Cruel Optimism, or Make Extra Just In Case

I have a very bad habit of falling in ”unrequited love.” I don't consider the term particularly accurate, because it implies that what Person A is feeling towards Person B is actually love, and that there is a broken circuit: this so-called love is sent but not returned, like a misformed boomerang spinning forever outwards, lost in space. But of course it's not love, and nor is it an exchange. It’s a one-sided conversation; it's the most profound form of turning inward. We talk about this phenomenon in romantic or tragic terms, in terms of the unfairness of life and the vagaries and capriciousness of the heart. It's none of those things, though. It's merely a form of self-immolation, a throwing oneself on the funeral pyre, a form of sati. It is allowing oneself to burn in one’s own desire. There is no romance in this.

And lest we think the notion of unrequited love is the result of negative thinking, I say this: unrequited love is the purview of the optimist. We like to think of the optimist as the happy fellow or gal, always looking on the bright side of life even as she hangs from her cross. She knows there is a somewhere over the rainbow. She can imagine revolution. She believes in the happily ever after, and keeps searching for it, knowing it's out there. The pessimist glowers in her gimlet-eyed view of the world, and finds no reason for hope. The optimist sees hope everywhere.

But no. Optimism is cruel. What an awful fate it is.

When you're an optimist, you go through life imagining that things will get better, that there is always a possibility, no matter how sliver-thin, that the situation isn't as bad as it seems. And this tendency is not something that you can switch off in face of facts, in face of reality. It exists, this impulse, on a completely other order of knowingness from the experiential. You can know that there is no hope but find yourself hoping anyway. You can realize how ridiculous it is to stand against entropy, but optimism doesn't believe in entropy. How strange it feels to think this way. It's like not really being able to get yourself to believe in gravity. Or math. It makes no sense.

Optimism doesn't lead to happiness; sometimes it's precisely what stands in the way of happiness. The happy -- or at least content --pessimist knows that life is just not all its cracked up to be so she lives just to live, with no expectations. She gets up everyday because that's just what you do; what else is there? She even plans the revolution, but knows that the point is in the planning alone because she has no hope it will actually come to pass; and yet she works for it, because that’s the single reasonable course. Optimism, on the other hand, is the condition of the depressive, who can only get herself out of the bed every morning because of the whisper of a hope that today might not be so bad as yesterday; even her suicide is a desperate attempt to ease the pain. The pessimist knows there is so little chance of anything easing that it's better to give up, to decamp. The optimist tells herself stories, narrates her life, and needs all her tales to end with some sort of redemption, even the faintest one. The pessimist has stopped telling herself stories long ago.

When you "fall in unrequited love" you are telling yourself a story of what ifs; you look at the other person and see possibilities that they don't see, the possibility of your mutual happiness. You see them as their best selves, the kind of self that can see the beauty in you. You tell yourself that you want to learn what they have learned, to be excited by what excites them, to become interested in what interests them. I learned to mountain climb and go camping in the woods with bugs and tents and think about galaxies and taste wine and look at art and listen to all sorts of crazy music and run 10K races (okay, one 10K race) this way. But at the same time -- and you know this deep down, no matter how much you deny it -- you look at your love object in the same way a depressive looks at suicide: a way to ease the pain. Most likely that. Your Person B becomes an innocent bystander in your self-flagellation; he confirms your sneaking suspicions that you are not lovable by anyone by not loving you himself. Poor Person B. I’m fairly certain I’ve never been the object of unrequited love; I'm so glad others have spared me the fate that I've doled out freely myself, even if most of my victims were unaware. And the ones that were aware -- yeah, really sorry about that.

It'll be better next time. I just know it.

Roasted Salmon with Lentilles du Puy 
Serves one with leftovers, because you never know...

French lentils, round and smooth and
black as caviar.
1. For the lentils: sauté 1/2 medium onion, diced small, 1 small carrot, diced small, 1 stalk celery, diced small, 2 TB chopped parsley, and 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried) in 1 TB olive oil in a small saucepan with a pinch of salt. When softened, add 3/4 c French green lentils, 2 c chicken broth or water, salt & pepper and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer about 25 mins or until lentils are cooked but not completely falling apart. (Add more liquid if necessary.) If the lentils cook before the liquid is absorbed, drain it off in a sieve. Squeeze half a lemon into the pot and adjust salt.

2. While the lentils are cooking, make the salmon: preheat oven to 500 degrees. On a small baking tray lined with aluminum foil, smear 1 tsp olive oil. Place a 6 oz salmon filet per person (wild or sustainably farmed) on the tray, skin side down, and season with salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of fresh thyme leaves and a few drops of olive oil. Bake in the hot oven for about 10 minutes, or until cooked just through. (Check by cutting into the filet with a sharp knife and peeking; thicker filets will take longer, and happily salmon is very forgiving so even if it overcooks a little it will be fine.)

3. Serve the salmon on top of a bed of lentils, sprinkled with chopped parsley.

Glazed Carrots with Preserved Lemons

Preserved lemons can be thrown into lots and lots of different vegetables. This is my favorite, though.

1. Rinse one preserved lemon under cool water. Remove the rind with knife, and julienne it (discard the pulp).

2. In a sauté pan, put 1 lb peeled carrots that you've cut into 2-3" sticks, 1/2 c water, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 TB honey, and 1 TB olive oil. Bring to a boil and then lower heat and cover; cook until crisp-tender. Remove lid and raise heat to medium high; the water will boil away and if you keep shaking the pan the carrots will glaze.

3. Take off the heat. Add the preserved lemon rind and 2 TB each chopped parsley and chopped cilantro.


marinagp said…
this combination of flavors and textures is wonderful. I will make all these dishes....Love your concept of 'cruel optimism'....first I laughed hard....then I teared up....hmmm....interesting, no? I love you are an original thinker and a bit of a contrarian like me...I am only a contrarian...
I love that you laughed and then you teared up -- that's a lovely compliment.
Suzanne said…
Sadly, I overcooked the carrots, but I'm looking forward to some of your other recipes.
I have the same optimism issue. But I'm lost without it...