What The Fire Taught Me
The following essay has an interesting provenance. Last fall, the wonderful writer Chris Colin read my newsletter post about chicken wings and basketball and commissioned a story for WaitWhat, the podcast network where he was working as an editor and producer. The idea was to write about a “transformative movement” in my life for WaitWhat’s “Meditative Story” series.
I leapt at the opportunity -- there are few things in my present incarnation that give me greater satisfaction than having a newsletter post result in a paid commission! In the ensuing weeks, with the sublime help of Chris’s psychotherapeutic editing guidance, I wrote about how the fire that engulfed my house ten years ago changed my life -- for the better.
Chris and I were both pretty happy with what emerged, but just a few days before I was set to record the podcast, WaitWhat changed editorial strategy, and it wasn’t long before it was apparent that my story did not fit well with the shift in direction.
But it’s all good -- WaitWhat generously agreed to pay me the full fee, and now I have fresh content for the newsletter!
Chris, incidentally, played a significant role in determining my current path, when, late one night seven years ago after he was celebrating the publication of a cookbook he had co-written with the owners of the late great Oakland restaurant Camino, he sent me a text suggesting I write a Sichuan cookbook. That project didn’t feel quite right, but the notion of combining my obsession with Sichuan food with my other intellectual interests.... well... here we are!
I remember going to bed around ten o’clock that night, worn out after a couple of hours of after-dinner work on a big freelance reporting project. I remember I couldn’t fall asleep. I remember hearing a strange crackling sound.
My house is a hundred year old Berkeley Craftsman full of stately grace; cabinets with beveled glass panes and exposed wooden beams. But it feels its age; it creaks in the wind. Strange sounds aren’t all that unusual. But this... this was different.
I remember getting up, pulling on some sweat pants and going downstairs to investigate.
The sound was coming from the back yard. I walked through my kitchen, and froze. Ten-foot high flames were visible through the window of my back door.
Then it gets a little blurry. I remember struggling to punch 911 into my phone. I remember someone banging on my front door, yelling “your house is on fire!”
I don’t know exactly how I got outside, but in my next clear memory I am standing out in the street in my bare feet, surrounded by three massive fire engines and a crowd of neighbors. Firefighters carrying huge axes are charging through my front door. Clouds of steam billow above my roof as water gushing from fire hoses evaporates from contact with the flames. I remember feeling like I’m watching someone else’s movie. Was this really happening?
Someone handed me a pair of flip-flops. A guy approached with a business card, told me his company specialized in boarding up and securing houses after fires. A police officer asked me if I had any idea how the fire started.
Oh I knew. From the moment I first saw the flames I knew. I had grilled burgers earlier that evening. My aged Weber BBQ was disintegrating from heavy use and rust. The likely chain of events was all too clear... and embarrassing. A charcoal ember must have escaped through the bottom of the grill and lodged in the deck, where, I realized, it had smoldered for hours while I worked at the dining room table just a few yards away.
The year was 2012. I was a month from turning 50. And I had just accidentally set fire to my own home.
As the engine lights flashed and my neighbors gawked, a mix of despair and self-loathing settled over me. My life has had no shortage of low points: I’ve been arrested, divorced, and watched a friend die in front of me. But in my ongoing curation of my personal narrative arc, I have always chosen to process these disasters as learning experiences.
This didn’t feel like a learning experience. This was a judgment.
I was out of my home for 18 months while repairs were made, living in a rental paid for by insurance. It was not a healthy stretch. When I wasn’t blogging for my employer, an online magazine, or attending to the parenting of my teenage son, I bludgeoned my disappointment with bad TV and alcohol. I wallowed. I lost my sense of direction.
And one day, maybe six months after the fire, I noticed I was having trouble getting out of bed.
The sun is up. Traffic on a nearby East Bay artery, Sacramento Street, is loud and clear. I can hear the hydraulic brakes of a bus screech and moan. The world is busy but I feel heavy and dull. I bury my face in my pillows.
This is not me. I am a morning person. I take great satisfaction in waking just before the alarm goes off. I exult in checking off to-do list items before dawn. I love breakfast like pet owners adore their dogs. Rain or shine, I believe that the answer to all my problems is to attack the day. I scarcely recognize this person who’s unable to muster up the energy to do so much as shower, shave and make coffee.
Am I depressed? Like, really depressed? Like, possibly it’s time-to-start-investigating-medication depressed?
Or does life just objectively suck?
In the spring, I’d broken up with my girlfriend and my beloved stepfather died. In the summer, I set fire to my house. In December, in the space of 12 hours, a major magazine rejects the freelance piece I had been working on for most of the year and my ex-wife emails me to share the news that she is getting remarried.
The data can not be ignored. In every facet of my life I am either stuck or actively headed in reverse. Who wouldn’t be depressed?
But there is also something deeper going on, something more fundamental: the erosion of my professional identity. Through all my ups and downs, my ego has always been kept afloat by my career. As a reporter in the early ‘90s I figured out that the internet was going to be a big deal slightly ahead of most of my peers and I rode that wave a long way. I traveled the world, interviewed brilliant people, commanded a large readership and was well compensated. I specialized in in-depth, heavily reported features. I felt like I was making a contribution.
But that feeling didn’t last. By 2012 the negative consequences of the internet’s impact on the journalism industry were impossible to ignore. Editorial budgets have collapsed and suddenly everyone’s in a race to build “traffic” at the lowest possible cost. Instead of spending a week or more reporting and writing a story, I’m reduced to blogging short rants three times a day. These get packaged under clickbait headlines designed simply to get people angry. There’s no time to report, no time to think, no time to craft. The irony is punishing: I spent years evangelizing about the internet, and all I achieved was a front-row seat to witness its evisceration of my own career. It’s not just that, at 50, I’m wasting whatever creative energy I have on squalid ephemera. It’s that I’m complicit. I helped fuel this transformation.
