The L.A.w of Diminishing Returns

My husband and I made a big decision last week. Other than agreeing on what apartment we wanted as our first together, where we went on our honey moon and how we spend our money, this decision is the biggest ticket item to date. I haven’t shared what we decided with many people because I worry so much about pleasing them–but mostly, I’ve changed my mind so many times I’ve even lost track. For weeks, I spoke with certainty and absolutism about my desire to move back to Los Angeles. I had two phone interviews and one video conference interview for jobs on the West Coast. It felt like the Universe was thrusting me into a dream scenario. I wanted so badly to feel content and confident in our decision to leave for L.A. because it seemed like such a sure thing. Something–many things–changed. As a result,  I’ve worried for countless hours about the integrity of my word. I worry less, now, because I did not make this decision in haste or on my own.

We are staying in Richmond.

For the whole of my recovery — 4.40 years, 52.87 months, 1,611 days, 38,652 hours — all I wanted to do was be back in LA. I cried every day for a year upon my return to Virginia. I bought plane tickets to L.A. I could not afford, twice–only to cancel both trips. I have nurtured an obsession with Los Angeles, California, which to date has not gone away. Nor have the friends, recovery network or mysticism of the metropolis. My spiritual awakening happened between the palm trees and the graffiti. I abandoned my independence on Sunset Blvd in exchange for a more fulfilled life with other people. I woke up in the Land of the Living between Cafe Tropical and the Silver Lake Lounge. I cannot quit, L.A. and I don’t think I ever will.

My husband agreed to spend our summer vacation in California. We celebrated my June birthday in San Diego with my best friend, walking around El Cajon and Ocean Beach. We met up with my other best friend to watch him surf at San Onofre Beach. In every picture we took, my smile was triple-wattage bright and happy. Almost every person who commented on the photos observed this. I was in heaven.

We met up with several of my friends at the apartment where I used to live. It is a beautiful old hotel with poor acoustics and lots of character. Hard wood floors, built-in book shelves and decorative alcoves designed after The Missions of California. I still get excited when I think about all of the decorating possibilities of a single unit. We barbecued and bitched about life, liberty and Trump’s America. It was the most fun I’d had in as long as I could remember.

Before we left Richmond for our trip, my sponsor encouraged me to treat this time as a vacation, not as a means of getting back to L.A. I promised her to leave my schemes at home in Richmond, to enjoy the trip with my husband, no strings attached. I meant what I promised. But the second we touched down at LAX, I felt myself switching gears. My subconscious was on an immediate and urgent scouting mission for happiness. We had arrived.

We spent a week in Los Angeles, attending a Janelle Monae concert at The Greek Theater, going to meetings in Hollywood and Atwater Village, walking up and down Sunset Blvd and eating eating eating. Everything was as I remembered, but better. Everyone was hip and fun and excited to see us. It felt so right to be where I first understood who I was. The entire experience made me grateful to be able to show my husband the part of me he had never had access to. We were both over the moon with joy and excitement. He seemed to like life in the city just as much as I did. We both exchanged many knowing glances and ideas about how cool it would be to live here together. And it would be.

We got home around 7pm on July 5th and by 10PM, I had applied to three L.A. jobs. We were on a trajectory and there was no turning back. I went to several meetings in the next three days, breaking the news to my recovery buddies that we were making big moves. Things were progressing so quickly and so easily. I couldn’t believe that I was finally getting the chance to be back with My People in My City. My husband seemed overwhelmed, yet hopeful and excited. THIS WAS HAPPENING.

And then, and then.

On the advice of my sponsor, I meditated — hard. I began to sit still with our decision. I spent hours poring over pro’s and con’s lists, calculating the gains and losses. On our third pass through the Master List, I noticed something odd: the Pro’s column to staying in Richmond grew longer than I realized. I swatted away the notion that maybe there was something I wasn’t acknowledging about our life here. I reminded myself of the racism, small-mindedness and provincial attitude I’d grown to loathe about RVA. I ignored my first gut feeling to stay, and I carried on meditating.

For the next few weeks, I prayed and I meditated more. I began working with a woman from L.A. who was a huge part of my early sobriety. She and I spoke at length about standing firm in decisions and building faith in our Higher Power; that any move we make is right if we are surrendered. During this three-week period, I made amends to my former boss. He offered me the option of re-joining the kitchen — an offer to work in a new restaurant, under the direction of women cooks and managers. One dream I was not at all prepared to have realized. Slowly, I began to acknowledge a subtle shift within my spirit.

