The Shaman

I recently came across an open letter to a man I once thought I knew. His name is Colin Garland, the owner of Raven Adventures/The Global Classroom.

The letter, written by a woman only two years my senior, details the multiple encounters she had with Colin, all of which were manipulative and abusive, and many of which involved rape.

It was a challenging read. However, the difficulty did not lay in struggling to believe the author’s account of her experience with Colin. Instead, I was forced to sit with the pain that came with remembering my time with this man and how all of his actions fit so neatly into the pattern of abuse described by the author. There was no relief in the realization that my gut instinct over our last few interactions had been correct.

I met Colin through my highschool ecology teacher Will Kiendzior. We dedicated a class to showcase the myriad adventures Colin had been on in Costa Rica and Mexico. We were invited to embark on his annual trip with students from my highschool to Central America to explore and learn about his conservation efforts.

Yesterday, before his website was taken down, I scrolled through all the pictures of former students, all about 16 years old. Some I knew personally. I wondered how many have had similarly alarming and abusive experiences with him. I felt sick to my stomach.

Admittedly, it was not my time spent with Colin in Mexico that makes me uneasy. Though tainted now, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Still, I have a distinct memory of affection and praise with which he showered my best friend. He marveled at the symbols she drew in the sand, saying they were rich with meaning and that she was clearly in tune to something greater. After we got home, she spent weeks corresponding with Colin through email. I was envious of the attention she received. I was frustrated that he didn’t see that I too felt I had something deep, primal, and attuned to something beyond myself.

Six years later I was in Israel when I received a message from Colin, telling me that I had been on his radar. He told me that he had been thinking of me for a long time but had hesitated to reach out. We made plans to see each other the next time he was back in Massachusetts.

In the time before he made his return I began to confide in him about my history of depression and the difficult childhood that had led me there. In fact, I later posted a short series on this blog entitled “Letters to Colin” that I copied from those letters that unreservedly and unapologetically detailed my disjointed upbringing and early introduction to mental illness. It was clear that I sought to heal in some way and Colin appointed himself the one who could do it.

It wasn’t long after that that he told me I was a woman coming into my power. He told me tales of my psychic ability. He urged me to travel with him, to allow him to teach me the ways of a healer. He spoke of Native American customs, of the medicine wheel, of shapeshifting. He told me that I simply hadn’t made love until both me and my partner had shifted into the form of a dolphin. He of course, was the one to teach me.

I remember that he was hesitant that I wanted to bring my boyfriend the night I agreed to come to his house for a healing session. I remember that up to that point, and for some time after our messages on Facebook somehow made me uncomfortable. In nearly every message he told me how much he loved me and how beautiful I was. I pushed my misgivings aside. After all, Colin was a Healer and wanted to help me. I was certain that the issue lay within myself; I wasn’t used to being loved so purely. I wasn’t being open. I needed him to heal me. I thought of the time I had heard that Colin had slept with a former classmate of mine, nearly 30 years his junior. I pushed the thought out of my head, convincing myself I did not understand the experience or the depth of Colin’s love and shamanic powers.

Now, when I reread our messages and see how I exposed my vulnerability to him I am uneasy. I realize now that this was not a safe place; his intentions were more sinister than I initially knew. While I thought I was seeking solace in a wizened old friend, I was playing squarely into the grooming tactics of a well-rehearsed predator.

I believe that as humans, we all have a deep-seated desire to be seen. We feel that there is something more we can offer the world, if only we had the means to let that part of us out. And I imagine this is particularly true of women, as we frequently have to prove ourselves as worthy and capable in ways that men do not. Colin Garland, pseudo spiritual leader, has found the perfect way to prey on young women and girls via this innate human condition. He fancies himself a shaman and uses his influence to create a harem of women to exercise his manipulation, abuse, and assault.

There are countless women who have had similar experiences with this wannabe cult leader. I am fortunate that my own did not escalate past this degree. Please consider the ties you have to this man and others who exhibit this behavior within your community.

 

A page has been set up as a platform for other victims and their supporters. Please share widely.

UPDATE: Another woman has written of her abuse at the hands of Colin Garland. TW – sexual assault

 

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Note to self.

