1998–Twister (Twister board as toga, spinning device as mortar board.) Party at Craig and Satina’s. Car shot with automatic rifle sometime in the middle of the night. Fortunately, I’m not in it and no one… More
We are an opinionated group of humans, this family of mine. I had the chance to go to New Zealand to help plan the 2020 NonfictioNOW conference. I invited my family to go along. Since two of the invitees are minors, they were somewhat forced to go along once the other major in the family accepted the idea.
Zoe really wasn’t into going. She is taking physics, engineering, geometry, Spanish 2, Honors English, and health. She doesn’t want to get a B in any class, even in health. She’s a freshman. It was a hard transition from middle school to high. Most of her friends went to Flag High instead of Coconino but Z wanted to enroll in the CIT (Coconino Institute of Technology). She wanted to go to the school with the most diversity. But she started the year with only one friend coming from MEMS. The first week, she ate lunch alone. All of this made her much more committed to the friends she made after that week. She didn’t want to leave these new friends. She didn’t want to miss school. She didn’t want to fall behind. And, she felt torn. She knew it was a great privilege to be able to go. Not wanting to go to New Zealand sounds even more privileged. So she was all tied up in knots about going and I don’t blame her. 14 is the hardest year, next to 13, 23, 33 and all the other hard years.
Max was OK to go because he’s in 4th grade. Still, he was nervous about the 17 hour traveling time. He wanted to know what we were going to do. When we told him we were renting a Campervan, he almost cried. Which was a pleasant reaction next to Zoe’s.
The only good thing about renting a Jucy CamperVan is that when other people with Jucy’s pass by, they wave at you. With much excitement! And, the Jucy is pretty cheap. In fact, we did a very good job going to the other side of the planet spending not-too-much money. We got airplane tickets for $900 each. The comps my department presented? $3200. We truly lucked out on the plane tickets. Then, once we arrived in New Zealand, the dollar was strong. A $12 sandwich in NZ is $8 in US dollars. In Flagstaff, a $12 sandwich is $16.
For the NonfictioNOW conference, I’m hoping the dollar stays strong for US travelers and that we can find those reasonably priced flights again. I love really long flights because it gives you enough time to sleep the whole 8 hours, plus have dinner and breakfast. When you fly to Europe, by the time they feed you and put you to sleep, they wake you up again to feed you. It’s like being in the hospital. But to NZ and Australia? Plenty of time for everything. I took my TRTL and a foot sling that you hang from the tray table for sleeping. Max and Zoe looked longingly at the first class luxury beds but who needs that when you have a TRTL and a foot sling? I also have 2 glasses of wine and a benadryl. The kids didn’t have that but they had their own TRTLs and their own foot slings and they slept for 8 hours too. The other great thing about flying that way is that you lose a day but gain a couple of hours. The time difference is about the same as east coast to west. Your circadian rhythms stay pretty close to the same. By the time we got to our hotel in Wellington (CamperVan adventures saved for the latter half of the trip), we were tired but not zombie-tired. Plus, the hotel let us check in at 11:00 a.m. We took showers and then headed for lunch.
The kids loved Wellington. I loved Wellington. Are we city people?
Not necessarily but we might not be campervan people.
Still without the campervan, we would not have gotten to see the Weka which kind of looks like a Kiwi, but isn’t and doesn’t. We wouldn’t have got to see the Golden Sands Beach or kayak or meet this cormorant bird called a shag. I really love New Zealand. And I love my family even if no one want to eat the same thing for lunch. I also see that my finger is in this top picture–in keeping with the typo theme of my Christmas card, my Christmas post, and my regular life.
There are many typos on my Christmas card. I blame my exhaustion. And also my hubris that I can type.
Typos found: First word! Or first number: 2109. I am telling you, the future will be rough. Also, Eventhough is not one one. Also, two ons don’t make it right.
There are probably typos in here but now I have to go find my mom’s missing luggage. I will try to proofread later.
