Over the Hills and Down the Mountains…A Plan Gone Awry.

“It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”  I was always a bit disappointed in the character portrayals of the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I became addicted to Tolkien as a teenager, when I discovered the three books, plus “The Hobbit” while assisting my uncle in remodeling a house. The books were rather strategically hidden, but nothing really escapes the relentless gaze of a teenager in their never ending quest for knowledge. Around age fourteen, my own quest for anything new quickly morphed into a frenzy of planning on how to get out of there. Preferably as far away as I could go, where no one knew me and I could start over, somehow rising above the ashes of a broken heart and contaminated soul…it was at this point that I usually broke down into tears, wallowing in my undeserved self-pity as only a teenager can.

Despite my broken heart and despondent soul (from which I always recovered, especially with the advent of another blonde, wannabe model with “Baby” tattooed on her shoulder blade into my life. I never did lose the desire to travel and see new places, even though it seemed more impossible as years went by. Then I discovered something! Something huge! Magical! Terrific! If you packed a small bag with a few clothes, not many, a little money, not much and a little food you were ready to go! The world was at your fingertips!

I’ve lost count on the number of times I’ve just simply wandered away, telling know one for certain of my plan, as I usually didn’t know myself. That didn’t stop me from being vague and mysterious up to when I left, as though I were indeed an angel whose wings had been ripped away in some  epic recapitulation of events as only I, the purveyor of legend, the immortal Highlander (remember that shit?) could somehow recall, if only I could stay sane in the telling.

Welcome to my childhood.

This roadtrip had all the drama of the others, only this time it was real life drama. My wife and I had bought a new home in Easton, MD near St. Michaels. We have a son, not quite two. We have a feral cat, age unknown. We have not yet sold our previous home, where we had lived for eight years, despite all our improvements. My wife is crazy busy with photography, and I am still suffering physically from HE, the side effects and symptoms of acute liver cirrhosis. Traveling, extended trips in the car, physical exertion or just simply standing too long sends my system into toxic shock. All of that notwithstanding, I chose to babysit our movers and drive up separately, over what I planned to be a few days of time, easy drives, and visiting with friends and new restaurants along the way.

That’s not what happened.

On Monday morning, I did manage to talk our cat, Stubbs, who is large and in charge and almost completely feral, into a small cat carrier that I bought for him. Astonishingly, he went willingly. He became my companion through the whole trip, until I lost him. More on that later.

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I said goodbye to Nolan, without crying (I saved that for later, I was only going to be one day, right?). He grinned his normal devil may care grin and he and his Mom piled into her Cadillac and off they went, headed for our new home in Easton, Maryland.

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I finished loading my Ford, met with the movers, who just so happened to be a great bunch of girls and guys, in spite of some gross misunderstandings throughout the day. The problem was, I was getting sicker by the minute on Monday, how sick, I didn’t really know at the time. That didn’t stop me from having a great day, nonetheless. The homemade wooden rack worked like a charm, thanks to my Dad and Brother James, who took their time on the rack-to-truck attachment to ensure it was as strong as possible, held everything I could possibly want, and kept all the bed features available. Thanks, James and Dad!!

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While the movers were doing their thing, I tried to mostly stay out of the way, although it nearly killed my pride to do so. By mid-morning I was beaten down pretty badly, but still on my feet and moving. I did a lot of sightseeing, visited Palisades, Eggleston, Pembroke, picked up a new canoe for calm water use, visited Moonsown Farm for some happily raised pork and boar, ate a hot dog, grabbed some sandwiches from Tangent Outfitters and in general had a pretty good day.IMG_0204

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I tried to help pull a guy out of a ditch, to no avail:

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Wrapped most everything up at the house, then cruised on over to the Inn on Main Street and visited my favorite dive, Underground Pub. They gave me my old coffee mug for luck, without anything but tea in it this time, my bourbon years are long gone:

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The next day found me in the hospital, where my plans for traveling north through WV, stopping to see my mentor Chef and documenting food all the way were changed. Instead, I started a bleary three day journey to our new home, which held it’s own set of adventures that I never planned for.

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I was given an autographed copy of a book, met some seriously cool people, learned yet again that every single day is a blessing and realized that I hate Doritos. I still haven’t found Stubbs, but I will. He has a way of showing up. Nolan was happy to see me and I celebrated by sleeping for about two days.

More on all the rest of this later. In the meantime, watch that front door!

Pura Vida!

 

The Forgotten Generation

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The little girl, around five or so, carefully adjusted the camber on the ramp, with is to say that she moved a few bricks around to what she felt was a safer launching point. The little boy, his head amass with brown curls and thoughts of motorcycles, pouted a bit, but internally agreed that it was probably less susceptible to catastrophic failure than the angle he had scornfully placed it. They both solemnly watched the sun set over the Appalachian Mountains, their faces bathed in the late fall warmth. The smell of apples, dried corn, brownies and soup beans with fatback was redolent in the falling temperatures, accompanied by the sound of leaves brushing against one another as they fell. The end of one season, the beginning of another.

Some forty feet or so above the launching pad, as the boy had started to think of it, astride his brand new Green Machine, the wind stirred again, blowing his long hair aside as he looked with wonder at the little girl. She was tall for her age, with the wisdom granted to some in their early youth normally reserved for adults in the last glow of their trips around the sun. Her long blond hair was bleached to almost white by the sun of the mountain tops and the pounding waves of the mighty Atlantic, where she spent her summers by the seashore. Her tanned skin was smudged and she studied the launching pad a bit more, her brown eyes frowning as she considered the vectors involved in launching an unwieldy piece of plastic after it’s decent had increased the speed far beyond any design anticipations of the engineering staff, who were mostly leftovers from the failed attempts to build stealthy munitions from engineered material.

