Disappointment in Three Acts

Act I

I just had to make a really difficult call. I left a message with the Washington National Opera chorus to ask them if they still wanted to hear me even though I have the worst cold on record and am losing my voice at a rapid rate. I mean, I can sing, but I’d be auditioning as a baritone. I know they want photos and measurements as well, but my hope is that they do these auditions more than once a year, or if they just want to hear the quality of my voice and it doesn’t matter what range.

Act II

I talked to DC Opera, and they do only hold auditions once a year. So I’m drinking a hot toddy and will see if I can warm up again later tonight and in the morning. I know I’ve got my arias wired. It’s frustrating that I’ve worked so hard and my body is betraying me. I’m also angry at the world because I didn’t practice wrong so that I’m just fatigued. This is a virus that I picked up from somewhere, or an allergy in my home. It didn’t start in my throat- it’s deep in my chest and working upward.

Act III

I woke up this morning hoping that the laryngitis would go away as the day wore on- it’s always worse when I first wake up. Unfortunately, I am still so far under the weather that I don’t even want to move, much less sing. It would have been much more convenient to wait until tomorrow to see what happens overnight, but I couldn’t afford it without being truly selfish. Demand is high for these auditions, and I did not want my first impression at WNO to be that I just didn’t show, not allowing someone else to fill my spot. I also didn’t want my first impression with them to be a fraction of what I am truly capable. I’ve come such a long way since I truly dedicated myself to singing that turning in a high-school level performance while stopping to cough in the middle was just unacceptable to me. It’s hard to have to wait until next January for a second chance, but since I put on my reason for canceling that I was sick, there’s no telling what will happen between now and then. Singers get scheduling conflicts all the time. Fingers crossed that I can audition again later as an understudy without having to wait a year. I don’t feel good about woodshedding two arias over this month only to get sick at the last minute. Before I made this decision, I talked to someone who’d been my voice coach in college, and he stressed to me how important first impressions are. My gut says this would not be a good one, and to let it go, as angry as I am.

I have sung with laryngitis before, and the recording turned out better than I could have hoped…. but it was church good, not professional career good. The mistakes I made from not having as much control over my voice as I needed in the moment were noticeable to me, but probably not the congregation at large. They would have been spotted by a judge in a nanosecond.

I took this audition seriously. I bought two copies of 24 Italian Songs and Arias so that I would have a book for me and one for my accompanist because it was cheaper than buying a new printer. I spent hours with a metronome getting timing perfect. I did breathing exercises twice a day, sometimes three. This involved taking a heavy book or two and setting them over my diaphragm, making sure I could lift them as air filled me up from all the way down. I marked every day, and practiced full voice when I was sure no one was home.

It was an arduous process, only interrupted by my trip to Paris, where I didn’t sing at all. It was a short enough break to give me some rest, and then I was back at it. I truly thought I had an outstanding audition put together last week, and then my dream of singing for RBG this year flushed itself down the toilet.

And for that, I am angry. All that work. All that emotion and brain-bending math as I figured out subdivisions for art songs I didn’t know (I’m terrible at sight reading, and they said it might be required). But What I Know for Sure from this experience is that I am capable of getting in. I know it. When I was healthy, I sounded great. I could reach the cheap seats in the KenCen (of all the issues I’ve had to overcome with singing, volume has never been one of them).

It’s not over. They will see me again. It’s just a Langston Hughes dream deferred, not a raisin in the sun. I’ll only be 42 when the next audition comes around, which means that my voice will still be full enough to sing opera and I won’t be old enough for that vibrato you can drive a MAC truck through. My trusted friends will tell me when I get it and to please sit down.

I also have the added plus of being able to spend more time on different arias, and choose from a wide variety instead of using the one book full of art songs and arias I was familiar enough with to pull off in one month’s time. I have time to learn Russian, Czech, even French diction (Francais c’nest pas comfortable pour moi). I will truly have time to dig through the annals of soprano arias and find something that isn’t often heard in auditions, because the book I’m familiar with? Well, so is everyone else. It’s hard to be memorable when you’re singing two arias that have already been sung to death.

To borrow a phrase from my trumpet days, I know I’ve already got the chops. I have joined many community choirs in which I’ve become a soloist, and the one time I’ve been offered a college opera role (I didn’t attend the college, I was in the community chorus as an employee), I turned it down because I’d never done opera before and I thought it was unwise not to start in the chorus and see if I liked it. This was ten years ago, so I remember it was some sort of Gilbert & Sullivan… either HMS Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance, but I’ve slept since then. Ten years ago, I was not confident enough to be in an opera because I was thinking about filling big shoes and not concentrating on the fact that my own are pretty bad ass.

