Last summer, when I first started this blog, I was working as a cook in the woods. I used my new blog as a way to vent my frustration about work and to rip on my “manager”, who then found my blog, which at that time was maybe read by four people, but that’s just the way this universe works in this day and age. So I left my job (I had already given notice) and deleted those posts, but now I’m putting them back up- enough time has passed, I think, and plus I need to feed you readers something while I work on my manuscript/stare out the window/read A Cartoon History of the Modern World.
August second. Dear diary…
I can’t hardly write
-because I work too goddam much. Working full time for minimum wage is like bailing water out of a leaky ship. Work, work, work- but for what? It’s not just work, either. It’s really, REALLY stressful work. So stressful, I can’t remember the last time I dreamed about something other than work- being at work or going to work or needing to be at work. So stressful, a 40 hour week feels like an 80 hour week. And I am SICK of this non-profit self-sacrifice bullshit. I am NOT going to make anymore gluten-free birthday cakes for ungrateful, self-centered backpackers on yoga retreats. Do you know how much it fucking costs in the city to buy a giant gluten free chocolate cake that was hand-made for you? Enjoy your $12 dinner. I make $7 an hour. It makes me want to punch you in the face.
And then there is my “manager”, of course. But we won’t even go there. I’ve gone there and gone there, and now I want to be anywhere but there.
So today I gave my notice. And I’m so excited to leave, I’m wondering how I will make it through another 2 weeks of this drudgery. I am so excited to find a caretaking gig, and do what I finally want to do- write. All I want to do is write. Dear god.
And if any of you wants my job, let me know. You’ll be cooking dinners for 40 to 70 people all by your lonesome, interrupted only by the occasional presence of your mumbling, senile “manager” who will passive-aggressively try and find some way to sneak white flour or heavy cream into whatever you are cooking, and then “help you” by reorganizing the fridge or baking a cake, making as big a mess as POSSIBLE for you to clean up later.
It will make you want to shoot yourself in the face, but not for at least a few weeks.
At least you get to live in the woods, but really you live in the kitchen, which is actually pretty nice for a kitchen.
And don’t think that you can plan your own menu, oh no, no matter how “hip” and “allergy friendly” the things you know how to cook might be. Any menu suggestions you make will be met with suspicion and resentment, especially if they include “out there” foods like “beans” and “whole wheat flour” (I’m not joking.) But it’s ok, because to level the playing field you react to your manager’s “white flour and dairy” meal suggestions with the same resentment and suspicion, and it creates a stimulating and hostile work environment, which can keep you awake and going just like a nice punk-rock album turned up loud.
After work, work will still be there, inside your head, running round and round and round.
Oh, it’s not that bad. Even with all of that, AND the fact that I keep eating sugar because I spend all day in the kitchen with it, which gives me hella moodswings, I’ve actually been pretty happy. I sleep great and I wander around in the woods and my life is simple. And conflict can be invigorating, especially if you are up for the challenge. Today we had a meeting and I told my “manager” all of the reasons that I was leaving, straight up and in a long list, which I had been repeating over and over to myself in my head, every day while I worked. She got defensive and we argued for a while, and then she told me that there was no use arguing with me once I set my mind to something and that I was the most straight-forward and self-confident person she had ever met. It felt good, to hear that from her, it was like the best validation anyone could possibly give me.
So that’s what I’m taking from this. Nothing makes me feel better than saying NO to something, to shaking off something and moving on to something better. I’m getting there, I swear. I’m on my way.
August eighth. Dear diary…
She was talking to Christian, who we call “Mr. Clean”. The man she had brought up. It’s strange to bring people into the woods, onto the ship. We’re like a ship in the middle of the sea- a few buildings and nothing but forest all around. You can swim out a little ways but it’s just forest, forest, forest, as far as the eye can see. But really it’s more like a big lake. One of those big lakes in the Midwest, where I’ve never been. A lake so big it seems like the ocean. An inland sea.
Unless you look at a map. Then it’s just the tiniest splat of green, somewhat randomly defined, standing tall against the crush of civilization. The crush from all sides. We’re so small, and so big, all at the same time.
