I am a baker

by Ben on December 7, 2010 · 40 comments

in Essay, Index

I am told that my sensei was one of the original Navy SEALs. A short, wiry man with graying curls, bright eyes and an angular face. He could not have weighed more than 130 lbs. But if I were unfortunate enough to get caught in his vise-like grip, I would soon receive just enough weight applied to my ribcage to feel as if I were being choked by a giant. This time, I was determined not to let that happen. Starting on the ground, I proceeded to attack, making repeated, futile attempts to turn him over from the tuck position. One mistake, and maybe 3 seconds after that, I found myself in the familiar position of tapping out.

Sensei stood up, straightened his gi, and looked me directly in the eye.

“I remember when you were weak. It used to be easy to move you around! Now?” He smiled, raising an index finger. “Not so easy.”

I was exhausted and soundly beaten. But all the same, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I had started practicing judo five months earlier. For the first 3 weeks, I could not get through the warmups without vomiting from exertion. Now I was stronger, faster, more physically intelligent, and better conditioned than I had been in my entire life.

As with many of my hobbies and obsessions, it was difficult to explain to people why I did it—why I kept going back to that dojo. I lived in New York and had a big job at a big bank, with the love of my life waiting for me at home. And yet I chose to spend 10 hours a week in a stuffy, windowless room, returning home with bruises, duct tape-wrapped toes, and a gym bag full of my own sweat.

To me, judo had nothing to do with wanting to fight, work out my aggression, or examine the state of my masculinity. What I valued about the experience was that it completely changed my perspective about what I was capable of doing.

If you are a grown man who is unathletic and cannot play basketball, you will likely not learn how to play during a pickup game in the South Bronx. You have to already know how to play. That, in a nutshell, was how I saw the world for nearly 30 years. I learned early on that I would be praised for the things I did well. Wanting approval, I pursued those things. And when I wasn’t sure whether I’d be good at something, I usually didn’t want to find out.

The revelation I experienced with judo was that, as a white belt, it did not matter whether you were a cop, wrestler, or out-of-shape equity derivatives trader. You were going to get your ass handed to you, respectfully, and effortlessly, by the black belts. There’s something liberating about everyone essentially starting from zero. And the entire dojo, from the yellow belts to the senseis, wanted us to learn.

Shortly after whipping myself into shape and purchasing a year-long membership to the dojo, I hyperextended my knee and never returned to the mat. I left as a white belt. But I also left knowing that I had transformed my body in ways that I had not thought possible. I entered the dojo detesting the idea of being a beginner at anything, because it meant that I could be dominated, shamed, or dismissed by others. I left embracing it.

A year later, I quit my job and went back to college. I volunteered in two labs and took undergraduate courses in math, chemistry and physics. I learned how to swim. I am now working on a PhD in biophysics. Someday, I may perhaps be convinced to sing.

As I see my daughter grow into her person, astounding as any parent imagines his child to be, I catch myself wanting to brag and outwardly gush over her achievements—exactly the behavior that I believe nurtured my fear of failure. I’m ultra-wary of raising a perfectionist, and I don’t want Esme to avoid new experiences the way I did. So I try to temper my praise and replace it with enthusiasm. But I think the best way that I can teach Esme to embrace being a beginner is to continue being one.

Over the past several months, I have put myself in the awkward position of being a beginner over and over again. I am exhausted and beaten. But I can now say that I’m a writer. Not a professional or seasoned one, but I write essays and tell stories, and I work at it every day. Similarly, I am now a relatively social person, connecting with people in ways that were inconceivable in my loneliest moments. I have also found that I am a beginning recipe developer, instructor, and producer/director of video.

And as of this past Thanksgiving weekend, I am proud to now call myself a baker. 


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40 comments… read them below or add one

Lana December 7, 2010 at 1:31 am

Ben, your post has touched me in so many ways, that I cannot start to number them, one by one. I am a perfectionist, firmly believing that I need to raise my kids in a little more benevolent atmosphere. I want them to feel strong, empowered, and capable, but at the same time I do not want to put too much pressure on them.
You did judo to get out of your comfort zone. I did basketball, at 5’6”. I also did karate since I was fourteen, quitting a couple of years later, when I was not able to perform a kata in front of a blue-belt wearing Adonis that had my heart twisted in knots.
My girls are finding their own path in life, and I try to lead them, without pushing too hard. I started a photography class at a community college, surrounded by 20-somethings, born with the computer chips integrated in their souls.
I plod along, sometimes truly amazed by the appreciation I get from the teacher and the students.
Just like you, I have discovered that I am more than I thought I was. I am not only a multi-lingual interpreter, or an ESL teacher. I am not only a mom who makes the best birthday cupcakes (which I truly hate). I am a budding photographer, trying to learn as much as I can. I have always been a writer, but today I take myself more seriously. And next semester I am taking salsa dancing, just to get back into the ballroom dancing I did in high school.
I am so grateful to the PFB to introducing me to your blog. I look forward to coming over, kicking back, and enjoying your eloquent prose. These days I really need some good writing to lift me up:) Thanks for being the beginner in so many ways.


