Learning to Cook as a Metaphor for Life

            When I moved into an apartment complex for graduate students, I no longer had access to cafeteria food. I was on my own for all meals, a terrifying concept for someone whose repertoire consisted of canned soup, fried bologna sandwiches and fried eggs. I relied on things that came in cans and boxes, food that required little preparation, minimizing failure. There were times when I yearned for better food, but I was on full scholarship due to financial hardship, so there was no money for eating out.

            Marriage thrust me into new responsibilities, one of them being to cook dinner five nights a week. I relied on my old standbys even though I really wanted to do better.

            One time a soup can had a deal: for a certain numbers of labels I could get a cookbook for the cost of shipping. It didn’t take me long to save up the requisite number and send them off.  When the cookbook arrived, all the pictures looked inviting.

            One of the first things I decided to try was a squash stuffed with ground beef and rice. It required advanced preparation. The night before I gouged out the squash seeds and mixed together the rest of the ingredients. We had been given a set of dishes. I used a square one to arrange the stuffed squash, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.

            All the next day I dreamed of the meal I would present to my new husband. As soon as I got home, I turned on the oven. I changed clothes while waiting for it to reach the proper temperature. With excitement and anticipation, I removed the wrap and put the dish in the oven.

            Imagine my horror when the dish cracked! I didn’t know that the dish couldn’t go from the refrigerator to oven. It was an off-brand, not the advertised one. The meal was ruined.

            I dreaded telling my husband. After all, it was my responsibility to fix dinner and now there was nothing left. Tears streamed down my face as I waited anxiously for him to arrive.

            This was when I learned what an awesome man my husband is. He didn’t get angry. Not at the ruined meal or the broken dish. Instead he gave me a big hug, helped clean up the oven and then prepared a wonderful meal of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

            I relied on that cookbook for years. I leaned to make an awesome meatloaf with cream of mushroom soup as a base. I made a nice pot roast using onion soup, in the electric skillet. I experimented with baking chicken in cream of chicken soup and kept on trying new things. Our family always had a warm meal that was edible.

Because of that cookbook my confidence grew. The pages got stained and wrinkled, but I could still read the directions! Even today it still has a special place in the kitchen, even though I no longer do the cooking.

There were other disasters. My husband makes delicious fudge. It seemed easy enough, so I gave it a try. Mine ended up being chocolate sauce.

Then there was turkey soup. I had seen my husband take the carcass and turn it into broth. I seemed like something I should be able to do. I chopped the veggies and put it in the pot. I followed the steps carefully. My broth was horrible! It tasted more like dirty dish water than soup.

My husband likes lamb. My family never ate it, so I knew nothing about what cuts are the best, but I had a recipe. Once again I followed directions. It smelled okay. He ate it, but I couldn’t stand the taste and neither could any of our kids.

I learned to stick to the basics. Try nothing exotic or that had too many steps or ingredients. Roast beef, chicken and ground beef were my go-to meats.  As long as I could cook it in broth or soup or mix in something to keep it tender, I did fine. I discovered a range of things that came out good in a crock pot, such as a turkey leg or barbeque beef.

I bought boxes of pizza dough mix and painstakingly kneaded it. I mushed it out and then covered it with whatever ingredients we had on hand. It wasn’t as good as store-bought, but it was satisfying.

Cooking requires a certain degree of skill, but mostly an understanding of how food works together. What spices go with what meats and what sauces add flavor to tougher cuts. How to blend, chop and combine ingredients into palatable dishes. And patience. Lots and lots of patience, something which I don’t possess.

Cooking days are behind me, a true blessing. But when I look back on my earlier failures, it is not with despair, but with more of a sense of accomplishment. Thanks to my husband’s kind support, I tried again and again, learning along the way what I could do, not just what I couldn’t.

Isn’t that what life is all about? Learning not just from our successes, but also from our failures.

Incomplete Information

            How many opinions have we formed based upon something we’ve heard? Unfortunately in this technological age when, with typing a few words, we can find resources that are trusted, based on researched facts, too many cement their beliefs in place, closing off polite discourse.

            The past four years serve as a good example of how anyone can throw out ideas that quickly become firm beliefs even though the person held no credentials, had done no research and was not a member of a reliable organization or college, yet spoke as if he was all those things and more. Divisiveness resulted, creating deeper caverns as time passed.

            I have to admit that I am sometimes quick to form opinions. Without evidence I would decide that a certain individual wouldn’t like me and so walked away. What if she could have been my new best friend? What if he could have helped me solve a problem? I will never know because I made my decision based on incomplete information.

