Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: October, 2013

Perfect Day

Since Lou Reed’s death yesterday, I’ve been singing, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly to myself his song Perfect Day. That song has always had a way with me, its sad sweet plainness, as if it might have been written by a person so ordinary I might know him. Nevermind the elaborate piano and violins swells that no one I know knows how to do. A calm voice singing about a moment between anxieties.

Today I was reading someone who linked the song to heroin, as if the whole song were a love song to a drug. It might be, I don’t know. For me the song perfectly describes a state of sensitivity I felt when I was young, in which I had a great fear of dying, of vanishing, of an existence so fragile, so vaporous that any emotional blow felt like it would be the end of everything. Love in that state got magnified out of proportion, as a thing that “kept me hanging on.” I was so afraid of love because I gave it such power.

I actually kept a list of perfect days for a while. I’m sure it was because night after night my father usually wrecked any happiness we might have had, and I was trying to find some pattern to it, and with pattern hope. There was only a handful by the time I was eighteen.

On one hand, that exercise increased my self-pity, my self as a victim. On the other, keeping that list taught me that happiness probably isn’t a sustainable thing to build a life around. Happiness is vulnerable. By the time I stopped counting, I had decided I wanted to become a writer, and that decision was based on something deeper than happiness. I’d probably call it passion, although that word now seems so tied to the feel-good world of self-help that I distrust it. Maybe it would be better to say I found a direction, an occupation for all my anxiety and curiosity.

When I hear Lou Reed’s list of what they do–drink sangria, feed the animals in the zoo, see a movie, then go home–I hear a list of the ordinary, the plain, all of which are heightened by the presence of someone else, someone who makes the narrator able to “forget himself,” even feel he might be someone good, which I always understood to mean someone good enough to be loved. It’s a list of things people who have a certain heightened anxiety about their lives dream about as normal, as perfect.

It was the first song I remember that spoke in a quiet way to an inner voice I knew inhabited my thinking, a voice that was always monitoring everything I did, that was exhausting to be around, to be. Getting out of myself was important, I came to understand, or that voice would one day become the only voice in my head. And that’s how I hear the last lines in the song, as a turning out to the reader, the others who might suffer the same problem: You’re going to reap/ just what you sow. Those lines are meant for me and for the narrator himself–as a mantra that is meant to be hopeful, but which is of course phrased as a warning, because what else do we know but warnings?


Personal Statements

I’m sitting at my regular coffeehouse, warm sunlight growing hot on my neck. The dog has stretched out at my feet, his black fur absorbing the moderate, October heat. It might be the last weekend we can do this outside. There’s no telling when it will get too chilly to enjoy ourselves like this: a cafe au lait for me; a bag of kibble and assorted bites of croissant, the occasional petting by a stranger for him.

You’d think it would be relaxing, and it is more relaxing than the normal weekday, especially this past one, which had the beginning of midterm anxieties for the students, the pressure of midterm conferencing for us teachers. I had to compile a digital dossier as part of the regular renewal of my contract, and most of it was fairly easy–a matter of moving files from one place to another on my computer, of updating my c.v., which has grown some pages since its last update. What wasn’t easy was writing a personal statement. I worried it all week, first by frantically searching for earlier ones to read and rewrite, and then by being irritated I had to write one at all (which gave me a justification for not writing or rewriting), and then finally, on the day it was due, to simply rewriting my last renewal letter and uploading it.

I think a whole class might be constructed around writing personal statements, the first half of which might deal with the emotional contradictions. The poet Stephen Mills had this as his Facebook status this week:

“I keep checking my cover letter to make sure the first line isn’t: ‘I hate you. Don’t hire me.'”

I felt exactly the same thing this week, writing out my accomplishments for my faculty colleagues, knowing that most of them won’t read it, that the Dean won’t read it, that it’s mostly a formal exercise, a form to fill out, a kind of pledge I take that implies I understand the complicated rules of the institution and have the emotional maturity to handle those complications. That I can tell a narrative. That I’m sensitive enough not to boast of or inflate the work I’ve done, but not too mousy to avoid taking credit and/or blame for it. If all goes well, I won’t have to write another one for four more years, when my renewal will be up for debate. I’ll be 53 years old then. I will have spent 30 years at the same university. I will hope to work there for 15 more, which means three more renewals after this one.

Still, I felt more than once like saying, “Oh my God, if you don’t know how hard I’ve been working, then you haven’t been paying attention!”

I didn’t write that of course. My institution training is better than that. I returned to simple principles: be specific with details, keep jargon to an absolute minimum, keep your tone and syntax as elegantly simple as you can. I tried to relax into it. I imagined today, when it would all be behind me.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shutdown

A) If there’s no danger of certain congresspersons being voted out of office, why should they be worried or negotiate?

B) If the goal is to make the government look foolish, then why not shut it down so people can see how foolish it is?

C) Boehner could in one move make all of this go away, but he will be burned alive in his next election; still, he’ll undoubtedly be given a much higher paying job as a lobbyist or CEO of a major company then. Win, win. So what’s holding him back? Is he secretly a performance artist working on a large-scale cultural canvas? Are his children being held hostage?

D) Anarchy is mainstream now. Now what?

E) No path but the sociopath.

F) Have the right-wing truckers threatening to shut down DC considered that this all might be a way to take their ridiculous bumper stickered trucks off the road?

G) The silence is erotic at first. The trick is when to touch your opponent/lover at last. What to touch first. How to avoid violence.

H) It is not enough to hate a man. You must hate the country who voted for him, and punish it until it repents its decision.

I) I wonder what the politicians are reading in these days? What are the poets writing for them to read?

J) What would the Romans do?

K) All Children Left Behind.

