"Fatuous navel gazing," lowered standards, and the art of the graceful return
I've been gone for a while and now I'm back. That's as graceful as it gets and I'm trying to lower my standards and be okay with that.
Most people who know me know that I am a huge David Foster Wallace geek—DFW, for short, not to be confused with the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. While he’s not an uncomplicated character, I hold a number of his observations about life as articles of faith, many that he meant snarkily.
In one of his most famous essays, he acknowledges that his concerns over the philosophical questions raised by eating lobster that is boiled alive could reasonably be dismissed as “fatuous navel gazing.” He was referring to a tendency to overthink and overanalyze, a tendency that I know well.
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Wallace died in 2008, so he could not have foreseen how plastic this term could be, especially when applied to the way that social media can facilitate narcissism. As I return to my Substack, I have to admit that I have worn smooth the worry bead that is the idea of fatuous navel gazing, which DFW himself would probably have already started abbreviating as FNG this far into an essay. So, in his honor: FNG, henceforth.
I started writing The Next Thing with the intention of chronicling my adventures in reinventing myself after losing my full-time faculty position to COVID in May of 2020. After a couple of decades in academia, “professor” was not just my job, it was my identity. I spent the first COVID year teaching as an adjunct, which means I taught more classes for less money and no benefits. I took contract editing and writing work: turns out my specific discipline of professional writing has some value outside of academia.
As I have slowly shifted my work load from mostly teaching to mostly writing and editing, I did what I’ve spent my career helping students and clients avoid doing. I froze and stopped writing. It could have been that I was just working so much. Contract writing and editing is a special kind of hell because you have to be doing the work while simultaneously hustling to get the next job. It could have been that, after working more-or-less around the clock for several months, the brain-eyes-and typing fingers assembly I needed to do my own writing was fried.
It could have been the fact that hustling to get and do work makes for dull subject matter. As the poet Marge Piercy wrote “the work of the world is common as mud.” I thought a lot about it. I wrote about it. I deleted what I wrote. It felt like fatuous navel gazing. Solipsism. Thinking about thinking. Thoughts about thoughts clonking around inside my skull like abandoned crap in the trunk of a car.
Several years ago my cousin solved the great mystery of our last name, Eakman. My grandparents pronounced it ACHE-mun, but my dad said ECK-mun. While my cousin was traveling for work in Sweden, he learned that it was a misspelling of Eekman, properly pronounced ACHE-mon. I did a bit of digging around with that information and discovered that it was an occupational name. Eek refers to the kind of wood that was used to make shipping barrels (oak) and the Eekman was the person whose job was to audit and log the contents of those barrels.
I could envision that person, trudging around the cold, grey docks of old Scandinavia, lifting the lids of barrels, saying something along the lines of “yep, looks like dried mackerel,” and writing that in the shipping log before moving on to the next barrel. I felt a profound connection to this ancestor, with whom I share a high tolerance for slow, repetitive, and tedious work—plenty of time to let those old shoes rattle around in the trunk. No wonder my writing topics kept shifting back to my dogs and wildflowers.
Upon the rare occasion that editing is dramatic or interesting, it’s usually because a writer is really stinking it up and requires some tough love, but editors rarely spill the beans on their clients. Think about how many celebrities “write” things like articles, poems, or fiction. I can guarantee you that editors have been on some colorful clean-up duty. I have cleaned up some horrors, but I hold the trust that my clients place in my discretion sacred. Yet another unusable topic.
I spent a good bit of the past spring geeking out over the native plants that spontaneously popped up on the back part of our property and thinking about metaphors. I got an app that identifies plants using my phone’s camera and was delighted to discover that none of the suspicious-looking vines were actually poison ivy. My friend Carrie had told me that poison ivy leaves are identifiable by their thumb shape. I spent so much time crouched on the ground trying to decide if I was seeing a thumb shape that I ended up covered with chigger bites. That’s when I got the app. Less crouching, squinting, and itching.
We got all kinds of pollinator-friendly flowers, including antelope horn milkweed, which is a favorite of monarch butterflies and smells faintly of tuberose. We got edible plants like wild blackberries, agarita—tiny red berries that taste like sweet cherry tomatoes—and prairie tea, an aromatic herb that smells kind of like oregano, among others. Recumbent pigweed, which the foraging websites assured me is edible from leaf to taproot: although I did not sample it, I was comforted to know that, if shit goes down, we could survive on pigweed.
