescription of eyes half open and unfocused also strengthens alertness.

I read last night's dream, among other things, as an admonition: wake up. Not so much from the literal dream, but from the waking dream. The dream that wants to hold on to what is gone. The dream that's desparate to cling to the construct of the self and its sense of solidity, discreteness, invulnerability and immortality. The dream that denies the truth of illness, pain and death, of bodily and mental dissolution. The dream that frets and frets about the same thing.

"No room at the inn" is certainly a byword of this season. In my own case, as soon as there is no vacancy, there will be room for emptiness.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Seven for Three

Tomorrow's the anniversary of Thomas Merton's death.

This is a poem I wrote last February, taking liberties with the sestina form: I used the traditional "seven last words of Christ" as end words, repeating six of them in the traditional sestina manner, and having "spirit" drop from the first to the seventh line through the succesive stanzas. The envoi repeats the first stanza's pattern, and ends with "spirit."

"MC" was a young acquaintance who died of an overdose of heroin.

Seven Words for Three

(MC, Thomas Merton, Simone Weil)

His desert: neither water nor spirit.
If we could enter it would we forgive
his poppies’ milk, his secret paradise,
the exile where his father and his mother,
must wander now forever and forsaken?
Blessed -- marked by blood -- are those who thirst.
The key turns in its hole, and all is finished.

Mourning is blessed, too. It’s never finished.
The spring bestirs itself, like a raw spirit.
For what I didn’t see I can’t forgive
myself: I didn’t see he’d die of thirst
outside the gate of my fake paradise.
Bells ring from vernal pools. For sons forsaken,
two syllables of absence. Mother. Mother.


Matter corrupts. The Church shall be my mother.
Adieu seven deadly sins, with you I’ve finished.
The triple crown of Father, Son and Spirit
surpasses everything that I’ve forsaken.
Hours follow, psalm by psalm. O God forgive .
I’m restless in my souring paradise:
dull men, a rigid Abbot. I write, and thirst

for God in solitude and rain. Then thirst
for emptiness, O wordless Eastern mother
where Buddha’s smile exploded paradise.
Compassion, emptiness flooded his spirit,
then Bangkok and a broken fan finished
extinction’s job. There’s no one to forgive.
The world is accident. But not forsaken.


She wanted more than just to be forsaken.
She’d licked baptism, migraines, hunger, thirst,
and factory work, but still could not forgive
herself the lamb chop that her worried mother
had planted in her larder. Graceful spirit,
what hunger left behind, bacilli finished.
She’d craved a different, better paradise:

craved penal suffering, Cross, a paradise
of Church-and-State-decreed, and God-forsaken
affliction. But common martyrdom finished
her off -- war, scruples, faith, unanswered thirst.
She slipped away so quietly her mother
didn’t know she’d left. Elusive spirit,
you almost got it right. I can forgive.


The Word hung nailed and bleeding. Said, Forgive.
Obscene, it augured up a Paradise.
Spat blood, felt pity. Gave away its Mother.
Recited text: blah blah blah blah Forsaken.
A tingling in the throat. Must be the Thirst.
The dim hills lighten, lovely, O, I’m Finished.
Outbreath between the fingers. Whither Spirit ?

Monday, December 08, 2003

On Quitting

Anticipating a long wait, I brought a book to my last xray and doctor appointments. As I had to walk a quarter mile from the Brigham to the doctor's office carrying a hefty packet of CTs and MRIs, my criteria was that the book be small enough to fit in my coat pocket. I grabbed a ancient paperback edition of Bruno Schulz' The Street of Crocodiles from my bookshelf, one I had bought in Chicago 25 years ago.

Later, when I opened it in the waiting room, a piece of yellowed paper fell out -- a bus ticket receipt: Trombly Motor Coach, Boston to Andover, 9 06 78. I stared at it in wonder. It didn't take me long to figure out where I'd been and where I was going on that day.

