:: Article

Winter, 2017

By Gary Garvin.

It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread, to think of nothing, to hear no thunder, no rain, no splashing from the gutter, no gurgling around the house. Perhaps no pagoda will emerge, but the night will pass.

Max Frisch, Man in the Holocene


January, well over a year ago, while I was descending the first flight of stairs of my condo to go out for a walk, my left foot slipped forward, landing hard on the next step, that leg straight, then my knees collapsed and folded and I landed on them full weight. I’m not infirm. I was taking the steps with pace, as I had been for some sixty years. I simply missed my stride a little bit, likely less than an inch. Only weeks later did I learn I fractured my left fibula and ripped the quad tendons in both legs.

Surgery was still weeks more off, after which I had to strap both legs in braces without bend for two months so the repairs could take hold. I spent another few weeks in convalescence then was sent home, where I managed walking straight-legged and stiffly, with a walker, only when necessary. I sat at my desk a few hours a day in a wheelchair with my legs straight out on supports and made limited excursions to the kitchen downstairs, third to second floor, with difficulty, with caution, with pain and no small fear. Bend was gradually added to the braces and they eventually came off, but I could only perform light exercise and it was easy to overdo it. Muscles, especially at my age, atrophy from disuse at a rate so fast I immediately forgot it after a PA told me. Simple tasks taxed and wore me out; constant pain kept me up at night. Even now I have to restrict myself and get out little. I am run down and dispirited.

There were people. I had just moved to Portland, but neighbors I scarcely knew helped out, showing kindness I had no reason to expect, and the first months I had frequent visits from the Kaiser home therapists. But otherwise I was alone, and my only physical exposure with the external world came from partial views from windows—in my bedroom, the condo unit next door; in my office, trees and the playground of an elementary school across the street above which opened a thin slice of skies above. Most of my time was spent in the bedroom, sparsely furnished, in need of repair. I still had much to do to settle in, now put on hold. In all windows appeared the weather—snow, drifting, swirling, piling down, the heaviest in over a decade; a summer in the sun, the hottest in as long. In between, perpetual Portland rain and grayness. With my body weak and inactive my mind dulled, I read fitfully, couldn’t write. I also followed the news on my computer or, while in bed, on my pad—I don’t have cable tv hookup because I can no longer handle the glut of our culture that window lets in.

I also built a house, or a model of one.

The news, of course, was not good. I saw what was a few months before believed impossible, the inauguration of a man who in behavior, thought, and appearance grossly exceeded the worst caricature of his kind, and every day brought yet another onslaught of abuse. Global warming moved more solidly from theory to fact with the fresh evidence, severe hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and I saw pictures of their devastation, their swallowing up. That summer, wildfires in Oregon. Later California burned, more pictures of widespread devastation. I learned about the opioid epidemic throughout our heartland, sex monsters were exposed, swastikas appeared in public, statues came down, security ruptured at online databases, exposing, spilling our identities, and a man in Las Vegas opened fire from the 32nd floor of a hotel on an open-air concert, killing 58 and wounding hundreds more and his motives were never found.

But most I just dozed off or floated, keeping at bay doubts and an unease I couldn’t do anything about, though not forgetting where floating might lead. I tried to maintain a framework of a self, bare yet functional, and keep a thread of contact with some belief, or an outline of one, or its ghost. Now I want to see what I can add, what I might strengthen, what might need revision, what I might take forward in the years to come.

Worse can happen, much worse. I’m not looking for sympathy, which doesn’t do me or anyone else any good. Nor do I want to dwell on the details, which no one wants to hear, though I will have to visit a few and work my way through them. Besides, I will recover in some fashion and get back out into the world. But I do want to recall that first night, which felt like a dream about someone else, or a vision in which I was an outsider observing, or was transformed into a generic character in some universal fiction. There were fifteen inches of snow on the ground, the streets were frozen, and Portland, ill-equipped, was paralyzed, the hospitals were packed, there wasn’t a free bed. I had spent some eight hours in the emergency room, where my PA kept trying to stand me up—I shouted the first time—then gave me Valium and oxycodone, which eased my ascent and I finally succeeded. He decided I could leave for follow-up later, gave me a walker, and called a cab. It was around 1:00 am, and the streets were empty as I rode alongside the Willamette under a clearing sky, the moon, quiet and serene, illuminating the white ground everywhere with a light that dissolved all discord. I felt euphoric from adrenalin, from the drugs angelic. When I arrived at the complex I had to negotiate by myself, on the walker, some thirty feet from the cab to my front door, the corridor between my unit and the next. Snow was crusted and runoff from the roofs had frozen solid on the walks and stoops. I was walking on ice.

