07/14/2013 12:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tennis, Andre Agassi, and Pastry School

For the past 72 hours all I have been able to think about is Andre Agassi.
It's not that I'm a tennis fan. In fact, I've never sat through an entire tennis match. I vaguely remember learning the rules in my high school Phys Ed class, but a red clay court under the blistering Florida sun never seemed as appealing to me as the aquamarine waters of the neighborhood pool. So, why now does a game I barely know occupy the entirety of my mind?
It's probably because I'm reading Agassi's autobiography, Open. It was recommended by a close friend, twice. Since I've started reading it, I feel like I've become friends with Andre. And I don't think Andre would be surprised that a tennis amateur like me has become so obsessed with the sport. "It's no accident," he says, "that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature."

I'm in Paris now, learning to make pastries. Every pastry class is like a match for me. I read the recipe like I'm sizing up the competition, examining my challenger's components so I can pick the exact techniques that will exploit his or her (or, actually, its) weaknesses and lead to my ultimate triumph.

First were the diamants, or diamonds. An easy opener. It is hard to go wrong with sugar, butter, flour, and orange zest. The diamonds were beautiful and simple and, like their stony counterparts, last forever. I'm still nibbling away at my stash, several weeks later.

Next up was Saint-Honoré, who is less of a saint and more of a Chantilly cream-covered devil, waiting for you to burn yourself on the piping-hot caramel which beckons innocently to your choux puff-dipping fingers until you make contact and discover its wily tricks. I got burned, blistered with pain, but triumphed in the end with a wobbly version of the pastry that was saint enough for me.
Then there was the apple tart. Tarte aux pommes. I sailed through the first two sets-- pastry crust, done. Apple filling, easy as pie. But the final set gave me trouble, and as I piled too-thickly-sliced apples atop my beautiful base, I realized woefully that it was all over. And we hadn't even reached the oven. I wrote it off as a loss and gave it away to a friend who made it disappear with big scoops of vanilla ice cream.
The latest opponent, a veritable fruit cake, was an easy win. Soften the butter. Mix the batter. Chop the fruits. Throw it in a pan. You'd have to be crazy to lose to a fruit cake. Back to basics, and with a little extra effort at decoration (the cherries on top), the cake aux fruits came in as a solid win. Even the Chef was impressed ("pas mal").
The truth is that pastry school is not hard. It can be challenging, but it's not hard. Unlike Andre and tennis, I love pastry. That makes the challenge easy, fulfilling even. So why is it that every time I prep for another practical I get the butterflies? Why does tying on my apprentice apron feel like I'm lacing up my tennis shoes? Why do I keep tally of each face-off with feuilletage or calamity with a caramel?

I genuinely don't know. But I know that I'm working towards something, and that it's a little bit strange and a little bit off-track, but entirely worth it. At least I hope so.

And if Andre has taught me one thing, it's that you don't judge a career by a win or a loss, or even a match. Because a career is made up of dozens of matches, each one a life in miniature, and each one worth living to the fullest.