A Day at the Beach, and a Sense of Perspective

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

It had been a very long time since Em and I had gotten out of the city. We went back to Philadelphia in July, but the last 6 months have been especially trying (to say the least,) and the immediate future promised to be even more interesting.

Back when I lived in New Jersey, walking on the beach near my house offered more than good exercise and an enjoyable afternoon. It offered perspective- a quiet if a not-so-subtle reminder of my size and place in this world, as well as the size and place of my problems.

Even the biggest things are not so big at all, compared to the view from Cannon Beach.

A panoramic shot of Cannon Beach and Haystack Rock in Oregon

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Memories and Legacies- Looking Back, Looking Forward, and Who Tells Your Story

Good evening, friends and neighbors. I hope everyone had/is having a splendid holiday season, and are getting everything out of this time of year that you hope to.

Since I’ve grown up, Chanukah has always been just a sort of… thing that was celebrated. Eight days long, and the special stuff really only happens at night. Otherwise, everyone just goes to work or school and life continues.

There aren’t any hilarious or tragicomic movies about trying to get home to light the menorah- that’s what I’m trying to say here. We got some awesome stories about religious freedom, tasty fried foods, and one of my favorite Herschel of Ostropol stories– we’re good with that.

(The less said about “Eight Crazy Nights” the better.)

I suppose that’s something that DOES make Christmas kind of an enjoyable time for me- it’s only one or two days.

This year, Christmas was fantastic.

Emily and I went out for Chinese, then stayed home and did absolutely NOTHING.

The author at Palio Dessert and Coffee in Portland, Oregon Continue reading

Gettin’ Turnt in Comfy Pants

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

We get bombarded by stereotypes these days, and whether we buy into them or not is our own call. Age groups, races, political affiliations, and so on.

The trouble with stereotypes is that, to some degree, they all have a seed of truth.
“Jews become doctors/accountants/lawyers”, for example, because studying, analysis, debate, and intellectualism are a big part of Jewish life and faith.

Obviously, stereotypes are by definition generalizations, which are always foolish. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want me to represent them in court, or balance their books.

It’s an interesting thing, though, to be conscious of a stereotype of one’s own group and actively seek to embody it. The stereotypes can act as identifiers for the group- a way for the members to set themselves apart from others, and even revel in it.

Yes, I love lox and cream cheese bagels and matzo ball soup- #jewishastevye.

When joining a new group, though, those very actions can be interpreted negatively as being misinformed or “being a try-hard.”

Here’s a story from the kitchen of someone I know. It’s about how actively pursuing the stereotypes you think will ingratiate can actually alienate, the (hopefully) changing face of kitchen life, and how old souls spend their evenings.

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Mentorship: What The Apprentice Actually Learned

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

Mentoring has become a bit of a catchphrase recently, hasn’t it?
A buzzword, thrown around by people in suits at “networking” events where attendance and business cards are expensive and the beer is cheap.

What do you think of when you hear that word? Most people probably think of someone they met who’s a bit farther along in their field and gives them their number for when they get in a tight spot.

In the kitchen, “mentor” means something fundamentally different. It’s the difference between learning a business and learning a craft.

It’s one huge reason the culinary industry is still around- and it’s not straightforward or easy.

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“Vox Populi, Vox Dei”- Yelp and the Future of Food Writing

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

I like going out to eat as much as the next guy. I make my decisions on a bunch of criteria-

  • What am I tasting?
  • Price point
  • Locality
  • Did I discover it and it looks interesting/ did a friend suggest it personally?

You will notice something missing on that list- I don’t really give a crap about internet reviews.

Broken iPhone

from pexels.com

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Killing Norman Rockwell

Hello, friends and neighbors.

There’s a lot to be said for (and against) going to culinary school if you want to become a cook or chef.

Most of the arguments in favor of it include a basis of skills, the amount of knowledge acquired in a short amount of time, dedicated teachers, and the connections that come with being part of a community.

The arguments against include going into debt, that school won’t teach the life skills that come with the kitchen (some of which are as necessary as technical skills), and wasted time and money for a piece of paper that, while impressive, doesn’t match up to hands-on experience in the eyes of employers.
To get a loan from a bank to start your own business, that’s arguable.

Both of these camps come from a point of emotionality and pride, and I can see the honest merit in both. I went to a local, excellent, less-expensive culinary school before I had my first cooking job, and I can tell you right now the first thing I learned there:

Norman Rockwell had to die.

