By the Book
I LOVE FOLLOWING directions. This statement may seem contradictory to my you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do! fits that I sometimes (okay, often) throw in the face of authority. But when it comes to written instructions, recipes, patterns, etc., I am all over it. It must have begun with my obsessive love of Legos as a kid—the instruction manuals to those play sets were my bible. It’s no surprise that I chose a science career in which I have access to an endless amount of protocols and chemical recipes to satisfy my need for diagrams, bulleted lists, and flow charts. I’ve always been slightly ashamed of this part of myself because it seems so incongruous with my aspiration to live this free-spirited, non-conformist life—you know, just love who want to love and feel what you want to feel and go where you want to go, maaaan. When I bought a new grill at Sears yesterday, I was overly disappointed that they had an already-assembled one in the warehouse—following that twelve page assembly booklet would have been the perfect Sunday activity. I’ve tried explaining my instruction manualphilia with some Freudian theory of compensating for not getting enough guidance as a child and just wanting to be told what to do, but the simple truth is that I just appreciate the work other people have invested into optimizing the creation of something to be in it best form. It’s the science of art. Everything starts out as a creative idea, but it’s the science of it all that brings it to fruition.
The science of art—in terms of culinary arts, for example—is like baking. You really can’t just throw together some flour and eggs and sugar and hope to get a German chocolate cake out of it. You have to at least know something about proper proportions of proteins to form a structural network, sugars to caramelize for flavor and to hinder gluten formation for moisture, acidity to react with baking soda to add flakiness or fluffiness, etc. The temperature of eggs when they’re added to the dough and the temperature of the butter when it goes into the oven affect the rise and the chewiness of the baked product. Salt can conceal bitterness and balance flavors but also strengthens the protein bonds in the structure of the dough. Or you can just follow a tried and true recipe. When I find the perfect recipe, whether it’s from my grandmother or from a stranger on the internet, it’s like getting to live and breathe someone else’s art. I think about how many failures and how many generations of bakers that recipe had to go through before it ended up in its perfectly delicious state, and I truly appreciate it. Somebody designed and perfected the directions— crocheting patterns, lawnmower repair guides, phosphate buffered saline recipes, or Lego instruction manuals—for the sole purpose of allowing somebody else to re-create something fun or useful or delicious, and that is a beautiful thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t exactly live by the book, and I think everybody should experience the freedom of flinging paint around and seasoning the shit out of chicken with whatever you find laying around. The ability to express emotions in some corporeal form is the purest form of art. It’s what happens with stream-of-consciousness-type creativity in which you have no idea what is going to come out when you find yourself in front of a piano or computer or canvas. It’s like cooking without a recipe when you throw in this and that until you get a flavor you’ve never tasted before that just fits perfectly with your mood at the time. Creativity seems to have been massively devalued to some common core conformist bullshit that degrades teaching and learning to rote instruction (I’ll save that for another story), but that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with learning from a well-written manual or set of guidelines. Sometimes you need to learn from what has already been created to gain the skills to create new things. Even the most capricious artist can benefit from a good set of instructions, and the most meticulous scientist can always use a little more whimsy. So here’s to bringing art and science back together.