And I made it, and once inside I got up the stairs with the walker, somehow, and stood for a moment by the kitchen, pausing, surveying my living space, glad at last to be back home after a day in emergency, thinking this is not so bad, I can manage this, this will pass.

Then my legs collapsed and I fell flat on the floor.


What difference does it make what the motives are for someone who kills 58?


An essay is a type of construction in which an author enters the world and gathers its facts, its ideas of itself, from which he or she builds. It should have a guiding structure that leads to discovery, to illumination, to a point towards which everything aligns in revelation.

Architecture gives actual construction, with thought behind. Making a model of a building offers a way to experience its physical presence close hand, over time, to examine its structure, the relationship of its parts, to think about one’s possible place in it and its place in the world, about its meanings, as well as engage in the practice and ritual of construction. A model also provides a platform to contemplate structures and relationships in general, what might be suggested analogically, what might be applied elsewhere.

Laid up, I wanted to do something with my hands, a way to counter my seclusion and immobility. Construction sets were a childhood passion I revived some time ago, and I’ve long had an interest in architecture. I don’t know why I settled on Peter Eisenman’s House II. I’m not even sure how I knew it. Likely I saw in a general architecture history a diagram of a complex lozenge that engaged but baffled, only given scant explanation in the text, a memory of which resurrected. I got curious and ordered books and tracked down all the drawings and pictures I could find online.

House II is the second of eleven experimental houses, of which only it and three others were built. In the design process Eisenman started with a grid of nine squares and a two-level cube determined by 4 x 4 posts, evenly spaced.

The grid and basic shape go through a series of transformations—shifts, extrusions, displacements, and omissions—which generate the design.

There’s a point to all this, or a deflection of one.

But it must have been pictures of the house when first built that most struck me—the bare, white structure on a snow-covered hill beneath a stark, gray sky, looking out on empty, seemingly endless space yet withdrawn in inward questioning—where I sensed a recognition, a proposition that propelled me forward.



We live deep underground in a cave, sitting before screens, chained in such a way that the screens are all we can see. The screens have cameras that record our faces looking at the screens and capture what we say. Behind us, unseen, unknown, more of us behind screens that play what is recorded by the cameras in the front, which they edit and send back to the screens in front, and so on in endless loop. There is no opening to the cave, or if there is it has not been found. It has not been found because no one is looking for it. No one knows what is outside. When the screens turn off, there is darkness.


I have been months staring at a screen where words have piled up without coherence or direction. Some days there are blizzards of loose thoughts and stray details I list as fast as I can, scarcely keeping up. Other days there are droughts when nothing comes. I have attempted outlines several times, but these trail off inconclusively and lose themselves in dissipation. Still, I keep everything and the file is quite long, but when I scroll down and scan it I see I have repeated myself many times, the same details, the same inconsequential thoughts, similar aborted outlines. There are days I just sit, waiting for inspiration to move forward, am fatigued when it comes hours later and have to stop, only to find the next morning it has disappeared.

The election was a shock, a piercing injury. I was not alone. That night, leaving the bar where I watched the returns, I saw fallen faces, and saw more days later on the sidewalks, elsewhere, everywhere. I won’t slip into the pathetic fallacy of saying the world fell into dissolution, but I did begin to see what escaped notice before, cracks in the pavement, shooting weeds, mud beneath thinning grass, stagnant pools, peeling paint, scattered trash. Only now does it occur to me that my—our—depression was always there, pooling beneath.

