The Chef and the Compliment

Hell's Kitchen

The chef that fired me never liked me. That isn’t some kind of lame excuse, or anything. “Why did you get a D in math, Johnny?” “Mrs. Appleslog never liked me!”

Chef Dean never liked me. I don’t know if it was personal or not. It wasn’t arbitrary, though. It wasn’t just a personality conflict. He was precision oriented, thought that little mistakes were just as bad as big mistakes, and that cleanliness was slightly above Godliness.

I do not share these traits. I can cook up a storm, but I can’t achieve perfection. I work better when I can be fast and loose and make modifications. Plenty of restaurants work that way, and when I worked in those people loved me and thought I was fantastic. Not at this place. This place was very expensive, and that means everyone gets a stick up their ass. Chef Dean’s stick had its own restaurant.

So he never liked me. He never complimented me.

Except for once.

He wasn’t the chef of the restaurant itself. He was the Corporate Chef of the entire restaurant group. He had been chef of this steakhouse until he got a brain injury and couldn’t work the line anymore. Everyone said he ran the place with an iron fist. They said that he had mellowed since then, and that is terrifying.

Everyone was scared of him. My boss, Chef Jerry, lived in absolute quaking fear of Chef Dean. When he found out Chef Dean was coming around he dropped everything and got to work making the place just how Chef Dean liked it. Chef Dean liked things a certain way, and some of these ways were widely acknowledged as stupid.

He wanted us to use just salt and pepper on the asparagus instead of our seasoning blend, even though the seasoning blend was much tastier. So when he was around for an inspection we used salt, and the minute he disappeared through the huge double doors we went back to using seasoning.

I worked as the prep cook much of the time. The prep position at that job was more difficult and demanding than lead saute and grill positions I’ve had at other, lesser restaurants. It involved baking cheesecake and cooking lobster tails and making hundreds of crab cakes from scratch in 20 minutes. There was often 12 hours of work to get done in an 8 hour shift if nothing went wrong. Things went wrong.

One of the big ones was Chef Dean. The restaurant was closed at night, so during the day only the prep cook, Chef Jerry, and the daytime dishwasher/cleaner were in the kitchen. When Chef Dean showed up to these shifts there was no one to deflect him. He watched me like a hawk.

He criticized how I moved around the kitchen. He criticized how I cut the bread. He once flipped out so badly when he found that I had drained the veal stock in a certain way–the same way I had every week for a year and a half–that Chef Jerry intercepted me coming back from the bathroom and told me to just go home to avoid the firestorm.

Mostly, he criticized my cleanliness. I won’t fault him for picking the right target. I worked messier than the other cooks, who were all immaculately clean. I didn’t know how to work cleaner than that. I also got more stuff on my apron and my coats. At the end of the day you could tell exactly how hard I worked. Chef Dean did Not Approve. There’s an old adage that to see how good a chef is, look at his shoes. In fine dining this is a biblical passage. I should never have been in fine dining. I was a walking violation of the Law of Sanctity, and Chef Dean was its high priest.

The days Chef Dean showed up during my prep shifts were truly terrible. I work worse when I’m stressed, and he stressed everyone out. They were terrible.

Except once.

I’m not sure what was different that one day. Maybe my workload was lighter than usual. Maybe I got enough sleep that night. Or maybe I was just hitting my stride on my work at that place. I whizzed through the whole day, getting everything done right and getting it done fast. Even Chef Dean didn’t slow me down, even though he followed me around and kept stopping me to ask questions and make long-winded points, as usual. But I handled it. I handled it with style and we even had a few really good conversations.

As I was leaving that afternoon I said goodbye to Chef Jerry and the other cooks who had shown up for the dinner shift. Then I turned to Chef Dean. “Good evening, chef! Always a pleasure!”

I meant it, too. In that moment. Because I did always learn from him when he was there. It was neat to hear his stories and tap into his vast experience. It was always a pleasure, even if it was always more of a pain. Life is complicated.

“Jesse,” he called to me as I walked out the door. “You’re doing a better job of keeping this place clean. And yourself.”

I beamed.

I don’t know if it was true. I don’t think it was, really. Maybe I worked a little cleaner that day, but I was never a slob. Not really. I just didn’t clean as I went very well. I had to do it in shifts.

No, Chef Dean gave me the only compliment he ever gave me for one simple reason: I complimented him. He meant it. I’m sure he did. But he felt it because of the bond we shared in that moment.

In the fictional version of this story that was a turning point for me and Chef Dean. After that we became friends, and he took me under his wing as his protegé. I took over the restaurant and to this day we laugh about that story over drinks.

That didn’t happen. The next time he saw me it was business as usual for both of us. A year after this he fired me. He was nice about it. He told me I was a super nice guy but I just didn’t fit here. I guess that’s a compliment, too.

But that one doesn’t count.

Rain Through the Window


It is rainy and gray outside.

My friend wrote me an email and told me that he still feels some of the magic from rainy days that he felt in his childhood.

seeing the exact color of the grey outside through the window and having that color seep in through the house, and hearing the patter of the raindrops on the roof and the skylights

I envy that. He is capable of doing that with many things. Just seeing them as they are. He can experience what happens in front of him and nothing more. Mindfulness, you might call it.

I’m not very good at mindfulness. Or, I don’t know. Sometimes I am. I can lose myself in books and movies. I can lose myself in a bite of delicious food. I am capable of pure joy, although I don’t experience it as often as I used to. How can I? The older I get, the more I understand consequences.

In many ways consequences are the enemy of joy. Small children experience pure joy in part because what happens to them means nothing more than it means. They are all texture and no context. They have no caveats.

I’ve walked through the rain too many times. Waited at a bus stop without a shelter while my jeans soaked through and I knew I was going to have to work for hours with soaked jeans that would never really dry until I got home. Just looking at the rain gives me some of that, even though the color is beautiful.

It’s beautiful in this room right now, as the soft light through the window and the soft light of my monitor mingle into a white-grayness, washing over my fingers as I type. But there’s more than just that when I look out the window. There’s also wet jeans.

My friend is not incapable of understanding consequences. Far from it. I think he’s a more consequence-oriented thinker than most people about a great many things. But in some ways he’s like a child. In a good way.

Sometimes I try to practice mindfulness. But it’s hard when thoughts of consequences trigger your anxiety. And it’s hard when you recognize the importance of consequences. Children experience pure joy, but they make terrible accountants.

I don’t think there’s a perfect balance. How can there be? It’s an imperfect universe, and the human brain is the messiest thing we have ever discovered. I know I can’t stop thinking about consequences. And I can’t live without pure, unadulterated, consequence-free joy.

My mind tells me that if can’t achieve balance, then why bother. But that is trap. The quest for perfection is poison to mindfulness. You have to leave the warmth of the fire eventually and trek out into the storm. That’s where the future lies. But you can’t live in the storm.

So for now, I will just sit by the fire, look out the window, and enjoy the rain.

Cold Shower

a frozen kind

“You never challenge yourself.”

I said it to my girlfriend, but it wasn’t directed at her. Not really. It was directed at everyone.

It was 12th grade, and one of the things the senior class did every year at that school was to spend several days at a camp ground. One of the things everyone dreaded about this trip was that we would only get to take cold showers. Like peasants! Like animals!

I was excited. About the trip and about the showers. I knew it would be terrible but I was ready. Ready to face it down. To have to face it down. Other people did not share my view on the subject. It was one of the first times I really grasped that most people try to avoid things that cause them pain and discomfort unless they have a really good reason to face them. I already knew that, of course. In the straightforward sense. In the “stop touching the hot stove” sense.

But I kind of liked pain. And discomfort. And public humiliation. I didn’t really know that about myself, yet. And I didn’t really know that this was an aspect of my psychological makeup that made me different that most people. It’s a difficult thing to articulate, partially because it is complicated and partially because we have a very poor vocabulary for discussing the small differences in our respective mental processing and outlook.

I used to assume that everyone spelled words out in their heads while other people talked. It turns out that’s pretty rare, too. We don’t realize that we have these differences from each other because we don’t talk about it. We aren’t trained to think about it.

Yesterday I read that cold showers have a number of heath benefits. I ran into it on Facebook and I couldn’t believe it. Could something that simple really be that good for you? It sounded like a scam. So I looked into it. And then I kept looking.

It looks legit. Taking cold showers appears to be really, really healthy. I didn’t believe it because it seemed too easy. A health practice that takes balls, but not really any effort? Oh, I am so down.

A lot of the articles talked about how difficult it was. How to psyche yourself up to doing it. How hard it would be at first.

It won’t be hard. Not for me. Uncomfortable, yes. Painful, even. The instant the water hits my skin, I expect that the part of me that cares about the physical condition of my body will pull away, like it sometimes does. Like it did in 12th grade, at camp. It will float above me like a ghost, and stare with detached amusement and excitement at my wet, quivering flesh. It will remember the last time I did this deliberately, which was a long time ago.

“You never challenge yourself.”

Is it a challenge, if it is within your nature to overcome it? If something doesn’t intimate you to paralysis, if the thought of it frightens you less than it frightens others, are you really stepping outside of your comfort zone?

I don’t know. I may or may not be about to find out.



Enough May or May Not Be Enough

I think I am losing my mind

Crazy Thought Induced By Working On Novel Of the Day:

Should each of my characters represent some kind of cognitive bias? And the whole structure of the story can be a metaphor for the brain and the flaws in human thought, and how they emerge to create a functional whole that is both capable of amazing things and unable to understand potentials and limitations of its own capability?

Because, you know, the 8 viewpoint characters and the 3 main plots and many sub-plots all squidged precariously together like a precariously built sandwich aren’t complicated enough.

Unexpected Corpses

Archaeological Dig

I think that most of us have never seen a truly messy room. I don’t mean stacks of old pizza boxes and piles of socks that date back to the Carter administration messy. It is possible for a room to become so cluttered with stuff that it transcends the status of Messy Room and elevates into Archaeological Ruins. Most people never really run into this until, say, an older relative dies, and you have to sort through the vestiges of their twilight years, when the part of their brain that allowed them to throw stuff out had long since atrophied.

My father in law had been living in that variety of twilight for some time when he had a stroke and had to move to a nursing home. And I’m pretty sure the part of his brain that let him throw stuff out just never developed. I think it was smothered in utero by the part of his brain that would later grow up to collect 8 copies of the same edition of the dictionary. It’s in this particular Archaeological Wasteland that I am currently trying to excavate. Those dictionaries are one of the two shelves in that room that house collections of dictionaries. There are also more dictionaries scattered throughout the room on various bookshelves and various surfaces. Oh, and the other collection of dictionaries is on another shelf downstairs, in the living room.

He has been in the nursing home for five years now. We’ve been living here for 8. We’ve used that room, the Den, for keeping kittens in, for playing games, I used to use it for Hermetic rituals, and I currently use it for exercise. It is terrible for all of these things. It is just too damn cluttered. There is a roll-top desk, and a couch. Neither of these are flush against their respective walls because behind them are piles of books and filing boxes and luggage and stacks of old Northwest Regional Cadillac Club member renewal forms from 1992. And dictionaries. There are plenty of dictionaries.

It’s time to take that room back. So I am going on a grand purge. The worst kind of clutter is that kind that developed organically. Once the bookshelves and the cabinets were full, they started to stuff things wherever they would fit. This room transforms that kind of clutter to an art form, if an art form can also be an infectious disease.

I am throwing out old files and magazines, even though it’s painful to do so. What if we need to look up something that happened in Astronomy in 1979? Now that opportunity is lost forever! And I find it difficult to throw out anything with handwriting on. For all I know my father in law had a secret lover during World War 2, who was on the side of the Nazis, and he wished to come be with him but he couldn’t betray his country no matter what it was turning into. And I’m throwing out the only evidence of their love!

You know, actually maybe its better that no one find out about that one. Although if his wife found out he was secretly gay she’d probably like him better. She has a thing.

It’s difficult to purge like this. It isn’t my stuff. But that room has been a calcified memorial for far too long. It’s unlikely he is ever getting out of that nursing home. Plus, he had a problem. Today I threw out piles of unopened mail that was almost as old as I was. They moved to this house in the early 90s. That means some of that mail came with him from the previous house. And he still never opened it. Maybe he got it from Pandora. I should probably check before I open one and let out some evils or something.

I found a lot of old candy and snacks. In one cardboard box, among the desiccated chocolate coins and rock hard candy orange slices, were two bags of lemon drops. One of them had dried out completely and fused into a single entity full of white powdery cracks. The other had gotten warm and melted into a single, semi-translucent entity. Within that one box were two different demonstrations of the horrors that time can inflict on this one variety of candy. So now I know.

In the desk I found several different Texas Instrument calculators. My father in law was an early adopter, and these seven chronicle the lifespan of this technology over several decades. I didn’t throw those out. In a tiny box nearby I found at least five medals of various sorts he must have earned while he was in the Navy. I didn’t throw those out either.

The biggest surprise from yesterday was that behind the roll-top desk, among the books and boxes of books, was an entire 5 foot high wooden filing cabinet. There had been no evidence that it was there before that.

Today I excavated behind and around that filing cabinet so I could move it. On the floor, I found was looked to be a small pile of those black rubber tips that go on the ends of things. It was weird that there were so many of them in the corner of this room, but it wasn’t the strangest thing I’d found. It was dark in that corner, so I pulled out my phone’s flashlight.

They were bugs. Except, were they? They weren’t moving. And they didn’t appear to have legs or anything. It turned out that they were bugs. Emphasis on the word “were.” What I saw was the remains of some kind of black beetle. They had died so long ago that all of their soft tissues were nowhere to be seen. I bent down to get a closer look. There were more of them in the corner.

On the corpse. At first I though it was a bird. Then I realized it was the wrong shape, and it was probably a squirrel. Now let me ask you, have you ever looked at either a bird or a squirrel and been confused as to which of the two you were looking at? That should give you an idea of the state this thing was in. It was mummified to the point that when I worked up my nerve to deal with the mess it was surprisingly okay. I have a thing about bugs. But these weren’t really bugs. They were fossils.

It does make me wonder how the corpse of an animal could have been in the corner of this room for what must have been several decades without anyone knowing. My father in law spend a lot of in this room. Wouldn’t he have noticed a smell? Or bugs crawling around?

I’ve given the matter some thought, and I’ve come to a conclusion. That corpse was so old and so well preserved that I don’t think random chance can account for it. I think, in fact, that it was from the old house.

Like the mail.

Dracula and Non-existential Horror

Bram Stoker's Dracula

When I was younger, back when I Believed, our church showed a the youth group a video about demon hunting. It’s hard to believe that this happened when I think about it, but it did. In the video, the Southern preacher talked about demons, and then did a recreation of his battle with a Satanist who had demons under her control. The Satanist was powerful and dangerous, but the preacher was never seriously threatened, because he had God on his side. Demons are real and terrifying, but evil cannot touch a righteous man.

This memory went through my mind as I filled in a huge gap in my classic horror reading and finally got around to reading Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Two major things struck me about the book, about modern horror, and about the world.

The first is that Dracula is in every way not existential horror.

The second is the reason this was so striking. I realized that, in a very real way, nearly all modern horror is, in fact, existential horror.

If you don’t know what existential horror is by that name I’ll provide a brief definition. Existential horror is the kind usually attributed to Lovecraft. It features characters who learn that the world is dangerous as terrifying. The universe does not care about humans, and there is no one watching out for us. To understand the full nature of reality would be not to achieve ultimate wisdom, but to go absolutely insane.

Much of modern horror does not have these specific features. However, almost all of it follows the same underlying themes. Even when the danger isn’t supernatural at all. Even when the threat comes from zombies, or a man with an axe. It still almost always has certain properties. The world is not safe. Your comfortable life could easily be changed into something dangerous and terrifying. There is no one watching out for you, and things are not necessarily going to be alright.

This is a fundamentally existentialist theme, even in the most mundane examples. That neighbor you thought was an upstanding member of the community might have a stack of bodies in his fridge. He might decide to kill you and your children, and there is nothing in the universe specifically there to protect you.

I didn’t realize how pervasive this approach to horror was until I saw a counterexample. Because Dracula is very much not this type of horror.

Warning: Spoilers for this 118 year old novel. Now you know a little more about my radical view on spoilers.

One of the central characters in the first half of the book is a woman named Lucy. She is beautiful and sweet and beloved by all of the other characters. After awhile she starts to sleep-walk. She starts to grow pale and feel awful and act strange. One character, Van Helsing, tries to save her, but his efforts are thwarted. Lucy dies, returns as a vampire and starts to feed on children. It is then that Van Helsing reveals to the others that what they are dealing with is supernatural, that Lucy is now an abomination, not the real Lucy, and that for the good of everyone they now have to destroy her.

How do you think the characters react? In almost any modern story, this would be very gut wrenching and difficult for the characters. They would struggle over whether this monster was still Lucy, whether they were killing a woman they loved. Even when they accepted that she needed to die, they would have great difficulty looking into her face and ending her unlife. It would haunt and torture them to have to do this.

Not so in Dracula. Not at all. They have difficulty believing Van Helsing about what’s going on, but once they do they are all very happy to put an end to her and save the real Lucy. When they kill her, her corpse acquires a look of release and serenity.

Later on, when Van Helsing is explaining about Count Dracula all of his powers, he also explains that when it comes right down to it they, the humans, have the upper hand. God is on their side. Dracula is an unnatural creature and the world hates him. The world wants him destroyed. His powers come from corrupting what is natural and right, and such corruption seeks to right itself.

One of the characters waxes about how wonderful it will be to free Dracula’s soul from his torment. The torment of being powerful and evil, in which the Count clearly takes great delight. There is no room for genuine love of evil. Anyone who feels that way must not really be a person. They must, as Van Helsing puts it, have a “child’s mind.” When they finally kill him, just before he turns to dust there is a look of peace on his face. The Count, who has been doing evil in the world for hundreds of years.

One of the central themes of Dracula is this: There are dangerous and terrifying things out there, but at the end of the day God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.

The characters are ironclad in their worldview. They never see proof of God, save that crucifixes and the like work against their enemies. They don’t need proof. God is out there. They understand fully the fundamental nature of the universe and their place in it. Nothing that happens causes them to question this understanding, anymore than finding a new and more deadly species of parasitic wasp would cause a biologist to question their basic understanding of biology.

In modern horror, shattering the worldview of the characters is basically a given. Sometimes it is at a very high level—they thought they were safe in their workaday lives, and that feeling is annihilated. Sometimes it is more fundamental—they thought there was a loving god, but actually the universe is ruled by terrifying, hungry things that view humanity as playthings or food.

Even horror that keeps elements such as a loving God still annihilates the safety of the characters’ worldview. There is plenty of horror about demon possession in which God is still shown as a powerful force that can fight the demons. But even in those cases, the characters learn that they are vulnerable in a way they never thought they were. That demons are just as real as terrorists and serial killers, and that they might attack them at any time, without warning.

We no longer live in a world where most of us have an ironclad worldview. Modern horror has to be existentialist, on some basic level, if it is to fully resonate.

No matter how powerful the God, demons are still to be feared. Evil can, in fact, touch anyone, no matter how righteous.


The Crumbs of Unremembered Dream

bed is for sleeping

Every night you see the future in your dreams. When an unexpected tsunami crashes into inhabited shores and kills tens of thousands of people, it first crashes over you. When a woman is hurled from a 10th story window by a jilted lover, your sleeping mind feels her bones break before she does.

