I am doing a scientific study to test the following hypotheses:
- I am always happier if I write something before bed, even if it’s just a sentence.
- It is always a good idea to wake up and go to the farmer’s market.
Some questions I hope to answer in the course of this experiment: Is writing in the morning as useful to me as writing at night? If it’s raining and I go to the farmer’s market, will I get the same jolt of pleasure or will I simply get wet?
Writing a sentence before bed is better than writing nothing. A sentence is progress.
I write a sentence before bed and that inevitably turns into many sentences. A paragraph, maybe a page. Sometimes there are many pages. I may get a third of the way down a single page and conclude that my brain has taken on the consistency of apple sauce.
I usually start writing in a notebook while sitting on my couch because it’s warmer on my couch and I’m sleepy. The orange blanket sheds its fuzz on my tie-dye leggings and Olive tries to thwart me by gnawing my pen.
A previous experiment proves without a doubt that I am never as prolific writing on the couch as I am on an Amtrak train. Another prior study suggests that no amount of caffeine will make me prolific on the couch. Each of these studies concluded that I am more efficient and creative when I’m uncomfortable, yet habit drags me yawning to the couch with my notebook. I’m a creature of habits, mostly bad ones.
So why do I write before bed? Mornings are for drudgery. I write first thing in the morning, too, but it’s like swallowing huge, bitter vitamins. I do it because I think I might need the vitamins. Don’t all good writers wake up early and empty their heads? I often wonder how they have any synapses firing before eleven AM, because I certainly don’t.
(Another study concludes that sometimes when you need to make yourself do something, it is helpful pretend you are a French spy in hiding and that your life is constantly on the line.)
But everyone knows that mornings are for drudgery and nights are for lunacy, super moons, forbidden desires, ritualistic naked dancing in the enchanted forest, and essentially everything that is pleasant in life. At night my heart beats faster and I’m a little drunk on my own tiredness. I immensely enjoy my own company. In the morning, I often fall back asleep entwined with an unwilling cat.
Studies show that showering, like writing, is only good at night. Showering in the morning feels like suddenly being flung into a tank of piranhas and results in cold, wet hair. Showering at night is a relaxing and transcendental experience that results in life-altering epiphanies and ideas for novels you will not write.
It’s better to wake up and go directly outdoors. It is better to immediately transport yourself to a trail marked by Boy Scouts or a misty apple orchard. It’s definitely better to go to the farmer’s market every possible Wednesday, even though it’s twenty minutes away, even if I’m tired, even if I want to sleep for the rest of my life.
So I drive twenty minutes to the farmer’s market. I park in the parking garage and pay for the parking space like a square. I cut through the bookstore just to be among the books and the people who like to read them. I stop at an ATM and take out cash to pay the farmers.
It’s sunny as I stroll towards the strip of white tents but there’s a cool breeze. The market is populated with pumpkins and tubers. It smells like autumn, dirt, and yeasty bread. I buy delicata squash, purple cauliflower, and honey crisp apples. I buy massive bouquets of rainbow chard that are worthy of fanning Roman emperors. The guys at the burrito stand always wave to me even though I have never once had a burrito there. A toddler spills his handful of tiny green acorns on the pavement and I help him pick them up. He clumsily snatches the acorn from my fingers and nearly takes my hand with him.
I buy some late-season peaches from the exuberant Amish girl who wears a calico dress with an orange bell pepper pattern. (Sliced open bell peppers look like maniacal mouths.) I talk to her stone-faced brother about the pretty cranberry beans I purchased. Long, thick string beans with burgundy striations, and it turns out you can’t eat the pretty pod.
Then I pick out a bouquet of mums and zinnias. I don’t know how to get it safely to my apartment, so I squeeze the bouquet between my legs as I drive. By the time I get home my car is covered in petals. I brush them off my legs and tell myself that this is one hundred times better than sleeping.
My piece “PETITION: Tell Coors Brewing Company to Stop Drilling in the Arctic” was published in Trop this past week. Click the shocking image below to be redirected to a place where you can safely and anonymously represent the most crucial cause of the past decade without leaving the comfort of your desk.
