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The Ones Who

“I am turning over a new leaf but the page is stuck.” -Diane Arbus

The Arbus show would have been perfect if everyone else had stayed home. The show is closing in a week or so, and if I had been smarter I would have picked a time other than a Sunday afternoon to see the exhibit. But I had my reasons. If certain days are more susceptible to depression than others, then surely Sunday would take top honor. Around the first of the year I finally admitted to myself that for a few months I had been submerged in a minor depression. I took some responsibility for its lingering, and promised myself to get out of house more often, especially on Sundays.

I tried my best to wander through the museum and avoid hearing everyone around me yammer on about the art. But by the time I reached the Arbus exhibit on the fourth floor, the crowds were shoulder to shoulder. Her photographs and the subdued environment of the exhibition seemed tailor-made to introspection, but that was nearly impossible.

But I was distracted long before Sunday. This is a very earnest post, and many people are allergic to earnest, so you’ve been warned.

There have been a few periods in my life that feel like (forgive the word) awakenings, when I had been shaken out of tedium and set down spinning like a top. In my third year of college I discovered “postmodern” art. This was 1992, and I had no idea what “postmodern” meant (I still couldn’t give you a definition, but that’s part of its questionable charm). In the library I had come across a photograph by Cindy Sherman, one of her early “Untitled Film Stills”; an image of a woman leaning against a door in a long, dark hallway. The woman was Sherman herself, who in the series of “Film Stills” dressed up in characters and captured herself in images that evoked obscure film noir and other B-movies. I read more about Sherman and postmodernism, which in turn led me to other artists. I ended up focusing one of my independent study projects on Sherman, Barbara Krueger, and Jenny Holzer. Early on in my research, I felt as though someone had slipped amphetamines into my coffee; I was excited to be in the library, I couldn’t read enough. That was the beginning of my love for research. (This is an ongoing passion and problem for me, problematic because I can get too caught up in the research, forever postponing my own writing). I was energized by the ideas that I was absorbing. I was also stuck in Sarasota, Florida, so naturally I was both stir-crazy and culturally deprived. I think, in retrospect, that it was all the “meaning” contained and deconstructed (another postmodern buzzword) by this art that had me obnoxiously amped. I had been writing poetry since the fourth grade. I was a meaning junkie from the get-go.

There were other awakenings. Last year, on a friend’s advice, I had rented the “Power of Myth” interviews with Joseph Campbell. I know that it’s uncool to enthuse about Campbell now, long after his opinions have reached the masses. (It’s clear by now that I’m usually behind on everything). But it was new to me, and I literally bounced around on my bed watching these interviews. Campbell said many things which I found inspiring, some of which I’ve already posted here. But there was one thing he said which I’ve taken to heart, and which helped inspire many of my recent decisions about my future. Once you’ve found your bliss, he said, lean into it, and don’t let anyone shake you off.

Campbell didn’t believe that we are searching for meaning so much as the experience of being alive, experiences that resonate within us so that we feel the rapture of being alive.

“Awakenings” implies that one has been asleep. Which isn’t too far off the mark. I’ve spent countless hours since I started this site surfing the Internet. Which means exposure to dangerous levels of media and popular culture. And let’s face it; popular culture is not structured around the search for rapture, it’s structured around its ugly stepsister, which is what, entertainment? Is it possible that anyone reading this weblog has not seen an image of the Madonna/Britney staged kiss? We all know it didn’t “mean” anything; that it was a fake experience. And yet it’s still one of the most talked-about events of 2003. (And here I’ve added to the stinking mound of commentary.) My favorite fake image of 2003 is the one of George W. carrying a plastic turkey on a serving tray to a group of hungry soldiers in Iraq over Thanksgiving.

These images beg the question “why?”, but as anyone would tell you, there’s no point to that question. I still can’t help myself. Why do I know the names of the entire “Real World: Paris” cast? Why do I know about the entire string of J-Lo’s failed marriages? Why, as Tyler Durden said in “Fight Club”, do I know what a duvet is?

