Saturday, April 01, 2006


The delineation between earth and sky is not so clear as a person might think. The earth is pregnant with roots. One cell splits in two, and two to four. Clay is prised from clay, sand bound to sand.

The tendrils delve beneath my feet to unimaginable depths. One alfalfa seed, a sprout to dress a salad, will make a wisp of foliage four feet tall or so. The roots of that lucerne go down a dozen feet or more. A mesquite can send its roots down through the desert soil to groundwater a hundred feet below. I have walked through caves a hundred feet down, and seen roots dangle from the ceiling.

The rains have tilled my soil. A turn of my wrist and weeds come up with a shrug, a whisper.

Light falls on leaves. Leaves turn light and air to sweetness. The sugars run down to the roots, are stored as starch. Plants keep light and air beneath the soil. Roots seek out water. They drink, and water dissolves rock, minerals to build tissues in the leaves. Leaves flick in the wind, the rock conjoined with air, made liquid. The soil extends to the tops of trees. The sky a hundred feet below the desert.

Four years ago I planted three little bunchgrasses here, Festuca californica, a fescue native to the site a hundred years ago. Atop their stems blue panicles of glumes flicker in wind. Deep red skin clasps the culms at the plants’ crowns. My garden is full of weedy grasses, the foxtails and feral Avena fatua. Another grass I do not know, gray with furry velvet skin. I pull them all, damp mats of sweet earth where a foot of mulch has rotted. One grass new to me, thin and hard with cylindrical leaves, comes up reluctantly. I take a look. Deep red skin clasps culms. The fescue is repopulating its old haunts, seed from those glumes falling on the earth.

The rains have soaked this little hill. The rock below a sponge, but it can drink no more. Each new rain wets springs asleep for forty years. A raincloud needs but pass overhead and the creek comes up a foot.

A tug and mallows come out whole, and thistles, and the horrendous tickseed with its nonexistent roots, and dandelions for the rabbit, roots disgorged entire to their very tips. A squirrel-planted nogal is more reticent, holds its ground as hard as the black-rind nut from which it grew. My grandfather had one of these trees, fifty years old at the least, and our floor stained black from days of going after nutmeat. When he died his widow paid some men to cut it down and haul it. Its brown-black heart, a cord at least, went into someone’s fire.

The little walnut tree I killed today will compost with the thistles.

A new, odd grass beneath the fescue, and I take off my glove, run my finger on its leaves. It is no grass but a beargrass, Nolina texana, sacahuista, a thin-leaved cousin to the Agave it nestles up against where the yellow-eyed grass makes a carpet of blunt blades. I planted the sacahuista some years ago and then forgot it. Where it grows, a sidewalk ran from street to porch all at right angles. Jim and I took a jackhammer to it, less soulful work than just my hands and sledge would have been, but over that much sooner. Where concrete had been the new-exposed soil smelt sour. Now a broad arc of red sandstone flags runs from street to house, and fescue sequesters sweetness in the earth.

That sacahuista grows on limestone in the wild. I planted it atop the rubble from the walk. It is thrice the size it was when I tamped earth around its roots. I do not know now how deep those roots extend.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 04/01 at 10:14 PM
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On the porch right now

On the porch

Posted by Chris Clarke on 04/01 at 04:02 PM
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Don’t get me wrong. I like a good joke. But what Jeff G. intended by linking to this site from one of those annoying, objectificating Conversative T-Shirt ads is beyond me. For more examples of what I’m talking about, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 04/01 at 06:57 AM
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Friday, March 31, 2006

Grand Island

Daniele Longo was the most beautiful man I have ever known. Generous, a gentle leftist with an accent — was it Tuscan? I no longer remember — that melted women’s hearts, he was a Raphaelite Christ in beard and flannel. We spent hours driving through Buffalo winter streets, Daniele piloting his Datsun around the gaping holes in the pavement. Daniele would sing Steely Dan songs or rave about that fascist President Carter.

He left for Missoula one year, and then, oddly, returned. I was glad to see him, but I didn’t understand what drew him away from his Mon-TAH-nah.

One day five of us piled into his Datsun, drove to Niagara Falls for the day. His roommate Kevin, another handsome artist; Bernadette, the love of my young life; Berna’s best friend Betsy.

I was a spectator in my own life, a leaf blown onto the river. Berna had watched me too, that winter, spent days with me until even I had to do something about it, and kissed her. My entropic heart shaped the beginning of our love and forced its end. But that day with Daniele was between the two. The Niagara River flowed yet toward the precipice.