I try not to feel stupid about it. The opera ended up traveling and I could have gotten my name out there. But again, it was lack of confidence. I didn’t find it until I moved to Houston about seven years ago, and walked into a church in my neighborhood and saw a familiar face. Joseph Painter helped me with the parts of my voice that needed to change, but it was more than that. He gave me more soprano attitude than I’ve ever had in my life… not diva status or anything like it. Just the ability to look at a piece of music and never, ever be intimidated. He heard the top of my range and said, “with some work, I think you could add a few notes on top of that.” Then, I was already at a C sharp, and I thought I was tapped out.

Unfortunately, I didn’t stay with him long enough to find out if he was right, but in some ways, I should have. Time doesn’t move backwards, ever, but if I’m really lucky, I’ll find the right teacher here. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t want to go back to Epiphany, and not because I don’t like it anymore. It’s just not my place, and neither is Houston, for that matter… even though Houston Grand Opera is in the top five opera programs in the nation, and probably in the top 10 of the world.

Washington National Opera Company (@dcopera on Twitter) has been improving by leaps and bounds, though, because they realized what it took to be world class and are implementing those changes. They even hired someone who used to be at HGO.

The bottom line is that I’m positive that when I am feeling well and healthy, I can crush any audition I want. I have too much training and I’ve been singing too long not to feel this way. And if there’s a bottom line below that, it is having no confidence in my abilities assures me I won’t progress at all. Not wanting to put myself out there already caused me to run away once. I will never make that mistake again.

As long as my body cooperates.

Still Got It

My new copy of 24 Italian Songs and Arias arrived today, and I spent a few minutes marking through it. I didn’t want to go full voice in the living room. The dogs were barking as is……… I’ve done one arietta from it before, Già il sole dal Gange, in high school UIL competition. I checked diction with a Cecilia Bartolli Youtube recording, and it was comforting. I feel I’ve got two things going for me now. My Italian diction is not as bad as I thought it was, and I have a much lighter voice than Bartoli, because even though she is one of the greats, there are a few moments in her recordings where her heaviness makes her vibrato under the pitch. Absolutely no disrespect toward her- not throwing shade. She still sounds fantastic.

I count on Bartoli’s videos to watch her obsessively, but not for the reason you might think. Yes, she’s talented, but she started her career as a trumpet player and had to overcome habits that worked great for brass and not so much for voice. I have walked that path for a very long time, and watching her gives me excellent tips on what I need to change physically to make singing easier…. and therefore, a lot more fun. It is so amazing to have a living, breathing, singing example of my own history.

I started with something I’ve sung before because I didn’t have my phone on me, where I have a very advanced metronome app. Even though I can read notes, I am not sure I’ve ever really learned to read rests. I’ll just come in when the Spirit moves me.

I thank God that I was in band as well, because it gave me a great advantage over other choral singers who could only do solfege. Solfege makes me irrationally angry, because even though it’s been around since the 11th century, I have problems with thinking that it’s legitimately reading music. I refuse to learn a piece through a series of weird hand motions that I do not understand because I’ve never really bothered with it.

My choir director in high school was not amused when we’d do solfege exercises in choir and she noticed that I was only either doing the peace or vulcan signs and turning my hand back and forth, evidence of my snooty and teenage attitudes. By the way, I’m still snooty about it.

Don’t even get me started on The Suzuki Method. According to Wikipedia, “the Suzuki method does not include a formal plan or prescribe specific materials for introducing music theory & reading, in part because Suzuki created the method in a culture where music literacy was routinely taught in schools.” So, you have these kids who’ve been playing for years and years by the time they arrive at school, brilliantly until you put sheet music in front of them. It’s a steep learning curve that to me, seems unnecessary.

Don’t @ me, Bro.

This is not to say that I don’t know successful musicians who use solfege and started out with Suzuki. I definitely do. My concertmaster at HSPVA started with Suzuki and is now the concertmaster for the Metropolitan opera. But that is not the case for a lot of students, some of whom get discouraged and drop out of vocal/instrumental music altogether. That’s because Suzuki often begins when the child is a toddler, and transitioning from playing by ear to learning to read music is difficult at best for those who don’t have a natural talent for it. Generally, elementary schools don’t have orchestras, so they’re playing by ear from ages 3-11. I think this makes it even harder to switch gears.

The last thing future generations of classical musicians need is the urge to give up. There will always be a small percentage of children that love it, but love of great instrumentation and soaring lines should be widely accessible. I feel disappointed when I think of all the kids who thought they just didn’t have the talent to be in choir, orchestra, band…. or perhaps a combination. Through HSPVA, I was in Honors Band, Jazz Band, and Symphony Orchestra.

When I switched to Clements High School, I was in Marching Band, Concert Band, and Varsity Choir.

It was such a wide and varied musical education, but it didn’t start there. My parents and my paternal grandfather were “instrumental” in instilling the love of music before I could walk. The first time I sang a solo in church, I was three. Apparently, I got stage fright and wouldn’t sing with the rest of the choir, and surprised the hell out of my mother when they left the stage and I was still there, picking up a microphone and belting out a jazz/gospel song called I am a Promise. The recording to which I’ve linked is an approximation of how the first few measures sounded…. and that was the only part I knew. I am sure it made the congregation howl, but my mother was entirely supportive. I have only heard this story a thousand times, I don’t remember it myself. But she said that she was so proud of me because it was pitch perfect.

