Monthly Archives: April 2010

Up at 2:47 A.M.

  1. Sometimes, I look east toward high rises on Lake Michigan.  The company of lights means nothing really, but they arrest crazy thoughts.  It’s some comfort to discover I’m not the last human.
  2. Anyone conscious at three a.m. understands accountancy, the brain’s obsessions with sheep, the names of every teacher who has ever taught them, the history of their romantic entanglements, the remaining night.  I assess how long it might take me to do all the tasks ahead the next day and discover how foolish I was to close my eyes.
  3. Often I retrieve unread novels or papers that await grading.  The next day, when I see my annotations, they seem at first the work of elves or messages from me in another dimension.
  4. Occasionally, my daughter accidentally wakes me—she has trouble sleeping too—and I find her in the kitchen eating or baking, gathering ingredients like a zombie channel food celebrity.  I bark at her to go to sleep.   She says she can’t.  I say she’s not trying.  She says I’m not trying either.  Our zombie programming has no laugh track.
  5. Sometimes she douses the lights and flees.  I don’t blame her.  Three a.m. is the hour of avoidance.
  6. Growing up, I often found my mother on the couch reading or dozing with a book at her side.  Every night, some light peeked under her bedroom door.  My siblings complain of similar habits. Some of their children suffer insomnia too, and during my strange sleepless hours, I picture them wondering about the rest of us.  Then I half-dream, half-imagine conference calls full of sighing and silence.
  7. I don’t talk much about not sleeping because I want to avoid one-lessmanship.  Someone has always slept fewer hours.  It’s not a contest anyone wins, and these days I only use sleep troubles as an excuse for the gaps stretching in my conversation, my eyes fixing on middle distance, or the forgetfulness between my impulses and actions.
  8. After a particularly bad night of sleep, my mind restarts hundreds of times an hour, all day.
  9. Everyone has a strategy to help, and each of them works really well a few times.  The only approach that always works is setting aside time to fail.  Ten hours in bed may get you seven hours of sleep, six may get you five, four two.  I’m ready at the same time, follow rituals, and still slip from the rails a couple of times a week.
  10. “Is it worry?” people ask.  Sometimes.  But what if it’s imagination?  What if I don’t sleep through the night because my mind isn’t finished?  What if it’s never finished?
  11. Coffee is Satan’s work.  I love coffee, but I also drink it because I need to be alert, and sometimes it keeps me alert all night.  The next day I need coffee, until caffeine and sleep chase each other, the dog and cat of my mental house.  I think I should take some control of how much caffeine I ingest but then find myself at the kitchen table with lidded eyes, spying shapes in the steam rising from the cup.
  12. I read recently about a condition called Familial Fatal Insomnia that besets 40 families worldwide.  Suddenly, in their fifties, the sufferers stop sleeping and, just as the name suggests, they stay awake until they die.  Since I heard about this condition, their faces have been floating up in the eight ball of my restless hours.
  13. Many days I sleep just fine. But scrutinizing variables hasn’t helped me much—am I more exhausted, less stimulated, better prepared to relax, contented for a change? I wait for sleep as for a fickle friend who will choose to visit.  I live in hope—tonight, the house will be dark.  Two to four will pass unbidden.

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Insomnia, Laments, life, Thoughts, Uncategorized

Modern Memory, An Essay in Parts


Sometimes I imagine information as rain.  When it’s storming, I’m hopeful for run-off, or my metaphoric basement will flood, my metaphoric house will sink, and then I’ll find myself on the island of my metaphoric roof looking for metaphoric rescue.

I rely on pots and pans to gather what I can.  I have files, but they hardly deserve the name, and when I go to retrieve a specific document, it has often evaporated. So sometimes I leave important things out—in what seem sensible places—before they disappear into the deep well of my desk or house. The biggest vessel is the computer and, after moving data from one to another to another, each with more capacity, my electric cisterns are now reservoirs, complete with hidden topography, tangled seaweed, underwater shadows, and fish.  Calling anything back requires knowing its proper name, what I decided to call that gray thing with the quarter moon gills and especially pointy fins.

