Taming Ambition / Pecans
Repetition / The Difference Between Need and Desire
I knew 2020 had done it’s worst on my heart when I found myself trying to write this newsletter for three days in a row and the peak moment of this attempt ended in me listening to Shake it Off by Taylor Swift with my earbuds on as loud as they would go sobbing at my desk as I sang along. A desperate image. But a true one.
I had started writing a hopefully worthwhile essay on pecans and Live Oak, Florida and ambition and all of the things I have been trying to lasso into something that looks even a little like hope and respite, mostly respite. And, some days, you just can’t get there. It took me longer than usual to stay in this essay, to stay in this story, to find any meaning in it at all. But I pushed through and the essay is below. I started this newsletter to hold myself accountable to writing, to find some meaning again in cooking and food. My fear is that this is not what you came here for. But, team, this is the best I got in this moment. I’m pretty empty, as we all are. And I’m not good at fabricating things to get by. So, the best I can do is to be what I am right now: a little lost, fully depleted - only a slight flicker of heat where there is usually a wild fire raging. We’ll get by. Love, L
The three layers of atmosphere of the house in Live Oak, Florida where my grandparents lived were so distinct you could almost chew on them.
The strata I mostly lived in was the low-to-the-ground “troposphere”, if you will, because, at that time, I was short and also because most of my time there was spent sitting crossed legged on the carpet in the living room between my grandparents and two dogs - a very old Doberman Pincher named Babe and a ratted, matted cartoon character of a Maltese named Rebel. This was the atmospheric level that was right under the main, thick-with-life “stratosphere”, the spirit of the house, that was made up entirely of dense cigarette smog, the alternately or sometimes simultaneously lingering scent of fried bologna or skillet warmed flour tortillas, my grandmother’s Pine Sol floor cleaner which was always applied from a bucket on her hands and knees with one wet rag and one dry one, and the small symphony of the house: the murmurs of conversation, the ringing of the telephone, the radio always low on country classics and Ray Charles. I can still picture my Nana singing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” as she danced around the kitchen. The highest level of this Live Oak planet, I think the “mesosphere” is what it’s called, would be the outside of the actual house where my Uncle Billy, with his long black hair parted down the middle, always shirtless with faded bell bottom jeans and brown flip flops, his dark Mexican skin always five shades deeper than the rest of the family because of his preference to be shirtless most hours of most days, parked his Astro van that was fully decked out with wooden bead curtains, a couch, an 8track, a wall of cassettes and a cooler only for beer. Smack dab in the center of the front yard, there was a giant, ancient, swampy looking Live Oak, dripping with Spanish Moss which we would collect, wear as wigs and pretend to be witches and wizards as we buzzed from the front yard that belonged to this ancient Oak Tree and a small and slightly intimidated smattering of Loblolly Pines to the back yard that belonged to a family of healthy, nut bearing Pecan Trees. This place, this micro-planet of my childhood and every layer of its atmosphere are basically embedded in my DNA now and I would be surprised if my children did not remember all that these memories contain as clearly as I do, even though they’ve never seen or felt it with their own eyes or skin or ears. This place was filled with some of my most formative smells: my Nana’s lotioned skin which always smelled like almond, Babe’s rancid, choke-on-the-air-old-dog gas and Rebel’s general deathly odor, and maybe most importantly - not a smell but a sound - the constant cracking and picking and chewing of pecans between their drags of cigarettes. Most of my memories of the inside of that house were from that floor, between their legs, between the dogs, my back propped up against a large ceramic elephant ashtray/end table hybrid, and a wooden panel television set perpetually turned on in front of us all, playing either The Gong Show or The Mandrell Sisters’ Show, me just a scoot and a wiggle away from the buttons and dials. I was the remote control.
This place does not have an address in my memory, only smells and sounds and textures and voices and colors, mostly dark paneled and drab, smokey and rich in texture, just like everything else in the seventies and early eighties. This place was never a place I ever drove to or mailed letters to. This was a place I was brought to, riding in the backseat of my parent’s car, seemingly every summer and Christmas since birth. It was the formative home of my childhood, more important than any duplex or apartment that the Army ever put us in. I remember everything - every corner, every detail. It’s my job to remember. I, somewhere along the lines of my life, made it my job to remember. There is nothing I seem to forget, sometimes no matter how hard I try.
