“Little old man.” Isn’t that such a derogatory term? But we use it so much, too describe those members of the greatest generation, the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy, who island hopped through the Pacific Ocean in the single greatest military operation still known to man in recorded history. They fought wars, went to the moon, married, divorced, loved and lived, just like we do today, but they are different, aren’t they? They still proudly wear their ball caps, stiff and unbroken, perched high on their wizened skulls, emblazoned with the heirlooms of their forgotten stations. Fighter pilots, solid state rocket fuel engineers, Frogmen, the Marines, the Shipmen, the Seabees, the Airborne – men who were proud of what they did, who embraced their past brutality as something that had to be done in the name of war and freedom. The highest number of fatalities ever suffered in military campaigns were absorbed by these men, who fought on every continent, from the sands and screeching heat of the tank battles in Africa, to the killing fields of France, to the mosquito-laden hell of the South Pacific, they were there. These same men ignored the consequences of Post-Traumatic Stress, motoring on in their new lives, living sixty, seventy, eighty years past the traumas of their youth.

Now, they are the little old men. One such man, named Dave, collapsed this morning in a little diner that I like to frequent for breakfast. It’s a throwback, an unapologetic place that serves dishes such as two eggs, meat, potatoes and toast. With coffee. Or two pancakes, with meat. Or just meat. Or oatmeal. I like it. It’s real. The staff know you by name. I have a bottle of hot sauce there with my name written on it. You meet men named Bob, Bill, George, Chris, Stevenson and, in this case, Dave. Dave struggled to his feet and breathed carefully through is mouth and nose, alternating breaths. I could tell it was something he had done before.

The staff were courteous, leaving his pride intact while offering him an arm to help him outside into the still cool morning air, where he rested briefly on a bench. The waitress didn’t say much. She just patted his arm with an absent tenderness that bespoke of experience with such things, and of love and understanding for the people around her. Inside, I watched from my bar stool, pinned and silent with respect for the scene unfolding in front of me. The customers carried on about their business, but remained attuned to the man outside, resting his weary soul, lonely in his final years, with the silent young woman by his side, providing what comfort she may.

One by one, the customers filed out, many, I noticed, without paying. I was in that latter group, I’m afraid. I was so close to tears, and so moved by the respect and homage paid to this man of stature that I had nothing to say. They patted Dave on the arm, spoke briefly to him, but did not offer pity. Instead, they showed him respect. When he indicated that he wanted to return to his truck so he could go home, no one resisted. No one suggested they should call 911, or the police, or his family, or drive him themselves. Instead, the waitress, who, in my mind, was now an angel, assisted him to his feet, and waved goodbye as he shuffled to his car.

I was now torn, tears welling in my eyes. Only a few days before, I had wallowed in self-pity over my own weakness, brought about by what many doctors predict will end my days here on this earth, that illness that I have fought for two years now, tooth and nail. But some days, I despair.

Watching this mighty man, still standing straight despite the years gone, the memories faded, the visages of battlefields and arenas of war rounding through the twilight of his final trips around the sun, I feel lost, and loathing. Not for this hero, who swings into the cab of his truck with an unsteady hand, but for myself. For all of those like me, who dare look up at the spring sunshine, the summer storms, the winters cold frost, and complain. Who am I, to question my days here in this realm? Who am I, to be in despair for a potential shortening of my time here, when in fact there is so much to enjoy, every single day?

A little old man. If only I could be just such a person. To fade into the afterlife with my pride and memories and without shame – that is all anyone could wish for. Is that not enough?

Chacos. Right Now.

I bought my first pair of Chaco Sandals in May of 1997. A seemingly meaningless purchase, it nevertheless had outstanding repercussions for the rest of my life.

Until that particular moment in time, which occurred while I was standing in Back Country Outfitters in Blacksburg, VA, my wardrobe had been noticeably dated. Sort of like the 1980’s met with K-Mart at a Holiness Tent Revival and bought some clothes. Serviceable enough for hard labor, jeans mixed with the appropriate flannel or t-shirt for everyday wear, jeans with white shirts for church. There was also the requisite Carharrts for the work I did; coal mining, heavy construction, farming, cooking, and all the brutal exercise associated with those tasks.

