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The Wonder of Trying

The Wonder of Trying

Spending extra time at home these days brings back some elementals – family time, simple pleasures, and, of course, bread.

David Skinner

Well over a year ago, I tried to make bread. At lunch a colleague offered me some of the starter that had given life to his handsome loaves, pictures of which he showed me on his phone as if they were children he had sired.

“Aw, look at that,” I said.

Usually, I can be counted on not to underestimate the amount of work that goes into making a stew or building a bookcase or fixing a bicycle, modest achievements that, especially when done well, conceal years of effort. And I had no particular desire to make my own bread, but before long my lunch companion wore me down with his poignant tales of crusty, old-fashioned sourdough and the miracle of natural fermentation.

Like most eaters, I have fond memories of eating bread. Mine begin with Pepperidge Farm thin white, toasted, out of which my mother made an infinity of tomato sandwiches – ripe tomatoes from her garden, store-bought mayonnaise, and a serious sprinkling of salt and pepper. I can still see the dappled pools of mayonnaise and tomato drool dotting our kitchen china and the aforementioned white bread, lightly toasted and damp in the middle where my mother had cut the sandwich in half.

Irish soda bread is also a part of my life. It takes about an hour to make, not counting the run to the store for raisins, which I never seem to have on hand. I bake it for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day. One year I worked on the family recipe pretty methodically, experimenting with different amounts of the liquid ingredients and adjusting the baking times to produce a soda bread that was, I hoped, not so dry.

It now comes out softer but looks and tastes exactly like my mother’s.

Not long ago, when I visited a friend who had moved to my neighborhood, I brought him half a loaf. He immediately began warming it in his oven, even though we had reservations at a nearby restaurant. Just before we left, he pulled the bread out and cut us both massive slices, which, steaming hot, we very happily ate from paper napkins as we walked, with him holding forth to say that the atheists are wrong, the majesty of God is real, and warm homemade bread was yet another proof. Touched by his enthusiasm, I didn’t disagree.

The best bread I ever ate came from a bakery in the Bronx that my mother discovered. It was on her way home from her job as a high school guidance counselor. If I was with her, my mother would double park outside and send me in with some money to fetch the goods. The counter was plain, and behind it were a couple of equally plain shelves on which sat stunning round loaves of crusty sourdough bread, guarded by short old Italian women who spoke no English at all. After spending some time being ignored, I realized that you had to insinuate yourself into their field of vision, say “please,” and hold up one or two fingers for how many loaves you needed.

If, however, you walked in and saw no loaves on the shelves, you were out of luck. If you asked for bread anyway, they looked at you like you were a very stupid child.

I blame those old ladies and the memory of their delicious bread, hard on the outside but chewy and airy on the inside, for my decision last year to accept the sourdough starter from my colleague.

I should have passed.

For one thing, the bread I made was terrible. Worse yet, trying to make it stole many hours of my time: reading about bread, examining long, involved recipes that I didn’t quite understand, tending to a starter that sometimes seemed capable of animating lowly, all-purpose flour into something noble and beautiful but more often reminded me of a kid playing sick to avoid school. Still, I kept at it.

When I finally put the dough in the oven, it didn’t rise; it burned, and it came out stuck to the bottom of the Dutch oven I had used. The pieces I could tear off were dense and inedible. Three more times I tried and failed to make bread, the baking of which humankind has understood for millennia.

Such extensive failure could only be attributed to my own sad limitations, the most important of which is that I didn’t understand what all these bakers were talking about. While using their books and recipes, I was having serious problems of basic reading comprehension, beginning with the vocabulary. For example, there is starter, which is water and flour that has begun to ferment; then there is levain, which is water and flour that is fermenting with the help of starter; and then there is poolish, which is like levain, but different, though also made of water and flour and starter, which itself is, of course, made of water and flour.

Making bread had made me ridiculous, but this huge waste of water and flour had one lovely side effect: I gave more attention to the bread I ate. I chewed slowly and savored the experience. I thought of the food my mother made for me and my siblings.

As before, whenever I tried a new recipe – tried to put appetizing food on the table – I ate with more respect for what I was eating. Thinking about the effort that goes into making bread, I felt admiration for bakers and gratitude for their good work. I was not disillusioned. Instead, I appreciated bread more than ever.