Occupational Fantasy, Part I
I am educated by a wealthy patron who sees in me the potential to become a scholar or a corrupt official in the local government. I am sent away and boarded in another city where I become worldly, cultured, and fluent in Greek. When I return to my patron, he is boundlessly impressed by my Greek and the witticisms that I produce at his dinner table to amuse the ladies in powdered wigs. He insists that I come to dinner every Tuesday and recite the sonnets and essays I effortlessly compose when I am not shadowing a controversial, bearded philosopher who thinks of me as his own son and frequently clutches me to his own breast. My patron commissions me to write comedies for his amusement, and in my free time I write stories.
Occupational Fantasy, Part II
I am standing in a quiet, empty metro station when I feel a stranger’s hand on my shoulder. I turn and see a man in a long trench coat with wild snakes of hair and suppose that he is either homeless or a wizard. He says that he is a cubist furniture designer and that I will be his apprentice. He will teach me to upholster cubist furniture and restore antique cubist furniture to its former condition, and when he has taught me all that there is to know about cubist furniture I will be the greatest maker of cubist furniture in the world. I say okay. The metro appears and he pulls me inside with great haste. We go to his cubist furniture studio where I choose appropriately coordinating fabrics for each grain of wood. The cubist furniture master tells me that we will have to work quickly through the cubist furniture curriculum because of those who would have me fail. His rival cubist furniture designers have spies everywhere, behind the cubist wardrobe and under the cubist bed. In just a couple of weeks I learn the appropriate skills of a cubist furniture designer and open my own shop where my cubist chaise lounges are purchased by wealthy collectors from all over the world. After a long day of upholstering, I have time to write stories.
Yesterday, first thing in the morning, I cut up a cantaloupe. It was ripe and juicy and smelled sweetly floral. I’ve been building up my unreasonably high expectations of this cantaloupe since last Wednesday when I purchased it from an Amish family at the farmer’s market, along with some cartons of blueberries and an unwieldy amount of produce. This is my first melon of the summer and I stubbornly insist that they aren’t worth the money for eleven months out of the year. After slicing the melon into rough cubes, I made a bowl of oatmeal and had some breakfast.
The cantaloupe was disappointing. It was fragrant without being sweet, goopy yet unsatisfying. My worst fear with any melon is that it will turn out to be crispy like leaf of iceberg lettuce. This was on the opposite end of the spectrum and yet still mediocre. When I spend twenty minutes slicing something up in a half-asleep stupor hoping that it will induce an epic melon-gasm that I will remember fondly in my old age and it falls short, I feel like I wasted hours of my day. That cantaloupe had the power to take my Monday to the next level and it failed.
Last week I was reading an interview with Patricia Lockwood and now I can’t stop thinking about it. She hasn’t held a job for much of her adult life and spends most of her day writing poetry, which sounds delightful. While some people wake up in the morning and think about how they have to go to work so they can buy food and have a place to live, her first conscious thought each day is, “What will I write today?” If she doesn’t have any money, then she simply doesn’t eat. The power of poetry overcomes her appetite and sustains her being, I suppose. Perhaps she produces energy through a sort of photosynthesis, using the light of language as her sun.
When I think about Patricia Lockwood writing poems on an empty stomach, I, too, feel like a melon of mediocrity. When I wake up in the morning, if I wake up in the morning at all, my first thoughts are all about eating. An insatiable lust for breakfast is the only thing that drives me from my chrysalis of covers. Then I eat oatmeal and blueberries and smoothies and then, only then, while cradling a hot cup of tea, can I possibly think about what I am going to write today.
I don’t have energy to devote to writing before breakfast. If I were to skip breakfast or even postpone until to later, I would become very ill. I know this from experience. If I don’t eat shortly after waking up, I become lightheaded, nauseous, and pallid, and I can’t write under these conditions. When I was younger I would throw up if skipped breakfast or if I ate an inadequate breakfast. The same problems arise if I skip either lunch or dinner or if I fail to eat a light snack every other hour.
Against all odds, millions of years of human evolution have culminated in the creation of a person who would probably die after a single day of famine. My ruthless metabolism will not allow me be a starving artist. Unfortunately I can’t write without my body; it’s where my hands and my brain are located. We’re in this together.
But would I even want to sacrifice the pleasures of eating to write, if that were a possibility within my animal body? No. At heart, I am completely hedonistic. I love eating. I love stuffing myself with saag paneer and chocolate and raspberries and oatmeal. I love waiting for ripe melons to seduce me with their musk. I love writing about food. I love the way eating good food makes me feel and I love sharing good food with other people and I also love the way eating good food can make the world a better place in general.
