Problem Recipe

© 1999

       Casey looks at me dubiously as I put the bowl of soup in front of him.

       "What's wrong, honey-honey?" I ask as I hand him a spoon and sit down.

       "Whaddaya mean, 'what's wrong'? You can't cook is what's wrong."

       My face hardens into a frown, trying to hide how much that comment hurts. "You haven't even tried it yet."

       "I don't have to try it," he says. He pushes the bowl of soup away and starts to stand up.

       "Come on." I put my hand on his shoulder and guide him back into the chair. "For me? Just try it. I made it just for you."

       He sighs and dips his spoon into the broth. He looks at it distastefully before he lifts it to his lips and slurps.

       "Well?" I ask.

       "It's awful," he says, dropping the words like bricks. He drops the spoon back into the bowl, splattering the soup across the table, and gets up again.

       "What's wrong with it?"

       "I'm going out for some food I can eat," he replies, skirting my question.

       "If you loved me you'd eat it!" I burst.

       "If you loved me, you'd cook stuff I could digest," he shoots back. He grabs his coat and walks out the door. I feel like crying but I decide it isn't worth it. Sighing, I get up and wipe up his mess with the kitchen sponge.

*                     *                     *

       The clouds seem lovely, bright, and free

       They keep their promises to me.

       They watch me every day I live.

       And tell me I have alot to give.

       They help me dance, they help me sing

       Happiness they always bring

       And every time I see a cloud

       Nothing else can bring me down.

       So much for rhyming poetry. I put my pen down and read over my poetry assignment for my class. I decide that rhyming is pretty hard, but I think my teacher will like it. I try to think of a title and come up blanks. I decide to just call it "Clouds," and I write that in at the top. At least I'm done now and I can go to bed.

*                     *                     *

       "This is really awful," Mrs. Myers says.

       I can tell my face turns red as I stand at her desk after class.

       "Honestly, Anna, this sounds like a third-grader wrote it. This couldn't have taken you more than five minutes to write."

       Even though that is true, I feel determined to defend my work.

       "I worked really hard on it! I'm just not a writer."

       "Anna, I expect real work from you in this class. Writing may not be your major or even something you're good at, but I expect more than this. I can't accept this."

       "What do you want me to do?"

       "You need to do this assignment over. I expect a little more effort on your next try. This is a college poetry class, not third-grade English."

       Okay, I say to myself. Fine. I'll do it over. I'll just change a few things. Maybe I could make it longer. I walk out of the classroom and go to catch the city bus home.

*                     *                     *

       I wait at the bus stop. I am the only one there. I look at my poem and read it over. I really can't tell what could be wrong with it. It rhymes, like she assigned. It has rhythm. It has a title. All the requirements are there. I remind myself that my teacher must be an expert on poetry, since she teaches a class on it. Therefore, she just must have read a lot of good poetry. I am sure mine seems terrible next to the classics she must have read. She is just picky. I'll revise some of it and see if she thinks it's better.

       I notice a penny on the ground. It's on tails. I scowl at it, wishing it had been heads. I could use some good luck.

       When I get home there is a message on my machine to call my mother. I groan when I hear her scratchy voice playing back to me. She sounds like she's in a bad mood. But if I don't call her back she'll call later and be angry that I didn't return the call, on top of whatever is the matter with her already. I sigh and reach for the phone.

*                     *                     *

       "How's school?" she asks knowingly.

       "It's all right," I say, hesitating. My poem is still lying on the counter, next to my bag and my purse.

       "And the poetry class?"

       "It's going fine, Mom."

       "You're lying to me. I can always tell when you're lying to me."

       "I'm not lying, Mom. I'm learning a lot."

       "You shouldn't have taken that silly class. It's going to bring your GPA down."

       "I told you. I can't take all business classes, it's too much of a drag. If I don't have at least one class where I can be creative, I'll poop out in the middle of the semester."

       "Last semester you took an art class. From your grades, it doesn't look like it helped much."

       "Well, I'm sorry, Mom. I can't help it. I'm working as hard as I can."

       "Okay, fine, if you want to avoid the issue we'll change the subject. How's Casey?"


       "You're lying to me."

*                     *                     *

       "All right, Anna, this is the last time I say this. Don't cook for me!"

       "I want to! I can't ever make something good if I just give up!"

       "You can practice forever if you want, but I don't want to be your recipe guinea pig, all right? Try it out on yourself first."