Torture absolutely works, the president has told us. He can feel it. We elected a man whose basic tropes are cruelty and fear. His purpose, however, conscious or not—can that distinction be made?—is not to end terrorism but keep it alive. He needs it. Torture intensifies its target, gets our attention and aligns it, projecting our insecurities, our unknown fears, our hidden terrors, our failing conscience onto a different face we can attack, all the while fixing the president at the center. The more severe the methods the better. We are being waterboarded into rage and submission. As with terrorism, so with the rest of the nation, the world, all those he has exiled or targeted, all those he wants to wall off, their circle widening. Alongside torture and related, obstacles have been removed from the conduits of money, whose surging transmission to the top exceeds basis or purpose and looks to have no limits. All this in the name of freedom. Actually, we haven’t been given a name, other than his. Any other naming, all ideals, ideology itself are dead—or their illusion has finally lifted. In their place, the architecture of golden towers, bearing hugely the five letters. Capitalism, or his—our—brand of it, ultimately is personal.

From the inauguration on, my months confined in recovery were a time of lingering pain and spreading disbelief as the world slipped into unreality. Or rather the world became too real when abstract fears from November were given concrete manifestation each morning when I checked the news. Each day launched fresh assaults that stretched credibility yet which, accumulating, defined the expected and set the ground for what topped it the next. The details stayed with me the rest of the day in uneasy contemplation that spread like a plague. Isolated, without the mediation of employment and social communion, was I indulging myself and exaggerating the grossness? Or, alone, without distractions, with time to think, was I seeing it more clearly and letting it sink in? I could not stop checking the news because without it I would lose my only contact with the outside world. Yet how could I keep myself intact within it? What gives continuity one day to the next, or at least keeps one from going under?

But those months were also a time of memory, of reflection. I realized how much the election was not a freak aberration but rather a continuation of the last decades, inevitable, necessary. All the threads were in place, the hollow calculations of past elections, the closed loop between media and campaigners, the lowest common denominator of their appeal. The ascendance of self-interest masked by self-righteousness, the vacuum exposed by the fall of towers, the senseless wars. The noise of self-abandon and self-absorption. We delight in personal chaos yet deflect complexity of any kind, giving ourselves instead to the most direct, the simplest expression, which speaks loudest. No wonder many of us promote the purist color and want to build protective walls and throw others out.

I could build a wall around myself—the Chinese built one, long ago—mine fortified by indignation, to protect me from all that assails and threatens to destroy. But that would cut me off, isolate conscience, and leave me alone with a moral stance difficult to maintain without ever increasing reinforcement that would lock me in all the more and, inversely, sap resolve.

Or I could tear down the walls others have put up, but then what? What do I carry over the breach? What would contain the resulting flood?

Conscience built on what? On reflection what I realized was that I had retreated the previous decades into a haven of denial and forgetting, had not supported myself with anything solid, had simply put the world aside because it depressed and disgusted me, and thus, in a sense, was complicit. There were days when, after a night sleepless from soreness, I lay in bed drifting, losing focus, when the pain in my legs, like the news, felt outside me and seemed to come from the same source, were the same thing, both contained by the four walls of my room, as if the world had been reduced to a closed, aching box I had somehow created.

Then there were days when I lost track altogether. Each news report of abuse, factual, verbatim, too obviously damning, came and went without consequence, as if the gears of the machine of our society had been stripped, as if we had moved beyond outrage or had been consumed by it. I also discovered the other sources I had ignored all these years. While in the convalescent home I did watch cable news, nonstop, and discovered the other networks, and back home scanned the alternative voices online, clarifying in their collective furor, separately chaotic in their denials, distortions, and frank biases, each voice feeding the other endlessly, the pages online seemingly infinite, like Piranesi carceri receding into depths I could never sound.

Beneath the fury, a deathly torpor. I also discovered in reports, in pictures what had been hidden or ignored, the opioid epidemic in our hills, in our heartland, throughout the country—the numbers, the listless faces, the despair, the drugged stupor, the deaths piling up in homes, on the streets.

Still they kept coming without reprieve, our president’s abbreviated assaults, self-expanding and self-serving, brutal, rash, and shameless, horribly embarrassing. They brought to the surface my own faults, and I questioned whether a self was something I wanted to have. What I didn’t ask myself was whether I was moved by much more than my hatred of that man. Only recently have I realized it was my anger that stirred me all those months in bed and helped keep me going. There will only be emptiness when that man leaves, or is removed.

