In a Vast, Sleepy Valley

In sleep, our world balloons endlessly as our dreams spin fibers of imagination into vast tapestries of otherness. These are shot through with pieces and parts of things drawn from our waking lives and dotted with peculiar structures of meaning, the significance of which flees quickly upon sleep’s end. We grasp at this meaning that so recently seemed so very concrete as it sublimates into a frail wisp of something that was…something. You swear it was. It was something.

In the day, fragments of dreams may come back to us, especially if the dream itself was something onto which we attempted to hold tightly as the morning light left us blinking uncomfortably, the other world lurching and draining out of our eyes. Something funny, something scary, something mysterious hangs there in the haze. Something worth grasping at. A familiar face we only see in dreams. A symbol of something we would like to hold in our hands and examine more carefully.

I remember waking from a nightmare as a small boy. The details of the dream itself escape me now, but in the dream, I held small metal objects in my hands. They were shaped vaguely like inch-long dumbbells. In the dream, if I lost them, my father would die.

My mother woke me from the dream and tried to comfort me. And as I woke, I could still feel these objects in my hands, but I quickly realized that they were shrinking, smaller and smaller, smaller and smaller. I couldn’t explain to my mother what was happening. Nor could I prevent them from slipping away from me, eventually dissolving completely between my fingers at the moment I was fully awake.

These things are like a morning fog that burns off with the sun. Even when they were there, you could never really take hold of them. They are real but intangible. You can’t really transport them cleanly from the dream world to the waking world. Whatever you manage to hold onto becomes distorted, damaged in the process.

But there is also an in-between place that flickers into existence to temporarily bridge the two worlds. It materializes when a door opens to the waking world, and the sleeping world begins to leak out, slow and fast all at once, like a somnolent, ground-hugging cloud.

These clouds create a suction as they flow out the door, the vacuum expanding cavernously into dreamspace and sucking the real world into it. Tendrils of the ether pull strands of the real into the unreal.

I have visited this place many times.

Recently, I have found myself partly awake in the dead of the night. The physical space around me is distorted, stretched into impossible proportions. My girlfriend, while in reality just at my side in our small bed, seems impossibly far away. How did she get all the way over there? A great valley seems to stretch out between us, dark and populated with strange trees. I worry that she is too far away and I don’t understand how we wound up in this situation. But then, with great effort, I manage to extend my arm out toward her. It elongates into the darkness, stretching across the vast, sleepy valley until it finds her.

I pull her to me and the distance closes until she is finally right there once again, next to me and sleeping peacefully, wholly unaware of either our separation or my struggle to get her back.


If inanimate objects could gain knowledge through observation, automotive headlights could scare us with what they know. They would, at very least, have an understanding of human nature and the world we have built for ourselves that would comfort few and raise many questions about what it is that we are doing in this life. If we pay attention, we can get a glimpse into that body of knowledge as we drive at night, twin lamps carving cones of awareness out of the darkness, revealing a strange, continuous play of places, surfaces, and things we might never otherwise see, and never in the same manner as we do in that strange shine. 

From an unfinished manuscript I started a very, very long time ago, which resurfaced while organizing files.

All-in-one flugelhorn, Oldsmobile, and letter opener

Happiness can be found in many little places. The train this morning, for example, isn’t so crowded and for that I am grateful. There’s still about a zero percent chance of my getting a seat, but at least nobody’s elbow is embedded in my larynx.

Things get overwhelming. Things seem impossibly huge. Things seem to get the better of you and leave you with no time to recover.

Sometimes in the big picture we’re having a hard time finding anything to be happy about. Nothing’s working, the money’s not coming in, you’re scared and can’t sleep through the night for the panic attacks. Some people say meditate. Some people say take a few days off and relax. Some people say to practice gratitude.

There’s a tendency for the active practice of gratitude to be most enthusiastically espoused by unforgivably chipper self-help types with capped teeth and generically named spouses.

This morning, Craig and I were giving thanks for the lovely new vinyl siding and it just set such a wonderful tone for the whole day.

Still, it does help to acknowledge and be thankful for things. It does shift your mood. Even if they’re tiny things and you’re struggling to find them.

  • These shoes are comfortable
  • The plum blossoms are lovely
  • That cat looks like it has a mustache

And then the little things remind you of other things. Bigger things.

  • I haven’t gotten the flu or even a cold this winter
  • I like my coworkers
  • I get to live and work in the coolest place in the world
  • That cat seriously looked like it had a mustache

And maybe you’re still not happy today in the bigger picture. But maybe that’s OK. I’m OK, you’re OK, and even if your office is flooded in a freak gravy-shipping accident, still tomorrow morning the sun will rise.

Art Nouveau Chainsaw Cozy (2019 Begins)

Already the year is speeding along. Two weeks and change on the books, which isn’t all that much, but it’s enough to have gotten the feeling that this year will be different from last year, and in important ways.

