After David Gates' "Log Man" (unavailable online; find it in The Bastard on the Couch)
It’s early still; dawn hasn’t yet dumped its groggy light into the back yards of suburban Las Vegas, where I live, although here, in this body, where I live, things are already moving around. I woke up hours ago, once again feeling as though something is subtly askew—like my blood might be flowing backward, or my lymph nodes are synced to different time zones, or my kidney is fretting about the future of democracy. Not a pain, exactly, more a ghostly flitting, tough to pin down. Yet distinct from the normal indignities of reaching middle age so catastrophically out of shape—the mystery aches that gust daily through my limbs and thorax, then dissipate. Those I’m used to, and what do I expect, letting myself go the way I have? As it is, I’m content to skate by on the wisdom of poet Albert Goldbarth: “If the dying is slow enough, we call it living.” Works for me—most of the time. This furtive bodily unease, though, that has me a bit scrambled, which may be why I applied a verb like “dumped” to describe what will surely be a routinely beautiful desert sunrise. I mean, what kind of crank does that?
Don’t mind the lame cocktail jazz tinkling from my wheezing iMac; it’s just a sonic berm to keep me inside my head. That Goldbarth quote, by the way, comes from a file I call “Cheap Wisdom,” in which I collect random aphorisms, bits of poetry, song lyrics, and nonsense, which I’ll be drawing from as this thing unfurls, so you have that to look forward to. For example, this mission statement from James Parker: “What is writing for if not to fling itself at the unwritable?” I ought to have that tramp-stamped on my spirit animal, or whatever it is the kool kidz are doing over on the TikTok these days.
Dawn’s arriving now, and for once I don’t hear the neighborhood’s flock of quail speed-wobbling across my fake grass. Sorry, I’m sure this quotidian stuff isn’t the high-end content you dialed in for, even though, in the end, it’s the only stuff, if you follow. I picked up “quotidian” from critic Dave Hickey; it recurs in his writing, usually to indicate the luminous ordinariness of daily life, which almost never makes it onto the page—indeed, writing it only ends up dissolving it (Knausgaard possibly excepted). If you’re an Essay Daily regular, you probably know that Hickey, who died recently, was an essayist and art critic usually described as “contrarian.” He wrote about Vegas often and better than anyone else, and lived here for a memorable span. He once told me—I knew him, just a bit—“As a writer, I don’t organize things. Because all I care about is the flow. All I care about is the music.” Welcome to a paragraph after your own heart, Dave.
It occurs to me that these strange humors I’m feeling might be psychosomatic, spillover from the fritzing mood centers in my brain as it absorbs the 21st century. Or maybe it’s metaphysical—is there such a thing as spiritual gout? Web MD is of surprisingly little help in these self-diagnoses. Poetry, on the other hand. “It is permeability I am fighting, / it is holes I am full of.” That’s Hilary Vaughn Dobel, from the file.
Anyway, Hickey: “What I do as a writer, nearly always, is, I just fill up the tub. And then I don’t worry about it. What comes out is what comes out.” I trust he was being a bit glib there; no one writes that well by simply turning on the faucet. Even so, I couldn’t often match his intellectual pace: He liked to visualize his writing as a “black coupe de ville” running without lights on a long straightaway at night, and that’s me, clinging to his tailfin by my fingernails. But I never didn’t enjoy the ride, and, yes, I know that’s a double negative; feel free to speak to my manager. Hickey was the first of two writers I associate with Las Vegas to die within a few days of each other. Whereas his death prompted a flood of obits in the blue-chip media, Chip Mosher’s barely got a couple of social media mentions. He was a local alt-weekly columnist, fierce in his day, which had long passed by the time cancer got him. A high-school teacher and wearer of rumpled bucket hats, he used his column, which he immodestly titled “Socrates in Sodom,” to blister pretty much every piety in town, including the one that paid him—he was an unstinting critic of the local education-industrial complex. “Over the years, I've had several (failed, I'm happy to say) attempts to get me fired,” he wrote in the first of maybe 400 email exchanges we had during the two and a half years I edited him at that alt-weekly, now defunct. “I am, though not necessarily by choice, of the mold of Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, W.C. Fields, et. al. And, oh yes, Socrates and the Greek cynics.” Buried in the metadata of that “oh yes” was his insistence, against all available evidence, that reason, employed with wit and a spirit of well-intentioned confrontation, might make this a better place, and look what that got him.
They were vastly different guys, Dave and Chip, and very different writers—I can guess what Dave thought of Bukowski—but both were personally generous with their time and intelligence, and they each had a knack for scorning whatever orthodoxies were at hand. (“It’s usually the satire that gets me into the most trouble,” Chip wrote me.) But I’d like to think they really intersected in something Dave once told me about Dickens: “No matter how horrible the story he’s telling you, there’s this little bubble of laughter underneath it that tells you he just loves telling you this story. I would like my writing to rest on that little bubble of laughter, no matter how terrible the subject I’m writing about.” Dave and Chip each nurtured that bubble, that deep gusto for flinging their writing at the unwritable whatever the consequences, which I envied so much.
Here’s another quote, courtesy of The Mountain Goats: “The ghosts that haunt your building are prepared to take on substance.”
Okay, so what I’m really getting at here is that my 60th birthday is fast approaching, and now I’m mourning people I knew, and I’ve got these odd sensations wafting through my body like bad jazz. That’s it, that’s the real status update. I know, you’re like, Is that what all this is about, the cold hand of mortality, etc., etc.? Talk about your cheap wisdom! Sure, but, on the other hand, it’s not so quotidian to me. And while I’m not freaking out about it per se, it’s definitely hogging more of my bandwidth—another guy I know, an artist, passed away between the last paragraph and this one, no kidding, it’s right there on Facebook. Another great guy. How much tub’s left to fill is, I suppose, the question, and how to feel about that is another. Am I, in fact, dying slowly enough to call this living?
“Every hour is an eleventh hour now,” poet Gregory Crosby writes, and while he meant it in a civilizational context, I’m inclined to take it personally. So when I’m done with this, I’m going to drive over to help my mom, who’s tottering into her ninth decade on ruined knees and falls too often. After that, I’ll send a supportive text to my brother, who collapsed on Easter evening, woke up a month later, and has since shuffled through a series of hospital beds in a medicalized limbo administrated by the cruel indifference of Medicaid’s reimbursement procedures. I know, withholding that kind of information until the end is a cheesy move, as David Gates notes in “Log Man,” the essay that prompted this muddled gumbo. Agreed, but that’s just how it came out of the faucet, and it’s too late to do anything about it now: The Essay Daily people are pinging my inbox, wondering where this piece is, okay, okay, while we’re all still alive, here you go—
This essay attempts to do in a modest, awkward way what David Gates’ “Log Man” does much more complexly: appear to move in offhand fashion around a mostly, but not entirely, obscured topic. However premeditated his piece may have been, Gates seems to be knitting “Log Man” from whatever he’s thinking, feeling, or observing at the moment of composition, each sentence alert to the nuances and implications of everything around it. As far as I can tell, the essay is not available online; it appears in the anthology The Bastard on the Couch.
Scott Dickensheets is the features editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, serves on the literary committee of the Las Vegas Book Festival, and has edited or contributed to eight volumes of the Las Vegas Writes anthology series.