Merry Christmas Amy

I spent half of 2013 on crutches as I recovered from reconstructive knee surgery that came with a lengthy period of rehab.  That May we celebrated our 26th anniversary with a long weekend at our favorite place, Fripp Island SC.  I could only walk very short distances but I could pedal a bike.  So on the night of our anniversary, we took a late-night bike ride on two beat-up beach cruisers.  The tide was low, the moon was full, and our shadows created a memorable evening.




I do believe that last glass of wine, gave the moon time

To climb a bit higher, and cast wispy Atlantic shadows onto our night

These two forlorn bikes may yet chase mystery, adventure, romance

Look past those pedestrian lines

The scars of carelessness, and their saltwater-weathered steel

My dear Amy, the ocean beckons

Shall we ride the length of this island, across the remnants of the tide?

Sand gently yields to tire, frothy salt water cascades towards us, reaching out, drawing back

Gentle pedal strokes carve love notes across our beach

Our lines intertwine, crossing, fading, chasing then embracing

Ghosts so elusive in the day’s light, scurry from our midnight path as

We chase our shadows, the moon, our past

Never quite catching, never quite leaving

She calls out and smiles, eyes reflecting the stars

A little further, a little slower, a little faster

A twist of steel, a balmy splash

I lift my feet, slice through summer’s rush

Creating my own tiny, fleeting ocean, now colliding back together

Saltwater mist glides across wounds, soothes pain, eases into hope

Now race me back to the quiet of our night

Hold me close and whisper…

Happy Anniversary




On Your Left!


I heard them coming.  The crunch of rubber tires on dried leaves, the click of a rear derailleur, the gentle whoosh of spokes beating the air; there was no need to look over my shoulder because I knew I had company.  I held my line and waited.  Surely one of them would offer up a standard, “On your left.”  No such luck.  Instead of giving me notice of their position, I got a smile and a hello as they pulled along side of me. And they were decked out in full cycling gear including the tight black shorts, jerseys, and go fast sunglasses.

So what’s wrong with that?

The team

Myself and a few teammates on an early morning 60 mile ride to North Carolina and back.

Cycling, especially on a narrow-tired road bike, is all about balance and center of gravity, or CG.  In order to maintain an optimal CG, you need to control yourself. One must keep sudden movements to a minimum, no quick jerks of the head, arms, or shoulders.  Keep your CG over the center of the bike and it’s much easier to coax the bike along a straight line.  If you’re constantly twisting and turning then you’re CG will constantly shift, and you’ll dodge and dart all over the road.  And when you’re riding with another person, or a group of cyclists, a straight smooth line and a balanced CG means you will remain upright.  The consequences of not remaining upright can be startling; there’s concrete and asphalt, fences and guardrails, and all those spinning metal pieces.  And that’s why a cyclist should never pass another cyclist, jogger, walker, stroller, or grandmother without a little notice.  A too-quick twist of the handlebars, or a small pothole hit at the wrong angle is enough to send a cyclist on a narrow-tired road bike to the asphalt.  However, there’s a lot of folks on the Rabbit riding rental bikes or beach cruisers, and they’re not thinking about their CG, they’re just out for a fun ride.  They bob, weave, make unannounced 180 degree turns, and dart about the trail.  And that’s fine because the Swamp Rabbit is there for everyone.

The Rabbit is not the place for carrying a lot of speed.


Greenville’s Swamp Rabbit Trail


You want to go fast?  Paris Mountain is right over there.  I’ll even show you the way up, and the fast way down.  Greenville is blessed with hundreds of miles of cycling friendly roads within easy access of the Rabbit, and there’s numerous cycling teams, clubs, shops, and their accompanying rides for all levels.  The Swamp Rabbit, however, is full of strollers, grandmothers, training wheels, runners, train tracks, little kids, joggers, walkers, and tourists.  The Swamp Rabbit was not built to provide burgeoning triathletes or future Greg LeMonds a high-speed playground.  So please be nice.  And that means letting other cyclists, walkers, runners, and grandmothers know you’re approaching.  All you have to do is tell them you’re passing.

“I’m on your left.”

You don’t have to yell it, you just say it as you get close.  The point is to let them know not to move into your path.  You’re not trying to scare anyone, you’re just being courteous and cautious.  And for Pete’s sake, when a cyclist approaches a group of walkers, or moms with strollers, slow the heck down.  My rule of thumb when approaching a group is the more unorganized they look, the more warning they’ll need.  A big group of moms and dads with little ones will need more warning that one or two joggers running a clean, straight line.

Which brings me back to the two cyclists that passed me.  If they don’t know or care enough to warn another cyclist, they’re probably not warning the grandmothers, joggers, and moms with strollers.

