2.21.2011

making our way back to normal

Sooooo . . . . . .

Here I am. And here you are. Nice to be meeting in this spot again, eh? It's been awhile. And I still can't figure out where to begin, or which stories to tell.

Mostly, I've been thinking about time. Time has been doing funny things to me lately. It's felt like it's been rushing past me at the most ferocious pace, and yet it's simultaneously been standing still. Maybe it's just been making ferocious circles around me. While for weeks it has seemed like we could never catch our breath, never sit down or sleep for long enough, I have also been amazed to look up and realize, incredulously, that we managed to pack three months' worth of work into three weeks. Surely, Time's horses granted us a cosmic favor.

40 Paper is beautiful. It is beautiful simply at first glance, whether your eyes are drawn to the illuminated exposed brick behind the bar, or the custom- and locally-made vintage light fixtures, or the cozily hip orange Damask wallpaper. It becomes more beautiful when you learn the story of the name "Paper," the long history of the Knox Woolen Company that was once housed in the building, and the important role it played in the papermaking industry in the United States.

But the restaurant really comes into its own when you step up to the bar for a drink, or take a seat in the dining room for dinner. Everything falls into place, everything clicks, and at that moment it's entirely possible to believe that you're suddenly very, very far away from Camden, Maine. The ambiance of the room draws you in; it is immediately evident that this is a place where you want to be. The cocktails are creative and fresh, served by an experienced-yet-familiar bartender. The music is just right, with the surrounding noise buffered enough by the acoustic ceiling "clouds" to allow you to clearly hear the person across from you, without having the sense that everyone else can hear you. The menu holds exciting choices not usually seen in the Midcoast area: steak Fiorentina, espresso-rubbed pork chops, gluten-free pasta options, and vegetarian dishes in all categories, to suite all tastes. The service is prompt and assured, never obtrusive. The evening is capped off with a chocolate crema, topped with milk foam and a hazelnut crisp, or maybe an individual chestnut-parsnip cake, served with chestnut cream, maple glaze, and parsnip candy (all gluten-free, of course). The experience can be drawn out even longer, with fabulous espresso and after-dinner drinks served in the lounge. And the amazing thing about all of it is that as special as it feels, as much of an "event" as dinner is made to be, it is also comfortable and easy and right.

(And alas, I have no pictures to show you today. My own trusty camera has been broken for months, and the camera on loan to me has a dead battery, with no battery charger in sight. Trust me, this is far more painful for me than for you.)

This is no accident. All this talk of "easy" and "falling into place" was incredibly difficult to pull off. Josh put an amazing amount of time, thought, and energy into the project, and inspired everyone working around him to do the same. Every last detail was meticulously decided. Admittedly, in the early stages of planning and construction there was so much doubt, so much questioning as to whether everything really would fall into place! Building a restaurant requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, as you look at the chaos of a construction site and are told it will be a working restaurant within two weeks. And then one day you walk in, and it's still a construction site, and plaster dust covers everything and table saws and paint cans are sitting in the middle of the dining room, and there is still exposed plywood and electrical wiring, and yet . . . you can see it. You can see how little is left to be done, and you can see the restaurant itself pulling away from the mess rubbing up against it and becoming the most real thing in the room. A real-life Magic Eye® picture. It's quite extraordinary, actually.

And quite a hard story to tell to people who have never lived in the trenches of it. Have you, like the rest of the world, been reading Orangette for a while? She did a great job, back in 2009, of talking about the life-consuming, scary-in-the-most-exhilarating-sort-of-way, supremely-gratifying work that is opening a restaurant. I can look back at her posts now, her tales of exhaustion and living on convenience foods and wearing the same dirty clothes day after day and the nervousness and resisting - and then giving in completely to - the need to allow what sounded like a fun project to take over your entire life, and I feel a sense of kinship with her. It's all true. At least, true for us owner-operator-do-it-yourselfer types. I can't vouch for the corporate chains, but then, the less we have in common with them, the better.

Anyway, read some of Molly's posts, from April and May and July of '09, and then imagine all that plus two young kids tagging along, and a middle-aged dog most decidedly not tagging along (and hence suffering our long absences from home, all alone), and a MUCH shorter time frame in which to get everything done, and you'll have a pretty good picture of what our life has been like recently. Rough. In fact, I'd prefer you let your imaginations skip along without me; I'd rather not think about it anymore.

But with 40 Paper up and running, things are improving. We sleep more. The kids and I eat most breakfasts at home, and dinner, too. Kalen and Wylie are feeling better, moving back towards their normal, happy days filled with crafting and games and storytelling, and away from that awful, overtired, behavior-changing period filled with electronic babysitters and meltdowns (of the child and adult variety). We even took the dog to the beach the other day, when Maine got a respite from winter and the temperature hit 48ยบ! The perfect timing for some much-needed rejuvenation.

Which is not to say we have all the kinks worked out. It's been a bit of a struggle to decide how much involvement I should have in the day-to-day production of the desserts. (I initially planned to have none. Then I realized how much I had missed being in a kitchen. Then I was faced with the fact that my life is not set up to allow me to work outside the home with any regularity. Decisions, decisions!) And we have done very little marketing and advertising at this point, which is an area that definitely needs our attention. There is also the problem of how to strike the right balance between actively marketing the dessert menu to the gluten-free community, without unnecessarily causing the rest of our diners to worry that the desserts are somehow "alternative," less-than-stellar creations. While we want everyone who is gluten-free to know that they have plenty of options at 40 Paper, even when it's time for dessert, to everyone else we just want to be a great restaurant with fabulous desserts, including normally gluten-full items likes cakes and crostatas. A balancing act, for sure, but one that I know we will master.

And because challenges never come at us one at a time, in a nice orderly manner, we are also in the midst of packing up half our home. Beginning next week, we are having lead paint abatement work done on our house. With small kids running around the century-old structure, it is imperative to me that this be done. But the timing is interesting, to say the least. Each room having work done to it needs to be completely cleared out. This includes our very full kitchen! But as Josh reminded me, at least this forces us to do some major cleaning and purging. So we are trying to find the space and time to get this done, and then we will be temporarily moving out of the house until it tests lead-free. We've been given an oh-so-specific time frame of one to five weeks! But it will be so worth it, and the long-term benefits are so great, that it feels completely ungrateful of me to complain. All I can do is laugh at the cycles and pulses of our amazing, hectic life.

*****************

I was driving home late one night last week, after a whirlwind day trip down to Boston. Wylie had had a follow-up appointment with his surgeon, which took all of six minutes. Almost ten hours of driving for six minutes in the exam room. But I guess if we're going to insist on having a really great surgeon, we should be accepting of any inconveniences it may cause. So I'm driving home, both kids finally asleep in the back, and I was thinking about how crazy it was to have made the trip during that week, crazy to have brought both kids, crazy to have thought that it wouldn't be utterly exhausting. And then I looked up, and all my crazy tired thoughts were swept away by gratitude. Gratitude for my car's sunroof, which allowed me to drive across the state with my face swathed in moonlight. Gratitude for that almost-full moon, so bright and otherworldly with its reflected beams of light. Gratitude for the comfort of my silent companion, visible each time I glanced up, guiding me home, steadily reassuring me that I am, in fact, headed in the right direction.
 
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