In January, a friend brought over some whole wheat bread he had made from sourdough starter. It was very good: a nice hard crust and soft inner bread flesh that had risen nicely and evenly. My wife, Cynthia, praised his efforts, and, leading the witness, asked with wide-eyed curiosity how he did it, as if the topic of how to make sourdough bread had never come up before at her table. He talked about the recipe he followed and offered to share his starter. Cynthia accepted, even as I protested that I was done trying to make bread.

A stranger to this scene wouldn’t have seen a problem: Why shouldn’t Cynthia accept a cup of starter and make bread herself? The answer is that she is way too busy. My wife is a highly productive person, and committing herself to one or two too many projects is a part of her method. I am a less productive person with a different method: I try to under-commit myself so as to leave me enough time to take on larger projects – one of which is to help alleviate the pressure caused by my wife’s overcommitment. She would of course describe the problem differently – if she had the time.

For this and other reasons (see the general rule of labor distribution in modern marriage; see alsothe closely related first law of fungibility, to wit: “What truly needs doing will be done by one spouse or the other, usually the wife, except when the husband has already invested a great deal of time and effort in said project”), I knew the starter Cynthia was accepting would sit in the fridge, ignored by her, taunting me with memories of my own failures as a would-be baker of bread.

And so it did.

A week later, there I was, checking on the starter and trying again to make bread. But this time, I succeeded. The bread had nice pockets of air and a good crust. The inside reached a good level of sour. It was very tasty.

Daily life has been full of such soft lessons since I began working from home in mid-March. If you are healthy and fortunate enough to be among the employed, you can either suffer by reading the news all day long or make some bread, or go for a run, or throw yourself into work. It is not obvious how you should behave when tens of thousands of your fellow Americans are dying and their families are suffering, when businesses are closing and unemployment has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression, all while your own life has shrunk to a cuter, more domestic version of itself.

I sometimes wonder whether it’s immoral to take such pleasure in my private life. If the pleasure came at the cost of others’ unhappiness, or by closing my mind to such suffering, it certainly would be. But I don’t think I am particularly guilty of either. Let me spare you the itemized list. I am happy to stipulate that I am short of a saint but not a completely selfish bastard. Like most people I belong somewhere in the imperfect middle, trying to be a good person but also spending a lot of my time, most of it even, trying to be good at things that might be considered morally neutral or possibly even self-serving: good at my job, good at writing, and, these days, good at things like making bread or playing the ukulele, which I took up a few months ago.

It is a good time for being good at things that pass the time and amuse the people closest to you. Several of my neighbors have been working with rising intensity on their cornhole skills, as a small league comes into its own in the driveways of our suburban neighborhood.

Yet these innocent pleasures also feel a little bit strange. My nagging conscience asks, are we not required, in troubled times like these, to look past the pleasures of private life and keep our eyes fixed on the sunburnt horizon of calamity? Must we not stare and bear witness to all of it, from global warming to the antics of our president to the crisis of authority that has us questioning simple medical recommendations while throngs of would-be pundits on social media tear at the fabric of civil society and sometimes raise serious questions, like whether it is possible for African-Americans to get a fair shake from the police, the health care system, or even a color-blind virus?

True, the world at large seems rank and corrupt – as I check the clock in my kitchen to see whether it’s time to fold my bread dough once again. (There are three more rounds of folding to go.) While the news cycles count the minutes of this annus horribilis, I look out the front door and see Norman Rockwell scenes: a twelve-year-old learning to ride a bicycle from two encouraging friends; parents returning from a nearby basketball game, with their kids walking beside them and, yes, talking to them, talking to their parents. Even as public life veers toward a national orgy of hate, accusation, and lies, the pandemic has been wonderfully rich in the elemental pleasures of family and domesticity.

Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I have three children who, in a normal year, would have been in school, being educated by people who are actually qualified to teach them. This year, the stress of their being stuck at home is showing up all over the place, from the number of drinking glasses accidentally broken to the frequency and severity of the kids’ worst behavior. The current index of negative family indicators at my house is like one of those Greek diner menus that go on for twelve pages and seem to leave nothing out. We all desperately need a long break from one another. But amid the chaos there have been incredible moments of connection, running jokes, collaborative projects, board games, and many more encounters that have led to greater knowledge of each other’s character, tastes, and inner lives. I know my children much better than I did before this crisis, and I feel known by my children in ways I have never felt known before. It often seems to me that I am living out my personal fantasy of what family life was supposed to have been like all along. Life is perfect – except for the disaster looming beyond the perimeter.

When my three children were sent home with their laptops, I was all but shining with noble intentions. I thought I could convince them that studying was their job and they were my fellow workers, all of us building our little projects, sometimes across from each other at the dining room table.

