Art by Kate Shaw
Okay, so now I’m pissed, because I spent an entire morning wandering around the neighborhood, looking up at the skies and waiting for mana to fall and agonizing over how to reduce my thesis into something basic and easily translatable and applicable, and I pass some fucker on the sidewalk wearing a t-shirt that reads “hungry and overthinking it”, with a little picture of a cartoon cat thrown on as well to really hammer the point home.
Because that’s the trouble with living in an algorithmic world, isn’t it, because we can spend entire lifetimes trying to synthesize simple information into complex abstractions, but at the end of the day there’s always going to be some random number-generated t-shirt that manages to say everything we’re trying articulate across our entire lives before we ever get to say it.
So now I’m pissed, because I didn’t get to start this piece with “before anything else”, which means I didn’t get to start writing it on my terms. Here I am, writing about how writing is fundamentally reactive, and I was forced to make a choice between starting this piece the way I wanted to start it and just letting the damn t-shirt say what it needed to say. Because the whole idea of “writing on our terms” is a misrepresentation of what we’re doing when we’re writing in the first place.
We can never really begin with a beginning, a “before anything else”, because beginning begins with “B”, and because of the way we categorize data, “B” is always going to be the second letter of the alphabet. A beginning isn’t a beginning, it’s simply the moment at which the origin myth that proceeds that beginning becomes superfluous information when information is being organized.
It doesn’t matter who baked the loaf of bread, as long as there’s bread and butter on the table. That’s the basic idea.
But now I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Dancing farther and farther away from that first simple kernel so that I can fall back on the boundaries that I’ve established, the borders of esoteric reference. Mana from heaven. So, I have a choice: I recognize what I’m doing as reactive and work with that process, or I continue trying to tame a mode of communication that can’t be tamed.
So, instead of starting broad, we’ll back up, break down, and then bubble outward from there. Everything I have ever tried to say as a writer, everything I ever will try to say as a writer, boils down to this:
There is not a single problem in the world that cannot be broken down and solved by the judicious application of kitchen politics.
Boom. Bang. In the beginning.
Hungry and overthinking it.
But, and there’s that word again, but, this is the moment at which we have to decide whether this boundary we are establishing is a boundary that boxes us in, or whether it’s simply firm ground upon which to plant our feet. So I could sit here, get fancy with the spices, show off, dazzle the reader with layers of food symbolism, or I can talk to the cook, because at the end of the day, the cook will be able to say everything I could ever hope to say in this piece better than I ever could.
“So, are we gonna talk about meal plan falling apart, or are we just gonna sit here and think about how we don’t have to talk about it because we know how kitchens work and knew it was going to happen?”
And the cook laughs, his arms crossed as we stand in the front yard of the co-op, a bread box amongst the alphabet soup of Greek life houses up and down the street.
“I don’t need to say fucking anything,” he says, lighting a cig, and he’s right. He doesn’t. But it’s fun, so we bitch without bitching. We stand there with our arms crossed and bask. And while we’re basking, I try to remember that Bertolt Brecht quote, and try to bring it up.
“There’s this quote,” I say, “from this poem, where the guy says something like ‘those who eat well don’t have to think about food because they’ve already eaten’.”
The cook chuckles. “Ain’t that the truth. Fucking Danksgiving, I’m down there in the basement all day cooking for these motherfuckers, and then I’m down there all day the night after cleaning up. But can I say anything? No. Can’t rock the boat. People don’t wanna fucking think about my back breaking when they eat.”
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter how many medicated meals you make, how much idle pleasure you bake into the food. If the meals are made on the backs of the bakers, then by the time the baker gets to eat, the medication truly becomes medication. The bakers are no longer eating for pleasure; they’re eating for the release of pressure and pain that built up from the process of preparation.
But let’s back up for a second. Because bread’s never just bread, is it? So let’s break down and rebuild our boundaries before bounding ahead. Because “B” is dangerous, because it bounces and bubbles and alliteration is fun as hell, so we could get trapped in these repeating patterns all day long.
A few years ago, at the same time I was going to school for library science, I was slinging sandwiches at a fast-casual restaurant. I could say the name and you’d know the name, but saying the name would defeat the point of bringing them up in the first place. At the point at which I name them, I become bitter, and a barrier is established between myself and my ability to perform analytical criticism of the structure of their labor organization. By naming them, I make it personal, when the whole point of bringing them up is that it’s never personal.
It’s just business.
But that’s where our boundaries box us in, because business is the breakdown of the personal into easily digestible chunks. And this is why beginnings and boundaries are so important and so dangerous, because they’re not defined by what’s within. Because we need boundaries so we don’t fall straight through the cracks in our own world, but by the same token, they’re defined by the negative space.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So let’s bounce back, not quite to the present, but to the meeting where I got voted into the co-op in the first place. I’m sitting there, looking at these twenty strangers who I’m about to start sharing a living space with, and they ask me questions about what I like to do with my free time, my favorite color, my favorite drug.
