My friend Michelle sits four feet feet away from the stainless-steel fire pit in my backyard. I’m on the other side, also four feet away. We are having a small, Covid-safe inauguration celebration.
We are drinking G & Ts with Hendricks, a fancy tonic, and slices of cucumber.
Two drinks in, I’m good and buzzed.
At De La Salle North Catholic High School, where I taught math, Michelle taught students Spanish, and she taught me the intricacies of Catholic culture—“Brian, asking clarifying questions is seen as a form of insubordination.”
Annie joins us outside in her purple-based, Warhol-style t-shirt with multiple images of Kamala on it.
How she’s not cold amazes me.
She’s carrying a box of graham crackers, a stack of chocolate bars, a bag of marshmallows, and two metal skewers with wooden handles.
“Dad,” she says enthusiastically, “I found the s’more sticks!”
They had been missing for about two weeks.
My tongue, loose from the alcohol, responds in Spanish.
“Felicidades, mija. Sabes que hablo en Español cuando estoy beeeer-ra-sho.”
Michelle, more sober than I, explains, “Annie, your dad is a little tipsy. He’s practicing Spanish.”
For months, the kids had asked to see me drunk. I told them I’d do so on inauguration day. And, like so many other things, the buildup was far more exciting than the reality. They thought I’d be funnier than slurring words in Spanish.
Annie puts two marshmallows on the stick and, just as I taught her, holds it about a foot above the flames, rotating slowly.
“What are you doing there?” asks Michelle, with the infectious excitement that makes her an engaging teacher.
Annie, with pride, answers: “This is the way my grandfather did it—make the marshmallows golden brown.”
I’m proud and tickled—both that she has the patience to slowly roast the marshmallows and that she associates it with my dad.
“Is that how you do it?” Michelle asks rhetorically and then continues, “I guess if you couldn’t get to the coals, that would work.”
Protective of my daughter and of my dad’s memory, I say, “What’s wrong with my family’s way of making S, M, O, R, E, S?”
What the heck is she talking about: “I guess if you couldn’t get to the coals, that would work”?
Patiently rotating marshmallows about a foot above the flames gets them golden brown.
Of course, you have to be careful to not burn them, and sometimes they catch fire, but it’s how my dad made s’mores; it’s how I make s’mores; it’s how my daughter makes s’mores.
Michelle backpedals a moment and says, “Well, you need coals to toast the marshmallow.”
She emphasized toast.
I watch as Michelle puts her marshmallow down, in the fire, near coals, not in the flames.
Moments later she pulls it out, and it looks like someone buttered it.
The realization dawns on me: despite my thinking I knew how to make s’mores the right way, I did not.
The heat right above the coals is different from the heat above the fire; the heat above the coals toasts the marshmallows.
I exclaim , “I’ve not been making s’mores the right way! I’m 51 years old, and I’ve been making hot marshmallow s’mores! Not toasted marshmallow s’mores. How did I not know this?!”
Michelle coaches me as I put the marshmallow about six inches above the coals.
It comes out, not as beautiful as hers, but toasted, nonetheless.
I slide the gooey caramelized sugar onto the chocolate sitting on the graham cracker. I cover it with another graham cracker, wait a few moments for the chocolate to melt, and enjoy the best s’more I’ve ever had.
The s’mores I’d been making the way my dad taught me weren’t bad.
I don’t think there is any way to have chocolate, marshmallow, and graham crackers that isn’t good.
They could have been better. I just didn’t know that.
This led me to consider that there must be other things that I thought I’d been doing correctly that I’ve not been doing right.
How many things are there?
What are they?
I realized that there’s no way to know.
There are some things that you can’t know that you don’t know.
I know some of the things I don’t know—like what annuities are.
But the things that I don’t know I don’t know, I just don’t know what they are.
They come out of the blue.
And only if we are willing to learn.
Last week, on a recommendation from a friend, I listened to an almost-hour-long Instagram feed called Sunday Sermon by #janayathefuture.
Janaya Khan, the host, spoke compellingly. She pointed out something about the Blue Lives Matter movement that I didn’t know: the blue lives matter movement was never so much about the lives of officers, but about silencing black voices.
I didn’t know that.
I thought they were a group that was dedicated to the welfare of officers.
Where’s her evidence?
After the Capitol insurrection where an officer was slain, the group didn’t march or tweet demanding the harshest justice for those who perpetrated the crime. (Their Facebook and Twitter feeds instead included posts about liberals threatening the right of assembly and free speech.)
I had not realized that their staunch police support was actually a way of detracting messaging away from black lives and police reform.
I just didn’t know.
(Janaya also opened my mind to how white folk, especially Jews, need to not get complacent now that “our guy” won, as this is the time—with a liberal in the office of the presidency—that we need to work extra hard now to seek and insure true equality for all.)
Let me tell you about another “I thought I knew the right way to do something” experience.
About this second exemplary experience, I need to be delicate—for it occurred, about a month ago, at the end of my morning constitutional.
At that very moment, with TP in hand, I reflected about learning over a decade ago, after being gifted a little girl, the importance of wiping her only front to back.
Never until that moment did I think, “Hmmm, that’s not how I do it.”
But I thought so then.
I did a little research on the web and found an article on the Men’s Health site, entitled How to Wipe Your Butt; it explained that to keep fecal matter from the perineum, men should wipe only front to back.
(The experience of changing my decade old routine was an exercise in learning to adapt.)
So, here’s the sermon—the message: remain teachable.
- Malcom Forbes: “The dumbest people I know are those who know it all.”
- Criss Jami: “During the flames of controversy, opinions, mass disputes, conflict, and world news, sometimes the most precious, refreshing, peaceful words to hear amidst all the chaos are simply and humbly ‘I don’t know.’”
- Demetri Martin, “A know-it-all is a person who knows everything, except for how annoying he is.”
There are countless things we don’t know and that we don’t even know we don’t know.
Remain teachable and may we all find our moments of learning to be as delicious as toasted marshmallow s’mores.
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box rotb.org, an internet-based, global group of 3.3K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.