I have yet to get into a fistfight. For now I have books to whack me awake. One of the best books that I’ve read in a long while is Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writer’s Workshop: New Ways of Writing Creative Nonfiction. It’s one of the first books on writing I’ve read that spends more space and energy on WHAT to write, rather than HOW to write. Most writing instruction is structured around the idea of a two-stage draft. Stage one is the inspiration, the initial first draft. Stage two involves the literary “fixings”; the cosmetic improvements that spruce up that initial draft. Bly argues for a stage to come between these two; a long “psychological” stage where the author reflects on the writing and asks herself if there is more to say. This stage is all about capturing that full experience of life; discovering and including all of it, instead of just the initial impressions and reactions.

Bly uses other tools to talk about writing, including neuroscience and psychology. As a way to push the writer beyond aesthetic concerns, she uses stage development theories to make her point. First she presents a few theories on stage development by others, like Schiller:

1. You are inclined to physical practicality.
2. You get the idea you could plan to make your own life beautiful. Your mind focuses on beauty.
3. You deplore what is horrible and become interested in governance in order to correct one or another cruelty.

And George Orwell:

1. Vanity and careerism
2. Pointless love of and efficacy in things aesthetic
3. Interest in reportage
4. Dislike of injustice

Then she presents her own:

1. One is at a premoral utterly selfish stage.
2. One is still selfish, but at least one sees that there are others out there, and one decides they have a right to be selfish, too.
3. Whatever seems to win strokes from the crowd is the highest good.
4. Whatever authority says is right is right.
5. One has developed one’s own code of rights and wrongs, which one applies universally – such as honesty, hospitality, murder: one supposes that everyone in every culture should be honest and hospitable and eschew killing people (Stage 5 people may be cultural relativists so far as styles of honesty and hospitality are concerned, but the content, the underlying principles, apply to all).
6. One has to disobey one’s own code of rights and wrongs in order to make the best judgment in a given predicament. For example, one would like to the Gestapo in order to save innocent lives. One can’t remain a clean-cut Girl Scout.

Bly’s book was both an affirmation and a challenge. An affirmation of feelings I’d already had, which is that art needs to go beyond questions of pure aesthetics. And a challenge that I wanted to answer. I’ll figure that out as I go along. But I’m growing weary of my own apathy, and the apathy of others. The ideas that have been distracting me all take the form of questions, which lead to more questions. Why, after my second trip to Nicaragua in high school, did I decide that caring about our foreign policy was too painful, too pointless? Why don’t I trust my own opinions, why don’t I feel comfortable sharing them here? Why do I care what others think of me? Why do I continue to apologize for so many of my beliefs? What is the point of blogging? Is there more that I and others can do with blogging than to provide cultural commentary? Why does it so often feel like we are rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic sinks? Why do so many of us gay men still treat woman as accessories? Why do I get depressed when I read popular sites that are geared around gossip and irony? Why have some of my favorite bloggers quit, and why do I continue? Am I being earnest or just naive? What good is an MFA going to do for me? How do I care about these things and still make money? Why does it seem that simultaneously everyone is angry and nobody is angry? What’s worth writing about? Why am I funnier in real life?

Some of these I’ve already answered, if only to myself. But they won’t stay answered for long. I just want to wake up. I want to avoid the onslaught of our stupid culture. I want to find others who feel the same. I want to remember Virginia Woolf’s advice, that we should never cease thinking, that we never stop asking ourselves “what is this civilization?”

Act-UP is dead. Kurt Cobian is dead. Elliot Smith is dead. Diane Arbus is dead. MLK and Ghandi and Kennedy are dead. Joseph Campbell is dead, and Virginia Woolf is dead, too. Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs are dead. Baldwin and Wilde and Isherwood are dead. Paul Wellstone is dead. Tennessee Williams and Joe Orton are dead. Jung is dead. We can’t go back. So what is our duty today?

