Stephen Levine’s Definition of Death

“It is the ultimate in natural conservation in which the container is discarded but the contents are recycled.”   – Stephen Levine

The Power of Character

One of the things I loved most as a kid was my Grandma Ruth’s collection of 45-records, passed on to her from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine distribution business in Oregon.  She would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, roller skating rinks, etc.), and change out the records in the jukeboxes.  That was years before I ever came along, but those records would become an important part of my childhood.

I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning, so my discovery of the old 45′s was thrilling, to say the least.  A few were old jazz and 70′s disco, but the vast majority of them were country songs, trucker songs, and obscure story songs from the 60′s and 70′s.  Songs of humor, danger, tough characters and outlaws.  Songs depicting bad guys as heroes.  Trains, knives, guns, booze, diesel smoke, and girls.  As Joe Piscopo says in his role as Danny Vermin in the film Johnny Dangerously, “these are a few of my favorite things”. I’m talking stuff like Red Sovine’s Big Joe and Phantom 309, Johnny Paycheck’s Colorado Cool-aid, and Cledus Maggard’s The White Knight. Songs in the vein of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, but not as well known.

“Where the hell are we headin’ on this saunter down pothole-riddled memory lane?” you’re probably asking yourself now (in the voice of Sam Elliott) while stroking your handlebar moustache and squinting beneath the brim of your ten-gallon hat.  Just settle yer spurs, Lefty – I’m gettin’ to it.

One summer my dad took me to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. I was eleven or twelve, I guess.

“Grandpa Buddy’s gonna tell you that you gotta be tough, and that gettin’ old ain’t for sissies,” my dad told me.  For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure.  Flying in a plane across America, I stared down in amazement at the “circles and squares” of farmland, and the silver ribbons of winding rivers.

“What kind of name is ‘Buddy’,” I thought?

Imagine my delight and surprise when Grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of the tough characters right out of those songs I loved so much.  He’d lived a life full of adventure and danger as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I’d come to idolize, and so I instantly idolized him.  He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished those stories just right when he told them to me, in his deep southern voice that sounded like Johnny Cash.  He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on those old 45 records: heroes, villains, tough guys, mercenaries, pirates and prostitutes.

“You gotta be tough,” he said over and over again.  Most of the stories ended with that sentiment – it was the takeaway, the moral, his mantra.  And in my mind, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen.  He lived in central Florida on a river full of gators and snakes.  He made shrimp nets by hand out in his workshop.  He had tattoos, a jeep, nine machetes and an earring.  Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my imagination it was definitely nine.

It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, get me the so-and-so”, “Hey buddy, I want you to do this or that, or “Thanks buddy”. And so his new name was born.

After that trip, I returned to my familiar life with my mom in our little house surrounded by farms and fields in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Depressed and bored, I stayed in bed all the next day, tears rolling.  When my mother asked me what was wrong, I told her I wanted to go back to Grandpa Buddy’s house. I was just a kid with an overactive imagination. I didn’t yet have the understanding that my grandfather was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head, he was way larger than life.

I spent the rest of the summer hating myself, because I had learned that – when it came down to it – I wasn’t tough, and probably never would be. But I had also learned something of immense value, something I would carry with me from then on, something that tied the old 45 records and my grandfather together in a more cohesive way.

I now understood the magic of storytelling, and the power of character.

 

Here’s Lookin’ At You, Kid

How striking, how strange, that I was to speak with you for the last time, in the middle of my own birthday party. I thought you were calling to wish me a happy birthday. How childish and small I felt, once I realized – as if I had been struck by lightning or a god-like hammer – that you had called to tell me of your decision, that you had lifted your old-fashioned phone from its cradle and fingered ten numbers on its rotary to say goodbye.

You being you, I really should have known you would not choose to spend the rest of your life bound to a chair by cancer.  You were always so headstrong, always going somewhere, always with a voracious appetite for experiencing life. You had such an infectious zest for the world with its multitudes of things to do and know.  The old photographs reveal what a knockout you were in youth.  No wonder you had so many husbands.  Oh yeah, and you did an assisted skydive at age 75, and sent me that photo of it.  On the back of the picture, you wrote “So what did you do last Sunday?”

Slipping from my seat down to the floor, I could still hear laughter through the walls, through the door I had pushed all the way closed. The festive mood of those who had accepted my invitation trickled through my awareness, overshadowed by the urgency of unexpected shock.

My hand grew wet around the phone as you made it quite clear you were doing assisted suicide.  You told me not to argue with you about it, or try to change your unchangeable mind. After all, things were only going to get worse.  Dialysis would only prolong your life, not restore any quality to it.  A magnetic force pushing us apart, your determination on one side and my reluctance on the other. Our farewell words were exchanged, and that was it.  The doctor would come to your apartment and drop the tablet into your martini.  I would not be there.  You would say your very last words to my sister, who would report them to me later: “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”.

