Heritage or Choice?

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In the earlier days of my ahem, career, I spent hours and hours at a computer screen, working through calculations and building models of “Remnant Stress/Strain Across Mineral Surfaces in Basalt”, or simply yet another report for a geotechnical engineering firm that simply has the title “Geotechnical Engineer Report and Recommendations” or whatever other term was legally safe to use at the time of the said report. I spent most of my days as a manager putting out fires and managing the clients expectations of what they expect of us (Everything), what they’re getting (Nothing) and how much will they pay for it (As little as possible). I also worked with dilatant micro fracture deformation analysis, which is a very complicated way of saying, “This rock is strong enough to build a skyscraper on. Yep, sure is.” As a scientist and engineer, my whole brain would be screaming out hard numbers and assessing the actual weight that the foundation would support, while our legal staff would be trying to reduce any and all liability for damage to as yet fictional structure.

You’re already bored, right? I was single for a few years while living in Washington, D.C. and “What do you do?” was probably the first question that I would get asked in an evening, if out on the town looking for members of the opposite sex or at a convention for other engineers. I became quite tired of the identification of as a person through my chosen career. “That sounds so EXCITING!!” said one pretty blonde girl one night at a bar that was so loud that I could not hear myself think. It was that kind of girl at that kind of sports bar, and if you’ve been to one in the NOVA, D.C. Metropolitan Area, then I’m sorry for you. You’ve just visited them all! The girl dancing kind of alone, but with a friend at arms distance, her lips fixed on the straw of a drink she didn’t pay for by a guy who has moved on already. She was dressed in an alarming tight dress and the disconnect between her eyes, her drink and me was unsettling. I knew that what I did wasn’t EXCITING!!!

The truth be told, I didn’t really know what I “expected to be in five years.” It bothered me to even answer that question. Really, how many of us, truth be told, know where they expect to be in five years down a lifetime career path? Not very many of us, I would assume, but not nearly as many of us who are prepared to answer that question. We’ve been groomed for years on what we should say in order to get a promotion, or be taken seriously, by our response to that very question.

So I gave up on using the line, “Engineer” in any part of a personal description of myself. Instead, I substituted dinosaur hunter, Chief of Native American Resources Reallocation, and my personal favorite, A Golf Caddy for (insert name of random golfer here). That always got the best reaction, along with Test Pilot for Ferrari, on leave from Italy to Baltimore to verify company specifications for turn three.

What I really enjoyed was cooking, but nobody had ever suggested that to me as a viable career path. Mostly, because the family I grew up in regarded cooking as a woman’s job in the house, not a real job for a real grown up man. I was self-taught, mostly through burning things and trying out horrible taste combinations on my unsuspecting girlfriend of the time. She actually thought that pushing around another man’s long sticks as he whacked innocent balls with them all day was, in her words, “SO HOT.” This was usually accompanied by a flip of her hair and roll of her eyes, as though blundering around in all sorts of weather carry another man’s junk was somehow more appealing than engineering.

I mostly agreed. There is a terrible miscommunication of monetary expectations in our society. From pipefitters to welders to steel work to masons to engineers to lawyers – ask deeply enough and the reply will be: “This is as much money as I felt I could earn based on my socioeconomic status and race during my early formative years.”

Except for cooks. Cooks choose to be a cook. Not for the money, not for prestige and certainly not for the money. The misconception that cooks make a lot of money, is just that – a misconception. Thanks to years of celebrity chefs with or without giant boobs, most people think that you must make a lot of money – certainly more than you need, otherwise why would you work so long, so many hours, in such a cramped working environment, with people of questionable backgrounds and laundry lists of crimes in their past?

At the end of the day, when everything is packed up, put away, cleaned, dishes thrown more or less in the vicinity of the dishwasher, every cook will admit they just loved it. These are people who ENJOY it – because nobody else will do it! Cooks are so isolated in their world of other cooks that they become the lost souls, the ones that really do the work in the kitchen. They rarely have advanced degrees in anything respectable, but you might be surprised.

I was working with a Dishwasher years ago, a huge, scarred guy with numerous tattoos and a gold earring. He always scared new people a lot, and made most everyone else nervous. He had a way of looking through you instead of at you, as though you were wasting his goddamned time that made everyone nervous. Let’s put it this way: He washed dishes because he WANTED to. He said that he liked to wash dishes, that it was a “job with instant rewards.” He took great pleasure in a giant cast iron pot with burned onion, garlic, various herbs, the remnants of previous pasta sauces and god only knows what else and getting it clean. It would be, too. Shiny and seasoned, as if it had spent its life as a centerpiece beside a great fireplace that was never lit, but instead had logs arranged just so inside of it.

He and I were spraying down the kitchen floor late one night, or early one morning, depending on who you asked. There is a difference in staying up all night and rising early before dawn. Up all night is usually not accompanied by anything that will make you feel better. Getting up early can be one of life’s great experiences, especially in a nice hotel with an outdoor hot tub. Staying up all night can end well in a hot tub, but you still aren’t going to win any nice guy awards the next day.

I don’t remember which of us fell in what category, but it was a time when I could have been in either. He was happily pressure cleaning with the business end of the cleaner and was not quite as cheerfully sweeping and mopping behind him. I didn’t mind being there, and certainly not the work, but I didn’t exactly volunteer for it either. He had. Anything nasty, dirty, demeaning or dreaded by anyone – he would take care of it. In my world, my early world in coal mining at least, these types of people were the leaders, the unspoken and unsung hero who would work under some truly nasty, carcinogen filled environments, the ones who would dive under water looking for an abandoned pump set in a flooded out area of the mine, the men who were there, like some sort of battle scarred angel when the shit had truly hit the fan.

This man was like this. It took me years, decades even, to realize that most people will, if it serves their purpose, gladly throw someone like him under the bus if given half a chance. I’ve made it a point to try to remain that person – the person who can get things done. No matter how jaded or irritated with staff or corporate employees, it always felt better after I took the best shot that an adverse situation could throw at me.

He talked that morning, rambling and rather disjointed, just filling up empty air. I wasn’t really listening to anything other than the tone of his voice as I worked, so when he asked the question I hate so badly, that sent my nerves racing and thoughts scattering, I responded with the truth. “I think,” I hesitated a moment, but only as a remnant piece of pride suddenly jumped as if it had been asleep. “I think I am, and always have been, a coal miner.”

He threw his head back and roared with laughter, fluorescent lights giving him a forgiving look, kind of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or the characters they assumed. I was a bit alarmed – then I realized I was crazier than he was. “Well,” he said, “that explains everything.”

I watched a Daisy Duke wearing redneck girl sling her leg over the back of his Harley a few hours later. He shot me a nod of acknowledgement, which I gave the appropriate amount of time to register his greeting by nodding back, ever so slightly. He gunned his Harley and reverberated down the unmarked, patched, county blacktop, waving at an old guy putting up square bales for winter. I saw his brake lights flash, then he pulled over. The little country girl squirmed sideways on the back of the bike as he dismounted to join the farmer tossing bales of hay into the back of his old ford truck. Well, damn, I thought. I’d probably go help them.

This entry was posted in Food.

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