In Defense of Football

My son is a high school football player and I love watching him play the game.

I never played organized football.  When I started sixth grade, I told my dad I wanted to play ball.  And he said no.  Dad was afraid I would hurt myself so he told me I couldn’t play.  End of story.  And for years I felt as if I missed out on something important.  At my high school, I was envious of the camaraderie the players had, and I wanted to be a part of that. On the field they exerted themselves for the pride of our school, they sweated, suffered and bled for one another. Win they won, they all shared in the glory. When they lost, they accepted defeat and our applause.  And they went back to work on Monday afternoon and made plans to try and win their next game.

My dad did let me take Tae-Kwan-Do, and in college I soon found myself racing bicycles.  I won a few medals and earned a lot of scars in cycling and more importantly, I found the missing element I had been looking for.  I learned the importance of teamwork, of sacrifice, of training together, and suffering together.  And those lessons are still with me today.

When my son entered sixth grade, he asked about football and I said yes.  He had played years of little league baseball and wanted to give football a try.  Every season we’ve discussed the dangers and he’s accepted them.  He’s tried other sports: wrestling, track and field, and gymnastics.  It is football, however, that provides that spark in his life.  In his three years of high school football he’s learned valuable life lessons that would not have come from non-athletic endeavors.  He’s been pushed physically and mentally, he’s overcome injuries, found the will to win, and made friendships that will last a lifetime.  And he’s been an integral part of a winning program.

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My son is the one in black

Even though they won’t don uniforms until July, this year has already been challenging.  On the college and professional level, there’s been several high-profile career-ending injuries and notable retirements.  And that trickles down to the lower levels of the game and affects choices made by parents, coaches, and potential players.  Yes, contact sports are dangerous.  Competitive soccer, volleyball, swimming, gymnastics, baseball, etc. are not without risk.  But stop and think about the risk of your kid not getting to participate in a team sport.  Where else will they be asked to give of themselves so completely for the good of a team?  Competing in a team sport should exploit all of your faculties, every one of your physical and mental abilities.

Hazards are all around us and our lives are a series of calculated risks.  Asking for a promotion may be met with a stinging rebuttal, or perhaps with a smile and a congratulatory handshake.  After competing in sports, I believe I’m better equipped to handle the rigors of business. Sitting on the couch, never learning what you’re capable of, that sounds much more dangerous to me than actually competing on the field.

I still ride bikes, though it’s been many years since I competed.  And there’s inherent risk from riding a bike, with or without utilizing public roads.  Yet the joy, satisfaction, camaraderie, and health benefits I receive in return are tough to put a value on.

Mark

I’m not suggesting to choose chess over volleyball or vice versa, but rather to have a healthy respect for both the cerebral, and the physical. There is great value in giving your all and winning, likewise in giving your all and coming in second place, or in last place.  Yes, your child may get hurt.  They might leave their blood and sweat on the field of competition.  And when they lose, there’s opportunity to better themselves, to plan and train for the next match.  If they win, there’s a desire to continue and win again.  And when they leave the field, they may hold their heads in triumph, or hang their heads in defeat.   And when that moment comes, they might also say, “Mom, Dad, I did my best.”

Boxing with God

I’m going to jail, and I’m scared.

A couple months back, a very good friend of mine asked me a tough question.  And I should have said no.  If I had, I wouldn’t be in this position.  I would not be going to jail and I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about whether or not I made the right decision.  End of story.  But like a dope, I promised him I would consider it.

Kairos is a Christian faith-based prison ministry.  It’s one of those ministries that only the toughest, most sincere Christians tackle.  Kairos sends visitors into razor-wired penitentiaries to evangelize directly to prisoners.  I’ve known about this ministry for years; we’ve had a few friends participate and we’ve helped out through prayers and cookies, which are brought into the prison as gifts for the participants.

Back in January my friend Mike asked me to prayerfully consider participating in this ministry.  And inside I laughed, but outwardly I told him that I would think about it and pray about it.  And when I did pray, I prayed for Mike to be a better judge of his friends.  He knows me well enough to understand my faith isn’t strong enough to participate in something so important as Kairos.  What was he smoking, anyway?  Me.  Going to prison to evangelize?  He must be nuts.  Besides, my dad was a judge and I know what it takes to end up in the penitentiary.  Rarely is it a first offense; it’s a life of poor decisions, each one more consequential than the next, until the judge gets fed up with you and sends you to the penitentiary.  And what positive influence could a sorry excuse for a Christian like me possibly have on anyone in a prison such as Perry Correctional?

