Sunday, August 26, 2012

Haiku à la Kerouac

The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese
Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined
to seventeen syllables but since the language
structure is different I don't think American
Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be
completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry
about syllables because American speech is
something again...bursting to pop.

Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free
of all poetic trickery and make a little picture
and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi

- Jack Kerouac

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

after 40 years
can’t see her
for all the shadows

blue pot holder
red light on the stove
time for breakfast

shuffle of sandals
our neighbor
surveys the building

the taste of coffee
after four oreos
dark and honest

the gauntlet of outheld hands
cadging money replaced
with giant chess pieces

am I still working?
I am always working
as little as possible

funny little noises
coming from a cat
in a fetal position

the painters are gone
the movement now
is air and light

smack smack smack
the cat’s tongue
busy in his food

tic tacs and chocolates
flashlight and onion
share a bamboo tray

the gleam of knobs
make modest addendums
of kitchen light

bang! door slams
clump clump clump clump: K
home from Machu Picchu

a deviant galaxy
of spilled sugar
edges the demitasse

voices, clatter of metal
groan of a bus, buffet
of coffeehouse sounds

Friday, August 24, 2012

My Summer Infection

The two women who just arrived were young. They sat in front of me. They spread a beach towel and removed their clothes. They were wearing bikinis underneath. One of the women had long fine light brown hair and sat with her back toward me. There was only the back lace of her bikini to conceal her back, which was covered with an enormous tattoo. The once beautiful symphony of her skin, the tones of muscle and hues of pink, soft and delicate, were lost to the tattoo.

The other woman appeared to be around twenty-five and had the strong, husky voice of a middle-aged woman. She chain smoked and drank malt liquor from a can hidden in a paper sack. If I wanted to avoid breathing her second hand smoke, we would have to move. I surveyed the beach, looking for an opening in the crowd where Roberta and I could move our chairs and personal effects.

Meanwhile, my right foot itched like crazy. I kept scratching, but the itch wouldn’t go away. My fingers felt wet and I raised my hand. The tips of my fingers were beaded with blood and I could feel a bit of blood trickle down my ankle. We didn’t have any napkins or paper towels , nor were there any paper towels in the men’s room. I thought I would go for another swim and just let the water carry it off. When I returned to our spot on the beach, Roberta noticed my feet were swollen. They looked like dirigibles with toes. There wasn’t any pain. But the phenomenon was a tad worrisome.

Much later, long after we had returned home and had dinner, my muscles began to ache. Everywhere. Though it was most intense in my legs. I also had a terrible migraine. They symptoms worsened. The next day, after a totally sleepless night, I curled into a fetal position on the couch and groaned. When Roberta returned from her run, I phoned the Sound nurse line and ran off a litany of symptoms to a female nurse with a southern accent who urged me to go to the doctor. I phoned our clinic and they said they could fit me in at 2:30 p.m. Roberta took my temperature: it was 103.

The doctor ordered an ekg and several chest X-rays. The results revealed nothing worrisome there, which was a relief, but the doctor was worried about my feet. Edema is often symptomatic of kidney failure. He directed us to the hospital emergency room, where the attending physician immediately diagnosed a skin infection on my right foot. I explained the situation at the lake, and also mentioned that some of the wounds were caused by our cat, who likes to attack my foot.

I was admitted into the hospital. A young man rolled my bed out of the emergency room and into a series of elevators which took me into the heights of the hospital. I was given a room with a view of everything except Mt. Rainier, which was blocked by a building. The young man apologized for the missing mountain. I didn’t care. I just wanted morphine. Dilaudid. Anything to help get rid of the migraine and aching muscles. I was also shivering. The room was frigid.

A young female nurse entered and gave me several additional blankets, freshly warmed. I was hooked up to a syringe pump and a regimen of antibiotics was begun.

Hospitals are no fun. You spend a lot of time trying to rest in a bed that is magnificently adjustable, but feels more like a machine than a bed. Most of the discomfort is the restriction in movement when there is a line running from a vein in your arm to an IV pole. This becomes particularly cumbersome if you have to go to the bathroom a lot. The pole has to become unplugged, the wires untangled, and a modicum of modesty maintained in your hospital gown while waddling past the open door of your room. The sounds coming from the bathroom cannot be helped. Human biology gets ugly at times.

My doctor certainly wasn’t. Ugly, that is. She was a very young and pretty Asian woman with a cheerful disposition. Blood had been drawn and she was waiting for the cultures to reveal their microbial character. Meanwhile, her strategy was to glean as much information from me as possible and fill me with antibiotics.

The strategy worked. A few hours later my fever began to go down and the ache in my muscles began to dissipate. I was given some morphine which helped me sleep during the night. I continued to have to get up and go to the bathroom a lot. There must have been a considerable amount of fluid being pumped into me with the antibiotic. Each time I went to the bathroom, the screen saver on the computer would catch my attention: a black doctor with a strong resemblance to Wesley Snipes with his hands held out urging that hands always be washed.

