June 29, 2007

Rain Haiku 2

In honor of the wettest May and June in central Texas, not only in my memory but in anyone's.

Raindrops in coffee cup --
clear cold spears splashing hot brown --
I’m arms out, sky-eyed.

No, cat, you can’t run
between raindrops. Drink the wet
from your sleek white fur.

Whenever it rains
haiku ideas come to me.
No, not ideas -- storms.


June 28, 2007

Then and Now: A Face

When I was thirty I looked at my face in the mirror, the baby smooth skin, the longing liquid eyes, the thin cheeks, and thought, “This is a face that has been untouched by life.” I didn’t know enough to want to keep it that way.

Now I look at the skin tags, the baggy eyes, the yellowed sclera, the drooping eyelid, the wrinkled sockets, the hanging jowls, the thickened neck, the puffy cheeks, the parchment forehead, the bumps, the pores, the blotches, and think, “Touched--and not harmed.”


June 26, 2007

In No Voice

Not to speak for one’s subject, but to let each thing speak for itself. The dirty white bubbles when you wash your hands after a day outside. The grateful sting of eyedrops after a long night’s reading. A dust-rimmed empty can of tea: pencils, a two-euro coin, ancient dried-up tea leaves.

Thinking of buying a photograph. A photograph of a hand adjusting the frame of a photograph. The stillness of angles, the quiet of black and white.


June 24, 2007

Travel Notes: Comfort, Texas

Down the road a few miles from Welfare, another of those little Hill Country towns named by the German immigrants who stopped and settled instead of continuing further west, having recognized a paradise when they saw it. Comfort was founded by freethinkers and abolitionists and, like many towns in this part of the state, voted against secession in the Civil War. In fact a battle broke out here between local Union sympathizers and Confederate soldiers, and a monument flies the flag permanently at half-staff.

It’s about 110 miles from Austin, through the broken plateau with its toothed hills and seasonally flooding creek beds. Once, we stayed at an inn here, crossing a bridge over a waterless rocky gulley, and after an overnight storm the creek bed overflowed into the pasture and almost to the house. That’s what the wildflowers count on. By this time they’re darker than in the spring, dusty purple and orange like dirt-smudged fruit, with lots of bare stalks, and they appeal to me as much as in their youth. I’d like to stay with them, to sit with them and talk about what we’ve seen and what we remember. The Hill Country storms also make Richard’s Rainwater possible: the nation’s first bottled rainwater company, its tall collecting tanks rising in faded crayon colors above a green meadow. When you get past the For Sale signs on the ranchland on Highway 290, there’s a wildflower seed farm: a big square field of purple next to a big square field of orange next to a big square field of yellow; a lavender farms. And peach orchards and blackberry bushes, and roadside stands one after another offering homemade jams, ice creams, cobblers, and pies. A claque of adoring purple flowers applauds rapturously at the feet of graceful young fruit trees.

With a population of about 2,400, Comfort strikes me as a smaller and more easeful Boerne, which in turn, at 10,000, is a smaller and infinitely more bearable Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg, the area’s foremost cutesey-boutiquey retro-Teutonic daytrip destination, has become absolutely choked with chain hotels and fast-food franchises and weekend crowds, while Boerne offers the same features – the town square, the streets signs in German, the big stone library, the old houses with nineteenth-century trellises and columns, the cowboy-style storefronts – and still makes them a pleasure. In Boerne’s outskirts, I drove past a spanking new biotech company and right afterwards 2 Fat Guys Complete Automotive.

Comfort was where I stopped and walked, though. High Street is lined with antique shops and cafes and the storefront public library, a 1916 native limestone building incorporating elements of an earlier building. The Closet, a dress shop, is also a full-sized old-fashioned soda fountain with big vinyl booths. In Bud Kracher’s antique shop, amid beautiful tables and armoire, I saw an authentic Sinclair gasoline pump with the dinosaur logo, $2,250. A sign points to Comfort Cellars Winery, as small a winery as you could possibly hope for –- I couldn’t find it, and concluded it must be someone’s backyard. Across the street, the window of the Meet Market, a club-in-progress, bears a handwritten “Opening Soon” sign, with each of its optimistic dates crossed off and replaced by a later one—“Spring!”—“Summer!”—and finally someone’s scrawled response, “Really?”

High Street is marred by the gutted shell of a big old limestone building protected by a chain fence, but it’s no long-term eyesore. It’s the Ingenhuett Store, a landmark built in 1887 and burned in the middle of a March night in 2006. There are ribbons on the fence, and signs saying how much the store is missed and promising to rebuild it. Down the street, two of the Ingenhuetts’ ancestral homes have been preserved; the newer one, from about 1900, is a reasonable size, but the original is tiny; yet here lived the town’s first family, who owned the hotel, the saloon, and many of the stores, and who filled the lucrative sinecure of postmaster.

Comfort. Just enough city escapees have moved here to keep it alive. No evidence of construction anywhere downtown. In an antique mall I was sorely tempted by an Arkansas toothpick in a beaded leather sheath, but it was a multi-owner place and the cashiers weren’t authorized to bargain. Well, I was just as glad to see it and leave it alone. I strolled and smiled, I greeted shopkeepers and appreciatively left without buying, and drove home carrying plenty to write about.

