The Boathouse Preview

My dearest family. I cannot express the sorrow that I feel. I cannot apologize enough, or sincerely enough, for my relapse into addiction. My sorrow, my pain, my apologies, my words: They are simply not enough. My actions must now speak for me. My day to day life must be my liaison, if such a thing applies. Every single day that I do not succumb to my addiction, every single day that I do not die from illness, is a battle won, a conflict scored in my favor. It would be so easy, at this point, to simply quit.

Three and a half years ago, there was a singular miracle in Roanoke, Virginia. There was a child born to parents, namely Laura Friedel Matney and Ronald N. Matney, II. The father had no real expectations of having a child. In 1997, he had himself checked for fertility, and the doctors decreed that he had 99.9% chance of not having a child. Nonetheless, on December 30, 2012, one Nolan Gray Matney, named after me, his father, and his Papa, his wife’s father, was born at 10:28 a.m. As his father, I was allowed to hold him first. The nurse released him from the bonds of the womb and handed him to me.

He did not cry. Instead, this child of mine, this miracle of birth, looked about in amazement. Truth be told, on that day, I was only five days sober. I had been drinking for years, and my son; this baby; this human being to whom I shall be bound for all eternity, looked about while I was in the preliminary struggles of escaping my addiction. I had fought through it all to be sober for that moment, but I was shaking badly. I held my son, my only son, close, and I cried. I handed him to his mother, my wife, glowing in the moment. She was so strong, so resilient. I admired her strength and courage, and loved her with all my heart. I still do.

He looked about. The nurses laughed and marveled at his alertness, and it seemed everyone in the hospital came to see him, but there was nothing to shake the bond between the new mother and her child. For hours, he looked about. He noticed light. He noticed when the nurses came and went. He noticed when I spoke. But most of all, he gazed at his mother in what can only be described as adoration. It was if he was finally thrilled to see his mother’s face. For five hours, this child of mine looked about him, and analyzed the world. My wife sang to him. “Wagon Wheel” was his first song. Eventually, he gave into his exhaustion and slept. So did his mother.

I stole about, feeling ashamed and a bit intrusive. The nurses looked at me warily. In December of 2012, I weighed 312 pounds. Today, I weigh 165. I was horribly sick. I was jaundiced. I shook horribly from withdrawals. I could not discern between what was real and what was not. But I knew this: My son had just been born. So, I needed to man up, and be a Dad. I had never before had this feeling, this feeling of fierce love, and protection, and humility; I knew that in order to be a good Dad, I was going to have to be a sober Dad. Not one bound by addiction. Not one sick and weak and disgusting and handicapped by mental disorders.

So began my journey into sobriety, chronicled in detail elsewhere on this website and in an upcoming book, “Out of the Weeds.” What I first assumed would be easy was not. My body and mind had become dependent on alcohol and I was terribly sick during withdrawals. I kept trying, and failing. My wife watched nervously, preoccupied with our new son, but astute enough to realize something was terribly wrong. For three long months, long after my diagnosis with terminal liver cirrhosis, I fought for, but did not achieve, sobriety.

At long last, in March of 2013, I was finally hospitalized. My body was failing. My mind was shot. The harder I tried to kick my addiction, the tighter its grip became, until I could take no more. For five days, the doctors treated me with Benz opines, pain medication and fluids. I was finally sober. My wife was overjoyed! I was somewhat dubious, still in the grips of addiction and still not quite sure about the not drinking for the rest of my life thing.

Those first weeks were the worst. I distinctly remember driving to the liquor store, sitting in the parking lot, and crying. I took care of my son as my wife returned to work. My life became entangled with his, as he and my wife were all that kept me sober. Boredom set in as the weather was horrible and outside activities were limited. As soon as I was able, I walked. I walked for miles every day, accompanied by our Labrador Retriever, who was vastly confused by his sudden demotion from his position as head of household.

Let us fast forward, shall we? I can tell of you of my subsequent relapse, on my son’s baptism date, no less. My wife’s parents hrew a celebration, complete with Bloody Mary’s, not three months into my sobriety. Everyone watched me carefully, to make sure that I did not drink. I did not walk the walk or talk the talk. To say that I relapsed that day is an understatement. The thing, is, aside from my wife’s brother, not one person knew. The months following were hell. I hid it as best I could from my family, but there was no mistaking that I had fallen off the wagon.

