Limericks for 2017

I’ve been posting a series of limericks (and maybe will add some other short comic poems — clerihews, anyone?) over at Unholy Screeds, a blog I run with my friend Cecilia Lushington (not her real name).  Check them out for some comic relief in Trump’s America — and send your own if you’d like to try your hand!


On Hospitality. A Manifesto.


Do not expect reciprocity. Open your home in an attitude of non-expectation. Try not to hope.

This state is impossible for human beings. Recognize this impossibility and forgive yourself for your desire.

Yet continue to strive. Turn yourself inside out as much as you can. Strain toward the perfection of absolute giving as a horizon, an asymptote.

Things you could give away that you might not have thought of: your couch. The suit you were married in. Extra pens you have lying around. Your undivided attention. A kidney.

But be wary of potlatch and all forms of competition. If a friend doesn’t want your kidney then don’t embarrass him by pressing.

Recognize that there are limits to the concept of hospitality, which is based on the notion that my home is separate from yours. Hospitality is a modern invention and the bailiwick of the middle class; the mansions of the nobility were open by fiat to the state, to soldiers, to ghosts, to the gentle nosiness of Mr and Mrs Gardiner and the dreamy rapacity of Elizabeth Bennett. Only those who are not forced to billet soldiers or admit vampires can be said to extend hospitality. Consider whether you think hospitality is enough.

Some examples of hospitality include: Everything Winnie-the-Pooh does. A bunch of episodes in The Odyssey. Lots of stuff from the Bible.

Some examples of non-hospitality: Polyphemus (don’t eat your guests, even if they were not invited). The Lotus-Eaters (allow your guests to leave when they want to). Circe (do not transform your guests into beasts). Odysseus and the suitors (however, also a grey area). Come to think of it, The Odyssey is pretty ambivalent about hospitality.

Hospitality should be invisible. If you make a big deal about how generous you are and how open your home, you undermine the whole enterprise. One of the best things Miss Manners ever advised was what to do if your guest accidentally drinks the contents of her finger bowl: immediately pick up your own finger bowl and down it.

Yet do not hide your light under a bushel simply to make others comfortable. Fakery of any kind is counter to the spirit of hospitality.

When friends tell you that they can’t return your hospitality because your cooking is too delicious or the paintings on your walls are too beautiful and they feel ashamed, understand that they’re being ridiculous. Forgive them and love them for being ridiculous.

Invite them over again soon and serve them a terrine of pressed butterfly wings in rosewater aspic. Feed them by hand.

Let them doze off on the couch, then depart your house as quietly as you can.  Leave the keys on the front hall table. Take up residence in their tiny apartment and fall in love with their cruel cats and enjoy their tinned vegetables and stare at their framed movie posters until they move you to tears. Make a new furrow in their mattress. Forget your own name.

Sick Bed


Today I rise from it, or at least this is the plan.

I turn my head—not slowly or gingerly—to regard
the midden of balms and anodynes
that is my bedside table.

Their fundamental efficacy is in doubt,
but one must do something.
At the very least they compose a curious collage
suitable as a focal object of meditation.

I remember other bedside tables
covered with other bottles and tubes.
And my dread of the hand
coming to clear them away: the fuzzy
half-sucked lozenges stuck to screws of wax paper,
the stiff wads of Kleenex like strewn lotuses,
the Robitussin bottle with its encaustic of sticky drips.
A book of some kind,
a puzzle, a pen,
a stuffed animal with implacable eyes.

What they bore witness to:
the deep pleasure of the bed
and of the soreness of muscles not used much in days,
the langour of long shadowy afternoons spent staring down
ghosts in the corner of the chamber.

There comes a point when one’s head has swelled
nearly to the parameters of the room,
hair glued to the forehead with sweat,
the point when a cool hand, delicious,
wipes the hair away
and all there ever has been or ever will be
is this forehead and this hand.

But sentimentality has no permanent place
here anyhow.
The hand remains cool in its detritus-clearing
does not waver over its tasks
or the brisk plumpings and smoothings it has come here to do.