And then the cook asks me the most important question anyone has asked me so far, not because it’s the most important question, but because it’s every question I’ve been asked so far boiled down to their most reduced form:
“Teriyaki or barbecue sauce?” he asks.
And without missing a beat, I respond “Both.”
What I don’t say out loud, what I don’t have to say out loud, because everyone else is too busy debating whether my answer is cheating, is that “both” is just the simplest mode of translating what I’m really trying to say, which is “They’re the same damn sauce.”
And while everyone is boiling in semantics, the cook and I see each other, and we grin, because I said everything I needed to say.
“But like, would it fucking kill people to give me some recognition? Like, I’m obviously not asking to be worshipped, but Jesus fucking Christ. I work my ass off as kitchen steward, I bust my chops to make sure there’s a meal on the table five nights a week, and what do I say at the meeting? Hey y’all, I can’t do this anymore, because I’m about to have a kid and obviously that shit’s going to come first. But whoever does want the position, I’ll show you the ropes, and help you get used to it, because it’s a lot of pressure and it’s easy to get lost. And what happens? Some motherfucker swaggers in, doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, because he thinks he’s a ‘real chef’, so he doesn’t need to learn the rules of this kitchen. Like fucking man, you work at a fucking burger bar. If you want to make noise and throw shit around willy-nilly, stick to deejaying.”
And there it is, the boundary, the negative space, the point of tension. How our information organizes itself competitively. He’s not wrong, but, and it’s a big but, we ultimately have to realize that meal plan breaking down wasn’t personal, because meal plan breaking down was the point at which the personal breaks down. Boundaries break when they cease to fulfill their role as boundaries. There’s no plan for meal plan because the kitchen steward is too busy busting their ass at a burger bar to bring that same bacon home, so rather than building an environment where we can establish our own boundaries and ask for help, say we can’t handle a job on our own, we buy our own hype and the rest of us suffer the consequences. So we can bitch, and our bitching is of course warranted, but if we don’t ask ourselves why we’re bitching and why we’re bitching to the people we’re bitching to, that bitching just builds a whole new set of boundaries to break down.
“You’re right,” I say, “but also we have to recognize that it isn’t just the kitchen steward. It’s the fact that one person is expected to be God-Emperor of everything that happens in that kitchen, and when we can’t even do our own damn dishes that’s a problem. Because as long as we aren’t doing our dishes, there’s this inherent tension, because the kitchen steward’s job becomes to be the avatar of a system that isn’t working instead of working out a system that works. It’s fine to not be able to hack it, but if we feel like we can’t admit that we can’t hack it then we just push ourselves to the breaking point.”
He shrugs and lights another cigarette. “I guess it’s just fucking irritating that I did everything I could to make this stupid system keep chugging along as long as I did, and now that it’s gone everyone is just going to pretend like that’s fine.” And he looks at me, and he levels with me, and he says “You want the God’s honest truth, I’ll give you the God’s honest truth. Now that meal plan has broken down, petty theft is coming back.”
And sure enough, two days later, less than a week after another housemate and I have hauled three industrial-size trash cans of expired food out to the dumpster, someone comes downstairs and asks “Who the fuck took my Hot Pocket? The box wasn’t even open.”
Because it’s not about the Hot Pocket, is it? It’s not about the burger bar, and it’s not about the specific sandwich-slinging fast casual food chain that ruined my life and just managed to hit almost 100% employee turnover only a few months ago. It’s about the irritation that we’re promised a system that will keep food in our mouths, and then suddenly we’re confronted with a spot of mold on the crust of a loaf we never even cut into, nonconsensual recognition of the fact that the supposedly consensual relationship which we’ve been sucked into is based on broken boundaries.
But while we’re on the subject, let’s bounce back to them anyway, because you know what? I am bitter. I spent two years as an associate, busting my ass on line, having panic attacks in the walk-in, and then finally my wish is granted. I get transferred over to “the bake side”, as they call it, I turn in my dirty black t-shirt for a fancy jacket with the company logo on the breast, and suddenly I’m a prophet, because sure, those associates might sell and sling the sandwiches, but now I’m the one who bakes the bread. So really, it’s fine that I’m suddenly being paid four dollars an hour more than I was before to do significantly less labor, that my meals are comped, that I get overnight unsupervised reign over the kitchen to do whatever I damn well please.
And whether it’s the library science or the Borderline Personality Disorder or just the stress of the job, at some point I realize that I’m being groomed by the company to view the exact same labor I spent the last two years busting my ass performing as expendable, as secondary to the real work, which ultimately amounts to eight hours per night of listening to audiobooks and cutting lines into baguettes.