I came up with a new word for revision. Actually 7 words. I told my students this year that if the word revision freaks them out to think of kinder, gentler words like go over, rethink, re-see, consider, add texture, layer. The idea of layering is particularly useful to me. I compared it to painting a wall. The first coat looks OK. It sort of covers the drywall. The next layer really thickens the color. The next layer fills in all the missing parts–it looks smooth and seamless. Not that writing ever gets to that seamless stage but to go over to me is so much more fun that re-doing or revising.
If I think of 2019, I think of layering. There was the kind of layering that meant one layer of parenting, one layering of teaching, a layer of friending. A layer of writing. A layer of occasionally even going out for a glass of wine with Erik, just the two of us. I’m not sure if juggling isn’t the better metaphor but truly, you do have to do all five things at once. The layers stick to each other, so when sometimes I can write and make dinner at the same time. Sometimes, I can grade and help Zoe with her homework. Sometimes, I can hang out with my friends from work and we get some work done and some friending done which does feel doubly accomplished.
I’ll remember 2019 as a thick year. Thick with travel, with climate news and sorrow, with impeachment, and with my kids getting so old that I am mostly their Uber driver. The travel is both great and tricky. When it’s just me traveling, I miss my kids and Erik. When the kids and Erik come, it’s four willful humans battling it out for where to go to lunch.
Some of the places, I got to go twice, which was awesome. The best trip was the first one–to Portland. Erik and I stayed downtown at the Crystal Hotel across from Powell’s Books. I read at Powell’s on January 10th from Sustainability: A Love Story. This was my life goal and so it’s hard to imagine how the year could get any better. Maybe it did but it was so fantastic. My boss from 20 years ago from the Oregon Winegrowers Association came. My friend Tanya from Idaho. My college boyfriend Andy and his parents. My love friend Misty and her husband, John. Even Jewelee came, who I hadn’t seen since I’d moved away from Portland. Kim from my freshman year came and Em and Van joined in too. Rhett my old roommate. It was the greatest gift that these people came. My friend from Flagstaff sent me flowers. I read from Sustainability and we talked about climate and hope and loss afterward and then we had beer and wine. I will never forget that reading and the hanging out after and the dream of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Erik and I drove to Seattle by way of the Olympic Peninsul
a. I saw otters swim in Capitol Lake. We stayed at David Shields house in Seattle and ate delicious Seattlean food. I wish Erik and I were heading back there in two weeks.
OK. I’m going to have to pick up the pace or this will be the longest thing I ever wrote and I have 5,328 things to write over break. Max played basketball in the winter. Practice on Friday nights. Which he did the year before and will again this year. My friend Beya lives around the corner so I can pop by to visit her sometimes during his practice. Zoe runs a lot. She ran in the fall. She ran in the winter. She ran in the spring. She played soccer and ran. and she played basketball and ran and she ran through the forests. Also, apparently Erik took all the running photos.
It snowed well this year. We went skiing for our friend Lawrence’s birthday. We took Max’s buddies along. Did I ski again? Maybe not but Max and Erik and Zoe skied at least seven times. Plus, Sledding! And pretend-dog-sledding.
I read in Tucson at the U of A Poetry Center so I got the best of both worlds–some snow and some not-snow. I stayed at the cottage on the U of A campus which was super fun. I also went back in early March for the Book Festival. I love Tucson, books, and to see my friends Ander and Megan and Athena. This is a picture from Tucson. Of what, I’m not sure. Maybe there’s a road runner in there?
March was the month of double visits–not only did I go back to Tucson but I went back to Portland for AWP conference. Not only am I layering thick my presence in these towns, I’m also laying thick streams of carbon. Did I buy carbon offsets? No. But I thought about it. Now I feel even more guilty but now, because it’s Christmas, I’m also broke. I will buy some carbon offsets! Or I will join the current leaders of the US and Brazil, India, and China in trying to burn it all down as fast as possible (see the darkness of the layers? It creeps in.)
Erik took this picture of me and Zoe and Max at MeowWolf museum/funky place in Santa Fe. We went so I could give a reading but the store flooded that weekend. That’s OK. Zoe and I got a facial instead–which was lovely although the technicians kept trying to sell us on their light-stimulator. I resisted at $780, at $350, and even when they offered it to me for $120. I prefer my stimulation to come in the form of weird experiences with funky glasses at weird museums.
