Ollie Who?

 

“So who’s been to the Panama Canal?  Can I see a show of hands?”

I looked around cautiously.  Of the 20+ folks in the room; myself and the lecturer were the only ones with our hands down. The lecturer, an imposing gentleman with the memorable name of Myles Standish, shrugged his shoulders and announced perhaps he should plan a visit before teaching this class again.  And the class was an abbreviated history of the Panama Canal.

Welcome to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI.  Originally a creation of the Bernard Osher Foundation, OLLI has its beginnings 15 years ago, at the University of Southern Maine.  An endowment grant created the “Senior College” with a goal to improve programming geared towards early retirees.  The name was soon changed to Osher Lifelong Learning and soon after, Sonoma State University picked up the program.  Their respective programs flourished and began to spread.  OLLI now has 119 programs on college campuses across the US.  Classes at OLLI are very eclectic.  One may find anything from computer basics to bird identification to baking.  And their motto: You’re never too old to learn.

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The Charles K. Cheezem OLLI Education Center in Clemson, SC

On my visit to Clemson’s OLLI, located at the Charles K. Cheezem Center at Patrick Square, I opted for the Panama Canal class for two reasons; I’m a history buff and a huge fan of Teddy Roosevelt. And even though Myles was practically the only person in the room that hadn’t actually seen the canal, I wasn’t disappointed in the class.   A former Yale professor and retired mathematical astronomer that spent the bulk of his career at Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, CA., Myles wasn’t fazed by the fact he hadn’t been to the Canal.

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Myles Standish. The only guy I’ve ever met that has a star named after him.

“Oh, I’ll probably go later this year or next.  And when I signed up to do this class, having visited the Canal wasn’t a criteria.  I did read David McCullough’s excellent book on the subject; Path Between the Seas.”

Did I mention that Myles is a retired mathematical astronomer?  His thesis was titled “Numerical Studies of the Gravitational Problem of N Bodies.”  That’s right, he’s an interplanetary navigator.  So I wasn’t surprised that he knew his way around a Power Point presentation.

And that’s the hallmark of OLLI.  It’s a clearing house of enthusiastic, learned individuals sharing knowledge with one another.  An OLLI membership is open to anyone 50 and over (I barely qualify) and the only other requirement is curiosity.  The current course catalog at Clemson’s OLLI features such esoteric offerings as yoga, basics of the harmonica, stained glass for beginners, tai chi, and vegan cooking classes to more traditional offerings such as history lessons and advanced photography.

Myles may not have seen the Canal, yet he offered up a well-researched class on the history of the Canal and all its players.  We listened intently as he recounted the story of Ferdinand de Lesseps, successful architect of the Suez Canal.  Ferdinand convinced the French government that plowing through miles of Panamanian rain forest would be no more difficult than digging the Suez.  So Ferdinand created the Société internationale du Canal interocéanique, and two years later, it obtained a concession from the Colombian government, which then controlled the land, to dig a canal across the isthmus of Panama.  Eight years and almost 240 million dollars later, Ferdinand had completed only about a third of the work, the French government was near bankruptcy and malaria was barely understood. Enter Teddy Roosevelt!  And if you really want to know the rest of the details, Myles just might teach that class again, after he visits the Canal.

Years ago when I was a student at Southeastern Louisiana, I had a history class with Professor Roberts.  He was so enthusiastic and well-prepared for his classes, I couldn’t wait to sit down.  He had an uncanny ability to bring history to life and I left his classroom always wanting more.  And that’s how I felt after leaving the OLLI class.  Although I was the youngest participant, and the least traveled; I learned so many details on the canal that I left feeling like I was leaving Professor Roberts class.

Now I’m hooked.  For a small fee, one can sign up for a year’s membership and get on the OLLI mailing list.  Classes are very inexpensive, prices average about $25.00.  They also host outings and travel adventures which are priced accordingly.  And they’re constantly hosting classes.  It’s a characteristic of this generation, they hate to stand still.  And they’re constantly learning.

Clemson University has hosted an OLLI program since 2002 and in 2010 the program moved into its new home at the Charles K. Cheezem Center at Patrick Square.

If you’d like to know more about Clemson’s OLLI Program, just click here.

