Crushing Tomatoes

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Written 5/2017

The question wasn’t ‘if’ I was going to lose my shit, the question was ‘when’. This is what I was thinking to myself as I drove away from home on Friday, May 19th. I had been invited to be a guest speaker on a panelist for Fooditor, and emotions were all over the place on this Friday morning in question.

 As a chef and someone who has had a very poor relationship dealing with anger all my life, I have been working very hard over the last year with therapy and meditation to develop a better relationship with ‘losing my shit’. I knew on this day that would be a losing battle. On the bright side, this actually marked the first time I recognized it so early, and I believed I actually had a chance to do something about it. Obviously this story wouldn’t be at all entertaining if I had succeeded.

 The hardest step in overcoming any issue is admitting you have a problem. I learned this from two stints in drug treatment in the 80’s during the Reagan administration’s paranoia that marijuana use leads straight to a crack pipe. Anyhow, it took me a week of a lot of introspection (in other words, Akiko told me) to remember that being in the position of being able to do something should be considered a win. Like, how can you begin to fix a problem unless you recognize it in the first place. Looking honestly at oneself, however, is much harder than normally wired humans can possibly understand. Anyhow…

For me, I’ve learned anger is expressed when different anxieties run out of place to live in my brain. The Cbgb’s (punk rock version of the Eeby Jeebys as I like to call my feeling of anxiety), scurry along my corpuscles, through my reddening face, through my spine, and all over my body when I get mad. My skin gets hot, my heart races, and the Cbgb’s want to get out any way they can. If they could, they would just pop out of my skin. Since they can’t, they make their way out through my words and emotions. Vomit happens when the body can’t process something in the stomach. That’s a similar feeling to when I blow my top. Words come from my mouth, but the thought doesn’t even seem to have materialized in my brain. It is almost as if the CBGBs managed to take over my brain and engage my mouth. I think the rest of you just call this an adrenaline rush. 

Like vomiting, it feels cathartically draining and good after I’ve blown up. But that’s just dopamine, and that’s why drugs feel good. Some people can do drugs casually, and some people are able to release their anger a little bit at a time. Others - like me - are like addicts, and not very much in control of their emotions. My dad and stepdad have recently come to me about a fear of dying. I don’t want to be bitter or fearful when I get older -  or burden my kids with my mortality - and a bad relationship with anger might leave me old, bitter, and even alone. I decided that I don’t want to be that person. Learning how to better express my anger a little at a time is how I can do that.

 So now that I made the important first step of recognizing my anger, I began thinking about potential pitfalls to the day. I needed to figure out who would be the most likely victim to my imminent outburst. I couldn’t take my anger out on my wife, like I usually do, because she was about to get on a plane. My ex-wife could also be the dumping ground of my anger. Lord knows I have swallowed enough of that anger over the years to choke a goat. But expressing anger towards her only seems to beget more anger, and nothing good ever seems to come from that… and not only for me, but more pertinently, for my two daughters. With therapy, I actually managed to forgive my ex-wife. I’ve never received an apology, but holding on to the resentment was my burden, and I could let it go if I decided to... kind of… I guess.

It was really a very liberating realization that forgiveness was all mine. Still, as much as I want to believe that, unexpressed emotions always find a way out somehow, and so much pent up anger is probably a big reason I overreact to so easily. I know, chefs are supposed to be angry people. I mean, look how well that worked for Gordon Ramsey. Our guests will come up and tell me they liked seeing me having a meltdown in the kitchen. They say it shows passion, but I think people have an innate love of watching other people suffer. For years I always felt like the reason I get angry is because I care. And even if there is a lot of truth to that, does that actually make it right? I decided that it didn’t, and I decided not to play the ‘tortured-artist-chef-card’ that plenty of people want to give me. 

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So who was it going to be I thought as I got closer to the engagement? I thought about my chef at EL... Yes!! He would be the one who would say the wrong thing to me at the wrong time, and I would unload on him. In part because I’m so terribly sensitive - and suppress so much - that it’s frequently something tiny that causes the floodgates to unleash the raging waters of my outbursts.

Okay, now this was a really good thing I told myself as I was nearing the destination. Now that I knew where my biggest danger was, all I needed to do was to sidestep and shield myself from getting angry with my chef. Then I could get through a condition critical day. And if I could get through this day, I told myself, I will have made a big step in my growth as a human being.

