The Perfect Meal

Given enough time in a cooking or in any other occupation in a professional kitchen, the subject of “The Perfect Meal” will come up. Everyone mostly agrees that they’ve only had one, or maybe two of these unicorns in a lifetime of searching, reading and working towards that ascendance into something damn near unrepeatable, as glorious as the most beautiful sunset, as memorable as the most beautiful woman, as unspeakable and awe inspiring as a sky full of stars, flickers of light representing different moments in time, a glimpse into the distant past of our universe.

The Perfect Meal must, in my own opinion, follow a certain set of guidelines. Not rules, for that would ruin the moment, but some general paradigm of events. It should be unplanned. You should stumble upon it as you would after a lifetime of searching for the holy grail, only to find it upon a beach, exposed in the sun as only you could see it. It should be an experience – a combination of food, environment, appreciation, aspiration, and an ambiance that is unique to the situation.

The Perfect Meal can be anywhere. On a beach, in a distant land or in your own backyard. It can be enjoyed alone, with perfect strangers or with the ones you love most. When it happens, you must be prepared to appreciate it in all its glory, be willing to throw your phone off a cliff, curse a date or temporarily abandon a friend. Anyone who can’t appreciate the moment is not your friend but someone you should rid yourself of, if not for a lifetime, then at least for the duration of that experience.

I’m lucky in experiencing two such meals. I’ve spent a lifetime in border moments, experiences that almost, but not quite, make it. There were the fish tacos in Baja, Mexico, served by a small Mexican woman out of the back of an ancient International Truck. There was a hot dog on the back of a tailgate in Southwest Virginia, unexpectedly smothered in hot sauce and homemade chili. There was a pig roast in Costa Rica on New Years Eve, with crispy fried pork fat and seasonal fresh fruit enjoyed in bare feet while Howler Monkeys threw rocks at us. So many others.

My most recent Perfect Meal met all the criteria. I was with my wife and son. We just happened to stop by the restaurant just as they opened. The Chef, Aaron Deal, happened to be working the line himself, as I found out later he usually does at that time of day. The restaurant was empty. The wait staff was knowledgeable, the premises immaculate and the menu perfectly simple.

I’d worked with Chef Deal before, not directly, but as one of the hordes of cooks who volunteered to help with the Chef’s Tour. Chef Deal proved to be all the things a chef should be: Humble, but proud of his ability and his food. Appreciative of fine ingredients, but willing to accept and delight the senses with unexpected twists on the ordinary.

Our early lunch was simply transcendent. Being a guest at a restaurant with an eighteen-month old toddler with his own agenda can be very difficult and overwhelming. The River and Rail restaurant simply caught us in its spell and made us welcome. The staff seemed to appreciate the curiosity of a child who has spent most of his waking life in a kitchen and allowed him to explore while we enjoyed our coffee and Laura tried a Stout Beer, which paired perfectly, as the waitress said it would, with her fried chicken. My Iced Tea was worth the trip, but the Chef’s representation of a Philly Steak Sandwich blew me completely out of the water. Perfectly cooked, perfectly marinated bottom round grass-finished beef was the star of the show, with a radish slaw that complimented every bite.

I am a fried chicken snob. More than a snob. I am unashamedly scornful of most attempts at fried chicken. My grandmother and my mother made the best in the world. Until now.

This chicken was so succulent, so crunchy, so well seasoned and so perfectly fried that I was speechless. I had no idea what to say. I stammered through some awkward words of appreciation to the Chef, nearly embarrassed by the way my wife and I had thrown ourselves at the food.

Be prepared: Your Perfect Meal may be just around the corner. It may even be as close as River and Rail. Happy Hunting.

-R

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Get Knocked Down…”In the Weeds” – Updated 07/18/2014

I was diagnosed with terminal alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver last year mid-March. The doctors were almost apologetic, averting their eyes when they spoke to me about it. No alcohol, no cigarettes, no Tylenol or related products. They spoke to me in mostly past tense, as if I had already passed away. I was 39.

My weight had skyrocketed to a shocking high of over 270 lbs. People didn’t recognize me anymore, especially those who I had not seen in a few years. My blood pressure was out of control and off the charts. I was developing diabetes, colitis, ulcers and fluid retention. My liver showed signs of massive damage and I was given a year to live IF I could not quit drinking. Maximum. Quit? They just shrugged.

One doctor was more blunt than the others, or maybe he still saw something that gave him some hope. “The liver can recover, you know that. Right?” I’m dressing to leave, have been dressed for a few hours. I hate hospitals. I looked at him carefully. “Even at this point?” He became more hesitant. “Sometimes, things can reverse themselves…” His sentence trailed off. He looked back at me. “You have to quit drinking.” It was a statement. Not a suggestion. If I wanted to live I had to quit.

By Mid-June of 2013, I was drinking again, more heavily than ever. They told me I would die anyway, so why not? I became worse, more disoriented, more sick, more dependent every day. I was a one-man horror movie as my friends and family looked on in utter disbelief. I drank in the mornings, at night, whenever I was conscience. I could not be trusted, not with a vehicle, not with a credit card, not with cash and certainly not with my infant son. I was literally In The Weeds, lost in a nightmare of helplessness.

Mid-August, 2013 found me nearly dead. I had done NOTHING to combat the disease. I did what AA said: “Distance yourself from alcohol. (That doesn’t work, it’s everywhere.) Don’t be around it. Eat whatever you want. Stay away from situations where you might be tempted to drink. You will always be an alcoholic. Don’t make any decisions. Only worry about yourself. Resign yourself to always being an addict dangerously close to spiraling out of control.”

After my second stint in rehab in August, I had to disagree. I had never, not once in my life, faced a challenge that I had not met head-on. My behavior was strange, puzzling, even to me. My parents were mystified. Where is the person that walked away from car crashes? Where is the person who played two football games with broken ribs? Where is the man that was a coal miner? Where is the rock climber? Where is the distance runner, the father, the husband, the brother, the son, the friend? Where did he go?

