Monthly Archives: November 2020

Human Scouts, Troop 2020

Recently my dear friend Kate sent me a recipe for Pumpkin Taco Soup in the slow cooker, and I was pleased to see that I had every ingredient already in house; all I had to do was take chicken out of the freezer and pull things off the counter and the pantry shelves. A few days later I asked my sister-in-law for her Black Bean Brownie Muffin recipe, and once again felt glad when I realized that everything I’d need to fulfill that muffin tin was already inside of my home.

My first feeling was one of relief and comfort: nothing would need to be added to the grocery list, nothing would need to be purchased, and nothing would need to be carried into the house to create this meal for my family. I’d prepared for the possibility of these recipes by keeping plenty of a lot on hand. I could create wholesome, protein-rich, hearty food to nourish my people (bonus: I can even share with my Pod Squad member who is gluten-free!). How wonderful it was to already have in my possession the hardware for assembling this dinner! How satisfying to already own within my equipment the tools necessary to put it together! What a feeling it is to have one’s needs met before they even really become needs.

There is implicit privilege in going through day-to-day life with stocked shelves. A full larder is something too few people on this planet can claim. The fact that this was my second thought pronounces that privilege. These thoughts struck and stuck. They’re still there.

Another thought also occurred that transposed this idea from within the home to within a human. This is what we’re all doing here, day in and day out; we don’t know what we’re preparing for, but we’re doing the best to be ready for it. We’re shopping every experience, everything we read, everything we hear, and sampling from things we already know or think we know, to collect the best stock of supplies for facing whatever life is going to present us with (I promise I tried writing both that sentence and the penultimate clause in the previous sentence to avoid ending with a preposition, but it didn’t go so well). We don’t know what’s going to come next, but we’re bound and determined to take every measure necessary to gather those things–both concrete and immaterial–that might help us later.

For example: you find a snappy blue blazer a size too big for your son at a consignment store. Your sister has been dating the same guy for a few years, so you’ve been thinking they might get engaged soon. It’s a really good deal for the price, and those things are EXPENSIVE at full retail. So you buy it and hang it in his closet in case there’s a wedding next year. Or a funeral. Or something else fancy that you haven’t even considered yet. You never know, right? You’re front-loading that feeling of relief when an invitation arrives to find you already prepared! You’re putting stock in your future sense of comfort, of knowing, literally, “I’ve got this.”

Another example: you’re a parent, and raising kids is hard. You don’t know how the next phase of their lives will present, so you read. You talk and you listen. You watch other parents. You learn and you learn and you learn, cherry-picking what knowledge might serve you next time a child is in the midst of a tantrum or asks if “hell” is a bad word or still won’t eat solid food at eight months old or tells you that a kid at school says that evolution isn’t real or still wets the bed at the age of ten. This process usually begins when your first child is on the way and you find yourself with the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting in your hands.

A final example: you’re always searching for ways to improve your ability to react to things. You’re panning everything in life for those little flecks of gold that you can slip into your psychological pocket, touchstones to center you when faced with challenges. You know these gold flecks when you encounter them; sometimes it’s a sentence that resonates (“negative energy transfers from one person to another like cold air blows through an open door”); sometimes it’s an idea (“the way you react to things other people say tells you something about yourself”); sometimes it’s an example set by another (“when you spilled your cup of coffee all over your grandmother’s plush white carpet, she just laughed”); sometimes it’s a reminder (“the child is just seeing how far she can push before you lose your temper, so it’s important that you don’t”). It’s these gold flecks that buoy us through those moments when an unwelcome emotion raises its hand to slap us upside the head. The flecks steady us, give us breath, help us take that emotion’s raised hand and bring it to our lips.

