Thursday, March 31, 2005


Don't get me wrong -- I like Arnold, our money guy. He even inspired me to write a poem, once, back when I did such things.

How Arnold Says Dollars

When Arnold tells us how to husband dollars
there is a prolongation, voluptous,
at the double L, as if his tongue
were drilling into pulp, or working
the extent and circumference of something
that exacts his diligence, something,
maybe cud, that has hectored and rehectored
up out of a string of glistening stomachs,
something more pal than lover, more
fiche than ghazal. Beside this labial
the ars sags, forlorn, and do ’s udderless
solfeggio reminds me of how spiritual
lolls in the mouths of certain preachers,
the same pap, expressed from the same pap.


But I find myself bristling, more and more, at the unquestioned assumption that it is my civic duty -- akin to paying taxes to finance things that enhance and support the common good -- to have expertise in and an eagerness to participate in capitalism. The President wants to change the whole vocabulary of financial obligations, replacing "common good" and "pay taxes" with phrases like "investor class" and "ownership society." Which basically means I get the privilege of paying fully for, and thus "owning" my health insurance. Rather than having my employer contribute. Or, dieu forfend, my government, with the dollars I have given it in taxes.

So rather than giving our dollars to a beneficent government dedicated to sustaining the common welfare -- infrastructure, security, health, education, environment -- we give our dollars to corporations, particles of which we then "own," and the corporations, in turn, amass profits whose benefits, at least in theory, somehow trickle into the economy and benefit the common good. According to the President's worldview we have an obligation to understand and participate in this byzantine, middleman-larded, greed-and-corruption infested system of gambling and risk, and to base the financial stability of our communities and our personal elder years upon it.

The idea that my retirement should be heavily contingent on what transpires on stockmarket floor -- on all those lean and hungry, well-dressed, greedy screaming men and women -- alarms me. But it is. I know it is. We have actually given Arnold some dollars and he has invested them. We have accumulated what's known in financial circles as a "laughably paltry stash." When I read those columns in the business pages when investors decades younger than me write in to financial mavens with questions about their retirement investments I feel vaguely uneasy. You know, "Dear Mr. Dollars. We currently have three bazillion dollars in the Hobblegobble Fund, and seven trillion in Mutual Froot Loops. Is this enough ? Signed, Worried." "Dear Worried, Omigod you are absolutely right to worry. In fact, you should panic. I recommend you immediately invest 89.7% of your weekly salary in Hallibutenron Futures lest you die impoverished, alone and in existential anguish."

So I have, over the decades, taken a marginal, primitive interest in capitalism. I have learned that the number of our invested dollars fluctuates with something called the DOW. Which is not to be mistaken for the TAO. I have become interested in the DOW. When I click on the CNN homepage to get headlines through the day, I'll often peek at the DOW. Sometimes those headlines seem to have affected the DOW. Oddly enough, natural disasters seem to make it go up, as if they fueled some strange, mercantile exuberance among those excited young men and women on the floor of the stock exchange. The periodic encyclicals of Greenspan, the Pope of Dollars, seem also greatly to influence it. Mostly it seems to be prone to arbitrary nervous oscillations. In the medical field we call this having "the vapors."

I had, briefly, a pension plan at work. An old fashioned pension, like Ward Cleaver probably had. Like so-called pensioners have. I was excited. I would no longer have to live out my senescence in a cardboard box on the heating grates behind the Boston Public Library. Periodically documents came to my home regarding this pension. Full of inscrutable formulas and admonitions. It was reassuring. I pictured grave men in suits -- portly, honest, serious, boring men with cigars -- presiding over the pension fund. Filling it with the stodgiest and stolidest of bonds. Nurturing it. Coddling it. Protecting it. I was all set. All would be well. Plus the Social Security Administration began to send periodic documents tallying up what monthly benefits I'd accrue if, as the phrase goes, "I should live so long." My little hamster brain -- the part of me that's nervously obsessed with dollars -- did its busy little math and felt reassured. All would indeed be well.

Then, several years ago, our organization retired our retirement pension and switched to a DOW-related entity with a curiously cyborgian name: 401K. The pension dollars, though, would stay put. Elsewhere. In seclusion. Until I retired. I asked last year how much of this old pension money I had accumulated. I was told this must remain a secret until I retire. "But, but !" I argued, cogently. "Nay, nay," they replied. It would COST the fund too much to obtain this figure. This is, apparantly, another feature of Bushian "ownership" -- it's virtual. And secret.