The hardest part about singing is doing enough breath exercises and vocal warm-ups so that the longest notes are supported. I will mark without warming up, but going full voice takes me nearly an hour. I can’t be too careful.

But I’ve still got it. Three snaps in a Z formation. #selffive

A Note

Ever since my mother died, I have had trouble singing. I can’t think of anything that is more loaded with emotion, mostly pain. I haven’t set foot in a church in nearly two years, also in my grief. I know damn well that this is temporary, that my love of church will return when my spirit calms. It is important to have a faith community that loves me through good times and bad, people that I can turn to in both extremes. Right now, though, when I walk into a church I don’t see comfort and joy. I see the ghost of my mother’s past. It is not peaceful for me. It is a white-knuckling, stomach churning experience of just trying to get through the service without a complete goose-honking cry of a meltdown. And the thing is, I know that would be okay, too.

It is my own fear of being that vulnerable in public that stops me. Perhaps fear is the wrong word, but anxiety. I am trying my best to keep my head above water, avoiding the things that will actively help me to stop functioning. Walking around in my mother’s inner landscape, even for a couple of hours, leads to me losing the rest of the day. I have to sleep it off in those depression and anxiety-fueled naps that last hours, even when I’m not sleepy. And even in my dreams, I’m thinking “I don’t have time for this.” The clinical term for this is “decompensating.”

According to dictionary.com, there is both a medical and psychological meaning.

Medical decompensation is “the inability of a diseased heart to compensate for its defect.”

Psychological decompensation is “a loss of ability to maintain normal or appropriate psychological defenses, sometimes resulting in depression, anxiety, or delusions.”

It is funny how incredibly close those definitions are, when you look at the heart metaphorically.

I feel that I should say for the record that I have never had a delusion, although I have come close by taking someone else’s crazy statement and believing it as fact, incorporating it into my reality to disastrous results… What turned their crazy into my crazy was not stopping for a moment to evaluate said statement for objective truth, because in a lot of ways, it was what I wanted to hear…………………

Objective reality slipped beyond my grasp, living in a reinforced bubble created by fantasy. I was living as high as one could possibly be on dopamine without taking a drug to raise it chemically.

Later, when the bubble burst, I came back down to earth. It was an amazing feeling to see life for what it was, instead of my own version. What was happening in the world around me no longer carried a malleable haze.

I present with depression and anxiety, though I’m Bipolar II, so I do get a few hypomanic days now and then. But the highs are not so high. They’re just enough to make me feel like I’m living without depression and can be extraordinarily productive, sometimes foregoing sleep to get things done. Part of this is chemical; the other part is not knowing when I’ll be hypomanic again, and trying to use that time wisely.

I am extremely lucky that my fluctuations in mood just go from not depressed to extremely depressed, and medication makes those swings even easier to manage. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I simply think of the people who are much worse off, the people who have no trouble swinging between suicidal plans and megalomania…. or have poor impulse control akin to buying five cars in one day.

I have no doubt in my mind that I was hypomanic when I decided to audition for the Washington National Opera chorus, but again, it was just being productive. Had I been truly depressed when I learned that the auditions were in a month, self-doubt would have eaten me alive and I would have lacked the courage to sign up altogether.

Which brings me back around to church and my mom. I need to sing again. I need to be in a chorus with other great singers who will raise my own game. I’m not much of an actor, but I’ll learn. In a gargantuan way, this is all about finding a replacement for church choir while I work on my daily ups and downs during the devastation of grief. I know I will still feel it. How can I not since my sister was in the children’s chorus at Houston Grand Opera, and I have such fond memories of my mom and Lindsay “on set?”

I counter that with all the hair, costumes and makeup. If I audition and get in, I will have the chance to be someone else for a while. Lots of someone elses if I get a contract for the whole season. The operas happening after my audition are Eugene Onegin, Faust, and Tosca. The links are all to their respective Wikipedia pages, because opera is so much more accessible when you know the story before you buy the tickets.

As I was telling a friend the other day, I hope the writing that comes out of a successful audition is work that brings younger audiences to opera. It is not dead thanks to the old and the rich, but if that trend continues, opera will be less and less popular over time. Opera has such a rich history that I cannot imagine losing it. Lots of them are novels that come to life, and generally more accurate than the movies.

