Picking Your Battles, and the Art of Not Giving a S***

Good morning, friends and neighbors.
I am only 32 years old, and I feel exhausted.

In the never-ending, headlong rush for security, safety, and making everything “okay,” I have a tendency to take on a lot.
Why not, right? I’m technically young. I have a strong body with no apparent disabilities, I’m intelligent and I’m able to plan.
I even have something of a way with words, apparently.

When it comes to saving the world and making it better, why SHOULDN’T I take on a bit more than others?

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Contents Under Pressure- Anxiety in the Kitchen

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I’ve been described a lot of ways since I was a kid.

  • “An old soul in a young body.”
  • Erudite
  • Driven
  • Inventive
  • Conscientious

There are probably a few others- especially from folks that don’t like me, but that’s their problem.
These are the ones that seem to drive recent revelations home for me right now.

The author graduating culinary school

The day I graduated culinary school. I’d been working as a nurse’s aide in a hospital and baking cakes out of my kitchen for nearly two years then.

While perhaps it wasn’t as obvious back when I was heavier, I’ve always been a pretty outgoing and busy person. I always had some new interest to study, a new hobby, a new fascination. if I was interested in something, I’d bite into it down to the bone.

Poetry. Cooking. Baking. Writing. Comparative Theology. Psychology. Model-building. Collections. Storytelling.

I may have been heavier and slower, with maybe a bit less physical energy- but I was always GOING. 

Now that I’m physically healthier and have more energy, it’s even more obvious:

  • “I’m going to write a blog! I’ll do one entry a week. No, TWO a week! One a day!… Nevermind, one a week is good.”
  • “I’m going to write a book! Ooh, I just had an idea for the NEXT book while I’m writing this book! #inspired”
  • “I need to get these eight tasks done by the end of the night. But there’s a list of extra stuff if I have the time? Oh, Challenge Accepted, motherf***er… “
  • “Hey, I bet I can make a living doing this, WHILE I’m baking full-time! Yeah, I just need to find a…”

Even as I’m writing all that down, and knowing I’m describing myself, it sounds pretty great. That’s the kind of person you THINK about when you imagine successful, driven, hardworking people. That’s the kind of person that winds up on book lists and talk shows, or doing lecture circuits.

From personal experience, it’s also the kind of person who knows how to be a neurotic wreck quietly.

Pwhen the prep guy accidentally throws out the best bits of your roast pork...

When the prep guy accidentally throws out the best bits of your roast pork…

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

With my work life starting to stabilize, and my attempts at self-care starting to slowly bear fruit (yeah, next step is decluttering my desk), I’m finally trying to turn my attention toward my “side work.”

Finding a therapist, or really any good professional, isn’t as easy as a Google search. You tend to want someone nearby, with hours you can manage, who’s handled issues like yours before- and is either covered by your insurance or has rates your budget can accommodate. My friend Rachel- herself something of a compulsive researcher/listmaker- helped me out by shooting me a bunch of resources. I’ll include some of them down below.

Before you show up in someone’s office, though, it can be a good idea to do a little homework yourself. It takes some mindfulness and honesty- occasionally painfully.
if you’re going to a therapist though- if you want to get better- then you want to dig up those hard truths.

This doesn’t mean you should diagnose yourself. Between being the son of a doctor and getting a B.A. in Psychology, that was drilled into my head well enough:

“You’re getting a copy of the DSM IV. Read it through if you want, but DO NOT try to diagnose your friends with anything, and DEFINITELY not yourself. By the end of the semester, you will think you have every disorder in the book and be demanding commitment to an asylum.” – one of my professors

Picture

Photo by Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash
So it all starts as the Delphic Oracle of Apollo said- “know thyself.”I knew I was a hardworker… but I could see how not working affected me. I have a tendency to link my self-worth with my productivity.
I knew I was driven and inventive… but I’d always lose steam when things got too tough or challenging.
I knew how patient I could be with everything and everyone (on a good day, anyway)… but I couldn’t reserve any of that patience for myself or my own failures.

