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Uncommon names

I just noticed that there's a reporter named Theoden Janes at the Charlotte Observer. That first name can't have come from anywhere other than Tolkien, can it? I've never seen it anywhere else before.

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56

I post things on Facebook that in the past I would have posted here, so let me share this one for those of you who haven't seen it already:

Thanks to Elonna Marci and her daughter Sophia (aka the Neighbors) for serving a lovely birthday dinner to me and Denys last night. We ate on their back porch just like old times, and the elders talked about movies that were made before new high schooler Sophia was born, because that's what adults do, right?

Today I'm 56 years old. It's hard not to feel that birthdays have become some kind of perverse countdown now, but I'll try to be good and see it as a countdown to ecstasy -- reelin' in the years and all that. It doesn't help that because of phone transition adventures, the Seahawks game, and dinner yesterday I didn't make it to my scheduled blood draw, so now I have to start my birthday with that. It was supposed to be on the 19th anyway, until I tried to change it, so I guess it's fate. Curse you, fate!

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The Cost of Hope by Amanda Bennett

Cost of Hope.jpgLabeled "A Memoir" on the jacket, this book is actually trying to do a lot of different things. The subtitle is "The Story of a Marriage, a Family, and the Quest for Life." In the blurbs, Judy Woodruff is quoted: "This extraordinary, memorable look inside the life of a loving family facing a terrible diagnosis raises urgent questions all of us need answered about the delivery and cost of medical care in our country." This book was given to me by my brother months ago, and now that I've read it I'll be curious to find out what he took from it, because I had a hard time with it.

It's a portrait of a man, Terence Foley, and of the author's relationship with and marriage to him, and it's the story of his battle with cancer. Scattered throughout is evidence that the book started out as two magazine articles about how much money that battle with cancer cost. I had problems with most of this, to be honest. Amanda Bennett was obviously deeply in love with her husband, but her portrait of him makes him seem like a Type A jerk to me. She portrays him as a larger than life genius, and he clearly was extremely bright and ambitious and driven. All of it seemed out-of-proportion to me. He comes across as over-bearing and arrogant. She portrays their relationship as tempestuous, with constant arguments and shouting at each other. Again, I think this is meant to show that they were passionately in love and deeply engaged and connected in ways that surpass reason, but I found the portrayal of their relationship just as irritating as the portrayal of Terence Foley. Maybe I just don't know enough super-ambitious, super-accomplished people, so they just seem alien to me. Their lives didn't look like much fun to me, but Bennett keeps insisting it was fun turned up to eleven.

As for the cost of battling cancer, I almost stopped reading the book because I found that part of the book so perverse. Who is it aimed at? Is she asking me to stop and think about what my treatment costs before I agree to try it? She ultimately admits that they didn't do so, because they had insurance that covered it. Me too! I don't think it's up to the patient to figure out whether the price of treatment is "worth it." If I was paying out of pocket (like one friend of mine is) it would be different, because then I'd have to think about debt, but the evidence seems to indicate that people who are about to die don't really give a shit about debt, for fairly obvious reasons. Ultimately I thought she might be aiming that part of the book at policymakers, because one point she makes is that through looking at the insurance bills after her husband died, she learned that different hospitals charge different prices for the same procedures and that different insurance companies pay different amounts/percentages for the same procedures. I would agree that this probably ends up making our health system inefficient and too expensive, but again, I think that's something that needs to be dealt with in law, not in my decisions about what treatments to take.

What kept me going through a book that irritated me over and over again was the story of Foley's struggle with cancer and Bennett's struggle to accept her beloved husband's mortality. There's another dimension to "the cost of hope" that she at least flirts with, which is whether the hope that the loved one will survive leads one to make bad decisions that cause suffering. She gets into the nitty gritty of their research into different treatments for kidney cancer that were just going into clinical trial at the time Foley was diagnosed, and that's all quite interesting. Yet while it shows you the difficulty of the some of the decisions they had to make, in the end it seems that they made good decisions that didn't prolong his suffering. So is this book going to help me make good decisions when the difficult decisions start to come? It's hard to say. The bottom line seems to be how much you are willing to suffer for a chance to live a little bit longer. When it gets to the point where they have to take drastic measures to keep you alive, that's probably not such a hard decision, but I have no idea what will happen if/when the tumor returns and they ask if I want to do another round of chemo, more surgery, or a new treatment for which they don't have much data yet. Reply hazy, ask again later.

Blasts from the past, recent and less so

As I think I mentioned in my post about the eight days in Oregon in August, I returned to more emotional turmoil than usual, and it just got worse for the next week or so. I characterized it to those who asked as feeling sorry for myself, and certainly part of it was feeling roiled about my cancer and the treatment for it and where this is all likely to end up. But there were other components to what I was feeling that had nothing to do with cancer or treatment or mortality. It's difficult to write about, because it's pretty abject emotional territory and because I don't want to name names. Basically I got very angry at a female friend of mine, and at myself, because I have a thing for her and thought she reciprocated but has lately seemed to pull away from me. I've already gone through one cycle of feeling this way about her, right after radiation treatment, and I've now realized that part of what was going on this time is that when I got back from the trip with Hortensia in July, I felt at a very deep, insecure level, that I had lost a life partner of some kind. This made me feel desperately lonely and inadequate, so I almost immediately shifted all the intense feelings I had for Hortensia onto this other friend of mine. Mind you, this was all internal to me. Nothing was expressed or communicated, thankfully so. It was all taking place in my imagination, for one thing. All of it. The idea that Hortensia was still a potential life partner should have died back in 2009, but I was incapable of facing facts. The idea that my friend is pulling away from me is almost certainly completely a by-product of my imagination too, because the idea that she reciprocated in the first place was also a projection on my part.

