This is kind of a weird month. On one hand, life and work are going well and the holidays haven’t brought with them any unnecessary stress. Our trip back to see my in-laws in Richmond was great, the travel went smoothly, and things are peaceful around the homestead. A very distinct counterpoint to the holiday peace is a sudden influx of death-related events. Thankully, unlike the insane losses in 2009, none of these are immediate family members. I already shared about one…my friend from my wild teen years who went nuts and killed 2 people during my senior year in high school…he died in prison earlier this year and I wrote a post about it a couple of months ago. I managed to find out how he died via info I got from a family friend more recently. Basically, as I may or may not have mentioned in the previous post, as a lifer he managed to climb to the top of the ladder in the state pen’s faction of the Aryan Brotherhood, and one of the benefits was having an unwilling concubine bunked with him. Apparently he was sexually abusing/raping this guy for a period of time before the fellow got transferred to another cell. After his transfer he bided his time, got a job in the cafeteria, and eventually got the opportunity to poison my old cohort. Real HBO Oz series shit there…..poisoned him to death. No BS, that’s the real story. Honestly, I didn’t have any kind of emotional reaction when I heard it, I mean, the only reason I ever checked the Kansas prisoner database was to make sure he never left prison. And in the end, he never did. A violent end to a wasted, violent life. Roll credits.
Then last week I was checking out a cigar bulletin board I used to obsessively frequent for years. I was really, really into cigars for a long time, and to some degree I still am. Real cigar smokers are generally pretty cool and generous people, so I made a lot of online friends and once or twice every year I’d drive or fly somewhere to get together with a bunch of them for some high-end partying. There was one notoriously hilarious guy named Bobby from New Jersey who was pretty much the life of the party every time…..the guy who would make you regret going back to your hotel room at 5am because of the legendary antics that would surely take place right after you left. Jersey guy, gold chains, shiny shirts….connoisseur of fine booze, cigars, “skoon-gee-lee” salad, and an Italian delicacy known as Gordina that I have yet to find anywhere besides from his mother’s kitchen. So a few years have passed since the biggest, most insane parties out on the east coast….where we basically took over a couple of floors of a hotel and the hosts would literally rent out the sports bar for us for the whole weekend….and the main forum where we all used to hang online has turned to shit due to the usual moderator problems. I’ll pass by from time to time to see who still posts in the newly sanitized version of what was once a great online community, and it’s generally depressing, boring, and annoying because the new “community leaders” are the ones who cried to the mods until all of the bad men like my buddy Bobby and many others began to disappear. I mean, when you know what a Photoshop genius a guy like Bobby is, common sense dictates you don’t put stupid pictures of yourself on the site….and if you do, don’t go crying to the mods when the inevitable cock-growing-out-of-your-chin-at-your-daughter’s-graduation pic shows up. So anyway, no mystery where this is headed….I logged on last week to find out Bobby had just died from a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Bam. And that was that. Not my closest confidant, not a family member, but definitely someone everyone I know has heard stories about, as well as one of the few people I’ve ever met who could truly, genuinely, make me laugh out loud at will. His legend was larger than life. And then he was just gone.
Then, following shortly on the heels of the news Bobby had died, came the third story in a series that has to represent some kind of Dickens Christmas Carol-level psychic lesson I’m supposed to be learning. I don’t want to be an egomaniac and think that it all has to have some grandiose meaning for ME, but at the same time I want to glean whatever wisdom I can from each situation and learn from it because, HOPEFULLY, these scenarios won’t continue to play out every damn year. Anyway, I was sitting in the Saturday 8am AA meeting at my hall, which is still one of my favorite weekly events, and sure as hell…..I got some news that was more distressing in many ways than the other two events. When you are in the program, as old-timers will always confirm, you meet people who go back out drinking and wind up dead pretty quickly. Since I started AA, I know of one girl I never met who had just died when I joined. Then last year there was a girl who I’d sat in some meetings with, my wife actually attended her first step during an open meeting, and she sat at our table during last year’s anniversary party. I didn’t know her well at all, she seemed like a sweet kid who really struggled with her sobriety, and while it’s only speculation that alcohol was involved, she wrapped a car around a bridge pylon coming home from a bar in the middle of the night earlier this year. But until this week I never had anyone “I knew” go back out and die. So we were going around the table sharing, and someone mentioned something about “losing Rick” this week….and the way the people who knew about it talked, this was obviously one of the Rick’s with whom I was familiar. His picture was on the bulletin board, and I hadn’t noticed it when I came so I didn’t want to be rude in the middle of the meeting and go up to confirm who it was. In my mind I was really hoping it wasn’t the Rick I was thinking of……a really nice, deep thinking fifty-something guy I’d sat in a million noon meetings with while I was unemployed. He’d obviously been in and out of the program several times from the way he talked, but he seemed really, really solid in his program. Unfortunately, when I went to look at the picture it was the same Rick. In addition, once I found out what had happened to him it was even more depressing because I remembered talking to my wife and to people at work a few days prior about “another idiot on the news who decided to try and cross the highway at I-29 and Barry Road and got killed”. Rick was the guy. Went back out, and never came back.