I was energetic… but could never really relax.
I was detail-oriented… but with an all-or-nothing mentality. If it wasn’t perfect, it was garbage.
If I wasn’t perfect, I was lazy.

When I was looking for a job, I had to remind myself that I WASN’T a bum or a slouch… and I needed Emily to remind me of that too.

That’s an anxiety disorder talking.

“Oh, Do Your Research…”

PictureBased on what I’ve learned, “high-functioning anxiety” is not a clinical term. It’s more of a self-descriptor for a subset of behavior- people in whom their anxiety propels them, rather than shuts them down. The outward behaviors are extended, lifelong coping mechanisms that- to observers- seem like ordinary and desirable traits.

Imagine having noisy neighbors. To drown out their constant noise, you blast your favorite music as often as you can… and for some reason, everyone else then assumes you’re some kind of metalhead or a roadie for Slayer.

Throughout the day, a mind with anxiety doesn’t stop making noise:

  • “You’re a failure.”
  • “You’re a horrible friend and horrible person.”
  • “Can’t even do that right, can you?”
  • “You’re a hack. No one gives a crap about your writing.”
  • You saw [successful pastry chef younger than me]? THEY’RE good at their job. You? The hell are you doing?”

The “high functioning” anxious mind then decides to try to drown out these thoughts:

  • “Oh yeah? Well I just ran my fastest pace for the 5K yet!”
  • “No I’m not! See, I’m helping this lady with her groceries!”
  • “Well I got this other thing PERFECT!”
  • “Well I’m gonna keep rewriting it till it’s AWESOME!”
  • “Well I’m going to do extra stuff at work, and I’m going to join a professional group, and I’m going to…”

Repeat forever.


The Ring of Solomon- Putting Demons To Work

Let’s be real here. Doesn’t that sound like someone BORN for the kitchen?
A devoted, loyal, driven hard worker. They’re passionate, curious, made of 100% raw, uncut Hustle. New dishes? “Yes chef!” Need this crate of potatoes diced? “On it, Chef!”
Eager to do their best, eager to show off their skills, always laughing and joking. Eager to please.

They seem like they were born for this work. They love it. They’re emotionally invested in doing a good job.

Be honest… that’s the kind of person we ALL want working for us.

After a lifetime of quietly living with negative voices in their mind, these people have become VERY good at putting on a brave face and stomping out those voices with achievement and accolades. They are the Zen Masters of “fake it till you make it.” Without even being aware, they take Tyrion Lannister’s advice. They take their weaknesses and flaws and wear them like armor so nothing can hurt them.

Nothing except themselves, that is. The brain and body are not meant to have that kind of tireless, explosive energy forever… and these people burn energy at an incredible rate. Mentally, they are trying to marshal their thoughts to do what they want, and physically they exhaust themselves so the demons will fall asleep.

It doesn’t last, though.
Eventually, they run out of energy. They are physically and mentally burned out.
Maybe it takes a moment of intense external stress that causes a “snap,” or it’s a slow degradation, but the smiling and joking stops.
They lash out in anger and frustration, at others and themselves.
The work they love feels more like a burden, and they can’t help but express a lack of excitement for their tasks.
They make simple, silly mistakes… which frustrates them even more.

The demons wake up.
The stereo blows out, and they can hear the neighbors again, but now they’re screaming:

You want to help others, but you can’t even help yourself.”

It’s a lie… but they are too tired to fight it anymore. The perfect worker becomes a perfect mess.

graffiti wall painting of a screaming man

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

The Demon Hunter

The worst thing about this scenario is the fact that, well… it seems like so much good comes out of it. The person points to their demonstrated functionality and achievement and goes “Oh come on… yeah, I’m a little high strung, but a mental disorder?! I’m not a loonie, look at all I’ve done!”

Alternatively, if they ARE aware of it and they know something’s wrong, they might say, “Okay, I have some issues, but I don’t need help. I’m not THAT bad. Therapy and meds are for people who can’t function.” Worse, they might avoid getting help because they think it’s the SOURCE of their talent, like an addicted artist afraid to get clean. “Look at everything I’ve done… does this make me a fraud? What if I DO get better… people like me because I’m a hard worker! They keep me AROUND because of it.”