The fact is she's a popular girl with a busy social life and lots of guys chasing after her, and I've always been on the margins of that. The fact that I can still get twisted up in my own internal romantic projections is deeply embarrassing to me, but as soon as I realized that I was doing it to compensate for the perceived loss of Hortensia, my levels of anxiety, self-pity, and anger dropped through the floor. As I wrote to another friend recently, "As stupid and immature and flailing as I think these emotional shenanigans are, I can forgive myself for my loneliness and my desire for love." I've never been very smart when it comes to love, but I hope I've gained at least a little self-knowledge over the years. It doesn't ever seem to help me gain the love I yearn for, but it has helped me recognize the love that I actually get nonetheless, including from "lost" Hortensia, who may no longer be a prospective life partner but still sends a hell of a lot of affection my way, bless her copious heart.

On another emotional front, earlier this week I found a Message Request in Facebook that was sent back in August 2015. It was from a woman who was a childhood friend of mine in Salem. We stayed in contact for a few years after high school graduation, but then we lost contact in the late '80s. Last time I saw her was at our ten year high school reunion in 1988. I've wondered about her over the years but wasn't bright enough to try to look her up on Facebook. There aren't that many people from that era of my life that I still think about. Why her? As we've been chatting in the past few days I'm realizing that she was one of my earliest friends, dating back to pre-school days, before my family moved to Yap. She and her mom lived just a few blocks from our house, her aunt and uncle were our next door neighbors, and we went to school together from fifth through twelfth grade. I suspect we went to kindergarten together too, but she doesn't remember that. She did confirm that she went to the Little Red School House, which is the one I went to.

It has been a strange trip to get her perspective of those long ago days. She told me it took her days to build up the nerve to even say Hi to me after we got back from Yap. It sounds like she may have had a crush on me in high school too. I had no idea, partly because she was too shy to tell me, but no doubt partly because I was fixated on girls who were basically unobtainium to me. Story of my life, eh? Or so I tell myself. She claims there were girls in high school who were warning her off from me. Was that in her own head? Or were there girls who actually were right next to me, yearning for me to ask them out? Probably so, which makes me feel absolutely autistic. Or maybe they were girls I wasn't interested in. Well, shit, no wonder I hated high school so much! I had no fucking clue about anything emotional or social, and if someone had feelings for me that I didn't reciprocate, my impulse would have been to run and hide. I've been looking back at some of my old correspondence from right after high school and rolling my eyes at what a self-serious, pretentious, overly-intellectual twit I was. It took me decades to learn how to tell my friends that I loved them and was grateful for their friendship. Yet I always had a group of good friends, so I must not have been *completely* awful. I was probably more generous with my feelings and my support than I remember being, but I lacked self-confidence.

Anyway, I'm guessing there will be more noodling about the past in the future. I'll be very interested to see where reminiscing with this old friend will lead down the twisty path of Memory Lane.

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Sussex My Lady Tongue.jpgLucy Sussex is an Australian writer whom I've actually met. In fact, she gave me the copy of this collection of short fiction when Sharee and I visited her and her partner, Julian Warner, at their Melbourne home just over a decade ago. I've run into her socially in Seattle at least once since then, too.

In any event, I've tagged this post "science fiction," but these stories are mostly not what I would consider science fiction. A lot of them are tales of the uncanny or the weird, frequently with touches of horror. It took me a while to get into what she was up to. My best guess as to why is that her prose is so terse and blunt that the exposition was often hard for me to absorb. I often had to go back and reread earlier parts of the story to figure out what was going on, because I'd missed some clipped clue. This isn't exposition, but here's an example of her pared style: "Shane looked astounded and the lawyer, daggers." Even someone with as blunt a style as Octavia Butler gets her exposition across through repetition, describing the same process over and over in different contexts until the ideas sink in, like tendrils into flesh. However, that's in novels, where space/wordcount is basically unlimited, not in short fiction where space is at a premium.

I'm not going to go into every story in the collection, which would frankly require me to reread most of them to remember the plots. The title story, "My Lady Tongue," which is probably the longest, won the 1989 Ditmar award, which is the award for Best Australian SF handed out at the national science fiction convention. It's the closest thing to a classical science fiction story in the collection, by my standards, reminding me of Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr, and Angela Carter. It's set in an enclave of isolationist dykes who refuse all contact with men. They reproduce through artificial insemination, although they're working on a process to turn eggs into something that fertilize other eggs. In this future, there are circles of less ideological/separationist feminists surrounding this inner core. The protagonist was raised by two woman, or rather born to one and raised by another. She's a troublemaker who is in love with the daughter of a woman who doesn't appreciate trouble. She looks up her biological mother and relates a story about an adventure she had when she was younger, scouting for some territory where the separatists could move to isolate themselves completely from men. Sussex has a satirical eye for ideologues and their contradictions, and the irony of the story is that Raffy (short for Raphael) was rescued by a man on her adventure and forced to spend months in his company while she recovered from an injury. She is furthermore exposed to the poetry of another man, William Shakespeare, in the process. As confused as I sometimes got by the different layers of the society portrayed, I found this an immensely appealing, humanistic, wry story. Of the writers I listed as influences, it seems most closely allied with Angela Carter and her eye for impurity and contradiction, although Carter was a much more sensual prose stylist than Sussex is.