They were sitting at one of the wooden tables in the lodge and I walked up and said
“Hey, R., is there a reason you don’t buy organic carrots?” I had some in my hand. They looked like I’d just pulled them from a dumpster. That’s what happens to produce when you get stuck in traffic on a hot day.
“Well, um…” R. gave me some garbled sentence in her language, which consists of various combinations of the phrases “I don’t know”, “well you see”, “the thing is”, and “you know”. It’s like her baking. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Alchemy. Powder and convection. Do refined foods lead to bad communication?
“Because,” I said, “organic carrots cost a dollar a pound. There’s no reason not to buy organic carrots. I know we can afford that.”
“You’d be surprised,” she said. “There are a lot of things we get that are organic, from Costco.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Well, I’m pretty sure they have organic things there. Like zuchinni!”
“They carry those things? Or you actually buy them?”
“They definitely carry them. You’d be surprised.”
“But do you get any produce that’s organic?”
“Well, not at Winco. They don’t have much there.”
“Ok, but can you get organic carrots from now on? They cost one dollar a pound.”
“That’s why I do. I mean I did.”
“These carrots are organic?” I held up the carrots. “The ones in the paper bag?”
“Well, not from winco. But there are more that I got, I’m pretty sure they’re organic.”
“Ok, uh, can you get organic carrots from now on?”
“I did! I mean I do!”
I walked away. It was a good effort on my part. She’d be so embarrassed now, that I made her talk in front of her man-friend that was visiting. She’d never buy conventional carrots again. Until she forgot entirely.
The day before she’d come back from shopping, and I had seen a paper trader joe’s bag on the front seat of the land cruiser. It was full of gluten-free brownie mixes, each one in it’s own understated brown paper package. I looked at the label. One mix, twelve brownies.
R. and Sarah were talking on the back porch, in the sun.
I walked up from the store-room. “Hey R.,” I said. “How much did those brownie mixes cost?”
She shrugged. “Two-fifty, three dollars each. Cheap!”
“You know,” I said, “It’s really, really easy to make gluten-free brownies. You just take any brownie recipe, and you replace the wheat flour with a gluten-free flour, like rice flour.”
“I LIKE having those around!” she cried, offended. “I LIKE having them! I’m GLAD I bought them!”
“The way you shop doesn’t make any sense!” I shouted. Sarah watched us both, shocked. “NONE of our staples are even organic! You buy the shittiest staples you can POSSIBLY find! And then you spend thirty dollars on packages of brownie mix at trader joe’s! This is a RESTAURANT! You can’t shop like that!”
“I like those mixes!” she cried, in her high-pitched, child-like voice. “I LIKE having them around! Those are good brownies!”
I held up the liquid-measure of rice-flour I had been carrying for effect. Eight cups.
“See this?!” I shouted. “Rice flour. I’m going to make brownies for dessert tonight, but I’m going to make them GLUTEN FREE. It’s THAT EASY.”
“I LIKE the brownie mixes!” said R. “Your brownies are good, but these are chewier!”
“Your shopping doesn’t make sense!” I shouted. We’d never fought quite like this before. Gloves off. “We could have organic staples! I don’t understand the way you shop! We could have organic flour, at least!”
It had reached a line. And then it crossed the line.
“THERE IS NO WE.” shouted R., furious. “I don’t care what you think. It DOESN’T MATTER. YOU’RE LEAVING US.”
“WHAT?” I shouted, stunned. “You talk about not being condescending, but you just invalidated any contribution I’ve made to this place!”
“No,” Said R, stumbling. “No- um, no I did not!”
“Yes you did! You just said ‘there’s no we’! You want me to leave? I can leave today! I still work here, you know! You don’t think I contribute? I CAN LEAVE TODAY!”
It was a lie. I had nowhere to go. I’d have to pack first, anyway. Load my books into my thirty-year-old dinghy and paddle out into the ocean. Until I could see the horizon again, where I didn’t even have a home. This was like a bad relationship. This was like the dysfunctional family I never had.
