Gravity is not just a good idea, it’s the law


This last week I read Maximilian Werner’s Gravity Hill (University of Utah Press, 2013). I’m glad I did.

Although there are plenty of stories in the book about a young man growing up in Salt Lake City with other young people hungry for drugs and sex and courting dangers that are chilling and sometimes deadly, the book impressed me and will continue to engage me with its wisdom. At the time of writing the author/narrator is married and raising two children with all the care he failed to experience as a child. He knows what a family should not look like. He knows all parents are flawed and that many or even most still do what they can. He is clear about his own failings, determined to make good lives for his children.

Here an exemplary passage:

I cannot resist the presence of the past. But I try not to hang on to it, because if I did, it would be the end of me. I just let it flow over me like wind or something that cannot be held or kept.

The opposite is true with respect to my children. As much as I would sometimes like to do otherwise, I cannot let go. And maybe this will be enough to save us.

Another paragraph follows a description of advice his own mother gave him about things not to do before going to bed:

To my own list of things not to do before bed, which includes drinking a lot of water and eating a big meal, I would have to add deciding to put down my thirteen-year-old cat the next day. This last item has a corollary, which is how, in addition to dealing with my own feelings of loss, I am going to explain to my children the cat’s sudden and perpetual absence even as I hope they don’t realize that if the cat can disappear without notice, so can Kim and I.

He is going to lie, and he knows the lie better be good. For the good of the children.

A combination of the wild stories and the thoughtful parenting and perceptive descriptions of nature and language throughout that approaches poetry — all in the context of majority Mormon Salt Lake — made this a good book for me.

The thoughts about parents and parenting are troubling and comforting in ways that heighten my own hopes and worries as I think about my own roles in that regard.

In my own book, published three years later by the same press and the same good people as Werner’s, I describe parents who were present where Werner’s were absent, who gave us stability his did not. At our end of that spectrum, however, I experienced an orthodoxy and certainty and inflexibility that may have worked well for me, the first child, but that didn’t work so well for my gay brother.

And so when I lie awake at night, my worries are also about my children, about my abilities and disabilities as a parent, characteristics learned in part from my own parents. I am distant from my children in ways I don’t like, distance heightened by my decision to end the marriage while three of the children were still at home. That was a good decision and a bad decision, and in the night I mostly focus on the ways it was bad. Maximillian Werner’s book gives me comfort even as it unsettles me.

I’m grateful I read it.

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For Who Knows Where the Time Goes


This thin cloud above a heavy mass of clouds that adds a final range to the mountains that alternate with basins across Utah and Nevada, tickled my fancy.

Clouds have distinct forms, as Luke Howard knew when he named them early in the 19th century (cumulus or heap, cirrus or curl of hair, stratus or spread). Goethe, the scientist Goethe, was thrilled by the new classifications and Goethe, the poet Goethe, put the scientific classifications to verse in honor of Howard.

I admire Howard’s scientific observations and the genius of his system. I have spent years of my life reading and writing about Goethe’s works. His occasional poetry, like the ones describing Howard’s clouds, leaves me cold. I prefer Goethe’s and Howard’s drawings of clouds.

22-11-2013-goethe_orig [drawing by Goethe]

howard_anvil [drawing by Luke Howard]


Clouds are rough shapes, loose conglomerations, shifting shapes. They have form, but not fixed form. They are layered manifestations of moisture and wind. They are developing as I watch, different every second. They have no telos, no end and no arche, no beginning. If they achieve cumulus or stratus status they have achieved nothing. They simply are and then they are something else.

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. . . .” Clouds are windblown spirit, messengers of time, spirits of nature.


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Today began early as pink skies lured me out of bed.


I brewed coffee and sat on the deck with a cup. Early morning light. Good hot bitter coffee. The day ahead.

I left the house for a long walk — the walk I describe in detail in my essay “Walking the Body-Mind” (Saltfront, Spring 2017). An old, old woman was walking up the hill toward me, unsteady on two trekking poles. It was my neighbor, the neighbor who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro just a few years ago. We stopped and talked and I learned she had had a bad relapse of an earlier inexplicable condition and was trying to walk her way back to health. I left her and revised the riddle of the Sphinx: what goes on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and on four in the evening. And I saw my future.

