Poor Man’s Feast: On Anxiety and the Search for an Anchor

Posted inCreative Voices

Everyone I know — in the food business, not in the food business — has been telling me that I have to watch The Bear. So I tried to watch The Bear. I made it through three episodes.

I broke out in a string of welts along my jawline after the first two episodes; after the third, my waistline began to itch and a belt of angry hives wrapped around me like Marley’s chains in A Christmas Carol. Calamine lotion didn’t help. Topical Benadryl: nothing. Two oral Benadryl; I woke up the next morning feeling like I’d sucked down a fifth of gin, which I can assure you I did not.

I know everyone is loving this show. The acting is tremendous. The kitchen scenes remind me exactly of why I chose never to work on a line — not in 1988, when I was offered a job as sous chef at a (now defunct) Manhattan restaurant called Eze. Not in 1987, when I was invited to join the prepared foods department at Dean & Deluca, where I had been working as the book department and housewares person by day, and going to cooking school at night. The Eze offer was tempting, though, but when I was told what my hours would be — 2 pm to 2 am — I said no thanks: I’m not a night owl, and I’d heard plenty of stories about chefs coming down from the pace with massive amounts of after-hours booze and coke and amphetamines to get going and keep moving during service. Instead, I started to cater weekend parties out of my tiny walkup apartment; that gig ended when I was hired by Fifth Avenue art collectors Barbara and Eugene Schwartz to make an important family luncheon for them in their very white, very gleaming duplex overlooking Central Park. Prepping the lunch, I sliced three pounds of smoked salmon with a borrowed salmon slicer, cut my left hand to the bone as I was drying the knife off on my towel, and the last thing I remember before I fainted from blood loss was the butler screaming at me not to bleed on the new Basquiat that was hanging in the foyer.

It was not so much the hours or the pace or the inevitable burns and stitches that kept me out of the professional kitchen: it was the screaming, the stress, the shouting. I’ve spent most of my adult life creating an environment for myself that was the opposite of the manner in which I grew up: the in-laws who couldn’t stand each other, being used as a pawn by both of my parents against each other, the realization that I was not like the other kids I was growing up with and thus easy prey. I don’t do well with anger, or rage, or unfairness, and when I see others becoming its victims — children being screamed at in the street; my own mother or any other elderly person being threatened or harassed; animals being abused — I will go out of my way to prevent it. I worked in the corporate world for years, and if I am the recipient of professional fury, I generally know how to diffuse it. If I am the recipient of unhinged personal attacks, though, I now do what Arjuna did in The Bhagavad Gita: I put down my sword. It’s hard to be abusive to someone when that someone is no longer willing to engage. It takes two to tango.

In The Bear, though, it was not just about the kitchen pace and the screaming. It was the fact that it is an onslaught. It is about family threatening family. The triggers, the interplay, the maligning, the hostility, the belittling, the emotional volume, the abject cruelty that got me. I spoke to a well-known chef friend of mine (you would know her) and she agreed: just watching it triggered her kitchen PTSD. For me, it was more than that, and by the time I decided to stop watching it, my hands were shaking as though I’d drunk a bucket of cold brew: I just couldn’t do it, not while I’m trying to keep my elderly mother safe, not while she’s calling me fourteen times a day because she’s afraid, not while I’m trying to juggle three jobs, not while I’m trying to finish my next book and constantly being pulled away from it, not while I’m worried about my wife’s health, not while my dog is suddenly aging very rapidly, not while I’m trying to put down my wine glass once and for all which, I am here to tell you, isn’t as rosy and glowy and wonderful and fabulous and YAY as social media makes it out to be.

I know this for a fact: many creatives are inspired — energized, even — by triggers, by noise, by emotional timbre. I have writer friends who chill out by watching real crime; my Buddhist book designer wife, who carries stinging bugs out of our house before wishing them well and releasing them, loves to read thrillers and watch slasher movies. But what happens when the rage volume just becomes too much? When the shit, as they say, rolls downhill? When everything happens all at once and one’s back is to the wall and there’s no where to turn and no way to react? Back in the days when I was unraveling a series of physical attacks that had happened to me when I was a kid, my response instead of facing my history head on was to pass out in my therapist’s office. Literally: sorry, can’t go there, lights out, oh look the carpet, bye for now. Another version of this is what neuro-experts call brain scramble, or the place where, because of overwhelming anxiety, the brain literally stops organizing information and becomes paralyzed. Art can’t be made; work can’t be done; air can’t be breathed.

Eventually, I began to write about it and that helped a little bit; I also discovered that I’m a neuro-visual person, and when I’m trying to explain something traumatic that’s happened to me — whether I’m writing about it, or talking about it, or even just thinking about it — I first need to see it, and to draw it out not like a sketch or a painting, but like a flow chart. This happened + this + this + this. I draw myself as the foundation split into pieces by the things that happened; the goal, then, is to reunite those various pieces, to reintegrate and unify them, to make them whole again. To actually be able to see each of the things in the flow chart —- the this + this + this —dilutes them, lessens their power, objectifies them. Instead, the foundation — now unified — becomes an anchor.