But when a home is a school and workplace all at the same time, things change drastically. After a few weeks, we entered some nether zone in which the children began to have more responsibilities, aka chores, but we all have more free time. Instead of fellow workers, we’re like fellow students, and it’s one of those hippie schools you hear about, with no grades or deadlines and the students determining the course of their own education.

There’s a lot more cooking class and much less health class, more music and less math, more shop class and domestic arts, and a lot of conversation and movie-watching. Traditional subjects are getting short shrift. But traditional arts and crafts—reading, drawing, music—are thriving. We’re closer to being a jam session than a class of students prepared for its next year of schooling.

Self-improvement is in the air, at least on the better days.

Among the skills I most wish I possessed are the abilities to play music and speak a foreign language. Thinking I might tackle the first, I asked for a ukulele as my birthday present. It’s like a guitar but smaller, with only four strings and a lot of open chords. It’s one of a handful of instruments that, like the harmonica, doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Cynthia dutifully bought one for me. I dutifully plucked at it for an hour or two. Then, gift receipt in hand, I returned it to the music store. Though I had never played an instrument before, I knew this ukulele – a little more on the toy side of the toy-instrument spectrum – was not up to my standards. For just a little more money, I walked away with “a piece of wood and plastic,” as my ukulele hero Amanda Palmer calls it, whose sound was a good bit warmer and not so squeaky.

Cynthia thought it was hilarious that on my very first day as a musician, I was already a snob about my instrument – and about a ukulele, no less, the least snobbish of instruments. In my defense, I knew that if the ukulele and my completely ignorant playing didn’t sound any better at the outset, my career as a ukulele player might be over before the weekend.

Like all novices, I had high hopes to protect and nourish, like making up silly songs one day that would mock my children for leaving their rooms a mess or playing too many video games. (Several years ago, I made up lyrics for a song about Father’s Day: “For taking out the garbage and cleaning up the garage / Happy Father’s Day.” I would love to support it with an instrument.)

To be honest, my development as a ukulele player has not convinced anyone that the undertaking deserves greater investment. So it is a good thing that my additional expenses related to ukulele playing have been minimal. In February I thought of paying for lessons. This turned out to be impractical unless I wanted to settle for virtual lessons, which I did not. It seemed better to take advantage of the many freebie tutorials online. So far, my progress has not outstripped the supply of free lessons.

Besides, learning on the cheap decreases the pressure to succeed and makes it easier for me to put the ukulele aside when more pressing projects interrupt. Also, after my sons told me that I should buy a cool sports car for my midlife crisis, I told them I had already made my big midlife crisis purchase: a ukulele. They countered that their mother was the one who actually bought the ukulele. I returned shot by pointing out that, in fact, I had returned that ukulele and paid for an upgrade.

This meant that my big midlife crisis purchase was half a ukulele, whose total cost barely crested the $100 mark.

Sometimes I imagine that if I don’t show much interest in flashy material goods, my kids will learn not to spend their days lusting for speedboats and sport cars and expensive vacation packages. For this I will probably one day be rewarded with postcards from Aspen showing my sons in a hot tub, surrounded by ski bunnies, with a Land Rover parked in the background. In any case, playing even the humble ukulele has deepened my pleasure in listening to all kinds of music, from the mumbled confessionals of singer-songwriters to the highly coordinated thrusts of the classical orchestra. The talent and skills that build songs are now more evident to my ears, and I can better appreciate the good fortune of a well-written song. I can see that even modest musicianship takes an immodest level of dedication.

It may seem that, consumed with bread-making and music, I have spent these months hiding in a flour-smeared apron or taking shelter behind my ukulele to avoid the profound conflicts that surface daily in the media; but the steady cultivation of one’s own garden is important, too. It carries many benefits, not just to the gardener but to his family, his guests, and others.

Learning to make bread and music teaches you to appreciate not only the bread and the music but what others do for you when you are a guest in their homes or restaurants, when you listen to their music, and when you are lucky enough to see them enjoying a tomato sandwich at their kitchen tables.

The domestic arts are no less deep than the usual subjects of public debate and sometimes more so. While others are consumed by the latest outrage of our polarizing president, I check to see whether there are any bananas or apples left on the sideboard. As I do, I’m reminded of the great paintings of the Dutch golden age, when bourgeois collectors clamored for pictures of bread and fruit and cheese, all of it ripening past perfection and reminding the viewer of the transience of life itself.

David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language and culture and lives in Alexandria, Virginia.