The little girl, after the contraption passed her begrudging approval, turned and gave the boy a thumbs up. She was pretty already: A network of barely visible sun freckles across her nose and cheeks, with a stubborn look-adults-straight-in-their-face attitude that spoke of independence and distrust of authority that became the hallmark of our generation. The boy was also a prophecy of his years to come. Thoughtful and intelligent, although not quite as capable as the girl, he had the ability to create smoke and ruins wherever he went, with a tendency to sit in astonishment in the aftermath of his calamity, calmly wondering what had went wrong.

He crossed his legs on the Green Machine so that they wouldn’t get caught on the pedals, settled firmly into his seat, tossed the apple he was eating to the core aside and grimly, gleefully, launched himself off the side of the dirt embankment. The rest of his life lay before him. His to do as he pleased with.

We were mostly rebels, all of us who are members of the single most shrinking generation of human beings in the U.S. The members of our previous generation, the flower children, the hippies, the stoners; finally caved with little to no resistance to the very systems that they had opposed for so long. The welcomed the move to suburbia in mass numbers and begat the largest growing and wealthy members of a wide-open open economic boom that lasted beyond anyone’s expectation.

Their parents, the great generation, the ones who fought in World War I, the Native American extermination and world-wide ethnic cleansing that shattered the world as nothing else before it, gave birth to extremist beliefs: Racism, social, economic and socioeconomic stratification on a whole new level, beyond slavery and its consequences. Instead they shifted to a new paradigm of ultimate power, a system of assimilation and extermination of unique races, religion and opportunity for millions of people and simply took over the world on a scale never before imagined or orchestrated.

We were the first forgotten generation, abandoned by our parents and as they relentlessly pursued the American Dream in an environment no longer tolerant of such dreams. We matured and grew despite school systems that didn’t care, fostered by our own intolerance of previous generations who betrayed us with nuclear warheads, starvation, and government-sponsored takeovers of basic human rights. Energy and basic services were micromanaged not only in the U.S., but even more aggressively in what was a rapidly shrinking world. We watched in total horror on our T.V.’s as the media showed us in the last gasp of free press the grisly details of a world that was at last controlled completely, effectively and totally taken over by a select group of old white men who were hell bent on taking their last grievances to their graves. This method of control gave birth to a new power, one that existed in the shadows, silently controlling world events and the media’s interpretation of them.  These new conquerors wanted only one thing: Power. With that control the wealth of the world became available and shared by a select group of individuals, all white, all male and all with a united agenda: Take over the economic engines, by whatever means necessary, of the entire world.

The X-Generation became the first to gleefully pursue education beyond what anyone expected. We were largely unidentifiable by dress, actions, race, gender and most importantly: Money. We also scattered like small fighting chickens before an advancing and unavoidable pack or unified wild dogs. Mostly defiant, unafraid and still posturing as if we wanted to stand and fight; we instead fragmented into small and often individual groups. We embraced and gave birth to the internet, technology and knowledge. We spearheaded a cultural revolution that amounted in the end, to nothing.

We shamelessly embraced heavy metal, rock, rap and music of all types. We gleefully engaged in illegal activities on a scale not seen in the U.S. before. We formed gangs, runaways, drug trafficking enterprises: All of which began with a distinct and total lack of trust with and disdain for authority. We grew up in a world that was supposed to end in a nuclear firestorm that never happened. The exasperation of those in power with us soon waned as the realization sunk in that in truth, there just wasn’t enough of us to make a real difference and the end, we just didn’t care.

The boy, a decade later, had become a defiant young man, honed by years of living in poverty, embracing the brutal work required to survive in a geographical region which had long depended on the work ethic of its members. He and the girl had outgrown the school that finally accepted them, taking college classes on the side, rapidly outpacing their teachers and leaders and aggressively challenging the narrow mindset of a cloistered mindset dependent upon an unwavering interpretation of religion, not unlike any other environment of isolation around the world, stubbornly holding to a belief in subordination of women to the harshest of requirements, where it was deemed an unforgiveable sin if skirts did not touch the ground, toenail polish was forbidden and long hair was the mark of ultimate dedication to their husbands god and they felt was holy.

The girl had not bent nor wavered in the face of severe persecution, and had grown uncomfortably into the beautiful woman that her early years had suggested. Still both cursed and blessed by her intelligence, she still loved everyone around her with a fierceness that she could not control nor truly escape. Once again she found herself adjusting the height of a ramp in an attempt to keep the boy, hell bent on self-destruction in his rebellion against everything, somewhat intact as long as she could. He was impatiently waiting, as he had as a child, on her to give him the thumbs up. Astride his new machine, a bastard mismatch of motorcycle parts that he had assembled into the equivalent of a time bomb on wheels, disdainfully without a helmet of protective gear of any kind, his long curls still uncut in a world full of men who scorned long hair, gunned his engine as she turned and reluctantly gave him a thumbs up. Three cars were assembled in front of the ramp, headlights blaring and speakers thundering Metallica, like some futuristic computer game yet to be written in DOS by someone watching. He threw away the clutch and buried the throttle. She watched until he slid to a stop, basking in the adoration of his female fan club, all screaming his name. Then she walked away. Into another life of higher education and people who accepted her as she was.

Two decades later, they are still the best of friends. Despite the miles, broken hearts, and wildly differing paths, they still remained in touch. Somehow, she knew just when to reach out, feeling the pain as he ultimately paid the price for a life full of broken bones, surgery, addictions, big wave wipeouts and crashes. He is finally wiser, more cautious and thankful for every day he can enjoy. He carries all the scars, both physical and mentally, of a life lived in the unwavering belief that he was indestructible. He now, finally, understands. She is still the beautiful woman she had always been, with a softness in her gaze belied by a heart that never stopped caring.