When he posts those kind of pictures –yes those ones— the kind you asked him not to, he is the person you were afraid he could be.

When he tells you to forget him and find someone new, only to punish you for weeks and weeks and months and months when you try to follow his advice, to relieve yourself of the heartache and ashes and rubble he has left behind, he is the person you hoped he was not.

When you are suffering and cannot leave your bed, researching lethal dosages of household medication, and he will not come — when you put down your best friend’s dog and are choking on your tears and you beg for him, but he refuses, he is not the person you loved.

When you plead for him to call you for some reason – any reason- except to feel your lips wrapped around his dick, and he resents you, gaslights you, he is poison.

He is not who you believe he might be.

He is not who you’re sure he could be.

There is nothing to read between the lines of,  “Are we ever going to get another guy?” and days of silence.

He is not your fantasy.

He is only what he does.

 

 

It Never Stops

Two things happened this month.

Two things happened  that reminded me that as much as I speak out, as much as I push back, as much as I try to stand my ground, my body does not belong to me. Indeed, my desires are often irrelevant and my pleasure decided for me. It seems I was created for consumption.

Unsurprisingly, one of these things happened at my job. The restaurant industry continues to be very successful in reminding women that we are mere objects to lust after and harass while breeding men to perpetuate this construct. The restaurant at which I work currently is one of the safest places I’ve been employed. Still, it has its flaws, and it is no exception to the standard Kitchen Culture, despite the owners’ best efforts.

I was confronted by one of the cooks in April. He glared at me out of the corner of his eye as he hunched his gaunt frame over itself to tie his shoe.

“So you’d really never go out with me?” he spat impatiently, as though this was a discussion we’d been having for hours.

What?” I asked, taken aback.

Chris continued his rant bitterly, explaining that he had asked around regarding the state of my romantic life and found displeasure in the results. I stood by and mumbled an apology to his rhetoric.

This interaction marred our relationship, which had previously been friendly, if a bit superficial. As his vitriol refused to wane, so did my discomfort. I was frustrated, not only by being the recipient of such unwarranted venom simply for having a life and relationships outside of my workplace, but by Chris’s manner of ascertaining the details of my life. Never did he speak to me about my feelings or ideas or aspirations or experiences. To him, I was not a sentient being, but a plaything that belonged to someone else.

Over the course of the next few weeks his anger did not subside; it reared its head when I checked my phone for texts or mentioned Matthew near him. But as Chris’s resentment refused to wane, so too did his unwelcome advances. For every scowl there was a plea: “I’ll be good to you. Come on. I’ll treat you right.” The irony was lost on him.

Soon his words and glances no longer satisfied him. One day he came up behind me and begged in earnest for me to allow him to grab my hips. His hands pinched the air as I quickly moved away and gave him a sharp, impatient, “No!” Not long after this incident I found myself trapped by the ice machine as he rubbed his ass on my waitressing apron to the beat of the song playing in the cafe. My threats were immediate and fierce. Still, as he ran to the other side of the kitchen, I was left alone by that ice machine, overtaken by my sense of powerlessness to these situations.

 

*

 

Last week I woke up next to my boyfriend. In the dim morning light our still-sleepy hands found each other’s bodies as we kissed the night from our lips. Slowly, but not without certainty, Matthew worked his way from my mouth, to my neck, to my breasts, and continued downward.

“No, babe. Not now,” I whispered.

“Why?”

Annoyed: “I don’t need to give you a reason.”

He looked hurt. Still, it was too early to have an in depth discussion about consent. I relented:

“Because I haven’t showered, I need to shave, and I don’t feel sexy right now.”

“That’s the reason?” He was skeptical. But after a pause, “I just wanted you to communicate with me, Marie.”

“I don’t need to communicate that to you! I don’t have to fucking explain why I’m saying no!”

Matthew rolled over, taken aback by my sudden fury. I sat for a moment, aware that his questioning stemmed from a place of naivete and not one of dominance or ill will.  I knew his eagerness and commitment to my pleasure and that this situation, poorly handled as it may have been, was a result of that. I sighed, softening a bit, as my hand traced the the curve of his back.

