Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: March, 2013


I woke from a dream in which somehow I and three other friends had taken on the power of the elements. Mine was air, of course, because I’m a Gemini. It was an elaborate dream, with many parts (thanks, life of reading, for giving my consciousness so many ways to tell stories!), but the main point was that after I inhaled one friend’s asthma medicine out of a small machine that reminded me of the water tank in my bedroom humidifier, I held up my hand and it flashed with white light. In most dreams I remember there’s drama, and in this one was a bully who was tracking us, who seemed unfazed when we finally met each other on a street by my wind powers. He walked through the blasts of concentrated air, the tornado funnels I threw at him, and the circles of furious wind that surrounded me like a fence. In the end, I grabbed him by the head and smashed it against the sidewalk over and over again and woke up.

What do you want to come back as, after you die? The nurse who stays with my mother during the day, a woman from Africa originally, talks about my mother going to be among the angels, my grandparents, the family. It’s a dream of light and peace and love. The trouble is she didn’t know my mother until after she was mostly gone, and my mother wouldn’t have told her much about herself anyway. When I said to the nurse that I had some experience being around people dying because I’d been with my father at his deathbed, she was quick to assure me that my mother would see my father again in heaven too. I laughed out loud.

“Oh, God no,” I said. “If she sees him there, she’ll know she’s in the wrong place. He will not be in heaven, or at least not in the same one that she’s in. More likely he’ll be in the frying pan section, if you know what I mean.” She smiled and laughed. “Oh,” she said. She has a beautiful laugh.

What I wanted to say to the nurse is that there is no heaven in which my family believes. We’re far more likely to believe that after the human body dies, we stop existing as I. But all those atoms of us keep moving, interacting, as material without consciousness, and in a perfect world would be buried under roses, forests, thrown in the ocean for fish and lobsters, lifted onto high scaffolds for vultures, left out in the wild for hyenas and jackals. My mother had a hope for the vultures. I have an interest in the plants, in being at the roots of things.

All of this, though, depends on being conscious. It’s a lovely dream, a hope, a consolation that might get us through the worst days. There is no need to grieve because it’s not over, I remember the priest saying at the funeral mass for a poet-teacher of mine. Rejoice he said. Don’t look so unhappy. He of course hadn’t even known the person who had taught us, befriended us, shared poems with us, struggled with her own complicated love life, health, and career. She was not going to be around anymore, we thought in our grieving hearts, so shut up you little twerp. Have some respect for your own ignorance of the actual woman. If her two daughters hadn’t been there, I might have heckled him, but he was there at their insistence, to help them, so of course no one said anything. We just felt embarrassed for them, that after having such a wonderful woman as a mother, they couldn’t imagine a richer way to celebrate her life than for a young man in a fancy mumu to scold us about feeling sad, and who urged us, with all the witless enthusiasm of retail-chain manager, to smile, to be happy. The only real moment of the spiritual was at the mausoleum, just before our friend’s ashes where interred, her ex-husband read from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.


That’s close to it. Although I think my mother would have argued even with Walt’s bodhisattvha-ism. She has had enough of crooked and mean-spirited politicians; the pulpit-mongers who turned people’s dreams for peace into reasons for war, hatred, bigotry, idiocy; the people who were so stupid they couldn’t tell when they were being lied to, whipped up into a frenzy over nothing; the news media that was now merely a publicity arm of multi-nationals. Although she feared much about technology, she loved to read the burgeoning internet sites where people were really reporting on things of weight and substance. She didn’t always get it that they too could be purveyors of dreaming, conspiracy dreaming that my brother and I would occasionally and gently laugh about behind her back. “Oh, Mother…” one of us would start, and she’d give us that look that meant You kids just don’t understand the world.

There are days I want to come back as something like the wind, as an elemental force, but I’d do it only to take revenge on the people who believe that tornados are God’s revenge for social and moral wrong. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? We just don’t know anything about the end of things. We can only dream about them. Fitting then, that I finish this last post on Easter, with all its death and rebirth. In celebration my brother and I are going out for doughnuts, those sweet ouroboros.

Endings are hard. These past two years as I’ve been writing about my mother and her diagnosis, I kept writing poems that had the word End in them, trying to figure out if I could actually feel the end to anything. I couldn’t. Or: all I could feel was a series of endings, one after another. Someone else might (and god knows I’m always trying to) feel life as a series of beginnings or re-starts. Even this last entry from this month, this month of essays, isn’t so much of an ending. I’m so surprised that I got through it, that I wrote nearly an essay a day, that I’ll be writing more now, a new beginning, in prose this time. Soon, I’ll be an adult orphan for the first time in my life, a life I never wanted to end, a life that was a mistake to begin with, when my mother uncharacteristically took a chance on.

“I knew I still had love to give,” she said when I asked why.

God I’m going to miss her, even though she’ll be with me everyday.


