Thursday, December 08, 2011

Christmas parties and happiness projects

Spice clutter
Has anyone else read The Happiness Project? I suspect this is one of those books that everyone has a completely different response to. Here's mine: a slightly prissy, unintentionally funny yet infectious account of a high-achieving perfectionist's attempt to "master" happiness like you master multiplication.

Maybe it is possible to master happiness. I don't know. Gretchen Rubin certainly makes the case and while I resisted her whole premise and approach, at the same time I couldn't help succumbing to some of her recommendations. Which is why, over the weekend, instead of sitting in my pajamas on the sofa posting about what we ate for dinner and then going to see New Year's Eve, I decided to alphabetize our spices.

We have a lot of spices. Imagine all the spices a person could possibly own and then double that because the person is messy and can never find the spices in the disorder of his/her cupboards or pantry and so has to go out and buy more spices. Rubin is obsessed with order -- obsessed with cleaning closets and eliminating clutter --  and I couldn't help but think about my pantry when I read her sermon. The spice alphabetization involved a trip to the Container Store, the labelmaker and consolidating multiple jars of mustard seeds. It took many hours over four days and I finally finished yesterday. Question: would you file Aleppo pepper under Aleppo or pepper?

In any case, I'm not sure I'm happier. I do know that I now feel like master of a very tiny universe and this will continue for a day or two. And then some innocent making cinnamon toast is going to misfile the cinnamon and I'm going to detonate, which will make not just me but everyone else in the very tiny universe unhappy. This is the problem, I feel, with linking control and happiness. This is one major problem, I feel, with The Happiness Project.

Of course, there's more to the book. Rubin also has felt unappreciated by her family the way I did last week.

Rubin: "Whatever the reasons I knew I should get over my need for Jamie (husband) to applaud the nice things I did, and, even more, I should get over my need for Jamie even to notice the nice things I did. So I made the resolution 'Don't expect praise or appreciation.'"

Well, that's one approach. When you don't get what you want, stop wanting it. I'm going to try it out.

The other night I made this dinner:

pork tenderloin with oranges from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. (Very good, but overly fussy for a weeknight dinner because it involves cutting oranges into segments, ugh.)

contemporary take on creamed spinach from Nigel Slater's Tender. (Wilt spinach, puree with creme fraiche. Easy, grassy green, very delicious.)

crushed potatoes with cream also from Nigel. (Boil little potatoes, smash them, drench in warm spiced cream. Delicious.)
The exceedingly unappealing plate of someone trying to diet. 

poached quince yet again, from Nigel. (Peel rare expensive quinces you bought at Safeway because you never, ever see them and wanted to try them, then cook in butter and sugar in a skillet until soft. Delicious.)

For this fine meal, I got much polite praise and appreciation. Isabel said sweetly and earnestly: "I like quinces a lot; I like them more than I like pears."

It's nice when I get it, but I'm going to try not to want it.

Since then, I've hardly cooked. Sunday night, Owen and I went to a party thrown by my mother's beloved friends who have been throwing the same big, boisterous Christmas party for four decades or more. I have memories of this party from earliest childhood and have attended dozens of times. The hostess, as she always does, served egg nog in a big cut glass bowl, steak tartare, incredible shortbread and cut out cookies with tiny silver candy balls for eyes. My mother never missed this party; she basically planned her year around it and would stand at the grand piano singing carols, hoisting a little plastic cup of nog. We all loved/love that party. Attending last night for the first time since her death was very poignant and my sister stood facing the Christmas tree for a while and wept.

But it was healing, also. Because our mother is gone, but the world -- her world -- goes on. That was one part of it. The other part of it -- which will seem paradoxical -- is that things change for everyone. I had persisted on some level in thinking that my mother was cheated, had been singled out. It seemed deeply unfair that she had to suffer and die while everyone else from her world stayed exactly the same, which is how I imagine people I don't see on a daily or even yearly basis.