"Red Ochre" is a strange story set in a future Australia where there are mutants, which are related in some mysterious (magical? religious?) way to Aboriginal rock paintings. It's worth noting, perhaps, that another part of my difficulty with understanding her prose sometimes was her copious use of unfamiliar Aussie slang. "Go-To" is a horror story about vivisection, animal rights, and unintended consequences. "The Lipton Village Society" is perhaps a meditation on Utopia and the process of trying to inhabit our ideals, although it can also be read as a story about fandom and its escapist tendencies. "God and Her Black Sense of Humour" starts out being a lark about the '60s groupies who made plaster casts of their rock gods' dicks, and turns into a weird variation on Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood. Black sense of humor, indeed! Bonus points from me for the bizarre alternative Frank Zappa who seems all too credible as a businessman and curator of cult items. In fact, there's a lot of fun name-dropping in this story, betraying a penchant for arcane research that's on display throughout the book.

Despite my initial difficulties, by the end of the collection I'd been won over by the off-beat ideas, off-beat humor, and embrace of the perverse that I found in Sussex's stories. This is not escapist fiction, but challenging, probing literature.

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Pym A Glass of Blessings.jpgBack in March I read Pym's Excellent Women -- an excellent novel -- and when I enthused about it on Facebook the Australian writer Lucy Sussex recommended A Glass of Blessings as another good one by Pym. The two books could be read as a dialogue of a kind, and they even share a character: Rocky Napier, who shows up in Excellent Women as a possible object of romantic interest who was known to have been a ladies man among the WRENs (military nurses) while serving in Italy during WWII. Here the protagonist, Wilmet, and her friend Rowena, were WRENs in Italy during the war and knew Rocky and perhaps even dated him.

Excellent Women takes place pretty shortly after the war and is very much about the reduced circumstances of Britain in that era, before the economy had recovered from the devastation. A Glass of Blessings, which was published in 1958, seems to be set a few years later, when the economy has recovered somewhat. Certainly Wilmet is in a more comfortable situation than Mildred is in Excellent Women. In fact, Wilmet seems to be too comfortable. She's pretty, fashionable, married to a successful member of a Ministry. She doesn't work and has no children, the domestic chores are handled by servants, so she is a little bored with her aimless life.

Both novels are centered on Anglican parishes, but I find it hard to parse Pym's attitude toward religion. She has a satirical eye toward everything, including the Church, but at the same time she is not unsympathetic to the Good Samaritan qualities of the religious people in her novels. The excellent women in the novel of that name are indisposable in the functioning of society through their volunteer and charitable work, mostly under the auspices of the Church. Wilmet, however, unlike Mildred, comes across as more of a parasite than a Good Samaritan, and therefore initially she is quite a bit less sympathetic. However, I identified with her inadequate helpfulness to others and her self-deprecating self-awareness of her inadequacy.

Wilmet is a passive dreamer who wishes she were a better, more giving human being. A lot of the satire in the novel is a satire of her muddled lack of motivation to do anything with herself, her vanity about her looks and fashion sense, and the tawdriness of her romantic dreams. Wilmet is bored with her husband, Rodney, and she's looking for an admirer to help her feel that she's still attractive and wanted. She finds a potential admirer in Piers, the brother of her friend Rowena. '[Rowena] usually spoke of him as "Poor Piers", for there was something vaguely unsatisfactory about him. At thirty-five he had had too many jobs and his early brilliance seemed to have come to nothing. It was also held against him that he had not yet married.'

A Glass of Blessings is in some ways a romance novel about Wilmet's futile daydreams about Piers, which are flailing, tentative, and unexpressed for almost the whole novel. Like Mildred, Wilmet dreams of some kind of romantic passion worthy of the trashy novels she reads, but she is helpless to actuate such a thing. In the wry perspective of the novel, this is probably just as well, because such dreams are completely detached from the reality that we all have to settle for less than our ideal.

I'm going to commit a SPOILER here, because what is in many ways the most interesting thing about this novel is a major spoiler. After a whole book of dithering and waiting and misapprehending the signals various characters are trying to send her, Wilmet eventually does make a move on Piers to the extent of actually bulling her way into his household. There she finds that his roommate is a beautiful young man who dotes on Piers, does all the cooking, and cleans the house. Pym never comes right out and says it, but it becomes clear over the final couple of chapters that Piers and his housemate are in fact a gay couple, and the novel gives us an interesting, if oblique, glimpse of gay life in the suburbs of London of that era. One question I have coming away from the novel is, if Wilmet is looking for (and finding) an admirer in Piers, what is Piers looking for in her? Acceptance of his sexuality? If you go back to his sister's characterization of him, does "he had had too many jobs" indicate that he'd been fired for being a homosexual? Does the "early brilliance come to nothing" mean he has been ostracized? In any event, Pym's attitude toward Wilmet's romantic dreams is captured in the fact that the two admirers she attracts over the course of the novel are the husband of her best friend who half-heartedly wants to commit adultery and a gay man who seems happily coupled with a young beauty of a boy.

If Wilmet becomes a more appealing as the book goes on, it's because her self-awareness, while it may not motivate her to good works. allows hers to accept the fundamental absurdity of her situation and her dreams. She *does* accept Piers and the beautiful young man he lives with, and her eccentric, acidic, atheist mother-in-law (a wonderful character), her stodgy husband, the strange trio of parsons in the local parish, and her doormat of a friend, Mary Beamish, and Mary's selfish, domineering mother. This is a novel of colorful characters, even if some of the colors are drab and faded. Pym doesn't overplay the romanticism of her protagonists, which is I think a common problem with satires of romanticism, but she keeps it in scale with the limited choices and constrained circumstances and day-to-day humiliations her characters have to deal with.