They sit in the glow of another sunset, another day, another time well spent and enjoyed. She doesn’t worry about him quite so much, but he still carries the air of one who, at his core, believes he is indestructible. He still projects, despite the scars and hair that is now rapidly turning white, the easy charm that befuddles him. She glances at him and a smile touches her face. Their two children, a boy and a girl, both glowing blonde curls, dive into the oncoming waves generated thousands of miles away, laughing as only children can. They are blessed with small children, surrounded by a new generation of parents, who gasp with horror as the two kids place themselves in what they feel is like, a totally dangerous place. Their spouses, both wondering at times what goes on the heads of their dearly beloved partners, are returning from a run on the beach, collapsing with the content of the exhilaration of physical exhaustion. Kisses and hugs are exchanged and the children come running out of the surf, their skin bright with health and supervised play.

The sun sets once more. Another day awaits. Their rebellion is over, but still simmers like a banked fire under the surface of frozen clay.

Pasta and The Girl

dreamfields-pasta_0007(Authors Preface: I will be selecting a winner at random for a family pack of Dreamfields Pasta AND a $25 gift card. All you have to do is comment on this page and share it on facebook, twitter and whatever else you use to stalk all your ex’s and you are in, Baby! The more you share, the higher your chances! Use the hashtag #IHeartDreamfields for bonus points. Good luck!! I’ll contact the lucky winner for your name and address, Dreamfields will take care of the rest. No, I’m not kidding. Erica, if you read this, well, you know who I am and can comment appropriately!) 

Her dark, dark eyes were a pool of thought as she watched me with scrutiny and curiosity. Which was it? I didn’t know, but it was enough to unnerve me and I became suddenly clumsy, thinking of things that I usually didn’t and berating myself a bit for every single knife skills mistake and unnecessary movement. My cooking ability, honed for years by necessity, which generally kept myself fed and my bank account as close to above zero as possible, seemed to have deserted me in this time of need. “Do not be afraid of your food. It will know.” Anthony Bourdain first used this phrase in his book, “Kitchen Confidential,” a book I had read over and over until the covers fell off.

Then, just like that, my hand slipped and the onion flipped in my hands, which were manifesting my inward state. I so wanted to impress this girl that I had just met, someone that had already made a major impact on me and I felt I was falling hard for her. I could NOT afford to continue wining and dining her in restaurants – I was nearly broke and tired of dating.

I suffered my first major injury that evening in the kitchen. I severed the nerve that helps your left forefinger operate properly, an injury which lingers even today. We assessed the situation in silence for a moment as I tried to pretend it didn’t happen. We ordered a pizza and spent the rest of the night of the night watching Zoolander, drinking a decent bottle of wine and laughing like old friends. Three years later – we were married. I did get the girl of my dreams that night.

Now we make this recipe as a failsafe if we are in a hurry or just whenever we want a fresh, tasty Italian meal. With a toddler and the schedules of artists, we are lucky to spend so much time with our son, but some days things get a bit crazy. Here is the quick and easy, mac and cheesy recipe [Thanks to Guy Fieri for this analogy] for you to enjoy!)

­Ron & Laura’s Awesome Pasta with Quick and Healthy Tomato Sauce.

Total Cooking Time: 12-20 minutes. Even faster if your ingredients are already chopped. Cost: Around $4-10. Serves: 3-10, according to how hungry they are.

  • A quick and easy trip to the store. I timed it from start to finish at the grocer and it took me exactly eleven minutes.
  • Ingredients: One large quality can of whole tomatoes, peeled. Save money here by looking for scratches and dents. These are discounted during checkouts. It is important to get a quality product here, or you can use fresh tomatoes if you like. Two heads of garlic, a handful of olives (your choice), one sweet onion, one half of a pound of ground meat of your choice (we prefer lamb, pork or veal, or choose a veggie route and skip the meat) one large sweet pepper, two basil leaves, one rough handful of basil and one Box of Dreamfields Angel Hair Pasta. Note: We like to think that we make our own pasta, but the truth is, it’s a lot of work and sometimes we just don’t have time. Dreamfields is an amazingly healthy alternative that is incredibly similar to handmade pasta. We LOVE it. Most importantly, so does our son. The pasta has 7 grams of protein, so we feel safe without meat products.
  • Pre-Heat your burners. Trust me. Make sure nobody gets burned by quickly putting your cooking vessels in place. Use at least two quarts of water for the pasta with lots of salt and bring to a rapid boil while you are prepping. For your sauce, I prefer my ancient cast iron skillet, but any pot, pan, metal bucket over a fire or anything else will work as long as it is large enough.

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  • Prep your vegetables. Just peel the garlic, smash them with the blade of your knife and dice everything else. Knife cuts are not important. Just don’t cut yourself! Chef’s tip for the onion: Cut it in half along the axis of the vegetable. Flip and cut one end off, then peel. Leave one end for a finger hold while you chop. This will prevent any possibility of cutting your hand as you work on your knife skills.

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  • Put around two tablespoons of a high quality olive oil in the skillet and add the onion and garlic. Don’t heat the oil to its smoke point! If you see smoke, turn down the heat immediately! I start with medium high heat and reduce as needed.
  • As soon as the garlic and onion start to brown, reduce the heat appropriately and add the ground lamb (your choice) mixing them with a wooden spoon (Any other implement will work – I’ve even used oversized tent stakes. Don’t laugh! It works!)
  • Add the pasta to the water now. It should have enough room to float. Set your timer to five minutes. Add the can of tomatoes, basil, bay leaves and chopped sweet pepper now. Turn the heat to high.