We drove along the river toward the falls. Mute at roadside, the giant water intakes of the hydroelectric plant loomed, white monoliths a mile apart, massive and brutalist. The closer one had huge letters emblazoned on its side: “Power Authority.” We agreed that seemed redundant.

The visit to the Falls was like all the others. Six million cubic feet of water jumping the edge each minute, and I was jaded, a local boy unimpressed among the tourists. At the edge the feeling came to me again, a heedless longing to feel the drop for myself. But it passed. We clambered out on the little islands a half mile above the Falls, the current strong. One wrong step on the wet rock and then the fall, and oblivion.

We threaded our way through the maples and asphalt paths, found Daniele’s car again. Two bridges span the Niagara between the Falls and Buffalo. A broad, flat island lies between, Grand Island, five miles across. Unready for the drive home we stopped to walk the river at the island’s north end. We stood on the bank and joked. A long rock breakwall jutted out into the river, a thousand feet back toward the Falls. Suddenly restless, in need of a moment alone, I left them and walked out to its end, a carpet of birds scattering before me and regrouping as I passed. The river flowed past ominous and dark.

I remember days I spent with friends since dead, words and gestures no one knows but me, stories of which I am the sole custodian. They fill my heart sometimes ‘til I can think of little else. I remember days with friends who live still, the trivial stuff a sane man would have long forgotten, the way Berna’s hair shone against the river, Daniele asking in idle song if we were learning about the Eastern way of life. I wonder what they recall of me that I have lost. I have not spoken with Daniele in a quarter century. I miss him more, these days, than I would have thought back then. Each bond I had that day dissolved in time. I have fallen since then, and often, and sometimes the Falls themselves would have seemed a blessing. And I knew none of it that day, knew none of it, nor knew the currents I had hidden from myself. That day is lost, and the one after, and after that, beneath a palimpsest of anger, apathy, of fleeting joy. I reconstruct some details by logic, determining how they must have been, getting one detail in three just wholly wrong. They form as clouds around an image, the point from which the memory solidifies. I turned to join my friends and there she was, walking to me with a cloud of birds behind her, and she came and threw her arms around my neck, and then the fall, and oblivion.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/31 at 12:32 PM
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Deadman Creek, 1994

Deadman Creek

Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/31 at 08:33 AM
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Thursday, March 30, 2006


An effect of the Wellbutrin: I am eating less. The drug has not suppressed my appetite. Rather, it has reduced my desire to eat when I am not hungry. Seventeen pounds lost since the start of the year, though some of that is likely also due to another brain chemical associated with the Wellbutrin: Getoffmyassatol.

I am five feet, nine inches tall. At this height I have weighed 125 pounds, and I have weighed 225. Two hundred twenty-five pounds is better, even if just for ease in moving heavy appliances. One hundred-seventy would be better still. By the simple expedient of not eating things I don’t really want to eat, I now have just six pounds to lose before the NIH declares me merely overweight as opposed to obese. About three weeks, less if it doesn’t rain Monday and I can actually climb Diablo. According to the NIH, at 125 pounds I was merely on the light edge of normal. I have destroyed most of the photos of myself in that period: they reminded me uncomfortably of atrocity photos.

Well, that’s one of the reasons.

My unnecessary eating stemmed from boredom, that bane of the ADD hobbyist. It stemmed from a desire for sensation, the distractions of feel and flavor. And it stemmed from habit. For a few years, starting when I was about 17, I could never be sure of my next meal. Eating far past satiety was a survival skill. It was only at age 22, when I got a job in a cheap restaurant in Berkeley, that I could count on more than one meal a day.

I see that hunger now as if it hung before me, excised from my mind albeit still connected by the faintest tendrils. I study it. There is always the chance it will grow back, and I would do well to recognize it. For now I feel a burden gone, a lightness. It is a paring down of need, one obligation to myself removed.

The longing is not gone. It is transplanted.