The ones who record for us what we would not see otherwise. The ones who won’t dress and moisturize the disinterested king. The ones with blue ink tattooed on their faces. The ones who gave themselves to something bigger. The ones who pack themselves odd little lunches. The ones with blackberries blooming on their skin. The ones who found doors in posted dead ends. The ones who get up on Sunday morning. The ones stirring dinner through the bombing. The ones who’ve kept their hearts in their bodies. The ones who cut themselves from the trough. The ones who stay awake at the wheel. The ones with delusions of grandeur. The ones taking a bus cross-country. The ones who take it personally. The ones who talked to us after class. The ones who do it anyway. The ones with glitter on their face. The ones who are fine except obsessed. The ones who look a little off. The ones who walk for water. The ones who speak metaphor. The ones who fail the system. The ones who torture themselves. The ones who bring it to life. The ones who cry in public. The ones who kiss the dying. The ones who were caught by it. The overly sensitive. The inappropriately dressed. The ones who would not submit. The ones who crawl from ruins. The ones who remember. The ones with wings of wax. The ones who speak softly. . The ones who acted up. The ones who broke a heel. The ones who keep losing. The ones who worked the piers. The ones who close their eyes. The ones who tell their age. The ones who walk at night. The ones who try again. The unemployable. The ones who never win. The ones who saw it. The ones who can’t stop. The ones in the dark. The ones who reveal. The ones who worry. The ones who clean wounds. The ones who left home. The slightly deranged. The flagrantly flawed. The suicidal. The solitary. The ones who grieve. The singular. The obscure. The insane. The tender. The mismatched. The freaks.

Here’s to fewer apologies. Here’s to being too big for your britches. Tens, tens, tens across the board!

George W.:
“America this evening is a nation called to great responsibilities. And we are rising to meet them…

…Americans are proving once again to be the hardest working people in the world…

…Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people…

…I gave to you and to all Americans my complete commitment to securing our country and defeating our enemies…

…America acts in this cause with friends and allies at our side, yet we understand our special calling: This great republic will lead the cause of freedom…”

Joseph Campbell:
“…the only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about, in the immediate future, is one that’s talking about the planet; not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it…”

Virginia Woolf:
Think we must. Let us think in offices; in omnibuses, while we are standing in the crowd watching Coronations and Lord Mayor’s Shows; let us think as we pass the Cenotaph; and in Whitewall; in the gallery of the House of Commons; in the Law Courts; let us think at baptisms and marriages and funerals. Let us never cease from thinking. What is this “civilization” in which we find ourselves? What are these ceremonies and why should we take part in them? What are these professions and why should we make money out of them? Where in short is it leading us, the procession of the sons of educated men?

A Cage for a Gift

David, my Ex, had pulled up into my driveway, and Louie was already sitting in the passenger seat, ready to spend time with his other daddy. David had given me a hug, and we stood a few feet away from each other as the evening darkened. I could see the silhouette of Louie’s cocked ears as he listened to the two of us talk.

“How was St. Louis?” I asked him.

He made a face. “Guess what my brother got me for Christmas?”

“Which one?”


“I don’t know, what?”

“He got me a DVD of The Birdcage. Can you believe it?”

“Jesus.” Then I laughed. I did believe it. We had spent an awkward Christmas with his family in St. Louis a few years ago. David has four brothers, most of them married and living in the suburbs with their kids. We had stayed at his fraternal twin’s place in a sub-development a few minutes outside of the city. He and his wife had successful corporate positions, a minivan, one son and another on the way. I wanted to like the little toddler more than I did. There was an entire room full of his toys and he still whined all weekend.