The doctor and nurses all agreed. There had been a dramatic increase in infectious diseases. It was most certainly caused by global warming, which is turning the clock on our planet back to its conditions in the Eocene when greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide and methane, played a significant role in controlling surface temperature. Bacteria during the Eocene, which lasted from 56 to 34 million years ago, must have thrived like crazy. Bacteria love warmth and moisture.

And me. But then, I am bacteria. Bacteria built this city. “We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei,” observed noted biologist Lewis Thomas, “that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis.” These ancestral organisms to which are refers are bacteria. Which begs the question: then why do they make you so sick?

Pathogenic bacteria, the kind that invade an organism, are not an enemy. They don’t act that way out of malice. “Pathogenicity is not the rule,” says Lewis Thomas. “Disease usually results from inconclusive negotiations for symbiosis, an overstepping of the line by one side or the other, a biologic misinterpretation of borders.” “Pathogenicity may be something of a disadvantage for mist microbes, carrying lethal risks more frightening to them than to us. The man who catches a meningococcus is in considerably less danger for his life, even without chemotherapy, than meningococci with the bad luck to catch a man.”

I was released from the hospital last Friday and prescribed some antibiotics to be taken orally. I felt weak, but the fever was gone, the headaches sneaking in and out of my head like children stealing candy, and the pain in my muscles was mostly gone. My intestines still ached and burned, and the diarrhea continued unabated. But it sure felt great to be home.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Guilty Pleasures

Mel Gibson

Gibson is so reactionary and full of lethal, misogynistic, anti-Semitic rage he makes the Ancien Régime of France look like a hippy commune. The man’s so toxic you need a Hazmat suit to venture within ten feet of the guy. But I love his movies. He stars in at least three of my favorite films: Road Warrior, Signs, and Braveheart. Gibson’s pain and religious conflict had genuine conviction in Signs because he himself is full of conflict and religious passion. He was drawing on his own inferno. But Signs is not quintessential Gibson. I can see William Hurt or Jeff Bridges or Denzel Washington in the role of Graham Hess. There is no shortage of skilled actors who could have occupied that role and it still would have been a damn good movie. Not so with Road Warrior, and absolutely not so with Braveheart. Gibson’s William Wallace was as lustrous and hard as the sword he flailed on the Scottish heath. When he rides his horse onto the field at the Battle of Stirling with half of his face painted blue, you can feel the heart of Scotland pounding in his chest. It’s a thrill to watch him in that movie. I even prefer Gibson’s Hamlet to Branagh’s priggish Dane. Gibson played Hamlet with much more ferocity and humor. I hear people howling with incredulity over this statement, but fuck it, it’s true, I mean it, Gibson’s Hamlet blazed with isomers of Sturm and Drang. Does it make me squirm a little to force myself to admit to these things? Yes. It does. Do I risk social alienation? Possibly. Does Mel Gibson need defending? No. Then why? Why spend any time writing about the guy? It bugs me. Bugs me that so much talent has gone so terribly awry.

John Wayne

Wayne’s oafish endorsement of war and lame “my way or the highway” tough guy swagger has been off-putting and repellant since age fourteen, but, as in the case of Gibson, I love his movies. Unlike Gibson, Wayne couldn’t even really act. He was wooden and one-dimensional and had no sense of artistry. Gibson could do Shakespeare, and do it extremely well. No way could Wayne do Shakespeare. Try to imagine a young Wayne as Orlando in As You Like It, a middle-aged Wayne as Petruchio on Taming of the Shrew or an elderly Wayne as King Lear. You can’t. It’s laughable. But I fully confess, I love watching Wayne tractor his way through human emotions as if they were silly weeds whose uprooting is a healthy development. Wayne was the antithesis of intellect. He did not deal subtly or delicately with issues emanating from the infernos of human anguish. Intellect was worthless, treacherous, the refuge of sissies and shyster lawyers. Fancy words and pretty sentences were the province of women and failed men or misled men. Wayne’s uber-masculine image was based on the premise that people respect power and that honor and honesty are best delivered bluntly, sans eloquence, because life is a continuous, never-ending battle, and the only people you can trust are other men. Men who spurn the vanity of rhetoric and use their fists. Men who shoot first and ask questions later. Whatever truth there may be to any of this, it is an outrageously simplistic way to deal with life’s true complexities. Its appeal in the movies is pure fantasy.

Wayne’s favored element was war. And yet Wayne himself did not serve in the war; he was once booed by a group of wounded Marines during WWII for having the temerity to show up in a place dressed as a cowboy where there was real suffering. There are reasons to jeer at the mention of his name, which I have done many times over the years, hiding my real enjoyment from public view. But the truth is, I enjoy seeing movies featuring John Wayne; the presence that he brings to the screen is real and undeniable. And so I wonder: is there a gun-toting, war-mongering right-wing nut screaming to get out of my progressive skin? I don’t think so, because people like Oliver North truly freak me out. I don’t see much of my personal reality in Wayne’s screen presence, but I respond to it on some dark level, some inner chamber of my being where old Viking kings dream of blood and glory. I see something and feel something that I can recognize as juvenile and dangerous while simultaneously admiring the audacity and mythic power of it. The old male bull who will fight to the death rather than submit to anything or anyone. It’s a pretty strong narrative, and Wayne was the right guy at the right time to give it heft and body.


