Hello; my name is Eugenia, and I am not spontaneous.
For a long time, I kept it relatively hidden. I wrote lists in childhood journals à la Jay Gatsby that set out not only my plan for the day (broken into segments as minute as “say hi to the cats,” an important part of my day then and now) but my blueprints for my future house and life. I didn’t want to miss any opportunities, that was for sure.
Like Gatsby, I did force myself to do a number of things to build my social capital. I started working at age 14 at a law firm and joined the rather unpleasant French Honor Society among a host of extracurriculars so I could get a job as an “international lawyer.” Hm.
I came out as a planner by accident. It surprised even me. When I was completing my wedding registry at Williams Sonoma, my future husband tapped me on the shoulder saying he was thirsty. “I’m planning our childrens’ birthday parties,” I snapped, checking off the cake decorating kit, “you’ll just have to wait.”
But over the years, I’ve come to terms with my need for planning and I really love how much richness and productivity it lends to my life.
At its worst, a lack of spontaneity can be an irritable, chronic condition. I get more and more grumpy when events conspire to keep the future veiled. Not having secure employment affects me deeply as a long-range planner. After all, I’m already planning my retirement, and not knowing where I’ll be next year makes that difficult. (For those of you who don’t understand people like me, not knowing the future doesn’t mean letting the future just happen, it means contingency planning — setting out as many different options as possible. The wheels of change do not stop for any momentary obstruction in the road.)
Being a planner doesn’t mean I’m inherently inflexible. In fact, adaptation is the key to any plan. But it can be. exhausting. I loathe last-minute invitations, since I can rarely attend them due to scheduling my evenings weeks in advance, and I’m participating less and less in thrown-together events because of the anxiety it causes. I’m finding, too, that my pleasure in spending time with people who can’t make decisions is slowly diminishing.
So why don’t you change, Eugenia?
Why doesn’t the world change? We could all use a little less chaos. That old saw about a messy desk being the sign of an orderly mind, or whatever? Good god. Spend a little less time defending your crap and a little more time cleaning it up. Creativity has nothing to do with hoarding and bric-a-brac on your keyboard. The whole being laid-back, it’s all good, letting go thing is vastly overrated. Stick up my bum? At least I don’t have shit everywhere.
And I like the idea of becoming world famous as an anti-spontaneity curmudgeon. Anti spontaneity league! Baby! (Note planning in action.)
So what’s the up side of a lack of spontaneity, then, if it just makes you grumpy?
I’m surprised that you even need to ask this. But let’s return to cooking. Some people really love baking cakes — it’s a relatively immediate gratification (I suppose you do have to wait for it to cool). But me? I love preservation, the opposite of immediate gratification.
As Sandor Katz has so eloquently written, preservation puts you in closer contact with the rhythms of the earth — seasonality, fertility, and decay. Canning and the related arts are unnatural, I’ve said before, paraphrasing the Italian philosopher Massimo Montanari. When you preserve food, you seize death by the throat and shake it until it falls back, stunned. You stave off decay with sugar, vinegar, salt and heat. With a little planning, you can end up with a pantry and freezer full of summer bounty…in the dead of winter! It’s alchemy and ingenuity and a testament to the human drive for life!
And it can all be yours for the simple mindset of just planning ahead, grasshopper.
Although I recognize the issues the “urban homesteading” crowd has with USDA-influenced preservation and acknowledge the safety redundancy and commercial interests that affect sugar, chemical, and salt levels in Extension-approved canning, I think we should take a moment to appreciate the spirit in which the early cookbooks and canning manuals were developed. The home economists and domestic scientists of the early-twentieth century appreciated a good plan. They standardized measurements and made recipes as fail-safe as possible. This came at a cost, I’ll stress again: using inferior products for the sake of good looks (always a danger, in cooking and outside of it) and glorifying industrialization and economy led to the vilification of freshness and taste.
If you look carefully, though, you’ll see that adaptations were often encouraged and suggested, as long as they’d promote the recipe’s success and safety. Creating an anti-spontaneous program helped generations to learn how to cook well systematically, not to mention raised the level of professionalism in the kitchen and provided women with ways to study science and business in an era in which they weren’t being educated much at all. That’s quite a feat.
And wholly impossible without planning.
(The photos in this blog post are all from Grange exhibits at the 2011 Lane County Fair.)