It’s Just A Life.10

10. The Green Ones

Laurie and I were never what you might call “partiers”. As a matter of fact, I think she and I probably attended 4 or 5 parties in the entire time we were a couple. We did throw a Halloween party one year, including Laurie’s parents and my mother we had exactly seven people. However, we did attend one particular party that one of my college friends threw. It wasn’t quite your typical college kegger. It was hosted by one of my culinary school friends, but it did have the prerequisite byob feel, complete with seven layer dip, red plastic cups, and extremely “green” chocolate chip cookies.

I had two older sisters that were teenagers in the seventies. So I was no marijuana virgin. In fact, since I had two older sisters that grew up in the seventies, I really didn’t have much interest in the demon weed during my formative years. Yes, I had tried it with my older sister when I was around 13. She had been trying to get me to try it since I was around 10 or 11, even teaching me how to clean out the seeds from the most likely dirt cheap junk she could afford. As it goes with all such experiments, it was a very bad trip. It started out pretty much as you’d expect. Lots of giggling that morphs into outright hysterics until my sister was afraid I would wake my mother up who was sleeping across the hall. Of course, it went from hysterical laughter to hysterical paranoia in a heartbeat. We were watching a late night movie in my room on an old portable TV I had. I really can’t remember what movie it was, but of course it became super funny in our minds. The next thing you know I was sobbing uncontrollably. I was positive that it wasn’t just marijuana. I couldn’t remember what was happening from one moment to the next. It must have been laced with acid or PCP!

I don’t remember how long it took her to get me to settle down. I think I must have scared the crap out of her because I wanted to go wake my mother up to take me to the hospital. Of course she had been down this road herself, so she just insisted I lay down and go to sleep, and of course I was asleep or passed out within a few minutes. I don’t remember trying it again while I lived with my sister. It just really wasn’t my thing. It wasn’t that I was a “goody-two-shoes”, as my sisters both thought, I just didn’t feel the need to rebel in the ways they did. I was fine getting decent grades, reading science fiction and comic books, and hanging out with my mother and her friends…actually, I guess I was pretty much the definition of a goody-two-shoes. But hey, it worked for me.

So fast-forward a few years, and there I was with Laurie at a college party, surrounded by college age kids, most likely very much like my two older sisters had been at that age, and there were the “green” cookies. And believe me, they were extremely green. They were so green that even my very naive “goody-two-shoes” girlfriend instantly recognized them for what they were. And boy was she intrigued.

She wanted to try them right on the spot. “Can we?”, she asked. In the innocent way that only a pure novice can. “No,” I said, “at least not here. But I’ll tell you what, we’ll take some home with us and try them someplace a little safer.” I had seen my sisters and their friends getting high often enough to realize what a problem it could create at this sort of party. We were having a good enough time, but it just didn’t feel like the sort of place to have her experiment. So we wrapped a few of the clay pigeon sized herbal delights up in a napkin, and stuffed them in her purse. We then went back to the party and hung out for a few more hours. We would have been among the first people to leave; as I said, we really weren’t the party type.

So there we were a few hours later, sitting in the apartment I shared with my mother (who just happened to be gone on a business trip for the weekend), breaking out the cookies. They were so dense and herbal-y that you had to choke them down as fast as you could with a large gulp of milk. I mean, after all, chocolate chip cookies have to be eaten with milk, right?

She wanted to eat a whole cookie, again in the naive way that only a pure pot virgin would try. I told her to slow down a bit. After all, if you’ve never tried it before, it’s gonna hit you like a Mac truck I warned her. So we started with just a few bites, and sat down to watch a movie. After about 5 minutes she was positive that there was something wrong with them. Nothing was happening, she claimed, and so she took a few more bites. Before I knew it she had eaten a whole cookie. Predictably, after a few more minutes, it started to have the desired effect. It happened slowly, but I could tell she was starting to get a little silly and giddy.