I did try to take the longer view and maintain perspective. I read history and streamed series on my pad. I had the time, and spent much time there. History’s walls, their breaches, the shifting borders, the massive dislocations, the holocausts, the wholesale wars—it was impossible to find a center. Many parallels, none promising. Throughout, talk of progress, an endless stutter.

Last summer wildfires in nearby reserves spread, out of control. Portland darkened with the smoke, ashes drifted in air and settled on my sills and stuck to my screens, filling my room for weeks with unseen particles and an acrid smell that burned my eyes and turned my stomach. More sleepless nights, and in a doubtful moment in a darkened room I thought, or perhaps didn’t voice inside but breathed it, this is the smell of the world now, this is the beginning, the beginning of the way the world will end.

I could build a tower of silence—the Zoroastrians had one—a circular stone pit atop a mountain where bodies are gathered, the sun bleaches corrupting flesh, vultures pick my bones.

There is no reason to write an essay.


Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights,
To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:
The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.

One can build for salvation here and in a life hereafter. Above, the gilded verse on the main doors of Abbot Suger’s renovation of St. Denis. His addition of the arched choir was inspired by Neoplatonist thought, an architectural solution to the problem as to how the physical world might be reconciled with the ideal, the temporal with the eternal, us with our maker. The pointed arch, vault rib, and buttress, elements of the coming Gothic style, distribute load to allow maximum space for the stained glass windows, through which the light of the spirit passes, where glow the patterns and messages of their figures.

There are problems with all the terms, even among believers, and a reduction of mystery, of sacrifice. Still, one has been here before, and one returns, and stands and pauses beneath the distant vaults, looking up, not without contrition, recalling in the cool, gray silence echoes of past upward yearning, waiting for the Word.

It is not the stained glass, however, but the buttresses outside, flying in English, thrusting in French, gathered in their parallel support, that still hold me and shadow my thoughts, solid, stone heavy, yet light and lifting, spreading stress and containing it in complex coordination all these centuries, endlessly, eternally, or never.

But self-reformation, like charity, begins at home.



Much of House II is devoted to openness. Architecturally it is negative space. Philosophically it is the void.

For weeks I was wholly engaged in the process of understanding, planning, and building, and making mistakes and getting lost and tearing down and revisiting and revising and rebuilding, and with the construction and destruction and reconstruction came a host of thoughts that hovered but landed nowhere, returning me only to House II, its structure, the relationship of its parts, which sent me flying into thought once again.

The actual house, completed 1970, is situated on top of a once treeless hill in Vermont and looks out on the surrounding countryside, isolated, without recognition. Its nonobjective forms and stark white and glass surfaces mark its separation from the land, from nature, from any kind of connection. The second floor is broken up into three levels containing what could be three bedrooms, with some room left over, and the whole interior is defined by openness and circulation throughout, especially the first floor, which has scant partition. Frank Lloyd Wright, who introduced architecture to the open plan, offers contrast. Against his integrated and comprehensive flowing space, that space guided by natural metaphors and a program for living, we see in House II the opposite, detailed and intricate openness without program or allusion.

Eisenman’s essential intent is formal, and House II belongs to a dialogue architecture has had with itself the last century and that century’s debates with the centuries before. A construction built of forms, however, still raises, in its exclusion of reference, the specter of other kinds of forms, thus, in their absence, still leaves open matters of whether they exist, what they may or may not mean. We are aware of their presence by their absence. If nothing else, we think why they are not there, how much they are not there, and have to decide where that takes us. With forms come analogies of values, and systems of values, their possibilities, or the fact of their absence.

And it is still a house, however problematic, a place to enter and live, and we have to figure out how to live there, or wonder why the life we lead doesn’t fit.

And it exists in a context of history, its constructions and destructions: of the twentieth century, its massive thrusts and disruptions, its innovations and retreats, its confidences and absences, and of the past centuries the twentieth turned its back on. And of a present, uncertain, and of a future, still uncertain in spite of our certainties, our hopeful projections, our illusions, our absences.

