Taos, New Mexico + Dulce de Leche Ice Cream

Last month, I was fairly obsessed with this archived interview David Foster Wallace did with Terry Gross, which Fresh Air replayed in light of the recent release of The End of the Tour. The interview is from 1997. His magnum opus, Infinite Jest, had just come out in paperback and he talks about his impetus for writing it: he was about 30 and he had a lot of friends who were about 30, who despite having relatively good lives—they’d grown up with top-notch education, good healthcare, political freedoms, etc.— were fairly miserable.

Terry asks him, “Well, when did you realize that all the benefits you had in an educated middle-class life weren't bringing you happiness?”

Markedly uncomfortably and with great reservation, he begins to try to explain to Terry: “I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by happiness.”

What I ultimately took from the interview is that David Foster Wallace wasn’t made happy by our culture-at-large’s unspoken definition of happiness / the achievement of a successful life, which, he sums up quickly and with a note of self-admitted crassness as: “…let's see, you make a lot of money and you have a really attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it's a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible...”

In Wallace’s words, this brand of happiness “ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.” And since, there seemed to be very little to replace these values and assumptions in our culture, he and his friends ended up feeling miserable.

As you may already know, Wallace hanged himself in 2008; I don’t know too much about the specifics, but I’ve heard other writers who knew him well talk about the intensity of his mental illness towards the end of his life. That said, after hearing this interview, I couldn’t help but think that if he was miserable and/or frustrated and/or fed up with our culture’s definition of happiness in 1997, he would’ve been even more miserable now in 2015.

Because, in my opinion, in 2015, not only are these cultural values and assumptions still the same, but if you are an active social media participant, they are unavoidable. They are streaming live from your all-too accessible smart phone during each and every moment of the day. Ironically, these photos of us in Taos, particularly if absorbed without reading this text, are probably examples.
I guess I was reminded of this interview and its complexity because of our trip to Taos, New Mexico, which either coincided with or kicked off a major period of growth for Teddy. He is talking, talking, talking. Sometimes, you can almost see his brain churning, putting things together, e.g., If I take a nap, how am I going to ride that tractor that’s just sitting outside completely unmanned? 

One of our favorite things he’s taken to saying is a sing-songy repetition of the word happy. “Haaap-py, haaap-py, haaap-py!” (It’s almost to that tune that sports’ fans use to taunt a player on the field/court: Last-name, Last-name, Last-name.)

Matt and I just about always respond with: “I’m happy too!” Occasionally this spurs a face off of alternating I’m happy toos. It’s ridiculous and amazing.
As you might already know: modern-day air travel with a young child isn’t easy. On our red-eye from Los Angeles to Chicago on the first leg of our August trip to Portland, Maine, Teddy surprised us by completely resisting sleep. When they finally turned the cabin lights off, I thought he might lie down and give it a go. But instead, he began reaching for the heads of the passengers sitting in front of us. Holding him back from doing so took both arms; I looked to Matt and said: “I want to die.” (It was past midnight and we still had three hours to go!)

Matt frowned at me (he’s not a fan of talking about death while on an airplane) and then did God’s work by picking Teddy up and walking up and down the aisle until he fell asleep, some twenty minutes later.

But then there are moments traveling that would simply and straightforwardly suck without Teddy. At LAX, en route to Albuquerque, our tickets, which I’d purchased through United.com, had erroneously led us to the US Airways terminal. (The people at US Airways were like, “You got the wrong airline. We don’t fly to Albuquerque. Bye!”) Finally in the right place, which turned out to be American Airlines—though no mention of American was made on our tickets or our confirmation emails from United—we discovered that we had to catch a shuttle (our second of the morning) to actually get to the gate.

Quickly, we reorganized our things, broke down the stroller, and held Teddy as we waited in another line. But then the minute the shuttle bus pulled up, Teddy began cheering, “Shud-dle bus! Shud-dle bus!” (If you think about it, buses are highly revered objects in toddler culture, what with that never-ending song, “Wheels on the Bus.”) Crammed on the shuttle bus, I patted Matt on the back, thanking him for handling Teddy. His back was warm and damp with sweat. Teddy sat on his lap, smiling widely. “Shud-dle bus!” We were both laughing. 
Because this baby’s due date falls just one day after Teddy’s birthday, I’m finding it almost impossible not to compare the two pregnancies; every time I hit a milestone, I’m reminded of where I was two years ago at that time. Two years ago, I wasn’t just younger but I was also still a member of a two-person-plus-dog family. Two years ago, for the first time in my writing life, I had a contract and a hard deadline. My past pregnant self went to yoga, took longer walks, cooked more varied dinners, and was, at least on a much more quantifiable level, quite productive.