At the beginning of August, a steady thrum of ideas took hold of my brain. One such  concept–the Law of Diminishing returns–began to pin ball itself within my consciousness:

A concept in economics that if one factor of production (number of workers, for example) is increased while other factors (machines and workspace, for example) are held constant, the output per unit of the variable factor will eventually diminish. In everyday experience, this law is expressed as “the gain is not worth the pain.”

How and why in the f*^%k was this on my brain? It has taken me many meditation and yoga sessions to come to some sort of understanding. The pain of leaving yet another place is no longer worth the gain of getting what I thought I wanted. Because what I want has changed.

The constant here is Los Angeles. This would explain my inability to love the city any less over time, simply because it continues to be awesome. The variable factor is me and my plus one. My need to be entertained, to be satiated by the constant stimuli of the Emerald City has diminished. This is not to say it has gone away. But my need to be there has.

Part of me is heart broken for my former self. I never thought in a million galaxies or years that I would turn down the chance to be back where I came alive again. This time around, however, I got to make the choice. When I was jettisoned out of L.A. the first go-round, I thought it was because I had no place there, that I should give up trying to be in such a cool place with such amazing people. Quite the contrary–I came to Virginia to heal and unwittingly meet my future husband. I think there is something to be said about accepting that I am someone who wants to put down roots. I ran for years, with great speed and agility. As I have mentioned in this blog before, I am weary from all of the running and chaos. I want to be free. What that looks like for me now is to stay.

It is time for me to finally be in Richmond. I have no idea what that looks like, except to release my expectations and give life here a real try. My husband agrees.

xo

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In high school, my sister and I ran cross-country and track. She was the prodigious sprinter, while I was the patient long-distance runner. The amount of comparisons I made between myself and my twin were alarming–her smaller BMI and legs, for starters–disqualified me from being a “real” runner. I opted for the inconspicuous art of running long distances hoping people would get too bored to notice me. The whole sport was a practice in disappearing, slowly but surely. I found it all to be a really dramatic joke, but I needed to be well-rounded. Frankly, I thought that this would help me lose weight and look good. As insecure as I was, I secretly wanted to be like Flo Jo and impress everyone, while simultaneously never being seen. My uniform was about two sizes too small, yet I continued to wear it with the hope that I would soon fit into it.

During one particularly humiliating meet, I got lost in the woods after I fell far behind the girls in front of me. I also tried to spit (like I had seen so many other runners do) while moving at a moderately-fast clip. Instead, I spit up on my extremely short shorts in front of the entire men’s team. I do not know which part was worse: my shorts riding up my See You Next Tuesday, my thunder thighs fighting each other with every stride, or the waterfall of mucus flowing down my shorts. If I were a betting woman, I would have wagered that this was the time to give up. But for some reason, I kept on running for the rest of the season. My times were ‘eh,’ so my desire to distract myself from my insecurities freed me up to socialize. Our coach used to tell us that if we had the breath to talk to each other during one of our six or eight-mile runs, we were doing it wrong. I told myself I’d rather make friends than run faster. As a result, I got team MVP for my senior year. The irony was, in a word, dripping.

All told, I did eventually become a real runner–only after I stopped practicing the sport. Drinking comes in handy that way. I became an All Star Life Sprinter. That is to say, I learned how to run VERY quickly away from things. In fact, I sprinted, hopscotched and hurdled through twelve different locations, spanning from Vermont to Florida, Virginia to California. My resume read like a well-worn map. At one point, I worked in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where I became a crowd (and bouncer) favorite at a fine establishment known as The Electric Cowboy.

The only reason I know the actual number of addresses I accumulated over a ten-year period is because I had to make note of them when I filed for bankruptcy in 2015. And those twelve were only the addresses I could remember. How does one forget where she has lived? It’s like when you’re driving down a busy street and you see a discarded pair of pants on the sidewalk–like, how do you lose your pants, guy? What happened there?

