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At 3:00 AM this morning, I wake up with one of the flash fevers I thought were over a week ago. My slight “walking” case of post-Bangkok bronchial pneumonia doesn’t seem so slight when it’s walking through my pores in the small hours of the morning. I’m shaky, covered in sweat. I can literally feel the waves of heat coming off my body and because pleurisy is one of the symptoms, I get a wonderful stabbing shank pain in my lung every time I take a breath. Straight-up Texas misery, that. When one of your lungs decides to be the Lone Star State all by itself in South East England, you’ve got a problem. You should go see a doctor, get some meds. You probably would if you didn’t hate going to the doctor more than the pain of bronchial pneumonia. Tea, you think to yourself, what I need is more tea.

The good thing is that, as usual, it goes away after 30 minutes of sitting on the edge of the bed trying to breathe. It will undoubtedly happen again. But I’ve noticed that the sudden fevers are becoming infrequent. I’m coughing less. And I imagine my disposition must be slowly improving as well. Soon I’ll be able to speak to other humans without it requiring an enormous amount of willpower and angst-suppression. Because there’s no sleeping after this, I take a shower, put on some fresh pajamas and my rabbit slippers, make a cup of Thai ginger tea, and open the blinds.

There is a canal three stories below my window. Most of the time, it’s pleasant. But someone is always staggering along the narrow path in the middle of the night and no one ever imagines that an insomnious American might be up there in the dark. Still, Oxford is a magical place. In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen things that would curl your hair faster than a Sultra Bombshell. So maybe there are people who would imagine things even stranger than yours truly, all in white, sitting in the window like Great Caesar’s Ghost. But I’m fairly sure none of those people are the ones staggering three inches from the water, yelling, “I’m a fookin’ gangsta!”

This happens in Oxford. Maybe I find it easy to accept that not everyone here is named Reginald and wears a crested cardigan because I’m from San Diego. When I was a kid, I had to spend most summers up in Fresno, which is a hellhole in central California known for raisins, gang murder, and PM3 particulates. Fresnians would always say, “Man, you live in San Diego. What do you do all day, tan? You surf? How come you don’t say, dude? How come you’re pale?” I never had a good answer to any of that because I never had a good answer to anything as a kid (I dislike the sun? I’m inherently morose? I’m an introvert? I prefer books to people, especially to those who ask me stupid questions?). But such interactions did teach me about civic narcissism and stereotyping: everyone from San Diego must either be an empty-headed Baywatch beauty or Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The reality is that San Diego has all kinds of people–immigrants, an enormous service class, gang bullshit, powdered Republican suburbia, a pro-circuit martial arts community, a tatted-up hipster infestation, occultists, a persistently gay arts-and-humanities neighborhood, redneck neo-Nazi trailer fantasia, at least two massive homeless encampments, and yes, a very aggressive and territorial surf culture. So what? Every place has everything if you look hard enough. Humans are like that, even if they only wear their clown makeup every second Sunday.

I’ve seen some special cases here in Oxford. For every smug Draco Malfoy, there’s a toothless guy trying to sell Big Issue outside the coffee shop. There’s a 17-year-old drug dealer with a sag in his pants and a cap on sideways. Hordes of infantile tourists from every part of the world. Serious fast-walking grad students with tension headaches. Bow-tie wearing dons who look like they just had their star student give them a full-frontal oil massage. Housewives straight out of the 1950s in pencil skirts and sweater sets. Visiting professors trying hard to look like Aldous Huxley for at least two terms. All sorts, some of whom you will inevitably see at night weaving down the canal before you can finish a cup of ginger tea.

Weaving because this is England and that’s what you do after 9 ales. But my gangsta runs more towards sitting up quietly when I can’t sleep, thinking regretfully about the past, and wondering if I’m dying. This is why I’m so much fun to be around and why I have so many friends. I obsess. I’m still ruminating on the work students did for me three terms ago, three teaching positions ago, three lifetimes ago. I never forget. I’m still wondering what the hell happened during my PhD, about whether my second story collection is going to get published, about why my father lost his mind. I’m still mad at the world. It’s the extent of my charm.

Immersed in my thoughts and feeling wrung-out physically, I’m not sure I’m even completely in my body. You know the feeling, when you’re so elsewhere that you could be sitting on a pine cone and not even know it. Often you’ll discover you actually are sitting on a pine cone. But the sort of revelation I have this morning has nothing to do with the reproductive cycle of monoecious conifers and everything to do with porn.

There. I said it. PORN. I struggled with whether I should write this because it puts me a bit at risk. I won’t name names, but I’m fairly sure my neighbor could figure out who I am with a bit of research. And given the resources that most homeowners must have in Oxford, it is not inconceivable that he could import some shaven thug from Manchester to float me down the Cherwell. Nevertheless, one lives on the edge, right?