I left the porch for the kitchen, sliding the door shut behind me. Rebecca and Sarah went back to their meeting. The kitchen meeting they were having, without me. Because I had given my two weeks’ notice. Not that I could talk to Rebecca anyway, about anything, without getting angry. There was no point in us even talking to each other.
I was so upset I couldn’t stand it. I’d never been this upset at a job before, at least not for as long as I could remember. Then again, I don’t work very much. Maybe that’s my problem.
R. told me once that I had a “problem with authority”. My problem was that I thought she was a fucking idiot. It made me want to punch myself in the face, because she was also old. But then I realized that she’d probably been an idiot even before she was old, and hating her guts didn’t make me an asshole. But it was still kind of fucked up, since she was old. You’re supposed to be respectful to old people, because they have wisdom. Even if they’re kind of senile. You’re supposed to listen hard and try to meet them halfway. But I wanted to scream at R. and tell her that I hated her. I wanted to tell her that she was a horrible manager and that I hoped they didn’t find anyone to replace me, because only people with bad boundaries and low self-esteem would put up with her shit. I wanted to tell her all of those things, while waving a wooden spoon and shaking her “make a mix” cookbook, which she made me use and which called for crisco in every single recipe. That was why I was quitting.
I started mixing the cocoa in the bowl. Mix, mix, mix. Big steel bowl, wooden spoon. Cocoa dust on the front of my teal apron. “You look so beautiful,” Sarah had said earlier, on the back deck. “You match the roof”. The roof of the lodge was teal. Sarah was always saying nice things like that. She gave away her emotions so freely, like pieces of chocolate. It made everyone happier. She was always telling people that they were beautiful and that she loved them. It made me feel really great, to work with her in the kitchen. Sometimes we conspired.
“It was just me and you…”
“Running this kitchen…”
“And two other people like us…”
But I knew it would never be like that. She didn’t really want mutiny like I did. She and R. actually got along pretty well. They had a sort of weird mother-daughter relationship that had started in the spring when it was just the two of them working long hours and not getting paid, and it worked well enough alright for them. Plus, Sarah had something that I didn’t, which was Respect For R.’s Cooking. Or respect in general, for R. She’d watch patiently as R. wagged her fingers in the air and sucked her cheeks like she was eating a jolly-rancher, conjuring up some French dish she would mis-pronounce and have her way with, ending up with a stock-pot of tomato soup from a number-ten can of tomato paste, in the bottom of which rested some orzo pasta. Plenty of seasonings, of course. Garlic and onions. A symbolic cube of eggplant. She’d call it “ratatouille” and serve it with breadsticks made from the pizza dough recipe- a complete meal! Orzo was like an exotic grain for her. Like people who think cous-cous is a grain. An exotic grain.
“It’s not a grain!” I want to scream at those people. “It’s just pasta! It’s just wheat flour, in cous-cous shapes! IT’S BREAD, PEOPLE! IT’S FUCKING BREAD! ALL YOU’RE EATING IS BREAD!”
That was the way I felt about the “vegetarian” cooking at the lodge. “PIZZA, PASTA, LASAGNA, SPINACH PIE, ALL YOU’RE EATING IS FUCKING BREAD!”
I stirred the cocoa madly. I was so upset I couldn’t even stand it. I threw in the saucepan of melted butter and the baking soda. How could R. tell me that I wasn’t part of the kitchen anymore? I hadn’t left yet! And I had put my heart and soul into this place just as much as anyone else! And why the fuck was I working at all, if I wasn’t even part of the team? Why was I even making these fucking brownies?
R. came in and asked if there were any boiled eggs. Sarah said no.
“Carrot, boil some eggs.” she said.
“I don’t know why you’re talking to me,” I shouted, walking into the dishroom. “I don’t work here.”
“Huh? You quitting today?”
“It’s funny that you would ask me to boil some eggs. You said I don’t contribute anything. You said I’m not part of the team.”
“Just boil some eggs, Carrot!”
“There’s no WE, REMEMBER?”
“Alright! You contribute a lot! You do great work! You make excellent food!”
