A conversation from Radiolab


A: I think we’re just machines. I think we are just made of matter… For me, that doesn’t make me feel we’re any less special. I think, how, what a wonderful thing… How wonderful, that this process, and that these little collections of matter are able to produce Cezanne’s water colors and Bach’s preludes.

Q: But, could you, if I built you a computer, that could create equally beautiful watercolors, and equally beautiful musical compositions, would you feel happier or diminished?

A: I think, in a way you’re asking, if you see how the trick is done, does it then, vanish? Does it just become a trick? … I feel, the art I love, is always art that I don’t fully understand. There’s some mystery there, always. I don’t quite fathom it. Now so, if the computer is churning out a bunch of notes, and you know exactly the rules the computer is following, and there’s no mystery, how can that possibly be a great piece of music? And the answer is, we don’t know how the computer is going to do it, we don’t know how the machine is going to do it. And when the computer produces music that is as lovely as the music that you and I love, I believe it will still be unfathomable.


The rain lifts
but a wet green clings
to all things. The air
shimmers like a full glass. This
was as much water as the earth could hold.
This was what
it takes to hatch life–
to squeeze new buds
through hide-black bark grown thick
and coarse from wear.

Spring in the city. Here,
where we read
by the light of one
another’s window,

where we live in relative quiet
our ancestors must envy, lulled
by the gentle tilt
and sway of our days,
each as ordinary as cloth,
as dull as dust.

We will meet when
the water recedes. Where
we will meet the traffic sounds
in the distance and white petals fly
and climb
to unexpected heights, taken
by the wind in circles
wider and wider.

(There are many such spots
in the city, to imagine
how it must have been
at the toppling of the towers, at
the setting of the seas…)

Soon enough,
we too will be blown out in the wind.
So, if we are not happy, at least
we are fearless to expire.
Even as the soggy land falls
back into the belly of the sea,
we look for footing.


I wrote a poem about rain.  But I do wish it would stop raining.

Schizophrenia -V. 2

I read an article in the New Yorker about the discovery of the genetic mechanisms behind schizophrenia.  That’s what this poem is a reponse to.  Feels good to work on some poems again however hard it feels to write.


Desiring only square-ness
we raise long shears
in the garden, where
to neaten
is to destroy.

It’s april and
the late frost had cleaned
our yard of the less hardy varieties
like a stiff breeze takes
loose leaves.

You say in your ear
the white mites are
going, small mouths working
smaller teeth…

I tell you
they found the gene for madness.
I tell you I saw my father’s hands
make deep cuts
in our beloved magnolia tree,
and later how he stood, pale
among the wind-scattered buds
like over a grave.

I do miss the flowers, but
I can’t fault you for hollowing yourself
any more than I can ask you
to reconsider
your brown eyes.


Cold vs. Not Cold

This morning it was -8F in Boston.  I realized, walking to yoga class, in the sun, in the wind, that it was cold; but figuring out exactly how cold was not something my body or brain was equipped to do.

Each square of my skin can sense cold, and it can sense pain, so in terms of raw input, I get only not-cold, cold, or painfully cold.  Can I really tell the difference between 8F and -8F? For better resolution I have to use other available data.  How much am I wearing?  How long have I been outside?  Outside in -8F, probably the coldest temperatures I’ve walked around in, I put this notion to the test.

The only exposed bit of my skin, below my hat and above the scarf I had pulled over my face, went from not-cold to cold to painfully cold in about 3 minutes.  My eyes watered and the corners of my eyes started to sting.  Other than that, I felt fine.  I felt probably the same amount of cold over my body as I did on a 30F day wearing jeans, a coat, and no scarf.  Except this morning I was wearing my full mountain gear for snowboarding: snow pants, thermal layer underneath, windproof insulation under my jacket, ear-warmers, mittens…  And despite walking quickly, I didn’t warm up.  All the gear felt light and airy, as if the top layers were simply not there.

A few nights ago, sitting in Fenway Park watching the Big Air competition, I wore the same outfit, down to the boots and mittens and ear-warmers.  It was 10F and not as breezy.  It took me about 30 minutes of not moving to start feeling uncomfortably cold, about 40 minutes to lose feeling in my toes through my winter boots.  My eyes did not start to sting or water, and I did not notice my exposed skin becoming painfully cold (probably because I went inside to take care of my toes).  But simply from being outside from 6-10pm that night, I was cold, and hungry, and exhausted.

The data seems to indicate that today is colder.  But Thursday’s experience was much more grueling.


To pull the heart in

On Christmas day we drove to Maryland.  Yesterday we came back.  We left an eerie warm Boston day in the high 60s, packing a jacket only in luggage, and a week later we returned to a more familiar January.

Of course, among other things, we missed the first snow of the season.   Patches first appearing on the sides of the road on Rt 209 in the Delaware River Gap.  Of course, it did not snow in Maryland.  The day after Christmas we played tennis in the sun.

Over the rolling hills and expansive farm country beneath clouds that borders Maryland with Virginia, in rain and fog and at dusk I drove.  From one brand new community development to another.  Their ordered streets a barrier against all that wildness.


In Chinese, the expression for what one must do to go back to work after an extended vacation is to “pull the heart in” (收心).  I think this is an accurate description of what self-discipline feels like.  To pull the heart in.  To find smaller joys.