Whether we’re doing it consciously or not, we are in a constant process of stocking the shelves of our ability to handle whatever recipe life hands us and demands we make. No one has all of the ingredients for every recipe, nor does anyone have all of the ingredients for some recipes all the time. Sometimes a person runs out of eggs the same way she’d run out of patience; sometimes we don’t have enough soy sauce for the amount of pork we’re told to cook just as our confidence might run thin when faced with an onerous task. Some people, for a variety of reasons, have more pantry items than others, and some people have more inventory of certain items at any given moment. I imagine the Dalai Llama has several jam-packed cellars full, whereas an abuse victim in foster care might have more dust on his shelves than cans. Can you imagine how it would be to experience this world with an unlimited supply of every ingredient one could possibly need, no matter what page of what cookbook the universe could slap on your countertop of life? Maybe that’s what divinity is.

Stick to writing books, please, Edward

This is a page from The Bug Book by Edward Gorey. The story is about a bunch of bug cousins who are happy and carefree until this new bug (the one in the illustration above) arrives, breaks up their parties, and waylays them whenever they go visiting. The cousins conspire to solve the problem by rolling a rock off a cliff to crush the big bad bug, which they successfully do. The story ends with them slipping the remains into an envelope, addressing it “To whom it may concern”, and propping it up against the fatal stone. That’s it. Then they throw a party.

Edward Gorey, if you’re somehow in charge of the universe in your postmortem form, I just know you’re the scriptwriter for 2020 and those bugs finally mailed that envelope.

Hallelujah Cookies

As a student of Latin, a former English teacher, and a lifelong language enthusiast in general, I’ve always cared a lot about two topics I find compelling and important: grammar and punctuation. As a young learner, I delighted in books by Richard Lederer, grand master of wordplay, and diagramming sentences brought me great satisfaction in seventh grade. I offered a grammar elective at the school where I used to teach (we had so much fun!), and I’ve made a collection of drawings using only punctuation and diacritical marks. (What amazing names these graphological characters possess! I’ve always wanted to write a story featuring characters named Umlaut, Cedilla, Tilde, Circumflex, Macron…the list can obviously continue.) One year, I dressed up as a compound sentence for Halloween by wearing a banner with the words “independent clause” on each arm and a sign saying “coordinating conjunction” around my neck, instrumentally decorated with a big fat comma in black Sharpie. Some mornings I wake up and scroll through posts and comments in my Facebook grammar group, which is frequently fun, sometimes distressing, but always elucidating. Let me tell you, these people have OPINIONS.

Recently there was yet another debate about the Oxford comma, and some of those arguing in favor cited humorous examples of what happens when it isn’t used, such as “Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall” and “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” (that one had me rolling). I agree that punctuation matters because using it, and using it correctly, favors specificity within language, which then favors clear communication, and who doesn’t love that? Conversely, punctuation can also be used intentionally with the purpose of ambiguation, often with fascinating outcomes.

However, there is something to be said for what can happen when mistakes are made. For example, how many accidents in the kitchen have produced something new and entirely wonderful? This is supposedly how we ended up with things like potato chips and Worcestershire sauce and ice cream cones, after all, and our world is decidedly a better place for those inventions. Similarly, when punctuation is overlooked or omitted, new turns of phrase can be born that deserve to exist if only for their novelty, similar to how autocorrect has provided so many inside jokes for so many people in the age of text messaging. One of my favorite examples of punctuation falling through the cracks was told to me by my platinum friend, Becca, one day when I arrived at her house. We had both baked that day, unbeknownst to the other, and greeted each other with gifts from our ovens. Hers for me was a packet of foil containing a most sublime confection: Hallelujah Cookies. This is their name now, given to them by Becca, who found the recipe below in a magazine and didn’t notice the colon in the first line.

Rules: we need them. They keep us safe and help us make sense of the world around us. They facilitate our ability to interact constructively with each other and exchange ideas in productive ways. They give us a language of regularity and structure. They often account for predictability, stability, and cooperation. But also! Rules: when we break them, sometimes, just look what beauty is engendered there! Bear witness; therein can exist a kind of revelation. Hallelujah.

P.S. Becca’s kids recommend adding chocolate chips to these. I have to say, as kids brought up on the kind of incredible food their parents produce, they know what’s good.