The short answer is, I panicked (I suppose you could say the same for the man who lost his pants). I have had plenty of opportunities in my 12-step program and through therapy to spiritually and psychoanalytically analyze my past behavior. It is clear to me that time is not what slowed me down. In fact, I have moved on four different occasions in recovery: once when I couldn’t afford my place after the accident, several times when I kept breaking up with my boyfriend (staying on friends’ coaches), the move from Los Angeles back home to Virginia (at my mom’s house) and finally to Richmond in the apartment I share with my husband. What has made the difference between my pathological moving while drunk and my displacement while sober is an indefinable sense of finality. I am who I was always meant to be, even as I continue to grow. And more honestly, there is nowhere else I have the energy to be.

I used up all of my panic. And then I ran out of steam.

Two weeks ago, I began seeing a life/career coach. This is a huge deal for me, and here is why:

One of my favorite activities while wasted was chatting up Uber/Lyft drivers. At times, I broke out into French if I sensed the driver was Haitian or from some francophone country. As presumptuous as I was (and still am), I did meet quite a few interesting characters–one of whom was a life coach. He sensed my lost-ness (and perhaps my vulnerability) when I yammered on about how much I hated my job at the time, seizing the opportunity to take on a new client. We exchanged information, which I naturally forgot as I closed the car door.

A couple of days later, he called me. I was a fastidious drunk, therefore I always kept clear notes on whoever left their number in my phone. Very specific things, like “Uber man coaches life wears too much paco rabanne <emoji emoji.> We talked for about five minutes, wherein we set an appointment to do a phone session the following week. Time flew the drunker I got, so a week came and went pretty quickly. I will never forget where I was when I got that phone call. I will never forget because it was one of the last angry drunks I had. I was angry at myself and my life choices, but mostly angry because I could not actually get drunk. I had spent the ensuing week since my phone chat with the Uber man in a cosmic haze of vodka and cocaine, sidled up to a man whose father was a semi-famous producer with a Malibu beach house. He was a writer, something I wanted to be but was too drunk to follow-through with; he was a rich kid, which is something I was fascinated by because I had no money; he had unlimited liquor, which blots out anything else I knew about him. He poured me Bloody Mary after Bloody Mary and I was bloody pissed because nothing worked. After two hours went by, with no drunk luck, we all went outside to watch dolphins pop out of the water over the dwindling horizon’s pink backdrop. Even that miracle of nature bored me. I began to feel the sting of tears emerge from my eyes, and suddenly my phone rang. No one noticed as I slipped away through the window-to-ceiling glass french doors to take the call.

Uber driver began asking me rapid-fire questions about my childhood, my hopes, my dreams. I became increasingly irate as he continued to press the issue of why I seemed so angry, so dismissive. I sputtered off some incoherent ramblings about my mother, my dad’s death, my sister and my Catholic school experiences, but he would not hear any of it. Instead, he simply asked me to talk out loud to myself as if I were a child. I was furious. I told him to shove his Freudian platitudes up his ass, in so many words. We never spoke again. And I never did get drunk.

So I ran until I fell. Straight to the bottom of my pitiless existence.

And then I got sober.

Four years later, I find myself sitting across from a woman I’ve known only through the recovery process. She is a friend who I’ve asked to help me decide what to do with my life, once and for all. During our first session, she recommends that I do not make any job or career moves–no quitting a job, no starting a new job. I felt my ears ring and my chest tighten. I was about to start a job I was convinced I didn’t want. I was there to beg her to tell me anything that would encourage me to leave. But instead, she told me to stay. I was horrified.

Through a series of questions and answers, meditations and surveys, I’ve prayed my way through 1,000 forms of escape fantasies. Every cell of my being screamed at me to turn and run away on my first day at work. Who did I think I was? Why would I start a job with as many doubts as I had? What if I wasted my time, stayed, only to become staid? The vicious memories of conversations I’ve had with past lovers and friends floated to the surface–“I promise, I’m not going anywhere” was my infamous line. I never meant it then, and I did not want to mean it now.

But I am here, staying.

While cleaning up our work kitchen tonight, my supervisor looked at me for a beat too long. I asked him what was up. He says, “There are times when I look at you, trying to read your face. I keep thinking to myself that you will be just like the cooks before you, ready to run away from this place. I see you and I wonder if you have the desire to be here.” It was like getting that call, to hear those words–heartbreaking and entirely justifiable. I looked at him with awe and glee. For the first time in my life, I said it and meant it–

I’m not going anywhere.

xo

 

Photo Courtesy of The Indianapolis Star

 

 

 

 

Don’t Kiss the Cook Feature #3: Robin Stolinski

How long have you been cooking/baking?