April! What happened in April. No one knows.
May! Graduation. Not only Zoe’s graduation from middle school.
but my nephew’s graduated from high school. After Z’s graduation, we headed to Boise for his graduation celebration. Boise, from where my sister Valerie just moved and my sister-in-law and brother-in-law moved to. I can’t blame anyone for moving–it’s part of why I travel so often–to see people I’ve moved away from–but I do wish we could all stay in one place. Salt Lake is good. Boise is good. Portland is good. LA is good. Truthfully, I wish everyone would come live in Flagstaff but that is probably selfish on my part. Flagstaff is expensive and it’s hard to tell if we have enough water for all the people I want to live here.
So if not everyone is going to move here, we’re off again. Max and Zoe and I are going on a reading book tour! Lucky them. The whole project may have been slightly misguided. We bought a new car so I could buy a new bike rack so I could take all the bikes on the road so we could ride our bikes everywhere we went. We did do some good riding in Davis when I was at the ASLE Conference.
And we rode a bit when we visited Bek and Todd and their amazing kids in Los Angeles. I read at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard. Is there a better name for a bookstore? No there is not! And strangers came to the reading plus some friends from before–Aaron and his new partner Linda and Juliette. I made new friends too and one of them gave me a pink cat made out of wood so I knew I had arrived. At least had arrived for a minute.
But where has one arrived if one is always moving?
One has arrived at the coast, I hope. We rode quite a bit in Monterey where we saw otters even in I think the ocean.
Next, onto Napa where I’d arranged a reading at the Napa Bookmine. I am very clever because I like Napa and I like books. And I like wine. So together they went and we had fun but we did not ride bikes as much as I imagined. I thought the kids would like to ride from winery to winery, but the wineries are actually far apart. I think maybe next time, if I were to do this, I’d stay in St. Helens instead of Napa–at least for the biking.
Point Reyes was so cool and I have good pictures from there but by “I” I mean I don’t know where they are. Maybe Zoe’s phone?
From Napa to Salt Lake where I got to see my sisters, and nephews, niece, mom, and aunts. And where Max finished his rubick’s cube.
I almost forgot I went to Connecticut. Also, I almost missed my flight because in my mind, one flies to Boston to get to New Haven. But that is not correct. One flies to Hartford. I was sitting in the gate for the flight to Boston when I finally looked at my ticket and saw no Logan anywhere on my boarding pass.
I had a chance to work with these teachers as part of the Yale Institute and NAU’s Diné Institute. These
teacher-fellows take seminars with professors and then adapt what they learned in the course. I ate Connecticut pizza which I didn’t know was a thing until the Pod Save America people made fun of Jon Lovett. It was good because there is no bad pizza. I learned a lot and then I went back to Salt Lake to read at the King’s English from The After-Normal. This whole time, I carried with me the glass “Egg” that Angie (she of the flower givers at Powell’s) gave me that had three brine shrimp and the right amount of algae and oxygen to keep them alive for 6 months. One died but two still live. Now the balance of algae to fish is off so I have to move it in and out of the light to keep the climate right, which is a good metaphor for what I would do with climate change if I were a giant god.
While I was in New Haven, Max, Zoe, and their cousin Lily got to go to Torrey, Utah, outside of Capitol Reef. They rode bikes there and river rafted and painted in the park. Torrey is the best place to travel to if you want to feel like traveling is relaxing and good for you.
We did, for most of August, manage to have a bit of a regular summer. You know
a little protesting, a little fire, a little paddle boarding, a little more paddle boarding, a little time lounging on the new flagstone-patio that Erik laid late last summer.
School started in early August as it does in we-used-to-need-10-snow-days-built-into-the schedule. Zoe started running again. Max started dancing again. He also started to play soccer.
Then, it was back to Salt Lake for a reading for the Utah Humanities Council and a fancy fun party my sister threw for The After-Normal. She made truly post-normal food. (Not really. She made delicious food, as usual).