Then there came total sobriety, of which I have written about at length. Three years. Three years, and not one drink. I ran half marathons. I defied the odds. I astonished the doctors. But I still, to quote my wife, was not happy. I railed against my situation. I grew more and more unhappy, for reasons that I did not understand. I blamed others, namely my wife, who did not understand, nor did I, my anger. My resentments grew and became festering sores, replacing the whiskey blisters that permeated my soul in the beginning of my sobriety.

So finally, came my final straw. I relapsed. Big time. I fell so hard, and so far, that angels feared tread where I was. I made an ass of myself, over and over. My family looked askance at where I was. I checked in and out of detox. I went to rehab. Nothing worked.

The day I checked out of rehab, I took a cab ride to BWI airport, to discover that my truck sat on three flats, had been broken into, and did not start. I managed to fix the flats and work my mechanics genius shit under the hood, and got it running. I was three hours late to my meeting with my lawyers, who had prepared divorce papers.

I could not sign the papers. I sat in their office, and for the first time, began to take ownership of what I had done. Of the addict that I am. With tears running down my face, I confessed to my legal team that I loved my wife. That I loved my family. That I regretted what I had done with all my heart. As the assimilated that information, the phone rang. And rang. And rang. On the line, someone explained to me that my father in law, a man for whom I have the deepest love and respect, had passed. I sat numb. I wept. I prayed for my wife and son, for the first time, I prayed for them, honestly and truly. I prayed for them to be at peace, despite me. I prayed for my beloved mother in law. How terrible she must feel. I prayed for the family, for a great man had passed. For the first time, I prayed for God to change the me, not the circumstance. It was not to be taken lightly, nor in stride. I stumbled out of the office, poured myself into my truck and headed south.

The rest is history. I relapsed again. I nearly died. Again. My brother peeled me off the floor of his bathroom where I had lost over 80% of my blood. I recovered, despite myself. I fled deeper into the mountains, seeking solace in the rocks and moss of the familiar. Nothing would heal my wounds. Nothing. Now, here I am. Sober. Fighting for the ability to do the right thing. I prayed to God to change my circumstances. Then I realized that God is trying to change me. That is my only path. To change myself. To rid myself of the addiction, the selfishness, the pride, the wounded attitude. To admit what I have done wrong. To begin clearing the wreckage of what I have done. I pray that it is enough

The Hole In My Soul

His face was a mass of wrinkles and his old eyes were dim, but at 85, with 42 years sober, his mind was still intact. More than you can say for mine at this moment. He squinted at me. “Son, there was a hole in my soul. The wind blew through it. It hurt.” I feel his words. My spirit is bruised, broken, sick, weak, lonely and racked with sorrow. My body eerily resembles my spirit. Since May 30th, I have been in three short-term rehabilitation and/or terminal care clinics, one 30-Day Rehabilitation Program, three hospitals and one intensive care unit. I ran away. I missed my wife and son. I gave up. I limped back into town beaten, exhausted, destitute.

My doctor gave me no chance. He was impatient, brusque. He dismissed me from his office with strict instructions to go to the Emergency Room. Despite my best efforts, my life had fallen into shreds. I simply was not prepared to deal with the emotional and spiritual turmoil. Every time I lifted my head it seemed, something else slammed me back to the ground. I began to feel like a battered boxer, but with no hope of victory, just more punishment.

I crumpled like mist outside the ER and wept. For the first time in my adult life, I had no more hope. The hole in my soul howled with the wind sweeping off the Bay. Nowhere else to go. No chance. Nothing. My bank account stood in the negative, my meager life savings shredded in lawyer’s fees, hospital bills, and the cost of living out of one’s vehicle. I left my sunglasses on and thought of my son, my wife. How long it had been since I had seen them? July 10th. It seemed like an eternity ago, when I had burned with self-righteous anger. The self-righteousness had evaporated like mist on scorching pavement as the full realization of my offense magnified itself to me.