401K, of course, is prone to the same vapors as the DOW. And now Mr Bush would like infest Social Security with the same wrist-applied-to-the-forehead tendency to swoon as afflicts my own DOW-based "laughably paltry stash."

In fact he's crisscrossing the country (junkets payed for by our TAX dollars) to host information sessions about his plan -- events from which taxpaying and ticket-bearing folks with lefty bumperstickers, tee shirts or reputations are reportedly being excluded.

Lilies of the field. Birds of the air.

I keep reminding myself.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

And The Light !

Smithers, That Monkey Will Be Needing Most Of Your Skin

We were celebrating two things: DK's birthday, and the day we met 20 years ago. It's easy to remember the dates, because they are the same. Neither of us can ever quite remember what day in early May three years later we actually got married -- the third ? the fifth ? -- but we know we can always count on my sister-in-law, the family archivist, to remind us.

We were having dinner at a trendy little Italian joint in Watertown Square. I, as usual, was having a low-grade spleen attack. As DK went off to the men's room I looked around. Lots of couples our age eating overpriced food. Drinking wine. Flushed, thick, well-dressed, happy, successful people. My brain was, apparantly, in judgemental overdrive. It spends a lot of time there. The man at the next table was holding forth about the issues of the day, the pundits of the day. The woman with him was making small sounds of assent. His voice was just a little too loud. He had a lot of opinions. I was glad when DK returned.

As we were finishing, DK announced, "And there's a CVS right next door !"

"Yeah, so ?" I replied.

"We can get some Kleenex !" he said with ironic mock-excitement.

"Great," I said. DK keeps better track than I do of our paper products.

I wondered whether the loud man was reciprocally eavesdropping on our scintillating exchange. Twenty years of relationship had led to this point: Kleenex. Earlier we'd speculated on how our lives would have turned out if we hand't met. Speculating like that gives me vertigo. Is there an idler speculation ?

So we went out into the cold, spring night and, two doors down, entered the over-bright pharmacy.

"Isn't this great ?" he said, knowing that I was about to say something about lying down in an aisle, weeping and rending my garments at the sheer ugliness of it all.

"Uh, no," I said, reaching into a round, wire bin of books. What was that, anyway -- a bin of books ? No shelves ? They were all romance novels. Bodice rippers.

We made our way toward the rear of the store, through aisle upon aisle of Easter baskets and Easter candy. A very old man passed us, pushing a heaping shopping cart. I could not help notice it contained both Depends and Kotex. DK grabbed two boxes of generic Kleenex, and headed to checkout.

"I'll be over here," I muttered, hoping that I coud find some "here" that was less unsavory than where he was.

I found myself in Cosmetics.

I don't use cosmetics. Never have, never will. That's not quite accurate. I wore lipstick in a junior high play, to the high school prom -- yes, I went to the prom, mirabile dictu -- and to my first wedding. That's it. I have no working knowledge of cosmetics. My cosmetic vocabulary is very limited. Foundation, eye liner, mascara, rouge, lipstick. Powder. Perfume. Compact. That's it. A cosmetological vocabulary circa 1950's.

So when I found myself in the "skin care" aisle, I found a quasi-anthropological (would that be gynecological?) interest kindling as I read the labels on a dizzying array of bottles and jars. I took out a small pad of paper and began taking notes.

I had no idea that one could do so many things to skin. I had no idea I'd been so neglecting mine ! What do I do to my skin ?

Well, I wash it. Then dry it.

What functions had I neglected ? Decrinkling, ultrahydrating, illuminating, firming, reactivating, supporting, exfoliating, concealing, age-diminishing, pampering, fortifying, regenerating, pore-clarifying ...

DK approached.

"What are you doing ?"

"Taking notes. Look at all these things ! There's even a bottle of stuff to prepare your face for doing these other things to it !"

He chuckled and pointed to the bottom shelf. "Corn Husker's Lotion ! That's great stuff !!!"

I looked. There it was, right beside "Zim's Crack Cream" and "Bag Balm."