So here I am, my career no longer delivering joy, my emotional life in a shambles, and my home? Wrecked by my own hand. The symbolism of this last act of self-destruction stings. Of course I didn’t intend to burn down my kitchen, reduce my cookbooks to ash, and melt my blender into slag. But my failure to pay attention to proper grill maintenance made me a co-conspirator in this catastrophe. Kind of like my failure to notice my wife’s growing unhappiness as my career took off made me a co-conspirator in the collapse of my marriage.
The fire, it seems, has cleared away the underbrush that hitherto obscured self-clarity. Am I just someone who can’t learn from mistakes; someone condemned to stumble from one fuckup to another?
And then my architect asked me a simple question: what do you want?
The context was prosaic. She was asking for guidance about the kitchen remodel that was a central part of the home rebuild. But the ultimate configuration of my countertops isn’t the point. Her question is the point. To answer it, I realize I have to understand what makes me tick: how I cook, how I interact with people in a physical space. My daughter once described me as someone who “shows love with food.” So what I need is a space to help me distribute love.
The architect delivered, and in the year that followed, I got that space. But much more importantly, the question triggered a broader self-appraisal and gave me a framework for negotiating my way out of deeper quagmires. What do you want required me to understand who I am which required taking action.
With all the underbrush cleared away, I could finally see something crucial: The baleful influence my job was inflicting on my sense of self-worth – it had to be addressed. So what kind of writer did I want to be? What purpose does writing serve for me?
I don’t want to speak for all artists, but for me, the moments when I feel most alive, most in tune with something greater than myself, are the moments when I am in the act of creating something that I find meaningful. I won’t deny that it’s gratifying when my creative act hits a nerve with a large audience or pulls in a lucrative fee. But what I didn’t realize until after the fire, until after my whole life became a tabula rasa that had to be re-inscribed with purpose, is that outside validation isn’t what my soul craves. What feeds me is the act. I need to be spending my time playing with sentences until the words sing in my head; I need to push at my boundaries and engage the world as part of a daily artistic process.
One night, while standing in my new kitchen, watching tendrils of smoke start to emerge from hot oil swirling in a wok, I abruptly reach the end of this train of thought. I can’t be that version of me in the context of my current employment. I have to quit. And so I do, giving notice to the company that’s employed me for 18 years.
My new reality hits with a jolt. My health insurance goes from decent to bottom-of-the-barrel. My income plummets. I stop going out to restaurants and start doing the bulk of my shopping at Costco. When my aging minivan becomes too decrepit to drive I trade it in for an air-pollution credit and start riding the bus. The prominence of my byline crumbles!
The transition is nerve-wracking and challenging. But it is also exhilarating, because it works. What I suspected turned out to be absolutely true: my happiness and my sense-of-self-worth are directly connected to my latitude to practice my craft as I see fit.
To be fair: I’m not totally free, like some Daoist sage wandering in the mountains, singing mad songs in praise of nature, in tune with the unknowable universe. I have bills to pay; meeting those obligations requires me to spend time laboring to provide what the market will commission, and that doesn’t always match neatly with how I’d ideally like to spend my time.
But I get enough to get by. I set the terms of engagement; if a big enough chunk of my day or week is devoted to nurturing my art, all the rest of the bullshit rolls off my back. It doesn’t bother me. It can no longer touch me. It doesn’t define me.
I still get up early, and if I have a deadline, I spend my mornings attending to business. If not, I devote a few hours to writing about whatever is currently intoxicating me: cultural imperialism and basketball; Leibniz and the Book of Changes, the perfect fried rice recipe. In the afternoon I read deeply in obscure rabbit holes. The ideal day closes with a bike ride into the East Bay hills, an hour in my garden pulling weeds before sunset, a sustained session of studying Chinese until I am hungry enough that I must cook. In my kitchen.
I am in awe at the strange and fortuitous alchemy of it all. I now see the fire that confirmed my middle-aged inadequacy as the purging force that freed me from the ego-prison of the narrative arc. To rise requires a fall; to ascend implies an inevitable descent. Measurement incites dissatisfaction. Let it go. Focus on what feeds you.
So I cook. And I write. And I write about cooking; and while I’m cooking I think about writing. And so far, I’ve been pretty good at steering clear of new quagmires.
At one point in the course of gathering these thoughts, I took a deep breath and searched my Gmail archive for that email my ex-wife sent me nine years ago – the one where she told me she was getting remarried. Call it a personal fact-check; I wanted to make sure I had the sequence of events correct, though I suppose there was also some morbid curiosity involved.
What I didn’t anticipate was discovering my grumpy response.
My day started with my Facebook story getting rejected and ends with
this. Perfect conclusion to a perfect year.
Discovering that old note of mine is the oddest thing. The words serve up a vivid reminder of visceral misery in the past, but from my contemporary standpoint it’s like looking at a museum exhibit. I can only marvel now at how distant the bitterness feels. Not that my romantic life has been as successful as my kitchen remodel or my professional pivot. Some mysteries remain!
But the sense of being stuck, the anxiety that used to accrue from not being in a relationship? That’s all gone. My angry and self-pitying email was sent by a very different person; a person who could not escape judging himself according to the success of others or even as compared to past versions of himself.
How many sages have to drum in this vital lesson before it sticks? External validation is not necessary for inner peace.
This is what the fire taught me.