Monday, October 01, 2007

The art of Jello consumption

My neighbor brought a fifteen-layer Jello salad to the Women’s Conference dinner at the church on Saturday. Now why did she have to go and do that? I love this neighbor. She is a kind, generous person. When I broke my foot last year, she brought my family a home cooked seven-course meal in disposable containers, bless her incredibly thoughtful little heart. But seriously, fifteen layers?

I sliced a serving and set it respectfully on my plate where it shimmied in all its rainbowed glory—seven different flavors of Jello, alternating translucent and cloudy stripes, with a creamy white topping. It tasted delicious, of course, but every bite was—for me at least—a spoonful of guilt because I knew exactly how much work went into making that salad. It represented a giant undertaking of foresight and effort: a shopping trip involving an actual planned-in-advance list, fifteen washings of the mixing bowl, organization and memory skills that I could never hope to possess (just think about the math: a new layer every hour on the hour for an entire day!), and above all a clean fridge with room enough for not one but two large dishes because I can guarantee she made a double batch and left one salad home with her husband and six (6) children along with a chicken casserole and homemade rolls.

I, on the other hand, decided to attend the function only at the last minute, mostly because I needed an escape from my chaotic house, and so I deserted my family without a single thought for what they might scrounge up to eat (Ken ended up ordering pizza). I would also have arrived completely empty handed at the church except for the lucky encounter I had in the foyer with a man carrying a plate of brownies. His told me his wife had made them but she didn’t feel well, so would I be so kind as to carry them in with me because he felt uncomfortable intruding on all those women. “I’d be happy to,” I replied magnanimously. Yeah (I thought as I waltzed into the room and asked sweetly, “so where would you like these?”) I’d be happy to usurp your wife’s brownies to hide my own negligence. I felt like the scroungy dude in a t-shirt who arrives at a fancy restaurant and is rescued from the humiliation of failing the dress code by a polite manager waiting at the door with a loaner jacket.

But I want to talk about that salad. Because I really need to know if I’m crazy to think that there’s just no call for that kind of public demonstration of talent. Did anyone really enjoy eating it? Was I the only one who would have been fine with four layers, or even one of those Cool Whip and pudding jobbies thrown together at the last second—the ones that say, “Hey, I was made by a woman who walks on earth, not water. You too could have done this, if only you had thought of it.”

Fifteen layers just screams, “Yowza, look at me, I’m a fifteen-layer salad that also tastes fantastic. You wish your household ran this smoothly.”

I have another neighbor named Diane whose house is always immaculate. I don’t mean tidy and presentable. I mean white-glove-inspection-ready clean 24/7. She has seven children and is a fabulous mother to boot. I have dropped in at random times just to catch her off guard and once I found a single cup in her sink and a music stand in the middle of the living room. That was it. A few months ago, when Diane’s mother passed away and she was out of town attending to the funeral, six women from the church planned to spend the morning “cleaning her house” for her while she was gone. They had a hard time finding anything to do and left after an hour. To this day, Diane still doesn’t know that they were ever there.

Might I suggest they could have taken a different approach. You know how sometimes instead of sending yet another batch of flowers to a funeral, you might donate the money, in the name of the departed, to a charity? Perhaps those women could have gone to a house that really needed 6 woman-hours of work done on it and left Diane a note saying, “On your behalf, we cleaned so-and-so’s house today.” I’m not saying they necessarily would have had to come to my house, but I’ll tell you I would definitely have known they had been here.

My point is that I feel a bit uncomfortable in Diane’s house. Not that it’s one of those places where you’re afraid to wrinkle the furniture or spoil the white carpet, but I just can’t help but be fully aware, the whole time I am there, of how clean everything is (and by implication, how far short my home falls from her level). This is also why I can never truly enjoy listening to piano concertos. The more insanely well they are performed, the more agony they cause me. I can’t relax and enjoy the beauty of the music because I’m sitting there thinking: man, this guy is good! . . . he must practice six hours a day. . . wow that was a tricky spot. . . (and inevitably) You knew you’d regret quitting piano lessons when you were 15, you big slacker.