“I’m all about my work ethic… what am I WITHOUT it?”

I’d like to say that I have a perfect answer for this. A nice bright bow to tie up the entry with… but the fact is, I don’t. This is the point I find MYSELF at now.

The research I’ve done has made suggestions that, beyond therapy and possible medication, other answers include things like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness training, improving sleep habits and decreasing caffeine intake.

I’ll let you know how I manage to work those into kitchen life, and what happens next.

In the meantime, though, at least I know my demons have a face and a name- and that’s the first step to handling them.

Despite the macho-posturing and auteur myths we were all raised with, success does not require suffering.

There are more options than “lose the work you love” and “live in fear of yourself.”

Stay Classy,


Mental Health Resources
 (Thank you, Rachel!)

Finding a Therapist:

  • ​​Psychology Today:  The main search bar for finding a therapist in the US, from a heavy-hitter in the world of psychology academia. You can search by speciality, insurance, or method- but this is just a directory. Make sure you follow up with individual practitioners to make sure they are accepting patients, take your insurance, etc.
  • BetterHelp and TalkSpace: Generally affordable online-only counseling for a bit cheaper than an office visit.

Self-Care:

  • If you have a smartphone, there are apps like Aloe Bud (helps you remember to look after yourself) and Plant Nanny (reminds you to drink water) that can help you build and maintain health habits. Other apps like Daylio include journaling, personal organization for the scatterbrained, and such.

Peer-to-peer Help:

  • There are a number of groups on social media where you can simply talk with others who have issues and find community- Facebook and Reddit I know have them, I belong to a few myself. But I’m going to include a warning here, in Rachel’s own words because frankly they are excellent:

“It probably goes without saying, but just a note of caution when you dip your toes into the peer-to-peer arena: it’s easy to devote entirely too much of yourself to trying to help people who are not doing a great job of helping themselves. Put on your own life jacket before assisting others, and if you need to step back from the shared experiences in order to continue on your own path, then do so. Related to that, and something I’ve learned over time: everyone’s stories are equally valid and deserve space. There is no Mental Health Olympics, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to win any medal it’d offer. Even if imposter syndrome is telling you that there’s no way your story is as important as that one person’s story who’s spent months in their local psych hospital. Your story is allowed to take up the space it takes up. “

Media:
If you have some room in your day to listen to podcasts, Rachel recommends “The Hilarious World of Depression” and “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I can’t speak for these myself, since my own podcast choices are generally fictional/relaxing/escapist, but they are worth a listen at the very least.

Evolving Priorities

Good morning, friends and neighbors.
It had been a trying few days.
Emily and I were living in our first apartment here in Oregon. We’d barely been here a year.
My first shot at going into business for myself wasn’t doing so well, and I was back on the job hunt again.  

Emily’s job was feeling somewhat bumpy at the time. Her first performance review hadn’t been great, and her teaching hours were temporarily cut. The apartment we’d chosen- though convenient for Em’s job- was expensive. We’d picked it out in the same hurry that precipitated the move itself.

We were living off of our dwindling savings and the distant charity of our parents.

On top of all of that, winter was coming. It was going to be a rainy season, in a part of the city we still don’t like hanging around in too much. Not because it’s dangerous or anything- far from it. It’s very… suburban. It reminded us of all the things and places we DIDN’T like spending time in on the East Coast. Strip malls, highways, nothing decent in walking distance, and barely anywhere to walk anyway.

As we were doing laundry, Emily started crying.
She didn’t like this place. This wasn’t working out. She was stressed out and unhappy. She knew I was struggling. She knew I was essentially trying to start my career from scratch, without any of the connections that had helped me previously.

She was scared that I’d given up my dream of Vienna for her, and she couldn’t abide that.