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  • Check the pasta as your timer beeps about this second. It should still be firm, not soggy and have some “tooth” to the palate and taste. You don’t want it to be soggy. Drain into a colander and rinse with cold water. Set your plates and check your sauce. It should be cooked through and incredibly tasty, but simple. We’re going Italian all the way tonight! Use salt and pepper and even brown sugar as you like to achieve the taste your family wants.
  • Plate the pasta.
  • Spoon the sauce over the pasta.
  • Garnish with chopped olives, herbs and lots of grated Parmesan Cheese! (If you must, use the pre-shredded cheese, just please don’t stoop so low as to use the stuff in the green plastic cans. Ewwww.)

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Serve!!! Your child will throw it everywhere, but really, who cares? This pairs equally well with a Malbec, Italian Sparkling Water, or Grape Juice in a Sippy Cup!!

(Authors Notes: You can adjust this recipe as you like. Remember, cooking is a deeply personal enterprise, especially when it is for your family. The wonderful thing about cooking is you can do what you want, the end product is all that matters. Pura Vida!)

RM

Do No Harm

There is a time in every recovering addicts life, regardless of the former or current addiction, when you feel the overwhelming urge to try to right every wrong, recover your past and try and fix what you have broken in your former life. You reach out, call people you haven’t seen in years, scour the internet for old friends, ex-girlfriends, ancient acquaintances and everyone that you feel you have wronged. Rethink that urge and recognize it for what it is. An attempt at self-justification that you don’t deserve.

I met with a great friend of mine today. He was literally my hero, the guy I wished I was, the most honest, talented person that I have ever met. He replaced in my mind, the big brother that I never had. We’re roughly the same age, build, and have similar backgrounds and personalities. Southern boys to the core, we both grew up dirt poor in Appalachia, me with a chip on my shoulder and shrouded in mystery and myth and lies, along with a desire to leave where I was from and who I was that was undeniably annoying to people who knew where I was truly from.

How cool we thought we were. Now we’re just astonished by what the new generation of athletes are capable of as they truly lay down their lives in pursuit of the biggest, baddest stunts in the world. But, we didn’t know what could or could not be done. We had no camera crews, no supportive families, no health insurance, no sponsors, nothing. We drove old trucks and cars we could fix ourselves with only one requirement: We needed to be able to sleep in it. We wandered like gypsies, stuck in our illusions that we were somehow indestructible, above the expectations of the worker bees, the nine to fivers, the problems, man. Those were the days when gas was under a dollar a gallon and fifty bucks was a veritable fortune, too much, in fact, to remain true to our illusion of who we were. Bones heal, fear is for the weak, chicks dig scars. We ate all that up as if we were immune to life itself, thinking we were somehow above the law, death and society in general.

Back to climbing in Vermont. I’m a little full of shit, but, in the words of a brutal coal miner, “This is my story and I’ll tell it the way I want.” We were over our heads. We had two girls with us, one of which had absolutely no idea that she was ever in any danger from our shenanigans and loved us so much that she would have cheerfully followed us to hell and back. Tall, gorgeous, every man’s dream wrapped into one rocking package, with a rich girl attitude and nose for coke, she tired of my life in time to live her own. The other was an accomplished climber in her own right, living a girl’s life in a male world. As much as I love them both, still, we shouldn’t have taken them. It’s just hard to resist your own personal groupies.

We were too far up, too exposed, and in serious danger. We were leapfrogging each other in reckless abandon, scorning protection of any kind, too confident in our ice axes and crampons and one another, with nothing on our minds but the next pitch.. We didn’t dream we could get hurt, die or suffer the consequences of our actions. We lived for the moment. With little to no plans for the future.

A blizzard was blowing in, a full Nor’easter, a mother of a storm. We didn’t believe it. Until it was almost too late. I caught him, prepared to climb past as he rested in his gear, stuck like some sort of insect on a pane of glass. We were at a point as partners when we didn’t need to talk. We just knew what the other person would do and what needed to be done. His beard was full of ice and snow was falling hard. We were both grinning like fools. Just then, we heard the girls, their voices drifting in the upcurrents of wind like ghosts, fiercely arguing over eating. My girl saw the trip as an opportunity to not eat at all and lose a few pounds. His girl insisted that everyone stay fueled to combat the cold. They hated each other as only two girls in love with two idiots could. The gravity of our situation hit us at the same time. He shook the cramps out of his forearms and I tied myself into the ice as best I could. “You got me?” His words hit me like a ton of bricks. I nodded. He shook his crampons and ice axes free, grinned at me, and fell like a stone.

The impact of 180 pounds traveling at 32 feet per second squared nearly yanked me off the face. I waited. He tugged the rope. I let go.

We made it safely. No worries, the luck of the dumb. I drove like a maniac to get out of the mountains and return all of our borrowed gear to the ice festival vendors who had loaned it to us. No harm, no foul. I was yelled at for nearly fifteen minutes by a local that I passed in four wheel drive in a blind turn in the blizzard.

I told him today of my desire to reach out to people and try and make things right. He is as brutally honest as ever. We were watching our boys play, reminiscing a bit and waiting on our wives to return from errands as two guys who are old enough to appreciate what we have. I told him, somewhat self-righteously, of my attempts to reach out to a few of the girls that I had hurt so badly in my self absorbed bull shit past, when I arrogantly thought it all would last forever.

He shrugged and stared at me for a moment, as strong as he ever was, with shoulders as broad as a lumberjack and the slightest hint of softness in his posture and more humility than I had ever seen in his actions and eyes, thankful for his life and what he had worked for, proud of his son beyond reason, as am I. His eyes are as blue as a glacier at night and his shaggy hair that drove girls wild has long since gone the way of our ancient trucks, faded into the past and rusting in quiet peace somewhere, awaiting a collector from a reality show to restore them in a vain attempt to land a spot on TV.