       "I tasted it! It isn't bad, I promise."

       "You always promise that. It never gets any better."

       "Look, Casey, I'm trying to do something nice for you. . . ." My eyes tighten up to restrain my frustration tears. "How many of your friends' girlfriends cook for them?"

       "Plenty. Kevin's girlfriend makes the best pasta."

       "Well good for him."

       "Look, let's just go out to dinner or something. I'd love to eat with you, just as long as it's not your cooking."

       "Please just taste it! It means a lot to me!"

       "Oh, fine." Casey grabs the soupspoon and takes a sip of the soup I've made. He swallows and looks at me. "What is it?" he asks.

       "Potato soup."

       "Oh, I couldn't tell. It tastes more like you poured some water into a bag of garbage and collected whatever leaked."

       "Oh my God, you are so mean! You could have just said it doesn't taste very good, jeez!"

       "Okay, fine, it doesn't taste very good." He runs his hand through his hair, gives me an apologetic shrug, and leaves the room.

*                     *                     *

       I work on my poem. I'm not really sure how to revise it, or what parts sound third-grade-ish. I scan the lines, looking for what sounds juvenile. I decide that the word "happiness" could be revised, in the line Happiness they always bring. I know I can think of a more grown-up word for that. Then I realize that I'm drawing a blank. I reach for my thesaurus.

       Happiness. Blessedness. Euphoria. Merriment . . . "Merriment" will do, I decide. It sounds great. I change "happiness" to "merriment." Merriment they always bring. Much less third grade.

       I search my poem for other words I can change the same way. I rearrange some of the words so that I can use more grown-up adjectives. And then I decide to change the title from "Clouds" to "Heavenly Observers." That sounds dramatic. It will get my poetry teacher good. She will be quite impressed with me.

*                     *                     *

       I wait for the bus, holding my poem. I read it over and over. I wonder if she will still think it is too simplistic. I have changed some of the words, after all. I decide she can't penalize me for trying.

*                     *                     *

       "You hardly tried," Mrs. Myers asserts after class.

       "What do you mean?" Her words make me tremble.

       "Anna, this looks like you took the poem and just rearranged the words, and hoped it would suddenly become a masterpiece."

       I hold my breath so that I won't cry in front of her.

       "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Anna, but this poem . . . it isn't about anything. It's just words. Poetry is more than words. It's an artistic way of expressing something with language . . . it isn't just a pretty arrangement. You can't make a word arrangement like you're arranging flowers and then try to say it's a poem, do you understand?"

       I nod because I can't trust my voice to come out steady.

       "Try this again. I still can't accept it." She hands the paper back to me and stalks out of the classroom, leaving me there alone.

*                     *                     *

       When I get to the bus stop I see that the penny I'd noticed yesterday is still there, still sitting stubbornly on tails. I frown at it, thinking the least it could have done is flip over in the night so that I could pick it up today and gain some luck. I kick it angrily, making it skid across the sidewalk. I sit down huffily on the bus stop bench and scowl at my knees.

       The penny comes rolling back to me. I must have kicked it in a funny way. It wobbles on its side and clatters onto the pavement, its sound seeming somewhat apologetic. I feel bad for kicking it, then I realize that is stupid because pennies do not have feelings. It sits in front of me, a few feet away from my shoes. It is now on heads. Sighing, I reach down and pick it up.

*                     *                     *

       I hadn't intended to try making dinner for Casey today because it seemed that so far it was a thankless task. However, for some reason I realize that I want to try again. I am not a quitter, I remind myself. I decide on a simple recipe, straying away from soup since it hasn't been good to me so far. Instant mashed potatoes seem safe. Following the directions as closely as I can, I put the ingredients together. For two servings: stir together 2/3 cup water, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 tablespoon margarine, and 1/4 cup milk. Warm for 2 minutes. Then add 2/3 cup instant potato flakes and stir to moisten. Serve.

       I take the bowl out of the microwave and add the potato flakes as instructed. It turns out a little too mushy but overall it looks enough like mashed potatoes to please me. As I'm stirring it together Casey comes out of the back room.

       "You're not making food again, are ya?" he asks with a grimace.

       "Yes I am! And I think it's going to be great this time. It's finished, come have a taste!"

       "I value my life, Anna."

       "Please don't be so mean to me. Try it."