In desperation. I prayed. Not for me. Not for my life. Not for my sobriety. I prayed for my wife. What must she be going through? I prayed for my young son. I prayed for my wife’s family, for my friends, for everyone I could think of, everyone I had betrayed with my relapse and consequent actions. I prayed, finally, for me. For God to grant me the strength and the longevity to do what I must do. I must seek forgiveness.

On May 30th of this year, after nearly three years of total sobriety, I relapsed. There is no easy way to say this, although I have told the story so many times now that it seems redundant. I’m still dealing with the ramifications. I had promised my wife that I would never relapse. I had promised myself I would never relapse. I had sworn a solemn oath to my young son that I would never relapse. I promised everyone, including you, dear reader, that I would never relapse. I did. I bought a six pack of beer, intending on having a beer while I worked in the garden. After all, what is the harm? Other people I knew who had been alcoholics were enjoying a beer or two. I had watched them. Somewhat enviously, I might add.

One beer turned into all six which led to a bottle of tequila. I was ashamed, angry, and emotional. I must have read to my son for two hours that night, continuing on after he fell asleep. I called everyone I trusted to come help and even dove into Facebook, flirting with random women, seeking solace for my relapse. The next morning, I was awakened by my young son, who was miraculously clean, obviously fed, but very angry with me. At three, he knew something was wrong. In a fit of defiance at me, he scattered cereal all over the house, glaring at me the entire time. He then ran to the bathroom, where he proceeded to flush the toilet repeatedly. I ran after him, wondering what he was doing. There, in the doorway, the magnitude of what had happened hit me.

My three-year-old son, barely a toddler, had gathered up all the beer bottles and the empty bottle of tequila and thrown them into the toilet, where he was trying his hardest to flush them. He turned to me, and clearly asked, “Daddy, are you sick?” In a fit of despair, I burst into tears, picked him up, and for what would turn out to be the last time since, I held him alone, scrubbed the stubble of my beard over his scalp, something he has loved since he was an infant. I told him, yes, I’m sick, and I am so, so sorry. I called the doctor, the ER and finally answered my wife’s repeated phone calls. I confessed. My son and I cried together, although he possesses his mother and his late Papa’s strength of will and determination. I had never been more ashamed.

So began my descent into hell. My wife, true to her promise three years prior, left me. I was filled with indignation and rage. I did not realize at that time the depths of my addiction. True to an addict’s nature, I blamed everyone for my relapse, mainly my wife. It was her fault, I said. If she had only paid me more attention, given me more love, been a better wife, a closer friend. I denied the depths of my addiction.

I relapsed again. Again I committed myself to detox. I came out even more furious. My wife had changed the locks, taken my key, limited my visits with my son. I became angrier, blaming her even more. It was all her fault. My parents fault. Anyone’s fault but mine. The doctors removed me from the transplant list, where I had risen to near the top. Finally, after my third relapse, I checked myself into a 30-day facility, after extracting a half-hearted promise from my wife to come to counseling with me there and bring my son to visit.

Little was I to know the depths my addiction was to take me. I brooded and became morose, even though I participated in all counseling and threw myself into the rehab program. I vowed to make my wife let me see my son, and threatened to myself that I would sue her into submission. I spent the little money I had left on lawyers. They told me all I wanted to hear. It was everyone’s fault but mine. That’s their job. Then I found that my father-in-law, beloved by all, including me, the man I looked up to more than anyone, my wife’s hero and life, my best friend, one of the only to visit me in detox, had passed while I was in rehab. I had not been there for her. The magnitude of my addiction took on a knew note.

I left rehab on a shaky note, scared, but no long sure of my self-righteousness. You see, I had started to realize some things. First and foremost, for lack of a better term, and because I like the word, my paradigm of sobriety had been wrong. When I achieved sobriety three years prior, I did it out of fear. I became a willing participant in all household chores, taking over cleaning, shopping, cooking – for the three years I was the primary caregiver for our son. Despite my joy in these activities, I wasn’t really sober. I was not drinking, but I was not sober. Only an addict can understand this. You see, my fear dictated my sobriety. I was only sober because I was afraid. I was afraid of losing my wife and son.

