Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Murky Distinction between OCD and Giving a Crap


Egg white omelet with sliced grape tomatoes. Sautéed baby asparagus. Reheated garlic knot.

This was one of the easiest "9"s (re: my surprisingly non-ditzy system for rating foods from one to ten) ever evoked. And, as any chef will tell you, it's devilishly hard to deliver impressive results with unadorned simple fixings (much less LEFFtovers).

Let's focus on the reheating of that garlic knot.

We use awfully sappy language to account for the conjuring of quality. With food, the cliché is to say it's "cooked with love", evoking Valentine cards and wooly sweater cat lady hugs. Let's expunge the corny language and examine how I crushed the garlic knot reheat.

I thought about how I'd go about this, off and on, all morning. Finally, I had a clear picture in my head. And once a clear picture has appeared - which means all obstructions have been worked out - there's an insatiable drive to proceed. So I strode into my kitchen with the studly brio of a pole vaulter stepping up to the medalist's podium.

Here was the plan. I'd pop it in a toaster oven, with a square of foil perched precariously atop to protect it from burning, but leaving the sides fully exposed so they'd heat thoroughly. I also needed the heat to dry it out after 24 hours spent sliming in its oily juices in the fridge. The moment the knot looked non-slimy (and not a moment later, because it would need more oven time and I didn't want it to dry out; I needed to preserve the chewy/fluffy/crusty), I'd snatch away the foil, turn down the heat a bit, and watch like a hawk for the moment when the knot browned into exactly the Object of My Deepest Desires (the harnessing of minute care with visceral desire stokes deep creative powers). As with my bagel toasting manifesto, I'd watch like a scientist observes a crucial experiment. Mere seconds matter.

I'd prioritized my two main concerns: heat and moisture, and in a very particular manner. Cooking teachers don't frame it this way, but I bear in mind that I'm always working on a continuum, rather than toward some finish line. The garlic knot shouldn't be cold, nor nuclear hot. I didn't want it slimy, but I didn't want to dry it out.

Cooking is a matter of midpoints, not endpoints. There's no endpoint in cooking, only a "click" of the camera - i.e. plating/serving at a certain point in an unending procession of possibilities. It's like writing - one could keep editing forever, but the supposed final version is just the capture of a certain arbitrary moment. "Process", not "arrival points". Always!

If you're absorbed in nano-moments, you can choose between billions of them, each conveying a different slant of deliciousness. There is vanishingly scant middle ground between under and over, or between slimy and dry, but if you're slicing finely enough (i.e. paying extremely close attention), you have myriad choices in choosing a particular slice to capture. The choosing is an exercise of playful caprice amid deadly seriousness - an amalgamation few people can manage, which explains why food (even from highly-trained chefs) is so seldom delicious.

I've just devoted 500 words to reheating a garlic knot...after spending my entire morning thinking through the process. To most people, this would seem stark raving bonkers. I could, however, justify it by calling it an expression of love. Hey, that garlic knot was for my beloved. Nothing's too good for my darling Linda. Or Vanessa. Or whomever. Swap in a random name, and you're good to go. Suddenly, the caring seems more beautiful than bonkers. Love justifies the caring.

At least it did until a generation ago. Yesterday's "love" is today's "OCD", and I'm not being cute; it's true. "OCD" is now applied, willy-nilly, to any instance of deep caring. Einstein working on Relativity? Beethoven composing in a diaper? Ugh. OCD, man. Take a chill pill. Find yourself some life/work balance.

OCD is a mental health problem where care is lavished where it doesn't matter. Cooking and other matters of actual utility and/or creativity do matter, always. "Obsessing" over your work - whether you're a choreographer, a barrista, or a mechanic - is what elevates us from livestock. It's sacred.

Martin Luther King skewed it as more of an ego appeal, but conveyed the basic gist:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Obsessing over your stuff is a lesser mission. Obsessing over Linda or Vanessa used to be beautiful, though it lately seems "unbalanced". But obsessing about counting every single Toyota you ever pass makes you OCD. No bueno.

Lavishing your deepest attention on your garlic knot - or whatever else you're productively working on - is the opposite of OCD, which is the trivialization of one's limited time on Earth. It's true that a garlic knot - which pops in your mouth and is gone moments later - sits on the very brink of triviality. But the garlic knot in the photo, above, was as good as it looked. Two hours later, I'm still aglow. That's proof that it wasn't trivial; that it deserved my attention; that this was no kooky waste of Earth time, but more of a legit holy mission (even if it's not as "serious" seeming a pursuit as selling your car or endlessly mentally replaying the hurtful thing your old boss said).

People with OCD needn't change their drives; just channel those drives to something productive. As with depression, OCD's a dead end where, as perspective constricts and freezes, wheels spin impotently. A depressive spins creative wheels, over-building pointless internal towers of brooding discontent. An obsessive-compulsive spins activity wheels, pointlessly over-processing some constricted slice of the world.

Those who build useful towers or execute useful actions - who power their wheels with verve, transforming solid traction into bona fide landspeed - are using those faculties in their intended manner.


I'm describing, fwiw, karma yoga. Anyone great at anything - whether they realize it or not - is a karma yogi.

See also "Explaining Steve Jobs", "Unhinged" and "Cousin Libby's Yellow Rice".

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