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.

Kitchens and Hope

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There are hundreds, if not thousands or stories of addicts turned sober and living out the rest of their lives with no health problems, mental issues, relationship problems, or any other glitch in their life besides: “When I was in rehab…..” I’ve heard that song so many times and I am utterly grateful that their tale can mostly be constructed with so few words. I am also a bit envious. That is not the rehab that so many of us had.

My release from the final rehab facility was not quite that story. I was released hesitantly, the doctors reluctant to let me go home, my wife reluctant to allow it and I had every reason about the allusion of my health. If you drink, you will die. More doctors than one told me that and a few even a bit further: Even if you don’t drink, it is not likely you will live. Maybe. Time frame? There isn’t one. Take care of yourself, rest, try to take it easy, enjoy time at home.

With those words ringing in my head, my wife agreed to pick me up and take me home. Those first weeks and months were almost a nightmare. I did not get immediately better, as we had honestly thought. My wife was alternately furious with me and happy I as alive, but made sure that I realized that this was my last chance at my life as I knew it. Any more drinking, she was gone. I believed her. She never lies.

So began our rocky future, the first morning of feeding my son, of slowly regaining the strength to move normally and somehow fall back into normal sleeping habits. Everyone said to rest, to stay away from hard work, which until that point had mostly been a point of pride with me. No one ever called me lazy, sober or not. Especially not sober.

My wife was soon frustrated with my not contributing to the family monetarily and I felt as though I didn’t exist, at all. The kitchen saved that. By cooking, starting at mainly the bottom and working as hard as I could, I started to feel like a faded version of myself.

Then came bad news: My liver had not kickstarted as I thought it would. My wife and I fought a lot, over what I don’t really know. I speak of working in a professional kitchen as though I have worked in one my whole life, but that’s not really true. I feel like I experienced a depth of gratitude that I could do something like that, be counted on as me and me alone. I had no resume, nor did I give one. Every day is the first day of my resume.

My former life was gone. My titles, certificates, accolades and diplomas all went into the attic, where they belong. I met new people, swam in a smaller circle and made some amazing friends during my life in the kitchen – the first time that I had committed to something without an escape route. Most engineers spend about 25% of their time updating their resumes, comparing their salary with others, another 50% writing technical papers that are, regardless of what you are told, mostly boilerplate, another 20% or so waiting on something to be reviewed and maybe 5% actual engineering work. The kitchen required all I could give every minute, every second.

I passed out Easter Week and awoke to a new reality. I couldn’t work anymore, not in a kitchen, not as an engineer, definitely not as a truck driver (I hate to drive, so that’s out anyway) and certainly not as a line cook.

That was agonizing. Somewhere along the way I became personally vested in our restaurant. I felt needed and my abilities were improving. Before, when I first started, still hurting from withdrawals and an inability to organize things properly in a timely fashion, I was a train wreck. For the life of me I couldn’t remember from one day to the next what a hotel pan was. By the time I left, I could manage a line for about seventy guests, mostly alone or with the company of the so called dishwasher, who would swoop in to save me from time to time. I self-identified with being a cook, feeling as if I had done it forever, but with sense enough from going in over my head, mostly.

With my health mostly shot, I went from highs to lows, emotionally wrecked. My everyday relationships became hard to maintain, I was argumentative and annoyed. Wasn’t I supposed to be better? I was startled to find that addiction had one last parting shot for me: Hepatic encephalopathy. In short, my body was and will be a grab basket of toxins that the liver normally processes. I finally have an excuse for my forgetfulness! These toxins can storm the brain at once, triggering a whole host of side effects.

Where I was once loathe to take a once a day vitamin, I am now propped on up medication unless my liver begins to rejuvenate. I have no illusions, but a sense of stubborn invulnerability will probably never leave me.

The reality of the after effects of addiction is not a pleasant one, I’m finding. But there is always hope for those whose bodies and minds are wrecked after sobriety, there is today, for example, and most likely, tomorrow. I haven’t given up on a dream of running my own restaurant, although it seems like a daunting task. I had to back out of a cooking class the other day, and it was as if a nightmare had occurred.

As a parting shot to the book “In the Weeds,” I never thought I would write an entire book! My Mom came and stayed with me last weekend to help out with watching Nolan while I recovered from another surgery and the accompanying manifestation of ascites, which is always a fear for those suffering from health problems. I struggled through the pain and haze and feel that I am once again on the mend. For all of you out there determined to get through life after recovery, there will be bad days. But remember the pain of addiction? The constant fear of sobriety and what it might entail? Anything is better than that.

Mom told me today that she witnessed what she has always called the “Matney Genes.” She is talking about our unwillingness to give up. I think that is the first time she’s just said that without it worming its way into the conversation somehow. I think she hoped I have that will to live, but witnessed that I did have it this year.

