I often multi-task while I bake. Yesterday morning, I twinned rustling up two dozen cinnamon rolls with the prosecution rebuttal in the George Zimmerman trial. I’m more comfortable with cinnamon rolls lately, especially since switching to a recipe from Anna Olson. The process is quick, reliable, and foolproof, when you are not multi-tasking.
As I work, my inner voice reminds me to double all the quantities. No problem, I’m used to that. Except that today, prosecutor Bernie de la Rianda’s closing arguments keep me glued to the TV. I am assembling the ingredients during the commercials. So, I measure up the sugar, the milk, and the yeast; I drop in the eggs, add the butter, and then the flour. As the instructions suggest, I turn up my Bosch, fitted with the dough hook, on the lowest speed, to mix the ingredients. The dough looks funny though. I see wads of butter that I don’t remember from last time. Oops! I was supposed to melt the butter. Oh, well. Now, I start kneading. I’m still not happy with the dough. It looks dry, and it doesn’t glisten like usual. Nevertheless, I swirl it around my oiled bowl, and set it to rise. Even the prosecutor’s compelling arguments, however, don’t dissipate the malaise. Something is not right.
I look over the list of ingredients again. Salt. I forgot the salt. All cooking is a chemical reaction, some reactions more critical than others. Bread is one of those finicky processes. No salt. No reaction. Will the bread rise? Well, maybe not—I also forgot to double the yeast! Nothing to do now but start over.
I have struggled with error all my life. I was raised to operate by the book. When my father made a mistake, especially during one of his carpentry projects, he berated himself for minutes on end. If he cut a board too long, or worse, too short, the man who prided himself on his language indulged in a riff of colourful expletives. The subtext for me was that capable people do not make mistakes.
As a pianist, the spectre of error coloured my process and my performance. In an effort to eliminate errors, I drilled on scales to develop finger facility. I also practiced slowly. These strategies helped. However, no matter what I did, errors would creep in. Sometimes, a finger would slip for no reason, especially on an unfamiliar instrument. When I was playing in a group, listening to the drummer, the organist, the trumpet player, and the other singers, and singing a harmony part as well, I was particularly vulnerable. The fear of error made me nervous, and being nervous increased the possibility of error. It was a vicious circle.
Then, by chance, I heard pianist Emanuel Ax express the same fears. In an interview with Charlie Michener of the New York Observer in 2012, Ax confessed, “Today’s pianists have a terrible fear of wrong notes—myself included. A lot of it has to do with the recording business, which has created this mentality that everything has to be note-perfect. It makes me long for the days of Horowitz and Rubinstein, when pianists could perform with real freedom—and never mind a mistake or two!” Michener also asked pianist Earl Wild about mistakes when, at age 90, Wild performed at Carnegie Hall. “ ‘Are you afraid of wrong notes?’ ” [Wild] laughed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘because there’s nothing you can do about them.’ ”
Mistakes happen. How best to handle them, then? As Justine Heinrichs says in A Passion to Teach, “It is the response to mistakes and not the mistakes themselves that matter.” I had to think about that. Am I going to let the menace of error paralyze me, or am I going to reconcile myself to their presence, learn from them, and move on? There doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. So, whether I leave keys at home, mix up times, make custard with salt instead of sugar and borscht without beets, say things I regret, and regret things I don’t say, I am learning to forgive myself. I do my best to prevent mistakes, but they will creep in despite my best efforts.
But what about when mistakes have dire consequences? If I am to be reconciled to my own mistakes, then I have to accept that others who impact my life are bound to make some, too, despite their best efforts. It may be my doctor, or the pilot of an aircraft in which I am a passenger, the driver of an oncoming vehicle, a city worker, anyone. A mistake could cost my own life, or the life of a loved one.
The cinnamon buns are easily fixed. Within ten minutes of the do-over, I have a glistening, smooth dough that is already rising in the bowl on the stove. When I roll out the dough, later, I enjoy the soft, pudgy layer beneath my fingers. I slather on the melted butter, sprinkle the sugar and cinnamon mixture, then turn the edges over to begin rolling. As I place the individual pinwheels in the goo for baking, I anticipate the delight they will bring at breakfast tomorrow.
Not so with train derailments or aircraft crashes. The cause of my mistake was distraction, combined with some arrogance that I didn’t have to concentrate so hard, since I had made these buns before. I file that away where my inner voice can access it for next time. With that reminder to concentrate and double check what I do, I won’t be responsible for neglect. At the same time, when I do mess up, I have to forgive myself, and hope the damage won’t impact anyone else. Why do I feel like Nik Wallenda walking across the Grand Canyon on a cable?
To read Charlie Michener’s complete column, see