If we as cyclists cannot self-enforce our own speed on the Swamp Rabbit, there’s going to be a nasty accident.  And when a cyclist has a high-speed crash with a mom and her stroller, the city will have to figure out how to control the cyclists, not the strollers.  Is that what we want?


This is the dismount we’re really looking for.

The team

Eyes Up!

A handful of shimmering leaves, shades of green, yellow, and gold, twisted through my field of vision.  Moistened by the midnight rain, they fluttered to the road, clung to the rocky shoulder, and twirled into the mist. A feathery blanket of fog melted into the valleys while sunlight sparkled on the peaks of the Blue Ridge.  The six of us made our way up the mountain, buoyed by a quarter-inch of Michelin rubber and a watercolor of natural scenery.  Stunning vistas at every turn, crisp air for our lungs, and cinnamon rolls in the distance, this may have been the single most scenic ride I’ve been on all year.

The team

Team Coast Busters on the Saluda grade

“Was this all dumb luck?”

My riding partner turned to me with a puzzled look.  “Excuse me?”

I don’t understand how someone can take in such a glorious sight and believe that all this happened through dumb luck. Even an average sunrise can be beautiful but this one was spectacular.  There’s no way all this just happened.  There has to be a creator, a painter behind this world.  A Monet behind every mountain, a Renoir for the raindrops.

I’ve been a cyclist for many years.  My bikes have taken me through city streets, to work, to finish lines, and through forests at breath-taking speed.  They’ve taken me to heaven and back, and to a couple of Emergency Rooms.  And when I ride, I’m totally open to the elements.  I don’t wear earbuds; I listen to the earth.  Bird song, the scratch of squirrel’s feet, the buzz of insects, the rush of the river, and the hellos and good mornings of other cyclists, pedestrians or drivers.  There is so much beauty in our world and when I ride, I want to get as close to it as possible.  A convertible, a motorcycle, a sunroof?  None of those options offer the combination of immediacy, speed, and aerobic benefit that cycling does.  And when I ride, I often contemplate our natural world and express my gratitude for all its beauty.

Foggy morrning

I know — Christianity offers up a world of mystery and puzzles.  At times it can feel like an enormous Rubik’s Cube that can only be solved through faith, because the colors will never match up.  A benevolent creator that always was and always will be?  How is that possible?  And what about that whole Adam and Eve thing?  Come on!  At the other end is the Big Bang theory.  An idea that dust formed in the void, attracted more dust, there was an explosion, then a few years later we’ve got Oregon Pinot Noir, Blue Ridge sunrises, Ferrari Daytonas, and my wife’s smile.


1973 Ferrari 365 GTS “Daytona”

Dumb luck?  There’s no way.  The mathematical equation that would allow for this much complexity stretches into farcical implausibility.  But I’ve also looked through enormous telescopes and wondered at the size, complexity and sheer grandiosity of our universe.  I’ve scratched at ancient fossils embedded in the Mississippi River, marveled at the size of dinosaur skeletons on exhibit in Chicago, and held the tooth of a million year-old megalodon.   I’m a ravenous star gazer that knows every time I look at the night sky, I’m looking at light that could be millions of years old.  Where does all of this fit in to Genesis?

And what about that guy Jesus?  The son of God.  The man that literally changed the world and asked us to obey the commandments, forgive one another, and live in peace.   Nailed to a cross, left for dead, rose on the third day then ascended to heaven.  Skeptical?  Well, there’s only two options.  Jesus was either a certifiable nut job, or he was really the son of God.  Are you prepared to believe that a nut job changed the world?  I didn’t think so.

So what’s the answer?  With either theory, you’ve got to have a big helping of faith.  If that Big Bang thing is accurate, then who created the void?  Who created the dust that caused the spark that created the universe?  Who set that mathematical equation in motion?

The shriek of Blue Jays jolted me from my contemplation.  When Jays are threatened by a predator, they’ll work together to chase off the potential threat.  As they screeched through the oaks, I stole a quick look and spotted the unmistakable barrel shape of a Great Horned Owl.   And again, I found myself marveling the complexity of our world, while my friends chided me for day dreaming.  “Eyes up, Malik!”


Headed back to Greenville, down the Saluda grade

I stood up on the pedals and danced, pushed over the top of the climb, slipped into the big ring and stole a big gulp of water as I crested the Saluda grade.  I passed through thirty miles an hour.  The Carolina mountains sparkled in countless shades of green and yellow, and my prayer of gratitude and thanks echoed across the valley then arced its way to Heaven.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


“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.


“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.


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.

Eric Ruiz 1

“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.

Eric Ruiz 2

“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.”

Eric Ruiz 3


“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.”

Eric Ruiz 4

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.”


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.


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.

a writer trapped in a cook's body