Yes: near the end

It’s nearly the end for my mother. She’s stopped eating. She’s mostly unresponsive. Her nurses have stopped giving her her drugs, only administering Morphine and Ativan to help ease her pain and panic. She looks like she’s going to die. White hair, white face, eyes closed. LIke a drowned woman. In her hospital bed in the living room, an ancient woman laboring to breathe. I, who hoped everyone was overselling her condition, burst into tears. Catherine, one of the nurse-aids who has been visiting and helping my mother for almost a year now, hugs me. It’s more than I can stand. I weep for Catherine’s grief too now, because she’s come to love my mother like a mother herself. I’m broken open, completely losing it. I sit down beside her and take my mother’s warm hand in my own. When Catherine says into my mother’s ear, “Marilyn! Your baby is here!” my mother’s eyes open for a brief moment, and I think she’s still here! But then they close again. I say, Oh Mama, as if I’m only eight. I’m too late for a last look at her old self. She’s started dying yesterday. She’s not coming back. I blubber some more. She would’ve killed me for weeping about all this, I laugh to Catherine, who understands. She’s a tough woman, she says. But I think she’d understand. We laugh a little through the awful tears.

In the face of loss you must still say yes. It’s not enough to wait around for the universe to invite you back into it after grief, although you may want to do that for a while. Even when you have to put her cat down, a cat who never liked you, you have to say yes. Even when you hold your mother’s hand in the end, you have to keep a yes for yourself alive somewhere. In a pocket in your coat in the closet. Wrapped among the unnecessary shirts in your bag. When the only water is an ice cube, or a pink sponge on a stick. Among the suppositories and lotions and adult diapers. When language runs out of meaning. Have you told her it will all be all right? Yes. Have you told her you’ll take care of everything? Yes. She knows about the cat. Yes. We’ve taken care of what must be taken care of, just as we talked about before this descent. Yes. What I’ve said is true. Yes, even if I don’t want to believe it. Don’t worry, I say to her, everything will be taken care of. Even when she won’t respond. Yes, you say to her, she can let go when she’s ready. Yes to being a mess. Yes to love regardless.

While you hold her hand, your tears gone now, the initial grief over, you interpret any jerk or muscle tremor as a sign she knows it’s you. Everything is something. Even when the other nurse says that muscle tremors are a side effect of morphine, you think yes. An old nurse who came by yesterday told one of the new nurses that when she’d sat with my mother she had been smiling and laughing, saying that she was meeting people at a train station. People were around her, she said, protecting her, helping her move. When I hold her hand tonight, I imagine that I’m standing there with her, in the station waiting for the train to come, for the great transport to arrive. Hi Honey, I said as I came into the room in the late afternoon. It’s me. Jeff. And her eyes fly open again. And what does she say, but Yes. Suddenly and out of nowhere. A recognition. A last gasp. Even if it’s to a conductor asking her if she has her ticket. If only it weren’t for this heavy luggage.

Water Closets

My usual men’s room has those long old-fashioned urinals that run halfway down the wall and end in a small ornamental drain. Peeing in one of these allows you to watch the way water moves down a long decline, the way pee spreads out and contracts as it moves down toward the drain. Toward your feet. In the smaller urinals downstairs, the larger public bathrooms the tourists and students use, there are smaller urinals, like the kind Duchamp used to make a statement about art. The chance for backsplash is greater with them, but I suspect they can more easily be replaced and certainly cost a lot less than the more elegant urinals on the 6th floor where I am now standing. No one else is here. I can breathe. I walk up to the urinal farthest from the door.

It took me until nearly 35 to figure out how to pee in public, to pee beside other men. My father never taught me (does one get taught how to use them?), and it was something we didn’t talk about among my friends. It was too weird. Until I was thirty-five or so, I simply went into a stall and either peed upright in there, or sat. I knew it was probably weird. Which is to say that I tried to pee upright and in public all that time, but I just couldn’t figure out first the mechanics of how, by unzipping my zipper, then (worse) finding a way to pull the head of my penis out that tiny teethed window, to relax enough to pee among strangers. Other men seemed to do it so confidently, with a motion so practiced it looked like one smooth motion followed by the sound of water on porcelain. They stood there, some standing quietly, some moving back and forth slightly. No one looked around. No one spoke. But no one looked anxious to do either of things. They came, they peed, they conquered. Some even remembered to wash their hands.

I couldn’t get my bladder to let go, though. Sometimes I’d stand there for a bit until enough time had passed, because I was sure someone was keeping records . Once I hissed quietly through my teeth to try to duplicate the sound of water. Sometimes I just sighed and turned and went into the stall. I closed the door behind me.

There do seem to be some rules:
1) don’t talk
2) don’t look up
3) don’t shake hands
4) don’t laugh.

Usually I try to avoid using public bathrooms. Who doesn’t, I suppose? One’s own bathroom is the easiest to relax in. Large public bathrooms are probably next best in my developing scale because you usually have enough space between you and others.

It’s not that peeing next to a stranger is too sexual; it’s too intimate for me. My natural inclination when I’m this close to anyone is to shake hands, find out how he’s doing, what’s going on, engage somehow. But that is forbidden and impractical. We just stand there, holding our penises while we pee, looking at the tiles in front of us, studying the grout, the cracks in the tiles, any tiny messages written in the tiny white spaces in the grout:

Hi there.
Here I stand, dick in hand…

I’m surprised frankly that more advertisers have not made more of this space. There are times when I’d appreciate a little reading material there to read, even an ad for insurance. Having a little ticker for news would I suppose be a bad thing, since it might lead, as it does with a number of men I know, inevitably to snorts of derision and then conversation. “What is up with that Lindsay Lohan? Jesus, who actually votes for Michelle Bachmann? Why is anyone listening to that Bieber kid?” These kinds of questions of course would lead to conversation, which by the rules I’ve intuited, are only allowed between men who are already washing and/or drying off their hands.