 

The Smile of a Stranger

 

After the rain broke, I took a short bike ride on the Swamp Rabbit trail. I slowed for an approaching cyclist at the intersection of Wardlaw Street. A kid on a beat-up ten speed bike (an old Schwinn) came flying down Wardlaw. He jammed on the brakes, skidded onto the SRT, stood on the pedals and took off. I started to close the gap, not because I wanted to race, more out of curiosity. Who is this kid absolutely flying on this ancient bike? He twisted his head around and saw me closing so he pushed harder. I geared up and closed on him. I slowed considerably for the crossing at Willard, at the CSX train depot, but he twisted that bike for all it was worth. He scrambled across the wet train tracks then stood up and pushed hard across the wooden foot bridge. The WET, wooden bridge. His rear tire slipped but he gathered it up with the handlebars and kept going. I eased way off because water and wood are a cyclist’s enemy. When the trail straightened out, I closed the gap, then eased off and cringed as he dodged two moms with their strollers. I closed up again. He craned his neck like an owl looking for me, then pushed his skinny legs so hard, his bike was creaking.

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As we approached the Swamp Rabbit Cafe, he slammed on the brakes and skidded into their parking lot. This kid needs some friendly advice, like it or not, he’s getting it. After planting his feet, he turned to me and smiled as big and authentic as only someone with Down’s Syndrome can. He offered me a hearty thumbs up then practically shouted: “WOW! You’re really fast, Mister!”

Thank you.  And so are you.

What are you grateful for today? A smile? A kind word? Maybe a glass of sweet tea or some advice from a friend? Perhaps you’re grateful for an old bicycle or a car with well over 100,000 miles.  I’m grateful for a chance encounter with a smiling young man who reminded me that the race isn’t always to the swift, it’s to those that can brighten the day of a stranger.

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A Tale of Two BBQ’s

 

Hudson Denney has just handed me perhaps the most memorable bite of BBQ I’ve ever had.  It’s beef brisket; tender as a poem by Byron, more complex than a fine Bordeaux, redolent with spice, smoke, acid, sweetness, and cherry wood overtones.  Hudson can tell I’m impressed by my wicked smile.  I’ve been coming to the NC BBQ Championships for ten years, and I always leave with a distinct memory of something wonderful.  If Hudson were serving this at a fine dining restaurant, diners would be barging into his kitchen to offer up kisses and accolades.  Unfortunately, at this particular venue, he won’t finish in the top ten.  And I knew this as soon as I tasted his brisket.  The judges might be impressed but they won’t consider it as sufficiently representative of North Carolina barbecue.  At last year’s event, I was fortunate enough to taste first place ribs and brisket, and I was completely underwhelmed.  Last year’s winning barbecue was very good, very tender, properly seasoned and well-balanced.  And it was also safe.  If you asked me to describe it, I’d be stumped to offer any details.  Hudson’s brisket will stay with me for a very long time.

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Hudson Denney contemplates his brisket.

My next stop was Tiger O’Rourke of Henry’s Barbecue.  As far as a BBQ success story goes, Tiger is it.  He’s been a part of Greenville’s iconic Henry’s Smokehouse for almost as long as they’ve been open.  He started as a dishwasher in 1991 and now is a partner.  Henry’s is the sort of BBQ joint that displaced Southerners pine over.

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They’ve got a real wood burning pit, mounds of succulent pulled pork, lots of pretty smiles behind the counter, Cole slaw made with Duke’s mayonnaise, and sweet tea that flows like a tapped fire hydrant in summer.  Henry’s also has a food truck, a catering service and customers lined up out the door.  I’ve talked to a lot of BBQ competitors over the years and most of them have the same dream.  They want a bricks and mortar BBQ joint, much like Henry’s.  Tiger’s brisket is wonderful. He hasn’t swung for the fence like Hudson has.  He’s taken the safe route and giving the judges what they’re looking for and he’s done an admirable job.  But there’s 75 other teams here and some of them sport multiple Grand Champion trophies.  Tiger knows what he’s up against and he’s not happy with his brisket.  He pronounces it too dry, perhaps a bit tough.  Understand that this is beef brisket an average backyard BBQ’er would practically swoon over.  But against some pretty serious competition, he knows it isn’t going to win him any trophies.

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His brisket has been on the smoker since the early morning hours and there’s little he can do at this point, so he offers me a beer.

Hudson Denney, on the other hand, has kept his day job.  He’s a partner in an IT firm and he’s in this event for the fun and glory and of course, a trophy.  Hudson’s team, Too Bad You’re My Cousin, is available for rent so he has the added incentive of selling his services through his competitive efforts.  He eyes the box of brisket he’s about to send to the judges table and laughs.  “$200 reduced to this.”  He’s just placed maybe a quarter pound of brisket in his box, yet he’s cooked many times that to get the proper amount.   “John, seriously.  Have a rib.  Or ten.”

