Ownership and Berries: In the Weeds

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Late July, 2014. My sister is hanging off a rock face not far from our house with a perfect look of concentration and consternation on her face. We’re picking Virginia Wine berries, which, along with every other typical Southwestern Virginia berry, has simply taken over the hedgerows and borders between groomed yards, fields and the forest beyond. We’ve picked nearly a gallon of Wine berries, which are also known as red raspberries, along with a few gallons of blackberries and black raspberries. We are in a deep conversation about how that the most perfect berries are always, somehow, just out of reach. Finally, she uses my knee as a start and pulls herself up just enough along a semi-vertical crack in the ancient dolomite to reach the berries, which are adorned with tiny stinging nettles that have a way of finding your skin no matter how well protected you think you are.

She manages to shake the vines, and a cascade of red berries fall around and on us, so ripe and succulent that they burst upon the ground and in my hat, which I’ve turned up into a makeshift bowl in an attempt to catch them on their way to the ground, where they will no doubt be carved and carried away by hungry ants to feed their colony. Bees will light on them regardless of where they are and both will be preyed upon by black wasps, looking for food to stuff their mud tubelike nests so that their larvae will hatch with plenty to eat.

We, on the other hand, are much more crude. We will mix the berries together, completely oblivious to the microscopic struggle for life and death that we inadvertently trampled upon in our zeal to obtain the wild fruit for immediate consumption, greedily stuffing our mouths and pails with this manna of the mountains.

We talk, as we always have. Although we are fifteen years apart, we share more in personality, experience, passions and general zeal for life than anyone else I know. We’ve always understood each other: Me, her passion for independence and privacy; Her, my rebellious nature and tendency to wander unexpectedly in search of what I know not.

Soothed by the sound of the creek burbling by us, the smell of the berries sometimes crushing in my hands as I think of jam and pie and smoothies and how much my wife and son will enjoy these, I don’t hear her the first time.

She was horribly maimed in an accident while she was in college, crushing her spine like glass. A team of doctors, all experts in their field, assembled in an attempt to reconstruct the tattered remnants of what was left of her broken body. She wasn’t supposed to have been able to walk again – yet here she is, hanging off a cliff face after leading me through an early morning yoga session.

“How have you stayed clean?” Her clear brown eyes have a way of looking straight through you to the core of the truth, a gift from our mother that she doesn’t know yet she has. She drops to the ground, all in one seamless movement. She picks up her berry bucket, nothing more than a plastic jug, cut so that the handle is left and the top is enlarged, easily strapped to your belt.

“I mean, so many people with addictions, they simply can’t do it. They can’t even begin to recover, or they can’t move on and leave their past behind. They become what society expects, a train wreck waiting to happen.” She speaks from experience, I think. She is perhaps the strongest person I’ve ever met. I think back to my most recent experiences in this strange journey in sobriety.

It’s about ownership, I explain, starting to roll with my thoughts and words. I’m sick, badly sick. My liver does not really work. I’m dependent upon a plethora of medications to stay alive. Some days I don’t feel well at all. I’m always a razors edge from sliding into a coma. “I can’t really do anything at all about my liver. I can’t remove it, I can’t replace it. I can’t kill someone and take theirs, and even if I did I’ll be on medications my entire life, which I really, really don’t want. What I can do is take ownership of the disease, take the blame and above all else, not become a victim.” She is staring at me. “That is our only solution, as humans. I can’t personally do one thing about the wars all over the world, or mergers and politics, or food shortages and the direction the New River flows in. What I can do is take ownership of what I can control. I can control what I eat. I can control how much exercise and what type I get. I can control not drinking. I can not pick up new addictions. I can choose to not blame the government, the liquor stores, my genetics, my parents, my wife or anyone or anything else for my addiction and subsequent disease.” We are walking back to the house, where our significant others are no doubt worried about our absence. I think further: “I can choose to enjoy this moment. I can choose to sit still and watch the stars at night. I can, I repeat, choose to NOT be a victim, someone awaiting their own death. I think that has allowed me some control over this disease, some ownership instead of despair”

She listens to me, nodding. “You’ve got it. That’s what I had to do. Did you know the doctors said I would never be able to go to the bathroom on my own?” I stared at her. “I’ll race you home!”

I watched her run for a moment, as the early sun laced the ground with shadows of bamboo, thinking of how it could be for both of us in that moment, how sad if we had just given up, just limited ourselves to the doctors expectations. Would we even be here? Would we still be such good friends? Would we even be alive?

Her dark hair is becoming distant in the mid-morning mist. I begin to run, loving the feeling of moving on my own, the primal satisfaction of feeling my body do what it evolved to do.

Wait on me, Little Sister. I’m, as usual, right behind you.

The Perfect Meal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-R

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RM July 15, 2014

Into the Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 10, 2014. – R

In the Weeds (Life Changes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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