My wife begged me – please, please fight this. Her most heartfelt letter made me cry for hours.

So I did fight it. They only way I knew how. By being me again. My first day in a professional kitchen again was a haze of exhaustion and confusion. My ammonia levels were dangerously high, I had ascites and I was still terribly overweight and out of shape. I couldn’t lift a 30 pound sack. I was shaking so badly I cut myself to pieces for weeks. I didn’t quit. I would go home and sleep until the next shift started, then attack it the same way, transferring my frustrations with addiction into physical activity. I fell down steps, burned myself, dropped plates, dropped hot pans – but I soldiered on almost belligerently. It was all I knew to do. My coworkers watched me carefully, realizing I was a liability. Chef hired me knowing full well what he was getting, but for some reason he trusted me.

My wife and I argued over my shifts, argued over my hours, lack of pay, who would take care of Nolan. I took him to work with me once, in a backpack and stood on the cold side and chopped all day, only stopping to change his diaper and feed him. He slept peacefully most of the shift, lulled by the constant din and movement.

I wore out my shoes, my clothes, calloused, got stronger, more pain tolerant, less and less interested in drugs or alcohol. My doctors said I was crazy. My wife thought I had lost my mind. “WHY are you doing this??”

In April of 2014, I physically collapsed on our way to Maryland to visit family. I hadn’t touched drugs or alcohol since August of 2013, but I was very sick. My MELD score had catapulted me into UVA’s transplant center. I spent Easter week in the Anne Arundel hospital, wondering fuzzily where I was and why I couldn’t get up and go to work. Until my sense of place returned, the nurses mostly chased me back into bed. I told them I needed to get the prime rib started. I refused to eat the food – by the time I could handle eating my stomach had shrunk to the point I didn’t want to eat.

Momma Sue made steak and carrots. I remember eating slowly at first, then voraciously as my appetite returned. A slow anger started to burn in my heart at myself for allowing myself to be this unhealthy.

I drove most of the way home the next day, nearly six hours. I probably shouldn’t have been driving, but my pride was returning. My wife watched me carefully for signs of fatigue. I was tired, exhausted even. But I made it home. I stepped out of the car and up the hill to retrieve our mail from it’s box. I turned back to the car and a bright light flashed in my brain. I only registered one thought – someone has fucking shot me! It was the start of Turkey Season and it was a real possibility where we live.

I woke to the sound of my wife weeping beside me, crying out loud, “Please, Ron. Get up. I can’t pick you up. Please get up.” Blood was pouring from a cut on my forehead. I had been unconscious for nearly two minutes. I looked down at my wasted body, listened to my ringing brain and rage filled me like a fire. I love my wife. I love my child. I love my family. Why am I lying here in the dirt, bringing even further worry to my wonderful wife? I’m not shot – I just ran into the car door. Like a fucking idiot. Now my tiny beautiful wife was trying to drag my ugly, dependent body out of the dirt and mud as I lay there. Rage. Nothing but rage – and love, and shame, and honor slammed through me. I rolled over, placed my hands on the ground, and got up. I grinned at her, drove the rest of the way up our drive, and cleaned up the cut, showered, shaved and changed. Changed not only my clothes but my mindset. I was NOT a victim. Not any more.

I was devastated when they wouldn’t let me go back to work. I rested for days, becoming bored and irritating to my wife. I qualified for disability, by didn’t pursue it, feeling that would be a full surrender. I then attacked the disease with everything I had, daring it to beat me. I split wood, ate even more carefully, drank nothing but water and fresh herbal teas, concocted from advice given by my sister. I fought through the Ascites, trying to will it to go away. I started running again. I played with Nolan daily, feeding him as carefully as I did myself. He became tanner, tougher, leaner and grew faster. So did I. Laura stopped looking at me with pity and anger – instead there was pride and love there. That made me work harder. I wanted her to like me again, to love me, to realize who I really was. She had not really even met me before now. I was ashamed for what I had become. For my dependence.

The yellow disappeared from my eyes. My scars from hernia surgeries faded to a dull ache, easily ignored. I did hundreds of push-ups, pull ups and carried rocks to nowhere. I cut and split hickory, ran up the mountainside at night and swam in the river. I haunted farmer’s markets and ate pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables. I stopped using salt, period. No sugar, no additives, no preservatives, nothing pre-prepared. Nolan and I ate like kings: Ripe tomatoes, peaches, fresh bread, carrots, greens, local pork, dried beans, fresh berries gathered on our land, and fish caught by my father-in-law. Laura started sleeping better and the worry started to fall away.

My favorite nurse called this morning. They drew blood for a blood test yesterday and I did not bleed afterwards. I did not bruise. A month ago I had bled for nearly two days and bruised as if I had been hit when they ran the blood tests. I paced the floor most of the night, walking relentlessly up and down the drive. I did pull ups until I couldn’t get my feet off the ground. I couldn’t lift the sledge hammer. I finally slept.

My nurse, almost giddy, (I CANNOT stress how much my medical caregivers mean to me) told me my blood test results where the best they had been in over two years. My Bilirubin, 2.1, down from dangerously high levels to almost normal. Liver panels, normal. MELD score, 10: Down from 24 a year ago. I placed the phone back in its charger. I cried. My wife cried.

The fight is not over and never really will be. But I did get up. I did find myself once more, inside a body damaged and broken and sick. I can’t give up, and I cannot surrender. But today, I may rest until I become bored. Or I may get the chainsaw out and finish up the hickory. Every cook loves hickory.

-RM July 15, 2014

Into the Beginning

On April 26th, 2006 I submitted my last geotechnical report to my boss in the greater Washington, D.C. area. I was out of dress in sandals, surf shorts (baggies) and a shirt that my mother had given in me when I graduated from high school in 1990. I still had sand in my hair from the surf the day before. I waited impatiently for him to give me a nod, a goodbye, a job well done, a thank you for your effort, a word of gratitude for sticking around a month longer than I had agreed to after I turned in my resignation. Something. Anything. Even a big fuck you, so long, sayonara or a big kick in the ass would be welcome. Just something to recognize that I existed and had been there in that office for three straight years and more or less been in his employment for six would be nice. So, I waited. He continued drafting a letter by hand on letterhead as his secretary stood obediently behind him waiting for him to finish. His pen scratching was driving me insane.