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Each competitor has to prepare chicken, pork ribs, pulled pork and beef brisket, place a small amount in a standard Styrofoam go-box and it gets hustled to a table of six judges who may disqualify an entire box just for pooled sauce.  After Hudson hands me a bit of his brisket, one of his teammates shakes his head and labels the beef “incestuously good.”  I’m not prepared to pass judgment on that statement.  But I do know the brisket it’s not going to fly with the judges.

Competition BBQ has grown exponentially in the last ten years and that means bigger purses, more attention, and more competitors.   At this particular event, Food Network and Travel Channel both made an appearance.   Anthony Anderson stood still long enough to harass my son, Tudor.

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There’s writers, BBQ aficionados and various hangers-on, all wandering through the competition area, all hoping to taste award-winning pork.  But this sort of event isn’t for the faint of heart, or wallet.  Most of these teams practice for weeks, they take notes, carefully select their wood, carefully measure brines or spice rubs, alter their cooking style to suit their judges, then practice, practice, and practice some more.  And all this practice is time consuming.  And expensive. And at the end of the day, you may be beaten by the narrowest of margins or by a boatload of points.

“But you know what John, this is so much damn fun.  I really get a kick out of coming out here, practicing my skills and competing against the best BBQ folk in the world.  Win, place or show, I’m all about the experience.”

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And at the end of the day, neither Tiger nor Hudson finished in the money, yet they are both successful in world class BBQ.

 

 

 

 

 

A Honey of a Smile

 

Patrick Square’s Farmer’s Market was buzzing with activity yet the sky behind Liydia Vdovichenko had grown menacing.  The threat of a thunderstorm was in the air yet she wasn’t fazed.  There were shoppers with money in their hands and she had something precious for sale.  Honey.  Made by her family’s bees, gathered by the hands of her husband, Vladimir, and placed in jars by her own children.  In the mottled sunlight, it shimmered like liquid gold and if that wasn’t enough to draw in buyers, Liydia’s infectious smile and offer of a taste did the trick.

“My husband, Vladimir, came to the US in 1991 and he used to say I will never be a beekeeper.  His father, Vitaly, was a beekeeper in Uzbekistan so he grew up around bees and honey.  Vitaly would bring his bees to orchards, gardens, and vineyards and of course he brought his son along.  Vitaly also had a full time job though, so in his free time he cared for the bees.  In the growing season, a lot of famers use bees to pollinate and he would bring his bee boxes across the countryside.  He even made the frames for the hives.  And my husband, he always said he didn’t want anything to do with bees.  And now, look at this.”

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She waved her hand across the table full of pints, quarts and bees wax candles.

Bees are incredibly important, they create a critical link to an enormous amount of our food chain.  Insect-pollinated fruits and vegetables make up one third of the human diet and bees account for eighty percent of that.  Bees seek out nectar, they’ll travel from blossom to blossom and in so doing, they brush against the pollen held on flowers of all sorts of edible fruits and vegetables.  As the honey bee makes its way from flower to flower, some of the pollen from the first flower sticks to the next flower. In this way, fruits and vegetables are pollinated. Almonds, apples, avocados, blueberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, sunflowers, watermelon and many others rely on honey bees for pollination. In recent years, bees have been under assault from pesticides, disease, unseasonably cold winters and the research-confounding Colony Collapse Disorder.  And fighting the fight that keeps bees in our ecosystem are folks such as Liydia and Vladimir.

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“Bees will pollinate for two to three weeks and then they move on.  Right now we’re not contracting with any farmers so our bees go out daily and seek out pollen.  This is wild flower honey and the only thing we’ve done is filter it.  During the winter, the bees eat their honey, we typically don’t harvest much at all.  Yet now, when the flowers are blooming the bees are out there working and we’re harvesting. For us, it’s a good thing we home school the kids because they can help out, too.  Our oldest has set up a stand at another market and he’s making a percentage.  So you see, our bees have many lessons to teach us.”

We’re interrupted by a customer looking for sourwood honey, so I back up and let Liydia talk.  Sourwood honey, like other monofloral honey (honey derived predominantly from a single blossom, such as orange trees) is very precious and can be time consuming to produce.  A beekeeper may have to bring his bees to the source of the plant in order to secure enough of the essential elements of the pollen.  Sourwood trees bloom from late June to early August so a beekeeper may not have sourwood honey until the end of summer.  This customer is disappointed when she learns this yet she cannot resist Liydia’s offer of a sample.  She happily walks away with two jars.