I’d like to rely on my head, but it’s a teacup.


Organization requires belief.  The older I get, the more profound my crises of faith, so that, as I’m naming subfolders to fit in subfolders I’ve already named, I’m already wondering if I’ll find my way back, if I’ll ever use these structures I’m creating.  I can’t get over my creating them.  By definition, they have to be as perfect or as flawed as I am, and I’m deeply flawed.

And while I mean to take time every day to scratch more canals where information might flow automatically, life is busy giving me more to remember.  People believe me capable of recalling even more.  They are sure I can keep everything straight.  I wish I had such confidence.

To me, aids to memory feel like the deepest hubris.  They surround and support my dwindling powers, scaffolds around a house of water.


A friend tells me to keep my organization simple, consistent, and as close to the source as possible, which requires remembering what I believed simple last year, where I was, and how I was thinking the last time I considered that information important at all.


Some other part of my trouble is obstinacy.  The internal dialogue runs this way:

“Why isn’t my head good enough?”

“Because the world is more complicated than your head.”

“Okay, but should it be?  Is my life too complex if I can’t keep track of everything?”

“Alright then, move into a cabin in the woods.  Keep your accounts on your thumbnail if you want, but you won’t like it.”

“Well, I don’t like it this way either.  I spend as much time organizing information as I do finding it later.  When does it become easier to save nothing?”

“Haven’t we had this exact conversation before?”


Yesterday, I went to work on my day off to send the memos, handouts, notes, and forms—stacks of water—to their proper places. I moved the information, thimble-full by thimble-full, into new containers.  I hoped the water I moved would be like the water where it now found itself.  I looked for THE place vessels would be protected from loss.  I prayed to remember which held molecules I’d desire later because, when the drought comes, I will want to drink.

And all the time, I dreaded spilling.


Water isn’t inherently evil, just difficult to count on or control.

We don’t like it coming through the roof or rising through the floor, but we might care less if we had no roof or floor to protect.  Of course, then we’d be out in it, wet to the skin and cursing the sky.  We’d be looking for something, anything, that could cover our heads and protect us, the barest tree or shallowest overhang.  We might be dreaming of what we have now, the constant, reliable comfort of houses, memory palaces.

But I wonder if it would be so bad to get wet, to accept it as a condition of every living thing.


Filed under Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Hope, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Survival, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work

My Black Dog

When I’m tired, songs stick in my head, and sometimes I spend the entire day hoping Frank Sinatra will really get over his little town blues or Jimi Hendrix will either give up on the wild thing or that she’ll requite his love at last and shut him up.  The worst songs fold over and over until they become a throbbing plea.

I’ve learned ways to save myself.  Sometimes I bring songs to an exciting and cataclysmic end, complete with sawing strings, brass blasts, and kettle drums, and then I imagine a wash of applause as the show comes to a close.  Sometimes I tell someone the tune of the day and pass it on… though they usually give me another song in return.

Unfortunately this music reflects my mind’s operation, its endless recursive ruminations on aspirations, plans, concepts, issues, disappointments, grudges, worries.  My brain won’t quiet down, and often my writing is nothing more than another inflated coda, an opportunity to get the fugue out of my head.

I’ve accepted the role of writing in my life.  No longer part of any dream for fame or fortune or artistic virtuosity, writing is exorcism.  It guards me from possession, managing personal demons by giving their eddying spirits an escape or, at the very least, by containing them in the typescript version of the Ghostbuster dustpan.

Hardly an inspiring reason for reading this blog, I know, but that’s the way I see it.  I’m an old man who knows how to flex the kink in his back or make his trick knee function.  Only, it’s a trick brain I’m talking about.  I keep running into writers and psychologists who give my symptoms the name “depression.”