I love meat. But I love animals more. I do not want to see them suffer. I do not want to think about them standing knee-deep in shit in some foul-smelling stockyard until routinely and brutishly slaughtered so I can enjoy a hamburger or steak. I’ve tried eating a vegetarian diet many times, and always abjectly fail. I don’t know why. I can’t explain what it is about meat that makes a meal so much better. Why I need to chew it. Taste it. It doesn’t help that I can’t stand most vegetables. I like beans and potatoes and that’s about it. The best I’ve been able to do so far, apart from exercise my God-given right as an illogical, totally irrational human being to employ a healthy measure of cognitive dissonance, is eat as little meat as possible. Gnocchi with a little pancetta, for instance, or omelette with little cubed bits of ham.


Sugar enjoys an irrefutable universality in the realm of the guilty pleasure. Sugar is everyone’s guilty pleasure. Jellybeans, ice cream, chocolates, whipped cream, pudding, cake, pie, the list is endless. I was never into candy much until I quit drinking. Then I began binging on jellybeans. When I was working at the UW mailing service running mail through a Pitney Bowes machine I would routinely go through an 8 oz. bag of jellybeans in 15 minutes flat. I could barely stand from the dizziness brought on by the sugar rush. I would erupt in silly, hallucinatory phrases that had nothing to do with external reality, such as "I like my job, I really do," or did you see that beautiful pink angel flutter out of my left nostril and hatch a crocodile in the supervisor's eyebrow? And at home, I would gorge on a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, look down at my paunch, say fuck it, and stuff another spoon-load of Cherries Garcia into my mouth. These days, my dessert of choice is strawberry shortcake. I can’t get enough of the stuff.


I would never recommend anyone take LSD. It’s a dangerous, highly powerful psychotropic agent that, once ingested, produces a state of psychosis. But at the same time, there are certain people I sure wish would take it. LSD is a life changer. It will permanently alter your view toward life, the universe, everything. It may bring you into a state of near-madness, or very real delirium and psychosis, but it will also give you feelings of overwhelming reverence and powerful insights into the mysteries of the cosmos. You will not emerge from a so-called “trip” the same person. You will emerge it from a sage. A visionary. You will want to do good things for people. Sweet, loving things that make people feel better.

My attitude toward drugs used to be a lot less ambivalent. I never liked marijuana, so that one was easy to avoid, but cocaine? Loved the stuff. And codeine? Codeine is heavenly. Angels murmur softly to my bones that life is wonderful and wispy as cirrus on a soft summer day in Provence. I love it that it doesn’t so much numb me to pain (and this would include emotional pain) as distance me from pain, so that I can still appreciate whatever wisdom the pain is trying to impart without being burdened by it.

But codeine, like all the other drugs I enjoy, is addictive. I’ve always thought the term “abuse” with reference to the imprudent imbibing of drugs just plain stupid, like the term “self-abuse” for masturbation. Taking a drug for the sheer pleasure of mellowing one’s internal noises is eminently sane. But taking it again and again until your teeth start falling out and your flesh begins to rot is clearly a mistake. And you don’t know you’re making this mistake until it’s too late to back out gently and gracefully with the least amount of damage to yourself and other people.

So I don’t know what the upshot is. What am I saying? Take drugs, but take them cautiously? I’m not giving advice at all. I’m just saying that on the occasions when I’ve taken a Xanax or Ativan to help me through a personal crisis, or sleep, or just spend a few mellow moments without my brain going into overdrive on a diesel of worry and nihilistic pessimism, the brew that is me, it’s a guilty pleasure. In the back of my mind I’m thinking I’m weak, I’m lazy, but fuck it, this shit feels good.


Facebook is stupid. No two ways about it. What is the point of it? There is no point. I thought at first that it might function as a very convenient promotional platform where I could announce books and articles and provide a link to my blog and increase my audience. Doesn’t work. Didn’t work. People are just too self-centered, self-absorbed and mentally lazy to give a shit. They don’t click on the link. This has a lot more to say about people and what shallow, lazy, hypocritical jerks they’ve become in the new millennium, but Facebook is where you are most apt to find these people because Facebook promotes this insanely superficial social network. So why do I keep coming back and posting my drivel? Why do I feel compelled to check in every day? I don’t know. I have no answer.


I love TV. Always have. I grew up with TV. Literally. I was born in 1947, the year television usage in the U.S. and Britain began to skyrocket. My parents were among the first to have a TV. My first memory is of a Flash Gordon show, a rocket traveling through space shooting sparks.

