Friday, July 26, 2013


I woke up this morning saying, Ego was I, ere I saw Elba. "Ego" is probably as true as "able" although it ruins the palindrome. And I love Ego the character on Ratatouille. He is arrogant and full of himself but I don't think his problem is ego. His point of view about food is that there is a right way and a wrong way to cook--but the actual cooking, the rightness and the wrongness, isn't about him. He comes around to liking Remi the rat's food not because he was wrong but because he was right, even though he cast aspersions upon the slogan "anyone can cook." Good food is good food. Ego didn't change his entire perspective, he just focused it a little harder, honed in.

I've been thinking a lot about ego lately. You have to think about it when a book comes out and you want it to do well and you only have your email and your Facebook to try to help it do well. You do things like check the stats on Amazon and Google yourself far too often. You remember back your image on the cover of a magazine and you loved the emails coming in asking you to visit and give talks and submit writing and then in the summer, no one is really emailing and not much is going on and there is this vast gorilla at your kitchen table looking at you like, well, this is boring. What should we do now for fun? Let's get us some attention!

At some point, the gorilla starts making so much noise, beating on his chest, that you realize what he is. He is ego and you is he.

I was watching The Buddha on PBS.  Jane Hirschfield and W.S. Merwin were interviewees. They each had the most beautiful skin. I wanted that skin but to get that skin, they kept telling me on the program, I would have to give up wanting the skin. I would have to give up skin itself. I would have to give up the I. And maybe the you.

Converted by PBS, I have been thinking. I get into little snits--sometimes with other people, mostly in my mind. But these snits are not pleasant.
Here are some examples: person in gigantic SUV leaves car idling in parking lot. I mutter under my breath about the planet being just slightly bigger than their car. Maybe they could leave that idling. But the truth is, they don't hear me. I'm just muttering. They might get a bad vibe off me but I haven't done anything except make myself feel better and more self-righteous. The complaint is all ego, no "activism." Really, I'm just being a jerk.

Another example: Erik and I got into a snit when he said about the Tupperware, "It's impossible to find a lid in here. man, someone has to go through this." and I got all mad because I go through it all the time, it's the most organized Tupperware drawer in the land! How could he say such a thing? And it is a fine Tupperware drawer but what am I really mad about? My ego. My drawer. My organization. All this my and I.

Another example: Not wanting my kids to get any bigger. This is perfect. I want to enjoy every minute. Slow down and come cuddle. It's true. I am wistful. But it's all ego. My kids want to get bigger. Time itself is a bad enemy. You wil never win.

Another: My sisters. Why do they get to take pictures of each other on bicycles without me? Ego. They are happy on their bikes, together in Twin Falls.

Another little back and forth with Erik: "This is the highest water year since 1919," I argue. "So far," he says. "That's what I meant," I said. "But that's what I said," he said. And the he saids, she saids go on forever. Who cares? I dig in deep with my ego-shovel and don't come back out.

Another: I said something nice about one friend's kids in front of another. I spend a night agonizing that I didn't say nice things about those other friend's kids too. Oh my God, Nicole. Who cares? She's your friend. No one is keeping score about the things you say in the afternoon and tossing and turning over the in the middle of the night except you. They have their own brains. Why should they trouble themselves with yours.

Another: The runner behind me who passes me. The author with the NY Times spread. My friend on NPR. Ego ego ego.

I don't imagine I'm going to make it fully Buddhist here but I do think that self-confidence is the other side of ego and that if you have a lot of the former, you don't need to have so much of the latter. Ego is like a big bubble that proceeds you as you go into to the world. It protects you from the truth that really, not much in the world is about you. But it also keeps a lot of the world away from you because you get into snits about Tupperware and no one wants to hear about your Tupperware drawer.

No one cares about your Tupperware drawer. That can be a lonely place where no one cares about your Tupperware but that doesn't mean they don't care about you. Your place in the Tupperware Hall of Fame might be permanently on hold, but the fact that there are people in your house, talking to you, is a better end of the deal.

I thought when first thinking of writing this post that I would argue that you need a bit of ego to write. Some hubris that someone who is not in the room does care about what you have to say. But I am going to go re-read Jane Hirschfield's Nine Gates to see how does one still imagine audience (like the Tupperware, an imagined audience is the person who is putting you in the Hall of Fame--probably your mother) without starting with ego. (Who will read this? Who?) One of the hardest things I learned about writing was caring how it works on a reader. Will report back when I figure this out).