Interesting enough, the clothes I purchased for work were the most expensive items in my closet, or more accurately, on the floor of my closet and some would argue the most stylish. There was also the omnipresent pair of camo shorts, rarely worn except to class along with white socks and tennis shoes. Or work boots. I was hopelessly unaware of fashion trends or anything even remotely related to such a thing.

That unseasonably hot, sticky May morning in the top floor of a gear shop was the beginning of a change in my life. I had long been chaffing at the predictability of my future, realizing with an ever-increasing sense of dread that my entire life was unfolding before my eyes, a path, well-trodden by my family and all those others in the small area of the Coalfields of Virginia. I was married, too young. I was graduating from college, too late. I was only a few years older than my peers at Virginia Tech, but I felt ancient and out of place in the classrooms and laboratories where we shared assignments and peered at minerals through microscopes and broke rocks with shiny new hammers purchased from the bookstore. My hammer was worn, rusted, beaten and well used. The grip on the handle was nicked and slick with use. The pointed end was already worn away noticeably by the thousands of rocks I pulled from the top thousands of feet underground, sweating and gasping in the summer, freezing in the winter.

My clothes reflected who I was. I meant to change that. I was uncertain in the store, wondering which shoe to buy and not wanting anyone to know, those suddenly hip workers with their dreads and stinking gear and bare, calloused feet clad in their cool sandals. I felt hulking and hot amongst them, burdened by my jeans, pressed and suitable for church, tennis shoes and long-sleeved lightly starched white shirt with a button down collar. L.L. Bean. A gift from my very soon to be ex-wife.

Subconsciously, I was gearing up for a total shakedown of my life. I had liquidated every asset that I could for cash. I was surprisingly cash rich for a guy not quite graduated from college who was from one of the poorest places in the U.S. I had scrapped, worked, and saved since I was a kid. I picked and sold berries and jam, chased down honeybees through the mountains to rob their hives, fished for catfish which some would still eat, pulled from the still depths of the dying river, stiff with disease and ruined by heavy metal and acid mine runoff. I split wood and fence rails, mowed yards, dug ditches, sold hay, collected metal, worked for my family in their cinder block factory and mining operations.

I swept and cleaned my school after hours, hoarding every dollar I could. I had bought a small parcel of land soon after marrying, a purchase that I made reluctantly, under the advisement of a zealous father-in-law who insisted that I live with his daughter next to his farm. For the rest of my life.

My new Chacos stayed in their box for a few weeks. Maybe even a couple of months. The mining company I worked for rewarded my efforts in obtaining a B.S. in Geology with a huge raise and more responsibility, more hours, more work. My wife set about the business of spending everything she possibly could of my new paycheck. I discovered just how much a redneck girl could spend at Walmart. The answer: All of it.

We somehow ended up with a singlewide house trailer on the back 40 of her daddies’ farm. I worked increasingly insane hours, desperate to save up enough to escape from this prison I was somehow incarcerated in. The money vanished as quickly as I made it.

I still had my stash of money, well hidden in my little sisters bedroom. She is many things as an adult, but then, we were very close. She would have not given up any information on me under the threat of death. All my secrets were safe with her. Her learning disabilities, which troubled most, bothered me not at all and never interfered with our relationship.

So it was that I showed up on my parents back porch one day. They were moving, had sold the family farm. The place had belonged to the Matney’s since way back. My father, under orders from God, sold his birthright to move his beleaguered family to a small shack a mountain or so over. I was wearing my Chacos and my camo shorts. My canoe was on top of my truck, along with a bag of clothing, gear, workbelt, boots, work clothes, and supplies. My sister retrieved the box, stony faced in her shock. She had never shared a bedroom in her life. Now she was to be lumped into a small room with her two baby sisters, a prospect that had her terrified. I took the box and counted out her take. She shook her head no, quickly, and hard. I saw the last of the fight go out of her blue eyes as she prepared herself for the life I was fleeing at that very moment.

Twenty years later, I just bought my third pair of Chacos. They are amazingly tough shoes. I unwrapped the box from Zappos and breathed in the good smell of new rubber and non-slip soles with their network of confusing straps that ensure the shoe stays on your foot, no matter what. I did a bit of a happy dance. My life has changed yet again, as my wife and companion of ten years and our new son journey with me into the uncertain future. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we have learned to make five year plans with no small amount of humor.