Today, looking at the receipt, I note the slogan: "Where you go is your business. How you go is our business." There's a slightly disreputable, complicit ring to that slogan, as if the company were perfectly content to ferry murderers to their victims or safecrackers to the bank vault -- as long as they were kept blissfully ignorant. Don't ask, don't tell.

So what was my business on September 6, 1978 ?

It was disreputable.

I was escaping. On the lam.

I've noticed that, twice, someone has found my blog via a google search on "quitting residency." I felt a pang of absolute empathy for what I imagine to be a miserably unhappy resident or intern, contemplating the unthinkable. Mon semblable, mon frere. Or ma soeur, as the case may be.

I began a residency in psychiatry in Chicago in 1978. It was a disastrously wrongheaded, ill-thought-out, neurotically fucked-up move on my part. Totally gonzo. Off the charts. If I had set out to make a bad choice -- medical school -- worse, I could not have picked a better method. I wasn't crazy about medicine. I'd hated internship. Psychiatry seemed a lot like poetry and literature. So I'd seek asylum there. I'd forgotten about one small thing: psych patients.

I could not have been more unhappy. I was, to start with, extremely homesick. This was compounded by the fact that, instead of beginning at the University with my fellow residents, I was sent across town -- to the old slaughterhouse district, I swear -- to a grim joint called ISPI, a heavily research-oriented state hospital, the Illinois State Psychiatric Institution. So I had no chance to bond with my fellow residents -- a task that, even under the best of circumstances for this shy recluse, would have been difficult.

There was a relationship, too. There's always a relationship. It came apart and came together several times over the two months I was in Chicago. The fella back home came to the windy city several times. I sent him away and resummoned him several times. And eventually married him, had a child with him, and divorced him but that's another story.

Last, and worst, there was night call. Which meant being the first doctor summoned to the ER when a psych emergency arrived. I felt utterly unsupported and unprepared. I didn't know the staff on the psych ward where I'd be admitting patients. I barely knew where the ward itself was. I'd done a year of internship, and could handle post op fevers and congestive heart failure, but psych was a whole new gig.

Like any new resident, I was green. Probably greener than most. Virtually clueless. I vividly remember consulting the neurology service one night on a patient who was probably catatonic. The resident who responded was peremptory, scornful and abusive. This was not, he lectured, a neurological case. It was clearly psychiatric. How stupid could I possibly be ? I can still feel the sting of it to this day. A teaching hospital at its best.

The other ER patient I vividly remember was more colorful. Literally. She wore a purple feather boa, honest, and shiny silver stockings. She clung to the arm of the (male) ER resident, fawning crazily and seductively over him, and glared at me with undisguised hatred and hostility. (My over-fed mind whirred: Borderline personality disorder. Often histrionic. Engages in splitting of the world into good and bad. Lack of fusion of the internalized imagos of good and bad mothers. Often characterized by self-mutilation and suicide gestures.) OK, fine. But now what ?

Fortunately for me, while I was spinning my Freudian psychodynamic wheels, she eloped from the ER. I prayed she would not return. Great case, eh ?

There was another sharp-tongued, young, long-term patient on the ISPI chronic ward, who also instantly had me pegged (my deer in the headlights demeanour was not subtle) as an easy mark. I remember her acid ridicule of my "little flat shoes." Foreshadowing by several decades the Hannibal Lecter/ Jodie Foster interaction in Silence of the Lambs.

I was no Jodie. In fact, Henry, a tactless colleague at ISPI, went out of his way to tell me I reminded him of Sylvester Stallone's girlfriend in the Rocky movie: the girlfriend before she became glamorous. The painfully shy, bespectacled woman in a wool hat and a dowdy coat. And that maybe I should take dancing lessons. Or something. Thanks a bunch, Henry.

Yes, night call was sheer terror. I'd begin dreading it days in advance. On call I would sit, hyperventilating, praying my pager would not go off, in an office I apparantly shared with Dr S.. There was no evidence of me in that office. It was full of her tasteful objets d'art and memorabilia. I felt like a trespasser.

