Learning from others

I had a teacher in 10th grade, who taught English. She was one of my favourite teachers of all times. She not only loved reading, but also writing, and obscure words. She loved going to England every year, and would show us pictures of her travels. She frequently asked us to read, and to encourage it, she would offer extra credit to anyone who chose a book from her personal bookshelf (kept behind her desk), and come back and discuss it with her. The beauty of the deal is that she didn't make more work for herself by having you write a report on it. Instead, it was more like an informal discussion that you'd have with your friend about a book that she enjoyed, and that you enjoyed.

I remember being in her class, and having the infinite pleasure of meeting another book addict. I took her up on her offer. When my 2 books per semester ran out I asked if she didn't mind if I just kept reading, just for the hell of it. She had an extensive collection of Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer, Ken Follet, and a bunch of other contemporary writers. They weren't High Literature, because she knew she was dealing with high school kids. Instead, they were just fun reads.

During this time, when I was enrolled in honours and AP classes, after school activities (AKA, drama club, track, and weekly prayer meetings with my parents), I still managed to read through one novel every day. The best part was her delight in giving me a book, having me read it, and discussing it with her the very next day. It's like instant gratification, because often when I reccommend a book to a friend, it takes them however long to read it, and we don't discuss it until weeks or months later. So to have another book addict to chat with was amazing.

She kept giving me thicker and more complex books. Jeffery Archer's As the Crow Flies, and Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth were two such examples. I knocked out As the Crow Flies in a day and a half, and Pillars of the Earth in three.

There was this lady, intelligent, talented, and lots of fun to hang out with, teaching a class of honours English to students who frequently didn't appreciate reading. year after year. I remember asking her one day how she could keep up. "Aside from finding other book addicts like you, I find that every year, I learn more from my students."

I was floored. Here was this woman, who was so intelligent and varied in her interests (and books), who said that she was learning from her high school students! Ever since then, I have made it my personal mission to see to it that I strive to learn from everyone I meet, even when it's me who's the teacher in that situation. One of my cooking students, Ari, mentioned that she hates to wrestle with a butternut squash, because she's not got the arm strength for it. So, she just throws the whole thing into the oven like that, and roasts it until it's tender. This is something she taught me after I'd spent day after day in the restaurant kitchen, wrestling enormous piles of butternut squash, and cursing every minute of it (they really are stubborn). Here's someone who was asking me to teach her to cook, teaching me a new technique to use in my own life!

Never discount the lessons that you learn from others. Even those who are younger, or less experienced, or less talented. All of them have something to teach you.

Thank you, Mrs. Deshong. You are a wonderful teacher, and I hope that wherever you are today, you're enjoying a good book.