One final note: the title comes from a poem by the metaphysical poet George Herbert called "The Pulley" that supplies the epigraph of the book:

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can;
Let the world's riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.


I admit that I couldn't make heads or tails of this epigraph, especially the last line, but having read some commentary about the poem, it appears to portray God as raining blessings on humans, but not unlimited blessing. Always a little is withheld, to make sure humans are aware where the blessings are coming from. The unlimited blessings will be awarded in heaven, so "the span" in the final line might be "the mortal span of life." God withholds blessings during life to keep humans yearning for more:

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.


"Repining restlessness" seems a good metaphor for what the characters feel in A Glass of Blessings, and "rich and weary" might characterize Wilmet. Yet is it an irony that the characters in the book seem largely unaware of God or His blessings?

The Weathered Wall

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Basalt layers in Crooked River Canyon


From 1992 to 1996, there was a nightclub in downtown Seattle called, in full, And the Weathered Wall, the Purity Remains, but which was called The Weathered Wall by anyone who didn't want to sound like a pompous ass. The full name was painted on one of the walls of the club, and I thought it was attributed to one of the Romantic poets, but Google isn't helping me with that vague memory. In any event, I always loved the short name, and it was one of my favorite clubs in its brief existence, where I saw bands such as 7 Year Bitch, The Gits, Wayne Horvitz and Pigpen, Vexed, and Imij. They also had a DJ dance night called something like the Lemon Lounge, which was I believe my introduction to acid jazz. Lots of good memories.

None of this has anything to do with what I'm about to write about, which is my recent trip to Crooked River Ranch with my family, except for the theme of memory and the metaphor of the weathered wall. My family's house at CRR is on the rim of the Crooked River Canyon, which is cut through layers and layers basalt resulting from centuries of lava flows that happened thousands of years ago. Nothing like geology to make you feel like a blip in both spatial and temporal scheme of things. The basalt formations, including the walls of the canyon, are one of the most striking features of the area. They are weathered, just as are all the members of my family, excluding the youngest, my great niece Celine, who is still pretty fresh to the world at five willful years old.

We celebrated three milestones while I was there: my brother's impending retirement from Hewlett-Packard, where he has worked for over thirty years (his special dinner was crab louie); my impending retirement from the University of Washington, where I worked for 27 years (my special dinner was T-bone steaks --a favorite cut when I was a child); and my niece's 40th birthday (crepes for breakfast and home made chocolate chip mint ice dream after dinner). My niece was born pretty near the bicentennial birthday of the USA, so I guess we were also celebrating the country's 240th birthday. All of these milestones have a theme of aging in common, although mine has an added subtext of illness, of course. Age and illness are both part of the human weathering process. It's also interesting that both my sister and brother worked in one place for at least 30 years (for my sister it was the Salem School District in Oregon), and I would have made it if it hadn't been for those pesky cancer cells. Something in our family (or at least the three kids, because it wasn't true of our father) ran toward sticking in one job for as long as possible. Why was that?

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The log house


We've been taking vacations at Crooked River since my dad joined the sales team out there in the early '70s to supplement his teaching income during the summers. The Crooked River Ranch was developed by a businessman from Seattle, and one of the interesting things about it is that, unlike most resorts in the Central Oregon area near Bend, such as Sun River and Black Butte, it was aimed at working class customers. So it's a lower rent kind of place, with lots of trailers and double-wides on the lots, and businesses cluttering the benchland in the middle of the picturesque canyon, making the adjective questionable. (The canyon was halfway filled with lava at one point, then the river cut a smaller canyon into that fresh basalt, so there's two levels to the canyon.) My parents' log house is by no means low rent, and there are a lot of nice places around too, but the overriding impression when you drive around the ranch is not of wealth.

In any event, we have a lot of history out there, and a lot of good memories. It was great to spend an extended time with my family, being pampered by all of them. My family has always been close, but in the aftermath of my diagnosis, they've formed a protective circle around me that I find difficult to describe. LaVelle even drove up to Seattle and learned how to apply transducer arrays, and then drove me all the way (six hours) to CRR via Highway 97 (one of my favorite drives) so that we could bring the Optune along. Lonnie drove me home. My illness was the source of much conversation, of course. Little Celine kept telling me she was sorry I had bumped my head. I guess the transducer arrays looked like bandages to her.

But it's not always so easy to talk about my illness. When my brother got together with a couple of old college buddies to celebrate his retirement, we picked up Tom on the way to the pub, and when he got in the car, he started in on a non-stop barrage of very aggressive, foul-mouthed story telling about another friend of theirs. I know Tom is a motormouth and a great bullshitter, but he was so intense that my initial reaction was, "Will he never shut up?!!!" Lonnie and I talked about it later, and we agreed that he probably just didn't know what to say to me about what I've been going through. Later, after we met up with Steve, Tom seemed to calm down, and he and I even talked about my treatment a bit. I showed off the transducer arrays briefly.

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Tom, Lonnie, Steve, and Me at Three Creek Brewing in Sisters


I have to admit that the evening of the retirment party for me, I also got teary-eyed when I was thinking about it earlier in the day, because this is certainly not how I would have chosen to retire. It almost felt like a celebration of the cancer in some weird way, but that was just my perverse mood, I suspect. My sister also picked up a plastic skeleton to use for a Halloween decoration, and I became morbidly obsessed with the skeleton. I tend to be pretty sanguine about my fate from day to day, but clearly there's some anxiety percolating away in the inner depths. Maybe because the protectiveness of my family brings out a feeling of vulnerability, I came away from the vacation feeling more torn up than I generally do in my day-to-day life in Seattle, where I feel safe in my routines, as disrupted as they've been by treatment.