Bag balm. That sounded about right.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

In Which I Take MetaBlogging And Googling To Their Ultimate (neuro)Logical Conclusion

I've never had a particularly good memory. And it's not improving with age. Today I was writing a little trifle at Affiction and wanted to include a thematically related and famous bit of Tennyson that had been floating around in my head. Lines in which a morning streetscape reflects the speaker's inner, grief-stricken desolation. But I couldn't quite recall the lines.

"On the something street/breaks the bald day" was as far as I could get with the old, personal, House-of-Toast hippocampus.

"I'll Google it, then" I thought, pointing, clicking, and typing "bald day" Tennyson into the search box.

I was shocked. There was only one hit. How could that be ? It was a famous poem from an elegiac series whose name, of course, I could not for the life of me remember.

As I scanned the little google blurb I felt a weird deja vu, a vertigo, an practically out-of-body textual disorientation:

... The next admission's Ahab's anyway. Tennyson elbows in with a bald day and
blank street or is it a vice versa sailor's warning warning almost morning ...

Hey, wait a second, those were MY words !

From a poem I barely remembered writing !

A poem that referenced my inability to remember whether the day or the street was bald or blank in Tennyson's poem !

At least then I could remember both adjectives, even if I reversed them.

What good is Google, then, as a mnemonic device, if it's infected with my own, deepest personal amnesias ?

I ask you.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Two years later

We were standing at the intersection of Main and Moody again, demonstrating against the war. Cars passed -- many drivers honked and made peace or thumbs up signs. Several -- all men, two on motorcycles -- yelled, belligerant, "Support our troops !" as if there were some better way to support them than to remove them from the peril of this unnecessary, ill-conceived and immoral war.

It was a beautiful day. Almost warm, windy and bright. Right across the street from where I stood, on the top floors of an office building was "AthenaHealth," a business owned by a cousin of George Bush. Its sign has a pretty logo, three graceful branches. That, plus the image of the goddess "Athena" suggests a business devoted to something beautiful and salubrious. Like, well, health. But, no. It's an electronic medical billing company. Devoted to dollars.

This particular Bush was in the news, recently, for vocally opposing a bill that would forbid offshore outsourcing of medical data entry jobs. The bill, written by Representative Ed Markey, is meant to protect both privacy and jobs. I mentioned the building's Bush connection to the man and woman standing beside me. The woman (we'd been introduced -- she's from the Unitarian Church) looked over and, wryly, noted, "On the shoulders of a bank !"


At the end of the vigil we formed a circle and joined hands. The Unitarian minister said a few words, we had a moment of silence, then sang "We Shall Overcome."

There were demonstrations like this all over the country -- all over the world -- today. To paraphrase Raymond Carver: small good things.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


As the snow melts at the river, the first thing to emerge is the trash. There was so dishearteningly much of it today that I could hardly stand it. Once I noticed it, I could not block it out. It was like the moment when the muzak in the store breaks through one's defenses: it's all over -- there's nothing to do but flee. I thought of the April river clean-up and felt daunted. How will we ever clean up this mess ?

I peered over the footbridge into the cove. The water had receeded a little and the riverbottom junkfield was more apparant. Tires, shopping carts, a bicycle, metal and plastic crates, athletic shoes, plastic bags and other unidentifiable detritus, some submerged, some breaking the surface. And the water, today, had a subtle sheen. A vague iridescent scintillation. At first I thought it was ocular. But the breeze brought the answer to my nose: oil. From the culvert behind the trestle bridge.

Then, in the woods, in the muck, the bottles: booze, springwater, juice, soda -- every species of drink more than doubly represented, from nip to jug-sized. Plus coffee cups and lids, cardboard, plastic, styrofoam. And snack bags, lunch containers, sweets packets. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst !

That's for righteousness, asshole !

Earlier today I'd found myself in the cookie aisle of the grocery. Stacked packets of cookies rose from the floor to above my head. Cookies of innumerable sorts in bright plastic wrappers. I was suddenly seized by a sort of horror. Why are there so many types of cookie's ? Who eats all these cookies ? All these bad cookies ? And why ? I've eaten my share of cookies. I have nothing against cookies, per se. But, goddamn it, why are there so many motherfucking cookies ?