If one is going to become a successful beekeeper, it’s not enough to produce honey, you better be able to sell honey, too.  Liydia holds up a jar of honey that holds a fat slice of honeycomb and she points out the pollen still inside the honeycomb.  I recently helped a friend beat his seasonal allergies through daily consumption of local honey and I’m not alone in that belief.  Use local honey daily, even a small amount, and one may build up a tolerance to local pollen and perhaps your seasonal allergy symptoms may be lessened.  Liydia glances cautiously over her shoulder, and wonders out loud if she should pack up.  But there’s still buyers.

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“Bees keep their hives at a steady 93 degrees year round, so in the winter they have to work harder to keep that temperature up.  In the winter, we always lose some of our bees but this past winter was really cold and when bees work that hard (to keep the hive temperature up) there can be losses.  So we have to help them as much as we can but we never resort to chemicals or anything like that.”

Bees store their nectar in the cells of the comb then seal it with wax.  All that constant fanning by the worker bees causes evaporation and the nectar slowly becomes honey.  When it’s harvested, the individual frames are removed from the comb, the wax cap is sliced off and the honey is collected through a centrifuge.  Liydia and Valadimir collect the wax and turn that into candles.  She offered me a candle and I was surprised how solid it felt, given the heat of the day.

“The bees make honey, and candles, and a business for my family.”

And as I looked out at the market’s offerings, I thought perhaps her bees made a lot of this other produce possible, too.

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The Clemson Farmer’s Market takes place at Patrick Square every Friday from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm during the growing season.

“At This Performance”

 

Tears had formed in the eyes of Eric Ruiz and there wasn’t a tissue within 300 feet, and I suddenly felt stupid for not being prepared.  But I didn’t think I would need tissues.  After all, Eric plays a character capable of murder, one so intimidating that an entire community cedes to his demands, then evades a police force complete with batons, torches and sharp shooters.

“I’m sorry.  When I stop and think about all the people that have had such a positive influence on my life and propelled me to where I am now.  It’s all so overwhelming.”

Eric is currently touring with the reimagined production of Phantom of The Opera, and he plays several roles.  He’s a fireman, a stagehand, a ballroom dancer, and a monk.  And he’s also the understudy to one of the most coveted roles in theatre, the Phantom.  Yet he’s a very humble guy that wants his audience to know how grateful he is for the applause, the accolades, and the opportunity of a lifetime.

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“Day in, day out, I’m constantly rehearsing.  I’ve got my parts to play yet I’m also prepared to play Raoul as well as the Phantom.  Between rehearsal and production I’ve got to keep fit so I’m working out, or running, taking care of my voice or going to physical therapy.  We’re all part of a team and it’s a very athletic endeavor and quite exhausting.  Yet for someone that’s been dreaming of this role since the age of fifteen, it’s absolutely the best kind of exhaustion imaginable.”

While Phantom was in its final weekend of performances at Greenville’s Peace Center for the Performing Arts; those two days meant four shows and almost 8,500 patrons.  Eric wanted every one of them to see the performance of a lifetime.  When he recounts his journey from a theatre-smitten teenager to the Peace Center, it’s understandable why he would need a tissue.

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“I was just a listless teenager who hadn’t found my purpose in life.  I rarely thought about anything beyond tomorrow.  One weekend my Aunt Jessie and Uncle Sid took me to see Phantom with David Gaines in the lead role and I was just blown away.  It was so exciting and so emotional.  I wasn’t alone, either.  It seemed like the entire theatre had been caught up in the passion of the performance.  Women were wiping their eyes, the men were silent.  When I left that theatre, I knew right then and there I wanted to be part of something that moved people like that show moved me.  I made it my goal that I would one day play that role.  And now I’m living that dream.  So I pour my heart out in every performance, whether I’m playing a smaller role, or Raoul, or the Phantom.  Because I want everyone in the theatre to experience those same emotions that set me on this path so many years ago.”

Eric credits his Los Angeles high school drama coach, Cathy Jo Foss, with originally inspiring him to achieve his ultimate goal.  She was the one that convinced him he could sing, that he had a future in theatre, that he could create those emotions.  And she was one of the first people he told after receiving his “call.”