My grandfather emigrated to the US from Ireland in 1948.  After returning from the Korean War, he took the skills to his dad (also a baker), gave those to him and his GI Bill and opened his own scratch bakery.  I started working there when I was nine.

Robin's GD
This is Eddie Boran, my grandfather and biggest role model, around 1983. He passed away November 2016.

How many restaurants have cooked/baked in?

6

At present, how many female cooks/chefs/bakers do you work with?

I’m in between positions, but at my last job I worked with two other BOH women.

When was the first time you remember being treated differently than your male coworkers?

My summer job during culinary school, about three years ago.

Has anyone spoken to you or about you in a derogatory way?

All the time.

What’s the worst thing someone has ever said or done to you in the kitchen?

I was in a walk-in getting stuff out the the freezer area.  The dishwasher was mopping the cooler part.  When I went to leave, he cornered me and wouldn’t let me out the door.  I had to physically push him out of the way.  He was uninjured but I was disciplined.

When and how do you feel valued as a woman in the kitchen?

When I’m alone or with other bakers on my level, I feel valued.

Do you perceive differences in how men and women cook?

I guarantee you wouldn’t know if I–or Tony–was running sauté by tasting the food.  My plating is cleaner, my mise en place is more thorough, and I work clean. That’s where you’d see a difference.

Why do you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen?

I actually wrote about this for my hospitality honors thesis for culinary school.  I think a woman’s place is where she wants to be.  Professionally, women were never thought to be strong or good enough to cook for royalty, so men did it. They organized the brigade system to mirror the military for a reason.

Please share your worst/best story as a woman working in back of the house.

The being cornered in the cooler was one of the worst.  For me, I’m older than most, so they know now that they can’t get away with stuff, because I’m smart enough to know my rights.  There have been nasty comments made, though. And casually coming behind my line and rubbing against me.  Not cool.

The best was our first Mother’s Day brunch.  It went off without a hitch, and I got to run a live crêpe station.  I also got to show my skills with sugar and chocolate by making centerpieces and decorations.

Don’t Kiss the Cook Feature #2: Tracy Chabala

How long have you been cooking/baking?

I started cooking professionally in 2011. Prior to this I never did much cooking, although I did like to bake and come up with clever dessert ideas. I’ve worked for a total of four years in the business, and have taken time off to write at various times.

How many restaurants have cooked/baked in?

I’ve worked in a total of seven kitchens.

At present, how many female cooks/chefs/bakers do you work with?

I’ve just left the kitchen again to focus on my writing. At my last job at Little Dom’s, my direct boss was female (she’s the head pastry chef), and I worked with two other females. There are way more females on pastry in any given kitchen. Outside of the pastry team, there were no girls cooking in the kitchen.

When was the first time you remember being treated differently than your male coworkers?

I think from the first day at my first kitchen at Whole Foods I noticed that men treated me differently. The first guy who trained me spoke down to me in a way that both surprised me and pissed me off. Another guy did the same on the same day, and I found myself getting very stubborn and refusing to be bossed around by dudes who weren’t my boss. I became bitchy, which I normally never have to do on the job. I grew determined to kick ass just to show them who’s boss, that I could hold my own.

Has anyone spoken to you or about you in a derogatory way?

Yes. One time at Water Grill, the most male kitchen I’ve ever worked in, I asked the chef if I could be transferred to the hot line (I started on prep, then worked pantry, and he put me on pastry, definitely because I’m a chick), and the entire kitchen burst into laughter. I was infuriated. There were no women on hot line.

What’s the worst thing someone has ever said or done to you in the kitchen?

One cook asked me in the walk-in how often I fuck my boyfriend, and another one told me he was going to “tear my ass up” when he got mad at me. The same dude smacked my ass with a vacuum-sealed rib eye, right in front of the head chef who did nothing. Another time, at Spago, the pastry sous told me I needed to use my brain because I wasn’t. She was female, but as I detail below, the culture of that place is very toxic and this comes from the old-school leadership of Wolfgang Puck.

When and how do you feel valued as a woman in the kitchen?