I wasn’t really sober. My mind still operated as an addict. I built resentments, real and imagined, but mostly imagined. I carefully dictated my diet, ran constantly, practiced yoga, and became arrogant in my self-will and abilities. I wasn’t really sober. My resentments grew, built, and became real in my mind. I began to blame my wife for my unhappiness. My wife is the greatest person I know. She is the smartest, most beautiful, most talented, most faithful, most loving person I have ever met. I would have been lucky to have ever crossed her path. But she married me!!! All she asked in return was that I be sober.

That day, sobbing outside the ER, I came to the full realization of my addiction. Shaking and swollen with Ascites, confused with Hepatic Encephalopathy, jaundiced and racked with depression, still weak from internal bleeding, sweating profusely, broken in mind and body, I realized the full magnitude of my betrayal. I had betrayed her. I had betrayed my son. Most of all, I had betrayed myself.

So, I did not admit myself to the ER. For the first time, I chose to face the magnitude of my life. After all, I knew what to do. In six days, I attended fourteen AA meetings. I cleaned up my diet. I walked everywhere. I limited my fluid intake, my caloric intake. I re-enrolled in an Intensive Outpatient Program for addicts and people suffering from acute illness. I got a sponsor in AA. For the first time ever, I honestly started working the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today, despite what has been a tumultuous, stressful, and terrible week, I am actually getting better. I’m still not sleeping, but my hands have stopped shaking. My head is clearing. The ascites is subsiding. Most importantly, I am sober. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am no longer thinking with an addict’s brain. Will I live long? I don’t think of that. I only think of today, and what I can do to be a better person, today. Will I see my beloved wife and son again and be able to tell them I love them and that I am sorry? I don’t know. I try not to think of that, although I can’t help it. Will I run a half-marathon again? I don’t know. I’ll be happy to be able to walk downtown.

I don’t know much of anything. Except that the hole in my soul needs to be fixed. Finally, I realize: That all starts with me.

Tin Roofs

Fatigue steals over me, it’s cold fingers icing up my spine and into the back of my neck, clouding my vision temporarily. I concentrate on breathing for a moment, and lean into the moment. In through my nose, out through my mouth, just watching the colors inside my head project onto the canvas of the room for a moment. The crushing sound of women talking in an enclosed space is suddenly a roar and I am hyper aware of my own deafness in that moment as snaps of conversation, given voice inside my own imagination, burst over my consciousness. The endless chore of finding conversation through a combination of body language, mouth movements and pieces of sounds suddenly becomes too much. I see my wife in a corner, alone with three others, chatting, her spine and carriage the image of confidence. I feel rather than hear or see the sudden leaning in of the lonely wealth, the overly dressed, alienated seekers of attention of any kind and I beat a hasty retreat for the door.

The heat is sudden and welcoming. The closeness of the room was stifling, but the early glimpse of the summer to come is soft on the sidewalk. The climate of the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay has a tendency to narrow seasons, pull them closely in to one another as winter tumbles through spring and into summer with an audible clap. The bank clock tells me that it is 86 degrees in the sun and I turn my face towards it, cresting the western edge of the buildings for the last moments of the day. I spot a white haired man I recognize from earlier seated at a near table and he nods a half-hearted salutation.  I reluctantly wander my way in his direction. I can still feel the presence of eyes on my back, the attention-seeking eyes, evaluating, wondering, seeking something, anything.

I ask the well-dressed man if I may join him. He waves his left hand impatiently at the empty chair, suddenly brusque, the motion of a man accustomed to giving orders, but without the gumption to see them through. An empty gesture. A meaningless greeting. I feel my weariness once more, but welcome the diversion and the opportunity to feel the sunshine on my face before the rain moves in off the coast once more. I think of Mexico, and the mountains of my youth, of sitting on truck tailgates and simply waiting for another to speak, not acknowledging the passage of time, adhering to another standard of social conduct, one born of necessity, of hardship, or needing to know if the other could be trusted, and if so, how much and with what.