When big, velvety yellow flowers began to bloom on a particularly hearty vine that grew along the ground, I was reminded of growing yellow squash, cucumbers, and watermelon as a kid. So, I grabbed my plant identifier app and focused the camera on it. Imagine my surprise and horror to discover that this particular plant is called “stinking gourd.” Yes, those beautiful blossoms would turn into small melons, but they are inedible, possibly toxic, once they get past a mysteriously defined age. Some native plant experts claimed that some native populations had used the cut melons as soap because they create suds—suds which I guess are effective if the concepts of clean and not stinking aren’t too closely related in your mind.
Stinking gourd is so named because, not to put too fine a point on it, it stinks. The whole plant stinks. The universal recommendation was to start trying to eradicate it immediately by digging it up at the root and quickly bagging up the whole vine-y mess. If disinterred and left on the ground, it could re-spawn like a zombie, like a bunch of zombies actually. Some experts advised fire.
The smell I will describe to you here. Have you ever ordered a hamburger with really strong-smelling diced onions on it, like eye-wateringly strong, like you probably scraped them off immediately strong? When my kids were in elementary school, my son was a fan of those pungent onions on his burgers and a couple of times accidentally fumbled some in the car, where they lived and respirated heavily under the seats until I found them, tinted yellow with mustard and unchanged by the passage of time. Concentrate that and you’ve got the smell.
I dug up all of the vines along with their daikon radish-shaped roots and they were abundant and ample. I let them wilt in the garden waste bag for a few days before carrying them to the trash can. It’s been five months and they’re back. I’m going to have to dig them up and dispose of them again. It’s going to be a process.
Having embraced my ancestral aptitude for repetitive tasks, I feel like I’m up for the challenge, though. My small dogs will eat or attempt to eat all kinds of things that are express tickets to pricey veterinary appointments. Birdie swallowed a frog. The vet’s theory was that she didn’t really mean to eat it. “Most dogs just like to carry them around,” he explained. But when I saw the little green legs dangling out of her mouth and got grossed out and asked my son to get it away from her, she apparently thought she’d better just bolt it down. I don’t want them foaming from trying to eat stinking gourds.
It’s been a long, hot summer. Here in Texas, that’s always how they are. And they last from May well into the fall. I suspect that the way that people from cold climates feel about the first warm day of spring is equivalent to the way we Texans feel about the first cool day of fall. As the writer William Burroughs wrote, “perhaps all pleasure is relief.”
As the heat begins to ease, I imagine new beginnings. For now, my work is still contract and I am slated to teach a course on professional writing in the spring. It is my nature to prefer to have a plan, ideally written, scheduled to fifteen-minute intervals, forever. Inspecting oaken shipping barrels and recording their contents sounds delightful. The kind of work I am doing, however—piece work, patchwork, please-hire-me work—forces me to live with uncertainty. My friend Spike would remind me of the concept of impermanence.
I have recently started meeting weekly with another writer at the wonderful independent bookseller Lark and Owl in Georgetown. We sit at the the same table and write silently.
The antidote to my writing-and-deleting loop (because it seems like FNG) is to take some advice that my friend Carrie Fountain—poet, author, and she of the thumb-shaped poison-ivy leaves advice—gives. It is another mala bead of faith for me. Paraphrasing the poet and author William Stafford, she said “lower your standards and keep writing.”
Stafford had actually been asked by an interviewer what he did when he got stuck in his writing and he answered “I lower my standards and keep going.” He was famously prolific, with four columns of books of poetry listed in tiny type on Wikipedia and another column for his prose. When he was sent to work camps as a conscientious objector during WWII, he rose in the wee hours of the morning to write, knowing that he would be too exhausted after his days of hard labor working in forestry. Having trouble finding time or energy to write? Think about this guy.
When I was teaching and students would end up weeping in my office, which happened so frequently with my seniors working on extended projects that I kept tissues next to the chair, I would acknowledge my debt to Carrie and Stafford and write “lower your standards and keep going” on a sticky note and tell them to take it home and stick it to their desks. There’s something about having a thing, a piece of paper or a bead or whatever, a thing that exists in the world that you can hold in your hand or a scrawled note that you can look at—or a table where you can sit—that makes doing hard things, like lowering your standards and going forward, easier.
I am reminding myself to take that advice, to lower my standards and keep going. It’s the closest I’ll come to a graceful reentry.
Read poems by Carrie Fountain and William Stafford at poetryfoundation.org.
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