Shutters Open, Cobwebs Gone, Slow Living is Open for Business

August 14, 2011

Captain Trips and I arrived home the other day from our 10-week summer RV book-and-movie tourapalooza.  Not triumphantly, but in tears.

The RV at Monarch Campground

Gone are the mornings one of us looks at the other and says, “Do you know what day is it?” and neither one of us knows.  Or, “What do you want to do today?” and both of us shrug.  We knew we didn’t have to decide; the adventure would simply appear.  Apart from showing up for book readings and movie screenings, we could go where we wanted, stop when we pleased, hang out at the town pool wherever we happened to land, listen to the rain at night on our little metal roof.

We had our moments, surely.  I had altitude sickness in Yellowstone, packrats ate our air conditioning in Kansas, and the RV, big lug that it is, crashed into a few minor tree branches.  We almost had a flat tire.  Almost.  For nearly 8000 miles of safe travel, we’re grateful.

We’ll spend the next few decades waxing nostalgic for our summer.  Even the near-misses and mishaps of the past 10 weeks have taken on the rosy patina of comedy and time.

We’re selling the RV, so I guess we’ll stay planted.  But Captain Trips and I intend to hang on to that feeling of freedom.  To make time and space in our days for whatever adventure comes.  To hang out and simply breathe in the pleasure of the world.

If you find yourself anywhere near our back yard, stop in for a tale of the road.  And in the meantime, here’s to slow living wherever you are.  And welcome home.

man sitting at picnic table contemplating the woods

Captain Trips, Waiting for the Adventure to Appear

Closing Up Shop

March 21, 2011

Now that my book tour is in high gear, I need to slow some things down.  So I’m closing up the shutters on the blog for awhile.  You’re kindly invited to mosey over to the My Ruby Slippers blog, where your subscription will bring you updates from the road.  Meanwhile, feel free to peruse the archives here for thoughts on slow living in the fast lane.  And wherever you are, keep reading.

Details about dates and venues on the book tour are here. Do come out, spread the word, and bring your friends.  Meeting in person is ever so much nicer than…well, you know.

updated 3/29/11

You’ve Got (Too Much) Mail, And an Invitation to a Letter

March 4, 2011

Letter paper, with ink pen and ink bottleWhen’s the last time you took a day off from e-mail?  How about an evening, or even an hour?  How many times a day do you click on the In box?  Do you feel the urge even now?

If you’re an average worker bee, you get upwards of 200 e-mails a day, spending 40% of your work day opening, answering, forwarding, and deleting; and your work day gets longer and longer.  The most diligent worker bees head for their In Box well before breakfast and take their iPhones to bed.

Is this good for us?   Is it fun?

Or as John Freeman asks in The Tyranny of E-Mail, “How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”

That’s a question to give one pause.  And The Tyranny of E-Mail suggests we need one.  A great big “wait a minute!” while we ask, “E-mail, what is it good for?”

Well, it’s good for a lot of things, as we all know.  But as its speed keeps increasing, as our In boxes overflow, as our attention shatters into fragments, as our work day eats up more of our waking hours, as this rolling electronic to-do list keeps the horizon of completion ever on the move, we find ourselves in a “strobe-lit techno-rave communication environment” where the party never, ever ends.  And it’s least fun party on the planet, because all the ravers are sitting alone in front of their techno-screens.   No dancing allowed.

This is John Freeman’s argument, or part of it, and as soon as I read it, I knew he was my kind of thinker.  He’s no technophobe, no luddite.  He simply asks whether “there is a way we can slow (e-mail) down, so we can make the best of it while retaining a foot-hold in the real-world commons.”

You know, the real-world, physical commons of face-to-face interaction: the theater, post office, town square, meeting hall, bowling alley, voting precinct, bank, bookstore, shopping street, park.  Or the café, where we sit in conversation with a colleague or a friend,  and the social cues of expression, inflection and bodily presence help us interpret meaning and tone.  Where the sheer physical presence of our friend brings us sensory pleasure.

All these places and interactions give us what e-mail does not: the physical presence of others in the commons of civic and social life, a place filled with reminders of “the importance of sharing resources, of working together, of balancing our own needs with those of others.”

Being tied all day (and night) to e-mail also removes us from that commons of the natural world, the one we share with other species, and whose resources we depend on for life.  The one our bodies belong to, with their physical limits and hunger for the sensual pleasures of the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Patti Smith, Just Kids, and I Ride the Bus

January 26, 2011

Last Saturday, I had one of those jittery, jumping, monkey-mind mornings—the kind that sometimes happen when the machine is on and the shiny buttons beckon. Click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on tweets, click on Facebook, click on email, click on news, click on email, back to news—and even though I felt myself sinking in the slough of despond, I just kept clicking away.