We are not rich. My penchant for making money seems to have evaporated over the years, along with my old wardrobes, relationships and ties to my childhood. I say good riddance. As I discovered long ago, with the box of cash under my arm and no plan beyond the next day, life is too short to become entrapped. Live for the now. Right now.

With Chacos strapped to your feet.

Travels to SWVA

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My front stoop on our old house, now on the market.

My front stoop on our old house, now on the market.

Last of Fall Produce

Last of Fall Produce

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I feel like I’m missing something. Once largely regarded, for those who even knew it existed, as the backwaters of a terribly misunderstood state, Southwest Virginia has quietly become ground zero for all things good in the world of food. Restaurants like River and Rail in Roanoke, The Palisades in Eggleston, Mountain Lake Lodge in Newport, Lucky’s in Salem, The Black Hen in Blacksburg, Metro! in Roanoke, Cuz’s in Pounding Mill, and a plethora of others are cooking on the cusp of the envelope. Chef’s such as Aaron Deal, Ashton Carter, Kevin White, Devin Giles, and so many others are unassumingly working on the edge of Southern Cuisine, infusing their own experiences and relationships with farmers into their menus, changing things up almost constantly in response to what is available. Food once thought of as trash, Appalachian cooking techniques and all things local are turning up on tables everywhere as people increasingly join the ever growing ranks of individuals who are grouping together in their appreciation of what the Appalachian Mountains, with it’s high meadows and cold, clear creeks, have to offer.

In a fit of homesickness, I have decided to re-visit my homeland and some great friends, enjoy some amazing food, split some wood, warm my bones by a wood fire in a cottage deep in the mountains, check out signs of an early spring and clear my brain. I’ll work hard on this post, and I promise you won’t be disappointed!

On Forgetting

The chainsaw is exactly how I left it. Its cutting chain is bright with edge and lubricating oil. The tank is full. I’m standing in my shop with a Phillip’s Head Screwdriver in my left hand and a tape line in my right. I have boots on, but they aren’t laced. My jacket is where I left it, I think, somewhere inside. I’m already shivering, even though I’ve only been in the shop for a few minutes, but it is as cold as a meat locker in here. A pile of half-finished projects sit before me, taunting me a bit, I think.

So far, I’ve begun to work on seven different tasks since I got up this morning. The irony is that I don’t remember what I started with in the beginning. I know there are seven, for I am wearing seven different rubber bands on my wrists, reminders that I am working on something. I walk with great purpose towards the workbench, striding even. I learned over a year ago while I was in a kitchen it was important to never show weakness, to never appear as though I had forgotten what I was going to the walk-in to get. By the time I made it to the actual refrigerated space I had usually remembered what I went after. If not, then I could save face by grabbing something that I’m sure I needed, such as garlic, shallots, scallions, potatoes (I always needed those, it seemed) or green tomatoes. If I ever ran out of anything to do, I could always slice and bread tomatoes for the freezer to be fried later. We never had enough of those.

I’m trying to save face now, just as I did then, approaching my work bench with great purpose, as though I am a man tasked with splitting the atom, combating a strange new venereal disease through microbe manipulation, or just some dude that needs to hang his surfboard straighter. Admirable tasks, all.

The problem is that none of them are what I set out to do, with my screwdriver and measuring tape. It’s a soft tape, not a hard retractable one: The one I’m holding is a tailors measuring stick, flexible so that it can easily pass round the curves of a human form. Or around a board for more accurate measurements.

I’m not a tailor, and I have no reason to measure my own form for fitting. I’m not planning to buy a suit and I have the proper attire for my brother-in-law’s wedding, the day fast approaching. I puzzle through what I’m working on. A half-assembled beehive sits in front of me, the project on hold until I get consistently warm temperatures for a day or so for painting. My chainsaw is sharpened. My saw is put away. The floor space is swept. I’ve scratched the small humidor project, put aside for the time being by my lack of interest in fine cigars. They seem to be a waste for someone who enjoys it only slightly and would rather enjoy a salty bite of mackerel roe or kimchi if I must live dangerously. A hot dog is preferable to a cigar for me, even the service station type, with its accompanying crock pot of chili from unknown origins, created from cast-offs of bits of meat, fat, spices, beans and no doubt Hormel products. These nuanced flavors, however cast, with raw onions, spicy mustard, jalapenos, all piled on a stale potato roll. This is preferable to a cigar.