Interestingly, I don’t remember her getting to the hysterically funny stage I remember so well from my first time. I remember her going straight from giggly, laughing at the movie, the dig, whatever, to paranoid with no stop in between, and when she went paranoid it was all out “Oh My God I’m Dying!”

Before I knew it she was crying hysterically and babbling that there HAD to be LSD in the cookies! After all she reasoned, we had no idea who made them. We had never even asked. No matter how I assured her that it was perfectly normal to become a little freaked out, she just couldn’t calm down.

Of course I did what every cohort of the first time freak out does, I put her to bed, and luckily she fell asleep pretty fast. But that wasn’t the end by a long shot! Oh no, because she hadn’t just smoked a little, she had eaten a lot!

Every hour for the next 7 or 8 hours of the night she would wake up and begin wailing. “We need to go to the hospital!” she would demand, and I would have to talk her down and coax her back to sleep. Since it wouldn’t leave her system nearly as quickly as merely smoking it, it went on interminably. She almost had me convinced that we should call 911 at one point. Thank goodness eventually the night ended.

With the morning came a little bit of piece. Laurie had calmed quite a bit, and sheepishly admitted that she had overreacted, but unfortunately, she had to head back to school, with her college friend who had carpooled with her. I had to head to school myself, so we didn’t have much time to talk, but from what she told me I gather she didn’t feel quite right for most of the day. She had to have her friend drive her home. We never tried the green stuff again.

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It’s Just A Life.9

9. Sweet Potato, Cilantro, and Cherry Pie

When I was 14 I started cooking. Mostly because I was bored after school. Being a latchkey kid with very few friends can have a bright side occasionally, creativity and a love for books are just a few. I’d open the cook book (probably on a day when I had nothing else around to read, better than a cereal box), a Betty Crocker cookbook my mother had, and find a recipe in the cookie or candy section and see what we had the ingredients for. I learned to make divinity because all you really need are eggs, sugar, water, and Karo Syrup. Those are ingredients that tend to hang around. I’d cook bacon and egg sandwiches for lunch during the summer, or if we had lemon juice around maybe lemon bars.

The book didn’t look like it had ever been opened; now it’s disintegrating. Eventually I started dabbling in poached salmon, or stuffed peppers. I remember trying to impress my future wife’s family by inviting them to dinner and making rack of lamb, carottes glacées (sugar and butter glazed carrots), twice baked potato, and most likely cherry pie. How did nobody just tell me to come out and get it over with?

Cherry pie turned out to be my signature dish. Over the years I would perfect my chicken pot pie, poulet à la crème (chicken in cream sauce), chicken crepes with apple and onions, chicken curry, David’s green chicken. Wow, I had a thing for chicken.

So I guess when it came time to figure out my life after high school, culinary arts seemed the perfect fit, and luckily, the local “junior college”, as we called them in those days, had a highly regarded program. When I started, it was free. The only thing you had to pay for were books, and a fifty dollar application fee. My AA degree was going to cost me around a thousand dollars. The book that we would use for the entire two years was around $150, if I recall correctly, I still use it. Our biggest expense was our tools. They had a recommended list of knives, of a very good quality, I still have and use them, as well. All in all, pretty cheap.

It started out well enough. The first semester was mostly learning the service aspects of the profession. Running the front of the house, as it were. Waiting and bussing, table setting, proper stocking techniques, working various cafe’s and industrial food settings, a little bit of bakery work, even a week of managing the campus restaurant. I was working as a savings and loan teller, so I found the service aspect interesting as a change of pace.

The second semester was more along the lines of food prep. Garde manger, stock and sauce preparation, soups, proper cutting techniques, catering, most of the things that are made ahead of time. By this time I was cater waiter-ing, waiting tables in a French restaurant, and working as a short order cook in the school cafeteria in the evenings. The bloom was definitely off the rose. Restaurants are a lot of work and surprisingly high stress.