I didn’t cry then, of course. It needed to be processed, and there was an entire room full of people waiting for me to reappear, beginning to wonder if I’d just pulled a Bilbo Baggins.  Eventually I broke my ten-mile stare and took a deep breath.  Making my way back to the party, my brain directed a smile to display itself on my big dumb face.  I re-entered the situation like a finely-trained actor and blew out the candles.

Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House I Went

I grew up with a dairy allergy, a hardcore vegetarian/raw food advocate mom who juiced her own wheatgrass and fermented her own probiotic drinks, and no TV.  Books, cats, the outdoors, an occasional friend who didn’t think I was too weird, and an overactive imagination were my entertainment.  Once a week, mom would take me to the library and I’d check out so many books I could barely carry them all.  I’d lie around reading for hours on end, picking sadly at my salad garnished with home-sprouted lentils and fenugreeks.  I ate soy cheese, Rice Dream, unstirred no-sugar peanut butter/honey/banana sandwiches, tofu, and granola with orange juice on it.  But this nerdy only-child hippie kid was perfectly content, man, because most weekends I went to Grandma’s house.  Grandma’s: where I could count on the fridge being well-stocked with a veritable plethora of meats, and the never-deviating placement of a hazy crystal bowl of candy near the record cabinet.

My grandma Ruth had everything my child’s mind deemed to be most important in life: Dr. Seuss books, a pool table, an eclectic collection of old country and trucker songs on 45′s (relics from my great-grandfather’s jukebox distribution business), and a TV.  She would fry up kielbasa for breakfast (which she called Oktoberfest sausage), give me liverwurst for lunch, and serve me pot roast for dinner.  Then I’d collapse onto the couch – or as she called it, the davenport – and watch the tube, my scrawny bag of flesh exhausted from digesting so much animal protein in such a short amount of time.  I’m not certain how aware my mom was of this carnivorous debauchery. I think she knew, and allowed it, because she realized her little son was in dire need of some surf-and-turf (or as my uncle calls it, bait-and-bovine). Mom eventually began taking me out for an occasional hamburger, no doubt a result of my grandmother’s persuasion.

Grandma Ruth always had a sparkle in her eye and a spring in her step.  She’d fix herself a martini, dance around in her robe to old records, and school me at billiards.  ”Not enough,” she’d typically comment, referring to my heinous lack of English applied to the cue ball.  Every so often I’d make a damn good shot, and she’d say “here’s lookin’ at you, kid”, calling me Straight Shooter McGee and other nonsensical nicknames. She drove a little yellow Porsche convertible, and she drove it with a heavy foot.  There were racing goggles and (imagine!) gloves in the glove compartment, and a little silk pillow on the dash in the shape of a candy bar that said “Baby Ruth” on it.  Sometimes she’d drink half a pot of coffee and then fall asleep in her chair, her snores rattling the walls.  When she glimpsed a mole in her yard she threw open the closet door and pulled out her shotgun. When contestants got greedy on Wheel of Fortune and then hit bankrupt, she’d say “serves you right, you dirty rat fink”.

Grandma would usually cook me an enormous Sunday breakfast and then drive me home in the yellow Porsche, stopping for hot chocolate on the way. And so I’d return to my meatless, T.V.less abode.  I didn’t mind though.  I loved my mom hugely; she was one of my best friends growing up, though I despised my rainbow suspenders, hated my bowl haircut, and resented the cowlick in my hair.  Even a wet hairbrush only kept it at bay for a few minutes.  I guess I didn’t exactly hate being the only hippie kid in a rinky-dink three-classroom rural school where the other boys’ idea of fun was to shove a firecracker up a dead gopher’s ass and then light it, but I was certainly aware that I was the only one, and it was just downright irritating.

Growing up with such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is probably a big part of why I became a chef.  When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “food taster”.  One time we ended up with one of those big round tins of Christmas fudge, and I found myself home alone with it. I methodically ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice or care.  Boy was I wrong.  Not to mention I puked on a shrub outside and it never grew back.

Strange Names

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare penned this question in Romeo and Juliet, and Rodney Dangerfield used it for one of his earliest comedy bits. No matter how strange or ordinary your name might be, it’s good to keep a sense of humor about it. Believe me, I know. I have a strange name. One of those names that inspires folks to think such thoughts as “boy, his parents must have had some really good drugs” or, in current English vernacular, “seriously?” Or, if texting, “wtf!”

