Preschool wisdom (or what a 3-year-old could teach Joan Didion)

By Day 2 of the Snowtober power outage, we were all feeling a little ragged, and apparently the three-year-old Baskinette had taken note.

“Amy Gutman, listen to me” she said authoritatively. “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.”

It was close to the most brilliant thing I’d ever heard, and I was a little bit stunned. Who are you and where did you come from? I remember thinking.

As I later discovered—and if you have kids or teach them, you probably already know this—the saying is a standard part of the preschool repertoire. But I instantly knew that it needed to be a standard part of mine. (The 16-year-old Baskinette kindly transcribed it, and it now has a prominent place on my refrigerator.)

Of course, there’s nothing new in the basic idea—we’ve all heard it zillions of times in zillions of different forms: Want what you have. It is what it is. Take life on life’s terms. And my all-time favorite formulation from Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber “[T]he alternate reality in which everything is exactly as you think it should be exists only in your mind, and it exists primarily to torture you.”

Moreover, such insights are backed up by hard data. Research suggests that people who want what they have are actually happier than others.

And yet—like so many obvious truths—it’s one many of us seem to have a hard time grasping. This crossed my mind the other day as I listened to a friend angsting over a single less-than-perfect development in a pretty terrific life. I found myself thinking—in the nicest possible way—“You really need to grow up.”

Now it’s just possible there was a tiny bit of envy and resentment there. From where I sat—more than two years into a job search with its attendant financial pressures—my friend’s worries seemed pretty minor.

But I also think my reaction spoke to a larger point. Something happened to us here in the United States over the past few decades—at least to those of us who began with winning numbers in life’s lottery: We started to believe that we were entitled to perfect lives.

This thought came back to me again while reading Joan Didion’s memoir Blue Nights, which deals with the stunning aftermath of her daughter Quintana Roo’s death. There’s no doubt about it: Didion endured an unimaginably painful stretch of loss, with her daughter’s death coming shortly after the death of her beloved husband, writer John Gregory Dunne (itself the subject of her best-selling The Year of Magical Thinking). Still, for all the very real tragedy, I was jarred by her recurring refrain that this was never supposed to happen.

Make no mistake, Didion’s baffled outrage isn’t limited to the deaths of her husband and daughter—it’s pretty universal, extending to the fact of her own aging, including a frustrating inability to continue wearing (at age 75) her favorite red suede sandals with four-inch heels. In Didion’s worldview, these things were (apparently) not supposed to happen to someone who could look back and write: “There had been cars, a swimming pool, a garden . . . There had been English chintzes, chinoiserie toile. There had been a Bouvier des Flandres motionless on the stair. . . .”

In sum, Didion devotes her considerable gifts to marveling over the shocking fact that she, like the rest of us, is vulnerable to life.

What struck me as odd wasn’t the awareness itself but rather how it seemed to come as an unexpected blow. It seemed so, well, childlike—this notion of a personal exemption, coupled with the implicit expectation that we readers would share her astonishment and chagrin. (Which may go to a separate, if related, point. In her mesmerizing piece on Didion in the current issue of “The Atlantic,” Caitlin Flanagan quotes one critic describing Didion and Dunne as having possessed “a perfectly complementary narcissistic personality disorder that was shared beautifully between two people.”)

Tellingly, it’s a perspective that has long been mined for dark humor. “You know, funerals always make me think about my own mortality and how I’m actually going to die someday. Me, dead. Imagine that,” Elaine Benes marvels in one of my favorite “Seinfeld” episodes. More recently, Sarah Miller made the same point in her witty and insightful send-up of the New York Times’ much-ballyhooed magazine story about the dangers of yoga. “You can’t expect the Sort of People Who Tend to Read The Times to freak out about Amber Alerts and Child Molesters,” she writes in “The Awl.” “About the only thing that will get upper-middle-class coast dwellers into a frenzy is the idea—the word ‘fact’ is so black and white, n’est-ce pas?—that Some Day They Are Going To Fucking Die.”

Indeed.