The Bear is all about dis-integration, and one man’s attempts at re-unifying his life and his work. It seems to me that this dis-integration happens at some point to all of us. I watched in the 1970s as my father faced it. In one year, his marriage was failing, his father died, his business into which he had poured every penny he had closed down because one of his partners ran off with his money, the city in which he lived was failing (garbage strike; blackout; crime rates), his health was failing. A year later, he declared bankruptcy, my mother asked him to leave, he couldn’t afford to rent an empty office, he began to have small heart attacks, he was threatened on the subway more than once, my mother helpfully enrolled me in private school and made him responsible for the tuition. In one year. I distinctly remember times when he couldn’t string a cohesive sentence together; he was in shock, every day of his life. Until he wasn’t.

Years later, when I was in college, he told me that he’d come very close to ending it all, that keeping that many balls in the air at the same time seemed completely impossible and stultifying to him.

What did you do, I asked him.

I put down my sword, he said.

My father was a brilliant guy, who could quote everyone from Lion Feuchtwanger to Seneca, but he was not a reader of The Gita. He didn’t know the story of Arjuna, and how we make choices every day in the face of life battles — in whatever form those battles come — and when and where to fight, and how, and when to stop.

A therapist said to me: How much more can one person possibly take? I couldn’t answer. I floated through time and space untethered, unmoored, my foundation shattered into a hundred pieces.

When my father died in 2002, I remember his words: I put down my sword. In the course of a week — seven days — my father and his second wife had been in a car accident; she had been taken to one hospital and he to another, and they never saw each other again; he remained alive for a week; Susan and I stayed with close family who, suddenly, were no longer close; the day of the accident, I was asked to return the house key that they had given me years earlier; they refused to give me his obituary on the morning of the funeral; the third person who was in the car during the accident filed suit against my father, and then, his estate; his will had been removed from his house by my stepbrothers; my father’s insurance company refused to pay; his will was returned to me by my stepbrothers; I retained a lawyer; on the day before the funeral, I was told by family to mourn him away from everyone else, by myself, alone. The day of the funeral, I was sent out to buy wine for the shiva; the Jewish clerk at the wine shop looked at the kriah — the torn black ribbon of mourning pinned over my heart — and said You should not be doing this. You are the primary mourner.

This went on for a year; I do not know how I put one foot in front of the other. A therapist said to me: How much more can one person possibly take? I couldn’t answer. I floated through time and space untethered, unmoored, my foundation shattered into a hundred pieces. Little by little, slowly slowly, my pieces began to click back together, as they do in a kaleidoscope, as they had for my father in the 1970s. I walked a lot. I stared at nature, at things that were bigger than myself. I drank far too much. And then I moved forward in my life, forever seeking quiet whenever and wherever I could find it. I started to write to make sense of it all.

Change is inevitable, even when you’re in quicksand up to your knees.

Now, having just turned sixty, I’m here again: there are too many things happening all at once, too many balls to keep in the air. Attempting to get sober while it’s all happening feels like God’s little joke. And then I think about Arjuna; my sword has gotten too heavy for me to wield, so, I’m putting it down. Dropping it point down into the mud and walking away from it. I remember the words from the poet David Whyte, in his Intimate Invitation:

You forget
how, even when
you are barely
even when
you feel bereft
of any horizon,
and even when
without faith,
you feel held back
and afraid to move
even a little,
you can still be like
the beauty
we see in winter ice
beginning to
break and flow.

You forget
how you
can still see so clearly
the brave outline
of a single leaf.

How the stream
of clouds in the sky
can run
right through you,

and the sun on your skin
seems to pass
right through
to some
inner complexion.

And because
after all this time
you live, and have lived
for so long without faith
in your own joys
and your own grief,

you live daily,
saying 'love'
as if it were
still far away.

But come here now,
into the arms
of the waiting world,
put down
that heavy burden
you have carried so long,
and rest
from the hard
every day labour
of not hurting,
or not feeling,
or not hearing,
or not saying,
or seeing.

Stop keeping
the tears at bay.

Give it all up,
just come home.

The next time you look at the eyes of Jeremy Allen White, who plays the main character in The Bear — the son who comes home to take over the family business — understand what you’re seeing: this is called, in military parlance, The Thousand Yard Stare, the look of shock that protects the nervous system from imploding. Hang on to those words, The Thousand Yard Stare, for when things get to be too much, and when life gets impossible. It’s a choice: engage in battle, or seek out quiet in healthier, saner, less destructive ways. I keep reminding myself: nothing stays.

Change is inevitable, even when you’re in quicksand up to your knees.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The James Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.

Photo by Ray Zhou on Unsplash.