This is absurd, of course. There have been divorces and big moves and babies born and other happy and difficult developments that I would have heard of from my mother, but have missed entirely. Her world is the same and it is completely different. One of my mother's closest friends didn't recognize me, just gave me a blank look and a cool smile. I hadn't seen her since my mother's funeral 18 months ago, and I made a joke to a childhood friend: "X didn't recognize me. I didn't think I'd gained THAT much weight." Which is actually what I thought, being the self-conscious ninny that I am.

Then my childhood friend told me there was another reason my mother's friend didn't recognize me, a much worse reason that has nothing to do with me.

That was terrible. But I needed to know it. I talked to people I've talked to all my life, ate the shortbread I've eaten once a year just about all my life, listened to carols lustily sung by men and women drinking egg nog, could feel and hear and see the river of time which is sometimes hard to glimpse. It was poignant and beautiful and made me a lot happier than alphabetizing spices.


  1. "This is the problem, I feel, with linking control and happiness. "

    Amen. While I find alphabetizing soothing, it is an inherently compulsive thing, and leads toward, not away from madness rather than happiness for me. Haven't touched Rubin's book for that reason.

    Also, I'm always suspicious of simplification projects that call for expensive containers. Reminds me of the store Scrimpers in Atwood's Robber Bride.

  2. Jumping back in that still-moving river is the only way to get through it, if you can excuse my muddled metaphor. Good for you for going to what I know was a bittersweet party. The hostess of our family's iconic Christmas party died five years ago and the holidays still aren't the same. Hooray for you for still going.
    BTW, your book was (of course) the hit of our book exchange. I hope you are still basking in the glow. And you really do need to come do a tour of the east coast.

  3. I have not read the book, but I remember reading the blog years ago. At the time, I will admit that I was clinging desperately to anything the pointed me in a direction toward "happiness." Truthfully, I ignored the super peppy/space organizing stuff (which is practically useless when you share your space with the absent-minded professor and his offspring) and paid attention to the stuff that rang a little more true for me. I especially liked the idea behind trying to actually be "Alice" everyday, a timely idea b/c I was a new parent, with a new job in a new city. Ultimately what I took away from the blog wasn't so much that I could control happiness, but that there were many avenues by which I could encourage it. I don't know if that is the direction they took the book.

  4. Traditions are hard. But they can be comforting. I'm glad you went.

    I must second Girl Detective's "amen" to your quote about linking control and happiness. Here be dragons.

  5. Delaney-- she had lots of good ideas in the book, offers much food for thought, including "be yourself"" which is more profound than it sounds when i type it now. Lots of great quotes, too. It's worth reading, but I think everyone will take something different from it depending on mood, life stage, temperament, philosophic bent. I can't wait to discuss in book club.

  6. Brilliant. Thank you.

    You are, hands down, my favorite blogger/writer and a post from you is a treat.

  7. Your post is labeled last week, but didn't show up for me until today (12/13). Is this a glitchy thing with the website, or with my system in particular? (And yes, I check your site daily for updates!) :) Best, Ida

  8. This is beautiful. Even though I like the food posts, I keep coming back because of your poignant pieces on your mom, your kids, your farm animals and yourself.

  9. I love quince. Supposedly, a rather large quince tree is on its way to me right about now. Until I can pluck my own, I'll seek them out at Food4Less.

    You've made me curious about the Happiness Project.

  10. I was very taken with The Happiness Project - and although I agree that equating control with happiness is not a good idea, that wasn't my big take-away. I realized that you could consciously evaluate what makes you happy and what are your barriers - internal or external - to happiness. Plus, consciously establish habits that would, over time, increase your happiness. Things like letting more of the small stuff go. Things like doing more of what you like and less of what you think you should do. And so on. I actually blogged about the book in 2010, here's the link!

  11. Lovely post. I had never heard of The Happiness Project. It sounds like something the ladies who wear red hats would come up with.