Dr. S. had once been a classmate of that hyphenated chick, Dr Kubler-Ross: there was a framed photo of them together amidst Dr S's tasteful baubles. I was so so paralyzed by fear, that I spent one on-call night curled in fetal position on Dr S's sisal carpet attempting to sleep.

All that summer I was reading esoteric books on existential analysis, psychoanalysis and phenomenology -- books mostly over my head, and of no use whatsoever in the midnight emergency room. I reread Camus' The Plague. Read lots of Binswanger. Merleau-Ponty. Simone Weil. Neruda. Harry Stack Sullivan. Sigmund Freud. Anna Freud. And, of course, Bruno Schulz.

None of this prepared me to assess and/or treat psychosis in the ER. None of it helped me understand my own distress.

So, one afternoon in mid August, after days of agonized hand-wringing and vacillation, I left. Eloped as abruptly and completely and illicitly as my feather-boa'ed ER patient had from the ER. I can still recall the sense of absolute freedom and relief I felt as I took a train, then a bus back to Massachusetts. I left, telling no one, not even the director of the program, until I'd arrived home.

He persuaded me to return. Chastened, I did. They made some "helpful" changes. Nothing helped. So, on September 6, I once again fled back east, by plane, then by the infamous Trombley "where you go is your business" Motor Coach.

This time the director had no problem accepting my resignation.

Quitting a residency is a Very Bad Thing. It leaves the remaining residents, already overworked, with all the more nights of call and patients to cover. Sometimes new residents can be recruited, sometimes not. It's a huge blot on one's resume. It's a very harmful and destructive act, and I did it in the worst possible way.

The feeling of exhiliaration and relief I felt was indescribable. It was a moment of Pure Bartleby, my first and most breathtaking. There have been other, lesser ones. But this was the spectacular refusal.

Sixteen years later, when I was finally finishing training in internal medicine, two residents left our program. One simply never returned from a west coast rotation, another was asked to leave. We all had extra call, and extra patients.

Yes, Virginia, there is a karma clause.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Our Daily Steak

I read, recently, that bakers have taken an economic hit because of the late Dr Atkins' pandemic "low carb" diet. (Yes, I have a beef with his diet. And I'm not too chicken to call it hogwash. There's something very fishy about how folks are following it like sheep.) I'm sorry. I had to say that. I've imagined a sandwich made out of five kinds of animals, which I would call The Slaughterhouse Five. The McSlaughterhouse Five.

But back to bread and the poor bakers. It's such a pity. Breaking bread is so much more civilized and peaceful than barbecue. Of course, I am biased. I am a vegan, and this is Paula's House of Toast, not Paula's Steak House. Bakers are apparantly trying to devise "low carb" bread. Made out of what ? Pork ?

Surprisingly, it's not always easy for a vegan to find bread that's free of all animal products. Many types of bread contain whey, egg white and honey, not to mention polysyllabic dough conditioners that may or may not be animal-derived. My bread life got a lot simpler when I stopped worrying about those.

If one doubts even for a second the redemptive power of carbohydrates, one needs but turn to literature: first, to Italo Calvino's story "Theft in a Pastry Shop," and then to Raymond Carver's "A Small, Good Thing."

The Lord's prayer notwithstanding, one can probably find a scriptural basis for the Atkins diet (or anything, for that matter.) God himself showed a carnivorous preference for Abel's burnt offering of "firstlings of the flock" -- baby lamb and veal, for goodness sakes -- over Cain's "fruits of the ground." This has always interested me. Cain, after all, was a farmer. He offered the best of what he had. And was rejected. This gets glossed over in the haste to get to the juicy fratricidal parts.

I suppose the theological take-home message is "Life isn't fair, buddy. Deal with it." Or, "I am omnipotent, do not question my ways." Or, "I'm God. If I wanna set you up for failure, who's gonna stop me ?"

