We Are All Pretentious

As a kid, there’s probably no more interesting and vital place than the playground. There, budding youngsters experiment with all sorts of different versions of themselves. Queen of the castle. Thoughtful people-watcher. Superstar athlete. Goofball comedian. Alpha boy. And more.

By trying out various roles and interests as if they were costumes in a wardrobe, we begin to shape our identity—a richer and truer sense of who we are. This is a crucial part of growing from childhood into adulthood.

But for some reason, as soon as we enter the public square of adulting, trying things on is no longer praiseworthy identity experimentation. It is labeled pretentious. The young woman exploring the world of craft beer or wine is a snob. The student raving about up-and-coming indie bands is a hipster. The colorfully dressed urbanite is a narcissistic deviant. The Midwesterner who moves to the big city is an elitist dismissive of their roots.

Why do we encourage kids to try things out but condemn it in adulthood?

Condemn it in others, that is. We’re fine with it when we’re trying things out ourselves. If you’re eating through the city’s 10 best list, you just like new food in new restaurants. But as soon as someone else does it, they are a snobby foodie who thinks they’re too good for other people and other places to eat.

We seem to find it important to police other people. If there’s an apparent gulf between who someone is and who they’re trying to be, it’s some kind of social violation. Identity exploration has become so closely tied to elitism and otherness we can’t see it as something beneficial to growing as a person.

But pretense originally simply referred to pretending without all the other baggage. To pretend is not necessarily to be a narcissist, to think you’re better than everyone else, or otherwise. Snobbery, elitism, and self-inflation certainly do happen in the world. People unquestionably do things just to stand out from everyone else in a self-centered way. In a time of rampant materialism, conspicuous production and consumption are alive and well.

At its core, though, pretending—trying things on to see if they fit—is how we figure out what we like and who we are. We are all unique, sometimes weird, sometimes into things that other people can’t wrap their minds around. We should celebrate that in each other instead of castigating it.

Whether we’re the kid at play or the adult in the urban playground, we are all pretentious in some way. Acknowledge it and move forward. Let others try things on and figure out who they are—just as you do.


A Future After Failure

Few words can cause us to feel so repelled and turned off as failure. More often than not we try to avoid the reality of failure altogether. No one wants to fail; no one wants to be linked with a failure. Our closest encounter with the concept now is in the cyber community of social media: the banal, thin #fail. Everything from a photo of tomatoes on display at a grocery store with a banner reading “Watermelons” to throwing an interception trying to pass the ball instead of running it with the best running back in the league to win the Super Bowl is a hashtag fail. We’ve trivialized the concept, and thereby haughtily, but naively, put the stamp of #fail on obvious blunders. Lots of things are easy targets for sneering reactions. Are we critical and thorough enough to include our own flops among the targets? Can we do it without twisting it into a humblebrag? Maybe we dance in this ankle-deep conceptual pool of #fail to avoid dealing with what failure means in a deeper way—especially the real, debilitating failures we’ve encountered ourselves.

Few of us do well with actual failure. Failure happens whenever the most tragic, destructive, terminal outcome of something in our life comes true. The ground we’re standing on crumbles apart. And, as a result, we become disorientated or demoralized. Failure can be literal or metaphorical stumbles. It can be large or small. Failure can catch us by surprise—seemingly lassoing us from far away. Or it can be the result of our own errors and bad decisions catching up with us. In high school, I tried to show up to classes one day battling illness, only to end up vomiting in a main hallway between periods. Dozens of students smirked while hugging the wall to move past the scene I had made. I felt paralyzed and alone–ready to hide in the nearest custodial closet.

It’s amusing now, but most failure isn’t—in the moment or in hindsight. We applied for that position or degree and got rejected outright. We got fired. We were told we don’t have what it takes. We worked on that for 20 years, and it was laughed off in 20 seconds. We struck out. We didn’t even make the team. The marriage is over. Real failure really happens—to all of us.

In an age of digital algorithms and automation, we work hard to remove the roadblocks, trip-ups, and discomforts of life. They hurt; they wear us down; they make us feel like the universe resists us doing and being what we want. It makes sense that we would develop apps that seem to miraculously match you to your soulmate so you can circumvent the awkwardness and heartaches of hookups and breakups. It makes sense that we would create self-driving vehicles that can’t crash into each other or slide off the road in inclement weather. It makes sense to research various medical treatments so that our intellectual and physical capacities don’t degenerate and let us down as we age. We look for fail-safes, and fail-safes for the fail-safes.