TV has kept me company my entire life. It’s been there during some really rough times, a source of comfort, creating the illusion of being around people when I couldn’t be around people, because being around people required way more energy and skill than was within my possession. TV was there during countless hangovers, nursing me through long afternoons of bone-crushing anguish, regaling my black, bilious, nihilistic mind with silly romances, dumb jokes, and diverting journeys to distant planets.

I have spent long periods of time without TV, and felt fine. TV has never conflicted with my love of books. Both, I soon discovered, can be enjoyed with balance and discernment. Much of what is on TV is mindless IQ-lowering garbage. But much of what is on TV is fascinating, fun, and intellectually stimulating. Roberta and I have been subscribing to TV5 Monde for almost a decade. It’s an excellent aid to helping us learn French, and a lot of the programs are fascinating. I saw one about color yesterday. The history of color, the making of color, the physics of color. And HBO’s Deadwood and The Newsroom are vastly better dramas, better written and performed, than most of the movies have been lately.

And I have discovered, thanks to Larry David, that I am not alone. There is at least one other person out there who gets riled when people park sloppily, or butt ahead in line.

So where is the guilt? I don’t know. TV probably shouldn’t be on this list.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Own Private Curiosity

I see the images and wonder: what would it be like to live there?

You know: Mars. The red planet. Turn left at Florida and travel 350 million miles in a direction opposite to the sun. You can’t miss it.

The first thing I think of is silence. Lush, beautiful, limitless silence. No more brain-shattering shrieks and squeals of the infant next door, thuds and crashes and screaming power saws coming from the neighbor’s endless remodeling projects on the other side of our condo building, abrasive hip hop inanities pounding out of the window of a luxury large SUV parked for over an hour on a nearby street, dogs barking incessantly in the local park, fireworks blasting like a Syrian fire fight at two o’clock in the morning, the washer going berserk in the laundry room and sounding like an Apache helicopter with a faulty bearing and a wobbly rotor assembly, Louis and his leaf blower shattering the last remnants of what might have been a calm morning into doltish mutilation.

I do not do well in the noise department. Susan Sontag, I read somewhere, did not mind noise. I wish I had her nervous system. Or brain. Or whatever it was that allowed her to hear noise and not mind it. Hear noise and still be able to concentrate and write deep penetrating prose. Hear noise and not want to rip her ears off. Hear noise and not feel her skull crack under a load of building pressure.

It amazes how some people can do a job and not mind what a total asshole their boss is, or what insufferable demanding children their coworkers or customers might happen to be. People who, like George Clooney in The Descendants, can take someone’s cruel imputation, refrain from reacting with righteous indignation, giving the offending party the response they had hoped to provoke, and maintain their dignity. Even if it looks a little like cowardice. Even if it means a smoldering pile of resentment will continue to eat at their insides until it finally goes out. Because they know: reacting will make things worse. Reacting will lead to bigger problems, deeper embarrassments, longer lasting biting remorse, and further incrimination.

That isn’t me, unfortunately. I have a hair trigger. I spring like a bear trap. There is a long trail of hurt and remorse behind me. I wince a thousand times a day at things I’ve said, things I’ve done.

My adjustments to life’s various bumps and curves have not been a shining success. My best moments have been pharmaceutically enhanced by Valium, Xanax, and Ativan. I would have said alcohol. I would have put alcohol at the top of my list. But those days are over. That marriage ended years ago at an AA meeting. Ended gradually, sadly, mournfully, over a long period of time. These days I gobble up L-etheanine like popcorn.

There is a place for people who have a hard time adjusting to life on planet Earth in the 21st Century. It’s called Mars.

This would be the Mars of my imagination, of course, not the Mars of scientific actuality. I’m dreaming of a Mars that more or less resembles Palm Springs. But without the palms. And certainly without the springs.

My fantasy is not at all scientific. What fantasy is? Is there such a thing as a scientific fantasy? I don’t think so.

Coleridge separated the imagination from fantasy. Fantasy, or the power to envision realities that we have never encountered, was inferior to the power of the imagination, which he divided into primary and secondary. Primary imagination begins and ends with perception: it is a creative act. It is how we choose to interpret lived experience. It is “the living power and prime agent of all human perception.”Secondary imagination is an echo of the primary imagination, and differs only in degree. It co-exists with our conscious will and involves our active thinking.

Mars is a fantasy. My perception of Mars is imagination. But I’m not on Mars to perceive it. My perceptions are limited to NASA photos. Where are pretty good, and pretty damned amazing, but photos nevertheless. I might as well be looking at someone’s vacation postings on Facebook.

But does Coleridge’s suggestion about primary imagination mean that I can interpret noises differently? Interpret them so that they sound more like, I don’t know, music?

Sure, why not. Or just random waves of pressure that happen to be propagated through a compressible media, like air or water. Harmless spurts and jerks of sound that mean nothing, add nothing, subtract nothing. Nothing meaningful or intrusive, just physics. Frequencies, amplitudes, sine waves, parametric arrays, and lattice vibration modes. Phenomena. Atoms and molecules doing what atoms and molecules do. Create neurological events that begin with the impinging of a stimulus upon the receptor cell of a sensory organ and end with a sonnet or a complaint to the landlord. It is not the stimulus itself that signifies anything. It is our interpretation, just as Coleridge said, that makes a cockatoo a cockatoo, a strawberry a strawberry, or a noise a noise.