Then one day I heard on the radio that pee-shyness can often be overcome by simply doing mathematical work in your head, and so distracting one’s over-anxious social censor. I tried it at home at first and found that it worked very well indeed. Lo and behold, the next time I had to use a public urinal, I started running the times tables for 6s and 7s (always the hardest for me to recall) in my head and before I got to 6 x 7 I was off and peeing. I was suddenly free.

But those years before of fear and anxiety left an indelible mark. For years I wondered who is it who first thought to himself men won’t mind peeing next to each other?

Funny on one hand
A phenomenology of water on the other

Water and closet in other words.

A closet full of water? That sounds suspiciously British in both its surreality and its brand of repression.

When one walks into a water closet what does one expect? To get wet? When one walks into a rest room? Or wash room? Or powder room? Or the John? The crapper seems truest. Or the pissoir. Why not the elimination room? The movement room? The shitshed? There is the Latrine, a word that means bath. The little boys room or little girls room? Because only little children can be connected to shitting and pissing, it infantilizes what goes on in there, what comes out, which is raw adulthood in all its dripping, squirting, projectile, groaning, aching, bloody, acrid, earthy forms. One of the great shocks of my childhood was in a campground bathroom. I walked into a stall in the men’s room and saw an enormous turd floating in the toilet. It was the first time I’d seen an adult man’s output, and I honestly could not believe that it could come out of a human being. Or that it was in my own future, that it was my fate to some day produce that kind of thing. It was like being told I was going to grow up to be a tyrannosaurus rex or a werewolf. I fled for my life.

Children, like dogs, will shit in front of you and jump up to be held. They have to be taught to keep out of one another’s business. And I can’t possibly say that I have never quietly leaned into the smell of a stranger’s fart if it has a certain kind of warmth, a certain kind of richness. I remember when, in our early teens, my group of friends would take a kind of ridiculous delight in farting around each other, half out of joy at flouting the laws of propriety we’d been taught, half out of a joy of making each other squirm from the smell, of having to endure the smell.

I haven’t yet had a real relationship in which there hasn’t been a couple of farting in bed competitions, which ended in a laughter that was sometimes more intimate than sex.

I check and search under bathroom –0 results. Then toilet–0 results. The bathroom has no saint. The place in no man’s land. There’s no patron, no protector. There are saints for bowel trouble (Saint Benjamin who had a wooden stake twisted in his intestines, and for some reason Saint Simeon of Stylites who famously fasted for the whole of Lent while standing on a column) but not for the place where the bowels discharge.

Who, I wonder, did the Victorian “mud larks” pray to while they poked through the Thames sewage/mud? Any one they could, I suppose. From the Discovery Channel’s “worst job in history”:

“In Victorian London, the sewers emptied into the Thames and mud larks would have no choice but to wade through excrement while scavenging. They couldn’t afford shoes and wore nothing but rags, even in freezing conditions. Nails and glass would stick in their feet and disease and infection was all around them. But if a mud lark didn’t collect enough coal, metal or anything else they could sell before the tide rose, they would starve until they could begin hunting through the excrement again when the tide had subsided.”

How many movie deaths have happened in the bathroom? Where does Al Pacino in The Godfather get the gun he shoots his first men with but the bathroom? Where does the hit happen that begins all the trouble for the young Amish kid in Witness? How is it that killing the Irishman in the bathroom in Austin Powers sounds exactly like taking a crap to Tom Arnold in the next stall? Chthonic forces swirl and surprise, gag the unsuspecting, the guilty, the naive. We’re all guilty in there, victim and murderer, witness and participant. We all wash our hands after and act like nothing’s happened. Everything’s fine. It’s all natural.

And it is. Everybody poops. But if it were that natural, would we need the fantastic engineering we’ve invented to tame water, to shape water and clay and metal into the bathroom?

The other day I went into the bathroom on the sixth floor and there was a strange man standing over a sink, brushing his teeth with some vigor. I felt myself rolling my eyes as I headed toward the urinals. It disturbed me. While I tried to relax, I ran through the possible reasons for my reaction:

Because it’s a room for elimination. Because he should have done that at home. Because it meant he was probably one of those people who actually flosses his teeth after every meal, obsessed with cleanliness. Being obsessed with cleanliness in a public bathroom of course seems self-defeating.

Why would anyone clean out his mouth in here otherwise, unless he’s turning tricks? He was dressed nicely enough, was balding, of average height and weight. A man who could just disappear into a bathroom and not be missed or recognized.

And then I remembered that once, when I was about four, I went into the bathroom in our house to find my father and my older brother in there, hogging up the one sink. We must have been going out that night. My father was shaving in the mirror and my brother was wrapped in a towel, which meant he was in the process of getting ready. I asked them if I could wash my hands in the sink, and when they didn’t answer or didn’t answer in a way that gave me what I wanted, I went over to the open toilet and put my hands in the toilet water. My brother said, Oh, dad! And my father ran over and grabbed my hands and shook me slightly by them, saying, what the hell are you doing? And I answered back, Well, if I’d had been allowed to use the sink when I asked, I wouldn’t have to! I was so angry; it was the first time I remember talking back. I couldn’t believe they’d be so selfish and hog up the bathroom sink. I had no patience or sense that there was any difference in types of water.