       "Your cooking is gonna kill me one of these days," he says, but he comes over and opens his mouth. I feed him a spoonful of the piping hot potatoes. His face squinches up.

       "Ugh, what in the world did you put in there?"

       I look at him, crestfallen. "It's not any good?"

       "Is it supposed to taste like a salt mine?"

       I lick the spoon myself. "It is pretty salty. How did that happen?"

       "You tell me."

       "I don't know, I followed the directions. . . ."

       "You're hopeless."

       I feel myself stiffen suddenly. "Casey, I am not."

       "Well, what am I supposed to say when everything you've ever cooked for me isn't even edible?"

       "Can you—can you help me try to find what I did wrong?" My breath keeps catching in my throat, which is making it hard to talk. "There has to be a reason it tastes like this."

       "Either that or you have the cooking curse," he jokes. "Come on, let's look at the package and see where you got off track."

       "Okay," I say. I take the potato flakes package out again.

       "It says '2/3 cup water.' Did you do that?"

       "Uh-huh, I filled the cup up to here. . . ." I show him the 2/3 marking on the side of the measuring cup I'd used.

       "Same for the milk?"


       "Okay, 1/4 teaspoon of salt. . . ."

       I hold up the spoon I'd used.

       "That's not a teaspoon. That's a tablespoon."

       I blink. "Oh, it is . . . ? Then what's this?" I hold up the spoon that I'd used for the tablespoon of margarine.

       Casey makes a sound that sounds like laughter through a cough. "Anna, that is a serving spoon!"

       "Oh, well that explains it," I say. I'd known a tablespoon was bigger than a teaspoon, but I'd guessed wrong. "I guess that's why it's ruined. . . ."

       "You know what, Anna? I think we can still eat this. Let's just make another serving and compensate for the extra ingredients, and then we'll eat this for dinner."

       "Really? You want to?"


       "Will you help me?"

       "Of course. I want it to taste good, after all."

       I whack him with the serving spoon.

*                     *                     *

       The mashed potatoes really do taste good. I lick my spoon and watch Casey enjoy his helping.

       "Why didn't you just ask me for help with cooking earlier?" he asks.

       "Well, you were always so rude about it."

       "Rude? Me?"

       "Well yeah! You said my cooking tasted like garbage, and then you just went out to get fast food."

       "I guess sometimes I make my jokes sound too serious, huh?"

       "You were joking?"

       "Well, I can't say I liked your cooking, but I didn't realize you'd take it so hard."

       "Well yes, Casey, I did. No one likes to be told they're a failure."

       "I didn't mean it that way. I'm sorry."

       I blink in surprise. This day just keeps getting better and better, I say to myself. Maybe I should try my poem again before my luck runs out.

*                     *                     *

       I chew the end of my pen, trying to come up with a way to revise my clouds poem. My brain isn't cooperating with me; it wants to wander in other directions when I want it to think of better poem lines. I ponder my good luck with cooking today, and how I'd found the problem. Maybe there is a problem in my poetry recipe. Talking to Casey sure had helped with the mashed potato recipe . . . perhaps I need to talk to my teacher about what exactly is wrong with my poem. She has only told me that I'm doing it wrong; she hasn't told me how to do it right.

*                     *                     *

       This is the first time I have ever gone to a teacher's office hours. I always thought they were silly before, since I never wanted to spend extra time going in to ask teachers for help. But now I want some one-on-one help with my poem, and there seems to be no other way to do it except through office hours. I knock on my teacher's door and she tells me to come in.

       "Mrs. Myers," I begin.

       "Have you been working on your poem?"

       "I've been trying to, but . . . well, I really need to know . . . if there is a recipe for a good poem."

       "A recipe?"

       "Yes. I'm doing something wrong and I don't know what it is. Can you show me what the wrong things are in my poem?"

       "Well . . . sure, sit down. Did you bring a copy of the poem?"

       I nod and place it on her desk.

       "I have to say this, first of all . . . there is no such thing as a 'wrong' poem. Your poem doesn't have 'mistakes.' It just doesn't say much, and it doesn't satisfy the assignment."

       "Could you show me where?"

       "I'd be glad to."

