Dear Chef

Dear Chef,

This note is one I think I’ve been composing drafts of in my heart for years.  I’ve expressed it in pieces before, in hugs and smiles and words of thanks, but never in a whole.  And I know that the best of you, the ones who are dearest to me, don’t require or request this note or any payment, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write this, for you deserve this and more.

Too often, your work goes unappreciated or underappreciated.  You are frequently the one who misses the special times before and after—and even during—a meal or a celebration because you are hard at work making it a success.  You are like the best of commanders: the first to come and the last to leave.  Sometimes you let us lend a hand with the prepping, place setting, or the washing up.  But usually you silently do the majority of the work while we are distracted or after we leave.  You are generous and humble and so hard to thank.  If I want to help afterwards, I often have to be sneaky and wash dishes when you leave for a minute or when your back is turned.

You may be a stranger whom I never meet who cheers me on my way.  I may never see your face.  You may not find joy in your job, but I hope you know our gratitude at times and can see the way you bless others.  More often, you are my mother, grandmothers, and even siblings, father, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends.  My impulse would be to say that your meals are the dearest without a doubt (and they are), but I realize there’s another kind of specialness I cherish when the work of strangers means we can all share the meal together without leaving anyone behind in the kitchen cooking before and cleaning after.  I don’t think I’ve realized before how grateful I am, or should be, to those who make these moments and memories possible.

While the food made at home with love has a sweetness all its own, the people are the crown of every occasion, and often they are you, the one whose labor brings others together around a table and helps the smiles, joy, good food, and laughter all come together.

When something burns, when the menu doesn’t go according to plan, when you worry there won’t be enough or the right kinds of food, when you make a mistake in a recipe, when you are scrubbing hardened rice from a dish, when you are cleaning up after everyone has left, please know how much I love you, how much you mean to us, and how grateful I am for the sacrifices you make.

Even though I sometimes forget to express it openly, I appreciate you and what you do.  You are a blessing.  This is for you.  Thank you.

‘Coon

Dad still insists – and will likely insist until his dyin’ day – that his old huntin’ dogs Andy and CC, were perfectly sane, model examples of squirrel dogs – or would have been if not for being “hot-nosed,” “high-strung,” or some other colloquialism. Never mind Dad once had to literally dig Andy out of a hole where he had wedged himself in and was slowly suffocating trying to reach a possum that was somewhere at the other end. CC was equally as unhelpfully tenacious; she once bit my brother Adam’s (ex) girlfriend’s dog on the rear end and refused to let go, forcin’ Adam to pry her jaws open. Both dogs had an adversarial relationship with Adam, Andy especially. In addition to jumpin’ out of the truck on Adam’s watch and gettin’ lost for more than a week, Andy also had the annoying habit of swimming laps across the fishin’ pond and disturbin’ the water every time Adam was out there tryin’ to catch something.

But they were Dad’s dogs and he was fond of them, and, I must admit, he could usually persuade them to find a squirrel. A single squirrel, that was usually found not by any craft or cunnin’, but by accidentally trippin’ over it.

And then there was this one time that it was Adam’s last Christmas break of his college career. This would have been a wistful event under any circumstance, but was made even more so because he was about to take a job more than a thousand miles away. So, for his sake, I decided to forgo a nice relaxin’ day surrounded by my holiday loot, and instead volunteered to go squirrel huntin’ with my him and my dad. Dad arose at some unspecified 0-dark-thirty hour, I flung myself out of bed at seven, Adam lurched down the hallway at seven-thirty, and we set off for the Bottom at eight, dogs in tow.

“The Bottom” is what everybody back home calls the acres and acres and acres of woods just south of here, through which San Miguel creek runs, which the locals, includin’ myself, pronounce “Sammy Gil.” These hills and the bottom-lands in between are divided between various folks’ barbed-wire fences and “Posted” signs. As we got to the border of our own tract, Adam jumped out and opened a gate, and we drove into our land. We dismounted at the Old House Place, named so because my great-grandparents lived there back before their house burnt down. Their yellow daffodils still bloom under the big magnolia tree.

We let Andy and C.C. jump down from the back of the truck and take off runnin’, while Adam and Dad adjusted their guns. I never carried a gun myself, havin’ no fondness for loud explosions and a demonstration of Newton’s Third Law of Motion right next to my ear. Instead, my job was to be the “vine-shaker.” I would find a vine hangin’ from the tree, shake it, and hope that a squirrel up in there would move, be seen, and thus be shot. Yes, a dead squirrel did once fall in my hair.

