Afternoon Phenomenology

Aware of sunshine, trees, drifting clouds through window on my right. Sitting at computer. Hand on mouse. Doing something or going somewhere online. focused attention. Eyes close. Instantly inside a dream narrative that has the feel of having been going on for a while, though not always (so far as I can tell) the same narrative. Defuse attention. How long? A few seconds to a minute best estimate. Wake up. Dream narrative unavailable to consciousness. I can do this many times over the course of an afternoon hour. The affective color of this experience–conscious & unconscious parts taken together–is neutral to mildly pleasant.

Note: About ten years ago, while taking a prescribed sleep drug, I had a couple of frightening, anxiety-inducing experiences in which I felt myself to be simultaneously asleep & awake. That is, I was doing something in waking life while at the same time doing something else entirely unrelated in a dream or dream-like state of mind. (These experiences took place during the daytime, when the zolpidem was supposed to have cleared my system.) The “double exposures” had a dark, negative affect, even long after they had passed & I was merely recalling them.

Round about Midnight (A List of Six)

  1. Despite spending big chunks of my day nodding off & fighting the drowsiness caused by pain medication, I always seem to be wide awake at midnight.
  2. I usually have two audiobooks on my iPhone, one fiction, the other non-fiction. Right now, I’ve got Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture & Neal Stephenson’s The Confusion (fourth volume of The Baroque Cycle).
  3. Wide awake but too tired to do any coherent writing, I can sometimes revise a poem, or a few lines of a poem & sometimes my mind drifts far enough sideways that something interesting happens in the language.
  4. Or sometimes I just surf YouTube for old favorites or oddities. Stealer’s Wheel, “Stuck in the Middle with You.”
  5. I have been making a series of drawings done after all the lights are out. I lie on my back with a small sketchpad on my stomach & draw with a black marker. Sometimes I draw a subject, other times just a rhythm or bodily feeling.
  6. Occasionally, Oliver, who likes to sleep down by my feet will inexplicably decide to creep up and nestle between my arm & torso, laying his head on my shoulder. Then we both sigh & after that I almost always fall asleep.



Series of Dreams

The soundtrack for this post is Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” Dreams are out of fashion in psychiatry these days, but I’m still a Freudian at heart and I pay attention to my dreams when I remember them. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” writes Yeats, quoting “an old play,” a sentiment then echoed by Delmore Schwartz in what is probably his single most successful piece of writing, unless you figure that he “wrote” Saul Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift. Talk about intertextuality!

First dream: I’m an adult in my childhood home, having returned to live there with C. We have our usual crew of scruffy, noisy dogs with us and we’ve settled in — been in residence maybe two or three days. The house is a big Victorian affair with a balcony and a turret & a sweeping sun porch, etc. C & I are standing on the porch when an older woman, elegantly dressed, with an upswept gray coif, approaches across the driveway. Picture from last year sent to me by a childhood friend She’s a neighbor & is leading a little schnauzer — as elegant as she is — on a lead. As she comes up to us, our terriers start barking & leaping around. The woman begins to greet us, but is clearly bothered by our unkempt, delinquent dogs. She raises her eyebrows, throws her head back nose-in-the-air style, & says, “Completely lacking in class & breeding.”  Up to this point I’ve just been interested in meeting this neighbor, but at this point in the dream I become enraged & begin shouting at her to “Get off my property, get off my god damned property! ”

Second Dream: I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, except that it is located where Ottawa ought to be; that is, close to where I actually live. I’m with some other people who have never been there before & I am explaining how to get around, where to go. It is the day before I have to leave for home & I am saying to one of the people I’m with, “It always breaks my heart to have to leave this place. I breaks my heart.” Then I’m by myself in a part of town I’m not familiar with and I stop at a food stall to order bun cha (grilled pork & noodles), but either because of my poor Vietnamese or the perversity of stall owner, along with the pork and noodles I receive a grilled songbird and a frog. I decide to eat the pork but not the two more exotic offerings.

I see both these dreams as taking control dreams. One of the main themes of my dream life over the years has been loss of control — lost in big cities, cars that won’t steer correctly or in which the brakes don’t work, elevators that go sideways, buildings that double back on themselves just when you think you’re getting to the exit, etc. In the first dream here, I return to the scene of my childhood anguish and helplessness, move in, and defend my turf against the sort of people my parents desperately wanted to be. I woke from that one feeling proud of myself. In the second dream, set in HCMC, not Hanoi, which is my “home town” in Vietnam, I’m getting along well despite some uncertainty. The business with the food suggests to me that I don’t have to accept every aspect of Vietnamese culture & that I can love the place without having to embrace everything about it. (I actually have been served whole grilled songbirds in HCMC, but never frogs.)

