Lately, after a small bout of emotional and mental hibernation, I realize how much I’ve been pondering this one idea more than any other lately. How much we ever get to choose our own life. It came to me first, in its bluntest form, from Gabrielle Hamilton in her book, Blood, Bones and Butter. It’s her reluctant journey into becoming a chef.
Cooking has, for the most part, found me – and even though there’s a part of me that would love to think I could live in that world of the toque and white chefs’ coat, even though I truly find a comforting embrace whenever wearing an apron; I know that world is not mine and never totally will be.
I think now there is quite likely one element that influences each of us more than anything – maybe not where we land in life – but how. It tells us how we’ll react when we get to any one place along the way.
For Gabrielle Hamilton, it was working in a kitchen, or at least a restaurant. For me? It was a paper route. I’m thinking now, how much that first experience of working for real completely changes you into something that you never fully shake, that forever frames your view of the world, life, work, and play.
A paper route is an odd job – a great job – now that I really think about it. It’s the one thing perfectly suited to becoming an entrepreneur. Maybe. For me it was refuge and solace. A paper route is task oriented; you deliver papers on doorsteps. No one cares what you wear, or how often, what your hygiene is like. You are, for all intents, self employed – a contractor purchasing newspapers in bundles at a wholesale cost and charging the customer a close to retail price. You work unsupervised when few people are even stirring awake.
For me, it was a place to wander completely alone in the wee hours of the morning, the place I learned almost everything about life and work, on my own, all alone. I still love nothing more than wandering around the neighborhood at odd hours of the night and early morning under starry skies, watching the sun rise. It was a time and place to pilfer cigarettes from unlocked cars (who said you don’t get perks?) and discover that I liked smoking, not to be cool or because of peer pressure, but because it was, truly, comforting and wonderful and I loved watching the smoke curl under the street lights, against the inky dark sky illuminating with rosy hues while pondering the meaning of life. It was the place I learned to take people with a grain of salt and the art of subtle revenge. The customer who was ‘conveniently’ never home when I came collecting for the month of delivery, on occasion, wound up with a 16penny nail propped behind a tire, or even two. A gasoline can, left out from mowing a lawn, once got knocked over and killed a large patch of lawn.
It’s the place you meet your first real asshole. The tyrant who is awake a 4:45 every morning, dressed and showered by 5:15 and sitting down with a plate of some sort of shitty toaster waffles and wondering where in the fucking world his paper is. He greets you daily, with a sneer, at 5:30 when you finally show up with his “crappy rag” as he liked to call it. His paper wound up in the shrubs on the weekend. He is the person, I realize, I never would ever allow myself to become…
Nothing, I realize, has changed for me philosophically from that first job, from that first taste of work… Everything I do still is, for the most part, a task or tasks to be broken down into thoughtless exercises and motions. Architecture school was exactly that; each project a simple list of tasks to be completed by a certain point in time. The rest of it? Spent mostly smoking Camels, alone, under starry nights and the chatter of poplar trees on the common edge of a mobile home park and a wheat field, pondering life, strategy for completing what was to come tomorrow… Work, being self employed, isn’t any different. The only grief and frustration I ever have is when I can’t put something into terms of a task to be done, when I can’t bank on time for myself to figure out how to do it.
I’m fairly sure it’s the only reason why cooking seems easy and fun for me; it’s always simple little tasks – whether it’s simply stocking up with groceries, planning a meal, or preparing ingredients – each aspect has it’s own little checklist of requirements, techniques and sequence. And at the end of it all, maybe the thing I love most, it’s only composed around the things that bring you some sense of pleasure. Learning how to cultivate and create the things you enjoy and crave, I think, is the highest calling, no matter what your ‘job’ is, whatever life has chosen you…