I once had a relationship with a guy I didn’t realize was homeless. He hung around the maze of university offices during the day, took showers in the ground level showers, read books in the library, and had sex with strangers in more than a few university bathrooms. He washed his hair in bathroom sinks. He kept a set of toiletries in a basement locker. He brushed his teeth. He kept up the charade for a while. He was smart, seemed kind, was handsome, but once I realized he was hustling in and around the university, I broke it off. Every so often I used to see him, still trying to blend in to the groups of students. I have wondered if he’s going to end up dead in some public bathroom.

The bathroom’s often the only place all day I see myself. The mirrors line one whole wall, above the white sinks with their movement-triggered faucets. Sometimes I find myself surprised at what I look like, how wild my hair has turned while I’ve been running my hand through it during grading or responding to emails. Sometimes it’s the only time I see and really register what I’m actually wearing.

And it seems true to the bathroom’s mission to have so many mirrors. The bathroom is the place for reflection, for going inward, into the deepest place in the building, the place where if there where an earthquake or tornado, you’d be safest: sitting on the john behind the closed doors of a stall which is behind the closed doors of the bathroom. In such a place you can think. Sometimes too I tell a needy student I need to go to the bathroom as a way to break off a talk that’s going on too long; no one waits too long for someone to come out of the bathroom. I need to breathe and be alone, which is what the bathroom allows. I can stare at myself sometimes for a long time before someone comes in. I wash my hands, slick back my hair or at least spritz some water on it to break up the dry hair frizz I can get in the winter especially. I adjust my belt. I check my zipper and I’m out again.

Archie Bunker and Al Bundy from Married with Children. A certain type of man loves to go to the bathroom, proudly announces it and his productivity in there. They take reading material. They want to be alone with themselves. These are men who are often homophobic, and would not see any ironies between their own exclamations of joy at stretching their sphincter muscles in elimination and their abhorrence of anal sex. As if all doors only opened out. As if bathrooms were only places of degradation.

And speaking of doors, the way into bathrooms has completely changed. You now walk into really large ones via a bent hallway; there are no doors. The reason is apparently to eliminate the germs that gather on doorknobs. I understand the need, but I still feel uneasy going into those bathrooms. I want to know there’s a door shut behind me. I like to feel as if I’m in a safe space.

Last year we had a number of bomb scares at the University of Pittsburgh. In the twenty-five years I’ve been here, it was the first time I’d ever been evacuated because of that particular threat, which frankly seems strange. The first two bomb scares took place before 11 am on a Wednesday and then the following Monday, so most of us assumed that it was the work of a student who didn’t want to go to his 11 am MW classes. But then the next scare came on a Thursday around 11, which threw that theory off.

Where had the bomb scare threats come from? Men’s rooms apparently on the ground floor. Which means the threatener had to write it and post it on the door or wall of the bathroom, then trust that someone else would see the threat and call it in. It seems to have worked. By the third bomb scare, the campus police took the doors off all the men’s stalls; they weren’t taking any chances. Men were posted in all the public bathrooms to patrol, to watch, to catch a perpetrator. The perpetrators, who might well simply be copy cats, moved to another building in the upper building, and then when that building was being evacuated, all the campus police up there, the perpetrators left yet another bomb scare in the original building. As if to say fuck you to the campus police.

Am I surprised that men’s rooms were the sites for this threat? No. The little closed stalls are places where men have always contemplated the world, their lives. It’s a space made for the concentration of angry and shameful feelings. From the perpetrators’ view, it might be seen as a site of resistance to the police state we seem increasingly to find ourselves in. The bathroom stall, like Superman’s telephone booth, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, is a space of transformation, for costume changes. A man goes into one with the express notion of releasing discomfort from his own body, of finding relief. One comes out a new man.

I know, though, that I could never use those stalls on the ground floor once they became doorless. It’s too shameful. My being invisible to others is important to my relaxing enough to get the job done. This is also true of the spy, the saboteur, the terrorist, those whose job is to sow terror, destruction, and distraction. The man who goes into a bathroom stall is always a loner, is being cut off from the rest of us, free to think his own thoughts, read whatever he wants to read. The stall was turned into a radical space by the bomb scares, a space where explosions are threatened, where evacuation turns inside out.

X: the Unknown

In mathematics, ‘x’ is commonly used as the name for an independent variable or unknown value. While it is widely believed[by whom?] that the usage of ‘x’ to represent an independent or unknown variable can be traced back to the Arabic word šay’ شيء = “thing”, there are no sources to support this claim. Modern tradition of using ‘x’ to represent unknowns was started by René Descartes in his La geometrie (1637).

As a result of its use in algebra, X is often used to represent unknowns in other circumstances (e.g. Person X, Place X, etc.;

See also Malcolm X).

X-rays are so called because their discoverer did not know what they were.

