The Tweetest Thing

Look, ya’ll, I know this Twitter thing ain’t new. Ever since Diane Rehm, the matriarch of public radio, starting croaking “or send us a tweet” at the tail end of her call for calls, snail mails, and e-mails, non-twitterers like me were officially behind the times.

I do know how to tweeter. It’s actually one of those things my employer pays me to do, even if they shouldn’t. I can hashtag with the best of them.

I just never thought that I personally had anything to twit about.

Honestly, Twitter always frightened me. It was a place where the Me-Monsters could yell at no one in particular, in poor syntax, about their uninteresting exploits. It was a place where, new updates cascading down the page ad nauseam,  the attention deficit could scratch their itch indefinitely, and the mimetically susceptible would boil over (into violence, of course) due to the profusion of new mediators. It was a place, in short, where all my weaknesses (except syntax) would be exploited.

I can say, now that I have finally waded, chest-deep, into the Twitter stream, that all these fears were justified. But there was something I didn’t expect, and that thing is keeping me here, anchored, I hope, mid-stream and with my head above water. That thing is this: Twitter is a place where you can win.

There is, of course, the obvious way to win on Twitter—collecting followers—but that wasn’t a way could win. Ain’t nobody catching Katy Perry.

It wasn’t until Erin scored her first celebrity re-tweet that I heard the sweet chirping of my own social media vocation. That was something I could do too. Game on.

I won’t give you a play by play, but within a week of resuscitating @PZoutendam, and after notching three or four minor victories, I scored this:

NPR Twitter

That’s right—not one, but two NPR personalities, tweeting at me, my wife, and each other about my tweet. Beat that, fellow nerds.

All this may make me look like just another Me-Monster, drunk on small beer. But here’s the difference: I know this is small beer. This is all fun and games. I’m not saving the world, changing my own life or anyone else’s, 140 characters at a time. I’ll save the serious stuff for real sentences with real people.

Social media is kinda dumb, ya’ll. And as long as that’s the case, I’ll be #winning it.

The Grammar of Love

“Hey, babe? . . . Babe?”

This is usually how I know Erin is awake. She wakes up with a question, something I need to weigh in on. It is often urgent, plaintive, and it typically hovers around this theme: “Will I die?”

You might think this a rather philosophical start to the day, an attempt to question one’s own mortality, the hard but honest truth being Yes, you will die; everyone will die eventually. But the question here is not, “Will I die eventually,” but, “Will I die right now?” I’ve found that the truth here—No, you will not—offers little comfort, so I usually just hold her hand through the rest of her concerns: “I feel like I’m dying. My legs aren’t working. I don’t think I can get out of bed. This kitty needs me to stay here. Don’t laugh when I’m being serious.”

Mornings are hard on some of us.

I was preparing to help navigate us through these rough waters again today. (“Babe? . . . Hey, babe?”) But then this: “I think I should get an eHarmony account.”

*curious silence*

“I’ve heard you can get matched with some really weird people. I think we should make a fake account.”

And I thought this a very good idea for so early in the morning.

One particular character Erin told me about was a wannabe James Bond, a playboy petroleum engineer, at least according to his projected image. “He wanted to travel the world with a beautiful woman at his side,” he wrote. In his free time, he “enjoyed reading articles on, science dining eroticism and, wild sex.”

Though I silently feared the allure of this man’s money and the prospect of world travel, Erin put those fears to rest. Wealth and luxury could not overcome her editorial instincts. His prose was too redundant, his lapsed commas too unbearable.

She disposed of him with the first of, I hope, many damning dismissals: “He did not prove himself a capable grammarian.”

Art & Craft (lines from Hamlet)

“More matter, with less art.”
- Gertrude, Hamlet 2.2

I was going to write something about Kansas. Kansas is the subject of not one, but two lovely essays by Erin, and I thought I might find some inspiration there too, some spark to elevate my thought and prose closer to hers. But I didn’t get very far.

It’s not that I had nothing to say. I started the essay; I knew where it was headed; I even had a couple of nifty lines pre-cast and waiting in the margins. It’s just that, as I realized last night right with the gentle fog of sleep rolling in, I started by saying the wrong thing.