With history, centuries of thought, to which Eisenman makes a nod, the twentieth, where ideas past are taken apart or inverted or doubted and dispelled or left up for grabs.

Then there is my context, lying on my bed, diminished and incomplete, trying to assemble myself, maintain myself, attempting to position myself in my world, our present, in time itself, place myself in its continuum at a time when the world and I had gone off track.

House II is alive with how much it makes us think about and all it does not show, like a mind itself, as if a model of consciousness, at least or if only a consciousness of itself.

A grid suggests order and regularity and enclosure, perhaps a Cartesian scheme reaching out into space and comprehending it. What the house most shows is a basic shape, the cube, that has been extensively modified. A physical cube might bring associations of the cube in abstract—a unit for construction, a building block, a starting point. It is one of the Platonic solids and has had associations throughout the history of our culture of solidity, of some truth, and with truth, some virtue, some value.

All such associations are quickly dismantled. Constructing a building—and constructing a model of a building—is usually is a matter of expectations and repetition. Walls and floors align, doors and windows follow consistent patterns related to their uses and their relationship to the whole. That almost never happened in my model. Even traditional architectural markers of openings are not clear. Throughout my construction scale drifted in and out, in my hands, before my eyes. It was hard to find the human scale. Often the building seemed quite large, when in fact it is a modest house, about 45 x 45 feet.

Even, or especially, structure is ambiguous. The structural function of the initial grid is disguised or undercut. Some elements are stranded, posts don’t rise to support what we think they should support or support nothing. We are left with the question as to what exactly is holding the house up and don’t have a definite answer. The modernist dictum that form follows function has been subverted.

Then the house as built is not, Eisenman tells us, the real architecture, but rather is a model, or is made to look like a model, and exists as but one part of the flow of his efforts—his own models and over 2,000 drawings—an artifact of the overall concept, his conception. That ambiguity makes us aware of the process of design and construction, of process itself, of possibilities suggested, not yet realized, of possibilities absent, leaving us with questions that can be answered in several ways—or can’t be answered at all. And I was building a model of a model, disturbing another current in the stream, raising more questions.

I first built a flat, green base, the ground, on which I raised the 4 x 4 grid of white posts, pristine and terse, perfect, and contemplated it for days while I studied the floor plans and drawings and pictures. Then I started filling in, though lacking confidence of how to proceed, my understanding of the house imperfect.

Alterations were made to the house over the years by its owners, and I tried to correct those and restore it to the original form I saw in the first photographs. But there was much in those pictures I couldn’t see and I had to make my best guesses. The drawings were of limited help, as there were variations among them and between them and the final construction. Then, because of the limitations of my model parts, I had to make compromises, omissions and simplifications where I could go one way or the other, or distort proportions I couldn’t quite capture, whose basis I didn’t understand.

I kept checking the pictures and drawings throughout, only to realize several times I had made a mistake early in construction. Or I changed my mind about a compromise, which had rippling effects throughout the structure. Walls, sections, the entire second floor were demolished, and I had to pick up the trail and start over, disheartened. Yet I woke early and worked late, without fatigue, my mind alive, the time engaged, until I finally made all the decisions I thought I could make and realized I was done, or rather had taken it as far as I could. With the finished model, I assembled in my head a catalog of necessary compromises along with the uncertain ones, an uneasy cross referencing of them, and a nexus of uncertainties about the drawings and the final built house; with those a host of thoughts, voiced and unvoiced, or their spirits, the catalog full and alive with uncertain possibilities, possibly pointless.

House II is complete in its provisionality and has a kind of structural honesty, one that allows questions and doubt, that thinks beyond function, or within, or outside it. It shows complexity and carefulness, precision and proportion, which, even if only formal, have value in themselves yet which might be applied elsewhere.

And it shows intelligence, a mind working out problems in space, perhaps a way of seeing and fixing problems. Eisenman was influenced by Chomsky’s theory of deep structure that opens up thought in language. Analogously, the regular grid, with its simple logic, its certainty of solution, has been shifted into complex relationships where extension and solutions are possible but outcomes are as yet unknown. We are given a model of a process to reach beyond what we see, what we think we know, what exceeds our simple assumptions. The imperfect cube suggests a structure that could be extended with variety, with complexity perhaps endlessly.

