Thursday, November 12, 2015

This Way

I am in the car with my father. He’s at the wheel and he’s going fast. We’re both enjoying the speed. On the side of the road, the sagebrush is a blur. The high desert plain reaches off, flat and cold and dry, heaped with lava rock cairns. The mountains battle a pale sky. It is November and the peaks are powdered sugar. Ahead of us the road stretches out, straight and narrowing until it disappears in the distance.
My father has been working on this car for years. It’s a Volvo 544 coupe from the sixties. His care is evident in the gloss of the paint, the fabric of the seats, the dash console with its stark white numbers. I think it looks like one of those gangster cars from a black-and-white movie, with the headlights in the lobed wheel wells, the sloping tail, the hood like the nose of a surfboard. I told him that once, and I think he liked it, because he gave a little smile and then went back to talking about the exhaust manifold.
We aren’t talking much, just leaning back in the seats. The wind is howling over the hood. I think my father is slowly pressing harder on the gas.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Progress, or Civilization, As We Know It

Then what is the answer? – Not to be deluded by dreams …

I. A Narrative

Before the advent of civilization as we know it, human lives were nasty, brutish, and short. We lived, in fact, more like animals, unable to exert any control over our environment, fearing death and privation at every turn. We had only what nature supplied in its raw form, wild animals and uncultivated plants for food and clothes, caves for shelter, broken stone for tools.
In this natural state, we ourselves were brutal and violent. The strong could prey upon the weak, might made right, and there was no other law. We had no incentive to develop higher culture, because we were always consumed with protecting ourselves and anything we might produce could easily be taken away.
At some point there was a shift, and we decided to settle in one place. We took control of our food by managing it through agriculture and domestication, and we took control of ourselves through laws and social contracts. This made us safer and more willing to cooperate, and so we were able to innovate in art, technology, and society. We multiplied. We began to dream of grander edifices than the small buildings we had made. And certain men among us rose up as talented leaders around which we could organize ourselves.
Of course there was still danger from less civilized persons. So we built walls to surround our living space, and we built massive buildings to house the people, and to demonstrate that we could.
We had created the first city, and in it there bustled all the activity expected from cities. We made further laws to govern it, we divided up our labor to be more efficient and masterful, we brought the fruits of our agricultural labors into the city to trade. We invented writing to keep track of our possessions and who owed what to whom. Soon, in the natural course of things, we created money, debt, and taxes. We had the time and space to develop high art, to further refine our architecture, to deepen our studies of the mysteries of religion.
We prospered. We were safer, better fed, more productive, happier. Seeing how we lived, the less civilized began to emulate our way of life. In this way, civilization spread, out of the fertile crescent, around the Mediterranean, into Europe and Asia.
As more of us joined the ranks of the civilized, we developed higher and higher technology. We sailed around the globe, began the project of exploring every dark corner. We often encountered people living in squalor, naked, as animals essentially, like the stone age people we once had been. Though they had to give up some of the older ways to which they were accustomed, it was clear that our high technology was the wave of the future rolling in. Though there were sacrifices to be made surely, in the broader flow of history they were necessary to allow for forward progress.
Over a few centuries, technology and social systems developed apace. The inherent value of every human life became apparent, and we worked to bring the products of modern culture to everyone. We began to conquer war, disease, and famine. Around the world, people were living longer, healthier, happier lives. We performed incredible feats of science and engineering, gaining insight into the unseen building blocks of the universe, its vast expanses. We began to dream of taking our civilization to other worlds.
And here we are. We are the height of the human project. There have certainly been some hiccups along the way, some engineering problems, some steps backward. But technology has advanced so quickly in recent times, we have things now that would have been unimaginable fifty, twenty, even ten years ago. That technology will surely permeate every part of life, and iron out any kinks.
We’re on the cusp: all this time, civilization has been steadily advancing, making life safer, happier, more just. If we can just stick it out over this hump, everything will be perfect.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Answer by Robinson Jeffers

Then what is the answer? ˗ Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history … for contemplation or in fact …
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,
the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

Monday, May 11, 2015

About to Fly

Some thoughts I penned in the airport before leaving South Korea, after two years of living and teaching there.

So, you sit in a cafe. You speak Korean to the barista; she understands you and you understand her. You do not know when next you will say these words, have the feeling of them on your tongue.