I started by talking about photos, and by saying that I am not a photographer, which in an obvious sense is false. I take photos every day and I get paid for them. It is literally part of my job to take pictures—in fact, it is the part of my job that takes the most time. I took my job at Habitat for Humanity, working in communications, because of the writing, but it turns out writing is no longer a primary mode of communication. Writing just offers an interpretation (optional) for the gauzy images that dwarf it on the spread of each newsletter, brochure, and webpage produced. So I take about two photos for each word I write, and that is my job.

But of course I meant, and intended to explain, that I am “not a photographer” in a different sense, that more essential sense that Socrates would pursue when wrapped in a dialogue—surely there was one like this—about the “true photographer,” the one who does it in the right way at the right time, with both knowledge and love of his art. That is not me. The muse of photography, whoever she is, has never lighted on my shoulder, whispered in my ear. I am a hack. I widen the aperture, set the exposure and change the shutter speed, in desperate and mechanical imitation of anyone who appears to know what she’s doing. I feel like an chimp, just aping people with a toy I can manipulate but not understand. The results are sometimes interesting but largely random. Most of my photos go right to the recycle bin.

Thus there is one subject for which I am not a photographer in any sense: our family photos. My clumsy attempts to “capture memories” produced enough limbless people and unrecognizable buildings that we tacitly agreed, at some early point in our marriage, that Erin would take all our keepsake pictures.

So my photography career progresses within a comical irony: I am a paid professional, but I am so poor an artist that I am not allowed to be an amateur.

This, of course, has everything to do with Kansas, and I was going to explain how . . . but then in that midnight epiphany I saw how wrong my beginning was. It was fiction based on falsehood.

The myth of the muses I accept—not as literal truth, but as a fitting poetic description of the mystery of genius. Some art seems inspired, breathed into the artist by something external that he himself cannot explain. Some artists appear, in a truly passive sense, to be “gifted.” What a blessing to our lives.

But art in most instances is not Art in this way. It is not blind rapture or divine possession. It is really less Art than craft, the practice of principles that accrues, however slowly and imperceptibly, into perceptible skill. This we were taught as freshman English students, bewildered at the low marks on our essays; perplexed at the sudden failure of our old method: writing what came to us;  hoping for some new word from Parnassus to solve all our problems. A fresh muse wasn’t what we needed, or at least it wasn’t something we would get. Practice and study—and a few tours through The Elements of Style—was what we needed. Our senior papers attest the truth of that. No one became Samuel Johnson or Evelyn Waugh with a few year’s practice, but we could craft our sentences with purpose and effect. We got better.

To divide the the world of art simply into haves and have-nots is falsehood. Certainly the distribution of gifts varies, and certainly there are geniuses for whom art seems all ease and no effort. But the rest of us aren’t just stuck in deficiency.

And thus my own narrative of hopeless artistic deficiency was a fiction. The thing about humans is that we are not apes. Even when we think we’re just aping someone, something distinctly human happens to us if we do it long enough. We start to understand.

That happened just last week to me. I even felt it happening. I glanced up from my desk and realized the light outside was ideal for shooting our garden at work, so I grabbed my camera. I trolled around and suddenly saw a lovely structure for the background. I took some photos, saw they weren’t quite what I wanted, and took a few more till I got it right. In 30 minutes, I was a demonstrably better photographer.

The months of trial and error preceding that felt like futility, but they were more like fertilizer, preparing the soil for sudden growth.

It’s true that there was something like inspiration—the sudden, unexpected realization, coming as it were out of thin air. But I would call it intuition, and I think it’s something earned and developed, not exactly received. Or perhaps, more accurate, it’s a kind of receptivity that’s earned and developed. Maybe the muses do speak to the rest of us, or at least let us overhear them. We just need to learn their language.

Terroir

In one of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, he mentions mountains like crumpled butcher paper, which at the time I believed to be probably one of his more imaginative metaphors, fanciful and untethered to reality. I had seen mountains,* hiked mountains, skied mountains, rode horses through mountains, and they all had pine trees and sundry scratchy shrubs and often snow. They were green and grey and craggy, but not deep brown and not crumpled. Even McCarthy has to stretch sometimes, I assumed, to evoke that godless-wasteland feeling so necessary to his novels.