Mary Jane December 7, 2010 at 2:41 am

Thank you for sharing what perhaps some of us feel and do not or cannot say. I await your culinary – and philosophical, if you care to share them – offerings. Happy birthday.


Tes December 7, 2010 at 2:59 am

This story makes my heart feel warm 🙂
You are a wonderful baker 🙂


Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite December 7, 2010 at 3:47 am

Ben, You are a baker. And so much more. These past few months have proved that and I am so pleased to have discovered your blog because you went outside your comfort zone. I look forward to watching you grow and succeed in all sorts of areas 🙂


fooddreamer December 7, 2010 at 3:59 am

I admire your ability to take on new things and allow yourself to fail or succeed, all in the name of learning. Like you, I sometimes don’t attempt things I don’t think I will be good at. That’s why it took my 34 years to get my driver’s license and why I only discovered running (and that I was actually quite good at it) after having gestational diabetes and needing to find a regular exercise that I loved.
Your tart is lovely and definitely a success. Baking is a wonderfully creative outlet.


sweetbittertart December 7, 2010 at 5:45 am

This brought me to tears (sparkly ones). As for the singing, I can already hear it. : )


Zeralda December 7, 2010 at 7:02 am

You are a baker, and I hope that the quiet pride that comes with this statement gives you the satisfaction I read into it. I’m looking forward to reading about further baking or other adventures!


Jean December 7, 2010 at 7:28 am

I have a been a beginner at many things, too–not necessarily a success at most of them. Still, the best part about trying new things is walking away having learned something new. I have a feeling that when you do something you do it well just like you did in PFB. You’ve gained a lot of fans (and for very good reason)…congrats, baker! 🙂


Sara @CaffeIna December 7, 2010 at 8:24 am

Ben, I don’t think I will be able to express in words what I felt reading (and re-reading and re-reading) your post but it was the most inspiring I’ve ever read in a loooong time. You are baker, yes…and much much much. Imagine what you are not yet, but will be!


To Kiss the Cook December 7, 2010 at 8:28 am

Fantastic post. As a member of the chronically uncoordinated, the phrase “more physically intelligent” has me wondering where my closest studio could be found. Beyond that though, I just have a lot of respect for constantly challenging yourself and finding satisfaction in that. While I probably already count myself as a baker, I don’t know that I’ll embroider it on anything until I’ve successfully recreated a boule worthy of Tartine. And there’s a lot of joy in that challenge even if it comes with some guaranteed failures. Again- great piece.


Liv Wan December 7, 2010 at 8:40 am

I love your post especially this one. The pie looks amazing too.


Jun Belen December 7, 2010 at 8:44 am

You are such an inspiration, Ben. I’m glad I’ve met you.


Isabelle December 7, 2010 at 9:03 am

Ben, you are indeed a baker. And you’re a phenomenal writer too… I wish I had your way with words, and for sharing stories that I find myself reading over and over again. I’m so glad to have found you through PFB.
I have to admit, I always thought you had a real shot at winning the whole shebang, so I was sad to see you among the bloggers eliminated after challenge #8 (actually, even sadder than I was to see me go, because I never thought I’d make it that far). You wrestled every single challenge to the ground, as far as I’m concerned.
That said, I can’t wait to see what other discoveries you’ll be sharing with us, now that you can choose your own challenges.


Tiny Urban Kitchen December 7, 2010 at 9:38 am

Absolutely beautiful post. I’ve probably said this already, but I love the way you write. You were definitely one of the strongest writers in the entire competition, and like others have said above, I also thought you had a real shot at winning the contest.

Looking forward to seeing more of your writing, cooking, and . . .baking! 🙂


Brie December 7, 2010 at 10:21 am

your writing is beyond the realm of storytelling, more in the essence of inspiration and legend. you were a mighty competitor and i am honored to have been in your ranks. you have been a great baker throughout this process, but perhaps it’s more visible to you now and you see what the rest of us have seen. congratulations on a job well done. i’m so happy to have found your blog in the process and will keep coming back for more.