Rockwell's

“And The Symbol of Welcome is Light” (1920)

Idealism Breaks Like Bad Custard

Don’t get excited. I love Norman Rockwell’s work, and I’m certain it will live forever. The man depicted the America we wish we could see out our window. The unofficial-official artist of the Boy Scouts of America, I grew up looking at his work with honest love and respect. His depictions of small-town America- the Mayberrys and Main Street, USA’s we all imagined of a “happier,” “simpler” time- are part of the national consciousness.

Even his darker, more evocative paintings had an idyllic serenity to them:
“Yes, THIS is what life should be like. THIS is how things need to be.”

My first visions of being a baker- handing over pies and cookies to mothers and their kids in my own little shop, swept clean and full of clean glass and wood shining brown like a pie crust- had that dream like quality. Like someone who wants to own a restaurant, and dreams of tasting the food, wandering through the dining room and greeting patrons- it’s the end product.
The “good bits.” Getting to that point is rarely pretty.

We got dragged into reality after the first year.

“You are in for it now. You’re not going to be Emeril. You’re not going to be Nigella. You’re not even gonna be Jamie Oliver. When you graduate, you will be someone’s b****. You will be someone’s b**** for years, and if you’re good at being their b**** you might have some little b****es of your own one day.
You may even become the biggest, best, and baddest b**** that the world ever saw- and you’ll still be someone’s b****.”

Understand, no teacher ever said ALL  these words verbatim… but it was understood.
“When and IF you graduate… you are at the BOTTOM. You will STAY there until you demonstrate the ability to crawl up.”

Rockwell's

“Daydreaming Bookkeeper (Adventure)”, 1924

The Pit

We were taught to cook and bake, of course. That was the job. Some teachers were easier than others- to varying degrees of success. We were also told some of the horror stories of the job.
We were taught to write our own.
We were given the “jail, hospital, or the morgue” mantra.

“You want to own your own bakery one day? Strap in, kid- here comes recipe costing, labor costing, suppliers, food safety, OSHA, tax law, local and state certifications…
What, you thought you’d just be baking pies all day? Hah, maybe if you’re working for someone else, and never want to do anything more.”

We got fed the reality. Convenience products. Suppliers. Cost management.
We read Down and Out in Paris and London, Kitchen Confidential, and ​The Apprentice. We mucked out trash cans,. We scrubbed dishes and cookware. The stronger guys had to carry out the stockpots heaped with 100 lbs of bones.

Because of my school’s proximity to the casinos and resorts of Atlantic City, the majority of us figured one of them would be our first gig out of school. For the most part, they didn’t need creative thinkers and dreamers. They needed warm bodies that could crank the recipes out and not mess it up.

Years later, I’d lament to a friend of mine here in Oregon that I did as well as I had at that- that I had pushed to get into some other creativity-based courses, and maybe not simply tried to gather “all the skills I could.”

My friend, who didn’t go to culinary school, disagreed. “Too many kids who graduate from schools leave trying to be artists first in everything, and craftsmen second. They wind up having issues with the menial stuff, and getting repetition and replication down. It’s AWESOME you got used to that first.”

We didn’t work ALL the time though. And some of us still dreamt. Maybe not the Norman Rockwell ideals we had… but something similar. Something NOT what we were led to accept.

Rockwell's

“The problem we all live with” (1963-64)

Rockwell Invictus

Most of us did go to the casinos, and some stayed for a while. Others built our names working for small restaurants and cafes.

Some of us started our own businesses, repainting Rockwell in our own image.

Some of us packed up our knives and began a wandering career, chasing the tides and where life might lead. We had skills, after all. Give us a kitchen and an oven, we could find work.

As I write this, I’m crashed on my couch with an absurdly snuggly black kitten. My wife is sleeping in the next room. We’re two thousand miles from anywhere we FIGURED we’d wind up. I found work in a restaurant, and when I’m not baking, I’m telling stories.

There isn’t any Rockwell hanging on my walls. Instead, I have my awards from culinary school.
A Ralph Steadman print of a man on a bicycle with baguette, wine, and a cold.
A poster from the podcast Emily and I binged on the drive from New Jersey.
Drawings by my friend Lillian, inspired by kimchi.
and an old tourism poster of Atlantic City.

I don’t think Norman Rockwell ever put any of his paintings IN his paintings either.
He painted a reality he wanted. WE made them dreams.

Rockwell's

“Relaxing in Chair”, 1923

How close to reality we can get them… that’s on us too.
That’s the tough bit.

​Stay Classy,

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.