Hunger is scary

Speaking of feeling things ...
I have an innate terror about feeling hungry. Call it childhood trauma (NOT from my mother, for the record; she made sure that the house was perpetually stocked with good things to eat) or what have you, but that feeling of knowing that there is nothing for me to eat gives me severe anxiety. I make sure to eat well before leaving my home.
 Anyone who's watched me eat knows that I generally eat very frequently. I could have just eaten a very short time ago, but we pass another bit of food I want later, and I've got to stop and refuel. It's like that initial anxiety you get when you first have your new mobile phone. You're not comfortable with its battery life yet, so you charge it too frequently for that first month. You hate knowing that you'll be without charge at a critical moment. In reality, it's probably not that huge a deal. If the thing is running low, you can really just turn it off and turn it back on when you need it. But until you learn that, you're still in dread of the battery running out.
I guess that because I'm a vegan, my lack of food anxiety tends to be pronounced. I have been places where the only option is a cup of black coffee with some sugar. And no, there isn't bread that I can trust. You see, it's been such a while since I've had dairy, that even a small amount in my food (even when I don't know it's there) sends my digestive system into a violent protest. Eggs can sneak by without my notice. Honey doesn't actually do anything. But dairy, when I accidentally ingest it, has me wrapped around the porcelain overlord, sweating profusely, and blasting from every orifice. Not a pleasant feeling.
So it's especially a nerve-wracking experience to leave my little vegan bubble. You see, I work at a vegan restaurant, am married to a committed vegan, and keep a vegan house. The friends that I socialise with on a regular basis are at the very least vegetarian. Those who aren't generally tend to be respectful omnivores, and are happy to wait until leaving my presence before settling down to animal flesh and the rest. Pretty much every restaurant in my city (including the steak houses, I found out on one particularly annoying night) can and is often happy to serve me something not only filling, but delicious. If I call ahead, I even sometimes get a fairly excited chef, who'd like to try out something experimental to see if I like it. At the local Chinese food delivery place, they have a selection of veggie meats to go with all their dishes. And they know what I mean when I ask for vegan.
When I leave my bubble, however, it's not so easy. These are often places with no mass transit, and I don't drive, and everything is spaced out really far apart. On those occasions, I'll end up at a convenience store or pharmacy, and grab some cashews, or crackers. But frankly, after a few hours, crackers and cashews don't really feel satisfying, dense in calories though they be.
All of this has done nothing at all to relieve my anxiety around hunger. I hate feeling hungry. It's one of those things that I've had to experience so rarely that to actively get myself into a situation where such is the case infuriates me.
But if I stop to think about it, I realise that I'm really being silly. Being hungry is not the worst thing in the world, especially considering that I live in a country where food is readily available to me when I want it. So what if I do have to skip a meal once in a while? More will be waiting later. And maybe letting myself get hungry once in a great while will make the meal at the other end of the experience taste all the more delicious.
It's something I'm working on, and I know I can get through it if I try.
I'm still going to carry a bottle of water though. 



Nobody likes to feel vulnerable, weak, ineffective, or otherwise compromised. Feeling like you're not in full control is terrible. However, it's still feeling, and sometimes it's important to allow yourself to live in your life, and to experience your emotions. Why? Because they're a sign of life.

When I was younger (man, do I sound old when I say that!), I was somewhere between horrified of and terrified by my darker emotions. Sadness, vulnerability, pain, all of them. To try to escape them (before I turned of age), I'd lose myself in books, or ignore them completely. Then, when I got to the age of consent, I'd numb the rough edges with cigarettes, coffee, or alcohol. I would escape into dance clubs, and assignations with men who I wouldn't have chosen to be with had I been in full possession of my good sense. Anything I could do to get rid of those bad feelings would be preferable to feeling them.

And then the health effects began to show up. After a night of dancing and drinking and smoking, I'd frequently end up at horrible chain restaurants (who shall remain nameless), and order things drenched in cheese, or pancakes loaded with maple syrup (which might as well have been called corn syrup), and any number of other disgusting, unhealthy things. I'd wake up feeling like hamsters had done the conga on my tongue the night before.

I'd feel tired all the time, so to combat it, I started drinking a lot of coffee. I became something of a coffee snob, and would only buy whole beans, grind them myself, and brew it up fresh every time I needed some. I started smoking around two packs of cigarettes a day. Then, to counteract the horrible insomnia that would hit, I started taking sleeping pills every night. This meant that I'd wake up feeling even more exhausted, and my body would be screaming for me to just stop the torture.

All so that I wouldn't have to face my emotions head-on.

Finally, when my destructive behaviour had reached a peak, I think my mother sensed something, and cornered me one night. She asked if she could help me get a wife sorted out. She mentioned that she could find me one in any shape, size, or colour I wanted. One who knew how to cook, appreciate good food, loved to travel, loved to read, etc etc. All the things I loved too. She kept coming at me, over and over again, bringing up various different girls she and I knew.

I ended up bursting out with, "Maybe I don't want to marry any girl."

"What does that mean," she asked.

"Maybe I want to marry a man."

It was like something snapped inside me, and my mother and I got me to a place where I could see why I was so angry all the time. Why I was trying to hide from myself by dulling my brain with the endless cycle of alcohol, sleeping pills, cigarettes, coffee, and every other disgusting thing you could find going straight into my body.