It’s also a great break from technology, as it is entirely immersive. You have to read the supertitles to understand the language translation, or in the case of operas in your native language, to be able to pick out the words from the music. Hard to look at your phone and comprehend at the same time…. plus, the ushers will get mad at you because of the light. If your phone actually rings, good luck. God bless. 😛

I’m not starting singing again with arias, though. Today I did some breath control exercises and sang along to Merry Christmas from the Family (the Dixie Chicks and Rosie O’Donnell version as opposed to Robert Earl Keen, because it’s in a higher key). It’s such a funny song that for the first time in years, as I was singing I felt……. merry. It reminded me of the funniest parts of being a Texan, because if you’ve ever lived there, especially in a small town, you know this family. They live two doors down. There’s a broken swing set and a rusted car on blocks in the front yard. Both have been there since you moved in, and will be long after you leave.

The backyard looks like a garage sale all year ’round. On a serious note, even though they have just short of nothing, they’ll give you the shirts off their backs and the shoes on their feet if you need them, because they know what it’s like to literally have nothing and they’ll do whatever they can to help. There is no better place to live than small town Texas, because even though you can’t take a step out of your house without all 2,000 people knowing where you’re going, that’s not a bad thing. They sniff out trouble like bloodhounds, and just rally around you until it passes.

However, if you are selfish in any way, you don’t belong there. Community comes with responsibility.

Which brings me to another important reason why I’ve dropped off the face of the earth in terms of church. I’m empty. I’m all tapped out. I have nothing to contribute because I am struggling to keep my own head above water.

And the thing is, it wouldn’t bother the church at all. They know that when I’m in a better place, I can do more for the people around me. It’s all my own “stuff” to work out, because I cannot abide showing up to a potluck without a casserole, capiche?

I have high hopes for this opera audition, even though I won’t be crushed if I don’t get in. I know for certain that I am a fourth as good as the people auditioning who’ve been singing arias for years on end (I’m not a pessimist, just a realist). The high hopes come from joining a community in a new context, without the baggage I carry when entering a church. I see the glory of God in classical music, which, to my mind, is running towards spirituality instead of away…. making my way slowly, but surely, back into the world communion.

I am surprised that this has been my reaction to grief, because for the first two or three weeks after my mother died, walking into the sanctuary made me feel as if she were right there, so close I could touch her again. Then a pointed sermon on grief made me absolutely lose my shit with anxiety, just crying and shaking as if exorcising a demon. I didn’t want to be comforted, I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want anyone to see my grief laid that bare. On top of my anxiety, I am quite shy and introverted. If you think otherwise, it’s from years and years of practice at hiding it away. I can have entire conversations that end with you knowing nothing about me, because my go-to is deflection. I ask so many questions about your life that you don’t have a chance to get a word in edgewise to ask me about mine. In that scenario, I can be extroverted and gregarious, because I’m not revealing anything. It also cuts way down on me giving answers I think of as crazy or stupid so I don’t have anything to beat myself up with later.

Trust me, if I was weird to you 20 years ago, I still have the ability to obsess over it. It would be an absolute relief to be onstage as a character in a group, completely forgetting everything in terms of who I am and pouring everything into letting me go for a few hours a night. I am hoping it will give me enough clinical separation to see myself more objectively once the performance is over…. because then, I might be able to turn my anxiety about being vulnerable in public back into needing other people for support, and rising to the occasion of giving my own support to others.

My new copy of 24 Italian Songs and Arias is on its way. May it be the first step forward onto holy ground.

An Actual Song to the Moon

I did something I’ve never done before, and I am really stepping off a ledge. At first, I thought, “how hard can it be? Lindsay did it.” And then I realized that auditioning for an opera chorus as an adult is probably different than auditioning as a child, and I freaked out so hard my stomach dropped to my knees. Things got better and I calmed down once I got a rough sketch of a plan together. That being said, Lindsay had to sing things like Happy Birthday (you would not believe how easy it is to hear the quality of someone’s voice with that song). My memory may be failing me, but I think her prepared piece was from Annie.

At the time, I was too old for the children’s chorus and too young for the adult one…. and besides, my voice didn’t truly come into itself until I was older, anyway. So, as I watched Lindsay on stage in productions like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Turandot and Carmen, it was a mix of powerful pride and brooding Salieri (character in the movie Amadeus). I finally realized that I was old enough to try out for the chorus and not care if I got rejected, which is the most important part of getting older, anyway. It wasn’t the singing that frightened me. It was getting the thin letter instead of the thick one.

I am still truly terrified, though, but this time, it’s not about rejection. It’s about the clock, which is running out. I e-mailed Washington National Opera to ask when the next round of open auditions were for the chorus, and as it just so happens, they’re in less than a month. I have to have one Italian aria and one aria in any language (even English) prepared by then. I may also be asked to sight read, which is actually more exhausting a thought than getting prepared.

I don’t even have a piano at my house. I am still working out where I am going to practice, because I have a BIG DAMN VOICE and lots of housemates. When I go “balls to the wall” fortissimo, you can hear it up and down my street. It’s always fun when I have a marking that loud and splat an excruciatingly bad note on the tops of other people’s roofs. But, if you’re going to make a mistake, do it right.