            I’ve also chosen potential friends based on that same lack of  information. During my senior year of college two of my roommates seemed to be friendly. They greeted me politely and would stop and talk before heading off. I can’t recall ever doing anything with them outside of our shared suite which should have sent a message, but it didn’t.

            After graduation, since the three of us lived in the Bay Area, we thought we’d get together. One lived in Marin County. She had money and a car. I had neither. She invited me to her family home, which was nice, but it would have required me getting permission to borrow the family car and driving somewhere I knew nothing about. This was before GPS systems so paper maps were all we had. I was a fairly inexperienced driver, so the thought of driving over the Golden Gate Bridge was terrifying. I backed out, giving her a feeble excuse.

            She got married a few months later and sent an invitation. I had little money to buy a gift, but I chose the nicest thing I could afford, some soft, pretty towels. I intended to go to her wedding, but as it got closer to the date to respond and confirm, I backed out. When I called her to tell her, I suggested meeting somewhere in San Francisco so I could give her the gift. She refused.

            That’s when I realized that I had used incomplete information when deciding that she was my friend. I was not in her social class and so could never mingle in her circles. It made me terribly sad.

            After a disastrous event during my college years, I was terrified of men for quite some time. I assumed that all men were like the one who abused me. He had seemed like a friend, had acted like a friend, and was, in fact, my brother’s friend. I trusted him. When he invited me to the apartment he shared with his wife, I felt no fear. However, when he bolted the door behind me I questioned his intent, but didn’t ask.       

Allowing myself to be in that situation was a reliance on incomplete information. I had heard of women being attacked, but knew no one personally who had been a victim. I assumed that my university was a safe place. That no one there would take advantage of me. When it happened I was shaken. My trust was shattered.

I did not know how precarious of a position I had walked into until it happened. My ignorance caused me to form an opinion that all men would treat me in the same way. It was years before I could trust a man again.

            As a child of a dysfunctional family I assumed that all families were like mine. Because I had not been permitted to enter others’ homes, I had incomplete information. I thought that all families were like min, where insults and ridicule, threats and punishment were every day events.

My eyes were opened when my parents allowed me to spend a night at a classmate’s house. Until the visit, I did not know that a family could gather around the table for a meal and share jokes and stories without criticism. I didn’t know that families could sit in front of the television and laugh at the antics of characters without being ridiculed if I found something funny that they did not. I also discovered that children could be sent to bed with hugs and kisses as opposed to spankings and other threats of punishment.

My information base shifted. I now knew that something was wrong with the way I lived. There was nothing I could do to escape as I was too young and had no one I could turn to. The one thing that I did do was begin gathering information using my eyes and ears.

Several years later I fell ill when away at college. A friend’s family took me home and nursed me back to health. They were kind, gentle and patient. They were quiet people who never spoke loudly. There was no hate, no mean comments, no divisiveness. They didn’t monitor my activities but gave me space to heal.

I had never experienced such kindness before. This rattled my opinions about what constituted family and how families behaved toward one another. I was surprised at how they spoke to each other and listened to what each of them said. One evening when I was feeling better, they took me to a play. Their son had a lead role. He was a good actor for someone so young. What struck me was that after the play, no one teased him or made fun of him. Instead they congratulated him and praised his performance. I was pleasantly shocked.

My experience of family changed based on gathering information. There was nothing I could do to change my own family, but I could hold the lessons dear for future reference.

I could go on and on, but it isn’t necessary. Thanks to the Internet it’s now possible to conduct research by checking out a variety of sources. Some are to be trusted while others are not. A discerning individual can ferret out which are reliable and which are not. Through this process a person can gather sufficient information to make an opinion based on fact.

Relying on incomplete information is no longer acceptable. Look about, read, investigate, ask questions of yourself and others. Peruse a variety of articles. Figure out who the sources are and what their credentials are, whether or not they are qualified to be dispensing information.

Once you are convinced that a piece of information is accurate, then formulate an opinion, but be open to challenges from outside sources. As time passes often foundations are rattled. New evidence appears or the source goes off on an unsubstantiated rant, making you question whether or not that person is a reliable source anymore.

The important thing to remember is that incomplete information is misinformation, plain and simple.

Life’s Journey

            My friend and I have been sharing the various paths our lives have taken.  Neither of us had an easy time along the way. Both of us have disappointments. No matter where our journeys took us, we agree that the steps we traveled made us who we are today.

            When I was in Kindergarten I decided to become a teacher. It wasn’t that my teacher was kind to me; in fact, she barely spoke to me or recognized me in any way. She’d drop a bunch of worksheets on my desk and then move on to the next student. She did know what skills I was deficient in, however, because I worked on the name of colors, shapes, the alphabet and recognizing basic numbers.