“Why?” I was startled. I didn’t know what to say. I never worked out inn AA, although I think the organization is the best attempt that we have to date for most addicts. The thought sprang to my mind, one of the twelve steps. “Do no harm.” We watched our boys play, alone in our thoughts. I didn’t answer. I didn’t have one. “Salt in old wounds, man. Let it go.”

He was always the wisest of the two of us. We fell back into the easy silence of two friends. I brooded. Then, I let it go.

There is no fixing the past. No rewind buttons, no do overs, no consolation, no sympathy or even reason to go digging up the past. Live in the moment, for the moment and don’t worry about the past. What you’ve done is done. Chances are, those people have long ago moved on, moved past the hurt and are somewhat embarrassed by you anyway. If you haven’t heard from them in years and you suddenly appear into their lives like some distant nightmare, long forgotten, you will do nothing but bumble about in feeble attempts to dig through old memories that they have long since moved past and have no desire to relive the moments you’ve been carrying around like a rotting corpse forever.

Do no harm. Indeed.

Angels and Stale Doughnuts

“Bring up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” At least, I think that was the reasoning behind my father’s rather harsh methods of punishment. That one and of course the old standby, “Spare the Rod and spoil the child.” God knows I heard that particular phrase enough growing up. He was a heavy handed father, dishing out whippings with his favorite belt for a long time, then graduating to the use of switches, boards, and whatever else he could find in close proximity. He finally graduated to a handmade paddle with holes strategically placed on it. He had no greater fun, I think, that popping that favorite leather strap or paddle on his way to punish someone, usually me.

I never dodged the punishments, never lied about my actions, (provided I got caught, of course). It just seemed normal, and I’ll never really forget it. For one thing, I’ll never listen to the popping of a belt and feel anything but a current of anger chatter up my spine, resting in the back of my teeth as I prepared not to cry. No matter how hard I had it, I did manage to cover for my younger siblings, especially when Dad was on the warpath. His temper was swift and judgment was complete, but his temper would be satiated.

Things were different with my Mother. She was a big proponent of matching the punishment to the crime in fairness and equitability, but she also had no illusions: She had seven children, one of which suffered from a life disability that required almost constant care. The rest, four boys and two girls, extremely intelligent souls that required a lot of cautious guidance. One slip, and her authority would melt a little.

But we all loved Mom as fiercely as we loved our father in spite of his outbursts. Personally, I would have been angry too, the sole proprietor of that many mouths to feed, rapidly growing teenage frames to cloth and feed!

Did you know a normal teenage boy can eat a carton of eggs at on sitting? Or a box of cereal and a half-gallon of milk before they go to bed, then move through the darkness of the home at night like frat boys that have heard that there is the potential, the possibility, the faintest of hopes that there is a naked pillow fight between all the hot girls. The ugly ones were keeping score. In my house the leftover fried chicken was trying to hide behind a bowl of pudding and be as still as possible, knowing that the hungry fingers were going to find him anyway, no matter where he hid.

We always thought we were getting away with our midnight fridge raids, until we encountered my Dad, clad only in his tightie-whities, scratching his butt and yawning while digging through the fridge for the same thing we were looking for. We were ordered to bed with no breakfast the next morning.

Geographically, we lived on the eroded plateau of the Appalachia Mountains, where coal was king and drugs still had another 20 years before they locked down the area and reduced what were once a very proud and hard-working, self-sufficient group of people into food-stamp steeling, theft, drug trafficking and finally addiction on a grand scale. There was barely anyone who didn’t get burned in that initial wave of almost free money.

This was before that. Before that, the people in the area I grew up in were very proud, very self-sufficient and if they had one vice, it was either politics or religion. Or both. Everyone it seemed was split into different factions and almost cults supporting which parts of the Bible should be held literal and which ones were just suggestions. I know my Mom would have likely stoned any one of us at any time if that were the law, but I really can’t see her offering up one of us as a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God. As the first born son, I kept track of the way the wind was blowing on that particular issue. You just never know when some stray evangelist, looking for a handout, a bed, preferably already occupied by a teen virgin, as she would never tell, it was “Like an angel” she would say with her tanned hands bearing the cheap zirconium stone he had bought on his first day out of the big house in Pittsburgh. Of course, the stone would disappear just as quickly as his past caught him, which in those days of little communication beyond word of mouth, he could, would, and did ride those situations for all they were worth.

So there you have it. I was born into a Pentecostal-Holiness Home and Church, where my Dad was an assistant pastor, Sunday School Teacher, occasional leader of a on the fly revival, which used to be a big deal. All you had to do was declare a vision from God showing the end of time, or piece some symbolism together from the teachings of Jesus and the “Eye-for-an-Eye” Old Testament laws and you had all the material for fueling a quick four or five days of beefing your congregation numbers up, especially if there was a world crisis (always) or some crooked coal operator needing to launder some money (most of the time).

World damnation, tracts with vivid depictions of barely dressed (by our standards at least) beauties with the barest of sins would be dragged down to hell in a scene bearing more than a passing resemblance of Dawn of the Dead. These tracts probably didn’t work at all in their intended capacity, given that they were often left in bathroom stalls, sinks and table side night stands in Red Roof Inns.

Needless to say, by the time I was around ten or so, I had seriously started to doubt the validity of all this shit. I spent house talking to God, no response. I would ask my Dad “Why will God not speak to me? He talks to you?” He would think very carefully, as this was a very legitimate question and respond with a standard one-liner. “You aren’t listening carefully enough son.” Or, “You have sin in your heart. God will not enter a dirty vessel.”