Not for the first time, I wondered exactly how many resources were currently being wasted because this guy is stuck in the 1950’s and stubbornly refuses to learn how to type. His solution to reviewing a report is to pencil in corrections on additional sheets of paper, code them to underlined sections in the draft and then submit all of them to typing, where they get passed to various temporary employees or secretaries that then type his suggestions, give them back to him to review and type further revisions for him to review once more. All changes are included with the originals, including the handwritten reports, which are then returned to me in all their senseless glory to assemble. People wonder where there money goes when they hire a consultant.

Giving up on an acknowledgement of my existence, I head for the door. I hesitate and take a look back. He still has sunburn rings from his goggles obtained on one of his recent skiing trips in the Alps. Or the Rockies. Or somewhere that I had likely been, but I would not have been someone that he would have noticed. I would have been the guy he mistook for a bartender or waitress, or perhaps a chef or maybe a member of the house staff. Someone anonymous, in the background, a person there to pick up a phone for him or shine his rented SUV so he could arrive back at the airport in style.

He looked briefly up from his musings. “Can I help you?” He’s pleasant enough, but I know when I’ve been dismissed. I start to begin an angry retort, something peppered with words far beyond his limited understanding of the English language, but I’d learned long ago that there was nothing whatsoever gained in a battle of intelligence with these people. It’s like mud wrestling with a pig. Or throwing shit at monkeys. They both love it and either way, right or wrong, you lose.

So I grin my most charming and obnoxious smile, the one that has knocked females off their rockers for as long as I can remember, the exact same one that my son will wear many years later and close the door behind me. Forsaking the elevator, I wave to everyone through the glass reception area. My co-workers flood out for a moment to say goodbye, wishing me luck and godspeed, reminding me to keep them posted. One of them, no doubt a beauty in her bygone years, flashes me yet another glimpse of her massive breasts, barely contained within the confines of her top and tells me to stop by and say hello. Please, any time. I agree, knowing that while they may remember me today, tomorrow I will be a ghost in the shadows, yet another human animal passing through on their way to somewhere else, someone who will, in spite of all their pent-up resentment and rebellion against the mythical machine that drives our lives, crumble before it.

But not yet. I meet my wife-to-be in the lowest level of the parking garage, flinging my green backpack into the rear of my old Suburban that has been quietly rusting in the dark for the last three years. Our belongings, such as they are, are stowed away, given away, trashed or sent in front of us. My mattress, camp stove and essential tools necessary to keep a thirty year old relic running are where they should be in the ruck and a first aid kit is stowed properly in between the front seats. Rocky, older now, rocks the truck in his flying leap over the rear tailgate. Laura dives into the front seat of her car and follows me out of the darkness of the parking garage into the light of day.

As the sun sets over the mountains in the distance and my left arm slowly colors back to normal from the sunshine and wind flowing into the open window, I almost weep in relief. I suddenly feel free, unfettered and released. Rt. 460 West stretches before us, free of traffic, blaring horns, shouting people and hurry. Stress turns to tranquility and the sound of a tractor reaches us from far away. Rocky has his head so far out the window that he’s nearly out of the car.
We have no idea then what the years may bring. We don’t know that they will be filled with joy, sorrow, longing, resentment, anger, tears, happiness and the full spectrum of human emotion. What we do know is that on this day, on this journey, we can leave one place behind and begin life anew.

Over eight years later, we start a similar journey east. Rt. 50 is our way, our vehicle of choice a Cadillac. We our older, wiser, somewhat damaged, banged up physically and emotionally. Our son holds his feet in his car seat and lets us know that he has indeed learned to yell. Loudly. Rocky has passed out of our lives, along with a great lab with a heart as large as the universe. Too large, it turns out. We have laid to rest grandparents and loved ones, and a small gray Manx Cat with impossibly green eyes keeps watch over our river home from her resting place under a great oak, piled with alluvial stones deposited millions of years ago when the New River was a great, roaring, unimaginable torrent of water carving its way through the ancient bedrock.

My wife slides her hand into mine and smiles at me, more radiant than ever. We head east into the future, propelled into the future by the most human of all emotions: Hope.

July 10, 2014. – R

In the Weeds (Life Changes)

There is one common denominator across the spectrums of addiction. No matter if you are addicted to coke, meth, alcohol or whatever substance gets you through or over what you normally feel, in sobriety your life will change. Forever. Things that were once important to you will be so no longer. People that you have known for years will vanish. Particularly if your drug of choice is alcohol. No awards are given for recovery from the oldest human addiction. You will find that your family no longer trusts you as they may have a few short months prior. Alcohol is such a common substance in our society that nobody, from our government to our churches, truly embrace a person in recovery from alcohol abuse as anything but an alcoholic.

You will become, “That person who used to drink.” People will modify their behaviors in front of you despite your best efforts to let them know that you are no longer concerned with the temptation from alcohol. I think that is perhaps one of the biggest reasons for sudden relapse after treatment for the first year: You end up doing what is expected of you. Everyone watches with bated breath to see if you will drink again. Comments such as: “I never thought you’d quit” and “Sorry about my beer” will become a part of your life. As if you would be suddenly struck with the notion to murder the person holding the beer out of sheer desperation for their drink.

Your relationships with people will change. Not always for the better. For the better, remember you have changed. People do not like change. You are no longer in the box neatly labeled as “The Addict.”  If you, like me, have sickness linked to your years in addiction, then you will be likely be blamed for the very illness from which you suffer. “You did this to yourself.” That was the hardest, most true statement I’ve ever heard. No sympathy. You no longer fit in your box.

