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Adventures with Knives

Introduction

A Taste for Adventure

Every adventure has a high and a low – if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be an adventure. The low point of an adventure, the black hole, is dark and scary. You feel alone, and you want to go home. Something you ate has caused you to fear being 10 feet from a toilet. You want your mommy. You’re one of those pathetic figures in Rodin’s sculpture, The Gates of Hell. If your adventure doesn’t test your deepest emotional reserve, it’s not a real adventure. On the other hand, the high that comes from an adventure, the sweet spot, is glorious. The brights are brighter, and the adrenalin rushes through your veins. Adventure is drama. My adventure with knives didn’t fail me. I got both my black hole and my sweet spot.

My black hole came in late November 2009, five months into my cooking school program. It had been a rough night in the front kitchen with too many mistakes, too much yelling, and lots of do-overs. I finished late and was sitting half-changed in the empty locker room. My colleagues had cleared out to go drinking. It was Friday night, party night for them. I was exhausted – a 60-year-old man with sore knees and a cut on my finger that pulsed with pain. My chef whites were speckled with unidentifiable splatters, reeked of sweat, and desperately demanded laundry. My feet hurt, and I had to trudge home through the cold, pouring rain – 45 minutes of slogging to the gulag barracks that I called home.

My apartment was at its worst. I had a 100-square-foot corner of my former bedroom that I called the bat cave, and the rest was stripped to the concrete awaiting renovation – a bombed-out war zone. One light, no fridge, no stove; my only salvation was that both the TV and the coffee maker still worked. I hoped. Without energy or a social life, I could only look forward to a weekend of sleep to recover enough to do it again on Monday. I was in way over my head. This sucked. What was I thinking when I signed up for cooking school?

The sweet spot was as glorious as the black hole was bottomless. It was the last day of school. My six months of hands-on learning was being tested in one final practical exam. We each had three hours to prep, cook, and plate a four-course meal for two, including an appetizer, a pasta dish, a main course, and a dessert. It was a scary blur of too much to do in too short a time. I was jumping with energy and manic with excitement. This was what I’d dreamed about; high-stakes action in the kitchen, just me and the challenge. I plated everything on time, and the three chefs who had ruled my life for the past six months, Julian, Patrice, and Johannes – the demigods of my narrow universe – were ready to judge my submissions. They would decide my fate. Would it be pass or fail? Was I a hero or a goat?

As I was arranging my dishes for judgment, Julian, the executive chef, wandered over. He looked at my plates, taking special notice of my pasta dish. “Not bad,” he said, with a hint of admiration in his voice. “You’re showboating a bit, aren’t you?”

I knew then that I had passed! I walked out of the school that final night feeling like I had discovered insulin. A simple comment from Chef Julian erased all of my self-doubt, and every dark moment of fatigue, anxiety, and pain fell away.

They loved me! I had hit the sweet spot in my adventure.

This is a book about getting up and off the couch, doing something, and taking some risks. It’s about deliberately making ourselves uncomfortable. It’s about trying out new things and, even though they may not always arouse our passion, it’s about believing these adventures will keep us alive, active, and engaged.

I’ve tried a wide range of adventures, and many didn’t work. As with clothes, some were the wrong style for me. They didn’t fit or, more precisely, they didn’t fit me. Golf never worked. I was more tense and stressed after a game of golf than before it. Full-time employment was a non-starter. I had worked at part-time jobs since short pants and had been an employee for most of my life. A job now would be like a straightjacket, too restrictive of my freedom. My attempts at volunteering usually tagged me for fundraising and public relations, my old work specialties. It would be just like work without the pay. These weren’t adventures.

Travel, on the other hand, was pure adventure. I took advantage of my freedom to travel for weeks and months at a time. Macchu Pichu, the Galápagos Islands, Patagonia, Egypt, the Mayan Temples in Central America, rafting through the Grand Canyon – these were all delightful. I made new friends, shared memorable experiences, and developed a thirst for more. Exciting travel adventures are everywhere. All I need to do is choose one and sign up.