And who says there are no noises on Mars? There may be the howl of winds. The finesse of solar rays caressing crepuscular rims. The rustle of silk in the gown of the Lizard Queen.

If there are noises on Mars, they won’t be like the ones here on Earth. Not until the manned missions begin. And colonies sprout up. And there is a Starbucks in the middle of Grindavik Crater.

Until then, Mars will be silent. Except for the occasional whirring and clicking of Curiosity.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Family Matters

Jump the Devil, fiction by Richard Rathwell
8th House Publishing, 2012

“There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened and maintained,” observed Sir Winston Churchill.

I take the opposite view. Families are torture chambers in which one’s potentials are ignored, mocked, and killed. Our parents foster those qualities that help us adapt, stifle those that lead us astray. They want us to be quick and smart and conform to society’s standards so that we will have the skillsets necessary to score good, high-paying jobs and get out of the house so that they don’t have to feed and shelter us anymore. Our siblings want us dead so that they can get all the attention. Fathers turn into King Lears, constantly demanding proofs of our love and gratitude. Mothers turn into emotional blackmailers. Siblings turn into shrewd and tireless competitors. We turn into neurotic exiles, forever trying to return to a home that never existed.

Ok, I’m playing devil’s advocate here. My family life wasn’t nearly all that bad. Few are (I hope). The truth is probably a combination of both views, and we all have vastly different experiences with family life growing up. But whatever our particular experience happened to be, and the many complex shades of conflict and harmony in which we initially drew nourishment and evolved into the people we are now, that labyrinthine domestic entanglement that is the family is our first taste of social reality. It only makes sense, then, to make stories about it. Which is what Richard Rathwell has done.

Jump the Devil is a collection of five stories, three of which deal specifically with family life. The other two touch on issues that have a familial edge.

“Crawl Space” chronicles the relationship between a father named Virgil and his adult daughter, Maureen. Virgil has become deaf and has “disability ears.” He was on assignment for a peacekeeping force, enjoying a glass of whiskey with a sergeant, when a bomb blast injured his hearing. He has been compensated and lives at home, where he is periodically checked on by the social services. His mental condition does not appear to be good, and it is remarked, at least by his wife Beatrice, that he has been getting “crazy in the head,” but his comportment within the story appears to be gentle and retiring. His wife is a harridan who obsesses over maintaining an appearance of normalcy, and respectability. Virgil just wants to be left alone in his crawl space. Maureen, who comes regularly to visit, despite open hostility between she and her mother, is a godsend, helping her father make applications “for every possible entitlement.” “She got clothing allowances, dental work, food vouchers, everything going. She made it all exciting, like a game.”

The crawl space - “used originally for an iron boiler, now defunct” - is a place of refuge. “It was a unique thing to this house. It was one of a kind. The house was built on the edge of a rock left by a glacier. That is why the crawl space. Virgil loved the idea of that.” Virgil is encouraged to keep a journal, ostensibly as a mental health exercise. “The rock was clean and cold. It had a flat space. It was perfect for writing the journal on.”

Virgil keeps a mysterious object in the crawl space called a “skin bag,” whose contents remain inscrutable throughout the story. One thinks of this place as a sanctuary for the imagination. The mother weirdly associates the skin bag with her daughter. “His wife believed the bag in the crawl space was the last straw to be tolerated of Maureen’s wickedness. Maureen had always been a bad child.” Beatrice is clearly a bitch. Maureen is angelic. The dynamic among these three personages is what drives the narrative, which is written in a style of exquisite simplicity, somewhat reminiscent of Richard Brautigan’s droll constructions in Revenge of the Lawn, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For instance, Rathwell’s description of Virgil’s penchant for storage is rendered with simple, delicate charm:

Virgil had always been very diligent about storage. He was proud of that and the way he used space. Unused things had been arranged around the rock in layers, each one labeled on a tape. They could be used later. At one time, the stored items were so numerous the rock was obscured. Virgil could hardly get through the half door. In the dark the piles of boxes looked like people. Sometimes he could see their faces.

“Christmas Tree Hill” concerns a family living in (I’m guessing) London. The story is told from the point of view of the mother, who remains nameless, is married to an aging husband she refers to as “Dad,” and owns a mobility scooter, they type of contraption old people use for getting around, and which seems to have the equivalency of Virgil’s crawl space, serving as a vehicle of escape from family dysfunctionality. The main protagonist has the wonderful name Woozer, and appears to be the narrator’s son-in-law, married to her recently deceased daughter, Mo. It is Woozer who has tinkered with the scooter and given it a little added horsepower, and providing several other enhancements that appear a bit dubious, as far as safety is concerned. He has, in fact, assumed control of the household finances, phoning “every month with new ideas” for refurbishing the house, buying materials (although he has inherited a hundred thousand from the death of his wife, Mo) from the couple’s savings. There is also a son named Jack, who “became terrible later with bad behaviour, deceit and lies. He would say dreadful things about everything and everyone, including his own family.”