 I knew my mood was delicate, but I was feeling really good about my breakthrough when I walked into the speaking engagement. I introduced myself to Kerri at the reception desk, and she seemed genuinely happy to meet me. She even mentioned she was a fan. I was humbled and gracious, but considering that I had just recognized who would be the victim of my outburst, I felt at that moment like I might even be a fan of myself. My issues with anger is what I dislike most about myself, so maybe all of the therapy sessions, meditation, and desire to change were finally paying off.

 In the eternal minute that followed, however, everything crumbled. So here’s what went down: Kerri told me that my speaking engagement was not, in fact, scheduled for the time I arrived, but later in the afternoon. The time I had seen on an email pertained to a video testimonial that the organization had asked the panelists to take part in. I found it unusual to ask for a testimonial about a conference that hadn’t even happened yet, but I didn’t consider it too much to show up fifteen minutes before my start time to see what that was all about.

 As soon as I realized the mistake I had made regarding the time of the panel, the river of rage broke free. The source of my anger wasn’t going to be my chef at all. The source of my anger was going to be my worst enemy in the world; myself and my scattered and disorganized brain. The other person who was going to be swept away by the furious tide of the darting Cbgb’s, was poor, innocent, Kerri.

 I don’t feel like I was actually present for the outburst of anger that I was about to vomit at this absolutely innocent person (who was about to no longer be a fan). But it was definitely me. I snapped like a three-year-old that isn’t getting their way. The first thing I told myself was that this couldn’t be my fault! I immediately blamed my wife first, because I have learned that’s what I always do. I actually did recognize that as well, and I quickly knew it was me who wasn’t paying attention to my emails. If she had been beside me, she would’ve spared poor Kerri. But she was nowhere around. I still wasn’t ready to blame myself yet, so I started blaming the conference itself.

 It all happened so fast. My anger was laden with the knowledge that not only had I lost valuable preparation time that morning to attend this conference, but I would have to miss more time later in the afternoon to return back for the time I was actually scheduled.

 To be fair, I did not swear at Kerri, or hold her personally responsible for my issues. But when the Cbgb’s are coming out of me, I don’t need to say anything downright hostile to come off like a total jerk. I was losing my shit, she was there, so she became my victim. I vocally blamed the conference organization for communicating so poorly, and most of all, for not being respectful of what chefs have to go through. Only chefs – and to a lesser degree those in relationships with chefs - understand what chefs go through. I let Kerri know this. Realizing that I was well on my way to ruining her day, I told Kerri I was in no spirit to give anything but a nasty testimonial, and I stormed out of the building a broken man, telling her as I left that I hoped to be able to make it back for the panel.

I was extremely ashamed on the way home, and I couldn’t believe how quickly my day flipped upside down. My wife had recently told me that I had acted like this before at an event, but this time I had finally seen it for myself. Not that I was thinking about anyone but my poor, pitiful self on the way home, I had ruined the day of a complete stranger.

 On the bright side, I thought, at least now I didn’t feel as threatened about blowing up with my chef, or anyone else. It was definitely out, only now I was mad with myself for getting mad. I returned to the kitchen with a defeated feeling, but also feeling like I just lost some weight. Like a shot of heroine, it felt really good to let go of my anger. At least from a physical standpoint.

 When I walked in, Goody looked as if he was ready for me to lose my shit on him. He asked me if I was okay, and I told him I wasn’t, but I would be. I escaped into the kitchen – like I have for almost all of my life – into the alternate reality of my world as a chef. Food understands me. Food will do what I tell it to do. People are so unpredictable. Why can’t everyone just yield under my touch the way a tomato does? I guess when I act like I’m the only person who matters, the tomato could be seen as the entire world, and my unbridled anger is the destructive hand. The world is delicate, and other people’s emotions even more so.

I wound up missing my speaking engagement that afternoon, once again because I saw the wrong time. When I showed up, I was looked on by the organizers with contempt. I had planned on apologizing to Kerri, but I really hadn’t given much thought yet as to what the whole experience was like for her.

 My outburst put a dark cloud on a day that was already cold, dreary and wet on the outside. One of the mantras in the meditations I’ve been doing, is that, ‘there are many experiences happening all around you’. I did not think about that in my split with reality, and I let her know that I was sorry for not taking her experience into account, that I respect the amount of work and commitment it takes to put together an event like theirs, and I invited her and a guest into dinner on me. I walked away not feeling like that was enough. I am a quasi-public figure, and I need to do better. So that is why I started writing this.

 Once the rushing waters from a burst levy cease to flow, terrible wreckage is left in its wake. Same with my Cbgbs. It has taken me days to put myself back together again after those thirty or so seconds of fury. I wish i had them back. I’m very sorry to the entire Fooditor team for my actions.

Phillip FossComment