Or we come to realize any final form is elusive, or illusory.

Or House II is merely an idle formal exercise, of value only in itself, to itself, and whatever it tells architecture, and nothing else, merely an esthetic retreat. There is, however, some virtue in that.

Or in its open structure and its branching into vast, empty space, we are aware of the immensity of nothing, and nothing else.

Or only discover uncertain, complex ways of dealing with uncertainty that lead us nowhere.

When I consider it in the context of my disrepair and attempts to assemble myself, of the time of that winter, its barrage of bad news, and in the context of the past, its barrages, and set it against millennia of constructed architectures, their colonnaded processions, their symmetry and composure, their expansion and projections and enclosures, while it may not have been Eisenman’s intent, the house looks like a fragment of a house, inwardly conflicted, a carefully constructed ruin, a complex rendering of our own incompleteness, our breaking down in a world that has broken down itself, where there is nothing we can do, save despair.

But none of those thoughts settled, rather returned me where I started, the same person with a model of a house rising from a board on my lap while in bed, alone in the empty box of my bedroom, its four walls in need of patching and repainting, bare save for a window in one that saw nothing.

It was the closest I came to ecstasy.



These long chains of reasonings, quite simple and easy, which geometers are accustomed to using to teach their most difficult demonstrations, had given me cause to imagine that everything which can be encompassed by man’s knowledge is linked in the same way, and that, provided only that one abstains from accepting any for true which is not true, and that one always keeps the right order for one thing to be deduced from that which precedes it, there can be nothing so distant that one does not reach it eventually, or so hidden that one cannot discover it.

Alone with our thoughts we have all we need to get started. Descartes, as he tells us in his Discourse, secluded himself to discover essential truth, beginning with the fact of his existence, which he claimed to prove by the act of his thinking. From there he created a perfect God and, riding the back of geometry, mapped out an orderly universe that takes our breath and leaves us breathless.

Putting ourselves in the world has always been an obstacle in philosophy that requires a leap. Self itself is a term that dissolves the more we try to define it. Eventually we realized truth was a word, that finding it was a matter of language, a problem of its cracks and closures. Ultimately we are left with metaphors, have to take one over the other, see how it fits. Metaphors are always true, metaphors are always false.

Descartes isolated the mind because he believed the evidence of the senses could not be trusted. But the mind is the body, the body is the mind. Also too often the things that we are most certain about cannot be trusted and it is the uncertain things that cannot be trusted that most need attention.

For me alone in my room, during the day drowsy and fading off, or at night barely conscious, the basic truth that proved my existence was pain. My legs hurt, therefore I must still be alive. There were days in the early going when the pain around my knees radiated out into the skies with clarifying passion, resonant with the music of the spheres, glorious and tormented. Other days I felt only spreading dullness spiked with stray flashes, as if I were only a frayed being disconnected from anything beyond me in a pained, dull world itself disconnected and spread out and scattered across the grid. I have no way of disproving either.

We avoid thinking about pain because it is distasteful, as if it is unreal. There is common sense here, however. Most times we can put pain aside and push through it, it goes away. Focusing on it makes it worse and can interfere with healing. Obsessing about it is an indulgence that unchecked can lead to paralysis. But pain, after all, is our body’s way of telling us something is not right, and my only route to recovery, to reentry into the world depended on listening to its messages, beginning with the chorus of screams above both knees the first day when I tried to get up, which still echoes in the chambers of memory every time I attempt to rise.