Later in the walk I came across ten turkeys (the number a matter of fact rather than an excuse for alliteration). Ten wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), ten strutting rather than galloping turkeys. They cross the path in front of me and then drop into a copse of oakbrush, unhurried but appropriately wary. Ten heads peek over a little ridge, ten silver heads accented by triangular red flags under their chins. Bright black eyes, ten of them as they watch me from the side, note my passing.

A couple of days ago, at about the same place, a turkey hen crossed in front of me, followed closely by seven little turkeys about one-quarter her size (half the size of the little ones in this photo from a couple of years ago). A second hen is next in line, followed by three more little ones, all followed by a third hen. I approached where they had crossed the trail, thinking of the careful order, admiring the protective strategy . . . and at my feet one more little one breaks across the trail, an adventurous straggler.


Back home, showered, it was time to take our little cat Bella to the vet for a blood test to be sent to her dermatologist in Salt Lake. Yes, she has a dermatologist, without whose expertise Bella would have no fur. We know that by experience.

The vet’s office was bedlam. Every seat in the waiting room taken. Standing pet owners against every wall. Dogs and cats voicing their disquiet, their pain, their aggressions. After checking in, Bella and I find a corner. Time passes. A vet tech in bright orange follows a crying woman through a door, follows her through the waiting room and out to the parking lot, trying to explain something, trying to console the crying woman. Two men, obviously skinny father and skinny son, argue with the receptionist about a $90 bill while their undernourished, skinny-legged hound pisses on the floor and then squats to poop. The older man wears a shirt printed with pictures of the constitution and the statement, repeated 50 times: WE THE PEOPLE. The younger man wears a T-shirt that says DOES MY FLAG OFFEND YOU? CALL 1-800-LEAVE THE USA. $90! the older man says while his dog slips in its shit. For what? Should have never come here. The patriots leave. A woman with a mop and bucket cleans the floor. A vet-tech takes Bella for her blood test. He returns with her. I pay our bill: $89.90. We’re patriots too, I tell Bella. The woman still stands crying in the parking lot.

At home I write — the approximate biography of Zarko my task this week. I help Lyn re-pot a tall cactus. The afternoon stretches on. Bella throws up her dinner. We all three sit on the east deck and watch this evening’s clouds, patriots all.


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. . . evenly knotted barbed wire fences

A couple of weeks ago John Fowles, a former student of mine when I was teaching in the BYU Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages, wrote me from China, where he was on business. “I’ve been reading your ‘non-memoir’ Immortal for Quite Some Time,” he said, “and like it very much.” He had just read another book, The Black Penguin, by Andrew Evans, whom he had known at Oxford, and thought I might find it interesting.

I did.

Andrew Evans grew up in a large Mormon family in Ohio. He was bullied mercilessly in school. He loved geography passionately. He was a foreign-exchange student in France. He served an LDS mission in Ukraine. He was a student at BYU, where the institutional bullying was intense. He studied at Oxford, where he met the man who would eventually become his husband. He was excommunicated by the Mormons, whose community he desired. He approached National Geographic with a proposal to travel from Washington D.C. by a series of busses to Antartica, documenting his journey through social media. They liked the idea and the lively account of the precarious trip forms the narrative backbone of the book.

The Black Penguin was a window for me into the experiences and feelings of a gay Mormon. I had written about my gay brother John, also a Mormon, and had done so as well as I could. But as a straight man, I was an outsider to much of the life he led. Andrew Evans filled some of the gaps.

Evans was remarkably open with his ecclesiastical leaders about his desire for intimacy with men rather than with women. At BYU those leaders were remarkably ready to cure him of those desires: “You can start by lowering your voice. . . . And change the way you walk. Men walk tall and proud, head up, shoulders out. . . . If you start acting like a real man, then you’ll become a real man.” His art major, the Bishop advises, will surround him with homosexuals. Still awkwardly between his desire and his belief in the truth of the Mormon gospel, he becomes a geography major. None of this works, of course, and he has his first sexual experiences with a ballet dancer.