I then dried out my ears as best I could, had Mom check them for waxy buildup (I really just liked for her to rub my head) and took a long bath reading one of the tracks that featured the whore that dropped the scarlet rope over the wall of Jericho (revealing a lot of penciled in cleavage) so her brothel wouldn’t fall down with the rest of the city. The story gets a little fuzzy about that, with lots of cubits, gopher wood, burning bushes and King David, who was clearly and ghoulish in nature as the man literally killed more people than Genghis Khan and had a concubine of some sort in nearly every village he passed, male or female. You could think of him as an equality based kind of guy. He was beloved by God! The Bible makes sure to mention that over and over, as if trying to cover for a child who is, though no real fault of their own, batshit crazy. (We’re so sorry that little David killed your big dude with a rock, we were totally going to just trade some shit until that happened and well, after that I had sex with your wife. Sorry about that.)

But, David talked to God, right? It says so, right there, right in the bible, that sacred text of the Christians who believe that there is no lie in the history and timelines of the narrative, this whole thing, civilization, happened exactly as the Bible says. If you cross your eyes and read it from across the room with a lot of imagination, I can see their point, those that believe that.

I’m more a hands-on guy. Faith is believing without seeing, blah, blah, blah. I don’t have very much faith. If I’m buying a used car from a guy in a field in Kentucky, you better believe I want to hear it run, and drive it before any negotiations start. Since I am in Kentucky, I’ll also be packing heat, not a prayer. Bullets seem to fly faster than prayer.

Fast forward in time with me about thirty years. I’d had tons of fun and endless adventures, great friends, a wonderful wife who put up with my writing problem, but not the drinking one. For her sake, and for our unborn child’s sake I was as broken as a man could possibly be. I was well into the third days of Delirium Tremors, the part where you start to hallucinate, run terrible fevers, shake so badly you can’t feed yourself, don’t know where you are, who you are or how you got there.

I had recovered enough to know who I was and why I was there, but at that point I wasn’t sure it was worth it, that the pain would never stop, would just get worse. My cellmate had sleep apnea and severe drug addiction problems, so he just kind of woke up when it was time to eat, waited until his name was not called to be released and went back to bed.

Me? I wanted out. Badly. The doctors unanimously agreed that I would die. One particular Indian, I think his name was Hisar or something like that would shake his finger at me from side to side in perfect time with bobbing his head in disapproval. “This one? He will not live…ONE YEAR!” He always made the announcement as though he had found something that was invisible to the rest of the world, a truth that only he could see.

That night I convulsed so hard I fell out of the bed and simply didn’t have the strength to get back in it. I crawled, my trail of misery traced on the hard green tile floor by splashes of blood, gushing from my nose and mouth from dry heaving for hours. I didn’t know exactly where I was, I dimly remembered checking myself in, and I was pretty certain my wife had left me with our son, which would have probably been a good play with all the facts at that point laying out like playing cards in the Nevada Desert – You could read them really well. They didn’t have good news.

I curled around the pain in the floor of the doorless bathroom, and for the second time in my life, I prayed. When my grandfather became sick when I was still young I begged God to heal him, let him live, let him come back enough so that we could sit under the apple trees and he could cut apples for me, making sure the worms were out. I fasted – God didn’t listen. So, I never really tried again. If the sobs of a child losing his Grandfather won’t move a loving God to take direct action, then nothing will.

But on this day, or early morning as the sun was not quite up, I prayed. Not really for me, but for the wife and child that I was leaving behind and all that I had not accomplished. I apologized for everything I could think of, wept like a child, not in pity for myself, but for my family, who were going to have to move forward without their husband, dad, uncle, son and everyone that I had wronged by my own self-destructive ways. I wept, vomited blood everywhere, along with the stale remnants of a stale doughnut that consisted of breakfast, and I think I passed out.

The cell was occupied by two twin beds bolted to the floor. Our clothing was issued, but we could wear flip-flops if we bought them or had someone bring them in. I was still barefoot. I awake to the amusing sight of my toes, broken and mangled from repeated injuries mostly ignored during my youth. One fluorescent light was on in the room, only one. The magnetic lock on the door clicked softly from the other side, so, great, bed check time. I knew the drill. I pulled myself semi-upright and made a point to not make eye contact.

 “Are you ok, honey?” “Are you warm?” “Let me check your vitals.” Her voice preceded her fluid arrival in the room. I semi closed my eyes and hoped she would forget me since my cellmate was snoring loudly enough to embarrass a Harley. But no, she came straight for me. I didn’t have a bedside lamp, yet there one was. Nurses are usually large, those that work with the dregs of humanity. They have to be. This nurse was HUGE! I’m talking NFL safety size here. She had little to say, no name tag, and oddly enough, no shoes on. I was pretty certain that was NOT regulation safety, but I kept my big mouth shut as the oddest feeling of peace threaded its way through my blackened soul. Ten years of drinking had essentially killed me. She didn’t say much, but her voice was very deep and I call her a she for lack of a better description. Had I been a member of the academic community as I was not that long ago I would have likely described her as a transgender individual. Here, in this place – I had no description. She drew blood, humming to me. What at first seemed to be humming birthed something else: My History! Very few people really know my life. I just have an unusual upbringing and life choices and I choose stories from them at my discretion, but this woman? She had an unsettling, deep south accent and perfectly white teeth and her notepad had nothing on it. She did not wear a name tag. She followed my glance at her notebook and smiled at me, this genuine, I love you, smile. The kind you see on new mother’s faces as their babies see them for the first time and gaze in wonder, blinking it’s eyes to clear it’s vision in this new world it has entered It was that kind of smile. “I doan need you silly ole records, honey. It’s all up heah.” She gave me a careful physical, listening to my heart beat for a long time. “You still got that murmur. You always did have that. It aint a gonna kill you though, not that.” She knelt in front of me and prayed for a moment, only a moment. She grasped my head with her hands and I noticed for the first time how scarred she was. Deep wounds, small ones, stabbing scars, bullet scars, unmistakable burn scars. For a moment I was afraid she was going to remove my head from my body, and was under the distinct impression that she could. She looked directly into my eyes. “You shore are a purty man. Whew. Laws. They tell it right. Good heart, too. But you weak. You sick.” She started massaging my head, carefully feeling the scar tissue that is still thankfully covered by hair. As if talking to someone else, she said, “Law, pon my honor he shudda died on dis one.” She put her hand on my abdomen and mumbled something else to that effect. She looked at me once more, a gentle look of amusement. “You did drown that day, you know.” I was staring at her now in shock. She turned to leave, much to my dismay. “Will I live?” I couldn’t help but ask that question, putting no stock in the answer. “Blieve so, honey.” “That baby now, Nolan? He’s gonna need you. Need you real bad. That gorgeous woman of yours, Laura? She gonna need you too, but you ain’t no help like ‘is.”