If only I could just be a gentleman scholar. Those bygone dandies of the male sex didn’t know how good they had it. By means of a family fortune or an income generated by a wealthy patron, they could be Renaissance men without toiling in factories and fields. They could write without creditors breathing down their necks, knowing that at the end of the day there will be some kind of roast duck or a pudding made of sheep intestines on the table provided by a ruddy-faced cook. For the profession of gentleman scholar, I would need both a sex change and a time machine.
So much for that plan. Instead, I sit at a desk for eight hours a day looking at a screen. When I’m home, I sit at a desk for however many hours writing in front of a screen and when I’m not writing I’m probably eating food or cooking food. Food is a major part of my social life and my romantic life and also what I do for fun. So much for balance.
I lose all self-control at used book sales. If you give me a bag and tell me I can walk away with a bag full of books for a five dollars, I will loot your shelves like a ruthless pirate.
What self-proclaimed book enthusiast doesn’t love to comb through the catacombs of a library basement like resurrection men exhuming outdated clothe-bound volumes? Oh, you dog-eared used books with your vanilla-scented paper and yellowing corners, it seems I can’t even write a paean to you without spewing a lot of pretentious, old-timey gibberish.
My apartment bookshelf and my parent’s basement are both cluttered with ragged tomes that I will probably never read. I’m reluctantly, radically weeding them out. There is a bag of used books next to my apartment door and it has been there for several months. I promised to donate them to the library but instead they live in a purgatory between my shelf and a library sale, where I will probably just buy them again anyways. I read so slowly, you have no idea how frustrating it is to read so slowly and I am sure I will never live long enough to read all of these sentences. Especially if my sleeping habits remain as self-indulgent as they are now. I could die at any moment of lethargy.
Will I ever read the more obscure novels of Camus? Probably not. This book about Victorian customs clearly survived some sort of shipwreck, judging by the water damage. It would be a shame to cast it back into the great unknown when it has already endured so much hardship.
Other treasures I have unearthed: a collection of Keats’ love sonnets, an encyclopedia of natural remedies, a Dear America book that once made me sob on the school bus, a Secret World of Alex Mack novel from the 90’s, a hardcover collection of knitting patterns from the 80’s, the novel version of How Stella Got Her Groove Back.
New York City has a bookstore called The Strand. If you set the books side by side, the line of books would easily extend from one end of the universe to the other. But why would you want to do that when you could read them instead? The store keeps their bargain books on racks on carts and you can stand beneath the drippy overhang digging through the chaotic carts of one dollar and five dollar books for hours. I try not to. I know myself too well.
The books that show up on the bargain carts are like time capsules full of information that is no longer accurate or relevant. One time I found a book that instructed short women on how to dress in a way that exudes both power and style in order to help diminutive ladies advance in the corporate world. Every girly magazine in the world has some advice on this. I have read it all and failed to heed any of it. Wear straight legged pants because they lengthen your stubby body. Never wear bell bottoms or skinny jeans. Never wear patterns. Never cut your body in half with two contrasting colors. Wear heels every day. Assemble an entourage of shorter friends to create an illusion of height.
This book was from the 80’s. It prescribed one panacea for all ambitious beauties: the beige pantsuit. Or skirt suit. It lengthens your body without cutting you in half. The color is unmemorable, so that you can be more even more memorable. All men will bow down to you and your pencil skirt. The author’s official style icon: Nancy Reagan. I never bought this book, but I wish to God I did. I think I made a mistake.
One of the best things about used books is that they sometimes have inscriptions and writing on the blank pages or in the margins. The previous owner unknowingly gave the book another layer of intrigue. It makes me wonder who gave this book as a gift. Who was the receiver? And why did they give it away? Why did they underline the word “laudanum?” Is it because they wanted to look it up later or did they have some personal experience with laudanum? I will never know.
My friend Abbey and I were at The Strand over the weekend. She set this book in front of me:
I leafed through recipes for asparagus and chili peppers, each with an amusing anecdote from the authors. The Russian chocolate cake recipe proved its worth when their female friend made it for a coworker who wasn’t picking up on her advances. By the time the book was written, they had been living together for two years and even adopted a dog together. Cake has a way of bringing people together, and aphrodisiacs have a way of bringing them even closer.