My strange name is River Curls, and I’ve witnessed every conceivable reaction a person could have to it, from drunk islanders to urban hipsters, from eight-fingered redneck shop teachers to nonplussed X-generationers whose names are even weirder than mine, thanks to their hippied-out parents (i.e. Freedom, Rainbow, or Freekus Polikus).

In grade school there were the chuckles during roll call, and the rejection from certain groups based on “name-weirdness”: the everyday cruel behavior we all possess and sometimes demonstrate early on. This caused me to begin my development of two things at once – a thick skin, and a profound hatred of anything that drew attention to names: name tags, roll calls, chalkboard lists. If any of the other kids despised their names, they were no match for me. I felt singled out by the wide gap my name drew between me and all the Johns, Jeffs, Adams and Rogers.

High school was no gift either. My name prevented any and all hope of fitting in, being thought of as normal, or, way more importantly, being cool. Though I likely would have excelled in sports, I veered away from them so I wouldn’t ever again have to hear a coach misspeak my name as they always seemed to do (“get back in there, Rivers!”) or use my last name while reprimanding me with the zest of a drill sergeant (“Goddamnit, Curls!”) I retreated more and more into books, movies, and music. With one really close friend, I discovered how to comfortably exist beyond the margins of every defined social group. Together we bonded with our English Lit teacher, diving into poetry, Shakespeare, and creative writing.

The name River isn’t all that unusual, but its pairing with the name Curls pushes it into strange territory. And as with every name, the two words each have their own backstory. Curles (with an e) is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon name “Curl”, or “Corliss”. Families bearing the name Curles can be found primarily in Wales and England, but there are a few in Scotland as well. In the United States the name is mostly found in Georgia, where my grandfather on my dad’s side is originally from. According to my grandfather “some old bastard decided to drop the letter e”, leaving my bald family with a spelling that – in a cruel twist of fate – conjures up images of hair and hairdressers.

My mom named me after the Kilchis river, near Tillamook: a town on the Oregon coast. The shack where I was born sat close to the river’s edge. It’s gone now, but the river is still there, flowing from the Coast Range down into the Pacific.

And then there’s my middle name, but that’s another story.

 

Stacking Firewood

How unexpected of you, mother-in-law, to step outside onto the unwoven tapestry of fallen pine needles and ask me if I wanted you to make me a meatloaf sandwich.

Even as you recovered from walking pneumonia, even as you had yet to regain the energy to once again flour the counter and prepare the dough for your substantial bread, even as you had yet to carry out the annual reading of your Christmas book collection, or sound again the bright chime of your laugh.

I almost dropped my armload of cherry wood right then and there, as I carried it up stone steps from the top of the driveway to the little shed near the door where the axe is kept.

I was being given a second chance at having a mother, or at least the old long-lost feeling of it.  For the moment I was a boy again, walking over a field in cutoff jeans, chewing on a stalk of wheat.

You never know where, or when, your life might be touched by the phenomenon of another human heart.  You only know that you must fall onto your knees, raise your arms to the sky, and give thanks.

 

Fastenings

What if you yourself didn’t want anything, what if you spent measureless lengths of time just people-watching, ruminating, taking notes of where your mind traveled to, at once engaged yet unaffected, an explorer holding the oar gently as he rows upriver, a tourist observing wide swaths of gold made by the afternoon sun as they spill through the windows of shops while people pass on a street familiar to them. Somewhere deep down inside, these people all know the truth surrounding the illusion of having. No one has anything, there’s nothing to have.

Nothing is fastened. Anything might come undone at any time, and it’s all arbitrary and out of control. Tiger at the window, wolf at the door. At the same time, hummingbirds are drawn to honey suckle, joy is rounded out by sorrow, grief is more thoroughly digested with a little exaltation.

It makes me think of my mother and what it was like, losing her. While I am water – calm and usual at the surface, with everything going on beneath, hidden by murky light – she was fire. She wore her heart on her sleeve most of the time. My mother possessed a tremendous playfulness, tending toward joy, leaning into laughter. But she also had about her a vast, lonesome sorrow. Not the easy sorrow of a bow drawn across the strings of a cello on a dreary morning. An elusive sorrow of wind and bone marrow, the sorrow of long straight highways across the Midwest, the sorrow of a thousand widowed women going up the creaking stairs of a thousand old farmhouses. I can only hope to embrace the two sides as fully as she embraced them.

Sometimes, as I wander through all the rooms in the house of being human, the wandering seems to be the only thing I’m determined to do. I have a habit of giving the living and the dead equal attention, one foot planted firmly in the world while the other extends into the ether, reaching for the unworldly. Listening without ears for some message in the heart of stillness.