​A little context here:

The Me That Was

I’ve spoken before about the person I was before culinary school- physically, emotionally, and such.
In short, I really wasn’t a happy guy.
After my first year in culinary school, I had an idea of what this career would demand of me- and I was okay with it.

Then.

Matt Back Then was overweight, sad, lonely, and generally felt unloved and unlovable.
So… what the hell, right?

Long work days meant more money for ME.
Never see loved ones? WHAT loved ones- I don’t have a girlfriend, and couldn’t really see a grand future for myself beyond some romantic dreams.
No holidays? Well, I’d call my family, but I figured I’d never have ANYONE to rush home to.

My life was mine and mine alone, and I was going to give it over to baking and the restaurant life- I simply never imagined I’d be sharing it with anything or anyone else, and all my decisions, for better or worse, would be on me to deal with.

Starting off, I didn’t especially have a goal I wanted to bend my career toward either. I knew I wanted to bake, and I wanted to travel and learn. After a few rewatches of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” I figured that Vienna would be an amazing place to live and work for a while.

Vienna- historically famous for being a crossroads of East and West, for music and composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and for viennoiseriea specific sort of a pastry work- as well as it’s chocolatiers.
I decided that would be my goal- somehow, someway, I’d live abroad in Vienna for at least a few months, work at a bakery, and learn viennoiserie from the masters.

“Change is the Only Constant”

Humans are not static, though. We change. We evolve and we grow, and our priorities and dreams shift.
I’m sure it sounds inspirational when someone claims to have had the exact same goal in life since they were a child and never wavered. It sounds wonderful… but to me, it’s also very suspicious.

When I was a child, I dreamt of being:

  • A doctor
  • An engineer
  • A rabbi
  • Indiana Jones
  • He-Man
  • A chef
  • A baker

and a few others I’ve probably forgotten.

Life has a way of doing that- it changes your priorities, and your goals can change too.

Emily and I on our 4th date

Sometimes it’s people too

It’s not weakness of will or character for a person to stop and say, “Why am I still here?”

“Do I still want this?”
Do I still care?”

It can be hard. It can be terrifying, even- especially if you’ve already invested so much of your life into that thing, or achieving that goal, just to find that- eh… you’re just not feeling it anymore.

Matt Back Then was pleased to work long days, no holidays, sweat his bones out, and come home each night wired out the a** on caffeine and whiskey because what the hell- it was his life.

Now, Matt just wants good pay to work a 40 hour week. I want a job that I can feel good about doing, and that will give me time and space to NOT do it, and where I can spend time with like-minded people who don’t wanna just black out each night after work- they go out and live.

I can honestly say I want that now because I know there is someone in my life that loves me.
She wants to see me happy with my work. She wants me to come home alive each night, and wake up next to me each morning.
She wants me to look out for myself, and demand the things I need to make my life and energy worth it.
She makes me want to be a better person than I was.

I have responsibilities and priorities now that I never thought I’d be lucky enough to have.

“Well, That Didn’t Go As Planned…”- catchphrase of young professionals everywhere

So yes… plans changed a lot. I have no idea how I’ll get to Vienna, what I need to do to get there, or who I need to talk to. I haven’t forgotten it, nor can I say I’ve given up.

It’s simply not a priority right now.

My priority now is giving Emily and Cleo a life worth living.
It means keeping back enough of myself at work so I still have something to give them when I come home.

In a way, yes- I did drop my dream of getting to Vienna for Emily… for starting a life with her, I had to direct energy from other places in my life.

I’ll tell you this, though- if someone were to take me back in time, and show me every thing and task I’d have to complete to make that dream come true- every letter to write, every hand to shake- and tell me I could have it all, but I’d lose the life I have here with Emily in Oregon, and maybe never have Emily in my life at all?

I’d tell them to f*** off out of my bakery and let me get back to work.

I’ve never exactly done things the easy way anyway.
I’ll get to Vienna somehow.

And Emily is gonna be there with me.

Life is not always an either/or game. You have to make choices, yes-
but if you don’t like the choices offered, no one said you couldn’t create your own.