It's capitalism. The free market. Freeance, peeance, as our Dear Leader once said. Business ! That which our President loves even more than Jesus. The American dream. Yeah, right. Two or three megalithic multinational corporations produce most of the cookies from a handful of basic recipes, tasteless cookies more varied in their packaging than their actual cookie-ness, then hype them incessantly to kids on TV, who eat far too many of them and begin their voyage down the road to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. So that big Pharma can sell them Lipitor and Glucophage (gotta love that name -- sugar eater). Hype them incessantly to kids in deviously clever ways that high-priced PhD psychologist marketing consultants have devised. Because that's free speech, free enterprise and the American way.

As I picked my way through dead knotweed and strewn beverage containers, it struck me that this was a scene of desecration. Of violation. This is a sin against the earth, I thought, my heart growing heavier with each step. This is a state of sin. Of disgrace. The river used as a sewer. The woods as a trash bin. What could I read in the spoor ? Despair, I suppose. Which, of course, is hopelessness. Utter demoralization. The ongoing legacy, for some of us, of the Bush administration.

I thought of someone getting drunk by the river. Getting relief from pain with a cocktail of alcohol and the sound of the waterfall. Booze and white noise, to drown sorrow. What sorrow ? Unemployment, immigration problems, housing woes, domestic strife, illness, no insurance, bill collectors, addiction -- it's not hard to speculate. A packet of oreos does help take the edge off: lard and sugar from tongue straight to the endorphin centers of the brain. Better than Valium. (Am I allowed to say that ? Is there some drug disparagement law I've violating ?) Almost as good as xanax, possibly the most diabolically named drug in the pharmacopaeia. Try writing it. Go ahead. Notice how easily it flows across the paper ? The prescription practically writes itself. And it's such a cute little palindrome, to boot ! Not to mention those potent, scientific, punchy pair of x's. And it's easy to spell, too ! Not like that pesky penicillin (is that a double n or a double L ? Is it -in or -en ?) Christ ! It makes me wanna pop one even as we speak !

Al-praz-o-lam. Shazaam.

Then I saw the beer truck pulling up to the package store. Its rear door was open and I could see the towering stacks of cases. Food, booze, TV: cheap diversions from despair. Crowd control. Throw in religion and you have the perfect -- what's the opposite of storm ?

I was finding it hard to get all totally pissed off and self-righteous at the guy who chucks the empty pint into the thicket. A little bit, maybe, but in the criminal underworld of litter he's just a street thug. Mr. Big is elsewhere. Not Waltham. Belmont, maybe. Washington, certainly. And he's got a whole staff to clean up after him. And his messes are, trust me, way bigger than a few bottles on the river bank. What about the affluent jogger who chucks her Poland Springs empty into the viburnum ? Or the office worker who flings his styrofoam lunch container into the witch hazel ? They're harder to forgive.

Desecration. Violation. I thought of how meager this little patch of riverbank wilderness is. Almost pathetic, really. Taking close-ups through a macro lens obscures the big picture. This is what's left after Mr Big and his boys buy up the prime real estate for their factories and their office parks and their McMansions and their waterfront summer homes. This is what's left after they drill the ANWR. A little strip of green where the lumpen proletariat can drink away (jog away, photograph away) their hopelessness. The crumbs. The leftovers.

I am not unaware of my complicity in this disgrace. I drive a car. I buy overly-packaged food. My sins of omission are worse.

How will we ever clean up the mess ? One bottle at a time ?

Of course.

But then what ?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


As I scour the woods for signs, any signs, of spring, I feel a twinge of dread. I know what's coming.

For now there are only the vaguest hints -- buds,

a little more swollen this week,

some with pussy-willow-like nubbins emerging ; new branches -- greenwood, redwood -- sprouting from trunks; spiky clumps bristling in the leaf scars of a fuzzy ailanthus stalk .

The rest attenuates more and more.

One wouldn't think it possible. The few remaining berries shrivel and moulder.

Queen Anne's lace has become so frail that it's skeletal, nearly invisible in the sunlight, apt to crumble with the least touch.

Grape tendrils -- once plump and bronze, dwindle to silvery threads.

Wild cucumber pods, though still spiky, are thin, white, porous as sponges.

But listen: hear that distant roar ? That's the rush of green that will soon push out of the earth, along and out of the branches, to overtake and overwhelm everything. Including me.