Granted, the despond was partly due to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, who’d rejected my offer to do a reading there.  I wasn’t famous enough, they wouldn’t sell enough copies of my book to make it worth their while.  But all that clicking also meant ignoring what feeds me: Art.  Creativity.  Writing.  Engagement with the world of weather and people and city streets.  So I wrenched myself away from the desk, stuffed Patti Smith’s Just Kids in my bag and bolted.

Virginia Woolf once left her house for a winter walk across London on the pretext of needing a pencil.  Even before I shut my front door behind me, I remembered her errand, which I often repeat.  I, too, need a pencil. Scotch tape. Tea bags. Paper. A new pair of shoes. But mostly what I need is the world and the chance, from inside the bubble of urban anonymity, to listen, watch, observe.  I need to rub up against stories and think quiet thoughts. To let ideas rise up while my body moves through three-dimensional scenes—the kind you don’t need special glasses to see.

Patti Smith once left her parents’ house in New Jersey with a stolen copy of Rimbaud in her bag, and headed for New York. Knowing she needed to be there, she lived on the streets, slept in Central Park, went hungry, and then one day by accident, ran into another kid her age whose name was Robert Mapplethorpe. And the two of them—just kids—with no way of seeing who they would both become, devoted themselves to the only things that mattered: one another, and art. Read the rest of this entry »

New Year’s Resolution: Wrap a Fast Year in Slowness

January 10, 2011
Red tomato-shaped pin cushion with strawberry needle sharpener

There's a reason my pin cushion looks like something from my garden

As you know, I like tootling along in the slow lane, making jam, planting onions, reading books made of trees.  Just this past weekend, I sewed up a satchel for my laptop. And if that’s not an emblem for the coming year, I can’t think of one that is. On the outside, you’ve got something hand-crafted. On the inside, a machine that’s a sign of the times: speed, connection, information, and oh that monkey, monkey mind.

Because 2011 is the year of the book. My book, which comes out in March. So while books usually take me to the slow side, this book means crankin’ things up.  My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas is going on tour.  Ten weeks on the road starting in June, from California to Indiana and parts in between.  And having just spent the last of my trust fund, I am become my own publicist.  Let’s not even get into the details of such a chore except to say it’s composed of a million little pieces that could well fritter away my brain.

So my challenge in the midst of the whirl is to do something slow every day, to bring it all back to the ground of stillness and contemplation.

New Year’s Resolution #1:  Take a tip from that satchel with the laptop inside: Wrap each day in slowness.  To start with, on waking, give an hour to writing.  Sit for awhile and breathe.  In.  Out.  And before tucking myself in for the night, have a nice, slow read.

fat, black question markWhat slow resolutions have you made for the year?  And what’s on your reading pile?

Links: If you’re new to the blog and wonder about monkey mind, read here.  If you want the scoop on My Ruby Slippers, start here.

Christmas Gifts and Glad Tidings at the Solstice

December 18, 2010

Oak King Winter SolsticeMy neighbor Amelia doesn’t make a big deal out of Christmas.  “Every day’s Christmas to me,” she says.  “I give and I get every day of the year.”

I call that attitude a marvel, now.  In fact, I’ve decided to adopt it myself.  So in the spirit of Amelia, I thought I’d chalk up just a handful of this year’s gifts.

Hummingbirds. Dozens of Anna’s hummingbirds landed in my willow tree this week.  They’ve been hanging around the garden, sipping nectar from the hummingbird sage, thinking their hummingbird thoughts.  It’s either early or late for migration, and they’re not saying why they’ve come.  But they like to sit in the tree and preen and stare at me through the window.  The glint in those little black eyes is even better than a visit from the magi.

My students aren’t hummingbirds, but they do bring me news from the foreign land of youth.  I’m especially enamored of my Literature and the Environment students this week, who just finished exams and turned in such extraordinary final projects I can hardly speak.  Which is what happens when you turn learners loose on topics they care about and ask them to teach someone else what they know.  They taught sauerkraut classes; hosted local food teaching dinners; created blogs about sustainable fashion, recycled art, music and nature, and community gardens.  They made sculptures, did public art installations, convened classes in their dorms, taught faculty about green roofs…. And they related it all to the works we had read.  Whew!  They’re a wonder.

The Biosphere. The sparkle of our technologies and the comfort of our lives make it easy to forget where we live.  Yet everything we buy, eat, wear, use and breathe comes from the earth.  We live inside its systems.  It’s our habitat.  Its health is ultimately ours.  May we honor the gift by doing all we can to restore it—and us—to wholeness.  If you want to join me, here’s a good place to begin, figuring out your environmental footprint.