But on this particular trip, we had no such luck. Andy and CC didn’t cooperate with our commands to branch out into the woods and sniff out squirrels like they were supposed to. Instead, they ran straight down the road, frolickin’ about, enjoying the fine January weather. Eventually, we managed to lose ‘em, and so Dad, Adam and myself found a nice log and sat down.

I was drawin’ flowers in the dirt, Dad was gazin’ at the ground, and Adam was starin’ off into the distance when we heard it: a nondescript, respectable bark from Andy, coupled with CC’s high-pitched, frantic “EEEYEP! AYEEEE AYEEEEP!”

We took off. Dad barreled his way through whatever underbrush, branches and almost-trees that stood in his way, while Adam and I had to circle ‘round saplin’s and trip over roots. Eventually, we found the dogs starin’ up a big pine tree.

“Oh, I love big ol’ pine trees,” Dad said with sarcastic enthusiasm – these trees have furry-looking leaf silhouettes and dark bark that squirrels can easily hide in. However, Andy and CC hadn’t made up their minds. They barked at the pine, then barked at the oak, and finally sniffed up an entirely different tree, and none of us humans could locate any creature of any sort up any tree. We departed the vicinity, with Dad askin’ the dogs what was wrong with them.

He continued to ask them that through a series of other failed tree-ings. Discouraged, and about to go home, Dad noted to his human children: “Well, it’s a purty day.”

“I had fun!” I offered.

Adam, on the other hand, had a different philosophy. “I came to the woods to kill somethin’,” he growled.

My brother you, see, is a lover of nature. He loves making friends with lizards and fillin’ feeders for birds and adoptin’ stray cats, and also meanderin’ through our ancestral woods, shootin’ authorized fauna and dinin’ on his quarry. So, he was a tad disappointed by the barrenness of the day.

Until the dogs started barking. Really barking. In retrospect, we should have know that such frantic bays could lead to little good, but we took off through the woods till we stumbled on the dogs havin’ conniptions at the base of a huge, barren oak.

“I see it,” Adam said.

“Where?”

“Well, I can only see the tail.”

I found a vine, and on Adam’s signal, started shakin’ it. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

You see, Dad’s nickname for Adam is “Lead-Slinger.” He shoots early, he shots often, and he shoots accurately. If you eat any of the squirrels he brings back, be prepared to spit out a lot of lead.

“There it is!” Adam cried

Boom!

“There’s another one!”

Boom!

“There’s two of them!”

Boom! Boom!

Like Wile E. Coyote transfixed by a fallin’ anvil, I saw two large shapes fallin’ down at me from the tree. But, being smarter than that particular coyote, I took off runnin’. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that wasn’t no squirrel fallin’.

Bump. Bump.

“Adam, boy, those’re ‘coons!” Dad exclaimed, holding up what was indeed a pair of coon cadavers.

“For goodness sake, Adam!” I admonished.

“Poor ‘coons, Adam shootin’ at ‘em,” Dad said.

“I didn’t know it was a ‘coon!” Adam protested, “All I could see was the tail!”

“Poor ‘coon,” Dad repeated.

The dogs likewise decided that it was Adam’s fault they had decided to corner a pair of coons, and wagged their tails judgmentally.

Well, waste not, want not. Adam had set off in the mornin’ on a quest to find lunch, and was determined to find said lunch no matter what unusual form it took. So, he brought the ‘coons home, skinned ‘em, seasoned ‘em, and barbecued e’m.

It was not the best meat I’ve ever tasted, but it is one of the best stories I’ll ever tell.

When the Wind Blows

“What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile. So, Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag -And smile, smile, smile.”

Jim Bloggs singing to his wife Hilda

The Berlin Wall fell 31 years ago—the conclusion to a long and brutal struggle. It marked the end of an conflict that twisted the world for 42 years—dominating public policy, spending, and aggression, all the while casting the shadow of nuclear proliferation across the entire globe. Now, in all honesty, I had to look up when the Cold War started, and more significantly, when the Berlin Wall fell—and while there may be many out there who do know these dates, I would venture a guess that my experience is probably more normative than any historian would be happy with; but, for my own generation, and probably well before me, the Cold War is a fixed piece of history—not personal, but a story we read in a history book. It is equivalent to reading about the symptoms of cancer from a textbook, as opposed to having that personal relationship with a loved one or friend fighting for their life. One is impersonal/dispassionate, the other incredibly emotionally charged. It almost feels experientially as if the purported words of a top world leader of the mid-twentieth century ring true: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”

