Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Easy Now

Poor aging. Birthday parties aside, this is one process that's hurting for advocates. So I'm stepping up to make the case that it's not so bad. Now, I will admit that I have limited experience with getting older. But after exiting the 18-34 demographic advertisers so adore and finding myself on the other side of two pregnancies, relying on a slightly worn body to wrangle two hefty kiddos day into night, well, I began to feel my age. And sometimes relish it.

Sure, your skin sags with the decades. You amass more things than you can possibly use. You become more responsible, less spontaneous. Your mind works more slowly and you forget stuff. Your wardrobe evokes nostalgia for previous decades. (I speak only for myself, of course. Perhaps you have become less bogged down and more pert, spontaneous, stylish, intelligent, and so on. If so, I would like your secret.)

But there is one thing about getting older that I've come to appreciate. I call it passive practice. This is my term for the kind of practice you do when you're not really thinking about practicing.

It's not the kind of practice I did as a child, clicking open my flute case and screwing together the dank parts a few times a week so as to not get in trouble at my lesson. It's not lugging your tired bones out to the playing field every day regardless of rain, shine, heat or cold to hone plays, ball skills, field sense. No. For better or worse, I don't seem to have much time for that sort of practice these days.

The kind of practice I do now is the kind I don't even realize I'm doing until all of a sudden something that used to be hard is easy. Take biscotti. When I first began making it for holiday gifts several years ago, the process tired me out. There were late, flour-dusted nights, last-minute dashes to the grocery store, recipe failures, at worst, and uneven results, at best. Frequently, as I divvied up the goodies I would find that I didn't have quite enough.

I was remembering those early days last month as I surveyed a neat set of biscotti-filled gift bags ready to be delivered to neighbors and friends. It was afternoon, not midnight. The counters were clean, the cookies were colorful and crisp, and I had enough and then some. Making them hadn't been hard; it was fun. The process required a little forethought, some organization, familiarity with the recipe, a certain touch and quickness with the tools and ingredients. The fruits of experience, ripe at last. Huh, I thought to myself, I guess I've got this process down.

Whenever I find I'm getting to know a recipe well, I think about writer Daniel Duane's common-sense recommendations, which I wrote about last year. With my annual biscotti binge, I'm not exactly following his intensive plan to recipe independence. Making it once a day for two weeks would surely yield faster and perhaps more substantive results. But that would not be an example of passive practice, the results of which are pleasing precisely because of the lack of exertion involved.

If you think about it, I'll bet you can come up with all kinds of things for which this principle applies. For example, I once marveled at the sensitive way a friend helped her young son resolve a problem, and I remember telling her I'd never know what to say in her situation. Now? After spending most of my day talking with toddlers, I find that answers to tough questions often dribble out in pretty good form if I just open my mouth. It's just practice, the kind you have to do, the kind you don't realize you're doing because it's living your life.

The only catch? You have to be getting older to reap the benefits of passive, slow accumulation of skill and wisdom. In this way, it's very inclusive. So the next time you forget your phone number or yank a gray hair, just think about all the things you know how to do well, and be glad you're not twenty anymore.


You can find the recipe for cranberry-pistachio biscotti here. To include and please the aforementioned three year-old, I'm working on my own nut-free version and will post it once I get results that pass the family taste test.

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