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“June 26th, 2013.  I was headed to the subway in New York and the casting director, Merri Sugarman, emailed me.  I had tried out for a role in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins two years prior and she held on to my resume.  I couldn’t believe she even remembered me.  And when I called her I had no idea what she had in mind.  When she told me I would receive an offer to understudy both Raoul and the Phantom, I started screaming, then she started screaming.  I just couldn’t believe it.  As a performer, we’re constantly getting told no.  ‘No thank you, next please.’ It can be incredibly discouraging. There was a time I questioned everything about myself and my career path.  I’ve had periods where I was barely scraping by and I thought I’d made a terrible mistake.  But I got up the next day and tried to keep moving forward.  And when I got that call, in that moment, everyone that had ever supported or encouraged me was there with me.  It was just so incredible.”

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Now that Eric has achieved this objective, he can’t afford to relax.  He remembers the lean times with clarity so he treats every day as a gift, a very special gift.

“There’s a certain comfort in reaching this goal and I absolutely love being here but I can’t get complacent.  I’m an artist so I devote myself to my art.  Every time the curtain goes up, I remember all those times I was told I wasn’t good enough.  So I rehearse and practice and think about every element of the show.  Because tomorrow, I may be asked to put on the Phantom’s cape.”

And that’s really how we should live our lives.  We should practice our craft and search out ways to get better at whatever it is we do because one never knows when we’ll get called up to the next level.

Phantom calling card

I know this is going to be hard to believe, but the next morning, Eric’s call had come again.  He texted me to say he was wearing “The Cape” for Sunday’s matinee.  My wife and I had just left church so we raced across town and arrived at the Peace Center with a few minutes to spare.  Both of us had seen the show earlier in the week yet this performance had a unique sense of anticipation to it.  When the curtain rose, Eric Ruiz, fireman, stage hand and humble ballroom dancer was transformed into the Phantom.   He was commanding, then vulnerable, brawny, then tragic, and he displayed a fitting amount of reverence for the role.  His Music of the Night duet, with Grace Morgan as Christine, drew enthusiastic applause from the sold-out crowd.  And as he took his final bow, the theatre shook with approval.

The lights came up, the auditorium quieted down, then my wife turned to me and nodded her head in amazement.  “Wow!  So much raw passion in his performance.”

The ladies in front of us turned to my wife and agreed, then wiped their tears away with a fresh tissue.

Perhaps I did, too.

You can follow Eric on Twitter @TheEricMRuiz

I’ll have St. Pete with a Squeeze of Lime

The rain pelted against the house, sounding like rocks tossed by an angry neighbor, waking us well before our six am alarm went off. I trudged out of bed, turned up the heater then returned with two cups of strong coffee and crawled under the blankets. A strong gust lashed against the windows as my wife checked the outside temperature. 44 degrees. She took a big sip of coffee, wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “I want to go back to St. Pete.”

I was brought to St. Petersburg, FL on a weekend business trip; and we hit the Florida jackpot. Waking up to a view of gently swaying sailboats on shimmering salt water set the tone for the weekend. We were there to eat so we headed to the Farmer’s Market just a few blocks away. We found a great selection of coffees, juices, empanadas (from Mr. Empanada no less), pastries, pretty local vegetables, delicious BBQ, local seafood and so on. The selection was so enticing I found myself wishing for a commercial kitchen so I could cook dinner for 60. From there we headed out for an early lunch at Mazzaro’s Market, the reason we were in St. Pete in the first place. Mazzaro’s is one of those places that feels as authentic as a favorite pair of worn-out shoes. It’s as rustic, exuberant and crazy as a 100 year-old market can be, yet it’s only been around less than 20. It’s filled with relics of Italy that appear to have been set down and then forgotten, only to become part of the scenery. I overheard one of the cooks asking for his pizza peel and his supervisor pointed to the wall, now graced with a cracked pizza peel.

“We hung that thing up a few weeks back; there’s another one around here somewhere.”

Mazzaro’s roasts their own coffee, rolls and fills a variety of pasta, has local seafood, a good looking butcher’s case, a great eclectic selection of Italian wines and features the heaviest cheese ever shipped to the US. It’s an 1,100 pound loaf of Provolone that hangs from the ceiling via thick chains, like a giant cheese Marlin at a salt water pier. Travelers stop and pose for pictures with this behemoth before mentioning to no one in particular, “we should come back when they cut this thing.”

My wife and I sampled a wide variety of goods and when we went to pay, the bill came to astounding $16. Trader Joe’s should be as much fun.