My first revelation came in the convalescent home when the braces were removed to change the dressings: six-inch scars down my knees, not quite parallel, red, and, surprisingly, bloodless—the incisions had been glued shut, not sutured. They held a fascination for some of the nurses; I could barely look. Above my knees, large, irregular mounds of swelling above the places of repair, some small swelling elsewhere, unexplained. Beyond that, all muscles were attenuated, limp, and feeble from the waist down. Movement was hard to conceive. Within my legs, invisible and unknown, a lapsed structure of alignment of joints and ligaments and tendons and muscles, fallen from interconnection and function. Also invisible, an imperfect memory, atrophying itself, of the structure my legs had before, what they then could do. Before me, still invisible, still unknown, then and still now, the time of its knowing also unknown, the future structure that might be created in recovery and where that will take me. The only way to build that structure was to take what I had and get up and move, which began the second day after surgery, and push against the pain that rebounded with every effort.

Along with checks of my temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and blood oxygen, the therapists and nurses asked me to rate my pain according to a scale:

0 No Pain
I am pain-free.

1–3 Functional
I have pain.
It does not affect my daily activities or my life.

4–6 Uncomfortable
It is hard to move.
I cannot concentrate.
Pain is impacting my abilities.
The pain affects my daily activities and my life.

79 Severe
I am not able to leave my home.
I am unable to do anything—I am in bed.
The pain has a significant effect on my daily activities and my life.

10 Unbearable
I feel out of control and overwhelmed.
I cannot tolerate the pain sensation.
I need urgent or emergency care.

Such a scale was instituted some decades ago by the profession, an attempt to add reason and quantitative measurement to our state of being. Pain is now considered a vital sign. My replies were recorded and I assume put in my record, although nothing of came of them. The ritual only served to keep pain in mind and remind me of my limitations, my place on a scale of existence ranging from contentment to utter helplessness and terror. I always downplayed my responses.

Exercise was slight at first and seemingly ineffectual, yet still exacted its toll in pain. With each repetition the tendons and ligaments and muscles strained, slipped, and pulled against each other and tugged at the parts swollen. I couldn’t really begin effective recovery until I got some bend in the braces or exercise in earnest until the braces came off. At first I could only bend my knees about 50 degrees, and the only way to increase the angle was to try to pull my legs shut and stretch, which never felt like stretching and sent tremors throughout my recalcitrant legs, not yielding.

I had to live within a limited range of motions and develop strict mental restraints not to exceed it as well as fight habits, all I before took for granted without a thought. Start a squat and I might not be able to stop my weight on weakened joints. Getting down on my hands and knees is still not something I think about. Once, while I was hobbling sideways down the stairs, the doorbell rang and I turned and almost rushed straight down to answer, which would have been disastrous had I not checked myself. Sitting, standing, rising and descending; getting into my car, pushing the brake, knowing I could slam it hard—the full specific list is long, and I had to break each action down into details and gradations. With increased motion, I went further out into the world, but largely short walks or drives for necessities—trips to Kaiser, the grocery store, later visits to the gym. Now, still not much else.

Everything had to be carefully tested, and my essential feedback was pain. But it was impossible to know what it meant, what relationship it bore to the nascent structure of recovery. My knees could ache in complex, coordinated points of stress, reflecting the contacts and interconnection of their many parts. Or I felt random stabs that didn’t add up to anything. My basic problem was to know when to push and when to back off, to distinguish helping myself from harming, but I didn’t get clear answers. I had sharp, loud twinges in small spots, likely structurally insignificant, whose noise was out of proportion to actual stress, that could bring me to the point of collapse but abated once I walked a bit, others that persisted. Throbbing pains appeared in odd places, away from joints and damage, that might have been referred from elsewhere. Muscle soreness lessened as I warmed up in exercise or got progressively worse, and I couldn’t find correlation with my cautious efforts. Developing muscles, as they grew larger and worked into alignment, sent the same message as the swollen. What I didn’t feel was the pleasurable burn of exertion. I was always working against some soreness. I came to mistrust the rare days that I had little pain and felt resilience throughout, which would only be undermined the next with overall malaise. Once, a year out, when I felt I had made steady progress and was feeling better, I woke up to a stiff, nearly immobile right leg whose pain made it unstable. I had strained a ligament or tendon but had no idea how I did it. I had to retreat for two weeks, favoring that leg, only to have the same thing happen to my left and lost another two, with both a month of recovery gone.

With the limited range of motion and weakened body, a weakened mind that strained to reach, to conclude, to make connections in a cloud of pain.