Third semester was all about running the kitchen. I thrived in the bakery section. There’s nothing so fun as spending your day coming up with desserts. Chocolate mousse, cookies, cakes, butter cream frosting, ice cream, candies, yum! The program final each semester was a multi course banquet planned and executed by the third semester “seniors”, and prepared and staffed by the “freshmen and juniors” as it were. But the biggest test for each student was one of the “senior projects”; for one week you played head chef, coming up with the entire menu (except dessert). Salads, soups, sides, and main courses, conceived, planned, and disseminated to the “staff”.

Now, for the most part there are a lot of standard dishes one can use, Filet of beef, coq au vin, breaded chicken with a sauce of some sort, shrimp scampi, almost anything deep fried, but everybody would also try for a signature dish. I was not good with the creativity when it came to coming up with a signature dish, however. I had a complete block. My sister, luckily, happened to wait tables at a small, highly respected, restaurant in San Rafael, CA. My mother and I had dinner there just weeks before my stint as head chef, and there we had a fabulous special: chicken breast stuffed with sweet potato and cilantro purée. It was the first time I could remember ever having cilantro, and it was a revelation. The chef was happy to give my sister the recipe when she asked him. He came out to talk to me, and had it written on a piece of scrap paper. It was very easy he said. Flatten boneless chicken breasts, fill with mashed sweet potato, and season to taste with cinnamon, salt, pepper, and cilantro. Easy!

Well, if I’m not mistaken, it was one of the few specials actually sent back as inedible in the time I was in the program. A little cilantro is tasty, a lot of cilantro tastes like a bar of soap. I’m sure that was the moment that ended my culinary dreams.

Oh, it’s not like I was a quitter. I had worked in restaurants enough at this point to realize that they are hot, stinky, greasy, high pressure, low paid jobs imported directly from hell itself. Bakers and pastry chefs (the only department I truly loved) get up at stupid o’clock in the morning…I feel cheated if I have to get up before eight. Chefs and line cooks spend the best hours of the day working in a giant steam bath, and managers die in their thirties from stress (not statistically supported by any studies I know of, but something I believe in my heart nonetheless). They all die poor, for the most part. I had no passion that was going to sustain me. I finished out the semester, got straight A’s, as usual, even with the single worst dish ever served in the Viking Restaurant, and though I was known for making over five hundred crepes for the final banquet, and getting the highest grade in my baking class with my cherry pie final project, I knew that cooking had been forever tarnished for me. They say, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”. I say that’s utter shite. “Do what you love”, and you’ll soon hate it.

Just a few months later I discovered The Career College of Cosmetology near where my fiancé and I relocated to in Woodland, CA. I had never once dreamed of being a hairstylist. I had never practiced braiding on my sisters, I hadn’t secretly colored my step-mother’s hair in my dreams. It was perfect!

Twenty-seven years later, I guess I made the right choice.

It’s Just A Life.8

8. Call Me Barbra

In high school I had a perm. It was the ’80s, what can I say? It looked good on me, my hair takes a perm well, and it doesn’t relax much. It always felt natural. In fact, when a free haircut went bad and the novice haircutter snipped all my curls away my senior year, many people commented that they always thought it was natural.

The perm had been part of my plan to reinvent myself. I started a new high school in my sophomore year, a lucky break because of my middle school’s longer schedule. Transferring to a new school district let me bypass the dreaded freshman year. I was determined that I would not be the shy, nerdy outcast I had always been. While it was nice to miss the freshman hazing, it wasn’t so nice trying to join an already established tribe of teenagers. I was friendless, and surrounded by people who weren’t. Still, a fresh start is a fresh start.

To that end, one of my more daring moments was on my first day at the new school, in PE of all things. We didn’t have uniforms yet, and could do whatever we wanted to pass the time. So when a few upper class students asked me to play touch football, I steeled myself for humiliation, took a deep breath, and said OK. The bravest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Okay, maybe not, but at 15 it sure felt like it.