At several points in Blue Nights, Didion seems to recognize she’s at risk of losing her readers. Her response is defiant. She resists the notion that she (with her 13 home telephones, none within reach when she took a fall) and her daughter (with her 60 baby dresses) lived lives encased in privilege. “’Privilege’ is a judgment. ‘Privilege’ is an opinion. ‘Privilege’ is an accusation,” she writes.

But privilege is also something else: An observation, a statement of fact. And because we are all human and mortal, it is also always temporary.

On life in a small town (plus a gratitude update)

“It’s like you took a big city, raptured up all the fun and interesting people, and then plopped them down in western Massachusetts.”

That’s how I recently described Northampton to a friend. It seemed an especially apt analogy, given that local boosters of my new hometown sometimes call it Paradise City.

Just before Thanksgiving I wrote about cultivating gratitude and that, while it’s never been my natural default mode, I planned to give it a shot. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve made a daily practice of listing at least three things that lifted my spirits that day, and while I’ve missed a day or two here and there, I’ve pretty much stuck with it.

While I can’t say the practice has changed my life, it does strike me as having had a subtle yet pervasive impact.  Buddhists often talk about the way we “incline” our minds: Are we training our minds to move towards happiness or towards suffering?  The daily gratitude practice seems to help with this.  Rather than scanning the day’s landscape for things likely to go wrong, I now tend to keep a mental eye out for things that are going right.

And of all the things going right in my life, I’m repeatedly reminded that this little town and its people are high on the list. The essay below explains way. It’s about a freak October snowstorm, a loaf of bread, and how friends make all the difference.  (A slightly abridged version previously appeared in our local paper, the Hampshire Gazette.)

It Takes a Village to Make a Loaf of Mark Bittman’s No-Knead Bread in the Happy Valley during a Time of Climate Change.

When the snow started to fall, I was playing a card game with the Baskinettes. Which isn’t really surprising, since this is how I’ve spent a good bit of the past year, something between an honorary aunt and slow-on-the-uptake peer.  (“I’m going to deal the cards instead of you. That way, it will be faster,” a seven-year-old Remy once airily informed me.)

“Do you think I should head home now?” I asked the Baskinettes’ father, aka my friend Hosie.  The snow was coming down faster, in huge wet clumped flakes.

Hosie looked out the window and shrugged. “I don’t think you have to rush.”

And indeed, he was right.  Back home a few hours later, safe and warm, I decided to do some baking. For weeks, I’d been meaning to make New York Times food guru Mark Bittman’s magical no-knead bread.  With 10 minutes or so of hands-on time for an artisan-quality loaf, it’s a recipe easy to love. The only challenge is finding the 14-hour window needed for the dough to rest. But I had plenty of time now. I expected a quiet weekend.

The dough was just starting to rise, when I got my first inkling my night might not go entirely according to plan.  My cell (only) phone rang (cricket chirped). It was the eldest of the Baskinettes, 16-year-old Ezekiel.

“We don’t have power.” The voice was aggrieved  “I’m. So. Bored.”

Still, freakish as this seemed—and by “this” I mean the weather, not teen protestations of boredom—I wasn’t all that worried. I live in a neighborhood where utility lines are safely lodged underground. We rarely lose power out here. Also: It’s October!  I glanced at a clock: almost time for bed.

Then everything went black.

No big deal, I thought philosophically. I’ll get a good night’s sleep.  Perhaps tomorrow we’ll have power back.

This did not happen.

When I got up the next day, it was really cold.  I flicked the light switch. No response.  No electricity meant no coffee. Something had to be done.

A Facebook friend once asked if the Happy Valley’s vaunted fashion laissez-faire extended to PJs as street wear. “Yes!” came the resounding response. “Totally!  Absolutely!”  It seemed that today was as good a day as any to put this to the test. I yanked on a fleece in the frigid air, grabbed my parka, slipped on boots. Keys. Purse. Money.

And then I remembered the bread.

There it was on the kitchen counter, waiting so patiently.  Heading out the door, I picked up the bowl and cradled it in my arms.