So I start having panic attacks in the walk in every night instead of every few nights, and one night I cry so hard that I vomit on the middle of the floor and leave knowing I’m not coming back, because the boundaries have finally broken down. So I get home and grab a backpack and stuff it with books and Brooke wakes up and asks where the fuck I think I’m going, and I tell her that I’m buying a bus ticket to Boston and going to become a living statue, and suddenly my job isn’t the only three-year engagement I’ve broken that night. We go to Chicago like we do every year for my birthday, and then less than a week later I’m bumming it on my best friend’s couch.
But that was then, and this is now.
“So, here we are, not being able to do our dishes, and so they just pile up, and eventually we just have to keep finding new places to put them. Countertops. Tabletops. Landfills. Oceans.”
He shakes his head, closing his eyes. His wife has a bun in the oven, and the timer’s set to pop off any day now.
“How do we change that though?”
I shrug. I’m still bullshitting, bubbling outward. Last night, my housemate told me I try to wrap everything up with a bow. Maybe he’s right.
“We talk to the other people in the kitchen. Not everyone has to do the same job if we know how to communicate. We want recognition, right? So we recognize each other.”
It sounds nice. I believe it, too, I think. But I don’t know if it’s the right vessel to hold the thing I’m trying to say. I don’t know if there is the right serving dish for the dish I’m trying to serve.
But it doesn’t matter, because the conversation is cut short by the yellow-jackets that swarm all over the porch. “Fucking hell, Bum,” says Alex, who’s been lounging on the steps, sipping beers all morning. He makes a beeline for the yard, and the cook and I scatter, laughing as the black cat bats at the buzzing swarm, not giving a single shit about being stung.
I call myself a journalist now, say that I’m trying to break down our communication into bite-sized bits so maybe we can slow down and figure out what the fuck we’re actually talking about when we talk to each other. It’s a noble sentiment, I like to think, the same noble sentiment that made me think I was going to direct Shakespeare, and when that fell through, become a children’s librarian. But it’s so easy for me to get caught in the thickets of my own communication. Bread is never just bread. It’s chemistry. They told us that on The Magic School Bus and they told us that in first hour Nutrition, the class that blessedly allowed those of us with no understanding of arithmetic to grasp the last credit we needed for graduation.
I think of all of those sandwiches I slung, all of those sonnets I recited, all of those sentences I sorted. I think of all of the attempts throughout my life to think that anything I’m doing is anything other than baking bread so that it can be broken, because at the end of the day, being a baker is the damn job that I got hired to.
Later that day, after I was done talking to the cook, I sat down to write this essay, sat down to give that damn t-shirt its due, and I realized that my laptop battery had stopped charging. I tried every outlet in the house, tried to hold the cord at different angles and see if I could appease it. It was a day I had known was coming for a long time, known since I bought the damn thing. It was a burner laptop that was built to break, should, honestly, have broken down years before. I wandered around the house in an anxious fog, trying to figure out what I was going to do.
Sitting there, on the couch, I smiled, went upstairs, and crucified it to my bedroom wall through the webcam that hadn’t worked in a year. For years, I had been terrified of it breaking, of my connection to the outside world being shattered, of losing my ability to write and make my living by writing. But there I was, the only light in the room the last hour of battery life as I battered and broke the screen myself, watching as the cracks spiraled outwards.
I wanted to share it with someone. There was such beauty, broken white lined with galaxies. I wanted someone else to see it, wanted to show someone before the end, was getting ready to go downstairs and find the cook.
Before I could even leave the room, the screen went black.
Then I came here, to the library.
Before that, after the bees had settled down, I wandered in circles around the front yard. Sorority girls clapped and chanted up and down the street, music pumped from the speakers, and Bum lounged on the porch. Thirteen cats in the house, and he’s the only one allowed outside.
Except in October, Cassandra had told me. You know what people do to black cats in October.
In my hand was a beer, handed to me by Alex. At first I had declined, but then accepted because I knew that it wasn’t about drinking the beer. It was about taking it. And then I had tasted it, and it turns out that I’ve been wrong about not liking beer. Turns out I just like bad beer. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t taste good, but there’s something about the simple sugars breaking down on your tongue that’s actually kind of nice. Like just buttering a slice of untoasted Wonder Bread.
So I wandered up and down the sidewalk, sipping my beer, stepping aside for passing recruiters in t-shirts that read Panhellenic Council.
“Hey,” shouted Alex from the porch. “Just a heads up, you can’t be on the sidewalk drinking that. Well, you can, but it’s illegal. Don’t ask why. Front yard, a-okay, but as soon as your foot hits the sidewalk you’re breaking a law.” He shrugs. “Stupid. But it’s the law.”