The most devastating can often be with your significant other. People in recovery will find that they have lost most, if not all dignity in the eyes of the person they love the most. Often the very person whose face would become a beacon of hope during the throes of the most terrible pain that the first few weeks of total sobriety bring with it. You will become a different person to  your loved one during the recovery process. You will often find that your role in a relationship may no longer be the same. If you were once the sole provider, then you will enter sobriety to learn that you are not.

Throughout this initial discover phase and self-doubt, you may experience feelings of hopelessness, abandonment and despair. Despite what you may believe, or think that you believe, your family and the ones who truly love you will rally around you in support and embrace the new person that you are trying to become. These feelings will be temporary and will lose their hold on your conscience as you attempt to sort out the mess that has become your life.

If your family does not support your decision to become and stay sober, then you must move on. Your very life depends on it. This was not so in my situation, but I have witnessed, with great astonishment, when addicts are directed by their loved ones back to the substance or situation that created the addiction in the first place.

This is a horrible blow to be dealt when you have the least amount of confidence, self-reliance and independence than you have experienced in your life. But you must not, cannot despair. You must pull through these days with all you can and remember that, while you may physically be alone, you don’t have to be. There are programs, people who will accept you and support you, provide transportation and if needs be, constant companionship. Find it. Accept it. Embrace not only who you are, but for who you ARE about to be.

In the Weeds: Summer of 1986 or so, continued….

Most of the rest of that summer was pretty cool, at least to me. My relationship with alcohol progressed a bit, but not much. There was a contractor that I worked for that always paid me $50 at the end of every work day and bought a six-pack of Coors on the way home from work, from which I was allowed two. My parents commented on how tired I always was when I arrived home in the evenings and how I must have just worked so hard all day long to be so exhausted. It’s true, I did, and I was, but the two cans of beer that I chugged in the cab of the old Ford as we rattled along the dirt roads of my country were really what made me so tired.

I felt there was nothing better. Sunburned, with the window down and my right arm hanging out, I felt I truly had life by the tail. I would sip the icy cold suds and wonder what else could possibly taste so good, feeling the ultimate rush of fitting in, of being respected enough by a contractor, no less, to ride around in his truck as dust sifted through the cab and sweat channeled its way through the rills of dirt around my neck. I truly felt that I belonged. School started to feel a long way off.

Although those were my very first encounters with alcohol, I really didn’t seek them out. There was a convenience store about a mile or so from our house where the owner had absolutely no moral qualms about selling beer to underage teenagers. It was a favorite place for all of us to hang out. We worked on our motorcycles, drank a few beers, smoked a little pot and we basically just had a great time being teenagers.

There were a few of the older boys that already showed signs of drug and alcohol abuse. Bigger than the rest of us, they were generally high school dropouts, petty thieves, moonshiners and coal miners when they could find the work. They would show up glassy-eyed and reeking of corn liquor, which was still readily available in that area. Watching them stumble about the shop, leering at the posters of scantily clad women definitely did nothing to promote alcohol abuse in my mind at least.

The rest of that summer, by definition, should have been quiet and busy. It was, throughout most of it, until the first of August. I worked several jobs, mowed yards, saw my girlfriend Lauren, visited my beloved grandmothers and generally had a great time. I was at that time of my life determined above all else to pilot jets in the Armed Forces, preferably those whose names contained the letter F. The F-14, F-16, F-15, F-18 or even, not a long shot to dream of in those days of massive government spending, the much-heralded F-22. My hormone ravaged brain was full of dreams and imaginations of speeding across the sky to save the nation and somehow Lauren at the same time, who in my imagination was likely tied to a tree in a deep jungle with Cannibalistic Zombie Commies Dancing around her in preparation of taking her bikini top off. Maybe I could save everyone by sacrificing myself and my beloved plane to take out a nuclear warhead that had been launched straight at our little corner of the world. The implausibility of such an event was not lost on me, not even then, but it still didn’t keep me from dreaming of it.

Through all of this, food was everywhere. As with nearly every culture, it permeated our lives and dictated our schedules. Our schedule revolved around the plants and animals that we cared for – my list of responsibilities included feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, splitting and stacking an endless supply of firewood for our house and various sheds, including my Dad’s workshop. We all pitched in when it was time to can. Canned corn, beans, okra, tomatoes, peaches, apples, mulberries when I could find them, wild raspberries and blackberries, cucumbers, yellow squash, potatoes – if we could grow it or trade for it, we canned it. We also ate astonishingly well, particularly to be so poor.

We had strawberries by the pound in early spring, along with stewed hens too old to lay, young roosters who would never do anything but crow and fight, salted pork, beef and venison from the winter before. We could not get enough of fresh fruit and greens. On multiple occasions I would gorge myself on the tiny wild blueberries in the forests beside our house and I would eat so many peaches with homemade sourdough bread and butter that my Mom would actually cut me off. My uncle would go fishing for wild salmon in Alaska and bring back what seemed to my teenage mind to be tons of fish, even though it probably wasn’t that much. Annual acid mine drainage and mine waste runoff into the local Levisa River had left the waters mostly barren of fish, at least any that we dared eat. Giant mutated catfish lived in deep holes, their fins showing in the shallows during the dreaded dog days of summer. We would catch them for sport, lugging about the riverbank, only to throw them back with some revulsion. They were not pretty creatures.

Crawfish, or “Crawdads” as we called them, were abundant in the softened soils and mud around natural springs in the mountains. My Grandmother Audrey, my Dad’s mother, would pay us five cents for every one that we caught and she would boil them in a giant cast iron kettle that she kept on her wood burning cook stove. In the fall and winter she also paid me 25 cents for every squirrel that I brought to her, fifty for the big fox squirrels, especially if they weren’t shot through the head. She would happily scramble their brains with eggs and serve them alongside thick slabs of bacon and lard cathead biscuits with some of the strongest coffee that I have ever tasted. She never changed the grounds through the week, which was saved for “Sunday Coffee.” Instead she simply poured more grounds on the old ones, added egg shells, and brewed it over and over again. By Saturday mornings I have no doubt that he coffee contained more caffeine than the most aggressive energy drink ever made, if you could stomach it.