I bought a pecan picker and cracker this year. I actually bought it last year for Thanksgiving because I came upon a bag of pecans and thought, ok sure, why not.
My daughter picked pecans with a good man named Kevin Murphy, the father of my best friend and Godmother to my daughter. So, technically, he’d be the GrandGodFather, I think. Anyway. They picked pecans together. Cracked, picked, chomped. It was lovely.
I remember having a feeling that Thanksgiving, one I didn’t have to sit with for too long so it felt like a fond one, one without the bereft depths we have had to plunge this year. Jesus that day feels like five lifetimes ago. I was too busy in the kitchen to do more than take a quick video of the pecan pickers and get back to my yeast rolls. But the thought was, “how simple, how nice”, I remembered my grandparents and this old habit, and I got back to my bustle.
I’m a very good bustler. It’s actually probably what I’m best at. I’m not worth a damn if my hands are still because that means my mind is still and I already think too much as it is, so: busy hands, busy mind, ever onward, always upward. I like being this way. I’ve never seen it as a problem. I’m not running from anything, though folks sure like to assume you’re dysfunctional for keeping so busy sometimes. I’m pretty self-aware and honest with myself. I don’t think I needed a pace change. I found balance a long time ago. I made peace with this need for hard work and my eager ambitions. Trust me, there are things I am working on. But this one? I quite like this about myself.
The two impulses to be busy and to think big have worked very well in concert with one another in my adult life. I worked hard to get them to tether. I typically think pretty large scale and there is nothing I can do to change it: big dreams, big ideas (however impractical), a lack of ability to think small on any scale or for any purpose - everything is a vision, a big picture and then the incredible work of building a plan to make it all happen. Pretty blissful in that space. I’ve had a lot of people get the wrong idea about my person due to this. They are quick to suppose I’m just after some fame or glory. They lose sight that it’s the work, the project, the problem solving that I want. They simply think this means I want too much - which, it should be noted, is always different than what they want and, by default, it would seem, becomes (for them) some kind of commentary (by me) on what they haven’t done or don’t want. It has never been about anyone else for me. I don’t think my ambitions are better than anyone else’s. I’m just trying to get the most out of my experience here. And for me, “most” is about building and traveling and moving and meeting and engaging, and yes, accomplishing. But, somehow, people get the idea that if you want something different than them, that you are somehow saying they are wrong or insufficient in their wants or ambitions. It’s a shame. It’s a damn shame. That’s all I can say about that. Except to make the point that I’ve silently been told my whole life that I want too much. Not to my face, and never verbally, but just with people’s absences, skepticisms and lack of understanding for the things that make me feel full and fulfilled. I’m too sensitive to just brush them off. Trust me, it hurt me for a long time and I wish I wasn’t a moody scorpio who feels all the feels. But, I came to terms with my ambition a long time ago, despite this overwhelming external sense that I was doing it wrong or that I should be ashamed of it somehow.
Believe it or not, this all comes back to pecan picking. Busy hands. Busy hands got tethered to ambition a long time ago in my life. They were a good team. They are a good team. But these are not ordinary days. There is nowhere for Ambition to go anymore, not right now, not yet. This is one of the biggest differences in these After Times - the things that you truly had figured out for yourself, things that worked, things that kept you moving forward despite all the things trying to hold you back, get turned on their head in a simple moment - with a simple, cheap ass Kroger-bought pecan picking set.
I woke up in a start about four nights ago. I had reached that point of sleep where I’m mentally writing in some weird dimension, thinking of words just for fun and, then, all of sudden, I was picking pecans with my grandparents again. Specifically my Pa. It was so vivid, I actually wondered if my Pa had passed away. It felt like he was right there and I was so warm because of it and I hugged him and we joked about how he didn’t have a quarter or a dime, him patting his pockets to prove they were empty. I had two jobs in the troposphere of Live Oak: I brushed my Pa’s nearly bald-headed hair and I rubbed almond scented lotion on my Nana’s feet. Like any good visionary, I did this by request for free for the first five years of my life. Then, I started charging those freeloading beauties a dime and eventually, when I got famous around the house for my skills, a whole damn quarter.
See. BIG PICTURE, people. BIG PICTURE.