“Ok,” I said. “I’ll boil some eggs.” R. wandered out again. We couldn’t stand to be in the kitchen at the same time anymore. I boiled the eggs and put the brownies in the oven, eating some batter off a spoon. A big helping of sugar, as if my mood wasn’t bad enough already.
In a while I took the brownies out of the oven. I cut out a brownie. It wouldn’t hold together.
“Well,” I said, “I guess rice flour doesn’t work for these brownies.” I put down the knife. Sarah was chopping onions. I went into the dishroom to do dishes. The hot soapy water began to calm me. The rhythmic wiping pushed back the storm clouds in my head. R. faded away, and it was only me. There I was, on a stage. My life. A play that made me grimace. Why, I wondered, was I always quitting? Quitting everything? Why wasn’t anything ever good enough? Why was there always some reason to leave, to quit? What was wrong with me? Was there something wrong with me? Why couldn’t I stick with something for just six months? One job for six months? It could be so easy! Would I always be this restless? Would I always fail at everything? Would I always give up before I got someplace? Would I always be a scumbag loser failure with nothing to show for myself? Why was I the biggest fuckup in the world? Why couldn’t I just deal with one mean, senile old lady? Am I so pathetic that I can’t even deal with one mean old lady?
“You just want things to be right,” Sarah had said. “You want things to be right.”
I started crying into the dishes. I didn’t even care anymore. It’s so hard to live where you work. I had tried so hard to keep my work and personal life separate. I just wanted to leave work and go “home” and not talk or think about work. But “home” was work and it was like R. was my mom and I was trying to reason with her but she was crazy, and nothing she said made any sense and I had to keep reminding myself that she was the one that was crazy. And then she had gone and told me that I wasn’t part of the “team”, even though I worked all the time and everyone loved my food, because she was not only senile but nasty and spiteful too, and felt threatened by me because I hated her cooking and thought she was stupid. And why was I always the one who had the biggest problems with these sorts of people? Why was I always the one who rocked the boat, and then quit? Why was I such a quitter? What the fuck was wrong with me?
I cried into the dishes for a while. It felt nice, like crying in the shower. Or peeing in the ocean. Later, after dinner, I sat on the front steps, watching the light in the trees. Megan talked about getting out, how good it was to get out. She was going to a wedding.
“Do you ever feel like you want to quit?” I asked her. “Like you won’t make it to November?”
“No,” she said. “Maybe, sometimes.”
The kids inside where shitting themselves over my brownies. One of the kids came outside and asked me for the recipe.
“Those are the best brownies I’ve ever had,” he said, clutching and unclutching his little fists, amped up on sugar.
“They’re gluten free,” I said. He didn’t know what that meant. I dug up a piece of paper to make a copy from the dirty binder where we kept the recipes.
“I have a mechanical pencil,” he said, “if you need something to write with.” I took the pencil from him. “See, I already pushed it out for you.”
He stood patiently while I copied the recipe. I wondered if he was going to give it to his mom, or what. Who would make these brownies for him? Would they let him eat the whole pan? Maybe his parents didn’t cook at all. Then again, he was here on Audubon summer camp. His parents must be loaded. Did anyone cook anymore? I looked at him waiting, with his name-tag necklace made from a slice of alder. The kids had all built debris shelters in the woods today, across the creek. They were learning wilderness survival. They were going to sleep in the shelters tonight. Sounds good, I thought, except for the mosquitoes. I gave him the recipe and went back to the front steps. Everyone had left, to work or whatever. All the jobs in camp were more fun than being a cook. But that’s what you get when you’re a flake, and don’t apply till may. The only job that’s left. But so what if I’m a quitter, I thought, as I watched the shadows grow under the hemlocks- so fucking what. And suddenly I was so happy to be me, and not R, or Sarah, or one of the kids. Because wherever it was I was going, I knew that that place was exciting. And maybe I wasn’t there yet, and maybe I would never get there, and maybe I would die in a car accident or get some chronic illness or something. But at least my train was moving, and I was the one doing the driving. And that, I realized, was more important to me than anything.