I was a fair skier in high school, and my gym teacher, who spent many afternoons in our chalet in the mountains sipping plum brandy with Father after a run through the powder, signed me up for the school ski team. I loved playing volleyball and basketball, even though I was not particularly good, as I could hide in the crowd. I enjoyed tennis and skiing, but only as recreation activities. To actually compete, to stand alone surrounded by an audience, was unimaginable, the mere thought mortifying.I knew that I could not get into the zone, that I would only think of people watching me and imagine them laughing derisively and my legs would become powerless noodles unable to control the skis. I knew in advance that I would fail, not because of a lack of skill, but because of fear to disappoint.
As the day of the tournament approached, my stress level reached enormous heights. My friends found my panic amusing, but I tried every excuse in the world not to go. The teacher was not buying into any of them and I became desperate. As I was running the student radio station and participated actively in the school’s newspaper, I checked everything that arrived in the mail pertaining to art and culture. A couple of days before the dreaded competition, I unearthed my salvation: a regional conference of poets, taking place in the capital city of Belgrade.
I loved poetry since I learned how to recite the Serbian equivalent to Mother Goose in the monotone and exaggerated rhythm of a four year old. I collected poems in a hard-bound notebook, illustrated the pages with sketches and vignettes, and pasted the pictures I cut out of magazines. I could recite by heart Neruda, Lorca, Baudelaire, Rilke, and Tagore even if rudely awakened in the middle of the night. I composed perfectly metered and rhymed poems to match the music I composed as I walked home from the piano lessons in grade school, and mock epic folk poems featuring my schoolmates and teachers as I sat bored in history class.
I filled notebooks with melodramatic verses in eighth grade, pouring onto the paper my emotions of unrequited love because the boy with dark hair and green eyes who I dreamed about did not know I existed. I aced my language classes, won essay contests, and wrote an occasional article for the local newspaper, but a poet I was not. I knew that, but my gym teacher was oblivious. So I decided that I was going to represent our school and our town at the poetry conference which just happened to fall on the same weekend as the skiing tournament. Serendipity!
Armed with my best “oh, shucks!” expression, I ruefully informed the coach that I would have to forego the wonderful opportunity to humiliate myself in front of a bunch of strangers. I was not a necessary presence on the team as there were other, more deserving athletes who could not wait to shine while swooshing around the slalom poles. On the other hand, nobody was there to represent our venerated institution in the field of poetry, and hence my sacrifice. He was a jock (an old one, but still hardcore) and he bought my story, feeling sorry for me, and I was plunged inadvertently into the world of geeks and dorks.
I attended every single lecture at the seminar, sat through excruciatingly long sessions of really bad adolescent poetry, applauded after every reading, grateful and happy that I was saved from an event I would surely have failed, and was, instead, delivered to this group of shy, creative, awfully-dressed people with whom I felt a strong connection. After all, I was a geek, a nerd, and a dork, much more comfortable with a book and a pen than playing practical jokes on other students on the bus or showing off my Elan skis in a competitive downhill race.
I might have done really well at the tournament. I might have even won. I might have enjoyed the adrenalin rush that always set off at the top of the slope, augmented by the challenge of the competition. I am sure I would have enjoyed the camaraderie of the other team members, practical jokes and all. I will never know because I allowed my fears to cripple me. I don’t regret attending the poetry conference, as I have wonderful memories from that weekend; I regret only not giving myself a chance to fail.
Since I started blogging, my perfectionism has shown itself in all its glory, liberated from the loose chains I managed to put around it, hoping to face the world without its fierce pressure. I have imposed incredibly high standards for myself and missed on many other opportunities in life, fearing that I would not be the best and not willing to accept the alternative.
I would like to convince myself that I can curb the beast of perfectionism as I am older, more experienced, and mature. I admit that my photography is not the best, but I am determined to make it better. I don’t measure myself against the best in industry, but I strive to learn as much as I can to reach my own potentials. I am not a professional or gourmet chef. I am baffled by molecular gastronomy and do not see the point in sous vide cooking at home. I do not call myself a recipe developer, because I still use someone else’s recipes, adapt them slightly, change them just to fit the family needs, without inventing a new process, a new technique, or a new combination of flavors. But I am determined to learn as much as I can. I will allow my perfectionism to lead me and push me, not to be on the top, but to be the best that I can be (the mantra we preach to our girls every single day).
This whole story has a preamble to a confession: I have not mastered risotto. Oh, I know the process by heart; I buy the right kind of rice; I prepare my ingredients on time; I have the stock slowly simmering on the adjacent burner; I approach it with a wooden spoon and patience to stand by and stir. But inevitably, I end up with a gloopy mess. I look at beautiful photos of successfully prepared risotti on other blogs and I feel that old sense of inadequacy as I present a bowl of sticky, glutteny rice to my family.
But rather than despairing and berating myself, I have recently found the solution to leftover lemon risotto that was staring at me from the refrigerator shelf. I made arancini, Italian rice balls stuffed with mozzarella cheese, breaded and deep-fried until perfectly browned and crispy. They got their name by resembling small oranges, or arancini, and they are ingenious. As inedible as my risotto was, these little balls were delectable with lemon zest in harmony with crunchy Panko coating and melted cheese affording an unexpected reward after every bite. I felt I had redeemed myself as my family buried me with compliments and incessant words of praise.
I almost decided to keep on making horrible risotto only for the leftovers, but the overachiever in me cannot abide by that. I will master this dish one of these days, if only because I cannot bear to concede failure. I try to remember that one does not climb to the top of a mountain to rest, but to hurtle oneself down, taking risks, learning the slope, and trying to enjoy the trip.
ARANCINI (FRIED RICE BALLS)
- 2 cups of cold, leftover risotto (any kind will do, as long as it is cold)
- 4 oz mozzarella cheese, cut in small cubes ½ inch by ½ inch
- ½ cup flour
- 2 beaten eggs
- 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
- sunflower (or vegetable) oil for frying
Scoop about 2 teaspoons of risotto in your palm and make an indentation in it. Place the cheese cube in the middle and mold the ball around it, making sure that the cheese is completely enclosed. Continue with rolling until all the rice is gone.
Set out your bowls with flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. Heat the oil on medium-high heat in a deep stainless steel sauce pan. Roll the rice balls in flour, egg, and panko, and place them in the hot oil, 3-4 at time. Fry until golden brown. When they are done, transfer them to a paper-towel lined bowl. Continue frying.
Serve as a side dish or an appetizer with a marinara sauce for dipping.