DON’T PANIC

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His inquisitive gaze filled my vision. The frenetic clatter of plates, glasses and silverware faded as his direct (and discomfiting) query filtered through:

Are you nervous right now?

No, of course not. I, age twenty-six, miles from home, scrabbling together enough income to hold onto my apartment, my car and my insurance, new to the food service industry, shy and awkward, unfamiliar with the menu and unfamiliar with you, am most certainly not nervous in any way.

I quailed under his stare. Because for me, this question wasn’t the first time.

* * * * *

Some have the gift of poise. No matter the circumstances, they keep a cool head, a confident gaze, and the perfect expression. Are they even human? you wonder. How can they stand so high above us mere mortals?

I, unfortunately, was not granted this gift.

Time and time again, I find myself thrust into situations feeling woefully unprepared (even if I *was* prepared), frightened and fearing failure. And my emotions always manage to shine through: the fear, the worry, the panic — all of it.

Why is it so hard for me to keep it together? How can others play it cool and keep going?

Or is there something I’m missing?

* * * * *

A tornado had hit the dining room. Birthday cake and candles littered one end, with wine glasses and platters of uneaten appetizers at the other. We had pulled off a full house from open till close — and three large reservations to boot.

My head spun. I recalled setting down the first table. After that, only a haze. I couldn’t have told you my name if I had to. I had worked furiously and failed horribly. I couldn’t keep moving fast enough — drinks could never stay filled, food never came out fast enough, and don’t get me started with fetching desserts.

And then it started falling apart.

A bottle of mustard exploded behind the server station. A table’s food order nearly got lost in the crossfire. A line of customers started going out the door. The phone was ringing off the hook. We were short on forks and out of glassware. And I was drowning.

I refused to make eye contact with the other servers. I had let them down. I had crumpled like tin foil under the pressure.

The worst part — everyone could see it. Are you doing okay? Are you all right out there? Is there anything we can do? Was it pity? Was I biffing it? Was I going to get shown out the door at the end of the night?

I remember being handed a slice of chocolate cake, gluten-free and fudgey beyond belief. The manager even offered me the back office for some peace and quiet. I politely declined, and returned to my server station. I could hardly choke it down, wave after wave of shameful tears threatening to engulf me along with dark chocolate, ganache and wine-plump cranberries.

The last customer finally left, leaving behind a ransacked dining room. I started scrubbing tables, giving my coworkers a large berth.

No such luck – Joanna (who was closing) called me up to the cash register. I walked up to the front, bracing for an onslaught of pity.

She lifted her eyes from counting a stack of bills. Hey, Renee — I think you did great tonight.

Me? Done great? I chuckled in disbelief.

No, I’m being serious. She shut the drawer, making eye contact with me. We got busy, and you did the most important thing — you kept going, and you kept smiling. 

That same smile spread over my lips. “Sometimes,” I said, “smiling is all that we can do.”

Joanna nodded slightly. Just remember — she added — pay attention to what you need. When you feel it coming, don’t panic. Take a step back. Breathe. Count your tables. Then keep going. Just always remember yourself first. And don’t panic.

* * * * *

There are hundreds of things they don’t teach you in school. And I’m not just talking about a dining room rush.

Don’t panic — and nothing can ever touch you. Even if you aren’t a zarkin’ frood. Some are naturals. Others (like me) have a ways to go. But it can be learned.

And most importantly, keeping chill is not about forgetting yourself. (Which I am apt to do.) If you lose yourself and panic, you’re done for. No one will be able to find your mind once you’ve lost it. To stay in control, you have to pull yourself away, take stock, and jump back in.

Just don’t panic. And remember your towel.

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Bold One

I have never known anyone else like him.

The gentle confidence he holds permeates his frame – his stance, his gait, his voice.

But most of all, his eyes. With a glance and a nod, you know he’ll get the job done. You can’t help but trust him — how could someone so certain do otherwise?

I’m blushing with shame. I blush because I envy him.

Sitting across from each other, coffee in hand, he tells me the same story, time and time again — I have the same potential as he. I, too, am made for great things.

I know, I know, I say. And yet my heart sees, along the seam of the beaten, wooden table, the disparity between us.

I must try. I must keep moving. Because if I don’t, I will never meet my goal. I will never reach him… or, perhaps, more to the point, I will never reach myself.

Fallen leaves trade places with snow. The winds have shifted. I string up my sails, testing the winds. And look forward.

A song rises in my heart, a smile upon my lips.

It is time.

Renee’s World-Famous Curry

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Watch out.

Your taste buds are about to explode with flavor.

I love all ethnic cuisines – Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Ethiopian, German – and one of my favorites, Indian. With its colorful and flavorful spices, sauces and dishes, you are never disappointed.

I came across a version of this recipe years ago. I modified it extensively, adjusting and seasoning to taste until it reached utmost perfection. (At least, in my book… none of my taste tasters have said otherwise!)

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Heard enough reviews? Get ready for the motherlode…

(There is also a vegan option posted on this page. Thank you, Patricia Croft, for your expertise!)