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Mr Bones and I share a morbid moment with my new tie-dyed t-shirt


At one point talk turned to my recent writing, and my niece, I think it was, suggested that I should write a memoir. This is appealing to me, because, narcissist that I am, my favorite thing to write about is myself, but at the same time it seems to me that my life has been so unremarkable and unextraordinary and aimless, there's not much there to interest anyone but those closest to me. Still, I want to focus on my writing as much as possible, and there's a lot of material in this LiveJournal, for example, that I could exploit for the purpose of a memoir, so I'll give the idea further thought. The only other idea I've had is to return to "Little Dog Talk," which is a story I conceived based on my experiences on Yap as a child and as an adult and also based on some of the stories I've heard about Yapese magic and mythology. I wrote a version of it under a different title many years ago and even workshopped it at a Taste of Clarion workshop at Potlatch (where Ursula Le Guin administered a chastening critique), and I've been rewriting it in my head ever since.

Although I felt like I slept a whole hell of a lot during the eight days I was down there, I did get in four hikes, including two down to the river, which involved steep inclines that were a bit of a challenge to my knackered stamina. Well worth it, however, to sit and listen to the river seeking its level and to enjoy the cool air and vibrant greenery. More worryingly, I've recently developed symptoms in my left shoulder that feel very similar indeed to what turned out to be rotator cuff tendinitis in my right shoulder a couple of years ago. I probably should have it checked out, although the idea of doing physical therapy while I'm still undergoing chemo is daunting. Something to talk to the oncologists about, I suppose. My next consultation is tomorrow.

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Mom and LaVelle baste the quilt, while my niece and great niece play underneath (LaVelle and a lot of my female cousins could remember being the girls playing under the quilt years ago)


Of course this is all me, me, me, and I haven't gotten into any stories about Celine or about the quilt that my Mom is making for her and was working on the whole time we were out there. There's nothing about my dad's improved health or the health problems my mom's been having. Nothing about my niece's new commercial photography gig with a clothing company in Portland. Nothing about the ongoing sagas of my nephews' attempts to reach the next stage of adulthood, most of which aren't really my stories to share anyway. But should they go into a memoir? One of my challenges would be how to handle the stories that would potentially embarrass me or others. Of course, those stories are in many ways the most fascinating stories of all. Am I up to the challenge of finding a way to tell them with sensitivity and compassion?

I return to Seattle feeling more unsure of myself than when I left, which is a little irritating, because it makes me feel young and immature. I'd prefer to be more of a weathered wall myself, shaped by what I've been through but able to withstand the forces buffeting me. Maybe now's the time to embrace the sign I saw at Seattle Coffee Company today: Vulnerability Is Your Superpower.

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The weathered wall

Trio by Sarah Tolmie

Trio.jpgI was reading Sarah Tolmie's fantasy novel, The Stone Boatman, when ron_drummond visited in May, and I waxed sufficiently enthusiastic about it to him that he found and gave me a copy of her other book, Trio, while he was here. Trio is nothing like The Stone Boatman other than in exhibiting the sensibility of a poet. As the jacket copy has it: "A collection of 120 sonnets in eight parts, Trio reveals, frame by frame, a married fortysomething female narrator in love with two younger men -- an intellectual and a dancer -- and torn between the claims of the body and mind."

I remember one of the poems revealing that the narrator/poet was in her 40s, but while I'm also pretty certain that the poems mention that she's in love with more than one man, I don't know that I could have figured out that one was a dancer and the other an intellectual, or, for that matter, that she was married to a third. In one of the poems, as I recall, the narrator/poet explicitly says she has kept the identities of everyone (including herself) ambiguous, if not confused, perhaps so that the reader could identify with all of them. To be honest, I almost gave up on the book very early on, because I found it almost inherently precious and coy, and I wasn't sure I was prepared to read a lot of impassioned poetry about love and sex at this particular juncture in my life. I have read another sonnet sequence -- Love, Death, and the Changing of the Season by Marilyn Hacker -- about the rise and fall of a lesbian love affair, so it's not that the sonnet sequence is repulsive to me as a form of literature. I'm not particularly well-read when it comes to poetry, but neither am I completely helpless.

What kept me going with Trio was the way that Tolmie flipped the gender script in a number of powerful ways. First she made the male body the vulnerable object of specifically female desire. (In Hacker's sequence, the female body was still the object of desire, even if the desiring subject was also a woman.) Tolmie also gives her female narrator/poet a sexual swagger and self-confidence that sometimes becomes mocking or condescending toward her male lovers. I found this irritating, and I was fascinated by my own irritation. Was it a purely defensive reaction? (My guess is that the answer is probably, "Yes.") The way that Tolmie made the female in the threesome -- foursome? I'm not sure whether the husband is the subject of any of the sonnets -- the figure of power and judgment and conquest was very unusual in my experience, and she earned my respect with her stance.

It took me a long time to read all 120 sonnets. Reading poetry is just a lot more work than reading most prose. I didn't reread or give a close reading to all the sonnets, but the ones that captured my attention got more of my time and energy. Again, I'm no expert on poetry, and I can't say I picked up on the over all clusters of imagery. (Karen Burnham's review at Strange Horizons strikes me as astute regarding how the poetry works, and she also points out that the narrator has two children, which is another detail I completely missed, along with the husband. Argh!) Anyway, I was also going to point out that Tolmie uses a lot of internal rhyme or near-rhyme, but it doesn't preclude the more typical couplets of sonnets. Here's one of the sonnets that I liked the best, to give you a taste of her poetry:

The love of a poet is a bullet.
Who can you ask to take it? You could not.
Can't bear the searchlight's glare, the ripping stare,
Admixture of what's wanted and what's there,
Compressed into a foreign object lodged
In the brain. Invasive love: it causes pain.
People flee it without knowing what it means,
Instinctually. The bloodied shell, falling
From its graze, carries a payload of
The DNA, fine, clean, a better print
Than the original. Such is the hell
Of the beloved, unable to tell
What he might have been, unimpeded,
Unenhanced, out of the pathway of her glance.