In Flagstaff, I also helped with the Northern Arizona Book Festival and taught my classes and tried to orient new faculty to the disorienting world of academia. The best part was how great my classes were right off the bat. The students, as usual, saved my sanity. The traveling was so great but there’s something a little desperate about running around the country, trying to sell books–especially at bookstores where you’re not sure you’ll have a good audience. I lucked out in LA and Napa but a reading not mentioned here did not turn out so well. I spent a lot of time revising in between trips and a lot of time trying to work on two new projects. Would I want to write all day every day? Probably. But would I run out of things to say if I didn’t go places and teach students? I don’t know but I probably wouldn’t feel so protective of time and home either.
I had a great chance to go to both Granville, Ohio and Winston-Salem, NC to read at Denison College and High Point University–about a week apart. I figured, perhaps I could stay all week and have a bit of a writing retreat? That dream came true when Dinty W. Moore
invited me to read at Ohio University. So off to Columbus I flew. I talked about climate change with students at Denison thanks to Margot Singer, who is my friend and co-editor of Bending Genre and a brilliant writer. They were mostly grieving but some had hope. I wanted to give them more but I didn’t want to give them spin either. I talked about the microorganisms that can grow lipids that could be, if scaled up used in current fuel infrastructures. Did this help? I don’t know. I told them how books are passports to other people and places. Maybe books will save us. And let us visit our friend and their students. So I took that passport to Dinty W. Moore, who I know through Brevity Magazine, his smart and funny books, AWP, and NonfictioNOW, and to his students students and then to Jacob Paul, who I know from grad school and from his ride across the country when he stopped in Michigan at our house when we lived there, and from his deeply intelligent books, and to see his students. Then I went back to Columbus where I got to meet Facebook friends, Kelly and Amy, and then I went downtown the next night and found fried chicken in the very cool town that was Columbus.
And then there was New Zealand, which I think needs its own page because this is already too much. Which is what it was. Even though it was maybe the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. And my books went around the world. And my kids came with for part of it. And Erik and I went to Portland and Seattle and we should go back because it’s good to return to your original effort and go over it one more time.
Here are some cute photos of last winter that I’m now regretting not using for our Christmas card.
My flight from Flag to Phoenix is delayed. My flight from Flagstaff to Phoenix is always delayed. I missed an interview once. I’ve missed connections. Once, when my flight was canceled Phoenix to Flag, my student Chase Edwards drove us through a snowstorm up the mountain at 2 a.m. I would hate Flagstaff’s difficult travel situation if I didn’t love the airport so much. I’m watching Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, eating a grilled cheese, having a glass of wine. Maybe I could live at the airport and, if a flight actually became available, I could hop on as a resident flight-hopper-onner.
16 year old Climate Activist Greta Thunberg’s mother is an opera singer. Internationally renowned, she traveled across the globe. But she’s taken her travel down to nearly nothing, singing only around Sweden. Admittedly, my flight today is short enough to be within-Sweden-size but I do have some trips coming up that give me pause. They say flying is one of the worst carbon outputs. I managed to squish two different trips into one for October, but this means I’ll be away from Max and Zoe for 10 days instead of 3 days twice. They’ll thank me for it later, right?No, they won’t, because one flight back and forth from Flagstaff to Ohio won’t save the planet. But maybe they’ll thank me for my effort. Good intentions.
The whole family will go to New Zealand for the NonfictioNOW planning conference in November. The kids are coming, reluctantly. No one likes to fly. No one likes to miss school.
But it’s so so good to travel. If I didn’t travel, I wouldn’t have met David Carlin who wrote the After-Normal with me so I could travel to now-Utah, soon Ohio to read to people about climate change. Speaking of change, travel changes your mind. Literally remaps the way you see the world.
But maybe there’s another way for that kind of remapping that doesn’t require carbon dioxide times 1000 per, that doesn’t necessitate hundreds of plastic forks and spoons and styrofoam since real utensils aren’t allowed behind security gates, that doesn’t make you spend a 100 hours of flight delays watching Gordon Ramsey yell at not-so-great restaurant owners.