My eye has grown used to the winter woods, to the tangles and knots of vines and tendrils,

to the precisely ramifying leaf ribs

and the stripped seeddheads of bleached-out grass,

to pods,like empty hands,

to hollowed stalks,

and the rusted articulations of dead and dormant wood.

It has grown accustomed to the season's subtle colors: brown, gray, silver, beige with slashes of red and green;

It is drawn to the black clustered discs of tansy

and the golden evening primrose pods,

to the flame-shaped, whitish blur of goldenrod,

and the the dying galaxies of asters.

It's the dun calm before the greenstorm. I brace myself, recalibrate and wait.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Hammaid's Tail

The riverpath in Watertown emerges from the woods, crosses a bridge, and re-enters the woods on the opposite shore a block or so downstream. The little slice of civilization that this detour traverses contains the usual elements of blighted suburbia -- car dealership, carwash, rehabbed brick factory and a little convenience store plastered with garish ads for Marlboro and Camel cigarettes. Affixed to the convenience store is a catering business with a disturbing sign. The name of the business includes the words "gourmet" and "healthy," and the sign includes this image:

For what tone is this sign aiming ? One's first impression is pornographic: the vacuous, wall-eyed face sports the open-mouthed, appetitive, inviting grin of a cheap, badly-painted blow-up sex doll. And yet, curiously enough, the mermaid's breasts are covered by her hair. Negating, perhaps, any suggestion of the maternal.

And why, for that matter,have they chosen a mermaid ? It's not a sushi bar or a fish store. Why chose a legless and thus hobbled woman as purveyor of one's healthy, gourmet wares ? For that matter, what does the image of a mermaid suggest about gender ? Other than the gaping mouth, she has no receptive orifice. Is this to promote eating over mating ? To equate eating with mating ? And what is the meaning, then, of the tail ? The shape is clearly phallic; yet the function is more propulsive than penetrative, unless one construes it as penetrating the water. Then is she a hermaphrodite ? Androgynous ? Transvestitual ? Transpecious ? Does the sign wish to call into question the whole notion of gender ? Admirable, but what does that have to do with catering ? Why juxtapose the liberal value of "healthy eating" with right-wing sexism ? Why posit this strangely hobbled, ambiguous wait-person ? Unless, of course, her intended clientele is also a swimmingly underwater clientele, drowned, say, by the bestial depths of their appetites. But why would you want to let on that you think your clients are swinish ? Healthy gourmands or, worse, healthy gluttons ?

From an Eliotan point of view, this mermaid is indeed singing to me, to us. She is singing a song of ham. Ham ! The idea of ham as health food is, to say the least, novel: it turns the notion of health upside down. Bouleversee, as the French would say. What sort of health does a salty, smoked, saturated-fat laden meat induce ? An odd hypertensive, cancerous and heart-diseased sort of health. Could this be a metaphor ? A covert summons to the high-pressured, self-consuming, romantically-disenchanted and bottomlessly ravenous citizenry ? A fatalistic call to continue heedless overconsumption as the only reply to a Godless, meaningless universe ?

The image of an underwater and thus pescatological creature promoting the terrestrial foodstuff,ham, is jarring and contradictory. Surreal, not in a particularly good way. Could the fact that she is not serving the more iconically consistent fish be construed as a mermaid's pointed abstension from eating a fellow oceanic creature ? A xenophobic morality, at best, reifying and fetishizing the exotic "Other" as food. Like those self-promoting semi-demi-hemi-quasi-vegetarians who "only eat fish" ? (And maybe a little chicken.) The christological symbolology that a fish would entrain is directly affronted by the actual ham that rests on her platter: pig meat is the quintessential religiously-interdicted food. Demons, for goodness sakes, are cast into (or was that out of?) swine !

And what vestiges of appetite could possible remain after one has fully deconstructed the iconography of the sign ?

I rest my case.

Beyond the shops are a few small houses, then the entrance to the path. The last house before the path has a pretty garden terrace on the downslope to the river, a splendid cherry tree in the front yard, and this graceful, weathered Madonna:

And thus, in less than a half a block, one moves from hammaid to handmaiden --

My soul doth
magnify the Lord.
For He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth
all generations shall
call me blessed.

having viewed a serendipetously collaborative installation worthy of the MOMA, or, at least, the MOBA.