Back to the problem at hand: What, exactly, was I doing? I’ve always been a bit scatter-brained, but this memory loss is downright annoying. It is an amusing, if not slightly dangerous side effect of years of drinking, associated comas, medications and toxins arriving, unfiltered, into my brain stem. I used to consume things with little cause for worry in regards to my health – foodstuffs with color additives, artificial preservatives, excessive sodium, hormones, pathogens, ammonia, bacterial strains, antibiotics, aerosols – any of these things, even in small amounts, have a cumulative effect on my memory functions.

It is an interesting task to sit and write without conscious thought, to see where afterwards the path my brain takes, now off the rails without constant guidance. My thoughts wander as much as my attention, with vivid detail in the least of circumstances, then lines and hooks left open and dangling, for the reader to ponder upon after the writing has ended. Even I am puzzled. What exactly was I trying to say? At least my patterns thought are in order least.

But it’s not all bad. All things considered, it is still amusing, but not crippling. I still run on autopilot just fine, remembering, most times, the day and date, how to cook, how to do and be successful at the myriad of all tasks that are required to be human. I am so far trustworthy, able to always be, or close enough, on time for meetings, dates with my wife, and I still have a basic internal clock as do all cooks that ticks in the background when multiple items are in or on the stove or grill.

I’m thankful for that. On more than one occasion, while battling my last real approach to the inevitable course to the big unknown, I cooked meals for people who raved about them. I didn’t remember. One such dinner stands out, as it was for our Nanny. The term Nanny only fits as nothing else really does. Captain? Chief helper and person we now don’t know how we did without? A graduate student in Veterinary Science, she was a more than qualified person to care for our son, and, in a pinch, me. For some reason of her personality, she was able to guide me, despite my innate willfulness, in a better direction when I was suffering most from hepatic encephalopathy. I apparently made a risotto of some sort and have no memory of doing so. She raved about it later.

As long as I stand intact and whole in this world, I have every reason to be grateful. It is too easy to wallow in self-pity and ungratefulness, to develop an attitude of suffering and despair. It is not my way, yet I have to be on guard for those thoughts and feelings which could lead me to further illness.

Wait a minute? What was I writing about? What was I doing? Oh, yeah. Fixing the doorknob on the front entrance to the house. Why do I have my laptop? What day is it?

Pain and Peaches

My uncle watched me as I tried to ignore him. My boots were miles away, perched as they were at the end of my legs. All I needed to do was tie them and our strangely quiet conversation would be over. My mother watches quietly from her solitude over the kitchen sink, amidst the bubbles and effervescent warm water that would make clean what was once dirty. Three is a kerplunk of a pan, which held eggs and melted cheese, along with toast and grits, my favorite breakfast with black coffee, only a moment before as it plunged into the water. It was early in the morning. Very early. The night sky still rode across, as Orion ran upon Aries in the southern solstice to the west. A mist had fathered at the gurgling creek, laughing quietly as it prepared itself for a day of dappling about in the mix of sun and shade, cool and comfortable in the day’s heat to come.

A fox barked softly, once, nearby. My Mom’s favorite hens, small and black, still warm with feathers fluffed against the soft cold of the night, gentle with their brooding, pecked about my feet.

I was bruised and beaten to a pulp. One eye was black and swelled nearly shut. Grotesque bruises ran round my rib cage, radiating out from my lower back, where my fall had been broken the day before. My hand was twice its normal size, wrapped in gauze from the tending of my mother. One lip was split and I could still see a ring of fog about my inner eye if I focused too much. I didn’t.

I tied my boots anyway, despite their distance from my head, which loomed unnaturally large and heavy. My mother and her brother watched me still.

He dug in his pocket for his chewing tobacco. His first chew of the day appeared immensely satisfying, even to me. First, there was the careful placement of chew into his right hand, measuring exactly the right amount, a movement perfected by years of practice. Then the characteristic three dip – shake over the pouch, flinging free any wayward bits of black, uncured plant matter back to join it’s fellows. Then the mass would be inserted into his mouth, where it would be chewed, mauled, and positioned into the perfect plug, dripping its heady concoction into the distended capillaries screaming for their addiction.

