Go with Your Gut (And Don't Be Afraid to Say No to the Special)
Mar 28, 2011For as long as I knew him, my grandfather sat in the same leather arm chair and listened to the same jazz songs on the same radio station. At every family party, he drank the same red-tinted Manhattan with a cluster of Maraschino cherries at the bottom of the glass, and he ate the same dry-roasted peanuts from the same small bowl. In the summertime, he used the same expired bottle of SPF 4 which he kept in the trunk of his car. And whenever he was scolded for not heeding advice to try something new or take better care of himself, he had the same reply for everyone: Relax, baby. I'm fine. When I was in college, Pop would take me out to breakfast whenever I'd come home for holidays. We'd always go to the same place and he'd always order the same thing: two scrambled eggs, white toast with half a stick of butter, a pile of home fries, and some extra-crispy scrapple. (If you don't know what scrapple is, Lynn Kerrigan describes the "veritable cholesterol meltdown" here.) Secure in his breakfast choice, Pop would lean back in his chair and flirt with any blonde waitress carrying a coffee pot while I would continue to deliberate over what I wanted to order, torn between the steel-cut oats with caramelized pears and the peanut butter and banana French toast with star anise-infused honey. So many unique options, so many creative combinations--they all impressed me, but none of them interested my grandfather. Twenty minutes would go by and I still wouldn't be able to make up my mind, so I'd do what many people in my situation would do: I'd order The Special. Everyone knows that "The Special" is code for "pick-me-I'm-the-best," so when you don't know what you prefer, it's always good to go with The Special, trusting that the chef--who's an expert-- knows what's best for you. But inevitably on these outings, whenever I'd order the chef's recommendation, I'd realize halfway through my meal that what I really craved wasn't the decorative plate of God-knows-what in front of me. What I really wanted was almost identical to my grandfather's predictable, artery-clogging, somewhat boring choice: two scrambled eggs, dry whole wheat toast, a pile of home fries, and some Canadian bacon. But instead of going with my gut, I almost always went for The Special. What is it about that word special that makes us turn our heads? Why is it that when someone says something is special, we automatically think that this means we will--and should-- think it's special, too? What makes us think that when something is called special by a so-called expert, it means we should prefer it to something else? More importantly, what does special even mean? And who gets to decide what's special? A few years ago, I was working at a restaurant outside of Philadelphia when my boss informed me one Saturday night that I was going to be waiting on Joe Biden and his family. At the time, I didn't know who Biden was, but I was told he was "an important man" and therefore "deserved the best of the best." I was lectured on the most expensive wines in our cellar, warned not to break any corks, and directed to offer everyone Osso Buco Milanese, a dish that was being prepared solely for the then-senator's table. I did everything I was told-- and what did Biden order? A grilled cheese sandwich with fries and a Diet Coke. I remember thinking who the hell is this guy? and assuming that the other man--the man in a tie who ordered a filet mignon and a bottle of Cabernet--was the big deal. But no, the future Vice President of the United States was the dude ordering what my mom used to cook for me on rainy days. And why should that be a problem? Why should I have even batted an eye? Why was the chef so surprised--and even a bit annoyed-- that Joe Biden preferred grilled cheese over his "best of the best" Osso Buco? Robert Louis Stevenson said that to know what we prefer instead of saying Amen to what the world tells us we ought to prefer is to have kept our souls alive. I'd add that it's not enough to know what we prefer--we have to remember what we prefer. As a writer, I feel thankful to be part of a global community where I have the chance to explore and be inspired by the creative work of so many talented people every day. But sometimes, when I'm immersed in the valuable tasks of reading as well as evaluating my assumptions and beliefs about words and language, I start to forget what my real preferences are. Obviously, it's beneficial to try new things-- it's how we learn to identify our preferences in the first place. And besides, you can't eat grilled cheese every day. (Okay, you could½ though if that's the route you're on, you might as well throw some scrapple in there, too.) But I think that as necessary as it is to cultivate curiosity and appreciation for many things, it's equally important to learn what we love and to honor those preferences, spending time investing in what nourishes us instead of trying to convince ourselves that we want or like something else that others revere as "special" if ultimately, it leaves us underwhelmed. In other words, while it's good to be adventurous, sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission to close the menu and order what we want. Oddly, this can be really challenging. I have found myself struggling--and even feeling guilty-- when certain books or poems I've been told are "amazing" don't resonate for me. I've found myself thinking I have no idea what's so great about this, but obviously I'm missing something because so many people have told me it's amazing, so I'm going to figure out a way to like this, too. Where does that pressure and desire come from? Why do we feel like we should like the Exotic Cardamom Pancake Poem that everyone's raving about when we don't even like cardamom, despite countless heartfelt attempts to retrain our palates? Why do we feel like we should necessarily enjoy what we're told is enjoyable? Where does the "Should" come from½ and how do we avoid it? Somehow, my grandfather always seemed immune to the pressure of Shoulds. Perhaps it was because he was (unsurprisingly) a very stubborn man. Pop rarely strayed from his well-worn path--he was a creature of habit. He knew what he liked and didn't see the need to convince himself to change his preferences. He certainly never found the need to apologize for them, either. I'm not suggesting we all walk around so set in our ways that we alienate ourselves from the people around us, but I do think we could learn a valuable lesson from people like Pop. While there's a part of me that wants to say that my grandfather probably missed out on a lot of great meals in his day½ did he really? What, exactly, did Pop miss out on? After all, you can only partake in so many meals in one lifetime½ so what's wrong with knowing what you like and enjoying it? Can you ever really miss out when you go with your gut? Many would probably argue yes. But as someone who has suffered from Food Envy for way too long, I must humbly disagree. I think that as writers, we are responsible to one another and to our communities to be open-minded, to witness and respect the various ways in which we share what we know and experience. I think we are responsible to encourage one another and to look for opportunities to learn from one another. But I also think each of us is equally responsible to "allow the soft animal of our body to love what it loves," as Mary Oliver says. Because if we don't do that, well½ then we're all a bunch of frauds, really. If we don't give ourselves permission to love what we love, none of us is ever going to write anything all that special--whatever that word means, anyway. To the person who's been bowing down to everyone else's preferences, beautiful as they may be, for way too long: love what you love. If you don't know what you love, take the time to find out. Take as much time as you need. Order everything, savor everything, give everything a chance. But if at the end of the day, all you really want is grilled cheese, then go for it. Don't worry if you're not a fan of the Crab Benedict Poem everybody's raving about, or if you're bored by the Truffled Taleggio & Mushroom Pasta Story that just won an award, or if you don't see what's so great about the Duck a l'Orange Bestseller that's flying off the shelves. Don't worry if The Special isn't so special to you right now, or ever. Just love what you love. Just relax, baby. You're fine.