We clicked more or less happily along as a family that summer, blissfully unaware of the looming future and the immediate changes that it would make on our isolated little world. Peaches were now ripe, which is one of the fondest memories of my summers as a child. I would stand under the peach trees in the early mornings just as the sun was coming up, watching the dew turn to gemstones as the first light of the summer sun breached the Plateau and penetrated deep into the incised valleys in which we lived. The peaches were so ripe, so juicy and so overwhelmingly sweet and sour that you would have to eat them at arm’s length to avoid the inevitable explosion of peach juice, which would still run down your arm and drive honeybees wild the rest of the day. On these mornings, in the cool mountain air, the little bees were sluggish and slow, mostly filling up on the sugar from the overripe fruit that lay about on the ground. There was always signs of other animals – the small, strangely human toed-in tracks of the raccoon, lazy steps of the groundhog, sometimes a small tuft of red fur left behind from the opportunistic red fox, who could decide on what he wanted to dine on – delectable peaches or peach marinated fat groundpig. He almost always chose the former.

It was into this relatively peaceful life that tragedy struck. The combination of events was most difficult for my mother, with its effect on me arriving in a distant second. We had known hardships, of course, our family with seven children in the poverty stricken region of deep Appalachia. There was hardly a family that we knew that had not suffered loss, either through coal mining accidents, logging or any of the other life threatening pursuit of natural resources that provided most of the honest sources of income that people existed on. But we had been largely immune.

The first such close personal loss was soon after a summer celebration party hosted by one of my best and only friends during her parents absence. My young girlfriend Lauren was there with me, along with most of the teenagers in the area. The party became rather raucous as the night progressed. I was not one to be generally swayed by peer pressure, but I did like being the center of attention if and when I so chose. At this particular party, under the influence of a little weed, a little moonshine and a lot of testosterone, I pulled off the most insane stunt of my short life.

I stood on top of the house with my usual swagger. I was fifteen, and I was thoroughly convinced of my own invincibility. About fifty of my peers, slightly to mostly drunk on pilfered moonshine, homemade wine and stolen beer, shouted at me to just DO IT. No fear. After all, I was the one who broke my cousin’s record for the longest jump on a motorcycle in our area. I was the one who jumped a car in the mall parking lot and ran from the cops, only to get caught. I was the first one of my peers to spend a night in jail, namely due to the fear of what my father would do to me if he found out I had been arrested. I was a rogue, although a reluctant one. It was a survival mechanism, honed out of years of being labeled as a nerd and a bookworm. My ability to make homemade chicken stock while reciting The Dawn’s Early Light did not do anything but wreck my popularity in high school, but stunts such as these, well, they did everything to restore it.

Only weeks before I had been caught riding my back tire up the wrong side of Rt. 460 by my grandmother’s place. I did it largely to provide amusement to my grandparents, my grandfather relegated to a wheelchair at that point in his life. Anything that I did that was derelict was, in his unspoken but loudly chanted opinion, awesome. He lived through us, his grandchildren, and as the oldest of the group most often around him, I was more than often happy to oblige. My grandmother Audrey would reward me with an extra lard biscuit and a little more red-eye gravy, which she was the ultimate master of. That was well worth the occasional moderate to severe whippings that I suffered at the hands of my father, which, in retrospect, were well deserved.

On this particular night, I was supposed to be at a Bible camp. I learned early that I could go nearly anywhere, at any time, provided that I gave a perfectly believable religious reason to do so. (My dearest parents: Should you wish, I would advise that you stop reading. But know this: I love you with all my heart and I am sorry for a teenager’s deceit. It is something that I will no doubt experience firsthand.) Instead, I found myself in the backyard of a supposed friend’s house on top of their house, more than a little buzzed on a few shots of moonshine. In my defense, I rarely drank as it interfered significantly with my ability to jump over cars on my bored out KX 250, of which I was interminably proud. So, it was with a mostly sober mentality that I perused the situation.

I had agreed to jump from the top of the house onto a trampoline located strategically adjacent to an above ground swimming pool approximately four feet in depth. Parents, should you find yourself so strapped for space that you choose to place a pool adjacent to a trampoline, go see a therapist. Especially if you intend on raising teenagers. The problem was, I was afraid of heights and couldn’t swim. These are two maladies that I have mostly remedied, basically by learning to swim and staying off high things. But at that point in my life, I had neither the wisdom nor the reason for such decisions. So, I weighed my options.

Nearly fifteen years later, I was aboard yet another tricked out motorcycle on the outskirts of Reno, NV, where I had been attempting to ride with younger versions of myself in the dunes. I grew up riding motorcycles in an era where every attempt was made to stay on the motorcycle. I am and always have had nothing but mad respect for these maniacs who get off their bikes in midair, do back flips, forward flips, and do everything but make a sandwich in midair. It never crossed my mind that I would attempt something as insane as an adult, especially when pushing hard towards my thirtieth birthday. I did wonder occasionally, if maybe, when I were younger, if I would have been able to do those stunts.

So, there I was, with a bunch of yelling teenagers roaring me to just DO IT. I once again in my life, for the umpteenth time, I perused the situation and weighed my options. I was getting ready to attempt a stunt called the “Flying Superman Seat Grab.” It’s about what it sounds like, in that you really shouldn’t attempt it unless you’re superman. Or slightly insane and being cheered by a group of fearless teenagers who are equally insane. I remember briefly wishing I had chosen to just stay home and make an apple pie, grill some peaches or maybe take up knitting.

But, there is the point of no return that people such as me have that will not allow us to back off when committed. Is it hereditary, that iron ruthlessness that enables us to do things that we know, without a shadow of a doubt, will hurt? Is it a product of our environment? I really don’t know, but I tightened my goggles and gunned the throttle, hurtling down the dune to launch off the next one. Just as so many years earlier I had blindly leaped off the house. I didn’t break anything in that leap, but I nearly drowned. It turns out that I had badly misjudged the acceleration of a falling mass due to gravity and the braking effect of a new trampoline and all the possible angles of departure from the said trampoline. I also had no idea that landing prone in about three feet of water after falling that far generally renders you unconscious. At least briefly.