Friday, March 11, 2005

After Image Picking

I have a little over a year's worth of photo albums lined up on the floor of my study, chronologically, their spines labeled with season and year. There are 25 of them and they take up a goodly extent of floor space. There are 5 or six albums for each season, except for winter, of which there are eight, plus six envelopes of unfiled winter snapshots and a still a week -- a week of vacation no less -- left of photographic winter.

It's little wonder that I am thinking of Frost's "After Apple-Picking," his great poem of surfeit, weariness and resignation.

For I have had too much
of apple-picking:I am overtired
of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch
cherish in hand, let down and not let fall.

Last night as I drifted off to sleep a thought -- a phrase, really -- occured to me, that seemed to so aptly describe my recent frame of mind that I got up and wrote it down on the margin of a random piece of junk mail on my desk.

...standing on the shore of oneself...

As with many night thoughts, it shows its true face in the morning light: banal, a little muddled, not quite coherent. But the sense of it feels true -- I am standing on a shore facing ocean, horizon, sky, everything else -- the myriad things, the thousand photos of the myriad things, the hundred poems about the myriad things -- behind me. A radical simplification, post-deciduous to the extreme. Even the "myself" standing there is more a part of what's behind than the vista up front. The little flickering observer is like a candle stuck in the sand. About to be blown out at any moment, then over, then swept off into the abyss as casually as a hand sweeps crumbs off a table.

I'm not surprised that the starkest season is heavily overrepresented in my array of photo albums. There's a thematically relevant word: Albumblatt. Album leaf. Something to do with collections of piano music. Pages blowing in the wind. Torn out and blown away by the wind.

No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind.

Earlier last night I'd attended the Jazz Composers Alliance sax and brass ensemble chamber concert. I watched and listened to the brilliant players improvising, astonished, as usual, by the beauty and complexity of musical genesis. Thich Nhat Hanh's concept of interbeing seemed to apply. He describes how, for example, bread contains sunshine, soil nutrients, rainwater, the labor of farmers and bakers, and the experience of the one who eats the bread -- it's a web, a multifarious happening, not simply a discrete loaf.

The music seemed to be a similar nexus comprised of the body/mind and training and practice of the players, the musical notation of the composers, similarly determined by their body/mind and training and the whole musical tradition (and, collectively, the JCA's is an amazingly varied one -- from blues, bebop, avant-garde, third stream and classical, to Indian music, afro-pop, klezmer and even throat singing). All of this comes to fruition in the act of improvising, including, of course, each player's listening and instantaneous response to the other players.

I, the listener, whose hearing is similarly determined by my own body/mind and musical/extra-musical experience, felt as if I were in the midst of a miraculous blooming field. That the whole lovely little parish hall with its dark, vaulting rafters and carvings and comfortable old-church feel was a garden or meadow, a complex ecology of sound and hearing.

That humans, anatomically, have a front and a back determined my night thought. Just as millenia of intersecting forces selected the propitious front-and-back model human out of any number of other, less favorable designs. It also contains an implicit metaphor for time. Time before and time after, as Eliot said. Time in back, time in front. I perch on an infinitesimal strand between two eternities. I am always amused by the Cloud of Unknowing author's rather exasperated, slightly sarcastic passage on the folly of regarding Heaven as being "up." Language embodies. It's a matter of gravity. The attracton between bodies. Interbody. Up, down.

It's a playground.

Look, there I am, in the small inlet under the trestle bridge, ice crunching under my boots as I peer through my viewfinder into quiet, rust colored water, watching the fronds of a feather undulate slowly in a tiny current.

Look -- there I am again -- peering deep into a mass of bamboo pulled down by snow, entranced by the elegant, shadowy green dowels of the prostrating stems.

And, again, crouched next to my desk, trying to capture a felicitous constellation of morning light, rooftop, moon, chimney and sharp shadow that caught my eye.

And finally, me again, eagerly reviewing the images that return in thick envelopes from the photo lab, slipping them into the glassine sheaths of the photo album, calling them up in their other, airier incarnation -- inlucidation ? -- on the bright phosphors of the computer screen, darkening and rotating one image a bit (won't I ever learn to hold the camera straight ?), cropping, sharpening, cropping again.

