At the Corner of Imagined and Real

'Time Traveler (Chuck),' by user PINKÉ on Flickr

[Image: “Time Traveler,” by user PINKÉ on (Used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you).) The photographer’s caption: “Chuck used his time machine to travel back in time. He was shocked to discover there wasn’t any air conditioning. He was glad to get back. July 2013.” Chuck seems to have had many adventures in geography, although as far as I can tell this has been his only one in time.]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

On Velvet Turf

I dash outdoors so I will know
a little more about the day—
I stride forth filled with the whiff.
What’s to know is always a little to the left,
deep in the vine-covered hole of a hedgehog down
by the mossy stump. If something is impaled down there
I want to know. I don’t mind throwing myself
into the cistern of the Middle Ages.
Who knows, here once the embattled farmers stood,
their gallant foreheads broadly glistening.
I’ve read whole books standing up naked.
I’ve bragged all my life of the glories
I had in common with the rest of the world,
glories that fled through the windfields
and raked rivers, through the sere leaves
of the trees—
now that the broken gravy boat will sail no more
and the electric fence electrify no one,
now that the crepitating rain has come
and the winter lilt departed, it is time
to come out of my hole—
though the stars take me back
more than I am willing to admit.

(Mary Ruefle [source])


Art alone makes life possible—this is how radically I should like to formulate it. I would say that without art man is inconceivable in physiological terms. There is a certain materialist doctrine which claims that we can dispense with mind and with art because man is just a more or less highly developed mechanism governed by chemical processes. I would say man does not consist only of chemical processes, but also of metaphysical occurrences. The provocateur of the chemical processes is located outside the world. Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative, artistic being.

(Joseph Beuys [source])

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Deep Magic

'When It Exceeds Our Ability to Understand,' by user 'mancosu' on Flickr

[Image: “When It Exceeds Our Ability to Understand,” by Fred Mancosu on Flickr.
(Click to enlarge.) Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river (from which I could have selected the entire week’s offerings):

Alternate Endings

There are times when they gather at the edge of your life,
Shadows slipping over the far hills, daffodils
blooming too early, the dark matter of the universe
that threads its way through the few thousand blackbirds
that have invaded the trees out back. Every ending

sloughs off our dreams like snakeskin. This is the kind of
black ice the mind skids across. The candlelight burning down
into the sand. The night leaving its ashes in our eyes.

There are times when your voice turns over in my sleep.
It is no longer blind. The sky is no longer deaf.

There are times when it seems the stars practice
all night just to become fireflies, when it seems there is
no end to what our hearts scribble on corridor walls.
Only when we look at each other do we cease to be ourselves.
Only at a certain height does the smoke blend into air.
There are times when your words seem welded to that sky.

There are times when love is so complicated it circles
like chimney swifts unable to decide where to land.
There are endings so sad their shadows scuff the dirt.
Their sky is as inconsolable as the two year old, Zahra,
torn from her mother and beaten to death in the Sudan.

There are endings so sad I want the morning light
to scourge the fields. Endings that are only what the river
dreams when it dries up. Endings that are constant echoes.

There are times when I think we are satellites collecting
dust from one of the earlier births of the universe Don’t give up.

Each ending is an hourglass filled with doors. There are times
when I feel you might be searching for me, when I can read
what is written on the far sides of stars. I’m nearly out of time.
My heart is a dragonfly. I’ll have to settle for this, standing under
a waterfall of words you never said. There are times like this
when no ending appears, times when I am so inconsolably happy.

(Richard Jackson [source])


We are now more than halfway removed from what the unwritten word meant to our ancestors, who believed in the original, primal word behind all manifestations of the spirit. You sang because you were answered. The answers come from life around you. Prayers, chants, and songs were also responses to the elements, to the wind, the sun and stars, the Great Mystery behind them. Life on earth springs from a collateral magic that we rarely consult. We avoid the unknown as if we were afraid that contact would lower our sense of self-esteem.

(John Hay [source])

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Pssst! Hey, You. Yes — You. The One with the Brain.

[Video: “7 Myths About The Brain You Thought Were True”]

From whiskey river (italicized lines):

Is there a single thing in nature
that can approach in mystery
the absolute uniqueness of any human face, first, then
its transformation from childhood to old age—

We are surrounded at every instant
by sights that ought to strike the sane
unbenumbed person tongue-tied, mute
with gratitude and terror. However,

there may be three sane people on earth
at any given time: and if
you got the chance to ask them how they do it,
they would not understand.

I think they might just stare at you
with the embarrassment of pity. Maybe smile
the way you do when children suddenly reveal a secret
preoccupation with their origins, careful not to cause them shame,

on the contrary, to evince the great congratulating pleasure
one feels in the presence of a superior talent and intelligence;
or simply as one smiles to greet a friend who’s waking up,
to prove no harm awaits him, you’ve dealt with and banished all harm.

(Franz Wright [source])


Something else gets under your skin, keeps you working days and nights at the sacrifice of your sleeping and eating and attention to your family and friends, something beyond the love of puzzle solving. And that other force is the anticipation of understanding something about the world that no one has ever understood before you.

I have experienced that pleasure of discovering something new. It is an exquisite sensation, a feeling of power, a rush of the blood, a sense of living forever. To be the first vessel to hold this new thing.

All of the scientists I’ve known have at least one more quality in common: they do what they do because they love it, and because they cannot imagine doing anything else. In a sense, this is the real reason a scientist does science. Because the scientist must. Such a compulsion is both blessing and burden. A blessing because the creative life, in any endeavor, is a gift filled with beauty and not given to everyone, a burden because the call is unrelenting and can drown out the rest of life.