Maybe I can just ride my bike out to the airport on the occasional afternoon, order a grilled cheese, and remap my mind by spending $8.53 on a pretty bad glass of wine. It tastes just the same as the wine on the airplane. In fact, I think it comes from the same tiny bottle distributor. Even better, maybe I’ll find drive down to Page Springs Winery in Sedona, which, though 35 miles from Flag, is way closer than Gallo or Frontera. The wine and I can meet in the middle. Oak Creek runs through Page Springs. The river travels remaps itself daily.
On Earth Day, I was invited to the main downtown library to talk with the book forum Plotting the Plateau. I wasn’t sure what I was heading into and, I guess, some of the people there weren’t either. It turned out to be mainly a book club who had read Sustainability: A Love Story. We went around the table introducing ourselves and giving first impressions of the book. A woman said, “the back of the book doesn’t really match the content of the book,” which I worry is the death knell of a book. Someone else asked, “what does sustainability have to do with tacos?” Fortunately, most of the readers came to the taco’s rescue. Some said the book was stream of conscious, which always concerns me, but then she said she liked it. She also said it was, “very white girl” unlike my column in the paper which, she said, if it didn’t have my picture, said they sounded like came from the Nation—the Navajo Nation’s concerns are the concerns I express in the letters—which made my happy about the column and, again, worried about the book.
Some people say books are author’s babies but they are more like author’s five year olds. They might seem fit for society, but then you take them to dinner and they pick their buggers and eat them at the table. Without fork or knife.
No one likes people to say anything but flattering things about your kids. Or your books. But I’m pretty strong. I can take the stream of consciousness and the what do tacos have to do with sustainability questions just like I can take the questions that the soccer coach asked as he yelled “Max, Max” to my son and he just stared out into the distance, the coach turning to me and my husband Erik, asking, “Does Max go by a different name at home?” No. He stares off into space at home too.
Some people like the book. Some people find it weird. I’m OK with that because Sustainability: A Love Story, with its title meant ironically, has been a good conversation starter. Like all conversations about sustainability, we began with plastic straws. Everyone chimes in on their practice of straw removal from their lives. I make fun of Dutch Bros and the idling cars as customers wait for the fancy drinks in plastic cups with plastic straws. One woman reminds us that some people who are differently abled need straws. We all nod and think of great straws made of metal or paper or avocado pits like the kind served at Uptown Pubhouse. We talk about the paper towel part of my book which is everyone’s favorite and reminds me to write more about shopping trips and my personal troubles with Sam’s Club and my husband’s dream of a cleaner painting job. We talk about using cloths to clean up cat vomit instead of paper towels and how we might want to buy recycled paper towels because then we should create a market for the full cycle of recycling.
This is part of what I wanted Sustainability to do. To let us bond over the frustrations of trying to be good. We talked about the Perfect being the Enemy of the Good. I explained my cap and trade model. Maybe you’re good at collecting water and not so good about eating hamburgers once in a while. But, on the whole, one for one, you’re doing all right. If you never drive, perhaps you can feel OK to takes baths instead of showers. If you buy all your clothes at a thrift store, maybe you can order an extra large fancy drink decked out in plastic from Dutch Bros once in awhile.
But, just as in the book, we in the book club were frustrated by the details of what it meant to be sustainable. While my main philosophy in life is to pay attention to the details, I mean that to be pay attention and be in awe. I don’t mean stress over the pros and cons of plastic straws. I mean, be conscious of them. Pay attention to them, reject the straw if it matters to you, but also note the weird little caterpillar making his way between the cracks of the sidewalk. I mean look at the three weird pistils poking from within the tulip. I mean, stick your nose deep into the flower and then motion me over, either by hand gesture or by book, and say, stick your nose in this too.
I am full of gratitude for Coreen from the Flagstaff Arboretum who chose the book for the book club and who read through the tacos to get to the bigger point. She said it so well, I wish I had recorded it, but essentially she said that the point of the book isn’t so much about which this and that to do to be sustainable but that without community and a collective effort, individual this and that change can only make so much difference. The last chapter of Sustainability is about imagining a future of shared experience. Shared tacos and shared blossom sniffing and shared concern about papertowels. And thus, Sustainability the book did what I hoped it would do—start a conversation and make a new community. I count the people I met through Plotting the Plateau as at least acquaintances now and maybe even friends.