I'd like to say that the story ends there. That after I came out to my mother, I was able to live a life of magic and rainbows. Unfortunately, addiction is a difficult thing to conquer. I managed to sort out the coffee fairly quickly. That was easy enough. Once I stopped coffee, I was able to kick the sleeping pills, because I wasn't wired all the time. I didn't quit smoking, but I certainly cut back to a "reasonable" (I put that in air quotes because there is no reasonable amount of cigarettes) amount, where I'd make a pack last me about three days or so. I'd drink on Friday nights, and rarely Saturday nights, and even then, in amounts that my body could handle.

During my journey, however, I started to realise that I was working so hard to hide from and escape my emotions, that I ended up doing more harm to myself than by allowing myself to feel those emotions. I could easily have wound up sick, or in circumstances that I couldn't get myself out of. Part of the impetus for getting myself sorted was in living my life in a way that was honest to myself and others. But more than that was facing myself in the mirror, and letting myself know that I'm a human being, with flaws, emotions, and reason. Everything that I have experienced in the past has helped to shape me into who I am now and has become a part of me, and that's a good thing. Yes, there are bad times, but those helped me learn. If I didn't have those negative experiences, I'd never change, or grow. I'd never learn.

What I'm getting at is that I think that life is a beautiful, amazing thing, and all our experiences are important. Allowing ourselves to really live in them helps shape us into what we are. When you feel yourself getting frustrated at feeling vulnerable, or lonely, or anything else that you're not a huge fan of, remember that it's important to let yourself feel it.


Why care about allergies?

When I started working at the restaurant, I began noticing that in nearly every item on the menu, there were little symbols, like "gf", or "ns", or "sf". Bossman and I talked about it, and I mentioned how amazing I thought that the convention of marking clearly on the menu what is and isn't safe for the big allergens was. It's the same reason that we get the restaurant Kosher. Same reason that we try to aim for making specials that are safe for as many people as possible: it's just good hospitality.

My mother has been cooking for years. She's been cooking for so long that she does little things without even realising that she does it. For example, when it's a new person coming to her house, she quickly assesses who they are, where they're from, what kinds of things they may enjoy, and their level of spice tolerance. She'll still make one or two things suited to the rest of the family. However, for the guest, she'll make sure that the food is accessible to as many people as possible. She won't use the weird, bitter, or strangely textured vegetables. She'll avoid anything too spicy, or too difficult to wrangle. She'll stick with things that have excellent flavour, but don't have loads of hot peppers or black pepper.

Then, once the person has come over a few times, she'll adjust as necessary. However, for large groups of people, such as when she makes food for the temple potlucks, or for large gatherings of friends, she'll still stick to those basic rules: no major allergens (dairy, gluten, soy), no challenging flavours (very bitter, or very hot and spicy), and lots of flavour.

So when I came to Chow, it was like coming home. When I have guests coming over, I do the same thing. I'll ensure that I make something that everyone can enjoy. If a friend of mine is gluten intolerant, I don't make just one thing for that person. I'll try to make the whole meal gluten free. Why? Because to see that look of happiness when they can eat (almost) everything on the very well-filled table is gratifying. You feel good, knowing that you've made that person feel special. Meanwhile, the people who aren't gluten intolerant can still enjoy gluten free food! Everyone wins!

When you do have a friend with a* diet issue, please just challenge yourself to do everything in your power to cater to that person, and have the whole meal follow that plan. At the end of the day, what does it hurt to just try it out for a bit, and see where it leads you?

*Notice the "a" diet issue. I'm not asking you to turn into a hospital, where folks who are deathly allergic to soy, gluten, nuts, grains, raw vegetables, coconut, spices, oil, and herbs ALL AT THE SAME TIME feel like they need to have you jumping through hoops. There comes a point where someone just starts making stuff up, or where you're just not able to accommodate them. If your body hates you that much, I can't really help you. I'm willing to learn, of course. So if you are one of these folks, let me know what you eat, and I'll see what I can do.