If you set your intentions clearly, sometimes the path seems to emerge naturally under your feet. That is what seems to be happening right now. At least for the time being, the way forward seems clear enough. I know what I need to be working on, and I’m working on it. There’s a ton of work to do for the foreseeable future, but part of what I’m doing is building systems that will allow me to scale back my busyness later on.

Once the machine is running, it’s mostly a matter of maintenance. Building it is the hard part.

Most people shy away from building their own machine. They’d rather be a component in someone else’s machine. It’s less responsibility, less of a huge undertaking, and they still get some of the profit.

I’d much rather build my own, though. The machine I’m part of now is ancient, inefficient, and on the verge of falling to pieces from neglect and being unable to deal with the way conditions have changed. My replacement will be lightweight and agile, sleek and pretty.

Now back to wrenching.

№ 290 (Untethered)

This post originally appeared on a previous personal blog. I’m republishing it here with the original post date.

There is a large park near my apartment of which I am particularly fond. From the day I first discovered it, within weeks of moving to Tokyo, it was a place where I was automatically comfortable. It’s a place where I can go to be surrounded by big trees, hear some legitimate (if somewhat limited) sounds of nature, and occasionally meet a friendly stray cat. There’s a murder of crows that hangs out in the forest canopy above the fenced-off area where Shakujii castle stood eight hundred years ago, adjacent to Shakujiihikawa Shrine. A beautiful place given a spooky edge by the history of the place set against the eerie calls of the crows (and Japanese crows are decidedly spookier-sounding than their North American brethren). There are ample cherry blossoms in the spring and big toads in the underbrush on warm summer nights. When it rains, alien-looking flatworms emerge from the topsoil, bright yellow and strange.

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№ 289 (Somewhere in Between)

This post originally appeared on a previous personal blog. I’m republishing it here with the original post date.

I’ve tended to delete the dating apps after about three weeks, on average, then reinstall them roughly a week after that. It makes for a month-long cycle of being a sad guy, a lonely guy who’s somewhat motivated to try to meet people, a disillusioned guy who is pretty sure the whole thing is rigged (this is when the apps get deleted), and then a guy whose frustration with still being single overpowers the frustration with app-based dating and so it all begins again.

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№ 288 (To Muse on a Name)

Behind me, from left to right: Candy, Sarah, and Maggie.

This post originally appeared on a previous personal blog. I’m republishing it here with the original post date.

From late 2010 through early 2012, I lived in Taiwan and taught English in the Hsiaogang district of Kaohsiung. One particular day a few months into my job there, a little girl was introduced to my class, knowing no English and having no English name. In English class in some places, it is customary for a student to go by an English name, just as I went by Pedro in Spanish class throughout high school despite being named David in real life (this choice of name having to do with a comic in the back of Boy’s Life magazine in the ’80s). In any case, I was asked to give her an appropriate English name.

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№ 287 (Expat Memory)

This post originally appeared on a previous personal blog. I’m republishing it here with the original post date.

Early one morning in Korea, deep in a strange winter, wandering after a night out drinking. I was walking a friend home, and took her up a road she’d never been down before. We stopped halfway up a hill that was halfway a mountain, and on the hill was a temple. Set back from the road, shrouded in densely falling snow,  windows lit with a dim yellow light smoldering through the darkness, the darkness amplifying the sound of the chanting monks inside.

Sutra spreading outwards, like ripples in still water. As when a single berry falls in a quiet pond, in a silent forest. And there, in darkened morning, the words shook the snowflakes, writing the chants invisibly, on the ground where we stood, scrawled in cursive in the snow that piled around our ankles.

Months later, I stood in stillness, alone in the forest behind the temple and further up the hill, listening to a gentle rain filtering through the pine boughs and watching low clouds through a gap in the trees.

Following that flowing fog, witnessing it enveloping hills, swallowing whole neighborhoods. The contents of the valley dissolving, dematerializing as I stood inert while wondering if I, too, might so dissolve.

I remembered the monks chanting through the snow. I could feel the vibration, still resonating in the rocks and trees. The words had taken residence there. How many times had those sounds flowed through here? What knowledge had the trees come to possess? Had they the means, what could the bedrock tell me?

№ 286 (In Loving Memory)

Lura Emily “Pat” Smith

June 17, 1920—May 14, 2015

Today, my mother’s mother passed.I found out this morning, but in the night I woke up suddenly and felt that something had changed. I knew that she was gone. So when the news came this morning, it was hard to read but not a surprise. When we lost my grandfather (her husband) in my senior year of high school, I had a dream about him just before he died.

When both of my grandfathers died, I was a pallbearer and helped carry their caskets. When both of my grandmothers died, I was in another corner of the world, too far away to help. These are the only times I’ve ever truly felt far from home. I would like to have been able to carry them, too, if only to say goodbye and thank you.

When a woman is born, she is born with all of the egg cells she will carry. So when Lura Emily Smith gave birth to my mother, in some sense my sister and I were there as well, at least in part. I loved all of my grandparents very much. They were all wonderful people who helped me become who I am. I miss them all. Still, there’s something different this time. My mother’s mother was the last to go, and maybe the hardest to take.

She will be missed every bit as much as she was loved.