I had fallen the day before. We had a brief rain just after our morning break, while the railroad operators were switching out cars into our siding for cleaning. We were contracted to clean out the one-hundred ton cars of detritus before they were tracked into coal preparation plants for loading. The caveat was we could keep what was in them. The downside was we didn’t know, unless we looked, what was contained in the cavernous, echoing, clanging metal beasts.

The easiest way to look was to walk the cars, dropping from a vantage place just above them as they trundled to their stop against the deadman. Once upon the roughly four-inch wide side, it was a simple matter to navigate ones way from car to car, marking ones full of coal, keepers, and ones full of trash, the cleaners. No simple task, unless you were a circus performer, or a nineteen-year-old boy with a superman mentality.

Except this superman couldn’t fly. Not up. I had avoided the worst of the fall by pushing my way off and away from the metal ladder, which would do nothing but lacerate and maul. I landed, rolling, by some miracle, on the sloping lower sides of the car and gathered my wits just enough to slide through the doors on the bottom into the lower hopper feet, rather than head, first. I bounced hard off the rail for the locomotive and spun down into the plastic-lined chute, where I was rudely deposited onto the moving conveyor belt. I had just enough time to flatten out on the hot rubber before I was swept under the lowest overhang of sheet metal and out into the sun, ringing my head on the side for all my quickness.

My mother had frowned when I came home, stiffly unmounting my highly customized cycle, my vehicle of choice in those days. She had doctored me as best she could, which was more than the local hospital would have done, with their patchwork of drunken, castoff and foreign doctors, all of whom had ended in this place in Appalachia in disgrace or from lack of options, not by choice. She had nothing to say. She was the daughter of a coal miner, the mother of a coal miner – a champion raiser of children and constant warrior in the face of keeping seven children happy and fed. She had patched us up, held our heads, prayed over us in the dead of night when the coughing would not stop and the pox ran amuck and roughshod over our family. Her face, lit by tears and holding the golden reflection of our wood stoves light from her Bible, is permanently engraved on my conscious to this day.

My uncle shifted uncomfortably as I finished lacing my boots. I held my breath at the bottom of my stretch, by abdomen resting comfortably on my thighs as I drank in the morning’s redolence.

“Can you work or not?” My uncle’s impatience, heightened by both the irritation of an injured relative and the knowledge that, if hurt, an injury report would need to be filled out in accordance to the law and insurance requirements. This would result in a possible investigation into safe work practices and environment, something that could kill a small enterprise in the communistic zeal about which underworked and overstaffed agencies latched onto any small slight of the law, real or imagined.

I nodded. My mom sighed and went about her work. She bustled about for a moment, then appeared on silent bare feet with my lunch pail, where a bologna sandwich, made better oh so much by her sourdough bread, homemade sweet pickles, sliced onions and giant wedges of tomato, stored in a separate Ziploc to keep the bread dry. There would be two of these, I knew. Along with a peach or two, just ripened yesterday and hastily picked in competition with the chickens, children, groundhogs, foxes, raccoons and all other lovers of good things.

There would be a small container of soup beans from the night before, with a portion of fatback and the remnants of biscuits and cheese from this morning. It was worth going to work for.

I straightened my younger self against the pain and walked stiffly off the porch to the truck. My uncle made a quick detour and grabbed two peaches. My mother handed him half a loaf of sourdough. There was not another word.

The sweet spring air poured through the cab as we munched our peaches, wrapped in paper towels soaked by the escaping juices. We were soon drenched in sweetness as we gobbled greedily, our appetites huge against the work to come. The stiffness passed from my young muscles and bones as the hereditary healing gene, a blessing and a curse, bumped into play against the injuries, which time and again helped me avoid hospitals and emergency rooms. It would also wreak havoc on me later in life as it allowed me to drink myself nearly to death before succumbing to the side effects of thousands of gallons of alcohol.

That morning, the peach alone, with the smell of the warm earth and work to follow, was enough for me. I grinned at my uncle. “Did you think me hurt bad?” He grunted, and grinned in reply, hunched over his steering wheel, trying to wipe peach bits from his beard.

We rode on through the gathering morning.