X has been used as a namesake for a generation of humans: Generation X, commonly abbreviated to Gen X. It is the generation born after the baby boom ended, ranging from 1961 to 1981.

Here I am again. I thought I was the end of the boom, but I’m the beginning of the Unknown. Another thing I didn’t realize about myself.

X is commonly used as a generic mark (selecting an item on a form, indicating a location on a map, etc.).

A typographic approximation of the multiplication sign ‘×’ (especially, lowercase Roman “x”). Note that in any font the glyph of “x” is not exactly the same as one of the multiplication sign.

The common custom of placing X’s on envelopes, notes and at the bottom of letters to mean kisses dates back to the Middle Ages, when a Christian cross was drawn on documents or letters to mean sincerity, faith, and honesty.

Usually in art or fashion, the use of X indicates a collaboration with two or more artists.
The application extends to any other kinds of collaboration outside the art world.

X is used by the illiterate in lieu of a signature and indicates a signature line on forms.

In cartoons, a dead character’s eyes are often drawn as Xs.

X is also used for referring to ‘the end of conversation’.

(A collage from Wikipedia)


The grandmother I never knew was a lovely woman, everyone said. Unlike her husband, the grandfather who died a month after I was conceived. He was a bastard, apparently. It was unclear what had happened between the two of them, only that he was the one at fault. He was a monster, my mother said more than once, a control freak, mean.

Vesta was a dear person, says everyone. Although the story also is that she was often sick and depressed in some way–manic-depressed, clinically depressed, or suffering from postpartum depression. I’ve asked and asked but no one seems to really know the truth anymore. Maybe they never did.

I’m suspicious when everyone says something like “what an angel” about a person I’ve never met. I know that Vesta travelled with my mother by train to Chicago to marry my father, that she was the only other woman there at the ceremony at Scott Air Force Base. That she stayed with them, in their small apartment, during their honeymoon. “Imagine,” my mother said, “I’m on my honeymoon and there’s my mother-in-law in the next room!”

I know the story that once, in her illness, she apparently got out onto the roof of their two story house, and my grandfather Albert climbed out after her. She walked off the roof and landed unhurt. He broke his leg trying to catch her.

(My father liked the story, I remember. It had something of a moral to it: the unconscious are protected, the anxious are punished. It justified a whole way of life he had.)

Was it a suicide attempt? Was she simply delirious, over-medicated, hallucinated?

One of the saddest things I learned about my father–so late! but at least I learned it!–was that he was, at least once, tied to the porch “like a dog” as a child. “He never got over that,” my mother said in an unguarded moment not long ago. “Why would he?” I asked, not understanding why she thought he should’ve. Was something going on inside the house? No one knows. No one ever will now. If my mother hadn’t blurted out this bit of information, no one would’ve known even that; her only son tied to the porch like a dog. My sad father who was such a monster to us, who loved his mother enormously and who said in a letter only that he’d had a wonderful childhood and gave no details. What did he see in the kitchen while he was tied up outside it?

I used to catch a nervous tension in him and in his sisters, all of them chain smokers, all of them hard drinkers like most adults were in the 60s and 70s. They were always ready for something to happen. I never trusted their laughter, which broke out of them too loudly. I never understood a thing, I think now, about them, raised children of a monster and a saint. And everywhere around us, butane lighters, sulfurous matches, briquettes in the barbecues reeking of kerosene, ready to burst into flame. The careful touching of old cigarette smolder to new cigarette to keep the fire lit, the hands occupied, the lungs full.

Vesta at the hearth, stirring the fire. The eldest sister of Jupiter, the first one swallowed by her father Saturn, the gentlest of all of them, the keeper of the warmth at the heart of the home. The angel in the kitchen. The saint against which everyone else was a falling off.

She stays at a distance I don’t trust. Not that she’s at fault, but that the whole family never spoke of her as anything other than lovely. No wonder she didn’t hurt herself falling off the roof. She seems not to have been there at all in the first place.

And yet, and yet, as anyone who’s read any, even the smallest scrap of feminist thinking, would think. There had to have been someone there once. Before she became a quality, a thing, like warmth and light and love. Just as her husband became a monster, capable of nothing good.


“Who if I cried out…?”

Why does someone say uncle rather than enough? It’s unclear. It might be that to call out for help from an uncle might be a sign you need help, that you’re weak. Where your father is while you’re in such trouble, is not known. If, as a couple sources suggest, the saying comes from the Roman times, your father might be either dead in a war or away fighting barbarians. I wonder if saying uncle isn’t a way of admitting that your father, a boy’s great protector is in fact dead or useless. The only one who can save you is your uncle. You poor bastard, in other words. And, it might be a sign that you can only claim your mother’s brother for legitimacy. To cry uncle might be a way of saying your mother’s a whore.

