A story about buttering bread and learning to ask “why?”


First of all,  can I just say, the words “buttering bread” are the linguistic equivalent of getting into the most comfortable bed ever.


Second, and more to the point, I was thinking the other day about the time my husband buttered his bread the wrong way.

We were in high school, young and in love, and my parents had invited us to join them for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Washington, DC. Jordan was still nervous around my parents in those days and it was a thrill for both of us to have a nice night out (all we could afford on our own was pizza and Blockbuster).

So there we were, waiting for our meals to arrive, when we all started to help ourselves to the bread basket sitting in the middle of the table. Jordan began smoothing butter across the slice of bread he’d selected.

“Jordan,” one of my parents said (I can’t remember which one). “That’s not the way to butter bread.”

“Sorry — what?”

“The way you’re doing it, putting all the butter on at once. It’s more polite to tear off a piece at a time and butter each piece — like this,” my parent showed him.

Jordan looked around like he might be on an episode of Candid Camera — like, “Was this shit for real?” — and then proceeded to ask a very reasonable question: “Why?”

Now, I say this was a reasonable question, and it was. You might also argue that it was an obvious one. And you might wonder, now that you found yourself thinking about it, why anyone would ever go along with a prescribed way of applying butter to bread without asking why.

It had never occurred to me to ask why.

There are certain things that happen in your life, and from that point forward, you think, always, in terms of “before” and “after.” For me, this moment — the moment with the buttering of the bread — was one of those moments.

The door was open. Asking why was on the table. And it was addictive.

Mind you, it’s not like I’d been a stupid person up to that point, or that I hadn’t ever asked questions — I had. In class. But outside of class, when someone told me things were a certain way, I tended to accept that things were, in fact, that way. I figured there was some officialdom to the world, that grown-ups knew about and I did not, so when they told me “this is how the world is,” I believed them.

This is so not the person I am today.

This is so not the kind of person I believe in being.

To be fair, my parents encouraged me to ask questions — loads of them. It just never occurred to me to ask about a whole category of things, from the social graces that were (and are) so important to them, to, I don’t know, why some important issues were considered breaking news, and others weren’t, or why women’s magazines were so obsessed with flat abs and clear skin.

I shake my head sometimes, thinking how essential this kind of questioning is to the person I’ve become, and how, in that moment, at that Italian restaurant, Jordan’s question totally blew my mind.

And I shake my head again when, inevitably, someone asks another question that upends my understand of how the world works. Lest I ever think I have this world all figured out. Lest any of us does.

Photo by jeffreyw on Flickr

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