I also badly misjudged how quickly the motorcycle would get away from me as I released the handlebars and launched myself perpendicular to the ground away from the bike. There was this brief blinding moment of exhilaration, as I thought, “I’ve done it!” The whole point of the trick though is to catch the seat as the bike passes under you. I missed. I’m so glad that this was before camera phones as I would no doubt have been all over YouTube under the moniker “Old Dude Tries to Ride” or something of the sort. Thankfully, the dune I landed on was sand, and slightly sloped, so my landing was somewhat softened. All I broke was my sternum and a few fingers. All I suffered in my bad landing in the pool was a lingering concussion – both small prices to pay for such enormous stupidity.

In the Weeds: The Ongoing Story.

Around Ten Years Ago.

Twenty-four hours and roughly 1800 miles after the blue lipstick in Radford experience, I sit brooding by a campfire. Eighteen hundred miles in a straight line, or as the crow flies. I had done anything but travel in a straight line. After stuffing my remaining pair of dress pants and shirt, along with the blue lipstick. My big mixed-breed dog, Rocky, whines a little and lifts one eyebrow, patiently waiting for the moment that we put out the fire, take a leak and pile into the back of the suburban until daybreak. The old Chevy is still ticking in the coolness of the night.

We’re not exactly roughing it, Rocky and me. I’m not grilling a jackrabbit or anything over the fire, although we had managed quite well at a little convenience store that sold basic food items: Rice, dried beans, vegetables (mostly hot peppers), ground pork (undoubtedly from a local farm, there was a “Not for Sale or Public Consumption” stamp on it) and some fatback. The past few years had honed my cooking over a fire with whatever you have at hand skills to a point of pride.

Scott LaSala, a native of Southern Georgia, had been my Jedi Master for outdoor cooking. We attended graduate school together, shared an office that was once a broom closet and did more than our share of camping and hosting parties. He taught me how to cook over coals, not flame, to start the fire early, how to properly utilize a dutch oven and how five or six bucks could feed a lot of people, especially if they were high and drinking.

Combined with my own kitchen experience and lifelong obsession with food, I had become a fairly competent cook. At least Rocky had no complaints. He ate his pork and rice with enthusiasm and wistfully stared at my beer until I felt guilty and dumped it in his water bowl. At around ninety pounds, he could handle one beer, but two would leave him staggering and glassy eyed the next morning, more likely than not impeding travel by constant diarrhea and vomiting. That is not a pleasant experience. I thought of the rest of the six-pack in the small fridge in the truck and decided to skip it. I had a nagging feeling that alcohol and I weren’t a very good mix anyway. Especially after missing an interview and ending up in a dorm room with little recollection of what had happened.

At that time, there had only been two places that I had been where the night sky was horizon-to-horizon stars. The American West, and a tiny island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. I had been blown away as I stared into the sky night after night, counting meteorites and marveling at the intensity of it all. The lights twinkling above me in all their glory is a distant view into the past – the very light I was looking at now had in some cases traveled billions of years to be here at this moment. This night was like that. Humbling, fitting for the moment, these lights so far above and so far in the past reminded me that my human speck of a life was barely nothing in the grander view of the universe. Surfing reminded me of that: Waves that had traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, invisible to the naked eye in their transfer of energy across massive oceans, only to end their journey in a moment of glory as they rise out of the ocean as some beacon of energy, flitting in their existence, fragile, to be ridden by a small person on a small board lucky enough to catch that moment in time and remember it.

Do we have control of our lives? Do any of us? I’ve always replied with a question: Does it matter? If you don’t know the future, you have no reason not to live your moment in time to the fullest. Time was annoying me then, the brevity and longevity of it directly connected to your mind and what you enjoy most. Do people really enjoy solving Fractals? Coding dilatational fracture tip mechanics into a language that a computer can understand so that we can better understand how rocks on other planets break under barely measurable rates of stress and strain, and thus, maybe, understand earthquakes better here on earth? Please. Somebody slap me.

I had been recruited into this work. Someone had gotten test results from military intelligence testing and IQ determination along with problem solving abilities while I was applying to be a fighter pilot in the Marine Corp. I thought that was classified information, but it isn’t. Bull shit. Nothing is truly classified. It’s only stamped that way so that the person really trying to get the information therein will feel they have actually accomplished something on their own and not fell into the giant spiders web that is becoming harder and harder to escape. Anyway, I was finished with the project in weeks, determined what needed to be done, fixed the code, adjusted the coordinates and spheroid of Mars so that the old data, which had been projected onto a planet not really shaped like Mars, could be geographically analyzed without setting up alternate coordinate systems, a maddening endeavor for anyone actually trying to get some actual research done.

I’d stopped in the small fueling station/convenience store not only to stock up on a few items but to feel out the town, see if there was any work. I’d accumulated a staggering number of general skill sets that I learned to quickly market in a new town. I’d wear my least ragged pair of Carharrts, grab my carpentry belt with my hand tools and show up on a job site looking for the boss. I’d make two campfire coffees that morning and if he liked it, then he’d hire me and pay me. Fifty bucks was my going rate. Cash. At the end of the day. You don’t like my work, I leave, no pay. No problem. I was always paid, and always asked to come back. I most often did, at least for a few days to work out some fuel money and stock up on water, diesel fuel, and service my old truck before the next trip.