Which of course leads me to thinking about my uncles. My mother had a sister. My father had only sisters: Aunt Ruth, Aunt Betty, Aunt Dora, and Aunt Berta. (A fifth, Aunt Ginny, was already dead when I was born.) All my uncles, therefore, married into the family, in other words, or, more accurately, all the aunts married into other families. Because my parents were either the youngest (my mother) or second-to-youngest (my father), all my uncles were much older than I was and had already fathered and uncled my cousins. Most of them were retired or close. My only uncle on my mother’s side, my Uncle Johnny, was the only uncle I really talked to. Since I tended to go to my grandparents’ house when my mother needed someone to watch me, and since my Aunt Jean and Uncle Johnny lived next to them, I was often over at their house as well. Uncle Johnny had retired by then from the navy. He was loud and, to me, a fearful presence who never seemed to like me, although he certainly never was mean. He just felt raw to me. Like their Samese cat Smoky, who attacked my hand whenever I put it down on the couch, I couldn’t seem to predict Uncle Johnny’s next move, and he sometimes seemed to like roaring orders at my aunt and cousins, as if they were all in the same boat together and he was the stern captain. Not being part of the regular crew, I think I missed the inside joke of his roaring.

I had no reason to fear any of my uncles. I just never understood their lives. They were good-natured men, happy, good providers for all I know. Uncle Shorty and Aunt Ruth lived next to (or on?) land that included a golf course, so the Oaks family reunion usually happened there. All the adult men would go out and knock the balls around for a while. I was usually too young and certainly too timid a child, so I stayed with the women, where I was given treats, hugged, kissed, and tickled inside their enormous cloud of cigarette smoke. When the men came back, they usually settled around the TV to watch football. A series of loud yells would shatter the house at random, further confirming my fears about the trustworthiness of men and about my own position in the family: I had come too late to be included in it.

In fact most of the avuncular energy came from my cousins on both sides: Paul, Michael, and David on my mother’s side; Johnny Upchurch on my father’s. They were the ones I looked to, along with my brother, who was eleven years older than me, for the secrets of how to be a man. They were the ones I would’ve called out if someone had me in a headlock. But by the time came for headlocks, which I estimate was somewhere near seventh grade, they were all grown up, off to the navy, jobs, marriages, away among the barbarians out in the wider world I was only then beginning to read about.

Toast: an appreciation

I love toast. I love buttery, crunchy toasted bread. In the morning with butter and blackberry jam. In the afternoon with apples and peanut butter. In the evening, just before bed with butter and cinnamon sugar, my mother’s recipe for happiness. With tea.

In fact I’m going to have some right now. There’s something satisfying in the process of putting the soft slices of bread into the toaster, depressing the lever, and being alone in my kitchen with the smell of bread roasting. There’s not enough time to do anything else, so usually I just stand at the counter and stare out the kitchen window at the patio I need to clean up this year. Then the toaster pops the golden toast up and I reach for the butter.

Buttering itself is a opportunity for mindfulness; the work of the field and the barn combine. Then: how can I get an appropriate amount of butter over every square bit of toast? How many knife swipes does it take? How to saturate richness into every inch so every bite is equally delicious? Then the question of whether to just shove it all in my mouth or eat the crust first and move toward the center where most of the warm bread and butter embrace like lovers.

Then: abruptly the emptiness after, the last bite of salty buttered bread slipping down my throat. I look out the window again, not seeing anything, my consciousness focused inward still. In a minute, I’ll reach for my cup of tea, which will end the ritual. Until then I’m caught between inner and the outer worlds. With nothing in the world to do but lick my lips.


It is 12:30 am on Friday and I’ve just gotten to bed after picking up the dog at 5:30 pm, taking him to the park for an hour, coming home, making dinner, watching about an hour of TV, falling asleep on the couch (I almost wrote “dead asleep” there), waking up at 11 pm (having missed the Eileen Myles reading I wanted to go to), stumbling outside again so the dog could pee one last time, then stumbling upstairs, out of clothes, into pajamas, and finally here. The dog sleeps peacefully to my right, keeping one paw against my leg so he’ll know if I move. I try not to.

Sleep has become a complicated state of late. I’m not even sure how far back I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, somewhere around 2 am, being “up”, unable to fall back down out of myself. It’s been at least a year, and I think it stretches back about two years now.

At first it was just an inconvenience, I thought. Tried to watch movies on my iPad, on Netflix. Sometimes I raged at the late night people who yell and cry on the street, as if we weren’t trying to sleep here! Idiots.

Right now, in fact, two idiots are talking loudly right below my window, slamming their car doors, as if it isn’t 12:45 am and they aren’t in a densely populated area where people are sleeping. They’re almost certainly drinkers, this man and woman, and they’ve likely spent the last few hours drinking and yelling at each other and friends in a bar just two blocks away. You can hear the drink and the bar noise they’ve escaped in the way their voices are elevated still, beyond normal need.

At some point, though, this time awake became so regular I wrote in it, hoping to exorcise whatever stress might be giving rise to my falling out of sleep’s saddle. I wrote poem after poem about darkness, about the dog breathing, about the sound of the trains audible in the distance, about the little voices in my head that I could almost make out, as if some part of me were in fact dreaming and I was merely locked out of it, like a man locked outside a theater who could hear the play going on inside, though not enough to make out anything sensible, enjoyable. I wrote nearly every night inside my little bubble of shadow, and even began to enjoy it until I began to worry that I was enjoying it too much, that I was going slowly mad and losing touch with reality.

I tried a number of different tricks: eating differently; earlier, later; less, more; exercising before sleep or more during the day; old guided imagery/stress releasing visualizations; absolutely no napping during the day; no caffeine after five, after three, after noon. But nothing seemed to do the trick. My mother said, welcome to my world.