The parents and all the brothers and their families and various cousins and siblings descended upon the house that weekend. There were kids riding big wheels around the basement and screaming. In the middle of it all his brothers smoked cigars and shot pool. David had a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Everyone, even the children, seemed drunk to me. I was just bitter, because I was trying to stay sober. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I couldn’t take the noise and the smoke. I wandered back upstairs, past the dining table where Uncle Tony sat with his “roommate”, the man he’d lived with for twenty-five years. They wore matching gold necklaces and they blow-dried their hair. The remains of the Christmas dinner lay before them on the table. I nodded at them and then wandered upstairs, where I hid in a bedroom with a book.

I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of St. Louis. The city itself, with beautiful old brick buildings, seemed half-abandoned. The suburbs were full of strip malls and chain stores. In the morning we drove the rental car back to the airport, listening to a popular morning radio show. The deejays were telling fag jokes and making prank calls to gay sex clubs listed in the San Francisco phone book. We ended up flying stand-by that morning, and I asked God in a rare moment of prayer to get us seats, as a winter storm was approaching. He must have been listening.

I couldn’t stop laughing as we stood together in the driveway. He was embarrassed about the DVD. He held the car’s door open with one hand and toed the ground. Apart from Uncle Tony, he was the only gay person in the family. But nobody ever called Uncle Tony gay. David was also the only one in the entire family who had left St. Louis. I kept laughing, out of commiseration with David and the ongoing failure of his family to understand him. But my laughter grew hostile. Of course, I thought to myself. Of course he’d get a copy of The Birdcage. Had I been feeling fair I would have seen it merely as an example of how people everywhere don’t understand their families. I would have seen it as just another Christmas present destined for the returns counter. But I saw more. It was more than a ridiculous DVD. It was a symbol of everything that was wrong, an emblem of the polls released earlier that day; the polls that showed what straight people thought of gay marriage. It seemed to me the perfect example of how clueless and offensive straight people could be, and once again I gave up hope for them.

Dosed to Sleep, Stirred Awake

I had a hell of a time falling asleep when I got sober three years ago. I blame it on all the GHB. Yes, I used to give myself the date-rape drug in order to pass out every night. Unfortunately nobody ever took advantage of me. At least not that I remember. In fact, I’ve always been a little incredulous at the date-rape stories, since GHB has such a nasty, putrid, abhorrent taste that I wonder how even a cocktail could mask the flavor. But I’ve never tried it, you see, because I was a smart drug addict; I never mixed GHB and alcohol. That would be dangerous. But I was willing to gulp it down nightly for a few months. Unfortunately it would wear off a few hours later, necessitating another dose. I even went so far as to keep a small cup on my bedside table, thereby allowing me to stay in bed while I swigged away. Normal people keep a glass of water at bedside, but let’s face it, that’s just boring.

Then I got sober, and lay awake for hours each night. My body’s chemistry was anxious and frustrated, and I wanted to be such a good boy that I swore off Tylenol P.M., which I had used often in the past to come down from crystal meth. That first year also featured a long, tedious journey through the cycles of three or four anti-depressants, each of which further upset the balance.

I tried warm milk. I tried calcium and zinc at bedtime. I refrained from reading in bed, heeding experts’ advice to keep the bed all about sleeping. I listened to my boyfriend’s peaceful snoring as he slumbered away. I thrashed about, forever twisting my pillow one way or another, searching for a cool spot I could press against my cheek. Staying asleep was never the problem, unfortunately. You see, once I did finally fall asleep my body wouldn’t settle for less than eight hours, and so each fitful, passing minute meant another minute I’d lose in the morning before work.

It took awhile, but eventually I found the right combination of anti-depressant and melatonin that would reliably bring me sleep. I even discovered that one 3mg tablet of melatonin left me too groggy the next day, so every few days I’d cut a handful of tablets in half, as if I was making lunch for the rest of the week. And like a child clutching his teddy bear I’ve stayed true to this combination, if only to ward off the memories of my insomnia.

Maybe it was the New Year, or just curiosity, but for the past week I stopped taking the melantonin. And now, all of a sudden, my dreams have returned. I didn’t even realize that they were missing, or muted, as the case may be. I just forgot that I was someone who used to remember his dreams.