In mornings I walk down the hill with Zeke, a slower walk each day. His legs are failing. I drink in the sight of him, his silly smile, his need to leap each curb despite his weakness. Steller’s jays taunt us from nearby oaks: I savor their ratcheted song. This morning seven vultures soared the thermal on our hill, tilting their wings only slightly in grand, wide arcs. We take the next block a bite at a time. At the park I let Zeke off leash, a violation the police and park staff tolerate in my old dog, and he follws me gamely to the creek. I have surveyed the creek each morning for some time, though Zeke does not always make it to the bank. It rises and falls with rain and tide, deep-throated murmur or trickly laugh, and the kingfisher flies upstream. This morning I watched it greedily. It was full and so, when I turned to walk toward Zeke again, was I.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/30 at 05:05 PM
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Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Looking toward Baker

An image that has not been further back in my mind, these past few days, than three or four layers of distraction: I am alone in the Mojave. I cross the low north flank of Teutonia Peak, where a small canyon running toward the Valley View Ranch turns into a canyon large enough to hide in, and then to one large enough to get lost in. I enter it where it is perhaps eight feet deep and forty across. It is January and the desert is wet. The floor of the little canyon holds a small stripe of sand, a wash in miniature, the shaded parts of it not yet dried by the Mojave sun. I walk downcanyon a few hundred feet.

I come to a pool perhaps two feet across and two inches deep. I stand on the rock and am about to hop the pool when I look down.

There at my feet, in the wet sand of the little wash, are the tracks of a bighorn sheep. Each bears a thin sheen of water at its deepest points. Within five seconds the tracks are one quarter full of water. Then half. And full, and hair stands full erect on nape.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/29 at 09:59 PM
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The other day Becky and I were having one of those idle conversations couples sometimes have. What would our lives be like had we never met? We talked of trivialities, places where we’d both be living and jobs we might still have, and then she looked at me strangely.

“You would have married,” she said, appending a name to the sentence, a person from our past whom I no longer know, on whose rock I nearly foundered my marriage. “And divorced four months later,” I thought to myself. But life does not work that way. I met her at a job Becky had encouraged me to take.

Seventeen years together, and no part of my life entirely distinct from hers. She would be living in an airy single apartment full of light and Scandinavian furniture with no piles of desert books, no random stones from hikes long since forgotten. I would be dead, or in Barstow. She would have no one to challenge her self-abnegation. I would have no one to kick my ass.

Life does not work that way. Ask me what my life would be like without veins, or lungs. She is not part of me, nor I of her. But she has suffused herself into me, my thought, my work. My life.

We knew each other for two years before we were romantically involved. When we met we were romantically involved, I with Elissa, Becky with Elissa’s brother Michael. Becky and Michael lived in San Francisco, and would visit us about once a month, perhaps a little more.

Michael would tell non-stop jokes about old television shows. Becky would roll her eyes. As 1987 turned to 1988, her eyerolling became less patient. Michael was her first love, and so she was growing dissatisfied.

She and I would talk quietly of nothing as Michael and Elissa joked and argued. I tried my best to keep my silly, growing crush on her a secret. Eight years younger than me! I was 27 when we met. The math was irrefutable, my feelings inappropriate and doomed. I worked to transmute secret ardor into simple friendship, familial affection. It worked, for a time. Elissa’s family was large and chaotic, tempestuous, her father famously difficult to bear, though he was always kind to me. Becky and I became allies, confidantes in our struggles with the in-laws. I slowly put my crush aside, concentrated on my failing relationship with Elissa.

Michael and Becky were leaving our house after one weekend of jokes and sniping, talking and eye rolling. We stood in our kitchen. Elissa and Becky exchanged a quick hug, and Michael and I clapped hollow hands on one another’s backs. Michael turned to kiss his sister. Becky moved to me and hugged me. I gave her an affectionate embrace, squeezed just a bit, moved to let go. She didn’t. She clasped herself to me. I melted a little, clasped back again. There passed a very long time. Fifteen seconds? Thirty? Far beyond the bounds of propriety, whatever the duration. And then she turned and walked out without a word, and Michael followed, and when the door closed behind them Elissa masked her rage in mockery.

Neither Becky nor I mentioned that hug for some years after.

The next year Elissa met a man she loved deeply. She dithered. Choose him, or choose me, I said, but choose. Three days later, the kitchen full of boxes, I tapped half the cumin into an empty jar. When I’d bought it, I thought, I hadn’t anticipated dividing it. The phone rang. I smeared tears and cumin on the handset. Becky had heard. Elissa had told her family, and Michael had told Becky. I was fine, I said. Sad, of course. Some friends in Berkeley had invited me to move in with them.

“I don’t want to lose touch with you,” she said. We made plans for coffee.

“I am probably breaking up with Michael,” she said.