He ends up in a Vice President’s office who threatens to expel him and freeze his transcripts so they won’t transfer. That’s option A. But the kind man has a second option: “First, you will attend reparative therapy. We have a whole team of professionals who have been quite successful in correcting same-sex attraction.” Evans knows students who had agreed to such treatment and who were made to throw up while watching gay porn or who were shocked with electrodes attached to their genitals. Second, he is forbidden to associate with homosexuals. “Finally, you must write down a list of names of each and every homosexual you know on campus.” Evans reflects on the impossibility of this: “One page was not enough—there were hundreds, probably thousands, of gay students at BYU, some closeted and most of them terribly repressed. The vice president had to know that, didn’t he? But no—he didn’t. He thought he could weed us out like cockroaches on the kitchen floor.” It is an impossible choice. Evans agonizes. He is gay. He has friends who are gay. He has almost earned a college degree. He doesn’t want to be a victim or a martyr. “And so I picked up the piece of paper, set it on the desk, and began to write.”

Never, never have I read a sentence like that. It is an absolutely damning admission. Whose names did he write? Whose lives did he put in jeopardy? Whose trust did he betray?

Then my focus changes. Who sits in a seat of power and forces a young man to make a decision like that? An evil man serving an evil system. Goddamn both the man and the system.

There is a scene later in the book when a mostly sympathetic Bishop in England who has called Evans to be the primary chorister is required by Church leaders in Salt Lake to call him in and ask if he is a pedophile and then, again on their command, to release him from the position.

The stories are heartbreaking. The tensions arise because Evans is so intimately connected to the Church, because he loves it and its people, because he is a believer. Other than his relationship with the man he will marry and sweetly call “honey” in the book, he is a Mormon, wants to be a Mormon, practices as a Mormon. And the bastards ask if he is a pedophile and ultimately excommunicate him in a goddamned “court of love.”

Near the end of his harrowing journey, riding a bus across a thousand-mile stretch of the Pampas of Argentina, Evans says

“I saw my own childhood in the landscape—I imagined the awkward school dances, the ticking hours in church pews, and the family expectations to grow up and be as vacant and fertile as the land, framed only by evenly knotted barbed wire fences.”

And I end my account here, grateful for The Black Penguin, with a passage from nineteenth-century barbed wire advertising: “It watches with argus eyes the inside and outside, up, down and lengthwise; it prevents the ‘ins’ from being ‘outs’; and the ‘outs’ from being ‘ins’; watches at day-break, at noontide, at sunset and all night long.”


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I was visiting a friend in Salt Lake’s Intermountain LDS Hospital yesterday. Despite his chemotherapy and despite the tubes attached to him, we had a good conversation about poetry and clouds and food and other things. Leaving the hospital, I stepped into 100-degree heat and into a complex situation.

A skinny man wearing only a hospital gown and hospital booties and trailing an oxygen tube was surrounded by three hospital security officers with hand-held radios, a policeman, and four hospital attendants wearing scrubs. They kept their distance from the escapee, who held an unlit cigarette in one hand. He approached an officer and asked if she had a light. No, sir, I don’t have a light, she said. He waved the cigarette in the air, turned and started down the sidewalk, followed, at a respectful distance, by his attendants. The sun beat down on him and his boney knees and his wild white hair and his scantily covered flesh. He turned into a tiny park with three benches. He approached a man sitting on one of them, gestured with his cigarette, and the man offered him a light. He sat down on a bench and satisfied his desire.

I drove away thinking about freedom and desire.


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The Perfect Fence / Intimate Fences


I’ve been thinking about this photo for several years as we have written about the meanings of barbed wire.

Our original title was Intimate Fences, borrowed from a haunting story by Annie Proulx. The story is about an old man who has been trying to escape the decay that comes with aging (he rides an exercycle) who returns to the Wyoming ranch he fled as a young man. He remembers the “intimate” barbed wire fences he constructed to ranch profitably and to protect himself from the alcoholism and overt sexuality of his father and his lascivious girlfriend. No fences remain taut, of course, and fences extract their own costs.

The editors at Texas A&M University Press convinced us to change the title to a phrase from early advertising: The Perfect Fence. As conflicted as barbed wire is — and any fence used in the conquest of the American West and to control animals through pain is deeply conflicted — the fence became ubiquitous throughout the West, including in Colorado, where the photo was taken.

This looks like a good fence, its wires taut and the stile that allows the fisherwoman to cross in good shape. She looks happy, even proud of herself in this moment. Despite her dress, she is out in the hills with a long fishing rod in the company of whomever is holding the camera. By means of the stile she can cross a fence meant to control cattle and horses. By means of her adventuresome spirit she crosses at least some of the gendered fences meant to keep women at home and in town. At least that’s how I see this scene.

We didn’t end up using this photo for our book. But I didn’t want to waste it. And so here it is.