Raymond Briggs, a British author and illustrator, is most famous for his children’s books, such as The Snowman. However, despite rising to fame related to his works for children, in 1982 he published the adult graphic novel When the Wind Blows. This novel stands in a unique place for fiction -humanizing an era that is often relegated to clinical analysis and anti-Vietnam diatribes. Set during the Cold War, the novel follows Jim and Hilda Bloggs, an elderly couple living in England. They have a single son, residing in the city, but are otherwise unattached and enjoying the retired life. Life is normal, that is until the USSR launches a nuclear assault on the West, spiraling England, and the Bloggs, into an apocalyptic unknown. Now, When the Wind Blows is unquestionably a critique of the effects of nuclear escalation and government bungling, but not in an angry or overly political way. Unlike the majority of media put out during the Cold War decades which relied on anger and fear as the primary emotions to drive change (give Black Sabbath’s classic song “War Pigs” a listen sometime), Briggs relies on pure, everyday, normal, humanity to drive his point home. As Jim and Hilda navigate a post-fallout reality, the reader is shown the little ways that they care for one another, fuss over each other, and love one another, even as the world around them is crumbling. Raymond’s time as a children’s illustrator really shines on these pages, combining his simple and pure illustrations with the broken and sobering subject-matter gives the panels an emotionally haunting quality that is unique and powerful.

When the Wind Blows is not a ‘happy’ story; in fact, it is the most beautifully tragic graphic novel I have ever read. Raymond did his homework whenever writing the 40 some-odd pages the story spans, and his depictions of such things as disaster preparedness, radiation sickness, and deprivation are eerily accurate and emotionally haunting when painted in his unique art style. However, the most impactful aspects of the story are easily the main protagonists Jim and Hilda: their interactions, and gentle, loving, ‘normalness’. Tragedy and destruction were not new in 1982 when Raymond Briggs published his book, and they are no stranger today either, but what When the Wind Blows forces us to remember is that catastrophe is never just a number -every number has faces behind it. If we forget that, then we agree with Josef Stalin that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”

An Easter Tulip

Happy Easter, dear readers!  I hope you are staying safe and well.  As many of us are having to worship from home this Easter, I wanted to share this tulip photo I snapped and a poem I wrote as a way to celebrate the joy of Easter with you.


“An Easter Tulip”

The only good I do is through the grace of God, who,

Undeserving as I was, chose me as his own, and

Loveless creature though I am, he set his love on me.

If he had not pursued me, I would yet be lost, but

Peace with him is ever mine, for Christ has paid the cost!

What Doesn’t Kill You…

I braced myself for the weight of the bar. I’d been doing bench press for a while–if you’ve never bench pressed before, here’s a basic fact sheet:

  • It’s an exercise that people (mostly men) do in order to have big chests in order to impress other people (mostly men).
  • It makes it easier to participate in conversations where someone might ask, “How much can you bench?” (translation: what is the maximum weight that you have ever brought to your chest and then pushed towards the sky) “Well, my 1-rep max in college was 170.” (translation: the most I’ve ever done is 170 pounds)
  • “Bench press” involves lying flat on a bench, grasping a bar over your chest, lowering it to your chest, and then pressing the weight back up (I’m not describing this in order to be condescending; this description is for all the sheltered nerds like me who grew up never going to a gym and never learning this essential life skill)

The jargon of weightlifters starts making a lot of sense after a while, which is fortunate and unfortunate. Because familiarity with the jargon and basic movement is not the same as skill.

Back to the story about me bracing myself for the weight of the bar. When I bench press, I line up my ring fingers with the smooth bands that wrap around the bar in 2 places: this ensures that the weight is evenly balanced on both sides of me. With my feet firmly planted and chest inflated like a lobster (they have big chests, right?), I lifted the bar from the rack above my nose and, arms still locked, moved the bar into position. The ideal position for me is above the “big” part of my chest. Then, it’s a matter of drawing the bar down to my chest until the bar touches; and then explosively contracting the chest and arms to push the weight back up.

At some point during this particular session, I overloaded myself. I attempted to press the weight back up from my chest, and my body gave out. It was an uncomfortable feeling as the weight dropped automatically back to my chest and lay there, pinning me to the bench. Normally, more serious weightlifters would have a workout buddy to “spot” them (keep an eye on them throughout the set to assist in case they lose control of the weight), but I didn’t have a spotter.

I carefully tilted the bar to one side until the weights of that side rested on the ground, then pried myself out from under the bar, and re-racked the weight. No injuries, and a valuable lesson learned!

I thought of motivational slogans, which I had always thought and now KNEW to be rubbish: “We are always stronger than we know.”

Well, sometimes, we aren’t stronger than we know. Sometimes, we decide to lift too much weight, collapse under the weight, and either have to pry ourselves out of the situation or yell at a friend to come help us.

Don’t buy the hype. And, if you do want to lift heavy weights, find a workout buddy.