Mountain Climbing

If you had told me in my youth that I would someday be an expert in special diets and nutrition, I would have laughed. In fact, I would have gone out of my way to prove you wrong — and I know this, because it is exactly what I did when it happened.

I went to a large high school in central Austin. We were a diverse group of students overall, but the roughly half of us who were college-bound were very college-bound. The parents in our city possessed degrees at nearly twice the national average, supported the arts enough to earn the moniker “Live Music Capital of the World,” and fought tooth-and-nail political battles over the endangered status of blind salamanders. My senior year, the parents at my school in particular bullied the principal into creating a Shakespeare class out of thin air, simply because a few of us wanted one. Austin is a city that embraces education for activism, and activism for education. So it was no surprise when my classmates and I were offered not only standard collegiate counseling in our senior year, but also on-site visits from various campus representatives, excused absences for as many college visits as we wanted, and even a comprehensive personality and skills test to help us determine what major or degree we might be ideally prodded toward.

The first time I took this test, almost 200 questions in all, the computer screen calmly informed me that I was best suited to be a nutritionist. I remember it clearly because I did not just disagree with my digital assessor; I was downright offended. I was going to be an engineer, I thought, or maybe an economist. Even at my most frivolous, I was going to major in Radio-Television-Film and become a sound designer for movies or videogames. (As it turned out, frivolity ruled the day and this was the path I chose, until life chose a different one for me.) But a nutritionist? The idea was absurd. I didn’t even like food. The whole concept of eating was a chore to me. If I could have taken a daily pill and never had to eat again, I would have signed up for that in a heartbeat.

These programs were so stupid, I told myself. There was no way they could get a comprehensive picture of a nuanced human being with a list of vague questions. Watch, I thought, I’ll go change a couple of my answers, and the next thing you know it’ll be telling me I’m destined to be a lumberjack. So I went back and adjusted a few choices I’d been on the fence about.

Click submit. Congratulations! You are best suited to the career of: Nutritionist.

I changed a few more answers. Click submit. Congratulations! You are best suited to the career of: Nutritionist.

I went all the way back to the beginning, and changed every answer I could while still maintaining any semblance of honesty. I mean, sure, get me on the right day and I could conceivably enjoy working outdoors for a few minutes… Click. Freaking. Submit.

Congratulations! You are best suited to the career of: Nutritionist.

“This thing’s broken,” I told my friend beside me. “The only answer it gives anyone is nutritionist.”

“It told me college professor,” she said with a shrug. “Sounds right to me.”

“Yeah, I got actuary,” said the boy on the other side of me. “I don’t even know what that is, but it says it’s all about math, so that part’s true at least.”

“Whatever. The whole thing is dumb,” I thought to myself for the next decade.

Despite the complete lack of nutrition courses in the Radio-TV-Film curriculum, college began exposing me to the concept of cooking — and my profound inadequacy in that department — almost immediately. My new boyfriend, let’s call him Ibram, came from a family with strong culinary traditions, and he had somehow managed to first absorb and then maintain these, even as a college bachelor living with four other guys. He and his roommates held a weekly Sunday dinner event at their house just off campus, wherein they would cook large, complex meals for groups of ten or more. The recipes for these meals were often requested directly from the chefs at their favorite restaurants, because apparently that is a thing you can do if you are young and bold enough. The cosmopolitan vibe was admittedly diminished by the multiple porch-couches, uneven pool table, rusting clawfoot tub, and wall holes covered with ill-fitting pieces of painted plywood, but… that just made it bohemian, man. As a freshman, I felt lucky to be given a shortcut into the inner circle.

One morning shortly after we began dating, Ibram informed me that he was going to make pancakes. He said it so casually though, not as a grand romantic gesture, or even as if it were for my sake at all. I’m honestly not sure he initially intended to share them, any more than a normal person would expect to share a bowl of cereal. He was just making pancakes because it was time for breakfast, and that’s what one did.

He tossed ingredients into a bowl with such ennui that I almost didn’t understand what was happening. He glanced at me before not-measuring, in what I understood to be some magic appraisal of how much raw material I would be consuming, but then made a point of mentioning that his solid-steel vintage stovetop percolator could only make coffee for one. I told him that was fine since I didn’t drink coffee, but I tried really hard to make it sound like an active dismissal, like I was too cool for even the cool-kid stuff.

The batter was ready in two minutes, tops, and he poured expert circles from the bowl directly into the pan, not spilling a drop. So far nothing had been dirtied except the bowl, the pan, and a single fork. And, of course, his percolator.

“So how do you know when to flip them?” I asked, trying to appear interested in his hobby like girlfriends are supposed to.

He looked up at me like he’d made a huge mistake. Then he seemed to consider that maybe I was making a dumb joke. Then he nodded in resignation, apparently deciding that my other qualities would outweigh this profound defect, for now. “When the bubbles rise up through the top,” he replied gently, after his face had finished going through its subtle emotional contortions.

Then he lightly tossed a few fresh blackberries into each puddle of batter. Where the hell did the blackberries come from? I didn’t even know.

“Whoa,” I blurted out. “I bet that’ll be really good.”

“Yeah,” he said with a weak smile, as if I were a dying comrade who didn’t comprehend just how bad the wound was. Yeah, buddy. We’ll go see the mountains when we get back, you betcha.

Despite his doubts, I eventually saw the mountains. And he was right, they weren’t that impressive after all. Practically molehills.

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