One could even argue that Cain was blessed with the bigger challenge -- the juicier, more advanced koan. Which, of course, he immediately and spectacularly flunked. But still, YHWH considered Cain an advanced enough student to lay it on him. That's got to count for something.

He'll try the koan out again, later, on Job.

Saturday, December 06, 2003


I walked to the Charles River bike path yesterday. I needed something bracing and gratuitous and palpable to counteract the internet Christmas shopping that I'd done. Plus I thought I should get in a bit of exercise before the Northeaster hit, which, as predicted, it has and still is doing no end in sight.

So I looked at the beautiful nameless grass again, probably for the last time before its burial.

I would love to know its name.

Which brings me to my confession.

One of my favorite books is Weeds of the Northeast by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal and Joseph DiTomaso. It's a sturdily clothbound book, a beautiful green, and of a satisfying but not impossible heft. For each plant there is page of essential descriptive text, and a facing page of color photos. There are charts and tables and taxonomies, too, scientific matters that I've only begun to explore.

I bought it after we gave up on having a lawn. We have some remnant lawn, to be sure, but each year whole ecosystems of interesting plants compete with it and win. The overall effect is green, and up close it's fascinating: blue field madder, poor man's pepper, spotted spurge, broadleaf plantain, yellow hawkweed, shepherd's purse, corn speedwell, nutsedge, swallow-wort, nightshade, red clover, dandelions, chicory, asters, pigweed, ailanthus, wild pansy -- and, of course, crabgrass. And, of course, there was a poem in it.

On the last page of the weed book are four black and white photos -- the three authors, and and Andrew Senesac, who gave "invaluable" "cooperation" and "counsel."

My confession ? I have a serious crush on these men.

Mr Uva, a PhD candidate at Cornell when he wrote the book, is a young, dark-haired, intense looking man. He gazes at the camera with a determined, unsmiling expression, thin lips pressed firmly shut. The book has come from his Master's thesis.

Mr Neal, also young, was a professor at Cornell; in his picture, he looks pleased, almost amused. He has thick hair, and a brush mustache. His eyes twinkle as if with secret delight.

Mr DiTomaso is older, thin, slightly furrowed, darkly handsome. He smiles formally for the camera. He seems kind, wise and fatherly.

Mr Sesenec is blond, square faced; he has a high forehead, and wears enormous, clear-frmed glasses. In the photo, he's smiling. He appears content. Well-pleased.

Significantly, recursively, Mr Senesec appears on page 147 in the photo of a "Jerusalem Artichoke habitat." This weed, also called an earth-apple or a girasole, is a "tall, rhizomatous and tuberous perrennial," with, "aggressive" tendencies. Its tubers are edible. And, in the photo, the plant, sunflower-like, towers over Mr Senesec.

Except for a few fingers holding seelings, his is the only human presence in all the weedy photos of the book.

It is shocking, and strange. Andrew in a prospect of Artichokes.

I have a thing for serious, scientific men. I have long harbored a secret passion for the Army Corp of Engineers. Against all reason and politics. In my imagination, they still use slide rules. They have brief cases, and rolls of blueprints under their arms. In my imagination, they arrive on the scene of disasters, bristling with serious competence, and make things right. Or they engineer marvelous wonders, with monk-like dedication and single-mindedness. They are austere, and probably celibate.

The same goes for the CDC. You know the ones -- the men in chinos and blue oxford shirts with sleeves partly rolled up, who deplane on the tarmac of a plague-ridden city, brief cases in hand, ready to do serious epidemiology.

And hydrologists. The custodians of water. The builders of reservoirs and aqueducts, the purifiers of drinking water, the treaters of sewage. The tenders of the pumps and the pipes. These are noble men, too, with a grave calling. Just say the word "aquifer" and you will get a hint at what I mean.

