October 8 (Day 35)

My first Adult Gap Year project has begun. 

I mean, besides "Find a Better Name than 'Adult Gap Year'". That project is ongoing.

A friend owns a bakery. She graciously agreed to let me intern there as needed, possibly — at least partially —because I've spent so much time there I could declare it as my weekend house. I screwed up my courage and asked if I could be of help as the busy holiday season hits full stride. This required courage because what if I asked and she said no? It would be embarrassing. I'd feel so awkward, I'd have to find another bakery only it wouldn't be as good and I'd have to teach another group of fresh-faced employees that they don't need to ask, yes, I want more iced-tea. I always want more iced-tea. Mercifully, the bakery owner accepted my proposal. 

"I will try to reward your generosity," I responded, "by not setting myself on fire."

She laughed.

I guess to some people that could be considered a joke.

For a small person, I am remarkably accident-prone. When you're the size of the average ninth-grader in Beijing, there shouldn't be that much to damage. But at least I'm creative. Anyone can hurt herself falling down stairs. I defy you to find another person who fell up a flight of stairs, landed on her own fencing foil, and removed a chunk of shinbone.

[I also refused to go to the ER because I hadn't shaved my legs and I decided an unshaved leg was the more awkward disclosure here, not the part where I skewered my own tibia.]

Bakery kitchens are notoriously filled with things that are sharp, hot, or delicate so this is not a place I would naturally put myself. Nonetheless, as I commit to my Adult Gap Year (ew) I will commit to being a newer, better version of me. Anything is possible, right?  Yes, I did run into the coffee table again last week and, yes, coffee tables aren't known for throwing themselves in front of innocent people but perhaps that was my last stupid domestic injury. Perhaps my notorious clumsiness will become a thing of the past. Perhaps all my new burns, fractures and contusions will come from making cookies! 

Perhaps I am unclear as to what goes into making cookies.

That's the other thing. I happen to like baked goods quite a bit but actual baking only interests me about a third of the time. I don't mean that for four months a year you can't keep Quinn out of the kitchen. I mean that if a recipe produces three trays of cookies, by the time the second tray needs to be popped in the oven I'm already staring longingly at the pile of food magazines on the shelf. Or the kitchen door, Let me also confess right here and now that I absolutely adore "The Great British Bake-Off" .  I adore it because: 

  • It condenses years of skill and hours of work into a few shots of British people frowning into ovens and
  • If I'm watching it while lying on the couch, I'm probably not getting injured.

[Which reminds me, I need to figure out which lunatic family member left a steak knife between the couch cushions. On the bright side, my tetanus shot is always up to date.]

Everything is possible this year and it's a really nice bakery so, darn it, I'm going to give it a shot, learn new things and work very hard to stay unenflamed. My nails were clean and unpolished, my shoes covered my toes and my soles were grippy. I was ready to work. I was handed to a young woman who took me in the walk-in freezer and pointed to a shelf. "Grab those," she said, "and bring them out."

"Those," I came to discover, were industrial-sized cookie sheets about 2-feet square, each rolled flat with dough. She slapped one down on the cutting surface and handed me a cookie cutter.

"You know we do something new each day for the thirteen days up to Halloween, right?" 

I nodded. I knew this because I had eaten all of them.

"We cut the cookies in advance, freeze them, bake and decorate that day. Cut them out and set them out on these empty trays, here. Try to use as much of the dough as you can. No waste. The dough has a lot of butter in it, so try to work as quickly as possible, because it'll start getting sticky."

I stared at the skull-shaped form in my hand and the irregularly-shaped dough in front of me.

Oh, God. 

Spatial awareness.

We meet again. 

You remember that test in high school where they showed you a weird milk-carton-looking shape and you had to pick which of the four options it would resemble if you unfolded it? Upon seeing those, I had to be restrained from stabbing the page with the pointy side of my compass out of rage and horror. What sort of sadistic bastard would design such a test? What sort of sick freak could decipher it?

[The father of my child just read that over my shoulder and chirped, "I loved those. They were fun." May he run up a flight of stairs with a fencing foil.]