So, the song of the kitchen, with all its work and toil and obsessions, still rings in my head. Other cooks may scoff, wishing they were on Food Network, but the reality is they love their work. Most of them don’t have resumes either.

Foodies and Reality

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I had an interesting weekend with my Mom. She rarely gets to stay with us, usually reserving her visits when I am staggeringly overmatched by our son, Nolan. I give credit to my mother for teaching me how to cook, how to combine ingredients, usually very cheap ones, in order to get the most calories possible out of them while still bearing some semblance of healthy food. She’s constantly surprised, I think, that the lard and pig fat that she bemoaned using when we were children, along with whole milk containing fat solids for fear of health risks is now showing to be the opposite.

She rarely cooks during these visits, which are usually short, maybe one night and the next morning, choosing instead to bring leftovers such as chicken and dumplings, cheeseburgers, potato chips, canned soups and other delicacies that are always at home in her pantry.

She was famous, as famous as you could be in a coal town in the 1980’s for her sourdough bread. All of us, her children, have tried with varying degrees of failure to replicate it over the past ten years. She kept the starter for nearly forty years, then one afternoon, just like that, she threw him away. We all bemoaned the loss of “Herman” as she had named him, but Mom was unfazed. “I don’t have the room, energy, or time to bake all that bread every week.” She added another sentence which stunned me: “Nobody really likes it. ‘Foodies’ as they call themselves, prefer to see that their bread came from a great stone hearth where hickory blazes.” She pointed at my firepit – kind of like that, she said.

She continued on: “I’ve cooked for over Forty years. Closer to Sixty. When I started cooking, we had too. We weren’t given a choice. I was shown how to make biscuits, once. My stepfather bounced them off the floor the next morning like rocks and I cried. Then I made better biscuits.” With words and expression and memories, she led me through a lifetime of cooking. She did not wax nostalgic. She did not remember the days spent harvesting hogs as being pleasant ones. “It was cold. My hands would run raw under the boiling water and my back would get so sore I could barely stand for days.”  She went on to say that the butchering would go on almost all night sometimes, especially if there were multiple hogs and it had been a good moonshine year. She said that she would finally manage to slip away in the night while everyone was drinking and eating heavily and sleep under the eaves of their house to get out of the smell of boiling hog, hair, moonshine, blood and mud.

She sharply remembers trying to save the partially cooked pigs one year when the festivities had gotten out of hand in the small hours of the morning. She said that men were beginning to stir about in horror as they realized that much of the meat that they had already sold on the hoof was now frozen in the early morning. She talked of helping get their fires restarted and water boiling, an arduous task under any circumstances, made doubly so by the lack of clean water and a roaring fire. They had to break ice in the local stream to get water boiling again, which took them up until nightfall on the second day to finish.

I remember the smell of fresh sourdough bread as I crept down my ladder in the mornings, knowing it would be hot and fresh and there would be sorghum molasses with peach jam made the previous spring. She remembers all these things too, but she also remembers how hard it was to feed seven children in the winter on a coal miners strike rations. I remember the smell of wood smoke with nostalgia and the endless splitting and harvesting of it with fondness. She remembers keeping a fire going at three in the morning while snow raged outside our door.

Once a summer, for two weeks, my mothers entire family would descend on the farm to pick, can, string, dig, pluck, dry, pickle, blanch and put every single bit of food available for us to feed our families. We would have jars and jars of chow-chow, pickled beets, carrots and cucumbers. We would can vast amounts of venison stew, freezer stored until canning where it would be prepared for the advent of another hunting season. My cousins and I hosted games of hide and seek, storytelling and speared fish in the local streams. We would try to gig frogs, another skill set entirely. It was our prerogative to return to shuck corn,  break beans, dig potatoes, pull carrots and other such chores that were safe enough for a dozen curious children to descend on.

We would go home for good after these two weeks, the adults tired of one another, the work and from chasing the kids around. The men would have long abandoned the tasks for more manly work, such as cutting the endless firewood required or checking the price of beef, pork and lamb obsessively.

My mom said she was glad that I had taken so much from my childhood and remembered it well. She is dubious over the term “foodie.” I’ve not liked the term or what it seems to now symbolize food as a hobby: as collecting restaurants, different meats and even chefs in their collective social media sites. I have noticed a growing trend of “Only Pictures of Plates.” As people wealthy enough to do so travel here and there “experiencing” local foods, it seems that something is being lost yet again. The art of cooking is dying, once required of the poor to survive, now enjoyed in upper circles of increasingly snobby so-called chefs.