            The one positive thing that the teacher offered was calm and safety. She never yelled at me or anyone else. She never slapped or threatened me in any way.

            Because I felt safer in Kindergarten than I did at home, I liked it there and soon chose teaching as a career.

            My first job was keeping score at a local bowling alley. I was only fourteen, but I had spent much of my early years in bowling alleys. My dad was a semi-professional bowler who traveled to competitions. He taught me to bowl when I was twelve. Keeping score was a logical choice.

            In college I began working for aa fast food restaurant. At first I only took orders and then handed them over when filled. As my confidence grew I learned to make coleslaw. I had to stick my hands into deep vats and stir the ingredients around. My hands and arms would get so cold that I couldn’t feel them.

When strawberry season arrived, I took over the pie-making enterprise.  I was the best at trimming the berries. I could cut off the stem so quickly and neatly that no one could match my efforts.

That was a major turning point on my life’s journey. Knowing that there was something I could do better than anyone else boosted my ego. Ironically, although I had been a good student out of fear of physical punishment, now my grades stayed high because my confidence had improved.

When I transferred to USC I found a job at the university book store. I was so happy! I begged for more hours but was refused because students were restricted to how many hours they could work in a week.

Books called my name. Sometimes while shelving new books, I had to stop and read the cover. If it appealed to me, I put one aside. Often I bought them even though my earnings were supposed to supplement the grants that paid my housing.

I returned to writing when I realized the university published a literary newspaper. I submitted poems, but never had any accepted. Despite those rejections, my confidence as a writer grew.

I got a job working the front desk in a residence hall. It was my responsibility to screen anyone entering. It forced me to talk to people, something I was wont in doing. I discovered that people often wanted to know what I was thinking. They would stand and listen, then share a bit of their story. I met some awesome people who remained friends until graduation.

Another step on my journey checked off.

I applied to be a resident advisor during the summer. The residents were not students, but an ever-changing group of conference attendees. Oh, my, they were a lot of fun! There were social events almost every evening. I was invited to attend, but understood that I was not to abandon my post. Often food was delivered to me. The person making the delivery would stand and talk.

I learned that I could talk to strangers, fulfilling another step on my journey.

My first full-time job was as a customer service representative in a furniture store. That was horrendous. All day long I was bombarded by unhappy, sometimes angry people. All found fault with the furniture or the delivery. I wanted money refunded. I didn’t know what to do and no one bothered to train me.

This was a step backward. My confidence took a hit.

The office had a switchboard for the telephone service. I applied when a position opened and got it. I loved connecting calls. It was fun and something I learned quickly. All I had to do was match the plug to the right hole.

Check one off for confidence!

When I took that job I knew it would never become a career: it was the first job offered.

The government needed employees, so I took the test and scored high enough to be hired by the infamous IRS. This was a huge step on my life’s journey, benefitted by the government’s need to hire women.

I hated seizing property to pay tax debts. I was terrible at calculating interest and penalties despite mat being a strength for me. I hated walking into dark bars and going into strangers’ homes.

Most people were respectful even though I represented a hated agency. One time I was threatened by the owner of an automobile tire shop. The next day I returned with gun-toting agents. Even though nothing happened, I tremble for days.

One positive that moved me along my journey was that I learned to speak to strangers. Another momentous event was meeting my future husband in the office. If I hadn’t met him, who knows were my journey would have gone?

In the past 46 years I’ve had three amazing children who are all successes in their own way. Add in seven talented grandchildren who fill me with joy.

I got to become that teacher 38 years ago, and taught for 34. In my college classes to earn my credentials and certificates, I garnered information that allowed me to mentor peers, lead workshops and participate in district-wide trainings.

My favorite part of the job was being a mentor. It filled my heart with joy when someone came to me for suggestions and advice.

Another step along the way.

Now that I am retired, you might think that my journey was nearly over. Wrong.

I listen to the news, read newspapers and magazines and talk with friends. I gather information from all those sources that develop my opinions and beliefs. I read books that take me into worlds and situations I met never see. I travel to countries I’d never thought about visiting.

Everything I’ve done, whether there were positive or negative outcomes, have made me who I am today. Because I am always learning, I know that I will continue to progress.

My life’s journey isn’t yet over and that’s a wonderful thing.

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

Fall from Grace

I don’t know why my first skiing trip came to mind in the middle of July, but it did. It’s not like it snows here, which it doesn’t, and unfortunately we’re in the middle of a heat wave, so it’s not even raining.