But we live in a social and literal universe that tend toward deterioration—too vast and complex to automate and eliminate all the chaos and unpleasantries out of existence. Even machines–or perhaps machines most of all—fail. Some failure, some breakdown of our lives or the things around us, is inevitable.

What should we do when it happens?

Sometimes we need to mope for a bit. We need to turn on some Bon Iver, crawl under the covers, order Chinese food for delivery, and have an extra glass of wine. We think we’ll hide out while the failure exhausts itself elsewhere. But at some point we have to figure out a way to move on. There is a world out there waiting for us to become some kind of protagonist in it. If we stay buried in despair then our failure has put us into narrative purgatory. We run the risk of slipping into a listless abyss and never getting out. But this, unlike failure itself, is not inevitable.

In any well-told story, failure is the part where things are about to get good. Our lives are dynamic, open narratives—unfolding as we go, with climaxes and conclusions yet to be determined. Failure of any sort becomes a split of possible roads. Which one will our story proceed down? The failure, the narrative break, has already happened. We were knocked down. The door closed in our face. It’s shitty. But we can choose what happens next. The abyss is one place it can go. Making sure the story actually gets good is another.

Failure has a way of forcing us to refocus if we let it. It strips away the inessential. When I vomited in the hallway, it was immediately obvious who my true friends were. They didn’t smirk and walk away; they were genuinely empathetic and reassuring. Most failure is more profound than public vomiting: things like divorce, job loss, and disheartening medical diagnoses. When those happen, the essential stands out. Sitting in a hospital room with a loved one quickly cuts out the extraneous.

Some failures happen in hopeful vocational or education pursuits, and often show that we need to work harder or smarter. Or perhaps we need to give up on that pursuit entirely to give ourselves over to a more meaningful one. Not everyone is meant to win The Voice or be the next Steve Jobs. We have to find the dream that matches our own raw abilities.

Are you caught up in something that you’re pretty good at, but if you were honest there’s something else that you would love to do? Eventually, you’re going to lose traction and fail at what you’re pretty good at because your heart’s not fully in it. It’s a shadow life of the one you could live. When that happens, will you continue with what’s comfortable, or risk taking the road that would bring real worth and fulfillment to your story? When we start to choose to live intentionally, we can fail small but grow small. Or we can potentially fail big but realize the deepest hopes for our life’s trajectory.

It’s a bit mysterious how it can be possible, but there is an upside to failure if we are able to avoid the limbo of the abyss. If we own the failure, let it wash over us or hit us with its best shot, and then move forward, we become a stronger, more grounded person. We develop more self-confidence, determination, and centeredness. We might call it resiliency.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort and tension to eat good food in moderation so that your body weight is lean. But it takes the microtrauma of weightlifting or resistance exercises to actually build muscle. With cellular tears comes new growth and strength. Without the microtrauma, we remain weak, static, and perhaps even bored or apathetic. Such lethargy is not all that different in kind from floating in failure’s abyss. In both, we are less than our full selves. To live a life where the story keeps getting good means being exposed to life’s microtrauma and failure. Through it, we develop a resiliency that becomes denser all the time.

In college, I took a Classics texts class where all we did is read aloud and translate. Each person took a turn with a section. Ahead of each session, I would write down every vocabulary word and verb conjugation that wasn’t easy to remember. This way, I would always be able to state the right answer when asked, even if I didn’t know it off the top of my head. But this meant that weeks later, and especially now years later, I do not have a recall that even comes close to fluency. You don’t go to school because you already know all the answers before class starts; you go to learn how to find answers and hold on to them. None of us learns Matrix-style through instantaneous upload to our brain, and I don’t think I would ever want to. Learning requires the possibility, and sometimes the realization of failure. I never fail now to spell esoteric, because I misspelled it in front of hundreds of people at the city spelling bee as a shorter and squeakier me. That failure strengthened my budding resiliency, and taught me a lot about hard work and learning through life as you go.

No sensible person tries to fail on purpose. Only a fool would. But when it happens we can use it to grow the muscles of resiliency. To sharpen our focus on what we should properly dive into. And deepen our determination to see ourselves through the next chapters of our life’s narrative. We cut out the inessential: excess stress, worry about our chances of success or making all the right decisions, obsessing about what others will think, the people who don’t have our back, what’s just fluff. This can only happen on the road that embraces the reality of failure. It’s not a road we naturally take. But it’s the way of strength training our selves. We can’t, and shouldn’t try to innovate it out of existence, nor hashtag it into triviality.