I particularly like how she follows the hell/tell couplet with the internal rhyme of "unenhanced" and "her glance". On the other hand I'm not sure I fully understand the metaphor of the shell. First of all I wonder if she means the slug rather than the shell, since a shell wouldn't graze what's shot at typically. Also if the slug is a load of DNA, isn't that an image of sperm? Or does she mean an ovum? Or is she talking about how the poet creates an image of the beloved that's superior to the original? I guess the latter makes the most sense: the image of beloved perfection created by the poet can become a painful form of distortion, something the real person can't possibly live up to. Blood is thinner than poetry? (She meditates in another sonnet -- one of the swaggering ones -- on how her poetry is making her lovers immortal.)

Other People's Weddings

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Brig, Matt, Molly, and me


I've been trying to take it easy since I got back from Canada, but I had one more bit of traveling almost as soon as I got home. My old college friend Carl L. was getting married to his old love Kari in Portland on July 23rd. I was feeling so wiped out I almost decided not to go, but then I asked myself, "When will you get a chance to see Molly again?" So it was the reunion of old college friends that inspired me to jump on the train to Portland.

Molly was basically my first girlfriend, and amongst other things we lived in the High House with Carl in I believe 1981. When Carl and Kari visited me on my previous trip to Portland, Kari and I figured out that I had actually first met her at Molly's wedding in the 1980s. Molly was instrumental in bringing Carl and Kari together both back then and in their more recent reconnection. Molly is a writer too and a very good one, and I always expected that she'd have sold a novel by now. We talked about that and about how career and children got in the way, but she also told me that she had finally, after years of trying, found a publisher that was willing to look at one of her manuscripts, so I wish her all the best on that front.

I hadn't seen Molly since our old college friend Brig got married, oh, maybe fifteen years ago? I hadn't seen Brig since then either, and I didn't expect to see him at Carl's wedding, since I had asked Carl whether he'd be there and Carl had said no. Well, it turned out that someone else couldn't make it, which opened up a seat for Brig in the tiny pioneer church where the wedding was held. Brig is someone I went to high school with, but we didn't become friends till we went to the college. It turned out that he was throwing a party later that day for a bunch of old high school classmates and I was welcome to come over and play if I wanted to. I didn't want to. For one thing, it sounded like they would be drinking more heavily than I was up for at that juncture, and for another I'm really not very interested in my old high school classmates. For me high school was a semi-traumatic experience that I happily left behind. Brig was from a social group that I think enjoyed the high school experience much more than I did.

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Carl and Kari dance at the post-wedding reception


The wedding ceremony was beautiful and very romantic, telling the story of how Carl and Kari have renewed their love over the years while other things came between them and marriage until now. Carl is my age (mid-fifties) and this is his first marriage. Kari was married once before and has a 19-year-old daughter (who sang "Amazing Grace" at the ceremony, alone and a capella, which I thought was extremely brave of her). I found the ceremony a little uncomfortable, especially coming in the wake of my trip to Canada, because the love story presented was very similar to the one that Hortensia and I tried to tell when we almost got married following our reconnection in 2003.

Still, I was very happy for Carl, who is a total sweetheart in my books. I hope he and Kari can live out the rest of their days together, happily ever after. I don't know Kari nearly as well but really enjoyed chatting with her on my previous visit to Portland. She seems like a pretty grounded person with a good sense of humor.

2016-07-23 Me and Molly at Carl"s Wedding.jpg
Me and Molly after all these years


It was great to see Molly too, although it inevitably inspired other thoughts about my so-called love life and What Might Have Been. She and Matt have two children, Patrick and Isabella, who were both there as well. I believe Patrick is in his early 20s and Isabella is about to graduate from high school. I look at Molly and Matt and think I couldn't have done what they did. I couldn't have been a father, or at least I never wanted to be one. Why not? Why did I go down the path I took, in which I developed occasional uber-romantic infatuations which rarely developed into any kind of real relationship?

My sister and I have discussed this several times, and she, who has also mostly stayed out of realtionships, says it's a preference we have. There's something to that. I've said before that I don't want a co-pilot. I don't want someone with whom I'm constantly negotiating decisions. I want to be independent and do whatever the hell I want to do without argument.

But there's more to it than that too. There's the romanticism. The idealism. The impossible desire for connection with the perfect soulmate. The resulting disappointment and loneliness. I've learned to live with the loneliness, because the alternative has been self-hatred, and fuck that noise. But there doesn't seem to be any resolution of the conflicting desires -- for independence and for romantic submission -- even at my advanced age.

So the old thoughts and feelings tumble through me endlessly, and the nostalgia of a reunion with old friends stirs up ancient dilemmas.

Blame Canada

As many of you will know, I just returned from a fifteen-day road trip in British Columbia and Alberta with an old girlfriend. I'm not going to use her real name here. If you know who it is, then you know; if you don't, you don't need to know -- and neither does Google. I'm going to call her Hortensia in this piece, because that's a pseudonym I used for her over twenty years ago in a fanzine covering difficult and intimate matters, as this piece also will. Please beware that some of this material is extremely personal and may be more than you want to know about me or her. Still, I will make every effort to be discreet about things that she wouldn't want me to talk about in a public forum, because it really isn't my place to tell her story.

