Hello Readers, it’s been a while since I engaged in the blogosphere. The past couple of months I’ve been working, both externally in the world and internally on myself, in deep and profound ways. This resulted in exhaustion on several levels, leaving me with no energy nor motivation to write blog posts. However, now that August has arrived, I’d like to share a story. If you are one of the readers who likes posts about the various climate crises and protests that I report on, you may want to skip this one. But for those who are interested in the personal narrative, I hope you will read on.
In mid-June, I left the College of Business at MSU Denver, bound for New Hampshire. I had gotten a gig as head cook for a family summer camp in the White Mountains, a place I’d never gone before and knew very little about. The interviews with the director had gone well, and so when offered the job, I accepted. Ready for an adventure, I boarded the plane in Denver with high hopes for a fun and busy summer working as the head of their kitchen.
With characteristic enthusiasm, I plunged right into the work. The camp was old, the buildings even older, and things seemed, let’s say, rustic and quaint from the start. The staff was an eclectic assortment of humans of various ages, genders, socio-economic backgrounds, spiritual beliefs and just about every other variant one could imagine. Most seemed kind, friendly and willing to help me learn the ropes. What I couldn’t have known then was that other, older and historical forces were also present, and would soon come into the comedy-drama that was about to unfold.
Let me set the scene. An old, large wooden lodge was the main building. Built on multiple levels, it contained a main floor with a wonderful wrap-around screened porch for guests to lounge, chat and relax. The office, kitchen and dining hall were on this level. Upstairs were guest rooms, named after historical people who’d been important to the camp in some way over the past nearly eighty years. Filled with dark, wood, antique furniture and old pictures, the rooms felt quaint, even charming and offered beautiful views of the nearby forest and mountain peak. There was an extra-long bathtub in one of the bathrooms, where a grown man would be able to lay in comfortably.
The ground level of the lodge housed the economy rate guest rooms, as well as several bathrooms, the laundry room, staff sink and fridge, and the cook’s room, a small room with a bed, dresser and writing table where I would sleep and hang out when not working upstairs. Once I swept up the cobwebs and mouse droppings in the corners, it seemed okay enough. The room was underneath the grain room, a corner of the kitchen area where bulk foods were kept and was the access to the walk-in refrigerator. Without getting deep into descriptions, remember that this place is decades old, and has not had any remodeling during at least the past few. This translates to old equipment, old surfaces, animals and insect populations residing in the walls and between floors, and the natural consequences of these. In other words, Trouble brewing.
Then there was the outside world to contend with. Coming from Colorado, I hadn’t given much thought to the perils inherent in a much more humid woodland area to live and work in for the summer. Big Mistake. The mosquitoes were thick from the moment I arrived, in a most unpleasant way. Alongside that, we were warned continually about the ticks which were everywhere there was grass or high weeds (which was all around the camp), and that there were both wood ticks and the more perilous deer ticks that carried Lyme disease. These ticks could be as small as a sesame seed, and once embedded within your flesh, chances are good of getting its debilitating disease without even knowing it and it can last for months or even years. Ugh. Not exactly the happiest welcoming committee for my first days on the job.
The directors had warned me that they were short-staffed, having had trouble finding enough young people to fill all their staff needs before the season opened. Because of this, our kitchen crew consisted of me, a 20 year old guy who had worked there the summer before, an older woman who was the stalwart volunteer for a few hours around dinner service each day, and then we’d see who else was willing and able to help out with prep for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. I quickly learned that the former cook (who had gone on to bigger and better kitchens) was some kind of bodhisattva-saint type character, loved by all and who offended none, kept her cool even under duress, stress and even gangsta rap couldn’t offend her. An impossible bar had been set, it seemed, and so trouble also began early on with the two who’d worked with her in previous years. Not only was I not a kitchen bodhisattva, but I tensed up under pressure (the closer to service time it got, the shorter my sentences became), couldn’t abide rap or other kinds of inappropriate musical genres, and my hygiene standards were considerably higher than those of previous chefs. The stage was set for interpersonal trouble from day one.
Then there were the ghosts. Like I said, this place was old, and there were lots of spirits hanging around, wreaking havoc big and small. They decided to have some fun with me, starting on day two. In the middle of the workday, I fell into a heap of black floor mats piled up in front of the ancient mop sink, which felt like falling into quicksand. It took all my strength to get back up, and I injured what I thought was my right arm at the time. However, the following morning, as I bent over to brush my teeth, my lower back went out as a girdle of pain stretched around my lumbar region. Yikes. That was the morning of day three. Then there were the fire alarms going off in the middle of the night, three nights in a row for no reason. Turns out, apparently the nearly million dollar, modern fire alarm system that was installed a few years back was so finely tuned that even an insect walking across the light beam (infrared?) would set it off (at least that’s the story we were told as to why it happened, repeatedly?). I am firmly of the belief that it was those mischievous ghosts messing with us. They probably thought it was hilarious fun to watch us all have to get up and go outside in the pouring rain at midnight for no reason.