L) What group might stun the Capitol into speech? A Million silent clowns? Ten million silent teenagers? Twenty million babies abandoned on the mall?

M) A Mean While. A Demon-stration.

More Notes on October

I have a few more papers to comment on. On Thursday, there will be more. I have two friends who want reactions to some work they’ve sent me, nothing deep, nothing pressing; I feel the pressure anyway. I have a long essay to finish which may be completely awful; I can’t bear to even look at it until I know I have a long stretch of unscheduled time. Likely I’m going to have to tear it apart and start again. I have notes toward a new essay which has a deadline in a month. I have one book of poems that needs to go out. I have a second book of poems that needs to be leaned on hard, so all that’s mere water is pressed out. I have a book to reread because I’ll be teaching it in a few days. I’m supposed to write a letter for my job renewal. I found a tick on my dog over the weekend and now I fear he’ll die of Lyme Disease because I wasn’t careful enough. I still haven’t called the HVAC guy to reschedule his inspection of my furnace, which although I haven’t needed to use it this week, I will soon. A former student of mine just had her first book accepted, and while I’m excited for her, I can’t escape the feeling that, because I haven’t had a book-length manuscript taken yet, I’m never going to. She’s not the first student to get there before me either. A new student wants to do an independent study “next term and into the summer”. There are a number of letters of recommendation to be written soon. A colleague wants to talk about his future. It goes on and on.

October Notes

The dark comes down earlier and earlier now. There is a more noticeable red among the leaves of the trees in the woods and along the river. The dog comes out of his rabbit-hunting forays in the weeds speckled, covered in seeds I have to brush off. There’s always at least one seed I have to dislodge very gently from the corner of his eye. I’ve noticed there don’t seem to be any rabbits to chase anymore.

Suddenly in the supermarket, I’m seized by the urge to buy leeks, parsnips, celery for soup. They look especially beautiful for some reason; they have a kind of wildness about them, their green and white stalks glowing, although they’ve probably been polished by someone who maintains them, who curates the space with an eye toward creating hunger. Very well then, I have been manipulated. I grab and bag and begin to dream of warm soups and bread and butter.

The angle of the sunlight in the morning has shifted. I’ve had to keep my sunglasses handy. I go to the coffeehouse and drink a magnificent cafe au lait and write out the month’s bills, including the one announcing that my escrow account is in the negative because of new taxes from the city. I still write checks. I put stamps on envelopes. I put the envelopes in a mailbox at the end of the street, the work of postmen and postwomen indefatigably continuing while a small band of men in Washington keeps the larger government from moving.

The neighbor’s pear tree has been dropping heavy, ripe fruit onto my back patio. You can see the angry wasps rising around them like electrons trying to ingest as much of the windfall as they can. They’re like self-activating bullets, aggressive, angry with hunger. The dog ran across a nest in the woods and got stung, not badly, but enough to make him cautious now around anything that buzzes. We’ve left the back patio alone so the yellowjackets can have their fill. I’ll clean it all up when November’s cold jaws clamp down. Maybe the elections then will shift the angry wasps in Congress.

We hope. We sign petitions. We walk through rains of gold leaves thinking of larger governments.

Thoughts on the Morning of the Shutdown

Today the government shut down. Frankly, because I usually go to sleep around 9 pm now, I figured I’d go to sleep and Congress would have figured a way to keep things going. My quick check of Facebook says otherwise. At the heart of it is a small band of politicians who keep trying to present themselves as principled although they seem and act simply small-minded and without the ability to imagine the enormity that is America. They have one principle: shrink everything. They want to shrink not merely the government but the richness of the American imagination. They want an America that is simpler in language, in class structure, in sexual, racial, and gender choices. They see the government, the former governments, as having fomented these changes or at the very least as protecting these changes. They feel as if their own small imaginations are being violated by having to acknowledge that sexuality and race and class and gender are complicated and not either/or positions anymore. They hate the word choice. All their enemies have chosen what they are. They think they have been given no choice but are representatives of the natural state of man–heterosexual, white, without a nagging doubt in the world. They want to end the tax code, which has become too complicated. They want one tax system if possible–everyone paying a 10% tithe that more or less pays only the military. They want marriage to be only between one man and one woman. They want every pregnancy to be forced to fruition, every woman to be silent about the costs of that labor. They want, in fact, all labor to be silent, silenced, invisible. They want all those who ask for decent treatment, equal opportunity, equal consideration, to be silent and accept their lot. They want everyone who notices the rise in corporate profits and the loss of employee jobs, everyone who points to inequities between the wages of workers and the absurd bonuses for bosses, to just shut up about it. They want us all to just shut up. We confuse them I believe. And in that confusion, I sympathize with them. We are as a country a confusing bunch. We want a lot. It is hard sometimes to tell victims of inequality from someone trying to use guilt to get some free stuff for themselves. There are times when it seems that folks ought to try harder and without depending on a government loan to do something that needs to be done in their town. It must require a lot of will to have to say no to people who feel they are in desperate straits, and then to be able to go home and sleep at night. To say to people no the country can’t afford your problems. I pity them having to do that sometimes. So they’ve shut the country down. I doubt anyone in Washington is sleeping in this morning. No doubt they went to bed after arranging their suits for today’s appearances on tv, after rehearsing their talking points for what will surely be a day of contentious interviews, repetitive photo opportunities around patriotic, draped microphones, after practicing their various facial expressions in the mirror. Is there a moment when their phones get turned off? Is there a moment when they play with their children or touch with any tenderness their wives, husbands, silent partners? Do they have any humanity left in them at all? Or have they been flattened at last into a single dimension, pixelated, a mere image, a sound bite, a scowl? Will the silence they’ve forced now into being be of any use to the rest of us? Will we shrink like they’d like us to? What else could we do while we wait?

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