There are a lot of buzzwords in our daily parlance. Network. Web. Interconnect. But I believe that’s the beginning spot. I’m grateful to my former MFA student Jamie Paul who invited me to talk at her library. Another example of one connection making 3 more and then 12. Enough to make a small net to start raising high the, if not perfect, the good.
The conversation changed after Coreen noted how the book isn’t so much about saying ‘no’ as it is about saying ‘yes.’ It’s about forming coalitions and cooperatives to help make legislative change. To make corporations make fossil-fuel free choices. One of the people in the group told us about an incinerator that swallowed its own smoke but complained that local municipalities weren’t interested in the US even though many had been sold in Europe. It’s that kind of pressure we need. Boise has a program of turning its plastic into fuel. That’s more likely than convincing people to stop buying fancy drinks in plastic cups from Dutch Bros.
Humans are bad about saying no to themselves. As the eponymous essay Sustainability: A Love Story goes, “Sustainability is easy enough to define. Keeping going what is already going seems like a good idea. Isis good. It denotes being. Aliveness. Fact. Tucked inside the word are other good words: sustenance, maintain, able — something we are doing and can keep doing. Present tense. Simple. We sustain. We are sustaining. We will keep life as we’ve come to know it keep on keeping on. The word sustainable attaches to environmentalism, but sustainable is a reasonable, not-preachy kind of environmentalism. We resist the word environmentalism. It suggests not is but no. Stop driving. Stop heating this house. Stop powering this computer with ill-gotten electricity. But if humans are bad at one thing fundamentally, it is stopping. Animals. Animate. Going. Going is something humans do well. When I think of sustainability, I think of the possibility of cars. High-gas mileage. Electric-powered. Even solar-powered. But the solar-powered car. It only seats one. It goes slow. It’s hard to drive on rainy days. I don’t want no. I want forward.”
By the end of Sustainability, I realized more is better, not less. I want blueberries and hydropowered trains. I want mushrooms and microbes that eat plastic. I want solar panel on every car and house and a garden on every shop’s roof. I want water collection at my kids’ schools and wind farms in my backyard. I want carbon sucking mushroom and carbon eating whales. I want, just like the new friends at the library want, some more friends, some more rain, some extra sun (because the whole project is a paradoxical one, we want both rain and sun). I want the book to grow up to be a good big kid, a radical adolescent, a kind adult. I still have hope for the book and the planet. And I’m grateful to book clubs and book readers.
- 4 chopped scallions
- 1 diced chipotle
- 1/2 cup of sour cream
- 2 tbls red wine vinegar(or more to taste)
- 1/3 of sunflower oil
- 1 minced garlic clove
- 1 tbs of milk
- 1 tsp of sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
Place scallions, garlic, chipotle, sugar in small bowl. Add vinegar and sour cream. while stirring slowly pour in oil.
This is as much for me as anyone else. How do people remember their own AWP Schedules? (AWP is the annual conference for writers and writing programs. This year, it’s in Portland, March 27-31.)
Thursday: March 28
AWP Program Directors’ Plenary Assembly Thursday, 9:00–10:15 a.m., D136, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1 Thursday, 10:30 to 11:45 a.m., B113, Oregon Convention Center
Speculative Nonfiction lunch 12 to 1:15
Attending: Ann Cummins’ panel Race, Gender, Politics, and the American Dream.’’ Poet Sherwin Bitsui, a last minute add to this panel, will be joining Shaniya Smith, Kara Thompson, Andy Levy Level 1, Room A 106 at the Oregon Convention Center, Thursday afternoon from 1:30 – 2:45.
Terrain.org Book Fair Table Sustainability: A Love Story Book signing. 3-4 on Thursday.
Mad Creek Book reading: The event will take place at Home, A Bar (719 SE Morrison St) on Thursday, March 28th from 6-8 p.m. Readings will likely be 5-10 minutes.