Cherish in hand, lift down and not let fall.

What better way to rest the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind than to turn seaward on a windless, tideless, waveless, moonless, night ?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Something Had Happened Here

I stood in fresh snow near where the big, uprooted tree rests half-submerged in the river and listened to the water flowing between and around the drowned branches. It was a complex, musical sound and I felt the absurd urge to photograph it.

Suddenly I noticed something at my feet: feathers, hundreds of them, lying on the bright, granular snow.

Something had happened here. I looked around. There were big gray feathers, and smaller white ones, half-down. They were on and in the snow, some even half-caught in ice.

It was a wild scatter, not a gentle moulting. Something savage had occurred. I looked upstream along the riverbank's snow. A trail of animal prints led to the little feather field where I stood. Something had feasted on bird, probably gull, and left only the feathers behind.

I looked closer. Amidst the glaucous gray and white of ice and feathers were small spots of red, eye-catching as the red of berries in a late winter thicket.

I've spent months and months haunting the riverbank with my camera, documentarian of the death of weeds, lovingly capturing their decline, fearlessly recording their mowing-down, dessication, attenuation, uprooting, rot.

This, though, was different. Less metaphoric. Closer to home. I felt as if I were taking pictures at a crime scene.

This was a question of meat, not phloem. Blood, not chlorophyll.

But, of course, this was not a forensic matter. It was no more a murder than a sparrow eating a berry is a robbery, or the wind overturning a tree into the river is assault.

Then again maybe there was a certain culpability. The river's unnatural scrim of human detritus draws the seagulls here, lures them miles inland. It, like most places tainted by city, is part landfill: tasty, poisonous.

So there was a perp after all, I thought, uneasily. An accomplice. A conspirator.

It was the oldest denouement in the film noir book, the quintessential surprise ending, plot twist. I looked furtively around, and took off through the underbrush.

The law, the natural law, was hot on my trail.

Friday, March 04, 2005

The Art Of Tooth

Tooth #3, which, in league with the recently reamed-out tooth #2 has been plying its little infected icepick from my palate to my temple to my ear these past tedious weeks, had its final assignation with the grim rooter today. I got to visit yet another of my endodontic group's offices -- they have a veritable root canal empire here in Eastern Massachusetts -- this one in Kenmore Square just behind Fenway Park. The office was nearly empty, tastefully if blandly decorated in pomo grays and blacks, with an oddly low suspended ceiling, probably designed to reassure and comfort. All will be well. Let me hug you. You have exhausted your insurance benefits. Are you all right ?

A cheerful young technician whom I couldn't help noting had beautiful teeth led me toward the dental operatory. I sat down and found myself facing the glass wall of a small greenhouse. Beyond the greenhouse I could see a balconied apartment facade, some low rooftops and, four stories below, the dirty, end-of-winter city streets. In the greenhouse was a random collection of wan looking plants -- some big, paddle-leafed tropical jobs admixed with philodendrons and other droopy indigenous houseplants, some hanging, some in big pots on the floor. The pots sat on a clumpy bed of dull gravel. There was a sinuous, makeshift wall, red bricks two precarious layers thick, in one corner. There was something sad about the greenhouse. It was not lush enough. The plants looked like subway riders, all studiously avoiding one another. Or strangers stuck in an elevator, or in a Jean-Paul Sartre play. The greenhouse made me nervous. Like a lab experiment in progress. A lab accident in progress.

As I waited for the dentist I scanned the rest of the decor, probably installed by Corporate Art, Inc.

There were three prints on the walls. One was of large, nested squares in various shades of orange. It was unsigned and ugly. Ultra geometric. And very, very orange. Blood orange. Angry orange. Not ragingly angry, mind you. Peevishy, whiningly angry. Not the fiery orange of someone raging at the godless universe, but the flushed, bilious orange of someone cut off in traffic or someone who's had a toothache for a month. You talkin' to me ?? Or, better still, Don't you fuckin' look at me !!!

On another wall was a Warhol Monroe -- red face, green hair, and one blurred, vibratory slash of white: her teeth. Now we were getting somewhere. Artistically speaking. Teeth ! Starlet. Icon. Dentist office. OK. I'm working with you now, anonymous corporate decorator.