As I work through this and try to reorient my thinking about the ego, as I try to grasp that Erik did not leave his towel on the bed because he has no respect for my towels but because he has no respect for towels (the my has nothing to do with it), I will have to cut myself some slack so not getting so worked up about trying to get rid of ego that I think I have it all figured out and then get a new ego about how good I got at getting rid of ego.

P.S. Zoe just asked, why are you so good at typing. Trying not to get all full of ego about my mad typing skills. Moving past ego is a process. A journey. It probably never ends.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wild Life

Erik's parents live about a mile south of us, just one road over. Unlike our house, which backs another, theirs backs the forest. The other night while we were barbecuing at their house, their neighbor came over to say he had seen a black bear in their backyard. Someone called Fish and Game but the neighbor just wanted to watch the bear. He gave him some cherries (probably bad idea?) and watched as the bear climbed a snag in Erik's parent's backyard.
I asked the neighbor if he'd ever seen a bear there before. He had seen another one a couple of years before. And, while out walking in the forest, he ran into a mountain lion. I had heard they were around but I guess it's not until you're standing close enough to someone that he can point and show you where he saw the mountain lion do you really believe it.
So, when I'm running in the forest now, I keep my eyes out for mountain lions. And for bears. I would say I'm about 4 anxious on a scale from 1 to 10 about running into some big wild life.

But for Zoe's birthday party, on Tuesday, her actual birthday, from 4-6 at the Starlite bowling alley, I was 9 anxious. I do not know exactly why I don't like hosting kids' birthday parties. I love to host parties at my house for grown ups. I think it has something to do with the venue. Each party place is different but they all seem to have a limit of 8 kids or then the price doubles. About half the people RSVP and about half of Max's friends come too. So I have no idea if it's going to be 8 or more or how much pizza to order and how many giftbags to stuff full of colored pencils and candy. Are the parents going to stay? Are the cupcakes going to melt? How long will it take me to make a vegetable tray from which exactly no kids will take a vegetable?

Fortunately, thanks to Erik and my friends who stayed and my in-laws who abandoned their bear-visiting house to help, it all worked out. The little kids were just one team on the bowling docket. The good bowlers helped the I-have-never-bowled-before bowlers. The pizza came. It got eaten. Zoe ate a carrot to appease me. Max played in the arcade. The bowling alley has a bar that had very bad wine for me to drink. It was, in the end, the best kids' party yet.

I hope this alleviates some anxiety, kicks it down to a 5 or so. Next year, Max turns four and I'm afraid he'll want a bowling party too.

Today, after much much micro essay writing, genre breaking essay writing and grant "final report" writing, rain barrel buying, and, now that the parties are over, I'm feeling pretty relaxed. As relaxed as the two deer that are lying in my backyard under the Ponderosa tree, as if there's not a bear or a cougar in the world.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What is a weekend? What is a summer?

These are the ontological questions fo our time. Erik keeps saying that the hasn't had a day off for 40 days if you include his 11 days to China to film for work, the scraping of Max's ceiling, the painting of that room and the installation of that molding, the working with Robin on the Jewish Festival film and the reorganization of that garage. To wit, I say in response, I haven't had a day off since I was pregnant with Zoe but I shouldn't be flip because when I'm flip that means my workload gets upped a notch. When Erik works on the big remodeling projects, the small house projects fall upon me. Cleaning out the gutters. Raking the pine needles. Cleaning the utility room. As he caulks the baseboards, I scrub the front and side deck on my knees. I wash the car. I take out the garbage and the recycling. I open the wine.
I'm very tired. Perhaps not as tired as Erik, I didn't try to throw in a couple of 20 hour flights in there or a 40-hour-a-week job, but tired nonetheless.