Friday, March 29
AWP offsite reading (event soon to be named) hosted by Rose Metal Press, The Cupboard Pamphlet, and DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.at Kelly’s Olympian
Saturday, March 30
Rose Metal Press Book Signing: 10:30 to 11:30 am: David Carlin and Nicole Walker signing special pre-release copies of The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet at the RMP table (5050)
Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books Book Fair Table: Sustainability: A Love Story Book signing. Saturday from 1:30-2:30.
AWP Conference: A Taxonomy of Nonfiction 3:15-4:30
AWP: Seneca Review will be at AWP in Portland! You can find us in the bookfair at T906. And on Saturday night, we’ll be hosting a reading with Wendy S. Walters, Nicole Walker, and Erica Trabold: 8:00pm at the Cardinal Club (18 NE 28th Ave, Portland, OR 97232, on 28th off of E Burnside). We hope to see you there!
I was invited to be a guest author at The Tucson Festival of Books a couple of weeks ago. I sat on two panels and moderated another. On the panel about memoir, a woman in the audience asked of the panelist, “what are your ages?” I responded, “45,” and waited for the other panelists to tell the audience their ages, shaving a year or two off with me. But they didn’t offer. What had I done? Outed myself as someone in their 40s? We can’t fake being 30 forever, fine young panelists , I wanted to say. (OK, one panelist was 37. She should have shouted loud and proud!)
It turns out the audience member didn’t ask, “what are your ages?” she asked, “what about agents?” Now I had been exposed as both old and deaf! Excellent beginning to the Q&A section.
The world of literary agents is a mysterious one. I was just going back through emails to my agent, trying to decipher how long it takes to get a rejection, when I found a list of publishers I sent him. What was I thinking? That he had not heard of certain presses? But I suppose authors get anxious and over-email their agents and agents, recognizing that anxiety is endemic to authors, give the authors a break. I am sorry, David, that I sent you that tone-deaf email!
After the panel, now that everyone knew my age and yet not my agent, a woman came up to me to ask why I didn’t go with a larger press. I told her I did have an agent for Sustainability: A Love Story but when Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, approached me about publishing with them (I had sent the manuscript to them before the agent picked up the book), my agent said, “go for it.” Sustainability is probably a little too weird for big presses. And that’s actual good. I have loved working with Mad Creek and my editor Kristen. At an earlier panel, the other panelists, who had big presses, had said that before the book came out, the big publisher had been very supportive but 4 weeks after release date, the book was considered old. Sustainability keeps chugging along, picking up contest positions and getting readers and being featured at book clubs. It would be hard, I think, for a small press book to win a big contest like National Book Award when the rules say you have to have books available to them by May to be considered for that year’s award (my book, which came out in August, didn’t have galleys until June). But Mad Creek Books has had starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus and reviews in the NYT and Washington Post. Every time some good news comes by, the press tweets or posts about it. The books don’t seem to become old news. They instead become part of the collection that makes the press its unique self. I love the series editors. I love the main editor. I love the press team, even though they’re small. I love that they make new posters for my book tours and talk me through foreign rights issues. Sustainability: A Love Story is in more people’s hands than I ever could have imagined. How could I ask for more? Admittedly, I don’t know what working with a big press is like. And I keep refreshing my browser to see if my agent has any news. A big press would be fun because I’d reach different audiences but the way Mad Creek keeps championing Sustainability: A Love Story makes me feel truly sustained.
I’m trying to figure out my summer travel plans AND trying to post more on my website so here I am to kill two birds with one stone.
I have a new
book coming out June 19th. The After-Normal: 26 Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changi
ng Planet. David Carlin and I wrote this book together and Rose Metal Press will publish it on June 19th. I have readings set up for this book and Sustainability in California. My job? To remember where and when. So, thus far the plan is for me and the kids to put our bikes on the back of my car and drive to Los Angeles where we’ll stay with our good friend, Bek and Todd, and their guitar-jamming children. Perhaps we’ll ride our bike on the beach? I have a reading that Saturday at Book Soup (8818 Sunset BLVD) at 3:00 p.m. Then, I hope to get a reading somewhere halfway between LA and UC Davis where I’ll be for the Association of Thursday, June 27th from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m–for nighttime book buyers. Then, I read again at the Napa Book Mine at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday the 29th! I’m so grateful for this chance to do a mini-book tour and to take my kids and their bikes to LA, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Davis, and Napa. Books and bikes? Is there anything better? We leave Napa on the 3rd and head to SLC, getting in on the 4th. Then, we’re there for three days when I potentially leave for a cool institute training mission that is secret in nature at this moment. I’ll fly in and out of SLC so I can see my sisters and mom and the kids can hang with their cousins! If you read this post and are by one of these reading places, please come say ‘hi.’ I want to show the fine people at these book stores that independent presses do publish fun books. Climate change! Fun times! You’ll never see those two sentences together again.