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June 21, 2007

“The divorce is granted and the agreement is approved.”

It was first come first served at the uncontesteds’ counter, and I was the earliest to arrive, along with the junior lawyer who was shepherding me through. A simple and sometimes nonchalant process: after I passed through the metal detector in the courthouse lobby, she and I had tried to find each other by walking slowly around in the crowd and giving furtive are-you-the-one glances, trying to guess each other’s identity on the basis of vague descriptions, like a couple on a blind date.

In the elevator we talked about how she’d had a flat tire that morning and had used Fix-a-Flat, a recourse I highly recommend. It was my first time in a courtroom, and I sat in one of the rows of spectator seats, with four or five other about-to-be-divorced citizens and their lawyers waiting scattered. Our judge was a cranky type on the verge of retirement, the lawyer had advised me, but she turned out to be perfectly human. She mistakenly called the lawyer “sir” instead of “ma’am” and apologized smilingly, and she sounded sincere when she told me, “Good luck to you, sir,” at the end. It was just a matter of answering “correct” to seven or eight formulaic questions as the junior lawyer had coached me to in the hallway.

The judge entered the courtroom at 8:30 a.m. and by 8:35 I was on my way out, having been wished a friendly, “You can go now,” by the lawyer, who had another client to usher through. (“What a way to meet people,” that divorcee had told me as we chatted uncomfortably before the opening of the session.)

I wandered the halls. I lingered to read the family court docket, a long sheet of printout paper taped to a glass door: restraining orders, divorce trials, and assorted motions. I read the names of the parties and wondered who they were, what had brought them to this. Out on the street again I started walking to the state capitol, near which someone I know is going to start a job soon, and for some reason I started thinking of myself in the third person. “The man is walking up the hill. He looks at the bronze statue of a soldier next to the fountain. He turns around and heads for where his car is parked.” It made me feel better to think that way. At some point I was focused enough to drive home.

At some moments I wanted to plunge back into work and at others I wanted to lie down and sleep, so I alternated both strategies through the day. Waking up from a nap at 3:00, I warned myself that if I didn’t get up and get moving I might go into a downslide, not to mention bing unable to sleep once night came. So I went to the gym and that energized me. Then I dropped by the martial arts school to pay a test fee for the kids, then I went to pick them up from day camp, then I took the three of us for ice cream, and then I drove us home and made them take showers, they were filthy from playing in the dirt all day.

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June 19, 2007

Yin and Yang in Relationships and Recreation

My divorce becomes official in a couple of days. I was going to wait till then to give you a report, but why wait? I feel thoughts bubbling up right now, and in a couple of days I might have more observations.

It’s my policy not to say anything specific here about the situation, out of respect for others’ privacy, and I’m just going to bend that policy to the extent to telling you that it’s hard to imagine a divorce going any better than this one. We’ve negotiated a fair settlement, we’re amicable as can be, the kids are thriving (largely as a result of their own inner development, I think, as well as seeing that their parents’ breakup hasn’t created enmity), and we all eat dinner together once a week.

In short, things may be better now than before, and that’s the goal of a breakup.

I’m still feeling ridiculously upbeat, and thinking of Katie’s adage, “When you things can’t possibly get any better, they have to.” At the same time I’m tempering my mood by reminding myself that the wheel keeps turning and downturns are inevitable. I’ve lived through a great many of those in my time. This time, though, there feels like a difference in the texture of my anticipation: I’m telling myself that if I fall into pessimism, that’s just the night coming on and night is the time for growth and dreams, for the ascent of intuition, for unseen preparations. (“Telling myself?” What’s the good of that, you ask? In fact one of my recent pleasant surprises is how much change can be accomplished through self-talk. This is in line with the ideas of cognitive therapy, rational emotive therapy, and The Work.)

Another reason I’m feeling good is that this past weekend I attended a great 16-hour workshop in Chen style tai chi, taught by Cheng Jin-Cai (pronounced Chung Jin-Tsai), a great master who grew up next to the ancestral Chen village. He has studied for 47 years (he’s my age), and is the 19th generation successor of the originator of this style. Previously I’ve studied Yang style, which is the most popular in the US and I think in China too. Chen, the original tai chi style, is much more physically demanding and more martial in its approach. To see Grandmaster Cheng at work, to feel him throw you with absolutely no use of force – just a tiny shrug as you try to push him and then fly off his body – and to hear corroborated stories of his healing abilities -- is to believe that chi, the Chinese version of the life force, may really exist, whether it’s hormonal or neurological or something else. He’s also a fine teacher despite limited English. Like a Western teacher and unlike a Chinese teacher, he doesn’t withhold selected parts of his knowledge from you, and he patiently pays attention to each individual student.

If you’re anywhere near Houston and are interested in this kind of practice, I recommend looking him up. My teacher, who’s a sixth-degree black belt, regularly travels 3 hours into Houston to take private lessons from him. Cheng brought along an assistant, an Asian-American who owns his own tai chi school and has been practicing for “only” 27 years, who regularly drives seven hours from New Orleans to Houston for that purpose. This assistant has studied with prominent masters in China, Taiwan, and elsewhere, and says he had never found a true teacher until Cheng Jin-Cai.