Back here, at the library, I’m trying to finish up saying what I’m trying to say. I came here for a reason. I came to try to say what I’m trying to say. More than that, I came here because I honestly don’t think there’s any way for me to ethically tell these kinds of stories on anything other than a library computer. Maybe, ultimately, that’s superstition, but I’ve sat alone for so long, disk-jockeying creation myths into the darkness, that maybe superstition is the only thing that can bring be back to earth.
It’s time for me to look the other people in the kitchen in the eye, because we’re all here together.
So, then, what am I trying to say?
Well, the t-shirt said it first, didn’t it?
Hungry and overthinking it.
Bastard, whoever designed that shirt. Bastard.
What was it I said before? Every problem can be fixed by organizing life like a well-functioning kitchen? I could go back, take another peek, but what would be the point? I already had to rewrite this entire essay once, because I went to take a bathroom break and didn’t realize that the library computers automatically log out after ten minutes. So I came back, saw the screen, got pissed because I thought someone had logged out, and then sheepishly logged back in when the librarians kindly informed me what had happened. No malicious actor. Just the system letting go of the things I didn’t bother to save before my break.
Maybe in that version, I said it better.
I said earlier that everything I’ve ever done is just baking by any other name, and I believe that. I think it’s probably true of you too, and most people. We’re all baking for each other, baking bread and breaking bread and cracking open cold ones with the boys. But that’s the trouble with “B”, because it’s easy to get caught in binaries, thinking that the extrapolation is boundless. It’s easy to get caught on one side or the other and lose your absolute shit when you think you’ve articulated yourself as clearly as possible and somehow the dumb bitch on the other side still doesn’t get it.
The folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, bless their hearts, trace the word “barbecue” to Haiti and translates it to “a framework of sticks”. In Barrie’s Peter & Wendy, it’s mentioned that Captain Hook is the only man of whom Barbecue, or “The Sea-Cook”, was ever afraid. For those of us who weren’t going to school to be children’s librarians, The Sea-Cook is another name for a little book called—
Oh, never mind. If you’re interested, you’ll Google it.
Better yet, ask your local librarian, and let them Google it for you.
There it was, the perfect shell for some esoteric flexing, and the cook said it first:
“Now that there’s no meal plan, petty theft is coming back.”
Hungry and overthinking it.
If there’s bread and butter on the table, everything else will follow and fall into place. If there’s bread and butter on the table, if the people who baked the bread get to butter it along with the people breaking it, then the table never needs to become a battleground. Replace “bread” with brewskis or baked beans or baba ghanoush and hopefully you have a balanced breakfast, everything you need to break down without breaking down. Teriyaki. Barbecue. The same damn sauce. Preparing, preserving, and making sure that there’s a spot at the table and enough food on it for everyone that might show up.
Sounds simple enough.
But like I said, that’s the trouble with “B”, and with binaries. One vowel and one consonant is all fine and dandy, but the moment you add “C” to the mix everything goes to hell in a handbasket. Contact. Contraction. Concentration. Everything gets muddled up when you melt some cheese to spice up your toast. Just ask the Skrælings. Because we can build up as many boundaries as we want, but everything breaks down eventually.
The trick lies in preparation.
Before any of that, though, let’s enjoy these last moments of unbroken bread, this final moment of chemical balance. Bitchin’ in the kitchen and spinning the wheel of fate. Let’s bake and bubble and bound behind the bouncing ball:
B_LL_ _F TH_ BALL
B_LD AS BRASS
B_SY B_ _S
BY TH_ B_ARD
BY TH_ B_ _K
BR_NG H_M_ TH_ BAC_N
B_RN_NG F_R Y_ _
B_ _NDAR_ _S
BACK T_ BAS_CS
B_D AND BR_AKFAST
B_T_NG TH_ B_LL_T
TH_ B_TT_R BATTL_ B_ _K
B_TTY B_TT_R B_ _GHT A B_T OF B_TT_R
B_T TH_ B_T _F B_TT_R WAS B_TT_R S_ B_TTY B_TT_R B_ _GHT A B_T _F B_TT_R B_TT_R TO MAK_ TH_ B_T OF B_TT_R B_TT_R B_TT_R
B_Y_NG A V_W_L
v.f. thompson is an artist and activist based out of Lansing, Michigan, where she strives to use her skills as a library school dropout to foster communication across boundaries. she seeks to use multimedia storytelling to help build bridges between the world of academia and diy culture, chipping away at our vertically segregated information economy piece by tiny piece. when not concocting propaganda in the dead of night or bellowing through a bullhorn in clown makeup, she can be found crawling through the comics section at her local library, watching too many online videos about postmodern theory, and losing her mind over the end of the world. follow her on facebook, twitter, or, gods forbid, tumblr.