Renee’s World-Famous Curry

3 T curry powder
1/4 t coriander
1/4 t cinnamon
1/4 t cayenne
1/4 t cumin
1 bay leaf

2-3 T olive oil
1/2 lb chicken breast, cubed
1-2 potatoes, cubed
1 onion, chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
1-inch piece ginger, grated
1 C stock

2 T tomato puree
1 can coconut milk
2-3 T fish sauce
1/2 C Greek yogurt

Dry-fry the spices in a large sauce pan for 2-3 minutes on medium heat. (Be careful to not let it smoke; we are simply waking up the spices at this point!) Then add oil, chicken and potatoes, covering all with spices. Then add onion, garlic, ginger; cook until onion is tender and add stock for 1 minute or so. Then add tomato puree, coconut milk and fish sauce; simmer for 30 minutes, adding fish sauce/yogurt as appropriate for desired flavor & thickness. Note: to keep yogurt from curdling, make sure it is closer to room temperature and mix with 1 t. cornstarch per 1 C. yogurt.

Serve warm over long grain rice and naan.

Vegan substitutions: replace chicken with 1 pkg. of Quorn chick’n breasts (a fungus-based meat product). Replace the fish sauce with Worcestershire sauce and the Greek yogurt with vegan yogurt.

SUPER BONUS: What’s curry without naan? Naan is a delicious yeast flatbread, baked on the griddle. The texture is rich and fine, while a little more substantial than most naan you will find in an Indian restaurant. It also tastes great with peanut butter (my primary form of protein intake)!

Renee’s (Equally Famous) Naan

2 1/4 t yeast
1 C water
1/4 C sugar
3 T milk
1 egg
2 t salt
4 1/2 C flour
2 t garlic, minced
1/4 C butter (or other oil)

Proof yeast in 1/4 cup warm (110˚) for 8 minutes. Add rest of water along with sugar, milk, egg and salt. Mix to combine. Add flour one cup at a time; once you have a soft dough, knead by hand for 6-8 minutes. Ball up, coat with oil and let rise for 1 hour. Knead in garlic, shape into balls (I usually end up with around 20). Let rise for 30 minutes. Butter a grill/griddle on high heat (375˚ or so). Stretch dough to desired thickness and grill 2-3 minutes per side.

Enjoy – and let me know what you think of these recipes in the comments!

The Hardest Decision

We sat beside each other on the patio, the evening breeze playing with my hair. Rows of tired, dusty houses lined the valley below, sweltering in the sun’s dying rays.

In silence, we sipped our drinks. The words hung heavy in the air: he would be moving soon. To the other side of the country. Leaving me behind.

And he was taking his family with him.

Now, I never said I wanted him to leave them for me. I never foresaw a long-term, committed relationship between us. I knew he would be leaving. I knew it would be without me.

… but yet we were here. He doubted his choice, the only choice he could make. The strongest person I’ve ever known – and he doubted the way he wished to go.

And he wanted, so strongly, to leave with me.

Reaching for my hand, his piercing blue eyes locked with mine. They shone with longing, his desire emanating through his gentle grip. And he said one word.

“Rose.”

That was her name. The name we had chosen. A knife twisted in my heart. A rush of emotions I had locked away for ages – years – came pouring out.

Why did you make me remember our impossible dreams?

We sat in silence. My heart bled openly out of my chest. I watched as it filled the valley, the river, the trees, the wind.

And yet it still flowed.

His hand reached across the divide and settled on mine. A worn, gold glint shone on his left hand.

“Please,” he said, “please don’t let this be goodbye.”

My mind’s cogs raced. I saw myself, a wanderer, a vagabond, years down the road. Alone and isolated. Forever bound, but never free. Bound by this, my sin, my pain, my longing. Afraid to get too close, because of this: my secret.

I will carry it forever.

I squeezed his hand in reply.

“I won’t.”

Honoring a Memory

Soft dust motes drifted lazily in the morning sunlight. His gaunt frame leaned against the windowsill, the sun warming his skin as the wintry town below burnt into his retinas.

The dust continued to gather on the window frame. His chest heaved with a sigh. He tried to forget the dust’s owner was no longer among the living.

Stepping from the shining frame, he made his way back through an aisle of half-filled boxes. She had called him in as a favor; several rooms needed to be repainted before a showing on Friday. Elsewhere, the house was disemboweled: boxes of knick knacks, tools, projects finished and half-realized littered the hallways, powerless without their owner’s hands.

He stooped down by a rather promising box. He set aside the sombrero on top, the sombrero she said flattered him. While he had no need for it, she was also trying to unload her father’s baggage on him.

“It doesn’t feel right, giving all of this away,” she said. Her careworn face flickered with grief, which she hid with a smile. “But I trust you. Take anything you’d like.”

Underneath the floppy hat lay a handyman’s treasure trove: not just the typical wrenches and hammers, but also lathe cutting tools, pry bars, oscillating saws, bevel gauges… his fingerprints were obviously in every joint and corner of the house. His practiced hands had turned this hilltop home into a king’s mansion, every joist and frame carefully and thoughtfully laid.