It also feels good that I’m confident enough to go through the process, because it’s not like it’s some sort of pipe dream. I’m not tone deaf. I’ve sung in many, many choruses and have done some of the great works in history…. just not opera. Oratorios, masses, and requiems are kind of my jam. It would be so much easier if I could walk in with something I’ve already sung and don’t have to start from absolute scratch.

My biggest concern is the Italian aria, and which register to choose. Most of the Italian mezzo arias I’ve listened to go practically into cigar and vodka range, but sometimes mezzo lines go up to a high B flat. I am most comfortable in the high register, called “head voice,” but I am also not Queen of the Night material. Surely there has to be a good resting place between mezzo and coloratura. When I find it, I’ll let you know.

It seriously bums me out right now that my mother is dead. It seems like those words are flip, but what I mean is that I am only devastated when I think of all the things we won’t get to do together. Needing something from her is different. It’s not as important. It’s just a bummer that she’s the only person I can think of who could truly help me pull this off, and my copy of 24 Italian Songs and Arias is probably still in her piano bench. Plus, you can either use the accompanist at the opera company, or you can bring your own. Not being able to bring an accompanist that has always known how to catch me in all the right ways actually does bring me to tears.

There is a world of difference between a mere pianist and an accompanist. A pianist knows how to play the piano. An accompanist knows how not to throw a soloist under the bus. If you sing or play an instrument, you are probably enthusiastically nodding your head in agreement, perhaps clapping, because you know what a truth bomb I’ve laid down.

I am also interested in the writing that will come out of this experience, whether I make it or not. It will either be a big victory or a funny story. To wit:

Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself you can always write a book.

-Ronald Reagan

I’ve never sung it before, but the aria that I’m most familiar with is Song to the Moon from Rusalka. It’s in Czech, so I’ll have to do some diction training, but it does fit the requirements for range and breath control. As for Italian, the only aria I’m familiar with is Nessun Dorma.

You can file that under “not in this lifetime, Holmes.” While I probably could pull it off with several years of private lessons, in a month it would be a shadow of what it’s supposed to be, and the people listening to the auditions will have heard it a thousand times, anyway. For this reason, I’m looking for something very obscure…. I want to stand out….. just like everyone else.

Life, Abridged

Today has been all about scrambling to find an original copy of my birth certificate, which I thought I knew exactly where I’d put it. It was supposed to be in my top dresser drawer, where I keep all my important documents, like my ordination papers in case anyone needs to get married in a hurry. So far, it’s just been the one. Since I have completely torn my room apart, and I have no other stashes in any other areas of the house, I have decided that I must have given it to an employer and they failed to give it back.

Update: I mailed it to my dad for safekeeping. Total dumbass attack that I didn’t remember. It will be here in plenty of time to get a rush passport.

I need it because my dad and I booked a trip to Paris just after the new year, and then my sister and her husband asked if they could come, too. My dad and Lindsay have been before- not sure about Mathew. Years ago, when I was living in Portland, my whole famn damily went to Paris for vacation, and I could have gone, but there wasn’t enough time to get a passport by the time they invited me, because they thought I already had one.

I did get a passport when I went to Mexico, but the story behind that is my (now estranged, but still Oregon legal) wife accidentally gave it to Goodwill, when I left it in a pair of shorts I threw in what I thought was the laundry pile. I’ve been thinking of her a lot lately, what with the cooking and all. Dana has actual Le Cordon Bleu badges, and I don’t. I would have loved to take her to the real thing. And while I still love her in a friendship sort of way, we’re also estranged for good reason. Mostly because I was a total jackass to her and vice versa. In separation, universally, no one gets away with clean hands.

There’s nothing I’ll ever hold against her, but there’s nothing I’ll ever (ever, ever) forget, either.

But I do remember her a lot, and Paris is a place we both wanted to go, both from the food perspective and the several couples we asked to leave locks on the bridge for us to find when we eventually made it. Those conversations are memories that now make me indescribably sad, because I will indeed experience the divinity of Paris, just not quite the way I imagined.

But then again, I experience the divinity of The District every day, but not the way I imagined, either. It’s a good thing that I now think everything worked out the way it was supposed to resolve. I am glad that we never took a vacation here together, as I love living in a place that doesn’t trigger me all over the place. As I was telling a friend, being with Kat in my early 20’s is the part of my memory that is not so good (we lived in Alexandria, VA), and for that I am grateful.

Many, many people have now given me their recommendations for places to eat, although I hear that I need to go to a cafe rather than a restaurant, because they take forever. I can’t imagine that we won’t go to a restaurant at some point, but it’s a relatively short trip, so we shall see…..