Animated GIF of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones demanding trial by combat

Like this… I will seriously roshambo someone for a plane ticket.
Stay Classy,

Picking a Finish Line- Setting Goals

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

When you’re down as low as you can go, there’s nowhere else to go but up, right?

It’s not that going “up” is never possible EXCEPT when you’re face-down in a gutter- it just becomes the best of very few other options, and less distraction… or that your survival depends on your ability NOT to be distracted.

In the last few months, I went to some REALLY low places in my mind. Not “rock bottom” in any real sense- I still had a home, I still had food, my wife still loves me- but in my mind, none of that made a lick of difference. In some ways, it even made it worse- “Who am I to deserve all this? I’m an idiot, and I’ll lose it all eventually.”
“Why did I get out of bed today?”
“I’m disappointed in myself for going to work.”
“When did I give up dreaming? When did I stop wanting more?”

A job change, a slight mental break, and a new routine later, things are thankfully starting to balance out. My new job has me working evenings, so that means my mornings- and my best energies- can be spent on doing what makes me happy: exercising, reading, cuddling Miss Cleo, and of course, writing.

It’s a new kind of routine, so now is as good a time as any for me to start thinking again-

I feel more free than I used too… so what am I going to do with it?”

Sign post in tropical background, naming world cities

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi from Pexels

It’s kind of weird for me to actually be writing about goals or goalsetting simply because, while I’ve absolutely HAD goals before… I never really thought of them as “goals,” or at least not structured as such.

I always saw them as “objectives,” or “missions,” or some other semantic dodge to make it feel less “self-help-bookish” and more “I’m doing this thing because I want to do it-”

LOSING WEIGHT
Goal:
 Get down to 165 lbs, what I was told is the heaviest I could be in the “healthy range” I could be.
What I Told Myself:  “Lose weight because otherwise you’ll die fat, sad, and in pain. 165 lbs sounds about right.”

BECOMING A CHEF
Goal: Graduate culinary school, find a job baking, and eventually become a pastry chef.
What I Told Myself:  “I like baking. This is what I’d have to do to make that my job.” *cue years of hard work, saying “yes” or “no” as felt appropriate, and letting things happen.*

WRITING
Goal: Write a blog, make it popular, and make it a career.
What I Told Myself: “I like writing, and people seem to like to read what I write. I should do that more often. Once a week sounds good… maybe more later.”

 Obviously, there was a little more to it than that- finding resources for how to lose weight, for example. Working hard in my vocations, and keep my eye open for opportunities. I never really laid anything out on PAPER though, or really thought “How will this help achieve ___ ends?” I can only imagine what it would be like if I had any kind of plan worked out.

That said, it’s not like I NEVER thought about what I wanted in life or how to get it.

Portrait of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

“No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”- General Helmuth von Moltke the Elder
Ever since I first found a quote by him in comic form on ZenPencils.com, I’ve been a pretty big fan of writer, traveler, and entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau. His website, “The Art of Non-Conformity” and his manifesto “A Brief Guide to World Domination” (which you can download for free through that link) got me thinking very hard about what kind of life I actually wanted to live, and how I wanted to live it. I strongly recommend everyone reading the whole thing, but I’ll sum it up with three big points Chris makes:

1. You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.

 

2. What can you offer the world that no one else can?

Ultimately, doing what you want is just fine. Living your life and accomplish your goals is great- but eventually, it’ll feel empty. You can rule the world- but that means you need to think about the world, and what you can give back.

In the manifesto, Guillebeau also linked to an interesting Goals Brainstorming exercise and workbook by Paul Myers, also available for free. It’s a pretty extensive exercise, and if you sit down and just decide to knock it out, it’ll probably take you a couple hours to do completely.