The girl in the fueling station, sporting more tattoos than a Chinese Sailor, with piercings everywhere and a forked tongue, informed me nonchalantly that there was a diner down the road needing a cook for a few days. The current cook was coming down from a meth, heroin and alcohol high and would be better in a few days, but currently, there was no cook. I grinned at her, marveling at her piercings. “You wanna see?” She sizes me up, no doubt wondering if I would look cool with a trash can lid jammed into one nostril or something similar. “I’ll take a rain check, sweetie. Thanks for asking.” “Where ya staying?” She placed one black boot on the counter, ensuring that I would see her switchblade sticking out of the top. I vaguely pulled some bull shit about around, close buy, didn’t know, in the desert, in my truck…”I like your dog.” That stopped me in my tracks. I thought I had entered this little town unseen, not exactly out of paranoia, but I’d learned that it usually best to case a place before you park your truck. She must have seen my dog and the old truck. Hard to miss, actually. I thanked her for her help and headed for the door. I watched her in the window as I exited the diner. She was no longer interested in me but was instead inspecting her black lipstick in her reflection on the computer screen. I was glad she had a reflection.

March, 2013

The rest of my first hospital stay to recover from delirium tremens went without incident. Honestly, it wasn’t all that bad. My wife came to see me every day with Nolan, who was now nearly three months old. We really didn’t talk about addictions or drinking all that much – it seemed redundant and unnecessary. She was more hurt and concerned at that point than angry. We talked every day in person and on the phone when we could. It was her slow time of year, wedding photography had not yet boomed for the season and we were still in the grip of winter.

It had been a relatively bad winter that year. Heavy snowfalls and wildly fluctuating temperatures kept us on our toes and I had devoted much of my time to pretending to write my thesis and attending online classes that really didn’t exist. I didn’t have the heart, or the courage, to tell my wife the truth: That I had been released from the program on medical leave and ordered to stop progress within the teacher education program. That was a huge blow for me and I feared it would be a deal breaker for her, as she had personally paid the bills while I attended graduate school. There is nothing that can make a couple fight like money, particularly money wasted.

Graduate school had been a bumpy road anyway. I was still teetering between a total loss of control to alcohol and devoting myself entirely to the new program and the opportunity to be a science teacher, something I had wanted to be my entire life. I could feel myself slipping further into the abyss of addiction on almost a daily basis. Most of my classes were at night and I would rise early in the morning, before sunrise, to complete my homework and devote an hour or so to writing and studying for the upcoming classes. By the time I was through (this was before the arrival of our son) I’d be pleasantly drunk and have time to sleep most of the day before class. I honestly don’t really know how I held it together as long as I did. I’d deliver a stunning speech on the effects of reservation life and government aid on the health and education of the American Indians one night, then be barely coherent the next.

I dimly remember eating a Philly Cheesesteak one night after delivering a speech, the taste of it horrible in my mouth as I tried to sober up for the drive home. Radford is not known for fine dining in any sense of the word. But it does have a liquor store and the only fast food that I have ever eaten with any sort of regularity – Bojangles. To this day you could chase me around the room with a bag of that foul shit.

Just after that the University stripped me of my graduate status and forced me into a leave of absence. I believe only one person knew what was wrong, exactly, but everyone knew something was not right. I would deliver award winning research and scholarly papers one week and be conspicuously absent the next. I dimly remember giving a lecture on the effects of isolation on the children in rural communities, specifically citing research on the failures of our educational system on Native American children living on reservations. I was so drunk I had to hold onto the podium to keep from falling off the stage and swayed alarmingly on my way up the steps. I have no recollection of how I got there that night, only a foggy memory of eating an oyster sandwich at some bar in Radford while a cover band played a terrible rendition of “Blacksnake Moan.” The original version, if I remember correctly, which no doubt I don’t. I received a tentative standing ovation, followed by a barrage of questions, some of which I was able to answer, all the while smiling and bobbing my head like some sort of semi-enlightened yet confused sage. I was led off the stage by the person that I suspected, no, knew, how far I had sunk. Mercilessly, she left me alone with her business card and instructions to call a counselor the next day. I tossed the card in the trash and crashed on a couch long enough to make the drive home.

I threw up twice and went to the bathroom once in a field on the journey. My wife was waiting up on me as I chugged a small bottle of gin as fast as I could with a Bojangles tea for a chaser. I could see her small shadow with the beginnings of a baby bump through our kitchen window as she prepared a late snack/early dinner for me. My head swam sickeningly as the alcohol took hold and my stomach decided whether or not to deal with this torture at this moment. It did. I took a ragged breath and entered my home, where I pretended that I was not drinking; my stomach hurt from ulcers and briefly wondered how long I could live like this.

The rest of that early March hospital stay was rather uneventful. My hangover and tremors decreased throughout the week, and my cognitive skills improved. I still had a lot of shit buried though. I hadn’t told my wife how I managed to buy so much liquor, where I had been going during the day or why on some evenings I had been inexplicitly home when I should have been in class or working. I was still officially an employee with an engineering firm with whom my wife was also employed, I just hadn’t been getting any work or money out of that relationship. My nights were spent in an Ambien induced haze and the days worrying about what I was going to do when I got out of the hospital. I became well acquainted with the intern who came to see me every morning, and had great fun with the nurses, but I wasn’t well. My bilirubin values were off the charts, my blood platelets were very low and was constantly on an IV for hydration and vitamins.

My stomach slowly returned to normal, or as much as it could with hospital food. My wife managed to bring me food nearly every day and kept me supplied with books. I began to dread going home. I would remember this feeling months later as a woman lay dying on the floor of a rehab center with her wrists cut so she would not have to face the reality of life without constant supervision.

Doctors came and went, all with the same advice: “You can never drink again. We don’t know how you are still alive.” One doctor in particular was very stern. “Never let me see you in here for this again. You have no idea how close you came to dying.”

None of this fell on deaf ears, I was serious about remaining sober. I knew my life was at stake, my relationship with my wife, my young son and my family was in serious jeopardy. My father-in-law, one of the kindest, wisest men I’ve ever met, didn’t say outright that he would cause me physical harm if I continued drinking, but he came close.