Paris also reminds me of Anthony Bourdain, because I’ll never forget that he stayed in the hotel where Oscar Wilde died, his last words being, “I’m in a fight with the wallpaper, and it’s winning.” Bourdain did the ritual of absinthe, dripping it over a sugar cube, and realized what Wilde meant. 😛

It tastes like Fernet Branca, rich and herbaceous in all the right ways. I know because they sell absinthe without wormwood in the United States. I may or may not try it. I hardly ever drink, so my tolerance for alcohol is incredibly low. But I’m sure my dad, sister, and brother in law all want to hear how much I love them at 0200.

The last cocktail I had was when my sister took me to a Mediterranean restaurant here in DC. I wanted a something that would complement the food, so it was pomegranate and ouzo. I thought it was delightful, but I love the black jellybeans. Lindsay was not nearly as enamored with it.

I’m glad that I will have a passport again. The next dream I have is going to Helsinki for December 6th,fid Finnish Independence Day. I would tell you why, but it’s a long, long story and one that I don’t want to let go…. more than I already have, anyway. I’m sure if you look through my archives, there’s something in there somewhere. But the story reminds me of a dark time in my life, and how one celebrated holiday had to become another, and Finnish Independence Day was available. I basically had to bring a lantern into the dark, and for better or for worse, it came from a country I’ve never studied, and never cared about one way or the other for most of my life. But now, sufficed to say, my love for it is real and it’s deep. Finnish Independence Day threw me a life raft, and I took it.

Plus, Anthony Bourdain went there and now I know some good places to eat, if they’re still open when I eventually make it. I don’t know what I’m doing with my culinary life if reindeer pizza isn’t #goals. I also tend to buy soccer jerseys when I travel, or ask for them if others are going to another country. I would proudly wear the Finnish one for the entire month of December…. although I doubt it would make as many people jealous as my Honduran one. Half my kitchen is Honduran, and every staff member there has said they wanted to steal it when I’ve had it on. I didn’t wear it during service, just over my t-shirt on the way there so I’d have something to wear afterwards that wasn’t covered in food. I had to make sure it was completely hidden, because I don’t think they were kidding.

It feels nice to relax now and be able to enjoy my day off, but I do have to put my room back together after completely tearing it apart in fear that my birth certificate was buried somewhere. I think it’s time to read or watch a movie. I’ll flip a coin.

 

 

Prep

Yesterday was both easy and difficult at the same time. I am not used to starting my day in the morning anymore. I go to work between 1500-1700, so I tend to wake up between 1100 and 1300, depending on how jazzed I am from the night before and what I have to do the next day. Flipping my schedule around for one day threw me into the “I got up on the wrong side of the bed and I’m very grumpy” set of feelings. I got two Rock Stars from 7-Eleven and I am not ashamed to say that I drank both of them. I did not sleep well the night before, and with prep, I have to be alert, because to not is to hurt oneself… badly. For instance, my first job was par cooking French Fries, so that the people on the line only have to drop them in the fryer for a minute or two before they’re ready. Therefore, I was standing in front of a 350 degree fryer for almost two and a half hours. Had I been sleepy, that could have ended with blisters, or waiting for them to bubble. Even when I’m at the top of my game, accidents happen. I think I burned off one of my fingerprints on Wednesday. I got some ice on it immediately, so no blister bubbled, but for the moment, at least, I have no feeling on the pad of my left index finger and part of my thumb.

I was proud of myself, because since I was able to get ice and extraordinarily cold water on the burns immediately, it allowed me to keep working steadily. It’s a long story, but we’ve changed lead line cooks again, and it was magical. The same give-and-take that was there with the last one is still there with him. I got the compliment of my life- “I’m going to put you on all my shifts, because you can keep up with me, and I’m fast.” Also, I was absolutely kidding, but I told my kitchen manager, “of all the line cooks in all the world, you had to pick a Yankees fan?” Turns out, he’s actually a Mets fan, but from Brooklyn, so as he said, “whaddya gonna do?” I’m not even that much of a baseball fan, though I will watch it more easily than anything else, save soccer, especially if the Giants or the Dodgers are playing…. especially against the Astros. I’ve spent too many years of my life rooting for the Dodgers and the Giants to give up now.

Here, I root for the Baltimore Orioles, for a nerdy reason specific only to me. I can’t get behind the “Walgreens W.” Come to find out, the W belonged to the Senators first, which makes me feel sort of bad about it. Still. Just. Can’t.

Fonts matter. Also love that they call the Os park “Birdland.”

I do like Bryce Harper and his ever changing hair, though. Believe it or don’t, the rumor is that the Nats are thinking of trading him to the Astros.

I am sure that I will eventually get on board with the Nationals, only because it’s so much easier to take the Metro to the park than it is to get on the Marc to Baltimore. When I was thinking about moving from Houston to the Mid-Atlantic, I actually thought about Baltimore in addition to DC, because as I said then, “I’m really more of a John Waters than a John Boehner.” But again, what changed my mind was the public transportation infrastructure, because I know how to drive, but don’t. The traffic and parking around here suck. DC barely has room for the cars that the people own who live there. Bringing them in from Maryland and Virginia is just a “goat-ropin’ clusterfuck,” my favorite Texas swear.

