There’s this thing that I do, and I’m wondering if you do it too. A little story: (You knew there was a story coming, I bet.) I was sitting on the couch watching television with my Sweet Husband, and I started thinking about cookies. Not just any cookies, but specifically the two dozen homemade chocolate chip cookies I had buried in the freezer that were left over from a booksigning event. Now, I make kick-ass chocolate chip cookies. (Okay, you can too–just add an extra cup of chocolate chips to the recipe on the back of the Nestle morsels bag–and definitely use the Nestle recipe even if you’re using Ghirardelli chips to be extra-fancy. Also, adjust the amount of brown sugar up to 1 full cup, reducing the white by the same amount.) And I can’t stop eating them if they’re within reach. I had determined that the freezer was the best way to keep myself away from them because–even thawed–they just aren’t as tasty with that funk of freezer about them. Unfortunately, a few days ago I remembered that we also have a microwave. And microwaves do a pretty passable job of eliminating freezer funk (Stouffer’s mac and cheese or Amy’s spinach/feta pie, anyone?).
Two cookies + 25 microwave seconds = Total Mouth Happiness. I just adore those minutes it takes to eat a couple of cookies–especially cookies loaded with chocolate. In fact, the anticipation of them makes me a little crazy. Really. Crazy.
The sad truth is that eating those cookies makes me physically ill. I’m not sure why. It could be that it’s just too much chocolate (on top of the 2 or so ounces of dark chocolate I eat daily, anyway), or too much caffeine in the chocolate, or all that sugar and flour. And then there’s that whole Crisco issue. (Weirdly enough, shortening makes way chewier, gooier cookies than butter does.) The rational result of a first bout of post-cookie tummy upset would be to, oh, I don’t know–maybe not eat them EVER again. In fact, the third day I hit the freezer, I spent a few mental minutes comparing those cookies–and their effects on my tummy and my central nervous system–to the relative merits of a tasty bowl of fresh strawberries topped with a dollop of whipped cream. No comparison, right? Strawberries are tasty, sweet, AND virtuous. Certainly the better choice. Of course, I chose the dessert that put me in a caffeine/sugar/shortening-induced bad mood for the rest of the evening.
I’m the same person who lectures her son about not eating pretzels for breakfast and only lets him have 2 sodas a week. I like to think I’m a reasonably good parent. So, if I can be his control valve for decent dietary choices, why can’t I be my own?
But it’s not just about food, is it? As an all-too-fallible human being, I make choices that are in direct opposition to both my long and short term happiness all the time. And it’s not something that I started in middle age. (Here I’m thinking of a certain creepy guy I got to know in the eighties who thought it was really neat to wear a grubby pink bandana as a do-rag/fashion statement; and then there was that foil-wrapped Quaalude given to me by a complete stranger at the 197* Kentucky Derby. I could go on, but let’s save the other stories for the bar, okay?) It probably began the first time I tried to climb out of my playpen to play with my great-aunt’s fabulous mutt, Mitzy, when I thought no one was watching.
As a Christian, I can easily identify my adult propensity to do the exact opposite of what I know I should be doing as sin. St. Paul wrote volumes about it. While St. Paul was a compassionate guy, I suspect the word sin sounds a bit judgy to non-Christians. It implies a solid wrongness that, frankly, seems a little absurd when applied to chocolate chip cookies. But no matter what I call it, it’s usually the small poor choices that nail me, and lead me to much bigger poor choices.
Here it would be easy to delve into the psychological effects of an overdeveloped sense of guilt. (Now that’s a nasty mare’s nest.) Or the problems some people might have dealing with self-sabotage and fear of failure. The self-sabotage/fear of failure thing is a big one for a lot of writers I know. We’re mostly a risk-averse lot, and so if we futz around for long enough and look busy doing other things besides writing because it’s a lot more comfortable to tell ourselves “see, I couldn’t do it anyway,” than to deal with the prospect of someone looking at the work we’ve produced and judging it to be not good enough or in need of more work. We do the little things (some are even big things necessary for feeding our families–though scheduling could accommodate both) that make it impossible to do the thing we say we want to do. We set them up in front of us like bricks in a wall, building the wall higher and higher until we can no longer clearly see the thing we said we wanted to reach in the first place: the completed novel, the place on a bestseller list, the story that will mean a quick $200, notes from grateful readers who can’t wait to see the next thing we’ve written.
When I find myself setting myself up this way, it’s time to examine the goal before the wall gets too big. Take a good hard look at it. If the truly unpleasant physical effects of those warm, delicious cookies aren’t enough to deter me from eating them, what about the bad mood part? What about the caffeine jag that will make me grouchy with my sweet family, keep me from enjoying the sudden good news of a friend, or sleep badly so that I can’t…get up and write in the morning? The goals of having a good relationship with my family, being a good friend, and getting my writing done are important to me. Are they important enough? Are they bigger, badder, shinier than my fear of failure (or, heaven forbid, success)? Most days, the answer is HELL YES!
But some days that fear sneaks in and puts that chocolate chip cookie in my hand and seduces me with warm, chocolatey goodness. And in the morning, failure tastes like chocolate. This cannot be allowed.
My advice: Make good choices. Make the hard choices. Make the choices that are not going to make chocolate taste of failure!