Sometimes I don’t write a post here because I feel like the photograph doesn’t match my standards. You never could have told me, a dozen years ago, that I’d have to think about something called Pinterest or Instagram to lay down words on the page. For that matter, you never could have told me that I would rarely see my sentences on an actual page.
I still remember the moment I first put my fingers down on a computer keyboard. It was 1983, and I had just returned from an awkward year in London. Happy to be back with humans my own age after a lonely year, I joined every activity I could enjoy. I played softball, joined the ASB, did the Academic Decathalon, and even started a Beatles club at my school. (Don’t laugh. We had 85 members. After school, once a week, we gathered in a classroom to watch A Hard Day’s Night or listen to bootlegs.) And I started taking writing classes. It cracks me up now but one of my writing classes was called Manuscript Writing for Publication. My friend John Darnielle was in that class too. (Now he’s the lead singer of The Mountain Goats. It seems we put something in that class to use.) And I started taking journalism, carefully researching little stores about my giant Southern California high school. Someone at our hour high school won the International Math Olympiad in Czechoslovakia. That was a story I wanted to write, especially because that kid was the most socially awkward person I had ever met. He made me feel positively like a debutante. So I typed up stories, pounding the keys of the old typewriters, trying to make that k stick to the page. But somewhere in the year, a clunky computer arrived in the room. A Macintosh SE, to be precise.
Do you remember those? They were giant beige behemoths, so slow that they took two start-up disks, inserted again and again and again, one after the other, to warm up the computer and coax it to show us a home screen. I thought it was phenomenally cool. How could I type, finally as fast as I wanted, and then press a button to send something to the printer next to it? And then watch my words appear, in gaudy blue font, on a page? I thrilled to it, right away, that year I was determined to no longer be shy and live in my books alone and start talking to people and do more than gather good grades like trophies to be put on a high shelf. I knew this was something I wanted, right away. None of my newspaper stories were any good that year. I don’t have any of them saved. But I started pounding out words, making sentences, starting stories and finishing them, writing so many bad stories that eventually, slowly, oh so damn slowly, my writing started to match my taste.
(If you are any bit creative, and you haven’t read this Ira Glass quote about what it takes to become the artist you want to be, then read this.)
And there I was, seventeen years old, and starting to breathe out and become myself, but still desperately twisted in on myself, trying to be popular. Writing was my out.
Jump forward twenty years. Writing is like breathing for me. Sometimes it’s stertorous, sometimes I forget it, and sometimes I feel every single word coming out of my mind and falling onto the computer screen through my fingers. But I still don’t feel good. I feel like I’m 80 years old, instead of 38. I feel like my brain is wandering through a fog most afternoons. I feel achy and tired and my gut is wrapped in pain and I don’t know the way out. So I write and write and write. And then, I’m diagnosed with celiac and the entire world opened into happiness and energy. And words. So many words. They’re all here, on this site. Writing has always been my way of exploring, of understanding, of spitting into the wind and saying who the hell cares if it even makes sense. I’m just here, flying my fingers across the keyboard as fast as I can go.
Except, when I don’t. Except when I eat good food and forget to taste it and think instead of how it would look in the right light. And when I can’t find the right light where is the camera? why haven’t I bought a bounce yet? I still need to figure out all the right tools to make this a professional studio. but it’s still just our dining room table I stop enjoying the food. I stop wanting to write.
When I stop writing, I’m not happy. It’s pretty simple. A few days without cooking and Danny’s hands are shaky, his movements are frantic. A few days without writing and I pace the hall between the living room and kitchen, looking for something to do with my time. I check my phone too many times. I wish for it to be the end of the day so I can go to sleep.
When I first picked up a digital camera, I felt the same way I did when I touched that clunky computer in 1983. My fingers thrilled to it. I pointed it somewhere in the room and looked for light. It’s always the light I want to find. But somehow, picking up the much more expensive digital camera now has become tangled up with making photographs look good enough for Pinterest and making sure the recipe I’m posting has the right hashtags to gather enough views to make sure we have enough readers to keep growing.
And I’m right back in goddamned high school, where everyone is pretty miserable and trying so horribly hard to fake it to everyone around them.
Food blogs remind me of high school.
And I cannot stand most of the food I see on Pinterest. A perfect three-layer cake, the chocolate frosting impeccable between the golden layers, not a fingerprint on it or an imperfect swirl where the knife finally lifted from it, the slice resting delicately on an antique plate, the fork balancing just so, the towering whole cake behind it in soft focus, the light perfectly guided to illuminate the entire scene, not a thing out of place, not a hand reaching, in fact no trace of a human in sight. It’s just fake, all of it, this perfect food. I’m so damned tired of perfect food.
Worse yet, I read people’s status updates on Facebook and hear them crow about the kid’s Halloween costume they have made, saying, “I’m so proud! It’s good enough for Pinterest!” We’re still stuck in that same sorry state, doing everything for appearances.
Something insisted this morning. I read Laurie Anderson’s beautifully brief obituary for her husband, Lou Reed. “Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us.”
I threw the phone up the stairs and moved to the kitchen. I put some butter in a pan. There were sliced red peppers and slivers of breakfast radishes and ribbons of leftover collard greens to put into the sizzle of butter and stir. We had nothing left in the herb drawer except the tail end of a bunch of parsley. Throw them in. I filled the skillet with vegetables and pushed them around with the spatula until they were soft. Soft dollops of them in a muffin tin, topped with smoked salmon, and eggs I beat up briskly to the beat of the music playing in the background. 18 eggs for 12 muffins. Maldon salt. A hot oven. 20 minutes later, we were eating.
But before we ate, I made us wait for the muffins to cool so I could pull them out and arrange them attractively on a wooden board. I took 25 photographs of them, bending awkwardly, trying to find the right light. And then I stood up and stopped. My kid was hungry and I was making her wait to get a photograph that would please invisible masses. Fuck it. Fuck Pinterest and pleasing and being perfect and even the notion of how this site should be.
I snapped this photograph from my shoulder, not even looking through the viewfinder. Here’s a not especially attractive photograph of egg muffins.