I soon learned, however, that travel can’t fill my life. I can’t just eat dessert, and I definitely shouldn’t eat it every day. It’s not healthy. I crave the anticipation of travel, of packing and jetting off to somewhere new. But I know travel is best enjoyed occasionally, as a treat. Dessert should be dessert – an indulgence made more special by its rarity.

I tried an adventure called international democracy development. I talked my way into a two-week assignment in Kuwait for a respected foundation dedicated to strengthening democratic practices around the world. I was an election observer for the second round of presidential elections in Ukraine in January 2010. Two weeks observing Ukraine’s election was like a vacation on steroids. On election day, we were standing at the doors of the polls freezing, when the village officials arrived at 6 a.m. to ready them for opening. We completed our observation duties 24 hours later, as votes were delivered to regional tally points. This was a vivid personal affirmation of my faith in democracy: a communist regime that, in less than two decades, had transformed itself into a democracy. I wanted more.

I became an adviser for Action Canada, a brilliant leadership development program for Canada’s future political, business, and policy

leaders. Working with smart, ambitious, young Canadian leaders is energizing and challenging. I learned more than I taught.

I’ve been a runner for a decade, and I’ve trained for and finished countless 10-kilometre races, a significant number of half-marathons, and 10 full marathons. I made great friends and experienced the indescribable joy of crossing a finish line – upright, smiling, and in full control of my bodily functions (two out of three of those were usually considered good enough). I’ve run with both my son and my daughter, which were memorable bonding experiences. There’s something about the discipline, hard work, delayed gratification, and the final achievement of crossing the finish line that justifies but never fully explains the mystery of why we run. The side benefits aren’t too shabby either. If you’re fit, you can hike the Inca Trail; if you aren’t, you take the train.

I’ve taken up cycling and swimming. Competitions drive my training. I run a fear-based training program. I sign up for something scary, then train like hell for it. I’ve come to crave these self-inflicted tests of my perseverance. Even when I finish at the back of the pack, I’m thrilled.

All of these adventures acclimated me to change and its highs and lows, the sweet spots and the black holes. While not quite a turmoil junkie, I’ve developed a taste for adventure. If nothing else, these attempts at filling my new life have expanded my world, providing me with flexibility and openness to personal, career, and lifestyle change.

I’ve also moved around a lot. They always send the small moving van for me when I relocate. You learn to travel light after a while.

IMG_4279 - Version 2Going to a real cooking school and learning to cook like a professional would be my next new adventure. Little did I know what an adventure it would be, my adventure with knives.

Before you read this book, let me tell you what is not here. This book won’t give you a checklist of all the things you can do to make your life rich and full. I haven’t got a clue what you should do. I’m making this up as I go along. I think true fulfillment comes from trying new things and finding a fit.

This is not a financial planning book for the retiree. I can balance my chequebook, but I can’t offer much in the way of financial advice for making your money grow, keeping it, and keeping it from the taxman.

This is not an inspirational book – that would be a conceit of narcissism over experience. Having made as many mistakes along the way as I have, I simply can’t hold up my life as a fine example of what you should do with yours.

This is also not a cookbook. I could never masquerade as a chef. That was never my purpose. I was looking for an adventure, not a career. If you’re looking for recipes and tips, I have a few. For a real cookbook, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

I prefer to call this a pass-it-on book.

In my restless, self-absorbed search for meaning in my life, I bored my friends and pestered acquaintances and strangers with questions about what they were doing as they moved through the stages of their lives. They helped me a lot, and I’m hopeful that I can show you my roadmap of my life journey and enhance your life journey. Actually, I can’t believe I even tried to blow that old “roadmap of my life journey” bullshit past you. Forgive me.

This book has only one simple goal: to tell you what I did and how it worked out. If that helps you make some choices, I’ll be delighted.

If that isn’t enough warning, I have a final caveat. They say experience is gained from making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. If that’s the case, should we really emulate the experienced, the mistake prone? Make your own mistakes. Gain your own experience. My fervent hope is that you’ll stumble upon an adventure as glorious as my adventure with knives.

 

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