Sunday, April 22, 2007

One Tough Cookie

I wrote the original of this some time ago. Yesterday, while looking through some old articles I'd written I re-read it and decided to share it here. It was a powerful lesson for me -- I hope it speaks to your heart too!

I love to bake. I love the satisfaction of taking a host of singular ingredients and blending them together to create an edible delight. I love to glow in the aftermath of baking. To revel in the thrill of taste buds bursting in the mouths of those I love while a message of warmth and joy explodes in their hearts.

Aside from the joy I get from baking, however, I relish the life lessons that sometimes unexpectedly combust out of the creative process.

Like raising children, baking is a science. You can’t just take a haphazard bunch of ingredients and throw them together in the hope they will gel into something palatable. To succeed, you need to understand both the science of how ingredients work together and the exact methodology of combining them to get the desired reaction. It’s not unlike mixing oil and water. You can’t force the two to combine, but you can get them to bond upon a piece of bread.

Just like mixing a hormonal teenager with a menopausal mother. To avoid getting a rise out of every occasion, use love as the main ingredient, avoid sprinkling salt over raw emotion, and incorporate empathy as the bond that tides you over discord.

Doesn't matter how carefully I follow the recipe, however, I can always cook up a good lesson for myself out of the rawest of ingredients.

Recently I wanted something sweet to sustain my daughters while I was gone for the weekend. Chocolate Chip cookies seemed like the perfect answer. Now, Chocolate Chip cookies are part science, part love. To achieve that melt in your mouth perfect blend of sweetness and chewiness, warm gooey goodness that settles on your tongue like dew on a rose and permeates your senses with fragrant delight, ‘creaming together’ will ensure the main ingredients will ensure they are blended to silky perfection.

Like the limit on my credit card, however, perfection has a way of evaporating when I pay more attention to its attainment than to what I’m doing. Sometimes, all it takes is a little lump of sugar to ruin a perfect moment. On this day it wasn’t a particularly large lump, nor even all that hard. But it was the perfect size to slip between the beaters of my electric mixer, from one side to the other of the bowl, without breaking down. I couldn’t leave it the way it was. If left undeterred it would be a huge flaw in the perfection of my cookies. I had to take action. I had to teach it a lesson.

Now, I know I should use a utensil to break apart recalcitrant lumps and other errant ingredients. I know I should put my mind in gear and turn the machine off before putting any utensil or body part into the bowl. But, on this occasion, my mind drifting in thought, miles away, I used the most convenient object at my disposal. My left hand. It didn’t take long to realize my mistake. With a scream, I threw the bowl across the counter and pulled my hand away. The mixer came with it. I stared in disbelief. The shiny metal of the beaters bit into the skin of my hand. My fingers protruded from between their enclosure. I could move them, but they hurt. Lots.

I pounded the switch to eject the beaters. They were jammed tight into the body of the machine. The pain in my hand was excruciating. I looked for blood. No broken skin. I searched for solutions. There was no one home. Crying out for help was useless. I thought of running across the street to my neighbor's, but they were away. Finally, I realized I’d have to do it on my own. I gritted my teeth, took a breath and used my right hand to pry the beaters apart. I wanted to scream at them, “Don’t be so stubborn!” I wanted to rip my left hand from their grip. But they wouldn’t give an inch. Tears streaming down my face, my hand on fire, my senses crying out in pain, I finally forced a small opening between the beaters and extracted my hand. I wiggled my fingers tentatively. Nothing broken.

I filled a bag with ice and lay down on the couch. I struggled to find a position that would give some relief from the pain that seared up my arm with the intensity of ice shards shattering on cement. I pushed back the tears and lay there in sullen misery.

And that is how my eldest daughter found me when she came home from school an hour later. She opened the front door, called out a cheerful, “I’m home!” as my conscious mind flew out into the chill of the evening.

She eyed me sitting on the couch, my hand wrapped up in a towel. “I had a fight with the mixer,” I ruefully blurted out as she entered the living room. “It won.”

“That was a stupid thing to do,” she replied before she’d even taken off her coat.

As if I didn’t know! I knew what I’d done probably qualified me for first place in the Darwin Awards. I didn’t need her reminder. I attacked back. “Shall I run and get the cleaver so you can finish me off?”

“That’s not fair,” my daughter cried. “I was only teasing you.”

“What’s not fair is walking in and immediately criticizing me,” I asserted. “I don’t like being called stupid.”

“I didn’t call you stupid. I just said it was a stupid thing to do.”

Amazing! My high horse came riding in without my even calling for it. “I could hear it in the tone of your voice.”

“I was only trying to make you laugh.”

“Ha! You weren’t joking.” With a self-absorbed huff, and a barely audible, “I made you chocolate chip cookies”, I carried my bag of ice and aching hand off to bed. I’m ashamed to admit the words, ‘and I hope you choke on them’ might have crossed my mind as I tossed martyrdom onto the pyre of our discord with the slam of my bedroom door.

My twenty-year old daughter, unaccustomed to my taking centre stage with such childish behaviour, came storming after me. “You slammed the door on me!” she cried. Her wide-eyed shock and incredulous voice barely penetrated the cocoon of darkness the covers made over my head.

“I don’t care,” I mumbled from beneath my blankets.

“You told me never to slam a door.”

“My hand hurts,” I moaned.

“Then why didn’t you just tell me rather than laughing about it when I came in the front door?”

Rational thinking is not high on my list of things to do when I’m in pain, but as I reflected upon my actions and combined them with her words, the reality of the situation rose up like yeast expanding gluten. I had acted out of frustration and poured burning oil on the troubled waters of my aching hand. It was time to climb off my high horse and take up the reins of adulthood once again.

“I apologize,” I said, pulling the covers from above my head.

“Harrumph,” replied my daughter, warily eyeing me from the doorway of my bedroom, one hand on the doorknob, the other on her hip.

We stared at each other for a moment before I smiled sheepishly. “It was a stupid thing to do,” I said.

Doesn’t mean you’re stupid,” she replied, using my oft used response when as a child, she would call herself stupid and I would quickly remind her that doing something stupid does not make you stupid, just perfectly human. She moved towards the bed. I patted the covers with my good hand, inviting her to crawl in beside me.

“Does this mean there’s blood in the cookie dough?” she asked.

I laughed. “Nope.” I held up my wounded hand. “See. No broken skin. No broken bones. Just a great big gob of wounded pride.”

And that’s when the lesson hit home. Baking is one part science, one part mystery. Understanding the elements, being willing to experiment with ingredients and trust in the process is critical to achieving edible delights that please the palate and enliven the spirit. My fingers weren’t broken. I didn’t need stitches. The cookies were made. My hand would heal and eventually so would my pride.

Was I willing to learn from my mistake? Was I willing to look at what I’d done when I put my hand into the bowl with the intent of breaking down a lump of sugar that was not cooperating with my desires? Was I willing to ask myself, where else do I do that in my life? Where else do I throw caution aside and use brute force to pummel people and things to conform to my needs?

Ask my daughter. She’ll be happy to tell you. Our harmonious existence is often disrupted when I react without recognizing that we are singular ingredients that only mix well together when blended with loving care and bonded with consideration for our unique qualities.

When she walked in the door, I was looking for a fight. I couldn’t beat up my mixer. It had already won that battle. In my frustration and pain, I dashed her spirits with my salt-brined response without conciously thinking about what I wanted to create; harmony or discord.

Anyone can make chocolate chip cookies. Like parenting, creating a cookie that melts in your mouth and warms your spirit requires loving care and an adherence to the steps that ensure the outcome is a reflection of the journey it took to get there.

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