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.