Elissa came home, looked at me sorrowfully, told me to take all the cumin if I wanted to. “That,” I said, “is not the point.”

We ate with Allison last week, the night before her plane took her back east. We were talking boys, and it occurred to me she is now as old as Becky was when we started dating. Just don’t fall for a 29-year-old, I said, and Becky agreed. “Don’t make the same mistake I did!” Under the table her hand took mine.

It was a long time ago. I can no longer fully remember the person I was. Nor do I wish to. Twenty-nine from forty-six is a lifetime. How do I disentangle the threads of her from the life I might have had? Sadness, brilliant joy, foundering. Days spent avoiding topics we both dared not bring up. Passion, boredom. Walks back home from Chinatown in Oakland, heavy fresh noodles making the plastic bag handles cut into my fingers. Her voice on the phone from China, from the desert, from across the bay. Waffles and companionable silence. Fierce happiness. Languor. Longing. Laughter.

One day I drove five miles toward the desert, turned and drove back home to kiss her one more time. One day we cast bare hooks into the Trinity’s South Fork, each of us aching as she pulled me back into our marriage, the first day in four years the ravens spoke to me. One day we woke up, our coffee date having run longer than we planned, and looked at each other in wonderment and a little fear. One day I left her forever, washed over with remorse at hurting Michael. One day she handed me a box: food from Chinatown to eat on the plane to Oahu with Elissa. One day I smiled at her through dinner as she picked every last flake of cilantro from her bowl with chopsticks. One day she pulled a love letter from her backpack, handed it to me among the Joshua trees. One day we stood before our friends and slipped rings on one another’s fingers, platinum with some iridium and osmium, Alvarez layers to seal away the monsters of the past.

Seven thousand days and each one changed me whole, but one more than the others. I was in school and she came to me, but I would not know it for some time. I was doing math, or looking out the window. A continent away she drew a breath and screamed. March 29, 1968, and I am the least of those whom she has changed. I may be the most grateful.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/29 at 12:25 AM
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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Rape and privilege at Duke University

The bottom line is that, despite all its high-flown rhetoric to the contrary, Duke consistently promotes the creation of a society where its residents have no respect for the law or the consequences of their actions on others, because this respect is never forced upon them. So despite the horror of it, the utter evil and heinousness of the acts they performed, no Duke student or official should be able to pretend that this rape is an aberration of the spirit of this school. Regardless of whether alcohol was involved in the rape (though it was), this is about how Duke creates a fundamental culture of disrespect and disregard of the law. Alcohol is just the medium.

My niece Allison got home from her visit to some upsetting news about her Alma Pater: 46 of the 47 members of the school’s lacrosse team were being investigated for possible involvement in a gang rape of an exotic dancer at a party.

In comments yesterday, Carpundit asked what I meant when I said rape was often considered a property crime committed against men. I emailed him privately to promise I’d answer in some detail, perhaps in a new post. This is not that post. But Allison’s post could be considered part of the class reader. Rich white boys allegedly raping and brutalizing a young African-American woman, who was working her way through college, simply because they had paid for her time — a rather pointed example of what I was getting at. But I’ll say more, more clearly, within the next few days.

And I am glad to see the fine Clarke tradition of anger-fueled rants will not die with me.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/28 at 05:50 PM
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Monday, March 27, 2006

Why I am not a feminist

There’s a recent blog discussion-cum-argument-cum-slagfest that started in discussion of why a couple of blogs run by self-identified “male feminist” bloggers are feeling less than welcoming to some women due to extensive tolerance of sexist commenters. The discussion has so far spanned about forty different blogs that I know of and spawned a couple five subdiscussions, some of which have pitted people I admire and love against one another. One of the bloggers at the center of the storm opined that perhaps the reason he and one other male writer were taking such heat — some of which I delivered — was that there are so few male feminist bloggers, and thus he and the other were the subjects of rather high expectations.