My parents visited right out of the blue one day just before I was released. I was mostly upright by then, buoyed by my wife’s presence and careful nutrition by the hospital staff. I was in my hospital gown with blood all over my sheets. I had the dignity to pull the covers over the evidence that I was still bleeding, but hospital gowns are anything but dignified. My mother burst into tears. Alcoholism runs deep in her family and she bears the spiritual and mental scars of years of watching loved ones die from this affliction. My dad was just angry, but cautiously optimistic. They played with my son, talked with my wife and largely pretended I wasn’t there. When they did address the situation, it was with their usual bluntness. “I hope that you have learned from this experience, son.” My dad was deeply embarrassed that his oldest son was in this condition. As a pastor for nearly twenty years, this was an unexpected development in his eldest son.

I grinned at my dad and shrugged. “If you’re going to be dumb, you have to be tough.” My dad returned my smile with a stony glare. “Yeah, but you’re not dumb.”

I watched them go down the hall towards the elevators. My wristband doubled as a tracking device and I couldn’t follow them to say goodbye. They had driven two and a half hours to stay for fifteen minutes. My mom turned and gave me a quick wave as tears spilled down her cheeks. I waved numbly back, holding my baby son as my wife looked somberly on, her thoughts trapped and hidden behind her dark brown eyes. I climbed numbly back into bed, handing our son back to her.

In the Weeds: 6/24/2014

“You have a choice. You can’t do this alone. You need a sponsor. Only you can decide not to drink and/or abuse drugs. You have control of your life. Addiction is a disease. You must have a support group. You must have a sponsor. You must not tempt yourself with the presence of alcohol. You have to do the twelve steps to be sober. Give up all financial means to buy alcohol.”

During my first honest and sincere attempt at total sobriety, all this advice swirled in my head in melody of confusion. How could I be the only one to choose not to drink but not be able to do it by myself? If Jesus is the answer to all my addiction problems, then why on earth did he turn water into wine for his first miracle for people who had been drinking for days? Why twelve steps? Why not one? During my visits to Alcoholics Anonymous, I was dumfounded by the swirl of emotions in the people around me. Why did they all identify themselves as alcoholics?

My doctors called it a hereditary disease. My Reverend Father called it a trick of the devil. My Mom didn’t call it anything. My wife threatened, in no uncertain terms, to leave with our son. The people in AA chain smoked cigarettes, drank gallons of coffee and scarfed free doughnuts until I worried they would die from obesity, lung cancer, anxiety and nicotine overdose all at the same time.

A very good friend of mine, a recovered alcoholic, a term that is shunned by most circles of addicts, told me once that it was difficult to shed one addiction without adopting another. Which would I rather die from? Bourbon or doughnuts? Lung cancer or liver failure?

I grew up in coal country, in deep Appalachia, where coal mining was a way of life, along with church, picnics, pig roasts, sorghum squeezing, moonshine and food. Our lives revolved around food. We appreciated what we had. Saying grace before eating had real meaning during my early years, when every meal was shared as a family. We were not allowed to eat in our rooms, or in front of the television, which we didn’t have anyway. I learned to cook early, following my grandmothers, aunts and mom around the kitchen as soon as I could walk – placed strategically on a counter top nearby before I became mobile enough to move about on my own.

Poverty is all too often wrapped in a package that includes drug and alcohol abuse, particularly alcohol. Men would imbibe often in secret, or with one another in the background, outside of churches where preachers shouted hellfire and redemption and trials and tribulations from the pulpit in the stifling summer heat as people fanned themselves and jockeyed for a seat on the front row.

I’d seen more than my share of the effects of coal mining and alcoholism on families. I’d passed the men in Grundy, Virginia who had been crushed in mining accidents yet somehow lived, maimed and crippled, walking with short canes to support the remnants of a life lived too hard. I’d heard of the knife fights, shootings and seen the deadly toll that alcohol had on families, with children passed from family to family as their parents sorted out their inability to control their finances in the up and down cycles which are a way of life in mining.

I’d seen the men come around to collect their money for moonshine, not at my house, but at other places. Unexpected places. A country store that still took script for cash. A fueling station that doubled as a place to gamble, if you wanted. I always thought that drinking would be like making a deal with these men – give me my poison and I will give you my life.

Years later, I found that it was exactly like that, but alcoholism takes much more than that from you. First, you lose your freedom. You can’t travel, go on surprise vacations, or venture too far from your known sources. You begin to lose friends, as you isolate yourself to protect your addiction. You lose money: Cash, then credit cards, then savings, money for clothes, gifts, travel, retirement possessions to sell for more alcohol. Then the unthinkable – you begin to use your loved ones for money. You take all they will give under various pretenses. Then you lose your reputation, your ability to work, find and keep steady employment. You start to lose your family. Your parents distance you as you become more of a liability and embarrassment. You damage your credit with unpaid bills. You frequent different liquor stores in hopes that the clerks won’t recognize you. You lose the respect of your significant other, then their trust and slowly, their ability to love you as you are. You lose time. Days, weeks, months and even years can pass in a haze of half-forgotten events as you teeter on the edge of control, existing from hangover to hangover in a drunken stupor.

Finally, you lose your health. The one thing you take most for granted fails. Your body and brain can no longer take the poison that is now keeping you alive. At this point, if you are very, very lucky, like I was, you will have some family, friends and loved ones around that still feel you are worth saving. That there is hope. The advice pouring in from every source in the beginning of this journey into sobriety was true: You can’t stop alone. You need care, medical help and people to give you reason to endure the pain of the first months of sobriety. Conversely, you are also the only one that can help yourself. You have to first want to be sober. Then you have to do it.

There will be a day when a recovering addict can no longer be defined by their past, but by the present a future. That is my hope – what kept me going, what drove me to work in a professional kitchen, what made me care once again, not only about the big things, but about the moments. The first shift you can stand proud for what you’ve accomplished. The beginnings of real smiles and emotions on the faces of your loved ones. The freedom to reinvent yourself as a new person, someone not beholden to regular meetings or your drug of choice.

Is it Jesus, yourself, other people or a choice? I think it is a combination.

In the Weeds, indeed.