I didn’t start feeling valued by the entire kitchen until I moved from Water Grill to Suzanne Goin’s Lucques. That restaurant is owned by a James Beard winning chef, and her business partner is also a woman. I found the entire place had a softer energy. It was still a very demanding workplace, but I felt respected as a woman. There were no instances I can recall where I felt sexually harassed. Of course, the cooks would draw dicks and balls on stuff at times, but that is very mild bad behavior, and totally typical.

Do you perceive differences in how men and women cook?

I don’t think I see differences in how men and women cook as much as I see differences in how they treat fellow cooks and subordinates. At the same time, restaurants under younger chefs or female chefs have a totally different vibe. Water Grill’s kitchen, which had a Michelin star at one point, historically operated under head chefs who were very old school, all brigade de cuisine, and they opened in the early 1990’s. The same holds for Spago, where I worked for a brief spell, and it was so toxic. Though the head pastry chef was female, the culture ran as Wolfgang Puck wanted it to run. It was a brutal job with lots of talking down to one another. There is a big contrast between these spots and newer spots with younger millennial chefs, even if they’re male. The chefs and owners set the tone. I have heard gnarly stuff about the kitchen of Jon and Vinny—the guys from Animal and Son of a Gun—from a female chef, though. I think the way both women and men behave has to do with their training and the kitchens they are “raised” in. I always resisted the militarism and the mean way of speaking to people. It seemed senseless. I have found that those with higher education are kinder and have a much greater understanding of how people learn differently and how yelling at people doesn’t always get the job done. At my last job the head chef who was male was far more mean than my pastry chef boss. So there does seem to be a difference there. Women seem to have an easier time admitting mistakes and asking for help as well.

Why do you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen?

If we’re talking about the kitchen in the home, that is just due to the need to break up tasks. Historically, men have been the breadwinners so women had the task of buying food and preparing the meals.

As far as the professional kitchen goes, it’s so ironic that women have to work twice as hard (in my experience in male-dominated kitchens) to get rewarded as opposed to women, given women are the ones who have done all the domestic cooking over the years, that this has historically been their job. It makes zero sense. So, I think women make great chefs, even though they’re rarely acknowledged in the media, because they are effective leaders who don’t seem to need to “break people” to motivate them to put out good food and do their best. Again, it comes down to the vibe of each kitchen, and I think the brigade de cuisine is a perfect example of an antiquated patriarchal hierarchy that is not necessary in 2018. It was formulated after the French military, and has no place in modern businesses. I’d say women are quicker to spot out the myopia of sticking to this old school think.

Please share your worst/best story as a woman working in back of the house.

I was super pissed when my two buddies at Water Grill got raises and I didn’t. We all started work around the same time, and I threw an absolute fit about it. Not only did they not give me a raise, they had actually increased my responsibilities by moving me to pastry and pantry (up from prep) with no compensation. The managers and chef immediately gave me a raise when I confronted them about it.

The best story was when, during a busy Friday night, on hot apps, I absolutely killed it despite all the guys thinking I’d go down at Water Grill. I was talked down to and patronized loads there, and it really grated me, so I was extra determined to “show them”. This meant that when we had ten or twelve tops come in for fixed menu parties, we had to bust out stuff fast. I remember pleasing the chef when I got everything out right on time. I felt vindicated. The head chef was definitely not a problem for me there, despite him coming from the same lineage as Gordon Ramsey (he worked under Marco Pierre White). It was the younger guys that gave me so much shit.

 

Tracy is a freelance writer for various publications including Broadly, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times and The AfterParty Group 

Don’t Kiss the Cook Feature #1: Theresa Headen

How long have you been cooking/baking?

Catering officially since 2016

How many restaurants have cooked/baked in?

I never worked in restaurants prior to opening my business with my husband, Charles Headen. I learned how to do this myself. I read a lot of books about plating, how to run a restaurant, how best to be efficient and good business practices. Cooking is not in my background. My mom remembers me playing “restaurant” with my sisters, pretending to charge them for the food that I cooked!

Do you own your own restaurant?

We own our own catering business: Elegant Cuizines (Don’t forget it’s spelled with a “z”!). Right now, we cook out of a commercial kitchen. Soon we will be opening up a new business location at 1110 West Broad Street (off of Patterson), where it will be primarily take-out.

When was the first time you remember being treated differently than your male coworkers?

People always assume Charles is the chef. When clients introduce themselves to us, they shake Charles’ hand and pay their compliments to the chef. I let them know that I am the chef—Charles is more the Front of the House person. That’s a HUGE assumption!