    I have a very ambivalent relationship with happiness. Mostly, I think it's overrated. Also, I think happiness is a strange goal in and of itself. To me, happiness is rather akin to hunger -- a lifelong human craving, but only intermittently satisfied, the satisfaction fleeting.

    An extremely earnest person once cornered me and asked me if I was happy. I said I had no idea what it meant to be happy and besides it really wasn't my goal. She looked appalled, as if I'd said I ate babies, and never spoke to me again. I mention this because I think there is something deeply dysfunctional about our cultural relationship to happiness. And by dysfunctional I mean that guilt and shame are coiled at its root. We feel guilty when we lack happiness and guilty when we have too much of it. I'm not convinced humans are wired for happiness, whatever it is.

    Strangely enough, I imposed order on my own unruly pantry (including spices) over the last week, and the positive emotions that arose from imposing this control I would label pleasure, or perhaps satisfaction -- but not happiness. Pleasure and satisfaction are real and visceral to me. Happiness is too vague, too nebulous.

  12. Aleppo pepper definitely goes under pepper. I thought about that long and hard when I alphabetized the spices years ago as an anniversary gift to my husband. He doesn't really do the cooking. I don't remember how I spun that as a gift for him. All the peppers went under pepper because the recipe always calls for a kind that's not one of the 9 already in the pepper section, so I can choose the closest substitution since they're all in one spot.

  13. well said. happiness is a chameleon. cleaning my refrigerator makes me happy but only short term because I always need to clean it again. for me true happiness comes from things that are more enduring--like fond remembrances, completion of a significant task, making a difference for someone. I don't think I could read the Happiness Project because I don't want someone telling me how to be happy...sounds corny but it has to be internally motivated/driven.

  14. All I know is that what Marisa just said about spinning organizing her spices as an anniversary present for her husband who doesn't cook made me happy.

  15. Ida -- I think I probably started a post, gave up on it, and then wrote the actual post in the same "post." I think it might get labeled the day I start composing. I'll check.

  16. I agree that with Steven that happiness is nebulous and perhaps not worthy as a goal. I don't know what it is, either. My goal is to be content with myself.

    My mother died tragically at Christmas years ago, and the holidays have never been the same. However, the silver lining is that I now see them as they are, just a few days a year that are what you make of them.

    Great, thought-provoking post!

  17. tipsy, I'm glad the book seems as open as the blog did. Also very brave of you and your sister to go the party. The traditions connected to particular people are hard to navigate without them. I know that my family was not nearly as brave in the wake of such a loss. I am sorry too for your mother's friend who did not recognize you.

  18. I Finished your book the other day (read it cover to cover like a novel)and I absolutely loved it. Now I have to go back and pick out what I want to start making. It was nice to finf out that many things can bee made since they are not available in our little town's store.It will definitely be entertaining. I read the Happiness Project a while back and found some of it overly simple and preachy in a weird sort of way. I still follow her blog in my reader but I am not sure why except maybe to remind me to do things for me once in a while.Love your blog (and the book) I hope you and your family have some merry holidays.

  19. Re happiness: I agree that I am not sure what happiness it. I guess I think happiness usually comes in being with someone, usually someone you know...the pleasure of being alone has another name.....

    I definitely don't think you can do things hoping for praise. You do them because you want to (or have to) and if you get praise that is just a bonus.

    I have never had a quince.

  20. Like deirdre, I have also read (with pleasure/satisfaction/happiness) your book cover to cover, and I have also cooked from it. I wish there was a single designated place on your blog where we could post comments about your book/experiences with making your recipes, so that it would be easy to see what others are saying. I think it would be useful for you as well. I'm not sure what form such a reader-response section might be or what tools Blogger might offer to make it happen. But some kind of "Make the Bread" forum would be nice.

  21. Beautiful post, Jennifer.
    It made me cry.
    xo ~robin

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