This week on The Cut, co-host B.A. Parker considers the reasons for trying — particularly for trying something new. She talks to skier Elizabeth Swaney, who disappointed some fans with her simple half-pipe run at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018 (and has attempted just about every activity you can think of), and Yassmeen Jackson, Parker’s friend, a trier and a baker who made her television debut on Best Baker in America in its first season following the COVID lockdown, just to be around other people.
To hear more about giving it a go — or not — listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can find the full transcript below.
B.A. PARKER: I’ve been kidding myself for a year in my apartment, making all of these internal promises. Quarantine unlocked this bucket list in the back of my head that taunts me like the unused yoga mat in the corner of my living room.
I wanna visit Montana, I wanna learn how to speak French aside from asking a waiter for the check, I wanna learn to play guitar. I wanna be bold, I wanna be daring. I wanna not be reluctant to try. If ever there was a time to say “fuck it” and just live, now would be it. Still, something is stopping me, be it fear of judgment or fear of failure or even fear of success.
My therapist recently told me that the only difference between me and people in similar positions as me is that I’m afraid … which was a hell of a read, by the way.
And I know this is some very millennial eye-rolly bullshit, like Everyone should dare to dream. But I don’t even have a dream yet. And it made me a little defensive — and worse yet, envious of the people who aren’t afraid, who just go for it.
Like this athlete who went viral a few years ago.
OLYMPIC ANNOUNCER: Liz Swaney dropping in, trying to get to this right wall for a nice … just getting to the top of the wall.
PARKER: Elizabeth Swaney was a freestyle skier at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and she did something rather bizarre. On her qualifying run on the half-pipe, she skis.
OLYMPIC ANNOUNCER: Showing the judges she can make it down this halfpipe …
PARKER: But like, she just skis. No jumps, no twists, no attempted tricks. The whole time, the commentators seem to think she’s about to do something, that she’s just getting up speed, and she’ll need to do some incredible Olympic trick.
OLYMPIC ANNOUNCER: Trying to show she has a little style down at the bottom …
PARKER: But the trick never comes. She just goes up the hill, and she goes down the hill. And people at the Olympics and in the media are taken aback.
What was the postmortem that you did of your performance? What were your thoughts afterwards?
ELIZABETH SWANEY: I feel like I could have had more confidence to go higher out of the pipe and just be more brave and go for bigger tricks. I was really safe during my Olympic run. But looking back, I’m thinking, Oh, I should have just gone for it. I didn’t realize that the world was expecting this big show. I just thought maybe a safe run would be okay.
PARKER: The world was, in fact, expecting a big show. There were headlines like “World’s Worst Olympics Appearance” or “The Woman Who Scammed the Olympics”
They say “scammed” because she was born and raised in the Bay Area of California, but she represented Hungary in the Olympics, where competition for the Olympic team was much slimmer — which is totally allowed, by the way. I could have a grandfather from Senegal and all of a sudden, I could possibly represent Senegal in curling.
PARKER: When some outlets were saying that you were “gaming the system” by competing with Hungary, how did that feel?
SWANEY: I mostly look towards my coaches, the other athletes, and the freestyle ski rules, and everyone told me, “Yes, you’re following the rules. You did everything right.”
PARKER: And I get the criticism. When we spoke, Elizabeth just wouldn’t grapple with how weird it all was. She kept the athletic party line of “Thanks to my coaches,” “The spectators are what makes the sport possible,” and “I can only get better.”
As far as I can tell, Elizabeth’s Olympic run wasn’t performance art or a purposeful commentary on gatekeeping at the Olympics, even though it kinda ended up being that. But “scammer”? “Fraud”? I don’t know about that.
Even putting aside my feelings about the Olympics as a whole and their banning of Black Lives Matter and their discrimination against trans athletes and their embracing of whatever the hell that sport is where you ski with a rifle, Elizabeth did follow the rules, and she qualified.
And I don’t know, spending an hour with her earnestness did something for me. The lady is just always trying — like willful, unabashed, no fear-at-all trying.