Plus, because of supply and demand, the cost of parking for even a couple of hours is outrageous. As long as I have the time, taking the train is is easy. If I have to get somewhere fast, the cost of an Uber is infinitely less expensive than even buying a cheap cash car and trying to maintain it, plus insurance, plus parking if I go anywhere near “the city….” I have proven over time that I need a lot of it. Such a stereotypical woman driver who gives my gender a bad name. I would much rather zone out in the back seat with a good book or podcast.

For instance, I got a Facebook direct message from Dan, who told me she wanted to watch Argo with me, because it seemed like it was my favorite movie. I told her it didn’t seem like that, it was that. So even though I just watched it last Saturday, we watched it again last night. It was perfect over a glass of wine and some Wheat Thins, of which I am very proud I did not eat the whole box.

For that reason alone, it was nice to be done with work by 1600. It was also nice that I still felt caffeinated, because otherwise, I would have fallen asleep five minutes into the movie, especially after a glass of wine.

Meeting Dan has been one of the great blessings of my life, because not only did she fold me into her own life, but introduced me to a great friend circle as well. She is the connector- every friend I’ve hung out with over the past two years has invariably come from a chance meeting at one of her parties. Jaime lives the closest to me, in Columbia Heights, a quick trip down 16th street or a short train ride away. But even going out to Alexandria is faster on the train than I could drive it, because the traffic between Silver Spring and anywhere in Virginia is atrocious.

Every time, I am thanked for making the trek out there, but it is really no sweat. The yellow line connects two stops from my house (at Ft. Totten), and I can take it all the way to Braddock, which is one stop past National (the day I call it Reagan will never come unless I’m senile- which, incidentally, objects in mirror are closer than they appear).

Slowly getting ready for my interview at University of Maryland on Tuesday, mostly surrounding what I should wear. Business casual has changed so much over the years. I have no idea what I’ll see when I show up. For some universities, a collared shirt will do. For others, everyone will be in jeans and t-shirts. Generally for an interview, I wear a suit, and I will probably do the same now. Although funny story- when I interviewed at Marylhurst, one of the things they said to me after I started was, “when you walked in wearing that suit, we thought, ‘she is going to eat us alive.'”

I, in fact, did not.

I am the Type B poster child, so by the time I actually started, I was in jeans and t-shirts and/or Polos just like everyone else…. and like in all offices, a coat or a hoodie for my constant battle against the air conditioner. I am always thirsty and cold, the temperature made worse by drinking cold water. As I joke with my friends, “I drink a lot.”

At Alert Logic, everyone could hear me coming because I put ice water and an energy drink packet in my Nalgene, so it sounded every day like I was shaking a martini on the way to my desk. I’m surprised no one asked to taste it just to make sure. 🙂

We also had a free Starbucks coffee machine, so there were many days in which I overdid it, because hey, free latte. It was amazing because it didn’t taste like hospital coffee. I spend most days wired for sound.

In fact, I’m prepping for it today.

 

Noon

It is 10 minutes until 1200, when my alarm is supposed to go off. I got my schedule wrong last night- I thought I was supposed to work until 0130, but I was finished by 2230. It’s tonight and tomorrow that I “clopen,” slang for closing down the restaurant and being back in by Sunday at 1000.

I’m slated for the dish pit on tomorrow’s shift, which means that I will have to set up the restaurant for lunch. Of everything I have to do, that’s probably my least favorite, but there is only a small jump from last to first. Tonight is pantry station, which means cold foods and fried brussels sprouts, chips and salsa, etc. I get paid too much to think that anything is too bad. And what I mean is that being a dishwasher and line cook will never make me rich, but in comparison to other jobs I’ve had in the same industry, my hourly wage is insane. Plus, I also get vacation days (which I receive after six months), another thing I’ve never had from a small, independently owned restaurant. I also have the option to sign up for health insurance, but I like the state-run plan I’m on now, so I’m going to wait and see how my income averages out to see if I need to change it. If I switch to private insurance, my co-pays and drug costs will go up.

Although I am not a candidate for advancement, not wanting to go into management, I do get raises based on how long I’ve worked there and/or COLA (cost of living adjustment- my obsession with soda makes this my favorite acronym).

There is only one problem, and it has nothing to do with business. It’s that the woman who has slowly become one of my best work friends (despite the language barrier, closing more every day) is moving to Atlanta. I think either tonight or tomorrow is her last shift, after only finding out she was moving yesterday. I am heartbroken. Who else is going to hug me every day? Who else is going to make fun of me in a language I don’t always understand, just nodding and laughing because I am great at self-deprecation? But, in true kitchen wisdom, “go cry in the walk-in.” There’s really no time for emotion on the job, so that is a long-standing kitchen joke that works across all restaurants everywhere.