So where is the meaning in all of this? How does it relate to ME, here in the center of the universe? Who the hell knows. People die. Some in ways they have no control over, and some after they completely lose control. All I really know to do in all of this is try to learn what I can when I can and just live in a manner where I am someone whom I can stand to be around.
There is something very centering and reassuring about having a program that weaves itself in and around all of the good and all of the bad aspects of your life. Reading a lot of comments from a Sanjay Gupta CNN article on “Alcoholics Anonymous and Spirituality”, I’m reminded that many people who have no real connection to AA or actual knowledge of the program think of this reassurance as a “crutch” or “replacing one addiction for another”…..”being too weak minded to just quit, so you join a cult instead”….it’s pretty amazing what you find out about modern society when you read comments from a major blog. All I know is this- I am living a life now that requires me to take a constant personal inventory, and with the help of this program I face the negative aspects in a manner that allows me to grow while changing what I can, and experience the same kind of growth by living with what I can’t. A big part of this inventory requires you to take ownership of the consequences surrounding the people, places and things you negatively impacted with your addiction. I’ve been sober almost 18 months, and I am just now at Step 9….some people go faster, some go slower…I’m thankful to have a sponsor that has pretty much let me go at a pace that allows for a lot of growth without becoming stagnant. The long road to step 5 allowed me to have a “real” life-changing experience when I completed it, so I have approached steps 8 and 9 in the same manner. As I was going through my life thinking of people who had been affected by my addiction, the list never got too long once I understood this wasn’t about compiling every damn instance of stepping on a guy’s foot in a bar…..this is a list of people and situations that “make you pause”. If it bothers you at all, or you have to question whether it should be on the list….it probably belongs on the list. As someone who was more than willing to destroy himself in solitude, I really didn’t carve a swath of destruction that resulted in broken lives, arrests, or any of the really big cliché’s you think of when you think of an out of control drinker. What I did was brutalize a few close friendships with the narrow minded, living-in-a-glass-house selfishness that comes with addiction. I made people who love me the most worry about me, and my level of self-absorption and selfishness kept them from doing anything but managing the situation through denial. While I was a funny drunk and jovial character to people outside my closest circle, I used the fact that “people love me” as an excuse to steamroll over everyone nearest to me. I made people crazy with worry, I took my frustration and self-hatred out on some by burning bridges, and I was generally completely unavailable. The family events and gatherings of friends that were not centered around alcohol were all negotiable in my mind….there was always an excuse to miss a birthday, a holiday, or anything that required me to think that it might really mean a lot to someone just to have me be there. Those are the things that kill you, and you can’t get them back. But what you can do is own it and be willing to make it right. Step 9.
Okay, this is called “the amends dinner”, so I guess I should talk about that. It was bugging me that I hadn’t had a “real” dinner at my house in a while. And by “real” I mean the kind where I drive myself insane for two weeks ahead of time. Having some old friends over sounded like fun this time of year, so I went into the wayback machine and picked people who have known me for a long time and have been there during some of the major stages of my life, from ministry to the porn kingdom, to today. No sense in rehashing the amends portion, it would kind of defeat the purpose of doing it to some degree and would mean nothing to anyone besides the parties involved. In this case, both relationships were witness to lots, and lots and TONS of instances where the booze and assorted favors brought out the most hilarious and the most grievous parts of my personality. So hey, now that we’re all grown up and married, on our own solid paths, let’s break bread and share some laughs…..
When I was in Richmond with my wife for Thanksgiving, a friend of ours mentioned seeing a recipe for “bacon jam” on the internet. So of course, the first thing I did when I got back to KC was look it up. It was pretty much the first thing I put on the menu, and since I know people will want it, here’s the recipe- http://www.notquitenigella.com/2009/10/08/bacon-jam-your-wildest-dreams-come-true/ . It is insane, and delicious, and as necessary for life as we know it as it sounds. Bacon Jam…you cook a pound of bacon, onions, garlic, spices, coffee, maple syrup, brown sugar, and other goodness down to less than a cup of “jam”. It isn’t just the deliciousness that gets you, it’s the fact that you wonder HOW IN THE HELL you hadn’t heard of it before, and at that point the real danger begins……the sheer number of practical applications starts to boggle the mind and turn everything upside down. Bacon Jam. It is the shit. It is why we love food. Sooo….I had to think of the perfect thing to pair it with, because it’s way too rich and potent to just sit there eating it by the spoonful. Last year I saw a recipe for herb and cheddar poppers in Bon Appetit that I’ve been wanting to try. I hate to bake, and they are kind of involved, so it took a major dinner to prompt me to make them. They really aren’t hard to make….it’s buttermilk biscuit dough with plenty of frozen butter grated into it, then you flatten it out into a square, cover 2/3 of the square with a mixture of cheddar and freshly minced herbs, tri-fold it onto itself, flatten it back out into a big square, and repeat the process a total of 4 times. Once it’s flattened back out, you cut the biscuits into bite sized squares and bake them. Whammo- the perfect foil for the bacon jam. In short, people lost their damn minds. If I haven’t mentioned it yet…..bacon jam. If you don’t make it, I think Homeland Security should investigate you.
