By Karen Multer
My ambitions nearly always outweigh my actual resolve. Case in point: this will begin as an essay about ambition, but it’s almost assured that by the end it will have become something entirely different. Ambition and I have always had an unreliable relationship, one marked by periods of intense focus followed by even longer periods of staring at the ceiling, grasping for meaning that eludes me. Maybe that’s the hallmark of any creative pursuit. We chase ideas while those ideas are busy chasing someone else.
My own creativity is a lot like the dust bunny underneath the planter in the corner of my living room. I can see it, but can’t reach it. It lingers there, knowing I don’t have the inclination to get down on my hands and knees to retrieve it. So I wait, hoping someone walks by with enough purpose that a good puff of wind will dislodge it from its position. Then I can pick it up with minimum effort. It’s been sitting there for quite awhile. Maybe I should move the planter next to the refrigerator.
Underground poet and writer, Charles Bukowski, once said, “My ambition is handicapped by laziness.” I don’t buy it. It wasn’t laziness that led Bukowski to such a prolific career and international acclaim; all the while lamenting the sorry plight of humanity and reminding us that life is a grind and then we die. Cheery guy, that Bukowski. Even his tombstone epitaph, “Don’t Try”, was a parting shot to anyone who aspires to anything. Charles hid in the bathroom at cocktail parties, yet whatever demons he may have been harboring, he still managed to put pen to paper over and over and over again, thousands of times, in journals and books and magazines. Not lazy then, though perhaps less committed to his own success. I’ll revise my earlier thesis: My ambition is not eclipsed by my resolve, but rather, my lassitude.
Yesterday I was power walking through the residential streets of Wrigleyville in Chicago. I do this periodically so I don’t have to buy another new pair of jeans. Somewhere around Magnolia and Wayne I thought, I should really pour it on and run all the way to the next weed dispensary. Can I count that as high intensity interval training? I think I can. I took off. 30 seconds later I convinced myself that one block was really enough to get the job done, and honestly, how high does my heart rate actually have to be in order to count as exercise?
As I was catching my breath, I found myself in front of one of the more impressive homes on the street. It was newer construction; a large French Provincial with a mansard slate roof, black shutters framing the numerous windows, and two symmetrically placed chimneys. Just beyond the custom wrought iron fence I saw several cartons of USDA Grade AA farm fresh eggs stacked on the walkway in a charming little wooden crate. That gave me pause. Imagine being the kind of person who has eggs casually delivered to their front door. I let myself wonder: The husband works on the Exchange downtown. His wife holds an MBA. She minored in French and gets her hair glossed every four weeks. They have an adorable son named Ryder and they like to scour the St. Charles antiques fair once a month searching for vintage railroad insulators. That’s when they’re not spearheading the local Alzheimer chapter’s fundraiser or taking investor meetings for the husband’s new crypto startup.
I felt light headed, and not just from my sprint. I half-expected Rod Serling to slide into frame and greet me with a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of my daughter marrying a finance bro, but no. The reality is, there are people in this world whose ambitions are matched by their resolve. Those people get all the best eggs.
I once visited an egg farm on an elementary school field trip. This was in the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin; so called because the land there was never covered by the glacial deposits known as drift: gravel, sand, silt, and boulders. In my ignorance, I had always believed it meant that the earth itself hadn’t drifted, that its permanence was steadfast as the moon, rooting people to the land and refusing to let them wander too far. Maybe there’s some truth in that. I do know this: When our school bus came over a rise and I got my first glimpse of the wide valleys of farmland before me, something within that may have been straining at the bit, instead, settled for good. Even then I knew this was my land. We called it God’s Country. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned our little neck of the woods hadn’t cornered the market on God.
In fact, my river town was like many dotting the driftless area. The railroad tracks were so close to my house one good throw of a baseball would have reached the engineer. There were stories of hobos riding the rails, walking up from the river and looking for day work or handouts of food. Back then you would have found a bait shop, a tavern named The Sandbar, a VFW or American Legion, an ice cream parlor, and clouds of mosquitos. Much remains today, but the character of my hometown has changed. The mom-n-pop appliance store has been driven out of business, replaced by the big box store. The historic red brick buildings along the river are still there, but their interiors have been gutted and reassembled in an attempt to evoke what can never be regained. Now, there’s energy efficient lighting and low flow toilets. The transients that once found hospitality are now relegated to a growing tent village, assembled just far enough away from the trendy new bottle shop and distillery. Charles Bukowski might have had something to say about that.
That day on the farm we learned that White Leghorns produce the most eggs, as many as 300 in a year per hen, an astonishing yield. Of course, this is when they’re still young enough to party all night, slap some cold water on their face, then do it all over again the next day. Ambition and resolve in perfect balance. The eggs are then sorted according to USDA standards of inherent quality, appearance, condition, and size. The best ones are washed and sanitized, then packaged, before being shipped directly to upwardly mobile hipsters or trucked to the grocery store for the rest of us.
We learned that the older a hen gets, she can, from time to time, become “broody.” That’s when the hen decides she’s had enough and would like to just sit for awhile and stop producing. She’d like to stare at the roof of her chicken coop and contemplate all the ways her life has escaped her. Maybe even take up a new hobby and let someone else chase success. While she’s been busy laying eggs, the hen two rows down looks satisfied; downright content, even. She notices that that hen takes her time in the morning. She doesn’t run to the yard with the rest of the chickens at sunrise. She strolls, peering at the ground, searching for the choicest bits of grain before making her selection. She’s choosy, looking for all the world as though she doesn’t have a care.
Karen Multer’s writing has been published in Cutleaf Journal, Open Minds Quarterly, Black Fork Review, Flagler Review, and she was a featured writer at the Writers Read (formerly Read650) live podcast recording in New York City. A former Dramatists Guild Fellow, her work has twice been featured at the Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival. She’s also an accomplished composer who licenses her original music for TV and Film including HBO, Netflix, and Amazon Originals.