But that is not what struck me awake. The memory of being so close to him woke me initially, but then it was the goddamned memory of picking pecans at their feet that jerked my brain into a frenzy. Somehow, the intensity of that feeling was a feeling I couldn’t shake. I started thinking about that Thanksgiving last year, Kevin Murphy and Maggie Donovan sitting knee to knee in our tiny living room, cracking and picking, Kevin with the most exquisite Bostonian accent and arborist sentamentalities just filling the room in the most delightful way. And I thought, well there it is, isn’t it? “How simple. How nice.”
I stirred in my bed, grabbed my phone and typed as much of a coherent thought as I could on my Notes app. Fell back asleep.
Of course I woke up to the same full throttle panic that I’ve had since my book was released. All my greatest hits played before I could even open my eyes. “I Blew It”, “My Chances Are Over.”, “What If I Never Get To Write Again (a post Covid medley)”, and my favorite top 40 hit, trending at Number One for six weeks in a row, “Just Give Up.”
My ambition had, has, nowhere to go. It’s literally sitting idle about to burn out it’s clutch trying to get somewhere in this whole damn quicksand mess. It’s tripping over itself to find its place in the bigger picture right now. No plans can be made, no dreams realized, no prep sheets to make a dream come true are being written. Ambition is pissed. My Busy Hands don’t even want to talk to Ambition because it is acting like such a desperate, goddamned fool trying to find a place to park the car its been building for years, a garage to just hide in in this moment. It feels utterly displaced in its efforts. It is benched. It is grounded. It does not like this one bit. And it’s being a motherfucker to live with.
What is ambition anyway? Isn’t it just hopes and dreams wrapped into action? I think my mistake is that I haven’t given myself permission, for a long time, to just have hopes and dreams without a distinct need to be deeply dedicated to their success. This is called being a functional adult. It’s hard to separate these two after all of these years. But, I think that is the trick. To agree that we can still have big hopes and dreams and plans, but to leave the idea of success behind (sorry, Success is the default Ego that comes with the mostly gorgeous Id of Ambition, you have to face that he comes with the territory and manage him to the best of your ability, even in times like this.) There is simply no success now. He can’t live here. Your choice is clear. It is simple. It is nice: There is only the propensity for raw joy, the kind that has no outcome, no reason, other than just because you’re alive. And, health - how to cultivate it, how to protect it. Nothing more is needed from you right now. Nothing. I once had the capacity to sit in a space in Live Oak and be so wholly there and present that forty years after the fact, I can still remember that there was one small piece of yarn on that shag rug that burned and melted from my Uncle’s girlfriend dropping her cigarette one night that I used to like to flick with my little pinky finger, over and over and over again, through every show and through every tap on my left shoulder from my Pa handing me the most artfully picked pecans, almost whole, almost pulled out of their shell entirely in one piece as if he had some magic machine and not just a little silver cracker clutched in his large, Mississippi man hands, and the taste of them so good that, when I eat any pecan, bagged, freshly picked or otherwise, I think, to this day, “it’s not Pa’s”.
The year we lost will be burned into all of us for a long time. This is not even accounting for the lives we lost, which will fall into the human consciousness of loss for the remainder of our days as a culture and a community. The family we have lost. The friends. The artists. The makers. The inventors. We have lost so much, some of us so much more than others.
At the end of this year, my mind is on what I have the choice to lose, what I don’t want to carry on with in the future. Right now, I am reckoning with a very new idea of zero-expectation from myself while somehow preserving the weird thing my heart does, moving leaps and bounds toward any idea that comes its way. How do we fall in love with an idea without any expectation of it? I guess the same way we fall in love with people. So there’s the pathway. We can sit with the inaction and just nurture the hopes and dreams the same way we did when we were too small and powerless to act, maybe that’s the thing. Maybe I spend the end of this year find no good reason, just the chance will be enough, to crack a metric ton of pecans and then just…. eat them. Just sit and eat them. Not start a pecan business. Not get the urge to make forty pecan pies for everyone I know. To just sit on my couch and do nothing but crack, pick and eat. This is probably how we carry on. x
LCD Soundsystem - All My Friends
The Kinks - This Time Tomorrow
David Bowie - Rock&Roll with Me
John Lennon - Old Dirt Road
John Prine - Mexican Home
LCD Soundsystem - Dance Yourself Clean