Do you fancy yourself an expert at something?
Expertise looks a lot alike from thing to thing. It doesn’t matter whether we’re doing cancer research, editing a blockbuster movie, or cleaning a stove top, being an expert requires attention. There is a task at hand, and it hungers for completion. Maybe it will be “complete” in an hour, maybe a decade. If we’re bent on top notch craftmanship, and maybe some artistic genius thrown into the mix, the work ahead will demand the some shared characteristics. Practice. Labor. Focus of mind. Detail. Experimentation. Risk. Technique. Timing. The invention of systems. Discovery. Awareness and analysis, breaking things down, naming the steps, examining these steps, assessing each steps’ effectiveness, making adjustments, sometimes huge, sometimes minute. It requires attention.
This has an unfortunate shadow—we become picky, discriminating, discerning. We might become intolerant of slovenliness, perhaps irritable and impatient, downright snarky about other people’s work. We can’t help it: We pay attention.
I play pretend. I pretend I’m a chef, a prep cook, a baker, and member of the cleaning crew. I don my grease-stained apron, and I play expert for a day: I imagine myself — this is what I do – I imagine…and thus, I pay more attention.
It’s a rainy Sunday with the NFC championship games on TV. Could there be a better set of circumstances for domesticity? For this flight of fancy into culinary adventure? My son, Miles, will saunter over to my house, to join me in playing pretend. We pretend to care who wins the big games; we invent reasons to root for one or the other team, just for the pure investment of the moment. We really just root for a close game.
Televised football games have a magnificent way of being able to take up all the space in the room. They leap out of the little box, now a flat screen, and suck up all other cares in the world with the following pronouncement: “this is all that matters right now!” The urgency and enthusiasm of the commentators are critical to this illusion, as they shout and laugh and josh each other. They’re our friends, with warm, familiar voices, never threatening, always reassuring. If we get nothing done today, it’s completely okay – we’re in the company of the rest of the country, plopped down in front of the TV, watching the only thing that matters right now.
Even better? Watch football AND cook, bake, clean, maybe darn socks. Part of the challenge—timing your prep work in front of the football game while tending to the stovetop and oven timing. Move back and forth like a ballet dancer, a figure skater perhaps.
Today I am going to make puff pastry. Yep… the kind that requires time and patience, slicing chilled butter into a chilled bowl of flour and salt, one tiny pebble at a time. I move my flour and dough board out to the coffee table so I can watch Drew Brees throw passes as I whittle away at high quality butter. I turn the little butter slices into flour-coated little pebbles, slowly, patiently, my hands covered in flour, the quarterback dodging attacks. Then it chills in the fridge, while I peel beets and carrots. I hear voices in my head: “only slice the carrots down their meaty center, check for dark spots on the inner rim of the beets!” This is the master prep cook, barking out instructions to me. Of course, I study with the master. During halftime, I simmer garlic and onions on the stove, prep my green beans, and rinse my Chinese noodles. The master chef in my head leans over and reminds me “use your senses, all the time, smell, smell, smell…gotta trust your nose, it doesn’t lie.” The field goal is good. Again. The game goes into overtime. Oh yay, more football on TV. I am totally delighted with the coin toss. Is anyone else taken by the quaintness of this gesture? Millions of people and billions of dollars swirl around the whole game, and a guy throws a quarter in the air, just like the children on a sidewalk.
Company. Cooking. Football. My house is filled up.
I broil some red and yellow peppers, and I burn the carrots just enough to caramelize the edges. The Rams win in overtime, and my puff pastry dough is doing fine in the fridge. All is right in the world. I slip over to my neighbor’s soiree, dropping in between football games and stovetop pauses. “It’s all in the Timing…” just another imaginary voice, coming from another imaginary master chef in my mind. I remind him that this is true in almost everything… in comedy, in relationships, in decent writing.
I return to the second football game and to peeling apples. “It’s all in the freshness of the apples,” the produce man chimes into my head. I peel pippins for my puff pastry, while watching the drama between the Pats and the Chiefs. Wow…good stuff. The apples too.