In a recent article in The New York Times (“Depression’s Upside,” 2/25/10), Johan Lehrer explored current speculation on depression’s evolutionary advantages.  Darwin himself suffered from depression, and Lehrer explains his letters are, “Filled with references to the salvation of study, which allowed him to temporarily escape his gloomy moods.” He reports Darwin as saying, “Work is the only thing which makes life endurable to me.” Darwin said work was his “Sole enjoyment in life.”

Lehrer also quotes Aristotle: “All men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics, even Socrates and Plato, had a melancholic habitus.”  Yet, Lehrer recognizes these comments as at least partly rationalization.  If depression were a neutral habit of mind, if its constrictive fixations were only as problematic as a contagious tune or old football injury, it might spur sufferers as productively as it did Darwin and the rest of the famously depressed club—Lincoln, Churchill, Jim Carey.  But they call them “depression sufferers” for a reason.  The adaptive advantage of mulling over issues balances against the emotional pain of playing your worst worries or fears in an endless loop. I’m wondering, what is the evolutionary advantage of emotion?  How does it help to be trapped in a dark closet of dismay?

Lehrer cites studies linking depression to brain activity in the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, a zone associated with verb conjugation, knowledge of abstract concepts, and attention, and he discusses interesting experiments where subjects, after listening to sad music, analyzed complicated issues more effectively.

All of which makes me think of the best-known consolation for blindness, an acute sense of smell.  You are grateful something comes of something so tragic, but no one is ready to blind him or herself to become a better chef.  Lehrer isn’t out to tout depression either.  He describes how it produces labored and tedious thinking. As the prefrontal cortex tires, he explains, it grows more vulnerable to distraction and gives up. “Wisdom isn’t cheap,” Lehrer says, “and we pay for it with pain.”

I’m grateful my brain is wired for obsessive thinking, especially as I know no other way of getting through my worries and disappointments.  I don’t regard rumination as a superpower, however.  I have no dream of being Despondent Man and know I can’t direct recursive concentration like X-ray vision.  It controls me and not the other way around. Most of my thinking seems necessary, and, much of the time, I have trouble telling whether my swirling ideas will drown me or lift me away.

Nor do I like relying on a broken brain.  A famous depressive Lehrer doesn’t mention, Soren Kieregaard, said, “In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant.  My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known—no wonder, then, that I return the love.”  Living with a habit sometimes turns into accepting it, embracing it, loving it.  My habits become me.

Evolution has no motive, but I assume it has reason, advantages lying behind every expressed trait or characteristic.  I prefer to believe I am what I need to be because, in any case, I am what I am.  Maybe every writer and every artist does what he or she must do.  I can at least be happy my nature has found its means, its trick to survival.  Any other alternative is too dark to consider.


Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Laments, life, Meditations, Survival, Thoughts, Words, Writing

Spring Finally

As it’s not snowing, raining, gale-ing, freezing, or otherwise being crappy today—everyone will be out in Chicago.

Like ants who keep their annual date in suburban kitchens, pedestrians have returned, visible after a long absence. Some carry coats in distrust of the upturn in the weather, but they’ve ventured out. People I’ve seen wrapped all winter reveal more skin than I’d considered, and some travel in groups, transporting conversation and laughter down sidewalks like lightning bolts of life, the air jazzed around them.

It feels great to be among them, “The glories strung,” as Walt Whitman said, “like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river” (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” l. 9).

Perhaps everyone who moves into a city worries he or she is leaving nature, but you really enter a second sort of nature—the hive-life of human nature. We are animals, and this weather turns us into an animal watchers.  We pretend not to notice each other while secretly inventing the story for every expression, gait, tattoo, and costume.

You feel less alone.  I may not converse with everyone I encounter—out of kindness and in the interest of avoiding chats with police—but sometimes I think I could. These isn’t-it-great-to-be-alive moments seem more intense when you recognize you share them.

During my time in Chicago winter has been as hard as everyone said it would be, but the relief of spring is sweeter too, a boon.

It is as if an invisible landscape suddenly became visible again, as if spring made us remember the sun, everything it illuminates, and one another.

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Filed under Chicago, Essays, Home Life, Hope, life, Prose Poems, Spring, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Urban Life