“Babe, listen. Here is my typical day:

I go to work, where I get harassed. I am leered at all day by my some of my coworkers. Then, I walk down the street and get catcalled and harassed in Central Square in Cambridge. Isn’t this supposed to be some sort of fucking liberal bastion?

Next, I go home, and my own boyfriend doesn’t want to take no for an answer. Tell me: when do I get to have autonomy over my own body? When?!

He turned to me, his brown eyes wide and intense, “You do!”

“Do I? Then why should your desires override my consent to my body?”

Pause.

Regret filled his eyes and his apologies were the heartfelt words of someone who has gained new understanding. He laced his fingers through mine as he voiced his last concern, “But babe, that stuff about work? I thought that had stopped.”

It wasn’t often that I spoke to him of the harassment I encountered at work and on the street. The days I came to him, sputtering stories of encounters I had, were the days that I had reached the end of my patience and could no longer ignore it.

“No, Matthew, it never stops.”

 

 

Apparently I’m writing a series on sexual harassment. Bummer.

Related:

Fea

Tales from the Diner

Kitchen Culture: Why I won’t Stop Talking about the Route 9 Diner

 

 

 

Tales from the Diner

I have a secret. I have kept it for years. It is the kind of secret that you don’t dare tell, if not for fear of the possible consequences, for fear that no one will listen. Both outcomes are unwelcome and damaging in their own right.

My friends and I have shared this secret and all its grisly details over eager sips of coffee after long overnight shifts, our voices heightened in our rage and our exhaustion. I had hurriedly whispered conversations with my coworkers during hasty smoke breaks and bathroom trips. These were girls with whom I had nothing in common – save our employment and our secret. Sometimes we exploded. Sometimes we wept.

It is not that I am weary from this business of silence; I have not broken. But I realize now that I have no reason to let my anger lie dormant. The injustice has become unpalatable.

For five years I worked at a popular all-night diner in Hadley, Massachusetts. For five years I was sexually harassed on a near-daily basis.

My introduction to this behavior was almost immediate. Within my first month, I found myself being yanked to the back room of the kitchen, towards the walk-in cooler. After a week of my soft-spoken refusals, Emilio, a cook nearly twice my 18 years, intensified his efforts. Like a predator, he waited until the midpoint of my overnight shift, when everybody else had gone home and my manager’s attention was held rapt by the late night tv reruns.

He strode out from behind the line, blocking the narrow path between the dishwasher and the refrigerator, “C’mon, baby. Let me give you a kiss.” It was not a suggestion.

His hand, which he had reached out in some semblance of an invitation, closed around my wrist. His grip tightened with every step I dragged my feet. His fingers were snakes: coiled and unyielding. I tried hurriedly to regain my strength and my voice as we neared the walk-in cooler.

Finally, with the space between me and the cooler reduced to only two feet, I found myself: “Fuck off!” I pulled away and raced out the backdoor of the kitchen where I was met with the few lingering tables in the dining room. I searched their faces, wondering if they had heard my shout. Their expressions remained unconcerned as they giggled drunkenly over their milkshakes. I am not sure if I was relieved.

I crossed the dining room towards the front of the restaurant, my hands still shaking behind my back. I found my manager’s body draped across the counter, her unwavering stare focused on the years-old show that filled the unpopular 3 am television slot. Her laughter came out in harsh cigarette-stained breaths.

“Emilio’s such an asshole,” I tried to sound casual, “he just dragged me to the walk-in to try to kiss me.”

“What a pig,”  Jessi scowled before turning her attention back to the tv.

I was relieved to find that the incident was passed on to the senior manager, Nikos. When I came into work the next evening he sat me down in the furthest booth and asked me to recount what happened. His brown eyes wandered as I repeated my story. When I was finished, he looked back to me and said, “Well, I really do apologize for that.” It was the same practiced line he used with unhappy customers. Still, I was grateful for the acknowledgement.

The owners never spoke to me regarding this, although I presume they witnessed everything when they checked the cameras’ footage from that night. Emilio continued working his shifts.