But then, while we were living in Phoenix, I flew back into the city from the north, crossing a stretch of desert. I remember gasping audibly—mountains like crumpled butcher paper. Those mountains were perhaps the most startling landscape I saw in Arizona, although we saw the Grand Canyon, and forests of Aspens near Flagstaff, and, my favorite, Oak Creek Canyon in the fall. But the fearful vastness of these butcher paper mountains—even from the plane they were all I could see. This land can kill you.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that we left Arizona. There were practical reasons, but there was also the fact that life there seemed always a mirage—temporary, improbable, foolhardy. And of course now we live in West Michigan, the third coast, the promised land, where everything grows.

But my soul will always be Kansan. Not just because it is a modest, quiet place, but because it is the land that I find beautiful. Perhaps only people from the Midwest, by birth or adoption, find it beautiful, but the older I get the more I wonder that I never noticed it as a child.

I was driving with my mother east on I-70 toward Kansas City a few weeks ago, and the many shades of green rolled over me like a flood. The many grasses, the hedgerows planted and then abandoned by farmers long ago, the few trees like sentinels guarding their domain, each its own varietal of green. The darkest greens are the leaves of the trees, and then down to the shrubs and weeds, and finally the pale green of the grass, drawing the eye ever downward to the earth, rooted. This is where we dwell, this is where we stay.

"Morning Mist - Kansas River Valley" by Rod Steel

“Morning Mist – Kansas River Valley” by Rod Seel

When the wind blows, one can see the nether leaves of every bush and tree, all silver hued and cold; the heightened contrast of green against silver makes each leaf visible, and the effect is of sharpened, quickened senses. Each blade, each stalk, each branch curves into an arc—vital, dynamic. It is very like the sea, I think.

Whenever I see the prairie, I can’t help but think of all the stories of pioneers that I was told or read as a child. I don’t know if other Americans hear these stories in such great number, or if it is just us plain-states children, nestled in the valley of the country. If tales can be believed, each of these pioneers was a saint, strong and tireless and brave. I don’t know if everyone else sees pioneers as the real heroes of the country, or if that’s just us too.

Sometimes I get embarrassed now, thinking of those early settlers. They moved from strength to strength, but I tend more to move from crisis to crisis, each one less worthy of emotion than the last. It occurred to me only very recently that I could perhaps stop living like that, if I wished. It would take time, and I would have to start small, but I might someday be stronger than I am. I could take as a touchstone the vitality and energy of the plains and decide to live that way, looking toward the quiet peace of Providence and saying, this is where I dwell, this is where I stay.

***

*I remember vividly the first time I saw a mountain. I was quite young, and I was eager to reach the top of the mountain, because in my mind it would be as sharp as a needle, which is how mountaintops looked in my drawings, where they resembled upside-down v‘s. I was devastated, truly devastated, when my mother told me we were at the top. There was plenty of room to park and walk around, and it was not pointy at all. For all I know this was the beginning of my melancholy nature, which tends to expect disappointment.

This Good Earth (Lines from As You Like It)

And I in such a poverty of grace
. . . shall think it a most plenteous crop
To glean the broken ears after the man
That the main harvest reaps; loose now and then
A scattered smile, and that I’ll live upon.
– Silvius, As You Like It, III.5

Last Saturday Erin and I woke up early to pick strawberries on a local farm. It was a respite I had looked forward to all week, a leisure ripe from anticipation—and to my younger self it would have been a chore I cringed at all week, a drudgery soured by dread. Such is the miracle of adulthood: those boring pastimes so inscrutable to children are reborn as delights.

When I was ten, gardening was the black spot on my summers, the scourge of my Saturdays. We didn’t grow anything at my house, but my grandfather grew everything at his, and through the perpetual conspiracy between him and my mother, my brother and I were conscripted as laborers.

Every Saturday in high summer, we were roused and shuttled to Grandpa’s never ending rows of beans, corn, squash, beans, cucumbers, and more beans. (The actual size of that small farm is impossible to verify now. To my childhood mind, the place could only have been measured in acres. That it all managed to fit in Grandpa’s back yard casts some doubt on that now, but the important thing is that it felt like acres.)