Corrected page proofs sent back yesterday. Publication scheduled for November 1.


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Immortal for Quite Some Time — Time Moves On

Yesterday would have been my brother John’s 66th birthday. June 3rd. Since 1991 that date has been a reminder to me, an occasion to reflect again on fraternity and loss. Yesterday passed without a thought.

Today, writing about my friend and co-author Zarko Radakovic for our third book, I wrote the following:

I look across the deck to where Žarko alternately overlooks the valley and writes in his notebook. For years he used Waterman fountain pens. This one is a stylish Caran d’Ache. I buy my pens twelve for $10. Žarko’s gaze jumps from Utah Lake to Mt. Timpanogos to the alfalfa field 200 meters below us. His mind wears seven-league boots. My mind turns to my brother’s apartment after his death. One side of a cardboard box had holes where John had cut out the shapes of his feet to line his work shoes. I framed the cardboard, backed the holes with Miroslav Mandić’s drawings of feathery, grassy, and pebbly feet, traces of his poetic pilgrimage from Yugoslavia to Hölderlin’s grave in Tübingen. I break into Žarko’s reverie and ask if Mandić was part of the group with Era and him in Belgrade?

No, he answers, his pen still poised above his notebook, he was from Novi Sad, part of a group, mostly poets, who worked conceptually. They still see themselves as the origin of conceptualism in Yugoslavia. That’s absurd. We were all in the same boot, a boot that sank, as is well known. In Belgrade we were all visual artists, except for me, although I did that one piece you have seen in my flat: Medex. Typed it with my ancient typewriter. It was for our performance #1, 1971, at the Belgrade International Theater Festival.

            I remember the piece of concrete poetry well, an extended hexagon fashioned by the letters med running horizontally, and, down the center, a vertical line. At the top and from the right side two sharp pointed swarms of “z”s enter or leave what strikes me as a hive.


            Bees? I ask.

Yes, Žarko answers. I also wrote a poem about insects called “Events in a Dark Chamber.” Era was author of the performance piece called “Medex,” although it was a collective effort. We lived together in a creative commune in apartment number 10 b in Ljube Didića street. Three of us had studied literature together. Miodrag Vuković, one of the greatest Serbian-Montenegrin writers of my generation—he and I wrote some poems together; Nebojša Janković, now a journalist in Canada; and I. Era Milivojević joined us. He was already an artist of note, together with Marina Abramović who went on to stardom in New York. Medex was a Yugoslavian company that produced honey and honey products. Their motto was “good and healthy products” and we used that in the performance. The four of us were bees that produced honey.

The framed footprints hang in my study:


But the fact remains that I didn’t think about John yesterday. Is that because the publication of the book I worked on for 25 years is now in the past? Time passes. Memories dim. There are new urgencies. Responsibilities for the living. My son Tom’s birthday is tomorrow. My daughter Maren’s was on June 20th.

I myself, like John, am only immortal for quite some time.

post script:

. . . it was even worse than I thought. I am far enough removed from remembering John’s birthday that I didn’t remember until July 4th, when I wrote it was yesterday, June 3rd. I think I’ll plead the July heat for the “yesterday” slip.


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I’m writing a biography, of sorts, of Zarko Radakovic. Fragments of biography. Flights of fancy interspersed with passages from my notebooks. Reading through a notebook I filled on a trip to Alsace and Paris (in Paris I met Zarko and Anne and we visited Julije Knifer and then Peter Handke), I found these renderings of a Saint I had never heard of:



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Zarko’s Notebook/My Notebook

The previous two posts featured Alex’s notebook and Peter Handke’s notebook .

Now Zarko’s notebook with spaces left for drawings by Nina Pops:


As I work on my half of our book “We: A Friendship,” I leaf through my own notebooks and find pages like this one, written and sketched while I was in the Orkney Islands looking at stone circles:


You see better with paper and pen in hand.

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Peter Handke: Drawings from Notebooks

After posting some pages from Alex’s three new books I found this current exhibition of drawings from Peter Handke’s notebooks at the Galerie Klaus Gerrit Friese in Berlin. Both authors draw and write and write and draw. Neither is a trained artist. Both are superb writers. Both draw as interestingly as they write.

First a photo of the gallery owner, Sophie Semin Handke, and Peter, with drawings along the wall:


Then several of the drawings:





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