It is all toward the good, I guess. It's summer and all school year long I have no time for utility room cleaning or stuff to thrift store taking or deck scrubbing (if you recall last year, I got the coveted job of painting the underside of the deck). I look forward to having the time to do the extra stuff but I do not think that when one dreams of summer break this is the stuff those dreams are made of. Plus, my 40-hour a week job is supposedly to write for 40 hours a week. I keep thinking I'll write for 8 hours straight but after I put the laundry away and empty the dishwasher and deadhead the geraniums I really, really just want to lie in the sun. But the monsoons came today so instead of lying in the sun or writing too much in a document format, I wrote here in the blogspace and spent an inordinate time on Facebook which is its own kind of writing and its own kind of gutter clearing and thus makes it feel a little bit like summer. Thank you blog. Thank you Facebook.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

James Agee's and Walker Evan's book is one of the best books I've ever read. It's also the book, next to Tina Fey's Bossypants, that I'm the least likely to finish. This book does everything I want to do in my Microproject--focus on an organism's small adaptations to their environmental challenge. In this case, the organism is the tenant farmer in 1936. James Agge's microscopic attention to these farmer's circumstances is as wondrous as it is meticulous and yet, as it sometimes also is, tedious. The first part of the book is wild, but not so wild as to distance the reader. Agee explains his ambition for the book. He recognizes its weirdness. He talks to the reader. He calls the wild and the weirdness "curious." "I spoke of this piece of work we were doing as 'curious.' I had better amplify this." He writes. "It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of 'honest journalism' (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money..." This self-consciousness, coupled with Agee's respectfulness, carries him far into the reader's attention span and far into the lives of these lives he so thoroughly puts on display. In order to satisfy his notion of honesty and reality, Agee does not objectively describe these peoples' clothes, houses, foods, sex lives. He describes them in complete detail. The honorable story is nothing less than the whole story. The whole story includes the amount of money the farmer makes each month and how much he pays back to his landlord, the lack of planing on the boards on the porch, the number and style of castiron pans hanging on the kitchen while, the number of unfinished sewing projects in a drawer, the clippings of advertisements from magazines of products that these families will never afford. Hundreds of pages of honorable detail.

Not a mote of dust goes unremarked upon. The fireplace that falls down. The stain on the pillows that suggest urine but Agee knows is only the manner in which sweat stains cotton. The lumpiness of beds. The distance between the dirt floor and the wood floor of the house. Agee knows that to create any sense of 'reality' every element of that reality has to be displayed. And yet, even he wonders if in any way he can accurately portray anything with words. What he says the camera, "solves simply" (208), he regrets the complication of words: "But it must be added of words that they are the most inevitably inaccurate of all mediums of records and communication," (209). But still he piles word upon word in this 390 page portrayal of three tenant families. Walker Evans records these same families with his simple solution, the camera. Why doesn't Agee just let Evans' photos do the talking, if they're so successful in solving the problem of accuracy.

But maybe accuracy isn't what Agee's really going for. Perhaps the minutia aren't rendered detail for detail in an attempt to get it right. Agee's spins the detail through his opinionated lens, giving the detail context and texture. Reality is one thing. An argument about the cruelty of this life is another. The tiny detail-as-list isn't the point. The tiny detail-as-argument is. A detail isn't objective in words as it may be in silver. Some of the plainer assertions are still that, assertions: "They yellow and green checked oilcloth is worn thin and through at the corners and along the edges of the table and along the ridged edges of boards in the table surface, and in one or two places, where elbows have rested a great deal, it is rubbed through in a wide hole" (159). "The iron bed is so weak in its joints that Woods has nailed it into the wall" (167). But sometimes the assertions turn to full blown argument about the house and the understood purpose of the house. "It is put together out of the cheapest available pine lumber, and the least of this is used which shall stretch a skin of one thickness alone against the earth and air; and this is all done according to one of the three or four simplest, stingiest, and thus most classical plans contrivable, which are all traditional to that country: and the work is done by half-skilled, half-paid men under no need to do well, who therefore take such vengeance on the world as they may in a cynical and part willful apathy; and this is what comes of it: Most naive, most massive symmetry and simpleness" (126). The house itself, plank by plank, suffers from being written-off, even before the house is built. In a book about write-offs, even the sawdust must be written. Someone needs to see it or it doesn't even exist. "I lie where I lay this dawn.) If I were not here; and I am alien; a bodyless eye; this would never have existence in human perception" (165).