We refueled with espresso then headed to the beach. The charming town of Pass A Grille, just south of the famous Don Cesar hotel, is a brightly painted respite of warm spring colors yet it was the beach that stopped us in our tracks. I love everything about swimming in salt water and I’ve been to beaches up and down the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific. Pass A Grille’s shimmering Caribbean blue water took my breath away. We weren’t dressed for a swim but after I caught my breath, I started shedding my clothes, my wife certain I wasn’t going to stop until it all came off. Fortunately I was wearing shorts. The sand was fine and sugary white, the water clear, salty and delicious, and the sun cast it all in an exquisite light. When I emerged, we started counting our assets, wondering what it would take to retire in one of these cottages.

That evening we met up with some old friends who walked us downtown to the Edge District. We started off with craft brews at the appropriately named Cycle Brewing, where the tables are made from recycled bicycle parts, cash is the only payment and their product features cycling related names such as wheelie, chain slap, and fixie. Their beers were delicious and followed the small batch trend of brewing with local ingredients or aging in whiskey barrels. We downed our pints then headed to Bodega and some of the most memorable Latin food I’ve had.  Bodega, a tiny snack shop of a restaurant, doesn’t really have table service. One orders at the window and when your food is ready it’s brought out to you in paper boxes or wax paper. The Cuban pork, redolent with garlic, lime and cilantro, glistened in its own warm pork fat and salt. The grilled chicken was marinated in coconut milk, the Cuban sandwich was rich with pork fat and butter and to cut through all that fatty wonderfulness, Bodega makes their own chile vinegar and soda Fresca. My wife’s Fresca, flavored with hibiscus, cane syrup and lime, was sparkling perfection. With a squeeze of lime on the fried plantains and a dash of Cholula for the black beans and a sip of frothy ale, we were in heaven.

Bodega lunch

To fight off the pork-induced lethargy, we finished with a thick shot of their intense Cuban coffee. We then walked across Central Avenue to Green Bench Brewing’s beer garden where we enjoyed outdoor music paired with a spicy White IPA, rich Coffee Stout and a hearty Brown Ale. The balmy weather, friendly atmosphere and spicy shrimp buns from I Wanna Wok food truck put the icing on the day’s cake.

“Well John,” our friends asked, “y’all ready to move to St. Pete?”

When I said yes, I’m pretty sure it was the craft brew talking, or the salt water, or the hospitality, or the Cuban food. And 36 hours later, when that cold Carolina rain was beating against our house, we started plotting our return.

 

 

The Ripple Effect

 

“Mom?  It’s John.  Just calling to say we’re home now.”

We had spent an entire week with my mother.  We cooked for her almost every day, took her out for oysters, looked through old photos, sat with her in the kitchen and shared coffee, and listened as she told stories of her childhood to our kids.  And after seven days with her we packed up and drove home to Greenville.  And as we turned into our neighborhood I called her to say we were home.

“Oh wonderful!  I’ll go open the front door.”

“South Carolina mom.  We just got home in South Carolina.”

“Oh.”

The next day I sat in my supervisor’s office and wiped away my tears as Karen told me that yes, the memory of that entire week was already gone.  She had seen many families torn apart by Alzheimer’s and now here I was, going through the same thing.

“John, you’ve got to make plans to get her out of the house and into a facility.  She cannot and should not live alone.”

We knew Mom was having memory issues and the fact that Amy and I lived 800 miles away, wasn’t helping.  At the time I was the Food and Beverage Director of an enormous retirement community in Greenville.  And because our customers were elderly; the staff was constantly learning about the special requirements and care through a variety of continuing education products.  And I interacted with a lot of dementia patients in our Memory Care facility.  So after a couple of days with Mom, there was no mistaking it, she was fading either through Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia.  It didn’t really matter, the end result would be the same.  A steady, downward, and ultimately fatal decline. Shortly after our visit she began a two-year journey from a retirement home to an assisted living facility, on to skilled nursing and finally a memory care facility.  The last time we saw her she was living strictly in the moment, she was very happy yet she had few recollections left.  Her childhood songs and memories were very vivid yet she every time she saw me she struggled to remember how long I had been in her company. Or how old I was — or where my brother Tommy was.

“Is Tommy still playing football?”

I didn’t say “not in 25 years” which would have been the truth, I just held her hand and said “No ma’am.”

