The New New Thing
In The New New Thing, Jim Clark, founder of Netscape and celebrated Silicon Valley entrepreneur, crosses the Atlantic on his $30 million sailboat, a vessel controlled by millions of lines of computer software code rather than sailors. Outside, the wind changes direction, the sea rises, and the enormous mainsail develops a rip that aborts the journey. Inside, Clark is totally absorbed by the glowing screen of a Silicon Graphics workstation, completely unaware of the forces of nature. After the maiden voyage, he soon loses interest in his 150-foot toy, moving on to the new new thing, an even bigger boat with more computers.
I have found that children, unlike Jim Clark, take great pleasure in the unchanged. Once they find an activity they like, they repeat it endlessly. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, "grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony." The word monotony, of course, is the problem. My children simply shout "Do It Again!" with no thought that repetition and pleasure are somehow separate. For my 2-year-old, joy is the 100th reading of Goodnight Moon; for my 4-year-old it is playing pirate; for my 10-year-old it is the perfect bowl of homemade oatmeal prepared just so each morning; and for my 9-year-old it is yet one more game of Clue before bedtime.
Many of us might label this obsession with the familiar as no more than immaturity; a young, insecure child always seeks comfort in routine. However, the corollary is that the rest of us take no comfort at all in the familiar, since we are always seeking what is next. I am reminded of a story told by a Zen teacher, Steve Hagen. A crowd is seated around a sumptuous banquet, the table filled with meats, fruits, fish, vegetables, wine, and sweets, everything one could desire, yet the guests are slowly starving to death. They don't realize that food is what they need. They have forgotten how to see.
I wonder if this lack of vision is perhaps the greatest attribute of modern times. In the 19th century, a "tourist" experienced foreign lands at a snail's pace, a trip to Europe taking months and encounters with locals frequent, since one traveled by the blessed tedium of coach and train rather than at jet speed. The travel itself was the adventure, not the destination. In cooking, of course, we have pared down our expectations to the food itself, the experience of cooking being of little import. Like modern tourists, we are focused on the destination and miss the journey entirely.
Perhaps we have lost, as Chesterton put it, "the eternal appetite of infancy." In modern times, to be called infantile is be singled out as a fool unsophisticated in the ways of the world. Perhaps we ought to regard the label of childishness as a compliment, a term worthy of someone who can wallow in the indulgence of the moment and see things for what they are. I support this new definition with the example of nature itself, the ultimate study in repetition. The sun rises every morning, yet poets have not found that simple act monotonous. Homer, in The Odyssey, starts each chapter with the words, "The rosy red fingers of dawn..." Is one more perfect Black-Eyed Susan not worth a glance? Should we tire of the thrill of winter's first snow? Is the sight of a wild apple tree in full bloom not breath-taking? Nature refreshes itself through repetition; renewal is part of an endless cycle.
My 2-year-old daughter bends down to peep through the oven window, hands on knees, saucer eyes wide with expectation, glimpsing, I am thinking, a bit of the eternal. I stop to watch, realizing that I have forgotten how to see the mystery of life in the rise of angel food or in the upward push of a baking biscuit. Standing by the stove, we could all travel like this newly minted being, slipping into the stream of life through the familiar, finding everything we seek within our four walls. For cooks, the yeast of life is to be had on the cheap, with the slap of dough or the foam of batter. It is a journey best taken with baby steps, one at a time, until we find ourselves face to face with our heart's desire, that which is timeless but also familiar. If we could but see like a child, we would set out on journeys never thinking only of the destination. We would all be happy cooks, I expect, busy in the kitchen, discovering the unexpected in the midst of the familiar.