Nothing is resolved in this story, but the implication of the final paragraph is less than auspicious: “We should all reach the crossroads at the same time.” Woozer in the “snappy car Dad loaned him some money for,” accompanied by either of two new lovers, and the mother-in-law on her scooter, crackling “black smoke and sparks to heaven.”

“The Biting of Doctor Condor” involves a bite of indeterminate origin. It could be a scorpion or burrowing jigger. It might, in fact, be more than one bite. Bites. The resulting fever manifests itself “as a sudden displacement into a vast room with throbbing, retreating walls. There was a constant disembodied, echoing noise of coursing blood. The room darkened. The air misted. The ceiling inflated into a dome at a great speed. The bed shrank suddenly into an earthy plot of white flowers. As he [Doctor Condor] shrank, his leg hairs closed into a net of metal mesh tightening around his knee joints.”

Doctor Condor, whose real name is Jack Cantor, is in central Africa working for a health agency. He is in love with his assistant, a native inhabitant named Alice. His love is unrequited. Alice, in fact, hates him, “cursing his monkey’s balls.” She hates all foreigners. “She would never stop hating them. She would teach her children to hate his children.” The only reason Alice cooperates, and has sex with the doctor, is his promise to build a hospital for her people. It is an old, familiar story. What is fascinating is the way Rathwell links his descriptions of the fever, which are marvelous, with the passions of unrequited love.

“Tina’s Style” concerns a young immigrant woman and her visiting Muslim family in London during New Year’s Eve. Her best friend, a young, stylish woman named Hannah, favors clothing fashioned by people like Stella McCartney. Tina wears a party dress (“a simple, thin, red thing”) under a burka during her parent’s visit. Her brother Abe wears a “silly suicide vest.”

Poofear and Refluff concerns a private networking community with a fantastic array of usernames: Godbottom, Sandscream, Philopeace, Swordofrighteous, MisterSing, and Doctorsrus. A revolution appears to be in the making, and one thinks of the chaos in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring of 2011. The story is, in fact, set in Egypt, and hints of its background add a flavorful dimension to the irreality of the social networking pool:

Sometimes a jeep or motorcycle roared by on the road to Cairo, or something else, a cry might break the quiet. When that happened, sleeping ibis birds were disturbed from where they waded. They spun around on their thin, tall stems, wings flapping, feet stomping, racing to get up speed towards flight. In the midst of scattered white flowers they rose in great arcs. Water rats squeaked alarm from the reeds.

Rathwell has also added an “Author’s Note” to this collection, which I’m not sure was entirely necessary, as the stories are strong enough on their own not to require an explanation regarding their genesis and structure, but the essay has a certain intrinsic value, firstly as a piece of reflective writing on narration in general, and how it comes to associate language with memory and senses and to “create empathetic reactions,” and as a prose aperitif at the end of a five-course meal.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Aerial Ikebana

I decide, at around 12:30 p.m., to cut loose of the computer and go for a long walk. My usual preference is to go for a run, but my legs are shot. They need a rest. All the experts on the subject affirm that walking helps the runner’s legs heal because it’s a low-impact exercise that stimulates the blood and loosens tight muscles. Well, we’ll see.

I listen to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on YouTube while changing into my running clothes. When it’s over, I click it off. Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles appears on the desktop background. I’ve always loved this painting. The two straw chairs, the lush red blanket poking over the edge of the bed, the bright yellow window panes framed in green, the planks of the bare wooden floor partitioned by various lines of green, the little table with the blue pitcher and bowl, a towel hanging from a peg on the wall. The various shades of blue on the walls, the bright yellow pillows and sheet and solid wooden bed, soft as mousse yet secure as a mountain. It’s a small room with a feeling of coziness and jubilation. Isolated and private, but connected, in an amiable umbilical of implied domestic charm, with the larger life of Arles outside its windows.

I get outside. It really is warm. I can feel the heat of the sun on my skin, but I don’t believe it. I cannot believe my skin. I’m so accustomed to cold and damp in Seattle, even in the summer, quite often in the summer, most especially in the summer, that if I feel the heat of summer, a real summer, the blaze of sunlight tingling on my epidermal nerves, I remain incredulous. But it is a most pleasant incredulity.

I’m amazed at the amount of scaffolding I see everywhere. There is a mania for remodeling evident in the neighborhood. No one is happy with what they have. No one is ever satisfied. The quantity of money spent is dizzying. Astronomical amounts of money are lavished on real estate. The gracefully curved I-beams of the steel skeleton under construction on the corner of Highland and 2nd Avenue will be worth five to seven million. The Space Needle will be neatly centered in the main window with its view to the south. This will be the home of a one-per-center.

