Cooking, Writing, Learning

My wife was a little worried she was shirking our shared duties. "I'll help you cook in a little bit, but I need to finish this." I was peeling garlic. I told her not to worry about it. I'm not feeling obligated tonight. This is fun. I'm in the mood. I had the ingredients set out, pots on the stove, and a recipe in my head. Go Go Penguin was on the speakers. The dog waited for me to drop cheese. I'm good, I told her. The stars were aligned. The moon was in the seventh house. All of that.

Peeling garlic, done correctly, something I've only recently learned though I've been cooking with fresh garlic for twenty five years, is a soothing meditation. So too is chopping it with a good, sharp knife. Better still if I've sharpened the knife on my own stone, something friends helped me learn after many failures on my own. It's a skill I'm still honing. Rocking the knife on the bamboo board, turning the chunks of garlic into tiny mince, feels good. Smells good too.

A friend wrote of his first attempt at aging beef. It didn't go well. "This experiment went, in a word, wrong. Horribly, terribly wrong." This is the point when I often have to step back, curse all over the place, give up and swear I'll never try whatever it was again. It takes a while for me to cool down. Sometimes I go back to it, but it takes longer for me to get to the attitude he expressed in his very next sentence: "The good thing about failure is there is so much to learn from it. The bad thing is I can be a really slow learner." He's anything but slow at these things. He is dogged and skilled, something I've admired about him from the first. Often I need to remind myself that he's learning just as I am.

The garlic minced, I diced an onion and threw that in a pan with some oil. The garlic followed shortly thereafter, the sauce shortly after that. I put the cover on, checked the water in the big pot I had put on to boil, and, back at the bamboo board, grated cheese.

Baked ziti, at least the way I make it, is the easiest of dishes to prepare. No need for a recipe. It's a natural progression by now. Because of that, my mind can wander as I cook. Good thing I was done with the knife and am pretty well wired not to grate my fingers with the cheese. I was thinking about learning and change, advancement and mastery, practice and discipline.

A well-meaning friend, as several others have before him, stated that there isn't any money in the writing I'm doing and trying to do. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. SHut up. There's also no money in the short run I took earlier but I ran anyway. The other night when I said that I had to get a blog post together, my wife asked, "do you have to?" She was trying to give me permission for a break, but yeah, I have to. I've posted every day this year and am learning something from doing that. "The bad thing is I can be a really slow learner." The only way forward that I know of is to just keep going, slow and steady, and see what I can make happen.

The water boiled and I dumped in a bag and a half of pasta, stirred, rested the spoon on the stove, checked the sauce and adjusted the heat while I stirred that. I preheated the oven and brought out the big glass pan. Every so often I stirred the pasta and checked the quasi-recipe in my head for mistakes and omissions. The water bubbled and boiled, the pasta floating calmly in that storm. I watched it boil and waited as the minutes uncoiled on the timer.

There's no money in the things I'm doing but there seems a clear future in them. Not that I see the future clearly but it's clear to me that this is my future. It's such a big part of my present and has been a huge part of my past. I'm following it, trying to learn, wondering how to make some kind of leap.

The friend who is aging beef waited forty-five days to find it hadn't worked. Maybe someone could have intuited earlier that it was going wrong, that there was no profit in waiting. Maybe that would have been more convenient and less painful while being just as instructive. Maybe. But I doubt it. The very idea of aging beef for so long sounds ridiculous, counter-intuitive, maybe even foolish. Food is supposed to be fresh! My friend knows better than that and he's willing to stay in the game until he has it down. He will listen to advice but he needs to learn it himself.

Me too.

I drained the pasta, poured it back into the pot, took the sauce off the heat and poured that in. The parmesan went in along with a tub of cottage cheese (my family doesn't go in for ricotta) and some of the mozzarella. I add an egg too, don't tell anyone. I mixed all this up in the pot, poured it into the glass dish, sprinkled with more mozzarella, covered it with foil, and put it in to bake. Even before I uncover it for the last five minutes of baking and smell the goodnes, I know just how it will taste. I've learned this thing by heart. I've got it down. It will be perfect.

As for writing. Who knows? It might make money or it might not, but it will teach me something. There's no guessing about that. I've already learned plenty from it. Enough to know to keep going.

Rick Bass, Oil Notes

I've written already about this book that I will re-read often over the next few years. The writing is so beautiful. Rather than take another passage apart or try to convey what the book is like, here's a passage without comment beyond this: it is the best, most poetic prose I have read in five years. Rick Bass's writing makes me almost insane with envy. Time to get to work catching up. 

This is from pages 168-169 of the trade paperback edition. 


This farm is meant for me. I was watching a pine cone at the end of a branch this morning, and with no wind it fell. Just dropped, and bounced. I did not go over to pick it up; I was frightened to touch it or look at it. There was no telling what it could mean. I went and put on my tennis shoes and ran through the field and down through the woods until I was sweaty and breathing hard. I came out on a gravel road, and sad down, and panted. A white dog from someone’s farm came trotting up. I petted him. Then I walked out to the main road, came back around to my house the long way, and things seemed better. I took a bath in the big old claw-footed tub I have and shaved and combed my hair and drove into Terry and bought a can of Gatorade and two bananas. 
    Still, I did not stare too long at anything on a tree, anywhere, for quite some time; I averted my glances as if it were a question of modesty. 

*   *   *

I am fascinated with leaves these days. It is fall, and they are turning nicely this year. They give the trees, plum and pear and apple and oak, hickory, cottonwood, elm and willow, what seems to be the most tempting of messages. I want to stare, I fell there’s something I’m missing that’s right in front of my face, but also if I stare too long and still fail to see it, the leaves will give up on me and stop trying to show me. So I watch out of the corners of my eyes. I feel very humbled. 
    Winter will come. I’ll build fires over at Elizabeth’s mother’s house. I’ll forget the leaves for another year. We will make spiced tea and popcorn. Trees should be trees, and people, people. I don’t know why some people get sad in the fall, even while claiming paradoxically that it is their favorite time of year. 
    I should have put the pinecone in a mayonnaise jar and screwed the lid on and kept it next to my bed, or on the dashboard of my truck, for magic. 
    I was frightened. 
    There is a territoriality, a distance, that sets us apart from each other, and I do now know if that is good or bad. I don’t know whether to hold on or let go. I don’t think any of us ever knows, right up until the last moment. 

--Rick Bass, Oil Notes (168-169)