So porn. Not the creepy ghost-porn you see on a widescreen in the middle of the night when someone forgets to pull the drapes. The real thing. Or as close to the real thing as it gets when your neighbor is loudly choreographing sex with his girlfriend and leaves the window open. This is what some people probably do on that second Sunday when they get the green hair and the red sponge nose just right.

If furries exist, clown fetishists certainly exist. I know clown porn does. And that is what I picture when I hear his nasal schoolmasterish voice: “Now lift up. Now put it behind your head.” He grunts. She squeaks. The bed hits the wall eight or nine times. Then more directions. More squeaking. After a while, I have an impossible mental image: she’s got one ankle tied to the chandelier and the other swinging down as a counterweight while he moans, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and peels one off. Then they do a Chinese fire drill and juggle. Bliss.

It just makes me wonder at the inherent weirdness of life. Weird, not because people have a domineering style in the bedroom or sound like bloopers from an X-rated Cirque du Soleil, but because I know this guy–a hyper-conservative, pot-bellied, somewhat bewildered clone of Gomer Pyle. He’s a gamer. He’s really into grilling. And he’s passively racist and classist in the way of those who’ve never lived far from where they grew up and have never had to adopt uncomfortable points of view. I sound judgmental, but I don’t necessarily dislike the guy any more than I dislike most people. He has his issues. We all do.

Nevertheless: clown sex in the dead of night. And here I am, 41 years old, sick, unable to sleep, working obsessively again, worried about my writing, about the future, about the past. A friend of mine once said that some people get exactly what they want in life and the rest of us become philosophers. That might be true. It sounds good, at any rate. But I don’t think I’m a philosopher. I do think the world sometimes likes to tell a joke with a moment like this as the punchline. One lesson Oxford teaches after you’ve lived here for a while is that not everyone can be special, but everyone can be weird.

This is a tale of vampiric propagation. We don’t want to sleep. We want to make you just like us. And we want to live forever.

In a hundred years, when most of what we know is gone and everyone we used to worry about is either dead or getting there, we’re going to look back at all this babylon and laugh. We’ll still be around. We won’t be a teenager-climbing-out-the-window kind of around or some vagrant-watching-you-from-the-porch-across-the-street kind of around. But we’ll be around nonethelesslike an ear worm, like the sock that’s been at large under the chaise lounge since before you moved in, like some colorless, odorless gas you might decide is there if you’d only take a moment to consider it.

But, of course, you don’t take a moment. You don’t consider. And, in the meantime, we’re still here, hovering up around your rafters, slipping down your hallways, drawing unflattering conclusions about the fish in your fish tank, promulgating cruel theories about the various states of your affairs. We’ve gone down through the night, through boredom, through obsession, like going down to the river to pray, and insomnia is the little god that answered. Insomnia has made us eternal.

Let’s be honest. Every vampire story is a story about love. And every story about love is a story about starvation. Privation. Domination. Lust. Hunger. Different kinds of rebellion. Violent symbiosis. A certain pervasive irony. We can admit this now that we’re eternal. We don’t have to prevaricate anymore. We don’t have to tidy up our emotions and sanitize them. Instead we can tell it true. It comes down to this: the less we sleep, the more we fall in love with the possibility that we are no longer human.

In 1965, Randy Gardner, age 17 and ostensibly healthy, stayed awake for 264 hours as part of a science fair project, simultaneously setting the world record for sleep deprivation and stupidity. We find such amateurism distasteful. The professional accepts insomnia as a lifelong commitment, as a calling, a cruel master, an over-soul that at all moments strives to make us less animal and more idea. Rather than depriving us of dreams (as most non-insomniacs believe), insomnia makes all life into a waking dream.

We find ourselves asking, did I actually say that? We hardly remember imprisoning Jonathan Harker, feeding on his blood to sustain our hideous undead existence. The Harkers of the world think we’re monsters. They know nothing. When Randy Gardner finally slipped into unconscious oblivion, we were still up, our firefly thoughts, our half-aware fugues, the open-eyed blackouts in which we wrote pages of rambling fiction on legal pads that went unremembered for weeks until we found them in a cabinet. The sudden memory of what we’d done made us cry.

No one said this vampire life would be easy. Still, you could be like us. Get obsessed. Get to work on a book. On three books. On three books and four scripts. Get a job. Get some coffee. Realize you don’t need caffeine to stay up. Your brain chemistry alone will punish you into perpetual wakefulness. And witches’ sabbats under the moon. And the sad beauty of the night. And the slow dissolution of who you think you are into who you will always be: while good society is asleep and all the world is quiet like the dead—that thing on the balcony staring wistfully at an unchanging sky.