Holly berries and leaves in snowSlowness. Slowness gives us time for neighbors and contemplation, asks us to ponder the wisdom of our choices before we leap.  It gives us reading and ideas and life close to home, a retreat from frenzy and waste.  At our tables, slowness means finding our food and food traditions close to home.  On this blog, it’s meant slow books and slow reading and digging in the garden.  Everywhere, it means knowing the place we live in the deepest sense, from its ecology to its human stories.  At Christmas, slowness means entering the darkness of winter with a quiet heart, seeking wisdom, celebrating the light.  So I’ll put a shiny bow on that one for sure.  Especially since this year, a full moon will shine on the winter solstice.

You. It’s been a great year on the blog, thanks to you.  Some of you arrived by way of the Slow Reading bit in the Guardian, some of you happened by out of chance, some of you were sent by friends, some of you came by because you’re my sisters or daughters or friends, some via Twitter or that Zuckerberg thing.  Some of you, for reasons unknown, arrived by way of a mad, global interest in spider monkeys.  Brave new world.

So, as the year draws to a close, I remain perched on the ambivalent edge of the tech revolution, knowing that embracing it means jumping into a sea of noise, and that without it, I would never have found all of you.  And that has been a gift.

Good Christmas, glad solstice wherever you are.  And peace.

What Good Are Printed Books? Here We Go Again…

October 26, 2010

Dear Readers, I ask you, what good are printed books?

This question grows old, I agree, after we spent weeks addressing it on this very site.  Still, a recent spate of articles has sent it chasing round my brain, so here we are again.

EXHIBIT A: “The Fate of the Book” in The Chronicle Review

Article One: William Germano’s provocative title “What Are Books Good For?” leads to the less provocative claim that even inside the “knowledge machine” of a digital text, the codex remains as a “ghost-like” presence.  The book, in other words, once “freed of its materiality,” yet lives.

Okay, maybe I’m a little provoked.  But hold that thought.

Article Two: “The Cult of the Book—and Why it Must End” by Jeffrey R. Di Leo.

Throwing around words like “cult” and “myth” is a dirty rhetorical gambit.  But Di Leo does it repeatedly, which makes me want to just kick him in the shins.

In his favor, Di Leo argues that digital multi-media offers exciting prospects for hybrid forms that should be valued by the academy.  Who could disagree?

But if Professor Di Leo wants to root out the cult of the mythic book, he’s going to have to hire meatier thugs than these three 90-pound weaklings: “Digital books are more affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly.”

The Old One-Two-Three Knock-Out Punch, or What happens Your Opponent Brings His Own Strawmen to the Fight

Books on a shelf

Also not an e-book

More environmentally friendly? Having dispelled Di Leo’s cult-like myth before, I will repeat only briefly that e-readers are not made of pixie wings, and don’t run on dreams.  In fact, e-readers are MORE environmentally destructive than mowing down trees.  I’m tired.  YOU look up the environmental and human cost of manufacturing, transporting, running and disposing of the hardware required for e-media. Multiply that by the speed of planned obsolescence.  Then look up the data on the escalating CO2 emissions from server farms and weep.

More affordable? Affordability doesn’t end at the bottom of our pockets.  It ends when we’ve counted all the costs.  And costs to the planet (see above) are ultimately costs to our own well-being.  Perhaps on his next sabbatical, Professor Di Leo might invest in a good course on ecoliteracy, and another on environmental justice.

More accessible?  To whom? According to George Lucas’ Edutopia, half (HALF) the households in the U.S. have no internet access at home.  How many of those families can afford reading gadgets?  Globally, the picture’s even worse.

But Wait, There’s More

Here’s the kicker: Professor Di Leo writes that “Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.”

Well, yes, and if I scrawled Ulysses on Dublin walls with the rusty point of a two-penny nail, I could say pretty much the same thing: The “words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands…but the words are the same.” Read the rest of this entry »

Thoreau Just Last Wednesday

September 25, 2010

So in the great reality show that is contemporary life, comes this concatenation of events:

I.

I’m on the bus eavesreading over someone’s shoulder.  “Justin Bieber Caught Canoodling in L.A.”  I think, “Canoodling”?  I think, “That’s a headline??”  I think, “Poor kid, forced to live in public.”

II.

I am just getting started pondering the decline and fall of empires, of newspapers, of public discourse, of privacy, when the bus whooshes to a stop and on hops a teenage girl with her pleasant-seeming friend.  The first girl is laughing and talking at top volume, though not with her pleasant-seeming friend, but with an imaginary one.  Or so it seems.   For the next fifteen minutes, I listen, for example, to the following:

Real Girl: So did he call her a bitch?  Or did you?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ****  *************  *****  **********

Real Girl: You did?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ******   *************  ***  ******************  **

Real Girl: Who started it?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ***   ****    **  *****   **   ******

Real Girl: Yeah, I miss my iPod, too.