I feel a cooling breeze as I approach Queen Anne Avenue North and hear the roar of the first Blue Angel, who flies immediately overheard. It strikes how weird it is that a show of military prowess should provide a summer entertainment. It is this way every year: Seafair. The chief entertainment of Seattle’s Seafair celebration are the hydroplane races on Lake Washingtion, near Seward Park. That’s too far for me to hear, thankfully. But no one can avoid the Blue Angels. They will be dominating the sky for the next several hours.

On Highland, I pass a man singing along with an opera in a silver SUV parked near Gerard Schwartz’s old house. Schwartz, Seattle’s symphony conductor for 26 years, from 1985 to 2011. I used to pass him on my runs. He’d be out and about weeding, mowing the lawn, or tossing a football with one of his kids. One he was out jump starting a car. I shouted “conducting cars these days,eh.” He gave me a look that suggested it wasn’t the best of jokes. Maybe he hadn’t realized it had been intended as a joke. He’d been besieged by petty disputes and disgruntled musicians in his final days. One can only imagine. The house sold for $3,700,000.

I stop at the Betty Bowen Viewpoint at the very end of Highland Drive to admire the view. I can see Puget Sound, Bainbridge and Vashon and Blake Islands, the Olympic Mountains. A zaftig middle-aged woman to my left also gazes. She looks transported. Her right arm is in a black sling.

I once saw Sam Waterston near this viewpoint. Or at least I think it was Sam Waterston. He sure looked like Sam Waterston. He was gazing out at the Olympics and turned just as I went running by and gave me a broad emotional grin. A Sam Waterston grin. He looked familiar. And then I thought of it a few yards later down the road: Sam Waterston.

On my way to West Blaine Street on 8th Avenue North I pass a Volkswagen “bio car.” What’s a “bio car,” I wonder. I presume it runs on methane or farts or maple syrup or something.

In a large sandbox at the end of Howe Street, a couple sit and draw, totally silent, heavy in concentration.

I get to the always busy and rushing 15th Avenue West, a main arterial connecting lower Queen Anne and downtown Seattle to Ballard. I pass Magnolia Storage, where Roberta and I have a bin full of boxes and books and bric-a-brac. Letters dating back to my adolescent Eocene.

I pass the Brown Bear Car Wash and hear its roar as a black Taurus inches forward on rails. I pass the tentacular sponges dancing and wiggling on a white van for a magazine distributor. I notice the mama bear in the rockery of ferns has three cubs, one of which is smaller than the other two. How did that happen? The bears are, I believe, plastic, but I find this smaller of the cubs puts a strange dent in the continuity of the narrative suggested in this neatly gardened rockery.

I pass a furniture consignment store and notice in the far back of the parking lot some sort of set-up involving Polynesian décor, palm fronds and grass. This is the Psychic Tarot Card Readings site advertised by a small portable fold-up sign on the sidewalk.

I pass Bedrock Industries, glass tile and stone art. I pass a giant billboard for Busch beer with the caption “Head for the Mountains.” I pass the Staples where we bought our computer, the Lighthouse Uniform Company, and Builders Hardware & Supply, a big building with a huge array of doorknobs in the window. Nearby is the walk button for the crosswalk. On the other side is Precision Motor Works and the multi-tiered ramp leading up to the overpass crossing the railroad tracks. I always enjoy running up this ramp. But today I must walk it.

There is a giant gray warship of some kind at Terminal 91, parked next to an equally colossal cruise ship named the Golden Princess. The warship, I discover later, is the USS New Orleans, a high-tech amphibious assault ship which ferries Marines and their equipment to and from war zones. It features two immense pyramidal funnels. The ship is festooned with multi-colored pennants and there are concession stands set up below in the parking lot. The ship must be part of Seafair. And again, I wonder, what’s up with the militarism?

I walk the asphalt trail through Myrtle Edwards Park. This has been a bad year for walking the Myrtle Edwards trail. The city is constructing a bridge connecting West Thomas street and lower Queen Anne to the park, which will be great once it’s completed, but in the meantime the bicycle lane has been shut down and the runners and walkers must share their trail with bicyclists hurtling past like meteors. There are signs cautioning the bicyclists to go slow and use caution. They do neither. I wonder how many walkers have been ambulanced to Harborview thanks to one of these crazy bicyclists.

I have a theory, which is this: there are neurons in the anus and rectum of bicyclists that become activated when the bicyclist gets his or her ass on a tiny bicycle seat. And since the neurons are asshole neurons, they immediately turn the bicyclist into an asshole.

I see the vapor trail of a Blue Angel to the south, a huge diaphanous loop already in the process of slow summery dissipation, just above the buildings of downtown Seattle. Minutes later, four Blue Angels shoot straight up and arc out, creating a sort of aerial ikebana.

