Thursday, January 15, 2015

Procrastination pie: A lesson in avoiding the really hard work

Little Bird. My most recently completed painting, from September 2014.
I got angry at my son yesterday.

He was supposed to be practicing piano, but he was crying and upset because the piece was difficult. This was not the first time he has experienced this level of frustration with working through something hard. We've tried to coach him through the difficulty, explaining that when something is hard, you just have to work harder. Hardness is not a reflection on intelligence or value; it simply means that something is difficult and requires more work.

I tried going that route first. I told him to take a deep breath and try to slowly work through the lines note by note. Calmly, persistently. He responded with more frustration and tears. I tried again. And then I'm ashamed to say I totally lost it. I yelled. I told him he needed to pull himself together and get over being so emotional about struggling. It went on from there. It wasn't pretty, and I didn't feel good about it afterward.

Thinking about the incident while doing dishes later, I recognized my hypocrisy. I had spent much of an unexpected snow day avoiding my own hard things. Instead of painting or writing or even working on a project for a client, I cooked and cleaned and ran 4 miles and folded laundry, frittering away precious time on easy things. Not easy in terms of the amount of work required, I was exhausted when the day was over, but easy in terms of emotional, mental, and creative effort. Like my son, I constantly struggle with and get anxious about doing certain kinds of work; the difference is that I am a lot better at hiding it from myself and others by doing prodigious amounts of other stuff.

I try to tell myself that being creative is not supposed to be that hard, that I shouldn't get frustrated, that I should take a breath and slowly and persistently push through the difficulty, and perhaps that I should even relax and enjoy it, but the truth is every time I start putting paint to canvas or trying to write a story is a moment of stress, anxiety, and fear. And even when it goes well (which is actually pretty frequent), the terror returns and remains because the next addition of color, the next creative choice could screw it all to hell. I tell myself I shouldn't care. It should be about the process, not the product, but at heart I don't believe that. I tell myself that if I really loved to paint as much as I think I do, it should be easy to get up and do it. But it's not. Just because you love something doesn't make it easy. So painting starts sit for months and sometimes years before I finish them because mustering the courage to push them through the next step is so hard and requires so much emotional energy. (For example, I started Little Bird, the painting at the beginning of this post, five or six years ago and only finally got around to finishing it last September.)

Starting this year, I plan to do better. (I also plan to be more understanding toward my boy.) I've figured out ways to trick myself into running even when it's cold or hot as hell, I'm sore and tired, and I really don't feel like it. Surely I can trick myself into painting and writing more?

In the meantime, while I was avoiding the hard work, I made this shepherd's pie, which turned out to be a huge hit. Inspired by my friend Jeff, who made a shepherd's pie using cauliflower mash instead of mashed potatoes a few weeks ago, I decided to try replacing some of the mashed potatoes with cauliflower. The cauliflower adds a nice, light sweetness to the mash, but is a bit more watery than potatoes are. I may try replacing the potatoes with cauliflower altogether sometime soon, but if/when I do, I will probably need at least two heads of cauliflower and less half and half. I also used a combination of ground beef and loose pork sausage, but you can use any combination you like. And even though I made this meal in part to avoid work, don't be fooled: It's a somewhat time- and labor-intensive recipe, so don't plan to make it on a weeknight. (Unless you have a snow day.)

Shepherd's pie, ingredients

  • 1 large head cauliflower, broken into florets
  • 6 medium yellow potatoes (use any potatoes you like; I just like yellows better)
  • 1/4 cup half and half
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 lb loose pork sausage
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes, fire roasted is nice but not necessary
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • smoked paprika, salt, and pepper to taste
  • bread crumbs (optional)


  1. Peel the potatoes and boil them in salted water until tender, about 30 minutes.
  2. Steam the cauliflower until tender, about 15-20 minutes depending on your steamer (test the cauliflower with a fork).
  3. Using a ricer (which will make your life easier, I promise), rice the cauliflower and the potatoes into a bowl. Add the half and half and butter and some salt and pepper and stir together until you have a nice even(ish) mash. Taste the mash to make sure you've added enough salt and pepper. Set the mashed potato-cauliflower mixture aside.
  4. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil. Toss in a sliver of onion to test the heat. When it sizzles, add the rest of the onion and cook it for about two minutes. Then add the sausage and the ground beef. 
  5. Cook the meat and onions until the meat is no longer pink. If the meat has some brown bits, bonus! Drain most of the fat from the pan. 
  6. Add the garlic to the pan and let it cook for about a minute (do NOT let it burn). 
  7. Add the tomatoes, water, tomato paste, ketchup, mustard, and perhaps a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper and smoked paprika to the meat in the pan. Stir everything together. Over medium-high heat, let the mixture cook down to a loose mass (the pan should contain some liquid, but the mixture should not be watery). Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper until you like it.
  8. Next, assemble the pie. Pour the meat mixture into a large, oven-safe baking dish (mine is about 13 in. by 9 in.). Shake the dish gently to make sure the meat is somewhat evenly distributed. Then place big spoonfuls of the potato-cauliflower mash over the meat mixture and using the back of a spoon spread it out somewhat evenly. (It's a "rustic" dish; it doesn't have to look perfect.) If you want, spread some bread crumbs or Panko over top of the mashed potatoes. (At this point, you can set aside the pie for a few days and bake it another day.)
  9. Bake the pie for 50-55 minutes in a 450-degree (F) oven. Eat. Enjoy. Try to do the hard things.