Blue Tooth Fairy: ****  ***** ** * ******    **

Real Girl: You did?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ***

Real Girl: OMG !  !  !  (*Raucous laughing*)

Literally, she said the letters,­ “O.  M.  G.”

While I’m overhearing and thinking about declines and falls, canoodling teen idols with weird hair (and why or why not I should know this), living or not living in public, coerced and voluntary eavesdropping, teenagers—both widely known and not—in the age of reality media, feeling glad that I feel my next blog post coming on—which launches a whole new cascade of thinking about writing and meaning and why or why not there is any irony here—the girl’s real friend gazes out the window, watching the city roll by, utterly alone.

III.

I hop off the bus at the university where I teach, glad for the hush of fog at 8 a.m., and stroll across the damp grass to drop some books off at the library.  I stroll by the “New Arrivals” shelf and browse titles.  I spy a book by James Hawes, WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE.

IV.

I sit in my office, check and answer email, check for new status updates, check on tweets, click some links, ponder culpability for declines and falls and participation in same.  Ponder futility.  Ponder monkey-mind.  Ponder Thoreau.  Read the rest of this entry »

Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries: a Review

September 17, 2010

In the first pages of The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott lays out the realities of his “lonely, pointless existence,” both past and present.   He is a former heroin addict now hooked on Adderall; the son of a cruelly abusive father who in rages would “grasp for whatever meant the most to you and destroy you,” and who now posts negative reviews on Amazon of Elliott’s books ; motherless at thirteen then a runaway and ward of the state, subject to the usual cruelties of group homes and psych wards; doomed to “fragmented, thin” relationships with women; self-destructive, suicidal and addicted to violent sex.

Any one of these would fuel an entire woe-is-me memoir.   But this is not that kind of book; there’s nothing sensational here.  First, because the narrator seems to lack self-pity.   Instead, the story comes to us in the flat, affectless tones of the depressed (which I found both relieving and unsettling).  More importantly, though, this memoir is not really about Stephen Elliott’s pain, it’s about writing.

Two years into a writer’s block when the book’s events begin, Elliott faces the annihilation of the one positive identity he’s forged for himself: a writer.   Deep in the maze of Adderall and depression, he grasps at the thread of a story—an acquaintance confesses to “eight, maybe nine, murders”—and begins to find his way out.  This confession doesn’t ultimately give Elliott the “true crime” story he hopes it will—it turns out to be false—but it leads him to another, real  crime and its subsequent legal trial.

Like the confession of Sean Sturgeon, the trial of Hans Reiser, who is accused of murdering his wife, gives Elliott not only material, but purpose.  And like any fine writer, Elliott has the resources to ponder from the writer’s remove what these events mean to him and why.   The result is a multi-layered memoir about following both threads, real and made-up, and coming to realize that their attraction for him lies in their echoes of his own family relationships and sado-masochistic desires.

Elliott resists the typical memoir story arc: from trial to triumph over adversity.  For him, “to follow an interest out of the darkness is a trick, a small Band-Aid for a larger problem,” and his rescue by writing is partial and will not last.  Still, it’s awfully fine writing.  The sections devoted to his life and pursuit of the story are sometimes non-linear, almost musical in the interplay of the book’s several leit-motifs.  And the sections of trial reportage show off Elliott’s gift for tight plotting and suspense, insightfulness into motive (his own and others), and attention to telling detail.

Even so, writing will not ultimately save him, and the larger question, “How do we remind ourselves to start again?” seems without answer.  There is no shiny bow of epiphany when The Adderall Diaries ends, but a series of thoughtful understandings and an ongoing search.

Xavier de Maistre Takes Us on a Journey Around His Room; or A Broken Hand in Oakland Meets 18th-Century France

September 6, 2010

Normally this time of year, I’d bring you the harvest report from around the block and beyond.  I’d be checking in on the chickens, asking after the sweet corn crop that filled up a neighbor’s front yard, admiring some sugar pie pumpkins and finding out if anyone ate nearly as many romano beans as we did at my house this summer.  Man, those beans were good.

But alas.  While my neighbors gather in their late summer tomatoes, and the cabbages get serious about fall, I’m plopped on the sofa with my right foot on the coffee table and my left hand in a cast.   OMG, you might say!  What manner of drama have we here?

Thanks for asking.  It’s been a Wile E. Coyote kind of summer, so laugh if you like.  I do.  In June, I tripped over the cord to my laptop, flew into a wall, and broke my nose.  In July, I hiked a few too many miles in the Sierras and acquired a stress fracture in my foot.  Ten days ago, I took a little spill on my bike (which I could still ride with my tender foot) and broke my fall with my hand.

So you might say I’ve had some weeks of unplanned  relaxation.  Which puts me in mind of Xavier de Maistre, who also spent time under house arrest.   Read the rest of this entry »


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