The experience has renewed my enthusiasm for tai chi, which had waned over the past couple of years because I’d found Chen style bewilderingly difficult. I’m practicing again, and it feels good.

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June 14, 2007

Sailing Solo

All my life from the age of seventeen I've either had a mate or, in the aftermath of a relationship, was actively looking for another. Now I seem to see a different vision shimmering on the horizon, the faint mist of another possibility: is it possible to travel alone?

A solo journey? It hadn't occurred to me before. Worth sailing toward the mist before it burns away?


June 10, 2007

The Festival at 3 a.m.

The last links of jalapeno smoked sausage have been washed down with wildly inappropriate wines. From the tentsites in the hills come guitar chords and whoops of celebration, and no one shouts, “Hey, I’m trying to sleep.” You sit at a campfire with people you don’t know, listening to songs you’ve never heard before. You half-stumble in the dark on the path to the community toilets, moving aside into a branch of a juniper to let two lovers pass on their way to their tent. Down in the hollow you stay another half-hour to watch the fire dancers twirl their flaming torches behind them and through their legs and across their shoulders as they bend and turn and arch their backs to a fierce song strummed by a hoarse singer.

If you spread your sleeping bag at your host’s campsite you’ll just toss awake listening to the song circles at the campfires. So you keep walking past the darkened outdoor stage, past the entrance gate, to the rocky, rutted farmer’s field that’s the parking lot, and for ten minutes you search for your car. Sometimes a couple or a threesome walks nearby, uncatchable phrases fluttering like batwings. Eventually you fit your key into the door lock. You perform a number of tests to see which would be less uncomfortable, curling up in the back seat or lowering the front seat, and your head knocks the rearview mirror awry and you knee knocks into the gearshift. The rear windshield is damply mud-specked but is that an almost-full moon through it? No, it’s the white light from the parking lot lamppost.

You get into position but you’re still awake. It’s a matter of waiting now, waiting for your mental state to shift, for hybrid animals, long-gone friends, and movie stars to appear and the landscape to change like a slide show, and then for it all to bow goodnight and sink away. You watch your consciousness slow down, speed up, a leg twitch, a new thought, a replayed conversation, a remembered face, will your mind spin till morning, which side will the sun rise on, will you wake up with a neckache, and is there any reason not to feel that this is the peak moment of your life?

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June 07, 2007

What think'st thou the difference, then, 'twixt friendship and love?

Love demands; friendship requests.

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June 05, 2007

An Experiment in Equanimity

When I conducted the experiment with anger, two things happened that I wouldn’t have guessed. One was how easy it was to let anger drop. I’d expected to put myself through a series of trials of awareness therapy, paying attention to episodes of anger until they receded and took their place humbly alongside the other emotions, like obstreperous schoolkids finally sitting down in their seats when the teacher stares at them long enough.

Instead, the first time I tried it out, my anger felt so ridiculous -– and so frail, so lacking in the strength it pretended to display -– that my only inclination to repeat the experiment was because it would fulfill a resolution. But what’s the point of a resolution to do something obsolete? The idea of going around cursing people in my mind, or with my voice, had become irrelevant -– not in one stroke, but in one step across a threshold long approached. I tried it out a couple of times in brief isolated minor bursts and it just didn’t convince me. And since the idea was to bring out authentic emotion, not to drum up false emotion, I let it drop. Whether I’ll spontaneously enter the state of mind to run another trial, I don’t know, because everything in the future is “I don’t know.”

The second surprise was that I went beyond restraining my anger, into actively playing the role of the person who projects anger onto others: the passive-aggressive one, using others as containers for the anger he doesn’t admit having, and if possible, overfilling them till they spill all over the place. Instead of being the button, I became the button-pusher; instead of the infuriated, I became the infuriating. I finally learned what I had known intellectually for years but hadn’t yet been able to put into practice: that the one who stays calm wins.

I had been raised with the assumption that anger is a contest to see who can shout loudest and scare the other person more. Perhaps in some cultures it is that. But in the culture I live in now, it’s the opposite: anger is a staring contest, except that instead of the loser being the one who laughs, the loser is the one who shouts. The substance of what is being shouted about doesn’t matter; the mere act of raising the voice rules that evidence out of court.

It’s so comically clear all at once!

If a person who curses a fellow driver is a jackass, it’s not so much because cursing is obnoxious as because the curser doesn’t realize he’s putting himself in the wrong.

If the other driver honks at you and gives you the finger, smile and wave –- blow him a kiss, for God’s sake. You can’t lose. If your friendliness eases his temper, you get good karma back. If your friendliness angers him further and he goes home and kicks the cat, well, he might have done it anyway, the unstable, personality-disordered nut. You’ve proven that he’s dangerous and you’ve preserved your karmic deniability.

From now on I’m unflappable. Look out, anyone who wants to get me steamed. I’ve always been very good at staring contests.