Mariko December 7, 2010 at 10:44 am

And aren’t you just so easy to love?
You are a very good writer. Hope to see you in print someday soon.


Danielle December 7, 2010 at 10:51 am

You are a fantastic story-teller and as much as blog challenges take a lot out of the blogger, I find them really helpful in distilling one’s writing voice. Clearly, that’s what PFB has done for you, and turned you into a baker too boot! 🙂

Your story about judo sounds pretty much like my relationship with yoga. Waking up at the crack of dawn everyday to contort myself for 2 hours is counter-intuitive, yet I keep doing it. A sustained effort like that breaks down any preconceptions about what one is capable/not capable of doing.

So glad to have met you at BlogHer Food, and now looking forward to your future posts about anything and everything!


Jenni December 7, 2010 at 11:23 am

Well said. Never, never stop learning. You are a baker, a writer, a cook, a director, a blogger and an inspiration. Keep being inspired; keep inspiring.


Kim at Life as a Foodie December 7, 2010 at 11:23 am

Impressive. Truly impressive and nothing short of inspiring. I am guilty of feeling like a failure and worried I will never measure up or be good enough at anything. I worry no one will take notice of the skills I have or the on-going efforts I am making to better myself. It is an uphill battle to change yourself from all the negatives and constant battering from others to a strong individual who can and will be successful. At least, that’s how it has been for me.

Thank you for sharing such a beautifully written post. Clearly you are a man with drive, ambition, and passion. I have great respect for that. And as such, it seems your daughter will grow up to be a wonderful person thanks to a father who desires to teach her well. Well done!


Ben December 7, 2010 at 11:36 am

Thank you for your kind words, Kim. I’ve felt the way you feel for most of my life. For me, it started to turn when I became more accepting of myself, warts and all. From that point, it became much easier for me not to care what other people think or notice. It’s not an easy road, and I hope you find the happiness that you deserve. You are not a failure.


Rachelino December 7, 2010 at 12:14 pm

“You have to already know how to play. That, in a nutshell, was how I saw the world for nearly 30 years.”
It’s so true of so many of us! I remember thinking in my early 20s that I had missed the boat on playing music. I played piano as a kid and other instruments (if briefly) like cello, but figured my incredibly talented guitarist husband has some magic talent I didn’t have and/or that he developed as a teenager something I couldn’t develop as an adult. How wrong I was! I jumped in and started playing, and with practice could sing vox and play keys in a band with a silly name. (www.plotagainstrachel.com) While my husband’s guitar playing will put my playing to shame, I know now it’s more about putting in the time.
People come up to me and said “you’re so talented. I have always wanted to play/sing/fill-in-the-blank, but I don’t have talent for music.” I tell them I am nothing special, and to just start, to play if they want to play, and that they will get better. I wish I could make them believe me.
You are a baker! And you should sing.


kate @ scarpetta dolcetto December 7, 2010 at 4:15 pm

You are a baker, it’s true, and a writer of the first order. Every cake baked, every game played, and every essay written is, in its own way, an act of bravery. Wonderful post, Ben, and hearty congrats to you!


Wei-Wei December 7, 2010 at 6:41 pm

This is an amazing post – it was beautiful to read and made me realise that I have a fear of being considered “the beginner”. However, a TA (teaching assistant) at my summer camp told me that while I had potential (I was ahead of others solely because I had studied the subject before), he liked a student I didn’t know; that student was eccentric and young, but his experimentation with the subject just stood out, and the TA said, “I like this kind of student because you can really see them learning.”

So. It’d probably be a humbling experience to start up karate or judo, yes? I’ve always wanted to do that.


Amelia from Z Tasty Life December 7, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Your talents are many… but mostly you have the one to touch people and communicate with them, to them, through them. This piece is full of life, soul and spirit.
I can see how competition has really allowed you to find your inner voice in a very strong way and transmit that passion to the rest of us. Like many other, I am also inspired by you (and still struggling myself to find my true, inner voice…it’s a loooong road but I can see the path beneath my steps.) I also appreciate your attitude towards your daughter. She is lucky to have you as a dad.

One of my favorite quotes is: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Plato) You have somehow embodied it.

Happy to have found you on pfb and following you to wherever you are headed.
BTW, I can only imagine how amazing your restaurant review might have been.