With the weakened mind, a self pushing and pulling back its sense of itself, of its structure, projecting, retreating, doubting its possibilities.

What I could not afford to do was hope or torture myself with a picture of perfect health. I would always fall short of some projected ideal I never achieved in the past and wouldn’t capture in the future, and it was impossible to remain upbeat and sustain functional hope on a daily basis a year and more when the evidence day to day was uncertain and too often dismaying. I didn’t even have concrete proof the repairs were successful or that they might not come undone. It was highly likely they were and would hold, but my physical therapist couldn’t give a definite answer. Too much within was invisible and unknown, and answers wouldn’t be certain until some indefinite time in the future when movement was firm and sure. With those doubts came others—if a slight slip could lead to my present state what else might happen, would I be struck down again in some circumstance more perilous, even slightly so, whether the other twinges and aches I felt elsewhere, and I felt them all the time, were symptomatic of a cancer or some other disease, of impending organ failure, of total system collapse—and I fell into a despair total and without limits.

I think I had to let despair run its course. At any rate I couldn’t stop. But it cleared the air and set the ground for the only option I had, to persevere.

And what I was constructing in my knees I needed to build inside my head.

The nurses kept offering oxycodone, and here is where the pain scale comes into play. Report high enough, you get the drug. The nation roared and the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry responded, leading to the epidemic from which we all now suffer. I didn’t like it and went off a few days after surgery. It put me to sleep and didn’t alleviate pain that much when conscious, rather put it in a place where I was aware of it but just didn’t care. So many in our country literally must be in the same state, figuratively too many more.

There’s a metaphor in all of this, of course. The nation is a limp, swollen joint, strained and ripped out of alignment, screaming in conflict and retreating in avoidance. If I want to come to terms with it I will have to feel its pains and try to understand them, or look for ways past and around, and build from them a self in the world that can take care of itself and is worth having and find a structure to hold it. The nation would do well to follow suit.

From here, extension is invited. A general principle of ethics comes quickly to mind: one should not pass pain on to others. But that should be self-evident and we were told long ago.

nothing so distant that one does not reach it eventually—the temptation is to go further, not stop, make connections out into the void. I have made a few forays, as well as taken other efforts apart and tried to reconstruct them. Here, however, is where we get into trouble and I have no confidence anyway. We will always bump our heads. Credit has to be given to the marvels of healing, the body’s vastly intricate ability to close its wounds. But we cannot posit a focal point, a terminus, some vision of nature or a perfect God, both of which, whom, from the evidence, are indifferent.

Besides, such an effort misses the point. Living, and thinking about living, is a complex process that requires constant self-examination and exploration and excavation and reconstruction, whose main result and essential purpose is to live and think about living.


I walked down to the Willamette the other day, first time since, a mile or two down a hill from my condo, with a cane, sore and a little wobbly all the way. At river’s edge I passed the pollution warnings and walked out beneath the St. Johns bridge onto a floating pier that swayed with the silent currents, where I could see the other bridges, further out the modest skyline of downtown Portland, rising. Beyond Portland, the rest of the nation. Beyond the rest of the nation, the rest of world.

There is still time, time to repair ourselves. There is always time.

Time has run out, in which case we need to find the best way to manage ourselves in the meantime.


In the future glass towers, clean and fresh, with hanging gardens, monuments to our irrepressible spirits, will rise weightless from the ground, self-assured, transparent, and transcendent, and soar into the heavens and disappear.

In the future, x years from now, I will hold the matrix of some important thought aching in my head that I won’t be able to unpack and will constantly forget.



An essay should:

Start in one place and end in another.

Reach within itself—

Beyond itself—

And come up short.

Structure itself any way it can, then pull out all supports and see what still stands.

There is no reason to write an essay.



Photo and drawings of Peter Eisenman, House II, 1969–70, courtesy of Eisenman Architects. Model and pictures of the model by the author.


Gary Garvin has been writing for decades. Essays and stories have appeared at Conjunctions Online, TriQuarterly, Fourth Genre, and Numéro Cinq. A catalog of his work can be found at his site Fictions. Other of his architectural models can be found at Under Construction.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 17th, 2019.