The word that comes to mind is virtuosity, which Websters defines simply as great technical skill. But I think the word implies more than just talent; a virtuoso draws attention to their talent by showing it off. A virtuoso pianist does not play chopsticks; he plays Liszt. A virtuoso artist pushes the envelope of his medium and lets you know, in unveiled irony, how much work was involved to make the feat seem effortless. In this 17th century still life for example, the artist (Adrien van der Spelt) used incredible skill at painting light and detail to fool the viewer into assuming that a curtain has been drawn part way across the canvas.

On closer inspection, you can see that the curtain is only painted on. The curtain serves as a fitting metaphor; that which usually parts to unveil the real view now becomes the main attraction. I imagine most viewers of this work do not leave with a strong opinion of how beautiful the flowers were but with appreciation of van der Spelt’s mastery of trompe l’oeil. So let’s just be honest about what the painting is really about. Instead of calling it Still life with flowers and curtain, they should call it Self-portrait of the artist’s talent.

Maybe I’m the one with the problem. I mean, who else gets offended by gelatin? But I think the world needs more people like me—the underachievers without whom those who aspire for excellence would have no cause to feel superior. I’m here to make everyone else feel better about themselves in comparison. I’m here to leave the door to my cluttered garage open wide for everyone driving past to see and disparage. I am here to go to my 20-year reunion looking 20-years frumpier so that the ladies who have worked their tails off to stay slim and glamorous can make a good impression. I am here to send out my Christmas letters in March (every other year) to ease the holiday burden on the postal service.

I am not, as I had imagined, merely a slacker. I am truly hard at work, making the world safe for virtuosity. I fail to accomplish even a fraction of what I hope to accomplish so that the success of others means something. I do everyone a great service and I’m happy to oblige. I have to admit that the world is a more beautiful place because my neighbor took the time to share her talents and build an elaborate Jello salad. But the world is also a more symmetrical place because there are people like me, ready to show up with a plate.


An Ordinary Mom said...

So if you are a slacker, what does that make me? On second, thought I don't even want to know.

Kimberly said...

You are not alone. I too find complicated gelatin desserts highly offensive.

I'm a little lost when it comes to knowing what kind of homemaker I aspire to be. Not so secretly I want others to be impressed and even the weest bit envious. But I don't want to cross that line into the realms of annoyingly clean.

I just want to be adored, you know?

The Lazy Organizer said...

Thank you for your efforts. I can go both ways. If 14 layers of jello will complete an event then I'll make one but if someone else is willing to do it then by all means they are welcome to have at it. I'm happy to help the balance on either side.

bubandpie said...

This reminds me of the "interview" my mom wrote for a class reunion she attended years ago - one of the interview questions was "What is your greatest virtue?" and my mom's reply was "I do not inspire envy in others."

Ruth said...

Ah, but you are a virtuoso in your own way, your writing and art analysis makes us green with envy :)

My MIL has one of those perfect houses, now she has followed us to Afrifa (seriously) and keeps offering to come and clean mine - think there's a hint there?

Kelly said...

Hysterical post. I can't relate -- I think I'm too sanguine to compare myself to anyone. But you made me laugh, all the same.

Obviously, writing is your virtuosity.

And don't go saying, "Yes, but so-and-so writes this better than I..." because that could be said about everything.

For example, do you really think Martha Stewart would regard the 15-layer Jell-O salad as a triumph?

mindyluwho said...

I probably wouldn't have thought much about the salad except to think if it were yummy or not. I'm kind of unobservant. My MIL bring jello to dinner every Sunday. It's one layer. Occasionally she'll make a two layer. My kids love it because I refuse to make jello. She calls jello a salad because there's fruit in it. Is jello a salad?

I love how you interpret pictures. I took an art class once and was fascinated by the things the professor was pointing out. But I could only see it when someone one else pointed it out to me.

You would probably feel comfortable in my house!

TARA said...

There you go again, slacker! Methinks you are only slacking in your acknowledgement of your own talents. Of course, it is human nature to compare our own weaknesses to others' strengths.

I seem to remember walking through the Phoenix Art Museum with you in February only half listening to everything you had to say about the paintings in the first 10 minutes because I was in a panic comparing your brilliance with my own ignorance. Remember how I couldn't focus until I had my own little inner dialog? "I may not be able to understand half of what she's saying, let alone say anything intelligent about this stuff myself, but I can tell you the 14 steps of how chocolate is made and 29 different things to do with it off the top of my head. See, I am smart, I am smart, I am smart!"

