ValueSpeak - A Weekly Column by Joseph Walker


Monica is a good cook.

No, I take that back. She’s a GREAT cook. A chef. A culinary craftsman. An epicurean artiste. She can take a little cream and a few potatoes and turn them into a mouth-watering side dish that will make you forget the main course.  Her home-made chili is to die for, and her award-winning peanut butter black bottom pie is the stuff of which diabetic dreams are made.

Trust me.  I know this first-hand.

Monica has worked just about every job there is in the food industry, from fish monger to barista to maître d’.  And she knows stuff. Lots of stuff.  She knows every herb and spice by sight, smell, texture and taste.  She knows how to de-bone a fish and butcher a side of beef.  She knows a sous-chef from a garde manger from a chef-de-partie.  She knows how to use a bain-marie, a chinoise, a tamis and a molcajete.  She even knows why chefs wear those tall hats (I know, you were thinking it was just because they look so chic, but there is actually a utilitarian reason that has something to do with air circulation and keeping the chef’s head cool so he/she doesn’t drip sweat while leaning over your food . . . or something totally appetizing like that).

Monica has a little catering business, and she is a personal chef for a few clients.  But with the economy being what it is, she needs something a little more solid with which to support herself and her youngest son.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of jobs out there for her particular skills, and most of the positions that are available require something that Monica doesn’t have: a college degree.

Don’t get me wrong.  Monica is educated, and eminently qualified in her field.  But she didn’t get her degree at Le Cordon Bleu.  Her education comes from L’Université la Vie, L’École de la Rue – The University of Life, School of Hard Knocks – from which she has earned her S.T.L. (Smart Tough Lady).  And not too many places around here will recognize that degree.

So she works where she can and looks for opportunities to use the skills and talents she has accumulated through the years.  It can be discouraging at times, especially when she allows herself to get really excited about a wonderful opportunity that appears to be just . . . within . . . reach . . . until it slips out of her grasp.  But she never allows discouragement to settle in.

“Oh, well,” she said last week after telling me about her latest brush with potential prosperity.  “That just means there’s something out there that’s even better for me.”

I have been impressed with her powerful positivity and touched by her relentless spirit.  It isn’t that she cannot be discouraged, because occasionally she is.  A little. But she doesn’t wallow in it.  She doesn’t allow it to linger.  She feels it, acknowledges it, and then she moves on.  She refuses to allow negativity to control her or her perspective on life.

“The important things in my life – my family, my friends, my faith – are all good and strong,” she said.  “The other stuff would be nice, but at the end of the day that’s all it is: stuff.”

She’s right, of course. And not just for her.  My guess is we all spend too much time, energy and effort worrying about the stuff in our lives.  It may be good stuff.  It may even be important stuff, worthwhile stuff – stuff that is useful and meaningful.  But it is still stuff.  And we allow the inevitable ups and downs of the stuff in our lives to get to us, discourage us and distract our attention from the things that really matter.  How much better it would be for all of us if we could learn to reject discouragement and negativity and embrace Monica’s mantra: “It’s just stuff.”

Consider it a graduate-level lesson from L’École de la Rue.

— © Joseph Walker

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