I'm not exactly sure when it was clear that the soft, hot pretzels were destined to become dinner for the mouse that steals from my garbage can. In hindsight, I think it was right from the beginning, when I wondered if the yeast and sugar had spent enough time turning into the "creamy" mixture the recipe described.
Or three minutes later when I'd added the 8th tablespoon of water to the dough in order to "soften it up a little bit." Well, okay...in order to actually have it look like something more than a pile of crumbled up old chewing gum.
My teenage son told me this week that he didn't want to set himself up to fail. He worried that if he put himself out there too far, if the challenge was too much, that he'd fall flat on his face while the whole world sat watching. Before the words were out of his mouth, my own failures in life passed before my eyes like old episodes of "Gilligan's Island" when Gilligan keeps getting clocked with a falling coconut, despite the warnings from everyone else.
Lucky for me, my hot pretzel adventure offered up an opportunity to give my son an illustration of what I'd tried to explain the other night. Failures happen. Failures make us stronger. Failures teach us invaluable lessons. Failures make you re-structure your weekly budget to go purchase new baking sheets to replace the ones that have permanent scorched pretzel marks etched within.
Maybe I realized that something was amiss when the hour went by and the dough hadn't doubled in size. Or when the oil dripped from the dough ball when lifting it from the bowl.
What is failure, anyway? I asked my son, not expecting an answer right away. And who gets to decide whether or not I have personally failed? Okay, yes, the teacher who graded the test gets to determine that. But that's not what I'm talking about...I mean REAL failure, the kind that counts in the real world. Not a vocab test that will only help you when you're trying to finish up the Friday crossword in the NY Times someday.
I can tell you this for sure: Failure is a state of mind that only I have control over. I am the one who determines whether or not I have failed, that's it. No one else. Not my own father or mother, not my boss. Not my banker, my attorney, or my librarian who threatens me with overdue notices. Only me. And the way that I can assess all of this is quite simple. At the end of each day, I sit down and reflect. Three questions. 1) How much laughter was there in my day? 2) Did I make strides toward the goals that I have set for myself? and 3) Did I do what I can to make the world a better place today?
Those are my own personal measures. Sometimes the questions change up a bit, but mostly they stay along those lines.
So as the pretzels cooked for 11 minutes in a 450 degree oven (3 minutes longer than the recipe asked for, but believe me, 8 minutes wouldn't have cut it), my daughter, her best friend and I turned on the oven light and leaned in close to see (and hear, oddly enough) what was going on inside the oven.
"What is that sound??" I asked.
"I think....it's the inside of the pretzels popping...?"
That was our best guess. The baking sheets will never be the same (if I get to use them again at all), my daughter may never try tasting homemade hot pretzels again in her life, and the mouse may invite all of his friends from out in the field to come in out of the rain and spend the night feasting underneath my kitchen sink, but nothing will ever compare to the laughter and the pure enjoyment we shared together in the kitchen tonight. And that silver lining far outweighs the evening of endless culinary mistakes.
I ended the evening with a report to my son. He was up in his room getting ready to sleep off the two full plates of spaghetti with a hamburger deluxe on the side when I knocked and opened the door to his room.
"Don't bother coming down for pretzels...they, uhhh...suffered a traumatic ending..."
"Awww..." came the disappointed but lively grin from my son. "What happened?"
"It was the chef," I told him. "She's a total failure. I don't even think she knows how to bake."
My son laughed out loud. "They were amazing hamburgers, though!" And then came the winning charm..."Maybe one more hamburger?"
"Not on your life," I told him. "Kitchen's closed for the night."
Huge sigh, then more laughter.
And so, here are the answers to my three personal questions: 1) tons of laughter, 2) yes, worked towards the goal of trying new things in the kitchen, for starters, and 3) (the mistakes of the day rattle through my head; the outcomes of those mistakes make me laugh out loud as I listen for signs of the mouse downstairs) yes, I did what can to make this world a better place. And without the failures, it just wouldn't have worked out quite right.