The cafe is average and the coffee bad. It is loud and full of patrons. A young woman spills a drink, rushes for napkins. You have learned to appreciate coffee, both when it’s good, and when its bad just for its presence, hot and bitter.

The cafe is nestled deep in the airport, in the international terminal, past the security check point and immigration, where the officer took away your Alien Registration Card. He asked simply, May I keep this? And you nodded because you expected this, and in fact the process in this bureaucratic country was in this instance surprisingly simple. Still, a filament was broken then, one more strand of the many that tie you here, parting like piano wire under great strain. Many of these lines are stretched taught and you feel their hooks pulling in the muscle of your heart.

These are your last images of this country: a sticky table under globular lights, everyone around you in transit, unmoored, the sunset over the wing of the waiting aircraft. The ceiling of the terminal stretching low into the distance like an inverse runway. Duty free shops lit like upscale bars, egg-shell lamps, all products seemingly false.

Behind you are the green monsoon mountains, furred in pines, and the granite islands heaving from sea-glass breakers. Salt off the sea in the wind. Warm night air and calm sea, swimming naked. Herons and egrets hunting in the damp evening through the green rice paddies. Dish upon dish filling the low tables, pallets of colors and flavors in food, each precise. Coffee and beer and rice wine and liquor. Nights danced down to morning and the hot sun coming. And all those friends, each face and voice distinct, unique.

This is one of those terrible wonderful moments, when its clear that not one of us can be replaced. Not a moment with another person can be replaced. Yet the past persists this way, in flashing clarity of memory, in the deep tug in the heart of your heart.

Remember this. Even this moment, when you feel adrift and countryless, when no one near you will you see again, when you are in transit to another life. Remember the feeling of your friends face against your chest, her hot tears. Remember conversations in the night by the sea, hearing the waves. Remember reading Spanish poetry, remember singing in harmony. Remember friends and friends and friends.

You, lonely and hurting, you have memory, as you fly to another country.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

September - Yuba River

Dispatches from Nowhere #6 - The Shark and The Net

“… recently off Australia's coast ... a fishing trawler's net snagged a frilled shark...

… ‘The head on it was like something out of a horror movie. It was quite horrific looking’ …

… Relatively little is known about the frilled shark, whose name refers to its six pairs of gills. The animals are believed to live at depths of between several hundred and several thousand feet. They've rarely been seen in their natural environment, and a rare living specimen, caught in Japan in 2007, died soon after it was put in a large seawater pool...

… nearly all of the rare animal's closest relatives are long extinct …”

‒ Bill Chappell
NPR News
January 21st, 2015


I speak this way because it is how you can hear me.

There is only this world, this universe, all its black depths.

Soon I will dissolve – my particles will be in the sea, the land. They will not cease to mourn.


For a long time I was in that safe darkness, depth above and below. The unceasing tides that washed over me.

I knew below by the scent: stone, fetid dust, sulphur, cold and food.

I knew above by barbs of light lancing the green-black.

I knew the surge of tide and storm. I knew the moon by its touch not its sight.

I knew space.

I knew loneliness. Because there are few like me now. Those that were have passed out of all memory. The few of us know the horror of rareness. We wane and wane.


Now more horrific: I have heard the grating wreckage of coral, I have heard the scream of the whale, the fearful dart of the tuna, who had few fears before. I have heard screaming, and worse I have heard the nets surge toward the surface like a sick tide and leave behind silence.

There is always the hive-like drone that runs through the water, so constant we seem to forget it. It dulls my skin, it makes me unaware. This is perhaps why I was caught in the net. Or perhaps it is that nothing can escape the net, no matter how old, or rare.


I know this has happened before – it is a surety in my blood. My family has seen the sea silent and cold, hot and acid and algal. This has happened before. It is not the same as living to feel it.

Perhaps this is why I was caught in the net, why I swim this glass cage. No longer to feel what is happening so acutely.


There is no openness here, yet a choking lightness, none of the comforting pressure holding a body, none of the cool dark. Above there is the bright light and then the emptiness of air and beyond of space – thin, lonely.

And there is you. I heard your word ‘horror,’ in the click of your camera, the tone of your voice. Horror and nightmare, you speak this of me. You hive of apes, you clever fleshy virus, you who strip land to bone, kill the sea.

One day you will be rare too, you horror. Someday you will speak into a vastness, an abyssal blackness, and nothing will answer.

I leave you with this.