       Mrs. Myers points out all the problems in my poem. First of all, she tells me that one of my lines doesn't actually rhyme; it is only a near rhyme. I say the words "cloud" and "down" to myself and realize she is right. That is only a minor error, though, she says. My bigger problems have to do with sentence structure and punctuation. She says I leave completed thoughts with no punctuation, and that I mark some incomplete thoughts with periods as if they were complete. But worse yet is my structure; it is babyish and almost sing-song, and the meter is off. I can see that when she points it out.

       "But one thing stands out to me," she says.

       "What's that?"

       "You don't mean any of this."

       "What do you mean?"

       "This poem . . . I can tell by the way you've written it that you thought of things to say based on things that rhyme. When you wrote this, you thought of two words that rhymed and then tried to think of something about clouds that you could say using those words."

       "How can you tell that?"

       "Your groups of two tip me off," she says. "Each two-liner is a thought in itself and connects little to the rest of the poem. Also, lots of these things make little sense. How do clouds 'help you dance and help you sing'? And why are clouds telling you you 'have a lot to give,' and what exactly do you mean by that?"

       "I guess I see what you mean. . . ." It is coming clear why she thinks my poem is so bad.

       "And lastly. . . ."

       "There's more?"

       "Just one more thing I should mention, really. Stay away from the 'poetic' language, it only messes you up."

       "'Poetic language'?"

       "Yes . . . such as this line: Merriment they always bring. It is rearranged so that the rhyme will work, but it is an unrealistic way to say something. Would you say that? I don't think so. If you wanted to say Merriment they always bring about the clouds, you would more likely say something like 'The clouds make me happy when I look at them.' You see?"

       "But that'd be awfully hard to rhyme," I say haphazardly.

       "That is why poetry is an art. It's difficult to make the pieces fall into place."

       "I guess I get your point. This is going to be harder than I thought."

       "Good. I'm looking forward to seeing what you'll come up with."

*                     *                     *

       "Mom, Casey helped me make mashed potatoes today," I report happily over the phone.

       "Well, at least with his help you won't poison yourself."

       I take a deep breath and let it out again before I speak. "Mom, that wasn't nice. Don't be so sarcastic to me, I'm really trying."

       "I was only joking."

       "Sometimes jokes can hurt. Please watch what you say."

       "Okay, okay. Were the mashed potatoes good?"

       "Very. Tonight I'm going to write a poem."

       "About mashed potatoes?"

       "I'm not sure what it will be about, but probably not mashed potatoes."

       "Good. Not much you can say about mashed potatoes."

       "You never know."

*                     *                     *

       This time I write the poem with a pencil, so that I can erase as I go if I decide I don't like something. I'd realized when I'd started the poem earlier that I felt compelled to stick with a certain line and try to rhyme it once I'd written it down in pen. Now that I can erase it, I feel much less bound. I like what is taking shape on the paper. I smile and write another line.

*                     *                     *

       At times when things don't look so good,

       I give up sooner than I should.

       At times, I try to run away

       Before I try the proper way.

       Sometimes it seems I cannot do

       The things I've really wanted to.

       Sometimes I try a shorter way

       To make my troubles go away.

       But recently, I figured out

       That problems can be turned about.

       And recently, I rearranged

       Some things that needed to be changed.

       I learned to shift the way I view

       Some things that I just thought I knew.

       I learned that there are different tracks

       To dealing with the same setbacks.

       At times, a problem stumps me so,

       But now I know the way to go.

       At times, the smartest thing to do

       Is ask a friend to help you through.

       "It really isn't bad," Mrs. Myers says to me.

       "You really think so?" I bite my lip as I contain my pride.

       "Well, it's simple, and sometimes you still go toward that 'poetic language' I mentioned, but it's definitely acceptable. You even did something I didn't talk about: you kept the format consistent, starting with the same word or phrase every first and third line. . . ." She grins at me, and I can tell she is satisfied. "We're getting closer to college work here."

       "Great! Maybe on the next project, if it doesn't have to rhyme, I can do better."

       "Yes, maybe your best style is the free verse. There's just one thing you need to do before I accept this. . . ."

       "What's that?"

       "It needs a title. What would you like to call your piece?"

       I laugh out loud. "How about, 'Sometimes All You Need To Do is Flip the Penny Over'?"

       She looks at me strangely. "That's a rather odd title. Also a little long. Can you think of something else?"

       "Let's just call it 'Problem Recipe,'" I suggest.

       "That sounds fine to me."

       Mrs. Myers writes a big red A next to my title. I will mail it to my mother first thing tomorrow.