Uncharted Territory

My laptop screen blinks at me faster than the human eye can detect. My eyesight, failing me for the first time in my hawk-like existence, can’t pick it up. My brain does. Too much time in front of a computer screen and I get screaming headaches. Just maybe one of the myriad of reasons that I don’t fit in this weird world we now live in.

I’m trying to decipher what my doctors have written me in response to my question. Two years ago, I was given somewhere between three and six months to live. That was if I stopped drinking. I stopped. In spite of what everyone thought of what I could or couldn’t do, I stopped. Three days after I walked out of the rehab center, where I was expected to last a day or so, if that long, I walked into a restaurant and went to work for the best damn chef on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. It was plain dumb luck.

Now, I’m still alive. Despite everything, I’m still here. I’ve been in and out of hospitals for most of the time since the diagnosis. I nearly slid into a coma and only some last minute decision making by my wife and therapist landed me in the emergency room and saved my life. A few months later, I was operated on without consultation from my liver transplant team. I walked out of the hospital, to everyone’s amazement, about an hour after I woke up. Three days later, I was bleeding internally, out of my head from the side effects of millions of unfiltered toxins hitting my brain stem at the same time. Only some quick thinking by my Mom and our Nanny saved my life that time around.

All in all, I’m doing pretty damn good. Sobriety is just as I remembered it: Awesome. I had forgotten how good life is. The joys of a good nights sleep, for example, is heaven. Carrying my little boy around on my shoulders, something I never thought I could do is better than any drug, any bottle of the finest whiskey. I didn’t think I could write if I were sober. That was a mistake. I can write better than I ever dreamed, which still isn’t very well, but who cares? I can cook. Damn, I can cook. I can cook like nobody’s business. What I lack in skills I make up for in passion. My taste buds work. My sense of smell is amazing. So what if my eyes aren’t 20/10 anymore? At least I can see.

My question was simple: Can I run with cirrhosis? Will it hurt me? Specifically, can I run if I’m having fluid buildup in my abdomen due to ascites? I didn’t get an answer. For three months, my doctors dodged around the subject.

Their message, finally, was this: If it doesn’t hurt, and seems to help, then yes. They can think of no reason why I shouldn’t engage in sustained physical exercise. Their reply included that they had never, not ever, been asked that question before.

That has stumped me all day. I ran three miles this afternoon, slowly, of course. I’m not out to break any records. I don’t even record or think of how long it takes. All I know is, I’m travelling through the winter shadows under my own power, and of my own volition. I enjoy the cold on my face. I listen to the birds prepare for the upcoming “Polar Vortex,” whatever the hell that means. It’s been getting cold for millions of years. I don’t know why that is suddenly newsworthy.

The stars deepened in spite of the sunset. I was in the twilight zone. My brain was off. All I could hear were my footsteps, which were more or less in rhythm with my heart. My blood pressure is not on par with an Olympic Athlete. But it’s pretty damn good for a dead guy.

I help my neighbor carry groceries in from her car, and we discuss stuff, I don’t remember what, exactly. Human stuff. I run on through our neighborhood, my brain still on autopilot. I don’t think of my illness, any discomfort or anything. Instead, my brain triggers images, memories. I remember my grandmother, arriving at our little house with a car loaded with groceries. I think of her, of her strength, her gift to her children and their descendants. A smell, faint but unmistakable on the breeze, reminds me of a perfume an old girlfriend, mostly forgotten.

Squirrels chase one another around a pin oak and I remember hunting with a recurve bow when I was a little kid. I disappointed my Dad. I didn’t bring any of them home that day. They were just too, alive. I hear the unmistakable blast of a shotgun and the honking of geese and I wonder if the hunters were successful in bringing food home to their families. I know it’s mostly just a show of masculinity, but it still carries evolutionary nostalgia.

So, what is keeping me alive? How am I healing? How am I running, just this afternoon? I don’t know. I do know that I listen to my body. For the first time, I listen to what it is telling me. If I’m hungry, I eat carefully. For the most part. Sure, I still take my chances. I like sushi, shellfish, raw meat, hot dogs from unknown sources and questionable fried chicken. I’ll eat it. I am a cook, after all.

I may succumb tomorrow. But I will go out the way I want: With my families respect and my honor more or less intact. In the meantime, I will live as if I will never die.