He speaks a greeting, and I follow suit. Our conversation is both guarded and open as we talk as men, ranging quickly through the mundane, the weather, avoiding politics, a quick diversion into the economy, both local and national, into travel. He speaks of planes and trains and villas and golf courses, of places where nature and native alike is forced to comply with the western white standard, of maids dressed in uniforms, of women passed over and semi-forgotten, like whiskey beading the curvature of a leaded tumbler. I think of sand and dirt and waves and places gone and remembered and sleeping under a vast canopy of stars, so many that it was an inverse carpet of winking worlds, places unreachable and unknowable and secure in their secrets from the scourge of humanity.

The conversation flows around me as I realize that he is content to just talk, to spill words from himself in my general direction, secure in their ability to impress the younger, less wealthy man. I am content to just not listen, nod my head in the right places and allow my thoughts to wander where they may. I am deep in the Baja of Mexico when his wife approaches, a thin, tight-lipped and unhappy former beauty, a woman who has aged and well, but is still bitter of the implications, of the loss of status in a world dominated by beauty and youth. I bring up an extra chair and she comments on my manner of dress, which is deliberately casual, a muse, if you will. Costumes amuse me, and I don them, as we all do, in response to variations in mood and deference to the requirements of the event.

Mexico comes round once more in our conversation, as does my boyhood home. I stiffen inwardly at the attempt to place my accent, which he does. There are some things that you choose not to shed, and my manner of speech is one of those things I have clung to. His accuracy in placing where I am from is uncannily accurate and I resent the intrusion. I realize that my mask, the outward self, the visible part of me, is slipping a bit and I pull it back into place.

I realize that she is now speaking of the poor indigent people of Kentucky, with whom she has some familiarity as her family once boarded horses at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Derby, which is coming around soon once again. I resent her stereotype, then allow it to slide over me, wondering what it must be like to be black in our society, where stereotypes are often the only common ground between race and socio-economic differences. She branches out, slightly more eloquent, describing the conditions in which people lived, in such squalor, what with their laundry hanging outside to dry, as they apparently could not afford dryers for their clothes in the trailer parks in which they lived. A general lack of education must also be ascribed to such individuals, as no one, of course, with any semblance of humanity would tarry long in such a place, regardless of their background.

My attention is now rapt on the skyline, where the sun has receded into the western sky. The roar of conversation has dulled behind me, and I await a break in conversation, for some queue from which to escape this madness. I think of my own past, nights lying sleepless beneath the tin roof of the tacked together trailer in which the early years of my childhood were passed, as we struggled to put together the monies required to build a more substantial home. Misinterpreting my silence for accession, she continues her diatribe on the poverty of other places, of Belize, where dogs are allowed to just wander in the streets and where children run unsupervised in play.

I remember my own great dog, a mongrel mix of some indeterminate breed, lying quietly in the dust of the dirt road on which we lived in the early morning sun while my brothers, cousins, and various neighboring children played our variations of games that had been around since the beginning of our race upon this earth. Tag, power struggles, small fistfights, and other amusements were enjoyed and participated in, with no parental oversight. We were gods of our own small kingdoms, secure in our aloneness, our only guardian the great brave canine who lay with ever watchful eyes upon his small, unappreciative wards. We were unaware of how some outsider, passing through, watching our world through the tinted glass of an overpriced automobile, might have considered us. Poor. Indigent. Pitiable.

I suddenly resent the two of them. Their derision and judgement, so callously delivered to one from the very tribe they berate, is palpable to me. I sit with them, yet apart. The separation between the child in the street and the billionaire in the car is so small, a knife edge could not slide between them, yet, the chasm can be a physical barrier, impossible to cross.

The door opens, and a group of women exit the gala, their voices trilling in my direction, slightly intoxicated by the free wine. I feel alone, isolated, a man on a tower, behind walls of gauze and stone. I am glad for my time in the dirt.