Of course, this way of thinking isn’t very positive or even productive for that matter. Two years ago, my days were still essentially mine. To illustrate this point: I started writing all this down last Monday. The next day, Teddy’s daycare texted me just an hour after I’d dropped him off saying he had a fever. Within 20 minutes, I was picking him up. I tried to drop him off again Friday only to get another call after an hour. He was too snotty. Could I please come get him? As I got back in the car, I thought of all of the things I’d meant to do that week and that obviously hadn’t happened. As it turned out, I hadn’t written: Take care of my sweet-and-active-despite-being-sick toddler on that week’s to-do list.
I’ve been slowly, very slowly, reading this book, Outline by Rachel Cusk, and recently came upon these lines: “We are all addicted to it, he said… the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality. It has even infected the novel, though perhaps now the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.” 

I think this particularly resonated with me, having written a book (a memoir, not a novel) that basically ends with the birth of our first baby. And because of this, I’ve grown to see my book as this comprehensive summary of my life before kids. Everything gets tied up by the end. By the end, I think I have things figured out. And the thing is that it’s accurate. My life did feel pretty tied up. I thought I did have things figured out.

If the book hadn’t ended there, however—if there were an extra chapter or two—everyone, myself included, would have realized that nothing would ever be quite so tied up again, that, in fact—surprise!—I had very little figured out.
Did I mention I turned 34-years-old two weeks ago?

Teddy bursted into many Haaap-py, haaap-py, haaap-pys while we were in Taos. He drank a lot of raw goat’s milk. He ate a couple pints of just-picked raspberries per day. He walked around with a half-eaten just-picked apple in his hand for the other parts of the day; he obviously spent some time on the tractor and feeding the goats (who surprisingly weren’t interested in his apple core when he finally reached it and offered it to them).

To be clear, I don’t think that having children is a way to bring you happiness. Not at all; particularly so if one doesn’t feel compelled to have children in the first place. But I do think it’s often refreshing to try and see the world from a differing point of view for a bit—be it that of a 20-month-old who freaks out with joy at the prospect of riding in a dirty un-air-conditioned airport shuttle bus, or someone who simply might not ascribe to the seemingly understood definition of a successful life that the world spits out at us consciously and unconsciously each and every day.

My Aunt Martha sent us back home with six jars of goat cheese and two pounds of dulce de leche. On the afternoon of my birthday, inspired by the batch of black cherry and chocolate ice cream we made in Taos, I thought I’d make a quart using the dulce de leche as the main ingredient. I followed this recipe, which directed me to “quick-chill” the base. In my previous ice-cream attempts, I’d always chilled the base for at least four to six hours in the refrigerator. But I decided to give quick-chilling a go anyway. 

Thirty-minutes of churning later, the base looked exactly the same as it had when I began. I gave up on the idea of having homemade ice cream that night. I put the base mixture in the refrigerator overnight and the freezer bowl back in the freezer. Just shy of 24-hours later, it churned up nicely. And later that following night, we finally had our ice cream.

I hesitate to come to any grand conclusions, certainly any about happiness. But as I sit here, six months pregnant, I do like the thought of abandoning this idea of life as a progression; of this idea that the longer I live the more I might figure things out; and of this idea that life might be a vehicle to, in David Foster Wallace’s words “experience the most favorable ratio of productivity to work.” At the very least, I’d like to stop pitting myself against myself. And maybe eventually, I’ll even stop pitting myself against other women and against other people’s ideas of success? Who knows? It could happen.

Here’s to 34 and all the unknown that lies ahead.
Dulce de Leche Ice Cream slightly adapted from Gourmet
makes about 1 1/2 quarts

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 pound dulce de leche(about 1 2/3 cups; preferably La Salamandra brand)
1/8 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted (optional)

Bring milk and cream just to a boil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, then remove from heat and whisk in dulce de leche until dissolved. Whisk in vanilla and transfer to a metal bowl. 

Chill in a covered bowl in the refrigerator for at least six hours or overnight.

Freeze mixture in ice cream maker until almost firm, then fold in coconut.

Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 2 hours.
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Matthew said...

You, Teddy, and Taos make me happy happy happy xoxo

Julie said...

Thinking good thoughts for you and your happiness. I've learned a lot from you and I am much older...

Heather said...

I love this post, Amelia. Thanks so much for sharing. <3

Caley said...

Ahhh... I needed that read. Thank you, as always, for your candid and beautiful cogitations. Here's to being cheerleaders.

Jane C said...