SWANEY: Well, I never want to limit myself, so I almost never want to say no to something. I also just started cross-country skiing this season, which has been a little more challenging than I thought.
PARKER: At UC Berkeley, she was the coxswain on the men’s rowing team. During California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall, when everyone from porn stars to Gary Coleman to the subsequently elected Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor, 19-year-old Elizabeth briefly tossed her hat in the ring. She even tried out for the Oakland Raiders cheerleading team. All the while being a triple major in college and getting a master’s from Harvard. Maybe she’s doing too much?
SWANEY: Sometimes I would choose races based on what the medal looked like in previous years. Do you want me to show you some?
PARKER: Yes, please.
SWANEY: My first marathon, the L.A. Marathon in 2019.
PARKER: That’s massive.
SWANEY: I love this San Francisco Marathon medal as well.
PARKER: This is incredible
SWANEY: This is the Miami medal, which I really like. This was a race where I definitely saw the medal and I realized, Okay, I have to run it. It changes colors.
PARKER: From acting to stunts to chess to really getting into Olympic weight lifting, She’s putting herself out there.
Elizabeth is daring to see herself as something different or even something greater. And at the Olympics, she did it by simply making it down the freakin’ hill.
After the Olympics, Elizabeth made it to a qualifying round for the physical-endurance competition American Ninja Warrior.
SWANEY’S AUDITION TAPE: Hi, my name is Elizabeth Swaney. I would absolutely love to be on American Ninja Warrior. So, I’ve been training for the Olympics since …
PARKER: Like most who compete for the show, she was defeated by the obstacle course pretty quickly.
It involves a level of dexterity that I can never imagine. I have no upper-body strength — like, I can’t. It’s a skill set that is beyond me.
SWANEY: If Ninja Warrior is something that you want to do, or you know people interested, I think it is accessible to everyone or almost everyone that wants to do it. I’ve heard incredible stories of people that they’re not in a place where they think they can do Ninja Warrior and then someone believes in them and they do it.
PARKER: I don’t know, Elizabeth. That spider wall is intense.
SWANEY: It is intense. It is fun. I think my first time doing it I thought, Oh, I’m gonna slip, and it’s not gonna work out. But I actually made it.
PARKER: Elizabeth fully believed that this chubby Black girl who can’t do a chin-up on a park bench could climb a spider wall on national television with just a little bit of time because it’s all in the trying.
After the break, I go a little closer to home for some inspiration.
YASSMEEN JACKSON: My name is Yassmeen H. Jackson, and yeah, they call me a pastry chef, but I just like to think of myself as a person who turns shit into sugar.
I’m just kidding. Just joking, just joking.
PARKER: I talk to my godsister Yassmeen, who tried her way all the way onto Best Baker in America. And then the pandemic hit.
PARKER: At the start of last year, I got these excited messages from my mom about my godsister Yassmeen. For a lot of our family and friends, she’s always been the big sister you call for an extravagant birthday cake or rosemary popcorn in a pinch. News was that something very big was happening. It involved her flying off to this baking competition, but we didn’t know which one. And we were all sworn to secrecy.
Then, you know, COVID happened. The world shut down, and there were no more talks about baking shows … until this year.
BEST BAKER IN AMERICA CLIP: My name is Yassmeen. I’m 41 years old. I want to show up and show out.
PARKER: Turns out Yassmeen was competing on the current season of Food Network’s Best Baker in America, hosted by famed pastry chef Carla Hall. It’s where bakers are tested in how they can make the best PieCaken or croquembouche.
BEST BAKER IN AMERICA CLIP: You all have four hours to make a beast of a dessert. Okay, guys. Get to it.
PARKER: To be clear, Yassmeen is a badass. She’s classically trained and has filled me with macaroons since high school. And the people she’s baked for will humble you.
JACKSON: I’ve made desserts for Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerrin, Patti LaBelle, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton … and that was Hillary Clinton when she was running for president, okay? Not what she was standing next to Bill Clinton. I have made Barack Obama’s birthday cake, and I’m not talking a birthday cake for 500 people. No, this was an intimate party. And somewhere in the world there is a photo of him holding a cake that I made. Now, did he eat it? I don’t know
PARKER: Before the pandemic, when she first got invited to go on the show, Yassmeen was ambitious, she was excited, she was ready to win.
JACKSON: The first time, Yass was head-shaved, hearts. I was going real Baltimore. Big bamboo earrings.
PARKER: But a year later …
But now you’re all comfy and chill.
JACKSON: Last one, it was like, Don’t. None of y’all talk to me. I don’t wanna hear none of your chitchat. We’re not friends.
PARKER: You know, the full reality-show competition mantra.
JACKSON: A whole 365 days has gone past, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to bake anymore. I was really tired.
PARKER: There is something reassuring about knowing she was in the same weary boat as me last year, that it wasn’t a crime to just be. What happened was that she slowed down enough to realize how tired she really was. Her and her husband, Mike, and their cat were able to rest. They realized that the life of a chef took away some things that they’d been missing.
JACKSON: It was like, Oh wait, I can go outside while it’s still light out? Mike and I sat in this house together for several weeks and were actually able to enjoy it. And on the weekend? We have weekends together! It was like, What do people do on weekends? I don’t know, but I’m gonna sit on this sofa and figure it out. You know what I mean?
PARKER: But before Yassmeen really got to do that, she got a call at the start of 2021: Best Baker in America was back on, and they still wanted her to compete. She said yes, but it’s not like she could just jump up and be old Yassmeen again. That person was gone. And this new Yasmeen didn’t have the same vibe, or mindset, or maybe even drive.
JACKSON: Last year, if you asked me that question, I would’ve been like All right, let’s bring it. I’m ready to fight. But this time, all of us were so happy to just be around people.
PARKER: In February, Yasmeen got up off the couch. And onto the set.
JACKSON: So I can just tell you that when Carla said “Go,” I forgot everything.
JACKSON: Everything, and I’ve been baking for a long time. I forgot everything. Where am I? What am I doing? Oh, you’re on a show, run!
PARKER: And … it was different. Not just for her but for everyone on set.
Even simple things, like Yassmeen could ask a fellow competitor for some sugar. Normally, the chef at the next workstation could just go, “I’ve got some. Here you go,” but now they couldn’t just hand it to her. They’d have to hand it to a production assistant, who would then wipe it down and disinfect it before handing it to her, cutting into her baking time.
JACKSON: So when you hear me in the first episode go, “Okay, Yas. Get it together, Yas.” That’s really me pulling and calling on all the ancestors, like, Hey. I started trapping in my head. But then somewhere it turned into Diff’rent Strokes. You know, like the theme song. And when I say that my knees might not be built for this.
PARKER: You mean physically? You mean like standing all day?
JACKSON: Did y’all see me up there? So I ran in the kitchen. And I have got to tell you, these knees. Yeah, it is different for them.
PARKER: So all those concerns about baking, when you should have practiced sprinting?
JACKSON: At least stretching! I told you, I’ve been on the couch for six months.
PARKER: But then somewhere in the middle of the competition, Yasmeen figured it out. How to whip up some combination of the badass old Yassmeen and “sit on the couch and hang with friends pandemmy” Yassmeen. The big episode she was featured in involved the state of Maryland and making a Smith Island cake. It’s a chocolate-frosted cake with about a dozen thin layers inside of it, and it had to be topped with popcorn for the competition.
And she does this thing that makes a lot of sense to me, having grown up in Baltimore. She puts seafood seasoning in her chocolate frosting and makes that the star of the dessert. Imagine a chocolate bar made with Old Bay seasoning, and you’ve got half the snacks from our neighborhood.
But people had opinions.
JACKSON: Will it take this cake upscale from a Smith Island, which is traditionally vanilla cake with chocolate-fudge icing? Okay, I’ll add caramel to it. I’ll do a brown-butter cake. Did I push the envelope? Yeah, I believe so.
PARKER: I think in flavor profiles, definitely.
JACKSON: Yeah, I believe I pushed the envelope for this challenge. But also, remember who is my core audience: Yes, the people in my community that I feed every day, and will this be controversial enough to maybe start a conversation with everyone in the world who’s watching Best Baker in America?
PARKER: She was able to do something radical for herself. She blended her classic training and her neighborhood into this fantastically Yassmeen cake, and it paid off.
BEST BAKER IN AMERICA CLIP: I love that you as somebody from B-more finds a way to put the seafood seasoning into a dessert.
PARKER: And in this moment, this isn’t a “hometown girl makes good” story. This is a “hometown girl makes me wanna take a giant step” story.
BEST BAKER IN AMERICA CLIP: All of those spices, and that salt? It’s actually really good. Going bold like that is going to set you apart.
PARKER: Now, this is a bit of a spoiler, so if you need to catch up on your Food Network shows, skip ahead a bit.
A couple of weeks ago, Yassmeen landed in the bottom of the competition. When that happens, the four bottom contenders compete in an elimination round. They had to make a gelatin in 90 minutes. And it was gonna be judged by not just the three judges but also by all of their competitors.
JACKSON: You don’t wanna go over there. That’s when the competitiveness kicks in. For me, it was because I am saying, I do not want to go on the other side of this kitchen and run around, bake like my life depends on it for 90 minutes. And they may really scrutinize your desserts down to the last speck of salt. Because they didn’t know before. You know, they only know visually.
BEST BAKER IN AMERICA CLIP: I’m sorry, Yassmeen. Thank you so much for everything.
PARKER: But in the evolution of Yassmeen, she’s had this Zen-like approach to the whole experience. She just wanted to see people; she just wanted to get out of the house.
But it also changed her demeanor about competition, about judges and being judged.
JACKSON: Yeah. I don’t care about judges, either. I mean that in a really nice, professional way. Everyone has an opinion. Judges get paid to have an opinion. I completely respect that, and I went into this competition knowing that I am competing, and I’m excited about that. But I also know that baking is an emotional experience, meaning that if you can create a dessert that can remind someone of a grandmother cooking by her side, a mom, or licking the bowl, that’s what baking is. How can I capture these judges to get that feeling? That’s going to be really, really difficult. But that doesn’t mean that they’re going to love my dessert, not like my dessert, or really tear it apart. It just means that, in this moment, they may have an opinion, and I might love it. I might not like it. It’s just fair; it’s just going to go all the way around the board.
PARKER: Oh, it’s like Ratatouille!
JACKSON: Yeah! Does it start a conversation? Does it create a nostalgic feeling? Will you be my customer?
JACKSON: You understand? So I am approaching this show like, What story can I tell about myself? About the story I create? Can I continue to keep the customers that I already have who are like family and friends? So I need to show up for not only myself but for them. Because I’m just going on a show. I’ve still gotta eat when I get home.
PARKER: So why do it?
JACKSON: Why not? The opportunity presented itself. Do I have the talent? Do I belong in this room or in this kitchen? Do I have anything to lose? Nope. Will I be allowed, or can I create the way that I want to? Okay, yeah. Last year was trash. COVID was trash. In the house was trash. If this is an opportunity for you, your mom, to sit on your couch and smile because someone they know is on television just doing what she’s always done — you’ve had my food, you’ve had my desserts — and they can say, I had it. It’s delicious. Go, Yassie! All right, let me do it. I didn’t really do the show for me. I did it for everybody else. The hardest part for me was showing up.
PARKER: Yassie was able to use her love for her family and her community to motivate and do this thing and do it fully and fearlessly. I was able to watch someone I love essentially dance like no one’s watching on national television, and now I just need to work on the showing-up part.
Okay, Parks. You’ve been practicing this. Okay.
Un bouquet de muguet,
Deux bouquet de muguet,
Mes amis, il m’en souviendrait
Drait, drait? Drait.
I knew I should’ve studied Italian.