Is our heart in the right place? I think so. We just need to remember that these things, these cooking methods and food items, are a product of a long lineage of hard work. The next time you take a selfie in a restaurant with your chicken liver, don’t worry if the black guy washing dishes thinks it’s funny. It is.

 

Spices, Hobbits and Such Matters

A long time ago in distant lands a burgeoning and wildly profitable spice trade existed. Spices traveled all over the world, ordered by kings and queens and no doubt by some of the finest chefs in all the lands, which weren’t known as chefs then but “The Guy That Tastes The Food To See If The King Dies” or something like that. Which wouldn’t really be that bad of a gig as long as you were sure of what went into the pot and you weren’t very diligent or exuberant with your thrashings and practical jokes on your subordinates. The old standby, a snake in a garbage pail can get you killed. Literally. It’s not funny when you’re on the receiving end of such things and I believe that, back then, whenever then was, there was an “eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth” law. I know I would encourage killing someone if they put a snake in my garbage pot, or hole, or wherever they placed garbage in these distant lands such as Arabia, Persia, Greece and so forth. I’m also sure that law was applicable in my own heritage, as they were all Cherokee Indians and Scots, who enjoyed the opportunity for some payback any chance they could get. On the other hand, it was probably great fun for Native Americans to find a snake in a pot as they would be thankful for both and just eat the snake. I would probably go with the Scottish tendencies in my gene pool and kill the snake and the  person who put it there.

But that is a another matter entirely. Like Two Dimensional Space Theory and  Ping Pong. As I was saying, a large part of a nations wealth was measured in spice trade. Spice wars raged, navigation became more accurate and thrones were toppled due to the rarity of certain spices. Turmeric, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, ginger and pepper were only a few of the spices that were traded over great distances, and inspired tales of violence, theft, fire breathing dragons, and no doubt hobbits.

The books don’t go into the Hobbit’s love of spice, but they did smoke a lot, and opium was at the top of the heap while trading for spices, so I’m assuming that they smoked a lot of it in their journeys, hence their fascination with rings and all the lies they told of treasure and glowing swords. I don’t think anyone is really for certain they smoked poppy as we don’t know anything about their behavior except in movies where they didn’t smoke very much but they did eat most of the time. They also spent a lot of time with “Wizards” and “Fairies”  and it seems they did a lot of crying while stumbling around in the smoke looking for one another. Given these observations, their fondness for opium was undoubtable, even if it doesn’t come right out and say so in J.R.R.R.R.R.R.R. Tolkien’s books. I think he must have been rather fond of the “spice trade” himself, given the number of languages he made up and all the meaningless poems that his characters chanted. Told you they smoked dope. If they weren’t eating, they were crying and sitting, or crying and walking through fire and smoke, which sounds exactly like sobering up to me. Then they were chanting and jumping around a few minutes later about mountains, gold, dragons and food and shit, so you tell me they weren’t drug addicts!

Anyway, how long has it been since you cleaned out your spice cabinets? After watching “The Hobbit” or trying to, with Nolan, I worried about our stash of spice. Did anyone want them? A quick search of Google revealed that proprietors within the spice trade were often executed in Europe when a new King or Queen took over the throne to conceal their sources for such wealth. I was furthered worried about the three of us when I found out that the most common method of execution for “Trading in Spices without Order of the King” was beheading!

In the interest of simplicity, Nolan and I had one rule: If didn’t smell, dump it. So we did! We quickly found that this leads to a lot of empty bottle and a lot of excess, non-smelly spice. Upon an executive decision, we determined that there was no value in all these spices so we tried to feed them to the cat. The cat wisely disappeared during our search for old spice, so were at a bit of a loss.

We bagged all the spice in a leftover Ziploc:

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As you can see, that’s a lot of non-smelly stuff that we had the potential to lose our heads over! We also found the main culprit, and disposed of him appropriately (by adding him to the bag, not by beheading):

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Now enters the question: What on earth can we use these jars for? Nolan’s first idea was bowling, but his preferred ball was a rotten tomato:

IMG_0824[1]After we cleaned up the mess, we decided on Nolanball (similar to Calvinball, except there were no balls, just empty spice containers and a colander that doubles as a bath toy). The Colander offered little to no head protection against the potential for invading Turks and Hordes of Dark Lords, so that game was quickly banished.

IMG_0829[1]After all this fun, we decided that the empty spice jars would make excellent containers for small cars, leftover olives, screws, bolts, and other such important treasures that boys and their daddies collect in their adventures as non-hobbits. Really, in versatility, they can’t be beat. Just don’t put any rings in them, smoke opium, or collect treasure. Nolan and I have to go get a pizza. All this Hobbit talk has made us hungry.

Peace,

RM