The only thing that seemed to help really was playing the numbers game. If I needed seven hours of sleep, and I’d likely wake up at two am anyway, I started going to bed at 8:30, sleep until 2, which meant 5 1/2 hours, then writing from 2 to about 4:30 or 5, at which point I’d usually get tired enough to let myself fall asleep until 7 am. Viola: seven and a half hours of sleep accomplished! It became almost a game.

But the whole choreography was based on a fragile premise: that no one would really need me and that I wouldn’t want to leave the house for anything after 7 pm. I just stopped going out to events after five, frankly, events that I had been a regular part of for decades–friends’ book launches, dinner invitations, readings. Tonight’s reading, for instance, was at 8:30 pm and would mean I’d likely be out until 10 pm, cutting into the first couple hours of the best sleep, the most vital sleep in the system. And it comes at a “bad” time of the term, just when I’ve run out energy, winter still holding on, spring not yet begun throwing hope and warmth into the air.

I said to myself that since my work life was so social I didn’t need to go out and do more social stuff at night. I said no one would miss me. I said anything to make it easy to go to sleep early. I’ve even said all this is a form a grief, having come on just about the time my mother got her terminal cancer diagnosis. It could be.

Tonight, though, I’m feeling the ropes I’ve tied around myself, how constricted my life has become because I’ve had to make such negotiations with sleep, with worry, with this thinness I feel like I’ve become. I like my friends and colleagues. I’d like to be out there with them, laughing and drinking, talking in ways that are more human and humane than the professional ways work requires. I want to be free!

But there’d be my face in the mirror the next morning to face. With its dry skin and squinting eyes. With its bags and wrinkles and matted hair. The awful face of age I keep trying to hide and hide from, my portrait of Dorian Gray that doesn’t lie. The one I hate so much I refuse to get involved with anyone lest he too see it and run from it. It is so much easier to face it in the dark of 2 am, in the mirrorless room with the big dog who doesn’t understand vanity or age, only kindness; in the dark room above the young shouting couples on the street who don’t know I’m here. Like a sheet of darkness myself, I listen and listen for whatever it is the night is, I wrote somewhere at the beginning of all this sleeplessness, so when the last night comes I’ll see it coming.



I say to the dog every morning when we get to the meadow. He looks at me, suddenly serious. Then his tail begins to wag, his nose lifts, sifting the air for excitement. He bounds off into the dry weeds, head down, tail stiffened, hoping to find that thing that runs fast and suddenly out of nowhere, that thing he loves to run after though he’s never caught one.

If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies, writes Lewis Hyde.

Writes Basho:
There is nothing you can see that is not a flower.
There is nothing you can think that is not the moon.

Oh rabbit of the moon my mother is dying. I called today to see how she was doing, after my brother called me to say she wasn’t doing well, but it was so windy as I walked along the river that she couldn’t hear me. It sounded like a lot of static, she said. I said I’d call back later, but then, caught up in making dinner and getting a little bit of extra work done when I got back home with the dog, I didn’t realize how much later it had become. That it might be too late and I might wake her up.

Rabbit rabbit rabbit.

In ten years, we humans have dismantled what used to be a wild space here in the city. A narrow strip behind warehouses, where the Allegheny Valley Railroad had a few tracks it occasionally used for parking train cars, it’s maybe one hundred, maybe two hundred yards wide until it runs into the Allegheny River. About six blocks long. I don’t know how long this land went “unused,” but by the time I moved nearby, in 2002, it was a beautiful meadow of red clover and wildflowers. There was a line of trees dense enough to make a snow break in winter for the railroad tracks. There was a dirt path that ran above and parallel to the Allegheny River where I began to walk everyday. When I got a dog, I let him go here without a leash so he could run and sniff and chase the rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, ducks, geese, herons, and muskrats who lived there.

Sometimes you have to take it like an animal.
The animals have to take it. No one likes nostalgia.

The neighborhood boys, not one of them well-off enough to afford a house with a yard, played hide and seek then war then brought their girlfriends down here. Single men came down here to fish, to be alone. Sometimes would set up temporary tents in the summer, because they’d been kicked out of the house or had lost their houses I never knew. Everyone came and went in ways that never made the place seem fully human. It always felt wilder than that. Balanced between, you might say.

First, the city improved the dirt path with a cinder and concrete mix that wouldn’t fall apart every heavy rain. Who could argue against that? The young joggers began appearing, talking about how great it would be if there were a jogging path that went the whole length of the river downtown. A few yelled at us to keep our dogs on leashes. For a few years that was the only change.

Then the railroad, fearing they were going to lose their rights to the land if they didn’t use it enough, relaid the tracks, cutting down any trees that were too close or that impeded the trucks and cranes that brought in loads of ties and track. By the time they were done, you could see light through the trees. The wind and snow blew right through. Strangely enough, however, the railroad left weird stacks of old ties behind, which the rabbits colonized. The dogs ran around and around, excited by the accumulating smells. In the winter, you could see the dozens of footprints coming in and going out.