I don’t know if I’ve always dreamed like this, or if my subconscious is throwing an after-hours party in celebration of melatonin’s departure. But my dreams are big, colorful, Fellini excursions into love, violence, and high anxiety. I dreamed that I fell madly in love, that we moved in together, and that I promptly lost the keys to the house. I dreamed that a very threatening man was dedicating his life to killing me, and that he tried numerous methods, each attempt more intense and destructive than the last. And like Lara Croft I kept coming back to life and trying increasingly desperate measures to escape, only to cross yet another tripwire connected to explosives. I dreamed of the main character of a novel I’m constructing in my head, following him on the subway, noting the loneliness he wore like a thin coat. I dreamed I sat on the shore of an enormous lake, and the sky was filled with brightly-colored aircraft of man-made design, each of them a wild sculpture of unlikely flight. And throughout each dream was a common atmosphere of fate; a life-or-death seriousness, where my emotions ran to extremes that feel unfamiliar when I’m awake.

I wake frequently between snatches of dreams, sometimes returning to the same story in my sleep, sometimes falling into an unrelated tale. I wake later each morning, not quite rested. And yet I don’t want to go back to the muted, heavy sleep. I never gave much weight to dreams, and I’m still unsure about their meaning, but lately I’m fascinated by them. It may be my friendship with Prometheus, who has introduced me to some of Jung’s work. It may just be that I am bored and looking for meaning in every available subconscious image. But it’s amazing, to me, that my head puts on such a show every night, all by itself. Now if I can just find those housekeys.

I made two resolutions last year at this time. The first was to floss my teeth every single day; a resolution I’ve kept. The second resolution I’ve forgotten, which is probably why I think it may have been a more serious resolution, something along the lines of write every day, one of those character-enriching resolutions we’re supposed to make. I doubt I’ll ever write enough to satisfy my own expectations. But I’m proud of the flossing.

In December, Dogpoet’s second anniversary (Dec. 7th) came and went. My mother’s birthday (Dec. 21st) came and went. I’ve read a dozen books but still have a pile unread, thanks to compulsive trips to the bookstore. I didn’t buy enough Christmas presents and called myself selfish a few times, as though by saying it out loud I could excuse myself. My Christmas spirit kicked in about 3 pm on Christmas Eve, a little late to pretend to be a decent Santa Claus. I mailed out my applications to three grad schools, thus ending a four-month project for which I must have written and re-written fifty pages of new material.

Along the way I jotted down a couple of rough drafts for this site, but then set them aside. I’m less satisfied with second and third drafts than I used to be; anything good deserves time and reflection, two qualities that are inimical to blogging. And my first drafts tend to suck be a little humorless. Now and then I’ve thought about stopping, or quitting; a thought I have every few months but then discard.

It’s been a frustrating year in many respects (I’m still waiting for someone I vote for to be elected), and let’s face it, the world hardly needs another web site. But I’m stubborn as hell. Or just plain self-centered.

I’m sitting here, the first day of the year, staring at the blinking cursor on my screen, wondering what the hell it is I’m trying to say. I guess I’m trying to mark the occassion somehow; to acknowledge the passage of time. For all of my grumblings, dogpoet has, without a doubt, been one of the greatest gifts in my life. It’s also been a pain in the ass, a veritable ball-and-chain. But an attractive ball-and-chain. And while my postings may have diminished in frequency, they’ve…er, grown…in other ways. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m still curious. About how my life has changed because of this site. About the people who have become my friends. About the fact that if it weren’t for this site, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve, or the raw material, to apply to grad school. And then I wouldn’t have a possible escape from the land of Real Jobs, which would be a problem because I’m unqualified for most of them.

I’m still curious about what dogpoet will drudge up for me in the coming year. Maybe I’m being a little sentimental, and maybe writing about writing is just another one of my annoying traits, like bragging about flossing my teeth. But it seemed like the thing to do, today.