A week later, I discussed all this with Mike and he agreed with some of it, disagreed with the rest.  And he asked me to pray a bit more and to take my time with my decision.  The next day I was in my garage, working out on my heavy bag and praying.

Everlast
One does not necessarily have to be on their knees to pray.

I asked myself what is really preventing me from saying yes, and eventually I realized that I was scared.  Scared that my faith wasn’t strong enough to do this.  Scared to look a felon in the eye and convince them God has asked me to do this.  Because suppose the felon snaps back, “I don’t believe you.”  What will I say?  Will I have the conviction and backbone to pull this off?

And then I heard God laughing.

“You’re scared, Malik?!  You?  Hahaha!”

I fired off a flurry of hits and God hit right back.

“You?  When have you said no to something because you were scared?  How long’s it been?  You miserable son of a bitch!”

God had a point.  I actually look forward to the possibility of drawing blood.  An element of danger can provide a tremendous amount of focus.  If there’s a very real chance of injury, then there’s a very real sense of focus and preparation.  I happen to be very fond of my skin but I enjoy the thrill of pushing myself through a boundary of danger then coming out on the other side, maybe scratched up, maybe not.  My concern over participating in Kairos is not due to a chance of injury, but rather my own embarrassment.  I didn’t want to be embarrassed by my perceived lack of faith and that’s what was holding me back.  That’s why I’m scared.

Perry

So I said yes.

The weekend after Easter, I’ll spend three days inside Perry Correctional Institute and perhaps I’ll play a very small part in saving the life of one person.  Perhaps not.  But I won’t know unless I try.  And if you could remember me with your prayers, Thursday evening, April 9th through lunch on Sunday, April 12th, all of us would greatly appreciate it. I’m going to need it.

 

#ThrowBackThursday

I’m a fairly emotional guy.  I don’t mean that I cry often, rather I tend to linger over fond memories.  Perhaps too much.  Maybe that’s why I enjoy looking through old photographs.  Recently my wife asked me to help her find a photo of us from Mardi Gras.  We broke out stacks of real photos and spent a few hours reminiscing.  The memories flooded past in glossy, colorful, slightly faded pieces of our lives.  Four by six, five by seven, and a few wallets; California, Romania, Louisiana, New York, London, and South Carolina.  And I found myself wanting to make memories worthy of a photograph.

Taking a photo used to be a big deal.  You had to carry a camera, film, and perhaps additional lenses.  Then the film had to be developed and photos were printed and paid for.  So one only carried a camera if you were going to do something worthy of the trouble.  Today it’s so easy, it’s not uncommon to share a photo of a peanut butter and jelly in the process of being made.  Where’s the adventure in that?

I want to take more photos like this one, and less of my sandwiches.

Looking Glass
At the top of Looking Glass mountain, perhaps January of 1998. That’s me walking away from a poorly timed camera shot and my wife Amy is holding onto our faithful Jack Russell Terrier, Bonnie.

That’s our Jack Russell Terrier, Bonnie.  If you’re familiar with dogs, Jacks are notoriously high-strung.  They’re smart, energetic, and relentless.  Once they decide to do something, there’s no stopping them.  Bonnie was no different.  If we went for a hike, a swim in the ocean, a long walk, or a car ride, it was never enough just to go.  She had to go faster, harder, farther.  Case in point, in this photo she is as usual, waiting on me.

In our relationships, both personal, and business, we should all have a Bonnie.  A faithful companion that extols us to success.  Someone that we love and respect, someone that we’ll go that last mile for.

In one of my endeavors, I have an entire team of Bonnies. In July, I’ll ride across the state to raise money for the SC Alzheimer’s Association and I’ve got some teammates to encourage and push me to success. Yet I still feel like I’m missing something. I need someone to encourage and push me in my business relationships, and it feels like that’s missing from my life. A friendly competitor, someone to race me to the top of the mountain then pat me on the back when I’ve come in second, or third. We all measure success differently and I don’t use money as a yardstick. Are my kids becoming responsible? Am I protecting my family? Are my clients happy and are they getting their money’s worth? Because life isn’t about the destination, it’s really about the journey and our journey begins anew every morning.  Today I’m going to try and pray harder, run quicker, pedal faster, and make my clients happier. And I’d like to do this while I work towards taking more photos of real adventures, and less photos of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches.

Do you have a Bonnie in your life? Someone, or some dog, that is constantly pushing you to success?  I think I do, I just need to remind them.

 

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.

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Sweetheart…

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.

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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?

Cyclists
This is the dismount we’re really looking for.

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.

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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!”

Mark
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.

Cheezem
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.

swamp-rabbit-trail

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.

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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.

a writer trapped in a cook's body