A couple of years after that came the city, making a little park under the bridge, with metal tables and seats, with garbage cans. The neighborhood teenagers immediately destroyed one table, ripping it off its cement foundations. They took the garbage can liners and rolled them into the river. They littered everywhere on the new lawn. And after a while, the city cleaned it up, fixed some of it, began to have regular rounds of sanitation. And then the next year came the conservation people who realized that there were illegal plants here and cut out yet more trees, pulled some flowers we’d only thought were flowers, devastated a whole hill of quite beautiful knotweed. Planted a few spindly trees. Sometimes people would even have picnics at the tables.

And then came the dog park, an idea started by a young woman whose boxer had gotten into a fight with another dog and said we needed some order down here. She found enough “urban pioneers” who believed that her dog wasn’t the real problem, who thought they deserved a place to take the dogs they never walked. They raised money, convinced a councilman who never owned an animal in his life to support it, and last year half the trees were gone, a large fence went up and there was a dogpark where the beautiful meadow had been.

No one likes nostalgia, rabbit. I have met a number of new people because of the dogpark, some I like very much. My dog loves to run around with their dogs, wrestle, bark, hump, play tug with sticks. We chat meanwhile in our small nervous-ape semi-circles. It’s so great to have this, isn’t it? someone says.

At first I used to say, Well, you know all of this used to be a beautiful meadow, but then people looked away or kicked at the yards of mulch that replaced what used to be red clover, bees, butterflies, mice, windflowers, rabbits, songbirds. No one likes to be told something else used to be here and it was better. What’s done is done and can’t be undone, so why remember? Can’t we all just drop whatever it is you’re mourning?

Sometimes in the morning there will be someone standing in the dogpark, who will wave and look confusedly at us as we walk by. His or her dog will run up to the fence to greet Andy who basically snubs him. Where are going? Be right back, I say if I like that person. Otherwise, I just smile.

There is still, at the end of the trail, a little spot left where the grass grows wild, where there’s at least one rabbit still alive. My dog still wants to go there first. He walks past the gates of the dogpark. He’s a retriever and probably would’ve been a fantastic field dog if he hadn’t been saddled with living with a writer, who clearly worries too much. In what’s left of the meadow, I throw him sticks and he brings them back like a true professional, single-minded, without a missing a trick.

Rabbit, I say to the dog and off he goes, sniffing for the mystery. We have seen the rabbit’s tracks this winter, although its hole is well hidden.

Rabbit, forgive me. You are all I have left. Everything else is the moon.

Two For Q

Queer: some instructions

Queers play hopscotch. Queers shine at anything with jumping one-legged in and out of boxes. Queers keep things up their blue sleeves: rabbits, muscles, French cologne. Queers go overboard every time something new happens to enter. Vinegar potato chips. Buttery suede pants. Queers throw themselves into things. And it is true that they are frequently thrown.

Queer choirs queer music. A penny falls from a bad pocket, from a too-late hand, a shine down the leg, a tinkle. Queer goes down as far as possible and rolls away. Oh, Queer of gutter, Queer of the perverse Paris where the hunchbank hunches, where the phantom destroys the great chandelier before time does. Queer goes crying down on its audience, a thousand bits of quartz, glass, reflection. Queers have no reflection. Nor can they abide sandwiches.

Queer in the treetops turning white. Queer in the little rapids melting stone. If a queer is beaten to death is he all alone after the one who does it? Even with his alibi of panic? Even with his terror of being touched? Queer on the rock where the bicyclists turn on their nearly invisible trails among the trees. The body itself another stump. The body itself a kind of Scandinavian furniture we beat together because of the unreadable instructions.

Queer at home in the sexual. Queer who will answer in the absence of a parent who worries too much about safety to the detriment of listening. Who else treats the sea like a sister? Who else rips off the shirt it took several hours to buy? Queer at home watching TV too. The thing is queer won’t forget, even in the wee hours of the last breath, that it all was something. Queer’s mistake is not regret. Even the boredom was awake.

Q X 4: an excess

Quinine in the tonic maybe. That side taste in which something brushes the tongue like suede or butter. We drank a lot of it near the equator. Otherwise the mosquitos were deadly, cruising, half-Q-tip, half dentist drill. Cumulatively they might take a whole bloodstream off into the air. They’re all female the ones we swat and spatter. Stay very still. They read us for heat, not for money, not even for IQ. Some of us stink a little better. Some of us like gin on the rocks.

Once you sit in one of the classroom chairs, you’ll see why it’s difficult being querulous here. Everything is stiff and will not let you get up easily once you’ve slid into the seat and put your elbows on the desks. My third grade teacher was a kind of quarrel unto herself. When she didn’t like you, she’d hit you in the back of the head. Everyone grew quiet. How odd that the capital Q in cursive looked so much like a complicated 2.

Better when the letter’s inside the word. Equipment. Equal. Antique. Better not to start something you can’t quit. Quibble all you want but that won’t end it. Nothing ends the same where it begins. In this way it resembles a kind of aesthetic of the unresolved circle, the struck out whole, the balloon with a pin in it the millisecond before it bursts in your hands.

Quartz remember, they say, their handling. Quirks in the electrical field return to normal. Whatever the quality that makes them so impressionable, certain of us remain skeptical. But there they are among the grains and shells and snails absorbing the sea. We grow queasy at the end of so much looking for a mouth in the midst of all that whispering.

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