The interesting thing is that I’d never thought about skiing. I’d seen it on television, but never pictured myself with boards strapped to my feet barreling down a snow-covered slope. And to get there? I’d have to swing on a questionable-looking chair as it steadily climbed up the mountain. Not for me with my fear of heights.

The closest I had gotten was after I had graduated from college and, on a lark, took a class at the local community college about skiing. At the conclusion was an outing. Because I lived in the SF Bay Area, I owned no clothing that would keep a person warm in freezing temperatures.

I went shopping and quickly discovered that, with my limited funds, I could not purchase a suitable coat or pants or boots. I did buy a pair of supposedly insulated rubber boots, but that was it. I would have to make do with what I had.

One Saturday morning I climbed on a yellow school bus, excited, yet at the same time terrified. I knew no one, so I had no way to spend the time other than drifting over whatever passed through my mind.

I did notice the cold. About the time that snow began to appear along the side of the highway, my feet became uncomfortable and my fingers ached. We took a bathroom break. I was miserable! Nothing I wore was sufficient for the trip.

The rest of that trip went by in a mind-numbing haze. I had no money to rent skis or a toboggan, so I spent the time I braved the outdoors walking about. Most of the time I hung out in the lodge, dreaming over the hot chocolate I saw others drinking.

So, after that adventure, why would I ever go skiing? Because young adults don’t often remember misery.

A couple of friends from work convinced me that I’d really like to learn to ski. By now I had enough money to buy a decent coat and gloves and warm socks. I figured I’d rent equipment and so had saved what I hoped would be enough.

The drive was uneventful. We talked and laughed and so the miles sped by. According to my friends, it was a beautiful day for skiing. The sky was blue, there was plenty of snow and it wasn’t too cold. They were right.

Except for one small thing: I didn’t know how to ski.

They gave me some basic instructions. They showed me how to grab the rope to go up the bunny slope. Once there, they demonstrated how to put my skis into a V-shape in order to turn, slow down, and stop. They went down with me, once. Then set me free.

I did pretty well. I am not an idiot, so I learn quickly. I am fairly coordinated, so I thought I had mastered the basics.

I moved on to the easiest chair lift. Getting on a chair while wearing skis is not easy. There’s a lot of timing involved. You’ve got to get into position as soon as the chair gets to the post. Then look over your shoulder while reaching for the bar. Then sit while the chair is still moving.

The first time my butt barely touched the seat and I had to hang on for dear life all the way to the top. The next time I did better, and each time after that it was a little bit easier.

No one had explained how to get off before I hopped on at the bottom. While the chair is moving, as it gets lower to the ground, you’ve got to jump off and ski out of the way before the seat bumps you in the back. I watched those in front of me, so when my turn came, I managed, but felt the chair brush the back of my legs.

The first few trips down I succeeded. I turned, I slowed, and I stopped as I approached the line waiting to go back up. I felt proud.

I went back up. Handled getting on and off. Successfully went down. As I approached the line, however, something went wrong.

I put my skis in a V-shaped and dug in my inner blades. I didn’t slow down. I got closer and closer to the kid at the end of the line. I dug in even harder. I kept sliding forward. Closer and closer I got.

I know that my eyes opened wider and wider in shock and preparation for the inevitable.

I was helpless to prevent myself from hitting the kid. I bumped into his back, nearly knocking him down, as I fell onto my skis, landing on my tailbone with an excruciatingly painful crack.

I felt my cheeks redden. The kid turned to me, all eight years of him, and said as he put his skis into that elusive V, “Lady, you stop like this.”

I was both humiliated and in such deep pain that I found it difficult to get up. Thankfully a woman came up behind me, reached down and pulled me up. She brushed the snow off my back and asked if I was okay.

I wasn’t. I skied over to a log and sat. Bad idea. I took off my skis and walked them back to the rental shop, mincing my steps. I struggled up the steps to the lodge. I found a chair, but, oh, that hurt!

The drive home was terrible. Because my tailbone hurt so bad, I had to lay down in the backseat of a VW bug. Not comfortable.

That night I couldn’t sleep. Between the intense pain and the recalled embarrassment, there was no chance of sleep.

The next day I went to work, but had to go see a doctor at the end of my shift. Nothing was broken, but I was badly bruised. I was given a blow-up pillow to sit on until it healed.

Despite that disaster, I did eventually go skiing again. I was never good at it, but I never crashed into anyone, either.

The lesson that I learned is that sometimes it’s better to fall before you think you are going to hit someone.

This applies to all facets of life. Fall while you still have the strength of character to pull yourself, brush yourself off and try again.