This mixed blessing and burden must be why the astrophysicist Chandrasekhar continued working until his mid-80’s, why a visitor to Einstein’s apartment in Bern found the young physicist rocking his infant with one hand while doing mathematical calculations with the other. This mixed blessing and burden must have been the “sweet hell” that Walt Whitman referred to when he realized at a young age that he was destined to be a poet. “Never more,” he wrote, “shall I escape.”

(Alan Lightman [source])
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A Mansion Like No Other

Sea-Ty: an underwater city with a difference

[Image: artist’s rendering of “Sea-Ty,” a bowl-shaped floating-but-underwater city, open to the sky. The page where I found this image says that it “resembles a traditional hillside town with a network of stairs connecting the various levels.” Each of those little box-type things, apparently, is a house or other building.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

Every human being is intended to have a character of his own; to be what no others are, and to do what no other can do. Our common nature is to be unfolded in unbounded diversities. It is rich enough for infinite manifestations. It is to wear innumerable forms of beauty and glory.

(William Ellery Channing [source])


Sometimes, When the Light

Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

(Lisel Mueller [source])


The Night, the Porch

To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself
To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.
Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.
What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort
Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux
Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting
For something whose appearance would be its vanishing—
The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf,
Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there
Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.

(Mark Strand [source])

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Miracles of Confusion

[Image: a grainy photograph of a couple of volcanoes someplace. (Maybe another
planet.) Or are they? See the note at the foot of this post for more information.]

From whiskey river:


The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance —
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

(Billy Collins [source])



Near a shrine in Japan he’d swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.

Or — we had no way of knowing — he’d swept the path
between fallen camellias.

(Carol Snow [source])

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How to Keep Your Pooch Happy

Answer: roll the car window down sometimes.

(We do have a little nervousness about doing this, with reason; The Pooch gets so excited that she seems to lose her basic sense of or concern about where she is in 3D space. Which isn’t a prescription for keeping the windows rolled up — it’s a prescription for keeping hold of her collar. :))


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PBS: Dogs Decoded

Every dog owner thinks he knows how his or her canine companion thinks. I doubt that many dog owners already know everything covered in this single one-hour program on PBS’s Nova series, (re-)broadcast last night. Here’s a brief intro:

Watch Dogs Decoded on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Sample tidbit: genetically, via mitochondrial DNA (passed down, unchanged, in the maternal bloodline), dogs are gray wolves. Not similar to gray wolves. Identical to them. MicroPooches, Irish wolfhounds, chihuahuas, mutts, pit bulls, Labradors, collies, shar-peis, Afghan hounds, setters, Mexican hairless, basset hounds, German shepherds, poodles… gray wolves.

For now, if it’s not being rebroadcast any time soon on your local PBS station, you can watch the whole thing online, in eight- or ten-minute chunks, by following the link highlighted above, just below the embedded video.

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Things vs. Other Things

Dear Internet,

Sorry I’ve been so… so… casual about our relationship over the last few days.

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Canine Savagery

They say we shouldn’t anthropomorphize animals. We shouldn’t project onto their behaviors human motivations, so goes the advice; maybe we could develop a Maslow’s pyramid for them without stretching too much, but it’d be a mistake to give them them an upper level labeled “self-actualization.”

Still, you know, it’s hard — almost impossible — not to at least ask questions about mysterious animal behavior. Why are they doing X?, What’s the survival or evolutionary value of Y?, and so on.

Given a red-rubber toy like the one shown here, and little crunchy treats wedged into the opening, a dog (they say) will of course attempt to get the treats out. The act of figuring it out, and then executing it, can occupy (they say) a dog’s mind for long blocks of time.

All this theory seems to work just fine with The Pooch in our household. What we can’t figure out is what, exactly, was the… hmm… the decision-making process which led to her particular solution. The solution goes something like this:

  • Bark madly in anticipation while toy and treat are being merged by human’s clever forepaws.
  • When toy is tossed onto the floor, launch yourself in its pursuit.
  • Attack toy by, uh, barking madly as you push at it with the side of your head.
  • Occasionally switch to dental-attack mode, until human expresses interest in toy.
  • When hapless human expresses interest, get toy immediately out of human reach.
  • Carry off toy’s lifeless (or at least deafened) corpse to somewhere safe, where it and the treat may be successfully taken apart.
  • Continue barking intermittently, apparently just out of the sheer joy of unchained doggishness.

Now, unlike the stereotypical small dog, The Pooch — a Yorkshire terrier weighing less than five pounds — is not generally a yapper. But give her one of these toys and she loses all mooring in common sense.

Exhibit A, my first YouTube upload ever:

Frightening, eh wot?

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Dogs, Lions, and Fish (Oh My!)

'Policeman, dog, fish, and emblem lion' by Eva the Weaver (click for original on Flickr)From whiskey river:

When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.


Not from whiskey river:

The End Of March
For John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read: Duxbury

It was cold and windy, scarcely the day
to take a walk on that long beach
Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

The sky was darker than the water
it was the color of mutton-fat jade.
Along the wet sand, in rubber boots, we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost…
A kite string?–But no kite.

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
(boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
protected from spring tides by a palisade
of–are they railroad ties?
(Many things about this place are dubious.)
I’d like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
At night, a grog a l’américaine.
I’d blaze it with a kitchen match
and lovely diaphanous blue flame
would waver, doubled in the window.
There must be a stove; there is a chimney,
askew, but braced with wires,
and electricity, possibly
–at least, at the back another wire
limply leashes the whole affair
to something off behind the dunes.
A light to read by–perfect! But–impossible.
And that day the wind was much too cold
even to get that far,
and of course the house was boarded up.

On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored,
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
–a sun who’d walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw-prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.

(Elizabeth Bishop [source (pages 15-16)])


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