As soon as I read Weeds of the Northeast I knew Drs. Uva, Neal, DiTomaso and Senesec were members of the same fraternity: serious scientific men. I must confess that, on my riverwalks, from time to time, I have imagined a tall, serious botanist emerging from the thicket -- usually Uva or Senesec -- as I crouch gazing at the beautiful, nameless grass.

He will squat beside me, and gravely inspect the plant, peering at its ligule, auricle and efflorescence, perhaps even pulling out a magnifying lens to look for hairs on the blade and sheath, and then, knowing, he will turn to me and tell me the name of the beautiful grass.

I will thank him. Nodding gravely, he will disappear into the woods.

All in a day's work.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Mr Fiberglass

Via the blackbox wonders of shareware (BME) I have converted a PICT file of Manny Bam Bam, AKA Fiberglass Cat, to an uploadable jpg file.

Dig the guilty skulk.


Juggernaut’s a perfect word for Christmas: a massive, inexorable god-bearing cart under whose wheels devotees hurl themselves, and are crushed. Instead of Krishna/Vishnu, of course, it carries Santa Claus, avatar of Jesus.

I started today by thinking about stuff. The word stuff. Sounds like a good old Anglo Saxon monosyllable, but it’s actually ultimately from Latin -- stuppa -- meaning “tow” -- crude fiber, like the unravellings of an old rope, used to fill up holes and chinks.

I was thinking of the colloquial generic nominal use of “stuff”: things, as a fungible collective. Consumer goods. The Christmas shopping frenzy, after all, is upon us. Has been, since Halloween.

Then there’s the stuff of life, the stuff of the universe -- sub-atomic, quantal. The fiber out of which everything’s loomed. Stuff: we move from unraveled hemp to shopping to superstrings.

It’s getting colder, darker. A storm’s moving up the coast. Drafts slip along the inside walls of this old house like ghosts. I stuff old quilts around the air conditioner and wait for snow. Insulating, cocooning, preparing to hibernate.

One woman’s Juggernaut is another woman’s spring zephyr, I suppose.

I’ve always liked the word neurashthenia. I don’t hurl myself uder the juggernaut; I simply swoon, and it overtakes me.

Stuffing is both greedy and aversive: one fills up and takes in, in order to keep things out and fend things off.

What can I learn from my Christmas commerce aversion ? It’s easy to parlay it into a virtue: behold my non-greed, non-attachment. To which, of course, I am greedily attached. Partly, it’s a biological distate for crowds. Partly it’s disgust at the whole loud, ugly, manipulative and desperate circus of the marketplace.

But I think it’s also about the part of me that is ungenerous, unwelcoming and isolated. That is miserly, like Scrooge. That is so frightened about possible future privation, that it tends to hoard. That is anxious that it might be unloved for giving the wrong gift.

It’s time to unstuff. In every sense of the word.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Albert O Albert

I was wrong. (Warning: I am about to snivel.)

I keep thinking the doc's going to say, "You're fine. Take that collar off, resume your life."

He did say Monday's CT showed the bone -- my pathetic, vegan, cracked-up, osteoporotic second cervical vertebra -- was healing.

But he said no flexion/extension neck xrays yet, and I must do a full 12 weeks in this friggin' rig.

(God, I love that GIF. DK assures me, speaking of brace fetishes, that he has yet to find anything erotic about my Aspen , AKA Albert DeSalvo Boston Strangler Collar.)

I can't tell you how depressing it was yesterday to phone up the Aspen company to order a "5-pack" of "chin pads."

Chin pads. Creepy. Like Kotex.

So it's three more weeks. I can do it.

But then I've got to, get this, WEAN off the collar. Slowly. As if it were a proverbial TEAT. Then do 6 weeks of physical therapy. Moi ? Physical ? Oy. Contra natura.

No work for 6 weeks. No driving still.

We won't even contemplate what will happen if the flexion extension views show instability. No we won't. Plus, and this is the doc not my denial speaking, they'll likely be fine.

OK. Buck up, old girl.

It could be way, way, way, way worse.