Teenage boys are not known for their common sense. So it will amuse — but likely not shock — most people when I point out that we decided to play on the basketball court. (I assume the grass was wet.) It was an asphalt basketball court.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized I’m actually quite well coordinated, but since I detest almost all sports, I had convinced myself that I sucked at them all. So when the first play commenced, I ran for all I was worth, turned to see the ball headed straight for me, assumed I was about to prove to everybody involved what a complete nerd I was, and jumped to catch it! Unfortunately, instead of the awesome catch and touchdown I silently begged for, I stumbled, fell, and slid forward on my knees, shredding my pants, and the knees inside.

I was a bloody mess, but despite the pain, I was mostly amused and embarrassed. I was also – surprisingly – a hero. The other players were in awe that I was so dedicated to the game! Blood was pretty much the coolest thing to adolescent boys of my generation (probably all generations). What a great start for the new me!

That hero cape was quickly ripped away after lunch. I looked forward to band, in years past it helped me get through the day. That was then.

This band class, however, came with a bully. The girl’s name escapes me, but though she was pretty, she was not nice. A fairly cliché, bitchy teen who probably had deeper issues. For whatever reason, she decided I was her target, and, believe it or not, this is not the first time I’d been bullied by a girl, so I wasn’t surprised.

I think these things are usually triggered by jealousy, but I can’t imagine what it was she coveted. Nevertheless, the one downside of my perm was my undeniable resemblance to one of my lifelong idols: Barbra Streisand. This teenage ball-breaker noticed that with my curly hair and rather pronounced nose, I looked like the über-fabulous Barbra. And so Bully Girl nicknamed me Barbra, with no thought to the consequences of a teenage boy’s high school image. In a fateful second, she changed my life forever. Of course, the only thing you can do to combat a bully, they tell us, is to ignore them.

Now I have to take a timeout here to discuss this option. IT BLOWS. Nobody should ever ignore a bully. If nobody will help you, talk. Try to befriend them; don’t run away. If they won’t talk, jump their ass and try your best to beat the hell out of them. I don’t give a crap what anybody tells you, your self-esteem is more important than your physical health. If you get nocked down, get up until you can’t. They will never bother you again, and you will respect yourself. (If they have a knife or a gun, you live in a shitty neighborhood and should talk to your parents or guardian about home schooling.)

So I ignored Bully Girl, and the others who laughed with her, but the damage was done. From that day on, some random jock, or group of popular kids would smile and say, “Hi Barbra,” when passing me in the halls. I would act as if I heard nothing; You always ignore a bully.

High school passes quicker than you expect – or in some cases fear – it will. The magic of college is once again the promise of re-creating yourself. Hopefully by this time, you’ve learned the lessons that adolescence burns like scars into our soul.

Or at least you’ve learned it never pays to be a weeny.

So, on my first day of class, who should walk in, sit down beside me, and say, “Hi Barbra” as if he was relieved to see me and we would surely be the best of friends? One of the popular people I hated in high school. One of the most persistent of the “Hi Barbra”, one of the very boys from that very first day of touch football. One of the “popular” kids whom I had come to hate.

Well, it was more of a love/hate. He was handsome — voted best dressed (an honor I coveted but was too monetarily challenged to attain) — and I had had a crush on him for the past three years.

Recapturing that New Me bravery from PE class, I decided this Barbra was not going to continue “The Way We Were.” This was my very first college class, my “new” new beginning. Crush or no crush, Mr. Best Dressed was not going to ruin my college experience too!

In a rare moment of chutzpah, I looked straight at him, and said, “Don’t call me that.”

“What?” He asked.

“Don’t call me Barbra,” I said.

“Why not?” he responded, puzzled. He sincerely could not seem to fathom what I could be upset about.

“Because it’s not funny. Why would I think being called Barbra was funny?”

“Isn’t Barbara your last name?” he asked.