I sat stunned as she slipped noiselessly through the door and closed it behind her. The bedside lamp, which I had never noticed before, was gone, plunging the cell back into its gloom. Mystified beyond fear, I ran and beat on the door. “Who was that?” I asked the nurse on call. “What do you mean,” she asked. I backed away from the door and sat on my bunk, stunned. I was still sick, I still cried, but my will to live and stubbornness had returned. I was no longer broken, but whole.

I was released the next day. It was cold, blustery and the day before my Birthday. I held Nolan and wept under the umbrella of the restaurant we chose on a whim. Laura watched me closely as I shakily fed our infant.

Chefs and Foodies

The Difference Between a Working Chef and a Foodie:

  1. You, the foodie, carry the most expensive chef’s knife available, festooned with symbols and blessings from Eastern Gods, the keeper of all things sharp. It is sharp, too. You’ve never sharpened it and have no idea how.
  2. A chef MAY have an expensive knife in his kit he reserves for personal carvings. The rest of the time he generally uses an inexpensive kitchen knife, which he sharpens many times a day, as needed, usually on the back of a cleaver.
  3. You probably don’t have a cleaver, unless it came with a kit.
  4. A chef’s cleaver is worn, stained and razor sharp.
  5. A chef wears a plain white or black kitchen issue apron. Generally with no logos, initials, or advertisements.
  6. Your apron probably came from Williams and Sonoma. Designer color, initials embossed. Or from an Italian gift shop while you hiked around Capri looking for the “perfect little spot for lunch.”
  7. The chef has not been to Italy, except one time, on his own dime, while he worked a month for free in the kitchen of a truly badass, devil-may-care, abusive, hates you because you are American Chef. He rested on the car ride back and slept through the layover in Germany. What was he supposed to do? Go look at stuff?
  8. The chef is generally widely traveled, yet has seen little.
  9. You’ve widely traveled, and you too have seen little. Tourist lines, tour leaders with signs leading the way, like cattle being herded towards the next eat-until-you-burst gorge fest of “Authentic” cuisine.
  10. The chef has barely had time to eat, unless you count staff meals once a day or so. They count. More than any meal you’ve ever had. Anything hot, made by others, placed in a bowl, and slurped down in mostly a giddy silence is probably as close to God as a chef will ever be.
  11. You count dinner guests by name, reason they’re there, and position at the table.
  12. A chef counts in tops. “Two Four tops, Eight Two Tops and the House Table all seating at once, chef. He doesn’t, except on rare occasion, really give a shit who is seated at his restaurant.
  13. You take a moment to greet each guest, take their coat, offer wine and make them comfortable, all the while making sure that the right guest is talking to the right person.
  14. The chef must make a moment, wrenched from the kitchen by the manager or maître d, suffering through the awkwardness of yet another greeting he likely will not remember.
  15. You relax after a dinner party with a glass of merlot, a little blues, maybe, and a fine cigar. Your master bedroom awaits you after you place your chef’s knife of glory back on it’s stand.
  16. Chef relaxes after a shift with half a bottle of tequila, a pack of unfiltered cigarettes, and debates the merits of laundry. He falls into bed without a trace of worry.
  17. You slide into bed after you walk the dog, check the timer on the sprinklers, the wind on the clock and set the alarms for the house, garage, safes and guest house. Then you can’t sleep for worrying about the next day, when you will essentially do the same thing again.
  18. The chef gets up five hours later, without an alarm, and does it all over again.

Heritage or Choice?

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In the earlier days of my ahem, career, I spent hours and hours at a computer screen, working through calculations and building models of “Remnant Stress/Strain Across Mineral Surfaces in Basalt”, or simply yet another report for a geotechnical engineering firm that simply has the title “Geotechnical Engineer Report and Recommendations” or whatever other term was legally safe to use at the time of the said report. I spent most of my days as a manager putting out fires and managing the clients expectations of what they expect of us (Everything), what they’re getting (Nothing) and how much will they pay for it (As little as possible). I also worked with dilatant micro fracture deformation analysis, which is a very complicated way of saying, “This rock is strong enough to build a skyscraper on. Yep, sure is.” As a scientist and engineer, my whole brain would be screaming out hard numbers and assessing the actual weight that the foundation would support, while our legal staff would be trying to reduce any and all liability for damage to as yet fictional structure.

You’re already bored, right? I was single for a few years while living in Washington, D.C. and “What do you do?” was probably the first question that I would get asked in an evening, if out on the town looking for members of the opposite sex or at a convention for other engineers. I became quite tired of the identification of as a person through my chosen career. “That sounds so EXCITING!!” said one pretty blonde girl one night at a bar that was so loud that I could not hear myself think. It was that kind of girl at that kind of sports bar, and if you’ve been to one in the NOVA, D.C. Metropolitan Area, then I’m sorry for you. You’ve just visited them all! The girl dancing kind of alone, but with a friend at arms distance, her lips fixed on the straw of a drink she didn’t pay for by a guy who has moved on already. She was dressed in an alarming tight dress and the disconnect between her eyes, her drink and me was unsettling. I knew that what I did wasn’t EXCITING!!!