South

The air smelled of wood smoke and leaf rot. I ran round the side of the mountain in what every small boy growing up in Appalachia knew was the fastest way to the top. It was futile to struggle straight up the side of those steeply pitched eroded plateaus. That was a sure way to recognize an outsider – as if it weren’t easy enough as it were. Within one sentence, spoken without our distinct accent that has been butchered by so many in Hollywood attempts to reconstruct our way of life for the amusement of the masses, an outsider was recognizable for what they were. Someone not from here. It was rare that the distinction need be determined by a single-minded determination to claw ones’ way straight up the side of a hill.

Going down, well, that was another matter. When we were kids, my brothers and I would dare one another to see how far we could jump down the side of a mountain. The terrain was so steep that you could be aloft for what seemed forever, skimming down, down the pitched earth, dry leaves rustling in your wake, your body only scant inches over the ground. It was exhilarating, maddening, frightening and bound to end up with one of us bruised and banged from landing in rocks. We would fling ourselves anyway, heedless of potential injury, yelling with glee as we defied gravity, sans parachute, with altitude our only hindrance.   

None of that was on my mind at that moment, although I would surely think of it again, after my race against the sun was over. I had just discovered a new cliff face, and like any mountain boy, it had to be climbed, again, and over again, until it was familiar territory, every nook, cranny and face explored and poked and excavated. I also had to see, simply must watch, the sun set off the top of my new fortress of solitude.

I was out of breath when I reached the top. Small wonder. I had just sprinted over a thousand feet up in vertical elevation, the last eighty or so literally straight up a rock chimney. It was a feat that would no doubt leave my adult self exhausted and sore for weeks, provided I had the courage to perform it. I faced out, west, watching the sun fall behind the mountains that marked the divide between counties in my small part of the world, thinking that someday, soon, I would follow that sun, see where it went.

Most of my books, beloved and dog-eared, described great adventures to be had in the direction of the setting sun. West, they would have you believe, is where all red-blooded American boys wanted to go, to the great painted deserts, to the endless prairies and the mighty Mississippi, further, onward, to the great Pacific Ocean, where you could ride giant waves generated by thousands of miles of storm cells building across the fetch of the great water. North was also just as magical, if not more so, with the frozen tundra and great white bears and endless miles of ice and suffering and adventure and kayaks and schooners frozen into glaciers while the men aboard slowly starved and read books and ate raw seal and dreamed of warm feet.

My gaze, inexplicably, did not hold in either of those compass delineations. Instead, inevitably, my wandering eye, even then destined to roam, turned south. To me, in my childhood imagination, south was a land of even greater adventures, where one could simply get lost in the swamps of the Everglades, wander the dunes of the Carolinas, or run the high trails, as my ancestors did, of the mighty spine of the Appalachian Mountains all the way into Georgia, then south and east into the sandy beaches where beautiful women were whispered to be, tanned and golden from the sun, where money was had to be gained and lost.

South was Mexico, a land of spicy foods and fish and beaches and cliffs and pirates. South was the Caribbean, where pirates still plied their desperate trade. This was the direction of derelict wanderers and warriors alike, where schooners were not frozen in ice, their occupants reduced to mad scribblings upon the dried skins of seals, destined to wait, helplessly, for springs thaw. No, South was where a man could drive his own destiny, unencumbered by the desperate plight of winter, nor chained as a slave to the mad longings of some greedy mine owner to the depths of the earth, clawing at the veins of coal, scrabbling for a living, emerging from the darkness as barely lit broken things, steaming of the muck of extinct swamps and long dead creatures.

South was my sirens song, as I clung to the branches from my perch high above all I knew. I dreamt of Miami, of Costa Rica, of surfboards and senoritas, of cenotes and monkeys and perfect, peaking waves. That was where the Incans were, and the Mayans, and the old ones whispered of in the legends past, dim mists of time forgotten. There was no predicting what one would find buried beneath the jungles and beaches and lost, remote, high mountain plains, blown dry and desolate with longing for an age long since passed.

Now, every chance I get, I go south. Nowhere else will do. My eternal compass points in that direction, always. On silent, cold, dreary, mindless short days when sunshine and warmth seem distant and impossible, when not a fire can be lit, I dream of the waves, the sand, the beaches, the food.