Worse than the scope of the labor was the climate. This was Texas, and East Texas, so Texas hot and Louisiana humid. It was truly oppressive. Picking beans for an hour felt like swimming in a bog of quicksand while wearing a lead apron. Add the constant scratch of stalks and tendrils and the continual menace of bees and wasps, and you see the just grounds we had for revolt against child slave labor.

We, however, never did revolt, choosing instead the high road of nonviolence—namely, complaining.

To that beleaguered child, it must seem a scandal and a betrayal that, without even a whimper of protest, I would reenact those same persecutions now, moved by not an ounce of obligation but only by what must be recognized as joy. And what explains the change? Maybe gardening can be cataloged with the other chores of domestic life—mowing the yard, washing dishes and laundry, dusting off bookshelves—that earn some affection merely by familiarity and rhythm.

But there is something more here. Gardening—planting and waiting and worrying and harvesting—is unique. Gardening is a world ordinary and even dull at first glance, but saturated with meaning and fertile with metaphor when dwelt in.

The heart of hortiphilia, I think, is really an encounter with mystery. We say we grow things. That is an imprecision. We plant things, we water them, we prune them, we harvest them; they do the growing themselves. There is something entirely outside us at work, something that may respond to our skill and art (or may not) and may be described by our science but cannot be mastered by either will or study. Growth is a phenomenon, shrouded from our senses, that is fundamentally an encounter with grace. We prepare what we can, we participate where we see how, but ultimately we simply receive what we are given.

A garden, then, is a perfect metaphor for the whole of life and a tireless teacher in how to live it. The endless didacticism of the garden seems mostly to burden children, for whom it means work instead of play, but to a slightly jaded adult searching for a gentle voice, its lessons are a balm. When I was a child, thinking and acting like a child, patience was superfluous. No need to work or wait for something; something else just as interesting could always be done. When I became a man, patience, if not more natural, at least became more necessary for happiness.

Patience is harvested in bushels from a garden. There is the more obvious patience, the patience of investing, of waiting to reap what you’ve sown. But there is another varietal, one with less florid fruit but deeper roots. That is the patience of not reaping what you’ve sown, the patience of failure.

Last year, our first year in amateur agriculture, we were all hope and no expectation. Failure seemed just as likely as success. But Michigan, that “other Eden in the summertime,” rains on both sinner and saint, and the harvest was bountiful in spite of our clumsiness.

This year looks even more promising. But things started poorly. My pet project failed decisively. We had planned an addition to our leafy greens—strawberries grown in lengths of vinyl gutter—but I mounted the gutters too high on the fence, right along the top, where the squirrels can run. It was a perfect buffet. Not a single bud survived, we missed the window for re-planting, and now the gutter sits there, sagging under the weight of barren soil until next year when I can try a different spot.

And that is the thing about failing in a garden. Sometimes you can’t fix things until next year, and that fix might fail as well. With the cycle of trial and error stretched to such long intervals, error can feel almost permanent. This staggered me.

Why was I distraught over a lost handful of berries? It was more than the fruitless expense of time, labor, and money. It was, I finally saw, that this particular kind of failure is a brush with mortality. It reveals things as finite—the limit of your abilities and your window to improve them. When you can try again tomorrow, failure is negligible, success almost assured. There are plenty of tomorrows, each coming immediately, and that sequence quietly elides failure into the arc of success.

But you can number your summers, and they come so slowly. Success is no longer in your grasp. Until the next summer does come, you have to live in your deficiency.

The simpler things I work and wonder at are not this way. Wiki blurbs and YouTube tutorials can mend gaps in knowledge and skill instantaneously, painlessly. But this is the state of the truly important things—our philosophy, our theology, our friends, ourselves. We are beings “on the way,” as Pieper says in his essay “On Hope,” and the way is long, and its end is not actually in our view.

Recognizing this, once I had dug down to the root of my frustration, did not root out that frustration, but it did graft on a few shoots of hope. It’s good to be thwarted. It’s good to be stuck for a while, waiting and not even working. It’s good to pause and contemplate for a season the limits of labor and the limits of self. The frustration it arouses, when probed, comes to be felt as the pain of growth. A little more knowledge, a slightly fuller hold on reality. There it was, where I didn’t see it, happening anyway.