Most mornings, I make myself a big, bracing bowl of oatmeal for breakfast because, as a former exercise instructor advised, no matter what else you do during the day, oatmeal for breakfast makes you think you’re taking care of yourself.
I’ve perfected the recipe: one-half cup old-fashioned oats, 1 teas. brown sugar, soymilk, dried or fresh fruit, and several generous shavings of fresh nutmeg. I cook it for two minutes in the microwave and then let it sit so those little oats expand and it gets a chewy texture that’s somehow silky as well. Yesterday, I thought I’d go wild and add some cinnamon so I absently reached towards the “C” spices (yes, they’re alphabetized), grabbed the big container and gave a decisive shake into the bowl. The “cinnamon” had a peculiar red tint that was my first clue that I’d grabbed the chili powder and not the cinnamon. But, being the adventurous eater I flatter myself I am, I thought I’d try it – skimmed off most of the spicy stuff that was floating on the milk, left some of the chili powder, cooked it, let it sit, and then tasted. I like chocolate with pepper and I thought this might succeed by the same principal of heat and sweet. I was wrong. Fortunately, the distinctive granules of chili powder were easy to avoid. I ate my oatmeal. I started my day right.
We believe that food accidents can have positive outcomes as in the Reese’s Cup commercial that had us believe that someone fell into a jar of peanut butter while holding a chocolate bar and the Reese’s Cup was born. Or, that breaking the rules of cooking can turn out to be good, i.e., the peanut butter, cheddar cheese, brown mustard and alfalfa sprouts on whole wheat sandwich that is so delicious. But in this Great Oatmeal Experiment, I created a new rule from my negative outcome: “Hot spice in a sweet dish for breakfast confuses and shocks –not in a good way- a sleepy palate.”
There’s no doubt that rules can make life, especially, breakfast, easier. My grandfather whom we called “Nani” a very spiritual and loving man with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, was a big believer that there was black and there was white – a premise that probably kept him and his siblings grounded when his mother, a widow, left Italy with them when Nani was four years-old, to start a new life in the United States. You got the feeling that Nani had earned the right to be rigid because my guess is that he had broken more than a few rules in his time and, quite possibly, learned that rules were important when everything else was topsy-turvy. His after-dinner pontificating, especially as the 1960’s unfolded and many Really Big Rules were being challenged (for example, “You can only sleep with one person at a time and only if you’re married to that person,”) was the stuff of family legend. The day he brought his fist down soundly on the table, rattling the dishes that remained of our meal, and yelled, “Those people who say swearing is acceptable are full of bullshit!!” was a day that made me love him even more than I had before.
But there’s also no doubt that there’s room for creative thinking, coloring outside the lines, thinking outside the box, whatever you want to call it. We wouldn’t even know the word “impressionist” if that group of painters had followed the rules. The same can be said of the poets Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings who turned punctuation on its head, or the composer Phillip Glass whose compositions are challenging to the ear, the intellect, and the emotions. We give artists a break on breaking the rules.
John Irving’s novel Cider House Rules examines this idea and concludes that, not only do rules sometimes need to be broken, but it’s the individual’s duty to discern which rules have meaning for his or her life.
The newspaper is replete with stories that reflect conflict about rules. Are high school, college, and professional athletes exempt from rules? Haven’t civilized societies concluded that men have no right to take advantage of women – just because they can? Is it okay to call someone names if you’re a member of Congress? Is it okay to show disrespect for the President of the United States? I’ve always been happy that I grew up in a generation that allowed for personal freedoms, for an individual’s right to interpret the rules, but I fear we’ve gone way…way overboard and that our culture may drown in its own ego because, of course, this kind of personal rule-breaking is, at its base, ego-driven, i.e., I know/feel/see better than everyone else, so I get to make up my own boundaries, no matter how it affects others – as opposed to reflective, conscientious rule decisions, based on who you know yourself to be and how you can co-exist in society.
There was one recent news story, however, that gives me hope. According to The Huffington Post, two gay men were holding hands as they waited in line at a food truck in the Short North neighborhood of Columbus (yeah, Ohio!!) when someone started yelling at them to “cut your gay shit out.” Not only did the people in line stand up for the gay couple, the food truck workers refused to serve the bigoted man: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-diaz/lgbt-tolerance_b_2397363.html.
In this case, the rules would appear to be changing for the better – a small yet poignant victory.
As for the rest of the world – sigh – watch out for the chili powder in your oatmeal.