An adventure, to be sure.

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I sadly didn’t get to spend much time by the pond bordering the camp property where I worked for 5 weeks. Image via https://www.pinterest.dk/pin/355643701793822791/

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.

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White Mountains forest a hundred years ago. Ghosts from the past are still hanging around. Image via https://www.shorpy.com/node/7618

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Like weeds after a hard rain

As some of you know, being a blogger is a mixed deal. Sometimes you’re super inspired and feel like what you have to say is important, fascinating even, and clearly people will want to read what you wrote. Other days, not so much. There are probably millions of blog posts devoted to this topic, with all sorts of cures for the blogger blues, ways to increase readership, drive people to your site, make them want to read YOUR post over the other fifty million out there in blogland. For whatever reasons, none of that really works for me. Maybe I just really don’t care that much about how much traffic I have, or how many readers are reading. It’s a paradox, alright.

During the past month, I became fascinated with the work of Jem Bendell, who wrote a paper titled Deep Adaptation, on how, after looking at a bunch of scholarly and scientifically sound research, he came to the conclusion that societal collapse is basically inevitable. What does this mean? To put it in a nutshell, he concludes that the kind of world we are all accustomed to living in, with all the benefits of modern society that we (mostly) take for granted every day of our lives, will become impossible to maintain and will collapse on itself. When will this breakdown occur? No one knows for sure. Some people think it could happen within decades, or even sooner. There is a Facebook page for people who are on board with Bendell’s analysis, that is a closed group you have to join. Naturally I joined it, so I could connect and see what others have to say about all of this. As you might expect, people are in various stages of agreement with the premise of societal collapse and the details.

This topic, and some of the comments people make on the Facebook group, seem a bit familiar to me. I am reminded of the period of time leading up to the year 2000, when many people were concerned about Y2K, another moment of societal doom. Back then, the theory went, the changeover from the 20th century (1900s) to the new millennium (2000) was simply too much for all the world’s computers to handle, and so they would stop functioning. This would lead to world-wide disaster on a massive scale, so people had better prepare for the worst. Some folks stockpiled emergency food and water, fuel for generators (since the electric grid would surely be undone by the glitch), and all manner of survival gear. Then the moment arrived: the clocks turned from 11:59 on December 31, 1999, to 12:00 am, January 1, 2000. Fireworks exploded around the world, but the world’s electric grid and computer systems did not fail en masse. Miraculously, we all survived and continued. Thank goodness, and we still got to party.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there is nothing to worry about, everything is fine, let’s continue to exploit, extract and plunder Earth like there is no tomorrow for our planet and ourselves. But, after reading some of the posts on Deep Adaptation, I have decided that I just cannot live life like an emergency is around every corner. I have also decided that my addiction to the daily news cycle is not only unhealthy, but in fact is poisonous.

Wise people throughout time have always known that there are really two main choices for how to live one’s life: through fear, or through love. Doomsaying and preparing for the end of life as we know it, at this stage, feels a lot like living through the fear lens. Living through the lens of love doesn’t mean one isn’t being smart, getting and giving support to others, finding creative ways to live with much less materiality, growing your own food if possible, stopping bad consumer habits, and protesting injustice. It means all those things, with the important addition of not focusing on the fear-induced What-if scenarios that seem to keep cropping up like weeds after a hard rain. We all know what a hard rain brings.

These are my rambling thoughts for tonight, dear Readers. This weekend was the celebration of Wesak, in which people around the world honor the Buddha’s birth, as well as all the venerated, ascended masters who have helped humanity over the eons of time. Humanity has been through so much in our long, extraordinary history. I may be an unrealistic idealist, but I am holding to the idea that we will make it through the coming decades, and society will change for the better. Change is inevitable, as is death. It is the nature of life on this planet. Let’s do what we can to stop fearing the future, and instead to imagine a more beautiful future world for our children, while doing the hard work of creating it.

Ideology Clash

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image via https://www.colleenpatrickgoudreau.com/

 

What do you do when someone you respect, or even love, shows you a side of themselves that is in direct opposition to values you hold dear and true? This question hit close to the bone for me this week. I’d like to share an anecdote with you, dear Readers, for your consideration as we continue to navigate some tricky waters in the social sphere.

(Spoiler alert: this post will be a bit of a ramble, due to the nature of the story.)