And speaking of dreams & Freud & all that, I love this response by Phillip Levine to his then teacher Robert Lowell, who had complained about Levine’s use of Freud, accusing him of lifting it from Auden. “Mr. Lowell,” Levine said, “I’m Jewish. I steal Freud directly from Freud; he was one of ours.” Well, I’m not Jewish, but I found Freud early and under the influence of my teacher Larry Frank made him my own. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents — these have been maps to the world for me over the decades. Freud has been, in Lowell’s own words, one of my “Masters of Joy.”


Had a dream last night that I lost my car in a huge shopping mall parking lot. It was specifically my new Honda and I was trying to use the fancy electronic key to make the lights flash (it was daytime) or to pop the trunk open so I could see it, but I couldn’t find it. Finally, a kid on a bicycle offered to help me look for it. The dream ended without resolution, as dreams will. It’s kind of funny now, but it wasn’t funny in the dream. Bodily decrepitude as I grow older doesn’t frighten me much (though I’d just as soon avoid it), but mental decrepitude scares the crap out of me. I’ve built my life and identity around being able to have thoughts and think productively.

The Unofficial Hiatus / What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Hmmm. Seems like I haven’t been posting much during the recent dog days. We finally got some summer weather here after a couple of cool, wet months. I think if I looked back over my eight or nine years of blogging (who’s counting?), I would notice that I often take a short vacation from the blog about this time of year. It’s not really intentional, just a loss of motivation. And this year I’ve actually been occupied with a couple of projects and with making a couple of changes in the old “lifestyle” (hate that word). About a year ago I stopped drinking alcohol. I’d had a bad reaction to a sleep medication I had been prescribed and it seemed to be related to my evening beer consumption, so I stopped, without much difficulty. I also stopped the medication and ironically began sleeping better than I have in years. I did notice that I would have spikes of anxiety (that I would have in the past treated with a couple of drinks) and during those periods of anxiety I was given to repetitive, morbid thinking — I’ve been a secret hypochondriac since I was six years old, always imagining I have some fatal illness. About a month ago, though, I began meditation practice using the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s little book The Miracle of Mindfulness as a guide. I’d tried  meditation before, but for some reason this time it took and I have sat for half an hour or more every day since I began. It took a while, but I have noticed pretty dramatic shifts in my thinking and my internal dialogue / monologue over the last week or so. I am calmer and happier. Nothing dramatic, just a bit lighter in the head. And speaking of a light head, I have had, over the years, mild to moderate vestibular / balance problems that seem to come and go, perhaps related to stress. Several years ago a physical therapist gave me a set of exercises to do in which I look at a target (a large letter B) on the wall while walking toward it and moving my head back and forth. At first the B jumps around and I see a double image, but after doing the exercise for ten minutes twice a day for a couple of days, the target stabilizes. There is also an exercise in which one walks while throwing a ball up and catching it, following it with one’s eyes. The idea is to retrain the brain / ears / eyes to track together. It works. After I came back from Vietnam early this summer and had a bad chest cold with fever, I noticed I wasn’t balancing as well as I had been, so I’ve been doing these exercises very aggressively for the last two weeks, with noted improvement. I have even taken up juggling, which I used to be able to do, but so far without much success. I’ll certainly post video when I can keep three balls in the air! Finally, on the theory that if you don’t use it you lose it, I have begun memorizing poems. When I was a kid, I did this easily, getting long swatches of Kipling, Edna Milay, and Coleridge by heart in my early teens, but I didn’t keep it up. Over the last couple of weeks, I have memorized Jack Spicer’s “Berkeley in time of Plague,” Blake’s “The Sick Rose” and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” (both brief, as warm ups), then I went on to Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me,” which I have always loved and Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” ditto. I’m now working on Wyatt’s “Whoso List to Hunt,” which is harder for me to get into my head because of its antique syntax and the fact that I had never encountered it before. This is a practice, like meditation, I hope to keep up indefinitely.

So, I don’t often write about my personal life here in this public space, but I wanted to mark what amounts to a fairly large change in my way of being in the world. I’ll return soon to grousing about politics and making notes on literary matters.


The NY Times reports that many Americans nap. I’m one of them. I always felt a little guilty about admitting to the habit until I went to Vietnam, where nearly everybody naps after lunch. Some of my Vietnamese friends even have little fold-up lawn-furniture-type beds beside their desks. (Americans, with the exception of college students, seem to have an aversion to sleeping in public, perhaps because we have sufficient physical space to be alone.) Americans don’t have the excuse of working in a hot country with limited air conditioning, but in any case napping seems a natural human impulse.

Note: Apparently, our primate brethern take naps and do so with their pals.