There was also the strange phenomenon of time fluidity at the camp. One day could seem like several ordinary days anywhere else, all compressed into a continuum that seemed unending. Life for me there was ruled by the wall clocks (there were three, all showing different times) which told me when breakfast, staff lunch, guest lunch, staff dinner and guest dinner were supposed to be served. Often, I would begin work after the breakfast cook (fortunately most days we had one other than me) was finished serving, and stay in the kitchen until dinner cleanup was done. I averaged 12 hour workdays, and when I was on for breakfast shift, sometimes 14 hour days. Basically I showered, slept and hung out in my little room after the day was done, since going outside in the evening meant getting eaten alive by mosquitos, possibly bitten by ominous ticks, or engulfed in the rainstorms that occurred regularly.
Still, I was managing it all as best I could until the day the ovens stopped working two hours before dinner service. It was a Friday, which meant roasting forty pounds of cut chickens in six roasting pans, using all three of the old commercial gas ovens. After less than an hour in, two of the ovens decided to give up the ghost. I called the director to let him know what was happening. He later confided that he had smelled natural gas that morning, which clued him in to call the gas company to come fill the tank. But unfortunately it had slipped his mind as he got busy with other tasks. So on a Friday afternoon, when I was responsible for feeding over a hundred hungry guests and staff, we were down two ovens. I went into panic mode, and remembered there was a working oven in one of the guest houses up the hill. So I took the pans of chicken, wearing long oven mitts, and with my favorite helper we walked the pans over to the guest house oven and threw them in to roast off for another hour. Not to mention the tofu steaks for the vegan crowd. Then it poured down rain as I returned with the now-roasted chicken for service. We saved that dinner, but happy I was not. This was the end of week four, out of an eleven week contract (and I didn’t even mention the freezer going out the following day, which nobody mentioned to me until a couple days later as I noticed how soft the ice cream had become).
That night, laying exhausted in the bed, I had a good, long talk with myself. I realized that I was in the danger zone of exhaustion, while it wasn’t yet halfway through the summer. Up until that night, I’d put up with all the problems, the people, the ghosts, the obstacles, one after another. I’d been a good soldier. But that night, a voice inside me said, No. More. Of. This. I knew I’d reached my boundary of what was healthy and manageable. I went to sleep that night, asking my higher self for guidance. The next evening, after another long, hot and uncomfortable day in that kitchen, I wrote out a letter of resignation. I texted the staff coordinator, a lovely, positive woman whom I respected, and asked her to arrange a meeting with her, the director and me for the following afternoon. In that meeting, I handed him my letter. He read it carefully, and then without hesitation agreed and accepted my resignation. I truly felt sorry that I was unable to fulfil my contract and told him so. I suggested that perhaps he could find another cook to take my place by talking with all his contacts and board members. He looked at me kindly and stated, “I think you’re looking at him.” Then he went on to discuss that chicken disaster evening, and told me that I hadn’t handled it properly from a leadership perspective. “You should’ve called a meeting right there and then, with me and the other cook. We should’ve looked each other in the eyes, and agreed on a plan. Then you could have taken the chicken up to the other oven.” I breathed that in, agreeing that I’d failed on the leadership part. He is a kind man, however, and said all this without malice or anger. He told me not to give up on being a leader, because I do know what I’m doing in the kitchen. I just needed more practice with stressful situations. Uh, yeah. Just not there.
A week and couple days later, after two days of travel via bus to Boston, pouring rain, long waits in Logan and JFK airports and delayed flights, I finally landed at DIA outside of Denver. Even the airline not bringing my luggage to Denver couldn’t ruin my mood of elation and utter relief at being home once again. Even though it was still nearly 80 degrees at 10 pm, at least it was Colorado—dry, relatively insect-free, and beloved to me.
Now that I’m back in Denver, my hometown, I am pondering what’s next on this life journey. The major takeaways from the five weeks in New Hampshire are: I love to cook for other people, knowing I am nourishing their bodies and souls through healthy, good food; never again will I take a job or any position sight-unseen, trusting in another’s perspective of what is workable and manageable; New England is not a region I plan to revisit anytime soon (or ever) without a really good reason; my appreciation for hygiene, equipment that is in good working order, and love of people who can follow directions without giving me attitude has been heightened exponentially; and finally, Colorado is (as I have long known) one of the very best places to live on Earth.
Thanks for reading my narrative, if you managed to read to the end. Stay tuned for further updates and musings on our interrelated lives on this amazing, and sometimes extraordinarily difficult, planet we all call Home.