The truth is that there was such consistent harassment from the cooks that in the next few months it became background noise. I grew accustomed to being greeted by a chorus of “mmmmmmmmm” when I entered the kitchen, complete with licked lips and hungry stares. There were days that it was more bothersome than others. Some days the cooks would be angry and tell me, “no tienes tetas,” when I asked for my tables’ food. My days were so commonly punctuated by stares and sexual comments that I wrote it off as part of my job; it was just another bad tip or difficult customer. I spent shifts coaching a coworker on the many reasons she should leave her abusive boyfriend. I told her to stand up for herself and that there was no reason for her to endure the things she had. Then I walked over to the window to pick up my food, narrowly avoiding having my hand licked. There wasn’t so much as a flicker of awareness of my hypocrisy.

After a year of working there, I found myself in another precarious situation. I had graduated to daytime shifts and worked with many of the diner’s veterans. Carlos, who was at least 40, had taken an instant liking to me. “Hey precious…” he cooed when I arrived in the morning. “For you? Oh yes, anything!” he simpered when I asked him a question. I told myself that if I regarded his flirting as being harmless, it could only be harmless. I was too new to the shift to realize that he was purposely doing this in front of the waitress he was sleeping with.

One day, Carlos followed me into the walk-in cooler and set his gaze firmly on my lips as he approached me. I could hear the prep cooks snickering outside as they turned the lights off.

Then on.

Then off.

Carlos stood between me and the door. “Can I bite your dimples? I love your dimples, Maria.

I declined nervously, his pockmarked face only inches from me.

I didn’t tell anybody immediately. Part of my assimilation into life at the diner had been realizing and accepting that things like being trapped in the walk-in sometimes just happen. When I mentioned it to Jessi and Nikos they seemed unfazed. At the moment it seemed that anything regarding Carlos was deemed as part of his relationship drama, of which I had unwittingly become a part. Days later I was asked, “If you don’t like Carlos, why did you grab his dick?” I had no idea where that rumor started. No one was interested in what happened to me. Carlos was not punished.

Eventually in my tenure I became less complacent.

On my 21st birthday I reluctantly agreed to work the 6am shift for Yael, the head waitress and my neighbor. I was greeted warmly by Marcos, Yael’s husband, who was cooking that morning. He congratulated me as his arm found its way around my shoulder, pulling me in for a hug. I reciprocated unenthusiastically. As I tried to release the embrace he pulled me closer. He relinquished his hold only when his lips had found my neck, leaving a trace of saliva that I could not unfeel.

“Elias, can I talk to you?”

The owner looked up from his paperwork expectantly.

“It’s about Marcos.”

He furrowed his brow as he agreed to speak to me in the office – a rare occurrence for the waitresses.

After listening to what had happened, he sighed. “This isn’t the first complaint I’ve had about him.”

“I know.”

“What do you want me to do?”

I stared at him, dumbfounded. “Elias, that’s Yael’s husband. They have three children. Yael is my friend. Don’t ask me to make the decision about what happens to her family.”

He nodded gravely and agreed.

Nothing changed. Nothing, unless you count the small addition to the lightswitch by the walk-in cooler, that now prevented the light from being turned off. But when had anybody at the diner ever been afraid to harass us outside of the dark?

It has been nearly two years since I left that job, and there is hardly a week that has gone by that I did not consider writing this. As I became more serious in the endeavour, I began to consult friends and other former coworkers. Together, we unearthed a mountain of experiences that were both horrendous and routine:

“One time Nikos made a joke about raping me.”

“One time Carlos oinked at me for an entire eight hours.”

“The other manager, Bobby, used to constantly text me, ‘show me your tits.’ He even wrote it on my facebook wall. When I told him to stop he told me I probably had gross elephantitis tits.”

“The cooks used to refuse to give me my food unless I showed them my tongue.”

“Marcos used to massage Emma even though she told him to stop multiple times and one time he bit her neck.”

“Carlos kissed my neck.”

“One of the cooks cornered me in the walk-in and when Bobby found out he told me to get over it.”

“Both the owners, Elias and Andreas, used to laugh at the comments the cooks would make about the waitresses’ bodies after they left the kitchen.”

I have always known that this behavior was unacceptable. I have understood that it’s unfair that it happened and I have wished that something had been done about it. However, I was also a young adult with no support from my family, and I prided myself on my grit. I was grateful for my reasonably-lucrative job, where I had become a shift staple, in a difficult economy. I naively accepted the entire package.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that I don’t actually owe my previous employers anything. After five years of good, full time work, they were not doing me a favor by continuing to employ me; it was only a natural business relationship. I believed that because they liked me, I must not betray them. But now I ask myself: how much could they have really liked me if they allowed their staff to repeatedly sexually assault me?

I can aver that the environment at the diner is no different today than it was when I left. My silence will achieve nothing except to protect and perpetuate the things that are allowed to happen there. I refuse to participate any longer.

Some days I am ashamed that I did not stand up for myself. It is difficult to forgive that weakness. But I am doing my best to make up for it. I am shouting now that I have the strength to shout. I am encouraging everyone else to share their stories. I have a beautiful, impressionable 16 year old sister. And for god’s sake, the lesson I teach her is not going to be one of silence.

Note: all names have been changed as a super nice favor, but if you’re interested, I’d be happy to disclose the information privately.

UPDATE 10/29: My amazing friend Jaime Young has written an account of her own experiences, which I highly recommend you read. Check it out. This girl is my sounding board and plays a very central role in encouraging others to find their voice.

UPDATE 10/30: Another waitress has bravely shared her story.  Also, I find this one particularly hard-hitting, as she explores not only the sexual harassment, but the really awful way the owners treated the waitresses. Oh, and yet another waitress has spoken out.

UPDATE 10/31: Another account has come to light, this one also exploring the verbal abuse and poor food safety. 

UPDATE 11/1: For everybody following these updates, this is a must-read account by a former manager. And this one is an account of a waitress who started working there in 2007. This is not a new issue.

UPDATE 11/2: The accounts of the terrible working conditions just keep coming.

UPDATE 11/3: And yet one more  former coworker has added her voice.

UPDATE 11/4: After an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, another waitress has stepped forward.

UPDATE 11/6: Another former waitress has written her account, trying hard to emphasize that nothing ever changed.

Thank you to everyone for the support. It is so appreciated.

Shedding Skin

I am no stranger to evolution. My life is one that has often left me with no option but to adapt quickly to rapidly changing circumstances. I have twisted, bent, stretched, and squeezed myself into scenarios, places, and people before I was ready or it was comfortable. And I have wiggled, climbed, and torn myself out of these same tight spots when the need grew strong. I learned early that there are many spaces in which I cannot fit. Again and again I watched people wait to ease into some sort of conformity.  I looked on in dismay as they prayed that their very selves would shrink so that they may require less room. I saw them hope that the keyholes they were locked into would grow an inch so that they may breathe more deeply. But I know this for certain: the rocks and metal of this life will never soften and give you more room. If that is the kind of adaptation for which you are holding your breath you will surely suffocate.

Having learned this, I decided to evolve differently. I spent my childhood catching bugs. I watched caterpillar after caterpillar molt, take refuge in itself, and grow into something new. I watched my pet lizard rub against rocks and peel back an old skin for which it no longer had any use. I found snakeskin in the woods by my uncle’s house, discarded for something better-suited. I knew that molting was a requirement for survival. I feared stagnancy and understood well that nature does not tolerate it.

I imagine that as I have grown I have left old skins scattered around the state: on the front steps of my childhood home, on the floor of my ex-boyfriend’s bedroom, and even in the ocean. There are cast-off parts of me on the streets of Tel Aviv and on the beaches of the Mediterranean. Sometimes, people somehow get cemented to our current self and later they get shed too. I imagine that my mother, huddled alone in the den of instability and illness she has dug, is still clutching at my old skins, unable to grasp my core as I sloughed them off.

This molting, this evolution, is an uncomfortable business. More often than not I come out feeling bruised and vulnerable and raw. Still, I am keenly aware of its necessity. I have spent the last month peeling off pieces of dead skin. This has been a difficult round.

Miguel is gone.

There are pieces of him everywhere. Although he has distanced himself by thousands of miles, in his wake he has left an elaborate system of tripwires and landmines. My entire life is booby-trapped. I am only now finding all the splinters he left under my skin that would sting and ache for days on end but of which I could just never seem to find the source. I stopped opening closests because too many times I was surprised by clothes he had left behind. I stumbled upon an old love letter and recoiled as though I had been hit.

After these times I took showers that were too hot and clawed at my body, trying desperately to shed my skin so that I could start anew. Instead I felt like I was choking on it.

I washed my sheets last week. They had sat unwashed in the bottom of my laundry basket for nearly a month, even as I dragged my other clothes down the street to the laundromat. Finally, in an episode of shame and disgust, I loaded them into my friend’s washing machine one night. The relief was immediate. Those sheets, filled with so much sweat and cum and tears, had been heaped in the corner of room tainting my air. I had lain on them for a week after he left, miserable and repulsed, but unable to replace them.

In my friend’s apartment, I stood for a moment and watched them spin around in that soapy water, listening to the mechanical whir that somehow gave me such solace. I exhaled slowly, realizing that in washing Miguel out of my sheets he was being rinsed from my life. Nothing smells like him anymore. I can barely believe his face is real.

I walked to the bathroom and stepped into the shower. I did not cry. When I undressed I left my clothes scattered. And with them, I know I left many old pieces of me lying on that floor.

So, your ex boyfriend’s a stripper.

“You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?”

The question was strange to me. Was I going to tell anyone? Of course I was. This was rich. Juicy. How could I commit to keeping information this amazing to myself? I couldn’t. And I don’t believe I should have to do so.

My relationship with this boy was rocky at best. I spent five years chasing after him, despite his boredom after two. The second half of our relationship was violent: dotted with hateful messages, disgusted words of rage shouted in tearful faces, negligence, suspicion, and bruised egos. We slammed doors and always went for the jugular. I feel as though I spent months crumpled on the floor, nursing a broken heart. I was no saint. But I was naive and hopeful; I made myself solely available to him and I was unrelentingly patient. He did not hesitate to exploit that. Again and again I forgave and attempted to fix our damaged dynamic. Again and again my efforts were punished.

And now I have learned that he’s a stripper at a nearby gay club that encourages full-frontal nudity. I still can’t fully wrap my head around it. My ex boyfriend, the one with the permanent scowl is a stripper? He refused to so much as say hello to my friends, but he gives men he just met private attention in a back room? For years he criticized people who made money off of their bodies: strippers, prostitutes, those in the pornography industry, and even models, all received the same response.  This is some kind of spectacular about face. I am bewildered. I am delighted. I have not laughed so hard in weeks.

Naturally, I did what any better-off ex-girlfriend would do: I took a few of my friends to his club for drinks. Contrary to the list of performers for the night, he was not there. In hindsight, I am glad. Not only am I entirely disinterested in seeing my ex nude, which is something I had previously neglected to consider, but my streak of vindictiveness was fleeting.  At the time, I was intoxicated by the idea of handing him a dollar bill, my smirk saying everything my words could not. The next morning, however, I was embarrassed by my attempt to make him uncomfortable. I have made it abundantly clear that I do not want him to come to my job, whether or not I am working. I have apologized for my hypocrisy. But to keep his secret? That’s another beast altogether.

“Marie, don’t go spreading this around.”

Our mutual friend has been pleading with me. But the facts are these: I have already told a good many people within my circle, and what they do with the information is beyond me.  Additionally, I simply don’t feel as though I owe my ex anything at all. He was tirelessly awful to me for years, and it would be shockingly presumptuous for him to expect me to hold my tongue solely to benefit him. I cannot tolerate someone demanding my respect after deliberately showing me none. Having to lie in the bed you made is never an easy lesson, but in this case I have no sympathy. If I refrain from telling more people about my ex’s secret identity, it will not be out of respect for him. I recognize that I hold a lot of power in this situation, and I hope my ex is nothing short of grateful that I am not abusing it. Truly, though, I am disinterested in the power I have.  My choices in this matter are only a reflection of who I am as a person, and nothing else. I have no desire to spitefully tell his father or anyone else that he is keeping this from. But it is not related to him; it’s because I have never been intent on making things more difficult for people.  I can think of thousands of things I would rather be doing than trying to ruin someone’s life. Especially someone of whom I am so happy to be rid.

On another note, I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with being a stripper. I know that my ex isn’t doing it for any financial reasons; he is well-educated and well-paid. I am uncertain why it is then, that he is ashamed of this weekend job. I tend to be pretty sex-positive and more than anything, I’m confused by his out-of-character, seemingly-shameful double life.

The lesson here, I think, is that you shouldn’t do things that you feel worried about and ashamed of doing. If this weren’t the case, then my actions would weigh absolutely nothing.  The other lesson, of course, is that you should maybe not be horrible to your girlfriend. Luckily for this one, I’m pretty put-together and I don’t act maliciously. But really, don’t ever try to demand my respect.

Maple Syrup: Let me break it down for you

“I’ll take the blueberry pancakes.”

“Sure! Would you like the real maple syrup with that?”

“As opposed to the fake maple syrup?” Guffaw, nudge, snicker.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes as opposed to fake maple syrup. This may come as a surprise, but there is in fact a difference between the two. Please, spare me your condescending tone because you’re unaware of this reality. I promise you. I promise you that I am choosing my words carefully based on their meanings. So when I ask you if you want real maple syrup, I do, in fact, mean that there exists both real and fake. Honestly.

That being said, I guess I should remind myself that not everyone grew up in New England. I was raised surrounded by hills and forest and long winding dirt roads.  Springtime was signaled by the arrival of the large silver buckets hung on the stoic maple trees that lined our country streets. I remember counting them as we drove home from the grocery store two towns away: one, two, twenty, forty. Soon the nearby sugar shack’s chimney would start smoking and its parking lot would fill with cars. Everyone was always anxious to order off their limited breakfast menu just to taste the maple syrup that was so local it could have been from their own backyard. We craved the sugar candies that were in the shape of tiny maple leaves, always for sale in a gift shop stacked high with pamphlets detailing the process of making the syrup. In the autumn there was always one stand at the local Fall Festival that sold maple cotton candy. In the depths of December we filled bowls with freshly fallen snow and drizzled maple syrup on top.

Granted, my upbringing in the Northeast has provided me with a certain ritualistic Maple Syrup Culture. I have always had what I felt was an inherent understanding of the stuff. Even after encountering it for nearly five years, I am still appalled by the blank stares I get when I explain that Real Maple Syrup comes from a tree. Let me break it down: maple syrup is from maple trees. Table syrup, Log Cabin, Aunt Jemima’s, Eggo syrup, Pancake syrup, and whatever else is from a goddamn factory and is nothing but high fructose corn syrup and caramel color. Maybe I should explain further. Fine.

In the late winter and into the early spring, spikes are hammered into the trunks of mature sugar maple trees to release their sap. Oftentimes, multiple buckets will be hung on a single tree so as to collect the large amount of sap that is readily available. Once the buckets are filled, the sap is boiled down quickly at a high temperature to remove all of the excess liquid. Although it varies depending on the sugar content, it usually takes around 45 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup. After being boiled down, it is filtered and bottled. Not all syrup is the same, of course. Not only does the maple sugar content vary by tree, but the syrup itself becomes darker and deeper in flavor as the season goes on. Maple syrup that is lighter in flavor and color is generally Grade A. The darker amber is Grade B and often considered cooking syrup. Fun fact: Most restaurants that offer you real maple syrup are almost always offering you Grade B because it’s cheaper. Fun opinion: You should opt for Grade B anyway, both in cooking and in straight consumption, because the depth of its flavor is much better.

So what of the imitation syrups then? That sweet golden sauce with which you top your pancakes is literally nothing but high fructose corn syrup. Admittedly, there are some syrups that are labeled “maple-flavored” and supposedly those have some actual maple in them. However, most of what you see on grocery store shelves and for no charge in restaurants is good old HFCS. Its “maple” flavor actually comes from Fenugreek seeds, but I promise there are no health benefits this time. That’s it! No fascinating homegrown process here.

And in case you hadn’t guessed, maple syrup is expensive. There aren’t a whole lot of places that are capable of producing it and as the seasons have been pretty screwed up the past few years, sugaring has been pretty difficult. It’s only going to get more expensive from here, folks. So please, spare me the looks of horror when I tell you there’s an extra charge. If you don’t get it, I really won’t be affected. But if you think you can’t taste the difference, your palette is flat out broken.