I do have to admit this post struck a nerve with me, though. I've heard the comments made about some of the desserts I've showed up with, and I'm tempted to dumb it down at church functions from now on. I make cool stuff because I love to and because I can - certainly not to make anyone else look or feel bad.

And perhaps the nicest thing that anyone did for me last week was my visiting teacher bringing me (the trained pastry chef) chocolate chip cookies - on a goofy paper plate, definitely made from a mix. Wanna know what I loved about that? She thought of me and brought them because she knows I love chocolate. And that made them the best chocolate chip cookies I've eaten in a very long time.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I once had evil thoughts about a whole multitude of women as I sat in church and thought, "Who on earth has that much time to devote to hair and makeup on a Sunday Morning????" (This was in Idaho) I occasionally still give into this rant but have mostly gotten over it. Just find comfort in knowing that somewhere out there is a woman who hates you for being so "perfect" (it was almost me until I read this post). =)

As for 15 layer jello.... with that much time and effort why not make gingersnap and pumpkin cheesecake sandwiches.

Jennifer B. said...




Eve said...

I agree with Ruth, there are things you are meticulous on, are there not? It's obvious in your writing that you put time into your peices, others of us blurt out whatever comes to mind and pray people can understand. And who really knows what was happening that day the lady made the salad? Maybe emotionally she's a wreck and this is all she can control, the cleanliness of her house and that darn jello creation!
When all she really wants is a new pair of shoes and a date with her husband.

~*Country Dawn*~ said...

Every time I try on my Martha Stewart hat it turns into a disaster. I only pretend to be Martha at family functions, where the dish I bring usually took two tries to get "right." So think about it... it's quite possible your jello-friend is a jello-fraud! :x

Luisa Perkins said...

Yeah, that concerto thing? That's how I feel when I read your blog posts. This one is one of my very favorites of yours.

Our YW president did the rainbow jello thing for New Beginnings last year, using one color to represent each of the YW values. Yes: seven colors in all. Adding gross insult to mortal injury, she layered the jello into INDIVIDUAL PLASTIC CHAMPAGNE FLUTES.

Several of us were peeved for weeks.

Goslyn said...

Oh, my dear, if you believe yourself to be an underachiever, then where does that leave me? When I look in your general direction, I see a brilliant woman who teaches college while raising her family - and still finds time to write witty, intelligent, thought-provoking posts.
Whether you know it or not, you are (a bit) of a 14-layer Jello salad yourself, in the regards that other people envy your blogging/writing acumen.

But I understand where you're coming from. I really do.

marinamo said...

"I really need to know if I’m crazy to think that there’s just no call for that kind of public demonstration of talent. Did anyone really enjoy eating it?"

Yes, you are crazy for begrudging this woman her ability to make a memorable dessert. And I truly hope that there were women there who DID enjoy eating it, just as I am sure you hope that there are readers out there that really enjoy your blog in spite of their own writing ability (or lack thereof).

Perhaps jello salad is to your neighbor what writing is to you and what a clean house is to Diane.

How boring life would be if we all excelled at the same things. And how unenjoyable if, instead of relishing in what others can do well, we use it as some sort of a measuring stick and hit ourselves over the head with it.

(Sorry, I know this is not the typical comment on your blog, and truly I am one of the readers out here who does enjoy your writing, but this post bothered me. Perhaps it was meant more tongue-in-cheek than I interpreted it...)

Tristi Pinkston said...

Jell-O haters of the world, unite!

I'm one of those whose house is not spotless. (In fact, there are a great many spots. Including one very large one of basalmic vinegar on my living room carpet that happened about an hour ago.) It does not bring me joy to scour my house top to bottom every five minutes. I prefer to spend my time doing things that bring me joy.

Terri said...

Ha! This was funny! I totally relate.

Brandi said...

Your writing is absolutely amazing--and incredibly entertaining!! Personally, I am a poet/artist, but I often bridge the gap and attempt to elaborate with my prose or rantation. I was searching out a two-layer gelatin recipe when I stumbled across your glorious work...and I thought I would share my delight with you! Thank you so very much for entertaining me...before gelatin claims my soul! :D