Quick shot of the biscuits and jam….
Keeping in line with the pork fat goodness, for the appetizer I decided to try Thomas Keller’s Pork Belly Confit recipe. It’s a big time involvement, but pretty easy, and insanely cheap for such an impressive dish. You just take a big hunk of raw skin-on pork belly, brine it for about ten hours in an herb and honey-heavy mixture, bake it for about six hours at 200 degrees submerged in lard. Yeah, don’t back up and read that again…..I said submerged in lard….that’s how you do it or it wouldn’t be “confit”. Once it’s falling apart tender, you take it out, let it come to around room temperature, cover it with plastic and weight it, then put it in the fridge until it’s a big solid block. When you’re ready to cook it, you cut it out of the lard, slice off the skin, cut it into squares (or thick bacon-ish slices like I did below) and then saute over low heat until it’s good and crisp. Pair it with some texture, some sour, some sweet, bitter, etc…..stuff to lift the fatty richness, because it is A) insanely fatty, and B) paralyzingly rich. I thought I may have gone too far out of the box choosing this recipe, but once again, people lost their damn minds.
Paired with various flavors to make you forget you are basically eating crispy seared pork fat…
For the main course, I had this awesome Wagyu beef brisket in my freezer just waiting for an appropriate occasion, so I did it “two ways”. I took the point of the brisket and slow smoked it for about 13 hours for burnt ends, and then I took the flat and braised it in a mixture of tomato, aromatics and root beer for about 7 hours and used the braising liquid as a base for the sauce. It was accompanied with simple roasted asparagus with good balsamic, and panko breaded and sauteed chive risotto cakes. This was a good dish, but I was way happier with the burnt ends than the root beer braised flat……but it’s probably because it is just stupid to try and put ANYTHING up against good burnt ends…..
I totally forgot to take a picture, but my wife did a great dessert called Hummingbird Cake, that has a lot of elements you find in a good spice cake and carrot cake. Bananas and pineapple in the batter, and it has a cream cheese frosting. Very good, and in keeping with the over the top food coma theme….
So here we are back to the holidays. Lots of change in 2010, and most of it very positive. Strong marriage, employment, great friendships, new hobbies, and an ever-growing life perspective thanks to the tenets of AA. I’ve tried to stop over-thinking all of the good and the bad….normally I’d try and put myself at the center of all of it. But this is just life. It keeps going whether you are onboard with it or not, so the wise choice is to grab onto the good stuff while you can and know it will eventually return when you are facing the bad. I don’t want this to sound morbid, but most of us aren’t going to be remembered for that much once we’re gone, outside of the lives we’ve impacted and the people we’ve known. And outside of stumbling onto unexpected money, fame, fortune and cures for cancer, if we don’t leverage “the right now”, we’ll miss out on life while we are waiting for the unattainable cool shit that we THINK will justify our existence. As I work through step 9, taking credit for all of the bullshit is a big part of taking action. And there isn’t really any way to correctly think of amends in terms of getting it over with and going back to normal….for me, I want people to know this is just a small part of a bigger journey, and that as I take ownership I’m willing to do what it takes to make it right. Saying I’m sorry is great, but without a big shift in thought patterns and priorities, there really is no point. That’s what makes the program tough at times, and what makes it necessary to keep going to meetings and “working it’. It sounds simplistic and to many very cult-like, but as those who know me can attest to, I’m still basically the person I’ve always been…just more responsible and much calmer. I will always howl with laughter at some pretty sick shit….like the poster I saw online last night with Anne Frank’s smiling face in the middle and the caption “I love Doritos, but they are SO LOUD!”. But my juvenile sense of humor aside, when I was in church I never found the kind of day to day peace and calm I’ve found in the program. Part of that my fault I’m sure, but mostly I believe that fundamentalism trades reflection and improvement of self with hyper-emotionalism and a philosophy of fear-based works and competition. Sure, I meet plenty of dry drunks in AA, but it doesn’t come close to the number of “Christians” I’ve known who profess great faith and works but do not have the ability to grow past their own fear, anger, resentment, unforgiveness and greed. Getting “washed in the blood of Jesus” can be one huge cop-out if the core of someone’s behavior doesn’t continue to change and grow in a tangible, conscious manner. When something I’ve done “gives me pause” (which is at the core of steps 8 and 9), I don’t want to be someone who looks to the sky and begs for forgiveness and help to change, I want to be someone who takes the most direct and practical action to fix the issue and use THAT process as the connection to my spirituality.
And with that I wish you all Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, solstice, all the Jew-stuff, you know the drill. Here’s to a happy and fruitful 2011 for all of us.