LGreat post! On a side note, my 2nd's due date was my 1st kids birthday! And my 2 pregnancies were totally the same! From weight gain to absolutely everything. BUT I have a girl and a boy!!! And my kids are SOOOOO different (and grown up!). Time marches on indeedy! Be well.

Lydia said...

I can't get enough of deeper honest thoughts. Your writing is meaty and a pleasure to read.

I laughed at all of the toddler bits which are exactly my life right now. Your plane woes are a comfort, actually. When people gave me advice or told me how it would be at whatever stage, it didn't apply and it didn't sink in. When my newborn was crying all night, I felt like the only person in the world with that problem. So now when I hear mutual toddler tales, it's a relief. I am crazy about this stage - it's heart explosions all the time (and some fatigue, fuss, etc).

I like the thought of abandoning the deeply engrained life of progression. Much to chew on!

sg said...

I loved this post and the pictures - hammock life! Reading this made me think of alternative map making xo Happy Belated birthday!!

Frau Vogel said...

Thank you for writing this. I so enjoyed reading it! Very thought provoking, especially since we are expecting our first baby any day now.

mrsmarcell said...

Thank you for this.

Sarah (The Yellow House) said...

You are the best. (I listened to that interview too and have had it on the brain.)

Jen said...

I loved this post so, so much. Off to listen to the interview now.

Stephanie said...

Yet another thank you to add. I'd never thought about it that way: that so much of our lives are framed in terms of improvement right now. And I'm comparing my now-self to my previous-self and not winning! This lets me breathe again.

Amelia Morris said...

hey, thanks, guys! So glad you read it and seem to relate.

@Frau Vogel--ahh how exciting! Congratulations and best of luck too. I loved those first weeks with our little baby.

Gina Pascual said...

Thank you for your genuineness and sharing your love for ice cream. confession: most nuts day at work. I know I can come to Bon Appetempt and find heart opening words to calm down, remember creativity and craft are always possible and today I happened to find even more than I asked to find.

-Big Fan

Meaghan said...

This is so very beautiful. I don't think I could ever thank you enough for being so real and, occasionally, so wry about your life. As I painfully slog through the dense, meaningless, almost-trite shit I have to read on some "cooking blogs" to get to the actual goddamn recipe, I am always so grateful for you and your writing, which brings me to the food by way of life, which is how it's supposed to be. I don't even know you and you seem so whole, so real. I think that's a gift, and you've certainly got it, and subsequently given it to us.

Ariella Nudell said...

This is such an amazing post! Thank you!!

Kara said...

This is beautiful! Xoxo

Molly said...

This is all so good. Thank you. xx

Lisa A said...

I've read all of your words since you started writing them on this site and these by far are my favorite. Thank you! Happy 34th year!

Caryn Crasnick-Maloney said...

Great post - very enlightening.

tori said...

So, so, so great.

Holly said...

I really love this post. David Foster Wallace's commencement speech "This Is Water" is something I use with my students every year.

mliss said...

If you let them, kids can show you how little control you have; and with that, bring joy you could never imagine.

dani said...

dayum! That was beautiful. My two are 22 months apart (2 year old boy and now 5 month old girl). I feel you, and I love your perspective. Good luck with your two -- it's been a surprisingly lovely age difference!

Mary Anne said...

Great post! And I want to make that dulce de leche ice cream sooooooo bad.

MiMi05 said...

Very interesting read for the juxtaposition of intellect and toddler reality.

I have grandchildren your children's age. A treasure beyond belief that you have to look forward to... in fact, you have much joy in your future.

Age and progression gives you perspective if you listen to what life is saying. It is not linear. It is not easy. Hopefully, it is not heart stoppingly sad. It is challenging to stay 'happy' at all times. What I can say from experience is that life gets richer although it is set off by ice cubes of disappointment and sadness.

Embrace the joy in your life, and step back frequently to monitor your emotions in order to not get too angry, resentful, or just mean to your kids or spouse. It is an easy trap to fall into when there is uncertainty.


Sylvie Taylor said...

Amelia, this was a beautiful read which I think you are completely right on! Happiness defined by society can make one feel overwhelmed and the greatest gift a child can give is allowing you to see the world with less cynicism and more joy for things we have long since gotten no joy from (a shuttle bus for example). New Mexico looked lots of fun and this rice cream looks incredible.

Mary Walsh said...

Parenting does set one on a path that to learn to be a good nurturer and figure out how to set aside one's ego/goals for a bit. In the difficult moments, it's hard to appreciate it, but one grows so much as a person. Plus the taking the time to appreciate the small joys with children is a such a gift. Thanks for the story with the recipe! Beautiful.

Rachel said...

all so true. thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. i think about these sorts of things nearly every day.