I never pick up hitchhikers, but this once, I made an exception for the bundled twenty-something figure trudging tiredly down Route 9.  He slid into the seat behind me, taking the bread in his lap, glad for the ride and seemingly unphased by his pajama-wearing dough-toting driver. He was bound for the Unitarian Church in town in hopes the service was still on.  We talked about The Great Gatsby, Faulkner and Willa Cather. Then I dropped him at the church and parked my car, my mind once again on coffee.

But while the mood on Main Street was strangely festive, not a store or café was open.  A flannel-clad me paused dejectedly. I was out of luck.  (On the upside, those Facebook friends were right. No one gave me a second glance.)

I love my town for lots of reasons, and one of them is this: When you show up unannounced on your friends’ doorstep, wearing pajamas and bearing dough, you’re likely to be greeted as if you’re paying a totally normal visit.  Once settled in at the breakfast table and fortified with black tea (no electricity meant no coffee grinder, no coffee grinder, no coffee), I explained to my friends Jen and Michael the purpose of my mission.  “I knew you had a gas stove,” I concluded. “So I thought I could bake it here.”  But a gas stove, yes. Gas oven, no.  Again, I was back to square one.

Happily, here in the Happy Valley, hope springs eternal.  A few hours later, up the street, back at the Baskinettes, I had the choice of two gas stoves—and yes, one of them even appeared to have a functioning gas-fueled oven. We set out on a rescue operation, the four Baskinettes and I, trekking back down the snowy hill to collect the dough from Jen and Michael’s.

So far so good.

But not so fast.

There comes a time in every endeavor when by far the most sensible option is simply to give up.  Our Bread Odyssey reached this point when we found, upon arriving home, that the oven on which we’d pinned our hopes was also out of commission.  Is it possible to fry yeast bread? To rig up a stove top oven?  We gave some half-hearted thought to these questions, but clearly we were losing steam.  And then, like some culinary deus ex machina, Hosie’s sister appeared.  Yes, Lucretia had a functioning oven, and yes she would take our bread.

That night, after a largely housebound day trending towards cabin fever, the Baskinettes and I set out on foot for the nearby college campus center, lured by the prospect of heat and light and maybe even vending machines.  It was just around 7:30, but it felt pretty much like midnight. Beneath a sharp white sliver of moon, our shoes crunched through snow.  Still, it was good to be outside, to breathe in the fresh night air.

Then, for a strange frozen moment, I saw us as if from a distance, characters in the opening scenes of a movie that wouldn’t end well. Isn’t this how they always start, those blockbuster disaster films?   An almost ordinary lovely day in an ordinary lovely town.   Kids, families, plans, friends—and then The Thing appears.  (Aliens, terrorists, viral pandemic—you can take your pick.)  At first, no one understands what it is they’re up against.  It’s just a slight cough, or a faint shadow. Or a snow storm in October.

We got power back the next day, two days earlier than predicted. All in all, we’d gotten off easy. Even the shrimp and ice cream in my freezer appeared to have survived the thaw.  Within hours, you could almost feel like everything was back to normal.  Almost but not quite.  Not if you surveyed the piles of tangled tree limbs, leaves green against improbable snow.  Not if you took some time to think about the next logical plot point.

I finally caught up with my bread again the following afternoon, now transmuted into a golden cornmeal-encrusted round.  “Was easy enough to bake but seems a little, uh, dense, which is likely because of the lack of warm rise,” Lucretia wrote me on Facebook.  And to sure, when I picked up the loaf, it did seem rather stone-like. But when I cut off a slice and took a hesitant bite, it was amazingly not-too-bad—especially if accompanied by a bit of homemade peach jam.

In the past few months, our little part of the world has endured its share of hardships: a tornado, a hurricane, and now a blizzard, not to mention the all-engulfing global economic maelstrom.  We live in strange and unsettling times. I know this is true. I also know that, whatever dangers we face, there is hope in our human connections. Together, we can grapple with climate change—or make a loaf of bread.  And if you’re going to face the apocalypse, it’s best to do it with friends.