The third picture was a print of closed scissors standing point upward, the handle buried beneath a horizon line, all in dull, washed-out blues and beiges. There were three words written on its pallid background: sky, Washington, obelisk. What the image lacked in interest, color and beauty it made up in sheer phallicity. Had this print made its errant way from the "Urology" or "Psychoanlysis" Collection into my endodontist's office ? I sat there in my little tissue paper bib, pondering.

Then I spotted it.

The coup de grace of the dental installation. The piece that pulled it all together. The thematic keystone, if you will. It sat on a pedestal in the corner opposite me: a bisected geode, the size of a large canteloupe, its quartz-toothed open mouth facing me. All the better to eat you with, my dear.

Now this was something I could really sink my deconstructive teeth into. Here was the vagina dentata to the opposite wall's phallic scissors/obelisk ! My brain whirred into hermeneutic overdrive. I considered the stunning irony of scissors as phallus. A phallus that carries within it the means of its own castration ! I contemplated the shadowy, toothed space -- open, inviting. The biter and the bitten ! The rooter and the rooted ! Oh lovely, endodontal/exodontal bisexuality ! Come here, Red Marilyn, I love you !

Now I was really cooking with Freud. I thought of tooth #3 -- that instrument of biting and piercing, of phallic intrusion -- of tooth #3 that was about to be pierced to the very depths of its roots by the dentist's thin little probes and p(r)icks and drills ! The vivid face of Monroe with its slash of white teeth glowed in one corner. The gaping maw of the fanged, hungry geode gaped from the other. Tooth #3 throbbed in my jaw. How could it bite my dentist's finger off if it was too painful to even touch with my tongue ? The savage orange squares pulsated somewhere around my right temple. A thick vine began to slither slowly, slowly toward me. A mettalic sound -- a high pitched snip, snip, snip --came from behind my left ear.

Atropos ! Novocaine ! I screamed, and the rest is a clove-and-peppermint scented blur.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Blot Of Mustard

That the mustard plant is a member of the cruciferae family is almost ridiculously Christian. It's natural, then, that these beautiful, skeletal weeds with their uplifted, translucent, septated gray seedpods might remind me of people praying. Arms uplifted, faces turned toward heaven, with body language that says: I am open to you, Lord. I am willing, welcoming, calling you forth, calling you down. Possess me. Overtake me. The body language addresses an Other, an Outsider. Someone absent, but potentially present. Someone exalted. Someone hailed. The direction of the prayer is vertical, an ascent. The whole vector of it defies abjection, gravity, the thick, afflicted, hankering body. The prayer begs for excarnation. For a blissful unsouling.

But what is the soul apart from the flesh ? Even the milkweed seed's most slender and airy filaments are flesh -- cellulose, carbon, water -- and not simply light. Kensho, rapture, infused contemplation, insofar as these are experienced states are neurophysiologic, brain -- that is to say, body -- based. Profound, visceral insight, perhaps, into being-in-the-world (being-world ?) achievable only when the discriminating mind shuts up/shuts down, but something of the body/mind, nonetheless.

How does it further matters to call this participatory "being-world" God ? Or to designate the experience of it as something "mystical" -- kensho, nirvana, cessation, Buddha mind, Kingdom of Heaven ? The very act of speaking and naming sets up a duality. This, and not that. That thing. There. Your thing. My thing.

The thing, the special thing, for adepts and initiates. The thing in the zoo. The thing in the pyx. The thing in the lotus position. The transmitted thing. The priestly thing. The scriptural thing. The thing at the bake sale. The thing at the rally. The thing on the tablets

that commands thou shalt have no other Gods before me, and in whose name blood flows, fists are raised and humans are subjugated time and time again.

The other vector of prayer is down and in. Bowing, prostration, introversion, introspection. Involution. Dessication. Withering. Hearkening to the pull of the earth. Becoming a black hole, outside in.

This "path"of mine is strange. Overgrown to disappearance in spots, it winds through fields of weeds, winds past the back door of cathedrals and the side exit of zendos. Little draughts of heat, scanted with candlesmoke and incense, trickle out through their chinked windows with the sounds of off-key hymns, chants in a foreign tongue, and the smell of sweat, feet and cheap perfume. Out here the air is fresher. Snow, water, humus, a whiff of oil.

In this metaphoric homelessness, is everywhere home ?