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The view from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island


Suffice it to say that the trip didn't go well, or at least was fraught and difficult, with plenty of good stuff mixed in too. First of all, I don't think Hortensia was prepared for how beat down by the chemo I am right now, and she admitted as much at the end. She was frustrated by and impatient with my lack of spark and my inability to retain information such as directions. We spent much of our time together squabbling and bickering like an old married couple, sparring over my mental slowness and her incredulous putdowns of my failures of comprehension. To say that the romance had long since drained out of our relationship is an understatement. It was already gone by 2009, but the old married couple description is meant to indicate that we are still plenty close in a lot of ways. You have to be close to someone to really get on their nerves, right?

Worse than that, however, was the clash of what I'll call religious beliefs. Hortensia has in recent years developed a fascination for certain shamanic practices and what I think of as a New Age approach to life and health. She hadn't gone as far down that road in 2005, when I decided not to marry her after having agreed to in the first flush of our love affair in 2003, but the difference in religious/philosophical outlook was one of the reasons I came to believe (and she agreed at the time) that we weren't compatible. Now she's *really* into it, and from the moment we checked into the airport hotel where we had a more romantic stay in 2003, she started explaining it to me in great detail. Part of it was that she had just been to the Amazonian jungle in Peru and participated in some ayahuasca ceremonies there, and she was eager to share the powerful experience she'd just had.

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Hortensia had brought back Peruvian textiles depicting the ayahuasca plant and visions inspired by it


I've thought at times in the aftermath of this trip together that she was more interested in her healing process (she's trying to overcome trauma from her childhood) than in my health crisis, but I think it's more accurate to say that she rejects Western medicine and wants me to too. She believes that the shamanic practices she's following are superior to Western medicine, and she has in fact teased me that if Western medicine didn't cure my cancer, she'd drag me to the Peruvian jungle to try a different way. Well, by the end of the trip she was acknowledging that I would never let her do that. It spoke to the distance that had grown between us in the meantime.

I hesitate to get into an specifics about our disagreement, because I don't want to characterize her beliefs inaccurately or unfairly. To focus on the thing that probably set me off the worst, however, it seemed to me that she was saying that diseases such as cancer are caused by internal conflicts that we haven't been able to resolve. Thus curing the disease requires us to resolve those internal conflicts. To me this is blaming the victim. I mean, it's one thing to say that a smoker brings on their own lung cancer, but it's another thing to say that someone brings on their own breast or brain cancer. To me, it's even worse to say that it's up to the cancer victim to heal themselves by "resolving the conflict." I'll stop there, because there were other things Hortensia said that seemed outright bonkers to me, and I'm not ready to go there yet.

She told me that it was okay for me to dismiss her beliefs as "hippy bullshit," but it's my impression that I said things along those lines that really hurt her feelings. That's why religion, like politics, is such a dangerous topic to discuss. After all, she is pursuing these beliefs in order to deal with long-standing and devastating emotional pain that, among other things, she tried to self-medicate with heroin when she was in her 20s. By calling her beliefs into question -- by outright rejecting some of them as bonkers -- I was challenging the self-healing process that is bringing her so much relief right now. She is genuinely excited about the progress she's making, and I'm genuinely happy to see it, because I know how much she's been hurting all these years.

Which brings up another thing: Making up for lost time. She spent so many years lost to the world that she is trying to jam as much life and experience as possible into the time she has left. From my perspective it seems a bit manic, but I can also understand what's driving her. The agenda for this trip was largely focused on her connections and her needs, and in the past, when I've been less needy myself, this has been a recipe for grand adventures and new connections for me. It was still the case this time around.

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Hortensia (wearing, it should be noted, my Oregon hoodie), Will, and Lorna on Gabriola Island


We spent the first week driving around Vancouver Island in a rented mini-RV visiting old friends Hortensia had made when she was living there while her mom died of breast cancer in 2009. We spent a night with her mom's friends Alan and Carol, which was a bit difficult because Alan is now as deaf as a post and Carol is starting to lose her short term memory. Then it was off to visit Lorna and Will on Gabriola Island in the Georgia Strait, which was a complete blast, because both of them are total sweethearts and were very responsive to my situation. Will invited me to come back and sail with him on his trimaran whenever I want. Lorna was very maternal and pampered me to the max. Unfortunately this was also where my emotional reaction to Hortensia really spun out of control, and I got so angry that I couldn't sleep one night. As I sat in back of the RV spinning through my 3AM despair, I considered returning to Seattle. However, the whole desperate flight-impulse made me flash back to 1980 when I first visited Hortensia in Vancouver, had sex for the first time in my life, panicked, and fled back to Oregon, leaving her feeling abandoned and distraught. I swore that I wouldn't do that to her a second time, come what may.