Eating Well: Food Doctrine of the Mean

Scallops and Juniper
Photo Credit: Netflix

Food is the most universal language. In many places of the world, you can get by without knowing a word of Spanish, Mandarin, or French. They are widely spoken, but not wide enough to encompass all of humanity. No single, literal language does. But if you’re a human being anywhere, you cannot get by for more than a handful of days without consuming and digesting some kind of edible flora or fauna. The cultivation and intake of food are some of the most fundamental activities of being a person. We have to eat. As such, much of our civilization and culture has emerged around the things that constitute a meal and their sources. Over the course of the last few hundred years, many and varied branches of a thoroughgoing food industry have grown, and we now find ourselves high up in the canopy of the culinary tree without a view or an interest in the trunk and roots below that led to its growth.

We now watch food competitions on television and take smartphone pictures of food seemingly as much or more than we spend time eating it. We order out, drive through, and snack on the go while our pans and pantry collect dust at home. We readily recognize the sight of plastic-wrapped packages of meat in bulk without having any idea of how the animal was raised and butchered. We have kids who struggle to identify tomatoes and potatoes in their original, just-picked state. There are chefs and food industry experts who are nearly as popular and well known as Hollywood celebrities are for film.

We are enraptured by the consumption of food. There are two polar extremes. On the one hand, trying too hard: bombastic, absurdist gastronomy with excessive technique and uncomplementary ingredients forced together (which the average person will largely never be able to taste or learn to make anyway). On the other, indolence: processed junk with grotesque amounts of sugar, fat, and carbohydrates encouraging us to indulge in foods that undermine our well-being. In both, there is a lack of understanding true craft—knowing the essential interconnections in ecosystems where edible plants and animals grow, what constitutes quality, true skill, and approachability. Food is the universal language, but few of us are fluent anymore—even many chefs. We live in one of the two extremes. We’ve lost the meaning of a well-prepared meal and the proper amount of reverence it deserves.

In such a paltry conceptual environment, Netflix’s original series Chef’s Table could not have been released at a better time. It’s food television, to be sure, but it supersedes existing programs in a way that makes it more of an artistic philosophical reflection than pop entertainment. Chef’s Table compellingly presents a middle ground between the extremes of fetishized gastronomy and profane processed foods. Each of the chefs featured are struggling to break free from the status quo of the culinary world and provide people with a resonant, grounded food experience.

Massimo Bottura has established the third-best restaurant in the world by simply capturing the essence of traditional small-town Italian flavors and presenting them with the playfulness of a child sneaking tastes in a grandmother’s kitchen. Dan Barber is a prophet for understanding that the best flavors are inherent to the best ingredients, which is ultimately dependent on the health of the soil and the rhythms of nature. His literal farm-to-table restaurant at a barn in rural New York just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant—the Best Picture Oscar of cuisine. Francis Mallmann is a revered chef with the utmost classical technique, who prefers to cook over open fire on a remote Patagonian island with the closest of companions—journeying through life as a sort of renegade band. Niki Nakayama uses the memory of past meals and personalization to every diner to imbue her cooking with additional layers of curated thoughtfulness and relatability. Ben Shewry shows that exceptional food need not be haughty or showy, that creativity often comes out of necessity, and that care of family and friends is just as important as aspiration for brilliance. And in the season finale, it becomes fully clear that eating well is not limited by place or expectations of how a restaurant and its kitchen should function. Magnus Nilsson prepares some of the most renowned food in the world by picking and preserving what arises in each season in remote Sweden—later preparing it in the intimacy of a 12-seat, tightly-staffed lodge.

Each chef narrates their journey of ambition and failure—of perseverance and gaining insight and originality. Like Aristotelian virtues, flourishing occurs in the balance or mean between the extremes. Culinary arts as a genuine art is about: humility in relation to the dirt that produces everything we take and use to eat; learning and sometimes failing at technique to be able to later freely play with it like a virtuoso instrumentalist; and connecting with other people by prioritizing simplicity and enjoyment over pride and recognition. Show creator David Gelb hopes people, “watch these films and then look at their own lives and the places where they eat and see how it changes their perspective.”

In The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly writes, “The secret of happiness (and therefore of success) is to be in harmony with existence, to be always calm, always lucid, always willing, ‘to be joined to the universe without being more conscious of it than an idiot,’ to let each wave of life wash us a little farther up the shore.”

This kind of harmony—such moderation between trying too hard and indolence—is the way the chefs in Chef’s Table engage cooking, and the earth that brings about the bounty of what can be cooked, in preparation for the people who eat it. We, too, can find genuine happiness through food by coming to see the culinary mean between the extremes as we dine.