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The Joy Menu #40: Egg
"I remember it, that egg, with the vividness of today’s breakfast. The guilt, the frustration, the release. The cold texture of bland egg white in my mouth."
On Sundays I ask questions. I explore, inside these skinny paragraphs and with the inexpert weight of these words, questions I can’t ask out loud, or never did, or didn’t know to. I revisit events I experienced and imbue them with new meaning, or explore events I couldn’t have possibly witnessed and mine them for resonance.
This is a sacred space. Not comfortable or easy. But sacrosanct. For me.
I live, on these Sundays, in a nether realm where death is both insignificant (a loose boundary, a figment, a literary device) and the thing which gives all else meaning (the period which says: all before this was a sentence).
In forty weeks, I’ve come to understand that this — these short sprints of concentrated, sacrosanct time — is art. For me.
This morning, in the hours I normally would be writing the newsletter, I attended a lecture by a great writer. It was beautiful to hear him speak; the way he dissected phrases by other great writers, the depth of thought and meaning he put into words, literature, language. The textures of its use on the page. The constructions of its meaning in the air.
There were hundreds of people on the call, all silent, mostly with cameras off. It was like walking past a lecture hall and overhearing a disquisition, peeking in and seeing a crowd of rapt faces and a solo figure at the front of the room, tying phrases together with the swift grace of a cat wrapping its tail around a table leg.
He spoke of language as if writing were a thing we could all (should all) spend our lives unpacking, and that this unpacking would (should) feed us and clothe us, tuck us into bed, and fill up our 401(k)s.
When the call ended, I closed the screen of my laptop, and I was left with a bittersweet nagging.
I remembered how much of my life was spent lost in a fog of wanting, of wanting that: the exclusive right to do nothing but dream about words. Their constructions, their use, their meanings. Their ability to create connections between unknown humans in a large, anonymous world.
I remembered when every stage of my life seemed to push away such an existence, the way you reach for a dropped item beneath your bed, and each grasp moves the pill, the toy, the phone, deeper into a place you know you won't be able to reach.
A wallet in a sewer grate. A quarter beneath a car seat. An earbud between two armrests on an airplane.
For two weeks, I’ve been haunted by an image: a cold, hard boiled egg alone on a heavy, off-white diner plate.
Let me explain.
Many years ago, for reasons I don’t recall, my father took me camping along with my best friend and his father.
It probably had to do with the Boy Scouts, an engagement my father almost always passed on — the uniforms, he said, the pledges, the hand-signs were fascist. It reminded him of his time in the army. He didn’t like it.
I could have been upset, but I wasn’t. In fact, he was strange around the other boys’ fathers — aloof, different, disengaged. While I wanted him around (I always did), it made me uncomfortable to see him integrate poorly, or not at all, with those average, American men.
But that weekend, my father was with me; I braced myself for his awkwardness and prepared myself to bask in the uninterrupted flow of his attention.
I’d like to recount a weekend of archery, firing ranges, swim breaks in creeks and marshmallows blackened over open flames. Of my father relaxing around the group, of his integration serving as a conduit to my own.
But what actually happened was that I got sick and almost as quickly as we arrived, we packed the car and began the drive home.
While that could serve as a metaphor for much of my childhood — “I got sick and we drove home” — the memory is a strange one: its built with an architecture of grief and relief.
It was the first and last time my father joined me at camp. Later, we found other ways to connect. But then, when I was young, it was a true source of anxiety: that he never integrated well with the other boys’ fathers (with a few surprising exceptions), that he never wanted to try.
And that weekend, I preempted both his attempt to try and cancelled any possibility that he might fail in that attempt.
I remember it, that egg, with the vividness of today’s breakfast. The guilt, the frustration, the release. The cold texture of bland egg white in my mouth.
Perhaps my dad being an artist was a way to explain all this. He didn’t need other men, or friends; he could be strange and wear too-short pants; he could stand out, or hold himself outside of the general flow of life in suburban Southern California.
In a way, he was either an artist or a foreigner. And since I couldn’t be a foreigner; couldn’t use such displacement to explain my own discomfort, the artist made more sense.
And so my own discomfort, with myself, with the kids I was raised around, with the values I saw reflected in the large houses and fancy cars, the prioritized athletics and the flat bellies, the weekend trips to Havasu and Lake Tahoe, the lack of art on the walls of their homes, or books on their shelves, motivated me to find another explanation.
I, too, could opt out of these things, could maintain my dignity and my value by rebuking it. And I could do that, too, because of art. Because I, too, was an artist.
Art could be my justification and route for my escape.
Was it nature (character) or nurture (modeling) — did it matter?
That day, on the abrupt drive home, we pulled over so everyone could eat lunch. Maybe the drive was far. I don’t remember. But I’d stopped puking, and I was also hoping to eat.
When their burgers arrived, my stomach growled. I’d just expelled everything I’d eaten the night before and the morning of; there was no way I could hold anything down.
“Do you have any eggs?” My father asked the server. “Something left over from breakfast?”
When that cold hard-boiled egg arrived, hours old, yellowish and glinting wet in the harsh overhead diner lights — slick and sad and naked on a off-white plate, like a forgotten organ in a mad scientist's lab — I was disappointed and frustrated. But I was also hungry. I bit in.
Was I the egg? Or was he?
Or was the egg just an egg that a sick boy had to eat?
Onward towards creative joy,