With the cooking part of the day mostly done, I now face the hardest part of the day. How do I make my puff pastry LOOK good? How do I take this ball of sticky dough and turn it into a strudel? I have skipped all dough-shaping classes in my imaginary culinary curriculum. Making dough is one thing, shaping it is a whole other level of acumen. I’m totally willing to fail. This is an experiment, an expert in the lab taking risks. I try several different configurations of dough. I stare into space, asking myself, “how should this really go? what are the limitations, the priorities, how should I proceed? I picture the perfect apple strudel in my head.
I play pretend.
I imagine it all.
It’s something to do.
It fills the empty space.
Like the football game.
I imagine the perfect apple strudel.
I imagine myself.
I imagine myself part of the clean up crew: I have strong opinions about cleaners and sponges, I’m picky about getting all the way down into the crevices, “ don’t skim the surfaces, literally”…the guy who oversees the clean up crew is an articulate guy—he enjoys his own metaphors, and sparkles when he uses that word, “literally” because he knows he’s using it accurately. He loves a clean sentence like he loves a clean counter.
The game between the Chiefs and the Pats, too, goes into overtime. Two coin tosses in one day of championship football! What a ride. It is, after all, the only thing that matters today, right?
It’s 9:30 at night. I’m still cleaning, wiping up the last of the flour on my coffee table, and picking up stray onion peels off the kitchen floor. My feet hurt and my back aches a little. Sigh… a full day. A day of labor.
Labor is good. Even better? Imagining myself … an expert for a day.
It takes practice. And it requires attention.
Oh, the apple strudel? The puff pastry? The beets and carrots? The results of the day? You want to know how it all turns out? Well, maybe there’s a line between fantasy and reality after all. But hey, it all tastes pretty good. And it’s real food.
6 thoughts on “Monday musings: Expertise and the imaginary self.”
If the manner in which you slice and dice and mix and knead and shape your words and sentences and thoughts and ideas is anything like the way you approach you cooking and baking, then I’m caught between notions of eating your words or simply enjoying your food for thought.
You must make pastries too, the way you can wrap the dough around a sugary note…
I am reminded of the meaning of the word amateur at its etymological roots. It is possible to be good at something that you love deeply. It is equally possible to not be particularly good at something but love it nonetheless. It is a feature of our world that some people throw the word amateur around fully intending to disparage or denigrate the efforts of those who have not yet acquired (or may never be able to acquire) certain skills but who, for the love of it, persist in their love of something. The disparagers bully the amateur to cease and desist. Simultaneously, expertise is modeled as if it were an instantaneously acquired thing. Our culture suggests that masters of any art were “born” with this excellence, which is contrary to the facts. The outcome of these two often-paired outlooks is that fewer people perform, and fewer people are willing to invest the time and energy it takes to acquire mastery of anything. Consequently, amateur has come to mean something sloppy, inept, and worthy of ridicule.
I so much enjoyed reading a narrative exhibiting mastery stemming from years of work. I laughed at your description of playing with roles and interests knowing that your facility for this kind of play is the result of years of work in improvisation and imagination. Interestingly, I think of these two masteries as inherent to your professional life. On the other hand, it is even more satisfying to sense your dedication and passion for good (if not great) cooking–that you are fully willing to invest and risk your imagination and time in something simply because you love it–to be an unashamed, undeterred amateur.
Your insights about amateur and mastery are so poignant to me. How right you are that we disparage those who follow a deep-seeded passion but who are not “professionals” or perhaps “celebrities” in these arenas. Perhaps “mastery” is the attention to detail, the depth of understanding, even as our challenges shift through time. Perhaps we need some new words, ones that do not carry such baggage that they inhibit more than they inspire… Thanks so much for your beautifully penned words and depth of your perception… More soon…this delicious meal of ideas.
That was so much fun to read! I love the idea of pretending to be an expert—it’s the first step in becoming one. What shall I be today?
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Maybe it’s the actor in me? free to be many different folks over time. This is either artistry and creativity or madness… well, a little of both. Yes, try on expertise for the pure delight of performance and yes, this is how it happens perhaps?