I can’t sleep at night. I pretend it’s not because I’m dreaming of fire. I pretend I’m not thinking about the ticks that used to die in the cold but now it’s not cold enough for them to die so they suck the blood out of Moose in Maine. Maine people call them ghost moose and I’m not thinking that the white of moose, so lacking color because so lacking fur, now matches the skinny polar bear which we’re not supposed to think about because it’s so cliché.
So, instead, I organize and arrange my thoughts as I flip my pillow over to find the cool side. I make categories. Fruit: Apple, banana, Cutie™, durian, elderberry, fig. Cars: Alfa Romeo, Buick, Chevy, Dodge, Elon Musk, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Isuzu, Japan.
I get stuck on diseases: ALS, Bulemia,
It’s best when I get stuck on a letter. My mind rides around like a bicycle in a cul-de-sac. It’s exhausting, riding in circles.
I love my bubble. I love when I post on Facebook a hundred times a day about my obsession with tracking my sales ranking for Sustainability on Amazon that I still get a bundle of likes. I like that my students laugh when I say “writing isn’t just putting your head on a piece of paper” and then put my head on the desk on top of a piece of paper to demonstrate that that is NOT what writing is like. I like that I can count on readers in the audience to laugh when I read to them about my neighbor who vacuums the rocks. I like when the breathless reading coupled with the slow waltzy reading reads like good energy. But when I read last night, that breathlessness plus waltz ended up making me sound according to the audience, crazy. They said things like, “how do you sleep at night with that going on in your head” and “wow. There are a lot of words there.” It was a different audience than my bubble. They were older and richer and maybe not really readers. It’s weird to think I only write to readers. Like full time readers. That might be fine but if part of my dream is to bring new information and stories and minds to other people, that maybe a narrow audience isn’t the best. Or maybe they were pushing back against the content—talking about sustainability to people who live in gated communities might not be their cup of tea. There were some kind questions—“Are you always worried about the apocalypse?” “How does one teach creative writing.” I think the question and answer session drew some more respect for what I was saying. I guy said, “I love your letters to the governor.” I tried to answer their questions without being a jerk. When the woman asked, “Why are prairie dogs important?” I responded, “Because they are so smart they can tell the difference between people in yellow shirts versus people in red ones.” I wish I’d said, “Why are any of us important?” I wish I’d asked the woman who wondered how I slept at night, “How do you sleep at night?” But I did fail. They didn’t get it. I chose the wrong thing to read or I had too high of expectations. Lawrence, who read with me said, it felt like a trial. He liked that feeling. I didn’t so much. Leaving the bubble is hard. I’m always surprised that, by the end, I haven’t persuaded everyone to my side. I do manage it, usually. So to leave the event feeling like they thought, man, there’s some crazy writing out there and with nary a book sold, I felt like a failure. I wish they’d understood that the writing is meant to convey a feeling of stress and wildness but that it’s cultivated. That’s how writing works. You don’t put your head down on the page and let the crazy seep out. You construct the crazy with very sane letters and images and associations. I told the one man who said, My, you use a lot of words and images in a row. So many metaphors, “That’s the point. How do we know where to land in our understanding of the way the world works. Sustainability isn’t the same to the otter as to the crawdad as to the hole. Or to you or to me. That’s what makes sustainability hard.” It’s also what makes writing hard and leaving your bubble hard. They didn’t buy any books, which hurt, but I do hope all not long, as they too don’t sleep, that the images I put in their heads of otters and crawdads and fracking and methane gas churn through their heads leaving them breathless.