And now the house was empty, waiting to change hands.

He stood up with a frown. Even with her permission, he felt dirty rummaging through another’s things.

He walked back to the waiting paint cans. He plucked up the roller, and with a small push, a streak of somber grey flew across the pale yellow.

“It seems,” he mused, “I’m wiping out his fingerprints.”

A Self Worth Knowing

Connection. Vulnerability. Authenticity. These words have become my mantra.

Connect to other people. Be vulnerable. Be authentic.

Always a loner, I have learned (somewhat to my dismay) that I can’t go it alone. Being somewhat proud of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, this really bugs me. Almost as much as how networking determine’s one career path.

But looking back (and onward), those times I cherish most, I spent with others. It didn’t matter whether it was serious or not. Banding together with others creates something greater than any individual could have accomplished alone – whether it be a marketing project, a dissertation paper or a kickass game of Magic.

Connection gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Even more than the books we write and the plaques we hang on the wall, it’s about the connections we make on the way and what results from them.

However, that meaning and purpose is only as great as the authenticity and vulnerability we display to others. Deep, meaningful relationships flow from authenticity. Our courage to share our imperfections and messiness draws us together. We can only join together when we acknowledge our mutual humanity.

Which, don’t get me wrong. Being authentic and vulnerable is scary. It’s not socially acceptable. We all know about the following dialogue:

“Hi there! How are you today?”

“Fine. And you?”

“Okay. Well, good to see you.”

“Later!”

I hear that opening phrase and feel an exploding urge to divulge my fears and insecurities. To state why everything is as far from fine as humanity is to curing cancer.

But social etiquette beseeches us to follow its law. You’re fine, they’re fine, everyone’s just fine… don’t rock the boat, and the boat won’t rock you!

But the core of meaningful connection depends upon us reaching past these norms. We must be vulnerable. It is the only way we can become greater than ourselves and find true meaning.

Yet another stumbling block stands in the way of creating meaningful connection: our own sense of worthiness.

If we feel we are not worthy of love and belonging, any relationship makes us feel, by default, inauthentic because we don’t deserve to be treated so well. How can one be vulnerable and authentic to a friend, a lover, or a partner when they feel they don’t deserve love? And so, by default, they must be inauthentic in order to hide their inadequacies?

This is my next task. Before I can find meaning through my connections, I must strive to be vulnerable… to not be afraid, and to realize that I am a self worth knowing.

Nirvana at DTW

Tight leather boots click-clack down the concourse, my suitcase squeak-squeaking behind. Loaded like a pack animal, I squeeze through a herd of wanderers, cloaked and stranded, through Detroit Metro Airpot – DTW.

Tin-can jazz reverberates from the metal scaffolding, soaked by an impenetrable mass of wool, canvas and scarves. My eyes strain for the comforting glow of the departing flight listing. I finally spot it – a holy icon, surrounded by its pilgrims.  Worried looks etch their faces, revealing delays – common as the snowy, scuddy skies shine through the  windows.

Squirming through legs and luggage, my eyes scan the departures. Boston… Cleveland… Orlando… Pittsburgh! On time… Two hours to depart. Good. Transaction complete, I turn to leave. Scanning the flights one last time, other destinations catch my eye: Beijing… Mexico City… Paris… Seoul… Tokyo… 

Images of unseen shores flutter before my eyes. Shouldering my laptop bag, I step away from the tantalizing images.

Relaxed, I begin my favorite airport hobby: people watching. So many, gathered together – neither here nor there. Where have they come from? Where are they going?

A young mother pleads with her inconsolable toddler outside Chili’s, while patrons drain another pint, pretending to not notice. Business owners and unemployed sit shoulder to shoulder by departure gates. Starry-eyed couples and their aged doppelgängers cross paths, one leaving, another returning.

Where have they come from? And where are they going?

Smelling toasted bagels in the air, I make a smart turn. We are all also suffering from poor airport food.

Paper-wrapped prize crinkling my hand, I sit back with my peanut butter and jelly and continue watching. Rush hour is nearing an end, with half the terminal heaving to make it to their flight on time.

Tearing off a chunk of stale bagel, I slowly chew. My mind goes back to those exotic departures. I glance across the corridor – gate A38. Tokyo, Japan. On-time departure. Another bite. The waiting seats are abandoned for the shoddy boarding queue, merging and overflowing into the crowded corridor. Parents pull children close, while students circle around a lone teacher, giving last-minute instructions before boarding.

Tourists and natives stand together, some sweaty-palmed, others weary-faced. Another couple, speaking in hushed tones, straighten their little girl’s jacket and backpack, neatly smattered in cheerful kanji and animal stickers.

A flock of strangers, convened for one 13-hour flight. For one destination.

As the passengers slowly file onto the jet, I think of the skies outside. Planes constantly landing and taking off, filled with people, coming and going. Here I am, at the crossroads of the world.

Settling back, my mind flitted across the globe, tracing it all to this moment.

And I felt as one with the universe.