However, she is so loved that I’m not the only one with ALL THE FEELS. She gets along with everyone, from waitstaff to dishwasher. It also leaves us in a bit of a bind because she’s additionally a prep cook, so we’ll have to do a lot more at night rather than it all getting done before we arrive.

I wouldn’t mind a few prep shifts, leaving the restaurant earlier or getting doubles to increase my income… but to tell the truth, I’m really bad at it. This is because I will follow a recipe up and to a point, then decide I can make it taste better (ego, but not unjustified)…. but I do it with a pinch of this, a cup of that, so that I have no idea how to modify said recipe when I’m done because I don’t keep track of small improvements along the way. I can’t help myself- it’s a sickness.

For instance, Lanagan’s Pub Chili at Biddy McGraw’s was my own recipe, I always made it, and when I needed to write down the recipe, it took me two or three weeks, because every batch was a tiny bit different, as was my recipe for pancakes and oatmeal. I had several customers who came to the pub for brunch specifically to eat my food, something of which I am intensely proud. My pancakes in particular were a big hit, thin and crispy around the edges like a crepe with hazelnut fluff, the result of extra butter on the griddle.

It is always my goal to make foodies cry. One of the best chefs in Portland sent me a text and said, “even though it’s not a true Texas red, your chili is feckin’ delicious.” But he understood why I did it, adding light and dark red beans to make the ground beef stretch. That was 10 years ago, and I still remember that text dinging as if it were yesterday.

Sufficed to say if you have the ability to invite me over to cook dinner, you won’t regret it. The best indicator I have of this is that I made a French onion soup that sold out in less than one shift, and was supposed to last three days. Again, butter.

I have a keen sense that I am in the hospitality industry. My job is to delight people’s palates when I have free range, and I am comfortable with almost all nationalities. I’d love to work on my African food, though, learning to make Ethiopian injera, the flatbread you use instead of utensils for spicy beef stews that make my own palate dance.

There are two Ethiopian restaurants I highly recommend in Silver Spring. The first is Lucy, and the second is Arbol. Neither have web sites, you’ll just have to show up; you can also order from GrubHub or Seamless. I don’t recommend ordering from home, though. Get it fresh and hot, caliente y picante (temperature hot and spicy hot).

Also, if I cook for you, know ahead of time that portion control is important, because I have a blatant disregard for fat and calories. This is because I’ve read French Women Don’t Get Fat. Mireille Guiliano asserts that the reason Americans are fat is not because of the content of the food, but because we eat so damn much of it. Believe me, it’s true. Restaurant portions in the United States are generally out of control.

It’s also the entire reason I gained so much weight when I first met Dana, because as a Cordon Bleu trained chef, she fed me rich, rich food in stunning amounts. I took the weight off, and am now obsessed with keeping it that way. I don’t weigh myself, ever, but I back off the intake when I feel my pants are getting tight. I don’t want to go back to being overweight, and I don’t want to spend money on new pants, although it’s probably time, anyway.

Some of my Dockers are stretched at the seams, not from being overweight, but from the acrobatics involved with working in a kitchen. I have designated the black ones for work, because if I get bleach on them, I can fix them with a Sharpie. 😛

The thing I have spent money on this month is drugs. It is amazing how cheap Zyrtec, Tylenol, Aleve, etc. are on Amazon, because they sell Costco sized bottles that render each pill about .004 cents. I got a year’s worth of ibuprofen for $11.00, and 200 Zyrtec for the same price. If you’re not watching your cash flow, a year’s worth of Zyrtec is only $21.00. I just didn’t want to wipe out all my money until my next paycheck. I’m not the type person that particularly enjoys splurging one week and peanut butter sandwiches every meal the next.

I also have Uber to think of, because the buses aren’t running by the time I’m finished closing down the restaurant. I don’t particularly want to buy a car, because even though I could save up the money to buy one, I don’t want to pay for upkeep and insurance…. and it’s fun when someone else is in charge and I can just check out in the backseat and play with my iPhone…. and especially with Uber Pool, I only pay about five dollars a trip. They just add up, as does adding money to my WMATA SmartCard.

Public transportation is one of the reasons I love DC so much, because it’s cheap and readily available. Houston and Portland just do not have the infrastructure for it. Being one stop away from DC doesn’t hurt, either, because I can get nearly everywhere in the area in 40 minutes, even Silver Spring to Alexandria. Especially in heavy traffic, I couldn’t drive it that fast. So, at least for the moment, getting a car is not even worth it.

The only time I wish I had a car is for heavy shopping days, and those are so few and far between that it doesn’t really matter. Uber takes care of that, too, but I always feel bad when the driver has to wait for me to unload all my crap. But sometimes, it’s a blessing, because they’ll help me unload it. Some do, some just stare. It’s always a toss-up.

And now it’s time for me to slam iced coffee and get dressed, because I have officially written way past noon. I might even take a shower. Lord knows I need it. There’s probably aioli in my hair.