This irritated me for a couple of reasons, one of which I spoke up about in response to his statement. That was this: there are quite a few male bloggers who write thoughtful stuff about feminist issues, on non-single-issue blogs. I try to do that myself here. I usually can’t stand the thought of writing here about stuff I feel I’m expected to write about, an infantile disorder that caused me, when inundated with Koufax traffic looking for political writing, to write post after post of telegraphic poetry about the nature of thought and writing and existence and birdwatching. The astute reader will note that there is not a single post here about South Dakota’s abortion ban. This isn’t because I don’t have strong opinons on the subject, far from it. It’s because ten thousand people have said stuff on their blogs about the South Dakota abortion ban, and I have nothing new to add here that hasn’t been said. I don’t write about feminism all the time because I don’t write about anything all the time, not even the subjects with which I have rather more familiarity. Plus, when I do write about feminist issues here, I quite likely betray my own middle-aged vanilla hetboy bias and privilege. Nonetheless, the insinuation that few men are blogging about sexism just because there are only two prominent, self-identified “male-feminist” blogs rankled me to no end, as if I was being told that I am not a desert blogger or nature writer because I sometimes post pictures of my pet bunny.

But there’s something else. It’s this:

I am not a feminist.

I support feminism and feminist activists. Which is not to say that I agree with every statement by every such activist, or every proposal that has been floated in the name of feminism. But those disagreements tend to pop up either in the realm of feminist metatheory or in places where i feel those activists have not sufficiently grounded their feminism in the context of other issues, such as racism and nationalism. Really, that’s less than a single-digit percentage of the feminist statements I encounter in my life, and I read the blog slagfests. I am a wholehearted supporter of feminist politics and a fervent believer in applying those politics to my personal life — though the women who are part of that personal life will likely tell you that I have far to go in that respect.

I am not a feminist.

I see my name mentioned in more and more places in the feminist blog world as “one of the rare men who gets it.” This gratifies and depresses me, and confuses me not a little. I suspect that some of this is that privilege mentioned above, in which a man who says certain eminently sensible, obvious, just, and humane things about feminism and sexism gets more recognition than a woman who says the same things. I suspect some of it is that I love women, and no matter how you parse that you will likely be right. I suspect some of it is that I cannot imagine my freedom, my rights to be fully realized in any system that deprives others of those rights and that freedom, and women are systematically deprived of those rights and freedoms.

I am not a feminist.

I think rape is a war on women, a systematic hate crime that is mainly treated as a crime against male property, even in North America. I think women have the right to determine the fate of their own bodies. I support legal, accessible, and government subsidized abortion up until the hour before birth. I support free availability of RU-486 and the morning after pill, free access to contraceptives, free public health and contraception education, and an end to gag rules of any sort. I see a dozen systemic social, political, and environmental issues, global and local, that can best be addressed by providing education and political power to women. I support free prenatal care and wages for housework, a.k.a. the guaranteed income. I support Shulamith Firestone’s notion of exploring ways to disengage human reproduction from gender. I support Dad changing half the goddamn diapers.

I am not a feminist.

I agree with the notion that women are the sex class, whether or not they work in the sex industry, and I find this commodification of a human being’s most personal activity abhorrent. I feel this applies equally to prostitution, porn, and primping for the prom. I refuse to condescend to the women who have found themselves being so commodified.

I am not a feminist.

Feminism has been described as the radical notion that women are people. But that is a bon mot, good for opening a few minds but not as a working definition of a philosophy or an ideology. Here is what I think feminism is: Feminism is a liberation movement. Though it takes multifarious forms, and there are probably more feminisms than there are feminists, that is what it comes down to, especially if you grant a broad definition of the word liberation. Feminism is the movement to free women from sexism, to free them from the oppression — whether murder, mutilation, or mere slight statistical lack of employment opportunity — visited on them by men… and by other women.

I am a sympathizer. I am a fellow traveler. At my best, I am an ally. But I am a member of the class against which feminism is aimed. I can do my best to be a traitor to that class. More and more men do, and I think no one would deny that the material support we can provide is crucial, whether talking to other men, offering political and financial and emotional support to feminist activists, or just doing the damn dishes half the time.

I read Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua’s This Bridge Called My Back the year it was published, and found it invaluable in understanding a part of American culture I had until then missed. Were I to call myself a Chicana as a result of my poltical support, I would be laughed out of the planning meeting. I have been marching in Pride Parades for a quarter century, and had mainly gay friends in college for a decade before that. Even with broadening definition of the term, calling myself a “Queer activist” would almost certainly raise eyebrows. I cut my political eyeteeth working on the defense of the Attica prison riot defendants. That does not make me a Black Power activist.

My goal is to be the best ally to feminists I can be, in the political realm and in the much more difficult personal realm.

But I cannot call myself a feminist: the label is not mine to claim.

Posted by Chris Clarke on 03/27 at 06:41 AM
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