Has anyone spoken to you or about you in a derogatory way?

Not really. But customers can be rude in retail services in general.

When and how do you feel valued as a woman in the kitchen?

I always feel valued at work. It’s because I love and enjoy it. I create spontaneous recipes and always bring God into my work. I say to him, “Ok God, what are we gonna cook today?” I make my own jerk spices, which is cost-effective. I merge American food flavors with African flavor influences.

Do you perceive differences in how men and women cook?

Women maybe cook with a little more passion.

Why do you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen?

A woman’s place isn’t just in the back of the house–it’s all over. We have two girls who I am raising to be strong. Being a chef and a mom is not easy but being a chef with kids is really hard. Compared to the family structure of the 50’s, I am considered a “bad wife” because things get messy and I can’t always have the house clean and have the kids ready for school or bed. But we know we can’t do any of this without God. Charles and I both have chef’s coats with bible verses on the backs, reminding us to keep God at the center of our business and our lives. The bible verse on the back of my chef’s coat is 1 Corinthians 2:9 “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” Charles has 1 Corinthians 16:13 on his coat: “Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous and be strong.”

Theresa and Charles Headen own and operate

Elegant Cuizines @ Henrico, VA 23229 // For service:1-804-241-6695

Don’t Kiss The Cook

I grew up watching my father cook. He used to wear this apron that said, “Have you hugged an Episcopalian today?” But I could have sworn he had one that also said, “Kiss the Cook.” Either way, he got plenty of hugs and kisses from his daughters and wife.

The history behind our culture’s blend of romanticism and wit using this phrase dates back to the 1800’s. In fact, the Italians may have coined the original verbiage. True to form, there is drama and intrigue at its core:

The first written evidence of the phrase “kiss the cook” is in an Italian-English dictionary by Giuseppe Marco Antonio Baretti, published posthumously in 1813. He translates the phrase Chi tardi arriva male alloggia as, “they that come too late must kiss the cook.”

It took me no time to come up with the title for my new interview series, “Don’t Kiss the Cook.” In fact, I could add onto that sentiment with the following: 1. Don’t touch the cook 2. Don’t leer at the cook 3. Don’t give back-handed compliments to the cook 4. Don’t untie the cook’s apron 5. Don’t condescend to speak to the cook 6. Don’t underestimate the cook. Once I spent roughly 30 minutes in my first prep cook role, I could see that the differences between male and female cooks were staggering. Or should I say, the differences in how women are received in the kitchen bares an acute and vastly different weight than her male counterparts. It might be more accurate to veer away from the sordid love roots of “Kiss the Cook” when describing how it actually feels to be a women in the kitchen:

But what may have had the biggest impact didn’t come until 1989 on Married…With Children when Al Bundy—played by Ed O’Neill— wore an apron that said, “Kiss the Cook – Kill the Wife” during the season four premiere of the popular FOX sitcom.

I have been told in no uncertain terms that I should be handled with Kid Gloves–that I should be treated as though I were someone’s “girlfriend who you don’t have sex with,” in order to keep the peace between males and females in the kitchen. That is but one avenue out of many where I could have accepted the way things have always been done; how “it’s just restaurants.” But I didn’t and I won’t.

That is why I am introducing a new series to this blog. I’d like to keep my Higher Power at the center of all of this, but I’d also like to tell the truth of how things really are. I have sent out the call to countless women who have answered, emphatically. We are but few in professional kitchens, but we are mighty. That said, you’ve heard enough from me for now.

My first featured interview is with a woman I love and respect. She is someone my sister and I went to high school with and continue to keep in touch with today. She is a beautiful person and amazingly talented executive chef. Without further ado, I bring you Theresa…

Featured image, courtesy of GreyDogVintage, via Etsy

Surface Tension

I was never “good” at science. With one exception–biology, sophomore year. I think it was something about the exotic vocabulary and pictures that piqued my interest. Ironically, two years ago I became an ad hoc / extemporaneous long-term substitute teacher for the sciences, ranging from biology and chemistry to physics and astronomy.  Thank God it snowed for the first four days I was supposed to start teaching. I played catch-up the entire time I was snowed in. The last time I studied that hard was sixteen years ago. Note: I was 16 years old sixteen years ago. I just got a little faint.

