For the Better

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

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|This is the 157th story of Our Life Logs |

I have always been an easy-going person. Most of my life, I had basically had one mood: happy, more than able to roll with the punches. Though sometimes, the punches are pretty rough.

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I grew up in Brick Town, New Jersey near the legendary pine barrens. My parents were the epitome of the 1960s American working class. Mom stayed home and raised the kids, while dad installed floors. He was good at his trade, but it was back-breaking work, and he wanted more for me. He told me, more than once, to graduate from high school, and find any other trade but floor work.

I started working in restaurants at the age of 16. I walked into my first professional kitchen and saw the men and women hunkered over their knives and burners, cracking jokes, laughing at everything—even each other’s burn marks. The air was thick with camaraderie. It felt like home. I developed love affair with the culinary world, so I balanced working full time with finishing high school.

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Next stop was the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) where I was a year behind Anthony Bourdain. It was a great program to help me build a career as a chef, although it was mostly a good place to party. I spent quite a bit of my time high on weed or buzzed on good vodka, of which there was never any shortage because it was an ingredient in several gourmet dishes. We could always justify having it on hand, even if most of the time we drank it instead of using it for food.

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Image courtesy of Pixabay

What, you might ask, did I actually learn at the Culinary Institute of America? I did learn some important knife skills, and I really excelled in making sauces. I graduated from the CIA as an official “saucier,” someone in a restaurant who specializes in making sauces, whether it’s for a barbecue, pasta, or to season a meat or fish dish. I can make any white sauce, but I’m told that my cheese sauce is to die for.

When it came time to break into the world of high cuisine, I didn’t try to oversell my CIA degree. During my interview with a posh Atlantic City casino, I said, “I don’t know a lot about cooking, but I’m eager to learn.” That got me the job. And what a job it was. If you’ve seen “Blow,” you have some idea what life in a 1980s casino looked like. I’m not saying it was always that glamorous, but the ice sculptures, diamond martinis, and fine cocaine were definitely prominent. I didn’t snort my entire pay check, but a good percentage of it went up my nose. There were days I went straight from the bar to the casino without even a minute’s sleep. You can get away with that in your 20s.

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I started seeing a girl in the early 80s, and with her, had mind-blowing sex. I got married in 1985, when I was 26. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re with someone you have mind-blowing sex with. Lock it down, right? Get married, have children, be like your parents.

Three years later, circumstances changed. She was diagnosed with Sarcodocis, a skin disease, and I pulled a muscle in the gym. We both gained weight. The sex tapered, then died. Then we realized we had nothing in common. I wanted to smoke pot and go to concerts, and she wanted me to come home and do home improvement projects. I’m about as interested in building a book shelf as I am in watching paint dry. Our split was entirely amicable. That, of course, is the silver lining to any passionless union.

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After my divorce, I moved to Tybee Island, Georgia to help out a fellow CIA graduate who had just started up a restaurant called “The Breakfast Club.”  There, I became locally celebrated for my eggs Florentine, fried green tomatoes, orange brandy cake, and a few other signature dishes.

Sunrise at Tybee Island.
Sunrise at Tybee Island.

Tybee is a small Georgia beach town where all the year-round residents know each other. It was a comfortable, at times even beautiful, place to put down some roots. It’s the kind of town where people want to get to know you, and once they do, they can’t stand to see you single, of course. Friends and co-workers kept telling me about this woman, Lynn. They talked her up so hard, it scared me. And, let’s face it, she really wasn’t my type. Petite, tanned, chatty blondes who like to throw back a margarita and squeeze your arm muscles were, at that time, more my style. Lynn was tall, bizarrely fair-skinned for a beach dweller, brunette, quiet, and bookish. Too much vocabulary. And there were conflicting stories about how many cats she had.

I realized that I had been judging her too hard after she confidently asked me out. Despite my fears, she turned out to be surprisingly easy to be with. She didn’t care how much money I made. She didn’t ask me what I really wanted to be. I made her laugh. And her laughter warmed me like a good scotch. Turns out my type is a tall, pale, intellectual brunette.

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We had a lot of fun living together with our six cats in a big tumble-down house that was built around 1900. We got around to tying the knot in 2006. Being legal made a few things easier, especially health insurance and taking phone calls from our mothers.

When I floated the idea of going back to school, my wife was completely supportive. I was a proud, silver-haired college graduate, marching down the aisle to get my diploma from Armstrong Atlantic State University at forty. Okay, I took a little longer to grow up than some people. Drugs, booze, and parties got in the way of adulthood for me. And I still like a beer, I won’t lie about that. But I never really wanted to get high as much as I wanted to be a homeowner, a good husband, a good friend, a good cook, a good teacher.

I can’t point to any Saul on the road to Damascus moment in my life. Over time, the good things in my life—a good marriage, fine companion animals, a job I liked—crowded out the bad influences.

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