Then I saw this message scrawled onto the first page:
I suppose love potions are no substitute for actual chemistry. Now Rob’s romantic gesture gathers dust among the multitudes of tattered jackets. Maybe someone in need of a romantic dessert will find this book and they won’t even know they were looking for it.
As soon as we left the Denver Airport, Dave pointed out how flat everything was. Denver is beige and flat as far as the eye can see, like a city built atop a pancake. I have pancakes on the brain, actually. Pancakes on top of pancakes. We slept through our alarm before our flight this morning and ran out with some bread in a Tupperware to eat as a hurried pre-flight breakfast. All the Larabars in the world could not make up for the insufficiency of that meager breakfast.
Before we checked in to the hotel, we went out for brunch at a restaurant called Snooze. While looking at the menu, I daydreamed about getting a job writing snappy titles and descriptions for restaurant menus. Perhaps I could advance to writing Trader Joe’s packaging and bad New York Post puns. In my illustrious career I would pitch a Christmas-themed eggs Benedict called “Home for the Hollandaise,” which would consist of two sunny-side up eggs on a short stack of peppermint pancakes that are frosted with Hollandaise sauce and dusted with powdered sugar. I would make millions.
Much like Dave was destined from birth to eat a lamb gyro Benedict, I knew I was destined to eat pancakes. The options seemed endless and fantastical. Sweet potato pancakes, pineapple upside down pancakes… At the table beside us, a teacher from Honolulu interjected, saying one could get a pancake sampler and try three different pancake flavors (and spoke in favor of my holiday benedict). This eliminated all the difficult decisions. I followed my pancake destiny and plunged a stake into my pancreas. My pancreas took it like a man.
Later this afternoon, Dave and I went to see a food documentary called “Fed Up.” We took a seat in a 1930s theater with a Mayan motif and carpet on both the floor and the ceiling. Stern-faced Mayan gods watched from the molding, protecting us from evil spirits and corporate lobbyists.
The beginning could have been the start of a zombie film but the collage of news clips were not about zombification. They were about obesity. The pancakes churned in my stomach as I watched one child after another jab her finger to check insulin levels. Sugar was deemed more addictive than cocaine and worse than cigarettes. I’ve read such things before. Food documentaries are usually a compendium of horrifying facts that I already know but that enrage me anew. Somehow I always feel surprised.
There’s a scene where a child with a healthy weight is put into a MRI to determine how much fat is hidden on his body. He looked thin, but the MRI proved that he was obese under the surface. I don’t need a MRI to tell me that I was like that skinny obese kid. In high school, I would come off the school bus and head right for the freezer, where I would devour a massive bowl of coffee ice cream and two meticulously buttered everything bagels. Still hungry, I’d kill a sleeve of Oreos while standing in the open pantry and retire to my room with a bag of pizza goldfish crackers. My butt was expansive (for a white girl, at least) but I was never an unhealthy weight. I was just sick all the time. It makes me furious to watch kids struggle with food because I see my younger self in them, clutching a neon tube of Go-Gurt.
By degrees I’m becoming that kind of intolerable health nut that drivels on about microwaves killing food, yet I’m still an incorrigible sugar addict. It’s not my fault that it’s worse than cocaine, right?
Leaving the movie, Dave and I debated the extremity of our sugar consumption. We wandered into a Walgreens for a beverage because the desert was desiccating our tear ducts. It was curious to take a fresh look at a convenience store beverage cooler after learning about junk food marketing for a few hours. One bottle had a butterfly on the label and was described as “A melodic beverage inspired by the magic of Mariah Carey.” I tried to identify the target demographic for this melodic mystery drink, but for once I don’t think it’s children. Maybe 90s kids, middle-aged women, people who want a sweet, sweet fantasy in real life.
A little while ago we were scrolling through Yelp to find a place to eat breakfast tomorrow. It’s not hard to find a pancake oasis in this desert city. Wherever we end up, there will most certainly be pancakes on the menu, but I won’t have to heed their siren call. I already got pancakes out of my system by getting them into my system, all dripping with peanut butter sauce. Peanut butter controls blood sugar. I keep telling myself that, like a good little addict.