Amy K. December 7, 2010 at 7:47 pm

This post is so inspirational. Thank you! Hope to see you guys soon…


sippitysup December 7, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Esme is the luckiest girl alive. Of course I don’t know what a writer is. But artists I recognize. Basketball has nothing to do with real life. And aggression is always focused inwards. I think I know what you are saying here, because I have my own (gay tinged) gym bag full of sweat. What are we proving? Why do we do it? Well for you, I’d answer, Esme. For me, well I’m sometimes searching and sometimes focused. But always I’m happy. I think we speak the same language. GREG

PS When you come to my house. I hope you’ll sing. Even if you never open your mouth…


Stephie December 7, 2010 at 9:00 pm

I’m so glad I found your blog – it is hands down the best I’ve ever read… thank you !


Eric December 7, 2010 at 10:17 pm

hi ben,
that pie looks amazing. also, you have one of the best domain names on the internet. thanks for writing such wonderful posts!


riceandwheat December 8, 2010 at 12:27 am

You already know that I thought of PFB as more of a personal challenge – to develop and focus one’s blog/writing voice, to do things one’s never done before (make a video, bake), etc etc. So in my eyes, you’ve already won, like, 8 times over. Your storytelling just gets better and better with each post (as evidenced by each post quickly surpassing the previous one as my favorite) and I know that people are noticing and reading.

Getting back to the point of this post, I felt something similar with volleyball – my parents never encouraged me to play sports (“focus on your studies!”) and because I was afraid I would be terrible at it, I never tried. At least until grad school. Truth be told, I was every bit as terrible as I predicted, but the great thing was that the world didn’t end, I had fun, and it honestly didn’t matter that much that I was terrible. Once you cross that mindblock, a whole new wonderful world opens. I hope everyone gets to experience that.


Jackie December 8, 2010 at 4:32 am

You were one of my faves for PFB, Ben, and you’re a super awesome guy to boot with more talent in your little finger than most have in their entire being. That’s a win in my book. You’re a baker, you’re a cook, you’re a dad, you’re a husband, you’re a friend. Tot ’em up, buddy, because perfectionist or no, you’ve got plenty to sing home about.

I’m a massive perfectionist and, coming from a Chinese family, I was raised with the ‘you can always do better’ notion. Typical conversation between me and Papa Lee:
Me: “I got 99% on my test!”
Papa Lee: “What happened to the other 1%?!”
But that’s not because my family didn’t love me or think that I was already the awesomes (I may be exaggerating here, no Chinese family will EVER admit their child is the awesomes), it’s because they always wanted me to do my best and want that for myself. And I do. I sense you’re much the same, but that’s never a bad thing, as long as you can be proud of yourself for your own accomplishments. I’m proud of you, matey-j.

Longest. Comment. Ever.

Jax x


Stephanie December 8, 2010 at 11:22 am

Well done Baker! This happens to be my favorite blog. Not because you are my friend but because I am learning from these persuits also. Thanks for contiuing to learn because in doing so you are inspiring others!!


eataduckimust December 8, 2010 at 11:58 am

finally getting around to doing some blog reading. i don’t have to tell you that your writing is ridiculous, like crazy ridiculous. i don’t know how you didn’t make it to this current round and i was pretty bummed about it, esp since this one is all about writing. but i can’t wait to continue reading about your new adventures, mr baker!


Damaris @Kitchen Corners December 8, 2010 at 2:18 pm

I am speechless.


Andra@FrenchPressMemos December 8, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I wasn’t exactly sure where your story was going but it fascinated me and kept me going. A great intro to your weekend baking. I am NOT a baker but with an attitude like yours I may become one.


Jenny @ meltingbutter December 9, 2010 at 2:11 am

I really enjoyed reading that… thanks v much for sharing 🙂


alspadinjr December 9, 2010 at 1:16 pm


When I went to my first driver’s school the instructor recited this Teddy Roosevelt quote. It fits. You did well..

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”


saltyseattle December 10, 2010 at 12:53 pm

A baker with a birthday coming soon, no? Perhaps it’s time you attempted your own cake? I think that would advance you from a baking white belt to at least a chartreuse belt- I will award you one next time I see you. Just think of it as a little belated birthday gift from Salty. xo


Liren December 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm

It is amazing what we can discover when we challenge ourselves, isn’t it? Ben, you are absolutely a baker, you are a talented writer, and clearly, a man of many talents (perhaps some yet undiscovered?). I would not be surprised to learn that you are a hell of a singer, too. If you do decide to unveil this secret, I would hope to be present for that moment.

In all seriousness, I love your thoughtful and heartfelt posts – to me, it defines and brings such life to your blog.


Joy December 14, 2010 at 2:22 pm

I love the story. The tart looks great.


Caleb April 28, 2011 at 12:10 pm

“There’s something liberating about everyone essentially starting from zero.” LOVE it.


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