This winter was no different. My wife and I, silent partners in our fascination for the warmth of the equatorial sun, set out for the Yucatan, where eons ago a celestial body of colossal dimensions slammed altering the face of our planet forever. We rode jungle trails, celebrated a wedding with a family we adore, basked in the sun, and avoided tourist hordes as if we feared some contagion, brought about by their sunscreen smeared blank stares. We ate, we lived, we saw, and we went home – to restlessly place our port sides to the setting sun, and stare into the Chesapeake, dreaming once again of adventure.

 

Religion, Fear and Education

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Sometime between 1994 and 1997, I changed. I abandoned my own upbringing and beliefs instilled in me by our community and people for a certain quest, you may say. I was in search for some definition of me, of what I believed, and became a bit of a Doubting Thomas and Jonah rolled through the maple and oak leaves of the fall as hunting season approaches. I doubted my own values, systems of belief and a black and white interpretation of right and wrong. Through this new lens, I viewed the world in shades of gray, with good and evil to be experienced wherever I traveled and within everyone I met. I held no satisfaction in things once important to me. My bank account no longer mattered, nor did the clothes I wore, what I drove or in whose company I was with. Race became background chatter and I embraced all beliefs as a version of the truth as interpreted by people: People just like anyone else, just of different color and sometimes, startling different versions of morality.

The more I learned, the degrees I achieved, the knowledge imparted by their pursuit, the less important nearly everything seemed. My own life, even. Confronted by the realities of a mathematically possible infinite universe, the diversity of life in all environments, and the cruelty of man, I chose to run. Where I learned that our species can be capable of the greatest imaginable cruelty along with unselfish acts of love.

Where? Where can you go in flight of yourself? Nowhere could I find. I made my own geographical mental map of the majority of the continental U.S., down the Baja Peninsula from L.A. to Cabo. I watched pilot fish swim in front of schools of Great Whites as Mexicana Surfers chased their own dreams down the sparkling blue faces of waves generated by energy let go in some seismic event thousands of miles away. I discovered that you could indeed eat fish raw, right out of the ocean, that Tequila was different from climate to microclimate, that the small could infinitely large and that I truly understand what every human must face: Despite their pursuit of knowledge, piety, money or any other physical manifestations of pride: It didn’t matter. In the end, I understood less in the aftermath of nearly ten years of wandering, seeking, exploring and searching than I did when I began.

In 1999, I think, I was spending time in Apalachicola, FL and St. George’s Island, just off the coast. In those days, picking up spending money was easy: Just write an application of intent to study something like fractal mechanics or sand dune migration or interspecies relationships in isolated environments, and bam, Uncle Sam wrote a check. I was low that one morning. The sunrise had not cheered me and I was floundering with writing and trying to get a grip on the concept of faith.

I took a kayak over to my study area and checked the gauges. The beauty of the morning was leaving me speechless. I was covered in salt spray and brown from the sun, so much so that I barely recognized myself when I saw a mirror, which was rarely. The sun lit up the water like glass and a school of dolphins played around my boat. I sat still, as motionless as I could, watching them play and call to one another in another language. My feelings of loneliness and doubt fell away like leaves from a tree in the spring, when the old is replaced by the new.

My traveling days were essentially over. I pursued them relentlessly for years, then went home to Appalachia. Now, thanks to relentless good luck and the kindness of so many people, I reside on the Eastern Shore, for the now. I get to watch my son, a true blessing from God, play in the sand with my beautiful wife.

My message is simple. To be at one with your faith, your belief, you must first shed your fear. Our society is bombarded by it – from ISIS to Ebola to school shootings to terrorist threats – in the grand scheme of our lives and our relationship with the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed, and so many others; does any of it matter? Truly? Our lives are too short to live in fear of any kind, and sometimes, it takes facing your greatest fear headlong, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, where we all truly reside, from the moment our precarious existence begins until it ends.

The people of Nicaragua and Costa Rica have a saying: “Pura Vida.” Loosely translated, it means, live for the day. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Peace and love are all that matters.

In closing, what I’m trying to say here, if anything is to be said at all, is that I refuse to be defined by this disease that I battle daily. I will not give up, and I will not succumb to self-pity. Nor will I fear anything, ever.

RM

The Forgotten Generation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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