My spatial awareness is so bad I've taken to blaming it on my multiple concussions because "brain damage" is easier to explain than "flummoxed by shapes." I read somewhere about spatial tests designed to test crows that I'm quite confident I would not score well on. It's possible I was designed to live in that universe mathematicians are so excited about -- the one with only two dimensions.

And now I had an asymmetrical object I had to orient on another asymmetrical object in a repetitive and efficient manner before one of those asymmetrical objects started getting sticky. On one level, I knew this wasn't a huge deal. First, any leftover cookie dough gets gathered up, chilled and rerolled. Second, if this was a critical process I wouldn't be doing it. The really nice woman working next to me graduated from Corden Bleu. I was basically participating in Take Your Shut-In To Work Day. But my very unqualified-ness meant I had to try even harder to make the most efficient use of dough ever seen before in any bakery. In the days to come, I longed for my rep to be: "Weirdly injury-prone but surprisingly useful."

I cut out one skull, flipped the cutter upside-down, cut the next one mirror-imaged. I couldn't see as that bought me any better use of dough but it seemed like the sort of thing people who had spatial awareness did. Three, four, five skulls. This was oddly satisfying. I was creating both skulls and reassuringly small bits of residual dough. Maybe I was getting better at this type of thing! Maybe the krill oil I had been taking was helping the head trauma. I started on the third row and set the cutter in the first direction.

Nope. Hanging off. 

Flipped the cutter.

I was now staring down at a wide band of cookie dough over to one side, unused and mocking me. Noticeable, embarrassing, an area about the size of India but not quite wide enough to press out one complete skull.

"Ever worked in a bakery before?" Cordon Bleu asked me cheerfully as she snapped out skull after skull, as identical as playing cards. Her dough remnants were minuscule. I wiggled my skull around a bit, noting grimly how the dough was starting to get sticky. Damn it, I had to pull the trigger. I cut a skull and moved on.

"Nope," I said in what I hoped was an approachable tone as I stared down at the dough. How could I have have what appeared to be yards of dough but no way to angle more than a single skull in the rest of it? Was I missing something? Was this the permanent record my high school math teacher had warned me about in Geometry class?

"What made you decide to do this?" Cordon Bleu asked as she slapped perfect skulls on the tray. I restrained myself from screaming,  "I can either answer a question or cut a cookie!" because that would have come across as unsociable and also insane. Instead, I went with pretending I didn't hear her. Eventually, I accepted the inevitable, cut out the last cookie— a skull with a trephination dent — and rolled what seemed like a volleyball of dough into the "retrieval" pile. I got another slab. Once again, the first two rows worked like a dream and the third row demanded configurations best suited to a Cirque du Soleil act. I quickly gave up on being "the wise user of dough," and went with "Gracefully accepts her limitations." Eventually, the skulls were finished and in the freezer so we moved on to ghosts. You know what a ghost cookie cutout is? An amorphous blob. I was confronting my own limitations before the first row was out.

"The ghosts are cute, aren't they?" Cordon Bleu said enthusiastically.

I'd have answered but the shape and the dough had banded together to mock me. Add in the wavy bits which looked for reasons to break off with each stamp and I can now say that for the first time in my life, I'm afraid of ghosts.

You know what's a perfect Halloween cookie? The candy-corn cookie! You may not love candy-corn, which to me are just insect-sized sugared-up votive candles, but let me tell you something: that's a fantastic freaking cookie because it's a triangle. Even I understood what to do. Cutflipcutflipcutflip, againagainagain, you're done. It felt fabulous. I wanted to rewrite my resume to begin: "Ask her about triangles." 

"How's it going?"

The bakery owner swung past to check on we  happy band of brothers the cookie-cutters. Also, quite possibly, to make sure I wasn't bleeding on anything. I looked up at the clock. Hours had passed without my noticing. This isn't my life's work but, damn it, I was accomplishing something. It was novel. It was useful. It had a beginning, a middle and an end.  And God knows it was taxing certain parts of my brain to their absolute limits. I brushed some flour off my shirt and answered honestly, "I'm really happy to be here."