I still have some work saved from High School. On paper and floppy discs! In one big folder, I tucked away several essays from my English AP classes and notes from bio. The diagrams are labeled and colored with such exquisite detail that it almost seems as if a science person drew them. When I moved back home in 2015, I exhumed my notes and found one section totally dedicated to surface tension. Its definition stuck with me then, and continues to float around in my mind now–

Water molecules want to cling to each other. At the surface, however, there are fewer water molecules to cling to since there is air above (thus, no water molecules). This results in a stronger bond between those molecules that actually do come in contact with one another, and a layer of strongly bonded water. This surface layer (held together by surface tension) creates a considerable barrier between the atmosphere and the water. In fact, other than mercury, water has the greatest surface tension of any liquid.

The more you know.

What gets me about the concept of surface tension is that it can be personified, which is probably why so much of bio makes sense to me. We all know the feelings associated with water metaphors: learning to tread water; feeling like your drowning in paperwork; singing in the rain, when it rains it pours. But surface tension never gets its due in our vernacular. Today I felt so many feelings that the “floodgates opened,” which of course means I cried. Again. But what followed, as is always my way, were the thought bubbles. Why is it so upsetting to be seen upset? How is it that in a very stressful work environment, the less I want to lean on other people the more I absolutely must?

How, I often ask myself, is it possible for other people to handle pressure at work? Why is no one else crying? The immediate answer to one of these questions is that dudes and ladies handle stress differently. The quota so far is for every one cry I have in a two week period, there are three nights where any one of my coworkers slams dishes, lashes out at a cook or decides not to show up for work. The odds are in neither party’s favor.

There are so few of us in the kitchen. We work anywhere from 50-80 hours a week, morning noon and night. We kind of have to work well together. It’s like being marooned on an island. We have to try not to cannibalize each other to survive (all due respect to the profession which, thankfully, requires us to know how to cook enough so that we don’t have to resort to such measures–emotionally or otherwise). Like water molecules, we have to stick together. But oh, the tension. God forbid someone walks into work with a sour mood. We all feel it. I often put a voice to this when it happens, which my coworkers do not appreciate. Conversely, when one or more of us is in great spirits, it can uplift the whole crew. I swear it makes the food taste better.

It’s like a pressure cooker. Everyone is exhausted. I have burns and cuts and aches that just keep happening. Yet it’s part of the deal. The physical burdens of the job are nothing compared to what it feels like to be a complete novice in a world where everyone else seems to know what they are doing. Not to mention the fact that I am hyper-sensitive/critical of any sideways glances, comments or insinuations about my femininity. For the most part, that’s a good thing. Recently a male coworker asked me what it felt like to be one of four females out of 20+ people working in the kitchen. I told him I was excited–it meant I had a front row seat to watch the Patriarchy crumble.

My bark is almost always more vicious than my bite.

What it actually feels like is quiet defeat. I can pitch a fit or become spontaneously combustible, but people still need to eat. SOMEONE NEEDS TO DOUBLE-BOIL THE FUCKING crème brûlée. That’s the way it goes.

As embarrassing as it has been to lose my shit on the regular, I am also relieved. Several of my kitchen mates remind me I am in the right place. Remember that guy, what’s his name, GORDON RAMSEY? That guy loses his shit for millions of dollars a year. He doesn’t cry; he yells.

Image result for gordon ramsay memes

He’s straight up abusive to his staff, but at least he has a sense of humor. I won’t even discuss the parity of positive public opinion on women cooks versus male cooks, but I think you can piece it together. Bad behavior gets rewarded. In any other profession, our vastly inappropriate conversations about literally anything would get us fired. But in the kitchen, you better buck up and shut up or someone will show you the door. It’s refreshing. It’s also brutal and infuriating. But in every job I’ve ever had, no one is above the law of proving themselves. And for someone as impatient, perfectionistic, judgmental and sensitive as I am, time is an imperious bully. I want to be good at everything before the oven timer for the bacon goes off first thing in the morning. Not going to happen.

So there is acceptance. And that surface tension. We are all little water molecules buoying each other up. I had a conversation with Bowie today about it. In recovery and otherwise, this is where I’ve been led. These coworkers and friends are my current spiritual teachers. I pray, as I have on many stressful days, to acknowledge to my Higher Power that I’d be crazy not to follow, follow where He leads.

There you have it: spirituality on the fly.

xo

 

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons