FAIL stamp

Day 4 of Shredded Comfort

Also alt Jesse takes control of his food destiny. Exciting!

I’ve had a lot of failures in my life. More than most people? I don’t know. I just know I’ve done a lot of giving up and not trying hard enough. Some of them I regret very much, but it’s hard to pull apart the bad threads of your past from the good ones. But even though I talk about myself, there are many subjects I avoid or talk around because I’m ashamed or uncomfortable. The last 10 months I’ve kept a lot of my friends and family in the dark about my situation.

Well, not anymore.

Warning: This is going to be long. Also this might come off as if I’m depressed or pessimistic about my life. I’m not. It’s just that in the words ahead I specifically plan to avoid deflections or defense mechanisms. That leaves me raw, but it’s something I have to do.

So here we go. I’m going to talk about my failures.

My parents told me I was very smart from a young age. I believed them. Like so many smart kids, I became obsessed with it. Like far too many smart kids, I was more focused on coming off as smart than I was at actually achieving anything. So I answered question in class, but didn’t do an awful lot of homework. I got decent grades, but I most definitely didn’t “live up to my potential.” I had organizational problems, and also I was easily distracted by books and Nintendo games, and they kept me limited. Between third and fourth grade I wasn’t moved into advanced classes because I “wasn’t organized enough.” I’m still pretty bitter about that.

High school was even worse. It was a lot more difficult, because I went to a fancy private school. Homework was a lot more important. For the first time in my life I got Cs. Not many, but I’d never gotten a single one up to this point and it stung. I went into this new school with a sort of mullet-thing and I had no idea I was being mocked. I remember one guy in my French class asked to see the grade of my first quiz. I had gotten a 67%. He looked at my hair, at my 4 inch thick glasses, then at my quiz grade. “I see,” he said, “you’re not really a nerd. You just look the part.”

College was worse still. I went to a crazy little school called Hampshire College, which had no tests, no grades, and no majors. Students picked whatever classes they wanted, and then wrote a paper about how they all added up to a curriculum. It was free and self-directed and innovative.

And the stupidest decision I ever made. Self-directed? Free? What the hell was I thinking? I couldn’t organize the shoes in my closet, and I never owned more than 2 pairs at a time. Needless to say, I passed very few classes at Hampshire. It didn’t help that I made ridiculous, amazing friends who all seemed to like me. For the first time in my life I had a real social life.

I never stood a chance.

They kicked me out after two and a half years. Only Hampshire never really kicks people out, as far as I can tell. I left the school with the intention of coming back as soon as I got my shit together. Over the next year I worked at a national survey call center, a factory that made cases, and a Dunkin Donuts.

I also realized I would never go back to Hampshire. So here I was, with no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I thought about it, and talked to my girlfriend, who I knew even then that I was going to spend the rest of my life with. I had also spent the previous year falling in love with cooking, and I thought I could do that for the rest of my life.

It so happened my dad was a teacher at the Art Institute, and so I could attend any Art Institute for free.

“Hey baby,” I didn’t say to my girlfriend because she hates the word baby, “you wanna move to Florida so I can go to culinary school?”

“Sure,” she said. “But don’t call me baby.”

So we did. Our lease on the apartment ran out in August. We decided to move in my with parents in Jersey and then head down to Florida for school in September. The only problem was we didn’t have a car. Or any driver’s licences. So I took lessons and barely scraped in my license by the end of our stay in Massachusetts. The date of the exam was actually a few days after our lease expired. So my girlfriend went down with my parents, and I stayed with a friend of hers so I could take the test. I passed, and then took the train down to meet them.

Culinary school went really well…at first. I was pretty good at the cooking bit, and, if I can indulge myself, much smarter than all of the other students. This apparent advantage turned out in later years to actual be a disability. Most professional cooks and chefs are action oriented, not knowledge or information oriented. They care about what you can do, not what you know, and often find people who talk about their knowledge to be insufferable time wasters.

Eventually I had to get a job as well as attend school. We couldn’t live on my wife’s bookseller wages alone. So I got a job in a restaurant called Mr. G’s. 2 days a week, at minimum wage.

It was terrible. I spent a year putting pasta and veggies on plates for a chef/owner who didn’t really know he was doing and thought I was about as useful for preparing food as the plunger in the bathroom. My direct supervisor was a Haitian cook named Smitty who acted as much like a pirate as his name suggested. I learned almost nothing there, except that I wasn’t very good at this. And it was my fault. I never tried to do anything past what I was asked to do, or put myself out there. Because I was scared I would screw up, and that I didn’t know what I was doing. At one point my boss asked me if I knew anyone from school who needed a job. “Not just anyone, though. You know, someone good.” He didn’t say “unlike you.”

I stayed there for way too long. My next job was in a burrito shop. Moe’s Southwest Grill, the lamest of all of the “Mexican grills” that popped up in the mid 2000s. Moe’s speciality was that every time a customer walked in all the employees were supposed to shout “Welcome to Moe’s!” We sometimes did this. For the first three weeks the only uniform shirt I had was pink tie die. The guys told me “it’s the only one we have in your size.” It turned out what that meant was “making the skinny white guy wear pink tie dye is fucking hilarious.”

I stayed there for something like 5 months. By the time I left my boss – different from the boss who hired me who got fired in the meantime – begged me to stay. She offered me $10/hour, as opposed to $7.50, and 40 hours a week as opposed to 20-30. So I guess you could call that a success. Granted, it was low bar, but it gave me the confidence to get a job in a real kitchen.

The first few weeks of my job at the Sheraton hotel kitchen were psychological torture. The chef was sick for my first few days, leaving me and another cook to stumble our way through a huge party and pris-fixe specialty menu. When the chef did get back, he did his best to break me down and harp on my every move and mistake. Once he threw hotdog buns at my head as I worked the grill. Two months after I started there that chef quit and said he would never cook again.

Things got better after that. I got pretty good at my job, and everyone there seemed to legitimately likely. Meanwhile, school wasn’t going nearly so well.

I was only taking a few classes a week, because it’s all I could handle with a full-time job. And I was no longer getting the As of my earlier classes. There was a lot more homework, now, and no matter how much I liked the class at the beginning, my enthusiasm always waned and I stopped trying. A few times I didn’t turn in projects to teachers who really loved me. I felt terrible about that and solved the problem by avoiding them from then out.

Plus, my now-fiance and I hated Florida. Because it’s terrible. We had made very few real friends, and I was getting pretty bored of my job. This was a trend of me for the rest of my cooking life. If I was actually good at a job I got bored and wanted to leave. If it was stressful and terrible I soldiered on for far too long.

I originally planned on doing the Bachelor of Culinary Management program, but we decided we couldn’t stay in Florida that long. So I finished off the Associate’s credits and we got the hell out of there for Seattle. I figured I could finish my degree at the Seattle Art Institute, or online.

I did not do this. I think I knew I wasn’t going to do it.

Instead, I got a job at a kosher catering company. I stayed there for a few months before I realized I wasn’t getting anything out of it. Instead, I followed my father’s advice and applied to some high-end places where I actually wanted to work. To my surprise, one of them hired me.

My time at the high-end steak house was mostly terrible. High end restaurant cooking has a reputation for being cut throat, hostile, and unpleasant. In my experience this is totally true. Every time I made a mistake someone called me out. They also told everyone else. The head chef of the group of restaurants that included ours thought I was terrible because I was messy and inconsistent, which was totally true. After three years of stress and failing to rise up the ladder, my co-workers stopped being able to stand up for me, and the head chef fired me.

I spent the next 5 months unemployed. Actually, every time I was unemployed it was always for a long time. I hate looking for a job, and I tend to put very little effort into it. My wife, who I married while at the steakhouse, is always very understanding and permissive during these periods.

Finally I got a job at a sandwich shop. It was a huge step down, and I knew that I should be trying to work in another nice restaurant if I wanted to actually have a culinary career. But I was tired, and dejected, and I just wanted to do something I was good at. So even though I was a little embarrassed at working right in front of customers and taking their orders and having to wear a polo-shirt I took the job.

It went pretty well for a few years, even though the pay was bad and there was little room for advancement. But the customers were funny and my messiness and inconsistency weren’t big problems. I took on more and more responsibility and expanded the menu by adding a bunch of my own daily specials. When the guy who hired me left they hired a new manager. He lasted less than 6 months, and the owner gave me the job, along with another co-manager.

It didn’t take me long to realize I hated management. I didn’t like scolding employees, and I certainly didn’t like firing them, which I eventually had to do. When my co-manager put in her notice, the owner asked me if I was ready to take over. I said I was, but I wasn’t. Or rather, I didn’t want to. I knew that I didn’t want to manage a sandwich shop or a restaurant ever again. Which meant that I didn’t really want to be in restaurants.

So this culinary career I was going to trickled to what was probably its inevitable end. I put in my notice a week later. I had no idea what I wanted to do next. Just no fucking clue. But my wife’s employer, an online diamond retailer, was hiring seasonal employees. She was sure I could get the job, and then I could wow them with my customer service abilities into making it a full-time position, just as she had done.

I told my boss at the sandwich job I already had the job at the diamond place, then went confidently to the interview. It went very well, except that I lost my parking pass and the guy that interviewed me had to help me find it.

Maybe that’s what did it.

But whatever it was, they called me a week later and told me they were “going to pass.” I found out later that they thought I wasn’t organized enough. Woo! Not the first time I had heard that.

I was devastated. It seems silly, now. But I was completely confident that I would get the job. Being rejected made me feel utterly worthless. If I couldn’t get hired for a seasonal position in customer service, what the hell was I good for?

That was 9 months ago.

I fiddled around and applied to jobs for a while, with no direction. Finally I came to a conclusion. It took me a lot of nerve to work up to it, but I spent a dad preparing myself. When my wife got home, I told her I wanted to finally try to do something I had been wanting to do for years: become a freelance writer. She thought it was a great idea.

Now we get to the difficult part. Fast forward 7-8 months, and I’m still trying. I’ve made very little progress. Sure, I’ve learned a lot. But I haven’t really done anything about it. I haven’t submitted anything to anywhere, or created a portfolio of published writing samples. Because honestly, I haven’t tried hard enough. I’ve been too scared to actually put myself out there. I have plans on what to do next. Unnecessarily well-researched plans, at that. But I’m just terminally paralyzed by fear from moving forward.

On one level, I think I’m kidding myself. Being a freelancer requires being organized, my kryptonite. It requires networking and cold-calling and all sorts of things. Being able to write effectively isn’t enough, and I’m not even confident that I’m sufficiently good at that. For example, I use sentences like that last one right there. And also that one.

And I don’t know how viable a career it is. The research I’ve done suggests that it’s doable. It seems like most people fail for the reason I’ve failed up to this point: they don’t try hard enough. But I also realize I might be fooling myself.

But I’m going to keep trying. For one thing, I’m doing this. This month of discomfort and anxiety. Will it help me break through those ridiculous, so-obviously-self-imposed barriers that are holding me back? I don’t know.

I hope so.


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