Rain can level mountains. Drip by drip, year by year, eon by eon. Until nothing remains but its heart, laid bare by the elements and time.
I spent last weekend in Missoula, Montana, at the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers annual Rendezvous. While much of the weekend went well, largely because I was busily keeping my head down and cooking, the final evening left me unsettled. I am still unsettled.
I’d been asked to tell a story on stage. Many such stories are just that, tales from a hunt that, in theory, give the listener some larger insight on the world around us, or within us. A few cut deeper. Some jerk tears, others tug heartstrings. A rare few are downright uncomfortable.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to say until shortly before I took the stage. I ended up telling the story of how I figured out how to hunt ducks on the public refuge system in California. It was mildly informative, possibly funny, and very safe.
I left the stage happy it was over, and immediately regretting everything I’d said.
Not because what I had said was untrue, or boring or incomplete. But because I’d missed a chance to remove at least one of the many masks I wear, and in so doing possibly help others doing the same. This is what I wanted to say in front of that audience:
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I am Hank Shaw. Cookbook author, cook, teacher, hunter and angler. I lead a fairly public life. But even if you think you know me, you don’t. Truth is, I don’t really know myself.
I stand in front of you feeling out of place and uncomfortable. A misfit. I don’t climb mountains. I don’t camp if I can help it. I rarely hunt the back country, and I am not terribly interested in animals with heavy headgear.
Too much camo makes me squirm. So does the Stars and Bars. I prefer hip hop to country. Urban to rural. Gardens to farms.
I walk through these worlds wearing masks. Many masks. Some I don’t even know I have. Some so old and so well fitted, they seem like me. They are not. Or are they? I am having trouble telling, these days.
Among you I feel like an imposter, a fraud. Yes, I have hunted for more than 20 years, and fished far longer than that. But I am no adventurer, no role model, no one you should care about. I’m just a wandering cook.
When I talk to you, I wear a mask. It’s not that you aren’t a nice person, nor is it that I am uninterested in what you have to say. Far from it. It’s that a part of me recoils in fear when a stranger approaches, hand outstretched. I fear disappointing you. I fear saying the wrong thing.
Very recently, I’ve allowed myself to see at least some of these masks. I wear the “tough guy New Jersey” mask sometimes because, well, people seem to like it and it fits me well because it’s one of my oldest. I’ve worn it since I was a teenager, trying to survive my childhood and make friends among my schoolmates while working as a carpet cleaner among good, but broken people.
Sometimes I wear the “salty mariner” mask because I have indeed spent a lot of time on the ocean – but make no mistake, while I can tie off lines and steer a boat and haul nets, I am still a greenhorn among real commercial fishermen.
Even in the world I find most comfortable, the world of the kitchen, I wear a mask. Yes, I was a sous chef and line cook and dishwasher. But much of my real chef experience has come in the past decade, a time where my livelihood didn’t depend on the line or the pass. I’ve never led a kitchen as my day job. So am I really a chef? Maybe not.
Some of those masks come with consequences. I can find myself becoming catty, even mean, when I wear some of them. I hear myself saying things I would not in other circumstances, then, afterwards, regret them.
But some things can’t be unsaid. Some regrets must be lived with.
Why am I telling you this, bleeding out in public?
Because maybe, just maybe, a few of you feel the same way. Maybe you too are wearing a mask to fit in, to be accepted by a person or a group you desperately want to be associated with.
Maybe you’re gay, or on the spectrum. Maybe you look different from the “norm,” which in many worlds is white and male. Maybe the way you dress or where you live or what you believe in “isn’t right” for the dominant group you orbit.
I am lucky. I have a few strong friends who are helping me to identify my many masks, and my hope is to discard them someday. But as I begin this journey, I can tell you this is no easy feat. Living your life as the authentic “you” won’t come quickly, or completely, or without pain — and that assumes you can even identify it deep within yourself.
As one of my friends likes to say, “fitting in is overrated.” That may be true, but I am not yet strong enough to reject the conformity I’ve created for myself. But I am trying.
Hear! Hear! Another beautiful compared News letter! Thank you
Well Hank, rest assured, you're NOT alone. You've got plenty of company; like, the entire human race! Life is a buckin' bronco and we're all hangin' on by the skin of our teeth. So snuggle into the club and thanks for validating your membership, my dearest Hank.