Thursday, December 21, 2017

world's okayest baker

sometimes, better than perfect    

I'm not above admitting that I stumbled on the inspiration for this post two months ago when I idly clicked on an interview with Ellen. She talked about all the great things people are doing to make the world a better place — to offset, I imagine, the general feeling that the world is crumbling around us, and to give us something to enjoy as the ship sinks.

Then, a few weeks later, I read in the New York Times’ Sunday Routine section about how a guy named Yahdon Israel spends his Sundays. Rereading it later I realize how brief the article was really; but at the time it sang to me and seemed loaded with meaning.

It started with how he chooses his clothes: he pulls from everything around him and tries to put it in conversation. He referred to it as “cultural literacy”, asking himself: “What do I have in my wardrobe that keeps me fluent in what’s going on?” and “What outfit will allow me to enter into as many possible spaces?” Already I loved these questions.

Then, he went on to talk about how he often takes time on Sundays to check in with people:
I’m just seeing how people are doing. When I was younger, I was always asking for something. ‘Can I have $1?’ I asked myself, ‘How could I be a plus, not a minus?’ I asked myself, ‘How can I let them know they’re seen, they’re on my emotional map?’

I’d never really thought of seeing myself as a potential contributor. God knows I’ve been a sponger in my time, hoping, even expecting, to be rescued by someone else. But what if instead I asked how I can add? And could I somehow play a role in letting people know they’re seen?

Often I’ll ride down the street and something about someone catches my eye, and I’ll wonder if they feel lonely or invisible. I want to tell them: Over here, seeing you! Will they ever know that they’re noticed?

yoo hoo! I see you!    

How important is having a witness? Can I be my own? I get so mad at those movies about people who spend a stretch of time alone, perhaps lonely and searching, and it’s beaches and sunsets, and it ends up being this great time of transformation. I protest: But you’re not really alone, are you?! You’re being filmed, there’s a camera in the bloody background. It’s just the opposite of what makes these times both difficult, and also rich. No one’s there to see you, stranded on your island.

I think for example about the people at the Préfecture, where we go to apply for our visas, argue our immigration cases, sort through red tape. There’s always a crowd, so in order to get anything accomplished one really has to arrive at least an hour in advance of their 9am opening time.

I picture them sitting outside shivering on these cold mornings. When you’re stuck in the middle of bureaucracy, especially in a foreign country, it can feel like everyone is against you and your fate rests in the hands of some stranger you’ll never meet.

So the last time I went, I thought, jaysus, someone should bring these people food, like cookies or something, and let them know they’re not forgotten, that there’s some hope and kindness in the world.

Then — and this is when it all started going downhill — a little voice piped in: Well, why not do it, then? Do you see anyone else doing it? If not you, who will?

No no, I argued, it’s too theatrical a gesture for me, too grand. What do I do, just show up and clap my hands like a schoolmistress, saying, “Listen up everyone! Here are some cookies for you!” I have no flair for that. Plus, what if no one understands? What if I get there and people think I’m crazy? No no no, not me, not now.

Besides, which cookies would I offer? I consider little balls of something, easy to make in abundance. They really should be more like bars — sweet perhaps but nourishing, a little hearty so that people get some energy from them. Peanut butter balls? But what if someone’s allergic?

these were NOT my cookies (but thanks for the recipe & photos, Smitten Kitchen)    

OK, Una dear, chill out here. No need to hold a meeting, assemble a team, take a poll, weigh pros and cons. Try just going with it. Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? What precisely are you afraid of? Being laughed at. Disapproval. Committing a major cultural faux pas. These might be the worst, and they would be embarrassing. But survivable.

Fortunately for me in France this is good testing ground. Toulouse is big; the risk isn’t great; I may not stay here forever. So what if everyone thinks I’m bizarre. Does that really hurt me?

So, finally, I decided what the hell. After well over a month of false starts and stops, hesitance, doubt, and self-analysis, I settled on date bars. I tracked down ingredients and made my batch, virtuously sprinkling in pinches of Love and Good Feeling for my intended recipients.

They came out tasting OK, a little boring, you couldn't really make out the dates. More like a generic oat cookie. Well, I thought, at least they’re vaguely nourishing. I cut them up and they crumbled unphotogenically. I began to wonder whether I was trying too hard … a month or more just to make a batch of cookies and deliver them? It was starting to seem rather forced.

DEFINITELY not my cookies.    

I brushed this aside; mere nervousness. C’mon Una — go and see what happens. Don’t think too hard. It’ll make a great post. Just go. So, the next morning I bundled up and headed to the Préfecture, arriving at about 8:50 as planned.

As I pulled up, unsure but excited, I expected to see a long line of cold and miserable people for whom my cookies would be a ray of unexpected sunshine. But instead there was no line; I could see only the end of one, because everyone was heading inside. They looked a little bored and not especially happy, but they were fine and going to where it was warm.

I stood there holding my container and looking after them.

Well hell’s bells, I thought, smiling at the absurdity: two months in the planning, not to mention the ruminating, debating, and procrastinating, and finally I’ve missed them!

This, I thought with a long exhale, is my sign that it’s time to give up. Maybe, if it takes weeks to do something, if it’s that strained, it’s time to put it aside. I’ve become so convinced over time that my basic intentions can’t be trusted and I am at my core lazy that I usually think I should just try harder. Do more. Do better! Be better! But maybe waiting, or stopping altogether, can be the braver choice.

Sometimes, I make things so complicated and so loaded with meaning that it becomes practically impossible to succeed. It keeps spontaneous, simple gestures from unfolding naturally. As someone said, probably a potter, Perfection is the enemy of the good. It’s important to settle for OK, and sometimes it really is good enough. Maybe pretty good is better than nonexistent.

… and baker    

If it wasn’t, I would never get this effing thing posted, I would never draw again, I would never play another note till it’s perfect. I’d never speak another word of French.

So I admit defeat on this one. Surrender: often my best decision. I chose instead to bring my mediocre batch of crumbly, not-bad-but-not-great date bars to the session that night and share them with my fellow musicians. To let these people, whom I’ve come to love, know that they’re on my emotional map. I see you; here, have a pretty good date bar.

It wasn’t a huge production, and my friends received them with such appreciation and genuine delight. Oh loh loh, they cooed, when I set them out. A little nourishment on a cold late night, right on time. They oohed and aahed, Jean Philippe gushed about the cinnamon, which people don’t bake with much here. The bartender even brought shots of housemade rum. “What are you celebrating?” they asked. Nothing, I said. La vie; isn’t that enough?