This week I had an interesting discussion with a former professor. I’d stopped into his office to say hello and ask him for some advice about learning how to do costing and portioning for quantity cooking in professional food service. This is his area of expertise, so I figured he’d be a good starting point for a quick lesson, or be able to point me in the right direction for information on the subject.

Our conversation began well enough. He was friendly and seemed happy to see me (it had been a few months since we had last met). When I asked my questions, he started right into a quick lecture on portioning and determining quantities of product for large groups. Then I asked about determining how to order based on a certain budget, say weekly or monthly. My professor seemed to have a ready answer for that too, and pulled up some figures based on an obscure scenario of older people in a nursing home and how much it cost to feed them three meals a day.

I took a look at the list of menu items, broken down by ingredients (a slice of white bread, $0.08, one lettuce leaf, $0.04, one chicken breast, $ 0.45, etc.). That’s when the trouble began.

“But, Professor, I don’t want to feed my guests cheap chicken raised in factory farms under horrendous conditions,” I protested. “I’d rather buy better quality, sustainably raised poultry to serve.”

My professor became agitated and grew red in the face. “Oh, please spare me your political bullshit,” he implored. “I’m asking you to work up a menu based on a budget of less than $3 per day in food costs. Can you do it? If so, I will give you the job. If not, then goodbye!” he flourished with his arm toward the door. I gave a dry laugh, replying, “Okay, then, thanks and goodbye.” I paused a moment, then mused, “I would not be able to work for a place that had no regard for how the food is raised or how the workers are treated. I need to work with people who are in alignment with my values, what I hold to be most important.” He heard me, then calming down, suggested that I could work for the local food bank, that perhaps it would be a better fit for me. We talked a little while further, and then I left.

That conversation and interaction taught me some important lessons. In a flash, I understood that his values were centered around the standard business model of profit as the motivator and bottom line for everything that happens in a food service establishment. It was how he’d been trained decades ago as a chef and manager, before turning to academia and teaching. It is what he continues to teach his students, and sincerely believes is most important to know going into that career path. Once again, it was brought home to me how my most foundational values are at odds with standard business philosophy in a capitalist-based economy. My professor is a product of that system, believes in it whole-heartedly, and teaches it as he feels is his duty. In capitalist economy, you either control all your costs with the goal of making a profit, or you fail. Period. Full stop. In this worldview, there is no room for nonsense like caring about how poultry or any other animal product is raised. It matters not how farm workers are treated, as long as you can get your produce for the lowest price point possible. Profit or die.

Yet, I know that there is another way and system for doing business, and for having an economy that works for everyone. In fact, there are many other models being tested, honed, refined, and experimented upon all around the globe. But, in our current crazed global business model based on profit or perish, most of the people who train to be business owners, CEOs, salespeople, managers and the like, keep to the standard capitalist model which continues to be promoted and taught as THE ONLY and BEST way to keep it all going—linear GDP and all.

When my professor became angry and told me to save my “political bullshit” because I objected to buying factory-farmed poultry, I had a choice. I could have reacted in kind, with anger and defensiveness, and argued further for all the reasons why I feel it is important to not support that industry. Yet, I chose to simply let his anger boil and then settle, without giving it any more fuel. I maneuvered the conversation in another direction, and defused a potentially damaging situation. By the time I got up to leave his office, my professor had regained his composure, and I believe we remain on good terms.

In the times we are living through, these kind of tensions between human beings are more prevalent than ever. Ideologies are more extreme towards one pole or the other than they have been in recent memory. Given this, I saw first-hand how easy it is to throw fuel on the fires that smolder just under the surface of many people’s psyches, and how damaging it is for moving forward towards a world that is more just, kind and loving. Humanity’s boiling point is at a lower temperature than ever, and it is our work to find the tact, honesty and good will to have difficult conversations without succumbing to the destructive heat of anger and self-righteousness. There is way too much of that energy going around on Earth and it is getting us nowhere.

Dear Readers, I plan to write more posts concerning the issues of factory farming and alternatives to eating animals (yes, that means veganism alright). For those of you who haven’t yet considered the possibility of giving up eating animals for a more humane and compassionate world, I encourage you to open to this possibility. And, I hope you will continue reading, regardless of your personal beliefs around eating or not eating animals. It’s a big subject, and extremely relevant to us all moving into the future.