The truth be told, I didn’t really know what I “expected to be in five years.” It bothered me to even answer that question. Really, how many of us, truth be told, know where they expect to be in five years down a lifetime career path? Not very many of us, I would assume, but not nearly as many of us who are prepared to answer that question. We’ve been groomed for years on what we should say in order to get a promotion, or be taken seriously, by our response to that very question.

So I gave up on using the line, “Engineer” in any part of a personal description of myself. Instead, I substituted dinosaur hunter, Chief of Native American Resources Reallocation, and my personal favorite, A Golf Caddy for (insert name of random golfer here). That always got the best reaction, along with Test Pilot for Ferrari, on leave from Italy to Baltimore to verify company specifications for turn three.

What I really enjoyed was cooking, but nobody had ever suggested that to me as a viable career path. Mostly, because the family I grew up in regarded cooking as a woman’s job in the house, not a real job for a real grown up man. I was self-taught, mostly through burning things and trying out horrible taste combinations on my unsuspecting girlfriend of the time. She actually thought that pushing around another man’s long sticks as he whacked innocent balls with them all day was, in her words, “SO HOT.” This was usually accompanied by a flip of her hair and roll of her eyes, as though blundering around in all sorts of weather carry another man’s junk was somehow more appealing than engineering.

I mostly agreed. There is a terrible miscommunication of monetary expectations in our society. From pipefitters to welders to steel work to masons to engineers to lawyers – ask deeply enough and the reply will be: “This is as much money as I felt I could earn based on my socioeconomic status and race during my early formative years.”

Except for cooks. Cooks choose to be a cook. Not for the money, not for prestige and certainly not for the money. The misconception that cooks make a lot of money, is just that – a misconception. Thanks to years of celebrity chefs with or without giant boobs, most people think that you must make a lot of money – certainly more than you need, otherwise why would you work so long, so many hours, in such a cramped working environment, with people of questionable backgrounds and laundry lists of crimes in their past?

At the end of the day, when everything is packed up, put away, cleaned, dishes thrown more or less in the vicinity of the dishwasher, every cook will admit they just loved it. These are people who ENJOY it – because nobody else will do it! Cooks are so isolated in their world of other cooks that they become the lost souls, the ones that really do the work in the kitchen. They rarely have advanced degrees in anything respectable, but you might be surprised.

I was working with a Dishwasher years ago, a huge, scarred guy with numerous tattoos and a gold earring. He always scared new people a lot, and made most everyone else nervous. He had a way of looking through you instead of at you, as though you were wasting his goddamned time that made everyone nervous. Let’s put it this way: He washed dishes because he WANTED to. He said that he liked to wash dishes, that it was a “job with instant rewards.” He took great pleasure in a giant cast iron pot with burned onion, garlic, various herbs, the remnants of previous pasta sauces and god only knows what else and getting it clean. It would be, too. Shiny and seasoned, as if it had spent its life as a centerpiece beside a great fireplace that was never lit, but instead had logs arranged just so inside of it.

He and I were spraying down the kitchen floor late one night, or early one morning, depending on who you asked. There is a difference in staying up all night and rising early before dawn. Up all night is usually not accompanied by anything that will make you feel better. Getting up early can be one of life’s great experiences, especially in a nice hotel with an outdoor hot tub. Staying up all night can end well in a hot tub, but you still aren’t going to win any nice guy awards the next day.

I don’t remember which of us fell in what category, but it was a time when I could have been in either. He was happily pressure cleaning with the business end of the cleaner and was not quite as cheerfully sweeping and mopping behind him. I didn’t mind being there, and certainly not the work, but I didn’t exactly volunteer for it either. He had. Anything nasty, dirty, demeaning or dreaded by anyone – he would take care of it. In my world, my early world in coal mining at least, these types of people were the leaders, the unspoken and unsung hero who would work under some truly nasty, carcinogen filled environments, the ones who would dive under water looking for an abandoned pump set in a flooded out area of the mine, the men who were there, like some sort of battle scarred angel when the shit had truly hit the fan.

This man was like this. It took me years, decades even, to realize that most people will, if it serves their purpose, gladly throw someone like him under the bus if given half a chance. I’ve made it a point to try to remain that person – the person who can get things done. No matter how jaded or irritated with staff or corporate employees, it always felt better after I took the best shot that an adverse situation could throw at me.

He talked that morning, rambling and rather disjointed, just filling up empty air. I wasn’t really listening to anything other than the tone of his voice as I worked, so when he asked the question I hate so badly, that sent my nerves racing and thoughts scattering, I responded with the truth. “I think,” I hesitated a moment, but only as a remnant piece of pride suddenly jumped as if it had been asleep. “I think I am, and always have been, a coal miner.”

He threw his head back and roared with laughter, fluorescent lights giving him a forgiving look, kind of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or the characters they assumed. I was a bit alarmed – then I realized I was crazier than he was. “Well,” he said, “that explains everything.”

I watched a Daisy Duke wearing redneck girl sling her leg over the back of his Harley a few hours later. He shot me a nod of acknowledgement, which I gave the appropriate amount of time to register his greeting by nodding back, ever so slightly. He gunned his Harley and reverberated down the unmarked, patched, county blacktop, waving at an old guy putting up square bales for winter. I saw his brake lights flash, then he pulled over. The little country girl squirmed sideways on the back of the bike as he dismounted to join the farmer tossing bales of hay into the back of his old ford truck. Well, damn, I thought. I’d probably go help them.