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Hortensia repairs the sweat lodge


Fortunately this resolution calmed me down for our next stop, which was on the Cowichan reservation in Duncan. We stayed on the property of a medicine man who goes by the English name Fred. At Hortensia's request on my behalf, Fred had invited us to participate in a sweat lodge. I had never done one before, and here's what I wrote about the experience on Facebook:

'Did half a sweat lodge yesterday, lasting two rounds out of four. It was my first sweat lodge, and I had no idea what to expect, although I wasn't encouraged by Hortensia's reply to my question about what to wear: "Well, you're basically being boiled." [NB: After she read my post, she protested that she hadn't actually said that.] So it was incredibly hot and smoky, and it was so dark you couldn't see anything but the glowing rocks. I closed my eyes and felt claustrophobic and tried not to panic. Fred sat me by the door in case I needed to bail out early. The cool thing about that is that because I was one of the last people going in, Fred gave me the job of using cedar boughs to brush off the "grandfathers" -- the hot rocks -- before they were sent into the lodge. So even though my anxious state of mind meant I felt a little outside the ceremony, I still felt like I played my part. I enjoyed listening to the chanting and Fred's various incantations and speeches, and maybe I would have got more into it if I'd joined in the chanting. Afterward I chatted with a few of the participants, particularly the French-Canadian guy (Sylvain?) who had tended the fire, and that was a lot of fun, listening to the jokes and laughter and stories. He told me that one of the women who had participated was a former national Member of Parliament representing a district on the island. So it was an interesting experience, but I think I prefer to take my religious ecstasy served in the great outdoors of the rain forest, the reef, or the ocean beach.'

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The sporty red car


After we left Fred's place, we left Vancouver Island, traded in the mini-RV for a sporty subcompact, and headed for Alberta, where I'd never been before despite the fact that my father was born there. This stage of the trip was all about visiting Hortensia's family. (She grew up in Edmonton after ten years in Melbourne, where she was born.) In fact, when she contacted me after my GBM diagnosis, she told me she'd already been thinking of visiting Canada this year to see Aunt Helen, because Helen's husband, Roland, had just died. We stayed at Helen's log house in the Canadian Rockies near Mount Robson, and it was gorgeous and peaceful up there, as it had been at Lorna's place on Gabriola Island. I'd met Helen (and Roland) at Hortensia's mom's memorial in 2009. Helen was another very maternal person who pampered me shamelessly, although she also put us to work staining spindles for a balcony that had rotted and needed to be reconstructed. After that, we headed to Edmonton, where I finally met Hortensia's big brother, Lyall, who was great. Wonderful sense of humor and sense of centeredness. He's married to a Thai woman and is a Buddhist. We also visited Hortensia's niece, Elizabeth, who had just moved back from Toronto with her four year old son, Dash. I'd met Elizabeth before, but not Dash, and Hortensia hadn't met Dash either. Hortensia and Lyall had dinner that evening with their cousin Wendy (Helen's daughter), but by that time I was completely wiped out physically and emotionally, and I begged off.

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Helen and Hortensia

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The spindles we stained

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Elizabeth, Dash, and Hortensia


Hortensia was intent on pulling the family together. Elizabeth hadn't visited Lyall, Helen, or Wendy yet (only having moved back from Toronto a couple of months ago), and Hortensia exhorted her to introduce Dash to all of them. The family connections have obviously become more important to her, and the deaths of her mom and uncle, not to mention my cancer, have only impressed on her that the living connections can disappear before you know it. As with the shamanic healing practices for her PTSD, the focus on family connections are all about making up for lost time -- specifically that period when her drug addiction meant she lost contact with her family as well.

So the second week was physically trying because of the long drives involved. By the final day of the trip I was basically numb from exhaustion. It was also, perhaps pathetically, emotionally trying because it was all about Hortensia and not about me. I've really wrestled with this, because I would like to think I'm not such a complete narcissist. On the one hand, I think it was a good reminder that it's not all about me and that other people are dealing with serious problems too. I was also happy to see Hortensia becoming so family-minded, which I think is a very good thing. And again, the fact that she is feeling so much relief from her long-abiding trauma is incredibly good news. It was probably good for me to have the attention shifted elsewhere for a couple of weeks, just to break me out of whatever emotional ruts I may have fallen into. However, it's hard to deny that my immediate reaction to the stresses and strains of the trip, including not always being the center of attention, was to become a cranky, petulant, emotionally volatile pain in the ass. I was definitely on my worst behavior, which only added to my feeling that the whole trip had been a failure and a mistake.

With a few days to recover and gain some perspective through venting to friends and family, I'd have to say that a lot of this is an overreaction. However, the estrangement between me and Hortensia seems real, and maybe it was about fricking time. There's another side to all this that leaves me feeling horribly ashamed and pathetic: My need to cling to my old girlfriends so that I can feel that I haven't been a complete loser at the game of love. Well, I can only imagine Hortensia laughing her ass off at that. The reality is, my emotional neediness aside, whatever distance has grown between us doesn't amount to a hill of beans when you consider the strong connection we've established over the years. As she assured me at the Vancouver International Airport just before we parted, I will always be a major part of her life, and despite whatever grievances I now have, she will always be my first lover and the woman I came closest to marrying many years later. But I suppose we're both feeling more relieved than ever that we avoided the marriage trap. Who knows how much we'd be getting on each other's nerves if we really *were* an old married couple.

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Old friends


ADDENDUM: I showed this to Hortensia before I published it, to make sure I hadn't crossed any lines. Here are a few of her comments, which I offer as a counterpoint to my complaints:

I certainly come off as inconsiderate and self absorbed. I'm sorry that is your biggest impression. I guess that after Lorna's I was pretty unsure how to relate to you and went a bit into action mode. My coping mechanism.

Actually, I was expecting it to be worse. I'm sorry you felt I didn't really connect to your situation. I didn't know how to connect when you reacted so negatively to me.

I'm sorry if you felt I put you down for not remembering stuff. I didn't mean to, and I need to look at that behaviour.

You didn't mention the bear and the elk, and, remember, the long driving in the Rockies was so you could see them. Alone, I would have flown to Edmonton and rented a car there to go to Helen's!


Many thanks to Hortensia for her graciousness in the face of my grievances.

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The view of the Canadian Rockies from Aunt Helen's

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