It is time to rise up!
The cruelty of all clarion calls
can be heard deep in the brassy command.
No one cares any longer about the ache or the damp hair
or the bottomless need to sink
into the hollow
of the mattress.

It seems as though all caring has come to an end,
forever, and the hand on the forehead is one’s own.
The stuffed animal is gone
but the ghosts are still here.

It is days before garbage pickup
and the Kleenex lotuses, swept into the kitchen bin,
will still be visible for a time
before they’re pulled under the surface
then wilt then wither in the airless dark.


Flow, Baby, Flow


The difference between these two strips fascinates me. I think we all know what it feels like to completely lose ourselves in absorbing work or play, to the point where time has no meaning and the need to eat, drink, and pee starts to seem like the greatest possible nuisance. (This is where the Skittles-and-Diet-Coke dinner comes in.) But what makes the difference between emerging from a three-day haze after a marathon writing or coding or animated-film-making session vs. cutting damp rainbow candy out of your hair after losing a whole weekend to Super Mario Brothers? The psychological concept of “flow,” which purports to explain these periods of intense mental absorption, doesn’t capture the distinction between Good and Evil flow, between a warm happy feeling plus a completed article on Jane Eyre and a horrifying 7,674-item browser history.

Here is where it would make sense for me to talk more about the theory of “flow.” Since I know that one of my chief tools of procrastination is internet research — I spent nearly two hours tracking down, downloading, and scanning those two Doonesbury strips — I’m going to just go ahead and paste part of the Wikipedia entry on flow rather than presenting a scholarly portfolio of peer-reviewed citations it would take me three days to compile: “In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, [Mihaly] Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption … a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter…. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill — and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.* *Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.” [1]

See: nothing about Evil flow. In my experience, Evil flow is equally characterized by a “feeling of great absorption [and] engagement” in which temporal concerns are ignored. But it is also characterized, later, by sickening regret, a feeling of lost time, intense shame, and intransigent mortality. Let me hasten to clarify: I don’t think that the difference between Evil flow and Good flow is about whether one is left with a product or merely be-Skittled hair at the end of the session. It is entirely possible to feel a warm happy glow after a day of something “non-productive” like playing tennis or reading a novel or baking a cake, just as it’s possible to feel the clammy hands of death at one’s throat after producing 3,000 words of lucid prose.

While it is true that the two categories often track onto one another — Good = Stuff; Evil = Waste — those equivalences are both the manifestation of superego and an epiphenomenon of capitalism. What interests me more is the phenomenological difference: surely something must be going on during Evil flow other than internalized self-loathing. I contend that the actual experience is different, not just the affective outcome. “Evil flow” isn’t enjoyable; it’s compulsive. One of its distinctions is self-recrimination, but I honestly think that has more to do with a sense of non-enjoyment than with non-“productivity.” It is sadistic, and emanates from the realm of the death drive rather than the realm of the pleasure principle — and as such, it is also characterized by self-destructive repetition. We are so often at odds with our own best interests.

My beloved life partner suggests that the distinction is one of value: we feel good after spending time on things we value and not so much when we don’t. I agree completely, but this leaves two central questions unanswered: why does “flow,” broadly conceived, even happen when we are doing things we do not value? Why do we lose track of time and our caloric intake when we’re absorbed in an empty, unrewarding activity just as much as when we’re in an “optimal state of intrinsic motivation”? But more importantly, what determines what we value to begin with? Perhaps flow, in both its “good” and “evil” forms, holds the key to answering this second question; maybe we should track the flow in order to find out what we value, instead of the other way around. “Our desires cut across one another, and in this confused existence it is rare for happiness to coincide with the desire that clamoured for it.” [2]

As with so many things, only psychoanalysis and literature really speak about this distinction. And, of course, Doonesbury.

[1] (God, the writing on Wikipedia is abysmal. I elided the most egregious repetitions, but even so. Normally I advise students to stay away from the thesaurus, but I would prefer a misused “stipulation,” “contingency,” or “sovereignty” in place of one or two of those “state”s.)

[2] Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove.