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Josh Marks: In Memoriam

For those of you who don’t know, Josh Marks, runner up from MasterChef season 3, died last week at his own hands.  This tragedy is too awful to process, even for those of us who didn’t know Josh.  I cannot imagine what his family is experiencing.

I haven’t addressed this issue earlier for several reasons.  Since I didn’t personally know Josh, it wasn’t my place to comment on it.  And since Josh’s personal struggles since leaving the show have been hyped and scrutinized by the gossip media, I did not want to contribute to the rumor mill flying around.  Josh was laid to rest yesterday in Chicago, and his family wants to create a legacy in his memory to help others struggling with mental illness, so I feel it’s now appropriate for me to touch on Josh’s story and let people know how they can help.

Josh’s MasterChef journey was not a smooth one.  While we, the audience, recognized his talent and likeability from the beginning, Josh was eliminated in an egg-cooking pressure test 8th from the top, shocking us all.  In my blog recap, I wrote more extensively about Josh’s elimination than probably anyone else that season:

“I have really enjoyed watching Josh this season.  I think that, technically, he is one of the best cooks in the competition.  He continually surprised me with the sophistication of his dishes, and his mature instincts.  Josh is the kind of person who I expect to actually become a chef, unlike most of the popular contestants on all 3 seasons.

“And this is evidenced by the fact that Gordon offers him a job.  (I’m absolutely certain Joe will do the same.)  Ultimately, MasterChef is NOT a cooking competition.  The cook with the best overall skills does not win.  Were that the case, we’d stop watching because it would be insufferably boring.  MasterChef is a TV show with dramatic turns and twists, and we end up rooting for characters who may not necessarily have the most talent or skill, but who have integrity and character, with whom we connect and identify.  We want THOSE people to win, even if other contestants are more talented.  So there is a lot more that must be taken into consideration in the judging process.

“That said, I think Josh might have taken it all, were MasterChef an entirely merit-based contest.  He is most definitely a force to be reckoned with.  And I can’t wait to see what’s next for him!”

Dark words when I read them now.  Of course, a few episodes later, Josh landed BACK in the MasterChef competition after several previously-eliminated contestants were seemingly-randomly selected to compete in a pressure test to win back their apron.  Despite obviously not performing the best in the pressure test, Josh was engineered back on the show (at the expense of others who performed much better), which left a bad taste in my mouth.  You can read the blog about this episode and the 80+ comments left by fans to understand why the producers made this choice…it caused lots of stir.  And it was no secret that Josh was a fan favorite that the audience felt was eliminated too early.  But, as he didn’t perform to his normal standards during the challenge, it certainly appeared very artificially engineered that he was back.  And according to his friends on the show, he was also fairly puzzled as to why he won out over better dishes in that challenge.  This may have planted the first seeds of his discontent with the show.

Josh then advanced all the way to the finals on the show, but it’s a different Josh that we were shown.  Whether through editing or reality, after his comeback Josh was more competitive, more solitary, more aggressive.  When David Martinez forgot the rice for his rice pudding, Josh boasted, “If I had any rice, I wouldn’t give it to him.”  Then an interview clip of him saying, “I think I’m way more competitive than most people in this contest.”  If you’re a regular blog reader of mine, you know how much I caution people against making ANY kind of correlation between a real person and what you see of them on reality TV.  Editing is highly selective, and sometimes sound bytes are even pieced together from separate things a contestant says on completely different days.  But one thing is for certain…Josh watched how he was represented on the show when it aired, and the pre-elimination Josh character was a very different character than the Josh character who won his apron back and went all the way to the finals.

Josh was not at peace with his runner-up position.  There was a lot of angst and heartache among the core MasterChef family that season over it.  But they all recognized that it wasn’t simply the jealous actions of a “sore loser.”  Josh wasn’t well.  He suffered from bipolar disorder. While his fellow season contestants may postulate otherwise, the MasterChef legal team has made it V-E-R-Y clear to me that the show’s producers and psychologists did not know about Josh’s condition before or during the filming of the show. (Contestants undergo exhaustive psychological evaluation before being cast, not only to uncover issues like mental disorders, but also to understand how contestants respond in stressful situations, so the show can be crafted to be gripping for each character’s story arc.)

Not much is publicly known about Josh during the period post-MasterChef until July of this year, though he was working professionally in restaurants.  He had been selected to compete in the highly respected Culinary Night Fight in New York.  And he had become a national spokesman for the Make A Sound Project, an organization that helps prevent suicide…revealing to the public that he has struggled with suicidal tendencies in the past.  Then, in July, Josh was arrested under strange circumstances that clearly indicated his mind was not well.  Rather than be sent for psychiatric evaluation, Josh was placed in jail and received no mental health treatment.

MasterChef scrambled to contact other season 3 contestants, warning them not to talk to the media.  We don’t know if they reached out to Josh or his family to see if any support could be offered, though I imagine we’d have heard about it. (They have now reached out to the family.)

After being released from jail, Josh’s mother struggled to get him help.  There were not enough spaces available in an in-patient facility where he could me monitored constantly.  Faced with astronomically prohibitive costs far beyond the family’s means, Josh entered an out-patient treatment program at Mercy Hospital that insurance would help to cover, though his mother expressed skepticism over the quality of the program.  At the end of this treatment program, Josh was informed that he was likely schizophrenic.  (At the end, just before discharge.)  Josh’s mother picked him up from the hospital and could tell how distraught he was over receiving this diagnosis.  The next day, Josh left his apartment, acquired a handgun, and, at age 26, ended his struggle in an alley nearby.  At least some family members were present, and his mother arrived moments after.

I’ve never written anything as horrible as this…my fingers aren’t wanting to keep typing.  I’ve lost two dear friends and several acquaintances to suicide, and I know all the emotions and doubts and regrets and guilt.  Even when I write about horrific issues, like children being discarded by their parents over issues of sexuality or gender identity, there is always something to celebrate at the end.  A triumph.  A life saved.  And while I have no doubt that Josh’s loved ones will use this struggle and the power of Josh’s story to save others from a similar fate, we’re just not there yet.  We’re in the middle of the despair.  In the thick of the questions…so many of which are questions we, as Americans, are struggling with right now.  Do we offer enough care to those wrestling with mental disorders?  Why can’t prisons rehabilitate, rather than perpetuate?  Why do we allow mental disease to be stigmatized to a much greater extent than physical disease?  How can those suffering from mental disorders so easily acquire weapons that can be deadly to them and others?

There are other questions that I will never be in a position to entertain.  Josh’s family considers reality TV to be the impetus for Josh’s mental disorders.  His mother states: “I hadn’t noticed any signs of anything wrong or any mental illness until after Josh completed filming MasterChef.  The time he was away filming was extremely stressful on him.”  I’m no psychologist, and will never be privy to the inside information regarding the production of Josh’s season and how the producers and their psychologists crafted Josh’s journey.  I caution anyone against hurriedly passing this off as being the exclusive fault of MasterChef’s producers or the network.

What I do hope is that this tragedy prompts the industry to look at how they treat their contestants, both during and after the filming.  Reality TV is produced not because the American public loves it, but because it’s cheap.  Hired actors are protected by unions that provide health and mental care, and have strict rules to protect them from the rigors of film and television production.  It’s far easier and cheaper to use “real” people who don’t have to be paid ANYTHING to be on TV, and who willingly sign contracts allowing them to be exploited in numerous ways.  And while most production companies have at least one psychologist on set, after meeting said psychologist for my season, it’s not entirely obvious to me that the doctor is there exclusively to ensure the mental health of the contestants, rather than assist in the crafting of the show’s story.

Many reality TV contestants experience mental and emotional hardship in the aftermath of the filming and airing.  At least one top contestant from my season struggled with suicidal tendencies and abject depression, and is only now starting to recover, 2 years after.  Multiple contestants from this past season have been suicidal, as well.  Actual suicides by reality TV contestants are certainly not unknown.  So it’s time for the industry to look at the mental health of its contestants, not only during filming, but after, as well.  And it’s time for us, as a culture, to banish the stigma around suicide, so our friends and family members aren’t scare to confess if they’re struggling with such thoughts.  I doubt there’s a single one of us out there who hasn’t contemplated it in our darkest moments.  I certainly have.

Josh Marks was a breathtakingly talented young man.  We, the world, were lucky to have shared in his light during MasterChef season 3.  Josh was loved by so many fans.  The tragedy is that mental illness prevented him from FEELING that love, and the love from those closest to him.  No one of sound mind who feels truly loved takes their life.  The issue here is illness.  And so many people struggle with it.

Until his death, Josh was actively involved with the Make A Sound project, to raise awareness about suicide and help those struggling with suicidal thoughts.  Josh’s family is encouraging those who wish to help to make a donation to Make A Sound in Josh’s name.  A donation link can be found midway down their homepage.  Josh’s mother is working toward establishing a foundation in Josh’s name that will fight for increased mental healthcare in this country, and when that is up and running, I’ll let you all know.

In the meantime, I ask that comments on this post be celebrations of what you remember of Josh…sharing of personal struggles with mental disease, either your own or those of loved ones…words of encouragement for anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide…and support for Josh’s family, his memory, and legacy.  Let’s not devolve into political arguments or outlashings against anyone, out of respect for Josh and his family.

**IF you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, reach out to someone who loves you.  If you would feel better talking to someone who doesn’t know you, there are lots of resources to connect with someone who will help you feel better:

1-800-784-2433 1-800-273-TALK
TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889)



Also for the VA (they counsel anyone and have vast experience)
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Kids Help Phone (Cyberbullying):
If you need someone to vent too or just someone to listen. phone this number. They are amazing.

Outdoor Fireplace and Pizza Oven!

This is the biggie. The construction of an outdoor fireplace and wood-burning pizza/bread oven. HUGE project…14 feet long, 11 feet high at the top of the chimney. I don’t know what I was thinking. You may have noticed the absence of a date from the title of this post.  This is because it was begun July 2009 and here, in May 2010 I’m STILL WORKING ON IT!  Granted I’ve had a few distractions and major projects for friends in the interim.  But I’m still plugging along…

A unit this huge needs a serious foundation. I am hoping (fingers crossed!) that a 6″ slab reinforced with 1/2″ rebar (the thick kind), and water-cured to slow down the curing process, will suffice. If I’m wrong, the foundation will crack beneath the weight of the fireplace, the fireplace will tear itself a part, and I’ll have a HUGE mess to clean up.

Again, the 6″ foundation form was built with lumber from the deck, so that was free. 1/2″ rebar comes in 20′ sections at Home Depot for about $8. I brought my bolt cutters and cut it into the appropriate lengths in the parking lot, and then drove it home. Ideally, to prevent water from pooling beneath the slab, you want to dig down a few inches and fill that space with compacted gravel. Did I do that? Nope. Would a contractor? Possibly, but probably not. It’s the right thing to do, but I was so nervous about pouring a slab of this size that I tossed down a bit of landscape fabric and gravel and got to mixing.
Pouring a slab foundation or footing for an outdoor fireplace and pizza oven
We’re talking 50 80-pound bags here, people! That’s 4,000 pounds of concrete that I single-handedly lifted into the mixer!!! I was really, really, really nervous about pouring 50 bags by myself, so I enlisted Chris and Christian to help. This was Christian’s first real effort in the renovation. (Chris has been helping all the time.) And he actually had a blast working with the concrete! It’s fun stuff.
Troweling the concrete slab or footing

See that rebar sticking up out of the concrete? Those are anchors embedded into the slab that will reach up through the cinder blocks and tie the fireplace securely to the slab. Technically you don’t need them if you’re not in a earthquake zone (and we’re not, though we’ve had a couple of 3.0 tremors in the past few years!) but I’m really nervous about this project, so I did it anyway. You have to have your blueprints drawn out exactly, and you have to measure VERY carefully before you place this rebar. It must stick up directly into the holes (or “bays”) of the cinder blocks, so placement is critical.

I have meticulously sketched out each individual layer of cinder blocks all the way up to the chimney using graph paper, so I know exactly where these rebars should be. Does that make me any more confident when I pound them into the ground?

OF COURSE NOT! I practically soiled my pants, I was so nervous.

Pouring a concrete footing for an outdoor fireplace and pizza oven

Just like before, you overfill the form, jiggle the concrete to get it to settle, then screed off the top using a 2×4. After it sets up a bit, you finish the edges with the edging tool, but you don’t have to do any surface finishing because we’re building on top of it.

After the concrete set up, I left the forms on it, covered it with heavy plastic, and let it sit overnight. The next morning, I drenched the slab in water and let it run between the form and the slab. I did this every few hours to help slow the evaporation of water, which makes the concrete cure more slowly. This increases its strength. Wet-curing or water-curing is used occasionally when it’s VERY important for concrete to be strong.

I let the slab cure for 2 weeks before building on it. Two layers of cinder blocks went down in the outline of the whole unit. (I’ve gotten loads of free or almost-free cinder blocks over the past couple of months by watching Craigslist like a hawk.) From left to right, there’s 4 feet of pizza oven, then 6 feet of fireplace, then 4 feet of wood storage.

Building an outdoor fireplace and pizza oven with cinder blocks

This image is looking down the unit…I’m at the far end working on the pizza oven section.

The center section where the fireplace is was filled with rubble and styrofoam (I had saved up old Sonic cups and packing peanuts for this express purpose…keeps it out of the landfill and makes the whole unit lighter). When I had it filled to within 4″ of the top of the cinder block perimeter, I laid out rebar and poured concrete. Into the concrete, I embedded firebrick, a special kind of brick built to resist repeated high temperatures and rapidly fluctuating temperatures. Normal brick or cinder block would rapidly begin to flake and “spall” under these conditions, so we don’t want the fire to ever come in contact directly with the cinder block or concrete.

Next comes the foundation for the pizza oven. The oven is heavy, so I need a sturdy foundation. I laid a piece of 1/2″ cement board (HardiBacker…$30 at Home Depot) over the cinder block perimeter and I supported it from below with 2x4s. This layer I’m about to pour is going to weigh almost 700 pounds, so the cement board itself can’t support that weight until the concrete cures and can support itself. That’s why we have to prop it up from below with 2x4s.

Then I built the rebar reinforcement. To make sure concrete didn’t leak out between the form and the cement board, I also laid some old pieces of tarp along the edge. Then I poured the concrete.
First layer of concrete foundation for a wood oven

This 4-inch foundation layer required 8 80-pound bags of concrete. I covered it and let it cure for a few days before pouring the second layer…VERMICRETE!
Vermicrete, or vermiculite concrete, the insulating foundation for a pizza oven

The key to a great pizza oven is a thick layer of dense material that holds the heat well from the fire, but that is surrounded by great insulation so the heat stays in the oven and temperatures can soar above 700 degrees. Concrete is a heat sink…heat sucks right into it and stays there. If we put the oven right on top of concrete, all the heat from the fire will suck down into the concrete and out into the cinder blocks, and we’ll burn through SO much wood trying to get the oven heated up because the heat is escaping into the foundation.

So…the solution is vermicrete! Vermicrete is a mixture of Portland cement (the basic ingredient in concrete) and vermiculite, which is an expanded volcanic glass. You know that volcanic rock called pumice that’s full of holes and really light? Well, vermiculite is similar, but much lighter, and it comes in little pills. You can buy small bags of it at garden supply stores, or HUGE bags of it at a feed store. I bought a 4 cubic-foot bag that was almost as big as me for $30, and it worked for the whole insulating layer.

To make vermicrete, you add 1 part of Portland cement to 5-6 parts of moist vermiculite. You mix it really well and dump it into the form.

This stuff is really, really light. The 4″ layer of vermicrete weighs about 60 pounds, while the 4″ layer of standard concrete below it weighs 700 pounds. It has an R value of just over 8, equivalent to a couple of inches of fiberglass insulation.
The foundation layers for a wood fired pizza oven

The foundation for the pizza oven is ready, but I’m going to put a separate blog entry for the construction of the oven. Let’s move on to the rest of the fireplace…

Any time you work with cinder block, you’ll have to make a cut every now and then. The easiest and most precise way is to use an angle grinder ($30 for a decent one) with a masonry cutoff blade. Don’t be stupid like me…wear a respirator when cutting because lots of silica dust is produced, and you DO NOT want silicosis of the lungs.

How to cut concrete block
Score the block about 1/2″ deep, then turn it over and score the other side. Lay the block on the ground and tap it firmly with a hammer along the score line, turning it over occasionally, until the block cracks along the score line. Simple!

I lay a layer or two of block each day, working about 2 hours a day. Here I’m putting the finishing touches on layer 7.

It’s starting to look like a fireplace structure now! Here you can see the layout, from left to right, the pizza oven foundation with its own wood storage area below, then the fireplace in the center, and the main wood storage area at far right.

You can see angle irons above the openings for the fireplace and the wood storage. You need to use these across any unsupported span to anchor and support the cinder blocks. You use 2 for each span, so BOTH sides of the cinder block are supported. They will eventually be covered by stone veneer, so you won’t see them.

I’ve still got a long way to go on the fireplace. We’ll cover things like firebrick and flue tiles in a separate entry, and the pizza oven will have its own entry as well. For now, I’m just chugging along, a few hours a day, and it’s slowly coming together!