When my brother and I were younger, she loved cheering us on.  She didn’t really understand sports, whether it was my brother’s football games or my cycling, yet she knew we were out there giving it our best shot.  The first time she saw me race was in Lafayette, LA at a criterium (a tight, winding one-mile course downtown) that was part of the Acadiana Festival.  It was Louisiana hot and muggy and I baked then withered, fell away from the lead group and managed to finish in 9th place.   When the winning break jumped away from the main group, I wasn’t able to respond.  I kept thinking I had the wrong gear set, hadn’t trained properly or didn’t have enough water the day before.  It didn’t matter now.  Dejectedly, I pedaled over to her.  She immediately hugged me and told me how much she enjoyed the race.

“It was like watching a ballet on wheels.  The way everyone bent into the corner in unison then twisted upright.  The movement, the sound, the colors.  You were so elegant and the sound the bikes made as you all whizzed by.  It was all so…wonderful.”

I was drenched in sweat and disappointed in my performance yet I couldn’t help but smile.  Mom found the beauty in the sport.  She didn’t understand the tactics or technique but she certainly knew how to make me smile. After buying all of us lunch; Mom asked me why I raced bikes.  Why not another sport?   I liked the speed, the competition, the team aspect of it.  And I loved being out on the open road, watching the city fade away to a lush landscape of multi-hued greens and blues.  But she knew there was something more to it.  Years later, when I was married and racing mountain bikes, she asked me the same question.

“Because sometimes, if everything is going my way, I’ve had moments when I felt the bike was an extension of my being.  It’s as if I am one with the bike.  There’s no sensation of physical exertion, just an amazing feeling of weightlessness and gliding.  And I’ve only felt that way a handful of times, but it’s intoxicating and I’d like to experience it again.  So I keep going.”

As a little girl and young woman, my Mom competed in rodeos.  She knew exactly what I meant.  And I can still see that knowing smile on her face.

My racing days are behind me now.  And I’m a bit more cautious when I’m on my bikes.  But I have one more ride to do and I need your help.  All I’m asking for is a $25 donation.  And while that may not seem like much, I believe the money I raise will have a significant ripple effect.  Maybe the money I donate will go into a grant to The Mind Center in Jackson, MS.  Maybe my donations will be the cornerstone of a significant research grant and will make all the difference in finding an answer.  The only way to find out is by doing, so please help me.  Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease that is growing in scope.  And it’s the 5th leading cause of death in folks over 65, and it has a 100% fatality rate.

Zinzy

Myself with nephew Megan (in red), my kids Tudor and Holly and Mom, Virginia Malik

The really crappy part of Alzheimer’s is that there is no treatment, no wonder drug that will slow the progression of the disease.  And to make matters worse, it can produce slightly different symptoms in different people.  No one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s has the same symptoms in the same order.  And it’s incredibly difficult to diagnose.  But enough about that.  Please make a donation (click here) to the Alzheimer’s Association in my name.  For your $25, I’ll climb on my Cannondale and ride it from Simpsonville to Mt. Pleasant this July.  And when I climb the Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River; I’ll wipe back tears of joy and sorrow.  And maybe, just maybe, the money I help raise will prevent your loved one from suffering the same fate as my Mom.  Thank you.

Raising Six Grand

For the last four years I’ve made a donation to our local Juvenile Diabetes (JDRF) fundraiser.  This is a great charity, the local group raises hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they always score very high for efficiency and effectiveness.  And our community gets very involved in the fundraising.  This group never sits still; they sponsor cookouts at the Fresh Market, walk-a-thons, black tie events, golf tournaments and a Christmas card contest.

Every year, the package I’ve provided for the auction has raised a greater amount of money.  This year, I have a personal goal of $6,000.  I know that sounds like a lot of money for dinner but I think it’s well worth it.  If you want to come and bid, you’re going to need tickets.  Here’s what we’ve come up with for this year.

A Southern Handcrafted Evening

 You and eight guests will enjoy a casual, handcrafted evening of great food, live music, a cooking demonstration, handcrafted cocktails and locally brewed beer.

 Julia Scholz, owner of Stella’s Southern Bistro

Julia will prepare handcrafted cocktails to welcome your guests

 Don Richardson of Quest Brewing Company

Don will match his handcrafted beer to the evening’s food

 Perry Major, Recording Artist

Perry will perform from his repertoire of handcrafted original tunes as well as covers of some of your favorite singer/songwriters

 Jeff Dumpert, Culinary Instructor

Jeff will create original, handcrafted hors d’oeuvre

 Chef John Malik

John will create casual, handcrafted fare to compliment the evening

 Food donated by The Fresh Market of Greenville

  And to top it off, the winning bidder will get the chance to help create the beer for the evening’s dinner.  Don Richardson, Brewmaster of Quest, will welcome you into his facility to participate in the brewing of one of his award-winning, handcrafted beers.