I pass a cluster of bare-torsoed tattooed twenty-somethings sitting in the shade of a tree. One of them calls out, “hey dude, there’s a beached whale down there.” I stop. He repeats himself. I tell him he’s kidding. He says no, it’s for real. I go have a look. Below is a small pocket beach. It’s feasible a whale could beach itself down there. Whales do come into Puget Sound and on a hot day like today, with all the Seafair hullabaloo and boats on the water, it’s completely feasible. I tell the kid I see nothing. He elaborates, talking about how they straddled the creature, and I begin to worry these kids might be a little on the psychopathic side, and that he’s going to tell me how they tortured the poor creature. Instead, he proceeds with a far-fetched tale of a fat woman jumping down to the whale from the Space Needle, and I realize these kids are having me on. “Let me guess,” I tell them, “you’re all part of a creative writing class.” One of the men tells me he teaches special ed. Another begins another story I don’t really want to hear about some fabulous mythical bird he saw preening itself in a nearby tree. The Blue Angels roar overhead, just a few feet above us, and I use this as an excuse to break off and go my way.

Toward the end of the trail, a booth has been set up for a DJ, who is playing “Because” from the Beatle’s Abbey Road. It’s gorgeous. I nearly start crying. I can’t believe how beautiful this song is. The lushness of the melody and their voices is stunning. I continue. I stop to gaze down at Mark di Suvero's Schubert Sonata, its circular sublimations and metal petals and curves of rusting steel besmirched a little with pigeon dung. A bit further up the gravel trail and I hear the pounding militarism of a hip hop number and see a group of people doing aerobic exercise, following the lead of a young man and woman. The woman thrusts and gyrates. The music is abrasive, aggressive, corporate. It makes me think of vulgar, highly commercialized acts like Madonna and Lady Gaga. It’s madly assertive and sluttish all at once. Worlds apart from the lush harmonies of the Beatles.

I stop at Silver Platters and buy two used DVDs: School of Rock and Young Adult. We’ve seen both movies at least once. We both really like Jack Black, and Richard Linklater, and were fascinated by the character Charleze Theron played in Young Adult, a ghost writer for young adult novels. She’s deeply unhappy and her return to the middle-class neighborhood in the small Minnesota town where she grew up is an interesting pilgrimage involving homemade bourbon and a cynical but dauntless character named Matt Freehauf, played by Patton Oswalt, who was maimed and partially disabled after being beaten up by jocks who erroneously assumed he was gay. I like the way hurt and personal injury is expressed in this movie, and the way Theron punctures the smug banality of her high school buddies.

I get home and am surprised, as I am every summer the temperature rises above 80, at how cool and peaceful our apartment remains. Roberta gets home shortly after I shower and she makes hoagie sandwiches and we watch Jack Black get a bunch of 10 year olds to play rock ‘n roll.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Dawn on a Hardwood Floor

Writing is a process that lifts perception into meaning. Reality can hang by a sinew. The wind carries motion to an oak. An hour burns down, revealing an evangelist and a ventriloquist. There is a fiery wind at the end of a song. No one can predict the jingle of antique exultations. They are absorbed by the work. They become palpable in coalescence. Lightning bounces from bone to bone. The cows give milk and the buffalo graze peacefully by the river.

It is evident that what is created by thought is never as large as a handstand. A pain crawls to the bank to cash itself and the cold is sliced into moons. The perpetual colors of cave art illumine a moist hole and a beard of laughter. The skin of the tongue assumes cognition in a naked reverie of ink. This is why I give names to heat. This is why I write. This is why I don’t write. This is why pills of hectic light spawn paprika on a blue night. Or the ukulele is steeped in snow. Or the mistakenly assumed control of my life is dripping with intricacy. And the same emotion I had yesterday is now a wad of goofy oblivion.

I sense something happening. There is a zip code vast as the laughter of annihilation. I have difficulty understanding the algebra of its prepositions. Up is no longer up. Down is no longer down. There is no in, no out, no on, no along. Here is what I know: there is crackling among the knives. There is an elephant standing amid a cluster of marigold. The dishwasher is noisy. The mirror is literal and the fire is filled with the blood of a thousand warriors.

Experience isn’t limited to consciousness. One must discriminate between what is music and what is furniture. What is actionable and what is rain. What is stippled and what is stipulated. What is the thin broth of a beautiful shin and what is the grievous tangibility of a piece of air.

We think we can control our destiny but we can’t. Consider the volleyballs as they streak through the air. Consider the sand beneath your feet. Consider the waves crashing on the shore. If I touch something and discover it has texture and temperature I assume it has truth and reality as well. But apart from that, I have no control over the shine of the sun or the smell of lotion on a woman’s back or the quality of this season’s coffee at the grocery store. I have no destiny. What I have is the ability to water the garden or ignite a biology with the imagery of revelation. In other words, create illusion. Don’t knock illusion. Illusion is sweet. Illusion is balm.

I can lick the stars. But I can’t get Texas out of my mind. Its endless horizons and jukebox algebra bristling with tongues. If I refer to each entity within the purview of my senses as a pulse of experience, what I intend is that it has an existence in and of itself. The highway demonstrates its vertebrae in snakes. I smell a sandwich of ham and lettuce. The day is ugly and baritone. Is there a cure for infinity? I don’t know. But some things are worth fussing over. Flamingos and copper. Dawn on a hardwood floor.