Every night bullets penetrate your skull and mash your grey matter into sludge. You cry out as stillborn babies are pulled from your womb. It’s not all misery. Sometimes your years of those of lost love reunited. But you always see something.

This is all a surprise to you. You remember none of these dreams in your waking hours. You don’t remember them because we take them from you. We take them with our teeth.

Sometimes you glimpse us in the darkness. A shape skittering past the edge of your bed. Sometimes you see scratches on the floor that weren’t there before. We are careful, but we are not perfect. And we come every single night, to tear roughly at your synapses and lap at your cerebro-spinal fluid in case a droplet of dream has leaked through. We wouldn’t want to miss any.

Sometimes you see us during the day. We follow you. We watch you, in case you fall asleep while you are out in the world and dream your dangerous, delicious dreams. But sometimes you see us. We are careful ,but we are not perfect.

You see us in our disguises. Someone stares at you for too long across the aisle in a crowded grocery store. A stranger smiles too broadly when they glance you, and although you do not know them you know the smile is meant for you. Of course you do. You have seen it before. So many times.

Everyone dreams, and we sample of them in turn. But you are different. You are special. You are our favorite. And you are dangerous.

You are searching for something out there. When you burst through the membrane of time and swim in the future’s jellied waters, it is not simply because you can. You are on a desperate, frenzied search for that which you lack. We have tasted your longing too many times not to be certain of this, though we do not know what it is. Once you find it, you will pull it inside of you. You will merge with this unknown something and spin fibers of thread around yourself. Then, in time, you will hatch. We do not know what you will become, but this must not occur. It will be terrible.

We consume dreams because that is what the world has birthed us to do. That is what we are. That is our lust. That is our hunger. But you have given us a greater purpose. When first we sampled you, we returned to you night after night because you are the most succulent dreamflesh we have ever tasted. Mashing the tissues of your imaginings into mush and then sucking it out is sublime beyond reckoning.

That is why we returned to you at the beginning. But then we learned. Now we return because you are deadly, and you must not become what you seek to become. But if this embryo within you died tomorrow, if we found it and swallowed it whole like a snake with a wriggling mouse, it would change nothing. Will would still return and feast upon you. Always.

The world cannot know about us. But they should thank us. We have fed upon them for so long. We have devoured so many of their foetal dreams before they could blossom, while they were still legless and struggling for life. But you are far more dangerous than we are. They should fall to their knees and thank us for what we do to you. Everyone should thank us. Except you.

Because we are not gentle with you. We are not precise. How could we be? Your taste is a temptation we can barely resist. It takes all of our willpower every single not not to consume all of you, to hollow you out and leave nothing. But then it would be over.

But we take too much. How can we resist? We never stop were we should. We always take an extra helping, an extra sliver of your brain, from your memories, from your faculties. You have noticed, though you did not understand. When you are sure you have left your keys in one spot but they are not there. When you remember a face but not a name, even though you heard it just a moment ago. The way you are degrading, piece by piece. You have noticed, but you lie to yourself. You tell yourself it is not so.

We tell you all of this because we can. Right now, as you listen to our thousands of hungry, whispered screams say these word, you are so terrified you can barely breathe. But you won’t remember. We will take those memories from you. You will not remember the look of our eyes, tiny slices in the darkness. The feeling of our thousands of fingers burrowing into the pores of your skin. The deep discomfort that washes over your nerves when we plunge our mouthparts into your brain, like your legs are dipped in melted pig fat. The utterly, absolute helplessness.

We do not normally have this level of precision. But we have come to know you very, very well. We need you to know us, even if you do not believe. We have devoured more of you than is left inside of you. In a way, we are one. So we tell you this, and thus we take our small measure of delight.

One day we will go too far. We will take too much. You will wake up a wasted wreck of yourself. It may be soon. We will try to prevent this, but you grow more delicious with time. You are flavored by the pungent spice of decay as parts of your mind begin to rot, like a mold-vein cheese. So our resistance weakens, and our hunger grows.

But that day is not today. For now the feast continues. So go back to sleep. We will see you again.

Tomorrow night.