   Participation of Quest Brewery event will require direct communication with Don Richardson and will take place at a mutually agreeable time.  Participant must be 21 or older.  This offer is limited to one participant and will require prior agreement to Quest Brewing’s waiver of liability.

 In order for this event to take place, John Malik and his team will require a 30 day minimum notice.  Event will take place at venue of the recipient’s choosing.  Event photos will be used and shared on John Malik’s blog page and his social media outlets unless other arrangements are made.

February

 

February’s winds brought heavy grey skies

Thick with a Southern surprise

I stood at the window, took in the sight

Of a tree, sturdy and aged, that’s brought us many a morning delight

A home to sparrows, mockers, Juncos and warblers that

Enchant with song, dazzle our eye, and often confound the cat

She joined me with coffee, warm and bright

And her touch, familiar, inviting

This burden of winter, will our tree survive?

Perhaps we should help, just a little, with a shake

To loosen winter’s weight

And our eyes turned to him…oh great

He groaned, yet obeyed, and soon our tree was alive

With its own dance of thanks

As branches returned to their place

And the smile to his face

That tree’s seen a lot, still sturdy and strong

We agree it has room to grow

Though it requires a nudge or occasional brace

She smiled and whispered

Offered a kiss then considered

The treasure of February’s embrace

winter

© John Malik, 2014

 

 

 

Sky Dive

At 7,000 feet, the jump master opened the door and offered me a thumbs up.  The air whooshed through the cabin, animating the nylon of my jumpsuit.  As the green patchwork gently retreated past the spinning props and whistling wingtips, I stood up, gripped the hand rail, and hesitated.

“John, I have a job I think you would be interested in, it’s a Food and Beverage Director at a wonderful resort hotel.  It’s in the Midwest but I think you’d love it.  Listen, before we go any further I want you to talk to your kids, talk to your family first.  Then let’s talk again on Tuesday because I don’t like to send candidates out of state unless they’ve taken everything into account.”

I would parachute out of an airplane tomorrow.  That is, if my wife would give me permission.  A few years ago she grew weary of meeting me at the ER, of cleaning the gravel out of my shoulder, of stitching my cuts and icing my bruises.

“Sweetheart, you really should learn how to slow down.”

I grew up in a time when boys were expected to get out of the house, to catch snakes and frogs, to fish and hunt.  We were supposed to challenge ourselves, to run barefoot, climb trees and take chances.  I still have an enormous sense of adventure and the desire to push myself.  And when that phone call came, I blurted out Yes!  And as I listened to her, I caught my own reflection in the glass of a family photograph.

Did I really need to jump out of this airplane?

For months I had been on the job hunt and it had slowly ground me down.  A chef that had spent almost six months on crutches was not what one would call a hot commodity.  I began to question myself and spent too much time in regret and pondering what-ifs.  One lousy 80-pound case of ground beef, a tiny scratch on my femur, an unappreciative employer and a knee that slowly lost stability had sidelined me for almost two years.  Months after the surgery I wondered not if I would be able to cook again but would I be able to run or go up and down stairs.  And finally I drew the interest of a talent scout in Chicago.  And she had one heck of a position she was looking to fill.  If it was just me, no family waiting for me to arrive safely back on the ground, I would have leapt out of that airplane, yelling with delight all the way down.  Yes I would have missed my town and friends but the adventure was calling.

Amy and I had a long discussion that weekend and decided that the timing just wasn’t right.  We had a lot of friends and contacts, we live in a great town and our kids, both teenagers, would most likely be heartbroken.  And what about my knee?  Would I be able to handle the stress of five or six consecutive 12 to 14 hour days?  Amy has invested a lot of time helping me get back in shape. Is this how I wanted to thank her?  Did we really have to start over in a new town, a new state, a new everything?  I don’t always know when to say “no” and that could have been my downfall.  If I had gone back to a hotel too early and a few weeks in had to relinquish my position; that could have destroyed me.  But I have a desire to be helpful, I love to make people smile and I really miss being part of a team that has its heart set on a common goal.  So what now?  If I say no to this, what would be waiting for me around the corner?  So I said another prayer and asked not for an answer, but a little bit of patience.

About two weeks later I was approached by a company that wanted to pay me real money to manage their social media.  Really.  And now here I am with a new career, a new company and new challenges.

skydive-in-thailand

In many ways, I jumped out of that airplane months ago, I just hadn’t realized it.

a writer trapped in a cook's body