It’s absolutely worth the time though- consider it an investment in yourself. When was the last time you did that?
The beauty of the exercise is that it asks you first to visualize what your ideal life would be like- in gratuitous detail. Do you work? Doing what? Where do you live? How do you spend your day? What do you do with your downtime? And so on and so on…

Then it makes you write down what you have going for you now– and not just material and financial matters, though those are absolutely included. It makes you write down all of your skills and interests- ANYTHING you have knowledge in. All the people that you know, what they do, and if they can help you (seriously, I’d forgotten how many friends I actually have until I did this exercise.) Then with all of this in mind, you pull apart the elements of what you want:

What do you actually NEED to make this happen?
What steps do you need to take?
Is this something you actually want? Or is it a symbol of something else?

The last time I sat down and did it, I was living in New Jersey, burning myself out in the medical field and culinary school. I was miserable in life, and felt rudderless.

After the exercise, I made a few VERY strong insights about myself:
1. I already had everything I needed to do what I wanted.
2. I had people around that would help me if I needed it.
3. I needed to start making MYSELF more of a priority than I had.

Soon after, I decided to start up the original Black Hat Bakery. I started to lose weight, get healthier, and save money.

Seriously, give this a shot. You’re worth it.
While you’re at it, I strongly recommend Chris’s books as well:

The $100 Startup : This is the first book of his I picked up, shortly before being fired for the first time. It inspired me to relaunch as The Black Hat Baker here in Portland, and to try actually making a living out of this crazy thing I love.

Born For This:  Even if entrepreneurship isn’t for you (and it’s not for everyone!) that’s no reason you can’t have a life you love AND work for someone else. This book describes how you can mold your life and work to be something that excites you, rather than exhausts you.

Side Hustle- From Idea to Income in 27 Days: His most recent book, and one I’m currently reading. Because there’s nothing wrong with figuring out how to earn a little scratch on the side.

That’s all from me for now- I’ve got a worksheet to do, a beer to drink, and some emails to write.

What do you think? Are you gonna give this a try?
What kind of goals do you want to reach?

Stay Classy,

A Sense of Taste- Things That’ll Make Your Tongue Lie to You

 Good evening, friends and neighbors.

To quote my wife, “Cooking with a cold must be like being a musician that can’t hear.”
This may or may not be because we went out to dinner once when I was dealing with some nasal congestion and couldn’t taste anything. My favorite beers, deep-fried brussels sprouts, and smoked ribs were utterly tasteless. It was frustration bordering on heartbreak.

The senses of smell and taste are obviously deeply connected- informing and influencing each other in one of our most primal survival mechanisms- when something smells off, it probably IS off.

When you’re a cook, though, not being able to taste things is not an option. You might know the recipes by heart, you may measure and cook everything perfectly- but if you aren’t tasting (or able to taste) as you go, it’s like driving down the highway with only one eye. Yes, you can do it- but you wouldn’t unless had to, and there are a LOT of things that can mess with your ability to detect flavors.

Here’s some of them:

Illustration of Beethoven composing

Supposedly, when his hearing loss was nearly total, Beethoven would put a pencil in his teeth and press the end to the soundboard of his piano so he could feel the vibration of the notes. Nothing quite like that for taste though.

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Dropping Weight by…Dropping Weight: The BHB’s Bodyweight Regimen

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

I don’t have a home gym setup. Never did. I saw absolutely no reason to drop 12 Easy Payments of $19.99 a month for some gargantuan piece of machinery that, in all likelihood, would become another clothes rack and hiding spot for the cat.

Yet, 6 years ago, I was 240 pounds. As of this morning, this is what my scale told me:

Scale readout indicating 164.2 pounds and 10.6% bodyfat

10.6 Bodyfat Percentage
Scale readout indicating 164.2 pounds and a BMI of 22.3

BMI of 22.3

Yes, I am still a baker. Yes, I still eat my own work, as I’ve brought up before.
I just lost the weight and keep it off without buying some ridiculous workout machine or diet plan.
In the previous articles, I’d mentioned it in the broad strokes, and I mentioned that I use a single, 50lbs. sandbag for weightlifting (or, as the case may be, a sack of flour), and told you all a bit about where and why I run, but I never went to any great detail on my bodyweight exercise routine.

 

Here we go then!

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