The "I" is important here. The writer's discomfort with his own position, with his own subjective eyesight, with his own body interfering in the matter at hand, which, were at not at hand would be no matter, makes his attempt to get every detail right feel like it's a desperate one. "I am being made witness to matters no human being may see" (120) or "Make no mistake in this, though: I am under no illusion that I am writing this piece of experience dry. or do I even want to wring it dry. There are reasons of time, judgement and plain desire or, if you like, whim" (214). Agee is conflicted. Honored to be welcomed by this family. In tune with the hew of the house. In love with the way these people manage, despite, despite, despite. ""The lucky situation of joy, this at least illusion of personal wholeness or integrity, can overome one suddenly by any one of any number of unpredictable changes: the fracture of sunlight on the facade and traffic of a street; the sleaving up of chimneysmoke; the rich lifting of the voice of a train along the darkness; the memory of a phrase of an inspired trumpet; the odor of scorched cloth, of a car's exhaust, of a girl, of pork, of beeswax of on iron," (200) Of of of of he goes on. It's not just in the details that he makes an argument that this life sucks hard. He also makes a pretty good argument that there's joy to be found everywhere. The details aren't aesthetic signposts. They are maps to life--joy and horror--itself.

I wonder as I do not read every single word of the book, when it's late at night and I am making one page of progress on the book at night, if I am missing something. I am and I am not. The book is making me realize, by length and detail and time spent reading, that I will live this book, maybe the rest of my life, which is the point, I think of the minutia. Not reality but perspected life.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Goodreads Giveaway


    Goodreads Book Giveaway


        Quench Your Thirst with Salt by Nicole Walker



          Quench Your Thirst with Salt

          by Nicole Walker


            Giveaway ends August 03, 2013.
            See the giveaway details
            at Goodreads.

      Enter to win

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Thirty-five dollars of English Peas

This has been a weird summer. I guess all summers are weird. The weirdest summers are usually the best and this one has some things going for it. I went to Utah in June. June is nice there. It smells like jasmine or maybe roses. Flowers. We have pine fresh scent here in Flag but not perfume. Mr. Clean instead of Chanel No. 5. It was both cold and hot in Salt Lake so it felt like both spring and summer. There were fresh peas there although not in the quantities I had hoped. There were cherries and peaches although not as good as I remember them being when I lived there now 7 years ago. I'm pretty sure my grandma took all the good peaches with her when she died last year. But there were peas.

On the drive home from Salt Lake, Zoe, Max, and I shelled and ate peas for two hours. A good distraction from the 8 hour drive.

Back in Flagstaff, we usually go to music in the park but we've had plans on Wednesdays. Not music in the park plans. That is weird. For 3 years running, we didn't miss many and now, we've missed them all. We'd go today but the monsoons started yesterday. It rained. 1.87 inches at the airport--a record. Not at our house, but still. Lots of rain.

Speaking of rain, usually I sit on the deck and write all summer long although I'm pretty sure that's a myth since last year, we remodeled the deck. This year, there was too much wind to sit outside happily and now it's already wet. I'm not sure what year it was I wrote all summer long but that was a weird year too. Today, there are some neighbors rebuilding their deck very loudly which makes me not want to write at all. Even this typing seems precarious. Maybe it will rain and they will have to go inside (I am inside. Typing with the windows open. Hoping that we beat yesterday's record today. So far, only a few drops.)

Last year, I did find peas in Flagstaff at New Frontiers. I only bought one pound of them. Thus far this summer, I've bought seven pounds. At $4.99/lb, that's kind of a big expenditure but perhaps the best thing I've spent money on this year. Max and Zoe and I ate another pound just an hour ago. It's definitely near the end of pea season but maybe I can afford one more pound.

I've given up trying to afford organic blueberries. I like to eat, with Max and Zoe, a pound of blueberries a day. At $3.00/lb, I can afford this. At $3.99/pint--which is what they are at New Frontiers--not so much. Here's to hoping the good stuff in the blueberries trumps the pesticides.

Erik came home from China with some nice jade animals for the kids and an embroidered picture of panda bears that an artist at the top of the Great Wall stitched right before him. I have not had an embroidered picture of a panda before. I told him not to buy too many gifts when he was there because I don't want to support the ivory industry--Jade carvers and panda bear picture embroiderers I hope are immune to the ivory craze. I'm grateful for my pandas.

I'm not getting much writing done. Like zero. Less than during the school year. I blame the teaching and the book promotion and the end-of-the-school year business that doesn't seem to end. But there are these little blueberry and pea eaters running around who pretend to take naps but really would like to know what we're going to do for fun next and we haven't been to the concert in the park yet this summer so I think it's time for me to pack up our concert in the park snacks and go. It won't rain too much. Or it will. Either way, it will probably be fine even if a little weird and a little wet.