A copy of a copy of a copy.  Chuck was right: when you can’t sleep for extended periods of time, you gain a certain distance, including on  yourself.  So I’m now on day 5 of 2-3 hours of sleep per night.  And I feel I’ve passed beyond the ability to keep myself going during the day with caffeine.  One would think that at some point, my body-mind would say enough is enough and shut down for 36-48 hours.  But that never happens.  Caffeine fasts, all sorts of drugs, 071203_coffeeexercise, self-hypnosis, primal scream therapy, Charlotte Brontë, warm milk with honey, deep trance, special Hungarian sleeping herbs, hoodoo, biofeedback, and studying Estonian grammar by candle light have all failed horribly.  I walk.  I talk.  I slither on my belly like a reptile.

Using a combination of theta wave brain entrainment and Zen meditation, I am usually able to simulate a near-sleep experience (kind of like being fully aware while floating in a featureless black void for a few hours), but nothing, nothing will put me to sleep for more than 3 hours during an insomniac episode.  No matter what I do, I know there will be some weeks where I work for up to 7 days without much down time.

I’ve been told it’s psychological, biological, social, psychosocial, biocultural, a spiritual malaise, a misalignment of Ajna and Anahata chakras, post-Catholic guilt, a sleep-onset phenomenon due to working late under bright lights, the vapors, the manifestation of damage to one of my subtle bodies, a futile attempt to compensate for lack of talent / intelligence by over-studying (thanks Dr. You-Know-Who-You-Are for leaving me with this one—you have a PhD, not a MD, by the way), or just my imagination.

In truth, the cause of my chronic insomnia remains a mystery, but I do understand its essential pattern.  It may be shortening my life; however, I have come to accept it for one reason: I do an immense amount of work at the beginning and middle of these episodes.  So this morning, I found myself on the street, my shoulder bag packed with the usual gear—iPhone, notebook, netbook, a few Euros for green tea, and a box of theI hate you, Charlotte! Pilot G-6 gel pens that I love.  Unfortunately, I’m not in the beginning or the middle of this episode.  I’m at the end where my brain turns to Tasty Wheat.  So I’m blogging instead of writing the real stuff.  So be it.  So it is.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

Because I’ve been feeling generally lousy lately and endowed with a double dose of the usual joy-killing pessimism that comes along with sleep deprivation, I’ve been avoiding all but the most essential human contact.  I’ve been editing, not composing.  I’ve been on a coffee hiatus.  And the goddamn moon has been waning.  So I can shake my fist at the heavens and scream, “Yea!  I know thee!” or I can be quiet and fulfill my responsibilities as a teacher, a writer, and when absolutely necessary, a friend.  I’ve found the latter course to be the most advisable.

All well and good.  I sound like I’ve got a handle on everything, don’t I?  Yes, I’m good at that.  They used to say my grandfather could sell ice-cream to an Eskimo, which, I believe, is exactly how he made his fortune.  My father taught English in college for almost 4 decades, sending wave after wave of humanities cannon fodder into the world to wait tables, cold call senior citizens about real estate possibilities, and dispatch garbage trucks on the graveyard shift.  And me?  My life is the eternal recurrence of the same with the dial set to the Kobayashi Maru scenario.  But then, I have an addictive, highly disciplined, yet somewhat abrasive personality.  (Lou, you don’t know where I’ve been).  Or so I’ve been told.

Ergo, I abrade.  Now it is 1:08 AM.  All is quiet.  The tv is running without sound and, as I am typing this wondering where the end of the post is hiding (my shirt front pocket?  the beautiful island of Saaremaa?), the screen shows a group of Bulgarian firefighters shooting water onto a burning roof.  Well, of course they are.  The flames are pretty.  I think I need to end this post and stare vacuously at that news loop until it’s time to stare vacuously at something else.  The good news is that when I get to this point, blessed sleep may not be far away.

Before I go, here are a few additional considerations:

  • “When Things Don’t Flow.”  A title that could suggest any number of possibilities.
  • What it is.  What it was. What the fuck. – Lounge singer I heard the other night: “He melts my boots off in every single scene.”  What does that actually mean?  The metaphor doesn’t stand up.  Neither does she.
  • A Baltic girl named Amber standing in front of Baltic Amber.
  • Girls climbing out of cellars surrounded by steam look like earth goddesses in the morning.
  • Tallinn is a magical place.  The cats and dogs are quiet and sinister, watching, waiting.
  • Bobitchki.
  • Fiat Voluntas Dei Anno 1603.  Every time I see something old and beautiful, this is inscribed above it.  Only the year changes.  And they say Estonia is not religious.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

“I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.”

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.”

— Madeleine Chapsal

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection. King Solomon’s ring bore the inscription, ‘All will pass’; by contrast, I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implication is in fact turned back. Time can vanish without trace in our material world for it is a subjective, spiritual category. The time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

— Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time